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Thrown in at the deep end

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“You’re not serious about this father?” The Crown Prince's brows are drawn, his unrest palpable.

 

“I am. You must get married before you can be crowned. It is nothing you didn’t know.” King Park Jihwan, who stood by the window of the Crown Prince’s study with his back turned to him, looking out, turns to him with raised eyebrows and curious expression. His tone has a touch of finality to it. Jimin knows this tone all too well. It is often the harbinger of a power struggle between him and his father. He thinks it might be one of the things that trigger him into rebelling against his father time and again but this time it is not a trivial reason such as the urge to resisting authority. This is not a pointless act of rebellion. This is about their people, their kingdom. And if another rebellion is the way to protect them, so be it.

 

“I know that. But you want me to marry a royal from Gimnan!”  He says it like he has tasted something putrid. To be honest, he does feel the need to gag at the idea. His father blinks at him with mouth slightly open like he doesn’t understand the reason of Jimin’s reaction.

 

How naïve can you be? Jimin resists adding. His father should know exactly why he detests the idea so much.

 

“Yes. So what?” King Park shrugs with his brows drawn and Jimin resists the urge to throw something at him or shake him back into his senses.

 

“I hate them. They’re treacherous assholes. The abandoned us not once, not twice but thrice when we needed battle support, leaving our soldiers – our people – to die. King Shin Geon is a snake and you know it!” He spats, absolutely hating having to spell out the obvious, thumping both his hands on the table in front of him hard. His father is unbelievable. He gets deceived again and again by Gimnan’s lies, phony promises of support.

 

In return for several trade tax relaxations, battle reinforcements when they needed it, Gimnan was supposed to show up to help when plundering barbarian tribes banded together against Jinje and a war had broken out on the already vulnerable western frontier nine years ago. Barbarian army had plowed through Jinje’s western guard with unbelievable ease because of two reasons. One was that they caught Jinje by surprise and the other one was that they simply were savages. Ruthless, unpredictable, without a care for battle etiquette or regard for decency, they took no prisoners. They attacked under the cover of night, obliterated the unsuspecting, unprepared guard.

 

By the time Jinje mobilised their forces, they had already intruded and captured many important posts well within the boundary of the kingdom, destroying everything they encountered on their way. Massacring villages after villages, they killed, raped and flayed in a bone-chilling display of cruelty. While facing them in battle, Jinje’s army was out of its element – they were overwhelmed by the savagery and ferocity of the barbarian fighters. King Park had sent a dove to their so-called “ally” King Shin Geon of Gimnan for help. Gimnan’s troops that were nearest to the region were strategically better placed to reach the western frontier quicker than Jinje’s army from the capital. Jinje’s guard units from adjoining regions could not abandon post to help western guard. It would have left their other borders wide open for intrusion. Gimnan could’ve held them back until Jinje’s troops got there and together they could’ve easily quelled the invasion. They had the numbers and strategic advantage to help but the only thing Jinje received was a promise of help. Help never arrived. Gimnan justified that later by saying they had to prioritise suppressing internal rebel activity due to which their troops were held up. Lies.

 

Jinje would have lost western provincial territory and suffered a bigger bloodbath than it already was if not for the strategic prowess of General Jeon Jeonghoon in battle and the unrelenting fortitude of Jinje’s warriors. They won but still suffered great losses. Hundreds of men and women lost to a horrific fate, their heads bashed with bludgeons even after being hacked down with blades until their bodies were no longer identifiable, feeding and fueling the murderous frenzy of their cruel enemy further. An enemy that gouged out eyes, slashed fingers – mutilated the dead – simply because it was fun to defile a corpse. One never recovers from the trauma of witnessing such cruelty. As for the survivors, they won the battle but lost a big part of themselves on the battle ground.

 

At the age of nineteen, it was not Jimin’s first combat experience and he was no stranger to spilling blood – his enemy’s or his own. All battles are brutal in their own way, but this was his first encounter with this particular brand of brutality. He still remembers the last stop on his way back from the battlefront with the remaining troops – victorious but broken, battered warriors – stopping by a village that was rendered a ghost town after the barbarian raid. Rotting corpses of men, women and children attracting hordes of flies and vultures, the repeating, sickening scenery that he had seen village after village, reminiscent of the dance of death that had happened, perhaps days ago, finally broke the young prince. It sent him on a quest for a hidden recess, away from the dreary eyes of his troops so he could finally shed the tears he had reigned in way too many times on his way. In solitude, he wept for all the lives lost of brave men in war, for all the innocent blood of his people, for their unheard cries. He wept for everything that could have been prevented if they just had help.

 

After that there were two more times when Gimnan promised to help but didn’t as opposed to Jinje having provided military support to them on countless occasions. Every time they came up with lame excuses. So Jimin has good reason to not trust them. In fact, he hates the Royal house of Gimnan. His father wasn’t there at the western frontier all those years ago. He was. His father hasn’t witnessed the violence, gore and brutality – the worst Jinje has ever seen. He has. So, his father will have to listen to him. He will not marry into that vile house of snakes.

 

He knows where this idea is coming from though. There are courtiers in the royal court who have vested interest in keeping the trading relaxed between the two kingdoms and benefit from the treaty between them which provides Gimnan first right of trade. Some of them are in cahoots with Shin Geon. It is them whispering into his father’s ears, making him believe they need Gimnan to thwart Namsan’s conquest attempts and that the only way to get their unconditional support is through a royal marriage alliance. It can’t be further from the truth. All this marriage will do is give Shin Geon access to inside information of the court of Jinje. The Crown Prince wouldn’t be bringing a consort into the kingdom, he would be installing a spy for Gimnan at one of the most powerful positions in court. Jimin has been privy to enough strategy council proceedings to know that Shin Geon has his eyes on Jinje’s throne and will strike as soon as he gets an opportunity.

 

“They had valid reasons every time. But once their younger prince is married to you, they will be more inclined to support Jinje.” His father is stubborn, that’s where he gets his own tenacity from.

 

“They will not. Father, don’t you get it? They want Jinje to fall. Do you even read the strategy council briefs that gets sent to your chambers every week?” Jimin throws his hands in the air in exasperation.

 

“How dare you accuse your father, your King, of incompetence?” Turning to Jimin he glares at him, looking outraged. “I do read them, and I do not concur. My sources tell me that Gimnan just needs extra motivation to help us. This marriage will give them that.” He is obstinate, in his words and demeanor with his hands behind his back and chin tipped upwards, almost looking down at Jimin.

 

The prince laughs loudly, humourlessly.

“Your sources? You mean your pet snakes?” His words are laced with derision that he knows will incite his father, but he cannot help it. He walks around his table and stops right in front of his father, close enough for it to be affronting. “Even though they are pets, they’re still snakes father. It’s in their nature to bite. How are you so blind to see it?”

 

“Crown Prince Park Jimin that is enough disrespect to the crown!” His father roars. Seething in anger he demands. “Kneel!”

 

Jimin takes a step back and kneels begrudgingly on one knee, still staring into the King’s eyes which only irks him further. “On both your knees!” He demands again. Jimin is a little shaken. His father and he have never seen eye to eye ever since Jimin has taken up his duties as the Crown Prince at the court. But he has never had to kneel in front of his father on both knees like a commoner while paying his respects to the crown.

 

However, he is not entirely shocked. He identifies power play when he sees it. His father just wants to establish dominance over someone he thinks is a wanton child. Little does the King know that the Crown Prince is not a child. He is the future king of Jinje and he is ready as ever. This minor humiliation is nothing he cannot bear if in the end he gets what he wants. He shifts to both his knees with a smirk and says, “Respectfully, I do not consent to marrying the younger prince of Gimnan. Your Majesty!”

 

The King’s angered expression twists into mockery as he fixes the silk sleeves of his obnoxiously golden robes smugly and says, “You say it like you have a choice son.” He laughs, bends down to face Jimin, his countenance suddenly changing colour to a dangerous hue that tells Jimin to ready himself for a threat. “Prince Manseok is arriving next week to attend the Lunar festival. You will receive him, court him and get engaged with him in exactly three months’ time. It is the royal decree.”

 

Jimin keeps staring at his father undaunted, wordlessly for a few moments that follow. The King’s expression softens up unexpectedly and Jimin’s body goes rigid in apprehension. “Don’t fight me on this son. I am tired of never agreeing with each other. This is good for the kingdom. You will see. Just trust your father for once.”

 

Jimin’s father is not a bad man. He is a very capable King who has just fallen prey to sycophants that have systematically surrounded him. While he has given up on most of court activities because Jimin has slowly taken over, he still makes these outrageous decisions sometimes without consulting any of the trusted advisors of the court or the Crown Prince himself. Jimin cannot stand for it, so he clashes with him often. Contrary to the impression he may have given to his father in his pursuit to do what’s right for his people, he really loves him. This might be time to call a truce, for now.

“Okay. I will receive the younger Prince of Gimnan.” He sighs

 

***

 

“So, you’re going to marry a Prince of Gimnan?” Taehyung asks bug-eyed, leaning back on the purple velvet couch in his chambers where Jimin is meeting with him and Namjoon for drinks. Taehyung is the son of a high-ranking courtier – Jimin’s closest friend and partner in crime since childhood. He is a lightsome, insouciant man with a devil-may-care attitude. Although he is the owner of a thriving silk trade, he believes in living frivolously. It only speaks to his natural business acumen.

 

Namjoon is a court official. He is responsible, wise and clever and it is no surprise that he is the youngest advisor on the King’s advisory council. Jimin has come to respect and trust his judgement slowly becoming friendly with him.

 

“Your highness, you do know you must not agree to that?” Namjoon supplies as he shifts a few times in his seat and forces himself to get comfortable on the couch next to Taehyung. He still finds it hard to be comfortable in Jimin’s presence but is slowly getting better at treating him as a friend. Taehyung offers him a silver goblet of wine with an amused smirk playing on his lips and he awkwardly accepts.

 

“I know. But father is being stubborn, and I don’t know what to do.” Jimin sighs.

 

“Do you want to get married to the Prince? He might turn out to be nice.” Taehyung offers.

 

“Tae you know as well as I do, I will not, in my sound body and mind, put someone with Shin blood that high up in court.” Jimin throws his tired feet on the center table in front of him and leans back against the backrest of the couch. Taehyung sits up swiftly, smirking amusedly.

 

“Is this funny to you?” Namjoon asks quirking a brow at him.

 

“Actually yes. It is a little funny to see him resist a chance at an actual courting. Jimin here is a total romantic. He cannot wait to fall in love with the prince of his dreams.” He chuckles loudly and Jimin groans throwing his hands on his eyes. Taehyung then slowly leans towards Namjoon, winks and whispers, “Me too”

 

Namjoon sits stoically, staring at Taehyung whose face is really close to his now. After a moment of silence, he abruptly looks away from him and towards Jimin to address him.

 

“This proposal is not suitable Your Highness.”

 

“Ugh! Tell my father that.” Jimin sits up and retrieves his largely ignored wine goblet from the center table.

 

“But you need to get married before you can be coronated. It’s –”

 

“The law! Yes, I get it” Jimin nods pensively, absentmindedly flicking his nail on his goblet of wine repeatedly, causing the metal to clank softly. Taehyung observes him with his signature smirk still plastered on his face as he sips from his own.

“This wine is top notch!” He says loudly that tears Jimin out of his thoughts.

 

“So what are you going to do Min?” He casually moves on his next question as he fiddles with the golden tassels hanging by the edges of the couch.

 

“I don’t know. I only know I can’t marry a Shin. It is going to be terrible for Jinje. It is too big of a risk.” Jimin shakes his head, his brain is overworked with the stress of finding a way out of this situation, he just wants to lie down and close his eyes for a bit but in the end, settles on a generous swig of wine instead.

 

“I agree with Your Highness” Namjoon sips on the wine nodding.

 

“Well I don’t know what to do though. Any ideas?” Jimin leaves his goblet on the table and sinks back into the couch gesturing at both his friends.

 

“You could marry someone else.” Taehyung gestures with a flick of a hand, sounding half-bored and half-amused.

 

“Yea? Like whom?” Jimin scoffs.

 

“I don’t know find someone else to get married. I’m sure men and women will be lining up to get married to you.” The way Taehyung chuckles evilly, he is enjoying this way too much. Jimin furrows his brows and sits up to settle his elbows on his thighs, annoyedly he says “Are you done having fun at my expense? Can you be serious for all of two moments now? I am still your Crown Prince for fuck’s sake!”

 

“Okay I’m sorry” Taehyung’s expression sobers up and he suggests, “Look just tell his majesty that you have someone and that you cannot marry another?” Jimin opened his mouth with a rebuttal but he interrupts him again, “Just say it. You don’t actually have to have someone.”

 

Namjoon shakes his head.

“Just saying it won’t work. His Majesty will just tell Your Highness to forget them and marry the Prince if he has already decided.” He glances between Jimin and Taehyung who are both looking at him now with an expression that says You have a better idea? He clears his throat and adds “It can work if you can convince him of your relationship with this imaginary lover. If what I’ve observed in my few years at the court is right, then His Majesty cares about you deeply. It might be worth taking a chance on his love for you.”

 

Taehyung raises his brows and smirks “You mean it might be worth deceiving his love for Min?” Namjoon’s eyes widen in horror at the thought of having offended Jimin, opening and closing his mouth a few times, he tries to find the right words to clarify but before he can, Taehyung announces, “I love it! It’s genius.” He turns to Jimin and says, “That’s what you should do Min. Don’t just say it, convince him you have a lover.”

 

Jimin hooks a finger in his scratchy high collar of his deep blue silk jacket of his robes and tugs at it, evaluating the suggestion and weighing it against the King’s fatherly love for himself.

“Except I don’t have one. And the problem is still the same, who?” He says before an idea strikes his mind. “Tae –”

 

“Don’t even look at me. When we eventually have to fake break-up, too many eyebrows will be raised noticing we are still friends. And it will be worse if His Majesty demands we get married. I’m not risking getting married to you.” Taehyung interrupts and holds his hand up in front of him waving it in a refusal. “I have my eyes set on someone.” He shamelessly stares at Namjoon who avoids his eyes. Jimin’s enthusiasm deflates and he throws his head backwards.

 

“Argh! This is hard. Where am I going to get a lover from now?”

 

“Just telling his majesty that you have a lover might not be enough. We need the person, the whole story. If the King doesn’t believe you or finds out that you are lying, it’s all over. There will only be one chance at this.” Namjoon warns and Jimin knows he is right. It won’t be an easy task to make his father believe he is in love with someone when he isn’t. And that will just be the beginning. After that they will have to make him believe that they broke up at some point. One lie will birth a thousand lies with each one of them having the potential to be discovered – Jimin cannot deny that it is a daunting endeavor.

 

Even after all this in the end, if it turns out that he had placed too much faith in King Park’s fatherly sentiments and he does not budge from his current position of getting Jimin married for political gain, then all the effort would have been for nothing. But Jimin can’t just sit still and accept his father’s decision. His disgust for King Shin aside, as the Crown Prince of Jinje, it is his duty to keep his kingdom and in turn, people, safe and invulnerable to plunder and conquest. And he can only ensure his people’s safety that when Parks have control of the throne. As much as he is predisposed to abide by the laws of the kingdom and buckle under the pressure of a royal decree, his duty to his people calls to him. This marriage alliance will make the Park reign dangerously susceptible to attempts to weaken or overthrow it. Their intention to do so has been constantly reported by Jinje’s spies for years now. To him, Gimnan is an enemy worse than Namsan. At least they’re openly at war with Namsan. His father refuses to believe it because till date Gimnan hasn’t made a move but Jimin knows it is only a matter of opportunity. And they shall not have it if he can help it.

 

***

 

A chant rises in the crowd of spectators in favour of one of the two warriors circling each other in the arena. Both panting and bloody, one warrior’s lip and brow have split open, teeth blood-stained – the other one has several spear cuts over his hands and legs. Both their skins are dirty and littered with multiple painful looking wounds. They have been going at it for an hour now, one contender constantly dominating the fight. However, it is the other one who is more stubborn. The final fight of the yearly duel tournament has taken an unprecedented turn – it has become too intense and now resembles those fight-to-death, blood sports from Namsan that Jimin absolutely detests. The vulgar spectacle of bloodshed disgusts him. To him, blood is precious, must be spilled only when necessary, not for sport. But right now, this match is beginning to resemble a blood sport too much for his liking. He has already registered his protest with his father many times and has prompted him to step in and stop the fight before one of the contenders gets fatally injured, only to be repeatedly dismissed by him

 

“Trust the General” He says.

 

“My general! My general! My general!” The crowd chants and the general’s biceps flex before the rest of his body muscles follow causing the leather of his tight vest to shift. This is an image which would've bothered Jimin if he weren’t so preoccupied by his dismay of the whole situation. The General lifts his spear and launches into an attack. The other warrior, the commander of mounted archers, Lee Hangyeol, evades the spear but falls victim to his opponent’s nimble foot sweep after a quick forward feint towards the ground. He falls flat on his back – his sword, the weapon of his choice, flings several yards away from him – any chance of his recovery seems to be waning fast with every tired, strained breath he takes. The general stumbles to him, exerting himself to stay upright through injury and fatigue, cages his chest between his knees and holds his shoulders down with both his hands saying, “Yield Hangyeol”

 

It sounds like a request but Hangyeol shakes his head and says “No!”

