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A Rose By Any Other Name

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Hello everyone! This is my first attempt at a longer fic with my favourite ship Noren! its heavily inspired by the fairy tale 'Beauty and the Beast' and i wanted to post an introduction for you all before I start updating as I am currently in the process of writing the chapters. I'm not sure how frequently I will be updating as I am super busy with college work but the chapters should be posted within a few weeks of each other and I have each one set out ready to be written. I hope you all look forward to and enjoy reading this story!

Chapter Text

Renjun thought a lot. His mind was overactive. He often thought about his own life. Thought about his rather miserable twenty years of existence. With this, came the continuous thoughts of the pivotal moment in which he would finally peak, reach the pinnacle of human existence. As he stood before the rusting gates of opportunity in his new chapter, he could safely say, that in this moment, he had not reached this.

The wind threaded through Renjun’s soft dark hair and he brushed the wayward strands out of his face. It was a little unkempt, but he liked it like that. The sheets of light rain poured down on his small frame and he pulled his brown woollen coat tighter to his chest, preserving as much heat as possible. He’d put his best trousers on for the occasion, but even these he worried wouldn’t be smart enough. Accepting the role of ‘housekeeper’ at the Lee estate, he had expected something rather different: perhaps quaint, idyllic, a large mansion in the roaring hills of the countryside. He had certainly not prepared for the huge stone body that towered above him, cold and archaic, increasingly visible as he approached its exterior. The outside resembled something straight out of Renjun’s nightmares, its stature fearsome and angry, as if hostile to his sudden intrusion, a phantom of its former self. Every stone and every crevice was cracked and uneven, laced with an aura of radical disorder that awakened the deepest corners of his untamed imagination. Even if he wished to turn back, even if the thought of what lay ahead chilled the very core of his being, even if he had the desire to run away burning like hot fire in the depths of his mind, he had no choice. The mere visions of a return to the life he had tried so desperately to flee in his youth, had his breath catching in the hardened air of the cooling hilltops. His thoughts drifted, the distraction of his surroundings stealing away rational comprehension.

Eventually, he reached the grand entrance. He was straightening his tie as his thoughts were abruptly interrupted when the door opened and a rather boyish looking man with soft hazel hair, huge smile plastered along his grinning features, greeted him. His appearance was smart, but not as formal as Renjun would have expected, dark suit a little baggy on his lean frame.

“You must be the new housekeeper for Mr Lee."

Strange, Renjun thought to himself as he nodded politely back. There appeared not to be multiple Lee’s inhabiting the huge expanse, just the one. He felt it rather sad really, being the singular owner of such a place.

“I’m Jaemin, it’s a pleasure to meet you Mr Huang”, the young man laughed as he extended his hand forward enthusiastically, a gesture of open friendliness.

“I’m the Master’s butler. You’ll be responsible to me during your employment here”, he nodded encouragingly, the smile still plastered on his face. Renjun frowned and looked past the butler, searching through the door. When his mother was alive, she had always said first impressions were what mattered the most. Mr Lee was certainly conspicuous by his absence and he felt a little deflated that the Master of the house had not come to greet him personally. Jaemin’s smile faltered slightly as he observed the look of mild anguish on Renjun’s face, sighing as he continued his introduction.

"Do come in please. We’ve spent the whole day preparing for your arrival. We try not to stand on ceremony too much here so just refer to me by my first name”, Jaemin spoke as he shuffled from foot to foot excitedly.

“Oh, thank you Jaemin. I appreciate the informality, but I’ll try to remember my place here”, Renjun smiled cautiously, shuffling through the doorway, the dim artificial light of the castle’s interior forcing him to squint softly.

“Of course, I suppose we should start with a tour. The castle can seem pretty intimidating at first. I’ll take you around and then show you to your room. I’m sure you’ll want some time for yourself to settle in there.”
They walked alongside each other, footsteps echoing throughout the hallway, candles lit from end to end to illuminate the area in a soft yellow glow. The image was almost eerily enchanting to Renjun as he followed the other through the maze of corridors, gazing with awe at the interior’s intricacies.

“What exactly are all these places for?” Renjun thought aloud, his eyes wide and inquisitive as Jaemin gestured at the seemingly endless stretch of doorways and hidden rooms.

“Over there you have the kitchens. You probably won’t be in there too much. Cooking is mostly left up to Donghyuck. Chenle and Jisung are the only ones he lets help in there now. To the left of that is my room.” Jaemin paused and pointed at a small doorway next to the kitchens.“Most places on the ground floor are for working purposes, apart from the dining hall we’re standing in. Over there is where you will be sleeping”, he pointed to a room in a different direction. They walked on in silence for a few seconds, passing the entrance to the basement. Renjun’s unease began to grow as the discomfort rose from within his chest, tightening his throat as he envisioned his repressed maladies. Now that he thought about it, there were many confined and cramped spaces within the castle, he made a mental note to avoid these on his travels, keeping the fear at bay as he made a slight smiling gesture towards Jaemin, encouraging him to continue.

“You’ll generally oversee keeping order in the house, cleaning, laundry, bed making, organising mealtimes, maintenance and general household duties. House orderly isn’t exactly Jeno’s forte”, Jaemin laughed nervously to himself.

“But…”, Renjun let his speech trail off as he paused for a moment. “Where does Mr Lee spend his time?” His question was innocent as he peered up at Jaemin.

“It’s nice really” Jaemin smiled sadly. “Mr Lee is about the same age as you and me. It would do him good to have some more company her. Although, I don’t think you’ll be seeing a great deal of him, he lives upstairs. Doesn’t like being disturbed”, Jaemin hesitated in his calculated speech, a break in his collected demeanour, suddenly awkward. He pulled a note from one of his suit pockets and began reading aloud.

“By request of Mr Lee”, he stuttered out, clearly embarrassed,“You are forbidden to go upstairs alone without permission, you aren’t to go wandering, night times are completely off limits, you are to stay in your room as requested, and you certainly aren’t to disturb the Master without permission to do so at any point during your time here”, Jaemin recited half-heartedly. “You see, he isn’t a great deal fond of new people, likes to keep himself to himself. He’s a good person honestly, just isn’t really one for, what you would call, social situations”. Renjun listened with curiosity. This was not what he had been expecting. Firstly, an abandoned castle in the middle of nowhere, owned by a solitary young man, one he would never see. The severity of the dire isolation finally manifested itself in his mind and his heart sank.

After Jaemin’s grand tour, Renjun was left alone in his new room. The sun was beginning to set upon the castle grounds. He had been within the Lee estate for almost a day now. He watched through the small window at the side of his room, as the sun’s light faded into evening dusk and shadows climbed higher up the stone walls. He would start his job tomorrow. The demands of it would be physically exhausting on his body, paired with the emotional burden of loneliness, the role wouldn’t exactly be an easy one. The night was now his but just as Mr Lee’s rules had insisted, he was confined to his room. The room was rather bare, a simple bed protruded into the middle of it. One wall was dominated by a dark wooden wardrobe, whilst on the other stood an ageing nightstand. A single candle was the only source of warmth and light beside his bed. The patchwork quilt looked rather warm in comparison to its stark surroundings, Renjun mused as his mind filled with thoughts of sleep. It was a little too small for his liking, making him feel uneasy and confined within its walls. Taking a few deep breaths, he managed to calm himself down for the second time that day, pushing the emotions to the back of his mind. He comforted himself with the reassurance of the open space that met his view from the bedroom window, his gateway to the outside world in the confines of these square trappings. With little else to do, the tiredness became overwhelming and thoughts of sleep were elevated to the forefront of his mind. He quickly washed himself and dressed into his plain white night clothes, laying his small frame on the firm mattress and pulling the warm quilt around his chin to shield himself from the draught coming through the ill-fitting door frame.

Just as he began to fall asleep, he was startled by the thud of heavy footsteps above his room, moving from one end to the other. It sounded like someone pacing. The sound grew louder as the noises increased in seeming agitation, restless and frustrated. He would ask Jaemin about that in morning, he thought sleepily. The sounds eventually softened to a rhythmic monotony, lulling him to sleep.

“Jaemin, tell me about him.”

“He seems quite nervous, a bit shy, didn’t have much to say really but I told him about your rules. Don’t you think it’s about time you relaxed those? You can’t hide up here forever, Jeno.”

“No, I’m not ready. I hate myself. I hate the way I look”, the other chanted as he continued his frantic movements, clawing at his face as he paced across the room. He turned abruptly to Jaemin.

“Look at me. I should have died that night rather than be left like this”, he exclaimed, holding a hand up to his neck, eyes piercing and severe.

“It’s really not that bad. You can’t stay up all night tormenting yourself like this.”

Jeno looked down at the floor solemnly.

“Sleep is only for those who have peace in their hearts.”

Renjun peered down at his list of tasks for the day. Once the noise upstairs had died down last night, he had managed to drift off to sleep and now he would begin his first day of work in the castle. He swept, cleaned every corner of the first floor and ironed all of Mr Lee’s suits freshly. The master was at home today which meant that Renjun would undoubtably be denied access to the upstairs floor. Still, Renjun couldn’t help the intense stare of curiosity up the wide staircase of the dining hall, as he polished the banister. He had completed half of his day’s work and was finally granted an hour of rest time in his small room before his duties were to begin again. He heard a loud knock at his door. It was Jaemin. In his hands he held a tray, with soup and a small piece of bread on the side.

“Thought you might need this”, the butler smiled as he held up the tray, grinning at Renjun.

“Thanks, that looks good”, he sighed back, still slightly hesitant.

Jaemin strode in and perched on the end of Renjun’s bed.

“So, how has your first day been?”

“I think it’s been okay. I got most of the things on the list done but there’s still a few bits I need to finish off tomorrow”, he smiled at Jaemin.

“Good. Good I’m glad. The place certainly looks clean and tidy, well done. Did you sleep okay?”, the other asked in a caring manner.

“For the most part, yes, but...uhm… I meant to ask you”, Renjun hesitated for a moment as Jaemin watched expectantly.

“Well, it sounded like something was moving above my room, back and forth.”

“Ah. The Master’s room is right above yours. He doesn’t sleep too well these days. Sorry if it disturbed you.”

“No, no honestly it’s okay. I was just curious."

“He finds it hard to relax, always seems to be fighting himself. You’re probably best just to try to ignore it”, Jaemin sighed sadly.

Renjun nodded again. Mr Lee was certainly mysterious.

The second half of the day passed uneventfully, his conversation with Jaemin replaying continuously through his head as he filed through the stacks of letters that had come through the door in passing months, preparing them to be taken upstairs. By this time, it was evening again and Renjun had completed his day of work, finally taking the moment to relax in his own room. Eventually he even grew tired of this, restlessness eating away at him from inside. The seconds passed into minutes and these minutes crawled slowly into hours, Renjun growing increasingly agitated as time dragged onwards, boredom gnawing at his thoughts. He’d been in the castle for merely a day and already he thought his situation rather a lonely one. The place was huge, vast stretches of corridors and rooms of crumbling architecture lacing its decorative interior. Yet, despite all this, the façade of grace and beauty was blatantly shadowed by its gaping stretches of lonely existence, his only friend so far, an overly enthusiastic butler. Then there was Mr Lee. Renjun’s thoughts drew to a halt and lingered there. The man was an enigma, seemingly cold and troubled, an unsolved mystery to the insular world around him. Renjun sat by the fire. He watched the soft blazes create the light that bathed his room in a warm chestnut glow, the cinders melting down to ash and collecting in soft heaps around the fireplace. Eventually even this had burnt out. Renjun’s curiosity began to intensify as images of what surrounded him within the castle danced in his head, Jaemin’s warning playing like a mantra there.

‘You are forbidden to go upstairs alone without permission.’

The words echoed in his mind. Renjun knew his place. He was unimportant, insignificant and he certainly should not be exploring the castle on his first day. He knew it. Yet when his feet began betraying him, walking in small strides towards the door, he felt absolutely no desire to deny them their forbidden pleasure. Renjun hadn’t heard the noises from above tonight, the Master must have found peace and drifted to sleep. Renjun opened the bedroom door, pulling it backwards as it creaked. The evening moonlight painted shadows along the grand hallways as he crept cautiously through the wide corridors that made up the castle’s interior. He felt the freedom coursing through his body, peering at the old paintings, casting his eyes upon the great works of art, passing from room to room, finally venturing upstairs.

There was one door though, one that drew Renjun’s focus from where he stood, its large wooden frame enticing, and intriguing his overactive mind. After mild consideration, the curiosity overpowered all sane thought, and his inquisition forced his feet to move forward. The door slid soundlessly open as he gently pushed on its frame, revealing the mysteries that lay within. As Renjun investigated the room, he was greeted with row upon row of books; great classics, the epics and stacks of poetry collections, novels and plays, a truly splendid array of fiction. Renjun had always loved books, the mere escapism that laced their foundations a comfort in his distressed youth. The library was perfect. He wondered if Mr Lee liked reading too. Then again, it didn’t matter, Jaemin had made it explicitly obvious that Mr Lee was discontent with basic human interaction. Renjun almost sighed aloud as he thought about the entire situation.

The rain beat down along the glass windows that shrouded the room with overwhelming exposure, the sound loud against their fragile panes. Lightning struck in close proximity, its forks piercing from the dark skies and illuminating the room in brief spells of morbid glare, novels and works flashing before Renjun’s eyes. That’s when he saw the figure, the strong shoulders, the broad chest, the long legs. He stood, haggard, his gait uninviting, dressed in a simple loose white shirt paired with black trousers. The elusive master of the house, afraid to bare his face, afraid to expose himself, stood hunched at the window gazing at the same bright lightening patterning the night sky. The man was nothing like Renjun had imagined. Nothing like the fearful, arrogant beast he envisioned. No, he looked much the opposite, an aura of fleeting fragility in his elusive stance. The man’s blonde hair framed his face exquisitely, eyes staring fiercely into the distance, fixated on nature’s wrath. Even in the gloomy darkness of night, Renjun could tell that he was handsome, a picture of true beauty, frame lean and well-constructed. Enchanted by his forbidden beauty, he knew he shouldn’t be here. He let out a small yelp of panic, taking frightful steps backwards, attempting to make an exit, away from the enticing figure, but in doing so caught his foot, knocking a heavy volume flying towards the ground. The figure turned abruptly, eyes hooded and smoky as they met Renjun’s own. Time seemed to halt between the two of them, dispersing into the heavy air. Renjun was captivated by the man’s face. He was truly beautiful, a work of art to match the great pieces that masked the castle in false elegance. His eyes scanned the man, his gaze landing on his neck. A deep scar ran down the right side, the flesh distorted in angry lines until it disappeared down his back behind the soft fabric of his white shirt. Renjun thought the man a work of grace, the scar only adding to the mystery and intrigue that surrounded his presence. The lightening halted its angry flashes, enveloping the two strangers in a blanket of darkness. Both clawed at their own throat, one out of instinct, the other fear. Renjun stared into the darkness, the figure walking hauntingly closer to where he cowered.

“What are you doing in here?” the man roared, shielding the disfigurement on his neck, gripping at it furiously. The boy stumbled backwards, fumbling at the handle of the door, rattling it desperately. It wouldn’t budge. He pushed again, harder this time.

“Get out” the voice yelled; fury evident in its tones.

“I-I’m so sorry” Renjun gushed, panic stricken across his startled face.

“Get out”, the voice repeated louder this time.

Fear gripped Renjun’s being as he finally managed to throw the door open, his body tumbling out into the open space of the corridor. He turned and ran back down to his living quarters, eyes focused ahead. It was only when he pressed his back against the inside of his bedroom door, head tilted and breathing heavy, that he wished he’d dressed more appropriately. He stared down at his thin nightclothes and groaned. First impressions count, he thought. Both he and Mr Lee had fallen at the first hurdle.

Chapter Text

Jeno brought his fists down violently onto the hard surface of his oak dressing table, groaning as he raised them up again to his forehead, the crash echoing aggressively off the bedroom walls. His posture lingered that way for several moments as he made attempts to compose himself.

“Jaemin, that was him wasn’t it. The new housekeeper”, he snarled with muffled speech, fury evident in his tone.

“Jeno please- “, the butler tried desperately to protest, taking anguished steps towards his Master. He risked a comforting hand forward, bringing it to rest gently on Jeno’s trembling shoulder.

“We never had these problems with Mark. He needs to leave.”

Jaemin stared back with sadness. He saw how Jeno held himself, concealed and covered, his hand with an iron grip clutched around his neck out of habit. He truly pitied him.

“I’m serious Jaemin. He broke the most important rule”, the man repeated firmly, shrugging the butler’s soft touch away with a hand. His stare was fixed on the other, steely and angered.

“Didn’t you tell him the rules? I specifically asked you to tell the housekeeper boy the rules. Why was he upstairs?”, Jeno continued accusingly, the gleam of desperation shining through his widened eyes. He masked this insecurity with hardened agitation as he questioned the other extensively. He’d trusted Jaemin’s authority. He certainly hadn’t expected to see the housekeeper, the startled young man he had begrudgingly hired, appear on the second floor of his home only two days into his new job. The audacity of it infuriated him.

“His name is Huang Renjun if you would care to know, so you can stop referring to him as that”, Jaemin huffed sulkily. He’d grown rather fond of the employee since his short time of residency at the castle and already could sense the other’s good intentions and dedication.

“He can’t stay here”, Jeno reiterated to Jaemin who stood across the room, helpless.

Jeno thought back to the proceedings of the previous night in the library. It had been another one marred with sleeplessness. This wasn’t unusual, he was practically an insomniac by now and the library was his solace, his haven. It was the place that calmed him down. The boy had ruined everything.

“I told him. His curiosity must have got the better of him. Its rather endearing really. You should loosen up; Renjun hasn’t come out of his room since last night. Your anger must have terrified him”, Jaemin huffed defiantly as he continued arguing with the Master.

“I really think you need to calm down. Maybe it’s time you showed your face around the castle more. You can’t hide up here forever. I miss the Jeno I used to know, the one I grew up with. He was my hero and he’s still the same person to me, he’s still in there”, Jaemin smiled sadly.

Jaemin had always been a scrawny child when the two were younger, something he carried with him through his adolescence and into adulthood. This had made him much smaller than Jeno. His clothes never fitted him properly and he would always walk around happily in his oversized shirt and tuxedo, just like the one his father would wear. Jeno recalled the memories of his butler fondly. How, when they were just eight years old, he had snuck the hazel haired boy sugar cubes on Wednesdays after lunch in their grand dining hall because he knew they were Jaemin’s favourite. Then there was the time he saw the boy shivering from the cold in his thin servants’ clothes and brought a pale blue blanket for the smaller to keep him warm in the winter’s chill. He was always kind to Jaemin, always spoke soft words of encouragement if he was scolded for poor work and made sure no one in the castle picked on the younger. Jeno would pull faces and stick out his tongue behind the backs of his parents while Jaemin helped his father out with butler duties. The other boy would giggle endlessly at this. Jaemin’s family never had much money, they were servants to the Lee household after all, but Jeno made sure that he always felt special and loved when they were together, the two were practically inseparable. Their hearts were so warm back then. A lot of that had crumbled now. Their friendship remained intact, if not a little frayed around the edges, but nevertheless, undying. Jeno had always looked out for Jaemin but everything had changed the night of the accident. The night that ripped everything away from them both. Maybe if he had been even half as emotionally strong as Jaemin he wouldn’t have locked himself away in the castle, alone. Just as Jaemin had, maybe he could have pieced back together his shattered heart and continued living the life he had always foreseen himself to live.

