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a sanguine lullaby

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Two hours ago.

Lord Seungho should have returned from his hunting expedition two hours ago.

Nakyum winces when he bites down too far on his thumbnail, blood springing forth where he has gnawed the nail away. On instinct, his tongue darts out to lap at the wound, his mind too distracted to pay any mind to how shredded his nail beds have become. A nervous hand drums on the stone step where he’s perched, his stomach gnarling into tighter knots with each passing minute.

Servants litter the courtyard, an anxious energy permeating the air, each speaking in hushed tones amongst themselves, expressing their worries, their doubts. Nakyum tries his best to ignore them. Despite his greatest attempts, the whispers find way to his ears, each word weighing like stones in his gut.

“They’ve never been late,” he hears one say.

“Kim was to be back an hour ago to assist with supper,” another remarks.

“Perhaps there has been an accident.”

He squeezes his eyes shut before hoisting himself up from the steps, wishing to place more distance between himself and those whispers, those doubts, those troublesome thoughts. Instead, he paces.

Everything is fine.

There is no need for such unease.

He said he would be back by now.

Lord Seungho promised he would be back by now. He swore it.

Surely, there must be a sound reason for his late return; Lord Seungho seldom broke a promise.

There must be.

Yet, his instincts nag at him, a sour taste building in the back of his throat as his thoughts drift to every possible scenario.

‘Perhaps there has been an accident.

He shakes his head to clear it.

The sun drifts lower in the sky, inviting the moon to take its place as it falls towards the horizon, but the beauty of the sunset is lost on Nakyum, its golden hue only worsening his anxiety. His attention remains fixed on the large wooden doors, willing them to budge, willing them to swing wide for the noble’s horse to trot through the gates.

Any minute now.

Any minute now.

Just as the sun slips past the surrounding tree line, he hears it—hooves pounding against the earth, the thumps low, fast in rhythm, as the sound travels towards the gate. Nakyum’s moment of relief is short-lived once he notices the speed, the horse not maintaining its usual trot when returning from a hunt, but a gallop, rushing closer with urgency.

The knot in Nakyum’s stomach tightens further.

Something is wrong.

Somebody—open the gates!”

The shout is desperate from the other side of the walls, pleading, and servants rush to follow the orders. The gates are pried open just in time for the horse to dash through the threshold with two men carried on its back, and Nakyum’s blood turns to ice in his veins.

Lord Seungho is hunched over Kim’s back as the valet guides the horse into the courtyard, his face pale, slick with sweat, and Nakyum’s eyes lower to the crimson that seeps through his fingers where a hand presses against his abdomen.

Every muscle in Nakyum’s body goes stiff.

He wants to call out, to say something, anything, but he’s frozen, paralyzed, only capable of staring—staring at the ashen pallor of the noble’s face, at that distant look in his eyes as they drift in and out of focus, staring at the blood.

There’s so much blood.

“What—” the word breaks in Nakyum’s throat, unable to fill his lungs with enough air, “what happened to Lord Seungho?”

His meek question hangs unanswered in the air, everyone parting around him, moving forward while he remains stuck in place.

Servants surround the pair once they reach a halt by the front steps, each pale-faced and panic stricken as they take in their master’s appearance. Before anyone can ask what happened, Kim barks orders, his eyes wide, frantic, concern deepening the lines of his face.

He points to the nearest servant woman. “You! Grab as many bandages as you can find!” His attention turns to the man by her side. “And you! Bring however much gauze we have!” Kim works down the line, instructing one to boil water, another to bring rags.

“And you!” Nakyum tears his eyes away from Lord Seungho to find Mister Kim’s command directed at him. “You help me bring him to his chambers!”

Without thought, Nakyum’s feet move on their own, carrying him towards the horse as Kim attempts to drag the noble down off its back, wincing when Lord Seungho groans loudly. “Quickly, boy, quickly!”

Nakyum is now running to Kim’s side to provide support, his hands joining the elder’s to ease Lord Seungho to his feet, and he tries to ignore the stickiness that greets his hands when he touches the noble’s side, tries to ignore the red hue staining his palms. Kim slings one of Lord Seungho’s arms around his shoulder and nods at Nakyum to take the other as they guide him up the steps into the mansion.

