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even the weariest river

Chapter Text

 

 

I.

 

The first time Taehyung is forced to attend court after the war ends, it’s for a trial. He doesn’t know what to expect, besides the hushed whispers of the servants and guards; mumbling about prisoners, and more death. There’s a silk shirt laced all the way up his throat to hide yellowing marks, a heavy robe tied over his torso to give him some kind of protection. A vicious bruise blooming over his left cheekbone, just a few hours old.

How clumsy of me, he murmurs to the open jeering of the courtiers, as he makes his way to his throne. I must have tripped.

He expects—maybe—a few traitors. The last prisoners of war brought out for violent entertainment, his country’s favorite kind. He doesn’t expect—near twenty people, dressed in the fashion of Bayul nobility, shackled and gagged and held at spearpoint on the floor.

They’d won the war, Taehyung repeats in his head. He settles heavy into his throne, four seats to his father’s left, and feels the sickness enter his stomach and lodge there with dragon’s fingers.

When the first lord is dragged in front of his father’s throne, Taehyung holds his breath. The man’s face is dirty, fine gray clothing torn and streaked with red. There’s a wet gash through his left earlobe, where a ring may have been ripped out, dripping blood down his neck in a sluggish line Taehyung can’t make himself look away from.

“Kang Hajoon,” the king drawls, and takes a long drink from his goblet. The lord glares, spits out a muffled curse through the coarse strip of rope that gags him. Taehyung’s father leans forward, wine dripping down into his neatly trimmed beard. His leather armor groans as he shifts, loud even above the tittering of the court. “You stand accused of high treason to the crown of Odai, of aiding and abetting our enemies, of murder and disturbing the peace and all those other things.”

The court titters. Taehyung’s stomach heaves, when Taeho next to him snorts so hard he pitches to the side.

Lords of Bayul have never been beholden to Odai’s laws. Taehyung knows the war had been won, but not—not like this.

“How do you answer these charges?” The king asks with a mocking, wine-stained smile. The lord glares, and receives the butt of a spear to the back of his head. The gash on his ear hasn’t stopped bleeding. “Speak up, traitor.”

The court laughs. At the center of the bound cluster of nobles, a man surges forward and is caught with a sharp backhand to his cheek. His eyes are dark with hatred, his arms and legs extensively bound. There’s a boy at his side, no older than a teenager, who presses their foreheads together when the man sags back.

Lord Kang says nothing through the gag. He tips his head up, and refuses to bow even when the soldiers strike him flat to the floor. The king sighs, and gestures for his goblet to be filled.

“Very well,” he huffs. Then, raises his voice and his cup to the courtiers in silks and pearls, clapping along at the new game. “What’s his sentence, ah?”

The answer is unanimous. Taehyung sinks back into his throne, knuckles white against the gilded armrest. Some of Bayul’s last noble lines have started to weep. The man who had struggled refuses to look away from the scene, the boy’s face pressed tight against his chest. The boy’s eyes are squeezed closed as he tries to muffle sobs.

“Oh, all right,” the king simpers. “If you all insist. Kang Hajoon, the crown of Odai sentences you to die. Any objections?”

Lord Kang closes his eyes. A tremor wracks through his body, as the soldier to his right lifts his sword. In the midst of the crowd, the Bayul man sets his jaw, and does not look away.

Blood spills across the floor of the great hall, and doesn’t wash out for a very long time.

 


 

 

There are twenty-three nobles held prisoner in their hall, and not one survives until the fourteenth.

“Wait,” Taeseok murmurs, as a lady is dragged forward. She collapses, braces herself on her hands in the centimeters-thick blood that has long since started to smell, even with the walls of windows propped open to let in the late winter air. It seeps into the torn hem of her skirt, the trailing ends of her loose hair. The king pauses, leans forward to look down at his line of sons.

“Who’s that?” He asks. Taeseok sits forward, a little half-grin stuck on his face, and points at the lady.

She’s small and furious, rope biting bruises into her cheeks. Taehyung’s breathing hollows out as a soldier yanks her up, shows her off to the court.

“I want her,” Taeseok decides. A courtier whoops loudly, and a few others break out into pleased laughter. The girl shrieks when she’s dragged away, and the man in the crowd tries to struggle again, and is slammed back to the floor by the bindings on his arms. There’s a resemblance between him and the boy next to him, who bows above his form and doesn’t seem to have any tears left. Brothers, maybe.

Taehyung presses fingers against the bruising on his wrist, and holds his breath as the next lord is brought to be sentenced.

The deaths, at least, are quick, even if the taunting of the court and the king and the princes is not. The pool of nobles dwindles, dwindles, and still Taehyung refuses to look away.

There’s never been a mass killing like this, in all the history books in their library. Taehyung looks at the boy and his brother, and tries not to think about the two sons Bayul’s king had left behind when he’d died on the battlefield. Blood sprays a tablecloth, and the hem of a lady’s skirt, and the count falls to three.

Finally, terribly, it’s just the brothers left. Bayul’s sons, Taehyung finally lets himself acknowledge, as his father settles back on his throne, and kicks his feet up on the wooden ledge that separates them from the rest of the hall.

“Let’s get this over with,” he rumbles out, wine-happy and satisfied.

The guards reach for the boy. The older son, the heir to a country whose name is being erased from maps as they speak, screams out something indecipherable through the thick cloth gag shoved in his mouth. He struggles like he’s been saving his energy for this one moment, as one soldier holds him down with a heavy boot pressed against his ribcage. As another soldier drags the boy forward, into the wading pool slaughterhouse of the great hall.

“Park Jihyun.” The king is almost slurring. Just to his right, Taeho’s fist clenches, eyes narrowed in delight, a sick little smile twisting his mouth.

Bayul’s second prince glares up from the ballroom floor, blood trickling down his jaw. His whole body is shaking, hands pulled tight against his chest, bound from elbow to wrist. Taehyung doesn’t want to look, doesn’t want to see the look in Jihyun’s eye as the king leans forward, as Taejoon at his right hand leans to whisper into his ear.

“Only one spare, huh?” The king snorts, gestures with one hand down the line to his left—the four of them, all in a row, the heir to his right.” Stupid. Always good to have a few stashed away, huh?”

The court titters. Jihyun’s chest heaves, face still set with rage and pain but body betraying the terrible fear. An echo of it curdles in Taehyung’s gut, panic clenching his fingers tight in the hem of his shirt, stained as blue as the ground is red.

“Well,” his father sighs,”I suppose dead kings don’t have to worry about that sort of thing anymore.”

Bayul’s heir thrashes against the soldier pinning him, drawing the king’s eye. “Lift that one up. I want him to see.”

A gloved hand fists in the heir’s dark hair, drags him up with the point of a sword at his back. Taejoon cracks his neck from side to side, eyes fixed on the princes, one hand playing at the hilt of his sword. Slowly, so slowly, he descends from the dais. Footsteps muffled by the thick carpet of blood, the shine of his boots coming away red.

Taejoon crouches in front of the prince, and reaches one hand up to brush mocking fingers against his jaw. Taehyung flinches at it, keeps his hands from flying up to his cheek.

This time, when the soldiers have to restrain Bayul’s heir, they draw blood. This time, he sags against the hand in his hair, held up by the cruel grip, and shudders through sobs that heave through the near-silence of the hall.

“Interesting,” Taejoon murmurs. His gloves are rich leather, well-worn. The impact of them is as familiar to Taehyung as the court itself, as the voices of the nursemaids who raised him. He settles back on his feet, wipes his fingers against his trousers as he finishes his inspection, walking in a slow circle. “Weren’t there talks of an engagement with him?”

The king hums thoughtfully.

“Always preferred the older,” he offers casually. “The portraits never did him justice.”

Jihyun shudders, as Taejoon pushes his hair away from his forehead. When he strokes along the coarse gag, he flinches back. If they keep drawing it out, Taehyung is going to be sick.

The heir has started pleading. It’s muffled nonsense through the gag, but he strains toward the high throne with everything he has, brow creased, eyes red and puffy with tears, blood thick at his temple and cheek and the very corners of his mouth.

Please, Taehyung thinks he hears.

The sound of Taejoon’s sword is sharp in the stillness, an ugly contrast to Jihyun’s whimpers, his brother’s sobs. He inspects the blade with disinterest, runs a leather finger over the sharpest part of it. There’s a moment of quiet contemplation, one that makes Taehyung remember all of the worst things that had happened after one of Taejoon’s silences. After one of his moments of unsettling stillness, the warning before the attack.

Taejoon strikes.

Steel flashes red with blood.

Park Jimin’s scream, something guttural and horrible and anguished like Taehyung has never heard before, sears itself into his memory, branded hot and painful like an iron against his ribs.

Silence shudders through the hall, broken only by the soft footsteps of servants as they rush to refill goblets, wine dripping thick in the air. The only sound is the prince’s sobs, heavy and ugly in his chest, the golden haze of the afternoon turned cold.

Taehyung’s hands shake, white-knuckled in his lap. Taejoon crouches down again, to the body collapsed on the floor, and nudges idly at its ribs with his boot.

“Disappointing,” he sighs. He wipes the blade of his sword off on his shirt, staining green silk dark with copper.

Bayul’s prince keens, an aching sound from deep in his throat, as Taejoon shoos away servants trying to collect the body. The soldiers holding him up barely have to struggle; he’s more dead weight in their arms than anything, head dropped to his chest, blood and dirt smeared wet and ungainly on his cheeks.

“Bring him,” the king grunts. He’s leaning forward again, another goblet half-empty; a servant tips a pitcher into Taeho’s cup, hesitates for him to half-drain it, and pours again.

When the soldiers try to move him, Park Jimin refuses to move. He lifts his head as they drag him forward, bound legs fighting for any kind of traction on the smooth marble. At the coldness of his stare, pinned with vicious intensity at Taejoon as he settles back into his throne, Taehyung is glad for once to be the farthest from his father’s side.

His father’s heavy sigh echoes through the hall. The court has stopped tittering, struck into fear or awe or quiet pleasure at the destruction.

“Prince-killer,” Taejoon muses, as a servant refills his cup, loud enough to echo against the arched rafters. “Maybe that’s what they’ll call me when I’m done.”

There’s rage spelled through the blood on Jimin’s lips, the bruising that litters his cheeks. Everyone is watching, waiting, as he’s forced to his knees next to his brother’s broken corpse.

Their father stands, rings on his fingers clinking against the silver of his goblet. He steps forward, keeps the barrier between him and Jimin as he takes in the scene, the brutality of it. The pleasure in his eyes isn’t all drink, Taehyung knows. For as long as the war has been raging, the king has always appreciated the blood of it.

“Take that out of his mouth,” he says, more sober than he’s seemed through all the trials. A soldier scrambles to comply, nicking Jimin’s cheek with his blade as he cuts out the wad of rope and cloth. It falls to the floor tinged with blood, like everything else in the room.

Park Jimin does not speak. His breathing is jagged, jaw set with the tension that ribs the room, eyes fixed on the sword that hangs at Taejoon’s hips.

Taehyung feels as powerless as the dead. They’re crowding around him, bodies long dragged out to avoid the worst of the stench, and yet suffocating as he thinks more—each one, the youngest barely a teenager, tried for fool’s crimes.

“Nothing to say?” His father’s joviality is gone, anger heating his face, roughening the timbre of his voice. Taehyung tries to close his eyes, and sees behind his eyelids the shape of the young prince’s body as he fell.

Jimin refuses to respond in even the twitch of his eyes. A boot lands heavy in his ribs and he chokes out something that might be a laugh, mangled and ugly, as his cheek hits the floor.

“If you’ve nothing to say,” the king says, as cruel as knuckles dug into Taehyung’s lungs,”Maybe you’d like to listen.”

The court murmurs, some trance broken by the sight of Jimin collapsed onto his side, strings cut until he’s hauled upright again.

Stop fighting, Taehyung remembers being told, years ago. When you fight, they have more fun.

“I said we should’ve killed him first,” Taeil says, voice clearer than the rest. He’s never been much for wine, and all the more dangerous for it. “Bet the younger would at least squeal a little.”

“Please,” Taejoon replies. “They all try to be stoic. You should have seen his father. Kept pretending dignity when he pissed himself on the field.”

“You hear that?” Their father’s voice is louder, pitched to echo. Taehyung’s whole body braces for impact at the tone, eyes trained on the twitch of ringed fingers, only restrained by the low barrier separating them from the bloodbath. “You’re the last of your line, Park. You’ll be in the histories for this, you know. Watched them both die, and all you did in battle was run away.”

Jimin shudders, and breathes, and drips blood down from the cut corners of his mouth, to add to the puddle seeping into his pants. Taehyung can’t see the stains, through the black cotton of Bayul’s royalty.

Taejoon’s fingers are itching again toward the hilt of his sword. Jimin’s chest heaves, breaths rattling wet in the quiet echo, jaw clenched in pain that reads as defiance. He’s braced, Taehyung thinks, like he’s ready to take a dozen more hits. Like he’s ready for the sword, this time, instead of a fist or a boot.

In the stories—the histories and mysteries and far-fetched romances—Bayul’s men are revered for their loyalty. Taehyung tries to imagine watching his brothers fall, tries to imagine any desire to fall with them. They wouldn’t return the favor, he’s sure. Wouldn’t put it past one of them to be holding the knife, at the end of it.

“What should we do with you,” the king hums. “Brat.”

“Pretty brat,” Taeil remarks lazily. “Let’s get some more blood on him, hm?”

A soldier yanks at Jimin’s hair. Taejoon sits sprawled in his throne, lazy like only a predator could get away with. His eyes track down the long line of Jimin’s neck, the smear of blood along his collarbone, shirt torn open where bruising peeks out behind black cloth. A boot plants itself heavy between his shoulders, and shoves until his face lands in the mess. Taehyung watches Jimin retch, and hold it back with firmly pursed lips, and close his eyes with red staining his eyelashes.

“Pretty,” Taeho mumbles, heavy with drink. Taehyung tries to reframe it in his head, to see the image like a picture; the drips of watercolor he could use, the way Jimin seems to be blurring at the edges with rage, and grief, and a pain Taehyung can’t fathom.

The picture smears when Taejoon stands again, bows briefly to their father.

“With your blessing?” He asks.

Taehyung hasn’t looked away from Jimin’s face. His eyes are shut tight, lips pressed even tighter to keep the blood from between them. Taehyung hasn’t looked away, and so he might be the only one who sees the relief that shudders though him, as the king gives Taejoon a nod, and a smile, and a cheerful clink of their cups.

When he was young, Taehyung had gone with two brothers on a hunting trip to the north. The farther they’d ridden, the colder it became, the tighter he’d had to pull his fur around himself as they started passing what looked like glaciers to a child of ten. The first boar they tracked was tricky for its size, and the hunt lasted longer than it should have, and halfway through Taeil had gotten bored.

He’d pulled his horse astride Taehyung’s as they moved, waited until they were passing past a frozen-over chunk of ice almost as wide across as the great hall, and cut the strap of Taehyung’s saddle with a heavy shove to his side.

It’s what his chest feels like now, he thinks; like that great sheet of frozen ice, splintered with the weight of impact.

One courtier cheers when Taejoon starts down the steps of the dais. Another whistles. The heel of a boot grinds into Jimin’s spine, another rests lightly on the side of his head, forcing his face harder against the stone.

“Pick him up,” Taejoon says, when he gets close enough to touch. His hand tangles in Jimin’s damp, dark hair, for a moment so short Taehyung might have missed it, if he could bear to look away. “I want him to see me.”

But Jimin doesn’t open his eyes. His breathing is wet, his brother’s blood dripping from his face and clothes and bonds.

“Open your eyes.” It’s almost private. Taehyung only hears it because the dais is so close. It’s not for the courtiers, when Taejoon lets his cruelty loose like a trained falcon. “I want you to see my face, your highness. It’s the last thing your brother saw too.”

Jimin screws up his face, yanks forward against the soldiers’ grip, and spits in Taejoon’s eye.

It all feels surreal; the panicked humor at the look on Taejoon’s face, the scandalized gasp of the court, the drunken sound of his father’s annoyance. Like Jimin is a bothersome puppy, something to be gotten rid of. Taehyung almost laughs, until he sees the glint of steel—not the sword, but something more vicious.

And then everything is too real. Thrown into startling contrast against the fog of the late afternoon, filtering in through stained glass to paint the scene in comical splashes of blue and green and violet.

“You’re going to feel it,” Taejoon promises. The tip of his dagger, a gift from their father, rests gently at the hollow of Jimin’s throat.

At the corner of Jimin’s lips, a smile blooms in crimson and blood.

The ice in Taehyung’s chest cracks. Groans. Splinters under the weight of panic, until it feels like he’s submerged to the throat in the frozen water of a mountain lake.

“Wait,” he says blindly, and doesn’t realize he’s spoken until the room falls silent and still. Even the murmur of ghosts, hovering blurry and vague in the corner of his eye, quiets to a buzz that might just be the sound of his own veins. “Hyung, wait, I want—”

It’s moments like this that make him panic. The open derision on each courtier’s face, the scorn of his brother as he turns from his prey. The slit of Park Jimin’s eyes, just barely open and dark and hateful, as Taehyung swallows and squares his shoulders and says—

“I want to claim him.”

And the court stays silent. For the first time, Taehyung is not asking. Not sitting silent on his throne, trying to track the shifting alliances of generals and lords and provinces. He feels, abruptly, like a prince.

“Aw,” Taeil coos, saccharine enough to needle. “Little Taehyungie wants a new toy.”

The moment breaks. Taehyung keeps his spine straight, refuses to look away from the barely-lowered point of Taejoon’s dagger. Taejoon snorts, and straightens, and pulls the blade away from Jimin’s throat.

Hesitant laughter rises from the courtiers in his brother’s pockets. They’re taking their cues from the amusement in Taeil’s smirk as he leans forward, just at their father’s left, looking down the line of brothers.

“Really?” Taeseok groans.

“Yes,” Taehyung says. “I want him.”

It feels like he’s trying too hard, to sound like the rest of them. Everyone in the hall knows this isn’t him—or knows what they’ve been told, mocking whispers passed to distant cousins from his brothers’ lips. But Jimin doesn’t know that, and the venom in his eyes strips Taehyung of grace, of anything but the cold whispers of ghost-breath against the back of his neck.

The soldiers glance between Taehyung and Taejoon and their father, silent in the middle of it all, and Taehyung waits and tries not to choke, so cold he’s almost numb.

“Our little son wants a pet,” the king finally mumbles. He stares for a long moment into his goblet, then turns his gaze to Jimin. Calm, assessing, more still than he’s been since the trial began.

And finally, Taehyung’s father tilts his head back and laughs, raucous and echoing against the gilded rafters.

“Oh, let him have it,” he chokes, voice thick with mirth. Taejoon’s dagger snaps back into its sheath. The toe of his boot finds purchase just beneath Jimin’s ribs. “A pet prince for our little useless Taehyung.”

Jimin’s eyes slit open again, and Taehyung knows—

Jimin won’t forgive him for this.

Taehyung doesn’t think he’ll ever deserve it.

 


 

 

Jimin doesn’t open his eyes again until he’s submerged in frigid water. The hands tending to him are careless, as detached passing over the spots of violent bruising as they are when they rinse through his hair. Jimin blinks through the soap-stained water until his eyes burn, holds his breath until someone drags him up by the hair.

They don’t want him to die, he assumes, so that their prince can have his way.

He’s grateful for the cold because he can pretend it’s the only thing he’s trembling from. Can imagine that his body isn’t spasming with the memory of pain, with recalls of a dagger sharp against his skin. With the memory of how welcome it had been, cool metal on his throat and warm blood soaking into his knees.

The girls washing him look terrified. The baths are sunk deep into the ground for the most part, Jimin’s smaller, more private, to give them easier access. His clothes are piled haphazard on the white stone floors, a smear of blood still dripping from where they’d been soaked.

Jimin closes his eyes, sees—the first moment, Jihyun’s eyes wide and terrified—and chokes down acid.

“Rinse him,” an attendant finally snaps, after what feels like hours. Jimin hasn’t moved, has let the servants wash every inch of him and douse him with oils that make his nose itch, has held his breath no matter how much he wanted to let the water into his lungs.

He doesn’t know why he’s surprised, when the attendant tells a maid to burn his clothes. The girl reaches for them slowly, eyes wide at the rivulets of dirty red that drip down her hands when she picks them up. Soldiers haul him out of the bath, and Jimin closes his eyes again lets himself vanish into the dark so he doesn’t have to see the roam of their eyes, the cruel delight as he’s tugged into silk and gauze that feels foreign to his skin.

When the clothes are on, half his chest bare, pants hemmed loosely at his calves, Jimin slits his eyes open to watch the soldiers clamp golden cuffs to his wrists and seal them shut. They look wrong against his bruised wrists, though it had only been months ago that his father was confident enough that Jimin had worn gold bangles at a lunar feast.

His father. Jimin shudders hard against a sob as the collar goes on, and a soldier drags him a few steps forward with the chain fastened to the dip in his throat.

“I think you’re prettier in blood,” he murmurs. “And wearing a lot less.”

Jimin turns his face away, and weathers the sting of a heavy hand against his cheek for his trouble.

He should be in mourning. Should have been a week ago when his father had fallen, when they’d retreated to camp and been surrounded, ambushed. When the last of their court had been dragged into chains, at first all Jimin could think about was his father’s body, and how they’d never get to bury him like he deserved.

Now, the funeral rites feel like the least of his problems. He’s yanked into motion, stumbling along behind his guards like a disobedient dog. Jimin can’t force himself to open his eyes to memorize the path, because he knows there’s no escaping it.

When he touches me, Jimin promises himself and the procession of ghosts lighting his footprints. I’ll kill him.

In the great hall, Jimin had been ready to die. If the Goddess has any justice left for him, at least now he’ll be able to drag one of Odai’s sons down with him.

 


 

 

In the prince’s chambers, Jimin’s chain is secured to the floor. The soldiers look reluctant to leave, even with his hands curled against his chest, less than a foot of give between them, collapsed heavy on his knees despite the chaise of gilded wood and velvet pressed close against the wall.

Jimin doesn’t blame them for being wary. There’s just enough chain between his wrists to strangle a royal throat.

Eventually, though, they’re shooed out of the room by maids too scared to look in Jimin’s general direction, the room haphazard in a way that makes him think they weren’t expecting their prince to return with—with a pet after the massacre. They adjust the furniture in an unnatural kind of silence, the three of them occasionally tapping another’s hands and exchanging looks Jimin doesn’t have the energy to decipher. He’s sagged in the absence of the soldiers, nausea brewing low in his stomach at the weight of the collar around his neck.

The maids leave with looks thrown over their shoulder at him, an older one ushering the youngest out of the room with a hand pressed to the dip of her spine. Jimin finishes his fall, relishing in the ache of his ribs as his back hits the rich carpet, the dull sting of his scalp and the cuts on his face. The sun is low in the sky now, the arched window to the balcony letting in the golden haze of light.

Jimin can feel the pull in his bones that means the moon has risen, the tide shifting and pulling him along with it.

The rites, he thinks numbly. The first meal—the prayer. He doesn’t want to think about where he’ll be when the sun sets; on his knees for his country’s killer, or worse.

There’s no way to perform the burial, waded up to his knees in the ocean, floating his brother’s body out past the horizon line. The priestess is dead, he’d watched her slaughtered as they swarmed the camp. Jimin closes his eyes against the though of what’s happening to the bodies of his friends, confidantes, cousins. Wonders blankly if they’ll get any kind of closure at all, over being dumped in a mass grave for their ghosts to trail hopelessly around the foreign palace.

The door clicks open, soft footsteps press into the carpet, and Jimin curls his fingers around the chain locked around his neck and wonders blindly if he has time to choke himself with it. He braces himself to be touched, tries to rationalize that he can’t follow the rites anyway, that one more violation of mourning shouldn’t matter.

The footsteps get closer. Jimin wants to hide his face against the rich velvet of the chaise, wants to hunch his shoulders and beg whichever prince had claimed him to get it over with. Instead, he keeps his chin raised and eyes closed and aching body as regal as he can manage.

A soft whisper of fabric breaks the silence. Something heavy rests on a rich wooden table, just next to the chaise. Whoever it is doesn’t speak, and Jimin doesn’t know if that eases or worsens the terror struck deep into the cracks between his bones.

Any moment now, the prince will grab him. Jimin can hear his own pulse in his ear, forces himself to breath evenly and deeply as warm silk slides across his chest.

Footsteps fade. The door opens again, and Jimin hears the deep murmur of a familiar voice, the whisper of a girl in return. It’s hard to separate the noises now, of movement and soft voices and below it all the sound of sturdy footsteps fading into the next room, heels tapping over hard stone.

“I’ll do it,” a girl whispers, thick with the Odai dialect, and Jimin’s eyes snap open. He struggles to adjust in the low lighting, the glare of a hung lantern flicking candlelight against the fading sun, and watches one servant break off from the huddled group of three.

She’s holding a small key, and a bundle of white cloth.

Jimin holds his breath as she unlocks the chain connecting his wrists. She’s shaking, eyes carefully averted as she undoes the intricate fastenings holding the gauzy fabric of Jimin’s stained-blue shirt and slips it off his shoulders. Jimin would fight but for the collar pinning him down—but for the blank whiteness of the shirt she slips on him after; softer and lighter than what Jimin’s used to, but white nonetheless.

She lets him pull the pants on himself, shame ignored in favor of the tears choking his throat, the desperation clawing at his lungs to start the prayer before the sun disappears over the mountain, before it’s too late and Jihyun wraps himself around Jimin’s lungs and never lets go.

The chain clips back between Jimin’s wrist, and the girl flees without a second look back, and Jimin hardly waits for the door to the chambers to close before he re-orients himself to the window. The sun has just touched the mountains, the West-facing balcony overlooking the range that borders in Odai, at the center of the basin. He drops his head to his hands, breathes out a choked apology to the Goddess, and closes his eyes.

He doesn’t open them again until he’s recited the whole prayer, voice raw from screaming and now whispering, tongue parched and stomach running on empty.

The room is dark now but for the lamp, and in the sudden silence Jimin thinks he can make out the whisper of pages turning from the next room, under the soft notes of the wind chime hanging on the balcony. He sits up on his knees, and tries to rub the stubborn ache from his eyes.

Jimin had resigned himself to missing the first mourning prayer, and being cursed with his brother’s ghost. The freedom is relieving and terrifying all at once, the pain still frozen in his heart like ice splintering through wood. It feels like he’s trapped at the seafloor, tons of water pressing down on that singular point in his chest until he cracks.

He turns, and sees the bowls and pitcher on the small table, and swallows down sobs when he sees the broth, the rice, the spring water frigid against glass.

It could be drugged, it could be poisoned, but Jimin risks death or worse for the fasting meal. It all comes with a price, he knows, as he picks slowly at the rice, grain by grain as his half-starved stomach adjusts. The prince will want payment for the mourning clothes, the time for prayer, the fulfillment of Jimin’s rites, and he steels himself against it.

The moment Kim Taehyung reaches out a hand, Jimin won’t hesitate to kill him. He eats as the last orange of sunset fades from the sky, and leaves the bowls empty on the floor next to him.

There’s enough give on his leash to make it onto the velvet lounge, but the thought of touching it makes Jimin’s stomach sick, already uncomfortable after the scraps they’d had to live off during the journey. He’d always made Jihyun eat first, no matter how weak he’d gotten.

Appa wouldn’t want you to go hungry, Jihyun had mumbled, quiet enough that the Odaian soldiers wouldn’t overhear. Jimin had pressed his lips together, always so conscious of his friends, his court around him as they traveled to their deaths. He’d only given in when Jihyun had finished half the fist-sized chunk of stale egg bread, and even then he’d saved most of the rest to share later.

It aches to remember. Jimin swallows down the meal that’s threatening to come up again, and curls in on himself, presses closer to the ground. From the next room over, he can hear the sounds of shifting; the creak of a bedframe, the heavy sound of blankets being pulled back. An attendant slips out the front of the chambers with a heavy glance in Jimin’s direction.

For hours, Jimin waits for the prince to come.

For hours, the unfamiliar intricacy of Odai’s palace sleeps, and Jimin jolts through fitful bursts of rest, and watches the sword pierce Jihyun’s ribs over and over until the sun rises in the sky, and his prayer begins again.

 


 

 

Jimin is awake the first time the prince walks through the lounge. Has been awake for hours, now, voicelessly mouthing the words of meditation, after the dawn prayer. He hears quiet footsteps behind him, back turned to the rest of the chambers in favor of watching the sky. The balcony faces West, so he’d had to estimate, but it’s better than nothing.

The footsteps are difficult to track, sinking deep into velvet carpet. It’s the one thing his knees are grateful for. Closer, closer, until Jimin’s hands are shaking where they’re folded in his lap. His ribs ache every time he breathes in, slow and measured, trying to resist the urge to panic.

If the prince grabs his shoulder, Jimin will yank him forward and flip him, and pin him on his stomach, and choke him with the slack between his wrists. If the prince goes for his hair—well. It might get uglier, but he’ll get fingers around a delicate throat one way or another. From what he can tell, there are soldiers stationed outside, and if he can get it done fast enough—

The body behind him shifts. Jimin’s shoulders lock into place, waiting—waiting for breath hot on the back of his neck, remembers the hot wet drag of a soldier’s tongue on the journey here.

For a long moment, the prince hovers. Jimin is so tense it hurts, given up on projecting any kind of ease. He can hear the prince breathing, can remember the hopelessness that made him want to scream in the great hall, when he’d been claimed as a pet for Kyunghwan’s youngest son. The humiliation of it sticks, twisting through the rage until there’s tears stinging his eyes, the words of the prayer gone still on his tongue.

A deep breath, from the prince. Jimin wraps his fingers around the chain between his wrists, braces himself for the rough handling, and—

Odai’s youngest walks away. The soft pad of his feet against the carpet has Jimin flinching at the crunch of velvet, the heavy slide of the door.

The prince leaves, and plunges the apartments back into silence, and Jimin shudders through the last of his prayer as the palace starts to come subtly alive around him. Swords clash from somewhere beyond the balcony; servants slip into the prince’s bedroom with a guard at their heels to keep him from trying anything stupid.

It’s pointless. Jimin doesn’t bother turning around; there’s not many people in this palace worth killing; none save for one he could plausibly get his hands on.

Time passes hazily, when there’s nothing to do but wrack his head for the words of the prayers, trying to remember the priestesses’ formations in the waves, water up to their waists. It’s been so long since a royal funeral—so long since they’d buried his mother, when he’d stood barely up to his father’s chest, Jihyun still small enough to be held in his arms against the brutal crash of the tides.

Letting go isn’t supposed to be easy, Jimin remembers from the rites. But the ocean is supposed to be there, to help him carry the grief away.

His tongue trips over the prayers, whole sentences forgotten as morning falls to early afternoon. Jimin sits back on his haunches, re-tests the ugly bruising on his knees, presses his hands against his burning cheeks to stave off the tears. He won’t cry here.

He misses, forcefully, the softness of his room at home. The white cliffs by the sea, the open plan of their manor, the white paper dividers that filtered in sunlight and the salt from the sea. The huge expanse of his bed, laid out on the floor, that he’d woken up in with Jihyun pressed tight against his front more often than not.

If there were any fairness, Jimin would be with him now. Maybe not resting, trapped in the claustrophobia of Odai’s stone capital for the rest of time, but—they’d be together. Here, collared and bound in a mockery of his own mourning, Jimin can’t even feel the tide in his bones. For the first time, it’s like the Goddess has abandoned him; left him adrift and drowning and dried out all at once.

The door creaks open again, hours after the prince had left. Jimin shudders, almost too exhausted to be afraid.

But no touch comes this time, either, and the relief is enough that Jimin breaks posture, unfolding his aching legs. His knees hurt to touch, one swollen and aching to put weight on for days now, but he tries to the soreness out of them anyway, gentle over bruises as servants scurry to attend their prince, as they converse in low whispers he doesn’t care enough to try and overhear. The prince’s voice is distinctive anyway, as deep as his father’s, deceptively rich even when he whispers. Jimin leans his head back against the dark red paint of the wall, wonders how much the cuts on his face blend in with the decoration.

“Haseul-ah,” the prince says, loud enough that Jimin doesn’t have to strain to hear. “Where are Daeun and Soobin?”

Jimin’s pulse stutters. The barest hint of breeze from the opened balcony doors winds itself under his shirt, sends cold fingers trembling down his spine.

Of course. Of course there’d be other pets kept in the prince’s chambers. He doesn’t know why he’s surprised—Odai has long been known to keep concubines for its royal family. The link his chain is locked to is dulled with age, long since set into the floor. Jimin wonders with a sickening lurch if this prince keeps all his pets chained from the same ring.

“Ah,” a girl says, from the doorway of Jimin’s parlor. She sounds uncomfortable, uncertain. “I thought it might be best—you’d probably want time?”

There’s a pause. Jimin is thankful for once for the fast—there’s nothing in his stomach now to throw up.

“Bring them back in two days, please.” There’s the rustle of cloth Jimin can assume is a deep bow, and then:“And tell them I miss them, please.”

“Of course,” the servant says. There’s smiles in both their voices. “They were pouting at me all morning.”

Jimin swallows down his disgust, and the nausea pooled low in his throat. If anyone tries to touch him like a dog, he’ll bite off fingers. If two more pets return to their chambers, loyal in some sick way to this prince, Jimin’s chances plummet down as far as the cliffs of his home.

It doesn’t matter. Jimin rests against the wall for the rest of the afternoon, and keeps his eyes closed whenever he hears footsteps approaching. If the prince wants acknowledgment, he’ll need to touch—or at least address him directly.

But no one touches, and no one speaks, and Jimin bows with his head to the floor as the sun starts to set over the mountains, even if he can’t quite remember the words to the second night’s prayer.

 


 

 

The last two days of mourning pass in a blur of hunger and discomfort. Jimin sips carefully at the beef bone soup left out for him at each sunset and lets the prince’s chambers fade into the background of his awareness, kneels until the soft carpet strands feels like hard grains of rice pressing more bruises into his skin. When a prayer calls for the sea—a breath held under the water, a family member’s blessing—Jimin curls into himself and wishes the balcony faced East, even in the mountain-rimmed basin of Odai’s capital.

On the morning of his third day chained to the floor, all but inhuman, a guard unlocks Jimin’s chain and yanks him forward until he chokes.

“Let’s clean you up,” he murmurs, a hand toying at the wrap-around tie of Jimin’s shirt, the other holding him down by the neck in a mockery of a bow.

Jimin bares his teeth, and rams his head into the guard’s stomach.

In the bath, shrinking servants rinse off blood dripping from the re-opened cut on his cheek, and Jimin tips his head back and stops caring about the pain, the shivering cold of the basin.

This time, they dress him in pale yellow, a shirt of some thin cotton weave that slips off his skin like water. Jimin watches a girl collect the mourning clothes, hardly dirty, and grits his teeth to let a different guard reattach the chain between his wrists. From just underneath the golden cuffs, Jimin can see the slight pink chafe of his skin, just a little raw.

The attendant looks him over critically, prods at a bruise on Jimin’s jaw just to see him flinch back. They hold him down for paint—some kind of ointment smeared along the worst parts of his face, gold lines drawn over his eyelids and cheekbones.

“He’ll like that,” the man painting him comments, and Jimin almost spits in his face. There’s rage coiling up in his bones, his hands trembling with the effort to restrain himself. If these people think a collar and leash will stop him, they’re more stupid than he’d hoped. “Minseok, bring me the cup.”

A boy scrambles to the attendant’s side, bowing low as he offers out a small tin cup. Jimin jerks back, watches the look the attendant gives the soldier behind him, and feels a rough hand clamp around his neck.

No, he thinks blindly, as two fingers pinch his nose shut. No, no

Jihyun’s ghost flutters, after so long wavering in the corner of Jimin’s vision. He’s just a blur; faceless, shapeless, helpless as Jimin shuts his eyes and pulls his hands tight against his chest and chokes around the bitter drug the attendant tips down his throat.

“Hm.” The man frowns when he steps back, bringing a thoughtful finger to his lips. “Should have painted him after.”

Jimin heaves, jabs back at the guard behind him with his elbow, and gets a hand clamped over his mouth for the trouble. The attendant yanks on his collar hard enough to have him buckling, the guard keeps his airways closed, and Jimin thrashes as he swallows down the vomit gurgling at the back of his mouth.

They let him go and he collapses. Chest heaving, eyes wet, hands braced against the water-slick floor. The attendant sighs, and Jimin goes limp as he’s dragged back up by the hair.

“Now I have to redo all of it,” he mutters, and pinches Jimin’s inner arm hard enough to bruise.

As Jimin sits through another humiliating round of the brush light against his skin, his vision starts to blur. He barely realizes that he’s sagged almost completely to the floor, the guard’s fist around his leash the only thing keeping his head tilted up.

It’s almost like being drunk. Jimin bites down on the hysteria clawing at his ribs, his chest heaving with sharp breaths that scrape at the back of his throat. Everything feels heavy, sensitive in a way he’s not used to. There’s something flickering in the corner of his eye, something he can’t quite catch. He turns to look and it darts away, and the attendant tilts his face back forward with a mean little laugh.

“Cute,” he scoffs, and Jimin furrows his brow, focuses just enough to remember wanting—the chain on his wrists, wrapped around someone’s throat. He blinks and the thought drips away like thick honey, leaving just enough residue that something about it sticks. “Let’s get him back to his prince.”

When Jimin can’t keep pace with the attendant’s brisk stride, the guard at his back wraps an ungentle arm around his waist. He gags at the touch, at the slip of fingers under the loose fastenings of his shirt, but can’t fight as he’s hauled forward by the firm grip the attendant has on his leash. There’s tar clumping in his veins, his own heartbeat drowning out the chimes of hanging glass from the weeping trees in the courtyards, the scuff of the guard’s footsteps, the latch on the chamber doors. Jimin blinks, and shudders, and collapses onto the floor as the attendant re-fastens his chain to its familiar hook.

“Get up,” the man says, dripping in disdain, nudging at Jimin’s thigh with the toe of his slipper. “Act human.”

There’s a cruel twist of amusement in the words. Jimin barely feels human, right now—feels miles above his body, feels like there’s an ant colony living in his heart, marching underneath his skin. Disgust crawls through him with lead on his tongue as he shakes through the motions of standing, swaying, perching himself on the edge of the velvet lounge until the attendant rolls his eyes.

The links of his chain clink together like the seaglass Jimin had hung in his window when he was a teenager, enamored with the way light had filtered in against the streaks of blue and teal. He closes his eyes, the whole world swimming underwater, his torso swaying like kelp in a current. Somewhere near the door, the guard snorts at whatever he looks like, panic trying to claw up but trapped underneath a hazy sheet of forced contentment.

By the time the door opens, Jimin has done his best to resign himself to whatever might happen. It’s easy to feel all right when he can hardly feel anything at all—and still something flutters frantically in the corner of his eye. Still he aches from somewhere deep in his chest, and feels nausea thick and settled in his stomach.

“What’s this?” A low voice asks. Jimin knows that voice. Knows what it means for him, and thinks slowly about retching, about floating away on a high tide and forgetting his body altogether.

“Your highness,” the attendant simpers. “I was sent to get him prepared for you.”

Jimin blinks his eyes open, looks through vision blurred with strange tears at a scene he can’t quite make himself feel a part of. The youngest prince stares back, a crease in his bow, hands clenched into fists.

Jimin sways. Prince Taehyung blinks wide, dark eyes, and turns back to the attendant.

“What did you give him.”

His dialect is thick. Jimin has to think about the cadence for a long moment while the attendant sputters out an answer, the drawl of vowels and cut of consonants so different this far West. They had shared the language, once, but—so long ago, barely even the Goddess remembers. Now, Odai’s words are shaped differently, and Jimin’s mind trips over syllables that remind him too much and not enough like home.

“Ha-ssi,” the prince says, cleanly cutting off the attendant in the middle of a fumbled sentence. “You have a son in the army, correct?”

There’s a stiff pause. Jimin stares down at the pink skin of his wrists, the sliver of abrasion from when he’d struggled so much earlier. He doesn’t think he could move his arms now if he wanted to.

“Yes, your highness,” Ha says. His shoulders are drawn up. The prince looks coiled even tighter, Jimin thinks—like some kind of graceful predator. There’s a ringing in his ears that won’t go away, no matter how much he tries to block it out; it’s hard to tell where the effects of the drug end, and the numbness of terror begins.

“I’m sure you’re proud to have such a decorated warrior returning home next month, hm?”

The dread building in Jimin’s gut gets heavier. It’s one thing to have a cruel prince—to have someone who keeps concubines and thrives in Odai’s vicious court. It’s another entirely to have a smart prince, one who knows too much for anyone’s good and uses it accordingly.

“Yes,” Ha says again, stilted. “Your highness.”

The prince takes a step closer, into Ha’s personal space. He leans forward, looks off toward some fixed point, murmurs into Ha’s ear just loud enough for Jimin to be able to understand.

“If you ever step foot in my chambers again, by my brother’s orders or otherwise, I’ll have your son transferred to the ugliest lines of border defense, and kept there for the rest of his service.”

It’s cruel. Worse than that, it’s smart. Jimin closes his eyes again, and lets the drug drag him under until somewhere through the haze of mindlessness he hears the door shut again. There’s a moment of stillness, then the quiet shift of fabric, and Jimin—forgets how to breathe.

He doesn’t know how loud he gets, panicked breaths shrieking out of him as he fights to control himself and finds that he can’t, finds that the looseness of his muscles means that he can’t even lift a hand to cover his mouth and hide at least some of the humiliation. If the prince were to tap him on the shoulder, Jimin would topple backwards, helpless to even try to lift himself back up.

He loses himself, in the terror, and it’s the worst thing he’s ever known.

“Hanseol-ah,” he hears, from miles away. “Please get the physician—I don’t know what they gave him.”

Jimin shudders his way back down to the floor. It’s a welcome coolness, the stone chilling his spine, the ceiling drifting as far away as the moon herself. There’s a streak of light falling through the balcony door that slashes warm across his face—the only grounding thing. Jimin would wrap his wrist in it if he could, would replace the weighted gold with something lighter. Jihyun always liked mid-morning; liked to race the senators’ boys to the jagged outcroppings of rock a hundred meters out into the sea and fling himself off, no matter how many times they were warned about cracking their heads open.

He thinks the prince paces. There’s the soft sound of slippers against stone, the soft crumple of a pale blue outer robe to the floor. Jimin blinks in and out, until heavy footsteps crowd into the room, and ungentle hands haul him up by the shoulders. He hears the prince murmuring something, the harsh response from an older throat, but—words pass through his head without any real meanings. It’s nice to not have to think.

“Open his eyes,” the physician says. Thumbs peel Jimin’s eyelids back, there’s a hiss as a match is struck. Jimin flinches on animal instinct away from the heat; light sears itself into his vision, the white-yellow burning of the candle gone in an instant as the physician blows it out. Jimin’s eyes slip back shut, the hands move to keep his head from tilting back like a rag doll’s. “Unresponsive. He might be lucid enough...”

A hand smacks sharp against his cheek. Jimin flinches again at it, the pain removed but familiar enough that his body knows to cower, to keep himself loose and his knees pulled in close to his chest.

“Don’t hit him,” that voice cuts in again. Maybe a little sharp. “If he can, he’ll answer.”

A short hum.

“Hey,” the physician addresses him. Informal, curt. Jimin opens his eyes for a short second, sees the blue embroidery on the old man’s collar, decides the effort isn’t worth it. “How did they give it to you, hm?

Jimin swallows. He doesn’t want to talk. One hand inches up, drags the other with it in a clink of chains, presses soft-smelling pads against his cracked lips. He frowns at the sensation, the strangeness of touching himself gently after his skin had long adjusted to the brutality.

“Thought so,” the physician says. “You’re familiar with mongsang root, highness?”

The subtleties of tone are lost like this, but Jimin’s trying to hold on to what he can. It’s important, he thinks, though he’s not quite sure why. He wants to be left alone, wants to curl up in his patch of sun and forget where he is. Maybe he’s on a sea-cliff somewhere, surrounded by the crashing waves, the eroded stone beneath him a product of thousands of years of tides beating against its roughest edges.

“Yes,” the prince breathes out, voice trapped somewhere low in his throat. “And the dose wasn’t dangerous?”

“Please. It’ll wear off before the evening, for sure.” There’s a clear dismissal there, that Jimin can’t help but hold on to.

Nothing to worry about. It echoes in his father’s voice, just the way he’d said it years ago, when Jimin’s mother had first gotten sick. He’d spent hours reading to her until his voice got hoarse, and all his favorite stories had been exhausted, and she and Jihyun had been curled up in bed together in a moon’s circle of quiet comfort.

“Thank you, Master Shin,” the prince says. Jimin curls his fingers, unsure when they’d fallen from his lips.

“My pleasure.” The answer is mild. “If you’d like me to do a full inspection while I’m here...?”

There must be an answer Jimin doesn’t catch, because whoever is holding him steady begins to unhook the simple fastenings at the side of his waist. The shirt slides open and he shivers, curls into himself, makes a weak noise of protest low in his throat. The assistant laughs, and shifts to accommodate whatever struggle Jimin can make himself put up.

His legs are pinned to the floor, spread enough to fit the physician on his knees between them, helpless and shameful and humiliating as wrinkled fingers press gingerly across every handspan of bruising on his torso. Some of it is more than a week into uncomfortable healing; there’s a scabbed-over slash just beneath his ribs where he’d fought back during the initial raid.

He’d tried to fight, until a helmeted Odaian soldier had dragged Jihyun out of his cot by the hair, and pressed a knife against his neck, and Jimin had dropped his sword and fallen to his knees.

Jimin groans when fingers prod at the scab, cool with some kind of ointment. The fingers move on after that, to the crescent-shaped gashes at the side of his neck from a different soldier on the journey; then up to his face, and the cuts on his lips and cheeks and brow. There’s not an inch of him that doesn’t sting or ache or twinge, by this point.

“They sure weren’t pulling any punches,” the physician murmurs.

There’s a pinch digging into the barest traces of fat at the bottom of Jimin’s upper arm, as the assistant hisses out something that can’t be amusement. Jimin chokes down a sob at the helplessness of it—at the revulsion for himself digging deep like the blade of a knife between his ribs.

If his father could see him now—

“I wouldn’t either,” the assistant mutters. “My uncle died in that war. All his sons, too.”

When they’re done with his face, and the assistant has checked over his back, the physician’s fingers move down to his hips, the cloth belt of his pants. Jimin feels the tug of the knot undoing, and his limbs jerk on instinct, helpless to the hands pinning him down.

“No,” he slurs, voice thick, eyes still resolutely closed. “No, no—”

“Stop it,” the prince bites out. “Ah, he said no. Leave him alone.”

There’s a pause. The hands retreat, but Jimin doesn’t relax, every inch of his body tense and coiled tight. His breaths are panicked again, wet and rattling, cheeks hot from shame.

He can’t even fight back. It’s the worst part, maybe.

“Your highness,” the physician says, carefully diplomatic. “If you’ve taken him, I should check to make sure there’s no lasting damage.”

The words land heavy. Jimin heaves through the tidal waves rolling out from his lungs, curls into himself in every way the assistant’s grip allows him. In the overwhelming rush of it, he can’t remember anything except how good it had felt to have a blade pressed against his skin. How easy it could have been to die. How much anything would be better than this, even bleeding out next to Jihyun’s corpse. Next to the thing that had once been his brother.

“I said no.” There’s not as much inflection in the prince’s voice as some of the others Jimin’s heard. Something is terrifying about the flatness of it; something is dangerous about him. “Master Shin, he said no. Thank you for your service this morning.”

After the silence passes, Jimin is dropped unceremoniously back against the wall. His head collides lightly with the wood and plaster of it, and his whole body throbs with the pain.

“Very well. I can’t find anything too severe, so I suppose you’re free to do with him what you like.” The words are arching, the meaning clear. Jimin tries to remember the feeling of buoyancy that comes with floating atop the water, waiting for a wave to come crashing down.

“I’ll have an adequate tip brought to your chambers this evening,” the prince says, in a clear dismissal. Jimin breathes through the physician bowing himself out, through the heavy sigh the prince heaves as they’re left, as far as Jimin can tell, alone.

This time, he doesn’t react to the footsteps. This time, they come all the way to his side, and Jimin wonders if the prince’s morals only let him touch a war-captive concubine once he’s been inspected by a healer. Wonders if this is it; if maybe the last few days have been nothing but a game to make it feel so much worse when the pain finally comes.

“I’m sorry,” Prince Taehyung finally says, crouched down low to meet Jimin face to face.

And Jimin opens his eyes.

This close, Taehyung looks like any town boy Jimin might have spent an evening with back at home. His fine, gold-patterned robe has been discarded, leaving a silken undershirt clinging to his shoulders; his lashes are long, his nose softly rounded, his lips downturned in concern or displeasure.

He reaches out, and carefully refastens the ties of Jimin’s shirt. A key glints in his hand, metal clinks together, and the chain between Jimin’s wrists falls away.

The collar and cuffs stay, and the prince settles back onto his heels, and looks at Jimin like there’s words resting on his tongue that he doesn’t know how to say; that might never leave his lips, because there’s nothing they could accomplish.

Through the awful haze of the drug, Jimin remembers. The chain in Taehyung’s hand, wrapped tight around his throat.

“I’ll kill you,” he rasps. Taehyung’s eyes widen, just enough.

For a long moment, they sit. Jimin thinks with as much presence as he can all the ways he could end it between them, but his limbs refuse to so much as twitch. Taehyung’s gaze shifts down to the chain in his hands, before he looks back up with something hard in his eyes, something Jimin might recognize from the massacre.

“I know,” Taehyung says, and pushes himself up.

He leaves Jimin alone, with the numbness of his skin and the useless, steaming rage sitting heavy on his chest.

 


 

 

Jimin holds his head up until he can’t anymore. The tremors start long after the slant of light has shifted away from his face, his hands trembling hard in his lap even as he clenches them shut. Jimin sweats and breathes deep through nausea and finally slinks back down to the floor.

It feels like giving up, his forehead pressed hard against cool stone to make himself remember how to feel, his arms shaking when he tries to adjust himself to accommodate the bruising on his ribs. There’s no one left in the room to see him, to try and touch him, but the memory of humiliation twists deep in Jimin’s gut even as he drifts above his body, thoughts hazy and memories blurred.

Sleep is easier than fighting, but it doesn’t come easily. The late morning sun dapples the room in light, glass chiming from the trees outside. From far below comes the faint clash of swords, and it’s enough to make Jimin reach up blindly for a pillow, his grip unsteady enough that he more pushes one down than grabs with any strength.

He covers his head to block out the light, and the noise, and the sickening knowledge that he’s going to die here like a chained dog abandoned by its master.

What must be hours later, the light in the room slanted in long backward shapes, Jimin blinks open his crusted eyes and rattles in a dry, tremulous breath. There’s a silver pitcher resting on the floor next to him, too full to even think about lifting with his shivering muscles, but Jimin dips in his fingers and drags them down his face.

If he closes his eyes, and imagines the taste of salt on his lips, it could almost be comforting.

His fingers come away smeared with the remnants of gold paint. The pillow over his head has slipped, propped up against the nape of his neck. If he could move without aching he would take it, would hold it close to his chest just to have something to ground himself with.

From the next room over—maybe a library, he’s not sure—comes an ominous-sounding thump. It throbs through Jimin’s head and he winces, curls into himself to escape from the soft murmur that drifts through the open doorway. If he thinks hard enough, he can remember—someone was supposed to come today. Two more pets, maybe, loyal to their master.

There’s no evidence that anyone has been brought to his corner, though—besides the jug of water, the small plate of foreign-looking fruits, the bowl of plain rice he can see if he looks farther to the left. No other chains attached to his hook, no agitation of the furniture. It’s almost enough to make him relax, the last effects of the drug urging him into numbed compliance, the taste still bitter on the back of his tongue, dried with sleep.

From the study comes a child’s shrieking laugh, and Jimin’s heart grinds to a steady halt.

Over the long years of war, Jimin has heard too many stories about Odai’s brutality. He’s seen firsthand the wreckage of border towns raided, has held orphaned children in his arms as his father made arrangements to find foster families in the capital. He knows Odai takes concubines, knows they savage them and throw them out like broken dishes, but—

Children.

There’s another shriek, a gurgling thing that tapers off into giggles. The bitter taste of the drug is tempered by bile, now, and Jimin presses his cheek against the floor and hopes he’s hallucinating.

A knock sounds from the wooden frame of the main door. Jimin flinches back from it, each knock pounding at his head. The laughter quiets, and Jimin hears the prince’s low murmur. Footsteps, coming back toward Jimin’s parlor, a childish attempt at shushing.

The prince steps out of the parlor with a child perched on each hip, a soft smile on his face as the boy, no older than two, babbles quiet incoherence.

“Your eomma’s here, Soobin-ah,” the prince singsongs. The girl on his other hip is older, maybe five, and she pats his cheek like he needs reassurance, her lips pinched purposefully, seriously.

“We’ll be back, though,” she says. Jimin blinks through bleary tears, keeps every inch of himself still. He can’t tell what’s going on—the children’s clothes are rough, yes, but carefully mended and colorfully dyed. Their pale arms are clear of marks, their comfort authentic and cheerful. The boy looks content nestled against the prince’s neck, batting aimlessly at the ties on his undershirt.

The prince slides the door open with his foot, and one of his servants—the maid, Haseul, who sometimes manages to call him oppa as she cleans around the study—smiles through exhaustion at the children. Her children.

“They didn’t give you any trouble?” Haseul asks quietly, as the prince drops the girl to the floor. She wraps her arms around her mother’s hips, presses a cheek into the dark brown cloth of her uniform. The prince hugs Soobin tighter to his chest, and presses a smacking kiss to the top of his head.

“They were perfect,” he promises. “As always, Haseul-ah, really.”

“Oppa likes us,” the little girl mumbles. “We aren’t bad.”

“You’re not!” The prince crouches down, toddler still pressed tight to his chest. “It was very nice to spend time with you, Lady Daeun.”

Daeun sputters, and goes pink, and hides her face in Haseul’s skirt with a shriek of delight.

It’s the first time Jimin has heard Taehyung laugh. He closes his eyes against it, burns with anger that Odai’s princes can laugh and spend their days in leisure when Jimin’s people are being conquered, when he’s chained to the floor without any dignity left, when his brother is dead and rotting in a mass grave miles away from the sea.

“And they didn’t...” Haseul trails off. Jimin slits his eyes open just enough to see her glance nervously in his direction, as the prince hands off the sleepy toddler.

“Of course not,” the prince consoles. “Everything’s okay. You know I’ll keep them safe, no matter what, right?”

She smiles. Soobin reaches out toward Taehyung, and the prince catches his chubby hand and presses a kiss to the top, the soft outline of his nose visible through the blur of Jimin’s tears and eyelashes. It’s such a gentle scene, something that makes him feel like he’s intruding. There’s a hundred different explanations for this—that Taehyung is the children’s father, that he preys on his maids instead of war prisoners, but all he can think is that—

This is what Jimin had lost, when his father had fallen on the battlefield. When their troops had been slaughtered by the thousands, when he’d called for a retreat to save every one of them he could. This is what he’d lost when he’d woken to Odai’s soldiers in their camp, and a knife to Jihyun’s throat.

It’s a new kind of cruelty to be able to watch what had just barely slipped through his fingers.

The door slides shut on its dark wooden track, and Taehyung turns to look quietly at whatever pathetic picture Jimin paints on the ground, curled up like an ascetic with no blanket, no mat, nothing to hide the way he’s starting to shiver from the late afternoon breeze.

The last thing he wants is the pity of this country’s prince. The last thing he wants is to be seen like this—by anyone, especially an enemy. Jimin shifts just enough to turn his back to the scene, to the closed door sealing him in.

When he closes his eyes, he pretends he can feel the ocean wind spray against his face, and float as high on the breeze as a seabird, loose and unchained.

 


 

 

In the quiet boredom of the prince’s chambers, it feels like the only thing Jimin can do is sleep. He can’t keep his eyes open for longer than an hour, some kind of defense mechanism shutting his body down into spurts of uneasy, dream-plagued sleep and brief moments of awful lucidity. It’s been another day, marked by the golden sunset across the mountains and the slow seep of light in through the windows the next morning.

He never sees anyone leave him food, but at least twice a day it’s there when he wakes up. It sparks uneasy tension in Jimin’s chest; that an unknown someone is near enough to touch, that he’s most defenseless of all when he sleeps yet it’s the only thing his body is telling him to do.

It’s hard to be awake for the dawn prayer. Even during the war, on the front lines, they’d been on the east side of the mountains—close enough to see the ocean as they gained ground, and slowly, inexorably lost it again. Waking up now to watch the light filter through the sky from the wrong angle, over the mountains he’d never seen before they’d been marched into the valley, feels so wrong it hurts. His chain isn’t long enough to reach the open doors anyway—it’s not like he could sit under the moon as it set.

The boredom worsens, and it gets harder to hold onto the anger, the certainty he’d had even a few days ago that he would die for killing the prince who’d claimed him. The longer he waits for something that never comes, the more the grief bleeds heavy into his lungs, drowning him from the inside out until sleep is the only escape he gets from the emotion so strong it turns his stomach. And then—

Jimin wakes up two mornings after the rites had ended from a fitful burst of sleep, and finds a stack of three cloth-bound books stacked next to his meal.

He doesn’t touch them for two long hours. He leans back against the wall familiar to his weight and watches the prince step quietly out the door without a glance in Jimin’s direction, watches the maids and page boys trickle in to complete their chores, stepping around Jimin’s corner like there’s a barrier between them. None of them have spoken to him; few have managed to look him in the eye.

Jimin wonders idly what his reputation is in this city, that all the servants are afraid to be with him in a room, even as chained as he is.

When the sun has gotten higher, nearing its peak, Jimin’s resolve breaks. He’s not as sore anymore, slowly healing from the brutality of their march through the foothills, and there’s so much energy thrumming through him after his recovery from the adrenaline bursts that his limbs twitch with it.

Books aren’t a sword, or a training course, or a current to fight against until he lets it carry him back to shore, but—it’s something to do, and Jimin hates himself for it as he drags the books into his lap.

They’re all in his language. It’s the first thing he notices—the characters on the first page arranged familiarly, words he recognizes pressed into the page with dark ink. Jimin blinks, half-expects to open his eyes to watch the books crumble into dust, a cruel invention of his imagination.

They don’t. Jimin turns the page, skims down the first line with something hard stuck high up in his throat. It’s a romance, something he’d seen in his family’s library before he was old enough to care, and after war kept him too busy reading about tactics and strategy to have time for something so light. The second book is a collection of folktales from the border region, over a century ago. The third is more of a textbook, with careful diagrams of what was known about the seafloor maybe thirty years ago. Jimin traces the names of the authors, the names ringing familiar from what he knows of the researchers back home.

It’s an awful reminder of everything he’s left behind. His home might have burned to the ground by now, his citizens scattered, everything they’d built lost to the war. And the people—everyone he should have died with.

Jimin closes his eyes, and tries not to think about all the lines of defense the Odaian soldiers would have had to cut through, to get to him and Jihyun that night. Tries not to think about Hoseok and Jeongguk in yet another mass grave, the tattoos on their chests rotting with the rest of their flesh.

He puts the books down. Pushes them away with the tips of his fingers. They rest against the seam where the carpet begins, and Jimin turns himself away. Waits for the now-familiar routine of the prince returning to the chambers, stripping himself of formal training clothes, greeting Haseul’s two children with a beaming smile and a kiss on the cheek for all three of them.

Jimin is exhausted. His body is healing, but every moment he spends awake is a spiral of anxiety and deep hatred for the collar around his neck, the pointlessness of staying alive.

Sometimes, he wishes the leash were long enough for him to hang himself over the balcony.

He sleeps, until the door slides open again. It’s that strange time in late morning when the apartments are empty, in between servants and the prince and the children. Jimin blinks his eyes open against the warm, late winter sunlight, and turns his head.

It’s not a servant. Not an attendant or a page boy or the youngest prince of Odai.

“Hello, pretty,” the second prince leers. The door shuts behind him, the hollow sound of the wood muffled with the prince—Taeil, Jimin knows from the portraits and the massacre—between them.

He steps forward. Jimin is glad for once to be pressed against the wall, even seated on the floor; he won’t give Taeil the pleasure of seeing him flinch.

“Oh, don’t be shy.” His lips pout out mockingly, only the barest hints of Taehyung present in the height of his cheekbones, the jut of his ears. Odai’s royal line keeps their secrets well, every son’s name and age past the second kept close within the palace walls, but—everyone knows their princes come from different mothers, different wives or servants of the king. “Why don’t you say hello, pretty?”

The pet name makes Jimin’s skin crawl. Taeil comes to a stop just before him, and Jimin looks away so he doesn’t have to see the cruel arrogance in his eyes, the twist of his lips.

A foot comes up, casual as anything, and presses down on Jimin’s leash. Not hard enough to pull him if he resisted, but—if Jimin resisted, the prince would fall, and he’d be killed for no other reason than having a spine.

Jimin bows. He lets Tail drag him down until his forehead touches the floor, inches away from the gold embroidery of his slippers.

“Has our Taehyungie been treating you well?” Taeil croons. His fingers brush along the back of Jimin’s neck. Jimin trembles with the force of repressing the anger pricking hot at the back of his eyes, forces himself to keep still, to resist the urge to throw himself at Taeil’s knees and knock his head against the floor where the crushed velvet bleeds into cool white stone. “You’re healing so nicely. It’s a wonder he hasn’t kept you bruised up with how nice it looked, though”

Jimin shudders. The hand at his neck tangles into his hair, yanks him up and on his knees so Taeil can inspect him like merchandise, detached and cruel and all too pleased with himself.

“The collar was a nice touch. Much more fitting than a crown, with lips like that.” A thumb drags across Jimin’s cheek, presses down at his bottom lip. He clenches his teeth and struggles not to snap, bite down, hear that perfectly smooth voice shatter into a scream of pain. “Answer me, pretty bitch, or you won’t like what’s next.”

“Don’t touch me,” Jimin growls in his own language, teeth still clenched. The mocking amusement on Taeil’s face deepens. Like he’s looking at a cutely disobedient pet; a particularly stubborn puppy.

“Oh, pretty,” he says. Bends down farther, so their noses could almost brush. “I’m excited to see what party tricks little Taehyungie has taught you.”

It’s an exercise, Jimin can only assume, designed to humiliate him. And it works, the burn of Taeil’s words landing exactly where they’re supposed to, the lash as firm and heavy as a sword hilt in his ribs.

Jimin doesn’t want to look at him. He remembers staring down the king, dripping with wine and rubies on his throne as he had Jimin’s people killed one by one. Remembers this prince to his left, refusing to let servants hand him a cup. He’d said something, after Taehyung had claimed him, but Jimin can’t quite remember what. That long stretch of time from the throne room to the drug in his veins feels blurry. Detached.

“I wonder,” Taeil says, voice deceptively soft. He trails warm fingers down Jimin’s neck, lingering on the collar, to pinch at a bruise showing from under the low neck of his shirt. They’d bathed him again just yesterday, under Taehyung’s orders, and this set of clothes is a fine blue, so pale it’s almost white. Jimin gasps at the reminder of the pain, the hand wormed down his shirt to dig bare fingers into his ribs. “Yes, those took quite a lot. Want to let me see, pretty pet?”

Jimin doesn’t get a chance to answer. The door to Taehyung’s chambers slams open, wood rattling in its tracks, and Taehyung sweeps in with something like panic wide in his eyes, before Jimin blinks and his face clears, brushed into careful neutrality.

“Hyung,” he says, that flat voice so precisely measured into respect. “What are you doing here?”

Taeil simpers. He stops touching Jimin, hands up sweetly, defenselessly. When they’re this close it’s easy for Jimin to see the difference between them in age. The records say that Taeil was born thirty-six winters ago. When he looks now, paired against Taeil’s sparse flecks of greying hair, the firm shadow of a beard at his jaw, Jimin can’t believe Taehyung to be any older than himself.

“Can’t a brother stop in to say hello?” Taeil asks. Not quite the picture of innocence, with the way Jimin’s crumpled behind him, wary of putting up too much of a fight.

“Hello,” Taehyung says. “Now I’m sure you have much more pressing things to attend to.”

“You overestimate my schedule.” Jimin can only see him in profile now, but it’s enough to see that Taeil’s expression isn’t nearly as guarded as Taehyung’s. His eyes are obvious as he looks Taehyung up and down, discomfort tight in Jimin’s stomach as he watches Taehyung fidget his hands, then clench them tight at his sides. It’s like watching a horse skitter before seeing the flash of scales in the grass. “I wanted to see your new pet, Taehyung-ah, is that so bad? Just to take a look at what you’ve done to him.”

“These are my chambers. You have no right.”

Taeil steps forward. There’s something sickening about the scene as his fingers brush gently against Taehyung’s cheek. Adrenaline hums in Jimin’s veins, the slow danger of the predator in the room lighting his nerves on fire.

“I think you know I have every right. You barely deserve what you have, hm?”

Taehyung’s eyes dart down, meet Jimin’s gaze for such a brief moment that it’s easy to believe he’s imagined it. It’s easy now to catalog the conversation, to add the nuance to what he knows about such a secretive dynasty. There’s so much he’s missing, but he knows—the politics of Odai’s courts are based so much in reputation. He can’t help but wonder what Taehyung’s place in it is, seated all the way down from his father’s left.

The backs of Taeil’s fingers tap gently against Taehyung’s cheek. Taehyung’s eyelashes flutter with each soft hit, his hands firmly held behind his back.

“After all,” he murmurs, pitched loud enough that Jimin knows it’s a show. “You must have so much stress to work out, darling brother. You’re always so repressed these days. I was just wondering how your new toy was holding up against it.”

Taehyung’s jaw clenches. His eyes avert to some fixed point in the distance, as Taeil’s fingers trail down to needlessly straighten his robe.

“Don’t break this one too soon, hm?” He stage-whispers. A cold shudder goes down Jimin’s spine.

“Please leave.” Taehyung’s voice is flatter than ever. Jimin wonders what it masks.

Taeil makes a soft, considering noise. Steps back just far enough that he can rake his eyes up and down Taehyung’s body again, smile widening at the deliberate flatness of Taehyung’s expression.

His hand flies up, poised ready to backhand, and Taehyung flinches.

It’s instantaneous. Jimin’s heart flies to his throat, Taehyung’s shoulders curl inward, his cheek turns away and down. Taeil drops his hand and laughs, hearty and deep in his chest. He turns without another word, leaves Taehyung standing and ready to take whatever hit that was never going to come, and crouches down to meet Jimin’s eyes.

“I’m just worried about you, little prince,” he whispers. “If you decide you’re sick of this view, feel free to let me know. I have some lovely rooms that could be all yours, though—I almost wish I could have kept your brother too. It was so nice to listen to him scream.”

Rage whites out something inside him. Jimin spits, sends a gob of it trickling down Taeil’s cheek. He’s trembling with the force of keeping himself still, strained as far forward as he can until the collar chokes off his breaths, and still Taeil grabs his chin and hauls him closer, makes him struggle and gasp for whatever thin thread of air he can manage. His other hand wraps around Jimin’s wrists, holds him in a bruising grip just above where the cuffs begin.

“Look at him,” he mutters, jerks Jimin’s head toward Taehyung. He’s watching, eyes wide, hands clenched into fists at his side. He looks almost as tense as Jimin feels, as he struggles like a child to land any hit he can. “Our Taehyungie looks so sweet, doesn’t he. Have you made him angry yet, sweetheart?”

Jimin retches. It’s dry, more a product of the collar around his neck, and Taeil laughs. Drops him to the floor like a child’s doll, brushes off his hands like Jimin’s not worth touching.

“I bet he was much more obedient when I had him drugged,” he says, full volume filling the parlor. “You might want to take a page out of my book, Taehyung-ah.”

Taehyung looks like he’s going to be sick. Taeil steps to his side, appraises him for a long minute.

Stomps hard on his foot, grinding in his heel enough that Taehyung’s posture falters, crumpling in on himself with a wince before he stands back up.

“Teach your pet better manners,” he hisses, eyes narrowed. “Or I might have to do it myself.”

The door shuts behind him quietly, respectably. Jimin gasps, lungs adjusting to the inflow of oxygen. Taehyung waits until the sound of footsteps have faded from the hall behind the opaque screen, before he covers his face with both hands and breathes out long and tremulous. Jimin almost feels bad for him, until—

Have you made him angry, he remembers, and wonders—what it would take, if he hasn’t already.

He crawls back to his corner. He can see Taehyung watching him, arms now curled around his own torso, mouth open like he wants to say something.

Jimin spares him a long moment of eye contact, and hopes the disgust in his face is as easy to read as the shock in Taehyung’s. His mouth closes, his fingers dig into the silk at his waist. Jimin scoffs, and turns his back, and breathes through the frantic, adrenaline-fueled panic of his heartbeat.

He doesn’t move until he hears the clamor of the children arriving that afternoon.

“I heard,” Haseul murmurs at the doorway. “He came here. Are you—?”

“I’m fine, Haseul-ah,” Taehyung murmurs. Jimin can hear the smile on his face, like nothing had ever happened. “You don’t all need to worry so much about me. I can take care of myself.”

“If you say so,” she replies, with just a touch of humor. “Soobinnie is learning all about swords from his grandfather, so I hope you can for your own sake.”

Taehyung laughs, and the door closes, and it’s back to the usual routine.

Except Jimin can’t help but glance over at the books he’d pushed away what feels like hours ago, and can’t stop remembering everything about Taeil’s visit—the way he’d known exactly which nerves to press down on, the way Taehyung had flinched away from a hit that never came.

He curls into himself on the floor, and tries to wish himself to sleep.

It almost works. Jimin floats for a while, in a way he’s come to associate with being rocked by waves; resting on the surface, lulled into a place where he doesn’t have to exist or think or wonder about what comes next.

He floats until he hears the unsteady footsteps wobbling toward him. Until the little boy totters around him, and plops down just in front of Jimin’s face, and squints down with a pout on his tiny lips and an ink stain on his left hand.

And suddenly, it’s all too much.

Through the blur of tears, Soobin’s round face fades into something more familiar. Jihyun, the first time Jimin had watched him walk; the way he’d pulled him around everywhere as soon as he could make it more than a few steps on his own. The way they’d slept in the same bed every time Jihyun had a nightmare, even well into adulthood.

Jimin shudders in a gasp, a sob, and cries for the first time since he’d seen the sword burst out from the fragile skin of his brother’s back.

Soobin sits in front of him, warbling a tiny song through thin, pursed lips, and reaches out with sticky hands to pat the tears on Jimin’s cheek. Jimin heaves once, twice with the effort to keep himself quiet, but it feels like he’s being strangled again with the collar around his neck.

A stubby finger pokes his cheek. Jimin doesn’t have the strength to push it away, so he lets the wandering hand explore his face, pet through his hair as gently as a toddler can manage. Eventually, like anything, it’s easy to tune out; he loses himself in the force of the tears, lets himself believe that there’s someone, at least, trying to comfort him.

“Soobin?” The prince calls, from the study. He calls again, and again, gets more and more frantic, until Jimin hears him at the open doorway. He imagines long fingers curled around the frame, eyes wide at the sight of Jimin curled into himself, trembling so hard it’s hard to stay still, with Soobin cross-legged in front of him, clumsily wiping away Jimin’s tears with the sleeve of his rough little shirt.

“Hey, Soobin-ah,” Taehyung murmurs. He approaches slowly, carefully. Jimin keeps his eyes closed and concentrates on breathing, on trying to ignore the humiliation creeping over him like a rising tide. “Don’t scare me like that, okay?”

“Okay,” Soobin agrees happily. He doesn’t move, though, just rocks in place on his heels. Jimin holds his hands close to his chest and grits his teeth, wills himself to stop crying, and another hot wave of tears wets the deep hollows under his eyes. Taehyung’s footsteps get closer, inching around Jimin like he’s scared of being lashed at. It serves him right, but—Jimin couldn’t make himself. Not now, not with the pat of chubby palms against his cheek.

“Come on, buddy. Come on up.”

Taehyung hauls Soobin up and close to his chest and Jimin sighs with the loss. Something loosens in his heart, something else aches to reach out and tuck the toddler into the curl of his body.

As Taehyung walks away, murmuring quiet into Soobin’s ear, Jimin hears the last clip of conversation.

“But hyungie,” Soobin says, a pout in his voice. “He’s sad.”

There’s a heavy sigh. The sound of a soft kiss pressed to skin—maybe a forehead, maybe a sweet-stained cheek. Jimin bites down hard on his lip until he tastes the smallest tang of blood against his tongue. The pain is familiar, and almost welcome by now.

“I know,” Taehyung says. So softly Jimin wishes he hadn’t heard it. “I know, buddy. Let’s not bother him, okay?”

Soobin warbles his agreement. Footsteps crush over velvet, a hand smooths over a wooden frame, and the voices vanish back into Taehyung’s study.

Jimin pulls an overstuffed pillow tight against his chest, and muffles the loosened sobs that break out of his chest like crashing waves until the tide pulls him under, under, and finally back to sleep.

 


 

 

The next morning, Jimin wakes with the sun. his eyes burn from the tears, his voice cracks when he hums the sleep from his veins, but—he feels, at least, a little alive. It’s the first time he’s woken this early since the rites, and it’s early enough that there’s no food and water sitting out for him just yet. He pushes himself up, and mourns the ever-present ache in his spine from refusing the comfort of the chaise, and bows with his forehead to the floor toward the ever-open balcony doors.

He’s never seen the doors shut. Even with the night chill, they stay open, sun-bleached curtains snapping in the wind. Jimin hates it sometimes for the cold, but more often he’s grateful for the fresh air, even if it’s thinner than he’s used to, less marked by sea-spray. He recites the morning prayer, and sits back on his heels, and presses his first two fingers to his lips.

When the servant comes, bearing a heavy wood tray with Jimin’s breakfast, he’s sitting quietly cross-legged, one of the books he’d pushed away spread open on his lap.

The servant stares. His eyes are wide, feet skittering like there’s a curse keeping him out of Jimin’s space. Jimin looks up, and bows his head deeply, and murmurs a quiet word of thanks in careful Odaian dialect when the servant tentatively sets down the tray.

The servant flushes, and bows—then catches himself bowing and straightens rigidly, sputtering like he doesn’t know what to say. Jimin offers the closest thing he can manage to a smile, and pours a cup of frigid water from the pitcher that will last him through the day.

As he flips slowly through the romance, savoring the taste of words on his tongue as he mouths them silently in the next few hours, Jimin tries his best to make eye contact with each of the prince’s servants. Most of them look away instantly. A few keep glancing back, eyes wide or narrowed, mouths pursed or gaping. A few older ones look with sympathy; a few younger ones, barely teenagers, gawk in horror.

When Haseul passes through from Taehyung’s bedroom, hands smoothing nervously down the front of her apron, Jimin sits up straighter. He puts the book aside, each page turned slowly to keep himself from finishing too quickly, and tries to catch her eye.

For a long moment, he thinks it won’t work. Haseul avoids him as much as she can, a younger girl trailing on her heels as they go through the mostly symbolic movements of cleaning the prince’s chambers. Jimin watches; careful, attentive, trying to make himself as unobtrusive as possible. They take away the empty rice bowl, and leave the half-finished fruit behind without looking at him once.

Just before she leaves, Jimin looks up from the careful splay of his hands in his lap, and finds Haseul watching him. Her eyes widen when she sees, but she doesn’t turn away, the girl tugging anxiously at her sleeve.

Jimin closes his eyes, and bows his head respectfully. He won’t hurt her children; enough of them have already died in this war. Even years ago, when there were still only rare, pointless border raids, too many children died. Jeongguk had lost a brother, and—he doesn’t want to think about Jeongguk. How he’d let Jimin rest a head on his shoulder as they made their retreat, one arm slung around his waist. How Hoseok and Dawon had kept Jihyun pressed tight between them, arrows drawn and cocked at any foreign movement.

The door slides closed. Jimin presses his hands to his face, and forcibly clears his mind.

He’s mourned them all. He’s done everything he can, despite the endless loops of what-if that run through his head whenever he starts to think too much. It aches, hurts deeper than he could ever imagine, but—it’s worth it to know they might be at peace, somewhere.

Today, when the children run screaming into the room, Haseul meets Jimin’s eyes behind Taehyung’s back. That’s the most he gets, but—

Things change. Slowly. It’s stifling and awful to be stuck in the same corner, dragged out to the baths every other day to be stripped and scrubbed until Jimin no longer flinches at the leering of the guard, at the rough stone the servants use to scrub at his skin until everything is raw. The collar and cuffs chafe even when he lies without moving, until there’s a ring of red around his neck and wrists each that always feels seconds away from splitting open. No one talks to him, though the servants seem to understand that he won’t kill them for breathing too closely.

And the books keep coming. They’re always there when he wakes up, a system established in the few days that cycle by without incident; Jimin finishes a book, pushes it away, and in its place the next morning is a new one. He doesn’t know where they come from, why they’re here. Sharing culture has never been a strong point between their countries.

Every morning, Jimin struggles to wake up earlier. It’s hard without the routine of home; the gongs that had sounded through the city’s streets to tell of the first glow of sunrise. He manages it once; wakes up with the sky outside the balcony dark, the only pinpoints of light the stars and the glow of a low fire from the bedroom, a new book placed carefully by his side, close to the pillow he’s reluctantly started using to ease the worst pains in his neck.

It’s frustrating. Of all the things he could be raging against, could be struggling to escape or get his hands around Taehyung’s delicate neck, it’s the books that frustrate him. The thought that he’s letting someone get close to him almost every night—close enough to touch, to slip another drug down Jimin’s throat—nags at him until he can barely concentrate enough to read.

He’s stuck in an awful limbo—beached with his feet in the water, waiting for something else to happen. It feels like it’s been months already, like the throne room was an awful shadow of his own nightmares, like—like he might be here for years, with nothing changing, with no one left to speak to or cry with or mourn.

Jimin tries not to think. It’s easier, that way.

Almost a week after the mourning rites had ended, Taehyung pushes open the door to his rooms an hour earlier than usual with a shaking hand, and every servant in the room sweeps into a bow. Jimin startles, snaps the book in his lap shut, tenses his shoulders like a wary street cat.

It doesn’t last long. Taehyung’s chest is heaving tight against the heavy fabric of his robe, his eyes wide even with the controlled mask of his expression. Jimin blinks, can’t stop himself from staring, and Haseul jerks up from her bow and rushes to his side.

And it’s like they’ve forgotten he’s there. Jimin watches without moving, almost too afraid to breathe, as Taehyung drops his shoulders and presses his knuckles to his lips, and Haseul gently pushes up the other sleeve of his robe. If he looks closely, Jimin can see—a red mark, raw and new, around his lower forearm. Higher, hiding a purple bruise in the shadow it casts.

Mostly, Jimin had tried to avoid thinking about the mostly-healed cut on the prince’s cheekbone. The slivered scabbing on his lips, the limp he’d walked off in just a few steps after Taeil left the apartments. Now, though, it’s hard to ignore. That he’s been claimed by a prince with a target painted on his back, one pinched and prodded in ways that would make any man angry, no matter how well he might be able to hide it.

Jimin watches Haseul fuss briefly over the mark, less formal than he’s ever seen her, and feels the cold, familiar dread seep into his chest.

So repressed, Taeil had said, and Jimin believes it. Taehyung waves Haseul away with a smile, and a gentle squeeze of her hand, and the tight panic on his face has faded back into that mask of contentment. Jimin strokes his finger down the rough paper of the page as Taehyung passes through to his study, the familiar creak of what might be his favorite chair loud in the servants’ silence.

The noise and gentle bustle pick up again, but Haseul keeps glancing toward the study, and Jimin’s eyes skid off the page like water from oil.

It haunts him through the afternoon, through the evening’s moonrise greeting he murmurs with freshwater dripping from his lips, through the tug of his apathy drawing him back into inevitable sleep.

Jimin sleeps restlessly. It’s the kind of sleep he’s too aware of, eyes always half-open in the fading dark of the parlor; he shifts at every noise, each brush of gossamer curtains against the wall. The nights are warmer now than when the last of their army had camped in the jagged mountains, a week’s journey by foot away from the Gangneung fort—their final stronghold, he remembers, though the army had marched from the capital and picked up troops along the way.

They’ve been fighting for ten years, with only three major battles before the sudden onslaught that had pushed their forces back, and back, until his father had ridden out with Jimin at his side and Jihyun at his back, and with them the last of the capital troops. Ten years, and in just a few months they’d lost—and lost everything.

He’s already awake enough, worried himself into a bleary kind of alertness, that it’s impossible to miss when the prince slips out of his bedroom. There’s the telltale sound of his slippers, the brush of fabric, a soft metal noise that Jimin can’t identify. He tenses, waits, slows his breathing down enough that he can hear the deliberate slowness of the door opening. The gentle tap of wood as it closes again, the near-silent footsteps retreating down the hall.

Without the sun, there’s no way for Jimin to tell time. He doesn’t know how much of the night he spends not moving, barely breathing, waiting for the prince to return as the fire dies in the next room. Sleep dances in front of him like a taunt, exhausting spotting black in his vision as he blinks out at the white curtains of the balcony doors, the only thing he can quite find the shape of.

What feels like hours before the sun rises, the prince creeps back into the rooms. It’s just as silent an entrance, wood thumping soft, but this time his breathing is more jagged. This time, footsteps creak toward the study, and Jimin listens to the heavy muffled sounds of cloth binding, the quiet flip of pages. He keeps his eyes shut, tries to loosen out his shoulders, and waits.

Taehyung approaches him slowly. Each step is audible, but barely so; Jimin has to strain to hear each movement over the heavy breathing—like he’s been running, or training. Or fucking.

Jimin wonders if it’s every night that the prince sneaks out like this. To meet some secret lover, when everyone must think he’s bent Jimin over each surface in his chambers by now.

In his mind, Jimin entertains the cruelest fantasies. He’s thought long and hard about strangling Taehyung, about watching him bleed out slower than the deaths of his kinsmen. He’s thought about lining up the princes of Odai and slitting their throats one by one. He doesn’t quite know what to do with the idea that one of them might be showing him mercy.

The new book is set delicately on the ground. The old one is picked up. Jimin is angled just right, so he slits opens his eyes, adjusts to the clearness of the moonlight, moves nothing but his gaze further and further to the side.

Taehyung has the cloth cover of the book open in his hands. His lips mouth the words of the title, hair tousled and damp with sweat. The clothes he’s in are nearly as light as Jimin’s, sticking wet to the slight curve of his waist, the long shape of his legs.

A sword sits sheathed at his belt. His sleeves are pushed up to expose the shadow of vicious bruising to the moon herself, bright and half-full in the sky.

Not a lover, then.

Have you made him angry, Jimin thinks. Sees how easily Taehyung’s stance has adjusted to the weight of the sword. Wonders just how often he trains in the middle of the night; who it is he might train with. Whether it’s his brothers who get to see the violence he hasn’t shown to Jimin yet.

Taehyung closes the book with frightening care. He holds it far away from his body, as if to avoid dripping sweat onto the pages, and glances down at Jimin just once.

With his hair over his face like this, Jimin’s eyes must not be visible. Taehyung looks long, and careful, eyes tracking over the way the shadows have fallen heavy over Jimin’s face. His face is open, brows tilted upward and lips barely slack. Like the town boy he could have been, standing over Jimin in the moonlight.

For the first time in a long several days, Jimin expects Taehyung to touch him. Looking itself feels like too much, a violation. Like Taehyung could see his soft spots and pick them out like a vulture at a rotting carcass. One by one, until Jimin has none of the self that laughed and danced like the tide was on his heels left.

It scares him, how angry he is. Taehyung walks away without looking again, slips back into his bedroom with the book gripped carefully between his fingers.

Jimin seethes, and tries not to falter, and does not sleep.

 


 

 

Now that he knows to listen for it, Jimin hears the prince leave the chambers nearly every night. Every time he comes back in he leaves a new book, and takes the old into his bedroom. Jimin sleeps through most of it, uneasy enough to wake at the sound of the door sliding shut but exhausted down to his core.

Jimin hates the routine as much as he’s grateful for it. He’s started stretching in the long intervals of silence in the chambers; his muscles wince and ache at the abuse, after nearly a fortnight of existing in the same circumference of floor space. The collar limits what he can do, his usual warm-ups for the ritual dances too much space to perform on the leash. But the other things are doable—more than doable.

It starts to keep him sane. His flexibility starts to come back, each day his fingers reaching a little farther past his heels when he sits and reaches. There’s less to do about the muscle he’s lost, but he’d lost more than muscle in the starving journey here, and mostly just savors not having to pick scraps of trash out of the dust to pick at until his stomach got used to the taste of rotten food.

He stretches in the morning, after the prayer and a few bites of rice to wake his body up, and again in late afternoon when Soobin and Daeun run wild through the apartment. They’ve taken to poking their heads into the parlor, shrieking with glee or fear as they sprint—or toddle—into Taehyung’s bedroom.

Taehyung always chases them, and scoops up one in each arm, and carts them back to their games in the study with a tiny song sung as he goes.

That’s the thing that makes it hardest to hate him. Jimin listens to Taehyung sing and read and talk to the children for hours nearly every afternoon, and never once does it grow more bearable. To see the way he dotes on them, and leaves Jimin chained to his floor with less privacy than a dog.

And almost every day, Jimin gets a fresh reminder that he doesn’t have nearly as much protection as he would like. Almost every day Taehyung returns with a refresher on the mark around his wrist, sometimes a cut on his lip or a bruise on a stinging red cheek.

Jimin hates him. Hates that he’s starting to crumble, that the silence is starting to wear down on him like nothing has before. Even during the worst days at home, there was —Jihyun. Jeongguk. His father, who was never quite busy enough to turn Jimin away when he knocked, when he didn’t know who to ask for advice.

Some princes never speak to their parents, he knows. Had met with a spare from the North, journeyed down for diplomacy, who only ever saw his queen mother outside of weddings, funerals, and executions. The only words he’d heard Odai’s king speak to Taehyung were mocking. But his father—they could talk for hours, without agreeing on half their topics. Jimin’s world was never silent, never absent of speech, until a soldier had tied a gag around his head so tight it split the corners of his lips, and forced him into the great hall, and everything changed in the amount of time it took to run a sword through a boy’s chest.

The silence aches, and as it endures Jimin wonders if it might be the worst thing Taehyung could do to him. Not to hold him down, not to yank him around predictably by the chafing collar, but to leave him surrounded by people and yet so desperately, terribly alone. The longer it lasts, the less real he feels, without an anchor to remind him that—he exists, as a person instead of a pet.

Jimin makes it through four more trembling days, before he breaks, and doesn’t even know he’s going to do it.

It happens when Jimin can’t sleep. The excess is starting to catch up with him, the bizarre routines and schedules throwing him out of balance until he’s blinking up at the ceiling in the middle of the night, waiting for the prince to slip back into his chambers like a married man back into his wedding bed.

He’s taken to wrapping himself in the blanket folded at the end of the chaise, though he can’t bring himself to sleep on it; the nights are cold, and Jimin’s endurance is wearing thin. It’s easy, too, to pull it up to his nose and shake his hair over his eyes and watch as Taehyung flips through a few pages of each book he picks up, lips mouthing silently over the words.

Tonight, Jimin waits longer than usual. His legs ache from the barest amount of work, the exercises he’d forced his trembling muscles through, the divot worn into the carpet pacing the outline of his cage with a limp from his worse knee. The collar is starting to chafe in earnest. He’d pulled his fingers away dotted with blood before curling up to sleep, one of the raw lines of skin finally split under the insistent rub, and it stings when he closes his eyes, shifts his head even just to ease the worst of the pain.

It gets so late that Jimin closes his eyes, gets as comfortable as he can, and tries to slip back under. The tension refuses to slip out of his limbs, though; when he tries to breathe deep, his ribs echo with the ghost of pain.

The door rumbles open loud as thunder, and Jimin’s hands curl into fists.

There’s the familiar sound of Taehyung’s breaths, jagged from strain, too exhausted to be kept quiet. They’re the only ones in the rooms, Jimin thinks. Maybe a guard stationed outside the door, but—he doesn’t think so, somehow. Has never heard anyone shift or cough or murmur outside. It makes him wonder, quietly, about Taehyung’s status.

In the quiet dark, even the soft sound of the prince’s slippers echoes. Jimin doesn’t think he’s breathing. Spots of colors dot the space behind his eyes, closed for the first time as Taehyung approaches since the nights where he slept through the terrible moments of closeness.

There’s the familiar rustle of Taehyung’s outer robes as he bends. Probably picks up this book as delicately as he’s touched the others. There’s no room for thought in Jimin’s head, just a whited-out blankness that scares him as much as the gaping hollow in his chest.

Jimin sits up. Slits his eyes open, until he can see through the moonlight the way the prince fumbles with the book, snaps it shut looking like a guilty child.

“You’re not as quiet as you think you are,” Jimin says. It’s meant to sound harsh, but—his throat closes around the words, raw from disuse. The last time he’d spoken more than a few words—

It’s the only blank spot in Jimin’s memory. His throat burns, the memory of the way he must have screamed—

It doesn’t matter. Taehyung flinches back from where Jimin’s sitting now with the blanket fallen to his lap, the chill of the air winding its way around his chest. There’s something warm trickling down his neck, past the hollow between his collarbones. The collar sits heavy and unforgiving, just underneath the bob of his throat.

Does it make you uncomfortable, Jimin wants to spit. Wants to force Taehyung back another step, can’t stand to have him so close. Watching him is infuriating, the way his mouth gapes open, his eyes dart back toward the door. There’s something tight and horrible and ugly in Jimin’s chest, something that makes his hands tremble in fists at his lap. The thing wants to call the prince a coward, wants to lock him in a collar and cuffs and make him sleep and eat and piss in the open like less than a beast, wants to leave him alone and unspoken to for days until he cracks like Jimin has, open and raw and shivering on the floor.

“You won’t even—talk to me,” he says, and hates that his voice cracks. That it misses the mark of vicious and falls into pathetic, so much that it hurts to look as it registers in Taehyung’s eyes.

Most of all, Jimin hates that it works.

“I don’t know what to say,” Taehyung says. There’s sweat dried down the sides of his face, oily and just visible enough in the moonlight. He licks his lips, twists his hands in the fabric of his overshirt. “I’m—I’m sorry.”

Jimin tips his head back. It makes solid contact against the wall, a familiar ache.

“You don’t get to be sorry.” It comes out weak, whispered. Jimin focuses his eyes, narrows his glare, and tries again. “You don’t deserve to be sorry.”

The unfamiliar dialect tastes bitter on his tongue. Taehyung’s eyes are wide, hands white-knuckled against the binding of the book.

“I just.” Taehyung says. Takes a deep breath, looks helplessly at the thin line of blood seeping into the pale yellow of Jimin’s robe. He seems to lose the words on his tongue, stutters around the shape of them. His hand twitches, his whole self tugged forward as if to stifle the flow of it, and Jimin bares his teeth like the animal he’s trying not to be and pins Taehyung back with the rage he hopes is palpable as the stench of rot.

“Don’t you lay a finger on me,” he says. Slow and deliberate. “If you wanted to pin me down and fuck me, you lost your chance as soon as that drug wore off.”

Taehyung looks like he’s going to be sick.

“I don’t want to,” he says, like he expects Jimin to take him at his word. It sets that thing inside him to boil, and Jimin closes his eyes and tries to hide his trembling hands and feels like he’s been treading water for weeks, now, and is losing the last of his will to stay above water.

He laughs. Reedy and miserable and small.

“What’s the point?” He says. Sounds as awful as he feels. “Then what’s the—fucking point. You’re just going to keep me chained up in here until I die and won’t do anything about it.”

Taehyung swallows. “They’re asking me to bring you to court.”

And Jimin goes still. Pictures it behind his eyelids: the arching ceilings of that hall, the king, the cruel twist of the crown prince’s sword. Imagines being pinned down in front of the court that had laughed as his people were slaughtered for sport. His face pressed against the stone still warm from the thick, congealed layer of blood that had settled as they were killed.

“I won’t,” Taehyung says, when Jimin fails to respond in any way but the shudder of horror. “I promise, I’m doing what I can.”

His sleeves are pushed up. The bruise on his arm has darkened into something ugly, the scabs from where nails broke skin starting to fade. Everything about this court makes Jimin recoil; the casual cruelty, the depravity of their amusement. If this prince hasn’t learned to play the game well enough—that’s not Jimin’s fault.

“Coward,” Jimin whispers. He looks up, at the drawn sickness on Taehyung’s face. “You’re a coward.”

A beat. Jimin leans forward, watches with sick satisfaction the way Taehyung’s posture shifts subtly into defense. He waits for that elegant hand to let go of the book and drift down to the sword at his waist—he wants it, more than he ever thought he would.

“You’re too weak to use me like you’re supposed to.” He hates the person he’s become. Caged and violent. Proud of the way his words sting, the way Taehyung gnaws on his lower lip and can’t quite keep his hands still. “I doubt you’re brave enough to kill me here, aren’t you?”

