Jaemin does not remember a time without Jeno.
He’s been told that Jeno was assigned to him even before he was born, that the newly birthed son of the king’s captain of the guard had been handed over to the royal family to be Jaemin’s before Jaemin had even breathed a breath. That they shared a crib together as infants so that the nursemaids could better take care of them together. That they have been inseparable since the beginning of their time together.
At five years old, they run around the palace gardens together, ducking in and out of flower beds and tumbling over and under precisely pruned bushes. Today, they are running from a dragon, intent on eating their heads. Jaemin laughs, high and breathless as Jeno boosts him up into the fig tree at the far end of the garden next to the wall.
“Jeno,” Jaemin calls—demands—once he’s perched safely in the tree’s branches. He extends a small, pudgy hand for his best friend. “Hurry, or the dragon will catch you.”
Jeno offers him a smile. It scrunches up his entire face, makes his wide, guileless eyes disappear into curved crescent moons. Jaemin has looked at himself in the looking glass many times trying to emulate Jeno’s smile, but all his reflection shows him are crooked little teeth and rosy cheeks.
“You go,” Jeno says. From the cinched belt at his waist he draws his flat wooden sword and brandishes it in the air. “I’ll defeat the dragon!”
Jaemin huffs and wiggles on his branch. “I want to help,” he says. His own sword lays forgotten somewhere in the grass, but he’s got his slingshot still. Carefully, Jaemin plucks a growing fig from the tree and fits it in the pocket and aims it at an imaginary foe. “I’ll get it in the eye and when it can’t see, you can stab it.”
Jeno looks at him consideringly. “You don’t have to,” he says finally. “I have to protect you.”
At age five, Jaemin doesn’t understand why this is. What is there for Jeno to protect him from within the castle walls? The nursemaids that chase after them when they refuse to be bathed in the evenings? The chefs when they steal butter tarts and mince meat pies before afternoon tea?
No, there is nothing within the castle walls that Jaemin needs protecting from.
Jeno turns his back to Jaemin before Jaemin can reply. He holds his sword in front of himself, mimicking the actions of the soldiers they watch at the training grounds. Jaemin casts his gaze out into the garden. There is no one there, but Jaemin can imagine a hulking dragon, rising above the trees. He knows Jeno can see it, too, when Jeno yells out a battle cry and dashes off into the depths of the garden.
With a huff, Jaemin tucks the slingshot into his belt and the unripened fig into his pocket before scrambling higher up into the fig tree. He can’t get a clear shot from where he is; he’ll have to find a sturdy branch that extends out past the foliage.
The branches are gnarled and rough against Jaemin’s delicate hands, but he doesn’t mind the scrapes. Jeno is sure to have battle scars from this fight and Jaemin hates to be left out. He circles the tree, climbing higher with each pass, until he finds a branch that extends out from the densest part of the foliage. With little care, Jaemin crawls out upon it, brushing at leaves and unripened figs as he goes.
He bursts from the greenery with a gasp, clinging to the branch as he squints through the sunlight. Jeno is nowhere to be seen, but a more interesting challenge has arisen in front of Jaemin.
The castle wall looms before him, though at the height he’s perched at, Jaemin finds it’s not so daunting anymore. He’s about level with the top of it now, the branch he’s on extending over the side of the wall and outside the castle grounds. Curiosity burns at Jaemin, and before he can think better of it, he crawls over the branch and pulls himself onto the top of the wall.
He can see the entirety of the garden from this vantage point, from the rose bushes that his mother so diligently tends to, to the fruit trees that will bloom all through the summer and autumn months. There’s rustling amongst the sunflowers that Jaemin takes to be Jeno, the tall yellow blooms swaying as they’re disrupted.
Seeing the garden is nice, but Jaemin knows this garden like the back of his hand. There is nothing in it he has not seen, no stone he has not overturned in the pursuit of a new adventure. What is more interesting, however, is what lays on the other side of the wall.
At first glance, there is nothing. Just stretches of grass that extend in all directions. In the distance, Jaemin thinks he can make out what must be farmers’ fields, littered with small buildings. He wonders if these buildings are storage huts, or the homes of the people who tend the fields. They look so small; too small to house people.
If he turns his head, he can watch the farmland and grass turn to dust and dirt, nature giving way to industry. Here, he can begin to see the rise of buildings clustered together, the edges of the Capital that Jaemin can see from the windows in the north tower.
The bottom of the wall is a long drop from where Jaemin is perched, too far down for a child to drop, but the branch of the fig tree extends over the wall. Really, all they’d need to do is tie a rope around the branch—
Jaemin turns too quickly, his perch on the wall disturbed by the surprise of Jeno sneaking up on him. He scrambles for a grip on something—anything—but before he knows it, he’s toppling off the wall and back into the garden, the view of the kingdom disappearing in a flash.
The ground rushes up to meet him, but before Jaemin can brace himself, something is careening into him, making him yelp. He hits the ground with a thud, and only after a moment does he realize that the impact has been cushioned. Jeno is hugging him tightly, and though Jaemin’s whole body still spasms with pain, he’s old enough to know that Jeno probably saved him from a less fortunate fate.
“Are you okay?” Jeno whispers. They’re lying in the shade of the fig tree, fruit and leaves littering the ground from where Jaemin had been climbing amongst its branches.
Jaemin opens his mouth, but all that escapes is a pained whimper as his back spasms. “Hurts, Jeno,” he gasps. Jeno frowns. His pretty smile is gone, the dragon from their imaginations long forgotten.
Carefully, Jeno untangles himself from Jaemin and rests him amongst the soft grass. He smooths Jaemin’s hair back from his forehead, the same way Jaemin’s mother does on occasion when she puts him to bed. “I’ll go get a nurse,” he says, quiet and serious in a way Jaemin’s never heard before. It makes Jeno seem older than the five years he’s lived, makes him sound more grown up. Jaemin shivers but reaches out and grabs Jeno’s wrist before he can leave.