“…Kyum-ah…”

His name sounds so broken on the noble’s lips, his voice hoarse, breathless against Nakyum’s ear, and his heart fractures in his chest.

“It—it’s going to be okay, my lord.” Nakyum’s voice trembles in his re-assurance, the words more to convince himself than the man in his arms.

“…Kyum-ah, I’m sorry… I promised we would—” Lord Seungho’s sentence hangs off with a groan, his hand reflexively clutching at his stomach.

The fracture deepens, cracking down to his core. Nakyum bites on his lower lip to prevent it from quivering.

“It’s okay, my lord,” Nakyum whispers through his constricted throat, blinking back tears. He increases his pace to match Kim’s as they rush to his chambers. “Y-you’re going to be okay. You’re going to be okay. You’re going to be okay.”

The weight hanging from his shoulder is incomparable to the one in his chest, an ache growing with each step as they hasten down the hallway, that never ending hallway.

The brief stretch of time feels like an eternity, each second feeling longer than the last before they finally reach the noble’s chambers. They ease him onto his sleeping mat, careful in their movements as they lie him down. Nakyum leans back on his haunches by Lord Seungho’s side and stifles his gasp when he glances down at his abdomen.

Blood soaks through the make-shift bandage wrapped around his mid-section, and Nakyum realizes it is Kim’s torn jacket, tied tightly to reduce the bleeding.

“Forgive me, my lord, this is going to hurt.”

Nakyum glances over at Kim, and his eyes widen when he watches him press down on the wound. Lord Seungho hisses through his teeth at the painful sensation, eyes clamping shut as a deep groan rips through his chest.

A sharp anger fills Nakyum’s belly.

“What are you—”

“I must stop the bleeding,” Kim says, too preoccupied to meet Nakyum’s concerned gaze. His attention remains focused on his hands, grimacing at the red that pools up from between his fingers. “He has bled too much already. There was only so much I could do when we were out in the woods. If I do not do this, he will die.”

Fresh tears spring to Nakyum’s eyes, Kim’s words only adding weight to the agonizing pressure on his chest, but he clamps his teeth down on his lip, refusing to crumble now, not when Lord Seungho needs him at his strongest, at his best.

Servants pour into the room, one after another, each carrying the materials they were tasked with—a pail of hot water, bandages, gauze—and they place the supplies by Kim’s side. No one dares speak, silent as they move to the outskirts of the room, their eyes seldom leaving the broken man they call their master.

From down the hall sounds a flurry of footsteps. Within moments, the doctor enters the room, forehead slick with sweat from the hastened journey, his supplies carried by the servant in tow. He hurries to Lord Seungho’s side, nodding to Kim, who keeps his hands pressed on the noble’s stomach.

“I am glad that you sent someone by horse for me while you were still out in the woods,” the doctor says softly, his brows furrowing as he gazes down at Kim’s hands. “Otherwise, I may not have made it here in time. How is his bleeding?”

“I—I was able to reduce it to the best of my abilities when the incident first occurred, but he began bleeding more profusely during the ride back. I have been applying pressure since we arrived.”

“You did the correct thing. Had you not done so, he may be in far worse shape,” the doctor says. “You may remove your hands, that should be enough; I must begin examining him now.”

The doctor begins to carefully remove Lord Seungho’s hunting garments and bandage, peeling the blood-soaked clothing from his upper half, and Nakyum digs his nails into his palms when he hears Lord Seungho groan beside him. Curiosity getting the better of him, his eyes drift to his abdomen, only for his head to swim at the sight. He snaps his eyes shut, immediately wishing to forget.

What had happened to cause such a ghastly wound?

He wants to ask, to demand to know what happened, how something like this could happen to Lord Seungho, but he knows now is not the time. For now, all Nakyum can do is observe from the sidelines, listening to the two men as they speak in hushed tones.

A sense of helplessness creeping in, he motions to move away, to join the others along the edges of the room, but before he can rise to his feet, a clammy hand latches onto his own, preventing his retreat. His eyes fall on the hand before they lift to meet Lord Seungho’s gaze, and he sees something there he hasn’t before.

Fear.

