If there’s one thing Taehyung doubts he can ever get used to, it’s waking up to a blade inches from his neck.
There’s nothing quite like being moments from death to get the exhaustion in his bones receding instantly, senses brought into sudden sharp intensity as he tries to force his sluggish brain into action.
Staying still is much harder than trying to flee for his life, every inch of his body screaming for him to run. Still, he doesn’t dare move, because the only thing keeping him from painting his obscenely expensive sheets red with his own blood is a second blade, held protectively in front of him. It flickers slivers of moonlight into his eyes as the two above him use their strength to keep the other at bay. The darkness is dizzying, the quiet of night a façade to the true intensity in the room.
The standstill does not last.
He doesn’t have to see one of the shadow-hidden faces to know who is keeping the sword from piercing his skin. It is the only thing that keeps him so calm, because as long as he’s there Taehyung knows he will be safe.
Taehyung doesn’t hesitate to follow the low voice, rolling farther back into the room. The assassin is quick to aim for him once again but his guard is much faster, cutting in and pushing him back with a deadly flick of his wrist. The clang and clash of sword fight has his ears ringing, the two shadows blurs as they dance in the darkness.
Taehyung can tell by the sheer frequency and evenness of the sound that the assassin is good.
Most can’t keep up with Jungkook—his guard—but this one manages to stay on his feet for longer than anyone else. Taehyung watches with bated breath as the two shadows move back and forth until Jungkook finally manages to get the upper hand, bringing the assassin to the ground with a heavy thud. He can picture the way he presses his knee into the man’s spine, just the way Taehyung watched him practice over and over.
“Who sent you?” Jungkook snarls, voice low and threatening.
But the assassin is silent, and it takes Jungkook’s enraged hiss for Taehyung to realize that the man probably committed suicide, choosing death over the torture the Ministry of Justice would surely put him under if Jungkook didn’t do it himself.
After a moment Jungkook gives up, pushing the double doors to his room open and signaling the warning call. Candles begin to flicker to life around his residence, servants and guards sure to be swarming the place momentarily.
“Jeoha, are you alright?”
Taehyung looks up at his guard. The room has better lighting now, to where he can see Jungkook as he approaches him. His lips are tugged downwards in worry, eyes wide in fear as he checks for any injury.
Taehyung lets Jungkook fuss over him for a little while longer before he answers. “No,” Jungkook freezes, a breath of silence before his fingers become more probing, desperately searching for a wound. Taehyung bites back a smile before he continues to speak. “Being up at this ungodly hour is injury enough.”
Taehyung can’t help but giggle at Jungkook’s clearly unamused expression.
Before Jungkook can start the complaint surely resting on his tongue the door to his chambers floods with activity, the rest of his royal guard breaking the stillness. Jungkook immediately backs away, face smoothing into impassivity that gives nothing away about the fact that just moments before he was about to speak back to the Crown Prince, an act that could certainly result in his own death.
“Are you still upset over last night?”
Taehyung can already tell by the storm that darkens Jungkook’s expression that he is, in fact, upset. There’s no one harder on Jungkook than Jungkook himself, and while Taehyung appreciates the way the younger always works to be better and keep him safe, the extent to which he punishes himself when he slips up is unhealthy.
Taehyung sighs, sitting up from his bed.
Sunlight basks the room in a warm glow, chasing away the early chill. Jungkook is standing at his usual spot, close enough to react in an emergency but far enough to be respectful. That is the barrier that Taehyung fears they will never completely cross.
Taehyung watches Jungkook’s private thoughts and duty conflict on his face, until finally, “It’s my fault.”
Taehyung scoffs. “Hardly. I’ve been getting assassination attempts from before I could even walk. It’s nothing new.”
Jungkook looks less than appeased. “Jeoha, you don’t understand. The assassin managed to get so close. If I hadn’t noticed at the last second you could’ve—”
Disappointment tugs heavily at the younger’s lips as the words choke in his throat, eyes downcast to the ground. Jungkook has always been this way, Taehyung thinks with yet another sigh, watching the male sulk a few feet away from him. With a glance to the door to be sure that it’s shut he stands, crossing the distance between them with a few strides.
“Whatever happens, happens. Okay?” he says, placing his hand on the other’s shoulder. “The important thing is that you got there in time. Humans have limits, Jungkook. Don’t act as if you haven’t been skipping your breaks because you’re afraid to leave me.”
“This is more important than—”
“You need to rest, and that’s an order.” Jungkook lifts his head at that, scrunching up his face at Taehyung’s reassuring pat. He looks exhausted, and Taehyung can’t help but wonder when the last time he got proper rest was. “What good are you to me if you end up falling asleep on post? I have other guards, you know. Give them a chance to do their job.”
“Don’t you think you should be more worried for your life?” Jungkook asks, shoulders dropping in defeat.
Taehyung can only smile. “Would I be able to keep my sanity if I was?”
That’s one thing Jungkook can’t protest against, and he knows it. His lips are pursed, eyebrows furrowed and Taehyung hates to put him through so much stress. But despite himself he feels happy, comforted that there is at least one person who wants so desperately for him to live.
The first time Taehyung officially met Jungkook was before he even gained the title of Crown Prince. He remembers raising his eyebrows at the lanky boy he’d seen shadowing the rest of his guards, baby fat still clinging to his cheeks.
“Is he supposed to protect me?” he had asked Seokjin incredulously. He was sure the boy heard but he kept his gaze down, silent.
“Don’t judge until you see him in action.” Seokjin had replied easily, a secret smile on his face.
And just as Seokjin had said, fate made sure to force him to eat his words.
Taehyung should have known that Seokjin always takes his position as heir to his father’s dojang very seriously. It wasn’t long after that day that there was another attempt at his life, a half-done and sloppy thing that he assumes must be from someone without much money or support. Either way, Taehyung sees his life flash through his eyes in the split second it takes for Jungkook to shoot the arrow out of the air with scary precision.
Taehyung shudders to think what might have happened to him if Seokjin didn’t push Taehyung to accepting him.
There had been protests like Taehyung’s at first when he made Jungkook his personal guard a year after that moment, but Jungkook was a hard worker and indisputably good at his job, the terrifying fact that he was two years younger than Taehyung aside. He can remember the snide comments the court ladies would make when they thought he couldn’t hear, snickering about how he needed a child to protect himself.
Regardless of the talk Taehyung let Jungkook stay—though really he had no right to refuse any help that came his way during that time. The nobles supporting his older brothers had seen him as a threat and he surely could have lost his life because of it. Jungkook was the only true loyal guard he had during that time, and with his help he managed to get through those days safe.
Jungkook worries about his safety in a way that Taehyung forgot how to throughout the years. When he was younger he was always looking over his shoulder, afraid of the next attempt on his life. As the years passed he grew accustomed to it; he couldn’t trust anyone, not even his own aunts and uncles. If he thought about that for too long, he heard he would drive himself insane with either paranoia or depression.
Now is no different.
With his father’s growing illness, there is little time for the nobles to make their move if they don’t want him sitting on the throne. The air in the palace is thick with tension and bloodlust, eyes always on him. Seeing Jungkook’s concern and careful watch allows him to take the feeling in stride, gives him time to close his eyes and breathe. After all, Jungkook is always there when he needs him.
Taehyung remembers the time he went hunting with his brother, Jimin. Adrenaline pumping through his veins and the thrill of the chase the only thing on his mind, he hadn’t noticed the arrow flying towards him before it was too late. But he didn’t have to react; Jungkook was there in the blink of an eye, strong arms pulling him back out of harm’s way. It was the first time he realized how strong Jungkook had become, much more than the lithe boy he used to know.
(He would never admit it, but that moment was the first time he felt like his heart would beat out of his chest for something other than fear.)
“Why do you have such a dopey smile on your face? It’s unbefitting.”
The words snap Taehyung out of his thoughts, his attention now on his teacher, Kim Namjoon.
Taehyung found amusement in the way Namjoon talked to him—no other person in the country would even dare think of it. But Namjoon had been with him since he was an unruly kid, struggling to get him to pay attention to his lessons. After losing in a test of wills he begrudgingly agreed to accept Namjoon as his teacher and to respect him as such.
Being close in age made the change pleasantly tolerable, as the rest of his tutors were nearly four times his age and always had some hidden agenda. Though most knew of Namjoon’s many talents, they doubted that he had the intellect to teach as well as his more experienced predecessors. It is a mistake that allowed Taehyung to have a proper education, and as much as he may complain about it he knows that without it he wouldn’t be where he is now.
Taehyung shrugs when Namjoon gives him a look, unable to force down his smile. “Oh… I was just thinking of a game of cat and mice.”
Namjoon frowns, crossing his arms. “Jeoha.”
“Seuseung-nim.” Taehyung echoes in the same tone, the look he gets in response foreshadowing a lecture.
“Surely you hear of how they talk.”
“What are you talking about?” he asks, feigning ignorance.
Namjoon frowns, like he doesn’t want to say it but needs to to get his point across. “You know, about Jungkook.” It’s like Namjoon to be able to read what Taehyung is thinking about so effortlessly. He’s just glad that they’re on the same side, or he’d be in a much more difficult predicament.
“What, that they say I want to snip off Jungkook’s pretty little wings and make him my concubine? Or that I don’t visit my Crown Princess because of him?” Taehyung doesn’t allow Namjoon much more than a scandalized expression before he continues. “You know I would never do that. Seeing how unhappy Jimin hyung is has taught me enough about that.”
It’s impossible to not know of the way people talk about Jungkook. The younger follows him nearly everywhere, and Taehyung doting on him more than anyone else not help. Hoseok has told him about the words people whisper outside of the palace about him, but he chooses to ignore it. Jungkook makes it impossible to be anything but careful, so suspicions about him thankfully stay as such.
“Either way, I think you should stop publically showing him so much favor. You know how the palace is.”
Taehyung knows that there is much truth to Namjoon’s words. The palace is a bloody place—the constant lust for power spills more blood than he would like to acknowledge. Seeing a person gain more power makes others jealous, and eventually that person was cut down to start the cycle over again.
“Jungkook has no interest in politics; the only thing he thinks about is training and protecting me. I don’t have to worry about that.”
Namjoon sighs, shaking his head. “You’d be surprised how far jealousy can reach.”