“I can’t have it Jaemin. He saw me”, Jeno broke out from his daydream, anxious once again as he held the firm grip on his neck.

“He’s serious about working here. I’ve seen him downstairs cleaning. Do you really think that you would be enough to put him off the job? Please, give him another chance”, Jaemin leaned in closer, his signature smile looking up towards the other’s cold glare.

“Please Jeno”, he uttered, dejected, having almost given up hope.

Jeno threaded his fingers through his blond tresses, eyes suddenly softening as he thought about the stranger again for a moment. He recalled the way the other had tumbled into the library clumsily, dressed only in his white night clothes. He must have known this too because Jeno had been painfully aware of the intense blush that painted Renjun’s cheeks upon eye contact. The other had soft brown hair, slightly longer at the back, his frame petite and lithe. Renjun’s gleaming eyes had met Jeno’s own, not in disgust, but simple astonishment. Jeno only caught this briefly before the other disappeared out of the door, tripping as he went. The image caused the shadow of a smile to dance across his stoic face. Jaemin stared back in confusion.

“You always have this calming effect on me. I can’t help but listen to you”, Jeno laughed. Jaemin smiled cautiously back, relieved he had managed to save Renjun this time. He hadn’t seen his Master laugh in so long and he wondered what exactly the other found so deeply amusing about the situation.

“Okay Jaemin”, Jeno stiffened.

“I’ll give him another chance, on the condition that you talk to him about the rules again, make it clear to him this time”, Jeno spoke sternly with a raised eyebrow.

xxx

When Jaemin entered Renjun’s room a few hours later, for the first time since the incident in the library had happened, the boy was curled up on the bed in the darkness, clearly distressed.

“I’ll start packing my bags now”, Renjun sniffed quietly, horrified by the prospect of returning home. He hadn’t meant for any of this to happen. He thought that Jeno would be in his room, asleep for once. That’s what the silence had indicated. How much of a fool could he be? Renjun knew he had ruined everything and lost his chance at a fresh start. He had fated himself to face his father’s wrath again and there was nothing he could do about it; he was thoroughly miserable.

“The Master was angry you know”, Jaemin spoke softly to him. Renjun nodded, eyes staring anxiously back at the butler as he opened his mouth to continue. “He was angry… but… he’s given you another chance. This time Renjun, please, you need to remember the rules. The Master is so particular about his rules”.

Renjun hesitated for a moment before speaking, pulling himself up into a sitting position.

“The rules… is there any way that Mr Lee could relax them slightly?”, he looked up, watery eyed.“I feel so confined here already”, he stuttered almost silently, his trembling halting his ability to speak.

“I’ve spent too much of my life feeling trapped. This chance was meant to be my get-away but instead I feel like I lost even more freedom. I’m sorry, I know it’s not my place to make such a request, especially after what I did”, Renjun spluttered the words out as he tried desperately to compose himself.

He could recall Jaemin’s desire to divert any conversations away from the Master of the household on their first meeting. He understood now. Jeno seemed fitfully troubled. When Renjun thought about it, everything he had come across to do with the Master so far had been so utterly pitiful. The man shut himself away, on the brink of total human isolation, alone and emotionally tormented. Captivating as he was, Mr Lee was tragic in the most poignant sense of the word.

“I can ask Jeno, but I can’t make any promises. In the meantime, try not to get into trouble here and stay on the ground floor unless I permit you upstairs. It took me enough coaxing to bring the Master round this time. I’m not sure I would be able to persuade him again”, Jaemin sighed, brushing the loose strands of hair out of his eyes, smiling imploringly at the housekeeper. Renjun nodded back once, slightly deflated but still thankful for Jaemin’s efforts, wiping his teary eyes with the end of his shirt sleeves.

He thought it rather strange, the way Jaemin flickered between referring to the Master with precise formalities and the colloquialism that he occasionally slipped into. He knew they didn’t like to stand on ceremony in the castle, but something told him that the two had a stronger bond than just butler and Master, something deeper. He decided not to question it at that moment, Jaemin had already put himself out enough for him.

“Speak to Donghyuck about mealtimes. You can get yours from the kitchen from now on”, Jaemin continued with his smile again.

When lunchtime rolled around, Renjun followed Jaemin’s advice and ventured to the castle kitchens. It was where he first met the cook and his ensemble. The kitchen itself was large with a high ceiling, huge work-surfaces and grand ovens lining its walls. In the centre stood a solid wood refectory table, long benches either side to seat its guests. A series of arched windows provided a view of the castle’s extensive grounds, Renjun knew his mother would have loved it here. He had caught sight of the other young men in the room almost immediately. One was busy cutting tomatoes on a chopping board, he looked to be a similar age to Renjun, his golden hair held back by a simple bandana tied round his head as he worked silently. His eyes were warm and round despite their stern demeanour, his crisp white uniform giving the man an air of authority. Two others stood at the sink, carefully examining Renjun as they washed and dried the stacks of plates and dishes, clearly excited at the prospect of a new person in the castle. They looked to be younger, perhaps around fourteen. One was obviously tall, with a meek expression painting his porcelain features, the other a smaller boy, with a prominent smile and mousy brown hair framing his angular face. The boys seemed to be close, they giggled to each other as they continued with their task. The one chopping halted for a moment, staring at Renjun.

“So, you’re Mark’s replacement”, the man deadpanned, eyeing the smaller with suspicion.

“I’m Donghyuck. That one is Jisung”, he gestured casually with his knife at the taller boy. “And that’s Chenle”, Donghyuck motioned towards the boy with the large grin.

“I’m Renjun. It’s nice to meet you all. Jaemin has been telling me about you.” The housekeeper tried with a nervous smile, to which the two by the sink reciprocated happily.

“Jaemin told me to come in here to get some food, I was just wondering- “

“There’s some leftovers in the fridge you can help yourself to”, the cook muttered sharply.

“Here, I’ll show you”, the boy with the smile chimed in, beckoning Renjun over near to where he stood at the other end of the kitchen.

The fridge didn’t contain too much, but the necessities it needed were there. Inside there was some cold meat, a rather bare selection of fruit, vegetables and some milk and eggs. There was some bread on the work-surface beside it with various herbs and spices Donghyuck obviously used for his cooking.

“Don’t worry about him. He’s soft underneath it all, just a little heartbroken now”, Chenle whispered.

“Who is Mark?”, Renjun mouthed cautiously to the boy as they stood behind the fridge door that the younger had opened.

“He was the last housekeeper here, the role you have now. His father got sick and he had to leave to look after him. Donghyuck and him were together, they practically raised Jisung and me”, he motioned towards the other boy who was still washing dishes. “He’s just upset because you came after Mark. He’ll get used to it and I’m sure he’ll warm up more as you get to know him”, Chenle continued to murmur softly.

“Oh, and Renjun.”, their conversation was cut short by Donghyuck’s stern voice.

“Next time you bring the shirts down to the laundry room for washing, don’t leave them under the sink, Mark always put them in the corner by the door”, the words were harsh and bitter.

“Of course. I’ll remember that next time”, Renjun smiled almost sarcastically but held himself back. He’d caused enough trouble for one day and he thought it better to get along with the snarky cook instead of making another enemy. He would try a new tactic, believing it best to show his friendly nature towards Donghyuck.

“How long have you worked here?”, Renjun ventured.

“I came as an apprentice when I was thirteen. I’ve been running it here on my own for three years now. Its not as busy as it used to be”, the cook stopped abruptly.

“How was your first day?”, Donghyuck spoke with little interest.

“It could have been better honestly. I didn’t expect such restrictions here”.

“Hmm”, Donghyuck raised his eyebrow knowingly.

“I sort of had an encounter with the Master already”, the blush rose across Renjun’s cheeks once more as he thought of his embarrassment. He heard a nervous squeal rise from the other side of the room and Jisung coughed as Chenle elbowed him lightly in the ribs, returning his attention to vigorously scrubbing a large saucepan.

“You?” Donghuck pointed his knife in the housekeeper’s direction again. He seemed to have a habit of doing that, Renjun noted.

“You met the Master?”, Donghyuck finally scoffed.

“It was in the library last night”. The other’s eyes got wider.

“The library. What on earth were you doing in there?”. He had stopped chopping by now.

“I know. I shouldn’t have done it. Mr Lee was furious but - “

“You’re lucky you’re still here”

“Jaemin…”

“Yeah, he’s a good guy, him and Mr Lee are close. If anyone could persuade him to do anything it would be Jaemin”, Donghyuck spoke quickly. “You know the rules here, you aren’t supposed to go wandering around. If you need to go walking, go out in the grounds. The Master doesn’t mind that. Just make sure to avoid the rose garden.”

“The rose garden?”, Renjun’s curiosity was roused once more.

“It used to be such a happy place….” Donghyuck muttered sadly as he slammed another tomato on the chopping board.

The ensuing silence from the cook made Renjun realise he had probably outstayed his welcome in the kitchen, so he gathered his lunch up, taking the opportunity to explore the grounds as Donghyuck had mentioned.

The early spring sunshine peeked through the cracks in the tree branches that lined the pathway out from the castle, casting shadows in the brightness of the paving that lead Renjun’s feet forward. This, however, gave little warmth in the cold Spring air, the strains of winter still biting at the boy’s rosy cheeks as he hugged his jacket closer to himself. He settled on a stone bench that sat on one of the pathways distant from the castle, picking at his simple lunch as he took in the charms of the unkempt garden. It had clearly been maintained to the utmost standard of beauty once and with a little imagination, Renjun could envision its former glory.

He knew that he still had a full afternoon of work to do in the dining room and that the silver candlesticks wouldn’t polish themselves. He finished his lunch quickly and rose to his feet, following a rough track in the direction of the castle. In the distance, a crumbling wall hid a small area of the once formal gardens, a large archway inviting entry to what lay within its circular confines. Renjun’s interest was once again awakened.

As he stood under the stone archway, he could see what appeared to be rows of decaying bushes, dead flowers littering their extremities. Huge vines of ivy poked through the crevices in the walls and overgrown weeds bloomed from the pebbled floor under his feet. There was a pathway running down the centre of the hidden garden, it led to an old fountain that had clearly halted its work many years ago. It was rusting and moss clung to its surface in small disordered clusters. The garden was in disrepair, it had been cast away, abandoned. Upon the fountain’s top, a large stone statue rose up - Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom. Renjun’s extensive reading list meant his knowledge of the arts was precise and detailed. The fountain was almost beautiful yet rusting and faded just like the rest of Mr Lee’s castle garden. The new flowers on the bushes hadn’t bloomed yet but the dead ones still clung there, weakened and fragile. Renjun reached his hand forward to touch one of them and it dropped into his palm. It should have been a thing of elegance, but all the boy could see was its dead and broken state. It could have been so beautiful with just a little love and care just like the rest of the grounds. He wanted to tend to it, to water the flowers and to pull the weeds from where they manifested in the ground, to restore the air of grace to its walls. Renjun peered at the flower closer.

A rose.

He needed to leave; he knew it. He wasn’t meant to be here. He’d somehow managed to wander into the single forbidden area. Panic consumed his body as he willed himself to leave, clasping tighter at the dead rose he held in his grasp, its rough exterior harsh against Renjun’s own softened hands.

xxx

As he did most days, Jeno sat looking out at the vast landscape of the gardens he’d once loved, from the vantage point of his bedroom window. He adored the hills and would on occasion venture out on horseback as he did in his youth, with the company of his faithful six-year-old black stallion. He inhaled sharply and squinted as he looked closer through the windowpanes.

Someone was in his rose garden.

His stomach lurched as he was sharply reminded of how deeply everything had changed, how the place could never be as it once was. The memories began to flash helplessly within his mind. He hadn’t been there since that night and he had made sure that no one else did. The anguish turned to anger again as he recognised the small figure of the new housekeeper. He ran towards the bedroom door and flung it open with strong hands. The butler’s name rung through the hallways, echoing down the corridors before Jeno could even think of a way in which to gather his rational thoughts.

Chapter Text

He could smell the familiar scent of lavender and sandalwood as she strolled joyfully towards him, steps light and dainty. His mother was wearing her usual white dress, the sleeves were short, and it had little yellow crescents embroidered onto the cotton that covered her petite figure. Renjun would often cling to the ends of the dress whenever he walked behind her in the cool summer breeze, pretending he was a great explorer on an important adventure, his mother guiding the way as protector. Renjun grinned up as the gentle wind tousled her neat bob, framing her soft face with wisps of the now untidy strands. Her features were delicate and warm as she smiled back towards her son who sat contently among the flowers in their garden, beaming as he observed each one with curious gaze. She sauntered out to where the boy was perched with his legs crossed, adjusting herself so that she too sat amongst the lush grass and hordes of flowers they had planted over the years outside their little house.

She reached down and picked one of the blooms, Renjun’s eyes wide, in awe of her simple action. The colourful flower was held in front of the small boy who sat opposite her on the straw mat she had laid out earlier for the both to sit on underneath the heat of the midday summer sun. The garden was their space, they had planted it together and the woman knew that her son was most pleased when they sat, just the two of them, on its narrow perimeter. They stayed like this for a while, his mother admiring the result of her hard work in the garden and Renjun simply enjoying her company, gazing at the splendid blossoms that flourished before him in clusters of vivid colours.

“Look Renjun, it’s an Amaryllis”, she laughed happily, bringing the pinkish flower close to the other’s face. Renjun’s tiny features stared up at the object that tickled the end of his nose, a small smile gracing his lips.

“A-m-a-r-y-l-l-i-s”, he repeated the foreign word slowly, stare still fixated on the delicate petals.

“It means splendid beauty”, she continued.

The five-year-old giggled back at his mother as she placed the flower gently on the ground, pulling him closer and holding him tightly in her arms. She hugged him to her chest, her arms holding him in the warm embrace for a few moments. Renjun chuckled again, head buried in his mother’s shoulder. She gently moved his head up, clasping his rosy face between her two hands as she looked down at him lovingly.

“My beautiful boy”, she whispered, leaning down carefully and planting a soft kiss onto his forehead.

“It tickles”, Renjun giggled quietly, his mother brushing the messy brown hair out of his face and moving them both so that they sat back together within the flowers, perched cosily on his mother’s lap, blissful as he smiled at the view before him.

Renjun could feel the faint wetness of his tears as they ran down his face in streaks, the memories of his mother overwhelmed him. Still, he couldn’t move from where he stood.

“Jieun move out the way”, the angry voice roared.


“I said move”, it snarled again, pushing the woman away from the ten-year-old who stood behind her, cowering.

“Why are you filling his head with all of this shit?”, his father ripped the carefully tied bundles of tiny daisies out of Renjun’s trembling hands, holding them up in his mother’s direction. She choked loudly on a sob. They had just picked them in the garden together and she had been preparing a small vase for the stems to be placed in so her son could keep them beside his bed. Renjun’s father turned, hurling the flowers at a nearby wall. They crumpled against it, falling to the ground helplessly in a heap of broken blooms which caused the small boy to whimper softly at the violence of the action.

His mother’s legs finally gave way, falling to the floor, as Renjun winced in fear of his father’s rage. The man took heavy steps forward, ripping the boy’s tiny frame from where he stood, the collar of his shirt held between his rough fingers. Their faces were inches apart, so close that Renjun could feel the fire raging through his father’s resentful eyes.

“What use is a son that only knows how to dance and plant flowers?”, he muttered, Renjun’s tearful sobs ringing through the confines of their hallway.

He struck him hard across the face.

Renjun felt the impact on his cheek and the cold sting of pain that spread across the area before he could completely register what had just happened. His mother sat there in stunned silence, terrified.

That was the first time he had used violence against Renjun. The young boy had inherited the small build of his mother so barely ever stood a chance against the strength of his father and his angry rages. Renjun’s mother had picked flowers in the garden with him. His father hated it. She had bought him his very own pair of black ballet shoes for his eleventh birthday so that he could attend classes, his father loathed the sight. His mother had always been there to show him the beauty in a world where cruelty stalked him, and so he endured. He coped with his father’s unprovoked anger and beatings; he knew he would have his mother by his side to ward off the darkness.

When Renjun was twelve, merely a year later, his mother passed away.

The tears were now streaming uncontrollably down his face, memories finally flooding through his subconscious and staining his mind with the vivid traumas. He shut his eyes again and the visions came alive once more.

“She’s not here to corrupt you anymore.”


Another slap.

After his mother’s death, the violence only worsened.

Renjun never forgot the night it first happened. It had been for five hours, five hours locked in their tiny cottage basement in the darkness, trapped. His father stood outside, pleased with his new form of punishment as he threw the ballet shoes Renjun had treasured for years, onto the blazing fire. Renjun sobbed, banging his tiny fists helplessly against the door frame. There was nothing he could do.

The basement was cold and damp, its cramped spaces panicking Renjun each time his father thought it fitting that he learnt a ‘lesson’. He had even prevented Renjun from entering the garden, its contents now wild and overgrown, losing the beauty that it once held for Renjun and his mother. Their special place, their paradise; destroyed and untended. Renjun’s life, as it continued, was further thrown into darkness as the years with his father rolled onward, the man slowly breaking his hopeful spirit.

He was jolted back into reality abruptly, Mr Lee’s rose garden haunting his blurred vision. It was in that moment that he truly realised, for the first time since he had tried to bury his past, that he was enslaved by it. Renjun loved gardens and their open spaces. He remembered the feeling of the basement and it terrified him, always finding great freedom in the outdoors. It reminded him of his mother after all and that was just about all he had to cling onto. His father had destroyed everything else except his innocent memories of their garden. The vast open spaces gave way to the freedom of his imagination and there were no walls and locked doors, nothing to confine him. The Master’s rose garden needed saving and Renjun wanted to save it. He stared down at his hands where he still held the dying rose. Its thorns had dug into his skin as his grip intensified through his panic. He had lost himself in thought. He watched as the blood ran down his skin where the thorns had pierced it, dazed and still unable to tear his feet away to leave the forbidden territory.

xxx

Jaemin knew Jeno was angry again. Renjun was in the rose garden. He began to wonder how exactly the young housekeeper could get into quite so much trouble with the Master. He knew this was bad but when he had eventually sprinted into the garden’s arched entrance, the sight that greeted him was a disturbing one. Renjun was there, but he was bleeding, looking completely dazed as he watched the blood trickle from his hand down to his arm, tears staining his paled face.

Jaemin tried calling his name once.

Renjun didn’t react.

The shouting continued but still the boy stood by the rose bush, gazed fixed on his hands.

“Renjun.”

Jaemin was now standing directly in front of the other, watching his teary and vacant eyes that paid no attention to the butler’s presence. He reached out a hand to hold Renjun’s bloodied one, the dead rose crumbling to the ground in the process. Renjun’s spell was almost immediately broken, false reality shattered, his pained eyes at last registering the other’s concerned presence.

“Jaemin I- “, he tried to compose his speech frantically, glancing down at his hands again, the sudden realisation of his forbidden location hitting him.

The rose garden.

“I didn’t realise it was here, I had no idea. Donghyuck… he told me not to go in the rose garden, but I didn’t even realise I was standing in it until now. I’m so sorry Jaemin I’ve got you in trouble again.”

The shadows of fear clouded Renjun’s cluttered mind. That was it. No more second chances now, he had ruined everything again and Jaemin had come to ask him to make his leave from the castle. He tried to mask the devastation but, in the end, it prevailed with the sound of Renjun’s lightly panicked breath.

“Come on. Let’s get you inside, explanations later. For now, I need to clean up those cuts”, Jaemin spoke softly, forgetting his original anger induced intentions. He looked down at the other’s tattered hands, still holding them in his own tenderly. Renjun pulled them back towards his chest self-consciously.

