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The Stars in Your Eyes

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It takes them almost six days to reach the manor on horseback, riding through endless dry land and forests of dead vegetation. It’s a relief when they finally reach the greenlands leading up to the tiny hamlet of Gosan just by the kingdom’s border.

This manor is no different from any of the others they choose to stay at when they travel far; large, exquisitely furnished and a touch more modern than the traditional slope-roofed buildings tightly packed across the villages back home. It’s a far cry from the palace, but it seems perfectly adequate for the evening. It seems perfectly suited for the prince and the small party of esteemed generals and admirals from the King’s army chosen to accompany him.

Prince Chanyeol dismounts his horse and hands the reins over to a waiting stable boy. It’s already nightfall, long past dinnertime and his stomach grumbles loudly with hunger as he steps into the foyer of the manor.  The generals sort out their lodgings quickly, bowing to Chanyeol politely before making their way up the staircase to find their rooms, eager to rest after such an arduously long journey.

Restless and famished, Chanyeol heads off deeper into the guesthouse, exploring the rest of the floor in search of the kitchen, hoping to find at least a loaf of bread at hand. It proves harder to find than he’d anticipated, getting lost in the maze of corridors with doors seeming to lead anywhere but where he’s aiming for. He regrets leaving his squire behind, opting to travel alone instead.

Eventually he staggers through the kitchen doors, finding the room tucked away at the very back of the entire establishment. Chanyeol’s limbs feel like lead by this point and he’s just about ready to devour the entire pantry if he can.

It’s late enough that the room is dark and empty, the kitchen staff presumably already having turned in for the night. He can barely see anything even with the dim light the corridor lanterns are shining through the doorway.

Chanyeol gropes his way along the wooden cabinets, squinting blindly into through the thick darkness. Feeling his way around, he shuffles deeper into the room, searching with his hands in hopes of finding a candle somewhere to help him see.

“Is there something I can help you with, my lord?”

Chanyeol yelps at the sudden voice right behind his shoulder, nearly tripping over his own feet as he whirls around. There's a young man standing in the doorway, holding a lit candle in his hands as he peers in at Chanyeol, the beginning of an amused smile on his lips.

"You startled me," Chanyeol heaves, pressing a hand to his chest where his heart is thundering painfully against his rib cage. "Uh, who– ?"

The man bows both apologetically and in greeting before straightening up to set the candle on the counter.

"My name is Junmyeon, I'm the host of this guesthouse. Welcome to the White Horse, my lord."

"Just Chanyeol is fine," Chanyeol waves his hand dismissively, never having been able to shake the discomfort of being addressed by his title.

Junmyeon steps past him to bring down another candle from a shelf over the cabinets, shining more light into the dark room.

"You must be hungry after riding for so long.”

Chanyeol beams.

 

 

-

 

 

Junmyeon generously fixes up a bowl of hot broth for Chanyeol, chuckling at the way Chanyeol wolfs down the soup like he hasn’t eaten in days. After a moment’s thought, he sets down three loaves beside Chanyeol to take back to his room if he’s still hungry later.

“Good night, my lord,” Junmyeon murmurs, leaving Chanyeol to his meal.

By the time Chanyeol licks the bowl clean, he's not nearly as full as he'd like to be but he's drowsy enough to crave the softness of a bed. Gathering the bread in his arms, fully intending to devour it the second he gets between his sheets, he hastily makes his way through the labyrinth of corridors to find the staircase that will lead him up to his bedroom.

Just as he turns the corner leading back to the foyer, the doors to the main entrance burst open and the silence of the night is broken by the raucous party of people making their way inside.

Retreating back into the shadows, Chanyeol flattens himself against the wall, trying not to lose his grip on his loaves as he cradles them to his chest. Curiously peering around the corner, Chanyeol cranes his neck to catch a glimpse of the new arrivals and immediately stiffens.

The royal emblem pinned to their chests is easy to recognize, even from a distance. The elegant plum blossom engraved in gold catches in the flickering light of the candles; the Generals from the Eastern Kingdom have arrived, prepared for the meeting with the West at noon the next day, as agreed.

Grimly, Chanyeol presses his lips tightly together into a thin line, eyeing the men one by one until his gaze falls upon their prince. There isn’t much to see beyond the travelling cloak he’s swathed in, pinned closed with the royal emblem. His face is expressionless, silent as the Generals sort out their lodgings with Junmyeon.

Chanyeol shrinks back around the corner and waits as they make their way up the same staircase his men had just taken, disappearing one by one. He waits until silence falls again, and the very last man has walked out of sight before he exhales properly. 

Relaxing his shoulders, Chanyeol drops his hand from where it had been hovering unconsciously just over the hilt of his sword, still secured to his belt. Gritting his teeth, he lowers the bread and dusts off his front with a sigh. His appetite is gone.

Neither he nor his men had been too happy about the arrangements for the accommodation when the decision for the meeting had been made. The idea of sharing a roof with the very same group of soldiers they may be going to war was more than a little hard to swallow. 

Chanyeol won't outwardly admit it, but part of his own animosity towards the Eastern soldiers stems from the reputation that precedes them, particularly the young prince’s apparent inclination for violence. He's not much for rumors but he hears whispers between the peasants in the village when he's visiting the market anyway. He catches words shared by travellers in the local taverns, too drunk to keep their voices down, even between his own men within the army. All Chanyeol hears about is the mounting body count and the trail of blood that seems to follow wherever the Eastern prince goes. ‘The Eastern reaper’, they call him 

When Chanyeol gets to his own room, he considers bracing the door with a chair while he's asleep but quickly dismisses the idea. He leaves the loaves of bread on the nightstand by his bed and crawl in under the sheets after he's changed out of his uncomfortable travelling clothes.

His can feel the exhaustion right down to his bones but sleep continues to evade him, too acutely aware of the small dagger he'd placed under his pillow, hating the fact that he'd thought to keep it there at all. Nonetheless, he lies there stiffly, hyper-aware of every sound, the creak of the furniture, the squeaky floorboards, the rustling of leaves from the trees outside his window.

It takes a long time for him to finally give in to his fatigue, falling into a shallow, fitful sleep that offers him very little rest. It's hard to sleep soundly when war could be just around the corner.

 

 

-

 

 

The first meeting between the generals from both kingdoms takes place when the sun is burning high in the sky. Junmyeon personally leads them to the room he'd set up for the council before returning to attend to the rest of his guests, leaving them to their own business.

Chanyeol takes in the large space, furnished with a wide banquet table long enough to leave a comfortable distance between the opposing generals.

The hostility in the room is stifling, almost palpable as they settle down in the chairs around the table. Chanyeol dutifully takes his place to the immediate right of the Captain General seated at the head of table. His position in the army ranks even higher than his own royal title, particularly in military gatherings like this.

Chanyeol’s formal robes are stuffy and itchy and he bites his tongue, struggling not to squirm uncomfortably in his seat. The Eastern generals are still filing in, settling down at the other end of the table. The prince comes in last and sits down stiffly in his spot beside his Captain General, stony faced and staring coldly at the polished surface of the table. His expression fits in rather well with the rest of the icy faced generals by his side, Chanyeol thinks to himself grimly.

Discomfort forgotten, he straightens his back and keeps his teeth clenched together as he grips the wooden armrest of his chair tightly. It's starting to feel less and less like this will go as smoothly as Chanyeol had been praying it would.

Water has become scarce in the West and the people have grown progressively more desperate as their resources continue to dwindle. The only place left to turn to is the great lake that lies just over the border between their kingdom and the East. The larger part of the lake and the industrial town around it lies on the Eastern side but the small fraction that stretches past the border belongs, by right, to the West. They've been sent here to claim their part.

Chanyeol thumbs pensively at the ring on his finger, feeling the texture of the topaz stone chiseled from the mineral quarries; the foundation of the West’s market. Their lands are too dry and precious gems are not enough to feed an entire kingdom of people in this drought. The single river of fresh water that flows through the land is gradually drying out and the import expenses from foreign kingdoms have become too high to match, trapping the West in their own crisis.

Chanyeol sighs, casting another look at the Eastern party across the room, trying to gauge what their reaction will be. The balled up fists they're not even bothering to hide and their pinched expressions are hardly promising, but nevertheless, this entire arrangement is riding on how well they'll respond.

Chanyeol grinds his teeth; he remembers all too well the last conversation he'd had with the king, his father, before they were sent out here.

"I want half."

"Half? Dad they'll never agree to that, it’s not even in our territory – ”

"They will if they know what's good for them."

Chanyeol blinks. "What's that supposed to mean?"

The king turns around and Chanyeol hardly even recognizes his father anymore .

"It means if they don't give it to us, we'll have to take it."

Chanyeol gawks at the threat, confused at why he’s being so dangerously irrational.

“There must be at least a hundred people living there, dad; they would all die. There must be another way, we can avoid a war!” he exclaims, pleading with him desperately.

The king, however, seems adamant on his plan and Chanyeol throws his hands up in exasperation, losing his patience.

“Why now? ” he demands, his words spilling out uninhibited. “We've been on the verge of a drought for years and you've never once set your eyes on that damn lake and now you're ready to go to war over it. Why now?

He bristles when his father turns away without answering him.

"Is it because Mother told you not to?" he bites out, fists balling up against his sides and he can feel himself shaking

"Don't you dare-," his father growls furiously , facing him again

"Is all this because she's not here anymore?" C hanyeol cuts him off, feeling the hot prickle of tears starting to well up in his eyes.

"Do not bring her up!" the king bellows, looking almost unhinged in his anger. His nostrils flare and Chanyeol catches the way his fists clench, wondering if his father will strike him.

"You will accompany the generals to meet the Eastern correspondents."

"I refuse . "

"I am your king and you willobey me," the king spits, fisting a hand in the front of Chanyeol's clothes. "You will be there using  my  name. It is my say that counts not yours, you will only be seen, not heard."

“And Chanyeol,” he adds, more quietly; almost threateningly. “You won’t have a kingdom left to rule if you don’t do something about it. This is your duty; you have a responsibility towards your people.”

Chanyeol stares back at him defiantly until the king releases his shirt and turns away from him again, staring out the window instead.

"You are dismissed."

He's shaking so hard he can feel it in his teeth, spinning on his heel to leave. He pauses when he gets to the doorway, hand gripping the frame so hard his knuckles start to go white. Throwing one last look over his shoulder, he feels that hot spike of anger burn in the pit of his stomach again.

"Mum would have hated you for this," he whispers, not bothering to see if his words are heard.

Shaking the memory away, Chanyeol casts a sidelong glance at the generals beside him, noting thecallous expressions reminiscent of the king's own. Everything about them screams their reluctance to be here. They’re ready for war, they want it; Chanyeol knows these men, he knows how they think. He can see the thirst for a fight, in the way they play restlessly with the hilt of their swords and the other end of the table looks no different. Past disputes with the East have never been known to go by smoothly in the first place.

Clenching his jaw, Chanyeol stares ahead stonily, trying to keep the anger boiling in his stomach at bay.

His father isn’t looking for a peaceful solution and neither are these men. One word is all they need to bring out their swords and they would spill every last drop of pointless blood to get what they want, regardless of who was standing in their way. Chanyeol has crossed through the lake town before on his trips outside the border; most of the people living there are families with children. They lead simple lives, mining, farming or fishing to make enough for a living. They would lose everything.   

Swallowing down the sudden bile that sears his throat at the thought, Chanyeol turns away from the generals and fixes his eyes on the prince across from him instead. It almost seems like the prince feels the weight of the stare because he looks up seconds later and meets his gaze. There’s a piercing cold hatred in his eyes and Chanyeol’s animosity burns harder.

He rips his eyes away when the meeting is called to begin, his hands gripping the armrests hard enough to make his fingers go numb.

 

 

-

 

 

It’s been three days since the messenger took off, riding back to the East with a scroll of the Western’s Kingdom’s requests for the king. The steed may be the fastest in the stable but it will still take some time for the king to consult his own advisors and for the messenger to return.

As expected, the Eastern generals did not take very well to their request. Chanyeol could see the way their faces hardened scornfully, clearly with no intentions of giving in. The meeting had stretched on far longer than it should have when a dispute broke out over ownership laws and past negotiations. The meeting only ended when the Eastern Captain General finally snapped, begrudgingly agreeing to send their messenger back to their king with their request despite sneering that it will never be granted.

The tension is high, the men’s nerves are frayed and nothing about the meeting had looked promising.

There is nothing left to do for now but find a way to entertain himself while they wait. Chanyeol decides the kitchen where Junmyeon experiments with new recipes is a better choice than the taverns where the rest of the men are drinking their boredom away.

Building a friendship with Junmyeon comes easily and quickly to Chanyeol. It’s nice to have a friend who doesn’t have an ulterior motive or any sort of alliance with his father. They fall into a comfortable pattern of eating whatever Junmyeon comes up with together and having heated discussions like they’ve been at it for years.

Junmyeon’s five year old son, Taemin, scurries into the kitchen every now and then, snatching scraps of food before dashing back out to play. Taemin's mother doesn't seem to be present and Chanyeol doesn't pry.

The topic turns to the Eastern generals while they're chopping up vegetables for Junmyeon's pie.

"Their prince seems like a real piece of work," Chanyeol grumbles, chopping up his carrot a little more aggressively than he'd intended.

"Oh?" Junmyeon asks curiously, not looking up from the carrot he's slicing with practiced ease. "How so?"

"I dunno he's so-," Chanyeol waves his knife in the air for lack of the right word. 

"Cold," he settles on, putting his knife down and wiping his hands off on a rag. He sits on the stool with his elbows on the table, watching as Junmyeon gathers all the chopped vegetables into one bowl.

"He always looks so pissed off, like he’d slit everyone's throat if he could," Chanyeol goes on, his mind going back to the way the prince's eyes had looked back in the meeting room. "Doesn't seem like the type of guy you'd want to mess with unless you want a knife in your back."

Junmyeon hums, raising his eyebrows in surprise as he grinds the food with the mortar.

Chanyeol bites his lip, hesitating for a moment before starting again.

"I know it's not really that much to go on but I keep hearing the same things, you know? The men say he's known to get pretty violent, with a lot of bodies to show for it apparently. It just seems very fitting I guess, for a guy like him."

“A guy like him?”

“Yeah, someone who’s so intent for this war to happen, you can tell there’s nothing he wants more.”

Junmyeon sets down the mortar, looking interested and inexplicably amused.

"Huh," he says simply, popping a piece of carrot into his mouth, munching thoughtfully. He seems to be enjoying a private joke that he's not letting Chanyeol in on. 

"What?" Chanyeol asks, nonplussed by his reaction. He'd expected Junmyeon to look apprehensive, maybe even a little disgusted, much the way Chanyeol feels. Instead it just looks like he's fighting very hard not to smile.

"Have you actually met him properly yet?" he asks lightly, picking at a splintering corner on the chopping board.

Chanyeol scowls at the thought, grunting a low 'no' as he flicks a stray pea away with his forefinger.

"Ah," Junmyeon offers again, just as vague and confusing as before. He busies himself with the bowl again, a pleasant smile on his face as he works the mortar into the food.

"What ?" asks, exasperated. He tries to catch Junmyeon’s eyes again to get some sort of a clue into what he's thinking.

"I'm just saying," Junmyeon shrugs matter-of-factly; "you'll have to meet him sooner or later, you know."

Grumpily bracing his chin in his palm on the table, Chanyeol offers a noise of contempt in place of a proper answer. He'd rather later than sooner.

 

 

-

 

 

The next day, Junmyeon has a full day of errands to run and doesn't have a single second to spare in the kitchen.

Bored, Chanyeol wanders around the premises, peering curiously into empty rooms with unlocked doors, and exploring the farther end of the inn, furthest away from the noisy tavern. He turns yet another corner, coming into another corridor that he hasn't been through yet, except this one has sunshine filtering through from somewhere at the other end.

His interest is piqued and he surges forward, making his way closer to the source of light. It doesn't seem like many people pass through here very often, he notes, eying the undisturbed dust sitting on the door handles and most of the floorboards beneath his shoes. Something feels different about the air the closer he gets to the light; it feels and smells fresher.

