The skies roared with thunder. Around them, an eternity of dead trees, gnarled fists shaking at them as they rode past.
Duck huffed the horse-equivalent of a grumble. Jaemin reached down to pat her neck, comforting her.
“C’mon, it’s coming up, I can feel it. Just a little longer.”
A disbelieving snort.
He sighed and straightened up as much as he dared.
“You know,” Jaemin started, past caring if he sounded snippy. “If you had a little more faith in us, things would be a little more fun for you, I think.”
Duck screeched to a stop all on her own, rearing as if to buck Jaemin off.
Good thing he’d had the reins wrapped around his wrists so tight he couldn’t feel his fingertips. They descended until Duck was horizontal again, Jaemin giving her a small tug.
“Throwing me would just mean staying in the rain longer, dumbass. Get moving. Please.”
He told himself her next snort had an apologetic lilt to it.
They pushed on.
Lightning cracked down behind them, the air humming with it afterwards. Duck was tense and Jaemin was sorry, but sorry didn’t stop storms.
Knowing to anticipate storms didn’t stop them either. Would’ve been nice though, you know, if the locals had said something. Desensitized to the outrageous local weather or just dicks, the European way remained elusive.
Just when Jaemin thought they were finally at the bottom of the barrel of it all, somehow the rain slammed down even harder. He’s momentarily hunched over by the force of it, relying on his legs to keep him balanced.
Upon sitting up to adjust the saddle, the tip of a branch whizzed past and catches the side of his face like a whip.
Stung like one, too.
If only he had his hat, he’d be getting less trees to the face and redeem some of his vision, but no the wind had knocked it off his head right as they’d been leaving the village and he’d told the little girl that picked it up for him that she could hold onto it.
Stretched up on her little toes next to Duck, despite the look—the I want to put it on look—of course Jaemin had been sweet on her.
I’ll just order another one from Doyoung back home, he’d thought. Not like the sun’s out, he’d thought, not considering why exactly that was.
Maybe it was dumb to lament losing the hat (...of his own free will) but he was relying on light and shadow to see, his boots were filled with water up to his ankles, and he was contemplating the logistics of drowning on land, so Jaemin let himself feel a little sore about his hat.
It served to distract him from the sheer endlessness of their current situation.
It was when desperation was creeping up into his throat that he saw it. Lightning struck and there it was, perched on a hill of jagged rocks in the distance. His breath fell short for a second.
“There. You see that, Duck?” He gave her side a pat to get her attention. “That’s our stop, buddy. Almost there.”
He hunkered down close to Duck’s mane, compensating in advance for when she locked in on the castle and shot forward.
The trees stuck out more frequently the closer they got, so Jaemin shielded his face as they tore through the dead forest. He didn’t really have to steer Duck. Once she knew where they were going, he was just along for the ride.
It was cold and his clothes were soaked all the way through. He was probably two times heavier than normal. That guilt from before twinged in his chest.
Duck slowed to a trot and Jaemin looked up; the castle loomed above them, a dim light on in one of the third floor windows. They idled in the small courtyard before the structure’s facade, taking a moment to observe. To the left, there was a deteriorating gazebo. Holes in the roof and support beams missing, it was barely standing, but Jaemin supposed that if it wasn’t crumbling under the weight of the rain it was functioning enough to stall Duck there.
He nudged her in that direction and slid off her back. His land had more impact to it. Heftier.
Duck huffed right into Jaemin’s ear making him jump. He turned with his hands on his hips.
She glanced at the castle doors then shook her head to expel the water from her mane.
(Eerie, the glancing. Jaemin had never had a horse that glanced so much.)
“I’m working up to it,” he said.
Duck huffed again, bending to rest her head against Jaemin’s chest. He felt her breathing against him and Jaemin’s heart squeezed. He was reaching to soothe her when she started forward, pushing him out from under the gazebo and back into the rain. Jaemin spluttered, one hand over his eyes, the other making to swat at Duck’s face.
She chomped at the space his fingers had just waved through.
“Fine. I thought we were having a moment. But, fine!”
Duck neighed and Jaemin marched towards the castle, savoring the chance to put some distance between them.
He hesitated for a second, hand centimeters from the door. Jaemin thought of what waited inside and shifted his weight, a little antsy. He thought of how long they’ve been riding—the impatient Duck behind him and brought his knuckles to the wood.
Even with the storm Jaemin could hear how the knock echoed inside. He rubbed at the goosebumps on his arms through his— oh, his jacket. His jacket was probably ruined. Damn. Doyoung was going to kill him when he got back.
A raindrop bounced off the threshold and plunked right into Jaemin’s eye, god, how the fuck—
It was mid-struggling to pull a clean section of his shirt towards his face that the door creaked open.
He pulled his shirt back down and fixed his jacket, clearing his throat in tandem with Duck’s sound of interest. The space beyond the doors was pitch-black, no light or person to be seen. Certainly a little ominous, but Jaemin wasn't overly concerned.
He found that being as sopping wet as he was, there was very little else that would concern him.
Thunder rumbled above them, sound bouncing and amplifying off the rocky terrain. Jaemin leaned in closer.
(If Jaemin had his hat this is where he'd take it off and hold it to his chest, not to dwell on the hat or anything.)
“Pardon the intrusion, but we got caught in the middle of this storm and were hoping you'd allow us to wait it out under your roof?”
The top half of a face tilted into the sliver of space the door allowed and Jaemin sucked in a gust of air. (No, he did not jump, Jaemin was not concerned, thank you very much.) Dark eyes peered unflinchingly into his.
“Do you know where you are?”
The question was so quiet Jaemin almost missed it.
He laughed. “That’s- um, somewhat?”
A shiver racked through his body, and he gripped at his arms.
The face furrowed for a second, unsure of what to make of Jaemin’s answer. Understandably so. Jaemin himself wasn’t sure what to do with what he knew and what he didn’t.
“Do you know what I am?”
Jaemin shifted his weight onto his right side, his… everything squelching with the movement. He wrinkled his nose the unwrinkled it, going for the biggest smile he could under his current conditions.
“... A fella who’s feeling... hospitable?”
The face squinted at him and Jaemin really had enough of being soaked.
He leaned forward so his forearm was against the door, his face a lot closer to the one inside. He could tell his smile had dropped a little, desperate, maybe nervous.
“Look, yes. And I don’t give a shit. Please, let us in.”
The castle dweller didn’t look any more willing to let Jaemin in, but he tilted his head.
Jaemin pointed back at the gazebo, the face inside adjusted to peer out and Duck’s tail swished from the attention. He caught a glimpse of a mouth and a cloak, Jaemin’s head quick to hold onto whatever scraps it could get of him.
“A horse,” he said softly.
His eyes flicked back and forth a couple of times. Jaemin watched as his face twisted, conflicted. By the miniscule budge to the door, it was obvious he was resisting shutting it then and there. A fat drop of water rolled under Jaemin’s collar and down his back.
Thunder clapped overhead and Duck whinnied.
The castle’s owner stared some more and, finally, heaved a sigh. His expression was none too happy but Jaemin had an in, at least.
Jaemin stepped back as the door opened enough for their host to step out. He held his cloak tightly around himself, against the storm or Jaemin’s curious gaze or maybe both.
“There are stables in the back,” he started.
His face pinched one more time. He rolled his shoulders. Jaemin waited.
Jaemin beamed and hustled back to Duck.
(God, the squelching.)
“This way,” Jaemin tipped his head towards their new friend who was turning a corner. Heavy thunks of locks and sliding bolts chimed out as their host worked ahead of them.
“I told you we’d make it. Faith, baby!” he crowed, gathering her reins.
Duck gave him a flat look and trotted ahead, the leather slipping through his fingers and leaving Jaemin to scramble after her. He shoulder-checked Duck as he passed her, hopping over the thick veins of rock that jutted out of the ground.
