There were once two kingdoms divided only by a thick river that rolled dark and slow between them. One kingdom was sprawling, with fairies that nestled between forest leaves and magic oozing from the earth. One kingdom was small, its land filled with stone buildings and mechanical devices that clicked and whirred with clockwork. Two castles stretched up on either side of the river, one glittering marble and one dark bronze. When the sun was overhead, the castles both shone.
And the princes of these kingdoms grew up together, their kingdoms joined by the bridges spanning the river at various points. Princes Seokjin and Taehyung of the sprawling and magic kingdom would run across the widest bridge to meet Prince Namjoon of the smaller kingdom. The three of them would play games and attend lessons together, playing music and reenacting great battles of the ages. But Taehyung had a large heart that had him playing with the commoner children after lessons, leaving the older princes alone. And so Namjoon and Seokjin were the closest of the three.
At night, Seokjin and Namjoon would sit at the windows of their bedrooms sending each other messages. Namjoon would craft a clockwork butterfly and send it fluttering across the river with a letter clamped in its legs for Seokjin to read. Then Seokjin would write a reply and whisper to the wind so that the paper would be carried back over the water to Namjoon’s waiting hands.
“What are you even saying to each other?” Taehyung asked his brother one evening as a mechanical butterfly alighted on the windowsill with a letter in its legs.
Seokjin took the letter carefully and watched the butterfly flew away. “Lots of things. What we’re thinking. What we’re dong. The dreams we had last night.” He grinned. “The books our little brothers are reading.”
Taehyung slapped his book shut and crawled across the floor to read the letter in Seokjin’s hands.
“The water is flowing so slowly tonight, but I can still hear it. I think it must pick up all the whispers of people who pass over it and carries it downstream for us to listen to. Do you know what it’s saying? Your people have magic I don’t, maybe you can understand it. Let me know if it makes sense.”
Taehyung rolled his eyes at the poetry and headed to the window. He picked up his brother’s telescope that rested against the windowsill and brought it to his eye. Namjoon’s window was in an Eastern tower, on the third floor. He spotted the light. Prince Namjoon was watching back through his own telescope and raised a hand when Taehyung caught his gaze.
“Taehyung, you need to be studying,” Seokjin said softly. He was busy writing out his reply.
“But you’re not studying.”
“That’s because I’m thirteen and you’re not. When you’re thirteen, you won’t need to study ever.”
Taehyung lowered the telescope from his eye, but didn’t move to pick up his book. “Seokjin? When I’m thirteen, will you be married to Namjoon?”
Seokjin paused. He twirled his fountain pen around in his fingers. “Go do your studying, Taehyung.”
But when Taehyung reached thirteen, Seokjin and Namjoon weren’t married. The two princes were closer than ever, but their relationship was perfectly chaste. In the passing years, they still sent letters from window to window but they also progressed to different games. One night Seokjin turned from his desk to find Namjoon outside his window, sitting astride a mechanical beetle that hovered in the air with the help of several large propellers. Seokjin threw the windows wide and gaped at the contraption.
“It runs on water vapour,” Namjoon explained, holding out his hand. “And I built it so that there’s room for two. Will you take the inaugural flight with me?”
Seokjin eyed the velvet seats and assortment of cogs turning beneath the beetle’s glass casing. “Is it safe?”
“Of course it’s safe. I’d never put you in danger, Seokjin.”
So Seokjin stretched out his hand and stepped out of his bedroom window to settle behind Namjoon on the seat. His legs rested on the casing of the beetle and the propellers whirred above them.
“Hold onto me,” Namjoon told him. He moved Seokjin’s arms to wrap tightly around his waist. Then he pulled on various levers that had the beetle tilting up to the sky and flying away over the wide river to his own kingdom that was glowing from a thousand different-coloured lamps.
Seokjin held on tight and rested his face on Namjoon’s shoulder. The propellers whirled. The clockwork ticked. Seokjin felt his eyes slide shut and concentrated on the warmth of Namjoon’s body against his. The beetle flew over Namjoon’s castle and Seokjin felt on top of the world.
They alighted on one of the higher towers, an open garden overlooking the capital city. Namjoon slid from the beetle and held out his hand to help Seokjin dismount. Shaken a little from the ride through the air, Seokjin stumbled a little and placed his hands on Namjoon’s shoulders to steady himself. It made Namjoon laugh.