“I could,” Taehyung says back, and his voice is low and steady. Jimin fixes him with a look, tilts his head back to expose the line of his neck, the cut of his collar.

“Then do it,” he spits. “Before I get to you first.”

Taehyung stares. Jimin wonders how he must look in the moonlight; primped and dressed like an expensive doll, glittering with gold and half-faded bruises and that one cooling line of blood. Pretty and delicate and broken enough to be inches away from crying for no reason he could speak.

“I won’t,” Taehyung says. Low, deliberate. His breathing looks shallow. He takes a step back.

“Coward,” Jimin says again, and hates that his voice breaks sharply, wavering off into silence. Taehyung holds the book close to his chest, a cheap mystery that Jimin had finished in a few hours at most even trying to pace himself.

“I’m sorry.” He sounds like he means it. If Jimin had anything to throw he would, but there’s nothing left around him but for the half-full pitcher of water; not even the last of the books, held in the prince’s hand without a replacement. Taehyung backs away farther, his features slowly obscured by the darkness.

Jimin watches as the night swallows him. As Taehyung vanishes back into the shadowed door of his bedroom with the book held steady in his hands, and the soft yellow glow of the fire builds higher, the echo of warmth lingering in the familiar wood-burnt smell.

He doesn’t sleep again, that night. He sits up, and waits for the sun to rise, and listens to the soft turn of cheap pages from the next room over.

 


 

 

The day is miserable. It dawns overcast, the sky clouded over long before the sun rises. The light is diffused and ugly, and Jimin feels hollowed out with the vanished promise of spring. He makes the empty motions of smiling at Taehyung’s servants, their nods coming easy now that he hasn’t lashed out to kill any of them, and Haseul’s eyes dart down to the trail of blood down his neck, dried tacky and uncomfortable in the hours that have passed.

Her mouth opens, closes. She sets down another pitcher of water and gathers up the old one fumblingly, eyes still caught at the ring of raw skin underneath the collar, the blatant chafing of his cuffs. Something in her brow sets, and she takes a hesitant step forward.

“His highness can call a physician,” she says softly. The younger maid who follows her around is staring with wide eyes, scrubbing at the same spot on a silver lamp she’s been working on since Haseul approached him.

Jimin smiles tightly, shoulders set, and shakes his head. The subtle concern on her face doesn’t ease, though she does take that step back.

“He’s very kind,” she says, haltingly. Like she’s not sure she should. It’s the first time any of them have spoken to him directly, and Jimin’s heart reminds him of it with a pace that makes him feel faint. “The prince. If you need anything, I’m sure—he’d do anything to help us.”

I’m doing what I can, Jimin remembers, and can’t think of it as anything but selfishness. An attempt to spare himself the humiliation of a court Jimin can infer to be set against him, perhaps bought by an older brother or three. That he treats his servants with courtesy can’t explain away the fact that he’s made no attempts to relocate Jimin, to give him an ounce more privacy or decency than what he has now.

He inclines his head in a bow, instead of responding with commitment. Haseul looks at him one last time, eyes narrowed in thought, before she bobs a tiny bow of her own and steps back to the basic tasks of maintenance. Her assistant meets Jimin’s eyes, flushes furiously, and moves on to the next lamp.

Jimin spends the rest of the day carefully blank. There’s nothing left to do in the absence of reading, in the way the chambers empty of servants until the prince returns in the afternoon. Daeun and Soobin liven up the study, but—it’s not enough to keep him present. The fog of the sky fills up his lungs, and pins him down as surely as the heavy weight of his chain.

It’s enough that he barely bothers to stretch. Instead, he digs thumbs and knuckles into the aching muscles at his shoulders and thighs, bites down his lip to stifle gasps when he has to work through bruises, brings fresh blood to the surface of yellow-green skin. It’s satisfying to watch them bloom again, tender reminders that he hasn’t been trapped in this room all his life, that his body exists as a thing that can be hurt and not just neglected.

The pain keeps him grounded, but the hours slip by like seaweed slick through his fingers, and the sky is too hazy to watch the moonrise, and his tongue trips over the few lines of prayer.

Jimin doesn’t want to think about the nagging reminder that he can barely remember his father’s voice, after so long surrounded. That he remembers Jihyun too much, can’t bear to think of him as was, but—whenever a memory bobs to the surface, it’s distorted by the wet sound of his lungs as he’d died.

He curls up with the blanket draped loosely over his hips, the pillow secure under his head, face angled toward the open balcony doors. He watches the shift of clouds over the moon until his eyes drift shut, and the Goddess blesses him with darkness, cool and complete and finally safe.

Tonight, Jimin sleeps, and does not dream.

 


 

 

Taehyung hasn’t slept well in two hideous weeks. Instead of sleeping fully and deeply, he’s been startling awake at any noise: the pop of a log in the hearth, a door closing two floors below his open window. Park Jimin, chained to the floor of his parlor, shifting in his sleep.

It hadn’t been Taehyung’s decision. The hook in the floor has been there since he’d been moved to these rooms as a child, covered by the chaise the servants had then pushed against the wall in anticipation that the newest member of the household would use it. For the first week, he’d tried not to look; the hatred reflected back at him every time he tried made it easy, the chafing reminder of his own cowardice made it impossible.

Coward, Jimin had known to call him. Taehyung wonders if there’s something about him that makes it so easy to see what strips him of every defense he’s spent his whole life building up. He sighs quietly, and shifts on the massive bed he’s never quite gotten comfortable on, and watches the fire die as the last of its logs crumble to ash. He should get up, should rebuild it, but—it feels impossible to move.

Every night, since his restless energy started wearing holes in the mat, Taehyung has been slipping out the door to escape to the training yard. It’s abandoned this late at night, soldiers and guards and brothers alike to busy sleeping for otherwise to bother spying.

Some nights, Taehyung wraps his hands and jabs at the sand-filled hanging bags until his arms ache. Others, he goes through each carefully-memorized position with his sword balanced between his outstretched hands, until he’s trembling with exertion. The strain feels good, the extra hour or two on top of his mid-morning routine pleasantly challenging. Most nights, it’s enough to push him to the brink of exhaustion he needs to send him crashing into bed as soon as he returns. Others, it’s enough to blank his mind so that when he traces over Bayul words, no other thoughts cloud out his efforts.

Tonight, though, after Jimin’s desperate hostility, the last thing Taehyung wants is to leave his room. He doesn’t want to have to face that again—doesn’t care that it makes him a coward, makes him weak.

It’s been two weeks, and the ghosts mobbing his vision haven’t disappeared. The brightest of them never wavers, and creeps so close to the foreground like it’s trying to scream at him—like Taehyung doesn’t know already what he’s doing wrong. They don’t let him rest, and Taehyung thinks he agrees that he doesn’t deserve it.

He’d saved the prince. Saved him from bleeding out with the dignity of a butchered stag on the floor of the great hall, and then—what? Kept him chained to the floor like a dog. Been too afraid and ashamed to speak to him, too concerned with his own image to sit down and try to explain.

Jimin hates him. Taehyung doesn’t fault him for that, when any death, even as unceremonious as a smile drawn across his throat with a dagger, might have brought more peace than this.

He worries himself into a doze. It’s fitful and half-aware, the awful kind of rest that won’t ease any of the ache in his eyes or temples, but Taehyung clutches onto it like a glimpse of sunlight in midwinter. The sound of the castle at least is familiar, the small clink of hanging glass strung from even the highest branches of trees, the groans of generations-old wood shifting with the tone of the earth.

There’s a sharp, quiet metal noise from below his window. Distinctly out of place in the silence; four floors from the ground, in the absence of swords clashing from various training squares. Taehyung’s eyes peel open of their own accord, like he’d never slept in the first place.

It comes again. Again. Taehyung waits, breath caught silent in his lungs. An owl calls lowly, perched somewhere on a distant roof. Propped up on one elbow, he angles himself toward the window, the wall shared with the balcony in the parlor.

And then, so quietly he almost doesn’t hear it, Jimin gasps.

Taehyung is out of bed before he realizes. Sleep robe tied tight around his waist, a sliver of chest peeking out mottled in familiar pinched bruises, feet bare and cold against the floor. His heart pounds high in his throat, panic throttling any inch of rational thought that isn’t busy drawing up the worst things—assassins, hired swords. Taeil, or any of the rest.

He’s halfway to the door when he hears something heavy hit the ground.

Jimin, he thinks, and curls his fingers around the smooth wood frame of the open doorway. Taehyung pulls himself around the corner and stops, wishing he had thought to take his sword from its place on the wall, until—he sees.

Jimin stands silhouetted by moonlight, one hand rubbing at the other’s wrist. Something gold glitters at his feet, his head lifts to pin Taehyung with wide eyes. He looks calmer than Taehyung has ever seen him, even caught in sleep. He only has a moment to take everything in, though; the way the chain sways lightly, still hooked to both floor and collar, the way his eyes dart to something just behind Taehyung, shadowed in darkness.

It’s the only warning he gets before a knife presses cool and sharp against his throat.

Taehyung doesn’t even think to scream. There’s pressure against his shoulders, the curl of another hand to threaten at his windpipe. The tip of the knife digs into the underside of his jaw, and Jimin watches with trembling hands and no glint of remorse in his eyes. Taehyung’s breathing shallows, the breath hot against his ear the only thing he feels.

“Should I kill him now?” A voice asks, low and hot in Taehyung’s ear.

Jimin breathes, and Taehyung watches, and wonders if Jimin had known all along. He can’t believe that, though; not with the way Jimin’s hands shake as they wrap tight around the chain holding him down.

Taehyung waits for the nod. For the sharply whispered yes. He closes his eyes, and wonders if this is how Jimin had felt with Taejoon’s knife pressing into his jugular. The panic churning hard in his gut, the way the cold point of contact just barely keeps him from jerking out in blind helplessness.

There’d been once, a long time ago now, that Taeho had pinned him face-down in the dirt of the training ring and pressed the tip of his sword to Taehyung’s spine, digging in sharp enough to leave dull holes in his clothing. The bruise left was a point of constant pain for days, aching each time he stood or sat or twisted. As he’d lain with his cheek pressed to dust and sand and gravel, Taehyung hadn’t been sure—half-expected Taeho to laugh, and lean just a bit harder, and push the sword through skin and muscle and heart.

It wasn’t the first time Taehyung prepared himself to die in this place. It wasn’t the last.

But at least he’d known the names of everyone who might have killed him. The cold fear now is less for the inevitable cut of the knife, and more for what comes after: without a name of the killer, he’ll wander these halls until he fades. Until he’s forgotten.

Those bright ghosts flicker in the corner of the dark behind his eyelid, like candles blown near hard enough to go out.

Just say it, Taehyung almost begs. The waiting is unbearable, listening to the breaths of the man behind him and the gentle noises of the chain keeping Jimin bound to the floor. He won’t say he doesn’t deserve it, but—he’s shaking, now, panic caught hard in the adrenaline burst he forces himself to keep down.

“Not yet,” Jimin finally says, voice rough and tight like he’s holding himself back.

Taehyung sags where he’s trapped, and the pressure of the knife lifts just enough to let him breathe fully, and he opens his eyes to find Jimin watching him with a cold kind of hatred.

“But—” The man behind him says, and Jimin glares at him and strains against his leash.

“I said no.” Then, after a small pause, he falters. Swallows hard, lips pursed to keep them flat. “Just get me out of this thing.”

Taehyung breathes out hard, and doesn’t resist when rough rope is looped around his wrists behind his back. When it’s forced between his teeth like a bit and pulled tight enough that it stretches and strains the corners of his mouth.

Nothing more than he deserves.

The man shoves Taehyung down to his knees and steps around him and softens instantly, the drop of his shoulders heavy as he steps up close. It’s only then that Jimin’s gaze wavers; his eyes snap to the man’s face as he works tools into the pinhole lock of Jimin’s collar. He doesn’t look like he’s breathing.

Taehyung feels like an intruder in his own rooms, but—he’s felt like that for years. This is different, to watch the way the stranger’s hands fumble with the delicate tools until the lock clicks, and the thin seam parts, and Jimin shudders out a breath that sounds like a sob.

The collar hits the floor with a noise that makes Taehyung wince.

For a long moment, Jimin stops. The stranger’s hands are still raised, hovering uncertainly like he’s not allowed to touch. In the darkness, Taehyung can barely see the rubbed-raw skin of Jimin’s neck, the small curved scab from the night before. Jimin breathes deep, and blinks hard, and reaches out carefully. He wraps his arms tight around the man’s chest and pulls him in close, presses his face into his shoulder, slow and deliberate and shaking the whole while. A hand comes up, so careful it hurts to watch, and tangles itself into Jimin’s hair, and broad shoulders tremble, and something sharp and cruel stabs into Taehyung’s chest when he realizes—they’re crying.

“Jeongguk,” Jimin says, the tone of his natural dialect sharp and desperate. “I—Guk-ah, I thought—”

He breaks off with a choked noise that might be a laugh.

“Hyung,” Jeongguk replies, so soft as to almost whisper. His cheek is pressed to the side of Jimin’s head, turned away so Taehyung can’t see. “I’m so—I’m so sorry. Everyone said you were dead, I tried to follow but they wouldn’t let me—”

“It’s okay,” Jimin shushes. He pulls back, and presses their foreheads tight together, one hand clasped at the back of Jeongguk’s neck. “Hey, I’m okay. I’m alive, it’s not your fault.”

There’s a pause, quiet but for the sound of their breathing. If he tried hard enough Taehyung could scream, and—there’s a bow strapped to Jeongguk’s back, a dark slim quiver full of arrows, and he’d be shot dead in a second flat. But a guard standing outside Taeho’s chambers might hear and come running, and the two of them might be caught. And killed. And strung up as an example, and one last trophy of war.

“And,” Jeongguk says. Quiet, hesitant, like he knows but doesn’t want to ask. “And—Jihyun?”

Jimin flinches. Closes his eyes and twists his face like he’s going to be sick. When he looks again, his eyes are narrow and pin Taehyung to the wall like a stuck butterfly’s wing.

“What,” he replies, sharp and bitter. “You didn’t see him hanging on the city wall when you rode in?”

The noise Jeongguk makes is wounded and cut-off. Taehyung swallows at the image—it’s where his father orders the bodies of criminals to be hung, bodies left until they start to rot to make an example of them. He knows it’s where most of Bayul’s court had gone, feels sick when he thinks about it, but—

He makes a soft noise, looks back at Jimin with as much urgency he can muster. Jeongguk turns, and Taehyung sees his face for the first time. More childish than he’d pictured, with wide eyes and thin lips, but contorted in an anger that makes him want to shrink back and away.

“Let me kill him,” Jeongguk says. It’s almost a plea, his hand wrapped tight around the hilt of the knife strapped at his thigh. Jimin’s hand on his arm stops him, a gentle pressure that keeps him back, though the threat still hangs.

“Now you want to talk,” Jimin says. He looks at Taehyung like he’s not worth thinking about, and Taehyung forces himself to keep his spine straight. There’s little Jimin could say to him that’s worse than what the court has been saying since before he was born.

Taehyung nods. They’re going to kill him, Jimin is going to escape, the war very well might start again, but—it’s worth it to try. To at least give Jimin this, after all the pain of the last weeks. Jimin glances toward Jeongguk with a curt nod, and Taehyung grinds his teeth into coarse rope to stop himself from flinching when the knife slides out of its sheath.

He almost gets distracted by panic when Jeongguk leans down over him, the memory of firm weight on his hips only eased when the rope falls away from his mouth, when Jeongguk steps away with disgust written clear in his eyes. Taehyung takes a deep breath, and shudders out the words as quickly as he can manage, his tongue fumbling over each syllable spoken in the Bayul dialect.

“He’s not on the wall,” he blurts, no time for finesse as Jimin clenches his jaw. “I’m sorry, it’s not your custom, but—I had him cremated. Paid for a burial. So they couldn’t—I heard what they would do to the body.”

It had been a joke, he thinks, something Taeseok had said with a drunken laugh over the feast that night. Stuff its head and mount it, he remembers, with the sick twist in his gut, and Taehyung hadn’t wanted to risk bringing the ashes back to his rooms. Didn’t know if Taeseok was joking, but knows all the cruel ways they all have learned to make a spirit linger after death. The brightest ghost, the one who’s never left Taehyung’s sight, flickers and dances and surges forward only to fall back.

He’d failed, even in ensuring the ashes their rites and trying his best to give Jimin the mourning rituals, but he doesn’t want to say it. If he started, the apologies would never end.

Jimin looks ill. Jeongguk looks murderous. Taehyung tugs against the rope around his wrists to feel it burn and looks away.

“Let me kill him,” Jeongguk says again, quiet in his rage. Taehyung stops fighting it, then; the tension bleeds out of him like sand from a stuck bag, his shoulders curl forward. Now he knows the name, can only hope that his father bothers to honor his body, doesn’t have to wander out of guilt for never having told Jimin this last thing. He doesn’t know the coordinates of the grave or he’d give them, just knows that it’s in one copse of oak trees among hundreds bordering the city, knows the winding path away from the outer wall almost by heart.

This time, Jimin has to say yes. It’s almost relieving.

But—

“No,” Jimin says. Taehyung opens his eyes and looks, at the way Jimin’s posture has settled, at the careful way he holds himself. Like a prince. Like—a king. The last of his line.

I’ll kill you, Jimin had said, eyes blurred with tears from the monsang root.

“He’s a prince. And we need all the leverage we can get.”

It hits Taehyung like a fall from the window. What Jimin plans to do. Jeongguk’s eyes widen, his fingers let go of the knife that falls to click into the place of its sheath.

“You mean—” he says. Taehyung shudders out a breath, and meets the unwavering cold of Jimin’s eyes, and watches the slow, deliberate nod with the knowledge that nothing, after this, will be the same, except for one thing. He doesn’t doubt that one day, Jimin will kill him for what he’s done. But until then—until then.

“We take him with us,” Jimin says, and it sounds like the tolling of funeral bells.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

II.

 

Taehyung’s hands shake as he fastens the wooden clasp of the cloak, thick fabric draped heavy over his shoulders. It’s coarser than anything he’d wear on an official trip, the dark green dye cheap and fading at the edges, but it’s good protection against the chill in the air, and Taehyung gets the feeling he’ll be grateful for it soon.

Both thin layers underneath are lower quality than he should own, a gift from Haseul from her late cousin’s closet after his first bumbling attempt to visit the lower town. He doesn’t go often, had to dig these clothes out from the bottom of his drawers, but he’s bought a few more things since then and he has the luxury of inconspicuous choice in something, at least.

Jeongguk watches from the doorway with suspicious eyes and a furrow between his brow, flipping his knife between the fingers of one hand. He’d turned away pointedly for only the brief seconds it had taken Taehyung to change from his sleep robe into a loose undershirt, and the message is clear. There’s no privacy here, no way for him to scrawl a message or call for help.

Taehyung hooks his fingers in the back of his heavy traveling shoes and straightens, meeting Jeongguk’s stare in practiced blankness.

He should be feeling something, he thinks. Panic or fear or anything beside the odd numbness tingling at his chest, that stops him from caring even when Jeongguk’s elbow knocks into his ribs as he passes, returning to the parlor with an inelegant stumble.

Jimin looks up at him, crouched on the floor of the balcony, and stands.

He’s silhouetted in moonlight, casting strange shadows on his face through his dark hair. The clothes he’d fished out of the leather bag slung across Jeongguk’s bag below his quiver are black, form-fitting but loose around his calves and wrists, barely high enough at the throat to cover the dip of his collarbone. He looks like every portrait of Bayul royalty Taehyung has seen in the libraries, in the one war meeting he’d attended for the formality.

Jimin’s eyes shift away, to Jeongguk behind him.

“You climbed with this?” He asks, and lifts a cord of rope he’d picked up. Walks back into the room from where the wind touches his hair, and Taehyung sees the red, roughened skin on the side of his neck. Jeongguk must nod; Jimin looks vaguely displeased, and starts to loop it into a coil. “If it were just me, I could make it down with you, but—not unless we wanted to hogtie him and lower him down.”

“I don’t have enough rope for that,” Jeongguk says, and Taehyung’s stomach lurches.

“There are servant’s entrances downstairs,” he blurts. Jeongguk snorts, and grabs his wrists to bind them again, this time at his front. Jimin glares, and he’s—shockingly composed. So different than the man who’d slept on Taehyung’s floor for two weeks, who’d gritted his teeth as a guard ground his face into a pool of his kinsmen’s blood.

“I can find more rope.” Jeongguk glares darkly, looks inches away from spitting at Taehyung’s feet.

“Where?” Jimin asks. His eyes cut back to Taehyung, one hand absently drifts to rub at the inch of skin exposed by the sleeve of his shirt. Taehyung blinks, doesn’t think he imagines Jeongguk’s scoff.

“Down four flights, across the courtyard. Haseul’s rooms have a front door in the palace wall.”

There’s a pause. Jimin looks back down to the rope in his hands, before he offers it out to Jeongguk.

“You expect me to trust you?”

“If I were going to scream, I would have already.”

Taehyung doesn’t look away when Jimin meets his eyes. He’s had enough practice staring down predators that it’s not something he has to think about anymore. Don’t engage, his mother had whispered to him. He remembers—being told to stay above the cruel words, the judgements and pettiness. He’d let his brothers do anything to him and take it with a smile, now.

His hands itch to curl over his abdomen. There’s nothing worse anyone could do.

“We’d be noticed in the halls.” Jimin gestures down at his clothing. His shirt is shorter than Taehyung’s thin outer robe, his pants higher at the waist and a cloth belt knotted loosely at the side. Jeongguk is dressed similarly, though a little looser, in a dark charcoal Taehyung could see by the light of his dying fire.

“I have cloaks,” Taehyung says. “Like this one. You wouldn’t look out of place in the town.”

“You’re being very helpful,” Jeongguk cuts in coldly. “Hyung, we shouldn’t listen—”

“Haseul’s rooms,” Jimin says, cutting him off. He pauses; Taehyung nods. “Jeongguk, get the cloaks.”

Jeongguk opens his mouth, looks ready to argue, but Jimin lays a gentle hand on his arm. The touch looks like it shakes them both. Jeongguk’s other hand rises, covers Jimin’s palm with his own, and Taehyung aches to watch it.

“Trust me,” Jimin says, tone gentled. Jeongguk softens, and there’s the unspoken thought that hangs in the air: that it’s not Jimin he doesn’t trust, and with good reason.

Traitor, they’ll call him, if they ever find out. Taehyung swallows the hard knot in his throat and tries to rationalize it; he doesn’t want to die, and if they can’t get him out of the palace they might decide that an arrow in his chest would be more convenient. It’s not—not that he wants to go. He’s never been farther outside the city walls than a few miles into the forest, knows Jimin could leave him stranded in a mountain pass at any moment.

If Taehyung leaves, he’s vulnerable. But if he stays—

He thinks about telling Taejoon about Jimin’s disappearance. Thinks about the ruby inlaid in the hilt of Taeil’s favorite dagger, how everything is bad and this will only make it all worse. He swallows, and feels grateful that his nervous hands are hidden beneath the cloak where they’re bound.

“Here,” Jeongguk says, lifting the drape of fabric over his arm slightly as he walks back in. He’s brought two: a crimson for Jimin that he fastens carefully, Jeongguk’s fingers working with Jimin’s chin tipped up like he was born to be served; a gray for Jeongguk that falls lighter than the shade of his clothing. “You’re sure this will work?”

Jimin meets Taehyung’s eyes briefly, dismissively. It’s hard to think about the picture of Taehyung he must have in his head; spineless, cowardly, ready to sell out his family to spare his own life. He’s not wrong, Taehyung knows. Nothing he’s done here could prove Jimin wrong. He’s running away and he knows it.

And really—what’s the point. They’ll either kill him when they reach whatever’s left of the Bayul resistance, or sell him back to his father after keeping him in a dungeon for the doubled-up journey time. Either way, Taehyung ends up dead or back here or both.

“As sure as I can be,” Jimin says. Jeongguk steps away, hands reaching to brush Jimin’s shoulders and then skittering away in midair, ducking his head like a chastised child.

“Okay,” he says, with a careful breath. “Okay, just let me—”

Jeongguk steps out to the balcony, pulls a thick leather glove onto his fist. Taehyung flinches at the heavy flap of wings that accompanies the dark swoop of shadow, but Jimin breaks into a smile that makes him look away in shame.

“Tokki,” Jimin murmurs, voice gone high and sweet, as he steps back into the open air.

The falcon perched on Jeongguk’s forearm levels one dark, glittering eye at Jimin, and half-flaps its massive wings.

“She found me a few days ago,” Jeongguk says, the pride in his voice so youthful it makes Taehyung think they’ve forgotten him. “Almost tore my arm off before I could get out the glove, but she’s trained really well.”

The hawk is named for a rabbit. Her eye darts over Taehyung, the wicked curve of her beak obvious even in pale moonlight. There’s a satchel on her back, and Taehyung can guess at a message tightly rolled and sealed inside, and Jimin strokes the back of two fingers down her neck and smiles up at Jeongguk with a familiarity that keeps Taehyung aching.

“Jeongguk,” Jimin says, soft enough that Taehyung almost doesn’t hear. Jeongguk looks up at him from where he’s been petting the underside of the bird’s breast, eyes wide like he barely believes that Jimin is real. “I’m glad you’re safe.”

“Not yet. Not until you are.”

It’s a kind of devotion Taehyung doesn’t expect. He knows by now what Jeongguk’s uniform is; as he sends the hawk soaring into the night sky, his sleeve dips down to bare a line of black ink across his forearm. Taehyung would be willing to bet that the Kal’s oath is tattooed across his back, that the names of the princes he’s sworn to protect paint his chest.

He wonders what the Kal do when a member of the Bayul royal line dies. Wonders if they add a strike through the name, or black it out, or add an honorific to the characters.

Jeongguk shakes his sleeve back down, and Taehyung says a quiet goodbye to his rooms. The memories of the study, where he’d learned to hold a baby as Haseul worked to finish her tasks, hushing Daeun anxiously every time she started to fuss. The bed that had felt massive when he’d moved in sixteen years ago, and never seemed to get smaller.

It had never really felt safe anyway, he rationalizes. He’s not losing much.

 


 

They let him lead the way out of his chambers, with Jeongguk’s knife pressed to his back. Through layers of fabric it doesn’t bite, but the threat is there; the movement obvious. On Taehyung’s left, Jimin glances around darkened hallways with a careful mask pulled over his expression. On his right, that crowd of ghosts hums and wavers, the brightest light swarmed by the rest.

Taehyung knows the guard rotations well. Knows that they never stand at their post by the servants’ wall, because of the wine house just that farther into the thick of the city. Knows that the ones outside of Taeseok’s door rarely stick around, well used to the obnoxious noise coming from within.

“Wait,” Jimin hisses, as they start down the narrow stair. He grabs Taehyung’s shoulder, pushes him to a stop so suddenly that Jeongguk nearly runs him through. “Sora. Is she—”

Taehyung blinks. The girl, he thinks Jimin is asking about. The one Taeseok had claimed. He opens his mouth, tries to think of words that aren’t the vulgar ones he’d heard at the training ring. Jimin’s hand drops, and the place he’d touched burns in the aftermath.

“She’s not,” Jimin says for him, a heavy weight pressing down on the words.

“I’m sorry.”

Jimin steps away like he’s been burned. He presses a hand against his lips, glares at some invisible point below and beyond into the darkness of the staircase. There’s the smooth sound of Jeongguk’s knife being holstered, and then—an arm winds around Jimin’s waist, and Jimin sags sideways into the space Jeongguk makes for him. Taehyung can’t meet his eyes.

They walk quiet down the stairs, pass through an open courtyard to the lower level where the servants keep rooms bordering the outer wall. Taehyung steps quickly until Jeongguk tugs harshly on the back of his cloak to slow him down. It gets harder to not look toward the south end of the courtyard where the wall starts to curve, the rooms all connected. Taehyung swallows down the discomfort as Jeongguk lets him go.

Jimin’s breath is shuddering by the time they reach the steps up to Haseul’s room. Taehyung listens for footsteps as he slides the door open; his hands are bound more for precaution than utility, he thinks. He couldn’t wield a sword with any accuracy, and the thick knots give a decent handhold if he needs to be tugged forward.

Haseul’s rooms barely pass for a house. They step first into the small parlor, a tiny table littered with the remains of tea atop the floor covered with woven mats. In the corner, her aging aunt sleeps with an open mouth and a frail hand curled in the thin blanket.

“What,” Jeongguk whispers. Taehyung holds his breath as he creeps past, too-aware of how loud each rustle of fabric seems.

He knows without having to see where the door to the second room is. Each of these units is identical. He’d spent enough time in the one just next door to have to look, even so many years later.

Haseul’s aunt has always been a heavy sleeper. So have her parents, barely visible when Taehyung peels the door open, sleeping on the same cot. Soobin is pressed between them, his thumb in his mouth, his cheeks chubby and squished against his grandfather’s chest. On the other cot is Haseul, hand curled on the pillow next to her head, passed out still in her uniform from sheer exhaustion.

Taehyung doesn’t make it to the door set into the thick stone wall. From the darkness comes a little hand, pulling insistently on the hem of his cloak, and he hears Jeongguk muffle a curse as he kneels down, keeping his bound hands close against his chest.

“Oppa,” Daeun whispers, as subtly as a five year old can manage. “Where are you going?”

Taehyung wishes he could reach out, smooth down the unruly mess of her hair. He offers her his sweetest smile instead, and gets nothing but the annoyed cross of her arms. Despite the attitude, she’s blinking heavy with sleepiness, and it’s sweet to watch her stand her ground.

“I’m just going outside for a while,” he answers. “My friends are coming with me.”

“Oh.” She thinks about that, for a long second. “I’m your friend. Can I come?”

Her last word is stretched on a yawn, one she valiantly tries to fight. Taehyung breathes out what might count as a laugh, and shakes his head softly.

“Not yet, Daeun-ah. Get a little bigger first.” She pouts but nods, strained on her tip-toes to look him in the eye where he’s crouched. “Wrap your arms around my neck, and hold on tight.”

She’s warm against him, sticky cheek pressed to his. Taehyung wonders what sight they make, her clinging to him as he walks her back to Haseul’s bed with knees clamped tight around his chest. His hands still bound. Before he kneels again, Taehyung smacks a kiss to her cheek just to make her giggle, before settling her down in the crook of her mother’s body.

“Tell your eomma I’ll be back soon, okay? Don’t worry about me.”

Daeun nods dutifully, kisses her pinky finger and blinks up at him.

It breaks his heart, to make a promise he doesn’t know if he can keep, but Taehyung lifts his hands and kisses his pinky anyway. Jimin exhales softly behind him, and Daeun closes her eyes and stops pretending to be fully awake, and Taehyung straightens up with tears stinging worse than the knife that had been at his throat.

They slip out into the night, and Jimin has the decency to pretend he doesn’t see the first and only tears that come from leaving the palace behind.

 


 

This late—or maybe early—the streets are quiet. Jeongguk starts to guide him again at knifepoint, their pace slowed to accommodate Jimin’s heavy breathing. It’s the most he’s walked in weeks, Taehyung knows. The hallway trip to and from the baths barely count, in the face of the winding labyrinth Jeongguk leads them through.

Once, an old couple passes them with a chicken under each of their arms, and Jeongguk presses close against Taehyung’s back, the knife hidden between their bodies and the folds of their cloaks. Jimin keeps close despite the way he seems to be struggling, reaching out every so often to touch Jeongguk’s elbow, the nape of his neck. Every so often, when the narrowing streets have been quiet for long strides, Jeongguk reaches out and laces their fingers together, and Taehyung forces himself not to look.

Jeongguk takes them to the East gate. It’s a long walk, through the quiet streets of middle-sized homes and businesses, clear of both the wealthiest and poorest clusters of city. Wise, if they’re traveling back to Bayul. They won’t have to circle the city wall again, and once Taehyung is discovered gone—

Once Jimin is discovered gone, more precisely. Taehyung doesn’t know if there’d be a public search, if it were just him missing.

“Stop,” Jeongguk murmurs, when they’re just shy of the wall. There’s an entrance there, squared in red wood and carved with the symbols of the Brothers. Two guards, one facing in, one facing out. Before they’re seen, Taehyung follows them into the gap between two homes, a cat perched on a curved roof eyeing them lazily.

“How are we getting out?” Jimin labors for breath, but stands with a straight spine, shoulders squared back. The hood of his cloak covers most of his face, the raw skin of his neck. Taehyung angles himself away, tries to seem as small as possible. He feels less like a prince than a fruit fly, buzzing uselessly with nervous energy.

“I brought friends,” Jeongguk says, and jerks his head just slightly back toward the street. Jimin raises a shadowed eyebrow, and tilts his head to look, and Taehyung can’t stop himself from doing the same.

They wait for a long moment. The night is undisturbed, the soldiers barely moving but for the occasional itch, a groaned commiseration passed back and forth on aching feet. Taehyung is close to scorn, to maybe mild panic, when he hears the sound of slippered footsteps, coming from the south road the curves along the wall.

“Excuse me,” a voice calls. It’s low and feminine and a little nasal, but laced with sweetness and respect all in a perfect north-country accent. Jimin’s mouth drops into the hint of a delighted smile, and Jeongguk’s chest puffs up in pride like a schoolboy.

“You brought noona,” Jimin says, voice full and warm, and the woman finally comes into sight.

Taehyung can tell by the soldiers’ reactions that she’s beautiful. Her skirts are light, color indistinguishable in the darkness, but he can tell they’re cut just a bit short. The belt is cinched right at her waist, her shoulders broad, defined, strong. She bows deeply, and the soldiers hastily return the gesture.

“How may we help?” One of them asks. He sounds overly formal, if distracted, and Taehyung startles at the remembrance of his own dialect. Jimin and Jeongguk speak deeper to each other, the dip of their vowels more pronounced than he’s used to hearing. The servants speak informally to each other, but—it’s been a long time since anyone has dared drop formalities around him, and Taehyung understands. Remembers carefully training his tongue, learning the nuances of his own language alongside his lessons in Bayul dialect.

“Oh, could you?” There’s a pitch of distress to the woman’s voice now, the rustle of paper as she holds something out, just far enough to seem unintentionally coy. “My cousin rented me a room for the night, and I’ve been wandering for hours. I’ve always gotten lost so easy.”

“Of course,” the outer guard mumbles. He steps forward, gets an elbow in the ribs from his partner. The inner guard takes the scrap of paper, and stares up at her face a moment longer before remembering to read it.

“Sweetheart,” he says, a little pitying, a little condescending. “This room’s on the other end of town. Someone give you bad directions?”

“I hope not,” the woman pouts. She leans forward, braces her hand lightly on his arm as she re-reads the address. “I’ve really never been here before, and that man seemed so sweet.”

“Hey now, you shouldn’t take directions from a stranger.” The outer guard shoves his way in, and the woman loses her balance with a startled gasp. She manages to make falling into the soldier’s chest seem natural, and Taehyung can’t help but admit that whoever she is, her accent and her manner and the way she leans just barely into the soldiers’ touch are as authentic as he can tell.

“Are you a stranger?” She asks, and it’s such a blatant proposition that she giggles. Jimin’s shoulders are hunched, one hand pressed over his mouth to hide a beaming smile.

“Don’t have to be,” he says back, voice pitched half an octave lower. The inner guard snorts, but doesn’t distance himself enough to make Taehyung believe he isn’t interested.

“I’m sure Sungho here would be happy to show you to your room, miss,” he says, and falters when she turns back to him. Taehyung can’t make out specifics, but the whole thing seems ludicrous enough to believe that she’s batting her eyelashes.

“But sir,” she says, in that familiar country way he’s heard tossed between market stalls on festival days. “I’m really so nervous out here. And—I mean, you both seem so…”

She trails off, and laughs embarrassed, and hides her face in her hands. “I’m sorry, that was so familiar of me, I’m sure you think I’m some kind of—”

“Not at all!” the inner guard blurts. His tone gentles, gruffly as it does. “No, sweetheart, not at all. The city can be pretty overwhelming, we understand.”

“I don’t want to bother you,” she says. Both guards crowd closer, one of them reaching out to brush back her bangs. She’s as tall as either of them, but manages to appear to look up at both regardless. Across the narrow alley they’re crammed into, Jeongguk has a satisfied smile on his face, and he’s not looking at the scene playing out. He’s watching Jimin laugh, with relief in his eyes so full it forces Taehyung to look away.

“No bother,” the outer guard assures. His hand tucks neatly around the tiniest point of the woman’s waist. “No bother at all, for someone pretty as you.”

Predictably, Jimin’s noona vanishes along the northern street with two guards trailing after her like ducklings, both vying for an inch more of her attention. The gate stands unguarded, and Taehyung waits for the length of a shaky exhale to see whether one will come doubling back, but nothing moves. The cat above them twitches its tail, eyes reflecting back strange moonlight, before it leaps the gap between roofs and continues on its path.

They pass the wall undisturbed, unquestioned. Jimin laughs, high and a little hysterical, and Jeongguk beams, and they only settle back into quiet solemnity when Taehyung moves to follow in their footsteps, walking underneath the gate with a murmured prayer of thanks.

Jeongguk half-steps toward him, and pins Taehyung back with red-painted wood pressed straight against his spine. Taehyung doesn’t fight it, but does turn his face away, won’t give the pleasure of looking him in the eyes as Jeongguk grips his wrists carelessly. He’s quick and silent, pulling that long coil of rope from his pack, and looping it firmly around the bonds that keep Taehyung’s hands tied at his front. They’re tighter like this, enough to chafe already, and the breath leaves Taehyung’s lungs slowly, to stop the sound from trembling.

“There,” Jeongguk hisses, all youth and joy vanished from the harsh lines of his face. Taehyung flinches back from the proximity, and doesn’t miss the satisfaction on Jeongguk’s face when he gets to yank him closer by his own new leash. “That’s not half what you deserve.”

Jimin looks, and rubs again at his wrists, and doesn’t say a word against it.

Taehyung follows them out of his city, the rope between himself and Jeongguk taut. The forest around them grows thicker with every step, darker the farther they get from the city walls. They stay on the stone-paved path at first, until Jeongguk sees something he recognizes and leads them off onto a smaller trail, barely beaten down from

It’s familiar for Taehyung, feeling alone. But in the darkness, cold nipping underneath his cloak, the solitude is intense and unforgiving. At least within the walls, he had allies. Sometimes friends. People who knew him, and would look at him, and were willing to trade favors. Taehyung is starting to understand the last two weeks of Jimin’s life, can’t stop thinking about Jimin’s voice breaking in the middle of the night.

You won’t even talk to me, he’d said. It’s something that hurts Taehyung to think about. Jeongguk is right—he deserves it. They know he won’t fight. He’s going with them easy, and hates himself more for every step.

He misses Haseul. Misses Daeun and Soobin already. Misses his mother.

Taehyung adds his friends to a list of people to let go of, and keeps himself quiet, leashed obediently, as he follows Jimin to somewhere that can’t possibly be worse to him than home.

 


 

They walk until Jimin grips Jeongguk’s wrist and pulls him to a stop. Taehyung lingers behind them, keeps his head bowed respectfully as they stand in silence. It’s too dark to see from the distance, the blackness creeping in on Taehyung’s vision until he’s strangled with a tight knot of fear.

He’s been in these woods before, but—never alone. Never in the dark. The only redemption is the open space, the speckle of stars filtering in through the gaps in the canopy. There’s stories of tigers deep in this forest, long driven out from the city’s border by hunters whose trophies still line his father’s carpets, and Taehyung can’t stop feeling phantom eyes on his back, hands tight around his rope like a safety line.

The camp they make is small, the brush dry enough to make a fire that Jeongguk is too cautious to use for anything but the barest glimpse of warmth, the ground cold beneath them as he pulls out a soft bundle of cloth for underneath Jimin’s head. Taehyung watches Jimin take it, examine the warm brown of the robe Jeongguk might have used to get into the city, and roll it up again without a word. He leans his head back against the rough park of a pine, and watches Jeongguk study him in the firelight.

“Are they yours?” Taehyung blinks, and turns his head back to Jimin. He hasn’t laid down yet, fingers digging heavy dents into the cloth of the robe. He seems angry. Always angry, and Taehyung doesn’t blame him. Taehyung takes a deep breath, and forces himself not to react, other than the confused tilt of his head. “The children.”

“Oh,” he breathes. His shoulders drop, hands bound and still in his lap. Jeongguk hasn’t tied him to a tree, but as Taehyung gathers himself, he watches the end of the rope wind around Jeongguk’s wrist, tied one-handed into a knot he’s just barely able to follow. He won’t be going anywhere. Not without Jeongguk, and so—not without Jimin. “No. Neither of them.”

“Liar,” Jeongguk bites. Taehyung glares, and then catches himself. There’s no point in attempting any retribution.

Don’t fight back, his mother had cautioned him. Barely speaking full sentences, and still bruised up and down like he’s been all his life.

“They’re not. Their mother is a friend, and her parents are too old to watch them. If she looked after them herself, she wouldn’t be able to work.” With two illegitimate children, no one would hire her. Without tenure on the grounds, she’d lose the narrow rooms, and her family along with her. She won’t take his money, and it’s the least he can—could, he remembers—do.

“You watch a stranger’s children,” Jimin says slowly.

“A courtier’s,” Taehyung says. And thinking about it makes him furious all over again, for the way Haseul had cried that afternoon when she’d brought Daeun up, the way she’d shaken through an explanation of the threat he had given her, if she didn’t carry to term. The way she still looks hollow, some mornings, and it makes him want to act more like his brothers than he’s ever felt in his life.

Jimin turns away. In the darkness it’s impossible to catch his expression, to see anything beyond the vague shape of him as he lies down, one hand still holding tight to Jeongguk’s. His breathing evens off quickly, picked out between the sounds of the forest around them, and Jeongguk stays sitting up against another pine. He barely moves in the hours they rest, Taehyung drifting in and out of uncomfortable sleep, too aware of the bow resting by Jeongguk’s thigh to want to move much himself.

The sun rises high and shadowed between the leaves, long moments before Jeongguk rouses Jimin to start the journey again. In the new light, before either of them move, Taehyung opens his eyes to see Jimin’s hand now splayed against the ground, and Jeongguk’s palm pressing lightly against his prince’s heart, as if to reassure himself that he isn’t dreaming. His lips mouth the words of a prayer, eyes fixed on the glimpses of sunrise.

“Hyung,” Jeongguk finally murmurs. A few repetitions later, Jimin’s eyes blink open in confusion, finding Jeongguk above him before a hand reaches up, grasps blindly at the empty air above his throat. Jeongguk makes a soft noise, something wounded, and Jimin jerks up with a gasp, a heave that makes Taehyung afraid he’s going to throw up.

“Jeongguk,” Jimin breathes. Reaches out to grip the back of his neck, drawing them together, eyes working frantically over Jeongguk’s face. “I thought I dreamed it.”

Jeongguk’s chin trembles.

“Not a dream,” he manages, thick through sudden emotion. Taehyung hates it, strains his hands against fine rope to make himself feel it. Jimin shudders, the slow release of tension visible beneath the heavy weight of his cloak, something defeated in the curve of his spine. “I’m here.”

“You’re here,” Jimin repeats back. He looks at Jeongguk like he’s desperate for it, like he’s drowning, and it’s impossible to watch and impossible to look away and impossible to believe that so much tenderness exists for anyone. Impossible to believe that it could exist for him.

Taehyung bows his head, and doesn’t look up until he feels the rope tug him up and forward. Even then, he averts his eyes. Trails behind them when they start to pick their way down the forgotten path, the memories of footsteps long faded from entire patches of foliage.

He can’t look. The way Jimin and Jeongguk trade easy touches stings as much as a slap. It’s easier to keep his eyes averted as he walks, drifting through thoughts that only make him want to curl his shoulders in further. It’s years of training that keep Taehyung upright, his shoulders squared. There’s something stretching in his chest like a strand of silk, tugging tighter and tighter the farther he gets from the palace, the excess wrapped around his lungs until he almost imagines the hissing of a coiled snake. It pulls, and pulls, and seems to go on forever, like it could all be exhaled in one smooth breath that would leave him cold and empty.

Taehyung walks, and braces himself for the thread to snap.

 


 

The sun has barely risen past the peak of the eastern mountain range, and Jimin is already dead on his feet. He knows Jeongguk is keeping a steady eye by the barest pressure against his elbow when he slows, by the way their eyes meet every time Jimin glances to his side.

He’d trained himself out of it, waiting in Odai’s palace. Looking to his right, expecting to see Jeongguk or Hoseok or Dawon. Jimin looks more than usual, now, and tries to will the frantic pace of his heart into believing that it’s real. Not a hallucination, or a dream, or a cruel drug-induced torture—real. Jeongguk who he can touch, clothing that feels like home against his skin and smells like the wood-smoke of the fires they’d made on the march.

“Here,” Jeongguk says quietly, when the rumble of Jimin’s stomach breaks through the quiet sounds of the forest around them. He rustles in his bag, pulls out something wrapped in thin linen, offers it out with that hopeful look that always meant he’d stolen something from the cooks.

Jimin slows to a stop and unwraps the linen, and breathes out a quiet laugh. The bread is familiar and foreign at the same time; the shape unusual, but the crack of crust as he breaks it and soft off-white flesh are instantly recognizable.

“Stole it fresh,” Jeongguk winks, the barest hint of familiar humor leaking into his smile. Jimin chokes out a laugh, splits the small loaf in half to hand one over, everything long gone cold and a little hard but warming him up from the inside anyway. And then, after a moment’s consideration, in half again.

Taehyung almost stops walking when Jimin turns to him. Looks up with wide eyes for just long enough to Jimin to meet them, then ducks his head down again. He doesn’t look like a prince out here, cloak so green it blends in with the forest. Just looks like a boy, maybe Jimin’s age, traveling scared and leashed with strangers.

He doesn’t bother saying anything. Sees Taehyung watching from his periphery, so he tosses the bread low and easy, Taehyung’s bound fingers closing around it. Jimin’s throat constricts around the memory of half-chewed, rotting rice cakes. He won’t be like those soldiers, on the long journey down the mountain.

“Thank you,” Taehyung says. His voice sounds strange in Bayul’s dialect. Still wooden, stiff, but no different than another foreigner. Jeongguk glares, and grips Jimin’s elbow, and switches their handfuls so Jimin gets the larger chunk.

They walk in silence, after that, and Jimin’s chest bubbles over with everything he wants to say, and everything he knows he can’t in front of Taehyung. Every question gives something away: who else died in that attack, who else lived. Where they’re going, who they’re meeting, what’s going to be waiting for him when they get to whatever place has been held during his absence.

Jeongguk hands his bow over when the sun is high in the sky, and lets Jimin shoot into the brush again and again until he’s gotten back the muscle memory of notch, aim, loose. It feels good to do something with his hands again, even if the longer he holds the bow he’d watched Jeongguk carve himself, his arms feel heavier and heavier until he has to hand it back.

Jimin’s legs ache. The moderate stretching he’d done in the last few days of captivity wasn’t enough to prepare him for another long journey—not like the training he’d done before they marched out to battle, like he’s done all his life, as far back as he can remember. Jeongguk doesn’t say anything, too wary of the silent ears behind them, but his eyes soften like they’re getting close to somewhere he can finally rest.

He keeps waiting to hear footsteps behind them. The cry of a search party, looking for a captured princeling. Jeongguk seems poised to run at any moment, and goes so far as to unfasten his cloak, shoving it halfway into his bag before he realizes that it won’t fit, and pouts like a petulant child until Jimin takes it from him.

“I can carry it,” Jeongguk whines, but he looks so much freer without it that Jimin just hugs the heavy layers of it tight to his chest and grins, drinking in the sight of his friend—his best friend, alive and jittery and too afraid to stray from Jimin’s side.

The trees start to thin as they get closer to the foothills. It feels less safe, abruptly enough that Jimin has to shake away a bolt of panic that shoots through his stomach for no reason when he realizes they’re approaching something like a clearing. Jeongguk’s hand on his arm is steady, always so attuned to him. Jimin reaches back, and swallows back sickness to remember Jeongguk and Jihyun rolling in the tide together, Jeongguk always just a little taller, just a few months younger.

They approach the clearing from the west, curving along the side, and as the trees thin out Jimin gets a glimpse of red-painted wood, the dark slope of a roof.

He holds his breath. No sound of voices, of footsteps aside their own. Closer, and he sees the shrine, makes out the vague shapes of nature-worn statues. A temple, overgrown with late-winter plant life, likely abandoned.

Jeongguk leads them quietly around the border of the clearing, but the rope nudges Jimin in the arm and he looks back to find Taehyung straying, eyes wide as he edges toward the gap in the trees. With his attention pointed away, Jimin gets the chance to fully look in the light of day. To take in the plain coarseness of his clothes, the practical sole of his shoe, the heavy bags under his eyes that he hasn’t had the steamed baths to fade away.

“May I pray?” Taehyung asks, voice low and soft like Jimin’s heard it to Haseul so many times. He turns his head back, looks at Jimin like he’d felt eyes on him. And Jimin thinks—

The cold winter air drifting through the balcony doors. The gauzy white of Odaian clothing, the wrong herbs in the right broth. The prayers he’d forgotten halfway through, but had stayed on his knees to finish anyway, jaw tense to keep himself from crying. It would have been so easy for Taehyung to leave him there, even without touching him. To keep him in blues and yellows and leave out food he couldn’t touch and shut the blinds on the balcony door to keep Jimin from knowing sunrise from midday. It would have been easy, and cruel, and unforgivable.

“Wait,” Jimin says, when he sees Jeongguk wrap a hand around the rope slack to yank Taehyung back into step. Both pairs of eyes lock on to him, one confused, one just—waiting.

“You’re kidding,” Jeongguk spits. Jimin doesn’t like the way anger looks on him; it fits unfamiliarly over his features, like a mask tied just above where everything should fit. He curls his arms tighter around the bundle of fabric against his chest and shakes his head.

“Let him pray,” he says, and it comes out more exhausted than he’d thought. “Just—do it, Jeongguk.”

It’s the least he can do. It’s the most he can do. The thought of denying Taehyung a prayer doesn’t make Jimin feel better, doesn’t ease the pain in his chest that’s only barely contained now that he’s free. It won’t fix anything. Chaining Taehyung in a collar and cuffs wouldn’t fix anything. It hurts worse than he’d like to admit it, even if only to himself.

They approach the temple carefully. Jeongguk keeps Taehyung behind them, makes sure that anyone preparing an ambush would have to get through him first, to get to their prince. Nothing moves, though; nothing breathes aside from the three of them, the birds quieting the farther they get from the peace of the thicker woods. From this angle, Jimin can see the moss growing over the face of one of the statues, each one standing a head taller than any of them.

He hangs back, when Jeongguk steps close enough to let Taehyung climb the worn stone steps. It’s a small temple, from what Jimin had seen on the route to the capital. Those had been grander, and not stopped at for such trivial things as prayer in the face of a victory, busy with offerings from travelers where this temple stands clearly abandoned.

Taehyung stands in the center of the half-circle formed by the three statues, and looks at each of them in turn with wide eyes. He lingers on the third—the shortest, comparatively, the slightest. Not a warrior figure, like the two to its left, but a scholar. Scrolls tucked under the arm, books stacked at its feet, clad in a sweeping robe intricate in its carvings, absent from any armor. Taehyung lowers carefully to his knees, and presses his head to the backs of his bound hands, prostrate before the youngest of Odai’s three Brothers.

In Odai, they pray silently, and rarely. Jimin had spent hours studying everything he could, in the early years of the war, and so he knows the basis of the legend, but Odai keeps its secrets and its intricacies close to its chest, and years of hostile border territory hasn’t led to an easy inflow of culture. He does know of the yearly festival, the practice of offerings, but—it’s hard to remember, after filling his head with more military strategy than religious text.

Taehyung prays for long enough that Jeongguk starts to fidget. He already looks uncomfortable, standing in the gaze of foreign gods, and he shuffles like an aggravated horse until Taehyung sits up onto his heels.

He looks calmer, now. Slightly more at ease with the forest around him, and something bitter lodges in Jimin’s chest, because—where was the Goddess, he thinks, when their people were being marched through the mountains to their deaths. Where was the Goddess when his skin was stained with the blood of his family.

Taehyung reaches out a curled fist, and leaves the last of his bread—almost exactly half—resting at the youngest Brother’s feet.

 


 

Late in the afternoon, Jimin spots Tokki fluttering her wings in the highest branches of a pine tree. The ribbon fluttering from the pouch on her back glimmers, dark blue silk against the background of foliage easily seen even without the familiar white markings around her neck. She follows them near-silently, nothing but a shadow in the very tops of his vision and the soft rustling of branches as she lands.

Jeongguk subtly steers them to the angles her flights trace, and anxiety winds up like tension tight in Jimin’s chest. He knows who he’s expecting—who else would be willing to travel with Jeongguk, and Jin—but it doesn’t make anything easier. A part of him doesn’t ever want to leave this part of the forest, where he’s not expected to speak, or make explanations, or relive any of the hideous memories gnawing at his mind like a wolf at a bloody bone.

He hears the heavy breath of a horse, from somewhere in the murky forest ahead, and Jimin’s feet slow almost on instinct. He’s walked straight through cramps and back into them again at this point, and his feet don’t remember how to take his weight easily, but it’s not about being tired. Jeongguk catches him around the wrists with that expression that means he’s trying not to cry, and breaks his cautious silence.

“It’s just the two of them,” he promises, a little desperate. “You don’t have to explain anything, hyung, I promise, but—we just want you safe.”

Jimin closes his eyes. Remembers the last promise Dawon had made to him as she re-strung her bow, that night. That she’d keep him safe, and he’d made her swear instead—Jihyun first. Jihyun always first, and his stomach lurches with the warm smell of blood, the way it had seeped in through his lips with his face ground into the floor no matter how hard he’d tried to keep it out.

“I’m sorry,” Jimin whispers. It feels sticky in his mouth, feels strange to open his mouth and speak and be listened to.

He’d threatened Taehyung what feels like weeks ago. Had been ready to roll over and bare his neck and die if it meant he’d see his brother again, and his parents—if it had meant he’d wander an unfamiliar palace forever, with no sea to bear him home. Now, he has someone waiting for him. Who knows he’s coming, knows he’s alive, and Jimin doesn’t know if he feels human enough to stand it. There’s some part of him still chained on Taehyung’s floor, and it’s too late now to go back.

“Don’t be sorry,” Jeongguk begs. His hands drop from Jimin’s wrists like he’s been burned, and Jimin only remembers the chafing when his skin starts to sting, belated and sharp. His hand instead finds Jimin’s waist, like he’s holding himself back from burying his face in Jimin’s shoulder like he’s done so many times before.

Jimin swallows. Looks just over Jeongguk’s shoulder to the forest beyond, the camp inevitably waiting near the quiet stream he can hear through the brush.

Take me back, he almost begs. It’s unbearable. Shudders in one breath, two, until he can will himself to move again. From behind him, there’s the quiet reminder of Taehyung’s breathing, a cautious distance away.

“Okay,” he breathes out. In, out. “Okay. Let’s go.”

Jeongguk steps away, and the warmth of his hand slips from Jimin’s waist. Jimin reaches out to catch it, and drags him close again, Jeongguk’s caution damned in favor of the easy comfort he gives, the way Jimin’s skin has forgotten the shape of his touch.

They approach the camp slowly, enough to give plenty warning. Tokki vanishes from sight, coupled with an alarmed sound from the horses Jimin can almost see entirely, tethered to a small copse of trees on the outside of a clearing. And, in the clearing—a tent, of coarsely dyed burlap. And in the clearing—

“Jimin,” Yoongi whispers, eyes wide like he’s seeing a ghost. And something in Jimin breaks when he approaches, cautious and pale and shaking, hands coming up to touch and flinching away when he takes in the fading bruises, the scars, the scab at his neck from the collar. “Goddess—Jimin.”

“Hyung,” Jimin chokes. Jeongguk eases away, and when he does Jimin almost falls forward, lets Yoongi wrap him in a familiar hug, lets himself feel like a teenager with a skinned knee, too old to be crying and too young to stop himself. Yoongi holds him, and steps away when Jimin feels like he can stand again, and looks once more at the patterns of brutality stamped along his skin with anger flushed on his cheeks.

And then his eyes dart past Jimin, past Jeongguk waiting just behind and to the left, and—

“Who’s this?” Yoongi asks, every inch of emotion dried up like it’s been buried in sand. Jimin swallows, and feels Jeongguk’s eyes shift to his back. Remembers that, in the blur of it all, he hadn’t ever spoken Taehyung’s name.

“Insurance,” he finally says, and listens to Taehyung stumble as Jeongguk tugs him forward.

“Kim Taehyung,” he hears, in that same soft voice. Yoongi’s eyes narrow, jaw suddenly tense, and Jimin can’t stop the way he wants to run from it, as much as he hates it. The urge to cower is violent and gleeful in its cruelty, and Jimin tries to soothe away the weeks of bruising memory with the memory of that hug, Jeongguk’s support, the last embrace he’d gotten from his father.

“A prince,” Yoongi finally says. He gives nothing away. Jimin nods, and offers no more explanation.

Yoongi doesn’t ask. He pulls a pot of steaming water off the last embers of a fire and drags Jimin into the tent. Pours him tea into a woodcarved cup, sits him down on the spread-out mats with the anxious tenderness of a hovering mother cat.

“May I?” Yoongi asks. His bag is already in his lap, the familiar hand-done stitching of it something to look at that isn’t the creases on Yoongi’s brow as Jimin nods, and reaches himself for the ties at his waist.

His shirt falls away easily. The black cloth crumples on the ground and Jimin folds it on his lap, gives Yoongi enough space to move around him, inspect the injuries from every angle. The ointments the physician had given him, barely remembered through the haze of drug and panic, might have done more good if Jimin hadn’t dug his fingers into any bruise he could, just to remind himself of the sensation of it. He flinches when Yoongi touches gently along his spine, tapping long, elegant fingers down each of Jimin’s vertebrae.

“I’m going to press on some sensitive areas,” Yoongi murmurs. Jimin exhales a shaking agreement. “Tell me if it’s too much.”

“Okay.” He sounds like a liar. Must have gotten worse at it, in the absence of anyone to practice on.

“I mean it, Jimin. It’s not anything to be ashamed of.” He reappears in Jimin’s line of sight, and meets his eyes without wavering. Yoongi is always intense but also—somehow always what Jimin needs in the hardest moments. He’d been on his way to the battle to treat soldiers, a few days behind them, when Jimin’s father had fallen.

“I will,” Jimin finally says. He doesn’t know what too much is supposed to mean, but—maybe he’ll know if he gets there.

Yoongi starts the exam in silence. First with everything on Jimin’s back; the indents from the shoes they’d ground into his skin, the hits with the butt of soldier’s swords, the aches from sleeping on hard floor for weeks. He can feel the way his spine protrudes from his body, skin tender and easily bruised, feels skinny and weak and hates himself bitterly for it.

“Goddess,” Yoongi whispers, when he’s come back around to peer at Jimin’s wrists. Holds one delicately in his hand, and Jimin sucks in a heavy breath and wills himself not to tremble away. “What was it?”

“Gold,” Jimin makes himself say, with all its implications. With the prince of that conquering country just a thin layer of burlap away, the admission of gold cuffs feels like giving too much away. Yoongi swallows, and shuts his eyes so briefly that it’s like a moment suspended; the quiet peace of his face, like he could be sleeping.

Jimin’s been patched up by Yoongi before. After each battle during the border tour he’d made when he turned twenty, waiting for the raids Odai sent on their poorest villages, Yoongi had been the one to scold him for getting hurt so often. And then he’d scolded Hoseok for his training, because—if Jimin was getting hurt so often, it must be the fault of his swordmaster.

In reality, it might have been that Jimin was reckless. That he was easily angered, in those days where the war was waged on smaller fronts. The first town they’d found on the border had been ruined, buildings left in a smear of smoke and black ash. Jeongguk’s face pale and drawn, the way he’d woken up cold and panicked with some phantom from that distant before, had bitten up an anger in him that feels so distant to the hollow place inside him now.

Yoongi repairs him with sadness in his hands. The hand-thrown pots in his bag clink reassuringly as he dabs ointments onto Jimin’s skin, thick creamy things that sting at his nose and spit against his eyes until they water. He bandages the healing cut under Jimin’s ribs, slathers generous cream around his wrists before he wraps them, loose and tender. The cold and wet is a relief that makes his shoulders sag, even as he tenses as Yoongi’s gaze rises up, up.

Yoongi looks squarely at the cut on Jimin’s neck, the even arc of it unmistakable, and shame tightens Jimin’s throat so completely that breathing is impossible. His hands tremble, curled tight into fists in the fabric of his shirt.

“Jimin,” Yoongi whispers. Blinks tears out of his delicate eyelashes, careful not to let them fall. “Oh, Jimin-ah. What did they do to you?”

Jimin struggles for breath. Shakes with the power of Yoongi’s eyes on him, hunches his shoulders like it could stop him from being seen. When he breathes again it’s a desperate gasp, like he’s drowning, like he’s in the ocean he misses so much it hurts and he’s finally letting himself go.

He hates the hot tears on his cheeks. Hates the salt water sticking to his lips and the way his body doesn’t feel like it’s his any more, even wrapped up tight in Yoongi’s embrace. Even as Yoongi cleans the cut and chafing, lays gauze in careful strips over the smarting skin, it feels like a brand. Jimin doesn’t know how dark the scar might stain, but—it won’t go away. Won’t ever go away, will follow him like a dog on a chain for the rest of his life.

He cries silently as Yoongi finishes the exam. Keeps his head tilted up at the filter-in of sunlight through the tent’s highest point, as Yoongi works slowly at the tie of his cloth belt, inches his pants down until he’s just in thin under-shorts. Jimin wants to tell him to stop, but—Yoongi just dresses the bruises at his hip from the guard who’d liked to take him to the baths and crowd close as an attendant clothed him. Rubs his creams into the horrific landscape of Jimin’s knees, swollen and bruised so deeply it hurts to walk.

Until Jimin swallows the last of his tears, Yoongi massages from his knees to his feet, eyes fixed on his work like it’s the only way he knows how to apologize. With the tenderness of his touch, working blood back into Jimin’s skin until his knees sting with re-awoken sores and pains.

“You might have dislocated it here.” Yoongi’s voice wavers a little, hands gentle around Jimin’s left kneecap. “Maybe three weeks ago?”

Jimin shrugs, without looking down. He doesn’t remember the march to the palace well. Just remembers the brutality of the soldiers, the starving hunger of it all. What had one more pain been, among all of it? And in Taehyung’s rooms—he’d stretched, and there had been things in his body that felt shifted out of place, but at least mostly he’d stayed off his feet.

“It’s healing well,” Yoongi concludes. “Everything’s healing well, Jimin.”

“I’m glad.” The words are hollow, and both of them know it. Yoongi’s thumbs pause, where they’d been digging carefully at the muscle of Jimin’s calf, his fingers tapping lightly against sensitive skin.

“And this is it?” Finally, the carefully voiced question. Jimin nods, thinks back to—have you made him angry, thinks to bring you to court. Wonders how long he could have stayed in that palace without every dirty threat the soldiers on the march had spat at his turned-away face coming true. “Okay. Okay, Jimin-ah.”

Jimin swallows down the thick, post-cry lump in his throat. He pulls on his clothes without letting Yoongi finish, feels strangely padded with his knees and ribs and neck and wrists wrapped like Yoongi is trying to keep him from falling apart. Like a doll fond of losing its head.

“Send in that prince,” Yoongi says, after a long moment of silence. Jimin looks up from the pale wrap of the bandages, a jabbing cold in his stomach at the reminder of—Taehyung, waiting outside. With Jeongguk and the anger Jimin’s seen warping his face. Yoongi’s face is carefully blank, but creases into something gentle when he sees the emotions playing on Jimin’s face without his permission. “I’ll just check his wrists for chafing. Don’t want any ransom too damaged.”

Jimin thinks to the shadow of bruises on Taehyung’s arms. The silvery slit of years-old scars. He swallows and nods, and crawls out of the tent into the cooling air of dusk to find Jeongguk knotting the end of Taehyung’s lead to a tree.

“Yoongi wants to see him,” he says. He doesn’t recognize the authority in his own voice.

“Why?” Jeongguk sounds like a petulant child. He doesn’t even wait for Jimin to respond before unknotting the length of rope, leaving the lead gone but Taehyung’s hands still bound, and Taehyung draws them again close to his chest like it’s how he was born: protective. Untrusting, though Jimin thinks with spite on the back of his tongue that he’s kept every promise he’s made to Taehyung, implicit or not, save one.

I’ll kill you, he thinks in his own voice. Taehyung steps hesitantly forward, and Jeongguk lifts the flap of the tent with an ugly look of hatred. Jimin watches, listens to the birdsong, feels the way the ointments against his skin warm to his own heat the longer they’re held close to him. Little patches of water sewn into his skin. A lifeline; a bone-carved fish hook calling him back home.

Taehyung vanishes, and Jeongguk deflates in the sudden absence of threat. The tent isn’t soundproof, but it’s enough to muffle Yoongi’s quiet, Odai-tongued greeting, and Jimin lurches away on aching feet. Jeongguk catches him with one hand on his chest, and Jimin looks up to see something more familiar on his face—relief, and still that stunned kind of shock of seeing him alive. Jimin knows the feeling.

“Jimin-hyung,” Jeongguk breathes. Like he’s missed the taste of it on his tongue. “Can I—let me make you tea.”

Jimin thinks back to the half-empty cup and pot sitting inside the tent. Jeongguk doesn’t even blink, pulling a more ornate pot out of a haphazard bundle of clothing and travel supplies. Painted with blue patterns, a thin rim of gilding at the top. Jin’s, probably, and she might kill them for using it but it will undoubtedly be worth it for the quality of the tea she always packs.

Jeongguk doesn’t settle until the water’s boiled, until Jimin’s cradling another steaming cup tight against his chest by the fire, a blanket drawn over his shoulders atop Taehyung’s heavy cloak to keep away the evening chill. And then—he sits at Jimin’s feet, where he’s perched on a log, and wraps strong arms around Jimin’s knees, and drops his cheek onto Jimin’s thigh.

“I thought you were dead,” Jeongguk mumbles.

“Then why did you come?” Stupid boy, Jimin thinks. Jeongguk, who would follow him to the end of the earth and then pitch himself over if Jimin asked, looks up with tears wet in his eyes, and Jimin remembers the eight year old who clung to his leg, who snuck into lessons, who recited the words of the Kal’s oath to himself until he mumbled it in his sleep.

“There was a rumor. No one believed it, but someone said—” He falters, digs his fingers into Jimin’s calf, and Jimin sees the way his neck tenses. A child, trying not to hide in his mother’s robes. Except Jeongguk had never known a mother. Had parents and a brother and a home all burnt to ash, with nothing left alive in the village but himself and the vultures.

“Said what?” Jimin asks. He has to know, now, the sick curiosity sticky in the air. There’s always been rumors about the most secretive parts of Odai’s courts, secrets the war council had advised that only the king know, but Jimin’s been told over and over not to trust the vague word of mouth.

Jeongguk keeps silent. Jimin waits him out, until he seems too anxious to hold it in.

“Someone heard that some nobles were kept alive. As court pets.” His voice trembles. “And Hoseok told me not to go, said he’d have my oaths blacked out if I did, because it was barely anything at all, but I thought—”

If there was any chance at all, Jimin thinks, tasting bitterness against the tip of his tongue, Jeongguk was always going to take it. Jeongguk would tip himself over the edge of the world for the family that raised him, and brand away the ink on his skin himself. He set out on a suicide mission for nothing more than a whisper of hope, and—he’d saved Jimin’s life. A day’s walk away from the city, Jimin finally lets himself think about the resolution so firm in his chest, to die with Jihyun in one way or another.

“I’m sorry,” Jimin says, with a voice as heavy as his heart. “I would never have asked it of you.”

“I know.” It’s so quiet. Jimin’s hand lands against Jeongguk’s soft hair; doesn’t scratch or tug because Jeongguk hates it, always has, but just lets himself rest.

“I couldn’t save him.” A log cracks in the fire, and Jimin’s voice breaks with it. “Not him. Not any of them.”

He knows Jeongguk is aching to ask how they died. But Jimin knows it’s a story he won’t survive telling more than once, and he’d rather wait to see who else he’ll have to let listen before he does. There’s a thumb stroking against his thigh, through the thick black wool that feels so strange on him now after weeks of fabric light as air, and Jimin stares down at it and wills his eyes not to water again. He aches, from so much crying.

“But you’re alive,” Jeongguk says. “That’s more than I could have dreamed.”

Jimin closes his eyes. The imprint of the hottest part of the fire burns against the darkness, the sun sunk far enough that even if he can’t see the horizon—he’s ready, he thinks, to pray.

The moonrise prayer falls easy from his tongue. The first time in weeks it’s been more than a whisper. On the march, they’d mouthed it silently between them, after the first morning dawned with the threat of cut-out tongues. In the palace, Jimin whispered as loud as he dared, just enough air pushing out to hear himself. Now, he speaks it fully to the fire, and bows his head.

Jeongguk echoes the prayer back to him, and presses a trembling kiss against the back of his hand.

“Jeongguk,” Jimin says, as the silence stretches out taut. “Tell me about after the battle.”

 


 

It feels like hours later, and Jimin has almost regained himself. He's lost himself in the familiar tone of a debrief, the way Jeongguk detangles just enough to talk him through the aftermath of the battle that had decimated the king's army.

He and Jihyun had slept in their cots, exhausted to the bone, as Odaian soldiers slit the throats of the Kal. Dawon, sitting alert in their tent, crept out and was slaughtered where she stood. Jeongguk had almost bled out from a dagger lodged in his side, and Hoseok had broken an arm on an unconscious slide down a rocky ravine, but they’d lived. Come around to consciousness late the next evening, and picked through the mess of bodies and blood to find each other, and the burnt ruins of the camp around them.

They’d had no food, no water, and no maps. Jeongguk apologizes until his tongue runs dry for not following the shuffling tracks through the mountain ridge, until Jimin presses a hand against his mouth and swallows down sickness and says stop.

Hoseok had known Jimin would want them alive, above everything else.

Jeongguk keeps details of the rest vague enough that Jimin knows he’s still conscious of Taehyung’s ears. It’s enough, though, to know some kind of fact. To remember the vicious battle for not just the beginning of a phantom nightmare, but for the horror it really was.

“We found the king’s body,” Jeongguk says, and Jimin opens his eyes against the vision of the sword that had split his father’s chest. The way he got a long look at the inside of him, through all the blood, before he started screaming for a retreat. “We gave him the best rites we could.”

Starvation must have felt like a fast, as they made their way back to safety. Jimin forces away some kind of scream building in his stomach and makes himself take it, to accept the knowledge with open hands and a mind that feels like a tiger preparing to pounce. If he lets himself relax he’ll finds claws sheathed in his stomach, but the fire is warm and Jeongguk curls close the way he’s always done, and Jimin misses the sound of his brother’s voice. The way they’d taken turns wrestling each other into the dust, the laughter of their father from the entrance to his tent.

“Jimin-ah,” Yoongi calls quietly, to announce his presence.

Jeongguk shoots to his feet. Jimin doesn’t even have to turn his head; he knows Taehyung has reappeared by the venom that distorts Jeongguk’s features, changes him from the soft boy of Jimin’s youth to a creature more vindictive. He touches Jeongguk’s shoulder as he passes, each joint mourning the warmth of the fire and blanket, and follows Yoongi into the long, dark shadow of the trees.

“What is it?” Jimin asks, suddenly fearful. Yoongi’s face is flat, but never unreadable. He looks—nervous.

“I’ve seen him before,” he finally says. “That prince.”

He lets Jimin sit with it, and Jimin doesn’t take that lightly. He rolls the thought around, thinks back to how long it had taken Yoongi to fall comfortably into their dialect. How skinny he had been from scavenging on the way to the capital.

“Explain,” he finally says. He can’t judge until he knows.

“About a month before I left,” Yoongi starts. “A boy knocked on my mother’s back door. Had blood all down his front, gave us six gold coins to not ask any questions. I was there when Eomma sewed him up.”

“What was the wound?”

Yoongi shakes his head, something dark and troubled in his eyes. He looks over Jimin’s shoulder, and presses a hand down into his stomach so barely Jimin almost doesn’t notice.

“He was high off something. Couldn’t stand up straight. Eomma said he’d probably had a bad run-in with one of the princes, and I just assumed—I thought he was a court whore. We used to get enough of them.”

“The wound, hyung.” Jimin feels the unease like lead on his lips.

“Someone cut into his stomach. Not a stab,” Yoongi says, something tight lingering around his eyes. Not a killing thing, he means, but Jimin has to stop his own fingers from twitching to his abdomen, feeling the thin stretch of skin between his hipbones. “Like they wanted to leave a scar.”

Jimin remembers Taeil, leaning in close. Looks so sweet, he hears, in that saccharine murmur. There had been so much violence in the battle and the march and the slaughter that thinking back on that visit seems like bloodless cruelty. But—the idea of cutting into his own brother’s skin, of the way it must have stained so easily through thin, light-colored fabric. It’s revulsion that turns Jimin’s stomach this time, after so long with nausea sitting pretty in his gut.

“And you’re sure?” He asks, though he knows Yoongi wouldn’t have spoken if he weren’t. Yoongi nods, and reaches out to lace their fingers together in support Jimin hadn’t asked for but craves anyway, after nothing but cool stone and warm gold to ground himself with for so long.

“I thought you should know,” Yoongi says softly. “I don’t need you to do anything now.”

“That’s a lie,” Jimin smiles, as much as he can make himself. There’s so much responsibility to think about—how any of their deaths would be more than he could bear, how they’ve each avoided calling him prince because his father is dead, and even if his nation is crumbling Jimin still owes her people more than his life.

“Maybe,” Yoongi allows. “But maybe right now what you need is dinner and rest.”

Jimin aches. At his back, Jeongguk fixes Taehyung to a tree with less slack on his lead than the horses, and sits with his blade on his lap and his bow by his side like he’s waiting for anyone to challenge him. Jimin doesn’t want to turn to see the stranger’s fury on his young face, doesn’t want to share space with Taehyung without walls between them, doesn’t want to know if he’ll be able to weather the journey home.

He turns. He sits. He lets Yoongi pile rice and what passes for travel comfort food onto Jin’s fancy travelware, and watches Taehyung take a smaller plate with a word of thanks, and sees the anger bitten back on Jeongguk’s tongue when Yoongi responds in the Odaian he’d been raised to speak.

And in the morning, because he must, Jimin will go on.

 


 

Jimin wakes up to shouting, and before his eyes open he’s reaching for his sword. His hand meets the thin strips of the mat beneath him, the soft imprint of dirt underneath him, and panic runs hot in his blood for a long moment as he jerks up. It’s still dark, but barely; he can see enough to know that Yoongi’s bedroll is empty, that the fire outside has died down. Jimin waits with a phantom weight choking around his throat for the sound of swords, the soft gurgle Yoongi might make as his lungs fill with blood.

He can’t move. Can’t breathe. Black spots at Jimin’s vision as he waits, but the voices outside never turn to steel. It can’t be longer than a minute that he hears without listening, that the volume of the noise blacks out the words.

“I thought you were caught!” Someone spits, and that’s—that’s Yoongi. Who sounds alive and whole and not at all scared, and not at all faking it like Jimin’s heard from him on the wrong end of a sword before.

“I told you it was fine.” And that’s Jeongguk. Jimin breathes. It’s not shouting, he realizes now, so much as talking. Close talking, maybe agitated, but—

“You were worried,” another voice coos, sweet and overpitched into drama. “That’s so sweet of you, Yoongi-yah.”

Jimin stumbles out of the tent on shaking legs, bandages tugging at his sensitive skin, and squints into the dawning light at Jin, in all her glory.

She looks like she’d spent all night riding, and fighting before that. Hair tied up into a knot at the top of her head, a red smear of paint at the corner of her lips, Odaian robes disheveled enough to let him know that at least one layer of the equation of it has been lost.

“Jimin,” she breathes, and he barely has time to blink before he’s being crushed against her strong chest, his cheek mashed into her shoulder.

“Hi, noona,” he mumbles. It’s too early for tears to be stinging his eyes again but he’s missed this, and Jin’s hands are warm on his back and her eyes are careful over his face as she inspects him after pulling back, like she’s trying to find something Yoongi’s careful exam had missed. Jimin lets his face be cradled for a long moment, a heavy weight lifted off his neck and placed, for once, in someone else’s hands.

“If you even think about dying ever again,” Jin says, all false bravado and rising tears,”I will kill you myself, Park Jimin.”

He smiles, wan and agreeable.

“Understood,” he tells her, and relearns how to hold his own head up when she lets him go.

“You really need a bath,” Yoongi mutters, as he stokes the fire back to life. Jimin inhales, and coughs out sweat and horse and perfume, a terrible combination with which Jin has made him unfortunately acquainted over the years.

Jin whines until Yoongi gently bullies her toward the soft sounds of running water, and she goes with a new bundle of clothes tight against her chest and a sway in her step like she’s never been happier. Jimin watches her go before he ducks back into the tent, and sits down again to pull on his shoes. He doesn’t trust his sense of balance, everything hurting just that much more from Yoongi’s treatment. The ache in his knee is deeper, now, but softer; he leans to his right when he walks back out, to give it the air it needs.

Jeongguk sticks to his side like he’s trapped there by a current, and once Jimin is perched back on the log he doesn’t let him move for anything; not water or rice or a few more long strips of rabbit Yoongi had caught and cooked for them. Just to the left of Jimin’s vision, Taehyung sits with his legs tucked against his chest, his head tipped back. Eyes closed, but tense enough to know he’s awake.

“Sleep well?” Yoongi asks quietly. He’d been there, each time Jimin had woken in the night, his memories faint of jerking up in panic, only to be soothed back down by Yoongi’s familiar, rumbling voice. Jimin can’t remember the words, but the comfort still feels warm in his chest, warm in his hands where they’re curled around a cup of tea.

“Thank you,” he says, instead of answering. Yoongi smiles softly through the steam rising from his own cup, and Jeongguk leans his head against Jimin’s thigh, and the warmth of everything around him is startling.

Across the small clearing, Taehyung shivers, and tugs his cloak tighter around himself. All of them see, and all of them pause, but Jimin doesn’t move. Yoongi doesn’t stand to offer him a cup. In the light of day, it’s easier to remember that Taehyung is their enemy; after a night of sleep, it’s easier to forget the way he had prayed under the city gate, at the abandoned temple.

“Did you miss me?” Jin calls, and steps out from between the brush with sweeping, dramatic steps.

His hair is tied up more cleanly now, topknot firmly secured with each hair carefully in place, all paint washed off his skin. He’s back in Bayul fashion too, pants like Jimin’s black and loose at the ankles, the vibrant green of his shirt complimented with a dark tie at the waist. Jimin breathes out a barely-there laugh, and watches Jin pick his way across the campground, too mindful of the mud, familiar in all the ways that it’s hard for Jimin to watch without feeling the burn in his eyes that he’s starting to hate.

“Aw,” Jin coos, when he leans down to run his hand through Jimin’s hair. “Don’t cry, Jimin-ah, I know I’m beautiful.”

“Always, hyung,” Jimin promises. He kisses the back of Jin’s hand when it’s presented, and ignores the scuffle of Jeongguk kicking out at Jin’s ankles, and the resulting slapfight at his feet. It’s all tight in his chest, the way they all play off each other. And the glaring absences, where once there would have been voices, and another body to tackle Jin from behind until the three of them rolled in the dirt together. Jimin chokes down a too-hot drink of tea, and meets the quiet understanding of Yoongi’s eyes.

“Yah, knock it off,” Yoongi finally snaps. “Do something useful and break down camp.”

Jin fixes Yoongi with as much of a cool, judgmental look as he can manage with Jeongguk sitting triumphantly on his stomach,

“Why don’t you break down camp?” He sniffs, breathlessly. “I’m busy.”

Jeongguk scoffs, and slips off of him to kick dust into the fire. Jimin starts to rise, and Yoongi presses him back down with a hand on his shoulder, long fingers trailing close to the rise of his bandages before skittering away.

“Shouldn’t I help?” Jimin says. “If we’re being followed—”

“We’re not,” Jin says, suddenly serious. His eyes cut toward Taehyung, whose eyes are still stubbornly shut. Jimin blinks, rubs absently at his aching knee. He wants to believe that it’s a matter of contrast; a healing knee, now, is the worst of his grievances, instead of the chain leash holding him down.

“What do you mean?”

Jin shrugs, his hands careful as he packs up the dishes into the basket by his pack. Jimin had stolen his sleeproll last night, but—with the way those two guards had looked the night of their escape, Jimin doesn’t exactly think that’s a problem. “We aren’t being followed. No search party or anything. No one in the inner city even knows that a prince is missing.”

“Makes sense,” Yoongi says, and fails completely to elaborate.

Jimin watches Taehyung, and the way he shivers into himself at the news. His eyes slip open, blink a few times in the clear sunlight, and find Jimin’s with startling accuracy. Jimin looks back, and tries to quiet the beast rumbling in his chest, the sick satisfaction and rage curled into one.

“I sent Tokki ahead this morning,” Jeongguk cuts in. “She’s taking a message to the fort.”

The fort. Jimin breathes out, and tries to think through the bustle around him as Jeongguk breaks down the tent, as Yoongi ties his medical bag to his horse’s saddle. Gangneung, probably; a ghost town, barely spoken of from the fear that Odai’s army would remember it.

Three years ago, it had been their first province to fall. A clifftop manor; a town of barely two hundred at its base. Odai had occupied it for months with no struggle, and had marched out for grander prospects with only a steward to keep it. Reports to Odai’s king are easily forged, Jimin has heard; their failsafe, riding out to that last battle, had been to retreat there with the Kal.

“How long is the journey?” Jimin asks, as Yoongi passes by.

“Six days by horseback,” he replies. “But we only have four.”

Jimin’s eyes skip back to Taehyung. He’s still watching, cataloguing the breakdown of camp, glancing back at Jimin every so often only to look away when he’s caught. He’s carefully hiding his hands in the folds of his cloak, but Jimin trusts Jeongguk’s knots, trusts that if Taehyung wanted to run he would have in the dead of night, and that Jeongguk would have shot him where he stood.

“He can ride with me,” Jimin finally says. “If we alternate, the horses—”

“Not with you,” Jeongguk snaps. He’s hovering over Jimin in between trips back to the horses, the bare-bones camp packed down almost completely in just a few minutes. Jimin sighs, and stands up with aching joints and bruises, and doesn’t bother putting up a fight.

 


 

It's decided that Taehyung will ride with Jin first. Jeongguk doesn't want him near Jimin, and wants to be able to see him if he tries anything on the first leg of the journey, and Yoongi's horse is bearing more weight in supplies to make up for Yoongi's stature, so Jin unloads his dishware onto Jimin's horse and helps push a quiet, accepting Taehyung up behind his seat.

“I hope you don’t knife me,” he mentions offhandedly. “I’m too pretty to die, your esteemed royal highness.”

Taehyung doesn’t answer, but Jimin sees him smile. He looks away, and swings up onto the horse Jin had stolen from town, and follows Yoongi away from the clearing, through the paths of the forest that seem forgotten, abandoned. It might be the aftereffects of winter, trails unused because of snow, but something about the vibrancy of the life around them makes Jimin want to believe that these trails used to be bustling, and that the tree roots sticking out from grass-grown earth are the result of disuse, and not only disrepair.

Riding is a different sort of pain than walking. Jimin feels loose in his skin, his core aching and his spine sore as he settles back into the sway of it. Single-file it’s easy not to talk, so Jimin closes his eyes when he can and trusts the gelding beneath him, and does his best to avoid thinking.

The day is quiet. They water the horses in midmorning, and Taehyung switches to behind Yoongi’s saddle, and sometimes Jimin hears them murmuring, soft words traded despite the agitation Jimin can hear from Jeongguk in front him.

It seems harmless, though. Jimin trusts Yoongi with his life, and every time he thinks about telling them to stop he remembers the aching silence of Taehyung’s parlor, and the way he’d itched out of his skin without anyone to speak to in his language, and the way it had broken him day by day until he’s still left collecting the pieces of himself he’d lost in that aching, unending silence.

“Hyung,” Jeongguk asks, as they’re pitching camp that night, on the bank of a creek with water clear as glass.

Jimin looks up from the fire, and watches Jeongguk’s face as it’s eaten away from the white-spot memory of the flames. He hums from deep in his chest, quietly aware of Yoongi’s eyes, of Jin’s carefully-tuned ears.

“Did he get the rites?” Jeongguk finally asks, over the sounds of the night waking up around them. “All of them, but—did he?”

Jimin swallows down bile. He turns back to the fire, feels eyes on him from everyone—from Taehyung, who hasn’t spoken to him since he asked to pray. Pointlessly, he thinks about Sora, and how he hadn’t mourned for her, doesn’t even know when she’d died.

“I tried,” he finally answers. “I did everything I could.”

He doesn’t want to talk about the mourning clothes, and the meals, and the balcony looking out onto the sunset. Can’t bear to, with Taehyung looking at him, with the careful way his eyes don’t waver.

If they had met any other way, through any other circumstance, they would have been equals. As an ambassador, Jimin would have welcomed Taehyung into his home like a brother. On a battlefield, one of them could have been cut down with honor. But like this—like this. The unending shift of power like tides, the leash passed from hand to hand until Jimin wants to light the end on fire and see which one of them burns first.

He doesn’t want to have to speak the things which broke him from the unwavering hatred he’d resolved himself to.

“We did too,” Jin murmurs. His broad hand rests warm against Jimin’s back, breath tickling the top of his scalp. “At the sea, with the priestess. We did what you couldn’t, Jimin-ah. Don’t worry.”

Jimin closes his eyes, and watches the fire burn from behind them. He nods, hand pressed against his lips, and hopes they understand. Long moments later, Jeongguk drapes himself against Jimin’s side, and Jimin opens his eyes enough to push up Jeongguk’s sleeve, and trace the black ink of the vows curling down his arm. He isn’t brave enough to ask about the ink on his chest; isn’t brave enough to see Jihyun’s name, the last character that might have been added already. Isn’t brave enough to see his own.

He doesn’t know how to tell Jeongguk about the part of him that had died with the rest of his family, the part of him washed away with his brother’s blood, rotting under his fingernails.

 


 

Taehyung gets quieter the closer they get to Gangneung. He's barely spoken at all during the journey, and Jimin has been content to let him be, but he notices on the dawn of the last day's ride that Taehyung looks—almost ill. He doesn't speak to Yoongi, who's taken to bringing him food after noticing that no one else will, doesn't answer whatever it is that Yoongi whispers to him as he passes off the bowl.

That morning, before they break camp, Yoongi beckons Jimin back into the tent and tugs open his bag. Jimin goes pliantly, lets Yoongi clean the dressings as he’s done every day so far, but this time Yoongi doesn’t replace them.

“Not much else I can do for these,” he comments, trailing one finger down the last yellow imprint of bruise on Jimin’s shoulder. The cut on his side has faded from a scab to an angry red slice; the chafing on his wrists will leave scars, but slivers as opposed to gashes.

Yoongi’s hands shy away from the bandage at his neck. It’s understandable, Jimin knows; he hasn’t looked at his own reflection since before they’d ridden to the battle, and doesn’t think he’d want to now if he could. The boy in his memory feels like a stranger; healthier in the cheeks from consistent food, lean muscle rather than hunger defining his frame. The jewelry had glittered against his skin in the autumn, the sound of bracelets and anklets and earrings almost as lively as the music he’d danced to.

“Just do it,” he says, and closes his eyes when the bandage lifts.

Yoongi doesn’t say anything, for a long moment that chokes up Jimin’s throat. And then his fingers trail along the cut, almost as long as his handspan, and he digs the barest imprint with his fingertips into the underside of Jimin’s jaw.

“Let them see, today,” he murmurs, like he knows Jimin is itching to cover it up. “Don’t hide it yet, Jimin-ah.”

“It will scar.” He says it to avoid agreeing, but they both know that he will.

“Yes,” Yoongi tells him. He’s never been one to waste words, especially on bad news. “But not badly. It was clean, at least.”

The cut on his ribs can’t say the same. If he cranes, Jimin can see nearly all of it; the bumpy places where the knife had caught on his clothing, where he’d had to keep his arm pressed down to stop himself from bleeding all over Jihyun.

“You said he has a scar,” Jimin says, to stop himself from thinking. Yoongi pauses, the soft sound of water dripping into a cup as he wrings out a soft cloth.

“I did.” When it touches his skin, cool and gentle, Jimin flinches and hates himself for it. Yoongi cleans his back first of residue from ointment and bandages, and the bruises where heavy soles had ground Jimin into dirt and marble and blood barely twinge.

“What is it?” He doesn’t know what makes him ask. Why he has an uncertain sort of conviction that the scar on Taehyung’s belly isn’t a simple slash, like one gotten from a stray knife-swipe in the training yard. Yoongi dips the cloth again, wrings it out, circles back to Jimin’s chest.

“What do you mean?”

“You said—you thought it came from a prince.” Court whore echoes in Jimin’s head, and sits uncomfortably. “Why?”

“Ah,” Yoongi says, and waits. Jimin peels his eyes open and fixes him with a look, and Yoongi gazes back with a familiar, practiced disinterest. “It’s his business, Jimin-ah.”

“He’s my prisoner.”

“And you were his.”

The cloth gets hung neatly over a bamboo support pole, and drips cold water down the back of Jimin’s neck.

“That’s different,” he says, and doesn’t have to see Yoongi’s face to know the disbelief he’d find. “No, hyung—you weren’t there. He offered himself up, practically. Told us how to get out of the palace.”

“I’ve heard,” Yoongi says drily. He comes back to Jimin’s side with a new cup of water, and taps lightly at his thigh. “Maybe that’s your answer. Pants off.”

Jimin heaves a sigh, and reaches for the tie at his waist, and doesn’t bother pushing further. He’ll find out, he knows, eventually. It’s only a matter of time.

Yoongi finishes the exam quickly enough, and they’ve barely stepped out of the tent before Jeongguk starts to break it down, bustling with an excited kind of energy that tries to worm its way in under Jimin’s skin. He shoves it down, though, next to the simmering anxiety at the bottom of his stomach, and knocks his shoulder into Jeongguk’s with a quiet smile.

Taehyung is idling next to Jin’s horse. Yoongi’s told them to keep his hands unbound so he can ride without falling off, and to keep down the chafing of even Jeongguk’s nicest rope, so he stands with hands twisting uncertainly in his cloak. It’s fully spring, now, green bursting through the sparse forest and wildflowers springing up as they get closer to the fields outside of Gangneung.

It’s the last stretch, and the most nerve wracking. The flower fields, splashed with early buds, with no protection or cover from anyone that might be lying in wait with a well-aimed arrow. That’s the only reason, Jimin tells himself, as he makes himself stop in front of Taehyung. As he makes himself look at the way Taehyung’s eyes skitter away like oil off water, the way the dirt of traveling has made him into something touchable, something human.

“With me today,” Jimin tells him, and imagines his own eyes like the depths of a cave buried in the cliffside. Reflecting no light, should Taehyung care to look.

But Taehyung doesn’t care to look—his face doesn’t twitch, as he bows his head and quietly agrees. The sound of his own dialect on a foreign tongue makes Jimin want to lash out, to snatch the words out of Taehyung’s mouth to keep them from being stained. He grits his teeth, and holds himself back, and starts unloading his horse’s heaviest weights onto Jeongguk’s saddle.

“No,” Jeongguk says, and puts himself between Jimin and the horse. His eyes are hard, face lined in an angry sort of worry. “Don’t you dare, hyung.”

Jimin stares him down. Jeongguk has always held grudges, against senators’ boys and visiting lords, no matter how high above his station they might be. The one he’s always held, though, as long as Jimin has known him, has been something worse—his village gone down in flames, a whole extended family lost to the vicious raiders with poorly-concealed insignias stitched onto their cloaks.

And Jimin doesn’t blame him. He thinks he understands now more than ever; now after watching that family drink on their dais to the sound of steel against skin, Jimin understands Jeongguk’s vicious hatred. But—in that throne room, he’d barely been watching anyone but each lord or lady brought forward to die. Was too busy trying to stay their prince to look at anyone but the king and the heir, and then the black hole in his chest had swallowed everything else.

“If he wanted to kill me,” he murmurs, close to Jeongguk’s ear, thinking about how he’d begged for it, in the end. “He would have a long time ago. At least with him behind me, an arrow would have to go through us both.”

It takes a long moment before Jeongguk steps away. When he does, it’s with a crease in his brow that doesn’t fade, even as he takes the weight from Jimin’s arms and steps back with a gentle touch to Jimin’s bare wrist. The sensation there is numbed by emerging scar tissue; his eyes dart down to Jimin’s neck, the mockery of a smile at the base of his throat.