Conceptually, he understood this place was a castle but Jaemin was still taken aback by its grandeur. It was a decent walk to get around the side of it, which included two towers, into a different, bigger courtyard. A hall parallel to the main structure held the stalls for the horses, entrance already propped open for them.
The sky whitened with lightning, arching over them like a shooting star.
“You comin’?” Jaemin asked distractedly, blinking away the harsh impression the teeth of the towers had etched onto the back of his eyelids. He looked over his shoulder to find that Duck wasn’t there. He did a full turn to see she was already at the entrance's big swing-out doors. Duck motioned inside with her head and snorted. You comin’?
Jaemin chuckled and jogged inside, finally (and officially, hopefully?) out from under the rain. It was a little strange, still hearing and smelling the downpour but no longer feeling it beat down on him. He shook his hair out the best he could and bumped into Duck, who stood politely out of their host’s way as he moved around them to light some torches.
All the stall windows were boarded up by planks of wood, preventing the wind from putting out the small fires. Jaemin was pleasantly surprised by just how much of the hall’s gloom was eradicated with some light. Their host was quite considerate, for all his reluctance.
He stopped and turned to them, almost startled to see them just watching him quietly. That was the best way to describe it, since he looked like he was doing his best to not give anything away. He cleared his throat.
“This should suffice.”
Jaemin looked to Duck who shoulder-checked him and started ambling around.
“Yes, you’ve gone above and beyond, bud. Thank you…” Jaemin trailed off in hopes of getting something other than ‘their host’ to call their host.
A moment of silence and some more staring before:
Jaemin blinked at that, not having heard that request before.
Huang cocked his head as if unsure he heard right.
“Count to what?”
“Are you… serious?”
“No, I’m Jaemin! Jaemin Na,” he grinned and went to tip his hat before remembering its absence. He stuck out his hand instead.
Huang glanced at Duck as if to verify that he wasn’t getting punked, but she was busy rooting around one of the stalls. He looked at Jaemin’s hand and for a second Jaemin thought he wouldn’t go for it however a cool, smooth hand tentatively met his.
“Huang Renjun. Count Huang Renjun. It’s a title, but I suppose no one is really emphasizing its use nowadays,” said Renjun, a bitter smile on his face.
Jaemin panicked slightly, caught off guard by Renjun’s despondency.
He put his other hand on top of their clasped ones and shook his head.
“Oh, no, forgive me, I’m—” Jaemin paused, “—not from around here.”
“Yes,” Renjun raised his eyebrows as he really took in what Jaemin was wearing. Garb unlike any he’d seen, gaze faltering for a fraction of a second on his chaps, and settling on their hands in between them (he hadn’t been touched like this in— since—), “that would appear to be the case.”
Jaemin grinned again and Renjun averted his eyes. Jaemin let go of their hands.
“We can go inside, if...” Renjun gestured at Duck.
Renjun’s hand fell limp at his side, incredulous.
“Like the other animal?”
Jaemin gave a hearty laugh at that.
“Kinda? I like ducks and all just fine, but we came up with Duck by chopping up a friend’s name from back home.”
Renjun was still giving him an odd look but he accepted the explanation with no further inquiries. He gave Duck a polite nod which she responded to with her own.
Strange was all Jaemin caught of Renjun’s mutter before he turned away towards the castle, cloak swishing in his stead. Jaemin checked on Duck one last time (she was pleased) and followed after him.
After the breezeway there was a heavy back door and a lot of long, door-riddled cobblestone halls and then they were in a giant foyer, back near the entrance. Except near was debatable as it was a massive open room and the literal entrance was across the space. Jaemin would without a doubt get all turned around if he wasn’t being led, not to mention the place was barely lit, for the most part relying on smart window placement and natural light.
They stopped and the sound of the rain against stone was more pronounced in their silence. Jaemin was checking Renjun out—whatever, the guy was literally in a floor length cloak. He wondered if that was casual wear. Renjun had been wearing it when he opened the door, hadn’t he? Functional, mysterious, and casual? Actually, wait, now Jaemin kind of wanted one.
Renjun turned around and took some steps that put him closer to Jaemin, effectively blasting his train of thought off its tracks.
“You’re very wet.”
Jaemin looked down at how his clothes clung to him even though he knew very well that he was, in fact, wet.
“I am very wet,” he confirmed.
Renjun exhaled stiffly through his nose.
“I suppose I should offer drier apparel.”
Jaemin waited but when Renjun just raised an eyebrow at him he concluded that that was the offer. He smiled.
“If you have some on hand, I‘d appreciate it a whole lot.”
“Yes,” Renjun murmured, “wait here a moment.”
He started up a set of stairs and Jaemin forced himself to stay put.
Jaemin tipped his head back to see the ceiling. It was so high up he couldn’t quite make out if the marks on it were decorative designs or cracks. He wasn’t one for getting the creeps but he didn’t love the idea of being alone in this place for extended periods of time. The thought of anyone–of Renjun—doing so made his heart ache.
(Upstairs, on a floor he seldom visited anymore, Renjun stood in front of a bedroom that wasn’t his own. It was possible to search… but, it’d be too hard to find something simple and the right size in there. This was faster. Efficient. He took a deep breath and forced himself in.
What a joke, he laughed mirthlessly at himself as he hurried to snatch some garments from the armoire and the big drawer next to the bed.
A creature of the night, yet the shadows inside the room had him clamping his eyes shut.)
Jaemin jumped at the sound of a door slamming shut. He blinked and Renjun was at the bottom of the stairs again.
“I’m not familiar with the style, but the essentials seem to remain the same.” Renjun offered him a hastily folded stack of clothes, eyeing Jaemin’s outfit again.
“That they do,” Jaemin replied, getting a glimpse of Renjun’s black slacks and white button down under his cloak. His own long-sleeve was a muted blue with red trim jumping across his chest. His pants, chaps, jacket, and boots were various shades of brown—his staple accompaniments.
They stood there for a second and when all Jaemin got from Renjun was a couple of blinks he shrugged. Alrighty. He started unbuttoning his shirt and Renjun waved his arms in alarm.
Renjun stopped and glared hard at Jaemin, the crease between his brows furrowing as he did. He clenched his jaw, posturing like he was ready for a confrontation—wanted one? No, expected one—and this was not what Jaemin had been aiming for at all.
“Why are you really here?” Renjun barely managed the words through the tension in his mouth. Everything about him was thunderous.
Jaemin reckoned he could give the storm outside a run for its money.
Speaking of, “The storm—”
“But in the forest? What did you seek before the storm?”
Jaemin rubbed the back of his neck. “The people in the tavern—”
“The village tavern?” Renjun scoffed, rolling his eyes. “Pray tell, what exactly did they tell you to lead you here? Or, was it you that knew what to ask?”
Jaemin’s breath caught in his chest as his mind scrambled to describe this part of his journey as concisely as possible. Now was not the time to goof it all up.
“I really am a ways away from home, if you’d believe it. I’m not familiar with the people in the village or the ghost stories here. You only came up when I asked what was ahead of us in the direction we were riding.”
Still met with suspicion, Jaemin elaborated.
“I knew we’d eventually come across this place but I wasn’t quite sure what to make of them saying you were a…”
“Leach? Blood-drinker? Monster?” Renjun sneered.
“Vampire,” Renjun repeated, frowning at a point somewhere behind Jaemin’s shoulder. “You truly do not know more than that? You are not here to witness or embarrass me? To run back to your own village and tell your people about the devil in his manor?”
“No,” Jaemin said, shaking his head emphatically. “Honestly, that’s not it at all.”
Teeth dipped past Renjun’s lip, his pallor quickly turning ghastly. His eyes flashed crimson-silver-black as he stared at Jaemin.
Jaemin stood as still as he could.
“I… I don’t—” Renjun cut himself off.
His head cocked to the side as he thought, fingers twitching where they were curled into fists.
