Nausea hits Mark like a blow to the chest, followed by a sadness so strong his breath catches in his throat. Donghyuck’s hands are buried up to the wrists in ash, but he isn’t crying. His glassy eyes are fixed on the ground, his lips tremble, his arms shake—but the tears don’t spill, and it’s heartbreaking to watch. Mark has learned to handle Donghyuck’s tears, to wrap him in his arms and whisper comforting words against his hair. But he doesn’t know how to handle this panicked trance, and his hands flutter uselessly in the air.
The king strides to them in an instant. “We must search the town for survivors.”
Mark feels the blood drain from his face. “S-Survivors?”
“They will be able to tell us what happened. If this activity spreads, the entire empire will be at risk.” He turns and heads toward the town, his footsteps eerily silent against the ashy earth.
“Stop.” Mark’s voice shakes, and he curls his hands into fists at his sides. “Stop it.”
His father pauses but doesn’t look back. “Excuse me?”
“Stop it!” It’s a shout this time, torn from the depths of Mark’s soul, and his entire body begins to ache with a terrible fury. “Can’t you see that he’s suffering?” He gestures toward Donghyuck, to his frozen limbs and lifeless eyes. “Put aside your duty for a moment and think like a human being! He needs to grieve; he needs someone to be there for him!”
“Suffering is a byproduct of war, Mark,” the king replies flatly. He turns, and there’s an emptiness in his face that makes Mark want to scream. “It happens to all of us. There’s nothing else to be done.”
Donghyuck’s voice is in his head, repeating again and again and again: “You know nothing of my pain.” And Mark’s fury turns to ice. “What could you possibly know about suffering, father?” His voice drops to something colder, something fraught with a heavy intensity. “Surrounded by waitstaff and silks all your life—you’ve never once suffered.”
The king’s eyes narrow, but he says nothing.
And Mark wants to continue, wants to yell until the very ground shakes, but he’s stopped short by a harsh “Who’s there?” cutting through the still air. He whirls around, every sense on high alert, but sees nothing through the ashy haze. He takes a step forward, squints into the murky distance—
“Watch your back, your highness.” The voice is directly behind him, dark and threatening, and he feels a sharp point dig between his shoulder blades. He can tell from years of training that it’s the tip of an arrow, nocked and ready to tear through his skin. He was always taught to draw a calming breath and think of an attack strategy, but his mind goes blank and his mouth turns to dust—
“Jaemin?” It’s Donghyuck, voice high-pitched and shaky, and Mark freezes. He feels the arrow falter at his back.
Mark risks a glance to the side, where Donghyuck is scrambling to his feet. He stumbles in his haste, and a hand shoots out to wrap around his wrist. Mark hears the arrow fall to the ground behind him.
“Jaem…” Donghyuck’s eyes are wide, and Mark sees tears in them for the first time since they arrived. “What…what happened? Where is everyone—”
There’s a loaded silence, and Mark uses it to turn and face them. The boy—Jaemin—is no older than Mark himself, with fair hair coated in ash and delicate, pretty features. There’s a quiver of arrows slung across his back, but his bow lies forgotten at Mark’s feet. He has both bloodstained hands wrapped around Donghyuck’s wrists, and the look in his eyes borders on pain.
“You’re alive?” Jaemin’s voice is ragged around the edges. He looks Donghyuck up and down, as if he can’t believe what he’s seeing. “You’re alive, Hyuck, what the hell—”
Donghyuck reaches forward to grab at Jaemin’s shirtsleeves. “My family, are they—”
“I can’t believe you,” Jaemin whispers. He shakes his head and takes a step back, but Donghyuck moves with him. “Do you have any idea how much they suffered? How could you do this, Donghyuck, as your mother’s only son?”
Donghyuck’s eyes widen, and Mark feels something visceral tear through his chest. “No,” Donghyuck gasps. “She’s not…are they…”
Jaemin’s mouth twists. “She’s alive. If you can call it that.”
Mark watches as Donghyuck’s fingers try to find purchase in the rough cloth of Jaemin’s sleeves. He wants to go to him, to wrap his arms around his waist and press his lips against his hair, but the moment feels so private and painful that he chokes back the longing. And it hurts to think of what Donghyuck went through to be here, only to find that—
“But Soojin…” Jaemin’s voice trails off, and he clears his throat roughly. “She didn’t… She didn’t make it.”
There’s a silence that stretches so long, Mark thinks he may have lost the ability to hear.
“What?” Donghyuck finally breathes.
“They…” Jaemin waves in the general direction of their town’s remains. “They got to her before anyone else could.”
Donghyuck’s fingernails are digging into Jaemin’s arms so deeply, Mark fears he might draw blood. “Don’t lie to me, Na Jaemin, don’t you dare lie to me—”
And Mark thinks he feels it when Donghyuck breaks. The thin thread of hope that kept him upright, kept him moving, kept him sane—it snaps in half a second and he collapses to the ground. A violent sob claws its way from his throat, and he presses the heels of his hands against his eyes. It’s like glass down Mark’s throat, tearing through his chest, ripping him apart from the inside. So it’s automatic when he falls to his knees at Donghyuck’s side and gathers him in his arms, because he knows it’s infinitely worse for him, and he longs to take away even a fraction of his pain.