The General’s right hand lifts off the subdued fighter’s shoulder, curls into a fist and he lands a punch on his face before yelling “Yield!”.

 

Jimin feels like throwing up when the other warrior shakes his head in an obdurate refusal once again. What gratification a man lying half dead on the ground must feel from not giving up on what is supposed to be a game? He will never understand this need to win and paying for it in blood. He has to endure sitting through this because this tournament is a long-standing part of the Lunar festival and Jinje’s culture. The fights are often not this gory, they are sparring at best and end quickly when one of the opponent yields. While a few scrapes and cuts are to be expected when sparring, they are never this bloody.

 

This one however has taken a rough turn. Jimin knows there is no way this could go in which the obstinate warrior, Hangyeol would stand a chance against General Jeon. The General didn’t look particularly keen on fighting his opponent too much in the beginning, even going so far as choosing an almost useless weapon in a duel as a spear, but Hangyeol was irritatingly insistent. Too competitive for his own good. He taunted his opponent way too many times and kept coming at him like a rabid animal even when at one point he was ready to forfeit the fight to him. He stirred the beast Jimin knows the General is and is paying for it now. The Crown Prince doesn’t have the same faith in the General as his father. He feels he is too incited to stop and gets ready to step in to stop this disgrace of a duel.

 

The general lifts another fist to deliver what would undeniably be the final knockout blow and the collective breath of the audience hitches. Jimin shifts to the edge of his seat, ready to spring up and intervene when the fist stops mid-way and the general yells once again, spitting a mix of blood and saliva in the air “Yield warrior!”

 

The Prince freezes in his seat not knowing why he cannot tear his eyes away from the tense scene in front of him despite his disapproval for the clearly losing but stupidly adamant Hangyeol and the animal General Jeon has unleashed out of his body. Even though he knows who is to blame for this debacle, he holds the general – the man with more power out of the two contestants – responsible. He chose to let this go on for so long. It is always his fault. Bloody Jeongguk!

 

“No!” Hangyeol collects all his strength to say it loud enough to be heard and that breaks Jimin out of his daze. His heart drops thinking the General could seriously injure the man or worse, kill him. He thinks it is ridiculous that the rules of the game don’t tell them when to stop if it becomes too bloody for what is supposed to be a friendly game. The fight can be drawn if no one yields after five rounds, but it has only been four and it looks like it is at the discretion of the game master or the King. Jimin looks around exasperatedly in hope to find someone who feels the same as him. He sees Gimnan’s younger Prince who is Jinje’s royal guest for the festival week, Manseok, sitting on his left side with a wicked smile playing on his lips. His eyes glint with excitement and his foot shakes impatiently. He is clearly enjoying this way too much. Seated on his right side is his father who is watching the fight with a stoic expression. Jimin decides this is enough, he gets up to demand putting an end to the madness but Taehyung, who is sitting behind him, holds on to his sleeve and makes him sit down forcefully. He turns around to chastise his friend, but he gestures at him to wait patiently and look at the contenders.

 

There is pin drop silence in the arena, anticipation hangs heavy in the air and the spectators expects the final punch to land on Hangyeol’s face, but it lands on to the ground next to his face instead. The general hangs his head tiredly and breathes out “I yield!”. There is a collective gasp from the crowd close enough to have caught that and then a sound of rising murmuring as the gamemaster approaches the two contestants to confirm the yield. He bends to talk to the general quietly, then straightens up and declares loudly “Jeon Jeongguk yields! Lee Hangyeol wins!” The crowd erupts in an indignant jeer about an unacceptable outcome.

 

Jimin sits in his seat aghast at the events unfolding in front of him in a mix of surprise and relief. His father pushes to his feet and starts applauding, the crowd quiets down and slowly follow the king. In a few moments, thunderous applause is resounding in the arena.

“Congratulations to the winner. I appreciate his determination. I would also like to congratulate and thank General Jeon for showing incredible restraint and taking responsibility. He has shown today, once again, that he deserves to be leading Jinje’s forces.” He grins and applauds him once again as Jeongguk pushes off the ground tiredly and bows to him. As he is getting back up from the bow, Jimin’s eyes meet his for a second and he can bet he saw a slight smirk below his heavily bleeding eyebrow. The Prince is unable to desist from rolling his eyes. Jeongguk has been the blue-eyed boy of the king ever since he first defeated Jimin in an impromptu sparring match eleven years ago that he remembers all too well because it had costed him so dearly.

 

Jeongguk and Jimin had trained together ever since they were twelve and fourteen. A starry-eyed boy – he was told he was General Jeon Jeonghoon’s son – joined Jimin’s advance sword training because he was deemed an appropriate training partner for the Crown Prince. Jimin thought he was cute and gravitated towards him instantly. Jeongguk, who looked like a clueless, quiet, shy boy at the first look turned out to be not only extremely skilled, a capable partner but a much formidable adversary who repeatedly one upped him in their trainings and was self-assured to the point of cockiness while fighting. Conceited, in Jimin’s opinion, he was often condescending in the way he spoke to the Prince during their bouts. Jimin’s attraction for him slowly turned into a conflicting, inconvenient feeling.

 

Jimin was undefeated in training among other trainees of his age, always praised by his instructors but Jeongguk demolished his delusions of grandeur one by one. Now all these years later, while he hates Jeongguk for reasons more than just their teenage rivalry, that is one thing that he is grateful for because it taught him to be humble.

 

All the instructors were so impressed by Jeongguk that he was made Jimin’s training partner in all trainings like horse riding, archery, battle formations etc. The Prince spent a lot of time with him, yet he found his obvious attraction for the younger boy hard to accept. He could never accept that he liked Jeongguk, the boy who made him so mad, so often. They could never find common ground required for even becoming friends. At first, they were too competitive, eager to prove themselves better than the other in front of their instructors, constantly being pitted against each other in the name of practice. Then as time passed, they started clashing about various finer things like technique and moral aspects of the war way too often.

 

At the age of sixteen Jeongguk hit a growth spurt and much to Jimin’s chagrin, grew a few inches taller than him. A few too many. Training and working his body day and night, he gained a tremendous amount of muscle. While Jimin too had grown in that time, gained muscle and grown stronger, he was still leaner than Jeongguk. It not only made him jealous but also filled him with an unbridled desire that only made him angrier.

 

With time they found their own fighting styles even though the weapon they both favoured was a sword. Jimin’s sword fighting technique was based on agility, instinct and a perfect deception while Jeongguk’s on brute strength, relentlessness and intimidation, both equally effective but telling of the epic disparity in their temperaments.

 

Once when his father and the previous General Jeonghoon were out for a stroll discussing official matters, they stopped by the training grounds where Jimin and Jeongguk practiced. They thought it was amusing to get the two to compete for a special favour of their choosing from the King that he’d be bound to grant. It was the opportunity that Jimin had prayed hard for – God’s answer to all his prayers in the past few months. He really wanted to win to ask the King for permission to visit his sick mother who he was not allowed to visit due to the risk of infection no matter how much he begged or yelled to see her. Jeongguk won. Jimin didn’t get a chance to see his ailing mother and she passed away the next day. To add to his agony, he heard that Jeongguk had saved the King’s favour for the future. He didn’t even use it. He was cocky and teased him about losing the match, every chance he got.

 

So yes, Jimin now hates Jeongguk. He couldn’t say his last goodbye to his dying mother because of him. Their relationship, which was never entirely cordial to begin with, never recovered from this blow. It was forever lost.

 

To him Jeongguk stands for everything he hates. He is no longer the starry-eyed shy boy who he had instantly taken a liking to. Now he is just a mannerless oaf, an asshole – an arrogant and uncultured brat who cannot wait to make Jimin mad at every possible opportunity. The prince is grateful he didn’t give in to his impulsive, adolescent whims despite the presence of more than enough temptation due to him and Jeongguk constantly being in close quarters during training, even actively trying to get on each other’s nerves sometimes.

 

“Crown Prince? Prince!” His father’s voice brought him out of the past into the present.

 

“Yes father?”

 

“I said, you should accompany Prince Manseok to the lantern festival tonight. He will like it and it will give you two a great opportunity to spend some time together and bond…” His father is leaning towards him, his mouth almost next to his ear, his voice quiet to keep others around them from overhearing. Jimin’s eyes widen and dart to Manseok to his left side who has a pout on his face, looking disappointed at the outcome of the duel. Clearly, he favoured a more violent outcome and the thought sickens Jimin. He had thought it would be difficult to turn the alliance down if the younger Prince of Gimnan turned out to be nice. But so far, based on what Jimin has seen in the past week, he isn’t making it particularly hard for him. He is egotistical, looks down on his attendants and other servants in his vicinity constantly and evident from today’s display, enjoys violence a bit too much for Jimin’s liking. The Crown Prince of Jinje wouldn’t go so far as to say that he cannot tolerate violence and aggression, but he is certainly the last person to enjoy it.

 

He does not think his relationship with Manseok can progress beyond the social requirement of cordiality towards a guest. He can’t even see himself be friends with such a man let alone wed one. The horror of having to spending lone time with Manseok, spurs him into saying the words that have been swimming in his head for a while now, rather recklessly – a first for Jimin who always thinks everything through.

 

“I have someone!” He blurts out and his father leans his head back a little in a manner of surprise. “What did you say?” King Park’s words are sharp, but his voice is still muted.

 

Jimin moves closer to his father and leans in to say quietly, “I said, I have someone. As I have said many times before, I have no interest in courting Prince Manseok Your Majesty!” 

 

“Who?”

 

 Shit. That is the part he hasn’t thought through. He hasn’t been able to come up with a suitable candidate to present to the King as his lover. His mind works rapidly to secure an exit from this situation that his father wants to put him in – he needs it fast. For a moment, he reconsiders telling him that he is in a relationship with Taehyung just so he would stop pressuring him to go out with Prince Manseok. He really doesn’t want to spend any more time than necessary with him, especially when it is bound to feel like a romantic headway.

 

However, Taehyung would kill him if he did that and he is being honest, it will create way too many problems for him. He cannot do this to his dearest friend. But then if not him, then who else would his father, at the very least, consider approving as his lover instead of a Gimnan royal? Jimin’s nervous gaze sweeps his surroundings in what he knows is futile effort. It is not like someone perfect would just magically appear in front of him. His eyes, however, are compelled to stop on the General who is now insisting that the physicians take care of a severely injured Hangyeol first. Even though he is his archnemesis, his heart appreciates the gesture, and his mind supplies the realisation of the perfect candidate.

 

“General Jeon” He utters, in disbelief of the words coming out of his own mouth.

 

“General Jeon? Jeongguk?” The king laughs at first, almost dismissively, but then his expression darkens. “Follow me!” He turns to the commander of his guard and instructs her to get a set of guards escort the Prince of Gimnan to wherever he wishes to head to before turning on his heels and leaving for his chambers, his departure marking the end of the tournament.

 

***

 

“What do you mean you have someone?” The King demands once again as he leans against the backrest of an opulent chair, upholstered with black velvet and golden accents, shifting to straighten his long, brown, silk jacket embroidered with golden thread, that had squished unceremoniously under him while sitting down carelessly. Jimin stands by the fireplace across the room with his hands behind his back, twisting and perspiring in nervousness. He tries to summon his usual confident self in front of him to thwart any suspicion but is not entirely sure he is successfully doing so.

“It means I have a lover father” He feigns nonchalance but feels the exact opposite inside – extremely anxious about what he has just done.

 

“And he is Jeongguk?” His father eyes him dubiously.

 

Jimin gulps as discreetly as possible. “Yes”

 

His father guffaws derisively. “Ha! Do you expect me to believe that?”

 

“What’s not to believe? Why wouldn’t you believe me?” Jimin shrugs not feeling confident about this ruse anymore at all. He still busies himself in straightening the creases of his princely garb, an emerald green ankle length silk jacket with a high collar to project a calm, unperturbed exterior.

 

“Only because you two haven’t seen eye to eye ever. You have squabbled with each other at every possible opportunity and I am extremely sure that you dislike him.” King Park said and Jimin’s heart sinks to his stomach. This is it. His father can see right through him. His lie is about to be found out.

 

Being Park Jimin is both a blessing and a curse. His tenacity is often seen as a virtue but right now it is like a shovel with which he is digging himself a hole. But whatever it is, he has already hit a point of no return. He cannot go back on his word now.

“Well… I changed my mind.”

 

“That easily?” The King raises and eyebrow and Jimin says the next most logical thing he can think of.

 

“Oh not easily. But I did. Why are you so upset father, I though you held him in high regard?”

 

His father nodded, never taking his razor-sharp gaze away from Jimin’s face, like trying to size him up.

“I do hold him in extremely high regard. However, I do not think you are being truthful. I won’t believe it until I hear it from Jeongguk’s mouth.”

 

Of course, you won’t. Jimin rolls his eyes. Why did he ever think that his father would just take his word. His word has never been significant for him. Nothing has changed.

 

“Well he isn’t here is he?” He says like a petulant child although he is glad that Jeongguk isn’t here. He isn’t sure his bluff will hold up well if the General is to be questioned right now, before he has the chance to recruit him for his scheme. A shudder goes down his spine at a vision that flashes in front of his eyes – him groveling in front of Jeongguk . If by some chance he wiggles out of this interrogation by his father and ever gets to a point where he must ask Jeongguk for help, it is going to be difficult and embarrassing.

 

“Oh we shall fix that soon” The King clapped and his attendant came in bowing. “Bring General Jeon to me” Jimin’s fear condenses into a dense mass that drops on him, crushing his whole being. This is it. His father is this close to finding out that he is lying. Jeongguk will tell him the truth and this will be over. His chance at avoiding marriage with Gimnan’s younger prince will be gone.

 

Many long, wordless moments of wait that follow are heavy with apprehension, but he must maintain an unbothered expression because his father is watching him keenly. His heart is both relieved and terrified at the sentry’s announcement of the General’s arrival.

 

Jeongguk arrives, his wounds all tended to, bandaged. He still has lingering swelling on his cheek. He is thankfully fully clothed in his uniform and armour now. Jimin will never admit it but half-dressed Jeongguk is dangerous for him because it stirs a primal, animalistic part of him that doesn’t understand human logic and reason. Minimal coverage of his upper body has inconvenienced Jimin through all of Jeongguk’s duels in this tournament year after year. A sleeveless fitted leather vest does next to nothing to hide the flex of his biceps and the ripples of his muscular body. That bothers Jimin. A lot. So, a fully clothed Jeongguk is good for keeping his wits about him in such a tense situation.

 

“Your Majesty!” He bows to the King and then turns to Jimin to repeats the act. When he gets up from the bow, Jimin is sure he is smirking. “Your Highness!”

 

“General! I have a question for you.” The King says.

 

“Ofcourse Your Majesty”

 

“Crown Prince here tells me of your special relationship with him. Is that true?”

 

“Yes Your Majesty.” Jeongguk eyes Jimin and speaks so surely no one can say he is lying.

 

Jimin has to stop his mouth from hanging open.

What the hell?

 

“Can you tell me what your relationship with the Crown Prince is?” The King interrogates further.

 

Jimin’s heart is palpitating violently in trepidation and he has broken a cold sweat. He stops breathing when Jeongguk starts talking.

 

“We are in a romantic relationship your majesty.”

 

How does he know to say that?

 

“But you two are always arguing” The King remarks.

 

Jeongguk’s head drops, his eyes set on ground, feigning a meekness that doesn’t suit him and Jimin bets he is hiding a mocking smile when he says, “Our differences were no more than the lo – the respect we have for each other.” A scoff escapes Jimin’s lips before he can attempt to bite it back. He is thankful that his father’s eyes are set on Jeongguk and he hasn’t noticed.

 

Is he just playing along? Why?

He is racking his brain for an explanation but is constantly drawing a blank, so he decides to just go along with it for now making a mental note to ask Jeongguk about it later, however annoying the idea of talking to him maybe.

 

“Love!” His father chuckles dismissively picking up on a word only half-uttered. “A sham!” Jimin feels anxious, he knows his father is still not buying the lie. The King stands up suddenly, gives Jimin a suspicious once over before sighing and nodding, “But okay. However, Crown Prince Jimin must accompany Prince Manseok to the lantern festival anyway. The poor boy is expecting it. Let’s get through tonight. Once the Prince of Gimnan leaves tomorrow, I’ll think about what to do with you two.”

 

“What do you mean? Father I have no interest in the Prince. Couples go to the lantern festival to release a lantern. Me accompanying him will give him an impression of romantic advances. Surely royal attendants can escort him.” Jimin is frustrated and tired of repeating the same things to his father.

 

“You don’t have to release a lantern with him, but you will keep up with the appearances of interest in the marriage alliance because I am still not convinced that you and Jeongguk are in love with each other. Even if you are being truthful, I don’t think it is a sustainable relationship and that is why I cannot allow you to court him. You will soon snap out of it when you will find yourself unable to tolerate one another.” Jimin feels appalled at how his father is disregarding his relationship. Granted that it is fake, but it is still telling of how much his father trusts his sensibilities. The hurt of his father not trusting him outweighs his guilt of lying to him and he allows himself to get indignant.

 

“I am not going with him alone.” He snaps.

 

“Well okay don’t. Take your friends – Lord Kim – along. But you must not rock the boat with Gimnan in anyway. Yet.”

 

“I’d like to take Jeongguk along instead.” Jimin sneers spitefully. His father looks surprised at his audacity and takes a moment to reply but nods once again glaring at both Jimin and Jeongguk.