“I do not know… what to make of you,” he said lowly.
Taking care to keep the movement small, Jaemin shrugged.
“Just a guy.”
Renjun closed his eyes and seemed to will himself into a less offensive stance, exhaling deeply. The next time he met Jaemin’s gaze he’d lost some of his steeliness.
“Your steed likes you, and knowing my own apprehensions... it’s my fault I did not question you further at the door. I will shelter you for the rest of the night, unless you show me reason not to. Fair?”
“Absolutely.” Jaemin put a hand to his own chest (in place of his hat), as a gesture of sincerity. He leaned forward. “We could even get to know each other, if you’d like.”
He remembered Renjun’s words—embarrass me—and smiled a little. Forgetting he’d given Renjun get to know each other to think about, he continued. “Is this embarrassing for you?”
Renjun looked confused until Jaemin undid another button, flushing almost imperceptibly.
New friend or old, good timing or not, Jaemin always found a way to have his fun.
“You– we do not– that is–” Renjun stopped to look elsewhere. “Promiscuous.”
Jaemin laughed a little, putting his hand back over his chest at Renjun’s frown, covering it this time. He could imagine Donghyuck just beside himself at the interaction (out of place, out of time, and still teasing like it’s your damn job).
He registered the faint echo of promiscuous fizzling out at their feet and wanted to ask, though he was pretty sure he knew the answer. Jaemin gestured around them to the castle at large.
“It’s just us?”
Renjun’s face flickered, eyes downcast again.
He didn’t elaborate, despite the obvious disproportionality of one person having the entire castle to themselves.
“Alright, well.” Jaemin nudged the stack of clothes in his arms. “You wanna turn around? Or just. Put me where you want me, so I can change?”
Renjun’s face twitched, caught between feeling flustered and annoyed at Jaemin for flustering him. He huffed and nodded, much like a resigned Duck, if that were ever to exist.
After another walk that had Jaemin turned around all over again he was dumped in a… room. He couldn’t exactly tell what it was meant to be when people were here, a laundry or worker’s room, but it had a strategically placed glassless window (or: hole in the wall), clotheslines, and other assorted tools.
Euphoric was a good start to how it felt finally—finally—peeling off his wet clothes, the soggy second skin they were. Jaemin was grateful for the thick fabric that protected him from the sun and the dust-loaded wind, grateful for the care that went into the little details of color in the cuffs and hems, but right then he couldn’t get them off fast enough. He shivered as the air chilled the residual water left on him.
The shirt he’d been lent was a little too long to be Renjun’s, a closer fit to Jaemin’s size. He shrugged it on, amused at how much room his arms had in the billowy sleeves. The pants were less stiff than he would’ve thought, making for an overall comfortable ensemble, slippers and all.
Hanging his clothes on a clothesline, he shot them one last woeful glance and Jaemin was out of there.
Soft clinks came from one end of the hallway and there was no Renjun in sight, so he picked his best bet for ‘direction opposite from where they came from’ and started wandering.
His head swiveled back and forth as he took in the decor in passing. There were pieces of art littered throughout the castle obscured by dust and shadow. Jaemin felt confronted by his perception of Renjun’s life here and what it really looked like.
Surely it wasn’t a great marker for his health to be feeling so many pangs in his chest in one night.
The clinks brought Jaemin to the kitchen. It was the most well-lit room they’d been in yet, illuminated by five whole candles. Renjun was at a counter in front of a window (with glass this time), his back to Jaemin.
Jaemin grinned and moved closer, slippers dulling his footsteps.
“Not trying to sneak up on me, are we?” Renjun asked mildly, not turning around.
He paused in his tracks, squared his shoulders.
“Who, me? No, no sneaking around here,” he said. He sidled up to Renjun’s side, innocently placing his hand right next to where Renjun’s rested on the counter (the ruffles near the end of his sleeve did not aid him in his quest for subtlety).
Renjun gave him a long side-eye.
“Heightened senses aside, your efforts would be fruitless. I’m too aware of you at the moment. Hardly ever is there anyone else here.”
Who allowed Renjun to cut apple slices directly on what looked like a porcelain plate, Jaemin didn’t know. He just knew that trying it back home would incite a lot of yelling and throwing. Except, well, there was no one around to yell or throw things at Renjun, was there?
He tried not to sigh.
“‘Hardly ever’?” Jaemin asked, shifting to post his elbow on the counter and his head on his fist.
Renjun’s grip on the knife loosened, then tightened.
Loosened and tightened.
“You did hear the part where I’m a vampire, yes?”
“Yes,” said Jaemin, because that question did not suffice as an answer to his question.
The sound of the rain hitting the glass of the window was interrupted by a particularly loud clap of thunder.
Renjun let the tip of his knife rest on the plate, handle almost slipping from his grip entirely as he turned to face Jaemin.
“You... are really not from around here, then?”
He asked quietly. Cautiously.
“Nope,” Jaemin popped his lips.
“And… you’re asking about me because you... genuinely want to know?” His face scrunched up in disbelief. “Even with the rather impolite welcome you received?”
“Mhm,” he hummed back, tapping his nails rhythmically against the counter. “What’s the story? I’d like to hear it.”
Renjun glanced at his fingers then shook his head.
(He was tired. When he really let himself think, why he’d even marked his place in his book and opened the door, it came down to the fact that he was tired.
Tired of being by himself and tired of this fear of others that has sat under his skin for so long. If this Jaemin decided to become a nuisance later on, he would just have to deal with it then, but right then, Renjun believed him. He could afford some conversation.
What was one night?)
Renjun picked the knife up, holding it over the next section of apple.
“This is my family’s castle,” he started. “We are nobility—”
Renjun stood straighter.
“We are coven.”
“The people of the village… they were scared of us, even though we never hid what we were. We practiced brink-feeding. ‘Understand how much you can take before it’s gone forever’,” he said.
He glanced at Jaemin, before getting back to the apples.
“There was a small group within them that understood us better than the others, taking turns volunteering for us to feed from them. Humans are funny.”
Renjun breathed what might have been a laugh.
“My brother, Jaehyun, fell in love with one of them. Those are his clothes, actually. It came about that there was a lot of that going around—relations between us and them. Some of the others in the village didn’t take too kindly to it when they found out. After that…” Renjun trailed off.
Jaemin tentatively dropped his hand on Renjun’s forearm. Renjun bristled under him. Neither of them moved.
“How much do you care to hear?” Renjun asked, looking at his plate still. “The whole thing is long. And sad.”
Jaemin gave his arm a pat before retracting his hand.
“As much as you care to tell, Mister Count.”
This elicited an eyeroll, disrupting the heaviness.
“Renjun is fine. Jaemin, yes?”
“That’s my name—”
“Apple?” Renjun held up a slice.
“—but you can call me whatever you want.” Jaemin winked and left his mouth open for a bite.
Renjun gave him a flat look, shut one eye for accuracy, and tossed the apple slice into Jaemin’s mouth.
Surprise or the apple, Jaemin isn’t sure which one he choked on first, but something hit the back of his throat. He thumped his chest and coughed, clearing his airway easily enough.
He took care to chew the apple all the way through before swallowing for real.
Renjun stood motionless, hand still in the air from where he threw the apple. His shoulders shook slightly as he tried not to laugh, eyes falling shut with the effort.
(Eventually, he had to put both hands on the counter, lean forward, and let it out because Jaemin was just staring at him like a confused wet dog and—wow—he hasn’t laughed like this since—)
“They did terrible things to Jaehyun’s lover, but Jaehyun found out and they managed to run away together,” Renjun continued, struggling to talk through his last bouts of laughter, “There was an ambush. Our parents, three of my siblings, and forty-six villagers didn’t make it out.” He chuckled weakly and wiped an unshed tear out of his eye. “Whoever was left wreaked havoc or fled. Sicheng and Hyejoo and I were the most… vindictive. Since then, it’s just been me. I get to stay in my big empty castle and the village lays waste on my family’s name as if they were not the first to spill blood. Heh.”