“I’m sorry. Please… I’m fine”, the housekeeper spoke quickly, wiping the tears he had just been crying away from his eyes desperately.

They walked inside together and Jaemin fetched a first aid kit from inside the laundry room, sitting Renjun down on a stool beside a large pile of sheets. He rolled up Renjun’s sleeve and began to inspect the damage that the thorns had left on the small housekeeper, dabbing at the now drying blood with a wet cloth. Renjun had finally managed to calm himself down, the tears no longer flowing from his watery eyes, as Jaemin wrapped thin strips of gauze around his injuries tenderly.

“Do you want to tell me about what happened? Why were you out in the garden bleeding?”, Jaemin questioned sadly. Renjun looked numb, detached from the reality around him. He looked back pitifully at the butler with vacant eyes, blank and confused.

“Why is the garden dying?”, he replied with glazed eyes.

“Why is everything here dying?”, he asked again, a tinge of deep distress lacing his speech. Jaemin looked back at him sadly, Renjun knew nothing about the history of the Lee estate.

“Renjun, it’s been like this for the last four years now, the Master doesn’t want anyone in there, he can’t even bear to look at it himself. I don’t think anyone has stepped in there since…”, Jaemin trailed off.

“Something happened in the garden?”, Renjun thought out loud again, finally breaking out of his trance.

“I can make it better. I know how to make it beautiful again. Please Jaemin, I can help. My mother, she taught me about flowers and gardens, she made me see beauty when all around me was ugliness, we can do it to the rose garden too…”, Renjun almost gleamed at the fond memories of his mother as they returned for the second time that day, but quickly caught himself, shutting his mouth as he felt himself distracted by his tangent.

“I’m sorry. I know it’s not my place to make any suggestions like that. I got carried away, I just wanted to do something nice because I keep making mistakes here and angering the Master. This job means so much to me. I thought maybe something like this might make amends for my terrible start”, Renjun continued nervously.

“What is it about you? You’re making my life so hard, yet I still want to help you Huang Renjun”, Jaemin smiled, a tinge of humour in his voice as he spoke the words. He knew he should probably tell Renjun the truth, at least some of it. It might finally cure some of the other’s inquisition, stop him prying into business he shouldn’t get himself caught up in.

“I shouldn’t be telling you this at all”, he paused for a moment. “I suppose you should know though”, Jaemin hesitated before opening his mouth to speak again.

“Four years ago, here in the castle, there was a terrible accident. Jeno lost his mother, father and three sisters’. I too lost what little I had left of my own family. My father died. Jeno and I were both fifteen at the time.”

“Jaemin, that’s terrible how- “

“The rose garden was the family’s pride and joy. Mr Lee’s sister planted the roses herself. Every event would be held there. That’s why he can’t stand the sight of it anymore, it has haunted him ever since, it’s a reminder of his own guilt. He never understood why only he should survive. Jeno has lost the ability to see beauty in anything anymore and punishes himself by letting the castle’s beauty fade to nothing. I’ve watched it happening slowly ever since that night. It’s awful Renjun, I’m not sure anyone would be able to restore it to its former glory.”

“I’m so sorry about your father, and… Mr Lee…. he’s been holding onto all of that pain by himself for so long.”

No wonder he hates the world, Renjun thought inside his head.

“Personally Renjun, I think you’re right. I think it’s time Jeno finally dropped the ghosts of his past. He needs to get out more, he needs to let go. I don’t think he’s ever had a moment of true happiness since then, it’s destroying him.”

“Please let me do this for Mr Lee, I want to help the castle. I want to help him”, Renjun spoke with hope.

Jaemin smiled at the bright spirit of the boy before him, he supposed it was worth a shot. He’d been telling Jeno for years to embrace the life he was once so privileged to live but to no avail. He may as well try again, even if he failed. Maybe one day Jeno would be able to come to terms with his trauma and move forward, the rose garden would be a good place to start.

“I’ll speak to him and see what I can do”, Jaemin finally spoke as he straightened his back, composing himself again. The boy in front of him lowered his head humbly.

“Thank you so much Jaemin, you’ve been nothing but kind to me since I got here.”

xxx

Jeno lay on his bed, body flat against the mattress, staring up at the intricate details that lined the ceiling of his bedroom. He turned onto his side, restless. No matter how hard he tried, his thoughts continued to drift back to the boy, the one he saw from his window, bloodied and distressed, like the most fragile piece of porcelain that Jeno had ever seen. He had looked helpless, feet fixed to the muddied ground of the fading rose garden. Jeno’s fading rose garden. Something about Renjun’s pitiful nature struck a chord in Jeno’s heart, making it ache for the briefest of moments. The boy seemed so damaged, so alone, yet at the same time so strong, a breath of hope encircled by the withering roses. He had seen how Jaemin touched him so tenderly instead of the angry outburst that he had wished the butler to inflict on the other, instead guiding him back inside the house with gentle encouragement. Something in Jeno began to spark, whether it was mere pity or something deeper he did not know, but he furrowed his eyebrows in confusion, not welcoming these foreign feelings. He didn’t understand it, the way that the boy could pull the strings of his emotions when they had hardly even met, when he should have been fired already. He had broken so many rules, yet Jeno felt compelled to forgive him. It perplexed him.

His thoughts were loudly interrupted by a firm knock at the door of his bedroom and his butler’s gentle voice asking for permission to enter, unusually formal and rehearsed.

“Come in Jaemin”, he muttered, still questioning his feelings, still bemused by the effects that the housekeeper was having on him.

xxx

The next morning, after he had finished cleaning out the dining room cupboards and polishing the shelves of cutlery and dishes, Renjun took his lunch break, making his way towards his room for needed rest. He had thought a lot about what had happened with Jaemin the previous day, embarrassed by his momentary show of fragility and his desperation to keep his job as housekeeper. He wondered how Jaemin’s talk with Mr Lee had gone, whether he had managed to coax some sort of agreement out of the man. The garden had been a strange place for Renjun, reminding him of his precious mother and her warmth but simultaneously, reminiscent of the terrifying events of his past. He wanted to fix the garden and its disorderly state.

He walked slowly into the room, closing the door softly behind him. It was dark and dull so he reached to his nightstand to light up a candle.

As the match struck against the box, Renjun saw a glint of silver reflect into his view, shining alongside the light of the fire’s flame. He peered closer, viewing the new objects that had been laid across his bed neatly. They were slightly rusted and worn in places, but nevertheless, Renjun didn’t think he had felt as much joy as he did in this moment, since he had first entered the castle. There, in the centre of his tiny bed, lay a set of gardening tools, a spade, a trowel and pruning shears. They were neatly spread across the mattress. He held them in his hands carefully, surprised, he could work on the garden, fix it. Jaemin must have done this. It was a small gesture but one step closer to the elusive Mr Lee and the secrets that he held within these walls.

Chapter Text

It was merely a day later that Renjun put the gardening equipment, that had been left on his bed, to use, continuing as the week went by. For most of the hours of daylight that he wasn’t working on the ground floor, he was outside, in Mr Lee’s rose garden, digging and replanting, in an attempt to restore the beauty he envisioned it once held. Many of his evenings were spent there too, simply enjoying its serenity, a book from his small collection grasped in his hands. Renjun would read as the minutes flew past him, lost in the fiction he immersed himself in, surrounded by every newly growing grass and flower stem in the garden.

He hadn’t seen a great deal of Jaemin since their conversation in the laundry room where the other had bandaged his hands, the cuts now slowly beginning to heal, only catching glimpses of the man as he fluttered between hallways and rooms on the ground floor with hurried paces. If Renjun thought he had seen little of the butler, he had seen even less of the Master, not even hearing his pacing during the long nights awake in his room, the other had been almost silent. He assumed that Jaemin must have had some amount of success with Mr Lee to be able to give him the gardening supplies and he wished to thank the butler when he had the chance.

One early morning in the rose garden, where Renjun had been occupied pulling the dead blooms from where they drooped on the withering bushes, he had paused a moment to look at his work. He was finally starting to make some progress and could see the strains of former beauty returning to the splendid garden. The dead roses were mostly gone now, and he had cleaned up the fountain so that it stood proudly, a centrepiece of the garden’s attraction.

His hands were filthy, and mud clung to his trowel, so Renjun padded into the castle kitchen to wash them and to make himself a well needed warm drink. Cautiously, the housekeeper tip-toed towards the sink, immediately interrupted by a stern voice to his left.

“Stop messing up my kitchen and go and use the tap outside, Renjun”, Donghyuck huffed firmly at the boy. The cook paused for a moment, turning to glance in his direction.

“What are you doing with those anyway?”, Donghyuck questioned, suspiciously raising an eyebrow at the housekeeper as he stood next to the sink, poised to run the water.

“I… I’m replanting Mr Lee’s rose garden”, he stuttered, staring down at the muddy trowel.

“The garden?”, Chenle chimed enthusiastically from beside the ovens, the talk now interesting Jisung too, who had stopped drying plates and turned curiously to face Renjun. Renjun hadn’t even noticed them there until now. Donghyuck too was staring back at him, a look of concern on his face.

“What did I tell you about the rose garden? You know you’re not meant to be in there, Renjun”, Donghyuck spoke again firmly.

“I don’t understand, I’m not quite sure how, it must have been Jaemin again, but I’ve been let in the garden Donghyuck, isn’t it wonderful? We can have flowers, and fruit trees and a vegetable garden”, Renjun babbled with excitement, motioning to the muddy trowel in his hand.

“Pffft…. you’re honestly something else”, he muttered back, still dubious.

“If you two are free for the rest of the morning, you could come and help out there”, Renjun turned to Chenle and Jisung and smiled to them softly, liking the idea of some company whilst he worked. The two younger boys giggled in excitement after hearing the proposition, turning to Donghyuck and giving their best puppy eyes to convince him to let them take the morning off to help the housekeeper in the garden.

“Fine… but you had better do double shifts tomorrow”, Donghyuck said fondly, glancing in their direction with little to no menace in his voice. He resumed his stirring, glaring down at the soup he was preparing for lunch. The two stood motionless, momentarily unsure whether to move or not, Donghyuck’s softness a surprise to them both.

“Go on… some fresh air would probably do you two some good, you’re always stuck inside here, maybe you could work on that vegetable patch”, he continued as a small smile graced his lips. The boys squeaked in unison at the prospect of their morning off, thankful that Donghyuck was in one of his better moods today.

“I’ll go back out, you can join me whenever you’re ready”, Renjun grinned on his way out of the kitchen to finally clean his trowel outside. The silence of the corridors was soon broken as he saw Jaemin bustle out of a nearby door, turning to rush down the castle hallway. He stopped when his grey eyes met with Renjun’s own.

“Oh Jaemin, wait a second- “

“Hi Renjun”, he panted, clearly out of breath.

“I just wanted to thank you… for these”, the housekeeper smiled, holding the gardening tools up to his face, practically beaming.

“Huh? … Renjun… where did you get those from?”, Jaemin spoke, bemused.

“I thought you…. I thought you left them on my bed”, Renjun replied sheepishly.

“I didn’t- “, Jaemin looked back at the tools that Renjun clasped in his hands, still out of breath.

Jeno.

“The Master…. I thought…. he refused to even listen when I spoke to him. He must have brought those down himself for you. I had no idea”, Jaemin spoke, in a daze. Jeno must have changed his mind without telling him.

“They were just left on my bed. I assumed it was you”, Renjun continued.

“Renjun, this is good. He must have come downstairs to put them there. I have no idea how, but he must have changed his mind.”

“Oh my… please pass on my thanks to him. I feel honoured”, Renjun bowed his head a little.

“What did I tell you about formalities here Renjun.”, he took small steps forward and placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder calmly.

“Relax a little… you are part of this household too you know?”

Renjun nodded and smiled.

“Really Jaemin, thank you for everything.”

xxx

“Not like that Jisung”, Chenle laughed softly, grabbing the trowel out of the wide-eyed boy’s hand and demonstrating again how to plant the seeds. The other stared back, concentrating hard on the actions that Chenle repeated so that he could replicate them next time. They had finally made it to the garden and Renjun had asked the two boys to work on the vegetable patch, whilst he was busy next to them, trimming the unruly grass into splendid neat lines.

“Like this?”, Jisung replied, making a grab for the object again and pushing it into the mud, bringing the trowel back up enthusiastically, so much so that the contents was tipped straight into Chenle’s lap. Chenle paused for a moment, the mess stuck on his gardening apron, glaring at his friend in silence.

They both suddenly burst into fits of laughter, Renjun looked up to see what was so amusing.

“Not quite, Jisung”, the now mud-covered boy spoke, shaking the mess from the apron.

“What are you two up to?”, Renjun laughed from across the grass.

“I was just showing Jisung how to plant seeds for the vegetable patch”, Chenle said, staring at the mess below them.

“Well, I was trying to…”, making Jisung giggle a little more than he already was.

Chenle got up and Jisung followed him to where the array of seeds lay spread out in an old box from the kitchen.

“Look! Butternut squash, Donghyuck’s favourite. We can plant some for him.”, Jisung chirped energetically.

“Pumpkin seeds too! We can grow these so Mark can have some when he comes to visit”, Chenle added excitedly.

“Chenle! Jisung! Come and see the rose garden”, Renjun beckoned.

The two boys took careful steps forward, avoiding the many seeds they had just planted, following the footsteps of the older as he led them to the stone walls of Mr Lee’s hidden rose garden that once lay forbidden amongst the overgrown castle grounds. As they entered, the two gasped as they absorbed the view, speechless.

“It’s… beautiful”, Chenle gasped, Jisung nodding in agreement from behind the mousey haired boy.

“Well, I suppose it’s getting there, but it needs quite a bit more work”, Renjun laughed, he too admiring the result of his week’s work.

The three of them sat in the garden for a while, chatting and laughing as they found out more about each other, the young boys glad of the new company. They paused briefly as Chenle’s attention was drawn to the figure that stood atop the grand fountain.

“Renjun what’s that?”, the boy asked innocently.

“Athena… the Greek goddess of Wisdom”, Renjun spoke, enthralled by the boy’s inquisition.

“You can tell by the shield and spear she’s holding, see?”, he pointed up to the statue and the eyes of the other two followed the direction of Renjun’s fingers, nodding softly in interest. Renjun turned his head to smile at them, his eyes suddenly catching a slight movement in his peripheral vision.

In a large second floor window, he saw the silhouette of a figure, fixated on the view of the garden. Renjun knew who it was. He wasn’t sure if their eyes had met but the figure quickly vanished into the darkness of the room before the housekeeper could analyse his face. Was he watching Renjun? Either that, or the other had taken a liking to the view of his ever-changing rose garden that Renjun had salvaged. The thoughts lingered in his mind for a moment before he turned back to the young boys, a faint smirk on his lips as he forced the thoughts of the Master to the back of his mind.

“Come on, the morning’s nearly over, let’s get you both back inside to Donghyuck.”

They trudged back to the entrance of the castle, all muddied and rosy cheeked from their efforts.

“Make sure you take off your shoes at the door, I don’t want Donghyuck to get mad at us again”, Renjun warned. Chenle and Jisung hummed in agreement, slipping their boots off and wandering into the house to continue with their afternoon duties.

xxx

Jeno could feel the wind rushing through his blond hair as his beloved horse, Onyx, carried him further and further away from the castle and its burdens. Jaemin had told him he needed to get out more and riding was his idea of a great start. He needed to clear his mind of the housekeeper anyway. The boy had troubled his thoughts for many sleepless nights spent in the library since Jeno had ventured downstairs and left the garden equipment on his bed. The other had seemed so overjoyed by the simple gesture, back and forth from the garden day in and day out. He’d seen him amongst the roses, and whilst it still pained Jeno to see the stale remains of his past be disturbed, he couldn’t deny that the grounds were starting to look so much more alive, so vital. He felt a small flutter inside his chest as he thought about the housekeeper and his efforts. He would often watch from the window as the boy dug and weeded the garden, the softness in his touches warming Jeno’s heart ever so slightly. He remembered how Renjun had looked up briefly, earlier, and he prayed with all his being that the boy hadn’t seen him. He gently tapped Onyx with his riding crop and the horse responded immediately, increasing to a strong gallop. Jeno’s mind returned to the rose garden, thinking painfully of its precious memories, of his sisters, his mother, his father, of everything he had lost.

The flames were suffocating.

Jeno winced, thinking only of the derelict west wing in the castle. It’s blackened walls and shattered glass.

He couldn’t breathe.

He shook his head and gripped the reigns tighter, hoping that the rushing wind would rid his mind of the traumatic visions.

Why did he survive?

Jeno suddenly pulled up the reigns, his body jerking forward as the horse drew to a halt in response, next to a lake they had been riding beside. He slid from the saddle, feet planting uneasily on the soft ground below him, his riding boots settling in the shallow muddy grass. He let his horse drink, carefully holding the reigns, taking a few deep breaths to calm his fitful thoughts. Jeno sat down to rest on a nearby tree stump, the reigns still clutched in his hands and his faithful companion standing in wait of his next instruction. He moved his head into his hands, finally letting the tears fall. It was all too much, the memories the housekeeper had awakened. Jeno caught himself almost immediately, wiping the droplets from his eyes with the palm of his hand, stroking the horse’s mane lightly as it nuzzled into his neck affectionately. This was one of the few times he had let his guard down, let Jeno be Jeno, the vulnerable young nineteen-year-old he was, desperate for comfort and love. He knew Onyx wouldn’t judge him. The horse nuzzled closer to the scar on his neck, the soft wisps of the mane tickling as he felt the comfort of the other’s presence next to him.

By the time he arrived back, he had regained his composure and the stern façade had returned. He felt refreshed for the first time in months as he closed the heavy stable door and purposefully strode towards the courtyard which led to the rear entrance of the castle. Jaemin had told him that Donghyuck had gone into town to the farmers’ market and the young housekeeper would be busy for the rest of the day in the east wing so he felt relaxed in his solitude. The exertion of the ride had made the sweat glisten on Jeno’s forehead and stick his white shirt transparently to his toned chest. He pulled it loose from his dark red trousers and tugged at the buttons with one hand to allow the crisp spring breeze to cool his skin. He still held his crop in his left hand, the tan leather matching the trim on his knee-high boots. He pulled again on his shirt so that it fell open to the waist, exposing his naked torso, before raking his free hand through his platinum blond hair to push it away from his face. It immediately flopped back over one eye and Jeno flicked his head so that it wouldn’t obscure his view.

That’s when he saw him.

His stomach lurched.

He gasped as he stopped abruptly in front of the terrified housekeeper, right hand immediately flying up to cover his neck in a self-conscious reflex as he looked at the other in shock. Renjun had been looking for the storehouse to refill a paraffin lamp which he now clutched tightly, rattling conspicuously in his trembling grip.

Avoiding the Master’s startled eyes, Renjun diverted his gaze, too flustered to make contact, but in doing so was forced to stare in awe at the perfectly defined chest, smooth, bare skin flushed and damp, exquisitely sculpted and framed by an open, loose white shirt. He felt the blood rush to his cheeks and try as he might, he could not rip his eyes away from the beautiful sight. He moved his mouth in an effort to speak but no more than a couple of shaking breaths sounded.

Somewhat embarrassed by his situation, Jeno’s reaction to cover himself was futile as his mind flicked rapidly between both occupied hands. Realising his predicament, he coughed nervously.

“Mr Huang isn’t it?”, he ventured.

“Yes Sir”, Renjun replied, finally forcing himself to look his Master in the eyes. Jeno saw the tinge of pink in Renjun’s cheeks again and the fear in his eyes as he looked up.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t expect you to be out here, I just came to get paraffin for the lamp”, Renjun spoke, apologetically.