“Shhh,” he whispers against his hair. He flinches when Donghyuck grabs at his tailcoat with enough force to tug him forward, and all he can do is blink back tears as Donghyuck sobs against his neck. He’s whispering something, broken and lost against the fabric of Mark’s collar, so Mark leans back and cards his fingers through Donghyuck’s hair. “What’s that, love? Tell me, I’m right here, it’s okay.”
“My sister.” Donghyuck chokes it out on half a breath. “My baby sister, my sister—”
And Mark almost wishes he hadn’t known, because it hurts like Jaemin’s entire quiver of arrows plunged through his back. He’d never had any siblings of his own, never had anyone to guide or protect, but he looks up at Gahyeon, at her teary eyes and trembling hands, and thinks of what it would be like to lose her. “Donghyuck—”
“What is going on?” The king strides toward them, coattails snapping in the breeze. Mark has half a mind to release his hold on Donghyuck because his father can’t know, he can’t—but it’s too late. The king pauses, and his eyes shift from Mark to Donghyuck to Jaemin. His lips purse into a thin line. “Get off your knees, son,” he says.
Mark feels all of Donghyuck’s muscles tense. The seconds tick by like thick molasses, and Mark meets his father’s gaze over the top of Donghyuck’s head. “I won’t.” His voice shakes, and he hears Donghyuck draw in a startled breath.
“Your highness,” Gahyeon hisses.
Mark shakes his head and tightens his hold around Donghyuck’s shoulders. “My place is here.”
The king’s eyebrows lower, and Mark sees his fingers curl into fists at his sides. A muscle in his jaw jumps. He moves closer, a looming shadow blotting out the sun. And Mark has been intimidated by his father countless times, but this—this is the first time he has ever feared him. “If this is what you choose”—he gestures toward Donghyuck, quivering in Mark’s arms with his eyes squeezed shut— “then don’t bother returning to the palace. A prince who turns his back on his duty is no son of mine.”
Mark’s blood runs cold, and he almost protests. The royal half of him, the Mark raised on fine wine and iron-clad honor, nearly scrambles to his feet to beg for forgiveness. But the other half, the Mark who feels Donghyuck’s suffering as if it’s his own, stays on his knees. And Mark knows which half will be victorious in the end. Because having Donghyuck in his arms makes him stronger, better, more capable than before—so he meets his father’s icy stare with conviction and says, “Safe travels, then, Your Majesty.” He pulls Donghyuck closer. “Long may you reign.”
The king’s face turns to stone. He lets out a breath through his nose and pushes past Jaemin, striding toward his carriage with his back stiff and straight. “You two,” he snaps, waving a hand toward Gahyeon and Sicheng, “hurry up.”
Neither of them move.
“I stand with the prince.” Gahyeon’s voice wavers, but her steps are sure when she moves forward and extends a hand toward Mark. He stares up at her in shock, watches as her eyes fill with tears, but she gives him a watery smile and lifts one shoulder in a shrug. “The palace was never my home, your highness.”
Mark swallows and takes her hand.
Gahyeon turns and holds out a hand toward Sicheng. He doesn’t hesitate to take it.
“Safe travels, Your Majesty,” he says with a raised brow. “Long may you reign.”
It’s a long time before the clatter-clatter-clatter of the carriages fades into the distance. When it does, they’re left in an eerie, ashy silence.
Donghyuck has stopped crying, but his eyes are lifeless when he drops his hold on Mark’s tailcoat and looks up at Jaemin. “My mother.” His voice is sandpaper. “And Minji. Where are they?”
Jaemin leans forward to pick up his bow from the ground. “The East,” he says with a sigh. “The nomads took them as prisoners of war, or so I heard.”
The thought stings like an open wound, and Mark’s eyes narrow. “How long ago?”
“Five or six days? I sort of lost track of time, what with the burning and the fighting and the dying and everything.”
Sicheng snorts at that, but instantly sobers when Mark shoots him a glare.
“How far are the eastern provinces from here?”
Jaemin cocks a brow. “A day on horseback.”
“And on foot?” Mark glances down at Donghyuck, who is looking up at him with wary, bloodshot eyes.
“A lot longer, I’d assume.” Jaemin looks back and forth between them. “You’re not actually considering—”
“Of course not.” Donghyuck pushes himself from Mark’s lap and staggers to his feet. The emptiness in his voice is like ice water down Mark’s back. “We should return to the palace, apologize to the king—”
“We have nothing to apologize for,” Mark protests. He scrambles to his feet and reaches for Donghyuck’s hand. Donghyuck lets him lace their fingers together, but he keeps his eyes trained on the ground.
“Is this…” Jaemin pauses. “What I think it is?”
“Very much so, yes,” Sicheng says with a nod.
A pretty flush climbs up Donghyuck’s neck and he tries to pull away, but Mark keeps a firm grip on his hand.