He smiled, a rueful thing, and held out another slice for Jaemin.
And Jaemin hadn’t known any of that, hadn’t been meant to. So it was now that Jaemin tried to wrap his head around the loss Renjun has been through, the pain. Renjun who valued the opinion of his horse, and still opened the door after the horrors he went through. Renjun who would one day— well.
Renjun fed him the piece he was holding and laughed again. Jaemin didn’t ask why.
“I would say so,” he said. He brought a slice to his own lips before wrinkling his nose at it and putting it back on the plate.
“You don’t eat human food?”
“Hm. Here would go a nice joke about eating humans for food, but I believe that would be more confusing for you than humorous.”
“Why, thank you for your consideration.” Jaemin keeled over in an exaggerated bow, hand extended and everything. (Belatedly, he realized that was more of a may I have this dance gesture, but he let it be. It was fine. Nothing wrong with a little dancin’.)
Renjun bowed his head sagely in return, a childish giggle tumbling out of him. He cut it off and blinked owlishly, taken aback. Clearing his throat, he tried to iron out his face and get back to the discussion.
“I’m capable of eating human food but it does not nourish or pleasure me. Raw flesh, maybe, but it would be as enjoyable for me as it would for you, I think. Terribly chewy for what I really want from it.”
Renjun mouthed blood at Jaemin as if that wasn’t the one thing he knew about vampires.
Regardless, Jaemin (ignoring how Renjun saying the words pleasure me threatened to loop in his brain) put on a shocked face.
What could he say? He was amused. Intrigued, too.
“Then what do you eat? If you’re alright with me asking.”
Renjun set down his knife and picked the plate of apple slices up.
“Will Duck like this?”
Jaemin blinked at the subject change.
“She sure would,” he said, somehow not dying of fondness from the realization that this whole time Renjun was preparing a snack for his horse.
“A quick trip to the stables, then,” he said. Renjun set off and Jaemin followed.
He faltered mid-step next to a big pantry door, turning to face Jaemin.
“There’s about two villagers that still brave the journey to see me every once in a while. Only one, really, it’s been years since Jisung has been able to make the trip. When things get dire,” Renjun tapped the door. “My mother had a habit of preserving whatever extra blood she was allowed from the volunteers in glass jars.”
Jaemin thought of that one time he and Chenle had stumbled upon the aftermath of a bad brawl in a town they were passing through, presumably days after the fact. One of the dead had a big slash on her arm and when they moved it the blood on top had kind of just sloshed off. Jaemin can’t say he ever thought of having that in his mouth, but now his imagination apparently had nothing better to do.
“Is it, uh...” salty, pleasant, tasty, filling, other adjectives that could describe the blood-drinking experience, he clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth to ward off thoughts about texture, “the same?”
“Mother added a natural anticoagulant, effective, but not a permanent solution. The older samples do tend to get—”
Renjun cringed. “Something like that.”
They started walking again. Jaemin noticed Renjun looked a little taller, carrying a different energy about him than before. He caught Jaemin giving him a once-over and a corner of his mouth quirked up, just shy of a smirk.
Curious, cautiously curious.
“Are you not disturbed? By any of this? I can’t help but feel this is the most I’ve spoken about myself to anyone,” his voice drifted off as he reflected on that. “Perhaps ever. Oh, my.”
Renjun opened the next door they came across with one hand. They were immediately greeted by a gust of wind and Jaemin’s sense of where they were was completely fucked because how were they already outside.
“No. This is nice,” he said with a half-smile, rubbing at his arms to ward off the chilled air. Fortunately, the breezeway provided cover from the rain.
Renjun frowned to himself. Jaemin pushed at his arm, sending him a little closer to a pillar than he intended. “I mean it. I like listening to you. I might not have all the context, but I like it. And I asked, remember?”
“Because I wanted to.”
Renjun fell right back in step with Jaemin, haltingly nudging him back with an elbow. Jaemin’s head dipped back when he laughed and Renjun ducked his own to hide whatever his face was doing. He clamped his mouth shut, forgetting his teeth.
(Renjun jumped, tongue running under the top one to soothe the nick he’d made. Hell, that hadn’t happened since he was a fledgling.)
“You good there?” Jaemin asked.
“Quiet,” Renjun quipped, opening a side entrance into the stables.
“Wakey wakey, Duck!” Jaemin called out.
Duck’s head bobbed up from inside one of the stalls, disaffected as always.
Renjun offered Jaemin the plate, watching Duck closely as she clopped her way over.
“You can go ahead,” Jaemin said, already perching himself on the side of a stall.
And they did that for a bit, Jaemin sitting while Renjun quietly handed Duck apple slices and stroked her face. (He maybe had to chant to himself that he was not jealous of his horse, he was not jealous of his horse, he was not—)
Despite the half-asleep state the faint pattering of rain and Renjun’s murmurs wanted to lull him into, it wasn’t too long before the silence between them had Jaemin squirming in his seat.
“You ride?” he asked after glances from both Renjun and Duck. Surely, a safe question, since Renjun can handle Duck as well as he does and they’re in a stabl— an… empty… an empty stable, oh goddamn.
A nod. “We had a couple of horses, before. My parents thought they were good luck, and it kept the children entertained. They made good friends.” Duck took another slice from his hand, bumping her nose back into it after (managing to shoot a judgemental look Jaemin’s way without Renjun seeing).
He gave a short cough, carefully stroked the side of her neck. “I lost track of them when things went astray around here. Must have taken their luck with them.”
Jaemin watched Renjun feed Duck the rest of the plate, getting worked up until another clap of thunder shook the sky and one of the torches flickered out.
That was enough.
Yes, he just got here, but time was ticking and Renjun hadn’t had hardly an acceptable amount of fun.
“Listen, I think there’s been a healthy amount of cotha– casart– uh, cathrosis–”
“–catharsis, thank you, and don’t get me wrong—big fan, nothing better, I asked, did I not?—but this old cowboy’s heart can only take so much, so I’m thinking we’ll leave Duck so she can go to sleep—only the moon knows why she won’t doze off when people are watching—and you and I are going back inside, so I can repay your hospitality in good times!” Jaemin gasped for breath and held his hand out once again to a bemused Renjun. (Duck, if possible, rolled her eyes.)
“Offered,” Renjun murmured.
“Wanted,” he said, not missing a beat.
Renjun’s eyes flitted to his outstretched hand and Jaemin wiggled his fingers. He laughed in disbelief.
“I don’t even know you.”
“Come on,” said Jaemin, carefully. “What’s one night?”
That did… something, he supposed, because Renjun’s hand twitched forward and that was good enough for Jaemin.
He grabbed it and lugged them both out of the stables, shouting a goodnight, Duck! over his shoulder.
Jaemin really only knew to go back through the breezeway, but he figured he’d start picking directions and push forward until Renjun redirected or stopped him.
“Where are you going?” Renjun blurted, confused and on the edge of giddy. The sound of their feet pounding on the ground echoed slightly in the breezeway. He didn’t let go of Jaemin’s hand.
“Ahhhh, I dunno! What’s something you do to pass the time around here?” Jaemin panted, still pulling him inside. “Like, for fun?”
Behind him, Renjun inhaled to respond but stopped short.
(Fun? Fun. Well. Well, he— he… fun?)
Jaemin careened to a halt, the two of them stumbling into each other somewhere past the kitchen, yet not considerably far from where they came in. He whipped around.
“Mister Huang Count Renjun!” he gasped, tipping over into Renjun’s space, hand subconsciously curling up around his wrist to keep him close. “Did I just hear you repeat the word fun to yourself like the name of a friend long gone and almost forgotten?”
This was responded to with an expression of someone betrayed by their own brain-to-mouth filter and a comment about weak similes.
