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“Run away with me, princess.” By now, Yeojin’s said this a million times. Tonight she means it. 

 

Her legs feel shaky, too weak to hold her, a tremor that sneaks into her voice. Of course, the thought scares her - it always does. Just her and Yerim, defenseless, on their own, hunted down by people they once thought their friends. Tonight, it fills her with something else too. Hope. Hope for freedom, their freedom, something she’s wished for a thousand times, the very thing she’s fighting for. And that single spark of hope is the only thing Yeojin needs to turn this dream into a reality. So it doesn’t matter how badly it scares her, shakes her to the very core, tonight she’s serious.

 

Yeojin knows all too well how the right-most railing comes loose with a simple tug. Under that, some bricks jut out of the wall with just enough space to step on. Right, left, right, stretch. Yeojin’s been climbing up and down this very wall for years to visit Yerim. All that practice would make the steps easier to teach. They could do this.

 

“Yeojin.” A single word, but it makes Yeojin wince. She hates whenever Yerim sounds like this - almost pitying. As if she still sees Yeojin as some child she has to protect.

 

Gripping the castle balcony’s railing, Yeojin steels herself. Forcing herself into a state of false calm so the words will ring true. She can’t do this without the other girl by her side. Running away is easy, and even surviving is doable. But living, finding someone to live for, they’ve only ever found that in each other. If acting confident will convince Yerim this is the right thing to do, that they can make it, she might as well try. Or else none of this is worth it.

 

She looks up at Yerim and stares her straight in the eyes. Right now everything around Yeojin is foggy, tears blurring her vision, everything except Yerim, who is clear and vivid. Yerim, who is standing in front of her and crying too.

 

Yerim sighs. She dabs at her eyes with the sleeves of her silk nightgown, laughing bitterly to herself. Yeojin struggles not to feel out of place in her mud-spattered undershirt. Being here always made her feel wrong, no matter how welcoming Yerim always was to her. 

 

Yerim takes a step closer, pushing the everpresent boundary between them. They still trust each other, sure, but being on opposite sides of war changes things. Changes people. There’s an unspoken rift between them that no amount of trust or love has been able to bridge. She places a hand on Yeojin’s shoulder, the weight heavy, almost like she’s pushing Yeojin down. Making her stay.

 

Yeojin knows what she’s going to say before the words leave her lips.  “Yeojin, you know we can’t--”

 

“We couldn’t,” Yeojin corrects.

 

Yeojin hates interrupting her but Yerim being uncharacteristically negative is something she could never handle. Not only is it a reminder of how this disgusting place has forced her to change, Yeojin knows any hesitance will mean they’ll stay here. Stuck. Maybe forever.

 

“Not before. But now, what are we staying for?” Yeojin lays her hand on top of Yerim’s, the tear-stained sleeve against her palm, weight on her injured shoulder getting heavy. “What are you staying for?”

 

Silence. It’s tense in a way they never are around each other.

 

“It’s getting worse out there.” Yeojin tears her eyes away, looking out past the walls to the near-desolate landscape she once called home. She doesn’t want to watch it all burn down. Not if she can help it. “With the drought ruining crops and everyone getting sick, the constant fighting, everything’s running out fast. They look here, see your family safe, warm, and fed… hatred fills their hearts, and I can’t blame them.” 

 

They rarely talk about the outside world, the revolts, all of it. They need the rare time they have to themselves to stay untainted. But Yeojin needs her to know how urgent this is. Needs her to know this is a now or never situation.

 

“I can’t protect you for much longer.” Yeojin’s nails tap at the railing, her other hand gripping over Yerim’s. “I don’t know how long it’ll take for them to get through the barricade, but they will, and fast.”

 

“I know.” Dejected and hollow. Words Yeojin never thought she’d have to use to describe Yerim.

 

Yeojin turns to face her, heart clenching in her chest upon seeing Yerim’s eyes focused at the ground below. She’s biting her lower lip, teeth close to piercing through. A bad habit turned sinister - Yerim punishing herself for tragedies far beyond her control. It shows that Yerim thinks she deserves it, and that tears Yeojin apart.

 

“Hey, hey.” One step, two. Yeojin collects Yerim in her arms, calloused fingers scraping silk. She holds her tight, arms wrapped around Yerim’s shaking shoulders, hand rubbing in circles meant to soothe. The night air is biting, but something tells her Yerim’s shivering isn’t just from the cold. “Don’t ever think that this is your fault. They don’t know you. If they did, how could they ever hate you?”

 

A small voice. “They’re right to hate me.” The words flow out in a heavy sigh, breathed into Yeojin’s shoulder as Yerim hides her face there. Ashamed. Guilty. Deserving of hatred.

 

You’re so kind , Yeojin wants to say. So beautiful and gracious. Caring to a fault. She wants to tell her that if they knew her like Yeojin did, they fall. Like Yeojin did. They’d choose to fight for her instead, not against. Like Yeojin is.

 

“The fact that you want to stay proves they’re wrong. This place is killing you. But you still want to become queen, so that one day you can fix this. Make things better for everyone.” Yeojin’s words are steady, calm. Yeojin’s glad her voice doesn’t betray her desperation for Yerim to know how great she is, how deserving of love and praise. “They don’t know that. They’d execute you and everyone else here before you’d even have the chance to speak. And don’t ever say you’d deserve that.”

 

“But I can’t make things better this time,” Yerim responds, “can I?”

 

Yeojin doesn’t answer. Doesn’t have to. They both know the answer.

 

“So, what’s the plan now, princess?” Yeojin asks. “I’d stay here if you asked. Whatever you want.”

 

“You wouldn’t leave without me?” As if that’s even a choice. “Even if there’s nothing here for you?”

 

Yeojin pulls away from the embrace, needing Yerim to look her in the eyes and see how genuine her next words are. Her hands grip at Yerim’s sleeves. “There’s nothing without you.” Even Yeojin’s surprised with how honest her answer is.

 

With the stars and moon behind Yerim, she’s illuminated in the most beautiful way. Even without her tiara and the fancy dresses she always wears, Yerim glows. To Yeojin, she always does. She’s radiant and gorgeous and seeing her lights up Yeojin’s days no matter what. And there’s no way the princess could ever see her, some scruffy peasant, in the same way.

 

Just like every time she’s ever wanted to kiss her, Yeojin steps back. Lets go.

 

Clearing her throat, Yeojin shoos all her bubbling feelings and swirling thoughts away. “If you need to stay, we’ll figure it out. Up to you.”

 

“Need,” Yerim repeats. She stills, contemplating the word for a while. Finally her head tilts down and her eyes meets Yeojin’s. Her gaze softens, smile widening. Yeojin can’t help how her breath hitched when Yerim grabs her hand and interlocks their fingers. “What if we could be everything we need?”

 

“Are you sure?”

 

Yerim looks at Yeojin, really looks at her, maybe for the first time. She knows she doesn’t need anything else. She presses a kiss to the corner of Yeojin’s mouth and whispers.

 

“Let’s go.”