The noble’s lips part to speak, but nothing escapes his throat, only the soft wheezing of his labored breath, his face contorting with a grimace as the doctor finishes unwrapping the make-shift bandage.

The word hangs unspoken between them.

Stay.

Nakyum squeezes the hand within his grasp.

“I must first gauge how deep the wound is before I can begin to treat him. Kim, please fetch someone to bring onion soup. The quicker, the better.”

Just as Kim lifts his head to instruct one of the kitchen staff in the room, two servant women send him a nod before rushing from the chambers with haste.

Nakyum studies the face of the physician as he eyes Lord Seungho’s stomach, a line of worry indenting the space between his brows.

“How did something like this happen?”

The words are low, hardly more than a murmur, but Nakyum hears them, and he strains his ears for the answer.

“I wasn’t there to see it firsthand,” Kim begins, his gaze lowered to the pail of water by his side, wringing a rag to clean the skin surrounding the wounds, “but it happened so fast. They tell me it was a boar. Lord Seungho—he was in a rush today. Heaven knows why. It is unlike him to behave so carelessly.”

Nakyum squeezes Lord Seungho’s hand in time with the sudden ache in his chest. He casts a quick glance down at the noble, tracing the sweat with his eyes, remembering the kind look etched on his face before his journey out the gates this afternoon.

“I promise to be back in time.” Lord Seungho tucks a stray hair behind Nakyum’s ear, his gaze gentle, adoring. “Have I ever gone back on my word?”

A pit forms in Nakyum’s belly, heavy and poisonous.

This is because of him.

Had he not been so adamant, so open with his excitement for their plans, the noble wouldn’t have acted so carelessly, so recklessly. He wouldn’t have rushed; he wouldn’t have gotten injured.

This is because of him.

Guilt gnaws at his tattered heart, bringing forth fresh tears that blur his vision.

“He is not one to miss a shot, but this time—this time, he did. The blow landed on the boar’s backside, angering the beast. It had charged the horse, you see. They told me that the horse was spooked, knocking the master off its back. When he landed, the boar had redirected its attention. It was only a moment, but it was long enough. By the time the remaining hunting party arrived, the boar had fled but Lord Seungho…”

Nakyum glances over when he hears the man pause, noticing the way Kim bunches the rag into his fists, his busy movements halting as the memory flashes through his mind. A pained expression twists his features.

“I see.” The physician places a sympathetic hand atop the valets. “I am sure it mustn’t have been easy. However, your quick actions may have very well saved his life.”

It is barely above a whisper, but Nakyum hears it—Kim’s doubts, his unease, his fear, when he says—

“I still worry it may not have been enough.”

Nakyum squeezes Lord Seungho’s hand harder.

When the women return with the onion soup, the atmosphere in the chambers is heavy. Suffocating.

“You there, boy,” the doctor says, grabbing Nakyum’s attention. “I will need you to feed him this soup. I must stay by his stomach. If I can smell the soup from his wound after he has ingested it, there is nothing I can do to save him.”

The words pour ice into his veins, but Nakyum nods, trying to control his trembling when he extends his hands to accept the warm bowl.

“L-Lord Seungho,” his voice cracks, and he attempts to swallow the lump that constricts his throat. He lightly taps the noble’s pale cheek to regain his attention, and he tries not to focus on how cool and clammy the skin feels beneath his touch. “You must drink this, sir. The doctor—the doctor must make sure you will be alright.”

That you can be saved.

Lord Seungho can hardly nod, hardly keep his eyes focused, but he hears him, and he tilts his head.

Nakyum sets the bowl aside to shift from where he’s seated, lifting Lord Seungho’s head into his lap, and a low groan rumbles through the man’s chest, sending daggers to Nakyum’s heart.

I—I am so sorry, my lord! I didn’t—I didn’t mean to hurt you, I—”

His frenzied apology is halted by Lord Seungho’s hand returning to his. The man cradles it against his bare chest, his eyes regaining focus to meet Nakyum’s.

“I… I am fine, Nakyum-ah.” The edges of the lord’s lips upturn into a semblance of a smile, weak but sincere, and Nakyum finds it harder to blink back his tears.