“So you abandoned your family to sleep with the Crown Prince.” Jaemin’s voice is flat. “I’m surprised his standards are so low—”
“You know nothing of my standards.” Mark feels something prickle across his skin, a white-hot anger that takes him by surprise. “And I suggest you watch your tone. Donghyuck has suffered more than you’ll ever understand.”
Jaemin cuts him a sharp glare. Mark can see ash and dried blood smeared along one of his eyebrows, and there are knots in his light hair. He looks exhausted, with dark circles pooling under his eyes and a sickly pallor to his skin. “More than I’ll ever understand? Perhaps you should be the one watching your tone, your highness.”
The anger is instantly eclipsed by shame when Mark realizes that he’s right. He takes in Jaemin’s bloodstained clothing and wonders just how much of the blood is his own. “You’re right. I’m sorry,” he whispers. “I shouldn’t have—”
“Damn right you shouldn’t have.” Jaemin stalks forward and jabs a finger against Mark’s chest. “You’ve had everything laid at your feet, and you never once thought to give it to those less fortunate?” He eyes Donghyuck then, and his lips curl. “I don’t know what Hyuck sees in you.”
Donghyuck’s head snaps up, and his eyes narrow. “Jaemin, don’t—”
But it’s already there, worming its way into Mark’s head like a venomous snake. What could Donghyuck possibly see in him, the spoiled Crown Prince who spent his life in the velvet arms of luxury? What had he ever done—for Donghyuck, for the people of his empire, for anyone other than himself? “I suppose you’re right again.” The words burn in his throat. “I’m not sure what he sees in me, either.”
He hears Donghyuck suck in a breath. “Mark.”
Mark releases his hand and meets Jaemin’s eyes. “What’s the fastest way to the eastern provinces?”
Jaemin’s eyes travel all the way to Mark’s shoes and back again before he drops his hand from his chest. “There’s a mountain range that separates us. The forest is dense, but I know a pass that the traders use.”
“Could you show us?”
Jaemin frowns. He’s silent for a long moment, and Mark resigns himself to the refusal. “If the pay is to my liking.”
Relief leaves Mark feeling lightheaded. “Anything you want.” It tumbles from his lips of its own volition. “Anything at all.”
Jaemin takes a step back and uses the tip of his bow to push Mark’s tailcoat open. His eyes land on the inside pocket. “Whatever you have there should be enough.”
Mark reaches for the satin bag of coins and places it in Jaemin’s open palm.
Jaemin grins, and it’s sharp at the edges like the arrows on his back. “How generous of you, your highness. I’m honored to be your guide.”
The sun is at its highest point in the sky when Jaemin leads them toward the mountains. Donghyuck’s hometown quickly becomes a smudged gray speck at their backs, and Mark looks over his shoulder with an ache in his chest.
Donghyuck is at his side, brows furrowed and lips pressed into a thin line. “This isn’t a good idea, Mark.” There are still tear tracks on his face, and Mark wants so badly to rub them away with the tips of his fingers. It’s strange to think that, just one night prior, Donghyuck had whispered breathy “I love you”s against his bare skin. Mark wants that Donghyuck back, the Donghyuck with fire in his eyes and soft syllables falling from his tongue, because this Donghyuck is a heart wrenching imitation.
“I’ll do what I can to find your family,” Mark says softly. “I owe you that much.”
“You don’t owe me anything; that is not how this works.”
“There’s a town up ahead!” Jaemin calls back to them. He glances over his shoulder and raises a brow. “I’d suggest stopping for supplies, if you’re still mad enough to go through with this.”
Mark gives him a curt nod. Donghyuck’s frown deepens.
The dirt path morphs into a cobbled street, and they pass dilapidated wooden fences bracketing empty fields. The fields eventually give way to modest, thatch roof houses, and the sight of them makes Mark’s throat constrict. They’re all empty, with gardens trampled into dust and broken windows gazing into space like so many lifeless eyes. He tries to imagine what this town would have been like—farmers tending to their crops at sunrise, women hanging laundry on taut clotheslines, children squealing with laughter as they tumble in sun-soaked grass—but there’s nothing left of that now.
“Jaemin.” He hurries forward, polished shoes clicking against the cobblestones. “What happened here?”
Jaemin doesn’t spare Mark a glance. “Why? Feeling guilty?”
And Mark hadn’t been thinking of guilt at all, but it reacts to its name being mentioned and begins to eat away at his insides. “I…”
“They left,” Jaemin says curtly. “A year ago. The nomads hadn’t even reached them yet, but the drought was too severe. Perhaps they learned that waiting for aid was futile.”
Mark flinches at that, but all he can think to do is whisper a broken “I’m sorry.”
Jaemin doesn’t respond, and instead tilts his head toward one of the houses lining the street. “That one seems to be mostly intact. Let’s hope there’s still something left inside.” He turns his back toward Mark entirely and strides to the front door, which clings desperately to the frame by a single rusty hinge.
“Surely you aren’t planning to steal?” Mark’s voice rises in disbelief. He pauses and holds out an arm, signaling Gahyeon and Sicheng to stop short behind him. “That money I gave you, couldn’t we use—"
Jaemin nudges the door inward with the toe of his boot. “I’m sorry, are you seeing merchant carts that the rest of us can’t see? It’s steal or starve, your highness. Your choice.” He ducks inside and is instantly swallowed by the interior’s inky darkness.
