Kim Yongsun, Princess of Jeolla (or the Dragon Princess, as she is more commonly and fondly known by her subjects), is nervous.
It is the last day of summer, and the harvest festival celebrations in town are coming to a close, having proceeded jubilantly since word of the year’s abundant harvest and rumours of the impending end of the war reached the Capital a week ago. It thus seemed only fitting, when a runner arrived at the palace early this morning to announce that the homebound troops had crossed Yoseok’s Bend and would reach the city gates before sundown.
The long due homecoming heralds the possibly of peace—both within and without for the princess, who stands by her older sister at the base of the steps leading up to the Throne Hall as they wait to receive the captain of the royal guard.
It has been over half a year since Byulyi departed for Gwangju to lead her men in quelling the last of the Ingarian invasion, and Yongsun can still recall, quite vividly, their precious last few hours together: temporarily cocooned from reality in Yongsun's quarters; making love with slow, tender reverence that soon morphed into feverish intent; curling up together afterwards with Byulyi’s head pillowed in her lap, resigned and pensive as their parting loomed near.
Wait for me, Byulyi beseeched her quietly, moments before she slipped away in the wee hours of the morning, vulnerable in a way that no one but the princess ever got to see.
As I always have, was Yongsun’s reply. I love you.
Come back home, she continued, less a plea than a command, as if she could make it happen by force of will. Then she leaned in to kiss the captain hard and quick, before firmly urging her off, knowing that it would be worse for them both if she lingered.
Yongsun’s never-ending duties to the state left her little time to consciously worry, but an oppressive, desolate weight lodged itself deep in her chest in Byulyi's absence, pervading her days and making itself most keenly felt when she retreated to her rooms alone at night. Two seasons is not the longest time they have spent apart over the protracted course of the war, but each successive period of separation somehow gets only harder and harder to bear. The only thing to do was to throw herself into her duties, with twice as much of the vigour and passion that she was much-loved by her people for, as distraction.
Even now upon Byulyi’s imminent return, the heavy shadow of anticipatory grief still lingers. Combined with the anxious thrill of seeing her again, it’s all Yongsun can do to maintain her composure and stop herself from fidgeting in the presence of all the guards and military officials lining the courtyard.
She mustn't be doing a very good job of it though, for the long breath she takes to steady herself earns her a warning—though not unkind—glance from the queen. It is a reminder for propriety, and she lowers her head slightly in apology. Yonghee’s gaze softens. They may not have as much opportunity to confide in each other as they did when they were younger, but her older sister knows all too well her emotional turmoil of the past few months.
Yonghee opens her mouth to say something, but is distracted by a flurry of movement at the other end of the courtyard as a guard finally announces the arrival of the Royal Guardsmen.
Byulyi is the first to pass through the gates on the back of Baeksol, her distinctive palomino mare, trailed by three of her lieutenants on bay and chestnut steeds.
For a long, heart-stopping moment, Yongsun finds herself transfixed by the sight of Byulyi in the flesh—not a dream or a mirage, of which there have been plenty haunting her days of late.
Her hair is pulled into a topknot underneath her formal jeonrip, its amber beads swaying gently around her face. Of armour she’s wearing only a light lamellar vest over military garb, with her sword slung across her back. She appears unharmed, given the way she sits erect and proud astride her mount, carrying herself on horseback with an air of indisputable authority and the same confidence and ease that Yongsun always envied when they were children.
Even from a distance, Yongsun can sense Byulyi’s gaze fixed on her, intense and unwavering, as she advances towards the Hall. When she finally gets close enough, their eyes meet for a few long, electrifying seconds—and then Byulyi averts her gaze to look straight ahead, expression neutral, lest they be noticed.
Yongsun lets out a breath she hadn’t realised she was holding, and tries to still the trembling of her hands as she greedily drinks in as much of Byulyi as she can.
Byulyi comes to a stop some feet before them and dismounts smoothly, as do the rest of her party. She takes a few sure steps forward before sinking to one knee in a fluid motion. The tightness in Yongsun’s chest loosens a tad.
“Your Highness. Princess.” The rich, low timbre of her voice is shockingly, wonderfully familiar.
“Welcome home, Captain,” Yonghee greets warmly.
“Captain Moon,” Yongsun murmurs, not trusting herself to say anything more.
Byulyi’s eyes dart to her as she stands, then flit away just as quickly to focus on Yonghee as she begins her brief report on the situation in Gwangju.
The garrison town is fully secured, she explains, though there remains the occasional attack from straggling factions of the defeated Ingarians. These attacks appear to be isolated, without any real intelligence or strategy corralling them, and are unlikely to be a cause for worry. Command has been handed back to the local government, and the next third of the troops are bound to move out of Gwangju in a week's time.
Yongsun lets Byulyi's calm, steady voice wash over her, soothing her frayed nerves and bolstering her restraint. It is torture, to be so close yet unable to run to her and greet her as she desires. For although their relationship is something of an open secret within the inner palace, right now they are Princess of Jeolla and Captain of the Dragon’s Guard, and have to play their parts.