Rounding the final corner at the end, Chanyeol comes to a doorway that leads to a cobbled path outside.

The sun is warm on his skin as he follows the path all the way up to a narrow gate, half concealed by the wild plants growing along the walls, curling around the metal bars.

He gives the gate a curious push anyway and it swings open with a creak. He inhales the fragrant scent of flowers that greets him and steps past the gate, into the garden beyond it.

It's beautiful in its wildness, overgrown like it hasn't been tended to in years. Chanyeol doubts anyone even comes here anymore if the half buried gate is anything to go by.

There are more flowers than he can name, a carpet of vibrant colours fanning out on either side of the cobbled stones. Chanyeol follows the path deeper into the garden, listening to the leaves crunching under his boots.

The path veers off around a corner of overgrown hedges before widening into a clearing and Chanyeol sees an old pavilion up ahead, almost shielded from his view by willow towering beside it. The structure is open on all sides, with high banisters and a sloping roof held up by sturdy wooden pilasters. That's when he realizes he's not alone.

Ducking behind the tree for cover, Chanyeol tries to get a better look and immediately recognizes the high collar and delicate embroidery of royal clothing.

The Eastern prince is crouching down, half concealed by the bench behind the banisters as he busies himself with something on his side. His back is facing the spot where Chanyeol is hidden but he takes no chances, sticking to the shadows regardless. Craning his neck out further, Chanyeol feels his heart drop when he spots Taemin standing right in front of the prince, his little face red and blotchy as he sobs.

Keeping his eyes trained on Taemin, Chanyeol feels for the knife he keeps in his belt, pulling it out at the exact moment that the Eastern prince suddenly draws out his own dagger.

Chanyeol swallows thickly as he slides out from behind the tree, treading lightly along what's left of the cobbled path leading up to the pavilion. He winces when his boot crunches down on dead leaves, trapping his tongue between his teeth and praying that the sounds don't trigger the prince into attacking Taemin.

He hears the prince's deep voice, murmuring too quietly for Chanyeol to make out anything and he speeds up, his fingers tightening around his knife. He steps right up behind the banisters, bending his knees in preparation to leap over the barrier when he catches sight of Taemin's arm. Now that he's up close, Chanyeol can see the makeshift bandage wrapped around his elbow; navy fabric matching the prince's robes.

Taemin has stopped crying, only sniffling a little as he eyes his bound arm woefully.

"All done," he hears the prince say, watching as he pats Taemin's head and ruffles his hair. "Now go back to your papa and be careful, okay?"

Taemin nods his head vigorously, rubbing at his swollen eyes with the back of his hand and totters down the steps of the pavilion, spotting Chanyeol still frozen in place.

"Bye, Channie hyung!" he chirps as he dashes by, and the prince immediately gets to his feet, whirling around, wide eyed. He gawks at Chanyeol, lips parted in shock, taken aback at not having heard Chanyeol come up behind him.

Chanyeol stares back, lost for words. His limbs feel locked, swallowing dryly at the realization of his misunderstanding.

The prince's eyes drop to the knife still gripped tightly in Chanyeol's hand and his expression hardens when he looks back up.

"Do you go waving that around all the time?" he demands, his fingers curling into fists by his sides.

Chanyeol feels a prickle of guilt, feeling the back of his neck heat up but the vehement hatred in the Prince's eyes reminds him why he'd suspected him in the first place. He can't be trusted.

Straightening his knees, he loosens his grip and lowers it down by his side but doesn't sheath it yet.

"Only when it looks like it might be needed," Chanyeol grits back, pointedly eyeing the now sheathed dagger in the prince's belt before glaring up at him again. 

The prince catches on to his implication and something twitches in his temple when he grinds his teeth together harder.

"He's a child." His voice has gone even lower, seething. "He tripped on a rock and scraped his arm, I have no quarrel with a child."

"We're this close to war, I have no idea what you would do," Chanyeol retorts, his brows furrowing even deeper the longer he glares at the prince.

"You can have the damn lake for all I care, you can have all of it! I never wanted this pointless war!"

The prince's eyes widen the second the last syllable slips from his lips and Chanyeol's jaw drops. The blood drains out of the prince's face, looking shocked by his own outburst, just before the fear begins to seep into his eyes. He's revealed far more than he ever should have and he knows that Chanyeol knows it too.

They’re enemies; they don't know each other and they don't trust each other. Chanyeol could exploit everything he's just said, use it to threaten him, manipulate him, blackmail him. He could ruin him, sell him out to his own generals as a traitor to his own king and his kingdom. The prince has exposed himself to the last person he would have wanted to and they both know it.

Chanyeol watches as the prince sucks in a shaky breath before pressing his lips together so tightly they begin to lose colour.

"Fuck, just...forget it," he whispers, trying for nonchalance but fails when there's no bite to his words. He turns away immediately, backing away from Chanyeol and trying to leave the pavilion and presumably put as much distance between him and Chanyeol and he can.

Instinctively, Chanyeol shoots a hand out to make a grab for the prince's arm, hooking it around the bend of the elbow and yanking him back.

"Wait!" he blurts out, immediately releasing his arm from his grip when the prince flinches violently. He raises his palm up and slowly slides his knife back into its sheath slowly with his other hand, still a little wary and not entirely sure what he's even doing. 

This could be a trick of course, a clever trap that the prince could be setting up for him. He could be playing Chanyeol, trying to outsmart him by turning this around back on him, leading him on and coaxing him into letting something slip that he shouldn't. He could hand him over to his own generals, like serving meat to rabid dogs.

The prince backs away another inch. He seems torn between making a break for it again and standing his ground. He holds Chanyeol's gaze, trying to look defiant, to hold his ground and defend himself despite what he'd said but Chanyeol can still see it. There's fear veiling every inch of his eyes, it's evident in every line of his face that he can't control when his brows tug together and his jaw tightens with nervous anticipation; vulnerability.

It could be an act, but there's just something. Maybe it's because Chanyeol's naive, maybe it's the sudden slap of realization at how he'd had his judgment upside down when he found him with Taemin, when he thought he knew exactly how to peg the prince down. Maybe it's Junmyeon's words resounding in his head, the vivid memory of his expression, his silent amusement whenever Chanyeol tried to bring up the prince, like there was something big Chanyeol was missing. He can't really put his finger on it.

Maybe it's because he so desperately doesn't want to be alone in this, but Chanyeol takes a chance.

"Just...I, uh-" he takes a step closer, despite the banisters still standing as a barrier between them. The tremble of the prince's hands is almost imperceptible but he catches it anyway. "Me neither."

The prince blinks, frowning deeper, confused. "What?"

"This war," Chanyeol presses, gaining confidence as he pushes through it, "I don't want it either."

The prince stares at him, his mouth falling open slightly as he gapes.

“You– ” he starts disbelievingly, backing away another step. “You’re lying.”

“I’m not,” Chanyeol insists. He sees the fear in the prince’s eyes, the distrust and reluctance. His thoughts shift and he thinks of her; her kind smile, her warm arms, her wise words. “I swear on my mother’s grave.”

Something softens in the prince’s eyes and he studies Chanyeol’s face, searching for something. When he doesn’t find it, a shaky exhale escapes his lips. He looks reluctant to say another word, still half turned and ready to run.

“Me too,” he manages, his voice barely higher than a whisper and the fight leaves his body, tension seeping out of his shoulders, deflating like he’s suddenly drained. He lets his guard down just a fraction and that’s enough for Chanyeol. “I swear.”

They stare at each other wordlessly for a few moments before Chanyeol finally finds his tongue.

"I'm sorry about before," he starts, feeling his face burn shamefully at his own careless assumptions and prejudgments. "People back home don't seem to have the nicest things to say about you."

He runs his fingers through his hair awkwardly, feeling stupid about admitted he was buying into those rumours. He still feels on edge, wary despite his apology.

The prince stares at him for a moment before laughing suddenly. It's like he's gone through a complete transformation, looking completely different when his eyes scrunch up into crescents and his lips stretch into a wide smile. He looks nothing like he did back in the council room the very first time Chanyeol got a proper look at him. He looks almost handsome, but Chanyeol shakes that stray thought away.

"Sorry," the prince returns, his smile still lingering on his lips. "It's just that back where I'm from, people don't have great things to say about you either."

Chanyeol snorts, feeling some of the tension knotting up his shoulders seep away. He wonders what rumours go around about him.

"I guess this is a good time for an introduction then," he says, sheepishly extending a hand towards the prince. "I’m Chanyeol,"

The prince doesn't hesitate this time, stepping forward to take his hand into his own.

"I'm Jongin," he says and his smile suddenly slips a little, unconsciously squeezing Chanyeol's hand slightly as his expression grows anxious, "and I hope we can somehow survive this."

Releasing his hand, Jongin turns away from him, looking towards the garden where Chanyeol hasn't explored yet.

When he turns back, there's a small smile on his face, tentative but hopeful.

"Would you like to join me for a walk?" he asks, gesturing towards where the cobbled path resumes on the other side of the pavilion.

Mirroring his smile, Chanyeol rounds the pavilion, meeting Jongin on the other side where the other opening in the banisters is. The sun is burning hot high up in the sky, pleasantly warm as Chanyeol falls into step with Jongin. There's still a shred of doubt lingering in his mind but the heavy weight that's been crushing his chest night after night seems to ease up a fraction, and that's enough for him for now.

 

 

The garden is bigger than Chanyeol had expected. They walk past more flowers and sprouting weeds without hitting an end to turn back. The air is still awkward between them, both trying to make small talk about the weather and the ride here on their horses. The hostility, however, is gone; everything feels different when Jongin isn't cold and glaring at him with hatred. Chanyeol’s own animosity is dying down, too 

"Earlier," he says suddenly, and Jongin looks up at him curiously. “That thing you said about the lake.  Isn’t–wouldn’t the East suffer without it?”

He regrets phrasing it the way he did when Jongin winces, reminded of his own reckless outburst, but Chanyeol has been curious about it since he said the words.

Jongin is silent for a moment, looking down at his shoes, watching the way the grass flattens under his soles.

"Have you ever been to the Eastern Kingdom?” he asks then, looking up at Chanyeol.

"Haven't had the pleasure, but I've heard a lot about it," Chanyeol answers, kicking at a little rock.

"Then you know what we're best known for?"

"Uh," Chanyeol scrunches up his face, thinking back to all his lessons on the geography of the seven kingdoms. The answer punches him in the gut with realization. 

"Of course..." he breathes, turning to find Jongin studying him carefully. “Herbs and flowers. The valleys. You’ve got the main rivers pooling right into Eastern land."

Jongin nods somberly after every word.

"I don’t think we ever needed that lake in the first place," he sighs. "It was just luck that most of it was on our side of the border.”

"Then why…all this?" Chanyeol tries, wondering if Jongin's father is as touchy of a subject as it is for him.

"Pride," Jongin says flatly, an undertone of frustration lacing his voice. "Power, greed. All of it. He’ll be asking for something in return, you know.”

“That’s–”

“My lord!”

The sudden call from somewhere behind them takes Chanyeol by surprise and his hand instinctively reaches for the hilt of his knife. His heart stops for a moment, wondering with a jolt whether he’s just made a huge mistake and fallen into a trap.

Jongin turns towards the voice, eying Chanyeol warily as he takes my step back.

“Over here!” he calls back, keeping his eyes glued on Chanyeol.

“It’s just Sehun, my squire,” he says quietly, his eyes darting down to Chanyeol’s belt before returning. “I swear.”

I swear . Resonating with an unspoken  ‘trust me’.

Something about the way he says it, pleading with no trace of arrogance. Chanyeol hears quick footsteps approaching, but his hand slips from his hilt to hang by his sides, albeit hesitantly.

A tall, lanky boy appears around the corner looking out of breath. He stops abruptly the second he spots Chanyeol standing beside Jongin, reaching down for the long sword hanging from his belt.

“It’s okay, Sehun!” Jongin calls out quickly, raising his palms to stop him. “He’s alright.”

He beckons for him to come closer, and Sehun stares at him disbelievingly even as he inches forward. Throwing Chanyeol suspicious looks, he looks like he’s itching to pull out his blade, but he refrains from doing so.

“The Generals are looking for you, my lord,” he says carefully, casting another uncertain look at Chanyeol before turning back to Jongin.

Chanyeol watches the way Jongin heaves out a sigh, noticing the way his expression hardens at the mention of them; maybe they’re more similar than he thinks.

“Tell them I’ll be right there,” Jongin tells him with a curt nod. Sehun hesitates, reluctant to leave and Chanyeol gets it when he catches his eyes darting towards him again. He can’t blame him really; trust is hard to come by these days especially between two strangers from different lands. Rival lands, at that.

“Go on,” Jongin presses, reaching out set a hand on his shoulder in reassurance.

Sehun concedes, inclining his head respectfully before turning away, disappearing around the corner of hedges to return from where he’d come.

The air is tense between them, falling into silence again until Jongin finally breaks it.

“I have to go,” he says, turning to follow after Sehun. He hesitates, looking like he’s searching for the right words to say.

“I don’t expect you to really trust me yet and you shouldn’t expect it of me either,” he starts honestly. “But uh– ”

Faltering, he worries his lip between his teeth and looks suddenly unsure of himself.

“I spend most of my time out here in the gardens almost every day, if you um…” he says in a rush, rubbing the back of his neck. His face is slightly flushed. “Yeah. Anyway, I have to go.”

He raises his hand in an awkward wave which Chanyeol returns, just as awkwardly. He’s left to stare at Jongin’s retreating back until he disappears around the corner too.

Chanyeol exhales loudly. He feels drained, his head spinning with too many thoughts in one go. 

He’s taken a huge risk.

Whatever he’d been expecting to find when he finally met Jongin has been completely turned on its head, confusing him more than it reassures him. It’s hard to believe that the Prince of the East, of all people, would feel the same way that he does about this war. It’s surreal to stomach the notion of being on the same page with someone like him.

When he climbs into bed that night Chanyeol stares at his knife hesitantly, debating, whether or not to keep it close once again or leave it beside his pants on the dresser.

He sets it under his pillow anyway. 

 

 

-

 

 

The generals keep him busy the next day, insisting that he come out with them to one of the taverns, roping him into joining their drinking games despite his reluctance.

The day after that, Chanyeol finds himself back in front of the entrance to the garden, questioning  and doubting his every step. He’s curious what will happen when he meets Jongin again.

He finds Jongin sitting alone in the pavilion, shielded from the sun, as usual. Jongin hears him coming and it Chanyeol thinks he looks relieved with the way his shoulders go lax and the shadow of hope flickers in his smile. Somehow, Chanyeol feels like he’s already coming to terms with the fact that he actually really wants to be here.

He returns the smile.

 

 

-

 

 

The air is still guarded between them initially. It’s hard to trust despite everything they’ve said and sworn.

It does become progressively easier as the days pass, though—almost alarmingly so.

There’s just…he’s different. Jongin is a soldier, they both are, but he just seems so  different  from the other militants he’s arrived with. There’s something that sets him apart; something Chanyeol finds himself wanting to explore further.

Maybe it’s in the humble way that he carries himself and the manner in which he speaks, soothing and genuine. Even his minute facial expressions feel sincere, with the almost imperceptible way his eyebrow twitches into a frown at the sight of the generals poring over battle strategies.

It’s not enough, Chanyeol knows it’s not enough to fully trust him, but he find himself wanting to. It’s a feeling in his gut and he doesn’t want to fight it.

Chanyeol lets his own guard down in increments, finally the last shreds of apprehension fall away once he realizes that Jongin doesn’t even carry his knife with him anymore. If there had been any intention to ambush and attack him, there have been plenty of opportunities already that he hasn’t taken, Chanyeol reasons hopefully.

After all, they have equal leverage on each other so there’s no way this is some sort of ruse fueled by faked amicability.

Jongin appears to feel the same. There’s a noticeable change in his stance, right after he’d forgone carrying his blade for the first time; drawn shoulders, constantly on the balls of his feet almost as though bracing himself for the repercussions that come with the risk of making the first gesture.

It’s a gesture that leaves him vulnerable and it’s honest enough for Chanyeol who gladly reciprocates.

