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Péché Originel

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Long ago, Sehun, your great grandfather's great-great-great grandfather King Sehun I ruled Corbenice from the surface.  One day he decided the kingdom needed a palace as beautiful as the rest of it, and so he started building Paracielle, your home.

He brought together all the sorcerers of the kingdom and had many more visit from other kingdoms, and together they conducted a feat of magic unrivalled since the ancients, permanently suspending an island of earth in the sky.  Finally, he was able to start constructing what would be the most beautiful palace on Earth.

It wasn't for another forty years, under his nephew Sehun II, that it would be completed.  The Kings of Corbenice ruled for many more years from above, and the Air Palace of Paracielle became renowned far and wide for its beauty.

Unfortunately, the tragedy of beauty is that there are always others who covet it and wish to take it for themselves.  Over time, technology had begun to replace magic, and as sorcerers died out, less and less took up the mantle, until there were too few to ever again cooperate to create anything as wondrous as Paracielle.  As it became clear that Paracielle was truly one of a kind, the rest of the world became less and less friendly, growing jealous of the accomplishments the Kings of Corbenice had made.

Finally, it became so severe that your grandfather, King Sehun IV, decided to withdraw from the more mundane matters of ruling on the surface, creating a council to rule below in his stead while he would devote the entirety of his efforts to maintaining diplomacy and peace with the other kingdoms.

And one day when you’re grown up, Sehun, it’ll all be yours.  You’ll be Sehun V, king of the most beautiful palace in the history of the world.  Seems kind of fitting, doesn’t it?  A beautiful kingdom for a beautiful prince. 

Now sleep well, my sweet boy.  Who knows what tomorrow will bring?

 

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Awash in a sea of satin sheets and goose-feather pillows, Sehun was not feeling any particular desire to arise just yet.  Unfortunately, his desires were rarely taken into account.

“Up, time to get up, your Grace," Junmyeon was clamouring, off in some seemingly distant realm of Sehun's brain.  "The King has requested your presence in an hour."

"Ghhgh." 

"Zitao, please open those curtains, it's far too dark in here."

Boot heels clacked over the marble floor, crossing to the far side of his room, and once they stilled they were followed by the sound of the curtains being drawn aside.  Sehun initially tried his best to ignore it, but as the late-morning sunlight flooded the room it became impossible to ignore, worming its way through his eyelids.  As Zitao exposed the last of the four enormous windows, Sehun’s eyes flickered open.

"Ah, grand, His Grace has seen fit to bless us with his presence."  Sehun loved Joonmyun; his mother had passed away when he was very young and his father had never spent much time with him, leaving the valet as the closest thing he had to a real parent.  That didn’t mean he didn’t infuriate Sehun sometimes, however.  "Did you hear what I said about your grandfather wanting to see you?  You have just under an hour to be washed and dressed.  I will leave Zitao to attend to you, please do not be late Sehun."

"I won't," Sehun reassured him, voice still groggy from sleep as he stretched out cat-like in his tangled pile of sheets.  The pained expression Junmyeon wore told him exactly how much faith his valet had in him.  "I won't!"

"Thank you," Junmyeon replied, clearly still unconvinced.  After standing by the door just long enough to ensure Sehun actually arose from his bed, he departed through the tall oaken doors, leaving just Sehun and Zitao together.

Zitao still stood in front of the window, almost a silhouette against the boundless blue sky behind him.  He was tall boy, only a year older than Sehun, though the prince had managed to close the height gap quite a bit within the last two years.  But while Sehun was slender and pale, Zitao was all lithe muscle blanketed by a flawless layer of beautiful tan skin.  It was a look complemented by his Lionheart uniform: black leather that clasped tight over his chest and fit tight around his waist, leaving his shoulders bare as if to further emphasize the disparity in their builds.  Below that he was wearing simple fitted black trousers that were punctuated at the bottom by knee-high black boots.  The one ornamentation allowed him by position was his cape, held by a clasp over each shoulder and stretching down his back to behind his knees.  No other Lionhearts still lived: his grandfathers’ had passed from age a few years ago, and his fathers’ had died before Sehun had even been born.  But from the portraits he had seen of previous Lionhearts, none had ever worn the uniform as well as Zitao.  Seemingly contrary to his intimidating physicality, he was always easy with a smile and quick to laugh.  His eyes, dark and catlike, always shone with a mischievousness that Sehun never had much trouble drawing out. 

