Not really surprising, given they’re in the thick of summer, but that never stops the whole castle from complaining about it every single year. Jihoon himself is probably less irritable than most, because he has a handy chilling spell at the ready. Nevertheless, he’s still cleared his mages to be out of their usual uniform of heavy robes for the summer, because he really doesn’t want the apprentices to drop dead from heatstroke.
At least the stone walls of the castle keep some of the heat out, even if it is unbearably stuffy and muggy in some of the corridors. Wouldn’t it be nice if they could somehow enchant the castle to keep cool in the summer and warm in the winter? It’s not the first time Jihoon’s thought of it, but all previous attempts have failed. Perhaps Lord Byeongcheol, with his newly reignited love of magical research, will have something to add…
“-hoon. Jihoon, are you listening?”
Jihoon blinks. “Sorry, what?” he says, a little sheepishly.
“Rude,” says Wonwoo, though he isn’t really angry. He’s probably used to it by now; Jihoon’s had so many things to juggle and keep track of since he stepped into the role of Court Sorceror that his brain doesn’t know how to relax anymore. “I need some fireguard charms, the old ones in the library are starting to wear out.”
Jihoon flicks a hand towards the chest of drawers in the corner of his office. The bottom drawer shoots open, revealing stacks upon stacks of charmed papers. “Help yourself.”
Wonwoo grins in thanks and goes over to grab some, well-familiar with where they are by now.
“Oh yeah,” Wonwoo adds casually, bent over the drawer as he riffles through the contents. “Do you know what’s up with Soonyoung?”
Jihoon frowns. He actually hasn’t seen very much of Soonyoung at all, the past few days. “Why, what’s wrong with him?”
Wonwoo shrugs. “He was being really pissy when I saw him at breakfast. Knocked over a whole shelf of my scrolls and then yelled at me and stormed off when I got mad about it. I mean– I yelled too, but he’s normally too thick-skinned to let something like that get to him.”
“And he hasn’t come to apologise since?”
Wonwoo shakes his head.
That’s odd. Despite his quick temper, Soonyoung’s usually pretty good at owning up when he’s made a mistake. If it’s been hours and he still hasn’t come to Wonwoo with a sheepish grin and an edible peace offering of some kind, he’s either so busy he can barely breathe or he’s still angry. Or dead, Jihoon supposes, but Jihoon’s seen Soonyoung escape death by dragon with his very own eyes, so there’s probably not much that can kill the bastard.
“I’m sure he’ll come around,” Jihoon says, trying for reassuring. “Probably just the heat.”
Wonwoo straightens, hands full of fireguard charms. “Yeah, probably nothing to worry about,” he agrees. “Anyway, thanks for these. See you later.”
“See you,” Jihoon says, smiling, and waves him off.
Jihoon’s not worried, not really. All he means to do is check if Soonyoung’s gone off on a mission or something he wasn’t told of, because Jihoon likes to know when his friends are risking life and limb for their kingdom.
He doesn’t expect to find Soonyoung hunched over on an old bench in the armoury, head in his hands. Despite the heat, he’s decked out in full armour, sans his helmet, which has been tossed carelessly to the side. What worries Jihoon the most, though, is that he’s sitting completely still. Soonyoung is never, ever still.
Jihoon sighs. “You’re going to get heatstroke,” he tells Soonyoung, going over to him. “Don’t tell me you wore all that metal out in the sun.”
Soonyoung doesn’t respond, doesn’t show a single sign that he’s heard Jihoon.
Jihoon drops into a crouch in front of Soonyoung. He tugs Soonyoung’s hands away from his face, but Soonyoung keeps his head down and refuses to look at Jihoon.
Jihoon bites his lip, frustrated. Whatever happened, it looked like a few words aren’t going to do the trick this time. It’s been a while since he’s seen Soonyoung in one of these funks. Jihoon has never really been sure how to deal with them, but he’s never known how to just leave it alone either.
Well. First things first, he has to get Soonyoung out of this armour before he roasts in this heat. Silently, Jihoon takes Soonyoung’s right arm in his hands and undoes the vambrace, then does the same with the left. Piece by piece, Jihoon takes his armour apart. Soonyoung lets him, doesn’t protest even when Jihoon tugs him to his feet so he can get the cuisses on his thighs.