 

 

-

 

 

The messenger returns with the King’s reply and a set of his own demands in turn. He’s targeting Western crops.

The council meetings grow more tedious as the Western generals retaliate, going over industry by industry, mapping out the entire lake town and fleshing out all their properties while arguing over shares.

It takes another three days before the next messenger can be sent out, riding West.

The long, tiring hours spent sitting stiffly in uncomfortable robes for the entire meeting has Chanyeol completely worn out. Jongin looks much the same, sitting on the opposite side of the room, visibly uncomfortable as the disputes between the generals stretch on.

They emerge from the stifling room the second the rider is sent off and Chanyeol immediately bids the generals a stiff ‘good day’ before moving off to find some fresh air.

Jongin is quick to join him, falling into step with him as they make their way down the stairs. Chanyeol catches the dirty looks thrown their way from the corner of his eye but no one stops them.

“Ironic isn’t it,” Jongin murmurs, having noticed the stares too. “Can’t be seen looking friendly at a negotiation for peace.”

“I think peace is the last thing on their minds,” Chanyeol says grimly. He’s already walked in on the head generals poring over battle formations twice now.

It’s frustrating how little he can contribute.

You’re just a name’

He has no jurisdiction over anything over here; he’s nothing but a figurehead for the real royal authority. Jongin can’t contribute much either, outranked by the more experienced generals in his party.

Chanyeol grits his teeth, biting his tongue before he says anything rash. They will never have peace when the men disputing over it are the same ones who have tasted a fight and reveled in it.

 

 

-

 

 

Spending time with Jongin is a lot more enthralling than Chanyeol had expected. Once they’ve moved past tip toeing around each other, they become fast friends. Chanyeol half wonders if that in itself should worry him.

Being around Jongin…it’s comfortable. He’s far gentler than the cold front he recedes behind during the council meetings, radiating bright enthusiasm once they’re out of that suffocating room.

He’s attentive, listening raptly even when Chanyeol rambles on about mundane things like the ancient peach tree outside his window back home. Jongin listens with unwavering attention, hanging on to his every word like they’re meant to be committed to memory, commenting in all the right places. Chanyeol can’t remember the last time he’s ever spoken so freely.

When Jongin unconsciously leans into him the first time, Chanyeol isn’t even startled by it. He just shifts to accommodate the bony shoulder nudging into his side like it’s the easiest thing in the world and maybe it is. It feels effortless with Jongin.

Even laughing with him feels like something tight is  finally  unwinding in his chest, snorting at the way Jongin’s face scrunches up, his jaw looking like it’s about to unhinge. He’s got the most ridiculously endearing laugh that Chanyeol’s ever heard but he doesn’t tell him that.

Taemin scuttles out beside them in the garden every now and then, clutching his worn out teddy bear with him wherever he goes.

Jongin’s face always lights up immediately, delighted as he breaks into the sunniest smile Chanyeol has ever seen on him. He watches Taemin hold his arms out, wiggling expectantly until Jongin obliges him and hoists him up onto his lap. He clicks his tongue, imitating the sound of horse hooves and jiggles Taemin on his knee like a pony until he’s squealing with laughter and Jongin can’t stop beaming.

Chanyeol watches them in silence, feeling a smile creeping onto his own lips. It’s hard to believe he’d ever thought Jongin was capable of hurting Taemin, or anyone at all.

 

 

-

 

 

Jongin stations Sehun by the entrance door to the garden to stand guard again, letting them enjoy their private peace inside. Chanyeol smiles, watching as Jongin sweeps onto the overgrown grass and breathes in the fresh air happily. He always looks positively radiant when he's out here, in the silent serenity of the flowers and leaves.

They can't hope to find a private space more peaceful than here anyway. The generals don't bother with this place, their attention easily held by the entertainment and services down in the taverns and brothels. The other guests staying in the guesthouse don't seem to come down here either, be it because they don't care enough to explore this far back into the guesthouse or because Sehun actually sends people away, it doesn't really matter. No one ever disturbs them and they get to have this little patch of green to themselves.

There's something about this place; it feels detached from everything else, from all the unsettling hostility that hangs in the air anywhere else in the guesthouse. Chanyeol thinks he fully understands Jongin's attachment to the garden, content enough himself to spend hours hidden out here.

"You know, you're nothing like I expected at all," Chanyeol blurts out his thoughts one day in the middle of their chess game.

"Hmm?" Jongin hums distractedly, studying the pieces on the board with furrowed eyebrows. He looks up when the words seem to register though, eyeing Chanyeol curiously. "What were you expecting then?"

"I don't know, someone more, uh..." Chanyeol pauses, gesticulating wildly in search of the right word. Now that it's out there, he feels a flush of guilty embarrassment again, remembering the way he'd described Jongin to Junmyeon, knowing exactly what he'd been expecting. He'd missed the mark by a mile, of course. He knows that now.

"Cold, I guess? Or vicious is the word for it, really," he trails off meekly, mentally groaning at how awful it sounds.

Jongin lets out an incredulous laugh, gaping at Chanyeol. There's a flash of hurt in his eyes that vanishes as quickly as it came but it stabs at something deep between Chanyeol's ribs.

"I was wrong," he amends quietly, willing himself to hold Jongin's gaze to prove his honesty. "I...you're gentle. Kind."

He feels his cheeks heat up at his own words and moves on quickly, jutting his chin out towards the path leading the doorway out of the garden.

"Plus your squire boy looks at you with the devotion of a puppy so you must have done something right," he tries for humour, aiming for lightheartedness to avoid examining the deeper feelings behind his previous words."It seems like you trust him a lot," Chanyeol adds carefully, still uncertain what to think of him.

"Sehun?" Jongin looks over his shoulder even though Sehun is completely hidden from his line of sight anyway. He smiles fondly when he turns back. "I couldn't ask for anyone more loyal."

"Was he part of your palace staff when you met?" Chanyeol asks curiously, sliding a black pawn forward.

"No, nothing like that," Jongin answers simply, gleefully taking out Chanyeol's knight with his bishop. "It was purely by chance, really. I saved his life a few years ago."

Chanyeol sits up, his eyebrows arching as he blinks at Jongin. "What happened?"

Jongin warily casrs his eyes over his shoulder again like Sehun might suddenly appear.

"I was just in the right place at the right time," he says, playing with the little wooden knight he'd taken between his fingers. "I was visiting the village markets when I heard shouting and something smashing inside the butcher's store."

He pauses and Chanyeol waits patiently, watching Jongin’s expression morph before settling on disgust. It’s a face Chanyeol has come to learn to associate with Jongin’s aversion to needless violence.

“Who raises a cleaver on their child?” Jongin muses softly, dropping his voice even lower despite them being out of earshot anyway. “That’s how I first saw Sehun. Backed up against a corner and his father ready to– ”

He cuts himself short, nostrils flaring. He’s gripping the chess piece tightly enough that his knuckles are losing colour, and he sets in back down on the edge of the board.

“I called my guards in to arrest him before he could do anything but he tried to make a break for it. Had to drive my own knife right through his thigh to slow him down,” Jongin says, murmuring so quietly that Chanyeol would have missed it in the leaves rustling loudly with the wind if he weren’t listening so intently.

Jongin is looking down at his palms on his thighs, fingers curled. His thoughts are written all over his face, an open book that Chanyeol finds is easy enough to read now that he’s paying attention to him. He wants to say something, struggling to find the right words that will take away the sadness and guilt in Jongin’s eyes. He shakes away the split second thought of covering Jongin’s hand with his own, belatedly realizing that he’d already started reaching out before yanking his hand back. He can feel his heart in his throat.

“But it worked out well in the end, at least,” Jongin says, brightening up suddenly. “I asked Sehun if he wanted to come back to the palace with me as a squire, and he said yes.”

“You asked  him?”

“I wanted him to be free to make his own choice,” Jongin smiles. Something sad lingers in his eyes again. “He’s not my slave.”

Chanyeol keeps staring at him even after Jongin has looked away, focusing on the chess board again. Smiling to himself, he thinks yet again about how entirely mistaken his first impression had been. Jongin is just tender; there’s a softness to him that keeps drawing Chanyeol in deeper. He’s still floored by how anyone even managed to spin those rumours–

Oh,” he breathes when the realization hits him square in the chest. Jongin blinks up at him curiously, eyebrows slightly furrowed in question. Recovering quickly, Chanyeol shakes his head with a smile; it’ll only bring back that flash of hurt in his eyes again. He struggles to swallow, an unsettling twinge of inexplicable protectiveness settling in his chest. It feels out of place.

Jongin shrugs and turns his focus back to the game.

I’m in trouble,’ Chanyeol broods, trying to steady his breathing. He groans when he finds his King surrounded on the board; checkmate. Jongin’s smile stretches wide and bright.

 

 

-

 

 

It’s sometime in the middle of the night, when the candles in his room that he likes to keep alight have almost burnt out. The flame flickers as a shadow slips past and Chanyeol is jolted awake by the sudden hand on his arm.

Bolting upright, Chanyeol instinctively reaches for the knife under his pillow and lunges forward blindly. He barrels right into the intruder, knocking him backwards and down onto the hard floor with the blade pressed against his neck. His only thought as he presses his knee down on imposter’s chest is that one of the Eastern generals had sent someone to kill him.

Except, when he adjusts to the dim light of the room and blinks the sleep out of his eyes, he finds himself on top of Jongin, registering the winded expression on his face. A second later, he spots the dark rivulet of blood sliding down the side of his neck where Chanyeol still has the knife pressed into his skin. Stunned, he jerks away immediately, dropping the knife like it burned him. He rolls off Jongin, slumping back on the floor heavily, panting as his head spins and the blood pounds loudly in his ears with the rush of adrenaline.

Jongin wheezes out a cough and pushes himself up, laughing weakly as he brings up a shaky hand to his neck.

“Guess I should have knocked?” he says breathlessly, his voice an octave higher than usual.

Chanyeol stares at him incredulously, his heart still thundering painfully against his ribs. He watches in dismay as Jongin’s fingertips come away stained red, thoroughly shaken at how close he’d been to pressing the blade in a little deeper in his startled frenzy.

“Jongin,” he chokes out, finally finding his voice. He can’t tear his eyes away from the mark he’s left there marring his skin. It looks like it hurts and Chanyeol feels bile rising, searing in the back of his throat. “I’m so sorry, I thought– I didn’t–”

“It’s alright, I’m fine. I’m not made of porcelain.” He grins weakly as he tugs out a white handkerchief from his pocket. His smile slips a little as he dabs at his neck gingerly, his hand still visibly shaking.

Chanyeol drags his fingers through his hair, willing the ringing in his ears to stop. His limbs feel heavy when he pulls himself up onto his knees, nudging Jongin’s hand away to take the handkerchief from him. Folding the cloth up more neatly, he reaches out to cup the back of Jongin’s head and presses the handkerchief to the shallow wound as gently as he can. He wonders if he can somehow project his apology through this action. Jongin winces but doesn’t pull away, letting his head lean back into the support of Chanyeol’s hand.

“What were you even doing here?” Chanyeol asks, swallowing past his dry throat when his voice almost cracks. His gaze keeps dropping to the wound he’s hiding behind the material before looking back up at Jongin’s bright eyes. He feels another stab of guilt in his chest.

Jongin says nothing, watching him silently, searching.  Perplexed, Chanyeol stares back, his eyebrows furrowing more deeply and shit he’s really messed this all up.

Finally, Jongin reaches up to curl his fingers around Chanyeol’s wrist, warm against his skin as he pulls his hand away from his neck. He takes the stained handkerchief from him; the bleeding has stopped for the most part, Chanyeol notes with relief even as he deflates. He draws back the hand still settled around the back of Jongin’s head, crestfallen when Jongin gets to his feet without a word, wobbling a little from the aftershock.

Something starts to throb in his temples, an ache growing behind his eyes and Chanyeol slumps; he’s ruined everything. They’d spent so long treading around each other cautiously before they’d finally built up enough trust to leave their blades behind and here he is attacking Jongin, barely a hair’s breadth away from slitting his throat. Acting every bit the way the Western generals would; exactly the way Jongin despises. Somehow, that’s what pangs the hardest in his chest; the thought of Jongin looking at him with resentment in his eyes.

“Jongin, I’m really sorry,” he mumbles, anxiously dragging his fingers through his hair again. “I didn’t–”  

“I wanted to show you something,” Jongin interrupts, smoothing down his rumpled clothes. He’s smiling again, a real smile that doesn’t waver. It reaches his eyes, right where Chanyeol can read the unanticipated hopefulness tinged with something so familiar, so Jongin; he’s captivated.

Pushing himself off the floor, he nods, feeling relief crashing into his chest so hard it makes his head spin. Chanyeol pulls on a cloak over his sleeping clothes and turns expectantly to Jongin to lead the way, only the slightest bit hesitant to move beside him before following closely.

Jongin leads him up a narrow staircase at the end of the corridor that he’d never even noticed before. He tries to peer over Jongin’s shoulder curiously to see what’s ahead of them. Finally, they come to a door and Chanyeol hears the sound of a heavy latch being lifted, gratingly loud in the silence of the night. Glancing over his shoulder nervously, he stares into the darkness but no one shows up. The door swings open slowly and Chanyeol feels a cold breeze chilling his flushed face as an involuntary shiver wracks his spine.

They step out onto the roof of the inn, and Chanyeol can see how high up above the rest of the hamlet they are. Jongin moves ahead of him, finding a spot right in the middle and sits down on the ground, patting the space next to him expectantly.  Wrapping his cloak around himself more tightly, Chanyeol lowers himself beside him, following his lead when Jongin lies down flat on the granite. Their hands rest loosely on the ground by their sides.

“This is the best place to see the stars properly,” Jongin tells him.

Chanyeol gazes up at the sky in awe. It’s a magnificent view, stretching as far and wide as he can see, clearer and more beautiful from up here. He almost feels like he’s this much closer to the stars.

“It’s like a curtain of crystals,” he murmurs, captivated by the way they twinkle. He hasn’t seen the sky like this in a long time; there’s too many fumes from the clusters of mills and factories hanging in the air back home to ever hope to see the stars this sharply.

“Beautiful, right?” Jongin smiles. “They seem so peaceful and free all the way up there.”

There’s an odd catch in his voice, not quite matching the smile still playing on his lips but Chanyeol says nothing, unsure of how to ask.

They fall into silence, drawing patterns and constellations in the dark sky with their eyes, drinking in the view that will be gone in a matter of hours. Chanyeol thinks he understands what Jongin means. Up here, it feels like the world has fallen away; like they could just reach up to touch one of the twinkling pinpricks of light and soar up into the sky there with it. To just leave everything behind.

“I wish I just be like that too,” Jongin sighs suddenly, and the sadness ringing in his voice has Chanyeol tearing his eyes away from the stars.

“Like what?” he asks, unable to help the way his eyes study Jongin’s sharp profile, admiring the delicate curve of his long lashes.

“Free,” Jongin whispers wistfully, still staring up at the sky though the smile has faded away. “I just want to be free.”

Chanyeol feels a hollow pang resounding in his chest, heavy like it’s caving in on itself. He’s caught himself thinking the very same thing long before he ever met Jongin, battling the longing away so he wouldn’t have to deal with the ache of having hoped. They’ll never be free of this life, not when they never had a choice to begin with.

His eyes inevitably trail down from Jongin’s face to rest on the spot where he can still make out the mark marring Jongin’s skin, frowning guiltily again.   

He feels a finger poking at the spot between his brows and his eyes snap right back up to Jongin’s face.

“It’s alright,” Jongin says, dropping his hand back down to his side limply, that subdued smile stretching across his lips again. “It’s good to be on your toes when you’re sharing a roof with the enemy.”

“You’re not my enemy, Jongin” Chanyeol replies, meaning it with every fiber of his body. He shifts his hand and his fingers brush against the back of Jongin’s for the briefest second.

Jongin’s lips part, releasing a short, quiet exhale as he holds Chanyeol’s gaze, his eyes searching again; always searching. He seems to find whatever he’s looking for because the smile stretches back across his lips and it reaches his eyes this time as he turns to stare up at the star speckled sky again.