Once Junmyeon left, Zitao strode over to the wardrobe to retrieve an outfit fitting for Sehun's appointment with the king.  "I think he gets more and more fussy every morning."

Sehun laughed a bit at that.  "I think so too." With Junmyeon safely out of site, he flopped down on his stomach, limbs splayed over the mattress, and let his lungs deflate in one big long sigh.  "I don't want to see Grandfather."  Zitao glanced at him over his shoulder with a sympathetic look.  Sehun didn’t want sympathy, though, or at least not Zitao to pity him, so he tried to lighten things a little.  "Come on, you're my Lionheart.  You're supposed to protect me from any and all threat."

That part, at least, was true.  Zitao’s family, the Huangs, were near as old as the Oh Dynasty; how the two came to be entangled was forgotten, though most seems to agree the Huangs were not Old Corbenician but instead from some distant land.  Somewhere along the way they had proved themselves as worthy warriors, however, and ended up swearing into the service of the Kings of Corbenice.  Since then, whenever a new heir was born, the Huangs provided their own most recently born child and the two boys would grow up together.  The Huang boys (or, on the rare occasion, girls) were given the title Lionheart and trained from an early age until they had achieved the peak of martial prowess, in order to fulfill their greatest duty: protect the heir's life at any cost.

"Unfortutately, an audience with your grandfather doesn't qualify as a Lionheart-worthy threat.  Now come on, your bathwater's going to be cold."  Zitao walked over to sit on the side of the bed and Sehun sighed once more.  It was always too hot at first anyways. 

When he made no move to stand back up, it was Zitao's turn to sigh.  Rather than nag again, he stood with his back to the bed and collected both of Sehun's wrists in his hands, pulling them over his shoulder so he could hoist Sehun into some sort of rag-dolled piggyback that left his legs dragging lazily in their wake.  Sehun would have helped but he decided he liked this more, so he nestled his nose up against the back of Zitao's neck and enjoyed the way he could feel back muscles flexing with effort against his chest, and let Zitao haul him to his bath.

 

———

 

Forty minutes later, after lots of scrubbing and primping and pulling on the cream breeches and green and gold tailcoat Zitao had selected, he was ready for court.  Zitao walked with him, a comforting presence by his side even in silence.

Outside, the sky was as blue and cloudless as ever, and late summer meant a vibrant colourfulness still hung around the palace grounds.  Whenever they passed a window that looked out over the courtyard, Sehun would watch with his persistent fascination as one of their two airships, the Undaunted, prepared to make a landing.  Paracielle was free-floating in the sky, suspended by ancient magic and thus completely inaccessible from the surface. This meant all potable water and much of its food and other goods had to be shipped up from the surface multiple times a week onboard the airships.  While were greenhouses on the grounds, irrigated with a system of rain catchers, they could only grow so much.

The airdock operators and sailors hollered back and forth, throwing ropes down from the ship, and with practiced skill they lowered the hull to hover just a few inches from the ground.  Sehun watched with longing; he had never been allowed to accompany a trip to the surface.  It was too dangerous, his had father explained, and wasn’t much interesting beside.  No earthly beauty could measure to Paracielle, so why bother?  The few sailors he pestered for details would parrot essentially the same sentiment: that it was dangerous and boring.  When he was king, though, no one would stop him.  And then Sehun would go wherever he liked.

Once they found themselves standing in front of the doors of the King's chambers, flanked on either side by a palace guard.  Zitao stepped to the side of the hall, where he would wait until Sehun's business was concluded.  Sehun wiped his clammy hands on the sides of his coat before he stepped between the two guards and through the door.