“Flying isn’t for you?”
Seokjin smiled despite himself. “You’ll have to take me on a few more trips for me to get used to it, I think.”
“I can do that.” Namjoon stepped away, leading Seokjin across the garden to a bench he had covered in blankets and pillows. He sat down, inviting Seokjin to sit with him.
Seokjin leaned into the pillows, resting his cheek on his hand. Namjoon’s face was lit by a nearby lamp. His lips were painted blue in the lamplight.
“Can I lay my head in your lap?”
Seokjin laughed and patted his knees. Namjoon lay himself down so that his head was on Seokjin’s thighs, his eyes closing immediately. Seokjin ran his fingers through Namjoons soft hair.
“Are you not sleeping well?”
Namjoon hummed. “I always sleep better when you’re here.”
“Then go to sleep. I’ll stay here until morning.”
“Don’t leave me, Seokjin.”
“I won’t, Namjoon.”
When prince Seokjin came of age, he announced his plans to travel. He loved his kingdom and his people, but he needed to know the world beyond their lands. There were other cities, other rivers, different machines and different magics. He would travel and learn as much as he could, then come back with new ideas about his country and his people.
“How long do you think you’ll be gone?” Taehyung asked his brother. They were walking along the edges of the castle gardens, collecting flowers and herbs for Taehyung’s studies.
“I can’t say for certain,” Seokjin admitted. He had pulled off his coat and was walking in just his waistcoat, the day unseasonably warm for December. “I don’t think I’ll be gone for too long. It really depends on whether or not I find anything of value.”
“What will be of value?”
Seokjin tilted his head and placed a hand over his heart. “I don’t know. Something that fills this part of my chest that sometimes feels empty. Something that will complete me.”
“Mmhm.” The brothers walked down the wide path to the ornamental pond. “And what about Namjoon?”
“What about him?”
“He’ll miss you.” Taehyung paused at the water’s edge. “We’ll both miss you.”
“Taehyung, it will be fine. I’ll send letters as often as I can, it will be like I’m right here. And besides, you and Namjoon won’t miss me too much. You’re so busy studying, and Namjoon’s working on all his machines. There won’t be any time left in the day for me. When I come back, you’ll hardly notice I was gone.”
Taehyung turned to look at his brother but Seokjin’s face was unreadable. He turned back to the pond. The water was still, stretching away from him to a tall statue of the Moon Goddess, her toes dipping into the water. The pond was covered in wide lily pads and purple flowers, all closed beneath the midday sun. Taehyung reached out his hand, his fingers spread wide. The water rippled from the Moon Goddess’s toes. A lily pad and fat lily flower twirled away from the statue, drifting on an unseen currant towards the two princes. It slowly came to a halt at Taehyung’s feet.
“Your magic’s getting stronger,” Seokjin said proudly as his brother bent to pluck the lily from the lily pad.
Taehyung stared down at the flower. Slowly, the petals unfurled. Purple petals fading to dark blue at the centre. He turned and tucked the flower into his brother’s buttonhole.
“Come back soon,” he said softly. “I don’t want to be without you for long.”
Namjoon kept all of Seokjin’s letters. All of of them. They were folded neatly and placed in boxes in his bedroom — all the letters and musings they had sent each other from the time they were children. The two-sentences notes they had sent when they were children and the letters that felt like novels when they reached their teenage years. Each one had been read and reread and tucked into boxes.
The same was true of Seokjin’s letters he sent when he was travelling. There would be only one letter sent to both Namjoon and Taehyung and the two would meet at the middle of the widest bridge across the river to read them together.
Each letter detailed a different place and different thing Seokjin had found.
“I found an ancient museum, full of pictures that captivated me. I spent an entire day standing and staring at the artworks. They felt as if they would consume me. Some of them were so beautiful that I found myself laughing, and others sent shivers down my spine as if something was crawling beneath my skin.”
“I have met a man who breathes out clouds of dark green smoke. He is the last descendent of a race of dragons, long ago losing the powers to transform into a lizard and make fire. But when he breathes now, it’s great green clouds that smell of sulphur.”
“I had dinner with a group of magicians tonight. When the sun set, the sky turned a vivid purple and yellow, as if changed to ink and oil on water. I’m not sure if it was magic or something that was in my drink!”