“Maybe one day we’ll be able to get away from it all,” Chanyeol says, allowing himself enough hope to make Jongin believe it with him. It’ll take nothing short of a miracle for both of them to walk away from all this unscathed by the end of it but it’s easier to have faith when someone else is there to share it with.

Jongin’s knuckles brushes against his own again and Chanyeol doesn’t hesitate, curling his finger around one of Jongin’s to hold him there, soft and tentative.

They lay there under the stars until the night chill has almost frozen them to the bone yet Chanyeol can feel the warmth from where their fingers are twined like a bonfire in his veins. He squeezes once just before letting go, sitting up with a sigh before getting to his feet. Jongin takes the hand Chanyeol offers, letting him help him up and doesn’t pull away. The air feels thick with the sudden tension that fallsbetween them, static silence even as they keep their eyes on each other. Chanyeol can’t help it when he reaches up to trace over the cut on Jongin’s neck gently with the pad of his thumb. He can feel Jongin’s heavy gaze on him, ghosting his knuckle along the sharp line of Jongin’s jaw before he catches himself. Pulling away, he turns to step through the doorway back inside, feeling like there’s a rock lodged between his ribs. Jongin follows silently, pulling the door shut behind them.

 

 

-

 

 

"It's not that I'm a coward," Jongin tells him one day, a hard edge to his voice, like he needs to reassert himself and dispel any misconceptions. "I'm prepared to do my duty for my kingdom, but this - "

He stops, exhaling through his teeth, his eyebrows furrowing deeper.

"It's one thing to fight to defend your kingdom," he starts again, more quietly this time. "But to kill just for the sake of it...that's all this war is boiling down to; pointless cruel slaughter and taking innocent people's lives like it's a sport.  All for a damn lake.

Chanyeol nods grimly in agreement, having brooded over the exact same thoughts countless times. It's what brought them closer together after all; the breakthrough starting point for their mutual trust. There is solace to be found in such company after the emotional drought that comes with being a soldier prince.

"I never asked for any of this, I never asked to lead an army," Jongin sighs, the misery in his words thickening his voice.

"I know," Chanyeol murmurs, sliding his hand closer to Jongin's on the bench to link their pinkies together, squeezing it lightly. "I know."

 

 

The messenger returns to the guesthouse a few days later, bringing back the Western king's amended terms. The council meeting the next morning is grueling, the stifling tension in the room increasing tenfold when the new terms are read out. 

The terms now demand ownership of the biggest, most profitable establishments in the very center of the lake town, a demand which was most certainly not part of the original bargaining deal. Chanyeol grinds his teeth together so hard his jaw begins to ache, simmering quietly in his anger as he listens.

Keeping his eyes trained on the Eastern generals, Chanyeol watches as their expressions darken until finally the right hand general slams his fist down on the table furiously, spitting out a slew of curses at the Western King. Just like that, something snaps and the entire council room breaks out into a full blown brawl. Chanyeol just barely manages to leap out of his chair in time, struggling to break up a fist fight. From the corner of his eye he can see Jongin doing the same, a pinched expression on his face as he nearly gets knuckled in the eye.

It gets progressively out of hand and four black eyes and two broken noses later, the meeting is called off, with no progress made on the negotiation. Chanyeol can't escape from the room fast enough, with Jongin one step ahead of him, swiftly sweeping out after bowing stiffly to the generals.

He follows Jongin up to his room, checking first for prying eyes before sliding the door shut and sagging against it. He watches silently as Jongin paces up and down the length of the room, agitated.

"They're all so unreasonable, they're like a pack of rabid animals" he fumes, tearing at his stiff robes in frustration when the clasp at the back refuses to come undone. "I need to getout of this!"

Chanyeol breathes out a laugh at the way Jongin huffs, dropping his arms down by his sides, thwarted by his own clothing. Stepping closer, Chanyeol gestures for him to turn around so he can work at the ties of the doublet himself. Shoulders sagging, Jongin sighs in relief when the scratchy material comes undone, shrugging it off and letting it fall to the ground so he's left in a loose linen shirt hanging over his pants.

Chanyeol pulls at the lace of his own collar, tugging the knot loose and unhooking the clasps easily to slip out of the uncomfortable formal wear. Even with the constricting tie gone from around his neck, Chanyeol still feels like there's a noose around his throat, making it hard to breathe easily.

"I'm sorry," he whispers. Jongin turns, blinking up at him in surprise. "This is all my- what my dad is doing... the king...this is all because-"

"Hey, hey, Chanyeol," Jongin cuts him off, his eyebrows arching up high on his forehead, looking completely taken aback. Moving back into Chanyeol's space, Jongin rakes his eyes across Chanyeol's face. He brings his hand up by Chanyeol's face, his fingertips hovering inches away uncertainly. Something like resolve flashes across Jongin's expression and he presses his palm to Chanyeol's cheek softly, waiting until Chanyeol looks at him properly.

"You're not your father," he starts gently. "You're not responsible for the decisions he makes; my father isn’t exactly innocent in this either. Don't you dare put all of this on yourself."

Chanyeol starts to protest but Jongin cuts him off again. "I know you had no part in this, Chanyeol, and I trust you."

Somewhere along the way, Chanyeol had already known it but hearing him say it seems to truly cement it, sending a wave of dizzying relief over him. He feels winded; like the air has been knocked out of his lungs before rushing back in, letting chest expand more easily than before.

"Now come on," Jongin says brightly, drawing his hand back and Chanyeol misses the soft warmth. "Let's go down."

The garden has easily become their sanctuary from everything else outside its walls, unfailingly soothing.  The lines creasing Jongin’s forehead, between his brows disappears and Chanyeol can feel the rigid knot of his own shoulders relax. Inhaling the fresh air and the scent of flower, Chanyeol slumps down onto the usual bench and looks up at Jongin expectantly.

Grinning, Jongin joins him, except this time he presses up close to him, eliminating the inches of space they’d kept between them every other day. Chanyeol finds that he doesn’t mind at all; it’s a comfortable warmth.

Jongin is stiff beside him for a moment, as though adjusting to his own action but he melts right into his side moments later, dropping his head onto Chanyeol’s shoulder with a tired sigh. It’s still tentative, testing the waters, waiting for any sign of rejection like he’s expecting Chanyeol to shrug him off, to say that it’s too much, too far.

Yet it’s easy enough for Chanyeol to press his cheek into Jongin’s hair and easier still to find his hand linking their pointers together wordlessly like they had done on the roof.

It should be alarming, how quickly and easily they’ve begun gravitating towards each other; a magnetic force that leads them back to each other again and again. It should  be alarming, except somehow Chnayeol finds that it’s not. Instead, it’s comfortable, intimate even, but Jongin doesn’t address it and neither does he; adamantly skirting around the subject even as they’re pressed up together. Instead they sit in silence, content to listen to the rustling leaves and the sounds of their own soft breathing.

“I’ve always wanted to dance” Jongin starts suddenly, snuggling in closer against Chanyeol’s side when a chilly breeze gusts through the pavilion. “If I weren’t a prince by birth, I think I would have liked to be a performer, dancing circles in ballrooms or on a stage in the theatres,.”

Chanyeol can see it. Jongin is lithe on his feet, moving with a certain finesse and grace that Chanyeol definitely doesn’t have. He certainly has the perfect frame for it; tall, lean with the taut muscles of his stomach that Chanyeol only catches flashes of when his shirt hikes up.  He thinks he would love to see Jongin dance one day.

“I think I would be happy playing the lute for a living,” Chanyeol says in response after a moment. Jongin shifts with interest against him, listening raptly as always. “My father always tried to keep me busy with teachers and lessons about politics and history; said he didn’t want me wasting my time with music. I did it anyway though, it took me a while, but I taught myself how to play it.”

He shifts his face so that his lips are almost pressed into Jongin’s hair; he smells of sweet lavender. “Maybe in another life you would have danced to the music I played.”

Jongin’s laughter jostles him lightly and Chanyeol inevitably finds himself smiling too, acutely aware of the way Jongin’s finger squeezes his a little tighter.

“You know it’s ironic—“ Abruptly, he cuts himself off. Jongin pulls away from Chanyeol’s shoulder when he doesn’t go on, furrowing his eyebrows as he tilts his head curiously. His eyes are attentive and gentle; soft in a way that Chanyeol has finally come to realize makes him feel safe.

“Back home,” he tries again quietly, wondering why the word feels so foreign on his tongue. “The land is known for its Jadeite caves more than anything else. Jade is supposed to mean peace and protection, what a joke.”

He pauses, picking at a loose thread on the front of his tunic.

“My mother was like that,” he murmurs, feeling the same stab in his chest he always gets when he thinks about her. “They used to call her the Jade Queen; she used to find it so hilarious. She was the heart of the kingdom, before…”

He trails off, smiling sadly at the memory before his face falls, his eyebrows tugging together almost instinctively.

“Now look at us. Ready to start such a selfish war.”

Jongin pulls his finger free and curls his hand around the crook of Chanyeol’s elbow instead, warm and comforting as he squeezes lightly.

You do your land’s namesake justice,” he says softly; assured and not a trace of patronization. Honest as he always has been since the day they met.

Chanyeol feels something warm settling in his chest, chasing away the heavy emptiness weighing down on his lungs. The corners of his mouth twitch and he scoots over wordlessly to drop his head on Jongin’s shoulder this time. His fingers find Jongin’s wrist, pressing the tips into his skin in wordless gratitude that Jongin seems to understand. Chanyeol feels the smile Jongin presses into his hair.

 

 

-

 

 

It takes another couple of days before they all assemble in the council room again to send off the next messenger.

Chanyeol isn’t even bothering to listen this time, tuning out the generals’ voices discussing finance and property ownership laws and focuses instead on the other end of the table. Jongin’s expression is pulled tight, his hands gripping the armrests of his chair so hard he’s surprised nobody else notices.

Maybe it’s because all his focus is on him; Jongin is the only thing Chanyeol sees in the room. Except the room and everyone else in it forces its way into his thoughts no matter how hard he fights it.

It’s in these council meetings, when he really sees it. Jongin sitting over on the other side of the room with his men and Chanyeol seated beside his own. West versus East. Rival kingdoms with a bad history now on the brink of war. That’s when it really hits him how far away from each other they are; how out of reach Jongin is.

His heart plummets, feeling like he’s been doused in icy water; the hollowness in his chest makes it hard to breathe. Even now as he stares across the long table at where Jongin is sitting, he feels his stomach lurch, snuffing out the butterflies in his chest. It doesn’t matter what he’s been feeling lately when there’s so much pitting against him. He should let it stop before it starts; it can’t possibly work. Heck, for all he knows, Jongin might not even feel anything at all. The thought stings more than he expected.

He keeps his hands pressed tightly into his lap to hide the way they’re shaking. It’s hard to bring his focus back to the negotiation at hand with the wave of hopelessness that crashes over him, tinged with fear and uncertainty.  

 

The meeting drags on late into the morning before it’s finally adjourned, and the messenger is sent off, riding for the East.

The men have been growing progressively more restless, Chanyeol notices uneasily. It’s a long way to either side of the lands and they’re left with nothing to do but wait impatiently for the rider’s return. The tension between the two parties has grown stiflingly thicker since the brawl, and Chanyeol waits in trepidation for someone to snap again.

Jongin immediately heads down to the garden once they leave the room while Chanyeol excuses himself to the restroom. He’d kept himself busy drinking far too much water from his goblet throughout the entire meeting, trying to get rid of the dryness in his mouth.

Just before making his way out into the garden moments later to follow after Jongin, Chanyeol notices a pair of polished wooden sticks tucked away in a corner. Training swords; Taemin’s, most likely, considering the size.

He gets a sudden idea, grinning as he snatches them up before slipping through the garden door, up the cobbled path.

Jongin is waiting for him there, lounging on the bench as usual, his arm tossed lazily over the back.

 “Hey, Jongin!” he calls, catching his attention before tossing him the sword. He’s impressed when Jongin snaps his head up immediately and catches it deftly. He looks back up at Chanyeol, nonplussed.

“Think you can take me on, flower boy?” he teases playfully, swinging his own stick around by his side idly.

The nickname gets the desired effect as Jongin springs to his feet, his adrenaline already rolling off him in waves.

“I could probably teach you a thing or two,” he shoots back, eyes gleaming. “If you can keep up, that is.”

He tests his grip on the stick, bringing it down and slicing through the air in one swift, powerful motion, seemingly pleased with the balance in his hand. Chanyeol’s grin widens.

“You seem pretty confident,” he banters on, reaching up to brush his hair out of his eyes.

“Who do you think taught Sehun how to hold a sword?”

Chanyeol shoots a glance towards where he knows Sehun is standing watch by the entrance. He can almost picture him puffing out his chest proudly.

“Let’s see it then,” he challenges, turning back to Jongin. “Last man on their feet wins. If I win, I get your dessert for the rest of the week.”

“And if I win?” Jongin asks, already lowering himself into an offensive stance, leaning forward on the balls of his feet. “What do I get?”

Chanyeol pretends to think about it, circling around as Jongin mirrors his steps, hands flexed and ready on his wooden sword.

“Anything you want,” he says confidently, feeling the excitement thrumming in his bones.

“You should watch what you promise, Prince,” Jongin laughs, twisting the hilt in his hands. “I might just take advantage of it.”

Barking out a laugh, Chanyeol swings his sword around and lunges first.

 

 

Jongin wins.

Chanyeol finds himself sitting on the bench, holding out his arm where he’s sporting a nasty graze along the length of his forearm. He’d tripped in a backwards leap and scraped his arm on a rock hidden in the grass, effectively losing the match.

Jongin finally returns from where he’d dashed off to the kitchens, holding a small mortar; the steam wafting out from it seems to be tapering off. He peers into it when Jongin’s close enough again, eyeing the contents curiously; he’s surprised to spot traces of orange flower petals.  Intrigued, he watches as Jongin works on grinding the petals into a salve mixed with what smells like olive. He’s fascinated despite the throbbing pain in his arm and the wounded pride he’s nursing.  

“Is that a marigold?” Chanyeol tries curiously, shifting his eyes away from the salve to study the lines of Jongin’s face as he concentrates instead.

“Calendula, actually,” Jongin smiles, still focused on the contents before finally setting the mortar down on the bench. “This is really rushed, there wasn’t time to do it properly but it should still be fine…”

Crouching down by Chanyeol’s knees, Jongin curls his fingers gently around his arm, carefully steering clear of the wound. He scoops up some of the salve with his free fingers, blowing on them to cool it down before bringing them to the tip of the scrape and pressing down onto the torn up skin.

The contact burns. Chanyeol hisses through his teeth, wincing and instinctively jerking back an inch. Pulling his fingers back, Jongin immediately lets go, eyebrows tugging together in concern.

It’s strange how he misses his touch through the burn. Shaking his head, Chanyeol pulls himself together, gingerly offering his arm out again and gives Jongin a nod to continue.  To his credit, Jongin makes quick work of it, spreading the salve along the wound as gently as he can. He pulls out a clean rag he’d brought with him from the kitchen and wraps it neatly over the gash, softly smoothing down the fabric after every wrap to keep the creases out.

Jongin reaches the end of the rag, tucking the corner in under the folds to keep it secure. His fingers stay curls loosely around Chanyeol’s wrist though, rubbing the pad of his thumb lightly against his pulse point. Chanyeol feels the heavy fire from his touch on his skin searing right up into his chest and he stops breathing.

Jongin seems to realize what he’s doing moments later, letting his hand fall away.

“Thank you,” Chanyeol says gratefully, pulling the words out with difficulty after fighting to draw air back into his lungs. He traces his fingers along the binding lightly; his wrist is burning harder than the graze underneath the wrappings.  

When he looks back up, he finds Jongin’s face much closer to his own than he’d realized, a gentle smile on his face. He looks so beautiful; Chanyeol wants to reach out and press his own fingers to Jongin’s face, to thumb along his smooth, soft skin.

There’s something heavy in Jongin’s eyes but Chanyeol can’t read it yet. All he knows is that he’s irrevocably drawn to him beyond the point of return, despite how unsure he is of where exactly they stand. It’s a sobering thought, realizing that he still has no idea whether they’re on the same page at all or not.