Sicheng clears his throat. “It’s hardly stealing, your highness. No one is using it, and it would be a shame to let it go to waste.”
“He’s right,” Gahyeon murmurs.
It leaves a foul taste on Mark’s tongue. He opens his mouth, a half-formed excuse rising to his lips, but closes it again when Donghyuck pushes past him. He mounts the creaking stairs and peeks around the doorframe with practiced ease, and Mark watches him go. This is certainly not the first time he’s done it, judging by the stealth in his step, and Mark finds himself wondering, yet again, who Donghyuck really is. His family, his childhood, his relationship with Jaemin—they’re all mysteries that Mark fiercely wants to solve. So he climbs the stairs and leans over Donghyuck’s shoulder, placing a hand against the small of his back. “You’ve done this before.”
Donghyuck’s tongue darts out across dry lips, and Mark watches as his sunshine eyes track invisible shadows in the darkness. “Perhaps I have.” He slips around the doorframe without another word, and Mark follows.
The house’s interior is choked with dust, thick and heavy in the stagnant air, and Mark coughs. When his eyes adjust to the dimness, he sees that the room has been cleared of furniture, save for an end table tossed haphazardly on its side. A portrait still hangs above the mantel, and through the layer of grime Mark can just make out a family—a mother, father, and daughter—staring out into their abandoned home with unblinking, oil painted eyes. Mark lowers his gaze and tries not to imagine the life they must have had.
“This will have to do.” Jaemin emerges from a side room, a cloth sack slung across his back and a tattered quilt tucked under one arm. He pauses when his eyes find Mark. “It might be a good idea to change, you know. Those in this part of the Empire don’t take kindly to royalty.” He eyes Mark’s pale yellow tailcoat and polished shoes before turning and heading out the door.
“He’s right.” Donghyuck’s voice, soft and careful in the dusty gloom. Mark glances upward to see him leaning against a doorframe with his arms crossed. “They left clothes behind, if you’d like to take a look.”
Mark instantly recoils at the thought of someone else’s garments on his body, but then he remembers the innkeeper from several days prior—the way she had avoided his father’s gaze and moved with a carefully contained hatred. And he’s grown tired, so tired, of being associated with his parents’ mistakes. He had never wanted to abuse his subjects’ trust and plant seeds of doubt within their hearts. He had only ever wanted what was best for the Empire, what would allow his family to rule in uninterrupted peace—or so he thought. But looking back now at his pampered lifestyle and arrogant detachment, his chest aches for every opportunity he missed. Every opportunity to speak up in a provincial meeting or cut short his mother’s harsh discipline—he had let them all slip by like water through a sieve.
So perhaps, in the end, he and his parents weren’t so different after all.
The thought is nauseating, and he rocks back on his heels. Donghyuck is at his side in an instant, and his eyes are bright with worry. “Mark, are you all right?”
“I’m going to fix it,” Mark breathes. He reaches up and tears the heavy silver crown from his hair. He balances it on both palms, as if it’s a venomous insect intent on striking. “I’ll rebuild the Empire with my own hands if I must. But not like this.” He lets the crown drop. It falls through open air, down and down and down—
Mark’s back is turned by the time it strikes the floor.
They’re on the road again in less than an hour, but for Mark it feels as though an entire torpid lifetime has come to an end. He feels lighter without the crown atop his head, like the relentless hands of the Empire have finally lifted from his shoulders, and he lets out a breath as they walk.
“It’s striking, how different you look,” Gahyeon says for the second time as she eyes him up and down.
Mark tugs at the hem of his rough-hewn shirt. He and Donghyuck had found it in one of the house’s bedrooms, abandoned in a bureau with several pairs of loose-fitting trousers, and he had changed into them without hesitation. The shirtsleeves stopped several inches above his wrists, and the pants were too short as well, but Donghyuck had rolled them up and found a pair of straw sandals for him to step into.
“You look like a fisherman from the East,” he had said with a soft laugh, and—because he would handpick the stars from the sky just to make Donghyuck smile—Mark had decided to keep them.
“I’ve never seen you look like the rest of us before.” Sicheng raises a brow and gestures toward him. “Shall we call you ‘Mark’ instead of ‘your highness’?”
Gahyeon’s mouth twists into a displeased frown. “Of course not, Sicheng, that’s ridiculous.”
“Donghyuck does it,” Sicheng retorts.
“That’s different! They’re—"
“Please.” Mark holds up both hands. “Please call me Mark, both of you. I can hardly be considered the Crown Prince anymore, seeing as I’m banned from returning to the palace.” He watches as Gahyeon’s frown deepens. “I’ve grown to dislike the title, anyway,” he adds gently.
“But your high—”
Mark raises both brows.
Gahyeon averts her eyes and lets out a frustrated sigh. “Mark.”
Sicheng claps her on the shoulder. “There you go. I’m very proud of you.”