“Jeno,” he says through gritted teeth. His back is really starting to hurt now. “You can’t tell anyone I fell off the wall.” Though he is young, Jaemin knows what will happen if it’s found out how Jaemin hurt himself. They will cut down the fig tree and Jaemin’s chance at seeing what’s beyond the castle will be dashed. “Promise me you won’t tell.”
Jeno regards him with dark, curious eyes. Later, Jaemin will tell him about the promise of freedom, about the opportunity that lies like low-bearing fruit for them to take. Now, though, Jaemin needs attending to.
“Okay,” Jeno says. He twists his wrist in Jaemin’s grip until they are holding hands. Jeno squeezes their fingers together, hard enough that for a moment Jaemin forgets how much pain he’s in. “Okay.”
And then Jeno’s gone, running back towards the castle while Jaemin sits under the fig tree, imagining what life beyond the castle is like to distract from how badly his back hurts.
At age 11, Jaemin is a well-seasoned veteran of climbing over the garden wall.
After that first fateful day in the garden and four weeks of bed rest, Jaemin had taken Jeno back to the fig tree and had told him about how they could possibly climb over the wall and see what's on the other side.
Jeno hadn't asked why. He had not questioned Jaemin's motives. He'd simply asked, "Will your back be okay?"
Since that fall from the top of the wall, Jaemin's back has given him brief spasms of pain. They're not enough to hinder his everyday life, but when he'd realized how severe they could be, Jaemin had known his life as a prince that would race into battle for the good of his people was over. He no longer had the mobility required for sword fighting, which shamed him to no end.
He still has Jeno, though.
Today, six years after that first glimpse of freedom, Jaemin has dragged Jeno out to the market in town that's closest to the castle gates. They're dressed in plain clothing, well-worn shirts and pants that they'd borrowed from one of the squires and a kitchen boy. Jeno has a length of rope wrapped around his waist, the hefty rock it's tied to stuffed into his pocket. It's their ticket home, back over the wall.
Jaemin sifts through a pile of handmade trinkets, cheap costume jewelry that pales in comparison to the crown jewels that Jaemin wears for important functions.
"What do you think of this, Jen?" Jaemin asks, holding up a necklace. It's simple: oxidized silver that shines darkly in the summer sun. At the end of the chain hangs a simple piece of blue beach glass, encased in dark wire.
Jeno regards it carefully with a critical eye. Finally, he says, "I think you have prettier things in your jewelry box already." Polite but honest. Jaemin appreciates that, even at a young age.
“The glass was picked from the beaches on our eastern shores,” the seller says kindly, hopefully. She’s young, reminds Jaemin of the kitchen girls that his new friend Renjun spends all days with as he kneads bread with his father, the head baker.
“The eastern shores are not well thought of, ma’am,” Jeno says warningly, distracting Jaemin. He plucks the necklace from Jaemin’s hand and puts it gently back on the table. Jaemin grins at him.
“People are afraid of the magic that lies beyond the waves of our kingdom,” the seller replies. Her voice has taken on a hardened edge. “The shells and beach glass that we pick up there for our goods are infused with the remnants of power that has long been banished from here.”
Jaemin feels his palms itch. Magic is a forbidden topic in the castle, but outside in the Capital itself, he’s come to learn that the commoners love to whisper about it. They love to talk about how it would make the mundane chores in their life easier: self-stirring spoons that could cook a meal over a hot stove while mothers tend to their children; clothes that would run themselves along the washboard; carts that would wheel themselves and coins that would stack in neat, easy to count piles.
Jaemin knows that there are more sinister applications to magic, though—that not all spells are for the convenience of the people. Magic is outlawed in their kingdom and many others for a reason.
But the lands beyond their eastern shores have long been practitioners of the fantastical arts, and even if the owner of this particular stall is spinning tales in order to sell them a trinket, Jaemin wouldn’t be surprised if there’s some truth to the magical properties of the goods that can be found washed up along the beaches to the east.
“We’ll think about it, thank you,” he says diplomatically, ducking his head. He takes Jeno’s hand and leads him away, down the market until they find their favourite baker and his exceptional hand pies. Jaemin buys a venison pie for Jeno and a raspberry one for himself.
“You weren’t seriously considering buying that necklace, were you?” Jeno asks as they wander through the market, hands still clasped together. He tears into his pie delicately. “You know what they say about magic, Jaem.”
Jaemin knows what his father—the king—says about magic, and he knows what their teacher says about magic. He knows what the law says and what the court says, but he also hears what the people say, too. Even though he’s 11, Jaemin is smart enough to know that one day, they will be his people.
“I thought it was pretty,” Jaemin says honestly, because he did. He thought that before the seller even told him about where it was from. “I liked its simplicity. I can’t wear anything from my jewelry box for everyday things like lessons or spending time in the kitchen with Renjun or coming here. I just wanted something nice to wear all the time.”
Jeno looks at him thoughtfully, like he’d never considered Jaemin might want to wear jewelry outside of necessary special occasions. Jaemin can forgive him, though; Jeno’s just started his combat training and he often comes back to their room sweaty and tired and reciting all sorts of nonsense like the order in which to put on armour or the steps to a particular training pattern the swordmaster has taught him. He’s likely never thought of the appeal of wearing jewelry just to wear it.
They spend another hour wandering around the market before Jeno deems it’s time to return to the castle.
“Can I meet you at the fig tree?” he asks, twisting his hands nervously in the rope tied around his waist. “I want to run back and get another pie to take back. I want to see if Renjun can replicate it.”
“And put poor Mr. Pettersson out of work?” Jaemin asks with a smirk, but he dutifully hands Jeno a few coins and strolls back towards the castle.
They can’t walk right through the front gates, obviously. Jaemin takes a meandering path that leads him off towards the fields he had seen in the distance that first day he’d sat across the wall. He keeps his eyes trained on the thick-cut limestone wedges until he spots the hanging branch of their fig tree. Under its shade, Jaemin waits for Jeno.