“Okay. Take him if he can spare time.” He says reluctantly.

 

“He can always spare time for me. Can’t you darling?” Jimin puts on a show for the King with his fake affectionate gaze on Jeongguk – his expression fond and voice syrupy.

 

“Uhh of course” Jeongguk sputters nervously.

 

Not so strong anymore General

Jimin bites back a devilish smirk as he basks in the twin pleasures drawn from his father’s annoyance and the General’s rattled manner.

 

The King dismisses them and Jimin bows and takes Jeongguk’s hand, who lets him drag him out of his father’s chambers towards his own, a little taken aback.

 

“Why did you do that?” Jimin asks Jeongguk as soon as they enter his chambers. 

 

“Uhh” Jeongguk eyes their hands that are still clasped. The Crown Prince drops it like he had been holding white hot ember.

 

Jeongguk must’ve caught on because he chuckles evilly. “Do I feel that hot Your Highness?”

 

“General. Know your place. Now tell me why”

 

“Why do you think I did it?”

 

“I am not playing this game. Why can’t you just tell me straight?”

 

“Because it’s more fun this way.” Jeongguk smirks and adds, “Your Highness”

 

Jimin grits his teeth and balls his hands into a fist. “I can have you executed.”

 

“I’d like to see you try my Prince.”

 

“Okay I don’t have time for this fuckery. Just tell me why you are doing this General. It’s an order.” Jimin knows it’s ingrained in Jeongguk’s very being to follow orders. He sometimes cannot understand why he doesn’t use that against him all the time.

 

Jeongguk gives up and chuckles wryly. “Lord Kim told me what happened at the arena between you and His Majesty, and I decided to help. For once, I agree with Your Highness, the prince of Gimnan cannot be allowed to get a position as high as a Crown Prince consort or a King consort in court. They want the Park regime to fall.”

 

“Hmm” Now his behaviour makes more sense. Taehyung must’ve eavesdropped on the exchange he had with his father at the arena.

 “Taehyung?” He asks to confirm, raising an eyebrow.

 

“Yes” Jeongguk nods once “… and Namjoon”

 

“Okay. But don’t, for even a moment, live in a delusion of this being a relationship. I still detest you General. You are to never forget that.”

 

“Don’t worry Your Highness. I won’t. It’s not like you will ever let me.”

 

“Damn right I won’t!”

 

***

 

The moon shines in all its glory tonight. The whole celebration ground that stretches along one side the riverbank is covered in flamboyant hues of red, yellow and green and is dazzling with light. Colourful buntings decorate the trees and lines of vendors stalls, rows of lanterns illuminate the path. A group of festival goers has formed around a couple of busking musicians playing the folk music of Jinje on traditional two stringed fiddle and drums and another one around a woman who is playing a soft melody on the traditional harp. Small groves of people have formed around different food stalls.

Buntings and lanterns also wind up the sides of a wooden bridge at a particularly narrow section of the river that connects the festival fair grounds with more built up part of the capital, which looks equally festive. A prestigious, two story inn looks over the bridge on that side.  

 

Jimin is a absolutely taken by the beauty around him. The full moon is complemented well by the manmade splendor, making the night more glorious than it already it. He is grateful he chose to come to the festival despite the circumstances. He sighs at the irony this outing is for him – lovely place but unpleasant company. Just his luck.

 

He eyes the two men walking on his either sides discreetly, one by one.

Prince Manseok is clad in an ostentatious golden silk knee length open jacket over a saffron undertunic and brown pants tucked into low brown boots, his hands covered in big flashy golden rings in an obnoxious display of opulence by Gimnan.

Totally unnecessary.

Jimin cannot stop himself from rolling his eyes at the showoff. His own attire is opulent too – as expected from the Crown Prince – an embroidered red silk jacket with a high collar, buttoned up over a silk undertunic, dark pants with brown boots. But he likes to go easy on the jewellery when he is out in public, only sporting his dangling silver earrings that he never takes off. There is no reason to rub wealth in the faces of the less fortunate. He cannot bear to look at his so called prospective any longer, so he shifts his gaze to his other side.

 

Jeongguk isn’t wearing his armour but is clad in his usual thigh length dark brown leather tunic layered over a cream coloured linen shirt covering his broad chest, with a leather sword belt cinching at his small waist, a sword hanging by it. His tight dark pants are tucked into sturdy boots. Jimin feels the need to gulp when he notices how tight those pants are, accentuating Jeongguk’s thick thighs at all the right places. His bulging arm muscles with apparent outlines through his leather attire, make for another distracting sight. He looks away and banishes the thought of his arms and thighs at the speed of a blinking eye reminding himself that he is his mortal enemy, a brute, unworthy of the Crown Prince’s attention.

 

He has let the thoughts consume him before though, pleasuring himself in solitude, at night, thinking of Jeongguk. He is ashamed of himself. But that is one and only transgression Jimin has to allow himself because it is too hard resisting the images his mind conjures up in the quiet of the night when there is nothing else to distract him. He is only human.

 

People bow at the Crown Prince and his party as they stroll in a greeting and then busy themselves in whatever they were doing when they pass.

“In Gimnan, all the subjects would be on their knees for as long as a royal is in the vicinity.” Manseok snorts at one point and it doesn’t sit well with Jimin. He has been told that he shouldn’t do anything to create any hard feelings between the two kingdoms, but he doesn’t care. Not really. Just as he is about to open his mouth to say something berating, he hears a familiar snicker. One he has heard a thousand times on sparring grounds and court.

 

“Lucky this is Jinje and the royals respect people here.” Jeongguk ripostes, incensing Manseok.

“General I suggest you do not forget that you’re a meager General” The Prince of Gimnan warns, positively miffed at him.

 

“Might I respectfully remind you – you are just a guest.” Jeongguk doesn’t raise his voice but the jibe hits right where it was supposed to. Jimin’s eyes are wide as he looks at him in astonishment. He knows that he would allow himself to feel gratitude for the one taking the burden of standing up for Jinje off his shoulders if it was not Jeongguk. However, Jeongguk doesn’t deserve his gratitude, he doesn’t deserve anything from him. Prince Manseok on the other hand, deserves an admonishing for looking down on their way of life.

 

Manseok exasperatedly looks at Jimin for support but he shrugs and says “I apologise Your Highness, our General is a little feisty. We do have a hard time controlling him.”

 

The Prince of Gimnan huffs in annoyance “Whatever, I wish to listen to the harp lady.” He orders his attendants to follow him and marches off haughtily, leaving Jimin alone with Jeongguk.

 

Chapter Text

They stand awkwardly facing each other and burst out into laughter at Prince Manseok’s reaction but it soon lulls into another spell of awkward silence. Jimin starts walking and Jeongguk asks confused “Where are you going your highness?”

 

“Just to the bridge,” Jimin stops, turns and points to the bridge. “I wish to see the river from the bridge. I must make the most of this terrible situation.” He starts walking again hoping to God that Jeongguk doesn’t follow him. But of course, it isn’t that easy to lose the General. He suddenly feels him walking next to him and snaps “I was hoping to get some time alone General”

 

Jeongguk ignores him wordlessly and Jimin sighs in resignation, shaking his head.

 

The Crown Prince didn’t think it was necessary to bring attendants or guards to the festival when accompanied by the General himself who he knows extremely well. He can bet that archers from stealth unit are following them from a distance at the moment. Jimin knows because he does this a lot, wandering off into the capital on his own, often in disguise, without his guards. Jeongguk somehow always knows his whereabouts, which means he is always being followed. Same as his father. The commanders of guard for both the King and the Crown Prince directly report to the General. Although it is for his own safety, it annoys him sometimes – not getting true privacy that he craves – but he knows he would do the same if he was in Jeongguk’s shoes. There are a plenty of things he can dislike Jeongguk for, but he cannot condemn a man for doing his job well.

 

“If I must tolerate you.” He mutters and Jeongguk continues to walk with him up the bridge as though he hasn’t heard him. Jimin stops in the middle and leans by the arching side that is about the height of his chest, mesmerised by the reflection of the full moon and hundreds of flying lanterns in placid waters. The couples must have released the sky lanterns, Jimin thinks.

 

His heart aches with this unusual longing for a love of his own. Being unlovable, untouchable is one of the many hazards of being a Crown Prince. While hate comes easily and lust makes an appearance sometimes, love has always evaded him. Everyone Jimin has ever felt any liking for turns out to be either too eager or too scared to be close to him. So while he has had plenty of lovers in the past – none loved him the way he wants. People always see him as the Crown Prince of Jinje, which means he is either a means to gain power and wealth or he is too intimidating. He wishes for someone to see him as just him, just Jimin – who needs to be loved unconditionally as much as the next person. He knows love is a bit of a pipe dream for him at this point considering that the possibility of him having to marry for a political alliance – should his ruse fail – is very real. His heart senselessly keeps hoping for it anyway. Being around Jeongguk always makes this feeling worse. He knows why but he’d rather not think about that.

 

“– Highness” Jeongguk’s voice breaks him out of his reverie.

 

“Huh?” He turns his head to his side distractedly, realises it is the wrong side and turns it again to find a slightly alarmed Jeongguk. “What?”

 

“I said His Majesty is here”

 

“Where?”

 

“Don’t look. He is observing us from the terrace of the inn.”

 

“Oh” Jimin stills in his place consciously.

 

“What do you want to do?” Jeongguk asks.

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“I mean – look don’t get startled – I apologise in advance for touching you.”

 

“Touching me?” Jimin asks confused, his mind perhaps still not functioning at full capacity, still not completely recovered from the daze he had slipped in before. His body goes rigid when he feels an arm wrapping around his waist. Jeongguk’s arm.

Unable to comprehend the situation but trying to avoid creating a scene in front of his father, Jimin grits his teeth. “What the fuck are you doing Jeongguk?”

 

“I already apologised.” Jeongguk says through a loving smile, an expression in a stark contrast with the conversation they are having. “Don’t you want him to believe we are in love?” Jimin feels the need to swallow at the look Jeongguk is sporting. This is not good. He needs to brace his nerves.

 

“Yes” Jimin shifts his expression making it somewhat akin to a lovesick fool. “But this is too much.” He can hear people around them murmuring, noticing their General getting cosy with the Crown Prince. “People are noticing”

 

Jeongguk shrugs still looking into his eyes, speaking through a fake smile still plastered on his face “Do you care? I think the more people believe it, the harder it will get for His Majesty to deny it. Remember the lesson in covert tactics? ‘Live the lie’ Your Highness.” The playful glint in Jeongguk’s eyes shakes Jimin, but he focuses on the situation and nods in understanding, parroting to himself “Live the lie”

 

He adjusts his position and snakes both his hands around Jeongguk’s waist and it’s now the General’s turn to tense up. Jimin can tell by the way long calloused fingers instantly dig deeper in his waist. “Like so?” Jimin smirks, still holding eye contact with him, enjoying Jeongguk’s futile attempts at concealing his nervousness. He can see the tiny droplets of cold sweat forming on his temples despite his confident appearance. He has not been so close to him in the past few years and had forgotten how much fun it was to play the game of nerves with him. It was Jimin’s favourite part of training with Jeongguk which was otherwise really annoying.

 

Every once in a while, when their trainers weren’t looking and one of them was winning while sparring, the other resorted to the last weapon in their arsenal. Nerves. Jeongguk was too competitive for his own good and Jimin found way too many chances to get on his nerves. He enjoyed torturing Jeongguk by flustering him. Of course, tables would turn once in a while and then Jimin was the one falling victim to that tactic – a part of him enjoyed that too. But things were different then. 

 

It is no longer a game when Jeongguk’s smile disappears and his expression changes to something more serious, intense and it starts affecting Jimin where it absolutely shouldn’t. In his heart, which starts thundering in his chest. He is suddenly hyper aware of their proximity, his chest against Jeongguk’s, their joined torsos. Jeongguk’s eyes are dark, so dark that if Jimin gets lost in them he will never find his way back out. He smells nice, too nice for the brute Jimin knows he is. He is a brute right? Then why do his arms hold Jimin so tenderly right now?

 

Snap out of it. He is the reason you couldn’t meet your mother in her last days.

A cloud of doubt that had fallen in front of his eyes lifts at once. His countenance darkens as he snickers “There is no need to enjoy this so much General. This is just a sham.”

 

Jeongguk, still staring deep into his eyes, mumbles so quietly Jimin would’ve missed it if he wasn’t standing so impossibly close, “I know.” He looks almost, Sad?

 

But then he clears his throat and says cockily, “But for a moment there I thought you enjoyed it as well Your Highness” Jinje’s dialect takes over his accent, replacing the polished standard tongue, deepening the timbre of his voice. Jimin would rather die than acknowledge the chill he feels in his bones.

 

But the cockiness still gets to him. “You wish Jeon! You only wish!” He snarls, ironically, at the man whose embrace he is locked in. In weak, foolish moments that follow, his heart wishes to rest his head against the chest in front of him, but he resists for the sake of his pride. They don’t let go until a quiet but shrill voice intrudes on this strange moment between them.

 

“Umm… Your Highness! My General!” An old lady holding a folded red lantern in both her hands bows to them one by one and they practically jump away from each other. She chuckles at their flustered faces “Ahh to be young and so in love! Would you like to release a lantern?” She offers the lantern in her hand and they look at each other a little perplexed considering what to say to her.

 

“I made it with my own hands. I’d be honored if Your Highness will release it. Sky lanterns brings luck to new lovers. This is the prettiest lantern I have made this season. Its colour even matches your robes Your highness. Destiny I say!” She says and waits expectantly as Jeongguk subtly gestures towards the inn behind Jimin with a flick of his eyes reminding him that his father is still watching. Jimin’s eyes scan the festival grounds behind Jeongguk. Unable to find Prince Manseok anywhere, he sighs and turns to the woman again and takes the lantern from her hand with both of his and smiles “I’d…” He hesitates for a moment “We’d like that. Thank you.”

 

Jeongguk’s eyes go wide but he helps Jimin unfurl the lantern, fixes the fuel in the frame and sets it on fire. They hold on to the lantern between them from either sides and wait for it to fill up with hot air, avoiding looking at each other uneasily. Their eyes still eventually get hooked to each other’s faces illuminated by the lantern’s soft red glow. The old woman slowly distances herself noiselessly, smiling sheepishly at what she thinks is a silent conversation between two hearts in love. She bows and leaves but Jimin doesn’t register any of her movements. Not while he is getting an unwelcome reminder of how breathtakingly handsome Jeongguk is.

 

His dark locks, long and slightly curly at the ends, fall on his face, obscuring a chiseled face with a sharp angular jaw – he still has an undeniable boyish charm, making him look almost too young to be the General of Jinje. Millions of stars have a home in his big doe eyes and his smile reminds Jimin of a hare from the royal gardens. The prince’s mind recaps everything that has happened between them in the past, yet again, to remind himself how Jeongguk is still the devil. But somehow in this moment Jeongguk doesn’t look evil, his smile is soft, eyes honest. No trace of his signature cockiness is present on his face right now. The look he is wearing is so tender, inviting even, and Jimin is finding it hard to breath just laying his eyes on him.

 

This was a bad idea.

 

The hot air slowly fills up the lantern and it is ready to be released, they slowly lift it above their heads and set it free. Jimin’s eyes follow the lantern for a long time until it joins other lanterns in the sky and disappears in the clouds. The old lady isn’t wrong. Their lantern is the prettiest out of the hundreds. An inadvertent but proud smile appears on his lips. He looks around to see Jeongguk gaping at him, sending his heart lurching in his chest. He steadies it before clearing his throat and asking, almost too sharply, “What?”

 

“Nothing Your Highness!” Jeongguk shakes his head with a brooding smile that Jimin has seen way too many times before but has never understood. Why is he like this? Cocky one moment and moping the next. He confuses Jimin. A lot.

 

***

 

“You both need to do better. This is not working.” Taehyung declares making Jeongguk scoff.

 

“What is not working?” Jimin asks confused, exasperated, sagging into the high back, ebony wood, ornately carved chair in his study. Namjoon has informed him that his father has ordered for a messenger to be sent to Gimnan for another invite to Shin family for his birthday celebrations and he doesn’t know what to do. He needs counsel, so here he is, meeting with his friends and fake lover.

 

Jimin is so frustrated with everything that is happening. He and Jeongguk have spent the past couple of months too close for his comfort already. He has held hands with Jeongguk at every possible opportunity to show his father, faked countless smiles and pretended to be hopelessly in love to the point where he wasn’t sure if either of them is even pretending anymore. He has played with Jeongguk’s hair, touched his cheeks longingly and played with the hoops in his ears and found himself enjoying it more than he should. They have flirted with each other incessantly during this time, even though it was just for show, at some point Jimin got so immersed, he forgot for a fleeting moment that they were not in a real relationship. It was too hard for him to breathe when that careless moment passed, and reality came crashing down. Reality is that what they have is fake and he is supposed to hate Jeongguk. It has pushed him to an invisible edge of something unknown and he doesn’t want to do this anymore.

 

He still powers through everything to convince his father of his relationship with Jeongguk so he would change his mind, but it doesn’t look like it has had any effect.

 

He groans, “I thought it was working. Prince Manseok is gone. All of Jinje thinks we are lovers. Yet somehow father does not believe it? Or he does but just doesn’t care?” He is annoyed beyond measure. “Namjoon what is the latest on this?”

