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The Lie Untold

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1.     “When it comes to controlling human beings there is no better instrument than lies. Because, you see, humans live by beliefs. And beliefs can be manipulated. The power to manipulate beliefs is the only thing that counts.” 
― Michael Ende

            Her touch, once so sure, suddenly so tentative. Her hand, brushing through her hair to find any loose strands, to slick back any part of her that was out of place, wrong, ugly.

            “Please him.”

            A command and yet advice like that given when they were younger.  Run faster. Catch me!  Climb a little higher.  Swim, swim, you idiot.  Swim, or you’ll die.

            That crashing sound, like waves ripping open as her lungs almost burst, came rushing over her head at the words.  A question formed on her lips, one she knew the answer to. She had known since she was a child. She had seen it with her own eyes, felt it on her own skin one too many times.  To disobey, to displease was to be worthless and replaceable.  And yet she asked, anyway, her lips stable, no waver in her voice, no trembling in her limbs.

            “And if I don’t?”

            The subtlest disrespect, the most she could muster and get away with.  The teasing she had coated the same question in so many times before being stripped away now.  Nothing but seriousness, but the deep eyes staring back at hers she had looked into so many times before, had fallen asleep across from night after night. She knew the truth because she expected the truth.  Had only ever had the truth staring back at her every time she looked into those eyes. Still, the answer was soft, almost reprimanding, because she knew better.  

            “He could kill you.  He could kill me.  All of us, if he wanted to.  So. Please him.”

            “I will.”

            The rest, unsaid.  Already spoken.  Known for years ever since she pulled her out of the river.  

            She will.  She will do anything.  She will do anything to protect her.

 

            His eyes, once so piercing, not even looking at her as she bowed to the room one last time.  His eyes, so stoic and unwavering that would overflow later.  Later, in a dark corner of the stable or in his room, away from prying eyes and nosy ears.  But for now, he stood as he was told to, not even watching her leave.

            She couldn’t look at how he refused to meet her eyes, the distance already ripping her apart when her foot wasn’t even out of the door yet.  The years no longer leaking but pouring out, slipping away from her as she turned to go.

            The smile in front of her opening the carriage door.  The frowns behind her closing her off forever.

            No one’s fault, that she would leave so suddenly. A matter of survival for all even as her mother lay dying and their clothes still mourned her father.

            To be expected, really.  To be surprised was to be blind.  They should have known she could not say no.

            She was not surprised he said nothing at all, nothing when she said she would go.

            He hadn’t spoken for years, so he let his eyes talk for him, the waves of emotion never ceasing to stream out of them whenever he needed them to.

            But they said nothing as she left, not even goodbye.

 

            His stance, once so confident, shaking as another fist flew at him, his foot slipping through the dirt as he tried to keep his balance all the while dodging the rain of blows trying to descend upon his head.

            “It’d be bad to be bruised on your wedding day! Faster!  Step, step, hands up!”

            A taunt concealing an encouragement, an admonishment that would end with anyone else receiving blows himself, but his cousin could say what he wanted to.  Always did.

            Another near miss, another misstep, another missed opportunity, and he moved away to catch his breath.

            His brothers, once so close, leaned comfortably against the fence, still in their dusty riding clothes, one mocking him to make his blood boil so he would fight stronger, the other critiquing his stance so he would fight smarter.

            Everyone had arrived sooner than he expected. Everything was happening faster than he had expected.  Come tomorrow, he would no longer be merely the youngest son with nothing but leftovers to his name—leftover land and leftover titles, leftover goods and leftover women—but a husband, a man of his own.

            The ball of energy in front of him smiled widely, cracking his knuckles and his neck to right himself before hopping back and forth on his toes.

            “Come on, my lord, if I don’t rough you up a little, you’ll be prettier than your bride.”

            “Stop torturing the poor boy,” someone laughed, his voice light from where he brushed a horse’s mane so carefully, the man only forgiven for his lack of honorifics and due respect because of his place in everyone’s heart, not because of his position in their home.

            His opponent looked at the boy to throw him a wink, and that was when Jung-Kook threw his punch.

            From the ground, the man cackled up at him, his lip split and bleeding, the dirt in his hair.

            At least someone was having fun.

            At least someone was happy.

 

            To see each other before the ceremony would be bad luck, but she could at least ask and find out what she could about her husband-to-be.

            But his servant didn’t sit with her in the carriage, riding instead with the driver up front, so she was left alone for the long journey finding no point in thinking about her decision.  Nothing in the past mattered now, only future choices, only the road in front of her.

            There was nothing to be done about the feelings of being overwhelmed.  She had visited the capitol only once as a girl.  Everything had been larger then, but she had been smaller.  Her position had not mattered so much then, but much had changed in the past fifteen years.

            Everything seemed smaller now, but, then again, she was much larger.

            For the family to rise to such significance stature in society in such a short amount of time to the point where she, once a lowly farmer’s daughter, could marry the mannyor’s son was unprecedented. While she didn’t know, she had been all anyone had talked about for a month.

            They spoke of her in the streets as her carriage went by, her face peeking out of the window to get a view of the city that was too much to take in so quickly all at once.  

            They spoke of her in the house as she drifted behind the smiling servant, their faces peering around corners trying to get a view of the woman soon to be their master’s wife.

            And they spoke of her back home, their faces peeking nowhere as they cast their eyes down and gloomily ate their meals, wondering how she would fare.

            She had nothing to say of herself though, until she was asked, but she longed to know of her fiancé.

            “Will he be good to me?” she had asked her mother and asked her servants and even asked Yoon-Gi, whose eyes had looked away, refusing to give an answer.

            “Will he be good to me?” she longed to ask the servant who seemed so cheerful she wanted to shake her own cloud of doubt away.

            “Will he be good to me?” she wanted to know, but it isn’t what she asked.

            His servant was flitting around her room, anyway, making too much noise for her to get in a word.  He mumbled under his breath and hummed to himself and laughed at nothing and seemed to just make noise even as he stood still, something radiating out of him and off of him that she could only blink at.

            “Please get what you need from your trunk, my lady, and then I will have someone move the rest to my master’s room.  I’ll send in some ladies to help with your bath and clothes.  Would you like a nap before dinner?”

            “No.”  The small room had no mat, and she didn’t want to be a bother.  Besides, her body would not be able to relax enough to rest for many days.  Perhaps years.

            “Well, then, I must get back to it, then. Unless there is anything else you need. I do apologize for you being stuck in here all day, but you’ll dine with my lord and lady and my master’s brothers tonight.”

            The luck, the luck that was so important, so vital to keep everything from falling apart.

            It wasn’t luck at all, she thought, but she still nodded.

            “Thank you, Ho-Seok.  If I may trouble you with another question?”  He seemed startled by the use of his name, but she remembered it from hours early, when he bowed in front of her and told her he was her fiancé’s servant come to take her home.  Away from home.  His face was more memorable with its wide smile and clear eyes, but she had not forgotten his name.

            “Yes, my lady?”

            “Your master, my fiancé, is he—”  Is he good?  Would he be a good husband?  The question was useless, as she was uncertain about what a good husband would even mean. What good would look like or sound like or feel like.  For all her training, she was lost regarding knowing how a husband should act.  She had concentrated on how she as a wife should behave, after all.

           “Does he treat you well?” she decided on instead, watching as confusion filled the man’s face before he smiled again.

           “Of course, my lady!  Why would you ask?”

           “Something someone told me once,” she mused.  “‘To know a man, watch how he treats his animals.  If better than his servants, watch how he treats his servants.  If worse than his friend, then watch how he treats his friend, for he is a friend to no man.’”

           “Very wise, my lady.”  Another beam, a light revealing as he smiled.  “I can assure you my master treats his animals well, and his servants better.  Though I do say he loves Yaho more than he loves much else.”  Clarifying, the man smiled again.  “His horse.”

           “I see.  And you are happy in the house?”

           “Of course, my lady!  Jun—my master is very kind.  Quiet and soft spoken, but very loved.  His family adores him.  As do the—well, my lady, he is lucky to have found such a beautiful bride.  Is there any message you would like me to carry to him for you?”

           “Oh, just that I am eager to meet him tomorrow.  May he sleep well.”

           “Of course, my lady.  Please let me know if there is anything else you need.  Perhaps, after the ceremony in a day or two, I can oversee finding you a laiden?”

           “Thank you, Ho-Seok, that will be fine.  And apart from drawing a bath, I do not need any help.  I am sure everyone is busy elsewhere preparing for tomorrow.”

           “But, my lady, we are here to serve you.”

           “Has your master or his father commanded it?  Or may I be left alone until I am called for?  I am capable of undressing myself.”

           Lip, her father once said.  Not one desirable upon a lady.  Something to be corrected.

           “Forgive me, I am weary, but I should have spoken kindly.  Please, send who you will.”

           “Of course, my lady,” Ho-Seok said with a bow before leaving.

           Her hands shook as she peeled off her outer robe, but she continued until only one layer remained, the dirt collecting at her feet, dotting the floor like splattered ink.  A collection, hidden in between the threads being forced to show itself as she undressed.

           Her hands shook as they poured the water, so she looked away, holding the robe close and avoiding their eyes.

           Their eyes were talking.  They were speaking of her, but not to her.

           Their eyes were like Yoon-Gi’s, except she couldn’t hear them at all.

           Her hands shook as she lowered herself into the bath once she had excused all the servants.

           She hoped she wouldn’t shake when his hands were on her, but the question swirled around in the steam and flowed all around her.

           “Will he be good to me?”

 

           Practice.  Count the steps from the table to each person.  Count the number of people in the room.  Count the breaths you need to take.

           Practice.  Pace the steps back and forth until you can move with your eyes closed.  Pace with grace so that no drop is lost.  Pace to your place with proper posture intact.

           Practice.  Speak with humility and yet assertion.  Speak with respect to your new mother and father.  Speak with no fear or visible hesitation.

           Practice.  Bow your head as you enter a room to keep your eyes on the ground.  Bow your torso as you present each glass.  Bow your body as you wait for their reply.

           Practice.  Practice. Practice.

           No amount of practice could prepare her for the main event, the reality of all the eyes upon her, the strange and judging eyes.  Not like Yoon-Gi’s, whose gaze was intense and sharp but never cruel. She never worried about him never looking at her again.  Perhaps she should have.

           The tradition was old, ancient, known.  Performed only once in a lifetime unless all goes wrong, she had seen one when she was younger, though not one as grand.  Her own would be magnificent, complicated, large.  

First, to present to the mother, whose eyes looked kind and smile looked soft.  Her nose like a button, round and small for her face.  A friendly face whose eyes she met for long enough to know she was free to look away.

           The father, next, and she tried not to tremble. Here was a man who could send her away. Not just back home, but to her grave if he wanted.  A man who had known and eaten and spoken with her father, had discussed her perhaps years long ago.  Who looked even after she looked away, who watched the top of her bowed head, who frowned and thought and considered for too long, who made her question and shiver inside before he put his cup down.    

           The brothers, as well, whose wives sat beside them.  She longed to look in their faces, as they had been here before. She wanted to see who had been accepted and know why they had been.  If it was something they had done or simply how they looked.  Perhaps their name had been enough, or their father’s hard work like her own.

           The eldest, who smiled easily and drank greedily with a contented sigh, the one who would inherit his father’s position.  The second, who bowed his head in return so humbly she almost fumbled and opened her mouth to refuse him, but the smile on his wife’s lips was enough to keep her own shut.

           Herself, as she waited with her face to the floor, her knees bent under her supporting her weight as she waited.  The position was familiar and known to her, but the waiting was new. She had waited before, but for nothing so important, nothing so life-changing, nothing so dire.  The wait, patiently posturing herself before them, was almost unbearable.  Waiting to hear her name had never made her so nervous, not even when her father had caught her one time in the barn.  Nothing was as terrifying as she squinted her eyes shut and waited to hear it.

           Her name meant a beautiful scenery, because her father had deemed the room as such when she was born.  

           She was sure it was not.  She was sure there was blood and screaming and pain.

           But she had come out, and she heard she was beautiful.  The scene before her, the world in front of her, her life to come, though, was too unknown.

           “Je Kyung-Soo.”  

            Je Kyung-Soo, her mother’s favorite, her father’s disappointment, her family’s salvation.  Best friend to her servant, in love with another, engaged to Kim Jungkook.

            “Je Kyung-Soo, the tea was delicious.  We accept your proposal and welcome you to our family.  Please, rise.”

            To blink and to appear frightened when it was really just the light blinding her eyes or to open them wide and seem afraid and surprised; neither seemed right so she alternated in between, her eyes fixed on the father in front of her.

            A handsome man, though menacing.  His eldest the handsomest in the room with but an air of his father’s intimidating presence, the other clearly gentler and more like his mother.  She wondered if her husband would be more like one or the other or a mixture of all them put together or like none of them at all.

            “I thank you, Kim Nam-Yeong, for welcoming me to your family.  I am here to serve.”

            “I am finished with my tea,” they said one after the other, and just like that it was over.  The rehearsed was easy, was scripted and known, but what came next left her quiet as she looked all around.  The mother, her mother, had her sit beside her, and the second brother’s wife on her other side.  Min-ji, her name was, and she made sure Kyung-Soo ate, rattling along about how she would be too nervous tomorrow to eat.

            Kyung-Soo thought she wasn’t wrong, as her nerves had begun a month ago, but she tried to obey and ate what she could.  Her mother smiled gently and made polite conversation, her new brothers, her only brothers discussing things the women could not understand.

            She ate until she was full and then ate a little more, Min-Ji’s smile encouraging as well as her husband’s.  His name was Nam-Joon, and he seemed like a scholar or healer, something wise and safe about his presence that relieved her immensely. Safe on that side, away from the other brother who eyed her often and whose wife was silent beside him, two pillars and stones too hard to be moved.

            Unless it was all just a front.  The face of the oldest, a politician even amongst his family. She had not met many men like him, hadn’t met many men at all, so she had no way of knowing.

            “Will he be good to me?” she almost asked everyone at the table, but she avoided the topic and only spoke when spoken to.  She did her job well and seemed accepted by all. The eldest brother, whose name was Seok-Jin, only spoke to her as their food was cleared away, his voice louder than anyone’s before.

            “I met you once, last year, during the harvest. You were dressed so common, though, I fear I did not at first give you the respect you deserved.”  She remembered his face, though she had tried to hide her own, too ashamed to be seen by such a respectable noble.

           “Oh, no my lord, I took no offense.  I often work the grounds among our servants.  I am surprised you remember me at all.”

           “You do look different,” the man said slowly, looking her over.  “Cleaner and well dressed.  Much better suited to your face.  I understand things are different at Sabuk, but know that here, you will never have to work a day.  To be caught dressed like a servant would be a disgrace.”

           “Of course, my lord,” she said, dipping her head.

           “Jung-Kook said you refused a laiden?” her new mother said, all eyes on her now.

           “I mean no offense,” she tried to speak firmly with no disrespect.  “I am used to doing most things on my own.  If you feel that I must, I will happily comply.”

           “No one will force you to have a laiden,” Nam-Joon said calmly.  “But do not overwork yourself.  There’s simply no need.”

           “Of course, my lord.  I will take great care.”

            “That’s all that we ask.  And for you to extend that care to Jungkook.  He is very precious to us all.”

            “Of course, my lord.  I will be good to him.”

            “Oh, I don’t know about all of that,” Seok-Jin said from the other side of the table, laughing so suddenly and loudly that she couldn’t stop her eyes from blinking and mouth from gaping just for a second before she caught herself.  “He could stand a bit toughing up.  Not muscle-wise, I swear he grows stronger than me daily which I must say is unacceptable.  But he’s weak in his own ways, and a wife will do him good.”

            “Seok-Jin,” his mother said spiritedly, clearly a woman whose sons admired and respected.  

            “You baby him, is all, mother.”

            “We all do.  We all have.  But he’s ready to be a man now,” Nam-Joon said.  “I have no doubt he and Kyung-Soo will do very well together.”

            “She will,” their father said gravely, the fact, not question, solidified.  No other option.  No need to question the past.  Tomorrow would come soon.

            Tomorrow, she’d be married.

            Jung-Kook would become a man, and Kyung-Soo would become a wife.

            Her mattress was too soft, so she tossed and turned for hours, imaging where she would be in a mere twenty-four hours.

            Practice.

            Perhaps she should have practiced.

            But Yoon-Gi had said no, and there was only so much she could do otherwise.

            Practice.

            How did one practice becoming a lady?  Of becoming a wife?  Of becoming one flesh with another?

            Practice.

            There was no time to practice.

 

            Though no one’s fault, Jung Ho-Seok easily and quickly became Kim Jung-Kook’s favorite person apart from his mother and two brothers within the first day of meeting him when he was twelve.  His last bit of growth had yet to hit him, so Ho-Seok towered over him, lanky and limber and with a smile that made everything easier.

            Easier, as his brothers grew busier and busier, Seok-Jin almost old enough to marry while Jung-Kook stumbled through his lessons, his words still tumbling out of his mouth, his feet and arms still fumbling through his exercises. 

            Ho-Seok had seemed to recognize before Jung-Kook did what the gleam in the young boy’s eyes was, the way he looked up at him when he should only be looking down.

            “I’m your servant, remember, not your friend.” Their pact had been made, though, and while the lie was no longer a secret from most, their elaborate game began. Jung-Kook’s brothers had played as children and continued to as adults, toeing the line between acceptable and disgraceful relationships with their servants over the years.  To be too friendly was considered wrong, a fact Jung-Kook had always struggled with understanding.  But he saw as he grew older how servants, even if people, were to be treated differently.  His greatest role never performed on stage therefore became treating Ho-Seok one way in public and another when they were alone or in trusted company.

            They slipped a little over the years, a few mistakes almost ruining their fun and finally declaring a winner and a loser, but no one had been caught, not even Ho-Seok and his lovers.

            A disgrace, his cousin Tae-Hyung, and yet Jung-Kook’s closest friend.  Apart from Ho-Seok, but he was naught but his servant.  The stable boy, Ji-Min, much more and yet much less than a servant.

            And yet, Ho-Seok was Jung-Kook’s comrade, his companion, constantly by his side for the past seven years.  Even more so than Nam-Joon, Ho-Seok answered Jung-Kook’s questions no matter how dumb, perhaps answered the foolish ones better than anyone could.  While he knew his place, he never lied to Jung-Kook or played him for a fool.  He would tease and be playful but knew when to be serious, and today was a day to be serious.

            Today was a day to observe his master, his young lord, his friend.

            Whose features were tight and shoulders were tense. Who didn’t respond to Ho-Seok’s questions or comments.  Who was too afraid to ask what he wanted.

            “Best to ask your brother.  Nam-Joon would know better than I,” he kept telling the boy. He’d never been married and never would be, so for all his worldly advice, he had run out of answers eventually, leaving the boy with too many things unsaid.  Perhaps he had found time to seek out his brother, the one a bit more understanding about how shy Jung-Kook could be, about how eager he was to do well and please their father and mother while stressed about being true to himself.

            “She is very beautiful.”  He tried to snap his master out of his thoughts, only hums being given in return.  “And seems very kind.  She remembered my name.  Chan-Ri mentioned she thanked her repeatedly.  Her servants back home seemed to love her.  They were sad to see her leave.  And you know, as they say when one is kind to their servants, you know they are kind to their husbands.”

            “What?” his lord frowned as Ho-Seok wrapped him up tighter, the layers and layers of cloth excessive in his mind.  “Who says?”

            “Oh, you know.  Wise dead men.”

            “I think you’re misremembering.  Surely that’s not a quote.”

            “Everything is a quote once spoken, young master,” Ho-Seok said reverently, remembering the years of Jung-Kook’s tutors, their long gray beards and pointed black hats, the faces he would make as he sat behind them to keep Jung-Kook interested and focused but mostly alert as he teetered on the edge of getting in trouble.

            “Now, is there anything you want to go over again before we leave?”

            “My right hand,” Jung-Kook said as Ho-Seok stepped to his side, raising his left hand palm up.

            “Right, and her left, like this.  Then just does as the prilan says. Try to pay attention.  Wrapping, bowing, kissing, and done.”

            “Ho-Seok.”  His name spoken softly, the sharp, authoritative, commanding tone gone even if it was rarely there in the first place.  His master, but a boy, looking down at their hands.  To his annoyance and chagrin, Ho-Seok had been Jung-Kook’s fake bride over the past month on many occasions, letting the boy grow familiar with the ceremonies and traditions and phrases he needed to learn how to do.  Some acts they couldn’t practice, though, so he squeezed his lord’s hand before drawing away.

            “Do you ever wish—” the boy tried to continue before he stopped himself, a sure sign his question could be for Ho-Seok and Ho-Seok’s ears only.  But he was preparing to leave, ready to perform and keep his thoughts at bay. His question forgotten or pushed aside or answered simply by knowing his friend, Jung-Kook turned to finish getting ready.

            Ho-Seok could see the way he was scared and unsure, but Ho-Seok saw most things his master did.  He saw how he treated others and spoke kindly to all.  Saw how he whispered softly to his horse and mumbled in his sleep.  How he gazed admiringly at his brothers and loved his mother dearly.  He had seen him fall and rise again, laugh and cry in pain, run in fear of his father and bow down out of respect for him as well.  He had watched him grow from a boy to a man and had done his best to help him every step of the way.  

            But now, as his master opened the door, he turned to clean up the clothes strewn on the floor.  

            The next step Jung-Kook could only take alone.

Chapter Text

 

            2.     “Above all, don't lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.” 
― Fyodor Dostoevsky

            They were waiting for her.

            He was waiting for her.

            Not late, just the last to come.

            Dressed and made up, and perhaps if her mother was there, sent off with a quick word of encouragement and kiss on the cheek, perhaps, if Yoon-Gi was there, an understanding nod and comforting smile, perhaps, if Eun-Jae was there, none of this would be happening.

            But there was no one.  The servant Ho-Seok at the door with a smile of his own, kneeling to open and shut it behind her but not follow her in.

            The first of three nights before their marriage was complete began in the dark, a warm breeze drifting through the house carrying her perfume through the halls.  If they didn’t know already, the sickening sweet smell would let everyone know she had washed.  She was clean.  She had prepared herself.

            He was waiting for her.

            His back to hers, silver and blue to match her own, robes of silk and satin like she has never worn before, the glimmering candlelight reflecting off of him almost making him glow.  Even as she came in, the scent surrounding her making him sit up straighter before he even heard her careful footsteps, she could see his broad shoulders and dark hair gathered at the back of his head.

            For luck.  She could blame her desire for luck on why she didn’t glance at him as she kneeled beside him.  For luck, they weren’t to look yet.  Wait, until her palm was lifted and waiting for his.  Until his hand, soft yet not devoid of calluses, hovered over and then sank into hers.  Wait for him to interlock their fingers and for the prilan to bind them together. Until the words were said and repeated, a mere hum of noise amid the sounds in her head.

            The surprise.  The surprise and shock of first turning toward each other was probably the plan all along.  To ease the pain of feeling uncomfortable for too long, do not let the betrothed look at each other for long.  Do not force them to stare and get lost in each other’s eyes.

            They may regret saying yes and try to flee before it is too late.

            But their hands were bound together already.

            They would be for three days.

            And for now, Kyung-Soo had to look at Jung-Kook.

 

            His brothers thought he was lying, exaggerating, being a baby when he wrinkled his nose and said the stables smelled too much. Ji-Min, too, laughed at him with no fear of being reprimanded.  Regardless, every time he entered Yaho’s stall, his nose crinkled and threatened to shut, his eyes watering and his throat closing up.

            It wasn’t just the hay and manure and sweat and stench of horse breath that made him want to gag, but the smell of a field of flowers he would pass by, the market street during lunch time, passing by the kitchen in the main house, a strong tea his mother gingerly passed him, the perfume of ladies leaning in too close trying to catch his attention.

            He was not being childish; he just hated the way she smelled.

            Which was why it was a good thing he could see, because turning to see his bride-to-be for the first time cleared his eyes a little.

            Not trusting Ho-Seok’s word wasn’t even a possibility, but he was afraid, still, just a little, that his friend had been exaggerating, if nothing else, anything to relax him.  The amount of women he had heard Ho-Seok call “beautiful” was innumerable, after all, and his opinion on the attractiveness of females wasn’t too be trusted too much for all that, either, so enough doubt had lingered in Jung-Kook’s mind for him to be surprised when he turned to see her.

            Kyung-Soo, eighteen, only daughter and only child to the late Je Hae-Chul, previous advisor to his own father, grower of crops, savior to his family and many others during the last famine, and his fiancé.

            And, after that, Jung-Kook knew nothing else of her.

            They had all the time in the world to get to know each other, everyone kept telling him, but he had always found himself wishing for something like Nam-Joon.  His brother was lucky, despite his clumsiness.  His hands and feet, prone to accidents and breaking things, caused him to be extra gentle, and while his mind and body wanted to move a mile a minute, he had learned enough self-control to be the calmest of them all. Jung-Kook had looked up to him for years, still literally did by a couple inches, and as the second brother he had had the chance and persuasive skills to convince their father to let him marry who he wished.  He had still chosen well in their parents’ eye, but Min-Ji was still from a lower family. But Nam-Joon loved her, and Jung-Kook grew spoiled watching them court, allowed to see each other and speak to each other and know each other before ever getting married.

            He wasn’t so lucky, though, so he needed all the luck he could get as the last son, so he took everyone’s advice seriously to not see her until now.

            Now, as Kyung-Soo looked at him for the first time, he felt even more jealous of his brother.  Of both of them.  Nam-Joon, who married his love, and Seok-Jin, whose wife became his.

            This girl was too pretty.  Too young, though barely a year less than he.  He was too young.  She was shaking behind her eyes, though she was trying to hide it, and he marveled that they both hadn’t just trembled together.  Just two children trying to be something for their families they both clearly weren’t ready to be.

            He was glad she was beautiful and easy to look at, even if after kissing her lips once they both turned back toward the prilan, and he was glad they were tied together, unable to separate, because otherwise the smell alone would have made him flee.

            She was beautiful, this Kyung-Soo, and she was his.

            The prilan said the words, and he repeated them.

            The prilan said the words, and she repeated them.

            They blew out the candle between them together and rose as one.

            Even with her hand held tightly in his, though, as he guided her to his room, he thought—how could two people become one? When did his brothers and their wives cease being two?  When Ho-Seok was with Tae-Hyung, did they join like man and wife?  Or did he join with Ji-Min?  How could two people become one, much less three?  Jung-Kook had never been good at math.  Was this Kyung-Soo—was his wife—really ready to become one with him?

            Because he was not.

            But he had his duty to perform.

            And he had many people to please.

            But her, most of all, her, first, this stranger he brought to his room, the first woman he would ever see fully, the first woman he would maybe, maybe one day, love.

            Was it his palm or hers that grew sweaty?

 

            No one warned her the candle would melt her brain away leaving her stumbling after her new husband.  No, perhaps it was the perfume they had sprayed on her clogging her pores and overwhelming her senses.  Or the boy himself.  The man. By the time they arrived at his room, walking through hallway after hallway, she had been given plenty of time to gaze at his form.  Neither spoke, but the important words were done and over and already forgotten, promises made barely understandable.

            He was young.  Younger than she was expecting despite knowing his age. Handsome and clearly strong, but something boyish left in his cheeks, something soft and new.  The calluses on his hands she could feel beneath her palm not from work but play, from horseback riding or sport or rough housing with his brothers.  Her new mother’s face reflected in his, the kindness given to her the night before not forgotten, the hope that he would be kind like her resurfacing, as well.

            “Will he be good to me?”

            She had been warned it would be hard to tell.

            The fly, once trapped, no longer needs to be seduced.

            But there was no chase, no conquest, merely her consent to be married.  There had been no courting, no need to play pretend or be who they thought they needed to be.

            Perhaps the play started now, as they entered his room and she stood in front of him with her hand still in his.

            Yes, as he looked at her face and she stood still and quiet for him to see what was now his, now was when she would see how good she really was at acting.

            The sun, already gone, the room barely lit, the darkness would make it easier to hide her face.  Perhaps he wouldn’t want to look, anyway, would take her from behind like a steed with its mare.  Maybe it would be quick and hurt, but at least it would be over soon, and the times after would be easier.

            He made no move, though, and said nothing, and she thought of Yoon-Gi, looking into her husband’s eyes for something, but there was no story there.  She watched, ready, as he lifted his other hand, but he only brought it to the thin ribbon around their wrists, pulling on it gently to unfurl it.

            “My lord!  We can’t!”

            “We need only be together outside of this room for the ceremonies.  You didn’t actually expect to share a hand with me for three days?”  Ridicule or scorn or simply curiosity?  She couldn’t tell as he collected the ribbon and moved to his door, sticking his head out and calling for his servant.  Released and unsure what he wanted her to do, Kyung-Soo knelt on the floor by the mattress, trying to keep her eyes glued to the floor.

            Compared to hers, the room wasn’t much larger, not how she expected the room of a mannyor’s son to be.  Nothing ornate lined the walls or decorated the furniture. A writing desk and an armoire plus his bed, but nothing else.  If Jung-Kook wasn’t moving around it so familiarly, it would almost seem like no one lived in the room at all.  Ho-Seok came slowly through the door, bowing as he did and glancing at Kyung-Soo out of the corner of his eye as he scurried to his master.

            “Help me undress,” Jung-Kook said, holding his arms out wide.  Even with her head down, Kyung-Soo could feel Ho-Seok glance at her and hear him practically hiss a whisper back.  “Ho-Seok!”

            “My lord, she can hear us.  I’m not supposed to be in here!”

            Used to people pretending she wasn’t in the room or disregarding her purely because she was a her, Kyung-Soo easily heard while not listening as the two men continued to fuss at each other in elevated whispers, their interactions reminding her of her own servant back home, the memory painful and yet poignant enough to focus her.

            “She smells so much!”

            “Jun—master Kim!”

            “I’m sorry, my lord!”  Quiet until spoken to, Kyung-Soo ducked her head further, knowing the perfume was too much, too strong, too false.  “If there is a rag, my lord, or a towel, I will soon remedy—my clothes, too, I’m sure it’s trapped—”

            “My lady,” Hoseok jumped before Kyung-Soo could undo her first sash, “I’ll retrieve that right away.  Please, just a moment.”

            “Would you bring me the things to make tea, as well?”

            “Tea?”  Another glance at his master, and she didn’t contradict him.  He wasn’t technically hers to command, anyway.  They were both at Jung-Kook’s mercy.  Seeming to wave him away or nod, perhaps more eager for the towel than the tea, Jung-Kook turned to finish undressing as Ho-Seok left, the room growing quiet.

            Quiet nights were not a new experience.  The room and company may be different, but her stance and waiting patiently to be moved was familiar enough that she forgot to worry until Ho-Seok came back.  He stayed in the hallway as she opened the door and took the small tray filled with tea things and a rag from him, bows being exchanged though he made sure to make his bigger and last longer.

            “Anything else, my lady?”

            “No, thank you, Ho-Seok.”

            “Very good.  Good night, master,” he chirped, no greeting in return from within as Kyung-Soo shut the door.  Positioning the tray by the bed, she first wiped at her neck and face, rubbing a bit too hard until she was sure her skin shone, before moving on to the tea.  The skill mastered long ago, she poured the water delicately and counted while the steam rose, Jung-Kook’s movements almost forgotten around his room.

            The timing was perfect, just right, as she lifted the cup and her head to see him standing in front of her, cocking his head in confusion down at her.

            “Tea, my lord?”

            “No, thank you.”

            Unexpected.  Unscripted. If not tea, then she could put the cup down, and if not tea, then perhaps something else.  She rose slowly and kept her eyes on the ground, partially to avoid staring at his toned chest suddenly in her face, but also because it felt wrong even if it was right, to be so undignified so suddenly was shameful and immodest even if natural and required.

            He moved away before she even took off her first layer, and then her heart picked up.

            To be rejected would be worse.

            First, the tea, but now, now, if he didn’t consummate the marriage, if she didn’t give him a child, if she couldn’t please him—

            “He could kill you.”

            She couldn’t be desperate.  Through everything, she must remain poised and in control, quiet and calm.  Almost grateful for a lack of words weighing down the room even more, she removed enough to be ready but left her last layer on, its hem dancing over her thighs as she lowered herself back to her now exposed knees and faced the bed, the tea all but forgotten.

            The man on the mattress with his hands laced together over his chest, his head turned toward her, looking away once she met his eyes.

            “Come on,” he huffed, a dismissive and annoyed sound like he couldn’t wait to be done.  Like she was disgusting and worthless, and she couldn’t be those things, so she took a deep but silent breath as she crawled onto the mattress, lying beside her husband and copying his stance once she had adjusted her dress-like robe.

            Unnecessary, really, to keep so much modesty considering what they were about to do, but the pretense continued.

            “I heard your mother was sick.  I am sure you missed her today.  We all wish for her speedy recovery.”

            “Yes, my lord.”

            The forced conversation was worse than the silence. She would prefer the silence.

            “Ho-Seok, my servant, said you refused a laiden? Why?  Are our servants not good enough?”

            “Oh, no, my lord.  I assure you it isn’t that.  My last laiden, my servant back home, it’s just, my mother has been so sick lately, and with father dying so recently, I had to take on many duties around the house.  I have always helped around the farm more than most ladies you are used to, I’m sure. I couldn’t bear to bring Eun-Jae, my laiden, with me, for there was no one else I trusted to care for my mother.”

            “Oh.  I see.”

            Please let the silence return.  Let the night be over.  Let him be good to me.

            “I am sorry about your father, as well.  I met him once or twice.  He had a loud laugh.”

            “He did.”

            “He was a good man.”

            “He was, my lord.”

            “Do you, will you, you didn’t wear black today, but if you are not done mourning—”

            “My mourning period is over, my lord, even if my house will remain dark.  I am married now.  So now I will celebrate.”

            “Yes.”

            And yet, no mirth or happiness or excitement in either voice.  No celebrating.

            Just waiting for the next stage, the next part of the first night of ceremonies to be over.

            Two bodies, man and wife, lying inches apart on one mattress, waiting.

            Endless nights of ceremonies before them.

 

            Jung-Kook had always been inquisitive, but never a good student.  He cared much more for how the world operated than how it was written about in a book. Seok-Jin preferred learning from people, Nam-Joon from pages, but Jung-Kook loved learning by performing. His brothers telling him he couldn’t do something only sounded like a challenge he needed to rise to meet.  He learned by pushing himself, by falling and getting hurt and trying again.  

            He saw the benefit of talking to others or reading about something as he lay beside his wife.

            Not that he hadn’t asked and read!  But now to do?  To perform?  He was part of a play he had never rehearsed, his co-star and him thrust under the spotlight for immediate action.  To disappoint her would be humiliation.  To do nothing at all would be shame.

            So many people to please, but her first of all. His mother, more than his father, instructed him as he grew to watch and listen and pay attention when a woman is speaking.

            The only problem was Jung-Kook had gone through a phase of wanting no one but girls to look at him only to turn away and hide the moment they did to wanting no girls to look at him because he wanted them all and knew he could have none.

            But now, beside him, his and no other’s, a wife.

            A tiny but strong wife.

            He could tell picking her up would be no great feat, her frame smaller than Ji-Min’s.  Her hands, however, gripped his firmly, and she moved with ease, her breath never picking up.  For her to be less nervous than he was surely something to be embarrassed about.

            “What are you doing?”

            He jerked so violently he feared he had hurt her already, the first time they touched voluntarily violence on his part, but she had turned and put a hand on his arm and over his bare chest, and he moved automatically, her hands falling back immediately.

            “I’m sorry, my lord, I thought—”

            “No, just—just wait,” he sighed, lying back down and shutting his eyes.  Every option seemed wrong, even if he knew what he was to do.  

            He had laughed, after his father had spoken to him, though only after he had left the room, amused that he could not even say the word.  Humorous, that Jung-Kook had been confused for too long before he realized what his father was talking about.

            “The duty of a man, the duty of a husband, your duty, your duty.”

            But what was his duty?  No one, not even Ho-Seok, had told him plainly what to do. How to do.  When to do.

            He supposed the beginning was simple enough, the part he could start on his own.  This time he would just finish somewhere else with someone else.

            He didn’t need to think about it so much.

            That must be the trick.

            If he stopped thinking, he wouldn’t worry.

            So he sighed and lifted his hips and pushed his pants down and got a hand around himself and tried not to think.

            Tried not to think of the girl beside him, of how worried she might be.  Tried not to think of how red his face might be.  Tried not to think that showing signs of hesitation might make him look weak. Tried not to think of her giggling with her friends the next day about how incompetent he was.  Tried not to think of disappointing his father and his family.  Tried not to think of how she might feel and if he’d be good.  Tried not to think of warmth or movement even as he started to harden.  Tried not to think that they just needed to breed, to fuck like two horses, to be merely flesh for each other.

            To her, his groan may have been of pleasure, but he was frustrated as he sat up and moved over her, avoiding her face at all costs.

            That only made it worse, that he couldn’t look at her.  Only solidified his feelings of shame.  This was his wife—he would wake up to her tomorrow, he should at least look at her.

            Still, he couldn’t.  He watched his hand, instead, moving quickly under her skirt. She had nothing on underneath, her thighs and hips bare and her legs spreading.

            Instinctively, surely, like she knew her duty, as well.

            No excitement, though, no eagerness or even willingness met him when he touched her.  This he at least knew.  Ho-Seok had been adamant about the one distinctive difference between males and females.

            “She’ll be wet.”

            And if she wasn’t, maybe he could help her be, sucking on his finger only to cough through his nose at the strange smell, not unpleasant, just strong and new, but even then, his finger became dry too quickly. He must be doing something wrong. She didn’t even seem to like his one finger, and while he wasn’t Seok-Jin or Tae-Hyung, he knew he wouldn’t fit. How had his brothers done it? What trick had they used?

            Whatever it was, Jung-Kook was failing.  He learned from failures, so they rarely made him down, but they usually didn’t involve others.  This was something completely new, this was something he had to do.

            So he hiked up her skirt a little more, out of the way until he got a glimpse of her stomach, and he moved closer, guiding himself toward her.

            If he could only get inside a little, perhaps he could be quick and she would barely hurt, but at least it would be over soon, and the times after would be easier.

            It was just that, when he managed to stop shaking and actually press against her, she gasped.  Not a gasp of surprise or wonder or moan of delight, but of shock and fear, and it could have been any sound to make him stop, as it was the only sound she had made, but it felt like a punch as he scrambled off of her, clutching hard at his pants as he pulled them up and flopped back on the mattress with his arms over his head, biting his lip so hard it might bleed.

            “I’m sorry!”  She was what?  She was sorry?  “I’ll be quiet.”  Did she think that’s what he wanted?  Was that what he wanted?

            Jung-Kook didn’t know.  He just wanted—

            “I need you to know something.  As my wife, I need you to know something.”  He steadied his breathing as hers evened out. The anticipation killed him more than it probably worried her.  “I hate lying.  I can’t stand it.  If you lie to me, if you—just, I need you to know I can’t abide lying.  Don’t ever lie to me.”

            “Yes, my lord.”  He didn’t know what he was expecting, had only seen his parents and his brothers with their wives, but the title was one his servants use, and coming from the girl, from Kyung-Soo, from his wife, it didn’t sit well with him.

            “I need you to tell me.  Have you ever been with a man?”

            “No!  No, my lord. I swear.  I waited.”  Not a question he really needed to ask, as the answer was already clear, but he nodded on his pillow anyway.

            “Did you want to marry me?”

            “Yes.  Yes, my lord. I am honored to—”

            “Don’t lie,” he said, turning his head finally to look at her.  She had righted her clothes and was watching him, too, the whites of her eyes wide.

            “I am not lying, my lord, I wanted—”

            “Did you want to marry me?” The emphasis on the pronoun changed the question, and he watched as she thought.  Logically, there is only one answer he was waiting to hear.

            “I—I don’t know you, my lord.  I can’t say that I wanted to marry you specifically.”

            “Who did you want to marry?”

            “Oh.  No one in particular.  I only mean, how could I want to marry you when we had never met?”

            “Why?  Why say yes then?”

            “Our fathers—our fathers trusted each other. Our families wouldn’t still be here if it weren’t for each other.  I was told that our marriage could be a symbol of that, a wish of both of our fathers to make a family together.”

            “Too bad they couldn’t just get married then, huh?” It was a risk, the joke and the smile, but she almost grinned back, so he knew it was worth it.

            “I am sorry,” she said again for some baffling reason.  “I am ready.”

            “Don’t lie,” Jung-Kook mumbled, turning his head back. Her silence was enough of an answer. She was silent for so long, in fact, that he was afraid she had gone to sleep, but when he turned to glance at her again, she was still staring at him.

            “I don’t want you to ever lie to me.  But I may have to ask you to lie for me.”

            “Of course, my lord,” she said so willingly, like she already trusted him and would do whatever he asked.  Uncanny, her obedience and compliance coupled with her obvious fear.

            “No one can know.  You can’t tell anyone.  If anyone asks, tell them what you will.  To mind their business or that I, I satisfied you, or whatever you wish. They can’t know—”

            “I understand,” Kyung-Soo whispered, her fingers barely brushing Jung-Kook’s arm.  “I won’t tell.  It is my secret you must keep, too.  If we are not fully married, I fear the blame will be placed on me.”

            “It won’t,” Jung-Kook said adamantly.  “I won’t let that happen.”

            “My lord, I appreciate your confidence, but I am afraid it is ill-founded.  Your father will have no use for me if I can not please you, if I can not—”

            “Don’t worry.  He won’t know.  No one will know.”

            “Yes, my lord.”

            My lord?  Why did it grate on his ears so?  Why did it make him feel so wrong, like he was so above her?  Why did it sound so impersonal and cold and distant? Like she wasn’t speaking to him at all, just some nameless entity beside her?

            “Jung-Kook,” he muttered, though he got no response. “My name is Jung-Kook.”

 

Chapter Text

 

3.     “Lying is done with words, and also with silence.” 
― Adrienne Rich

            Something instinctual, an act of survival, their brains and bodies moving on their own, brought them closer together in the night. The need for warmth, for companionship, for comforting even if from a stranger overtook them as they slept, and so, unable to stop themselves, Kyung-Soo ended up pressed into Jung-Kook’s arm.

            He woke and managed not to startle her when he remembered who she was and why she was there.  Her proximity was puzzling, but not alarming.

            The day was to be long and full of family, an exhausting experience on a normal day for Jung-Kook, even worse when all eyes would be on him.  His birthdays were always torture, and he could only imagine how worse this day would be. The idea of his family being present made him relaxed and yet on high alert, plus, when he looked at his bride who had left all of hers behind, he couldn’t help but feel sad, too.  The day wasn’t just about him, and yet he would be surrounded by people.  She only had him, and even then, he was nothing to her.

            Unable to leave the room without her and finding no Ho-Seok or food in the hall, he opened his door to the small garden he frequented often but didn’t upkeep, leaving it open as he stretched and woke himself up.  He would need to send a reminder to Ji-Min to groom Yaho, though the boy would have no problem remembering.  Still, with Jung-Kook’s family in town, he was sure to be distracted, as they each had taken a liking to him when he was first hired.

            They would have to leave the room.  Being cooped up all day, just the idea of it, was making Jung-Kook want to run circles around the garden, but he kept his paces light instead, glancing at the mattress every once in a while as he thought and pondered and worried.  Good, that she seemed to be sleeping so much.  He had traveled enough as a child to be used to being away from home now, but he could still remember the first time he spent the night at Tae-Hyung’s, immediately relieved that his cousin loved to cuddle and had no reservations with him sleeping in his bed the second he got scared.

            Of course, they were young then, but Kyung-Soo had not been away from home often, so he imagined sleeping soundly would be a difficult adjustment for her.

            He imagined everything would be a difficult adjustment.  At least he didn’t have to move to a new home.

            She was awake.  Sitting in his bed watching him.

            He cleared his throat and stepped back inside, trying to look at her in the morning light.  Trying to not look at her white legs still exposed.

            “Good morning, I’ll,” he said, pointing toward his desk and armoire.  “Ho-Seok brought some of your things.  Do you know what you want?”  He had no idea what anything was that he pulled out, frowning at each piece and wondering why there was so much fabric.

            “The red one today, please.”

            “I can get you a, uh, partition,” he said as he handed her the garment and turned back around, dressing himself even though Ho-Seok always did it better.  It took him longer, too, though in the end that may have been better, as it was much harder for Kyung-Soo to dress on her own.  She had more fabric than him, too, more layers.

            “For what?”

            “So you can change?”

            “That’s not necessary.  We’ll have to look at each other at some point.”

            “Tha—” he said, reeling around to see her finishing drawing a sash tightly around her waist.

            “It’s fine, my lord, really.  Did you sleep well?”

            “Yes, thank you.”  The responses were rote, simple and easy.  “You?”

            “Very well.  May I ask you a question?  I was thinking about your request to be honest.”

            “Oh, of course.”

            “Your servants—do you trust them?  Apart from Ho-Seok, do you trust the others in the house?”

            “Why would you ask?”  Jung-Kook had always prided himself on knowing the name of each of their servants, and while he knew they were servants, that line had always been blurry for him, so he considered many of them his friends.  If nothing else, they were loyal to him and his family, and he felt the need to defend them if necessary, even from someone like his wife.

            “I mean no disrespect.  I am not accusing anyone of anything.  Only, I know servants.  My, my laiden often told me what the others would say.  Not to get them in trouble, but, well, servants gossip. It’s what—they do it to feel like they have some power over us, I suppose, since we are so far apart.  I do not mean it is a bad or a good thing, just a fact.”

            “Our servants don’t gossip,” Jung-Kook frowned.

            “I am sorry, my lord.  If they haven’t before, they will now.  Your wedding, me, there is much to be excited about.  They may mean well, but—”

            “Look, nothing leaves this room, so there will be nothing to gossip about.”

            “Ho-Seok, my lord,” Kyung-Soo mumbled, biting her lip and looking away, “does he do your laundry?”

            “My laun—no.  Why?”

            “They will check the sheets,” she said, getting off of them and kneeling by the bed, staring at it so seriously Jung-Kook grew more confused.

            “For what?”

            “For,” the girl waved her hand over the bed as if to make some appear, “evidence.”

            “Evidence of what?”

            “Do you have a knife, my lord?”

            “A kn—what?” Jung-Kook blinked, watching as Kyung-Soo tore the sheet off of his mattress.  “What do you need a knife for?”

            “Any small blade will do.  I may have a hair pin sharp enough.”  The girl was still staring at the sheet.  She laid it on a mat nearby and then frowned at it, folding it up instead before shaking her head and unfurling it again.

            “What do you need a knife for?  Kyung-Soo?”

            “I just need some blood.  Just a prick.  They’ll be expecting blood.”

            “Blo—why would they be expecting blood?” Jung-Kook said, trying not to panic, but his wife didn’t answer.  When she finally seemed to arrange the sheet in a satisfactory position for herself, she stood up and put out her hand.  Her eyes were wide, though narrow at the same time, not how they had been last night, and they made him mumble and search through his drawers to hand her a knife he kept near his drawing and writing supplies. He wanted to look away, too, especially as she squatted over the sheet and moved her skirts out of the way.  He wanted to stop her, too, because surely she wasn’t going to cut herself.  Was there something he was supposed to do?  Was he supposed to make her bleed last night?  Why could it possibly be good for there to be blood?

            “Hand me the rag, please?”  She had barely winced, and Jung-Kook moved to take the now dry towel from the tea tray to hand to her, trading it for the knife in her hand. “That should do.  Let it dry before I fold it up again.  Would you like some tea?  I can make us some.”

            “No, uh, no.  We can’t, uh, let me call Ho-Seok, he’ll bring breakfast.  Then we can talk about the day.  Are you sure—you’re alright?”

            “Oh, yes.  Thank you, my lord.  No need to worry about me.”

            And she knelt by his bed, a dirty towel in her hand, smiling softly at him, the crumpled sheet with a small blotch of red to match her dress the only visible evidence that anything had happened.

            What had happened?

            What was supposed to happen?

            What was going to happen?

            Jung-Kook wasn’t sure, except he knew he already did.

            He already did worry about her.

            Kyung-Soo was his wife now, after all, and he had a feeling she was a character waiting to be revealed.

 

            Maturity does not always correlate with age. Kyung-Soo knew this well.  Had witnessed it in others and experienced it herself.  Forced to grow up when her body was still young only accelerated the process.  This boy, her husband, Jung-Kook, while a year older, had been raised in his house and kept holed-up in it all his life, and his inexperience with the world was evident.  His personality was shy and reserved, anxious and worried in a different way than her own.  Her reservation came from training, from expectations.  Her worries came from survival.  

            As the man, he had nothing to fear.  As the youngest, not much was expected of him. As the husband, his duty to provide for her was fulfilled already, the house and food and other provisions already accounted for.  Kyung-Soo just couldn’t see what he was nervous about.

            Still, she had seen enough children among the servants to watch how their mothers treated them, and she could think of Yoon-Gi who needed great care after his illness.  In a way, they were similar.  The world had changed for them both overnight, and each sight and acquaintance and responsibility was a new sensation, a new light shining, and for a newborn opening its eyes for the first time, the change was terrifying and overwhelming.

            Her world had changed, too, so perhaps they could lean on each other.

            They would have to in many ways, if they wanted to leave the room.

            She could tell he wanted to.  His energy or nerves seemed endless as he paced after they ate breakfast, his hands behind his back and his brow furrowed as if he was deep in thought.  She supposed he was.  She was, as well.

            “Let him lead.  Your job is to follow.  Be quiet and await instructions.”

            Kyung-Soo had always been bad at being patient, though. Unlike Yoon-Gi, her eyes would wander too easily.  Waiting for food or tea to cool was always the hardest, some innate desire to inhale her substance quickly for fear it might be the last she ever got.  She couldn’t even blame the famine for making her start such an animalistic behavior; apparently, she ate in such a way as a child, too.  It was easier to eat slowly and quietly around others, though, and she had been doing such a good job at doing so that she hadn’t eaten enough since arriving, her stomach always a little too empty as she barely put anything in her mouth in case someone asked her a question.

            Her husband ate well which she smiled to see. He kept seeming to forget she was there, clearly unaware of his presence, his eyes glazing over as he thought snapping to life when he saw her again or became aware of her presence. If she could, she would laugh at how wide-eyed he kept getting before composing himself, but instead she kept the image and the thought to herself.

            They were going to have to leave the room. She was not used to sitting around all day, and he clearly wasn’t either.  They would have to leave.  One of them would have to say something.

            “My lord?  I was wondering if you could show me around the grounds?  I was brought straight to my room when I arrived and have yet to see the rest of the house.”

            The proposition seemed to relieve him, and he called for Ho-Seok who had been waiting nearby.  Kyung-Soo could tell he was fighting a smile, something that looked almost painful for him, when Jung-Kook asked him to re-tie their ribbon. She gave him her hand readily, and he placed his on top unceremoniously for Ho-Seok to unite them again, their eyes meeting their fingers or the servant’s but not each other’s as they left.

            She had come to the house as Kyung-Soo.

            She was brought to his room as Jung-Kook’s wife.

            This name, this title, this label, she was all of them and none of them, a part and a whole as she left the room, Kyung-Soo, Kim Jung-Kook’s wife.

 

            The house, as a whole, was much larger than Sabuk, seemingly endless rooms that served no purpose when really the house was shaped like “pyo,” two areas in the middle of the house reserved for gardens that several rooms opened up to, Jung-Kook’s included.  The outer courtyard was large, as well, and while there were no fields or farms, there was a stable and large yard and another garden with trees and a pond.  Jung-Kook walked Kyung-Soo to all of these, saving the stable for last even if it was where he wanted to go first.  Servants greeted them along the way, most too busy to stop and converse as they prepared for the rest of the ceremonies.  Like at Sabuk, any previously empty rooms were filling with guests and would continue to do so well into the next day.

            Kyung-Soo observed and was attentive to everything Jung-Kook pointed out and explained, even if his words were short as Ho-Seok trailed behind them.  There was only so much to say about a garden.  One could obviously observe on her own what the flowers were.  She wasn’t a child, so she didn’t need things explained in such a simple way.  She was quiet and uninquisitive, it seemed, as she asked no questions, and Jung-Kook was glad for the cool of fall as he could have sworn Ho-Seok tied their hands tighter together than the prilan had the night before, and the close proximity was making their palms sweaty.  But they were sweating together, too odd of a lesson for Jung-Kook to grasp.  He kept reminding himself not to move too quickly or suddenly away from the girl, his right hand rising habitually on more than one occasion as he tried to point something out and bringing hers along for the ride.  If anything, being tied to his wife was simply an annoyance.  Why it couldn’t be his non-dominant hand, he didn’t understand, as he needed his right hand to do most things.  It was an inconvenience more than anything, even if he didn’t mind being near her per se.

            With the perfume washed and scrubbed away and worn off, there was no aversion to standing near her.  Still, he felt a little like the day he had shown Yaho off to everyone, proud of his new mare, ready to make everyone else proud of her. Kyung-Soo was no horse or animal or possession at all, though, so the semblance was uncalled for, and yet everyone smiled and looked at him in such a way that he couldn’t shake that feeling. When he brought a picture to his mother or took his work to Nam-Joon or showed a new move to Seok-Jin, presenting his work and himself and waiting for approval.

            Look, here I am, here it is, here she is.  What do you think?  Do you like it?  Me? Her?

            Kyung-Soo was his, his wife, and yet he was showing her around his home, her new home, not showing her off.  Everyone else should know that.  Their looks and smiles should be different.

            He continued to hold her hand, though, because it was his responsibility, and he didn’t particularly mind.  After her quick thinking this morning about something Jung-Kook still didn’t understand so would never have thought of, Jung-Kook knew Kyung-Soo wasn’t weak or slow.  Still, he had always had a propensity for helping small and hurt creatures, his tender heart making even simple tasks like hunting difficult, so he felt protective of her already.

            Perhaps that was the point of binding their hands together.  Jung-Kook didn’t know.  All he knew was that it only meant he had to pet Yaho with his left hand.  The poor girl was still in her stall and had obviously been fed but stomped her feet and knickered when she saw him, obviously annoyed he hadn’t come sooner.

            “I know, I know,” he said, soothing her, “I’m late.  I usually come see her at mealtimes, so she is very spoiled.  Aren’t you?” he cooed, nudging the side of her face with his own. His horse and his wife seemed to eye each other at the same time, Kyung-Soo almost pulling his arm out straight as she stood back.  “Do you have a horse back at Sabuk?”

            “No, my lord.  My father did, and we had some for the farmer as needed, but I’ve never particularly liked them.”

            “No?” Jung-Kook said, looking into Yaho’s large glassy eye and wondering how anyone could ever not love such a beautiful creature.

            “I only mean, I never enjoyed riding them the few times I did.  I—I was very afraid.”

            “Oh, Yaho won’t hurt you!  Will you, girl?  She does get a little jealous and ornery sometimes if I ignore her for too long, but she’s a sweetheart.”  Their combined hands worked well as a way to introduce a new scent to the horse, the smell mixed with her owner’s as he brought up his right hand to pet her, too, the back of Kyung-Soo’s hand running against her fur as he did.

            “I’ll have to get you on her one day.  She rides well, very smooth.  She’s a bit lazy, to be honest, and rarely gallops. You don’t want to spook her, but otherwise feel free to touch her.  The sooner she grows used to your touch, the quicker she will like you.”

            A lesson in his words, somewhere, for himself and his wife, but he was too concentrated on calming his horse down and watching as Kyung-Soo approached them slowly, her free hand raised tentatively. Yaho’s eyelashes fluttered and her ears twitched, another hoof stomping and bumping into the fence as she tried to get closer to Jung-Kook.

            “Yaho, this is Kyung-Soo,” Jung-Kook introduced them. “My wife.  You’ll be seeing a lot of her, so you need to behave and make friends.”  His tone and presence more than his words soothed his horse’s unease, finally allowing Kyung-Soo to pet her on her neck.  She still huffed and stomped her foot again, but Jungk-Kook’s hand was doing its job in comforting her.

            Another lesson, perhaps, missed by both.

            “She’s gotten a lot better at new people, I promise. I thought we were going to have to replace Ji-Min the moment we hired him, but now they’re the best of friends.”

            “Who’s Ji-Min, my lord?”

            “Our stable boy and, um, I guess entertainer is the best word for him.  He’ll be at the festival tomorrow night, though he should be around here somewhere.”

            “He’s in the yard with Tae-Hyung, my lord,” Ho-Seok said from the entryway of the barn where he had stopped to give them some privacy.  He was leaning on the wall with his arms over his chest, and his posture was too relaxed, though, as his wife already seemed to know Ho-Seok and he were close, Jung-Kook made no move to correct him.  Besides, getting Ho-Seok’s attention after he had seen Ji-Min and Tae-Hyung was nearly impossible.

            “He’d better not be giving him any trouble,” Jung-Kook sighed, referring to his cousin even though he also meant Ji-Min. Still, he explained to his wife as he pulled her back to his side so he could let Yaho out.  “Tae-Hyung, my cousin.”  The horse’s excitement was evident as she tossed her head and nudged for Jung-Kook to go faster, unable to understand why Jung-Kook couldn’t, Kyung-Soo attached to him.

            “Just remember,” Jung-Kook said lowly to Kyung-Soo at the stable door, not caring if Ho-Seok heard, clear instructions already given to him earlier that whatever he saw or heard in their presence stayed there, “be honest with me.  Tae-Hyung can be—he is known to be too crass sometimes.  If he upsets or offends you, just let me know, and I will deal with him.” His wife’s hand twitched as she hummed in thought before nodding up to him.

            “I will, my lord.  Thank you.”

            Her smile was genuine and unafraid, which in turn comforted Jung-Kook.

            Because he was a little worried, to be honest.

            While something he was not supposed to admit to anyone, even his wife, Ji-Min and Ho-Seok were his closest friends next to Tae-Hyung, and their opinion mattered to him.  Not like his brothers’ or his parents’ did, but perhaps in an even greater sense.  And while the girl beside him was still just a stranger, Kyung-Soo, his new wife, she was that, his wife, and he knew he desired for her to approve of them, too.

            Much like Yaho, though, he couldn’t comprehend how anyone could not like them.  He was glad the strong smell of perfume was gone, but he still would rather lie next to her and almost choke from the smell every night than be stuck with someone who didn’t like his friends.

            Her opinion didn’t really matter, he knew. He could be-friend who he liked. Do what he liked.  Sleep with who he liked, if for some reason he still couldn’t bring himself to be with her.

            But for some reason, he found himself wanting her approval very much.

            Something about Kyung-Soo was too obscure for him to see yet, his curiosity making him want to hear her thoughts on everything he showed her.

            Perhaps that was just how he was.

            Perhaps it was the way their hands were tied together, never letting her leave his thoughts.

            Perhaps it was nothing and everything all at once.

            Perhaps a lesson in there somewhere.

 

            The length of a man’s hair had never caught Kyung-Soo’s eye.  Among the servants at Sabuk, most wore theirs short.  To recognize a connection between the length of one’s hair and how long he had been unmarried had always been out of her reach.  Her father’s hair had varied in length, and Yoon-Gi’s had always been short for practicality, after all, but among the nobler families, a man was not to cut his hair until he was married.  After finding a bride, he was allowed to cut it as he wished, and, as most desired for their changed status to be visible, the majority cut their hair.

            Kyung-Soo’s husband’s was still high and long on his head, as was Ho-Seok’s.  And his cousin, Tae-Hyung, had the most gorgeous head of hair Kyung-Soo had ever seen. She even found herself checking hers for stray strands when she saw how disarrayed and yet effortlessly gorgeous his was.  The man he was with, their clothes the only real indication of who was who, Ji-Min, had half of his lighter hair cut short at his neck, but the top was pulled back into a small bun.

            “Jung-Kook!” the man said from the ground where he was pinned under the larger man, his voice as bright as his smile.  The lack of title surprised Kyung-Soo, and for a moment she wondered if she had confused the servant and the cousin, but the taller man sprang up, helping Ji-Min up and brushing off his pants until Ji-Min swatted his hands away to do it himself.

            “Ji-Min, Tae-Hyung, this is Kyung-Soo.  Behave.”

            “Cousin, you wound me,” Tae-Hyung said, his hand on his heart even as he bowed and came closer, offering his hand to Kyung-Soo. With an eyebrow raised, Kyung-Soo looked at her husband who only rolled his eyes and smacked Tae-Hyung’s hand away.

            “No.”

            “Jung-Kook!  You’re no fun!  Ho-Seok, you’ll play with me, right?”

            “Not right now, my lord, I’m working.”

            “Oh, yes, I see you, standing over there watching me.  It must be very hard work.”

            “Exhausting, my lord.  I may have to lie down before dinner I will be so light-headed.  If my master lets me, of course.”

            “Whatever you need, Ho-Seok.  Ji-Min, I can’t take Yaho out today, so please see to her.”

            “Of course, Jung-Kook.  I’ll do it right away.  Pleasure to meet you, lady Kyung-Soo.  I’m at your service if there is anything you need.”

            “Oh, I am as well,” Tae-Hyung said as Ji-Min rolled his eyes and pushed on his shoulder to pass him.

            Kyung-Soo was confused.  Delighted.  The air of familiarity lacked intimidation.  Walking into their circle didn’t feel like an intrusion, but instead, almost like she was back with Yoon-Gi and Eun-Jae, and it made her smile to see Tae-Hyung and Ho-Seok smiling at each other and Ji-Min being so informal with Jung-Kook.  While others might find it improper, Kyung-Soo found it natural and becoming.

            Her husband brought her outside because she asked to be shown around the house, but he didn’t have to let her meet anyone. He didn’t even have to acknowledge or meet her request.

            “My master is very kind,” Ho-Seok had said. “Quiet and soft spoken, but very loved. His family adores him.”  And it was clear his servants did, too.  Surely such a man would be a good husband.

            Even last night, he was good even when he was not. One task replaced another, a need to be gentle overriding a need to finish.

            He was not like most men, Kyung-Soo thought. Kyung-Soo knew.

            A smile, then, in reflection of his, a thank you of sorts for showing her what he valued most.

            Silly, really, that already she hoped one day he would value her.

            Silly, all things considered.

            Silly.

 

            Silly.

            Her husband’s cousin and his servant were silly.

            Her husband might be, too, but Kyung-Soo could tell he was holding back.  Whether he was unaware of it or not, he kept raising their joint hands as he talked. He must have been at least semi-aware, because he would pause often and look at them with a mix of confusion and surprise before remembrance and recognition would pass over his face.

            The sensation was new, after all, and Kyung-Soo found it too debilitating to enjoy, the loss of a useful hand in the grasp of someone else’s seemed pointless for such a long period.  Symbolic, yes.  The meaning she understood.  But the practicality was missing.  She was ready to have her hand back.

            An unsaid request somehow heard, or simply a shared sentiment, for her husband excused them to return to their room once he made sure Yaho was being taken care of.  He requested lunch be brought to them, and as soon as the doors were closed, he pulled on the ribbon again to untie themselves, their hands slipping away from each other, fingers flexing and curling to get their feeling back.

            Quiet, again, and Kyung-Soo felt a little like an intruder.  This boy, clearly sweet but shy, not used to someone in his space, now having to share so much of it.  Leaving him alone by giving him quiet seemed manageable, then, and an easy way to provide space between them when they were being required to leave so little.

            She looked around the room for ways to give him more space, to find something to do, to provide a way out and away from his responsibilities, but the room was so bare and small that she couldn’t think of anything.  She moved their tray to the hall, and by the time she turned back around, Jung-Kook was at his writing table with some papers out, so Kyung-Soo knelt by the bed and rested back on her heels.

            “Don’t speak unless spoken to.  We should forget you’re even in the room.”

            Meditating or drifting away or finding a path in her mind to explore, whatever it was called, Kyung-Soo let the quiet take over as she waited.  The anticipation of never really knowing what she was waiting for was sometimes exciting, sometimes terrifying, but today she felt neither, simply a calm.

            She had made it.

            The first step was taken.

            The second, with the first ceremony.

            She just needed them to complete their marriage, and the rest would be safe.

            “Can you read and write?” Jung-Kook’s voice came like a knock on a door, a quiet push to put her back in place.

            “Not as well as I’d like, my lord, but yes.”

            “Oh.  Did you not—is it not the custom in Sabuk for women to be taught?”

            “It is custom in Sabuk for women to survive, my lord, and rarely is reading and writing required for that.”

            “I think I’d disagree.  What if you found a box with a warning on it, and, not knowing what it said, opened it only to for it to contain a wild animal that devoured you?”

            “I don’t know, my lord,” Kyung-Soo smiled. “Why would I open a box unless otherwise instructed to?”  The question seemed to not have occurred to Jung-Kook.  His inquisitiveness had probably gotten him into a lot of trouble as a child.  Kyung-Soo wondered if it still did.

            “Well, what do you know?”

            “My name.  The alphabet.  A few words necessary for work on the farm.  I hope I do not disappoint, my lord.  I was not being raised to be a lady, you see.  Until my father’s great success, I was merely a farmer’s child.”

            “No, I see.  I am not disappointed.  Would you like to know more?”

            “If it pleases my lord.”

            “No, I,” Jung-Kook’s frown was obvious even before his face turned toward her.  “I want to hear your honest answer.”

            “I don’t want to be an inconvenience.  But if a way could be provided, I would be glad to learn more, my lord.”

            “It would be no trouble.  My mother and brother, Nam-Joon, find education very important.  I found their emphasis quite annoying as a child, and I must admit I wasn’t the best pupil, but I am glad for their training now.  Most of our servants can read and write, too, so my wife should be able to.  Come. Until we find you a proper tutor, I can show you a few things.  Perhaps it will help the time pass quicker.”

            Perhaps it could do more than just that, Kyung-Soo thought, as she moved softly across the room to kneel beside her husband who sat relaxed, a leg folded under him and a knee bent he half leaned on as he handed her a blank piece of paper and his brush.

            “Your name.”

