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blessings in disguise

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ONE: JAEMIN

“So you see,” Mark says, wringing his hands, “the curse states the prince will die as the clock strikes midnight on the night of his twentieth birthday —”

“Hang on,” Jaemin says, and Mark pauses. “On the night of my birthday?”

Mark nods grimly.

“So what you’re saying is that until exactly midnight of my twentieth birthday, I’m effectively immortal?”

“No,” Mark says. He frowns. “Well, technically yes, but —”

“Sick,” Jaemin says eagerly, ignoring the rest of his sentence. “Well, I’m sixteen now, right? That means I still have...almost four years of immortality left?”

“Jaemin,” Mark, eyes wide open in horror. “No.”

“Jaemin yes,” Jaemin says, laughing with glee. “I’m gonna go teach myself how to juggle chainsaws. Catch you later!”

 

And, as Jaemin finds, curses are peculiarly good at being picky.

Learning to juggle chainsaws turns out to be a piece of cake. So is swimming with sharks, fire breathing, and knife throwing. Sometimes, when Jaemin’s feeling adventurous, he’ll combine them in a truly awe-inspiring, heart-attack-giving performance, just for Mark. He can’t die until he’s twenty anyway, because the curse says so, and the curse is just selfish enough to thwart any other attempt on his life — as they learn once, rather abruptly, when an errant knife magically escapes its trajectory during a performance, only to shatter as soon as it grazes Jaemin’s arms.

The traitor was arrested and dealt with afterwards, obviously. But Jaemin was perfectly fine — healthy, whole, and alive.

Mark puts an end to the knife throwing after that.

 

Eventually, even the most life-threatening tasks become seemingly mundane, and Jaemin, at seventeen, decides to reorient himself towards, well, war. Being immortal ends up being quite the advantage on the battlefield, and within half a year, their kingdom’s name is equally revered and feared far and wide for his dangerous and self-destructive maneuvers.

And his success, of course. All arrows shot at him fly a neat little path around his unarmored body, and all swords shatter on contact.

“Impossible,” another bandit chokes out, infuriated, after their spear splits in half right in front of their eyes. “You’re not even wearing armor!”

“I get that a lot,” Jaemin says back, nodding his head sagely before sweeping the bandit off his feet with a well-timed parry. “It’s a curse. Hard to believe, I know.”

“Na Jaemin, the prince who cheated death,” Mark reads monotonously from a letter one morning, after a particularly grueling, month-long battle. “That’s a new one.”

“Does it come with a picture?” Jaemin leans over. “Oh, it does,” he says gleefully, taking the sketch from Mark’s hands and holding it up to his face. “I have six arms in this one. Very creative.”

“Yes, Jaemin,” Mark says, rubbing at his temples. “This is what happens when you actively encourage nicknames like Prince Daggerhands.”

“How was I supposed to know it’d catch on?” Jaemin asks, smiling widely. “I don’t see anything wrong with Prince Daggerhands.”

Mark gives him a withering glare. If looks could kill, Jaemin thinks, he would’ve shriveled up to the size of a mango pit by now.

Well, besides the whole immortality thing. But Mark’s glares have a good thing going for them, he thinks. Could probably give the curse a good run for its money.

“This is going on the wall,” Jaemin says cheerfully. “Jisung, hang this up next to the portrait where I have two heads.”

Jisung shakes his head wordlessly, disappearing with the six-armed drawing and reappearing with an exasperated expression.

“There are two portraits that have you with two heads,” he says flatly. “I put the new one in the middle.”

“So smart,” Jaemin coos, reaching out to pinch Jisung’s cheeks. Jisung flinches, dodging away.

“Betrayed by the ones you love the most,” Jaemin sighs dramatically. “My child. The person whom I have raised since birth —”

“You are literally less than two years older than me,” Jisung says, rolling his eyes. “Mark, tell Jaemin that he’s being ridiculous.”

“Jaemin, you’re being ridiculous,” Mark parrots back without even looking up. “Let Jisung be. He’s your brother, not your personal servant.”

“Absolute slander,” Jaemin says, pressing a hand to his heart. “As if I would imply something so ridiculous. And to my own flesh and blood, no less!”