 

“An invitation is being prepared by the royal penman. It’s only a matter of time before the messenger is dispatched.” Namjoon delivers the update finishing with soft, knowing, empathetic eyes. He is extremely emotionally intelligent and while Taehyung understands Jimin because of years of familiarity, Namjoon understands him instinctively. The Crown Prince appreciates him more than he knows.

 

“Can we intercept him? I don’t want the invitation delivered” Jimin asks Namjoon with a hint of desperation in his voice. He cannot let Jinje and Gimnan relations progress past diplomacy.

 

Namjoon doesn’t say anything, taking his time to contemplate the suggestion, staring into a distance scratching his brow. He then shakes his head, “That will infuriate His Majesty if he finds out about it and if he doesn’t find out, it will create unnecessary misunderstandings between Jinje and Gimnan. We are already in constant conflict with Namsan, we don’t need more.” Jimin might not like it but he is right. He exhales loudly and looks around frustrated, scanning the faces of the other two in the room who appear to be in alignment with Namjoon.

 

Taehyung, who has been sitting on the edge of a reading chair by the bookshelf with his brows drawn, shifts to lean back against the backrest studying Jimin’s face, crosses his legs, placing his hands one over the other on his thigh and exhales noisily before suggesting, “Look Min… let the invitation go. According to what Namjoon knows, it doesn’t talk of your marriage. It is simply an invitation for your birthday celebrations. Let them come. The people already believe that you and the General are lovers. You need to make your case compelling enough for His Majesty to consider your relationship. You just have to show him how much you both love each other.”

 

Jeongguk, who is standing by the window with his hands crossed against his chest, leaning against the wall on one of his arms, chuckles derisively and for once Jimin just knows he isn’t mocking him. He is mocking the bind they are in. It still irks Jimin, he doesn’t need other people to remind him of how ridiculous the whole situation is. He is already aware of it, painfully so.

 

“How much we love… Tae we already did. We smiled at each other lovingly, held each other, released a fucking lover’s sky lantern. What else do you want us to do? We already did everything.” He argues, despising sounding like a whining child, embarrassingly conscious of Jeongguk’s presence in the room.

 

“Well… not everything” Taehyung offers sheepishly and Jimin doesn’t miss the way Namjoon rolls his eyes.

 

“What do you mean?” The prince questions, puzzled.

 

“You haven’t kissed, have you?” Taehyung tilts his head to one side with a mischievous glint in his eyes and a rogue smile. Jimin is appalled at the idea.

 

“Are you fucking out of your mind? I am not kissing…” He scrunches his nose in disgust pointing at Jeongguk, “… him.” He is only pretending. The truth is that he can already feel the heat rising through his neck.

 

“He is your lover. So yes, you will have to at some –”

Taehyung starts arguing his point but Jeongguk pushes off the wall and declares, cutting him, “Alright! I don’t have time for this. Can I please go back to training inspections? Please let me know when His Highness and his minions are ready with the plan of action.”

 

There he is again – this is the Jeongguk Jimin so hates. The obstinate, recalcitrant brat who doesn’t know his place. The conceited rascal Jimin enjoys humbling so much. He forgets the nervousness that had hit him at the mention of a kiss and raises his voice if only to put him in his place.

“Get your ass back over here General! Who the fuck do you think you are?”

 

Jeongguk stops by the door of the study and turns with a scoff and a disbelieving smirk, looking ready to start another squabble when Taehyung pushes up on his feet and interrupts rather loudly.

“Gentlemen! Min! Jeongguk! We are all on the same side here. It’s not a war. Stop making it one. This is love. Make love!” He finishes with a smirk and the suggestive lilt in his voice leaves Jimin’s ears hot and cheeks burning but he'll be damned if he allows it to show. Jeongguk is standing wide-eyed as well in his place, one of his hands tightly balled in a fist perhaps feeling similarly surprised at the insinuation.

 

Namjoon clears his throat rescuing them all from the awkward silence that had enshrouded the room. After shooting a glare to Taehyung he turned his head to Jimin, “What Taehyung means, and I concur just this once, is that a few more deeply affectionate gestures may be required to be staged in front of His Majesty until he believes it. It appears that he does need that extra push to convince him of your relationship. Shins can be invited to your birthday. It is commonplace for royals to invite other royals to celebrations. It doesn’t mean anything.”

 

He then turns to Jeongguk who is still standing by the door and nods once, reassuringly. “General! Cooperate with the Crown Prince please. It is absolutely vital that you do. He cannot do this alone. He cannot save Jinje alone.”

 

Jimin appreciates Namjoon’s judgment as much as he abhors the tacit reminder of how he needs Jeongguk to save his kingdom. He takes a deep breath and says through a tense jaw, “Yes General! Your cooperation is appreciated.” 

 

Taehyung claps loudly once and with his hands still clasped together, he says excitedly, “Perfect! So now I and Namjoon will retire and you two work out your plan about it. And since you two like each other so much, I suggest you practice beforehand so it doesn’t look forced later in front of the intended audience.” Jimin rolls his eyes at the sarcasm in his voice before realising that he and Namjoon are about to leave.

 

“Wait what? You are not leaving, are you?” Jimin is horrified at the idea of talking about something like kissing with Jeongguk alone. He isn’t sure his heart will be able to take it. Taehyung who has already taken Namjoon by his hand and is dragging him out, stops at the door and turns amused.

 

“I’m sorry! Do you prefer to make out in front of us then?” He asks with his eyes as round as saucers as he makes his point dramatically. “I don’t know about Namjoon, but I don’t mind watching really –”

 

“Er… No. What Taehyung means is…” Namjoon interrupts him, taking hold of Taehyung’s hand instead and visibly squeezing it hard. “Your Highness it is best you two talk about it in private.”

 

“Oww! You’re so strong.” Taehyung dramatically yelps “What Lord Kim said. He is beginning to understand me so well nowadays” He tilts his head dreamily looking at Namjoon, teasing him. Namjoon, flustered now, bows to the Prince once quickly and drags him out with him.

 

They avoid each other’s gaze awkwardly once again for a few moments before Jimin finally decides to do something about the silence which feels heavy as lead.

“Umm… Have a seat General”

 

Jeongguk awkwardly examines various seating options in the study and decides to take the reading chair. Jimin orders “On the couch!”

 

“Huh?” Jeongguk stops mid-air while sitting on the chair, looking utterly stupid with his big eyes. Now this is a look Jimin likes on Jeongguk.

 

“Don’t worry I’m not going to take advantage of you. Don’t act like a scared lamb” He snarks and Jeongguk straightens up, puffing out his chest just a little, grumbling, “Who’s scared?”

 

“You absolutely do look scared.” Jimin is having too much fun on this slippery slope.

 

Jeongguk’s chin is tipped as he scoffs, “Well your eyes deceive you. I’m not.” This testiness would be endearing if it was not Jeongguk who was wielding it.

 

“So you’re not worried that I might try to kiss you?” Jimin leans back in his chair with the fingers of both his hands meshed with each other in front of his chest, his hip forward and legs opening a little bit in an alpha male stance. The idea of kissing Jeongguk makes him nervous but he internalises it. He is worried that he will like it too much it. But he also likes the idea of making the General uneasy.

 

“No. Why would I be worried?” Jeongguk doesn’t look affected by his non-verbal assertion of dominance and it annoys Jimin.

 

“Oh maybe because you couldn’t handle it?” Jimin grins impishly, channeling the devil inside him.

 

Jeongguk drops his head and Jimin can swear he is hiding a laugh. But then he looks up with a fire in his eyes the prince doesn’t recognise. “If one of us is not going to be able to handle it, I can assure you it will be you Your Highness”

 

“Hah! We shall see about that. Do you consent for us to try it then?” Jimin may not have been able to extract the desired reaction from the General but it only boosts his drive to push harder. They are playing the game of nerves again and Jimin knows for sure that it will affect both of them. At this point he doesn’t know why his is digging a hole for himself. But he will gladly fall in it if he can drag Jeongguk down with him.

 

Jeongguk stares at him with unreadable eyes and Jimin can’t help getting sucked into the stars swimming in them. The next time they look away and Jimin registers his surroundings once again, he finds Jeongguk now standing by the couch, undoing the clasp of his sword belt. He removes the belt that has his sword fastened with it and lets it drop on the floor, continues to remove his leather armor which also finds its way to the floor. He stands in his tight dark pants and a cream-colored linen tunic, both sides of a deep neckline held together with strings that does nothing to hide his muscular chest. Jimin has to force his mouth close and gulps as discreetly as possible. Jeongguk’s gaze flits back to Jimin and he nods curtly before settling on the couch.

 

“What are you doing?” Jimin asks a little alarmed.

 

“Getting ready to try”

 

“Wha –”

 

“Would you rather we kiss while I’m clad in armour? It’ll just get in the way.” Jeongguk shrugs and Jimin cannot fault the reason. An armour will only be in the way, so he abandons that worry and gets up to walk up to the couch where Jeongguk now sits, almost sprawled, mimicking the same alpha male stance Jimin had taken a few moments ago. It's a dangerous game they are both playing but Jimin cannot stop now. It’s too late, he is too invested in trying to rile up his opponent.

 

He kicks his boots off and settles next to Jeongguk with one of his legs folded on the couch and one elbow set on the backrest, facing him. His long jacket is making it a bit hard to be comfortable.

 

Royal fucking garb!

 

Jeongguk straightens up and turns to him. Jimin takes a moment to observe his expression looking for traces of ridicule but there aren’t any. Only slightly drawn brows on a handsome tanned visage – from hours training in the sun. His fingers twitch to touch his face once but he restrains them, rather pointlessly. He knows at some point he will have to touch him if they were to kiss but he refuses to touch him unless absolutely necessary.

 

He leans in slowly but Jeongguk abruptly speaks, “Tell me again why do we have to practice it?”

 

His words stab at his heart like a poisoned dagger. It burns and hurts. He has told himself he doesn’t even want to kiss Jeongguk but still feels the rejection, too powerfully for his liking. He doesn’t pull back from where he is but his features contort into a scowl as he hisses, “I don’t want to kiss you either.” Jeongguk now looks like he is trying to keep disappointment from showing on his face. But Jimin can see it because his eyes have lost the sparkle. He should be happy at the reaction but he isn’t. He doesn’t mean to but hears his own quiet voice explaining, “But Taehyung said it has to look natural.” His voice is barely audible in the end.

 

Jeongguk is wearing a pensive look. “Ummhmm” He says.

 

“And Namjoon agreed” This is definitely over explanation.

 

“Yea?” Jeongguk’s gaze drops to Jimin’s lips for a fraction of a moment before going back to his eyes and the prince feels a strange sensation when the hair on his neck rise.

 

“And don’t think it is something I will enjoy doing because I hate you” He isn’t sure why he is repeating an established fact so many times. He tells himself that it is to ensure Jeongguk doesn’t forget it but deep down he knows he is only reminding himself. The closer he gets to the general, the harder it becomes to hate him, and other feelings – love-like feelings – take over. When they're close to each other, despite all his cockiness, Jeongguk increasingly looks like the innocent, starry-eyed twelve-year-old boy from years ago that Jimin had developed an instant crush on. “…but Taehyung said –”

He now knows that there is free fall beyond the edge he is dangling on.

 

“And why do you hate me so much?” Jeongguk catches Jimin off guard. He isn't prepared for this question. He studies his air cautiously – it is open, and gullible – like he will believe anything Jimin says in that moment. He scours every line on his face for scorn, deceit or arrogance. He cannot find any making him question each one of those times he told himself he did and allowed himself to lash out at him in response. He is now unsure that what he did was justified and it feels awful. He decides he hates Jeongguk for making him feel like a terrible person. Besides this man in front of him is the reason he didn’t see his mother in her last moments. There is no coming back from hatred like that. So, he can't allow himself to cross the edge and fall.

 

“Because you are this rude, insolent brat who doesn’t know his place.” He tells him what he tells everyone – what he has told himself for the past ten years repeatedly – doesn’t tell him the real reason of why he thinks he must hate him. He also doesn’t tell him that he doesn’t think he actually hates him at all.

 

“Is that what you think about me?” Jeongguk’s poignance morphs into disappointment and it pricks at Jimin’s conscience, but it is not enough to keep him from exacting more bitterness. 

 

“Are you going all soft on me general?” Jimin snickers and Jeongguk appears too stunned for a few moments. “Now are we going to kiss or what?”

 

“Yes. Yes let’s.” He sighs wearily.

 

Jimin huffs as he leans in but is forced to stop short of touching his lips. The cognisance of the rate at which the distance between their lips is decreasing has his heart is pounding in his chest, and he can hear the blood rushing in his veins loud and clear. All his irritation has faded, only an unwanted anticipation remains. His internal chants of I hate him aren’t enough to make the goosebumps go away. In the end, his nerves get the better of him and he pulls back.

 

“Uhh –”

 

“Can I?” Jeongguk raises both his eyebrows

 

“No” Jimin snaps stubbornly

 

“Ok” Jeongguk shakes his head and raises both his hands in a manner of surrender

 

Jimin leans closer to Jeongguk again but this time makes the mistake of dropping his eyes to his chest peeking out of the collar. His mind goes in a frenzy again and he has no choice to pull away again. Before he can get away completely, Jeongguk’s big hand curls behind his neck and tugs him back in, stopping at a distance where if he made a sudden move, their lips could accidentally brush. Jimin’s heart is racing and his body is betraying him. He wants to protest but his words are failing him too.

 

“Jimin” Jeongguk whispers and Jimin’s body is set ablaze. He hasn’t heard his name from Jeongguk’s mouth in years. He had forgotten how he had felt when Jeongguk was new to his trainings and used to call him by his name, refusing to call him by his title. Jimin would be lying if he said he didn’t find it attractive initially. Somewhere along the way it became a tool for Jeongguk to insult Jimin until one of the trainers disciplined him for it. But the way he just said it isn’t an insult. It could have been a request, a lure, definitely a form of persuasion. And it is working. Although he doesn’t want to be, Jimin is persuaded. He closes his eyes in a silent approval and waits for Jeongguk to close the gap between their lips. Which he does, their lips brush only for a second, the sensation barely registers in Jimin’s mind before there is a loud knock on the door and they pull away startled. They look at each other in shock akin to someone caught red handed while committing a crime. Jimin sits with a hand against his chest, his heart hammering inside, trying to calm himself down. He feels glad that they are interrupted but isn’t sure why. Is it because he hates the idea of kissing Jeongguk? Or that he likes it too much? Perhaps he is not glad at all, he is just disappointed. He can no more tell the difference.

 

“Minister of foreign affairs Lord Yang and Advisor to his majesty Lord Lee” They hear the sentry announce breaking them both out of their stupor. Jeongguk scrambles to pick up his armor but Jimin stops him.

“Don’t”

 

“My appearance is compromised.” Jeongguk says, slightly in disbelief although he still allows the armour to slip away from his hand.

 

“Barely, you are fully clothed.” Jimin smirks and tilts his head to the side.

 

“Still not a good reflection on me.” Jeongguk sits back with his hands folded in front of his chest grumbling begrudgingly.

 

“We need everyone to believe we are lovers. Live the lie General!" Jimin sardonically reminds him of their current motto, undoing two buttons of his own jacket and approving the arrival announced by the sentry. “Send them in”

They don't try it or don't talk about it again until a week later.

 

***

 

Jimin loves Taehyung’s beautiful mind but not so much when he suggests things like staging a lover’s rendezvous in the royal gardens at the time the King is in the gardens for his evening tea and a leisurely walk. According to him, it will be a nice way to display the expert kissing skill he and Jeongguk had both claimed to possess to avoid practicing it again. He thinks it might help the King bring one step closer to believing them. He is annoyingly right.

 

So here they are, standing awkwardly with each other in the gardens. Jimin is pretending to ignore the presence of the General by overtly observing the surroundings. Granted he doesn’t have to act too much, the gardens are mesmerising, peonies are in bloom and roses are about to follow with their colourful buds peeking out through lush green sepals. The fragrance of white and pink everblooms is permeating through the air and a cool zephyr plays with his hair ever so slightly. Jimin likes it here. This right here appears remarkably close to what he imagines heaven to be like.

 

He sits down next to a rose bush, gently brushing the tips of his fingers on the flower buds, admiring the delicate brilliance of the petals peeking out of the buds.

 

“Don’t touch them now. Your highness” All of a sudden, Jeongguk wraps his hand around his wrist and Jimin is forced to look up. “Why?”

 

“It’s sundown. They’re sleeping” He says simply.

Jimin wriggles his hand out of his grip and chuckles “That’s something they tell children to keep them away, so the bugs don’t bite them in the dark. You don’t believe that story, do you?”

 

Jeongguk takes a long time choosing his words and then awkwardly says, “I knew that” He has a strange look on his face which Jimin recognises as a mix of embarrassment and suspicion.

 

“Poor General! Did you not know?” He mocks when all he wants to do is coo at him. If the past two months have told him anything about Jeongguk, it’s that he is pure of heart. But he is still him so Jimin cannot acknowledge that.

 

Intimacy forced or faked is still intimacy. It scares Jimin because Jeongguk has clearly made his way into his heart again. Everything about Jeongguk bothers him. His body heat when they are close, his breath tickling his nose, his touch that sets his body on fire, the sincerity in his eyes, the safety in his embrace, his compassion and sense of justice, the man he is now, everything bothers Jimin. There is no point denying it anymore. He knows he is falling for Jeongguk, but he shouldn’t. It only took a couple of months of weaving an illusion of love for his old feelings to resurface. Maybe they had never gone away like he kept telling himself through all these years. He feels like a terrible son to his mother. He is falling for someone who kept him from going to her in her last moments. Right now, he doesn’t know who he hates more, Jeongguk or himself.