            A stroke, and then a frown.

            “Upright.  And a ‘k’ has two lines.”

            Two lines for ‘k.’

            Of course.

            How quickly Kyung-Soo had almost forgotten.

            A line beneath the first letter, and another hesitation.

            “Two lines.  ‘Yu,’” Jung-Kook instructed, and a slight tremor in her hand as she sat the brush down.

            “I’m sorry, my lord, it seems I have forgotten.”

            “Oh.  That’s alright.  The alphabet, then, let’s start with that.”

            The alphabet.  The ‘a,’ a line and a dash.  Followed by ‘ae.’

            And then the rest.

            Stroke after stroke, time passing with each.

            Line after line, a little more learned each time.

            Symbol after symbol, mere lines on a page waiting to be put together.

            Waiting, like Kyung-Soo, unsure of what they would be.

Chapter Text

 

4.     “There are few reasons for telling the truth, but for lying the number is infinite.” 
― Carlos Ruiz Zafón

           A constant state of being unclean, particles of dirt constantly found under her nails, her feet blackened by the dusty ground was what Kyung-Soo was used to. Walking through the fields, harvesting the fruit, sweating under the sun, this was what Kyung-Soo was used to. Being dainty and delicate, despite her petite size, had never been a goal.  Her father had scolded her often whenever she came home covered in mud from another adventure, traipsing with her friends in tow through a shallow stream, her clothes ripped again and her shoe broken for the umpteenth time because, while her father simply couldn’t understand why, she just had to prove she could jump further than Yoon-Gi.  

          She had to learn how to keep herself clean, and while it became easier with age, she was still used to simply being dirty, even at least just a little.  Baths were reserved for special occasions and the end of the week, water too precious to be used when everyone knew the dirt would only return the following day.

           There was something about being clean and taking a bath in the middle of the afternoon that helped Kyung-Soo really feel like she was now a wife to an important noble.  Surely no one else was enjoying such luxuries, such frivolities.  And yet, a necessity of sorts, an expectation as a lady to be clean and presentable at all times.  Ready for what, Kyung-Soo wasn’t quite sure.  Apart from her face and hands, the majority of her body was covered, anyway, and the layers of clothes could cover up any dirt she accumulated.  Smell was another matter, but after the night before, Kyung-Soo refused the perfumes the lady servants presented to her.  Even the soaps she found were more fragrant than those back home, but she knew using one would be preferred to using none at all.

           No need drove her to linger in the water, merely a desire to fill the time, to make the afternoon move faster toward dinner, to the second ceremony.  Shapes and symbols traced in the water to make sure she wouldn’t forget so easily what she just learned, meaningless words created to sink into the deep, to be swept away easier than words on paper.

           Her husband in the adjoining room, perhaps still writing, maybe reading, trapped in his room unless she wanted to leave.  Ho-Seok, dismissed for the afternoon until they needed to get ready for dinner, the house quiet but not still, the clamor up and down the halls evident.  Ladies dismissed, Kyung-Soo dressed herself, much preferring to pull her robes on just right and attach her sashes with enough pressure to stay on without suffocating herself.  Eun-Jae had been able to do it just right, but no one else could, so no one else was needed.

           The bath was large, deep in the floor, one of the largest in the house, Jung-Kook had admitted almost sheepishly, as if he was embarrassed at having such a nice thing.  Admitting he liked taking baths made him sound like a child and yet not, an image of wrapping him up in a blanket until he was warm reminding Kyung-Soo of Yoon-Gi when he could only ask to be held with his eyes, something vulnerable and broken behind them.

           His body, sprawled on the mattress, his top robes open enough to allow him to breathe and show his chest rising and falling, his mouth slightly open with each breath he took while he slept reminded Kyung-Soo of watching Yoon-Gi sleep in the corner, too, his breath pained, his mouth open but no sound coming out, nothing peaceful or calm about his troubled sleep at all.  Jung-Kook, however, with his soft face and relaxed brow, made Kyung-Soo feel soft, though perhaps it was the salts from the bath, the warm towel on her skin making her extra sensitive, the hurt in her chest combined with some feeling of pride and determination soothing her more than the water had.

           Kneeling, then, the position reminding her of Sabuk and Yoon-Gi and Eun-Jae and her mother and father and all that had been left behind and yet all that might be, that would be, Kyung-Soo waited, watching her husband sleep, watching the small black ribbon he still held in his hand, already anticipating the way it would feel on her wrist once more.

           Soft but secure.

 

           Slight annoyance that he couldn’t tie the damn ribbon himself and had to rely on Ho-Seok who was enjoying his job too much today kept filling Jung-Kook.  That, or that obvious flush still on his friend’s cheeks, his afternoon off more tiring and yet invigorating than any work Jung-Kook could make him do was making him upset.  Envy, that his servant found love so easily, even if it was forbidden, that he had no fear at all, jealous, that he had found not one but two people so suitable to his manners and personality and body and would do nothing to let the most important aspects, his rank and position, hinder him from loving so fiercely.

           Feelings not unknown or new, similar to ones felt with his brothers and even parents and even strangers, those bold enough to walk arm-in-arm in public, their closeness almost scandalous, making others whisper behind hands and stare with disdain as they walked by.  Jung-Kook had always admired them, no judgement in his stares, their bravery and sheer desire something he could only aspire to.  Even Nam-Joon, kissing his wife at family dinners which had at first caused his father to glare and reprimand him had piqued Jung-Kook’s interest, especially as Nam-Joon simply continued in his ministrations, his actions soon ignored and even received with warm smiles now.

           Jung-Kook’s hand in his wife’s was meant to draw attention.  For three days, it was expected, so anticipated that he wondered why anyone looked at all.  It would be the fourth day and those after that people would pay close attention to. After the ceremonies, would they ever walk hand-in-hand again?  Arm-in-arm? Would he, one day, unsolicited and spontaneously bend down to kiss his wife’s cheek in the presence of others?

           The very idea seemed impossible, especially considering he could barely bring himself to touch her last night.  Perhaps tonight.  After the ceremony.  After dinner. After the sun was down once again.

           For now, though, merely their hands would be joined as their families were meant to be at dinner.

           Traditions though, can change over time, and only his family was present, Kyung-Soo representing herself and all the rest, the feat probably an overwhelming burden to bear alone even if she wasn’t really by herself.  Jung-Kook wondered what it was like to be an only child, to be the oldest and the youngest all at once, all of your family’s expectations placed on your shoulders alone, to be a girl in a family whose line had already ended, whose name had no hope of continuing regardless of who she married. The finality of it sounded hopeless, but no despair seemed to ever be written on her face.  A soft, barely-visible smile, always, her eyes wide and alert but not alarmed, constantly looking and listening.  Based on all of the ladies Jung-Kook had ever met, Kyung-Soo was a good one.

           So good, that the moment they were seated, he turned to whisper to her, not caring if he was breaking protocol already.

           “I am sorry your mother couldn’t be with us here today.  Do not hesitate to let me know if you need anything.  Even if you need to leave early.”

           “Really, my lord?” Kyung-Soo said, some spark of mischievousness evident in her eyes that made Jung-Kook narrow his own before nodding slowly.  He half expected her to stand up and leave right then and there, but her manners remained.  He was in no hurry to flee back to his room after feeling cooped up for so long all day, though the idea of simply running away and forgoing the formalities made him smile.  Settling himself for the long evening, though, he turned his face back to the front of the room, waiting until everyone else standing around them had sat, the evening ready to finally begin.

 

           With two brothers, Jung-Kook’s family was already three times larger than Kyung-Soo’s.  An only child, the closest thing she had to siblings was found in her servants, mainly Eun-Jae and Yoon-Gi.  Jung-Kook’s family, with two brothers, both married, one with twin boys, two male and one female cousin on his father’s side and three young female cousins on his mother’s side, and three sets of aunts and uncles, seemed enormous to Kyung-Soo as they all sat down together for dinner, only their most trusted servants standing behind them.

           Unlike the first night, before she even met Jung-Kook, tonight she would have to serve tea to him and him alone.  A simple task made complicated by several factors, namely, all of the eyes watching her, only having full use of one of her hands, and her husband’s refusal of her tea the night before.

           If he denied her in front of everyone, the day would be over.  The ceremony would end.  Their marriage, not even complete, would cease before it even began.

          At least glad to have her right hand free, she poured his tea without a tremor to her hands, no need to shake yet when so much was left undone and unsaid.  The pot matched her dress, dark red, the blood tie between them intending to grow stronger, each cup engraved with his family’s seal, a symbol pouring a symbol into a symbol.

          The room still and respectful as she counted in her head, each second passing making her blood pound in her ears more and more until,

          “Would you like some tea?”  Usually, she would raise it with two hands, one cupped underneath the small glass, another wrapped around it as she guided it up, but now, only one made its way to Jung-Kook, his free hand rising to meet hers, one becoming two as she passed along the cup for him to lift by himself to his lips.  The heat or the taste made him just barely wince, the slightest jerk only noticeable to her as they were so close, but he recovered quickly and smiled at her as he lowered his drink, rehearsed and almost robotic as he answered.

          “Je Kyung-Soo, the tea was delicious.  I accept your proposal and welcome you to my family.  You sat as a Je.  Now rise as a Kim, my wife and companion.”

          To do so would mean to rise with him, and she was relieved at how well they moved together, no table or cup bumped or overturned as they did, facing their parents across the small room.

          “Kim Jung-Kook, my son.  Kim Kyung-Soo, my daughter.”  The head of the family had spoken, and the formalities over with a final bow that moved like a wave through the room as everyone bowed from their seats.

          “Come now, let us eat.”

          Formalities finished, but the ceremony not complete.

          Kyung-Soo’s first dinner with her new family had only just begun.

 

          Jung-Kook was glad everyone was supposed to stay seated during dinner.  The chaos that would ensue otherwise would be stifling.  Even being tied so closely to his wife, he wouldn’t be able to protect her from their onslaught of questions and examination.  He knew it was hard on the children, the younger cousins squirming under their parents’ watchful eyes.  His nephews, too little to know their place, often getting up and trying to start conversations and steal food from those around them.  Seok-Jin didn’t seem particularly concerned about their behavior, but they were only two, so no one could really blame them.

          As always, Nam-Joon and his wife Min-Ji seemed to be in their own world, whispering to each other like newlyweds ought to despite being married for three years.  If anything, they had only grown more attached to each other, which Jung-Kook supposed was what was supposed to happen, though he was used to couples’ sweet endearment toward each other wearing off after a couple of years. As Nam-Joon handfed his wife another bite of meet as she laughed around his fingers, Jung-Kook couldn’t imagine that their love for each other was going to die out anytime soon.

          He purposefully avoided looking at his cousin Tae-Hyung sitting by his siblings.  Despite being twenty-one, the oldest cousin, and well within the marriageable age, Tae-Hyung continued to act like a child, his flagrant disregard for rules seeming to only grow stronger as he got older.  Jung-Kook knew it was just his way of acting out against his father who had never been able to tame the boy, and as a child Jung-Kook loved to romp around with him and avoid their lessons together whenever they could, but looking at him now would only invoke Tae-Hyung to start acting immature and ridiculous on purpose.  If it was anyone else’s wedding, Jung-Kook would indulge himself, but considering it was his own, he would just have to speak to his cousin later.

          Besides, Tae-Hyung was probably only looking at Ho-Seok standing behind Jung-Kook, anyway, and Jung-Kook was no stranger to how those stares could go from harmless looks to intense with a clear intention for more in the span of a second.  If Ho-Seok didn’t realize tonight was such an important night and not just like any other, he would have already found a way to excuse himself, and Jung-Kook’s cousin would have done the same as soon as he thought it safe to leave.

          It made him feel alone, despite the close proximity of his wife and the rest of his family.  But it was still a night to be observed, not interacted with, their place still apart from the rest.  He could see his mother smiling at him gently, encouraging him to do something as everyone conversed freely with each other.

          He turned to his wife, then, and found her trying to listen to every conversation at once, none of which included her, and he slapped himself internally for forgetting that she too was probably feeling alone.

          “Is the food not satisfactory?” he asked, noticing how little she had eaten.

          “Oh, no, my lord.  It’s delicious.”

          “You don’t have to lie, if you want something else, I’ll send for it.”

          “No, really, it’s wonderful.  I find my appetite isn’t what it used to be.  I do not need much to be satisfied.  Are you well, my lord?  I am sorry to be hindering your right hand so much.”

          “If I wasn’t required to use chopsticks, I would just use my hands, honestly.  It is a bit difficult, but I’m sure it’s good practice for something.  In case I ever lose my hand or something.”

          “My lord shouldn’t joke,” Kyung-Soo frowned before picking up her chopsticks again.  “And you should have asked.  I would have gladly helped.  Here.”

          Food, risen to his mouth.  Their joint hands under it to keep anything from falling. Encouraging him by bringing the chopsticks closer and raising her eyebrow, Kyung-Soo blinked at him as he blinked back.

          To her, though he didn’t know, feeding one unable to feed him or herself hardly meant anything.  Sick friends, sick servants, sick parents.  She had nursed plenty of people to know that substance was just that, energy for moving and breathing and living.

          For Jung-Kook, to have a stranger, no, a woman, no, his wife, feed him made him want to glance away, look at Nam-Joon or even Ho-Seok for help.  He wanted to scoff at her and insist he could do it himself despite how much food he had dropped before successfully getting it into his mouth.  But she was looking at him, waiting patiently, and to deny her would be rude.  With everyone else in the room, it could easily be taken poorly or wrongly, so he opened his mouth and let her slide the meat in, chewing slowly as she watched him.

          Then she fed him another bite and another, a small smile growing on her lips with each one.

          As if she had won something.

          Jung-Kook didn’t know what they were playing, but he wasn’t even upset that he had lost.

 

          The game continued when dinner was over, a small, purposeful stumble to lean on his side, genuine concern on his face when he asked if she was alright.  Down the hall back to their room when she assured him she was fine, a whisper just for him to hear but everyone to see.

          Whether he was aware or not, Jung-Kook’s family was more interested in watching them than their food, and Kyung-Soo noticed. The spotlight was bright, then, and she had a performance to put on, so she turned more and more toward her husband until he was all she saw, attending to his every need.

          Except Ho-Seok was there, as well, and followed them to their room again, waiting for Jung-Kook to undo the ribbon before helping his master undress.  The stagehand was actually another actor in the play, surely, Kyung-Soo couldn’t help but think as she undressed, as well, immune to the glances Ho-Seok kept throwing her way.  He wasn’t looking as one might look when coveting another man’s wife, so the looks bothered her not.  He seemed confused more than anything else, though he did his job well, smiling and bowing before he left, only returning briefly to bring her another tray of tea.

          Tea which Jung-Kook refused again and sat cooling as Kyung-Soo knelt by the mattress, waiting for her purpose to be fulfilled.  Twisting his wrists and stretching his arms behind his back and over his chest, Jung-Kook paced over his mats like a cat in its cage.

          “I admit, I am usually up much later,” he finally said.

          “Don’t let me keep you, my lord.  Please just pretend like I’m not here.”

          “I—I can’t do that.”  Not literally, he surely meant, as he wasn’t blind or deaf.  He couldn’t leave, yet, either, the only obligation keeping him there their new titles, no other voluntary wish.  “You don’t have to wait for me, if you want to sleep, either.”

          “I do, my lord,” she said simply.

          “I see,” he mumbled as his pacing slowed, his hands behind his back as he thought.  One foot, then two, a soft step followed by another, an exhale and inhale, her breath changing to match his movements.

          “Really, my lord, what would you do if I wasn’t here?”

          “Oh.  I might paint or read.  Speak with Tae-Hyung or Ho-Seok if they were available.”

          “Please don’t let me keep you from them.”

          “You aren’t.  I am just not used to being confined to my room.  It’s only temporary.”

          “Did you—you do not like small spaces, my lord?” The answer evident as he glanced up at her with a frown even though his pacing continued, the subject perhaps too serious or personal for him to answer, so she ducked her head and went back to counting his steps.  Two to ten, ten to twenty, twenty to fifty, a wonder he wasn’t dizzy.

          “My brothers, in good fun when we were younger, often locked me in a trunk.  I suppose I grew to dislike small spaces, yes.”

          “That must have been terrifying, my lord.”

          “They meant nothing by it.  We were but boys.”

          “Still, my lord.  We remember things that happen to us even as children well into adulthood. Perhaps opening the door to the garden would help?”

          “It’s fine,” Jung-Kook said, continuing his pacing. Kyung-Soo pressed her hands through the fabric of her outer dress until she could feel it on her thighs before standing up, passing by her husband slowly, his footsteps stopping as he watched her, and sitting back down by the door, sliding it open to let the cool breeze in.

          “I am afraid I was turned around during our tour earlier.  Whose rooms are adjacent yours?”

          “Nam-Joon’s is there,” Jung-Kook said softly, coming to stand in the open doorway, pointing across the sparse garden.  “When he stays at the house.  He and Min-Ji visit often.  The other two are for guests.  I failed to pay attention to who was in them tonight.”

          “No matter.  It is a lovely evening.”

          “Yes.  Are you sure you’re fine?  Did you eat enough?  When you were faint earlier—”

          “Oh, a mere ploy, my lord.  Your family was watching, and I needed some excuse to lean on you.”

          “So you lied.”

          “On the contrary,” Kyung-Soo said, almost wavering under Jung-Kook’s intense gaze, “I was merely keeping my word to you from last night.  To tell a lie, one must put on a show.  Telling the truth also requires one to act a certain way.  What we are doing, my lord, may not be a truth or a lie, but it still will require me to sometimes lie, to sometimes do something I may not actually feel, to fake, say, a soreness or exhaustion to provide me an excuse to lean on my dear husband’s shoulder.  Do you disapprove of my methods, my lord?”

          “No,” Jung-Kook said slowly, studying his wife’s face intently.  

          “If you wish for me not to have to pretend, you should bed me tonight.”

          “I—I should what?”

          “The blood I’m sure was enough, but only a few servants saw it.  And if they really do not talk like you think they do, then a limp or two for everyone to see may be necessary for another day or two.”

          “Why would—why would you be limping?” Jung-Kook said, sliding down the wall into a squat.

          “You have never been with a woman, my lord?”

          “N-No.  And I thought you had never been with a man.”

          “I haven’t, my lord,” Kyung-Soo said, failing to recognize the hurt tone in Jung-Kook’s voice as she folded her hands in her lap and stared out into the dark garden.  “But my servant, Eun-Jae, she has a lover, and she told me many things before I came here.  So I could do my best to please you, my lord.”

          “That,” Jung-Kook mumbled before gazing out into the night, as well.

          “Please don’t mistake my meaning, my lord.  I am pleased you have been with no other.  I am only sorry that your patience has only led to me.  I will continue to do my best so that you are not dissatisfied.”

          “Who said I was dissatisfied?  Everything’s going well so far, isn’t it?” The whip of his head and the flash in his eyes showed Kyung-Soo a defensive animal crouched in the corner.  Her tongue licked her lips tentatively before she spoke again, the seconds that passed effectually calming them both.

          “You are not displeased with me, my lord?”

          “Of course not.  You’ve done everything perfectly.”

          “You enjoyed my tea earlier?”

          “I—I don’t particularly like tea.  It had nothing to do with the way you prepared it. My nose and therefore my taste buds are just sensitive.  I meant no offense.”

          “So, you will not drink the tea I have prepared tonight?”

          “I—I don’t want any, no.”

          “Will you want any tomorrow, my lord?  Or the night after?  Ever?”

          “No,” Jung-Kook frowned.  “I don’t like it.”

          “So you will never lie with me?” Kyung-Soo whispered, biting her lip and staring into her lap.  A beat.  A cocked head.  A stutter before a deep breath.

          “What?”

          “Is the tradition not the same in Hochon?”

          “What tradition?”

          “I am sorry, my lord,” Kyung-Soo said, bowing to the ground before rising.  “I have made a mistake.”

          “Wait, Ky—Kyung-Soo, please explain.  What does tea have to do with it in Sabuk?”

          “A tea ceremony takes place every night during the wedding festival here, does it not?”

          “Yes.  The parents, the couple, the family, the friends.”

          “Is that all?”

          “Yes.  All that I was told, at least.”

          “I see.  I am sorry, my lord.  In Sabuk there is another ceremony.  When a lady wishes to lie with a man, she makes him a cup of tea once they are alone. Offering it to him is a way to offer herself.  If he refuses, then—”

          “Is this, does this happen just once?”

          “Oh, no, my lord,” Kyung-Soo said, blushing.  “Whenever the lady wants.”

          “But what if the man—”

          “Oh, he need only ask.  The lady may still refuse him, though, if she doesn’t desire to make him tea.”

          “I see,” Jung-Kook said, leaning his head back against the wall and lacing his fingers over a bent knee.  “I do not think we have such a ceremony in Hochon.”

          “I am sorry for the confusion, my lord. I’ll make sure be more careful from now on.  If you really meant it was alright, I think I will go to sleep now unless there is something else you need.”

          “No, Kyung-Soo, don’t worry.  I’ll call Ho-Seok if I need anything.  Sleep well.”

          “Thank you, my lord.”  A bow.  Grateful his face was turned as her own was still burning, a mixture of shame and anger stirring within her.  No one had told her.  Or someone had told her incorrectly.  Still, it was not on purpose, certainly not done with ill intent.  Eun-Jae could not have meant her harm, so Kyung-Soo let it go, just another reason why she didn’t feel like a lady, didn’t feel trained enough, didn’t feel adequate enough for such a handsome and kind nobleman.  

          She lay on her back, her eyelids drifting off as she began to relax, the last thing she saw before she let them shut being her husband, his few strands of escaped hair blowing softly in the breeze as he sat and looked out into the night.

          She almost preferred the pacing.  She knew he was anxious or worried, then.  Now, she had no idea what he was thinking.  He was sending his thoughts to the sky, to the moon, to the stars, and she was keeping them to herself.

 

          Processing.  His mind a little blank.  His face more so.

          He used to get reprimanded by his tutors when his mouth opened and his eyes blinked as they lost focus.  They always thought he was not paying attention, when instead, he was thinking so hard about what he had just been told or read that he couldn’t process anything else.  The slap on the wrist or neck always brought him back, but now he just stared, looking at nothing.

          No one had told him about the tea.

          Never thought much of it even when he was told about the ceremonies.

          That’s all they were, just symbolic gestures.

          They weren’t questions, but statements.  

          And yet, they were.  Offering the tea to his parents and then to him was a question.

          Take this, and take me.

          Take her?

          Why did the idea make him so hesitant?

          Not repulsed.  Anything but repulsed.  

          There was a beautiful woman lying on his bed, waiting for him.  So why was he not with her?

          At eighteen, Ho-Seok had offered to take him into town for a birthday present.  He promised they could be discreet enough, and he knew plenty of ladies who would want to please him, make him feel good, be soft and warm under his hands, but Jung-Kook couldn’t bring himself to risk it.  Or, he knew himself too well, knew being in front of a lady would make him freeze.  Ho-Seok seemed to know, because of course he did, but all of his insisting that it was their job and he only had to relax somehow made it worse.

          There was no rush.  Why was everyone rushing?  He wasn’t the oldest; the family legacy wasn’t in his hands.  Even Nam-Joon and Min-Ji after three years didn’t have a child. Surely no one would care if he and Kyung-Soo waited.

          In the meantime, he hadn’t failed to notice how embarrassed she had looked, how she had gone to bed early to end their conversation.  She had risked so much being here.  Had left her family.  Her home. She had offered much more than just her body to him in agreeing to be his wife.  Her trust and loyalty, most of all.  More valuable than even her skin.  More easily bruised.  More easily broken than her bones.

          He must be more careful with what he said. How he acted and reacted to her. Even if she surprised him, he needed to not look spooked or worried.  He could be calm and rational.  

          As he climbed into bed, the second night of their marriage ceremony ending, he thought again of how little he knew of his wife, and yet how intriguing she continued to be.  

          Perhaps, if they did not know how to act as husband and wife just yet, they could be friends first, and if not that, partners at least, someone to trust and lean on in the dead of night when no one else was around.  Jung-Kook had always wanted someone like that, after all.  Perhaps Kyung-Soo could be that.  That, and when he was ready, something more.  When he was ready, he could make her his wife.

Chapter Text

“A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.” 
― Tim O'Brien

            No need to think about past mistakes, only lessons to be learned from them.

            Lessons to be learned every moment if she paid enough attention.

            Both choosing to not talk about the disconcerting moment, moving on as if nothing had happened while not ignoring the mistake. She wouldn’t make it again, and perhaps if she did chance to make a similar blunder again, he would be better prepared in how to respond to avoid both of them being so embarrassed.

            Instead, watch him with his horse and his servants, notice how he was around others versus when he was in his room.

            Yaho, a little more accepting today but still hesitant, receiving Kyung-Soo’s pats while eyeing her master with reservation. Jung-Kook’s sadness that he still couldn’t ride her painful, as it made Kyung-Soo feel like an inconvenience, but they sat under the shade of a tree as Ji-Min took Yaho for a ride, her head occasionally tossing as if she wanted to get back to Jung-Kook.  He seemed content enough to at least see her trotting happily, and Ji-Min spoke to her as one might a baby, constantly encouraging her and patting her, giving her praise and affection as if she needed to be coddled. She ate it all up, though, as well as the carrot Jung-Kook gave her, his denial to ride her seemingly forgotten.

            “I broke my arm once, not related to riding at all, but I couldn’t get on her for a few days.  She was so angry with me, even when I was healed it took her days to forgive me.”

            “She has much spirit.”

            “She’s a brat,” Jung-Kook said, all while brushing Yaho’s mane affectionately.  There was no denying her beauty, her white mane contrasting starkly with the rest of her brown body, her hooves socked in white as well, but Kyung-Soo kept her distance, still, as much as she could while being tied to Jung-Kook’s hand.  If she could avoid upsetting the temperamental horse any more than she already seemed to be, nipping at Jung-Kook’s hair when he tried to move away, then she would do anything in her power to. Staying in the good graces of her husband’s horse seemed extremely important, certainly more than she had ever thought it would be.  She had not been expecting for him to care so much for his horse.  But she had had no expectations at all, really.  How could she, when she knew nothing of him?

            “Oh, Kyung-Soo, your dress—”

            Was dirty.  White for the final day, the three colors then complete, and she had already ruined it.  Sitting under the tree earlier, she hadn’t even thought of it.  They hadn’t even had lunch yet, so dinner was hours away, how could she have ruined it so early in the day?  She would have to have it washed, and that would mean waiting until it was dried in the room, which would mean Jung-Kook would be confined to that small space again, and it was all her fault—

            “Here, I think some of it will come off.”

            Jung-Kook was going to hug her.  Why was Jung-Kook going to hug her?  Should she hug him back?  How would a hug get rid of the dirt?

            He was brushing it off.

            Only able to use his left hand, he stepped in until their chests were almost touching so he could reach around and pat her dress, shaking the fabric and beating it softly to see how clean it could become.

            Layers and layers between them, and yet he was swatting at her bottom as one might shoo a fly away, the briefest brushes making her blush as she stared straight ahead into his chest.  

            Clueless.  He was completely unaware of what he was doing.  No.  Ignorant as to how it might look.

            “Jung-Kook?”  A throat clearing made Kyung-Soo almost squeak, but Jung-Kook only hummed at Ji-Min. “Jung-Kook?”

            “What, Ji-Min?”  His hand stopped as he looked up at his servant, and perhaps they exchanged merely glances or the stable boy mimed something to him, because he almost flung Kyung-Soo away like one with no skill at dancing who has no concern for his partner.

            “Sh—sorry, I’m sorry.  I didn’t—I shouldn’t have done that.”

            “Well, I,” Kyung-Soo said, needing to recover, “would prefer it be you than Ji-Min.”

            “I’ll stick to brushing dirt off the horses, my lady,” Ji-Min chirped playfully, laughing when Jung-Kook glared at him. His own cheeks had begun to change color, so Kyung-Soo squeezed his hand to get his attention again, biting her lip gently.

            “I’m afraid I can’t reach yours, my lord. Perhaps we should return to your room for a moment?”

            “Oh, yes, she’d be able to reach it all then, my lord,” Ji-Min teased, earning himself another glare.  Tugging gently on Kyung-Soo’s hand, apparently agreeing with her, Jung-Kook began his retreat, the laughter of Ji-Min ringing through the air as they left.

            “See you two tonight!”

            Tonight needed to come faster, if only so Kyung-Soo could take this white dress off.  She was too used to getting dirty to be able to keep it cleaner for much longer.

 

           Thankfully, nothing was stained, and nothing was strained after Jung-Kook untied them so they could each attend to their own clothes.  Ho-Seok, busy elsewhere preparing for the ceremony, wasn’t really needed, but Jung-Kook still felt put out.  He knew his servants didn’t talk, but he also knew Ji-Min had always been different, and he would.  He was bound to tell Ho-Seok or Tae-Hyung first, and the one would tell the other, so the teases were sure to come.  He was beginning to see the benefit of having his wife tied to him at all times; the boys were more likely to behave if she was by him.

           She asked if they could spend time in the library, a slightly odd request after she had admitted she could barely read, but the day would be long, and both of them were obviously not going to be able to keep clean if they went outside. The room reminded him of his student days, only a few happy memories associated with the time spent in the room, and yet it was comfortable and quiet.  Having no objection when Kyung-Soo asked for him to pick out something for her to read, Jung-Kook found a book he used to read as a child, hoping the simplicity did not offend her.  Her face looked delighted when he handed it over, though, as well as grateful and excited, so he chose a text he had been meaning to read for ages before sitting down against the wall with Kyung-Soo beside him.

           A bit of a puzzle, at first, how to figure out how to hold a book and turn its pages with only one hand, the two of them eventually just sharing their joint hands when they were done with a page.  Kyung-Soo borrowed his hand more often, though he wasn’t sure she was exactly reading.  Plus, she started the book over the moment she was done, and even out of the corner of his eye he could see her frowning.

           She may not have even been aware of it.  Controlling her face and emotions and her outward appearance as a whole seemed extremely important to her, and she was exceptionally good at it.

           Pretending to be bored with his book after Kyung-Soo had gone through hers twice, Jung-Kook sighed and put it away, reaching out his empty hand for her book.

           “I’d like to read your book instead.”

           “Oh, yes, my lord,” she said, handing it over and putting her free hand in her lap, glancing around the room.  He wasn’t sure whether he wanted to laugh or frown at how disappointed she seemed.

           “I meant, I’d like to read it to you, if you would like that.”

           “Oh. Oh, well, if you don’t mind.”

           “Not at all.  I must say, this one is a masterpiece.  A true classic.”

           “I see,” Kyung-Soo said, shifting a little, her torso turning to face Jung-Kook. Deciding to use their joint hands to hold the book, he waited until she was settled before he cleared his throat and began.

           Nam-Joon found them there, hours later when lunch was being served and the couple was nowhere to be found, on their third book, Kyung-Soo’s eyes almost filled with tears from laughing as Jung-Kook gave voices to each character, adding in his own comments and stories as he remembered how he had always asked his tutor too many questions so getting through a book used to take forever. She may have been laughing at Jung-Kook, though, who kept pouting when she laughed at him, or who kept pouting because it made her laugh.  Jung-Kook wasn’t exactly sure.  All he knew was that he was making her laugh, and their clothes were clean, and the hours passed faster than he realized, only the soft knock of Nam-Joon rousing him from the small bubble Kyung-Soo and he had created.

           Finding no reason to move quickly, he and Kyung-Soo returned their books before following his brother to the dining hall, each with a pair of smiles on their faces as they swung their joint hands back and forth between them, their laughter only stopping when Nam-Joon turned his head to look back at them. His smile was knowing, but they still both quieted down before they entered the room where everyone was waiting for them.

           Not everyone would accept such behavior.

           Not everyone would understand, after all.

 

          She caught the giggles sometimes.  Usually, back home, it was after she got away with something or after she got caught but not reprimanded harshly for something. The smallest acts of rebellion made her feel alive, in some way.  The majority of time, she wouldn’t dream of acting out or disobeying, especially not when her father was alive and around, but some days something in her just bent, and occasionally it snapped.  

          It was the reality of the situation catching up with her, the absurdity of it all.  Ceremonies made sense.  She understood the importance of them, but the constant pretending, the smiling to strangers as if you were the best of friends, the warm greetings filled only with proper words, all of it made her sometimes wish she had never become a lady, never even had the opportunity to become one.  She missed the dirt and sticking out her tongue at Yoon-Gi and running through the fields barefoot and eating with her hands until the juice of strawberries ran down to her elbow and she tried to lick it off, never succeeding and always failing to keep a straight face.

          She was struggling now, too, as she sat by Jung-Kook again, still, at lunch.  Remembering the last meal they shared with others, she didn’t even ask as she used her chopsticks to feed him.  She managed to bite back her smile as he accepted the bite, but only by a little bit. He looked affronted. Emasculated.  And, really, it was simply amusing, because it was just food. She and Eun-Jae and Yoon-Gi used to eat all of their meals together, though most of it ended up on the floor or in their hair or stuck to their fingers instead of their mouths.  No one was going to feed her, and certainly not throw anything at her for her to see if she could catch with her mouth, so she remembered to take bites in between the ones she offered to Jung-Kook.  

          He seemed placated after a moment, accepting his fate, as he should.  There was nothing he could do to stop her, and there was no getting away from her.

          Unlike the night before, the family was crowded around one table, and for all its order, it was quite chaotic.  Seok-Jin’s twin boys kept trying to climb on it, much to their mother’s annoyance, and one of the girl cousins kept stealing food from one of her sister’s plates while the other one kept adding things to it so she never noticed, the pair of them taking much delight in their little game. Tae-Hyung was involved in a lively conversation with Nam-Joon who was sitting near Jung-Kook, both of them occasionally waving their chopsticks around without even thinking about it, bits of food sailing through the air as they gestured wildly.

          “Remind me, my lord,” Kyung-Soo said, leaning in toward her husband to avoid speaking too loudly, “what are your cousin’s names? And how do you tell them apart?”

          “Oh, the Ae’s?  Ae-Sook is the oldest, she’s the one the other two mess with.  Her face always looks serious.  She considers herself a very proper lady.  Ae-Cha is the middle child.  Her cheeks are the roundest, which she hates, but mainly because everyone likes to make fun of them.  She’s extremely smitten with Min-Ji, and she’s constantly talking to her when she can.  And Ae-Nun, the world’s biggest troublemaker.  Her ears are the pointiest, like a little gremlin’s.”

          “She’s your favorite, isn’t she?”

          “What makes you say that?”

          “You like troublemakers.”

          “I wouldn’t dream of it,” Jung-Kook winked. “You’re wrong.  If I liked troublemakers, I would like my nephews. I find them nothing but annoying.”

          “They’re only boys.  Surely you were like that at one point.”

          “Me?  Never. I was a very obedient child. Seok-Jin, actually, was the troublemaker.”

          “Don’t listen to him, Kyung-Soo,” Tae-Hyung interjected, practically leaning over Nam-Joon to join in the conversation. “Jung-Kook was constantly in trouble.”

          “I was not.  And if I was, it was always your fault.”

          “No one forced you to follow me and do what I said.”

          “On the contrary, you forced me.  On multiple occasions you threatened me.  And, if I didn’t listen to you, you tended to bawl and complain that you had no friends and everyone hated you.  I simply hated seeing you like that.  That only proves my point that I was a good boy.”

          “I have no memory of this.”

          “Ho-Seok,” Jung-Kook said, looking around and calling for his servant to come over.  The man came quickly, hiding his smile as he bowed down to hear what his master wanted. “Tell us, when I was younger, did not master Tae-Hyung here force me to play with him?  Didn’t he, on several occasions, run away to cry when I said no? Don’t you remember finding him bawling and complaining about how everyone hated him?”

          “I do, my lord.  He never even accepted my comforting until he was much older, and then he rarely cried anymore.”

          “You’re a traitor,” Tae-Hyung said, frowning while his eyes smiled as he pointed an accusatory finger at Ho-Seok.  “And you’ll pay for that later.”

          “I can not lie to my master, my lord.  And you would do well to remember that only he is allowed to punish me.”

          “Oh, no, Tae-Hyung can do with you what he pleases,” Jung-Kook said, waving Ho-Seok away as Tae-Hyung grinned wickedly. Looking aghast before laughing himself, Ho-Seok bowed again before returning to his place by the door.

          “I always do,” Tae-Hyung winked before resuming his meal and his conversation with Nam-Joon.

          A dish shattered on the other side of the table, the controlled chaos continuing as Kyung-Soo and Jung-Kook went back to eating, as well.

          The clamor and voices talking over each other seemed natural and right, and by the time the meal was over, Kyung-Soo no longer felt the need to giggle inappropriately.

          She merely smiled.

          It was hard not to around such a family.

          They weren’t hers yet, but they had each other, and the closeness and warmth at least had the potential to pass to her.

          That thought made her smile.

          And Jung-Kook smiling back at her made her smile even more.

 

          The courtyard had transformed since Kyung-Soo had walked through it in the morning by the time evening came.  The servants had obviously been busy stringing lanterns and bringing tables with pillows outside.  The place was crowded already, the night friends were invited, servants as well, and soon Kyung-Soo would have to greet them all, the idea exhausting before they had even begun.

          The party seemed to have started without them, though neither was late, the guests already eating when they arrived.  While there was an order to the evening, there didn’t seem to be much order as people were noisy and someone shouted at the pair when they were noticed, everyone cheering and raising glasses toward them. Jung-Kook raised their hands in greeting before guiding Kyung-Soo to their spot, and she billowed down, fixing her skirt as she sat, grateful her legs were hidden so she could sit comfortably. Jung-Kook followed suit, taking a deep breath before waving at someone.  A soft lull of music was already filling the air, barely audible over the various conversations going on, but the beating of a drum quieted them all down, their attention drawn to the space in the yard left free of tables or people.

          Musicians, then, in plain white garb with drums and flutes and harps appeared walking together in two rows from one side while another group of people approached them, their robes colorful and flowing. They stepped lightly, arranging themselves with practiced ease until the music really began.  And then, they danced.

          Or, they floated through the air and lifted themselves up through it, passing by each other like clouds in the sky, like birds soaring through the breeze, their sleeves trailing after their limbs rippling like colors in the horizon during a sunset.  A burst of air on the downbeat, then, an eruption of fans from each of their hands as one of them took the center, the rest flocking around him like a peacock’s tail, rotating as he spun and twisted and leapt, puffs of dust exploding around his feet every time he landed.

          Kyung-Soo felt a little bit of her breath leave her lungs unexpectedly when the man finished the dance, one of his sleeves dangling off of his shoulder, his face half-hidden by the fan as he bowed.  He had moved spectacularly, his every move entrancing, but it was the fact that Kyung-Soo knew he was Ji-Min that shocked her most of all.  No one else seemed surprised, though, especially not Jung-Kook, so she waited until the music resumed and people started to speak again before leaning toward him.

          “Ji-Min dances?”

          “I mentioned that, didn’t I?  That he’s an entertainer?”

          “You did.  I had no idea that, that—” Kyung-Soo said helplessly, waving her long sleeve around.  Laughing softly, Jung-Kook nodded at her.

          “He tends to have that effect on people. Some more than others.  In fact,” he said, craning his neck to look for someone, “I imagine he’s having his effect on someone right now.”

          “Who, my lord?” Kyung-Soo said, trying to look for someone without knowing who she was searching for.

          “Oh, well—oh, Ho-Seok!  Will you tell my father we’re ready to begin?  The sooner we finish, the sooner we can all go to bed.”

          “My lord, really, remind me never to invite you to a party again.”

          “Invite me?  This is my party.  Now, help me end it by telling my father.  Thank you.”

          “Do you not like parties, my lord?” Kyung-Soo asked as Ho-Seok bowed and left.

          “Only with the right people.  Come, I doubt we will have time to eat much before this all begins.  Will your stomach be alright?  How do you fair with alcohol?”

          “Fine, my lord.  Though, with this many guests, I fear we will both be dead before the night is over if they each brought us wine.”

          “Thankfully there are many women in my family, then,” Jung-Kook whispered before sitting up straight as his father and mother approached.

          Another odd ritual, something about the constant sharing of drinks that Kyung-Soo only barely understood.  As in Sabuk, in Hochon the tradition on the final day of wedding ceremonies was that each guest was to toast the bride and groom to wish them luck and happy fortune in the days and years to come.

          Men provided the wine, women the tea, children and servants water, and Jung-Kook and Kyung-Soo were required to drink in response.  It was the final opportunity for any disagreements or conflicts.  Anyone who didn’t approach the bride and groom were suggesting they did not agree with the union.  Consequently, if the bride or groom did not respond to someone’s toast by drinking, it was a sure sign they did not welcome them.

          As always, everything Kyung-Soo did mattered, then, and while she knew of no one who would disapprove of her and Jung-Kook’s marriage, she still remained slightly tense every time someone approached.

          Wondering, perhaps, if it might be him.

          If she would come and change her mind.

          It was the last night, after all.

          After the last drink was poured and poured down her throat, it would all be complete.

          At least in the public eye.

          And to most, that was all that mattered.

          But they didn’t come.

          Kyung-Soo was alone, and she drank drink after drink, her cup being refilled by a servant or Ho-Seok as the night continued.

          Name after name, drink after drink, smile after smile.

          Though the glass was small, she began to feel full while hungry all at the same time as she sat, her feet and bottom beginning to go numb, the night air chilling her limbs the longer she sat unmoving.

          She could tell, already, after only two days of knowing him, that Jung-Kook was growing anxious, as well, his responses becoming shorter and shorter with each guest that approached.

          Finally, his father rose again, his glass in the air, waiting for everyone to grow quiet as they all looked up at him.  

          “Thank you for joining me and my family today. Most of you probably never had the chance to meet Je Hae-Chul, though I know some of you were honored and blessed enough to.  Whether you realize it or not, most of us sitting here today at this table have him to thank for our lives and the very food in front of us.  While I wish he could be here with us today, I am grateful that through his daughter our houses are now united.  Kyung-Soo, I welcome you again to the family.  As your father once provided for me, let me now provide for you.”

          “Thank you, my lord, for welcoming me and gifting me with your son.  I am pleased you kept the best for last,” Kyung-Soo said, bowing her head a little as a soft rumble of laughs rippled through the crowds, one particularly louder than the others belonging to Seok-Jin, who looked right pleased with her comment.  Jung-Kook’s father laughed, too, before raising his glass again and draining it, everyone around the table repeating after him.  He spoke again to the crowd then, something about staying and enjoying themselves and thanking everyone for coming, but Jung-Kook was leaning in toward Kyung-Soo to whisper.

          “We can leave whenever you wish now. Everything is done.”

          Not everything.

          But Kyung-Soo nodded, anyway, her head light and her feet tingly, her hand tight in Jung-Kook’s and her other grabbing his arm to keep from falling.  He laughed into her hair as he pulled her away, plenty of eyes noticing but no one stopping them.  Brushing past Ho-Seok on their way, Jung-Kook pleaded earnestly with him, Kyung-Soo only noticing then how slurred his words were.

          “Bring food to my room.  As much as possible.  Quickly.”

          Kyung-Soo giggled at his voice, her face flushed and her heart pounding.

          The sounds of the party dying away as they went back into the dark house sobering her with each step.

          He was relaxed now.  He could hide his shame behind the excuse of being drunk.  He could lie with her, their feelings numb enough for any pain to be subsided.

          At least she could blame her stumbling on the alcohol as well.

          They weren’t almost done.

          The ceremonies were over, but they were still not man and wife in the eyes of god.

          The night wasn’t over.

 

          Jung-Kook was drunker than he thought he was.  He only knew because every time he thought to himself “Oh no, I’m drunk,” his mind only got so far as “Oh no,” and each time the words drew out in his head, elongating themselves like someone shouting into an echoing ravine, but sometimes they just laid on his forehead, sometimes running around his head, sometimes shouting and sometimes whispering and sometimes repeating so quickly he couldn’t blink fast enough to keep up with them.

          In a hurry to get back to his room, he slowed down as the realization dropped log after log into his path.  Aware of everything in a heightened way, he felt Kyung-Soo’s soft fingers in his own, heard the way she laughed at first when they left the dinner but quieted by the time they were inside, saw the way she kept her eyes down when he pulled the door open.

          Leaving it open for Ho-Seok to bring in food, he lifted his bound hand to pull at the ribbon for one last time, rotating his wrist once it was returned to him.

          “Thank goodness that is over,” he said, watching Kyung-Soo sit with her hands in her lap, her stance and posture a copy of mere minutes ago under a darker sky.  Getting no response, he walked to his armoire to put the ribbon up, still working to undo his robe by the time Ho-Seok brought in a tray.

          “Please, don’t wait for me,” he said to his wife as he gestured Ho-Seok over to help him with the knot he seemed to never be able to undo.  

          “Congratulations, my lord,” Ho-Seok smiled, the pride evident in his face even with the slight annoyance obvious at having to help Jung-Kook undress.  He was used to that look.  Watching Kyung-Soo over Ho-Seok’s shoulder not eating, he lowered his voice.

          “Tell Tae-Hyung and Ji-Min I noticed they left before toasting us.”

          “Oh, I’m sure they meant no offense, sir.”

          “I know that.  And I’m sure they know I’m not angry.  But if I noticed, you know my father and Tae-Hyung’s father definitely did. He needs to be more careful.”

          “I’ll pass on the message, my lord.”

          “Ho-Seok,” Jung-Kook said, grabbing the man’s wrist as he pulled his sash away.  “I am serious.  You too.”

          “Always, my lord,” Ho-Seok whispered, winking even as he smiled.  Sighing, knowing that Ho-Seok would never take his warnings too seriously, Jung-Kook breathed as his robe was loosened.  Feeling free to finally move, he rotated his arms around as he made his way to sit by Kyung-Soo, looking up at Ho-Seok as he stood by the door.

          “What is it?”

          “Is there anything else you require?  My lady?  Tea?”

          “No,” Jung-Kook mumbled, reaching for a bowl. “That is all.  Good night, Ho-Seok.  Enjoy your night.”

          “Of course.  You too, my lord,” he said with a final bow.

          “Did you tell him?” Kyung-Soo as soon as the door slid shut and she picked up her chopsticks once Jung-Kook had taken a bite.

          “Tell him what?”

          “About the tea.”

          “Oh, no.”  Another mumble and moving of food around while he chewed.  The idea of giving Ho-Seok fodder to laugh at him and providing him with ammunition for the others to do the same was preposterous. No, he was sure to tell no one about that mishap except maybe Nam-Joon.  He had many things to ask Nam-Joon.

          “So, how did you occupy your time at Sabuk?”

          “Oh.  Most days I just sat in our main room, staring out the door, waiting for a man to arrive.”

          “Oh?  A man? What man?” Jung-Kook said, feeling himself frown.  His annoyance only grew as he stabbed a piece of meat and sat chewing it loudly. Frustrated she couldn’t even say who, he looked up at her only to find her smiling at him, her lips pressed together as if she was trying not to.  “Oh.” He was a fool.  He blamed the alcohol.  “A joke.”

          “A joke, my lord,” Kyung-Soo nodded.  “I worked on the farm.  We have many animals, though I preferred working in the fields.”

          “Field work?  Isn’t that difficult?”

          “Yes, my lord.  But I liked the feel of the earth in my hands, the joy of watching something I had grown reaching harvest.  Some days it felt like I was fighting for every seed, but that made harvesting that more rewarding.”

          “Well, you’re welcome to work in the gardens if you’d like.  They are not nearly kept up enough since Nam-Joon moved.”

          “Oh, may I, my lord?” Kyung-Soo’s smile made Jung-Kook smile.  Her cheeks blushed by no makeup made him look back down at his food.

          “Of course.  You may walk the fields whenever you’d like, as well.  Though I don’t know about working them.”

          “Oh, no, my lord, I am a lady now.  I know my place.”

          “That—” Jung-Kook said, frowning up at her.  She looked unperturbed, and she even raised an eyebrow at him as he watched her, her pink lips opening and closing, her thin throat moving as she swallowed.  “You are small, though,” he blurted out.  “Like a lady.  Not a field hand.”

          “Oh, I promise I am strong, my lord.”

          “No, you can’t be.  You are too tiny.”

          “I will prove it to you tomorrow in the stable.”

          “Why not prove it now?” Jung-Kook said, watching as Kyung-Soo’s eyes narrowed before looking around.

          “How can I prove my strength to you here?”

          “Here,” Jung-Kook said, stuffing another ginormous bite into his mouth before lying down on his stomach, lifting his chest a little to rest on his elbows, wiggling his right hand in front of his face.  She eyed him suspiciously and even looked around the room for a moment, her hesitation obvious but unfounded.

          “Kyung-Soo, it is just you and me.  You don’t need to act like a lady if you don’t want to.  Do you think I look like a lord, all sprawled out like this?”

          “You do not,” Kyung-Soo said before still tacking on, “my lord.”

          “In this room, you are free to be yourself. Now, come show me how strong you are.” She still moved slowly, though Jung-Kook imagined that was partly due to her dress, the layers and folds of fabric impeding her movements.  Still, she stood up only to kneel back down before lowering herself to the ground across from him, lifting up her hand as she rested on her elbows, too.  Up close, Jung-Kook was struck by how flushed she looked, though he was probably the same, the steady stream of “oh no” still rolling through his mind.  Her teeth flashed at him as she smiled, and the voice screamed a little so loud that he shook his head and took her hand in his.

          No ribbon, now, just palm to palm, her fingers still familiar.

          He was going to explain, going to let her win, but she began to push on his hand before he even opened his mouth.  The force, the clear power, surprised him, but the fact that he actually had to strain for a few seconds before pushing her hand all the way down to the ground surprised him even more.  The flash of teeth and delighted laugh and the way her feet kicked the floor once then twice made him only stare, mouth agape, the “oh no” almost slipping out.

          “Again!  I wasn’t ready.  My center of balance is off.”

          “Excuses,” Jung-Kook muttered while holding his hand up again.

          Even prepared this time, he was still caught off guard, his center of balance perhaps off, as well, as Kyung-Soo pushed on his hand, her whole face straining.  

          It was cute.

          She was cute.

          “Oh no.”

          “I am drunk,” he said even as he pushed her arm to the ground again.  She rolled with it, lying on her side and laughing up at him for no reason, the sound nowhere near louder than the thought in his head.  “Oh no, oh no, oh no.”

          “I fear I am as well,” Kyung-Soo said before rolling over and sitting up, looking around the room again.  “Do you admit I am strong?”

          “But I beat you both times.”

          “But I am strong.”

          “You are the strongest lady I’ve ever met,” Jung-Kook conceded, his heart pounding when she beamed.

          “I can’t say the same for you,” she said as she stood up, her quick motions undoing one of her robes distracting Jung-Kook enough to not respond quickly to what she said.

          “I should hope not.”

          “I mean you are not the strongest lord I have ever met,” she laughed, almost tipping herself over.  “Oh no.”  The words rushed past his heart to his stomach, and he rolled over, too, to sit up, the room spinning slightly as he did.

          “And who is the strongest lord you have ever met?” he challenged.  Kyung-Soo knew he would.  She wanted him to.  He took the bait anyway, his curiosity insatiable.

          “Your father,” Kyung-Soo said as she took off one of her white robes, walking away to hang it up.

          “My father?” Jung-Kook almost stuttered, standing up at the very mention of him, his muscles already tensing as if he was going to face him right then and there.  “What do you mean?”

          “He came to the farm when I was ten.  He lifted me right up and put me on his shoulders. Not even my own father would do that.”

          “Lifted you—“ Jung-Kook huffed, stomping past the tray of forgotten food to his armoire where Kyung-Soo was busy taking off her second layer, just another robe of white, each one a bit thinner and less intricate than the last, the last one she was left in almost sheer, a mere hint of embroidered flowers on it.

          “I can assure you I am the strongest Kim. It was my brother, Seok-Jin, at one point, but I have surpassed him.”

          “Of course, my lord,” Kyung-Soo said, trying to duck her head and get past him.

          “I am stronger than my father.”

          “Of course, my lord, I meant no offense.”

          He wasn’t offended.  She just clearly didn’t believe him.  He would show her.  He could pick up Seok-Jin, he could easily pick her up.

          He could.  She barely weighed anything, even for all of her apparent arm muscle.

          And the move, more than his actual strength, seemed to surprise her.

          She looked up at him, suddenly in his arms with her face close to his, his face that was challenging her now as if to say “See?”

          “See?”

          “Oh no.”

          “You-you are strong, my lord,” Kyung-Soo mumbled.

          “The strongest,” Jung-Kook said, but she wouldn’t repeat it.  “Woman!” He sighed, exasperated.  “You must admit I’m the strongest.”

          “How am I to know?” She said as he kept trying to demonstrate, walking across the room with her as if he held a mere babe in his arms.  “We would have to let every other lord try, wouldn’t we?  Perhaps Ji-Min—”

          “He is no lord,” Jung-Kook frowned, kneeling on his bed and gently depositing Kyung-Soo upon it.  “And I am your husband.  The strongest husband you will ever have.”

          “The only husband,” Kyung-Soo said, reaching up for his sleeve and tugging.

          “Oh no.”

          His center of balance, his life as a whole, had been thrown off course.  He threw his other hand out to keep himself from falling on her as she pulled him down.

          She was strong.

          But he was stronger.

          He wasn’t going to crush her.  

          He could hover over her all night before his arms even shook.

          Except they did, his veins and bones and muscles under attack by all the toasting they had done.

          How could Kyung-Soo be so unaffected?  Apart from her slightly red cheeks that were darkening by the moment, apart from the slightest tremble of her fingers on his sleeve, he would think she had had nothing but water all evening or was much more used to alcohol than he was, an impossibility, though, too unrealistic to be entertained.

          He was stronger.

          And yet maybe she was, in her own way.

          Losing her father and leaving her home.

          Marrying him.

          Catching him off guard time after time.

          He could do that, though.  He could surprise people.  He could gain the upper ground.

          He could kiss her.  

          That would show her.

          He would make her admit he was stronger.

          “What are you doing?”  He jolted like a startled animal when her hand skimmed at the collar of his robe, close enough to his chest to touch his skin.

          “I’m sorry, my lord, I thought—”

          “I’m going to return the tray to the kitchen. I’ll bring us back some water.”

          “Y-yes, my lord,” she mumbled, her hands falling to her stomach as Jung-Kook sat back up and climbed off his mattress to clean up.

          “Oh no,” he continued to think as he stepped out of his room for the first time in three days alone once more.  “Oh no,” how he felt like something was missing.  “Oh no,” that his world suddenly felt so off balanced.

          “Oh no,” he muttered to himself as he leaned on his door before he went back in to his wife.

          “Oh no.”

 

          Oh no.

          She had pushed him too far.

          She had seen enough of him interacting with his servants to assume he wouldn’t mind the playful banter.  

          But perhaps she was more drunk than she realized. Maybe she had misjudged him. Maybe he hadn’t really understood what he was allowing when he said to be herself.

          He didn’t really want her to be herself.

          He wouldn’t have married her if she was herself.

          But she had thought, just for a moment, that he really did want her, that all of the teasing had been in her favor when he picked her up and carried her to their mattress.

          Her fear of him being sloppy and quick and rough in his drunkenness like men she had heard of had run away replaced by some sense of anticipation that she couldn’t quite name.

          He was in no way unattractive.  She could will her mind to be ready for him this time. It wouldn’t be much of a lie.

          But as soon as she touched him, he fled, literally took on the chore of a servant to escape from her, and the room was suddenly darker without him.

          She sat in the growing darkness with her hand around her wrist, rubbing her hands back and forth, the stench of hay clouding her memories, the putrid smell of burning flesh clogging her nostrils, the night twisting around her suffocating her very pores.

          He had to come back.

          She had to convince him to accept her.

          Body more than heart.

          Love, if she was lucky enough, could come later.

          “Please him.”

          “My lord.”  She tried not to whimper but tried to sound weak.  She was weak.  He was strong.  She had been foolish to try to prove otherwise.

          “I am sorry.”

          “What for?”

          He moved in the dark, killing the last of the lanterns, with ease, with familiarity like he had walked through the room with his eyes closed countless of times.  The mat, though thin, still dipped as he sat down beside her, his eyes finding hers in the dark.

          “I didn’t mean to offend you,” she rushed out, had to say quickly.  “I shouldn’t have joked.  You are strong, my lord, the strongest, I shouldn’t have—”

          “Why do you speak like that?” A gentle question from the corner, curious, a question about so much more that could reveal everything if she wasn’t careful.

          “Like what, my lord?”

          “Like you think I’m going to hit you or something. Like you think I want you to duck your head and cower before me.”

          “I—ladies are meant to be docile and quiet and meek and—”

          “Do you know what that word means?”

          “Meek?  Well, to be weak—”

          “No.  Meek in no way means weak.  Meekness is about controlled power.  Yaho is meek. She could easily kill me with one kick, throw me off and break my back, but she won’t because I’ve trained her. She is meek.  You are meek, yes, but only because you are clearly strong. Stronger than any lady I know.  I don’t care about all the rest.  I want—I want you to be comfortable being yourself. Tell me, honestly, don’t lie, do you want to sit by my side at meals, staying quiet, only speaking when spoken to, patiently waiting for me to acknowledge you?”

          “I will, my lord.”

          “That isn’t what I asked,” Jung-Kook sighed, shuffling closer while a mile remained between them.  “I said do you want to?”

          “It’s what I was trained to do,” Kyung-Soo whispered.

          “Kyung-Soo,” Jung-Kook whispered back, placing his hand palm up on his thigh.  “Is it what you want?”

          “It doesn’t matter what I want, my lord,” Kyung-Soo said louder, firmer.  “And that isn’t a lie, my lord.  I am your wife, and I will submit to you.  Please let me, let me be whatever you want—”

          Her hand found his in the dark but tried to move past it.

          His grip was stronger, though.

          “What I want, Kyung-Soo, is for you to be my wife. I didn’t ask for you to, but you are. And if I had the freedom to choose my own wife, I would never choose one who cowered before me like some trembling servant.  I would want her to speak to me as an equal.  I want you to be yourself.  Do not lie to me, especially not in this room.  Outside, yes, we will have to continue to play a part, and it will be tedious and ridiculous as times, but here, in here, with me, I want you to just be yourself.  Now, tell me, do you want sit with your head ducked before me, or do you want to challenge me in the stable tomorrow to see which of us is stronger?”

          “My lord,” she whispered, her wrist caught in his grasp, “I—I.”

          “Don’t lie to me.”  He was stronger, and yet he had his own weakness.  Kyung-Soo could not push him anymore, so she would have to push herself.

          “You may be the strongest lord, but I was the strongest lady in Sabuk, and I will be the strongest lady in Hochon.”

          “I look forward to the challenge, then, my lady,” Jung-Kook grinned, bringing the wrist he held in his hand to his lips, his eyes never leaving Kyung-Soo’s.  He returned it gently to her lap and sat staring at her long enough that she thought his eyes were telling her something, inviting her, no, challenging her, to test him again, but he wasn’t Yoon-Gi.  

          His eyes were telling her nothing except that he was tired.

          “What do you like best when you’re sick?”

          “Sick?”

          “From the alcohol—”

          “Oh.  Dae-Woo makes this porridge.  Any other time, I would hate it.  It looks terrible, but I promise it’s delicious.”

          “I’ll make sure there’s a bowl ready for you in the morning, then, my lord,” Kyung-Soo smiled, lying down on her back with her hands over her stomach.

          “Jung-Kook,” her husband said, lying down to do the same. “I’d like for you to call me Jung-Kook.”

          And she’d like for him to give her a sense of security, help her know that she was not going to be sent away.  She’d like to be really honest with him, but she had been trained.  She knew what it took to be a lady.

          So she stayed quiet.

Chapter Text

 

“The best lies about me are the ones I told.” 
― Patrick Rothfuss

            “Ho-Seok, do you ever wish?”

            Always.  Constantly. Daily.  Every time the stars came out.

            But realistically, he knew that was all they were. Wishes.  No need to be down about an impossibility.

            With nowhere to go, Ho-Seok hadn’t changed much over the years except to grow stronger and closer to those he cared about. The Kim family was a good family. Had always been good to him and his. His older sister worked for the family, too, serving Nam-Joon’s wife now, and he was lucky to be able to smile at her whenever they visited.  He was lucky his masters didn’t beat or brand them when they disobeyed.  He was lucky he had been assigned to the youngest son.

            The boy had become more like a brother to him, though Ho-Seok knew his place.  He would always be a servant, but he was lucky his position was stable and safe. As Jung-Kook got older, their relationship had gotten more and more relaxed and casual.  After all, he had seen the boy at his most awkward and painful stages and had been closer to him than his own brothers had been, so the friendship they developed was only natural.  He was lucky Jung-Kook had such a kind heart that only expanded as he matured. He was lucky, but he was a servant.

            Laws existed regarding servants.  Not quite slaves, but almost the equivalent, they were considered property in the government’s eye.  Their owners could do with them what they willed.  Ho-Seok was lucky, then, to have so much freedom. Jung-Kook always gave him time to himself in the afternoons or evenings, though he knew that was partly just Jung-Kook wanting to have alone time of his own.  He didn’t have the freedom to do whatever he wanted—he couldn’t pursue a job he wanted outside of the family, for instance, and he certainly couldn’t marry whoever he wanted to—but he had more freedom than most servants were allowed.

            Ho-Seok was lucky.

            He had recognized this when he was young and first came to realize what it meant to be a servant, specifically a servant in the Kim household.  He knew he was lucky to be given to Jung-Kook and, moreover, to befriend his master.

            And he knew he was lucky when he met Kim Tae-Hyung.

            No, he didn’t know at first.  The cousin saw him as only a servant and treated him as such. He had ordered Ho-Seok around so cruelly for years, Ho-Seok almost forgot whose servant he was, Jung-Kook always present but too good or too scared to make his cousin stop.  Ho-Seok knew Tae-Hyung was not a kind master like his own, but his place was to serve.  Even if Tae-Hyung didn’t own him, he was a part of the family, so serve him Ho-Seok did.

            And then, when he was eighteen, the family hired Ji-Min, a servant by name but not by rank, something less than Tae-Hyung but more than Ho-Seok in society’s eyes.

            But somehow above them both.

            Ho-Seok took instantly to his bubbly and yet sultry personality, the sixteen-year-old’s disregard for rules and titles so like-minded that Ho-Seok couldn’t help but be drawn to him.  His sad experiences and yet bright outlook on life was unlike anyone Ho-Seok had ever met.  His hours of freedom were no longer spent alone but spent watching the boy work, helping him with his chores, laughing at his jokes and making him laugh in return, lying awake and whispering about their dreams or falling asleep for an afternoon nap on the hay in an empty stall.  Ji-Min was a light come to the Kim household, and Ho-Seok wasn’t the only moth he attracted.

            Tae-Hyung changed the year Ji-Min showed up.  He took to sulking and staring instead of ordering Ho-Seok around, especially when he was around Ji-Min.

            A possessive child, not loved enough even as the oldest male by his own father, an outcast among his own family for unknown reasons to Ho-Seok at the time, Tae-Hyung was jealous.

            But he bid his time, and as Ho-Seok and Ji-Min got closer and closer, Tae-Hyung grew angrier and angrier.  Ho-Seok could remember how concerned he felt.  While he didn’t feel particularly close to Tae-Hyung, he had known him for years, and he cared enough about the family as a whole to be worried about him.

            Ji-Min had laughed and waved away his concern, something about how Tae-Hyung would come to them when he was ready.

            Ho-Seok hadn’t known what he had meant then. Only understood when he himself was ready, watching Ji-Min dance, his movements clear to him even if his face was hidden, and following him home to his small cottage one night only to find his smooth skin and dark eyes waiting for him.

            “I’ve been waiting a long time, Ho-Seok.”

            Of all the thousands of things that separated servants from their masters, of all the countless rules invented to keep only the lower class in trouble and keep them where they were, there was one law that united them in their baseness, one law that would mean death no matter one’s rank, one law that was easier to break if you were rich and no one dared enough to say anything damning about and yet one law that people broke regardless, whatever their reason.

            To lie with another man, to be with another man, to love another man was to be an abomination, a disgust, and the sin was punishable by death.

            And yet, the hypocrisy of men, another trait that bound them together, allowed for the separation to remain.

            “I could name lord after lord who has come to see me,” Ji-Min whispered to Ho-Seok.  A secret known and yet never revealed.  A sin obvious and yet obscure.  

            Ji-Min didn’t worry about getting caught or exposed. The law meant everything and yet nothing to him.  He was good at what he did and confident enough to know the information he had accumulated over the years would keep him safe.

            Ho-Seok had no sort of guarantees, but he was lucky, and Ji-Min wanted him.  Wanted him more than how men wanted him.  Wanted him to come not just in his bed but to come into his bed to stay.  Ho-Seok wanted him, too.  Wanted him in ways neither of them could have, so they settled for what they could.  Stolen kisses among the horses, occasional nights to themselves away from prying eyes, quick and passionate touches, knowing glances and lingering stares, secrets kept hidden and safe for each other.

            And then Tae-Hyung found them.

            An accident.  A sloppy mistake, Ho-Seok had thought at first, had cursed himself for being tempted so easily, Ji-Min’s giggles and glares never failing to make him weak, until he realized the boy had planned it.  Had wanted Tae-Hyung to find them.

            “He was taking too long,” Ji-Min reasoned with a shrug even as Ho-Seok pulled his pants back on.  So they stood, a lord with the power to have them fired, thrown out, dishonored, executed, an entertainer and a horse boy and someone who couldn’t be held by a title because no one label was good enough for him, and a servant who was, above all else, lucky.

            Tae-Hyung found them, and their unholy trinity was complete.

            His possessiveness remained.  His jealousy.  His anger.  But Ji-Min had seen through his mask from the beginning, and Ho-Seok began to see.  The anger was just fear.  The jealousy was just fear.  The possessiveness was just fear.