He clears his throat hastily and the moment is broken.

“So, you can collect your prize now,” he starts. “What will it be?”

 Grinning, Jongin brushes his hands off on his pants before pushing himself up from the ground to sit beside Chanyeol on the bench. There’s barely inch of space between them.  

Jongin looks thoughtful for a moment, gnawing absently on his bottom lip and Chanyeol’s eyes zone in on his mouth helplessly.  Shifting, Jongin seems like he’s about to say something but then stops himself, a flicker of doubt darting across his eyes. It’s gone as quick as it came, and he turns to Chanyeol with a smile.

 “I’ll let you know when I think of something.”

 

 

-

 

 

Chanyeol bumps into Junmyeon the moment he steps into the kitchens, his stomach growlingfor lunch.

 “My lord,” Junmyeon inclines his head, looking mildly surprised to see him

“Hyung,” Chanyeol whines at the title. “I’ve told you before, it’s just Chanyeol.”

“Habit,” Junmyeon laughs apologetically. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen you in here.”

“Has it really been that long?” Chanyeol breaks off a piece from the loaf of bread laying on the cutting board.

“You seem so taken by the garden lately,” Chanyeol catches the amusement in his tone and senses that he’s hinting at something that he’s not quite saying.

“Jongin’s not with you?” Junmyeon continues lightly, looking down at the dough he’d been kneading and Chanyeol can’t help the way his shoulders slump.

“His generals needed him for something,” he sighs, kicking aimlessly at the table leg.

It’s a little disconcerting how jarring it feels not to spend his afternoon in Jongin’s company after so getting so used to it. The guest house seems so bare when he explores it by himself; time just seems to drag along.

He watches quietly as Junmyeon flattens the dough out with the rolling pin.

“Can I join you?”

Junmyeon looks up and smiles knowingly.

“Of course.”

He hands him another piece of dough to work on and Chanyeol rolls up the sleeves of his shirt to keep them clean of the flour.

“What happened there?”

Chanyeol blinks, looking up to find Junmyeon staring at the bandage wrapped around his arm on his arm, eyebrows furrowed with concern.

“Ah, that,” he flushes, remembering how close Jongin’s face had been to his. “Tripped over something and scraped my arm on a rock outside.”

Junmyeon quirks an eyebrow, taking in Chanyeol’s expression before turning back to his dough with a short nod. There’s a hint of a smile that Chanyeol can already see trying to break across his lips. It’s frustrating how he seems to be enjoying some sort of private joke.

“Did Jongin bind that up for you?”

Chanyeol looks down at the dressing neatly bound around his arm; his mind goes back to the trails of fire Jongin’s careful fingers drew across his skin.

“Yeah, he’s pretty good at this kind of thing, I guess,” Chanyeol smiles, absently tracing along the edge of the fabric by his wrist.

“Hmm.”

Chanyeol catches himself and yanks his hand away, snapping his head up to glare at Junmyeon indignantly.

“What?”

“Oh nothing, it’s just– ,” Junmyeon coughs out a laugh, covering his mouth with the back of his hand for a moment. Chanyeol’s glare only makes him grin wider and he sets down the rolling pin, turning to face him properly. “Do you remember the first conversation you and I had about Jongin? It’s just interesting how different this one is.”

Chanyeol feels his neck grow hot, remembering his scathing words about the supposed ruthless Prince of the East. Lowering his eyes, he keeps on kneading his fingers into his own dough.

“That was before I got to know him properly,” he mutters, unable to meet Junmyeon’s eyes. “He– I– he’s not what I thought he would be.”

That’s the only way he can put it, as honestly as he can. Jongin has turned every expectation he’d had of him on its head and obliterated it.He’s bright and passionate, mature almost beyond his age with the most endearing laugh he’s ever heard. Chanyeol can’t even pinpoint which part it is exactly that he’s drawn to; all he knows is that being around him makes his chest constrict in a way that is all consuming.

 “Chanyeol?”

Snapping back to attention, Chanyeol shakes himself, slightly embarrassed at having been caught drifting off deep in his thoughts again. Junmyeon doesn’t seem to mind it, and there’s that smile there yet again.

Chanyeol thinks he finally knows what it means; same way he knows what to call that tightening in his chest now.  

“He’s different,” he murmurs, focusing on his dough again. Junmyeon doesn’t say anything but Chanyeol doesn’t need him to.

 

 

-

 

 

Going out onto the roof becomes a regular thing, a steady routine that they fall into easily. Jongin is always the one to sneak into Chanyeol’s room, it being closer to the staircase anyway, slipping inside to shake him awake. They steal up onto the roof together, lying down in their usual spot to watch the stars again. It’s poignant how this is the closest thing to freedom they’ve got.

Sometimes they lose track of time completely, huddled close together for warmth in the night chill, and talk themselves hoarse until the stars have begun to fade. There’s suddenly so much to say, falling over his words in his haste to tell Jongin everything, almost like he’s racing against time and maybe he is. He tries to push that thought away but the fact remains nonetheless that the negotiations are looking bleaker by the day.

There’s still so much he needs to say, so many more of Jongin’s stories he wants to listen to, to laugh with him.

 

 

It starts raining through the night, not hard enough to flood but enough to make it difficult to lie on the ground on the roof. Instead, they retreat to Chanyeol’s room, with a warm cup of tea and more words than they have time. 

Then Jongin retires back to his own bedroom just before the sun rises, droopy eyed and ready to catch some sleep before they have to be up again.

He keeps putting off leaving Chanyeol’s room until later and later until one night he’s just  too sleepy to make the walk all the way back. He dozes off where he’s lying right beside Chanyeol, curled up on one side of his bed.

It takes a long time for Chanyeol to drift off, watching Jongin’s peaceful face as he sleeps. It’s when he catches himself gently brushing away a stray lock of hair falling over Jongin’s eyes that he realizes how far gone he is. It feels like a lifetime since he’s felt this at ease, despite the surroundings. He’s happy, he dares to think, right here by Jongin’s side, attached beyond the ties of friendship.

It scares him. He ghosts the tips of his fingers along the sharp contours of Jongin’s face, tracing lightly down the slope of his nose and chuckles shakily at the way Jongin snuffles in his sleep. He’s terrified and unsure of everything but it’s nearly pushed aside by the burning, fragile hope that he can have Jongin’s heart the way Jongin has his.

 

 

He wakes up to a soft warmth in his side, finding that Jongin is still there, curled into his shoulder, with a hand thrown over his chest, clutching at his shirt loosely.

They don’t talk about it the next day, but Jongin keeps pressing in closer to Chanyeol while they’re making their way into the garden as usual. Their fingers keep brushing and Jongin’s hand lingers longer than usual on Chanyeol’s elbow, his knee, the back of his neck. His touch is intoxicating, and Chanyeol finds himself leaning into the touch the more Jongin reaches out for him.

It’s a relatively quiet day and Jongin slides down along the length of the bench, pillowing his head in Chanyeol’s lap and reads from his book quietly. Chanyeol has to fight the urge to card his fingers through Jongin’s hair.

They don’t talk about it but this is good enough for now.

 

 

-

 

 

It’s almost past noon when Chanyeol finally cracks his eyes open, rolling around in the sheets lazily. He almost considers staying in bed a little longer, but his thoughts are easily drawn back to the garden and the pavilion where Jongin will most likely be sitting quietly by himself as usual.

Throwing his legs over the side of the bed, Chanyeol shrugs off his sleeping clothes in favour of his usual pants and loose shirt. His hair is a lost cause, he realizes, when he tries to flatten a stubborn cowlick three times in a row. Slipping into his boots, he makes his way down, taking the staircase two steps at a time.

He squints in the harsh sunlight that meets him outside, shielding his eyes with his hand as he pulls open the garden door.

Chanyeol has given up telling himself it’s the silent peace of the garden that draws him in by now. Having someone waiting for him at the other end makes all the difference, he realizes. His pace quickens along the cobbled path, pointedly ignoring the sudden swoop in his stomach. He can’t keep fooling himself.

He’s almost broken into a light jog when he reaches the clearing, his eyes immediately zoning in on the pavilion, shaded coolly by the willow.

Except he finds himself staring at a mop of black hair waiting for him instead of Jongin’s warm brown. It almost hurt how hard his heart plummets.

“Sehun?”

Twisting around, Sehun turns at the call of his name, waving at Chanyeol as he steps into the pavilion beside him.

“Jongin’s busy with the generals again,” Sehun starts off immediately, without being prompted. “He couldn’t slip away this time.”

Chanyeol shifts awkwardly at the knowing look in Sehun’s eyes, feeling the back of his neck burn.

“Right, of course,” he mutters, slumping down beside Sehun on the bench and leans his head against the headrest.  His eyes fall shut for a moment, letting the sounds of the wind whispering through the leaves wash over him.

“Any idea when they’ll be done?” Chanyeol hums, already growing drowsy as he stretches his legs out comfortably.

He cracks an eye open when he’s met by silence.

“Sehun?”

He sits up when he sees the expression on Sehun’s face, brows drawn together in thought. There’s no trace of his previous amusement anywhere in his eyes.

“I’ve been by Jongin’s side for a long time,” he says suddenly, just as Chanyeol is about to speak again.

Sehun turns to look at him properly, seeming to study him. His lips twitch, quirking back into a small smile.

“He’s like a brother to me; I’d do anything for him,” he goes on quietly, staring down at his palms.

Chanyeol smiles to himself, hearing the Jongin’s fondness echoing in his voice.

“He probably doesn’t even know it, you know,” Sehun breathes out a small chuckle that fades away as quickly as it began. “But I haven’t seen him this happy in a long time. Which says a lot, considering the circumstances.”

Chanyeol finds it hard to breathe as he processes the implication of his words, wondering ifSehun can read how anxious he is when he looks up at him.

“Don’t hurt that happiness,” Sehun adds, quietly pleading.

He doesn’t say anything after that though, settling back against the bench with his eyes closed and leaves Chanyeol to mull over his own jumble of conflicted thoughts by himself.

 

 

-

 

 

“Do you like flowers, Chanyeol?” Jongin asks one day, not looking up from where he’s fixing a flower stalk back into the soil.

Chanyeol blinks at the question, peering up from his book. They’re splayed out lazily on the grass this time, forgoing the bench in the shade to enjoy the warm sunshine.

“Uh. They’re all right, I guess. Pretty.”

The corner of Jongin’s mouth twitches up as he pats down the soil and dusts his hands off.

“I wish you could see the flowers back home.” He sighs wistfully. “I think you’d like them, they’re magnificent.”

“Honestly I’m pretty clueless when it comes to all the names,” Chanyeol admits, running a hand through his hair as he stares at the myriad of colourful petals around them. “I can recognize three, maybe four, but that’s about it, really.”

Jongin grins at him brightly. “Here, I’ll show you.”

He pushes himself up, sitting off to the side where he’s not concealing the patch of flowers. Chanyeol scrambles up to follow, trying to find a better position beside him.

“So uh…where do we even start?” he scratches his head, eyeing the flower patch.

“Well,” Jongin starts, biting back a smile. “Did you know that using a Laurel flower negatively is considered treacherous?”

“Which one is that?” Chanyeol asks, scanning the patch as though the flower in question will give him a sign.

“You’re sitting on it.”

Choking out a curse, Chanyeol leaps up from his spot, groaning when he spots the crushed white petals fluttering off the back of his pants, fluttering down beside the trampled bud.  

Jongin’s peal of laughter is loud and unrestrained, infectious enough that Chanyeol winds up laughing at himself too. Stepping around the flowers carefully, he finds a clearer spot of grass by Jongin’s side. He settles down comfortably, with their shoulders pressed up together. Jongin doesn’t move away.

“So, which ones are these over here?” Chanyeol gestures to a small patch of yellow flowers with long, narrow petals.

“This,” Jongin says, leaning over to pluck a single, uprooted flower from patch where it had been lying on its side, “is a Dandelion. They say it means happiness will definitely come.”

He looks up at Chanyeol with a small smile.

“What do you think?” he asks, holding the long stem between his pointer and thumb; “Should we put our faith in these?”

Chanyeol slips it out from his fingers, breaking off the stem neatly into a shorter stalk and tucks it into Jongin’s hair, just over his ear.Blinking, Jongin stares at him in surprise, his lips parting wordlessly.

“It can’t hurt to have a little hope,” Chanyeol says quietly, wishing he believed that more.  He comes back to himself a moment later, realizing that his hand is still hovering by the side of Jongin’s face. Flushing all the way down to his neck, Chanyeol looks away quickly, searching for another patch of flowers to change the subject. He’s scared to catch Jongin’s eyes again.

 

 

-

 

 

There’s a sudden downpour while they’re sitting on the grass in the garden the next day. Leaping to his feet, Jongin reaches down to curl his fingers around Chanyeol’s wrist and yanks him up with him. They break into a run, slipping on the cobbled stones and bursting into fits of laughter as the rain soaks right through their clothes.

They’re absolutely drenched by the time they make it back inside, leaving little puddles of water in their footsteps, still giggling uncontrollably. Jongin’s fingers are still clutched around Chanyeol’s wrist, his eyes curved up into crescents with the force of his smile. Beautiful, Chanyeol thinks, not for the first time.

Tugging him along again, Jongin leads him upstairs to his own room this time, ushering Chanyeol inside before closing the door behind them.

Jongin hurries to bring out a pile of towels while Chanyeol works on kicking off his boots, not wanting to wet the entire room. He’s busy with the ties when his vision is partially obscured by the fluffy towel that lands on his head.

He’s about to use it to dry off his hair but Jongin beats him to it, massaging his head with the towel gently. All Chanyeol can see from underneath the folds are Jongin’s knees on the ground before him but he doesn’t pull away, instead dipping his head down for better access.

Seemingly satisfied, Jongin finally pushes the towel up and away from Chanyeol’s face, letting it fall along the back of his head and his neck. His hands are still clutching both ends of the towel. He lets one end go to brush his fingers across Chanyeol’s forehead, pushing aside his damp hair from his eyes; he lingers a beat too long, letting the tips slide down the side of Chanyeol’s face before falling away.

Jongin’s face is only inches from his own, he could almost just–

Jongin pulls away suddenly, reaching down for a fresh towel to cover his entire head with and dries off his own hair. Chanyeol swallows back the disappointment, pretending it doesn’t hurt.

 

 

-

 

 

“Hyung, how much do you know about flowers?”

Junmyeon blinks up at him in surprise, halfway through rolling out the dough. They’re working on making sweet pastries today.

I’m familiar enough,” he answers slowly, a little taken aback. Chanyeol flushes at the look Junmyeon gives him, knowing full well that he’s wondering why he isn’t asking Jongin.

He can’t; not this time. They’re caught in some sort of dance, push and pull, skirting around each other when it nearly culminates into something more. The tightness in Chanyeol’s chest has become a constant, settling heavily between his ribs every time he looks at Jongin.  His heart feels too big for his chest and Chanyeol thinks maybe it’s about time for something to give before his heart gives out.

“Chanyeol?”

Junmyeon’s voice pulls him out of his thoughts. Chanyeol tries for a smile but doesn’t quite manage it, feeling the fear and uncertainty tightening around his throat like a noose.

“I think I know what you need,” Junmyeon goes on, dusting the flour off his hands.

“I didn’t even tell you what I was looking for,” Chanyeol protests.

Junmyeon smiles. “You didn’t need to.”

There’s that familiar knowing look in his eyes again, and Chanyeol wonders when exactly Junmyeon learned to read him so well to figure the whole thing out.

 

 

-

 

 

They’re on the rooftop again, side by side as usual, taking a moment to breathe and unwind after such a horrifically tense day.

The messenger had returned late in the afternoon and this time, the Eastern king has begun making demands of his own rather than agree to the terms, instead setting his eyes on lands that are west of the border.

The strain between the two parties has grown almost palpable in the room; peace is starting to seem more and more like a distant fantasy.

Playing idly with the short flower stem between his fingers, Chanyeol listens to the way Jongin sighs loudly beside him, evidently still frustrated and wound up. He tries to focus on his own breathing, struggling to slow it down to a regular pace.