 

Letting Jeongguk close to him again was a bad idea and Jimin regrets the moment he said his name in front of his father on the day of the final duel. He should’ve chosen someone he didn’t feel anything for. But for Jeongguk, he feels love and he feels hate, he feels everything all at once. It overwhelms him but he has to pretend like his heart isn’t in a constant turmoil every living moment he spends close to him.

 

“I did” Jeongguk’s voice breaks his stupor.

 

“Okay then.” All the beauty that surrounds them in the gardens has put him in a good mood and for once, he doesn’t want to induce negativity by arguing or teasing. He gets up with a slight chuckle, his fingers working out the creases of his jacket.

 

“Father should be out any moment. The guard will find us and inform us when it is time. Instead of standing here pointlessly, should we just take a walk?” He offers and starts walking, hoping Jeongguk will just follow, which he does. Jimin is painfully aware of Jeongguk’s gaze on himself like always. On another day he would have snapped at him to stop it like countless times before, but he chooses to ignore it to avoid any unpleasantness to creep into their already awkward attitudes today. Just to hold on to his good mood for a little longer – or so he tells himself.

 

They stroll quietly before the silence gets too heavy for Jimin to bear. He observes Jeongguk through a sideway squint. “Is there news on the northern frontier?”

 

“A messenger is expected to arrive back with news tonight.” Jeongguk replies

 

“What is your assessment of the situation?” Jimin pats his back internally for easily transitioning the conversation into the matters of the kingdom.

 

Jeongguk quietly contemplates his answer for a moment and offers, “From what we already know, the northern guard are scattered, tired. We have had reports of deserters before. And I understand why. They have been guarding and thwarting Namsan’s attacks for so long now. It just goes on and on with no end in sight. They are demotivated, homesick.”

 

“Hmm” Jimin considers the information and makes a mental note to check on the messenger who is due to arrive tonight.

 

Talking to Jeongguk has never been easy for Jimin – it constantly tests him. Before Jimin roped him into this elaborate ruse requiring them to be intimately close to each other, they bickered endlessly about everything under the sun. Such is their relationship. That is what they do. But somehow talking to him about the kingdom is easier because that is one time they stand together. One time can pretend they are on the same side and not revolted by each other.

 

“Your Highness, General” The guard who has now caught up to them, bows to them both and informs “His Majesty has left his chambers for the gardens. His tea will be served in the pavilion on the south side.”

 

“Thank you.” Jimin dismisses the guard with the flick of a hand. He turns with a meaningful look to Jeongguk who promptly joins their hands, intertwining their fingers. For the first time, Jimin doesn’t feel the need to flinch. They simply turn and continue their stroll towards the south side.

 

“What if His Majesty believes us? What then? Have you thought about it Your Highness?” Jeongguk enquires keeping his eyes set forward on the path ahead.

 

“Then we continue to pretend for some time and then fake break up afterwards.” Jimin replies. Jeongguk stops, forcing him to stop as well. He then turns to him and says, “Just like that?” 

 

Jimin chuckles lowly, “Yes General. Just like that.”

 

“Do you think His Majesty will accept it so easily? What if he orders you to marry Prince Manseok or another one of the Shin family after that?” The general puts forth something he hadn’t thought of and it wipes his taunting smile. It hurts his ego to accept that he, Taehyung and Namjoon – a competent prince and his shrewd and ingenious counsel – three people failed to consider that extremely obvious possibility.

 

“I don’t know.” Jimin frowns peevishly and Jeongguk sighs in resignation.

 

“Think about it I guess” He says as he turns away to look ahead and starts walking again. In a few steps the southern pavilion appears in Jimin’s peripheral vision. Jeongguk starts swinging their joined hands a little and Jimin knows he has noticed that his father has eyes on them. He plays his part – stopping to smile at Jeongguk sweetly, peering at him as lovingly as he can and finishes their discussion. “I will my love!”

 

Now is the time to do what they tried to practice and failed at a week ago. Jimin decides, with his father watching them, it is the perfect time for a kiss. With heart thudding in his chest, he pushes himself up on his toes and brings his lips incredibly close to Jeongguk’s, who freezes at the sudden proximity but catches on quickly. He leaves his hand and wraps it around his waist, lifting him a little off the ground, in preparation for the kiss. Jimin can feel Jeongguk’s long, curly locks that usually fall on his brows, brushing on his own forehead. He can hear his own breathing and feel Jeongguk’s on his lips. Short puffs of warm breath. Unable to look at him, he can hear the thumping in his chest and worries Jeongguk can hear it too. The thought of an imminent kiss is as thrilling as it feels embarrassing, leaving his stomach in knots. He waits for Jeongguk to take the next step, who sucks in air sharply in preparation. But before he can close the tiny space between their lips, a noise jolts them apart. Their kiss is interrupted. Once again.

 

With the snap of a twig under someone’s foot and a surprised yelp, an arrival is announced, and it draws an unexpected reaction from Jimin. He barks agitatedly at his father’s attendant, “What?” It comes out a touch louder for his own liking.

 

The poor attendant flinches scared at this outburst. Jimin immediately feels bad and incredibly stupid for unnecessarily snapping at him for something that wasn’t his fault. Mortification sets in next when he realises Jeongguk is watching him, looking thoroughly entertained. Did he just get angry because he couldn’t kiss Jeongguk? Damn it! Did he just let his eagerness show? 

 

He is the Crown Prince, famous for his level-headedness, prudence, and impeccable manner. But not when Jeongguk is around. Why does one man have this effect on him? Jimin knows he turns into a brat when he is around, and he hates it. He closes his eyes, trying to pull himself together and when he opens them again, he is once again the calm, collected Crown Prince of Jinje.

 

“Go on” He coolly encourages the attendant to convey the message and the man looks increasingly comfortable. He still stutters while delivering it.

 

“Your Highness, His M-Majesty wishes for you to j-join him at tea.” He points to the pavilion at a distance with both his hands, keeping his head ducked.

 

Jimin turns to Jeongguk who is still smiling fondly. His smile looks so genuine that if Jimin didn’t know better he would think Jeongguk really was in love with him. But he knows better – this is a trick – a ruse of his own design. Somehow that causes him despair because of the fast-growing feelings in his heart he hasn’t been able to control.

 

Jeongguk nods knowingly and takes his hand bringing it to his lips and kissing at the back of it lightly. “I will see you later my love.” The gesture is incredibly common, but he allows his lips to linger on Jimin’s skin for an elongated moment, making it feel so intimate that the attendant turns back immediately to give them privacy.

 

It is just an act, but Jimin feels incredibly warm and tingly all over. If his sleeves weren’t covered, Jeongguk would’ve noticed the goosebumps that now refuse to go away whenever he is around and is looking at Jimin. A smile makes his way on his lips without even trying. He is utterly puzzled about what he is feeling right now. He feels happy that Jeongguk his playing his part seriously, but he also feels angry at the conflicting feelings he is inciting in his heart through his unnervingly believable act. He is making Jimin fall in love with him.

 

How did it even come to this? Maybe they got too close and now Jimin is doubting his own comprehension of their relationship over the past twelve years.

 

“Later my dear” Jimin manages to say the words, conquering a fast constricting throat and Jeongguk steps back slowly. A fond grin still plays on his lips, eyes still sparkling with something Jimin doesn’t recognise, he slowly distances himself before turning on his heels and walking away.

 

***

 

The attendant escorts Jimin to the pavilion where his father is seated in front of an elaborate tea setting clad in his leisure robes. A thin black silk jacket worn loosely over a light coloured cotton undertunic and dark cotton pants. He looks the opposite of how Jimin feels. Comfortable.

 

Glad one of us is comfortable.

 

“Ah Crown Prince, have a seat”

 

Jimin settles on an ornate chair across from his father, crosses one of his leg on the other and holds on to his knee with both his hands to project calmness. Inside, there is a raging storm of anxiety and the thoughts about whether or not his father has bought their act this time keep swirling in his mind.

 

“I noticed you were having some quiet time with Jeongguk. I apologise for cutting it short.” The King says with a small smile surprising Jimin. He can finally see a small ray of hope. Trying to keep his anticipation at bay, he gulps and says, “It is alright Father. We are going to meet later tonight anyway.” It isn’t entirely wrong. He is going to see him at the strategy council’s meeting to hear the news from the messenger from northern frontier.

 

The King nods and picks up his cup of tea bringing it to his mouth gingerly, trying to avoid looking at him straight.

 

“Is he good to you then?” He doesn’t look at him as he places the cup back on the table.

 

“Yes. Very” Jimin says and holds his breath as he waits for the next question. He is unable to read his father’s expression and it is scaring him. What if he has failed in making him believe yet again? Perhaps he and Jeongguk weren’t close enough or were too unnatural with each other. They should’ve listened to Taehyung and practiced. But what if the King is just determined to ignore his feelings. Almost waiting for him to sneer at him or dismiss his relationship once again, he bites the insides of his cheek and fidgets with his hands that are in his lap now. However, no sneer is heard, nor a dismissal expressed.

 

The King grins brightly instead approvingly, “Excellent. You do look happy with him. You had lost this radiance. I haven’t seen you shining this brightly since that terrible battle against the barbarians you went into all those years ago.” He shakes his head despondently and proceeds to grab his teacup once again.

 

At first, Jimin has to stifle a wry laughter that is about to burst out of him at the sudden display of care. His father is not a man without affection for his son, but he is not one for showing emotion – to the extent that Jimin thinks he really doesn’t care about much. But in this moment, his father’s dismal expression, lamenting the past, is telling him a different story.

 

Perhaps he does care.

 

If he does then as a son, it is his duty to reassure him. He says softly, “I-I didn’t do it on purpose Father. It was just a terrible thing to witness. Took a lot from everyone.”

 

“I know. I know you have been taking care of the kingdom since you were only a boy.” His father takes a deep breath, wearing a melancholy look, bobbing his head regretfully. “Fighting in wars a child shouldn’t have to. I feel terrible to put that burden on a child’s fragile shoulders. You’ve never been the same after you returned.”

 

It is strange to see his father so dreary, even upsetting.

“My shoulders weren’t fragile. And no one who survived that battle returned the same, not just me. I did what had to be done. And I am fine. I assure you father.” He tries to soothe his father’s worries once again.

 

“I know, I know! You were always so strong. Just like your mother.” The king nods lost in thought, his tea now forgotten.

 

However, the mention of his mother stirs ugly emotions in Jimin, the ones he keeps subdued within when he is not unleashing them on Jeongguk.

 

“Don’t talk about her please.”

 

“Jimin” His father addresses him by his name which he hasn’t done in a long time. Even though the mention of his mother has made him sullen and restless, hearing his name from his father’s mouth piques his interest. “I think it might be time for me to tell you something that I have carried in my heart for a long time.” By the time the King finishes the sentence, his voice is barely a whisper.

 

“About what Your Majesty?”

 

“Your mother”

 

“I don’t want to talk about her” Jimin snaps again.

 

“I know. And I know you resent me for not allowing you to see her in her final days. But I need to get this off my chest. You should know. You might hate me after this, but I owe you the truth. This is the last thing I ask of you as my son. Please hear me out.” The king urges as he looks into his eyes for the first time.

 

“Father what –” He starts protesting, utterly baffled but is interrupted by another desperate plea.

 

“Please son!”

 

Jimin frowns and nods reluctantly.

 

“Do you remember the time I and General Jeonghoon suggested you spar with Jeongguk on training field?” His father asks and pain poisons his thoughts – clouds, dark and brooding, roll into his chest. How could he forget the day? How could he forget the wretched duel? It was impossible to forgo the pain of losing his mother without getting a chance to say goodbye. Because his father wouldn’t let him go to her. Because he failed to secure his one shot at seeing her – he lost the duel. Because Jeongguk won on that day.

 

He nods affirmatively biting his tongue to keep in whatever rebukes his mind is suggesting for himself, Jeongguk and his father.

 

“Your mother passed away during that time. I was informed just after your duel.” His father’s voice is barely audible, woeful. He stares into a distance, his eyes focused on something invisible situated at a distance behind Jimin.

 

The words that fall on his ears leave Jimin puzzled, disoriented, shocked even. He glares at his father – he is not looking at him at all. His eyes are intent on the imagery of that ill-fated day now swimming in the air between him and the King. He relives the whole day in the long, heavy pause his father takes.

 

He remembers waking up that day hoping once again that maybe today was the day his father would finally budge and let him see his mother only for his plea to be denied once again at breakfast table. He remembers focusing all his resentment on the bullseye of the target in front of him, eventually winning the archery round in training and taking pleasure in Jeongguk’s annoyed huffing. He remembers how he had thanked the Gods when he saw a chance to see his mother in the form of the sparring duel his father suggested and he will never forget how that last sliver of hope was obliterated under the weight of his crushing defeat at the hands of an unusually aggressive Jeongguk. He relives the embarrassment, disappointment and despair and his breath gets caught in his throat.

 

“B-But but…” He is trying to ask a question, but words are failing him.

 

“But I couldn’t tell you immediately. I couldn’t. I delayed breaking the news of her death because I didn’t know how to tell you. I needed time. I couldn’t find enough courage to face my son and tell him I had kept him from seeing his mother in her last moments. But son, I honestly never thought she would leave us like that. I was so sure she will get better. I was naïve and short sighted. I couldn’t accept that she was dying. But the court kept deferring my visit to her and I had to keep you safe too, she was sick with a contagious disease and I couldn’t, I couldn’t risk you getting sick. You were the future of this kingdom. You are the future of this kingdom.”

His father says many things after that but Jimin barely registers to any of it, still struggling to wrap his head around the first words of his confession. He is still in shock and the question that is overwhelming his heart and mind, spills out of his mouth, “So she was gone already?”

 

The question must not have made too much sense for his father, but it means everything to Jimin. For years he has told himself that he detests Jeongguk for snatching the chance to say his last goodbye to his mother from his hands. Now his father is telling him that the chance was never there to begin with. Sure, Jeongguk was a brat, but he was a brat Jimin once had feelings for – still has feelings for. He didn’t deserve the hatred that Jimin had directed towards him over the years – simply because he won a duel. He punished him for something that wasn’t his fault by mocking him at every possible instance, squabbling with him resentfully, calling him names he didn’t deserve.

 

He had convinced himself that the hatred was mutual, but suddenly it all feels wrong. All of his recent internal conflict is letting up now. Jeongguk didn’t wrong him by winning that duel and now that he is thinking about it, he is realising that he has never done anything even close to what Jimin has done to him. Ever since they stopped training together, he has always treated Jimin like his Crown Prince. He has submitted even when he was right and Jimin was being petty in an argument. He has followed all his orders, now he is helping him in his crime of deception. If found out, it could anger the King and he could be charged with treason. But he is risking it and helping him anyway. Maybe he is not as bad as Jimin has always thought he was. Maybe, just maybe he hadn’t hated Jimin as Jimin had hated him in the past.

 

“She died during that time, yes.” The king confirms uncomprehendingly “Forgive me son. Forgive me.” He sits with a straight back, tall, in a stark incongruence with his voice. It sounds like he is begging.

 

Jimin doesn’t know what to think other than that he feels like a terrible person right now. He is unsure if he should hold himself or his father responsible for his unfair treatment of Jeongguk. But right now, his father is begging for his forgiveness, which is a sight he hadn’t imagined he would ever see. But here he is, begging with his eyes glistening with tears and seeing him like this saddens Jimin.

 

If he is being honest, after all these years of running the affairs of kingdom, he understands. He understands why his father couldn’t let him see his mother. A son can forever resent his father for denying him a farewell to his mother, but a Crown Prince cannot resent a King for keeping him safe. It was just an unfortunate event that they both need to make peace with.

 

“I forgive you.” He inhales sharply, trying to contain all his emotions in but a rogue tear escapes from his hold. He quickly wipes it with the back of his hand and regains his composure. “I forgive you father. I understand why you did what you did. I wish you had done things differently, but I still understand.”

 

His father nods with a painful look and rasps, “Thank you son. It is more than what I hoped for. Perhaps more than what I deserve.”

 

“But why are you telling me this now? What did you mean when you said it was last thing you ask of me as your son?” Jimin asks impatiently, still trying to make complete sense of his father’s words.

 

The King says nothing for a few moments and Jimin grows a little worried at the ominous tone of the words.

“Because soon, you’ll be my King.” His father beams in pride and Jimin is shocked for the second time today. “You are ready my son. To be king. You are already running the court, more efficiently than I ever did, have a strong partner by your side who will be an excellent King consort. Together you both will protect and nurture this kingdom. I am sure of it. There is no reason to keep that crown from adorning your head anymore. You are ready.”

 

“But I thought you wanted me to marry Prince Manseok”

 

“I did. But there isn’t only one right way of doing things. Anyway, in this case, it is possible that I was wrong. I have long ignored Gimnan’s lies and deception.”

 

“Oh why the change of heart?”

 

“I read all the strategy council reports finally once again instead on relying on minister Lee and advisor Choi’s interpretations. I am also having them investigated.”