“You’re going to have to get the mail on your own,” Jihoon tells him once all of Soonyoung’s outer armour is sitting in a somewhat haphazard pile on the floor. With a quick spell, he teleports the entire pile into Soonyoung’s chambers. “Go put on your riding boots and meet me at the gates in half an hour.”
That catches Soonyoung’s attention. “I’m supposed to be polishing shields,” he says, but he’s clearly curious. Jihoon isn’t usually the one to suggest spontaneous outings. In fact, Jihoon’s usually the one who has to be dragged kicking and screaming from his work.
Jihoon blinks. A rag hops up from the bench, dips itself into the polish, and starts scrubbing vigorously at a shield.
“That’s not– it’s supposed to be a punishment,” Soonyoung says.
“Gates, half an hour. Riding boots!” Jihoon tells him, and strides out of the room with a swish of his robes.
Soonyoung sighs behind him, but Jihoon knows he’ll be there.
Jihoon is already changed out of his robes and sitting astride his black mare when Soonyoung comes into the view, wearing his riding boots like Jihoon told him to.
“Where are we going?” Soonyoung grunts as he mounts his chestnut gelding. He’s still clearly not in the best of moods, but Jihoon’s never let that stop him from bullying Soonyoung into doing what he wants anyway.
“Keep up and you’ll find out,” Jihoon tells him, and sets off into the woods at a gallop.
An hour’s ride later, Jihoon pulls to a stop by a secluded lake in the western woods.
Soonyoung’s gelding pulls to a stop beside him. “What are we doing here?” Soonyoung asks slowly as they both swing off their horses. “You collecting lotus seeds for a spell?”
Jihoon rolls his eyes and yanks his tunic off over his head.
Soonyoung makes a strangled, choking noise. “Um, what,” he croaks.
“We’re going swimming, idiot,” Jihoon tells him, unlacing his breeches. “Well? Strip.”
“What,” Soonyoung repeats, in a flustered squeak this time. “Why are we– I had– don’t you have work to do?”
Jihoon fixes him with a glare, trying his best to be intimidating while wearing only his short summer braies. “I will throw you in that lake fully clothed if I have to.”
“Alright, okay,” Soonyoung says quickly, hands raised in surrender. “Um, you can. You can go on and get in first, I’ll just. Be with you in a moment.”
“You better,” Jihoon threatens, then wades into the water with a noisy splash. His skin breaks into goosepimples, but it feels refreshing rather than uncomfortable. Jihoon dunks his head underwater, and when he comes up for air it feels like months’ worth of tension he hadn’t realised he’d been carrying is starting to slough away.
Maybe he needed this break, too.
Jihoon kicks lazily a few times, trying to recall his childhood swimming lessons– it really has been an obscenely long time since he last went swimming– and eventually settles for floating, face-up and spread-eagled, in the blissfully cool water. He hears splashing from behind him, muffled because his ears are underwater too, and when he turns to look Soonyoung is clumsily dog-paddling towards him, wet hair plastered flat to his forehead.
Jihoon grins, kicking himself upright so he can splash water into Soonyoung’s dumb face–
–and gets a gigantic spray of water right in the nose.
“Too slow!” crows Soonyoung triumphantly, then yelps because Jihoon retaliates even before he’s wiped the water out of his eyes.
This, of course, starts a massive splash fight, both shrieking and giggling as they shove water at each other. It’s like they’re kids again, skipping lessons to mess about in the pond. They’re bigger and stronger and faster than they used to be, and the attacks are relentless, but it’s the same joy, the same warm excitement.
They’re both happily exhausted by the time they call a truce and drag themselves out of the water so they can lay on the sun-warmed bank to dry off. The horses are grazing peacefully closer to the treeline, untethered but well-trained enough to know not to wander too far. Jihoon can hear frogs croaking loudly from somewhere close-by, and briefly entertains the notion of trying to catch one like they always wanted to as kids.
He’s opening his mouth to suggest it when Soonyoung says, suddenly, full of emotion, “Thanks.”
The words die in Jihoon’s throat. He clears it awkwardly. “Nothing to thank me for,” he says, strangely embarrassed.
“Of course there is,” Soonyoung insists, turning his head to look at Jihoon. His eyes are unexpectedly serious, and the sight of them does something to Jihoon’s chest. “Don’t know if you noticed, but I was having a bad day.”
Jihoon snorts. “I noticed,” he says, because Soonyoung is the easiest person to read, he’s like an open book. And then, because Jihoon feels like he should at least offer, he adds gruffly, “Want to talk about it?”