Jeongguk has a burn scar, fifteen years old, seared into the skin of his thigh. It curls up to his hip, just low enough that it’s covered by the waist of his pants. Jimin remembers the first time he’d seen it—ten years old, floating aimlessly in the shallows, watching Jeongguk inch his way into the ocean for the first time. It hadn’t struck him, then, just how painful it must have been. Just how much weight a single scar could carry.

“Trust me,” he murmurs to Jeongguk, when they pass again. The pinch in his brow doesn’t fade, but when he looks at Jimin there’s that softness in his eyes, that Jimin remembers from years of butting heads and making up on the wet sands at night, arms slung around each other at the resolution of every fight.

“It’s not you I don’t trust,” Jeongguk says back, and makes no attempt to hide it.

Jimin grits his teeth when Taehyung settles behind him, the gelding shuffling under the extra weight. They’re touching, now, the backs of Jimin’s legs so sensitive to every movement. Taehyung breathes, and the hair at Jimin’s nape moves with the heat of it. He tries not to be aware of everything; the way Taehyung is tense enough to snap wood, the way he arranges himself to keep his distance, almost to the point of falling off.

He nudges them into motion, and Jimin closes his eyes for the barest of seconds when Taehyung flinches at the movement. When he curls in on himself just barely, like he’s afraid of an elbow in his ribs.

It doesn’t take long to reach the fields. The forest has long since thinned and Jimin sees the foothills rise in front of them, covered in long grass and stalks of plants he never could name, and everywhere he looks, the flowers.

Most of them are buds, still, but the color is overwhelming. They’d taken the mountain pass out of Odai’s basin, have been traveling East sticking close to the rocky peaks, but now Yoongi pulls them out of shadowed safety and toward the long slope of hills that will take them to the Gangneung cliffside.

“Oh,” Taehyung breathes out, when they cross that barrier—when suddenly they’re assaulted by sunlight, and the bright greens and yellows and purples, and the smell of spring is thick in the air. It tickles Jimin’s ear, just loud enough to be heard.

Jimin takes a deep breath, and tips his head back to feel the sun warm on his neck, and feels Taehyung wobble behind him as he leans back to accommodate.

“Hold on,” he says, sharper than he means to. “You’re going to fall off.”

From behind him, silence. Jimin almost feels bad about ruining Taehyung’s moment of awe, wants to redo the emergence and look at it from the eyes of someone who might have seen nothing but forest and mountain his whole life, but—Taehyung’s hands slide uncertainly around his waist, and they’re big and soft and Jimin’s stomach lurches with sickness because he looks down and the red of his cloak slips into something more like blood under Taehyung’s fingernails, as he grounds himself with enough hesitation that Jimin knows he’s afraid.

Jimin blinks and it’s gone, swallows to get rid of the nausea, and tries his best to ignore the way Taehyung is touching him, his chest just barely close enough to be felt against the plane of Jimin’s back. Jimin bites back any other words, and focuses on the way Yoongi sways with the rhythm of his horse like he was born to ride, and thinks about anything except the way Taehyung had never touched him, not once, until now.

The hills get smaller as the morning stretches to afternoon, until Jimin can see over one and off into the horizon, where the world ends.

Fields of wildflowers transition to once-cultivated buckwheat, and fade into dirt roads after they pass the first few empty houses. Taehyung’s knuckles are white, and Jimin wonders whether he’d shake if Jimin made him let go. He can see, now, the hidden signs of life; though these outer buildings are empty of life, some of the soil on the path is dark and fresh, turned over by a recent foot. There’s a quiet murmur in the air; the sound of people, trying desperately to remain unseen.

There’s a metal and leather noise behind them, and Jimin looks to his left as Jeongguk trots up to them, bow at the ready, the horse responding to him almost intuitively. He’s always been better with them than Jimin, but it’s not something to fight about anymore. He offers Jimin a solemn nod, and pins Taehyung with a vicious stare.

“You can walk now,” Jeongguk says coldly. It’s not a suggestion. Taehyung snatches his hands away from Jimin’s waist like he’s been burnt by the words or the soft wool of Jimin’s shirt.

They pause to let Taehyung dismount, and—it’s strange to see him like this. The village is close enough that someone has seen them approaching by now, that a runner has been sent up the steep, jagged stretch to the cliffside manor, where the world drops off, and Jimin looks down on the prince who Yoongi had murmured was maybe his age and feels almost shamed, for making him walk at their side like a dog.

Jeongguk bares his teeth, and keeps his horse a few steps behind Jimin and to the left, and they kick back into motion with anxiety tumbling in Jimin’s chest.

Long before they reach the village, the blue-painted wood of its formal entrance, Jimin remembers his duty. His spine straightens on instinct, his chin tips up with pride he’s forgotten the taste of. Tears burn hot somewhere far below the surface as he breathes, as he slips back into the expression of prince, of leader, of someone with dignity far above the limits of a golden collar, held close to the ground.

“Hyung,” Jeongguk says on a whisper, as they approach. “Are you ready?”

Jimin doesn’t answer. On his right, Taehyung walks carefully, kept to the side of the road by the bulk of the horses and the supplies they carry. He steps over the last scattered bunches of flowers on the fringes, where earth hasn’t been worn down to dust and dirt; where things still grow. Jimin looks away, and keeps his eyes forward, and tries to remember how being in his own skin feels.

They ride under the gate and its carvings, and he and Jin and Jeongguk each speak a word of thanks. Jimin’s tongue lingers on his—the prayers are easier, with both of them to kneel with him and touch the water to his lips, and Jimin thinks he might be slowly starting to forgive the Goddess for her silence, for the way dusk had taunted him those nights in Taehyung’s parlor.

And then the people start stepping out of houses.

Each building has the same facade of abandonment. New plants overpowering the surrounding land, windows empty and cluttered with cobwebs, no shoes waiting in the doorway. But one after another, they step out. Mostly men, in the base layers of military uniform; some older, some younger, each with an aching pain on their faces that sometimes, once or twice, spills into tears as they bow, one after another, as Jimin rides past.

And then, further into the ghost town, women step out. Knuckles pressed to lips, eyes averted after that first careful glance, hands trembling around the fists of their children. Children from newborn to awkwardly gangly and everything in between, bowing at the hiss of a word and staring in shock at the pitch black of Jimin’s clothing.

Close to the end of the cluster of buildings, Jimin sees a girl, maybe seven or eight, stumble down her steps. Her mother darts toward her, catches her up in a careful grip and tugs her into a bow. When the girl looks up, curious eyes drawn to him, he catches the dark pink of a scar, torn from the corner of her eye to the top of her upper lip. He nods, and thinks again of Jeongguk’s burn, and has to remind himself of the hundreds of eyes to stop his fingers from brushing along the hollow of his own throat.

A long road stretches between the village and the manor, lined by white pebbles. It’s where the cliffs truly start, even the last shoots of grass choked out by the stone and dust. It’s still too far to see the ocean, the last incline before the drop blocking his view, but—

Jimin can hear it. The waves crashing against each other. The gulls calling. Can smell the salt heavy on the air, the warm bake of stone in sunlight. He closes his eyes before they start along the path and takes a moment to breathe it in. Not home, exactly, but—every ocean touches every shore. This sea is the same as the one he’d said goodbye to his mother in, is the same as the tide pools where he’d spent hours with Namjoon searching for the smallest living things.

This ocean is the one where Jihyun had swam, and flung himself off dangerous rocks, and once let himself get dragged out into a rip current just to prove to Jimin that he could make it back on his own.

Stupid, Jimin had always called him for it. And they both were stupid sometimes, and they both went to sleep far too often smelling of brine, with saltwater stiffening their hair to give them away when their father asked why they’d missed a council meeting.

Jimin opens his eyes, and pretends that the sting is just the wind, just the salt, and kicks his horse back into a trot.

To Gangneung they ride, with memories weighing on Jimin’s chest more heavy than the pressure of Taehyung’s hands had ever felt.

 


 

They reach the manor, and Hoseok is waiting at the entrance, and Jimin breaks every promise he'd made to hold himself together.

He barely sees the familiar grey of his clothing before scrambling off his still-moving horse. His knee stiffens and pricks as he hits the hard earth, but Jimin ignores it with something desperate in his movements and his heart. Hoseok sprints the last few meters from the gate, and before Jimin can take more than a few steps he’s caught up in familiar wiry arms, his temple pressed tight against Hoseok’s cheek until suddenly there’s dry kisses pressed to his forehead, hands in his hair as Hoseok pulls him away to inspect, and then in, and then away again like he’s too afraid to be dreaming.

“It’s you,” Hoseok rasps, with the first tears in his eyes Jimin has ever seen. “Goddess, Jimin. She brought you home. She brought you home.”

Jimin clings to him. Thinks that not so long ago, he was convinced that Hoseok’s corpse was rotting on a mountain peak, that the only time he’d see him again would be in nightmares.

“I’m home,” he replies, wet and desperate to repeat it once again, because—even if Gangneung isn’t his home, he’s in Bayul, and the language dripping from the lips of the people in the village was his own, and Hoseok is holding him like nothing else in the world matters.

“Are you still going to black out my vows?” Comes Jeongguk’s voice from behind them, and it’s supposed to sound teasing but there’s that wetness in his throat too. When Jimin turns to look he finds Jeongguk, young-looking on the ground with them, eyes wide and vulnerable as he watches Hoseok’s expression shift.

“Come here,” Hoseok says, no authority in it at all, and Jeongguk swoops into the hug like he was only waiting for an invitation. “Come here you stupid, stupid, idiot boy.”

“That’s me.” Jeongguk laughs through it, and Jimin only laughs to stop himself from crying, because he’s heard the names of the surviving council and he knows he can’t cry just yet, that he has to hold onto himself just a little bit longer.

“I didn’t believe it,” Hoseok admits in a whisper, in the space between their bodies. He looks so old, older than Jimin had ever imagined he could be. His eyes are big and sad and Jimin hates the way sadness fits over him, like the way anger stretches over Jeongguk’s face like a poorly made mask. “When the message came, I didn’t want to believe it.”

And his eyes touch the scar, the only scar that matters, and Jimin closes his eyes and pulls away from the embrace and breathes until he can speak without screaming.

He knows Hoseok would have always wanted a quick death for him. They’d made promises, between them, that Hoseok would cut Jimin’s throat himself before letting him be taken by anyone who would have dragged it out—who would have kept him for fun.

For the last week, he’s been avoiding speaking of it. He knows they’ve all avoided asking, too, because they understand there’s no point in pressing. He’ll only relive this story once, and the council needs to be there when he does, and Jimin breathes in deep and squares his shoulders and resigns himself to it.

He looks over at Taehyung, and sees the ocean.

Taehyung isn’t looking at any of them. He’s standing with his face loose, lips parted in awe, something wide and wondrous in his eyes as he looks over the south cliff, at the brilliant reflection of light over the unending waves. The ocean crashes, and blows wind through their hair, and Taehyung looks out over the curve of the horizon like he’s never seen anything like it before.

He’s never seen anything like it. The ocean lives, as unchanging as ever, and Jimin remembers with a trembling gasp how big it all is, the world stretched out in front of him.

“Welcome home,” Hoseok says, when he sees Jimin looking. “Jimin-ah. Welcome home.”

 


 

They leave the horses at the gate, in favor of walking through the courtyard.

Gangneung is almost as old as the capital. It’s been Bayul land since the last war, over a century ago now, and the architecture is familiar, the blues and greens woven into the design setting something inside Jimin at ease. Now, instead of footsoldiers and their families, the eyes on Jimin are those of surviving officers, the grown sons of senators and generals and council members.

So many had died. Jin had rattled off a long list of the dead, one night on the journey, and a much shorter list of the living. Jimin walks ahead of them all, Hoseok and Jeongguk fallen into that familiar pace behind him, and tries his best to look like he deserves the awe, the bows, the foreheads pressed to ancient, hand-carved stones.

“Has the council gathered?” He asks, outside the entrance to the main chambers. Hoseok steps up to the door, eyes apprehensive between Jimin and Taehyung and Jeongguk, always firmly between them.

“Yes. Do you want someone to take him now?” Him with an emphasis, with a mild disdain that from Hoseok might as well be a drop of poison in a cup. Jimin shakes his head, catches the quickly-smoothed surprise on Hoseok’s face from whatever Jeongguk’s reaction might have been.

There’s something buzzing around his head, something that mutes the sounds of the manor as Hoseok opens the door for him with a bow, something that scares him with the way the vibrations pulse through his head, through his chest, a wasp crawling on the outer shell of his ear and looking for the best place to lay a sting.

“They’ve been waiting for you,” Hoseok murmurs, as he steps up to the door. Jimin has never seen this manor but the inside looks like home, all sea-glass colors and wood faded by time. “We got Jeongguk’s falcon four days ago, and ever since—I had to convince Namjoon not to sit up through the night.”

Hoseok’s smile is so gentle. He’s still looking at Jimin like everything is a dream, eyes red around the edges and stubbornly swollen. Jimin remembers seeing the figure swing itself over Taehyung’s balcony, face wrapped in gray cloth, and refusing to let himself believe his instincts when he saw the fluid movements, the easy posture, because—Jeongguk had been dead and mourned for days. Thinks it must feel something like this for all of them.

A prince risen from the dead. A whole line, resurrected from the savagery of war.

“I’m here,” Jimin says, and isn’t yet brave enough to say I lived.

“You’re here,” Yoongi says quietly, and curls his hand around Jimin’s shoulder. “We’re right behind you, Jimin-ah.”

Jimin breathes out, long and slow, and tries to push away the expectation that when he walks into the council room, everything will be the same. That his father will be bent over a map, that he’ll look up at Jimin and smile and tease and ask off making trouble? like he already knows the answer. For all he knows, the council is waiting with a priestess and a crown, and the thought burns acid patches into his lungs.

He opens his eyes, and the door opens.

Each head in the room turns as the party steps in. Each eye widens. Only four of them are left—generals dead or captured, senators executed in their homes. Jimin catalogues them by face, first, feels something in him relax when he remembers how familiar they all are. Each advisor had half-raised him, save one, and even then—

Namjoon stands up so quickly that the table shakes. His face is pale, the tan of his skin washed-out and ghostly as he stares. For a long moment, no one moves, and Jimin waits for someone to break first.

Namjoon does. One step forward, then another, and it’s like he can’t hold himself back anymore. The council room isn’t large; the air shifts when he moves, all eyes drawn to the way Namjoon’s outer robe trails behind him as his urgency builds. Jimin braces his shoulders, waits for the embrace, still after all these days not quite used to being touched again.

But Namjoon doesn’t reach for him. Namjoon walks past Jimin, and shoulders through Jeongguk. Namjoon throws his arms around Taehyung, and embraces him like a brother, and something cold freezes over in the air.

“Taehyung,” Namjoon says. His voice shakes. Taehyung’s hands hover in the air, face slack with shock, and something blunt hits Jimin’s chest as their eyes meet over Namjoon’s shoulder. He breathes in and his chest rattles, Jimin can hear it—can see the desperation in Namjoon’s shoulders and something like relief in Taehyung’s eyes, which are still open, his face still full of delicate fear.

“Hyung,” he whispers. Hoarse, almost silent. His hands find shaking purchase against Namjoon’s shoulders, moments before—

“Traitor,” Jeongguk hisses, in a voice so distorted Jimin barely recognizes it. He’s shaking too, but with fingers curled around the hilt of his knife, his whole body put on trained instinct between Jimin and the threat. Jimin and Namjoon, and Taehyung—the threat.

Taehyung struggles his way out of Namjoon’s embrace, and drops his eyes from Jimin’s in what Jimin hopes is shame. He hopes Taehyung is remembering the thick way blood had congealed on his floor. The way it must have smelt even for days afterward, unless they’d worked their servants’ knees raw to scrub it out over the night.

“Taehyung?” Namjoon says again, this time on a question. The furrow between his eyebrows is deep, his frown pronounced as he steps back, looks between Jeongguk, bristling with rage, and Jimin. “What’s going on?”

“What’s going on?” Jeongguk steps forward. His knife isn’t out but it’s a near thing, his hands are unsteady as he pushes Namjoon back with one heavy shove against his chest. Crowds him in close, and Taehyung cowers back from the scene with horror dropping his mouth open just barely. “What’s going on?”

And Jimin reaches out, parts his lips to tell Jeongguk no, but it’s already too late.

“He had hyung chained to the floor like a dog, that’s what’s going on!”

The silence rings loud and impenetrable in Jimin’s ears. The echo of the horrified noise Jeongguk had made after stepping through the balcony doors, the tiny sound of the locks giving way, the shame sticky and lodged deep in his heart where he can’t bear to tap into it, slow and inescapable as tree sap.

Jeongguk’s chest heaves with exertion, the satisfaction sick on his face as Namjoon processes the words, as he turns to Taehyung like he doesn’t have the anger of a Kal focused in on the pulse in his throat, and how quickly it could stop. Jimin had looked away just long enough to miss the moment that wiped Taehyung’s face clean, sculpted to impassive perfection like a statue in the manor’s gardens.

“That can’t be true,” Namjoon says. He sounds so sure of himself that Jimin wants to laugh, wants to vomit, wants to curl up on cold stone and wait for the warm metal against his skin to latch back on with a vengeance like a dog bite. Taehyung looks at the floor, and does not respond. “That can’t—no. Taehyung-ah?”

Taehyung’s chin trembles, just enough to see. Coward, Jimin thinks. Wants to brand it against Taehyung’s skin and smell it. For that brief moment, Jimin wants to see him burn, and—that makes him step back, more scared of the violence than of any physical harm that could find him in his room. There’s no way to make the thought go away, though, and he wants to dig it out of his skin with wicked claws and a curved beak.

“Let’s calm down,” Hoseok cuts in, as smooth as water, and lays an unforgiving hand on Jeongguk’s shoulder. “All of us. Calm down, and we can talk.”

 


 

The rest of the council welcomes him back quietly. Jimin clasps arms with Jihye and Sungwon, and bows deep to General Oh, whose eyes are as stern as ever, even as she tugs him into a gentle embrace after the bow.

“It’s good to see you,” she says, no artifice in it.

“Even like this?” Jimin isn’t sure what he means—whether it’s the defeat or the scars on his skin or the humiliation of Jeongguk’s words that still stings his cheeks.

“We thought you were dead,” she tells him plainly. “I’d take anything over that.”

And he knows he’s just being honest, but Jimin swallows down bitterness and the child’s petulance that reminds him that—his family is dead. His father and his brother and his mother long enough ago that he’d just started to manage thinking about her without the sharp pain of loss in his chest, when they’d marched out to battle.

“You’ve been traveling a long time,” Sungwon offers gently, as Jimin kneels at the head of the table. The cushion is soft under him, enough that the discomfort from his left leg is bearable enough for now. “If you need to retire, Jimin-ah.”

“No.” Jimin shakes his head, and splays his hands down against dark wood. Namjoon has retaken his seat, uncertainty pulling his eyes back to Taehyung, who’s still blocked off by where Hoseok and Jeongguk’s shoulders touch in front of him. Jeongguk looks moments away from ordering him chained, and Jimin’s mind trips over itself to fill any silence that might lead to it. “No, I don’t think this should wait.”

So they crowd around the table, Yoongi and Jin shoving their way in despite the way the general glares darkly. Taehyung kneels a comfortable distance away, after Hoseok opens his mouth with a sharp look in Jimin’s direction, and immediately snaps it shut again.

Taehyung needs to be here. Jimin doesn’t look at him once as they arrange themselves, doesn’t give him any more attention than a dead fly on the stone, and waits for Sungwon to wet his inkstone before he starts.

He opens his mouth, and nothing comes out. Throat clogged by spiderwebs, fumbling for words as he looks around at the long table, each face sympathetic or worried or achingly kind.

“There was a massacre,” he chokes out, and then—

It comes out haltingly. Jimin rewinds, to the aftermath of that last battle, to the way the mountain shadows had caged them in after sunset with a full retreat planned for the morning. How they had been stupid and mourning for their king, and General Song had been bleeding out the last time Jimin saw him, carried off to the medical tent. How Jimin had woken up to Jihyun’s panic, and a knife against his brother’s throat.

When Jimin describes the march, Hoseok makes a noise in his throat that sounds like a sob. It’s hard to know what’s important, Jimin’s memory blurred by a month and some conscious effort to dull the feeling of boots and fists against his skin, the cutting words and rotten food and fear, always the fear, that stopped them from speaking to each other in anything more than whispers.

He goes quiet for a long moment before he describes the tight, cruel bite of the gag in his mouth. Trips over the parade through the city streets. Doesn’t mention the number of times in those last hours of travel that he’d had to keep himself from blacking out with only the knowledge that Jihyun needed him. That all of them needed him, and looked to him, and didn’t expect anything but that he’d honor them enough to let them all die together, with their prince.

And the massacre. Every name, Jimin says out loud. Commits it to memory. Someone is holding his hand, but he doesn’t look up or register who. Everything in Jimin’s vision is red, an ugly copper that stains down his skin and the front of his clothing, that seeps in through his eyelashes and firmly pressed lips and cuts his tongue to ribbons.

“Goddess,” someone whispers, as Jimin talks. And talks, and spills out the words until there’s only one person left to kill.

When he stops in the middle of a word, lips working with no sound to match the movement, the table is silent. Jimin’s cheeks are hot, and wet, and he can’t make himself care enough to make himself presentable. Someone is crying. Maybe all of them are crying.

“I couldn’t save him,” Jimin makes himself say, and it comes out as a keen. “I couldn’t—he was waiting for me to save him and I couldn’t and I watched and—”

“Jimin,” Hoseok begs. Sounds like he begs, for what Jimin doesn’t know.

“They killed him,” he finally says. “They killed him, they killed my brother. Jihyunnie.”

He buries his face in his hands, and despair wraps around his shoulders so heavily that he wishes the numbness back, wants to call it up from under his skin like armor to shield himself.

“You can stop, Jimin-ah,” Yoongi says. His voice means he’s crying, and something about that makes it—not okay. Nothing okay. But easier, maybe.

“No.” He’s not done. His knee hurts too much to bear weight any longer, so Jimin sits cross-legged and holds onto the hand that refuses to let him go and takes a deep breath. If he listens hard enough he can hear the crash of the surf from down below, the call of seabirds.

The same ocean, he reminds himself. The same tides, the same moon, the same Goddess.

And so he talks. Until the razor words of the crown prince’s knife at his throat, and the words that cut through the throne room to call a silence broken only by the raucous laughter that followed it.

“A pet,” Namjoon echoes, when Jimin repeats the king’s words. He nods, and looks up just quickly enough to see the look on his face—like a philosopher, deep in thought—and returns to the easier sight of the grain of the table.

He talks through everything, until the end of the mourning days.

“I gave them everything I could,” Jimin says, and waits. The well of words on his tongue is dry, though there’s so much left of the story to tell. He abruptly doesn’t want to, is so sick and tired of remembering that anything seems better than watching Sungwon’s careful characters spill out over the page in descriptions of the drug, and the physician, and Taeil’s cruel smile.

There are some things that the council doesn’t need to know. That can stay between him and Taehyung, until the leash burns its way to one end or the other and lights someone aflame.

Sungwon puts down his brush. Jimin looks at the hand in his and knows now that it’s Hoseok’s. He breathes in salt water and old wood, and not the sharp metal of fresh blood. The present rushes in, and the past recedes to a quiet throb of hurt, and more than one person at the table wipes away tears.

“Jeongguk came later,” he says, and leaves it at last. “And we took the best ransom we could get.”

Every eye in the room turns to Taehyung.

Taehyung still on his knees, staring blankly down at the floor. Taehyung not meeting their eyes and shoulders hunched under the weight of their gaze, his fingers digging bruises into the tops of his own thighs. If he raised his head, and Jimin saw tear tracks on his cheeks, Jimin would fly into a thousand angry pieces and never be able to collect himself again.

“You brought him with you,” Jihye says softly.

“Why isn’t he tied?” the general asks. Even this can’t seem to faze her, the easy brusqueness back in her tone. She’s been a warrior for a long time, longer than Jimin has been alive, and she knows much better than him how to shut things away in her chest.

“He never tried to run,” Yoongi says. His cheeks are splotched with pink, something like a rash where he’d rubbed them with the sleeves of his shirt, but his voice is steady now.

“He is a prince,” she says slowly. Like he’s a little slow, and Yoongi’s eyes flash back to hardness. “Trained in more types of combat than you’ve ever seen, healer Min.”

“He never ran,” Jin cuts in, and her voice is hard and flat. She leans across the table on her elbows, face unreadable. “Never stuck us with a knife or yelled to passing traders. Forgive us if we wanted to make our lives a little easier on the journey, eomma.”

General Oh barely deigns her with a roll of her eyes. The animosity of the council room is back, and Jimin relaxes into it like a warm bath.

“He’s here for ransom,” Namjoon says flatly, ignoring the entire exchange. “You’re going to send him back there?”

“He’s valuable,” Jeongguk snaps. “And despicable, and you’d want us to keep him around?”

Jimin thinks about the word valuable, and wonders if it’s the right one. Namjoon’s jaw is tense, and Yoongi’s settled back on his heels deep in thought, and both of them look like they know something Jimin doesn’t.

“I’ll draft the note tonight,” Sungwon says. He eyes the long scroll of notes critically, and cuts it off at the bottom so suddenly that the paper coils up tight, blocks the rapid-fire characters from Jimin’s view. “If we send a footsoldier, that falcon can carry it more safely until he reaches the gate.”

“We’ll need some sort of proof,” Jihye muses. “A lock of hair?”

“A finger?” Jeongguk mutters, under his breath.

“Hair is fine,” Yoongi drawls. He touches Namjoon’s elbow lightly, and a look passes between them like a current. Jimin watches, and observes, and files it away to ask about later.

“We’ll keep him in the dungeons,” General Oh says, like it’s not up for debate.

“No,” Jimin says, before he even thinks about it, a half-second before Namjoon whips his head to the side with an outraged—

“Absolutely not.”

She raises her eyebrows placidly. The sharp pull-back of her hair, a distinguished gray, smoothes out most of the lines around her face, and leaves just enough there for the imprint of mild surprise.

“All the rooms are full.” Jihye cuts in politely, and sends a pointed look of disgust in Taehyung’s direction. He’s frozen, now, tension visible in his spine as he’s discussed like a pig being led to slaughter, and Jimin wants to poke at that feeling, ask him if he’d ever planned on being on the other end of it. “We’re housing as many soldiers as we can, and all the officers’ families are staying in the manor.”

“The lord’s chambers are yours,” Hoseok says quietly to Jimin, at his elbow. Namjoon huffs out a frustrated breath.

“Those caves flood every tide shift,” he argues. “He’d drown. Catch his death. Lose his mind—something. It’s inhumane, general.”

“It’s war,” she snaps. “He’s a prisoner. Goddess knows he has his own crimes.”

“I’m not saying he doesn’t.” Namjoon breathes deep, and carefully avoids looking at Taehyung again. “I’m just saying. We have a prince, and his father is half-mad already. If we send back his son broken or dead, what do you think he’ll do to the border villages? To the capital? Our people, general, will get hurt.”

“Hyung is right,” Jimin says. His hand curls into a fist on top of the table. “I won’t do anything that might get my people killed. This king, he’s—he loves the blood of it. I won’t give him any reason to spill more.”

“Then where do we keep him?” Sungwon asks. “No bedrooms, no banquet halls. The servants’ rooms are crowded too.”

Namjoon meets Jimin’s eyes. There’s a question in them, an obvious plea, and Jimin answers it with the jut of his chin, the splay of his fingers across the wood.

“He stays with me,” he says.

Taehyung looks up, eyes dark, and makes no other movement. The room is quiet.

Namjoon inclines his head, and breathes a sigh of relief, and Jimin thinks back to I want to claim him and feels something in his chest tighten, and splinter, and break.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

III.

 

 

Jeongguk doesn’t leave Jimin’s side. There had been yelling, and terse words trying to change Jimin’s mind, but nothing had worked. Taehyung had listened to the words fly through the council room without ever once being spoken to, and had done his best to keep his eyes away from Namjoon’s.

Namjoon, who he’d never expected to see again.

Now, Taehyung walks in silence at the older Kal’s side, hands unbound at his side, and tries not to think. He imagines those dungeons Namjoon had mentioned, imagines his chest like a cell filling up with water every time he inhales. The Kal keeps looking at him from the corner of his eye, something hard mixed with confusion creased across his brow. They hadn’t been able to change Jimin’s mind, and so Taehyung follows obediently in Jeongguk’s footsteps, with this stranger’s eyes on him, and breathes in and out with the sound of the ocean below.

At least chain him, more than one person at the table had said. Over and over, the insistence that Taehyung would run, would find a weapon, and Namjoon arguing until he lost breath that it would be cruel.

Good, Jeongguk had muttered. What’s cruel was what Namjoon wouldn’t say, and Taehyung had bitten hard on his tongue to stop himself from interrupting. From telling them that he wouldn’t run or fight because there would be no point; he’d led Jimin out of the palace himself, had thought over and over about rolling off the back of a horse and vanishing into the trees with an arrow in his back, because there would be no point in going back.

“It was empty when you came?” Jimin asks, when Jeongguk pulls open the door to the rooms.

“A few chickens were living in the kitchen, but that’s it.” He stands in the entrance as the rest of them enter, eyes always fixed on Taehyung, hand always around his knife. Taehyung swallows and hates himself for wishing Namjoon back, the anxiety irrational that—he’ll vanish out of sight, and never come back.

The room is—old. It’s the first thing Taehyung notices; the bleached-out wood, once-blue cloth now much closer to white. It smells of dust over the salt, a sitting room recently cleaned. Jimin slips out of his shoes and steps forward, runs a hand over the dark bamboo of the raised sofa.

One set of doors leads to a porch. It catches Taehyung’s attention first, the way sunlight bounces from the waves below to the paintings hung on the walls. The sharp wind that cuts through the room when Jimin pushes the doors open, and stands blocking the skyline and the sharp place where land cuts off into jagged cliffs, and breathes in so loud and deep that Taehyung’s own lungs ache for release.

Jimin murmurs a prayer, and both Kal echo it back.

He steps back in, the doors swing shut—

“Don’t,” Taehyung says, before he knows it. Throat tight with fear, something he can’t control taking over his face. Jeongguk turns sharply, and Jimin’s eyes lock onto his, and Taehyung sees the memory of tears, the heavy exhaustion that weighs down his features.

“Don’t what,” he says loudly, over Jeongguk’s angry protest.

Taehyung swallows again, his throat drier and drier each time. Tries licking his lips, as he steels himself to speak.

“The doors,” he tries. “Please—leave them open.”

“Do you think we’re stupid?” Taehyung flinches back at Jeongguk’s harshness, looks away from Jimin, backlit by sunlight, toward the sand-colored mats on the floor.

“Calm down,” Jimin bites back. His hand is gentle on Jeongguk’s forearm, though, as he pushes him away from the knife. The doors are still open. “I’d like to see you try to make it down that cliff from here, Guk-ah.”

“He could still jump,” the older Kal, Hoseok, points out. He at least sounds milder, seems to be taking his cues from Jimin rather than Jeongguk. Taehyung watches the way they move, the three of them; the Kal in charcoal, reacting smooth as water to each movement Jimin makes. One of them, Taehyung notices, can always see behind him.

“He could.” Taehyung looks up, sees Jimin’s eyes trained firm and dark on him, and swallows to think that—coronated or not, Jimin is already a king. It had been so hard to believe, in that place where the only king was his father, the only true princes his brothers. Never once hosting ambassadors, never traveling for anything more than a hunting trip. “And then I guess we both win, don’t we?”

Taehyung breathes in. Feels the crash of waves in his chest, imagines how they’d feel against his skin. He can barely swim, had learned as a child with Namjoon bobbing out far in the lake. Hasn’t been far South enough in years to see the lake, and wonders how much it’s changed.

Jimin walks away. His limp is so well-disguised that Taehyung can barely see it. He props the doors open with a wedge of wood, as he glances once back out at the ocean, the deepening blue of the sky this close to sunset.

The other door, Taehyung then learns, slides open to a bedroom. He can’t see much of it, Jeongguk hovering back behind Jimin like an anxious dragonfly, but he catches a glimpse of white bedding, thin light through paper screens, accents of pale blue and gold and jade along the walls.

Hoseok looks away from Taehyung’s profile, and Taehyung pretends not to notice.

“You’re tired,” Jeongguk says gently. The walls are thin, the sound unobstructed. Taehyung watches through the doorway as Jimin presses a hand down onto the bed, tests its give. Looks up at where a window might be, before he turns away.

“I’ll rest soon,” Jimin replies, a little absently. When he leaves the bedroom, there’s a thick towel slung over his arm, and he touches Hoseok’s shoulder without looking once at Taehyung. “Come with me?”

“And then you’ll sleep?” Hoseok asks. His hand catches around Jimin’s wrist, and Taehyung looks away, and his eyes slide over Jeongguk’s, and he tries not to notice just how young he is, and how his face softens when he’s looking at Jimin, and that every venomous word spit in Taehyung’s direction is more justified than he likes to think about. He doesn’t see Jimin nod, but he must, and Hoseok slides away from Taehyung like water, and Jeongguk slinks to the doorway without so much as the sound of a footstep.

“Stay here,” Jimin says lowly. Just enough that Taehyung can hear, even with his back turned. “Don’t move, don’t provoke him. Just keep an eye out. I’ll be back soon.”

“Yes, hyung,” Jeongguk says. Taehyung is glad now that he can’t see the skinship, the rustle of clothing, the way the three of them move together as a unit. He watches the horizon instead, until the dazzling light burns his eyes and the door slides shut, and Jimin’s footsteps fade down the hallway. There’s nothing left now but the sound of Jeongguk’s breathing behind him, and—it’s the most alone he’s been in days. On the road they had guarded him at night, Jeongguk and Jin and Yoongi taking shifts to sit up with him, watch what fitful sleep he managed to get.

Yoongi had tried to talk, a few times. When he’d opened his mouth Taehyung’s throat would tighten, anxiety thick, but it was never—always something mundane. Asking about his cloak, his training, how he’d learned the Bayul dialect that sounded a little clumsy on Yoongi’s tongue.

Jin, too, had occasionally made conversation. Sometimes just speaking to herself, more than anything, as she warmed her hands over the fire. As he brushed out his hair, as long as his mare’s tail, and rubbed in oils as it dried. Taehyung still doesn’t know their true accent; Bayul’s had slipped easily from his tongue, just as easily as she’d spoken Taehyung’s proper Odaian, and the low-country accent she’d used with the guards.

But Jeongguk—it’s unsettling, to be watched by him. Those nights, Taehyung hadn’t slept for fear of waking up with a scream, and getting his throat slit. Every time he’d closed his eyes, he’d seen the knife. Felt the blade along his throat, pressure against his thighs holding him down, smooth silk between his teeth.

Behind him, Jeongguk shifts. Taehyung tenses, waits for a touch—

But nothing comes. Jeongguk leans in close, over his shoulder, yet keeps a deliberate space between them.

“I don’t know what game you’re playing,” he says, and Taehyung almost loses himself in the map of his dialect. The dips of his vowels, the drawn-out tug at the ends of words. “And I don’t care. If you even think about touching Jimin, I’ll make sure it takes long enough for you to bleed out that he gets to watch your eyes when you die.”

Taehyung shudders. It’s something about the voice, about the cruel words twisted by someone so young, someone whose smile takes over his whole face, when he forgets Taehyung is looking.

Jeongguk steps back. The sky has shifted to an ominous sort of orange. Taehyung tucks his arms around his own waist, and slips out of his shoes, and walks on aching feet out the doors to the enclosed porch.

Jimin had been right. On the other side of the rickety gate is nothing but jagged cliff, a steep slope of sharp jutting rock that cuts off on an incline down to shore. Below is a beach, the sand a crescent walled in by cliffside, an age-worn path cut into one leading down, down. The wind slips under the collar of Taehyung’s robes and makes itself at home against his chest, and threads itself through his hair, and something about it is familiar even if everything else is not.

A flash of black catches his eye. The movement of two bodies, on the path down to the beach. One supporting the other, an arm slung around a waist. A limp, more noticeable now even from a distance.

The sunset burns the horizon from behind him, and Taehyung watches Jimin struggle down to the beach, until he’s barely visible from the height of the manor. Watches a figure cut through waves, swim out to an outcropping of rock, cling to it without climbing out as the tide pulls in, grows higher, batters against him until every time the sea swells Taehyung’s breath catches with the roll of it.

He doesn’t blink, until he sees another swimmer. Watches him reach the rock, and pull Jimin back; watches them struggle up onto the last thin sliver of sand left behind by the tide.

The moon is half-full and heavy as they make their way back up the trail, and the darkness swallows Taehyung up from the front until the only thing left is the outline of moonlight on the waves. The stars are different here, and the same, and Taehyung rests against the precarious railing and ignores the eyes on him, and looks upward to find the shape of the Brothers.

The dragon, the tiger, the dove. All shifted from their familiar places, but Taehyung reaches up with one hand like his mother had taught him, and looks for—

The tip of the dove’s beak against his pinky. The tiger’s paw resting against his index finger. The open mouth of the dragon resting against his thumb, like a toothy kiss.

Jimin comes back to the rooms fresh from a bath, and he brings the smell of brine in with him. He murmurs something to Jeongguk, and the door slides open, and shut, and Taehyung keeps his eyes on the few, flickering lanterns of the ghost town until he sees, in the corner of his eye, Jimin leaning against the doorframe to the porch.

He’s wrapped in a robe, now, something heavy and warm-looking, the black that makes everything else about him look so much sharper. His hair is wet, ruffled against his forehead, cheeks pink from exertion or maybe the steam of a bath. Taehyung looks, and makes himself look away, and finds the imprint of Jimin’s outline indelible against the stars.

“Why do you want this open?” Jimin asks. He taps gentle fingers against the wood of the doorframe. “Tell the truth.”

I haven’t lied to you, Taehyung wants to say. He hasn’t said much of anything to Jimin at all.

“When I was eleven,” Taehyung says slowly. His voice feels rough against his throat, the memory burns at his cheeks. “I was sitting watching the mountains. My brother thought it would be funny to lock me out on the balcony, and then he got called away by a tutor, and I was stuck.”

Taeseok had laughed, and blown a mocking kiss goodbye, and left Taehyung with his hand pressed against glass begging to be let back inside. He hadn’t been scared, at first. Just cold. Just lonely.

“A storm blew in that night. It was—everything was flooded, outside the rainy season, and there was lightning close in the forest. Everyone took cover inside. But no one—nobody came to unlock the doors.”

Jimin’s breath catches. Taehyung’s voice wobbles and he cuts himself off to keep it flat, and even, in that carefully trained way of the court.

“It cleared by the next afternoon, and then Haseul found me, and I’d been locked out for an entire day. No food, or water, or anything but my clothes, and they were soaked through. I got—really sick, for almost a month. And I didn’t ever close those doors again.”

He won’t ever know if it was on purpose. Whether Taeseok simply forgot, or if he deliberately decided not to come back for him. Either one seems possible, seems more than likely.

Jimin takes a heavy breath in, and lets it out through his nose.

“Okay,” he says, and nothing else. Taehyung turns his head, an inch at most, enough to see the way Jimin’s fingers, short and soft, circle the reddened scars at his opposite wrist. The way his robe exposes a swath of skin down his chest, the very last memories of bruising almost gone.

Jimin turns, and walks back into the sitting room, and Hoseok and Jeongguk step in with him. The night has fallen truly, now, and Taehyung misses the soft sounds of the forest at night. The ocean is less forgiving, somehow; a force of life so much greater than the call of an owl or the shifting of the half-naked trees.

When exhaustion finally settles itself into his skin, Taehyung curls up on the raised couch. It’s smaller than his massive bed, the bamboo less forgiving, but it’s not discomfort that keeps him awake.

Jeongguk is in Jimin’s bedroom, Hoseok is sitting on the floor to guard Taehyung. Hoseok keeps shifting, keeps sliding the door open an inch to look in, to breathe quietly, to turn back to his watch for another ten minutes. Taehyung keeps himself still, curled around a soft pillow, keeps his eyes closed and breathing deep.

Hours into the night, Hoseok stands from his position. Steps closer, until there’s no doubt that Taehyung is being watched, assessed, observed. When he’s satisfied, the door slides open again, and this time it’s enough to let him slip through on silent feet, and close it behind him with the dull tap of wood.

Taehyung swallows down the lump in his throat, and imagines—the three of them, in Jimin’s bed. Hoseok and Jeongguk lying on either side, with one arm each slung over Jimin’s waist. The moonlight creeping in. Three brothers, or as close to it as Taehyung knows. Each doing their part to keep Jimin safe, through the long, dark hours of the night.

 


 

Jimin wakes up warm. Sunlight speckles the ceiling, two bodies pressed in close, someone’s warm breath tickling against the hollow of his throat. There’s gulls calling from somewhere below, over the endless sound of the tide, the rumbling like the cliff could crash down from the weight of it.

He’d jerked in the night more times than he can count, nightmares forgotten but still lingering in the ache of his eyes, the pound of his head. On the road, at least, sleep had come quickly. After full days of riding and tension and always the sick anxiety of being followed, Jimin had curled up on hard earth and slept through the night as motionless as a stone.

Now, though, in a real bed, he feels out of place. Everything is soft, but for the firmness of Hoseok’s chest against his back. Everything is warm, body heat trapped under limbs and clothes and blankets, and Jimin blinks up at the ceiling and suddenly can’t breathe. The arms around his waist turned to lead, crushing his lungs, until panic crawls at his throat and eyes.

It’s suffocating. The unrelenting heat, the tease of wind over the covers from the open windows.

The ocean crashes down below. The tides might have receded, he thinks from the sound; the dungeons would have flooded during the night. He remembers the old stories about this fort, older than time, the ancient kings chained to the flood caves to lose their minds or drown. He wonders if Taehyung had slept through the night, like he never did in Odai.

“Come back,” Jeongguk mumbles sleepily, when Jimin pushes himself up. He reaches out with eyes still shut, clothes rumpled, and Jimin slips out between the familiar bodies in just enough time that Jeongguk’s fingers close around the front of Hoseok’s shirt.

They curl close together with satisfied sighs, none the wiser, and it’s good to see them rest. Even in sleep, Hoseok’s eyes look tight with tension and worry.

The sun is curling up over the horizon by the time Jimin makes it to the window. A low gong sounds from the village down the coast, drifting on the breeze, and Jimin murmurs the prayer with enough voice that the air shudders with it. A delicate thing. This close to the sea, standing above it with nothing to break his fall but icy water, everything feels more distant.

He’d clung to the jagged stone last night as the sun set, and refused to let go. Jimin stares at his raw fingers, the brown crust of blood under his nails where he’d scrambled against slick stone to hold his ground, and let himself be battered by the waves until all his old bruises felt alive. Until the salt and the force felt like they could rub his skin right off, and take his scars with it, and leave Jimin as smooth as a surf-polished stone.

He would have stayed there for hours. The taste of ocean unforgettable on his tongue, the memories all rushing in, and back, and in again until there was nothing left of him to cleanse.

Jimin pulls his robe tighter around his chest, and wonders if standing in a lightning storm would feel any different.

Hoseok wakes violently, just after sunrise. Jimin turns back from the window to watch him jerk up so abruptly that Jeongguk groans in agony, burying his face in Jimin’s pillow to catch a last moment of peace. Hoseok barely notices—his chest heaves as he looks around, face slack and eyes wild until he finds Jimin by the window, until he looks around again and seems to remember where he is.

“Jimin-ah,” he breathes out. Presses a shaking hand against his heart. “Goddess. Okay, okay. You scared me.”

“Sorry,” Jimin says, just as helpless. He doesn’t know how to explain the suffocation, the softness, the warmth that had been too sudden, too much. “I wanted to watch the sunrise.”

Hoseok’s tongue is familiar over the prayer, words fallen almost instinctively. Jimin smiles, and takes a step to dip his first two fingers in the pitcher of water by the bed, and flicks the drops into Hoseok’s face. Hoseok, who shrieks just loudly enough to pull another groan out of Jeongguk as he reaches over to wet his own fingers, fling the blessing back in Jimin’s face with a grin.

They wake Jeongguk up with a palmful of water each, splashed against his nose and dribbled down his neck, and Jimin is lucky enough not to be in the bed when he jerks up to drag whichever of them he can reach into a chokehold.

Hoseok’s laughter, when it struggles out of him, is bright and infectious. It catches in Jimin’s throat too, one knee braced on the bed as the two of them tussle, until Hoseok cements his victory with his thighs around Jeongguk’s ribs and beams up at Jimin like he’s the whole world. Like he’s their whole world, and Jimin swallows at the glimpses of ink he can see down Jeongguk’s chest, and Hoseok’s smile fades as he watches the tightness around Jimin’s eyes.

“Jimin-ah?” He says. Follows Jimin’s eyes down to the gap in Jeongguk’s robe, and Jeongguk stills underneath him with a frown pressed into the lines of his face.

“Can I see?” Jimin asks, before he can talk himself out of it.

Jeongguk’s face melts. He’s reaching for the tie of his sleep robe before the yes leaves his lips, and Jimin leans forward until he almost topples back onto the mattress, steadying himself with a hand on Hoseok’s shoulder as he sits half on his knees, watching the slow reveal of skin.

A Kal’s oath is inked onto their spine when they come of age. Jimin had been there for Dawon, and Hoseok, and Jeongguk—the three of them who’d been at his side for years, during their training. They’d lived and slept and breathed with each other, and Jimin had held Hoseok’s hand as he cried through the needle, watching in a sick sort of fascination as the oaths dripped in blackened blood down the ridges of his spine, one character at a time. He’d blushed his way through practicing breathing techniques with Dawon, had ruffled Jeongguk’s hair and let him pretend that he wasn’t afraid of the pain.

On their chest, just above the heart, each Kal has the generation they’re sworn to. Jimin holds his breath as Jeongguk’s robe slips away, notes the new pink scar just at his sternum. In and out, up and down as Jeongguk breathes and the names breathe with him. Six characters, names stacked on top of each other, nearly as broad as Jimin’s handspan.

“You haven’t,” he says, and stops. Touches one empty finger to the end of the name just below his own. Jeongguk’s breath hitches, and Jimin watches the gooseflesh rise. Hears Hoseok swallow, the weight of him shifting on the bed.

“Neither of us,” Hoseok murmurs. His hand inches up Jimin’s back, to just between his shoulderblades, a steady pressure. “I was going to, while Jeongguk was gone, but—there were rumors. I didn’t want to, you know.”

“Yeah.” Jimin’s mouth is dry. He runs one finger soft over the name, like he could feel the raise of it under his skin. Wonders when they might get it done, with everything so tumultuous. There aren’t any artists here to do it for them; the Kal’s supplies are miles away, broken under heavy shoes and left to rot among the ashes of the battle. They take the kits with them to battles, and Jimin’s watched Hoseok pack and re-pack his bag too many times to count. It’s the one thing that had been missing from Jeongguk’s bag, on their journey back to Gangneung.

“I’m so sorry,” Jeongguk whispers. His eyes are wide, and wet, and he fumbles up at Jimin’s hand until their fingers are laced tight, and Jimin can’t reach Jihyun’s name anymore.

His lip trembles, but—he’s tired of crying. Had cried himself out clinging to that rock, had let the salt water mix until his skin was red and stinging with it. Jimin squeezes Jeongguk’s hand, and smiles as firmly as he can manage with lips shut tight, and takes a deep breath in through his nose.

“He’s safe now,” is what he manages. It’s the only thing that keeps him sane, sometimes—that none of the other princes had spoken up for Jihyun. That at least dead, he can’t be hurt any longer. At least dead, he can be mourned and grieved and loved.

“Safe,” Hoseok murmurs, and whispers a word to the goddess.

“Dawon.” Jimin says her name firmly, and holds Hoseok’s watery gaze when he looks up. “They’re safe now, hyung.”

Jeongguk brushes his thumb against the back of Jimin’s palm, and—Jimin had never known his brother’s name. Just knows that he was older, that he’d taught Jeongguk how to clumsily hold a knife and how to hide in the jagged stone by the mouth of a foothill cave in case raiders ever passed through. Knows that he had burned with the rest of Jeongguk’s family, and to this day he still sits back farther from the fire than any of them.

“Ah,” Hoseok says. He wipes at his eyes, sets his trembling lips into a firm kind of pout. “You both. We have things to do today, you know.”

“I don’t think that’s true.” Jeongguk makes a valiant effort to smile, and not to cry, and Jimin’s chest feels empty and overflowing all at the same time. “I think I’m allowed to sleep all day,actually.”

“Come on.” Hoseok prods him gently, pinches at the thinnest part of his wait until Jeongguk smacks him away, and rolls off the bed with so much forced cheer that Jimin aches with it. “Up, Jimin-ah, or the council will have my head.”

The council. His father’s last advisor, last general, last two senators from the capital. Jimin wonders how they’d lived—how they’d escaped the capital during whatever occupation had come. He’ll learn today, he’s sure, when the time for storytelling comes. They’ll want to talk strategy, and organization, and someone might suggest a wartime coronation, and Jimin will tell them no.

His father’s crown will stay off his head for as long as it takes to paint safe in dark ink on Jeongguk and Hoseok’s chests.

 


 

The council is already assembled by the time Jimin makes it back to the chamber, Hoseok stuck to his heels as securely as his shadow. Jeongguk had locked his jaw to be made to keep to the chambers, had glared through the open doors at Taehyung, cross-legged on the aged porch, but surrendered more readily than Hoseok would have.

When they’d left, Taehyung hadn’t spared any of them a backwards glance. Jimin doesn’t blame him, with the clarity of the morning; a sharp spring day, the air crisper than Odai’s persistent weight of forested humidity. Taehyung sat angled toward the outline of the town down the path, like he’d been there for hours and planned to stay for hours more. No collar around his neck holding him down, but trapped outside by the hatred that burns in Jeongguk’s eyes every time something reminds him of everything about the situation he hates.

Jimin could have told him to stay outside, since the only real threat is Taehyung pitching himself over the railing, but—it’s that sick satisfaction. To make sure Taehyung remembers what it’s like, to remind him of whatever shame he might have, that had cast his eyes away from Namjoon’s last night.

Before they make it to the council room, Jimin makes the conscious effort to correct his limp. It’s the first morning he’s started without Yoongi at his side, checking him carefully, but from the look in Hoseok’s eye he knows he’ll be paid a visit tonight, whether he asks for it or not. Something cool for the abrasions on his palms, maybe a tighter wrap for the knee he’d overused on the trek back up the cliffside.

He opens the council door to steely silence. The kind that settles after an argument, and as the four of them stand to bow, Jimin notes the way General Oh’s eyes cut toward Namjoon, whose spine is as stiff as ever.

“Your majesty,” she intones.

“General,” he replies, and greets them each in turn. The way his father had, back when the council was still a crowd of twelve; the way he’d practiced every morning, when he’d been fixed with that kind appraisal as he shadowed the king through his day.

Those last months before the battle, Jimin knew his father was training him. As the inevitable fight approached, tensions rising with every raid, they each became more certain that the army would march from the capital, the king at its front. Jimin, long used to following his father into council once weekly, was welcomed into daily war meetings until he was waved off to the training fields, whenever Namjoon took the floor.

So he knows enough. Knows the formality, and the tone of the discussion, and the ways his father had simmered conflicts between provinces and generals. But walking in alone is still terrifying, with no one but Hoseok at his side; walking in without his father is still something he hadn’t let himself think about, before the battle.

I’m proud of you, he’d said that night, sharpening their swords with their men. Not above them but with them, as willing to die as they should expect anyone else to be.

They weren’t his last words, Jimin knows, but—they’re the last ones that count. The battle is a blurry memory, surrounded by dying horses and the smell of blood and always, always the screaming that he can’t quite stop from ringing his ears. He doesn’t want to remember his father there. Wants to remember him as he always was; firm and solid, at Jimin’s side, even when the waves crashed against his chest on the funeral day and mixed salt water wet on his cheeks.

“Jeongguk told me the basics,” Jimin says, to break the ice. There’s a map spread out over the table, held down at its corners by half-filled cups of tea. He barely blinks before Hoseok holds one out for him, and takes it just to feel the glass scalding against his palm. “This is our last fort?”

“Yes.” Oh nods, taps a finger against the inked character on the map’s shoreline. “And we’re lucky to keep it. No one’s spotted an Odaian patrol this far North in months, and no one has lived in this town for longer. If we can just keep quiet for long enough for the soldiers in town to recover—”

“We can send them off to die in another battle?” Namjoon mutters. His eyes are dark, jaw tense. Jihye, to his left, frowns down at the map, even as General Oh rolls her eyes.

“If we strike against the capital, and they don’t see us coming—”

“Lots of ifs,” Jihye murmurs. The lines around her forehead and lips are deep, her age no longer just the silver streaking her hair. She’s Northern, a senator from a border province even farther up the coast than Gangneung. Her men had travelled the farthest to die.

“There’s no certainty in war,” Oh says. She meets Jimin’s eyes, presses her hands flat against the table. “Your majesty, I understand that you’re young. That you’ve lost more than many of us. But we’re all losing Bayul together, now, and I say we need to strike before they burn down everything we love.”

“What’s to stop them from burning it down when we’re dead outside the city gates?” Jimin says. His voice echoes strangely in his throat. Authority sits strangely on his shoulders. He meets her eyes, and sees understanding and frustration mixed into one. “They’re fortified for siege, general. Unless we had a surefire way to get into the city—”

“We do,” she says.

Jimin stops. His palm burns. At his seat, Namjoon’s hand curls tight into a fist.

“Taehyung?” Jimin says, tongue careful in his mouth. She nods, something like a victorious smile tugging at the hard edge of her lips.

“We could ransom him for safe passage into the city. Better than asking for armistice, if we can strike at the dragon’s heart.”

“That’s inhumane,” Namjoon says, so quietly Jimin barely hears it. Sungwon lifts his head from his notes and glares, looking seconds away from striking Namjoon if General Oh doesn’t beat him to it.

“What’s inhumane is what he did to Jimin. What all of them did to our people. But what would you know about that, Namjoon-ssi?”

“Stop it,” Jimin bites, before the fight can truly start. This, at least, he’s heard before. He pushes aside the memory and thinks back, to each attack he’s heard against Namjoon since he turned up on their doorstep, drenched every inch of him but for the satchel stuffed with war documents, stuttering over Bayul syllables to introduce himself as the son of a general.

“Namjoon-hyung.” He addresses it directly, makes sure to hold Namjoon’s eyes. “He’s not here to join us. We send back a note with what you think he might get us from Kyunghwan, and make sure he has safe journey home.”

Namjoon’s lips press firmly together, when Jimin says home.

“Let me talk to him,” he says.

“Absolutely not,” Oh bites back. She’s double their age, and the condescension drips off her words more obviously than Jimin’s ever heard it before. “Namjoon-ssi, you can’t really believe we’d trust you with that?”

“I’m sorry,” Namjoon says, from behind his gritted teeth. Obviously restraining himself. “I was under the impression that I have been here for almost ten years, working just as hard as the rest of you to end this war. I’ve never lied to you, general. I think, honestly, that Taehyung could be a greater asset than an enemy.”

“He is an asset,” Sungwon says. “He’s our only bargaining chip, and Goddess knows what his father might do if we don’t send him back, conditions or no.”

Namjoon’s fingers twitch. Jihye sighs, and rubs elegant fingers against her temples.

“I never thought we’d end up here,” she says. “Just as bad as they are, trading human life for favors they may not even grant.”

Human life. Jimin’s tongue goes dry.

“We wouldn’t kill him,” he says, and hates that he sounds uncertain. Oh raises her eyebrows.

“If his father rejects the ransom, there’s nothing more he can do for us. We get what information we can out of him, and after that—”

No,” Namjoon says.

“Jimin-ah,” Oh says, as if she’d never been interrupted. “It’s war.”

“We aren’t like that,” Jimin says, and maybe it’s naive. But the thought of watching—Taehyung’s throat slit, a sword through his chest, a powder slipped into his cup—it’s not satisfying, not like the thought of his hands around Taehyung’s neck had been, back in the capital. It’s horrifying, the thought of killing him for something beyond his control. For the actions of that half-mad king.

He meets Namjoon’s eyes, and this—it’s something they can agree on about Taehyung, maybe. That he won’t die here.

“We’ll send him home,” Jimin says, as forcefully as he can. “I don’t care for what, as long as it’s something. But I want him out of here, Namjoon, and you’ll tell me what it is that the king will give for him.”

He settles back on his heels, and finally lets go of his cooling cup of tea. His palm comes away bright red, the scrapes from the stone stung back to and angry kind of life. The council table never quiets, never stops the circular conversation of war.

Jimin straightens his spine, and breathes calmly, and wishes like a child for his father.

 


 

They agree, finally, that they need a lock of Taehyung's hair. The note has been drafted, and re-drafted, until Namjoon grew weary of arguing with Sungwon and the general about the detail. The final version is in Odaian, with Namjoon's family seal stamped alongside Jimin's in ink so dark it hurts to see.

“I can send a runner to Jeongguk,” Hoseok murmurs, and Jimin’s head snaps up from where he’s examining the note, one last time.

“No,” he says, before he stops to wonder why. And then he remembers, the fear in Taehyung’s eyes when Jeongguk had gotten close to him on the road. Jeongguk’s knife heavy against Taehyung’s throat. And then, flashing behind his eyelids as he blinks, the way Taeil had raised his hand and laughed when Taehyung had flinched at the threat.

Hoseok makes a small noise, and Jimin shakes the memory out of his head.

“I’ll go,” he says. “He’ll cooperate.”

He needs to stretch his legs. Needs to get out of this room, to feel fresh air in his lungs. The table stands as he does, each member bowing in turn as Jimin steps away. And hesitates, after a long moment, with Hoseok hovering at his side.

“Namjoon.” From the corner of his eye, he sees Namjoon pause, still half-bent into a bow. “With me, please.”

Namjoon scrambles around the table like he’s been waiting for it, and Jimin doesn’t stop to let him catch up until he’s halfway down the hallway, with Hoseok at his heels. There’s palpable relief in the air, away from the icy tension of the council room.

“Thank you,” Namjoon says, on a heavy breath of relief. They step into the courtyard, emptier than it should be in a manor this size, and Jimin doesn’t blink before he pushes Namjoon back by the shoulder, crowding tight into a shadowed corner, a strong pillar of wood at his back.

“What aren’t you saying?” Jimin asks, the violet wool of Namjoon’s shirt warm under his palm. Hoseok leans against the wall casually, back turned, one hand on the hilt of his dagger.

“Your majesty,” Namjoon says. Pauses, to breathe in and then out. They’ve been friends, Jimin knows, for almost as long as they’d lived in enemy countries. Namjoon is only a year older than him, had taught him the details of Odaian dialect with more patience than his tutors. But Jimin also knows that he’s a traitor to his own country, knows that he’s capable of doing whatever he thinks is right, no matter the cost. “Be more specific.”

“About Taehyung. You’ve never breathed a word about him, Namjoon, and then you embrace him like a brother. You don’t want us to send him back, and won’t tell me why.”

There’s a heavy pause. Namjoon never once tries to struggle away, but his eyes drift down to the scar at Jimin’s throat. His brows furrow, before he finally decides to speak.

“He’s my friend,” he says first. “Or—he was. We grew up together. He’s your age, Jimin-ah, you have to understand, and—the youngest of them was nine already when he was born. He was always an easy target.”

“You left years ago,” Jimin reminds him, and Namjoon winces at it. “He’s changed, I promise you. One of the princes—while I was there, he said—”

“They’re liars.” Namjoon spits it out, shockingly venomous. “They lie about him, Jimin-ah, to the court and the council and their father. Just because—”

And he cuts himself off, almost bites down physically on his tongue, not nearly subtle enough to escape Jimin’s notice. Hoseok has gone very still, head tilted just so Jimin can see the curve of his cheek, the tip of his nose, the shadows beading in his eye.

“Because what,” Jimin says. Namjoon glares, and softens.

“He’s different.”

“Different how, hyung. Don’t do this, don’t—” He breaks off, doesn’t know how to articulate the frustration of feeling like a child, in front of an advisory council who’d lived full lives before he was even born. “Be honest with me. Please. I need you to.”

He lets Namjoon go, and steps back. Namjoon keeps very still, looks around the courtyard with worry creased in his face.

“We’re alone,” Hoseok comments drily.

Namjoon nods, jerky, and takes a deep breath.

“His mother,” he finally says. “A palace servant the king wanted. She worked in housekeeping. His concubines are sterile, but—she wasn’t. And when she birthed a boy, the king claimed him, and they’ve always hated him for it. So he’s different, Jimin-ah, you have to believe me.”

“Why should I,” Jimin says on instinct, but already he’s thinking back. You barely deserve what you have, Taeil had said. No guards outside Taehyung’s door. The bruises, and the mock slap, and the balcony.

“Did he give you that?” Namjoon asks, and his eyes trail down again to the dip of Jimin’s throat.

“What?”

“Did he give you that,” Namjoon repeats. His eyes are dark, intense, face shrouded by the noon shadows. “Did he lay a hand on you, Jimin-ah, the whole time you were there?”

“So what if he didn’t,” Jimin says. Something in him is shaking, something that doesn’t want to think about Taehyung anymore, something that wants to curl away from the way Namjoon looks at him and sets his jaw and says everything Jimin doesn’t want to think about. “You heard me, hyung, when I told you what those princes did. What their king ordered. He kept me chained in his parlor and never once looked me in the eyes, and you want me to believe—what? That he isn’t a coward? That he thinks I’m human any more than the rest of them did?”

“I know him.” Namjoon takes a deep breath, and lays a delicate hand on Jimin’s arm. “Jimin-ah, I wouldn’t tell you if it weren’t true. You can’t send him back there.”

“I don’t have a choice,” Jimin bites back. “Even if I wanted to. We aren’t sending him to his death, hyung. He belongs back where he came from.”

“But you are.”

Jimin waits. Namjoon breathes, anger tense in his jaw. His eyes dart to Hoseok, cooly impassive, absorbing every word so thoroughly Jimin knows he’ll be able to recite the conversation by memory later tonight, when Jimin asks.

“You are,” Namjoon repeats, and his shoulders sag. One hand wipes at his mouth, drags along his chin, draws Jimin’s attention to the heavy bags under his eyes. “He helped you escape. If he tells us anything—troops or strategy or anything at all, they’ll know. And they’ll kill him, Jimin-ah, you know they will. I know you saw.”

“But he’s their prince,” Jimin says, and doubts each word even as it leaves his lips. “Their brother.”

Something around Namjoon’s eyes softens.

“I taught you better than that.” Those long lessons on culture, and history; the ones Jihyun had loved more than Jimin, who’d always favored calculations and science and literature more. “You know our Brothers.”

“That’s ancient.” He doesn’t want to believe it. “Hyung, you can’t expect me to believe—”

“Kyunghwan’s brother,” Namjoon snaps. Breathes again, with closed eyes. “Three years younger than him. Gutted by a boar on a hunting trip, and the rumor was that his horse went mad. That someone had tortured it before the party rode out. His cousin, from an aunt, ten years younger, drowned in the lake where he grew up swimming.”

Jimin swallows down on sickness.

“But he’ll pay the ransom,” he forces out. Namjoon stays quiet, until Jimin moves to press insistent fingers against his wrist.

“I’ve done my best. For us, and for Taehyung.”

“You should hope he does.” Jimin steps back, into the sunlight. Namjoon follows at his side, and Hoseok slips closer as easy as the tide change. “For your own sake, hyung. Because if he doesn’t, even I might not be able to keep him alive here.”

 


 

When they reach Jimin’s chambers, Jeongguk greets them with a nod. He’s sitting on the floor, angled lazily to see out the porch doors, at the broad slope of Taehyung’s shoulders where he hasn’t seemed to move. The bowl next to him is still full; chopsticks untouched, tea likely long gone cold.

“He’s just sitting there,” Jeongguk shrugs, when Hoseok raises an eyebrow at the charcoal smudges on his fingers, the blank-paged book resting closed next to his thigh. “I’m bored.”

Namjoon doesn’t wait for permission before walking out to Taehyung’s side. Jimin watches, tries to keep himself impassive as Taehyung looks up with something blank in his eyes, as he ignores Namjoon’s outstretched hand and clambers to his feet to be led gently back into the room. He keeps his hands in front of him, as if he were still bound, and the image sits unpleasantly in Jimin’s stomach.

“Your ransom has been arranged,” Jimin says. Taehyung’s gaze turns to him, but shies away from meeting his eyes directly. His eyes dart from Jimin’s nose to his forehead; his cheek to his chin. “We just need proof to send with the letter.”

“Let me do it,” Jeongguk breathes. Something anxious about it—Jimin doesn’t want to think about what else it could be. A curl around the words like wound-up excitement, the metal sound of his knife as it slides preemptively from its sheath. Taehyung’s breath catches, his eyes widen. Something slips away from his face, a gauzy thing so thin that Jimin stuns at how just the slightest shift of muscle can make fear so easily apparent.

Namjoon hisses in a breath, and Jimin catches Jeongguk by the sleeve.

“No.” He looks into Jeongguk’s eyes, and challenges him to keep any disappointment to himself. Jeongguk looks back with wide, soft eyes, and Jimin hates that there’s reasons to doubt the sweetness of them. That there’s always been reasons, and Jimin hates too that he knows how it feels—knows exactly how it feels to want to hold a blade to Taehyung’s throat, to watch the life bleed out of his eyes. “Namjoon-hyung.”

He holds out his hand, and Jeongguk presses the knife into his open palm. Namjoon looks between the three of them, and takes a breath that squares out his shoulders, and takes the blade that Jimin has to fight himself to not hold onto.

In the sudden quiet, broken only by the sea herself, it’s easy to notice the way Taehyung is trembling. So tightly repressed that it seems to hurt, his jaw clenched, a shadow in his eye as he watches Namjoon approach him like a cornered animal.

He’s my friend, Namjoon had said, but all Jimin can think about is Taeil’s fingers digging bruises into his jaw, his cheeks. The way he’d pointed out that any animal can only take so much until it snaps—that Jimin still hasn’t seen what years of targeting from brothers and court and king has done to Taehyung’s inevitable temper.

“Taehyung-ah,” Namjoon says, in that voice that always calmed Jimin down from the edge of anger, when he was shooed away from the council table halfway through each meeting. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

Taehyung tips his jaw up. He drags in a breath so rough it hurts Jimin’s throat just to hear. He looks Namjoon straight in the eye, with no hint of the fear that might have set his whole body to shaking like the earth during hurricane winds.

He holds Namjoon’s gaze, and offers out his left hand, palm down, inches away from the knife.

And something in Namjoon shudders as he recoils in horror, as he reaches out and laces their fingers together so tenderly it hurts to watch. And now Jimin’s not sure which of them is trembling more, only knows that Taehyung’s lips are pressed white with tension, and he doesn’t look away from Namjoon even with tears unshed in his eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Namjoon whispers. His voice is choked; even turned away, Jimin can imagine the look on his face, the sickness and the guilt. “Not that, Taehyung-ah. Just your hair.”

And so, without a word, Taehyung turns. He keeps himself still when Namjoon steps behind him, curls a strand of hair around his finger before pulling it just barely taut, at the base of his skull where the rest of Taehyung’s hair falls easily enough to hide the gap. The knife cuts cleanly, and Jimin watches as Taehyung seems to stop breathing at its closeness.

Again, he wonders at the scar. Wonders whether Namjoon knows, if it had been given before he left.

“Done,” Namjoon whispers, and hands Jeongguk’s knife back like the hilt is burning his palm. The planes of his voice are different, in Odaian. Not like Yoongi’s, who’d explained his lower city accent one night on the road, years ago. Namjoon’s voice is noble, speaks to being raised around royalty, but—it lacks Taehyung’s trained flatness.

Jimin folds the hair into the cloth Hoseok hands him, and tucks it into the pocket at his waist. He’s ready to step out, uncomfortable and confused and needing time or space or the heavy ache of exhausted limbs to work everything out in his head, and gets as far as gesturing for Jeongguk and Hoseok to trade posts when Taehyung finally speaks.

“Hyung?” He asks, and despite the deep register of his voice, he sounds like a child. Looks up at Namjoon even from the same height; shrinks into himself subtly and fully all at once.

“I’m here,” Namjoon says—offers, really, a desperate thing. He catches Taehyung’s sleeve between his fingers, and Taehyung shakes him off with a look that turns suddenly sharp, in a strange coexistence with the vulnerability.

“What are you selling me back for?”

And the words—

Jimin doesn’t feel guilty. It’s not worth considering. It’s war, and each time he thinks about Taehyung sitting proud on his throne in that blood-stained hall he feels familiar rage in his chest, and this is no time for Jimin to keep softness in his heart. But that numb thing that had settled in his chest, during those long days of reading and stretching and waiting for something worse, is still curled up somewhere quiet, and blankets itself heavily over the last of his hatred.

He wants to hate Taehyung more than he can make himself, these days. He’s angry, yes. But freedom has dragged the vision of his hands around a sturdy neck away from the place where he keeps his desire, and it’s hard to want to give something so cruel room in his heart. Like clipping a sparrow’s wings, before setting it to fly over the ocean.

“Food,” Namjoon finally says, in a voice so heavy it drags on Jimin’s bones. Taehyung’s hand curls low against his stomach; his face twitches like he’s going to be sick. “Our people here are running out of supplies. And—that they spare civilians, when the armies come through.”

Taehyung softens. Sags. Like some of the fight has been leached out of his bones at the words.

The general had been arguing for passage into the city, with the best of their troops armed with whatever they could get. For using Taehyung as a shield to get close to the king. It would be a suicide mission, she had argued, but if they could play everything right, frame it as a mutinous son allied to kill his family—

She wants blood, Jimin knows. Sungwon too, to an extent. It’s maybe why he’d left Jeongguk in his chambers with gentler things than blood staining his fingers.

“Hyung,” he calls quietly. Namjoon turns his head, bows away from Taehyung’s gaze, and there’s so much shame on his face that it warps Jimin’s insides. “The council is waiting.”

He leaves Taehyung guarded under Hoseok’s unwavering gaze, standing in the middle of the room like a lost child.

 


 

They wrap the council meeting after Jeongguk tucks the note and strand of hair into Tokki’s pouch, and a soldier has been called to the hall. He’s older, lines creased around his eyes and mouth, hair halfway to silver already. His name is Soohyuk, and he bows at Jimin’s feet like he’s witnessing the Goddess herself. There’s awe in his voice at the whispered word of thanks, when Jimin presses two salt-wet fingers to his lips and murmurs a blessing of safety.

“Take no risks,” Namjoon cautions him. They’ve brought a horse for the journey, and two weeks’ worth of food, and Jeongguk has drawn out a careful map of the mountain pass. “You speak to the king and no one else.”

It’s the only condition Jimin had agreed to readily. He doesn’t want any of his people alone in Odai, or with the king, but those princes—

If Soohyuk doesn’t return, they’ll send back Taehyung’s corpse with the last of their army. Even Jimin couldn’t argue about that, when the general had insisted. As mad as the king had seemed, as drunk as he’d gotten over the course of that long, horrible morning, he has the most power. Better for a messenger to reach him than trust a prince to pass along their version of the truth.

“He’ll be fine,” Jeongguk offers, as Soohyuk rides out the gate, down the long road that leads to town. It sounds flimsy at best, and Jimin fights the urge to shake off the hand at his shoulder. The instinct to refuse comfort, something that rises now at every touch, that he carefully and forcibly presses down on.

The council doesn’t meet again, that day. Instead, Jeongguk urges Jimin down winding halls to the dusty apothecary, where Yoongi has set up as much as he’d brought with him to the battle. Most of his stores are low, he explains lowly as he redresses Jimin’s knee. Too many wounded soldiers, and no contacts to bring him more. There are half a dozen books spread open on various tables, with pictures of the local plant life not nearly as colorful as the gathered ones tied in bunches next to open pages.

“I’ve been playing flower girl,” Jin snorts, from where she’s lounging in a splash of sunlight, hair strewn out soft and untangled over the floor. “Eomma is furious that I’m even here, so parading around like a little village child is just an extra treat.”

“You should have seen her face when noona showed up,” Jeongguk comments. He’s cross-legged on the floor next to Jin, fingers inching toward her hair. Every few minutes, Jin works up the effort to smack his hands away, but he grows bolder every time. It’s such a familiar dance. “Bringing news from the basin and too sore to ride a horse.”

“Watch yourself,” Jin says blandly. Jeongguk snorts.

It’s familiar, and lighthearted, and almost enough for Jimin to ignore the way both their eyes trace over his new scarring as Yoongi unwraps him to tend to each of them. There’s a gaping hole in the conversation where Jihyun should be and Jimin can’t force the thought out of his head, can’t think of anything else when Jeongguk starts braiding Jin’s hair and tugging too hard at her scalp because they’d always sectioned it off into two braids, and she’d always yell at them just a hair shy of too loud, and—

“Let me go,” Jimin mumbles, when Yoongi tries to tug him back. He’s halfway out of the room already, feet moving on instinct alone. Long fingers close around his wrist, unthinking, and Jimin flinches back so sharply he hates himself for it.

Yoongi lets go like the scarring burns him to touch. Jimin slips out the door, and follows winding hallways until he finds the gate he’d left through last night on his way down to the ocean. If Jeongguk is following him, he’s smart enough to stay out of sight.

Jimin doesn’t walk far. Just down the path enough to find a flat-topped jut of rock, sun-warmed and worn down to something like smoothness by centuries of battering winds. It’s far enough that he doesn’t have to hear the gentle noise of the manor, filled to the brim with minor officers and their families. The last with any rank to survive the war, all looking to him for leadership.

If the ransom falls through, he’ll be at fault. If they march to battle, and the last of his warriors die, he’ll be at fault. This time, maybe, he’ll have Hoseok and Jeongguk to keep him from Taeil, from the heir or the king. He’ll die by someone’s hand, either way, and the histories will mark his line as ended.

Jimin can hear Jeongguk behind him, breathing. He’s a dozen paces back, at least, but his presence is as familiar as the shadow of the moon. For now, it’s enough to pretend to be alone, with nothing but the ocean and the fluttering of the bandage on one of his wrists, where he’d left before Yoongi could secure it. Jimin fiddles, left-handed, until it’s tucked into something resembling order.

There’s the quiet sound of footsteps coming down the path. Not armor, or Hoseok’s light step, or the good-natured clamor of Yoongi and Jin. Jimin lets whoever it is approach without turning to greet them, and sees out of the corner of his eye a tray of food put down at his side.

“You look hungry,” Namjoon says, and swings his legs over the ledge to sit, close enough to touch.

“Do I,” Jimin says in return, more flatly than he’d meant. Namjoon shrugs, and picks up a pair of chopsticks, and reaches immediately for a bowl of milmyeon.

“No one’s seen you eat. That’s something.”

Jimin’s sure that his stomach has shrunk in the last month. On the road he had worried Jeongguk, until Yoongi pulled him aside one evening to whisper something in his ear that had stopped the gentle prods to eat more, to accept the offered extra portion of food. He can barely keep anything down that isn’t plain, and he’s not sure whether it’s starvation or illness, whether he’s simply used to it, or if his body is trying to reject being well.

“I don’t want to,” he says. It sounds petulant to his own ears. Childish. Namjoon hums around a mouthful of fish cake, and pushes the tray closer to Jimin. Jimin looks down, then up to meet his eyes, and sees nothing but quiet understanding. “I—hyung, I can’t. I don’t know why.”

Namjoon swallows the cake, and crosses his legs, and braces his elbows on his knees, his chin on his hands. He looks down at the cliff beneath them, and shifts only to flick down a pebble with his index finger, and watch it fall into invisibility among the stone.

“If you don’t eat,” he says slowly. “We can’t let you train. It doesn’t have to be much, Jimin-ah.”

Jimin’s stomach turns. He picks up his chopsticks and blinks, almost putting them down before he steels himself to reaching for a piece of pork.

It feels almost insurmountable. Namjoon doesn’t look at him, squints off into the distance rather than scrutinize him, and Jimin is grateful for the courtesy even as he struggles to chew, to swallow, to be grateful for the flavor and the richness of the meat as his mother had always reminded him. His stomach makes an unhappy noise that might be hunger, but it’s so hard to distinguish between hunger and pain, and grieving.

He manages enough that Namjoon looks appeased. That he accepts it when Jimin shoves the tray a few centimeters away, and sets down his chopsticks, and instead swallows down half the pitcher of water until he’s wide awake, the cold trickling down his chest and settling against his lungs.

Wake up, Jimin tells himself. His father had ruled, had waged war, through the death of his wife. If he could survive those long months, of watching her waste away despite the efforts of the best physicians in the country, and their allies’ countries, then—Jimin can live through this. He stares down at the crescent-moon sliver of beach and tries to imagine the funeral they’d held. General Oh would have sunk his helmet, as the king’s last living cousin; any living priestess could have said the rites.

“I’ve eaten,” he finally says, and looks over to see Namjoon just as engrossed in the view. His eyes blink wide for a moment, before he offers a smile that wrinkles his nose and the skin around his eyes. Every inch the hyung Jimin had called friend for so many years.

“And now you want to hit something with a sword?” Namjoon teases. Jimin smiles back, as best he can, and straightens out his aching knee.

“I think so,” he agrees, and tastes the satisfaction building already on the tip of his tongue.

Jeongguk falls into step as they trek back to the palace, and his eyes stay big and hurt until Jimin holds one hand out behind him, and wiggles his fingers, and feels warm skin brush against his. They hold hands like little children all the way to Jimin’s rooms, where Hoseok waits with a sword procured from nowhere, and Taehyung reading on the porch.

“Should we leave him?” Hoseok asks, dubious enough that Jimin knows he would agree if he or Namjoon insisted. He’s grateful, somehow, that Hoseok had thought to ask someone to bring a book, along with Jimin’s sword.

“Call a soldier,” Jimin finally says, and ignores Jeongguk’s protests. Hoseok ducks his head in a bow, and gathers up the papers he’d been scrawling on before Jimin gets the chance to see. Taehyung doesn’t even twitch, doesn’t give the slightest indication that he cares, or had even heard the discussion.

“I don’t understand you,” Jeongguk finally says, and it’s the first thing Jimin lets himself acknowledge. When he looks, Jeongguk is petulant down to his posture; feet spread solidly, arms crossed over his chest. The baby-softness of his cheeks giving away his youth, despite the way he’s all lean muscle now, years of rigor putting him in even better shape than Jimin had been in, once. “He—hyung, he doesn’t deserve any of this.”

“You’d have him in those dungeons?” Jimin asks absently. Jeongguk makes a curt noise of agreement, but scuffs his toe against the bleached-out wood of the floor with something maybe approaching shame.

“You’re giving him too much trust.”

“Jeongguk-ah,” he says. He looks between Jeongguk and Namjoon, who lingers by the door like he’s too afraid of something to step closer, eyes carefully averted from the drape of Taehyung’s robe over his back. “I won’t treat him like an animal, no matter how much you want me to.”

“But he—”

“Two weeks.” Jimin cuts him off, harsher than he’d intended. “More than two weeks, Jeongguk. I know what you saw. But there are some things that no one deserves.”

And as much as Jimin wants to—to keep Taehyung in chains, to lock him away where no one will speak to him or look him in the eye—he can’t. Won’t. Doesn’t know how he’d be able to live with himself, if he drove someone to the point Taehyung had driven him, just to get his own revenge.

He only notices that the pages of Taehyung’s book have stopped turning when he sees his shoulders shake. When an arm shifts, comes up to his face, out of sight the way he’s turned on the porch. Jimin looks away, and sees Namjoon’s face twisted in something ugly and unnameable. Sees Jeongguk’s doubt, and his anger.

“We’re ready,” Hoseok says, when he appears at the doorway again. The soldier at his heels is young, and drops into a deep bow as Jimin passes, and refuses out of honor to even set foot in his prince’s chambers.

“You got everything?” Namjoon asks, and Hoseok inclines his head with an eye roll so subtle Jimin only sees it from the years he’s had to learn the tells of each of his Kal. “Just checking!”

“Just checking,” Hoseok mocks back. Jimin’s door closes quietly behind them, and he takes his place at Jimin’s right, with Jeongguk on his heels. “Really, Namjoon-ah, it’s like I’ve never trained anyone before. Do you want me to double-check that my sword is strapped on, too?”

Namjoon groans. He’s making an effort—they all are; the tease is a little forced, but Jimin appreciates it anyway. He tries not to think about the soldier at his door, the way Taehyung had moved so slowly, like he hadn’t wanted any of them to notice. Instead, he grits his teeth and forces himself to run through basic training positions in his head, to try and work himself preemptively into that meditation Namjoon always forces him to reach before they train.

It doesn’t stop the tension from coiling down the ridge of his spine, and Jimin thinks—maybe Namjoon was right. Maybe he just needs to hit something with a sword.

 


 

Training helps. It's just the four of them and Jimin tries not to hate it, hate the absence everyone is trying too hard to compensate for, and it almost works. When Namjoon talks them into meditation, cross-legged in a private courtyard, Jimin lets himself go, and it helps. He floats quietly, mind as close to blank as he can make it, and when he breathes himself awake and finds himself offered a smooth wooden staff, it feels as natural to reach out and take it, to hold the positions Hoseok's mother had taught him two decades ago, as it does to slip underneath a wave.

They go easy on him, at first. Hoseok tests his boundaries after checking his stances, correcting quietly with a murmured word, the gentle touch of his hand to where Jimin needs to straighten his spine, adjust the tilt of his shoulders, fix the position of his feet. After so long away, his muscle memory has faded, and Hoseok understands implicitly, as always, what he needs.

“Spar with Jeongguk first,” he says, after Jimin’s run through each stance five times, held one after the other for a long minute with trembling limbs. “First to three touches gets dessert tonight.”

“Hey,” Jeongguk says, and Hoseok strikes with his own staff from behind, and Jeongguk just barely avoids having his legs swept from under him. Namjoon laughs, with a steadying hand to Jeongguk’s shoulder, and Jimin turns to face him with a short bow.

Normally, his shirt would be off. The excess fabric is a distraction, and up until midwinter they each usually train bare-chested, if only for the show of it, the facade of equality. But Jimin doesn’t reach for the ties of his shirt, lets his sleeves flutter around his hands like crow’s feathers, and Jeongguk keeps himself covered out of something like respect.

The first touch goes to Jeongguk. He’s holding back and Jimin hates it, and it’s anger that makes him blind to when Jeongguk’s staff stops a centimeter from his throat. He manages to stop his forward momentum in time, and curses quietly to himself. Jeongguk is at least kind about it, when he offers a stable hand and strikes again almost immediately after.

Jimin takes the second touch by the skin of his teeth, and gets his first word of praise from Hoseok, that burns down his spine like lightning. Part of it might be relief, too, that there’s still something he can do. The ache of his muscles, the pull of things that turned dead on the floor of Taehyung’s parlor, remind him of being alive. The third touch is Jeongguk’s, easily won when he stops holding back, but even that—even losing is something.

“Well done,” Hoseok tells him, and Jeongguk pouts until Hoseok tries to smack a congratulatory kiss to his cheek, and he ducks so quickly Jimin hears a bone in his knee crack, as if shocked.

“I’ve lost a lot,” Jimin comments, but it’s not as despairing as he might have thought. Namjoon nods deeply, brow furrowed in thought, before he steps up to take over.

“You have,” he says. “Nothing you can’t get back, though. Did you learn anything on the field?”

It’s something he’d asked at every training session, after Jimin would get home from weeks of border patrol, or from minor skirmishes. Sometimes Jimin would have an answer; something that took him by surprise, something new he’d never seen before. Other times he wouldn’t, and Namjoon would nod and ask, then, which of his skills had been the most valuable.

Jimin takes a moment to think. The battle feels long ago, now. Impossible to recall with any sort of certainty. But he remembers enough, he thinks, to answer the question.

“So many of us died,” he says, softly. “I think near the end of it, no one wanted to be fighting anymore. I stepped on corpses to reach the next soldier, and every time I looked in someone’s eyes there was just—desperation. Near the end of it, the technique didn’t matter. The steps didn’t matter. Everything was just instinct, all the things in my bones instead of my head.”

Jeongguk makes a soft noise, and his hand comes down gentle on Jimin’s back. They’d all gotten separated, somewhere in the fight. When his father fell, cut from stomach to throat, Jimin was the only one of them who saw.

“And so?” Namjoon prods, voice terribly gentle. Jimin takes a rattling breath, and squares his shoulders.

“And so I have to get it all back. Even better than before, so I don’t ever lose it again.”

Namjoon nods. Fixes his grip on his own staff, and steps forward so that Jeongguk knows to step back, to let him take over. This is how it’s been for years; Hoseok with their own technique, the Kal’s ancient training, and Namjoon with his lessons from all over the continent, with everything he remembers and everything could steal on his way from Odai’s capital.

It’s easy to think of him as a scholar, purely academic, until he knocks the wind out of everyone—Hoseok too, sometimes—on the field.

As they train, Namjoon’s expression never wavers. He doesn’t give anything away with a furrow of his brow, a downturning of his lips; not even the sharp movement of his eyes to tell Jimin where he might strike next. It’s infuriating and invigorating and—Jimin lands one hit in the Southern style, and laughs, and remembers that this—this is fun.

On the battlefield, his technique hadn’t mattered. The only thing he could think of was the sword in his hand and staying alive. Now, away from the awful sound of men and horses dying, Jimin can almost forget the connection. This doesn’t feel like fighting.

Every autumn since he can remember, Jimin had danced in the annual festival. Gold and glass jewelry chiming at his wrists and ankles and ears and neck, gauzy black scarves draped over his bare torso in the square outside the manor where the market and village and estate all blend. The dance grows more intricate every year; the texts are ancient, and kept in the temple, and the crown prince of every generation learns his dance from the priestess as steps are added each year that passes without a coronation.

Last autumn, Jimin had thrown himself into the dance with something approaching desperation. Twenty-three years of buildup behind it, from the first steps his mother had swayed with a newborn in her arms, to two long, wild hours spent dripping with sweat, pounding drumbeats caught under his skin like a school of fish trying frantically to escape a net.

“Good,” Namjoon mumbles, when Jimin is trembling with exertion. From the Southern style to the jabbing grace of the North, to the Asagan desert’s ritual combat. He’s on the brink of collapse and Namjoon is tuned into him enough to see it, but Jimin’s jaw clenches to think of stopping now. Not without finishing the set, practicing the movements which come as easily to Namjoon as breathing.

“More, Jimin pants, through the stitch in his side. Hoseok and Jeongguk have been following through their training, Hoseok’s shirt finally discarded from the late afternoon heat, and he ignores the concern heavy in their eyes. “Finish it, hyung.”

“You’re exhausted.” Namjoon frowns. His hands are sweaty enough that they slip on the grip of his staff, his hair damp and clinging to his forehead.

“I can take it,” Jimin says. He has to. He can’t avoid it forever—and doesn’t think he should. It’s not his place to be coddled, not anymore.

“But you don’t have to,” Jeongguk says. He offers out water and Jimin drinks, long enough that he gasps when he comes up for air, the cool excess dripping down his chin to wet his already-soaked shirt. “If you need to stop—”

“I don’t,” Jimin replies. Fixes his eyes on Namjoon, who’s finishing his own water with that familiar look of resignation. He adjusts his grip on the staff and nods, and Jimin shifts his feet into the solid stances Odai favors.

This round is different. When Namjoon strikes, something burns through Jimin’s spine and his arms snap forward; instinct telling him to block, fear crawling unbidden up his throat. His eyes meet Namjoon’s, past the cross of their staffs, and it’s barely enough to make him relax.

“It’s me,” Namjoon says, voice low. “Just me, Jimin-ah.”

“I know,” he grits out. It’s not his mind that needs reminding.

The match is tense. Namjoon’s corrections are gentler; he waits, now, before letting his hands rest on Jimin’s arms to re-adjust him, before guiding his staff into a more precise arc. His staff never touches Jimin’s skin; each would-be blow lands further from his body than usual, he yields more easily than he should, and Jimin can’t find it in himself to argue. He’s not made of glass, but—he doesn’t know how much he can take, today. Not when his arms shake every time he parries, not when he’s exhausted to the point of sickness.

Jimin’s heel slips, and Namjoon’s staff sweeps from the pit of his stomach to just underneath his chin, and Jimin startles so badly he drops his staff entirely.

“Jimin!” Hoseok bites out, and Jimin’s knees buckle, and for a long moment he bites down the terrified rush of adrenaline and the blood in his vision and breathes through the memory of his father’s skin split on a faceless soldier’s sword. “I’ve got you, hey, just breathe.”

“Hyung,” Jimin gasps, and reaches out, and—there’s a hand pressed gentle to his face, cool water against his lips, trickling down his forehead from the very top of his scalp. The adrenaline is gone as quickly as it had come and he groans through the aftershocks of it, the bone-deep weariness that settles in its place.

“We’re here,” Hoseok says. His forehead rests close, oppressively hot, and Jimin tangles fingers in the sweat-soaked hair at the back of his neck. “You’re done for the day, Jimin-ah. You’ve done enough.”

Jimin groans again from discontent. At his side, one hand braced on his chest, Jeongguk makes an agitated little noise.

“You’re going to hurt yourself,” he says sharply. “Hyung, we can’t let you—this isn’t good for you. Pushing yourself too hard.”

Jimin sighs, and sags the rest of the way to the meticulously-swept stone floor, and lets it leech some of the excess heat off of his skin. He knows, logically, that they’re right. That he can’t jump back into training after a month in chains and expect to be able to last as long as he could have before. To immediately be able to drill troops and hold stances for an hour each, whispering the dirtiest things he could think of to Hoseok to try and get him to topple first, out of laughter or embarrassment.

“Fine,” he spits, frustrated more with the limits of his own skin than anything else.

“Tomorrow,” Namjoon promises. He crouches down close, and offers Jimin his hand.

Jimin takes it, and hauls himself to his unsteady feet, and tries not to think that he won’t have to worry about the ritual dance, this year. That the next time he dances, in the throne room rather than the courtyard, his people will be calling him king.

“Tomorrow,” he agrees. And the day after that, and the day after that, until he’s dead or crowned or cast off to sea.

 


 

That night, hours after he'd bathed and forced down an evening meal, Jimin can't sleep. Not even the weight next to him in bed, Jeongguk and Hoseok sleeping soundly despite the watch that must be kept, can lull him into anything past a bored kind of trance. He wastes what feels like hours tracing the night's shadows with his eyes until they grow heavy, and sore, and still refuse to close.

When he shifts, each muscle in Jimin’s body screams in protest. The pain makes it difficult to slip by even Jeongguk, always less easy to rouse, but Jimin manages to escape from underneath the heavy weight of his arm, the overbearing heat of his bed. He reaches the door and turns around, observes the sprawl of the two of them on his bed, and sighs quietly when he sees the glint of Hoseok peering at him through the dark.

But Hoseok’s eye slides back shut, and he buries his face back in the pillow, and Jimin closes his eyes through a rush of gratitude that warms his chest.

They leave him alone more often than they should. Not often—Jimin knows better than to think they aren’t there when he can’t see them, but often enough that he can breathe without feeling catalogued. This, though, is more dangerous than taking a horse out for an afternoon by himself. This, Jimin doesn’t want observed for more selfish reasons than needing his own space.

The door slides open almost silently, but Taehyung’s eyes track the movement like he’d been expecting it.

He’s sitting with his back against the wall, staring out at the moon over the ocean. Jimin breathes carefully when he closes his door, and takes a few steps into the parlor on bare feet, before he folds himself down to sit on the floor, at just the right angle to watch the window, with Taehyung lingering at the corner of his eye.

This late, lit only by the lantern in the corner of the room, Taehyung doesn’t bother looking away. He takes in the slippery silk of Jimin’s robe, the state of his hair, the way he trembles every few seconds with the aftershocks of the day’s training. Nothing so judging that Jimin would want to turn himself away, but—it’s a change from the Taehyung whose eyes skid off him like oil from water during the day, who never quite meets Jimin’s eyes.

“What would you have done?” Jimin asks, more to the open sky than to the boy in the room. Taehyung tilts his head, just slightly, and Jimin licks at his dry lips, tugs at the tie of his robe. “If Jeongguk had never come, what—what were you going to do?”

So long passes that Jimin doesn’t think he’s going to get an answer. All these miles, and Taehyung’s silence still defines him.

“Um,” Taehyung finally says. His fingers are twisted in his sleeves, the embroidery sewn at the cuffs warped in bunches. It’s the same outer robe he’d left Odai in, white faded to a dirty kind of tan, and Jimin thinks—the least he could do is offer to wash them. The least he could do, has done, is meet the standards Taehyung set. “I don’t know.”

He meets Jimin’s eyes, and looks away, and bites down on his lower lip, sucks it into his mouth before letting it go. Even though it’s late he seems to be humming with nervous energy, too full of it to keep still for longer than a few seconds.

“Kept me there?” Jimin prods. Not out of kindness. “Sold me off? Handed me over to one of your brothers?”

“Not that,” Taehyung says. “Never that. I was just—it was hard. I just wanted to keep you alive, and I thought—I could work something out. I was working on it.”