He doesn’t have to wait very long. From his vantage point, Jaemin can watch Jeno amble up the road, sun shining off his soft black hair. He looks like a farmer’s boy, like an apprentice shirking his duties for the day. It’s not far off from reality, but Jaemin allows himself a moment to wonder what it would be like if they weren’t born into the roles that they were.
If Jeno wasn’t born and immediately promised to the child growing in the queen. If Jaemin hadn’t been born the crown prince of the kingdom. What if, what if, what if.
“Where’s your pie?” Jaemin asks when Jeno finally stops beside him to untie the rope from around his waist, tugging the rock out of his pocket. “You can’t show it to Renjun if you’ve already eaten it.”
Jeno just laughs and nudges Jaemin back. He swings the rope a couple times before arching it high into the air. It loops around the fig tree, the rock weighing it down so that it wraps itself around a couple of times. Jeno tugs on the rope before gesturing to Jaemin to shimmy his way up.
Once they’re back in the garden, the rope safely stowed in a hollow in the fig tree hidden by the foliage, Jeno reaches into his pocket and wordlessly hands Jaemin a small bundle of cloth. Curious, Jaemin opens the folds.
Inside is a necklace: dark black cord wrapped around an equally inky stone. There’s just a hint of gold wire to tie the two together. Jaemin’s fingers dance over each part of the necklace.
“The seller said that it’s a stone meant for protection,” Jeno says quietly. She wouldn’t say how it will help you, but I thought that if there was magic infused in it still, this would be the most helpful.”
Something stirs in Jaemin’s low ribs, a soft fluttering feeling. Jeno is sworn to protect Jaemin, will always be by his side no matter what, but Jaemin appreciates this gift nonetheless. It means that Jeno wants him to be safe always, even in the brief moments that they are apart and Jeno cannot keep an eye on him. It means that Jeno is always thinking of him.
“Thank you,” Jaemin says as he drapes the necklace over his head, tucking it beneath his simple cotton shirt. He means for more than the gift, too. It’s a thank you for entertaining Jaemin’s interest in magic, no matter how forbidden it may be.
“Of course,” Jeno says easily. “Now, come on. We have to get changed before anyone wonders why we’re wandering around in Rejun and Mark’s clothes.”
He takes Jaemin’s hand, squeezes lightly as he leads the way back through the garden towards the castle. Jaemin feels like he’s soaring.
It does not surprise anyone in the castle how close Jaemin and Jeno are. They spend every minute of the day revolving around each other, and as they grow older, their bond only seems to grow stronger—as Jaemin falls into more royal duties, as Jeno’s swordsmanship grows more precise and his shoulders broaden. People eventually stop viewing them as endearing little boys running around under everyone’s feet and more for what they are: the crown prince and his personal guard.
Jaemin rests his hands daintily over the arms of his chair as he sits through another meeting with his father and their royal advisors. Over his shoulder, Jeno looms, close enough that he can reach out and grab Jaemin from harm’s way, but too far away for Jaemin to feel the heat of Jeno’s body. Jaemin resists the urge to sigh; he wishes he were back in bed, curled under a blanket with Jeno, dozing easily in a patch of sunlight.
At almost-16, though, he is expected to sit in on meetings regarding how best to lead their kingdom into a prosperous summer season. The farmers are planting their crops; the fishermen are casting off from the docks; the shepherds are readying themselves for new life.
“There is, of course, your highness, another matter to attend to,” one advisor says as they begin to wrap up for the day. Jaemin can hardly wait; if he can’t go back to bed he’d like to spend the rest of the afternoon lying around in the library with Jeno on one of the plush couches near the back. No one ever ventures that far into the library, so they won’t see the way Jaemin stretches himself out over Jeno like a particularly lazy cat.
The thought makes Jaemin’s hands grip the arm rests. Behind him, he hears Jeno’s hand flex against the pommel of his sword.
“And what might that be?” Jaemin’s father asks, voice low and rich and rumbly easily throughout the room.
“The ball in honour of Prince Jaemin’s 16th birthday.”
For a split second, Jaemin is certain that his expression must falter, that the carefully crafted mask that he has trained himself to wear, slips. It’s not that he didn’t know they’d be hosting a ball for his birthday in August, but more like he hadn’t given it much thought. The purpose of the ball is to introduce him to society as not just the crown prince, but also as an eligible bachelor, and it’s been on a long time since Jaemin has thought about having a princess by his side.
He’s never needed one, since he has Jeno. The necklace of protection seems to warm against his skin under the layers of his finery.
“Ah, yes,” the king says, standing from his chair. Immediately, everyone else at the table rises. Jaemin does so on shaky legs. “Please start the planning immediately. Once you have a rough idea, we’ll need to send out invitations as soon as possible. The summer is just around the corner.”
“Of course, your highness,” the advisors murmur, bowing deeply. The king sweeps from the room, his own personal guards trailing behind him.
Jaemin remains rooted to the spot for too long. An advisor turns to look at him with uncertain eyes. “My prince?” she asks. “Are you alright?”
Jaemin feels a light touch to his elbow, Jeno’s soft, measured breathing at his shoulder. “Yes,” he says cheerfully, stepping away from his chair. He nods his head at the advisors, who all bow to him in return. “Lost in thought imagining how grand the ball will be this summer. I trust you’ll all do a marvelous job planning. If you’ll excuse me.”
No one says anything, of course. He is the prince and he can do as he pleases. Jaemin hurries from the room with Jeno hot on his heels as they make their way to the library.
When the door is safely shut behind them and the room is deemed clear of any stray scholars lurking amongst the shelves, Jeno turns to him with inquiring eyes. “What was that all about?” he asks, one hand on his hip and the other on the pommel of his sword. Jaemin thinks it’s not even a conscious move anymore; it’s been trained into Jeno to always be ready to protect Jaemin at a moment’s notice.