Even in such a situation, Lord Seungho finds a way to reassure him, and it makes Nakyum feel foolish, foolish for crumbling, for coming apart at the seams at a time like this.

He takes a deep breath.

And then another.

Stitch by stitch, he pulls himself back together.

With reluctance, he slides his hand from Lord Seungho’s feeble grasp to reach for the bowl beside him. He wills his hands to be still, for the trembling to stop, even if just for this moment. One hand supporting Lord Seungho’s neck, another holding the bowl, he slowly pours the liquid into his mouth. Small sips. One after another. And with each sip, Nakyum’s eyes flit up to the doctor, watching his reactions, and waiting—waiting for the man to confirm his worst fears.

Once the bowl has been rid of its contents, Nakyum reaches for Lord Seungho, his anxiety reflected in his harsh grip as he clutches their blood-stained hands tighter.

Another moment passes. And then another.

Waiting.

Waiting.

“…Kyum-ah… you’re trembling.”

Nakyum drags his eyes away from the physician to meet the gaze that peers up at him.

And then he notices it as well, the way his hands tremble around the noble’s.

“I—I supposed I am, sir.” Nakyum’s voice sounds so frail, taut like a cord bound to snap. It’s uncontrollable, the way his entire body quakes with his nerves, wracked by worry and fear.

“…Have I worried you so…?”

And Nakyum wants to laugh, but the sound that rips through his chest is more akin to a sob.

“Please rest, my lord,” Nakyum whispers through a forced smile, the edges wobbling, threatening to fall. “There is no need to speak. You must save your energy.”

There is a sense of reluctance when Lord Seungho finally releases his gaze, but he obeys, choosing instead to hold on to the words he wishes to speak.

With one hand nestled within the noble’s, the other traces soothing patterns along his collarbones, seeking a distraction. The tips of his fingers dance along the skin, the muscles, outlining the chiseled bones. They trail lower, skating along the smooth plains of his chest until he feels it—a rhythm beneath the pads of his fingers—and he lingers.

It’s weak, and it’s fast, but it’s there and it’s his.

Nakyum rests his palm where the beat is the strongest.

“Do—do you smell anything, sir?” He breaks the silence with his question, and though he fears the answer, he cannot bear another moment of uncertainty.

The physician is silent, his head bowed low to the wound. He closes his eyes and several beats pass, one after another, before he rises again and re-opens his eyes.

“No. I do not suspect there are any punctured organs.”

The air leaves Nakyum’s lungs.

“So, you can save him?” The words come out in a rush, blurring together, but he cannot contain the hope that bubbles up in his chest.

“I will do what I can,” the physician says with a nod, “but the road to recovery is long. There is always the potential for complications. Whether or not he makes it out of this is entirely up to him and his immune system. I will work to prevent infection and treat his wounds, but if his constitution is lacking, it still may not be enough.”

The unbridled hope in Nakyum’s chest is short-lived, once again replaced by that familiar ache, but for now, it is enough. The chance of survival is enough. It must be.

Nakyum nods in understanding, tempering his expectations. While this is a good sign, there are too many looming possibilities, each one weighing heavier than the last. He must prepare himself for anything.

Even the unthinkable.

He glances down at their intertwined hands.

“I’m going to begin packing his wounds now, so it may be best to distract him; this is going to be rather unpleasant.”

Aware of his new role, Nakyum redirects his attention towards the head resting in his lap, brushing the side of his index finger along Lord Seungho’s cheekbone.

“M-my lord, the doctor says this will hurt—”

“I… I heard him,” Lord Seungho says, his jaw clenching in anticipation as the doctor wets the gauze by his side. “Just… talk to me, hmm?”

And Nakyum does.

He’s unsure what he even says, his mouth working faster than his mind, but he talks, and he talks, and he doesn’t stop. Sometimes he recounts stories of his childhood, sometimes he recounts shared memories, sometimes he just talks for the sake of talking, filling the space.

His gaze never leaves Lord Seungho’s face, never leaves his eyes, as he tries to distract him. Each time the noble winces, each time he groans, Nakyum squeezes his hand harder, wishing to rid the pain without knowing how, only offering the few words he has.

“Do you remember the promise you made, my lord?”