“Jeolla is grateful for your and your men’s service,” Yonghee is saying.
Byulyi dips her head in respect. “It is but our duty to the kingdom.”
“And we thank you for your great sacrifice. We will see to it that your men are rightly rewarded.”
Yongsun hastens to add on, lest her sister forget to mention what they discussed earlier. Byulyi’s burning gaze locks onto her as she speaks, and Yongsun wonders, with a helpless thrill, if anyone else too is privy to the undisguised desire in her eyes.
“As will the families of those who fell in battle. They shall not want for grain or coin for many seasons—though we are not senseless enough to believe that any monetary compensation will make up for their loss.”
Byulyi sinks to the ground again, dipping her head low, and her lieutenants follow suit behind her. When she speaks, her voice is thick with gratitude. “Thank you, Princess, Your Highness. All of Jeolla will know of the Crown’s generosity.”
“Rise, Captain, Lieutenants. It is getting late, and you have had a long journey.” Yonghee’s voice softens as she continues, sparing a glance at her younger sister, “And you have been away from home even longer. Rest, and we shall reconvene in the morning.”
Byulyi stands and bows deeply before re-mounting her horse, and Yongsun watches the beads of her jeonrip sway as she heads off in the direction of the barracks.
When she gets back to her quarters, she orders Hyejin to prepare a bath, and Wheein to run to the kitchen to let the cooks know to start preparing Byulyi’s favourite pork bone soup. If her handmaidens find her tone sharper than usual, they don’t let on, and hurry to do as instructed.
Left alone in her room, Yongsun potters about restlessly for a few minutes before heaving a sigh and striding across the darkening courtyard to her private bathroom. She’s reluctant to let slip how strangely vulnerable she feels in her nervousness, but some company might do her good at the moment. The night is quickly growing cold, and she is surprised to find the room already toasty, the flagstones warm beneath her socked feet.
“I got the furnace going after you left to greet the return party,” Hyejin explains, sounding unsurprised to see her so soon. She’s kneeling by the wide stone bench that skirts the perimeter of the room, carefully laying out two sets of underclothes.
“Good foresight,” Yongsun murmurs, gingerly planting herself down on one end of the bench and curling her knees up to her chest.
The bathroom is the newest addition to her quarters (her final birthday gift from the late king and queen), designed in the Southern style as was fashionable at the time. A sunken stone bath, about five feet wide and ten feet long with steps leading down into it, is the centrepiece of the rectangular room. Affixed to the far wall are shelves lined with small containers of fragrances and scrubs and oils, and the last of the day’s light seeps into the room through hanji papered windows that circle the upper walls in a continuous strip above intricately carved and painted wooden arches.
She watches Hyejin gather a selection of vials and jars and start expertly mixing her own scented concoctions in small ceramic pots. Every once in a while she lifts one to her nose to scent, frowns, then adds another ingredient and continues mixing until she’s satisfied. It’s calming somehow, watching her work in such a focused fashion, listening to the quiet clinks of her metal stirrer against ceramic. She's grateful that her handmaiden makes no comment on why she's sitting all tense and pensive in the corner, nor attempts to enquire about her present state of mind.
“How was the captain, My Lady?” Hyejin finally asks after a few minutes, not lifting her gaze from her work.
Yongsun ponders the question. “She looked well.”
“Praise the gods. That must have put your mind at ease.”
“It did, indeed.”
“And is the captain back for good, this time?” Hyejin’s tone is light, but Yongsun immediately discerns what she’s actually asking.
It is widely hoped-for that the confrontation at Gwangju will have been the last of its kind, for the war with Ingar has already entered its fifth year and taken an immense toll on all of the kingdom. She knows that Hyejin has already lost two cousins to the cause, and that a third is part of the troops in Gwangju bound for home soon—she prays he returns with them.
Nothing is definite yet, but based on the reports they have been receiving from the front, and Byulyi's update earlier, it seems almost inevitable that Ingar will finally accept the peace treaty offered by the Jeolleans—though Yongsun can still scarcely believe this herself.
“She is, gods willing,” is what she finally says.
Hyejin lets out a long breath. “That’s good to know, My Lady.”
For a while, the only sound is the rustle of Hyejin’s chima as she pads around the room to light the oil lamps that cast the room in a muted yellow glow. Their flames reflect as flickering blurs in the still surface of the bathwater, teasing and languid.
“I’m sure the captain was over the moon to see you,” Hyejin says casually, breaking the silence.
Yongsun can't help but smile. “There wasn’t any of that. Not in the presence of all the officials and guards.”
“Your grand reunion awaits, then.” Hyejin's expression turns sly as she snatches up something from the shelf, hurries over to Yongsun, and plonks herself down beside her to present her with a small, innocuous-looking celadon vial. “Here. I got this for you.”