It continues in this manner until the sun dips low in the west, and by the time darkness falls fully, Sicheng is making jokes at Mark’s expense and Gahyeon is laughing until tears pool in her eyes. It fills Mark’s chest with a pleasant warmth, and he wonders if maybe this is what having a family feels like.
“We’ll need to stop for the night,” Jaemin calls back to them. They’re well into the mountain pass now, and the trees are pressed together so tightly Mark can hardly see the stars. “Many people have lost their lives trying to navigate this after dark.” He veers off the trail and into the woods, and something twists in Mark’s stomach.
“We’re spending the night? Out here?”
Jaemin ducks beneath a low-hanging branch. “If you have a better idea, please do share, your highness.” He’s the only one of them who still uses the title, but the bite he puts into it is telling. Mark knows that Jaemin doesn’t trust him, and he isn’t sure if that will ever change. But Mark isn’t foolish enough to push his luck, and he knows they won’t make it to the East without him, so he swallows down the anxiety on his tongue and steps into the forest.
It’s slow going, with Gahyeon tripping over her skirts and Mark startling at every whisper of wind through the trees. He had trained for situations like these, had defended himself against faux assailants with swords and arrows alike, but he had never used those skills outside of the palace’s training field. His hunting expedition with the king on the eve of his 20th birthday had been fruitless, and they had been surrounded by an array of armed guards regardless. So now, creeping past pitch-dark trunks with nothing but the clothes on his back, he feels horribly exposed.
“We’ll stop here.” Jaemin’s voice, soft in the pressing dark. They’ve reached a small clearing, flanked on one side by an outcrop of rock, and Jaemin huffs as he places his supply bag on the ground. He rummages through it and pulls out jar after jar of fruit preserves, followed by packs of dehydrated meat and several folded quilts. “This is all we have, so make it last. I’ll return with firewood, so please do your best to stay alive until then.”
Another trickle of anxiety trails down Mark’s spine as he watches Jaemin leave. “He’s not serious, of course. There’s no risk of dying out here, is there?”
“Surely you aren’t afraid of the woods, your high—” Gahyeon is unfolding one of the quilts, and she pauses to give him a rueful glance. “Mark,” she corrects.
“Certainly not,” Mark says quickly. He clasps his hands behind his back. He can see Donghyuck from the corner of his eye, watching him with an amused tilt to his mouth. “I’m just concerned for our safety.”
“You know,” Donghyuck starts, walking over to Mark and placing a hand on his shoulder, “I’ve heard of these woods before, from a group of friends in primary school.” His voice drops a shade lower, and Mark feels goosebumps rise along his skin. “They say a band of hunters had to fight off a wolf with their bare hands, and only one of them made it out alive.”
A branch snapping in the distance makes Mark flinch. “Donghyuck, don’t—"
“That wolf might still be here,” Donghyuck breathes. Mark feels his fingernails dig into his shoulder. “Watching and lurking, hoping for another taste of human flesh—”
There’s a rustling in the trees ahead, a shadow lumbers through the darkness, and a scream tears its way from Mark’s throat. He shoves Donghyuck’s arm away and staggers backward, cold sweat pricking between his shoulder blades—
“What in God’s name is all this yelling for?” Jaemin steps into the clearing, dropping the firewood unceremoniously at Sicheng’s feet and throwing Mark a pointed glare.
Donghyuck snickers and his eyes flash with a wicked amusement. He reaches forward to thread his fingers through Mark’s own. “Got you.”
And this is a side of Donghyuck that Mark has never seen. His lips are curling into a mischievous grin, and his tousled hair is hanging into his star-bright eyes. He laughs again, a soft chuckle falling from his pretty mouth, and Mark can’t look away. He wonders if Donghyuck will ever cease to be endearing. And Donghyuck stares back, his expression open and searching, the smile on his lips softening into something infinitely more gentle. And when he breathes out a soft “why are you staring,” Mark decides that no, he will never cease. Donghyuck will endear himself to Mark until he takes his final breath.
“I love you, you know,” Mark murmurs. And he wants to kiss him so badly that he nearly does, there in front of everyone, but he’s stopped short by Jaemin clearing his throat.
“I’m going to be violently ill.”
Donghyuck jumps back with a yelp. Mark feels color rise to his cheeks, and he twists his fingers together in front of him. Gahyeon’s eyes are locked on the ground, and Sicheng is concentrating solely on arranging the twigs and branches into a neat pile. Jaemin sighs heavily and rolls his eyes.
After Sicheng has started the fire with practiced ease, Mark and Donghyuck sit before the crackling flames with several inches of space between them. Jaemin passes the food supply around—Mark’s nose wrinkles when he’s forced to eat preserves with his bare hands—and they all sit together in a heavy, question-laden silence.
Gahyeon is the first to break it. “Do you suppose we’ll reach the eastern provinces soon?”
Jaemin pokes listlessly at the fire, releasing sparks into the inky night air with a sharp hiss. “Another day or two, depending on our pace.”
Gahyeon hums, and they lapse into silence once more.