“If you really were my brother,” Jisung sniffs, “you’d help me with my assignments.”

“Oh, would you look at the time!” Jaemin exclaims. “I suddenly have to get going. Battles to fight, places to see! You know how it is.”

“It’s places to go, people to see,” Jisung retorts quietly, and Mark snorts.

“Both of you, leave,” he says, shaking his head amusedly. “Some of us have actual work to get done.”

“See you soon!” Jaemin says, taking Jisung’s arm and tugging him out. Jisung follows him, if a bit reluctantly, and Jaemin sets off towards the kitchens.

“Come with me,” he coaxes, dragging Jisung along with him. “It’s been a month since I’ve had our desserts!”

 

Another year rolls around. Before Jaemin knows it, he’s eighteen and a half, with a weakening interest in conflict and little land left to conquer.

“What should I do,” he says mournfully, kicking his feet up on the table.

“Please take your feet down,” Mark says primly. “And I’m sure everyone would appreciate you taking some time off from your dangerous, and often fatal, stunts.”

“Yeah,” Jisung chimes in, mouth full of food.

“Swallow before you talk!” Jaemin says, scandalized.

Jisung chews vigorously before swallowing and pointing an incredulous finger at Jaemin. “You’re the one with your feet on the table!”

“And?”

“And, like you said, I’m eating,” Jisung says, giving Jaemin’s boots a suspicious look. “I’d rather not be poisoned by that...stench.”

Jaemin claps once in delight, startling both Jisung and Mark.

Poisons,” he says, eyes gleaming. “What better than to volunteer myself to test them out?”

Jisung’s head thunks against the table.

Mark heaves a long-suffering sigh.

“You know what they say,” Jaemin says, winking. “The greatest battle fought of them all is that of life against death. And I can’t die. What’s the worst that could happen?”

 

“This was a mistake,” Jaemin croaks, two months later, hunched over the tub for the third time this week.

Jisung rolls his eyes, crouched on the ground and holding Jaemin’s robes back from what’s been deemed the “danger zone” by them both. “You think?”

“How was I supposed to know that those berries induced emesis?” Jaemin complains weakly, wincing as his stomach twists again. He bats at Jisung’s arm halfheartedly, and Jisung’s face wrinkles in disgust, turning away as Jaemin lurches forward, emptying what little is left in his stomach into the tub.

“You could’ve eaten a few to test them out at first,” Jisung says, wincing and closing his eyes, “instead of just grabbing the whole cluster and shoving them in your mouth.”

“I didn’t know,” Jaemin moans, patting at his stomach. This time, it’s truly and utterly silent — no sudden lurches or uncomfortable hiccups — and he sags backwards in relief. “I think I’m done.”

“Finally,” Jisung grumbles, handing him a wet washcloth and a cup of water. “It smells awful in here.”

Jaemin takes them gratefully, wiping at his mouth and heaving a sigh. “No more poison testing, I suppose,” he says regretfully.

“No more poison testing,” Jisung agrees, shaking his head decisively. “Find another hobby.”

 

With the clock ticking over his head, Jaemin throws himself into every activity imaginable. He hires the best artist from the next kingdom over, Renjun, and spends weeks learning how to mix oil paints together. The first time he tries to actually sketch something, Renjun nearly cries with laughter, jokingly threatening to ban him from the canvas for the rest of the day.

So Jaemin paints — or tries to, anyway. He bakes and cleans and gardens, until the servants around the castle are so comfortable around him that they call him by name instead of by his title. His nineteenth birthday comes and goes, and for a short few months, life settles into a slow, easy routine.

 

Then Jisung goes and falls in love.

 

His name is Chenle, Jaemin finds out, and he’s from the same kingdom as Renjun. He plays the piano beautifully, and he’s only two or so months older than Jisung.

“I’m going to marry him,” Jisung announces, and Jaemin blinks, taken aback.

“So soon?”

“Well, I —”

Jisung falters. He looks at Jaemin, swallowing uncomfortably, and Jaemin is struck by just how young he looks.

“I want you to be there,” Jisung whispers, soft and vulnerable, and Jaemin’s stomach falls to the floor.

