Yeong-shin froze dead in his tracks, heart in his throat. Seo-bi nearly slammed into his back, but then she, too, stared unmoving at the prince’s form, a few paces ahead of them in the vegetation, one sleeve lifted instinctively to his mouth.
When Chang let out a small cough after that, and turned half-smiling to his companions, saying lightly – “Guess winter’s near-“ Yeong-shin lost it. Images, barely a year old, of the prince’s weakened body lying on a bed in the palace, shivering uncontrollably with cold despite the quilts they’d heaped on him, wracked so violently with coughs it sounded like his throat would burst and his lungs would implode – swam to the surface of Yeong-shin’s mind and before he knew it, before Chang had a chance to brush off any concern for his own health and his own goddamned life one more fucking time – he’d leaped forward two steps, flung his arm around the prince’s neck, and propelled him bodily towards the tree where they’d left their horses tied up.
“What the heck do you –“ Chang almost stumbled over a lump of soil hidden in the grass and glared at the hunter beside him. Yeong-shin didn’t bother returning the expression. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Seo-bi’s silhouette marching grimly beside him, silently affirming his decision.
“You’re sick.” Yeong-shin’s vision was starting to turn red at the edges for the blood rushing to his brain – with anger, with fear, he couldn’t tell. If he looked at the prince – his prince – now, he couldn’t guarantee he could maintain what was left of his shredded composure.
“I am fine let me go –“ Chang tried to twist away from the shorter man (he didn’t seem that short now) but the chakho had his neck and right arm in an iron grip.
“You are not fine. We’re going home.” Yeong-shin bit out through gritted teeth. The prince lying completely motionless on the floor after he’d collapsed in the middle of a meeting with his ministers, deathly white, and up close Yeong-shin could see how completely, utterly exhausted he had been, dark half-moons almost imprinted into the flesh beneath his red-rimmed eyes, the tears of fatigue he’d been holding back for days – weeks, months – finally coalescing into a single drop that rolled down the side of his temple into his tightly-bound hair, and Yeong-shin’s heart shattered into a million pieces – how much pain his prince had been in, how much he’d been holding in for so long –
“Stop treating me like an invalid, I’m alright –“
“Shut. The fuck up.” Yeong-shin said quietly, and Chang shut up, sensing that something was not right, was very different from the couple other times (thousand times) that he’d insisted they push on (insisted he push on). And then he found himself being lifted clean off the ground (had Yeong-shin always been this strong?) and seated firmly on top of a horse, backward.
In horror, Chang twisted his body to search for his manhandler, to protest loudly that this was not the way anybody could ride a horse, what were you thinking – when Yeong-shin swung himself up into the saddle in a single elegant move, and landed perfectly in his seat, face-to-face with an extremely confused prince (his prince), knees bumping against each other. “Yeong-shin, what –“ began Chang in a suitable mix of sternness and annoyance (he hadn’t lost that ability to speak with royal authority, even if his title was gone) – then Yeong-shin leaned forward and lifted Chang’s legs so they rested on top of Yeong-shin’s thighs, and kicked the horse into a gallop. Chang almost fell off the horse in a combination of shock and amazement – is this what they teach in chakho school? – but Yeong-shin had his arms firmly around him, reaching on Chang’s either side to grab hold of the reins. Chang’s hands (his numb left hand, his inflexible right hand) scrabbled uselessly behind him to find purchase on the saddle, all the while glaring daggers at Yeong-shin. The hunter refused to look at him, mouth set in a determined slash, fire in his eyes. With a sigh, Chang resigned himself to the only secure handhold – with both arms around Yeong-shin’s neck. As the horse – spurred onwards with Yeong-shin’s insistent heel – took a flying leap over a narrow stream, Chang squeezed himself to the hunter’s chest in earnest, unable to stabilise himself in any other way, and buried his burning face in Yeong-shin’s neck.