“I have reached the mountains to the South, and large machines the shape of humans carry us over the peaks. I am sitting on the shoulder of one of these creatures, it’s wonderful to see the sights from up here. These machines move so beautifully. So well crafted.”
And each letter ended the same way: “Thank you so much for your letters, I miss you too. But I am still looking for something. Taehyung, remember to keep working on your magic and make me proud. Namjoon, I cannot wait to see what machines you have made in my absence. My love to both of you.”
Taehyung and Namjoon sat on a bench in the middle of the wide bridge, merchants and travellers passing by in front of them. Namjoon read over the pages until the words were memorised. His fingers ran over the edges of the page, analysing every crinkle and mark to see where Seokjin had been and what he had been doing as he’d written the message. When he tried to hand the letter back to Taehyung, the young prince would push it back into his hands.
“You keep it,” Taehyung told him. “I know you miss him.”
And although Namjoon would laugh and say that of course he didn’t miss Seokjin that much, that Taehyung could take the letter back, he would fold the paper and put it into his jacket pocket. And at night, he would lie awake by the window, waiting for the wind to carry him a letter from across the river. Each night the wind was silent.
Namjoon had not completed a single machine since Seokjin had left.
Prince Seokjin was away for a year and two months.
In the middle of February, Taehyung rose before the sun and dressed himself in a heavy coat to protect him from the cold. His room smelt of dried herbs and ancient spices, old spell books and ash. He pulled on his boots and did up the buttons to his knees before leaving the castle without breakfast. The world was dark and cold. Along the streets of the city, only merchants were awake setting up their stalls for the coming day. Taehyung passed them, nodding and waving at all who caught his eye.
The river separating his kingdom from Namjoon’s was an inky darkness down below the cobbled bridge. Taehyung’s coat blew out behind him in the wind. He stepped off of the bridge into Namjoon’s city, still asleep but filled with the constant hum of clockwork and machinery. The castle gates were pulled open automatically at his approach.
Inside, the castle was quiet save for a few servants and robots. Taehyung smiled and greeted them, unbuttoning his coat and handing it to a maid who held out her arms to take it. He climbed the stairs to Namjoon’s bedroom.
Namjoon wasn’t in bed. He was sitting slumped over his desk, books and diagrams spread in front of him along with cogs and screws. Taehyung closed his eyes and sighed. Then he stepped forward and gently shook his friend awake.
“Namjoon,” he whispered, “Wake up. I need to talk to you.”
Namjoon started. His bleary eyes cracked open, looking around the room vaguely before landing on Taehyung. “What time is it?”
“A little after five,” Taehyung said. “Have you not been sleeping well?”
“No.” Namjoon licked his lips ashamedly. “Not since Seokjin left.”
Taehyung nodded. His mouth was thin. “Listen, Namjoon, I have an idea. Something that will bring Seokjin home and help you sleep.”
“You do?” Immediately, Namjoon’s eyes lit up and he grasped Taehyung’s hand with desperation. “Do it! Anything! Bring him home, Taehyung, please.”
“I will, I will. I need some things, first. Do you have a butterfly? One you used to send Seokjin letters?”
Namjoon nodded. He got to his feet and reached to a shelf above his desk, bringing down a mechanical butterfly. “It’s designed to fly to wherever Seokjin is.”
Taehyung took it from him, cradling it gently to his chest. Then he linked arms with Namjoon and walked him out of the room down the stairs to the vast entrance hall.
“There’s a spell,” Taehyung said softly when they’d reached the entrance hall. “It needs lots of air and space. And you have to trust me.”
Namjoon nodded. “If it will bring him back…”
“Yeah.” Taehyung placed the butterfly down on the ground and turned to take Namjoon’s hands in his. They were standing in the middle of the entrance hall, between the front doors and the grand staircase. Starlight shone through the windows to highlight Namjoon’s face. Taehyung closed his eyes, breathing deeply.
“Namjoon,” he said quietly. “If this works, you will fall asleep. You will fall asleep for a long time. And you will only be woken…” He paused, swallowing. “You will be woken by the person who knows you best.”
Namjoon nodded. “Do it. I trust you.”
Taehyung opened his eyes. He reached up to cup Namjoon’s face. Leaned in so their faces were inches apart.
“Sleep,” Taehyung whispered. And he pressed his lips softly against Namjoon’s mouth.