“I’ll keep a look out.” Taehyung answers, shrugging. He closes the book to their readings for the day, stretching happily. “We’re done for today right? I’ve to go meet with the officials soon.”
“I guess I have no choice, even though you hardly paid attention for the whole lesson. Do you even remember what the reading was about?”
“I’ve got to go now.” Taehyung replies loudly, and quickly makes for the door.
Namjoon continues to speak as Taehyung makes his escape, his voice growing increasingly exasperated. “At least try to act as if you care about your studies—you’re twenty-two, not five. And don’t go anywhere on your own, okay? Jungkook told me about what happened the other day and—”
Taehyung salutes on his way out, though he makes no promises.
“Jeoha, we really should not be doing this.”
Taehyung chuckles because for all Jungkook’s complaints, the male makes no move to out their disguise to the guards passing by so that Taehyung can be escorted back. At this point his words are a half-hearted protest, because Jungkook’s duty is to protect him, not let him do reckless things like run off without his usual body guards. Taehyung, always intent on doing exactly what he’s not supposed to, finds that it is his duty to teach Jungkook how to have fun.
Jungkook grows more insistent when Taehyung leads them to the most populated area in the capital; the marketplace. It’s a place bustling with life, merchants and traders and fisherman all gathered to make a profit. Knowing Jungkook, it’s also the worst place to go if he’s looking out for Taehyung’s protection.
“Shh!” Taehyung hisses, clamping his hand over Jungkook’s mouth to quiet him. “We’re outside of the castle, Jungkook-ah. You should call me by my name or others might overhear.”
Jungkook twitches in defeat, shifting uncomfortably. Taehyung waits for him to nod his head before he takes his hand away from his mouth.
“T-Taehyung. Hyung.” Jungkook starts awkwardly, eyes fluttering before finding increasing interest in the dust on his shoe.
Taehyung doesn’t think there’s anything he likes hearing more. The only other two people who have ever said his name are his father and late mother. Once he received his first title he’s never been called it by them again. The way Jungkook’s tongue forms over his name makes fills him with elation.
“Yes?” he teases, watching the other squirm.
Jungkook clears his throat, eyes clearing once he remembers what he was saying before. “We can’t spend much time here. You have to address the officials in the afternoon, and then you’re expected to look through the commoner’s appeals.”
“I know, don’t worry.” Taehyung says, reaching out to pat Jungkook’s cheek cheerfully. “But I still have enough time to check on the lives of my people.”
There aren’t many times he gets to see commoners when they are not lining the streets, bowing on the ground as he passes in his palanquin. Like this he can see his people live and thrive, buying and trading in the busy streets. It’s much more interesting than affairs of the state, an endless pile of papers to manage and worry about.
Despite Taehyung’s sincere smile, Jungkook remains unfazed. “Don’t use your subjects as an excuse to run from your work.”
Whimpering, Taehyung grabs at his chest. “You’re so cold, Kook-ah. Turning my good deed into something like that.”
Jungkook gives him a look. “How is this helping the people, exactly?”
“I have to understand the lives my people live to be able to properly sympathize and understand their needs.” Taehyung pouts like he used to do when he was seventeen and it was much harder to convince Jungkook to go against the rules. “I hardly get the chance to leave the palace. This is good to keep in touch with the outside world.”
“You’re getting better at talking.” Jungkook says after a short pause, and Taehyung should probably be offended at the surprise in his tone. But when Jungkook brightens Taehyung gets distracted—Jungkook has always held the stars in his eyes, even in the middle of the day. “In that case, I think there is something that you would enjoy.”
Taehyung eyes him skeptically. “Would I really? Or are you just going to turn me in to General Yoongi again?”
“Just trust me.”
And Taehyung, no matter how much it feels like he’s walking into the lion’s den, does.
To his surprise they don’t end up at the police station. Instead Jungkook takes him further into town, shoulders brushing as a way not to get lost in the large crowd. There’s no one he would blindly follow like this but Jungkook, no idea of where they are or what he’s going to see. He knows that Jungkook has his safety in mind and, when they finally reach the heart of town, he realizes that he has his happiness in mind too.
“Ssireum?” Taehyung almost squeaks in his excitement, trying to lift up onto his toes to see over the large crowd gathered around the ring.
“You said you wanted to see it before, so.” Jungkook says simply, picking absently at the lint on his clothes.
Taehyung has heard countless stories from Jimin about ssireum, where two people go against each other in a battle of strength. Before he knew better he would beg his father to take him to a match. But the roughness of the act, the wild violence, did not match up with rigidity of palace life. He never had the opportunity to even dream about seeing a match in person, let alone up close.
“You’re the best Kookie!” Taehyung’s cheeks hurt from how hard he grins, making to push further into the crowd.
“Wait,” Jungkook is quick to grab Taehyung’s arm, pulling him back. Taehyung turns to look at him curiously, fighting impatience.
“What is it?”
“This,” Jungkook holds up a gat, waving it in the air. “If I’m not going to do my job properly I want to at least take some precautionary measures.” He sets the hat down on his head, settling it so that it tilts low to hide his face but not too much as to block his view of the match.
“We can’t afford for you to be noticed in a place like this.”
“Wow,” Taehyung places a hand on Jungkook’s shoulder, touched. “You’re doing something dangerous without me having to beg you? I guess we really are friends.”
Jungkook just rolls his eyes, nearly choking Taehyung with how tight he ties the strings under his chin.
Having Jungkook around is really useful, Taehyung realizes, watching the younger’s back. They are about the nearly the same height but Jungkook shoulders easily through the crowd of people in a way Taehyung would never be able to, getting them to one of the best spots in moments. Like this he can see the wide ring properly, his shoes at the edge of the sand bags lining the edge of it.
The first thing Taehyung notices, is that it’s really loud.
The crowd is rippling with anticipation and excitement, the attention on the two men on either side of the ring. On the right a fairly tall and lithe male stands, talking to the announcer. The other on the left is much shorter but muscular. He appears much more focused, bouncing on the balls of his feet.
“Who do you think is going to win?” Taehyung asks, eyeing the two men carefully. “I think it’s the one on the right.”
“No way.” Jungkook shoots back immediately.
“It’s got to be the one on the left. Look at the way he moves just to warm up—he’s got to be good.”
“Don’t you know anything about the underdog? Even if the odds are against them they find a way to make it their advantage.”
Jungkook snorts. “Not all weak people can be called the underdog, you know. You don’t know anything about him.”
Taehyung shrugs. “Yeah, well you can’t tell someone’s strength from the way they bounce in place.”
“Oh really?” Jungkook raises his eyebrows. “Want to bet?”
With a wicked grin, Taehyung agrees. “Okay then, let’s bet.” At the opposite side of the ring there are a group of men taking wagers, but Taehyung doesn’t want Jungkook’s money. “The loser has to do whatever the winner wants. Deal?”
Jungkook’s eyes are bright with competitiveness. “Alright. Just don’t expect me to go easy on you.”
It doesn’t take long after that for the match to start. Taehyung is amazed by the way the volume of the crowd drops to a hush the moment before the announcer starts the match, and once again at how loud it grows once the two opponents grab each other’s belts. He feels somewhat out of place, awkward as he sways along with the pushing of the crowd. If his mother always considered him a rowdy child, he wonders what she would think of this.
“You have to chant the name of the person you want to win,” Jungkook tells him in amusement, “It’s much more fun that way.”
“Oh,” Taehyung says, stiff. He watches the way Jungkook yells out complaints when the shorter nearly trips out of the ring, only to pump his fist in the air when he manages to stumble forward in time.
The rippling emotion of the crowd turns out to be easy to fall into. No one cowers when Taehyung yells; rather no one pays him any attention at all. He isn’t scolded for acting anything other than dignified, because there is no one to see. It’s elating to have the interest pointed away from him for once.
In his periphery Jungkook is jumping up and down. The short man has hooked his leg around the taller, fingers tightly clasped on his clothing. Taehyung is just about to yell in defeat when the lanky male turns at the last second, managing to pin the short one down and take the win. Jungkook’s face of victory freezes and crumbles into disbelief. Taehyung forgets himself in his elation, cheering so hard he fears his voice will go hoarse.
“Don’t forget you said you’d do anything I want.” Taehyung says happily, setting down his mug with a content sigh. Food and drink tastes sweeter with victory, he notes.
Jungkook sulks beside him, frowning. He shoves a dumpling into his already full mouth, and the way that he speaks with his mouth so full should be pretty disgusting, but Taehyung feels nothing but amusement as he watches the usually perfectly composed and strict Jungkook act like a child. It’s too easy to forget that he’s nearly two years younger than him.
“That was luck. A fluke.” he insists, “The shorter one should have won.”
“Yeah, but just because something isn’t meant to happen doesn’t mean it can’t.” Taehyung spares another glance up at Jungkook, finding that their situation isn’t too different.
“Still wasn’t fair.” Jungkook mumbles, glaring holes into his soup.
“I won fair and square. Don’t be a sore loser.”
“I’m not a sore loser!”
“Then no more talk about foul play.”
Jungkook shifts, and his shoulders lower, a gesture Taehyung has picked up to know that he’s given in. “Whatever. It was luck.”
“Are you going to sulk the whole time?”
“I’m not sulking.”
Taehyung grins, mumbling yes you are under his breath. “Well if you’re not sulking then let’s go play some games, yeah? Maybe you can win against me.”
Jungkook swallows, looking somewhat interested. “Aren’t you going to tell me what you want first?”
Taehyung blinks, humming in thought. “I’m not sure. It’s a onetime thing so I have to really want it, you know?”
“Which means you’re going to drag it out forever.” Jungkook supplies, frowning.
Taehyung’s eyes widen. “You know me so well, I’m getting goosebumps.”
It feels good to watch Jungkook try to fight away the amusement tugging his lips back up.
Jungkook coughs, covering his mouth to hide his grin. “Let’s go play those games, you child.” he says, lifting his bowl to his mouth and finishing it in one gulp.
There aren’t many times that Taehyung is successful in slipping away from his guards, so he plans on taking advantage of it all. His favorite part of his fleeting freedom is playing games that the commoners partake in with Jungkook. Like this they can be two normal boys who are hardly out of their teens, not the people who were forced to grow up too early, unable to have a proper childhood where they could enjoy moments like these. It’s nice to let go, not held down by rules or status or judgmental eyes.