It makes something hot and guilty twist in Jaemin’s stomach.
He leads the way to the couches in the back and sinks down onto one of the cushions. After a moment of hesitation, Jeno joins him.
“I don’t want a ball,” Jaemin says after a long moment. He’s trying to organize his thoughts, trying to formulate them into something that makes some sort of sense. “I don’t want to meet noble girls who will vie for my attention so that I might ask for their hand in marriage in a few years.”
Jeno hums. “Why not?” he asks. “You always like a party.”
Jaemin does like a party, but he likes having them with his friends in the kitchens after midnight when everyone else has gone to bed. When Renjun will cook up some meat for them on an open grill and Donghyuck will drag Jisung in from the stables and Mark will manage to sneak away from the squires’ dormitories. When Chenle, the son of a visiting foreign dignitary evades his own guards to make it down the service stairs to the kitchen in the castle basements. Those are the kinds of parties Jaemin likes.
Jeno’s looking at him expectantly, eyes wide and curious. Jaemin thinks about how they curve when Jeno smiles, how his dimples appear when he laughs and his nose scrunches up. He thinks about Jeno’s hands: big and callused but surprisingly delicate as they comb through Jaemin’s hair in the morning after they’ve just woken up. He pictures the way their bodies fit together, how they find each other in sleep or in wakefulness, how Jaemin can’t imagine anyone else crawling into his bed.
Jaemin has never spent a day in his life without Jeno. He never will, and that is when Jaemin knows. No one at the ball will capture his heart because he’s already given it away to the boy sitting next to him.
“Jeno,” Jaemin hears himself say helplessly. He feels Jeno tense beside him, recognizes the moment that Jeno realizes something is wrong. The distance between them closes as Jeno huddles in close, trying to shoulder a burden that Jaemin has not shared with him yet.
They are one. It has always been just them. How could Jaemin ever love another?
“Whatever it is, you can tell me,” Jeno says earnestly.
He tells this to Jaemin all the time. When they’re sitting in their lessons and Jaemin knows the answer to a question Jeno doesn’t: you can tell me, Jaeminnie. When they’re in the gardens lying under the shade of the fig tree and Jaemin begins to worry about a million dutiful princely things he should be doing: you can tell me what’s bothering you. When they’ve snuck out to the market and Jaemin is trying to decide which flavour of hand pie to buy: you can tell me which ones you like, Jaem.
When they’re lying in bed together, curled so closely together it would be nothing at all to erase the space between them: whatever it is, anything at all, you can always tell me.
“I think I’m in love with you,” Jaemin says plainly to his hands, lying limply in his lap.
Jeno is quiet for a long moment, so long that Jaemin is suddenly afraid that he’s messed up. He’s always told Jeno everything, but maybe this is something that Jaemin should have kept close to his chest. Finally, though, Jeno reaches over and takes one of Jeno’s hands. It’s decorated with a gold ring wrapped around his second finger.
“That’s why you don’t want a ball?” Jeno asks quietly, thumb caressing the ring before running over Jaemin’s knuckles. “Because you’re in love with me?”
Jaemin feels the tears well in his eyes unbidden. He can’t remember the last time he cried. Maybe when he fell out of the fig tree when he was five years old.
“How could I dance with a million other people at a ball when I would only want to dance with you?” he asks, petulant in only the way he can be as the prince. Sullen and moody.
Quietly, Jeno laughs. It fills Jaemin’s chest with warmth despite his anxiety. “I suppose it’s good you brought it up, then,” Jeno says. Before Jaemin can say anything else, Jeno lifts their joined hands and presses a kiss to the back of Jaemin’s, trailing his lips up to the ring, flipping Jaemin’s hand so he can kiss the palm, too. Jaemin thinks his heart might beat out of his chest. “Because I cannot stand the idea of having to watch you dance with a million other people.”
Jaemin’s heart leaps painfully in his chest at the same time he launches himself at Jeno, tackling them over onto the sofa, Jeno laughing softly in his ear as they tumble down against the cushions.
“You love me, truly?” Jaemin asks, propping himself up on hands planted on either side of Jeno’s head, knees straddling Jeno’s lithe waist. He knows his expression is open, vulnerable, but he has always felt safest with Jeno.
“Of course,” Jeno says, fond and exasperated. He reaches up and touches Jaemin’s cheek, the sharp edge of his jaw. They are touches that are familiar, and yet brand new, too. Imbibed with new meaning. “How could I not love you? I have spent every day of my life learning how to love you.”
Jaemin wants to cry. He wants to scream from sheer happiness and run down the halls telling everyone he meets, but he knows he cannot. Jeno is sworn to protect him always; he cannot be compromised. Being in love will do that,and if Jeno is compromised, he will be taken away from Jaemin.
“Then you are lucky that you have every day of the rest of your life to love me, too,” Jaemin says cheekily, pushing darker thoughts of separation aside. He can tell that Jeno knows that there is reason that tugs on Jaemin’s heartstrings, but both of them are too caught up in the swirl of their emotions to let it bother them now. They are 16 and newly in love and on top of the world. It doesn’t matter now, so Jaemin leans down and presses his lips to Jeno’s, kisses him soft and sweet and with as much love as he can muster. With equal enthusiasm, Jeno kisses him back.
The days Jaemin spends as the crown prince blend together. They are very much the same: meetings with royal advisors; open houses with nobility; hearings with the common folk; lessons on history and etiquette and culture. Jaemin can’t pick out a single standout day amongst them.
The days he does remember, though, are the ones where he and Jeno sneak out of the castle. They’re fewer and farther between than when they were children with few responsibilities, and their disguises have become more elaborate, but Jaemin treasures their days off regardless. Any day where he and Jeno get to act like ordinary boys is a day that is memorable.
