Jihyo's heart is pounding rapidly as she swings the sword in her hand. Jeongyeon dodges, face scrunched up in concentration as she attempts to twist her movement to disarm Jihyo. Jihyo's arm aches as she tries to sustain the blow but it gives out, her weapon falling to the ground. There's a pause where Jeongyeon watches her for further movement but Jihyo merely flops down onto the dirt, her chest heaving. The taller girl follows suit, relinquishing her grip on the weapon as she collapses next to her.
The dark night sky is littered with stars. Jihyo traces them with her eyes, trying to recall the constellations that Mina has attempted to teach her but fails. The cool air is a welcome refresher and Jihyo shuts her eyes and breathes.
"That was a close one," Momo remarks. Jihyo wipes her face with her palms, squinting up at the soldier who's smiling crookedly down at them.
Jeongyeon groans, sitting up. There's dirt in her hair and all over her, really. She looks a right mess, formerly white shirt stained and slightly tattered. Jihyo knows that she looks no better. She takes a deep breath before getting up as well, walking over to the side of the building to grab her water canteen that's leaning against it and taking some sips.
Momo begins her lecture, pointing out all their mistakes. Her deceptively laidback aura disappears as she picks out every wrong action, smile gone, demonstrating the right form and such as she speaks. Both Jihyo and Jeongyeon listen attentively, the former more so with most of the mistakes being hers.
"C'mon," Momo says after finally being satisfied with Jihyo's attempts at emulating her movements, "Sana made supper."
They see their friends seated around the table in the kitchen when they walk through the back door. Sana shoos all three of them to clean up the second she sees them, Mina and Chaeyoung watching her fussing with amused smiles. Jihyo laughs at her best friend, following Momo without complaint while Jeongyeon pouts at the girls. Chaeyoung rolls her eyes at the older girl's antics but feeds her a piece of potato from her bowl of stew anyway. Jeongyeon beams at her, leaning in to kiss her temple in thanks before following the other two to the washroom.
Once they're all clean, Momo speaks up as the three of them begin to eat, "I think we need to start talking to other people."
The lighthearted atmosphere falls along with the smiles on their faces. Jihyo sits up straighter, retracting her hand from where it was resting alongside Mina's. Sana doesn't say a word but picks up the empty bowls and heads towards the sink.
"Do you think we're ready?" Jihyo asks, putting her chopsticks down, mind whirring with all the partially-formed plans that they've made together. They've been preparing for years but the second they begin spreading word, trying to make connections, they can't go back. They'll be pulling attention to themselves, and putting themselves in danger.
The soldier is firm, showing the amount of thought she's put in, "I really can't train you much more. You're more than capable, we can't be putting this off any longer."
“So, are we starting with your captain as planned?” Chaeyoung asks her, “You said she’s the only actually powerful person you trust.”
Jeongyeon nods, “Captain Im probably won’t sell us out even if she doesn’t join. She tends to mind her own business.”
“We’re sure that this Captain isn’t going to tell anyone that the presumed-dead princess is alive and gunning for the throne?” Mina asks, an eyebrow raised.
Jihyo exclaims defensively, “I’m not gunning for the throne!”
Momo snorts while Chaeyoung laughs out loud. (Sana continues to wash the dishes quietly.) Jeongyeon retorts incredulously, “What the hell are we doing then?”
There’s a short period of silence before a quiet petulant “gunning for the throne.”
Then Jihyo straightens up in her chair, deciding to be serious. The lighthearted atmosphere once again abates as she leans forward, “Alright. We’re finally moving forward. As we’ve discussed, we’ll start with people who we can trust won’t sell us out. This means Momo will be speaking to her captain, Chaeyoung will try her luck with Yeri and them, and I’ll be talking to some of the older orphans.”
She pauses for a second before continuing to lay out the first step of their plan which she’s gone through countless times, “The second we tell anyone, we can no longer be associated with the orphanage. The kids have nothing to do with us. Sana and Mina, we can’t involve you any further.”
“If anyone asks, I’ll say that you’re delusional and we’re no longer friends,” Sana recites, finally turning away from the sink, eyes dull, “It’s not like we grew up here together and we’re basically sisters and the kids are as much yours as they are mine now.”
“Sana,” Jihyo says, stern countenance fleeting momentarily, “please.”
There’s a suspended moment where Jihyo simply maintains direct eye contact with her best friend. Guilt claws up her throat from her heart as she meets Sana’s angry eyes, shiny with tears. She falters.
“We don’t know anything,” Mina says, and Jihyo gathers the strength to move forward with the small nod that the other girl gives her.
“So, we’ll pack up our things and move to the first hideout. Chaeyoung and I will try to stay out of sight and get some allies from the village while Jeongyeon and Momo will try to sway some of their fellow soldiers as discreetly as possible. Sana will keep the kids safe at home, while Mina will keep them safe at school.”