He sounds miserable. Like he believes what he’s saying but knows the words lack weight. Jimin breathes out something harsh and discontented that might be a laugh, and Taehyung flinches back from it like a strike. And then—it’s Jimin who feels guilty for it, and he looks away at Taehyung and wishes he’d stayed in his room, half-wishes he’d said anything but he stays with me.

“I would have died,” he says, instead of spitting anything that might be an insult. “If you’d kept me like that, I would have died. That’s not a life worth living.”

Taehyung nods.

“I tried,” he says, his Odaian accent coloring Jimin’s tongue in a way that seems to force him out of that flatness. The dips of emotion, the fragility of it, tugs at the corner of Jimin’s attention, of his sympathy. He almost expects the next words out of Taehyung’s mouth to be a demand for gratitude, but Taehyung just—sits, mouth open like he’s going to speak, fingers tugging at his sleeves.

He never gets the chance to respond, to somehow sort all the ways Taehyung had tried and Taehyung had failed, because of the footsteps that hesitate at the entrance to Jimin’s chambers. They’re quiet, but loud enough to be heard clearly; when they stop, Jimin expects a knock.

It never comes. Instead, Jimin listens to the sound of anxious pacing, the shift of clothing in the hallway. Taehyung has gone rigid, his eyes fixed on some point far in the distance; the vague points of stars visible through the open doors, maybe. The point where the sun-bleached wood of the railing tips over into the endless night, the cliffside swallowed up by darkness.

Eventually, Jimin stands up. He can hear whoever it is breathing, can hear the shift of the floor under uncertain feet. Taehyung twists, and for a split second Jimin catches his face, unguarded and curious, mouth dropped open and downturned into something like a pout.

He opens the door with maybe more force than necessary. It’s still quiet enough that Jeongguk shouldn’t wake, though; even Namjoon’s quickly-stifled noise of surprise wouldn’t be enough to rouse him this late.

And Namjoon looks—exhausted. He’d done the same training as Jimin, had sat through the same harrowing council meeting, had argued until his throat went dry, and it shows clearly in the droop of his shoulders, the mess of his hair, the way his brow tightens in anxiety when he realizes that it’s Jimin standing in front of him.

Jimin doesn’t bother asking why he’s here. Not when Namjoon looks right past him, to the figure still cross-legged on the floor. Not when his eyes are big and guilty and pleading all at once.

“Could I,” Namjoon says, like the general hadn’t asked Jimin to keep him and Taehyung separate. Like Sungwon hadn’t agreed with an arched eyebrow and a pointed look at Namjoon, like Jimin hadn’t heard the circular debates for years now about whether Namjoon’s loyalties could ever—would ever be trusted.

But there’s something stupid in Jimin’s heart that reminds him that he and Namjoon had spent their teenage years side by side. That pulls his memory back to the library at home, where he and Namjoon and Hoseok and Dawon had curled around books of different genres and then spent hours discussing them, long after Jeongguk and Jihyun had scrambled away out of desperate boredom.

There’s a part of him that won’t ever be able to distrust Namjoon, after seeing him that first night he’d arrived at the manor steps in the middle of a hurricane, starvation-thin and clutching military secrets under his ragged Odaian robes.

Jimin steps aside. Without a sound, without a word, Taehyung pushes himself to his feet.

Taehyung follows Namjoon barefoot, and Jimin watches from the hall as they step through the open frame into the half-dead, half-wild garden of the open square by the lord’s room. There might have been roses grown, once, but in the absence of a gardener, everything is covered now in spring-blooming honeysuckle, near sticky sweet enough to drown out the smell of the ocean.

And after a long few minutes, Jimin slips out after them, the floor cold under his feet. The wind slips in under his robe; Hoseok follows behind him, silent and constant as his shadow.

He walks slowly enough that he hears the voices long before he’s close enough to make out words. The ground in the garden is pebbled, run over with weeds and the flowers that choke out all other air, but Jimin moves softly, like Dawon had taught him to when sneaking sweetmeats as a child. It’s mostly Namjoon speaking, he realizes, hidden behind a towering rack of ivy. Hoseok’s eyes glitter at him in the dark.

Namjoon’s speech is winding and long and earnest. Jimin catches maybe a word in each sentence, but it’s a story he knows well; Namjoon’s flight from Odai’s capital, the near month he’d spent on the walk to Bayul’s. How the Kal, the generation of both of Hoseok’s parents, had taken him and kept him until they were sure his word could be trusted.

“I did what was right,” Jimin hears clearly. “You have to understand, Taehyung-ah. He was—they sent boys off to be slaughtered in ambushes. They let whole border towns burn, or lit the fires themselves. I couldn’t just stay, and watch our people die.”

And that’s always been Namjoon’s angle. Not that he serves Bayul’s crown, but that he wants his people to be safe, as much as Jimin does. As much as his father did. It was that which his father respected, not the title Namjoon might have been groomed for back in Odai.

“I know my father had yours killed,” Taehyung says, and Jimin’s pulse stumbles. The terrible flatness of his voice is back, the drone of practiced ambivalence. Less like he doesn’t care, than something like a shield.

“Yes,” Namjoon finally admits.

“He would have found some way to enlist you. To send you to the border, or the coast.”

“Yes.”

There’s a small pause, and Jimin strains with all his might to listen more closely, to hear through the whisper of ocean wind through the halls and courtyards of the fort.

“You could have,” Taehyung says, and stumbles, and his voice breaks when he tries again, something in his throat cracked open and raw and so hurt it steals Jimin’s breath from his lips. “You could have taken me.”

“Oh,” Namjoon breathes out. Hoseok’s fingers lace together with Jimin’s, in the dark. “Oh, Taehyung-ah. I’m so sorry. I didn’t try.”

“You could have,” Taehyung says again. Jimin refuses to imagine him crying.

“What did they do to you?” Namjoon asks, and there’s something so helpless in his tone that Jimin takes an instinctive step back, thrown sharply off balance by the way Namjoon sounds so small.

“You left me,” Taehyung answers. It doesn’t sound like a spoiled prince, stomping his feet at an insult. It sounds—it sounds like Jeongguk had, that night he’d climbed in through the window. The same desperation, the same kind of grief.

“I know,” Namjoon chokes out. “I know, I know. I’m sorry.”

Jimin steps back again. And again. Until he’s back in his bed with Hoseok’s arms locked around his waist, and Jeongguk’s nose pressed endearingly against his chest, and even then—Jimin can’t stop hearing the splinter of Taehyung’s voice. The way emotion had spilled out and through the flatness, like hurricane winds tearing through the ocean after the eye has settled it to stillness.

You left me, he’d said. Like Jimin hadn’t been the only prisoner trapped in those chambers.

He barely sleeps. The next morning, he doesn’t look Taehyung in the eye.

 


 

Days pass, and Jimin adjusts. Namjoon visits near every night, even after long days spent arguing in the council chambers and forcing Jimin's body back into shape as he regains his strength, loses nearly all of his limp. Jimin doesn't follow them, but each night he slips from his bed to let Namjoon in, forces himself to meet Taehyung's gaze each time they break the agreement Jimin had sworn to the council, to never let Taehyung out of his rooms.

Five days go by like that, nearly enough for Soohyuk the messenger to have reached the wall of the capital, and Jimin sits on the porch overlooking the cliffs and wishes the path down weren’t too treacherous to take in the dark. Hoseok passes him a cup of steaming tea, and sits with him in companionable silence.

They’ve both agreed, without a word, that Jeongguk doesn’t need to be woken. That it’s better if he sleeps through Namjoon’s visits, the promise broken that gives Taehyung an inch more freedom than they’d bargained for. The way Jeongguk darkens when he looks at Taehyung hasn’t slipped Hoseok’s watchful eye, and Jimin knows that the two of them have spoken.

If word gets around to General Oh, she might have Taehyung and Namjoon both in the flooding cells, and that’s the last thing Jimin wants. Not when they’re starting to piece things together in the council room, Namjoon’s tongue finally loosening about nearly all of Odai’s princes.

Jimin is about to stand up, to crack the bones in his back one last time, when he hears the sharp, familiar sound of training staffs, echoing faintly through the night.

He shouldn’t. One look at Hoseok tells him that he’s done enough by letting Taehyung leave his rooms, that he’s pushing the boundaries of deniability already. But patience has never been Jimin’s strongest point, and he’s itching out of his skin to know anything more than he does now, so—

Jimin follows the barely-audible sound of sparring into the gardens, and takes every turn so slowly it hurts. The sound of wood clattering against earth warns him before he stumbles into the garden’s center, and Hoseok’s hand on his shoulder drags him back before he can send pebbles shifting under his feet, and Jimin holds his breath as he searches for somewhere to look.

He finds his chance in the tumble of ivy from a latticed stretch of wood. In the gaps between strands, just starting to bloom with a scent nearly as thick as the honeysuckle. Jimin breathes in pollen and salt air, and leans in as close as he can bear.

The light is low. There’s a torch burning in the wrought iron stand, lighting the garden up just enough that Jimin can see how the pebbles have been half-swept away, to give Namjoon and Taehyung something like a training ground. How their staffs are discarded, how their outer robes are folded neatly on the stone-carved bench by the overgrown roses.

“Good,” Namjoon gasps out, and Jimin twitches on instinct at the word he’s heard hundreds of times, almost always directed at him.

But Namjoon’s words aren’t for him, this time, because he’s sparring with Kim Taehyung. Hand to hand, now, sweat drenching both their brows in the chill of the night. Namjoon is a master of his art, Jimin knows well; he’d trained for years under his father, with the king’s sons.

Namjoon had trained for years in Odai, but—as Jimin watches, barely breathing—it’s easy to see that Taehyung has trained more. Has had years longer to perfect the style he’s being drilled in.

He’s fast. It’s the first thing Jimin notices, even as Namjoon puts him on the defense. Taehyung blocks easily, like breathing; retreats and ducks as fluidly as water. Jimin gets caught up in it, keeps his arms tucked around his waist to stop himself from miming the familiar strikes.

Taehyung’s brow is set in concentration. His hair is plastered to his face, his undershirt sticking wet to his chest. He’s watching Namjoon’s eyes, not his hands.

All those nights Taehyung had snuck out of his chambers, he might have been doing this. With whom, Jimin doesn’t know. But he’d been training, long hours in the morning coupled with long hours in the dead of night, and Jimin shudders to think that—all this time, Taehyung had been as skilled as this. Could have taken Jimin one on one easily, if Jeongguk hadn’t always hovered with bow and knife at the ready.

And when Taehyung slips, finally, it’s only because of his attention.

Namjoon feints. Not with his fists or his feet, but with his eyes. Nothing but the flicker of them, dark in the firelight, to the left, and Taehyung adjusts his stance to compensate for an oncoming blow, and—

Namjoon gets him in a headlock, so quickly Jimin can barely track the twist of limbs. He stops with Taehyung bent halfway over, one of Namjoon’s arms around his neck, the other pressing one of Taehyung’s caught wrists against his own spine. He breathes, sharp and heavy and loud in the silence of the yard.

Taehyung shudders, and goes limp.

“Fight back,” Namjoon hisses. His brows are drawn tight. His arms are trembling. Jimin swallows, throat dry, and watches Taehyung hold himself perfectly still, hair falling down over his face, fingers of his free hand grasping at Namjoon’s grip on his neck.

Taehyung breathes, wet and exhausted.

“I know you can,” Namjoon says. He’s panting, chest heaving under his own shirt, face flushed in odd patches with the exertion.

“Please,” Taehyung breathes. Jagged and unsteady. “Please, don’t.”

“Who am I?” Namjoon asks, and it doesn’t make sense until he repeats it, urgency coloring his tone. Hoseok is close enough that Jimin can feel his heat, their shoulders pressed tight together.

“Hyung.” The word rings hollow. Namjoon closes his eyes and makes a low, hurt noise. He doesn’t let go.

“Taehyung-ah. You’re in Bayul. In Park Jimin’s custody. Who am I, Taehyung-ah?”

“Namjoon,” Taehyung says, after a silence that rings high and sharp in Jimin’s ears. His head is still bent low, his fingers still white-knuckled around Namjoon’s wrist. Namjoon sighs, with relief so thick Jimin can feel it in the air.

“That’s right,” Namjoon whispers. His brow smooths out, just a little. His arm tenses. “Now fight back.”

And Taehyung moves. Like nothing Namjoon has ever taught Jimin, he moves. It’s one thing to break the grip Namjoon has around his neck, but—in one twist, one heavy knee against his sternum, Taehyung breaks Namjoon’s stance. Namjoon, as sturdy as the trees they’d ridden through on the journey here; Namjoon, who’d taught Jimin first to root himself, and then to strike.

Taehyung topples him easily, and presses a knee to the hollow of his throat. And holds, shoulders heaving, one hand drifting up to press shaking against his lips.

Jimin feels sick. Something dizzy around his head, something buzzing insistent in his ears that he doesn’t want to listen to, doesn’t want to hear. Hoseok tugs him back by the shoulder, and peers concerned and alarmed into his eyes, and all Jimin can manage is a shake of his head.

They leave the garden before anyone can catch them, and don’t linger in the parlor.

Jeongguk stirs, when Jimin lies down at his side. He reaches out in his sleep, knocked out cold but still seeking warmth, and tangles his fingers in the front of Jimin’s robe. Hoseok tucks himself on Jeongguk’s other side, and meets Jimin’s eyes in the dark over the black shadow of Jeongguk’s shoulder.

It’s good, Jimin thinks, that Jeongguk doesn’t know.

He wishes he could forget the sound of Taehyung’s please. It rings in his head, unforgivable, until the crash of the waves drowns him back to sleep.

 


 

Most mornings, Taehyung sleeps through the Bayul dawn prayer. The gong vibrates through his sleep, always manages to wake him up enough to see the sunlight filtering in over the cliffside. He’s always worn down enough, these days, to slip right back into an exhausted rest before the last of the chimes have even faded from the air.

He still sees the ghosts. They come and go, now, the crowd of them thinned out, nearly all of the brightest lights gone. Each dawn, Taehyung pries his eyes open to watch a few more vanish into the light of sunrise, and each dawn he watches the brightest, the closest, make it halfway to the horizon. Each dawn it retreats, flickering back to the corner of his vision, growing closer every day.

Taehyung shuts his eyes against it, when he can, and forces himself back into darkness. When he can’t, he pretends. Until Jimin has left his rooms, sometimes, one or both of the Kal on his heels. They guard him less, now; a soldier waits in the hallway when they leave him alone.

This morning, though, he wakes up to empty apartments, but for Hoseok standing above him. Taehyung blinks, and Hoseok’s hand retreats from the air between them, where he might have been reaching for Taehyung’s shoulder.

“Ah,” Hoseok says. He’s always awake, late at night when Taehyung returns from the garden. He keeps a knife at his belt and Jimin in his sight, but doesn’t look at Taehyung with the hatred every man in this manor knows he deserves. “Jimin sent for you.”

“Why?” Taehyung swallows down the dry taste of his mouth, grimacing at the thin layer of sweat that’s dried on his forehead from the night.

Hoseok shrugs. He steps back when Taehyung sits up, settles back into the casual stance that makes him look like a predator; a leopard, settling back on its haunches after a kill. There’s a small stack of clothing in his arms, rich browns and reds, and he offers it out to Taehyung with an incline of his head that implies, at least, respect.

Shame twists neatly in Taehyung’s chest, and he takes the clothing with a bow from the waist.

“It’s Namjoon’s,” Hoseok tells him. All the clothing Taehyung has been given since arriving has been in the Bayul fashion, high-waisted and tight at the cuffs, hemp and wool dyed a modest blue. These clothes, though, are clearly of his own style. The fabric is softer, the stitching at the sleeves done in a clumsy Odaian pattern. Namjoon had looked out of place in the council room in his robe, long enough to reach his calves. Even Yoongi had worn one on the road, and Taehyung has felt too exposed without it. “Yoongi offered something of his too, but—well. He didn’t think anything would fit.”

Taehyung touches the cloth carefully. A small piece of home, even here. Even dyed in vibrant red and brown so rich as to be almost black. In Bayul, most dye is cheap and prolific. A port country through and through. In the basin, during war—color had been expensive, hard to attain even for the most expensive of seamstresses.

“Thank you,” he manages. When he looks up, it’s in just enough time to catch Hoseok’s face shift, into something careless as he shrugs and turns away, moving to wait by the door with eyes averted while Taehyung drags himself into something approaching presentable. He rinses his face with water from an ornately fired bowl, runs his damp hands through his hair, and ties his robe as tight as he can stand it. It’s not nearly enough to protect him from anything, a fist or a blade or a bolt, but—it’s something. Comforting, when he doesn’t know where he’s being led to or why.

He expects the council chamber, but they pass it by without Hoseok sparing a glance. Taehyung hears the training field before he sees it, the clatter of men and weapons and armor, but even then barely lets himself think it until Hoseok pulls open a bamboo gate, and ushers him through, and the soldiers closest to him stop and gape.

Calling them soldiers might be a stretch. The oldest looks maybe five years younger than Taehyung himself, but his eyes are narrow and wary as Hoseok urges Taehyung forward with a hand against his spine, not yet threatening until Taehyung thinks about the rumors of the Kal’s knowledge of the human body; its pressure points and weak spots and where to strike to break a bone so savagely it never heals back the same.

Hoseok leads him through the soldiers, and to the small pavilion where Jimin stands with Namjoon at his side, and Jeongguk nowhere to be seen.

“Thank you, hyung,” Jimin says. Hoseok inclines his head, and steps up to flank his left, eyes cutting over the small clusters of men, whatever officers they have left running drills and sparring matches. Taehyung swallows the tight dryness in his throat, and tries to reason with himself that—if Jimin had wanted him as a sparring target for his men, he could have called for him days ago.

When he looks at Taehyung, Jimin hesitates. He glances briefly to Namjoon, who’s sticky with sweat and half-clothed, but looking at each of them with some sort of stubborn desperation.

“Teach Hoseok your hand-to-hand,” Jimin finally says, as curt as any general. “If you touch any blade, every soldier in this square knows to kill you before you can blink.”

He steps down, one hand resting against the black-wrapped hilt of his sword. Their shoulders don’t touch as he passes; their eyes don’t meet, because Taehyung’s are carefully lowered.

When Taehyung looks up again, the only thing he reads on Namjoon’s open face is relief.

 


 

Taehyung learns quickly that he barely needs to teach Hoseok anything. After a lifetime spent training, Hoseok is fast and flexible and adapts to anything Taehyung tells him with only a few repetitions, his jaw set in concentration, and Taehyung almost wants to ask why he’s been tasked with this, when Hoseok can run basic drills as well as Taehyung himself.

“Namjoon is standing for you,” Hoseok says, as he rolls the tension out of his shoulders. Taehyung still hasn’t stripped off his outer robe, despite the spring sunlight from overhead; he doesn’t know if he’s allowed to engage with Hoseok himself, or if he’s just supposed to instruct. “He believes that you won’t try anything.”

“This wasn’t the prince’s idea?” Hoseok shrugs, tips a skin back to empty it of water.

“He asked if Namjoon would be held responsible for you, if he wanted to let you out of the rooms. I suggested bringing you here, and they both agreed.”

Taehyung blinks. His clothing feels too heavy, weighted down with sunshine and the strange mix of salt and pollen that hangs thick in the air of the manor. He isn’t sure what to do with the set of Hoseok’s mouth, the firm angle of his eyebrows; they suggest criticism, or anger, but—he’s breathless with the gratitude that fills his chest, and always stung with shame like Hoseok has dealt him a backhand, instead of a favor he doesn’t deserve.

“Thank you,” he says, tongue curling consciously to keep the Bayul vowels dropped, instead of perfect. Hoseok shrugs again.

“Don’t bother,” he replies. “And don’t hold yourself back. I asked you here to spar, firstly. You’ve been learning your country’s style much longer than Namjoonie, and fighting him is getting boring.”

Taehyung bows his head in acknowledgement, and reaches for the tie of his robe.

One layer down, leaving him that much more open. He folds it atop Namjoon’s, on the pavilion, and carefully refuses to let his hands draw attention to any place Hoseok might think to target. Even in a friendly spar, or the appearance of one, the bruises can last for days.

But Hoseok doesn’t bruise him. He restrains himself to Odaian combat, though Taehyung doesn’t doubt he knows a dozen other styles, and in that he’s much less versed than Taehyung expected. He’s too hesitant to strike a Kal, a member of Jimin’s household, but there’s places—in the strength of his stance on more complex move, the obvious strike that might follow a block—where Taehyung could land a blow or flip him easily.

Instead of landing his hits, though, Taehyung stops himself centimeters from touching skin, and each time Hoseok gathers himself and takes the instruction rather than grabbing for Taehyung’s wrist to strike when his guard is down. He asks for permission, once, to touch Taehyung’s shoulders to make sure he understands a movement, and his lips turn down when Taehyung blinks through the instinctive flinch.

“You can hit me, you know,” Hoseok remarks, an hour into training. The yard around them is just as busy as when Taehyung entered, but groups are starting to merge together, running larger-scale drills and gathering audiences for one-on-one sparring. Jimin is nowhere to be seen, but the soldiers around him keep their eyes carefully averted, enough that Taehyung knows they’ve been watching.

“Okay,” he finally says, but the doubt in his voice leaks through, and Hoseok frowns again. It’s harder, Taehyung thinks, to keep his voice flat when he’s too busy thinking about each word he says, the dialect just different enough from his own that some words are the same but the sentence structure throws him off.

From the other end of the yard, Jeongguk calls Hoseok’s name, and half the soldiers around them take it as permission to start staring.

“Maybe next time.” Hoseok breathes out a little sigh, and offers out his hand, where Taehyung had made to bow.

That bright thing in the corner of his eye surges forward, like a flame meeting oil. Taehyung grasps Hoseok’s forearm, and looks at his chin rather than his eyes, and wants to cry at the thought that—

That Hoseok had known the second prince, had fought for him and likely trained him, had shadowed him as thoroughly as he shadows Jimin—

Taehyung manages not to vomit, if only because he’s barely been eating.

When Hoseok leaves, it’s a relief. Taehyung pulls on his robe with clumsy fingers, and finishes the last of a skin of water, and splashes the sweat off his face from a trough that borders the low stone wall that separates the building from the yard. This part of the manor must be bedrooms, for servants or low-ranking household members, repurposed into barracks for their last surviving troops. Taehyung peers into the shadows cast by the hanging roof, into the open walkway lined with doors, before perching himself on the wall and settling in to watch.

Here, without even a book, there’s nothing to do but watch the men train. A few women are scattered through the crowd, hair tied up as strictly as the older men’s, but the crowd is mostly boys. Older teenagers watch the few officers with rapt attention, with pale younger brothers at their side too nervous to look away. Taehyung’s heart hurts with it, at the reminder that this is what the war had left.

In the town, outside the wall ringing the palace, there are more children than men now. The housing for the parentless ones has been overflowing for years, now, with fewer families in the country to foster city children on their farms. It’s where Haseul had turned first, when she started to show with Daeun under her uniform, and the matron had turned her away. They had no place for a newborn, with their nursing women overwhelmed by demand, and Taehyung had held her when she returned that afternoon. Her panic had been enough that she had let him, that day, after so many years of purposeful distance between them.

When he’d had Namjoon, it had been easier to forget that he and Haseul had grown up side by side for years. To remember that any favor he showed her would be used to hurt the both of them.

These Bayul children are fresh, mostly, but it aches to watch a boy whose hair is still long enough to be tied up into a knot wield a sword with the precision of a soldier far older than his years. There’s nothing else to do but bask in the sunlight and take it, and Taehyung closes his eyes for a long moment to feel the warmth on his face, on the exposed skin on the backs of his hands.

With his eyes closed, he hears it. A whisper from behind him, a small high noise of awe at the sound of swords clashing together, and Taehyung’s breath catches at the reminder that—Soobin must have asked for him, the next day. And the day after.

They kept asking about you, Haseul had told him, when she’d dropped them off that first day after Jimin’s fasting had ended. And that had only been three days. He doesn’t want to think about whether he’ll see them again. Whether the ransom will go through, and he’ll die in the hall as a traitor, or whether Jimin’s council will just kill him here when they realize.

Taehyung opens his eyes, and watches the small gaggle of children as they press themselves onto their tiptoes to peer over the wall, one door far down the hallway left conspicuously open.

“There’s my hyung,” a boy, no older than eight, points out with no small amount of delight. Taehyung has to work harder to understand through his accent, from some other province than Jimin and Hoseok’s highborn tongue.

“Wow,” a girl whispers. They look like the oldest in the small group; the two of them flanked by three others, none older than maybe six. There’s a baby strapped onto the girl’s back, burbling and waving around a toy that seems mostly made of faded, once-colorful ribbons.

Taehyung’s chest contracts, in and in and in until he thinks he might cry from it.

There’s a child walking toward him, her brow pinched in concentration as she tries to keep herself in a straight line, one tiny hand braced on the uneven stones of the wall. She keeps looking up at Taehyung like she wants to reassure herself he isn’t moving; Taehyung holds his breath, trying not to disturb her path.

When the girl reaches him, she steadies herself with both hands reaching up to grasp at the top of the wall, and turns to him with big dark eyes and a stubborn little pinch to her mouth.

“Up,” she says, with all the confidence of a three year old.

Taehyung stares. His eyes sting, unblinking as his vision goes blurry, as he looks around for someone who might have been watching the group. But—if there had been someone watching them, a girl of maybe ten wouldn’t have a baby on her back. They wouldn’t have even made it this close to the training soldiers, he would hope.

Up,” the girl demands, and this time accompanies it with a harsh tug on the bottom of his robe. Taehyung casts another look to the other children, who haven’t yet noticed that one of their number has wandered away, before he swings his legs over the wall and slips off, bending down to fix his hands under the girl’s thin arms.

“Be careful,” he warns, before he sets her down atop the sun-warmed stones. The wall is thick enough across for even him to comfortably sit, and he makes sure that her legs are facing the hallway so that if she jumps, she won’t end up on the side with swords. “What’s your name?”

She gawks at the bustle of the yard in front of her, and barely seems to hear him.

“I’m Taehyung,” he offers, and for that she cares even less.

“Youngmi!” The girl with the baby shrieks, loud enough that the soldiers closest to the wall startle and stare. Taehyung balances the child as her friends walk over, one hand not-quite-touching her back to make sure she doesn’t fall as she shuffles in excitement.

“I’m up!” Youngmi proclaims, and smacks one palm against the stone beneath her.

“Get down,” the girl hisses. The baby burbles its agreement, but Youngmi crosses her arms and shakes her head, pulling her legs up so the girl can’t tug her down.

The oldest boy bows when he reaches Taehyung, leading a shaky-legged toddler by the hand. His shirt is worn through at the elbows, and the sleeves are a few centimeters too short for his arms. Taehyung offers a smile, and the toddler blinks up at him with wide eyes.

“I’m sorry, um, sir,” the boy says, awkwardly shy. The girl can’t reach too aggressively for Youngmi for the baby she’s carrying, and the boy is doing his best to ignore her unsubtle whining. “We just wanted to see them training.”

“That’s okay,” Taehyung replies, and puts on his friendliest smile. “I’m Taehyung.”

“I’m Changho, and I’m nine,” the boy announces. And then, pointing to each of them in turn: “And that’s Youngmi, and Misoon, and Nara and Jinsoo and baby Injung.”

“It’s an honor to meet you.” Taehyung bows his head, and even Misoon stops reaching up for Youngmi for long enough to bow in respect. “Is someone supposed to be watching you all?”

Changho starts to scuff the toe of his sandal against the floor, before snapping back into a clearly unfamiliar straight-backed posture.

“No, hyungnim. Auntie can’t, um. She’s busy.”

Next to Taehyung, Youngmi tries to slip her legs around to the other side of the wall, and Taehyung carefully rearranges her, to an annoyed huff that rivals Daeun’s. He looks at her pointedly, and she looks away in guilt without uncrossing her arms.

“Are you supposed to be out here?” He asks, and knows the answer before Changho even opens his mouth, from the guilty tugging at the hem of his shirt.

“No, hyungnim.” There’s shame or disappointment or both in his voice, and every rational part of Taehyung knows he has no right to do this, knows that Jimin might keep him locked in the room at best or sent to the flooding cells at worst, but—

The children all look up at him, united for one brief moment with pleading eyes and near-identical pouts, and Taehyung has never been particularly able to deny children anything, especially anything so small as sunlight and a watchful eye to keep them out of the way of swords and staffs if they insist on sneaking out to watch the soldiers train.

“You can stay,” he finally says, heavy on an exhale, and the smile Changho bites back is worth anything Jimin could punish him with.

It’s how Namjoon finds him an indeterminable amount of time later: little Jinsoo perched on Taehyung’s lap, Youngmi chasing Misoon around his feet, Changho chattering about his hyung and their hometown with the baby resting awkwardly on his shoulder.

“Sorry to interrupt,” Namjoon cuts in, with a baffled look thrown in Taehyung’s direction as he switches back into Bayul’s dialect. “Taehyung-ah, we have to take you back now.”

Taehyung keeps his eyes fixed on the messy braid Misoon had started and forgotten in Jinsoo’s hair, and forces a smile that had dropped when Namjoon approached, less genuine than it had been just minutes ago. He can feel the phantom weight of rope against his wrists, though the chafing had faded just hours after Jeongguk had untied him, after that second morning on the road.

“Will you be back tomorrow?” Misoon asks, stopping suddenly enough that Youngmi almost sends them both sprawling. Taehyung reaches out to steady them and keeps his smile as well as he can, when Namjoon fails to give him an answer.

“I’ll try,” he says. She squints at him, deeply suspicious, and turns around to let Changho tie the baby back into its rickety carrier.

Before they scramble off, back toward the open door at the very end of the walkway, Youngmi latches onto Taehyung’s leg with a grip that surprises him for its strength.

“Thanks,” she mumbles, and Taehyung crouches down to smooth down her braids, resisting the urge to press a kiss to the top of her head. She’s just barely bigger than Soobin was, when he left, skinny and fragile under the stained yellow of her dress.

“Stay out of trouble.” He pairs it with a squeeze of her hand, and Youngmi unlatches herself with a reluctant nod. Namjoon at least lets him wait until the doors close, before he guides him back through the yard to the undisguised stares of each soldier, too tired now to bother with subtlety.

Namjoon doesn’t ask. Doesn’t raise any questions when they reach Jimin, resting in the shade with Jeongguk’s bare shoulder pressed against him, the ink on his skin as dark as the dye of Jimin’s shirt. Hoseok eyes them both, gives Taehyung a look that tells him that he’d been seen with the children, that the time he’d spent with them had been deliberate; a luxury, instead of a secret.

Jimin doesn’t even look at him. Jeongguk runs a finger along the edge of his unsheathed dagger, and tracks Taehyung with his eyes until after Hoseok leads him away, keeping close enough behind him that if he tried to run, he’d catch a knife in his back before he made it half a step.

“I don’t know what Namjoonie’s thinking,” Hoseok says, when they’re far away enough from the field that the voices have faded, that the clash of metal no longer rings in Taehyung’s ears. He sounds conversational enough, but Taehyung can hear the hard edges he’s stepping around, the pitch that’s not quite an accusation. “Training you at night, where anyone could catch you.”

Taehyung swallows. He doesn’t ask what Hoseok had seen, or heard. He’s not stupid enough to think that he’d be able to notice a Kal spying, especially as distracted as he’s been with Namjoon at his side.

“I don’t think he’s a traitor. Just being stupid.” Hoseok catches up to him, their shoulders inches apart. Taehyung almost braces himself for a shove, and then remembers—they aren’t supposed to mark him, until the messenger returns. “I don’t think you’re stupid, though.”

“What do you want?” He speaks as formally as possible, but even to his own ears he still sounds too curt, too demanding. Hoseok purses his lips, and shrugs like it doesn’t matter to him either way.

“To keep Jimin safe. Your highness.” And there’s the mocking, the threat less thinly veiled.

“I’m not going to attack him,” Taehyung says, tongue heavy. Hoseok rolls his eyes.

“I just said I didn’t think you were stupid. Or suicidal, Taehyung-ssi, really.” It’s a rebuke, now, a layer of formality dropped, and Taehyung stumbles over trying to translate in his head, half the words the same and the rest just wrong enough to upset his thought pattern.

“Then what do you want,” Taehyung repeats, and the desperation is for—he’s not quite sure. For a clear threat, a clear branch of peace. Anything that might tell him where he stands with Hoseok, who shares Namjoon’s space like he lives in it, but would slit his own throat if Jimin bade him.

Hoseok stops walking, and catches Taehyung’s arm. They’re face to face now, Hoseok’s narrowed eyes reflecting the sunlight that drifts through the hallway. He doesn’t look unkind, even as solemnly as his features have arranged themselves. Taehyung thinks of Jeongguk, whose eyes go wide and concentrated as he sketches, when he lets himself forget that Taehyung is sitting on the porch sometimes.

“I want to know what game you’re playing,” he says, and there’s something hard-edged and insistent in his voice now. “No one seems to be able to make up their mind about you, Taehyung-ssi. Jeongguk would cut you open if Jimin asked him, and Namjoon acts like he would throw himself on the blade instead, and the only reason they don’t is that Jimin won’t let either of them and can’t even tell me why. What is it you want, hm?”

“I don’t want anything,” Taehyung says, before he can stop himself from letting the trained response slip out. Not the throne, not power in court. He’d learned a long time ago that asking for things would only get them broken in front of him.

Hoseok drops his arm, and steps back with a laugh so sharp Taehyung almost expects a cut from it.

“Really? Not one thing?”

And Taehyung thinks. About seeing Soobin and Daeun, of being able to reassure Haseul that he’s okay, that he can keep taking care of them for as long as she needs. But that would mean going back to the palace, and the too-big bed and the open balcony windows and not even thinking about his family, and what they might do. Anything he wants—to stay, to go, to throw himself off the edge of the cliffside before the ransom is accepted or rejected—ends badly for him.

“Nothing easy,” he finally says, and hopes Hoseok hears the truth of it.

“Nothing is easy,” Hoseok says, on something that might be half a laugh. “This is war. You don’t want—what? To stay alive?”

“I don’t expect it.” He snaps it, and Hoseok—blinks. His mouth loses the dimples above it that mean he’s frowning, and he doesn’t speak, so Taehyung gathers what thoughts he can and forces them out in a graceless tumble. “I don’t want to hurt your prince. What they did to them at the trial, it was so—I did my best, but he won’t forgive me for it. I won’t ask him to, and I won’t hurt him more than I have, but—if I stay here, he’ll kill me. He’ll have to. I understand, Hoseok-ssi.”

“Then go home,” Hoseok says, voice flattened out from the mocking, from the threat. “When the ransom comes, you’ll have your chance.”

“Maybe,” Taehyung forces out. “But it’s just a choice of whose name I die with.”

“Your own father?”

Hoseok’s doubt stings. Taehyung looks away, and tries to imagine—what Hoseok’s father must have been like, that he sounds so incredulous. Maybe Bayul’s king had been kinder. Maybe the curse had started from the Brothers themselves, that no son of the line would ever feel safe in his own home, or on his own throne.

“I guess I do know what I want,” he finally says, instead of answering, or meeting Hoseok’s eye again. Hoseok makes a soft sound, still colored with horror or something like it. “A fast death. And if I have to beg your prince for it, I will.”

After that, they walk in silence. There’s nothing more Taehyung has to say.

 


 

The next few days are unnerving. Jimin never mentions the children, never mentions anything to Taehyung outside of what he absolutely has to. Hoseok hasn't said anything else, but he's loosened enough that he jokes with Namjoon, when the three of them work together in the training yard.

It’s strange to be Namjoon’s teacher, for once. He’d always been the one drilling Taehyung, when they were young; he’d been miles ahead of where Taehyung was, though there was barely a year between them. For months, it had been Namjoon he’d trained with in the dark of night, when he was alone in those big, empty rooms and couldn’t sleep for the shadows the moon cast over his bed. Now, after nine years away from the tutors and generals and princes who’d run their drills, Namjoon’s technique has faltered. Barely enough to be noticeable, especially to the untrained eye, but Taehyung has poured years into perfecting everything he could, in some futile hope that something might save him.

“Your stance is wrong,” Taehyung says, and crosses his arms at Namjoon’s stubborn frown.

“It’s not.” He seems so sure of himself, exactly the same as he’d always been as a child, and Taehyung has to fight back a smile and the giddy bubble of happiness that wells in his chest when he lets himself forget where he is. Some part of him that still feels like a child keeps trying to convince him that things are good, that he can stay in this limbo forever, and part of him always wants to let it win.

“It is,” he insists, and shifts into the correct pose to demonstrate. “Look, hyung. My feet stay below my knees when I strike.”

Hoseok copies him, and holds himself back from planting one firm fist in Namjoon’s diaphragm, and Namjoon squawks in a kind of familiar indignation that Taehyung knows still results in a playful bout of wrestling no matter how serious Namjoon likes to pretend to be.

“I don’t like this,” Namjoon mumbles, but the smile he gives Taehyung as he adjusts his own stance sparks something low in his stomach. Something that feels uncomfortably close to happiness, when it should be the last thing Taehyung deserves.

“You’re out of practice,” he teases back, and Namjoon shrugs his shoulders to accept it, and Hoseok watches them both with a smile that’s barely visible, hidden deep in the corner of his mouth and the quirk of his brows. Only obvious now that Taehyung knows where to look, after long days of observing Hoseok with Jimin, Hoseok with Jeongguk and Namjoon and the occasional visit from Jin, who darts through the training yard at alarming speeds and practices on whims before vanishing back into town or the recesses of the manor.

Six days after Taehyung had first been let out of Jimin’s rooms, the routine is this: he spars with Hoseok, and Namjoon when he can slip away from drills, for a few hours under the midmorning sun. When the soldiers break for a meal in early afternoon, Taehyung is locked back up with a guard at the door, and is left to eat and read and meditate as he will in the sea-broken silence of the open porch. More often than not, Namjoon still shows up long after sundown, and Taehyung walks slow loops around the nearest garden with him as they talk, about Taehyung’s studies and art and training and anything that doesn’t matter. He sleeps short and restless, and wakes now with the dawn prayer chimes.

In between training and solitude, though, is the children.

“Oppa!”

Misoon launches herself at Taehyung’s legs, and it’s been enough time that he’s comfortable now catching her, smoothing down her hair, checking on the surprisingly even-tempered baby he now knows to be her cousin.

“Hi, Misoon-ah,” he murmurs. The children beam when he greets them by name, and Changho puffs up in pride whenever Taehyung so much as looks in his direction. They’re content to play among themselves, more often than not, glad for the fresh air now rather than entranced by the intricacies of the mundane drills in the yard. And so Taehyung has taken to sitting on the rough cobbled floor of the hallway on the other side of the wall and leaning against it as they run, babbling made-up stories and nonsense to each other.

“But you’re the dragon,” Nara, maybe six, whines at Changho, when he refuses to go along with her game. “You’ve gotta be, you gotta!”

It’s good practice for Taehyung’s ear. Their dialects are thick and heavy and seem to make no sense, but the longer he listens the more Taehyung can parse what they’re saying, and identify the childish slips in form that had passed him by just a few days ago.

Baby Insung gurgles in his lap, where Misoon had deposited him unceremoniously so she could show Jinsoo how to cartwheel. Taehyung smiles down at him so hard his cheeks hurt, and curls his arms just a little tighter around the ragged bunch of blankets that swaddle him. The commotion of the others get louder, until someone yells something mean that might be forgotten in a minute or so, and Nara shrieks in upset, and Youngmi starts to laugh.

And Insung, clearly fed up with the noise distracting him from a perfectly contented nap, screws up his little face and begins to wail.

The first time he’d been confronted with a crying baby, five or so years ago, Taehyung had started crying himself. He’d only seen eighteen springs, had felt like a baby himself standing next to even Taeho, who’d been just three summers away from thirty. Daeun had been hungry, he’d finally learned with Haseul’s help, but the long minutes of unceasing noise from lungs that must have been smaller than his hand had worn on his nerves, and he’d blinked away tears as Haseul ducked into his study with a furious flush on her cheeks and one hand fumbling at the knot of her robe.

Now, he’s not sure what Insung might want, other than quiet. Taehyung had learned Daeun and Soobin’s different cries out of necessity and familiarity, but this is a baby he’s held a scarce few times before, and has never seen cry.

“Sorry,” Nara whispers, as she approaches. Misoon is already crouching by Taehyung’s side, staring with wide eyes at the squirming bundle like she’s not quite sure what to do.

Taehyung stands up as carefully as he can, and begins to sway. He rocks himself and Insung gently, bouncing weight from one leg to the other, and loses himself in watching the tiny changes of expression on a face that’s mostly just cheeks and rounded nose and parted lips. Insung looks around teething age, which might be it, or he might just be tired. Or hungry, or messed, and Taehyung can feel his own face working into a frown.

“Excuse me,” a voice cuts through, low and dangerous, and Taehyung clutches Insung closer to himself on instinct. When he turns, it’s careful. Wary of any movement that might land him on the wrong end of Jeongguk’s blade.

He turns, and holds Insung against his chest, and can’t help the way his face must fall at the way Jimin is looking at him, pressed shoulder-to-shoulder with Hoseok and Jeongguk. There’s a boy standing behind them, not in armor, his face self-important and confused and somewhat aggravated at the wails that still rip through the air.

“Our messenger is back,” Jimin finally says. “You’re required for the council meeting.”

For a long moment, Taehyung considers screaming. Letting his voice join the child’s, curling into himself to brace against the force of every inch of air leaving his lungs.

He hadn’t been ready. The panic in his stomach and chest and tips of his fingers tells him that he still isn’t; that he’d been stupid and complacent and childish, to think that he could keep an ounce of the happiness he’d gained here.

Jimin’s eyes are fixed on the baby. It’s a small comfort that Taehyung takes advantage of, when he tugs Insung’s blanket tighter around him, stifling the movement of tiny fists. He hates that Jeongguk is watching the tremor of his lips, hates what Hoseok might be reading in the way he knows his eyes must be rimming with red.

It was always going to end like this. Taehyung could curse himself for being stupid enough to forget. The shame is back, as sharp as ever, as the ghost at the corner of his eye wavers and flares like a flame, like a nervous beast.

“I have to go,” Taehyung murmurs, when he hands the baby back to Misoon. She pouts up at him, lip jutting out, and rocks her little cousin far too comfortably for any girl her age.

“Come back soon?” Youngmi asks.

Taehyung presses his lips into what might pass as a smile, and hopes she’s too distracted to see that he’s closer to crying than he’s been in days. He’s about to answer, a lie or an apology on his lips, when someone steps forward behind him, a long shadow cast over Taehyung’s head.

“He won’t be coming back,” Jeongguk says, somehow harsh and gentle at the same time. “Stay away from him, okay? He’s not safe.”

“Jeongguk,” Jimin says quietly. Taehyung presses his knuckles against his lips, and meets Changho’s hurt eyes.

“He’s right.” It burns his throat on the way out. “Go back to your rooms. And stay out of trouble, okay?”

He watches long enough to see Changho’s tremulous nod, and the confusion in his eyes when he looks up at Jeongguk, before he herds the rest of them down the hallway. Jinsoo and Youngmi both look back, trailing forlornly behind the rest with their fingers wound tight together, each holding onto the back of Changho’s tunic with one hand.

Jeongguk at least waits until they’re out of earshot.

“How dare you,” he hisses, and Taehyung settles back on his heels and allows himself a moment to feel the hurt of it. The venom laced in every word is no less effective for the frequency with which it’s used.

“I’m sorry,” he offers, as flatly as he can. “They had no one to watch them. I didn’t want one getting hurt.”

“We should go.” Hoseok says it to Jimin, primarily, his voice lowered enough to maintain a semblance of privacy. Jimin makes a noise Taehyung doesn’t even try to understand the implications of, and the cloth toe of Jeongguk’s slipper nudges hard against his thigh.

“Get up,” Jeongguk spits.

Taehyung stands, on legs that feel ready to give out at a moment’s notice. Jimin’s lips are pressed thin when he turns, gaze cast critically over where Jeongguk stands with his hand at his blade, likely ready to lead Taehyung back to the council chamber at knifepoint, like he’d walked him through the town below the palace.

After so long, it feels like Taehyung had never stopped walking toward his death. He doesn’t know how many more steps he can take before his feet refuse to work. He doesn’t know whether he’ll be strong enough to walk toward the knife, when it inevitably rises against him.

“Let’s go,” Jimin finally says, and for once his voice sounds as flat as Taehyung’s. “Hoseok, take him.”

When Hoseok’s hand curls around Taehyung’s wrist, it’s gentle. Taehyung closes his eyes and savors it, and tries not to cry at the thought that this might be the last glimpse of tenderness they allow him.

They walk, and Taehyung hates himself for counting every step.

 


 

They’re the last to arrive. The rest of the council is already gathered by the time Jeongguk holds the door for Jimin, and the room stands in unison to sweep into bows of varying depth.

It all feels like pointless formality, because as soon as Jimin seats himself at the head of the table, each eye turns to Taehyung and stares with a weight that has his shoulders curling forward, where they’ve had him kneel at the bottom of the few short steps before the meeting table.

“You bring a message?” Jimin asks, and the messenger tears his gaze away from Taehyung to meet his prince’s eyes.

“Yes,” he starts, caught up in his formalities. “I did as you asked. Kyunghwan denied me an audience until I met with his heir, but I spoke of the ransom only with the king.”

“And?” The general, as sternly put together as ever, leans forward across the council table. Taehyung’s breath catches in his throat, and holds. His knees ache. His hair is long enough now to hide his eyes, so he drops them to watch the way his hands tremble in his lap, entirely without permission. He thinks Namjoon might be watching him, but he’s too afraid to look.

“I brought him the terms and proof.” His voice seems to retreat into his chest, and every word winds something tighter in Taehyung’s chest. That spider-silk thread that stretches miles and miles to the gates of the palace, on the verge of snapping. He wants to light a candle, to stare into the center of the flame until it whites out the ghost he can’t stop seeing. “And he—”

The messenger cuts off. He fidgets where he sits. Taehyung hears a huff of impatience from a council member, and can’t help but close his eyes.

He knows what’s coming. He doesn’t want to hear it.

“He rejected the ransom,” the messenger says.

The words fall flat. Taehyung’s eyes burn, and his hands shake, and he tries to imagine—how long it had taken his father to decide. He’s not stupid enough to think that it would have been a difficult choice. There’s a part of him that had known since the morning after he was taken, with no party of soldiers sent to chase them down.

There’s a sob rising in his throat so powerful that his body heaves when he chokes it down, his chest pitching forward just enough that he knows everyone sees.

“What did he say.” The general’s voice is hard, the flatness of her inflection barely masking frustration. Don’t, Taehyung wants to say. He doesn’t want to hear it, not when the messenger swallows hard and shifts again, his nerves thick in the air even as Taehyung hides himself in darkness.

“I don’t think, um—”

“His exact words please, Soohyuk-ssi.” Another council member asks, the one with circular glasses and a brush perpetually in his hand. “Anything you can remember might help.”

“I,” Soohyuk says. Taehyung can feel the eyes on him, the itch of his skin uncomfortable and unwelcome. “He said that he would accept a peaceful surrender if you—if you bring him his son’s head, after you’re done with the body.”

The thread snaps. The noise that works its way out of Taehyung’s throat is strangled and weak and pathetic, and he presses his palm flat to his lips as the council absorbs the message. He can hear Namjoon’s breathing, so familiar even after all these years, and wonders if this will be the last piece of home he gets before he dies. The reminder that nothing he could have done would have changed this.

It’s not your fault, his mother had always told him, when she’d find him after lessons crying and bruised from head to toe. He can almost hear her now, feel her lips gentle against his hair. My Taehyung-ah, it’s nothing you can change.

And still he’d tried. For years after she was gone, he’d tried to be the best, to one-up any of them whenever he could, to make them trip over their composure in front of their father or the court. And then Namjoon had left, and had taken any last protection Taehyung might have had with him, and—

His other hand curls low against his stomach. He forgets, for a long moment, to listen to the voices that raise in the room, the dialect slipping through his fingers as he tries to compose himself.

“—not surrendering,” he hears the general spit, when Taehyung regains himself. “Kill the boy, march on the capital. If we make it into the city—”

“That’s what he wants,” Namjoon says, and his voice is loud and desperate and hurts to listen to. “He wants us to kill Taehyung, because they know he has valuable information. If we just kill him—”

“And why should we trust you?” The scribe asks pointedly. “You assured us that the ransom would be accepted, Namjoon-ssi, and now we don’t even have the promise of grace for our citizens. The general is right; he’s more dangerous to us here, and alive.”

“Dangerous?” Incredulity laces Namjoon’s voice, and Taehyung tries not to let it sting that they’re debating the value of his life. It’s their right, as his captors, and he’d let himself forget it. “All due respect, counsellor, but he’s been nothing but cooperative. You could at least consider—”

“I won’t—”

“Stop.”

Jimin’s voice cuts through the argument, the overlapping voices calling for Taehyung’s death that overwhelm Namjoon easily. Taehyung’s heart feels like it stops beating, for long enough that he’s afraid he might collapse. He looks up, and meets Jimin’s eyes, and isn’t afraid of what he’ll find because—he knows. He knows.

It’s never been a secret that Jimin wants him dead. Taehyung had known, from that first moment, that the first chance Jimin saw would end with him bleeding out slowly, and maybe it’s been long enough since then that Jimin might consider being merciful about it. It’s never been a secret, or anything he’s tried to hide, and in some sick way it’s easier to accept than the callous words he can imagine in his father’s deep voice. To dangle the promise of acceptance, of approval, and keep it out of reach until the time came to sign his life away—it’s cruel, and Taehyung can’t stand it, and he waits for Jimin to pass the sentence in the tense silence of Gangneung’s council chamber.

“If we kill you,” Jimin says slowly, and it’s the first time Taehyung has been addressed. “We’re doing Kyunghwan’s dirty work for him. If we send you back, do you think he’ll do it himself?”

Taehyung closes his eyes again. Tries to picture it—a soldier delivering him to that great hall, his father descending the steps to cut Taehyung’s throat. He can’t imagine it, not past the point where he might stand. He’s never seen his father carry any weapon but for the ceremonial sword.

“No,” he finally answers, when he’s kept them waiting far too long. When he opens his eyes again, vision blurred and warped, he can see the pain ripped across Namjoon’s face. “No, he’d let—one of them.”

He’d offer the chance to Taejoon, and if Taehyung were lucky he’d accept. That, at least, might be a faster choice; Taejoon would kill him like he’d killed Jihyun, like he’d threatened his dagger against Jimin’s throat. But Taeil would ask, and his father wouldn’t care enough to deny him, and that would be—like nothing he can think of. Taeil has always had a better imagination.

“I’d throw myself off that cliff first,” Taehyung promises, in a whisper. Namjoon makes a soft noise, but Taehyung keeps his eyes on Jimin’s. “If I could ask—”

“You can’t,” Jeongguk snaps. The first he’s spoken since he’d taken his place at Jimin’s left.

“Jeongguk,” Jimin bites back, a harsh reprimand, without breaking his gaze. “Ask what, Taehyung-ssi.”

Taehyung pauses. Looks at Namjoon, whose hands are clenched into fists atop the low table, who looks helpless and angry and anguished all at once, who knows almost every reason why Taehyung might ask.

“Don’t send me back,” Taehyung manages. He’ll beg, if he has to. “Please, just kill me here. Make it fast.”

Jimin leans forward. “And that’s what you want?”

Briefly, Taehyung looks to Hoseok. His face is blank, impassive but for the slight dig of his dimples at the downturn of his lips. He meets Taehyung’s eyes, deliberate, and then looks at Jimin. And Taehyung looks too, really looks, and doesn’t understand what he sees.

Jimin looks—unhappy. His eyebrows are knit tight together, his shoulders squared, his jaw set. Taehyung breathes, and wishes he could ask someone—anyone—what the right answer might be. He doesn’t want to die, but this has never been a question of if, from the very first moment Jeongguk’s blade touched his throat.

There must be something he can do. There must be—he doesn’t know why else Jimin would put off his sentence. Give me something, he can imagine Jimin asking, except that doesn’t make sense. Except nothing else makes sense either.

Bring me his head, he thinks, in his father’s voice. He feels small, helpless against it like he’d always been. On his knees, in front of the throne, too young to really understand what it meant when his father had told him she was dead, that she’d been buried outside the city walls, that he should quit waiting around the crypt waiting for her to be entombed.

The panic is closing in around his lungs, when Taehyung remembers. The prayer he’d made in the woods, the statue that had loomed above him, the way he’d been too frightened to lead Jimin to the burial site. He remembers—

“I can get you in,” he whispers. Too softly to be heard. Jimin blinks, and tilts his head, and Taehyung looks up to meet his eyes again, from where his chin had dropped low to his chest.

“I can get you into the city. Into the palace.” His voice sounds distant to his own ears, sounds like treason, but Taehyung grasps silently at some place inside the gaping hollow of his chest, and finds nothing. No thread, no connection to that bedroom, that great hall, that family tomb where he’d gone so many times as a child of barely seven, waiting for his mother’s name to appear on the carved wall.

“Why would you?” Jimin asks, but it’s not harsh. It’s almost—relieved. But that might just be the frantic beat of Taehyung’s pulse in his ears.

“You heard him,” he says, the words spilling clumsy from his lips. “He wants me dead. They all do. Why do I—why should I owe them my allegiance? When all they’ve ever done is—”

Hurt me, he tries to finish, and the words stick hard in his throat. He can’t breathe.

“You expect us to believe you’d turn traitor against your own family?” The scribe asks, scorn laced tight into every word.

Remember what you are, Taeil hisses in his ear.

“Yes,” he says blindly, desperately. He wants to stay alive. He wants—he wants to never step foot in that palace again. He wants to stop being afraid, for the first time in maybe his whole life.

“Hyung, take him outside,” Jimin says quietly. Hoseok stands, and Taehyung crumples in on himself, and he fights to keep his breathing under control. “The council will discuss.”

The table erupts into noise, and Taehyung stops listening. He only hears the sound of Hoseok’s footsteps, whisper-quiet, and rises when a gentle hand grips his elbow.

“Come on,” Hoseok urges, and Taehyung follows on muscle memory alone.

The door closes behind them. The voices grow quiet, muffled, and Taehyung collapses against the wall before Hoseok has the chance to lead him away.

“Taehyung?” Hoseok’s hands are gentle around his wrists, pulling his hands away from his face. Taehyung blinks at him, and sees the concern etched into his face, and feels sick with the shame of not deserving it. Hoseok should hate him, like Jeongguk does, but here he is with gentle hands and careful movements, like he’s approaching a startled rabbit. Taehyung thinks back to that question Hoseok had asked him, back to the answer he’d given just a few days ago, so convinced that he was ready for death, after staring it in the face for so long.

“I don’t want to die,” he manages, half-gasped, and Hoseok’s face falls.

He doesn’t expect the embrace. The careful way Hoseok’s arms wrap around his shoulders, one palm pressing gently against the back of his head.

“I don’t want to die,” Taehyung says again, barely a whisper, and the hope of it is worse than anything else he could imagine.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

IV.

 

 

Jimin’s head is ready to split. The pressure at his temple only builds as the council argues, each voice raised and pitched and beating down Namjoon, whose desperation is thick in the air of the hall. General Oh is angry, as mistrustful as ever, and Jimin wants to scream at the thought of negotiating and compromising and watching them resent him for having the final say.

No one has called him king yet, but Jimin has never felt the weight more heavily against his brow.

“We should hear him out,” he finally says, barely caring who he’s interrupting, and the council falls quiet.

“Jimin,” Sungwon says, politely diplomatic. “Are you sure that you’re in the best position to—”

“Excuse me.” Jimin cuts him off, pins him with a look that he hopes shows exactly what he thinks of being spoken down to like a child. “I know exactly who he is. I’m the one who spent weeks as his prisoner. He could have killed me any time he wanted, he could have gotten Jeongguk and me caught when we took him out of the city, and he didn’t. I’m inclined to at least listen to what he might tell us, councillor, and I’m surprised you’d think otherwise.”

“Anything he tells us could lead right into an ambush,” Oh snaps. “What better way to redeem himself to his father than bring you back to him?”

Jimin watches Namjoon at that, watches the way his hands curl into fists and his caw clenches, as unsubtle as a tidal wave.

“Namjoon-hyung?”

“There’s nothing that could redeem him,” Namjoon says, like the words are being dragged out of his chest against their will. “Taehyung knows that. There’s no fix for being expendable. If we kill him, Kyunghwan still has four sons, and the public doesn’t know enough to care if he killed Taehyung himself.”

“Weren’t you saying we needed a way into the city?” Jimin pins Oh with his gaze as best he can, while he still feels like something that’s been beaten against a rocky shore by the surf for hours. “One quick strike, general.”

“You need to hold to your sentence. What you’re showing him is weakness, Jimin, and he knows he can use it.”

“I never passed a sentence,” Jimin snaps, and his hand hits the table, and the room goes quiet. In the bright warmth of early afternoon, spring heavy in the air, it feels impossible that they’re debating for a life.

Jimin is no stranger to killing. He’s fought in each major battle, has clashed against raiding parties at the border, has slit the throat of some of his own men, one quick cut over the vein, to stop them from suffering for longer than they had to. He’d watched his father execute a traitor himself, when he’d barely been nine. But this—the clinical debate, the deliberate cruelty of Kyunghwan asking for Taehyung’s head—it’s sickening.

Jimin doesn’t know when he’d started thinking of Taehyung as almost innocent, in all of this.

“Why are you doing this?”

It’s not the general who asks. It’s not Sungwon, or Jihye, or even Namjoon. Jimin turns to Jeongguk, and sees the confusion and hurt and anger naked on his face.

“Doing what?” He reaches out, and Jeongguk tugs his hands away, and it stings harder than any hit Jimin had taken in Odai.

“Acting like—like he shouldn’t die, for what he did to you.”

And it’s the question Jimin hates himself for even having to ask—of what Taehyung did do to him. He’d thought he’d known, until Namjoon. Until those conversations spied on in the dark, and the way Taehyung’s bruises have all faded in the absence of his own brothers. Maybe it’s easier for Jeongguk, who’d seen only the collar, and the chain, and the dried smear of blood across his chest.

That night when Jeongguk had climbed over the edge of the balcony, Jimin had been too afraid to look at Taehyung closely. Afraid that at any moment he’d jolt awake with gold locked back around his wrists, that he’d be dragged back into that hall for the pleasure of the court, that he’d have to die miles away from the ocean, from his home. He had tried not to commit the way Taehyung looked with a knife at his throat to memory, because he didn’t want to wake up from the dream with any false hopes.

Sometimes, Jimin catches himself waiting to wake up. Sometimes, he wants nothing more than a chain to free him from the crush of responsibility. At least locked in Taehyung’s rooms, he’d been able to forget the reality of it all—his father’s corpse rotting in the earth, his brother’s blood hot and sticky against his lips.

There had been an upside to not feeling real, most of the time.

“It’s not about what he deserves,” Jimin finally says. “I’ll pass that judgement when I have to. Right now, this is about the war, and we’re desperate. We all know we’re desperate. Either we surrender, or we march into another battle we can’t hope to win, or—we gamble with this.”

“I’ll vouch for him,” Namjoon says, finally quiet, almost calm. “If he turns on his word, you can execute me too.”

“One traitor’s word for another?” Sungwon scoffs.

Jihye leans forward. She’s barely spoken; has only sat back and observed with her face as inscrutable and deeply-lined as ever. Her fingers fold atop the table, the skin of them paper-thin and delicate. The room quiets for her, the oldest among them, and Jimin waits with caught breath and something like fear mixing with the confusion in his chest, for her to speak.

“You trust him,” she says, and she’s not looking at Namjoon. Jimin pauses, and takes the time to meet every eye in the room. Only Jeongguk still looks angry, and Jimin wonders—who his rage is for.

It hadn’t been Taehyung who’d shoved a sword into his brother’s chest. But he’d watched, and waited, and more than anything Jimin has been afraid to ask him why.

“I trust him not to lie,” Jimin finally says. “Namjoon, your word for his?”

“My word for his.” There’s relief thick in Namjoon’s voice, as he takes the brush from Sungwon. Oh glares, eyes dark, as he inks his name onto the page.

“He’ll betray you,” she says, in the silence that falls after. “Your highness, you can’t make deals with traitors for their own lives. You have nothing else he wants—he’ll kill you for the first person that offers him anything more valuable than his own head.”

Jimin doesn’t say what he’s thinking. That Taehyung is no ordinary traitor—that Odai has a history of killing brothers, their line of succession as jagged and unpredictable as a bolt of lightning. If Taehyung keeps his word—if Jimin kills their king, and their princes, and leaves Taehyung alive—the reward he gets might be a crown on his head rather than a sword to his neck. He doesn’t think Oh wants to hear it.

“I’ve made my decision,” he says instead. The map spread across the center of the table stares up at him, the gold-embossed outline of the great basin reflecting the too-cheerful light of the afternoon. For better or worse, he’s trusting some kind of instinct. Some kind of shame.

At his side, Jeongguk’s lip is curled into a barely visible sneer. His eyes are dark; his fists are clenched. But it’s not something Jimin can think about now, when his head already aches from the arguments, from the pressure, from the question that might decide the future of his reign, of his people, of his own life. He can think about Jeongguk later. He squares his shoulders, and tries to wipe his face clean of anything that might betray weakness.

“Bring him back in.”

 


 

"Tunnels." General Oh's voice falls flat over the table, blank and disbelieving enough to make Jimin feel the shame of it. "You can't expect us to believe that."

"It's true," Taehyung replies. He's trained himself better, Jimin notes; he sounds almost as blank now in Bayul as he had in Odaian. "I've used them, General. Or, one of them. There's only the one, now."

"I thought there were none," Namjoon says, half to himself where he's poring over the map he'd himself drawn of Odai's capital. "None left at least. Taehyung-ah, when did you—?"

"I used to visit the residents on the North wall. All those ancient generals and advisors. A few of them still remembered the Gyeoulsan siege, and I asked around until I figured out the entrances. It's not that everyone forgot, but—no one cared enough to listen, not to the right people." He sounds like he's been rehearsing this, maybe for as long as they'd kept him waiting in the hallway, and Jimin can't help but wonder how long this has been brewing.

Taehyung reaches forward, and taps the symbol of the city’s central temple.

“This one is collapsed. Another has been barricaded. But there’s one…”

His finger drags slow and careful, to the thatch of green on the map that marks the forest they’d ridden through to escape, without pursuit from the crown.

“I’ve taken it before,” Taehyung finishes. “You won’t even have to worry about making it through the gates. This one will bring you right under the walls of the palace.”

It settles with a heavy kind of finality in Jimin’s chest.

“So we send our twenty best men,” General Oh says. “You go with them, and if anything you say is wrong, they cut your throat and leave your body in the woods.”

“I understand what happens if I lie,” Taehyung snaps. His face lifts; his eyes glint with something hard that makes Jimin’s lips part in shock. Namjoon’s hand falls gentle on his arm, and Taehyung shakes it off. “You’ve all made it very clear. I’ve made my choice, General, and I’m not going to waste my breath trying to convince you of my sincerity.”

The general’s hand twitches, and Jimin only sees the flinch of Taehyung’s arm because he knows to look for it.

“If anyone raises a hand against anyone else in this room,” he breaks in. “They will not be invited back in.”

“I understand.” Everything in Oh’s voice, her posture, radiates anger. The tension wound tight in her shoulders is not comforting. “I can have the party ready in a week, your highness.”

Jimin blinks down at the table, and tries to think.

Twenty men, experienced soldiers, traipsing through mountain lands alone with Taehyung. Twenty soldiers attempting to infiltrate the palace, to split up and kill five separate people, if they even make it that far. And then—and then what? Taehyung takes credit for the killing, if the soldiers don’t turn against him too? The armies and citizens mutiny against yet another murderer-king?

“No.”

Even Taehyung looks up at that, from where he’d gone back to staring at the map with something close to anger in the tight corners of his mouth.

“No? You want him to stay at the fort?”

“We can’t send twenty soldiers,” Jimin corrects. “He’ll still go. But the two best men we have are standing behind me, and if we send anyone else we’re gambling with the only chance we have.”

“I’m not leaving you.” Jeongguk says it like it’s the only thing he believes in, anymore. “I won’t, hyung, you can’t make me.”

“And I won’t ask you to,” Jimin says. The image he’s forming in the back of his head is not an appealing one. It’s not something he wants. But if everything works out—

He’ll be in the capital when the king falls. When the succession crashes onto Taehyung’s shoulders. If he’s there already, with the last of his army ready to march on the city wall, with an alliance so obvious it makes him sick to think about at his fingertips—it’s the neatest solution. But even one misstep, and he ends up back in that great hall, with Jeongguk and Hoseok’s blood drying on his cheek as the king laughs.

“You can’t,” Jeongguk breathes, tinged with horror.

“It makes sense.” As flat as he can make it. “You, and Hoseok, and Namjoon. Yoongi-hyung, if he’ll join us. He knows the basin, to make sure we aren’t walked into an obvious trap. Namjoon and Taehyung know the palace, and how to play the court when the king falls. It makes sense.”

“Jimin,” Oh says, and her voice is softer than Jimin has heard it since he first walked through the doors. “You can’t. You’re our king.”

The words sting more than a blow ever could. Jimin closes his eyes, and brushes the tips of his fingers along the scarring on his wrist, only barely covered by the cuff of his shirt. The black he’s been wearing all his life, the phantom weight of gold atop his brow.

“If we fail here,” he replies quietly, slowly. The room doesn’t breathe. “There will be no country left for me to rule.”

The reports he’s heard from the border have been horrific. Entire villages and fields razed, a third of the country’s food supply decimated, warlords awarded manors that once sat families whose lines stretched back to the days when they were one country, reaching from the coast to the very tail of the mountain range. The council has always been small, but the senate—the senate had brought together voices from each province, or manor, or trading town of five hundred or more. Nearly all slaughtered, when they marched out to war with their people.

It had been something each of them had been proud of. That the leaders marched with the men they sacrificed, behind their king. That they were cut down by the army of a country who kept its nobility locked up behind walls and mountains, unwilling to look their dead in the eye.

“It makes sense,” Namjoon echoes quietly. "I'll go if you ask, Jimin-ah."

"I'm asking." A hand settles warm on his shoulder; Hoseok, a steady line of support. The rock, against the crashing waves of the sea. "I need to be there. I need—"

He spares a glance at Taehyung. I need to kill him myself, he doesn't say. He doesn't know whether he's talking about the king, or about the man who had stuck Jihyun as if he'd never even think about losing sleep over it.

The week's march had been long enough that Jimin had to force himself to prepare for it. But he'd thought—they'd start with him. To make a statement. He'd prepared himself to die, to kneel for the sword knowing that his brother would follow him, that at least—at least he'd be there to welcome him, after, since their bodies would be defiled so heavily that they might be trapped.

At least they'd be together, he had thought, on repeat for the last days of the march. As he'd clutched Jihyun's shoulder for support for his leg, as he'd forced every bite of food he could salvage into his brother's mouth, as he'd taken blows and boots for spitting in soldiers' eyes when they tried to get too close to either of them.

It's not a mercy, that Taehyung knows his brothers will die. No matter how cruel, no matter that he'll have a hand in it himself.

"Let's break for the day," Hoseok says, when the silence has gone on too long. When Jimin feels his stomach start to turn, lost in the gore of his own memory. His fingers dig into the meat of Jimin's shoulder, just barely regained, and Jimin nods in assent.

"Dismissed," he says, and uses all of the last of his strength to wait until the room has almost emptied. Until it's just him and the Kal and Taehyung, seated on the other end of the long low table, his eyes lowered to his folded hands.

For a long moment, Jimin only observes. Taehyung's eyes are rimmed in fading red, his cheeks just barely swollen enough to notice. His eyelashes fall dark over the very tops of them, the set of his mouth carefully neutral. He's the very picture of deference, broken only by the set of his shoulders. The way he holds his head, like someone who expects respect.

Expecting it does not mean it has always been granted. Especially not to a half-royal fifth son.

"You're not a hostage any more," Jimin finally says.

"I'm not?" It doesn't sound sarcastic. It sounds like he's confused.

"If you want to be a traitor, be a traitor." At that, Taehyung's eyes raise. That hard thing is still there, even under the layers of respect and painted-on gratitude. "If you want me to keep you guarded I will, Taehyung-ssi. Prove to me I don't need to."

Taehyung looks away. His forehead creases; to him, it might seem like a test. Jimin won't say that it isn't, but mostly—mostly he just wants to be alone, doesn't want to have to send Hoseok or Jeongguk or call for another soldier to be posted at the door. If Taehyung runs, the sentries will put half a quiver in his chest before he makes it to the gate. If he throws himself off the cliff—well. He could have done that a long time ago.

After a long moment. Taehyung rises. Bows his head, like he might if they had met years ago, a youngest prince sent as ambassador, perhaps. A peace conference, if Kyunghwan had agreed to any of the requests the council had sent.

It all could have been different, Jimin thinks. Something about Taehyung makes him wish it had been.

But he closes his eyes, and he sees only blood. Tastes only the drug, bitter on his tongue, the weight of gold heavy around his neck.

Taehyung leaves, the door closed quietly behind him, and Jimin presses his forehead to the sticky wood of the table, and forces himself to breathe.

 


 

Jeongguk doesn’t sleep in his bed, that night.

“I won’t argue with you,” Jimin says, when Jeongguk throws a woven blanket over his lap and leans his back against the single stone wall and tugs out his charcoals and notebook, glancing dark looks at Jimin in between each movement. Hoseok perches on the end of the bed and watches, as Jimin sits cross-legged in the center and works oil into his hands, doing his best to soothe the blisters that are only just starting to subside, from training after a month spent without holding a weapon.

Jeongguk doesn’t reply. His anger is cold, always has been. Marked with deliberate silence and the absence of touch and a layer of detachment in his duty. Jihyun had always been able to push through Jeongguk’s walls better than Jimin, who’d always taken it too personally, had always been less willing to forgive.

You’re supposed to be my friend, he remembers snapping, when he couldn’t have been older than fourteen. And Jeongguk, looking hurt, had run to Hoseok’s mother, and she’d sat Jimin down in the empty council room the next morning with a firm set to her jaw.

They are not there to be your friends, she’d told Jimin. She’d explained to him, then, exactly what the Kal’s oath meant. That Dawon and Hoseok and Jeongguk were all being raised to die for him, to kill for him. That once they’d had their oaths inked, they were sworn to him through this life and the next one; that if they broke it, even the Goddess would turn her back on them.

And so he’d learned to push past the moments of childish anger between them. She had never said they couldn’t be friends, and Jimin had been old enough then to notice the way his father relaxed into Hoseok’s parents’ touch, when everyone but the family had left the room. They didn’t have to be friends, but for all of them—it had been a natural after-effect of being raised as brothers.

He wants to ask Jeongguk to at least talk it through with him, but he knows it’s not likely to get any more of a response.

“I’m here,” he offers instead, and can hear the exhaustion heavy in his own voice. “Whenever you want, Jeongguk-ah. I’m here to talk.”

Jeongguk looks up, for a brief moment, and his eyes are wide and soft and hurt and Jimin thinks, just for a moment, that he hates himself for not being able to make that final, awful decision.

He’d spent as much time as Jeongguk fantasizing about his hands around Taehyung’s throat, and his own thirst for violence had been terrifying. What frightens him is how he doesn’t think he could do it now, even if Taehyung tipped his head back and asked him to.

He sleeps with Hoseok’s hand pressed against his sternum, and the flicker of Jeongguk’s candle casting strange, otherworldly shadows against the wall. He wakes with his hand reaching over the end of the mattress, and Jeongguk sitting close enough that their fingers almost touch, his head slumped over his shoulder like he hadn’t meant to fall asleep.

“Morning,” Hoseok murmurs. He’s sitting up now too, and Jimin takes the moment’s opportunity to shove his head into Hoseok’s lap, to let Hoseok dip his fingers for the morning blessing, before he starts stroking careful hands through Jimin’s hair. “He moved a few hours after you fell asleep. He hates being mad at you, Jimin-ah.”

Jimin hums the sleep out of his throat, and reaches up to bless Hoseok in return. It’s an easy thing, only done when they’re awake to see the sunrise. Not like the long morning prayer Jimin had memorized each summer, when he’d woken before dawn to make his way to the temples. The priestesses had the heir’s dance recorded in the catacombs, an ancient scroll a handmaiden had been tasked with recopying by hand each year, to bring up to the courtyard where Jimin had been trained. Each morning had started with the prayer, with long minutes kneeling in the inch-deep pool of saltwater, and compared to that the blessing feels—simpler.

“I don’t understand,” Jimin says, when the excess water has dripped all the way down to his throat. Hoseok makes a soft sound, and smooths his thumb over Jimin’s forehead.

“Yes, you do,” he finally replies. “And I can’t blame him, really.”

Jimin swallows. Tastes the barely-there thought of salt in the air, listens to the crash of the cliffs below.

“I have to,” he finally says, when the thought of anything else becomes unbearable. “I have to be there, hyung, to see it.”

“I know. He knows, too. But our oath—” He reaches down, to drag one finger along Jimin’s heart, where his own body bears ink. Jimin sighs, and reaches up to tangle their fingers together. “He knows Taehyung hurt you. And maybe it wasn’t him who held the sword, but he was still there. I don’t expect Jeongguk to trust him.”

“And you?”

Hoseok shrugs, and brushes Jimin’s hair, just barely overgrown, back from his forehead.

“You know me,” he finally says. “I’ve always spent too much time with Namjoonie.”

Jimin takes a moment to think about that. About the idea that Jeongguk might be taking his cues from what he’d seen in those chambers, from what Jimin had told them all of his time spent in the capital, where Hoseok is trusting Namjoon’s word on top of Jimin’s. It makes Jimin wonder—what each of them has seen, in the time he’s spent around Taehyung. What they might have heard differently.

“You think I should trust him?” He asks. Hoseok purses his lips, enough to make his dimples stand out, and looks distantly at the thin door that separates them from Taehyung.

“I don’t know,” he finally says. “I think you should try. But I also know there are things you want to say, and you shouldn’t trust him with your life until you’ve said them.”

Down at the very bottom of the cliffside, the tide beats relentlessly against ancient stones. Gangneung has stood for hundreds of years above the sea, and will stand for hundreds more. Waiting for the right answer feels like waiting for the fort to crumble; the ocean never stills, only acts, and it’s how his father had taught him to rule.

“I will,” Jimin says. “I’ll talk to both of them.”

Hoseok smiles down, something dark and hurt welled up in his eyes. For a long moment, Jimin lets himself believe that they’re only friends. That Hoseok’s parents hadn’t both died for his father, that his sister hadn’t died in a raid meant to target Jimin, and Jihyun. That in black ink down Hoseok’s spine, there’s a vow to step in front of any blade himself, to stop it from reaching Jimin’s throat.

“You’ll be a good king,” Hoseok murmurs.

He leans down to press a kiss, tender and dry, to Jimin’s forehead, and the moment shatters like glass against the jagged cliff face, the shards swept out to sea.

 


 

The next meeting of the council is more crowded than the last. Jimin doesn't bother heading to the training grounds that morning, content to let the captains do their work; instead, he tugs on fresh clothing and leaves his sword at his bedside, prepared for another long day of argument.

Taehyung is back on the open porch when Jimin walks through the parlor. His head doesn't turn, preoccupied by the dance of wildflowers along the path back to town, and for a moment Jimin hesitates.

He could call out. To offer another branch between them, by walking to the council chamber together. It might encourage Taehyung to trust him—to assure him that Jimin doesn't mean to go back on his word. But Jeongguk's eyes on the back of Jimin's neck are heavy, and the silence of the early morning is still to fragile to break, and Jimin—doesn't want to. Doesn't want to do the work of offering out his hand, as selfish as he might feel for it.

He leaves his rooms without a word. When they're halfway down the hall, Jimin hears the door open, and slide shut again. The soft sounds of footsteps a respectful distance behind them. Taehyung doesn't speed up to approach, and Jimin doesn't slow down to let him.

They understand each other, maybe. More so now than Jimin had ever let himself try before.

The council room is empty, when Jimin reaches it. The maps are still spread out on the table where he'd left them, the cushion he sits on at the head of the table still ajar where he hadn't bothered to straighten it. He has time to sit, to arrange himself as neatly as he can, to have Hoseok call for pages to alert the council members before Taehyung arrives at the door. He waits, one hand wrapped around the wooden frame, for Jimin to grant him entry.

In Namjoon's clothes, he looks—strange. Namjoon and Yoongi both visit the same tailor back home; a woman who'd grown up in a mountainside town in Odai, before traveling to Jimin's capital after a raiding party had sacked the village, one of their own. She sews clothes for them that make passers-by look twice; at the familiar dyes in unfamiliar styles, the long cut of the outer robe strangely formal, to them. And Jimin had gotten used to it, and it haunts him because out of the corner of his eye, Taehyung almost looks like someone he could call friend.

"May I?" Taehyung asks quietly, and reaches for a map.

Scattered along the table are Sungwon's inkstone and brushes, a long scroll of paper blank for long inches at the bottom. Taehyung rips the top section off, and drags it toward where he sits at the opposite end of the table, and looks up to meet Jimin's eyes only once, as if to dare him to say anything about it.

Jeongguk scoffs, but stays firm where he kneels behind Jimin. Neither of them have too much love for Sungwon and his endless scrolls, and Jimin is more interested in watching than admonishing as Taehyung carefully copies down the broadest strokes of the great basin, then leans in as he traces the outer wall of the city, the inner wall of the palace. The drawing is carefully practiced, the lines smooth, and Jimin wonders briefly what Jeongguk’s face might look like now.

Slowly, the council joins them. Namjoon is first, walking in as casually as he can while trying to hide the rapid pace of his breathing. He sits himself next to Taehyung, and presses their knees together barely visible under the table, and Taehyung smiles with the very corners of his mouth and does not look up.

At least today, no one tries to talk Jimin out of it. The general looks broadly displeased, as they make arrangements for what’s left of the army to march southwest. They have the men, and the supplies for two weeks’ travel on foot.

It’s a chilling ultimatum. Either Jimin succeeds, or the last of his men die in battle or from starvation.

“Get Yoongi-hyung,” he murmurs to Jeongguk, when Jihye has finished outlining the journey for the soldiers. That this is the most reliable part of his plan is frightening, when he remembers how difficult it had been to cross the mountains with an army before. No clear paths to stay in step; no scouts familiar enough with the terrain to tell them the best route. It had taken all of his father’s discipline and their generals’ strategy to keep the men from plummeting heads-first into a ravine. “General, councillors, you’re dismissed.”

He nods at Namjoon to stay, and fixes his eyes on the rest. The outrage rumbling in Oh’s chest, the offense plain on Sungwon’s face.

“Your highness,” Oh starts, through gritted teeth, and Jimin cuts her off with as much as a smile as he can manage.

“I’m sure you, of all people, know the value of privacy. If any of you were to be captured...” he trails off into a shrug, and glances down at his nails. “I will not let any of you talk me out of what needs to be done.”

She looks at him for a long moment, her topknot so severe that it straightens out the lines of her face. She doesn’t look as old as she is; age weathered by severity and an unwillingness to compromise, the iron in her eyes as sharp as the slate-grey of her hair. Jimin holds her gaze. If he looks away, it’s a weakness. The people, the generals, will not abide weakness in a king.

“Fine,” Oh finally says. She stands, straight-backed and proud, and inclines her head in a bow. “Don’t forget what it is you’re doing.”

The door shuts behind her quietly, and the room—Namjoon, Hoseok, Taehyung—goes quiet.

Jimin sighs, and pulls the map Taehyung had been copying toward himself.

“Tell me everything about the tunnels,” he says. And the work begins.

 


 

Kyunghwan had given them two weeks to deliberate and travel, and as a consequence the plans are rushed. It’s something Jimin hates that he has to accept—that in order to make the deadline, they have to cut corners. They’re relying too much on game being available on the journey for food, since nearly all the stores will be marching with the army. There’s not enough time to make them all a set of Odaian clothing, so they have to hope that they don’t get stopped by any returning soldiers on their way through the mountains. Everything relies entirely too much on hope and chance, and it’s the only plan they have.

The morning before they’re supposed to ride out, four days after the ransom had been rejected, Jimin takes Jeongguk to the ocean.

They scramble down the sloped path of the cliff as the sun reaches its first fingers over the horizon, and Jeongguk breathes out the blessing as he catches Jimin when he half-slips on a patch of slick stone. Jimin says it back on a laugh, and feels the fragile peace between them gain footing even as he regains it himself.

“It’s cold,” Jeongguk pouts, when Jimin forces him to roll up his pants and wade in to his ankles. The tide is low, the pebbled beach still damp from where it had reached up to the very base of the cliff overnight. From this angle, Jimin can look up and see the cavernous entrance to the flooding cells, the cave imposing even in the hazy morning light.

“Weak,” Jimin teases back, as he steps in deeper, until the waves roll over his knees and send froth licking up the rolled hem of his pants. He doesn’t mean to swim, not really, but—theres a rock, uncovered by the tide, just a few more meters out, and he picks his way over carefully because Jeongguk has no choice but to follow.

“I hate you,” Jeongguk says when they finally make it, the flat stretch just large enough to comfortably seat them both. Jimin laughs, and swings his calves through the water, and leans his head on Jeongguk’s shoulder to feel the sun rise and warm the skin of his cheeks. “Get off me, hyung.”

“But you’re comfortable.” Half a whine, but mostly true. Each curve of Jeongguk’s body seems to have been carved specifically for him, or maybe it’s just the years they spent clinging to each other whenever they weren’t wrestling, or sparring, or racing. Jeongguk and Hoseok’s skin is familiar to the touch as Jimin’s own; their shoulders have always been there to hold up his head, when his neck doesn’t feel strong enough.

They spend a few moments like that, just breathing in time with the shush of waves breaking against their rock, Jeongguk’s skin warm even through his shirt and the chill of the water.

“I missed this,” Jimin finally says, when it feels right. “The ocean. When I was captured.”

Jeongguk’s hand finds his, and even if Jimin can’t see his eyes he knows what he’d see. A deep kind of sympathy, the love he’s always known was there reflected back.

“You didn’t deserve what he did to you.”

Jimin squints out at the shimmering line of the horizon. He tries to fit himself into words; this vague, nebulous thing in his chest, like a storm cloud. “It wasn’t all him, Jeongguk-ah.”

“So he didn’t have a key to that collar?”

With his free hand, Jimin drags his fingers along the scar at his throat. The sensation is faint, nerves dulled by fresh tissue, but even just brushing against it makes him shudder, recoil, feel bile sting at his throat. He dreams about it, sometimes; dreams about waking up collared and leashed and hung over the edge of the cliffside for the goddess to see, and mock, and abandon.

“It was all of them,” he finally says instead. “The king ordered all of them dead. The heir—”

Jeongguk’s other hand folds atop the ones clasped between them.

“We’ll see them all dead.” he promises. “All of them, hyung.”

“Not all.” A wave rises, larger than the others, and smacks violently against the cliffside. The disruption makes it all the way to their little rock, and the tide lifts enough to wet Jimin’s pants again, which had just started to dry stiff with saltwater. “I promised him.”

“If he lives, you’ll be making him a king,” Jeongguk spits. “He won’t be any better than the rest of them.”

“Neither of us know that,” Jimin fires back. “You don’t have to like him. I would never ask for that. But he’s helping, Jeongguk, and that’s more than we can say for any of the rest.”

There’s a long pause. Jimin is too scared to look at Jeongguk’s face. He’s never asked for something like this before, never asked Jeongguk to forgive anything that wasn’t a trivial fight between boys. But this—this is deeper. This goes back to the day Jeongguk had arrived at the manor, riding in front of Jimin’s father on his warhorse, his leg wrapped from knee to hip and his eyes too swollen and exhausted to make any more tears.

“They killed him,” Jeongguk finally says, so quietly that Jimin barely hears him over the water. “Do you know what that means, hyung?”

Jimin tips his head back, and watches the shift of the clouds in the sky. He doesn’t answer.

“It means I failed.” The words fall heavy, and something sick and heavy curls in the pit of Jimin’s stomach. “Almost all my life, being trained for one thing—and I couldn’t even be there. I failed, hyung, and they killed him, and if I hadn’t ignored everything everyone told me and rode out to find you he would have killed you too. Eventually.”

Jimin shudders out a breath, jagged and raw as it’s tugged out of his throat by the inward pull of the waves.

“I’m not going to fail again,” Jeongguk says. “Not with you. Not if it kills me.”

And Jimin closes his eyes, and feels the cold water against his skin, the warmth of Jeongguk against him, real in all the ways that had slipped from his memory and his grasp while chained and kept.

“Okay, Jeongguk-ah,” he whispers, even though he shouldn’t. “Okay.”

 


 

They walk into the council room to find an argument already well underway. This one, at least, isn’t about marching formations or food stocks.

“You aren’t going,” General Oh rumbles, in a voice that would make lesser men flee from the room. As it is, Jin holds her ground and tosses back her hair and squares her shoulders in a terrifying imitation of her mother.

“You can’t make me stay.”

It’s been a battle ever since they’d called in Yoongi, that first day, and Jin had tagged along with him. She refuses to be left behind, and Jimin had already factored her into the party because he knows her, and knows Yoongi, and knows that Jin would have to be pinned to the wall by an arrow to keep her from following them.

But Oh had caught wind of it, from a guard posted in front of the council chamber more likely than not, and had put her foot down.

Jimin makes pointed eye contact with Yoongi, and moves to take his seat as unobtrusively as possible. This isn’t his fight; he could try to order Oh to stand down, but it’s not his place. If she wants to argue with Jin, she can, and Jimin will have the kitchen staff pack food for her anyway. When he gets close enough to Namjoon that the saltwater dried stiff in his hair and clothes is noticeable, he gets a fond smile and a gentle elbow in his ribs.

They’re all very adept, by now, at having other things to do while Jin and the general argue. Jimin pulls the map Taehyung had drawn toward him again, and traces the dotted line of the tunnel with his finger.

It seems a foolish thing to trust. Taehyung has all the right explanations; that the mountains rimming the basin used to be mines, that those ancient kings had thought to give themselves an escape from any attack from within. The tunnels had never been used, and Odai’s capital has never fallen to a siege, and they’ve faded from the common memory.

No one had asked, yet, what Taehyung had used them for. Jimin hates that he thinks he knows already, that the softness in Namjoon’s eyes tells him enough to keep the question lingering on the back of his tongue.

“It is not your place!” Oh exclaims. Her palm smacks the table, and from the corner of his eye Jimin almost thinks he sees Taehyung flinch. “You are not a soldier, and not a spy. I’ve indulged your fantasies for long enough.”

“And what is my place?” Jin spits back. “To find a nice nobleman to marry, to stop embarrassing you in front of your men? Please. I’m your daughter, you should know better.”

“You’re no daughter of mine,” Oh says. She’s said it before, and it never stops making Jimin angry. “Who would marry you, hm? You’ll be lucky if I can find you a suitable match on the Northern border.”

It’s a horrible insult to the North, Jimin thinks mildly. Any one of the men he’s met from those towns and provinces would be lucky to request Jin’s hand. Jin curls her lip back, striking beauty marred by anger and contempt. A smile that almost makes Jimin groan, in anticipation of what she might say next.

“Actually,” she says, tight and proud, and turns her head.

Every eye in the room turns to Yoongi. He stares at the wall, face blank but for the raging blush that burns at his cheeks, and Jimin has to politely cough into his hand to hold back a laugh. Oh looks almost as red as Yoongi does, her face dark and furious.

It’s no secret that where Jin goes, Yoongi follows. It’s likely why he’d gone with Jeongguk to Odai in the first place; he’s been by her side for years, their relationship politely undiscussed as Jin has her fun and lures people in like flies and always returns to Yoongi’s side with a favor owed or information gathered. Maybe she’s not a soldier, but even Jimin knows that Jin has been as valuable to them as any war officer.

“Congratulations,” Hoseok offers slyly, and Yoongi cuts him aglare.

“Yoongi and I are going to be very happy,” Jin says, and only she could make something like that sound like a threat. “And you can’t stop me from going.”

“Maybe not,” Oh says. “But if you come back, you won’t be my child.”

Jin rolls her eyes.

“Oh, eomma,” she replies, mocking. “I never really was.”

General Oh has never married, has never borne any other children. But Jin isn’t her heir, won’t inherit her land or home or home our household. She’d never even been allowed to take her mother’sname.

When she leaves, the frosty silence lingers. There’s still fight woven into the clench of Jin’s jaw, the rigid line of her posture, and it takes a long while of quiet breathing until she opens her eyes, plasters on a smile, and settles back off her heels, into a more relaxed position.

“When’s the wedding?” Namjoon asks, without once looking up from the scouting report he’s poring over. Jin snorts, and Yoongi rolls his eyes, and the tension falls out of the air until Jimin can let himself breathe fully again, without the discomfort of wanting to stay unnoticed. Watching Jin fight is never fun, but it’s something he’s uncomfortably used to.

“Whenever I need financial security,” Jin replies, as prim as ever. “Yoongichi has me covered. Right, darling?”

“Of course.” Yoongi’s deadpan is a perfect compliment to her drama, and Jimin finds himself smiling before he realizes it. And even as the conversation shifts to planning, to the serious topic of their journey, Jimin finds himself slipping into the place where none of it feels real. Where he can look around at his friends and only think about how he’d never thought he’d have this again—how even though two of them are missing, it feels for the first time like they can keep living without the absence jagged and painful and sharp.

He looks at Taehyung, almost on accident, and finds himself being watched. Taehyung’s eyes are large and dark, and widen when Jimin looks back. He doesn’t waver, though; just watches. Separated from the room by an unfamiliarity not even Namjoon can breach, a hostility that still lingers even after he’d turned traitor to his home, his family.

Jimin looks at him, and remembers the first time he ever had. How pale Taehyung had looked on that throne, in that palace, now that Jimin has seen him out of it. How intense his eyes had been, and how Jimin had hated him with every inch of himself when he’d stopped Taejoon from cutting into him.

Something hard and cold lodges itself in Jimin’s throat. Something he doesn’t want to think about, or speak. Looking at Taehyung, comfortable and healthy and free of the cuts and bruises that had littered his face through all the weeks Jimin had known him, is suddenly impossible.

Jimin looks away, down at the map of the princes’ wing of the palace, and rests his fingers along the familiar outline of Taehyung’s rooms. The unknown bedroom and library, the jut of the balcony over the courtyard, the parlor. His nail digs into the corner of it, leaves a sharp crescent imprint in the thick paper.

If Jimin ever steps back into that room, he’ll rip the metal link out of the ground himself.

He doesn’t look Taehyung in the eye again until they break for the evening, long hours later, and he escapes with Namjoon to wander down to the beach for the first time since they’d arrived. Jimin watches him go, and feels Jeongguk’s eyes heavy on the back of his neck.

That night, Jimin stands in the courtyard and fires arrows into a painted target, one by one, until his quiver is emptied into its chest. The something in his throat still sits heavy, waiting to be spoken.

 


 

Before Jimin had taken him, Taehyung had never seen the sea. It’s nothing like the lake of his childhood; this body reaches far beyond what he can see, the blue of the sky and the water fading together until he can’t find the horizon.

“It’s beautiful,” he says, and Namjoon’s hand tightens in his.

“It is,” Namjoon agrees. “Back at the capital there are white cliffs, and islands as big as a courtyard you could swim to. I remember the first time I saw it during a storm, like something out of the stories.”

“I’d like to see it some day.”

The tide is rising, almost high enough now to lick at Taehyung’s bare feet. This shore is pebbled; slippery and sharp, where he’d expected smooth sand. Past where the waves break into rumbling white, he can see the rock Jimin had clung to that first night, much farther out than it had seemed from far above.

“I’m sorry,” Namjoon finally says, when the call of the seabirds starts to feel overwhelming in the silence between them.

“Why?” The very tip of the water brushes Taehyung’s foot, frothed white, just cold enough to make him hiss in a breath. “You did what you could.”

Namjoon tugs on his hand, and Taehyung looks away. He doesn’t want to watch Namjoon’s face now, so much older than he remembers it. There’s nothing left of the long-limbed boy who had taught him how to hold his ground in a sparring ring without flinching at every strike, who had introduced him to the archivists and the librarians who were too old to care about being bought off by princes. There’s nothing left of the boy in him Namjoon had known, either. He’d died a long time ago, and Taehyung is only just starting to realize that—he might not be joining that shadow of himself as soon as he’d prepared for.

“I know how it feels.”

Another wave crashes, rolls in, submerges him up to the ankles now. Taehyung stares resolutely at the cliff face, where the water smacks harsh against vertical stone, and ignores the frantic waver of the ghost in his eye. It’s close enough to the water to touch, something warm pressing down on Taehyung’s chest like a content cat as it flickers with the roll of the tide.