Mark’s entire body has started to ache now that they’ve stopped, and he’s sure he can feel blisters blooming where the rough sandals dig into his feet. Exhaustion hits him in a rush, and he struggles to keep his eyes open. The night air is balmy and cool against his back. The fire is beginning to die down, washing their immediate surroundings in a warm orange glow. It’s comfortable—more so than Mark would have expected—and he stifles a yawn. “I think I’ll head to bed,” he mumbles.
Gahyeon sends him a small smile and places her hand on a nearby quilt. “You can take this one. It’s much softer than it looks.” Mark sends her a smile in return, but he’s hit with a sudden wave of affection so strong it brings tears to his eyes. It’s a product of the exhaustion, perhaps, but he wants to wrap Gahyeon in his arms and pour out his appreciation for everything she’s done. He settles with a pat on her shoulder and a murmur of thanks. She raises her eyebrows quizzically.
But Mark quickly discovers that his makeshift bed is far from comfortable, and it’s impossible to sleep with his aching body pressed against the hard earth. He hears Donghyuck leave to gather more firewood, and he’s still awake when Gahyeon and Sicheng retire. He watches the light from the dying embers flicker across their sleeping forms, and suddenly longs for the comforts of the palace—his silk duvet and goose feather pillows, a tea service waiting on the side table, a fire roaring in the hearth—
“I truly don’t know what you see in him.”
Mark’s entire body stills at the sound of Jaemin’s voice.
“It’s not your business, Jaem.” Donghyuck sounds tired, and Mark wants to bury his face in his hair and fall asleep with his arms around him. But there’s a curiosity alight in his mind, about how Donghyuck speaks when he thinks no one else is listening, so he stays still as stone with his back turned toward them.
“Since when is your life not my business?” There’s an edge to Jaemin’s response, part betrayal and part sadness. A long silence follows.
“Since we were forced to grow up, Jaemin,” Donghyuck says finally. “I did what I had to do for my family, and I don’t fault you for doing the same for yours.”
“What you had to do?” Jaemin lets out a derisive scoff. “What you had to do was stay, Hyuck. They needed you, and you ran away to take a tumble in the Crown Prince’s bed? You’ve been nothing but selfish—”
“That’s not true.” Donghyuck’s voice shakes.
“Isn’t it? We’ve been dying here, fighting off invaders left and right, but I assume it must have been hard for you as well, with the prince’s cock down your throat.”
“Do you think he actually cares for you? Do you think he’s really here, traipsing through the mountains with a bunch of servants, because he’s trying to make you happy? Open your fucking eyes, Donghyuck. All members of the royal family are the same. They care only for themselves, and they’ll do whatever it takes to gain as much power as possible. We’ve all heard the whispers of revolt coming from the East; this trip is nothing but an attempt for him to quell the masses.”
“It’s not.” Mark can hear the tears in Donghyuck’s voice, and he has to dig his fingers into the flesh of his arm to stop himself from interrupting. “He promised to help me find my family. Of course I think it’s a dangerous and absolutely mad idea, but he promised to make things right. And I trust that he will.”
“Why would you trust—”
“Because I love him, Jaemin. He’s done more for me than anyone else ever has. He has a kind heart and a selfless spirit, which is more than I can say for you.” There’s a sudden shuffling, the sound of Donghyuck getting to his feet. “Now leave me be, before I do something else I’ll regret.”
There’s a tightness in Mark’s chest, sharp like an arrow lodged behind his ribs, at the thought of Donghyuck trusting him wholeheartedly. It’s different when they’re face-to-face and Mark is asking, when soft “don’t you trust me”s fall from his mouth of their own volition—Donghyuck always replies without a moment’s hesitation, and Mark had begun to think that he never thought about it much at all. But Donghyuck—brave, selfless, genuine Donghyuck—was prepared to defend Mark in the name of trust, of love. Mark, who had been nothing but an arrogant fraud for so long—
He scrambles to his feet. Jaemin shoots him a curious glance that instantly sours, but it’s easy to ignore. Mark is focused solely on Donghyuck, on his retreating back disappearing into the line of trees, and he runs after him in stumbling haste.
Donghyuck pauses at the sounds of pursuit. He turns, and his eyes are wide and teary in the dull light of the half moon. Mark can scarcely breathe at the sight of him, and he doesn’t hesitate to step forward and pull him into his arms.
“I don’t deserve you,” he whispers. He places a soft kiss to the top of Donghyuck’s head and hears his sharp intake of breath.
“I-I thought you were asleep.”
And it’s impossible for Mark to push any more words past the lump in his throat, so he simply shakes his head and buries his face in Donghyuck’s hair.
Donghyuck pauses for a brief instant before wrapping his arms around Mark’s waist. His fingers dig into the small of his back. “You deserve better than the likes of me.” His voice is unsteady, and he rests his head against Mark’s shoulder with a sigh.
And Mark can only shush him again and again, card his fingers through his hair, press kisses to his forehead—and they stay like that for a tiny stretch of infinity, arms wrapped around each other with nothing but the balmy breeze in the trees.
Donghyuck eventually pulls away, and his lips quirk into a soft smile. “Let me take you somewhere.” His hair has taken on a hint of silver in the moonlight, and Mark thinks that he’d gladly follow someone so effortlessly beautiful to the very ends of the earth. Donghyuck turns and tugs gently on his fingers, pulling him along through the dark.