She accepts it with curiosity, running her thumb absently over the cool, glazed surface. “What is it?”
“A special oil, courtesy of one of the girls in the perfumery,” Hyejin explains gleefully. “They’re testing a new mix of fragrances. Jasmine, orange, star anise, musk…among other scents. It’s very potent, she tells me.”
Yongsun frowns. “Potent?”
Her handmaiden waggles an eyebrow suggestively. “I suppose the captain won’t need much provocation, since she’s been away so long, but if you need to speed things along—or even just to set the mood…”
“Oh—Hyejin-ah!” Yongsun protests, face heating, when she finally gets the gist.
It is one thing to entertain fantasies of the venereal kind in the seclusion of her own mind—god knows that Yongsun has spent many a night in Byulyi’s absence dreaming of her deft fingers and clever tongue, working her up to the zenith of pleasure and then easing her down from it with equal devotion—and another entirely to speak of such carnal pleasures aloud.
“There isn’t going to be any…seduction tonight!”
“Why not?” Hyejin whines, pouting, and actually has the temerity to sound disappointed. “I had to persuade Jiyeon to sneak this to me. She wasn’t supposed to, but I told her it was important!”
Yongsun is momentarily scandalised into speechlessness. Then she shakes her head and laughs, because nothing else could be so...typically Hyejin. “Thank you. It's very sweet of you. I will keep it for some other occasion, if not for use tonight.”
Hyejin’s eyes narrow in doubt as she takes back the vial, but she seems mollified for the time being. “Fine. I’ll leave this in your chambers then. So you won’t forget about it.”
“I won’t,” Yongsun assures her, feeling simultaneously touched and amused. “Thank you, dearest.”
The lightness she feels from their brief exchange quickly dissipates, however, when she glances up and realises with a start that it is almost dark out—only a dim grey glow seeps in through the hanji. She sobers immediately.
“Hyejin, could you go and fetch the captain for me, please? It’s getting late, and…” she trails off vaguely. Byulyi’s likely just being held up by some duty or other, but she feels anxious enough to have her where she can see her that it wouldn’t hurt to send a messenger. “And take Wheein with you—I don’t want you near the barracks alone, at this time of day.”
“Of course, My Lady.” Hyejin makes to stand, then pauses, before unexpectedly reaching out to take Yongsun’s hand where it rests in her lap.
Her expression is unusually gentle when she speaks again. “I’m sure the captain will be beyond delighted to be with you again,” she says kindly. “I’m really glad she’s back safe.”
Yongsun’s throat tightens. “Thank you, Hyejin. I’m—I'm glad too.”
“She’s home now, and the war is ending. You don’t have to worry anymore, My Lady.” She gives Yongsun’s hand a comforting squeeze, then stands, fluffing out the layers of her chima before slipping quietly out the room.
Yongsun has to hastily get up then, afraid that the tears prickling at the backs of her eyes will fall if she doesn’t busy herself with doing something. She settles for kneeling down by the edge of the bath to fiddle with the tray of pots Hyejin has set out for her, carefully unscrewing the lids of each one to survey its contents—a paste of plant ash and rice water for glossy hair, a spiced bean scrub for the skin, several different perfumed oils. She's never openly spoken of her fears and worries for Byulyi to either of her handmaidens, and it moves her immensely to know that they have seen, and understood.
And maybe it’s silly to still be so thoroughly wrought up despite having already laid eyes on Byulyi in the flesh, whole and unharmed, and exchanged some scant words with her. Hyejin is right; Byulyi is home, and she need not worry any longer. And yet—meeting as they did, as ruler and subject, is poor substitute for what she's truly craving: the return of her best friend and lover, the one person capable of easing the loneliness that's afflicted her for months. She longs to touch her, hold her, kiss her again—however illogical it may be, it's as if she won't quite feel real otherwise.
Predictably, her mind drifts back into memory: Byulyi as a girl, the day they first met. Smaller than Yongsun was, but reaching her hand out encouragingly when the Princess was too afraid to approach the horse she was meant to learn how to ride at the behest of her king father.
He won’t hurt you, she had said seriously, and Yongsun let herself be tugged forward for the first time to lay a tentative hand on the heavy chestnut flank, Byulyi’s small hand resting over hers. See? Just be gentle.
The details are hazy, but she remembers trusting her completely, this strange tiny girl who could not be much older than Yongsun's nine years, materialising from behind one of the stalls in a bright yellow hanbok (the hem of her chima muddy and stained), messy braid, and most peculiarly, with a grooming brush in hand. She was slightly shy in the presence of the Princess, but fearless beside a beast twenty times her weight.
Yongsun recalls overhearing the stable master tell her father later that day, with amusement, The little Moon girl made more progress with the Princess today than I did in the past one month. I think it will do the Princess good to have a companion her age, Your Majesty.