            No fear of being caught, though they had been careful for five years, though they all knew everyone would shun them if they were found out, though his father most of all would despise him and disown him if they were discovered.

            No, a fear of being let go.

            Once Tae-Hyung had them, he refused to let go. He would never let go.

            So every year, his jealousy grew, his possessiveness grew, his anger grew.

            Because at the end of the day, he was a noble, and Ji-Min and Ho-Seok were servants.  In the end, they could have each other more than he could ever have them.  He could own them like a master would, but to own someone did not mean you had them.  Tae-Hyung had them.  Had their love and understanding and patient understanding.  He had them, and they had him.

            So Ho-Seok and Ji-Min accepted his anger and jealousy and possessiveness for what it really was, simple and complicated fear.

            They were lucky, Ho-Seok often reminded them, for what they were able to have.

            Lucky, to have each other.

            Ho-Seok was lucky, and yet sometimes he wished for more.

            Mostly because he knew Ji-Min and Tae-Hyung did, as well.  Their imaginations, in fact, often got away from them, their optimism infectious and dangerous.  Talking them down from plans of running away countless times over the years weighed on him, but he always remained the most mature and realistic among them, even if it meant hurting them.  Seeing the pain hiding behind their bright smiles hurt him more than he would ever let them know.

            So the sound coming from Tae-Hyung’s room that Ho-Seok slipped into made staying quiet difficult.  He wanted to run to him and comfort him and, above all, make him laugh, anything to stop him crying, but he couldn’t let himself look alarmed or distraught.

            “Jung-Kook noticed you both left before the toasting. He’s not mad, but make sure you see him tomorrow.  You father may be upset, too.”

            “When is he not?” Tae-Hyung growled through his tears.

            “Tae is crying,” Ji-Min said, not because Ho-Seok hadn’t noticed, but because he was telling them both that nothing else mattered at the moment.

            “It’s just a ceremony,” Ho-Seok said as he peeled off his top robe, already knowing what the problem was.  “You know a ceremony is just a ceremony.”

            “And you know it’s more than that,” Ji-Min snapped. “That’s the problem.  It’s not just a ceremony.  It represents everything he wants and yet everything he can’t have.”

            “Do you want a wife, Tae, is that it?” Ho-Seok said, kneeling down beside the mat where Tae-Hyung’s head lay in Ji-Min’s lap.

            “No!”

            “Do you want a husband?  Want Ji-Min or I to marry you?”

            “Ho-Seok, be nice,” Ji-Min warned.

            “My darling,” Ho-Seok smiled, cupping Ji-Min’s face before reaching down to brush Tae-Hyung’s hair away and looking into his wet eyes.  “My love. Do you want to bind our hands together so everyone knows we’re together?  Because you know we can’t do that.”

            “Ho-Seok—”

            “But we’ve been through this before, haven’t we? Every wedding you do this.”

            “Ho-Seok, you’re not—”

            “Ji-Min, you’ve been comforting him for hours, sit back and let me now.  Be quiet for me,” Ho-Seok said, not looking up at him, his eyes fixed on Tae-Hyung’s even as Ji-Min sat back, slightly cross but obedient.  “Tae, my love, the second you don’t want us, you only have to say the word.  Inside this room, when we are all together, we are equals, but we all know we’re not really.  It’s just a game we play.  We play one outside these walls, too.  Ultimately, you hold the most power here, remember?  But I know you don’t want that.  You love when we order you around.  You love when we take you, don’t you?”

            His words, though sweet, conjured up plenty of memories for the three of them, and Tae-Hyung shivered even as he nodded.

            “You can call us husband or wife or whatever you want when we’re together.  And I know you wish, we all wish, we could all walk hand-in-hand outside, too, but that will never happen.  Do you hear me?  Never. So you either accept what we have, accept Ji-Min and I, or you tell us to leave.  If you want us, you have us, love.”

            “Don’t go,” Tae-Hyung whispered, clinging to Ho-Seok’s pants.  “Please don’t go.”

            “Alright,” Ho-Seok said calmly, smoothing Tae-Hyung’s hair down.  “We’ll stay. Did you wait for me?”

            “No, someone was upset early,” Ji-Min said, his hand resting on Tae-Hyung’s forehead as he smiled down at him.

            “Now who’s not being nice?” Ho-Seok said, moving Ji-Min’s hand to kiss Tae-Hyung’s forehead.  “Go get the oil and two ribbons.  Now, my love, if you stop crying and get undressed, Ji-Min and I will take care of you.”

            “They all expect me to marry next now,” Tae-Hyung said, sitting up slowly and wiping his sleeve over his face before taking off his long shirt, Ho-Seok helping him to throw it away.

            “But you won’t, will you?  You can’t give Ji-Min and I up,” Ho-Seok said gently as Tae-Hyung relinquished his pants.  Panting and naked before him, Tae-Hyung shook his head, his long hair coming undone and moving everywhere along the mattress.

            “Can you, can you be gentle?” he said, eyeing Ji-Min as he kneeled down on the other side of him, handing Ho-Seok what he had asked for and bending down to place a soft kiss to Tae-Hyung’s lips.

            “After how rough you were with me this afternoon?” Ho-Seok said, eyeing Tae-Hyung closely as he squirmed a little.

            “I’m sorry, was I too rough?  I thought—”

            “Nothing I can’t handle,” Ho-Seok shushed him, patting Tae-Hyung’s thigh and placing his knees on either side of his leg. “Ji-Min, undress and prep him for me. I promise I’ll be gentle, love, if that’s what you desire.”

            “Want you,” Tae-Hyung mumbled even as Ji-Min moved quickly to remove his pants, his chest already bare.

            “We’re here,” Ho-Seok said gently, bending down to kiss him even as Ji-Min took the oil from him and began to warm some on his fingers.  He pulled away reluctantly to both his and Tae-Hyung’s disapproval, but he was replaced quickly by Ji-Min, whose mouth worked to open up Tae-Hyung even as his fingers did the same.  Ho-Seok hurried to undress then, repositioning himself, running his hand down Ji-Min’s back and up through his hair, giving his head a quick scratch before he put his hand on his neck.  Bending down, he took delight in kissing Tae-Hyung’s panting chest and neck, his hand leaving Ji-Min only to join his fingers between Tae-Hyung’s legs. Ji-Min’s fingers were rounder but not nearly as long, so they worked together to open Tae-Hyung up, his desperation growing more obvious by the second.  He hadn’t really stopped crying, though there were many reasons for tears, and he practically sobbed when Ji-Min and Ho-Seok both pulled away at once.

            “Hands,” Ho-Seok breathed, indicating for Tae-Hyung’s left and Ji-Min’s right.  Bracing himself on his knees to replace Ho-Seok’s fingers with more of his own, Ji-Min reached for Tae-Hyung’s hand himself and presented them to Ho-Seok, the silk fabric he had brought over being wrapped quickly and firmly around their wrists.  Tae-Hyung jerked and groaned then, squeezing his eyes shut and breathing up at the ceiling.

            “Quiet, love.  You have us,” Ho-Seok reminded him, letting Ji-Min place their hands down as he took Tae-Hyung’s other hand in his left, the wrapping clumsier with only his right hand, but the ribbon was soon secure and tight enough to hold them together.  He squeezed their fingers together, smiling at how Tae-Hyung already looked at ease.

            “Get on his chest, Ji-Min, but be careful of his neck.”  With the best balance and arguably the most strength, Ji-Min could hover just enough over Tae-Hyung’s chest to not suffocate him for hours, so he did just that, his knees on either side of Tae-Hyung’s chest, their joint hands high over Tae-Hyung’s head.  Ho-Seok saw Ji-Min run his other one through Tae-Hyung’s hair once to make sure his eyes and nose were clear before he positioned himself behind him.  Nudging Tae-Hyung’s legs open a little wider, he guided himself in to where Tae-Hyung was waiting for him.

            “We’re here,” he said, squeezing Tae-Hyung’s hand even as he squeezed around him.  “I have you.” He had had him before, and he would have him again, and again, and Tae-Hyung had had Ji-Min earlier and Ho-Seok hours before, and as Ho-Seok put a hand on Ji-Min’s shoulders, Tae-Hyung already busy having him and being had, he told himself as he pushed forward that while they could never have what they really wanted, they could and would have each other.

            Ho-Seok was a servant, yes, but with Tae-Hyung and Ji-Min he was so much more than that.  He was nothing at all, simply Ho-Seok, a lucky, lucky man.

Chapter Text

 

“Lies require commitment.” 
― Veronica Roth

            Younger.  He truly looked like the youngest while he slept.  His skin so untouched and unblemished by years and sun and toil. It was easy to watch him sleep, his face so peaceful, his mouth, whether habitually or from the alcohol blocking his nose, partly open though each breath was as quiet as the next.

            Porridge she had promised roused her from bed, though, a light robe being thrown on over the one she had slept in before she slowly opened the door.  The sun was barely awake, and the rest of the house seemed to still be sleeping, too, but her hands and feet were free to leave and walk through the house as if it was her own.

            It was, after all.

            The smell, more than her memory of the tour two days before, led her to the kitchen, several servants gathered around a long table talking to each other freely, no hurry to their movements, an air of ease mixing with the various smells.

            Someone rising to refill his bowl noticed her hesitating in the doorway, not recognizing anyone and certainly not familiar enough to simply walk in uninvited.

            “Oh, my lady!”  The term brought several heads up, perhaps expecting the real lady of the house, but everyone still started to rise even though Kyung-Soo desperately tried to make them stop.

            “Please, please, don’t get up.  I was looking for Dae-Woo?”

            “Ah, here, your lady, I mean, my lady,” a large man said, fumbling to take off his hat at the head of the table.  He bowed at least three times on his way over, a nervousness to him that made Kyung-Soo almost regret coming to make a request even if it was so easy that she could do it.  “What can I do for you?”

            “My lord, Jung-Kook, requested your porridge this morning.”

            “Oh, is he sick?” the man asked before immediately beginning his preparations, a large pot of rice being opened and dished out.

            “Oh, no, just, after last night’s toasts—”

            “Ah.”  The elongated word as if Kyung-Soo needed to say no more, so she didn’t for a moment as she watched the man prepare a bowl.  He looked at her once before making two, instead, and Kyung-Soo’s eyes shifted occasionally to the large table where she made eye contact with several servants before they looked away, concentrating on their meals like they hadn’t been looking.

            “Whenever my lord Seok-Jin would get sick, I always prepared an elaborate breakfast for him, and master Nam-Joon was never a picky eater.  But Jung-Kook, well, he has such a sensitive nose, and it always has been more-so in the morning, plus, after a night of drinking, well.”

            “I have noticed,” Kyung-Soo said, smiling at the memory of how repulsed Jung-Kook had been by her perfume.

            “Is there something you would like instead, my lady?”

            “Oh, no, porridge is fine.  I am not used to ornate foods.  Our diet in Sabuk was very plain and simple, though always fresh. Besides, I hear your porridge is delicious, so I am eager to try it.”

            “It’s but a meager porridge my lady,” the cook said, ducking his head as he prepared her a tray with two steaming bowls and spoons, turning then to call sharply to someone.  “Come carry this for lady Kyung-Soo.”

            “Oh, that won’t be necessary, really.  Thank you,” Kyung-Soo insisted.  “Everyone worked so hard yesterday, and everything was beautiful.  I know you all have a lot to do today, as well, so I will leave you to your work. Thank you again.”

            A wave of bodies rising to bow to her from the table and another one from Dae-Woo sent her off, the tray held easily between her hands as she padded back to their room.

            The movement and simple errand was helping her wake up, her limbs feeling lighter than when she had fallen asleep, all semblance of alcohol gone from her veins.  The crispness in the air filled her with excitement, as well, the first day she would be allowed to do as she wished, go where she wanted when she so desired.  The endless possibilities and yet knowledge of restrictions placed on her freedom still made her eager to start the day.  The task of filling her time was daunting, but she looked forward to figuring out a way to live a purposeful life as a lady, as a wife, as Kim Kyung-Soo.

            “You should have let me get that for you, my lady,” Ho-Seok said, scrambling to rise from where he was sitting waiting by the doorway.  “I didn’t know you were up.”

            “I woke early, and Jung-Kook mentioned the porridge last night,” she explained, handing the tray over to the man and placing her hands behind her back.  

            “He does love this porridge.”

            The expectation of Ho-Seok being available every waking moment was obviously an impossibility that Jung-Kook also shared, so she hadn’t expected him to be there so early, but if he was on duty, he should have prepared himself a bit better.  His eyes were heavy with sleep, one half of the back of his robe was accidentally tucked into his pants, and there was a bruise developing on the flash of collarbone she could see.

            “Ho-Seok, what do the other servants think of me?”

            “My lady?” Ho-Seok said, not because he hadn’t heard or understood her  , but because he obviously didn’t want to answer.

            “Jung-Kook seems to actually believe that the servants don’t talk.  And perhaps he is right to some extent.  You are obviously very loyal to him, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the others are as well.  But I am new. An intruder, almost.  Welcomed by the family, of course, but if the servants are as loyal as Jung-Kook believes them to be, then they are surely suspicious of me.  Cautious, at least.  Some may see me as a threat.”

            “Of course not, my lady.  Your father was well-known to many of us.”

            “I am not my father.”

           “No, of course not, my lady.”

           “So what do the servants say of me?”

           “They don’t, my lady.”

           “Your master seems to value honesty,” Kyung-Soo sighed, watching the steam rising from the bowls.  “As do I. Who doesn’t, really?  I can tell you are very close to him.  I would like us to be close, too.  I appreciate your loyalty to my husband.  I hope one day I can earn yours, as well.  I would ask that you be honest with me.  All servants talk.  So what do they say of me?”

           “That you are not what we expected,” Ho-Seok said, a slight smile on his face even though Kyung-Soo had won.  “We had heard rumors you were rebellious.”

           “Rebellious?” Kyung-Soo said, unable to stop the small laugh that escaped her mouth. “Well, that is interesting.  And I have disappointed you?”

           “Not at all, my lady.  I think you and my lord will get along very well.  You will need a little rebelling in you to put up with him.  I know I have.  You are,” Ho-Seok said, seeming to look all over her for the proper word, “more humble than we expected.  Poised and proper, and yet there is something to you that makes you seem approachable.”

           “Well, even wild animals can be tamed.  I am glad to know all of my training has paid off.”

           “Training, my lady?”

           “On how to be a proper lady.  I wasn’t born one, you know.  I used to be, as you said, much more rebellious.  But I supposed everyone must grow up.  My disobedience didn’t get me anything in the end, anyway, though, did it?  Even dead, my father is still telling me what to do, and to disobey him would be impossible.”

           Not knowing if Ho-Seok had ever met her father when he visited or not, Kyung-Soo still knew that everyone in the Kim household spoke kindly and well of him. To even insinuate that there was an ounce of bad in him only proved to hint at Kyung-Soo’s rebellious nature. Perhaps knowing this, Ho-Seok simply smiled at her before opening the door for both of them.

           After all, as he had said, he had an ounce of rebelling in him, as well, evident by the way he spoke to his master and didn’t always take an order without any questions.

           Earning his trust and loyalty would be simple, then, if he saw in Kyung-Soo what she already saw in him.  Trust was more easily established between equals, among people who shared something in common, and Kyung-Soo already considered the man as such, as someone who cared for Jung-Kook, and she was eager for the day when Ho-Seok viewed her as the same.

 

          “I tried to wake you, my lord,” a soft voice registered through Jung-Kook’s ears as his senses started to come back to life. Unsurprised, as he had always been the hardest brother to rouse, Ho-Seok on multiple occasions had woken him only to turn around and have him fall asleep again.  As a child, he apparently fell asleep into his breakfast more than once, too, or so he’d been told.  It had gotten easier as he had gotten older, his body more responsive when he wanted it to be, but the leftover alcohol from the night before seemed to be holding him down, his eyelids especially heavy as he pried them open and sat up.

          His nose was the most alert as always, and the subtle smell of porridge helped him get out of bed, crawling a little to plop down by the tray Kyung-Soo was seated at.

          “Porridge,” he said, monosyllabic and stupid sounding, but Kyung-Soo only nodded.

          “I hope it’s not cold yet.”  Jung-Kook knew how to remedy that, so as Kyung-Soo ate hers slowly, he managed to finish his in just a few bites, the porridge not hot enough to burn his tongue as he scarfed it down.

          “Did you sleep well?”

          “Mm, you?”

          “Yes, my lord, thank you.  Will you go see Yaho this morning?”

          “I’d better.  I wonder if Ji-Min is up.”

          “Ho-Seok is in the hallway, my lord.”

          “Is he?  Ho-Seok!” Jung-Kook called, putting his dish down as Ho-Seok’s head peeked through the door.  “Is Ji-Min up?”

          “I’m not sure, master.”

          “Go make sure he is?  I’m going to the stables.”

          “Of course, my lord.”

          “And, Ho-Seok, see that Tae-Hyung isn’t left alone, will you?  I’ll send for you if I need you.”

          “Of course, my lord.”  Glad to not have to wear any more fancy ceremonial robes, Jung-Kook was quick to change into something suitable for riding, trying not to think about Kyung-Soo turning around and seeing him as he tried to hide a little out of sight while he got dressed.

          “Does lord Tae-Hyung not have his own servants?” Kyung-Soo said, her voice sounding distant from just around the corner.

          “Oh, he does.  He just tends to leave them at home when he visits.  He likes to borrow mine.”

          “And he visits often?”

          “Oh yes,” Jung-Kook laughed, tying his pants and pulling his shirt on.  “Thankfully Ho-Seok is fond of him now.”

          “Now?”

          “Tae-Hyung used to be rather mean.  It’s turned to just teasing nowadays.  Do you know what you’d like to do today?”

          “Oh,” Kyung-Soo said, turning to face him when he came back into view.  “I was wondering, if it wouldn’t be a bother, if I could come to the stables with you. Just to see Yaho.  I want her to trust me.”

          “Oh, that’s not a problem.  I believe you did issue a challenge to me last night, as well, so you’ll have to come along so I can beat you.”

          “I believe, my lord,” Kyung-Soo said, standing up with a smile, “that I merely need to prove to you I am strong, not beat your strength.  That would be impossible, after all.”

          “You don’t need to prove you’re strong to me again. I know you are now,” Jung-Kook said, watching as she smiled again while walking past him to the armoire.  “I’ll just wait outside for you.”

          The hallway was empty, the house quiet enough for Jung-Kook to finish waking up, stretching and rolling his neck. Kyung-Soo soon appeared, the tray in her hand and dressed casually.

          In pants.

          “You,” he started, staring down at them, at the way her robe barely came to her knee, almost resembling an underrobe more than one to wear as an outer layer, more like the last one she had worn the first night he had seen her.

          “Oh, I’m sorry, I can change—I just thought, I wear these in Sabuk when I work the fields, but of course here they wouldn’t be—” she was ducking her head again and looking for somewhere to put the tray and turning back to go inside already, and Jung-Kook had said the wrong thing, clearly, reacted like a fool.

          “No, no, it’s alright.  That makes sense.  I was just surprised.  I’ve never seen a lady wearing them.  You don’t need to change.”

          “But,” Kyung-Soo said again.

          “Kyung-Soo,” Jung-Kook said softly, “I wouldn’t want you to get one of your beautiful dresses dirty, so it’s really alright. Now, what are you doing with that tray?”

          “I was going to take it back to the kitchen, my lord.”

          “Someone will come for it later; you can leave it.”

          “It’s not a problem, my lord.  I can do it on the way out.”  She was at least looking at him now, some challenge in her eyes actually relieving him.  She wasn’t as docile as she was acting, then.  She had some fight in her like he had seen last night.

          “Very well then,” he said, letting her lead the way, an amused grin on his face as he walked behind her.

          He probably looked a little dopy, perhaps still drunk, as he followed her to the stables, but maybe everyone would just think he was lovesick, too blind to care what his wife was doing or wearing.

          It wasn’t a terrible thought.  What harm could there be in smiling at her?  She was his wife.  He could look at her; he was expected to look at her.  So he did.

          Until she turned to look at him, and then he remembered that she was practically a stranger, a beautiful one, but still so unfamiliar, and he felt wrong, like an intruder, a foul, disrespectful man for even remembering how she looked last night, her skin flushed and hair askew from drinking and laughing so much.

          Stupid, though, to feel any sort of shame.  She was his wife.  He could look at her how he wished.  Touch her as he desired.

          But she arm-wrestled with him and put on pants and cleaned up after herself, and she was so unlike any lady he had ever known, so unexpected, that he really wasn’t quite sure what to make of her. What to make of them.

          Time.  He knew they had plenty of it.  He could endure the awkward silences and stares and stuttered conversations for a time. As long as he didn’t make things worse, things would get better.

          He shook his head at the obvious thought. He was only going to be able to blame alcohol for so much.  The rest of his dumb thoughts were just his own fault.

          And, just maybe, Kyung-Soo was a distraction his brain didn’t know how to handle yet.

          Surely she was partially to blame, too.

          Her and her pants and her smile and her picking up bales of hay with ease and grinning at him like she had beaten him when he didn’t even know they were competing.

          Yes, surely his inability to focus was her fault.

 

          Ladies, apparently, did not ride horses in Hochon, Ji-Min explained to Kyung-Soo as they sat under the shade of the stables while Jung-Kook rode Yaho around the yard.  Ji-Min, too, had been surprised by Kyung-Soo’s pants at first before he burst into laughter, saying something about being glad she came to work.  And she didn’t mind.  She was glad for something to do, glad for the bit of dirt under her nails, glad for the sweat giving her a reason to bathe later.  If anyone saw her, she, and perhaps Ji-Min as an accomplice, ran the risk of getting reprimanded, but Ji-Min assured her no would dare speak to her in such a way.  She was a lady of the house now and could do what she wanted.

          But Ji-Min and Kyung-Soo both knew that she really couldn’t.  So she was glad that the stables had no early morning visitors and she could sit in the cool shade with Ji-Min unobserved and unjudged.  Like Ho-Seok, but to a greater extent, the boy seemed to have a familiarity that was unusual in servants.  He didn’t even bother covering himself up when he saw Kyung-Soo, his sculpted chest and stomach on full display as he worked.  His lack of caring about proper decorum reminded Kyung-Soo of Yoon-Gi when his comments were still sharp and biting with a hint of love to them even though physically they looked nothing alike.

          He was quick to reveal information, too, to the point that Kyung-Soo almost felt like she was cheating, but where Ho-Seok had been reluctant to share information about his master, Ji-Min was extremely forthcoming, his mouth running away from him, telling story after story of Jung-Kook as a teenager.  He had worked for the family for five years, replacing the previous stable hand who had merely grown too old and feeble for the position, and had seen Jung-Kook through his final years as a child despite being practically a child himself when he arrived.  Age didn’t dictate maturity, necessarily, and at sixteen Ji-Min had seen much more of the world than must adults and certainly his peers.  His experiences, in fact, had helped him get the job those five years ago.

          “Horses are unlike any other creature,” Ji-Min explained as they both watched Jung-Kook talking to Yaho as he trotted around.  “A mere farmhand, then, wouldn’t know what to do with them, but I, on the other hand, was the perfect fit for the Kim household’s needs.”

          “You had experience, then?”

          “Oh, yes my lady,” Ji-Min said, winking for some odd reason, “though not specifically with horses.  I have learned that there are many similarities between learning how to deal with a horse and learning to deal with, say, a man.  Or a woman.  It is a lesson I’m waiting for Jung-Kook to pick on,” he said, laughing again.

          “You don’t call him lord or master,” Kyung-Soo said, not following his train of thought so deciding to address a different issue, though the observation only made Ji-Min laugh harder until he was almost rolling in the dirt, his eyes disappearing.

          “Jung-Kook?  Oh, oh, no, he couldn’t pay me enough to.  Few men could.”

          “But you are paid, aren’t you?  You don’t belong to the house like Ho-Seok does.”

          “Oh, yes, yes, I get paid,” Ji-Min said, righting himself and wiping at the tears in his eyes.  “I don’t belong to any man.  Or lady.  Not since coming to this house.  My income isn’t what it used to be now that I simply work in this stable, but I have no reason to complain.  My life is easy and yet never boring.  No, perhaps it is boring some days.  But I am easily bored.”

          “But you dance, as well, don’t you?  My lord said you were an entertainer, and last night, the dance—”

          “My lord,” Ji-Min said, emphasizing the word, “why do you call him that?  You don’t serve him.”  He paused, looking puzzled and displeased before his face grew friendly again, his curiosity or the question forgotten for the time.  “Jung-Kook isn’t wrong.  I am, or was, an entertainer.  Though that usually meant more than just a dance.  Now, though, I only dance, and just dance, when the family requires it.  Only a select few get to see me after the dance is over for private dance.”  Again, another wink, and Kyung-Soo merely blinked at the man.

          “I don’t understand.”

          “Oh, I’m sorry, I should speak more plainly. I was a prostitute,” Ji-Min said simply and bluntly with no shame.  “When I say dance, I mean sex.”

          “You—” Kyung-Soo stuttered before pressing her lips together, thinking quickly.  Ji-Min looked at her, waiting for the judgement.  She didn’t have any, though; she was much more intrigued and awed by his bluntness.  Some might call it crass, but her servant back home, Eun-Jae, had often spoken plainly about her own experiences.  At the time, Kyung-Soo had been so embarrassed she rarely listened and always told Eun-Jae to stop, but now, she wished to a certain extent that she had paid more attention as she looked out at her husband.

          Her mind also conjured up a memory of ladies in the street Eun-Jae had pointed out to her, whispering about who they were and what they did with men.  The idea that a man could—had Eun-Jae said anything about men selling themselves?  The brief image of Ji-Min in a dress with powder on his face and red on his lips made Kyung-Soo blush, though the thought was nowhere near repulsive, simply intriguing.  

          “Have I offended you, my lady?” Ji-Min said, cocking his head, all sense of friendliness gone from his voice.

          “No!  Not at all. I mean no offense, either.  I just didn’t know men could, could—”

          “Sell themselves?  Pleasure others?  What has Jung-Kook been doing to you?” Ji-Min sighed, though there was no malice in his voice, just a return of the teasing tone Kyung-Soo was already growing used to. “Listen, he knows, as do a few others. It’s illegal, and yet I still look at faces in this very house who used to visit me years ago.  Sometimes, in the street, I recognize men who used to come to me under the cover of darkness as if they thought they wouldn’t be seen and known.”

          “But it’s—”

          “Wrong?  Immoral? Illegal?  There are enough who know who have the power to have me executed. Junk-Kook need only say a word, and I could be killed.  Do you know why they don’t?”

          “No,” Kyung-Soo said softly, though she had a slight inclination of her own.  Ji-Min was, without a doubt, intriguing.  Gorgeous. Mysterious enough to simply hold her attention by his eyes alone, so the power he held over others was becoming clearer the more she spoke to him and interacted with him, the more he showed her who he was.

          “Because men are like horses, Kyung-Soo.”  He looked sly.  If other men were horses, then Ji-Min was a fox, a panther, a snake. “And once you train them, they rarely disobey.  Men are also too full of themselves to ever admit that they would be so low as to see a male whore.  The idea! Just imagine—if someone pointed to me and said they knew I used to sleep with men for money, wouldn’t that just be pointing a finger at themselves, as well?  How would they know, unless they had shared a bed with me?  No, no one will ever accuse me of anything, because to do so would be to reveal themselves.”

          “But,” Kyung-Soo said, her mind reeling, “but you are just a servant.  I mean, a lord or lady’s word means more than yours.  Wouldn’t it be easy?  For others to believe them over you?”

          “Their words mean more than mine?” Ji-Min said slowly, staring at Kyung-Soo before sighing into the air.  “Spoken like a true lady.  Do you really believe that?”

          “No.  No, I just am thinking of something in the past,” Kyung-Soo said, her side feeling suddenly so warm she put her hand on her hip and pressed into it.  Ji-Min tracked her movement with his eyes before flopping his hands onto his thighs and patting them a few times.

          “I was a slave who became a servant, though not quite like Ho-Seok.  I escaped something many are unable to because I lied.  Or because I was lucky.  Or fate decided to send a Kim my way.  Ho-Seok was born a servant and always will be.  I was able to raise myself out of the mud I was in, because believe me, whatever anyone says, I alone helped myself.  Ho-Seok is too good to ever try to do the same.  His loyalty and his heart will keep him stuck as a servant for the rest of his life.  I do not blame him.  I am envious of him, in fact.  Even after all these years, I keep hoping a part of him will rub off on me, but I seem to be stuck in my ways.  But it led me here, so I can’t be too upset.  Still, I can’t rise any higher.  

          You, though not born a servant nor born noble, have become a lady.  There is no way for me to do the same.  No lady will ever want to marry me.  I would never want to marry one, either!  You see, my lady, there are lines in our society that can be blurred while there are others that are solid and permanent.  There are rules we seem to make that then we allow to be broken, while others we refuse to ever budge on.  Of course Jung-Kook’s words would be weightier than mine.  In the world’s eyes, his title alone gives him credibility. I will never be of the same status as him, but, trust me, my lady, I am more powerful than him in many ways.  I, too, could say one word to the right person and, who knows, reveal your marriage to be a sham.”

          “What?”

          “Just a hypothetical, my lady,” Ji-Min smiled, though Kyung-Soo saw it for what it really was now.  He was the stable boy, a mere servant, and yet obviously a master in his own way.  However he had gained that power, whatever wiles he had used to climb up the ladder, he had used them subtly and craftily enough over the years that few people probably realized they were even being controlled.  The realization made her laugh, and while she wanted Ho-Seok to see her as an equal, to have and gain her trust and become a confidant, she knew Ji-Min would never be that to her.  He would never bring himself down to such a level with her.

          She knew the only way to gain his trust was to submit to him, then, to let him win, to let him have the control he so clearly wanted.

          “Ji-Min,” she said, watching her husband go round and round the yard.  “If all men are like horses, can you teach me how to ride one?  Can you teach me how to please Jung-Kook?”

          “Oh, my lady,” Ji-Min said, his eyes flashing as he smiled knowingly at Kyung-Soo.  “I broke him years ago.  I would be happy to show you how to do the same.”

          Perhaps it was time for ladies in Hochon to learn how to ride.

 

          Jealousy was unbecoming.  His mother had told him that countless times growing up.  Within the past year.  She knew her son well, and Jung-Kook had always been an easily jealous person.  Knowing Ji-Min, he didn’t have anything to worry about, but knowing Ji-Min, he was worried anyway.  Not that he didn’t want Kyung-Soo to get to know him; he knew there was no stopping the boy, anyway, his charisma and charm oozed out in such great amounts that he attracted honeybees and flies alike.  Everyone liked Ji-Min, and there wasn’t anything Jung-Kook could do about that.

          Everyone did not like him.  Everyone liked to look at him, yes, and talk about him, and imagine being with him.  Even as the youngest, he had had plenty of suitors.  None he ever got to meet, but ladies from far away wanted to be his bride. But everyone didn’t like Jung-Kook. He was too awkward and shy and anti-social, much preferring to spend time with his horse or his servants or alone in his room than to attend a party or dinner.  Seok-Jin and Nam-Joon were the smooth talkers, the socially adept brothers.

          He sat on his horse while his beautiful new bride talked to his equally beautiful servant who was probably seducing her while he grumbled about it to himself.  And Yaho.  Yaho always listened.  She judged him, though, tossing her head and stomping her hooves and rolling her eyes at him sometimes, but at least she listened.

          Jung-Kook hated feeling jealous.  The anger and ugliness it brewed inside him was truly hideous.  He just didn’t know what to do about it.  Even though Ji-Min was his servant, he knew there was no point in telling him not to talk to Kyung-Soo.  The boy did whatever he liked.  Besides, Ji-Min would see his command for what it really was: an insecure, ashamed boy requesting for his new bride to be left alone because he was too afraid she would like Ji-Min more than she liked him.

          And Kyung-Soo could do what she liked, as well. So he said nothing as he brushed down Yaho, Ji-Min and Kyung-Soo quiet once he came back to the stable, and only mumbled his goodbyes before he went back to the house.  

          He needed to find Seok-Jin to train.  Or he needed a bath to cool himself off.  Or he needed to talk to Nam-Joon about the list of questions he had been compiling since the first day of ceremonies.

          Anything in any order would at least help distract him from the look he had seen Kyung-Soo giving Ji-Min, something serious and dark in her eyes he couldn’t decipher.  A look he hadn’t seen her give him yet.  A look that made him want to shudder.

          No, training, if he could find Seok-Jin awake and not busy yet, needed to happen first.  Or Ho-Seok, if Tae-Hyung would relinquish him yet.  He needed to punch something.

          He could take a bath and talk about love later.

          Love?

          Not love.

          Love was not jealous.

 

          Love was not needed for sex.

          That was the first thing Ji-Min told Kyung-Soo.

          The rest…

          Well, she would have written it all down if she could.

 

          Training did not help.  Mainly because Seok-Jin could tell immediately something strange was going on, and Jung-Kook was not going to talk to him about his wife.  He couldn’t.  He knew his brother too well.  He would tease him relentlessly and only make him feel worse even if he had the best intentions.

          No, training made things worse.

          A bath helped, but he couldn’t relax.

          He fled from his room with his hair still wet, then, making his way to the library, hoping to find his brother there and finding himself unsurprised when he did.

          “I need your help,” he said too dramatically as he closed the door behind him.  Nam-Joon was not the brother to go to if you needed help hiding a body, he was too good for that, that was more of Seok-Jin’s area of expertise, not that he had ever killed someone and disposed of the evidence, but the thought remained that Seok-Jin was good for planned actions and spontaneous plans while Nam-Joon was good for careful decisions and thinking wisely about choices, so he was the brother Jung-Kook went to for advice.

          “What’s wrong?”

          “I have,” Jung-Kook sighed as he sat down on a pillow beside his brother, feeling too small and too young to have so many concerns, “so many questions.”

          “About?”

          “Marriage.  Women? Uh, other things.”

          “Alright,” Nam-Joon said slowly, laying his book aside and putting on his serious face he donned when Jung-Kook needed tutoring or help understanding what life was trying to teach him.  A face Jung-Kook saw more often than any of his other faces. “What’s the question?”

          “I don’t know.  I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.  I mean, I do know.  I know what mother and father told me about marriage and about being a man, but their messages and lessons seem to be contradicting.  And no one told me.  No one really told me what to do or how to do it or when to do it.  I couldn’t even get Ho-Seok to tell me.  Ho-Seok!  And he’s, he’s!  And she doesn’t want to be here.  She didn’t want to marry me.  I didn’t want to marry her.  Not that I mind.  She’s beautiful.  But that can’t be the basis of a good marriage, can it?  Just because it worked out for Seok-Jin doesn’t mean it will work for me.  Nothing works for me.  I’m the unlucky brother.  And she, she, is it normal to bleed?  Or for it to hurt?  Was I supposed to hurt her?  I feel like that’s wrong.  Did you hurt Min-Ji?  No, you loved her.  I don’t love Kyung-Soo.  I barely even know her.  What if—”

          “Jung-Kook,” Nam-Joon said calmly, placing a hand on his shoulder and patting him awkwardly twice to get him to stop.  “Calm down.  We can only address one problem at a time.  What’s this about mother and father?”

          “They both gave me this talk when they told me I was getting married.  Didn’t they give you a talk?”

          “Well, yes, if I remember correctly.  About duty?”

          “Yes, yes!  The duty of a man,” Jung-Kook said, lowering his voice to imitate his father—he was good at imitations—and making Nam-Joon smile, “is to provide for his wife. Provide what?  Mother said my duty is to protect her and care for her. Protect her from what?  Other men?  Me? What if she needs protecting from me?”

          “Alright, Jung-Kook.  Slow down.  You are to provide for her.  A home and food and whatever worldly goods she may need or so desire.  You are already doing that.  One day, if you wish, you may find a home of your own. And you care for her by providing for her.  Giving her whatever she needs or wants.”

          “Whatever she needs or wants,” Jung-Kook said slowly. “What if I don’t know what that is? What if I can’t give that to her?”

          “Have you asked?”

          “Asked her what?”

          “What she wants or needs?”

          “Uh.  No.”

          “Well, let that be your first lesson.  Ask her.  You were raised well, Jung-Kook, as we all were.  You train hard for many things.  You completed your studies adequately.  But to understand people, you must interact with them.  You simply haven’t done this enough, especially with women.”

          “What if she, what if she doesn’t tell me?”

          “Why wouldn’t she tell you?” Nam-Joon frowned.

          “I don’t know.  What if she doesn’t trust me?  What if she lies and says she wants nothing when I know she must because every person does?”

          “Well, then, you must find a way for her to trust you. You can’t push her too hard or fast into something she isn’t ready for.  Provide her with safety first so that she will feel comfortable talking to you.”

          “I don’t know how to do that, Nam-Joon,” Jung-Kook sighed, leaning back on the pillows and staring up at the ceiling. “Her dad died recently, and her mom is sick, and she just left her home to come marry a stranger.  Me, I’m the stranger.”

          “I knew that.”

          “She probably doesn’t feel safe at all.  And on top of that, the first night meeting here I almost—”

          “You almost what?  Jung-Kook?” Nam-Joon said, leaning over his brother and staring at him hard.

          “Did—did you and Min-Ji, the night you were married, did you?”

          “Make love?”  Jung-Kook groaned and turned away, pulling on his hair at the embarrassing phrase.  “Yes. But that’s what it was.  We loved each other.  Did you and Kyung-Soo not?”

          “We don’t love each other, Nam-Joon!” Jung-Kook said, exasperated.

          “You don’t need to love each other to have sex. Jung-Kook, did you or did you not? Because if you didn’t, you know the marriage isn’t legal yet.  You need to.”

          “Did Min-Ji bleed?  Did it hurt the first time?”

          “What are you talking about?”

          “Kyung-Soo said, she said,” Jung-Kook groaned again, sitting up and huffing, his face red and his frustration only rising.

          “There shouldn’t be any blood unless it’s her time. And it doesn’t always hurt.  It just depends.  So did you and Kyung-Soo—”

          “Her time?  Her time for what?”

          “Jung-Kook,” Nam-Joon sighed, “did you not pay attention at all to your tutors?”

          “I did!” Jung-Kook fussed, cowering as Nam-Joon stared at him before mumbling, “I did.”

          “Why does a woman bleed every month then?”

          “They do what?  Why do they do that?”

          “Alright, I’m going to give you a book, because I do not want to talk about this.”

          “But, Nam-Joon,” Jung-Kook said even as his brother got up and started searching the shelves for a text.  “What about everything else?”

          “What else are you worried about?”

          “How do I, how do I make her love me?”

          “Oh, Jung-Kook, you can’t make anyone love you,” Nam-Joon said softly, smiling knowingly at his brother.

          “But then, but then why did I have to get married? What do they, how do they expect—”

          “You don’t have to love each other to have sex, Jung-Kook.  Finish your marriage if you haven’t before father or mother find out.  That is one way to provide for your wife.  How will she know you desire her if you don’t lie with her?”

          “I do.  I mean, I don’t.  No, I do! I do desire her.  But I don’t think she actually desires me.  And I can’t—it doesn’t feel right, Nam-Joon. It feels too forced, and I, I could never—”

          “No, you can’t force her.  But she knows this marriage wasn’t made in love, either, but she knows her duty as well.  Everyone expects her to have a child, and you have to put it there.  It’s up to the both of you.  You have to have a son, or a daughter, and soon.  You know this.  This is your duty.”

          “You sound like father,” Jung-Kook mumbled as his brother stood over him, handing him a book.  “Besides, what’s the hurry?  You and Min-Ji haven’t had a baby yet.  Shouldn’t we wait for you two?”

          “No,” Nam-Joon said firmly, his brows furrowing. “No, you should not.  Now, is there anything else?  Otherwise I would suggest just going and being with your wife.  You can’t get to know her by asking me questions.”

          “Nam-Joon, I,” Jung-Kook whispered, absolutely hating the look his brother was giving him.  “No.  That’s all. Thank you for the help.  And the book.”

          “Of course, little brother.  Whatever you do, don’t let her see you so confused and down. You must be strong for her. Smile.  It is a good thing to be married.”

          “Right,” Jung-Kook said, standing up and bowing his head before slipping past his brother.

          Be strong for her?  But Kyung-Soo was already so strong.

          Jung-Kook’s jealousy and frustration was at least gone by the time he left the library, but he was still confused, maybe even more so.

          And filled with such despair.  Nam-Joon hadn’t helped at all.  And Nam-Joon always helped.

          But Jung-Kook only felt lost and clueless. He hated feeling powerless.  He didn’t love Kyung-Soo, but he did want to provide for her and protect her and produce whatever else was necessary.  He hated reading, but he would read the book Nam-Joon gave him.  He would talk to Ho-Seok again.  He would go back to his mother for advice.

          And he would maybe even talk to Kyung-Soo about what she wanted.

          He was a good boy.

          He was a good son.

          He was going to be a good husband.

          It wasn’t easy, but nothing worthwhile ever was, so he would address it like any other challenge.  He would read and ask for advice and pay attention and train and practice until he figured it out, until he conquered it, until he became the best husband he could.

          Love was not needed for sex.

          Nam-Joon had said that.

          He had said other things, as well, but Jung-Kook didn’t write them down, so the rest was almost forgotten by the time he got back to his room.

          Where he found his wife waiting for him with lunch, freshly washed and changed back into a beautiful dress, and when she welcomed him back, he, for the first time in his life, thought that Nam-Joon must have been wrong.

          Or, perhaps love was not needed to have sex, to lie with a woman, to know her intimately, but he wanted it to be.

          So maybe Jung-Kook was working backwards. Perhaps his parents would be disappointed with him if they knew.

          But Jung-Kook knew, as he closed the door and put the book away before sitting down to eat with his wife, that he wanted to love her.  He wanted to love her, and he wanted her to love him before he ever lay with her.

          He wanted to learn everything about her until only that one piece remained, until the picture would be complete by them finally becoming one.

          Because Jung-Kook had never asked for a wife, never really wanted one.  But a companion, a partner, another half, someone to complete him, someone to love him intimately and completely?  That, that he had always desired.  

          And Kyung-Soo could surely, would surely be that for him if he worked hard and moved carefully and paid attention and practiced patience and did everything he could to give her whatever she wanted and desired and always, constantly, made sure she felt safe and provided for.

          While he was never the best scholar, Jung-Kook was resilient and a hard-worker who had achieved everything he had set his mind to. For now, he set his mind on Kyung-Soo.

          His wife.

Chapter Text

 

“Things come apart so easily when they have been held together with lies.”— Dorothy Allison

          Ji-Min made Kyung-Soo miss home.  Not on purpose or with any cruel intention.  But the way he talked so openly reminded her of nights with Yoon-Gi and Eun-Jae whispering into the early hours of the morning though she made sure to only speak to him in public in the broad daylight.

          Her mornings were devoted to speaking to him after greeting Yaho, then, as Jung-Kook took her for a ride, sometimes disappearing out of sight, sometimes just circling the yard aimlessly, the restlessness and anxiety obvious in the young man more than the horse.  Sometimes they worked while they talked, Kyung-Soo glad even if it seemed like Ji-Min was making up things for them to do.  He rarely seemed able to sit still, much like Jung-Kook, though he claimed when his work was done he could lounge for hours without moving or growing bored in the slightest.  Kyung-Soo couldn’t comprehend that, but the boy was entertaining and useful.

          And knowledgeable.  He had much to share.  Sometimes too much.  Those times Kyung-Soo would try to make him stop only made him laugh harder.

          She noted the way Jung-Kook watched them sometimes, but she was grateful he hadn’t asked what they were speaking of yet. She didn’t want to lie to him if she didn’t have to.

          She would often bathe after being in the stables, and she preferred having lunch just with Jung-Kook in their room, the afternoons quiet as they read or wrote or he painted.  True to his word, Jung-Kook let her work in the garden whenever she wanted, her request for tools or seeds or plants always granted and met with a sense of urgency she didn’t find necessary but was sweet.  She liked simply watching him sometimes, while he worked or while he ate or while he slept, because she rarely would if he was aware she was looking.  If he ever noticed, he tended to look away, so she had some suspicion that he didn’t want her looking at him.

          But Ji-Min had said, had hinted, had advised her to watch him and to let him know she was watching.  It felt a bit too much like ogling, rude and disrespectful if he didn’t want her staring, but she found looking at him easy, and she soon found she liked looking at him.  Besides, while a servant should never stare at him in such a way, and no lady now would dare to look at him, a married man, the way she sometimes looked at him, she was his wife.  She was allowed to look.

          She was allowed to touch, too, but she kept insisting to Ji-Min that Jung-Kook clearly wasn’t ready for that.  The boy kept telling her to do it anyway, but despite her rebelliousness and disregard for rules sometimes, she wasn’t as wayward as the young man, so while she took all of his advice to heart, she did not necessarily abide to all of it.

          Nor did she adhere to all of the advice from her two new sisters.

          Hyun-Ae and Min-Ji both seemed to mean well, but despite their relationship, Jung-Kook just simply wasn’t Seok-Jin or Nam-Joon. Still, she didn’t dislike spending time with the ladies, and she often did when Jung-Kook was out training. They would all soon return to their own homes, and, having never had sisters before, Kyung-Soo enjoyed getting to know them.

          Seok-Jin’s wife, Hyun-Ae, had a long nose and slender fingers, a tall and slim form, and the biggest mouth Kyung-Soo had ever encountered.  She had multiple somethings to say about everyone, and while she didn’t seem malicious, Kyung-Soo knew immediately to be careful what she said around her.  While Hyun-Ae seemed to have no reservations in talking openly about her husband and her boys, Kyung-Soo didn’t feel comfortable complaining at all about Jung-Kook.  Besides, there was hardly anything to complain about at all.

          Min-Ji seemed to share her sentiments about her own husband, Nam-Joon, though she listened to Hyun-Ae with the patience of a saint.  Almost polar opposite in appearance, Min-Ji was plump, her cheeks full and her body curved. She was also taller than Kyung-Soo, though that didn’t mean much as Kyung-Soo was rather short, and she was always the most decorated and painted among them.

          On more than one occasion, Hyun-Ae made sure to point these facts out.  Min-Ji was spoiled by Nam-Joon in all regards because they didn’t have children yet and he was desperate for one.  He thought pampering his wife would bring him a child faster.  The comments sounded like insults, but Min-Ji never stopped smiling. In fact, she would laugh and agree and turn to gushing about how much Nam-Joon did for her.  She was clearly in love, and her pleasant and positive attitude put Kyung-Soo at ease.

          It wasn’t that Hyun-Ae didn’t love Seok-Jin. She did.  She just clearly wasn’t cut out to be a mother, and she reminded them of that daily.  Her husband kept asking her for another child, as he wanted a girl, but Hyun-Ae had given him two sons—one required, and one for insurance, she said—and never wanted to give birth to another child as long as she lived.

          It was always these comments more than anything else that seemed to bother Min-Ji, but she never once spoke ill of her sister-in-law and would always turn the conversation toward something more uplifting, usually something Nam-Joon had said or done.

          Through all of the times spent with them, Kyung-Soo mostly remained quiet.  She refused to speak to them about how Jung-Kook was treating her in bed, a topic Hyun-Ae seemed particularly interested in, and she still knew too little of the home and area and of being a lady and only a lady to participate in many other discussions.

          She was infinitely grateful when Min-Ji offered to stay another week when Seok-Jin and his family returned to their own home. She had a soothing, homely feeling, and Kyung-Soo enjoyed sitting and conversing with her over a pot of tea as they sewed or sat in the ever-growing garden.  She was nothing like Eun-Jae back home, but she was mature and kind and so good-natured that Kyung-Soo dreaded the day she would have to leave.

          Her advice, that Kyung-Soo actually began to seek out and pay attention to, was always the same.

          “Love him, and he will love you in return.”

          That sounded lovely.

          Simple.

          Except too broad and vague.

          What did love look like?  Was it watching Jung-Kook as he painted?  Listening to him closely while he taught her how to write a new word?  Laughing at his jokes even if a grain of rice flew out of her mouth while they ate lunch in their room?  Touching him gently, barely, when all of the lights went out?

          Kyung-Soo had never loved anyone apart from her friends before.

          How was she to love a husband?  Love Jung-Kook?

          No one seemed to have an answer for her, but Kyung-Soo wanted to know.

          Kyung-Soo needed to know.

          She needed to love him if he was to love her in return.

 

          Jung-Kook began to notice Kyung-Soo more and more over the following weeks.

          How she failed to sit properly when they ate their meals together in their room.

          How she used her chopsticks less and less and soon resorted to just her fingers.

          How she laughed without any hesitation.

          How she looked at him. Stared at him. Watched him.

          How she followed his fingers as he read and leaned in close to listen closely. 

          How delighted she looked when she learned something new or he told her she was doing well with her letters.

          How her eyes gleamed when she made a joke or teased him. How easily she began to use his own words against him. How many times he was speechless and unsure how to respond for fear of being rude. 

          How she came out of the bath hardly smelling but never being dressed completely, how she would sit with the door open half in the garden as she combed her hair.

          How she admired his paintings and simply watched him work.

          How her eye caught his whenever he changed. How he always looked away first. 

          How she began to turn toward him when they laid down to sleep.

          How he sometimes woke up with her hand on his arm.

          How sometimes she would go completely silent and stare off at nothing when he asked her a question.

          How different she was when the two of them were alone in their room.

          How real she seemed.

          How much of a lady she was in public. How she always spoke politely, almost to an extreme. How she bowed to everyone even sometimes the servants.  How humble and grateful and poised she was.

          Jung-Kook noticed. 

          Jung-Kook began to notice how easy it would be to love her.

          Jung-Kook noticed. 

 

          The house three weeks later was quiet once more, every guest gone back to his or her own home, allowing for a steady schedule to be established between Jung-Kook and his wife.  In the mornings, they would go to the stable.  Jung-Kook would ride Yaho.  Kyung-Soo would talk to Ji-Min, sometimes helping him clean stalls or hauling hay in her servant-like pants.  Jung-Kook would try not to watch or grow jealous and concentrate on his horse. Yaho would also notice and did her best to head toward as many low-hanging tree branches as she could.

          Kyung-Soo would return to their room to bathe while Jung-Kook went to train with Ho-Seok, Ji-Min often joining them to watch and poke fun, the absence of Tae-Hyung always leaving him unable to be alone for two minutes.  Afterwards, he would return for a bath himself before they ate lunch together, and their afternoons were spent reading and writing, painting and sewing.  Sometimes they had tea with his parents, though usually only his mother was available, and dinner was once again a light, quiet affair between the four of them.  

          Jung-Kook liked their routine.  It left little to chance, and it was helping him figure out how to act and speak around Kyung-Soo, so the one day he came back to his room, his shirt already removed and his chest drenched in sweat as he unwrapped his hands, and found Kyung-Soo lying face down on their mattress, Jung-Kook, naturally, froze.

          She had been talking animatedly with Ji-Min only hours ago, so her sudden change in demeanor was a cause for concern.  If she had merely been exhausted and needed to sleep, her eyes wouldn’t be staring up at him, and, as he had been prone to do in the past few weeks whenever he saw her looking at him, he began to feel something akin to itchiness under his skin.  If she kept looking at him like that, he was going to have to look back.

          “Are you ill?” The wraps on his hands unpeeled slowly, his focus more intent on figuring out what was wrong with her than on the dirty cloths.  Her face alone answered him, her eyes squinting shut every few seconds, her breath quickening, her fists bunching into the sheet by her side, but he waited to hear a confirmation, his confusion quickly rising to alarm.

          “I will be fine by tomorrow,” Kyung-Soo said before wincing again.

          “So you are ill?  What’s wrong?”  Even with his body drenched in sweat, Jung-Kook rarely smelled himself, some part of his nose and brain knowing his smell was natural and right and never odd, but his nose twitched the moment he squatted down next to the mattress, his hand flying to his nose instead of Kyung-Soo’s forehead like he had meant to guide it to, though he wrenched it away immediately, the response terribly rude.

          “What is wrong with you?”

          “Nothing, it’s completely natural.”  Her face didn’t look natural, though; it looked panicked and in pain, and Jung-Kook hated seeing her like this.

          “It doesn’t smell natural,” he said, biting his lip before putting the back of his hand against her barely visible forehead. Whether she actually felt warm or the blood pumping rapidly through his body was making his own skin hot, Jung-Kook couldn’t tell.      

          “I’m sorry, I didn’t know where to go.”

          “What do you mean?  Do you need a doctor?”  His hand didn’t need to linger on her head, but he realized, apart from their first night together and the three days their hands were tied together and the night they had arm wrestled and the occasional times their fingers bumped into each other while he taught her how to write and the accidental, brief interactions—shoulder brushes and hands passing food to each other—they had over the past three weeks, Jung-Kook hadn’t touched her.  Not purposefully, not with any sort of intention, not with care or concern.

          His hand stayed, then, even as her head shook beneath it.

          “I told you, I’ll be fine by tomorrow.  I promise.”

          “But you’re not well right now.  Can I do anything?  What can I do?  Should I fetch Ho-Seok?  Chan-Ri? Do you need food?  Water?”

          “Jung-Kook,” Kyung-Soo said so softly at first only for his name to sound like a punch coming out of her mouth as she closed her eyes again before fluttering them open to look at her.  “It’s just my time.  I will be fine tomorrow.  If you’d like, I will ask your mother to stay in another room.”

          “Your time?  Time for what?  You’re not going anywhere,” Jung-Kook frowned, pressing her shoulder back as she actually tried to rise.

          “My time, Jung-Kook, my time,” Kyung-Soo groaned, as if repeating the words would penetrate his thick skull as she tried to turn away from him.

          “Your time, your time, for what?” Jung-Kook said back, fear turning to frustration and back again as he pulled back on her shoulder to keep her in his sight.

          “My monthly time, Jung-Kook,” Kyung-Soo bit out, glaring up at him before her breath stuttered.  “Some towns still close their women up for three to seven days for it because I’m unclean, I’m dirty, I’m disgusting even as my body’s trying to cleanse itself.  I didn’t know if you had a room.  I should have asked your mother.  I didn’t realize—the days—”    

          “Shit,” Jung-Kook said, standing up and fumbling slightly.  “Shit, I read about this.  Hold on.” As if Kyung-Soo was rushing him to do anything; she wasn’t, but his brain was signaling for him to fight, to defend, to protect.  “I read about this.  I’m supposed to—I should—”

          Probably not leave his wife, but he did, straight back out the door, sliding it open so harshly and quickly that it rattled and remained open, the sound of his bare feet slapping on the wood diminishing as he ran further and further away.

 

          Kyung-Soo hated, dreaded, the one day out of the week she was incapacitated.  The only positive part about it back home in Sabuk had been Eun-Jae.  Their times came so closely together considering their close proximity, their closeness more like sisters than lady and servant, that they often would lie on a mat side-by-side laughing at how awful the pain was, their bodies seemingly fighting against them hilarious for some reason.

          The absence of Eun-Jae, moving to a new town and home, her marriage—some factor had changed or made her forget, and now she had worried her husband.  She had snapped at him.  And he had left the room when she was the one who should leave.  There were plenty of empty rooms in the house now, she could have her pick, she just needed to get up and hide for a few hours.

          “What are you doing?  Lie down.”

          He had come back.  His chest was still bare. Though he wasn’t sweating anymore, he seemed to be glistening, and Kyung-Soo closed her eyes again to steady herself. He was holding a tray that he hurried to place down by the mat as he knelt beside her.  He shouldn’t do that.

          “My lord,” she tried, reaching for his knees to push him away.

          “I think it will be better if you lie on your back.  Or, sit up first, I brought tea.  You like tea. Nam-Joon said he makes this for Min-Ji. It’s supposed to help.  Do you want some tea?”

          “My lord—”

          “Do you want me to leave?  Let me just grab my things, and I’ll go.  This is warm.  Heat apparently helps.  So, after your tea, lie down and put this on your stomach.  Or wherever it hurts.  The book mentioned—well, Dae-Woo had this.  He says it helps.  I hope it helps.  Is there anything else you need?  Do you want me to stay?”

          “Jung-Kook,” Kyung-Soo managed, thankfully shutting her husband up.  Her eyes didn’t want to leave his face, leave the way his lips were pressed together, leave the way his wide brown eyes were looking at her, but they did, trailing down to the tray he had brought, a steaming cup of tea on one end, what looked like a towel on the other.

          Kyung-Soo did not cry.

          She would not cry.

          The last time she cried was the day she thought she would die.

          Nothing could compare to that day, so there was no need to cry.

          “You, you can stay.  It is your room,” she said, sitting up a little.

          “It’s our room,” Jung-Kook frowned, handing her the cup of tea slowly, not letting go until he was confident she had a grasp on it.

          “Thank you.”  She sounded as weak as she felt, perhaps weaker, and she only hoped he didn’t see her hand shake as she drank, the liquid warm and soothing even if a little bitter.

          “Of course.  What else do you need?  Oh, I could get a cool rag, if that would help—”

          “My lord,” she said, trying not to sigh and appear ungrateful, “this is more than enough.  You really didn’t need to go through the trouble.”

          “Yes, I did,” Jung-Kook frowned.  Kyung-Soo knew that tone.  That look.  Those words. They had playfully challenged each other enough for her to know he was being stubborn, when he was trying to prove a point, when he was trying to win a battle of strength and wills.  She felt too weak to fight at the moment, so her defeat came easily.

          “Well, thank you, my lord.”

          He didn’t leave, for some reason, as she drank her tea.  He just watched her.  And Kyung-Soo had been doing the looking lately.  Now, under his gaze, she realized why he always looked away when he caught her looking at him.  It made her feel like she was the only thing in the room that mattered.  It made her feel desired and cared for.  It made her want to feel loved.

          “Did you, did you really read a book, my lord?”

          “Oh,” Jung-Kook said, the spell finally broken as he cleared his throat and stood up.  “Nam-Joon suggested it.  I should go bathe.  I’ll come back and check on you later.”

          “You don’t need to,” she almost said, but she wanted him to, so she kept her mouth shut.  He wasn’t Eun-Jae, so he couldn’t really understand what was happening, no matter how many books he read, but maybe he would come back and lie beside her and read to her with his silly voices.

          She kept her eyes on him as he gathered his things, his own eyes glancing over occasionally to meet hers as he did, and only when he left the room did she lie down, her face suddenly flushing when she put the warm towel on her stomach.

          It really did help.

          But she thought of Jung-Kook’s hand on her forehead, and she wished the towel could be something else, something just as warm but firmer, just as soothing but more personal, just as helpful but more human.

          She closed her eyes, thinking about what Jung-Kook’s hands would feel like on her forehead again, on her stomach, on the rest of her body, the occasional sounds of water splashing reminding her of how close and yet how far he was.

          Kyung-Soo hoped he would hurry.

 

          Jung-Kook took his time if only to calm himself down. He washed and dried and dressed slowly, trying to be as quiet as he could when he came back into the room, a wave of steam following after him.

          A tentative smile at Kyung-Soo when she opened an eye to smile at him before closing it again, but he stood uncertain, fidgeting in his own room like a child waiting for his instructions.

          “Do you need anything?”

          A light hum but no answer.

          “Are you hungry?”

          “No.”

          “Do you want to sleep?”

          “I’m not tired.”

          “Alright.  Do you want me to leave you alone?”

          “I haven’t had my lesson today.  I was hoping we could at least read.”

          “Of course.”  Jung-Kook could read.  He had been reading since he was eight.  Reading was easy, normal, comfortable.  Jung-Kook could read.

          Their lesson wasn’t one his tutors would be proud of, but Jung-Kook remembered how Seok-Jin had kept him busy telling him nonsensical jokes while he carried him back one day after he had twisted his ankle. Until the doctor touched it, he hardly felt any pain, Seok-Jin’s jokes and his own laughter distracting him well enough to forget for a moment that he had even hurt himself.  While he had no idea whether Kyung-Soo’s pain was worse or lighter than a twisted ankle, the principal still remained, and though she occasionally winced and closed her eyes to take a few deep breaths, her smile was still present as he read.

          Refusing lunch, she finally slept, though Jung-Kook wasn’t sure how soundly she was resting, little whimpers leaving her opened mouth that made his own stomach sick and made eating impossible the more he heard.  He left the room only to find his mother, coming back with a smacked head and something for Kyung-Soo’s pain that might help.  Pacing and painting filled his afternoon as he waited for her to wake up, his anxiety leaving him useless, his uselessness making him frustrated.

          After an eternity wasted wearing away at his mats, the sound of Kyung-Soo sitting up and mumbling to herself made him rush to the mattress, though her arms and voice made him retreat immediately.

          “No, no, you have to leave!  Please leave!  Get Chan-Ri!  You can’t be in here!”

          “But, Kyung-Soo, let me just—”

          “No, no, please get out!”

          “But I—” he said, groaning at how she was doubled over and pulling the blanket around her.  “I will get Chan-Ri.  Of course.”

          He chanced another look at her, but she was hiding her face behind her disarrayed hair, so he hurried to find Chan-Ri or the first woman servant he could find, sending her to the room before going to find Ho-Seok.  He had a sister; perhaps he would have some advice for Jung-Kook.  If nothing else, they could shoot bows or wrestle in the dirt, anything to distract Jung-Kook from the pain Kyung-Soo was in, the pain he seemed to be feeling himself.

 

          Mortified didn’t even begin to cover how Kyung-Soo felt. Once purposefully cutting herself to put blood on the sheets for the servants to find, she now couldn’t even look Chan-Ri in the eye as she helped her strip the bed.  Still, the girl said nothing.  She was trained well.  She was also a woman.  Perhaps she had cleaned her own bed from time to time.

          Of course she did.  She didn’t have anyone to do it for her.

          Kyung-Soo sat in the cool air with the door open as the mattress dried, wondering what Jung-Kook was doing.  Where he had gone.  How upset he would be.

          She sat by the mattress through dinner, her husband surely explaining her absence for her.  Apart from being embarrassed, she was physically already feeling better, but she moved slowly, and by the time the sun began to set, she was able to carry the mattress back inside and make it once more.  She got ready for bed by herself, like she was used to, but Jung-Kook still hadn’t returned, her chances to steal glances at him impossible.

          The bed felt colder without him.  Emptier.

          How soon she had grown used to his warmth. His presence.  

          And in a single moment she had ruined it all.

          When the door slid open well after the sun was down, she kept her eyes closed, curled her body up a little more and listened to his feet pause in front of her before the rustling of clothes and opening of drawers let her know he was changing, too.

          The mat sagged under his weight as he laid down, always on his back, his hands probably laced together over his chest as he stared up at the ceiling as he did most nights.  He was a thinker.  A doer, too. His mind was obviously always working, his body sometimes unable to keep up.  He had boundless energy and yet such control and patience.  Meekness, he had explained once.

          He surely knew she was awake.  She had already memorized what his breath sounded like when he slept, so he must know.  He had to know, when he rolled over toward her and put his hand on her back that her breath tripped and stuttered before regaining its composure.  He had to know that the way he started to rub up and down her spine was making it harder to fall asleep.  He had to know the pressure on her lower back made her want to melt while the way his fingers slid back down, barely noticeable at all, was making her want to whimper and groan.  He had to know how good it felt, how it balanced out how the rest of her body was aching and cramping and slipping away from her.  He had to know she had been thinking of his hands all day ever since he brought her tea and a towel and took the time to care for her.

          No.

          Of course he didn’t know.

          She would have to tell him.

          Tell him the truth.

          Tell him.

          She couldn’t.

          She didn’t.

          She curled up a little more and controlled her breathing, letting her body relax until the movement of Jung-Kook’s hand and her lungs became synced, until his touch helped carry her to sleep.

 

          Afraid any sudden movements might startle Kyung-Soo, Jung-Kook opened his eyes slowly only to find Kyung-Soo was already awake, lying on her side looking at him.

          “Morning,” he mumbled, rolling over to face her. “How are you feeling?”

          “I should be well by lunch.  I’m not in as much pain as I was yesterday.”

          “That’s good to hear.  Take however long you need.  Go back to sleep if you want.  I’ll bring you breakfast.  Do you want more tea?  My mother suggested—”

          “That’s fine, my lord,” Kyung-Soo said softly, reaching out her hand to press on his shoulder to keep him on the mattress.

          “And you don’t have to worry about the sheets,” he rambled on, “because we have plenty.  They’ll wash.  It’s natural, right?  So it’s too be expected.  You shouldn’t worry.”

          “Alright, my lord,” she mumbled into the sheets, hiding her face a little.  “I am still sorry.  I know I smell, so next month I’ll be sure to stay away.”

          “What?  No. You don’t need to do that.  I didn’t mean—you smell different.  It surprised me, that’s all.  I didn’t know—I thought you must be sick.”

          “Was your father upset?”

          “My father?  Why would he be upset?”

          “Did your book explain to you why this happens every month?”

          “Yes,” Jung-Kook said slowly, his brain too asleep or too dumb to follow her line of thought.

          “Doesn’t your father want a grandson soon?  Don’t they expect one?”

          “Oh.”  He had been much too distracted and worried to pay attention to his father yesterday. He hadn’t looked any different, and he hadn’t said anything.  But Kyung-Soo was on her back, staring up at the ceiling, waiting for him to confirm or deny her question, waiting for his disapproval or dismissal, a bit of panic bleeding into her voice that Jung-Kook wanted to banish.

          “I’m the third son.  There’s really—there’s no pressure.  We have plenty of time.”

          “Thank you.”  A soft whisper, a sound Jung-Kook cherished and scooted closer to hear.  “Thank you for everything.  You didn’t have to.”  He did, though.  He was her husband.  His duty was to protect and provide for her.  But his own hands didn’t have to.  He could have just called a servant or doctor and cared for her remotely.  He couldn’t have, because that wasn’t his nature, but he understood what Kyung-Soo was saying.  Taking a deep breath to steady himself, he looked at her profile before answering, thinking of how odd and yet exciting the past three weeks had been, how much he had dreaded meeting her but now loved seeing her every day, how he had been so overwhelmed and clueless and was still not sure what he was doing but knew now that he at least wanted to be something more, at least confident Kyung-Soo wanted the same.