After Jungkook’s fourth consecutive win, though, Taehyung regrets his suggestion.
It must be sweet revenge, he thinks bitterly, because there is no remorse in the way that he shoots each arrow with easy precision, stacking up on sweets like it’s nothing.
“I’m supposed to be looking out for threats.” Jungkook says guiltily after his latest win, a ghost of a smile still tugging at his lips, red from the sugar. Taehyung wonders how sweet he would taste if he kissed him right there, but he knows better than to act on it.
“Really?” Taehyung forces his eyes back to the target before releasing his hold on the arrow. It flings through the air, the soft padding on the tip only grazing the edge of the target. Jungkook makes a suspiciously insincere noise of sympathy. “You don’t seem to mind too much.”
“Is that what it seems like?”
Jungkook laughs, the sound boyish and carefree. Taehyung wishes he could bottle it up and keep it forever. In the palace he doesn’t hear the sound often, not when Jungkook is always tense and on edge, always anticipating the next threat. Out here he looks far more comfortable, opening up in a way he rarely does.
Taehyung ruffles Jungkook’s hair affectionately, fingers lingering on the soft locks. “It’s okay. You can make it up to me by actually doing your job on the way to Seokjin’s.”
“You’re stopping there today, hyung?”
“As much as I would like to come out simply to have fun, things are too tense right now.”
“You’ve grown hyung.” Jungkook sounds sincere this time, looking at him in a way Taehyung hasn’t seen before. It sends warmth through his veins. Taehyung holds the gaze as long as his heart can take.
“That’s what time does to people.” he replies, clearing his throat.
Fingers tingling with the remnants of heat, Taehyung plucks a sweet out of Jungkook’s hand. The taste blossoms rich and savory on his tongue, making Jungkook’s retaliation worth it.
Seokjin meets them at the top of the hill, probably tipped off about their approach by one of his men. He bows in greeting and then takes in the sight of Taehyung, bright eyed and far too relaxed for a normal day.
“Why do I get the feeling that you should have more guards?”
Taehyung grins sheepishly. “I wanted to have a day without feeling suffocated.”
Seokjin sends Jungkook an exasperated look and the boy just shrugs, matching Taehyung’s sheepish smile.
“Were you followed?” he asks instead of chastising any further—surely he’s used to this by now.
Jungkook shakes his head, suddenly serious as his eyes flicker around the area once more. Taehyung likes when Jungkook gets like this; jaw set, eyes cat-like and alert, looking out for any signs of danger. He might like the way his eyes crinkle and his lips twitch in defeat when Taehyung makes it his goal to break that cold exterior much more, though.
Seokjin ushers them inside, shutting the door behind him. Taehyung can see Jungkook visibly relax with the extra privacy, though he still scans the area.
“There aren’t any assassins here, Jungkook.” Seokjin says, watching him sniff around in amusement. “Unless you think my men haven’t been doing their job well enough.”
Jungkook flushes guiltily, shaking his head. “That’s not it, hyung.”
Seokjin chuckles, reaching out to ruffle Jungkook’s hair. “I know that, you goof. Nothing is more important than protecting the Crown Prince, right?”
Taehyung watches fondly as Jungkook smiles and nods. Often Taehyung forgets that they are not related by blood. Seokjin smothers Jungkook in affection and Jungkook respects him so naturally; a relationship of true brothers that Taehyung is envious of. He doesn’t doubt his closeness with Jimin, but there will always be a political aspect to their relationship.
“When are you coming back to court? Seuseung-nim would like you there, and so would I. It’s not as fun without you to make faces at.” Taehyung complains, knowing he sounds like a child.
Seokjin laughs, the sound always music to Taehyung’s ears. He could see why all of the maidens fell for him, what with being handsome and the heir to a powerful dojang. “It will be a while, I’m afraid. Father needs help around here—he’s not as young as he once used to be.”
Taehyung frowns. “Well, then what about that thing I asked you about?”
“That is still in progress—but let’s not talk about that out here.” Seokjin says, giving him a meaningful look. “Let me make you some tea and we can talk inside.”
Taehyung lets the older male lead him to one of the many rooms of the complex, tucked away from prying eyes. Even if he didn’t doubt the loyalty of Seokjin’s men, it was best not to risk their plans being found out.
“I’ll wait outside.” Jungkook tells them, surely planning to make sure they are not overheard.
“We won’t be long.” Taehyung promises, following Seokjin into the room and shutting it behind him.
He takes a seat while Seokjin brews the tea. The aroma fills the air, relaxing Taehyung’s tense nerves. Seokjin places a cup in front of him before taking his seat, resting his chin on his fingers.
“How what have you found out?” Taehyung asks after they talk for a while. He’s been dreading this moment, but he knows better than to hold off any longer.
Seokjin reaches and pulls out a book. It’s small, just large enough to fit in his hand. “This is a list of the nobles that have made suspicious payments. Several with an amount large enough to sneak a group of people out of the city.”
Taehyung takes the book, scanning through the pages. Only one name sticks out to him, the Minister of International Affairs. He remembers the official smiling in his face at the meeting earlier that morning, telling him to take care of himself.
His stomach churns in discomfort.
Other than that the list is full of low-ranking officials, none with enough power to do anything major.
“We’re missing the mastermind, I’m sure.”
Seokjin hums in agreement, taking a sip of his tea. “These are just the pawns. It’s proving much harder to find the important ones; they cover their tracks well. I still have Hoseok looking into it. General Yoongi has agreed to help as well.”
Taehyung sighs, nodding. “I hope it does not take too much longer. Time is not a luxury that we have right now.”
“Of course.” Seokjin agrees, dipping his head. “We will find them as soon as possible.”
Jungkook turns his head towards them when the door opens, giving a nod to show that everything is safe.
“We’d better get going.” Taehyung says, fighting a sigh. His freedom is over for the foreseeable future.
“Next time please send a message through Jungkook or Namjoon if you have anything to ask me, Jeoha. It’s burdensome to know the Crown Prince could show up at any moment.”
Taehyung laughs at Seokjin’s pleading expression, nodding.
“And if you’d allow me to request it, please take care of Jungkook as well. He has a tendency to skip meals when he’s stressed.”
“Hyung.” Jungkook protests, pushing away the hands squishing his cheeks. Seokjin coos. “I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself. I am not a child.”
“Don’t worry; I will force him to eat if I have to.”
Seokjin smiles warmly at him, pleased. Jungkook groans.
With one last wave, Taehyung turns and heads towards the door. He’s nearly halfway across the front when he realizes that he doesn’t sense Jungkook following, inaudible footsteps always a few feet behind him.
Taehyung turns just in time to notice Seokjin speaking low to Jungkook, a frown on his face. He makes a gesture Taehyung doesn’t understand. Jungkook looks uncharacteristically stern as he replies, shaking his head. It’s only when Seokjin’s tense muscles relax and he reaches out to ruffle Jungkook’s hair that they notice that he’s been watching them, separating immediately. Seokjin spares one last wave before he’s quickly ducking back into his room, shutting the doors quickly behind him.
Jungkook walks to him with long strides, stopping by his side.
“What was that?” Taehyung asks, keeping his tone aloof.
Jungkook shifts. “Oh, nothing.”
Jungkook tells him everything.
It comes as a surprise to Taehyung when he doesn’t mention anything of the exchange, and even more so when he avoids eye contact. Jungkook has always been a terrible liar, but most times he never has to worry about that because he never lies to Taehyung. There shouldn’t be secrets between them, not when trust is so important.
“We should head back, it’s getting late.” Jungkook adds quickly to fill the silence, clearing his throat.
Taehyung swallows the dark emotion building inside of him, and nods.
Time passes differently in the palace.
The few hours Taehyung spent outside in the real world felt like seconds, and yet the same amount of time in the palace drags like weights around his ankles. One meeting with his officers is all it takes to pull all the energy from Taehyung’s body. Keeping his calm in front of them is not an easy task, not when he can’t stop wondering which of them want him dead.
“You look tired, Jeoha.”
Taehyung turns, spotting Jimin waving up at him from the bottom of the throne hall steps.
After a long day of meetings and arguments, Jimin’s warm presence is exactly what he needs. He brightens immediately, nearly forgetting himself in his excitement.
“Jimin hyung!” Jimin’s smile is fond as he watches Taehyung make his way down the steps. Clapping his hand on the shorter male’s shoulder, Taehyung grins. “It’s good to see you.”
“And you as well, Jeoha. I trust you are well?”
“Now I am. You don’t know how much I needed to get away.” Taehyung glances to where the officers have dispersed from the throne room, making their way across the courtyard.
Taehyung groans, and its answer enough. The sun beats down heavily, nearly suffocating him through his layered clothing. a day like this he would love to stay in his bed all day, but he is not in a position where he can just rest.
“What about you hyung?” he asks, leading them to a much cooler area for the sake of his consciousness. “How have you been?”
“I’ve been here and there.” Jimin settles down in the shade, leaning back against the large tree behind them. “Hoseok hyung has been showing me the best spots in the city.”
Taehyung hums, knowing that the merchant’s wide knowledge would give nothing but the best adventures. “You should show me those places one day.”
“Of course! I know one place you would really like—it’s beautiful, just like the places we used to read about as kids. It can be quite dangerous if you aren’t careful, though. My poor mother would lose her mind if she knew I went there.”
“Danger makes everything more exciting.” Taehyung says, unperturbed.
“I knew you would say that.” Jimin laughs, flicking a piece of bark at him. “You are going to give your poor servants a life of trouble.”
“They love me for it.” he protests, Jimin’s laughter infectious. After they fall into silence he spares Jimin a glance, wary that he may overstepping boundaries with his next question. “How is your mother, by the way?”
Jimin’s response is reserved as usual, perfected from a life of practice. He’s quiet for a moment, seemingly engrossed in watching a group of court maids as they walk orderly across the path.
“She is well. She sends her thanks for the prescription you had the royal doctor make—it has helped her aches tremendously.”
Taehyung lets out a sigh of relief. “I am glad to hear that.”
Talking about family is always a very delicate affair. Taehyung has banished aunts and uncles who have coveted the throne, countless siblings and half-siblings that would rather see him dead than have a simple conversation. Jimin is the only one he’s close to in his family, and yet there is an occasional awkwardness between them still, simply because his mother was the Queen and Jimin’s is a concubine.