When he felt his prince’s forehead on his shoulder (was that sudden warmth a fever? – he kicked the horse harder) – Yeong-shin’s vision suddenly cleared just a little. The scent (the familiar scent) of Chang’s hair – even bound up in his sangtu – brought his heartrate down a few beats, and he brushed his lips gently against that beloved topknot before he turned his concentration back to the muscular movement of the horse beneath him.
Cho Beom-pal was bent over a large pot in the dimly-lit hut, conscientiously stirring the herbal broth Seo-bi had entrusted him with (“Do not let the ingredients settle for too long. Do not let it over-boil. Do not let it spill. These are herbs I have hunted for everywhere that might aid healing of His Highness’ hands, make sure they are properly prepared”) when he heard the sound of hooves beating against the packed mud outside the dwelling. He carefully removed the ladle from the broth, tapped it against the side of the pot to shake off every last precious drop, and laid it reverently on the wooden table next to him before running out to the front yard. He burst out of the main door, blinking rapidly in the sudden flood of sunlight, and saw Seo-bi striding purposefully toward him.
Beom-pal knew that look; it was the same look she’d had as she turned away from Beom-pal after he’d offered her the protection of the Haewon Cho clan (“Can’t you show a little bravery for once?”), the same look as she started hiking up the rocky hill toward the place he’d called the Frozen Valley, the place he’d specifically warned her against. He put aside the inexplicable feelings that never failed to rise in his chest when he saw that look, experience granting him the wisdom to get out of Seo-bi’s way when she was like this.
“Did… you come back alone? Where is His Highness?” Beom-pal ventured tentatively, as Seo-bi walked right past him.
“Yeong-shin is bringing him back. He has a cold.” With that, Seo-bi’s diminutive figure disappeared into the doorway.
A cold. All the warmth that had risen in Beom-pal at the sight of Seo-bi vanished instantly, replaced with a stranger, but no less intense emotion. He thought about the time the Crown Prince had materialised before his eyes on the execution grounds, his presence as sure and authoritative as the King (he was the King, he was Beom-pal’s King), and how in that moment Beom-pal fell to his knees and swore the Royal Commandery to his service (not just the Royal Commandery, but his everlasting loyalty, his life, his soul). Contrasted with the prince shaking with pneumonia, heaving uncontrollably in pain and fear and exhaustion and lack of air, and Beom-pal couldn’t do anything, couldn’t even go near because the prince (his King) couldn’t recognise him, helplessly watching from the corridor as Yeong-shin struggled to restrain the prince and somehow wrestle his nightmares away. He thought about all these, and then he was marching just as purposefully as Seo-bi back into the hut, something exploding in his consciousness – he was angry.
He found Seo-bi in the makeshift kitchen, holding a ladleful of broth to her nose. “You did a good job,” she said simply, and plunged the ladle back into the pot before resuming stirring. It was a mark of how focused Beom-pal was on other things (on his damned self-sacrificial King) that he did not immediately swell with pride at the compliment, barely noticed it at all. “What else can I do?” he asked quietly, and Seo-bi glanced up at him at the sound of his voice, the barely-restrained indignation and rage not escaping her sharp observation, and a look of mutual understanding passed between them. “You can make sure His Highness gets to bed and doesn’t get out of it,” she said, and Beom-pal nodded.
Before long the sound of another set of hooves reached his ears, and Beom-pal headed back out. He spared himself one second to gape incredulously at the sight of Chang clinging to the front of Yeong-shin’s roughspun shirt, sitting backwards in the saddle (who knew this was a viable way of going horseback?), then he was at the horse’s side, helping Yeong-shin to lift Chang from the saddle and place him gently on the ground. He ignored Chang’s expression of mingled irritation and shame (stop being so stubborn, let us be your hands when you can’t use yours) and bowed slightly (this was his King, after all). “Your Highness, please take a rest in the house.”