They walk in silence, Donghyuck’s hand so warm in his, and Mark’s eyes don’t stray from him once. It would be a sin, he thinks, to let any second of Donghyuck’s beauty pass unnoticed. And when they break through the trees, the smile Donghyuck sends him is enough to leave his breath stuttering in his throat.
“I wanted to show you this,” Donghyuck whispers. “I came upon it earlier while gathering firewood.” He tilts his head, and Mark tears his eyes away from him with a pang in his chest.
They’re in a small grotto carved into the side of the mountain. Rock juts high into the cloudless night sky, and there are dark trails snaking down the slate gray stone, marking the path of a waterfall that has long since run dry. There are remnants, however, in a half-filled pool mere inches from their feet. Mark marvels at the way the water catches the moonlight, and he leans down to skate his fingers across the surface. Just as he moves, a spot of soft yellow light blinks into existence right before his eyes, and he jumps back with a shout.
“What is that?”
The light multiplies from one to two, then two to four, and four to eight, and soon the entire grotto is alive with them, like miniature drops of sunshine suspended in midair.
“Fireflies.” Donghyuck laughs softly under his breath and stretches a hand toward them. “Have you never seen these before?”
Mark can only shake his head in awe. Each pinprick of light is reflected tenfold in Donghyuck’s eyes, and his pretty lips curve into a smile when he catches Mark staring.
“You must not get them in the capital, I suppose,” he murmurs. “They’re pretty, aren’t they?”
“Gorgeous,” Mark breathes. His eyes never once leave Donghyuck’s face.
Donghyuck raises a brow. “Aren’t princes taught that staring is impolite?”
But before Mark can open his mouth to respond, Donghyuck is pressing their lips together in a kiss that’s so sweet and so gentle, Mark feels his knees turn to water. He grabs at Donghyuck’s shoulders for support, and Donghyuck reaches to thread his fingers through Mark’s hair. But then he’s pulling back a fraction of an inch, and Mark can feel their lips brush when Donghyuck says, “Everything I said to Jaemin… I meant it, you know.”
Mark’s eyes flutter open to see that Donghyuck’s are still closed. He reaches up to card his fingers through his hair, and Donghyuck lets out a shaky breath against his mouth. “I know you did,” Mark whispers back. “Though sometimes I also wonder what you could possibly see in me.”
Donghyuck’s eyes open then, and in them Mark sees the light of a thousand fireflies melting into the raw, tenacious spirit of the boy he’s come to adore so, so much. “I see a selfless soul,” Donghyuck breathes. His fingers trail down the back of Mark’s neck. “Who may be a bit reckless, but who’s learning to put others before himself.” His touch sends sparks dancing along Mark’s spine. “And I see a kindhearted and generous ruler, who isn’t afraid to love with everything he has.” He presses his lips to Mark’s for half an instant, and Mark is sure something inside him breaks. “The Empire is lucky to have you, and so am I.”
Mark knows he isn’t worthy of such praise, of such silken syllables falling from Donghyuck’s tongue, and he feels tears rise in the back of his throat. “I’m the lucky one, Donghyuck. Now and forever.” But Donghyuck is shushing him and pressing his lips to his again and again with his arms looped around his neck, and Mark’s legs start to shake. He lowers himself to the ground for fear of falling, and Donghyuck kneels in front of him, lips still pressed firmly to his own.
It’s straight sugar on his tongue when Donghyuck parts his lips on a soft sigh, and he licks into Mark’s mouth like he has all the time in the world to do so. He unhooks his hands from around Mark’s neck and instead places them on his hips, allowing his fingers to slip beneath the loose shirt and rub soft circles into his skin. Mark gasps at the contact, fingers tightening in Donghyuck’s hair. He runs his tongue along Donghyuck’s lower lip and earns a whimper in return, along with fingernails digging into his hipbones.
“Do you know how beautiful you are?” He murmurs against Donghyuck’s mouth. Donghyuck whimpers again, breathy and soft, before tilting his head and recapturing Mark’s lips in a way that turns his stomach inside-out. Donghyuck kisses him like he intends to steal all the air from Mark’s lungs, like he wants Mark’s last living memory to be the taste of his mouth, the warmth of his breath. He bites into Mark’s lower lip, runs his tongue across his teeth, whimpers like it will all never be enough—
“D-Donghyuck,” Mark gasps. He slips his fingers from Donghyuck’s hair and trails them down his spine long and slow. Donghyuck arches into the touch, lips stuttering against Mark’s, and the fingers on his hipbones slide down to hook around the waistband of his pants. Mark sucks in a breath and his eyes flutter open again.
Donghyuck leans back. His eyes are half-lidded and glassy, staring at Mark with an intensity that could surely melt the skin from his bones. “Want to touch you,” he breathes. He leans forward again, mouthing gently along his neck and jaw before rolling Mark’s earlobe between his teeth. “Want to touch you so badly, your highness.”