          “I know.  I wanted to.  I also want to court you.”

          “I’m sorry?”  The look of surprise but not disgust or apprehension Kyung-Soo gave him encouraged him to push forward.

          “I’d like to court you.”

          “Isn’t—isn’t it too late for that?  I am already in your bed.  But I have been wrong about customs in Hochon before.  Is it traditional for a man to marry someone before he courts her here?”

          “No,” Jung-Kook smiled, feeling like a happy idiot. “At least I don’t believe so.  I am not sure what courting looks like.”

          “You could read a book on it.”  She was teasing him, but he had come to look forward to her playful banter, and if she was teasing him, then she must be interested in the idea, so he merely shrugged.

          “Or I could ask Nam-Joon.  He and Min-Ji courted.”

          “Seok-Jin and Hyun-Ae didn’t?”

          “Court?  No, their marriage was arranged, but they knew each other beforehand.  Our families are close.  Her parents and my parents had arranged marriages, too.  Did yours?”

          “No, that’s rare among the lower classes.”

          “Oh,” Jung-Kook said, feeling ultimately foolish and faltering for a moment, even though Kyung-Soo didn’t look offended.

          “My mother is older than my father was.  He was poor, young, and foolish when he met her. But he was persistent.”

          “He sounds like many people I know.  Many boys, specifically.”

          “Poor, young, foolish, and persistent?  Are you describing yourself?”  Kyung-Soo wasn’t even bothering to hide her smile anymore as she turned back toward him, his heart beating like an idiot’s.

          “I am young.  And persistent.  If I said I was a fool, I must be wise enough to know I am a fool and thus am not one, though.”

          “Says the man who just asked to court his wife.”

          “Fair enough.  Young and foolish, but persistent.  So, will you let me court you?”

          She was going to make him prove his persistency. He moved with purpose, then, sitting up and staring down at her seriously.

          “Kyung-Soo, may I please court you?”

          “Please?  You really are a fool, it seems.  Only a fool asks what he already knows the answer to.”

          Her answer made him smile like a fool, too, unconcerned about what he was even going to do to court her.  None of that mattered.  She had said yes.  She was interested.  Kyung-Soo was interested in him.

Chapter Text

 

“Liars make the best promises.”― Pierce Brown

            In the animal world, potential mates are attracted through often violent or showy moves.

            Prey slaughtered and hauled to the den.  Feathers preened and flourished, dancing in the light.  One overcoming another through pure brute force.  Nothing tender or soft in the act of survival.  Purely trying to show that they will make the best mate, the best to breed with.  They are the strongest or the most handsome.  Deft and skilled and quick and competent.  For animals, proving you will make a good mate involves provision, food and shelter, protection, to hunt and to kill, and potential, to breed.

            In many ways, humans are the same.  While the ritual may be different, while some partnerships were planned, the intention still remained: find a mate who can provide, protect, and have potential to carry on the bloodline.  It sounded barbaric, in a way, and yet simplistic.  Easy enough for Jung-Kook to understand.

            He had seen animals mate before.  Understood why a man might want to act the same.  To take, to simply take by force with nothing exchanged beforehand except perhaps a sniff or two before the submission set in or the female was dominated over, certainly proved strength and the ability to breed.  If the only purpose of marriage was to have a child, then animals were what Jung-Kook should look to.

            But, at least in his mind, to provide meant more than just bringing food and water and building a shelter for one’s mate.  It meant licking her wounds when she was injured, it meant letting her eat even if you went hungry, it meant rolling around with her in the dirt for no other purpose than to hear her yip in excitement. 

            Kyung-Soo was no dog, though.  Jung-Kook was no animal.  He could learn from the animal world, then, but he should not emulate it.  To copy their actions would be to become an animal himself, and Jung-Kook was no animal.

            To his brother, then, the smartest human he knew, he would have to go.

            This time, he dared not repeat his embarrassment, though.  He would not retreat like a dog with its tail between its legs.  He would prepare. Have questions beforehand.  Know what to say and not stumble.  He would be confident because Kyung-Soo needed him to be.

 

            Courting had no context for Kyung-Soo.  It offered up no images or expectations.  Any connotation of the word was nonexistent.  She had heard, distantly, long ago, in passing, of one or two rituals, but her memory was too hazy to remember any of them.  With no reason to remember them, they had been but words passing her by.

            She had no expectations of Jung-Kook, either.  The ones she had were turning out to be all wrong.  He had not taken her as to be expected.  His shyness had been surprising even as it melted away.  He looked at her like he meant to watch out for her.

            At first, then, courting seemed to be through Jung-Kook’s eyes alone.

            A timid question.

            May I?

            May I look?

            A shy inquisition.

            May I come closer?

            May I sit here?

            May I be by you?

            A soft request.

            May I see you?

            Tomorrow.  Now.  For dinner.  After my ride.  By my side.

            And perhaps, when he grew bolder: in my bed, as you change, as only a husband can see his wife.

            He looked, and Kyung-Soo let him, knowing part of it was useless.  He was allowed to look as much as he wanted.  But knowing he wanted her to want him to look was different.  It must be encouraged. Welcomed.  Given in return as often as she could.

            So she did.

            And Kyung-Soo knew what posturing was.  How peacocks with the most dazzling feathers attracted the most potential mates.  How birds whose voices didn’t warble could bring in dozens of lady larks.  How men would mark and mar each other all in service of winning a lady’s hand.

            It amused her, at first, then, to see how Jung-Kook started to flaunt his physicality in front of her, especially as there was no need.  She knew of his strength.  He had already won her in a match with no competitor.  It was unnecessary, then, and yet he started to help Ji-Min around the barn when she was around and invited her to watch him spar with Ho-Seok and seemed to wait for her to be in the room before he peeled off his last shirt at night.

            Kyung-Soo was not surprised by Jung-Kook’s strength.  By his speed. Control.  Patience.  His muscles rippling under his clothes.  His veins protruding under his skin.  His feet moving quickly as he dodged punch after punch.

            No, what surprised Kyung-Soo was how impressed she found herself.  It made her want to flush and excuse herself for being so easily moved, but there was something magnificent about watching the man move.  She had never looked at a man for the sake of simply looking at a man.  There was no time, for one.  No one sat and stared at men passing by on the farm.  Perhaps ladies in town did.  Perhaps they stood in groups and giggled as Jung-Kook went by.  Perhaps she would find herself among them one day doing the same.  But the idea was preposterous to Kyung-Soo as it held no purpose.

            And yet.

            The purpose seemed clear now.

            She looked because he looked.

            A silent question.

            A silent response.

            A proposal and an acceptance.

            Permission requested and permission granted.

            Courting, then, began with looks.

            And Kyung-Soo liked looking at Jung-Kook.  There was a hint of anticipation each time she matched his gaze.  A small smile and a flicker of pupils as if they were still doing something they weren’t allowed to.  Almost as if they really were chasing each other.  Almost like they wanted to get caught.  Daring and challenging each other.  There were no competitors, and yet they were in the ring together.

            Only, in this game, Kyung-Soo was sure they were both going to win.

 

            The day Yoon-Gi presented her with a flower, unprompted and unexpected, Kyung-Soo knew.  Even at eight, she knew it meant something more than a boy picking up a beautiful tiny thing, thereby killing it, to simply hand to someone else for it to wilt in her possession.  At ten, she knew the wolf carved from a piece of firewood left by her bed was not just meant for decoration or entertainment.  When she turned fourteen and he took her hand and said nothing even if he could have and walked beside her by the water that almost claimed her life once, Kyung-Soo knew that Yoon-Gi was not just a boy, was not just a servant, was not just a friend.  Kyung-Soo knew, even if she knew nothing of actual courting traditions in Hochon, that the fan placed on the tray beside her bowl of rice meant more than just being an object to cool herself with. 

            It was unnecessary, for one.  The weather didn’t require cooling but warming.  The intricate carving on the handle and detailed work on the paper were frivolous apart from their obvious beauty.  To question it would perhaps signal hesitation or refusal, so she placated her curiosity and picked it up gently, placing her chopsticks down, and opened it slowly.

            “It’s beautiful,” she said honestly, awed at the geese painted on it refreshing themselves by a pool surrounded by reeds and overhanging branches under a clear blue sky.

            “I’m glad you like it.”  Jung-Kook’s throat clearing made Kyung-Soo smile up at him.

            “Did you paint it?”  A correct assumption with Jung-Kook’s nodding confirmation.  “It’s beautiful my lord, really.  Thank you.  May I ask,” she said slowly, “is there some meaning?”

            “Oh,” Jung-Kook said, sitting up straighter like a boy at his lessons.  “Well, I read in a book—”

            “Oh?” Kyung-Soo teased, the flash of understanding on Jung-Kook’s face making her smile at him.

            “Yes, I read.  I read that a fan makes for a good courting gift.”

            “Why is that, my lord?”

            “Well, apparently, do you remember on our wedding night?  Ji-Min and the dancers?”

            “Yes.”

            “The fans, they, they have meaning.”

            “Yes?” Kyung-Soo said, waiting for Jung-Kook to finish his thought.

            “Of—”

            “Of?”

            “Well, of suggestion.”

            “Suggestion?”

            “Yes.”

            “Suggestion of what, my lord?”

            “Of,” Jung-Kook mumbled.  The way his ears were turning red made Kyung-Soo understand, and she wasn’t sure if she should laugh or blush with him.  Instead, she put the fan over her face, the design facing her husband as she got a feel for its handle.  Lowering it slowly, her eyes peeked over its edge across at him, their ends turning up as she smiled.

            “Do you want me to suggest something to you, my lord?”  A giggle, undeniable, hit the back of her fan, no screen unable to hide it as she spoke.  Her husband grumbled, no anger in his incoherent words, his flustered state forcing him to pick up his chopsticks again and resume his meal.

            “Use it how you will.”

            “Of course, my lord,” Kyung-Soo laughed again, folding it carefully and returning to her meal, too.  Her bowl didn’t quite hide her face in the same way, and it certainly wasn’t as suggestive, but she still found herself looking over the edge of it at her husband as they ate, a smile dancing on both of their lips.

            “Perhaps,” she said, just to see what he would do, “I shall ask Ji-Min how to use it?”

            “As you desire,” the man mumbled into his rice.  Kyung-Soo’s laugh rang through the room, then.

            Until she so desired, then, she placed the fan away carefully in one of her drawers, empty apart from the long black ribbon that had once tied their hands together.  Two possessions, one gift, a small but growing collection for her new name and her new life.

 

            The Kim household was by no means without things to keep Kyung-Soo busy and entertained even when Min-Ji and Nam-Joon and Tae-Hyung returned to their own respective homes.  A month passed quickly as the year continued to change. Preparing more than planting in the garden while the sun still provided some warmth, sitting by Jung-Kook with a brush in hand to practice letters, reading stories meant for children or listening to a tale from history before bed, Kyung-Soo’s days were more than full.

            Still, she had not left the gate since her arrival, and like an animal caged, she began to think more and more of Eun-Jae and Yoon-Gi and her mother.  She longed to see them, or at least go somewhere.  She was restricted nothing and given all she asked for, and yet she felt trapped, some need for freedom from something holding her back from being completely at ease.

            Always watching her now, Jung-Kook noticed quickly, but took care not to spook her.  He suggested a visit to town to walk through shops and find material for new robes or whatever she so desired, and Kyung-Soo accepted easily, so on the day Jung-Kook had chosen she rose with excitement, her anticipation and eagerness transferring to Jung-Kook before they even left the house.

            Small enough for almost everyone to be at their wedding, the town had mostly all had the opportunity to see her, but she knew for some it would be the first time seeing Kim Jung-Kook’s new bride.  She wondered how her father felt, years ago, as he was paraded through the city.  Women wept and possibly held up their babies, wailing about proof, look, look what he had managed to save.

            She had saved nothing.  Provided nothing.  She was nothing to celebrate, but she was something to look at.  To stare at.  To possibly glare at.

            No need for a ribbon brought their hands together, but it was the only familiar thing as she stepped through the gates.  Jung-Kook didn’t question her, though he did glance at their hands for a moment before leading her along, her palms already grateful for the warmth as she hid her other hand in her robes.

            Even though she didn’t ask, Jung-Kook pointed things out and introduced her to people if they got too close or approached them.  He told her stories of running through the alleys as a child trying to escape his studies and of Nam-Joon knocking over a cart in the market one day and having to pay for all of the bruised fruit.  He tried to get Ho-Seok walking quietly behind them to tell a story of Ji-Min, too, but the man refused out of courtesy for the boy or for Kyung-Soo, she didn’t know.  Still, she laughed and felt at ease, Jung-Kook’s presence familiar enough now that it was as if they hadn’t left the house’s grounds at all.

            They had, of course, as was evident by all of the people and all of the colors.  The servants all in tans and grays but the ladies in rainbows.  Blues and pinks and reds.  The men in mostly blacks and whites and blues like Jung-Kook beside her.  The market that they walked through quickly, Jung-Kook’s eyes almost watering from the smells alone.  Even with less sensitivity, Kyung-Soo felt overwhelmed. 

            The shop filled with rich fabrics and materials and patterns she had never seen and almost cowered under when she saw their prices.  But Jung-Kook insisted, so Kyung-Soo indulged him, but only when she convinced him to reluctantly tell her which design he would most prefer.  Whether he really cared or just wanted her to hurry, she still felt a triumph of sorts when he pointed out a blue silk that Ho-Seok hung gently over his arm to carry home.

            The sky felt larger, somehow, walking through the town, and her arm rested rightfully through Jung-Kook’s elbow as they made their way home, though he led them through a different enough route that made her curious enough to finally ask where they were going.

            “There is a psyium I arranged to see.”

            “A psyium?” Kyung-Soo knew what one was, what one did.  Those grieving sought closure. Those troubled went for hope.  Those curious sought answers. 

            “I’ve heard, I’ve read, that many couples will seek one’s advice before becoming engaged.”

            “Aren’t we past that stage, my lord?” Kyung-Soo giggled as Jung-Kook stopped by a meager door, his face suddenly serious as he slipped his hand back into hers.

            “Indulge me?”

            “Oh.  Of course, my lord.  I’ve never seen a psyium before.”

            “Me either,” Jung-Kook suddenly whispered.  “I admit I am nervous.”

            “As nervous as our wedding night, my lord?”  An attempt, a playful joke, to help him relax, but a miscalculation on her part.  His eyes flickered to Ho-Seok before he frowned at her, and she ducked her head.  “I’m sorry.”

            “Wait here, Ho-Seok,” her husband said instead, still holding her hand as he slid open the ancient door.  Giving Ho-Seok a quick glance over her shoulder, Kyung-Soo gripped Jung-Kook’s hand harder and followed him into the dark.

 

            Superstitions and ghost stories were childish.  They possibly elicited fear and excitement, but ultimately Jung-Kook knew they were imaginings, fictions, stories conjured out of incense-filled air.  The smell may gag him, but he could see through the smoke.

            Still, everything he could find about courting and marriage all strongly suggested checking one’s capability before becoming engaged.  Of course Kyung-Soo was right.  It was a little late for them.  But he had told her he wanted to court her, so he wanted to do it right.

            The smell, though, had him coughing before he even saw the tiny lady among her rugs.  She was sure to be offended.  She would give them a bad reading now.

            “My lord?” Kyung-Soo whispered, raising her sleeve up to his face as he turned toward her.

            “It’s fine,” he managed to gasp, taking tiny breaths through his mouth.  “I apologize.” Rude, to come into someone’s home or shop and appear so repulsed.

            “Go open the door, dear,” an old voice said, and Jung-Kook only nodded to Kyung-Soo for her to leave his side briefly.  The place was so dim he feared tripping on something or someone, but he made his way to the table in the middle of the room where several candles were lit.  He had made the appointment through Ho-Seok several days ago, but he still felt eerie at seeing the lady sitting calmly there simply waiting for them.  He bowed deeply once he could breathe a little again, Kyung-Soo doing the same when she rejoined him, before guiding her to the floor.  They kept their hands to themselves, the girl perhaps knowing instinctively, even if everyone knew they were married, that in this room they were to be potential lovers only.

            “She is a pretty thing,” the lady crooned once they were seated.  Having played no part in his wife’s beauty, Jung-Kook nodded politely without preening.  “Have you come to receive my blessing?”

            “Yes, halmeonim.  I wish to know if our marriage will be blessed.”

            “I’d say it is already, by the looks of her,” the lady tsked.  Kyung-Soo’s cheeks lit up under the candles’ blaze even as she smiled and ducked her head again.  “Chin up, my dear.  And sit up straight, son.  How do you take your tea?”

            “I—”

            “Plain is fine, thank you,” Kyung-Soo said wisely for them.  Jung-Kook tried not to be rude as he took the glass the old lady poured.  It was simply too bitter and tasteless.  It made him wince and want to hiss, but he needed to be polite.  But there were leaves floating around in his cup, so he put it down as soon as he could. Kyung-Soo sipped hers slowly and more carefully, not having a burning desire to get the task over with, but she put hers down beside his once she could.  With a hum, the lady looked at them and then at their cups before taking Jung-Kook’s in her hand.

            She hummed so much Jung-Kook swore there was a bee in the room as she tilted the tea cup every which way.  Sticking it under the light and bringing it up to her eyes, she did everything but lick it in Jung-Kook’s eyes.  With a final hum, she put it back down in front of him before proceeding to conduct the same examination on Kyung-Soo’s.  He couldn’t help but be relieved when he glanced at her while the lady carried on to see her looking and smiling softly at him.  The tea sat warm and sloshy in his belly, the smell in the cramped room made his head hazy, but Kyung-Soo’s smile made him feel the warmest and dizziest of all.

            “Interesting,” the lady announced when she seemed to be done.  Neither a positive nor negative word.  Simply fact. Observation.  An announcement. Having no desire to try to interpret the leftover leaves for himself even as Kyung-Soo leaned forward to follow the lady’s finger, Jung-Kook still tried to listen closely even if he had no reason to believe anything the lady was about to say.

            “This here in the lord’s cup is a fish.  You see it is moving as if upstream.  The placement is very symbolic of moving forward, pushing through.  There will be difficulties and obstacles you will overcome.  But a fish means good fortune, son.  You will have a very prosperous marriage.  Not without its troubles, but what marriage isn’t?” The lady laughed, perhaps speaking from experience. Anyone could have told him that, but he smiled anyway as she moved on.

            “The lady’s here has a cat.  You can make out the ears and tail easily.  It is sitting up, not lounging.  To sit implies it is waiting to pounce.  Such a cat is not a good sign.  There are lies and deceptions in your future.”

            Could he help the jump in his heart at the lady’s words?  Could his disbelief be so easily disproved from one empty cup of tea?  Could he stop himself from glancing at Kyung-Soo who was already doing the same?  Could he keep himself from being pulled toward her, his hand reaching for hers as she did the same?  Could he stop himself from being worried and yet be at peace with the lie that held them together, that classified them to the world as husband and wife and yet left them strangers in their own shared bed?

            “But the lady placed her cup down with the cat facing away from the fish.  Whatever this lie is, it will not stop your marriage from being successful.  Do not worry, my lord, lady, your marriage will be blessed.”

            “Thank you,” Kyung-Soo whispered.

            “Yes, thank you,” Jung-Kook echoed, bowing from his waist.

            “Next time I shall read for your child, yes?”

            “Of course, halmeonim.”  He chuckled only because she did, only because it seemed polite as he drew out a small purse to pay her and helped Kyung-Soo up.  Bowing and thanking her again, they couldn’t leave fast enough in his opinion, and he took a deep breath as soon as they were out and had closed the door back behind them.

            “Are you alright?” Kyung-Soo said immediately.  Locating Ho-Seok, who had moved to the edge of the alley, leaning against a wall and watching passersby, Jung-Kook attended to his wife, nodding even as his head was throbbing a little.

            “What did you think?”

            “I think the smell may have gone to her head.”  Kyung-Soo spoke so seriously sometimes that Jung-Kook wasn’t sure what to think, but he laughed as he offered her his arm again, nodding in agreement.  “Honestly, my lord, what do you think?”

            “I think I don’t like tea, and I need to lie down for a few minutes once we get home.”

            “Of course, my lord.  Thank you for bringing me, though.  It was an experience.”

            “Indeed,” Jung-Kook smiled.  They didn’t speak of it again.  If the lady was right, the lie they shared wasn’t going to be detrimental.  And soon, if courting continued to go as well as Jung-Kook believed it to be going, they wouldn’t have to lie anymore, either.  He didn’t give much thought to the old woman, but he still felt lighthearted—and a bit lightheaded from all of the smells—as they made their way home.  

 

            To give freely and receive nothing in return is foolish.  In order to survive, one must be ruthless and care for himself first.  Everyone is inherently selfish, and an act of kindness may end up hurting you more than anything else in the end.

            Kyung-Soo, raised on a farm, witness of a famine that almost ruined her country, survivor while countless people died and grew ill around her, well-aware of how cruel the world is with its seasons and weather accidents—landslides and floods and storms—had heard such things all her life.  And on the one hand, she knew they were true.

            Her father, after all, saved everyone and still lost his own life.

            The world was a cruel, unjust place.

            And yet she knew of the beauties behind helping others.  The risks, as well.  Of giving her last piece of bread to a starving child.  Of helping up a servant after a beating.  Of staying by someone everyone else had insisted was going to die and was not worth wasting resources or time and energy on.

            She doubted she would be faced with such a serious situation again.  It was not life or death, trying to decide how to give back to her husband.  She had no money of her own, and to go ask for some only to turn around and use it on Jung-Kook seemed silly.  If not gifts, actions, then, words and time and her presence.

            She could start now, if she hadn’t already, as her husband lay on their bed with an arm over his eyes, an occasional moan escaping his lips.

            “You know, my lord, if you liked tea, I could give you one for this,” she explained, teetering between serious and playful as she dampened a cool rag to put on his forehead.

            “You speak as if tea can solve every problem.”

            “Perhaps it can.  You wouldn’t know, though, would you?”  The eye he barely opened as she moved his arm away made her laugh softly.

            “You don’t have to.”

            You don’t have to.

            Why are you doing this?

            Don’t waste your time on me.

            Leave me to die, Kyung-Soo.  Go be with Eun-Jae.  Your father.  Mother.  Family.

            Leave me.

            “I want to,” Kyung-Soo said firmly.  “Go to sleep, my lord.  I shall be here when you wake up if you desire anything.”

            “Desire,” Jung-Kook mumbled, trailing off enough as he laced his fingers over his chest and crossed his ankles that Kyung-Soo didn’t move.  She could hear his silent thought trying to find its voice as she knelt by his side.  It was hiding, though, perhaps too scared of the light or suffocated by the smells still lingering in Jung-Kook’s nose and mind.

            “What do you desire, my lord?” she said gently.

            “I’d like—”  What could he want?  This young boy who gave so much and asked for nothing in return every day.  What could Kyung-Soo do for him?  “Would you lie down with me?”

            “Oh.  Of course, my lord.”  How simple.  How routine, even if the sky wasn’t dark yet, to do so.  To lie on her side and turn toward him, watching his chest rise and fall.  How much she was becoming used to fighting a growing desire to put her hands on that chest, to give him warmth and pleasure and even herself if he would want it.  She wanted to give him everything she could.

            How abnormal for his hand to slide off of his chest away from its partner to go searching for hers.  To bring it back to rest near his heart.  For his breath to even while hers quickened.  How odd, and yet how comfortable it all felt, this small connection they shared.

            The leaves forming a cat didn’t matter.

            Everyone lies.

            If one lie could hold them together, if their relationship could still proceed and grow and flourish even while rooted in a lie, then Kyung-Soo would give her marriage all that she could.

            Maybe it was selfish.  Perhaps a little foolish.

            But she had seen and done and suffered worse.

            And she had seen good after good come out anyway, despite lies and mistakes and betrayals.  Jung-Kook was good.  Their marriage could be good.  Kyung-Soo wanted to do everything in her power to make it so.

 

            The fan sat hibernating in her drawer as winter began.  Her suggestion to ask Ji-Min for lessons had been merely that, but she still sat by him in the warmth of the barn every morning.  He moved more lethargically and yawned more often lately, but he still had a mischievous twinkle in his eye and plenty to tell her.  His suggestions had mostly not been put into practice, though.  Despite what Ji-Min said, Kyung-Soo was still a woman, had still been trained too well to wait, to only act when instructed, to know her place.  This wasn’t playing in the forest with Eun-Jae and Yoon-Gi and getting her knees scraped and dress ripped and receiving a reprimanding. This was her husband, her marriage, her future.

            “You just need to ride him.”

            “I’m sorry?”

            A point to her husband putting a blanket under his horse’s saddle.

            “Yaho is a girl.”

            “I know what I said,” Ji-Min shrugged, picking up a piece of hay to start poking her with.  She had too many layers of clothes on for it to bother her, though she still swatted it away.  “You have to move past the looks, Kyung-Soo. Men are tactical, even the shy ones. Physical.  You have to start touching him.”

            “Ji-Min.”

            “Not at the dinner table or in front of his parents or anything.  Even I can have decorum when it’s necessary.”  Ji-Min’s own scoff gave him Kyung-Soo’s response well enough, but she still smiled at him.  “And you can make it a suggestion if you’re not ready to just pounce him.  Oh, Jung-Kookie, it’s so cold, hold me!”

            “I don’t sound like that,” Kyung-Soo huffed in return, pushing the boy over slightly.

            “Then I am sorry for you.  It works on Tae-Hyung every time.”

            “Jung-Kook is not his cousin.”

            “Pity,” Ji-Min sighed before winking.  “A jest.  Just find something that even Jung-Kook can not say no to.  Use what appeals to him.  What could he never refuse?”

            “Food?” Kyung-Soo said, watching her husband pat his horse’s mane and whisper softly into her ear.  “His painting?”

            “Kyung-Soo,” Ji-Min almost sang and purred all at once.  She had heard this tone too many times before when she was clueless or trying to remain proper when he wanted her to realize something or say something others would deem inappropriate or too private to discuss with a servant.

            “He likes reading.  And being alone.”

            “Kyung-Soo,” Ji-Min sighed, grabbing her chin and holding her head forward so her gaze couldn’t waver.  “What does Jung-Kook love more than anything else? To an almost odd degree?  Others would, and have, call him strange for how much he speaks about it.”

            “His—his horse?”

            “I’ve never been prouder,” Ji-Min beamed, releasing her only to pat her thigh.

            “But, but I don’t think Yaho likes me.”

            “And maybe she never will.  However, she loves her master and will obey him.  This is where the art of deception reigns true.”

            “You want me to lie?”

            “Call it what you will.”

            “Jung-Kook hates lying.  As much as he loves Yaho.”

            “Not lying, then.  Pretending.  Playing.  It’s all a game, Kyung-Soo.  Men love the challenge. Give Jung-Kook something to prove and his competitive side will bloom.”

            “A challenge,” Kyung-Soo mumbled, watching as Jung-Kook groomed his horse while speaking softly to it.  Ji-Min was right, as he often was.  Jung-Kook loved being challenged.  He loved proving himself.  He was extremely competitive, even if he sometimes seemed to let Kyung-Soo win when they played cards.

            “A challenge,” Ji-Min repeated as she stood up.  She was more afraid the challenge would be for herself, but Ji-Min was right.  With no way of knowing when their courting would be over, considering the final step had been made before they even began, it was time to move past simple looks and careful touches.

            For Jung-Kook.  For their marriage.  For her future.

            A challenge.

 

            Meek.  Jung-Kook had taught her the real meaning of the word.  Yaho was meek. Jung-Kook was meek.  And he thought Kyung-Soo was, too.

            She could see it, the way the horse’s muscles tensed as she approached, the way her eyes widened and her muzzle twitched.  The breath she huffed into the air clearly visible as her powerful hoof, dirty with mud, stomped.

            She could see it, the way Jung-Kook soothed her with his hand and held her back with another, his grip on her rein tight but not overbearing.  The way his voice stayed level as he whispered to her even as he smiled at Kyung-Soo.

            “She’s being fussy today,” Jung-Kook explained.  Kyung-Soo could see it.

            “It’s cold.”

            “Yes.  She needs to be walked more.  If she would stop complaining so much, she could see I am trying to do just that.”  Kyung-Soo could see it.

            “My lord,” she said, wishing she had something other than her hand for Yaho to snort at.  “I was wondering if you could teach me how to ride.”

            “To ride?”

            “Yaho—I know she doesn’t particularly like me—”

            “Yaho?  Of course she does.  What’s not to like?  If she doesn’t, she will, won’t you girl?”  The question wasn’t really a question.  Not quite a command or ultimatum.  A heavy suggestion.  A promise of something to come.  Kyung-Soo could see it, the way Yaho wanted to fight him but wanted to obey as well and ultimately bowed her head even if she butted it into Jung-Kook, clearly resigning but not submitting completely.  Being meek.

            “I know ladies don’t normally—”

            “You really want to know?”  Kyung-Soo can see it, the eagerness Jung-Kook is trying to hold back.  She glances at Ji-Min who seems to smile back, cheering with her that the challenge won’t be as difficult as she thought it would be, before nodding to her husband.

            “If it would please you.”  It wasn’t meekness, the way she bowed her head, not how Jung-Kook had described the word.  More hesitation mixed with fear. Anticipation.  Waiting to be told what she herself wanted.  She thought of Yaho, though, and raised her head back up, nodding again with more determination.  Jung-Kook beamed, and the challenge was accepted.  

 

            She was up to something.  His wife.  Plotting with Ji-Min.  She had been for weeks.  Jung-Kook knew they were planning something.  It put him on edge, and it was affecting Yaho.  He felt bad, but in trying to give his wife space, he was growing frustrated, and nothing pushes people apart faster than anger.

            He needn’t be jealous or resentful toward the boy, though.  That was just how Ji-Min was.  And the cold months didn’t only make Yaho restless and lonely.  It had been weeks since Tae-Hyung left, and his absence always set the stable boy on edge. He could see them, resting too close together on the hay as he groomed Yaho clearly talking about him.  He didn’t like it, whatever it was.

            But he felt it melting away as Kyung-Soo approached him.  He couldn’t seem to help smiling whenever he saw her these days, especially as she always smiled back or was doing so first as if daring him to smile back.  If it was a game and he wasn’t supposed to, he was clearly losing.  Not that he minded.  He didn’t know what game Ji-Min and Kyung-Soo were playing, either, but he knew he wouldn’t really care if he lost to Kyung-Soo, anyway.  As long as he simply knew what the rules were.  They were being unfair to exclude him so.

            Her request to be taught how to ride seemed innocent enough like her asking him to teach her how to write and read.  She rarely asked for things, and Jung-Kook had no reason to say no to her.  If she wanted something, he would do his best to make sure she had it.  He was her husband, after all, and it was his duty to provide for her, but he felt himself moving past that toward unknown territory no book had warned him about.  

            Nam-Joon had found it before he was engaged.  Seok-Jin found it after a year of marriage. 

            Love, despite countless books and poems trying to describe it, wasn’t quantifiable enough for Jung-Kook to fully understand.  It didn’t look a certain way. It didn’t follow any set list of rules. It didn’t have to be reciprocated, either.  But what else could describe the way his face lit up when he saw his wife’s smile?  What other name for it was there other than love when he couldn’t help but say yes and felt a need to provide and protect her?  What else did it mean that he stopped caring about whatever game they were playing and concentrated on simply doing as she asked?

            The absence of gloves on her hands as he lowered Yaho’s reins made him reach for her hand quicker than he should have.  He startled her.  A mumbled apology, then.  But her hands were so cold as he placed them on Yaho’s blanket and moved around his horse to remove her saddle.  As he had just put it on her, she grew annoyed instantly.

            “Two people can’t fit in this saddle, you silly animal,” he sighed, patting her mane in apology for confusing her.  “One mistake people make is thinking they can control the horse.  A horse, unless you terrify it or hurt it, is like any animal.  It is more likely to do what you want if you befriend it first and are kind to it.  You don’t ride the horse, in short.  The horse lets you ride it.”  Explaining as he moved was easier, as sometimes he couldn’t look back at Kyung-Soo watching him. Whenever he showed or taught her anything, she would move in closer and narrow her eyes and crease her brow and follow his finger or his body or his face intently to make sure she understood and could replicate the same steps.  He found it terribly endearing while simultaneously terrifying.  She was watching him now as he put the saddle down and came back, all the while touching Yaho to reassure her.

            “Now, you said you have ridden before?”  On the same side as his wife, her hands having made their way under the blanket now, he was reminded of how short she was.  The top of her head barely came up to Yaho’s eye, an eye that was still wide and suspicious.  Kyung-Soo was watching him closely, the same look in her eyes he recognized from their wedding night.  Fear and hesitation but some burning desire to please and do her duty.  Riding a horse wasn’t a requirement for marriage, though, so he kept a hand on Yaho and put one on the small of Kyung-Soo’s back.  She stilled under his touch, though layers of cloth separated them, though it was with a calm comfort that she looked back at him now, standing beside him, not one of fear, lying beneath him.

            “I won’t let you fall.”  Not “you don’t have to,” because he knew she did.  Not “you don’t have to be afraid,” because nothing was wrong with fear.  Not “I won’t let anything bad happen to you,” because that was an unkeepable promise.

            “How—how do you ride without a saddle?”

            “Carefully,” Jung-Kook grinned.  He looked again at her frame and decided against using a box for aid.  “I’ll lift you up, and then I’ll get on.”

            “Are you sure, my lord?” Kyung-Soo said before Jung-Kook could get a grip on her waist.

            “Do you doubt my strength?”

            “No, you’re the strongest lord I know.  Just, what if she starts to run?”

            “She won’t,” he said, looking into Yaho’s eye with a glare.  “She won’t.  If she manages to get away from me, hold on tight and pull on her reins.  But she won’t, will you, girl?”  The nicker was perhaps a bad sign, but Jung-Kook knew of Yaho’s mischievousness.  He also knew his much smaller nieces and nephews had ridden her with his assistance with no injuries. 

            “Ready?” he whispered even as he bent down to get his footing.  He wondered if anyone had asked her such a question before.  Had she been ready for her father to die?  To leave her home? To walk into a dimly lit room and marry a stranger?

            If she was afraid, she didn’t look it.  She looked brave as she nodded and even jumped slightly as he lifted her up.  He had held her before, but her light weight still surprised him enough that he was afraid he was going to overshoot his aim and she would land on the ground on the other side of the target.  But she looked like a professional as she swung her leg around Yaho’s body and scrambled to hold on, her pants under her short robes helpful, the ease with which she mounted making Jung-Kook wonder if she hadn’t lied about having little experience with horses.  She looked confident.  She looked beautiful as she smiled, sitting up tall on the horse. Almost smug, like she had gotten there all by herself.  She was certainly proud, and Jung-Kook smile back, proud of her.

            He liked wiping the smile off of her face, though, as she tried to ask how he was going to get on, her words dying as he lowered Yaho’s head and swung himself up, being careful not to hit his precious cargo with his leg as he did.  Her laugh was worth it, then, but her closeness was better.  Her warmth.  Her body scooting closer and wrapping around him.  His hands gripping the reins tightly as hers held him.  Her cheek resting against his back as he shielded her from the wind as they left the barn.  Her laughter dying away.  Her warmth spreading through his back.  Her body so close.

            It was too late, but Jung-Kook knew then what she and Ji-Min had been planning in their corner of hay.

            He knew when she pressed unnecessarily close to him considering the speed and terrain.

            He knew when her hands started to explore.  Up his chest as she kept her face close to his back.  Down his back when she was steady enough to sit back a little.  Over his thigh when she tried to look around him when he stopped to explain something.

            He knew when her hands trembled a little from cold or nerves or the power she must know she had when he placed his over hers as he relinquished control to her.

            The longer they rode, the more powerless he became.  The stronger she grew.  He felt weak and dizzy and out of breath though he shivered as well.

            “Kyung-Soo.  Kyung-Soo,” he said before they even reached the barn.  Behind him, someone hummed.  He knew it was his wife, and yet Kyung-Soo so more.  No small woman.  A monster.  An angel.  Something strong and powerful and sapping him of his energy, his resolve, his control.  She was going to take too much if she wasn’t careful.  He certainly wasn’t going to stop her.

            “Kyung-Soo.  Kyung-Soo,” he mumbled into her cold hands as she steered them home.  She knew exactly where to go even blind behind him.  She knew exactly what she was doing.  She had no need for riding lessons.

            “Kyung-Soo.  Kyung-Soo.  Can our courting be over?”

            “Why, my lord?  Have you found a better suitor?”

            “No one else.  I just want you.  I just want to kiss you.”

            “We shouldn’t, my lord.  One should wait to be married.”

            “Oh, is that all?  Thank god, then.”  Thank god he, the last brother, unlucky and left out and the less all his life, had been so blessed.  Thank god Yaho was so good and obedient and still as he got down.  Thank god Kyung-Soo was smiling at him and slid off so easily into his open arms.  Thank god they could banter but look seriously into each other’s eyes. Thank god she was warm and didn’t shake and said nothing of his own hands trying to hide their own by drawing her close.  Thank god she didn’t start and his horse didn’t stomp as he bent down to kiss her, his control completely gone.  Thank god she clung to his sleeves and backed into Yaho.  Thank god she kissed him back.  Thank god they only seemed to mold together with no crashing teeth or bitten tongues or frantic, sloppy, uncoordinated breaths.  Thank god she and Ji-Min had plotted together.  Thank god courting was over.  Thank god the marriage had already happened.

            But Jung-Kook was finally ready to be married.

            Thank god Kyung-Soo seemed to be ready, too.

 

            Thank god Jung-Kook couldn’t feel her regret.  Thank god no one could see into her mind.  Thank god she didn’t even have to lie when she kissed him back.  Thank god she wasn’t around to see her actually enjoying what should have never been hers.

Chapter Text

 

10.  “The worst part about being lied to is knowing you weren’t worth the truth.”― Jean-Paul Sartre

            The world barrels on even if you try to stand still.  The water rushes around you and knocks you over, taking you with it when you try to resist.  The wind carries you off like a useless rag trampled in the ground.  Hold fast.  Hold fast, or you will be swept away.  Discarded.  Incinerated.  Forgotten. Find something.  Find someone.  Hold on to him.  Keep your feet from failing and your steps from faltering.  Hurry, but go slow. There is no time to waste, but there is all the time to kill.

            Keep him.  Once you know he is yours, keep him.  Please him.  Please him even if you forget those you once knew.  Even if you forget your home.  Even if you forget who you are.  Please him until you don’t even remain.  Please him until you’re his and nothing else. His. His.

            Mine.

            “Jung-Kook.” 

            Never stop the tide.  You are no moon.  You are nothing but everything.  Please him.  Only you can now.  Be the stream itself hurling you along.  Make him gasp for air.  Make him beg for it.  Make him owe you his life so he can never take yours.

            “My lord—I’m—I’m cold.”

            Please him.

            Or he will toss you aside.

            Please him.

            For don’t you want to please me?

            “I’m sorry!”

            “It’s alright, my lord.”

            “No, I’m sorry, I don’t know, I don’t know what—”

            “My lord, don’t worry.  I really am just cold.”

            “Do you want—let me get you some tea.”

            “My lord, just stay with me?  Until I warm up?  Just hold me?”

            “H-hold you, yes, yes, I can do that.  Yes, here, I, yes.  Alright?”

            “Alright, my lord.  Thank you.”

            Find the anchor and tie yourself down securely, otherwise you will float away.

            Stay there.  Stay with him until she can come for you.

            Come for you?

            She stood on the shore watching you sink, though.

            Tie yourself down, you fool.  Quickly.  Quickly before he tosses you aside and you have nowhere else to swim to.

 

            “Jung-Kook?  I’m sorry to disturb you.  There’s a letter for Kyung-Soo.”

            “Thank you, Ho-Seok, leave it.”

            “Of course, my lord.  Do you need anything else?  Is she—?”

            “I’m alright, Ho-Seok, thank you for your concern.”

            “Of course, my lady.  I will wait outside if you need anything.”

            “Thank you, Ho-Seok.”

            “Do you want me to read it?”

            “Who’s it from?”

            “Yoon-Gi?”

            “I’ll take it, my lord.”

            She did.  She pulled away and took the letter and slid the door open to sit in the garden despite how she was still shivering.  Could she even read it? And who was Yoon-Gi?  And why was he writing to his wife?  Could she—

            Entertaining any negative thoughts wasn’t healthy.  And they didn’t thrive for long. He could only feel worried as he stayed under his blanket and watched the way her hair trailed down her back as she sat on the porch and read.  He couldn’t even be mad at the cold air making their previous efforts to get warm futile.  He didn’t even have time to think about telling her to close the door or come back inside, come back to bed, come back to him, because she stood up and did just that, closing the door gently and padding in her bare feet back to her side of the bed, lifting the blanket and bringing a chill back in with her, the letter folded up and set back down on his desk.

            “My mother,” she said simply and quietly.  The inches gained mere moments ago were back, and without being asked, Jung-Kook assumed he should go back to staying away.

            But he didn’t want to.

            But he did.

            “Is she—?”

            “She’s asked that I come visit.  In case.”

            “I see.”  How could he deny her?  “When do you want to go?”

            “My lord?”

            “When do you want to go visit her?”

            “You—you don’t mind?”

            “No,” he lied.  He felt like he had just gotten her.  Gotten somewhere with her. But he didn’t want to be selfish or childish.  It was just a visit.  She would go and come back.  To him. “If your mother calls, a child should answer.”

            “I am not a child.”

            She looked it, rosy cheeks and delicate frame and slight pout, so he gave her a disbelieving smile.

            “I will go tomorrow, then, if it isn’t an inconvenience.”

            “Of course not.  I’ll send Ho-Seok with you.”

            “Oh, it’s alright, my lord, you needn’t.”

            “I will feel better if he goes with you.”

            “I see.  Thank you, then.”

            “Ho-Seok?  I need you to accompany Kyung-Soo to Sabuk tomorrow.  Please make the proper preparations.”

            “Of course, my lord.”  A voice from the hall, a head peeking into the room.

            “And I need you to go with her.”

            “Of course.”

            “That’s all.”

            Was it?

            “Kyung-Soo?”

            “Yes?”

            “Are you still cold?”

            Her laugh made him warmer than her body heat, but he welcomed the way she scooted closer, anyway, and he welcomed the smile she gave him with his whole heart as she did.

            “Are you cold, my lord?”

            “I asked you first.”  Was it rude, to want to make her laugh when her mother could be on her death bed?  Was it insensitive, or was it the right thing to do to distract her?  Was he moving closer to her, anyway, even if she hadn’t asked, even if he wasn’t sure he should? “Kyung-Soo, did you lie to me earlier?”

            “About what, my lord?”  No, he didn’t want her to look scared.  He wanted to joke and laugh and touch her again.

            “Have you secretly been taking lessons when I’m not around?  Perhaps from Ji-Min?”

            “Oh, no, my lord!  He and I have not been riding.  I wouldn’t ride Yaho without you around.  She wouldn’t let me.”

            “I know, I know.  I only wondered.  You looked so natural today.”

            “I was just following Ji-Min’s advice.”

            “That doesn’t sound good,” Jung-Kook laughed, relieved Kyung-Soo seemed to know he was merely teasing now.  “What was his advice?”

            “To pretend.”

            “To pretend.”

            “It’s like lying, my lord, only, well, usually lying has a malicious intent.  Pretending is for fun.”

            “For fun?” Jung-Kook quipped, raising his eyebrow.

            “Yes, my lord.  I was just pretending.”

            “And what were you pretending?”

            “I was pretending I was you.”

            “Oh?” Jung-Kook said, laughing again.  Neither of them had bathed, so the smell of the stalls and Yaho and outside still clung to them, but Jung-Kook moved closer, anyway.  He had grown used to Kyung-Soo’s clean smell, so something felt off and wrong about her beside him in bed.  But it was earlier, too, and they weren’t sleeping, and there were other ways of warming up.

            “Yes.  I just told myself Yaho loved me, and I loved her, and that she meant the world to me, and nothing would ever come between us, and since I loved her more than anything else in the world, I knew she would never hurt me.”

            “More than anything else?”

            “Yes, my lord.  You love Yaho more than anything else in the world.”

            “Do I?” Jung-Kook said softly.  He had looked at Kyung-Soo for weeks.  He watched her.  He saw how she moved and ate and slept and laughed and watched him in return.  But he had never been so close to her before in the light.  “How do you know?”

            “Because I see the way you look at her.  And the way you speak to her. And touch her.” She was doing it again.  Even if her hands weren’t on him, Jung-Kook could feel them like ghosts over his skin.  Her eyes roamed, so his did, too.  Mostly over her face, the only exposed part of her body, but also to her neck, her shoulder where her robes wrapped tightly around her, to the curve of her waist, to the trail of her arm where her hands were connected in the space between them.

            “How do I look at her and speak to her and touch her?”  He knew Kyung-Soo had to know.  The way he pried her hands apart so he could place one in his, close enough to their chins to touch.  The way he placed his hand tentatively over the soft fabric of her robe and traced it up her arm.  The way he followed his fingers with his eyes instead of looking at hers.

            “A little like that, my lord.”

            “Like what?”

            “Like you love her.”

            “Kyung-Soo—”

            “You’re shaking, my lord.”

            “I’m not.”  He was.

            “Don’t lie to me, my lord.  Are you cold?”

            “I’m not.”  He wasn’t.

            “Here.  Is this alright?”

            “Yes.  This is alright.”

            “My lord?”

            “Yes?”

            “I hear that when people are married, they can kiss whenever they want.  Have you read this in one of your many books?”

            “It may have come up in a couple,” Jung-Kook hummed, his nose brushing so closely to Kyung-Soo’s that his vibration made her shiver.  He steadied his hand while hers rested on his hip, the first touch to her face still tentative.

            To touch her like he loved her?  What would that feel like?  Could he move his thumb over her cheek gently?  Could he put her hair behind her ear and run his fingers through her soft strands?  Could he feel how soft and pliant her neck was if he added just the tiniest bit of pressure to it with his thumb?  Could he massage her shoulder and feel her small frame and yet strong muscles even through all of her robes?  Could he slip his hand under their collars to feel the goosebumps rising there?  Could he kiss her?

            He felt hurried in the barn, like he was trying to chase her before she got away, like he needed to steal time before it was stolen from him.  Now, though, they had all the time in the world.  Instead of a storm, he wanted a soft rainfall.  Instead of crashing waves, he wanted a flowing stream.  Instead of a drop, he wanted the whole ocean.

            But with all the time in the world, he needn’t hurry.

            He liked kissing slowly, he was learning, anyway.  It gave him more time to savor every sensation.  The thin lips chapped from being outside and how they grew wet and softer the more they touched.  The tiny breaths that Kyung-Soo let out hitting his nose and cheeks. The tentative sounds humming in the back of their throats trying to escape.  The touches that turned to tightened fists in his clothes as he kept his fingers behind her ear to keep her from moving away.  The tender look in her eyes as they fluttered open when he pulled away just enough to look at how dark and deep they were.

            “I hope you don’t kiss your horse like that.”

            “You—”

            He liked the explosion of laughter, the way she giggled with her cheeks flushed, the way she didn’t even let him go when they settled back down, the way she seemed to say so much with no words at all.

            The way he looked at her—almost as if she—

            Like if she looked away, she would be swept away.

 

            Ho-Seok wished he didn’t love Ji-Min’s tears so much.  Like each drop was a plea, a declaration.  He wished they were tattooed on his skin, a constant reminder of all the times he had begged him not to go.  One’s of pain, anguish, Ho-Seok could do without, but the ones full of desperation, of longing, of love, those he wanted to soak up. He wanted them splashed on his skin until he absorbed everything Ji-Min could give him.

            “It’s only for a few days, love.  You’ll be alright.”

            “F-first Tae-Hyung, a-and now y-you.”

            “It isn’t as if I am leaving to get married.  I’ll be back before you know it.”

            “I’ll be so b-bored.”

            “Go and see Tae-Hyung, then.  Go see him.”

            “I can’t.  Y-you know I can’t.”

            “I know.  I know, love.  You miss him?”

            “Yes, Ho-Seok, y-yes.”

            “Do you miss the way he puts his hands on you?  When he wraps his long fingers around your throat?”

            “Y-yes, Ho-Seok, please.”

            “Do you miss when he bites your shoulder, just so, when you try to get away?”

            “O-oh.”

            “When he plays with you like you’re just his doll?”

            “Ho-Ho-Seok, please.”

            “Do you miss the way he fills you up?  Better than me?”

            “N-no, Ho-Seok, not better.”

            “No?”

            “N-no, promise.  L-love you.”

            “I know, love.  And Tae-Hyung?”

            “L-love him.  M-miss him.”

            “Me too, love.”

            Ho-Seok wished he could etch into his skin the way Ji-Min arched his back and threw his head onto his shoulder and placed sloppy but fierce kisses on Ho-Seok’s jaw and ear and anything he could reach.  He wished the way Ji-Min dug his nails into his thighs would last more than a night, that the growing bruise on the boy’s soft shoulder could be visible for everyone to see until he could return and replace it, that he could stay in Ji-Min forever and never leave him wanting.

            “I’ve got you,” he said, though he wished it was longer.  He wished it was always. But he swallowed Ji-Min’s cries and licked at his tears and burned the image of him crying out his name into his brain until he could see it again.  Ji-Min grew bored without them.  Tae-Hyung grew angry.  Ho-Seok was neither and both all at once, lost and hopeless without them.

            He wished he didn’t have to go.

 

            Ho-Seok hated winter.  Summer was his season.  He preferred the excuse to strip his robes off before bed due to sweat permeating the material until it was so damp the rubbing against his skin caused chafing.  Ho-Seok liked tracing the sweat trickling down Ji-Min’s back as he worked or as he was pressed into his sheets.  Either way, Ho-Seok liked summer.  He missed the sun, and the sun missed his smile, and the cold only made him miss Ji-Min and Tae-Hyung more.

            But he could do his job.  Kyung-Soo was kind, kind enough to let him sit in the carriage with her, kind enough to not notice or not comment on how surly he probably looked.  Distracted enough as he was, he hadn’t failed to notice how his master had hugged his wife before they left.

            Not his business.  Jung-Kook would tell him if he wanted to.  And if he didn’t, Ji-Min was sure to. But he couldn’t help to notice how stressed Kyung-Soo seemed.  The anxiety leaving her home weeks before was understandable.  The worry on her face now not as much.  Then again, Ho-Seok had never lost a family member or been forced to marry a stranger and leave his home.  Perhaps her nerves made sense.

            Still, they kept him from napping on the journey as she stared out the window and he stayed alert in case she required assistance.  What Ho-Seok could do or get for her in the small space, he wasn’t sure, but he always strove to do his job well.  He noticed, then, that the closer they got, the tenser Kyung-Soo became.  The straighter she sat.  The more she tried to peer out the small window.  Her posture of late had been relaxed.  She laughed easily around Jung-Kook.  She greeted each servant by name back home and had found her place.  Some reversion was happening the closer they got to Sabuk, though.

            Two figures waited outside of the house as they arrived.  The man looked as miserable as Ho-Seok felt.  The woman was all smiles, standing on the tip of her feet as if to see better.  From a distance, she looked like Kyung-Soo, all bundled up in her robes and coats and scarves and layers and layers of fabric.

            They all bowed at each other as he got out of the carriage, his hand held out to Kyung-Soo still sitting in the corner.

            “My lady?” he prompted before she took what was offered to her.  Support, was all. Their greeters were her servants. He recognized them from before, though he couldn’t remember their names.  The man stared at them fiercely, some guard dog, while the girl smiled, hopping in place a little. Neither looked as he imagined servants should behave, though he wasn’t one to judge.  Kyung-Soo, with all of her robes, exited the carriage slowly, still holding Ho-Seok’s hand once she was out until he removed it and bowed a little, moving to get her bags.

            Strange, how long the three of them stood staring at each other before one of them moved, but he was used to Ji-Min running into his arms immediately and climbing all over him whenever he hadn’t seen him for a day.

            The girl moved first.  She bowed, a grin on her face, and said something about “My lady” before closing the distance between them.  He had yet to see Kyung-Soo cry, even the night before her marriage, a night that must have been lonely above all else, but he thought he did when she hugged her servant.

            The man was reaching for one of the bags he was holding, though, and gesturing with his head to follow him.  Kyung-Soo looked to be in good hands, as her servant cooed and shushed her, her hands rubbing up and down her arms and grabbing her face and hugging her tightly again, so he followed the man inside, eager to be out of the cold.

 

            The house felt strangely quiet.  Or it was the man leading him down a hallway who hadn’t spoken a word.  Ho-Seok blamed the cold for slowing his brain. The man couldn’t talk.  Kyung-Soo had mentioned him before.  He was small, smaller than Ji-Min, even.  His height may have been around the same, but he lacked muscle definition and weight at all.  He looked sickly, almost, his skin and hair pale like it had been more than a winter since he had seen the sun.

            “I know we met before, so I apologize for not remembering your name.  I’m Ho-Seok,” he said once they had delivered Kyung-Soo’s bags and the man had led him to another room for himself.  The man lifted his palm and began to draw something on it with his finger, and Ho-Seok was glad he knew his letters, otherwise the trip would have been much more uncomfortable if his companion was mostly going to be a mute man.

            “Yoon-Gi?”  A nod.  “You know your letters?”  Then the man was off, his hands gesturing so wildly Ho-Seok’s eyes widened.  He had denied Ji-Min and Tae-Hyung the chance to speak a few times in bed, always an amusing experiment to see who could last longer before they broke, but he knew them well.  He could read their eyes alone and know what they wanted or needed.  This man was a stranger, and he lifted his own hand to stop him.

            “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”

            It became a game, then.  Yoon-Gi seemed to have a gesture for most words, and Ho-Seok’s competitiveness plus his desire to understand people helped him through.  The man hadn’t been born mute but had gotten sick.  Most—all?—of the servants who worked in the house were educated. He was a year older than Ho-Seok, and even though he had no way of expressing himself with his mouth, the man’s eyes did enough speaking for him.  He had a wit to him Ho-Seok wasn’t used to encountering in other servants, something that intrigued Ho-Seok immensely, enough that he gathered the visit wouldn’t be as boring as he suspected.

 

            The farm was bigger than Ho-Seok had expected, as well.  He followed Yoon-Gi around while Kyung-Soo and Eun-Jae, her servant, attended to her mother or did whatever women did.  He didn’t mind the man’s quietness.  It gave him more opportunities to talk, pointing and asking questions until he got a head nod or shake from the fellow servant.  Winter meant fewer crops and fewer field hands, so the land was almost barren as they walked through it, Yoon-Gi stopping occasionally to check on something that Ho-Seok couldn’t identify.  He had been a house servant all of his life, and he thought Yoon-Gi was, too, but the more he talked—gestured or nodded—the more Ho-Seok wondered what exactly the man’s role on the farm was.  Every other servant they did come across nodded or bowed to them, out of politeness or necessity, Ho-Seok wasn’t sure.  All he knew is Yoon-Gi never gave more than a head nod back.

            The head servant, then, maybe.  They didn’t have one in the Kim household, though they did honor seniority, Jung-Kook’s father’s servant received first pick at meals, for instance, and everyone respected his opinion and advice over other’s.  Ho-Seok was glad they didn’t have an official head, though, as such power tended to make servants forget their place, but if that was what Yoon-Gi was, he showed no signs of arrogance in his position.  Ho-Seok may have mistaken his silence for humility, but he doubted it.  The man carried himself in such a way that Ho-Seok didn’t mind following behind him, and Ho-Seok rarely felt himself yield so easily to anyone. 

            His observation continued into dinner, too.  The house was much smaller, and dinner found only the four of them at one table.  Kyung-Soo sat with them right next to her laiden, and it gave Ho-Seok the opportunity to look at the girl.

            Eun-Jae could almost be Kyung-Soo’s sister.  She sat a little taller, and her face was a little leaner, her jawline sharper, but they looked quite similar.  And while Kyung-Soo was quiet, eating her meal with her head down like Ho-Seok had witnessed when she first married Jung-Kook, Eun-Jae chattered away, never hesitating to meet Ho-Seok’s eye.  Eventually, she seemed to have enough of him staring and pointed her chopstick at him, leaning forward to engage with him where he sat on the other side of the table with Yoon-Gi.

            “So, tell me, Ho-Seok, how do you find Sabuk?”

            “It’s larger than I expected.  When I was here last, I didn’t have the opportunity to look around.”

            “You mean when you came to steal our lady away?”

            “I wouldn’t call it stealing.”

            “Oh?  No?” The girl had a look in her eye that reminded Ho-Seok of Ji-Min.  Something dangerous.  Daring.  Definitely not suitable for a servant.  He liked her, but knew well enough to be cautious, especially with Kyung-Soo so close.

            “You would have to ask your lady, but I doubt she would classify her marriage as stealing.”

            “No?  Taking something that isn’t yours without paying?  Isn’t that the definition of stealing?”

            “Eun,” Kyung-Soo muttered, shaking her head.  Her servant didn’t seem to hear or care, though, as she raised an eyebrow at Ho-Seok.

            “Kim Nam-Yeong paid Kyung-Soo’s father.”

            “Did he?  How?  He’s been dead for years.  Do we look like we’re wearing silks and living luxuriously like lords and ladies?”

            “I wouldn’t say—”  Yoon-Gi beat his chopsticks on the table, glaring at Eun-Jae.  She huffed and sighed before bowing her head to Ho-Seok.

            “I apologize.  As you can see, only Yoon-Gi and I live in the house, and what with our lady ill, we work from sunrise to sunset.”

            “It must be a lot of work.  Could you not hire another—”

            “We can not.”

            “I’m sure master Jung-Kook could provide—”

            “We can not have another servant,” Eun-Jae said.  “Isn’t that right, my lady?” Something about the way she said “lady,” almost taunting or teasing, made Ho-Seok—what?  angry? confused?  Kyung-Soo may have been their lady first, but she was his now. When she nodded, Eun-Jae did, too, resuming her meal.  “Yes, some of us could not choose our future, but we here at Sabuk can.  Our lady sacrificed much, so we can endure a little inconvenience.  It’s not all bad, though, is it, Yoon-Gi?”

            No.

            “Tell me, then, Ho-Seok, how does Sabuk compare to Hochon?  More trees, less servants? Prettier though, aren’t we?”  She giggled.  Kyung-Soo smiled.  Yoon-Gi rolled his eyes.  “Do you eat with your master like this?  Or are you always at his beck and call?”

            “Servants do not sit down to meals with our lords and ladies in Hochon, no.  But lord Jung-Kook—”

            “Yes, I’m sure he’s different.  They always are.”

            “Eun-Jae,” Kyung-Soo said sharply, her posture making Ho-Seok want to sit up straighter, too, or clap her on the back in gratitude and pride.  “Jung-Kook is a very kind master.  I would ask that you would not speak ill of my husband in my presence.”

            “You would—” Eun-Jae blinked, looking almost stupid at her lady.  She glanced at Yoon-Gi, who shook his head beside Ho-Seok before resuming his meal, before looking at Kyung-Soo again.  “Your husband.  You really—”

            “I will go feed mother,” Kyung-Soo sighed, not looking at any of them as she stood up and filled a bowl.  “And then I will go to bed.  The journey exhausted me.  Ho-Seok, if you need anything, just ask.  I’m sure Yoon-Gi and Eun-Jae would be more than happy to assist you.”

            “We’d—” 

            “Good night.  Thank you for the meal.”

            “She—” Eun-Jae watched her mistress leave.  Ho-Seok saw the way Kyung-Soo moved quickly, her head still down as she did.  Yoon-Gi’s eyes followed her out of the room.  And then, they waited.  A few seconds, maybe more, before Eun-Jae put her chopsticks down.  “Who does she—”

            The table rattled again as Yoon-Gi lowered his chopsticks, too, with much more force, enough for Eun-Jae to glare at him before looking at Ho-Seok.  He wasn’t sure he deserved how angry she was looking at him, but he knew when he wasn’t wanted.  He excused himself, then, thanking them for the meal, before slinking down the hallway to find his room.  The servants may eat with their lady at Sabuk, but they were unlike any Ho-Seok had ever met.

 

            Curiosity beyond his station had led Ho-Seok to Ji-Min years ago.  It led him past the room Yoon-Gi had showed him earlier further down the hall until he could hear Kyung-Soo’s voice but none in return.  Her mother must be weak indeed.

            “Are you really getting worse?  Or did you just miss me?  Are they not taking good care of you?”  Ho-Seok knew how to hear without listening.  He had spent countless nights and afternoons outside of Jung-Kook’s room over the years paying no attention to what the boy was saying or doing unless he was called for.  But he was eavesdropping, now.  It was vastly different, knowing your servant was outside, and not knowing you were being listened to.  Something was prickling his skin, though, and he didn’t walk away for a minute, though he could only hear Kyung-Soo’s words, and even they were muffled, turned away, obviously not meant for him to hear.

            “Hochon, yeosanim.  I got married.”

            Ho-Seok should walk away.  But Kyung-Soo was speaking to her mother like a child would, oddly reverent and formal.  Of course, Jung-Kook still spoke to his father as if the man was a god, but only because he feared him more than respected him.  The term made him pause, but his casual upbringing hadn’t made him privy to how someone raised on a farm only to become a lady spoke to her mother.

            “She’s with Yoon-Gi having dinner.  Don’t you remember, my lady?  I got married.  To Kim Jung-Kook.”

            Ho-Seok knew nothing of illness or disease other than that being sick made him wish he was dead.  He had been practically a child in a rich household during the famine and hadn’t experienced much hardship except smaller portions at some meals.  As a growing boy, he had pains, and they were exasperated when not calmed with food, but he didn’t die.  He was rarely sick.  Tae-Hyung was often sick, head colds and exhaustion, but anything serious, anything to cause Kyung-Soo’s mother to be on her deathbed for months was beyond his knowledge.  Yet she sounded forgetful.  Or unaware to begin with, as if she didn’t even know who she was speaking to or why she was there.

            “His youngest son, yeosanim.  It was all arranged. Hae-Chul arranged it.  No, she’s eating.  Do you want me to get her?  I will fetch her.  Don’t worry.  Here, let me take this, since you aren’t eating.”

            A dish clattered, and the hallway was too long to escape down even as Ho-Seok glanced.  He found his place, then, on his knees a foot away from the door, staring at the wall as if he had been the whole time.  He still startled Kyung-Soo as she slid the door open, though, and he bowed and rose to help her with the tray she had.

            “Ho-Seok.”

            “My lady.  I wanted to know if you needed anything before bed.”

            “No, thank you.  I’m sure you are tired, too.  Please go rest.”

            “It’s no trouble, my lady.  Let me take this for you.”

            “Thank you.”  Still, she seemed to give up the tray reluctantly, her hands clasped in front of her once she had.

            “Your mother—is she?”

            “She,” Kyung-Soo looked at the closed door before sighing, “barely recognizes me anymore.  I am glad to have come.  But seeing her like this—I’m not sure what there is to do.”  Not knowing, either, Ho-Seok bowed again and offered his service if she needed anything before excusing himself.

            Kyung-Soo was strong.  He knew the day he met her and stole her away, as her servant had said.  He could tell as he watched her get married.  As she stood by Jung-Kook and laughed with him.  He could tell she was strong by the way she didn’t cry and held herself up even as the dismal situation set around and on her.  She was like a resilient flower standing in a snowy field, refusing to die until the sun returned. Ho-Seok felt a little like that flower himself in the winter, and he couldn’t help but admire Kyung-Soo.  He wouldn’t eavesdrop anymore.  He had come as her servant.  Had come in Jung-Kook’s stead.  He was to protect and provide for her all he could, not judge her or make assumptions. If her mother was dying, he supposed it really didn’t matter what the girl chose to call her, after all.

 

            Ho-Seok dreamed.

            Dreamed of wishes come true.

            Wishes were but dreams.

            Ho-Seok wished, but Ho-Seok woke and dreamed no more.

            A waking nightmare, to forget where he was and who was sleeping near him, that almost made him scream.  The man on the mat by his too pale and skinny to be Ji-Min, too quiet to be Tae-Hyung.

            Too quiet.

            Too cold.

            Too empty.

            Eventually, his thirst, his boredom, his inability to fall back asleep led him to rise and roam the halls.  The room from earlier revealed a solitary form. The room smelled.  A strong floral scent hit Ho-Seok hard enough for him to wonder if that was how Jung-Kook felt over the lightest smells, like he was gagging and suffocating, strong enough for him to close the door quickly, convinced the sick woman was inside. 

            The other room, then, must be where Kyung-Soo was, and he paused by the door for a moment. Habit or curiosity, whether unconsciously or instinctively, no accident led him to be there.  His job was to protect and provide for Kyung-Soo on their short journey even if she was back with her own servants for the time being.  He didn’t have to wait long or strain much at all before he heard two voices inside.  The only problem was, without faces in front of him, he couldn’t always decipher who was who, Kyung-Soo or Eun-Jae behind the closed door, so he tried to follow by tone or context, but even then he had trouble.

            “How could he not know about the tea?  Why did no one tell him about the tea?”

            “It’s different, in Honchon.”

            “Really?  Is it really so different?”

            “It’s—do you remember, when you visited?”

            “I was but a child.”

            “His brother, Seok-Jin, remembered you.”

            “How could he?  What do you mean?”

            “He said he came to the farm a few years ago.  When father was still alive.”

            “And he remembered me?  I doubt it.  He was probably trying to scare you.  Is he scary?”

            “He was intimidating, yes.”

            “And Jung-Kook?”

            “He is good to me, really, even though he is shy.  There have been some missteps, of course.  The tea, for instance.  We haven’t—I tried.  I did.  I swear. I’ve been trying.  He’s just, he’s—”

            “Jae-Soo, what do you mean?  Don’t tell me—he hasn’t slept with you?”

            “He has.”

            “He’s made you a lady?  He’s a man now?”

            “Oh, no, nothing like that.”