The King's chambers made Sehun's look positively unadorned in comparison, with gold enamel plating the intricately floral-plastered high ceiling.  Bookcases along the walls held an assortment of books and baubles and treasures, and the far wall was mostly glass: towering windows looking off into the distant blue sky that stretched on forever.  In the center of the room were a few pieces of carefully arranged immaculately carved pieces of furniture, and in these sat Sehun’s father and grandfather. 

As he entered the room, his grandfather gestured for him to have a seat, and he did so.  He tried to catch the eye of his father, a handsome but serious-looking man nearing forty, but was unsuccessful.  His father’s gaze was fixed on something outside the window, as if he was deep in thought.  Resigning himself, he turned to his grandfather.  A year away from ninety, he was just shy of being describable of decrepit, yes despite his withering appearance Sehun knew he was still a man of fearful determination and vigour so long as whatever it was did not require physical expenditure.

"Grandson—"

"Sehun—"

His father and grandfather both started to speak at the same time, and realising their error both halted.  Sehun was still unsure why he was here in the first place; neither looked particularly angry, so it wasn't to punish him for the quality of his studies or some other shortcoming.  He wasn't sure whether he was pleased or not about that; he hated the lectures about acting more princely and improving his penmanship or whatever other fault they may find, but at least when he was being disciplined he didn't have to worry about an ulterior motive.  When he was treated with anything other than irritation or indifference it meant they were trying to get him to do something.  Sehun wouldn’t be caught with vinegar, but too much honey made him sick as well.

Eventually, Sehun's father ended up speaking first.  "Have you yet figured out why we've summoned you today Sehun?"  He had always been more diplomatic than his own father anyways.  Had Sehun VI not lived so long he would have likely made for an excellent king.  Or at least one to be reckoned with.

Sehun shook his head.  I don't know why, but I don't imagine it's anything good.

Sehun’s father spoke with the delicacy of someone who knew they were wandering into a minefield.  "You are nineteen now, you'll be twenty soon enough.  Your grandfather ages more every day, and it will not be long before you are king."

Already, the direction this was headed was making itself apparent, and Sehun wanted no part of it.  "We spoke of this—"

"We spoke of this months ago," his grandfather interrupted, ancient voice still voice strong and severe in a way that had been able to fill Sehun with anxiety since as long as he could remember.  "Each day I draw nearer and nearer to death and I want to see my heir wed first.  You said you wanted time to think: you've had more than enough.  Now it’s time to decide on a wife, marry, make more heirs."

It was as if his grandfather's commanding voice was a giant fist in Sehun's chest, squeezing tight around his insides until he could no longer breathe.  "I just need a bit more time...” He trailed off, panic rising inside him while he struggled to force it back down.  He wasn't going to win this time, he knew that already.  His victory the first time had been narrow enough as it was, and even then Sehun knew he had only been buying himself time.  He had just hoped he had a bit more yet.

"You're almost twenty and perfectly healthy, you should be begging me for a pretty girl to marry.  Perhaps you are simply shy, or maybe there is some deeper defect," he ventured, giving Sehun a look that pierced right to his heart, a look that saw far too much.  "Either way, it matters little so long as you do this.  It's too late to delay it now anyways, I have sent word to a few other houses that could provide a suitable match.  They will be arriving over the next few weeks and staying with us until you can make a decision."  The lump in Sehun's throat had grown too large to talk past, so he just stood there.  "And make no mistake, you will make a decision, or else I will.  You cannot put it off forever, you will have a reasonable amount of time to decide for yourself but after that I will intervene if necessary."  Sehun's father hadn't spoken since the beginning of the conversation, and his eyes had returned to staring thoughtfully at a cloud passing lazily by.

"I understand, Your Grace," Sehun replied robotically, impressing himself with his control over his voice this time.

“Good.  Be prepared to greet them when they start to arrive, and make a good first impression.  Dismissed."