And Mark has always been weak-willed—but particularly so when it comes to Donghyuck—so all he can do is gasp a soft “please” against Donghyuck’s neck. He feels a shudder crawl down Donghyuck’s spine, feels his hand dip lower and lower—
And it’s startling how quickly Donghyuck becomes the center of the universe, the singular point around which he revolves. He knows nothing else, only Donghyuck’s fingers, Donghyuck’s mouth, his lips and tongue and teeth, pulling Mark along at a torturously slow pace until he’s begging for Donghyuck to take him apart. And Donghyuck is nothing if not generous, so he gives Mark everything he wants, everything he asks for, until the only word that slides off Mark’s tongue is Donghyuck’s name over and over again.
When sensation returns to his limbs and his eyes are heavy with sleep, he grabs at Donghyuck’s wrists and pulls him flush against his chest. Donghyuck blinks up at him, pupils blown wide, and Mark is sure that the amber washed across his pretty skin could put the sun to shame. “Darling,” he whispers. “Do you have even the slightest idea of how much I cherish you?”
Donghyuck’s eyes travel over Mark’s face, as if trying to commit every miniscule detail to memory. “I could ask you the same.” His fingers trail across Mark’s collarbones, his shoulders, his chest, and Mark catches them with his own to press feather-light kisses against his knuckles. Donghyuck’s eyes slip closed, and a soft sigh falls from his lips. All is quiet and all is still, and Mark thinks that he would gladly spend a lifetime like this—
A sudden shout rends the air, and Donghyuck’s eyes fly open. “What was that?”
“Maybe a wild animal?” Mark squints into the surrounding blackness, but then the shout comes again, louder this time, and it’s unmistakably human.
Donghyuck’s brows draw low over his eyes. “We should go back. What if they need something?”
And so they traipse back through the forest hand-in-hand, and as they get closer to the clearing, Mark feels cold sweat trickle down his back. The shouts are identifiable now—Jaemin barking orders, Gahyeon’s high-pitched shrieks, the sounds of glass breaking—
Something is wrong.
Mark tears his hand from Donghyuck’s and breaks into a run. Branches reach for him, clawing at his hair, his skin, his clothing, until he can feel the sting of shallow open wounds. His heart stutters in his chest, his mind races to a thousand possible conclusions—but when he finally skids to a halt at the forest’s edge, he isn’t prepared for what he sees.
Arrows rain down on the clearing, slamming into the ground with heavy thunks that ring in Mark’s ears. One of them strikes a jar of preserves, and it shatters into a dozen pieces. Jaemin is in the center of it all, his bow held taut as he fires into the trees again and again and again. There’s a low grunt as one of his arrows hits home, and a dark shadow tumbles from the branches. It’s a man dressed in bloodstained tatters, with grimy hair matted against his forehead and an empty quiver on his back. A black cloth obscures the lower half of his face, so all Mark can see are lifeless, glassy eyes. Fear pulses through him like slivers of ice.
“It’s an ambush!” Jaemin yells. “Get back—”
Another arrow sails into the clearing, a blinding streak of orange in the dark, and Mark realizes with horror that it’s on fire. It strikes the blanket at his feet and the material erupts into flames, spilling acrid smoke into the night. Mark jumps back with a shout and reaches for Donghyuck, to protect him, to pull him close and shield him with his own body—
But he isn’t there.
His chest clenches, and he feels unsteady on his feet. “D-Donghyuck? Donghyuck!” He whirls around, scanning every inch of space, but the smoke is thickening, pricking at his eyes and stealing the air from his lungs. He sputters and chokes, stumbling further into the clearing with Donghyuck’s name stuck in his throat.
“You fool!” Jaemin’s eyes are wide as he catches Mark in his periphery. “I said get back!”
But Mark spots Donghyuck then, running toward the tree line with Gahyeon’s hand clasped in his own. Sicheng has his hand wrapped around Donghyuck’s wrist, tugging them all closer and closer to the forest, and his head whips around to ensure they aren’t being followed. Gahyeon and Donghyuck mirror him, scanning the clearing in terror, and Gahyeon’s eyes lock directly with Mark’s own.
“Mark!” She screams. She loses her footing, trips over her skirts in panic, and Donghyuck tugs her back to her feet. His eyes are bright with horror when he finds Mark standing stock-still amidst the smoke.
The fear laid bare in his gaze stirs Mark to action, and he’s sprinting toward them without another thought. He has one goal and one goal only—
He has to save them.
The distance between them rapidly closes, and he’s reaching for Gahyeon’s outstretched hand, choking on smoke and terror and tears, when a sickening thunk reaches his ears. He watches as Gahyeon’s eyes go wide and she pitches forward, taking Donghyuck down with her. Sicheng looks back, and he loses his grip on Donghyuck’s wrist.
And Mark can’t breathe, can’t move, can’t think. His vision narrows to a singular point—the arrow lodged between Gahyeon’s shoulder blades—and his hands start to shake as blood pools rapidly at the back of her dress.
And Mark has never had any siblings of his own, never had anyone to guide or protect, but he looks down at Gahyeon, at her teary eyes and trembling hands—
And he thinks that maybe he’s lost her.