Taehyung hates the term, mostly because of the implications.
When he was younger and wanted nothing to do with the title of Crown Prince, Taehyung would always wonder what it would be like if they switched places. He always believed that Jimin would make a wonderful King. He was always kind and fair, but had a temper that kept others from walking over him. Palace etiquette came naturally to him, a sharp contrast to the way Taehyung fumbled to cover up his mistakes, always too loud and rebellious. Back then he couldn’t understand how Jimin’s quick intellect and talent for politics didn’t lead him to a position like Namjoon or even Yoongi.
But he knows better now; that the law states illegitimate sons cannot hold positions in office.
It’s a crippling law, and a topic he knows Jimin would rather not talk about. So when he makes to the change the subject, he doesn’t fight it.
“Where is Jungkook? It’s not often that I see you without him lurking around somewhere.”
The image of Jungkook creeping behind him like a shadow has him laughing. “He has a training session with my other guards. There are some new recruits.”
Jimin blinks in surprise. “I see.” Softer, he adds, “It’s getting to that time, isn’t it?”
Taehyung doesn’t want to think of the clock that is constantly ticking, counting down the days until his time has run out. He still feels far too young. “There is still plenty of time left. We just want to be prepared.”
Jimin’s gaze is knowing, no doubt seeing right through his façade. Often there are situations like this, where they pick up on each other’s insecurities or fears, hopes or dreams. In a place like this, though, it’s better, safer, to keep those things unvoiced.
When Taehyung was young he had to sit through countless lectures about what it means to be a King.
A King’s job was to keep harmony in the land, to handle affairs of the state along with the help of their officials. Under a good King, the land prospered and everyone was happy. The King guided and protected his people like they were his own children, set an example of the ideal man. A King was the embodiment of the sun, warmth and light when the world was plunged in darkness.
After seeing his father, Taehyung couldn’t agree more.
Many days of his childhood were spent waiting for his father to visit him. Before his mother passed away he would sit on her lap and squirm impatiently, ears straining for the sound of court maid that would announce his arrival.
“Sit still, child.” His mother often chastised, though her gaze was warm with understanding.
“But Omamama, Abamama’s late.” he would protest, but he wouldn’t pout. It wasn’t noble to pout or cry, his teachers told him.
(It also wasn’t noble to complain, but Taehyung figures no one becomes perfect in a day)
Before palace rules and etiquette became a must rather than a suggestion, Taehyung would run into his father’s arms when he finally arrived. The man would laugh and scoop him up, brushing off his mother’s protests with an easy smile.
“Abamama!” he would exclaim in greeting.
“I’ve heard great things about your studies.” His father would always say, “I’m proud of you.”
Nearly bursting with pride, Taehyung’d recount everything he learned that day. “Today we went over The Spring and Autumn Annals.” he remembers saying on day, too eager to let his father know the difficult books he was going over.
“That’s a good one.” The King had settled Taehyung on his lap, giving him a serious look. Taehyung scrambled to school his face into something similar, listening attentively. “It is important never to forget the struggles of your people. As a member of the royal family, it is your duty to think about what you can do for them, not what they can do for you.”
That was the father that Taehyung knew.
He spent his childhood staring at his father’s broad back in awe, wanting to be like him. Strong-willed and quick-witted; a sage-king. The dragon robes seemed to come to life when he wore them, a constant reminder that he was in the presence of a true ruler.
The person in front of him now is not the man that Taehyung once knew.
This man is aged, and the realization is terrifying. Taehyung can see the pass of time in the royal’s grayed hair. He looks so small in his white robes, supported by his eunuch just so that he can sit up. Taehyung’s throat is dry when he swallows.
“I heard you went out without your guards again.”
Taehyung jolts, feeling like a chastised child. Trying to save face, he straightens his spine and his nerves. “I was not alone. My guard was with me.”
“Your life is far too precious to rest in one person’s hands, no matter how skilled.” His father looks disappointed, but not surprised. “When will you learn? You cannot afford to take risks like this anymore.” Though he surely has more to say about the matter, his father’s words are broken off by series of coughs. They steal his energy away, leaning heavily against his eunuch to remain upright.
“Abamama!” Taehyung exclaims in surprise, panicking as he listens to his father struggle to breathe. He turns to call to call for the royal physcian, but his father is quick to dissuade him.
With shaking fingers he gestures for Taehyung to come closer, sending the eunuch away with a glance. Despite his weakness his eyes have not lost their strength, nor his voice the commanding tone of a King. Taehyung is grateful that not everything has changed.
“I do not have much longer to live.”
Taehyung can feel his body freeze with shock, looking at his father with wide eyes. “Abamama, please don’t say that.”
His father waves off his concerns with a shake of his head. His gaze is like fire when it settles on him, pressing and important. “I do not need you to puppet the words the officers say to stay in my graces. What I need you to do is prepare. When my time comes, it will be you that ascends the throne.”
Taehyung fights back his fright; now is not the time. “What is it you want me to do?”
“There are too many people after your life. We need to strengthen your rule and eliminate those that will try to take your life. Otherwise, the days between my death and your coronation will be one of the darkest ones of your life.”
“I am still working on it—we’ve found some conspirators but not the head.”
His father nods, releasing his breath in a heavy sigh. “Bring me the complete list of those conspiring against you. Getting rid of them will be the last thing that I do for you.”
Taehyung is used to the quiet way Jungkook approaches him by now, but he has yet to get over the way he materializes from the shadows without warning. His footsteps are lighter than a still night, his presence unknown until he wants to be seen. Thankfully he looks better rested and groomed, eyes alert and bright. With one glance at his expression Jungkook seems to know what is on Taehyung’s mind.
“I will be King soon.” he speaks regardless, his voice nearly swallowed up in the thickness of night.
Jungkook remains silent by his side, listening.
“I—am scared.” Taehyung hates the way his voice falters, breaking off and crumbling. Despite all of the lessons demanding that he never show weakness he finds himself like this, falling apart even though nothing has truly happened yet. “I am not ready to rule a country, not when I can hardly even control what duties I have now. It feels like only yesterday I was a child coddled in my mother’s arms.”
The thought of his mother has him falling further into melancholy, staring out into the dark. The thought of her is still painful, but there is nowhere to run. Whether his eyes are opened or closed flashes from that night press at the forefront of his vision. There was so much blood, so much that he fears he will never be able to wash off.
This is not what a King is supposed to be alike. A King does not cower and long for his mother’s protective embrace. A King doesn’t give in to weakness nor does he allow others to see him anything but composed. That is the King his father had been. The nobles could hardly speak against him, the people respected him. He was the sun personified, and Taehyung didn’t think he could fill that role when it was his time to.
“You do not give yourself credit.” Jungkook’s voice is soft but firm, soothing against the grating of his thoughts. “How many times have you stopped corrupt plans to take more from those who cannot fight back? How many nights have you lost sleep just to read and reply to your people’s requests? Forgive me for speaking about what I don’t know, but being a King does not mean being perfect. Making mistakes is human, and I do not doubt that you will find a way to make things right.”
“You sound like seuseung-nim.” Taehyung manages to laugh through his pain and the curse is broken, if only for a moment. “It doesn’t suit you.”
Jungkook scoffs. “Next time I’ll just let you cry, then.”
Taehyung turns, taking in the sight of the younger male. He feels immediately grounded, like he can finally feel the light breeze that cools his clammy skin and makes the darkness less obtrusive.
“Don’t be cruel.” he says, because it’s easier to tease than to say what he really wants to.
“I could never.” Jungkook replies, because he knows.
The silence between them is comfortable. Taehyung lets his thoughts wander once again, but does not let them stray back to negative things. His father has worked hard to make him as prepared for his duty as possible, and he shouldn’t overlook that. Even if he knows he will miss the careful advice and guidance, he cannot remain a child forever, as much as he may want to.
“When you said that you wouldn’t let them get me,” Taehyung huffs out, holding on to the straw post weakly, “I didn’t think that meant that I would have to fight them.”
“You have been slacking on your exercise, Jeoha.” Jungkook explains, his tone terrifyingly similar to Namjoon’s. “Teaching you to protect yourself in case of an emergency is a part of my job too.”
Summer has given way to autumn, and it’s finally bearable for Taehyung to be outside for longer than the walk from place to place. Jungkook takes advantage of this, reminding Taehyung that he should always be prepared for any circumstance that his safety is threatened. It feels more like torture, but he understands the sentiment.
Sweaty and exhausted, Taehyung pushes off of the post, picking his wooden sword up from the ground. They’ve only been here for half an hour and he’s already this winded—he really does need the practice.
Jungkook looks pleased with his replenished determination. “I’ll demonstrate one more time. Watch closely, okay?”
Jungkook dips down into position, making sure Taehyung’s eyes are on him before he goes through the defensive movement. His form is impenetrable, inhumanly light on his feet as he swipes up at an imaginary blow, spinning out of the way of an invisible enemy.
“Now you try.”
Jungkook speaks as if it’s the easiest thing in the world.
Bitter, Taehyung wonders whether Jungkook is doing this to help him or show off, the brat. But he is not the one with the upper hand here, so he quietly sinks into position, looking to the younger for guidance.
“You have to be lower. It’s better for balance and it gives room for movement.” Jungkook’s fingers press down on his thighs for one glorious moment before they pull away quickly, as if burned. Disappointed, Taehyung follows the instruction.
Jungkook nods encouragingly. He settles in front of him, wooden sword raised. “I’m going to come at you now. Try striking back, okay?”
Taehyung nods and Jungkook doesn’t wait to attack, the weapon a blur as it cuts through the air. Taehyung jolts into action late, swinging his arms up and turning his torso, stepping out with his foot. Their wooden swords clash and Taehyung has just enough time to move out of the way.
They go through several other defensive and offensive techniques that Taehyung learned from a young age. Jungkook’s words were right, he realizes when his sword is knocked once again form his hands. With such a dependable person to take care of him, Taehyung has been lax with his own practicing. He never enjoyed fighting anyways, so it was easy to reason with himself that he didn’t need to.
“That’s good for now.” Jungkook nods, reaching down to pick the wooden sword from the ground. “If you know that you won’t win a fight of strength you have to find a way to use your other abilities to your advantage. If you can stall for long enough there is a higher chance that someone will get to you in time.”