Jisung,” he says. “You shouldn’t rush something like this.”

Jisung shakes his head sharply, pressing his lips together. “You’re going to be there,” he repeats stubbornly, “so it’ll have to happen within the year.”

 

Their wedding date is set for June, with around six months to plan and prepare for it all. Jaemin watches Jisung and Chenle gravitate towards each other during lessons, during meals — and feels a certain, indescribable sort of way at the easy, implicit understanding that flows through them.

It’s not quite loneliness, he thinks, since he’s seldom alone anyway, but it’s not too far off.

“Is there really no way to break the curse?” He asks one night, and Mark’s head jerks upwards out of his reports.

“Jaemin…” Mark starts, with something that looks a bit too much like pity in his eyes. He sets his papers down, sighing and rubbing his eyes. “You know there isn’t.”

“I’m just curious,” Jaemin says defensively, sneaking a furtive look at Jisung and Chenle on the other side of the room. “So the curse is just — unbreakable?”

“Theoretically, most curses have a loophole,” Mark frowns. “Yours just — doesn’t. The only way it wouldn’t come to fruition is if it was beaten by an even stronger curse.”

Jaemin cocks his head.

“So, hypothetically, if we could get someone to curse me to live a long, loveless life, I’d live?”

“Not necessarily,” Mark says, furrowing his eyebrows. “If the new curse was stronger, maybe. But all curses are curses, Jaemin. They’re born out of malice. Trading one for another isn’t something worth celebrating.”

There’s a crash from across the room, and Jaemin flinches in his seat, looking over at Chenle and Jisung.

Two identical sheepish expressions blink back in his direction. Jaemin’s gaze trails downwards to see their chairs, knocked over, on the ground.

“...oops,” Chenle says sheepishly.

Mark tuts, waving them over. “Come here before you two break something.”

The two of them shuffle over obediently, sitting down next to Jaemin.

“So,” Jaemin starts.

“So,” Jisung parrots back.

Jaemin rolls his eyes. “So,” he emphasizes, “Chenle. I guess now’s as good of a time as any to have the talk.”

“The talk?”

“Just —” Jaemin waves. “The whole ‘what are your intentions with my brother’ talk. You know.”

Jisung blushes, the corner of Mark’s mouth quirks, and Chenle’s mouth goes round with understanding.

“I see,” Chenle says, nodding. He turns to look at Jisung with immeasurable fondness, taking his hand. “If you had told me, a year ago, that I’d be marrying this tall idiot from the neighboring kingdom, I probably would’ve thought you were crazy.”

He squeezes Jisung’s hand, the look on his face making Jaemin’s heart ache.

“It’s like this,” Chenle says eventually, smiling faintly. “He’s the right one. I know it, just like how I know the sky is blue and the grass is green, because I love him, and I see my everything in the way he is.”

“I don’t think I truly lived before I met you,” he says, reaching out to brush Jisung’s hair. “How could I have, when every moment with you feels like forever?”

I don’t think I truly lived before I met you.

The words ring in Jaemin’s head, and he stands abruptly, pushing his chair back.

“If you’ll excuse me,” he says, swallowing. A bitter taste rises in the back of his throat.  “I don’t feel — too well.”

Realization flashes in Jisung’s eyes.

“Wait, Jaemin —”

Jaemin flees before he can finish his sentence.

 

“I’m leaving.”

“Absolutely not,” Mark says, eyeing Jaemin’s sorry sack of belongings. Outside, the sun is just beginning to rise. “Do you want to die?”

“I literally can’t,” Jaemin says flatly. “And you can’t stop me. My mind is made.”

“If this is about what Chenle said yesterday —”

“And if it is?” Jaemin asks softly. “All my life I’ve lived with this curse over my head. Will you deprive me of my last chance to seek some sort of closure?”

“That’s not how falling in love works,” Mark says, frustratedly. “You can’t just expect to go out and fall in love with the first person that you see.”

“But I won’t know unless I go,” Jaemin says hopelessly. “Please. Five months is all I’m asking for. To — go. To explore. I’ll be back for the wedding.”