“You don’t,” Taehyung says, quiet enough that it could just be another murmur of the wind. He can feel Namjoon’s hurt without looking, but he makes himself anyway. There’s no blame, in those eyes. A sad kind of wound. “They’re my family, hyung.”

“You were my family too,” Namjoon points out. “And I betrayed you.”

Taehyung can still taste the anger from it, some days. The way he’d felt when he’d woken up one late summer morning and learned that Namjoon had left him. Without a note, or a goodbye, or an apology.

“You did what was right,” he says, and tries not to wonder whether he’s doing the same. He can’t tell, anymore, what about this is selfish.

“I hurt you.” Namjoon reaches up to brush the back of his hand along Taehyung’s jaw. He looks like he might cry. “I let them hurt you.”

“Everyone let them hurt me.”

Only Namjoon had ever stepped between Taehyung and a blow. He’d promised, once, that he’d always be there, in front of Taeil and Taeseok both. They had laughed, and left the training yard, and waited. And they didn’t have to wait long.

The ocean fills the space between them better than the stony silence of the mountains ever could. What could there be to say, Taehyung thinks, when the whole world stretches out in front of them?

In the end, it’s not much. The sun is setting, the blue of the water cast into dark shadow and streaked with lines of pink as the light vanishes over the cliffside. Taehyung looks up, and up, to the jagged top where the fort rests, settled into its ancient foundations like it trusts that the stone under it will never crumble. Like it has stood a thousand years and will stand a thousand more.

“You’re doing the right thing too,” Namjoon says into the sudden edge of darkness.

“Am I?” Taehyung sounds absent, he knows, but it’s hard to feel grounded here. Caught between two forces much older than he’ll ever be, in the place between them that is sometimes both. The pebbles are cold and wet and slick under his feet, and he digs his toes in so the tide doesn’t pull him away. “It feels like I’m doing the selfish thing.”

Namjoon’s fingers curl around both of their clasped palms. Three hands, Taehyung’s caught in the middle. He stares, and wonders when the last time he’d touched any of his brothers like this was, and blinks back tears so hard his eyes sting.

“Maybe they’re the same thing,” Namjoon offers. The light glints off of the dark edge of a wave. Taehyung’s calves drip with seawater, frigid and rough with brine.

He makes it back to Jimin’s rooms before night settles completely, and doesn’t even bother trying to sleep. He sits on the porch with his ghost, overlooking the cliffside, and breathes in time with the sea.

 


 

They ride out before dawn. The bags are long packed with the necessities; waterskins and purifiers, flint and whetstones, a carefully-wrapped leather sack that Yoongi takes out and tucks into his robes. Jimin watches the stablehands move by lamplight, and double-checks the soles of his riding shoes.

“Ready?” Hoseok asks at his side, like there’s any answer to it. Jimin almost laughs, and settles instead for tugging on a pair of gloves, the leather supple and soft against his palms. A gift from Jihye, along with her blessing.

Starting journeys under moonlight is supposed to signal good fortune. Jimin had knelt in the small shrine before making his way to the stables, had tugged away the overgrowth of weeds and moss to lay bare the stone underneath. The mother-of-pearl engraving in the granite had been worn away, the entire travelers’ prayer worn down into the vague shape of lettering, an occasional intact character. He’d said it quietly, slowly, traced the words where they should have been with a finger. It’s burned into his memory by sheer repetition, by now.

When they’re almost ready to mount, Hoseok slips away. Jimin meets his eyes, nods once, and watches.

Taehyung hadn’t had much to pack. He’s still in Namjoon’s castoffs, absently stroking at his horse’s nose as the attendants bustle around them, steadfastly avoiding any eyes but the animal’s. Jimin watches Hoseok stop beside him, and settles back on his heels to watch Taehyung’s face shift.

Hoseok had been the one to bring it up. Jimin has a sword and two knives at his waist; Namjoon and Jin each have their swords. They’re all carrying knives, some more than others. Hoseok and Jeongguk are armed in more ways than seem possible under the light gray of their clothing. They have three bows between the six of them, and twice as many full quivers. But Taehyung—he has nothing. Hasn’t been allowed near anything but staffs, during training.

When Hoseok offers out the sword, sleek and sharp in a silk-wrapped sheath, Taehyung only blinks. His mouth drops open some; a blank look, almost confused. Hoseok gestures with it, presses it into Taehyung’s space, doesn’t let him breathe until Taehyung wraps slender fingers around thin-woven silk, and tugs on the hilt until steel glints in the lamplight.

He thinks he sees Taehyung’s mouth shape itself into I don’t understand. Hoseok lets go of the sword, and instead brushes his hand against Taehyung’s shoulder; facing away, Jimin can’t see what he might say in return. Thank you, Taehyung finally says. He bows.

Taehyung fixes the sword onto his belt, and Jimin thinks of that night in his chambers, with blood warm in the hollow of his neck and something colder than hate chilling every nerve in his body.

Jimin reaches up to touch his neck, and finds only the gentle numbness of scar tissue. No blood, no gold.

They leave Gangneum with moonlight dipping over the crest of the nearest mountain, many miles ahead.

 


 

The whole first day they ride, Taehyung doesn’t leave Namjoon’s side. They’re close enough to speak, Jimin can see, but more often than not they don’t; everyone is mostly quiet, save for the most necessary of conversations. The weight of what it is they’re doing, the recklessness and insecurity of their plan, is finally starting to sink in.

“We should camp,” Yoongi finally calls, when they’re far enough into the forested foothills that the light that filters in through the canopy of leaves is golden with the beginnings of sunset. “There’s still enough light to hunt, if we’re quick.”

“I’m always quick,” Jin grins, as he pulls his horse astride Yoongi’s with a salacious wink. “Care to escort me, betrothed of mine?”

When the horses are watered and tied, Jeongguk hands over his bow to Jin with no light amount of threatening, and the two of them slink off into the underbrush. If their bickering doesn’t scare off the game, the fierce competition between them might be enough to feed the party for half the trip.

“We might make it in six days if we keep at this pace,” Namjoon murmurs, as camp slowly gets made around his spread of maps. Taehyung pauses where he’s circling stones for a fire pit, and reaches down to tap at a shape Jimin is too far away to make out.

“That’s if the weather holds,” he replies, just barely louder. “Even if it rains before we reach the ravines, a mudslide could wreck the path. Or we could be attacked by a mountain gang.”

“Why would you—don’t say things like that,” Namjoon sputters back, and Taehyung’s face—breaks into a smile, and a laugh, and the bedroll drops forgotten from Jimin’s hands, as he thinks—he’s never seen Taehyung smile. Not like that. Not at all, outside those few brief moments he’d been able to glimpse of Daeun and Soobin.

But this—when Namjoon bats lightly at the back of his head, and tangles their fingers together for barely a second before they drop again, Taehyung smiles in a shape that sticks itself through Jimin’s wrist like a fine thin blade.

“There’s no point worrying about it,” Hoseok sighs. He’s done setting up Jimin’s tent, evidently; he plasters himself against Namjoon’s side, and peers down at the maps before shrugging and reaching out to roll up any papers he can reach, fielding Namjoon’s irritated shoving easily with one arm. “Really, Namjoon-ah, your eyes are going to fall out of your head.”

“And what would you have me do?” Namjoon asks back. “Swing a sword around until my arms fall off instead?”

Hoseok grins, and pokes lightly at his stomach, and wriggles where he’s sitting like spending the day in a saddle hadn’t been enough to wear him down to the bone.

“Not such a bad idea.”

Namjoon groans at that, but it's too late—Hoseok is up already, tugging Jeongguk out from Jimin's tent with a bruising grip on his upper arm. They're in a clearing already, three tents taking up about half of it, and the rest is just large enough for a sparring match.

"Come on," Hoseok urges, when Namjoon flattens himself against a log and tries, in vain, to resist. "You've been on a horse, your bones are all stiff. Wake yourself up, Namjoon-ah, we can't be getting out of shape."

"Cruel," Namjoon grumbles. He raises his eyebrows when Hoseok pins him with a vicious smile, though, sealing his lips with a finger. It's too late, and he knows it, but at least he tries to salvage his dignity.

"And you're our first volunteer," he croons. "Let's have a few matches, just for fun. Who wants to fight our dear Namjoonie, hm?"

Silence. Jimin leans back against the same log Namjoon had been tugged away from, and tries to radiate calm in the angle of his torso, the expression on his face. Hoseok's eyes pick him apart, but he has mercy; Jeongguk looks even less interested than Jimin is trying to present himself, and there's an easier target much more readily available.

"Taehyung-ssi," Hoseok says, all laced with sweetness in the dangerous way only he can manage.

Taehyung's eyes are wide, his shoulders hunched inwards, hands as far away from the hilt of his sword as they can get. He looks between Hoseok and Namjoon, and Jimin watches with equal uncertainty and something balking in his chest at the thought. He's seen Namjoon and Taehyung spar before, and what had come of it.

The terrible way Taehyung had gone limp in Namjoon's hold. The ache in his voice when he had said please. Please, hyung.

"Come on," Namjoon finally sighs. "You have a real sword now. Might as well practice with it."

Jimin waits with slow, deliberate breaths as Taehyung sheds his outer robe. He takes a moment to test the weight of the blade he'd been given, drawing it fully for the first time and inspecting the hilt and steel like he's forgotten the people surrounding him, eye trained and critical and suddenly so imperious it makes Jimin's lip curl back in contempt.

The sudden reminders are jolting. When Taehyung keeps a syllable flat where it should have life, when he holds his weight a certain way and Jimin can't help but feel awful pressure in his knees, at his neck. Moments when Jimin can't forget who Taehyung is, what he is, no matter how much he thinks he wants to.

They start the match slowly. Just evaluating each other, both of them equally trained and different in ways Jimin tries to articulate in his mind. The way Taehyung is always slightly more ready on the defensive, the way Namjoon's eyebrows twitch when he comes close to landing anything against skin. The way he seems almost afraid to touch Taehyung, until Taehyung lands the first point by smacking the flat of his blade against Namjoon's shoulder.

"Don't play nice," Taehyung says, so quiet Jimin barely hears it. Namjoon's lips turn up at the corners, just barely.

"Wouldn't dream of it," he says back, and immediately settles back on his heels to strike.

Jimin had barely watched Taehyung in the training yard, too preoccupied with his own work and men and still-lacking body to want to waste his attention on Taehyung's efforts. Now it's clear that Taehyung is no less efficient with a sword than with a staff, no less capable or light on his feet. His face has the same soft frown as when he'd been drawing maps in the council room; out in the open, under the leaves and dusk-darkened sky, he holds the sword as comfortably as a calligraphy brush.

They spar for long enough that it starts to look easily. That Hoseok stops leaning forward with such intensity, and starts enjoying himself; that Jeongguk seems to grow weary of holding such open hostility plain on his face as he watches Taehyung move.

Taehyung drives Namjoon back, and back, until Namjoon barely manages to dodge a tree against his back, ducking inelegantly out of the way of Taehyung's strike. And Taehyung—Taehyung laughs, his focus unwavering even as his cheeks bunch and his eyes slit and his shoulders shake with the mirth of it, of that sound that rings through the worst of Jimin's nightmares.

He’d dreamed of it almost every night, in Odai’s palace. When he wasn’t reliving the sword in Jihyun’s back, the gore of his father on the battlefield, it had been this: Taehyung laughing, on top of him, pinning Jimin down by the leash. Nothing he remembers clearly now, so long after, but enough that it’s almost unbearable to watch Taehyung smile breathlessly as Namjoon tries to drive him back. Tries, and laughs when he fails. The way they trade blows like they’re family, or closer than family.

Taehyung wins, when Namjoon lands on his knees with his sword in the dirt and both hands raised in surrender.

“I get it,” Namjoon huffs, winded and cheerful, when Taehyung hands him back his sword. “I’ve been slacking, wow, I get it.”

“If you say so,” Taehyung replies, sweetly teasing, and offers out his hand. Jimin barely breathes, digs his fingers into the earth. When he’s pulled up, Namjoon whispers something into Taehyung’s ear, too soft for Jimin to make out over the sound of his own bloodstream.

And Taehyung laughs. And Jimin shoots up, blind and suddenly too angry to stop his voice from shaking, when he says—

“My turn.”

Everyone’s looking at him. Jeongguk with something smug, Hoseok with concern pursed in his lips, Namjoon with blank confusion. And Taehyung, who looks afraid.

It’s hard not to enjoy that. The rational part of Jimin is gone—fled alongside whatever restraint he might have had at Gangneung, with the eyes of his councillors and soldiers and people on him wherever he stepped. Here, though, there’s only forest, and the people he trusts, and he can’t stop hearing Taehyung’s laughter echoing in his ears, happiness that burns like an iron poker in Jimin’s chest as he steps forward.

Coward rests at the tip of his tongue, but Taehyung doesn’t lower his sword. Doesn’t step away. He shifts back into a starting stance, back to the forest, and Jimin heaves in a breath and tries to wipe himself of anger. It’s the first thing Hoseok’s father had taught him, the first time he’d ever held a wooden sword.

Anger leaves you open, he had explained. It makes you predictable, Jimin-ah. If you want to win, you can never be predictable.

Namjoon scrambles out of their way, after Jimin fixes him with a look that says he won’t be talked down. He sits by Jeongguk’s side, anxiety painting his face. Jimin breathes.

In. The crash of the ocean from his bedroom at the manor, the sea glass chiming in the windows.

Out. The knife in his ribs, the sob Jihyun had choked out when he’d pressed tight against him and felt how much blood dripped from his sleeve.

In. The wide-open space of the sky, sand cool against his back, a fire crackling just down the shoreline.

Out. The knife against his throat, copper on his tongue, a voice ringing in his ears even as he wanted to throw himself onto the point of the blade, over and over until he didn’t have to think anymore.

Jihyun’s blood on his hands.

Jimin attacks. It’s not really a sparring match and both of them know it, with Taehyung’s eyes wide in the fading light, his reactions quicker, his feet surer. He knows better than to let Jimin land a hit.

If it were a battle, Taehyung would win. Jimin aches already, his form less certain than it was two months ago, his arm weaker. His endurance is wearing thin, but Taehyung—even after one drawn-out match, he doesn’t falter. His form is good, his stance solid, his lips pursed in concentration.

But he doesn’t attack. Jimin pants in breaths that burn the back of his throat and attacks, again and again until he’s throwing every inch of his willpower into staying on his feet, and still Taehyung holds his defense. Holds himself back from even pushing Jimin off him, back and back away from the clearing until he’s backed up nearly into a copse of trees riddled with thornbushes, and Jimin doesn’t care.

“Fight back,” he hisses, when their blades cross close enough that he can see the way Taehyung is gasping, the guilt that shines in his eyes.

The guilt is the worst part. The part that digs its claws into Jimin’s heart and stings at his eyes and makes him want to heave out sobs that would put earthquakes to shame.

And so he pushes, and pushes, until his arms are shaking and Taehyung is flinching at every blow, until—

Taehyung trips, as he retreats, and sprawls with a cry into a half-bloomed rosebush, the petals white and scattered along the forest floor, the thorns tearing at his robes. His sword lands just out of reach.

His arms fly up to cover his face, small noises leaking out with every panted breath.

He’s so afraid that Jimin can taste it.

Jimin is so angry that he almost doesn’t care.

“Why did you do it,” he says, broken for lack of air. He blinks, vision blurred, and feels the hot spill of tears over his cheeks, the sweat sticking to the back of his neck. “Why didn’t you just let me die.”

Taehyung shudders. His arms don’t shift, his whole body curled in and immobile despite the discomfort of the thorns. There’s a rose petal tangled in his dark hair. Jimin lowers his sword. Drops it. It makes a hollow sound against the earth, and still Taehyung doesn’t move.

Jimin feels sick at the sight of him, cowering like a beaten dog. Feels sick at the thought of hitting him.

“I wanted to save you,” Taehyung finally whispers, choked and barely-audible. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I just—I had to do something. I didn’t know what else to try.”

Save you. It echoes. Rings in Jimin’s ears like a knock from a sword. Somewhere behind them, there’s the sound of agitated voices. But it’s just the two of them here, swords discarded, nothing between them but anger and fear.

But the anger—it’s not from being chained. Not from being drugged, or ignored, or forced to live under the constant threat of brutality. Jimin blinks more tears from his eyes and listens to his own jagged breathing, and feels sick and hollow and everything so painful it’s like a blunt knife has hacked at him from the inside out for weeks, and weeks, until he’s left with nothing but a gaping hole and a pain that radiates through his fingertips.

“You should have saved him,” Jimin finally says, and it sounds more like a mourner’s wail than he thought himself capable of.

Taehyung’s arms lower, just enough that Jimin can see the tears in his eyes.

His knees hit the ground hard. His whole body hurts.

“You should have saved him,” he repeats. He’s crying so hard now that he doesn’t see it when Taehyung reaches out. Only feels the hand, tentative against his shoulder. The way Taehyung is shaking like he expects Jimin to strike him at any moment.

Jimin doesn’t have it in him to lash out again. He weathers the touch, like a ship through a storm, and cries until long after Taehyung stops trembling. Until his eyes are swollen and sore and he can barely breathe in through his nose, until he feels dry and unmoored. Until he’s left wondering if he’ll ever stop crying. If this pain will ever get better.

“I’m sorry,” he finally rasps, when he thinks he can. The words scrape and burn against his throat, but not for the meaning of them.

When Jimin looks up, Taehyung has finished crying too. His lashes are clumped together, his cheeks swollen and dirty, the rose petal still caught in his hair. He almost smiles, something lopsided and painful.

“I deserve it,” he replies, and leaves no room for argument. Jimin is too exhausted to try.

They walk back to camp in silence, to find everyone carefully watching them as they arrive. Taehyung leaves his sword by the fire, and waves off Namjoon’s offers of fresh-cooked hazel hen, and slips quietly into his tent.

The group around the fire stares. Jimin meets no one’s eyes, and drops down to drain a waterskin.

That night, the forest is quiet. Jimin tucks himself into the warmth of Hoseok’s embrace, his fresh-scrubbed face raw and stinging against the night air, and prays he doesn’t dream.

 


 

The morning dawns with an understanding. No one speaks of the night before, and when Taehyung emerges from the tent he’d shared with Namjoon, Jimin meets his eyes with his jaw tilted proud, and offers a nod.

It’s an offer of peace, or something like it, even if there’s a part of Jimin that’s still trembling. Everyone is watching, and pretending not to, and so he buries that part as deep as he can and forces his fingers to work, tying down his bedroll and untying the hobble on his horse. She grumbles at him, and Jimin reaches for half of the apple Hoseok had sliced and lets her eat it from his palm, her lips soft and fur scratchy.

Riding, at least, is grounding. As the day wears on everyone grows more comfortable, the ache of being in the saddle enough to bring them all together until eventually someone goads Jin into belting out a folk song, and Hoseok almost falls off his horse for how hard he laughs at the way she screeches on the high notes.

They’re still far enough away from the main mountain passes that they’re brave enough to take risks; there haven’t been raids this far North in years, no troops likely to be returning home or marching out along this path. It makes them careless, Jimin thinks, but no one has the heart to speak it into existence and stop the quiet bickering, the cheerful share of information whenever Jin or Yoongi passes by a particularly interesting plant.

"I miss the poppies already," Jin sighs, after Jeongguk and Jimin wrestle the second toppled log from across the path. "This place is godless."

"It's more than five hundred miles of this from capital to capital," Yoongi drawls back. "At least now we have horses, right, Namjoon-ah?"

Taehyung's head snaps up, from where he'd been staring down at his braided reins, and Jimin looks away as soon as he realizes that he's staring. The path is wide enough that they can go two at a side, with Jeongguk riding at the front with his bow drawn and ready to be notched at any sign of trouble—or food.

"You walked too?" He sounds incredulous; horrified, if Jimin wants to stretch it. Namjoon swivels on his horse, torso twisted precariously, and offers half of a crooked smile.

"Not the smartest thing I've ever done."

It's a story he's never been fond of telling. Jimin had heard it only because he and Jihyun refused to move from where they'd had their ears pressed to the door of the council room, after their father had ostensibly sent them off to bed; after Namjoon had stumbled weak and shivering and starvation-skinny practically onto the points of the guard's javelins.

"Together?" It's progress, Jimin thinks, that Taehyung at least is asking questions. Speaking, now, more than simply when he's spoken to. There's tension in Jeongguk's shoulders, visible even from a distance, and Jimin tries not to let his agitation seep into his grip on the reins, his legs stretched wide and sore over his saddle.

"Nah," Yoongi replies. He's riding next to Taehyung, just behind Jimin, and he speaks quietly enough that his voice doesn't carry far. "I left maybe half a year after Namjoon, but I spent a few weeks apprenticed with a traveling apothecary that took me off route, down toward the southern coast. I got a horse for that part, but had to make my own way up through the forest, so I spent a month longer walking than he did."

"If I hadn't found him, he'd be dead," Jin calls back, like it's a cheerful thought. "You owe hyung your life, don't you, Yoongi-yah?"

Yoongi rolls his eyes. Jimin can't see it, but for in his mind's eye, but he can tell from Taehyung's quickly-stifled laugh.

The thought rises that—Jimin is the reason why he won't let himself, and it doesn't feel as good as he'd thought it would. It just feels hollow. Sad. Like he'd been childish and cruel, to take out his anger that rashly, and he might never make amends for it.

He's had all morning to come to terms with the feeling in his chest that tells him he wants to make aments. Not that he needs it, under the guise of a successful alliance, but—that he wants it. That he'll carry the guilt in his chest, for Taehyung's trembling hands and fearful tears, for a long time if he doesn't.

The path thins out again not long after that, until they're forced to ride single-file and conversation quiets. They splash over a trickle of water barely thick enough to be called a creek, with just enough room to water the horses one at a time in between the thick sections of trees and thorns, and Hoseok finds Jimin when he dismounts.

"Here," he murmurs, when Jimin groans and reaches down for the forest floor, aiding the stretch with a gentle hand at the top of Jimin's spine. "You're quiet today."

"I guess," Jimin says, to his own knees. He's finally gaining back the flexibility he'd lost in Odai, and he's not about to lose it again to the saddle of a horse. He straightens after a long, painful count to twenty, and lets Hoseok pull his arms back until his elbows touch and his shoulders ache. They're nearly alone, none of the others in earshot, and Hoseok's mouth close to Jimin's ear lets him know that it isn't a coincidence.

"Last night, did you hurt him?" It's not an accusation, not like Jimin knows it could be. Hoseok has spent the most time with Taehyung after Namjoon; Jimin hadn't trusted anyone else to train with him, hadn't trusted Taehyung alone with Jeongguk to be escorted. He shakes his hair in front of his eyes, and rolls out his shoulders.

"No," he finally says, and meets Hoseok's eye. "But I wanted to."

It scares him, how much he'd wanted to. How the cruel thing inside him had flickered into life on that long march down the mountain, and had jumped through him like lightning at Taehyung's proximity through the weeks. All the thoughts he's had about ways to hurt him, ways to punish him, are terrifying, and Jimin doesn't know how to make them stop.

"And you didn't." Hoseok's voice is measured, his thumbs digging into tender muscle as unforgiving as the flint in his eyes. "He would let you, though, Jimin-ah. Don't forget that."

Jimin shakes his head. "It's not like he trusts me."

A quirk of Hoseok's eyebrow. One last deep, bruising grind into his shoulders, that makes Jimin whine and curl away and gasp a little in the feeling, in the bone-deep kind of hurt he'd forgotten could feel good, in place of feet pressing him down into the floor.

"Doesn't he?"

Hoseok leaves Jimin like that, and swings himself back onto his horse. He looks down at Jimin, back straight and chin tilted up, and Jimin remembers—the same look on Dawon, on the Jung parents. A reminder that they chose to serve because they believed every inch of their vows, believed that Jimin's line and his family were good and honest and willing to do their best for the people. An assessment, and a challenge.

Jimin can't stop wondering, through the rest of the long hours they ride.

 


 

That night at the fire, Jimin settles himself in between Hoseok and Jeongguk. Yoongi has settled, content, in between Jin's legs; two strong arms around his waist, Jin's head bowed to press against his spine. Yoongi cooks for them both, and for Taehyung, and Hoseok takes care of the rest. The travel fare is at least better than the journey to Gangneung, which had worn out the evening before they arrived; Jin had spent the last day of preparations rustling through overgrown farmland for anything to salvage.

They're mostly too busy eating to speak, but conversation picks up again as Jeongguk pours out six cups of tea, and Taehyung pours himself one. Eventually, as Jimin knows it must, speculative voices turn toward their journey, and what waits for them at the end.

"We'll go in separately," Namjoon says, just soft enough that everyone has to lean in to hear him. He's tracing a map again, of the palace itself, drawn by him and corrected by Taehyung. "I'll take Hoseok and Jeongguk, and Taehyung will take Jimin to the king."

"You're really going to kill them all," Yoongi murmurs, and his tone—it's not what Jimin might have anticipated, when speaking of the king of his own country. Instead of horrified, or distressed, Yoongi sounds only curious. Maybe smug, if the twist of his mouth isn't a trick of the firelight.

"Officially, Jimin and the Kal will kill them all." Namjoon shrugs. "But the people will talk."

It had been Jimin's decision, to let Jeongguk kill the heir. A simple change, a quiet one. A painful one, maybe, but necessary. The look in Jeongguk's eyes when Jimin had told him, on their way back up from the beach that morning, had been enough for Jimin to force himself into satisfaction with taking the life of the man who gave the order.

The Goddess is not cruel, but she's never been one to deny vengeance. The salted memories of ancient tidal waves, the death of whole dynasties that have spurned her, tell them all they need to know of her revenge.

"And they'll just accept that?" Hoseok asks. He leans forward, staring with his brow furrowed into the fire. "A king who killed his way through his own family?"

Taehyung laughs. Not a pleased laugh, not a humorous one. Something sharp and cold, and Namjoon meets Yoongi's eyes and share something that Jimin doesn't know how to name.

"It's common enough," Yoongi says quietly. His eyes find Taehyung's then, over the fire, and Jimin's mouth goes dry. Hoseok makes a noise that's almost a question, and the logs crack harsh against the whispers of the forest around them, and Jimin shivers as something cold slips under his shirt and sends a shiver through his limbs, through the very tips of his fingers.

"We're still descended from the Brothers." Taehyung's voice is dark, and low, and pulls in attention like a fishing rod. "There's not a king of my line who hasn't killed family, with his own hands or not."

There's a long, crackling silence. Jimin thinks of the story Namjoon had told him, one of the first. When he'd been explaining the place he'd been raised in, the closed-in walls and mountain rims of Odai, he had first had to explain the Brothers.

When Namjoon had told it, everything had sounded like poetry. The dragon and the lion and the dove; the second prince who had killed his brother on the day of ascension, the youngest who had watched, hidden, and whose throat had been slit in his sleep. It had sounded fantastical, even at fourteen, when Jimin had convinced himself that he was above bedtime stories.

But from Taehyung's lips, twisted with emotions Jimin can't make himself unravel, it all seems horrifyingly real.

"It's not so common anymore, to kill for the throne," Namjoon says, when Taehyung's silence lingers. "But it was, once, and it can be again."

Jimin pictures it. Living every day with the question of who would act first; the threat of waking up with Jihyun's knife in his heart, a desire for power leading him to end his own father's life.

He pictures it, and has to swallow down nausea that lingers with the darkness in Taehyung's eyes.

"And you'll be king," Jeongguk says, and Taehyung's face goes blank as quickly as it takes for Jimin to blink. Jeongguk is sitting farther away from the fire than the rest of them; his sword is unsheathed in his lap, sharpening stone in his hand. It's something Jimin has done side by side with him for years, and never has it seemed threatening. Not until now, Jeongguk's posture like a predator's, his voice sneering and unrecognizable. "I wonder how common it is to have a coward on the throne."

The tension coils. No one seems to know what to say, and—Jimin's tongue has turned to lead. He couldn't say anything now if he knew what words to shape. His own voice echoes in his mind, vicious and deliberately cruel, preying on every bruise he'd seen on Taehyung's skin and flinch he'd watched aborted.

"I'm right," Jeongguk says, like he's waiting for someone to argue. Someone like Namjoon, whose mouth opens, who looks to Taehyung and lets his voice die in his throat. "You aren't brave for letting us kill your brothers. You aren't strong, aren't sacrificing anything. I know you're as selfish and cruel as the rest of them, I saw the way you treated hyung."

Every word is sharper than the last, drawn out on a single breath. Jeongguk's eyes reflect the light of the fire, and Jimin breathes in sharp as he shakes out his hands, shakes away the phantom warmth of molded gold.

"Jeongguk," Jimin says, so quietly he doesn't know how Jeongguk manages to hear him. Years of training himself to Jimin's voice, maybe. It makes him wonder if he'd heard Jihyun's cry, when Jimin had taken that first blow when they woke.

"Don't defend him," Jeongguk begs. Begs, because his voice softens and his eyes round out from their narrowed glare, and he stands and paces like Jimin had when he was chained. "You know I'm right, you know—all those things he did to you, treated you like an animal, that's not brave. Not right."

There's a note of betrayal, somewhere in there, and Jimin doesn't know what to say.

He thinks of the drug down his throat, the gold paint smeared on his skin, the pinches and bruises from the physician's assistant. Thinks of white gauzy clothing and fasting broth and small, chubby palms patting along his cheek.

I wanted to save you, he remembers. And then, in Hoseok’s voice, the question that’s been gnawing at him with needle teeth for the long stretch of today’s ride.

There’s no reason Taehyung should trust him. Not with the threats Jimin has made, the cruelty of his taunts, the bare minimum he’s done since the ransom came back. He’s not looking to Jimin, now, to make this stop; to protect him from Jeongguk, Jimin’s closest friend, even when what Jeongguk’s saying is—wrong.

It’s wrong. And Jimin can’t speak it, can barely bring himself to think it, but it’s the truth.

“Stop,” he says, and Jeongguk is so attuned to his voice that he hears, even over the bite of his own voice. He hears, and he listens; in a split second, he cuts off in the middle of a word, and looks at Jimin like it’s a betrayal.

“What?” It’s incredulous, and disbelieving, and Jimin can barely stand himself for the way his hands are shaking.

“Stop it,” he repeats, and puts all of his authority into his words. “If you can’t speak to him respectfully, then don’t at all.”

He looks, briefly, at Taehyung, and—the shock in his eyes, the fear, the way he’s curled into himself like a dog expecting a kick—it breaks something in Jimin, something hard and cold lodged deep in the pit of his chest. There’s a bitter taste on the back of his tongue, that he’s been so cruel that the idea that he might protect Taehyung strikes everyone around the fire dumb.

Jeongguk’s chest heaves with anger, the firelight darkening the shadows of his face.

“Taehyung is our ally, not our enemy. If you want to question my decisions, come to me first.” Jimin’s hands are white-knuckle clenched in his lap, his jaw tense as he forces out the words. It hurts, to speak to Jeongguk like this. Like a subject, instead of a friend. He softens his voice, and thinks of how subtly Taehyung had cowered for his brothers, and swallows down on sickness. “You’re better than this, Jeongguk-ah.”

And he is—Jimin knows as surely as he knows the change of the tides, that Jeongguk is so kind. That no matter how embarrassed he gets, how shy, he thinks of them all as his family. His anger is there, always, but—it had been Hoseok’s parents who taught him how to release it productively, had been Jimin’s mother who’d welcomed him at their table for meals, had been the king himself who’d taken time out of war-torn days to attend a quiet funeral for Jeongguk’s family, the burnt remains of the clothing he’d fled his home in floated out to sea.

It’s all Jimin can think of, when Jeongguk grabs his bow and slings a quiver over his back, and stalks away from the fire. He fumbles for Hoseok’s hand, and tears his eyes away from the surprise clear on Taehyung’s face, and tries to reassure himself that he’s doing the right thing.

That night, everyone retreats back to their tents separately. Yoongi brushes out Jin’s hair in front of the fire, until it’s so smooth the light ripples off it like water, and ties it up into an intricate braid before slipping off to bed. Namjoon goes next, with a hand cupped around the back of Taehyung’s neck for a light squeeze. Jin stays to finish a last cup of tea, before joining Yoongi, and then it’s just the three of them. Taehyung, every muscle in his body trained into stillness, like he’s afraid if he moves Jimin will look at him, will—do something.

It only takes an exchanged glance for Hoseok to understand. He untangles their fingers and stands, reattaching his sword to his belt to make slow circles around the camp, just far enough to be out of earshot, if Jimin speaks quietly.

For a long moment, he doesn’t know what to say. The tension in Taehyung’s body tells him that he’s as aware of Jimin’s presence as Jimin is of his; the hunch of his shoulders makes him think Taehyung doesn’t want to be spoken to. But it’s a week’s journey, after this, and a lifetime after that.

How long the lifetime may be—a few hours, a few days, the span of an entire kingship—depends on the both of them.

“I’ll talk to him,” Jimin finally offers, instead of an apology that would ring false. Taehyung glances up, his hair dark in his face, and furrows his brows.

“You’ve done enough,” he says, after a long moment. It’s not an accusation, not anything cruel. Laced more with surprise, Jimin thinks, than anything. “It’s no more than I deserve.”

So many of Taehyung’s words fall quietly that Jimin barely registers it, until he runs them over again in his mind. And then it’s sickening, the implicit blame accepted in them. A month ago, Jimin would have agreed. Might have laughed, hard and angry and bitter tight in his chest. Now, though—

They’re going to kill Taehyung’s family.

“It’s not.” Jimin almost doesn’t hear himself, over the quiet nighttime sounds of the forest. But Taehyung does, and Taehyung looks at him with something soft and wounded written across his face, and all Jimin can think about suddenly is that world in which things might have been different. Equals, not enemies. No invisible leash between Taehyung’s wrists and Jimin’s throat. None of the endless push and pull between their countries, the years of bloodshed that had started before either of them were born.

“What you’re doing isn’t easy,” Jimin finally forces himself to say. Makes himself hold eye contact, when he finishes. “You don’t deserve him speaking to you like that.”

Taehyung’s eyes shift into the fire, reflecting the yellow-orange light of it as he tugs his knees up to his chest, and Jimin can’t help but remember that they’re the same age. That they’re both so young, to be forced into something like this.

“It should be easy,” he whispers. Swallowed up by the darkness, by the consuming hunger of the fire. “With everything they’ve done—shouldn’t it be?”

Jimin swallows. There’s something fragile building in the air between them; a careful piece of blown glasswork slowly taking form. There’s a part of them that aches, that hurts, that wants to shatter it on the stones ringing the fire before it grows. The rest of him, though, wants to let it spin out, wants to watch what it becomes.

“Have they always been—like that?” Cruel, he almost says, but it seems too harsh for the softness of their voices, for the tentative way Jimin reaches out the question like an offer of peace. Taehyung looks up, eyes wide, from where his chin rests atop his knees. And then he blinks, and looks away into the darkness, and makes a soft noise in his throat that almost makes Jimin regret asking in the first place.

“As long as I can remember,” Taehyung finally says. “It was worse when—my mother died, and I moved into those rooms, and then they were always so—close.”

Jimin’s breath catches. It had been implied, from what Namjoon had said, but hearing Taehyung say it—

“How old were you?”

Taehyung looks at him, like he doesn’t believe what he’s hearing. It’s the longest conversation they’ve ever had that wasn’t indirect, circumventing speaking directly around the council table, and it’s loosening something wound up and tight in Jimin’s chest that he hadn’t known hurt as badly as it does now.

“Six, when she got sick,” Taehyung says, voice low, one thumb rubbing circles over his wrist. And Jimin—loses whatever breath he’d managed to catch back. “Seven, when she died.”

Jimin doesn’t realize the low, hurt noise had been him until he closes his mouth around it. The light flickers; somewhere in the trees, a branch snaps.

“I asked them all to send a doctor,” Taehyung whispers. Like he can’t stop, now that he’s started. “I didn’t know I could myself, no one ever told me, and all her money went to the room, and it got so bad she couldn’t work. And she had to sleep on her friend’s floor, and I visited every time I could, but every night I—waited for my father to leave the war rooms, so I could beg him to help her.”

And Jimin remembers. All the countries his mother had visited as an ambassador, before she’d married, who wouldn’t send troops to help their country survive but who each sent their best physicians when they’d heard she’d fallen ill. Jimin’s father abandoning council meetings to stay by her bedside, that last, terrible week. Where she couldn’t eat, could barely breathe, could barely muster the energy to squeeze back Jimin’s hand as he cried.

“It was such a cold winter,” Taehyung goes on. “Every day I’d pack snow onto the bruises like she taught me, but I just kept—getting more. And she got sicker.”

Jimin pictures it. Taehyung, no taller than the children he’d surrounded himself with at Gangneung, pinched up and down and crouching in the snow with bruises mottling his arms. Feels sick at the image of it, at remembering that the youngest of the rest of them would have been—fifteen, maybe. And hurting a child, whose mother was dying.

“My mother was sick too,” he offers. The ghost of comfort. “When I was thirteen.”

“I know.” Taehyung seems to choke on it, seems to tuck his legs in even tighter. “We were invited to the funeral.”

And Jimin remembers—the council had been furious. His father had sent the invitation himself, with the Jungs’ hawk, and smoothed Jimin’s hair back from his forehead with a broad palm as he explained that maybe, something good could come of this. Maybe the Goddess would bring peace to the nation, like she’d brought peace to their queen.

The hawk had returned a week after the funeral, missing a handful of feathers in its left wing.

Peace is not something to be ashamed of, his father had been fond of saying. Jimin watches Taehyung breathe, and hold back tears that shine in his eyes no matter how forcefully he tries to glare them away, and wonders if the shame between both of them might suffocate an alliance before it even begins.

“It was kind of him,” Taehyung says, when Jimin can’t find anything to say that won’t sound like an accusation. “And more than we deserved.”

“He always wanted peace.” Jimin traces a curve in the dirt with a finger, thinks of the way the earth rounds out on the horizon over the sea. Their own private stretch of beach, where so many of his memories live, where so much of his heart has buried itself into the sand.

“Maybe we can make it.” Taehyung looks at Jimin again, a tremor in his voice, and—it’s the farthest thing from cowardice, maybe. To condemn his whole family to death, and still choose to keep going. To make something right. “For him.”

The fire burns hot behind Jimin’s eyes. In the distance, Hoseok circles again through the trees, as silent as any predator.

“I’d like that,” Jimin whispers, and the words sting at his throat like he’s swallowing flame, and anger, and a promise he’d made to himself a month ago, now.

A bitter medicine, maybe, but a necessary one.

 


 

Jeongguk crawls into Jimin's tent long after the fire goes out. It's Hoseok's night to stand watch, but Jimin had heard the telltale sound of Jeongguk dragging back a kill, of the both of them sitting together and skinning whatever he'd shot, of Jeongguk cleaning and fixing the arrow before Hoseok had sternly sent him to bed.

Jimin has been waiting, eyes dropping heavy and fingers cold where they're curled around the edge of the thin blanket, just enough to keep him warm in the borderlands spring.

"Hyung," Jeongguk says, with what passes for a respectful bow of his head. Jimin pushes himself up onto an elbow, rubs at his aching eyes, and tries his best to make out Jeongguk's expression in the darkness. It's enough already that Jeongguk hasn't crawled into his arms, taking up more than his share of the pallet. His hesitation stings like a backhand, and Jimin can't help but resent it.

"Come here," he finally says, and opens his arms. This time, when Jeongguk's head ducks, it seems like shame; when he crawls over to fit himself against Jimin's side, he curls in like a child being chastised.

"I'm sorry," Jeongguk whispers. Jimin struggles to wrap the blankets around them both, to wrap his arms as best he can around Jeongguk's chest and pull him in close, his heart pressed to Jimin's cheek, warm and solid and constant. Long fingers tangle in his hair; the stretch of ink down his bicep stands out against his skin, at the very corner of Jimin's eye.

Most of the Kal don't take more tattoos than necessary. Hoseok had hated the pain so much that he'd barely been able to sit through the oaths; Dawon had tolerated it, and never went back. But Jeongguk has prayers inked down to his wrists, like Hoseok's mother before him. They're beautiful, in one sense. Terrifying in another. Jimin rakes his nails lightly down Jeongguk's spine, just to remind himself of the words.

"I don't like who you are around him," Jimin mumbles. The proximity is hard to ignore, Jeongguk's warmth so comforting that he'd much rather drop into sleep than have this conversation. But there's a part of Jimin that's still frantically awake, that's still cataloguing every word Taehyung had spoken at the fire, and it's that part that keeps his eyes firmly open.

"I'm sorry." Jeongguk sounds miserable. He makes no excuses, though. Just waits for Jimin's judgement, like he's supposed to. For as terrible as he can be at following orders, he's never broken his oath.

Jimin digs his fingers into Jeongguk's back, desperate enough not to care if he leaves bruises.

"I love you," he hisses, as fiercely as he can. Jeongguk makes a hurt little noise, and his chin trembles where it's pressed to the side of Jimin's head. "I love you, Jeongguk, do you hear me? You're my family. You're my brother as much as Jihyun."

"I know," Jeongguk whispers back, voice broken and raw in his throat.

"But you can't keep doing this." Jeongguk's chest rises under his cheek, and falls slowly. His breath tickles against Jimin's ear, as familiar as the sound of the ocean.

"I'm sorry," he says again.

"I know you are. I know. But you can't treat him like that, Jeongguk-ah. You can't. He's our ally, and he's hyung's friend, and I think—"

Jimin cuts himself off, words dying in his throat before he can speak them, and Jeongguk's nails scratch warm and comforting down his scalp. It's enough to remind him that he's safe, that the forest around them might continue from the stretch they'd marched through so long ago, but everything else is different. The tent over his head, the pallet under his back. Jeongguk's arms, strong and safe, keeping him close.

"You weren't there," Jimin says, instead of finishing. "In the palace, you weren't."

"But I saw—"

"I know what you saw. You saw one night. One night out of almost twenty, and he never touched me." Part of him wants to tell Jeongguk about the drug. About the chain that had kept his wrists together, unlocked. About the physician working at his belt, about the books, about the bruises and scars lining up and down Taehyung's forearms.

Something might work, to make Jeongguk understand. But the words never come, and Jimin waits with something like desperation, and traces his fingernail along a painted character and tries to remember that—he made it out, and everything has changed, and he's not still that soulless, mourning thing, chained to a palace floor.

It's so hard to think about. So hard to remember, somewhere as safe as this.

"Okay, hyung," Jeongguk whispers. But Jimin doesn't feel older, now; doesn't feel more responsible, or more capable, or any stronger. He feels cold, and gutted, and confused. And maybe Jeongguk knows, more than he's saying, because he pulls Jimin closer and kisses his forehead so gently Jimin wants to cry. "I'm here now. It's okay."

It doesn't feel okay. Not even close. But Jimin finally closes his eyes, finally lets himself surrender to the darkness, to the warmth, to the exhaustion of riding and thinking and worrying all day.

He doesn't know when the thought of falling asleep alone became unbearable.

 


 

The longer they ride, the more comfortable Jimin gets. Jeongguk has taking to avoiding Taehyung with more dedication than he’d thrown into any one of his hobbies, and because of it the air gets a little more breathable, the tension eased just enough that sometimes Jimin catches himself almost enjoying the journey.

It’s easy, when the forest eases into a long stretch of grassy meadow, and Hoseok tears after him with a shriek when Jimin kicks his horse into a gallop, the wind free in his hair for the first time since they’d turned into the foothills. When Jin takes it upon herself to braid grass into Jeongguk’s hair when he falls asleep as their horses graze, when the sun is bright and spring is thick in the air and Jimin sticks his feet into the river just a few meters away from where Taehyung is doing the same, with some small happiness bright in his face like Jimin has never seen before.

The next night, Taehyung sits closer to the fire, and Jeongguk carefully doesn’t look his way as he accepts the gratitude for his hunt. The night after that, Jimin drifts off in his tent, half-clothed, and stumbles out to the fire still half-unconscious. He drops gracelessly into the first open spot, and only notices after a pointed moment of silence that it’s Taehyung next to him, staring intently into the fire.

Hoseok meets his eyes over the pit, and gives Jimin a pointed look, and Jimin is just asleep enough to scowl back like a child as a wooden travel bowl makes its way around the fire to him, Taehyung oh so careful not to let their fingers brush as he hands it off.

“Thank you,” Jimin offers, as gracefully as he can while his eyes hurt and his mouth tastes like sand. He rubs at the corner of his eye with the back of one hand, and barely sees Taehyung’s smile.

He doesn’t miss the way Namjoon laughs at him, though, and that—well. That just can’t be forgiven, on a night like this.

The longer they ride, the more Jimin lets himself bask in it. These last few days when no one calls him king, when everyone treats him like a friend, and not some fragile broken thing. Namjoon squawks as Jimin tackles him into the dust, and Jeongguk casually one-ups every practice shot Jimin takes into the trees with a smirk and laughter in his eyes, and Yoongi smiles at him with half-drooped eyes, and holds his hand when they walk together while the horses water.

And the next night, when they spar again, Jimin stretches aching muscles as they all sink into Namjoon’s meditation, and hold the basic positions. Yoongi taps out first, after running through a basic drill, and watches them all as he rewraps bandages. The rest of them, though—there’s an enjoyable edge of competition, that pushes Jimin harder than he’d expected as he spars with Jin, who’s never heard of the concept of going easy on anyone.

“Jimin-ah, look!” Jin calls over the clash of their swords, both of them trying to attack and just barely dancing into defense. “I think someone dropped a nice bottle of soju over there for you.”

“Actually, I think it’s yours,” Jimin says back, through gritted teeth. He’s almost strong again, almost as good as he was when he left, but he’s still thinner than he had been. The muscle might take months more to build back up, but at least now he’s healthy, and eating, and back to training like he’d never stopped in the first place.

Jin only wins because she trips him backwards over a tree root, and denies it violently even as they sit to knock their shoulders together and douse themselves in water. And even though their match is over, Hoseok and Taehyung are still sparring, and Jimin gets a long moment to just—look.

Taehyung, unlike the rest of them, is still nearly fully clothed. Even Namjoon had stripped off all his top layers, the heat from the days leeching into the evenings. To spare their clothing from more sweat than necessary, training has resumed its usual pattern of Hoseok and Jeongguk’s tattoos flashing dark, Jin’s thin sleeveless shift plastered drenched to the muscled dip of her spine, Jimin’s new scars lighter than when they’d been given and poked at critically by Yoongi before he’d been allowed to spar.

But Taehyung had only removed his outer robe, and it’s slowing him down. The humidity is a weapon, heavier in the mountainous forests of Odai than by the shore, and Taehyung should know better. But Yoongi is watching him with careful eyes, and none of the confusion that passes between the rest of them, and Jimin remembers—the scar.

Whatever had been cut into him is too private to share with the camp, and Jimin doesn’t blame him for it. But there’s no denying that Hoseok has the advantage, and Jimin almost forgets to drink until Jin reaches over to tip the skin against his lips up for him with a laugh.

There had been a long time, when Jimin was young, where he was always fighting to catch up to Hoseok. The year between them felt insurmountable, when the Jungs strictly refused to let Jimin move on from training swords until he’d mastered the basics; could do every drill forward, backwards, at double or half pace.

The first time they’d ever let him spar Hoseok, when Jimin was eleven, he’d been knocked on his ass in under a minute. He’d sat there, shocked, barely registering what had happened. And Hoseok had leaned down, a beaming smile on his face, and offered his hand to pull Jimin back up.

When Hoseok topples Taehyung, though, that’s not what happens.

Hoseok disarms him first, and Jimin thinks back to the match they’d witnessed in the dark of night. Taehyung’s sword is tossed away, but he’s good enough with his hands that he wrests Hoseok’s sword away too, and Hoseok’s delighted grin blurs as they dance back and forth, everything perfectly choreographed, until—

Taehyung’s undershirt catches in Hoseok’s fingers, his chest held forward as Hoseok kicks his legs back, and they go rolling.

It’s Hoseok who comes out on top. Settled with his weight on Taehyung’s thighs, one hand braced on the ground next to Taehyung’s forearm, and for a long moment the clearing is quiet, but for the clash of Jeongguk and Namjoon’s swords from the other end of it.

From this angle, Jimin can just barely see Taehyung’s face. The way it’s gone slack, the way his hands are trembling violently, the way his chest heaves at every breath, like he’s going to be sick.

“Taehyung-ssi?” Hoseok says, confusion coloring the question.

Taehyung doesn’t answer. Taehyung squeezes his eyes shut, until the effort furrows his brow, and presses his lips together, and cringes into the ground like he’s preparing for—something.

It’s unbearable to watch. Jin’s arm has dropped from Jimin’s shoulder, where she had slung it cheerfully. Hoseok shifts, his weight settling back more fully on his heels, and Taehyung flinches so hard his head smacks back against the ground. He looks like he’s hyperventilating. He looks like he’s trying not to cry.

“Hyung!” Jimin blurts, and Hoseok’s head snaps toward him. “Can you—um—”

He casts his eyes around, tries to think of a plausible excuse, but Hoseok is already scrambling up from where they’d tumbled, collecting his sword before slowly picking his way back to Taehyung’s side. Taehyung, who hasn’t moved but to dig the fingers of one hand into his stomach. Jimin’s up before he realizes it, kneeling by Taehyung’s side with his shoulder pressed to Hoseok’s.

Jimin thinks back, to that night in Gangneung, and tries to remember what Namjoon had said.

“Taehyung,” he starts, the name falling tentative from his lips. Taehyung’s mouth works into something pinched, and Jimin casts his mind around almost frantically. The sound of metal is still sharp in the air, Namjoon’s attention wholly distracted. “Do you know where you are?”

Taehyung shudders. His eyes slit open, just enough for Jimin to see the darkness of them, the tears shining along his lash line.

“Do you know who I am?”

Taehyung takes a deep, rattling breath. His eyes open just a little wider, locked onto Jimin’s. The hand against his stomach is white-knuckled, and Jimin wouldn’t be surprised if his grip left bruises.

“Jimin,” Taehyung finally says, after a long, slow blink. His brow slowly smooths, his muscles unlocking one by one. Hoseok backs away, and Taehyung closes his eyes to breathe something out, and Jimin breathes with him, the tight-packed anxiety in his chest easing away. Taehyung looks up again, after. Jimin forces himself not to look away. “You’re Jimin.”

Jimin nods, once, and sticks out his hand.

Taehyung lets Jimin pull him up, his palm probably large enough to curl around Jimin’s entire fist. He still looks a little distant, a little tremulous, but—when he lets go of Jimin’s hand, he offers a smile.

Jimin smiles back. Just a smile, just a brief touch, but his whole body burns with it.

 


 

The closer they get to the capital, the rougher the terrain becomes. The forest in the basin is easy enough to navigate, but passing through the mountains is always a gamble. The pass the soldiers had marched them through had almost killed half the prisoners, with the guards too careless to watch out for someone who might step wrong and tumble into a ravine. It had been a long two days, Jihyun’s hand living in Jimin’s until he’d forgotten how it felt to be a singular person instead of a brother, a prince, a leader.

When they reach the place where the ground slopes dangerously around them, where soft earth is replaced with jagged stone and half-forgotten trails, Jimin has to take a long moment to breathe himself down from an edge.

It’s different, he reminds himself, but the terrified pounding of his heart doesn’t care that the trail is different. It sees only the mountain, only the steep drop, and remembers only fear.

“Are you okay?” Jeongguk asks, quiet, when he pulls his mount to a stop next to Jimin’s.

“Um,” Jimin replies, and chokes on a laugh. A familiar, calloused hand reaches across the gap between them, and Jimin takes it and looks away and blinks tears out of his eyes. And then, trying again, throat dry. “Not really.”

“I’m here,” Jeongguk promises. Uncaring of who might hear, his voice just as strong as Jimin needs it to be. “You’re safe, hyung. I’m not going to leave you.”

Jimin closes his eyes, and tries not to feel like a child. There’s a sick feeling building up in his throat and he swallows it down, careful as he rearranges his face into something like composure. It’s only a mountain pass. Nothing to be afraid of, not with Jeongguk and Hoseok at his front and back, as they ride single-file along the path. The pace is slow, the going careful. The clouds gathered overhead don’t help; two horses ahead, Namjoon keeps looking up at them with concern drawn tight over his face.

Today, there’s no teasing. Barely any conversation, except for the necessary. Thunder rumbles in the far-off peak to the South, and the mood darkens with the slant of the late afternoon sun.

“We should find shelter,” Hoseok finally says, when the clouds have thickened into a grey haze, no glimpse of the sky left as the sun burns the cloud cover orange through the gap between mountains.

“It’s going to rain,” Namjoon calls back at them, with a nod of agreement.

Below them, the ground cuts off into a narrow ravine, too steep to lead horses down. Up is their best bet, dismounting to pick their way on foot until they’re just far enough away from the path that it can’t be seen through the trees. The horses don’t like it, and Jimin likes it less. His chest still feels tight, his hands uncertain. Jeongguk’s free hand finds his lower back, as Namjoon and Yoongi murmur among themselves, before guiding them through the woods.

It’s not long until the trees break off, into an uneven strip of rock face, clustered with formations and outcroppings and scars on the stone that lead deep into shadowed crevices. There’s enough space to tie the horses, though no room to graze; a decent place to make camp, with something overhead if it starts to rain. Jimin shudders when they’re all gathered around the fire, camp set up quickly and quietly, and tucks himself further into Jeongguk’s side.

He knows they’ve noticed. The way his hands tremble, his breath stays short. It’s different, he tries to tell himself, but it doesn’t quite work.

Taehyung catches his eye, and Jimin blinks himself back into the moment. Namjoon is leaned against Taehyung’s shoulder, head dropped lazily. It’s the first time Jimin has seen Taehyung relax into a touch, he thinks; in place of tension is something tired, from the journey or the worry of the day. When he looks down, Jimin follows his eyes, to find his own hand wrapped unconsciously around the scarring on his wrist.

Hoseok reaches over to fumble for Jimin’s hand, and laces their fingers together. Jimin keeps his eyes open, burning the imprint of the sputtering flame into his vision to keep from thinking about how familiar the press of bodies around him feels. About how if he let himself slip, and close his eyes, and fall into some desperate place, he might open them to find Jihyun at his side, staring with dead man’s eyes.

And as the last of the light fades from the sky, it starts to rain. Heaping sheets of it, cracking sharp against the rock that juts out over their heads. It’s harsh enough that they can’t escape the dampness of it, as rain blows water sideways to douse what’s left of the already-weak fire.

No one waits for the storm to worsen. Jimin runs for shelter with Jeongguk at his side, and barrels through the entrance with barely-restrained desperation. Everyone else had broken, and Hoseok whines loudly from just outside the three tents, clustered together to spare the cloth from the worst of the rain, and Jimin can’t hold back the laughter that coughs out of his throat, borne of frustration and exhaustion and the knowledge that there’s very little Hoseok hates more than being wet.

“It’s not funny!” Hoseok whines, as Jeongguk reaches out with a snicker to pass him a woven cover to keep at least marginally warm. They’ll trade watch later, but for now Jeongguk allows himself the pleasure of gloating as he and Jimin curl close under the blanket, Jimin’s cold hands plastered along the warm plane of Jeongguk’s back.

“It’s kind of funny,” he whispers in Jimin’s ear, and makes a teasing attempt to slip his own hands a little farther down Jimin’s lower back, and gets a smack to the back of his head for it.

“Hands off,” Jimin coos, as sweet as he can, “or you’re sleeping out with Hobi-hyung.”

It’s a casual something, but Jimin turns over the moment in his mind for a long moment. That Jeongguk isn’t afraid to touch him in that lighthearted way they’d had just months ago. That maybe something can go back to normal, even with everything different and broken like they’d never imagined.

Jimin buries his face in Jeongguk’s shoulder, and thinks back on how confident he had been, going into that battle. He’d been so sure of his experience, of his men, of their ability and loyalty and strength. Not a naive confidence, for all the battles he’d led and won before, but a foolish one. No part of him could ever have imagined this. His father cut open, like a beast on the butcher’s block. The torture of the march. The agony of the slaughter. Jihyun, gone. Dawon, gone.

Unimaginable, that he’d survived it, when no one else had left that palace alive.

It’s impossible to sleep. As the night darkens, the rain never eases, the thunder grows closer. Jimin loses the sound of Hoseok’s footsteps in the barrage of relentless noise, and settles himself by counting Jeongguk’s heartbeats.

The counting, the gentle repetition of it, is enough to lull Jimin into a quiet place. Not quite sleeping, not quite aware, but still blinking his eyes open once in a while to catch the curve of Jeongguk’s neck, illuminated by another flash of lightning.

It’s not enough to cover the sound of the tent flap being peeled open, water sticking everything together cold and uncomfortable. It’s not enough to cover the shifting sound of cloth as Jeongguk sits up, pushes Jimin gently off his chest, until the blanket falls down to their waists. The air that bursts in is cold, cold that makes Jimin shudder, wrap an arm around his own waist, as Hoseok peers in with dark, glimmering eyes.

“Someone’s out there,” Hoseok says, just loud enough to be heard in between rolling claps of thunder.

And all Jimin can think is not again.

 


 

It takes crucial seconds to get everyone gathered, and by then Jimin knows it’s true. The horses are spooked, by something other than the thunder. Their eyes keep darting around, showing the wild whites of them; their ears and tails flick in agitation even in moments when nothing but the sound of rain fills the air. If Jimin didn’t trust Hoseok so intimately, hadn’t witnessed his perception prove itself over and over on border missions and in battle, he might doubt.

But as it is, they gather pressed back to back, swords drawn and eyes scanning the unfathomable darkness that stretches around them, like a raft lost at sea. The lantern, burning down in Jimin’s tent, allows them only the sight of each other.

Hoseok and Jeongguk refuse to leave his side.

Not again. He’s not the only one thinking it. Not the only one trembling with the memory. Hoseok had lost his sister in an attack like this. They’d all lost her, and Jimin wants nothing more than to throw down his sword and wake from a dream with Hoseok wrapped around him like a vine.

Above them, high on the mountaintop, lightning strikes. Thunder comes immediately with it, so loud that Jimin winces, and then—

They melt out of the shadows all at once. Clothing dark and wrapped tight, cloths over their faces and hair, swords of different designs drawn as they charge. More than Jimin can count in the darkness, but—more than their group, he can see, if not by much.

Jimin doesn’t have time to think, before the clash of metal joins the howling of the wind. In battles like this there’s no space for thought; everything comes down to instinct and training, as he lifts his sword to meet an oncoming blow. As Hoseok and Jeongguk press tight to either side of him, and fight with bursts of energy fueled by the adrenaline Jimin can hear pounding in his ears.

“They’re above us!” Namjoon shouts, barely audible as lightning flashes again.

The scene, illuminated. One tent trampled down, the horses cut from their trees, Jin and Yoongi fighting back to back with Jin’s hair drenched and tangled down her back.

He can’t see Namjoon. Can’t see Taehyung, as Hoseok slips on a patch of mud and stumbles a few feet forward, just barely catching a blow aimed for his neck at the very base of his blade. Jimin shouts from behind his teeth, some wordless thing born of frustration, and knees the raider attacking him hard in the chest.

The man stumbles backwards, off balance enough that his arm lowers, and Jimin thrusts forward, up, to drive his sword up and in and out, piercing skin front and back.

Jimin is no stranger to killing. But the way the raider’s eyes go wide, and then flat, and then closed—

He pulls his sword out, and listens only to the pounding of his own heart.

When he turns, he finally sees Taehyung. His back pressed against stone, two raiders just barely held off, every inch of him soaked. Not that Jimin’s much better, the cold seeping into his skin even as he dives back in, cuts one down and sees Taehyung’s eyes widen as he falls. There’s not time or quiet enough for a thank you, so Jimin keeps his eyes roaming. Another raider jumps down from the rocks above, almost lands on Jimin’s back, and there’s nothing else to think about.

Until thunder roars again, and out of the corner of his eye Jimin sees Taehyung’s hand falter. And he remembers—the story Taehyung had told him, those weeks ago. Sitting on the patio day and night, staring out at the open sky around him, all because of a storm.

But there’s no time. As Hoseok slips halfway back down to the path with his sleeve trailing blood, as Jeongguk looks desperately over at Jimin as he fends off three raiders by himself, Jimin stops.

Listens. Like everything has slowed down to a single moment that stretches into an hour, a day, a year.

Jimin listens to the slow rumbling, the tremor of the earth beneath his feet, the crash and bang of the thunder, the unending howl of the wind and the rain and the storm. Always the storm. Lightning sparks through the sky, just enough for Jimin to meet Jeongguk’s horrified eyes, whatever he’s screaming drowned out by the awful noise.

“Look out!” Taehyung yells, and slams into Jimin’s side. They topple against a rock, barely jutting out over their heads, Jimin’s hip aching at the collision.

And then the mountain collapses.

 


 

The mudslide goes on forever. Jimin gives up counting the seconds when keeping his eyes open begins to burn, when the shifting earth and toppled trees and terrible sound of stones breaking together starts to splinter something inside of him.

All he can think about is Jeongguk’s eyes, wide and young and terrified. Is Hoseok, and Namjoon, and everyone else broken and shattered by the endless weight of the world falling down on top of them. There’s nothing left, nothing but the sticky wet cold of Taehyung’s body pressed tight against Jimin’s, holding them both flat and pinned against the mountainside as the landslide passes them by.

It never ends, Taehyung’s breath in his ear and Jimin’s heart so frantic in his chest that it hurts and the water trickling down the back of his neck until he’s afraid he’ll go mad with it.

Finally, awfully, the landslide eases. Finally, the awful noise fades into nothing but the sound of rain and thunder and wind, and the ground beneath him stops slipping, and Taehyung sags and trembles and inches away, the space between them flooding with cold. Jimin keeps his eyes closed, his body crumpled against muddy stone, his legs exposed enough that rain hits his clothing and slides off, everything too saturated to hold another drop.

“Jimin,” Taehyung says. His fingers brush Jimin’s shoulders.

He’s too afraid to look. He peels his eyes open anyway.

Where there once had been camp, shrouded under a rocky outcropping, there’s little left but a smear of mud and shrubbery and stone. Through the rain Jimin thinks he can see the snapped pole of a tent, the corner of an unrecognizably soiled piece of fabric. He holds himself up with one hand against the stone, and takes a trembling step forward.

No sign of life. No sign of Jeongguk, or Hoseok, or any of them.

Jimin presses his hand to his mouth, and drops to his knees, and chokes out a strangled kind of wail that tears at him tooth and claw on the way up, gouging a cavern deep and painful and raw inside his chest.

Not again, he begs, to the moon he can’t see. Not again, with Hoseok and Jeongguk lost to the mountain. The first time he’d thought they were dead, everything was happening quickly enough that he could numb it. Could lump them in with his father and Dawon, and then everyone else. Could at least fool himself into thinking that the mourning rites were enough, for having been ripped away so suddenly.

This time, Jimin can’t numb it. Can’t do anything but shake on his knees and tremble like a child and hating himself the whole while, like he’s going to fall apart, one shred of skin at a time.

Taehyung stands next to him, shoulders shaking, hair and skin and clothing drenched alike, and rests his hand on Jimin’s shoulder.

“We have to go,” he rasps, when the wind dies down for a split second of almost-peace. Jimin blinks up, water and tears both smearing his face and blurring his vision, and sees Taehyung’s lips pressed together resolutely, his eyes hidden in the utter darkness.

Lightning flashes. Thunder shakes the earth beneath them. Taehyung flinches, an awful thing, and Jimin climbs unsteadily to his feet. He still can barely breathe, his chest too tight to hold anything in, but he lets Taehyung guide him away from where their camp had once been without screaming like he so desperately wants to. If he let himself fall into hysteria he’d lose himself to it, shouting and struggling and clawing at Taehyung to let him dig through the mud and logs and leaves to find his friends. His brothers.

Jimin chokes, and sobs, and lets Taehyung’s hands propel him forward where they’re pressed against his waist.

He loses time to the grief. Enough that when he blinks his eyes open again they’re in a new section of forest, rain still pelting down in freezing sheets through the sparse mountain trees.

“Where are we going,” he gasps, through a sudden shiver of cold. Taehyung looks at him then, eyes wild in a sudden burst of lightning, and Jimin sees his own fear and grief and pain reflected back.

“Shelter,” Taehyung shouts. “If we don’t—”

The thunder cuts him off, nothing but the shape of his mouth telling Jimin what he already knows: that they’ll die out here, if they don’t find somewhere safe from the violent whip and fall of branches over their heads. The ground is uncertain and slippery under their feet, the ravine somewhere below is steep enough to kill them from a fall, if they don’t break their backs on a rock first.

Jimin takes a shuddering breath, and feels his legs underneath him, strong and sore from days of riding, and pries Taehyung’s hand off his waist to tangle their fingers together.

They don’t have horses. They don’t have supplies for a fire, or food, or anything else that might keep them alive. They don’t have their hyungs, but there’s no time to mourn or wonder. Jimin isn’t going to die on this mountain, and he’s not going to let Taehyung die either. Taehyung meets his eyes, glittering dark in the night, and squeezes his hand tighter.

The going is slow. The wind is violent enough to almost push Jimin over when it slips through the trees just right, and the mud offers no certain footholds, and once Taehyung takes a step and almost twists his ankle as he slips between two rocks that had been impossible to see. The rain never eases, the cold never lifts, and Jimin never lets go of Taehyung’s hand, some combination of determination and sheer, gripping terror clenching his knuckles white.

When they start passing tree trunks, scattered here and there with growing frequency, Taehyung stops. Looks around, at the steep mountain that rises above them, and then back down. Jimin tugs on his hand, unnerved at the lack of movement. The panic and adrenaline stuck in his system don’t want to be still, conjuring unlikely images of a boulder rolling down the slope to crush them both where they stand, a tree cracking at the base and falling on Taehyung to leave Jimin alone, helpless, at the mercy of the world around him.

A gust of wind smacks at him, makes him stumble a few steps to the side, and Taehyung pulls him closer and finally, finally, starts walking again.

“What is it?” Jimin shouts, over the never-ending rumble and crack of the storm. Taehyung points at a stump in the next flash of light, at the smooth cut of it that can’t have been natural, and looks around with wild, desperate eyes.

“Loggers!” He calls back, when the thunder passes. He’s cut off again by the howl of wind, the crack of a tree branch beneath them, but Jimin catches half the sentence. “Might—a cabin!”

With a cabin, there might be people. But in the madness of everything, Jimin had still managed to keep a grip on his sword, and so—not everything is lost. With a cabin there might be fire, and something dry, and somewhere to put his head as the exhaustion slowly wears down at him. They’ve been stumbling through the forest for some unknowable amount of time, and Jimin can feel his legs trembling at every step.

But they keep walking. When Jimin thinks he might collapse, it’s Taehyung’s hand he holds onto. When Taehyung falls, it’s Jimin who hauls him to his feet and steadies him before they walk again.

Taehyung is all he has. Even just hours ago, that might have been a terrifying thought. Now, though, all Jimin can be is silently and desperately grateful, as Taehyung follows some unknowable pattern of logging to an almost-flat stretch of forest, with a canopy thick enough to shield them from the worst of the rain.

They don’t find a cabin. Not a whole one, at least. What they find is a ruin, what might have once been a home shattered with the weight of a full-grown tree fallen into the roof, long-abandoned and soaked through.

Jimin almost falls to his knees again in the sudden, overpowering rush of despair. There’s no way they can shelter here; the roof is caved in completely, though most of the walls are still standing. The debris has ruined any chance of entry. His hand goes slack, out of disappointment or something much darker, but Taehyung holds on tight.

And Taehyung isn’t turned toward the cabin. He’s looking to the side, where the trees crowd in close and dark and tall.

“Look,” he says, so quietly Jimin doesn’t know how he hears.

Jimin turns, and looks, and waits for another flash of light. And sees—the woodshed, tall and thin and sturdy, almost completely hidden by the trees.

Rain pelts their skin, cold and sharp as needles, and Jimin feels a desperate sob of relief well up in his throat, and doesn’t bother to keep it down. At his side, Taehyung laughs, or sobs, and pulls them forward by their joined, frozen hands.

 


 

The shed is tiny, and dusty, and the most wonderful thing Jimin has ever seen. He almost cries when the rusted latch falls away and the door swings wide open, blissfully dry air blowing into their faces.

Taehyung lets Jimin’s hand go when they step inside, and Jimin tries not to think about how cold his hand feels, after.

Even with the door still open, the storm suddenly feels removed. Without the sting of rain and wind, the sound tapped out against wood over their head, Jimin can pretend a layer of separation. Like maybe it was all a dream to begin with, like maybe he’ll collapse on the laid-stone floor and wake up back at home, with Jihyun’s arms around his waist and his father calling them to council through the rice-paper door.

There’s enough floor space, with the door closed, for them to lie down. Half of it, though, is taken up by chopped wood; stacks of it, like the loggers or family had abandoned it entirely in their flight from the broken cabin. Maybe in a storm like this; maybe there had been children, gripping onto their parents’ clothing, trying to escape the sky itself.

“Goddess,” Jimin breathes, and collapses onto the floor as gracefully as he can manage. Taehyung leans heavily against the wall, and buries his face in his hands for a long moment, and Jimin wonders—if this is when both of them break. Alone, more trapped than Jimin wants to admit, neither of them ready to say what they’ve both been thinking. That they’re lucky to be alive. That everyone else had been in the mudslide’s path.

Jimin grits his teeth, and forces his mind away from that path. For something to do he inches forward, reaches out to check the stacks of firewood, piled almost as high as his head when he’s sitting down.

Their luck holds. Buried underneath a pyramid of cut logs, near the very back of the shed where Jimin’s fingers tangle in cobwebs as he searches, he finds a box of flint. A blanket, moth-eaten but nearly entirely intact. No food, no map, but—enough to keep them alive. Enough to keep them warm.

“Taehyung,” he says softly, and winces at the scratch of his throat from shouting everything that’s needed to be said since the storm began. Taehyung picks up his head, and looks at the flint, at the blanket, and even Jimin can seen in the dark the way his bottom lip trembles.

“Oh,” he breathes out. Half a laugh, half choked up with tears. Jimin blinks hard, and shivers in his drenched clothing.

“I’ll make a fire,” he murmurs, gentle. It’s dangerous, in such a small space, with so much wood around, but—they have to risk it, or the cold and wet will never leave. Taehyung nods, and takes a bracing breath, and begins rearranging the wood.

By the time Jimin has a tiny fire started, carefully ringed with water-slick stones Taehyung had grabbed from outside, Taehyung has figured out how to keep the door mostly shut in the absence of the rusted latch. There’s a heavy log angled outside the door, to keep it from swinging open more than a few inches; an entire stack dragged in front of the threshold to keep out the worst of the wind. When he’s done he sits, heavy, the pile just short enough that he can look out through the crack, as the door bangs quietly with the force of the wind.

As soon as the fire is big enough to thaw out his hands and feet, everything tingling painfully at the sudden warmth, Jimin strips off his shirt. It’s doing him more harm than good, now, the soaked cloth only keeping him wet and shivering. He drapes it across a woodpile, flat and close enough that it might dry eventually, if he’s lucky, and wraps himself in the blanket when Taehyung makes no move to reach for it.

“Come here,” he finally says, when Taehyung’s distance starts to unnerve him. For as small as the shed is, Taehyung feels insurmountably far away, his back pressed against the wall as he looks out at the lightning, the chaos of the forest in the wind.

Taehyung looks at him, barely illuminated by the gentle glow of the fire, and it’s only when he blinks that Jimin realizes—he’s crying.

“Hey,” Jimin says, something panicked grasping for words and coming up empty-handed. “Are you hurt?”

Taehyung just shakes his head, and pulls his knees up tight to his chest, and wipes his nose on the back of his hand.

“Sorry,” he gasps out, and Jimin shakes his head. He’d known, maybe, that this was coming. It’s not like he hadn’t broken down after the landslide, when Taehyung had held onto himself to get them out. It’s just his job, now, to keep them safe. Trading off, like equals. Like partners.

“It’s okay.” It’s not, and both of them know it. The plan had been to meet at the temple, if they got separated, but—even if they’re alive, only Namjoon and Jeongguk know exactly where it is. They might be able to make their way back to where the camp had been, when the storm clears, to pick up the route, but they’re out of food. Jeongguk had a bow and quiver strapped to his back during the fight, and the other must have been swept away with their other supplies. Maps, rations, tents, all destroyed.

“They’re gone,” Taehyung says, but there’s no blame in it. Just pain, and Jimin closes his eyes so he doesn’t have to look. “I couldn’t warn them, and they’re gone.”

“We don’t know that.” It sounds weak, even to his own ears.

“He’s gone.” Taehyung’s hands are curled into fists, his voice broken, his breaths hiccuping in his chest. “I just got him back and now—”

He cuts off. Jimin thinks about Jeongguk, about Hoseok. About how he’d only spent a month away from them, at most, and how much it had hurt. To think of almost a decade, thinking they were dead, or lost—

“Namjoon?” He asks, just to keep Taehyung talking. To keep him out of his own head. When he opens his eyes, Taehyung is staring into the fire instead of the storm. “Before he left, were you...?”

“He was kind to me,” Taehyung finally says. “When no one else was. He picked me up after my mother died, when I didn’t have anywhere to run from—from them. His father was powerful enough that—if he stood in front of me, most of them didn’t bother knocking him down.”

Jimin tries to imagine it. Only having one tenuous shield from such violence, as a boy of seven. Someone who must have had lessons and duties of his own, who could only protect from what he could see. His mouth feels dry, for all the rainwater that had dripped into it as they gasped their way here. Thunder shakes the walls, the flash from the lightning slipping through the crack in the door and casting a line of light across Taehyung’s face. As he flinches. As he shrinks into himself, and shudders through the roll of the noise, and Jimin thinks again of a boy on a balcony, begging an empty room to be let in.

He tries to imagine the terror, and shies away from it before he can. Tonight had been enough.

“Were they always so cruel?” He asks, without really expecting an answer. Taehyung blinks at him, tilts his head. “Were there any—good memories?”

Jihyun tackling him into an oncoming wave. Jeongguk making lewd jokes the whole morning-after walk back from the inn in town, after spending the night outside Jimin’s door. Hoseok dancing with him at the Goddess’ temple, as the sun rose high and sure over the sea. Jimin can’t imagine how it might have felt, to be the focus point of any of their anger.

“Well,” Taehyung says. He stalls, wipes his cheeks off with his soaking sleeve. He’s not crying anymore, Jimin sees, but his eyes are still puffy and red in the firelight. The smoke hazes past them, blown out the crack in the door. “Um. There was the festival. Every summer. Taeseok and Taeho and I were allowed to dress down, and go to the market and the shows. And they were always so excited. Too excited to really pay attention to me, when we were waiting for our father to give us the word.

“It’s always beautiful. Everything painted red and gold, even the faces. No one knew us, since we were never allowed portraits. They might have known our names, but we never gave them. That night when we got back, at the feast in the palace, I was never—it was like I was their brother, just for that one night.”

His voice gets stronger as he goes, painting a picture in Jimin’s mind that stands out stark against the darkness of the night, of the shed. Taehyung, younger than he is now, streaked with golden paint. Slipping through crowds, smiling with his brothers, biting into sweetmeats and vendors’ candies. Happy, for once. Not cowering, flinching, face flat and cold and hard atop his throne.

“But the next morning—I always let myself hope. That maybe something would be different. But I’d go to training, or they’d catch me in the hall, and—nothing had changed.” Taehyung’s voice dips. Curves with emotion. Nothing flat left in him, against the rage of the storm and the wear of the journey.

His voice is beautiful, Jimin thinks, when he’s not locking it away.

“I’m sorry they hurt you,” he says, without thinking, and watches as Taehyung closes his eyes and shivers. Like he doesn’t believe it. “Please. Come get warm.”

Jimin lifts the edge of the blanket, warmed by the fire. He’s almost stopped shivering, now, his pants still soaked but at least warming up. His chest is dry, his hair curling slightly as the water drips away.

“They’re my family,” Taehyung whispers, and there’s something so awful about it. He doesn’t move. “And I try telling myself I’m not like them, but—I am. When it counts.”

A noise works its way past Jimin’s lips. Choked and unhappy and confused. And Taehyung looks at him, and his lip trembles again, and he closes his eyes in what can only be shame, tears shining again against his skin.

“I just watched. They all died, and it was horrible, and I just sat there and watched it happen.”

Jimin’s heart stops. The massacre. He can feel panic in his chest at just the thought of it; the urge to run, to ignore the words, to do anything but listen to this sinks claws into his chest, and Jimin fights it away through deep, careful breaths.

“You aren’t like them,” he says, voice strangled. He could say he doesn’t know why he believes it, but—that would be a lie. He knows. Even in his memory, focused only on the flash of steel and blood and the red red wine on Kyunghwan’s lips, he knows. As much as he hadn’t wanted to believe it. “It wasn’t your orders. Not your sword.”

“But I should have saved him,” Taehyung whispers. And something in Jimin breaks, silent tears as hot on his cheeks as the flames. “You were right. I should have—done something. And I didn’t.”

“Taehyung,” Jimin says, and wants it to mean stop.

“You were right about everything.” It’s hard to understand him now, over the force of his sobs. “You were always right. I’m a coward. I could have—”

“You couldn’t,” Jimin snaps. And then, silence. Nothing but the sound of the fire, the rain, the wind. Jimin breathes, and blinks long and slow, and tries to ignore the way the words cut him up inside like knives, like claws, like a truth he hadn’t want to let himself think. “You couldn’t, though. Right? You did everything you could for me, and they still hurt you for it.”

He thinks of split lips, the cut on Taehyung’s cheek that didn’t quite close until they made it to Gangneung. The bruising, up and down his arms and collarbones and more places than he knows. A scar, somewhere on Taehyung’s belly.

In the quiet, he can hear Taehyung breathing.

“You saved my life,” Jimin says. Feels the shame curl tight in his chest, and tries to let it go. Breathes in, and out, and looks Taehyung dead in the eye. “You saved my life. Even when you knew they would punish you for it. That’s not what a coward would do.”

And maybe it’s the storm. Maybe it’s the lack of sleep. Maybe it’s something that’s been building up for a long time now, longer than Jimin would care to admit. But he has to say it, has to get everything out, has to do this not for an alliance, not for his country, but for himself. For his brother.

“You couldn’t have saved us both,” he admits, and his own voice breaks on it. He’s crying again, and hates it almost as much as he hates everything else about the storm. “I don’t blame you for it. And I’m sorry, that I said those things to you.”

Taehyung shivers. And braces himself, and shivers again, and it doesn’t stop. They’re both crying, horribly, and for once it feels—almost cathartic. That Jimin can feel just as much turmoil as the storm around him, that in the face of such awful pain he can at least do this one thing. Can make one thing right.

“Please come here,” he says, almost begs. And Taehyung finally listens.

Jimin doesn’t let him keep his distance. When Taehyung settles tentatively closer, almost on the other end of the fire, Jimin tugs his sleeve until they’re knee-to-knee, Taehyung’s shirt clammy and frozen between his fingers.

“You need to take this off.” Through the last of his tears, it sounds pathetic and clogged, but it’s the only thing Jimin can do right now. Taehyung shakes his head, hard enough that drops of water sting cold against Jimin’s skin, and wraps his arms around his waist.

“I can’t,” Taehyung whispers. Jimin casts around for something to say, to reassure him, and comes up only with the truth.

“I know you have a scar,” he says, and Taehyung flinches away so violently that Jimin wants to take it all back. But he keeps going, because there’s something dark like betrayal in Taehyung’s eyes, and for some reason Jimin is desperate to make it go away. “Yoongi didn’t tell me what. I don’t know—he wouldn’t say anything about it. Just that he’d met you when his mother helped you, that’s all.”

Taehyung’s fingers dig into his own stomach, above his clothes. When he breathes, it rattles cold and gasping in his chest. Jimin reaches out, and pulls his hand away, and tangles their fingers together. Warm skin against cold, Jimin’s palm dwarfed in Taehyung’s grip.

“Did he tell you—” Taehyung gasps. His eyes clench shut, so tight it creases his forehead. “He thought I was a whore?”

Jimin looks away. Feels the shame blush hot on his cheeks, and tries to push down the curiosity, and the mounting horror. When he looks back, Taehyung is frowning. Curled in on himself, so that his bangs hide half his face in shadow.

“I don’t have to,” he says, stilted and jerky. “I can—stop.”

It doesn’t sound like he wants to. Sounds like he needs something, something Jimin can’t offer anything in response to but his ears. An offer to listen, if Taehyung needs him to.

“You don’t have to.” Tries to make it as gentle as possible, his thumb stroking along Taehyung’s skin before he even realizes it. “If you want, you can tell me.”

“I haven’t, before.” Taehyung blinks his eyes open, to look at the fire. “I never told Namjoon. It was—just after he left. Maybe two or three months.”

Jimin tugs the blanket tighter around his shoulders, and settles in for the story with Taehyung’s hand in his. Taehyung pressed close, and yet so far away it seems impossible that Jimin might get him back from this in one piece.

“I was stupid. All the time I was trying to make them look bad, to prove something to my father, and when Namjoon left, I just got reckless.” Taehyung’s voice is edging back into flatness. Like the memory is dragging him back to court with the strength of its undertow.

“I put something in Taeil’s cup.” An empty, barked laugh. “Nothing serious. Just enough to make his wine bitter, and he spit it all over a lady at a banquet. I thought I’d covered my tracks, at least well enough that it wouldn’t lead back to any servants, but he knew. He always knew. And Namjoon-hyung wasn’t there to protect me any more.”

Taehyung swallows. He looks down at their joined hands. At the scars on Jimin’s wrists.

“He drugged me,” Taehyung says, and Jimin knows, suddenly and sharply, that this is a story he doesn’t want to hear. But he needs to. Can’t stop it, now that Taehyung has started. “The mongsang root. You remember.”

Our Taehyungie looks so sweet, Jimin remembers, in Taeil’s voice.

“I barely made it halfway to my rooms, after dinner. He found me, and dragged me to his, and—” Taehyung cuts off. Breathes deep. Jimin wants to say something, anything, but his voice fails him. There’s nothing he can say, to this. To the horror of it.

“I remember all of it,” Taehyung says, so quietly Jimin has to lean in to hear. “The dose was light enough for that, I think.”

For a long moment, they just sit. Taehyung’s breathing shallow, his hair finally starting to dry. And then he squares his shoulders, and looks out at the storm, and starts again.

“First he put me on my knees. Told me to kiss his shoes, and kicked me when I wouldn’t.”

Jimin swallows down vomit. Holds Taehyung tighter, to try and pretend that he isn’t shaking. Taehyung’s voice, once so flat, has started to tremble.

“Then on my back. He pulled up my shirt, and told me to bite down on it. Said if—if I moved, or screamed, he’d cut my throat instead.”

Jimin closes his eyes, like he could stop it. Can’t stop seeing Taehyung, years younger, behind his eyelids.

“It took an hour. One line at a time. I don’t remember the things he said, because I was too busy wondering if this was what dying felt like.”

Have you made him angry yet, Jimin thinks. How expertly Taeil had twisted the words. To make Jimin believe something that wasn’t true; that had never been true, that Namjoon tried to warn him against.

He had walked away from Odai with scars, but nothing like this.

“When he was done, he just—went to bed. Left me in his parlor, on the floor, and it took me hours to get up. To get out of the palace, to the closest physician who wouldn’t know me. And after that, I stopped. Stopped fighting, stopped trying to prove anything.” Taehyung laughs, cold and short and ugly. “No one was going to protect me. So I thought—I was going to die there anyway. Might as well make it as painless as I could.”

Jimin blinks, and realizes—he’s crying. Has been crying. Tears sticky on his skin, dripping all the way down to his jaw. Taehyung turns his head to look at him, and there’s nothing on his face that Jimin can read. It’s everything thrown together, pain and shame and bitterness and a million other things Jimin could never even imagine.

“I’m so sorry,” he rasps, and knows it’s not enough. But Taehyung blinks, and some of that turmoil falls away. He looks down, at their joined hands.

And unties his robe.

One layer at a time, Taehyung peels his clothing off. He’s shaking the whole while, from cold or something else. He has to let Jimin’s hand go, until he’s down to the last thin layer of his undershirt, what might have been silk if he were still in the palace but is instead a light, soaked linen.

He takes a deep breath, and Jimin can see the rise of his chest through the cloth, stuck to every inch of him.

“Taehyung-ah,” he says, pulled from somewhere deep in his chest, and Taehyung blinks away tears.

He pulls off the undershirt, and curls into himself almost on instinct before he jolts, and straightens, and looks away with heat burning hot and pink in his cheeks.

Jimin doesn’t look down. He takes Taehyung’s hand again, and looks only at his face until Taehyung turns back to him, eyes wide and wet and soft. Until he shudders in a breath, and Taehyung looks at him long and careful, and finally, finally nods.

He looks down.

And nearly cries again, just at the sight of it. The circle of pink scar tissue, as wide across as his palm. The individual lines of the mountain of Odai’s seal, a mockery of shading done with a knife that must have been impossibly sharp. The word, carved just above the peak, in calligraphy-perfect curves.

Property, the scar says. Jimin couldn’t stop the noise that tears out of his throat if he tried.

“It’s the brand they put on palace horses,” Taehyung whispers. “And the seal on the winter grain stores. To remind me what—what I am, he said.”

Before Jimin can think to stop himself, he’s pulling Taehyung into a hug. A clumsy thing, barely worthy of the name. Jimin half on his knees, arms flung around Taehyung’s shoulder, both of them shaking, the blanket pooled on the ground. Around them, the thunder rumbles like the world is falling apart around them, and Jimin buries his face in Taehyung’s shoulder, and thinks—there’s something about this night that has stripped them both down, until there’s nothing left but the smallest parts of them. The pearl inside the oyster.

Jimin holds him, both of them quiet and exhausted and needing it, until Taehyung’s trembling starts to frighten him.

“Here,” Jimin finally says, voice hoarse and rough and painful, and pulls Taehyung closer. Arranges him, Taehyung loose and pliant, until he’s sitting between Jimin’s legs, the blanket wrapped around them, his back cold where Jimin’s chest is warm and dry.

“Thank you,” Taehyung whispers. And then again, and again, until Jimin presses his chin onto Taehyung’s shoulder and wraps careful arms around his chest, high enough to not touch the scar, and closes his eyes.

“You didn’t deserve it,” he says, with all the strength he can manage. “Not one second of it.”

Taehyung tilts his head to the side. Just enough for Jimin to see the fall of his eyelashes, the curve of his cheekbones. The bow of his lips.

“I keep trying to believe that,” Taehyung says. “And then I remember I’m going to kill them. And I’m not going to hate it.”

And maybe that’s what makes Jimin do it. Makes his breath catch, makes his hands tighten and fingers dig, ever so slightly, into Taehyung’s skin. Makes him tilt his head, and lean forward, straining enough that he can’t lie to himself and say it’s only instinct.

Maybe that’s what makes him kiss Taehyung, just the barest press of lips. Just the feel of it, with open eyes and baited breath.

Taehyung goes very, very still. Outside the shed, the wind hows like it’s trying to tear the mountain apart one stone at a time. Jimin waits, Taehyung’s breath cold against his lips, shadows thrown into contrast by the growing fire and the angle of their heads. Waits for Taehyung to shove him off, to scramble back toward the door, to vanish out into the night like he’d never existed in the first place.

But Taehyung takes a deep, tremulous breath. One that Jimin can feel under his palms, Taehyung’s ribs expanding, his fingers draped loosely over Jimin’s wrist.

Taehyung leans backward, and kisses him. A clumsy thing, strained from the angle, tentative and sticky with tears and the last traces of rain. And Jimin closes his eyes and feels it, gentle enough that he could cry if he had anything left to pour out of himself.

“Jimin,” Taehyung whispers, when they part again. It sounds like he’s begging, for something Jimin can only imagine. For some kind of truth; for reassurance that Jimin won’t meet him for a kiss and turn him away with a backhand. His eyes are wide, so dark Jimin could drown in them, his surprise so plainly written that it makes him look almost innocent. None of the composure he’d had back in the palace or the fort. None of the artifice.

Jimin does the only thing he knows. He pulls Taehyung closer, presses fingers over wet pants to turn him around, to tug him onto his knees in Jimin’s lap. Reaches up with careful hands, to smooth over the roundest part of Taehyung’s cheeks.

Like this, Taehyung is taller than him by a good few centimeters. He still looks confused, though, eyes rimmed in red and lips pouted out, just enough spit clinging that Jimin can see the shimmer of it in the firelight. Backlit, he looks ethereal. Intangible. Like he could slip out of Jimin’s fingers in the time it takes to blink.

“Can I,” Jimin whispers, as his fingers drag down, and down, to press against those lips.

It’s more honest than he’s been with himself in a long time. Admitting that he wants it.

Taehyung answers the question by leaning down first. His hands brush uncertain against Jimin’s jaw, his chest, the back of his neck. When he shifts, his weight settles fully and firmly onto Jimin’s thighs. He kisses like he’s new to it, each hesitation followed by careful movement as Jimin lets him explore. Lets Taehyung learn him, and learns Taeheyung in return, with his fingers tangled in the dripping ends of the hair at the back of Taehyung’s neck.

“I haven’t,” Taehyung whispers, when he pulls away again, and Jimin blinks. Looks up, at the pretty length of Taehyung’s eyelashes, the strength of his jaw, the sharp cut of his eyebrows.

He almost laughs. Not to mock, but in something hysterical. Something incredulous. That they’re here, stranded on a foreign mountain, with their friends gone or missing, and Taehyung has stripped himself down for Jimin to see and still, somehow, has more to give.

“I’ll take care of you,” Jimin promises. Hands soft, skin soft, everything soft when the world around them is tearing itself apart. There’s no room for tenderness like this in war, but he couldn’t make himself treat Taehyung harshly now if he tried.

Hoseok had taken him into town, those first few times, and pointed out all the girls who blushed as Jimin walked past. Jimin had been too embarrassed to tell him that it wasn’t the girls who’d caught his attention, but—Hoseok hadn’t needed to be told, after he’d caught Jimin staring at him too long one afternoon at the shore, his chest bare and thighs tensed as he chased Jihyun around until they both collapsed into the sand.

That night, Hoseok had dragged Jimin away from the makeshift camp they’d made, into the mouth of a shallow cave where the water lapped cool at their ankles. He’d laughed kindly through mocking kisses that Jimin hadn’t even bothered to pretend he didn’t want, had pressed Jimin gently against the wall and then taught him to do the same. Had pulled away with puffy lips and a friendly wink and said we’ll take you to see some boys next time, Jimin-ah, and Jimin had nodded dumbly and reached up to touch his own lips, curved unknowingly into a smile.

These kisses with Taehyung feel almost like that. Jimin lets him take his time, lets his hands map every inch of skin available, as Taehyung kisses him like he’s starving for it. As he pulls away for the barest seconds to gasp for air, as he presses back before he catches his breath like he’s afraid it all might vanish if he holds himself still for a moment too long.

And so Jimin learns him. Learns that Taehyung’s neck is sensitive to touch, learns that when Jimin’s fingers catch in his wet hair and tug as he tries to get free he whines, learns that when Jimin bites down so gently on his lower lip he gasps, and presses himself closer, and clenches his eyes shut tight. Jimin has always liked kissing, but this—he could lose himself in this for hours, until he’s memorized the shape of Taehyung on top of him. Until the way Taehyung kisses him stops making him want to cry, the softness of it thick and warm even in the frigid cold of the night around them.

“I’m,” Taehyung gasps, long after Jimin had noticed the soft rock of his hips. The way his fingernails drag gently along Jimin’s shoulders. The heat between them, that grows hotter by the second.

Jimin huffs out something like a laugh, and rocks his hips up. Taehyung gasps at the contact, at the both of them pressed together for barely a second, in between layers of damp cloth. The way he’s looking at Jimin is terrifying. Wide eyes and parted lips and something sweetly desperate as he reaches, tangles their fingers together in a way that’s starting to feel familiar.

“If you want,” Jimin breathes out, and drags his fingers down Taehyung’s side, just enough pressure to indent soft skin. “Anything you want.”

Realistically, not anything. Not here, not now. But Jimin finds himself thinking—if, somehow, they make it. If Taehyung ever gets the crown he was never born for, if Jimin ever takes back his home, he’ll keep this promise. Anything Taehyung asks him for.

“Just this,” Taehyung says. He grinds down, clumsy and unpracticed, and Jimin bites down on a quiet moan between them. “Jimin-ah, Jimin—take care of me. Please.”

There’s something teary in his voice when he says it. When he presses himself forward without giving Jimin enough time to reply, to press their mouths together slick and hot and messy, in a way that makes Jimin wonder how he’d ever thought Taehyung could be anything but this. Anything but sweet, and careful, and burned too many times to let himself want things for himself.

And so Jimin fixes his hands around Taehyung’s hips, thumbs so achingly close to that ridge of scar tissue, and tilts his head up, and lets Taehyung pant desperately into his mouth as he pulls him down. As he works his hips up, the pressure just barely uncomfortable with the water seeped into his pants, the slow grind of it unbearable and tense and hot, until he’s hard enough to ache and Taehyung is gasping, like he doesn’t know whether he needs less or more.