More than twenty years have passed since then, and everything has changed: her father has passed into the eternal realm, she now rules Jeolla alongside her queen sister, and Byulyi has grown from that thin, wide-eyed little girl into the youngest captain of the Dragon’s Guard in over fifty years, one of the most decorated living warriors in Jeolla today and a woman to boot.
Her recollection is interrupted by a low voice.
She snaps her head up to see Byulyi standing shadowed in the doorway, less her armour and jeonrip but otherwise still dressed as she was before. She steps forward into the light—then hesitates, holding herself formally as if unsure of her welcome.
Yongsun can’t help the soft, strangled cry that escapes from her throat as she pushes herself up on shaky legs.
“Yong,” Byulyi sighs, everything about her visibly relaxing, and the next second Yongsun is running across the room to throw her arms over the captain's shoulders and crash their lips together.
Byulyi’s hands planted on either side of her waist hold her firm but at a tiny distance, just enough so that their bodies aren’t pressed together—even though Yongsun has told her countless times that she doesn’t care if she returns caked in mud or dirt or even blood, she would run straight into her embrace anyway—but there is no hesitation in the way she kisses back, fervent and passionate.
Byulyi’s lips are soft under hers, and she smells like sun and sweat and the road. Her body is warm and solid and real against Yongsun's own, and the heavy weight of anxiety and terror that has built up in her over the long months melts away in an instant. She can feel herself trembling, from just sheer exhilaration—though on second thought, perhaps Byulyi is the one shaking. It’s hard to tell, but it doesn’t matter, not when they’re wound so closely together, not when Byulyi is here, the missing piece of her heart finally back where it belongs. It feels like coming home, even though she’s the one who never physically left.
When she runs out of breath, she pulls back, only slightly so that the tips of their noses still touch. She draws her hands up to rest on either side of Byulyi’s flushed, grimy face, feeling her flushed cheeks warm under her palms, half-afraid that she might disappear if she lets go. They stay like that for a while, holding each other, breathing in each other’s exhalations. Reveling in the pure, all-encompassing rightness of being in the company of the one person who knows your soul better than anyone else in the world.
She doesn’t say anything for a long time. Neither of them do; they don’t have to.
“My love,” Yongsun sighs eventually.
“Let me wash,” Byulyi murmurs, “so I can hold you properly.”
She steps back, sliding her hands down to Byulyi’s shoulders to keep her still. “Wait. I want to look at you.”
Down the length of Byulyi's jaw is a partially-healed abrasion, the reddened skin still shiny and slightly raw-looking. There is a fresh scar across the bridge of her nose that wasn’t there before, and a few new cuts and grazes over her cheeks and brow. The dark smudges under her eyes suggest that the returning troops went short of sleep to hasten their journey home.
It is the same face that has appeared so often in her dreams—and nightmares—of late. Sometimes glowing and beatific, sometimes drenched in blood and twisted in agony, but never as wholly present as it is now: grubby and tired and slightly worse for wear, and all the more beautiful for it. Her familiar presence is profoundly steadying, and Yongsun takes her time to drink her in, marveling at the miracle of Byulyi standing right before her.
Byulyi humours her, patiently staying put to let herself be studied.
“Do I pass muster?” she eventually asks, lightly.
Yongsun lets out an amused little huff, raising a hand to cup the sharp line of Byulyi’s jaw and thumb gently over her cheekbone, thrilling at the fact that she can. “Of course you do.”
Byulyi smiles, for the first time that day—that lopsided, roguish smile where the right corner of her upper lip pulls up a little more than her left, so that her teeth and a hint of gum show—the smile that never fails to elicit a glowing, swooping sensation in Yongsun’s chest.
God, but she’s missed this. She’s missed Byulyi, and now she has her.
She swallows against the sudden lump in her throat, and brings her hands down to rest on the wide belt knotted at Byulyi’s waist. “Let me help.”
It has become a ritual of theirs: whenever Byulyi returns home from campaign, Yongsun will summon her to her quarters to attend to her personally—undress her, tenderly wash away the dust and strain of the road and battlefield, then dry and clothe her in silk and ramie befitting of royalty.
Byulyi was scandalised, the first time she tried.
You are a princess, she protested upon realising what Yongsun was doing, grasping onto both her wrists to stay her hands where they had come to rest on the ties of her jeogori. Attending to me is beneath your station. As if Yongsun had not acted countless other times in proud defiance of the restrictions placed upon her, for the good of her kingdom, and proved herself time and time again; as if Byulyi had not championed her at every instance and loved her all the more for it. But when it came to trivialities such as these, she became coy.
I am your lover, Yongsun replied firmly, tugging her hands free, attending to you is my desire, and my pleasure.
Then she silenced the captain with a fierce kiss, and proceeded as she intended. For let it not be said that the dragon princess is easily deterred from whatever she sets her mind to.
Yongsun loosens the belt around Byulyi’s waist, then carefully undoes the ties that hold the front of her long black vest, the military jeonbok, together. Next goes the dongdari, the dark blue long-sleeved robe, though not before she undoes the linen straps that bind her sleeves snugly to her forearms for ease of movement in battle.