Taehyung nods dutifully. “Just long enough until you get there, right?”
“Or any of your other guards.”
“I have a feeling that it will be you.” Taehyung insists.
Jungkook gives him a look. “You expect too much of me.”
“Only the best.”
Taehyung starts to think he might have dug himself a hole as a wicked smirk tugs at Jungkook’s lips.
“This is torture.” Taehyung shuts the scroll with a groan, collapsing against the table. “Why am I doing this again?”
“You need to make sure you learn all that you can before it’s too late, Jeoha.” Jungkook repeats for the fifth time that day, looking over from where he’s seated across from him. “Things are going to get tense soon, and you need to be prepared in both mind and body. Only the best, remember?”
Taehyung gives Jungkook a pitiful look. “Since when did you get so comfortable around me?” he asks, “I remember when you were still Jimin hyung’s height. You couldn’t say anything to me then. Where did that cute kid go?”
“He changed to survive.” Jungkook deadpans. “Otherwise you’d use me to talk yourself out of doing work.”
Taehyung turns his attention back to his work in dismay. When he was younger he loved to study, thriving on his father’s praise and his mother’s pride. Even now he may give Namjoon trouble, but most days he doesn’t mind learning. Reading through the official’s appeals, however, always manages to drive him insane. It’s amazing to him how many blatant lies they can fit on to one scroll.
The few times Jungkook has sat with him while he works through them he always turns into this person, ruthless and unashamed.
“You only have a few more to read.” Jungkook coaxes, kinder, pushing the container of scrolls in his direction. “After that you’re free for the day. Doesn’t that sound nice?”
Taehyung groans again. Five doesn’t seem like much but they’ve been here all morning. The sun has already started to dip below the horizon, forcing them to continue on by candlelight.
“Can’t you just read them to me?”
Jungkook blinks. “You’re really trying to get me killed, aren’t you?”
Taehyung raises an eyebrow. “What makes you think that?”
“People will talk. Soon they’ll start to say I whisper orders into your ear.”
Taehyung’s confusion evaporates immediately, covered by his amusement. “If only they knew. You’re all brawn.”
Jungkook crosses his arms. “You would be a puppet prince if I wanted you to be.”
“Work on your calligraphy first, and then we’ll see.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“It’s so obvious that you were taught by seuseung-nim.” Taehyung teases, “All his bad habits have rubbed off on to you. If you can’t copy my handwriting no one would believe you.”
“Namjoon hyung was a great teacher.” Jungkook protests, sniffing. “He saw me practicing alone and offered up countless nights to teach me. I hadn’t warmed up to him then so I didn’t talk much, but he didn’t mind. He just carefully showed me the strokes over and over until I could get them right.”
Taehyung scrunches up his nose, feeling oddly jealous of the way Jungkook smiles, warm and adoring. “I bet I would be the better teacher.”
Jungkook raises an eyebrow at him. “You think so?”
“I know so. Remember when I taught you how to sneak out of the palace?”
“You mean when I taught you how to climb a fence? We would have gotten caught if it wasn’t for me.”
“I showed you the route.” he grumbles. “If it wasn’t for me you wouldn’t have gotten to Seokjin hyung in time.”
Taehyung can feel Jungkook’s eyes on him as he sinks into his chair, rolling the next scroll open dejectedly. He hasn’t even scanned through the first few words before Jungkook speaks again.
“Let me tell you a secret.”
Taehyung doesn’t even glance up. “I don’t want to hear it.”
“And you say I sulk all the time. Just come here, it’ll only take a second.”
Jungkook is gesturing for him to lean forward, his crooked smile inviting, and well. Taehyung decides to humor him this one time.
He makes a show of lifting the scroll in front of them to hide their faces as he leans in. It’s impossible for him not to notice the way Jungkook’s eyes flicker, the way his fingers tighten around the edge of the table. It’s some consolation for the sudden beating of his own heart, loud and heavy against his chest.
“What’s the secret?” he asks.
“You can’t tell Namjoon. He’d probably fall into depression. Or be so upset he would refuse to talk to me for days. I don’t know which one is worse.”
Taehyung nods encouragingly, intrigued. “Your secret is safe with me.”
Jungkook makes a show of looking around before he speaks. “I like the way you teach more.”
Taehyung can’t help the snort of laughter that escapes him, resting his head on his arms. “Is that so?”
“It’s true. Hyung always says he’s understanding and patient, but he can be worse than General Yoongi when he gets impatient. I just let him think I didn’t notice.”
Taehyung giggles, nodding in agreement. But his mind isn’t on Namjoon and his temper, rather on how much he enjoys this moment. Tucked away and hidden in the back corner of his study, it feels like they’re own little world, an alternate universe where it’s just the two of them. A place where boundaries don’t exist. It gives him dizzying courage.
“Can I tell you a secret too?”
Jungkook blinks at him curiously, the candle light sending flickers of shadows across his face. Taehyung leans in closer, so close that he can feel Jungkook’s breath against his cheek. He lifts his head until his lips are an inch from Jungkook’s ear, blood rushing through his veins as he gives in just this once, lets himself say what has been on his mind for years.
“Out of everyone in this palace, you’re my favorite.”
Taehyung appreciates the stunned look on Jungkook’s face. In their close proximity he can both feel and see the way blood rushes to his ears, how he tenses in place as Taehyung’s lips brush against his skin. The childish game he started has changed dramatically, but Taehyung doesn’t care.
“You should… get back to reading.”
Taehyung laughs lightly at the way Jungkook stumbles over his words, still frozen. Struck with boldness, he pulls away and pushes the bench back to stand, dragging it over to the other side. Jungkook watches him in a daze as he plops down beside him, dropping his head on Jungkook’s thigh and closing his eyes.
“Jeoha, what are you doing?” It takes a moment for Jungkook to react, his whisper low, urgent. Taehyung doesn’t need to see to know that he’s glancing around them fearfully, always afraid of being spotted.
“Just a moment. Let’s stay like this just for a moment.”
Taehyung waits for Jungkook to push him away, to get a lecture reminding him that there are always eyes watching and being reckless right now will get him killed.
To his surprise, it never comes.
After a few anxious seconds Jungkook finally settles down against him. His fingers relax from where they clutch the table and slide down to rest on the top of his head, then run hesitantly down to cup his cheek. Jungkook’s hands are calloused against his skin, large and rough from a life of labor. They aren’t the dainty, pale, soft hands he is supposed to like. But Taehyung has already come to terms with the fact that his interests go against taboos that exist not to be broken.
For years they’ve danced around their feelings, fearing that acknowledging them would taint the moment, burst the little bubble they’ve made themselves with cold reality. Allowing themselves this one luxury—Taehyung wonders how long it will last.
But for now they are and they aren’t, and really, that’s okay.
Taehyung never thought that being watched all day everyday could get any more suffocating, but the world has always enjoyed proving him wrong.
Besides the few moments he can steal in his study, it’s impossible to get a moment alone with Jungkook anymore. From the moment he wakes up there is always someone else there, looking over him. Taehyung knows he should be thankful—they’re here for his own safety, after all—but after the fourth time Jungkook stops him from trying to latch on to him with a carefully composed warning look, he feels like he’s going to cry. He misses the days where they could just spend hours together alone, when the palace felt more like an adventure and not a prison.
“I can’t take this anymore.” Taehyung groans one night, nuzzling into the crook of Jungkook’s neck. He had to coax Jungkook into the darkest corner of the study to convince him that it would be okay, curling his fingers into the muscles of his arms and pulling him behind rows and rows of ancient books.
“It can’t be helped.” Jungkook says. He tries hard to hide it, but Taehyung has known him long enough to spot the way his lips curl down at the corners. “Until we can get rid of your enemies it’s our job to protect you. I’d be more worried if it wasn’t like this.”
Reluctantly, Taehyung agrees. “I know it isn’t easy taking care of someone like me. I complain too much and try to fight against the people that look out for me.”
“It’s okay.” There’s something soft about the way Jungkook leans closer, ghosting his fingers fleetingly over Taehyung’s knuckles. “There’s nothing else I’d rather do.”
Jungkook still can’t look him in the eye when he does things like this, even though they seem so simple. He’s staring pointedly at the row of books beside him as Taehyung breaks out into a grin, curling into him once more. Taehyung thinks it’s moments like these where he falls even further for Jungkook, the little ways he always protects him from both bad people and thoughts.
He doesn’t care how long it takes; they will go at their own pace and find their way in time.
With that in mind, he thinks he can bear being patient for a little longer.
They are prepared for everything.
As much as he may dislike it there are almost always at least two people with him—excluding his normal entourage of court maids and eunuchs—and even if there wasn’t Taehyung is sure that after Jungkook’s teaching he can hold his own. He spirits are higher than they’ve been in months.
They’ve gone through every possible scenario, he thinks, and yet.
The day has barely just begun. His servants bring in his breakfast and he watches the taster go through each dish meticulously, and yet.
It only takes a few bites for Taehyung to realize that something is not right.
He can’t pinpoint the exact problem, but he feels lighter than normal, like the gravity around him has lessened and he’s started to float upwards. But then he’s suddenly falling, his stomach churning unnaturally, and he feels wrong.
Trying to fight off the strange feeling, he lets his gaze stray to Jungkook. He’s sitting next to another guard, sending glances his way occasionally. But the more he tries to focus on the younger the more confused he becomes, because since when was Jungkook so blurry? Instead of one of him there’s two, both standing in concern as his chopsticks clatter to the table suddenly. The sound is dull, distant.
“Jeoha? Is something wrong?”
Taehyung shakes his head, but it feels like trying to push against a wall. “M’fine.”
Despite his words he’s swaying, arms bucking from where they try to support his shaking form. Hands steady him before he can hit the floor, something soft and sturdy cushions his back. His body jerks. Oh, Taehyung thinks, staring blankly at the blood on his hands. He didn’t expect to be attacked this way. He’s used to assassins and attacks at his character. Poison is new.
It’s strange to see Jungkook’s face twist into such an agonized expression. He’s never seen him look so desperate, doe eyes wide and pleading over him. If he could just find the energy to lift his hand he would run his fingers through his locks, that always seems to calm him down. But everything feels heavy, from his legs to his eyes, drooping more by the minute.