When Jimin unties Taehyung’s belt, he shudders at each brush of skin. Sensitive, Jimin notes, though all the signs have been screaming it at him since that first, careful kiss.

He wraps his hand around Taehyung’s cock, feels Taehyung jerk and shudder as he does. Feels the smooth skin under his palm, thick enough around that his fingers just barely touch. Feels the wet mess at the head, and smiles just a little at how Taehyung almost wails, when Jimin rubs at it with the palm of his hand.

“Oh,” Taehyung gasps, when Jimin strokes him. The drag is dry, slicked only by the mess of precome, but Taehyung doesn’t seem to care. Every movement is another sound dragged out of his throat, every stroke is another gasp that sounds like it’s been punched out of him. Like he still isn’t expecting to feel as much as he does. “Oh, oh—Jimin.”

Jimin closes his eyes, and presses their foreheads together, and moans.

He makes quick work of his own belt, and smiles at the choked sound Taehyung makes when they press together again, Jimin’s hand too small to comfortably grip them both but trying his best as he rocks up, as Taehyung grinds down into him with all the uncertainty plain in his eyes as his chest heaves, as his mouth drops open and never quite shuts again.

“I’m gonna,” Taehyung says, and the rest is drowned out by thunder. Jimin doesn’t need to hear, though; only has to watch the way Taehyung shudders, feel the nails digging into his shoulders, press his lips to the sweat-slick skin of Taehyung’s neck, to know.

It’s been long enough that Jimin is close too. That when Taehyung’s hand reaches down, clumsy and desperate, to hold them both tight together, he has to fight himself not to bite down hard into the meat of Taehyung’s shoulder as he tenses. As he cups his hand to catch the come hot against his fingers, as Taehyung tenses, and goes still, and makes an awful noise that sounds so much like a sob that Jimin has to look up, has to check.

When he comes, it’s with Taehyung’s eyes burning into his, wet and open and so, so grateful.

“Thank you,” Taehyung whispers between them, as Jimin gasps for smoky air and presses his forehead to Taehyung’s, and holds him tight by the back of his neck until they both stop shaking with it.

And then, in the absence of any extra cloth to clean them off, Jimin lifts his hand to his lips.

“What are you doing.” It’s barely voiced, breathed out more than anything. Jimin pulls back, looks up as pointedly as he can, watches the way the backlighting of the fire plays dramatic over Taehyung’s face as he drags his tongue across his hand, catches the come salty and not-quite that streaks across his palm.

It’s not worth wasting a corner of the blanket on, not worth asking for Taehyung’s soaked-through robe. Taehyung’s breath catches, and his fingers curl slowly around Jimin’s wrist. And he tugs Jimin’s hand up to his own mouth, and presses the come-sticky pads of Jimin’s first two fingers against his tongue.

Jimin almost breaks, watching Taehyung lick his hand clean. Watching him press a tender, reverent kiss to Jimin’s palm, feeling the press of swollen lips against sensitive skin.

It’s impossible, he thinks, that someone could be this good. That Taehyung could grow up being hated every day, without a moment to catch his breath, and somehow still find it in himself to be kind. To be soft. To open himself up, when Jimin can’t think of many things he might have done to deserve it. But Taehyung takes his hand anyway, and leans his weight back on his own thighs, and looks down at Jimin like there are constellations caught under his skin.

This time, when Jimin kisses him, there’s no urgency. Just the sweet, tired drag of their lips, Taehyung’s mouth pliant and easy as he lets Jimin take, this time. He follows lazy and uncoordinated and endearing, the taste of come between them sending a flush up Jimin’s cheeks.

And when Taehyung pulls away to yawn, to wrap himself around Jimin’s torso in a hug that’s mostly limb, Jimin can’t feel anything but fond, and tired, and hollow somewhere in his chest where hatred used to curl.

“Get some rest,” he murmurs, when Taehyung’s head starts to nod underneath Jimin’s fingers in his hair. “I’ll wake you for the next watch.”

“Okay,” Taehyung whispers back. He takes the offered blanket and wraps it tight around his chest, covering the scar that still turns Jimin’s stomach to see. When he rests his head on Jimin’s lap, nose pressed into the crook of his hip, it’s already second nature to twist strands of dark, soft hair between his fingers.

Outside the shed, the storm rages as violently as it had begun. Outside the shed, the world waits with the broken bodies of their friends, and a doomed mission, and the last of his people’s hope left out for slaughter.

But Jimin can’t think of it now. Not after everything. Not with Taehyung’s head in his lap, his arm hooked under Jimin’s thigh, his lips pouted out sweetly pink as he drifts almost immediately.

Jimin watches Taehyung breathe, and presses gentle fingers to his own lips, and smiles out into the dark.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

V.

 

 

Taehyung watches Jimin, as the storm dies. It’s been hours, now, time passing slowly enough that Taehyung wants to scream with every minute that passes without the rain easing. The lightning had passed before Jimin woke him up, but the sky is still dark, the rain still violent against the sturdy wood of the shed.

Jimin’s brow furrows, where his head is resting in Taehyung’s lap. His lips pout out, cheek pressed against Taehyung’s thigh, and Taehyung tears his eyes away from the tiny, fragile fire to just—look. To look, and not be observed, and think. His ghost breathes quietly just past where he can see, its light golden warm, where every time Taehyung remembers, he expects it to be cold.

It must be morning by now. There’s a hazy quality to the darkness, like sunlight is trying to burst through the clouds. Like Taehyung’s heart, beating hard and anxious against his ribcage, desperate for escape. His fingers have found their own way into Jimin’s hair, dried fluffy and just awkward enough to be endearing, and the ease of it, how natural it feels to touch like this, is so terrifying he can hardly breathe.

Crying had been exhausting, but Taehyung thinks—if his eyes hadn’t dried up, overwhelmed by the turbulence of the night, he might be crying now.

When Jimin’s eyes peel open, squinting confused and bleary as he pushes himself up, it’s fear that hammers in Taehyung’s chest, in place of a heart. Their watch trade-off had been bare seconds of interaction; Jimin shaking his shoulder to urge him up, and promptly sagging to the floor with his head in Taehyung’s lap, the threadbare blanket wrapped around his shoulders. But now Jimin is stretching, his head lolling back as his neck cracks, his eyes wide as he comes into consciousness.

“Is it morning?” He croaks, and Taehyung steadies himself and tries not to brace himself for cruelty. For Jimin to spit at him or land a blow or—laugh. The worst thing he could do, Taehyung thinks, is laugh.

“Don’t know,” he finally manages in response. “The rain might clear soon.”

It’s optimistic, at best. If he wanted to risk opening the door, Taehyung might be able to give a more accurate prediction, but it’s not worth the fire blowing out.

They’re dry now, at least, but the cold is relentless. Jimin shivers when he sits up, the blanket dropping off his shoulders to reveal the long line of his torso. The scars littering his body tell a terrible story; the oldest are years old at least, faded silver or pink along his upper arms and chest. The newest is a deep purple, barely faded from a scab. It curves around his ribcage, past where Taehyung can see, a stark reminder of the violence that they’ve escaped from in the shed, if only for a few hours. A reminder of where they both come from, with Jimin’s scars so obviously cut in battle, while fighting for and with his people, while Taehyung’s—aren’t.

He curls a hand over the mess of his stomach, what he’s barely had the courage to look at for nearly a decade. It burns like the knife all over again every time he thinks about what they’re on their way to do, what the outcome might be if they succeed.

Jimin heaves a sigh, and pokes a stick morosely into the fire, and slumps over until his head rests on Taehyung’s shoulders.

The sudden influx of touch is overwhelming. Is unbearable, the more Taehyung thinks about it, after so long of absence and pain and the careful way Namjoon always hesitates around him, like he’s never quite sure what’s allowed.

“We’ll have to go back to the campsite,” Jimin says. His voice is soft, formless, drifting through the air like musical notes. Taehyung closes his eyes and tries to picture it; the art that Jimin’s voice might make, were it given time and space to grow, to fill a room.

His stomach growls, knotted into a hungry pit just behind the brand. Taehyung shakes off the image, the fancy of it, and tugs the blanket closer, to hide his stomach.

Jimin sees. Of course he sees, but his eyes drift away, his shoulders hiking up just enough that Taehyung notices his discomfort. It’s an awful loop. The more ashamed he feels, the more he can’t stop feeling the drag of the knife in his skin. The more he feels it, the more Jimin seems to notice, the more uncomfortable he seems, the more shame sits proud and pretty in Taehyung’s throat.

And the more Taehyung thinks about the night, the less he feels like he can breathe. Not that he regrets it, but—when he thinks about everything he’d said, everything he’d done—the control he’d completely abandoned, with Jimin’s hands on his hips and lips pressing wet and hot everywhere they could reach—

“Are you okay?” Jimin asks, when the nausea has risen so thick that Taehyung doesn’t trust himself to open his mouth without something spewing out. Nausea or apologies or some humiliating plea for Jimin to just get it over with. Whatever he’s going to do, Taehyung wants it before they leave.

But Jimin just waits. One hand resting delicate against Taehyung’s shoulder, his face more open than Taehyung can bear to look at. He’s so tired of crying.

“Yeah,” he finally rasps, when he thinks he can. He’s not fooling anyone, not even close, but he has to pretend. “We should—double back. See if we can find footprints, or—yeah.”

“Taehyung.” Jimin’s hand presses with more weight. When Taehyung looks away, face burning hot and shoulders hunching forward, Jimin’s palm catches soft against his jaw, tilts his head back. He meets Jimin’s eyes, and tries not to let his lips tremble, and braces himself for a blow in whatever form it might come.

It doesn’t. Jimin wriggles his way closer, careful not to get too close to the fire, and pushes himself gently into Taehyung’s space. His hands are gentle, callused and somehow soft, even after years of war.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” Jimin says, into the space between them. “And you don’t have to believe me, right now. I don’t think I deserve that yet.”

Taehyung closes his eyes, and remembers—the first words Jimin had said to him, a lifetime ago.

I’ll kill you, he’d said, laced with so much hatred Taehyung thought he might die just from the poison in his voice. A promise, for the both of them to hold onto. And the flickering thing in the corner of his eye won’t ever let him forget, even as it burns with the gentle glow of a bedside candle. As it flutters wildly when Jimin’s thumb brushes over Taehyung’s jaw, as it flares when Taehyung can’t stop himself from leaning into the warmth of the touch.

It feels so good, he marvels. Something as simple as this, that has him on the verge of tears.

“Okay,” Taehyung whispers. He can try to believe that, if it’s what Jimin wants. He doesn’t want to cast the seedling thing between them into doubt, not when there’s so much at stake. And under that, buried deep, there’s something he’s scared to acknowledge, scared to touch. Like a turned-over ember, that might catch and burn down a forest; the cavern of desire in his chest, that wants to pull Jimin closer. That wants to kiss him again, and again, until his lips are numb and he feels as drunk as he had last night, drowning in sensation and emotion and too exhausted to hold himself back.

He looks at Jimin’s eyes, so different from the angry slit they’d been those first few weeks, and wills himself to hold on. Just a few more days, and then—maybe something can grow.

Taehyung curls his fingers slowly, carefully, around Jimin’s wrist, and realizes—

Outside, the rain has stopped. Sunlight curls in the gap of the door, streaming faintly, weakly through the smoke.

The world hasn’t ended. Jimin’s fingers lace through his, and hold fast, and don’t let go.

It’s time to move on, Taehyung thinks, and wraps up the memory of the storm in a quiet place, close to his heart, where he won’t ever let himself forget.

 


 

For all of Jimin’s bravado about making their way back to camp, it’s Taehyung who manages to retrace their steps. He’s quiet about it, uncertain sometimes as he guides them north and down, but by the time the clouds have mostly cleared, betraying a mid-afternoon sun, Jimin is starting to recognize the path. As disfigured as it had been by the rain, some things are the same. The ancient-looking pine that reaches up past where Jimin’s neck can stand to strain, the jagged cut of the next peak over, shadowed almost exactly the way Jimin remembers.

Only a day has passed, but Jimin still feels older. Feels like he can barely remember Jeongguk’s arm tucked around his waist, Hoseok’s lips dry against his forehead.

He swallows, when he approaches the ruins of their camp, and clings to Taehyung’s hand like a lifeline.

There’s not much left to salvage. Jimin finds one of his knives, Taehyung unearths the mud-soaked leather of Hoseok’s traveling bag, but other than that—nothing. They stuff the bag, when they manage to clean it out with damp leaves, with the borrowed blanket and flint and armful of dry firewood they’d taken from the shed, and Jimin slings it over his back and holds back his tears.

“Can you get us to the temple?” He asks, over the sound of emerging birdcall.

Taehyung squints into the forested distance, and tugs absently at the tie of his robe.

“Probably,” he says, after a long moment of consideration. “I remember the route to the traders’ road, and from that we can work our way back.”

The last time he’d walked through the forest outside the capital’s walls, Jimin had been in no place to remember landmarks. He doesn’t mention it, though, in favor of watching Taehyung pick his careful way back down to where the path had been, just yesterday.

Instead of a path, there’s nothing but the slope down of the mountain. Jimin takes a deep breath, and doesn’t look down at the ravine beneath them, and tells himself—

Even if there aren’t any footprints, it doesn’t mean they’re gone. It means that maybe they’d been pushed down further, before they escaped the onslaught. Means that they climbed and escaped and wrapped back around, in favor of climbing back up to the campsite. It’s what he has to believe, to keep his feet moving beneath them as they trek around the west side of the mountain, until they escape the damage done by the landslide and emerge back onto the barely-recognizable path.

Hope is exhausting, and by the time night falls, Jimin is almost ready to give up on it.

They’ve salvaged barely-passable meals out of early spring berries, and the nuts Jimin picks off the ground. He’d learned the edible ones from Yoongi, on month-long border patrols; knows which ones had kept him alive on his trek from Odai, and which ones Jin had smacked out of his hand with the warning that if he ate them, he’d end up dead and frothing at the mouth in ten minutes.

What they need is game. But night falls and the only sign of life has been the birds overhead, the owl cooing through the growing darkness as Jimin picks through the underbrush on the side of the road, and tries to find a spot of earth that isn’t damp enough to seep into their clothes.

He finally settles on a slab of exposed granite just off the path enough that it can’t be seen, although the deepest crevices in it are still full of water and mud. It’s too dangerous to make a fire, and they don’t have anything to cook to make it worth it, so Jimin wraps the stolen blanket around his shoulders and leans against the slope behind him, and opens his arms with an expectant stare.

Taehyung takes a deep breath, before he crawls into the embrace. Every muscle in his back is rigid against Jimin’s chest, the heat between their bodies enough to keep Jimin comfortably pliant. But long minutes pass, and Taehyung doesn’t relax, and Jimin hooks his chin over Taehyung’s shoulder and tries not to feel guilty.

“I hate sleeping alone,” he finally admits, voice barely over a whisper, when it becomes painfully clear that Taehyung isn’t going to say anything. “Before—I hadn’t in years. There was always Jeongguk, or Hoseok, or—”

He cuts himself off, and then rethinks. Rethinks flinching at the name, when he’s spoken words of forgiveness that set something loose in his chest, rattling around when he thinks of their adjoining rooms, their leisure days, their shared everything.

“Jihyun crawled in bed with me a lot.” Taehyung breathes out, a hurt noise trapped small, somewhere in the air of it. “When he was little, mostly. And then when our mother died, he started again, and it never really stopped.”

And when it wasn’t a Kal, or a brother, it was a boy from the town. There had been a few Jimin had visited more than once, had slept with and beside on a bed at the inn, a few who had almost always been game for a night if Jimin looked at them the right way and offered to pay for their drink. He’d never been one for sneaking off after the fact, had always favored waking up with an arm around his waist, a warm body there to coax into wakefulness under the warmth of the risen sun.

“That sounds nice,” Taehyung finally answers. The hesitation is backed by a resolve Jimin can hear, if he listens carefully enough. This new honesty is strange, and terrifying, and Jimin wonders—if either of them are the same people they were, before all this. “I always thought my bed was too big. Ever since I moved in.”

“When did you?” There’s a tentative quality to the conversation. Jimin can’t tell if it’s his own hesitation, his own conflict that drives it, or whether Taehyung is just as confused as he is. There’s no right way to nurture the thing between them, everything down to trial and error and it’s such a conscious effort to try, when for so long Jimin’s first instinct has been to look away.

He’s ignored every time he’d noticed Taehyung hurting, and even as the guilt gnaws at his stomach, he remembers—the anger had been something to hold onto. Something to ground him, to keep him remembering the pain of everything Jihyun’s blood on his lips.

“I only started using it when my mother got sick,” Taehyung says. “But the rooms were mine already, I think. Since I could walk, at least.”

Jimin barely remembers back that far. Has vague memories of a chubby toddler, and the clumsy ten-minute dance the priestesses had trained him in, and his first ever bedroom, with seashells strung from the ceiling above his bed.

He tries to imagine four year old Taehyung, no bigger than Daeun, stumbling around that cavernous parlor. The image comes with a bruise painted red and purple across the phantom child’s cheek.

It feels like some strange kind of penance, to listen like this. To accept the detached distance in Taehyung’s voice, when he speaks about his past and his family and his home. Taehyung shifts against him, Jimin’s thighs bracketing his hips, and tips his head just barely to the side, to press their temples together.

“You speak the dialect well,” Jimin offers, when he realizes—he doesn’t want to hear the distance anymore. The trained flatness, so much weaker when Taehyung speaks the Bayul tongue.

Taehyung hums, something pleased rumbling in the sound. Jimin’s arms tighten around his forearms, the cold stone leeching every bit of heat from his back but Taehyung pressed so, so warm against his front that it hardly even matters.

“I worked really hard,” Taehyung says, and—for the first time, Jimin hears something like pride. “All the librarians and tutors were too old to really care how my brothers were paying the court to treat me, and—I was the only one really interested in language. At first because it was the only aisle that was ever empty in the library, other than the histories, but then—I don’t know. I was good at it, and they were willing to teach me, and no one ever thought to look for me there. It was nice.”

“I wish I had been good at it,” Jimin mumbles into his neck. “It took me years to be able to remember even the basic grammar changes. I thought my tutors were going to pitch me off the cliffs, they were so frustrated.”

A quiet, huffed laugh. Taehyung’s fingers pressing lightly against the back of his hands.

“I used to run out of math lessons.” A small thing. A human thing.

Jimin closes his eyes tight, and feels his stomach turns at all the times he’d let himself think of Taehyung as less than a person. There’s still anger left in him somewhere, still some bitter thing with a grudge he can’t let go of, but—

In the absence of anyone else, he has to learn Taehyung to keep himself alive. And now that he knows the shape of Taehyung under his hands, the smooth give of his skin, the silvery years-old scars that litter his back and arms and chest, he can’t forget any of it. He’s seen the brand, and the imprint of it is burned into the back of his eyelids, white-hot and angry every time he blinks.

“I meant it,” he says, too fast and jumbled and off-topic. He can feel Taehyung holding his breath against him, can hear the quiet sounds of the forest as it comes to life around them, after a night and a morning spend under the siege of the storm. “Everything I said last night.”

Taehyung breathes again. An owl calls from a tree above them; something small scrambles through the brush. Jimin listens for the near-silent flutter of wings, and to the sound of Taehyung’s heartbeat.

“I know,” Taehyung finally replies. It seems too simple, too easy.

“How?” It’s whispered, close against skin. Jimin’s lips drag, dry, over Taehyung’s nape. Elegant fingers trace sensitive patterns over the backs of his hands, nails dragging just barely enough to raise goosebumps on Jimin’s arms.

“If you really wanted to hurt me, you would have tried this a long time ago.”

In the darkness, an owl’s talons dig deep into flesh. Jimin’s breath leaves him in one long, drawn-out exhale, like he’s buried under hundreds of tons of water. His lungs collapse, his heart stutters until his chest lights up with some sharp, stabbing pain.

He presses a kiss to Taehyung’s neck, imagines delicate eyelashes fluttering shut, soft lips parted on the gasp that falls into the open, empty air.

Jimin holds Taehyung close, hands carefully pressing high on his torso, and hates that he feels cruel for it.

 


 

The hunger of the next two days reaches claws into Jimin’s stomach, and needles of memory into his mind. As the hunger digs deeper, settles more firmly in his gut, he finds himself rubbing again and again at the scars on his wrist. When he and Taehyung share quiet words, tentative conversation traded back and forth, Jimin bites back bile each time Taehyung slides back into Odaian when he struggles to find a word. 

It goes—not unnoticed, but unmentioned, and when Jimin jerks awake in blind, terrible panic during Taehyung’s watch, he stifles terrified sobs into Taehyung’s chest before he wakes up enough to remember where he is. Who he’s sharing a cold ground with this time, on the march to the capital.

He only talks about it in the darkness. Speaks in fragments, of rotted food he’d forced himself to stomach, of the way his friends and advisors and people as good as family had cried at the treatment of the soldiers.

Those first long days on the march, Jimin hadn’t thought there could be anything worse than blinking awake into the darkness to the sound of people muffling cries around him, into scraps of fabric or bitten-bloody palms. Nothing worse than the fear that had set Jihyun shaking violently in his arms, every time boots came close to where they feigned sleep.

Once, he almost loses himself to it. Just barely before the dawn, with Taehyung’s arms wrapped firm around his chest, too hungry to even think about sleeping anymore, he vanishes into the haze of memory and has to be dragged back out with Taehyung’s fingers rainwater-wet on his lips as the sun crests over the great basin, sprawling out beneath them in all its forested glory.

Far away, glinting in the midmorning light, the city waits. Wrapped in its walls and guards and secrets, not even its citizens let in on the best-kept of them.

“Are you okay?” Taehyung asks, as Jimin settles back into himself. As he forces away the feeling of phantom fingers clinging to his arm, the raw bloody scrape of ropes around his wrists. The wail that had moved between his countrymen’s lips, one at a time, as the city and the palace drew closer.

“Maybe.” It’s the only thing he can manage that wouldn’t be a lie. They’re on the last naked patch of rock before the path slopes down, winding into a thicker forest than the bare mountain brush they’ve been trying to keep their stomachs full on. In the forest there might be game, if he or Taehyung can manage to hit anything with a thrown knife, or at least bird eggs and mushrooms and roots he thinks he remembers from the thin scrolls Yoongi had spent months drilling him on, before his first border patrol at sixteen.

Jimin looks down, and sees that Taehyung’s hands are shaking. Nothing else gives him away; his jaw is tipped up, his feet planted firm on the stone beneath them. But his hands are shaking, even when they clench into white-knuckled fists, and Jimin doesn’t have to think, now, to reach down and lace their fingers together.

“Are you?”

Taehyung takes a deep breath, one Jimin can almost feel expanding in his own lungs. He wishes suddenly for the sea, instead of this endless expanse of green and brown. For his goddess, who hovers pale in the sky as the sun rises hot and harsh over the mountains behind them.

When Taehyung parts his lips, Jimin almost expects an echo of maybe. Something fond, or wry, like he’s learned Taehyung can be over two days spent in constant company. Jimin hates silence, and always has, and something about silence between them chains him back down to the floor, and so he’d filled it whenever he could. And slowly, Taehyung has opened up. Has shared his favorite stories, words clumsy on his tongue as he’d tried to do them justice. Has given Jimin the history and lineage of his court, so different than the senate, and recited poetry from memory. Anything to feed the thing that’s still growing, to keep it from shrinking back down into a shaded crevice, too afraid to see the sun.

“I don’t want to die,” Taehyung finally says, and it hits Jimin’s chest like a fist. His voice is faint, thoughtful, nothing desperate or teary about it. “I might anyway, but—I never thought I’d come back here. I was going to kill myself first, if you tried to make me.”

I’d throw myself off that cliff first, Jimin remembers. He feels sick at the unwilling image it conjures; Taehyung’s limbs akimbo against the jagged rocks waiting at the bottom, his blood mixing pink against the white of the sea foam. It catches in his throat, an unwilling almost-sob, his throat and tongue and eyes too dry to do anything but gasp for moisture.

“I’m sorry,” Jimin breathes, for what feels like the hundredth time. “I’m sorry that I would have.”

Taehyung looks at him, those wide eyes and long lashes burrowed deep in Jimin’s chest, past the terrible strength of his ribcage. He sees those eyes even when he sleeps; Taehyung watching him, mouth burned away like a brand, his hands always reaching out.

“Ah, it’s war.” Taehyung waves his free hand, attempting lightness like a grandmother batting away a fly, a simple inconvenience. And in some way, he’s right. If they were to unfold everything, every cruel word or awful injustice between them in the last weeks, it would take hours. Days, maybe, to talk everything out, to explain the why and explore the what-if and maybe, eventually, reach the same conclusion that had come after a storm, and a kiss, and Jimin’s fingers pressing soft on Taehyung’s tongue.

“Yes,” Jimin finally agrees. There’s nothing more he can say, without spiraling them down to the very center of it. That it wasn’t supposed to be their war. A youngest son, and an heir to a country with all the allies in the world, until the moment they were needed the most.

“Come on,” Taehyung says. He tugs on Jimin’s hand, braces himself against the stone, and begins the long, pebbled path to the forest.

The day is long, and aching, and Jimin wants nothing more than to collapse by the time the sun reaches its highest point. There’s been no game to speak of, but the birds twittering too small and fast to even think about catching, and it’s hard enough to tell most edible berries from their deadlier counterparts. Taehyung’s hand is sweaty and slick in his by now, but it’s the only thing keeping him going.

For days, now, the trek has felt hopeless. Pointless. The small part of him that hasn’t yet forgotten how to hope reminds him that the army is behind them, what’s left of their fit troops; that someone, anyone might be waiting for them at the temple. But it’s hard to remember when his feet are blistered and his head aches from hunger, and Taehyung’s started to shake by the time the spring afternoon is hot enough to really start to get to them.

“Can we—can we stop,” Taehyung gasps, when the sound of an approaching stream is finally louder than the constant birdsong. Jimin doesn’t have the strength or desire to argue, when he’s struggling so hard to stay above water. When he’s focusing more on Taehyung’s hand pressed against his than the path they’re walking, to stop himself from slipping.

He remembers Jeongguk’s hand in his, remembers I’m not going to leave you, remembers—Jihyun, trembling, whispering in the dead of night. Over and over again, until I love you lost all meaning. Until it started to sound more like a prayer than any of the Goddess’s words they’d been taught.

“Yeah,” he breathes back. He’s stopped the pointless formalities between them, and Taehyung had followed hours after trying valiantly to salvage them. It feels strange, to speak to him like a friend, but Jimin can’t remember the last time he’d spoken formally to a boy he knew the taste of, the reminder still heavy on the back of his tongue. “Let’s just—get to the water. You can make it?”

Taehyung doesn’t answer, but the resolve is firm in his eyes. In his steps as they weave through the trees, to the small patch of bare pebbled bank along a river barely as wide across as Jimin is tall.

It’s not the water that makes them pause, when they’re close enough to see. Not the glimmer of it, light scattered across the surface and the smooth-polished stones underneath, not the dazzling clarity of the water or the few fish swimming through it, but—

The campfire, wood burned black and white with ash, covered up with stones but still, clearly there, makes Jimin stop in his tracks.

“Who?” He breathes, tongue too dry to manage much else. Taehyung shakes his head, guides them around the cold remains like the broken circle is a snake, ready to strike. Jimin needs water too desperately to protest but as soon as his thirst is sated and his mind is sharper from the shocking cold of the stream, he inches forward on the bank to push aside the most obviously placed rocks with his toe.

It’s a hasty job, but clear enough to know that someone was covering their tracks. It’s hours old, at least; from the previous night, or the night before, but not old enough to have been disturbed by passing wildlife.

Jimin thinks about who might have taken the time to cover their tracks like this, kneels with his knees damp and ashes crumbling on his fingertips, and feels that small, burning spark of hope burn just a little brighter. It’s barely anything, barely proof, but—

“Jimin-ah,” Taehyung says, voice low and cautious and careful enough that Jimin’s heart stops. “Look.”

For a long moment, Jimin stays still. It’s fear, so easily recognizable, a companion he hasn’t missed, that pins him in place. He’s afraid that if he turns he’ll see steel pointed at them, as paranoid as he feels for it; more realistically, he’s afraid of whatever beast might be silent and deadly enough to approach without being noticed, softer than the gentle rush of water.

A hand rests gentle against his spine. Taehyung’s fingers tap once, twice, three times, barely hard enough to be felt.

“Look,” he says again, and this time—there’s wonder there too.

Jimin turns, achingly slow, and follows Taehyung’s pointed eyes into the trees. He looks through the startling green of spring, the slivers of clear sky unrecognizable from the angry gray of the day before the storm.

He looks, at the blue silk fastened to a leather pouch. At the wicked curve of a familiar beak, at the glimmer of golden eyes where they pin him in place, at the easy grace of a hunter.

“Tokki,” Jimin says out loud, to convince himself that she’s real.

Her wings flutter, all elegance and pride. When she takes flight, soaring carefully to another tree just across the stream, Jimin almost trips over himself trying to scramble to his feet. Taehyung’s hand steadies him, and Jimin chances a glance away to take him in—the flushed excitement on his cheeks, the glisten of his eyes with something so alive, he only now realizes that they had started to die.

The fire in his chest is explosive. He would burn down a forest, Jimin thinks, if Taehyung weren’t the one who’d have to rule over the ashes.

 


 

They follow Tokki until Taehyung feels ready to collapse. She reminds him of Hoseok, in a way; there’s something about the piercing yellow of her eyes that makes him ashamed to think about stopping, or giving up. When they absolutely have to stop and rest, drinking their fill from offshoots of the mountain streams, fattened up with the runoffs of spring, she flutters her wings and buries her beak in her feathers, and does everything imaginable except physically roll her eyes. 

“We’re almost there,” Jimin pants out, when the sun starts to set. He sounds like he’s making himself believe it, a determination clenching in his jaw that Taehyung is too exhausted to fathom. “We have to be.”

Taehyung tries to believe him. He’s seen Jeongguk with the hawk before, calling her to him off Jimin’s balcony and feeding her with strips of meat from a pouch at his waist. She’d soared above them on the journeys to and from Gangneung, rested in trees where they camped. She’s trained well, as far as he can tell, but doubt still eats at the cavern in his stomach.

Jimin’s hope is infectious, but there’s only so much of it Taehyung can take before it turns sour on his tongue. He can taste the disappointment already, the sky going dark with no end to the journey in sight.

I can’t, he’s on the verge of saying. Of dragging Jimin down to the forest floor with him and burying his nose in his shoulder, wrapping his arms around his chest, touching full and warm like he’s been craving so much it terrifies him. Taehyung hates that now that he’s woken up with Jimin’s cheek pressed against his chest, their legs tangled together amongst the fallen leaves and dirt of the ground, he won’t ever be able to go back.

Taehyung opens his mouth to beg, maybe, for Jimin to stop. Works up the courage as they weave through a copse of trees too thick to see through until they’re close to the end of it, the very tip of Tokki’s tail feathers vanishing into the dark.

He never gets the chance. Because when Taehyung refocuses his eyes, looks through the last few trees clustered together before they break onto the bank of the East river, he sees the light of a fire. Because Jimin’s breath catches in his throat, a half-wild cry stifled before it can begin. Tokki preens in the low branches of a tree, and five orange-lit faces turn almost in unison, and Taehyung—

Lets Jimin drag him forward until they’re both almost tripping, Jimin’s fingers so tight around his hand that he starts losing circulation to it, and—

Jeongguk crashes toward them, desperation naked on his face, and flings his arms around Jimin so forcefully that they topple to the ground, Taehyung’s hand jerked out of Jimin’s, both of them keening sounds that aren’t even close to words but more like wails, muffled into skin and clothing and only broken when Jeongguk gasps for air, thick and wet as he cradles Jimin’s head in his hand to protect it from meeting the ground.

“Hyung,” he gasps, over and over until Taehyung wants to cry from it, hung back in the shadows as everyone gathers. Tears shining wet in more than a few eyes, kept back a few steps from the heap of boy and tears and clothing that is Jimin and Jeongguk, pressed so close that Taehyung can hardly tell the two of them apart.

Hoseok’s hand is tight in Namjoon’s. Yoongi’s head is pressed to Jin’s shoulder, his arm wrapped and cradled tight to his chest with blood-stained fabric. Namjoon’s face is a freshly-scrubbed pink, but his eyes are red-rimmed and his stubble is patchy, in terrible need of a shave. Taehyung wants to bridge the gap between them so much it hurts, to let Namjoon hold him close and maybe Yoongi, maybe Hoseok, but—he can’t make himself take those few steps. Can’t let himself break the fragile weight of the last few days, just him and Jimin and the desperate urge to make it here.

He waits, breath caught, the light that follows his eyes everywhere they go trying its best to reach the embrace in front of him. It lunges forward, again and again like a dog on a chain, and falls back with a dismayed pulse of light when it fails, again and again, to touch.

Taehyung waits, and breathes, until Jeongguk’s attention snaps suddenly, alarmingly, up to him.

He can’t breathe. Backlit, the darkness of Jeongguk’s eyes is terrifying. His intensity doesn’t waver, as he pushes himself off Jimin with tear tracks drying on his cheeks, as Jimin fumbles out with a gentle hand and earnest eyes and is carefully, politely shaken off.

Jeongguk approaches him like a predator, like the tigers that had once stalked the forests in winter, and Taehyung waits. For Jeongguk’s face to crack from intensity to hatred, to feel knuckles against his skin, for something to finally, finally hurt like he’s been waiting for for weeks, with all Jeongguk’s anger wound tight and vicious and pointed right at him like a loaded crossbow.

But the anger doesn’t come. When Jeongguk’s face breaks, it’s something raw that Taehyung’s never seen before. Something that he doesn’t understand, directed at him instead of Jimin or Hoseok; a fragile, trembling thing that reminds him—how young Jeongguk is. Twenty-one and a trained killer, twenty-one and a boy who loves his hyung, so fiercely it scares Taehyung to think about.

“You saved him,” Jeongguk says, voice shaking the whole while.

Taehyung remembers the panic, when he’d seen the landslide tumbling down at them, faster than he could even think. Remembers seeing the jut of the rock, and Jimin just a meter away, remembers—how terrifying it had felt, to slam Jimin against it without knowing if they would live. Just knowing the fear, and the danger, and the way Jimin had cut a raider away from him without a moment’s hesitation.

He doesn’t know what to say. But—he doesn’t need to. Because Jeongguk sucks in a breath, fast and harsh, and lurches forward like a marionette, reluctant and awkward and somehow, desperately, relieved.

A hug is the last thing Taehyung expects. But it’s what he gets, Jeongguk’s arms gentle and tentative, his breath warm against Taehyung’s neck.

“Thank you,” he whispers, and Taehyung can feel in his chest how difficult the words are for him.

When Jeongguk pulls back, Taehyung bows. Not because he has to, but because it feels right; to let himself go unguarded, despite the fear that still chokes him at the sight of Jeongguk’s knives, and sword, and the quiver of arrows strapped to his back.

Jeongguk bows back, hair falling to cover his eyes, and—it’s enough. Something like a truce. And Taehyung doesn’t know why he feels empty for it, why he’s still waiting for the sting of a smack or the ache of a cruel pinch, or anything worse. He clenches his teeth at the burn of tears, and looks away, and doesn’t see Namjoon approaching until he’s wrapped up in another hug already, Namjoon’s breathing jagged and familiar and easier to accept tenderness from, because he was something close to used to it, once.

“Are you hurt?” Namjoon asks, when he pulls back, in enough time that Taehyung gets to watch Hosoek pull Jimin to his feet, and pull him into a crushing embrace, until they both sink back down to the ground with Jimin in Hoseok’s lap, their foreheads pressed together, whispering soft between them with Hoseok’s hand in Jimin’s hair.

“No,” Taehyung finally manages through cracked lips, and thinks back to Jimin’s hands smoothing over bare skin, and doesn’t know why it tastes like a lie.

As it turns out, he and Jimin had been lucky. There’s a bloody scab peeking out from a tear in the shoulder of Namjoon’s robes, a limp in Jin’s step from a knee that had cracked against stone, an arm of Yoongi’s broken in two places. They’re all a little broken, a lot exhausted, but—they have food, meat cooking over the fire, and Taehyung’s stomach rumbles over Namjoon’s rambled explanation of their daring escape from the torrential mudslide.

“Food,” Jimin rasps, from underneath Yoongi’s clinging embrace, latched firmly onto him even without the use of both arms.

“Sorry,” Taehyung defers to Namjoon, but he follows Jimin to the fire, where a plucked bird roasts on a cleverly crafted spit. The meat is almost done, skin practically bubbling, and Taehyung can’t help but salivate at the smell.

“Have you been eating?” Yoongi peers at the both of them, as he crouches down to turn the bird with his good arm. Taehyung glances to his side, watches Jimin’s eyes narrow in careful consideration. He’s doing remarkably at pretending steadiness; where Taehyung can still feel his knees too weak to stand any longer, Jimin looks—not healthy, but not starving. Two days is a long time, but not long enough to completely hollow his recently filled-out cheeks.

Jimin shrugs, and cracks a nut between two stones, and chews it with enough leisure that Taehyung almost forgets the awful noises he’s been hearing from both their stomachs for hours.

Hoseok settles himself between Taehyung and Jimin, as Jin pulls the bird off the fire and holds it up for Yoongi to inspect with a critical eye. Jeongguk hovers close, and Namjoon sits with his thigh pressed to Taehyung’s, and—

Their camp is much sparser, now, but the warmth of the people hasn’t changed. They’re all looking at him when they think he won’t notice, Yoongi’s eyes half-lidded and Hoseok carefully assessing and Namjoon tinged with confusion in the crease of his brow. Taehyung keeps his eyes away from Jimin, doesn’t trust himself not to give anything away, and takes a bite out of the stringy thigh when Hoseok passes the meat to him, from where Jimin had just groaned out around his own mouthful.

After days of scavenging, it’s blissful. Taehyung closes his eyes to savor it, and forgets to flinch at the hand that lands gentle and suddenly familiar on the back of his neck, until he peels his eyes open to pass the meat and finds Namjoon staring, baffled, at the way Jimin is lounging. Feet kicked forward, one arm slung around Hoseok’s shoulders to trace the very tips of his fingers against Taehyung’s skin.

What happened, Namjoon mouths.

Taehyung looks away. On Jimin’s other side, he sees Jeongguk watching him, sees everyone trying their best not to seem obvious about it. The questions that hesitate before they’re spoken, passed around the fire with subtle looks. Namjoon’s elbow gently finds Yoongi’s ribs; Jin cranes her head back to raise her eyebrows at Jeongguk.

He notices, and Jimin notices, and Taehyung doesn’t know when they agreed to not speak of their days together but he’s grateful for it. He wouldn’t know how to explain any of it if he tried, wouldn’t know how to shape his mouth around the tender thing Jimin had given him in that woodshed, has kept giving with every gentle touch and hesitant smile and the stubborn way he pushes the both of them into something like forgiveness.

“Well,” Jin sniffs, when the silence starts to drag. “I bet neither of you almost got struck by lightning, so don’t even try to top that.”

Jeongguk barks out a laugh, and hugs his arm tight around Jimin’s waist, and Taehyung inches down slowly, carefully, to rest his head against Namjoon’s shoulder.

Hoseok presses a gentle kiss to the side of Jimin’s head, as Jimin curls closer to him. And then, as Jin launches into her story, he twists, and kisses Taehyung’s temple. A quick, sharp peck, that Taehyung is too stunned to register until he’s already turned back to Jimin, getting comfortable like the rest of them in the dirt, the low light of the fire.

It’s nice to listen, for once, instead of speak. Now that they’ve reached the river Taehyung knows more or less where they are, knows that they’re a little over half a day’s walk to the temple, that not all hope has been lost, that they’re a day at least behind schedule but still somehow closer to the end of it all than the beginning.

That night, without the safety of a tent, they sleep piled together like children. Hoseok takes the first watch, hand resting comfortably on the hilt of one of his knives as he paces, keeps them all in his sight like a tigress with her cubs. Taehyung fits himself a comfortable distance away from Namjoon, enough that they can breathe each other’s air without touching; Namjoon never reaches across them to breach that careful space, but keeps his eyes open enough that Taehyung can watch as Namjoon catalogues him. As he examines Taehyung’s face for something Taehyung isn’t even sure he’s giving away.

He keeps himself still for so long the spring chill seeps into him from every side, slowing his heartbeat until he’s barely awake, barely alive. Just resting, close to the earth and the river down the bank and the people around him, all of them sharing space and breath and steady, unsleeping stillness.

And then, from behind him, Taehyung feels Jimin’s hand. Fumbling and clumsy, hitting first Taehyung’s thigh, and dragging up and up until Taehyung think he might scream from the agony of the slow way Jimin pries his hand open from a fist, and slots his fingers between Taehyung’s. The difference between them is overwhelming, with nothing else to focus on. Taehyung’s only point of human contact is the small, chubby weight of Jimin’s palm, where Jimin is wrapped up in Jeongguk so tight Taehyung doesn’t know how either of them can breathe.

Taehyung’s heartbeat picks up. Pounds faster and harder in his ears, makes his chest hum with a nervous kind of energy. His hand twitches; his thumb jerks soft over the back of Jimin’s hand, and the shiver it sends through him is so delicious that he does it again. And again.

And Namjoon’s glimmering eyes drop down, to where Taehyung’s arm vanishes behind his back. The fire is still alive enough to see.

Something softens, in Namjoon’s face. A hard edge of worry that Taehyung hadn’t even thought to look for until it falls away, smoothed by the upturn of his eyebrows, the dig of shadow into his cheek where a dimple deepens, white teeth peeking out in a smile.

Taehyung burns. Where Jimin’s holding him, he burns; where Hoseok had kissed him, he burns; where Jeongguk’s arms had wrapped around his shoulders, he burns. Where Namjoon leans forward, and strokes so gently along his cheek, where so many bruises have been left that he aches at barely the memory of it, Taehyung burns like someone has doused him in liquid flames, like he’s been drowned in oil and lit and set to dancing for the mocking memory of Taeil.

Taeil, who watches him as ghostly as the light that wavers always in his sight, who gathers the specter of the rest of his brothers and laughs, as Taehyung shivers and lets himself be touched, and tries to convince himself that he deserves it.

 


 

Early the next morning, as the dawn slowly lights up the sky, Taehyung wakes to the splashing of river water and a high-pitched shriek.

Hoseok is on his feet immediately, knife half-drawn before he turns and visibly relaxes, steel sliding back into confinement and his shoulders sagging in relief. Taehyung pushes himself onto one elbow when he hears a laugh, high and so so recognizable, squinting through the morning fog to watch Jimin give a shove that sends Jin sprawling back into the East river, Jeongguk’s arms locked around their knees.

They’re all in nothing but smallclothes, Jimin’s hair dripping all the way down his spine to pool in the tight band of his undershorts, which barely reach at all down his thighs. Even those are black, Taehyung notes, even as his face warms; Jin and Jeongguk are both in the same garment, though those and Jin’s soaked sleeveless shift are in shades of white or gray.

“Kids,” Hoseok sighs, and collapses back onto the ground like his strings have been cut.

“Jin is older than you?” Taehyung asks, voice rough from sleep. Hoseok’s eyes dart up, a smirk tugging at his lips, and he offers out a skin for Taehyung to drink from, until his chest is cold from the shock of it and his stomach feels bloated.

“Jin likes their fun,” he says. “They’ve always, ah—let things roll off their back, more easily than most of us, I think.”

Taehyung turns himself back to the river, where Jin limps through the rush of the current to drag sharp knuckles along Jimin’s scalp, until Jeongguk flings himself onto broad shoulders and yanks them both back down under the surface.

“They try to, at least,” Yoongi rasps, and Taehyung jerks. He’s still lying down, though he’s uncurled from around his own knees, head pillowed on his forearms to look up at the pink of the sky. Hoseok’s smile goes wry, and he follows Taehyung’s gaze back to the show at the river.

“I remember when Jeongguk came, years and years ago. He didn’t smile for almost a year, until Jin made him help stuff Jimin’s pillow with sheep shit.” The fond smile on Hoseok’s face doesn’t make Taehyung’s nose wrinkle in disgust any less, but—it’s nice, to listen to him remember these things. To think about Jimin, barely as tall as his waist, coming back to his rooms to a prank like that and screaming in outrage, Jeongguk small and wan and giggling just around the corner. “Ah, they fought a lot back then, about little things. But they wanted to make Jeongguk laugh so bad, because—”

He cuts off, and Yoongi makes a small noise of understanding, and Taehyung feels abruptly like he’s missing something. Some key piece of context for why Jeongguk hadn’t smiled, for what might have happened to him so young that—he’d had to come to Jimin’s capital, that he’d been raised to be a Kal.

But he doesn’t have time to wonder, because—Jimin slicks back his dark hair, almost-fresh scars standing out bold on his newly tanned skin, from days spent practicing shirtless in the Bayul sun. On his ribs, on his wrists, at the hollow dip of his throat. The three of them make their way back up the bank, Jin supported with Jeongguk’s arm wrapped around the tiny point of their waist, face contorting dramatically at every ounce of pressure on their injured leg.

Yoongi is up in an instant, moving much faster than Taehyung might have expected. He drapes Jin’s arm around his own shoulder and takes their weight, despite the way his own arm hangs heavy in the sling, and Taehyung—watches how Jin’s face softens, their smile genuine and creasing their cheeks, the general’s features twisted into something affectionate and sweet that Taehyung had never once seen from her.

“They’re good for each other,” Hoseok sighs, full of air and a kind of wistfulness that Taehyung thinks might be born of familiarity.

He tries to imagine growing up next to someone like that, imagine how Jimin and Hoseok had been born to two families sworn together for generations. It’s a story he’d pulled out of Namjoon on the ride; that Hoseok’s line has been Kal since the first kings of Bayul built their manor and the capital around it. That something much larger and deeper ties Hoseok to Jimin than simple friendship. That he and his sister had known that their duty was to die for the princes since they were old enough to understand the idea of death itself.

“Hyung!” Jimin calls, and Hoseok waves back at him with a smile.

Jeongguk shakes his hair out like a wet dog, and Jimin slaps the back of his neck for the spray to his face, and—that’s when Taehyung sees it.

They’re close, now, just a few paces away. Water runs down their chests and their legs, Jimin’s thighs slender and powerful and Taehyung looks away, casts his gaze to the wrong side, and sees Jeongguk. His legs, the graceful power of them revealed by the nonexistent length of his shorts.

The puckered, pink skin that curls down his thigh. That starts far above the band of his undershorts and ends far below it, cutting a violent-looking swath along the long expanse of skin.

Taehyung stares. Doesn’t mean to, but stares, his mouth dropped open at the memory of fire seared into Jeongguk’s leg. He has scars everywhere else too, from swords or knives or arrows, but this—it’s old, and huge, and Taehyung suddenly feels sick to his stomach and cold from the water he’d swallowed and achingly exposed enough to curl a hand down low, over his stomach.

Jimin sees him looking, and his mouth drops into a gentle, rounded oh.

Taehyung forces his eyes away from the two of them, at the skin on display and playful familiar touches, and stares instead down into the dirt, where Namjoon has woken enough to start worrying. To start drawing crude maps into the earth with a stick blackened in the last-burning embers of the fire.

“We’re close,” Namjoon murmurs, when he notices Taehyung’s attention. There’s a triangle drawn where he’s guessed the temple to be, just down the winding curve of the river. And Taehyung can’t keep his eyes from drifting, to the unmarked patch of dirt just to the supposed north of that triangle. Can’t stop thinking, and trying not to think, and stumbling around his own mind with the question that had felt heavy enough that he’d had to stop and pray, the last time he’d been in this forest.

“Seven hours?” Taehyung guesses, from what he can remember of the geography, the distance between mountain and capital. Namjoon shrugs a general agreement, but his eyes stay careful and concerned as he taps the end of the stick down, where Taehyung had been staring.

“You can go,” he finally says. “I’ll make your excuses.”

He doesn’t say that by now, the rest of the party might trust him enough to believe them.

Taehyung purses his lips, and rubs one hand down his thigh. He feels sweaty and sticky and wants nothing more than to douse himself in the cold water of the river, stripped down like the rest of them, and—if it had been only Jimin, he might have.

“Okay,” he finally says, and leaves it at that. Namjoon needs no explanations, not for this.

By the time the sun has risen fully, the forest awake and singing around them, they’re all ready to keep marching. Jimin and Jeongguk stay shirtless to finish drying, and Taehyung slings his outer robe around his neck and dunks his whole head in the water, and very carefully doesn’t think about how close they are. About what might be over and done with, in only a day.

The thrill of it is dark, and terrifying, and a persistent weight in Taehyung’s stomach.

I’m going to kill them, he remembers, as Yoongi double-checks the carefully-saved glass bottles in his bag.

They set off on foot through the forest, following the path of the river, and Taehyung leaves his guilt behind.

 


 

When Taehyung starts to recognize the landscape, the shape of the forest around them, agitation starts churning in his barely-full stomach. He knows this part of the river; where a log had fallen in a storm to form an unsteady bridge, where a waterfall crashes down a sudden slope. It’s impossible to concentrate on the voices around him, as he stares at each familiar landmark, each new growth since the last time he’d made the journey.

Namjoon notices, because he’s been watching, but—Taehyung notices Jeongguk’s eyes on him, too. He hasn’t let go of Jimin for longer than a few minutes all day, the exhausting hours of walking worn down by their gentle relief for the reunion.

Taehyung doesn’t know how to ask. Keeps looking at Jimin out of the corner of his eye, trying to form the question on his tongue, and it never works out the way he wants it to. He has nothing worth speaking, and nothing that might convince Jimin to abandon the last of his family for—something he might not even want. Taehyung swallows down cold water from Yoongi’s skin, and passes it back with an absent bow of his head, and ignores the quiet hum of conversation.

In the end, though, it’s Jimin who comes to him. Jimin who always comes to him, somehow, with softness around his eyes and his shirt hanging open, the waist of it unfastened to expose a sliver of chest, the barest softness of his stomach.

Taehyung jerks his eyes back up, where they’d instinctively drifted, and gets to watch Jimin’s face break into a smile at his embarrassment.

“I asked if you’re okay,” Jimin teases, softly, and for a long moment Taehyung can’t make himself to anything but bask in it. In the acceptance Jimin is offering, in front of Kal and countrymen, that Taehyung didn’t know he’d convinced himself would never be extended to him until suddenly he’s faced with it. Gentle and unobtrusive, as even Jeongguk lets the circle around Jimin widen, to include one more body that doesn’t quite feel like it belongs.

“Hm,” Taehyung finally manages, when he can tear his gaze away from Jimin’s. He stares down at the ground, watches his own feet as he steps carefully around old, heavy tree roots that push out of the ground at their thickest.

“Hm?” A kind echo, offered on a smile.

“Would you—” Taehyung starts, and glances quickly just a pace behind them, where Hoseok and Jeongguk flank Jimin as easy and natural as breathing. “Would you come with me?”

And to his credit, Jimin doesn’t immediately decline. It’s a show of trust, Taehyung thinks, and even that is surprising. That they’d relied on each other so much, the last few days, that now it’s almost normal.

“For how long?” Jimin finally asks, after a second of consideration. Taehyung looks ahead, at the curve of the river past where he can see, and tries to think. When he’d mapped this part of the forest, terrified of getting lost as he explored inch by careful inch, he’d been much younger. Much shorter, too, and so walking had taken longer.

“We’re close,” he says. “Two hours, maybe? We’ll meet everyone at the temple by afternoon.”

Namjoon looks behind him, and meets Jimin’s eyes with a nod.

“I know where we are.” It’s called back cheerfully, but—when he turns to Taehyung, there’s a hint of confusion in his eyes. And Taehyung remembers—that Namjoon doesn’t know why he’s taking Jimin. That he’d expected Taehyung to slip off by himself, for a quiet moment alone.

“Okay,” Jimin says. Not immediately; he leaves enough time that Taehyung has started to itch with it, that he’s starting to think Jimin will turn him down. But he doesn’t, and the relief is as cold as the river, and Taehyung shudders like a drop of it has tricked down his spine.

He doesn’t miss the looks everyone exchanges. Doesn’t miss the way Jeongguk’s hand squeezes tight around Jimin’s in a silent question born of years of familiarity.

“Alone?” Jeongguk voices, when Jimin squeezes back.

“Please,” Taehyung says, before he can stop himself. Looks between Hoseok and Jimin, between Jeongguk and Namjoon. It’s all to complicated to keep track of, the way everyone seems reluctant to say yes and reluctant to say no and unwilling to put themselves in the way of the request. Taehyung forces himself to look steady, to look certain. To not think about what any of them might say, what Namjoon might say, when he’s vanished around the bend.

Jimin steps forward. He hugs Jeongguk close, an affectionate thing, before drawing away. Before stepping up to Taehyung’s side, and braving a smile, and slipping their fingers together in front of everyone. Hoseok and Namjoon politely look away. Jin wolf-whistles, and gets Yoongi’s good elbow shoved kindly in her gut.

“Let’s go.” Jimin’s voice is pitched airy and casual, and gratitude rises in Taehyung like the banks of the river, leaving something in him drowned in its wake. He can’t focus on anything but the way Jimin’s palm feels against his, after hours of absence; can’t look anywhere but Namjoon’s eyes, wide and surprised, and—ashamed, he thinks.

It’s hard to imagine what Namjoon might have to be ashamed of.

He’d done the best he could, Taehyung thinks, when they were young. It’s nothing he blames Namjoon for, of all people. But—it feels nice. Touching Jimin like this feels nice, and safe, and he doesn’t know how much of it is from necessity and how much is from the ugly, shameful way he’d always thought Jimin was beautiful, in some small corner of his mind he’d kept locked away and out of sight.

The trust of it, of Jimin letting Taehyung guide him left on a path that’s less of a path and more of a trail of half-broken and grown-over underbrush, is overwhelming. Taehyung swallows so loudly that he’s sure Jimin can hear it, in the absence of their friends around them, and tries not to wince at how sweaty his palm is getting. At how loud his heartbeat sounds in his ears, the anxiety overwhelming.

“Hey,” Jimin says, soft and light and soothing, like he’d gentle a spooked horse. “You know this area?”

Taehyung nods, and trembles, and suppresses it with a breath that fills his whole chest with the smell of the forest, familiar and bright with the peak of spring. The closer they get to the city, the more blossoms he’s been seeing on the rare flowering trees; the ones that had been swept out on air currents to grow in a wasteland of green and brown.

“I do,” he says. Licks his lips, looks up at the slivers of sky, avoids the way Jimin is looking at him. “I once wanted to explore the whole forest, all the way to the foothills.”

“Why didn’t you?”

Taehyung blinks. Thinks—of the way he’d carefully dabbed alcohol on the scratches he’d earned on his arms and legs after each visit. How much more tenderly he had treated them than any of his other wounds, like they were symbols of something he’d accomplished.

For a long time, after Taeil, he’d stopped visiting. Hadn’t seen the point, after he accepted that—nothing could change. Nothing ever would.

“I didn’t have time,” he breathes, barely a truth, and looks down to keep from rolling his ankle on a pinecone. “I had a schedule to keep, most days.”

A mockery of one, but—duties nonetheless. Lessons and diplomacy and training and regular court appearances, that always ended in tears or outrage. Or, later on, careful and stoic silence .

Jimin’s hand tugs him back. Taehyung jerks, and blinks the past out of his eyes, and turns to find Jimin watching him with his lower lip just barely pouted out, forehead creased. His thumb smoothes over the back of Taehyung’s palm.

“Are you okay?” He asks, and—that’s the second time, now.

Taehyung thinks he might throw up. And Jimin waits, and his face relaxes into something smoother, and his thumb keeps stroking. Soft and constant and careful, and Taehyung could cry from it if he had any tears left in him.

“I spent a lot of time here,” he says, when he trusts himself to open his mouth. He can’t bring himself to say why, not when they’re on their way already. “When I was young, it was—a safe place. It means a lot.”

Jimin softens. But underneath the softness, there’s a steel edge of anger that Taehyung has only started to understand. The anger has always been there, from the first moment the great hall’s doors had opened, but now it’s changed. None of it is pointed at Taehyung, now. It’s there in Jimin’s eyes, in the clench of his jaw, but his hands are soft and his words are softer and Taehyung is trying to make himself understand—who Jimin is angry at, and why.

Jimin takes a deep breath, and smiles so soft it barely pushes up his eyes, and folds his other hand on top of Taehyung’s.

“Thank you for trusting me,” he says, and Taehyung doesn’t know how to tell him that he shouldn’t. That he should wait, and see for himself, before he decides whether or not Taehyung deserves this. Deserves any of it, really. Anything from the beautiful hands to the calming words to the kisses that have been burning white-hot against his lips and neck and collarbone.

He tries to smile, instead, tries to bear it. There’s no way it’s believable, not with the heat he knows is burning against his cheeks and neck and eyes, but Jimin accepts it. And it’s almost easy to slip into that easy silence they’d had between them, after the storm. It’s broken only by the sound of their footsteps, the fading rush of the river as they get farther away, the birdsong up above them in the canopy. A feather drifts down, caught on the meandering breeze that slips between branches, and Taehyung watches it fall with his heart caught in his throat.

And the closer they get, the less Taehyung can stand it. The landmarks are faint, and small, but burnt into his memory like a brand, like the scar cut so deep into his skin he’s afraid it won’t ever fade.

“I didn’t know where she was buried,” he blurts, when the words start smoldering on the tip of his tongue. Jimin looks up, from where he’s been picking his way across a bed of fallen pine needles, his shoes almost worn through at the heel. “For almost two years. My father, when I asked, he just—laughed. Once when he was drunk he told me he never cared enough to know.”

He doesn’t know if Jimin wants to hear this. Doesn’t know if he should. But so much between him and Namjoon had gone unspoken, because Namjoon had been there for so much of it, and it feels strange and almost relieving to unburden himself of the words that only take shape when they’ve passed his lips.

“It took me months to get to know the coroners. I went to the wrong one, first, because—they separate those things. Even in death, it’s different. The man who prepared the bodies of the nobles, he laughed me out. The place for the servants was worse, and farther, and she thought I was joking. Didn’t believe me when I asked, for so long I almost gave up.”

“You didn’t,” Jimin says softly, and Taehyung knows it’s not a question. Jimin must know, by now, where they’re going. Must have at least some idea, and he hasn’t turned back yet.

“Minhee-noona,” Taehyung says, with something close to a smile. “I brought her son leftovers from dinner, when he got back from the army without an arm. He found work outside the palace eventually, but—he was nice, sometimes. She told me after that, about where they buried her ashes. My father told her that he didn’t care about the rites, just that she was miles away from the crypt.”

He drags his hand along the rough bark of the tree closest, a sapling just barely taller than he is, and chances a look to his left.

Jimin’s face is blank, intentionally. His hands are clasped behind his back, his lips pressed tight together. He’s looking at the ground, but when Taehyung pauses he turns. Meets his eyes with a pained pinch to his brows, a worry in them that Taehyung doesn’t know how to counter.

“She told me that they did the rights.” It sounds childish, when Taehyung says it. He reaches out, before thinking better of it, and Jimin surges forward to wrap his hands around Taehyung’s. They stop there, in the middle of the forest, while Taehyung gathers himself to admit what he’s never said, to force himself to accept it. “I don’t—I don’t know if it was true.”

Those few people who had been kind, back then, had always seemed to want to spare him pain. Out of some kind of pity, maybe, that Taehyung had known well enough to already expect it.

“I’m sorry,” Jimin says, when Taehyung doesn’t try to speak again. The taste of the words is bitter, leaves him swallowing down bile, and—he looks away. Can’t meet Jimin’s eyes for too long, when there’s no way to promise him any of the things he so desperately wants to.

The story comes out in pieces, as they walk. A few sentences at a time, Taehyung working himself up to speak about the first time he’d snuck out of the palace by himself, about how he’d thrown a rock at a cat to distract the guards at the gate, about the first time he’d gotten desperately, horribly lost.

“I got back late the next morning,” he says, of that episode. “And no one had even noticed.”

By then, of course, it hadn’t been a surprise.

Taehyung’s tongue loosens further, when they can’t be more than ten minutes away. His throat is dry but he keeps talking, keeps holding Jimin’s hand, keeps listening to the speeding beat of his pulse and wondering if this is the last time Jimin will want to touch him. If this is the last time he’ll be listened to, like this.

“There’s a cemetery, there,” Taehyung says, and has to stop at the sound of his own voice. He can’t understand what’s different until he looks at Jimin, looks at the soft oh shape of his mouth, and realizes—

It’s been so long that his own language sounds foreign to his ears, when he speaks it without artifice. When he speaks without thinking, words clumsy in a way Jimin doesn’t seem to mind, the pictures painted off-kilter and strange.

Talk normal, he remembers. Spit hitting his skin, after the sharp crack of impact.

He can’t have been more than five, when they started teaching him that every word was an opportunity for punishment.

Taehyung breathes in, and looks at the calloused softness of Jimin’s hands, and forces himself into a reminder that Jimin has never hit him. Not even when he could have, should have, when Taehyung and Jeongguk both would have let him. Would have encouraged him.

“Sorry,” he whispers. The dip of the dialect leaves his mouth feeling hollowed out. He’s a stranger to his own voice.

“Don’t,” Jimin says, in Taehyung’s tongue. He’s good at it, well-studied and formal. His accent colors the phrase strangely, but—it’s nice, to hear it in a way that doesn’t remind him of home.

As they get closer, and closer, the ghost flares hot. hot. Stubbornly persistent as it crowds out everything else in that spot, whites out the outline of brush and trees and sky. Taehyung swallows, and tries not to chase it with his eyes, tries not to make it dart away. It’s like it knows. And—it probably does, he thinks. It probably knows everything he does, and then some.

“The crypt is at the very south of the palace. All the family branches have tombs there, but only the king’s family has used it for centuries, and I used to go by myself to look at everyone’s names.” It’s all he can do to keep talking, to keep from thinking. Every word feels stronger, falls loose and uncoordinated, his vowels tripped over and sentence meandering in a way that no longer feels quite natural. They’re so close now that Taehyung can barely see for the blinding brightness, can barely breathe through the tight painful constriction around his ribs. His breathing is jagged, and worry is heavy on Jimin’s face, and Taehyung clutches his hand like a lifeline and forces his feet to keep moving.

“Where are we going?” Jimin finally breathes, with something almost like fear, when Taehyung can barely see enough to know that they’re at the edge of this part of the forest, where an offshoot of the river trickles into a pond, overgrown with water lilies and algae and simmering with life.

It’s almost impossible to reach from the commoner’s cemetery, blocked off by a tangle of thorned bushes, but—just on the other side of the pond, half as big as the training courtyard at Gangneung, there’s a copse of willow trees. They drip down to touch the water below, sunlight filtering golden from the clear sky above.

The first time Taehyung had seen it, after fighting his way through brambles for an hour or more, he had cried. Nine years old and dead on his feet, watching the way the morning sun had drifted down onto the surface of the pond and bounced off like from a gemstone. He hadn’t even needed to see the grave to break down. And more than nearly fifteen years later it’s still stunning, still feels impossibly different from the rest of the forest, like the pond and the willows had been cultivated by some long-ago bloodline.

“Oh,” Jimin murmurs. His hand goes slack. Taehyung tightens his grip, and leads them around the lip of the pond, and tries to look past the violent light that reflects in dazzling splashes off the water. There’s rosebushes here too, where the sun catches between branches, white and dappled pink recovering from the first full bloom of spring.

Taehyung closes his eyes, and steps up to the largest tree in the grove, the one that stands straight and massive. He pushes aside the branches, steps carefully around the massive roots, to find that place where he’d once found new, upturned soil in between two of them, where now there’s only a small tangle of weeds—dandelions, flowered yellow.

“My mother is here,” he whispers, through something jagged and rough caught in his throat. He thinks about—the wooden box Haseul had buried her uncle’s ashes in, wonders whether his mother was buried in one like it. Jimin’s head tips onto his shoulder, a weight that almost makes Taehyung buckle.

The ghost drags him away. He can’t help but think like that, when—it’s tugging at the corner of his eye, turning him away from the willow and back toward the pond, where there’s a patch of freshly-turned soil, next to a half-submerged stone.

“Taehyung,” Jimin breathes. He’s stopped, where Taehyung had stumbled forward. Taehyung’s hand drops empty back to his side.

He’d asked the same coroner who’d buried his mother to bring the ashes here. Had gotten a pitying smile, and an outstretched hand, and had traded the last of his rings for the favor.

At least, he’d thought what feels like months and months ago, he could be near the water.

“And—your brother,” he says. Looks down at the mockery of the grave, of Jimin’s traditions, and feels the shame as white-hot as the ghost that surges with every beat of his heart. “He’s here. It—it was the best I could do.”

It’s not enough. It won’t ever feel like enough, and the terror is like nothing he’s ever known—the fear that Jimin will hate him for this. That he’ll take back the forgiveness he offered in the dark and panic of that night in the storm, that Taehyung will deserve any punishment Jimin might see fit to give him for this.

He stumbles back, when Jimin inches forward. Without a word, with barely a breath, until he’s staring down with something like horror in his eyes. Shrouded in light only Taehyung can see, golden and white and so brilliant it hurts to even keep his eyes open.

The noise Jimin makes—mangled and raw and torn out of him by something with terrible, vicious claws—makes Taehyung want to throw up. Like the sound he’d made when Taejoon’s sword had run his brother through, Taehyung will hear this in his nightmares. Will relive the way Jimin drops, boneless and crumpled, his knees digging sharp into the mound of upturned soil.

He reaches down, buries fingers into earth, and—

The ghost moves. Surges forward like it had never been trapped just out of Taehyung’s eyeline, bursts in front of him like the fireworks he’s only ever seen from a distance, blinds him until all he can see is the imprint of Jimin’s body outlined against white. Hidden, and consumed, and embraced by the ghost that Taehyung has never let himself name.

Jimin sobs, and Taehyung presses his palms over his lips, and closes his eyes against everything he can’t make himself look at. It’s only worse, then, when his mind draws up the boy he’d seen in the great hall, his lips split and cheek swollen and eyes red and terrified as the guards dragged him forward by the tie at his wrists. When he tries to picture—the two of them together, Jimin’s face broken into a smile. Whole and unblemished and happy.

And even like this, even though Jimin might not know—they’re embracing. There’s so much love that Taehyung might drown in it, might choke before anyone else gets the chance to wrap their hands around his neck.

Jimin is whispering, now, words Taehyung can’t understand for the depths of his accent, the way he’s choked and wavering and keening out what must be a prayer, what might be the same as the ones he’d whispered, over and over with a collar around his neck and Taehyung trying desperately not to listen from the next room over.

It’s agonizing to wait out. To listen to the desperation in Jimin’s voice, to blink his eyes open every few seconds to watch that bright shape around Jimin take slightly more form, until Taehyung can make out something almost like arms, like a head bowed in sorrow.

He doesn’t know what of the ghost might be his own imagination. Doesn’t know if when his brother die they’ll gather around him like this, but he knows—if they do, it won’t look anything like this. It won’t be anything but a torment, a punishment.

Some of the oldest versions of the legend say that the second Brother had spoken to the others until the day he died, ancient and weary and always speaking to the air like they were listening, like they were speaking back to him. Those had been the versions Taehyung read under the watchful eye of a historian, the pages cracked and yellow and ink just barely legible. The newer versions, the ones his mother had recited from memory to lull him to sleep, had been cleaner than that.

Your honored ancestors, she had always called the Brothers. Once or twice, when Taehyung had stumbled into her rooms with a welting mark on his arm or blood pooling on his tongue from a cut lip, she had reached out with tears in her eyes, and cradled his head close, and whispered little dove.

With her grave behind him, and the terror of seeing worse ghosts than Jimin’s, Taehyung can’t help but wonder—if she’d ever expected to see him grown, even before she had gotten sick. If she ever would have expected him to live long enough to become the tiger, instead of the dove.

Taehyung blinks, and looks down at his hands, and sees—that painful brightness receding. Leaking away like a punctured dam, until spots dance black in his vision and his fingers curl crescent bruises into his palms, and Taehyung can see everything without having to squint through the violence of the reunion.

It’s not gone, though. Not completely. The ghost is as same as ever, but—it glows gold, now, instead of white. Seems content to sit back where Taehyung had gotten used to it, as Jimin heaves and gasps and tears his fingers out of the earth, stained up to the wrists with the blackness of it.

His hand reaches up, to press over his mouth, and leaves traces of soil dark against skin sticky from tears.

It’s not Taehyung’s place to interrupt. It’s not what Jimin deserves, after so long without this.

You did everything you could, he remembers, when both of them had been desperate for shelter and safety and warmth. When Taehyung had clung to every word that had left Jimin’s mouth, and committed them to memory, and still turns some of them over every night before he can let himself fall asleep. And there’s the question that never quite seems to go away—if that’s true. If he could have done more.

He thinks, sometimes, that he should have. Should have ignored the risks and the consequences and gave Jimin maps and food and water to make his own way back to his people. Almost everything had seemed worth it, except—

Except that in every version of the plan Taehyung had run over, lying awake on that too-big too-soft bed, Jimin had died. Had been caught, and returned to the palace, and turned over to Taejoon or Taeil or either of the rest for them to have their fun, and then he had hung next to Taehyung on the wall, eyes rotted and pecked out and never buried, or sunk in the tide.

I’m sorry, Taehyung wants to say, but the words stick tight in his throat. Jimin’s shoulders tremble, his hair sticks damp to his forehead, his wrist wipes angry and harsh at the wetness gathered in the hollows under his eyes.

He gasps, a rallying thing, sucks in air like he’d spent the last while doing anything but. And coughs it back out on the last, choking remnants of a sob, and presses his palm flat against the grave.

“Safe,” Jimin breathes out. A different form of it than Taehyung has ever heard before, from either of their languages. It’s—more permanent, maybe. A prayer; a blessing.

Safe, Taehyung thinks, and thinks back to the way his mother had always smiled for him, even when she had no reason to. Even when he’d brought her nothing but ridicule and silence from her peers. And worse, from his brothers, when they could find her.

Away from the palace, buried in cool and fertile ground. No one can hurt her; no one can touch her, to punish her for the life and the child she’d never asked for. Sometimes, Taehyung wonders if she’d ever hated him for it, when she had to put on a smile and hug him close and murmur stories until he was finally content to curl up by her side and sleep.

“Safe,” he echoes back, barely audible. It feels right. The word tastes foreign, a bright burst of it along his tongue, and Taehyung relishes it.

The surface of the pond ripples with the movement, as Jimin brushes aside willow branches. As he struggles to his feet, and turns fully so that Taehyung can see the redness of his eyes, the streak of dirt along his cheek, the way his eyelashes stick together from the sticky mess of tears.

Taehyung doesn’t know when he’ll start expecting to be embraced. Doesn’t know if he ever will. Doesn’t know if he deserves it. But he knows—Jimin is solid and warm and somehow fragile when he stumbles close, and wraps his arms around Taehyung’s chest, and presses his cheek to the dip of Taehyung’s collarbone.

It’s reflex, almost, to bury his fingers in Jimin’s hair. To slide one hand through the dark strands, and the other along Jimin’s shoulder, to his spine, and press him close the way he seems to need, they way Hoseok might have touched him so many times before.

“Thank you,” Jimin gasps. It takes more out of him than Taehyung thinks he might ever be able to understand. “Thank you, thank you—Taehyung.”

Taehyung tries to catch the light, the gold sitting warm and content just past where he can see, and it dances away as stubbornly as it had before.

“It was the best I could do,” he says again, desperate and shaking. Tries to understand why Jimin is thanking him, when it’s not anything he had ever wanted thanks for.

“You didn’t let him hang.” There’s spitting conviction in Jimin’s voice now, slotted neatly into place next to the pain. “You didn’t let them touch him, didn’t—he got the rites. You let me give him the rites.”

Taehyung digs his fingers in, pressing firm against Jimin’s neck and back, and tries not to remember the white of those mourning clothes. The way the cut on Jimin’s ribs had been just barely fresh enough to re-open when he strained, to stain the back of the white gauzy robe an ugly, healing brown. The cuffs on his wrists, and neck, glinting at the sunrise.

“He’s safe,” Jimin whispers, still that ancient-sounding word. His arms are tight, and strong, and Taehyung thinks—even if he doesn’t deserve this, he doesn’t want to let him go. There’s something warm and unfamiliar lapping in the pit of his stomach, something that might be pride, and maybe it’s misplaced or dirty or traitorous, but—Taehyung likes it. With Jimin wrapped around him, their ghost content and dormant like a lazy cat, it’s hard to remember anything other than the way it feels to be held.

Some of the shame lifts, the weight of it in his stomach easing, and Taehyung can’t find it in himself to be anything but grateful for it.

 


 

Jimin likes the feeling of Taehyung’s hand in his. He feels gutted, like a summer peach, hollow in a place in his chest where pain had nested so deep he hadn’t felt it until it was pouring out onto the earth beneath him. There’s nothing left in him to feel hurt, to mourn; it’s easier, Jimin thinks, to stay a little blank. To let himself enjoy the companionship, as they make their way back to the river and the temple.

For once, he isn’t afraid to have Jeongguk and Hoseok out of his sight. Maybe it’s the exhaustion, the way his eyes feel heavy and sore, but—they both have their swords. They have each other, and Jimin would bet on them against ten of Odai’s best, in almost any fight. And Jimin has Taehyung, and the gentle callouses on his palm, and the heavy weight of something resting on his shoulders, more like a blanket than a burden.

“We’re almost there,” Taehyung reassures him, when they’ve been walking in steady silence for long enough that the shadows have shifted.

Jimin hums under his breath, light and soft enough that it doesn’t scrape at his throat.

He’s done crying now, he thinks. He’s done for a long time, for maybe months, every drop of saltwater poured out of him for the ground to soak up. Jimin doesn’t think he’ll be full again until he’s floating in the sea by the manor, near the jagged islands and cliff faces and tide pools he’d spent his childhood learning by heart. Doesn’t think he’ll be full until the wound of loss has faded to an ache, a memory that never fades but manages to be content in the background of his heart.

Put Jihyun away. Put his father and Dawon and his countrymen away, next to the place his mother sleeps, until the pain wakes again every so often with a distant howl.

“How often did you come?” Jimin finally asks, as the trees get denser. Taehyung peers through them and shrugs, pouts his lips out just enough that Jimin can tell he’s thinking, forming the words in his head before they pass his lips.

“When I found the tunnel, maybe once a week.” A slight pause, a shift of something rustling in the trees. A gentle stroke of Jimin’s thumb, to show that he’s listening. “After—after it happened, I’d come every few months.”

It feels strange, to have a physical grave. Jimin’s grave will be the sea, if he’s lucky; like his mother before him, and his grandparents, and every king that died peacefully back through the generations. His father, like all the warrior kings, rests near the battlefield. Hoseok and Jeongguk had taken his helmets, to set him off to sea one last time.

But Jihyun’s ashes rest in the earth, in the Odaian tradition, and for the first time Jimin wonders how Taehyung must have felt, looking down at his mother’s grave as a boy. To be confronted with something so final, the terrifying claustrophobia of burial, instead of the open impossibility of the ocean.

“My mother was given to the sea,” he offers. “I was angry at the Goddess for that, for a while. But I still visited her every day, even though—it’s not like what you have.”

“No,” Taehyung says. “But—it sounds nice. I think my mother would have liked that. The freedom.”

Jimin wonders if it means the same thing to them. He thinks of freedom, and pictures the shoreline. The sea is powerful, and beautiful, and every child grows up knowing that one wrong move, out where their toes can’t touch, means death. But what Taehyung speaks of, floating out farther than anyone alive has ever been without a ship—

Like a collar striking the floor, like the chain that had fallen not half a second later.

“We could have a funeral,” Jimin says, so quiet even he can barely hear it. Taehyung’s thumb stills, where it had been tentatively stroking, and Jimin is too afraid to look to his face. They don’t stop moving, the path sure now that the river is close enough to hear, but there’s something about the set to Taehyung’s shoulders that implies a kind of stillness that Jimin has never quite been able to manage for himself.

“Yeah,” Taehyung finally chokes out. Jimin blinks hard, offers another gentle squeeze. Taehyung’s words fall softly, but earnest; Jimin had only realized how much he hated that self-imposed flatness until Taehyung had begun to drop it, in the quiet days after the storm. “Yeah, we could.”

And maybe it’s the reminder that nothing is certain, that they could all be dead in the next day, that stops Jimin from pushing the question.

It’s only early afternoon, the day warm and crisp enough that the heat is nice, instead of sticky and stifling, and Jimin lets himself enjoy it for the rest of the trek. This far off the main road, the forest is calm and quiet, all but deserted even with the settlements that had spilled out of the city gates and around the road, the ones that had spilled out shocked crowds as Jimin was marched in the first time.

The silence is nice. The way it lets him forget, almost, is nice.

But Taehyung keeps shivering. Once, he stops to cough so hard that Jimin presses a worried hand to his spine, listening to the wet awful sound of it, and the rattle of his breath as he uncurls from himself. Taehyung offers a weak smile, but—he looks scared, and Jimin forces himself to breathe, and reaches out to press his palm gentle against Taehyung’s sternum.

“We’ll get Yoongi to look at you,” he says, as reassuring as he can, and tries not to stare too blatantly at the thin sheen of sweat on Taehyung’s face, the redness of his cheeks from the effort of coughing.

“Of course,” Taehyung replies, and tugs Jimin’s hand off him to tangle their fingers again. He doesn’t seem to ever want to let go, and—it’s not like Jimin can blame him. Not like he isn’t just as desperate for it, like it’s easier to keep himself upright when Taehyung is next to him, these days. He can examine it later, if he lives, but for now Jimin lets himself appreciate the comfort, and worry about Taehyung’s jagged breathing, the way it rasps against his throat as they push their way through the last of the forest.

By the time they break into the clearing, Jimin is supporting more of Taehyung’s weight than he should be. It’s not that Taehyung is falling, exactly; it’s more like he’s exhausted, each foot stepping heavy and slow, his eyes half-lidded and arm slung around Jimin’s shoulder.

He straightens, though, when they reach the temple, to stand on his own as five pairs of eyes follow them out of the trees.

It’s just as Jimin remembers. Dilapidated and overgrown and empty under the gaze of the Brothers, whose statues aren’t nearly as imposing as others stationed along the trader’s road. Those had been ornamented with carved dragons, wrapped around the eldest’s shoulder; a tiger slouching aside the second. This temple has nothing but a faded grey dove perched on the youngest’s shoulder, peering down at the scrolls in his arms.

And beneath the statues, where Taehyung had laid half of the scrap Jimin had tossed at him, there’s nothing. The offering is gone, taken by wildlife or rainfall, and Jimin can’t help but feel a curl of guilt. That he’d let Taehyung pray to repay a debt, and had resented every second of it. That he’d barely had the goodwill to give him a sorry excuse for a meal, even though—remembering, he can’t imagine feeling any differently.

It’s uncomfortable. To see the way Taehyung’s wrists draw together almost on instinct, as if still bound and dragged along by a leash. To recognize that a part of him still wants to look away, to ignore Taehyung’s pain; even after a month outside those chains, something in Jimin still rages at them.

“Jimin-ah!” Hoseok calls, from where he’s skinning a rabbit, young and fat from spring growth. “Look what hyung caught for you.”

The camp they’ve made is barely that; just a firepit, and the five of them sitting around it in a serious kind of calm, swords and knives unsheathed to be sharpened.

“By hyung he means me,” Jin says, over Jimin’s greeting. Jimin just grins, and takes note of the way Hoseok’s hair is just barely dampened by sweat, his breathing heavier than the others’.

When he’d left with Taehyung, Jimin had assumed that Hoseok or Jeongguk would follow them, at least for a ways. Jeongguk doesn’t trust them alone yet, and Jimin doesn’t ask him to; he’s grateful for the respected privacy, though he doesn’t know how far Hoseok had followed, or what he had seen.

Yoongi and Namjoon are standing under the temple roof, speaking quietly between them. Jimin sits down heavy next to Jeongguk, who’s sprawled asleep on the ground next to Jin, and watches Taehyung make his careful way over to the two of them. He pauses, to brush his fingers gently over the arm of the third Brother, before stepping under the shade of the half-crumbled awning.

“Did you have a nice time?” Hoseok asks, voice light and honey-sweet, nothing of the innuendo in it Jimin might have expected. It probably has something to do with the way his eyes still feel sore, must be ringed in red along with the tip of his nose, like he always flushes after crying.

Jimin takes a moment to think. Nice isn’t quite right for the way it had felt, kneeling in front of that pond. For the way he could have sworn, just for a moment, that familiar arms were wrapped around him, familiar breath warm in his ear. There had been no words, nothing concrete, just—Jimin’s eyes closed, his fingers buried in the earth above his brother’s ashes, and something about Jihyun lingering in the air. Like he’d been waiting, for weeks, for Jimin to find him.

“I did,” he finally offers. Hoseok’s smile doesn’t twitch, doesn’t give anything away, but his fingers stroke sweet and delicate over the back of Jimin’s neck.

“You’ll have to tell me about it one day,” Hoseok says, voice so soft Jimin barely catches it. He means more than the last few hours, Jimin knows; there’s only so long he’s ever been able to keep a secret from his Kal, and he can already feel the itch to talk everything through, to spill messy into the waiting space between them and untangle each knotted thread in his mind and his heart.

“One day.” It’s a promise that he’ll keep, if they live. If they win, because—Hoseok will take care of him, if they don’t.

Not Jeongguk. Not after the way his voice had broken that morning at the sea, I failed ringing hollow against the cliffside. If Jimin tasked him with this, if he had to exist for even a single moment in the world with Jimin’s blood on his hands—it’s in his oaths, maybe, but Jeongguk wouldn’t forgive himself.

And maybe Hoseok wouldn’t either, but looking at him now Jimin doesn’t regret it. He’s okay with leaving him that burden. He thinks about chains, and the gentle dexterity of Hoseok’s fingers, and the way he sharpens his knife every evening by the light of the fire.

It’s something he’s dreamed about. Surrounded on all sides, Jeongguk cut down by the same masked raiders who’d burned his village as a child, nothing but Jimin’s chest against Hoseok’s back, Hoseok’s blade against his throat.

Look at me, the dream had always said, with Hoseok’s voice. A recurring nightmare, every time they rode out to a border village or battle. In every one of them, Jimin had turned around, and met Hoseok’s eyes, and Hoseok had leaned forward to kiss him gentle and sweet like that night in the shallow cave. And Jimin’s blood had wet them both, hot and slick on Hoseok’s hands, the pain unbearable.

Those same hands brush his hair back now, picking out willow leaves Jimin hadn’t thought to search for, and Jimin blinks the image away. It’s so easy to let himself be touched like this that it reminds him of Taehyung, who weathers each touch like a hurricane, barricaded and fortified against tenderness.

Their conversation, or prayer, seems to be winding down under the temple roof. Namjoon steps forward into the open, to run a hand down the third Brother’s stone sleeve, peering thoughtfully into the carved darkness of the statue’s eyes.

Taehyung begins to speak, too soft for Jimin to hear, and cuts himself with a cough. Again and again until it’s wet and painful-sounding, until Yoongi has a concerned hand braced on his chest and Namjoon has hurried back to rub circles along his back. Without a word, Jin has already started to shuffle through his bag, mud-stained and still barely damp, filled to the brim with greens and flowers Jimin couldn’t hope to guess the name of.

It’s startling. To see how quickly they’ve all rushed to his aid, to watch Yoongi’s careful guidance as Taehyung stumbles down the steps, breaths still too raspy for Jimin to relax from where he’d tensed.

“Has he been coughing long?” Yoongi shoots at him, and Jimin shakes his head, even as Taehyung tries to speak up, only to cough again. Hoseok leans forward, shoves a skin into his hands and pointedly watches him take a few sips.

“Jimin-ah, put water on,” Jin barks, and crowds in to be Yoongi’s extra pair of hands, and leaves Jimin to wonder how, exactly, he’s supposed to heat water when all their supplies had been swept down the mountain. At his side, Jeongguk smacks his lips, and rolls over on his side, and stays resolutely dead to the world, as unhelpful as Jimin’s ever seen him.

He thinks, though, that if he were awake he might help. Might be willing to do what he could for Taehyung, for something like this.

Hoseok takes the bundle of peppermint from Jin, the smell of it stinging Jimin’s nose, and they manage to get a cup of water warm enough for a weak tea, even as Taehyung protests through a scratched throat as Jin grinds a dizzying combination of plants together with water and gently bullies it down Taehyung’s throat.

Taehyung blinks, wide-eyed and overwhelmed, over at Jimin. Jimin stamps down on the urge to laugh kindly, and instead shuffles over to press the tea into his hand, waving off Yoongi’s indignant grumble as Jimin takes his place, to let Taehyung lean against his chest.

“That’s going to put you to sleep,” Yoongi says.

And Jimin realizes, a split second before Taehyung does. He can feel it, that gut instinct reaction as Taehyung starts to push himself up, sees in his peripheral the panic that splinters across Taehyung’s face with wide eyes and a horrified part to his lips—and then Yoongi sees, and Jimin remembers that he knows, and he wraps his arms around Taehyung’s chest before he can slip away to heave up the medicine.

“It’s okay,” he whispers, over and over, as Taehyung’s chest rises and falls, rises and falls, too rapid to be anything but fear. As Yoongi reaches forward to grasp his hands, urging Taehyung quietly and firmly to look into his eyes, to watch him, to not look away.

“We won’t hurt you,” Yoongi says, quiet enough that everyone who’s backed up shouldn’t be able to hear. Jimin glances up, sees Namjoon’s face confused and stricken, and hooks his chin over Taehyung’s shoulder and bites down on his lip to keep from screaming at the unfairness of it. That none of them had realized, that Taehyung is still afraid. That he’d ever had reason to, to begin with.

“Hyung,” Taehyung gasps. Jimin makes a soft noise, muffled into his robe, that he doesn’t know who Taehyung is addressing. Yoongi, or something none of the rest of them can see.

“We aren’t going to hurt you.” Jimin’s throat is choked, but it’s worth repeating. “Taehyung. Taehyung-ah.”

“Jimin.” It’s almost a whimper. Taehyung’s hand fumbles away from Yoongi’s, wraps vice-tight around Jimin’s wrist. “Jimin?”

“I’m here,” he promises. Breathes warm and shallow against Taehyung’s neck, as Yoongi offers up the tea, waits for Taehyung to part his lips before he tips the cup against them.

“I’m sorry,” Yoongi murmurs. His brow is creased, his hand gentle as Taehyung finally lets him go, as he smooths that hand down Taehyung’s bangs, brushes them away from his forehead. “But you need to rest, Taehyung-ah. It’s going to be a long night.”

Taehyung breathes out, and drags Jimin’s hand up. Slots their fingers together, to hold him so tight Jimin thinks his bones might break from the strength of it. There’s still tension humming through every inch of him, still that light of panic in his drooping eyes, but he drinks the tea Yoongi offers him sip by sip, and only coughs once as he does, and blinks slower and slower until Jimin watches him struggle to keep his eyes open for longer than a few seconds.

“I’m right here,” he whispers again. Squeezes his eyes shut tight, so he doesn’t have to look over Yoongi’s shoulder to see the stares from the rest of the group. At least Jeongguk is still asleep, isn’t awake to question any of it.

“Please stay,” Taehyung mumbles. He hasn’t let Jimin go, doesn’t seem to know how. Jimin flutters his eyes open, to see Yoongi’s gaze tastefully averted. To see the way he’s shielding them from view, to give Taehyung whatever privacy he has left. And so Jimin risks it. Presses his lips soft and dry to the curve of Taehyung’s neck, just under his jaw, and listens to the soft little gasp he gets in response.

“I will.” It doesn’t feel like enough, but Taehyung sighs, and slumps back against Jimin’s chest, and something about it breaks his heart. “I promise, Taehyung-ah. Nothing’s going to hurt you.”

Taehyung falls asleep like that, his head resting gently against Jimin’s. His hand doesn’t let go, long after every other part of him has relaxed into a sleep Jimin can’t help but hope is dreamless.

 


 

Sunset comes slowly. Taehyung sleeps through the smell of cooking rabbit, which manages to rouse even Jeongguk from the depths of unconsciousness, and Jimin doesn’t have it in him to do more than shift Taehyung just barely to the side to free one of his own arms.

No one comments, not even Jeongguk, but Jimin can tell they’re all wondering.

If they make it out of this alive, the both of them have explaining to do that Jimin isn’t even sure how to wrap his head around. He thinks about sitting Jeongguk down, after an alliance is made, and telling him about everything he’d missed. Not only the storm, but—in the palace. The drug and the children and the visit from Taehyung’s brother, and the way Taehyung had hurt him so deeply Jimin was ready to kill him. And then about every moment since, even the ones Jeongguk watched himself, and how it all seemed inevitable.

Inevitable that they might end up like this, with Taehyung curled into Jimin like he’s aching for any kind of anchor he can get his hands on.

That night, they’re supposed to rest until it’s time to leave. After the rabbit is eaten, with a portion set aside for when Taehyung’s medicine wears off, Namjoon drifts off with his head pillowed in Jin’s lap, and Jin’s head resting on Hoseok’s shoulder. Jeongguk keeps careful watch, and doesn’t even pretend not to listen in when Yoongi pads over to crouch down by Jimin’s side, looking down with soft eyes at the gentle openness of Taehyung’s sleeping face.

“He told you,” Yoongi murmurs, and he seems to understand the both of them enough that it’s not a question.

Jimin chances a nod, and feels his nose brush up against a stray lock of Taehyung’s feather-soft hair.

“Was it bad?” Jimin asks, and feels immediately like a foolish child. Yoongi doesn’t laugh, though, just blinks slow and gentle and reaches out, before thinking better of it. He sits fully with a sigh, pushes out of him by the impact.

“It was,” he says. “The worst I’d ever seen, even from the palace clients we sometimes got.”

Jimin keeps his mouth closed, and waits. In the corner of his eye, he sees Jeongguk turn, listen with a careful ear even as he keeps his eyes scanning the layer of forest around them.

“There was so much blood. He’d gotten his shirt on somehow, and it was—Eomma cut it off, and told me to burn it, because the stains would never come out.”

Jimin thinks about he told me to bite down on it, can’t stop picturing Taehyung lying catatonic on that palace floor.

“I only saw the cut for a few seconds. He was so—he could barely keep his eyes open, but the whole time we were cleaning it he kept begging us to stop.” Yoongi takes a deep breath, one that sticks in his chest. He’s still watching Taehyung, and Jeongguk is still watching the three of them. “He was so small, Jimin-ah. I was so scared for him. I kept wondering—how he had gotten mixed up with one of the princes, what they must be like to do that to someone so—so powerless.”

Jimin breathes in the warmth of Taehyung’s body, and swallows down bile.

“It was one of his brothers, right?” Jimin can hear the resignation heavy in the words.

“Yeah.” It’s all he’s willing to offer, without Taehyung to say anything himself. It’s all Yoongi needs, though, to rub his palm exhausted against his eye. There’s another sigh, heavy in the evening quiet, and Jimin looks up at the pink streaks in the sky above them, from the sun slowly setting over the mountain’s peak.

They’ll have to leave soon. Taehyung stirs in Jimin’s arms, just barely, his lips dropping open on a soft sound that pricks at Jimin’s heart like a needle.

“I’m glad he has you,” Yoongi says. And then, with just a hint less kindness, his lips turn down. “I’m glad we’re doing this.”

Jimin thinks, in twelve hours it might all be over. Either way, everything might be done. In the distance, Jeongguk turns slowly, one hand resting on the hilt of his sword.

“I am too,” Jimin says, over the soft sounds of the river in the distance.

He’s ready, he thinks. Either way, win or lose. He’s ready.

 


 

Before they set out, after Taehyung blinks himself into blurry consciousness, they adjust the plan one last time. It’s the last night of Kyunghwan’s grace period, which could mean that he’s assembled soldiers to march out from the trader’s road at dawn. Or it could mean nothing at all, for all any of them know. They’re too far from the city wall to hear any rumors, well away from the best worn paths that lead away from the capital. 

Jin speaks a blessing into the air of their circle in a language Jimin vaguely recognizes as southern. She’s traveled more than all of them put together, knows about prayers and cultures Jimin has only ever been able to read about, and it’s a welcome change from the divide that splits them almost evenly. It’s a blessing for fortune, and for mercy.

“We’re really doing this,” Yoongi murmurs, before they break. Namjoon does his best to smile, face just a shade too grim to manage it, and slings a gentle arm around his shoulders.

“It’s a long time coming.” The set of his mouth digs his dimple in deep, and Jimin looks over to see Hoseok watching him, careful and calculating. Making last minute adjustments to whatever plan has mapped itself out in his own head, one that Jimin trusts utterly. “Kyungwhan hardly inspired any loyalty, even when I left.”

The thought of a court that would so easily switch allegiance, even away from a hawkish drunk, makes Jimin shudder. He’s heard Namjoon and Taehyung’s plan to replace the heirs and courtesans, but everything about Odai makes him uneasy, down to the ground beneath his feet.