Sehun had already turned on his heels by the time his grandfather said the word, and he let the door shut behind him like a period to the sentence.  He turned and gave a look to Zitao that thankfully was understood, and neither said anything as they walked away.  It wasn't until they rounded the corner and were out of sight of his grandfather's guards that Sehun let the tears go.

 

———

 

Sehun returned immediately to his quarters, determined to spend the rest of the day curled in his bed.  Zitao thankfully crawled under the covers with him and wrapped an arm around his waist without having to be asked, just like he had been doing since they were both children whenever Sehun had been upset.  When Sehun’s mother had died, they had laid like that for almost two full days until Sehun’s father finally appeared and sent Zitao back to his parents, leaving him to awkwardly try to get Sehun to eat something.  Zitao was the most familiar, comforting person Sehun had, and after a few minutes the familiar steadiness of his breathing was enough to make the panic subside, and Sehun’s mind was able to start looking for a way to get out of his situation. 

Was there a way?  What could Sehun do?  So long as his grandfather remained on the throne there was no contradicting his orders, and the deadline meant he wasn’t going to be able to stall until he died.  Sehun tried to imagine marriage.  He didn’t abhor the idea of taking a wife; it just held no appeal for him.  He tried to picture Zitao as a girl —one of the pretty palace maids around his age— in bed beside him: it held no allure.  Something inside him just knew they wouldn’t smell right, or feel as right.  He shifted his hand up to clasp the arm wrapped around him and tried to imagine it less muscled and softer, with smaller hands on the end that were less scarred and less calloused.  He couldn’t; this was comfort.  On the occasions that Sehun woke up from a dream in a hot sweat, when he would seek release in the solitary dark of his bedroom, it was one of the squires or a servant, or —on a few especially shameful occasions— Zitao, that he thought about.  Ever since the incident with the kitchen boy, however, these instances came accompanied by such overwhelming anxiety that it was hardly worth it, a cold terror that washed away any pleasure he may have gleamed.  As for girls, well, there was curiosity for certain, but not one that translated to any particular interest.

But aside from leaving the palace, there was nothing he could do, and leaving would certainly be a risk.  He had never been to the surface; was forbidden by his father and grandfather from ever doing so.  The promise was that he would be able to do so once he was king, but for reasons unknown to Sehun any time he made the request to merely ride along on the Undaunted or the Majestic on a supply run, he was met with an unyielding no.  If he left, it would have to be for a long time.  And what if his grandfather sent men to find him and bring him home?  He had no experience with the surface, how was he to keep himself alive and unfindable?

Behind him, Zitao shifted and mumbled something sleepily.  Sehun could take him, he supposed.  Zitao was his only real friend, closer than a brother.  He was also capable in ways Sehun wasn’t.  But would he go?  His parents lived here, and he had only been to the surface on the rarest of occasions, for wilderness training exercises.  Sehun had pestered him mercilessly after his return from each one and revelled in the stories of the forests, dreaming of when he would be able to see them himself.

His wandering thoughts were interrupted when a gentle knock at the door made Sehun curl even tighter.  Please let them go away.  He felt Zitao’s arms withdraw from around his middle, and the bed rose as he got up.  Lying with his back turned to the door, he could only hear Zitao quietly open it and step out, closing it most of the way behind him.  After a few moments of indistinguishable murmurs, he heard the door open once more and Zitao’s familiar warmth rejoined him under the covers. 

“Who?” Sehun asked, his voice a miserable croak.

“Junmyeon.  He cancelled your lessons today, says he feels ill.”  Zitao’s fingers card through the hair behind his ears, knowing how much Sehun liked it.

Fresh tears pricked the corners of Sehun’s eyes at that.  Junmyeon gave him the day off because he was “ill.”  Never in Sehun’s life had Junmyeon taken a sick day; he would show up looking like a 3-day-old corpse with snot running down his chin and a hacking cough and still manage to give Sehun an eight-hour lecture on Thucydides.  This was Junmyeon, sweet Junmyeon, giving him a day off.  This was Junmyeon caring more than his own actual father ever had.  Sehun wondered if Junmyeon knew why betrothal terrified him, if he thought it was just nervousness or if he suspected the real reason.  Either way, Sehun felt more grateful to Junmyeon than he ever had before.  Tears flowing freely now, he let himself get lost in the warm breath on the back of his neck and the fingers in his hair and schemes to escape the palace.