Namjoon gasped. When Taehyung drew back, Namjoon’s eyes were wide and frozen. His lips were a pale purple. And as Taehyung watched, Namjoon’s face paled and hardened, his body stiffening. The starlight shone on Prince Namjoon as magic flowed from his lips to the rest of his body. At Taehyung’s command, blood and flesh solidified into stone.
Prince Namjoon stood in the middle of the entrance hall, hands held out, eyes staring. A perfect statue of cold marble.
The magic had Taehyung slumping over, utterly spent. He picked up the butterfly, turning it over to examine the cogs. A gentle hand was on his shoulder — the maid who had taken his coat.
Taehyung smiled and held up the butterfly. “Please,” he said, “Could you take this and send a message to my brother? Tell him that Namjoon has been cursed.”
Prince Seokjin returned three weeks later, his horse galloping over cobbles as fast as he could go. He had the clockwork butterfly clutched in one sweaty hand. When he dismounted form the horse in Namjoon’s courtyard, his cheeks were flushed a dark red from fear.
He had grown in the year he;d been gone. There was starlight caught in the lapels of his coat. his hair was the dusty pink of a Summer morning. His eyes contained the light of distant moons. But his face had the raw terror of a child as he ran to the front doors and pushed them open, Namjoon’s name a cry on his lips.
Namjoon stood in the open entryway. He had not moved since Taehyung had put him to sleep, his hands still reaching forward and his eyes still unseeing. The sight of him, frozen and stone, had Seokjin’s eyes filling with tears and his knees giving way beneath him. The prince crumpled onto the floor, face in his hands. He wheezed and sobbed, body shaking and weak.
“You’ve been away too long, brother.”
Seokjin lifted his head. He blinked to clear his eyes of tears. Taehyung was sitting to the side of the room, a book open on his knees, his eyes on Seokjin. He was dressed simply, in a dark waistcoat and crisp shirt. A watch chain glinted at his chest.
“Taehyung,” Seokjin said weakly. “What did you do?”
“I did what I knew would bring you home.” Taehyung got to his feet, sliding the book under his arm. “You said you wouldn’t be gone long, but you were gone for over a year. We missed you.”
Seokjin looked at the floor. “You could have asked me to come home.”
“We did. Every letter.”
“I was looking for something that would complete me.”
“Seokjin,” Taehyung said softly. “It’s here.” He placed a hand on Namjoon’s stone shoulder. The stone prince waiting for the kiss of one who knew him best. “You went looking for something to complete you, but Namjoon was hear the entire time. I couldn’t watch you both hurt each other much longer, that’s why I put a stop to this.”
Seokjin got shakily to his feet. His cheeks glistened with fresh tears. He took some uneasy steps forward, holding Namjoon’s cold hands in his. He hadn’t been home in a long time. Namjoon looked thinner than before. It made Seokjin’s chest ache.
“Brother,” Taehyung said, “It’s good to have you back.” And he turned to leave by the front entrance, leaving the two men alone.
Over the past weeks, plenty of people had pressed kisses to Namjoon’s stone cheeks. His parents had tried to break the curse, peppering his face with kisses. Childhood friends had kissed his hands and cheeks. Even an old tutor had planted a kiss to Namjoon’s forehead. But he had stayed cold and stoney, as Taehyung knew he would. Waiting for the one who knew him best.
When Seokjin leaned in cautiously to brush his lips against Namjoon’s, it was different. It started with a feeling of warmth in Namjoon’s frozen lips. And the feeling spread through Namjoons’ body, from his lips down to his toes and his fingers which grasped Seokjin’s hands tightly and pulled him closer. The pale stone gave way to golden skin and hair and eyes which shed tears as soon as the tear ducts came unstoppered.
Seokjin sobbed, his arms wrapping around Namjoon’s shoulders. He kissed Namjoon’s now-warm lips again and again. And in between each kiss he apologised for leaving for so long.
“Don’t leave me again, Seokjin,” Namjoon whispered. He pressed kissed to Seokjin’s cheek and jaw. “Please don’t leave me.”
“I won’t,” Seokjin promised. His fingers gripped Namjoon and held him close. The feeling of Namjoon’s heartbeat filled him, warmed him, made him whole. “I won’t ever leave you again.”
“I love you. I always have.”
“I love you too, Namjoon.” Seokjin pressed his forehead to Namjoon’s as tears poured down his face and his heart swelled. “I’m sorry I didn’t realise sooner. I’m so sorry. I love you too.”