The squeeze to Nakyum’s hand is feeble, but it’s a confirmation. Through gritted teeth, Lord Seungho says, “I… have made many.”

“You promised you would show me the sunset today.”

Regret flashes through Lord Seungho’s eyes like a flickering flame. He squeezes Nakyum’s hand harder.

“There was a place that you mentioned, my lord. A special place—one that you’ve never shared with anyone before. That’s what you told me. I had been thinking about it all day, sir—imagining the type of place that you wished to show me, and what made the sunsets there so special.”

Nakyum raises their blood-stained hands to his lips.

“I thought about it all day, my lord, and I waited for you.”

Nakyum can see that Lord Seungho wants to say something, but his jaw clenches involuntarily, his grip growing stronger, as the doctor continues to pack his wound with wet gauze. Pain ripples through his features, but his gaze is piercing, unwavering.

“I—” the man grinds out, sweat trickling down his forehead, “I… broke my promise.”

“You did.” Nakyum presses a kiss to the back of Lord Seungho’s hand, tears stinging his eyes before he blinks them away. “You broke that promise, my lord, and the only way I can forgive you is if you make me a new one.”

The man looks up at him earnestly, begging Nakyum to continue, his eyes pleading and full of remorse.

“You must promise to take me there one day, my lord—to show me the sunset.”

His vision blurs again with the tears that threatened to fall, and so he finally lets them, the saline taste reaching his lips as he murmurs against their joined hands, “you must promise me, my lord, promise that you’ll show me.”

And Nakyum’s composure is slipping again, his carelessly stitched together seams unraveling, unfurling. He feels himself pouring out, little by little, first his worries and then his fears. “Promise that you’ll be around to show me.”

Through his misty vision, he meets those russet eyes, meets the light behind them—that light he prays never goes out—and he holds his hand as tightly as he can.

“I won’t forgive you, my lord, not for as long as I live, not unless you make me this promise,” and he knows he isn’t being fair, but he needs this, needs this promise between them, for the noble to promise to fight, to swear it. “Promise me, Lord Seungho.”

Lord Seungho’s hand squeezes back just as fiercely.

“I—” he hisses through his teeth, his eyes squeezing shut before re-opening, the light behind them brighter, livelier, gleaming with purpose. “…I promise you… Nakyum-ah.”

Nakyum lowers his head to press a kiss against the noble’s perspiring forehead, his heart swelling, bleeding through the cracks.

This is enough for now.

This promise is enough for now.


The following 24 hours pass in a blur.

Once the doctor finished packing Lord Seungho’s wounds with wet gauze, he had wrapped them with dry bandages, something he insisted was vital to prevent festering. For the next 12 hours, he stayed to repeat the process; the bandages soaking through within an hour. Each time, Lord Seungho would grit and bear it, but by the third time, Kim finally made the executive decision to fetch his opium, to which Nakyum was grateful, unable to stomach the sight of Lord Seungho in such pain for much longer.

The noble continues to drift in and out of sleep, and while his breathing is no longer labored, his chest still rises and falls in quick succession.

“He will need to receive around-the-clock care,” the doctor says, packing his belongings into a small tote. “And you must constantly check for fever. Should his temperature rise, you must fetch me at once.”

Nakyum runs the back of his hand against Lord Seungho’s forehead, checking his temperature for the fifth time this hour. He nods to himself. No fever.

The room is quiet, the previous commotion now a ghost in the room. Now, in the late hours of the night, it is only Kim and Nakyum, each refusing to part from the lord except to relieve themselves. The others have since parted to cater to their household duties, not wishing for things to fall into further disarray, but those two remain. Both watch the noble with a close, weary eye, both waiting with bated breath for something to go wrong; for the unthinkable to occur.

Neither speaks of it, but the fear etches itself in the air, a tension neither wishes to break.

Kim shuffles around the chambers, tidying up the supplies and keeping his mind occupied. He bends lower to grab bandages from the floor only to wince, a hand coming around to rub at his lumbar. His face appears hollower, the lines deeper, and Nakyum senses the weariness that radiates from his bones.

“Mister Kim, why don’t you go get some rest?”

The valet raises his gaze to meet Nakyum’s, wrapping a wad of bandages into an organized roll. He shakes his head. “There is still too much left to do. Lord Seungho still needs—”

“I can care for him, sir.”