“We’re ready,” Hoseok says, quiet in the cooling air. The sun has just finished setting, the last of its glow vanished over the mountain line, the last glow of the fire fading out from beneath the dirt piled over it. “Everyone?”

A silence rings in the air, after he speaks it. Jimin looks over at Taehyung, sandwiched firmly between Yoongi and Jin, whose face still droops with exhaustion despite the clarity glittering in his eyes, the resolve firm in his shoulders.

They’re waiting for his word, Jimin knows. As much as this might have been Jimin’s idea, everything comes down to Taehyung.

He looks up, finds Jimin’s eyes, and Jimin wonders how he could ever be certain. Even with the bruises Jimin had watched fade, the fear he might not ever be able to shake—even with everything stacked against them, this is his family. His brothers, his father.

They might live through this night, and come out of it the same. The same, except—Jimin has always had Hoseok, and Jeongguk, and the people crowded around this circle.

They might live through this night, and then Taehyung will have to build himself a new family. A new court, a new empire, a new legacy for his line.

“I’m ready,” Taehyung says. When he breathes, the group breathes with him. Even Jeongguk, who hasn’t quite taken his eyes off of him since he’d woken with a soft noise, still cradled against Jimin’s chest.

Taehyung breaks the circle, and steps back toward the temple. They all follow in his wake, Jimin close enough to hover at his elbow, close enough to hear the shaky breath as he steps up to the third Brother’s statue, peering up at the stillness of its carved face. Jimin reaches out, brushes barely-there over the crook of Taehyung’s elbow, in what he thinks might be support. He doesn’t know if it works, but—Taehyung’s spine straightens. His hands move slowly, carefully over the stone.

One hand presses down on the statue’s forearm, where it’s wrapped around a bundle of scrolls. The other finds its forearm, long fingers curving just barely visible in the dark. Behind them, Jimin hears the strike of flint, the shower of sparks, the quiet crack of Hoseok’s fashioned torch spitting to life.

It’s just enough to see by, as Taehyung breathes in deep, and braces his weight against stone.

The statue slides easily, the low rumble of its scrape eased by a mechanism that Jimin couldn’t hope to look for in the given light. He doesn’t know how heavy the statue is, but—at least part of it must be hollow, if Taehyung had been able to move it as a child. Jimin watches the strain in his neck, and gets caught up in the overgrown curl of Taehyung’s hair, the sliver of skin that stretches from the top of his collar, enough that he forgets to look at the ground.

“I changed my mind,” Hoseok declares half-jokingly, when the statue stops moving, with all the familiarity of when Jihyun had tried to goad him into caverns and crevices and other bug-infested spaces on their patrols.

Jimin doesn’t blame him. The entrance to the tunnel is a black hole, a vertical drop down; it seems just as likely to swallow them whole as to spit them out on the doorsteps of the great hall.

“It’s perfectly safe,” Taehyung murmurs, staring down, and it echoes back up at him with a sound so round and deep that Jimin shudders with it. When he turns, there’s the ghostly hint of a smile tugging at the exhausted set of his mouth, so at odds with the pallor of his face and the bags under his eyes that Jimin blinks, just to check. “I haven’t died once.”

Namjoon laughs, and steps forward with the torch. Enough that Jimin can see the carved footholds in the stone wall of the tunnel, a ladder leading down into nothingness.

“There’s a first time for everything.” It’s terrible, the lightness in it. The way Jimin actually wants to laugh, with something like hysteria building up in him the longer he looks down. He thinks, briefly, to savor the fresh crispness of the air, the open sky up above him. He’s staring into a tomb, and wonders—if this is how Jihyun had felt, when the coroner had buried him.

“We’re really doing this,” Yoongi says again. This time, it’s tinged with that same hysteria Jimin feels. Like none of them had actually believed him, until Taehyung had shoved aside a statue and shown them all the proof.

Jimin can’t stop the laugh that punches out of him, mostly air and incredulity. He looks up, and sees Taehyung’s eyes, as dark as the tunnel below them, reflecting the yellow-orange glow of the torch.

“Lead the way,” Jimin says, and offers out his hand. And Taehyung takes it, and takes the first step down into the dark, and Jimin forces himself to follow despite the claustrophobia that rips at his throat with every step that takes him further away from the sky, from the sea, from the air he traps desperately in his lungs like he can take it with him into the earth.

Jimin only breathes again when he moves to step down, and his heel strikes sold ground. Taehyung’s hands are there in an instant to brace against Jimin’s back, the only reprieve from unrelenting darkness, the torch still waiting with Namjoon from above.

In the cavernous space of the tunnel, even Jimin’s breath echoes. He turns to grasp Taehyung’s wrist, searches through the blackness for any glimmer of his eyes, and listens to the sound of Jeongguk descending above them, one careful foot at a time. The air is dead and still, stale on his tongue, but not the rotted stink of death Jimin had been afraid of. He reaches out, when Taehyung lets him go, and finds that his fingers can’t touch both stone walls at once.

“Hyung,” Jeongguk murmurs, when he reaches the bottom. His hand wraps warm around the back of Jimin’s neck; Jimin steps forward, guides him farther away from the steps, into the endless stretch in front of them.

“I’m okay,” he replies, and blinks to find that his voice is shaking. The two hands on him, neck and palm, light him up through the nothingness that threatens at his vision, bright colors swirling against the empty backdrop. Jeongguk squeezes, and fumbles for Jimin’s other hand, and breathes just to hear the reflection of it.

Hoseok comes last, the torch held in one hand until it’s safe enough to pass it down to Namjoon. No one’s joking anymore, not as Hoseok reaches for a handle hidden on the bottom of the statue and tugs the entrance half-shut, until the moon is just barely visible through a slivered, insignificant opening.

“We have another torch,” Jin says, as helpless as the rest of them. Jimin looks around, at the low light and the fear on all their faces, and thinks—that they’re all willing to do this, for the cause. To bury themselves under earth and stone with no promise that they’ll even make it out to see the sky again.

He looks up, and says goodbye to the Goddess, coupled with an apology. For going where she can’t follow.

“Let’s go,” Namjoon sighs, and Jimin nods when Hoseok’s eyes land calculating and sharp on his. And so the entrance slides shut, with the low grumble of stone on stone, and their world is sealed into darkness.

 


 

The obsidian in the tunnel walls reflects firelight. Taehyung watches Jimin’s face as they approach the palace, the quiet stun as he takes in the fractured glimmer of the walls, the smooth black curves of the most ancient structure Taehyung has ever known. The tunnels are older than the palace, older than the city, older than perhaps even the Brothers themselves.

“It’s beautiful,” Namjoon murmurs, one long finger stroking along the cut curve of a chunk almost as large as his head. “It must have taken decades to mine through all this.”

Taehyung hums, and looks away from his own distorted reflection. The first time he’d come through the tunnel with a half-burned candle to light the way, it had gone out half a mile from the temple. He’d been stuck inching his way along, one tentative footstep at a time, with his whole toro plastered against the wall as the sharpest points tore at his clothes and skin.

He doesn’t know much about the history of the mines, but he knows that these offshoots are just as dangerous as they are protective. As exhausted and young and skinny as he’d been, it had taken at least an hour to budge the statue above him; a long, sweating ordeal that had left him gasping and heaving as he crawled to the surface, as he sucked in fresh air like he’d forgotten the taste of it.

Now, Taehyung savors the dust in his lungs and the smoke that crawls above them as they walk, and tries to appreciate the beauty of it. Jimin is quiet, Jeongguk and Hoseok half a step behind, and so there’s not much he’s willing to say. His eyes still feel heavy, his breath rasping painful in his throat, but the worst of his pounding headache has eased. Even the ghost has dulled to the flicker of embers, and Taehyung imagines that—he might feel a thrill of remorse, from it.

Either way, it hardly matters. There’s no space in their plan for weakness, every moment scheduled and planned for, and so Taehyung shoves it down as far as he can. The pain and exhaustion and the wellspring of unfamiliar emotion are locked away, where he can deal with them when all of this is over.

He doesn’t quite know why he’s convinced that they might succeed. It feels impossible, when he thinks about it, but—there’s something about the light of resolve in Jimin’s eyes, the pursed focus of Jeongguk’s lips, that has him convinced that they’d both die before giving up. And there’s always the possibility that they will, the possibility that Taehyung might live to see Taejoon’s knife split Jimin’s skin after all. Down here, though, in the darkness of centuries-old mines, shut away from a foreign Goddess Taehyung can’t help but wish for, it all gets harder to picture.

Everything is pointless, he reminds himself, with a vicious pinch to his own arm, unless they can get to his father. And it won’t be easy.

Jimin had pulled them close, to change the plan one last time, and Taehyung’s chest hums in something like panic or anticipation or excitement at the thought of it.

When the path starts sloping up, Taehyung knows they’re close. Namjoon seems to know it too, starts fiddling with the hilt of his sword, and it sets everyone off into agitated motion, the hours of walking in stifling darkness both too little and too much for any of them to stay completely sane.

Jin starts humming, a winding tune Taehyung doesn’t recognize the sound of, and it fills the tunnel with an echo that vibrates down his spine, raises the hairs at the back of his neck. She doesn’t stop when Jeongguk breathes out, choked and trembling; doesn’t stop when the torch flickers, dips, threatens to go out.

The song might be from the South, or the desert far to the west of the end of Odai’s mountain range. Taehyung closes his eyes, though in the dark he barely needs to, and imagines where she might have learned it. Tagging along with the trader’s caravan she’d spoken about at the fire one night, or the traveling healer, or the ancient old woman she’d called witch who had taken her in for half a year, the one Taehyung isn’t totally sure exists, by the doubt in Namjoon’s fond eye-roll.

Jin hums until they see the steps, carved glimmering and ink-black into the wall. They lead up, and up, to a hollow wall, dull stone on all four sides and claustrophobic-tight.

Taehyung’s feet stop, without his permission, and Jin’s song stumbles with him.

“Taehyung?” Jimin murmurs, close enough behind him that Taehyung can feel the warm breath on his skin, and Taehyung—flinches. Can’t help that he does, when every time he’d stepped out of this tunnel he’d been returning back to that palace. That family. As different as this might be, he can still only remember the sting of skin, the full-body ache of his bruises.

He wants, in the dark absence of Jimin’s Goddess, to fling himself at the Brothers’ feet and ask for forgiveness, any kind he can get. Forgiveness for failing to kill his brothers, or for wanting it in the first place.

Little dove, his mother’s voice whispers in his ear. Always, that certainty that he was the helpless one, likely to be murdered in his own bed.

And she’d been right, when the tiger had buried its claws and knives in Taehyung’s stomach, and refused to let go. Now, for the first time—Taehyung pictures dragon’s claws tearing at him instead. Imagines the sleek power and thunderous growl warming his chest like something physical, tries to cast away the white, fluttering thing on his shoulder that whispers run, run.

He steps up, and up, and presses in on the stone, to breathe in a glimpse of fresh air that chills him down to the bone.

The tunnel spits them out behind the great hall. The entrance is narrow, hidden two walls behind his father’s throne, opening out into the empty corner only accessible from the dais or the servant’s walkway. The air is crisp, layered with the familiar pine smell of home, and Taehyung stops with one hand braced on the wall to breathe before he can stand on his own again.

Jimin’s face is pale, when he looks over. A thumb twitches at the hollow of his throat. Taehyung averts his eyes, and sees Hoseok watching him, and swallows down bile and the urge to vomit and reminds himself that this is for Jimin, for their countries, more than it could ever be about him. Just one person, caught up in the tides of war, when thousands have already died. It’s not his place, to lose himself to memory.

“Welcome home,” Yoongi murmurs to Namjoon, just loud enough to be heard.

In their own tongue, falling flat and familiar in the empty hall, and Taehyung shudders at it. At the carvings in the wooden support beams, in the pale moonlight that filters in through a lone, small window at the very top of the wall.

The torch sputters out, and leaves them all illuminated by nothing but the flickering lamplight from around the corner, in the servant’s hall.

“If anything goes wrong,” Jimin starts. Pauses. Taehyung resists the urge to fumble for his hand again, to keep him close and—safe. To keep him safe, in this place that had hurt him so badly it’s shameful to remember. “If anything goes wrong—thank you. For everything.”

Taehyung’s head hurts. His throat is raw, his vision swims when he blinks, and he doesn’t care anymore whether it’s from this sudden sickness or the tears he’s been fighting since he woke up, medicine still working its way out of his system. It had been less potent than he’d expected, even as he drifted off; more of a firm suggestion than something that dragged him under, or stripped him of control.

“Hyung.” Jeongguk’s voice is thick, the tremble of his lips visible even in the dark. Taehyung averts his eyes, and finds Yoongi watching him with more sympathy than he’d expected.

It’s only now starting to sink in. The throne, just on the other side of the wall opposite them. The vials Yoongi slips out of his pack, to press one into each of their hands. Namjoon, Hoseok, Jeongguk, Jimin. One at a time, with a lingering brush of his fingers, until he steps up to Taehyung, and Taehyung realizes that he’s stopped breathing.

“Hey,” Yoongi murmurs. When they’re all this close, there’s no helping the way any illusion of privacy vanishes. And so everyone sees, when Yoongi’s hand reaches out, to tuck a strand of hair behind his ear. Everyone sees, when Taehyung flinches away from it, the way the hand jerks back. He breathes, and tries not to feel trapped, and wraps both arms solid and shaking around his waist. “It’s okay for this to be hard.”

It’s laughable. Taehyung almost breaks, almost loses himself to hysteria, but—if he breaks down now, he knows they’ll never survive. He’ll lead the palace guard straight to them, with laughter or screams or both.

“It’s fine,” he forces himself to say. Unlocks, and reaches his hands out for the smooth glass, the deceptive clear of the liquid it holds. Yoongi presses down on Taehyung’s fingers, to curl them around it, and leaves him with the reassuring weight of the motion.

Jeongguk’s hand slips from around Jimin’s neck. Namjoon’s hand drops from the hilt of his sword, anxiety tight in his shoulders and brow.

“Tell them to stay inside.” Taehyung isn’t ashamed to admit that he begs, looking between Jin and Yoongi and hoping they understand the weight of it. There’s no way he could forgive himself if—something happened, to Haseul or the children. “Every servant you see, tell them—no matter what, to stay put.”

The worst end to this is the palace guard slitting the throat of any suspected collaborators. Taehyung knows his family, and knows what their orders would be.

“We will,” Jin murmurs. She’d limped the whole walk here; Yoongi’s arm is still held close to his chest by the sling. They can’t risk either of them in a fight, as difficult as it had been to speak it. But this, at least, does something to ease the anxiety that’s wound tight around Taehyung’s heart like a viper, ready to sink its teeth in at a moment’s notice.

The two of them leave first. There’s only one exit to the crawl space, save the shifting panel to the great hall, and so they split up early; Yoongi and Jin vanish around the corner, into the flickering lamp-light, and leave them with that much more room to breathe, the weight of the next hours pressing in on their shoulders.

“Taeseok’s room should be unguarded,” Namjoon repeats, as commonly recited as any prayer they’d been taught as children. “Taejoon’s soldiers aren’t allowed in his chambers. Taeho pays his in soju.”

Jeongguk nods along, and stares down at the vial in his hand, and twitches fingers toward the hilt of his dagger.

Taehyung tries not to dwell on it. Tries not to imagine his oldest brother, kneeling to beg for mercy, split open on the steel of someone who for so long had called Taehyung an enemy.

It’s a foolish thought. Taejoon would never kneel, would never beg. He’d die silently, stubbornly.

“Go,” Jimin says, when enough time has passed that Taehyung has started to tremble from nerves, from the fear that at any moment, a patrol will pin them at spearpoint and drag them around through the heavy doors of the hall, to stain the stones again.

Jeongguk takes Jimin’s vial, and slips both into his belt, and clasps forearms with his prince. His king, Taehyung thinks, and almost goes dizzy with it.

“I’ll find you,” Jeongguk says. It’s a vow as much as is reassurance, for the both of them. Taehyung watches him go, slipped around the corner with Namjoon stuck to his side, and tries not to drown.

And then it’s the three of them. Hoseok breathing soft at Jimin’s side, Taehyung watching as Jimin’s eyes flutter closed. As he breathes, and presses two fingers to his lips, and looks up at the shadow of moonlight that slips in through the ventilation window. In the corner of Taehyung’s eye, his ghost curls soft and tremulous and scared.

“Are you ready?” Hoseok asks, and it takes Taehyung too long to realize that he isn’t talking to Jimin. That he’s waiting for Taehyung’s word. The weight of it is impossible on his tongue, as Taehyung blinks and tries to think of any answer that isn’t never.

He almost wishes they hadn’t changed the plan. Almost wishes that he’d spared himself some of the terror that rests at the top of his throat, just waiting to spill out into the gentle silence of the night. But it’s too late to call it off, and Hoseok’s eyes are sharp as flint, and Taehyung can’t even look at Jimin without remembering that—he knows. Everything he’s kept to himself for so long it had started to fester and rot, Jimin knows.

“No,” he finally whispers. Swallows sharp and dry and scraping against the rough patches, and meets their eyes with confidence they must be able to see through, though neither speak a word. “Let’s go.”

Taehyung breathes in the familiar scent of home, and fingers the vial in the folds of his tattered robe, and steps out into the halls of his home.

 


 

At night, the palace is always quiet. Servants begin their days just before dawn, but his father spends his mornings sleeping off wine and soju, and so the days have adjusted themselves to his schedule. The scholars rise early, and the princes and guards spend the coolest hours of morning in the training square, but—courtiers sleep in their lavish chambers sometimes until the afternoon, and the mid-day meal is the first for many. 

They’ve timed this well enough that by the time they reach the East wing of the estate, they’ve only had to press themselves into shadowed corners twice, to let a rare patrol and a giggling couple pass them by.

Taehyung tries not to look at Jimin, as they walk. Tries not to remember how tightly his hands had been bound, the last time he’d walked through this place, with dread so thick in his throat it had threatened to choke him. Jimin had barely acknowledged him, on that walk, as he’d been supported by Jeongguk’s sturdy arm and half-delirious, Taehyung thinks, with the possibility of it.

The more he tries not to remember that journey, the sharper the images in his head dig in. Namjoon closing Taeho’s nostrils, tipping poisoned wine down his throat. Taeseok struggling in his own bed, as Jeongguk forces him to swallow the poison.

It would be painless, Yoongi and Jin had assured them, as they mixed the poison at Gangneung.

That doesn’t make accepting it any easier. Taehyung swallows down the vomit that crawls up the back of his throat, as they creep slowly down the halls Taehyung had been dragged down, once, delirious and terrified and choking at the grip Taeil had on his collar.

Jimin’s hand brushes Taehyung’s, in the dark, and—he jolts back to himself barely enough to notice how shallow his breaths have become, how his hands are trembling, even the one wrapped around the hilt of his sword. Jimin’s eyes glint at him, dark brows drawn together, and Taehyung loses himself just enough that he can feel the tears burning at his heavy eyes, before he swallows them back down with the nausea.

Taejoon with a smile cut into his throat, by Jeongguk’s knife.

He thinks of every bruise they’d ever given him, every split lip and cut on the training field and cruel threat to sever a tongue or a finger, and wonders—if all of their cruelty together adds up to this. If they deserve it, for doing only what their father had taught them was acceptable, what was encouraged. Wonders—if it hadn’t been him, such an easy target, if they would have taken their violence out on servants, or courtiers, or each other.

I can’t do this, Taehyung imagines himself saying. But the words don’t come, don’t ring true. They pluck hollowly in his chest, and fade into the background of sick nausea, and something violently, viciously pleased that he pushes down far, far into himself.

There’s only one stretch of hallway left, before the turnoff to Taeil’s chambers.

It had been Jimin’s last adjustment. Instead of going straight to the king, this is their detour; the poison heavy in Taehyung’s robe is not meant for his father.

Do you want it, Jimin had asked, during those long days alone in the wilderness. And Taehyung hadn’t been able to say no, to what Jimin had offered without a shred of judgement. Now, standing in the doorway of an empty receiving room, the one Taeil uses for meetings with courtiers and informants, Taehyung can’t stop the panic that wells up in his stomach, that has him bracing one hand against the wooden frame of the entrance.

“Hey,” Hoseok murmurs. Jimin’s hand strokes gentle along his spine, head rests gently against his shoulder. Taehyung holds himself in, tries not to tremble out of his skin, squeezes his eyes shut to block out the light from the lanterns lighting the way. Wind rustles the branches of the trees in the courtyard outside, the glass chimes disturbed by the breeze. “You can stay here, if you want.”

It’s a stupid offer, but—they trust him. In his own personal darkness, Taehyung lets that sink in like the warmth of their touch. They trust him, and they’re here with him, and the scar on his stomach burns like a real brand, white-hot on his skin.

“No,” he finally says. Just loud enough for the two of them to hear, not enough to alert Taeil’s guards. “No, I need to—I need this.”

He needs something, and doesn’t think he’ll know what it is until he steps through that door.

Taehyung opens his eyes, and looks up at Hoseok, and gathers the pieces himself up under the gentle weight of Jimin’s touch.

 


 

They have to kill the guards. It’s something Taehyung had fought them on, at first, until Namjoon had talked him down. Knocking them all out would risk too much, and hurt the guards more, he’d explained one night in the courtyard garden, the taste of salt and honeysuckle nauseating on his tongue. And so Taehyung accepts it, as Hoseok doubles back to approach from the other side of the entrance, and Jimin waits with his back pressed against the wall, so close Taehyung can hear the two men breathe.

No one is allowed in Taeil’s chambers, save the ones he brings back for an evening. Never the same person twice, men and women alike paid for an evening and then turned away in the morning. He doesn’t hurt them, Taehyung thinks, not like Taeseok does, but—he’d seen a young woman, once, on her way out of the wing. Face pale, eyes terrified, her robe tied as tight as her arms hugging her waist.

Taehyung is one of the lucky ones who’d been allowed past the door. He wonders—what he must have looked like, as he escaped. Wonders what Yoongi had seen, when he’d all but collapsed against his mother’s door.

From the other side of the hall, a door scrapes shut. Footsteps drag, purposeful only because Taehyung has never heard Hoseok make a sound without calculating it first.

He hears the murmuring voice of a guard, and the shift of combat robes as one shifts, and steps carefully down the hall. He tips his head against the wooden beam at his back to let the firmness of it ground him as he hears the guard turn a corner, the knife thrown with violent accuracy into his chest. Taehyung closes his eyes, and listens to Jimin’s footsteps quick and quiet against the polished floor. Listens to one of his countrymen bleeding out meters away from him, from a single cut of Jimin’s dagger.

It’s over in maybe two minutes. It feels, somehow, like an eternity.

When the hall is silent once again, Taehyung dares to open his eyes. There’s nothing to see but the pale stretch of the wall in front of him, the lamplight impartial to the horror of the night. The light is red, red, burning into him until it’s all Taehyung can see behind his eyelids when he blinks.

“Taehyung,” Jimin murmurs, and hands brush soft against Taehyung’s cheeks, and—he hadn’t even noticed Jimin approaching. There’s no blood on his fingers, the inky black of his clothes disguising any stains. He looks—gentle. Not like he’d just ended a life, not like he’s about to send Taehyung in to face down a dragon. “You have to go now, Tae-yah. I don’t know how much time we have.”

Taehyung wraps his fingers around Jimin’s wrists, and tries not to marvel at how much space is left when he doesn’t tighten his grip. Over Jimin’s shoulder, Hoseok wipes his knife on a cloth tucked into his belt, keeps his eyes moving, rests lightly on the balls of his feet as if he’s about to take flight.

“Come with me,” Taehyung forces out, through the tight knot in his throat. Jimin’s eyes are wide in the near-dark, and Taehyung remembers—the unescapable roar of rain and thunder and wind, the cold drip of water down his bare spine. Jimin’s hands, hot and just barely too dry, dragging against his skin. It’s the only thing he can think to say, the only thing that might be able to keep him standing through that door.

“Are you sure?” It’s not a refusal, Taehyung knows. “I don’t have to see this, if you don’t want me to.”

“No. No, I want—I need you,” Taehyung says, and closes his eyes, and lets himself mean it. I need you, the terror of it. The urge to give back swelling in his chest, to give Jimin even half of what he’d given first.

Taehyung had been there, for the worst moment of Jimin’s life. It feels only fair that he lets Jimin be a witness to this.

“Okay.” It’s whispered, barely-there in the humidity of the night. There’s something clinging to Taehyung’s skin that isn’t moisture, that feels more like the echo of all the ghosts that had dogged his footsteps before Jimin had taken him. He thinks of the odd two dozen of them, hanging burst and infested on the wall, and swallows down a disgusted gag. “Let’s go, Tae-yah.”

And the endearment slips out again, hangs heavy in the scant space between them, and Taehyung fills his lungs with the promise of it.

Jimin laces their fingers together, and doesn’t let go until Taehyung’s fingers brush the wood of Taeil’s door. The wood outline is the same as the entrance to his own rooms, the darkness behind the thin lining so different than the last time he’d been here, where lamps were lit and flickering and cruel behind his eyelids as he bit his lip bloody and forced himself not to scream.

Slowly, achingly, Taehyung slides the door open.

He half-expects there to be guards in the sitting room. Someone waiting for them at the low table, on the fine cushion of the chaise, at the open-doorway entrance to the bedroom. But the rooms are quiet, and dark, and no one comes slinking out of the shadows to cut their throats.

The door shuts on Hoseok, standing guard over the corpses of men Taehyung might have trained with. Traps him, meters away from where he’d kneeled, and fallen, and stayed for hours. Where he’d tasted dirt on the sole of Taeil’s slipper, grinding into his cheek. Where he’d finally learned his place, after so long struggling against it. He can’t stop staring at the untarnished wood of the floor, where in his memory there’s a pool of blood bigger than Bayul’s sea.

“Breathe,” Jimin whispers, barely louder than the gentle hush of the wind. Taehyung chokes, and gasps for breath, and blinks away the glinting of teeth above him, the mocking fingers digging into his thigh.

The voice that wound itself into his head and never left, whispering your mother was only good for spreading her legs for royalty, that had laughed when Taehyung lost what was left of his pride to beg. Mindless and drugged to incoherence, begging no, please, hyung.

Not worth my time, Taehyung remembers, in the ghost of his brother’s voice. And then the hours that had followed anyway, and the words he’d claimed not to remember. All the words he still dreams about, still hears whenever silence rings just a moment too long. He only realizes he’s digging bruises into his own stomach when Jimin tugs his hand away, face set with a grim determination that Taehyung can’t quite bring himself to match.

“Taehyung,” Jimin hisses. He takes Taehyung’s hand, drags it down. Presses Taehyung’s palm to the vial tied at his own waist, until Taehyung blinks and shudders and gasps like he’s been doused in seawater.

He’s not here to drown in memory. He’s not here to collapse, to fold in on himself. He’s here to act, with Jimin at his back, and Taehyung closes his eyes against the familiar room and forces himself to breathe. To stay locked inside his own body, with every inch of weakness pressed down, down, to the very bottom of his stomach.

They don’t have time for this, Taehyung remembers, and blinks against the pale stream of moonlight through the closed door to the balcony.

The walk to the bedroom is agonizing. Every second brings the threat of discovery; half of Taehyung is waiting for an alarm to sound, for the guards to shout, for Namjoon and Jeongguk to be discovered even if they manage to escape it. But there’s nothing, save the gentle chime of glass. The rustle of wind, the soft sound of life from the forest that permeates even the strongest of the city walls. Taehyung steps, one careful foot in front of the other, and peers into the bedroom through the dark.

His father is a heavy sleeper. Even before he’d been drunk more nights than not, he’d slept through morning drills and the bustle of court and the gongs of the summer festival. It’s something even Taehyung had inherited, when he looks little like his siblings, even less like the king. He shares Taejoon’s eyebrows, Taeseok’s smile, Taeil’s hands. And they all sleep heavily, deeply, when they can.

Tonight is no different. Taeil sleeps on his back, his hair dark against the white of his pillow. His right hand falls off the thick cushion of the bed, to rest delicately against the warmth of the floor. His chest is bare, marked only by the indented memory of his armor’s straps against his waist.

Taehyung balks. Stops moving, stops breathing, stops existing outside the well of panic that comes from the deepest place inside him, impossible to ignore. Jimin’s hands are hot against his back, breath like fire against Taehyung’s neck. When Taehyung twists his head, desperate to look at anything other than his brother sleeping peaceful, his brother with his face lax and blank and almost innocent, he finds hatred curling ugly in the delicate beauty of Jimin’s features.

But where that hatred should find root in his own chest, Taehyung finds only emptiness. Not pity, not sympathy, but—not hatred. He can’t feel anything but panic, and fear, and when he thinks about the tomb hidden away at the end of the grounds. When he turns again, and thinks of every short-lived fantasy he’d had, as a younger man, of a moment like this.

Revenge, maybe, but—the word doesn’t fit.

It’s not revenge that pushes Taehyung toward the bed, that takes the short coil of rope Jimin hands him, that settles down slowly, silently onto his knees. It’s not revenge that brushes his fingers against Taeil’s wrist, so intimate that he could scream from it. Their hands are the same size, their nails the same shape, the callus where they hold a brush worn in the same place on their fingers.

Taeil doesn’t wake up quickly, and when he does it’s already too late. Over the sound of his own heartbeat, Taehyung can barely hear the soft sound of confusion, the sharp gasp, the suck of air as he prepares himself to yell. As he struggles against the bonds on his wrists, helpless above his head, and the solid weight of Taehyung sitting firmly on his thighs.

“Don’t scream,” Taehyung says, and doesn’t recognize the sound of his own voice.

When he’d been maybe twelve, Taehyung had overheard the story of how Taeil had gotten his favorite dagger. How he’d won it off a general, who’d bought it as an intended coming-of-age gift for his son. The steel is Northern, from where the seas themselves freeze over; the hilt inlaid with a jagged, unpolished ruby the size of an apricot pit. Taeil might have been twenty-five, then, or just barely younger, before he’d grown into keeping every scrap of information close to his chest.

It’s how Taehyung knows the story of the knife that had cut him. It’s how he knows, even now, that Taeil sleeps with it under his pillow.

His brother doesn’t scream. Out of some gut reaction to Taehyung’s voice, maybe; surprise overtaking panic. Instead, Taeil blinks up, sleep tacky in his eyes, and laughs. Rough and low and everything that Taehyung had been afraid of for years, but he thinks of Jimin behind him, and how he’d spit, vicious and unashamed even with a collar looped around his neck. He doesn’t flinch, doesn’t waver.

Taehyung slides his hand under the pillow, and pulls out the dagger.

He almost wants it to burn his hand, wants the hilt to hurt as badly as the blade, but—there’s nothing. Just the sleep-warmed silver of the hilt, the unpolished ruby at the base, the obsessive edge of the blade when he tugs it out of its leather sheath.

“So,” Taeil says, when Taehyung doesn’t speak again. Taehyung blinks down at him, feels the weight of his brother as he tries to flex up, to push Taehyung off of him. “You came back.”

“I did,” Taehyung says, and—it feels strange. To speak so smoothly, to feel so detached from this. He presses the tip of the dagger to his index finger, twirls it just light enough that it doesn’t puncture. Taeil bucks up, teeth gritted under the two-day shadow of his beard, and Taehyung presses his palm flat against his shoulder, and forces him down.

For years, he’d known that he could take any of them, with any weapon or none, except maybe Taejoon with the sword he’d gone to the blacksmith to help forge himself. But Taehyung has spent more time in training, by himself or with Namjoon or anyone else, than Taeil had by the time he was thirty. He’s strong, if less predisposed to musculature. And he’s been watching them all, every second he could, since he was young enough to recognize himself as prey.

“You’re going to kill me.” Taeil smiles, the way that makes Taehyung want to strike him, just to let him know how it feels. But there’s still that place in his chest that’s empty, that lets the pound of his pulse echo around in his own ears, to settle the fear in his gut.

Behind him, Jimin breathes. Underneath him, Taehyung can see for the first time something in Taeil’s eyes that might be fear.

“I am,” he agrees, as quietly as he knows how.

“I told them you’d turn traitor.” There’s a mocking tone to his voice, now, that cruel twist that Taehyung knows better than his smile. “If that whore prince couldn’t kill you, I knew you’d come back.”

He doesn’t know Jimin is here, Taehyung thinks, realizes Taeil’s eyes haven’t moved from him since he woke up. It’s strange to look down on him, rather than up; they’ve been the same height for years, now, and still Taehyung had taught himself the habit of remaining small. There’s nothing he needs to say to the words Taeil spits, nothing urgent in his heart that he could speak.

“Did he make you his pet when he took you, Taehyung-ah? Have a sea-witch toy with your head, or maybe he didn’t need to. You always were so ready to get on your knees,” Taeil spits, and twists uselessly again, and glares at the glint of steel in Taehyung’s hands.

And suddenly, aggressively, Taehyung doesn’t want to hear any more.

Taeil goes quiet, with the flat of his own knife against his lips. It’s sharp enough to shave him with, if Taehyung tried; sharp enough to cut the thin skin open before he’d even feel it. Taehyung leans down, presses his fingers harder into Taeil’s shoulder, and looks into those eyes that are nothing like his. There’s something that might be power humming in his limbs, warming the tips of his fingers, picking up his heartbeat like a frightened mouse.

If this is how they’d all felt, every day, when they looked at him—Taehyung thinks he might almost understand.

For a moment, he revels in the silence. In the fear Taeil hasn’t had to learn how to mask, when Taehyung had mastered it before he could hold a sword. And then it’s sickening, overwhelmingly, and Taehyung sits back on his thighs and looks down at the man who even now, even like this, still manages to make him feel small.

“Why are you here?” Taeil finally asks, and Taehyung knows it’s not a question of what he’s come to do. And the answer is—he doesn’t know. He blinks down, and can’t find an answer, and watches the smile curl vicious over his brother’s lips, when all he can do is stroke his thumb along the uncut ridges of the ruby, as red against his fingers as his own blood.

“Let me guess.” His voice is deeper, now. Smoother, like he’d spoken at court, primed to get exactly what he wanted out of every exchange. Taehyung watches his wrists work against firmly-tied rope, feel how useless his struggles are, and can’t bring himself to make Taeil stop again. Maybe this is what he’d come for, after all: to hear him speak, to let himself realize that—he won’t ever have to listen to these words again, after tonight. “You want revenge. You want to cut me open, little brother. Stick me on my own knife, after you carve something into me like a pig.”

He spits, and Taehyung feels it hot against his cheek like a burn.

“Do it,” Taeil hisses. “Do it, you coward.”

Taehyung blinks. Shifts his hand down, to press the edge of the knife just below Taeil’s navel, and watches the breath catch in his brother’s throat. He can feel Jimin watching him, can picture the perfect blankness of his face, ready for whatever Taehyung might decide to do.

Are you going to hurt him, Jimin had asked, as they’d pressed together that last night alone. Not a judgement, not a suggestion, just—a question. And Taehyung hadn’t been able to give him an answer, and hadn’t been able to decide, and only now finds himself staring down at the pathetic portrait of his brother, trying to feign dignity.

“No,” Taehyung says, and thinks coward, and puts the word away.

The knife slips back in its sheath, and Taehyung makes himself suppress the flinch. And Taeil laughs again, bordering on hysteric, while Taehyung looks down at him and thinks—he’d been afraid of this for so long, and still is when he lets himself feel it, and he won’t have to be any longer.

“You used to be so much fun,” Taeil says, lips still curled into a bitter smile. “Before I broke you. Pretty, willful Taehyungie, stupid and branded on my floor.”

“Hyung.” It slips out, and Taehyung remembers—how Jeongguk says it to Jimin, laced with endearment and fondness and high, honored respect. He can’t hate Taeil, right now. Feels too numb to hate anything, much less the sad creature beneath him, raging against death with human cruelty. There’s a tiger slinking around his shoulders, rumbling hot in its chest, and a ghost sturdy and sharp in the corner of his eye. “Don’t make this harder for yourself.”

“You’ll never be king,” Taeil rages. The veins in his neck strain, the tendons in his arms bulge. There’s a sheen of sweat over his brow, a glaze of panic over his eyes. “Not while you’re some foreigner’s bitch. Spreading your legs for royalty.”

Taehyung’s hands work quickly, to untie the vial from his belt. To hold it up to the lamplight, glowing from the corner of the room, so Taeil can see the liquid inside, before he twists the stopper open.

He looks down at his brother, and pities him. Presses the vial against his lips.

“I’ll be more of a king than you ever will,” Taehyung murmurs, as gently as he can. Reaches up, to brush Taeil’s hair away from his forehead. “Drink, hyung.”

And for a second, Taehyung thinks he won’t. Thinks that Taeil will fight, and knock over the poison, and make Taehyung spill blood he’s never wanted to. But then—that glaze over his eyes shatters, and the fight sags out of his neck, and Taeil tips his head back and opens his mouth and swallows, no more than a trickle down his throat.

He doesn’t say anything, after that. Taehyung watches, just to make sure.

There’s nothing to be done for him, even if Taehyung had wanted to, by the time his limbs start twitching. Eyes rolled into his head, fine white froth bubbling against his lips, lungs gasping desperately for breath through the ugly, choked stopper of his throat.

When Taeil stops moving, stops struggling to breathe, Taehyung stands. Rubs absently against his knees, before buckling the dagger onto his belt.

He turns around, and Jimin is waiting for him. He reaches for Taehyung, and presses soft hands against his cheeks, and creases his brow when Taehyung shudders out a breath, long and tremulous, that feels like it’s been dragged out from the very bottom of his lungs. Taehyung breathes, and ghosts his hands over Jimin’s wrists, and thinks of his mother, and the soothing press of her fingers against each and every one of his bruises.

Taehyung leaves the body of his brother behind, and doesn’t look back.

 

 

Chapter Text

     

 

 

   From too much love of living,
                         From hope and fear set free,
                We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
    That no life lives for ever;
          That dead men rise up never;
        That even the weariest river
                             Winds somewhere safe to sea.

— “the garden of proserpine”

 

 

 

VI.

 

 

 

It had been Jeongguk’s idea to draw away the guards from the king’s chambers. He sleeps in a different wing entirely than his sons, at the highest level of the palace; his bedroom, Taehyung had once heard, is as large as the servants’ dining hall. And so Jeongguk had been tasked with lighting a fire beneath that cavernous bedroom, just enough to draw the guards away.

Taehyung chokes on smoke, as the three of them creep up the stairs, and holds tight to Jimin’s hand like it’s the only thing that might save him. That place where fear had once coiled, hissing and urgent, is empty, everything suddenly flat and aching as he lets Jimin guide him, lets Hoseok urge him forward with a gentle hand at the dip of his spine. Both of them are bright-eyed, almost drunk on the thought of victory—at how close they are, now, to everything they’d planned.

He thinks about his father’s crown, resting each night on his throne, and feels only vaguely nauseated.

The hall is guarded by a lone man, eyes nervous, hand twitching on the hilt of his sword as he patrols the length of it. Hoseok holds them back, and steps through shadow, and slits his throat with a movement as fluid as the tide. He steps over the body, and pulls Jimin with him, and—Taehyung can’t. He looks up at the two of them, from the blood soaking into the floorboards, and can’t make his feet move.

“Taehyung?” Jimin asks, the question at the end unvoiced. Taehyung looks between them, standing over a corpse, and the door at the end of the hall. The wooden entrance carved and gilded, the paper barrier a red brighter than blood.

“Go ahead,” Taehyung finally says, his voice so brittle and dry he fears it might break. He tries for a smile, and things better of it, and curls both hands around Jimin’s, delicate and trembling under the warmth of his skin. “I don’t—I don’t need to.”

He thinks—any question he might ask his father begins and ends with why. But he’d gotten his answers a long time ago, when he’d been old enough to reason them for himself; the king had claimed him for the boast of another son, to prove a point. He never had any intention of raising him like one. An outlet for the cruelty bred in their line of kings, an entertainment to seat the son of a servant on a throne, a defense against the more wicked minds of the court—Taehyung knows, deep in his chest, that he’s always been these more than he’d ever been a prince.

But here he stands, his father’s heir. Over a man he’ll have to account for, and honor, and speak to the children of.

“You’re sure?” Jimin asks, but he doesn’t need to. He’s slipping out of Taehyung’s grasp already, tugged toward the promise of what Taehyung knows he needs. He understands, he thinks. Doesn’t blame Jimin, for wanting this so badly.

“Go,” Taehyung repeats, and Jimin sways back to him enough to brace small palms on his cheeks. To stand up on the tips of his toes, and press a dry kiss to his forehead.

“Taehyung-ah,” Jimin says, fierce and gentle and aching. “This is for you, too.”

And Taehyung swallows the thick knot in his throat that begs him to cry at it, and presses feverish lips to Jimin’s forehead in return. Lets him go, down the hall, with poison at his belt and a knife in his hand.

He doesn’t need to know how they’ll finish it.

The door closes behind Hoseok with the soft rumble he’s known all his life, and Taehyung bends his knees to press his fingers against the guard’s cheek. To slide his eyes shut, with a blessing curled low on his tongue. Blood stains his tattered robes, warm and thick, and Taehyung stares down at the spreading rust-red on his knees and wonders—how Jimin had ever been able to wash it out.

Behind his eyelids, he sees his father, asleep in his bed. The heavy lines of his face, the silver of his beard, the stink of wine on his breath. He’s old, has been old for more than half of Taehyung’s life; he’d been close to fifty when Taehyung was born, and the years of drink haven’t done him favors. It would be so easy to just tip the poison down his throat, and Taehyung wonders if Jimin has that much mercy. If his father deserves it, after the years of war he’d delighted in, even at the cost to his own people.

No, Taehyung thinks. He doesn’t think he’d weep, if Jimin stepped out of that room with blood on his sword. But he doesn’t know, and he thinks—Jimin had seen him make a choice. He trusts Jimin enough not to have to be in the room, as he’s faced with the same.

He can hear the commotion of the guards from the floors below. The smoke still burns against the back of his throat, the sensitive parts of his nose, but it’s fading now, and with it the distraction. They’ll be back at any moment, and that’s when the most difficult part begins. Killing his family, as it had turned out, had been as easy as a carefully-laid plan and a country basking in victory.

But tomorrow, and the day after that—

There’s no grace to running a kingdom. Taehyung had learned that lesson a long time ago, as his father grew more and more paranoid. As he dismissed each member of his council but for the generals as war-hungry as himself, and replaced advisors with sons. Even if the kingdom accepts him, even if Taehyung doesn’t die on his own soldiers’ spears, the work won’t ever be done.

He’s tired, he thinks. His head aches, something blunt and cruel twisting at his temples; he’s shivering from what must be an imagined chill. The last effects of Jin’s remedy wearing off, maybe, to leave him exposed. Taehyung grits his teeth, and winces at the throb of it, and forces himself to his feet when he hears the door slide open behind him.

Jimin’s footsteps are gentle. As gentle as the hand on Taehyung’s shoulder, that slips down his arm to tangle their fingers.

It’s terrifying, to be let into Jimin’s space. Like once he’d opened himself up to it, there’s no escape. Jimin touches him as easily now as he touches Hoseok, more affection in the last few days than Taehyung has ever known. He closes his eyes, so he doesn’t have to look until Jimin’s fingers brush against his jaw.

“It’s done,” Jimin says, and his gaze doesn’t waver. His hands are clean, but—that doesn’t mean anything. They come away tacky with the soldier’s blood, where Taehyung had knelt, and the sticky peel away is sickening. “Taehyung-ah?”

There’s a follow-up in there, somewhere, that never gets to be asked. Taehyung closes his eyes, when he hears the heavy sound of feet against the stairs, so he doesn’t have to look into Jimin’s eyes in the last moments they have before everything changes. He doesn’t want to see the moment they close against him; the moment Taehyung stops being a person, and becomes instead a king.

He doesn’t know what might shift between them, only knows that something will. It’s terrifying, to think—he’d only just gotten this, Jimin’s hand finding its way into his at every opportunity, and he doesn’t know how he’s going to keep himself upright without it. Taehyung breathes, and listens to the urgent clamor of voices, and forces himself not to cry like a child when Jimin steps back. When he takes Hoseok’s hand and his place in the shadows, because—this isn’t his moment.

Taehyung stands, and holds himself up only because he doesn’t think he could bear collapsing. He wouldn’t be able to pick himself back up, if he succumbed to the pain and exhaustion and numbness that pricks through his chest like something in his heart has been cut off from the rest of him.

He’s not a person. Taehyung bites down on his cheek until he tastes blood, and closes his eyes as the footsteps grow louder, and repeats it over and over until it rings like something close to truth.

He’s not a person. The voices clamor in the narrow hall, the scrape of swords unsheathing hums through the air. Taehyung’s hands are trembling, and he cannot make them stop. He sways, tries not to fall into arms he isn’t sure would catch him, fixes his eyes where the staircase opens, far enough away that he’d be able to see an attack coming

But the royal guard isn’t known for their subtlety, unlike the Kal. When they finally reach the top, what must be less than a minute later, Taehyung feels like he’s been waiting for hours, with dread pinning his feet down to grow roots. The guards approach slowly, cautiously, until Taehyung can blink through the darkness to see their faces. Men he knows, men whose sons he’d grown up next to, and so far from.

Taehyung sees the moment they recognize him. The moment the captain’s sword drops, just barely enough to know that—this isn’t what he’d expected. In Captain Shin’s eyes, Taehyung sees the confusion, and the dawning, wide-eyed realization when he looks toward the door to see Jimin and Hoseok, barely visible in the shadow.

“Your highness,” Shin says. It’s slow, respectful. Cautious, as Taehyung stands to let them see his sword, sheathed at his waist. His clothes, torn and dirty and dried stiff from rainwater.

He could have stopped by his old rooms, to choose something that would command respect or better attention, but—this tells more of a truth. Taehyung’s hair is overgrown, and his robes are half an inch too long, and his shoes are wearing out at the heels. But no bruises linger at the corner of his mouth, and all his scabs have healed to leave smooth, shiny skin in their wake.

“My father is dead.” Taehyung’s voice doesn’t shake. It ripples through the guards, a group of five, like a stone thrown in a pond. One of them lets slip a quiet curse, as Shin remains implacable.

His face is hard, lined in hard consideration under the darkness of his beard. His eyes never waver from Taehyung’s, even as he silences the murmur of his men with a raised hand.

“Wake the princes,” he says. Taehyung rocks back on his heels, and blinks against the spots swimming behind his eyelids.

“They’re dead too.”

There’s too many of them crowded in this hall to be comfortable. Sweat crawls down the back of Taehyung’s neck, and he thinks to the open wall of the king’s chambers, visible from a courtyard below.

Taehyung takes a step forward, and listens for Jimin’s soft breath. The swords of his men glimmer in the light from the single lamp, casts shadows over Taehyung’s face that feel unfamiliar. Shin grits his teeth, and Taehyung understands. That there is no script for this, that Shin had been appointed by the king as an honor, and yet is sworn to serve until a new captain is appointed. Crowns change hands, but the circle of soldiers and courtiers remains the same, until a decision is made.

Technically, Taehyung could strip him of his robe right now. It’s stitched with their seal, the mountains and sun, and Taehyung looks at the fine thread and the picture it weaves and thinks—he belongs to this country, more than his father ever had.

The captain closes his eyes, and draws in a heavy breath through his teeth. Taehyung watches the blade of his sword waver, watches the war plain on his face. Shin isn’t a politician, isn’t a prince; he’d never had any reason to learn how to hide it.

“Treason,” Shin finally says, but his voice rings hollow. Taehyung thinks of Jimin at his back, and wonders—if he’s far enough away that neither of them would be able to save him. If he’s close enough that he might be able to see Jimin’s face, before he closed his eyes. The guards murmur, each shifting forward and falling back, unwilling to strike without an order. And Taehyung knows that Shin is only hesitating because it might be true, because Taehyung might be the last heir standing. He doesn’t want to kill his king, Taehyung thinks, as uncrowned as he might be.

“You can arrest me,” Taehyung says. The words come to him slowly, fit together under a heavy layer of fog. He wonders, absently, what he might look like; pale from illness, blank from the itching numbness in the hollow of his chest. “But check their beds, before you kill me. I’m the only heir still alive.”

“Traitors lie.” He doesn’t sound convinced, and no one’s eyes are holding firm but Shin’s, and Taehyung settles back down into his body to feel how it aches, how it holds him up like he’d begged it to.

Footsteps creak up the stairs, and the guards press together like a band of agitated horses. The whites of their eyes glint in the dark.

It’s almost impossible to open his eyes again when he blinks. Taehyung swallows down on the hot sting of panic behind his eyelids, rising in his throat, and clasps his hands tighter together behind his back. He doesn’t feel like a king. He feels like a child, afraid and uncertain; staring death in its face and demanding that it bow.

Namjoon rises from the mouth of the staircase, worn robes tied tradition-perfect, the ghostly image of his father before him. Taehyung remembers the general frowning down at the training yard, the dimples Namjoon inherited dug deep with distress. Shin breathes out hard, and the older guards voice shock far back in their throats, and Namjoon meets Taehyung’s eyes through the darkness, so steady that Taehyung could collapse into it.

Jeongguk follows, dark clothes keeping him tucked in the shadows, and—

There’s blood on his sleeves. Soaking his hands up to the wrist, staining the curve of his throat. Taehyung’s breathing shallows; his head spins at the specks he can see on Namjoon’s sleeves, now that he knows to look.

Namjoon meets Taehyung’s eyes, through the crowd of bodies and swords.

“Your majesty,” he says, and nothing more.

Taehyung closes his eyes, for half a second longer than he should allow, and breathes in deep through his nose. He needs Shin to put down his sword, needs to cross to have Namjoon beside him, needs to make it to his crown alive. He just needs the right words.

“Captain Shin,” Taehyung says. Remembers the name, the family line, the son who might be back from war by now. “Your son trained with us, before he enlisted.”

He has Shin’s attention. Has the four others watching him in rapt, nervous silence.

“All my brothers beat him on the field. Every time he stood up, to stand against the next one, they laughed. You remember—the court mocked him for days, because he refused to drop out and train with the rest of the soldiers. They kept sparring with him just to prove they could knock him down, and when my father watched the matches—”

Taehyung cuts off, and lets memory fill in the blank. Remembers the sharp cry Shin’s son had let escape, when Taeil had smacked his cheek with the flat end of his sword, a mocking insult. Shamed, in front of king and father and country.

“You fought him,” Shin finishes. His voice is rough, his sword dropping further at every word. “You let him win.”

It had cost Taehyung half an hour curled on the ground, trying to decide whether to protect his face or his ribs. To lose to a common soldier in front of the king, one who had been so thoroughly humiliated by the other princes—it had caught the court’s attention, instead of the humiliation they’d pinned on Shin’s son.

“I’m the only one left.” Taehyung’s voice echoes strangely, over the sound of each body in the hall holding its breath. “It’s up to you, Captain. Let me pass, or cut me down.”

The words do not fall lightly. Taehyung meets Namjoon’s eyes, sees the warmth and the barely-there press of a smile against his lips, and feels sick when he sees the blood stain small on his pale sleeve. He doesn’t need to know whose it is. Not yet.

For a moment, Taehyung thinks they might attack. The odds favor them less, now, with Namjoon and Jeongguk so close, but Taehyung doesn’t trust them to not attack on the promise that if they kill him, Taehyung’s party will cut them down to join him. Every breath is a stabbing pain under his lungs, every second that passes is another bead of sweat on his brow. He might collapse before a sword ever reaches him, if it goes on like this.

And then Shin adjusts his grip on his sword, and meets Taehyung’s eyes with his brow furrowed in concern. He sheathes his sword, deafening in the breathlessness of the night.

Each guard follows, one by one, and Shin offers a bow. Short and stiff and uncomfortable, but a bow that makes vomit creep its way up Taehyung’s throat.

“Your majesty,” Shin says. It’s stilted, awkward, but honest. Taehyung swallows, and steps those last meters forward, and presses the flat of his palm to the seal stitched on Shin’s shoulder. It’s cool under his skin, everything else fever-warm but for the bite of wind that snakes up through the staircase. Taehyung closes his eyes, and nods so shortly he barely feels it, and steps through the guards.

He doesn’t have to look, to know that Jimin is following him. Doesn’t have to look to hear the quiet murmur of suspicion that passes through the men, and goes still at what might be a look or action from Hoseok. When he reaches Namjoon, standing on the last of the stairs to make Taehyung look down through the brighter light of the illuminated staircase, Namjoon’s hand curls gentle around his wrist.

“We did it,” Namjoon says, like it won’t haunt Taehyung for the rest of his life. Like the ghost he’s so used to living with hasn’t faded until it shines barely brighter than the embers of a dying fire.

It’s not gone, not yet. But it’s quiet, like it’s done everything it came to do, and Taehyung aches at the thought of sending it away like he’d watched its fellows drift off into the sun-warmed sea.

“Not yet,” Taehyung forces out. There’s still one thing left to do. One last journey to make.

Taehyung steps down, away from the corpse of his father, and lets them all fall into step behind him.

 


 

Outside the great hall, the cherry blossoms are blooming.

The walkways are lined with them, great trees that Taehyung had known how to climb, once. In the darkness, the petals look like patches of snow, drifting loose with the breeze to scatter along the grounds and the roofs and the balconies. There’s no silence in the courtyard, with stained shards of glass dripping down from the lowest branches, with the wind brushing flowers and leaves and chimes to drift through the night.

Taehyung breathes in deep, and holds the smell of it in his lungs, and wishes for salt on the air.

Captain Shin holds the door for him, and Taehyung takes a long moment to look, to let the red paint and gold accents and the ancient carvings sear into the place behind his eyes. This is what Jimin had seen, before his world finished collapsing around him. This is what Jihyun had seen, before the sword had pierced his heart.

The ghost curls into itself, a ball of light no larger than the glow from a suffocated candle, and Taehyung pictures—reaching out, to cradle it close to his chest.

The hall is cavernous, when the seats and couches and cushions aren’t filled with the inane chatter of the court. The windows let the moonlight in, let a few cherry blossoms scatter across the polished floor, and Taehyung steps around them as he walks. One careful step after another, the soft soles of his shoes too gentle for a moment this heavy.

It’s always been tradition, for a king to take the crown himself. The story goes that the second Brother had lifted it from the king’s brow himself, with blood-stained hands, and hadn’t taken it off until he died. Even when he slept, the occasional caretaker had whispered to him as a child, the crown rested on his brow.

Taehyung’s father takes it off every night. Leaves it on his throne, to remind the court of his power. The unkillable Kyunghwan, who had taken the throne at no more than twenty, and had kept it held in an unforgiving fist ever since.

In torn, dirty robes, barely strong enough to keep himself upright, Taehyung can’t help but think that he’s never deserved it less. The thrones stretch out in front of him, six in a row, and his feet itch to turn. To take him to the least grand, the plain wood carved for a prince who was never supposed to be born. Four seats down from his father’s left.

Behind him, he can hear Jimin breathing. Can hear the stifled panic, and the rustle of clothes, and Hoseok’s whispers in his ear.

Taehyung reaches up, and touches the place on his cheekbone where he’ll always have the shadow of a scar, opened over and over from the impact of heavy rings until he’d thought it might never fade.

The steps up to the gated dais are short, and worn with the echo of footsteps, and insurmountable. Taehyung strokes fingers along the wood, too fine to splinter, and forces himself up. At this angle he can see the crowd behind him, can see Jimin with Jeongguk’s arm around his waist. Can see the smear of tears at the corners of his eyes, and the firm, proud press of Namjoon’s lips, and the cherry blossoms in the wind outside the windows.

On the cushion of his father’s throne, the crown waits. The gold is tarnished, the chips of ruby at the base dulled by years Taehyung couldn’t even begin to count. Against his fingers, the metal is cold.

For a long moment, Taehyung holds it. Looks down, as it warms to his touch. As the light shifts, and sends scattered glimpses of red through the gaps streaked through with common stone.

Here, in his hands, is the proof that he’s earned it. The crown of his father, and his father’s father, stretching back to the Brothers of myth. Taehyung wonders if they’re watching him now; if they’re hissing at the skin of a servant’s son eating away at the shine of it. But nothing burns; nothing cuts him open to bleed out on this floor that’s seen so much of it, and Taehyung breathes in and tries to imagine cherries, growing soft around the pit in his heart.

He lifts the crown. Holds his breath, and settles it delicately, and stands still as death under the weight of it against his brow.

It’s the heaviest shroud he’ll ever wear.

Taehyung blinks his eyes open, and looks down from the short dais, and sees that the guards have bowed in the silence, their foreheads pressed to the floor. Namjoon bends at the waist, his hands trembling where Taehyung can see.

Jimin stands, unforgiving, without Jeongguk to hold him up. He meets Taehyung’s eyes, and nods so barely Taehyung almost misses it. He looks fierce, and proud, and like something Taehyung still can’t believe, even with the taste of gold sinking through his scalp to land rancid on his tongue.

A king.

Glass chimes, outside the window. Taehyung breathes his first, parts the fog in front of him with an effort that almost knocks him over, and begins.

 


 

Jimin had thought, on the way to the palace, that seeing Taehyung crowned would turn him into a stranger. That he’d look different with gold on his brow, that something in his eyes or heart would change.

Now, with Taehyung seated on the throne looking so fragile Jimin is afraid he might shatter, he feels ashamed for thinking it. The captain of the palace guard has tension locking his spine, and the hall feels cavernous in the absence of two dozen bodies huddled around him, of courtiers lining the walls and each throne occupied.

Jimin’s knees ache. His neck is heavy with the weight of a phantom collar. He licks out at his dry lips, and tastes stale blood, and closes his eyes just to relish in the picture of Kyunghwan’s vacant face as Hoseok had closed the door behind them.

Taehyung’s first act as king is to order the bodies down from the wall. There’s a sickening jerk in Jimin’s stomach, as a guard is dispatched to wake the coroner, and Jeongguk swallows down a retch at his side. After more than two months, the bodies of their countrymen must be burst and rotted and picked at by scavengers. The smell must be horrifying.

“I’ll go with them,” Jeongguk says. Like a boy pretending to be brave.

“No.” Taehyung’s voice sounds as heavy as he looks, with his hands white-knuckled on the arms of his father’s chair. Jimin recognizes the order for what it is, and wraps his arm around Jeongguk’s waist to stifle anger. “No, you don’t—none of you need to see that.”

If he were less exhausted, if he weren’t coming down from a rush of adrenaline and panic and terror, Jimin might argue. Might insist that he oversee every step, to give his people the best rites anyone could offer them, after so long blistering in the sun.

As it is, though, Jimin’s nightmares already have enough to spit back in his face.

Taehyung rattles in a breath, and turns his eyes back to the captain, and Jimin wonders what he must look like now, to someone who doesn’t know him. Who sees only the stoic hardness and the strain, and doesn’t know the ache Jimin had seen underneath in the moments after Taehyung turned to him, above his brother’s corpse. Everything has changed tonight, everything Jimin knows how to name, and yet—that moment had snapped something in Taehyung that might have been building for decades, and Jimin doesn’t know how to compensate for it yet.

Yet, because he’ll have time. They’ll both have time.

“Wake the coroner.” Taehyung’s second order falls as heavily as the first. “And the council. I’ll see them first.”

The rest of the guard departs, but for the captain. There’s still conflict buried in the heavy line of his brow, that Jimin can’t quite blame him for. But he takes his place at the foot of the dais, and rests his hand on his sword, and looks as wary as Jimin’s sure he should as Jimin steps forward, with his Kal flanking him like the ripple off a shark’s fin.

The captain doesn’t stop them—not that he could. But he steps aside, as Jimin mounts the shallow steps. As he walks slowly, deliberately, past Taejoon’s throne.

Taehyung looks up at him, and flinches as a low gong rings out from the courtyard they’d passed through to enter, and trembles as Jimin strokes the carved wood, the flakes of gilding that peel away at the ghosted touch. Everything here is ancient, where each stone in the manor at home has been replaced a dozen times, from the tail ends of hurricanes that blow in from the northern seas.

Jimin’s hand finds the nape of Taehyung’s neck, cold and clammy with sweat. He looks down, at the floor where he’d knelt in Jihyun’s blood, and wonders—if he’d dragged Kyunghwan in here, and made him beg for his own life, it might have been more satisfying.

There are flowers on the ground now, instead of bloodstains. There’s a man on the throne that Jimin knows the feel of against his skin. Knows the taste of on his lips; rainwater and and tears.

He feels Taehyung’s pulse racing underneath his fingers, and only draws his hand away when irritated voices clamor through the windows. It paints a terrible picture already—Taehyung seated, crowned, with Jimin standing behind him. And always the Kal, and Jeongguk’s bloody hands, and the satisfied calm that hums through the both of them in the wake of what must be a victory.

“What is this?” A voice shouts, firm and indignant. And then a grunt, the sound of a harsh shove, and the war council stumbles into the hall.

There’s four of them, and Jimin isn’t sure what he’d wanted to see, but—each time he’d faced one of Odai’s generals, they’d all been decked in armor that hardened the features, hardened the heart. Here, in the dead of night, the generals don’t look like killers. They look like men, roused from bed, in fine silk robes and embroidered slippers and shock spilled clear as blood across their faces.

“Approach,” Taehyung says. Jimin doesn’t know where his words come from, what well in his chest that keeps him speaking, but he’s grateful for it.

There’s a stunned moment where none of them move. Where their eyes dart between Taehyung and Jimin and the crown between them, and Taehyung’s white knuckles on the arms of his throne, and what must be the shine of Jeongguk’s blade, just a few centimeters out of its sheath in an obvious warning.

One by one, they shuffle forward. Four men, each with gray littered in their hair and beard. One has a jagged scar on his cheek, mirroring Namjoon’s still-bloody scab; another is missing the smallest finger of his left hand. In the near-dark, the two lamps lit on either side of the dais, they almost look frightened. There’s nothing left in Jimin for any kind of pity, any kind of mercy.

These are men who had ordered border raids. Who had razed villages, and burned homes, and slaughtered people from both countries like cattle.

Behind him, Jimin can feel Jeongguk’s vibrating rage. Remembers—greeting his father at the city gate, and seeing a trembling boy sitting at the front of his saddle. Eight years old and vacant, inconsolable, with a burn on his flank as red as the fire that seared it into him.

“We were told the king had summoned us,” a general says, dripping with condescension that Jimin can barely believe. Taehyung doesn’t flinch.

“I did,” Taehyung replies. Cool and calm and sharp enough that Jimin feels it like a knife at his throat.

“You’re not my king,” the general spits. There’s a scoff of agreement as he steps forward, toes against the base of the gated dais. “You think I’ll bow to you, traitor? Wearing my king’s crown next to your Bayul bitch?”

Were he close enough, Jimin would smack him. He simmers with the rage, with the storm that’s been spinning inside his chest since they slid open a heavy stone door.

The captain of the guard starts forward, and Taehyung raises a hand. Stops him in his tracks.

Turns back to Jimin, and Jeongguk, and Hoseok. He inclines his head, and something warm leaks in through the storm. Jimin offers what attempt at a smile he can, brittle and mean, and signals behind his back to Hoseok.

The general backs up, when Hoseok steps close. Footsteps unnervingly light, impossible to hear, his face as implacable as the Brothers’ statues. When Hoseok strikes out, fists the front of a silk robe so tight Jimin can almost feel it, the general sucks in a desperate gasp. But he doesn’t have time to struggle, before Hoseok twists him, and shoves down hard, and presses him into a deferential bow by the back of his head. Forehead against stone, both hands effectively and painfully restrained behind his back.

Hoseok looks up at Jimin, and then at Taehyung, and Jimin imagines the curl of satisfaction in his chest like a tiger, settling in atop its prey. And Hoseok smiles, cruel and pleased, and Jimin sees the beast on his face, like he’d seen it the first time Hoseok had pinned down an older senator’s boy who’d struck Jihyun for asking to play.

“My father is dead, General Choi,” Taehyung says. The roughness of his voice is terrifying; Jimin remembers, less than a day ago, how smooth it had been. Like river water, tumbling over stones. Now the stones grate together, and Taehyung speaks like he’s being strangled, and Jimin can’t help but count each rasping breath as it rattles into his chest.

One. The generals snap to attention, rage split across their faces.

“He died with my brothers. Peacefully, in their beds.”

Two. Choi trembles where he’s still held down; Jeongguk scoffs, barely audible, and Jimin wonders exactly how peaceful Taejoon’s death had been.

“They will be buried in the family crypt, as—” And Taehyung falters, chokes on something Jimin recognizes as a budding sob, and Jimin realizes—he’d had to consider this. Had to decide whether to bury his family with the honor that they never would have awarded him, and Jimin’s hand finds its way back to Taehyung’s shoulder, and he closes his eyes so he doesn’t have to see the contempt on the council’s faces as Taehyung speaks something braver than any of them could dream. “As is their right as members of the Brother’s line.”

Three. The room trembles. Hoseok’s eyes have gone soft, as his hands remain firm. The three standing generals’ eyes dart back and forth between them, curled together like that could protect them from the soldiers lining the walls; from Hoseok and Jeongguk and Jimin himself, if they dared to move.

“And if you won’t bow to me,” Taehyung says, and tilts his jaw up, and Jimin imagines the way he must look from below and tries not to take satisfaction in it. “Then I will strip you of your lands and titles, and march you chained to the farthest reaches of the mountains, and I will find a council that will.”

Four.

And Jimin loses track, as the generals look once more between each other, and down to where Choi has stopped struggling, beyond the pained tremble of the tips of his fingers.

And one by one, they bow. Dropping to their knees, heads pressed to knuckles, palms flat on the cold stone. Hoseok waits a long beat, rises at Jimin’s nod, and Choi shudders out a gasp that makes him sound much older than he should be. He stays down, though, and Taehyung shakes under Jimin’s grip, and Jimin looks down in just enough time to see his eyes flutter close, lashes long and dark against his too-pale cheek.

“Thank you,” Taehyung says. As respectful as could be. And then, a look at the captain of the guard. “Captain Shin, please escort the council back to their former chambers.”

Before they can be hauled up by the soldiers suddenly at their backs, the generals scramble to their feet. One is nearly purple in the face, his jaw visibly clenched. His eyes are wild, to match the sleep-mussed state of his hair, and—he looks pathetic. A great warrior, battle scarred, and Jimin feels like laughing in his face.

“What is the meaning of this—” He snarls, as a leather-gloved hand pulls his wrists tight behind his back. Taehyung blinks his eyes open, and Jimin lets the smile curl across his lips, and watches the disgust in the general’s eyes melt rapidly into fear.

“It means, Chang-ssi, that the war is over. And I have no use for generals who cannot accept change. You have until sunset to make your own arrangements, but after that—well. My ally’s army is marching toward us as we speak, and I wouldn’t want you all to be caught by them at the gate.” Taehyung sounds rehearsed, practiced, and Jimin wonders when he’d had the time. And then he thinks back to the long days at Gangneung, and the hours Taehyung had spent looking out at the ocean, and it’s not hard to find his answer.

When the hall is peaceful again, disturbed only by the faint echo of the gong in the outer town and the rustle of cherry blossoms above their roof, Taehyung sags back. It’s the five of them now, and Shin, and Taehyung lets out a sigh that sings deep in the exhausted place behind Jimin’s eyes.

“Hyung,” Taehyung says. His voice falls, now; it doesn’t fill the space like it had in the presence of the council. He sounds young, and ill, and Jimin crouches down by the throne to fit his hand over Taehyung’s, to feel the sweaty coolness of his palms. “Namjoon-hyung.”

“I’m here,” Namjoon says, and peels himself away from the sidelines, and presses himself up close to the gate. His eyes are dark; Hoseok’s hand finds his shoulder, as they lean as close to the dais as they can. “Taehyung-ah. What do you need?”

Taehyung presses his lips together, as pale as the rest of him, and heaves in a breath.

“As the only acting member of the king’s council, I need you to alert the court of the regime change.” It’s disturbingly light, and Jimin thinks—Taehyung must be seconds away from cracking open into hysteria.

They have a plan for the court. Namjoon and Taehyung had puzzled it out by themselves, across the council table by the sea; which families would be stripped of their titles, which heirs would be replaced by younger siblings, which of the warlords punished for the Bayul lands they’d seized. Jimin doesn’t know the details of most of it, but Namjoon must have every inch of their plans memorized for the hours he’d spent staring at Taehyung’s careful lettering on the page.

And so Jimin isn’t worried for the court, in Namjoon’s capable hands. What he is worried for—the way Taehyung sways even while seated, the shallow rasp of his breathing—is much more terrifying.

Jimin blinks, and the fine-boned hand in his turns even finer. The pale cast of Taehyung’s skin goes paler, as Jimin looks back through time at his mother, at how terrible she’d looked at the end. When he could see the veins through her skin, the hair that fell out in clumps along the silk of her pillow. She’d been more fragile than the birds that sang along the cliffside, than Jihyun had felt in Jimin’s chubby arms the day he’d been born.

“Taehyung,” Namjoon says. There’s panic low in his voice, held back only with Hoseok’s careful hand on his sternum. Hoseok looks to Jimin, and behind him to Jeongguk, and Jimin forces away the memory of his mother’s last breaths to keep himself sane.

“Jimin,” Taehyung rasps. His hand grasps blindly, locks their fingers together, bruise-tight. Jimin heaves in a breath, and presses his free hand to the burning heat of Taehyung’s forehead, and holds on as desperately as he can. “Jimin, I need—I need—”

He can’t finish, but Jimin knows. Taehyung won’t last much longer here, and Shin’s face at the foot of the dais is creased with worry that Jimin finds almost absurd, in the wake of a coup like this. Jimin does his best to help, when Taehyung braces himself against Jimin’s hand, and the arm of the throne; he keeps himself steady, watches with careful eyes as Taehyung trembles, sways. It’s an agonizing moment as Taehyung fights for it, before he makes it to his feet with Jimin’s hand in his, with his fingers barely brushing the wood.

A breath, held by the room. Jimin watches the shadows on Taehyung’s face, cast by lamps and moonlight, and tries to remember the prince he’d seen at the end of a long line of thrones. The man Jimin had been ready to kill the second he saw his chance.

Here he stands, more a king than even Jimin, uncrowned and unblessed. For a moment, he looks strong. Looks sure of himself and steady and everything their countries need him to be.

And then Taehyung’s eyes roll up, and he drops to the floor like his strings have been cut, half in Jimin’s arms, and the crown goes rolling across the floor, louder than any thunder Jimin has ever heard.

 


 

Jimin barely manages to keep Taehyung’s head from striking the floor. It all happens in a panicked instant; the slump of Taehyung’s shoulders, the sound of metal striking stone, Namjoon’s alarmed shout, hands straining over the rail too far to reach. Jimin’s knees hit the floor hard enough to flare pain through the old injury, but it’s hard to care when Taehyung’s chest barely rises with each thin, rasping breath.

He looks dead. Slumped in Jimin’s arms like this, eyelashes soft and dark against his cheek, it’s too easy to imagine a night that would have ended with Taehyung dead, the rest of them captured or slaughtered, Kyunghwan’s paranoia come to fruition.

“Find Yoongi,” Jimin hears himself say, through a roar that sounds like a thunderstorm. “Jeongguk—Guk-ah, help.”

They have to get him out of the hall. Taehyung can’t be seen like this, not now, and so Jimin cradles Taehyung’s head in his lap with panic blurring out the edges of his vision as Jeongguk slides careful hands under Taehyung’s back, under his thighs, and lifts with a groan that Jimin can’t help but echo in the stifled cry that leaves his lips, as Taehyung’s head lolls back, his hand hangs limp.

Jimin has enough presence of mind to pick up the crown, a tarnished thing, and follow Jeongguk’s aching steps down to where Namjoon waits with Shin at his side, Hoseok vanished into the darkness of the night.

“His chambers,” Jimin says, and swallows down on the taste of blood. It’s all he has to say for Shin to nod; he doesn’t have to look at Jeongguk to know that tension lines every inch of him. It would be so easy for Jeongguk to drop Taehyung, to let his head crack back against the stone, to let him lie broken and bloody like Jimin is sure he’s thought about in more than passing.

But he doesn’t. Taehyung’s brow furrows, his eyes twitch under their closed lids, and Jeongguk gathers him up and stays at Jimin’s side as Shin leads them out of the hall, with cherry blossoms cracking under their feet.

Jimin doesn’t remember the first time he’d made this journey. They’d taken him to the baths first, but he hardly remembers that either. Everything from that day is a horrific blur, of being kicked awake before dawn and collared like a dog and in between, only the smell of warm blood. Only the red-stained steel that had burst out of Jihyun’s back.

Only Taehyung’s voice, cutting through him as surely as the knife at his throat.

“Hyung,” Jeongguk says, full of quiet urgency. Jimin blinks, and presses a palm flat against his chest, and feels the beating of it quick and desperate in his chest. There are tears caught in his eyelashes, even if he’d thought there were none left in him to shed.

Jimin’s feet have stopped moving. Shin waits for them at the next turn, into the wing they’d left maybe an hour ago.

There’s a chain at Jimin’s throat, dragging him back to the room he’d sworn to never enter again. He can barely breathe through it, at the thought of stepping through that door and seeing the link embedded into the wood. Where he’d tugged and tugged until his neck was raw and his hands were blistered.

For the first time in days, Jimin raises a hand to the hollow of his throat.

“Jimin,” Jeongguk says, jagged and sympathetic. "Hyung.”

Jimin’s hand snaps down, the smooth memory of the scar still burning against the pads of his fingers. Taehyung’s eyelashes flutter, his lips parted to let loose a small noise of what might be pain. He’s not awake, not yet, but—he’s getting there. The pallor of his skin scares Jimin more, now, than the memory he’ll be walking into.

“I’m okay,” he says. Tries to make himself believe it, when Jeongguk clearly doesn’t.

By the time they make it to the door of Taehyung’s rooms, Jimin can see Jeongguk’s arms trembling. There’s sweat beaded on his forehead, his teeth clenched to keep himself upright. The landslide hadn’t been easy on him either; Jimin had seen the massive patch of bruising along his entire right side that morning in the river, skin mottled with purple and yellow as they healed.

Shin slides the door open with one hand on his sword, and steps back once he’s sure it’s clear, and Jeongguk balks at the doorway just as much as Jimin.

He remembers—the soldier’s hands, yanking on his chain. The slap in the baths, the hands that dipped under foreign clothing, the pinches and threats and promises of what they would do to him when the prince got tired of his new toy.

Remembers Taeil, the foot pressed against his leash to drag him into a bow. Not being able to breathe, with a hand firm at his throat.

And Taehyung. Silent, scared. A fresh jug of water twice a day, and the shrieking laughter of children in the study, and the thin-paged books left out each night. The heave of his breath when he’d exchange them, exhausted by extra hours spent at training. The flinch, when Taeil raised his hand.

Coward, Jimin had called him, more than once. And never again.

“Come on,” Jimin manages. Rough against his throat, as he presses one hand to Jeongguk’s lower back. The other brushes against Taehyung’s forehead, to feel the fine strands of hair plastered sweat-damp to his skin.

He follows Jeongguk in, and almost succumbs to the roiling nausea of his stomach when he sees—the balcony doors open, curtains dancing slightly in the wind. The chaise pushed back against the wall, the patch of carpet still worn down in a neat semicircle. And there, tucked away in the corner, the link of iron that had kept him pinned down for weeks.

“Don’t look,” Jeongguk begs. Stumbles, under the deadweight in his arms. “Hyung, please.”

Jimin stifles a scream behind his teeth, and burns in anger or humiliation at the tears on his cheeks. Taehyung needs him, and the past is behind them even as it haunts these rooms, even as it weighs on Jimin’s wrists and neck like judgement. He wants to burn it down, to rage at the knowledge that the image won’t ever be forgotten to history—Bayul’s king, the last of his line, collared and beaten and broken.

Instead of breaking something, instead of screaming and wailing and collapsing into himself like a child, Jimin breathes. Looks away from the link in the floor, and the flowers littering the balcony, and instead turns toward the bedroom.

That night when Jeongguk arrived, Jimin had almost taken a moment to look around. To peer into the bedroom, the study, anything that might exist past it. But his world had been narrowed down by then, between the parlor and the baths they dragged him to every few days, and he’d thought—trying to see past that world might shatter it. Might be the last pinch that woke him up, back to the nightmare within a nightmare that war had turned his life into.

Taehyung stirs, just barely, and Jimin forces himself to take a step. And another, until both hands are braced on the time-smoothed wood of the doorframe, looking into the shadowed night of Taehyung’s bedroom.

In the moonlight, drifting in from the uncovered window, the first thing Jimin sees is the bed. It’s massive, perfectly kept, taking up half of the floor space. Everything looks exquisitely soft, perfectly clean, and—lonely. There’s not a certain spot worn down from use, no indent of a head into any one pillow. Like Taehyung hadn’t slept well, or regularly, and—it’s not hard to believe. Jimin drops his hands, and tries not to feel like he’s trespassing as he steps in to let Jeongguk carry Taehyung to the bed.

Cradled in the soft give of the mattress, Taehyung looks small. He curls in on himself, breaths rapid and shallow enough that Jimin can forget, just for a moment, where they are. His knees ache on the wood floor, as he kneels by the bed, raised just a few centimeters off the ground.

Taehyung’s face burns to the touch. His lips are dark, blue hopefully only from the moonlight; his tongue hangs limp in his open mouth, dry-looking even shadowed. Jimin swallows, and leans into Jeongguk at his side, and watches the room light up as Namjoon lights up the lanterns, the candles half-burned on the dresser and low table and windowsill. There must be a dozen of them, scattered in corners and on every surface Jimin can see, until the room is golden-bright and somehow more comfortable for it.

It’s a long moment of quiet before Taehyung’s eyes open, so barely that Jimin almost misses it. They glimmer in the warmth of the new light, the closest flame dancing in the sliver between lids, and Jimin leans forward to press two fingers against Taehyung’s extended wrist, to reassure himself that the heartbeat there doesn’t waver.

“Jimin-ssi,” Taehyung mumbles. Almost a question. There’s confusion in the slight pinch of his sweaty brow, in the downturn of his lips. Jimin’s stomach sinks at the formality, even as Namjoon stumbles to the other side of the bed, to press one knee into the soft give of it and lean over, to lean his face over Taehyung’s with a soft desperation that Jimin can feel in his chest.

“Taehyung,” Namjoon says, with one palm flat against his cheek. “What do you remember?”

Taehyung blinks, so slow Jimin almost thinks he won’t open his eyes again. He does, though, and the blacks of his irises are so deep Jimin could drown as he looks first at Namjoon, and back to Jimin, and then to somewhere in between them, looking back and forth like he’s trying to catch something just out of sight.

“Ghosts,” Taehyung rasps, so small in the cavernous bedroom that it falls stifled into the air between them.

Ghosts, he says. And Jimin wonders if he means Namjoon, or Jimin, or someone else entirely. Taehyung’s eyes slip back shut, and don’t open this time, and Jimin wonders if it’s a curse or a blessing that the Goddess has put him back to sleep, the moonlight cut in a sliver through the bed, just high enough to touch his forehead.

Jeongguk’s hand fumbles close, and finds Jimin’s as familiar as his own.

When the door slams open, footsteps crashing through the parlor, Jimin couldn’t stop his flinch if he knew it were coming. There’s no sound of steel, no threat from Shin, and while he knows it doesn’t mean anything there’s still a part of him that’s relieved. That’s satisfied when Yoongi appears in the doorway, Hoseok’s eyebrows betraying his calm for the anxiety in his face over Yoongi’s shoulder.

“How high is his fever,” Yoongi snaps, and then—

This is familiar. Jimin’s been by Yoongi’s side as he’d treated soldiers Jimin had selected as youths; he’d sat with Jihyun’s hand in his as Jin sewed up a cut deep enough in his thigh that it nearly showed bone.

“I don’t know,” he grits out, and slides over to make room for the pair of them by Taehyung’s head.

“Call a physician,” Jin says, tossed over the bed at Namjoon. She pauses, reconsiders, and pins Shin with her gaze. “Actually—have us brought his bag. Leave the man behind, but ask for his store of willow bark.”

“Namjoon-ah, get a bath drawn. Not too cold.” Yoongi’s hands are quick and sure, pressed against Taehyung’s forehead, his cheeks, the cracked chap of his lips. Jimin finds himself pressed in between Hoseok and Jeongguk, too many arms around him to tell who’s who, but the pressure is comforting in the chaos.

There aren’t many servants awake at this hour, even as the night creeps toward dawn. In the corner of the room is a heavy wooden tub, and the pots for filling it tucked away in the corner, and Jimin sways back into Jeongguk’s chest as Hoseok scrambles up to help Namjoon fill the bath.

The bustle of it is almost relieving, when Jimin remembers the stillness of the hall. With Yoongi and Jin unpacking what’s left of their supplies, Jeongguk’s bloodstained hands around his waist, the sound of water rising more with each trip Namjoon and Hoseok make, he doesn’t have to think about the rustle of wind he can hear from outside. The way the window in Taehyung’s bedroom is so close to where the wall corners off.

Jimin wonders how much of the mourning prayers Taehyung had heard, those first three days. Wonders if he’d noticed when Jimin started forgetting the words.

Nearly a dozen books are stacked by the foot of the bed. One is still open, thin paper exposed to the moonlight, and Jimin catches a glimpse of old, worn Bayul lettering. A romance, he thinks, from the few sentences his eyes strain to read. One of the first books he’d been given.

The sound of steel snaps Jimin’s attention back to the bed, and Yoongi’s grim face. He’s pressed with one knee onto the mattress now, Taehyung’s brow furrowed in his sleep, sweat staining the pillow underneath him. Yoongi’s knife reflects the golden haze of the candles around them, as he grits his teeth and gestures to Jin, who reaches for the neck of Taehyung’s robe to save Yoongi’s bound arm.

“Wait,” Jimin says, before he can stop himself. He thinks back to Taehyung’s hands, pressed low on his stomach. The shivering shame, even alone in the darkness. The way he’d never shed more than his outer robe, with anyone else around. “Hyung, you can’t—”

“I have to,” Yoongi snaps. Softens, a little, when he looks back at Jimin’s face. “We have to get him out of these, Jimin-ah. He’ll overheat.”

He waits, though. Waits the long moment it takes for Jimin to rationalize to himself, even as it feels like breaking every boundary Taehyung had set for himself. But he can beg forgiveness later, and keep Taehyung safe now, and—do his best, with what he has.

“Fine.”

It’s a cruel decision to make, and so Jimin forces himself to watch. As Yoongi’s knife makes the first cut, clean as Jin holds the cloth taut, slicing down and down until the thin cloth belt of Taehyung’s robe falls away, and his layers split to show a growing sliver of skin. Down and down, past his navel, until Jimin finds the dark patch of scar tissue.

Yoongi’s eyes follow, knife tucked back into his belt, and Jimin wonders—if Taehyung had let him look, when Yoongi had pulled him aside in the forest. If he’s ever seen it healed, instead of open and spilling blood.

The moment Jin sees it, her hands stop. Taehyung’s layers are halfway off, only his arms still trapped, the knot of his pants not quite high enough to cover the scar. Jimin grits his teeth, and looks up, but she’s not watching him. Her hand finds Yoongi’s shoulder, gripping white-knuckled until he reaches out to lace their fingers together.

“Goddess,” Jin breathes. Glances up at the moonlight, and then back down, at the nearly-perfect circle.

“Hyung.” Jeongguk’s voice is so small, his breathing so shallow Jimin had almost forgotten. His eyes are wide, shining white and wet, voice choked in his throat. “His—his brother did that?”

Jimin closes his eyes. Thinks about how Jeongguk had acted, reveling in intentional cruelty. But he couldn’t have known this, and Jimin can’t blame him for mistakes the both of them had made. It’s Taehyung’s place; Taehyung, whose hands twitch curled against his chest like he wants to reach down and hide, even in his sleep.

Jimin remembers the calm line of Taehyung’s shoulders, as they watched Taeil die. He doesn’t know if it’s any kind of closure, if his death had been what Taehyung wanted it to be; he’s not sure it matters, when they both know that if it hadn’t been Taehyung, it would have been Jimin or any of the rest of them.

Jeongguk’s hand drifts to his thigh. Jimin watches Yoongi tug Taehyung’s arms out of his sleeves, watches the clothing discarded next to the crown.

There are scars all over Taehyung’s body, scars so different to Jimin’s own that it aches. Yoongi works his pants down his legs, leaving just his undershorts to cover him, and Jimin looks away. His gaze drifts down again to Taehyung’s crown; the ancient tarnish of it, the dull glow of the rubies. It had looked at home on Taehyung’s brow, even as the illness ravaged him.

Jimin tries to imagine the phantom weight of his father’s crown, as heavy in his hands as it had felt when he was young. It’s smaller than Taehyung’s, cast in blackened steel, intricate metalwork curling around the few inset pearls. He’d worn it once, when his father had caught him curled next to his mother’s sleeping form, turning the metal to make it catch the light.

Let’s see if it fits, Jimin-ah, he’d laughed, and of course it hadn’t. Slipped right over Jimin’s ears, the base digging an indent into his forehead. My handsome boy.

Their crown isn’t meant to be beautiful. Jimin had learned from the priestesses, and from his parents, that the crown was a responsibility, not an ornament. That it was heavy to remind him of the lives weighing down on his shoulders.

It had been given to the priestesses, Namjoon had told him, before the flight to Gangneung. They’d keep it safe, keep it honored, until his return.

“Get him into the bath,” Yoongi says, and the words snap through the memories clouding behind Jimin’s eyes.

Jin purses her lips, and Jeongguk’s arm falls away from Jimin’s waist, and—Jimin hears footsteps from behind them, heavy and familiar, and has to force himself not to reach forward, to give Taehyung the last bit of privacy he has.

He can tell the moment Namjoon sees it. It’s so painfully clear in the way the air goes still, the way Yoongi glances up with cautious eyes, the way Jin sets her jaw and wipes a damp cloth along Taehyung’s forehead, leaving water and sweat beading in its wake. Jimin’s fingers twitch, enough that he lets himself reach forward. That he lets himself take one of Taehyung’s curled fists, and pry it open to fit their fingers together.

There’s a terrible moment where Namjoon breathes through something strangled and thick. He kneels down slowly, presses a palm into the mattress, burns with a rage and shame that might rival Jimin’s, if they tried to compare.

“I should have been here,” Namjoon breathes, so quietly that Jimin barely catches it. His accent is heavy, in the Odaian tongue. So different than how Taehyung had spoken; the flatness he’d finally unlearned on the journey from the sea. “I should have—and I left him.”

There isn’t anything Jimin can say. Not to a truth like that, you could have taken me echoing in Taehyung’s voice.

“I promised him.” Namjoon doesn’t seem to expect a reply, but he gets Yoongi’s hand heavy on his shoulder, and dark eyes refusing to let him look back down, and Jimin looks away at the memory of Yoongi’s gaze on him like that, at that first reunion in the woods.

“He has you now,” Yoongi says, firm without straying into forgiveness. “Help me help him, Namjoon-ah, and apologize later.”

At Jimin’s side, Jeongguk breathes out something like a whimper. When he looks, he sees not the angry man who’d spit cruelty across a campfire, but—the boy he’d grown up next to, who laughed away the darkest parts of the night. Who’d floated on his back in the sea, and stared up at the stars, and only smiled when they tried to call him back to the shore.

“I’m sorry,” Jeongguk whispers. The apology is for Jimin, and he doesn’t know how long it might take Jeongguk to say it to Taehyung, but it’s a start.

It’s better than nothing. It’s better than their spirits trapped in broken bodies, and never set out to sea.

 


 

It takes Namjoon, Hoseok, and Jeongguk’s strength put together to haul Taehyung into the bath. They’re all exhausted; when Jimin rises to help, he sways on his feet so heavily that Jin wraps an arm around him to lower him back down to the mattress. The give of it is almost too soft, when Jimin’s used to the ground beneath him, or the ancient wooden bed at Gangneung.

“Rest,” she orders, and stretches out her swollen knee. The bed underneath Jimin’s palm is still warm, as Taehyung wakes enough to sling an arm around Hoseok’s shoulder with a rasping groan that makes Jimin’s chest ache.

He doesn’t say anything, even when prompted. Even when he’s submerged up to his chest, head resting on the lip of the tub, hands curled with tension over the edges. Taehyung only blinks, and breathes out jagged sighs, and watches them all with slitted eyes like he’s not sure who he’s supposed to trust.

“He’ll be okay,” Jin says under her breath, when she notices the tension coiled so tight in Jimin’s spine that it hurts. And it’s not that he doesn’t believe her, with years more experience and knowledge than him, but—it’s hard, when Taehyung doesn’t stop shivering. When Yoongi holds a candle up to his eyes and frowns, when Taehyung struggles to swallow the water Namjoon tips down his throat.

“I know,” he replies. Tries not to make it a lie, when Jeongguk curls up on the floor and rests his head in Jimin’s lap. Jin hums softly, and tugs Jimin back until he’s lying down. Her fingernails scratch against his scalp, gentle enough for his eyes to slip closed. “Noona, I don’t want to sleep.”

“You need it.” Nothing Jin says is ever open to disagreement. But Jimin can’t help but be afraid that if he sleeps he’ll wake up to Taehyung slipped away in the night, like he’d woken up on the floor of his father’s bedroom to the sound of horrible, aching sobs. That he’ll open his eyes and gasp in a breath against the collar wrapped around his throat.

Somewhere so deep he doesn’t know how to set the thought on fire, Jimin is afraid that he’ll wake up, and it will all have been a dream. That he’s created Taehyung from the depths of his own subconscious; that he’ll open his eyes to Jihyun dead, and no Jeongguk on his way, and it might drive him insane.

“Sleep,” Hoseok whispers. He settles down on Jimin’s other side, on the massive bed that could fit one more person at least, and presses his face warm into the crook of Jimin’s neck. “We have you. We have both of you, Jimin-ah.”

“Hyung.” It comes out small, and childlike, and Jimin closes his eyes so he doesn’t have to look across the room at the way Namjoon holds Taehyung’s head steady, to keep his nose from sinking below the surface. “Hyung, I’m scared.”

“It’s okay to be scared.” Warm breath tickles his neck; Hoseok’s lips press dry, against skin so sensitive that Jimin has to swallow a gasp. Jeongguk’s hair is soft against his fingers; Jin’s nails scratch just right across his skin. There’s warmth around him as persistent as the flickering of candles, as the gentle sound of water and Taehyung’s jagged breathing, and Jimin blinks through the golden haze of it at the stack of books, and the crown, and the taste of blood on his tongue.

Jimin falls asleep before he can start to cry, with the last of his family pressed tight against him as a shield.

 


 

He wakes up to sunlight warm on his face, and the gentle murmur of voices. For a moment Jimin forgets, with the too-soft give of the bed underneath him, and takes the time to stretch out enough that his spine cracks as he twists.

“Jimin?”

And then it all snaps back, as vicious as a riding crop, and Jimin peels his eyes open to find Yoongi above him, a steaming cup of tea in his hand. And Jimin registers Namjoon’s quiet murmur behind him, from the other side of the bed, and Jeongguk’s careful stillness at his post on the floor, and the dip in the bed at his side that isn’t Jin, or Hoseok.

It hurts to move, after his first hours spent in a bed in more than a week, but Jimin grits his teeth through the stiff soreness and turns onto his side, and catches his breath at—

Taehyung, resting back against the plain-carved headboard, awake and blinking and flushed from fever.

He offers something that almost manages to be a smile, and Jimin swallows down something hard lodged in his throat, through the dryness of sleep.

“Drink,” Yoongi says, firm as ever, and presses the tea into Taehyung’s clumsy hands. “Jimin-ah, we have a bath ready for you.”

“The court,” Jimin says, instead of rising. Fixes Namjoon with a look, to take in the dark bags under his eyes, the way his shoulders sag with exhaustion. “You’ve told them?”

Namjoon pinches the low bridge of his nose, and closes his eyes for so long that Jimin is afraid he’ll collapse, after so long spent awake.

“You slept about six hours,” Namjoon finally says. “The court has been notified, and Shin’s men have been cooperating to keep them in their quarters. I sent General Oh a message through Tokki, and the war council is being escorted out of the city, and there’s been no bloodshed.”

It sounds too good. Too clean for a coup. But Taehyung’s heavy breath of relief speaks louder than the questions Jimin wants to ask, and despite it all he trusts Namjoon to do what’s best, for now. For years, he’d sworn loyalty only to the end of the war, instead of a king or a country, and Jimin knows him enough to count on that loyalty now that it matters.

“Okay,” Jimin sighs. Closes his eyes, and feels how the ache in them hasn’t gone away. There’s the sound of gentle movement, of Taehyung’s slowed breathing, and then—a hand, warm from the teacup and clammy from fever, covers Jimin’s where it rests on the blanket. Jimin sucks in a breath, and turns his palm up, and looks at the unnatural brightness of Taehyung’s eyes, the way they’re already starting to droop again with sleep. “Taehyung-ah.”

Another almost-smile, one Jimin can only tell through the way his eyes crinkle at the corners.