The young man’s eyes looked at him imploringly and Jeno was struck by how they sparkled in the bright afternoon sunlight. Pulling himself back to reality, he looked squarely at Renjun.

“Jaemin told me to get out more, sometimes I wonder which one of us is actually in authority here”, he joked nervously.

“I….err…. probably should apologise for shouting at you…”

“Pardon me for asking, Sir, but did you leave the gardening tools in my room?”, Renjun questioned bravely.

Jeno coughed again and looked at the sky momentarily.

“I hear you’ve made a good start on the rose garden”, he smiled, and their eyes met briefly again in unspoken acknowledgement.

“You should be getting on with your work”, he said firmly, realising his position.

“Yes Sir”, Renjun nodded respectfully and turned away.

“You should come and see it some time, Sir”, he called back. Jeno nodded briefly and turned towards the castle entrance.

Renjun watched in awe as the figure grew smaller in the distance, attempting to process the event. He tried to brush off the nervousness that consumed him, somewhat alarmed at the pace of his heartbeat right now. He stood for a while, watching the empty space where Mr Lee had been moments before, the vision a chaotic intrusion in his vulnerable mind.

Chapter Text

The days passed uneventfully for Renjun as he busied himself around the castle. He’d not seen Mr Lee since their accidental meeting in the courtyard, but he’d certainly found thoughts of the other creeping into his mind all too often. They were still troubling him when one evening a few days later, he swung the kitchen door open and planted a pile of laundry beside the sink. The cook was distracted, sat by himself at the kitchen table, idly flicking through the pages of a thick recipe book. Chenle and Jisung were busy decorating something, eggshells and flour still stuck to the work surface in messy clumps as they chattered mindlessly. They greeted Renjun cheerfully, as they glanced at him momentarily, before turning back to their evening’s entertainment.

“What are you two doing?”, Renjun laughed, looking at the chaos.

Before Jisung could even form the words, Chenle chimed in with a quick response.

“We’re making a cake for everyone and Jisung wanted to decorate it”, he motioned proudly back to the nodding boy. Renjun looked at the impressive swirls of fresh cream and dark red cherries on the chocolate cake.

“They’re making a mess”, Donghyuck cut in, his voice laced with exasperation.

Jisung pouted, Chenle laughed and poked the boy in the ribs until he too let out a small giggle.

“Finish up quickly, both of you should get to bed”, Donghyuck scolded affectionately, content as Jisung started to tidy away the things they had been using, Chenle soon following his actions.

When the two of them finally scuttled off to their room, Donghyuck let out a relaxed sigh and Renjun sat down opposite him with a glass of water he had just poured himself. He had tried to initiate casual conversation with Donghyuck before, but it hadn’t gone so well as the other always found an excuse to be busy with something else. It appeared to Renjun to be no different this time, however, after a brief, awkward silence between them, Donghyuck looked up.

“Fancy something a bit stronger than… that?”, he asked, pointing judgementally at Renjun’s glass. He walked across the kitchen and reached up to a high cabinet to pull out a large bottle filled with what Renjun assumed to be alcohol. He poured its contents into two glasses and brought them over to the table, slamming them on its surface.

“Woah…” Renjun said, leaning back from the table, frowning

“What exactly is it?”

“Whiskey”, Donghyuck replied bluntly, throwing the glass back against his lips and drinking until it was nearly all gone. “From Ireland”, he added casually as he put the glass down, Renjun almost bursting out laughing at the sight. The housekeeper took a sip, he hadn’t tried whiskey before, and screwed his face up as the bitter taste burned in the back of his throat.

“It’s good”, Renjun spluttered sarcastically, throat still burning and Donghyuck laughed loudly in response.

By the time Renjun was drinking his second glass, and the other his fourth, neither of them cared about the bitter taste that lingered in their mouths.

“I really like you Renjun, but how many times do I have to tell you to put those dirty clothes in the laundry room? ”, Donghyuck slurred drunkenly.

When Donghyuck started calling him his ‘lovely’ and patting his head affectionately each time he spoke, Renjun knew they should both stop with the drink before it took a more serious turn in its effect. Donghyuck didn’t stop though, and as soon as the word ‘Mark’ had left his lips in a slight tremble, that was all it took for him to let out a loud sob and for the tears to come sliding down the cook’s face in long streaks.

“It’s not you, I just miss him”, Donghyuck wailed. Renjun had lost count of how many times the other had said it in the past hour but he was sure it had been too many. “I’ve got no one to talk to about it. Jaemin’s bored of hearing it and I don’t want to upset Chenle and Jisung, they miss him too”, Donghyuck continued, sobbing into his sleeve, the alcohol now discarded.

Renjun nodded understandingly, placing on awkward hand on the other’s shoulder in attempts to comfort him. If this was the outcome of the cook’s drinking escapades, Renjun made a mental note not to partake next time, Donghyuck now having moved to cry onto the boy’s arm. The crying stopped for a brief moment, Donghyuck pausing to look at the housekeeper with gentle eyes.

“They really like you Renjun …..Chenle and Jisung… when you invited them out to the garden, they wouldn’t stop going on about it for days… thank you… those two mean the world to me”, he spoke earnestly, the alcohol still in his bloodstream but its effects having lessened marginally.

“The Lady of the house… she was a kind soul, Jeno’s mother. She knew how much this family had to offer and she embraced it. She wanted to give a homeless child a chance in life. She was going to train them as a member of staff, but also as part of the household. She fell in love with Jisung and Chenle when the nuns in the orphanage brought them out and when they told her that neither would go anywhere without the other, she took them both. I remember she wanted to make sure they could always get jobs, that they were employable and would be able to build a future for themselves. Mark and I taught them the basics, and they were good kids, always keen to learn. Ever since the family passed away, Mark and I looked after them. I don’t know what I would do without them now”, Donghyuck trailed off, head resting on his arm as his eyes fluttered shut.

“What exactly happened to the family?”, Renjun asked sadly, his heartstrings tugged by the story. Still waiting for a reply, he peered closer to the man only to be greeted by his raspy snores. His bandana had slipped carelessly down his forehead and was now resting lopsidedly. Renjun had never expected him to bare his soul quite so openly tonight and wondered if the furrowed brow was caused by sleepy thoughts of his distant lover. Renjun sighed and his shoulders sank, picking up both of their glasses and placing them by the sink. Remembering Donghyuck’s words, he scooped up the pile of laundry from beside it and carried it to the laundry room, just as Mark would have done.

xxx

After Renjun had slept off the alcohol, he’d woken up with a slight headache and reached clumsily for the glass of water on his nightstand. In his ruffled state he had knocked it over and sent its contents spilling to the floor. Groaning, he tried to ignore the pain in his head and focus on cleaning up the puddle of water now running over the uneven flagstones in his modest room.

Donghyuck had told him that the extra cleaning supplies were stored in the basement and Renjun shuddered momentarily as he glared at its locked door. His own vision of Hell. The emotions that rose from within his chest were the same as during his traumatic childhood, except now, the struggle was psychological. It lay manifested in the core of his mind, a constant reminder of his conditioned inadequacy. Pathetic, Renjun thought to himself. It wasn’t even the same basement. Yet, when he tried again to lift his feet from the ground, they fell hopelessly to the same spot on the wooden flooring, rooted there, the memories haunting him.

He tried again.

Nothing.

His limbs had frozen up, useless. Renjun looked down at the floor in frustration, still willing his feet to move as he clenched and unclenched his sweaty palms. He could feel the bile rising in the back of his throat as he looked at the basement entrance again. As his body began instinctively to tremble, his breaths became short and shaky, rapidly increasing until he could hardly breathe. He tried to force the air from his lungs, but he couldn’t, the panic rising in his light gasps. He felt like he was trapped in there again, like his child-self, innocence stripped away from him and discarded, just as it was now to the darkness behind the basement’s closed doors. In that moment, he was vulnerable again and he hated it.

“Renjun”, a voice echoed loudly from behind him, breaking his trance.

Just his luck. He turned his head around instantly to face the voice, the figure catching sight of his glassy eyes and slightly too rosy cheeks.

“Jaemin…”, the boy spoke back, monotonously, his face void of its usual smile. Renjun took a couple of deep breaths, his shaking decreasing to a slight tremble as he faced the butler apprehensively. Jaemin could sense Renjun’s inherent distress and he raised an eyebrow in concern, looking at the housekeeper’s blank face. It was the same as the time he had found him in the garden a few weeks ago, bloody and teary eyed, this trance so similar. He could see the panic spreading across the other’s face. Not wanting to pry or embarrass Renjun further, he coughed softly, pretending he hadn’t seen the obvious moment of vulnerability.

“Renjun, what are you looking for?”, he spoke calmly.

“Just… a mop. Donghyuck told me it would be down there, I spilt some water”, the boy shuddered discreetly again, pointing towards the entrance to the basement.

Jaemin saw Renjun’s clear aversion, straightening his back in a calm manner.

“Come on then.”

Renjun looked up at Jaemin in surprise.

“Give me the key, I’ll go and get it”, he smiled.

When Renjun didn’t react, still caught up in his daze, Jaemin lightly pulled the key from where it dangled from the other’s palm, walking over to the basement entrance and pushing it open once he’d slid the key into the lock. He was gone merely a minute and returned from the darkness with the item Renjun needed.

“I’m sorry, I’m just a little claustrophobic”, Renjun laughed hesitantly, trying it brush it off.

“Yeah, no kidding”, Jaemin said with mock sarcasm, clearly sensing Renjun’s unease.

“Well… I guess you’re in luck, you’ve got a new job upstairs today. Mr Lee has asked for you to clean his room. He’s really particular about who cleans it, I’ve been doing it myself since Mark left”, he pondered for a moment. “He must like you”, Jaemin eventually stated bluntly.

xxx

The bedroom was huge, with grand paintings hanging from its walls and an elaborate four poster bed in the centre, sheets messy and thrown back. The peach coloured quilt had slipped off and lay in a soft pile on the floor. Arrays of books were stacked neatly onto shelves around the edges of the room, spanning the entirety of Renjun’s vision as he observed their titles with curiosity. At one end, a polished dressing table with an impressive glass mirror stood, its edges slightly worn from years of use. Mr Lee’s room was just like the ones in the fairy tales that Renjun had read when he was a child, the ones he had spent hours gushing about to his mother, large windows and high ceilings. His childhood visions materialised in front of him again as he glanced around the Master’s room. It was generally tidy, and there was a small desk in one corner with stacks of papers piled on top of it. Feeling like an intruder, Renjun set to work cleaning, dusting the high shelves and sweeping the floors, eventually moving to tackle the messy bed. He pulled the white sheets from the frame, shaking them lightly so that the creases fell away. The smell of cotton and musk cologne, wafted through the air briefly and although he had not yet been close enough to know, he thought the fragrance suited Mr Lee perfectly. It was rich and strangely comforting as it rose and fell with the sheets when Renjun raised them up, finally allowing them to settle neatly on the mattress.

After about an hour of cleaning, the room was finally starting to reach a standard of clean that Renjun was content with. Admiring his work, he shuffled over to the large bay window, dusting the ledges carefully. He could see the rose garden from here. Even from this distance he could see its stone walls and tiny blooms that were beginning to flower in the spring light.

Renjun was still lost in his thoughts when the bedroom door was gently pushed open. Jeno walked in wordlessly, focusing on the figure that stood preoccupied at his window. He closed the door gently behind him and the soft click resonated across the room. The housekeeper’s body stiffened abruptly, and with a sharp movement, he turned to face the other’s heavy gaze.

“Mr Lee”, he blurted out, startled.

“Mr Huang, hello again”, he sighed, his voice tinged with irony.

“I…uh… I’m sorry, I was just finishing up now. I’ll be off”, the housekeeper said, swallowing nervously as he grabbed the duster from the window ledge and stuffed it into his apron pocket. Jeno watched these swift movements intensely, his interest caught by the way the garment was slung low around Renjun’s small hips, tied in a neat bow on his waist. The boy coughed awkwardly, eyes cast to the side, awaiting Jeno’s response. Finding his gaze lingering a little longer than necessary, Jeno looked back up to see the other staring at him questioningly.

“No…no please don’t rush off”, Jeno stuttered, trying to mask his unease. He was dressed in a fine-knit grey sweater with deep red around the cuffs, the black trousers he wore flattering his long legs. A matching satin scarf was draped around his neck, leaving little of that area exposed. In his left hand he held a stack of books, thumb resting on their spines. His hair was messy, falling across his forehead in wanton strands of blond as he pushed his reading glasses up his nose before opening his mouth to speak again.

“I was just bringing these books back from the library”, Jeno stated.

“Do you like to read, Mr Huang?”

“My name is Renjun, Sir”, the housekeeper replied bashfully.

“Renjun”… Jeno repeated gently, smiling “Do you like to read?”

“Oh yes, I do very much, but I… only have a small collection”, Renjun spoke eagerly.

“You do?”, Jeno spoke, surprised.

“What kind of books?”

“I like fantasy…anything that I can lose myself in really. What about you Mr Lee?”, he asked with enthusiasm.

“Oh, I read all sorts of things, but I thought I’d try this one”. Jeno leafed through the pages tenderly, holding it up for the other to see.

“It’s by one of the great Romantic authors, it’s meant to be a classic”, Jeno laughed softly.

“If you like fantasies, try this”, he continued, grinning, holding up a book from the bottom of his pile and extending his arm out in the boy’s direction.

Renjun reached out hesitantly to take it, his finger accidently brushing Jeno’s. The touch sent momentary shivers shooting through his hand and spreading across his entire body until a light blush appeared visibly on his hot cheeks. He felt everything slow down around him in those seconds, the encounter oddly intense as he stared into the deep brown eyes that faced him. In that moment, all he could think about was how they stared back into his own, the corners creasing slightly as Jeno smiled softly. His breathing shallowed, the feelings were foreign to Renjun and he quickly pulled the book towards himself. Embarrassment shone through his nervous eyes as he avoided further contact and looked down at the floor. Jeno let his hand drop from the book awkwardly, his arm falling to his side.

“Thank you… I … uh… should go now”, Renjun said tentatively, moving quickly towards the bedroom door.

“Oh, yes of course”, Jeno spoke back, finding himself slightly disappointed that the other was leaving.

As Renjun opened the bedroom door the sound of Jeno’s voice stopped him.

“Let me know what you think of it”, Jeno spoke, nodding in the direction of the book that Renjun held.

“I will do, Sir”, Renjun chimed as he stepped out of the doorway.

Jeno couldn’t help the faint smirk that spread across his face, images of Renjun’s endearing blush dancing through his restless mind once more.

xxx

The sun was beginning to set as Renjun sat on the rose garden’s stone bench. The coral sky was flushed with wisps of pink, the soft hues bathing the garden in warm light. The book Mr Lee had given him a few evenings ago was held in front of him carefully. He traced the letters on the cover slowly with his fingers, taking each one in attentively.

Peter Pan

It was a story about a boy who had no family, who was lost and didn’t want to grow up to face the world. It reminded him of the stories he read when he was young, with its childish charm. He turned back to it, ready to return to Neverland, when a long shadow was cast across the pages, blocking the evening sunlight.

In just another moment, Mr Lee was sat beside him on the bench, the two of them alone amongst the rose bushes.

Chapter Text

The ground was all too familiar to Jeno as the strands of grass were softened with each step beneath the soles of the heavy black boots he wore. After years, he had finally managed to convince himself that it didn’t exist, that the rose garden could remain overgrown and untouched for the rest of his own life, until there would be no one there to care about or even remember it. Yet here he was, striding straight into his past. Each step closer filled him with a thrilling sense of nostalgia but brought a little more dread coursing through his body as he felt his pace slow at the crumbling walls of its entrance.

He had been alone by the window in his bedroom again, his gateway to the outside world, another evening passing by as he watched the sun set. His view of the garden meant that he could see the housekeeper, tucked away within its walls, this time the book he had been given clutched tightly in his hands as he studied each page with interest. Again, Jeno had found himself drawn to the other, enticed by his inquisition and his sincere expression as he skimmed his delicate fingers across the pages of the novel.

His steps were fitful, Jeno desperate to repress his thoughts of the housekeeper. When this failed, he moved his hand up to his neck anxiously, running his rough fingers across where the scar lay under the scarf’s satiny fabric, ensuring the threads were secure there. Jeno basked in the freshness of the spring air as it nipped at his skin. Although he had convinced himself that the nature of his action was simply curiosity, he found his breathing quickening as he sat down next to the figure reading on the bench.

“It’s beautiful”, Jeno whispered impulsively.

The other looked alarmed by the words as he cast his startled eyes away from the pages of the book. He looked to his right where Jeno sat, disorientated by the unexpected interruption, the book now discarded in his lap.

“Hmm?”, Renjun spoke innocently.

“The garden… you really did all of this in such a short time?”, Jeno questioned, face lifting in astonishment. He gestured with his hand, blond hair flopping in his face as his fingertips wavered across the green.

“I… yeah. Chenle and Jisung have been helping me out with it too. They love it here almost as much as I do. It will look even better when the roses bloom properly”, Renjun answered happily, nervousness beginning to drip away as he found his comfort within the walls of the garden. Jeno looked around at the budding rose bushes and tiny flowerings that adorned them. All the deadness had been pulled away and what remained, he could not deny, was truly stunning. Jeno winced faintly as the memories surfaced again, his beautiful rose garden, the images of what it once was causing a pained expression to taint his saddened features. The change in demeanour didn’t go unnoticed by the other and he turned to face Jeno.

“Are you okay Sir?”, Renjun asked worriedly, shooting a look of concern in his direction.

“Uh… yes sorry I’m fine… it’s really going to be stunning”, Jeno murmured. There was a brief moment of awkward silence between the two of them as neither knew what to say to the other.

“How’s the book going?”, Jeno asked hesitantly.

“Oh, I was just reading it”, Renjun smiled as he picked up the pages he had thrown into his lap, holding them up indicatively.

“I’ve nearly finished”, he continued with a tiny huff of breath, a small pout forming across his lips as he thought about the prospect of having no new books to read in his hours of boredom within the castle.

“And… what did you think of it?”, Jeno nodded encouragingly.

“It was… charmingly childish, I loved it”, Renjun giggled with a faint gleam in his eyes, flicking through the book fondly.

“You must be ready for another one then. There’s plenty more, the library here is huge. Come and see it sometime”, the man ventured, Renjun’s smile lighting up and he saw the softness in Jeno’s face as he uttered the words. He nodded eagerly in response and the other began to lift his frame from the bench.

“It’s getting dark, we should head in for the night. I was just passing by and I thought I’d come and have a look in here”, Jeno said sighing, stretching his arms behind his back in tiredness. Renjun quickly closed the pages of his book shut, marking the place that he had left it at, and stood from the bench, nodding his head again in silent agreement.

“It was nice to talk to you Sir, I can… uh… show you the rest of the garden in the morning too if you would like?”, Renjun gushed, almost bowing his head instinctively.

“Thank you, I think I’d like that a lot”

xxx

The two parted once they returned to the castle, Renjun sleepily retiring to his room. On his way, he stopped by the kitchen, eyeing Donghyuck, who was preparing a tray of food on the table. He glanced at the singular silver tray of bread and fruit and then back up to Donghyuck, who was arranging it neatly on the plate.

“Can I help you?”, the cook spoke roughly, not looking up from his movements.

“Oh no, that’s okay, I just came to grab something to eat”, Renjun said quietly, not wanting to be any more of a hassle.