Kim sighs. “Young’in, you must be exhausted. You should be the one getting rest.”

“Not as exhausted as you are, sir,” Nakyum says, his eyes lingering on the shadows beneath the man’s eyes. He hasn’t slept in two days, and the lack of proper rest is evident in each lethargic movement. “Really. I will be fine. This household needs you in top shape, Mister Kim. It cannot function without you.”

Kim releases a long breath through his nose before setting down the roll of bandages. “…You’re sure you’ll be alright?”

“I promise, sir,” Nakyum nods, sending the man an empty smile. “Please get some rest. I can handle things from here.”

Kim hesitates before finally resigning with a huff. “Alright then. I will only be gone for an hour or two.”

Before he walks towards the door, he passes to rest a light hand on Nakyum’s shoulder. “He is going to be fine. You know that, right?”

Nakyum places his hand over Kim’s, though he doesn’t meet his eye, his gaze fixed downward where Lord Seungho lies beside him.

“I know.”

Finally, Kim exits, leaving Nakyum alone with Lord Seungho in the stillness of the room.

He resists the urge to run his hand over the noble’s forehead again and instead grabs a wet rag from the pail beside him. Gentle with his movements, he wipes the sweat along the noble’s chest, his eyes drifting to his newly banged abdomen. The bleeding has stopped considerably, but a dark hue still stains the center where the wound is fresh—unstitched and open. The physician insisted that he not stitch the wound together until the flesh had healed further, worrying that it may cause complications. Nakyum did not argue.

With a shake of his head, he forces his gaze back up to Lord Seungho’s face.

As if moving on their own, a hand comes up to trace his features.

His fingertip, feather light, runs down the bridge of his nose, meeting the sharp point, before lowering to the dip of his cupid’s bow. The pads of his fingers skim across his upper lip and then his lower, the skin plush but chapped, cracking at the edges. The wandering hand travels to brush along the high arcs of his cheekbone and brow. His fingers continue their journey, tracing every dip and curve, memorizing the contours of his face.

Nakyum is unsure when the tears begin, but he tastes them when they trail to his lips; feels them when they tighten his throat; sees them when they fall, staining his lap.

His fingers tremble as they continue to trace the face of the man he could have lost today, the man he could still lose one day. He tries to blink the tears away, but it’s a futile attempt, his emotions overflowing, flooding him from the inside out.

Now, in the solitary silence of the room, Nakyum allows himself to experience what he has suppressed. He allows himself to feel, to crumble, to break.

In the chaos of the accident, in the frantic furor of the day, Nakyum realized something—something that rattled him to his core.

He does not want to lose Lord Seungho.

No, he wants to cling to his life, wants to trap it within his palms, prevent it from slipping through the cracks. With his heart wrought with worry, he had realized how deeply his feelings run for this man—this man he once detested, despised, now occupying the largest space in Nakyum’s heart, now playing the starring role in his life.

Nakyum places a trembling hand over Lord Seungho’s chest, feeling the lifeline that beats against it, slow and steady.

In a moment of weakness, he imagines what his life would be like if this rhythm were to cease.

He remembers the biting wind on the streets, his clothes too thin and the ground too cold, his belly empty of anything save for the last few drops of liquor he stole from a tavern. He remembers the emptiness, the loneliness. He remembers these things, vividly, as if the memories are burned into his skin.

He remembers that this was his life before Lord Seungho.

He remembers that this would be his life after him.

In a moment of weakness, he imagines what his life is like because of this life beneath his palm.

He remembers the heartache and the humiliation. He remembers it all; he has never forgotten.

But he also remembers the warmth of his bed, the taste of sweets lingering on his tongue. He thinks of painting, the freedom to express himself in ways he was never allowed. Not reprimanded for his passions, but commended, liberated from his self-deprecation. He thinks of the love that pours from Lord Seungho whenever their eyes meet, his affection evident in each caress of his hand, each gentle smile cast his way. He thinks of the protection he feels when he closes his eyes at night, the comfort he feels whenever the noble lies alongside him.

He thinks of the warmth.

Lord Seungho has brought warmth to his life; he has brought love to his life.