 

———

 

When Sehun awoke, it seemed to be about mid-afternoon.  Zitao was still firmly pressed up against his back, and judging by his breathing he was still asleep.  His training meant he was easily awoken though, so when Sehun whispered his name he felt him awaken.  Sehun extricated himself from Zitao’s embrace and sat upright on the bed, cross-legged.  Zitao mirrored his position, waiting patiently for him to say what he was thinking. 

Sehun wasn’t sure how to say it tactfully, so he just said it.  “I want to leave Paracielle.”  And before Zitao could reply, he added: “And I want you to come with me.  If you want.”

Zitao was understandably taken aback.  “What do you mean, like run away?”

“Yeah.”  Sehun was shocked at how blasé he managed to seem with the idea.  This was Sehun; sheltered crown prince of Corbenice Sehun V asking him to run away from the only home they had ever known.

“And what?  Not come back?  Ever?”

I’ll come back when my grandfather’s dead, Sehun thought but didn’t say.  “We’d come back in a few years.”

Zitao was silent, but Sehun could see the gears turning in his head.  “And you’re sure you absolutely can’t marry one of those girls?”

There it was.  This was the closest they had ever come to saying it out loud.  “I… Zitao I don’t…” His jaw locked up.  Don’t ask me something I can’t explain to myself yet. Sehun didn’t know when he had become so emotional but skirting this issue made him feel scared and vulnerable like nothing else.  He loved and trusted Zitao, though, and Zitao loved him back.  He couldn’t hate Sehun.  He could, a little bit, whispered the voice in his head that sounded like some horrifying combination of his own and his grandfathers’.

Zitao smiled comfortingly and laid his hand on a thigh that Sehun was horrified to realize was violently trembling.  “You don’t have to tell me why, Sehun.  If you’re not ready.  I just want to know if there’s no other option.”

Zitao would never understand how much that respect for privacy meant to him, but it still wasn’t enough to calm his leg.  “No.  There aren’t.  I can’t.  I can’t, Zitao.”  The panic was drowning his insides again, and he hated it.  He hated how weak he was when it came to this.

“Sehun, it’s okay,” Zitao pulled him into a tight hug.  “I made an oath to protect you at all costs, and you’re my brother.”  Sehun hiccupped a big, stupid hiccup.  “We’ll leave.  Together.”  And with that Sehun buried his face in Zitao’s shoulder and let go of his tears, because he didn’t need to be strong, not right now. Because he had Zitao.

 

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It was almost a week before they were ready.  Zitao had been smuggling food supplies out of the kitchens to serve as rations, just a little bit at each time to avoid arousing too much suspicion.  They created mental lists of things to bring, and Sehun began to study some of his map books with an excitement he definitely hadn’t been able to muster for his studies before.

“Where should we go first?” Sehun asked, feeling giddy as he ran his hands over the best map he had found: The World in 1766.  For the first time, Sehun had noticed that nowhere in the palace could he find a single book from the 19th century.  It made sense, he supposed; his grandfather was not one for leisure reading.  Still, it seemed odd that the most recent map he could find was seven years shy of being a century old.  He hoped that at least the general layout hadn’t changed too much.  “What about India?” 

Zitao looked up from the pilfered food he was trying to hide at the bottom of one of Sehun’s drawers.  “Isn’t India really far away?  Can’t we go start somewhere closer?  Besides, you’re the one with the boring geography lessons.”

“Yeah, but it’s always old stuff, ancient empires and the Middle Ages and things.  This is much more exciting, we could go to China, or America, or Africa!  We could go anywhere!”  Each colourful shape on the map was a million possibilities, possibilities that Sehun would soon get to explore for the first time. 