Jongin lies back against the ground, pillowing his head with his arm and stretching his legs out comfortably.

“You coming?” Jongin asks expectantly, waiting for Chanyeol to lay back and watch the stars with him as usual. Chanyeol’s heart is in his throat, his tongue too heavy to curl around the words to answer him.

Jongin’s hand settles on his lower back and Chanyeol flinches involuntarily, jolting so hard that Jongin is up in a flash, staring at him in concern. Their shoulders bump together in their proximity.

“Chanyeol?” he asks, and Chanyeol can feel him scanning his face. “Are you okay?”

“I– ” he chokes around the word, anxiously stroking the velvety white petals of the flower between his shaky fingers. His tongue sticks to the roof of his mouth.

Jongin looks down, following the movements of his hand and goes very still beside him.

“What is that?” he asks, his tone careful.

Swallowing audibly, Chanyeol finally turns to face him. Jongin’s face is calm and composed but his eyes look almost terrified. Maybe it’s the way they mirror his own fear that spurs him on, fighting to keep his tone light and steady.

“I did some research,” Chanyeol murmurs, holding the flower up to let the star shaped bud face Jongin. He can see Jongin worrying his lower lip between his teeth, noting the way his hands are fisted tightly in his lap. “Turns out these Gardenias are pretty special.”

His chest feels tight. Stomach lurching, he feels something tug in his gut, a ball of fire igniting and setting all his veins on fire. It’s a rush; a culmination of every moment he’s spent in anticipation. It’s the buildup of nerves, the attachment, the pushing and pulling and hope; his own fragile, painful hope.

He pushes on, trying not to crush the flower with how hard he’s gripping it.

“I hear you can use this to pass on a message to someone because of what they stand for.”

A secret love.

“I know what a Gardenia is,” Jongin breathes; his expression twists, anxious and more vulnerable than Chanyeol has ever seen him.

Their eyes meet and Chanyeol holds his gaze, searching for anything that would push him to follow through all the way.

“Jongin, I– ”

The rest of his words are cut off when Jongin pitches forward and presses their lips together, effectively scattering his train of thought because oh. Jongin is kissing him; he can finally, finally  feel the softness of his lips against his own, letting his eyes flutter shut as he slots their mouths together and lets himself go. Both of them have chapped lips but it’s still the sweetest, most soothing relief he’s felt in so long. His heart skips a beat at the way the tip of Jongin’s nose presses into his cheek, feeling the faint brush of his long eyelashes against his skin.

 “I love you,” Jongin blurts out when they finally part, the words rushing out before Chanyeol even says anything.His eyes are a little unfocused, mouth falling open in shock. Their faces are still close, barely an inch apart and Chanyeol can feel Jongin’s stuttered breaths fanning against his skin.

“I–,” Chanyeol chokes out, stunned. He feels a little lightheaded, barely able to process what just happened. “I didn’t think–”

Jongin still looks so painfully anxious, terrified of Chanyeol’s reaction as though he’s waiting for him to push him away despite Chanyeol having been the one to bring up the Gardenia first.

He wants to snuff the fear out, to bring back his easy smile. There’s too much to say and Chanyeol can’t find a place to start so he opts for curling his fingers into the front of Jongin’s robe and tugging him back in to kiss him again.

Jongin makes a sound in the back of his throat, a small cry of relief just before melting into the kiss. Chanyeol angles his head to kiss him harder and coaxes his lips apart, licking into his mouth and brushing their tongues together. Jongin kisses back just as eagerly, pressing in deeper like he can’t get enough until they both reluctantly break off, gasping for air.

Jongin clutches at the collar of Chanyeol’s robe, clinging tightly to keep him close and presses their foreheads together. His eyes never leave Chanyeol’s, holding his gaze with a look that’s almost awed.

Bringing a hand up to his face, Chanyeol ghosts a palm over Jongin’s cheek, dizzy at the realization that he’s finally doing this, that he  can  do this.

He chokes out an incredulous laugh, taking a moment to rake his eyes along Jongin’s face; he looks radiant.

“I love you,” he breathes into the soft skin by the corner of Jongin’s mouth, just barely brushing their lips together. Chanyeol moves instead to pepper kisses all over Jongin’s face, stamping each whispered  I love you   into every inch of skin he can find until Jongin is laughing so brightly, it feels like they might wake up the entire guesthouse.

He feels giddy, brimming with relief and happiness, and he’s never been more in love in his life.

They don’t do much else that night other than kiss under the stars, drawing it out until they’re too cold from the night chill to stay outside any longer. They part ways just outside Chanyeol’sroom with one final, meaningful kiss and whispered promises.

 

 

-

 

 

The corridor is empty when Jongin rounds the corner and his surprised squeak echoes in the silence when Chanyeol’s arm snakes around his waist, tugging him into a tiny old storage room.

Chanyeol grins up at him as he closes the door behind them, chuckling at Jongin’s startled expression. The light from the candle on the ledge flickers across his face and Chanyeol watches as his surprise melts away into a smile to match his own.

“Had no idea you liked lurking around in dark rooms, my prince” Jongin laughs playfully, shuffling closer as Chanyeol’s hand settles comfortably around his hip. His own arms slide up Chanyeol’s front, winding loosely around his neck.

Snorting, Chanyeol slides his arm further around Jongin’s waist, pulling him impossibly closer as he keeps his hand splayed on the small of Jongin’s back. He dips down to nose at Jongin’s jaw, tracing a path down the column of his neck with his lips. The hitch in Jongin’s breath is loud in the small room and Chanyeol feels the way his arms tighten around his neck.

He sucks on a sensitive spot just below Jongin’s jaw, grazing the skin lightly with his teeth,reveling in the way Jongin shudders against him. He’s just about to tease his way back down his neck when Jongin pulls away from him and pushes Chanyeol backwards with a hand on his chest.

He nudges him back until Chanyeol’s back hits the other wall of the cramped room and immediately presses up flush against him, fervently claiming his lips. Chanyeol feels Jongin’s hands come to cup his cheeks, pulling his face closer as he sucks on his lower lips, sending shivers tingling up his spine.

Slotting their hips together, Chanyeol thumbs at the warm skin on the curve of Jongin’s waist where the edge his shirt has hiked up. He reaches up to hook his hand around the back of Jongin’s neck, tugging at his hair lightly as he angles him in closer to deepen the kiss.

The heat of Jongin’s mouth is dizzying, heady as he licks inside for more, tasting him, breathing him in. Their lips are slick, fitting into each other easily almost as though they’re tailored for one another when the swell of Jongin’s lip fits so perfectly between Chanyeol’s own.

He breaks on for the briefest second; just enough to suck in a lungful of air and turn them over to press Jongin back against the wall instead before ducking in to kiss him again.

Chanyeol can feel Jongin harden when he slots his leg between Jongin’s thighs, feeling his own pants stretching a little too tightly as well.

He grinds his hips slowly against Jongin’s and grins at the way Jongin moans, clutching at him a little tighter. Reaching a hand down, Chanyeol palms him through the fabric of his pants, hearing the way Jongin’s breath hitches in his chest, his eyelashes fluttering.

He leans in close, barely ghosting his lips over Jongin’s and hesitates, waiting; searching his eyes to see if this is really okay.

Jongin stares back, looking almost fond even as his breath comes out in shuttered puffs. He moves in to kiss the edge of Chanyeol’s jaw, smiling against his skin and pushes his hips into Chanyeol’s hand in response.

Chanyeol obliges, slipping his hand past the seam of Jongin’s pants and curls his fingers loosely around Jongin’s cock. He can feel the slickness already, spreading the precum along the shaft as best he can.

Jongin whines, willing him to hurry up, and rolls his hips as he tries to fuck himself into Chanyeol’s loose fist. Laughing, Chanyeol presses a kiss high on Jongin’s cheek bone and sets up a quick pace, pumping his fist steadily and keeps his fingers curled in a tight ring around his cock.

The sounds Jongin makes in the back of his throat shoot straight to Chanyeol’s own cock, heavy and untouched, still trapped in his rapidly tightening pants. He’s aching for some sort of frictionbut he focuses on Jongin instead, to the little whimpers he keeps making and the blissed out expression on his face. It’s enough to make the pit of Chanyeol’s stomach burn, so aroused it’s almost dizzying.

He strokes him faster, pressing his thumb into the slit at the crown. Jongin’s back bows off the wall, arching into Chanyeol. He throws his head back as he comes, his lips parting in a drawn out groan and he slumps against Chanyeol, pressing his nose into his neck.

Chanyeol’s face burns when he feels the wetness in his own pants. He’d come completely untouched, just with the sounds Jongin had made and the look on his face.

Jongin must have realized, or maybe he can feel it for himself because when he looks up, he looks way too pleased with himself.  He doesn’t spare Chanyeol a moment to get a word in before he licks into his mouth again, and takes his breath away.

They part with a loud smacking sound when Jongin pulls back, laughing breathlessly as he gaspsfor air.His eyes never leave Chanyeol’s, his stare heavy and tender.

Something in his chest twinges and swoops in his stomach, realizing that Jongin has looked at him this softly for a long time before now. He just never knew what it meant. Maybe he’d just been too scared to try and figure it out.

His heart swells up to ten times its size in his chest, watching the way a smile breaks across Jongin’s lips. Overwhelmed, he holds Jongin closer against him, almost at a loss for what to do with the affection in Jongin’s eyes.

He chooses to press a long kiss onto Jongin’s lips, palming his face gently as his thumb traces along his cheekbones. His lips follow, trailing kisses along the perfect ridge of his nose, pressing one right in between his brows before moving to kiss his temple.

The sudden sound of movement outside the room has them both stiffening and Jongin crushes himself against Chanyeol’s chest until the noise fades away. Chanyeol breathes out a laugh into his hair, content to hold him like this a little while longer.

 

 

-

 

 

Two evenings later, Chanyeol sweeps into Jongin’s room after dinner and immediately presses their lips together, pushing Jongin up against the door and kisses up the side of his throat. Jongin arches against him, laughing quietly before nudging him back towards the bed.

The bedframe hits the back of his knees and Chanyeol sits down heavily on the edge as Jongin falls into his lap and straddles his thighs. Tugging at the hem of Chanyeol’s shirt, Jongin coaxes his arms up to yank it off before burying his fingers in Chanyeol’s hair. He kisses him hard, too distracted to take his own off too.  

Chanyeol runs his hands up along Jongin’s sides, pulling his hips closer and rubs their crotches together. Moaning, Jongin grinds back down and presses their foreheads together, panting into his mouth.

Flipping them over, Chanyeol kicks off his pants haphazardly, turning to help Jongin throw the rest of his clothes off too before pressing him into the mattress. He brushes the hair out of his face, halting for a moment as he holds his gaze, drinking him in. It feels so much like a dream, to have Jongin spread out like this, to kiss him like this, to touch him. Holding himself up on his elbows by the sides of Jongin’s head, he leans down to press their lips together chastely, relishing the softness of Jongin’s mouth against his own all over again.

Chanyeol moves to press a kiss to his cheek, trailing his lips down along his jaw before sinking lower, kissing along his throat. He can feel the way Jongin’s breathing quickens, his chest heaving against Chanyeol’s with little puffs of hot breath escaping his lips in sighs. Jongin keeps his fingers buried in Chanyeol’s hair, dragging his blunt nails lightly along his scalp.

Mouthing along the column of Jongin’s throat, Chanyeol feels the way he bares his neck further, clinging to his back with an arm thrown around his shoulders.

Chanyeol pauses when he gets to the base of Jongin’s neck, staring at the narrow line of pale scar tissue marring his skin. The spike of guilt surges up in his chest again, burning in the back of his throat.

Jongin must realize what he’s thinking because he tugs at Chanyeol’s hair lightly, stroking the back of his head gently and stares at him like he’s trying to will the apology hanging on the tip of Chanyeol’s tongue away.

It doesn’t make the heaviness in his chest subside but Chanyeol swallows it down anyway. He brushes his lips softly against the raised skin, leaving kisses along the entire length of the scar, pressing his apology into his skin.

Trailing a path down his clavicles, he mouths at the warm skin, reveling in Jongin’s breathy sighs. He smoothes his hands up Jongin’s sides, pressing his fingertips into the ridges of his ribs before flattening his palms against the lean muscles of Jongin’s stomach. Following his hands with his lips, Chanyeol curls his fingers around Jongin’s shoulders, dragging them down along his arms to dip into the crook of his elbow, resting against the soft skin.

 He presses his thumbs into the centre of Jongin’s wrists, resting on his pulse point for a moment before sliding his fingers into Jongin’s palm. Linking their fingers together, he holds their joined hands above Jongin’s head, resting against the sheets.

Jongin’s hair flutters with Chanyeol’s breath. He squeezes their linked hands before Chanyeol dips down to ghost kisses against his closed eyelids, brushing his lips along the delicate arch of his eyebrows.

He’s about to pull back when Jongin suddenly arches his neck, pushing up to nip at Chanyeol’s lip playfully. His shoulders are shaking with laughter when he falls back, his dark hair fanning out against the white sheets. It knocks the air right out of his lungs and Chanyeol swears he’s never seen anything more beautiful. Nosing at Jongin’s cheek, Chanyeol coaxes him to tilt his head up so he can mouth along the column of his throat again.

He lets go of Jongin’s hand to dip down, kissing a path along his taut stomach towards his hipbone and curls his hands around Jongin’s thighs instead. Jongin’s cock is curved against his stomach, hard and twitching at every touch.

Chanyeol licks a long stripe along the underside teasingly but doesn’t take him into his mouth, grinning when Jongin whines and cants his hips up.

Moving quickly, Chanyeol reaches over to the nightstand, dipping his fingers into the small tub of scented oil he’d found earlier.

He kisses Jongin again just before pushing in the first finger, swallowing down his gasp. Thrusting it in shallowly, he pushes in another two, working him open slowly until Jongin is a mess, shuddering and panting for him to hurry up.

Chanyeol obediently dips his fingers into the oil again, slicking up his cock before lining himself up with Jongin’s entrance.  He presses a soft kiss to the inside of Jongin’s knee, waiting for Jongin’s nod before he pushes in slowly and bottoms out.

Jongin squeezes his eyes shut and clutches at his shoulder, groaning far too loudly for the paper thin walls of the room. The tight heat around Chanyeol’s cock feels incredible and it takes all his willpower not to move, waiting until Jongin gets used to the pain of the stretch.

Jongin’s breath comes out in short puffs, his nail still digging into Chanyeol’s skin. He clenches around him experimentally, grinning when Chanyeol moans low in his throat, his eyes rolling back into his head. 

Chanyeol rolls his hips, pushing in deeper and fucks Jongin slowly, drawing out every moan and whimper. Throwing Jongin’s legs over his shoulder, Chanyeol folds him in half as he leans down to swallow every sound he makes, kissing him so deeply he forgets to breathe. He picks up the pace and fucks him harder, pulling all the way out before slamming back in, drowning in Jongin’s cries and moans.

Jongin clings to the back of his neck, burying his fingers in Chanyeol’s hair and keeps him pressed close against him, like any distance between them is too far.

He keens loudly when Chanyeol hits the right spot, throwing his head back against the mattress and pushes his hips back against Chanyeol’s cock, begging for more. Groaning, Chanyeol rocks into him harder and reaches down to lace their fingers together again.  

Jongin’s jaw goes slack, his shuttered breathing and broken moans of Chanyeol’s name slipping through his lips.  There’s a fire burning in the pit of Chanyeol’s stomach, drawing him closer to the edge as his rhythm grows messy. He feels strung tight, like there’s liquid fire searing in his veins and he can tell Jongin is close too, desperately mouthing at Chanyeol’s cheek.

Chanyeol reaches down to curl his fingers around Jongin’s cock where it’s trapped between their stomachs and strokes him quickly. Jongin comes just like that, his body arching off the bed with a long, drawn out groan. It’s enough to push Chanyeol towards his climax, chasing his own high over the edge as he watches Jongin’s face and listens to the way he whimpers at the oversensitivity.

They’ve made a mess of the bed and the come sticks to their stomachs but they slump down against each other anyway, too worn out to do anything about it. Chanyeol rolls off Jongin before he crushes him under his weight, collapsing against the sheets, tired but sated. There’s a pleasant thrum buzzing through his limbs.