And now, this man who has given him so much lies broken before him, and Nakyum cannot give him anything.

He cannot ease his pain away, cannot put him back together again, cannot make him whole. His entire being aches with the desire to heal him, to take on the pain as his own. Each of the noble’s shallow breaths takes the wind from Nakyum’s lungs, each whimper like pin pricks to his skin, and yet all he can do is sit here and wait—wait for the infection to set in; wait for the doctor to say there is no more that can be done; wait for the unthinkable; wait for that final breath.

Violent sobs wrack Nakyum’s body, and he covers his mouth to muffle the sound, but his heart is bleeding out through the cracks. It renders him breathless, and it’s agonizing, this pain in his chest, this excruciating sorrow that rips right through him, tearing him apart.

He has never felt more helpless, more powerless, more useless.

Of what value is his existence if he cannot use it to heal the man he loves? Of what value is painting if he cannot share it with the one who wishes to see it most?

He cannot bear it, cannot bear the thought of Lord Seungho’s life being extinguished, a wildfire doused in an instant.

Nothing has ever terrified him so.

He had never thought much of a future with Lord Seungho, never allowed his thoughts to stray too far, but now, now he yearns for the moments they may never get to experience, the memories they may never have the chance to create.

He just needs more time.

This cannot be over yet.

Please.

Just a little more—

“You’re crying…” a voice croaks out, hoarse and broken.

Nakyum raises his head from his hands to meet those eyes that peer up at him.

A thumb comes up to wipe at Nakyum’s tear-stained cheeks, the movements slow, tender.

“…What… is the cause for such tears?” Lord Seungho’s brows bunch on his forehead, a line of concern forming where they meet. He tries to shift from where he lies, but he winces, immobilized by the torn flesh on his abdomen. Instead, he settles for observing Nakyum’s face, cradling his cheek in his palm while his thumb draws tiny circles against the red skin.

And something about the gentle act finally shatters him.

Nakyum collapses against Lord Seungho’s chest, and he releases it all.

He sobs, and he wails, and he’s snotty, and he’s pitiful, but he clings to Lord Seungho like his life depends on it, like the man will slip away from his grasp if he even loosens an inch.

“I—” Nakyum cries against his chest, his words muffled, “I was so scared, my lord. I—I do not want to lose you.”

Lord Seungho’s hand comes to rub at his back, attempting to soothe him, but Nakyum only sobs harder.

“I cannot bear it, my lord. I cannot bear these thoughts. Y-you must be more careful, my lord. You must. There was no need to rush like that, sir. I—I would have waited until tomorrow, my lord. I would have waited. There was no need to act so recklessly. What if—what if Kim were not there, or, or, or something worse had happened?”

And Nakyum knows he’s rambling, but he cannot stop himself, cannot stop these tears, cannot stop these feelings from spilling out of him.

“Please, my lord, please do not frighten me like this again. I—I thought I was going to lose you, my lord. I still fear losing you. Y-you’re not allowed to leave yet, sir, you promised to show me the sunset, but there is still so much I wish to see, sir, so, so much. I—I wish to see the ocean, to swim in its waters, I wish to see the capital. I wish to see that tree you fell out of as a child, the one that left that scar I asked you about. Please, my lord, there are so many places I wish to see, places only you can show me, so you cannot leave me yet. Do not do something so foolish again, Seungho-yah, how could you be so foolish, foolish, foolish—”

A low chuckle rumbles against Nakyum’s cheek, followed by a hiss. He shifts his puffy eyes to find Lord Seungho smiling through his grimace, his gaze gentle.

“Why—why are you laughing?”

Two arms wrap around Nakyum’s upper body to weakly nudge him higher up Lord Seungho’s chest. A pair of lips press against the top of Nakyum’s head, soft and sweet, and another light chuckle whispers against his hair.

“Perhaps… it is the opium,” Lord Seungho rasps between breaths, “but… I believe this may be… the happiest I have felt… in quite a while.”

Nakyum hiccups when he cranes his neck up to look at the noble, blinking his tears away. “Happy, sir?”

“Mmm…” A hum of confirmation, followed by a second kiss pressed against his forehead, the lips curved into a smile. “I had no idea… you cared for me so. You even… called me by my name.”