On this particular day, they prepare to depart under the shade of the fig tree. Jaemin slips easily into a set of fatigues from Mark, one of the knights in his personal guard. Jeno has long since outgrown Renjun’s clothes and has had to borrow from Jaehyun, Mark’s mentor. Jaemin admires the broad stretch of Jeno’s shoulders as they flex under the movements of Jeno tugging off his shirt. There are faint scratches down Jeno’s shoulder blades, a gift from Jaemin several nights ago. The sight of them makes Jaemin grin, shark-like.
A soft rustle from behind them makes them pause, Jeno’s arms halfway through the shirt sleeves. Jaemin’s mind whirls. What excuse can he conjure up that will sound believable?
They’re saved the trouble when Renjun rounds the rose bushes. He’s grown into a pretty boy, with sharp, elf-like features and a soft smile. He is as familiar to Jaemin as his own family.
“I’m glad I caught you before you left,” Renjun says, pleasant despite the foreboding words. “There’s a rumour swirling around the castle.”
Jaemin feels Jeno tense beside him, notices the moment Jeno steps closer to him, protecting his back. Judging from the movement of Renjun’s eyes, he notices, too.
“Oh?” Jaemin asks casually, fiddling with the dagger tucked into the waistband of his pants. “What about?”
Renjun’s eyebrows raise, like he’s surprised that Jaemin doesn’t know. As the crown prince, Jaemin knows a lot about what goes on inside and outside the castle, but that morning he had spent lazily lying around in bed with Jeno, making out until their lips were bruised and spit-slick.
“There are rumblings of trouble brewing from the kingdom across the eastern sea,” Renjun says, “and even more rumblings about the kingdom to the south preparing for war.”
This surprises Jaemin, but he’s long since known how to school his face. “Rumblings of magic, then,” he says quietly.
Their kingdom has no defenses against magic. It is a banned practice, but Jaemin has long since pushed for defensive spell-casting to be learned by those who have an affinity for it.
“How can we defend against those who wield magic without using it ourselves?” Jaemin had asked, only to be silenced by his father.
Now, it seems, their ill-preparedness will be their downfall.
“And you came to tell us this because you think we’ll be unsafe in town?” Jaemin asks, taking in the light downward twist to Renjun’s mouth. He acts aloof, but Jaemin knows he cares, the same way that Jaemin cares for him. As a friend.
“Better to be safe than sorry,” Renjun replies. “I know you won’t listen to me, but I’d rather you be prepared than to walk into a situation unawares.”
“Thank you,” Jaemin says sincerely. His mind is already whirling. “I think, however, that it means—more than ever—that we should go out.” He has Jeno, after all, and under the borrowed shirt he wears, Jaemin still has the necklace Jeno had bought him when they were 11.
Jeno’s hand finds the small of his back, a burning brand against a spot that has long caused Jaemin discomfort. “Are you sure?” he asks. It’s not in a way that undermines Jaemin’s authority, but more in a way that cautions against his impulses.
“Very,” Jaemin announces. He pulls the hood of Mark’s cloak over his head and offers Jeno a reassuring grin. “It’s the only way we’ll find the help our kingdom needs.”
As warned by Renjun, the market is atwitter with gossip when they stride in. Rumours range from hushed whispers to vendors shouting across the main thoroughfare at each other.
“Have you heard the latest?”
“Spellcasters are coming from the lands across the eastern sea!”
“They have dragons!”
Jeno rolls his eyes but presses closer to Jaemin all the same. Reassuringly, Jaemin takes his hand.
They can’t hold hands in the castle. They can’t be caught being closer than just friends, than prince and personal guard, but here in the marketplace, they can be whoever they want. Jaemin wants to be in love.
He forgoes their usual leisurely stroll through the market, bypasses the baker and the mother-daughter duo that sells scarves and shawls that Jaemin likes to look at. Instead, he leads Jeno straight to the woman selling jewelry, from whom Jeno had bought him his protective necklace all those years ago.
They have not been back since—not together—but the lady’s eyes brighten when she sees them. Jaemin knows her name is Seulgi. “Hello again,” she says, like it has been five days and not five years since the last time they had come as a pair.
“You have heard the rumours, I assume,” Jaemin asks, forgoing niceties. Jeno squeezes his hand in warning. Jaemin knows that his free hand is likely on the dagger tucked in his waistband.
“Of course,” Seulgi replies. “How could I have not?”
The corner of Jaemin’s lips quirk up. “Then, perhaps, you already know the reason why I am here.”
Seulgi’s gaze trails over Jaemin’s shoulder to look at Jeno. “Your lover will not be bothered by the venture we are about to undertake?”
Jeno tenses. Jaemin can feel all the strength in his body thrumming, like a rope pulled taught. Tension, under pressure. “I’m sure he’ll be bothered,” Jaemin says smoothly, “but he is sworn to protect me, so he will follow me regardless.”
Seulgi’s eyes twinkle. “Then you’d better follow me,” she says.
She leads them into the house behind her stall. There are no lamps lit, so the corridor is dim, illuminated only by the sunlight filtering in from the windows.
“Jaem,” Jeno says warningly. He’s pushed Jaemin behind him, forcing Jaemin to follow as they’re led down a hallway so narrow they must walk single file. “I don’t like this.”
Jaemin pets a hand over the nape of Jeno’s neck. “My father is an idiot, blinded by his pride,” Jaemin whispers, so low that he must speak directly into Jeno’s ear. “I have long since guessed that something like this might happen, so I have taken it upon myself to be proactive.”
It is not easy to give Jeno the slip, not when he is sworn to protect Jaemin, but he can be distracted by hand pies and other baked novelties. While Jeno has been spending time with the baker, inquiring after recipes he can pass on to Renjun, Jaemin has been talking to Seulgi about magic and whether or not it can be practiced in secret.
He has never told her who he is, but he is certain that by now, she has guessed.
Jeno raises an eyebrow at him, but there is trust in his eyes as he follows Seulgi to a brightly lit room at the back of the house.
There are more people here: women and men and a particularly fat tabby cat that is perched on the top of the ice box. They all turn their heads when Seulgi walks in with Jeno and Jaemin at her heels.