Zitao chuckled.  “Well, first we’ll have to see where the ship takes us.  If it’s just a supply run, it might just take us to a Corbenician city, Massalia maybe.  If we want to go somewhere more exciting we’ll need to find a way there.”

“Well, we we’ll have lots of time,” chirped Sehun, closing the book.  He’d been feeling good lately, better than he had in a long time.  Ever since leaving had become a real concept in Sehun’s mind, it was as if a heavy blanket that had been pulled off from over Sehun’s head, allowing him to pull in deep breaths of fresh air and truly feel happiness.  He was going to leave the palace, for the first time ever.  He was going to see the world with his best friend, and if that wasn’t enough, Zitao had been completely accepting of his reasons.  They hadn’t yet discussed it outright, but he was fairly certain that Zitao knew why Sehun couldn’t bring himself to be married.  But he wasn’t ready to put it into words yet, and thankfully Zitao seemed to be understanding of that.

Zitao had finished cramming the last bits of rations into the drawer.  “So with this, I think we’re good.  I have my things together, so whenever you’re ready to leave we can catch the next airship down.”

Sehun took a mental tally.  He wasn’t bringing much for personal affects, and he was only going to bring the bare minimum for clothing; the more plainly he dressed, the better he’d blend in.  As for money, well, he had never handled much currency, not needing it in his own home.  But he had begun to pocket valuables, little jewels and trinkets from around the palace that were small enough to take and wouldn’t be missed so he would something to bargain with on the surface.  After thinking about it a moment, it clicked that he actually already had everything he needed.  Hardly able to believe he was saying the words, he replied, “I think I’m ready too, actually.  When’s the next one?”  Glee was bubbling over inside him.

“Um,” Zitao says, looking off into space as he tried to recall the schedule he had committed to memory.  “Tomorrow morning, actually, just before dawn.”

“Can we make that one?”

Zitao grumbled with teasing exasperation.  “Now that I’ve finished stashing all that food?  Sure, I suppose I’ll just dig it all out and repack it and—“

“Zitaooooooo,” Sehun whined, practically vibrating with excitement.  He was too ecstatic right now to let Zitao play with him.  The other boy laughed at his impatience.

“Yes, I think we can.  Get your things together, I’ll meet you back here an hour before the ship departs.”

“Okay,” says Sehun, beaming.  “I’ll see you then.” As he watched Zitao leave the room, the same few words echoed in his head, repeating over and over again: who knows what tomorrow will bring?  They were the words his mother used to say to him every night before tucking him in.  Then they had been a promise of excitement and new opportunities, though in later years they had become more of a prayer that he would awake as someone else, someone who wasn’t crown prince of Corbenice.

But today, Sehun knew what tomorrow would bring, at least vaguely: it would bring adventure.  And something better.  Of that much, at least, he was sure.

 

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When Zitao returned to Sehun’s quarters in the early morning, he was ready.  What little he had had been neatly arranged within a bag he could throw over his shoulder, and he was dressed as plainly as his wardrobe allowed: a plain white shirt and black trousers.  When Zitao slipped through the door, he had two bags, each slung over a shoulder and both almost twice the size of Sehun’s.  His posture gave no indication that the weight bothered him.

“Are you set?” Zitao asked, voice barely above a whisper.  Sehun nodded.  He had been set since an hour after Zitao had left the night before, too excited to do anything other than pack and wait.  “Okay, let’s go.”  With lips curled into his trademark mischievous smirk, Zitao took Sehun by hand and pulled him towards the door.  Their adventure was beginning.

After Zitao had made sure the hall outside Sehun’s room was clear, they slipped through the door and darted down the passageway, keeping their footsteps as light as possible on the hard marble.  It was unlikely they’d encounter a guard on patrol; Paracielle had never had much emphasis on security given its inaccessibility, but still they made the effort to be stealthy. 