“Unacceptable,” Jaemin said, very seriously.
Renjun quirked an eyebrow at him and Jaemin felt dizzy thinking about how that face had been a mask just earlier that night, carefully blank, purposefully uninviting. Now, that eyebrow posed a hint of a challenge, a taste for mischief. It felt so indisputably, deliciously right.
“I would say it’s been a while, but I’ve heard someone—” he poked Jaemin’s chest with the hand trapped between them “—is resting up from such talk.”
“Really, big fan—”
“That’s the one,” Jaemin winked, daring to squeeze Renjun’s hand. “But don’t worry, the old girl can take it.”
“Hm.” Renjun pursed his lips. “Compelling. But I must say I’m curious about these good times I was promised.”
“Then we’re back to fun.”
“We are, aren’t we,” Renjun said dryly. “Is your plan to have us run circles in conversation and my own castle, Mister Na?”
“Well,” Jaemin dawdled, “not anymore, no. I propose—”
He breathed an aha!, pleased.
“Mister Count! He jokes!”
“It’s not unheard of,” he sniffed. “Your proposal?”
“Hm? Ah, yes.” Jaemin wiggled his eyebrows and smoothed out his voice. “Show me upstairs?”
Renjun rolled his eyes.
“A tour? You’re asking for a–”
“A tour! Why, that’s your second best idea tonight! Let’s do it!” Jaemin exclaimed, nudging him forward as they started walking again.
There was quiet as Renjun navigated them to the stairs near the entrance. Jaemin tried desperately to build up another mental map, but ultimately gave up when they passed through a room with a total of five doors. Oh well.
“You’re not gonna ask what the first one was?” he prodded. Renjun had let go of his hand when they switched who was leading, so Jaemin pinched at his cloak to not lose him and also, just to see what happened.
Restless seemed to be his mode for the night.
“I know,” Renjun sighed. Jaemin opened his mouth but Renjun continued, “–what you will say the first one was.”
Oh, he knows, huh?
“Would that be because you agree?” he asked before satisfaction wired his mouth shut.
(Closing his book, opening the door.)
Renjun uttered another quiet but didn’t shake Jaemin’s hold on him.
They left it at that.
“Before. You said your heart was that of a cow...boy? What... is that.”
Second floor, off to a riveting start. And a better lit one, already a lantern in sight and they were only on their first turn past the stairs.
“Oh, just. Someone who works with cattle and horses. Back when I first moved into town I was looking for work and the ranch needed people on horseback, so it worked out quickly.”
He grinned, remembering the day he rode in, how they’d practically slapped a lasso into his hands.
“Do you still do that?” Renjun asked, giving him a curious look.
Jaemin shook himself out of that day.
“Not as often as I did then, I’ve picked up different things here and there. But,” he shrugged, “you don’t have to herd to be a cowboy, you know?”
Renjun’s face said he very much did not know.
“You could be a cowboy, I think,” he mused, squinting at Renjun who continued to not know much of anything he was saying. “We need to get you in a hat.”
Renjun in a hat.
A stupid smile broke through Jaemin’s face and Renjun looked slightly bewildered.
“A hat,” Jaemin sighed, nodding to himself.
Another thought struck him.
“Say ‘yeehaw’ for me?”
“I’m not sure that I will.”
“To better envision you as a cowboy, please.”
They walked in silence for a little more.
Jaemin hummed as seriously as he could.
“You have indulged me, for this, some would say you are a fool. I say, only with utmost sincerity, thank you, your majesty.”
“Okay, Jaemin,” Renjun sighed. “And, I am not royalty.”
“What!” Jaemin hopped for emphasis, the sound of his landing softened by the– ah yes, the slippers.
“Nobility, more like? I believe a generation or two before Mother and Father had royal blood—”
“—their own, Jaemin—”
“Sorry,” Jaemin clamped his lips together.
Renjun shook his head, not as quick to hide his mirth.
“We haven’t had any connections or responsibilities to the court since then,” he shrugged. “It’s just status. This castle certainly is not fit for royalty.”
“Huh,” Jaemin blinked. He certainly hadn’t guessed the… intricacies of that. Hell, what did he know about any luxury? Your Majesty’s or otherwise.
To him, the word ‘castle’ followed by ‘not fit for royalty’ made as much sense as clicking the heels of his boots together to turn a key.
“Is this different for your kings and queens?”
Jaemin snorted, kicking at the grout on the floor as they went.
“There ain’t no kings and queens. Our town has about three sheriffs, on a good day.”
Renjun tilted his head, confused. It dawned on Jaemin then that he knew more about Renjun’s people, by a lot, than the time he lived in. (One could refer to the castle thing.)
“They’re the law enforcement. Like,” he squinted as he racked his brain for anything he remembered from the two fairy tales he’d ever been told.
“Like… kn...” Renjun closed his mouth, contemplated Jaemin’s answer for a second, then nodded slowly. “I suppose?”
“Mm, yes, I also suppose. I’m supposing a whole lot, right now.”
“I can sense that,” Renjun replied.
“Very good, very sharp.”
A flickering dot in the corner of his eye drew his attention to the dim candlelight flickering away. Melted almost all the way to its base, sat in its fixture. They were in a hallway, left side a row of doors and the right home to only one.
“So, tour guide of mine, what’s this?”
Renjun scoffed but looked around before he answered.
“Second floor, West wing. This level is pretty miscellaneous as everyone was given a study and saw them promptly filled with anything and everything under the guise of being ‘reference material’ or ‘collectibles’. Some, like the ones we passed, are actual studies. Content depends on the primary occupant.”
“And yours?” Jaemin asked.
Renjun brushed the question off with a flick of his hand.
“More of an actual study-study. Quite ordinary.”
He thought before pointing at the door closest to them.
“Deep sea fossils,” next door, “classic and contemporary literature with some reverently problematic commentary,” next door, “stolen artifacts from Rome,” next door, “um, botany? Or herbology? I mix them up, but relative to that, and others.”
“Wow,” said Jaemin, eyebrows up. “And going through all this stuff isn’t your fun, by chance?”
Renjun wobbled his hand in the air, muttered an eh.
“Reminders of my family were difficult for a while. Some of them still are.” He looked at Jaemin and was quick to amend, “Not so much the studies. It helps that I’m not by myself. This is fine, rest assured.”
“Positive?” Jaemin asked, watching him carefully.
“Yes, yes, yes. Not to worry, you. We can pop into a couple, if you’d like? For… fun.”
He hummed excitedly, absentmindedly rubbing an edge of Renjun’s cloak between his fingers.
“If you were gonna ease me into it,” he said, “where would we start?”
A corner of Renjun’s mouth lifted immediately, sparing a glance at Jaemin’s hand and looking him up and down.
Extended wardrobe did not, in any way, prepare Jaemin for the sheer amount of clothes that lay before him.
Barring the open foyer, this was probably the largest room they’d been in yet, and it was filled to the brim with rows and rows of clothes.
Clothes on racks, on mannequins, in shelf displays. Clothes everywhere.
Clothes was almost an understatement, there were ensembles and costumes and the most magnificent pieces Jaemin had ever seen in his life.
“Oh, I know.”
Jaemin made a noise of some sort and Renjun laughed.
“I can’t remember who started it. Someone had an interest in cataloguing the fashion throughout the years, then someone ran out of space in their armoires, then there was a period of time where everyone got a kick out of asking the tailor for the most lavish garments they could, only to wear them once when we were invited somewhere and stash them here after.”
“This is… so much,” he said, head on a swivel again as different colors and silhouettes begged him for his focus.
Renjun breathed out slowly and walked further inside, touching certain pieces as he went.
Jaemin watched and tried not to step on anything expensive (i.e., everything?). There was more clothes in here than in the general store and boutique back home combined. And those supplied his whole town. Mind-boggling!