No no you shouldn’t sound like that, Taehyung thinks, letting out a deep breath as his eyes finally close, You always hurt yourself when you sound like that.
The days following the poison are hazy at best.
The first time he opens his eyes he thinks he sees his mother, her face distraught with worry as she calls his name. He tries to keep his eyes open as long as he can to take in the sight of her, but the darkness is quick to pull him back again.
The next time it’s the royal physician that leans over him, fingers pressed into his pulse as his assistant places a cool cloth on his boiling forehead. His stomach lurches and he finds himself sick, begging the darkness to come just so that it can take away the pain.
The third time he is alone, save for a guard sitting cross-legged in the corner of his room. His heart skips a beat, but after straining his eyes, he realizes in disappointment that is not Jungkook.
The fourth day he waits, expecting that the news that he’s woken has reached Jungkook by now. Any moment he will come through the door, doing a terrible job as hiding his worry and guilt. Taehyung goes over what he can say to comfort him, knowing that it will be harder than most times. Don’t be an idiot, how can it be your fault? No one saw it coming, he considers saying, I’m fine, see? Still kicking and screaming. It’s far too nonchalant for Jungkook to take him seriously, he decides, and spends the rest of the evening trying to think of something better.
Taehyung waits until the moon has long reached its peak and fallen to come to terms with the fact that Jungkook is not coming.
The feeling he gets is strange. It’s a hollow thing, a gaping, empty hole that settles in the center of his chest. He would be worried for Jungkook’s safety, but his servants assure him that there have been no strange disappearances, no deaths. Staring at the ceiling, Taehyung tries to fight off the doubt, clutching the inside of his sheets tightly. He doesn’t want to think about how he was before Jungkook became a constant in his life. Just the possibility of not being able to see him every day is enough to make him anxious, restless.
On the middle of the sixth day, Jungkook finally comes.
Taehyung rushes to sit up when his court maids announce his arrival, pinching his skin to give it color. He wants to look as healthy as possible—otherwise, he fears for how Jungkook will react.
The first thing Taehyung notices is the awkward way Jungkook pauses at the entrance of the door to bow.
“Where have you been?” Trying to keep his voice level and hide the hurt is much harder than it seems.
Jungkook stops halfway into the room, looking lost. You can come closer, you know that, he wants to scream, but he is not childish. He is a mature adult, or at least that’s what he repeats to keep himself in check.
“I, I was helping track down the one responsible for the attempt.”
It’s an obvious lie.
“Jungkook.” Taehyung says, frowning.
Jungkook is quick to apologize, dropping into another deep bow. The progress Taehyung thought they made just days before seems far away now. “Forgive me, Jeoha.”
Taehyung sighs. He can’t stay upset, not when he knows how Jungkook must be feeling. “Don’t tell me you blame yourself. We’ve been through this before.”
“Of course I do.” Jungkook is looking everywhere but him. “It’s a body guard’s job to—”
“Watch and protect over their master, right? That’s what you always say.”
Reluctantly, Jungkook nods.
“If you live like this you’re going to get gray hairs before you even turn thirty.” Taehyung chastises gently. “There’s no way you could have known that it was the chopsticks that were poisoned. There was a taster; we went through the precautions correctly. There was nothing you could have done.”
Jungkook doesn’t look convinced. “It’s my duty to anticipate those kinds of methods. You got hurt while I was there, which is unforgivable.”
“Just know that I don’t blame you, okay?” Taehyung knows at this point nothing he says will change the way Jungkook feels, so he at least wants him to know that one thing. He fights to lighten the dark mood, wanting them to go back to normal again. “Now if you really want to make it up to me you won’t disappear like that again. It’s been so boring without you.”
“You might change your mind after I start making you work again.”
Taehyung winces at the warning. “You’re right. Are you sure you don’t need to rest more? Maybe go to the mountains to restore your spiritual energy or something?”
“What am I, a shaman?” Jungkook murmurs, lips twitching upwards in the hint of a smile. It’s small and brief, but it’s enough to make Taehyung’s body sag with relief.
“No way.” Taehyung mumbles, staring at the stack of papers that Jungkook places on his desk. “I’m still on my sick bed.”
“You’re nearly at full recovery, Jeoha.”
“The King has taken care of everything else but this despite his state.” Jungkook reminds him, a jab that cuts too deep to ignore.
Taehyung turns unenthusiastically and begins scanning through the papers, stamping the reasonable ones with his seal. He doesn’t know how much time passes like that, the room quiet except for a soft thud and shuffle of paper. He does know that he runs out of steam far too quickly, pressing his cheek against the cool cherry wood of his desk. Normally this would be the moment that he voices his complaint out loud, but another one of his guards, Yugyeom, sits in the corner.
Pulling out a blank sheet of paper, Taehyung writes a quick note and tosses it to Jungkook. The younger catches it with ease, sending him a questioning look. Taehyung mimes readig it. Jungkook does.
‘Let’s just get out of here.’ it suggests.
Jungkook stares at the paper for a while before taking the brush pen to reply. ‘I doubt you’d be able to make it across the palace before collapsing.’
Taehyung makes a face at Jungkook’s messy scrawl. ‘You can just carry me.’
‘We’d be surrounded by the royal army in two seconds flat.’
‘I bet you could outrun them.’
“Are you really asking me to run from the royal army?” Yugyeom glances up at the sound of Jungkook’s voice, giving him an incredulous look.
“Don’t you think you could?” Taehyung asks, crumpling up the paper and stuffing it in his drawer.
“That’s not the question—though no, I don’t think I could run away from the royal army—the question is why would you want me to?”
Taehyung shrugs. “Because it’d be fun?” There’s nothing that gets adrenaline pumping quite like running for your life, Taehyung figures.
“I know you have an interesting idea of fun, but—”
Jungkook’s words cut off with a pained gasp. The sound is sudden and sharp, and Taehyung’s head snaps up in surprise.
“Are you alright?”
Jungkook makes a face, and Taehyung wonders if he’s always looked so pale. “I’m fine. It’s just a nick I got from practice.”
“The new recruits must be good if they landed a blow on you.” Taehyung says blinking. Yugyeom is looking at Jungkook too, expression unreadable. It’s unnerving. “Be careful, okay? You’re not as young as you used to be.”
“I hope you know that you’re insulting yourself with that statement, Jeoha.”
True to his word, Jungkook shows no mercy for Taehyung, dutifully pushing him to catch up for each and every thing he missed. That includes picking back up on his lessons with Namjoon, to his dismay.
“We are continuing from where we left off.” Namjoon says as soon as he enters, placing the book on Taehyung’s desk.
“You aren’t even going to ask how I am?” Taehyung asks, shocked. He isn’t a child, but he likes to know people care, especially ones that he cares about. “I’m fine, by the way.”
“I heard,” is Namjoon’s stiff, no-nonsense reply.
Taehyung huffs, put out.
“First Jungkook, now it’s you too? Do you know that it took a week for him to come see me? And then only a few days after he brings me work and disappears again even though I told him not to. Sometimes I wonder if he really cares about me.”
“You’re being unfair to Jungkook. You should start being easier on him.”
Taehyung looks up in surprise at the sound of Namjoon’s voice. He’s used to him saying cross things to get him back on track, but never has he snapped at him like this.
“What’s your deal today?” Taehyung asks, unable to act unfazed anymore. “If you have a problem then just tell me. We can do this another day.”
But Namjoon’s worked up, and Taehyung can’t believe that he’s seeing his eyes flash with anger. “Do you know what he goes through for you?”
“What he goes through for me?” Taehyung echoes, eyebrows furrowing. Surely Namjoon knows that, though Taehyung likes to joke about it, he is fully aware of the effort Jungkook puts into protecting him, that he always lets him know how grateful he is for it. “Of course I know that. I don’t take advantage of the people that care for me.”
Namjoon shakes his head, looking at him like he doesn’t get it. “Don’t you know that everything has its price? I would have expected that after all you’ve been through you would have learned by now.”
“What are you talking about?” Taehyung snaps impatiently, tired of Namjoon dancing around the point. He has to deal with cryptic messages all the time—the last person he wants to hear them from is his teacher.
With a heavy exhale, Namjoon runs a hand down his face. “Seokjin is going to kill me.” he mumbles, clearing his throat and raising his voice so Taehyung can properly hear him. “You know about Jungkook’s past, right?”
Now Namjoon has lost him. It doesn’t seem like the time to bring it up, but he nods anyways.
“What of it?” he asks.
Namjoon sighs. “He begged that I not tell you, but Jeoha, every time he helped you avoid the castle guard and escape he got lashes. This past incident was the same. He’s working so hard to protect you; you should cut him some slack.”
Taehyung calls Jungkook to his room as soon as Namjoon leaves, his words ringing loud in his ears. Impatience makes him pace, so distraught that he nearly misses the younger’s voice announce himself.
“Come in.” he says, trying to keep his voice as steady as possible.
The doors open and Jungkook’s head pops in. He’s got a skeptical look on his face, throwing a glance over his shoulder as he closes the door.
“It’s not like you to send the servants away. Don’t tell me you’re trying to sneak out again? It’s too obvious if you do it like this.”
“Jungkook, come here.”
The smile on Jungkook’s face fades immediately at the sound of his serious tone, face smoothing to match it.
“Is something wrong?” he’s quick to ask, closing the doors behind him. “Give me your orders.”
Taehyung lets Jungkook draw close before he speaks again, watching the way that his muscles have tensed and prepared to spring, as if he expected Taehyung’s life to be in danger at any moment. That, Taehyung thinks, makes everything worse.
“Take off your shirt.”
The cool focus of Jungkook’s countenance falters as he splutters. “Jeoha what—”
“Take off your shirt, Jungkook.”
Jungkook freezes at the anger in his tone, head ducking instinctively. Taehyung hates the way his body automatically bends under his words, like he physically can’t do anything else. Bundled in that one movement lies the distance that Taehyung tries daily to ignore, the gap that serves as a reminder that no matter how hard he tries, they will never fully close it.
The silence is stifling, unnatural and thick between them. Before Taehyung can take back his words and apologize Jungkook reaches downwards, fingers working quickly at the knot holding his hanbok together. His eyes remain downwards as he shrugs off the top layer, working on the inner one.