In the courtyard, the Undaunted was still moored where it had set down a few days before.  None of the sailors were preparing for departure yet, which mean the lamps were still unlit and the ship was cloaked in darkness.  Both of their airships —the Undaunted and the Majestic— were nearing antiquity; Sehun wasn’t sure how old they were but they were older than his father, probably even 18th century.  The Undaunted was a simple wooden hull, similar to the aquatic craft of its time, but instead of white sails billowing overhead it was connected to a singular, enormous canvas balloon filled with Ohydrogen, the lighter-than-air gas discovered by Sehun I’s court chemists back when they were first pioneering the idea of air travel.

Zitao darted over the grass, keeping low and waving for Sehun to follow.  Once they stood at the foot of the ship, Zitao spoke.  “I’m going to climb up.  First throw me the bags, and then I’ll help you up, okay?”  Sehun nodded, wordless, and watched with half-amazement, half-jealousy as Zitao performed a standing jump to grip the bottom of the ship’s rail and then hauled himself up and over, managing to make it look effortless all the while.  A moment later, Zitao’s head appeared over the top.  “Now throw me the bags, one at a time.”  Sehun did as was instructed, and after the third was up and over Zitao leaned as far over the edge as he could and held out his arm to grab.  Sehun jumped and clasped his wrist, and tried to scramble with his feet up the hull to make it easier for Zitao to pull him up.  Once he was able to get his own grip on the railing, he hoisted himself up the remainder and slung his feet over.  When both his boots were planted on the deck, he breathed easy.  He was going to need to be more athletic if he was going to be on the run. 

Zitao patted him on the shoulder.  “Not so bad, huh?”

Sehun grinned.  “Piece of cake.”  Zitao guffawed in laughter, before immediately restraining himself once he remembered they were in the middle of stealth operation.

“Okay, come on,” Zitao whispered, leading him belowdeck.  “They keep all the spare canvas for patching the balloon in the front of the hold, we can hide under that.”  Sure enough, packed at the far end of the inside of the ship was an enormous mound of piled fabric.  Zitao climbed over to the far side, and begin bunching up the fabric to create a hollow between hull and canvas.  Once it was big enough for the two of them and their bags, Zitao beckoned him over.  They both squatted in, and once they were both nestled semi-comfortably in the confined space, Zitao pulled a loose corner over top so they would be entirely concealed from anyone else. 

It was only a few moments before they heard the sailors beginning to board and prepare for liftoff.  Sehun and Zitao exchanged barely supressed smiles.  Heavy footsteps pounded overhead and soon filled the hold as the contingent of sailors thudded down the wooden stairs while someone, the captain most likely, spouted orders.

“—want sails up in twenty minutes.  Ballast is set?  Good.  Min, I want you to go over the balloon before we leave, I saw that damned owl up there again and I don’t want to find more puncture marks.  Jeon, I want you to checking the rigging.  Everyone else, it’s the usual routine.”  The footsteps split up, with some going back up the stairs and others going elsewhere belowdeck.  “Oh, and Min?” spoke the same voice.

One of the footsteps headed up the stairs paused.  “Yessir?”

“Take some material with you just in case you do find something.  You don’t want to have to climb up there twice.”  Beside him, Zitao’s breath hitched.

“Yessir, I will.  Thank you.”  The footsteps returned to the bottom of the stairs, and Sehun felt his heart pound as they came closer and closer.  They came to a stop just feet away, and Sehun looked over, wide-eyed at Zitao, who was looking similarly terrified.  There was the sound of a knife being removed from a sheath, and then the canvas covering their heads shifted as he took a hold of a different end.  Sehun fought to not breathe, willing his heartbeat to quit pounding away, because it surely must be audible at this point.  The material shifted again as Min stabbed his blade into it and began tearing through.  Please do not take anymore, please, Sehun prayed silently, as his fingers tightly clasped Zitao’s hand.  He quickly realized fate had little interest in helping him however, because as Min tore the strip he had cut the rest of the way off, it pulled the canvas completely off from over their heads, leaving them to stare back at an equally-stunned sailor around their age.

Dammit.