He stayed a couple of paces behind Renjun, indulging himself and feeling textures that stood out to him. Jaemin was no designer, but he appreciated the art.
He came to a stop in front of a section of dresses, impressed by one particular shade of red.
Careful not to jostle anything too much, he pulled it away from the other garments around it. The cut deviated from the ballroom gowns that tried to pour over his hand and steal him away. A little understated, if that was the right word.
Jaemin thought it was very nice, but something about the red was strikingly familiar for some reason, and he couldn’t put his finger on it. He pushed it back in, spotting something under the dress. He lifted the hem and was pleasantly surprised to find that’s where the shoes were.
They had funny-looking heels, elegant black lace and red ribbon being the main components of the boot. Jaemin turned it over, wondering at its structure—because anyone doing anything with lace was quite impressive, really.
Renjun’s footsteps and seeing the red of the ribbon and the dress match perfectly, Jaemin realized where he’d seen the shade before.
“Marvelous,” he whispered.
The footsteps stopped and something landed on Jaemin’s head, sent him ducking on instinct.
“Not a cowboy’s, I’m sure, but we have some rather extravagant headpieces.”
Jaemin straightened and registered the rather large brim taking up a good portion of his vision.
“A hat,” he grinned, stroking the edge of it before taking it off to admire it.
Extravagant was certainly an appropriate word, brim bent dramatically to hold all the ribbons and feathers that gave it its movement. It all held together while still allowing some give, pretty comfortable on the ol’ noggin.
“What was marvelous? The shoes?”
“This.” He fiddled with the ribbon. “Is the red eyes a shared trait for your—ah whatsit, ooh!—coven?”
Renjun took a step back, caught off guard.
“When have you ever seen—? Oh.”
Jaemin smiled, tucked the shoes back under the dress and stood up.
“It is… part of the transition, yes. Sooyoung—Joy she’d say to rich tourists when she went hunting—thought she was very clever for donning that number. Since it is unusual for humans to walk away alive when they see the red...” Renjun mused as Jaemin put the hat back on. “Things have taken quite a turn tonight.”
“Yessir! They sure have,” he said, turning and tilting his head like the models he remembered from the boutique’s adverts.
Renjun watched him quietly, thinking.
“Say, this is real nice.” Jaemin said, still admiring the weight of the hat. “Where’d you take this little lady?”
“Um. Out? Anywhere, really. Picnics? Those were good for hats. We can venture to another study, if you’d like.”
“Aha! Yes,” Jaemin acquiesced, reaching to take off the accessory. Renjun threw his hand forward, stopping him.
“You can... keep it on for the… tour. That is, if you want to, of course.”
Jaemin grinned wide, curtsying nice and low.
“Mister Count I would enjoy that a whole lot. However I do need you to join me, so I don’t feel overdressed.”
His hands dropped down to his sides, left eyebrow raising to scrutinize Jaemin, switching from accommodating to exasperated mighty fast.
“Is that so?”
“So it is.”
“I— you—” Renjun snorted then looked to give up entirely. “Fine. You choose.”
He quirked at that, not having taken much notice of any hats since he’d zeroed in on the dress. They were scattered about, on top of hanger hooks and mannequin necks. Jaemin stood on his toes to get a better look, knowing exactly which one he wanted as soon as he spotted it.
“This one,” he said, grunting as he stretched to grab it and gently drop it on Renjun’s head in one fell swoop.
Where Jaemin’s was a curving black figure stacked tall with decorations, Renjun’s hat was a smaller lush green almost-bonnet, embellishments creeping past and over the brim and satin sashes on either side of his head for tying under the chin.
“I like this, yes,” Jaemin hefted the words from deep in his gut, reaching for the sashes before Renjun could protest. He made a loose knot, raising his eyebrows at the result and nodding emphatically. “Mm. Mhm. S’real good.”
Renjun framed his face, cloak hanging off of this arms as he did his own pose.
“Two ladies out for tea?”
“A dream come true, tonight.”
“This way then, madam.” Renjun stuck out his elbow and Jaemin wore his best dignified face, looping their arms together the way he imagined anyone wearing such extravagance would. Extravagantly.
They went on popping in and out of studies like that (extravagantly) for what was probably a good couple of hours, hats slipping precariously on their heads as they tried to be the best tea ladies they could be despite periodically breaking down in peals of laughter.
Apparently, Renjun was as unfamiliar as Jaemin with the ‘pinkies up’ phenomenon that he’d somehow heard of as a convention of upper class etiquette, but it amused him greatly.
When Renjun, while in the deep sea fossils study, tried to explain what an ammonite was while holding the remains of one, expression neutral but fifth finger lifting up and away from the others, Jaemin cried a little bit.
The plant room was unexpectedly one of Jaemin’s favorite studies. Sure, most of the specimen had long shriveled up and died but the meticulously kept journals upon journals of drawings and records immortalized them at their liveliest. That isn’t to say the stolen artifacts weren’t impressive—in fact, this one was peculiar since it seems that the sibling in charge of this study, when unsuccessful in stealing whole statues, would settle on breaking off and stealing extremities such as noses and genitalia. Jaemin couldn’t judge though, inexplicably tempted to pocket a finger or two himself.
Eventually he asked about the side of the hallway with the one door to which Renjun explained was their library. And well, if libraries weren’t great for running around, his name wasn’t Jaemin Na.
And run around they did, Jaemin quickly discovering that not only was the library directly connected to the other two study hallways but it had levels to it.
“Not as dusty in here as I expected, if I’m bein’ honest,” he said, slightly out of breath from busting his ass to dash up two flights of stairs.
Renjun, who’d indulged Jaemin by giving chase, yet was clearly holding back, plopped down next to where he was strewn out on the landing.
“In its defense I actually occupy the library regularly. I think today is the first time the knitting study has seen movement in… decades.”
Just at the mention of it Jaemin felt the tickle in his throat come back with a vengeance, giving a small cough at the memory.
“The kites were pretty cool though and the… picture writing— hieroglyphics! The hieroglyphics. Aha, I remembered.” Jaemin wiggled his fingers in the general direction of Renjun’s brain.
“Mm, good job. The Egypt room doesn’t tend to disappoint.”
Jaemin patted his hat where it sat on his chest, having taken it off when he started sweating (just a little bit). His heartbeat sounded louder in his head than normal, perhaps bemoaning how hard it’s worked that day. Whiny. Swatting at the air, he hoped it knew there was still work to be done.
“Are you ti—?”
Ears pricking at the T-word, he jolted forward. “Sh!”
“If you say it, it might sink in.”
Already, heaviness teased at his limbs. Damn.
“And you are resisting, why?”
“We haven’t found it yet,” he whispered, shutting his eyes momentarily.
“Your—” he poked him in the chest, or tried to, his finger smarting like it hit shoulder instead, “—fun.”
Renjun huffed out a laugh, throwing a sash from his hat over his shoulder, ties having come loose of the knot a while back.
“I think… I got a good run in me yet,” said Jaemin. He breathed in deep then shot his eyes open and sat up.
“Walking is a perfectly respectable way to get around, if I may interject.”
“Well, tonight I say walking’s for rotten eggs, y’hear? For stinkies!”
“Don’t bring the stink with you if you catch up!” he hollered, catapulting over the ledge banister and making a precarious landing on the stairs. “Yikes.”
Renjun jumped to his feet, little hands splayed at his sides.
“If? If? The only ‘if’ here is in regards to whether or not you’ll collapse before you remember your way to an exit!”
Jaemin guffawed and picked up the pace, really hoping he didn’t actually break an ankle trying to make it down the stairs.
In a fun turn of events, he actually did manage to get out of the library before breaking something. In an annoying turn of events, when Jaemin looked over his shoulder Renjun was once again merely taking brisk steps to keep him in sight. In an almost embarrassing turn of events, Jaemin quickly found himself veering left. It’s what he got for adding tired and not paying attention to what’s in front of him on top of the fact that he’s never been able to run in a straight line, just in general.