Chang almost burst with a double helping of annoyance – first, the ridiculous ride here; second, to hell with Your Fucking Highness – but his vision swam for a split second (this is what comes from riding a horse backwards, he thought angrily), and he bit his tongue to keep himself upright as inconspicuously as possible. Yeong-shin’s eyes sparked with fury, and he steeled himself to lift Chang bodily from the ground no matter what Chang had to say about it –
- when he realised that Beom-pal already had the prince in his arms and was carrying him briskly toward the simple hut they now called home. He shook his head to clear his eyes – Beom-pal was carrying the prince. His prince was in Beom-pal’s arms – and jealousy flared briefly in his chest before it was overtaken by a tidal wave of mirth bubbling from his diaphragm to his mouth. Was this the same bumbling ex-magistrate (now State Councilor) he’d known to freeze with fear on countless occasions, that he’d once despised for cravenness?
“Beom-pal… You are really something.” A smile flickered on Yeong-shin’s lips, a look of pure fondness softening his features before he took off after his companion.
Through the open door, Seo-bi caught sight of Beom-pal delivering His Highness to their sleeping quarters, and the faintest whisper of a smirk passed over her face. If there was one thing Beom-pal could do well, it was following good instructions.
Despite his heated protests, his eloquent explanations that acquiring a light cold was a natural by-product of the drop in temperature brought about by seasonal changes, absolutely nothing to concern anyone with, Chang was eventually overcome with the patient and persistent ministrations of his companions (his friends), as well as by plain tiredness, and he fell asleep within an hour. Yeong-shin and Beom-pal sat beside Chang’s rush mattress as Seo-bi brought them steaming bowls of the herbal broth Beom-pal had spent the better part of his day stirring (“There’s enough for all, and I think we all need something warm”).
Yeong-shin took a long drink from his bowl, savouring the sensation of warmth that flooded his body to the tips of his fingers. He breathed in the herb-scented steam, and an inexorable sense of contentment rose in him, sitting here in this tiny hut (bigger than any in Sumang), surrounded by people he trusted and who trusted him. He was safe, and he could count on half a hand the number of times he’d felt this way in his life. His hand snaked over to the head of the (his) sleeping Chang, and he lightly caressed the careworn cheek before he remembered who else was sitting with him, and he rapidly withdrew his arm.
Beom-pal and Seo-bi didn’t bat an eyelid, continuing uninterrupted to sip slowly from their bowls. Beom-pal caught Yeong-shin looking at him, and put his bowl down as he smacked his lips happily. “Seo-bi, I did a good job with this broth, didn’t I?” Seo-bi rolled her eyes (it still looked polite, the way she did it) and said nothing. Beom-pal grinned at Yeong-shin and said lightly, if rather more seriously, “I know His Highness is very fond of you –” (which in court-speak translated to His Highness is head-over-heels in love with you, and amongst the more candid palace guards, meant His Highness is begging to be bedded by you) “- and I am happy that he has someone to care for him.”
Beom-pal stared at the ground, then continued, “But I hope you know that he belongs to us too – even,” he stammered slightly – “even if in a different way, but there it is and I will never allow anything or anybody to hurt him.” Beom-pal took a deep breath, “Not anybody. Not even you…”
“… or His Highness himself.” Seo-bi finished, startling both Yeong-shin and Beom-pal as she completed Beom-pal’s declaration.
“He is ours,” Beom-pal insisted, bravely.
Yeong-shin looked from one to the other, and a full smile spread across his face. Strangely, the jealousy that had reared when he saw Beom-pal carrying Chang away had dissipated, and he knew a feeling he had all but forgotten. He had found his family, and by that he meant not just the people he’d trust with his life (after all, he’d trusted many of the chakho with his life, to cover his back as he faced down a roaring tiger, but that didn’t mean he’d felt safe with them), but the people he’d trust with Chang’s life. His prince’s (our prince’s) life.
Yeong-shin reached out his hand to Chang’s sleeping form again, and gently stroked his hair, basking in warmth and comfort, enveloped by the soft sounds of Beom-pal’s and Seo-bi’s friendly conversation.
He had all he needed.