Mark purses his lips, and Jaemin knows he’s won.

“Don’t tell Jisung,” he says, laying a hand on Mark’s shoulder. “Just say I’ve gone to fight another war.”

“Like he won’t know,” Mark says, sighing deeply. He takes a long, hard look at Jaemin. “Stay safe.”

“I will,” Jaemin says. He smiles valiantly. “Farewell.”

“As you wish,” Mark says, shaking his head. “Five months. And not a day longer.”

 

And so Jaemin — goes.

 

 

TWO: DONGHYUCK

It isn’t Donghyuck’s first time dealing with swindlers. It is, however, his first time seeing one so — handsome.

No, Donghyuck thinks fiercely to himself. You know the rules.

He straightens his posture, poking at the handsome thief with his broom.

“Hey. Hey.”

The handsome thief stirs, cracking one eye open blearily.

“Oh, hello,” he says weakly, closing his eyes again. “What is it?”

“You can’t sleep here,” Donghyuck says, frowning. “This is a bakery, not a lodge.”

This doesn’t seem to deter the handsome thief, who groans, stretching out and standing. He’s a little taller than Donghyuck, and he squints at him, leaning in closer.

“Get — away,” Donghyuck panics, hitting the handsome thief with his broom. He scrambles to the other side of the room. “Don’t do that!”

“Uh,” the handsome thief says. “Sorry?”

Donghyuck breathes out unsteadily. “It’s fine,” he says, heart racing in his chest. “Just don’t come so close again. I’m — cursed. It’s a long story.”

The handsome thief’s eyes light up, then. “No way.”

“Yes, it’s deadly, and no, you can’t do anything about it,” Donghyuck recites, crossing his arms protectively in front of himself. “Any other questions?”

“No, you don’t get it,” the handsome thief insists. “I’m cursed too.”

Donghyuck looks him up and down suspiciously. “You,” he says flatly.

“I’ll tell you yours if you tell me mine,” the handsome thief says eagerly. “Aren’t you curious?”

“Not really,” Donghyuck grumbles, but he allows himself to get closer again, putting his broom down. “Fine. Anyone I touch dies instantly.”

The handsome thief blinks. “That’s it?”

“That’s it?” Donghyuck repeats. “That’s it?” He laughs tonelessly. “Yeah, it’s that simple.”

A slow smile creeps across the handsome thief’s face, and Donghyuck marvels at how attractive he looks.

He really is handsome, he thinks. Curse — ha! — curse his heart for being so superficial.

“Is there any way to break your curse?”

“True love’s kiss,” Donghyuck says, shrugging. “But, you know. Wrong person — instant death.”

“I see,” the handsome thief says, nodding. “Well, here’s mine: I can’t die.”

Donghyuck freezes, waiting for the punchline. “Seriously?” He demands, after another few seconds pass. “Is this supposed to be some sort of joke?”

“Unfortunately not,” the handsome thief says, smiling wryly. “I’m cursed to die when the clock strikes midnight on my twentieth birthday. Not a second before or after.”

A few more seconds pass. Donghyuck narrows his eyes.

“I don’t know you,” he says eventually, “and you don’t seem like a regular thief. What reason do you have to lie to me?”

The handsome thief rolls his eyes. “My name is Jaemin,” he starts.

“Like the prince?” Donghyuck laughs.

Handsome thief’s — no, Jaemin’s — smile freezes. “Yes,” he says oddly. “I suppose so. Exactly like the prince.”

“Okay, Jaemin,” Donghyuck says. “Why are you lying to me?”

“I’m not lying to you,” Jaemin says, snorting. “I can prove it if you want.”

Donghyuck’s stress levels ratchet upwards, but Jaemin makes no move towards him, and he exhales in relief.

“Watch,” Jaemin says, pulling a glass bottle out from the sack around his waist. Without even blinking, he smashes it over his head, and the glass cascades down, framing his body without actually touching it.

“Surprise,” Jaemin says flatly. He gathers up the sharp pieces and tosses them back into his sack. “Look.”

His palms are whole and unblemished, and Donghyuck blanches.

“Okay,” he says falteringly. “I have no idea how you did that.”