Taehyung gaze trails over the broad line of Jungkook’s shoulders, the smooth expanse of skin and muscle, tanned from his time in the sun training and protecting him. There are small scars from when he did not get out of a fight unscathed, but that is not what Taehyung is looking for. The cloth falls softly to the floor, baring every inch of Jungkook’s torso.
Taehyung’s voice is thick in his throat. “Turn around.”
Wordlessly, Jungkook does.
A noise of horror escapes Taehyung’s lips but he doesn’t notice it, doesn’t know what to do with himself, mouth open but unable to speak as he takes in the raised skin on Jungkook’s back.
They mar his back with angry strokes, cutting into his skin. There are so many, and what’s worse is Taehyung can imagine how he got each one—the deepest and most faded ones dating from before they even met.
Taehyung still vividly remembers the first time he saw Jungkook. He’s sure that Jungkook wouldn’t recall; they were just boys then, their paths an unlikely cross. Curled in on himself, he had made his way across the compound as if he expected to be grabbed at any moment. Seokjin had explained to him with a look darker than anything he’d ever seen the male make that Jungkook was a part of the slave class and the victim of a rather harsh master. Taehyung had been sickened by the thought of someone being able to do such cruel things to someone, let alone a child.
And yet the most recent ones are because of him.
Some from when they were teenagers, he guesses, the most from as recent as after he was poisoned. The thought that he was no better, that he caused Jungkook that same pain that he thought he helped him get away from has him reeling.
“Jungkook,” Taehyung’s voice shakes. He’s dizzy with a multitude of anger and shame and pain, he can hardly think straight. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Jungkook’s face is blank when he turns back around, his voice too detached.
“I didn’t want to worry you, Jeoha. It’s nothing dire enough to require your attention.”
“These are whip marks, Jungkook. How are they not important? If I knew you were going to get punished for me leaving I would have never done it.”
The way Jungkook blanches at that, genuinely offended is enough to make Taehyung lose his mind. “You always speak about how suffocated you feel in the palace, like you're detached from the world. Who am I to deny you a few hours of freedom?”
This is the part of Jungkook that Taehyung has never been able to understand, and probably never will. He speaks as if his words are obvious, like Taehyung should just get it, but he can’t. It’s impossible for him to even get past the fact that Jungkook shook his head at him and smiled, let Taehyung sneak them out of the palace knowing what waited for him when they returned. That he thought he had no place to stop him.
“I am the Crown Prince, Jungkook. One day I will be King.” Taehyung pauses, trying to fight the tightness of his throat. He wonders if he has done enough for Jungkook—if he has done anything for Jungkook but cause him pain— for the younger to do such a thing for him, and Namjoon’s words finally make sense. “If I can’t even protect the people that matter most to me, how am I to protect a country?”
“This is my job, Jeoha. I protect you so that you can protect the country. If this is the price it takes to be by your side, I’d pay it ten times over.”
“There shouldn’t have to be a price!”
Jungkook’s voice is high, disbelieving. “Isn’t there? You are the Crown Prince, Jeoha, and I am a slave. I shouldn’t even be able to look you in the eyes, let alone be by your side.”
Taehyung deflates, dispirited. In the end this is what it always comes down to, the wall they hit over and over again. He wonders if it’s possible to be both the Crown Prince and Kim Taehyung, or if he has to pick between one. No matter what he chooses he’s fighting a losing game, and he’s become so tired of it.
“Am I only a Crown Prince to you?”
Jungkook blinks. “No, of course not—”
“Do you think that I only see you as a slave?”
“Then why don’t you trust me?” Taehyung blinks back tears of frustration, crying the last thing he wants to do right now. “I care for you Jungkook, more than I care about anyone else and you know that. You know that I don’t like to see you hurt. You know that I would do anything to keep that from happening. So why would you think that this is okay?”
“It’s just—” The defeat that drags Jungkook’s shoulders downwards weighs heavily on Taehyung’s heart. “No matter how much I try to run from it, I will always be a slave. Just being in this position is much more than a person like me should get. How could I dare wish for more?”
“You can. You can lean on me and ask me to protect you, just like you always protect me. I want to do that for you, because that’s what you deserve.” Gentler, Taehyung adds, “To me you are just Jungkook, my best friend. The one I love. The one I would give the moon and the stars to, if I could. If you’d let me. Don't you feel the same?”
“We can’t.” Jungkook protests quickly. “If we get caught it gives your enemies the perfect opportunity to strike against you. This is the most crucial time for you. Stabilizing your impending rule should be the only thing I think about. Doing anything more would only be hurting you.”
“Is that how we’re going to live the rest of our lives? I want you, and nothing they can say about me can change that.”
“But I care about what they could say about you.” Jungkook’s eyes are wide earnestness, of so much love and loyalty and concern that Taehyung can feel himself falling more and more. He knows the possible consequences of his actions, what others might say to hurt him, but if he has to sacrifice Jungkook to change that, it isn’t worth it.
“We’ll be careful. If we have to wait then we’ll wait. If we have to hide for the rest of the lives I’ll do it happily. All I need is you.”
Jungkook panics when Taehyung draws close, stepping back before he can reach him. “We can’t.” he repeats, feebly parroting the words that have been engraved in his mind.
“I won’t do anything that you don’t want.” Taehyung promises, begs. “If you’re uncomfortable with it at any time I’ll stop and I won’t be mad. Just—can you give us a try?”
Stillness hangs between them, long enough that Taehyung starts to fear that Jungkook is going to refuse until the very end, wonders how he will get past it.
“Okay?” Taehyung echoes, scared his mind is playing tricks on him.
“Okay,” Jungkook repeats, louder. “We … can try.”
Taehyung lets out a noise of hope, stepping forward in disbelief.
Jungkook stops him with a hand before he can grab for him again. “But we can’t do anything while you’re under close watch like this. Even sending everyone away like today cannot happen again.”
Taehyung nods enthusiastically, stepping forward.
“And you have to let me be as cautious as I want.”
Another nod, another step.
“You can take all the time you need, and I’ll do anything you ask me to.” Taehyung assures him, tilting Jungkook’s chin up until they’re eye to eye. “In exchange, you can’t keep things like this from me ever again.”
There’s an unreadable storm raging in the younger’s eyes, bottom lip held hostage between his teeth. His body tenses and relaxes underneath Taehyung’s fingertips, like he has trained his body to hold back for so long that he doesn’t know how to let go. Taehyung watches him closely, patiently, taking in the way he seems to run through his options before, at last, he nods.
It might not be healthy, the way his heart has constantly skipped and jumped in his chest from both anger and frustration and elation in just a short amount of time. But as long as he can call the hope in Jungkook’s eyes his, he thinks he will be alright.
There are a few perks that come with the Crown Prince.
He does not use them often, doesn’t care to, but moments like these are when they come in handy.
It does not matter if others notice the way several of his guards begin to get transferred to different departments outside of the capital city. It does not matter if they scratch their heads and wonder how the men took such a demotion without complaint. They can speculate and say whatever they like; no complaint would be strong enough to change Taehyung’s mind. Even Jungkook has no complaint to make as he watches the way Taehyung shakes with barely repressed rage, eyes flashing as he stamps the order with his father’s seal. The change is final, effective immediately.
It was far too light a sentence, in his eyes.
And if the court maids notice that Taehyung smiles brighter after that day, if the cooks notice that he eats and compliments the food much more than normal, if anyone at all notices that the large amount of paper and ink he goes through in the following days, they never find the reason why.
“You don’t have to stay here for this, Jeoha.”
Taehyung glares, though it lacks heat. “I want to. It does me good to see you treated with my own eyes.”
With a cautious glance in his direction the physician finishes wrapping Jungkook’s torso. The injured male keeps his eyes on the wall, avoiding Taehyung’s gaze. He’s probably still scandalized that Taehyung tried to call the royal physician to tend to him. As much as Taehyung still wants to, he knows that it would draw too much attention. Jungkook’s warning had been genuine, and the last thing he wants to do so soon after he accepted Taehyung’s confession is break it.
Taehyung can still feel the remnants of his anger, white-hot if he thinks about things for too long. What had been subdued by sending those responsible far away was quick to rush back every time he thinks of how Jungkook had been suffering in silence all this time, treating his wounds on his own.
“I can’t believe you treated yourself for so long.” Taehyung says when the physician has packed up and gone, leaving them alone in the room. “What if it got infected?”
“Yugyeom helped me most of the time. Anyways I know a bit about taking care of wounds.” Jungkook pauses for a moment before adding, “My father was a healer. When I was young I would always watch him take care of patients.”
Jungkook doesn’t talk about his past that often, and Taehyung has always known not to bring it up. He’s seen the way mention of it tears Jungkook apart, makes him get this helpless look that Taehyung wishes he knew how to wash away. So he’s is surprised that Jungkook is the one to volunteer the information, humming with forced nonchalance. “Yeah?”
“Yeah,” Jungkook replies, nodding. His eyes have a faraway look in them. “My mother said I was a natural. I was supposed to take over the practice with my hyung when I got old enough, but. Things didn’t work out that way.”
Taehyung swallows. He knows this part—their family got caught up in a quarrel between nobles, and took the fall for their mistakes. No one cared about the legitimacy of the claim, not when money spoke much louder than truth.
“I was only six when we were…sold. Since then I’ve lived most of my life being told I was nothing, and I don’t know when, but at some point I stopped questioning whether it was true or not.”
Taehyung frowns. “You know that’s not true.”
“To be honest, I’m not sure I do.” Jungkook’s laugh is dry, almost self-loathing. “I—I can’t change everything overnight. Even if you may not agree with it, I was a slave. To others, I still am. Being with you feels like going against everything I know, and it’s hard.”
Jungkook’s hand on his keeps Taehyung from speaking up, a request for him to listen. There are not many times when Jungkook personally pulls down his walls opens himself to Taehyung like this, so he forces down the objection on his tongue.
“But. You’ve treated me like the person I never thought I could be again. When others would have given me shackles you gave me wings, and before I knew it I was falling for you.” He finally meets Taehyung’s gaze, eyes nervous and vulnerable. “I love you too, Jeoha. If it’s really alright for me to be with you, I’d like to.”
Those were words that Taehyung thought he would never hear. The sound of them has him shuddering with pleasure, heat rushing to his neck. He never knew that something that is supposed to be wrong could feel so right. Love like this is forbidden, Taehyung reminds himself, and in a place where having dangerous secrets is like falling one step closer to checkmate, he doesn’t know how things will work out.