“There’s a plate over there I kept aside for you”, Donghyuck said bluntly as he finally looked up at Renjun, face a little softer and, if he wasn’t mistaken, he believed the cook may finally like him after the events that took place during their talk a few nights ago, at least enough to save meals for him.

“Th-thank you”, Renjun stuttered as he rushed over to the plate on the sideboard.

“Where’s Jaemin gone now? I need him to take this”, Donghyuck groaned, slamming the tray that was clearly meant for Mr Lee back on the table in frustration. It struck Renjun then, how utterly isolated the Master was, how empty the castle was and how lonely he must be within his own mind.

Jaemin burst through the door in a dazed hurry as the cook greeted him with a firm glare.

“Finally, please take this to Jeno, I think he’s in the library again,”, the other muttered under his breath, passing Jaemin the silver tray and then glancing over his shoulder to check on something boiling on the stove.

“Thanks”, Jaemin spoke quickly, snatching the tray and turning on his heels again. He stopped.

“Oh, Renjun. Just something to note, Mr Lee’s uncle and his son are staying in a couple of weeks. I’m not sure how long they’ll be here for but if you could make up the beds in the rooms in the east wing that would be great. It shouldn’t be too much extra work for you, but you might have to give Donghyuck a hand with cooking”, the butler’s words were breathless as he panted, failing to notice Donghyuck’s bitter glare at the mention of the guests.

“Oh right, that’s okay”, Renjun spoke back to Jaemin, but before he could acknowledge it, the other had rushed off, tray in hand and walking in the direction of the stairs.

xxx

“That’s a white carnation”, Renjun stated with joy.

“People say they’re for good luck”, he continued, picking up one of the carnations that had fallen into the grass and holding it in the direction of the other. Jeno inspected it carefully, the white petals fragile where they hung delicately from the flower.

“What about these?”, Jeno voiced, attention caught as he followed Renjun around the bed of blooms.

“Those are hydrangeas, they’re a spring flower”, Renjun spoke, pointing at the cluster of blue.

“And this?”

“Oh… that’s… uh… a weed. Jisung should have pulled that out the other day”, Renjun chuckled with embarrassment. They both laughed and Jeno looked rather sheepish for his cluelessness.

“Come on, let’s go to the rose garden”, Renjun spoke through his laughter, gesturing for Jeno to follow him, footsteps light and energetic as they went. His eyes were soft and sparkly as Jeno watched the smaller tumble through the entrance, shoulders rising and falling with the light gasps of his giggle. He found himself captivated by the crinkle of Renjun’s smile as it curved upwards into an endearing grin when he looked back at him. They both stood spellbound in a moment of awe at the sight of the roses in the beauty of daylight, the sun’s rays illuminating the flowers in a constellation of colourful blooms. Renjun stared proudly at the tiny buds that clung to the bushes.

“The pink roses… they’re a symbol of sweetness.”

“You sure do know a lot about flowers Renjun”, Jeno laughed nervously as he looked at the other.

“My mother taught me when I was younger and it just sort of… stuck with me I guess”, Renjun’s voice trailed off, the wave of sadness washing over him dully as thoughts of his mother crossed his mind again. He suppressed them before Jeno could notice.

“And the yellow ones over here… they’re for friendship.”

The other watched Jeno’s eyes fixate on them. Renjun took one of the petals that had dropped from a rose, placing it in the open palm of Jeno’s hand, moving his fingers carefully so that they closed around the fragile blossom.

“To friendship”, the housekeeper smiled softly and Jeno felt stunned by the warmth that radiated and tightened across his chest as he felt the boy’s fingers ghost across his own, resting there with a pause before they withdrew tenderly.

“To friendship”, Jeno spoke back, knowing the other was pulling at his heart in ways that he had never before felt possible, and for the first time since their terrible meeting in the library, the two seemed blissfully at ease in each other’s presence, simply relishing the thoughts of their growing affection.

xxx

“Let’s go to the kitchen”, Renjun said with excitement. Some time had passed since the two had entered the rose garden and they sat on its stone bench again, in comfortable silence until now. Jeno blinked back.

“We can grab some food there… I think Donghyuck went out with the boys so we can just make something up ourselves”, Renjun said, standing and bounding back to the castle, Jeno running after his quickened steps.

“Renjun I-”

“Aren’t you hungry though?”, he asked, round eyes wide with confusion as he waited for the other to respond to his statement.

“I… uh… okay then”

Sure enough, the kitchen was empty when they entered it and Jeno sat down at the table whilst Renjun searched through the cupboards haphazardly. He tapped his fingers on the door with interest as he carefully inspected its contents, an idea finally striking him.

“Omelette!” , he spoke triumphantly, holding the eggs up in the air with glee.

“Uh… how do we do that?”, Jeno questioned earnestly.

“You… don’t know how to make an omelette?”, Renjun almost choked out the words, the surprise evident by his frowning features and furrowed brow.

“No…I… I’ve never had to before. I don’t really know how to cook”, Jeno stuttered, embarrassed by his lack of culinary skill.

“Well”, Renjun spoke encouragingly, not giving up now.

“It’s about time you learnt, Mr Lee”, he continued, voice laced with determination as he placed the eggs down on the counter.

“There’s milk and cheese over there too”, he instructed carefully, Jeno fetching the items with caution.

“Here crack these into a bowl and mix them”, Renjun advised calmly, passing the box of eggs from across the table. Jeno listened carefully and once Renjun had finished speaking, repeated it, whisking the mixture with a fork he had taken out from one of the drawers. Renjun poured the milk with precision and then sprinkled a little salt and pepper in, taking it from Jeno and placing it on the kitchen counter, beginning to stir. The other watched the swift and easy movements, wondering if there was anything Renjun couldn’t do. The boy looked up, eyes meeting Jeno’s again with kindness.

“What?”, he laughed out gently as he poured the mixture into a pan.

“Nothing…I’ll get some knives and forks”.

“It’s not exactly Donghyuck standard but it should do”, Renjun laughed as he lifted it carefully to see how much longer it would need to cook. When it was ready, he cut the omelette into even halves and put one on each of the plates. They sat down at the large kitchen table.

“Well, it tastes great”, Jeno said sincerely, placing another piece into his mouth. Renjun simply hummed in response, the Master’s enthusiasm rather endearing to him.

“So… your uncle and cousin are coming to stay.”

“Hmm”, Jeno groaned with a sigh.

“Not good?”, Renjun replied with uncertainty, tilting his head to the side slightly.

“We don’t exactly get on”, Jeno’s voice was tinged with distain.

“My father always liked him…he always put so much trust in him, I suppose that’s what you do with a brother. I’ve always found something quite… disagreeable about my uncle. My cousin is just as bad too. We were always thrown together as children and he was so spiteful, always wanted whatever I had. It got so bad that my mother would have to separate us at times to stop us from tearing at each other’s throats”, Jeno spoke bitterly, pausing as Renjun nodded his head with sincere intent.

“Why do they come here if they act like that?”

“Well… they’re the only family I have I suppose. I think my uncle just wants to talk business with me again. He doesn’t usually go this long without telling me I should move out”, Jeno spoke, the subtle anger burning in his eyes.

“Oh…?”, Renjun whispered, sensing the deep irritation of the other as he reached down for his knife and fork again and continued eating.

“Renjun”, Jeno said quickly, pointing to an area by the corner of Renjun’s mouth, wiping his own face in the same place. Renjun stared back at him in confusion.

“Huh?”

“You’ve got… on your face… in the corner”, he stuttered, demonstrating again. Renjun moved his hand to his face, miscalculating his movements as his fingers brushed against it. When Renjun had missed for the third time, Jeno reached his own hand up, gently brushing his own fingers over the crumbs, making them fall from Renjun’s cheek. He felt the softness of the other’s skin as he ran his thumb over it, the heat that radiated from it disappearing immediately as he dropped his hand back down, smiling awkwardly at the housekeeper.

“I should tidy up”, Renjun mumbled, stacking the plates together with a loud clatter as he stumbled over to the sink, only then allowing himself to acknowledge the intense blush that flushed across his rosy cheeks. He moved his hand up to feel the warmth, momentarily hating himself for the uncontrolled effect that the other’s touch had had on him again.

“Do you want to get those books from the library?”, Jeno’s voice sounded behind him.

“I suppose that might be a good idea… at least I’m properly dressed this time.”

Jeno snorted out a laugh, a single eyebrow raised as he recalled their first ever meeting in the library where the other had been dressed in his white night clothes.

“I won’t shout at you this time, I promise”, Jeno continued with a shameless grin as he walked up to the other and patted his shoulder affectionately.

xxx

The library was cold and quiet when they entered. Renjun remembered it from his first week in the castle but he hadn’t been back since. It was huge, lined with a vast array of literature and leather-bound books. He looked around in awe, finally here long enough to appreciate the splendour of the room. Jeno walked to stand next to him and he turned to face the man, breaking his trance.

“Aren’t you hot in that?”, Renjun said, motioning to the scarf that wound round Jeno’s neck.

“No…I…I’ll keep it on”, Jeno stuttered back, pulling it tighter.

“My father started this collection”, he gestured to the books around the room.

“He wanted to make sure my sisters and I always had good books to read… that’s how he put it anyway”, Jeno chuckled fondly.

“I’ve never seen anything like it before in my life, it’s amazing”, Renjun said as he gazed at a nearby shelf of books. He shuffled closer, observing the titles carefully before pulling one out and handing it to Jeno.

“Here, read this”, he choked on a laugh as the other looked down at the cover. Jeno’s face flashed with feigned annoyance as he tossed the cookery book onto a nearby table.

“Actually…that might be useful”, he spoke begrudgingly, looking up, but Renjun had already wandered off somewhere in the huge room. He was gone merely thirty seconds before he returned, excitement gracing his features as he sprinted towards where Jeno stood.

“I found something, come and see”, he spoke with enthusiasm and when Jeno didn’t respond, he pulled the other gently by the arm and towards his chosen aisle.

“I can’t reach it though”, Renjun pouted to the high shelves of texts. Jeno leaned up instinctively, on his tip toes as he pulled it out from the other books, passing it down to where Renjun stood below him. The other reached out for it tentatively, undeniably aware of how close the man was to him. In that moment he could feel the light ghosting of breath that fleeted across his cheeks as the other’s face fell inches away from his own before disappearing again as his feet landed back on the floor. Renjun looked at Jeno’s face carefully, the kindness radiating from its surface.

The man was like a rose. There was more than met the eye. Just like the flower itself, behind his hardened exterior, the thorns, there lay a fragile individual, a truly beautiful soul with vibrancy and compassion, a complex secret Renjun was determined to uncover. Where Renjun had only seen thorns before, he began to see a softness blooming in Jeno’s burdened soul.

xxx

Jeno walked back from the library, oddly lonely without the calming presence of the housekeeper beside him. He had spent most of that day with Renjun and the other had now gone to his room, a stack of books under his arm. Jeno wished he could’ve spent more time with the other but, remembering his position as housekeeper, Renjun had blatantly stated that he should probably be getting on with necessary duties and as Master of the household, Jeno had little ammunition to resist, he too knowing his place within their dynamic. His footsteps continued down the corridor as he thought about the blissful day he had spent with the other.

He stopped as Jaemin appeared in front of him, walking out from a nearby corridor so the two crossed paths in their travels. The butler nodded his head in acknowledgement, forgetting any formalities and pulling Jeno towards him by the shoulders.

“What’s up with you? You seem unusually happy”, he laughed suspiciously as he held Jeno’s cheeks in his hand and squeezed them lightly between his thumb and fingers. The man batted them away dismissively, eyes meeting with those of the brown-haired boy in front of him.

“Jaemin, do you know what a hyacinth is?”

“A what?”

“It’s a bulb that flowers, and Renjun said we can plant some in the garden this year”, Jeno spoke with rushed excitement.

“In the garden?”, Jaemin said back in low tones and his stomach lurched at the sudden realisation that the housekeeper was the source of Jeno’s newfound happiness. Did Jeno like Renjun? He was so used to it being the two of them that he had forgotten what jealousy felt like. He let his expression remain stoic for a moment before looking up to face the other with a small grin that masked his pain with pretend happiness.

“Well then, I look forward to seeing them when they grow”, he said with his best joyful voice, bidding the Master goodnight and turning on his heels down the corridor, visions of Jeno clambering at his thoughts, which he pushed away forcefully, focused only on the unwashed plate on the tray he held in his hands.

Chapter Text

Jeno was anxious.

He knew that as the weeks passed, his feelings for the housekeeper had grown and because of that he was anxious, he was terrified. The two had been meeting in the garden almost daily ever since the first time he had ventured in. The enthralling young man was breaking through his emotional armour and whilst the pain was exquisite, his mind held no power over the command of his heart anymore. As he paced at night, his head was filled with thoughts of Renjun. The angry strides of the past had become softer as he mapped the face he had grown so fond of in his mind, pausing to allow focus on a particular detail, the curve of a brow, the tilt of a smile, the crease of an eyelid as he laughed. Their time together in the rose garden had meant they’d spent many happy hours working side by side as equals over the weeks, no hierarchy between them whilst they were there. Renjun had taught Jeno so much about the plants which they now nurtured together. He would describe every detail of each rose and Jeno would nod with wide eyes, desperately trying to commit each aspect to memory.

Whilst the days were filled with the rose garden, when Renjun was not attending to his housekeeping duties, the early evenings belonged to the library. Jeno excelled here, his mind expanded by his extensive reading history, and the two lost many hours deep in discussion about stylistic detail of novels or the rhythm of classic love sonnets. Jeno had found Renjun to be an erudite partner with a passion for literature which illuminated and fuelled his own.

The Sun often left them far behind as the evenings stretched into nights, forcing them to sit closely to see each other in the soft moonlight that shone through the library’s arched windows.

“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So, Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name;
And for that name, which is no part of thee,”

“Take all myself” , Renjun stopped reading hastily as the words in front of him were uttered in unison with his own speech, Jeno’s voice working in synchrony. He looked up shyly, watching as the other glanced around the library thoughtfully, reciting the piece from memory. There was a short silence, the weight of the words spoken washing over Renjun in gentle flutters. He slammed the book shut quickly and the flurry of air as the pages were forced together fanned across his face. It was thrown into his open lap hurriedly, and, placing his palms on the cover, he looked up.

“You know it?”

“Romeo and Juliet… of course, it’s just about the greatest love story ever written”, Jeno said fondly, eyes making contact with the other’s as they looked at him in astonishment. They were wide and curious, painting a thousand expressions with a single glance and Jeno thought he could watch them forever and still find something exquisite there. Renjun’s fingers ran over the spine of the book gently and it occurred to Jeno then, that he wanted nothing more than for the book to tumble to the floor, for it to fall from Renjun’s lap as his arms pulled him into an embrace, his body gentle and warm. With his thoughts catching up to his actions, he leant forward from where he sat cross legged on the floor, hand outstretched in the direction of Renjun’s own to initiate a soft touch. Before the tips of his fingers could even ghost over the other’s, Renjun, in his oblivious state, had turned and risen from the floor. The book was still in his hands and he began walking in the direction of the shelf he had taken it from, leaving Jeno pitifully grasping at the empty air where the hands once were. He felt his cheeks hot with embarrassment, the burn searing across his whole body as he withdrew quickly, letting his palm fall.

A few minutes later the housekeeper returned, a look of inquisition across his face.

“The first time I met you… you were here in the middle of the night, you couldn’t have been reading?”

“I could say the same to you Renjun”, Jeno said teasingly as he poked the housekeeper lightly with his index finger.

“The books here are my life”, he explained, pausing. “For the last four years… I’ve been coming here when I can’t sleep… it’s my place of comfort”, Jeno said in hushed tones.

“Even though I can’t read them at night, they just help me to calm down, to escape my thoughts and it’s embarrassing but, when I think about the stories inside them, I… I … don’t feel panicked anymore. It disappears around me and I can focus again.”

Renjun listened intently as Jeno laid his thoughts down and although the room was getting dark, he saw how vulnerable the man in front of him looked, his pained eyes conveying his internal struggle as they spoke wordlessly. He saw the fragility, the rose, he knew why it had thorns now. It shielded him from his own insecurities, Jeno withdrawing as protection, not letting anyone get close. It must be so hard; he must be hurting.

“The pacing footsteps I hear… that’s why…”

He watched as the other nodded in silent affirmation. Renjun was quiet, words lost as he reached a tentative hand forward, placing it on the man’s shoulder and calmly stroking down his arm until his fingertips brushed over the cuffs of the white shirt that covered his wrist, Renjun running his thumb over the warm skin below it gently. Jeno looked up and smiled sadly.

“It’s okay… I have the library, and the garden and…”

You.

The words were on his lips, but he stopped himself before they could escape, his speech trailing off.

Renjun could tell by the sincerity in his voice, how much the library meant to Jeno and he nodded earnestly, moving his hand back into his own lap, the evening’s fading light finally catching up with him.

“It’s getting dark, I’ll go and get a candle from downstairs for us.”

“No”, Jeno cut in sharply, startling Renjun.

“No, it’s uh… probably time we left”, Jeno rushed. Renjun watched him as he controlled his breathing again, not speaking. He sensed his pain, deciding not to question it just then.

“I should go anyway… house duties and all… goodnight Mr Lee”, Renjun spoke softly through the uncomfortable air as he rose to his feet.

xxx

It was two days later, when they had been working in the garden through the day, that they sat on its bench once more, the dusky sky now painted a shade of blushing pink as the sun set behind the trees that surrounded them. They faced the colours, watching the disappearing light illuminate the rose bushes.

“It’s come a long way”, Jeno said as he gazed out at the blooms.

“It makes such a difference with two people working on it.”, Renjun turned to face the other.

“I’ve really enjoyed helping out, you’ve opened my eyes up to it again. I thought I could never face the sight of it”, Jeno said, realising finally that it was not just the garden that haunted him, but the state of decay he had allowed it to slip into in his abandonment of it.

Renjun listened to Jeno’s gentle words, his eyes smiling, the joy fading faintly as his gaze fell onto the scarf. He had been wearing it whenever the two were together and Renjun knew exactly why. He’d seen the scar before, and, although he didn’t know its origin, he thought that it shouldn’t be hidden, not around him at least. He glanced at the space under the fabric where he remembered it lay, imagining what it would look like if the other removed it freely. Jeno noticed his line of vision immediately, his own eyes meeting Renjun’s, trying to focus the attention back to his face, discomfort in his uneasy movements. The closeness between them suddenly became unbearable to Jeno as he retracted his body, a hand moving up to where the blemishes began on his neck. He let it rest there, face cast towards the ground as they sat in silence.

He felt the warmth brush over the back of his hand before he saw it, soft fingertips slipping over his, holding it reassuringly before bringing it down to rest on his knees. Renjun was bold but cautious in his actions and he held the other’s hand with kindness.

“It doesn’t define you.”

Jeno didn’t say anything at first, he was so confused, conflicted, the terror of Renjun’s potential abandonment running violently through his thoughts. Renjun held his hand softly as he moved it into Jeno’s lap, withdrawing his own. He turned to look at the other’s face.

“I want to know everything about you… the real you. What are you hiding? I want to know what’s hurting you so badly Mr Lee”, Renjun spoke quietly, compassion in his voice.

Jeno was stubborn but his face softened slightly, seeing how Renjun’s gaze wavered, and how he played nervously with his fingers inside the sleeve of the shirt he wore, worried he had offended the man. Renjun truly did care. Jeno kept the scarf on, but through it all, let his guard down just slightly.

“First of all, you can stop calling me Mr Lee”, he managed to say with a small choked laugh.