She works slowly, deliberately, with a reverence that might befit a man revealing his bride for the first time on their wedding night. There is great vulnerability in the act of unclothing a lover, she has always thought, so much more than in being unclothed herself. For she has been dressed and undressed countless times ever since she was a child—by handmaidens and ladies-in-waiting dutifully attending to their crown princess—but Byulyi is the only person she’s ever reversed the roles with.
Undressing her is an honour, the act itself infinitely intimate.
It must feel different, she thinks, attending to someone out of duty versus attending to one out of love.
She glances up to meet Byulyi’s eyes—and has to look back down almost immediately, cheeks heating at the undisguised affection she finds there. Byulyi lets out a small, knowing huff of amusement, and Yongsun’s lips instinctively curve into a smile.
The initial rush of exhilaration has ebbed into a calm, steady hum of affection that flows through her as she works. Byulyi stays quiet and pliant throughout, obediently lifting and twisting her arms to pass through sleeves when bidden.
She finally gets to the final layer of sokjeoksam, the white cotton undershirt that is the only item of women’s hanbok that Byulyi wears. Her hands still over the knot buttons of the undershirt when she notices the additional layer of fabric beneath it.
“What—” she begins, glancing up sharply.
“It’s just a compression binding,” Byulyi is quick to reassure her. “For the journey home.”
“Your ribs?” Yongsun guesses.
Byulyi nods ruefully. “Fell off my horse. Stupid thing. The Ingarians have invented some devilish expl—well, that's not important. Baeksol spooked, is what happened.”
Yongsun stays silent. Knowing Byulyi, “falling” is an undoubted euphemism for getting thrown off horseback. If that happened in the heat of battle, she could too easily have been trampled by oncoming cavalrymen, or seized upon by an enemy soldier while at her most vulnerable. Much too easily.
Byulyi places her hands over where Yongsun’s are fisted on her chest. She squeezes lightly, obviously keyed in to where her thoughts are headed.
“It’s not serious.”
“You said the same thing about Jeondu at first.” She can’t quite help the reproach in her voice.
Byulyi chuckles lightly. “This definitely isn’t anywhere near as bad as that.” She raises Yongsun’s hand to her lips and presses a light kiss to it, gazing at her so warmly that Yongsun feels her worry settle somewhat.
She shakes her head in reproval, but resumes her task. She undoes the button fastening of the sokjeoksam, then slips it off Byulyi’s shoulders to reveal her bare arms, pale and sinewy and adorned with fresh bruises and healed scars from years of training and fighting, and the layers of cloth wrapped tightly around her ribs just below her breasts.
A large, raised scar sits over the left side of her lower belly, souvenir of when an arrowhead got embedded in her stomach during the battle for Jeondu. Yongsun suppresses a shudder at the memories it evokes: long, sleepless days and nights keeping vigil by Byulyi’s bedside as she shook and burned with fever from the infected wound; praying to the gods that the fever would let up and Byulyi would wake; incapacitated by the fear that she might not.
She shakes off the memory, traces her fingers lightly over the binding. “Should I…?”
“Remove it. I’m not supposed to leave it on for too long anyway. Hard to breathe.”
Yongsun loosens the knot that secures the wrap, then carefully unwinds it around her torso. Her heart plummets at what she eventually finds underneath: a large bruise mottles the skin over Byulyi’s entire right side, a collage of deep purple-green splotches edged with sickly yellow.
She lets out a low hiss. “It looks bad.”
“Looks worse than it is.” Byulyi briskly runs her fingers up and down over her injured ribcage, and Yongsun bites her lip to stop herself from wincing. “It’s healing already.”
Yongsun hums tensely in acknowledgement. “Does it hurt?” she asks, even though she already knows what the answer (truthful or otherwise) will be.
“No, it doesn’t hurt.”
“It still looks swollen, though,” she frets as she traces lightly over the bruised flesh with the pads of her fingers, unable to shake the thought that Byulyi could have been injured much worse, that she might not have come home at all. She should be grateful that Byulyi has returned safely and in one piece, without any grave injuries. But the thought of her traveling for days, on horseback, with cracked ribs…
Byulyi chuckles softly.
Yongsun snaps her gaze up to see her lips pulled into a wide grin. “What?” she asks crossly, suddenly annoyed that Byulyi doesn’t share her concern.
“If only your people could see you now,” Byulyi teases. “Their fearsome dragon princess, fussing over a soldier with a little bruise.”
“But you are not just any soldier,” Yongsun replies after a beat, then stops, unable to speak further past the tightness in her throat. The forlornness must show in her expression, because Byulyi’s eyes immediately soften.
“I know.” She takes Yongsun’s right hand in both of her own, and dips her head to press her lips to her knuckles again, this time in apology.