Jongin tucks himself into Chanyeol’s side, pressing a sleepy kiss against his chin before burying his face into the hollow of his neck. His hand settles over Chanyeol’s chest and he pushes his knee between Chanyeol’s thighs for warmth.

Jongin whispers against his skin, so faintly that Chanyeol wouldn’t have heard it if he weren’t paying attention.

Smiling, Chanyeol nuzzles his hair, kissing his head drowsily as he tightens his arms around Jongin’s shoulders to tug him closer.

“Me too,” he breathes, his eyes drooping heavily and he doesn’t fight it. He falls asleep to the feeling of the steady rise and fall of Jongin’s chest against his own.

 

 

-

 

 

 

Sehun stands watch at the entrance of the garden as usual and Jongin throws his legs over Chanyeol’s easily where they’re lounging on the bench. Chanyeol slips his arm around Jongin’s waist, holding him close.

Jongin surprises him when he holds up a red tulip to him.

 “What does this one mean?” Chanyeol asks, his heart skipping a beat at the way Jongin beams when he takes the flower.

“My love for you,” Jongin says softly, curling his fingers loosely around Chanyeol’s wrist. “Always.”

Chanyeol’s chest feels tight, too full to breathe properly. He leans in to nose at Jongin’s cheek, pressing a kiss to the corner of his mouth. “I’m yours.”

It’s far from the perfect time or place for any of this but nothing else really matters other than the way Jongin shifts to tuck his face into the hollow of Chanyeol’s neck comfortably.

 

 

-

 

 

 

The terms have changed. The eastern king takes the lake town’s industries off the table completely.  

Chanyeol stiffens, feeling the blood drain from his face. His ears start ringing and he nearly misses the next few words.

“We’re done here. You leave us no choice.” The general pushes his chair back, holding the crumpled scroll of paper in his fist.

 No .

“If you won’t negotiate then we will take action ourselves.”

 No no no .

“By order of the king…”

Chanyeol tunes hem out, frozen in shock. He’s gripping the armrest so tightly it feels like it might crumble beneath his fingers. They’re going to war.

The harsh scraping of chairs against the floor jerks his thoughts back to the room and the meeting is adjourned for the final time.  

Looking up, Chanyeol catches Jongin’s eyes, his face looking completely ashen even as he tries to keep himself composed. He watches Jongin excuse himself from the room quickly and Chanyeol forces himself to his feet shakily. He stumbles out after him with heavy limbs, feeling numb and uncoordinated.

His vision blurs but he just catches sight of Jongin slipping into the bathroom. Following suit, Chanyeol closes the door behind them and sags heavily against it, feeling painfully winded.

Jongin’s back is facing him where he’s hunched over the wash bowl with his head bowed low; his knuckles are white from the iron grip they have on the porcelain counter. Chanyeol can see the way his shoulders shake.

“We’re going to war,” he hears himself say faintly, his head buzzing.

Jongin raises his head slowly, twisting back to look at Chanyeol. There are tears streaking down his face and his lower lip trembles.

This isn’t how it was supposed to happen. This can’t happen, Chanyeol can’t lose this, he can’t lose  Jongin . They’ve barely had enough time together; he hasn’t savoured his beautiful smile enough. He wants a lifetime to show him the love burning in every fiber of his body for him.

He’s going to lose him and it tears at the hollowness in his chest, the numbness inside turning into a terrible ache that crushed him and nearly has him doubling over.

Jongin is barely three steps away in this cramped space but it already feels like he’s a thousand miles too far.

Chanyeol tries to call out for him but his voice breaks as he reaches out and Jongin meets him halfway, falling into him. They’re both just barely holding each other up.

He can feel Jongin shaking violently in his arms, his shuddering breaths puffing against his neck and Chanyeol hooks his chin over Jongin’s shoulder, forcing his own jaw shut to stifle his sob.

Shifting, he presses his trembling lips to a spot just below Jongin’s ear, trailing them down his neck, leaving imprints of himself with every kiss, marking himself into Jongin’s skin. The tears burn when they slide down his cheeks.

He tears himself to find Jongin’s eyes again, desperately searching for any sign of hope or reassurance. Instead he sees the tears clinging to Jongin’s eyelashes and the despair etched into every line of his face.

“What do we do?” Jongin gasps brokenly, gripping the front of Chanyeol’s clothes tightly in his fists, begging for an answer that Chanyeol can’t give him. “What do we  do ?”

They’re going to war.

It keeps ringing in his ears, echoing over and over again. His mind is already conjuring up images of cold, unmoving bodies and he sees a familiar face among them. Chanyeol chokes down a sob and presses his face into Jongin’s chest, his arms tightening around Jongin’s waist.

Jongin rubs a soothing hand up Chanyeol’s spine wordlessly, even though he’s still shaking himself.  When Chanyeol pulls back, Jongin’s face is shining with fresh tears but he smiles at him, a heartbreaking one that’s already spelling the ‘goodbye’ Chanyeol isn’t ready for.

Cupping Jongin’s wet cheeks, he draws him in for a kiss. He brushes their tongues together, mapping out his mouth until they’re both gasping for air.

Jongin’s fingers curl around one of Chanyeol’s wrists, nestling his cheek further into his warm palm before turning to kiss it. Tilting his head closer, he brushes the tips of their noses together before leaning in to press a long, tender kiss to his lips.

He pulls away only to kiss all over Chanyeol’s cheeks and the bridge of his nose, his forehead, his eyelids, peppering his face with kisses until Chanyeol can’t tell if he’s actually laughing or crying.

His knees buckle and Jongin falls with him, sinking into a heap on the ground with Jongin’s thighs bracketing his lap. Curving his arm around Jongin’s waist again, Chanyeol presses him closer into his chest, savouring the warmth of his body. His mind betrays him again, torturing him with thoughts of Jongin going cold and still. Blinking through his tears, he tightens his grip around Jongin; it’s like he’s already slipping through his fingers like smoke.

Jongin’s hand is soothing against his cheek, gently brushing the tears away with the pad of his thumb and strokes along the crest of his cheekbone even after they’re gone.

Chanyeol tries for a smile but can’t quite manage it without his entire face crumpling. He dips down instead to nose at Jongin’s throat, mouthing at his skin. He maps him out, commits every angle to memory, listening to the sound of his hitching breath.

There’s no time but Chanyeol clings to every second he can, making it last long enough to stamp every last inch of his love into Jongin’s skin.

 

 

 

They don’t stay there for too long, breaking away from each other’s warmth far too soon to slip out of the room, past the bustle of movement from the men packing up and preparing to travel. It’s more than a little reckless, but it doesn’t even matter anymore.

Jongin spares a moment to sneak a horse out of the stables, frantically ushering a wide eyed Sehun up onto the saddle. He doesn’t spare him a moment to argue.

“Ride,” he urges him desperately, thrusting the reins into his hands. “Ride as far away from here as you can, cross the border go north or south even, you can’t be here– ”

“What?” Sehun gapes at him incredulously. “I can’t just– my lord I can fight with you–”

“I don’t want you anywhere near this war!” Jongin cuts him off, before latching onto one of his hands and squeezes it tightly. “Sehun, I didn’t save you so that I could lead you into death’s hands myself.”

Chanyeol watches quietly, waiting by the empty stall and tries to swallow down the worry and fear bubbling in his stomach.

Sehun still doesn’t move, his eyebrows pulling together in disbelief. He keeps his watery eyes fixed on Jongin’s face.

“I can’t just  leave  you,” he whispers desperately.

“You can and you will,” Jongin replies, visibly making an effort to press on despite Sehun’s devastated expression, urging him to understand. “You are relieved your duties as my squire. All I ask is that you ride far away from here and start a new life, a  good  life. Will you honour that?”

Chanyeol watches the mixture of emotions crossing Sehun’s face, the despair and reluctance melting into misery before finally settling on resignation.

“Sehun, there isn’t much time,” Jongin pleads, his face looking strained.

Shifting so that Sehun’s palm is covering the back of Jongin’s hand this time, he swallows a few times before he tries to talk, gripping Jongin’s fingers tightly.

“My Lord,” he pauses, his face crumpling as he shakes his head.

“Hyung,” he amends quietly. “I’ve had a good life since the day you found me; I won’t forget it. I…you’ll always have my loyalty.”

His voice finally cracks; a few stray tears spill from his eyes, filled with emotions he can’t express but Jongin’s brimming eyes in return are enough for him. Sucking in a shaky breath, Sehun pulls his hands away to take up the reins instead.

He kicks his heels and rides off with one last look at Jongin’s face, his whispered goodbye lost in the sound of stomping hooves. They watch him ride farther and farther until he’s completely out of sight, leaving behind nothing but a cloud of dust in his wake.

Chanyeol tactfully gives Jongin a moment, sparing a precious minute to let him stare at the settling dust. He steps up beside him quietly, slipping his fingers between the Jongin’s own.

“We could go with him,” he murmurs after a beat, wild with fear as he turns to look at Jongin. “We could run away, right now.”

Jongin’s fingers tighten around his and a sad smile tugs at the corner of his lips;

“We can’t,” he whispers, voicing what Chanyeol had already known anyway but dared to hope for. “We’d be named traitors to our kingdoms; they’d never stop hunting us down. We’d never be free.”

Chanyeol tries to choke back the broken sob building in his chest but he doesn’t quite manage it. He doesn’t hold out long, his face finally crumpling when Jongin tugs him in closer and lets him bury his face in his neck.

Jongin arms wrap around his shoulders just as Chanyeol curls his arms around his waist, clinging to the back of his shirt. He’s shaking too.  

The silence is shattered by the sudden burst of activity somewhere outside the stables, the sounds of scuffling footsteps approaching as the babble of voices grows louder. The call of Jongin’s title rings clear and he goes rigid in Chanyeol’s arms.

“They’re looking for me,” he whispers faintly.

Pulling back a fraction, he cups Chanyeol’s face and crushes their mouths together before he can even get a word out. Jongin kisses him desperately, lips moving with an urgency that makes their teeth clack but Chanyeol can still feel the tender love he’s trying to brand into his lips. He presses back, kissing Jongin harder, not wanting to let go. 

Jongin’s the one to break the kiss, keeping their foreheads pressed together as he sucks in a breath, palming the back of Chanyeol’s neck.

“I know what I want,” he says suddenly.

Chanyeol’s eyebrows furrow in confusion. “What?”

“My prize for beating you at sparring,” Jongin presses quickly. “I know what I want.”

He trails his fingers along Chanyeol’s jaw, holding his gaze with miserable eyes before leaning in to press their lips together again. Chanyeol can feel him trembling through the kiss this time.

“Live,” he whispers when they pull apart. “I want you to  live .”

“Jongin– ”

“No matter what happens, no matter how this war goes, I  need  you to– I need to know you’re going to come out of all this alive.”

“But what about– ”

Jongin cuts him off again, crushing their lips together and Chanyeol finally tastes salt.

“Goodbye,” Jongin whispers, tears streaming down his cheeks. “My prince.”

Chanyeol stands frozen as Jongin turns, fingers slipping away as he slips out of the stables. He watches him disappear with his farewell stuck in his throat.

He can’t move, rooted to the spot until the phantom warmth of Jongin’s hand on his palm fades away and he’s left with nothing but the crushing ache in his chest and the bittersweet taste of Jongin’s name on his tongue.

 

 

-

 

 

The ride back to the West is cut surprisingly short by the large camp of their own soldiers set up only two days’ ride away from the guesthouse. The generals don’t even look surprised, handing their horses off to squire boys before finding a tent for the night.

“How did–” Chanyeol starts, puzzled before it hits him so hard he can’t even breathe.

They knew.

They already knew the war would happen; they were counting on it. The king was counting on it.

There was never any hope at all.

“We move at first light,” the general barks curtly behind him, but Chanyeol barely registers his voice.

He turns, stony faced as he looks for an empty tent to settle in for the night, waving off the squires offering him wine and fruit.

He finds one at the edge of the camp, diving inside and closing the flap up behind him. Chanyeol sits in the middle of the hard futon for a moment, hearing nothing but the sharp ringing in his ears and his heartbeat thundering in his throat.

Then he buries his face in his hands and sobs, crying so hard his entire body hurts. He falls asleep like that, with tears still streaming down his face.

 

 

-

 


 

The battlefield is a bloodbath in seconds just as the morning sun spreads across the sky in streaks of red.

There is carnage everywhere he looks, even as he’s forced to spill blood himself to save his own skin.

He’s being punished. That’s the only explanation Chanyeol can come up with to explain how often he keeps coming face to face with Jongin on the field with clear openings to drive their blades into each other. It’s cruel.

It happens again and there’s no space for words; there’s barely even time to react properly. Jongin stops his sword halfway through his downward slash when he registers Chanyeol’s face, veering his sword off to the side to bury it elsewhere with a pained look of shock.

His men keep pushing forward, finally breaking through the barriers and swarm into the lake town itself, pouring into its streets.

When they stumble across each other yet again, Chanyeol sees him first and lunges at him, bringing up his sword in time to parry the blade about to swing down on Jongin from behind.

He only has half a second to spare worrying about the reaction of his own soldier to what he’d just witnessed before an enemy blade slices the soldier’s head clean off his shoulders. Jongin has already disappeared into the throng of clashing steel again and Chanyeol’s attention is snapped up by another sword swinging down on him.

They lose sight of each other after that.

It gets harder and harder to move without tripping over a body or dismembered head strewn across the entire battlefield. The grass is almost slippery under his boots; there is more red than green beneath his feet.

Chanyeol’s arms grow heavy as the battle drags on, struggling to swing his sword above his head, unable to summon enough strength to drive his blade forward cleanly. His energy is almost completely spent with each body he goes through, the silver of his sword barely visible beneath the crimson.

His face feels wet, the splatters of blood from others smeared with his own blood dripping down the side of his face. He couldn’t dodge the steel clad elbow to his head fast enough; a result of his slowing reflexes the more worn out he gets.

His fatigue costs him a blade to his arm, even though his mail shirt spares him another one to his side. It does nothing against the shield that comes swinging hard into his ribs though, bringing him to his knees, winded as he coughs up blood.

The soldiers keep falling around him, patches of blue and green armour littering the ground until there’s no ground to be seen under the carpet of corpses.

Chanyeol staggers to his feet, swaying dizzily on the spot with nothing to hold him steady after losing his sword somewhere between pushing one of his own men aside and rolling out of the way himself.

Fortunately, no one lunges at him and he waits until his vision comes back into focus, taking in the scene before him.  There are more men on the ground than there are standing. It’s over.

Chanyeol sees them in the distance, maneuvering around the mangled bodies in their path, some tending to the wounded while others pray by their fallen comrades.

There are flames rising from burning houses by the edge of the lake, the plumes of smoke blackening the sky. He spots a banner flapping weakly in the wind, blackened and burning at one end; a sign of victory.  

He looks around, immediately able to distinguish the familiar green of his men’s armour, traipsing through the field, very much alive. They’ve won.

Jongin.

Jerking his head around, Chanyeol desperately scans the battlefield for blue and his heart plummets to the pit of his stomach; he can’t see Jongin anywhere.

He takes off, holding his bleeding arm tightly as he stumbles through the field, slipping on the bloodstained grass and wheezing at the sharp jolts of pain from his broken rib.

The only men still on their feet scattered across the field are his own men, he notes with panic. They’re looking for him. He feels bile rising in his throat as he’s forced to lower his eyes to scan the bloodied faces of the men on the ground.

It proves more difficult than anticipated when the bodies are barely recognizable anymore, their faces covered in grime and their own blood. Chanyeol can barely breathe at the thought of finding Jongin’s face among them.

He searches frantically, tripping over bodies and dismembered limbs, his eyes blurring with tears as the pain in his chest intensifies when he still hasn’t found him. He doesn’t dare call out his name with his men all scattered around. Not that he’d be able to with how parched he is, his voice blocked by the lump rapidly growing in his throat.