            “Jae-Soo!”  The laugh was not Kyung-Soo’s, but she was in the room.  She must be. “Oh, you must.  There’s nothing like it.  I thought we could talk about it.  I so want you tell you everything Yoon-Gi has done to me.”

            “I don’t want to hear it.”

            “Oh, please, it’s so boring here without you.  I miss you so much.”

            “I don’t want to know.”

            “But I do!  I want to know all about you and your husband.  Is he as good looking as I hear?  Did I make a mistake?”

            “He is very handsome, he—”

            “What?  He what?  Is he better looking than Yoon-Gi?”

            “I thought I heard something.”

            “Oh, you’re as paranoid as ever.  No one is around.  No one comes around anymore.  This house—it’s like a coffin. I’m just waiting for the dirt to cover my eyes.”

            “Don’t—don’t say that.  I thought this was what you wanted.”

            “It is.  It is.  I’m sorry.  Just, with mother, I—”

            “You don’t hear that?”

            “Oh, it’s probably just Yoon-Gi.  There’s a family of cats under the house now, too, seeking warmth.  Maybe your servant is sneaking around in the halls. Maybe mother’s ghost has come out—”

            “Stop.  Don’t talk of such things.”

            “You’re no fun.”

            “I am tired.  I told you I was tired.  Let me sleep.”

            “Fine.  As you wish, my lady.”

            That tone again.

            Something mumbled Ho-Seok couldn’t hear.

            Curiosity, then, kept him up, but Ho-Seok was no cat.  He would rather dream than die thinking too hard.  He wished to dream, a dream full of wishes, of Ji-Min and Tae-Hyung and warmth, summer and flowers, but he could only dream of cats, a constant stream of cats by a pond, by a river, by a puddle, one after the other catching a fish and eating it even as it wiggled in desperation.  Cats and fish.  Fish and cats.  Water.  Water. Water and more water.

            Ho-Seok woke up in the morning needing to pee, remembering no dreams at all.

 

            He was watching her again.

            She wished he wouldn’t.

            The last time, he had watched until she disappeared.

            She wished he would go away.

            No tears before.

            No reason to shed them now.

            Three days felt like an eternity, some form of purgatory.  She couldn’t stay.  Didn’t want to, since she had Jung-Kook to get back to.  Didn’t want to go, as she had her friends in her arms once again.

            But her mother was no worse, and Ho-Seok seemed anxious, and Jung-Kook was waiting.  Kyung-Soo didn’t want to wait until dirt buried her.  She wanted to go home.  She wanted to see Jung-Kook.

            Cutting the cord quickly, ripping the bandage off without any preamble should make leaving easier.

            Though doing so the last time didn’t help.  Things were different now.  She was leaving a situation she could do nothing to better, nothing to help anymore, and returning somewhere she felt safe.  Safe, despite what Eun-Jae had repeated to her that very morning.

            “Please him before he finds out.”

            No uncertainty or unclarity.  Kyung-Soo knew what she had to do.  She had known for months.  She was simply ready to finally do her duty.  It would be easier now, not having to lie.  Jung-Kook was no longer a stranger.

            She was not going to meet him as one, then, but as her husband.  Kyung-Soo was ready to make Jung-Kook her husband.

            So she turned from Yoon-Gi’s gaze.  If she cared about what he was trying to say, she might stay, and she couldn’t.  For his sake, if not her own, she had to leave.

 

            He was watching.

            Waiting.

            Decorum demanded she sit back and be patient, but even Ho-Seok seemed to know it was all an act.  She barely waited for him to exit first and help her out.  She didn’t need his help going down a step, anyway, before she was walking briskly over the rest of the courtyard toward where her husband was waiting. 

            No need to wait three nights for luck to see each other.

            No need for ceremonies or ribbons or pouring of teas or blessings from family.

            No need for formalities or customs or the shyness that arose between them anyway.

            “My lady.”  A small bow to hide his small blush.  Following his lead, still, though her feet wanted to move forward, she bowed in return, taking the hand he offered her.  “How was your journey?”

            “Long, my lord.  I feel like I am covered in dirt.”

            “A bath, then.  If you would like one.”

            “I would.  Thank you.  And are you well?”

            “I am glad you’re back.”  The words came easily, then, and the next smile, and the days seemed to be chipped away at, returning them both to the forms they had worked so hard at shaping with their words, with their hands.

            “I’m glad to be back, too.”

            “Ho-Seok, let me take those.”

            “Ah, master, you needn’t—”

            “You should head to your room, Ho-Seok.  There’s something waiting for you.”

            “Oh.  Something?”

            “Go relax, Ho-Seok.  Thank you for bringing my wife back safely.”

            “That, that’s not necessary, my lord.  But thank you.”

            “Kyung-Soo?”

            He was watching.

            The way she put her arm through Jung-Kook’s even though his hands were full of her bags.

            She didn’t know what Ho-Seok was trying to say.  But he had never looked at her the way he was now.  What was it?  What did he want to say?  What did he see she didn’t?

            He was watching, and Kyung-Soo turned away, for there was only one gaze she desired.

Chapter Text

 

“I never lie," I said offhand. "At least not to those I don't love.”― Anne Rice

           Swirling.  Twirling.  Spinning.  Tipping.

          Placing.  Positioning.  Perfecting.

          Thinking.  Thinking.

          Waiting.

          Pacing did nothing to ease his mind.  His thoughts were of Kyung-Soo and Kyung-Soo alone.  The tiredness in her eyes.  The way she leaned on him on the way to their room.  The shyness returning he thought they had conquered.  To forget how beautiful she was in three days was an impossibility.  To realize how much he had come to rely on her was inevitable only in her absence.  He missed her company.  Her warmth. Her smile.  All that she represented.  Now that she was back, he was reluctant to let go of her again.  A bath was a nuisance.  Not required.  But she wanted.  So he provided.

          She had stood so close with her hand on his shoulder while he drew the water that he hoped she might ask him to stay.

          He regretted, back in his room, not asking to.

          A clean smell, one of the only scents he enjoyed, filled the room as she entered bringing steam and warmth with her.  They moved around Jung-Kook, a rock in a stream, until they dislodged him, and he jumped up before he was swept away.

          Her night dress, soft and thin white layers, still so many layers, tied but loosely around her as she pulled her wet hair to one shoulder, droplets hitting the floor, water soaking and darkening her clothes.  The bath had left a soft pink on her cheeks as if the wind had chapped them.  His own swept by a paintbrush as he cleared his throat.

          “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have sent Ho-Seok away without seeing if you needed anything.”

          “He isn’t my servant, my lord.  I don’t need anything.  Besides, if I do, I’m sure you’ll be able to fetch it.”

          “Do you?  Do you need something?”

          “Would you—could you comb my hair?”

          “Oh, of course.”  The comb, handed to him like a prized possession, heavy in his hand as Kyung-Soo sat down, her back to him as she moved her hair, heavy on her head, to her back.  Intricate, ivory, a tool he had never held before, light but significant, but had watched Kyung-Soo run through her hair after every bath.  She sat, before the weather turned too cold, with the door open, staring wistfully or thoughtfully into the garden as she brushed it through her strands.  Now, her warmth was sure to fade from the bath if he didn’t hurry.  But he didn’t want to.  

          Time seemed fleeting, and yet if he held onto it, he could make it last longer.  His own hair sat piled high on his head, naught but his fingers running through it when it felt particularly tangled.  But he had learned from watching, and now he could put what he knew to practice. 

          Start at the bottom.  Work your way up.  Be careful of snags.  Don’t pull or force anything that resists, clearly not ready to be moved.  Listen for any discomfort.  Pay attention to tensing muscles or sharp intakes of breath.

          A lesson in combing hair and yet something much bigger.

          “How was your mother?” he said as he knelt behind his wife before deciding sitting would be more comfortable, his legs still not even touching her as he picked up a section of her hair, the strands dampening and warming his hand even as he gingerly ran the comb through them, the teeth collecting water and sending drop after drop to the floor.

          “No worse, my lord,” Kyung-Soo said quietly, her head dipped just enough that Jung-Kook almost couldn’t hear her.  “But no better.  She—she seemed to not know who I was.  She didn’t recognize me at first.”

          “No?”

          “I suppose, perhaps, it was the way I was dressed.  How clean I looked.”  A light laugh, but one filled with sadness or regret that made Jung-Kook ache and move the comb somehow softer through the next section of hair.

          “Was the visit good otherwise, though?”

          “Oh, yes, my lord.  I am glad I went.  Thank you again.”

          “No need to thank me.  You should be allowed to visit your home whenever you want.”

          “Jung-Kook?” Kyung-Soo whispered, his name so sought-after but so rarely found on her lips that he faltered for a second before remembering to respond.  “I would like, if you would let me, to call Hochon my home now.”

          “That—” Would make his heart soar.  Made him want to hold her.  Sent him further down the stream.  “Of course.  Of course you may.  That would make me very happy.”

          “Thank you.  I was glad to visit.  And to know I may whenever I want.  But I, I missed you.”

          “I missed you, too.”  They were words he had heard Ji-Min say to Tae-Hyung only yesterday, something sweet yet sad behind them.  They made him move his hand higher, collecting her hair and growing bolder, no longer trying to avoid touching her back or neck but actively trying to now.  The first brief brush against her skin, so unknown but not unwelcome, and Jung-Kook could see the goosebumps on her already.  

          Her hair was still so wet, though, and the room was growing chilly, perhaps, but they remained when he touched her again.  He didn’t know if he was done.  Didn’t know if combing her hair had been the objective at all, but her hands wrapped around her hair and brought it all over her shoulder, discoloring the other side of her robe, revealing her neck to him as she tilted her head just a little more.

          He had no practice for this, then.  Combing finished, tool put aside, he was back in unknown territory.  Ground he had never walked on.  Areas meant to be explored but terrifying enough to almost make him stop.  He wanted, though, to take the first step and walk as far as he could until he was sent back or got lost.

          Jung-Kook had held Kyung-Soo’s hands enough to know now that they were deceptive.  While they sometimes held calluses or had dirty nails, the roughness didn’t extend to the rest of her body.  At least, not to her neck.  Not to her face.  She was so soft and pure that Jung-Kook felt his own hands were too coarse, too hard even if he barely touched her.

          Unsure of how far, of how much he was allowed to touch, he wrapped his fingers around her neck until he found her opposite ear, her wet hair gathered there before sliding back, tracing the parts of her collarbone left uncovered, slipping just the tips of his fingers under her robes to feel the rest.  Put his thumb on her chin and watched her breathe and lick her lips and look at something that wasn’t him.

          “Kyung-Soo,” as beautiful as her name, looked at him when he called.  The space between them disappeared as he scooted closer, his leg bent behind her as he put his other hand on her hip as he bent down.  She was so small, he feared she might break, but she wasn’t fragile.  Still, he kissed the junction between her neck and shoulder gently, spoke to her softly, moved slowly.

          “Kyung-Soo, I would like some tea.”

          “Of course, my lord, let me, let me make you some.”  He would have to release her to do so.  He thought the words would be enough.  It was all symbolic, anyway, wasn’t it? Ceremonial?  The actual process didn’t have to happen, did it?  She didn’t have to get up and slip out of his arms and leave his room, did she?

          Waiting.  She was gone for too long.

          Thinking.  Thinking.  Had he made a mistake?  Said the wrong words?  Misread the situation? 

          Placing.  Positioning.  Perfecting.  The tray between them.  Their legs crossed on either side.  Two cups side by side.  The kettle of warm water.  Kyung-Soo’s hand on the handle.

          Swirling.  Twirling.  Spinning.  Tipping.  The water in the pot.  The tea in the cup.  Jung-Kook’s heart beating loudly.  Kyung-Soo’s hand trembling slightly.  Her eyes wide at his.  Her mouth parted lightly.  The “oh.”

          The breath of realization.

          The skipping of the sipping.

          One man, one woman, one husband, one wife, ready to be one.

 

          And now, she would be washed away or carried to shore.

          And now, her question would finally be answered.

          “Will he be good to me?”

          And now, their lie would be over. 

 

          “Let me, my lord,” she said even if she trembled because he was trembling, too, nerves and anticipation but not fear, it couldn’t be fear, not with the way they were looking at each other, shy but confident glances, small but sincere smiles.  They both didn’t know, they both couldn’t know.  It was what she hadn’t understood for so long.  They were both in too deep, both had lost their footing, and they would either swim or sink together.

          “What should I—” he asked even as she pulled at his sash, the tray of tea no longer in their way as they stood before each other, waiting to be revealed.

          “Whatever you’d like, my lord.”  Pretending put aside.  She meant it.  For him to take her, to have her, to make her his wife.  She wanted that.  She had wanted it the night of their marriage.  Except she wanted him now, too. Something beyond marriage she didn’t know existed.  But she wanted, whatever he would give her, she wanted.

          “I don’t, Kyung-Soo—” he tried as she removed his robe, her hands moving up his chest and over his shoulders to push it off.  He had worn one of his bests to greet her.  Not one to ride or spar in, but one for dinners and parties and ceremonies.  One meant to impress.  He was impressive, much more than his clothes, and good, so good.

          “Will he be good to me?”

          He must.  He would.  He was Jung-Kook.

           “Are you sure?”

          “My lord?”

          “Whatever I’d like?”

          “Anything.”

          “What if I want to,” he said, her hands steady now on his warm and firm chest, as he bent down, his hands on her face a gentle contrast to how strong she knew he was.  He kissed like an explorer wary of traps.  A hunter being careful not to scare his prey.  A lover worried of losing control.  His lips shook against her neck and along her jaw before they found their place and their footing against her lips.

          He wanted.  And Kyung-Soo wanted.

          And Jung-Kook was quiet.  An observer.  Always up for a challenge.  Careful and kind.  But a man of action, as well, always eager to prove his words.  He didn’t have to tell Kyung-Soo what he wanted.  He could just show her.  She could show him, too.

          They could see each other, dinner over but the day not.

          He would see her.

          “What if I want,” he mumbled against her ear as his hands moved to the last thing keeping her hidden.  She had wrapped herself up lightly in her exhaustion—in hopes of? In anticipation?—which meant the layers barely resisted his hand slipping under them, his warm large hand palming over her ribs, holding on tightly as he kissed her neck again.  Fingers on his pants and his chest and his arm and his hair, anything to keep her from falling over as he took a deep breath and refused to let it out as his thumb touched the swell of her breast before the rest of his fingers joined it, cupping her gently enough that she almost felt tickled before he squeezed, curling herself closer to him.

          “What if I,” he whispered, his other hand pushing through her robe’s folds to grip her bare hip as he straightened up, his hand on her breast moving up to her shoulder to push her fabric aside and leave her half bare, her sash still untouched around her waist.  He was looking, a bit too much looking and not touching, so it must be her turn.  She wanted his hair down, her own still wet and cold on her exposed shoulder and back now as she reached for his.  Soft and long, it gave her plenty to hold onto as she brought his face down to meet hers.

          The trembling was back even as he held her neck and brought their hips together.  Not fear.  She couldn’t be afraid.

          “What if,” he gasped, his excitement stripping away his control as he moved quickly, his hands moving to the outside of her thighs, her butt, as he lifted her up even as he kept his mouth on her, her hands pulling hard on his hair as she wrapped her legs around his waist.  Clashing, then, tongues and chests as he walked smoothly to their bed.  She was practically exposed already, her skirts pooling by her hips as he held onto her back and thigh even as he knelt on their mattress, only letting go of him when he guided her down.  He let go, then, of her lips as her legs let go of him, though he stayed close, so close she could see his long lashes and wide eyes.  His hand, moving up her thigh as he watched her face, the cold air hitting more and more of her skin even as his warmth hovered over her.

          Nothing left between them but one more layer of clothes.

          “My lord,” she tried to say confidently as she reached for his pants while he reached for her final sash.  He would see her, now, and she grabbed his face to kiss him again, to tell him, to ask, to beg him as his hand gliding past her thigh to her hip, pausing for a moment as she clung to his lips, before making its way up, up to where he had touched her only moments ago, where she wanted him even if it was where she didn’t need him, and—

          “What?”

          “My lord.”  He was warm and firm under her hands, but she couldn’t push his pants down if he was moving away from her.

          “What is this?”

          “Please, my lord.”

          “Kyung-Soo.”

          “J-Jung-Kook, please.”  Back on his knees on either side of her thighs, so close to where she needed him, the burning in her skin intensifying and changing its route as he looked at her.  “P-please,” she sobbed, trying to sit up and reach for his pants, his hands, but he grabbed them both and pushed them aside before holding her down, before looking, before seeing her, his hand on her stomach and the other one tracing over the once soft skin right above her left hip.

          “Kyung-Soo, what is this?”

          “A scar, my lord, a scar, please, I know it’s ugly, but please—”

          “Kyung-Soo, where did you—how did you get this?”

          “An accident, my lord, when I was younger, please, I was playing in the barn where I shouldn’t have.  Please, Jung-Kook, please.”

          “Kyung-Soo,” her husband—no, not yet—said firmly, the look or the words or the desperation, the begging, the pleading in his own voice he gave her finally making her break.  “Don’t lie to me.”

          “My lord, my lord, please!”  Had she cried since she was a child?  Since she received the very scar Jung-Kook was touching?  Had she ever been so afraid? Since she had been pulled from the river?  Since she heard of the arranged marriage to Kim Jung-Kook?

          “Kyung-Soo, why do you have this?  Tell me.”  The command, almost a question, because Jung-Kook was good, he was good, he would be good to her even though he saw, even though he knew, even if she told him.

          “My lord, please, please.”

          “Kyung-Soo, this, this doesn’t look like it got here by accident.  Just, just tell me why you have it.  Please. Please don’t lie to me.”

          “I can’t, my lord, I can’t.”  The shaking made her forget reaching for him and made her try to cover herself up, but she couldn’t hide the ugly mark on her skin that Jung-Kook wasn’t going to let her hide anymore.

          “Kyung-Soo,” Jung-Kook said, the last time he asked nicely, she could tell, his pleading bleeding into anger.  Anger she deserved.  She had lied.  But she couldn’t tell him now.  “Please.”

          “I can’t, J-Jung-Kook, I can’t.”

          She couldn’t tell him, not now.

          And he couldn’t stay with her, not now.

          It ripped.  It tore as he stood up.  It gasped and shook and tumbled out of her as he stepped off of the bed. 

          Vision too blurry even as his was clear now, she could only try to stumble after him before collapsing on the floor, following him out of the room impossible.  Following him was impossible.  She could never follow him.

          The door shutting shut her, too, down, down on the floor where she belonged.

          “Will he be good to me?”

          How foolish.  How naïve.  How high she had thought herself to ever think a good lord could ever be expected to be good to her.

 

          His former self must have been a monk, thus gifting Ho-Seok not only with luck and good fortune but also the freedom to sin in men’s eyes with men’s eyes and feel no remorse whatsoever.

          How could he feel anything bad at all when he felt so good?

          Bless his master for thinking of him.  Bless Ji-Min for finding him.  Bless Tae-Hyung for joining them.  Bless even Kyung-Soo, who took him away from them for just long enough that he felt dizzy the second he entered his room, nothing hiding the sight before him even if they were trying to muffle their sounds. 

          Not the way he liked to take him, but Ji-Min looked beautiful on the bed, the sheen on his naked skin shimmering every time he arched his back or tossed his head or lifted his arms, but it was Tae-Hyung’s preferred position.  Despite his roughness, faces, faces were all that mattered.  The one time he tried to turn Ho-Seok, around the older man made him stop immediately because that simply wasn’t what Tae-Hyung liked.  The lord had fought him, hard enough that Ho-Seok had to hold him down as he cried for fear he would hurt himself or someone else, but Ho-Seok and Ji-Min knew Tae-Hyung.  His father didn’t.  No one else did.  Some days not even Tae-Hyung knew himself.

          Ho-Seok ached for the man in his entire body.  His skin burned for him, yes, but his heart hurt with every beat for him whether they were apart or together.  Even together, they never were completely, not like his master and his wife were.

          But carnally?  Physically?  Ho-Seok could be with his boys in those ways as much as their bodies could handle.  He liked days of going slow, of stretching out thoroughly and edging and teasing until someone cried or threatened to punch him, of holding each other more than anything else, but those days were too rare, too precious to wait for.  Ho-Seok was lucky, but he wasn’t delusional.

          “You two never wait for me.”

          “On the contrary,” Tae-Hyung grinned, holding Ji-Min down as he tried to reach for Ho-Seok, “we’re just getting ready for you.”

          “How kind.”  Of them both, certainly, but how cruel that in all his luck and blessing Ho-Seok only had two hands.  One for each of them, as he moved Ji-Min’s knee over and up so he could get a better view of Tae-Hyung moving in and out of him and put his other hand on Tae-Hyung’s back to feel his muscles constricting and moving with every thrust.  The smile came naturally, remembrance of times when Tae-Hyung had to be guided and taught so he wouldn’t hurt them.

          “But why are you here?” his curiosity made him ask, his hand on Ji-Min allowing Tae-Hyung to reach for him and pull him in for one of his sloppy kisses as his movements slowed.  While he loved to watch, he hated being left out, so Ji-Min whined, pulling himself up by holding Ho-Seok’s wrist even if Tae-Hyung tried to protest.

          “Jung-Kook took me to get him yesterday.  Aren’t you glad?  Aren’t you glad to see us?” the boy started mouthing at any piece of skin he could reach, the desperation rank on him as Ho-Seok pulled away from Tae-Hyung and pushed on his back so he crashed into Ji-Min.  The gasp, the cry, the grunt, Ho-Seok swallowed them all as he grabbed Ji-Min’s face to kiss him, as well.  Glad didn’t begin to cover it.  Nothing could.  Certainly not his hands, his body.  But he could try.

          “So glad, love.  So glad.”  The reassurances, the touches, his presence quieted Ji-Min even as he grew louder, and there was no time to waste, no time to stop and admire him, only time to feel him and touch Tae-Hyung, to be with them and in them until they were spent, the room and bed and their bodies so warm Ho-Seok could even forget it was winter.  In their room, if only for an afternoon, it was summer again, and Ho-Seok felt alive.

 

          “He said he’s found a wife for me.”

          If Ho-Seok could burn a word, destroy it, never hear it again, that would be it.  What was so special about wives?  What could they do that a husband couldn’t?  Was being married and raising children really all they should be expected to do?

          He hated the word.

          But he hated that he was powerless against it more than anything else.

          He was only blessed, lucky, to never be forced to marry.  No one cared about a servant’s future.  But he was cursed, doomed, to watch someone he loved be forced to take a wife.

          “Let’s run away.”  The same idea he had heard every time, Ji-Min’s words mumbled into Tae-Hyung’s skin, the anger of years past slipping away into despair since Jung-Kook’s wedding.  The room was too cold now as Ho-Seok slipped out of bed unable to look at them as he pulled on his clothes.  Never shame or regret or guilt for being with them, always over feeling powerless to keep them together.

          “I’m going to the kitchen.”

          They might be asleep by the time he came back.  They might be crying.  Or fighting.  Or fucking again.  But they would at least be there.  At least for the time being.  At least until Ho-Seok had to let them go.

 

          Ho-Seok knew what Jung-Kook looked like drunk.  What he looked like injured. Hurt over something small and minor when he was being a childish brat and over something serious and big when he was questioning his purpose in life.  Excited over something tiny and giddy to the point of giggling.  Sad to the point of tears when a beloved animal died.

          But shaken?  Scared?  Jung-Kook was shy, yes, and hesitant over many things, and anxious, but never scared.  Not truly afraid.  He didn’t know how else to describe the look in his master’s eyes when he found him outside his door, though, his eyes wide, his robe not even on correctly, his hands shaking a little.

          Not scared.

          Mad.

          Ho-Seok had seen Jung-Kook mad.  Though rarely.  The time he was angry enough to move beyond playful wrestling when he grew tired of Seok-Jin’s teasing.  The fire in his eyes scared Ho-Seok enough for him to pull the boy off of his brother unprompted.  Better to endure a reprimanding than have a man murder his brother.  But Jung-Kook didn’t get angry, at least not visibly.  Not to the extent he was now.

          “Jung-Kook?”

          “Ho-Seok.  Oh, Ho-Seok.  Thank god.  Come here.  Help, help me.”

          Not mad?  Scared?  Both.  For Jung-Kook to reach for him and pull him into his room was too abnormal to gloss over, so while he righted himself before the boy could manhandle him anymore, he was still stunned when Jung-Kook closed the door behind him and leaned against the wall with his arms over his chest.

          Ho-Seok had seen a few naked women in his life, mostly accidentally, so the state of Kyung-Soo’s undress didn’t surprise him badly.

          It was that, if he had rarely seen Jung-Kook angry or scared, he had never seen Kyung-Soo cry.  Not even when she was forced to leave her home and marry a stranger. The room looked undisturbed, and apart from the girl crying on the floor, nothing seemed abnormal.  Still, he couldn’t help but look at his master and eliminate the worst possibility.

          “Did you hurt her?”

          “What?  No! Kyung-Soo, show him.”  The name or the command made the girl sob and curl up tighter, her small hand reaching out.

          “P-please, my l-lord, please.”  Jung-Kook didn’t move.  Barely reacted.  It made Ho-Seok want to shiver, the tension in the room too thick.

          “Kyung-Soo, my lady, are you hurt?” he asked next, going to kneel beside the girl.  Her eyes weren’t on him as she shook her head, though, her mumbles and gaze stuck on reaching Jung-Kook.  “What’s wrong, then?  Can you tell me?  Can you show me?”

          “Please,” Kyung-Soo said over and over before turning her efforts to Ho-Seok, her grip hard on his wrist as he put his hands on either side of her to try to find what was wrong.  “Please, Ho-Seok, he’ll kill me.”

          “Jung-Kook?” Ho-Seok couldn’t help but scoff despite the obvious fear in the girl’s eyes.  He even huffed at the boy against the wall before trying to calm his voice and calm her all at once.  “He wouldn’t dare lay a finger on you.  Why would you say that?”  This was no coaxing Ho-Seok was used to, and he could tell asking her was getting nowhere.  He looked at Jung-Kook again for help, but the boy merely shook his head.

          “Kyung-Soo, show him.  I don’t want to force you, but I need him to see.”

          “What is it?  Kyung-Soo, show me.”

          “H-Ho-Seok, please, I c-can’t.”

          “It’s on her left hip.”

          “What is it?”

          “A scar.  Except it’s not.  At least, I don’t think it is, but she won’t tell me how she got it, and I need you to look.”

          “P-please, Jung-Kook, it was an accident.”

          “Don’t lie to me.  Ho-Seok, look.”

          “Yes, master,” he said, knowing when Jung-Kook was past mere suggestions.  The girl thankfully didn’t fight him, but the way she went limp and quiet was almost more disconcerting as he moved her robe aside carefully. 

          Her skin, risen and misshapen and discolored.

          Ho-Seok’s heart, sinking to his stomach.

          “This is a scar, my lord,” he said carefully.  “But not one you could get accidentally.  This is a brand.”

          “Are you sure?  I was afraid—I—you’re sure?”

          “You may not use them in Hochon, master, but I am positive.  It may not be custom here to brand your servants, but apparently in Sabuk it is.  Though I thought they were usually reserved for servants who try to run away.”

          “Ho-Seok, Ho-Seok, I don’t, I don’t—”

          “I’m sorry, Jung-Kook,” Ho-Seok said, standing up and moving away from the creature on the floor who had gone still and quiet.  “I’m not sure who this is, but she isn’t Je Kyung-Soo.”

Chapter Text

 

12. “I'm not upset that you lied to me, I'm upset that from now on I can't believe you.” 

― Friedrich Nietzsche

          “Jung-Kook, my son, one day you will be able to do whatever you want.  Someday you will find someone to love who will love you back.  One day.  One day you’ll be happy like you deserve to be.”

          “But when?  When, mother?”

          “It may be tomorrow.  Or years from now.  Do not close yourself off simply because your brothers have played some harmless prank on you.”

          “But they lied, mother.  They said they wouldn’t leave me.  They left me.  And I couldn’t get out!  I couldn’t get out.”

          “Oh, my child, what you must understand, if you are to have any positive interactions with your fellow man, is that sometimes people don’t do what they say they will.  This does not always mean they have lied.  It certainly doesn’t mean that they meant to hurt you.  Your brothers were merely playing.  If they knew you would be so hurt, do you think they would have left you in that chest for so long?”

          “Yes!  They scared me!”

          “I know, Jung-Kook.  Come here, darling.  I promise your brothers did not mean to harm you.  They didn’t mean to lie, either.”

          “But they did, mother.”

          “I know.  Just sit here with me for a while, yes?  Look at how big the sky is.  Do you see? You can see so far now.  Do you feel the breeze on your skin?  Feel the way it touches your cheeks just like this?”

          “That tickles!”

          “It does.  It is here to protect you and comfort you, too.  Never forget that, Jung-Kook.  It wants you to be happy, and I do, too.  If you ever forget that, come here to see me or sit here by yourself, yes? Jung-Kook, darling, do you hear me? Jung-Kook?  Jung—”

 

          “Jung-Kook?  Master?”

          “I’m fine, Ho-Seok.  I just—I heard you.  I just don’t understand.”

          “I don’t either, my lord.  Except—while in Sabuk, I overheard, I heard—”

          “What?  What did you hear?”

          “I heard Ky—I heard her talking to her servant who—well, I don’t want to assume, but—Kyun—no, lady?  My lady?  I need you to tell us who you are.  If you’re not Kyung-Soo, who are you?”

          “Where is Kyung-Soo?  Did you—is she alive?”

          “Y-yes!  Yes, my lord!”  The creature, lifeless on the floor, sparked to life for a moment before flickering back to its own ashes, unable to fully rise itself out of the embers that had burnt it.  Its eyes lingered on the floor, unable to rise again, its form curled into itself for protection, still barely covered, its limbs trembling and frozen all at the same time, the life almost completely gone out of them despite the lungs still filling and emptying.

          “Where is she?  Where is she, then?”

          “My lord—”

          “No.  No, Ho-Seok. Where is she?  Who is this?  What am I—what am I supposed to do?”

          “Calm down, first,” Ho-Seok said, sighing as he stood up, the girl on the floor clearly unwilling or unable to respond for the time being.  She wasn’t going to hurt Jung-Kook.  Ho-Seok knew of her strength, but it was mental more than physical.  He could easily overpower the girl if he needed to, but the state that she was currently in assured him he didn’t need to worry about her in that sense.  In others, however.

          Years ago, during the famine, when people lost their senses in their need to survive, he could remember when a crazed man broke into the house threatening to kidnap or kill or harm and hurt lord Kim’s family. Seok-Jin had taken matters into his own hands and promptly escorted the man out with fortunately no injuries or further mishaps, but the entire house had been rattled and more on guard for the following weeks than they ever had before, a vigilance they didn’t know they previously needed suddenly occupying their every thoughts.  With so much of their time and energy and every thought already spent worrying about how to provide themselves and their household food, Ho-Seok remembered everyone being even more stressed and exhausted.

          But such a physical threat had never been real since then.  No one wanted to harm the Kim family.  They weren’t rich or high enough to gain much from doing so if anyone even dared.  This girl, whoever she was, surely hadn’t come to, hadn’t meant to harm Jung-Kook.  Ho-Seok had always struggled with his letters, was lucky and blessed the Kim family pressed him to learn them anyway, so he knew he wasn’t the smartest servant in the house, but he could tell Kyung-Soo—no, this girl—had a wit about her that could rival even Nam-Joon, but he couldn’t imagine her to be malicious.

          People have surprised him before, though, and the unsurety, the unclarity left Ho-Seok uncertain as to what to do next, too, but he had to go with his guts, his instincts, his nature, and he had to take care of his master first.  Whoever this girl was, she wasn’t his lady anymore.

          “Jung-Kook, give me a moment with her—”

          “What?”

          “Please, it will be fine, just go—go clear your head for a moment.  Go, Jung-Kook.  Leave her with me.  She will be alright.  Go.”

          He opened the door for Jung-Kook who stumbled out without another word or look at the girl, the confusion and worry and pain on his face obvious enough.  Sliding the door shut behind him, Ho-Seok turned back to the creature on the floor, his master forgotten and yet the only thing on his mind as he kneeled down beside it.

 

          A dog.  The family had had a dog once.  Jung-Kook, as a child, had witnessed a servant beating it once.  The starved thing had stolen food from the kitchen, perhaps, or it jumped up onto someone’s pristine clothes and soiled them with its dirty paws.  He had never been a particularly angry or violent child, but he had run at the servant with his little fists swinging as he yelled at him to stop.  It was his title, his name, his position that made the servant stop.  If he had been any other little boy, the man would have ignored him and maybe even turned a blow upon his head as well.

          He could still visualize how that dog had cowered and whimpered under the man’s hands.  How it had slunk away looking defeated and abandoned and utterly alone. Jung-Kook could remember when he saw it next, looking shy and forlorn and yet so hopeful as it eyed him from across the courtyard.  How excited and grateful it had been when Jung-Kook gave it a bite of his meal.

          He could still feel, too, the day the dog had lain down and not gotten back up.  The panic he felt.  The way his heart seemed to have been ripped out of his chest.  The guilt and regret he felt.  The words Ho-Seok had said to him when he came to comfort him, a teen who shouldn’t be crying at all.

          “Leave her with me.  She will be alright.”

          He knew and yet didn’t what Ho-Seok had done with the dog, no longer a living thing but merely a corpse, a shell that had once held so much life, food, hope, and love.

          The image of Kyung-Soo on the floor, crying and blubbering and then simply going silent and still was not lost on him.

          It was a previous lesson come to the forefront of his mind.

          She looked like an animal, small and pitiful, weak and completely at the mercy of others to take care of her.  She looked like a corpse, or more like a ghost, pale and frightened and yet haunting the way she looked at him and yet didn’t all at the same time.

          His feet tried to carry him down the hall; to where, he wasn’t sure as he walked, his mind too preoccupied, his thoughts jumping from one conclusion to another, but each one always ending in the same two dichotomous results.

          Love or betrayal.

          Two choices, so simple and yet so complicated.

          Forgive her or don’t.

          Carry on the lie or make her confess to everyone.

          Release her or keep her.

          Everything—his mind, his heart, his weary body he was somehow still dragging with him—told him to not simply send her away but drag her into the streets, the yard, a courtroom to expose her to everyone.  To pull her hair and toss her shaking frame to-and-fro until her teeth rattled and she couldn’t hold herself up anymore.  To push her into the dirt and let her stay there, ruined for everyone to see.  For them to laugh.  And punish.

          But they would kill her.

          Or hurt her.

          And Jung-Kook thought of the dog.

          He thought of himself.

          Of Ho-Seok and Ji-Min and his cousin Tae-Hyung.

          How they would look if they were dragged into the open.

          The defiance that would surely be on their faces.

          The silent tears they would shed.

          The looks they would exchange one last time.

          The longing to touch and hold and comfort before they were sent away or done away with.

          And his heart faltered just as his steps did.

          The room before him was empty, his brother Nam-Joon gone back to his home with his wife.  Seok-Jin, the best brother, the one that made their father proudest, would not, could not understand.  He would do his duty and what was right and tell Jung-Kook to hand the girl over.  To let their father decide her fate, as he was the one she had lied to.

          But Jung-Kook saw her there on his floor, devastated and helpless and so lost, and Jung-Kook couldn’t help but feel the same.

          If not revealing, then what?  

          Forgiving?

          Carrying on the lie?  Pretending to be married to someone he wasn’t?

          But not even married.

          Not officially, not finally, not completely.

          His own fault, to be laughed at and ridiculed himself for not completing his duty so many nights ago, on that first night, on their wedding night.  An embarrassment.  The youngest brother, the insignificant one, the one who worked so hard but would never have his father’s love like his other brothers did.

          To admit his own failure was impossible. Incomprehensible.

          But to not would add another lie to another lie, and Jung-Kook found himself leaning on the wall in front of him.  He could feel the wood, how many splinters threatened to sink into his skin if he felt along its coarse ways.  He could smell hay and manure and the wood itself, everything slightly damp in the night air, but it was Yaho’s hair that finally broke him, the sob muffled into the confused but delighted horse’s mane as she stamped and shook her head a little as she woke up.

          Some crazed idea of running away seemed to be on both of their minds, the horse confused about a ride in the night but excited about the new sounds as she made her way carefully out of the yard.

          A tree branch, unseen by the pair of them usually so in-sync, jostled Jung-Kook’s thoughts again as it brushed against his hair and forehead, his eyes blinking rapidly instinctively to protect themselves. The more he blinked, the more his eyes adjusted to the darkness, the more he could perceive where previously was only nothing, and the longer he rode, the more time he spent with his hands clenched around Yaho’s mane, the more the cool night air hit his skin and filled his lungs, the more he saw.

          A frightened girl, lying on his floor, cold and alone, frightened and confused, whose fate was entirely in his hands.

          And yet his was in hers, too.  No ribbon bound them together anymore, and yet their fates were intertwined, and he coaxed Yaho into slowing down as he made their way back to the stable, a frown still on his face, his mind still in deep thought, his heart still aching for what it had lost and gained, the loss only adding a weight, in such a short period of time.  How quickly life could change.  How suddenly.

          And yet.

          And yet.

          And yet.

          Whoever the girl was, whatever her name was, Jung-Kook loved her.  He had fallen in love with her laugh, with the way she teased him, with the flirtatious looks in her eyes, with the way she gnawed at her left forefinger whenever she was confused as he taught her to read, with the way her eyes would go wide when she understood something, with the grace with which she moved, with the strength she clearly displayed, with her.  Not her name.

          He did not love her name.

          And yet a name gave a thing identity.

          Creatures without names were merely animals.

          But those with names became pets, friends, family, loved ones.

          The name brought affection and connection, but not life.

          The girl was someone.  And then she was someone else.  Or she was the same person all along only under a different name.

          Jung-Kook didn’t love her because she was Kyung-Soo. Because she wasn’t Kyung-Soo.

          And yet, he sighed as he got off of Yaho and cooled her off and stuck his face into her mane again as he took several deep and slow breaths, if she was acting like Kyung-Soo and he loved her for her attributes and she would now act differently, then did he love her at all?

          To reveal her would bring pain.  More than he already felt.  Not only to himself, but also to this girl.  To her family and his own.  The option wasn’t even a thought Jungkook could entertain.

          And if not, then the choice was to keep lying. But to lie would bring him great pain. Just the thought made his stomach twist and made his heart want to skip so many beats it stopped all together. He could lie; he did lie; despite how much he hated it, Jung-Kook was human.  He had lied before and would lie again.

          But to be married to a lie?  To live a lie?  To become a lie in and of himself?

          To become what he hated the most in the world seemed unbearable.

          And yet.

          And yet.

          And yet.

          “And yet,” Jung-Kook told himself, nuzzling Yaho’s neck one last time before patting her a few last times before shuffling back to the house, his bare feet soiled by the dust they kicked up in the courtyard. And yet his mother’s words from years ago had come back to him.  When is a lie not a lie?  Or, if a lie, when is a lie good?  Can something he had been told growing up was bad ever be good?  Was the world not so simple?

          Ho-Seok and Ji-Min who were wrong and yet not. Who didn’t act like servants should and yet who worked harder to be just that than anyone else in the house.

          Tae-Hyung who was so wrong and yet not.  Who loved who he shouldn’t and yet loved more than anyone else Jung-Kook had ever known.

          They were wrong.

          And yet.

          And yet.

          And yet.

          Jung-Kook knew they were not.

          And himself.  Who had neglected to do his duty, to make the girl his wife, to lie with her and become one with her on their first night.

          He was wrong.

          He had failed.

          He was a pathetic man not worthy of the title.

          And yet.

          And yet.

          And yet.

          He had done it out of love or out of respect or out of something he didn’t quite have a name for but knew deep down was right. It would have been wrong to hurt her, that much he knew.

          So she had lied.

          She had lied.

          She lied.

          And she was wrong.

          And yet.

          And yet.

          And yet.

          And yet Jung-Kook went back.

          He opened his door slowly, the room all but quiet now, and nodded to his servant who was not just his servant who nodded in return and slipped away without a word and sat down next to the creature on the floor.

          This girl who was not Kyung-Soo.  

          Who was not his wife.

          Who was nothing at all but a liar.

          And yet.

          And yet.

          And yet.

 

          Words—languages, inflection, speech, names, titles, lies—had a significant power that nothing else could ever rival.  Eun-Jae learned this at an early age.  And silence, whether forced or chosen, perhaps its only competitor, could almost equal its severity and influence.  

          She had watched, time after time, as words, as telling the truth, got people in trouble.

          “Did you touch this?  Did you steal this?  Did you break this?  Did you do this?”  Those who answered correctly were punished.  Their backs were whipped, or their knuckles were broken, or their meals were taken away or, in one extreme case, their lives were ended.

          It wasn’t until the incident in the barn that Eun-Jae learned to lie, her kind heart too previously set and intent on doing right.  Whether she was motivated by fear or an intrinsic desire to do good, she had been unable to lie before even if it resulted in being hit for her mistake.

          She wasn’t old enough for a brand yet, but Yoon-Gi was.  His father had finally passed, so the boy was going to be with the Je’s until he was sold or until he died, too.  He still had some of his fire left in those days, back when he still had his words. He would use them, too, often relentlessly.  He made Eun-Jae cry so often but mostly because she didn’t know he was teasing.  She didn’t know his words were actually filled with love when he made fun of the way she and Kyung-Soo looked.  How could she know that the same word said with a different inflection or in a different context could mean the opposite of what it usually meant?  She was but a child.

          And yet old enough to know what was right and wrong.

          It was wrong, she knew, to steal out of her room with Kyung-Soo.  She knew it would be wrong to let her go alone, though, so their small hands stayed tightly clasped together as they snuck out, their bare feet quiet across the yard as they approached the barn.

          She didn’t understand and yet she couldn’t look away from Yoon-Gi’s face.  His pale body seemed to shine by the fire, the flames reflected in his deep eyes as he grit his teeth and clenched his jaw and curled his fists and stood tall.

          He looked so brave, so solid, so alive, Eun-Jae couldn’t help but let out a gasp when he did nothing but wince when the brand hit his skin, the sound and smell of his flesh burning—so little and so quickly and yet so permanent, so significant—making her want to pull away, to throw up, to cry, but Kyung-Soo held her hand firmly and grit her own teeth, watching the boy she loved so much already endure what they all thought they understood.

          But how could they?  They were but children.

          That was why when her father left, and Yoon-Gi finally sunk to the ground, his pain finally showing as tears streamed down his face as he looked at but didn’t touch the brand upon his skin, Kyung-Soo moved and dragged Eun-Jae with her.

          How could she not?

          They were each other’s shadow.  Best friends and sisters and yet not, and their other part was hurting.  They rushed to him, and only Eun-Jae stopped when he told them to go away, when his anger seemed to be directed at them, because she thought they were right to be there.  Kyung-Soo ignored him, though, and swatted his hands away that didn’t dare touch her. She touched without touching and said nothing, her quiet so rare that her two servants, her two best friends, eyed her silently as well.  The look in her eyes they should have recognized.  They had seen it before, countless times before she proposed a mischievous plan to the pair of them.  They always agreed, because how could they not?  

          But now, as she stood and reached for the brand, still so hot and glowing red like the scar upon Yoon-Gi’s skin, Yoon-Gi yelled before crying in pain, unable to move, and Eun-Jae froze.

          A dream.

          It felt like a dream.

          It must have been a dream.

          “If you are mine, then I am yours,” Kyung-Soo said, so proud, so foolish, as she lifted her dress, screaming in frustration and anger finally ripping out of her as she tore at the cloth in an attempt to find her skin.  Everything was backwards.  Upside down. Eun-Jae thought she was dreaming as Kyung-Soo screamed one more time, a sound so angry and yet hurt, so unlike her usual laughter and playful nature that nothing seemed real as she pressed the brand into the first patch of skin she could find.

          The brand, flung down.

          Her body, flung beside it.

          Yoon-Gi, speechless as he crawled to her, calling her stupid over and over while still crying.

          Eun-Jae, frozen, a mere spectator until the pounding of footsteps and deep voice that so often made her quake coming from behind her made her turn around, her eyes wide and mouth open for a split second.

          That was all it took, really, for her to know what was right.

          It was wrong, and yet the only thing she could do. So she did.

          “I did it!” she yelled, the power of her voice surprising the man and herself and both of her friends.  “I did it!” she screamed again, the power of the lie or the fear of the consequence making her tremble all over.  She had to shout so she wouldn’t crumble.  She tried to clench her fists like Yoon-Gi did.  She tried to stand proud like Kyung-Soo did. She tried to be who she was not.

          But the man’s hand still sent her sailing across the floor.

          Because she was but a child.

          And she was still weak.  She had not learned how to be careful of her words.  How to use them properly.  How to yield their power so that those in power were powerless before you.

          So she didn’t kick or scream or protest as the man cursed at her.  He picked up Kyung-Soo, because he was her father, and took her away, leaving Yoon-Gi and Eun-Jae, who were not but his servants, lying in the dirt next to each other, their eyes red and skin burning.

          She lay there, unable to move, until he came back, still cursing her name, the only thing she owned in the world, and she thought again, if only for a moment, that she must be dreaming as he ripped her clothes and pulled them away and yanked them aside.

          She knew it wasn’t, though.

          And she knew she must have screamed because her throat was too raw the next day.

          And she knew she must have fainted because she woke up in Yoon-Gi’s room with his hand on her head.

          And she knew, then, that despite the pain, no matter how much it seared through her skin, even if it pierced her own heart, she would say anything she needed to keep her friend safe.  To protect Kyung-Soo and Yoon-Gi, Eun-Jae finally knew what she could do.  The brand on her skin would serve as a reminder.

          Kyung-Soo, with her title, with her place as daughter and only child and beloved pet.

          Yoon-Gi, with his quiet strength and tenacity and perseverance and fierce loyalty.

          And Eun-Jae, with nothing, nothing but her words. She would use them.  She would say anything if it meant keeping Kyung-Soo and Yoon-Gi from pain or more trouble.

          Yes, for them, Eun-Jae would lie.  

          She would learn to be wrong because she knew it was right.

          They were all she had, so she would use them to protect all that she cared about.

          So she lied.

          And lied.

          And lied.

          And then.

          And then came Jung-Kook.

          And Eun-Jae could not lie anymore.

 

          She was just lying there.

          Still lying there.

          And he was just sitting there.

          His eyes were growing tired, though, and the adrenaline had left his body.  He felt weary.  His spontaneous night ride and flurry of movement and rapid heartbeat had exhausted him after days of waiting impatiently for her to get back, and now, now, as he sat and waited, he couldn’t anymore.  With a sigh, he got up, noticing how the girl’s eyes didn’t even track his movement. They didn’t move at all, though, except when her eyelids blinked occasionally, but stayed glued to the spot in front of her.  He wasn’t sure if she would even hear him if he said anything, but he did anyway, feeling like remaining silent for much longer would drive him insane.

          “I’m going to bed,” he said, tugging uncomfortably at his robe.  “Come to bed?”

          She didn’t, and he stepped around her and turned away from her and closed his eyes and sighed deeply.

          But he did not sleep.

          He wondered if she did.

 

          She did not.

          She did not move, in fact, except to breathe, not even when Jung-Kook woke up and leaned over her, said something she didn’t comprehend and frowned at her when she didn’t respond.

          She wanted to.  She wanted to explain, but the words had been going around and around all night in her head, and no matter how she thought of them coming out, they wouldn’t be right.  They wouldn’t sound right.  She wouldn’t be right.  And so she said nothing.  She couldn’t say anything.

          It was Ho-Seok, who had pleaded with her and tried so gently to get her to talk to him last night, being brought back in by Jung-Kook, the younger boy’s voice sounding too panicked, too concerned, too caring, all things she didn’t deserve, who finally made her move.  Not because he convinced her or motivated her with anything he said, but because he bent down and picked her up, her body limp in his arms, mumbling something about soiling herself.

          It was only when the daylight and the cold air of morning hit her, her eyes instinctively blinking rapidly from the assault of the brightness as she huddle closer to the man’s chest, that she roused herself a little, Ho-Seok’s figure becoming clearer with each step he took. He was touching her with too much care, something too nurturing, something too kind in his voice when he put her down and helped her stand.

          “Hold on,” he said, putting her hands on his shoulders.  She did nothing until he reached for her robes, and then she grabbed onto him so tightly he winced a little, his intentions unclear for a moment until he mumbled again.  “I need you to go.”  In another time, another place, if she was someone else, she would feel ashamed and mortified, but instead she let him help, not even sure where she was.  He helped her re-dress and then proceeded to pick her up again, her eyes blinking at him in confusion.  

          The more aware she became of him as they walked back to the house, the more confused she became.  He had brought her back to Jung-Kook’s room.  He put her down and told her to stand still so she did. She wasn’t sure she could do anything else as she watched him rifle through her clothes and pull out a clean robe, muttering something under his breath about too much fabric.  She only moved when the door slid open quickly, the way it bounced back a little from the force making her jump and then sink to the floor when Jung-Kook was there, a tray in his hand he almost dropped when he saw her and watched as she was the one to drop to the floor.

          “Shit,” Ho-Seok said outright, abandoning her clothes to come to her side.  His attempt to lift her up were almost futile as she refused to look at Jung-Kook, but she at least slumped over with her hands in her lap as Ho-Seok held onto her back where he was crouched down beside her.

          “You need to eat, my lady,” the man said, but she couldn’t understand why he was saying that, why he was calling her that, why he said it so seriously and so gently all at the same time.  The tray in front of her looked appealing, and the smell was appetizing, the porridge she had gotten for Jung-Kook weeks before recognizable, but that only made her push weakly at Ho-Seok’s arms.

          “Stop that,” he said, as if she was some petulant child.  She slunk a little more, not wanting him to sound so disappointed or upset with her, and stopped moving as he scooted away from her.

          “Jung-Kook, I really think you should talk to your mother. Or Ji-Min?  Send a messenger to Nam-Joon, perhaps?  I could go today.”

          “No, Ho-Seok,” Jung-Kook said, sitting calmly on the other side of the tray, his eyes clearly trained on her.  “Thank you, though.  Just—just tell everyone she is sick.  I will look after her today.”

          “They’ll want to send for a doctor—”

          “Not today, Ho-Seok, please.  Give me some time.”

          “Whatever you want,” Ho-Seok said, holding the girl’s shoulder and trying to peer into her face one more time.  “Talk to him?  For all of our sakes.  Please.”  She said nothing, though, even if she wanted him to stay, something about his presence making her feel safer. She wasn’t afraid of Jung-Kook—never was and never would be—and yet Ho-Seok seemed experienced in ways he wasn’t, and she felt the need for him, something reminding her of Yoon-Gi who always made her eat when she was sick even if she never wanted to that made her miss her friend so much she let out a silent sob for a second that made both of the men in the room go still, perhaps on edge in case she was going to say something, but she pressed her lips together again and went still as Ho-Seok moved away.  She tried not to fall over as his support left, and she tried not to cry when the room grew silent again, Jung-Kook watching her carefully.

          But she did the second he picked up the chopsticks and a glob of porridge and lifted it toward her mouth.  Or she screamed no.  Or said nothing.  But she flung herself to the ground and covered her face and refused to look up, lying as low on the floor as she could.

          “Why—” Jung-Kook whispered, his voice sounding surprised but not angry like he should sound even when she knew the chopsticks had gone flying and the food had ended up somewhere it didn’t belong.

          “Alright,” he said next, still too softly as she heard the rustling of his fabric and his warmth getting closer.  She tried to get away, but the bed was behind her, a small barrier but one nonetheless, large enough to stop her, and she stilled when his hand, large and calm, landed carefully on her hair.

          “I’m not mad,” he whispered after a moment of them both sitting still, his hand unmoving on her head.  “Surprised, yes.  Very confused.  Hurt. I—I went to see Yaho last night I was so confused.  It—in hindsight, I shouldn’t have left.  I’m sorry I left.  I just didn’t know what to do.  You scared me.  You’re scaring me now.  I need you to talk to me because I can’t do this on my own.  I can not figure this out by myself.  We have to talk about this.  I need you.  Do you understand?  I need your help.  We’re—whoever you are, we’re married, aren’t we?  

          I’d like to know—I’d like to know who I’m married to.  Can’t you—can’t you look at me?  Talk to me? Just tell me?  It’s—you don’t have to move fast, just, please sit up. Please.  I don’t—I don’t know what to do.”  When she didn’t respond, she fully expected him to withdraw, for him to leave again, but his hand only moved to smooth over her hair a few times, and in a moment she heard another noise, something that almost sounded pained and yet soothing coming from the back of his throat.  It was an odd enough sound for her to lift her head a little, just barely, her scalp running into his palm more than anything else, and he hesitated for a second before continuing.

          He was singing, she realized, though almost every other word was a mumble or a hum more than a distinct word, but whatever the song was, the tone was obviously sad, but she couldn’t cry or tell Jung-Kook that, instead she reached for his hand on her head with her own and held it firmly, trying to make him stop but continue all at the same time.  She squeezed his fingers so hard she was sure he would pull away or tell her to stop, but instead he only chuckled, the sound low and under his breath so shocking she only held his hand harder.

          “So strong,” he mumbled, his grip still overpowering her so he could be the one slotting his fingers between hers and twisting her hand a little off of her head and to the ground.  She couldn’t help sitting up a little then to avoid falling over, the shift in her balance causing her eyes to look up finally.  The gaze Jung-Kook gave her made her want to duck and hide and look away again, but he smiled, just barely, but enough for her to choke, her voice pleading and desperate as she clasped his hand tighter.

          “I’m sorry!”

          “It’s—” Jung-Kook faltered.  She was wrong.  It was not alright.  “Eat something for me?  Then we will talk if you feel better.  Alright?” A nod as he scooted closer, his hand never leaving hers as he reached for his own pair of chopsticks to try giving her another bite.  She stayed still this time and opened her mouth obediently when it was close enough, when he was close enough, her eyes not leaving his face now as she chewed quietly.

          Nothing was forcing their hands to stay together.

          Nothing was keeping him beside her.

          Nothing was said in the silence.

          And yet they sat beside each other.

          And yet he didn’t leave.

          And yet so much was said with no words at all.

 

          She spoke slowly, story after story seeming to surface the more she said.  They trickled and dripped out of her until they poured out so quickly Jung-Kook felt like he was being swept away by a current he hadn’t seen coming and would never be able to keep his feet in.

          Most of what she said he had no context for. He couldn’t understand half of what she said simply because he lacked an image for it.  How could he picture the man who had beat her so often?  How could he imagine watching his own parents starve and waste away?  How could he even consider never having any siblings, even if his own brothers growing up sometimes seemed too mean and oppressive?  How could he relate to having no future because his name meant nothing, barely even existed, belonged to someone else and indicated to all the world that he belonged to someone else?  How could he understand only feeling like he had a purpose if he was helping someone else?  How could he imagine being afraid for years of dying, of wasting away, of not having enough to eat the next day?  How could he even consider watching his best friend on the verge of death who managed to survive but would never speak to him again?  How could he relate to all of the fears and dangers being a woman and a servant and a woman servant brought with it?

          A thousand questions came to his mind, each sounding more stupid and surprising in his mind, but he asked none as he was afraid she would stop talking altogether if he interrupted her once she started.

          She told him her name, Eun-Jae, her family name forgotten years ago when she became property of the Je household at the age of seven.  She told him of her best friend, Yoon-Gi, a pale and small but fierce and strong boy who was often sick, his voice lost forever years ago even though he refused to die.  Of their lady, Kyung-Soo, who took after neither her mother nor father and wanted nothing to do with becoming a lady.  Of her love for Eun-Jae.  Of how they were almost sisters but definitely loved each other even stronger than any sisters would.  Of Yoon-Gi’s love for her like a brother but for Kyung-Soo like a lover.

          She told him of Je Hae-Chul, Kyung-Soo’s father, who was strict and cruel but jovial and charming all at once.  Of how Kyung-Soo hated him and her mother the older she got as they started to make plans for how to use her to raise their station, countless plans and schemes for who to marry her off to in order to make the most profit.  

          Innumerable nights spent whispering into the morning of their own plans.  Plans to run away, to rebel, to be someone else anywhere else.

          She quieted, the more she talked, as if she was sharing a secret, and in fact she was.  Her entire life, her life, not the lady she served and slept next to and called her sister and best friend, was soon lain out in front of him for him to examine and weigh.  Her confession reminded him of himself when he was younger standing before his father, his hands behind his back, his head hung low, as he admitted to his guilt, whatever mistake or fault he had made and done that day being revealed.  But the more she spoke, the less she cowered, her quiet voice not ashamed but almost reverent as if she was looking at herself for the first time, too.

          And perhaps she was.

          This Kyung-Soo turned Eun-Jae.  Eun-Jae who became Kyung-Soo in order to protect herself. She had worn the mask so well that it was like seeing yourself after the paint was washed away when the performance was over, the first look making you start a little before you squinted and really looked only to see yourself staring back.

          Jung-Kook wondered, the more she told him of who she was, if he was even the same person he had been the night before.

          He wondered, after Ho-Seok had brought and retrieved their lunch tray, after Eun-Jae seemed out of words and sunk against his shoulder to close her eyes, after she drifted off to sleep with no frown on her face, after he watched her sleeping long enough to see she was the same person he had come to love over the past few months, what he was supposed to do next.  Another wave moved past him as she stirred in her sleep and pressed herself closer to him, and he reached out for the hand closest to his if only to keep himself from being swept away.

          If she sunk, he would sink with her.

          Their lies may drown them, but he wasn’t going to let her go.

 

          The floor was warmer and softer than she remembered.  Squishier, too, and more pliant and moveable than any floor she had slept on before. It smelled clean, too, and felt right under her fingers, but the more she blinked her eyes awake, the more her tips felt over the muscle and soft skin, the more she woke up, the horrifying realization settling in of where she was and who she was touching.

          A scramble, then, to move away as quickly and as quietly as possible, but the centimeter she crossed was enough, Jung-Kook mumbling and reaching out for her, but the name from his lips was not her own. She wasn’t who he thought she was. She had told him everything, and he had said nothing.

          And yet.

          And yet he was there.

          But she made to get away from him anyway, moving herself to the floor where she belonged, his voice calling her again as she curled up and away from him, the cold and hard floor feeling right underneath her.

          Another call, the wrong name, before Jung-Kook grew quiet.

          Then he sighed, rustling around for a moment before his voice was close to her ear, so close she squinted her eyes shut.

          “Eun-Jae?  What—what are you doing down there?”

          “Where I belong, my lord.”

          Another sigh.

          “Don’t do that.  Don’t say that.  Come back up here.  Please. Please?  I’m cold.  Eun-Jae?”

          “You can’t.  We can’t.”

          “What do you mean?  Would you—could you turn around and look at me?”  She really felt like she couldn’t, and Jung-Kook seemed to know it.  His face soon appeared in front of hers upside down as he leaned over her, his hair falling out and around his face, trailing along the ground as he smiled gently at her before turning himself right-side-up and crawling around to sit in front of her.  He scratched his chest and yawned, the room much darker than she remembered it being the last time she saw it.  But a lot had changed since she remembered it last.

          “What can’t I do?  Or we do?”

          “I’m Kyung-Soo, my lord.  I have to—I have to be.”

          “I know,” Jung-Kook sighed.  He looked young sometimes to her, his face so innocent and unblemished, unmarred with years of toil and struggling to survive.  He had seen and done so little, had experienced so little of the world, had barely known what it meant to even be alive.

          “I’m older than you,” she blurted out, watching the way his brows furrowed and then sprang up as his eyes widened.

          “No.”

          “Yes.  Just—just a year,” she mumbled into her hand she curled up under her chin.

          “So you’re—you’re older than Kyung-Soo?”

          “Yes.  But Yoon-Gi’s the oldest.”

          “That’s—” Jung-Kook said before rethinking, a light smile on his face.  “That makes sense.”

          “It does?”

          “Yes,” Jung-Kook sighed, the way he looked away making Eun-Jae look up at him, frowning in confusion at the tiny twinge? of pink on his cheeks.  When he didn’t explain further, she uncurled and clenched her fists a few times before venturing them forward to touch the robe around his knee.

          “My lord?”

          “You just have an air about you.  Like you—it’s nothing.”

          “My lord,” she said, pulling on his robe now.

          “If I have to call you Kyung-Soo still, you have to stop calling me that.  That’s only fair,” Jung-Kook said, huffing a little as he looked his age when he stared at her with the beginning of a pout on his lips.

          “I am sorry,” she whispered, only a few words to try to express everything she wanted to apologize for.  Jung-Kook seemed to understand, if the way he reached for her hand again was any indication.

          “Me too,” he mumbled, the inclusion in her crime making her stomach twist even as she pulled herself up again to sit beside and across from him.

          “Ho-Seok my—Ho-Seok, will he—”

          “He won’t say anything.  Don’t worry.  He can even keep secrets from Ji-Min and Tae-Hyung if he’s pressed.  I will press him.  Don’t worry.  Don’t—I’m more worried about, well, your—Kyung-Soo, the real one.  How did she plan all of this?”

          “When father, her father, died, she finished planning everything.  She and Yoon-Gi were so close to just running away, but she loves her mother, in her own way, and even her father.  I think a part of her couldn’t leave them, not completely.  But she got rid of every servant.  Set them free.  Hired only who we absolutely needed when we decided to be each other.  And others, well, kindness can buy you many favors.”

          “So can money,” Jung-Kook mumbled.

          “We are not, the Je’s are not a family so high in rank for anyone to care that much.”

          “Not high?  More people know your—Kyung-Soo’s father’s name than mine.  The man who saved us all.”

          “May I, my—may I tell you a secret?”

          “A secret?” Jung-Kook said carefully before laughing and smiling playfully, a gleam in his eyes making her stomach swoop even lower.  “I feel like that is all you’ve been telling me.”

          “A lie and a secret are different.”

          “They both seclude.”

          “But a secret also includes,” she frowned, wondering who had told him what she had heard before, too.  “And they aren’t synonymous.”

          “But sometimes they are.  You lied.  And I lied. And we kept each other’s secrets.”

          “Only, my lord, I knew about yours.  You—mine was simply a lie,” she said quietly, swallowing despite her dry throat.

          “Our secret, our lie.  Your lie, our secret.”

          “My lord, you don’t have to—”

          “Jung-Kook,” the man said firmly but not harshly, straightening up a little and causing her to want to do the same.  “Listen, you said you did this, lied and married me, because you love Kyung-Soo and Yoon-Gi and would do anything for them.  But do you—do you now—will you stay for them? Or for me?”

          What should she say?

          What could she?

          She would stay for them.

          She had never considered anything else.

          Had never thought he would be so good.

          She had stayed for them.

          And yet.

          She would stay for him.

          She would stay for them all.

          “You would really let me?” she said instead, though, too afraid he wouldn’t believe her, too afraid of him not meaning it in the first place.

          “I don’t know what to do,” he admitted, sounding defeated but looking only strong and sure.  “But I know this will all be easier if you stay with me.  Yes—I want you to stay.  I am not ready to give you up so easily.  We’re married, after all.  And perhaps it’s selfish.  Continuing the lie.  Or it’s self-preservation.  I have thought a lot, especially after everything you said.  It felt only wrong at first, but I think I see, or I am trying to see, and trying to understand now how it isn’t that simple.  My mother once told me, and I am sure Nam-Joon has repeated to me at some point or another even if I wasn’t completely paying attention, that I wouldn’t understand love until I found it for myself. I thought—I thought,” the boy said, looking away even while he held the girl’s hand, “that I had found that in you. And I know now I did, though it wasn’t your love for me that made me see that.  I am afraid I am making no sense.  I want you to stay.  Not just because it will be easier.  I want you to stay because I don’t care what your name is.  A name is just that.  I am nothing without it, because once I began to exist, I was given one, but the name did not make me.  You are not your name, Eun-Jae.  Kyung-Soo. But you are my wife.”

          She was not.  Not quite.

          And yet.

          And yet she nodded anyway.

          How could she not?  How could she even try to deny that he too had her love, even if it was barely springing out of the ground and had only been watered a few times? It was going to grow and be solid and sure and sound.  It had been through its first storm, and it had come out only stronger.

          “I will.  I will stay, my—Jung-Kook.”

          “My Jung-Kook?” the boy said, smiling at her even as she sighed a little and tried to look away.

          How could she, though?

          He hadn’t left her.  He wouldn’t let her go.  

          So why would she want to leave?

Chapter Text

 

13. “I guess sometimes you have to lie to find the truth.” ― Scott Westerfield

          The way they talked long into the night, side by side again, whispering like they were afraid others would hear them and not understand, reminded Eun-Jae of growing up, of being pulled into Kyung-Soo’s bed because she refused to sleep alone.  She would always say something about needing to protect Eun-Jae, but they both knew that it was really Kyung-Soo who couldn’t stand being alone.

          And the way Jung-Kook’s eyes lit up as she talked, her lips moving faster than her brain could even keep up as she recounted story after story, reminded her of Yoon-Gi.  Of the way he always looked so enamored when Kyung-Soo told him one of her wild ideas or said something inappropriate that made Eun-Jae choke on her rice and blush furiously as Kyung-Soo only cackled and Yoon-Gi grinned.

          He looked so eager, so starved, and the wonder in his eyes only made Eun-Jae want to slow down.  Want to savor every word she told him and save some for the next night. It only made her a little sad, only made her understand a little more clearly.

          She couldn’t imagine what his life had been like. A boy, the youngest of three, a noble. He seemed to know so little and yet clearly had knowledge that she did not.  But the way he looked at her, the way he spoke to her, the way he almost reached out to her was clear enough.  She would have understood it no matter who she was or what her life had been like up to the point, because the look he had was one all humans had.

          Above all, Eun-Jae knew Jung-Kook just wanted a friend.  A companion. Someone to love.

          He had Ho-Seok and his brothers and his mother and even Ji-Min and Tae-Hyung, and yet each were not quite what he needed. Something kept them apart whether their rank or relation or sex or position or location.