“I know. I am sorry, my love,” she murmurs, keeping her eyes lowered, and Yongsun knows she is recalling Jeondu as well. “I wish that loving me didn’t come at the cost of such worry.”
She sighs, leaning forward to press their foreheads together. “Oh, Byul,” she says softly, after a while. “It is a cost I would gladly pay a million times over, if I could not have you otherwise.”
Byulyi looks back up, expression sombre. Then her face eases into a smile. “The dragon princess, a romantic rival to the great poets. Who knew.”
“Don’t tease,” Yongsun grouses, tugging her hands away, but it works—the tension breaks, and a sense of lightness fills her chest anew.
Byulyi laughs, the sound echoing brightly through the room. “Help me with this?” she asks, gesturing to the waistband of her baji, the ties snug around her trim waist.
Yongsun has seen Byulyi’s body countless times over the years: When they were but children, young enough that it was still proper for the daughter of the king and her companion (the king’s new ward, but a commoner all the same) to be bathed together in the same wooden tub;
At sixteen and on the cusp of womanhood, sitting by the river watching Byulyi wash and filled with an unexplainable, restless emotion that she chalked up to envy—she only later realised it to be lust—at the sight of her lithe, muscular body, lean and strong like a man’s yet still gentle-edged like a woman’s, and so unlike her own;
Twenty-two and still reeling from the sudden deaths of her parents, when Byulyi fell to her knees before her and confessed her love. And Yongsun, knowing well by then that her feelings for her best friend went far beyond just friendship, and desperate to feel something—anything—to remind herself that life and love and goodness went on, commanded her to strip so they could make love;
Just two seasons ago, the night before Byulyi’s departure for Gwangju, tracing with roaming hands the contours and planes of a body (by then dappled with scars attesting her loyalty to Yongsun’s kingdom) she now knows as well as her own. Telling herself it was not goodbye, but committing Byulyi to memory all the same—just in case.
She has borne witness to Byulyis’s nakedness countless times, and yet every time still feels like the first, for she has only grown more beautiful over the years. Today that beauty is marred by the extensive bruising on her torso, but Yongsun still marvels, as always, at how her narrow frame has both the strength to strike enemies down in battle and the ability to hold her so tenderly in bed.
She gestures her towards the bath, but Byulyi takes her wrist. “Join me, please?” she asks quietly, eyes wide and beseeching.
They haven’t washed together ever since they were children, and Yongsun finds the idea surprisingly appealing. She nods, and begins to undo the ties of her jeogori.
Back when she watched Byulyi bathe in the river—stealing precious time together in between her lessons and Byulyi’s strict training schedule—Yongsun would sit on the bank with her chima pooling around her folded legs so that only her shoes and socked ankles peeked out, and the wide silk sleeves of her jeogori covering her to her wrists as they chatted. All the while, her handmaiden at the time, a stern and traditional older woman, would watch like a hawk from some distance away in the trees where the princess had bid her stay, conscientious keeper of her charge’s modesty.
Byulyi always looked back at her, eyes dark with an emotion Yongsun was too naive and too inexperienced to recognise as desire.
It is different, the way Byulyi looks at her right now. There is none of the desperation and hunger of their youth, only a wealth of affection and a deep yearning for closeness that has little to do with the physical.
Yongsun is suddenly struck by how vulnerable she looks like this, her body bare and bruised and too-thin from months of rations.
They step into the bath together, the heated water rippling quietly around their bodies.
She tends to Byulyi with care, letting the bathwater do the initial work of washing off the first layer of grime before she makes use of the scrubs and pastes set out by Hyejin for a more thorough job. She remains mindful of her aching muscles and bruised ribs, keeping her touch gentle in order not to cause her further discomfort.
As before, Byulyi stays silent and biddable throughout, letting her limbs be moved and placed for ease of washing, weightless and easy in the water.
Yongsun soon becomes aware, however, of an undefined, slowly-growing intensity in Byulyi’s gaze. She ignores it, though she can’t help the muted heat that begins to simmer in her stomach.
“Done,” she declares quietly, once she’s finally rinsed out Byulyi’s hair.
The mounting heaviness in the air around them has become impossible to ignore by this point, and she feels goosebumps erupt on her skin when Byulyi turns back round to face her, eyes dark.
“Come here,” she growls, voice low and rough, before abruptly tugging her close, one hand cradling the back of her head and the other wound around her waist. The small sound of surprise Yongsun lets out is swallowed by Byulyi’s mouth on hers, though it only takes her a few seconds to collect herself and reciprocate with equal vehemence, clutching at slippery shoulders with none of the gentleness of before as arousal pools fast and low in her core.
The kiss borders on too-rough, Byulyi’s hands roaming urgent and possessive over her body as if she’s staking her claim, as if time is running out and she’s desperate to have all of Yongsun before she no longer can. The bathwater sloshes agitatedly around their intertwined bodies, and Byulyi is everywhere: her burning skin, her heaving chest, the desperate sounds yielding from deep in her throat that Yongsun swallows before they can echo into the room.