“We are complete, now?” one of the other women at the table asks. Jaemin can see that she is pouring over a tome filled with swirling scripts in a language he cannot yet decipher. Some of the other occupants are grinding ingredients with a mortar and pestle. There’s a boy around their age rolling dice across the floor while the cat watches on.
“We are complete,” Seulgi confirms. She turns around and says to Jaemin, “You may take your seat.”
When Jaemin moves, Jeno makes to follow, but Seulgi blocks his way. It only takes Jeno a split second before his dagger is out, pointing directly at Seulgi’s heart. Seulgi doesn’t look phased, but she does look impressed. She looks at Jaemin as he takes his seat. “He’s a loyal one.”
“He’s sworn to protect me,” Jaemin repeats lazily.
“He is in love,” Seulgi echoes. She pushes Jeno’s hand down and ignores the fact that the dagger remains in his grip. “And what shall we call you, loverboy?”
Jaemin cracks a grin as Jeno’s face flushes red. Still, he tilts his chin up when he says, “Jen.”
“Very well, Jen,” Seulgi says. She turns back to the room at large. “The Order of Sun and Stars welcomes you into our fold. We are a secret society here in the kingdom, practitioners of a forbidden art that will one day be our salvation, rather than our destruction.”
Jeno glances across the room at Jaemin. His wide eyes are curious, and they remind Jaemin of the day he fell out of the fig tree. He knew then that Jeno would follow him anywhere; he knows now that still holds true.
“We are magicians,” Jaemin says, snapping his fingers so a single tiny flame erupts over his first and second. It is an easy parlour trick Seulgi taught him privately behind her stall.
A cool gust of wind blows through the room despite the windows being closed. The dice on the floor do not rattle against the wood even though they’ve been tossed. The cat on the icebox smiles with distinctly human-like teeth. The air crackles with magic.
In the midst of a war, there is little time for indulgences, but Jaemin makes do anyway.
He is newly turned 18 and the summer sun is streaming in through the bedroom window. It catches on the dust motes that flutter through the air, reflects off of the jewelry Jaemin keeps on the bedside table, illuminates the long, pale stretch of Jeno’s back where the sheets have fallen to pool around his waist.
Jaemin traces with his eyes, but he does not touch.
Jeno has been working overtime through the war, shadowing Jaemin’s every move. Even with Jaemin’s dedicated guard, Jeno is always within arm’s reach. It doesn’t matter that the battle is to their southeastern border. It does not matter that the Capital has largely remained unscathed in the past year. The psychological warfare is just as intense.
Jaemin finds himself exhausted at the end of the day, his mind jumping through hoops to appease the nobility that knock on their doors. His father grows more impatient by the day as their advisors warn against the spellcasters that will soon be on their doostep. Their neighbours to the south seem to be faring well, but should their defenses break, there is little to keep the eastern kingdom from overtaking their own.
The small hope they have lies with the Order of the Sun and Stars, but Jaemin cannot tell people of this.
The order has grown in the past year since Jaemin introduced Jeno to it. New members are recruited every week, and the previous members are becoming stronger. Even now, Jaemin raises a hand above his face, watches as he lets sparks dance between his finger tips.
He prefers defensive magic to offensive, but he is fond of the little balls of light that he can throw at people. He’s never had a reason to need to, but it’s nice to know that should anything happen to Jeno, Jaemin can defend himself.
Not that anything will happen to Jeno.
Jaemin rolls over. Despite not wanting to disturb him earlier, Jaemin finds now he can’t stand the space between them. He needs to be close, touching. He wants to wrap himself up in Jeno like a blanket and never let go, crawl under his skin and see all the parts that make up Jeno from the inside out. Hold the heart that beats for him in the palms of his hands and protect it.
Jeno grumbles as Jaemin plasters himself against Jeno’s side, luxuriates in the heat that comes from being skin to skin. After a moment, Jaemin feels the muscles under Jeno’s back tense and relax as he stretches, joining Jaemin in the land of the conscious.
“Good morning, my love,” Jaemin says quietly as Jeno blearily opens his eyes. They crinkle immediately, and Jeno leans in to press a kiss to Jaemin’s lips, closed-mouth and chaste.
“Good morning,” Jeno mumbles back, tucking himself under Jaemin’s chin. He rubs a hand over Jaemin’s chest, pausing over the steady beat of his heart. Jaemin tries not to purr like a particularly affectionate cat.
They laze in bed for a while longer, trading easy kisses and eventually grinding against each other languidly. Jaemin is always in awe of the fluid way Jeno moves his body, the easy strength in the way he pins Jaemin to the bed and takes. Everyone always wants something from Jaemin, but to Jeno, he gives freely.
When they are spent and sated, Jaemin finally allows himself to trace a pattern across Jeno’s back. Outside, the sun climbs higher into the sky.
“Will you allow me to mark runes into your skin?” Jaemin asks, picking out the path of it with his finger. He has his own, inked into the insides of his arms and below his collarbones. Runes that Jeno painted onto his skin with ink and that Jaemin affixed there with his own magic. Runes for strength and safety and perception.
Though Jeno had followed him into Seulgi’s house that day, he has been reluctant to practice any magic of his own. He does not have an affinity for magic the way that Jaemin does, and he does not shy away from the practice of it, but he prefers not to be touched by it if he can help it.
“You have your skills, Jaeminnie, and I have mine,” he says the first time Jaemin asks. He wields his sword so that it slashes across the practice dummy, spilling straw over the training grounds. He means that Jaemin has been forced to turn to magic because he can no longer wield a sword, but Jeno has no such obligations.
Jaemin has not pressed, but everyday, he worries. Jeno may be sworn to protect him, but Jaemin has made his own promises. He will not exist in this world without Jeno by his side. He will not take a lover who is not the boy in bed with him now.
He will not be a king without his lionheart.