 

“Oh”

 

“I decided I needed fresh blood to help me see your point of view. Two very capable young men are investigating this for me. Strategy advisor Kim Namjoon and Law enforcement officer Kim Seokjin. Lord Namjoon is one of your friends I believe?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Wise choice of friends. If I may offer a word of advice, Kim Namjoon should be the chief minister of your regime.”

 

“He is not senior enough.”

 

“I am sure you will find a way to prove his worth to the court and appoint him anyway. Old age is wearing down chief minister Nam. He is looking forward to being relieved of the burdens of court. I know he will be happy to make a recommendation in Lord Kim’s favour.”

 

“Oh” Jimin’s mind is running as fast as it can to catch up with everything his father is saying. This should be a joyous occasion. His father finally thinks he is good enough and for the first time in years it feels like he cares about Jimin. But he can’t bring himself to celebrate. This joy is tainted by his regret for making Jeongguk suffer due to his senseless vendetta.

 

“You must court officially for the obligatory three-month period before we can send a proposal to the Jeon household. So, I suggest you start immediately. Present a courting gift to Jeongguk tomorrow.” His father says happily.

 

“So… I have your permission?” Jimin is still unable to believe his trickery worked.

 

“You had it when you told me you loved Jeongguk. I just had to be sure. My precious son, no one is worthier of you than him.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Jimin paces in his chambers, his mind is filled with regret for his attitude towards Jeongguk and the new problem at hand. He pushes aside regret for now.

 

The other issue seems more pressing at this time. His father expects him to court Jeongguk now that he believes them to be lovers. Although since the King is no more invested in a marriage alliance with Gimnan, Jimin is no longer required to keep up with the appearances of a relationship with Jeongguk. But he cannot come clean because it could infuriate his father and while he himself will be eventually safe from this wrath, Jeongguk could be accused of treason and punished for it. As a decent human being he could never allow that to happen to someone who tried to help him, so they have to stage a breakup sooner or later.

 

Breakup

 

His heart twists at the thought. It is making him restless. He feels like a something heavy is sitting in his stomach giving him a feeling of impending doom. He doesn’t want to break up anymore, but he has to eventually, because there is no way Jeongguk feels the same as him. Only, he doesn’t know how to break up. But that isn't a puzzle that he has to solve now. Right now, the problem is that his father expects him to present his courting gift to Jeongguk tomorrow. So he will have to present it, but he doesn’t have anything prepared.

 

He hadn’t expected things to take this turn so soon and is unprepared. He contemplates asking the royal swordsmith to forge a new sword for Jeongguk. A fitting gift for a General. But there isn’t enough time to cast an exquisite blade that his lover deserves. If he orders for a new attire now, the royal tailors won’t be able to complete it by the morning. Even if they manage to do it, the work will be sloppy at best. He cannot compromise on the quality. Only the very best will do for Jeongguk. But why? He isn’t really his lover despite however much he wants him to be. Jimin has tormented him for so long that there is no possibility of Jeongguk ever liking him back. He just has to keep up with the appearances but his wretched heart can't help but devote itself to finding the perfect courting gift for him.

 

A new idea strikes his mind. He dismisses all the dejection he feels and walks up to an old mahogany armoire sitting at the corner of his room, mostly forgotten up until now. He opens it and retrieves an ornate silver jewellery box with intricate embossed floral design on it. It is his mother’s. The first thing he did when he started attending court was making an official claim to his deceased mother’s treasured personal belongings like books, jewellery, journals and had acquired them from various places, her chambers, storage and treasury. He needed to keep them close. Most of those now sit in this armoire in his chambers, untouched.

 

The jewellery box reminds him of his mother so much. He remembers her sitting in front of the mirror choosing the jewels to wear for the day while making fond conversation with him. His eyes well up and his breath hitches in his throat as he reminisces. He lets his tears run freely as tributes to her fond memory before wiping them away and starts sifting through the contents of the box. At last he finds what he was looking for. A bracelet with apple green jadeite beads. He remembers his mother telling him that she had it made for her first gift to Jimin’s consort. She is not here anymore but the gift should make it's way to it's intended recipient anyway. It seems fitting that this becomes his courting gift.

 

He picks the string of green beads up in his hands and examines it carefully, it is exactly as he remembers it. He closes his eyes to imagine how it would look tied around Jeongguk’s wrist and the image makes him glad. This is it. But why? Why does he want to offer something so precious – something his late mother chose for his partner – to a fake lover? His mind is silent, and heart is giving answers he does not want to acknowledge because there is nothing but pain waiting for him down that path. He feels like the stubborn teenager again who constantly refused to acknowledge his feelings for Jeongguk. He stares at the bracelet, distractedly running his fingers on the smooth beads, feeling it, until there is a knock on the door and the sentry announces the arrival of a messenger from court. He slips the bracelet on his own wrist and permits entry.

 

Jimin presence has been requested at an emergency war council meeting instead of the strategy council meeting that he had been expecting.

 

The messenger from the northern frontier must be back, he figures but hearing of a war council meeting worries him.

 

When he enters the council chamber, the atmosphere feels heavy with serious faces. His father is present along with the chief minister Nam Seungwon, minister of foreign affairs Yang Jaesuk, chief strategist Min Yoongi, Jeongguk and his deputy Jung Hoseok. A messenger stands in a bow, at the end of a long oval table that they are all sitting at. All the council members stand up and bow to him before the chief minister says, “His highness! The General has called for an emergency session of the war council. We have been waiting for you to hear the message from the commander of the northern guard.”

 

Jimin quickly walks in and settles on a chair next to his father after bowing to him and says “Read it”

 

It turns out Jeongguk’s assessment was correct. There is report of more desertion alongside a more concerning message. The spies have sent word that Namsan – the kingdom northern frontier separates Jinje from – is preparing for an invasion. Namsan seems to have caught wind of the situation of northern guard – low in numbers and demotivated – and they want to exploit it. The message is clear – a war is coming. The messenger finishes reading the message, and everyone takes a moment to absorb the information before Jimin breaks the silence and questions, “General, what do you suggest we do in this situation? Can we rotate the troops?

 

All eyes in the room are keenly watching him and Jeongguk, curious about their interaction, obviously motivated by the knowledge of the relationship between them. It makes Jimin feel a little conscious, but he asserts indifference as does Jeongguk whose eyes are unfocused, deliberating an answer, before he refocuses them on Jimin. “We can’t. Northern guard are the specialists of the mountain terrain. Reinforcements are definitely required due to their low numbers. But a complete replacement of troops would be unwise.”

 

“Lord Min, is it enough to send reinforcements from the capital then?” He addresses the chief strategist.

 

Min Yoongi, a very sharp man – undeniably one of the best strategists Jinje has ever had – sits with both his hands intertwined with each other in front of his chest. His fingers tap on his hands gently as he thinks and takes deep breaths a few times. A lot of thinking happens in war council meetings, everyone is used to it and waits patiently until he comes up with a response.

 “Sending reinforcements is not enough Your Highness. Northern guard needs leadership. They are scattered, demotivated and need a leader who can reorganise them, motivate them.” 

 

“And who would that be?” The King asks a question for the first time, to which he replies, “General Jeon Your Majesty! I believe he is already making preparations to leave.”

 

A frown appears on King Park’s face, clearly unhappy with the suggestion. The air in the room suddenly feels heavy and he turns to Jimin in apparent concern. Jimin himself feels like a huge boulder has dropped on him and is crushing his whole being but he maintains composure.  He gestures at his father with a solemn nod, conveying that he is fine – the opposite of how he really feels inside. His chest houses a furious tornado of anxiety right now. He is worried about Jeongguk.

 

His gaze flits to Jeongguk who half grins with an upward twitch of one corner of his lips, almost apologetically, in the moment their eyes meet. Jimin’s hands find purchase on to the armrest of his seat and fingers dig into it as he fights a sob rising up his throat. Everything is happening too fast and he doesn’t know if he even has the right to feel like this. It is not like they are real lovers.

 

If it turns into one, this will not be the first battle Jeongguk would've left for. Jimin himself has seen his fair share of battle. Besides they are not even in a real relationship – until this afternoon, he was convinced that they could never be in one. But he feels scared of the thought of Jeongguk leaving for war.

“I am prepared to leave at first light tomorrow.” Jeongguk says.

 

First light?

 

Jimin’s heart drops but his pride and the required decorum of his title don’t allow him to emote. On the inside, he is anxious, nervous and cannot stop wiggling his toes in his boots. Yes, this is not the first time Jeongguk is leaving for battle, but there is an obvious difference between then an now.

 

And deep down, he knows what it is.

 

He clearly remembers a young Jimin’s heart, the tender feelings for Jeongguk lingering in a corner of it – how his hatred viciously quelled them one by one. For years, he didn’t feel them, but now – thrown in at the deep end by fate – all those feelings are gushing back in like a tidal wave leaving him overwhelmed. He is in love with Jeongguk and he doesn't know what to do about it.

 

His panicked mind strays to the thought of his courting gift now tied to his own wrist and pangs of a new sadness smack his chest. He hasn’t even had a chance to give him his courting gift yet. He doesn’t know why it matters because whatever he is feeling right now doesn’t change the fact that their relationship is a hoax.

 

His sudden realisation of his love for Jeongguk feels ridiculous. Someone could argue that feelings can’t change overnight. But he feels what he feels, and he knows they didn’t change overnight. The love was always there, hidden behind all the loathing and offence.

 

“Crown Prince” His daze is broken when his father addresses him. He looks deeply concerned.

 

“Yes father?”

 

“I asked if you think we should send an emissary to Namsan to resolve the tension at the frontier?”

 

Jimin steels his heart once again and banishes all the fear to the back of his head. There is business to be taken care of.

“Yes. That sounds wise but I wouldn’t expect much from that. I suggest we mobilise our covert network in Namsan to create some internal issues to divert their attention and resources.” He suggests and his father hums in approval.

 

“I concur with the His Highness.” Yoongi says jumping on his feet. “I shall dispatch doves tonight”

 

“Commander Jung, please round up reinforcement units of infantry and cavalry immediately. Ring the bells when ready for inspection.” Jeongguk instructs his deputy.

 

One by one all courtiers depart leaving only Jeongguk along with his father in the council chamber.

 

“Such terrible timing Jeongguk. Just when I finally thought Jimin could be King you have to go away. What’s worse, to war.” The King speaks ruefully.

 

Jeongguk eyes Jimin a little surprised, gaping momentarily before saying, “You won’t even know I was gone Your Majesty. I am certain that we will be able to deescalate the situation. Lord Min is excellent at running covert tactics. I am fairly confident he won’t allow it to turn into a war. We just need to reorganise the northern guard.” Jimin knows he is just saying that. There is a very real possibility that as it often happens, they are too late in addressing the situation and a war is already brewing in the mountains.

 

“I really wish so.” The King pauses before saying, “It appears you haven’t had a chance to speak to the Prince this evening.”

 

“No I haven’t Your Majesty.”

 

Jeongguk shakes his head and glances towards Jimin who is lost in his own thoughts. The King sighs sorrowfully.

 

“Well the gist of the matter is that he has my permission to court you.”

 

“What?” Jeongguk sounds genuinely shocked but happy and Jimin cannot bear to look at him. “I mean I am grateful Your Majesty. I really am.” He bows with gratitude so earnest it gives Jimin a strange hope once again. A completely irrational hope of having something real with him. But he knows it's just his miserable heart hoping for the impossible.

 

The King beams happily “You are worthy of my son General. I am sure you will make him happy. I hope you come back soon to take your rightful place beside him as his consort. I have already expressed my wish for Jimin to present a courting gift to you tomorrow. But now you are leaving, and I don’t know if he can…” His trails off and his tone is sad accompanied by repeated, disappointed sighs. It provokes Jimin into a hasty decision.

 

“I can” He blurts out and Jeongguk is bewildered. The King nods approvingly and rises from his seat. “Then I trust we will have new Kings soon after you return Jeongguk. I shall retire for the night. Good luck! Spend some time together if you can.” He says almost regretfully “Good night my children.”

 

He leaves Jimin and Jeongguk behind who stare at each other wordlessly for a long while before Jeongguk sighs “So he believes it”

 

“He believes it.”

 

“Oh.” He sinks into his seat dejectedly before looking up at Jimin “I am guessing we have to fake courtship?”

 

“Maybe” Jimin murmurs.

 

“We can just tell him you gave me the gift. It will keep the pressure off you for as long as I’m away.” Jeongguk says and then chuckles throwing his head back on the back rest, “I’ll try to stay there for a long time.” He laughs like it's a joke but it makes Jimin want to cry. His heart breaks thinking that Jeongguk thinks he would want him to not come back when in reality the idea makes him so scared, he feels nauseous.

 

The ringing of the military bell notifies them of the readied troops for inspections indicating that it's time for Jeongguk to leave. He exhales loudly before getting up and bowing “I am needed on the grounds my Prince. Request for permission to leave.”

 

“You can go.” Jimin says softly, determined not to look at him. His resolve is paper thin, if he looks at him, he might burst out into tears. Jeongguk walks away quietly and Jimin abruptly realises he cannot let him go without telling him how he feels. “Jeongguk!” He calls and Jeongguk stops in his tracks by the door, but doesn’t turn back. “Come see me in my chambers afterwards” Jimin’s bottom lip quivers while trying to suppress another sob and he is glad Jeongguk cannot see him.

 

“It’s late.”

 

“I don’t care.”

 

***

 

The sentry announces the arrival of Jeongguk after what seems like an eternity of waiting. Jimin’s heart stumbles in his chest and he feels his throat tightening again.

 

While pacing in his chambers alone, he has thought about what to say to Jeongguk, but hasn’t been able to settle on the right thing. He knows how ridiculous a declaration of his love will sound to Jeongguk. But he has seen something in his eyes that makes him believe Jeongguk wont simply dismiss his feelings and now is the time to test it. He needs to tell Jeongguk somehow about what he is feeling. He might not get another chance.

 

“Your Highness” Jeongguk bows and for a few moments, Jimin forgets why he had asked him to visit. Everything around him fades until only Jeongguk’s bright face remains which he gawks at, unabashedly as he plummets to the couch in a rather undignified manner. The General smiles amusedly but waits for him to speak first.

 

“Jeongguk can I ask you something?” Jimin’s voice breaks despite employing all the strength he could muster.

 

“Of course Your Highness”

 

“Do you hate me?” He knows the answer to that but needs Jeongguk to say it.

 

“No.” Then answer is instant.

 

“No?” He presses. “You can be truthful. I won’t have your head for speaking your mind just this once.” He tries to smile projecting jest, but it comes off as pathetic grimace.

 

“Are you expecting another answer?” Jeongguk is slightly offended.

 

“Is there another answer?” Jimin gives him another chance to change his stand. He knows the answer, rather well, but he is hoping that if Jeongguk says he hates him too then he won’t be the horrible person he has been to him all these years.

 

“No. That is the only answer. I don’t hate you Your Highness. I have never hated you.” Jeongguk’s voice is soft, it’s lulling Jimin into giving up on this line of questioning. But he has to stay firm.

 

“Not even during training? You were vicious on the grounds.” He sinks back into the couch.

 

“As were you Your Highness.”

 

“I was?” Jimin asks not really looking for a reply. He is merely forcing himself to retrospect.

 

“Yes. We were both extremely competitive on the grounds. But I never thought you hated me until one day you… did.” Jeongguk’s eyes glaze over in sad reminiscence.

 

“I did.” He admits.

 

“Why?” There is hurt in that question and guilt curls around Jimin’s heart like poison ivy.

 

“If I say I was naïve and foolish, would it be enough for you forgive me? I am a flawed man. It is hard admitting one’s shortcomings.” Guilt and shame are eating him up from the inside, but he isn’t ready to tell Jeongguk the reason yet.

 

“Does that mean you won’t hate me anymore?” Jimin’s heart crumbles at the innocent question that sounds full of hope. Jeongguk doesn’t even want to know the reason, he only wants to make sure Jimin doesn’t hate him anymore. How did he ever manage to hate the bearer of such innocence for so long? He hangs his head low to hide the tears that now flow down his cheeks.

 

“I can’t.” He admits in a hoarse voice without looking up. He doesn’t have the courage to face Jeongguk. “I don’t think I ever really did, I just convinced myself that I must and that you hated me back. One day… one day I will tell you why.” He brings one of his hands to cover his eyes as he feels the urge to sob harder.

 

Jeongguk walks up to where he is sitting, crouching down in front of a distraught Jimin, he pulls his hand covering his face away tenderly, hesitating before squeezing it tight with his own. Jimin cannot help but look up at him as he says quietly, “Then on that day, I will listen my Prince.” He cradles Jimin’s jaw in both his palms and gently wipes his tears away with his thumbs. Jimin’s breath hitches in his throat due to the tender touch.

 

“You promise?” Jimin sniffles and Jeongguk nods with a warm, comforting smile.

 

Jeongguk keeps caressing now deep pink apples of Jimin’s cheeks with his thumbs and it is making his heart flutter. This is not the first time they have been this close, but it is certainly the first time of something. It feels like a new familiarity that hadn’t existed till now. Jimin wants to bask in it forever, except he doesn’t have forever. Jeongguk leaves in the morning for an unknown period of time – to battle. He hasn’t even told Jeongguk about his feelings yet. They haven’t even talked about what this is. Unbidden words fall out of his mouth through silent hiccups.

 

“C-Can you also promise to come back to me safely?”