 

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Sehun slammed his bedroom door as hard as he could behind him, and only half-regretted it when the force knocked some things off of a nearby shelf.  How dare he.  After that stupid sailor —some idiot, only his third voyage— had alerted the entire ship that the prince and his Lionheart were trying to abscond on the Undaunted, they were escorted inside and then held in a room under watch for twelve hours until his grandfather saw fit to come and deal with them.  Sehun had never seen him angrier.  He had shouted with a volume and rage he wouldn’t have thought a man of almost 90 could muster, telling Sehun he was a coward for running and reminding him of the dangers of the surface, and the irresponsibility.  Every sentence was another strip torn off Sehun, but after the initial shock of being caught nothing else mattered anyways.  He had had his chance, and he wouldn’t get another one.  He had managed to take the abuse without breaking, staring off into the distance with eyes set, trying not to listen or tear up.  Thankfully when the issue of his possible deviancies were not being discussed he had a stronger spine.  But when his grandfather turned his attention to Zitao, things had fallen apart.

Zitao was being held in a cell until King Sehun could decide on a fitting punishment for what he called “abduction and treason”, and it was all Sehun fault.  Stupid Sehun and his need to pull Zitao into it.  And of course his grandfather hadn’t listened when he told him that; Sehun wasn’t even being punished.  The unfairness of it made him want to vomit.

It took all of five minutes for Sehun to realise his room was suffocating.  He had to go, he couldn’t be there anymore.  He slammed the door on his way out again just for consistency, and stormed back down the hallway.  It was dusk by then, with low light as the sun sank over the horizon, and it wasn't until Sehun burst through a door on the side of the palace and had his lungs flooded with the cool evening air that he felt like he could breathe easy.

Between Sehun and the edge of the island was just around a hundred feet of flat lawn.  A sea of green, swaying grass, and a purple sky beyond that.  Sehun decided to walk closer.  It wasn’t something he did often; if someone caught him, it would most certainly mean another scolding, but it would take several hundred lectures before he was being punished even half as much as Zitao was.

The edge cut off sharply, but below it was still just light enough he could make out the gently rocking waters below, dark now but famed for their azure colour during daylight.  Sehun inched forward until his toes hung over the ledge.  Growing up on Paracielle meant that height had never bothered him much.  A gentle wind brushed over his face, and Sehun realised if it was going the opposite direction it would be just enough push him over.  I’d get to leave the island, he thought, smirking humourlessly at the darkness of his thoughts.  It wasn’t a serious thought anyways; the world wasn't much worth seeing as a puddle.

Sehun stepped back, and started to idly amble the circumference of the island.  When he was outside, he had never spent as much time on the north side of the grounds.  It was the south side where the airships landed and departed from, and this captivated his attention far more.  The north was more natural: meadows, a pond, and even a small grove of trees.  It was the grove of trees he was headed towards when Sehun noticed something funny: a figure.

Just beyond the treeline, tucked into the cluster, was a boy.  He looked young but not overly so, Sehun's age maybe.  He was wearing dark clothes, but a red sash tied around his waist made him just visible enough to stand out at their distance.  Sehun realized with some nervousness that the boy was staring in his direction.

He was certain he had never seen him around the palace before, but the strange boy also didn't seem to mean him any harm.  When he made no move to come closer or run away, Sehun hesitantly raised his arm in greeting.

The boy mirrored him.  Sehun began to wave; the boy waved back.  He couldn't be certain, but at this distance it looked like he was smiling.  Sehun set out at a brisk pace in his direction.

As he neared, the boy turned on his heels and walked off in the opposite direction, deeper into the trees.  Sehun wasn't about to let him get away, so he too took off in a run.  Sehun had gotten to the center of the grove when he realised he had completely lost sight of the boy.  Where had he gone?  Sehun whirled around to head back to retrace his steps, but found himself staring face to face with an entirely different man than the one he had been chasing.

"Sorry ‘bout this," the stranger said, clamping a damp cloth over Sehun's face, and soon he was falling away; everything was falling away until all Sehun could see was the boy, waving to him from the grove.  And then he just saw black.