Jeno’s pause is long, but only because it is thoughtful. As Jaemin continues to draw invisible marks across his back, Jeno finally says, “What would you paint across my skin?”
Jaemin leans over, presses a soft kiss to the blade of Jeno’s shoulder. “Protection,” he whispers, lips brushing over Jeno’s skin as he talks. He moves to the other shoulder blade. “Strength.” He trails his lips down Jeno’s back, pressing a kiss to the middle of his spin. “Speed.” A kiss to one of the dimples in Jeno’s low back. “Clarity.”
Suddenly, Jeno rolls them over until they are lying on their sides facing each other. He presses a hand to Jaemin’s heart again, observes its beating with a careful reverence. “And would you place a mark here?” he asks quietly.
Jaemin knows what Jeno is asking. He has seen the mark on one of their order members; the decorative crescent moon that is the matching piece to the sun on his lover’s chest. They are not for the order, but for each other: Felix, the sunshine in Chris’ life; Christopher, the wolf that howls to the moon in honour of Felix. Binding runes that tie them to each other in a more intimate way than marriage ever could.
“What would you want here?” Jaemin asks, voice uncharacteristically uneven.
Jeno hums softly. Outside their door, Jaemin can hear movement; someone will be along to fetch them shortly, no doubt. “A crown, perhaps. You are my prince, and one day you will be my king, too.”
Jaemin rolls his eyes. “I do not mean more to you than just the crown?” he asks jokingly, but he puts his own hand over Jeno’s heart, too.
“I do not think the entire universe would fit on your body, my dear,” Jeno replies sincerely.
Jaemin feels himself blush as he traces a design across Jeno’s skin. Fierce eyes, bared teeth. Long flowing mane. “I would paint a lion into your skin,” he confesses, a whisper between them. “I cannot be king without my lionheart.”
“Then paint your runes across my back,” Jeno whispers back, an acquiescence that does not go unnoticed. “Give me the strength to be your lionheart for evermore.”
Jaemin leans in for a kiss just as there is a knock at their door. Later, they will slip away to Seulgi’s house and Jaemin will paint the runes properly into Jeno’s skin. For now, they will have to put on their fancy clothes and be diplomatic.
“Anything for you, my love,” Jaemin says against Jeno’s lips.
The war eventually reaches Jaemin’s doorstep—quite literally.
On the eve of Jaemin’s 21st birthday, he is running through the halls of the castle, Jeno hot on his heels. There is a battle that is raging in the throne room, foreign spellcasters dueling with the Order of Sun and Stars; foot soldiers clashing with the king’s guard.
Jaemin is not running from the fray, though. There is a tug in his gut, a spark of magic that is attuned to a ward he placed around his father’s bed chambers, where he had been hidden away for his own safety. The ward had been broken, and now Jaemin is running.
He desperately wants to reach out for Jeno’s hand, wants to squeeze it in preparation for what they might find at his father’s bed chambers. The rune on his chest burns, bright and hot and comforting next to the necklace of protection Jeno had bought him so long enough. They are enough.
They skid to a halt outside the king’s chambers. There is no sign of the king’s guards and the doors are flung open. With trepidation but a head held high, Jaemin steps over the threshold.
The king is on his knees, bowed to a woman with a sword made of a blazing flame. It takes Jaemin a split second to realize who it is.
“Seulgi,” he says. His father’s head snaps up to look at him.
“Jaemin,” he says, but Seulgi waves the sword close to his face, making him recoil.
“Jaemin,” Seulgi echos, her gaze never straying from the king. “I was wondering when you might show up.”
“What are you doing?” Jaemin asks. He inches closer, fully aware of Jeno’s presence at his back. Always at his back.
Seulgi smiles, sharp teeth and dark eyes. “Taking back what’s ours, of course.”
“And that would be?”
“Our freedom.” Seulgi twirls the sword expertly in her hand, creating a wide wheel of fire in its wake. “You’ve seen how we exist. How many years did we—the order—spend practicing our spell casting and potions brewing in the back room of my house? How many magicians before us were slaughtered by your father because of the art that they practiced? Don’t you see, Jaemin? We can change everything. With you as king, we will no longer have to hide.”
Jaemin has long wondered why his father was so adamant on banning magic, why he has never allowed a trace of it to flow through the farmers’ fields or the smiths’ flames. Perhaps now, he has an inkling. The darkness in Seulgi’s eyes is a mirror of the blackness that mars her heart.
“And you think that things will be better when I am king?” he asks. He conjures a bright ball of light in his hand, feels the warmth of it in his palm as he tries to decide if he can strike Seulgi before she kills his father.
“I know you will not push us back into hiding,” Seulgi says. “You are a member of the order yourself. You cannot deny to your citizens the practicalities of magic when you wield it yourself, when you use it for your benefit and for those you love. Besides, what better time to pull off a stunt like this than now, when we can blame it on our enemies. You would not toss me to the wolves, my prince, would you? Not after all I’ve done for you?”
Jaemin opens his mouth to say something, but his father beats him to it. “Jaemin,” he interrupts, and all eyes turn to the king, disgraced and kneeling on the floor.
He is not staring at Jaemin’s face, though, but rather, the ball of light pulsating in Jaemins’ hand. The manifestation of the magic that Jaemin has developed over the years since the war began. Jaemin does not know what he expects his father to say, but it is not, “You partake in this disgraceful act?”
Like practicing magic is something to be looked down upon. Like it is a mistake.
“I did it to protect the kingdom, Father,” Jaemin says diplomatically, but there is a lump in his throat. “This has been a war fought with magic. How could we defend ourselves without it?”
The king rises to his feet, despite Seulgi’s flaming sword. He pays it no mind as he stalks closer to Jaemin, who feels frozen to the floor. His feet cannot move, even as his father reaches out for his throat, even as Jeno steps in his way, his own sword held out against him.
“You’d dare stand in my way, insolent boy?” Jaemin’s father asks. “I am the king!”