“I told you,” Jaemin says, shrugging. “It’s a curse.”

“Let’s say I believe you,” Donghyuck says hesitantly. “What...what do you want?”

Jaemin’s eyes shine. “I think we could help each other,” he says, looking around thoughtfully. “Your business is slow because of the whole, uh, dying thing. So why don’t you let me help out?”

“...fine,” Donghyuck says, eyeing the patch of ground where the glass shards had been and agreeing reluctantly. It all sounds a little too good to be true, though, and Donghyuck’s eyebrows furrow. “Wait, what do you get out of this?”

“Food,” Jaemin says bluntly. “Why else do you think I slept in a bakery?”

 

At first, business crawls.

Which is to say that it goes about as well as it always has been. To Donghyuck’s surprise, Jaemin knows his way around the kitchen, baking types of bread that he’s never even heard of.

“Where did you learn to bake?” Donghyuck comments one day while kneading dough. “The bread you make — it could be served to royalty.”

“Maybe it was,” Jaemin says, looking up from grinding the flour and smiling mysteriously.

Donghyuck snorts in response. “Alright,” he says, shaking his head. “If you say so.”

 

A week passes. Then another. Spring comes, and on the streets, flowers sprout from seemingly nowhere. Another week passes, until April’s almost over, and Jaemin is still there.

Donghyuck stops counting the weeks after the third one, because they stop mattering — Jaemin is always there, an unwavering constant in his life.

 

“Thanks, come again!” Jaemin says cheerily from the front, ushering the last few customers from the bakery.

“Has anyone ever told you you look like the prince?” A girl giggles, lingering in the doorway. She twists a lock of hair around her finger and blinks coquettishly at Jaemin.

“I do get that sometimes,” Jaemin says, laughing quietly, and Donghyuck’s stomach twists uncomfortably. “I take it as a compliment.”

“It’s definitely a compliment,” the girl says, lips widening into a smile. “I’ll be here tomorrow.”

“Looking forward to it,” Jaemin says, smiling as she leaves, and Donghyuck has to swallow roughly before clearing his throat.

“Business looks better,” Donghyuck says, and Jaemin spins around.

“Hyuck,” he exhales, smile turning genuine around the edges.

Donghyuck’s heart twitches traitorously. Jaemin, oblivious as ever to his feelings, continues.

“It has gotten better, hasn’t it?” Jaemin says thoughtfully. “I think the cinnamon has been selling well this week. We should make more.”

Donghyuck does his best to quell the drum-like pounding of his heart. “Right,” he says, smiling weakly. “The cinnamon.”

“We’ll experiment some more this weekend,” Jaemin says, nodding, and Donghyuck’s stomach flips at the use of ‘we’.

Can you hear my heart? He thinks, staring at Jaemin’s stupidly handsome face. I fear one of these days it will dance straight out of my chest and into your arms.

“Let’s,” he says instead, and Jaemin’s answering smile feels like a thousand flowers in full bloom.

 

They drink, once.

A month into their partnership, Donghyuck brings out a few bottles from the cellar, and they both get drunk off of cheap beer.

“Has anyone ever told you,” Jaemin says, hiccuping, “that you’re like — the sun?”

“The sun?” Donghyuck repeats, head feeling foggy. “Why?”

“Because you glow,” Jaemin says seriously, waving his hands around. “You have this — presence that just lights up everything else.”

Donghyuck flushes easily, looking away. “No,” he says quietly. “No one’s ever told me that before.”

“Well, they should’ve,” Jaemin insists. He sighs. “Hyuck, you’re so —”

He cuts himself off, coughing slightly. “I wish you would let me touch you,” he says, like an afterthought. “I bet you’d taste all — sparkly.”

Donghyuck’s breath stutters at the wistfulness in Jaemin’s voice. “You know we can’t,” he whispers.

“We could,” Jaemin insists, but he leans back in his chair, closing his eyes. “You just don’t believe me.”

Donghyuck doesn’t know what to say in response to that, so he doesn’t. Instead, he looks at Jaemin — at the line of his neck, the curve of his lips and his long, long eyelashes.