There’s a beat as they all exchange looks, various expressions of determination and anxiety plastered over their faces. Jihyo nods, settling her racing heart.
They all sit in silence for a little while, interrupted only by the soft clink of utensils hitting their bowls as the three of them eat, presumably pondering on the mechanics of their plan. The silence is broken by a small “noona?”
All eyes swivel to the entrance of the kitchen where a small boy stands, hair mussed up, rubbing his eyes.
“Channie!” Sana greets, a small but warm smile fixed on her face, “Are you hungry?”
He nods, shuffling into the kitchen. Chaeyoung pushes off of her chair, gesturing to the boy towards it.
“I’ll be outside,” she says, before slinking out the back door.
“How tired were you?” Sana asks the child as she serves him some rice and stew. She turns to Jihyo, explaining, “Channie took a nap after school and slept right through dinner.”
The boy shrugs, clearly not in a talkative mood. He leans into Sana’s touch when she lays a hand on his head, however, making the adults around him smile.
“Chan was really helpful to me in school today,” Mina says, smiling gently, a hint of pride in her tone, “We did a clean-up today and he led his friends well. He takes good care of the little ones.”
“Really?” Jihyo asks, depositing her sole sliver of meat onto the boy’s bowl of rice, “That’s really cool of you, Chan.”
This time, Chan visibly brightens at the compliment, sitting up straight from where he’d been hunched over slightly. Sana chuckles lightly at his heightened reaction, lightly running her fingers through his hair.
“Jihyo used to be like that too,” Sana shares, fondness written on her features as the boy beams brightly at the comparison.
The topic turns to school, Sana and Jihyo listening intently to Chan’s stories with Mina adding in a little here and there. He gets more and more excited as he shares things he’s learnt and various kiddie gossip, clearly basking in the attention.
“Go do your homework,” Sana urges once he finishes his food, “If you’re still awake after, you can come find me and help me with my chores if you want.”
“Try not to mess up your sleep schedule so much, Chan,” Jihyo adds as the boy scurries back to his quarters. He calls back an agreement, careful to not be loud enough to wake the others.
Sana silently picks up the rest of their empty bowls and begins to wash them. After a pause, Momo stands up and wraps her arms around her as she cleans, resting her forehead against her back. Jeongyeon lays a hand on Jihyo’s shoulder momentarily before excusing herself. Jihyo rises, hesitating slightly as she watches her best friend then following suit, lightly pulling Mina along with her, fingers wrapped around her wrist.
“I don’t like this,” Sana says the second the back door closes behind all their friends.
“I know,” Momo replies, arms tightening around her waist. Her girlfriend is tense and unmoving in her arms. Momo presses a kiss against the nape of her neck.
Sana sighs, tension releasing from her body. She turns and grabs hold of Momo’s hands, looking at them. Momo intertwines their fingers.
“Please be safe,” Sana whispers, her honey eyes making Momo melt when she finally makes eye contact. She leans in and kisses her soundly. She pulls back and leans her forehead against Sana’s, wishing that she could immortalise this small moment, Sana’s hands in hers, Sana’s scent surrounding her, Sana just overwhelming all her senses in the best way possible.
“I love you,” Momo reminds her, cracking her eyes open, her heart flip-flopping at the fond smile Sana has even with her eyes still shut.
“I love you too,” she replies, pulling Momo into a hug, nestling into her neck.
The captain apparently agrees to meet with them.
Jihyo's seated at the back of a tavern in the village closest to where a division of the royal army's set up camp with Momo by her side. She's dressed casually, loose pants and a dark loose shirt, knives hidden under her sleeves and a sword strapped to her side.
The tavern isn’t empty but it’s far from busy- a sprinkling of customers mainly older than them calmly drinking and chatting. It’s a weeknight after all. Jihyo breaks off a piece of the pajeon she’s sharing with Momo and plops it into her mouth. Both of them remain quiet, nervous and out of small talk. Momo takes a sip of her drink.
The door opens and in walks a young woman, dressed similarly to Momo, in the leather outfit that soldiers tend to wear while on duty but not in battle.
The neutral expression on her face shifts the second she catches sight of Momo, waving a hand and sliding into the seat next to hers.
“Hey,” Captain Im Nayeon greets, the picture of nonchalance. It unnerves Jihyo a little. She glances over at Momo, slightly confused as to whether the older girl has neglected to inform her superior about the purpose of their meeting but Momo simply returns the greeting, wrapping an arm around her captain’s shoulder and slightly squeezing before pulling back.
Jihyo smiles warmly at the older woman, "Nice to meet you."