          But with her…

          In her…

          She could give him something no one else could. Could be what no one else had been. She understood what he meant about it sounding selfish in a way.

          She felt selfish, the way she kept him from sleeping as she kept talking.

          She was afraid.  Afraid the moment she stopped talking he would change his mind.

          So when she woke up the next morning to tense whispers in the hallway, her stomach sunk as she slunk to the floor, his previous words forgotten as she tried to find her place on the hard wood, as she pressed her cheek against it and tried to wake up while shutting her eyes.

          She didn’t listen; listening would be rude and was not her place.

          But she liked listening to Jung-Kook’s voice. It had a deep cadence, though it was never as low as Yoon-Gi’s had been.  Sometimes, just a few times, when Ji-Min was practically teasing, Jung-Kook’s voice had gone particularly shrill when he whined, though he had always managed to school himself when he noticed she was watching or listening, but Eun-Jae loved that.  She loved that he seemed to have a different laugh for every occasion that changed depending on who he was with or how comfortable he felt.  She wanted to laugh when he tried to laugh like Ho-Seok or when he was obviously trying not to laugh hard by suppressing a giggle.  When sometimes he cackled or simply opened his mouth but no sound came out as he smiled and rocked back and forth.  She loved how young he sounded, how his voice was rarely filled with sadness and certainly never laced with it.  He spoke differently than everyone in Sabuk.  Even from Ji-Min and Ho-Seok.  Something in their eyes, in their laughter, was always trying to cover some sadness up she couldn’t quite understand, but Jung-Kook had none of that.

          He was so rarely angry, too, or mad, his voice never rising except when he was exasperated or annoyed with one of his brothers or servants.  He was so different than the men Eun-Jae had grown up with, and she couldn’t help but listen, even if she knew she shouldn’t.

          They were speaking of her, anyway, which was all the more reason she shouldn’t listen.  But she was used to hearing without listening.  Years spent of pretending not to hear a word had trained her. She knew how to lie and act like no words had formed themselves in her ears and registered in her brain as relevant. She was so good at it, in fact, that the words hummed over her, making the light trying to start the day distorted in front of her, dulling all other sounds to a light buzz that dazed her mind enough to where she didn’t hear the door opening at first.

          She heard the curse under a breath, though, and saw the bare feet in front of her.  She felt the hand on her head again and heard, and listened to, the voice calling to her.

          “Kyung-Soo?  Kyung-Soo? Get up, please.  I need you to pack.”

          “I’m just saying, Jung-Kook, I just got back, and he won’t be happy about me leaving again.”  The other voice, clearly exasperated, belonged to Ho-Seok who stood at the door, the look of concern on his face not cruel when she opened her eyes to look up at him.

          “Then bring him with you,” Jung-Kook said, sighing a little as he stood up.  “I would think you would welcome the opportunity to see your sister, anyway. And you told me to clear my head. I did.  You told me to make a decision, so I am.  We’ll go see Nam-Joon, and you won’t tell Ji-Min or Tae-Hyung until I talk to my brother.”

          “You can trust them.”

          “I know.  I just—I trust Nam-Joon.  I want—I want some time.  I know you may think I’m weak, but I do not trust myself to face father right now. Or mother.  I know I have already lied to them, but this, this seems—”

          “You’re not,” she said, sitting up and watching the man pull out clothes from their combined armoire.  “Not weak,” she clarified when he looked over at her. “If anything, I—”

          “No,” Jung-Kook stopped her, his eyes looking determined before he cleared his throat and looked away as he resumed folding a robe. “We’ve already established you’re not weak.  Will you come to my brother’s with me?  I trust him, but it is up to you, too.”

          “Of course I will go, my—yes, I will go.”

          “Come help me pack, then, I don’t—I don’t know what you need.  Ho-Seok?”

          “Yes, my lord?”

          “Bring Ji-Min with you.  Bring them both.  Just go get ready, please.”

          “Of course, my lord.  Let me know what else you need.”  The sliding of the door shut made her move, standing up slowly and walking toward the man as quietly as possible.  Her head felt dizzy, and her mouth was dry, and her face and body felt dirty and stained with tears and drained from crying, but she forgot herself when she noticed how much Jung-Kook’s hands were trembling as he tried to fold the shirt he was wearing.

          “Jung-Kook?” she said gently, reaching for the shirt and touching his hand in the process that stilled under her fingers as he took a deep breath.  “What is wrong?  Was it—did I do something?  Say something?”

          “No, no.  God. No.  I just—I feel a little like I’ve been told the sky isn’t blue at all but yellow or green or black.  No,” Jung-Kook said, shaking his head and losing strands of hair from his loose bun as he did, “I am just confused.  But not. I stand by what I said yesterday. I will stay with you.  I will protect you, Kyung-Soo.  I know that is right.  But I also know what you did was wrong, and that makes me feel wrong—”

          “You did nothing, my lord.”

          “Jung-Kook, Kyung-Soo,” the boy sighed, taking her hand completely and letting the shirt drop to the floor in the process as he turned toward her.  

          “You did nothing wrong, Jung-Kook.”

          “I don’t know.”

          “It was only me.  Me and my lady and Yoon-Gi.  It was our deception.”

          “But I asked you to lie for me, too.  All in an effort to protect myself.  To keep my brothers from ridiculing me or—no, no, that doesn’t matter right now.  Can you pack, Kyung-Soo?  Can you go with me to my brother’s and help me figure out what to do?”

          “Of course.  I stand by what I said last night, too.”

          “Good.  Good.” The sigh of relief he let out made her want to hug him, made her want to sigh herself, made her want to cry a little. She didn’t blame him for not quite believing her; she wasn’t sure he would ever truly believe her again.  She knew it was one reason why she had said so much in the past two days, had told him almost everything she could think of, every truth she owned and every fact that made her who she was in an effort to make him trust her again.  It wouldn’t be that simple, though, but she could only hope time and telling him the truth from now on even while living a lie would be enough.

          It would have to be.  Her words and her actions were all she had to give him now. They would have to be enough.

          She would have to be enough.

 

          It was all a little too much, the way he couldn’t look his mother in the eye as she hugged him goodbye.  A little too much when Tae-Hyung and Ji-Min and Ho-Seok grumbled and yet were obviously excited about an adventure, about something to do, about plans they were already making.  A little too much, the way Kyung-Soo walked so closely behind him and bowed so politely to his mother and wished her and his father well in their absence.  It was a little too much, the way his mother smiled fondly at his wife and gave her blessing as they left, only making them promise to come back soon and send her love to Nam-Joon and Min-Ji.

          It was all a little much, and Jung-Kook was glad the ride would take a couple of hours.  Glad for Yaho who would ask him no questions and not talk back to him as he rode.  Glad the day was sunny, making the chilled air less harsh on his already pinking cheeks. Glad he felt relief already the moment he decided to go and visit his brother, one decision seeming safe and smart amid all of the questions he had.

          It was a little much, though, as Ji-Min climbed onto the carriage and Tae-Hyung got on his own horse and Ho-Seok loaded their bags and then aimed to help Kyung-Soo up into the cart when she turned, her hand in his servant’s, to look at him as he adjusted Yaho’s straps before mounting her.

          “Jung-Kook?” Kyung-Soo said, looking back and forth between him and the carriage with a small frown.

          “Yes?”  She had something to say or something to ask, clearly.  He had learned a lot in the past twenty-four hours alone, hours spent lying next to her and simply watching her eyes as she spoke had given him plenty of experience to know now, but he knew, too, that she wasn’t going to say or ask what she wanted to.

          It was too much for her, too, he realized.

          “It’s just a few hours,” he explained, hoping that was her question.  She nodded and said nothing else as she got in and Ho-Seok closed the door behind her before joining Ji-Min so they could all leave.

          It was all just a bit much, but Jung-Kook took a deep breath and swung his leg over Yaho and followed the carriage out of the courtyard, his mind already racing as the voices of his servants and cousin, his friends, filled the air around him.

 

          She could still count the amount of times she had ridden in the carriage on one hand, so while she knew it, while she was familiar with the ornate patterns on the wall and the plush pillows beneath her and the secure way it kept out the sun and cold air, she was not yet comfortable riding in it.  Especially alone.  It felt more like a prison cell, like a pit she was dropped into or a closet she was locked in as some form of punishment more than anything else.  It was oppressive, and the muffled voices and laughter she could hear outside and around her only made it worse.

          But she knew her place.  Women rode in the carriage.  Men could, too, but Jung-Kook had chosen to ride his horse.  She wasn’t surprised by the fact.  But it wasn’t what she wanted.

          And perhaps she was selfish.  Or weak.  Or becoming reckless after telling Jung-Kook so much, but she opened the window after what felt like an eternity and called out for him.  The chatter of Ji-Min and Ho-Seok and Tae-Hyung died away for a moment before continuing when Jung-Kook appeared in her view, bending down a little into Yaho’s mane to look at her through the window.

          “Yes?”

          “I was—I was wondering if I could ride with you instead.”

          “With me?  It’s still a long way to go.”

          “I ride well, don’t I?  I will make it.”

          “I don’t doubt that, my lady,” Jung-Kook said with a smile, narrowing his eyes for a second before sitting back up. “Ji-Min, stop for a moment, will you?”

          “Of course!  Everything alright?”

          “Yes.  Kyung-Soo just wants out.”

          “Oh, are we stopping?” Tae-Hyung said, pulling his horse to a halt and walking in a circle before proceeding to hop off of his saddle, tossing his reins to Ho-Seok.  “Thank god.  I need a piss.”

          “Tae-Hyung,” Jung-Kook said, rolling his eyes as he used his saddle to get down, holding onto Yaho’s reins as he opened the door of the carriage for Kyung-Soo.

          “What?  I’m sure she’s heard worse.”

          “I have, in fact,” Kyung-Soo whispered to Jung-Kook with a knowing smile of her own as she took his offered hand to step down.

          “It’s the principle of the matter,” Jung-Kook shouted past her to his cousin.  “One shouldn’t speak in such a manner in front of a lady!  It isn’t proper!”

          “It isn’t proper to fuck men, either, but that hasn’t stopped me yet,” Tae-Hyung said, waving a hand over his head as he stepped off of the road.  The simultaneous laugh that Ji-Min tried to stifle, the groan that Ho-Seok let out, and the eye roll that Jung-Kook couldn’t resist all made Kyung-Soo bite back her smile as she stood next to Jung-Kook, his hand still in hers.

          “I apologize for him,” Jung-Kook whispered.

          “Nonsense,” she whispered back, nodding at Yaho to let Jung-Kook know she was ready.  She mounted the horse with ease, Jung-Kook’s hands guiding and helping her when she needed it, and watched and waited for him to join her before putting her arms around him.  He was still for a moment as he adjusted the reins in his hands before one of them, already a bit calloused and rough from the cold and the leather because he wasn’t wearing gloves for some reason, lay on top of her fingers.  Jolted a little when he lightly urged Yaho forward, Kyung-Soo rested her cheek on Jung-Kook’s back, already feeling, despite how sore she knew she would be after the journey, more comfortable out in the open behind him.

          “Piss faster!” Ji-Min yelled before cackling as they started to slowly move, Tae-Hyung coming out of the bushes soon to race after them with a curse no lady should hear.  Kyung-Soo couldn’t help but muffle her laughter into Jung-Kook’s robe, though.  She still didn’t feel like she quite belonged, but seeing the men talk and laugh together, seeing the way they teased and smiled and interacted helped.

          She was not alone, and that, if nothing else, made the journey that much easier.

 

          Unable to ignore how close Kyung-Soo was, Jung-Kook found himself unable to let go of her.  Something about the way she had been trying to distance herself, trying to put herself below him, trying to look away when she was afraid she didn’t deserve to be looking contrasted so well with how she was leaning on his back now that he couldn’t help but keep his hand over hers.  Yaho didn’t need him to hold her reins with both hands, anyway. The horse followed the cart Ji-Min was driving almost lazily like she wasn’t sure if they were just out for a ride or on their way somewhere but didn’t care either way.  Jung-Kook didn’t care, either, even if he knew their destination.  He hadn’t really been concentrating on what Ji-Min and Ho-Seok and Tae-Hyung were talking and laughing about when their journey started, and he certainly wasn’t now, the murmurs of their high and low voices drifting by him more than anything else.

          “I’ll just take Kyung-Soo’s place, then!” Ji-Min said loudly enough at one point to get Jung-Kook’s attention, though he wasn’t sure if it was the volume or the girl’s name that made his ears perk up. The way Ho-Seok laughed and Tae-Hyung urged his horse closer to the cart to keep Ji-Min in his seat as he tried to stand up and flop the reins down reassured him they were merely joking, Ji-Min’s tone more petulant and annoyed than serious.

          “Are they often like this?”  The question on his back asked through a smile made Jung-Kook startle slightly before he straightened up, liking and hating being unable to see her face still kept her so close to him.

          “All the time,” he replied, trying to make sure he sounded amused more than annoyed.

          “They seem happy.  They remind me of how Yoon-Gi and Eun-Jae and I interact.”

          “You?  Or?”

          “How she acted with us,” the girl corrected.  “There never was much separating us.  Except father.  Her father.  I—I want to still be careful with my words, my—even when it is just us.  But I don’t want—I don’t want you to think I’m still lying. I want to talk to you freely as you wish, I just—”

          “I understand.”  The squeeze of the hand and the soft nod against his robe made him sure she did, too.  “Speak how you would, then.  I know now, at least.  So.”

          But she didn’t for quite some time, her mouth silent behind him.  He could feel the way her arm had loosened around him, and he desperately hoped not because she wanted to let go but because she trusted him to hold her securely.

          So he did.  Glad to use his strength and balance to keep them both upright.  Her other arm and hand he couldn’t feel, though the way Yaho kept shaking her head a little and nickering made him wonder if Kyung-Soo was petting the horse as they walked.  Almost overjoyed when she finally spoke again, her words close and quiet.

          “Would you tell me about your brother? Nam-Joon?  Why—why are we going to see him?  Did you already talk to Seok-Jin?”

          “To Seok-Jin?” Jung-Kook mumbled, hoping he wasn’t sounding rude.  “No, I couldn’t.  I wouldn’t talk to him.”

          “Why not?”

          “I just—he is the oldest.”

          “So?”

          “So.  He has always been the one to go and tell father if something had gone wrong.”

          “Oh?  That wasn’t you?”

          “What do you mean?”

          “Nothing,” she shrugged.  “I just pictured you running to your father if your brothers were mean to you.”

          “I di—” Jungkook almost stuttered, shutting his mouth and sitting up straighter as he hummed.  His voice was quieter when he spoke next, and the way Kyung-Soo laughed was expected.  “I ran to mother.  But I was no rat!  I was just a—a—”

          “A what?”

          “I was a child, is all.”

          “Shouldn’t you have been?”

          “What do you mean?”

          “As a child, shouldn’t you have been a child?”

          “Well, yes,” Jung-Kook said without thinking. “But I took longer to grow out of my childish ways.  As the youngest, I think that, yes, perhaps it took me longer to mature.”

          “At least you were able to be a child for a long time,” Kyung-Soo said softly.

          “Do you—” he almost said, but the stories she had told him were answer enough.  He felt bad for trying to make his childhood sound hard at all when he knew now still but a little about how difficult her life had been when she was still young. At least he had a childhood.  Shaking his head, he chose to answer her question instead, running his fingers over the back of her hand before placing them securely over it again.  “My brother Seok-Jin has always been very good about doing his duty.  As the oldest, he looked out for us well.  He attended to mother when father couldn’t. He learned how to run the house at a young age when we were all so afraid father would die.”

          “Your father was ill?”

          “The famine, I mean,” Jung-Kook said, shifting a little uncomfortably as Kyung-Soo made a noise of understanding.  “And I am glad for my brother.  I am glad he is good at doing so many things I have never had to do. But there has always been some sort of distance between us.  I thought, at first that—”

          “That what, my lord?” Kyung-Soo said, trying to peek around his shoulder a little when he got silent.  “Jung-Kook?”

          “I thought,” he tried not to mumble, “that getting married might help things.  Like he might view me more as a man instead of a little brother.  But—”

          “Why shouldn’t it?” Kyung-Soo said, going back to pressing her cheek against his back.  “Though I doubt the ceremony of wedding another is what makes a boy a man. If your brother thinks that, then I suppose I understand.  I am sorry he doesn’t see you as such already, though.”

          “He does.  I mean, in a way, I know he does.  He knows I am strong.  That is one thing that has kept us somewhat close.  But when he got married and moved into his own house—time, the years have always kept us separated, it seems.  And I can not catch up.  We are just not as close as Nam-Joon and I, to answer your question simply.  I learned much from watching Seok-Jin over the years, but Nam-Joon was the one who taught me more growing up.  His view on life, too—he has always reminded me more of my mother, while Seok-Jin resembles our father.”

          “And you are a mother’s boy,” Kyung-Soo said, no teasing in her voice but Jung-Kook still mumbling something incoherently anyway. The pair rode in silence for a moment, their other three companions anything but, before Kyung-Soo’s other hand came to rest on Jung-Kook’s thigh, the sudden appearance of it even if it was gentle and almost unnoticeably making Jung-Kook twitch a little.  Yaho nickered at him before stomping her foot as he jerked her reins a little to make her be quiet.

          “Will you tell him?”

          “I—don’t know.”

          “I see.”

          “Do you—I won’t if you don’t want me to.”

          “No.  He is your brother.  It is up to you.”

          “No,” Jung-Kook said, tapping her hand around his waist again.  “It is our decision now.  I want to tell him because I want to hear his advice.  I know what he will say to me as my older brother.  I am not sure what he will say to me as Nam-Joon, though, or as a husband to Min-Ji.  I can ask him without explaining—”

          “I trust you,” Kyung-Soo said simply though it was not simple at all.

          “Right,” Jung-Kook said, unsure what else he could say. He was glad, for a moment, that she could not see his face.  She would probably have poked fun at his smile and how his cheeks darkened, after all.

          She asked him another question, then, a question of his childhood and his brothers, and he was happy to tell her stories, an exchange finally being made after she had shared so much with him.  The time passed quickly, then, and the sight of Nam-Joon’s house in the distance almost made him sad.  They would have to part, soon.  He tried to stop himself, really, to not be so childish, but when he got down and offered his hand to her to help her off the horse as well, he didn’t let go as they headed inside the courtyard.  

 

          The air seemed colder only a few hours away from Hochon, or it was how she was only touching Jung-Kook’s hand instead of his entire back, his warmth leaving her as she stood close to him.  Lining up to be presented in a courtyard was becoming commonplace in her life, and even though the man had seemed polite, and she had become what one might call friends with his wife, Kyung-Soo didn’t know how Nam-Joon would react to them spontaneously showing up unannounced.  When he appeared, Ji-Min and Tae-Hyung and Ho-Seok seeming to still be bickering about something as they all got down from their horses and carriage to unload their bags, Nam-Joon looked a little flustered, wringing his hands in an effort to clean them or warm them up as he came outside.

          “Jung-Kook,” he said, his frown at least softening a little when he noticed who was making a racket in his yard, though he still looked like he was concentrating intently on something or worrying about the countless of reasons why his brother had suddenly shown up.  “Mother?”

          “No,” Jung-Kook said quickly, shaking his head and stepping forward to greet his brother, bringing Kyung-Soo with him. “Can’t a brother visit?”

          “Of course, you’re welcome anytime, I usually would just expect or at least require some kind—”

          “Hobi!”  A screech and a clanging thud echoed through the yard before a burst of color shot past Nam-Joon, a surprise on his face freezing him for a moment, and rushed toward the group of men clustered around the carriage.

          “Hyun-Mi!” Ho-Seok yelled back, abandoning the bags in his arms to meet the girl running toward him.  He easily picked her up and swung her around, the reunion sweet in everyone’s eyes.  Still, as he put her down, grinning widely at her, she returned the smile for only a minute before freezing and turning toward Nam-Joon, almost trying to hide in her brother’s arms.  Kyung-Soo could quickly tell they were related; they had the same shape of lips and wildness in their eyes, though she was much smaller than her brother.

          “I am sorry, my lord,” she said, bowing a little meekly.  Nam-Joon, now that he knew who had run past him, seemed to have relaxed.  He even smiled briefly before waving the matter and the servant away.

          “As long as the noise stays outside, you know I don’t mind.  Since you are here, you can help your brother and our guests to their rooms, though.”

          “Of course, my lord!” the girl chirped, eager to help pick up bags and waddle with her full arms back into the house with Tae-Hyung and Ho-Seok following behind, the latter’s hands full, too.  Ji-Min steered the carriage and Yaho toward Nam-Joon’s stables, seeming right at home in the place.

          “You’re sure it’s alright?” Jung-Kook was saying as he pulled Kyung-Soo gently toward his brother and the house.  “I know I should have sent you some warning, but—”

          “Of course it’s alright,” Nam-Joon smiled, all of his worry or surprise seemingly gone as he clapped his brother on the shoulder and led them inside.  “Min-Ji is just resting right now, but I know she’ll be delighted to see you.  I trust you are well, too, Kyung-Soo?”

          “Oh, yes.  Th-Thank you for letting us come,” she said, wondering if he really had a choice in the matter.  Even if he wasn’t the brother Jung-Kook thought was best at doing his duty, he still struck her as someone who was going to be polite even if he was put-out.

          “Nonsense.  Come in, come in.  I will go fetch us some tea.”

          “I can help,” Kyung-Soo offered, but Nam-Joon waved her away again as he went down the hallway, his feet bare and slapping loudly on the wood floor as he went.

          “He’ll go talk to Min-Ji first,” Jung-Kook whispered in her ear.  “Let me show you around while we wait.”  Nodding silently, Kyung-Soo followed Jung-Kook, ready to see how the house compared to their own.

 

          As a whole, Nam-Joon’s home, Supchon, was much smaller than his father’s.  The hallways were quieter and barer as well as darker, and at first the air Kyung-Soo thought was oppressive and stifling became comforting.  The quiet wasn’t oppressive but rather soothing.  There was a feeling of home, of a place lived in, in a building people loved each other in.  She could tell by the small effects lying around, in the way things were not perfect.  A book on the floor someone forgot to put away, an old tray of tea left out, the lack of symmetry in the row of shoes by the door, and, above all, the garden Jung-Kook took them to.

          “Nam-Joon’s pride and joy,” he explained.  “Apart from Min-Ji, of course.”

          Unlike the one back home that Kyung-Soo had been trying to bring back to life, Nam-Joon’s garden was thriving even among the ever increasingly cold weather.  A pond full of shimmering golden and orange fish made the entire place look more alive, and a cat sunning itself on a rock made Kyung-Soo realize that the house, above all else, simply had a relaxing air.  Whatever concerns she had along the way were already gone, and any lingering doubt disappeared completely when a door on the other side of the garden slid open and Min-Ji came out of it.  While she composed herself better than her servant earlier had, Kyung-Soo could see how she was trying to hold back her excitement as she came down the stairs, barefooted, and pulled Kyung-Soo into a hug.  Kyung-Soo felt something in her break a little, something about the way the lady wrapped her arms around her immediately filled her with a warmth she couldn’t understand.  Min-Ji’s frame was so much larger than her friend back home, and yet Kyung-Soo hugged her back fiercely, accepting the replacement while knowing she wasn’t really.  Eun-Jae didn’t need anyone to replace Kyung-Soo; she had already done that.  

          And yet she hadn’t.  The Eun-Jae back in Sabuk hadn’t been replaced, but she didn’t exist all at the same time.  It made Kyung-Soo tremble and hold Min-Ji tighter.  The lady didn’t seem to care.  If she noticed, she only responded in kind, smiling into Kyung-Soo’s cheek as she held her.  Jung-Kook watched them, his eyes flickering to Nam-Joon smiling on the porch, feeling slightly out of place as the two women reunited.  He hadn’t known they were so close, but he had to admit he was starting to realize he didn’t know much about the girl or women in general, so he walked toward his brother to go back inside, confident Kyung-Soo was in good hands.

 

          “Oh,” Kyung-Soo exclaimed the moment she and Min-Ji pulled away from each other.  The other lady laughed, already waving away whatever Kyung-Soo’s concern was as she seemed to know what she was referring to.  The lady’s eyes were red and puffy, and Kyung-Soo reached up to touch her cheek, Min-Ji’s smile faltering a little as her eyes shone.

          “I was resting is all.  I shouldn’t be napping in the middle of the day,” she said brightly, reaching up to take Kyung-Soo’s hand away from her face to hold in her own.  “So, to what do I owe the pleasure of this unexpected visit?  Nam-Joon couldn’t even tell me.”

          “Not for a lack of wanting to, I’m sure,” Kyung-Soo said, smiling now as Min-Ji led them to the porch.  They both were wrapped up enough to withstand the chill of the breeze, plus the sun’s persistency in shining through the clouds did plenty to warm them as they sat.

          “My first thought was that something was wrong.”

          “As was his.”

          “But he assured me all is well.  Is it really?  Or has something happened that you could only tell me?  I’d be delighted to hear a secret,” Min-Ji whispered closely, her smile and twinkling eyes making Kyung-Soo’s stomach drop.  She did her best to smile back.  The prospective, the proposal, the promise of sharing her secret, of sharing herself, with someone else, someone who would never be what Jung-Kook or her lady back home in Sabuk ever could be and yet was something even more.  She had learned already that Min-Ji was someone she could trust, but she also knew, above all else, that Min-Ji loved her husband.  If Kyung-Soo told her, she was sure to tell Nam-Joon who would, without insist on Jung-Kook explaining to him what had happened.

          “Only,” Kyung-Soo said, leaning in closer until their foreheads were almost touching, throwing her eyes around for good measure, “that I might be in love with Jung-Kook.”  The whispered words were not so much a lie, and yet they still were enough of a falsehood to make Kyung-Soo pull away from Min-Ji.  Her friend looked at her, blinked, and then laughed, her laughter light and merry.  The house seemed to echo it like its walls were used to the sound and wanted to hear more.

          “Well,” the woman said after a moment, a hand wiping at the tears in her eyes from her mirth, “that is a wonderful secret.  Have you told him yet?”

          “No.”

          “That makes it all the better!  We worried, Nam-Joon and I, after the ceremony, that it might take longer.”

          “Oh?”

          “At least for you.  Jung-Kook,” Min-Ji said, reaching for Kyung-Soo’s hands again after pushing her sleeves up to her elbows only to have them fall back down to cover their joint fingers, “has always been a bit of a romantic, even if he tries to deny it.  Nam-Joon told me how much he loved stories growing up.  And he’s so good.  He’s always wanted some purpose or something to save.  He has a lot of love to give.  All of the Kims do, really.  You and I are very lucky,” Min-Ji said, patting their hands with her free one and looking off into the garden.

          “Yes,” Kyung-Soo mumbled, looking off, too. Once again, the quiet wasn’t unnerving, and she soon found herself swaying back and forth as Min-Ji hummed, the low noise soon bubbling over into laughter as the lady pulled her up.

          “I’m a terrible hostess,” she said.  “We haven’t even had tea.  Come, come, I’m sure Nam-Joon made some already.  It’s the one thing I’ll allow him to touch in the kitchen.”

          “Oh?” Kyung-Soo said, no desire to stop herself from smiling as the other woman helped her up.

          “Yes.  He’s terribly clumsy sometimes.  But I can be, too.  Sometimes I seem to forget I have a body and simply bump into walls and doors and steps. Sometimes I have to lie down because my body seems to want to just give up all together.”

          “I see,” Kyung-Soo hummed, her smile dying away a little as Min-Ji took them back inside.  The lady was vastly different than she had been at Hochon, the lack of other ladies around seeming to relax her.  She wasn’t nearly as rigid, and Kyung-Soo was sure Min-Ji was acting more like herself.  Still, her smile and laughter and words and eyes were hiding some secret of their own. Kyung-Soo wanted to ask, but she convinced herself it wasn’t her place.  How could she, after all, when she had such a larger secret of her own that she would never tell the girl?  If she needed to know, Min-Ji would tell her.  For now, all they both had to worry about was finding some tea.

 

          “You needn’t worry,” Nam-Joon said as he cleared the low table in front of him so he and Jung-Kook could sit down.  The younger hummed inquisitively as they sat down, the cushion soft and appreciated after his long ride.  “You keep looking around.  She’ll be alright.  Min-Ji will make sure she has whatever she needs.”

          “Oh, yes.  Of course.  I wasn’t worried.”

          “Of course, little brother,” Nam-Joon smiled fondly, sighing as he sat down, his shoulders a little hunched over, his posture atrocious.  Jung-Kook’s gaping must not have gone unnoticed, because his brother practically snorted at him.  “If a man can’t relax in his own home, what’s the point?  Please, there’s no need to be so formal.”

          “Don’t let mother hear you say that,” Jung-Kook muttered, though he shifted his legs out from under him and relaxed a little, placing his elbows on his knees to lean forward.

          “Please.  Min-Ji and I both agreed long ago that out of everything we learned from our parents, we wanted to do a better job at letting go of things that simply do not matter.”

          “Really, don’t let mom hear you say that,” Jung-Kook emphasized, going a little wide-eyed at what blasphemy Nam-Joon was spouting.

          “I don’t mean that nothing matters.  Or even that small things don’t.  The little things, in fact, matter greatly.  They build up and upon each other.  The tiniest of creatures, like the ant and the fly, can build kingdoms and topple societies with not but a wing lifted.” That sounded more like the brother Jung-Kook knew, and he almost said as such, but Nam-Joon was waving away the idea. “But enough about insects.  I hope you know you really are welcome any time, though I can’t say I understand why Tae-Hyung is with you, but I know you, little brother, and you’ve never done anything without a purpose.  What will it take for you to tell me?”

          “Nothing, it’s nothing to worry about,” Jung-Kook shrugged, picking a little at his robe and trying to look at his brother instead of through a wall he knew Kyung-Soo must be behind somewhere.  “No need to threaten me.  I came because I wanted to talk to you.  Can’t we just talk?”

          “No.  My suspicion is only growing,” Nam-Joon said seriously.

          “Don’t you trust me?”  His voice must have wavered, just in the slightest, but Nam-Joon was the perceptive brother.  His eyes narrowed and he hummed again before putting his hands on the table, his long fingers drawing Jung-Kook’s attention.

          “Of course I do, Jung-Kook.  But after what you asked me after your wedding and this sudden appearance and the way you’re obviously acting strangely, I can’t help but wonder.  If you tell me everything is alright, I will believe you.”

          “Everything is alright,” Jung-Kook nodded, hearing the “but” in his voice as much as Nam-Joon must have, since his brother didn’t say anything else until Jung-Kook sighed a little.  “It’s just—”

          “I knew it!”  The way he snapped his fingers and laughed was unnecessary in Jung-Kook’s opinion, but he shouldn’t have been surprised.  “So, how may I help you?  Tell your big brother.”

          “Why would you say it like that?” Jung-Kook wrinkled his nose as Nam-Joon simply shrugged.  “Can you tell me if you and Min-Ji have ever kept secrets from each other?”

          “No.”

          “Wh—honestly?  You’ve never?”

          “No.  The answer is no.  If I knew she kept something from me, it wouldn’t be a secret anymore.”

          “That—” Jung-Kook groaned, hating how pleased Nam-Joon looked.

          “The real answer is I doubt it.  I am confident Min-Ji tells me everything she feels like she needs to.  Certainly the things that matter.  I trust her to.  I trust her to know if she needs to keep something from me, too.”

          “Why—what would you want her to keep from you?”

          “Oh, nothing.  Nothing.  I want her to tell me everything.  But I understand that some days she isn’t ready to.  I know it is always because she doesn’t wish to cause me any harm or pain or trouble.  And no matter how many times I tell her she will never do any of those things, some days she seems trapped in her own head and simply refuses to talk to me about what I see is bothering her.  But Min-Ji isn’t like most women.”

          “I’m sure that’s what all men say about their wives.”

          “Only the smart ones,” Nam-Joon winked before leaving a soft smile on his face.  “You know our marriage was different from the beginning, too.  Our trust was already built.  You don’t need to worry if you don’t feel like you can trust Kyung-Soo just yet.  These things take time.”

          “I trust her.  I do.  Or, as much as I currently can.  There is just—what if—is it—will it be wrong if I just wonder?  If I doubt?”

          “That depends.  Like I said, every little thing matters.  If left unattended, such a doubt, such a fear or a sense of jealousy, could fester and grow and overtake you.  If you wonder and doubt or worry, you should take that to her, too.”

          “Do I—”  Running his fingers through his hair, releasing a few strands from his tie as he did, Jung-Kook sighed and sat back to lean on his hands, biting his lip up at the ceiling as he thought, grateful his brother let him collect his thoughts for a second.  “Is that what a man, a husband, is supposed to do?”

          “Which part?”

          “Talk to his wife like that.  Like—should he really show his insecurities like that?”

          “If by he you mean you, then yes.  Of course, I can’t exactly tell you what to do, Jung-Kook. That is just how my marriage works.”

          “But mother and father—”

          “What?  You think they never talked about such things?”

          “No,” Jung-Kook muttered.  “I never saw them talk so.  Even this—” he paused, not looking down at Nam-Joon who sighed a little on his own.  “It’s not a weakness I should show.”

          “This isn’t war,” Nam-Joon said, the apparent change in subject so confusing that Jung-Kook lowered his head to cock at him. “Your wife isn’t your enemy. Showing a weakness, as you call it, isn’t going to hurt you.”

          “You don’t know that.”

          “I—don’t.  But I am older and smarter than you and have more experience, so I am probably right.”

          “That—” Jung-Kook said, rolling his eyes when his brother smiled at him.  

          “Has she done something?  Kyung-Soo?  To make you doubt her?”  Jung-Kook had no plan to tell his brother.  But he knew he waited too long to answer.  A simple ‘no’ would have been a lie, but it would have kept Nam-Joon from getting suspicious.  “Jung-Kook? What did she do?”

          “No, nothing.  It’s more what I’ve done.  I haven’t—you know when I asked you about, um, the—after?”

          “The—after?  After what?”

          “After.  Our wedding night.”

          “After,” Nam-Joon said slowly, his eyes narrow until he had worked his way back through time and Jung-Kook’s stuttering. “Jung-Kook.  Did you not lie with your wife?”

          “I—”

          “Jung-Kook.”

          “I,” Jung-Kook faltered again before taking a deep breath and bracing himself for the reprimanding, for the judgement, for the embarrassment and lecture, “didn’t.”

          “Jung-Kook,” Nam-Joon said, his tone almost soft as he too sighed.  The way he didn’t immediately answer made Jung-Kook worry more, especially when Nam-Joon stood up, groaning a little as he went, his shoulders too stooped for his age, and started to pace up and down the room with his hands behind his back.

          “Nam—” he tried once, but Nam-Joon lifted a finger for him to be quiet, so he was as his brother paced, his feet helping his brain to work faster and better as he did.  Eventually, whether he was actually done or simply tired, he stood still and took his own turn looking up and sighing at the ceiling before he leveled his eyes on his brother again.

          “Is it because you don’t want to?”

          “What?”

          “Are you like Tae-Hyung?”

          “Am I—what do you mean like Tae-Hyung?”

          “Do you like men?”

          “Do I—” Jung-Kook sputtered, blinking at how serious his brother was looking at him.  “How do you—”

          “He told me years ago, even before he met Ji-Min,” Nam-Joon explained lamely even as he waved the issue away.  “Are you?”

          “No.  No, hyung. I don’t—I don’t want a man like that.” He muttered and blushed a little as he said it before clearing his throat and nodding surely up at his brother who only nodded once and went back to pacing.  The wait became excruciating, and Jung-Kook kept looking over his shoulder, wondering if Kyung-Soo would come to rescue him, but eventually his brother stopped again, his face even more serious.

          “I can not make sense of it, then, Jung-Kook. Why did you not?”

          “Hyung, you—you and Min-Ji.  You were lucky, weren’t you?  I—I didn’t know her.  I still barely do.  I couldn’t—I just couldn’t that night.”

          “And since then?”

          “I,” Jung-Kook winced, “tried.”

          “Tried?” Nam-Joon echoed, his incredulousness making Jung-Kook groan a little in shame.

          “I know how to, Nam-Joon.  I just don’t know if she wants me to.”

          “Jung-Kook.”

          “And, now, now I’m not sure if I should.”

          “Why wouldn’t you?”

          “I don’t mean I wouldn’t.  I just—I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”

          “Jung-Kook.  Lie with your wife.  She must—wait.  Jung-Kook, did you and her talk about it?  Did you lie to father?”

          “I told father nothing,” Jung-Kook huffed. “So not technically.”

          “Jung-Kook,” Nam-Joon said for the umpteenth time, passing his hands over his face.  “Alright. Whether this is what you came for my advice on or not, here it is.  You are in my house now, so you have to listen to what I say.”

          “I don—”

          “Be quiet.  Don’t be an idiot.”  That finger again.  “I can understand that your situation is not like mine.  I know, I know Min-Ji and I were lucky.  I am sorry—I—I am sorry you couldn’t wait a little longer and chose a girl you’d like, Jung-Kook, but Kyung-Soo seems good.  Good to and for you.  Mother and father seemed to love her.  Seok-Jin even mentioned being slightly impressed by her.  And you know that is high praise from him.  Min-Ji adores her.  She said she is the first sane person to come to the house in ages. If she wasn’t—she said she didn’t want to leave because of Kyung-Soo.  So I know you are not lucky like I was, Jung-Kook, but you are lucky. You are lucky she is so well-mannered and not boring, aren’t you?  Is she boring?”

          “No,” Jung-Kook said quickly.                                              

          “I saw how close you two were when you arrived. You can’t—that doesn’t happen if you aren’t comfortable with each other and desire something from each other to some extent.  You have the option to talk to her about it, but if you think that makes you weak, then you have the option to just lie with her.  Father can not find out, Jung-Kook.”

          “Would it—would it be so bad?” Jung-Kook mumbled, looking away and feeling years younger.

          “No,” Nam-Joon said surprisingly, his feet soft on the floor as he approached his brother.  “Not in the way that you are thinking.  It will not mean you are weak or not a man.  But if you want her to be your wife, then treat her as such.  Lie with her.”

          “Nam-Joon,” Jung-Kook frowned, looking up as his brother placed his hand soothingly on his head.  “Would you be ashamed of me if I never did?”

          “No, Jung-Kook, though I might think you stupid. I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to.”

          “And father?”

          “Father,” Nam-Joon said slowly, running his hand over Jung-Kook’s head once before retracting it to cross his arms over his chest, “would be disappointed.  He would not want you to shame the family.  He would want you to do your duty.”

          “That’s what you’re telling me to do, too, then?”

          “No, Jung-Kook.  I am telling you to love your wife.  Lying with her is simply one way to do that.”

          “But what—”

          “Let us go to dinner before you think yourself into a circle,” Nam-Joon said, walking past his brother without another word. In the quiet, Jung-Kook let himself do just that, the word “duty” and “love” seeming to conflict and chase each other around and around his brain until he fell back onto the floor, groaning up at the ceiling.

          “Jun—oh,” a voice said seconds or minutes or hours later, the upside down image of Kyung-Soo appearing at the doorway.  “I was sent to fetch you for dinner.”

          “Like a dog,” he mumbled, rolling over like one, too.

          “I’m sorry?”

          “Nothing,” he said, putting his chin on his hands and staring at the grooves in the wood.  A soft padding almost made him look up, but it was the appearance of Kyung-Soo’s bare toes peeking out from underneath her robes getting closer that made him look up a little, the angle making his neck and head pound more than it already was.

          “What are we doing?” Kyung-Soo whispered as she lowered herself to copy Jung-Kook’s stance, her face suddenly close to his on the ground as she put her chin on her hands, too, and started to look around or whatever might have attracted his attention.

          Was it his duty that made him want to lean forward and kiss her?

          Or was that love?

          He didn’t know, so he didn’t, but he couldn’t help but smile as he tapped the ground in front of him.

          “Think my brain fell through one of these cracks.”

          “Oh.  Oh no,” she said, trying to peer through the floor as her lips curved.  “We can’t have that.  I’m already the strong one in this relationship.  I can’t be the smart one, too.”

          “Can’t be the—” Jung-Kook gasped dramatically before scrambling to sit and stand up.  “Did you say dinner was ready?”

          “Yes,” Kyung-Soo giggled, sitting up herself, but Jung-Kook held out his hand to help her up the rest of the way.

          Was that duty?

          Or love?

          “Let’s eat, then.  What did you and Min-Ji do?”

          Duty?

          Love?

          What made him listen?  What made him care?  What made him doubt and yet believe her all at the same time?

          Duty or love?  Which one was he supposed to listen to?

 

          Even though their visit was unplanned, Jung-Kook and Kyung-Soo were greeted warmly and welcomed to the house with so much hospitality that Kyung-Soo wasn’t even surprised by the time they sat down for dinner and the table looked like they were having another wedding feast.  The variety and sheer amount continued to astound her a little, and, unable to pick from all of the choices, she sat dumbfounded for a moment until Jung-Kook chuckled beside her and then reached past her to put something onto her plate.

          “Nam-Joon doesn’t care much about table manners,” he whispered with a grin on his face that Kyung-Soo was sure had gotten him into trouble for.

          “Don’t listen to a word my brother says,” Nam-Joon said from his place at the head of the table as he filled up his wife’s plate. “He’s the one with terrible table manners.”

          “Excuse me?” Jung-Kook said, huffing as he handed Kyung-Soo a plate that she still didn’t quite know what to do with.  “I believe you’re talking about your other brother.”

          “Am I?”

          “Seok-Jin had terrible table manners growing up,” Jung-Kook explained as he sat back and picked up his chopsticks.  “Every time he slouched, mother would smack him with whatever she was holding.  If her hands were empty, it was just her hand.  He always tried to talk with his mouth open, too.”

          “He was just trying to express how much he liked the food.”

          “Sometimes,” Jung-Kook huffed again though the smile on his lips told Kyung-Soo he wasn’t truly annoyed.  “Usually he was just trying to tell a bad joke or brag about something he had done.”

          “So he hasn’t changed that much,” Min-Ji said, smiling beside her husband who laughed with his brother as they all nodded in agreement.  Even if Nam-Joon’s table felt less strict than the Kim’s back in Sabuk, Kyung-Soo still sat up straight and ate slowly, trying to anticipate Jung-Kook’s needs before he had to ask or reach for anything.  The table wasn’t silent, but the room did seem too quiet as if something wasn’t being said, and it wasn’t until the doors burst open that Kyung-Soo realized what had felt off.

          “If you want to talk about bad table manners,” Nam-Joon said as his cousin and Ji-Min and Ho-Seok entered, the latter quite red in the face as he tried to slink toward Jung-Kook.

          “Then it seems I’ve joined you at the perfect time,” Tae-Hyung said loudly, sitting down with his robe not quite tied around his waist and reaching for the food closest to him without even waiting for a plate.

          “I apologize,” Ji-Min said, at least trying to look sorry even if his grin told another story.  He sat down so closely to Tae-Hyung that Kyung-Soo’s eyebrows rose. No one else seemed to notice or think anything of it, though, or they actually had more manners than they said they did.

          “Are you alright?” Jung-Kook whispered after a moment, his hand landing on hers and his head leaning in closely.  She had only taken a few bites before getting supremely distracted, the way Nam-Joon was lifting bite after bite to his wife’s mouth with his chopsticks in between her laughs and the way Tae-Hyung and Ji-Min kept a hand on each other’s thighs as they used their fingers to feed each other, their eyes never leaving the other’s.  Humming even if she wasn’t sure what was wrong, Kyung-Soo tried to keep eating as Jung-Kook grew quiet beside her.  The room was filled with each couple talking to each other, though Kyung-Soo and Jung-Kook were quiet, his hand occasionally resting on hers for a moment.

          The sound of Nam-Joon snapping his fingers made them both start, Tae-Hyung’s eyes lazily turning to his cousin to see what he wanted.

          “Ho-Seok!  Forgive me! I’m sure your sister would love to spend time with you.  You’re welcome to go eat with her if you’d wish.”

          “If Jung-Kook doesn’t need me,” Ho-Seok said behind him.

          “No, go if you’d like.  That’s why you agreed to come, isn’t it?”

          “Yes,” Ho-Seok said slowly, the way Tae-Hyung and Ji-Min both looked over Kyung-Soo’s head clear enough to her that that wasn’t the only or main reason he had come, but he bowed behind them and left much quieter than they had entered.

          “He’s upset,” Kyung-Soo thought she heard Ji-Min say, but Tae-Hyung only shook his head and offered him another bite, the smaller boy taking it between his lips without another word as he went back to watching him.

          Him.  Whatever he was to Tae-Hyung.

          “Not to have terrible manners, but I’d like to take my food to my room now if that is alright with you, brother,” Jung-Kook said.

          “Of course.  Are you well?”

          “Just tired.  I’d like a bath, too, after the road.  Would you mind?”

          “Not at all.  Everyone should be in the kitchen.  I’d ask Sho-Yun if you want anything brought quickly and accurately.”

          “Thank you.  Min-Ji, thank you.  Cousin. Ji-Min.”

          “If you didn’t want to eat with us, you could have just said that,” Tae-Hyung mumbled as Jung-Kook stood up.  His hand was out for Kyung-Soo to take, so she took it even if she wasn’t quite sure why they were leaving.

          “Would have thought you were already full,” Ji-Min mumbled as he poked Tae-Hyung’s stomach only for his hand to be swatted away and then grabbed as Tae-Hyung glared at him.

          “I just feel dirty, cousin, and wish to bathe.”

          “I’m always dirty, cousin, but you don’t see me complaining.”  The giggle Ji-Min let out made Kyung-Soo’s face start to burn.  Enough time spent with Ji-Min, enough words exchanged with him, enough of his explanations and teachings had left Kyung-Soo susceptible to always thinking things she shouldn’t when the boy laughed or raised an eyebrow or gave someone a look or gave a certain cadence to his voice. Whatever they were talking about, it wasn’t actually food and dirt from the road.

          “Something tells me Ho-Seok tried to make you both bathe before dinner,” Nam-Joon said as Jung-Kook filled up a bowl to take with him, “but it was only your fault that you were late and arrived in such a state.”

          “Really, if I’m only going to be judged, I’ll take my food to my room, too,” Tae-Hyung grumbled, starting to clash a bunch of dishes together as he pretended to get up.

          “Oh, stop,” Ji-Min said, rolling his eyes and sounding a little annoyed.

          “Stay, Tae-Hyung,” Nam-Joon said, his attention finally seeming to leave his wife as he turned toward his cousin.  “I was hoping to discuss a few things with you.” The way Tae-Hyung settled down made the room seem still and quiet again, but the way his brows furrowed and he glared at his cousin made Kyung-Soo’s heart beat quickly as she held her breath.

          “Did my father ask you to?” Tae-Hyung finally asked, the bitterness evident in his hard tone.

          “No?  No, Tae-Hyung.  I just came across something in my research the other day I thought you might like.”

          “Come on,” Jung-Kook whispered again to Kyung-Soo, pulling her away gently before she could hear the outcome of the exchange. “They’ll be alright, don’t worry. Tae-Hyung loves talking to Nam-Joon as long as he knows he’s not being tricked into something.”

          “What could Nam-Joon possibly want to trick him into?”

          “Nothing.  Nam-Joon wouldn’t trick anyone.  Tae-Hyung’s father, however, wouldn’t even blink an eye.”

          “Doesn’t Tae-Hyung know that?”

          “Of course.  He just momentarily forgets when his head isn’t in the right place.”

          “Is—” Kyung-Soo asked as Jung-Kook led her back through the darkening halls.

          “Is it often?  Yes.  More frequently than it probably should be.  You saw Nam-Joon’s garden; that has always been a passion of his.  Growing things and planting things.  I never had the patience or the skill for it.  Seok-Jin went through a time where he loved flowers, but he never cared for growing them himself.  Nam-Joon’s started to study them pretty seriously since he got married.  He writes down all of their effects and what they help with.  Last year our uncle asked him if he could find something to cure Tae-Hyung.”

          “Cure him?” Kyung-Soo said as they reached their guest room for the duration of their stay.  “What’s wrong with him?”

          “Nothing.  Except, well, that’s obviously not what his father thinks.”

          “He knows?  About Ji-Min and Ho-Seok?” Kyung-Soo ventured, the room still strange and unfamiliar but lighter than the dining room.  Without a tray, the two of them sat on the floor and nibbled on the food between them.

          “Not exactly.  He knows Tae-Hyung refuses to marry.  That’s what he thinks is wrong with him.”

          “I see,” Kyung-Soo hummed sadly as they finished eating, multiple questions on the tip of her tongue that she couldn’t quite voice.  Whether he sensed her hesitation and had earlier or if he himself was wanting to get more comfortable, he dusted off his robe as he got up and bent down to pick up their empty bowl.

          “You’ll be alright for a moment?  I’m going to go draw a bath for you.”

          “For—for me?”

          “Yes.  Do you—do you want one?”

          “Oh.  Yes. That—I’d gladly take a bath.”

          “It won’t be as nice as ours back home, but I thought—”

          “A bath would be lovely.  I’ll unpack our bags while I wait.”  The way Jung-Kook looked at her and opened his mouth told her there was something he wanted to say, too, but for whatever reason he didn’t, merely smiling before bowing his head a little and leaving her alone, the sudden chilling loneliness of the room making her get up quickly and almost chase after him.  She knew the garden she had walked through and spent time talking with Min-Ji in was right outside the walls, but nightfall had changed something. Everything was different at night. The lack of light begged for things to be revealed.

          That’s what it was.

          The house.

          The people.

          Kyung-Soo and Jung-Kook.

          There was something not being said.

          There were secrets in the walls.

          There was something hidden that would eventually be found whether people wanted it to or not.

          And that made Kyung-Soo hurry through her bath and climb into a strange bed because Jung-Kook was beside her, and the rest of the house, everyone else, whatever secrets were being whispered or withheld didn’t matter once it was just the two of them falling asleep.

 

          He’d made another mistake.

          A mistake to let Kyung-Soo take a bath by herself.

          Mistake to leave her alone to comb her hair and dress herself as he went to take his own.

          Another mistake to get in to bed beside her, the unfamiliarity to the mattress and quilt and soap and atmosphere making him want to make mistake after mistake.

          A mistake?  To reach out and touch her.  To draw her closer.  To have something so familiar near him.

          Familiar and yet not.  Just visiting his brother’s house.  The room wasn’t completely foreign, but it wasn’t his room.  It wasn’t his house.  Kyung-Soo was his wife, but she wasn’t Kyung-Soo, and so she wasn’t his.

          Was that another mistake?

          “You’re thinking hard.”

          “And you were at dinner.”

          “Yes.”

          A mistake, his tone too biting and hers too soft as she bit her lip.  He reached for her before she rolled out of the bed, the image of her lying on the floor making him panic a little.

          “My lord?”

          “I am thinking hard.”

          “About what?”

          “About something my brother told me today.”

          “What did he say?”  A mistake, to be so close to her.  Or was it his duty?  He felt like a child whispering secrets in the dark, like whatever he told her was sacred and would stay between them forever.  Like Nam-Joon and Min-Ji did at dinner.  Like a couple in love.

          A mistake to believe that, though.  If she could lie about who she was, couldn’t she lie about anything else?  Wasn’t it a mistake to think that in the first place, though?  Hadn’t he already told her, hadn’t he promised to believe her and try?  

          Up so close to the truth, Jung-Kook could only look.  At the way her eyes were wide as she waited expectantly on him to answer.  On the way she was curled on her side looking pliant and comfortable, such a stark contrast to how she used to lie beside him, more of a plank, a board, a stiff piece of wood instead of the reed she was now, the flowing river, the winding road.

          “Would you—If I asked you to lie with me, would you?”

          A mistake, his mouth opening without his consent. A mistake, to not take it back, to wait for her as her eyes searched his.

          “Yes,” she said, the answer making him frown. It was a mistake to ask because he was afraid of her answer, afraid of her affirmation, her permission, her willingness to do their duty.

          “Why?” he said, then, his tone uncharacteristically harsh.  Even if she didn’t know him well, she knew he never spoke like the way he was.  But if she could be someone else, why couldn’t he, too?  “Because I asked you to?  Because someone told you to?”

          “I don’t know what you mean.”  She was being so careful, or trying to be what he thought he wanted her to be, but he wanted Kyung-Soo.  Or he wanted her to be herself regardless of her name.  He wanted to know what she would do if she simply wanted to.

          “I mean, why do you do anything?  Is it simply because you feel like you have to? Do you ever wonder?  Why did we get married?  Why are we here?  Why have we done anything?  Was it simply because our parents or our friends or someone smarter and stronger and greater than us wanted us to?”

          “I think,” she said, still so slowly and carefully, “that it depends.”

          “On what?”

          “On everything, my—Jung-Kook.”  The catch made his own throat catch, and he rolled away onto his back, his arm sliding off of her waist to lay lamely only his own stomach.  Nam-Joon’s ceiling looked enough like his own and yet so different that he wasn’t sure what he was looking at as he stared at it.  She didn’t roll away from him.  If anything, she got closer.

          A mistake, surely.

          “Jung-Kook?”  She spoke quietly into the darkness, her hand pulling gently on his sleeve gaining his attention more than his name.  “Why is Min-Ji so sad?”

          “Min-Ji?  Sad?  She’s not sad.  Why would you think she’s sad?”  His sister-in-law was anything but sad.  How Kyung-Soo could even ask that was a mistake itself.

          “Because.  I’ve seen that look before.  Her eyes remind me of Yoon-Gi.  Of people who survived the famine.  Of those who didn’t.  Why is she so sad?”

          “I don’t know, Kyung-Soo.  Nam-Joon gives her what she wants.  I know she’s sick often, but she’s happy with my brother.  She’s not sad.”

          “Alright.”  Her voice indicated he had made a mistake, but he had no idea what she was talking about. Min-Ji was not sad.  Kyung-Soo hadn’t seen anything in her eyes. Another tug on his sleeve made him hum and stop thinking about his sister-in-law, though.  “Jung-Kook?  What would you say if I wanted to make you some tea?  If I wanted to—if I wanted to lie with you?”

          “Why?  Why would you?”

          “I am your wife.  Am I not?”

          “You are,” Jung-Kook sighed, sitting up to push his hair out of his face, Kyung-Soo’s hand falling from his arm, his reaction obviously, again, a mistake, not what she expected.  

          “Jung-Kook—”

          “I am going to check on Yaho.  You needn’t wait up for me.”

          “Jung-Kook?  My lord.”

          A mistake, that damn title.

          A mistake, to walk out.

          A mistake to stay.

          Just a mistake.

Chapter Text

14.  “Lies are neither bad nor good. Like a fire they can either keep you warm or burn you to death, depending on how they're used.” 
― Max Brooks

            It was probably a mistake to stand outside of Tae-Hyung’s room for long, especially long enough to stand still and hear the sounds coming from within.  But they had made her pause to begin with, and she had to take a deep breath and regain her composure before knocking.  And knocking.  And knocking again when the noises continued until finally there was a shout.  A stumble and a curse before someone stomped across the floor and forced the door open.

            “Wha—oh.  Kyung-Soo.” If Tae-Hyung’s state was disarrayed at dinner, his attire now was almost non-existent.  He had the decency—or presence of mind—to at least pull his robe around himself when he saw her standing there, but he still looked more annoyed than sympathetic as she tried to stand up straight.

            “I was wondering if I could speak to Ji-Min or Ho-Seok for a moment.”

            “Oh?  And why would either of those servants be with me?” Tae-Hyung said, leaning on the wall and crossing his arms over his waist.  Kyung-Soo knew she hadn’t made a mistake.  She knew at least one of the men if not both were in Tae-Hyung’s room, but the way he frowned at her, the apparent sincerity in his eyes made her doubt for a moment.

            “I need to ask one of them a question. About Jung-Kook.  Something happened, and I’m worried.  May I please—”

            “I will ask you again, what makes you think—”

            “Fucking hell, Tae-Hyung,” Ho-Seok almost growled from around the corner before he appeared behind Tae-Hyung, his face set with an angry look as he pulled Tae-Hyung away from the door and back into the room, almost tossing him back into the darkness.  “You have to stop this.”

            “Stop this?  That’s not what you—”

            “Ji-Min?  Shut him up for me, please.”  A mistake, to see Ji-Min’s naked form appear behind Ho-Seok to wrap his arms around Tae-Hyung who obviously thought it was a mistake for the boy to touch him as he shouted and cursed again as Ho-Seok slipped out of the door and slid it shut behind him.

            “What’s wrong with Jung-Kook?”

            “I—”

            “My lady, please, if you could hurry, I really can’t leave Ji-Min with him for long when he’s like this.”

            “It’s not—”

            “Kyung-Soo, are you alright?  Is Jung-Kook alright?”

            “He left.”

            “Left?  Left where?”

            “To check on Yaho.”

            “Oh.  Alright.” He thought she had made a mistake, clearly, the way his shoulders dropped and his brows relaxed, his anger melting away into confusion or annoyance.  The question hung on his lips, but Kyung-Soo was tired of the house not letting people just ask.

            “I just need to know if I should go after him. Or if I should leave him alone. Does he—he’s run away from me before. Not from me.  But from a decision, it seems.  And I am not faulting him.  I would never.  I—I know I have done my own form of running, but—well, you know him better than I, and I just couldn’t sit there and do nothing, not after everything he has done for me.  I can’t—do you understand?”

            “You know him better than you think.”  The relief came over the man’s face vividly as he sighed and leaned on the door, his head unconsciously trying to glance over his shoulder back into the room before he nodded to Kyung-Soo.  “He’s done that ever since he was a kid. Didn’t want to do his lessons? We’d fine him hiding in a tree. Got disciplined by his father? He’d run to his mother.  Fought with his brothers?  He’d be sulking in the stables for hours.  I can’t tell you what to do, my lady, though I do know if you went looking for him, he would be surprised.  Pleasantly or not, you will surprise him.  It just depends on if you want to find him.  Finding him won’t be the end of it.”  The look over his shoulder again made Kyung-Soo wonder if Ho-Seok was even talking about Jung-Kook anymore.

            “You’ll have to deal with him after, is what I mean, my lady, and since he’ll be surprised, I don’t know how he’ll react. Scared animals, as you know, tend to panic and flee.”

            “Jung-Kook is no animal.”

            “No?  Aren’t we all?  Didn’t Ji-Min teach you that?”  The soft tilt of his head and the glimmer in his eye as he narrowed them at her made Kyung-Soo bite her lip, one of her conversations with Ji-Min coming back to her. Ho-Seok had not been present for it, but the boy must have told him afterwards.

            “I will go look for him,” she said, ignoring his question.  “Will I be safe on the grounds?”

            “Of course.  If you see anything dart across your path, it is probably just one of the cats. Ji-Min discovered a whole flock of them in the barn.”

            “A flock?  I do not believe a group of cats is called—”

            “If that’s all, my lady, I must get back.”

            “Of course.”

            “I have wild animals of my own to tame.”  So many questions unasked and things unsaid, and yet Ho-Seok threw a thumb over his shoulder casually after blurting out something so brazen.

            “Of—of course.  Yes.  Thank you, Ho-Seok.”

            “My lady,” he said, bowing before slipping back into the room, a quick wink and smile thrown back to her before he disappeared.

            And it was a mistake, really, to stand there and collect her thoughts, as a sound ripped through the doors that made her blush and scurry away.

            Out, in search for her husband.

            Yet to see if it would all be a mistake.

 

            The moon had always reminded Kyung-Soo of Yoon-Gi. Back when she was Eun-Jae, trying to do the right thing, she hated sneaking out of the house at night.  She was the one looking over her shoulder as her lady and her best friend walked a bit ahead of her.  Walked or ran.  Regardless, they were always ahead.  Some nights, Kyung-Soo would disappear into the darkness, her long robes covering so much of her skin even if she hated them, while beside her Yoon-Gi in his white garb and pale skin shone out.  It was him Eun-Jae could see in the dark.  He was easier to follow in many ways.  He at least had sense and rationale and tried to be logical and reasonable. Even if his conclusion was almost always “We should because Kyung-Soo wants to,” he sometimes put his foot down. He was adamantly against anything that was going to be too dangerous if it didn’t have an obvious payoff.  Danger just for the sake of a thrill was never a motivator for Yoon-Gi.  Kyung-Soo, however, seemed to love the risk.  Until she was old enough to do other rebellious things like be caught with a servant between her legs, Kyung-Soo seemed to love to push her boundaries, and whatever she pushed, Eun-Jae and Yoon-Gi pushed with her.

            Some nights, Eun-Jae didn’t want to follow her. She wanted to stay in bed.  Out of trouble.  She wanted to remind her lady that the stakes were greater for her. That the risk was not worth the reward for her.  But she would get up every night anyway, following after her two friends as they chased after the moon.  She had a moon of her own to follow, and she supposed, in a way, Eun-Jae had eventually caught it.

            It was Kyung-Soo who walked under the moon now, guided by it and yet not following it, as she approached the stables.  It was merely that, three horses in small stalls with roofs over their heads, not at all a complete barn like back in Sabuk, the humbleness of the wood building fitting in so well with the home around it. His robes weren’t white, and his skin wasn’t pale, but Jung-Kook was easy to spot, brushing his horse’s mane with his fingers and whispering incoherently to her as Kyung-Soo approached.

            She walked slowly, her robe trailing in the dirt behind her, her feet bare and picking up more and more dirt as she moved, thinking of what Ho-Seok had said.  About what Ji-Min had told her.  About what her lady had shared with her months before.

            She was out of place, there underneath the open sky.  There, in Nam-Joon’s home.  Wrong, as she approached her husband.  A woman was not to contradict a man, especially one above her.  That was a lesson Kyung-Soo knew well.  Had seen it applied to others.  Had felt the hand of correction on her own cheeks multiple times.  But Jung-Kook—

            To infer or even suggest that he wasn’t a man or wasn’t above her was wrong.  A mistake. She saw the way he moved, knew the shape of his body, had even felt him, barely, their first night together. There was no doubting his sex.  He was above her, too, a lord by birth and by name and if a man than thus deemed higher in society’s eyes than she was.  She could not do what Ji-Min could do.  She was already being someone she wasn’t.  To go further would be to become someone else entirely.  She could only do what she knew.

            She waited, then, until he saw her.  Waited for him to speak first.  Her hands clasped in front of her, her eyes trained on him.  He saw her before he said anything, his hand stilling in Yaho’s hair before continuing. Still, several moments passed before he sighed lightly.

            “What are you doing out here?  You’ll catch cold.”  Indeed, her feet were already feeling a little frozen to the ground, constantly curling up and stretching out under her robe, but her determination kept her warm enough to speak without trembling.

            “I came to apologize.  I seemed to have upset you.  I did not mean to offend you or your family by saying Min-Ji looked sad. I meant only that I am concerned, and I wished to ask for your advice on how to best comfort her as you know her better than I do.  Also—”

            “Wait,” Jung-Kook said, his voice tired as he sighed into Yaho’s mane again.  “I am not offended or upset about that.  You don’t need to apologize.”

            “You were upset, though?  Was it something I did?  Please tell me so I can apologize.”

            “You don’t need to apologize Kyung-Soo.  Why are you out here?”

            “Why?  Because you’re out here,” she mumbled, trying to keep her chin raised as she said louder, “because you left me.”

            “Another mistake,” the boy mumbled, patting Yaho’s neck one last time before walking away from her.  “Why are you out here?  Where are your shoes?” he continued to mutter as he approached Kyung-Soo, more than the cold keeping her still as he did.

            “Inside.  I just had to come find you.”

            “Why?  I would have come back.”

            “I wasn’t sure.”

            “Really?” Jung-Kook said, his face looking pained and cautious even as he stepped closer.

            “I do not know this place.”

            “But you know me.”

            “Sometimes a place changes a person.”  A truth spoken as gently and quietly as possible, but its effect was still strong, Jung-Kook’s eyebrows raising and lowering before his eyes grew wide and his mouth opened for a moment before he shut it again.  “Say it. Please, say what you want.  Or ask your question.  I know you want to say something to me.  Tell me.”  To command a man?  A lord? Kyung-Soo stood ready for her face to be struck, but instead Jung-Kook only took a step closer, his eyes on his sandaled feet before they rose back to her face.

            “I don’t know what to do.”  The words were clear, even if they seemed to hardly exist with the way Jung-Kook looked so young and so lost.

            “About what my—about what?”

            “About you.  And—me.”

            “About us?  What about us?”

            “I don’t know,” Jung-Kook sighed, reaching to pull one of her hands away into his own, the warmth of Yaho still lingering and transferring itself to Kyung-Soo’s chilled hands as he did.  “You said you came to me out of love.  Not for me, but for your friends.  And you said you would stay with me out of love.  I want to believe you.  I do.  But did you not stay because you felt it is your duty?”

            “I did not,” Kyung-Soo so simply and quickly that Jung-Kook stilled before stepping closer to her.  “I, again, mean no offense, but the moment you discovered me, I felt almost relieved of my responsibility toward you.  We were not wed in all ways, after all.  In that moment, my thoughts were just of my lady. Of Yoon-Gi.  I stayed quiet out of my love to them.  Out of my duty toward them.  Those are not exclusive things in my eyes, Jung-Kook.  Perhaps you came back and stayed with me because you felt a sense of duty toward me.  

            But if that’s all it was—if you let me stay and forgave me and offered me another chance simply because you felt like it was your responsibility, then please tell me now.  Tell me, and I will remove myself from you.  I was raised to be a servant, to be someone who existed only to help others live in comfort, but I could not bear to be only a duty to you. I can not—I can not think I am nothing more than something you must put up with and must—must live with, must lie with because you have to.  I can not be or become something you will hate and resent and grow bored of when your desire to do your duty has passed.  If you want me to stay and be your wife as I want to be, not simply because I feel it is my duty but because I want to, then it has to be because you love me.  Or,” Kyung-Soo said, slowing down as she felt Jung-Kook’s hand tighten on hers as his robes touched hers, “because you think you could one day love me.”