Jaemin’s eyes open, and Donghyuck freezes, blinking rapidly. He doesn’t say anything, though, and neither does Jaemin — they just stare at each other, and in Jaemin’s eyes Donghyuck sees his own feelings, reflected plain as day.

“Thank you for teaching me what it means to live,” Jaemin says eventually, breaking eye contact and raising another bottle before downing it all.

 

They don’t talk about it.

 

The days go on. Donghyuck still feels a hot current of jealousy when girls flirt with Jaemin at the front, except this time, he recognizes the edge to the way Jaemin smiles at them. It doesn’t stop his stomach from turning every time it happens, but now, he feels the weight of Jaemin’s eyes throughout the day and sees the way Jaemin instinctively gravitates towards him, getting as close as he can without physically touching him.

Then May comes and goes, and Jaemin comes to him nervously one day after they close.

“You’re leaving,” Donghyuck says. The words taste like ash in his mouth, and he rolls them around in his head like they’ll make more sense if he does.

“And I’m asking you to come with me,” Jaemin says hesitantly. “To meet my family.”

“As what?” Donghyuck asks. “A baker?”

“As my friend,” Jaemin says firmly, looking pleadingly at Donghyuck. “I mean it. Let me introduce you to them.”

“I can’t,” Donghyuck says. “You know I can’t go anywhere.”

Jaemin blows air out of his mouth frustratedly. “We can be careful,” he says. “I’m still alive, aren’t I?”

“No,” Donghyuck says, shaking his head. “I won’t risk it. I can’t risk it.”

“Please,” Jaemin says softly, after a beat of silence. “Hyuck.”

Donghyuck’s heart squeezes in his chest, and he turns away, tightening his lips painfully.

“I don’t want to lose you,” Jaemin says, voice so quiet that Donghyuck isn’t even sure if he was meant to hear it.

You never had me, Donghyuck thinks, tears gathering in his eyes.

“Go,” he says forcefully, squeezing his eyes shut. “Just — go.”

 

And I never had you.

 

 

THREE: HAPPILY EVER AFTER

Jisung’s marriage is beautiful.

Chenle apologizes profusely after Jaemin returns. “I had no idea,” he says, genuinely apologetic. “Jisung told me everything afterwards. I...I really didn’t mean it in that way.”

“It’s fine,” Jaemin says, smiling bitterly. “You weren’t exactly wrong, anyway.”

 

So Jisung gets married, and their kingdom celebrates for fourteen days and fourteen nights afterwards. Jaemin stays long enough to congratulate the newly-wedded couple, and then proceeds to hole himself up in his room and relive every memory he has of Donghyuck.

In his dreams, he maps out that wide expanse of golden skin with his fingers and Donghyuck lets him — teases him, like he used to, on the rare days he was in an exceptionally good mood. In his dreams, Donghyuck is hot under his hands, dark, liquid sunshine in his eyes and flour underneath his fingernails when he runs a finger across his lips.

And Jaemin knows, like the way Chenle had said, that Donghyuck is it. Knows it like he knows the sky is blue and the grass is green, because every moment had felt like forever. Knows it because he’d looked in Donghyuck’s eyes that night they’d gotten drunk and — there it was. Everything.

“Is love supposed to hurt like this?” Jaemin asks Mark one day, and Mark gives him a look of unfathomable sadness.

“Sometimes,” he says.

Jaemin nods slowly. Mark doesn't pry.

 

Still, Jaemin thinks, at least one thing ended up being true. Life after Donghyuck was markedly different — so different that it did sort of feel like he hadn’t really lived before he’d met him.

 

June passes, and then so does July. Before Jaemin even knows it, it’s August, with only a handful of days left before his twentieth birthday. He spends his days organizing his will and dividing up all his assets.

He doesn’t dream of Donghyuck as often, anymore, but whenever he does, he rises at dawn and goes to the kitchens, baking with the staff. The familiar smell of flour and baked bread is a double-edged sword — both comforting and painful at the same time.

The entire castle tiptoes around him for close to two weeks, bringing him only the best foods and drink. Jisung doesn’t even bicker with him, anymore, just letting him win every argument with a sad look on his face — and Mark, when he does speak, says very little.