“I’ll be okay,” Taehyung rasps, more air than voice, and takes a hasty sip of tea when Yoongi clears his throat from the bedside. Jimin closes his eyes, just long enough to nod, and forces himself onto his feet.

They don’t take him to the communal baths. If they’d tried Jimin thinks he would have screamed. Maybe someone had told them, because Yoongi guides him behind the rice-paper screen and to the tub they’d soaked Taehyung in, still heated to steaming.

With each peeled off layer, Jimin can’t help but breathe easier. The clothes are stained and torn, dried stiff so many times that they scratch at his skin. Yoongi takes each piece, black piling up tucked under his bound arm, and reaches to stroke one long, bony finger against the scar on Jimin’s ribs. It’s just barely healed enough to be numb, a shiver of sensation more than any real pain.

“You’re healing well,” Yoongi says, soft enough that his voice barely carries.

It’s hard to remember that just yesterday, he’d been laughing with Jin and Jeongguk, soaked to the bone in river water. That Taehyung had blinked himself to sleep in Jimin’s arms, their fingers locked so tight together that Jimin was afraid his bones might snap with the pressure. Holding himself up is almost impossible; each blink is a horrible temptation.

Jimin slides down into the tub with one hand braced against Yoongi’s forearm, until he’s submerged in scalding water up to his neck. It burns, less from the heat than the aching way Jimin had resigned himself to never feeling clean again. But the water is hot enough to sear away a week of built-up dirt and sweat and tears that even the swift current of the river hadn’t been able to beat out of him. The bath clouds with dust, with the few flakes of blood that had rubbed off from Jeongguk’s hands; Jimin watches, and holds his breath, and fights the urge to sink to the bottom and just stop breathing.

Everything is too much the same. The first time he’d been bathed here, after being dragged out of the hall, Jimin would have drowned himself if anyone had looked away to give him time to. He would have hung himself off the balcony, would have fallen forward onto a dagger, would have done anything for an escape.

He would have done anything, too, to drag Taehyung with him. Even now, more than two months later, Jimin can’t help but think that—it would be so easy, to fall into that place again. To find Jihyun’s grave and go blank, and empty, and closer to dead than he’d like to admit.

Jimin doesn’t want to look up, when Yoongi offers out something soft-smelling, in a jar no taller than a finger. He tips it over Jimin’s head, the cool slickness of the oils dripping down his neck to scent the water, and Jimin finally forces himself to reach up. To massage hands across his own scalp, and bring them away with wet stains of dust on his fingers.

Behind the paper screen, Jimin hears the soft shift of bedding. The gentle murmur of Namjoon’s voice, the bout of coughing that interrupts whatever Taehyung had been trying to say.

“When will the fever pass?” Jimin asks, instead of sinking his ears and lips and eyes under the surface of the water.

Yoongi reaches out, to rub at a spot on the side of Jimin’s head. His hand comes away stained with whatever product he’d doused Jimin in, and he scowls just barely as he rinses it off. “Within the day. It’s already gone down, at least.”

He’d looked so sick last night that Jimin almost doesn’t want to believe it. Flushed and pallid and trembling every inch of him, so different and yet so similar to the sickness Jimin has been afraid of for years.

There’s so much to do that Jimin can barely wrap his head around. It’s been months since the last time he’d sat at Senate, the last time he’d scoured paperwork and minutiae of taxation and trade and the treaties they’d made with other countries. It’s a split in his life that he doesn’t know how to bridge; the warrior, who’d been caught in his first border raid, who’d killed men twice his size at only fourteen, and the academic his father had encouraged.

The war has been brewing ever since Jimin can remember, but—there’d been a few years when attacks on the border had come only from the thieves’ bands that roamed the foothills. When Jimin had sat with his mother and learned the languages she spoke fluently, as a former ambassador.

He’d been confused, for a while, why she’d had to stop. Each story had fascinated him; the domed palaces in the Asagan desert, the bearskin cloak a princess from the North had made her by hand, from the arrow that pierced the beast’s breast to the stitching of the Goddess’ character in the collar. She’d told him all of them a hundred times each, so often with Jihyun on her lap, chubby and barely walking, reaching out to grab at the loose strands of her hair as she spoke.

She’d taught him Odaiain as his second language. Some of the members of his father’s council had hated hearing him speak it, as the trading tensions grew, but they’d kept him at it. And for so many years Jimin loved the cadence of it, loved that speaking it with his mother felt like something secret between them.

He’d been trained in diplomacy and accounting and the hundred different things his father did each and every day, had been tossed to the priestesses to learn the dances and the prayers and the words of the Goddess beyond the bedtime stories his parents told the both of them, curled up all four of them in the king’s massive bed. Jihyun had always fallen asleep, too young to really care or understand anything beyond the rhythm of their parent’s voices.

“Jimin-ah,” Yoongi murmurs. Behind the screen, Jimin can see the outline of Hoseok’s shoulders as he takes his place to guard. Hears Namjoon slipping out, the soft familiar sound of the door to Taehyung’s chambers sliding shut. “You don’t have to carry all this, you know.”

His fingers press gentle against the tension in Jimin’s shoulders, until Jimin slumps further into the cooling water. There’s water running down his cheeks, dripping from his hair to his temples to his neck.

Jimin shivers, and tries to imagine speaking any of this aloud, and finds himself wishing for the solitude of a thunderstorm. The impossible cramped space of a woodshed. Taehyung’s head in his lap, as he slept through the howling of the wind outside.

“I know,” Jimin promises.

He doesn’t have to, but—until Taehyung is better, until Jimin can feel safe in this palace enough to speak to Hoseok or Jeongguk about any of it—he’s going to have to keep everything tucked inside. Everything, including the panic of looking out into the parlor and seeing the view he thought he was going to die with.

The bath goes cold too quickly, and Jimin shudders as he stands, as he towels himself dry. Hoseok raps modestly on the wood frame of the screen, like he hasn’t seen Jimin naked in much worse situations than this, and rounds the corner with a neatly-folded stack of clothing offered out in his hands.

“They’re servant’s clothes, and not our style, but—better than nothing.”

Each piece is the traditional black, though stitched much more plainly than Jimin had been used to from the manor’s tailors, but it’s enough. The servants, at least, wear fewer layers; Jimin doesn’t have to bother with an Odaian outer robe, as long as his ankles, that would do little for him except provide something extra to trip over.

Clean and combed and dressed in decent clothing, Jimin feels more human than he has in days. It’s something like the violence of the night has sloughed off him like a snakeskin, like he’ll be able to stand in front of Taehyung’s court without running each and every person who’d crowed at Jihyun’s death through with his sword.

“Thank you,” Jimin murmurs, when Hoseok adjusts the sit of his high collar. Hoseok offers a tight smile that dimples the bottoms of his cheeks, and kisses Jimin’s forehead, and brushes back Jimin’s still-damp hair with his fingers.

“Namjoonie summoned the other generals,” Hoseok says, and the firm tone of his briefing is nothing if not comfortably familiar. “You’ll have to attend this evening to demand a formal peace, but the negotiations can wait until the council arrives.”

Until Taehyung is better is the unspoken subtext, and Jimin can’t help the way his shoulders relax. There’s work for him to do, work he’ll be able to make himself understand, and Taeyung’s position isn’t in immediate jeopardy. And there’s Namjoon, who’s been researching the war almost as long as he’s been living it; Jimin would be surprised if he didn’t have half an armistice outlined already.

Jimin tugs at the ends of his sleeves, just barely too long, and looks up to find Hoseok watching him, careful in the way he’s managed to perfect over the years.

“Jimin-ah,” he says, softly enough that it shouldn’t carry. Yoongi has vanished from the bedroom, maybe to find Namjoon in the parlor or study, and there’s nothing Hoseok could say that he could make himself want to hide from Taehyung. “The steward has arranged a room for you, if you want it.”

There’s a question in the words, and Jimin takes the time to consider his answer.

If he takes it, he’ll be free of these rooms. Won’t have to spend more time than he needs to just meters away from that chain in the floor, the worn-down ring of footsteps, the memories that flick behind his eyes like hummingbirds’ wings each time he blinks. He hadn’t dreamed last night, run down with exhaustion, but that’s no promise for the future.

But—Jimin looks away, at the privacy screen that blocks his view of the bed, and has to think. Has to consider that even now he doesn’t want to let Taehyung out of his sight, doesn’t want to leave him vulnerable in this place that has hurt the both of them so deeply it feels impossible to recover from.

He remembers falling asleep with Taehyung pressed warm against him. Their fingers tangled together. The desperate way Taehyung had begged him to stay, as Jin’s remedy pulled him under.

Jimin takes a careful breath, and it’s the only answer Hoseok needs. Thin, knobby fingers brush against his wrist, and Hoseok smiles sympathetic and small, and nods enough that his hair shakes in front of his eyes.

“I’ll let them know.”

Jimin returns the smile as much as he can. He can hear the sounds of the estate awake around them, more muted over the sounds of the surrounding forest than he remembers. A few steps takes him out from behind the curtain, to the window that looks over to the courtyard he’s only ever seen in the dark, wrists and neck rubbed raw from gold. In the bed, Taehyung sleeps with a makeshift pack of melting ice pressed to his forehead, his mouth pursed in a pout like a baby’s.

There aren’t many people wandering the grounds. Jimin spots a patrol of two guards, a servant with a bundle of laundry on her back, a cookhand with a sack of rice slung over his shoulder.

“Hyung,” Jeongguk murmurs, taking Hoseok’s place at his shoulder as smooth as a shift of the tide. “We should go.”

There’s a peace to be brokered, an army to welcome at the gates, a regime to solidify. Jimin swallows down the lump in his throat and the burning in his eyes, and turns to let his gaze rest on Taehyung. On the uncertainty of his sleep, the shivering that hasn’t quite stopped, the gentle grip his hands have on the down blanket.

His hand drifts to the scar, the collar that won’t ever leave, and Jimin thinks—he’s under Taehyung’s thumb more now than he ever had been, when a leash was pinning him down.

Jimin leaves Taehyung’s chambers quietly, scared to wake him, and does not look back at the parlor he leaves behind.

 


 

It takes another cool bath and half a dozen cups of the tea Jin brewed from the physician’s willow bark store until Taehyung feels lucid enough to speak. By then, his throat is scraped raw from breathing alone, his pillow drenched from the way he can’t stop sweating and the ice they’d pressed against his skin to keep him cool.

“How are you feeling?” Yoongi asks, after Taehyung blinks his eyes open from a burst of sleep as uncomfortable as it had been short.

Taehyung considers not answering, and rolling back over, and letting go once again to the exhaustion dragging his eyelids down, that never seems to end. But Yoongi is ready with a cup of water that he lifts carefully to Taehyung’s cracked lips, and the sun has started going down behind the mountain, and Taehyung’s panic and curiosity finally wins over the way every part of him aches.

“Awful,” he tries, and it comes out just slightly less of a croak than he’d expected. Yoongi’s lips flash in a brief, tight smile; Taehyung pushes himself up onto one elbow, and counts it as a success that he doesn’t immediately collapse.

“Your fever is almost gone.” When Taehyung can manage to drink on his own, Yoongi settles down next to him on the too-big bed. The dip of it is comforting in a way Taehyung isn’t awake enough to hate; he thinks he remembers a warm body pressed up against his, just close enough to touch, and takes careful sips through the creaking pressure in his chest. “It should be completely down by the morning.”

Part of Taehyung tries to be grateful, but—it’s hard, when healing will bring the weight of a country onto his shoulders. His father’s crown is still resting on the books he’d taken from the library for Jimin, a cruel reminder of the last time he’d taken responsibility for something.

Something shifts in the corner of his eye. Taehyung looks up, quickly enough that it raises nausea in his stomach, and finds Hoseok leaning in the doorway, watching him with careful eyes.

“Where is everyone?” He asks. The last syllable comes out as something like a wheeze, sends him into another coughing fit, and Yoongi barely takes his cup in time to stop it from drenching the bed when Taehyung collapses back against the pillows. He tries to turn, to press his face into the dampness of them to hide the burning of his cheeks, but the effort is overwhelming.

“Careful,” Hoseok murmurs. He must have missed the footsteps, but gentle fingers stroke through his hair. “This has taken a lot out of you.”

“Jin-hyung is resting in your parlor. Namjoon and Jimin are meeting with the generals, and preparing for Oh’s arrival tomorrow.”

Taehyung heaves out the last of the breath in his lungs, and stares up at the wood-slat ceiling. There’s something he should be doing, something he should be there for, and—all he can do is lie in this bed he’s hated for as long as he’s known it and let himself be taken care of like a child.

His fist hits the mattress, the only way he can force out the frustration and restlessness building in his chest. There’s the quiet sound of dripping water, another cool cloth pressed against his forehead, and the relief is sudden and overwhelming and enough to force Taehyung to relax his fist, to reach out and take the hand Hoseok offers, callused from years of training and riding.

“This is nothing to be ashamed of,” Hoseok says. It’s so firm that Taehyung couldn’t argue if he could make himself speak, gentle enough that it ebbs at the frustration rising like a wave in his chest. “Taehyung-ah. Let us take care of you, for a little while.”

The shame wells from the idea that they’d want to. That it would be anything but a burden.

It’s as hot and awful and humiliating as the way that they know he doesn’t deserve it. They know everything, from the bareness of his chest to the poison he’d tipped down Taeil’s throat, to the cowardice of not being able to watch his father die. Taehyung curls into himself, feels the shift of sheets soft against the almost-numb of scar tissue.

“You saw,” Taehyung rasps. He has half-memories of being lifted, submerged. Namjoon and Jeongguk and Hoseok taking turns, Namjoon’s tears dripping hot onto his feverish skin.

Yoongi had asked to check the healing, the first night they’d escaped the city, and Taehyung had curled his arms around his stomach and refused to speak a word until Yoongi had backed away, hands clasped safely behind him. It’s been instinct for so long to send away attendants, to tie his robes himself, to protect the awful secret of it when forced to choose between pain or exposure.

Hoseok softens, so visibly that Taehyung aches. There’s nothing he’d wanted less than pity, as deserving of it as he might be, and the turn-up of Hoseok’s eyebrows, the softness around his lips, is almost as awful as indifference might have been.

“You don’t have to talk,” Hoseok tells him. Soft and gentle and it hurts, enough that Taehyung flinches away from it. It’s a different kind of cruelty than the one he’d grown up with. “But we’re here, Taehyung-ah. Whatever you need.”

They’re here, and Taeil isn’t. Taeil is going to be entombed, laid to rest in the family crypt, and Taehyung will be here to watch the coroners seal his ashes in stone.

He doesn’t think he needs anything, now, except time. Except Jimin’s arms holding him, always so careful not to touch anything he hadn’t asked for. Taehyung can’t make himself reach out to Hoseok, or Yoongi where he’s waiting with more water, a bowl of something like thin broth waiting on the low table next to the bed. But they’re here, and it’s almost enough.

“I’m tired,” Taehyung finally manages. It tastes like a lie, but Hoseok’s smile is enough that he knows they’ll let him have it.

“Before you sleep,” Yoongi says, in the sleepy murmur that Taehyung can’t help but sink into more fully than the mattress. He lifts the bowl, and the steam blurs Taehyung’s vision, and he breathes in and tries not to remember.

Months before, Taehyung had gotten the cook’s son pulled from the front lines and into reserve troops, and so he’d been able to ask for the broth. Beef bone, lightly seasoned, not quite what he’d managed to gather from a book of Bayul’s culture. But it might have been enough, even though it seemed back then that nothing could ever be. This broth is almost the same; a little milder, maybe, but as steaming hot as the bowl Taehyung had set down for Jimin, that first morning before dawn.

Taehyung drinks slowly, stomach cramping and growling in protest of the too-long fast, until Yoongi looks satisfied. He’s only managed half, but he can’t take anything more. Just has to lie there, and let his fingers work out the muscle in the tensest part of Taehyung’s neck, until it’s impossible to keep his eyes open.

“Sleep,” Yoongi tells him, as kindly as Taehyung thinks he knows how.

But even drifting in the darkness behind his own eyelids, Taehyung can’t. It’s an awful limbo, where he couldn’t move if someone lit the bedframe on fire, but he can’t stop processing Hoseok and Yoongi’s gentle voices as they speak, can’t stop hearing the windchimes and the softer bustle than he’s used to, and the occasional footsteps down the hall.

By the time the door to Taehyung’s suite slides open, the exhaustion is building into something like tears hot behind his eyes, clogging up his chest. The soft sound of voices only makes him curl up tighter, shame and irritation and the helpless tiredness of his limbs building up until he doesn’t think he could bear to be looked at.

“How is he?” He hears, Namjoon’s worry packed tight into every syllable. Jin groans loudly; there’s a thump that might mean he’s rolled from the chaise onto the floor, which promptly goes ignored.

“He’s fine,” he thinks Yoongi says. Imagines him in the darkness of not-quite-sleep with his hands braced, stopping Namjoon from barreling into the room, well-intentioned and apologetic and everything Taehyung wouldn’t know how to deal with if he even could right now. Sleeping, he might hear someone say.

And then quiet footsteps. Breathing in the doorway. The soft sound of clothes shedding, Jeongguk’s whisper into Hoseok’s ear.

Taehyung can’t tell how much time passes, until the other side of the bed dips. The covers shift. He holds his breath, and tries not to let his face shift, to show everything that’s threatening to spill out through closed lids in hot, useless tears.

“Baby,” Jimin whispers, so soft that Taehyung can feel the breath of it against his eyelashes. Imagines Jimin’s hand, just barely holding back from brushing along his cheek. “You’re not sleeping, are you?”

It’s barely a question. Taehyung furrows his brow so he doesn’t cry, tries to tell Jimin some of the humiliating helplessness with a rough noise, high in his throat. The fingers land, brush soft over the swell of his cheeks, trail down blessedly cool to tap along Taehyung’s jaw.

“Can’t?”

Taehyung purses his lips out. Tries not to feel stupid for it, like a child.

He hasn’t needed anyone to take care of him for years. There’d always been a rotating cycle of nurses, and then nannies after his mother died, and soon enough he’d understood the nature of their detachment. They never quite seemed to care where he was, what he did after lessons and the first basic steps of his training.

So Taehyung moved on from needing them, and it’s worked well so far, and needing to be babied sets him so on edge that he doesn’t know how to burn it out.

“Come here,” Jimin says, in a high little sing-song Taehyung doesn’t know if he’s ever heard. Maybe it’s the surprise that catches him enough that the gentle grip Jimin has on his shoulder tugs him backwards. Whatever it is, Taehyung sags back, his eyes still sticky-shut even as he can feel Jimin’s skin against his, under the soft sheet that keeps him hidden from the world.

Jimin presses up against Taehyung’s side, and Taehyung’s breath hitches as he registers the touch of bare skin, Jimin’s chest and arms and stomach somehow burning and cold at the same time. It’s impossible to breathe, as he rests soft hair against Taehyung’s chest, and tucks an arm around Taehyung’s waist. Always careful not to let his hand drift down, always hesitating at each touch like he’s waiting for Taehyung to pull him away.

“Better?” Jimin asks, when he’s made himself comfortable at Taehyung’s side.

There’s a soft, breathy laugh from the doorway. Jeongguk, maybe, though Taehyung hasn’t had much excuse to hear him laugh before.

Baby, says Taehyung’s heart. Baby, baby.

“Jimin,” he whispers, instead of answering.

They’re close enough that he can feel Jimin’s lips, twisting up into a smile. It’s how he falls asleep. To the gentle sound of windchimes, and Jimin’s palm pressed flat against his heart, keeping each beat strong and steady through the night.

 


 

The next morning, Taehyung is steady enough on his feet that Yoongi deems him well enough to greet the invading army at the gates. It’s Namjoon, though, who shows up with silk clothing tucked under his arms, so different than the plain black servants’ clothes they’d found for Jimin. Taehyung plucks at the outer robe, red cloth embroidered with gold, the creams and rich browns of the rest of the ensemble, and is quietly loath to put them on even after he’s scrubbed his skin raw in another cool bath.

His fever is down, but he flushes so hot it burns when Namjoon looks at him, aching and teary and pitiful. Yoongi had allowed him a thin robe this morning to cover himself, the linen tied tight over his stomach, but Namjoon won’t look him in the eyes. Won’t look at any of him, bowed away and averted and nose red like he hasn’t really stopped crying.

“Hyung,” Taehyung says. He’s heavy with the aftermath of sickness; breathing still feels impossible, speaking scratches rough against his throat. There’d been a syrup this morning, something thick and heavy that had coated his throat to soothe it like a layer of sap.

It shouldn’t be him doing the comforting. But Namjoon seems to need it, reaches out with careful hands to fold Taehyung tight against him, fine clothing forgotten on the floor. It’s a desperate embrace, more than Taehyung has gotten from him in so long, and—it’s easy to relax into, despite the way Namjoon gasps against his ear. Despite the trembling of it, the way it scrapes at his edges like sandpaper.

He doesn’t think he can cry anymore. There’s nothing left in him where an ocean used to be, bottled up and stopped too tight to let anything escape.

“I’m sorry,” Namjoon rasps. It’s like he doesn’t know what he’s apologizing for; the hug or the leaving or the near-decade spent too alone to think back on without feeling a knife under his skin. “Taehyung-ah, I’d take it back if I could.”

Taehyung closes his eyes, and wonders how long Namjoon had studied the maps before he’d taken off in the night, his family chambers untouched and sold to the highest bidder. How many times he’d gotten lost on the journey, if any; how long it had taken him to stop looking over his shoulder for the patrols that were called off after a month, under the assumption that he’d died in the mountains after the first heavy snows.

“You shouldn’t.”

A still moment passes, until Namjoon pulls away. He keeps their faces close, and it’s hard to ignore that they’re the same height now. Taehyung doesn’t have to look up at him anymore, and the feeling of it taps hollow against his chest. The same sound as fingernails against gold, the crown waiting for him to pick it up again.

“What do you mean?”

Taehyung looks down, at how carefully Namjoon touches him. It doesn’t quite feel strange anymore, not after Jimin had broken him down piece by piece. Not after he’d woken up to Jimin gently disentangling himself from Taehyung’s grip, and fallen back asleep to the blurry disappointment as the space next to him went cold. He smiles, as much as he can, and offers it out like peace.

“You were there when I needed you,” Taehyung says. It wasn’t when he swallowed that too-bitter glass of wine, when he bit down on screams as he bled, when he struggled out through the gates to the first physician he could find; it wasn’t those years he’d spent learning how to guard himself, though he hadn’t known it at the time. He’d needed that desperate hug at Gangneung more than he’d ever needed a shield from his brothers. “That’s all I asked, hyung. It’s okay.”

It’s not enough. Not just yet. Namjoon still has regret painted in broad strokes across his face, even as he nods, wipes his nose with the back of his hand, steps just enough air that the air slips humid between them. Taehyung can hear the murmur of voices rising from the city; the sound of what’s left of an army marching through the streets.

It’s not enough, but they have time. For the first time in his life, Taehyung has time, and he brushes shoulders with Namjoon as he steps forward to collect his fallen clothing.

Everything feels strange against his skin, after more than a day spent in nothing but water and the cool sheets and his underclothing. The silk slips like the river against him, but—the layers, for the first time, feel more oppressive than comforting. In the absence of anyone to tell him not to, Taehyung leaves the knot of his robe loose, rather than tied tight at the smallest point of his waist.

He steps out into the parlor with the gold of his crown warming against his hands, to find Jimin waiting on the balcony.

Taehyung thinks he remembers the doors shut, when they’d carried him through no more than two nights ago. It almost makes him smile, to think—maybe Jimin had been the one to open them, maybe he’d remembered.

It’s just as likely, though, that he can’t stand to be in the room. Taehyung can’t help but look at the link in the floor, badly hidden by the chaise someone has pushed back to its original spot, and feels the too-familiar shame crawl up his throat and settle bitter against his tongue. Nothing has changed, a part of him whispers, cruel and insistent. He’s the monster Jimin had thought him to be, dressed up in silks and gold and a mockery of respectability.

“Jimin?” Taehyung says, when the bitter thing relaxes enough for it. Jimin’s head doesn’t turn; against the brightness of the sunlight, Taehyung tries not to look at his ghost, no bigger or brighter than a candle’s flame.

A long few moments pass with Taehyung’s hand braced over the doorframe, before he can bring himself to cross the threshold.

There had been years where Taehyung hadn’t closed the doors once, not even when snow spilled onto the floor and swirled in blizzards around his bedroom. Those days he’d sent the servants off, unwilling to let them brave the cold or shut the doors, and had shivered through the night with only a warm skin of water tucked underneath his mounds of blankets. Years where the thunderstorms were bad, he’d kept them bolted, and the windows drawn, and starved every night for fresh, rain-tinged air.

Today, the view is gorgeous. There’s not an inch of fog, the mountains stretched out in perfect clarity, blanketed by forest and the cloud-specked blue of the sky. There’s no lightning, no earth-shattering noise. Nothing for Taehyung to be afraid of, except for the army marching down the Trader’s road from the east.

Nothing except Jimin, with his arms braced on the railing, and the too-new scar on his throat.

“Are you ready?” Jimin asks. The words drift down like cherry blossoms, like the fractals of light off glass windchimes. Taehyung blinks, and digs his fingers deeper into metal like he could bend the crown itself to his will.

“I’ll try.” It’s the most he can give. Without a script, without the years of council and training Taejoon had gotten even as their father forbade it—there’s not much more Taehyung can give after what they’d gone over, time after time, in the council room at Gangneung. When he was still trying to understand what it would mean to stand here, a king, with no brothers to tear him down.

Jimin looks up. There’s dark liner just barely painted on his upper lid, silver glinting in his ears where they’re pierced in half a dozen places. A silver chain loops around his wrist, but his neck is bare. Just the low rise of coarse black cloth, and the scar.

For a moment, Taehyung barely knows him. There’s no similarity to the boy from the storm here, with rainwater dripping down his cheeks and chest bare to the heat of the tiny fire. This is a king, more than Taehyung feels even in silk, and maybe it’s the solemn mark of the black of Bayul’s royalty, but there’s a part of him that wants to bow.

Until Jimin softens, his eyes losing that steel and flint of judgement, and he reaches out with careful hands to tug softly at Taehyung’s hair. Adjusting it this way and that, Taehyung’s hands helpless around the crown, until he’s satisfied.

“There,” Jimin murmurs. “Let me—”

And then—he reaches for the crown, and Taehyung lets him take it without a flinch of protest. Lets a foreign king, an enemy king until the peace is negotiated, strip his power away with nothing more than a sweet, soft-lipped smile.

Jimin rests the crown on Taehyung’s head, gentle against his brow, and strokes his thumbs careful down the line of Taehyung’s jaw.

Taehyung stares at him, lips just barely parted, struck dumb by the simple weight of it. How Jimin had given him this like nothing at all, like the balance between them was as natural as the moon and tide itself. The mountain and sky, meeting at the peak.

“Let’s go,” Jimin says. “It’s bad manners to be late.”

And like in the forest, he winds their hands together as easy as breathing. The Kal wait for them in the parlor, and Namjoon emerges from Taehyung’s study with a book regretfully left behind on a low table. Yoongi and Jin have retreated to their chamber, for sleep Taehyung hopes is deep and unbroken. They’ve spent so much of the last days taking care of him that he’s almost afraid they’ve forgotten to take care of themselves, besides Jin’s careful un- and re-wrapping of Yoongi’s arm, as Taehyung had struggled in and out of sleep in the early afternoon.

“Your majesty,” Hoseok calls him, and offers a bow deep enough that Taehyung can’t tell whether it’s supposed to be mocking. Jeongguk follows, not quite as deep, but—he meets Taehyung’s eyes, and they’re more open than Taehyung knows what to do with. He’s doing his best, and it would be unfair of any of them to expect him to be perfect, but Taehyung can’t help but be almost overwhelmed with gratitude.

“I’ve asked Hoseok to stand with you.” Jimin speaks carefully around the words, like he’s trying to make sure Taehyung has an out, if he wants it. “I know you have your own guards, but—I don’t know. It would make me feel better.”

Taehyung swallows, and looks down at the sliver of ink showing from under Jeongguk’s sleeves. The tattoos reach down to his wrists, longer than the forearm length of his shirt, the black as dark as their king’s clothing. He knows what the oaths say. That a Kal will stand behind whoever they’re sworn to, that they’ll do whatever necessary to keep them safe.

That ancient word. It’s enough to make Taehyung shiver at the thought of it.

Hoseok’s smile is as easy as anything. Like it’s natural that Jimin would ask, and he would agree, and Taehyung would be the first Odaian king to stand with a Kal at his side.

“Of course,” Taehyung says, as strongly as he can manage when his chest still aches from sickness. “I’d be honored, Hoseok-ssi.”

“Hyung,” Hoseok corrects, and knocks his knuckles against Taehyung’s shoulders gently, before stepping up into an embrace delicate enough that Taehyung doesn’t feel bad about pulling him closer. He remembers the desperation of the last time he’d done this, I don’t want to die caught in his throat and ringing in his head for the first time.

“Hyung,” he agrees.

His brothers are dead. No one he calls hyung is ever going to hurt him again.

The crown rests high on Taehyung’s brow, and fits more comfortably with each second that passes him by.

 


 

Jimin clasps arms with Taehyung on the steps of the great hall, in front of the court and half the city crowded in through the gates and Oh’s army in perfect lines, with cherry blossoms swirling around them like a hailstorm.

He recognizes the face of some of the nobles. He hears their mocking laughs in his dreams, sometimes, though they aren’t laughing now. A few are in mourning grays, but most seem to understand the nature of their regime change. Instead of mourning, a few stand in fear. Some look away, when Taehyung turns to speak to the crowd; others clench their teeth, and tip up their chins, and stare with deep disdain that may have been born with a prince’s purse, but had evolved far beyond its depths.

Taehyung’s speech is short, and carefully eloquent, and spread through speakers in the crowd to mask the strain of his voice as much as they can. He speaks of a time of negotiation, of a new alliance between countries, of Odai’s withdrawal from Bayul’s land.

Jimin keeps his face wiped, and looks each noble in the eyes, and hopes with a vicious twist that none of them ever forget his face. That they never forget what they’d done to him, and his family, and his people.

It strikes him, as he moves on to the stunned faces of the city’s people, that most of them have never seen Taehyung’s face. That none knew his name, or that he’d even existed at all beyond the vague public knowledge of a fifth son. None of them know, yet, why he’s their king. They only know that he is, and that it must have been bloody, and yet—it’s relief, that Jimin sees the most. Even as mothers hold their children back from the soldiers, the relief is from the promise of an end to the blood. An end to the limbo that had come with Odai’s victory.

Their sons and husbands and fathers are still stationed in Jimin’s villages. They’re still at risk of attack from mountain clans or the Bayul themselves. Most of them will march home before winter; the captains Namjoon knows to trust will stay, and help Jimin’s people rebuild what Odai had burned down in reckless cruelty.

“Kim Taehyung,” Jimin says, when Taehyung goes silent. The crowd shifts, a whisper goes up as the callers repeat him, words traveling mouth to mouth through the crowd. “Bayul accepts your offer of peace.”

He’s mouthed this speech to himself a dozen times in the last few hours, the paper Namjoon had scrawled it on lost to the landslide but easily called back through their joined memories. It’s not forgiveness, not yet, but it’s enough for the people to know—this isn’t a tentative peace, likely to break out into more fighting, more death.

Jimin will fight for this peace, harder than he’s fought for anything since he’d struggled against his bonds on the floor of the hall at his back.

“Brother,” he calls Taehyung, in the ancient word that few in this crowd will know. It’s how his father had greeted visiting monarchs and heirs, the word different in Jimin’s higher register but still falling just as heavily.

At his back, he can feel Jeongguk shiver. Can know without looking that both he and Hoseok are breathing in relief, even as their faces stay as smooth as the beaten cliffside. There’s an empty space between them that won’t ever be filled, but Jimin thinks back to kneeling at Jihyun’s grave. The phantom touch of arms around him, the sea-spray smell he’d always carried even far into the mountains. The love that they’d rarely spoken aloud, that had burned as hot and furious in Jimin’s chest as the sun.

It’s not quite right, but Jimin calls Taehyung brother, and it means something. And when they clasp arms, Taehyung’s grip is firm and unflinching, and Hoseok stands at his shoulder with pride brimming in the creases around his eyes.

Jimin’s father had always wanted peace. It seems only fair that Jimin should bring it, when he’d given up so much to the slaughter of war.

The general bows to Jimin as her king, and eyes Taehyung with caution Jimin can’t hold against her. But she doesn’t speak anything to disrupt the moment, as the soldiers stand in careful lines and their fathers’ armor, and Namjoon calls for the groundskeeper and the few innkeepers from town they had met with, to arrange accommodations.

“If you have any trouble,” Jimin murmurs, soft enough that the oldest of the women has to lean in. “Come to me or your king first, please.”

Taehyung bows deeply, once to each of them, and Jimin watches their faces shift, just barely. They’d been suspicious yesterday, before the crown had given them advance pay; today, they seem more curious to see their new king up close. To see how quietly he moves, how quick he is to grant formalities.

The sickness lingers, though. The crowd disperses quickly, the day too short to spend much time on these things, and Taehyung stands well through the pains of organization, with Oh’s few trusted captains taking their lines of men to each barrack or inn. Jimin keeps wanting to reach out, to ask for even a single squeeze of reassurance, but the weight of too many eyes keeps his arms at his side. Hoseok steps up closer to Taehyung’s shoulder, when he notices Jimin looking, and murmurs something quiet in his ear.

In the brief moment of peace that comes with Oh’s distraction, Taehyung’s face eases into something like exhaustion.

“I’ll take you back,” Jimin offers, when he can’t stop himself any longer. The frown that follows makes him want to smooth away the crease in Taehyung’s brow with his thumb, with his lips. Something gentle, as a reward for keeping himself upright and gracious and regal.

The silks don’t change anything, and the crown changes less. Jimin barely has to look to see Taehyung underneath it all, who wears it awkwardly but speaks to his subjects like he’d been born for it. With respect, and care, and everything Kyungwhan had never been. Everything Jimin’s father was, and had raised him to be.

“We’ve been seen enough,” he says, when Taehyung opens his mouth to protest. The words come out on something like a smile, and from the corner of his eye, Jimin sees the last remnants of the court watching them. It only makes him want to take Taehyung’s hand more, but—those rumors can wait to be spread, until the peace has settled. “That’s half the job, Taehyung-ah.”

Taehyung flashes a grin at the joke. Not that it’s untrue, for Jimin, but Odai has always been strange about their secrecy.

And so he takes Taehyung back through the winding mess of halls, leaving Namjoon to deal with Oh and the rest of Jimin’s council. It’s not the most polite, maybe, but Jimin can’t bring himself to care when as soon as they’re out of earshot, Taehyung bends himself nearly in half with the force of his coughing fit.

“Come on,” Hoseok murmurs, gentle in Taehyung’s ear as he braces a hand against his chest. “Let it out.”

Taehyung gasps in a breath, and fumbles out like an instinct, and Jimin doesn’t even have to think about reaching out, tangling their fingers together, letting Taehyung ride out the rest of the fit with what feels like half his weight braced against Jimin’s hand.

Jeongguk is at his side too, worried but more quiet about it. Warming up, day by day, with each unsubtle glance down at Taehyung’s stomach.

They’re the same, Jimin thinks, more than he’d like to admit. The anger had been so easy, and so justified, and he remembers exactly how it had felt to look at Taehyung and feel nothing but hatred. And it had been exhausting, and destructive, and he can’t help but think now that Jeongguk looks younger, in Taehyung’s presence. Looks a little ashamed, sometimes, when he thinks no one is watching.

He and Jimin, and eventually Taehyung, will talk. There will be time to share stories, for Jeongguk to open up as slowly as he’d opened up to them all when he was a child.

For now, it’s enough that he’s waiting to help as they guide Taehyung back to his rooms. Not quite touching, but hovering close enough that Jimin knows some part of him cares. Even if it’s just the part that wants Jimin to be happy.

They all, Jimin thinks, expected the room to be empty. Yesterday, they’d been undisturbed beyond the changing shifts of Taehyung’s guards. No one had knocked, no one had wandered the hallways in the aftermath of something so quiet, and yet unashamedly bloody. But the silence has broken, now, whatever mourning these people had for their king set aside, and Jimin slides the door to Taehyung’s chambers open to the shocked gasp of the servants, and each of them collapsing into a bow.

“Oh,” Taehyung whispers, when he sees. Jimin’s hand rests against his own lips, something hot and sharp prodding at his chest.

He remembers this routine, as much as he hates to. Remembers the exact slant of the sun, when the servants had slipped in each morning to clean things that didn’t quite need cleaning. To take away his morning tray, and replace his water, and step so carefully around the invisible line painted on the floor.

Jimin remembers their faces. Remembers one in particular, though her forehead is pressed too tight to the ground to make out anything but the crease in her brow.

“Please rise,” Taehyung says, and in the slow shift that follows, Jimin notices—

Half of the room has been packed up, into slatted wood boxes. Not the furniture, but the painted scrolls on the walls. The carved figures on a table, the soft carpet rolled and propped in a corner.

“What’s going on?” Jimin blurts, before he can stop himself.

Haseul’s eyes dart between them, wider than Jimin’s ever seen. Each girl looks reluctant to speak.

They don’t have to, when some realization takes over Taehyung’s face. Jimin thinks he sees fear, in the battle playing itself out on Taehyung’s expressive features.

“I’m moving,” he whispers. “Aren’t I?”

And Jimin remembers the king’s chambers. The vast expanse of the bedroom, the bed twice as large as Taehyung’s, the way Kyunghwan had looked small and pitiful and weak asleep in it.

“Yes, your highn—your majesty.” Haseul stumbles over the words, and flushes dark enough that Jimin can practically feel the heat, and avoids Taehyung’s eyes like she’ll be struck if she dares to look higher than the soft slippers on his feet.

The steward had requested a meeting with Taehyung, yesterday, about redecorating. This must have been what he meant—Taehyung’s inevitable move, the stripping of life from these rooms, and transplanting it into where his father had slept, and drank, and died, in the end, with little more dignity than a pig dressed for slaughter.

“Haseul.” When Taehyung says it, formal enough that one of the younger girls gasps, it’s almost enough to make her break. Haseul looks up, to maybe his midriff, before her eyes skitter away, and back to Jimin. She looks him in the eyes once, before she remembers, and Jimin doesn’t miss the way her gaze drops down to his neck, first, before returning to the ground.

“Your majesty?” There’s no lapse in respect. No fond, barely-breathed oppa. Taehyung swallows loud enough that Jimin can hear it, and breathes in deep like he’s about to leap off a jagged cliff, and into the sea.

“Will you let me see them?”

He asks like he’s scared the answer will be no. Like he wouldn’t press even if it were, even though he could demand anything of her now. Jimin’s throat tightens as her shoulders lock, as she bows her head low. There’s every reason for her to say no; the blood on Taehyung’s hands, the Kal and guards that follow him with hands always ready to twitch to their swords. Jimin himself, for how afraid of him she’d been those first few chained days.

But Jimin can feel the rattle of Taehyung’s breath in his chest. The warmth of him close to Jimin’s shoulder, the nerves that flutter his fingers down by his sides. And though she won’t look directly, he knows Haseul can see too; all the things about Taehyung that haven’t changed, though Jimin hadn’t let himself see them before.

“Of course,” Haseul whispers, and Taehyung sags into himself with a soft noise that might be gratitude, or relief. “I can—bring them this evening?”

There’s a smile warming Jimin’s chest, brightening Taehyung’s face, as he nods. “Whenever you can. And—thank you, Haseul-ah.”

He coughs, not half a second later, and still offers the girls a short bow before Jimin guides him to the bedroom, one hand careful on his waist. There’s the quiet murmur of the girls behind him, clearly not too self-conscious to talk in front of Hoseok, who stays stationed at the door next to one of the guards Jimin had met yesterday—Jihoon, just barely twenty, who looks at Taehyung with stars in his eyes that Jimin can’t say he disapproves of.

Jeongguk stays close, though; reaches out to hover at Taehyung’s elbow, as Jimin helps him down to sit on the edge of the bed. Taehyung reaches to untie his robe, shedding heavy silk layer by layer until he’s only in his undershirt, a pale drape that exposes his collarbone, the long lines of his arms. He’s damp with sweat, shadows heavy under his arms, and he drinks down the water Jimin pours him like he’s been in the desert for days.

“Thank you,” Taehyung says, and he should know that he doesn’t have to by now. Jimin just smiles, as much as he can, and pours another cup.

But Jeongguk, for once, can’t hold his tongue. Jimin sees him shifting, sees the conflict in his brow, but can’t help but be surprised when Jeongguk steps forward, and braces himself on one knee, and lowers his head so he doesn’t have to look Taehyung in the eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Jeongguk chokes out, and—Taehyung stares up at Jimin, shock and confusion and something so fragile written on his face clearly enough that Jimin could cry for it. Could pull Jeongguk up and into an embrace, and never let go for being brave enough, strong enough, to say it. “I’m sorry I said those things, Taehyung-ssi. I shouldn’t have, and I—I was wrong.”

For a long moment, the room is quiet. Outside, the servants whisper; the palace has come alive again, and over the windchimes there are voices and footsteps and the gentle sound of horses. But Taehyung barely breathes, as he looks at the gentle bow of Jeongguk’s head, enough that his hair hides most of his face.

It’s not the first time Jimin has heard those words from Jeongguk, but they’re as rare as they are earnest.

“Please get up,” Taehyung finally manages. He reaches out, like he wants to tug on Jeongguk’s uniform, but pulls back as soon as he seems to notice.

Jimin steps back, out of the slant of sunlight from the windows, as Jeongguk tips his head back. As Taehyung looks down at him, still so gently confused that it makes Jimin’s heart ache.

“You don’t have to apologize.” He speaks it so plainly that Jimin almost believes him. And after that comes the spark of anger—not at Taehyung, but at everything that had made him believe it. That any wrongs done to him must be right, or good, or what he deserves. Jimin won’t ever understand what Taehyung has built up inside himself, to keep from taking all the ugliness of his life and turning into a beast.

Have you made him angry, Taeil had asked, and Jimin hates himself for clinging onto it for so long.

Anyone who knows Taehyung now would be able to laugh it off, because—even when he’d most deserved anger, or revenge, or cruelty, Taehyung had refused. Had looked down into his brother’s face, and offered out the poison for as painless a death as they could manage, and refused to dig that knife into flesh.

“I do,” Jeongguk insists, and Jimin hasn’t ever been prouder of him. “I was unfair, and cruel, and I’m going to do better.”

Jimin has never heard Jeongguk make a promise he hasn’t kept. He’s stubborn in a way Jimin loves; when a senator’s daughter had goaded him with her insistence that he could never beat her in a horserace, Jeongguk had spent three months in the stables with a master, training with a gelding until he’d been good enough to run circles around the girl who’d taunted him. There’s nothing he won’t do, or work at until he’s better at it than anyone he knows.

Taehyung shakes as he breathes, and burns hot in his cheeks, and Jimin can’t help but remember the careful way he had kissed. Like he didn’t believe he deserved it.

“Thank you.” It’s so quiet that Jimin strains to hear, as Taehyung looks up to meet his eyes, like he’s asking permission for something Jimin doesn’t know. But he nods, and Taehyung reaches out, and Jeongguk sucks in a breath as Taehyung’s hand rests with delicate pressure on his shoulder. Gratitude, and acceptance, and forgiveness. “Jeongguk-ah.”

Jimin can’t see Jeongguk’s face, but he wants to imagine that he’s smiling, just shy enough that his teeth peek out.

Someday, Jeongguk might ask to be more familiar. Someday, Taehyung might offer. But for now, Jimin is happy with peace, and his cheeks ache trying to keep down the smile that threatens to take over his face, as happiness settles in foreign creases on Taehyung’s face.

 


 

The rest of Taehyung’s day is filled, unfortunately, with meetings. The steward occupies most of his afternoon, jotting notes and asking rapid-fire questions about the redecoration of the king’s suite, the removal of the prince’s thrones from the great hall. When he’s not asking a direct question, he barely lets anyone get a word in edgewise, and for that Taehyung can’t help but be grateful.

His throat is still sore enough that breathing stings, the fresh air blown in through the balcony doors doing little to relieve it. Jin had bustled through after the midday meal, brewing a tea that smelled and tasted more like dirt than anything Taehyung wants to put in his mouth again, and more than anything it had only made him drowsy.

“Give me two days,” the steward says, voice just on the wrong side of nasal, and snaps his scroll shut with a sound that makes Taehyung flinch. “Thank you for the honor, your majesty.”

Before today, this steward had barely deigned to look at him. Taehyung bows his head in a nod, and waits until the door slides shut to turn, to look out the open doors of the balcony at the setting sun. The glow on the mountains is almost too brilliant to look at, as the moments dip closer to the image of Odai’s seal. The sun over the mountain, instead of the word he can’t stop seeing behind his eyelids.

“Drink,” Jin orders, as he settles down onto a cushion at Taehyung’s side.

The willow bark tea is bitter and strong; Taehyung makes a face as he curls his hands around the warm porcelain cup, and gets nothing but a perfectly arched eyebrow in return.

“You should rest soon.” Despite everything, Jin’s voice is kind. He tugs at a ring in his ear, purses soft lips together, squares his shoulders like he’s bracing himself to speak when he shouldn’t. “Are you waiting for those children, Taehyung-ah?”

He’d asked Yoongi to find Haseul, that night. To keep her and the children and anyone else they saw inside, for their own safety. Taehyung pulls his gaze away from the sunset, and takes a sip of tea that burns inside his chest, and soaks in the gentle quiet of the evening.

Jimin and Namjoon are meeting with the Bayul council, and the last few ministers Taehyung is letting remain, until suitable replacements can be found. The messengers had been sent out to each general in the field yesterday; much of the war, now, is waiting for Taehyung’s soldiers to return. But there’s enough to arrange to keep the treasurers busy for the coming months, with compensation and repairs to the homes in the city and more to be built in the sprawling neighborhood beyond the gate to the Trader’s road.

“Yes,” Taehyung answers, as plain as he can, when the silence starts to itch. Jin just hums, and sips his sweeter-smelling tea, and tugs on the ribbon around his topknot, the same deep blue as the tail tied to Tokki’s pouch. “You saw them?”

“Just the girl.” A considering moment, before his lips twitch up. “She stepped on my foot.”

It sounds like Daeun. From the moment Taehyung had met her, a barely-contained personality in a body no longer than his forearm, she’d been a force he could barely reckon with. He can’t help the smile that rises at the memory of her round face, red from screaming, sweet in his memory now that the terror of the moment is gone.

For now, Taehyung is allowed to take meals in his chambers. He half-wants to ask for Jimin, wants to have an excuse to pull him away from the endless technicalities he must be negotiating, but—Jin’s hand, gentle on his forearm, pulls him back from the temptation. They’re sharing the meal on the floor, a loaf of egg bread split between the two of them, the broth richer now that the cook has been told that Taehyung can keep it down.

After dinner, Taehyung settles himself on his cushion, lets Jin refill his tea, and settles his shoulders at the sound of another knock. Too firm to be Haseul, and Jimin wouldn’t have knocked. And besides, Taehyung has been dreading this meeting for hours, now, after a page had knocked late in the morning and requested an audience for the royal coroner.

Jin sighs, and the guard opens the door, and Minhee greets Taehyung with an arched brow and a bow just deep enough to ward away scandal.

“Your majesty,” she drawls, and doesn’t wait for his invitation to sit.

“Noona.” Taehyung bows his chest, and swallows down on the sick fluttering in his chest.

“I won’t flatter you,” she says, as if he’d expected her to in the first place. She’d been promoted, after the royal coroner had died some years back; she wears the finery from her new salary on every inch of her silks, and the debts Taehyung owes her on her fingers.

His old rings glimmer at him, mocking, and Taehyung gestures carefully for her to continue.

“Your family’s ashes are ready. If you want a ceremony for them, tell me now.” There’s no judgement in her voice, as sharp as it is. Just the brisk tone of business he’s appreciated since he was old enough to recognize it as different from the scorn of the court, the hatred of his brothers. Minhee is impersonal enough that Taehyung lets himself think about it, instead of reacting with the jolt of his gut. Lets himself turn the question over on his tongue like a flask of his father’s wine.

He’d decided a long time ago that they’d be entombed. No one had asked, though; maybe no one had thought to, but Taehyung knows how deeply Namjoon had considered every step of their plan. He wouldn’t leave this overlooked, unless he thought Taehyung deserved privacy for this decision. And maybe he was right to, but now—all Taehyung wants is a shoulder to rest his head on. A hyung who knows their customs, and when they should be upheld, and when they should be discarded.

But there won’t be a ceremony. It’s been as peaceful a transition as any of them could have dreamed, spun more by Odai’s exhaustion than by the finesse of their coup. Taehyung doesn’t want to flaunt it to his people, that he’d killed their king and his sons, as hated as they all might have been. He doesn’t want to be known for that.

“No,” he says, when Minhee starts looking bored. She shrugs, twists a ring on her left hand. The second one Taehyung had traded her, for a map to the willow copse.

“Their funeral,” she says, and grins, and doesn’t look even the slightest bit ashamed. “Should I wait for you to clear your schedule?”

The most Taehyung can manage to that is a thin press of his lips. A shake of his head, the longest strands of his hair brushing against his cheeks.

“I won’t be attending. Thank you, noona.”

Minhee shrugs, and reaches out to snag a pastry a boy from the kitchens had brought by, with a bow so low Taehyung had feared the tray might topple. He almost expects her to launch into a memory, a word of council, but—she simply pops it into her mouth, cherry blossom and all, and chews with a vigor befitting a woman her age. It makes Taehyung think of Haseul’s mother, who’d never liked having him around, but who had honored his title enough to never speak it to his face.

She leaves without a wasted word, and without a bow, and Taehyung sags into Jin’s shoulder and hopes he doesn’t have to see her again for a long, long while.

 


 

Jimin only lets himself relax when he makes it back to Taehyung’s chambers, two long hours after sunset. He’d left Namjoon behind, still arguing court structure with Sungwon, with a polite excuse that no one had cared enough to pick at. There’s tension in his shoulders he’d forgotten until now, faced with the details of politics and the draft of the treaty Namjoon can recite from memory, the holes in it plucking at the worries strung tight in Jimin’s chest.

He should stay. There’s so much Jimin still has to learn, so much pressure to get everything wrapped up neatly, and it’s only the warmth of Jeongguk and Hoseok at his sides that keeps Jimin from turning around, anxious compulsion forcing him back into his seat in the war room.

But they round the corner to Taehyung’s rooms, and Jimin can’t help but be relieved. The last thing he’d thought he could ever feel, when walking this path. Right now, it’s hard to remember anything about Taehyung’s room but the warmth of his bed, the soft rise and fall of his chest.

Maybe it’s the exhaustion, but—Jimin likes to think that he’s healing. Slowly, but inevitably.

There’s not much time to think on it, though, because someone is standing in front of Taehyung’s door. Three someones, really, though one is propped on his mother’s hip, another’s hand clasped tight in hers.

“Haseul?” Jimin murmurs, when he gets close enough. His footsteps slow, bring him quietly to a stop far enough away to allow her some kind of comfort. It doesn’t stop her from flinching, from jerking around like she’d been lost in her own thoughts. Soobin is asleep on her shoulder, soft cheek squished against her robe, the same plain black as Jimin’s.

In the darkness, it’s easy for Jimin to slip by unnoticed. He looks like a servant, at first glance; each successive Odaian councillor had been scandalized. But in the halls, the servants and soldiers don’t look twice at him, unless they know his face already, and Jimin watches Haseul catalogue him carefully, pulling Daeun closer to her leg as she does.

“Your majesty,” she finally says, like a question.

“Would you like me to leave?” Jimin had refused chambers of his own, but he’s always willing to escape to the gardens, to give her time alone with Taehyung. And there’s a moment, punctuated with a yawn Daeun muffles into her mother’s robe, where he sees her consider it. Sees her look down at his neck, where his clothing covers the scar, before she shakes her head.

Jeongguk and Hoseok stay where they are, when Jimin approaches to push open the door. Daeun is watching them both, peering sleepily at the ink showing from under Jeongguk’s sleeves, and barely gives Jimin a second glance when he passes her. Soobin smacks his lips, and Haseul cradles the back of his head with such care that Jimin looks away, stomach turning uncomfortable at the hazy memory of Jihyun on his lap, gentle hands always there to make sure Jimin didn’t let him fall.

I won’t, he remembers whining. Or maybe it’s only that he’d been told the story so many times, of how he would hold Jihyun for hours, cooing and singing and babbling nonsense at him, and and how both of them would cry when someone tried to pry them apart. How sometimes their mother had to wait for both of them to fall asleep, before they’d let themselves be separated.

Jimin sucks in a cold breath, and steps into Taehyung’s chambers, and looks at anything but the link in the floor.

At first, he thinks that Taehyung might be asleep. There’s no sign of him in the parlor; nothing moves but the curtains in the breeze. Jimin is about to turn to the bedroom when Haseul steps forward, urges Daeun toward the study, holds her breath in her chest like she’s expecting something terrible. It’s then that Jimin sees the flicker of lamplight through the doorway, hears the quiet rustling of pages. The rasp of Taehyung’s breath, that Jimin can’t stop himself from recognizing.

He lets Haseul lead with the children, with a gentle knock to the wooden doorframe, and then follows them in.

Taehyung’s study is—messier, maybe, than Jimin expected. The bookshelves have gaps in them, where stacks of cloth- and leather-bound volumes rest on the floor, scrolls left half-opened on top. The low desk is cluttered with brushes and paper and more books, the cushion Taehyung sits on worn down with age or use or both. The glow of the lamps is golden, a small window propped open to make the flames dance, casting gentle shadows on Taehyung’s face.

And for a moment, Jimin stares. At the soft way Taehyung’s lips part, his eyes wide in gentle surprise. The curl of delight, when Daeun shrieks and tumbles into his lap like a half-asleep hurricane.

“Oppa,” Jimin can barely make out with her face muffled in Taehyung’s chest. Taehyung’s arms wrap around her, his chest so much broader than her tiny frame, and Jimin braces himself with a shoulder against the doorframe and doesn’t even try to stop the smile that creeps over his face as Taehyung beams, and blinks tears out of his eyes, and accepts the sleeping toddler Haseul passes to him, as she takes a seat on the floor behind him.

“Thank you,” Taehyung whispers. So earnest that Jimin’s throat burns, as gentle as the stroke of his hand down Soobin’s spine. “Haseul-ah—really. Thank you.”

Jimin doesn’t have to see her face to know that she’s smiling, that last fear cracked open into something like relief.

“They missed you,” she says, like it isn’t obvious with the way Daeun is clinging to Taehyung like she won’t ever let him go again. Taehyung presses a kiss to Soobin’s forehead, and closes his eyes, and Jimin wants to scream or cry or raise Taehyung’s whole family from the dead just to kill them all again.

“I missed them.”

It must be well past Daeun’s usual bedtime; where Jimin had rarely heard her quiet, in those long two weeks, she’s now content to climb awkwardly up into Taehyung’s lap, fighting her brother for space until she’s comfortable with her arms wrapped tight around Taehyung’s chest, her head resting over his heart.

“She told me you were gone as soon as I woke up,” Haseul says. She reaches out, tucks Daeun’s hair behind her ear, smoothes it down her back. “I was so scared, oppa. I heard that if any city guards saw you, they were supposed to kill you, and—no one knew if you were coming back.”

No one cared, is what she leaves unsaid. They all hear it anyway, Taehyung’s smile gone tight at the corners.

“I didn’t either,” he replies, as lightly as he can, and Jimin breathes through the shame. Taehyung looks up, meets Jimin’s eyes, and there’s nothing like blame in them, and Jimin takes the time to wonder—how he deserves this kind of forgiveness. How he deserves Taehyung, who has so much gentleness in him, when the circumstance could have so easily led to his blood on Jimin’s hands. “But I’m here now. And—while I was gone, did he—?”

It’s a cut off question, and Jimin watches Haseul shrink back, hide her face behind her short-cropped hair. Her hands flutter nervously over her robe, before forcibly settling back in her lap.

Taehyung breathes out, long and slow and careful, and Jimin can see the simmering rage in it. The forced stillness of his expression.

“I’m rearranging the court.” Soobin shifts, and Taehyung compensates the weight, and Jimin marvels at how easily he holds the both of them, just gentle enough to keep them asleep, even as his eyes go sharp and narrow and still, somehow, kind. “I wanted to ask—if there’s anything you need from me. Anything you want for him.”

And he doesn’t push. When Haseul shudders in a breath, and pushes the heels of her palms against her eyes, and cries so quietly Jimin feels ashamed to be watching, Taehyung doesn’t do anything but give her space, and rock Soobin as gentle as the lapping ripple of a tide pool.

Outside the window, Jimin thinks he can hear music, floating in from somewhere outside the palace wall.

Finally, achingly, Haseul exhales, sharp and fast. Straightens, drops her hands, swallows down on her tears.

“I want him gone,” she says, and it’s still trembling, and Jimin can’t help but ache at it. “I don’t want him to touch me again.”

And Taehyung leans forward, so so careful, and reaches out with his only free hand to grip hers white-knuckle tight. Jimin holds his breath, and watches the flint in Taehyung’s eyes light up with a spark he’s never quite seen before. A spark he feels burning in his own chest, when he thinks—Daeun must be almost six, and Haseul calls Taehyung oppa.

“He won’t,” Taehyung promises, with all the strength of a king. “Never again, Haseul-ah. I promise.”

It blooms something warm in Jimin’s chest, as delicate as a cherry blossom. As bright and unknowable as a flame, that he can’t help but shy away from naming as he watches Taehyung pull the three of them close, a family he’d taken in as his own even when he struggled to protect himself from the palace’s horrors.

They rise not long after, to take the children back to their bed, and Jimin is ready to retreat when Soobin blinks open sleepy eyes, and wiggles when his mother reaches out for him, and holds his arms out to Jimin with all the expectation a toddler can manage.

Haseul looks at him, then, with wide eyes and an apology on the tip of her tongue.

Jimin doesn’t let it fall. He reaches out, slow enough that she could pull Soobin away if she wanted, and hooks his hands under Soobin’s arms. Pulls him up, close to his chest, smiles as much as he can when his eyes sting hot in the darkness.

“You were sad,” Soobin mumbles, his words bare of any of the honorifics even a toddler might know. And Jimin gasps in as much of a breath as he can, and remembers—crying, curled on the floor, with something so painful inside of him that it felt like he might die from it.

“I was,” he agrees, in a whisper that carries to Taehyung, wide-eyed and struck with maybe horror. “It’s okay, though. I’m not sad anymore.”

It might be a lie. Sometimes, it still strikes Jimin as swift and painful as a snakebite, and refuses to fade for hours on end. But now, more often than not, Jimin can let himself breathe. Can mourn without suffering, without wishing for death like he knows Jihyun would never want him to. Like his father would never want for him, even as desperately as Jimin wants to be held by him one last time.

If the Goddess granted wishes, it’s all Jimin would beg for. One last embrace with his family, with his father and mother and Jihyun and all the Jungs and Jeongguk, the nine of them wrapped up in a mess of bodies and tears and laughter. And Taehyung, maybe, who’d never had the kind of family Jimin had always cherished, without really understanding the meaning of it.

“Good,” Soobin decrees, and tucks his head under Jimin’s chin, and Jimin swallows down tears at the warmth of him, held tight to Jimin’s chest in what almost feels like an apology, for everything he’s lost.

Jihyun is gone, and his father is gone, but there are still people Jimin can live for. Can keep in his heart, and love as fiercely as he’d loved everyone lost. Everyone safe, finally, and willing to wait for Jimin to live long and full and loved.

That night, Taehyung doesn’t ask before tugging Jimin close, with an arm thrown around Jimin’s waist and lips brushing against his neck.

And Jimin burns, that flame in his chest hot and bright and so comfortable he doesn’t ever want to let it go.

 


 

Over the next two days, Taehyung’s chambers get stripped of life, and Taehyung gets well enough to join them at the treaty council. Yoongi tries to keep him resting in his rooms for another day, but Taehyung spends the morning hours cooped up with nothing to stare at but the endless documentation of war carnage and starts itching out of his skin, and so he joins the council for their afternoon meal, and doesn’t leave until well after dark.

Most of the arguments are centered around reparations. The loyal generals will stay to help Odai rebuild, but Taehyung’s councillors argue bitterly against compensation for villages whose crops were razed, whose winter stores were ransacked, whose towns were left destitute. Taehyung watches Jeongguk’s lip curl, where he’s seated behind Jimin, and shuts his men down.

He spends the day fighting as hard as he might in the training ring, and almost collapses onto Jimin as they stumble their way through lamp-lit halls back to his chambers.

“Hey,” Jimin says, a frown in his voice and creased on his brow, as three pairs of hands reach out to steady him. “Taehyung-ah, don’t push yourself too hard.”

“But it’s important.”

The crown chafes on his forehead, after so long spent wearing it. Taehyung shudders at the thought that it might leave an imprint when he takes it off; that he might never be able to ignore what he is, now, even with nobody there to see him.

Jimin’s hands are gentle, where they cup his cheeks. Thumbs stroke under his eyes, and Taehyung swallows rough against his throat and tries not to let his eyelids fall, to look at the reflection of light in Jimin’s eyes instead of slipping off into nothingness. Hoseok’s arm is a comfort, linked through his own; at his shoulder, Jeongguk stands with hovering hands and careful, baited breath.

“You’re important too,” Jimin says, and it knocks the breath out of him.

There’s nothing Taehyung knows how to say to that. Nothing but the slow curl of his fingers around Jimin’s wrists, the breath he forces out that sounds almost like a quiet oh. Jimin’s cheeks bunch up in a gentle smile, but the sadness slanted in his eyes doesn’t fade; the gentle sweep of his thumbs stills, until Taehyung’s breath feels caught in his breath as delicate as spun silk.

“Come on,” Jimin finally says, when Taehyung must have been looking too long. Looking at the rounded tip of his nose, the short slash of his lashes, the indents in his cheek where his lips press tight together, in stress or worry or care. “Let’s go to bed, hm?”

It’s all Taehyung can do to manage a nod. To lean half his weight on Hoseok, who takes it without a grumble, and keep his fingers laced loosely with Jimin’s, and allow himself be be drawn back to bed, with a body warm beside him and the crown cooling atop the books he’d never finished reading, pace slow and clumsy over the Bayul words.

Sleeping next to Jimin is easier than Taehyung ever thought it could be. Sleeping next to Jimin is so awful that it lights every single inch of him up with a unique kind of humiliation; that he hadn’t even had to ask, for Jimin to know that he needed it.

There’s a small part of him that can’t stop wondering if—maybe Jimin needs it as much as Taehyung does. As they curl together, Hoseok taking first watch at the doorway while Jeongguk paces or sleeps or stares at the ceiling of the parlor, it whispers in his head as soft as the rustling of leaves from the window. Jimin breathes quietly when he sleeps, not like Namjoon’s rasping snores. There’s delicacy to every part of him, down to the gentle curl of his wrist, resting up against his cheek.

Taehyung watches in the moonlight until his eyes get so heavy he has to close them, and wakes up to an empty pillow, and Jimin’s hand gentle on his shoulder.

That day, the last day before his father’s rooms are filled with artifacts from Taehyung’s life, the discussions turn from war to policy, and Taehyung’s headache goes from mild to so severe that he has to step out of the room, for a quiet moment with Hoseok’s palm on his back and a draft of willow bark tea to sip on from Jin, who appears from the courtyard by the war room like she’d been waiting for an excuse to force more liquid down his throat.

“Don’t push yourself too hard,” she warns, like it had been Taehyung’s decision to debate trading until his head split. He offers what little of a smile he can, and ducks back through the doorway as quietly as he can manage.

“Your majesty,” he’s immediately pinned, by a minister of trade whose name he couldn’t remember if he were healthy enough to scour the record books. “Please tell King Park that there are certain necessities the basin requires, if we are to maintain a cordial relationship on the border.”

It’s nasal, and patronizing, and Taehyung glares firmly at a spot fixed in the wood-beamed ceiling as he gathers himself to respond. And he doesn’t even get the chance, because—

“Do not speak to him that way,” Jimin hisses. As much as he’s professed to hate the negotiations as much as Taehyung, there’s no denying that in the moment, he’s in his element. Eyes bright, palm braced on the table with spread maps and a treaty draft marked with four different sets of handwriting, teeth bared like he’s in a fighting ring, rather than a policy battle.

“Bayul needs to rebuild,” Taehyung speaks, into the silence that follows, settled over his ministers about as cordially as a smack to the face. “You can go without remodeling your country estate for a season, sir, because I’m giving it to the families whose heads were lost to battle.”

Everything the trade ministers want is nothing Taehyung would beg for any of them, with Bayul in such a fragile position. They want the best spices and dyes and silks from Bayul’s ports, want prime logging allocations that they’ve had on the border unjustly for years, when Taehyung has heard Jimin speak of entire villages and fields and families burnt to the ground.

There had been no formal alliances made with Bayul from any other country Taehyung knows, for reasons he’d been pushed out of understanding, but he has time to ask Jimin later. It’s enough that he’d watched this morning as Jimin and Sungwon penned letters requesting aid, to be sent to each nation that had sent a dignitary to their queen’s funeral. Jimin’s lips had been pressed into a thin line, but his hand never shook as he signed his name to each.

The minister spits out protests that Taehyung barely hears. He’s inclined, at this point, to give Bayul everything they need; there’s no shortage of food in the basin, for now, and it will be a long time until winter comes again. The stores will last, with careful oversight, but Bayul’s coast needs as much of a recovery as they can manage to feed the influx of savaged families from the border as the mountains frost with snow.

And as the day drags on, full of details Taehyung hadn’t ever thought to consider, Taehyung begins to notice the hole in the conversation. The space left around—what the monarchy will look like, in their first alliance since the countries had split, before the Brothers themselves.

How they’ll codify the alliance, beyond the formal treaty and recovery aid and trade agreements that all get set for the next three years, for the fields to all regrow.

As the afternoon wears into evening, and the party breaks for a meal that Taehyung forces down past dry lips, he finds himself dreading the trek back to his chambers. The more he thinks about it, going back to the only bedroom he’s ever known stripped of every meager thing that made it his, the more awful it seems.

You barely deserve what you had, they’d all taunted, so many times. There had always been the threat, that it could be taken away. And now it feels impossible to give it up, that space Taehyung had cultivated and made his own no matter how afraid he’d been that one day they’d cast him out, force him onto his knees scrubbing floors for the rest of his life.

Taehyung doesn’t know if the humiliation of having his title stripped, of being the whipping boy for the entire palace, would have been better than whatever death they might have planned for him.

He’ll never know, now. Most of him is still trying to believe that it’s true.

“Hey,” Namjoon says, as the light fades from the peaks. It’s bare minutes before they’ll be called back in, the last fourth of Taehyung’s broth resting cold in its bowl, the chill creeping in under his collar with no regard to the torches burning at their stakes, to light up the new growths of spring. “You don’t have to stay, Taehyung-ah.”

And Taehyung knows its a kindness, breathes in deep through the smell of magnolia and pine, but he still cant stop the sting of it.

“This is my country,” he says, and hates the way it rasps. “If I don’t stay, what kind of a king am I?”

Namjoon’s hand is gentle on his arm, his eyes soft with an apology. Taehyung knows what he’d meant, knows that his exhaustion is so much more easy to read than he’d like it to be, but there’s a part of him that doesn’t want to look as weak as the court must think he is. That won’t ever forget the mocking laughter every time he’d walked into the great hall with a cut on his cheek or his lip, the way the crowd parted around him and left too much space for obvious stares and laughter, and the occasional pinch from anyone feeling especially brave.

“A healing one.” There’s so much understanding in Namjoon’s voice that Taehyung turns away from it. Doesn’t pull his arm back, though, because—he’s trying to learn how to accept it. How to let himself be touched without hurting.

Across the courtyard, Sungwon is still talking in Jimin’s ear. Jihye had stayed behind in Gangneung, with the soldiers’ families, and Sungwon speaks enough for three advisors at least. Taehyung meets Jimin’s eyes, and Jimin offers an irreverent smile, and Taehyung can’t stop himself from smiling back, as Sungwon hardly seems to notice the attention he’s lost.

“You’re doing well,” Namjoon finally says, when everyone in their respective corners stand, to make their way back inside. “I’m really proud of you.”

Taehyung turns back to him, and watches the firelight reflect in Namjoon’s eyes. Watches the way his face pulls like he’s trying to say something, or like he’s trying to stop himself.

He reaches down, and tangles their fingers together. Namjoon stays loose with shock for a long moment, eyes wide, before he tightens his grip, covers the back of Taehyung’s hand with his, holds him like he wishes he’d never let go. Or maybe Taehyung’s imagining things, but—

“Thank you,” he offers, instead of anything else. There will be time for all of it, one day. Nothing ends here, not between them. “Hyung, I—thank you. For everything.”

Namjoon’s smile is so careful, so tremulous, that Taehyung can’t help but fear that it might snap.

 


 

Late that night, after the oil in the lamps have had to be changed, Taehyung is ready to fall asleep and never wake up again. There’s no trust in the negotiating room, an hour straight spent on the discussion of ambassadors and hospitality, Namjoon’s nerves worn so thin he’d snapped vicious at a minister who called him traitor to his face.

“Taehyung-ah,” Jimin croons, though, as they step out of the hall, the last to leave out of all of them but Namjoon himself. “I need to bathe.”

It must be closing in on midnight, Taehyung wants to say. He’s exhausted, he wants to say. But faced down with Jimin’s eyes sweet in the dark, the playful brush of his hands, Taehyung can’t make himself say no, to anything Jimin might ask for. And a bath is such a small thing, and Taehyung breathes in deep and feels the bone-deep ache of his muscles and thinks—it’s not such a bad thing, either.

He steers them away from the servant’s baths, just to be sure, and to the place in the royal wing where the springs bubble up, steaming into the air, with a view of a courtyard and the cherry trees blooming there, just late enough in the season that the flowers drift to the surface.

Jeongguk and Hoseok keep their careful distance, but Jimin sticks close. Like he doesn’t want to exist alone, after a long day spent fighting.

For years, Taehyung had bathed alone. Had servants draw the water, and shut them out until the water was ready to be drained. Even now he can’t quite feel safe, as Jimin strips himself down with a quiet, pleased word at the setup. But the hour is late enough, and Jimin stays close, and Taehyung forces in a breath as he unties his robe. As he shrugs layers off into Jimin’s caring hands.

The last time he’d been in these baths, stepped bare feet onto the sanded wood of the deck, Namjoon had been beside him. Had encouraged him to come, and stayed by his side, and Taehyung had relaxed into the heat until Taeseok arrived, a girl whose robe was sheer enough to show all her bruises on his arm. He’d slipped into the same pool as Taehyung, hadn’t said a word. Had let Taehyung sweat out his terror, at being so defenseless he couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe without risking attention.

Not much had happened—a heel ground into Taehyung’s fingers as he left, hard enough that Namjoon had to snap one into place—but the fear of it was bad enough. He remembers—Namjoon’s face, when the porch door had slid open. The way he’d watched as Taeseok and his girl left, how he hesitated before stepping down, almost delicately.

“Come back to me,” Jimin whispers, and drags his hand down the dip of Taehyung’s spine. And Taehyung breathes, and feels Jimin curl around him, cheek pressed to the plane of his back, and lets himself be led into the water, one scalding centimeter at a time.

This late at night, with throats sore from hours of arguing, neither of them feel the need to speak. Taehyung drips oils into Jimin’s hair, works them in with care he gets in return; nails scratching along scalps, cloth dragging against skin. The steam curls up into the night, through the darkness, up to where the stars shine without clouds to hide behind.

Taehyung lifts his hand up, and up, until he finds the Brothers.

Look, he remembers, in his mother’s voice.

Jimin’s chin hooks over Taehyung’s shoulder. His breath drifts over Taehyung’s ear. Their bodies press together, bare and slick and too intimate to stand.

“Look,” Taehyung murmurs, and traces the path of the stars.

The dove’s beak against his pinky. The tiger’s paw on his index finger. The dragon’s tooth on his thumb. They all seem a little brighter tonight, as Taehyung stares up. As Jimin’s finger traces the shape of them in the air, as reverent as if he were touching his Goddess herself.

“They’re beautiful,” Jimin says. Murmurs a prayer Taehyung barely understands. “Could you see them, in Gangneung?”

“I could.” Taehyung whispers. Remembers the soft sound of the sea in his ears, the rolling of the tide. The way the dove’s tail had brushed the ink-dark well of the water below. He’d looked for them every time the stars came out, surrounded in every way by the Bayul Goddess. With the ghost in the corner of his eye, the one that sleeps now as peacefully as Taehyung could hope for. A quiet pulse of light, every so often just to remind him that it’s there.

Taehyung doesn’t know what else he needs to do. If he prayed to the Goddess, he’d ask for advice.

“Come on, Taehyung-ah,” Jimin whispers. Lips pressed against his skin, dragging from sweat or steam or both. “Let’s go to bed.”

 


 

Taehyung’s rooms are empty. The last of his furniture had been taken during the negotiations, his parlor stripped down to the curtains on the balcony doors and the iron chain in the floor. No carpet, no chaise; just the lamp burning low on the wall. Just the gentle curl of the breeze, the flowers blooming everywhere he looks.

“Oh,” Jimin says. From the corner of his eye, Taehyung sees his gaze wandering, to the doorway to the study.

Taehyung tugs him away by their joined hands, before he gets the chance to look. Haseul knows the order of his things, and he trusts her with it, but Taehyung doesn’t want to have to look at the empty space of it, where he’d made himself something like a home.

The bedroom, then, is almost a relief. Just the white bedspread and clothing laid out for the morning, another lamp burning down. The books are gone, where Taehyung usually rests his crown; it feels strange to lift it off his head, to set it down on the dark wood of the floor. To shed what of his clothing he hadn’t carried back, pants tied loose and outer robe wrapped tight.

Taehyung tugs on the loose, soft pants he sleeps in, and rests one hand on the frame of his bed, and watches Jimin sag into the plush of the mattress like it’s a relief. Watches the shift of his skin, in nothing but undershorts; the flex of his abdomen, the long line of his bicep. The way he looks more at home in this bed than Taehyung ever had. There’s something about Jimin in his bed that makes Taehyung never want to leave it again.

But it’s his last night in this room. In the bed he’d been afraid of when he was a child, because he’d grown up sleeping on a thin pallet, with his mother’s body curled tight around him like she could protect him from anything in the world.

“Come here,” Jimin says, and Taehyung bows down like a snow-laden tree. Lets the softness of the mattress welcome him, as he tucks himself into the place Jimin carves for him at his side.

For a long moment, Taehyung almost sleeps. His eyes are half-open, tracing the soft curve of Jimin’s waist, the defined muscle of his thighs. When he can make himself look up, he gets caught on Jimin’s lips like a fish on a hook, before he’s brave enough to look at the fondness coiled in Jimin’s gaze.

“You’re doing so well.” It doesn’t sound like a lie, but Taehyung almost laughs anyway. Against Jimin, who’s been trained for this his whole life, Taehyung feels impossibly stupid, and insignificant. An imposter in a crown, a fool in king’s clothing. He’d been shoved out of council rooms so often he’d finally made himself stop trying, and all the histories in the world couldn’t prepare him for the intricacies of politics.

“I’m serious,” Jimin insists, when Taehyung casts his eyes down in a frown. “I’m proud of you, Taehyung-ah. All this isn’t easy to learn.”

“It feels impossible.” It’s Taehyung’s turn to muffle words into Jimin’s skin now, embarrassment burning his skin hot. “They’re all older, and they look at me like I’m stupid, and—no one ever says what they mean.”

“You’re not stupid.” Jimin leaves no room for argument, and tightens his arms around Taehyung’s shoulder, and Taehyung maybe for the first time feels small and relishes it. He doesn’t want Jimin to let him go, not ever, and the longer that feeling burns in him the more comfortable Taehyung feels with it.

And it’s not that Taehyung thinks he is, not really, but—it’s hard to forget the way everyone had looked at him, for so long he’s forgotten if it had ever been different. It’s hard to move past years of derision from the ministers he’s now trying to rule. It’s not that he’s stupid, it’s that they don’t respect him, and Taehyung can’t understand how to make them in a way that wouldn’t turn him into his father. Into his brothers, which might be worse.

“Will it always be like this?” Taehyung hates that he sounds like a child. That he feels like a child, when Jimin strokes through the back of his hair. He hums, a soft sound Taehyung can feel buzzing against his forehead, before he answers.

“It will always be politics. But it’s hardly ever like this, when nobody knows what they want, or what they need.”

“And what do we need?”

Everything feels thick, and slow, and blurry in the night.

“Peace,” Jimin whispers. A breath of air along Taehyung’s skin. And Taehyung thinks about that thing no one in the room wanted to say, about the promises no one wanted to make.

“They’ll ask us to marry,” Taehyung says, and finally lets himself think it, after weeks of pushing it away.

There’s a part of him that had known, from the first conversation. That with their families dead, and the future uncertain, the people and the courts would accept nothing less than a true union, to keep the peace. To ensure it past the first three years.

“They will,” Jimin agrees. So soft it barely carries. His fingers stroke gentle enough down Taehyung’s arm that it raises gooseflesh, that Taehyung shivers and tilts his head up and looks Jimin in the eye, the lamp so low he almost can’t see. But there’s no bitterness in Jimin’s face; nothing but the soft part of his lips, the almost sad pull of his brows. The sweetness of his eyes.

I’ll kill you, Taehyung remembers, in Jimin’s voice.

He’d wanted it. He’d needed it.

“I’m sorry,” Taehyung whispers. That he’d never gotten the chance.

He doesn’t give Jimin time to respond, before he kisses him. It’s as clumsy as Taehyung feels, the dry press of lips so much more inelegant than Jimin had let it seem, that first time.

And Jimin’s lips part, and his nails dig in, and Taehyung forgets about elegance as everything deepens. As Jimin kisses back heavy and slick and warm, as he presses Taehyung down so carefully that tears sting in the corners of Taehyung’s closed eyes. Every touch is whisper-soft, every kiss filled with something Taehyung is still too afraid to name.

“Jimin,” he whispers, when he has to break away. When he has to look at Jimin above him, draped over his chest, eyes glittering soft in the faint orange light. “What do you want?”

“Right now?” Jimin’s hand strokes gently along Taehyung’s chest, above his navel. So careful not to touch the scar Taehyung had almost let himself forget about, in the comforting heat of the bath. With the sheets soft on his skin, the cool air curling over them both like an embrace. “I want to take care of you.”

“And later?” Taehyung breathes. And Jimin smiles, a faint, careful thing.

“Anything you’ll let me have.”

Taehyung swallows down panic, or shame, or terror. Reaches up, to tangle the fingers of Jimin’s hand with his own, the back of his hand pressing down against his own heart.

“Everything,” he says, and makes it a promise to himself.

He can taste Jimin’s smile, when Jimin kisses him again. And again, and again, until Taehyung is aching and panting and so terribly warm that he thinks he might die from it, Jimin’s hands soft on his skin as they press, this time, with intent. As they search out all the spots on Taehyung’s torso that make him twitch, and shiver, and sigh.

Against Taehyung’s thigh, Jimin’s cock presses hot and eager. There’s desperation building in his chest, as Jimin’s palms stroke along his hips, as his fingers dip under the waistband of Taehyung’s pants, just enough to feel. As Jimin pulls away with a wet noise, and darts his tongue out to taste his lips, and looks down at Taehyung with hooded, puffy eyes.

“Let me take care of you,” Jimin says, again. And Taehyung swallows down spit with a click in his throat, and lets himself feel the hands on him. The gentle care Jimin handles him with, like a porcelain figure turned over in his hands.

There’s something endearing about the clumsy movement that follows. The hook of Jimin’s fingers in his own waistband, the lift of his legs as he bares himself. The fumbling of his fingers on a glass bottle, colored blue, that winks in the lamplight like a secret.

“I took it from the baths,” Jimin murmurs, as he leans in for a kiss. And Taehyung’s breath catches, legs parting on instinct because—he expects—he wants—

Jimin presses him down with one hand firm on his chest, and smiles. Taehyung takes in the sight of him, up on his knees, cock hard and thick and flushed pink at the tip, and has to look away before the embarrassment burns him any hotter. There’s a comfort to Jimin’s nudity that speaks to how practiced he is, and a hesitance in Taehyung’s chest that he feels stupid for. Young, and inexperienced, and wondering how Jimin could want him.

And then Jimin shifts, spreads his thighs open wide around Taehyung’s hips, and—

Only good for spreading her legs for royalty, he remembers. Weight on his legs, pinning him down, a forearm braced over his hip—a knife digging into his skin, and screaming, and hurting—

“Taehyung,” Jimin is saying. Over and over, hands gentle on his face. Above him, but not hurting him. Thumbs wiping away the first, and only tear.

He gasps. Heaves it in like he’s been drowning.

“Do you want to stop?”Jimin whispers, so close to his lips Taehyung can taste it.

Taehyung closes his eyes. Feels the warmth, and the way Jimin’s lifted off his weight, and the half-hard ache of himself, so close to touching. He remembers rainwater wet on his lips, the hot friction of Jimin’s hand. The taste of the both of them salty and unpleasant on his tongue.

“I trust you,” Taehyung says, and clenches his fingers on Jimin’s hips, and Jimin jerks like he’s been slapped. Like even after everything, he still doesn’t quite believe it.

Taehyung doesn’t know how to say what he wants. Doesn’t know how to tell Jimin that he’s just starting to learn how touch feels on his skin, how it feels in his heart. Doesn’t know how to say that he’s caught himself staring at Jimin’s hands too many times in the last hours to count. And he doesn’t know how to want this, like Jimin must be able to, and he doesn’t know how to say that he’s trying. That he likes it when Jimin gets as close to him as possible.

“Thank you,” Jimin breathes out, with eyes wide and dark and reverent.

Jimin kisses him like Taehyung is about to shatter. Like the breath is being pulled out of his chest, a bird gone silent in the echoing caverns of what used to be ruby mines.

When the stopper of the bottle comes off in Jimin’s practiced hands, Taehyung goes stiff. There’s that light of panic in his chest again, that Jimin soothes with a hand against his sternum. The heel of his palm presses just above the scar, and—for the first time, Taehyung almost wants him to touch it. To cover it up, so neither of them have to see what he is.

But Jimin only dips his fingers, brings them out shining and slick, and reaches behind himself.

Taehyung blinks. Feels Jimin’s skin under his palms, just barely sweaty. The rock of his hips as he works, the furrowed concentration in his brow that calls back the memory of him standing in the council room, staring down at a treaty instead of at Taehyung, near-naked and flushed underneath him.

If there had been any flag in Taehyung’s arousal, it’s gone now. All he can do is watch, shift himself up to rest against the wooden headboard. There’s still a part of him that’s afraid to touch, himself or anywhere Jimin hasn’t guided him to.

Jimin smiles, and covers up a wince. Taehyung can’t help the soft noise in his throat, the stroke of his thumbs along Jimin’s hipbones. He feels small, like this, but—he can’t help but think that Jimin looks so delicate under his hands. Powerful, and strong, but fragile in a way Taehyung hadn’t been able to see during the storm.

“Been a while,” Jimin whispers, strained and cracked and achingly honest.

There’s something in Taehyung that wants to believe he shouldn’t be trusted with this. That one day he’ll wake up and be one of them, that he’ll take delight in hurting the things he’s supposed to love.

And then Jimin’s twisting, wiping fingers on his own stomach with a scrunched-up face of mock disgust. And then he’s tumbling, clumsy in a way that makes Taehyung think he’s letting himself be, to lie down at Taehyung’s side. He reaches again for Taehyung’s waistband, and Taehyung leans down for a kiss, and he thinks—

This is easy. Jimin is making it easy. It’s not about marriage, or alliances, or apologies.

Jimin keeps him close, keeps them kissing, as he tugs down Taehyung’s pants. As Taehyung kicks them off, as Jimin reaches again for the bottle, as he slings his leg back over Taehyung’s thigh and fists them both together, tight and slick and so different than anything Taehyung is used to that he moans. And Jimin catches it, biting down gentle on his lower lip, and Taehyung loses his grip on the sounds in his chest, the soft things that fall into the air gentler than the fading lamplight.

“You’re okay?” Jimin asks, when Taehyung’s breath starts trembling.

“Yes,” he breathes. Presses their foreheads together, feels Jimin’s thumb stutter as he rubs over the head of Taehyung’s cock. Doesn’t stop the whine, or the gasp that hitches after. Waits for it all to stop being so overwhelming. “I have you.”

And Jimin makes a noise, soft and hurt. Leans in for a kiss like he’s drowning.

Jimin picks himself up, presses himself close, and Taehyung closes his eyes to bury his face in Jimin’s shoulder. As he sinks down, fits Taehyung inside him where it burns hot and impossible, so close that Taehyung feels the brush of foreign skin against the faded numbness of scar tissue.

For a moment, he doesn’t breathe. Jimin doesn’t move, but for the flex of his fingers along Taehyung’s shoulders, the jagged pace of his breaths. He’s tense everywhere, even after how slowly he’d seated himself, the light warm on his skin where it’s damp with sweat. Taehyung holds himself perfectly still, and waits, and thinks that he could stay here forever.

But when Jimin shifts, moves his hips just barely, Taehyung stops thinking altogether. There’s nothing left, but the quiet thunder of their breathing. The way Jimin’s hands stroke his cheeks, his hair, his chest. The way Taehyung has to look up, just barely, to meet his eyes.

“Jimin,” Taehyung manages. His hands are trembling, where they’re still careful on Jimin’s waist.

He’d spent so long being afraid of this that he doesn’t know what to do. Where to touch, what to say, what to ask for. But Jimin doesn’t need him too, doesn’t take anything that Taehyung isn’t offering with every inch of himself. There’s a smile on his lips, swollen and dark and wet with spit, that Taehyung can’t stop himself from tasting.

“Taehyung,” Jimin gasps, when his hips start working faster, when one hand slips down, still slick and messy, and Taehyung follows it to wrap his hand around where Jimin grips himself, tighter than Taehyung is used to. “Taehyung, Tae-yah.”

“Let me.” It’s barely formed, mostly air, but Jimin draws his hand back anyway. Tangles fingers in Taehyung’s hair, and Taehyung can’t care about the mess because he’s busy learning how Jimin likes to be touched, what makes him thrash and gasp and tighten excruciating around Taehyung inside him.

Taehyung comes first, because Jimin is relentless and overwhelming. It’s a slow thing, building for long enough that he has time to gasp out a warning, and Jimin only presses a palm flat to his chest, and smiles, and works his hips down in a slow circle that has Taehyung gasping, panting out soft noises that sound almost like sobs.

“Come on, baby,” Jimin murmurs. “It’s okay. I want it.”

And so Taehyung comes, shaking and intense and almost painful, and feels Jimin’s hand over where his has gone slack, working fast and rough and almost mean until Jimin groans, and goes so tight where Taehyung is sensitive that he whines and struggles and closes his eyes as Jimin’s come lands hot and sticky over his fingers, on his stomach.

“Goddess,” Jimin gasps, and something about it in the dark makes Taehyung laugh. Quiet and almost hysterical, until Jimin tips his head up with two fingers and beams down, and kisses the laughter away.

He doesn’t feel bad using the sheets to wipe away their mess, when Jimin rises slow and careful and collapses with purposeful clumsiness half onto Taehyung’s chest. They’ll be washed anyway, and then retired, and Taehyung will sleep tomorrow in a different bed, with a different balcony, and he’ll have to make new memories to burn out his father’s years.

Outside the window, his country hums. The leaves in the trees and the chimes on the branches, the spring opening up flowers everywhere he looks. There’s warmth, now, where when he’d left there was cold.

“Taehyung-ah,” Jimin says, light and careful and sleepy.

“Jimin,” he answers, and pushes his fingers through sweat-damp hair. He can feel a smile pressed into his chest. A kiss over his heart, fingers stroking over his ribs.

Jimin isn’t going to hurt him. Taehyung breathes in deep, and blinks up at the ceiling through the vague threat of tears, and trusts that, instead of anything else. Jimin isn’t going to hurt him, and they’re going to live in the histories together, and Taehyung’s scars will fade.

I love you, neither of them say. But Taehyung hears it, and thinks it, and—

One day, maybe, he’ll be brave enough to speak it aloud. But until then he has this. Jimin wrapped around him, and the Kal guarding his chamber door, and the people in this palace he can call family, without being afraid of.

The lamp goes out with a ghostly trail of smoke. A light pulses soft and small, in the corner of Taehyung’s vision.

He falls asleep a king.

 


 

Long months later, as snow freezes the paths in Odai’s mountains, Jimin kneels in the sea.

They’d waited until the lowest tide for the coronation, the priestesses careful in their planning. They’d rung the bells before dawn, had urged the manor awake and into the quiet rush of preparation. His clothing had been laid out, black linen and silk, with silver stitching on his chest and shoulders. The crown had been pulled from below the temple, and set out in the moonlight.

And so Jimin kneels, salt water licking cold at his thighs, as the sun crests over the sea. As the drowned priestess recites the prayer from memory, walking circles around him. Reaching out every so often with water dripping from her fingers, to press his lips or his chin or the space between his eyebrows.

Taehyung kneels too, in Bayul black and an Odaian robe as red as the blood of their first meeting, and stares in quiet rapture out at the horizon. Marriage lines painted in clay on his hands, like Jimin’s father had worn at the funeral.

It had been a quiet event. The cherry blossoms had fallen, the last of the spring flowers had bloomed. Taehyung and Jimin had gone back to the grave, to the willow copse, and the Kal had painted their hands in careful, even lines, and Namjoon had read the Brother’s blessing, and Jin had called the Goddess.

Even then, it was political. There had been a hesitance in Taehyung’s eyes that’s gone now, after months and months of work and exhaustion and struggle for them all. But they had pushed through, and Taehyung had taken Jimin to walk the lower town of the capital, to touch their people’s hands and meet their children and thank them all, for the things they’d given up.

“Park Jimin,” the priestess says.

Her hair is long and tangled, as drenched as the rest of her. Her dress drags with the force of the waves, as small as they are, pulling at Jimin’s clothes and washing over his thighs.

He’d missed the ocean, for months and months. It wasn’t safe to travel back, to leave Odai in the hands of ministers and a council until they had been replaced and trained and sworn to loyalty.

But Jimin is home, now, with Taehyung at his side. With the memory of his family on every beach, in every inch of the manor that’s his, now. Theirs.

Jimin is home. The crown dips under the water, black steel and pearls, and comes up dripping. The clouds on the horizon burn in gold and red, the cliffs shine white and silver with the spray from the sea. Behind him, Jeongguk and Hoseok stand in front of the crowd, the people come to see him crowned, each of them standing barefoot in the shallows as Jimin lays himself bare. As Taehyung waits, a meter away, and watches.

“May the goddess guide you,” the priestess says, her voice sharp and clear over the water, and Jimin thinks—she already has.

He’d cursed her over and over, when he’d been chained to the floor. Had begged and railed and given up entirely, when he’d thought she’d abandoned him.

When he holds Taehyung’s hands, their lines connect. It’s the only marking they get, painted for the holiest events. For the wedding it had been Hoseok who’d taken the brush to Jimin’s skin, who’d smiled through tears the whole time. Behind Jimin’s back, Jeongguk had painted Taehyung, and they’d both turned to Jimin with shining eyes at the end of it.

But this morning, it had been Jeongguk who’d sat in front of Jimin. Who’d cried openly, with shaking hands, as he prepared Jimin to take his father’s place.

“I love you,” Jeongguk had told him through tears, like Jimin didn’t already know.

And then he and Hoseok stood back, and unlaced their shirts, and showed Taehyung the new name on their chest. Underneath Jihyun, safe.

He’s the first king of Odai to have his name in a Kal’s oath. If they’re lucky, if they succeed, he won’t be the last.

The crown drips salt water down Jimin’s scalp. Weighs heavy on his forehead, an ache he won’t ever be able to ignore. The first time Jimin held it, he spent the next hours wondering how his father ever stood straight, with something like that on his brow. He understands, now, that it had taken discipline, and practice, and some kind of belief in himself that Jimin is trying his best to learn.

“King,” the priestess calls him. That’s been his title for months, but only now does it ring true.

At his side, Taehyung whispers an old word for goodbye. His eyes follow something out to the dawn that Jimin can’t see, that he’s asked after before and always been gently steered away.

For so long, Jimin had mourned. Had been scared and angry and humiliated, and there’s parts of him that still are. That won’t ever be able to forget what he’s been through, and what he’s lost. But Taehyung had lost too, as much as Jimin and more, and every day Jimin wakes up and decides to love him. Every day, Jimin rules with him, and holds him close, and soothes away the years of hurt that he’d never deserved.

The sun rises over the sea. They both kneel in the surf, with crowns on their heads.

Jimin looks over at Taehyung, and sees the ocean.

 

 

end.