If there was a little rat hiding under Jaemin’s hat, he’d imagine then to be the moment it would frantically pull at the strands of hair it controlled him with, the same way Jaemin would Duck’s reins if he needed her to careen to a stop.
Not sure why that concept came to mind, but he did his best, for the imaginary little rat; digging his heels down and windmilling his arms. From behind him, Renjun sounded a lot closer than Jaemin thought he was.
They collided—which, how would they, if Renjun wasn't at least power walking. Jaemin rests his case, thank you—into each other, then into the door that Jaemin had been trying to correct himself from running into.
One flurry of limbs later, they were somewhat balanced. Jaemin was holding onto Renjun’s wrist from when it appeared in the free space under his armpit and he thought he was about to tip over. He exhaled hard and turned around, tilting his head so his and Renjun’s hats didn’t upend each other.
“Were we running, Mister Count?” he taunted.
“No,” said Renjun, wrist still in Jaemin’s hand, withholding any and all information. Snippy.
“The stench...” Jaemin wrinkled his face and ignored Renjun’s dissent, eyes drifting as he did.
The hallway lantern was barely slipping light into the room, but Jaemin managed. Not one of the more eccentric studies, but there were chests and bookshelves and a lot of fancy chairs. In fact, most of the chairs were oriented to face the empty space the two of them were occupying.
Like an audience.
What the fuck.
“Is this a... performin’ room of some type?” he asked, trying really hard to not think about ghosts.
“What?” Renjun seemed to take stock of where they were for the first time also. His smile twitched. “Oh. No. Well, yes? This was Mother’s study. Some of my siblings played instruments, Mother and Father liked to gather us here and listen every once in a while.”
Renjun caught Jaemin’s look and shook his head.
“I don’t play, sorry. You?”
Jaemin remembered that one time he got absolutely wasted with his friends in the saloon and thought himself a sudden piano master—how no one has let him live it down since. He dreaded the day Renjun ever saw him do anything musically inclined, for multiple reasons.
“Ha. Uh, definitely not.”
Renjun nodded simply.
“I never learned. Didn’t have the patience my first hundred years and everyone stopped trying around then. I was too busy—”
He stopped. Jaemin cocked his head, waiting.
“Drawing,” Renjun said, a small smile on his face, “I sketched all day and night, when I got the penchant for it.”
His hand flexed in Jaemin’s as he raised his eyebrows conspiratorially.
“That was my fun.”
Jaemin beamed and tugged at one of the sashes resting on Renjun’s shoulders, knocking his hat down over his forehead.
“A friend long gone and almost forgotten, huh?”
Renjun rolled his eyes, taking the bonnet off completely.
“You truly enjoy being right.”
Jaemin took his own hat off, finally having something to hold to his chest (also the weight of it kept his head tipping to one side but he hadn’t mentioned it).
“What can I say? Happens so rarely. Gotta bask in it.”
It was supposed to be teasing, slightly disbelieving the way he’d been all night, yet Jaemin couldn’t help but feel like Renjun was looking at him differently.
“It doesn’t matter, though,” he murmured, eyes flitting all over Jaemin’s face.
“What do you mean?” Jaemin said.
“I haven’t thought about my art—my old fun—in what feels like a lifetime, but this– tonight has been the most fun I have had in a long time.”
“Oho,” Jaemin started, ready to say something about how flattering or be still heart of mine, but he found he couldn’t. Too busy melting. “I’m glad,” he said instead.
Impossibly (the hallway lantern had to have a dead man’s grip on the dwindling wick), Jaemin could swear he saw Renjun’s face more clearly. So new and yet so achingly familiar.
“You might be onto something,” he said. “It’s you and I that are fun. Maybe.”
“We are the good times?” Renjun mused.
Neither of them moved but the space between them felt like it was shrinking. Jaemin held his breath.
“Sometimes, I can’t help but feel like, you speak as if we’ve met before.”
Hair raised on the back of Jaemin’s neck. He squeezed Renjun’s hand once more, letting his fingers slip through his hold.
“Now that’d be something,” he said, smiling his best devilish smile, choking back a thousand words. “Also, I say it matters. Care to show me some of these drawings of yours?”
Renjun huffed. “If I can remember where they are… I suppose.”
“Okay. Let’s get diggin’.”
'Digging' wasn’t the exact word for what they ended up doing, Renjun trying to recall old stash spots he frequented and Jaemin trying to predict the location with his semi-coherent mental map. Thankfully, it didn’t take long since Renjun’s third guess ended up being right; a tucked away compartment in a bookshelf on the library’s first floor.
“There is a reading room I prefer for things like this, if you’d like to go through these there? It has a fireplace.”
It was almost like the word fireplace sent his soul tumbling out of his body and into the blistering heat from back home he never thought he’d miss.
“Oh, baby, I’m sold. I’d love to be there right now. The longer we’re not there the whinier I’m about to get.”
“Let us hurry then, lest that comes true,” Renjun said, picking all his pages up and fast walking towards the nearest staircase.
Jaemin’s legs were beginning to feel sore, all the damn stairs catching up to him. And the riding. And the walking.
Honestly, it had been a T-wording day.
So, Jaemin did his best. He paid attention when they reached the reading room, dusted off and lit the fireplace, and spread some of Renjun’s work over a table. He paid attention after he asked Renjun to tell him about his drawings, surprised that he actually went and did so. They weren’t Roman classics or hieroglyphics, Renjun said, moreso a pleasant pastime. Sketches of the castle and various places he had visited.
“...many of these are from the days we went to the conservatory, I’d almost forgotten about them,” Renjun said, trailing a hand over a stack of papers filled with life studies and pretty glass buildings. He spread them out, covering others they’d already looked at.
Along with images of plants—
“Did you do some of the drawings in the flower books? In the other study?”
“Botany books, dear. Oop— I— well, never mind that. Slip of the tongue. And not really. My brother, Kun, would ask for my help sometimes, but he poured himself into those books, eons more of an expert on them than I. No, not actual eons, Jaemin.”
He tried not to swoon too much at dear while Renjun flipped over a couple of the papers.
—a collection of faces stared back.
“Oh,” Renjun said softly.
He trailed a finger over a more defined one, in the bottom left corner of the middle page.
Jaemin propped his elbow on a clear spot along the table’s edge, his head on his fist. He watched quietly as Renjun dragged his fingertips across others, their noses and jaws, their temples and cheeks.
“Show me?” he asked.
Renjun looked over the papers some more, then nodded. He tapped a girl with pristine ringlets and a cheeky smile.
“My sister Viian. I have not seen her since the scatter. There’s been murmurs… of a woman that haunts the mountains East of here. I believe it’s her, for whatever reason. Madness or mischief, it could be either.”
He chuckled to himself and shifted closer to see who was drawn above her. The shaggiest hair of all of them and a smile that struck Jaemin as familiar.
“Yangyang. Found us as a human and someone turned him at some point. Maybe Sicheng.” His face fell slightly. “I’ve witnessed his death twice now.”
Tap. A woman wearing a bonnet much like Renjun’s, and gloves to match. The wrinkles in the satin carefully blended and pronounced.
“Song Qian. She didn’t stay with us often, business elsewhere, but a good sister to everyone.”
Tap, tap. Droopy lids and mischievous smiles.
“Jun and Minghao. They helped bring stuff back for the artifact room. The study wasn’t theirs originally, but they’ve probably contributed as much as Yuta did.”
Tap. Leering, dangerous, a rose’s thorn. Precious metal wires wrapped around her arms.
“Sooyoung. Even in the conservatory. You see the necklace? Obnoxious… maybe iconic, a little bit.”
Tap. A carefully crafted unassuming face. Warm appearance but something off in the eyes.