            “I don’t know where the line is.”

            “Between what?”

            “Duty and love.”

            “Must there be a line?  Can they not be on the same side?  Are they both not good?  Isn’t one driven to do their duty, in many ways, by love?  Shouldn’t love be the driving factor in someone performing his duty? To not be a mere puppet acting responsibly, one must have freedom and desire, don’t they?  And shouldn’t that desire be love?”

            “That sounds ideal,” Jung-Kook said wistfully, sighing a little against Kyung-Soo’s forehead.

            “But?”

            “But I can not make sense of it.”

            “Perhaps it does not always make sense.  Love, after all, is complicated.  And duty; well, men and women have done what look like insensible things in the name of duty.”

            “And love.”

            “And love,” Kyung-Soo nodded.  “But that doesn’t make them wrong.”

            “Though it often meant they ended up dead.”

            “Is that what you’re afraid of?” Kyung-Soo asked, smiling lightly.  “That deciding to love me will end up killing you?”

            “There have been plenty of men who have died over a woman.”

            “You will not die over me, Kim Jung-Kook.  You will not suffer at all, not anymore, if I have anything to say about it.”

            “Oh?”

            “Yes.  Which is why I’m here.  I do not want you to be so conflicted.  So I will ask you now.  Do you want to stay my husband?  Whether it’s duty or love that drives you, make this decision and then put it behind you. We will move on from here as whatever you decide.  Man and wife or lord and stranger.  Jung-Kook and Kyung-Soo or Jung-Kook and no one.  Decide, and, here, I will hopefully make it easier for you.”  Drawing a line with her shivering toes between them, she stood on her side with their hands still together, swaying them back and forth once as Jung-Kook looked down at the dirt.

            “And what?”

            “And what?” she echoed.

            “You said decide and—and what?”

            “Oh,” Kyung-Soo said, biting her lip before licking it, the cold already leaving them chapped and eager for something wetter, something softer.  She swallowed before meeting his eyes, trying her best to mix what she knew with who she was. “Decide and see what I will give you if you join me.”  The way Jung-Kook’s eyes narrowed for a moment made her think she had done well, had actually seemed to entice him, but then he burst into a loud laugh even as he crossed over the line and wrapped his arms around her waist, lifting her a little as she yelped in surprise and placed her hands securely on the collar of his robe.

            “You sounded like someone trying to convince me in the yard to join their team.”

            “It worked, didn’t it?”

            “I must concede.  The victory is yours.”

            “It’s not—” Kyung-Soo protested, almost pouting before Jung-Kook kissed her forehead before leaning his own against it, warmth radiating off of him.

            “I want to love you, Kyung-Soo.  I want to lie with you.  I want to be your husband.  I want to take care of you.  I want to protect you.  I am sorry for leaving you earlier.  I do not know what I am doing.  I really am afraid you will have to be the smart one in this relationship.”

            “That is alright,” Kyung-Soo smiled, her grip loosening on Jung-Kook’s robes as he lowered her back to the ground.  “I think I can manage that.”

            “And much more, I’m sure.  Can we go inside now?”  Without waiting for an answer, he bent down to pick her up, her hold tightening once again as her balance was stripped away from her.  “I just can not believe you came out here without shoes on.”

            “I am strong,” Kyung-Soo smiled, staring into Jung-Kook’s face as he carried her across the yard.  

            “I know.  And so much more.”  The smile he gave back to her looked complete.  There were no unsaid words on his tongue or unasked questions in his mouth. At least, not for now, as they walked back into the house, disappearing from the moon’s eye.

 

            It’s not that she wasn’t cold.  You grow used to things you can not control, though.  She forgot what it meant to be full for years, and now some days she forgets that her body is trying to tell her she is hungry.  She knew what it was to be cold.  Nights when she was forced to sleep in the barn with Yoon-Gi before she became a house servant or nights she would have stayed awake shivering if her lady hadn’t made her keep her warm.  Kyung-Soo knew what it was to be cold, to lose feeling in her toes and fingers and the tips of her ears. She knew what it was to be warm, too, to sweat as the sun beat down on her face, drips trailing down her back and soaking her clothes as she bent down to the earth.  She knew how parched a tongue could feel, how dried and shriveled a throat would become without water for a day.  She had felt both extremes, and knowing heat made her know cold even better.  It worked the other way in return, too, but inclement weather was simply a part of life.  Days with no clouds and nothing but sun and weeks of pouring rain.  She had been refreshed and starved by nature itself, but she rarely thought of it.

            She was cold.  She knew because Jung-Kook’s hand in hers felt warm, because her cheeks flushed when they got back to their room, because she felt the life come back into her toes as he laid her down on their mattress and stood smiling over her for a moment.

            The absence or lack, therefore, of something sometimes made someone all the more aware of a need or desire.  As he walked away, pulling his robe off as he went, she only wanted him to come back. The action was known, though their armoire was missing and Jung-Kook was bending down to a chest instead of reaching over his head to hang up his robe, but it wasn’t the view of his back that made Kyung-Soo shiver and pull the quilt up to her chin.  She was cold.

            “I am sorry,” she whispered as he folded his robe neatly to place near their bag as he pulled out another one.

            “For what?”

            “Coming to find you.”

            “Why—why would you apologize for that?”  The way that he hummed and looked up at her in the dark room didn’t make her shiver.  She was just cold.

            “I thought—I assumed you would be upset.”

            “Why would I be upset?”  The cold must have gotten to him, too, as he threw his robe back on as he stood up, though he didn’t close it all the way as he walked back to the mattress they were to share.

            “It wasn’t my place.  I spoke out of turn.”

            “I am not sure what you mean.”  She turned toward him as he kneeled on the bed, his hands on his thighs as he sat and cocked his head at her.

            “A wife shouldn’t tell her husband what to do.”

            “Oh.  Is that what you were doing?”  The glint in his eyes told her he was trying not to smile, so she wiggled her toes, his eyes glancing down to watch the movements before he looked back at her face.

            “A woman shouldn’t speak to a man like she knows more than him.  A servant, certainly, shouldn’t—”

            “You are not a servant.”

            “A woman, then.”

            “You are that.  Kyung-Soo, why are you saying these things?”

            “Because, my—I could tell, or I thought, you were upset.  I was sure I had done something wrong.  That is what I must believe.”

            “Why?  Why would you believe that?”

            “That was how I was trained.  How I was raised.” He sighed at that, slumping a little until his legs moved and he sat with the soles of his feet pressed together, his toes wiggling, too, as he pressed his hands on his knees to stretch his thighs.  “Is it not how you were raised?  Weren’t you taught that as my husband you would always be right?”

            “N—that—”  She had to not laugh at the way he looked, confusion evident on his face.  The conflicted furrow of his brow she had seen multiple times, had in fact been what had sent him out of the room earlier, made him look so serious, but the scrunching of his nose made him look almost childish, like he wanted to whine about being asked such a difficult question he couldn’t readily answer.

            “No one ever told me that,” he eventually sighed.  “Not in those words.  No one said—I mean, my father implied—I am not sure, Kyung-Soo.  I don’t know what I’m doing.”

            “Don’t—don’t say that.”  She couldn’t reach him, even if she tried, but he helped by giving her his hand, more just placing his fingers on her palm than anything else.  “If you don’t know, I don’t, either.”

            “What a pair we make.”  His mumble was accompanied by a soft smile as he curled his fingers over her palm before flattening them out again, the cold, not his touch, making her curl her fingers against his.

            “You weren’t mad?”  A whispered question, for some reason.

            “Not at you.  Not at anyone, even.  I don’t know.  I just needed—I was just confused.  Can we just pretend I never left?  Here, I’ll—” he pulled back the covers beside her, a smile on his lips as he crawled over, his robe dangling near the quilt he was soon under.  He turned on his side, his face close to hers as she gravitated toward him.

            “I don’t want to pretend, though,” she said as he settled in, her seriousness making his smile fade, too, until he nodded against his pillow.

            “No.  No pretending.”  She didn’t try to hide, then, the way she shivered, and he didn’t try to pretend he didn’t notice, his arm reaching for her under their meager cover immediately.  “I knew you were cold.  Why didn’t you put shoes on?”

            “I wasn’t thinking.  I just wanted to find you.”  Not a lie.  She hoped he knew.  Hoped he knew she couldn’t fake the way he made her feel.  Her actions would—must—speak louder than the words she had used against him since the first day they met.  She wanted to show him that she wanted to be with him, not just out of gratitude or duty or love to anyone else, but because he was Jung-Kook.  He was good; his confusion in an effort to be good made him admirable.  He had chosen to protect her for no reason she could understand, his sense of duty steaming from something fundamentally, intrinsically good.

            “What if I told you,” she said as his arm brought her closer and she raised her own hands toward his chest, “that I don’t know what I’m doing, either?”

            “I don’t think I would believe you.”  The hum he let out and the way he watched her hands touch his robe’s collar made her forget she had been cold.  “Not that—not that I mean you’re lying, just—I’ve seen you talking to Ji-Min.”

            “I—” A bitten lip before a small giggle escaped her as she ran a thumb under his robe along his chest.  “I am not Ji-Min.”

            “Thank god,” Jung-Kook huffed, rolling his eyes good naturedly as she moved her entire hand down his sternum, splaying her palm on his smooth chest under his robe and pushing it up a little toward his shoulder.

            “Why did you put this on?”

            “I assumed you wouldn’t want me smelling like horse.  And it’s cold.  Aren’t you cold?”

            “I’m warming up.  Aren’t you warm?”

            “I’m getting there,” he mumbled.  “Though I can’t see how this will help.”

            “Then you really know nothing,” she whispered back, trying to get his robe off of his shoulder.  His arm was still around her, though, and reluctantly she pushed it off to pull it out of his sleeve.  It required her to sit up on her elbows and then all the way, Jung-Kook lying still beneath her and letting her maneuver him as she wished, his free arm soon being placed on her thighs as she worked on his other one. 

She couldn’t imagine how he could still be cold, as her face was burning.  The fact that he was staring at her made her wonder if she had ever known what warmth was before.  He moved his second arm on his own once it was free, landing on her hip before roaming up her side, meeting only fabric while her hands touched his now bare chest.  He was watching her face, and she watched her hands, wondering whose they were.

            They were whiter than they used to be.  Cleaner. They still had the shape she was used to, but something about them was still so different that she stilled.  Their color was not such a stark contrast, though Jung-Kook was still tanner, but her hesitation made Jung-Kook freeze, too.

            “Kyung-Soo?”

            “I’m not Ji-Min,” she said again.

            “I know.  I don’t want you to be.”

            “I’m not—I’m not even—I’m not me.  Her. I’m not who should be here.  She knows—she would know what to do.  How to, um, please you.  She tried—she tried to teach me, but I’m afraid—how different is it to be told how to do something and to do it.  I haven’t practiced.  I don’t—I don’t know—”

            “Kyung-Soo,” Jung-Kook whispered, his hands only falling to her hips because he sat up, their legs bumping into each other and her arms finding their way around his torso.  The shiver she let out had nothing to do with being cold, but Jung-Kook seemed to know.  Of all the things he didn’t know, he at least knew this as he pulled her over his legs into his lap.

            “I don’t know what to do,” she whispered into his chest, her lady’s advice running through her head but only making her squirm, Ji-Min’s suggestions making her blush and press her forehead into his skin.

            “Just—do what you want.  What you want,” he said, the emphasis on the pronoun clear as she nodded against him, just sitting for a moment in his warmth as she got used to the feeling of her hands on his back, of his fingers running up her robe and down to feel her hips through the cloth, of his warmth.

            She didn’t know what she wanted.  What did Kyung-Soo want?  What did Jung-Kook’s wife want to do?  She didn’t know.  All she knew for sure was when she shivered, it was no longer from the cold.

 

           The invitation had been sent.

           The door was open.

           He was literally in her hands, even if she was in his lap.

           When he had first trained Yaho, he had spent a lot of hours simply standing by a gate waiting for her to walk through, the silly animal frightened for some inexplicable reason by doorways and crossing thresholds.  She hated water, too, and grew wary whenever she saw someone carrying a bucket of water, the reflective and sloshing contents spooking her more than twitching twigs and rustling leaves.  He had found it so odd at the time.  No logical explanation could be given to convince him he should be afraid of a doorframe or water, something that quenched his thirst and helped keep him clean.  But a lesson there, a reminder that what others feared didn’t have to always make sense to him or even ever make sense.  

           Not that he thought Kyung-Soo was afraid, not like the first night she had been in his bed only to lay beside him instead of with him, but she was hesitating. The door was open, and she was trying to bring herself to walk through it.  A river was beside her, and she was trying to walk alongside it instead of being swept away by it.

           And Jung-Kook did not have patience like Nam-Joon.  Not even like Seok-Jin.  Growing up, he was always the first to whine, the first to break, the first to give in, but he was also the most stubborn of his brothers, though Seok-Jin had always given him competition until he grew too old and mature for such childish pranks and jokes anymore, and when he wanted something, he could be as patient as a monk.

           He waited, then, as Kyung-Soo touched him.  Any semblance of staying serious faded as her hands moved over his chest, though, because even though she was biting her lip and concentrating, he couldn’t help but smile as the way she skimmed over his skin made him twitch.  His sensitive chest and stomach had always been easily tickled, a weakness his brothers had discovered but he hated for anyone else to find out about.

           “What are—” he tried to say when she started to fit her fingers in between his ribs, spread them out like she was trying to measure them, but she shushed him and brought a finger up to his lips, not even looking up at him as she continued.  He gave a muffled affirmation and went back to trying not to laugh at her.  It grew easier, the longer she touched him.  Her touches grew confident, solid and sure, pressure momentarily distracting him time and time again from moving.  His hands stilled often on her hips or her thighs, too much fabric keeping him from knowing if her soft skin was warming up like he knew his was.  His fingers travelled to her knees occasionally and almost slid themselves under her robe to test his theory, but he stopped himself each time.

           “What you want,” he had said, and he was the most honest of the Kim brothers. Each was true to his word, each hated lying, each valued actions alongside what they spoke, but even more than Nam-Joon, Jung-Kook had always placed value on his words more than anything else.  Even when they failed him.  Even when he didn’t feel properly equipped to use them well.  Even when he never gave them life, too afraid to abuse and misuse them, Jung-Kook was true to his word.

           What she wanted, though, didn’t seem to be much.  He opened his mouth again to ask, then, to see if he could help, to remind her he didn’t know what he was doing, either, and maybe they could help each other, when her hands, finished exploring his chest and making his stomach muscles twitch, moved to his shoulders, his neck and face completely bypassed to run through his hair.

           And Jung-Kook had his weaknesses.

           The sensitive skin on his chest and stomach.

           His aversion of strong scents.

           The criticism of anyone whose opinion he valued.

           Talking through his feelings.

           People touching his hair.

           He had been so intent on watching Kyung-Soo as she looked over him, so concentrated on checking her every move that he was confused for a moment when her hand brushed his hair back and thus his head, his neck loose and moving easily, his eyes closing on their own.

           His mother had played with his hair as a child.  Naptimes and afternoons when he was pouting spent with his head in her lap as she sang or hummed quietly to him, her hands carding through his hair, each strand sending tingles like a thumb pressing into a tight muscle that always put him easily to sleep.

           “What I want?” Kyung-Soo whispered, and he nodded, unable to open his eyes even if he wondered what she looked like.  Her voice, always lower than he thought a woman’s could be, had somehow become even deeper, and he tightened his hands on her robe, wanting to hold onto something as she tilted his head back again, her breath close and hands feeling like warm water sweeping over him.

           “What if I wanted you to cut your hair?”

           “I’ll cut it.”

           “Don’t,” she said, running her hands over his scalp and scratching slightly, a giggle breaking from her lips as his opened.  “I like it long.”

           “Whatever you want.”

           “A kiss?”

           “Anything.”

           The invitation was accepted.

           The door was open.

           And if Jung-Kook wasn’t warm before, he certainly was when he felt Kyung-Soo’s breath on his nose followed by the soft press of her lips against his.

           The flood then, as his hands moved up her back and he let himself be swept away.

           “Ow. Did you just bite me?”  A wince and a girl frozen in his lap.

           “I’m sorry!”  Hands holding his face, a thumb running along his bottom lip and pulling his mouth open. Eyes wide and blinking up until the hands moved to his chin.

           “Did she tell you to bite me?”  A guilty and embarrassed look, but not one of denial.  “Or, wait.  Did Ji-Min say to bite?”

           “They…may have both said something about biting.”  An intake of breath followed by laughter.  A finger pointing at her lips she stopped biting.

           “No biting.”

           “No biting.”  A nod followed by another and soothing hands returning to her sides.

           “Biting?”  Disbelief in his voice as he held onto his tongue with his fingers as if he wanted to look at the damage.

           “I don’t think I was meant to do it that hard.  I am sorry.”  Hands worrying on his cheeks.  Pouting lips of her own.

           “No, no biting.  That much I know.  Do you want me to try biting you, see if you like—”

           “No! Don’t bite me!”  A grin, a giggle.  A reposition, a minor struggle, an attempt at tickling, a breathless laugh, flushed cheeks, a girl on her back and a boy above her.

           “No biting,” Jung-Kook said, waiting until Kyung-Soo nodded again before jumping back into the water.

 

           “Bite him like that again, and I’ll never fuck you again.”  The harsh sound of a slap resounded through the room, Tae-Hyung’s struggling form laid out over one of Ho-Seok’s legs.  The older man had his other leg over the back of the lord’s, and Ji-Min held Tae-Hyung’s wrists down in front of his knees as Tae-Hyung stretched them out over his head, his back trying to curve to keep his face off of the mattress.

           “Ho-Ho-Seok, please—”

           “No, you wanted to bite something, bite on this.”  Another slap, and as Tae-Hyung’s mouth opened again to catch his breath, Ho-Seok took the balled-up fabric that had fallen lamely and uselessly to the mattress and stuck it back into the man’s mouth.  It was already drenched in his spit, had already dropped from Tae-Hyung’s mouth every time Ho-Seok’s hand collided with his ass, had already failed to shut the man up.  Ho-Seok, however, was persistent, and he kept his hand on Tae-Hyung’s neck as he ran his fingers down the man’s bottom and the back of his thighs. Tae-Hyung tried to shake his head, but Ho-Seok’s fingers tightened on his neck, and the man pressed his forehead onto the mattress to breath heavily through his nose.

           “What?  Did you really think I would let you get away with everything today?  You know,” he said, pinching Tae-Hyung’s skin for a moment before moving his hand back to his spine, his nails scratching up and down, “Ji-Min hates being called that.  You know,” his voice rose as Tae-Hyung tried to shake his head again and the fabric dropped from his mouth, “that he laughs and smiles even if he’s hurt.  You know you hurt him.  Look at him.”

           “Ji-Min,” Tae-Hyung mumbled around the material already falling out of his mouth, his fingers wiggling in the smaller boy’s grasp, clearly trying to wrap around his knees or anything he could reach.  Ho-Seok was holding his head down, so he couldn’t look up, his hair too long and falling into his eyes even as he strained to see, and Ho-Seok almost let go of him.  He had to stop and look at Ji-Min, too, his face no longer holding a smile at all, no hint of any mirth to be found in his eyes.  If anything, they were cold and void, and Ho-Seok almost wished the boy looked like that more often, the intimidation and danger rolling off of him so powerfully arousing that Ho-Seok dug his nails into Tae-Hyung’s skin to stop himself from shuddering.

           “What compelled you to say that, anyway, my love?”  He whispered even as his nails scrapped back down Tae-Hyung’s back, the man still held down groaning and knocking his head onto the mattress.

           “I’m s-sorry, I di—”

           “You know better,” Ho-Seok said, moving his hand to Tae-Hyung’s hair to grip just enough that the boy knew he couldn’t go anywhere.  “You know he isn’t that anymore.  Why would you call him that?  Why?  Unless you think it makes you better than him.  Do you think you’re better than Ji-Min, Tae-Hyung?”

           “No, no, no,” Tae-Hyung mumbled, and for that Ho-Seok scratched his head softly and went back to massaging his muscles, trying to sooth his red skin still burning from being slapped so many times.

           “Oh? You had me fooled.  It seemed to me like you thought you could do whatever you wanted.  This afternoon, for instance, out by the stables?”

           “You—you—Ji-Min liked it.”

           “We’re not discussing Ji-Min right now, love.  He’s done nothing wrong.  This is all on you.”

           “I didn’t me—”

           “You did,” Ho-Seok said, cutting the boy off with another hand to his ass. “Don’t be an idiot.  You’ve been acting like a fool all day.  Like you can do whatever you want.  Don’t forget your place, love.  You are no better than Ji-Min.  Your title means nothing to us.  Don’t you want it to mean nothing?  Don’t you want to be with us?”

           “Y-yes, Ho-S-seok, but, but—”

           “No, be quiet.  You had your turn this afternoon and at dinner to talk.  What were you thinking, by the way?  Nam-Joon was nothing but kind and welcoming, and you had to insult him like that?”

           “He-he wasn’t insulted.  He-he knows my fa-father—”

           “Careful,” Ho-Seok said slowly.  “You’ve already broken so many rules today.”

           “He knows, Ho-Seok!  He doesn’t care.”

           “That is no excuse for treating your host so rudely.”

           “So? Would you rather I had come in cow-cowering like you?  A-apologized when I did nothing wrong and-and let him command me like he does you?  You s-say we’re equal, but then you t-treat me so diff-differently and expect me to a-act like I don’t love you, like I don’t wa-want to be with Ji-Min and-and that—”

           “Stop.”  

           There was something only Ho-Seok was able to sense among the three of them. Ji-Min pursued his pleasure, and Tae-Hyung had no self-control, but Ho-Seok observed.  He knew where each of their boundaries were, where their limits could take them, where they each wanted to go.  He had dealt with the childishness and brattiness of the pair plenty of times, their desire to live in a fantasy and dreamworld clashing too often with reality.  He carried the pin to burst their bubble, but at least he was also there to catch them when they fell back to earth.  

            He knew, then, that as he pushed Tae-Hyung off of his lap to stand up, that the boy was going to panic. He knew that Tae-Hyung pushed and pushed and pushed because he wanted them to push back.  He knew the boy wanted to test them because he was too afraid to test his own father.  He knew that Tae-Hyung could rarely voice what he really meant or wanted on the first try; his stubbornness and years of hostility holding him hostage was too hard to break out of sometimes.  He knew Tae-Hyung had not meant what he said to Ji-Min earlier.  He had certainly not meant to hurt him.  He had not meant to be rude to Nam-Joon, and he had not meant to make either of them question his love.

            Ho-Seok knew all of this, but he knew the boy couldn’t get away with such things.  Despite his age, he was still such a child, a petulant and wild one that needed disciplining and training.  He had changed much in the past three years, but still had so far to go. Ho-Seok only hoped he could help Tae-Hyung get there before he lost him forever.

            His knees ached a little as he stood up, retightening his robe around his waist and nodding his head at Ji-Min for him to let Tae-Hyung’s wrists free.  The boy’s face had softened the second Tae-Hyung had begun to cry. Ji-Min had always been weak to Tae-Hyung’s tears, though Ho-Seok imagined he would have laughed at anyone else, his heart clearly attached to the man like he was to no other’s.  Once freed, Tae-Hyung moved remarkably quickly, the shock of Ho-Seok’s silence and reaction surprising him.  He blinked like a newborn but stayed still and quiet himself once he was on his back watching Ho-Seok.  

            A candle had burnt out, and Ho-Seok took the time to find another one to light before picking up a robe from the ground and bringing it to wrap around Ji-Min’s bare shoulders, the man reaching up to hold his hands still for a moment as he looked up at him, his eyes no longer intense but clearly asking for something.  Ho-Seok gave it to him easily, bending down to kiss him gently, keeping his face in place with a hand on his chin.  Ji-Min was appeased, then, as Ho-Seok lifted himself back up and squeezed the man’s shoulders before finding the blanket they had thrown off of the bed hours ago.

            His place was still warm on the bed as he sat back down, bringing the quilt over Tae-Hyung’s shaking form.

            “Put his head in your lap and hold his head still for me,” he instructed Ji-Min, the boy nodding quietly and doing as he was told.  “I want you to listen to me, Tae-Hyung,” Ho-Seok said slowly as he made sure Tae-Hyung was tucked in before putting his knees by his hips and hovering over him. “Look at me.  Don’t look at Ji-Min.”  The boy couldn’t, really, unless he strained his eyes and saw Ji-Min upside down, though Ji-Min’s small fingers were cupping his cheeks.

            “You are never, never, do you hear me, to take out your anger with your father on anyone else. Do not drag your cousin into that fight. Do not speak of him when we are together.  You know that is a rule you made yourself.  You acted out of line today, and you know it.  Secondly, do not, ever, ever again, call Ji-Min a ‘whore’ or anything remotely related to the word.  That is Ji-Min’s rule that you promised to follow.  And do not ever insult me like that again.  If you want me to get angry, just tell me.  I can get angry for you, love, if you really want it. If you want me to fight you, tell me. I can wrap up our hands and take you to the yard and beat you into the dirt.  We all know I would win.  Do you want to feel in control and powerful?  Then tell us, love, and you know you can fuck both of us until Ji-Min cries and I draw blood.  But this? Acting like you can say and do whatever you want and get away with it?  Tae-hyung, love,” Ho-Seok almost sighed, sitting on the boy’s hips and bending down to place his hands over Ji-Min’s so he could stare into Tae-Hyung’s face.

            “You know we have to be more careful than that.  Even if you trust Nam-Joon and Jung-Kook and Kyung-Soo.  What if it had been my sister at the door?  Or anyone else?  Don’t misunderstand me,” he said gently but firmly, noticing Tae-Hyung’s mouth open, “I am not ashamed.  Love, Tae-Hyung, we have been here before.  I have told you both time and time again.  I would wed you if I could.  Bed you for everyone to see.  Cut your hair and wear any band you give me.  We can’t. We can’t, though, Tae-Hyung, not really. I love you, idiot, but I would like to do that for many more years.  Do not ruin things because you were easily slighted or upset at someone who isn’t in the room.  Do you understand?  Do you realize why I’m punishing you?”  

            With the blanket around him and Ho-Seok leaning over his chest and Ji-Min’s hands on his head, Tae-Hyung couldn’t move, but they could both feel how his whole body shook when a wave of fresh tears spilled out of his eyes, wetting and then pooling around their hands on his cheeks.  Ho-Seok clicked his tongue, and Ji-Min finally cooed, obviously trying not to cry himself as he stroked the boy’s face and hair, trying to shush him.

            “I’m s-s-sorry,” Tae-Hyung mumbled.

            “You have to control yourself, love,” Ho-Seok sighed, patting Tae-Hyung’s face before leaving his hands on his chest, digging his fingers into the blanket so the man could still feel him.  “What if I wasn’t here to correct you, hmm?  What if you had said something to someone else?  What if someone else had seen you two out by the horses?  Don’t you see?  Don’t you know I’m only worried, love?  Can’t lose you.”

            “Don’t w-want to lose you,” Tae-Hyung nodded as Ji-Min bent down to kiss his forehead.  “Ji-Ji-Min, I am sorry.  I sh-shouldn’t have called you that.  You’re not.  You’re not a-a-a—”

            “Only for you, love,” Ji-Min whispered, a small smile on his lips as he kissed Tae-Hyung’s upside down, another sob breaking out of the boy as Ho-Seok felt him trying to wiggle free.

            “You’re still being punished, love,” he chided softly as Tae-Hyung slumped back into the mattress, a sigh of frustration rumbling through his throat when Ji-Min pulled back. “I don’t know what it’s going to take for you to learn your lesson.”

            “I learned, Ho-Seok, I know—”

            “Tae-Hyung, love, if you had learned, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Ho-Seok smiled, tapping the boy’s chin.  “No, you have done nothing today but prove to me that you haven’t learned.  You have to do better, love.  You have to be more careful.”

            “I will.  I will.”

            “Good.  Because you know we hate when you don’t get to join us.”

            “Wh—no.  No, no, Ho-Seok, please—”

            “You will lie there and watch me fuck Ji-Min.  And maybe, if you’re good, you can suck Ji-Min off when we’re done.  Perhaps.”

            “Ho-Seok—”

            “Self-control, Tae-Hyung,” Ho-Seok said, one final tap to the boy’s chin before he withdrew.

            “Sorry,” Ji-Min whispered into Tae-Hyung’s ear before kissing his temple slowly.  “Love you.”

            “This—that’s not fair,” Tae-Hyung pouted, his tears gone as a look of annoyance and anger flashed across his eyes.

            “Maybe if you actually seemed like you learned your lesson, I’d let you kiss Ji-Min,” Hoseok mused as Ji-Min giggled and wiggled out of his robe.  He lay down close enough to Tae-Hyung, wrapping himself around him and kissing his cheek loudly once before resting on his back, his fingers pulling on the bottom of Ho-Seok’s robe until he pulled it off slowly, unable to hide his smile at the two boys on the bed.  Tae-Hyung licked his lips before huffing, his stubbornness melting away again a little as he tried to get comfortable as Ho-Seok leaned down again to concentrate on Ji-Min, the boy’s emotions from the day and afternoon and evening soon spilling out of his mouth as he babbled and clung to Ho-Seok and cried for Tae-Hyung all at once.  And Ho-Seok watched and breathed it in and muffled his own groans into the boy’s skin, eager to take everything he could from him.  His worries and pains and pleasures.  Ho-Seok wanted to draw everything out of Ji-Min that he could, if only the boy would let him.  And he would, because unlike Tae-Hyung, Ji-Min had learnt the lesson easily and quickly.

            That Ho-Seok would take care of them.  That he would provide for them.  That he would attend to their needs before they even voiced them.  He wished Tae-Hyung knew that he wasn’t going to actually deny the man what he wanted in the end.  He wished Tae-Hyung knew Ho-Seok wouldn’t last long, would tell Ji-Min to reach for and hold onto Tae-Hyung even as he did the same.  He wished he was better at sticking to his plans of disciplining the boy.

            He wished.

            He wished.

            He wished.

            Ho-Seok wished.

            But wishes so rarely do come true.

Chapter Text

“If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.”― Virginia Woolf

           Happiness.

           To be happy.

           Being and staying happy.

           A pursuit of pleasure, of anything for her own gain or satisfaction felt selfish, wrong, an opposite of anything good, then. Joy and happiness being synonymous for many, a pursuit of one’s own pleasure simply right in and of itself, but not for her.  So she let herself watch Jung-Kook as he slept for only a moment.  Let herself enjoy the way his nose wrinkled and his eyelashes looked on top of each other.  Let herself feel his chest rise and fall under her hand as she smiled at his ankles crossed as he lay on his back.  She let herself for only a moment, but then she got up.

           The crisp air and creaking wood and quiet house were all that met her as she padded into the hall, perhaps a little daring as she peered into room after room only knowing to avoid where Ho-Seok was lying with his lovers until she found several empty bedrooms and one with someone still sleeping, their back turned away, before she discovered the kitchen, the sounds of people laughing and dishes scraping loud enough to help guide her the rest of the way to the right hallway.  

          Nam-Joon sat on the floor surrounded by small, dirty children, one baby lying on its stomach on his leg while the man felt the forehead of a child standing before him, the small thing leaning so far into his hand that if Nam-Joon removed it, the child was sure to fall over him.  A servant sat nearby eating from a bowl, a smile on his face, and Ho-Seok’s sister was talking lively to another girl as they prepared some dough on a table, their hands slapping it occasionally.  It was she who noticed Kyung-Soo, leaping up and calling to her.  Kyung-Soo was too distracted by the gaggle of children almost hiding Nam-Joon from view. She couldn’t remember the last time she had ever seen so many children.  Perhaps when mother had first gotten sick, and she had gone with Yoon-Gi into town looking for a doctor.  They had flocked to the boy to his seemingly great annoyance, and yet he had grinned as he gave one after the other a piggyback ride.  They must be servants’ children, by the look of their faces and clothes, though she couldn’t understand what Nam-Joon was doing as he patted the back of the small child hanging over his leg.

          “I am sorry,” she said when Hyun-Mi handed her a bowl.  “I didn’t realize how late it was.”

          “Jung-Kook could sleep until lunch if you let him,” Nam-Joon laughed from the floor, tilting the child back whose forehead he had been feeling before patting the ground in front of him for her to sit.

          “I’ll let him, then.  He must need the rest.”

          “Perhaps.”

          “Where is Min-Ji this morning?” Kyung-Soo asked, smiling at the servant who bowed at her before sitting down on the other side of the table so as to not be in the way.

          “She was feeling unwell.”

          “Lady Min-Ji is sick?” one of the children asked, trying to peer up into Nam-Joon’s face as he nodded.  “Sick like me?”

          “I hope not, dear one,” Nam-Joon smiled, patting the boy’s head before turning to his side to pick something up.  It was hidden from Kyung-Soo’s view due to the mass of children, but it looked like a leaf of some kind.  “Hyun-Mi, brew this in a pot of tea for me, would you?”

          “Yes, master,” Hyun-Mi said, hopping up again and snatching the leaves from Nam-Joon.

          “I hope she isn’t too unwell,” Kyung-Soo said, watching with curiosity as Nam-Joon picked something else up, a small bowl with a yellow paste in it that almost resembled honey.  “Is there anything I may do to help?”

          “Oh, no, she will be fine.  Some mornings her head or back or stomach hurt.  She should be fine by this afternoon.”

          “Will I be fine?  Am I going to die?” the girl at Namjoon’s feet said, sticking her tongue out when he put two fingers through the goo and lifted them up for her to smell. Laughing a little at her reaction, Nam-Joon shook his head and tilted her chin up, pulling her shirt down a little to expose her throat.

          “You will be fine, I promise.  You need a thicker coat and a new pair of shoes, though.  And you need to lie down after your tea is ready.”

          “Smells,” the girl said as Nam-Joon rubbed the mixture in circles on her chest.

          “That means it’s working, then, if you can already smell.”

          “Oh,” the girl said, brightening noticeably.  “I can smell again!”

          “It won’t last for long, so store up as many breaths as you can,” Nam-Joon said, winking at the girl as she nodded.  Once he was done, he cleaned his fingers on his pants before patting the baby on his leg again, lifting up its shirt to examine it. “That’s for Chae-Won here,” he said when Hyun-Mi brought a cup of steaming tea to him.  “Let it cool for a minute so we don’t add burnt tongue to your list of symptoms.”  Giggling, the girl nodded and simply peered into the cup as she waited.  “I am sorry I can’t play a good host this morning,” Nam-Joon said, smiling up at Kyung-Soo as he pulled down the child’s wrappings around its bottom, the poor thing wiggling and beginning to cry immediately. Trying to shush it by patting its head and rubbing its back, Nam-Joon reached to his side again.

          “Ew,” one of the boys said, looking over Nam-Joon’s shoulder and clearly crowding into his space even though the man didn’t seem to mind.  “His bottom’s all red!  Did he get whipped?”

          “Of course not,” Nam-Joon said, sprinkling a brownish powder over the baby’s bottom and patting it in gently, shushing the thing the whole time.  “We usually have visitors in the morning, but today there are a few more than normal.”

          “This is normal?” Kyung-Soo said, getting up to wash her dish even though Hyun-Mi jumped up to stop her.

          “In a sense.  I have been experimenting for years with different remedies and have found enough consistent cures that people come to me for aid.”

          “You are a doctor, then?”

          “I wouldn’t give myself that title,” Nam-Joon said chuckling a little before lifting the baby up and turning it around so he could nuzzle at its face, its cries subsiding a little with the attention as its bottom dried out in the cool air.  “Though others have.  I am more of a scholar, and I have managed to write down the effects of various herbs and plants.  Anyone could do the same.”

          “I highly doubt that,” Kyung-Soo said, sitting back down and watching the children with a soft smile.  “My father did something normal when he grew our grain during the famine, and yet he was the only one able to successfully grow any that year.  You are surely doing something great.”

          “I thank you,” Nam-Joon said, smiling almost a little sadly. “Though not everyone would agree with you.”

          “Master, master,” the impatient boy said, tugging on the man’s sleeves, “can you fix me now, too?”

          “What seems to be the matter with you?” Nam-Joon asked, putting the baby over his shoulder and holding it with one hand as he turned to the other boy.

          “I have a funny feeling in my tummy,” the boy said, lifting up his shirt and patting his belly.

          “Funny?  Does it hurt?”

          “A little.”

          “What else does it feel like?”

          “Feels like,” the boy said, thinking for a moment before poking his belly button, “like this is trying to eat through my skin.”

          “Oh dear,” Nam-Joon said, his eyebrows rising in amusement. “Well, I think I know the fix for that. Hyun-Mi, will you please get this young man a bowl of rice?  Actually, make sure everyone gets one, yes?”

          “Yes, my lord.”

          “I am sorry,” Nam-Joon said again as he checked on the girl drinking her tea.  “But please make yourself at home.  Min-Ji showed you the garden, yes?  You are welcome to walk there.  Our grounds are fairly large behind the house, too.  There is a nice walking path there.  And you are welcome to anything in my study if nothing else entertains you.”

          “A walk sounds lovely,” Kyung-Soo said, bowing her head at her host before standing up, smiling still at the children huddled around the man who were all wide-eyed and eager as they ate their rice.  “I do not want for much.  I am grateful for your hospitality as it is, so please don’t let me be a bother.”

          “Nonsense,” Nam-Joon said, smiling up at her sincerely.  “You are family.  You are welcome anytime.”

          “Thank you.”  A bow, for it was all she could manage, an odd happiness settling over her as she left. Her husband was still asleep, so she would go to check on his horse and attend to his needs even if he was unaware. The idea made her happy, even, to know she could do something for him, and while the feeling almost made her rethink her decision, no selfishness drove her, only the cool air and free morning and curiosity to explore a new place without any limitations, a rare occasion that had her smiling as she went outside.

 

          A stray leaf planted itself in her hair, hanging on for dear life after already falling so far as she walked on unawares.  Yaho checked on and found not wanting, she had carried on past the stables to the edge of the yard where a lack of a fence led her unobstructed into a wooded area.  A distinguishable path guided her forward, her hands coming up occasionally to shield herself from a low hanging branch, but otherwise the way was clear enough. Her footing was sure, too, as she was used to walking through the woods, though she was used to being barefooted while running after her friends, so her slow, leisurely pace made her constantly glance over her shoulder as if she expected someone to burst through the trees to try to surprise her.  Nam-Joon had said the woods were safe, though, and she couldn’t imagine encountering any dangerous animals or strangers.  She took her care to stay on the path, too, and paused to consider when she got to a fork, one trail obviously more worn than the other.  Feeling a little curious, she opted for the less traveled one and headed down it, picking up her robes occasionally when they tried to impede her.

          The woods grew sparser as she went, the sky becoming into view as new sounds came her way, the previous compactness of the woods fading away allowing for the noise to be more obvious.

          It was a stream or waterfall of some sort, from what she could tell, though it wasn’t roaring or rushing.  Still, it made her stop long enough to look behind her again.  The ground beneath her feet started to grow sandy, and she walked slowly on, her caution growing with each step.  As if the earth could just fall out from under her. As if the ground would suddenly disappear, dragging her down somewhere with it.  As if one wrong step would send her toppling down to the waters below.

          The ledge was small enough where she could easily hop or climb down, a small trickling waterfall falling into a small pond and thin stream posing no threat or danger.  It could be easily crossed by foot even if one’s feet and legs would get wet, but the trail ended at the small cliff, and Kyung-Soo had no need to climb down.  She had no need to see how deep or cold the waters were.  She had no need to risk being unable to climb back up to the path.  So she turned, hugging herself a little as she went back the way she came, the sound of the water slowly disappeared as she walked on.

          The fork appeared again soon, and her curiosity turned to the well-worn track.  While it narrowed and wound its way around tree after tree, it eventually widened again into a small enclosure, a large cliff creating a wall at the back of it. The path ended, and Kyung-Soo wondered why the trail seemed so traveled when it was a dead end before she spotted three mounds of dirt with spotty grass and several fallen branches and leaves covering them.  

          They were all too similarly shaped to be natural.  

          Someone had shaped them.  

          Used their hands to mold their shape.  

          Someone had plastered layer after layer over the other until they all looked the same.  All three so small, one seemingly much younger than the others, but all so clearly graves.

          Her shoes came off immediately at the realization even as she bowed, her breath leaving her for a moment as she got to her knees, her eyes looking over each of them as she thought, as she tried to picture who they could have belonged to.

          The children gathered around Nam-Joon came to her mind. Min-Ji’s round face.  Nam-Joon’s soft smile.  The quiet and yet loving air their house had, like something was sad and missing and yet so fulfilled and content.

          The famine had brought many similar mounds around Sabuk, parents mourning their lost children more than their own demise.  Eun-Jae and Yoon-Gi’s tears dried early, their bodies too spent to shed any more, but Kyung-Soo cried enough for all of them and more.  The only consolation the death of a child had then was that they wouldn’t have to suffer anymore.  Even that was not a great comfort to her, though, and she couldn’t imagine that was why these three children had died.

          Edging herself forward slowly, she bowed again, placing her shoes in front of the middle one.

          “I have no other gift,” she mumbled, sighing a little. “But I hope these may serve you well.” She felt heavier as she stood up and turned to go, the discovery another secret she was now carrying.

          She did not want to carry it, though, at least not alone.

          It was also not hers to share, though, so she knew she must tread lightly.

          She did as she walked back, her feet so cold each stick brushing against them felt like a stab.  Her once calloused souls had lost their hardness so quickly.  Why people thought a frail lady was appealing to so many made no sense to her as she went, but there was nothing to be done about it. She carried on slowly, too, and she froze completely when she heard someone in front of her, their footsteps not quiet or careful at all.  Knowing the house was almost within view, she wasn’t afraid but still waited anxiously before she saw who came into view.

          The sight of her husband on his horse made her smile immediately, but it faded a little as he came closer, her mind already trying to decide what to tell him.  To lie would protect his brother and sister-in-law.  To tell the truth could possibly hurt their close relationship, though. To lie would hurt her own, though, the reestablished connection between her and Jung-Kook still so fresh and fragile the slightest fabrication could ruin everything.

          Being selfless, then, and to avoid her own sense of pleasure was her decision as Jung-Kook got closer, a soft smile on his lips as he knelt closer to Yaho’s head to avoid a branch overhead.

          “Kyung-Soo, Nam-Joon said you were out here.  You should have woken me; I would have come—where are your shoes?”

          “I left them.”  Being selfish, then, was her decision, apparently.

          “Left them?  Where? Aren’t you cold?”  He slid off of his horse easily with an understanding sigh as if he wasn’t surprised at all, and she knew what he was going to do. She wanted to push him away, refuse the help, let her feet hurt for the hurt she was about to cause so many, but she let him take her hand anyway and hoist her up onto Yaho’s back, the horse warm even if a little perturbed at her replacing its master.  “Kyung-Soo?  Where are your shoes?”

          “I—I left them.”

          “In the house?  Why would you come out here without shoes?  If you’re trying to prove you’re stronger than me, there are surely—”

          “At a grave.  I didn’t have anything else to leave.”

          “A grave?  What grave?” Jung-Kook said, looking around the forest as if he expected a secret path to suddenly appear.

          “I can show you,” Kyung-Soo said, the decision feeling cowardly.  She had stumbled upon it accidentally, and this way she wouldn’t have to technically be the one telling him.  She could just show him, and then the decision would be his.  Perhaps it would be clearer to him.  Perhaps Jung-Kook would know what to do.  Perhaps her husband knew already.  Perhaps it was a secret he was already keeping from her.  Perhaps it would be one they could carry together.

 

          “What is this?” he asked, though there was no reason to.  He knew what they were immediately.  His mind, however, struggled to understand. No explanation made sense.  His brother had never told him Min-Ji was pregnant. So how could there be three graves?

          “What is this?” he mumbled again as Kyung-Soo slid off the horse, the reins slipping from his fingers.

          “Has Min-Ji ever been pregnant?”  The hand sliding into his startled him as he stared at the grass waving on each of them, a leaf blowing off of one to another.

          “No.  No. Why are these here?”

          “Are you sure?  Perhaps they died so soon, perhaps they never had the chance to tell you.”

          “No, no, what are you saying?  They haven’t had a child.”

          “Could it be a neighbor?  Were these here before?  Maybe a townsperson buried their son or—”

          “No.  No, this is Nam-Joon’s land.  These are—they’re still so new.  What is this?”

          “Jung-Kook, a baby can be born and not live.  They can come too soon.  Perhaps—”

          “No.”  Perhaps if he said it enough and kept shaking his head, it would be untrue.  He wasn’t close to Seok-Jin’s children, but they were so young and frankly terrifying, so fragile and so little, but the thought of three others, three nieces or nephews who he would never get to meet there in the cold dirt made him clench his fist.  The fact that Nam-Joon had never said anything hurt, but the pain he could only imagine his brother must have gone through seared his chest until he struggled to breathe.

          “Jung-Kook, Jung-Kook,” Kyung-Soo said, sliding her arms around him.  An almost painful grasp, then, as he clung to her robes.  “They must have had their reasons.  They must have kept it a secret for a reason.  They must be so devastated, Jung-Kook.  Losing a child—is unimaginable—losing more than one is unthinkable.  But we must think, Jung-Kook.  We must think before we say anything.  Please, you must think about why no one knows.”

          “No,” Jung-Kook said, crushing his face into Kyung-Soo’s hair, something crunching in the process.  Not a lie, and yet a secret.  Not a break of trust, and yet no trust to begin with.  “Why wouldn’t he tell me?  Why wouldn’t he?”

          “Can you imagine?  Can you imagine the pain he must be in?”

          No.  How could he. The youngest child who grew up so comfortably.  Whose greatest tragedies had been being lied to.  The young man who had experienced so little.

          “No,” he mumbled, then, sighing and releasing Kyung-Soo, pulling away from her and noticing the debris of a leaf in her hair.  Picking them gingerly from her hair to drop to the ground, he tried to think of all the reasons why Nam-Joon wouldn’t have told him, wouldn’t have shared this part of his life with him, wouldn’t have shown him this part of his heart.

          “Have you,” he said after a moment, feeling Kyung-Soo stepping closer to him as he fixed her hair, “ever seen someone die?  Your father—Je Hae-Chul—were you there?”

          “No.  My lady was. I did not see him die.”  A hum, then, of relief, that for all she had seen, she had not seen death so closely, but his hand stilled on her cheek when she spoke again.  “I saw my own parents, though.  And other servants.  Friends. Children.”  

          How?  How had she seen so many?  So many faces that she looked on one last time.  How had she managed to look them in the eye and watch them die?  How had she faced that?

          “I’m sorry,” he muttered, kissing her head and letting his face linger in her hair as she hugged him close.  They stood for a moment before Kyung-Soo’s wiggling toes reminded him of her feet, and he cursed silently, pulling away only to grab Yaho again. “Your feet,” he muttered, putting Kyung-Soo back on the horse and eyeing the graves one more time before leading the horse away.

          “Jung-Kook?  What will we do?  Do we tell them?”

          “I don’t know,” Jung-Kook sighed, tightening his hold on the reins.  “I don’t know.  Let me—will you let me think for a moment?  I just need to think.”

          “Of course,” she said softly, knowing he couldn’t see her nod. “I will think, too.”  It made him smile, just a little, or at least feel like his chest decompressed.  Perhaps sharing the secret would be enough.  Perhaps she would know what to do.  Perhaps they could decide together.

 

          There were some ailments that no medicine or herb could heal.

          There was not a tea for everything, despite what Jung-Kook’s mother seemed to believe.

          There were things that ran deeper, that poisoned and drained and killed without showing any physical signs, that made one waste away as it slowly bit into their very soul.

          There was something Jung-Kook knew Nam-Joon could find no herb to cure.

          His headaches, his mother’s stomach pains, Ji-Min’s sore muscles; Nam-Joon had found a cure for them all, or at least something to ease the pain.  Numbing the pain was not getting rid of it completely, though.  And many things could numb your senses.  Not medicine, but liquor and smoking, things to make you feel less or more when really you wanted to feel nothing at all.

          That, that walking pain within his own chest couldn’t be dealt with with any medicine, though.

          But it was there, and Jung-Kook had to let it out.  Show it to the door or drag out with his own hands. He had to so it wouldn’t take up residence and start to control his life.

          “I must speak to Nam-Joon,” he decided after what felt like hours of thinking.  His hands had long ago warmed Kyung-Soo’s feet back up, but they were still rubbing them, massaging her heel and wondering at how soft even her toes were.

          “What will you say?” she asked from her seat on the floor. She was surprisingly still as his hands worked over the soles of her feet.  “Are you angry?”

          “No.”

          “You were angry at me.”

          “I was not—I was—I was angry.  Not at you.  Not really. I was confused.  I am not angry at Nam-Joon.”

          “He did not lie.”

          “He—” Jung-Kook said, trying to think back to everything his brother had ever said.  “He did not lie.  I can not remember him ever saying Min-Ji wasn’t pregnant if anyone asked.  I don’t remember anyone asking.  Just hints or suggestions for them to hurry up or an allusion to a lack of children for the time being.  I am not angry.  I am upset, though.”

          “Because he didn’t tell you?”

          “No. Yes,” Jungkook sighed, putting Kyung-Soo’s feet down and leaving his hands over her robes around her ankles.  “I am upset he didn’t tell me.  That sounds childish and foolish.  I am more upset that he had to suffer alone.”

          “Not alone.  Min-Ji obviously knows.”

          “Min-Ji,” Jung-Kook sighed, leaning forward until his forehead rested on Kyung-Soo’s legs.  “Min-Ji—she always seems so happy.  I don’t understand.  Poor Min-Ji.”

          “If you are going to talk to Nam-Joon, I will talk to Min-Ji,” Kyung-Soo said, the absence of asking his permission making him glance up at her. She was free to do so if she wished, but he forgot sometimes.  He forgot how much stronger she was than he.  “It can be a heavy burden to carry alone.  I—I am glad you found out my secret.  If it had turned out poorly, I’m sure I would think differently, but it is relieving to know someone else knows.  Perhaps talking to her will help.  If she can confide in me, in you, and not just Nam-Joon, perhaps it will help. I want to help.”

          “Me too,” Jung-Kook said, nodding his chin into Kyung-Soo’s legs before sitting up.  “I am a little afraid, though.  There must be a reason why they didn’t tell me.  Why no one else knows.  They could be hurt more or be angry at us if we know.”

          “You know your brother better than I.  Do you think he would be angry at you?”

          “No,” Jung-Kook said, surprisingly easily.  He did know his brother, and while Jung-Kook didn’t quite know why his brother had kept such a tremendous secret from him, he knew he must have his reason.  And it could never be to hurt Jung-Kook.  Nam-Joon was kind and patient.  He would not get angry.  “No. Min-Ji won’t, either.  They won’t get mad.”

          “Then let us go,” Kyung-Soo said, nodding in her resolution. “Let us go help our family.” Nodding as well, Jung-Kook helped her up, pulling her close for a hug before releasing her.

          There were some things medicine could not cure.

          But there were things that could help like no medicine could, and perhaps Kyung-Soo was right.

          Jung-Kook was certainly willing to try.  He was no doctor or scholar, but he was Nam-Joon’s brother, and he would do anything possible to ease what pain he could.

 

          Together but alone.  Separated but partners.  With her lady and Yoon-Gi growing up, she had never had true independence.  Forced to mature, so she could do many tasks beyond her peers.  But a co-dependency kept them all together, reliant on each other, as they grew.  No regret or bitterness marred her memories, her days spent being dragged along and coaxed into doing things she normally wouldn’t have were filled with laughter and belonging and love, and yet she could tell it was different.

          It was comparable to what she felt with Jung-Kook as they squeezed each other’s hands one last time before heading in opposite directions down the hallway.  The walk away from each other wasn’t terrifying or scary.  As a child, being away from her friends was a punishment, was a night she wanted to end, but the same worries, whether due to merely her age or their relationship, didn’t follow her as she and Jung-Kook separated. Already she was looking forward to seeing him again, to discussing what had happened in their respective conversations with their family members, to sharing how their lives with each other felt all the more complete after brief periods away from each other.  They were going to opposite sides of the house to speak to two different people, and yet their mission was the same, their goal was shared, their unity was undeniable.  

          And she was no doctor, but enough hours spent by Yoon-Gi’s bedside and her mother’s as she wasted away had given Kyung-Soo enough experience to know tea, if the patient wasn’t Kim Jung-Kook, could always help. A stop at the kitchen, first, empty of children and quiet as she helped herself to dishes and a tray and water, before she carried on to Min-Ji and Nam-Joon’s shared room.

          The days of standing outside of Yoon-Gi’s room, though, tray in hand, hands that shook with fear, trying to calm down before entering, hoping to see someone still alive and breathing even if pale and thin, suddenly didn’t seem so far away as she looked at Min-Ji’s door.  The constant unknown, the fear of walking in to only find a body, no longer a friend to push your offered help away but an empty corpse past any need, your efforts useless, was such a familiar feeling that it was easy to feel it again even if this was a different house in a different time with a different person to check in on.  The buoy of hope that had kept her afloat for so many years when food was scarce and her friend’s voice grew quieter and quieter until it was silent forever hovered around her, though, and she clung to it as she knocked and slid the door open after a moment.

          No curtains or open doors let in any light or air, but the room wasn’t stale or stifling.  Still, a repressive air, like something was lingering about Kyung-Soo she couldn’t quite name, seemed to raise its head when she entered, putting her more on edge. It felt a little manipulative to rely on the other woman’s good nature to greet her kindly, but she called out to Min-Ji anyway, needing to know immediately if her plan would work or not. She needed to know if opening the door was really enough for her to come in.

          “Kyung-Soo?” a groggy voice said from the mats on the floor. “Is everything alright?”

          “I just came to check on you,” she said, glad it wasn’t a lie. Regardless of anything she had found that day, she would have come to spend time with her friend as her sickness didn’t sound contagious.  “I bring tea and companionship.”

          “There was no need for you to do that.”

          “And there is no need for you to get up.  Please, lie back.  Stay comfortable.”

          “I am afraid I am not acting as a good host,” the lady said, sighing a little as she sat up, her cheeks obviously lacking the color Kyung-Soo was used to seeing in them.

          “I don’t care about all of that,” Kyung-Soo almost huffed as she knelt down and handed the lady a cup.  “Nam-Joon kept saying the same thing, and, really, you two are extremely gracious hosts.  I saw him treating so many children this morning.  To just do that out of the kindness of his heart?  Really, Min-Ji, you would have to try much harder to be anything close to a poor host.”

          “If you say so.”

          “I do,” Kyung-Soo said, settling her hands on her knees and nodding in satisfaction when Min-Ji smiled a little around her cup. “Besides, we are family now, so we didn’t come to be entertained, though I am glad for everything so available to us. Tell me how you’re feeling.”

          “I am fine.  Some days I wake, and my head hurts too much.”

          “That happens to Jung-Kook sometimes, I have noticed,” Kyung-Soo nodded.  “Does a cold or warm rag work better for you?”

          “Cold, usually.  And no light. Kyung-Soo,” Min-Ji said slowly, putting her cup down.  “Are you alright?”

          “Of course.  What do you mean?”

          “You sound a little out of breath.  Is the room too oppressive?  It can be very gloomy in here sometimes.  Nam-Joon always tries to get me out into the sun or garden when I don’t feel well, but on days like this, it is too cold.  Nothing can tempt me to get out of bed.  But you may open the door now if you wish.”

          “Oh, no, no,” Kyung-Soo said, eager to make sure the girl stayed comfortable.  

          “Did you sleep well?  Was the food satisfactory?”

          “Of course, of course.  I went for a walk, too.”

          “Oh,” Min-Ji said, the slightest look of fear on her face before she recovered herself.  “It is a nice day, then?”

          “Min-Ji,” Kyung-Soo said when she was unable to stop herself any longer, “have you ever lied to Nam-Joon?”

          “Wha—what do you mean?”

          “Just that—have you ever lied to him?”

          “Oh, no, no, I could never.”  The adamant headshake was almost too much.

          “Not even to keep him safe?  To avoid hurting him?”  The answer came in the silence.  The camaraderie shared between them, one who loved before marriage, one who was working to find it, had both obviously done the same sin, the same act, the same desperate attempt to keep someone safe while keeping something hidden.  The rest of the answer came in a question.

          “Why do you ask, Kyung-Soo?”

          “I lied.  I lied to Jung-Kook,” Kyung-Soo said, sitting back a little and looking around.  Even Min-Ji’s kind gaze had gone a little intense, and she reminded Kyung-Soo a little of a bear ready to protect its young. “He knows now.  He knows I did it because I thought it was right.  Because I was protecting someone.  But he knows that it hurt me and him in the end, and it would have been better not to.  The guilt is—it reminds me of the hunger during the famine, of my insides eating away at themselves.  He has forgiven me, and yet I still feel so wrong, like I am unfit to call him my husband, like I am not good enough to be his bride.”

          “Kyung-Soo,” Min-Ji said softly, her warm hand reaching for Kyung-Soo’s.  “The trait I love the most about Nam-Joon is how patient and understanding he is.  His brothers are all similar, and while Jung-Kook has always seemed to hold grudges for longer than necessary, he has a kind heart. If he has told you he forgives you, then he does.”

          “I know.  I believe him.  I just wondered—I just—I can not ask my own mother for advice, and while lady Kim is lovely, I do not see myself ever admitting to her that I lied to her precious son.  Do you understand?”

          “Of course.  I love her like my own mother, but the boys’ fierce loyalty certain comes from her.  I would not tell her if I was you.”

          “I am glad we are similar there, then.  Is it easier, then, because you have loved him for so long, or do you just naturally trust people?”

          “Love makes everything easier and harder, Kyung-Soo.”

          “Even lying,” Kyung-Soo said, patting Min-Ji’s hand and avoiding a question on purpose, the lack of an inflection in her voice alone enough for the other lady to pause again.  She kept her hand with Kyung-Soo’s, though, eventually turning it so she could hold Kyung-Soo’s thinner fingers before she cleared her throat.

          “I have lied to Nam-Joon before.  Of course I have.  I am sorry I was not honest earlier.  Of course I have lied.  When he has asked me if I am well, and I really am not, but I say yes anyway to avoid worrying him more, for instance.”

          “Little lies, then, as we all do sometimes,” Kyung-Soo said, nodding along.  Another pause and Min-Ji’s eyes searching around the room gave her time to breathe slowly.

          “I told him a big lie once.  A huge one.  One that could have ended our marriage.  Possibly even my life.”

          “What happened?”

          “I couldn’t hide it from him in the end.  He found out.”

          “Was he angry?  Did you lie to protect him?”

          “Of course,” Min-Ji said, her voice sounding terribly sad and almost far away.  “He was not angry, though.  He was so sad.  So, so sad. Not even that I had lied.  He just—we—I had been trying to keep him from pain, but I couldn’t.  And that made me hurt more.  And yet it became easier, after a time.  The pain subsided and felt lessened when I knew that he was carrying some of it.”

          “I can help, too,” Kyung-Soo said, grasping Min-Ji’s hand tighter. “Do not feel like you have to keep things from me to keep me safe.  I am your family now, and hopefully your friend.  Help me carry some of your pain.  Jung-Kook, too.  He wants to. He wants—he is talking to Nam-Joon right now.”

          “Jung-Kook is lucky to have you,” Min-Ji smiled, patting Kyung-Soo’s hand.  “You really are very sweet.”

          “I’m trying to say, Min-Ji, that we know.  We were walking in the woods, and we know.  And we want to help if we can.  I want you to know I’m here.  If you just want me to lie down with you or bring you tea or sit in the garden with you or read to you or leave you alone, just let me know.”  She waited for the contradiction, then, for the hand to pull away, for a harsh word or two to send her away, for a denial, a lie, another attempt to hide the truth, but instead of flinging Kyung-Soo away, Min-Ji crumpled.

          She fell, already so close to the ground, and Kyung-Soo reached forward to catch her, a cry on her lips for help before she realized the girl was conscious but crying, a violent but silent sob falling out of her mouth as it hung open.  The piercing pain, as if Kyung-Soo had just brought her dead child before her, as if she was hearing for the first time that she had lost her precious baby, shook Min-Ji as she heaved, and Kyung-Soo, small and lost and so desperate to help, could only fear that instead of easing her friend’s pain, she had only brought it out into the light of day to watch it magnify.

 

          Growing up, Jung-Kook hated his lessons.  Only when Nam-Joon tutored him, sat with him during his own time, and slowly explained the same things over and over again to him did Jung-Kook at all enjoy learning, but he knew now that was because of who was teaching him, not because he was actually enjoying learning the material.  One concept he had struggled with the most was math.  Sums became easy, and yet he could never calculate in his head like his brothers could. Anything beyond simple addition and subtraction and Jung-Kook became lost.  He had thrown his book down in frustration one afternoon when Nam-Joon told him he was right but could have taken an easier path to get there.

          Problems should have one solution, or so Jung-Kook thought.  A lesson, though, in math became a larger lesson in life.  One solution wasn’t always feasible, and sometimes many solutions became available to one point of conflict.  He knew that there were different ways to approach his brother, then.  He could try to pretend he didn’t know.  He could come in questioning, trying to pry something out of him.  Or he could come in and just tell him he knew.

          Each method would have a different result.  He may ultimately get to the same answer, but one path might be rockier than another.  Taking the latter option of just going in and addressing him bluntly would probably shock his brother.  He could see it as disrespect or rudeness.  He could tell Jung-Kook to leave him alone and mind his business.  

          But Jung-Kook knew his brother, and he knew above all that he was kind and loved helping people.  Solving problems, whether they be math or ones of relationship, was simply what Nam-Joon did.

          He wasn’t surprised to find him where he had seen him last, still on the front porch attending to various civilians bringing illness after ailment to him for fixing.  Knowing his brother, Jung-Kook was sure Nam-Joon would find a way to fix all of them if it was the last thing he did.  He did his best not to appear rude, then, and waited in between someone Nam-Joon was helping was finished and bowing away before stepping in and whispering to him that he needed to talk to him quickly.  His tone and words helped his brother, no question asked until he had pulled him back inside, his hand on his elbow and his eyebrows knitted.  He had been asking people all morning what was wrong with them, but Jung-Kook knew his brother cared more about him even if it was a little unfair.

          “What is it?  What’s wrong?”

          “Kyung-Soo and I found the graves.”

          “What?”  Jung-Kook knew, for all his brother’s love, Nam-Joon loved his wife more than anything else in the world.  He had hugged Jung-Kook tightly when he first moved away, and he saw him often enough, knowing that his absence was going to be hard on the boy, but Min-Ji came first. She always would, and years ago in his childishness, Jung-Kook grew bitter at the knowledge.  Now, though, he saw the panic in Nam-Joon’s eyes and cowered under them, looking down at his hands to make sure he hadn’t just accidentally stabbed his brother unintentionally.

          “The graves, Nam-Joon.  Kyung-Soo and I found them in the woods behind the house.  She’s talking to Min-Ji about them ri—”

          “She’s what?” Nam-Joon said, grabbing Jung-Kook’s other elbow and shaking him once before letting go of him, the power of his form and speed at which he moved staggering Jung-Kook a little before he thought to follow after him, his long legs carrying him quickly toward his wife’s room.

          Jung-Kook could believe that there were many ways to solve a problem, but he could believe even easier that he would be one to make a problem worse.

 

          Flying of feet down a hall.

          Cries for help.

          Doors wrenched open.

          A stench of distress polluting the air.

          They were all things Kyung-Soo would never grow used to, even after experiencing them all multiple times.  The heart still leapt, still raced, still struggled to calm itself.  Always more if the affection or connection was already stronger, but always enough to make her feel faint and panicked before she got a hold of herself.  The ragged breath of the girl in her arms, then, the thrusting of the door opening, the arms pushing her away, all a storm, a tempest, her hands shaking as she stood up until others wrapped around her, holding her sturdy enough that she focused faster than she normally would when she was left alone to worry over her lady or friend or master.

          Her husband, his arms strong and sure, carrying her out so quickly she couldn’t even fight him if she wanted to.

          Deep breaths.

          Warm arms.

          Silent sharing simply of space.

          So unfamiliar, and yet so welcomed, her heart let itself be carried out as well, wherever Jung-Kook wanted to go.

 

          “You’ll catch cold,” Jung-Kook mumbled, his advice falling on deaf ears.  Kyung-Soo couldn’t feel it, not really.  The tiny pond in the garden was better defined as a puddle, so her toes were barely even submerged.  To appease him, she moved her body closer to him to stay warm, though, awaiting what felt like a scolding or punishment with her head down.  Jung-Kook seemed to be fairing no better, his silence and hunched shoulders an indication that he too never took being disciplining well.

          They sat for so long that the cold did finally reach her, the coolness keeping her awake turning painful.  The door that opened, not merely as violently or loudly as earlier, helped her head snap up, too, Nam-Joon’s tall figure giving a tired smile from the warmth of the house.

          “What are you two doing out here?  Come inside to eat.”

          The silence regarding the issue was going to drive Kyung-Soo insane at this rate, but she followed Jung-Kook closely, Nam-Joon leading them not toward where they had eaten the night before, the change in direction making Kyung-Soo and Jung-Kook raise their eyebrows at each other.

          Being back in Min-Ji’s room so soon seemed like an invasion, but the room was filled with light now, Min-Ji was no longer in bed or crying but sitting at a table giving them a smile and a head bow, and Nam-Joon waved for them to sit down as if nothing was out of the ordinary except the placement of their plates and bowls.  As they ate, Kyung-Soo fell into her role easily even if she hated it at the same time, the fake comfortableness making her anything but as they talked of their homes and Nam-Joon’s work that morning and about going to the market the next day. Only when their dishes were empty and Kyung-Soo’s mind was full of questions did Nam-Joon clear his throat and hold his wife’s hand, the way Jung-Kook reached for Kyung-Soo’s as well almost making her laugh or pull away.  But the motion, while copied, was not one of habit like the pair in front of them but of comfort or support, so Kyung-Soo did not pull away as she sat up straighter.