For now, though, he pushes those things to the back of his mind.
For now he would rather lose himself in Jungkook, the way he lets Taehyung close the distance between them. It’s far too incredible for words, the feeling of finally getting what he’s coveted for years. Jungkook’s lips on his are so soft and warm that he’s immediately addicted. He’s too eager, quivering with the knowledge that he can have this. Jungkook’s lips are just as sweet as he imagined they would be, but Taehyung thinks the way Jungkook doesn’t stiffen up but melts into him, his body heat warming him through their clothes, is much sweeter.
He doesn’t want it to end, but his lungs beg for reprieve.
Reluctant, Taehyung pulls away. Jungkook is breathless, short puffs of air against Taehyung’s cheek. He thinks the other is beautiful like this, all dark eyelashes and blood red lips swollen because of him. Chest tight, Taehyung doesn’t hesitate to reach out, running his thumb along the other’s cheekbone.
“Thank you for telling me, trusting me. I may not ever truly understand what you’ve gone through, but I want to try. I want to show you how much you mean to me, even if it takes the rest of my life.”
“Cheesy.” Jungkook mumbles softly, but his gaze is just as sickly affectionate. “Who sounds like Namjoon hyung now?”
“Don’t bring up seuseung-nim when I’m being romantic.” Taehyung complains, “You always ruin my cool moments.”
Blinking, Jungkook tilts his head to the side. “Odd, I don’t remember you ever having any of those.”
Taehyung may not be able to beat Jungkook in a fight, but he pulls him into a head lock just fine.
Min Yoongi comes with the night, bearing bad news.
It’s fitting for his title, one that has stuck with him since his infamous battle against invaders from the west; The Dark Night. Many that were there to witness it describe Yoongi leading the midnight plunge to what they thought was their sure death like a grim reaper, turning the tides of battle with his carefully thought out strategies and valiant courage.
But war is over and Yoongi now a General. The Min Yoongi Taehyung knows may not hold the same intensity of battle, but the desire to protect those who cannot protect themselves has not changed. It is not uncommon to hear that he’s worked so many sleepless nights that Hoseok had to personally go to the station and drag him away before he collapsed.
Taehyung is surprised to hear that Yoongi has requested an urgent audience with him, the notice reaching him as soon as he was finished his last meeting of the evening. He blinks and nods at his eunuch to show him he heard, sending Jungkook a curious glance before they head back to his room together.
Yoongi is waiting for him inside, looking as business-like as ever. He refuses the offer for him to sit down, and Taehyung knows that he isn’t staying long.
“Is there something that you need?” he asks.
“Seokjin wanted to me to get this to you as soon as possible.” Yoongi says, reaching into his pocket. At the sight of the familiar book Taehyung inhales sharply, dread forming like a looming cloud over him.
“The list.” Yoongi supplies, passing it into his hands. “We caught the court maid responsible for planting the poison, and she led us to the culprits.”
Taehyung is breathless as he looks down at it, not sure if he wants to look at the names or not. The thought of countless people watching him, hoping and planning for the day that he died might be too much for him to bear.
“I’ll take care of it.”
Those were the words his father said to him when he took the list to his chambers that following night. In the back of his mind Taehyung knows he was not oblivious to what had to be done after they made the list. He knew what fate awaited the names that he forced himself to scan over, that if they didn’t do this then those people would—just as they did before—try to take his life.
He hears of the incident not long after it happens; word travels fast, especially in the palace. Even if word didn’t reach him he would be able to tell from the air.
Blood has spilled today.
So much blood has been spilt in the palace already that it makes Taehyung physically sick. His eunuch brings him a pot and some tea to help with his nausea, but it isn’t enough. His afternoon is spent hunched over, trying to empty a stomach that has nothing left to give.
“Is power really worth all of this madness?” Taehyung asks, gripping the front of Jungkook’s hanbok with shaking fingers. Jungkook doesn’t reply, whether it is out of respect or because he knows the answer but also knows it doesn’t help to tell. “I’m tired of having to kill or be killed. Even after today, it doesn’t mean that I don’t have any more enemies. Eventually more will form, and the cycle will start all over again. I’m just so sick of it. What is the point of all this violence?”
“You have to survive it.” is the only thing Jungkook murmurs, and really, is there any other choice?
Even if it feels like the world should stop, like the skies should turn dark with the stench of death, life goes on. Meetings resume a week later with both familiar and new faces, and there are no more attempts at his life. His guards resume their normal duties and the cycle starts again—except, with one new improvement.
“This is a bad idea.”
“You think?” Taehyung presses his lips into the juncture between Jungkook’s jaw and neck, enjoying the way his body jolts under his touch.
“Anyone could,” Jungkook’s voice breaks off in a gasp and he presses desperately at Taehyung’s back, “walk by and see us.”
“You can tell me to stop anytime.” Taehyung reminds him again, pausing in his attack to nuzzle into his skin. “I won’t judge.”
“I know,” Jungkook huffs, “It’s just—”
“Just?” Taehyung cuts in, grinning.
Jungkook pinches his arm, and Taehyung yelps. “It hasn’t been that long since things blew over.”
Taehyung nods in agreement. Over the last few months he’s become so accustomed to feeling suffocated no matter where he is, always watched. It’s strange to have space, to be allowed to walk more than two steps without feeling as if he’s gone too far out of eyesight. It might be too early to take advantage of the freedom, but time is always something they’ve never had and waiting feels like too much of a gamble.
“We’ve already been here for too long.” Jungkook adds.
“Then we should leave soon.”
“Another minute.” Jungkook mumbles, tugging him back in for another kiss.
A snicker is caught in Taehyung’s throat as Jungkook licks into his mouth, crowding him up against the wall. They really don’t have much time—there are bound to be servants coming to tend to the horses any minute now. Knowing that the next time they get a moment alone could be a while, Taehyung lets himself enjoy the moment, committing the sound of Jungkook’s moan to memory.
Only the noise is too loud, echoing in the space before he can stifle it with his teeth.
“Shh, you’re so noisy Jungkook.” Taehyung chastises playfully, pulling back. “Anyone could walk by you know.”
Jungkook tries to focus on him with hazy eyes, biting his bottom lip to hold back any more sounds. “You’re enjoying this too much.”
Taehyung laughs, caught. It’s hard not to enjoy it. Taehyung has always enjoyed the adrenaline that pumped through his veins when he was doing something he knew could get him in trouble. “Maybe.”
He indulges himself for one last minute, peppering kisses across Jungkook’s face as squirms in complaint. Moving away for good gets harder each time they do this, and Taehyung fears the day that he is unable to free himself from Jungkook’s warmth. He placates his urges with taking in the sight of the other male, smiling in triumph. His hair is halfway out of its ponytail, eyes bright and cheeks flushed.
“You look wrecked.”
“You’re worse.” Jungkook shoots back, smiling sheepishly.
“How do I look?”
“Like you just wrestled around in the grass with a wild boar.” Jungkook is giggling, fingers tugging at the front of his clothes to get it even again. Then his fingers work on his head, fitting his back in place before stepping back to look him over. “Okay, that’s better. We should get going.”
The only fortunate thing of this situation is that it would be weird if they weren’t seen together. No one thinks twice when the two of them head out of the stables, twin forced casual looks on their faces.
It becomes a game.
The highlight of Taehyung’s day becomes the few moments they steal when no one is looking. Whether it’s the few hours of early morning or the late hours of the night, he comes to appreciate every second he can spend learning more about Jungkook. He gets to see the younger make faces and say things that he’s never seen before, and in return it brings emotions and responses out of Taehyung that he never knew he had.
It’s so entertaining that Taehyung gets lost in it, and doesn’t see the fall coming until he’s standing in the midst of cries, loud and sorrowful as they mourn the death of a sun. He stares up at his father’s chambers and it’s like looking at his childhood come to an abrupt end.
Soon, he will call that place be his own.
Taehyung is numb with the realization that so many people will look solely to him for guidance. It will be up to him to take the spot his father left behind, to lead and maintain an entire country. He doesn’t know when he’s stumbled back to his chambers, when his legs have given out on him, when he’s crumbled to the floor.
Loneliness and uncertainty strikes sudden and deep. He’s always been easily frightened, unconfident in his ideas and policies after being criticized for so long. The knowledge that his father was there to look over him and make sure he was on the right path was the only thing that gave him the strength to hold his head high and fight through any protests. But he isn’t here anymore, and Taehyung doesn’t know how to deal with that.
A hand on his shoulder saves Taehyung from grieving too long.
“Jeoha, are you alright?”
It’s Jungkook, kneeling down by him in concern. He has already changed into the white clothing of mourning, just as everyone else in the palace will in the following days.
“I think I am going to be sick,” he admits honestly. Despite knowing that this moment would come for years, he feels as if everything is happening too fast. “I am not ready.”
Jungkook shakes his head firmly. “You will be fine. I believe in you.”
Taehyung holds on to those words, not realizing how much he needed to hear them until now.
“I hope you are right. Everything is happening so quickly.”
Jungkook hums in agreement. “In only a few days I will be calling you Jeonha, Jeoha.”
Taehyung shudders, a multitude of emotions running through him at the term.
“Don’t joke like that. It already feels like my heart will beat out of my chest.”
“It’s true, though.” Jungkook mumbles, his smile like light at the end of a dark tunnel. Taehyung uses it to fight through his panic, forcing himself to breathe.
“Must you tease me at a time like this?” he asks.
“You’re much calmer now though, aren’t you? Maybe a little excited?”
Taehyung can’t argue with that.
Grateful, he wraps his arms around Jungkook and buries his head in his shoulder. Breathing in his musky scent to calm his nerves, Taehyung realizes that through his fear his stomach is fluttering, with something much more welcome than nausea.
“You’re right.” He manages a giddy laugh, feeling a little delirious. “I will be King. Me.”
Jungkook eyes are bright as he nods, proud and loving. “Long live the King.” he says, the first of what will soon ring out across the land.
Taehyung squeezes Jungkook’s hand, swallowing the lump in his throat. The future is daunting, but he feels better knowing that Jungkook will be there every step of the way.
“Long live the King.” he echoes, and it feels a little like holding the world in his hands.