Yongsun kisses back hungrily, but the fire in her can only last so long before she goes pliant and just lets herself be handled, surrendering to the whims of her lover. Byulyi’s fingers grip so tightly into her flesh that it skirts the edge of pain, every touch burning into her skin like a brand. She knows Byulyi too well to miss the barely-restrained terror that tinges her ragged breaths, or the way her hands tremble ever so slightly as she curls them under Yongsun's thighs to tug them around her hips. Yongsun lets herself be lifted, weightless in the water, wrapping her arms around Byulyi’s neck. She throws her head back, gasping, as Byulyi trails hot, fevered kisses down her throat.
It is always like this, the first few weeks back. Sudden bursts of desolation or panic or aggression breaking through stoical composure. Yongsun feels immeasurably helpless whenever it happens, knowing that all she can do is help to shoulder the barest slivers of pain that Byulyi chooses to share with her. The war has taken a great toll on the young captain, and more than once she’s mourned the fact that Byulyi did so exceptionally in her military career; she would have been spared the weight of responsibility for so much violence and loss otherwise.
Byulyi was never rough with her before the war—this came after. And despite herself, there’s an undeniable thrill in experiencing Byulyi like this: knowing that Byulyi could do whatever she wants with her right now and she wouldn’t be able to fight it; well aware of how powerless she is against Byulyi’s far superior strength. It's a thrill made possible only by the knowledge that Byulyi would never for a second hurt her, would probably sooner kill herself than let any harm befall her.
There’s a panicked, fevered urgency to the way Byulyi now mouths at her neck and clings to her like a lifeline, and Yongsun wonders, not for the first time, if Byulyi really sees her when she gets like this or if her mind is somewhere else entirely. She’s always loved the way Byulyi worships her body in bed, attentive and careful and adoring, but there’s something electrifying about glimpsing this other, darker side to her: animalistic and uninhibited and demanding, taking what she wants with little care for Yongsun’s pleasure. It’s a side she’s always wondered about, given what she’s heard of Byulyi’s skill and ruthlessness in battle, and to finally get to see it is…exhilarating and painful all at once, given the circumstances.
It ends almost as quickly as it began.
Byulyi stills with a gasp, chest juddering unevenly against hers.
“Yong,” she chokes out, voice muffled into her collarbone.
Slowly, gently, Yongsun plants her feet back on the bottom of the bath and extricates herself from Byulyi’s embrace, pulling back to look at her. Her eyes are squeezed shut, face twisted in anguish as she takes a shallow, shuddering breath, followed by another. Yongsun wonders, a deep ache in her heart, what she sees when she closes her eyes.
“I’m here,” she soothes, tugging her close again and coaxing her trembling head into the crook of her neck, circling her arms protectively around Byulyi’s now limp body. It’s all she can do when she gets like this, fragile and overwhelmed and barely holding it together.
“Shush, my love,” she whispers, drawing calming, rhythmic strokes down Byulyi’s back. “It’s okay, I’m here now,” she promises, pressing her lips to Byulyi’s damp temple, and waits till the captain stops shaking.
They have dinner served in Yongsun’s quarters, and she has the satisfaction of watching Byulyi practically inhale her first proper home-cooked meal after months of surviving on rations. She sips delicately at her own soup, then makes Byulyi finish her leftovers.
She is calmer now, recovered from her earlier outburst and relaxed from the food, so Yongsun updates her on the ongoing court gossip (though her knowledge is mostly limited to what Hyejin deems important enough to share with her). Byulyi listens with interest, chuckling at the occasional humorous anecdote between mouthfuls of food. They don’t talk about the war, or of anything of particular consequence; it's the most enjoyable meal Yongsun has had in a long while.
Before they go to bed, Yongsun gets Byulyi to sit cross-legged in the middle of the bed with her undershirt removed, and kneels down behind her to give her a massage. This, too, has become a ritual of theirs ever since she got Wheein to teach her proper massage technique a few years ago. She usually gets Byulyi to lie face down on the bed before straddling her hips to work over her back, but her still-healing ribs mean that this isn’t an option, so today they make do sitting.
She picks out one of her favourite agarwood oils from her dresser—she blushes when she notices Hyejin’s jade green vial sitting prominently at the front of her collection—and coats her hands with it before beginning to knead at Byulyi’s shoulders.
She’s no expert, and her technique is probably poor compared to Wheein’s, but it must feel good enough to Byulyi, who lets out the occasional pleasured groan whenever Yongsun manages to loosen a particularly tight knot of muscle. She keeps at it till her arms ache, spurred on by the satisfied little sounds Byulyi’s making.
“I’ll get Healer Nam to make a poultice for your ribs tomorrow,” she says casually as she presses both her thumbs firmly between Byulyi’s shoulder blades and draws them up towards her neck.
Byulyi immediately turns to her and makes a face. “That’s not necessary. I told you, they’re healing well.”