The slightly dismissive small upturn of the lips the captain responds with is the only acknowledgement she gets. Captain Im leans back onto the booth, eyes roving around the tavern, never really focusing on anything. Her left arm rests on the back of the booth she sits on, her right hand drumming a dull rhythm onto the table. She addresses Momo without looking at her, "So, what did you want to tell me?"
'Oh,' Jihyo thinks to herself, 'They neglected to inform me that she's a bitch.'
(It's not really a surprise, honestly. Jihyo's been looked at like she's scum countless times. Being dismissed like this is absolutely nothing new.)
"We have a plan," Momo says, "To do what I told you about."
The captain's eyes cease their wandering, focusing onto Momo with a sharpness that hadn't been present a second earlier. She shifts her gaze onto Jihyo after a moment passes wherein Momo simply meets her gaze steadily, "Why does this involve me?"
"Because there is a war brewing," Jihyo says lowly, smile gone, a neutral expression in its place, "And our people are likely going to suffer the consequences of our king's actions."
"So you propose a civil war," Captain Im raises her eyebrow, cool and calm.
It's getting late. The already few occupants of the tavern have been reduced even further, the sounds of some bidding goodbye filling the room. There's boisterous laughter at a quip one of them shares before slipping out the front door.
"Dusan will be destroyed if we go to war against Geom-Mo," Momo states matter-of-factly, throwing a quick glance around their surroundings, "You know this. And we definitely will go to war if Park Jinyoung continues to be king."
"Careful, Momo," Captain Im warns, her nonchalant demeanour disappearing for a moment, replaced with a slight frown. There's a lull in the conversation. Jihyo takes a sip of her drink. Momo breaks off another piece of the pajeon and plops it into her mouth.
"Who, then," the captain asks, leaning forward, "Who will be king?"
There's a beat of silence as Jihyo mulls the question over, unwilling to share all their cards so early on. Momo pulls her drink closer with her left hand and grips her chopsticks with her right, taking another bite of the pajeon .
"What would you do," Momo begins, voice low, eyes burning, "If I told you that Park Jinhwan's eldest daughter is alive?"
There's a beat as this information appears to register in the captain's mind. To her credit, she barely flinches, just freezes momentarily, so quickly that Jihyo might have missed it if she wasn't paying close attention. Captain Im sighs before sliding out of the booth and standing. The two of them stiffen, bracing themselves, when she says, "Let me get a drink. Tell me everything."
"Why should I help you?" The captain asks once they've laid out their entire pitch, eyebrow raised. If Jihyo didn't know any better, she could have easily been led to believe that she was the long-lost princess instead. The captain's fair features are projecting such ice-cold haughtiness with a simple look that if Jihyo had been anyone else, she would've been easily cowed. Rather, she stands her ground, making firm eye contact with the older woman even as she continues, "You are asking me to do exactly what your uncle convinced my father to do. He did not keep his promises; Why would I believe you to be any different?"
"Unlike my uncle," Jihyo says, voice steady and gaze unwavering, "I am a part of these people."
At this, the captain laughs lightly. Jihyo understands her amusement, because it is with this stance that Park Jinyoung had swayed such a large fraction of the public to his cause years prior. The eldest son of the king, the son of his peasant first wife, being snubbed for the throne in favour of his much younger half-brother. A member of the common people.
"Ma'am," Momo speaks up with a sudden intensity in her voice that Jihyo is startled to hear, "Park Jinyoung was a peasant raised like a prince."
Jihyo can almost hear the unsaid words: she's the exact opposite. But Momo refrains from making any verbal comparisons, continuing, "His claims to relatability have been shallow, and his attempts to improve the economy of this kingdom have been built upon superficial understanding of its issues. His closing of the border has not only not solved the issue of unemployment in this kingdom as he’d promised but worsened relations with Geom-Mo and tensions have culminated to where we are now, nearly in conflict.”
"You're failing to tell me something I don't already know," Captain Im says. She takes a gulp of her drink, expectant eyes turning to Jihyo when she sets the cup back down.
"I have lived amongst commoners my entire life," Jihyo reminds her, fingers dancing along the table edge, “I know what it’s like.”
The captain's eyes narrow, "Can you truly say that? A princess claiming to understand the difficulties of peasant life, it's quite unpleasant."
"Excuse me for this, Captain, " Jihyo says, "But even with my royal blood, I am just a penniless orphan. I understand where you're coming from, but I will not take any of this from someone who has undoubtedly lived a far more privileged life than I have."
There's a beat as Captain Im regards her thoughtfully, fingers tapping against the wooden table in a rhythm that Jihyo doesn't recognise. Her eyes flicker towards Momo who holds her gaze with a serious stare.
“We need to fix the system,” Momo says pleadingly, dark eyes wide.
The captain nods, saying with finality, "I will keep in touch. Let me know if I can do anything to support you."