“It’s Jeno from now on.”

“Jeno…”, Renjun finally repeated, the words feeling foreign on his tongue.

Jeno blinked back at him, the breath through his nose slightly shaky and his hands trembling. Bowing his head low, he flicked a wayward piece of dirt that had stuck to his trousers in their work, trying to compose his mind well enough for speech.

“I was fifteen when it happened. Four years ago. I lost everything”, he whispered, voice still quiet and discreet.

“The castle used to be so grand…I lived here with my mother, father and three sisters”, he breathed. “Jaemin did too, he was the last butler’s son. His mother died when he was young, so he always relied on his father. He and I grew up together, Jaemin being slightly younger than me. He was lost and nervous, he followed me everywhere and we ended up doing everything together”, Jeno said whimsically as he bit back his tears through a fond laugh.

“That’s why… I couldn’t just leave him in there”, Jeno’s voice trailed off as Renjun looked at him questioningly.

“There was a fire in the west wing. It burnt down. My family was hosting a gathering and, being fifteen, they told me I was too young to be there. My sisters were older, so they went”, Jeno’s breath wracked from his chest as he continued his speech. “Instead, I thought I’d take my horse out for some fresh air. I was angry about not being able to go and I needed to let it out somehow, so I went riding”, he laughed bitterly, the weight of guilt pushing down on his mind.

“When I came back, there were flames everywhere. I was so shocked I could hardly move, I thought, it couldn’t have been real, things like that didn’t happen to our family. I was so naïve”, he paused.

“I went in there to try and save them. I can hardly remember anything about inside, except the smoke, I could barely see a thing. I didn’t get far before I tripped over Jaemin, still dressed in his waiting outfit but unconscious. I couldn’t just leave him; he was my best friend and I had to get him out first before I went in further.”

Renjun nodded with horror, the pieces finally starting to fit together.

“I carried him to the doorway and I nearly made it through, almost. People were standing outside. Donghyuck and… Mark, they were both there, screaming at me to get out but I could barely even make it to the door”, Jeno said, remembering how the smoke had filled his lungs and stolen his air, Jaemin limp in his arms. “And then… as I got closer to the door, the chandelier fell”, he spoke carefully, pointing to the scarf he still wore. “The shards of glass cut down my back. It took me out cold, dragging both of us down. The next thing I remember was when I woke up. I was in one of the guest rooms on the other side of the castle. Jaemin was there and he looked mostly unharmed. There were a few bruises on his face and arms, but I’ve never seen someone look so relieved in my life. He cried into my shoulder, he was sobbing, and I knew there must have been something else. There was something he wasn’t telling me. Jaemin never cried.”, Renjun winced at Jeno’s words. “My entire family had died in there, Jaemin’s father too. They were all gone. I broke down in front of him and he sobbed even harder”, Jeno said solemnly as he thought about how the two had sat there, no concept of time, wailing helplessly. “I knew I was lucky to be alive, we both did, but it didn’t take away the emptiness.”

“We were allowed to stay in the castle, Jaemin and I, Mark and Donghyuck too. I was a minor at the time, so the money went to my father’s brother, my uncle. If I stay here until I’m twenty-one then the money is mine and I don’t have to rely on him anymore.”

“Jaemin recovered quickly and he nursed me back to health, he bandaged my wounds and dressed them. I needed him and he was always there for me, but… every day I grew more and more disgusted with myself, with the way I looked, the fact I hadn’t died along with my family. He told me I needed to stay strong, that the scar wasn’t as bad as I thought and I tried, I really did. At first, I would go into the local town but then, I could feel eyes on me everywhere, I thought everyone was staring. It was awful so I stopped. I couldn’t face people anymore, except the ones that knew me before the accident”, he spoke dully as his eyes became glassy, tears threatening to fall.

“Jaemin wanted to make his father proud, so he took on the role of butler here, but honestly, he’s like a brother, I could never assert any kind of actual authority over him, not after everything he’s done for me. That’s how we’ve lived here since, on our own until now. You’ve really changed things”, he managed to compose himself enough to laugh softly.

“Jeno… I’m so sorry for what I’ve uncovered”, Renjun spoke with sadness. He took Jeno’s hand into his own again, and the other moved his free hand so that it sat atop of the smaller’s one.

“No, it’s about time I faced it. You’ve done so much for me and you don’t even know it. The garden was such a special place for my family. Seeing you here, it just brought everything back to me, how beautiful it used to be. All you did, was release some of my ghosts”, Jeno spoke poignantly and Renjun smiled, touched by his words.

“I was getting rid of some of my own too.”

There was another pause between them as Jeno looked up at Renjun.

“I saw you… that day you were in here and Jaemin bandaged your hands. I thought you were upset because I told you to leave… there was something else wasn’t there?”, Jeno spoke slowly as he searched the other’s face for a change in emotion. Renjun could feel the tears welling in his eyes and blinked them back with caution, willing himself not to cry again.

“I told you I learnt about all of this from my mother, didn’t I? The flowers... the cooking”. Jeno nodded his head. “She was an angel”, he trailed off again. “ She had such a tough time from my father, we both did.” He felt the tears prick at the corners of his eyes, shortly followed by Jeno rubbing a sympathetic hand across his back and murmuring short and soft ‘its okay’s’ in comfort.

“My father, he could never come to terms with the fact that I wasn’t like him, that I liked flowers and reading and dancing. She always told me to be who I wanted to be whenever he tried to destroy all of it with his words. We planted a garden together; it was our safe place. I wanted to dance, and she let me in secret. She took me to the classes every week even though it burdened her, and she would have to make up excuses for my father about where we were in those hours. The aggression soon turned physical against my mother and then me, getting worse every day. But then…. when I was twelve…. she died and I was left alone with him. He was always such a violent man, but it only got worse without her protection. I was so young, I didn’t know how to escape it, where to go or who to tell”, Renjun stuttered at the painful memories.

“I kept attending the ballet classes, in secret of course. I remember one day though, I came home from school and he was there, I don’t know how he found them but I can only assume he had been waiting for me because the second I walked through the door he grabbed me by my shirt, holding my black ballet shoes up to my face and screaming the usual about what a disappointment I was to him.”, Renjun breathed out, the memories overwhelming him as he trembled. “He hit me often, but that day was one of the worst. I begged him to stop but instead, he pulled me up by my shirt again and dragged me to our basement. I’ll never forget that day, the first time it happened. I was so scared, and I didn’t know when he would unlock the door or, if he ever would. Two days later he appeared, kicking me to get up and telling me that I had school in a few hours. After that, if we got into serious arguments, he would simply shut me in there for hours, days, it always differed depending on his mood. I stopped fighting after that, I couldn’t tell him to stop, he wouldn’t have listened or understood anyway. Every day after school I would go to the public library, it was my way of escaping. It meant that I didn’t have to go home. I could immerse myself in something else, another reality. After my mother died, I would daydream of a new life, of something better but it never came. He continued to hurt me; I think he just enjoyed having someone around that he could use as a punching bag. That’s why… here… the basement, every time I look at it, it just reminds me of him. I did jobs for neighbours and saved enough money to leave so when I finally got the job here, I thought things were going to get better. I don’t know what he would do if I ever went back”, Jeno nodded silently as the other boy held his composure well.

“When I saw the rose garden, it brought all of those memories back to me, good and bad and in the end, I just wanted to take care of it. I don’t know why but I thought that if I could save it, I would somehow be closer to her, that I would make my mother proud”, Renjun spoke lightly, the tears finally spilling from his doleful eyes. Jeno moved a hand up to his face with caution and wiped them away with his thumb, his own heart breaking. Not only had the other had such a hard life, but here he was, sharing it with him as they both sat, vulnerable, in their rose garden, tears rolling down their faces as they unburdened their hearts to each other.

“You like ballet then?”, Jeno laughed through the tears, an attempt at lightening the atmosphere. Renjun nodded his head almost shyly. “Please do show me”, was Jeno’s instantaneous response, hands gesturing for him to stand.

Renjun rose from the bench, taking a step forward to give some space around himself as he kicked off his shoes, composing his posture. His back straightened as he gracefully outstretched one arm to the left, while the other, he arched gently above his head. He pointed one foot in front of the other gracefully before gliding it up to his knee. The movements were strong and controlled whilst still fluid and Jeno was transfixed. Renjun momentarily leaned his head and upper body to one side and hopped onto the other foot before leaping effortlessly, landing in a pirouette and holding his pose. He looked up at Jeno and smiled coyly, waiting for a reaction. Jeno swallowed nervously and felt his heart racing as he looked back at the other’s elegant figure. Renjun was a work of art, his poise and movement precise.

“Here”, Renjun spoke quickly, stepping forward slightly and outstretching his hand to Jeno. He took it, and before he knew it, Jeno was rising from where he sat, hand still being held. Renjun bent his legs in a perfectly formed plie, gesturing for the other to repeat his graceful movements as he held his arm to steady him.

“Like this?”, he said as he bent his legs clumsily, laughing as Renjun raised one eyebrow, feigning his disapproval.

“Sort of”, he hesitated and giggled as Jeno lost his balance, Renjun pulling him up again towards his own body.

After Jeno’s fourth attempt, they sat back down, Renjun stopping to stare up at the darkening sky above them. He looked at the constellations that shone across the cloudless sky, nudging Jeno to watch the view with him.

“It’s so clear tonight. You can see Cassiopeia”, he paused a moment waiting for his finger to waver over the correct array of stars, “and Orion”. Jeno looked up at the sky where it met with Renjun’s extended fingers, vision slowly trailing down his arm, until the fabric of his shirt met with his collarbones, and finally, above that to his face, a look of wonder spread across it as the light of the stars reflected in his eyes. Jeno nodded his head, distracted by the other in his reply.

“Jeno… what are you doing? They’re up there”, Renjun replied with a nervous laugh, seeing the man’s line of vision leave the sky above them.

“Oh sorry, I …”, he trailed off, and in that moment, the world seemed to have drifted away.

Renjun’s eyes too were now cast away from the sky as he sensed the other’s gaze on him. Jeno’s eyes traced his features, from his furrowed brow, the faintness of his dimples, down to the soft shape of his jawline. He was captivated by the way Renjun’s lips glistened under the now silvery moonlight; breath rapid as he looked up at him. His mouth was parted slightly as the evening air left it each time he exhaled, line of sight flicking between Jeno’s eyes and his mouth, finally resting on the latter. Renjun turned his body, palms resting on the stone surface as he leant, pushing forward to fill the space between them, the familiar musky scent of the other intoxicating him almost instantly. Renjun bit his lip nervously as his gaze played over Jeno’s full lips, uncertain in his actions. He was compelled, he needed to taste them, to know what they felt like against his own. He couldn’t go back now, the other’s mouth so close to his own that their cloudy breath entwined and drew them closer. Renjun released the bite and parted his lips, his eyes closing to focus all his senses on the imminent touch.

The kiss was tender and gentle as Renjun pressed his lips lightly to the corner of Jeno’s mouth. The other didn’t react initially, Renjun fearful that he had crossed the limits of the Master’s affection, his boss. What was he? A housekeeper. Jeno was too stunned by the action to compose himself and Renjun pulled his lips away almost immediately, gauging his response. When Jeno looked back with a slight smirk, his tongue running gently across the area where the lips had just been, Renjun knew he could continue. He moved slowly, this time beginning at the other’s mouth as he brushed his lips daringly against Jeno’s, feeling the warmth radiating from them. It was chaste, Renjun still leant on his palms, lips innocently meeting Jeno’s own. He trailed his lips down, pressing soft brushes of his mouth against Jeno’s jaw until he reached the place where the scarf lay across his neck. Grasping the fabric to find leverage, Renjun’s hands tugged it carelessly to the side, the entire garment falling in a heap on the ground to Jeno’s left. Jeno froze for a second, posture stiffening as the cold evening air hit the exposed skin, but he didn’t protest, arms moving forwards to rest on Renjun’s waist. Renjun’s lips moved down, placing soft kisses over his scarred neck. The action was warm and soothing, Jeno feeling at ease. Renjun pulled back, eyes meeting Jeno’s hazy ones.

“You could lose your job for that”, Jeno let out in a small laugh.

“I’d risk anything to kiss you again”, Renjun whispered.

This time Jeno took the lead, body turning fully to face Renjun as he moved one hand up to the smaller’s cheek, cupping it gently. He looked at the boy, his heart captivated as he silently asked permission, eyes dark and soft while his arms held Renjun’s body against his own. Gently tilting Renjun’s face upwards, he moved his lips closer, his other hand staying closed around the boy’s waist. Jeno smiled gently as his lips finally grazed against the other’s honeyed ones, Renjun kissing him back more desperately this time. Renjun slid his hand behind Jeno’s back, running his finger softly across the other’s nape and tangling his fingertips in the messy blond hair. He pulled on it gently as their mouths moved together, impatience growing, their actions complementary to each other. As the kiss deepened, Renjun ran his fevered tongue lightly over Jeno’s bottom lip, demanding, as he let out soft murmurs which Jeno swallowed with his own mouth as they held each other close as the kiss opened and their tongues met lustfully.

Jeno paused a moment, leaning his forehead against the other’s as they sat in happiness on the bench, the world around him fading into nothing but the faint breaths that Renjun let out as he panted lightly. In that time, Jeno forgot everything, he forgot about his past, his uncle’s visit, all his insecurities wiped away by Renjun’s soft touch. Everything felt right because he held the beautiful man in his arms. In those passing seconds, as Jeno looked down at Renjun, he thought that he might finally be learning what beauty is again.

Chapter Text

Renjun felt himself relax further into Jeno’s hold as their foreheads stayed pressed together, eyes closed as they sat in the twilight. He didn’t know how long they had been like this, thoughts harmonious as they eased each other’s hardships through gentle touches. The evening air nipped at the skin exposed by Renjun’s open necked shirt and he shivered faintly as he felt it reach his core, the warmth from Jeno a contrast to its bitter chill. Sensing his slight tremble, the other brought his fingers from where they rested on Renjun’s waist, to his face, stroking it tenderly once more as the smaller opened his eyes in surprise at the heat against his skin.

“Come on, you’re freezing, let’s go inside”, Jeno said as he smiled thoughtfully. Renjun wished he could have protested, that he could hold on to the precious moment forever, but Jeno’s voice was captivating, lulling him into a state of euphoria in which the lilt of its tone made him fixate on each word that left the soft lips. Still dazed, he nodded in agreement and Jeno pulled him up from the bench carefully, their fingers locking, the contact never breaking as they stepped towards the castle.

“You know, I think you might be a better kisser than you are a ballet dancer”, Renjun said teasingly as he swung Jeno’s hand back and forth in time with his light steps.

“I’m still your boss you know”, Jeno chuckled back, amused as he raised an eyebrow and looked at Renjun who giggled.

“I’m sorry… Mr Lee”, Renjun said, tone mocking as he bowed deeply, knowing now that there was an air comfortable enough between him and the Master for such informality. He broke his contact with Jeno’s soft fingers swiftly, taking rapid steps forward and running ahead, still laughing endearingly as he looked back expectantly. Jeno ran after him and pulled the other gently by the waist, into his arms. The fabric of Renjun’s shirt tangled between his fingers and he buried his face into the smaller’s neck, inhaling his cottony scent as a comforting warmth blushed through him. He brushed his lips softly against the delicate skin there, trailing his fingers up Renjun’s front to his collarbones. The other smiled at the caring action, bringing his hands up to where Jeno’s were and twisted their fingers together again.

“Come on”, he said, words alluring as he pulled Jeno gently towards the castle entrance.

Once inside, Renjun had expected the other to retreat to his room upstairs, but still holding his hand, Jeno guided them both in the direction of his bedroom on the ground floor. Renjun’s eyes looked at him questioningly as he felt himself carefully being pulled forward.

“I’ll walk you home”, Jeno spoke sweetly as their steps halted in front of the housekeeper’s door. He laughed at the man’s silliness and Jeno looked at him fondly. After a brief moment, Renjun spoke again.

“Your uncle and cousin are coming, tomorrow, aren’t they?”

“Don’t remind me”, Jeno sighed, rolling his eyes at the thought as he shrugged his shoulders.

“I’ll be helping Donghyuck in the kitchen most of the time, so I might be a bit… busier than usual”, Renjun stopped speaking as he saw the small pout form across the man’s face. “I’ll still be up to clean your room for you, and… I’m sure we can find some time to be together”, Renjun said demurely as he played with Jeno’s fingers, pausing again.

“Jeno…”, he said, still looking down at the fingers in his hands. “You’re my boss and…I’m just your housekeeper, is this really going to work?”, he spoke quietly, running his thumbs across the hands he held as his eyes traced Jeno’s features, trying to memorise every part of their beauty as though he wouldn’t have the chance again.

“They’re just names… and we’re just people”, Jeno murmured softly as he looked at Renjun again. “I don’t… want to make any of the other staff feel awkward though, we can wait until the time is right to tell them”, he laughed as the other nodded, leaning up and planting an innocent kiss against Jeno’s lips, their noses brushing lightly.

“I know I pay you to be here, but I really do appreciate everything you do for me”, he spoke, gentle breaths fleeting across Renjun’s face as they stayed close to each other.

“You’re beautiful you know?”, Jeno whispered the words carefully as he leant down, placing one last kiss on Renjun’s lips, the other reacting immediately and melting into his touch as he smiled shyly at the unexpected compliment.

xxx

The next day, Renjun stood by the large shelves of books in Jeno’s bedroom, duster in hand as he polished the wooden surfaces. Jeno was sprawled on his bed, head resting on the pillows, a book in his hand that he currently paid little attention to, instead distracted by the smaller as he flitted around the room in bursts of hurried paces. He wore a grey shirt, a plain white apron slung around his middle to protect the clothing. Jeno watched his hips as he worked, the apron draped around the small width of his waist. As Renjun reached up to polish one of the tall shelves, the fabric of his shirt rose slightly, the small of his back becoming visible, before falling down in its place and covering him again. Jeno watched the other’s movements, captivated. Renjun turned around, startled when he saw the book discarded in Jeno’s lap.

“Why don’t you take an hour off, we could go for a walk together?” He whined.

‘I’m busy!’ Renjun laughed.

Jeno pouted and swung his feet onto the floor to move himself into a sitting position. He shot his best puppy eyes at Renjun and beckoned him over.

The housekeeper put down the cloth he was using to dust the shelves and reluctantly walked towards the other. As soon as he was within reach, Jeno hooked his fingers inside the ties of his apron and pulled his hips towards him, staring up invitingly into the other’s soft eyes.

“Can I at least have a kiss?” He smiled hopefully.

“I have a job to do, I don’t think the Master of the house would be very pleased if I ignored my duties here!” Renjun smirked back as he placed his forefinger on Jeno’s lips, denying him the kiss.

“The Master of the house sounds like an unreasonable man, I don’t think I like him very much”, Jeno pretended as one hand moved from Renjun’s hip to his back to bring them a little closer.

“Well I like him very much and I don’t want to disappoint him”, Renjun played along, stroking Jeno’s cheek affectionately.

“You could never disappoint him”, Jeno whispered, suddenly taking a more serious tone.

Renjun’s heart melted and he bent to plant a kiss on the other’s forehead.

“You can help me, then I’ll be finished sooner. Grab the edge of that quilt and give me a hand making the bed.”

Jeno jumped up almost immediately, his fists fumbling at the messy sheets that he had been laying on, pulling them into a bundle as he attempted to make some progress.

“Jeno…”, Renjun laughed disapprovingly.