          “Min-Ji and I would like to tell you something,” Nam-Joon started. “And we ask that you don’t tell anyone else.  Our intent was not to hurt you, Jung-Kook, or anyone in our family.  But I do not live under father’s roof anymore.  His expectations, while seemingly reasonable, for his sons to all marry and provide him with grandchildren and prove ourselves as men by doing so may sound right.  Most will argue that it is.  That it is my duty to have a child.  And I wanted to.  Min-Ji wanted to.  We wanted to have a family.  Whether that is because of the expectation our parents put on us or because of what we wanted for ourselves, we wanted a family.  We have been unsuccessful as of yet.  It is not for a want of trying.  As you saw—” Nam-Joon paused, the way he was stopping to check on his wife who nodded beside him obvious.

          “The first time seemed like an awful nightmare.  It was so early, so early we hadn’t even told anyone yet.  The second one, I began to wonder.  We went to doctors.  Every one of them said something was wrong with Min-Ji.  Several gave the unsolicited advice that I should re-marry or have a child through another.  I couldn’t—I couldn’t imagine.  I wanted Min-Ji and I’s child, do you understand?”

          “Yes, hyung,” Jung-Kook said softly, his hand tightening in Kyung-Soo’s.

          “And so, while it hurt, while it hurt seeing my wife, the person I love more than anyone else in the world, hurting so much, we tried again. Not even a year ago.  It kills me, Jung-Kook, Kyung-Soo, to see Min-Ji sad. She is not the one to blame for any of this.  But she is tired.  Her body is tired.  We are extra careful now, which I hate.  I hate that we can not simply be what we want, do what we want.  We hate that we can’t have children.  I hate that, no matter what I read, no matter what cures I find for everything else, that I can’t find any to help us.  I will never satisfy father’s desire, and I don’t necessarily hate that, but there will always be a part of me who feels like people are looking at me and whispering about me.  Worse yet, I fear what they will say about Min-Ji.  It is hard on her.  So hard on her.  Thus on both of us.  Do you understand?”

          “We understand,” Kyung-Soo said, only thinking afterwards that she maybe shouldn’t have spoken for her husband.  “We meant no harm.”

          “No, no, of course not.  The thought never even crossed my mind,” Nam-Joon said, waving the idea away. “It was just a shock, I believe. We did not plan on you finding out like this.  One day, surely.  Maybe. I can not say.  I can not know what the future holds, Jung-Kook, except that I will love Min-Ji.  I will never leave her.  We have children, in our own way.  One day, when you have your own, we will be there for him or her as much as you want us to be.  I just wanted to apologize for my reaction earlier and explain to you as much as we could. I am not mad at you, Jung-Kook, or you, Kyung-Soo.  We are not mad.  We just ask that you don’t tell anyone else, especially father and mother.”

          “Of course,” Jung-Kook said as Kyung-Soo nodded beside him. “We are sorry, too.  Sorry, hyung, doesn’t even begin to express what I mean. I don’t know what to say.  You know I—I don’t think you’re less of a man or a bad husband just because—you know, right, Nam-Joon?”

          “Of course, Jung-Kook,” Nam-Joon said, smiling a little and knocking his head softly against Min-Ji’s where it rested on his shoulder.  “He’s starting to sound like me.”

          “The world’s greatest compliment,” Min-Ji said, smiling up at him just as softly in return.

          “We only want to help,” Kyung-Soo said softly.  

          “I am glad you have joined the family,” Min-Ji smiled.  “It helps to know someone so kind and level-headed is someone I can now call sister.”

          “Sister,” Kyung-Soo bowing her head to hide her smile a little. She had called her lady that, but this was different.  The first, not a choice, just inevitable fate, two girls growing up together, this, a choice, an inclusion, an invitation.

          “I only ask that you visit more often.  And do not feel guilty for finding out.  You are right—what you said earlier,” Min-Ji said, almost humming, “ about sharing the pain and grief is true.  Thank you for wanting to shoulder some of it.  We have not wanted to put that burden on anyone, but Nam-Joon and I were talking, and we don’t want to be hypocritical.  If you had a secret or a pain of your own, we would want you to tell us so that we could help.  Of course we should expect the same of ourselves.  Thank you for telling us and for being here.  I know I am not the best hostess, but perhaps I can be a good enough sister for you want to come again.”

          “Of course,” Kyung-Soo said urgently.  The way Min-Ji was talking, as if she was the one who should be apologizing or was being overly polite, didn’t sit well with her, but she said nothing else, knowing at times decorum and coping blurred easily. The line wasn’t completely clear as to what was her business, either, so she didn’t want to cross it again.  She was grateful Min-Ji and Nam-Joon really did seem grateful instead of angry, and she could tell Jung-Kook was thinking hard beside her as they rose to clean up, the air thankfully lighter as they did.

          Kyung-Soo didn’t know what the future held, either, but she hoped it would include more visits with Min-Ji.  She wished for less pain, for less secrets, for less conflicts, too, but she was not naïve.  Even as she wished, she knew deep down that life wasn’t done with surprising and hurting her and people she loved yet.

Chapter Text

“Isn't it funny how we live inside the lies we believe?”― A.S. King

           A first-time mistake was acceptable because it was forgivable.  A lesson learned.

           A mistake repeated was foolish, no longer an accident but seemingly on purpose, as if the culprit was looking for correction.

           Jung-Kook had never been good at his lessons, except he was good at learning from them.  Rarely making the same mistake twice, the boy hated being wrong, and he loved pleasing people.  If his tutor actually smiled at him or told him “Well done,” he didn’t even care what knowledge he had learned from a book that day.  The acknowledgment of his hard work alone was enough.

           He had made several mistakes when it came to being a husband, though.  Only a couple of months in, and he was starting to see the downside of trial and error.  Learning by doing was practical, but it was filled with painful experiences, and he was beginning to see and feel its cons.

           The mistake of confronting his brother even if he hadn’t meant to be confrontational left him feeling raw, even if he knew in the end everything would be well.  If he had been alone, if he had no one near him, if he had no one else he was responsible for, he would go outside, take Yaho for a walk, ignore the world for as long as he could until his hunger or exhaustion made him return.  But that was a mistake he wasn’t willing to repeat. If he felt rattled, he could only imagine what Kyung-Soo was feeling.

           A bath, then, after the dirt of the woods felt to be spreading over his clothes and Kyung-Soo’s cold hand in his grasp didn’t seem to be warming up unaided.  He proposed his idea to her quietly, and she accepted it just as so.

           To leave her or accompany her, then, was his next decision, but he wasn’t going to make the same mistake again.

           If she was alarmed or uncomfortable as he followed her into the bath—not nearly as large or ornate as his back home—she didn’t show it.  The only hesitation came when he realized they didn’t have clean clothes, and the same thought must have crossed her mind as their mouths opened at the same time, their words overlapping before a relaxing laugh broke out between them, Jung-Kook pointing at the bath as she pointed at the door.  Wordless, then, were the instructions, but perfectly clear as he went to their room to retrieve what they needed.  

           An impending mistake seemed inevitable, though, as he tried to select what she would want to wear.  Robes upon robes he didn’t even know the point of or what purpose they served.  He selected based on comfort alone, not looking at the style or color but simply feeling each garment until he found what he liked, noticing his wife had failed to pack any pants for their short trip.

           Upon his return, another hesitation when he entered, his intentions perhaps unclear to Kyung-Soo as she stood up from making sure the water was warm and high enough even though she still smiled at him, and that was enough for him to ask,

           “May I join you?”

           “Oh,” and Jung-Kook hoped the reddening on her cheeks was pleasant deep down, “of course.”

           “May I?”  Putting their clothes down and indicating to the ones she was still wearing, he watched as she nodded and stood still as he approached.  The action was not completely foreign; he took off his own clothes every day.  Undressing another was surely not much different, and he had taken off her robes before, at least most of them.  There were so many.

           “So many,” he mumbled, even as he stepped up to her and began to undo her first sash.

           “What’s that?”

           “Why do you always have so many layers on?”

           “It’s cold,” she said, her smile helping him to move quickly.  “Maybe if I had muscles like you, I wouldn’t need so many robes.”

           “Don’t wait around for that to happen,” Jung-Kook chuckled, Kyung-Soo’s small clicking of her tongue turning into a gasp as he threw her sash down and her robes all started to fall away from each other. “You may be strong, but you’re always going to be small.”

           “Not my fault,” Kyung-Soo muttered, looking away a little as Jung-Kook pushed her first layer off her shoulders, his inquisitive hum enough for her to continue.  “The famine and my position in life stunted my growth, you know?  So it’s not my fault I’m small.”

           “Oh.  I—” Jung-Kook’s hands stilled, his mistake, the insult, making his cheeks burn in embarrassment.  He even paused undressing her, his hands on her arms, as he tried to think of how to apologize, how to explain to her that he had meant to jest, not make fun of. That he liked her small.  That if he could, he—

           “I am jesting,” Kyung-Soo said, tilting her head to make sure he looked at her, the tilt of her smile enough for him to realize she had been baiting him.  “Jung-Kook? I shouldn’t have joked like that. I’m just small because I am.”

           “Really,” Jung-Kook sighed, trying to look annoyed but coming across as more relieved as he continued removing her next layer.  “Joking about the famine like that.  A lady would never do such a thing.”

           “That is probably true.  It is good you already know I am not one, then.”  Her toes wiggled as her robe fell around it, the last layer so thin he could almost see through it, but he looked at her face and then held it, all teasing aside.

           “You are a lady now,” he said seriously, his eyes darting over hers as hers did the same.  “My lady.  But you may joke about whatever you wish.  You may be as small or as large as you wish.  You may have whatever you wish, if I can give it to you.”

           “I wish,” she said slowly, bringing her hand up to wrap around his wrist and run her thumb over the tendons in his hand before tugging on it a little away from her cheek, “for you to hurry before I and the water get colder.”  He jumped into action at the instruction, as it was simple enough to follow.  Even if he wanted to go slowly, he refused to make the mistake of letting her get cold.  It was a losing battle, though, as he removed her last robe and her skin broke out into goosebumps, her nipples hardening at once.  

           Unlike back home, there was no wall or divider or armoire to hide behind in the room they were sharing at his brother’s, but even then, they had looked away from each other for privacy when they changed. He felt partially wrong, then, looking at her, at the way her waist curved in and her hips rounded out, at the small dark patch of hair between her legs, at all of the skin that was soft and unmarked.  But he felt completely wrong when his eyes lingered on the only part of her body that was marred and misshaped, the scar by her hip so jarring even if he knew it was there and where it had come from.

           “You can touch,” Kyung-Soo said softly, though the way she said it was almost a plea.  “Please touch me,” he heard instead, and that was all the permission, or all of the instructions, that he needed.  Trying not to hurry while rushing all the while, he let his thumb run over the bumps and indents of the mark.  Feeling unsteady, he held onto her hip with his other hand, forgetting for a moment what they were supposed to be doing, forgetting that she was naked before him, forgetting that she was growing colder by the second.

           Forgetting that he might be making a mistake.

           He wanted to touch her scar forever.  Wanted to reshape her skin.  She didn’t belong to them anymore.  To him.  She was his now, though he would never brand her.  He would never mark her physically as a way to show that she was his.  His responsibility.  His duty.  His love.

           “I am sorry,” he whispered, though he wasn’t sure to who or why.  She must have known, or assumed.  She really was smarter than him as she took his hand off of her scar and reached up to kiss his cheek.

           “Hurry,” she whispered, trying to step into the bath, her head looking over her shoulder when he didn’t let go of her hand, a smile replacing her confusion when he guided her in before dropping her hand as she sunk into the water, a shiver running through her body at the temperature change.

           And Jung-Kook knew she had watched him before, certainly more than he dared to look at her, even though she usually looked away at the last moment before he was completely bare, and he had nothing to be ashamed of when it came to his body.  It wasn’t something he thought about a lot, except he could tell when it was sore or knew when he was hungry.  He knew what exhaustion felt like, and the tell-tale signs he was getting sick.  He knew how much pain he could handle, and knew the difference between pleasurable pain, like that after a long training session with Seok-Jin, and pain to avoid, like when he fell off Yaho and got the wind knocked out of him.  He wasn’t used to people looking at him, though, even if as a child his brothers and him had swum naked or nearly naked in rivers plenty of times.

           Besides, Kyung-Soo was not his brother.  Not his mother, either, who surely saw him naked daily as a child.  Not even a stranger, accidently catching a glimpse of him, but his wife, and while he was well acquainted with his body, he wasn’t with hers.  He did not know exactly what it meant while she watched him undress.  He had no show to put on, only an end in mind.  Undress, get warm, bathe.  

           Not make a mistake.

           The bath wasn’t nearly as big as his back home, either, but it was plenty large for two people, so Kyung-Soo scooting back for him wasn’t totally necessary as he stepped in, wincing the second his foot hit the water.

           “You always like it this hot?”

           “Is it too hot for you?”

           “Of course not,” Jung-Kook retorted, hearing the challenge in his wife’s voice as he submerged himself to his shoulders, wondering if his skin would be scalded.  Kyung-Soo, meanwhile, looked unscathed.

           That hesitation, again, as they sat and looked at each other, their bodies adjusting to more than just the water temperature for a few moments before Jung-Kook moved for a cloth and soap.

           “I’ll wash you if you come closer.”  Kyung-Soo hummed, pretending to consider before she did, her fingers pointing to a different bar of soap than the one Jung-Kook had chosen.

           “That one is better.”

           “Oh?” he said, picking up the one she wanted instead to rub on the cloth.  “Not to question your soap decision, but may I ask why you prefer this one?”

           “It doesn’t smell as strong,” she said simply, lifting her arms out of the water toward him and raising her eyebrows when he paused in his lathering.  He moved as delicately as he could over her arms, then, shaking his head a little at her thoughtfulness.  He paused a little when she rinsed them, the swirls of residue melting into the water, unsure how to proceed next, but she got closer and sat up straighter, putting her dripping arms on his shoulders and reaching up to undo his hair.  

           Her laughter made him move again, too distracted for a moment as her fingers moved over his head to do anything before he remembered his job.  

           “Are you ticklish?” he said when she squirmed a little as he dipped the cloth under the water and ran it over her stomach and side.

           “No,” she said resolutely, shaking her head and resting her hands over his shoulders again as she watched him.  “Are you?”

           “No,” he said, regretting the lie immediately. He was concentrating seriously on his task.  He was caught off guard.  Her hands barely dipped under the water, but he yelled and jolted away when her fingers touched under his raised arms, his raised arms that were trying to clean her.

           “Hey!” he shouted, stopping to smile as she burst into laughter, her finger pointing at him shaking a little as she did. “That’s not fair.”

           “How-how,” she said as she caught her breath, “am I supposed to wash you if you’re so jumpy?”

           “I’m not if I know it’s coming!” he mumbled, trying not to glow at her proposal to return the favor unasked for.

           “That defeats the entire purpose.  I thought you trained to always be ready.”  The teasing made him roll his eyes and reach for her foot under the water, a squeak of her own being let out as she almost fell backwards.

           “In combat, yes.  But I would never hit you.”

           “I don’t know,” she hummed as he tried to tickle her foot to no avail and simply washed it, huffing a little at how unaffected she was.  “You looked ready to fight me just then.  I’ll be more careful from now on.”

           “Are you sure your feet are alright?” he said, trying to change the subject as he washed her other foot and received a similar reaction—none at all.  “Can you feel them?”

           “Of course I can feel them.  Just because I am stronger than you—”

           “Alright,” Jung-Kook huffed good-naturedly, dropping her foot and creating a splash that sprayed his face in the process, another laugh breaking out of Kyung-Soo as the water dripped from his hair and into his eyes. She recovered first, reaching for another type of soap as she wiggled her hands at him.

           “Let me wash your hair.”  Choosing to grunt in response even if he really wanted her to, the eyeroll he received made him confident he hadn’t made a mistake and she knew he was merely playing.  He tried to stay still as she pushed his head back until his hair billowed around it in the water, but the sensation of tipping backwards made him reach for her, his hand on her calf behind her knee helping him pull himself back up.  There was no need to keep a hold of her, but he did, anyway, closing his eyes as her fingers worked through his hair.  She seemed to be distracted with his long strands, but he couldn’t complain.  The soap had a light scent, but it seemed strong to him, overly clean but also citrus in nature, and he didn’t need for his fingers to explore her skin as hers worked over his scalp, but she didn’t complain.  If anything, she scooted closer until her thigh aligned with his and pressed up against him, her torso twisted a little to still attend to his hair.

           “Lean back,” she mumbled after a moment when he could feel the thickness of her leg growing as his hand moved up her thigh. Reluctant to let go, he held onto her as he obeyed, his eyes still closed as he felt the soap dripping off his hair as he sat back up.  Kyung-Soo hummed a little, running her hands over his face once to make sure his eyes were safe to open, but he kept them closed for a moment, enjoying the warmth and the way her hands came back to his chest soon, a cloth running over his muscles and arms.  His hand had gone still on her leg, but merely because it was comfortable to spread it out over her, and he was in no hurry now.  Kyung-Soo moved leisurely, too, even as the water began to cool, and he could feel her lean in a little toward him as she reached what she could of his legs, the cloth purposefully avoiding in between them as she went.

           He had grown use to her natural scent after so many nights sleeping next to her, and the water had masked it a little, the strong smell of soap in the air making it hard to know exactly where she was and how much room she took up, so the hand on his face surprised him a little, enough for him to open his eyes and notice how close she was.  He opened his mouth to ask her what she wanted, because he would give it to her, but she leaned in without saying a word, her lips as wet and warm as the rest of her.  The pleased hum and smile on them when he sighed into the soft kiss made him smile, too, reaching for her face to hold her.  Tipping, leaning, falling into her until her back hit the side of the bath, a little gasp leaving her mouth and entering his as he pulled her back up, just enough to keep her safe.

           He had nothing to be self-conscious about. He knew his body well, and he would learn Kyung-Soo’s.  He knew he was good at kissing, if only because of the way she sounded and felt under and beside and around him.

           A mistake, maybe, to kiss until the water went cold, as the bath was meant to warm them up, but it wasn’t one he regretted. He would do it again, even, as it made them laugh as they dried off and hurried to get dressed, both of them reaching for the other one once an article of clothing was back on for another kiss. Jung-Kook dressed himself every day, and it never took him long, but it wasn’t a mistake as he took his time and let Kyung-Soo help him even if he didn’t need it.  And if it was, then it was one mistake Jung-Kook would gladly make again, any excuse to see Kyung-Soo smile.  He’d made any mistake he needed to if it made his wife happy.

 

           She felt a little like a child needing to be scolded when she came to dinner giggling, practically hanging off of Jung-Kook’s arm, her first night with him flashing before her eyes, the real need and desire to be close to him overcoming any pretense she had then. Still, she sobered up when Ji-Min rose his eyebrows at her from where he sat next to Tae-Hyung at the table, especially when he tried to wiggle them at her.

           Where he and his companions had been all day, Kyung-Soo wasn’t sure, and as no one brought it up, she knew the rules and didn’t ask.  She almost felt bad for laughing her way through dinner, too, especially after what she had seen and learned that morning, but Min-Ji and Nam-Joon sat at the head of the table doing just that, their laughs louder than everyone else’s, so she couldn’t bring herself to do it.

           Instead, she leaned on Jung-Kook’s arm and fed him bites he was more than capable of taking care of himself and let him do the same for her.

           She felt a little bad when he leaned down to whisper to her or she tugged on his shoulder to whisper to him, but Nam-Joon kept doing the same to Min-Ji.  Ji-Min, if he didn’t actually want everyone to hear what he had to say to Tae-Hyung beside him would have done the same, but the boy obviously didn’t care.  She couldn’t bring herself to hide, then, as no one else was, either.

           Something familiar in a new house was putting everyone at ease, though.

           And she almost felt bad when she noticed Tae-Hyung being quiet, nodding whenever Ji-Min spoke to him and making sure they both ate while avoiding conversation, his head down and posture so unlike him, but every time she caught Ji-Min’s eye, he gave her a wink, so she just couldn’t. Whatever was going on, she knew Ji-Min loved the man, and their business was their own, even if Ji-Min seemed to be trying to make it the whole table’s.

           She felt a little like a child when Jung-Kook helped her—unnecessarily—change again to get ready for bed, trying not to giggle at how serious he looked when he mumbled about her sashes and complained about how many layers she had on, but as she didn’t feel bad at all, only happy and full and warm as they laid down to sleep, she couldn’t find it in herself to care at all.

           Money was something that Ho-Seok had never felt a need for.

           Only now, or during similar times, walking behind the two men he would do anything for as their eyes glanced at every shiny trinket or bolt of fabric, as their hands passed over silk and stopped to pet a dog’s fur, did Ho-Seok wished he had a coin or two or enough to fill his pockets. If Ho-Seok had money, he would buy anything Ji-Min and Tae-Hyung wanted.  So he wished, but that was all he could do as he walked along.  That, and smile whenever they looked back at him, or look interested when they tried to explain to him why they had to have the useless, overpriced item a merchant was surely trying to scam them into buying.

           If he had money, he would buy something for his lovers like Jung-Kook was doing for his wife.

           If.

           But Ho-Seok could only wish.

           The day was clear, and his lovers were happy, and Ho-Seok could wish.

 

           “What is this?”

           “A gift, my lady.”

           “A gift?  I thought we were done courting.”  She took it anyway, turning it over and over again in her small, pretty white hands, the mirror’s border carved into ornate floral designs and hand-painted with intricate details.  It was beautiful, but not as beautiful as the woman holding it.

           “A man should never be done courting his wife.”

           “Oh?  Did you read that in one of your books?”

           “Nam-Joon told me, actually,” Jung-Kook said, smiling at the shine in Kyung-Soo’s eyes.  “Something about how the catch is never done.”

           “The catch?  What am I, some animal?”  A slight push on his shoulder that barely moved him away, his steps closer, in fact, as they carried on.

           “Of course not.  It was a bad comparison.  I only meant, just because we’re married, that doesn’t mean I can’t buy you gifts. Since I didn’t get to buy you any before, I have a lot of time to make up for.”

           “You really don’t have to, Jung-Kook,” she said, still admiring the hand mirror as they went.

           “I wanted to,” he shrugged.  

           “If you’re sure.  This was not a gift with some other meaning?”

           “What other meaning could it have?”

           “Oh, perhaps you think me vain.”

           “Vain?  You? Never.  But something to be admired?  Yes.  Definitely.”

           “My—” she said before sighing a little, looking at the mirror one last time before putting it beneath one of her folds of fabric, Jung-Kook unsure what else was hidden between her layers even after unwrapping them all multiple times.  She put her arm through his, then, as they kept walking.  The day was beautiful, and Jung-Kook was happy as they went, mostly looking instead of purchasing from the various vendors in the market.  Min-Ji and Nam-Joon were still walking ahead of them, stopping often to talk more than to shop.  Watching his brother was always fascinating, and he wasn’t surprised to find himself still wanting to emulate him in many ways.  People clearly admired Nam-Joon.  They sought him out for advice and took him seriously.  He was kind to all, and that kindness in turn meant others were kind to him.  He witnessed numerous food vendors giving Min-Ji or her husband samples for free as they passed, and almost everyone greeted them by name.  He smiled politely and felt proud whenever Nam-Joon introduced him, too, even if the names he heard immediately left his head.  

           Visiting a market didn’t seem like anything special, but with his family around him, Ho-Seok bringing up the rear and trying to keep Ji-Min and Tae-Hyung with the group and not overly distracted by every little thing they saw, Jung-Kook felt like this extremely ordinary day was anything but.  And if it was, then he was beginning to feel like even an ordinary day didn’t have to be boring.  It felt right, walking beside Kyung-Soo and pleasing her with a tiny gift and enjoying a hot bowl of soup outside and going back only when their feet were sore, their bellies full, and their pockets lighter.  The market, the town, the people were all different, but the hand in his was becoming increasingly familiar, and that was enough to make Jung-Kook’s day extraordinary.

Chapter Text

“...even a tiny bit of deceit is dishonorable when it's used for selfish or cowardly reasons.”—Jeanne Birdsall

 

To list all of the things that Ho-Seok did not understand would take a lifetime.

Like how Ji-Min’s giggle alone made him want to laugh himself and yet seemed to burn as it traveled through his ears.

Like how one simple look from Tae-Hyung could have him frozen or flying into action.

Like how easy it seemed for Nam-Joon to calculate how long it would take them to travel home when the sky threatened to storm while Ho-Seok simply blinked up at the sky.

Like how his sister looked sadder than normal to see him go even though they were sure to see each other again soon.

Like how his master looked older since he had seen him the day before, his shoulders broad and held high as he bowed to his brother and sister-in-law in farewell with his wife beside him.

Like how Kyung-Soo had managed to make the boy fall so in love with him that he had kept her by his side.

No.

That Ho-Seok understood.

Falling so easily, so quickly, so completely, Ho-Seok understood. The forgiveness, though? The ease to which the boy fell back into what looked like a comfortable routine with his wife? That Ho-Seok did not understand.

People say that you start to emulate those you love, but he was spiteful and held grudges before he met Tae-Hyung and Ji-Min, though the two boys both rivaled him often in their pettiness and intensity. Tae-Hyung’s, always more obvious and louder, his disapproval known immediately. Ji-Min’s, more subtle and crafty, his smiles hiding how much hate he had. Combined, their trust of others was quickly lost and lost forever at the slightest show of real character. Ho-Seok could remember Tae-Hyung describing with a frown or tears as he paced and shouted multiple times how they weren’t ever going to visit a vendor or restaurant or shop again because of something the owner had said. If he could, Tae-Hyung would have long ago written his family out of his life completely.

But for all of his judgement of others, Tae-Hyung still couldn’t let some people go. His loyalty, like Ji-Min’s and even Ho-Seok’s, was fierce. His greatest quality, and yet his worst, as so often life seems to give a blessing only to turn it into a curse. This, Ho-Seok understood. He loved both boys for it, and he wouldn’t change their intensity for the world. And he trusted his master, but he couldn’t help being wary of the girl on his arm.

There were many things Ho-Seok did not understand, but protecting his master was not one of them. That came easily.

Training started in the yard when Jung-Kook was still a child who cried when he fell and pouted when his father spoke harshly to him. A sensitive child whose body had grown and hardened even if his soul was still as delicate. He needed protection.

His brothers did their best, but Ho-Seok knew they would one day leave. Even at twelve, he could see the way they had distanced themselves from their brother, still so small and annoying in their eyes. And though he had asked, neither would train him. The idea of teaching a servant to fight wasn’t just unheard of, but foolish. To arm someone who could one day turn on you? Only an idiot would do so.

So Ho-Seok looked elsewhere. The beatings he got for coming home bruised and cut and bleeding already were worth it, some fire burning in him each time he was caught and reprimanded. They could hit him all they liked. They could shout at him to tell them where he had been. They could threaten him until their voices died. Ho-Seok had found something to protect, and he would do whatever it took to make sure Jung-Kook grew up safe and happy.

Adding two other boys to his care, a similar and yet so different care, years later had never been the plan, but it only made him work harder, determined, dedicated, destined to serve them by keeping them safe.

Ho-Seok would never know what it was to be rich.

He would never know anything beyond his basic letters and simple calculations.

He would never know what it was like to have a wife on his arm or a child on his back.

He would never know a lot of things, but he knew he would die for the men he loved in a heartbeat.

 

Though they had come unannounced, their small party left the following morning with enough noise and fanfare and people to wave goodbye that Jung-Kook almost felt like he was being sent off on some great quest, a noble intention to guide him, his trusty stead to accompany him, and his beautiful lady beside him to make the journey bearable.

And the three jesters along for the ride to cause as much havoc as possible.

Refusing to sit in the carriage alone, Kyung-Soo rode behind Jung-Kook on Yaho, urging him to stay close to the others so they could all converse on the way home. Conversing was a generous term. Jung-Kook couldn’t keep up with what the three were talking about, though he smiled at Ji-Min and Tae-Hyung’s antics, their discussion sounding like an argument but coming across as teasing. He knew, if Ho-Seok wasn’t telling them to settle down, then it must not be very serious. Still, he noticed the lack of a smile on his servant’s face. Staying quiet wasn’t abnormal, so no one was sure to notice Jung-Kook watching his servant. He was used to being on the receiving end; Ho-Seok’s loyalty and protectiveness had always made Jung-Kook feel safe and cared for, but he had never really looked after the other man. Even with their abnormal relationship, he was still the lord, and Ho-Seok was still the servant.

Still, everything happening recently was making him rethink what he thought he knew. If Kyung-Soo wasn’t who he thought she was, but he could still love her, and if his brother could still be a good husband without fathering a child, and both of these secrets could be kept by those around them, unknown to the world, then perhaps Ho-Seok had a secret of his own.

The most important one he held Jung-Kook already knew, and that reason alone could be why Jung-Kook had never thought he could have any more. But Jung-Kook was tired of being naïve and ignorant. He had no reason to be suspicious of Ho-Seok. He did not, and would never, believe that the man had any ill will toward him or his family, but the possibility that he was hiding something else suddenly became clear to Jung-Kook under the open, cloudless sky. Despite the layers he had on, Ho-Seok was hiding something.

Everyone was.

Why didn’t he smile as much as he used to anymore? Was there trouble with Ji-Min and Tae-Hyung? Was it Jung-Kook’s business at all? The experience with his brother told him to butt out, to leave it alone. To force his servant to tell him simply because of his position would be wrong. If Ho-Seok hadn’t mentioned it before, it was obviously something he would not tell Jung-Kook easily even if asked in kind curiosity. He would not ask, then. He would not say anything. He would wait, and watch. A man of action who could be patient.

Jung-Kook could wait and see what secrets his servant was hiding.

Jung-Kook could wait and see how he could finally serve his servant in return for all he had done for him.

 

Returning to Hochon did feel like returning home. Sabuk had only ever held her, and she could find no reason to miss it, if not for the people she had left behind. They were not forgotten, and not replaced, but Jung-Kook’s acceptance felt solidified now, unwavering, permanent, and that brought a peace Kyung-Soo hadn’t known before.

The ease to which they fell into a new but same routine was comforting, too. A few mishaps, some missteps, shy glances and touches avoided that made her wonder momentarily if she—if they were doing enough, but then a smile, a held hand, a warm look, and she was reassured all was well.

Well, even if not the same.

Not all change was bad, though.

If they always rode together and then bathed together afterwards, Kyung-Soo had nothing to complain about.

If they spent their afternoons pouring over books and writing letters or painting beside each other or simply being in each other’s presence, Kyung-Soo could only be glad and grateful.

The hours when Jung-Kook left her, though, to go train or work with his father, Kyung-Soo became uneasy. She followed, sometimes, out to the yard. Sat and watched him sweat and get knocked to the ground or pin Ho-Seok to the dirt over and over. Smiled at his own smug smirk. Said how well he was doing and whispered with Ji-Min under a tree. The time was enjoyable. Seeing her husband’s robes stripped to his waist so he could twist and turn to a greater advantage, seeing the way his muscles tightened and rippled as he moved, seeing the sweat, despite the cold, collecting and dripping down his back. Kyung-Soo couldn’t complain.

But even then, despite all of the comfort, something had her ill at ease. Almost every morning, as they bathed together, when they disrobed or washed each other or tried to dress quickly to avoid the cold returning, they touched, they looked, they kissed. He held her and moved her so softly and yet surely. He let her move him so easily, always an aura of trust and a hint of amusement in his eye when she told him what to do or simply moved toward him first when he was taking too long.

But at night, after he came to dinner after spending time with his father, she saw him and felt him lying on his back, staring up at the ceiling, his ankles crossed and his hands folded over his chest. He’d hum or turn to kiss her head or give her an arm if she turned toward him or reached for him or tried to kiss him, but his quiet demeanor and lack of moving any further than looking at and barely touching her body was making her wonder. Question. Doubt. Worry.

Jung-Kook was good.

He would be good to her.

Kyung-Soo knew this now.

And things had changed.

This she knew, too.

What was stopping them from making one more change, one final change, one last change from two individuals to one flesh, Kyung-Soo did not know, though.

And this, this needed to change.

 

Glimpses.

Glimpses were all Jung-Kook could remember of his father as a child.

Sitting on his lap, watching his strokes, trying to reach for the brush and being moved away.

Tugging at his leg as he talked high above his head, a hand on his hair to keep him quiet and still.

Standing in the corner, tears rolling down his eyes as a voice scolded him.

Training his wide eyes on the horse his father rode, the vision majestic, powerful, god-like.

Glimpses.

That was all they were. Neither good nor bad.

Glimpses did not make a picture, so Jung-Kook didn’t know why entering his father’s study always gave him shaking nerves, always made him stand up straighter and hold his head high and shoulders wide, always made him think about everything that he could have done wrong that his father had found out about.

Lately, upon returning home, Kyung-Soo.

Nam-Joon and Min-Ji.

The secrets of his wife, who was yet fully his, and his brother and his own.

Jung-Kook felt they were written on his face.

And any day, his father would see the glimpse of fear—more than a glimpse, surely, with the way it was burning away at him—in his eyes and get the truth out of him. Or try. Any day Jung-Kook would have to choose between his father, the head of his house, his hero growing up, the one who deserved most of his respect, and his other family, his brother whom he loved dearly and looked up to and trusted, and his new wife whom he was growing to love so intently he didn’t even understand it, his friends who he was eager to do something for.

If he could keep them but glimpses, though, if he could learn to act and pretend—and lie—like Kyung-Soo and Nam-Joon and even Ho-Seok and Tae-Hyung, perhaps the picture would never become clear. Perhaps his father would never know. Perhaps Jung-Kook could keep everyone safe.

 

Of all the things Jung-Kook did not understand, politics was the most complicated. Right next to women. And math.

Destiny, then, who loved to laugh, would choose one of those things for his career.

His eldest brother would follow in their father’s political footsteps. He was charismatic and knew people. He remembered faces and names. He was good at resolving conflict and keeping conversations civil. He knew how to play the game.

Whatever that meant.

Jung-Kook had not the mind nor personality for it.

Nam-Joon, having left the house once he was married, had chosen his own profession.

And so Jung-Kook, lost and confused, would need to take over their father’s trade.

As a child, he had not understood that the various traders entering their courtyard or market brought business and money and thus his family’s livelihood. To his eyes, they brought beautiful trinkets and colorful clothes and interesting tools he didn’t even know the use of.

During the famine, when people were desperate enough to sell all their material possessions they could to Jung-Kook’s father in exchange for measly servings of rice, Jung-Kook did not understand how his father was planning for a future he wasn’t even sure of, wise enough to know money meant nothing at the time while the value of goods would return soon enough.

As a young man, watching and trying to learn as his father counted supplies and goods and money and wrote down names and numbers and sent letters and jotted down requests in turn was just so confusing, Jung-Kook entered and left the room with a frown.

Not because the information was extremely difficult to understand.

They had been working together since his father told him he was to marry, his time off after his marriage gone now and replaced with hours in his father’s dark study pouring over books, so Jung-Kook was getting a grasp for the trade. The rest would come with experience, and experience came with age.

It was the monotony of it. The boredom. The way Jung-Kook would watch how his father smiled while he worked and felt no such look on his own face that made Jung-Kook confused.

Something must be wrong with him, indeed, if he could not love the work his father did.

A failure of a son in yet another disappointing way.

It was this, more than the sums and organizing of names and shipping dates, that had Jung-Kook pensive every night. Had him staring at nothing and responding to no one. Had him feeling empty and lost. Had him struggling to fall asleep. Had him forgetting about anything else except how to not feel nervous the next day when he went to work with his father until he rose in the morning to his wife’s forehead pressed against his arm, her hand outside of the blanket as if she drew it out to reach for something in the middle of the night, to a guilt that made him burn all over again as he woke her gently for their cycle to continue.

Day in.

Day out.

And so nothing changed.

 

Until,

“Go ahead. I am going to have tea with your mother.”

Kyung-Soo, sliding off Yaho, the horse nipping playfully at her hair as she chuckled and patted her mane as she adjusted her robes before smiling and walking away.

Jung-Kook, left to bathe by himself. To wonder by himself.

The end of the year was fast approaching, and every day felt colder than the last.

He could skip a bath, then. It wouldn’t be warm enough, anyway.

He could skip training, too, and sulk until Kyung-Soo came back, or he could finally work on finding her a present he had in mind.

A welcomed distraction, then, walking through town without anyone beside or behind him. The market was full of plenty of voices, anyway, to keep him from feeling alone, and he walked among stall after stall before finding what he wanted.

Returning home to a still-empty room, he wrapped the gift up and placed it in one of his drawers before attempting to finish a painting. His brush rose and fell, and ink was transported, but his mind was anything but blank. He changed earlier, then, to go find Ho-Seok. Training had always eased his mind in ways other things couldn’t. He had to concentrate on nothing else. He couldn’t think about where Kyung-Soo was or why she had chosen to not spend her morning or day with him. He had to not worry about what she was saying to his mother. He had to just train and—

“Kyung-Soo?”

A change.

She changed.

The pants, not new, similar to the ones she had worn on Yaho that morning, and yet.

Her robe, barely past her waist, its colors pale and boring beige, hanging a little too much off of her shoulders, a boxy and thick shirt that—

“Is that my robe?”

The smile she gave him was familiar, too. One he was growing used to see daily, in fact. One where Jung-Kook knew Kyung-Soo had an idea. Where she was going to ask or simply take something that Jung-Kook would gladly give her. One that made him smile through his confusion at her, even as he stared at Ho-Seok wrapping up her hands, his eyes flitting between the white wrappings and Kyung-Soo’s neck, bare completely around.

Her hair, braided and raised up, circled and coiled tightly and pinned to the back of her head, seemingly to disappear if one was looking directly at her face.

A change.

“It is. I borrowed it.”

“You borrowed it.”

“I did. I am going to have Ho-Seok train me, and none of my outfits seemed appropriate.”

“Train you?”

“Yes,” Kyung-Soo said simply. Definitely. Decidedly. The last tuck of the wrappings on Kyung-Soo’s fingers had Ho-Seok finally looking up at Jung-Kook.

“She is my lady, too, my lord, so I must do as she bids.”

“You—” Jung-Kook floundered, his own fingers twitching as Ho-Seok turned back to Kyung-Soo and put his hands on her shoulders to get her into position. “Ho-Seok. You can not train my wife. Ladies can not—do not—Kyung-Soo, you can’t do this.”

“Why not?” That touch of defiance Jung-Kook knew must be in Kyung-Soo. All of the stories she told him, all of the times she was reluctant but still followed her lady and friend, were indication enough. All of the smiles she gave him. All of the times she had been reaching for him lately. Defiance or bravery? Could they mean the same thing?

He had no answer. No right answer except that it wasn’t right. Women did not learn to fight. And yet Kyung-Soo was smiling at him.

“Why do you want to?” he asked instead, going to pull Ho-Seok off of his wife and hold out his hands to him to be wrapped.

“A lady must be safe.”

“I will protect you.”

“And if you aren’t around?”

“Why would I not be around?” Jung-Kook huffed, glancing again at Kyung-Soo’s outfit, her figure looking boyish and small. Odd, but familiar. A change.

“Well, you haven’t been lately.”

“What do you mean? I’m with you almost all the time.”

“Maybe in body. Your mind is clearly elsewhere. And everyone knows the first thing you have to know about fighting is that the mind matters more than the body.”

“Everyone knows?” Jung-Kook said, finishing the wrappings himself as Ho-Seok stepped away.

“I was not born a lady, remember?” Kyung-Soo said, lowering her voice even though no one else was around as she stepped toward Jung-Kook, her hand reaching to complete Jung-Kook’s wrapping. “Perhaps I have already learned a thing or two. Perhaps I know more than you think I do.”

“That wouldn’t surprise me.”

“Perhaps you are merely scared,” Kyung-Soo said, putting her fingers between Jung-Kook’s and squeezing a little as she smiled mischievously up at him, “of me being stronger. Of losing.”

“I already know you’re stronger,” Jungkook said, rolling his eyes. He pulled on her hand, though, and brought her into his chest to wrap an arm around her waist, her frame so small without layers of fabric hiding her. “What do you mean about my mind being elsewhere?”

“I can tell,” Kyung-Soo said, chest warm and pressed against Jung-Kook’s, “you know. The worry on your face gets worse as the day goes along. Always the most after you see your father. You won’t tell me, so I thought I might beat it out of you.”

“Beat it out of me?” Jung-Kook said, the challenge tensing him for a moment as a threat, no matter how playful, as one always did, before he burst into laughter. “I would like to see you try.”

“Come then,” she said, trying to squirm away from him. “Show me. Show me how to beat you.”

“And why would I do that?” he said, though he let her go anyway and put the distance needed between them, just enough that he could still turn her shoulders and arrange her hips the right way. The positioning seemed to have made her forget to respond. The seriousness on her face and the way she raised her clenched fists made him forget what he was worrying about. Made him forget to worry about the change. The robe, the hair, the look in her eyes made him forget that she was a lady. Just Kyung-Soo.

His strong wife he wouldn’t change for the world.

 

A cat, moving slowly and suddenly pouncing, is how Yoon-Gi had always fought. Stealthily, craftily, almost as if he didn’t care about fighting at all.

Which he didn’t.

The other boys didn’t know, though. He would ignore their taunts and have to hold his lady back from throwing rocks at them, though if one bad thing was said about her, he’d be on their necks immediately. Eun-Jae had watched him tussle around in the dirt plenty of times, not always coming out on top due to his small frame, but always kicking and biting enough to leave plenty of marks on his attacker. They would remember the time they tried to mess with Min Yoon-Gi. If their lady wasn’t around, Eun-Jae played lookout, kept peering over her shoulders to make sure no one was coming. To fight was one thing. Training for surviving. Their whole lives were training to somehow survive. But to get caught was trouble.

Kyung-Soo could remember now, those boys who used to pick on Yoon-Gi. How as they got older, some, despite their brawn, didn’t make it to adulthood. Others who left of their own volition. Some who were now merchants and workers in Sabuk, days spent picking on Yoon-Gi probably long forgotten.

She couldn’t help remembering them and her friend as she faced Jung-Kook, though, their stances and style so obviously different. Yoon-Gi, not formally trained, had merely learned to adapt. Even with no learned movements and holds and types of attacks, he had succeeded in defending himself. His words, those few she could remember before he never spoke again, often telling Kyung-Soo and Eun-Jae over and over again that lashing out and speaking out were the two things that would help keep them safe.

He lost one, and with it his fighting spirit seemed to die, too, though by that time their lady was stronger. Eun-Jae was stronger. He had showed them and taught them how to be strong. They had learned on their own. From their fathers and mothers and the people around them. From life itself.

Jung-Kook was no cat, though, was Kyung-Soo’s first thought as he directed her how to turn her hands and shift her weight. Not a bear, either, his moves not lumbering and massive. Strong, though, and controlled.

“A rabbit,” Ji-Min had said one day as they sat watching Jung-Kook and Ho-Seok spar. “Look at how he hops around Ho-Seok.”

If a rabbit, then the biggest and strongest Kyung-Soo had ever seen. He moved spryly enough for one, but he showed no fear, no nerves, no skittish movements, each one planned and determined and thought out. No openings left, no lack of defense, no way to defeat him.

No matter to Kyung-Soo, though.

He was talking to her and smiling, and she was not just sitting by and watching anymore. Ji-Min and Ho-Seok were now, whispering under the tree she usually shaded herself with, the audience more intimidating than the man in front of her. Her days were full at Hochon, and yet they had felt empty lately. Too long. Compared to life at Sabuk, she did nothing at Hochon. Nothing was required of her, and so she was allowed to sit and read and sip tea and stare out a window until she was needed.

Needed or wanted. The life of a lady was boring, Kyung-Soo was learning, and it was no wonder her lady had not wanted to become one. The newness of the place and role and people had taken plenty of time to get used to, but now, months into her marriage, week after week spent doing the same thing over and over again, day after day waking up only to know exactly what was to come, the monotony wasn’t the only thing causing her to feel anxious.

That look on her husband’s brow at night. His quietness. How unhappy he clearly was.

The possibility that he might be bored, too, of her, of his work, of life itself at his home, propelled her into action. If she could entertain him for a time, if she could be good for him, if she could make herself needed, then life would be easier, peaceful, fulfilled, happy.

It was hard to think it was anything but, after all, as he grabbed her wrist and twisted it slightly, laughing at how serious she looked as she shook away and tried again to do what he had showed her. He was too fast, though, and not going easy on her. She didn’t want him to. That, if anything, made her try harder. Push herself to move faster, too.

She knew his weakness, and though he had said to aim for his head, she aimed her hand down, down toward where she knew he was sensitive, to where she loved skimming her fingers across when she undressed him because he would twitch and tighten his muscles so easily in an attempt to stay still and not squirm, down to his stomach where she managed to touch his robes, almost reached past them to feel the skin there that was sure to be growing hot, until the world spun, her arm was twisted away, and she was on the ground, coughing and blinking up at her husband’s face.

“Shit, Kyung-Soo? Kyung-Soo, are you alright? I’m sorry, I didn’t—you didn’t do what I said.”

“You seem surprised,” she said, catching her breath with another light cough before she smiled to let him know she was not hurt. Her back might later, and her wrist stung, but she was not injured.

“I shouldn’t be. I should have known you wouldn’t listen to me.” A smile in return, knowing and relieved, shown down on her as Jung-Kook ran his hands over her as if to dust her off and check for injuries as she took another deep breath to let out. The wind wasn’t gone from her lungs, not like that time Yoon-Gi had fallen from a tree, the sound as he hit the ground louder than the snapping of the branch he had been holding. The silence that had followed it was one Kyung-Soo knew too well. In that silence before someone breathed again or didn’t, life seemed to be hanging by a thread.

“I am alright,” she said softly, wanting to feel how fast Jung-Kook’s heart was beating, wanting to hear how concerned he was. A touch to his face, instead, was all she could do, and another smile to reassure him. “You will have to teach me how to fall more gracefully, as I’m bound to do so many more times.”

“I’d rather you didn’t, but alright. I will. It’s all about bending your knees. Going down with your hips instead of your back, that way—”

“Jung-Kook, not literally right now. Next time.”

“Right. Right. Do you want to stop for today?”

“Jung-Kook, your father,” Ho-Seok’s voice from where he was now standing by the tree, Ji-Min gone, made Jung-Kook turn, his father’s steady stride coming across the courtyard at a rapid rate. His eyes wide, he looked down at Kyung-Soo for a moment, but she knew better than to look concerned. She simply began to sit up, her hand moving from his face to his hand, trying to let him know there was no need to worry. He helped pull her up and began to dust off his robes as she did the same, unable to stop himself from taking a step in front of her.

“Jung-Kook,” his father said as he got closer, his hands hidden inside the sleeves of his robe. “Do you realize the time? You’re late.”

“Father,” Jung-Kook bowed, his voice full of respect.

“Did you realize the time?”

“I am sorry, father, I did not.”

“Well, hurry and—” He saw her now, as she put a hand on Jung-Kook’s back and lifted her head, done trying to make herself look presentable. She knew, to this man, she looked anything but. Years of experience, however, meant only a flicker of confusion crossed his face before his head bowed, hers bowing deeper. “Kyung-Soo.”

“Father,” she said, the word strange on her tongue even if she often greeted him at dinner similarly.

“You will have to excuse Jung-Kook. He is needed in my study.”

“Of course. I am sorry for keeping him.”

“Jung-Kook,” his father said again summoning him with only his name before he turned, knowing his son would follow.

“I am sorry,” Jung-Kook whispered, turning to grab Kyung-Soo’s hand.

“Don’t worry,” she said, reaching for his face again, attempting to fix his hair.

“I should have thought—I should have been more careful.”

“Jung-Kook, don’t worry. I am not worried.”

“Kyung-Soo, we shouldn’t. I shouldn’t have. Father will—”

“Don’t keep him waiting. We—you—did nothing wrong. You made me very happy.” Tugging on his neck, she pulled him down to kiss his cheek before hugging him tightly, feeling how tense his muscles were and hearing him grit his teeth. “Go now. I’ll be waiting for you after.”

Strength, Kyung-Soo had learned in her life, sometimes meant nothing. The strongest could still die. Could be poisoned or fall ill or die from a weapon. The strongest person in the world could still fail to protect someone. Training, fighting, learning to defend themselves physically would mean nothing if Kyung-Soo and Jung-Kook couldn’t learn to protect each other. Knowing she had lost to Jung-Kook didn’t matter. But feeling his happiness drain out of him, watching as he went somewhere she could not protect him, that was the worst injury of all.

She had survived because of her friends. Because of Yoon-Gi and her lady looking out for each other. Because they kicked and screamed and thrashed and got back up after a beating. Things looked different in Hochon. She didn’t fear a lashing or even Jung-Kook’s father physically hurting him. But there were other ways to fight. Other ways to win and lose.

Jung-Kook, for all of his strengths, had plenty of weaknesses. And Kyung-Soo, for all that she knew, still had much to learn.

 

Noise, like an overwhelming odor, surrounded Jung-Kook, making him feel suffocated. His oldest brother had been loud, screams and ridiculous laughter until he learned to control himself. The marketplace and family dinners were uncomfortable, multiple noises and smells making Jung-Kook unable to concentrate as his brain drowned in the overstimulation. He hated the chaos of noise. But even a singular noise, a loud scream or crash of boxes made him jolt and want to cover his ears. Jung-Kook hated noise.

And yet, sometimes he longed for it. It would be more comfortable than the silence.

The silence had plenty to say, after all.

His father was not a yeller. His mother, either. He had no memory of either of them ever shouting at him. Maybe once or twice when they were concerned he was about to fall off of something, but never in anger. His father, especially, unlike his uncle, had a quiet way of showing his anger. It made Jung-Kook tremble all the same as he followed his father into his study, the nerves he always had coming into the room only exacerbated like the beating of his heart. He almost turned to a corner immediately, knowing the scolding that was to come, but he managed to stay standing in front of his father as the man sat down at his table. For a moment, Jung-Kook almost wondered if he was going to say nothing, if they would just get to work, if his father would just let the matter be, but shouldn’t be so hopeful, so naïve.

“Jung-Kook,” the low voice began, nothing soothing or comforting about it, “imagine my surprise when my son does not show up for work. When I go looking for him, not only do I find him still covered in dirt from his play, but I also find beside him, dressed in a man’s robe and with her hair tied up like some common servant, his wife. Imagine, to my even greater surprise, discovering that my son has been, what? Training her? Hitting her? Having her hit him? What am I to think, Jung-Kook? What at all possessed you to think that was at all proper?”

“I am sorry, father,” Jung-Kook said, trying to show respect by bowing. His father’s words didn’t surprise him. Of course it was improper. Kyung-Soo suggesting it, asking him, telling him to train her, had been wrong. She was crossing some boundary suggesting it she shouldn’t have, and he had crossed it, too, in agreeing. “I only wanted to make sure she is able to protect herself.”

“What in the world would she need protecting from, son?”

“I don’t know. Anything. Everything.”

“Jung-Kook, ladies are not taught to fight. Do you think your mother would know the first thing about what to do if someone attacked her?”

“No,” Jung-Kook mumbled, though he couldn’t understand why that sounded like the correct answer. Shouldn’t his father be worried about the woman he loved? Wouldn’t he want his wife to do anything she could to stay safe? “But Kyung-Soo is my wife, and I want her to be able to protect herself—”

“Under my roof, no woman will be trained to fight. Do you understand?” The verdict, the sentence, the judgement.

“Yes sir,” he bowed humbly. He hoped he looked it, at least. He hoped his father saw his acceptance as that. He hoped he couldn’t hear his thoughts or hear his heartbeat or feel the way his skin was burning.

“I am almost glad her father is not around. The disgrace. The very shame of it, having his daughter dressed like a boy, rolling around in the dirt like one; it surely would have carried him to his grave if he wasn’t already in one. I will speak to your mother about this. If you can not control your wife, I suppose I must step in. I will not have a son or daughter disrespecting our household. What if someone had come visiting, Jung-Kook? Think, my boy, before making such foolish decisions again.”

“You needn’t,” Jung-Kook said, clenching his fists as he tried to stare at his father, the man’s eyebrow raising slightly at his son’s tone. The idea, the mere thought of his father speaking to or touching his wife in any way, in whatever way he meant to get involved, had him wanting to fight, wanting to defend her and himself. “You needn’t worry yourself, father, I mean. I will speak to her. It will not happen again. We meant no disrespect, father. Things were different in her home, in Sabuk, and I know she is still finding some adjustments difficult.”

“You should know better, Jung-Kook,” his father said simply, turning to his books, the discussion clearly over.

“Yes sir,” he said, because he should have. He did. He should have known to not get caught. Because there was nothing wrong with training his wife. With making her happy. With her dressing as a boy while doing so. Getting caught had been his mistake.

Jung-Kook was learning from his mistakes, though, and he would make sure it never happened again, just like he promised.

 

He knew better than to enter Ho-Seok’s room without waiting after one knock, too, as he had found his servant naked, pounding away into Ji-Min or his cousin one too many times, enough to know that his eyes could easily be met with a sight they shouldn’t be seeing. It was rare, then, to simply see Ho-Seok on his bed, Ji-Min, fully clothed and wrapped in a blanket, beside him. Improper, for a servant to tell his master what to do, but he raised his finger to his lips, and Jung-Kook stayed quiet as Ho-Seok sat up, making sure Ji-Min was still sleeping before standing up and shuffling over to the boy.

“My lord?”

“I need a place to train Kyung-Soo secretly,” Jung-Kook said, hearing the way his voice was shaking. His servant heard it, too, as his eyes looked over him. He had sat calmly as he worked, following his father’s instructions as always, the disinterest in the topic only making him more anxious. He had to get out. He had to see Kyung-Soo. He had to get away from his father. But he had sat and finished his work, a buzzing rattling around inside him that was trying to get out now.

“Are you alright? Is Kyung-Soo? Did your father—”

“No. Yes. I’m alright. I just—I need a place to train her without him finding out. I need—please—do you or Ji-Min know—is there anywhere—”

“Of course, my lord,” Ho-Seok said, placing a firm hand on his arm. “Calm down. I will have Ji-Min show you tomorrow, during your ride. Will that work? If you make an excuse to go into town, or have Kyung-Soo say she needs something, there are places there, too. Don’t worry, Jung-Kook. You’ve done nothing wrong.”

“Kyung-Soo, is she—”

“In your room, waiting. As she said.”

“Right,” Jung-Kook said, bouncing on his heels once and looking back down the hallway. “We won’t be at dinner. Father should—he should understand. I told him I would talk to her. Make sure it never happens again. All of that. Would you—dinner. Can you just leave it outside our room? I don’t want to be disturbed.”

“Of course, my lord.”

“Make sure there’s tea. Kyung-Soo loves tea.”

“Of course. What else? Jung-Kook? What else do you need?” He needed to go. To find her. To hold her. The nerves and fear and anger inside him were burning.

“I need—I need tea.”

“For Kyung-Soo, yes. Do you want some yourself, my lord? I thought you didn’t—”

“No, not me. Not tea. Not actually—it’s nothing—”

“Oh,” Ho-Seok said, squeezing the boy’s arm before finally letting it go. It tingled under Jung-Kook’s sleeve. “I understand.” The man didn’t wink or wiggle his eyebrows or say anything else, much to Jung-Kook’s relief, and Jung-Kook let out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding.

“Thank you.”

“Jung-Kook,” Ho-Seok said, leaning out the door, his face serious as Jung-Kook tried to turn away. “Ten deep breaths before you see her.”

“What?”

“Ten deep breaths,” Ho-Seok repeated, his voice low. “Otherwise it will be too overwhelming. That moment, before you see them again, when your fingers twitch and your skin seems to be itching? Breathe. Otherwise you’ll be swept away. They’re not—she’s not going anywhere, my lord. You can be calm and slow. No need to worry.”

“Right,” Jung-Kook mumbled, the buzz in his veins fading a little as he took one deep breath. “Right. Thank you, Ho-Seok.”

“Of course, my lord,” Ho-Seok said, finally smiling and winking now as Jung-Kook rolled his eyes. “I’m here to serve.”

The next nine breaths were in and out of his system by the time he got to his door.

He took another ten for good measure.

Just to be sure.

Just to be safe.

Just to be good.

 

He should have taken another ten. The way her head shot up as he opened the door, the way her book fell out of her hands as she stood up, the way they met each other in the middle of the room all made Jung-Kook feel like he hadn’t breathed at all in the past hours since he had seen her. He was now, though, breathing in how her hair smelt freshly washed, feeling it falling around her back once more, hearing her gasp a little at how tightly he was hugging her.

“My—Jung-Kook? Are you—what did your father—”

“Just—give me a second,” he said, breathing deeply, trying to remember what Ho-Seok had said, not his father. She wasn’t going anywhere. They had time. They were safe together, in their room, away from prying eyes and his father’s scrutiny.

She listened to him now. She always did. When she knew it was necessary or needed, Kyung-Soo would listen to him. The quiet didn’t seem to help, though. Even as her hands rubbed up and down his back, her cheek pressed against his chest, the buzzing in him seemed to grow louder. Instead of his heart calming, he felt it accelerating. Instead of his muscles relaxing, he felt them tensing. Instead of his breath evening out, he felt it coming out in small bursts until he reached for Kyung-Soo’s face, looking down at her with his lip between his teeth.

Nam-Joon had tried to explain to him once about how you could know something is right. Factually, truths could be proven with evidence. A plant could help with a cold. The times it worked were written down, and after a while one could conclude that the herb helped. Other truths were personal, though. Kyung-Soo could like tea, for instance, and Jung-Kook couldn’t. That didn’t mean all tea is bad or good, just that people have different tastes. He couldn’t remember what Nam-Joon had called those. Subjective truths, maybe? Personal truths. Then there was intuition. One’s gut reactions to things. Those could sometimes be proven by outside evidence. Some things we know to be true because someone tells us it is. But people could lie.

People could be wrong.

His father was wrong.

And whoever had decided women could be taught to fight was wrong.

Jung-Kook knew. Personally, he knew. His gut told him so. And factually? Logically it simply made sense. Of course he would want to keep Kyung-Soo safe. Ideally, he would always be there to do so. That was his duty and responsibility. And he wanted to.

But sometimes the world had other things in mind. Plans went awry. Things changed.

People lied.

And people got hurt.

“Kyung-Soo,” he said, the ache he felt in his chest hurting, “I want to make you happy. I want to protect you. Provide for you. I want to be your husband. I want to love you.”

“I know,” she said, touching his hand with her own, but he shook his head. He needed her to understand he was not just saying his vows again.

“I do. I will. Kyung-Soo, whatever you’re called, wherever we go, whatever we end up doing, I love you. I love you, and if you want to keep training, we will. I will make it happen. I know that is right. Do you want to go visit Min-Ji again? We’ll do that. Do you want to go see your friends? I’ll take you. Whatever you want. I’ll do whatever you want. That’s right, isn’t it? Shouldn’t I want that? To make you happy? Give you what you want? Isn’t that a husband’s job? Shouldn’t I be trying my best to be a good husband?”

“Jung-Kook, Jung-Kook, where is this—” Kyung-Soo said, sounding shocked and then quiet as she touched his hand again. “You are. You are so good. I’m sorry if I got you in trouble—”

“No. No,” he said, his body burning as he tried not to knock his forehead against hers. “I don’t care. I don’t care what he said. He’s wrong. I did nothing wrong. You did nothing wrong. We didn’t, did we?”

“We didn’t,” she said softly, her words close to his mouth. “You are prefect. You are so good to me. I am so lucky to be yours.”

“Yours?” Jung-Kook said, closing his eyes and feeling Kyung-Soo’s head nod as he took another deep breath. “May I—may I tell you something?”

“Of course. Anything.” He liked that he knew she meant it.

“Do you promise not to laugh?”

“I…don’t think I can promise that.” She said it so quietly, and her face was so blurry this close, but he stood up enough just to see all of her face, his eyes flickering all over it and settling back on her nose as he mumbled,

“I’m a little afraid of you sometimes.”

“Afraid? Of me? Why? Because I am so strong?” She leaned away from him, still holding onto his waist, as if to see him better, but he pulled her back, tugging on her neck and cupping her face with his hands to try to hold her near.

“Have you ever been fishing?”

“Yes.”

“I’m the fish,” he said, watching a smile spread over Kyung-Soo’s face.

“How are you a fish?”

“You’ve caught me. And I’ll let you drag me around wherever you want.”

“I don’t want to drag you anywhere.” It burned him inside, how sincere she sounded, how gently she said that, how much he wanted her touch and look to sear into his skin.

“And yet I will follow after you. I love you, Kyung-Soo. Will you let me? Will you let me love you?”

 

Her lady had taught her how to ask for things.

But also how to just take them.

Ji-Min had told her that sometimes you had to ask in order to take.

Both meant something different, though, and Kyung-Soo knew she wanted what Ji-Min meant.

She wasn’t sure how to say yes without scaring the boy, though. She was scared, too, anyway. No matter how many times her lady and Ji-Min had insisted it would be good, would feel good, a level of trepidation was always going to remain until she knew for sure. Their own experiences wouldn’t be her own. Their truth wasn’t hers. No longer did she worry about Jung-Kook being good to her or not, but she still wanted to be good to him and for him, and she still didn’t know what all that meant.

She knew, though, what he was asking.

He was asking; already so good.

She wanted him, too. Had been trying night after night to no avail, his mind preoccupied and worrying about other things. She had never specifically asked, though, and now that he had, she wondered how quickly he would have said yes if she had just done the same.

“Kyung-Soo?”

“Yes,” she said, pulling on him, wanting to apologize for how long she had taken to respond when she had known the answer immediately, “please.” Him stepping away was not expected, then, but he went to their armoire, pulling something out of a drawer wrapped in paper to hand to her.

“I wasn’t really planning on giving this to you today, honestly,” he said as she carefully unrolled it, a cup of white glass becoming revealed, no handle with the image of a fish swimming wrapping all around it, its tail of black and orange. “But Kyung-Soo, I would like some tea.”

“I will make you some,” she said, smiling as she turned the cup over and over in her hands before wrapping it back up and placing it gently by her abandoned book. “Is there anything else you’d like?” The slight taunt had Jung-Kook stepping closer, pulling at the robe—her robe—she was wearing.

“Do you remember what I taught you earlier about falling?”

“I—not really—I wasn’t really listening.” Kyung-Soo admitted, which was only half true. He had said to fall by bending her knees, and she braced herself for what she thought was coming as he put his hand around her and took her wrist in his other hand, leaning over her.

“Well, pay attention,” he said closely as he leaned her down until her feet stumbled backwards toward their bed. Her balance disrupted, she tried to bend her knees and fall back on her bottom first before her back hit the bed, only to realize he was leaning her down gently, his arms only dropping her the last couple of inches before he was kneeling and crawling over her, leaning down to kiss her softly as if he wasn’t breathing erratically.

Ji-Min had joked about Jung-Kook being a rabbit, had made fun of the boy’s energy and inability to sit still multiple times, but that sort of excitement and impatience he had not exhibited with Kyung-Soo before. She saw him excited, mostly over his horse, and riled up, mostly over something Tae-Hyung or a brother had said, and nervous, before a family dinner or when they were first learning each other, but this was something else entirely.

He shook a little as she did, and the longer she lay there, the shorter their breaths came, the more they undressed each other, the more Kyung-Soo realized the lesson in falling was more than just something to keep her from getting injured. No black tie held them together now like it might have on their wedding night, but they held onto each other as if there was, as if rope after string after ribbon was wrapping around them, bringing them closer and closer and holding them together until the night was done.

She was falling, even as she lay under Jung-Kook and kissed him softly and gently until he became too eager to move slowly anymore, had been falling since their first night when he had refused to lie with her, had fallen a little more every day when he smiled at her and whispered in her ear and kept her secret and shared his own with her. He was so different than she had ever imagined, and so good, that when he admitted being nervous, confessed quietly into her neck that he didn’t want to hurt her and wanted to be good to and for her, asked for her help without saying those words, she only hesitated for a moment.

His pride was not on the line. No sense of duty was driving him now. Another man, a lesser man, may have been offended, may have never asked at all, may have denied feeling inadequate in the first place, but Jung-Kook was no other man. He was good, so good Kyung-Soo only held him tighter and kissed him harder.

Their nerves and hesitation and inexperience were obvious, were struggles they would have to learn from. They would have to practice more, train together until their rhythms were matched and their bodies truly moved as one, but neither minded in the end. They were quiet. Mostly looking at each other. Jung-Kook occasionally checking on his wife, always commenting on how soft her skin was, how good she felt. Kyung-Soo always keeping a hand on her husband, complimenting how good he was doing, how good he was. Nothing was perfect like people had told them it would be. But a lesson was present in the way Jung-Kook moved, in the way Kyung-Soo directed him to move slower or faster or harder or softer.

Nothing could direct them now. Jung-Kook’s father had no say. Their friends’ advice, her lady’s or Ji-Min’s, meant nothing. In their room, in their bed, watching and holding and touching and loving the other was all that mattered. Just reassurances, soft questions, hesitant hands that would rather be chopped off than ever hurt, sure kisses and touches, confident looks and praises that fell easier and easier from both of their mouths.

Jung-Kook had been trying to teach her to fall earlier to avoid getting hurt. Kyung-Soo wasn’t sure there was a graceful way to fall. The word implied hard and fast and promised pain. Kyung-Soo felt none of that, though, when Jung-Kook wrapped himself around her when they were finally one, a constant murmur of praise and gratitude falling from his lips and crashing into her skin. She did feel like she was falling, but slowly and softly somehow, more like she was floating as she held Jung-Kook’s hand to her chest, all of their bare flesh no longer impeded by robes and cloth and fabric separating them as they lay entangled together. Kyung-Soo was falling, but she felt like her feet were grounded, too, like she was secured and safely on the ground. Wherever she had fallen, Jung-Kook was there beside her, and that was a lesson Kyung-Soo was sure she had learned.