It’s August twelvth when Jaemin decides he’s had enough.

“What’s the point of living if it’s going to be like this,” he snaps at dinner, and everyone looks at him, startled. “I’m going out.”

“You —”

“But —”

“I’ll be back before midnight,” Jaemin says frustratedly, pausing at the doorway and rubbing his temples, and Mark and Jisung fall silent. “Don’t worry.”

 

Jaemin’s feet take him straight to Donghyuck’s bakery, and he spends a long time staring at the building from the outside.

Three more hours, he thinks, before casting all caution to the wind and banging on the door.

“Who is it,” Donghyuck yells, five minutes of incessant knocking later. “We’re closed!”

Jaemin doesn’t let up, hammering against the door, and Donghyuck’s voice sounds much closer the next time he speaks.

“We’re closed,” he says, from right behind the door. “Who are you, and what do you want?”

“Open the door,” Jaemin says. “Lee Donghyuck. Open the door.”

The door swings open a few seconds later, and Jaemin exhales, taking in the way Donghyuck looks greedily.

His hair is a little longer than it was in his dreams, curling around the edges of his neck, and — not for the first time — Jaemin has to resist the urge to reach out and run his fingers through it.

Donghyuck rubs at his eyes disbelievingly.

“...Jaemin?”

Jaemin raises a hand awkwardly. “Hi.”

“Why are you wearing — those clothes?”

Jaemin looks down confusedly.

“Oh,” he says belatedly. “Yeah. These are...mine. You know Prince Jaemin? Uh, that’s me.”

Donghyuck stares at him. “I need a drink,” he mutters. He opens the door a little wider. “Well? Come in.”

 

“Sit,” Donghyuck says, lighting a candle. 

“So you’re actually Prince Jaemin,” he says disbelievingly, and Jaemin nods, shifting awkwardly. “What were you doing here for months?”

“Well, my brother was getting married —”

“Prince Jisung,” Donghyuck says, closing his eyes and exhaling deeply. “Right. Okay. Keep going.”

“That’s him,” Jaemin says, feeling oddly shy. He looks away. “Remember my, um. Curse? Well, I’ve spent these last few years trying to experience everything there is to do. I’ve done some pretty crazy things — I’m sure you’ve heard about some of them.”

“Prince Daggerhands,” Donghyuck murmurs, looking at Jaemin. “That’s really you?”

Jaemin winces. “Yeah, that’s kind of an old nickname.” He wiggles his fingers. “As you can see, I don’t actually...have daggers on my hands.”

Donghyuck smiles wanly. “Yes,” he says, “your fingers are all very normal.”

“Right,” Jaemin says, clearing his throat. “Half a year ago, I thought I’d done enough to, well, die without regrets. But then someone told me —”

He falters, looking at his hands. “Someone told me that they hadn’t lived before they fell in love,” he says quietly. “And I — I don’t know. I wanted that.”

“So you came here?” Donghyuck says, wrinkling his eyebrows.

“I actually went to a lot of places before this,” Jaemin says, smiling softly at the ground. “But none of them felt right. The only reason I slept here was because I was so hungry. Meeting you really was an accident.”

Donghyuck blinks slowly. “So when you said I taught you how to live…”

Jaemin blushes.

“I meant everything I said that night,” he says, forcing a smile. “You’re so — I don’t even know how to describe it.”

He looks up.

“I was too scared to say it then,” Jaemin says, voice trembling. “And I’m still scared now, but I’m going to die in less than three hours, so I might as well say it now. I love you. I don’t know if I’m the one for you, Hyuck, but I know that you’re the one for me.”

“I don’t want to leave any regrets behind,” Jaemin says, smiling despite the wetness gathering in his eyes. “So before I go — I just wanted to let you know.”

It’s quiet for a long time, the candlelight casting shadows on Donghyuck’s face as it flickers.

“Jaemin,” Donghyuck says, finally, helplessly, “how could I not be in love with you too?”

 

Eventually, Donghyuck agrees to go back to the castle with Jaemin. He takes a long cloak, drawing it protectively around himself, before slowly walking outside of the bakery and locking the doors.