“Taeil. He did the commentary on texts, old and new. Incited quite a lot of rage with his practice, actually. I remember once, he struck a nerve with England, as in, collectively, and old George himself sent…”
Renjun’s voice began to fade.
In and out and in and right back out as Jaemin’s head felt heavier on his fist.
He didn’t want to miss anything Renjun was saying but he was toasty. His muscles pulsed the way they did at the end of a long working day. The soft drone of names leaving Renjun’s mouth and taps against the table worked to lull him to sleep.
Timing aside, not the worst place to do so.
“...Sicheng said it wasn’t a laughing matter but I could tell he was seconds away from a fit himself. We never did find the lady’s heel, until it turned up in the extended wardrobe about four decades later! A turn of events, indeed.”
He paused, focusing on Jaemin.
“Have I lost you, Mister Na?”
Jaemin perked up to the best of his ability.
“That’s dear to you,” he drawled. Then, eyebrows scrunched, he said, “Lose me? But I worked so hard to— ah.”
He rubbed his hands over his face.
“You might be right, Mister Count.”
“See, not so rare, that.”
“Oof,” said Jaemin, hand over his heart.
Renjun laughed and started sweeping the pages into neat stacks.
“Before you protest,” he waited for Jaemin’s mouth to close before continuing, “this has been a very wonderful time, hours of it, but you must rest. So let me be a good host and call it a night.”
Jaemin slumped back down in his heavily-embroidered chair. The fireplace crackled away, accompanied by the soft sound of papers being shuffled around.
Without realizing, he ended up drifting off for a bit, Renjun’s hand on his shoulder startling him awake.
“Sorry. I’ll take you to a room in a second.”
“Wha…? Tha’s alright. This… swanky cot’ll do just fine,” he pointed at said swanky cot. He’d been eyeing it since they got to the reading room, placed right in front of the fire for optimal toasting.
“Bless you,” Jaemin managed, chuckling sleepily.
“What? Never mind. Are you certain you can’t be convinced to sleep in a real bed? Blankets and all?”
“Fire… ‘s nature’s blanket.”
With that said, Jaemin heaved himself up from his ornate seat and dropped himself down on the equally ornate cot. The warmth of the fire enveloped him closer, like a nice, dry hug to end the night.
He leaned back, sighing as he sunk into it. Usually, he preferred his sleeping spots on the stiff side (packed dirt? Pretty comfy when you made indents in the right places) but Jaemin didn’t mind so much then. Maybe it was the company.
Renjun fidgeted nearby, apparently fighting his real, ingrained host instincts.
“Hey.” Jaemin beckoned for him to come closer.
When “closer” was, like, three steps Jaemin smacked his lips against his teeth, scooching over and patting the space he’d left. “Sit.”
Renjun stared at his hand where it lay on the upholstery.
Maybe it was the etiquette?
“Please,” he added.
Renjun eventually stopped shuffling, sitting down neatly in his allocated spot.
“Yes?” he asked, looking down at Jaemin.
Fire splashed light over his face, illuminating Renjun in a way that was reminiscent of home, of those great masterpieces in the sky.
“Just wanted t’say goodnight,” said Jaemin. His eyelids slipped shut, closing shop.
His mind drifted to Duck, for the first time in too long, probably. Oops. She was probably fine. Strong horse, tricky girl. The storm had stopped at some point, hopefully concentrated solely over that village tavern.
“Do you leave tomorrow?” Renjun whispered, sending any thoughts of Duck right back out the way they came.
Jaemin couldn’t pry his eyes back open for the life of him. He exhaled. Even if he could, what would he say? How much should he say?
“You never said how long you were travelling. Where to. Or where from, exactly,” said Renjun.
By some act of… whomever, Jaemin peeked from between his eyelids, space barely allowing him to see through his eyelashes.
He raised a sleep-heavy hand, fingers landing on Renjun’s cheek. He felt Renjun go very still for a moment before sighing out his jitters.
Renjun leaned closer as he trailed off.
“Do… vampires... sleep?”
He felt Renjun let out a different kind of sigh, the one Jaemin was used to.
“I— why—… no. I do not need to sleep the same way you do. Rest is nice though. Personally, I pretend to sleep. I’m pretty good at it, too.”
Jaemin smiled, eyes closing for what he knew would be the last time that night.
“You don’t say.”
He tapped Renjun’s cheek once more.
“We’ll see each other again, Renjun.”
“You sound very certain of it, Mister Na.”
Jaemin doesn’t remember responding. If he did, it survives only with Renjun.
The night had dwindled to its end, and finally, with the shadow of tomorrow’s door already tugging at his gut, he succumbed to the call of the moon.
There was no doubt in Renjun’s mind that this was the hottest he’d ever been. Trudging along under the sun’s might, in terrain he’d only read about, clutching a crumpled up note as hard as he could, Renjun felt his age-old brain cooking in his skull.
Daunting, the thought of how much information was lost with every step he’d taken in that big, dry expanse of land between the town and it’s train station. His cloak hood slipped off his head for what felt like the thousandth time, further stoking his irritation.
Was his black full-body cloak ideal hell-climate wear? No. No, it was not. But it was his dark, heat absorbing cloak or the vague sensation of his epidermis roasting away, which was not too far off from what his brain was going through. So maybe it wasn’t that bad an alternative, really. Right?
I hope you forgive my manners. And my omission of the truth.
Renjun’s fingers relaxed, already imagining the sweet, sweet second of relief he’d get upon shrugging off his cloak.
His heart gave its strongest thump in decades at the sight of his note on the ground. He scrambled to pick it up before the wind kicked it away.
He smoothed it out and read it over, before crumbling it up in a ball again as per usual.
Us meeting again—I am certain of it.
When Renjun slept—pretended to—he often did it so well he was the dead undead to the world. That is, he’s so far gone from his surroundings he misses things.
Whether it was that, or Jaemin not wanting to be found, Renjun had missed his departure.
It had been when he was staring at his once again empty stables that he realized he had missed his chance to say goodnight, good morning, goodbye.
That following day had been a flurry of confusion and a resurgence of his most bitter thoughts.
What did it mean, for Jaemin to leave without a word?
What light did that cast upon the night they’d spent together? When Renjun had let him in and been charmed by this stranger—this boy he’d known nothing about?
It had been when he was in the kitchen, contemplating feeding, that he noticed the folded piece of paper on the counter.
The note was something, but it evoked more questions than it provided answers. And, truthfully, Renjun had been inclined to call it a bluff. A joke. Proof that no human could resist toying with him, boasting their nonexistent sense of self-preservation.
Jaemin had been different. Despite all the conflicting thoughts running rampant in his head, Renjun felt this to be irrevocably true. So, he’d followed the note to this place and time. This unforgivingly sweltering, real-devil-beating-down-on-you place that had taken hours to pop up onto the horizon, and this time.
Now, finally in front of what he really hoped was the right door, Renjun hesitated.
You and I, we meet each other for the first time, at different times.
How the time part of it worked, Renjun didn’t know where to begin trying to understand. He just knew a handful of mornings after the note, he’d been pulled into the forest, witnessed a twinkle in the dead air—a star on earth—waiting for his touch, and he was here.
His cloak was draped over one shoulder and his face and hands ached from the sun, but his stomach wriggled at the thought of who would meet him from inside.
Renjun had walked the Earth for 224 years, yet he had the feeling his greatest adventure was barely beginning.
I won’t know you, the same way you didn’t know me—but you’ll have more time than I did. Or. Will?
Somewhere he couldn't quite see, around the side of the building where the shade lay hidden, a familiar snort sounded through the otherwise quiet town. Trying to get a glimpse of Duck caused his collar to shift, exposing the back of his neck to the blaring sunlight. He groaned and stepped closer to the door.
A hat sounded nice right about now.
Don’t worry though.
Renjun raised his fist—
I have a feeling you’ll leave me wanting more.