 

Jeongguk gasps and freezes, “To you?” He questions in disbelief, seemingly unable to breathe.

Fear and doubt flood Jimin’s mind again. He may have imposed. Jeongguk might not have hated him but he most likely doesn’t reciprocate Jimin’s feelings. Why would he like him as more than his Prince? Jimin hasn’t given him any reasons to. He regrets his impulsiveness.

 

“Y-You don’t have to come b-back to me if y-you don’t want to.” He stammers through the sentence trying to rescind his remark. An abrupt, inelegant lull hangs heavy in the air which soon becomes too much to endure. So, he takes a deep breath and adds with finality, “Just come back home safe.”

 

Suddenly, Jeongguk’s grip on his jaw tightens, ever so slightly, reminding him that his hands are still touching him and his face flushes. Embarrassment, guilt, shame, rejection, sorrow – everything at once – rushes in to give his skin a deep red colour. He gulps anxiously as he sees Jeongguk take shallow breaths, opening and closing his mouth a few times, getting ready to say something. He is struggling with words like he is going through a dilemma – Jimin internally chides himself for putting him in this position. He shouldn’t have said something so carelessly. He is the Prince, what if Jeongguk thinks he is obligated to return his feelings. That would be a thousand times worse than a rejection he so dreads.

 

He brings both of his hands to cover Jeongguk’s that still rest on the either side of his face. When he makes a weak attempt to pry his hands off, so he can look away, Jeongguk takes a hold of his hands instead letting their joined hands fall to Jimin’s lap.

 

“Wait Jimin!” Jeongguk says breathily. He chews on his bottom lip nervously and then intertwines their fingers to Jimin’s surprise. “I want to come back to you. It’s all I’ve wanted since I was twelve.” His voice drops several octaves and Jimin’s heart with it.

 

Jimin’s eyes widen in shock. “Since-since twelve? Don’t make such a harsh joke. You argued with me all the time. But if you – if you always – what does that –” His breath isn’t cooperating, and he runs out of air several times during that sentence.

 

Jeongguk chuckles, a touch wistfully, freeing one of his hands, he brings it up to Jimin’s forehead but hesitates. His fingers linger in the air timidly for a moment before pushing a stray brown lock and tucking it behind his ear. His long rough fingers leave hot trails on Jimin’s skin as he exhales with a satisfied hum.

“I was a clueless teenager who didn’t know how to deal with feelings.”

 

“But-but-but after training...” Jimin’s voice started cracking once again. If Jeongguk likes Jimin since all those years ago, what does that make him? Just how cruel has he been to him?

 

“I am human, I lose my temper when provoked. But I don’t think you are responsible for it. Not solely.” Jeongguk said sombrely.

 

“Yes I was. I picked fights with you. I kept finding ways to berate you.” Jimin insisted, on the verge of tears once again. “I didn’t even have a good reason to hate you to begin with. How could you have known? You didn’t know.” He regrets his hatred. Even if his mother would have been alive during their duel, Jeongguk had no way of knowing what the stakes were for Jimin. He simply won a duel like any other day. He rambles on without context. “I was quarrelsome and-and-and cruel and petty. I am so very sorry.”

 

Jenogguk pushes on his feet exasperatedly and settles next to him on the couch. He hooks two of his fingers under his chin and turns his face to him.

“My Prince… hey-hey Jimin look at me” Jeongguk chases Jimin’s downcast eyes until they are on him. “I should have done better, and I should’ve conveyed how I felt. I should’ve tried to resolve our differences. I never wanted to fight with you Jimin, but I could never bring myself to say it. I didn’t want to fight with you, I love…” He purses his lips, regretting saying too much.

 

“You do?” Jimin exclaims tearily, in a stunned fashion.

 

“Yes. But it doesn't matter because you don't and are clearly so out of my reach I –” Jeongguk stopped abruptly “What are you doing?” He is startled seeing Jimin intently tying the jadeite bracelet around his wrist.

 

“General Jeon Jeongguk, I present to you my heart in the form of this courting gift. Please do me the honour of accepting it.” Jimin looks at him sheepishly through his wet eyelashes, no longer crying. “My mother got it made for my consort. Do you think it’s pretty?” He sniffles and giggles at Jeongguk’s mouth that is still hanging open and lightly places his palm under his chin to push it close.

 

Jeongguk is failing to comprehend his gesture. He is baffled.

“It is… really pretty. But I am not your…” He cannot bring himself to say the word. “It’s too much… too precious, and I am a nobody. Your Highness you don’t have to give me anything. I can just tell His Majesty that I have received the gift already. Nobody needs to know what it was.”

 

“General Jeon, what part of ‘come back to me’ did you not understand?” Jimin demands with a teary but resonant chuckle.

 

“None of it.” Jeongguk is shocked beyond reason and Jimin is growing fretful by the second. Did he not express his feelings for him clearly enough? He has to clarify it, until there is no room for a misunderstanding. God knows he has fulfilled his quota of misunderstandings in this life. He doesn’t need more.

 

“I have feelings for you Jeongguk. And I am scared that if you leave, you won’t return. It is so unbecoming of a Prince, but I am scared to death. And I want a relationship with you, for real this time.” The rational part of Jimin’s mind stops him from telling Jeongguk he loves him because of how ludicrous it will sound to him.

 

“What if your feelings are not love?” Jeongguk says warily, in disbelief of his confession. Jimin holds both his hands and says “Look into my eyes. I am not lying. I am not joking. This is my truth. My feelings are real. Please accept my courting gift Jeongguk.”

 

“Aren’t you being too cruel giving me that kind of hope my Prince?” Jeongguk looks like he is holding a raging storm in his chest and is barely holding himself together in its wake. Jimin can see that he still doesn’t believe him, but he cannot fault him for that. With his behaviour towards him in the past, Jimin hasn’t given him any reason to believe him.

 

“Can you brave my cruelty just one more time? Please. I will erase all your doubt when you’re back.” Jimin pleads. He doesn't know what else to say.

 

Jeongguk sighs despairingly after a long and intense silence. “I will do anything for you Jimin. I accept the gift.” The honesty of his eyes and voice breaks Jimin’s heart into pieces. This man is ready to do anything for him despite the years of torment Jimin has inflicted on him. And now that he knows he was at fault and he is in love with him, Jeongguk is going away for god knows how long.

 

“I don’t want you to go.” A shuddering sob wracks Jimin’s body once again. “God I don’t want you to go.”

 

Jeongguk tightens his grip on Jimin’s hands. “I’m taking you with me. Look.” He points to the bracelet Jimin has fastened around his wrist as he consoles him. “It will bring me luck. The wrist has a pulse point, your memory will always be connected to my heart through that. This will remind me of the promise I made to come back to you.”

 

“Will you write to me?”

 

“I will if I can.”

 

“We didn’t have enough time” Jimin whined. “Is it okay if… can you… I mean… can we… can we”

 

“Let me hug you just once?” Jeongguk says like he can read minds and stands up.

 

“Yes” Jimin’s voice is breathy as he springs to his feet too, almost too eagerly.

 

Jeongguk leans in and wraps his hands tentatively around his waist, keeping them hovering in the air slightly awkwardly, in a ghost touch. They have held each other before with ease. But this feels different to all those times when they were pretending. This intimacy is so real Jimin can almost taste it and that is why he understands Jeongguk’s wariness.

 

Jeongguk doesn’t really allow their bodies to touch until Jimin loops his hands around his neck assuring him of his keenness. He then pulls him closer and Jimin goes willingly. Jeongguk drops his head into the crook of Jimin’s neck whose head now lays comfortably on his solid chest. His hands slowly travel up and down Jimin’s back as he slowly breathes in and out. It makes Jimin wonder how his hands would feel on his bare skin. Chills run down his spine and he instinctively knots his fingers into Jeongguk’s long hair at the base of his neck. Jeongguk lets out a sharp gasp setting Jimin’s body on fire. Jimin hasn’t loathed the notion of clothing more than he does in this moment. His robes are in the way, Jeongguk’s armour is in the way. He needs to be close to Jeongguk – impossibly close – before he must send him off. He can feel Jeongguk’s breathing getting heavier like himself and can hear their hearts pounding in unison. Jeongguk pulls back and brings both his hands to cup Jimin’s face, now brazenly studying his features. The Prince realises how close their faces are when their noses almost touch.

 

“You have such beautiful eyes.” Jeongguk quips through his staggered breathing making Jimin’s flummoxed heart cartwheel in his chest at the compliment. “You too” He says softly.

 

As much as he loves his eyes, Jimin’s gaze keeps straying to Jeongguk’s lips for short distracting instants before he forces it away from them. Jeongguk, however, isn’t even trying to hide his craving. He eyes, when drop to Jimin’s lips, just stay there.

“May I my Prince?” Jeongguk whispers and Jimin feels the warm pattern of his breath on his nose. He knows what he is asking and that he is all too willing.

 

At this point, there is no reason to keep himself from feeling that his heart had first desired at a very young age. It has been long enough – Jimin can only withstand so much yearning and he knows it is probably worse for Jeongguk.

 

“Yes” He accedes impatiently and pushes on to his toes, closing the distance between their lips putting them both out of their misery.

 

The kiss is an eye-opener. General Jeon Jeongguk, the one with a solid body and hard-skinned hands has the softest lips. His lips are smooth, they move lightly tracing Jimin’s, almost like he is savouring them. Jimin cannot help but sigh into the kiss. He – the Crown Prince of Jinje – has no qualms in accepting that he is a fool for Jeongguk’s soft lips and now that he has had a taste, he needs more. Jeongguk pecks his lips lightly too many times, playing with his patience which is only hanging by a fragile thread. He decides it will be a good idea to gently drag teeth on Jimin’s lower lip and the thread snaps. Jimin crashes their lips together hard, poking at Jeongguk’s lips with his tongue in an obvious demand for them to open. Jeongguk opens his mouth and he pushes his tongue in, deepening the kiss. He feels so much at once yet wants more. He feels greedy, hungry. Jeongguk is not doing much better than him. He is completely swept away in the tempest of passion. The years he has spent pining for Jimin are palpable in the way he holds him incredibly close like he is scared to let him go. Their lips and tongues move in a fierce dance of desire that doesn’t allow them to pull away even when their lungs burn with lack of air. Jeongguk is the first one to pull away, frowning in anguish of separation. He is flustered and flushed. They both are.

 

“We should stop.” He pants heavily.

 

Jimin would gladly go further, but he knows it is important for Jeongguk to be sure of Jimin’s feelings before they can be closer. And he knows they’re teetering at the limit of acceptable physical intimacy in their situation. So he nods as he gasps.

 

He wishes he could assure him of his feelings and the commitment he gave him with his courting gift. But it is hard to do so when there is so little time. He regrets missing the chance to profess his love for him because he thought it would be too early, too strange to make a declaration like that. Now, Jeongguk doesn’t believe his courting proposal is sincere. So Jimin will take what he can get and draw satisfaction from his acceptance of the gift.

 

“I will wait for you Jeongguk”

 

“I’ll be back soon”

 

***

 

“How are you doing Min?” Taehyung asks as he walks beside Jimin.

 

“I’m fine.” He lies.

 

They are out for a stroll in the royal gardens. Halfway into spring, roses are in full bloom now but Jimin is avoiding their sight. Especially the red roses, symbolic of a bleeding heart. They remind him of Jeongguk for some reason and he cannot bear looking at them. It has been weeks since Jeongguk left and he misses him – spends all his time worrying about him – waiting to hear from him.

 

“Have you heard from the General yet?”

 

“No” And that is not a lie.

All Jimin knows is what the doves and official messengers have informed the war council of. The tension on the northern frontier is escalating. Namsan is reinforcing the troops deployed in the mountains and every day they have been inching closer and closer to the frontier. According to a dove they received from the commander of the northern guard yesterday, Naman sits so close now that breaching the frontier and launching an attack into Jinje is only a matter of time.

 

The emissaries sent to the royal court of Namsan for peace talks have returned empty handed and they haven’t heard of anything positive from their covert network in Namsan in days. At this point Jimin is sure that a war is imminent, but he cannot do anything other than wait and prepare for war casualties.

 

“Have you written to him?”

 

“Yes” Jimin had sent a letter to Jeongguk a week ago through a messenger in which he finally told him of the reason why he thought he had to hate him. Starting from the very beginning, he wrote of how he liked him when they had first started training together, of how he was too stubborn to accept that he liked him, of how Jeongguk owned his heart and yet drove him up the wall every so often, and of that fateful duel that finally made him relinquish all tender feelings in a corner of his heart, reserved only for Jeongguk. He wrote of the stakes he fought for that day and just how crushing that particular defeat was for him. He wrote of how he thought Jeongguk was the reason he couldn’t say goodbye to his dying mother even though he didn’t know anything of it. He wrote of his remorse for being spiteful that now runs him down. He wrote of the terrible guilt that he carries in his heart and apologised profusely. He laid his heart bare in that letter. But Jeongguk didn’t write back.  

 

So Jimin waits for his letter all the time, checking with his attendants even at court, several times a day, if there was a dove or a messenger for him only to receive a “No” in response.

 

“Min you need to stop worrying so much. I can see the worry on your face all the time.” Taehyung voices his concern.

 

“What I need is to be with him. I should have insisted to go with him.” Jimin ruminates regretfully.

 

“You know you can’t do that. You are the Crown Prince of Jinje. Our next King. You are needed here. In court.” Taehyung tries to reason but Jimin does not want to hear it.

 

“Fuck the court. Jeongguk is out there about to go into a war.”

 

“And this is not the first war he is going to. Not even the second, third or fourth. Trust him and his abilities a little, will you?” His friend stops in his tracks in disbelief. “You do know that he is the General of Jinje’s forces, don’t you?”

 

He knows Taehyung is right. But his heart won’t let up. It is forlorn. It keeps regretting not telling Jeongguk he loves him. It keeps pining and it is driving him to the brink of insanity.

 

“You don’t understand Tae, I love him” Jimin doesn’t turn to face his friend to keep him from seeing the pathetic lines of misery and desperation on his face.

 

He feels a reassuring hand squeezing his shoulder.

“I do Min. I do. And I am sorry it had to be like this.”

 

***

 

A small paper scroll is presented to Jimin with breakfast.

 

“What is that?” He raises an eyebrow

 

“A messenger arrived this morning bearing this letter for you Your Highness.” The attendant replies with a bow before he is dismissed.

 

He stares at it for a long moment in trepidation and then scrambles to grab it and unroll it –unceremoniously, impatiently. It is the letter he has long waited for.

 

Greetings My Prince,

Dear Jimin,

Dearest Jimin ,

My dear Jimin,

I know I am much too late in writing to you. I wrote and discarded several letters to you before this one, never sure of what to say in it. But now, war is almost upon us. It is close enough for us to hear the noise of enemy’s boots thumping. And I cannot go into it without telling you of how I have felt away from you after our last rendezvous. I have missed you so much. All the pining in the past few years cannot match up to how much I have missed you in the past month. I know it is nothing you don’t know but I shall have you know once again.

I love you my Prince. So very much.

I have since I was only a boy unable to decipher the feeling that made his stomach feel weird and fluttery. I once again feel like that boy every time I look at your gift. It gives me hope that maybe, just maybe, my love is not unrequited, and it gives me butterflies fluttering in my stomach again.

I received your letter and now know of the reason you were so deeply offended by me all these years. I have to tell you that I understand. I would have reacted the same way as you did. If I didn’t deserve your spite over these years, you too didn’t deserve the heartache I caused you by winning that duel. I did it unknowingly and you have no clue how much I wish I had known. I just need you to know that.

I must also tell you my prince that the past few years you resented me were not easy. It frustrated me, hurt me and I told myself so many times that you were a just a spoiled, bratty, condescending Prince. Just so I don’t covet what couldn’t be mine. Yet no one has ever made me feel like you did. My thoughts kept drifting to you in solitude and in company alike. Last time we were together, in your arms, the world around me blurred, all those years of torment disappeared, and I felt safe and free of the worries of the world if only for a few moments. I long to feel like that again and can only hope that it was the same for you.

Reluctantly, I must go now. But let me assure you, the northern guard are in better spirits than ever and have impressed me with their exceptional skills. They are ready to take on the challenge this enemy poses. We are ready. I won’t disappoint you or Jinje.

I shall ride into battle with your gift close to me and draw strength from it. It will bring me back to you.

 

I promise.

 

With all my love and sincerity.

 

Only yours

Jeongguk

 

Jimin sits with the letter in his hands for a long time, his breakfast now forgotten, he sheds hot tears of yearning. A despondency has set in his heart. He ails with a malady that nothing short of Jeongguk’s warm embrace can heal.

 

***

 

They get information through doves or messengers. Doves bring concise information everyday but messengers being more detailed information every four to five days.

“Your Highness, a dove arrived. Our forces are defending the first attack. Namsan charged last night.”

 

 “A dove arrived at the aviary this morning with the statistics of war losses of the past three days.”

 

“A dove arrived. Commander Jo of the northern guard was gravely injured among twelve other injured and forty dead.”

 

“Namsan’s losses are higher than ours.”

 

But today a messenger has arrived. Jimin resists the urge to bite his nails while listening to his report,

“General Jeon personally eliminated the Commander of Namsan’s legion, and the enemy is in a disarray. But an assassin infiltrated Jinje’s post...” The messenger trails hesitantly and Jimin stops breathing for a moment. An assassination attempt is usually for the highest ranking official. Was it for Jeongguk?