Nakyum’s heart squeezes in his chest at the realization, and he blinks rapidly to rid himself of his tears, to see the expression worn on Lord Seungho’s face.

“Though… I must admit… I would have preferred it not require… a gouged stomach… but I will take what is given to me.”

Lord Seungho’s hand continues to rub circles on Nakyum’s back, and he feels an itch of guilt from having the noble comfort him at a time like this.

With a sniffle, Nakyum attempts to pull himself together, rising from Lord Seungho’s chest to drag his palms against his damp cheeks. “I—I am sorry, my lord, I—”

“Shhh,” Lord Seungho captures his hand in his and brings it to his lips. “I… I am the one who is sorry. I am sorry… for frightening you… I am sorry for behaving so recklessly.”

A solemn look flickers through the noble’s gaze when he looks into Nakyum’s eyes. “I made you a promise… and I plan to keep it… I am not going anywhere, Nakyum-ah.”

It’s earnest, sincere, and everything Nakyum needed to hear.

A tremulous smile pulls on his face at the words, genuine and tearful.

“…Not that I can go very far in this state.”

Nakyum sniffles, lowering his gaze to fiddle with Lord Seungho’s fingers, appreciating the warmth emitting from his hand.

“The doctor—he says it may be months before you’ll be able to properly move again, sir.”

“…Are we already back to you calling me ‘sir’…? And here I thought… we had begun to make progress.”

A flush creeps across the tops of Nakyum’s cheeks, warming his ears. “M-my lord, I—”

“I suppose… we have plenty of time… for you to work on it,” Lord Seungho says, focused on where their fingers are joined, watching as Nakyum bounces the pads of his fingers against his own. “After all, I would like for you… to be the one to care for me.”

“Me, sir?” Nakyum looks up, his expression perplexed.

“Why, of course. You make… for a much better view than Kim.”

The flush deepens, his face growing hotter, and Nakyum wonders how a man with a hole in a stomach can flirt so shamelessly.

“If—if that is what you’d prefer, my lord, then I would be happy to care for you these next few months.”

Lord Seungho hums in satisfaction before shifting his eyes from their hands to Nakyum’s face, studying him for a moment, sweeping across his features.

“You… you have not slept…”

Exhaustion weighs on Nakyum’s bones and stings his eyes, but he hasn’t been able to rest for even a moment, worry keeping him wound too tightly to sleep. Every time his eyelids drooped, the fear of what he may wake up to kept him awake.

No, he had not slept.

Nakyum shakes his head.

“That… is no good.” Lord Seungho shifts slightly, creating more room by his side on the sleeping mat, and he does his best to mask his grimace, but Nakyum can tell he is holding his breath. “Come here.”

“M-my lord, I cannot lay beside you, I—I could hurt you, or, or—”

“Nonsense…”

Nakyum hesitates, not moving from his seated position, and the noble tugs lightly on his hand, urging him forward.

“I will be more hurt… if you do not.”

With a sigh, Nakyum lowers himself beside Lord Seungho, careful with his movements, slow, fearful of accidentally bumping into the man’s side. He’s stiff, his muscles rigid, as he lies his head against Lord Seungho’s shoulder.

“You lie there… as if we are strangers.” Lord Seungho nudges him closer until his head rests against his chest, his arm wrapping around his tense shoulders. “…You will not hurt me. Please. Rest.”

Albeit reluctant, Nakyum obeys.

He closes his eyes and nuzzles himself closer, the warmth of Lord Seungho’s skin radiating onto his cheek, wrapping around his back. The sensation is pleasant, enveloping him until he feels it leaking in, warming his chest, his stomach.

And then he hears it.

That steady rhythm, this time stronger, louder, thumping against his ear, and he listens. He listens, and he listens, and he listens.

This is Lord Seungho’s song. His life.

It is a rhythm Nakyum’s soul wishes to dance to, a rhythm he prays never ceases playing.

Drowsiness pulls on his eyelids, and soon Nakyum is whisked away to the depths of repose.

And he dreams.

He clings to the man in his arms, and he dreams of the life that beats against his cheek, precious and treasured, and the harmony it creates when played alongside his own.