This late, the streets are empty, and they don’t run into anyone on their way. Still, Donghyuck is tense the whole way there, jumping at any stray noise. 

“Promise me,” Jaemin says again, when they get closer. “That you’ll hold my hand when — it happens.”

“I promise,” Donghyuck says quietly.

 

The waiting is a solemn affair.

The hallways are still and empty when they arrive, just past eleven, and Jaemin sighs, leading them to his room. When they enter, Mark leaps up, before catching Jaemin’s expression and sitting back down.

“Hi,” Chenle says, waving at Jaemin.

Jaemin smiles faintly. “Hi.”

“Everything’s sorted then,” Mark says, with a smile that looks more like a grimace. “Now we just...wait.”

“Mark,” Jaemin says, and Mark’s smile crumbles into despair. “Thank you.”

Mark nods jerkily, pressing his lips together. “It was all my pleasure,” he says, simply.

Jaemin turns to Jisung, whose eyes are already red.

“Jisung…”

“Don’t,” Jisung says, shaking his head. “Just don’t say it.”

Jaemin ignores him, pulling him into a hug, and Jisung breaks down, crying quietly into his shoulder. “You’re so tall now,” he says, and Jisung sniffs sadly, folding himself down even more so that he still fits underneath Jaemin’s arms. “You’re going to grow to be an amazing king.” He pauses. “I love you, and I’m proud of everything you are, and everything you’re going to become.”

“I’m going to miss you,” Jisung whispers.

“I’ve always been here with you,” Jaemin says fondly, ruffling his hair. He pokes Jisung’s chest. “Now I’ll be here instead.”

“Forty more minutes,” he says, smiling sincerely. “Let’s make the best of them.”

 

Chenle ends up talking the most, Mark and Jisung both so overcome with emotion that they don’t speak at all. He talks about his childhood and his kingdom, about how things are different and yet the same, about everything and nothing. At around 11:50 pm, he yawns, and Jaemin takes the cue to start talking about Donghyuck — who he is and how they met. All three of them begin to nod off, slowly, and Jaemin gradually lowers his voice until he’s just whispering to Donghyuck.

“Do you think they’re actually asleep?” Jaemin wonders.

“Could be,” Donghyuck whispers back. “Maybe it’s part of the curse.”

“...that makes sense,” Jaemin whispers. “But then wouldn’t you be affected too?”

“Who knows,” Donghyuck whispers, looking over Jaemin’s shoulder to the clock against the wall. “Two more minutes.”

“I’m glad I met you,” Jaemin says lowly. “Donghyuck. I’m really, really glad I met you. You’re so much more than what you see in yourself. Be kind to yourself after I’m gone, okay?”

Sixty seconds.

“...I’ll try,” Donghyuck whispers, and Jaemin nods. Good enough.

Fifty seconds.

“I hope you find someone else,” Jaemin whispers. “The one who can break your curse.”

Forty seconds.

“You deserve it,” Jaemin adds on, smiling at Donghyuck. “To be happy.”

Thirty seconds.

“I don’t know if I’ll find anyone else like you again,” Donghyuck whispers, eyes trained on the clock. “I don’t know if I want to.”

Twenty seconds.

“I’m sorry,” Donghyuck whispers, eyes watering. “For being so selfish.”

“Selfish?” Jaemin repeats, looking over at him.

Ten seconds.

“Selfish,” Donghyuck says again, a single tear spilling out of his eye. “Jaemin, I’m so sorry, but I have to know.”

And with three seconds left on the clock, he places his hands on Jaemin’s shoulders, leans in, and kisses him.

 

Donghyuck starts crying — silent, unrestrained sobs — at five seconds past the hour.

“I knew it,” he says, shaking violently in Jaemin’s hold. “It’s always been you.”

Jaemin blinks up at him, looking at Donghyuck’s face, splotchy with tears, and then at the clock.

Midnight, August thirteenth.

“You,” Jaemin says helplessly. “You.

“Me,” Donghyuck says, fisting Jaemin’s robes and dragging him in again.

 

 

 

"True Love's Kiss? Hmm...well, love conquers all.”

“I suppose you could call it the most powerful thing in the world."