Soonyoung looks away. He’s silent for a long moment. Jihoon waits awkwardly, wondering when it’d be appropriate to change the subject to chasing frogs.
“I fucked up,” Soonyoung says finally, voice soft. “It was my own fault. I– I don’t know, I’ve been off all day. Distracted, irritable.” He sighs. “I was supposed to be teaching the squires this afternoon. I’m normally a good teacher, y’know? I like helping the kids, watching them improve. But today… I don’t know. Everything just made me so angry. And I knew I shouldn’t be, because the kids don’t know any better, and I’m supposed to be teaching them, not getting mad that they aren’t already perfect knights! I knew that, but I just– I couldn’t help it.
“I was trying to stay calm, but I could tell they were getting scared. Some of them were literally shaking! And that made me even angrier, because what the fuck kind of chivalrous knight am I if I make fifteen-year-olds cry just because I’m having a bad day? And of course, that’s when Captain Miyoung comes by and tells me off. Which, fine, whatever, I deserved it, but then she starts lecturing me about how I’m ‘not a child anymore’, and I can’t ‘let my emotions control me if I’m going to be a good leader’. She said, ‘how are you going to lead a whole army if you can’t even deal with the squires’, and I just– I just lost it. I fucking– shouted at her, in front of all the squires! Which is, like, the stupidest thing I could possibly have done, and I’m so lucky she didn’t just fire me on the spot, she just told me to polish shields until I cooled off.”
Soonyoung sits up, drawing his knees up to his chest. He stares out at the water, expression morose. “She’s right, though. I can’t keep losing my shit like this, especially since the Council have yet to decide if they want to keep me on permanently,” he says darkly. “And it’s not just today, it’s everything, everything since Seungcheol-hyung was coronated. Captain Miyoung, the Council, even you and Seungcheol-hyung– everyone expects so much from me. And I know, it’s because you all trust me and want to make me the best I can be, but sometimes it feels like everyone’s just waiting for me to fuck up.”
Soonyoung sighs, scrubs a rough hand through his hair with frustration. “I shouldn’t even be complaining. Tons of people would kill to be in my place, I’m lucky to even be here. I knew it’d be hard when I fought tooth and nail to get on the Council. I thought I was ready for it, but…” He trails off, shaking his head. “I don’t know, Jihoon. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, I don’t know how to be a good leader. It’s just… a lot.”
Jihoon sits up too, crossing his legs. He doesn’t speak for a long moment, mulling over his words carefully. Soonyoung always seems to know what to say when Jihoon’s feeling like crap, so Jihoon has to at least try to do the same for him. Shit, this is hard, how does Soonyoung do this?
“I know how you feel,” Jihoon begins slowly. “There’s a hundred things that should’ve been done yesterday, and two hundred to be done by tomorrow. You feel like a single wrong move could be your last, so you work and work and work to make sure you’re never wrong. The pressure is insurmountable, suffocating.”
“Yes,” breathes Soonyoung, looking at him with wide eyes.
“Don’t look so surprised,” Jihoon says dryly. “I’m probably the person who can best understand the position you’re in. Thrust into power suddenly, brimming with talent but doubted for our youth– we’re in the same boat, you and I.”
Soonyoung is still blinking at him with surprise. “But you always seem so calm, so in control.”
Jihoon looks away. “I’ve always found it… difficult, to be vulnerable,” he admits. “And… well. You and Seungcheol-hyung have had it rough, too, maybe even rougher than me. I didn’t want to make you worry about me on top of all that.”
“Jihoon,” Soonyoung starts, soft but exasperated.
Jihoon waves him off. “I know, I know, I should have said something instead of bottling it up. I will, next time. It’s just– I’m just trying to say– you’re not alone.”
Soonyoung’s breath audibly catches in his throat, and his gaze turns impossibly soft. Jihoon feels his face heat, because this is far too sappy for his taste– but Soonyoung needs to hear it, so he soldiers on. “You have me,” he continues awkwardly. “Even if– even if nobody else understands, I do. Even if you have to be strong for your knights, or Captain Miyoung, or Seungcheol-hyung– you don’t with me. So don’t– you don’t have to suffer in silence.”
“You too,” Soonyoung blurts out suddenly, fiercely, even as his eyes go damp. “You too, with me. You shouldn’t– I’m here. For you.”
The sudden ache in his heart takes Jihoon by surprise. “Yeah,” he says roughly, around the lump in his throat. “Um. Thanks.”