 

“Did he succeed?” He asks maintaining an impassive, princely exterior even though his heart trembles in fear of the thought of the worst possibility. He can feel the eyes of other war council members intent on himself. His father squeezes his hand in a quiet consolation.

 

“He… Your Highness he injured General Jeon before the General subdued him…” The messenger took an awkward pause, looking at the deputy General in a silent plea for help. Jimin did not miss that small detail.

 

He is hiding something.

The Prince growled startling everyone present in the council chamber, “Look at me messenger and tell me the whole truth”

 

“H-he…He…General Jeon…” He sputters and Jimin’s heart leaps to his throat. His scowl deepens and it must’ve scared the messenger because deputy general Jung Hoseok takes over conveying the rest of the information. “General Jeon suffered a cut by a hemlock laced dagger. Although, the cut itself is not deep, it has introduced a potent poison in his bloodstream. He is being treated by the physician of the northern guard, but they have requested a special blood cleansing concoction from the royal apothecary to be able to treat it because hemlock is foreign to the region and they cannot find the ingredients of its antidote locally. As of now the General’s condition is declining at a steady rate. He needs that concoction soon. We also do need leadership with commander Jo also injured.”

 

“Thank you, General.” Jimin reigns in the burning tears that have started forming at the corners of his eyes and steadies his voice. His world is crashing down around him and he is sitting in the middle waiting for debris to crush him. “Is the apothecary working on that concoction yet?” His voice quivers ever so slightly.

 

The deputy general hesitates, contemplating his response before saying, “Not yet Your Highness. The messenger had reported to me only moments before the war council met and we have not secured His Majesty’s approval yet. Royal apothecary can only distribute medication for royal family or approved personnel. The General…” He pauses, glancing at everyone in the room tentatively before finishing his sentence, “…is neither.”

 

“He is the General of your forces. What do you mean he is not approved personnel?” Jimin demands in a low growly voice through clenched teeth, blinking back the acid in his eyes, his heart thrashing in his chest in pain. An inevitable frown paints his features as he holds on to the hand rests of his seat so tight his knuckles are white.

 

“What the Crown Prince means is...” His father who had been observing him intently, decides it is time to intervene. He turns to the Deputy general to say “You have my approval. Ask the apothecary to start working on the concoction. I shall put my seal on a formal approval as soon as you can get it to me.” He then turns to the chief minister, “Chief minister, General Jeon is your future King consort. The Crown Prince of Jinje is officially courting him. Please ensure he and his family are on all approved personnel lists from now on.”

 

“Yes your majesty”

 

“There is that matter of leadership.” Chief strategist Min reminds everyone. “With both the General and the commander of the northern guard incapacitated, we need someone to take charge.”

 

“As of now, the deputy commander of the northern guard Kim Eunha is leading charge – really efficiently – if I am to believe what I am told, but she may need back up at any time. So, I shall travel to the northern frontier. Commander of His Majesty’s guard, Commander Ki Seungnyang will be in charge of the forces in the capital in my and General Jeon’s absence. She has been informed.” Deputy General Jung offers and there is a collective hum of approval in the room.

 

I want to go, I need to go Jimin wants to say. He wants to impose his wish. He wants to run to Jeongguk, but he can’t. His duty demands him to be in the capital unless absolutely necessary especially in wartime. Next to only the King, the Crown Prince is often one of the last people to fight on frontlines. Jimin had defied that rule enough until he assumed office of the Crown Prince formally. But he knows he shouldn’t anymore. Jinje needs him to run state affairs. This is one of those rare times when doing nothing equates to fulfilling his duty towards his kingdom.

 

The days that follow are torment in its purest form. Jimin finds it hard to concentrate on court proceedings and his heart keeps writhing in his chest in pain, always crying out for Jeongguk. He spends all his free time training to keep his mind occupied but not knowing is the worst form of torture and it takes its toll on him. He feels like bursting into tears at random places, at random times of the day. He waits for news every day only to be disappointed when there is no mention of General’s condition in the news received through the doves.

 

After five days when a messenger finally arrives, Jimin takes a breath of relief because he brings good news.

“Namsan’s forces are retreating one by one because they need their forces to curb internal skirmishes our spies have incited. General Jeon’s condition is stable, and he is expected to make a full recovery in another week or so. Our losses have significantly reduced, we have only had three injured in the last three days.”

 

The next messenger who arrives after a week, brings better news. Something Jimin has been dying to hear.

 

“We have victory, enemy forces have retreated. General Jeon and Deputy General Jung will be returning to the capital with the injured in two days.”

 

***

 

Jeongguk is coming. He is coming back. Like he promised.

 

Jimin can barely contain himself, he is buzzing with excitement even as he makes arrangements to receive the victorious troop and personally oversees the setup of a makeshift infirmary in a palace hall.

 

Jeongguk is coming back to him. Like he promised.

 

Finally, the day of Jeongguk’s return arrives and Jimin feels incredibly nervous. He isn’t sure what to say or how to react when he sees Jeongguk today after two months. He is sure Jeongguk will still be the same but how will he look into his eyes? If Jimin had any doubts in his mind about his feelings for Jeongguk, this separation has erased them. He loves him and wants to share his life, his joys and sorrows, his throne – everything – with him.

 

Jimin paces in his chambers impatiently having instructed his guard to inform him the moment the General is spotted. Jeongguk was expected to arrive a few hours ago but he is late. Why is he late?

 

Jimin’s anxiety is at an all-time high when he hears the bell toll twelve times. It is past midnight and he hasn’t heard anything about Jeongguk’s arrival. His heart constantly frets about an imaginary possibility of something untoward happening. He knows he is overthinking, and he needs to keep the apprehension in check. He nervously glances around the room to finally notice the trolley of his dinner that now lies cold. He hasn’t been able to eat due to excitement and anticipation. He thinks he should distract himself by trying to eat. So, he picks up the silver cloche to uncover the food. After hours of sitting, it has turned cold and looks disgusting. He can eat the fruit though. He sits on the chair, throwing his legs up on the table in front of him and tries to gobble the grapes he picked up from the trolley. But his thoughts keep returning to Jeongguk making it impossible to sit and wait any longer.

 

This is not working. I need to find out where he is.

 

So here he stands with his guards, ready to mount his horse to set out to trace the route of Jeongguk’s return. He has just held on the saddle strap and hooked his foot into the stirrup when he feels the earth trembling and hears the impending sound of horse hooves.

 

Jeongguk’s here

His mind supplies and he freezes in his place.

 

A few moments later he is standing face to face with the man whose absence has made his life feel pointless for the past two months, Jeongguk. He studies him carefully. There are scars of a few wounds on his face which are almost healed. He is smiling but it looks empty, his beautiful doe eyes look sunken, cheeks appear hollow and he appears leaner. Jimin knows it is due to the aftermaths of poisoning. He had expected it. But there is a difference in expecting and experiencing. His heart laments the feeble appearance of his beloved but is ecstatic to have him back safe. He has an overwhelming desire to run forward and throw himself into his arms. But he has to keep himself in check for now.

 

Jeongguk and other returning soldiers bow to Jimin and he feels like it is impossible to keep the tears of elation at bay. But he controls his visage for the sake of his subjects and says loudly, “Welcome back warriors of Jinje! General Jung, the physicians are waiting in a makeshift infirmary in the west wing of the palace. It is fully equipped to deal with every injured warrior. Please guide them there. Minister Yang and Commander Ki are also waiting to receive you there. I shall see everyone in the morning once the physicians have had a chance to assess everyone. I don't want to be in their way.”

 

Deputy-general bows to him and gets busy in yelling instructions, directing everyone to the west wing. When everyone else seems distracted, Jimin grabs hold of Jeongguk’s hand and drags him inside. Jeongguk lets himself get dragged but stops midway, somewhere in an empty hallway of the palace, tugging on Jimin’s arm.

 

“Jimin stop.” He says softly.

 

Jimin stops but doesn’t turn.

“You are late” He murmurs as his eyes fill with tears and chin trembles.

 

Jeongguk pulls him back slowly, winding both his arms around his torso, he drapes his much bigger body around his back. He drops his forehead on Jimin’s shoulder and takes a few deep breaths of contentment. Looking up, he hooks his chin on his shoulder.

“I know, I am sorry. But we had to make an unexpected stop on the way.”

 

Sorry?

 

“Do you even know…” Everything else Jimin wants to say is stuck in his throat. He wants to complain about how much he has waited for Jeongguk. About how much he worried. About how he almost died when he heard that he was poisoned. About how he couldn’t breathe until he got news of his recovery. He wants to complain about everything he has been through in the past two months but the only sound coming out of his mouth is incomprehensible croaking with his tears now racing down his cheeks.

 

He turns roughly and throws his arms around Jeongguk’s chest and gives in to the craving to cling to him. In hindsight, he thinks it was for the best that he couldn’t say anything because of crying. Jeongguk doesn’t need to hear his complains. He has been to hell and back himself. Jimin knows firsthand that no matter how many wars one has fought, it always takes something away from them. The concept of survivor in a war is a myth. Nobody survives a war completely. Nobody makes it back whole. Jeongguk isn’t whole right now, but Jimin is determined to fill the corner that is now empty in his heart. As much as he can.

 

Jeongguk holds on to him tight. Even though his hold feels weaker than the last time, the intent feels the same – to never let Jimin go. He places his hands under Jimin’s thighs and picks him up with ease, even in his weakened state. Jimin wraps his legs around his waist instinctively and hides his face into his neck, still sobbing freely. His tears fall continuously soaking the tanned skin of Jeongguk's neck. Jeongguk sniffles and laughs fondly before saying, “I know. I’m here my Prince. I’m back… Don’t cry Jimin. I’m back.”

 

He keeps walking and if he saw a guard or two on his way over to Jimin’s chambers, he doesn’t stop to put him down. He doesn’t let him go when he instructs the sentry to open the chamber doors. At this point, Jimin doesn’t care who sees them. He only cares about feeling Jeongguk close to him until his forlorn heart can believe that the love of his life really is back. When Jeongguk stops, they are in Jimin’s chambers.

 

“Jimin, Jimin! Hey” He says tenderly. Jimin raises his head, taking a moment to control his violently beating heart and reigns in his overflowing emotions so he can say actual words to his sweetheart. Words that he has waited to say to him for so long.

 

“Yea I’m fine. I missed you. God I missed you Jeongguk!” He tightens his hold around Jeongguk’s neck, pulling his head closer into his chest and lets out a big sigh of relief. “Oh God I missed you! And I was so scared.”

 

“I know. I missed you too my Prince. A lot. Okay, I’m going to put you down now.”

 

“No” Jimin whines and holds on to him tighter.

 

“Yes” Jeongguk chuckles and lets him down gently. “I have been riding for a day, I’m filthy, probably smelly. You don’t have to put up with that.”

 

“I don’t care about that.” He says, a little miffed but reluctantly lets him go and Jeongguk bows to him. “I shall come back to see you in the morning my Prince.”

 

Jimin gasps in horror. “What? No! Stay here. Stay for a bit longer please.” He pleads desperately and Jeongguk stares at him undecidedly. “But but the guards and sentries…”

 

“…Already saw you carry me through the whole palace.” Jimin sasses.

 

“Just for a bit then” Jeongguk gives in and Jimin pulls him close again.

 

“Just for a bit”, he says looking into his eyes before colliding his lips on to Jeongguk’s. Jeongguk immediately responds by kissing him back eagerly, wrapping his hands around him into a desperate, almost crushing embrace. Jimin tries to follow the natural progression of a kiss by going slow at first, but after two months of constant worrying to death and pining he cannot really keep up with it. So he shifts in Jeongguk’s hold and deepens the kiss. Jeongguk’s mouth is warm, so inviting. He hooks his hands under his arms, digging his fingers into his shoulders, then bunching up his linen shirt into his fists. Jeongguk lets out a small moan of pleasure and Jimin snaps. He mouths at his lips, jaw and throat hungrily, pushing him back until his legs hit a couch. Jeongguk drops on to it with a thump and Jimin settles into his lap, straddling it. They resume kissing and Jimin slowly grinds his hips into Jeongguk’s making him groan and whimper in his hold. The Prince smiles into the kiss, ecstatic to know that he makes Jeongguk feel like that. It is almost like a compliment.

 

They kiss for a long time before he pulls back gasping for air, same as Jeongguk who tries to catch his own breath. His thoughts stray to their last kiss and everything that happened on that day. Panic strikes him hard when he remembers his gift and that he still hasn’t told Jeongguk that he loves him. His eyes search frantically for the bracelet he gave him and when he finds it sitting snug on Jeongguk’s wrist – exactly where he tied it – a breathless but relieved smile stretches on his lips. Jeongguk is still wearing it, just like he promised. He still wants Jimin.

 

Like he wasn’t just kissing you like his life depends on it. The rational part of his brain mocks his jittery heart.

 

He needs to tell Jeongguk what he couldn’t muster the courage to tell him before he left.

“Jeongguk…” He starts saying with so much meaning that Jeongguk freezes with his undivided attention on Jimin now. “I have to tell you. You have to believe me okay? Please just believe me. It is true...”

 

Just say what you have to Jimin. He knows he is rambling but is unable to stop. What he wants to say isn’t coming to him easily. He, the eloquent prince, is failing to say three simple words. He has practiced, every free moment he got but turns out all that was in vain “…It didn’t happen suddenly. It was always there. I was just too blind to see it…I-I –”

 

“Jimin, stop, breathe! Just tell me. It’s okay.” Jeongguk cradles his face in his hands. Jimin squeezes his eyes shut, trying to control his erratic heartbeat and steels his nerves.

 

“I love you” He blurts out and opens his eyes surprised that he was really able to get it out. He immediately looks away a little embarrassed, little scared of Jeongguk’s reaction.

 

Jeongguk laughs heartily and turns his face back to himself.

“That’s good then”

 

“It is?”

 

“Yes”

 

“You don’t doubt my feelings anymore?”  Jimin asks through a pout.

 

“I never doubted them. I just didn’t know what you felt. I am a simple man Jimin, now you’ve told me, and I know.” He shrugs and then plants a firm peck on his lips before saying “I love you too, so much, my Prince. You are all I’ve wanted since I first laid eyes on you. You have no idea how you make me feel.”

 

“Well I have some idea…” Jimin trails off and grinds their hips together once again making Jeongguk groan. “Don’t be so heartless Jimin. I have to go home soon.”

 

“Okay” Jimin pouts. Ghosting his fingers on the scars on Jeongguk’s cheek, he woefully murmurs, “Look at these. Oh… the poison –” Jeongguk holds on to his wrist, stilling his hand and coos at him.

 

“I really am fine Jimin.” He assures and the bell tolling three times catches them both by surprise. Has it already been that long?

 

“I should go. We will meet after sunrise Your Highness.” Jeongguk laughs and kisses him once again lightly.

 

***

A month later

 

Jeongguk lays sprawled on a chenille rug in a clearing in the middle of a lovely meadow on a somewhat uncharacteristically cool summer day. Jimin lies on his chest with one of his legs tangled with Jeongguk’s. The sun shines bright, but the clouds save them from the burn.

 

They lay there lazily full of the food from the basket Jeongguk prepared for them and wine that Jimin retrieved personally from deep inside the royal cellar. It took him a while to find the smaller, though still heavy, cask of their finest wine. He lugged it out himself, offending and horrifying the cellarmaster in equal parts, but he needed to do this. He suggested they go for a relaxing excursion and Jeongguk offered to prepare food for them to take along. So, Jimin decided to get the wine. It is a special occasion. Today, exactly three months ago, Jimin started courting Jeongguk with the gift that still shines brightly on his wrist.

 

Jimin shifts to lay his folded hands on Jeongguk’s chest and perches his chin on them, looking up. “Hey Jeongguk…”

 

“Mmm…”

 

“Are you happy? With me I mean.”

 

Jeongguk raises his head a little to look at Jimin and smiles coyly.

“Very." The confirmation relieves Jimin's heart and eases his guilt a little bit. While he wants to, he knows he cannot turn back time and take back all the pain he has given to Jeongguk but he'd gladly spend the rest of his life trying to make it up to him. 

 

"Why are you asking that? Jeongguk asks.

 

Jimin sits up and he follows curiously.

 

“General Jeon Jeongguk, I know it has only been three months of courting but God it feels like it has been ages… I am sure I want you. I was sure when I gave you that gift. So, please make me the happiest man on this earth. Marry me. Share my life, my responsibilities and my throne with me.” The Prince finally tells him what has been on his mind for a while now and Jeongguk stops cold in his place for what feels like a century.

 

“You want us to…” He starts saying surprised and Jimin huffs. “You can’t not have expected this.”

 

“No I know. I know. I guess I sometimes still find it hard to believe that you want me.”

 

“Jeongguk at this point, the whole world knows that I want you. I have never wanted another like I want you. I will never want another like I want you. Fuck I love you –” Jimin is about to go on a rant but Jeongguk shuts him up just in time with a deep, searing kiss. Thankfully the weather is kinder today and the heat has let up or adding that on top of the heat of this kiss, Jimin would definitely get a heatstroke.

 

Jeongguk pulls back leaving him panting and stares into his eyes. “I will my sweet sweet Prince. I will.”

 

Jimin takes a relieved sigh.

 

Years of misunderstandings, pining and torment have come to pass. Both for him and Jeongguk. Life can only get happier from here on.