He’s distracted by a sudden flare of light in the corner of his eye and he loses his footing, tripping face first into the arms of a blue armoured man. His expression was terrified just before his throat was slit.Retching violently, Chanyeol pushes himself off and shoves the image of Jongin’s face on the fallen soldier out of his head.

The smell of rotting flesh reaches him and Chanyeol stops in his tracks, turning his head back to where the flare had appeared; the men have already begun to pile the corpses to burn them.

The sight sends him into a panicked frenzy, scrambling over another pile of corpses as he chokes on his tears. He can barely see where he’s going, feeling faint when he’s almost at the edge of the battlefield, just short of the thicket of trees bordering it. He cries out in despair, clawing at his face as he circles around a beheaded body when he finally finds him.

Jongin is lying motionless on the ground, covered in blood and Chanyeol staggers forward the last fewsteps before falling to his knees. 

“Jongin!” he rasps out, voice breaking as he struggles to push off the body draped over his lower half and ignores the stabbing pain in his arm.

“Jongin, wake up! Jongin?”

Panic grips his chest harder when Jongin doesn’t respond. His eyes are closed and there’s blood smeared all over his face, trails of red leading past his pale lips and down his chin.

Biting back a strangled cry, Chanyeol rips his eyes away, scanning his body and freezes at the pool of red by his stomach.  Frantically scrubbing the tears out of his eyes, he pushes Jongin’s mail and tunic up, ripping past the clothing. He freezes, choking back a sob at the gaping wound still bleeding heavily.

No,” Chanyeol whispers brokenly, his eyes blurring up with tears again, pressing his hands down on the wound. The blood seeps through the gaps between his fingers even as he tries desperately to bind the wound instead because this can’t be happening. Turning to the body beside him, he rips at the tunic, tearing fabric into strips and desperately tries to bind the wound tighter.

“Jongin, please, ” he sobs, reaching up to cup Jongin’s face; his skin doesn’t even feel warm under his palms. He’s not waking up, he’s not moving, he can’t be–

“This isn’t– you can’t–,” he cries, lowering his face to press his forehead against Jongin’s. “We were supposed to be free, you were supposed to– with me– "

He strokes circles into Jongin’s bloodstained cheeks, pressing their faces together, willing Jongin to move, to open his eyes and look up at him. He gathers him up, barely feeling the pain of his own wounds as he cradles Jongin in his arms, his head lolling limply against Chanyeol’s shoulder.

'Wake up, Jongin, please,  please  wake up!” he whimpers, pressing his lips messily into the side of Jongin’s face. “Don’t leave me here alone, please,  Jongin .”

Jongin remains motionless, still as stone. His hands dangle by his sides limps, his bloodstained fingers curved inwards.

“My prince,” Chanyeol chokes out, his entire chest collapsing in on itself. Pressing his nose into Jongin’s cheek, Chanyeol feels something shatter inside him, sobbing into Jongin’s skin until his head is spinning and he can’t even breathe anymore.

He can’t move. Everything feels broken, like every nerve is being sliced open and ripped apart. He rocks Jongin back and forth in his arms, keeping him pressed close, stricken as he tries to breathe through the agony in his chest. He doesn’t even care to keep his voice down to keep himself hidden; it doesn’t matter anymore.

There’s a painful ringing in his ears, blocking everything out and he loses all sense of his surroundings save for the heavy weight in his arms.

The sudden, distant sound of a watery cough startles him back into focus.

“You might have to carry me.”

Jerking his head up, Chanyeol blinks away the tears in his painfully swollen eyes, gaping in shock.Jongin’s eyes are cracked open a slit and his lips are curved weakly into that sweet, familiar smile even as he coughs up a trail of blood again.

“Jo–” Chanyeol manages shakily before his voice gives out, his lungs constricting too tightly against his ribs. Instead he presses his lips all over Jongin’s face, laughing and sobbing in one go as he leaves wet kisses over every inch of skin he can find. It doesn’t even matter that he’s covered in blood and grime because he’s alive.

The relief crashing through his entire system is almost dizzying. He’s alive. His heart is still squeezing painfully but Chanyeol ignores it in favour of stroking Jongin’s hair out of his eyes gently.  He’s not dead, he’s still here.

“You’re going to have to carry me,” Jongin rasps again, wheezing for air. “And we have to go. Now.”

“Go? Jongin, wh–” 

"Can you light a fire?" Jongin cuts him off, breaking into a coughing fit again and groans in pain.

"What?" Chanyeol stares at him bewildered, his mind working far too slowly to process anything other than the fact that Jongin’s heart is still beating. He smoothes his palm down the side of Jongin’s neck, trying to ease his heaving.

"A fire,” Jongin says slowly, blinking up at tiredly him through his blood encrusted eyelashes “To burn us. They can’t hunt us down if we’re dead.”

Chanyeol gapes at him, dumbfounded. Jongin is still smiling at him though, beautiful even with the blood splattered on his face. His breathing is far too shallow and he seems to be fading in and out, but he continues to smile at him earnestly, urging Chanyeol to understand.

Then it dawns on him.

Lowering Jongin into the grass as gently as he can, he presses his lips to his forehead quickly one more time before pushing himself up to his feet.

He moves swiftly, stripping out of his armour and struggling to shuck off the mail vest without jarring his ribs. Yanking off his royal emblem from his chest, Chanyeol hurries to do the same for Jongin, mindful of his wound, trying not to jostle him more than he needs to. Jongin barely manages to stifle his grunt of pain when Chanyeol eases him on his side to unhook the clasps of his armour around his back. He hesitates for a moment but Jongin urges him to keep going, sinking his teeth into his lower lip to bite back his groan. 

With both their royal emblems in hand, Chanyeol shoves their pieces of armour into a pile, casting cautious  looks around to make sure the rest of his men are too far away to notice him.

Gritting his teeth, he works on piling the bodies lying around them into a heap, whispering prayers under his breath as he goes. The pain in his chest feels like a broken glass under his skin but he pushes on, biting past the added pain of his wounded arm as he drags body after body onto the pile. Then he pins the emblems to the front of the men in the pile, one fallen from the West and the other from the East.

It doesn’t take him long to spark a fire, the flames catching easily on the fabric of the soldiers’ clothing, spreading quickly from one body to the next until the entire mound is ablaze.

Chanyeol pauses, staring at the flames for a moment and watches the glint of the steel emblems in the fire; staring at the life he’s throwing away.

He smiles and tears his eyes away, dashing back to Jongin’s side where he’s waiting for him, unable to resist pressing their lips together again for sheer relief.

Hoisting him up carefully from the ground, Chanyeol winces both at the pain ricocheting up his chest and the agonized noises Jongin makes, but they need to hurry. He wraps his good arm around Jongin’s waist after Jongin drapes his own around Chanyeol’s shoulders and they stumble into the first step, finding their balance as they lean on each other. Chanyeol drags his feet into the next step, urging Jongin to push forward with him.

They make it to the fringe of the woods, staggering under the guise of regular travellers, unrecognizable with the grime and blood on their faces. Another few steps and they finally disappear into the safety behind the trees, throwing them into shadow. They don’t look back.

It’s a long walk to finally find the road again on the other end and Jongin nearly passes out a few times before they make it. Chanyeol kisses the side of his head encouragingly, whispering soothing words into his ear, waiting for Jongin to squeeze the arm around his neck in reply.

The sky is dark when they finally make it out from the thicket of trees, stumbling out onto a winding gravel road.

Jongin sags against him, exhausted and bleeding heavily through the makeshift bindings Chanyeol wrapped around his stomach.

“Stay with me,” Chanyeol urges, lowering him down onto the ground against a tree. He rips off a part from the sleeve of his own tunic, using the fabric to secure the bindings around the wound better. Jongin’s head lolls onto his shoulder, ashen but never taking his eyes off Chanyeol.

“Do you need any help over there?”

Chanyeol stiffens at the sudden voice behind him. Catching Jongin’s eye, he sees the flash of fear, mirroring his own. He tries to wipe the blood off his face quickly.

Turning slowly, he looks over his shoulder to see a man sitting on the seat of his wooden cart, holding the reins of his horse steady. A merchant.

Chanyeol’s eyes dart to the cart, squinting through the darkness at the banner draped over the side.

North.

His breath catches. He’s not from here; he has no idea who they are.

“My friend got into an accident,” Chanyeol calls back carefully, stepping back to let the merchant see Jongin. “We were travelling on our way across the border; he slipped down the slope and hit one of the sharp rocks down by the bottom.”

“I’m headed up North myself,” the merchant says, hopping off the cart and setting a hand on his horse’s hind leg to keep her steady. “I just unloaded my stock back in town, I could take you up part of the way in the cart; he looks like he needs a healer.”

“That–,” Chanyeol swallows, feeling Jongin’s fingers curl around his own to squeeze weakly. “That’s very kind of you, we would really appreciate it.”

The merchant offers him a sympathetic smile, hurrying closer to help Chanyeol get Jongin up on his feet to walk him to the cart. Chanyeol’s heart clenches every time Jongin whimpers in pain as they load him up onto the wagon and he holds him close, pressing him into his chest to shield him from the jolts over the rocky road.

The merchant takes back the reins and sets off, leaving the patch of woods behind. Chanyeol can hardly believe they’re actually getting away from all of it. All the fighting, the responsibility; the duty he never wanted. They’re leaving it behind and never coming back to it.

“We’re free, Jongin,” he whispers into Jongin’s hair, kissing the crown of his head. The thicket of trees hiding the battlefield disappears behind a hill as they round the corner, turning into a fork in the road. “We’re free.”

 

 

-

 

 

Epilogue 

1 year later

 

“…and so the Eastern prince swings his blade around!”

The children gasp, clutching at each other at the puppet brandishes its tiny stick of a sword.

“But the Western prince pulls out his own sword and fights back!”

Chanyeol snorts in amusement, watching as the children squeal and cheer for the puppets.

There have been so many variations of what people think happened during the Great Battle of the Lake, as they call it. He’s lost count of all the rumours and crazy stories. Some say they fought to death before driving their swords into each other. Others cooked up the idea that their own men betrayed them and killed them.

Then there are those who simply believe they died in battle and faded into ash with the flames, which is as close to the real story as it can get, Chanyeol supposes.

It had been terrifying at first, living with the constant fear of being recognized once they got here. Even after changing their names, it had taken a long time to realize that they’re too far away from home to be familiar to anyone.

It took even longer to build up a normal life here, taking up whatever work they could find just to put enough money in their pockets for food. It’s the hardest thing Chanyeol has ever had to do, going hungry for a few days when the silver runs out and they can’t find anyone to take them in.

They pushed through though. Farming is slow and tedious work but it puts food on their table and a decent roof over their heads which is all they really need.

“Ready to go?”

Jongin appears by his side, holding a small sack of turnips in his arms. Nodding, Chanyeol pulls his cart out from the corner he’d tucked it into when they came down to the market, keeping it out of the way from the bustle of people.

It’s a long walk home, leaving the town behind as they walk further into the fields, where the path gets a little harder to walk through.

They’re almost home when it hits him.

“Crap, I forgot the potatoes,” Chanyeol groans, stopping in his tracks. Jongin snorts, dropping the sack in his arms into the cart and holding his arms out expectantly. Chanyeol hands the cart over to him obligingly, urging him to go on ahead while he doubles back to the market.

He finds the stall easily, dropping a few coins into the merchant’s waiting hand before picking one of the sacks out of the lot, grunting as he hoists it up onto his shoulder. He pauses for a moment, eyeing the rest of the food in the stalls to make sure he hasn’t forgotten anything else. He doesn’t feel like a third trip down here.

“Excuse me, sir?”

Chanyeol startles at the sudden voice behind him, blinking as he twists around.

He drops the sack.

 

 

“Jongin?” Chanyeol steps inside the house, lowering the sack down on the floor by the entrance. “Jongin, someone recognized you at the market.”

Jongin appears around the corner, looking shocked and the blood drains out of his face.

“That’s impossible,” he chokes out, shaken. “We changed our names and no one here even knows what we look li– ”

Chanyeol steps aside to allow the man behind him to move forward and Jongin’s words die in his throat. His eyes almost bug out of his head.

Sehun?”

“Hi Jongin,” Sehun beams at him, his eyes looking a little glassy. Grinning, Chanyeol prods him in the back and it’s all Sehun needs before he takes off, running at Jongin who meets him halfway and throws his arms around his neck.

“I thought you were dead,” Sehun’s voice is muffled where he’s buried his face in Jongin’s neck, but Chanyeol still hears the quaver in his tone. “All the stories, I thought–”

Jongin hugs him tighter in reply, stroking the back of his head soothingly. When he finally lets go, his eyes are shiny and he scrubs a fist over his eyes quickly. Chanyeol steps up beside him, squeezing his elbow comfortingly. He’s smiling so hard his cheeks begin to hurt.

“What are you doing here?” Jongin asks, ushering Sehun over to sit in one of the kitchen chairs. “Is– are you doing all right?”

“I’m fine,” Sehun laughs. “I went south after you sent me off. I…I wasn’t really sure what to do once I got there, I didn’t know where to start but someone took me in. He gave me a room in his own house in exchange for an extra set of hands to work in his tavern. His name is Donghae, he’s…he’s really good to me.”

“I’m glad,” Jongin beams, reaching out to squeeze Sehun’s hand. Chanyeol takes over the conversation when Jongin still looks like his voice is going to break with emotion and asks Sehun more questions about how he’s been doing.

“Donghae got an offer to open up a chain over here,” Sehun says excitedly in reply to Chanyeol’s question about how he came north. “He’s already set us up in the new house here.”

Jongin perks up at that, looking excited. Chanyeol sits back in his chair, content to let them catch up on everything else’s they’ve missed. He chuckles at the rapid pace of their conversation, falling over their own words in their haste to say everything.

Eventually, Sehun has to excuse himself, needing to finish running his errands before returning to Donghae’s house.

“Don’t be a stranger, okay?” Jongin tells him, still holding on to his hand.

“I’ll come visit again tomorrow,” Sehun promises, pulling Jongin into a tight hug. He smiles, turning to face Chanyeol with a smile and offers out a hand which Chanyeol shakes earnestly.

Jongin slumps into his chair again once Sehun is gone, propping his elbows on the oak table before dropping his head in his hands.  He sucks in a long breath before exhaling through his teeth.

“Hey,” Chanyeol says quietly, kissing the top of his head softly before sitting beside him. “You okay?”

When Jongin looks up he’s beaming so hard it looks like his face might break. His eyes are still a little watery but they’re filled with genuine happiness. Chanyeol thumbs at his cheek and smiles back.

 

 

Later that evening, Jongin takes Chanyeol’s hand and drags him out of the house without explanation, laughing at Chanyeol’s wild attempts to guess where they’re going. He leads Chanyeol out into the middle of the field behind their house, stepping past the tall grass until they come out into a small clearing.

Blinking, Chanyeol looks around, trying to figure out what Jongin brought him here to see. The patch of white flowers catches his eye seconds later, and he grins slowly.

“Are those– ?”

“I planted them a few weeks after we got the house,” Jongin smiles, moving to kneel beside the neat rows of Gardenias. “For sentimental value, you know?”

Chanyeol’s heart swells, ready to break through his chest.

“You’re a real sap, you know that?” He takes a large step to where Jongin is kneeling and tackles him onto his back with the force of his kiss. Jongin laughs into his mouth, cupping the side of his neck as Chanyeol peppers kisses all over his face. He draws Chanyeol back to his lips to kiss him properly, melting into it the way he always does, soft and pliant underneath him.

They lie side by side in the grass when they break off, chests heaving and gasping for air. Jongin’s fingers find his own, lacing them together tightly. He brings their linked hands up to his lips and kisses the back of Chanyeol’s hand, smiling softly when he lowers them back onto the grass.

“I love you,” he murmurs, staring straight into Chanyeol’s eyes, the words still setting his insides on fire.

Leaning over, Chanyeol presses a chaste kiss to Jongin’s mouth, breathing  ‘I love you too’  against his lips.

They lay there in the grass for what feels like hours, just staring up at the sky.  Chanyeol smiles and breathes easily.

They’re finally as free as the stars shining in the darkness.

 

 

“Many are the stars I see but in my eye no star like thee.”

-English saying used on poesy rings