“Like this”, he spoke, taking the sheet from Jeno and shaking it in swift movements, then tucking it into the edges of the bed. Jeno’s hands scrambled at one of the blankets, this time, shaking it the way Renjun had just demonstrated, once done, placing it down on the mattress, not missing Renjun’s smile as he watched him work. He repeated this with the quilt and eventually, the bed was made, their work nearly over for the morning. Jeno knew that Donghyuck was downstairs, begrudgingly making a welcoming meal for his uncle and cousin, Jisung and Chenle must have been there too. With each second that passed to their arrival, the dread seeped into Jeno’s mind.

He was broken out of his thoughts as the housekeeper’s gentle steps approached him. Renjun leant down and placed a soft peck on his unsuspecting lips.

“Good job”, he whispered, an uncontrollable smile suddenly spreading across Jeno’s face as he looked at Renjun lovingly. “Come on we’ve got some time; we can probably have a quick stroll in the grounds before they get here.”

xxx

It was early afternoon, when Renjun met Jeno’s uncle and cousin for the first time, and, he couldn’t exactly say that the experience was a pleasant one. The two had stood in the doorway, one a rather cold looking man in his late fifties, his cousin much younger, seeming to be only a few years older than Renjun himself. He was tall and well built, with a figure that the housekeeper felt rather fierce next to his own. Their clothes looked expensive, even more so than Jeno’s, the shades of red and purple embroidered on them a contrast to the dull servants’ clothes that Renjun bore on his body.

“You’re keeping the place quite nice lately Jeno, I’m impressed”, his uncle spoke as the two of them stepped through the entrance to the castle and into the main hallway.

“Oh…uh…, it must be thanks to my housekeeper”, Jeno stuttered back. “Uncle Yunho, Jaesuk, this is my new employee, Renjun”, he said bashfully as he dared a glance at the boy he had held in his arms merely that morning. Jaesuk’s attention was immediately drawn to the housekeeper’s small frame and his eyes trailed over it, Renjun left with an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach, Jeno oblivious to this interaction as he faced his uncle again.

“Pleasure to meet you”, Jaesuk spoke finally to Renjun, outstretching his hand confidently, which the other shook out of politeness, retracting it gladly after a brief moment.

“Jaemin will show you to your rooms”, Jeno cut in as he grimaced. “Then you can wander the castle as you wish”, he continued as he walked steadily towards Renjun.

“Did you put clean towels in for them?”, Jeno spoke formally.

“Of course,”, Renjun bowed back politely to him whilst Jaemin stood still behind Jeno watching their interactions, the two guests leaving to unpack their things in the bedrooms.

xxx

Donghyuck had refused to leave the kitchen, his excuse being his dedication to work there, needing Chenle and Jisung to help too. That way, he knew he could keep them safe with him, away from the Master’s family. Jeno had nodded his head understandingly, saying that it was okay because Renjun and Jaemin would be by his side and that was enough. Although Donghyuck knew he couldn’t avoid them forever, keeping the two out of sight for as long as possible was a temporary solution to his aversion.

This was shattered when the door to the kitchen was pushed open suddenly, Donghyuck recognising the figure immediately, his eyes small and steely as he stepped in.

“What do you want?”, the cook spoke sharply, eyeing the man with disgust. “You can’t just burst into my kitchen like that.”

“Don’t worry”, Jaesuk spoke patronisingly, flicking the tap on. “I’m just here for a drink”, he continued, feigning an innocent pout as he ran his fingers under the water to check its temperature. “Why didn’t you come to greet me anyway?”, he said after a few seconds, turning his head to the side mockingly to look at Donghyuck.

“I don’t want to be anywhere near you”, the man spoke bluntly.

“And why is that?”

“You know exactly why”, Donghyuck spat back angrily.

“Where are those others… what are their names again? Jisung… Chenle… I missed them”, Jaesuk taunted sarcastically, feigning his concern to Donghyuck as he spoke.

“Don’t go near them you pig.”

“Now Donghyuck, is that any way for a servant to be talking?”, Jaesuk tutted, moving closer to where the cook stood next to the table and leaning into his face, glass still in his hand.

“What about your boyfriend then?”, he whispered close to his ear. “Where is he?” Donghyuck swallowed his anger, throat dry as he tried against his better judgement not to launch himself at the vile man, his voice losing its usual ferocity at the mention of Mark.

“He had to leave because his father was sick”, Donghyuck eventually replied through gritted teeth, trying to continue cutting fruit on the chopping board, the knife gripped in his hand as the other remained close to him.

“What about the new housekeeper? Don’t you want to fuck him too?”, Jaesuk laughed as Donghyuck stopped his work. “I might have a go myself”, he said nonchalantly, turning on his heels and walking a few steps backwards.

“You’re disgusting, get out”, Donghyuck shouted angrily from where he stood, pointing his knife in Jaesuk’s direction with a lot more intent than usual.

“Whatever… shouldn’t you be making dinner or something anyway?”, Jaesuk said, striding to the door and hurling it shut as he left. Donghyuck slammed his fists down on the table after that, the noise startling the two boys who had concealed themselves in the pantry when they had heard the other enter, Chenle and Jisung appearing in its entrance as the door opened. They had heard everything, and their faces looked slightly pale as they faced Donghyuck, Jisung’s hands gripping discreetly at the sleeves of Chenle’s shirt as he looked for some sort of comfort, the other boy trying his best not to let his composed exterior crumble.

“Don’t worry about him”, Donghyuck spoke calmly. “He’s all bark and no bite, just ignore it”, he continued warily, not quite believing his own words as they nodded back to him.

xxx

As dinner drew closer, Renjun found himself increasingly preoccupied with its preparation, his usual schedule busy as he had worked tirelessly to accommodate Jeno’s uncle. He walked into the dining room to find the butler stood in its centre, straightening his suit jacket and tie.

“Jaemin”, Renjun said hastily, the other’s head shooting up as his eyes focused on the housekeeper, slightly startled. He didn’t speak for a moment but Renjun was sure he had caught the man’s attention and so he continued.

“What time do I need to set the tables?”

“I-I think it’s about eight o’ clock”, Jaemin stuttered back as he avoided eye contact, his hands still fiddling with the tie around his neck. Renjun thought the behaviour rather odd, suddenly missing the usual tinge of lightness in Jaemin’s voice as he listened to the now monotonous rhythm of it. The butler turned.

“I’m sorry”, he stuttered again, pushing past Renjun as the other looked at him with a tinge of dismay.

Slightly stunned by the interaction, Renjun began to set the large table carefully, the three places designated for Yunho, Jaesuk and finally, Jeno. Chenle and Jisung walked in then, both dressed in tuxedos as they carried a stack of plates and bowls to Renjun, placing them down next to him.

“Forks?”, Chenle said quickly and Jisung nodded.

“Spoons?”

He nodded again.

“And the serving bowls?”, Chenle said and Jisung thought for a moment before nodding sheepishly.

“I think we’re all set to go then”, Chenle replied as he looked at the other boy who stood nervously by his side.

“You’re still scared, aren’t you?”, he questioned reassuringly, placing his hand on Jisung’s arm in comfort as he nodded silently.

“It’s just… with the Master too”, Jisung’s voice wavered softly.

“He’s so nice lately though, you should see him, it’s just like how he used to be”, Chenle said quietly and Renjun looked over at the two boys at the mention of Jeno. They had dressed up smartly in their waiting outfits, causing a smile to form on the housekeeper’s lips as he looked at the endearing pair, before walking to the kitchen to start his work with Donghyuck.

xxx

Jeno arrived with his guests not long after, the table set for them already with the first course of their meal. Jaemin stood by the doorway opposite Jeno as he oversaw the delivery by the two boys who served the food.

The idle, forced conversation Jeno was subjected to, soon took a more serious tone as he looked up pleadingly at his uncle opposite him.

“We really need some maintenance done on the castle Uncle, the plaster is coming off the wall in some of the guest rooms and the whole place is damp. If we could just use some of the mone- “

“Jeno… I’m not sure we can afford expenses like that”, Yunho said sharply as Jeno looked back at him in anguish, deflated after his attempts. His uncle’s words had cut the discussion short and there was a spell of awkward silence before Jisung stepped slowly out of the double doors of the kitchen, concentrating as he held up a large jug of water that was clutched in hands, offering it to the three sat at the table. Jaesuk beckoned him forward and his footsteps were light and cautious as he looked around for Chenle’s comfort, realising the boy was still in the kitchen. In doing so, his movements became shaky and some of the jug’s contents spilt out of it, landing on the tablecloth and into the lap of Jaesuk as he looked up at the young boy, the anger burning through his eyes. He grabbed Jisung by his free arm and pulled the trembling boy towards him.

“Jeno… you need to train your staff better”, he growled, still gripping Jisung’s arm tightly as the young boy winced. “They can’t even do the simplest tasks”, he continued, glaring back up at Jisung and finally releasing his arm.

“I-I’m so sorry”, Jisung spluttered, bowing dramatically as he felt the tears begin to form in the corners of his eyes.

“Be more careful next time”, Jaesuk ordered the cowering boy as Chenle walked through the door holding a tray. Jeno’s eyes wordlessly pleaded for the other to take the distressed boy into the kitchen and comfort him. He turned back to face his grinning cousin.

“He should be fired”, Jaesuk muttered under his breath and Jeno glared at him from across the table, knowing he should change the topic of conversation before the idea actually crossed his uncle’s mind.

“Uncle… with the castle-”

“Don’t you think it’s about time you moved out Jeno?”

“You know I can’t”, Jeno said firmly, the irritation lacing the tones of his voice as the silence engulfed them again, the minutes dragging onwards.

“The course is taking a long time… please excuse me, I’ll just go and find out where it is”, Jeno spoke hastily as he rose from the table and walked towards the doorway before either of them could protest, Jaemin looking in confusion as he dashed past him.

Jeno slunk through to the kitchen, pushing its door open to find the four castle staff there. In one corner, Chenle sat by a rather shaken Jisung, a hand on his back, and Jeno shot them a concerned look, his heart aching slightly in sympathy as he decided it better to leave them be for the time being. Donghyuck on the other hand was busy shuffling around the kitchen, whilst Renjun stood stationary, stirring a sauce that the cook had left on the stove to boil, boredom gnawing at his thoughts as he glanced at a spot on the wall in front of him. He looked up when he heard the noise, met by the sight of the Master, looking flustered and slightly out of place.

“What are you doing here?”, Renjun mouthed silently, his hands rising up in a gesture of confusion, as Donghyuck too caught sight of the Master, standing awkwardly in the kitchen. The cook turned his head to check on something he was making and Jeno pointed back at Renjun, then to the door of the laundry room, nodding his head.

“I…uh… napkins. I need some, napkins… from the laundry room. Renjun can you… show me where they are?”, he spluttered, knowing it would lure Renjun away from his place at the stove. The other sighed and Donghyuck looked at them both questioningly.

“Watch this for a second will you Donghyuck?”, he said calmly, quickly setting off in the direction of the door and mumbling a quick “follow me” to Jeno as he did.

As soon as they entered the room, Jeno shut the door hastily and pushed Renjun against the wall, pressing his mouth hungrily against the other’s, one hand on the door frame next to Renjun’s head, whilst the other held his face. Renjun was alarmed but soon started to kiss him frantically, their careless movements working perfectly as it intensified. Renjun hummed into the kisses that Jeno initiated each time, hands suddenly all over the other, exploring the crevasses of his body, his slight fingers travelling down absentmindedly to Jeno’s hips and running them up again to rest around his toned torso as Jeno’s groans became slightly louder. Renjun tried to muffle the sound, his own lips planted firmly on Jeno’s so their noise couldn’t be heard by those outside the door. Jeno’s hand twisted up into Renjun’s soft brown hair, cradling his head as he kissed the other greedily, lapping at his mouth as Jeno’s other hand found its way under the fabric of Renjun’s shirt, grazing his fingers along the soft skin of his stomach. He revelled in the sweetness of the housekeeper’s lips as they worked desperately against his own, eager to taste Jeno’s mouth. They broke away for air, gasping and panting, the kisses unexpectedly intimate.

“What was that for?”, Renjun laughed as he calmed his breathing, rendered almost speechless.

“I missed you”, Jeno said innocently as his eyes met with the other’s, their bodies still pressed closely together.

“Lee Jeno, you crazy fool”, Renjun whispered, eyes still hooded as he leant towards the other again, this time smiling into the kiss. Jeno ran his fingers along the tender areas of Renjun’s neck as the smaller nipped at his bottom lip.

“Chenle, can you bring me that pot over there?”

The sound of Donghyuck’s voice brought reality seeping back into their secret world. When they finally broke apart, they were messy and dishevelled, Jeno’s tie cast to the side and his hair sticking to his forehead. Renjun moved his hand forward, straightening his clothing and brushing his hair back with his fingers, before doing the same to himself to try and make it look like he hadn’t just had his mouth all over the Master of the house. They stifled their laughs quietly and Renjun reached to a nearby shelf, picking up a stack of napkins and tossing them into the palms of Jeno’s open hands.

“You wanted these didn’t you?”, Renjun spoke, his words teasing as Jeno caught the items thrown in his direction.

“I… uh…”, Jeno trailed off as Renjun tip toed to kiss his forehead and pushed him gently towards the door, pulling on its handle. Once outside, they parted subtly, Jeno making his way in the direction of the dining room and Renjun walking back into the kitchen.

“Did you find those napkins okay?”, Donghyuck said suspiciously and the housekeeper nodded quickly, his face red and hot, apron slightly askew.

“You look a little flushed Renjun… I hope you’re not coming down with something”, Donghyuck teased almost knowingly, the boy’s face becoming even darker as his blush intensified.

“Oh, uh, I’m sure it’s nothing”, the housekeeper laughed nervously, his eyes now fixed on the simmering pot on the stove.

xxx

Jeno’s footsteps were quick as he made his way out of the kitchen, discarding the napkins behind a nearby shelf before he opened the doors that led to the dining room.

“It should be here soon”, he mumbled quickly, taking his place back at the table, Jaemin still staring across at him, his sudden absence puzzling the butler. The two exchanged an awkward glance with each other before the trays of food were brought out again, Jisung no longer making trips from where he cowered in the kitchen and Donghyuck having reluctantly taken his place with heavy footsteps. Not a single person in the room was unaware of the air of disorder that seeped into their setting as the second course began. Despite the chaos, Jeno’s thoughts remained fixed only on the housekeeper behind the kitchen doors as he toasted his glass up in the air politely, counting the seconds in his head, until he could let his guard down again and become Lee Jeno. The times in which he was a young man, not bound by the constraints of class or societal acceptance, but one that found himself falling for the most perfectly unique housekeeper.

xxx

Renjun had found himself wandering the grounds alone after finishing in the kitchen, Jeno preoccupied with entertaining the guests in the castle drawing room. He knew as housekeeper; he wouldn’t be permitted to join them and so he would have to wait until he could spend time with Jeno again. He saw now the divide in Jeno’s family, all at once appreciating the softness in the man’s face and the gentleness of his persona. From what he had seen today, Renjun could tell now, why Jeno was so averse to the pair, his uncle’s unquestioned power tainting his humanity.

There was something he wanted to do for the Master, wanted to give him as a sign of their newly initiated relationship, something that would be meaningful only between their unspoken words. He crept into the stone walls of the rose garden, immediately greeted by the colourful blossoms as they scattered across his line of vision, walking over to one of the garden’s secluded edges.

A lilac rose.

Desire for a relationship to continue.

His relationship. His desire. His Jeno. The man he felt his emotions slowly falling into an abyss of bliss for.

He picked the rose and carefully carried it up to Jeno’s room, filling a vase with water and placing the stem into it on the windowsill as the lavender petals glowed under the light of the sunset, a finishing touch to the freshly cleaned room.

Chapter Text

Jeno grazed his fingertips softly along the rose as he blew the stray petals away from the vase where they had fallen off the flower onto the windowsill. Despite its fading freshness, the bloom was fragrant and sweet, the petals fragile as Jeno picked one up and placed it in his palm with care, inspecting the intricacies. It reminded him of the garden, and his thoughts flickered back to the housekeeper in an instant, thoughts of the secret world they had created, their sanctuary and the comfort they had found together amongst the roses.

Renjun put this here.

He remembered their conversations, the ones that ran for hours on end as they discussed the flowers. Jeno had cherished each syllable of the words that left Renjun’s lips while he offered him new insights into the world. The images of the other caused the shadow of a smile to spread across Jeno’s face, picking up the stem and holding it in his hand.

Lilac roses.

Jeno mused over this as he daydreamed, still at the window that looked out over the garden. He clasped the delicate flower between his thumb and forefinger.

Enchantment.

Jeno recalled it now, what the housekeeper had told him one evening when they sat alone in the solitude of the library. It symbolised a declaration of infatuation, for those who had been ensnared by the divine emotions of deep affection for another, the rose used as an expression of this adoration. It was desire for it to continue. The flower was a unique gesture, but one the man found touching. Imagining the softness in Renjun’s face as he had conjured the idea, the warmth within Jeno’s chest rose again.

A soft thud sounded from behind him, accompanied by the heavy rhythm of footsteps as Jaemin entered through the bedroom door, unannounced. Jeno was startled slightly, letting the flower fall back into the vase and turning hurriedly to face the noise, greeted with the sight of the butler.

“What are you doing?”, Jaemin laughed nervously as he glanced at the flower the other had been holding, Jeno now fumbling awkwardly with the edges of his sleeves in embarrassment at being caught in his fantasies.

“The flower?”, Jeno said innocently, and Jaemin froze as he pieced his inklings together. “I think Renjun must have left it here when he cleaned my room… he likes flowers”, he finished fondly, gesturing to it. There was a pause between them both, Jeno peering at Jaemin with uncertainty. He noticed how the other’s gaze fell at his words, smile becoming faded and fragile as his eye contact dropped to the floor.

“Anyway… what did you come in here for?”, Jeno urged kindly.

“I just…”, Jaemin let his voice trail off as he sighed. “What was all of that yesterday, Jeno?”

“All what?”, Jeno’s voice cut in hurriedly, relaxing as he remembered it was only Jaemin, the anxiety dissolving as he looked at the butler.

“Why did you walk out during dinner last night? You disappeared, you’ve never been concerned how long courses take before.”, his voice sounded desperate with bewilderment.

“I…”, Jeno mumbled quietly, too stunned for sound to follow his racing thoughts. Jaemin looked at him patiently, eyes soft and caring as they pleaded silently for the other to provide a coherent explanation.

“I was… getting bored with the conversation, I needed some air”, Jeno hesitated, letting the excuse fall from his lips, the guilt overwhelming as he lied.

“So, you left? Where did you go?”, the butler questioned again, trying his best to smile through his dissatisfaction.

“I did actually go to the kitchen… I wanted to see if Jisung was okay too”, Jeno said, twisting the truth only slightly, thinking back to the terrified boy. Jaemin eyed him carefully, trailing over the creases in Jeno’s thoughtful face, in search of some sort of truth in the furrow of the other’s brow.

“Oh, right… okay then, that’s all I came to ask”, he replied, forcing a weak smile that masked his aching heart as he turned to leave the room despondently.

xxx

The hallways were quiet as Renjun wandered through them, the stillness a relief after the chaos of yesterday. He had not encountered Jeno’s cousin or uncle yet today and frankly he was relieved. He recalled the uneasiness he felt when he was around Jaesuk. When the man’s eyes had fixed on him, staring, interrogating his body, and suddenly Renjun was all the more grateful for their absence. He allowed his thoughts to drift back to the safety of Jeno, wondering whether the man had found the gift he had left him. He thought about the kitchen and the laundry room, letting his mind delve further into itself, recreating the feeling of Jeno as he traced his hands over his body, how his breath had felt against his neck and how exciting it was, the spontaneity of it thrilling.