Soonyoung gives him a tiny smile, bumps their shoulders together. His bare skin is warm against Jihoon’s, sticks a little when he pulls away. Jihoon nudges him back, relieved that he seems to be in better spirits.
They sit in silence for a while, looking out at the lake and enjoying each other’s company. It’s– nice. Peaceful.
“So,” Soonyoung says, when Jihoon’s hair is nearly dried. “Think we can catch those frogs now that we’re older?”
They’re both dreading their return to the castle, to their responsibilities, but people will no doubt come looking if they’re still gone by dinnertime, so they reluctantly get dressed and head home.
Captain Miyoung isn’t waiting for them at the castle gates like Soonyoung had been worried about, but Jihoon spots a scout running off, no doubt to tell her they’ve returned. “Go have dinner with Wonwoo,” Jihoon tells Soonyoung as they hand their horses off to the stablehands. “I hear you owe him an apology.”
Soonyoung winces. “You’re right, I do,” he admits sheepishly. “I’d best be off, you know he eats early. See you tomorrow?”
Jihoon nods and waves him off, then heads for his own chambers.
“Court Sorceror,” calls a familiar voice when he’s halfway there.
“Captain,” Jihoon replies coolly, turning to face her. Captain Miyoung looks stoic as ever, though Jihoon thinks the twist of her lips seems faintly displeased.
“I seem to recall assigning Sir Soonyoung to polishing the shields, not an enchanted rag,” she says. Ah, so she is displeased.
Jihoon bows. “My apologies, Captain. I required Sir Soonyoung’s assistance with an urgent matter, but thought it best not to leave the task unfinished.” It’s not technically a lie; the Captain doesn’t have to know that the urgent matter was an outing for the sake of Soonyoung’s mental health.
“His assistance,” Captain Miyoung repeats, clearly unconvinced. “He was meant to be carrying out a punishment. You couldn’t have asked another knight to help you?”
“No other could have done it but he,” Jihoon says solemnly.
Captain Miyoung eyes him for a good long moment, then sighs. “He is unharmed?” she asks, tone gentler.
“Not a scratch on him.”
Captain Miyoung nods, then pauses. She’s more hesitant when she asks, “And his spirit?”
That surprises Jihoon. Perhaps she, too, felt she’d been too harsh on Soonyoung. Or– perhaps she wanted to know if he could handle the pressure? “I have never met a man of stronger will,” Jihoon tells her firmly. “It would take a great deal more than the likes of you or I to break him.”
Captain Miyoung regards him silently. Jihoon stares back, unwavering. After a long moment, Captain Miyoung nods, apparently satisfied. “In the future, I would appreciate it Your Grace would clear it with me before kidnapping my protégé, no matter how urgent the matter,” she says dryly.
“Yes, of course,” Jihoon promises, bowing again. “My apologies again, Captain.”
“As long as it doesn’t happen again,” Captain Miyoung says, just a hint of chiding in her tone. “Good night, Court Sorceror.”
“Good night, Captain.”
She leaves, and Jihoon heaves a sigh of relief. He really should have said something to her instead of just dragging Soonyoung off– of course she’d notice he was gone. They’re lucky she’s understanding; a stricter Captain might have taken it as a challenge to her authority and dismissed Soonyoung for insubordination. At least now all’s well again, and Jihoon can have his dinner in peace–
“Oh, Jihoon!” calls another voice, and Jihoon turns to see Jeonghan rounding the corner, a mischievous grin on his face. The sight of it sends a shiver down Jihoon’s spine. A mischievous Jeonghan is a dangerous one.
His suspicions are proven right when, slinging an arm around Jihoon, Jeonghan says casually, “So I hear you and Soonyoung had a romantic tryst this afternoon?”
Jihoon literally squawks, feeling his face go burning hot. “Wh– we didn’t– tryst–?!” This is preposterous! “We weren’t– it wasn’t–”
“Now, now, no need to be shy. You went into the woods all tense and serious, and came back hours later with rumpled clothes and easy smiles. Must have released the tension somehow, eh?”
“Hyung!” Jihoon shrieks, mortified, but Jeonghan just cackles and drags Jihoon along to Seungcheol’s chambers with an iron grip.
“Come,” Jeonghan says cheerfully, “have dinner with your hyungs and tell us all about it. Seungcheol says he doesn’t want to know, but we both know he’s nosy as a barmaid…”