Yongsun, who has anticipated this—what is it with soldiers and their near-pathological aversion to receiving more than the bare minimum of medical care, she will never understand—is not deterred. She firmly turns Byulyi’s shoulders back to face the front, and resumes rolling her thumbs over the nape of her neck.
“They’re hurting you still, I can tell. You kept wincing at dinner, and you’re sitting all tense now.”
“It’s just because I’ve been riding nonstop for the past two weeks.”
“Regardless—I think the swelling might be worse now than earlier,” she worries, palpating as gently as she can over the worst of the bruising, not missing the way Byulyi stiffens slightly although she doesn’t so much as let out a sound. “And the skin feels warm, too. A poultice will help to bring the swelling down more quickly.”
“I’ll be fine without,” Byulyi replies stubbornly. “I just need to rest.”
Yongsun suppresses a sigh, and changes tact. “Please, Byul,” she murmurs, leaning in close enough that Byulyi must feel her warm breath on the back of her neck. She brushes her lips against the sun-browned skin there and slowly rubs up and down her arms, relishing in the feeling of firm muscle beneath her palms. “If only to put my mind at ease.”
Byulyi sighs. “You’re hardly subtle, you know.” Still, she melts back into the contact and tilts her head back to rest it on Yongsun’s shoulder, slipping her eyes shut with a small pleased huff.
“It hurts me to see you in pain.”
“I’m not in pain,” Byulyi argues, obstinate as ever—then flinches and lets out a sharp hiss when Yongsun none-too-gently prods her injured side with a finger.
“Ow—what was that for!”
“Oh, did that hurt?” Yongsun asks innocently, too pleased with herself to feel even slightly guilty. “But, I thought you said…?”
“Of course it hurts, with you jabbing me like that…” Byulyi grumbles, then heaves an exaggerated sigh. “Alright, then. Fine. If my lady insists.”
“I do insist.” She kisses Byulyi’s cheek. “Thank you.”
“But you should know—being with you does me more good than any poultice, or concoction, possibly can.”
Yongsun snorts. “Very sweet, but I doubt any Healer would agree.”
“I mean it,” Byulyi says earnestly, shrugging on her sokjeoksam and loosely fastening it shut as she shifts around to face her. She looks especially young like this, sitting cross-legged and clothed in delicate pink ramie from Yongsun’s wardrobe with her long, dark hair falling loosely around her face. “Just being here beside you, seeing your face, getting to hold you…it makes me happier than you can possibly imagine.”
The words spark a bright, soaring feeling in her chest. “Oh, Byul," she sighs, "I scarcely need to imagine, when I feel the very same.”
“I dreamt of you, every night I was gone,” Byulyi confesses, inching closer to her on the bed so that their knees touch. She lifts a hand to cup Yongsun’s cheek, keeping her touch light. “I swore to protect the kingdom with my life, yet whenever I shut my eyes, I thought not of Jeolla, but of the possibility of never seeing you again.”
Yongsun closes her eyes for a long second and leans her head into Byulyi’s warm, calloused palm. “I dreamt about you, too. So many mornings I woke up, expecting to find you beside me, only to realise that you returning was but a dream... And now here you are.”
"Here you are," Byulyi echoes. “Thank the gods for that." Her eyes scanning Yongsun's face are full of wonder, like she can't quite believe she's here, and her gaze is so plainly, transparently adoring that Yongsun can’t help the way her mouth widens into a grin.
Byulyi quirks her head to the side, wanting in on the joke. “What?”
“Nothing, just.” She shakes her head, laughs somewhat self-consciously. “I missed the way you look at me.”
“And how is that?” she asks, amused.
“Like…like I’m the only thing in the world worth seeing.”
Byulyi laughs, loud and happy. “You’re not wrong about that," she says, fondly tucking a lock of Yongsun's hair behind her ear and idly stroking down the side of her head. "None of my dreams ever came close to beholding you in the flesh. You are even more beautiful than I remembered.”
Perhaps it’s silly, to be affected by such grand declarations after so many years together, but the words pinken Yongsun's cheeks and send a flush tingling through her entire body; she feels like a giddy maiden falling in love for the first time. She shakes her head, feeling inexplicably shy. “Ever the flatterer.”
“I speak only the truth,” Byulyi says teasingly, moving so that she's sitting up against the pillows at the head of the bed. "Come here."
Yongsun snuggles up beside her, resting her head on her shoulder and letting Byulyi slip an arm around her. She takes the captain's hands in her own, absently playing with them in her lap, tracing over calloused knuckles and long slender fingers.
After a while, Byulyi says, quietly, “Thank you, Yong. For always waiting.”
She hums softly, pressing closer into Byulyi's warm side. “I’ll wait however long it takes, as long as you return to my side.”
“I have until now.”
“And so you have,” Yongsun agrees, tilting her head up so that Byulyi can lean down and seal their lips together once more.