“And I have sworn to protect the prince with my life,” Jeno replies easily.
The king looks over Jeno’s shoulder and meets Jaemin’s eye. He does not look like the father who had adored Jaemin as he was growing up, does not look like a grieving man when Jaemin’s mother passed away. He looks like a man caught up in his fears and his pride. He looks like someone Jaemin does not know.
“You are an abomination,” the king hisses, and Jaemin flinches back. “Your mother would despise you to know the man you have become. You are diritied, defiled. You are no son of mine.”
Jaemin swears in that instant his heart breaks. The sound it makes crawls up his throat and escapes out his mouth the form of an anguished cry.
Everything after that happens in a flash. In a single moment, Jeno is stepping forward, driving his sword through the stomach of the king at the same time that Seulgi’s flaming blade pierces its way through the king’s chest. The king blinks once, his eyes trained on Jaemin, before the blood wells in his mouth and his eyes roll back. There is no mess when Seulgi pulls her sword free from the king’s lifeless body, but Jeno’s wound gapes dark and ugly, blood pouring from it and staining the wood.
“Long live the king,” Seulgi murmurs as Jaemin’s knees buckle, Jeno’s arms catching him around the waist before he can fall to the ground.
Jaemin is 22 when he is officially crowned the new king.
His coronation ceremony is in the spring and he is resplendent in white, hair threaded with flowers around the crown that sits heavy on his head. On one side of him is Seulgi, his royal magician. On the other is Jeno, his lionheart.
It is easier to quell a war than Jaemin expects it to be. After the murder of his father, Jaemin’s authority becomes law. As Seulgi had pointed out, he cannot be expected to banish magic from his kingdom when he is a practitioner himself, and he uses this fact to leverage a peace meeting with the generals of the armies from the east and the south.
The war ends two weeks later.
Jeno, of course, is at his side, but Jaemin surprises even himself when he brings Seulgi into his inner circle. She helped to murder his father, but she is more practiced and knowledgeable in magic than Jaemin. Though the sight of her makes him nervous, now, Jaemin knows he cannot afford to lose her to darker tendencies.
The commoners love Jaemin. They love that he spends time in the marketplace, love that he listens to their strifes and tries his level best to fix them. They find him charming and helpful and beautiful; a king for his people.
Somehow, the guilt does not choke him.
He does not know why he feels so guilty, why he wakes up in the middle of the night sometimes with a scream on his lips and his father’s dying words playing on a loop in his mind. He is not the one that ran a sword through the man, yet there is still an anxiousness that builds in him when he thinks of what they have done to achieve the peace they have today.
“You look beautiful, my love,” Jeno says when he places the crown on Jaemin’s head. It is heavy. As heavy as Jaemin’s guilt. The rune on his chest burns.
“Jeno,” he says, quiet, uneasy. With a wave of Jeno’s hand, the attendants leave the room. Even Seulgi sweeps out, the folds of her dress swirling around her as the door closes.
“Is everything okay?”
Is it? Jaemin searches Jeno’s face, takes in the kind eyes and the sharp cheekbones and the plush lips. He brings a hand up, cups Jeno’s cheek and marvels at the smooth skin under his palm, at how fragile it feels when Jaemin sweeps his thumb under Jeno’s eye.
Jaemin is king at age 22 because his lover ran his sword through his father. There are reasons, choices that led them down the path to that very moment, but it does not erase the truth. For a moment, Jaemin allows himself to trace their steps back, arrives at the fig tree in the garden that they have not had to use to escape since he took the throne. Now they leave the castle grounds out the front gate.
Jaemin is king at age 22 and he is already loved by his people. He is adored, revered, and he will be remembered. He is the king that brought magic back to their kingdom and the king that ended the war.
It is a lot for a king of 22 years of age.
Shakily, Jaemin shakes his head. There is no one else he can be honest with, that he can let down his walls and be vulnerable with. Jeno is his safe haven, his lighthouse beacon in the stormy seas of Jaemin’s life. Nothing feels okay in Jaemin’s life now, but Jeno at least feels right.
Their bond pulses under their regal finery.
“This is not quite how we thought things would go, is it?” Jeno asks quietly as he tugs Jaemin in for a tender hug. Jaemin feels himself melt against Jeno, sighs as Jeno presses a hand to the small of his back where he had hurt himself so long ago now. “You have endured so much.”
“I have endured it only because I had you by my side,” Jaemin murmurs.
“And you will have me by your side evermore,” Jeno replies. They stand there in silence for a few moments, swaying in the warm spring breeze that blows in the open balcony doors. Jaemin can hear the sounds of the Capital below, the crowds of people cheering and calling out for him as they gather for his first appearance with the crown on his head.
“We’ve gotten ourselves into quite a mess, haven’t we, my love?” Jaemin asks.
“Of course,” Jeno says, “but you have never done things by the rules. You will be a good king, Jaemin.”
“You have to say that. You love me.”
Jeno laughs, pulling back so he can look Jaemin in the eye. Jaemin is so hopelessly in love with him.
“I say that because I know it to be true. You care about the people, Jaemin. You will not fall to the same flaws as your father. I will not let you.”
Jeno is sworn to protect Jaemin with his life, and as the attendants and Seulgi filter back into the room, Jaemin realizes that it means more than just his physical well-being. Jeno will shoulder his burdens when they get too heavy, will hold his fragile heart in tender hands when Jaemin cannot bear its incessant beating any longer. He will never let Jaemin falter, and will help him up if he falls.
Jaemin will be the face of the kingdom, the most loved, and Jaemin will love them back as best he can. He will do right by his people; at the very least, he must try.
Jeno and Seulgi fall into step just behind him again as they are ushered out onto the balcony. The crowd roars below him, a tidal wave of sound that shakes Jaemin to his very core. He wants to reach for Jeno’s hand, wants to hide away in his lover’s embrace, but instead he squares his shoulders and offers the kingdom a winning smile.
The war is over, but his reign has just begun.