He stopped near the kitchen door, pausing by one of the shelves in the hallway where a flash of white had caught his eye. Behind one of the large bookcases there was something jammed between the wall and its shelving. Upon closer inspection, Renjun found it to be the napkins he had given Jeno after their escapades in the laundry room. He laughed and tutted softly under his breath. He knew it. He pulled the fabrics that had been wedged there out from behind the shelf, then walked through the kitchen doors.

As he entered, he saw that only Donghyuck was in there, and he looked to be deep in thought, sitting hunched at the large table in the room’s centre. The cook’s attention was immediately drawn to the housekeeper and he looked up from his boredom, smiling at the other casually.

“Oh, he didn’t need them after all?”, Donghyuck said bluntly as he pointed to the napkins that Renjun held in his hand.

“I guess not…”, Renjun cut his speech short before continuing with a change of subject. “How’s Jisung doing today?”

“Much better”, Donghyuck sighed. “He’ll be fine, he’s a tough kid underneath it all. I think Chenle said they were going to sort out the washing this afternoon so at least they’ll be together”, he rambled as he turned to face the housekeeper who listened intently to his words.

“You were right Donghyuck”, the other began slowly. “They’re awful, Jeno’s uncle… and Jaesuk. Have they always been this bad?”

“For as long as I’ve known them… yes”, Donghyuck exhaled again. “His uncle has all of his money and therefore all of the power over Jeno, what he does, the staff here, who gets hired and… who has to leave. Jeno only gets an allowance of money a month from what his mother and father left behind and even that may be stopped if his uncle chooses. That makes Jaesuk powerful too, one word from him to his uncle and he has control… they think they’re untouchable”, the cook muttered as his hands moved from his face to the hard surface of the table in an attempt to control the anger that coursed through him. “That’s why Jaesuk, that piece of shit, thought he could try it with Mark, that he could get away with it. He didn’t get very far as they didn’t stay for long back then and so we never bothered to tell Jeno. We didn’t want to risk his position or him losing the money that he gets from his uncle. Now they’re here for longer, I don’t know…”, his voice trailed off.

Renjun nodded silently in disgust, thoughts flashing back to his own experience with the man the previous day.

“You saw it with Jisung”, Donghyuck continued, his fists clenched. “The bastard preys on people that he thinks are weaker than him, that he can control. The power that money has given him has gone to his head, it’s disgusting”, Donghyuck muttered as he glanced at Renjun who nodded empathically. The cook looked down at his hands, not realising how carried away he had become with his anger as he unclenched his fists.

“That must have been awful for Mark… and you too. What gives him the right to think he can behave like that?”, Renjun said sadly.

“It’s all because of the money”, Donghyuck said as he physically cringed. “I’m just warning you to be careful, he’s dangerous”, he continued as his mind ran back to Jaesuk’s words about the housekeeper.

It was Jaemin’s turn again to interrupt their conversation, pulling the door open as he stepped inside looking at the two of them as they jumped in surprise, concerned that it was an unwanted visitor. They both relaxed at the sight of the butler and Renjun thought the man looked exhausted still, his usual sparkly smile dulled.

“What time is the meal today?”, Jaemin asked briefly as he addressed the two with a short grin.

“It should be ready by seven today”, Donghyuck said in his usual blunt tone and Jaemin nodded. “Do you want to take some extra napkins into the dining room so that Jeno doesn’t have to come and get them himself next time?”, he said, laughing as he winked at Renjun discreetly, as if to let him know that his secret was safe.

“He came in here for napkins?”, Jaemin said questioningly as his interest was sparked. “He told me he came in because he was bored of the conversation”, he continued as his confusion grew.

“Hmmm”, Donghyuck replied vaguely, still with a knowing look.

“Excuse me, I-I should be off now”, Renjun rushed hastily, suddenly flustered as he scurried over to the door of the laundry room, pushing it open and throwing the napkins down on the closest counter, then turning to make a swift exit out of the room, the kitchen door closing gently behind him.

“What’s up with him?”, Jaemin questioned.

“I don’t know”, Donghyuck said, intentionally raising his arms in the air in a soft gesture, tutting as another smile crossed his lips.

xxx

Renjun shuffled down the hallway awkwardly, mortified after his experience in the kitchen and he could still feel the heat of embarrassment burning on his skin, recalling the knowing look that Donghyuck had shot him. He was still preoccupied when he first caught sight of the figure walking on the other side of the corridor, strides confident as they came closer.

Jaesuk smiled, standing just outside the basement entrance as he silently gestured to Renjun, raising his hand authoritatively at the other. He wore a black silk shirt with gold along its cuffs, smartly pressed trousers and expensive leather shoes, an ostentatious touch to the outfit.

“Mr Huang wasn’t it?”, he spoke calmly as he looked at the alarmed housekeeper with a glare of amusement. Renjun had no choice but to engage in the forced conversation, his eyes flickering apprehensively between the basement entrance and the cold stare of the other, feeling trapped as his discomfort grew.

“Yes Sir”, Renjun bowed methodically, mild anxiety evident in his voice.

Jaesuk looked at Renjun as he rose from the bow, eyes once again raking over his body as an uncomfortable silence occurred between them, Renjun waiting for a sign to be dismissed. Instead, Jaesuk brought his hand up to the top of Renjun’s arm, fingers brushing lightly until they were sliding across the housekeeper’s shoulder.

“Your collar’s up”, the older spoke in a sickeningly sweet voice as Renjun froze at the unexpected contact.

“Could you please not do that, Sir?”, Renjun spoke through gritted teeth.

“Well you’re not very friendly, are you?”, Jaesuk shot back bitterly, roughly flicking the shirt. Still, Renjun was determined to hold his own and he swallowed down his intimidation so that he could speak calmly to the other.

“I’m just trying to do my job”, he replied as he grew more agitated, still focused on the basement, on its locks and its cramped spaces as his vision alternated between the doorway and the menacing eyes of Jeno’s cousin.

“I don’t think you realise”, Jaesuk paused, bringing a hand up to the housekeeper’s face and running a thumb across his cheek as he stroked the delicate skin possessively, a sense of mockery in the touch.

“What I want”, his cold eyes looked down Renjun’s body and then back up to his face so that they were staring into the other’s, “I get”, he finished, and his touch lingered against the housekeeper’s face.

“Don’t touch me”, Renjun growled angrily, forgetting the need to be civil and smacking Jaesuk’s hand away aggressively. Jaesuk looked shocked for a moment, staring down at the hand that had been pushed away. The shock turned to amusement and soon enough, he was laughing as he leant closer to Renjun. It made the housekeeper feel small, insignificant, unimportant, the basement behind him a constant reminder of his failings. He cast his eyes towards its door once more.

“Why do you keep looking there?” Jaesuk asked suspiciously, grasping the fabric of Renjun’s shirt in his fist and quickly turning his gaze to the door of the basement.

“The basement? We were never allowed down there as children, what’s in there anyway?”, he taunted.

“Just cleaning supplies… and some old furniture”, Renjun replied nervously, wiping his sweaty palms across his apron.

“You’re scared”, Jaesuk said bluntly and he turned back to the other, pulling him closer. Renjun felt himself go pale and his body tensed in panic, unable to avoid the unwanted touches as a result of his distraction. He was trapped like an animal in a snare, he was the prey and he hated it.

“Let’s have a look anyway?”, the man demanded as he let go of Renjun and walked closer to the door, fingers resting on the lock casually.

“Don’t… please”, Renjun spoke feebly, his voice now trembling as he saw the other smile slyly.

“Why? What is it to you?”

“That’s Jeno’s stuff”, Renjun blurted out.

“Jeno, hey? That’s a bit familiar for a housekeeper. He’s just an idiot anyway”, Jaesuk spat bitterly.

“No, he’s not!”, Renjun shouted defensively, fuelled by adrenalin as he stepped towards him.

“Get out of my face and remember your position Mr Huang”, Jaesuk smirked belittlingly. Renjun could feel his face flush with embarrassment and frustration, realising the carelessness of his outburst. There was a knowing silence and it hung in the cold air conspicuously as they faced each other.

“He’s fucking you”, Jaesuk sneered and Renjun flinched.

“You have feelings for him, don’t you? He doesn’t love you, you’re just his servant. He’s lived here for four years on his own, I guess even he has needs too”, he laughed.

Renjun knew Jeno well enough to know that Jaesuk’s words were far from the truth. The Master was gentle, and he was caring. He had a pure heart and one that seemed only to want to protect Renjun from harm, their bond an intimate one of emotional entanglement rather than physical. Still, he couldn’t help the slight spark of doubt the words had initiated.

“You don’t know anything”, Renjun replied sheepishly as he choked out the words. The fear still burned in the back of his mind. He really could lose his job. And then what? Go back to the life he had? Have no choice but to leave Jeno alone in the castle? No. He couldn’t let that happen, but if the news got out, he didn’t know what he would do.

“Just… please… don’t go down there”, he said slowly through shaken speech.

“Whoops”, Jaesuk teased, his fingers sliding the metal bolt to the left, so the door opened, the darkness of the basement seeping out. He started to walk down the stairs and Renjun could feel the bile rising in his throat as his panic set in. He didn’t want the man to cause a fuss, to go to places that Jeno didn’t want him. Before he could think of a more rational solution, he moved in the direction of the basement entrance, anger taking over what logical thought remained. Standing on the stairs, facing Jaesuk valiantly, he pushed the traumas of the past to the back of his mind but glancing into the darkness suddenly felt the confidence melting away. Instead it was replaced by the terror of his surroundings, fear pooling inside him uncontrollably until all he could think about was how incredibly claustrophobic the space was. He couldn’t breathe. It became the basement, his terror.

“Oh, you don’t like it in here. Is it too dark? Too scary?”, Jaesuk laughed patronisingly as he pulled a face of mock sympathy, watching as Renjun’s body sank to the cold concrete floor, the muffled sound of his heavy breath the only noise he heard.

Renjun felt angry at himself, angry that he couldn’t face the terror, that he looked weak in front of his tormenter, he wanted to scream but all he could let out was a choked sob. It was as though there were thousands of voices screaming at him, a cacophony of horror as he sat unable to reply to any of them. He tried to block them out but with the terror, the sounds only grew as he stayed helpless on the basement floor. He curled his fists into balls tightly, willing the panic to disappear but when he looked up, the closeness of the basement still surrounded him, and his eyes met desperately with Jaesuk’s.

“I could help you out”, Jaesuk muttered carelessly as he moved to the smaller’s level, leaning towards Renjun. “But you know what I want”, he said as he pulled the other’s face with heavy hands upwards, his eyes staring into Renjun’s, piercing and cold. Renjun turned his face away in a final act of defiance and looked at the floor again.

“If I’m not going to get it then why should I?”, Jaesuk continued as Renjun squeezed his eyes shut tightly, the fear overwhelming him. He heard the sound of footsteps as they strode towards the door of the basement, pulling it open and slamming it shut behind them.

Renjun’s panic came in another wave immediately, its intensity overwhelming as he feared entrapment. He bolted upright suddenly and ran towards the door in an instant. The thought of being trapped inside the basement was horrifying and his hands fumbled frantically with the handle of the door. When it opened, the relief washed over him like a tidal wave and he realised that Jaesuk had not locked it. Feeling the weight of relief, he willed his body to move from the cold ground and towards his freedom, his legs slowly rising as he shook. He stepped towards the door and it pushed open with ease, as though there had been no threat in the first place.

His thoughts were a blur as they raced through the events that had just taken place. He didn’t know where he was going, just that he needed to get away. Away from the basement, from Jaesuk, perhaps even away from his own thoughts that weighed down inside his mind as they ate away at his insecurities. He’d said too much, he’d got carried away with his anger and let himself slip, lost his composure and overstepped his position. Renjun knew he could lose his job and he feared whatever Jaesuk might do to him after this. Renjun was powerless to stop it, that’s what Donghyuck had implied earlier. Not even Jeno could help him. Reminded of the dire prospect of expulsion from his role, he felt his thoughts overwhelm him all at once.

He felt so violated, embarrassed, Jaesuk’s words still crossing his mind. One thought kept coming back in his scattered mess of internal anguish.

Jeno was lying.

Jeno didn’t want him.

Jeno was just using him.

He knew it wasn’t true, he trusted Jeno and Jeno trusted him. He thought back to that evening in the garden where they had opened their hearts to each other, a gentle affirmation of their mutual trust. The purity of these images was suddenly tinged by ones of Jaesuk as he spat at Renjun with his words of venom. He pushed the poison away, remembering how Jeno had held him close in his arms and brushed away his insecurities with soft touches. Suddenly Jaesuk’s words were meaningless, Jeno’s actions more powerful than any manipulator could be. Renjun could feel his anxiety subside but still shaken by what had just happened, he focussed on Jeno. He wanted to find the other, to see the kindness in his face, to be held by him. Renjun turned the handle and used his shoulder to push open the heavy oak door into Jeno’s bedroom. He paused and peered around the large room, locating Jeno hunched over his writing desk at the far end of the room. He had not heard the door open, engrossed in the messy piles of paperwork spread out in front of him. Renjun noticed the sunlight casting a warm glow and accentuating Jeno’s blond hair which hung over his forehead as he concentrated. Feeling the tug on his heart, Renjun approached quietly and reached out to wrap his arms around the other from behind. Jeno spun to face him as soon as he made contact, the sudden surprise hitting his worried mind abruptly.

“What are you doing?” he snapped, eyes wide and questioning.

“I’m sorry” Renjun apologised as he reflexively retracted his touch, silenced by the unexpected response.

“Renjun” Jeno whispered, his face softening as he took his hands in his own. “I’m so sorry, I’m trying to make sense of the accounts for this place. It’s not going well,” he explained softly, letting go of Renjun’s hand momentarily to push back the hair that had flopped casually over his face.

Sensing Jeno’s worry, Renjun was even more sure he should not bring up what had just happened in the basement. Instead he gave Jeno a concerned look and stroked back a stray piece of blond hair that Jeno had missed. “Will you be much longer?” he asked, “I’d really like to go to the rose garden together, you look like you could do with a break and I…. I just really wanted to see you”.

“I’ve got a few more pages to go through, why don’t you stay with me while I finish up?” Jeno said smiling, pulling Renjun in for a quick kiss. Renjun nodded, feeling calmer now.

“I’d like that,” he grinned and stood behind Jeno to finally give him the hug that he had intended. Jeno picked up the accounts again and resumed his analysis. Renjun rested his hands on his shoulders and gently pressed his thumbs into the tight muscles, moving them in slow circles.

“That feels good,” Jeno sighed.

Renjun said nothing but smiled affectionately as he continued massaging Jeno’s shoulders and listening to the small murmurs of pleasure that Jeno let out every so often.

After some time, Jeno straightened the papers in front of him and leaned back in his chair.

“I finished about ten minutes ago but didn’t want you to stop,” he smirked mischievously, raising his eyes to meet Renjun’s, receiving a playful slap in return.

“You wanted to go to the rose garden, didn’t you?” Jeno continued, “Come on then, let’s go,” he said without waiting for a response and stood up swiftly, holding Renjun’s smaller hand in his own and pulling him towards the bedroom door.

The air was warm as they left the castle walls, still hand in hand. Renjun took a deep breath and again tried to eradicate the events of earlier, unwanted images creeping back into his thoughts.

“You’re quiet” Jeno commented.

“Hmmm? Sorry. I was just thinking about stuff. It’s nothing.”

Jeno raised an eyebrow questioningly as they entered the walled rose garden and headed for the familiar stone bench. They sat in silence, the two of them, Jeno searching for the words to pry Renjun’s worries from him and discard them amongst the healing roses. He could hear the rustling of leaves in the trees above them, the birds that chirped softly and most of all, the heavy breaths of the housekeeper sat next to him feigning his composure.

“Do you want to talk about it?”, Jeno breathed calmly as he turned to face Renjun. The housekeeper could feel his spirits lifted slightly by the sight of the garden, its safety, encapsulated and conveyed by the soft edge to Jeno’s voice as he glanced at him with a look of care.

“Renjun”, he continued softly as the other immediately buried his head into the warm fabric of Jeno’s shirt, breathing in the comforting scent of the man. Jeno instinctively wrapped an arm around his slender shoulders and the other let out a few soft murmurs but didn’t resist the gentle touch.

Renjun looked up slowly, as though broken out of a trance, the afternoon air hitting his cheeks as he left the warmth of Jeno’s shoulder.

“Jeno… am I enough?”, Renjun whispered almost silently.

Jeno brought his hand to Renjun’s face, tracing his fingers along his jaw and tilting it upwards so that Renjun was looking at him, eyes laced with hidden desperation as they peered back at Jeno widely. “What’s brought this on?”, Jeno said sadly. “Renjun, you’re everything to me”, he continued as he ran a finger over Renjun’s jaw comfortingly. “I don’t understand this, are you sure you’re okay?”

Renjun looked up at Jeno as the other held his face, seeing the tenderness and the care in his eyes and his worries were suddenly melted away. Renjun felt safe again, Jaesuk’s roughness replaced by the gentle touches. Jeno leant down towards the other, meeting softly for an innocent kiss. Renjun could feel Jeno’s lips working against his own as the touch lingered. Despite the gentleness of the kiss, Renjun could feel its passion and intensity. Where words had been lost, the reassurance was conveyed through the other’s caring action and Renjun felt himself lose just a little more of his heart in Jeno as he was validated through the hold the other had on him. They broke away softly.

“It’s okay”, Jeno spoke back as he held Renjun’s head against his chest, stroking his messy brown hair as he comforted him. Now, as Renjun looked up at Jeno, at his soft eyes, his broad shoulders that shielded the smaller, the hand that stayed gently in Renjun’s hair, he had fallen. In the midst of the afternoon sun as it shone down on the roses around them, Renjun felt himself falling in love with the man in front of him. He had slipped into the abyss that was Jeno and he wanted to give his whole self to the man he trusted.

“Jeno I- “, Renjun was interrupted as the other placed his finger gently on the smaller’s lips.

“Me too”, Jeno whispered back softly as his nose brushed against Renjun’s affectionately.

“You don’t even know what I was going to say”, Renjun laughed.

“I know what I hoped you were going to say”, Jeno replied contently, elated as he pulled the other close again and Renjun buried his head in the crook of his neck, snug and comfortable. They remained nestled like this for the next few minutes, Renjun cuddled in Jeno’s arms as he basked in the warm feeling spreading through him. In that moment, they had given themselves to each other.

“Renjun… there’s someone I want you to meet.”

Chapter Text

“This is Onyx”, Jeno said happily as he looked up, one arm under the horse’s neck and the other stroking its nose affectionately.

When Jeno had told Renjun that there was someone he wanted him to meet, he wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, and as the other pulled him enthusiastically to another outside location, his confusion had only grown. Now, in the castle stables, a place Renjun had never been, he stared up at the horse that Jeno patted lovingly and nodded slowly. The stallion was beautiful, black in colour and head held high in the air as it was comforted by the gentle, rhythmic affirmations from Jeno as he stroked its dark mane. The light that seeped through the cracks in the stable door, illuminated the two and Renjun stood a few steps away, appreciating the sight as he trailed his vision over the animal as it nuzzled into Jeno’s touch. The man turned to face his companion.

“Onyx, this is Renjun”, he stated factually and the other laughed. “He’s very special to me so be nice to him”, Jeno continued, feigning a stern voice, to which the horse did not react, continuing to nudge the other affectionately. Their mutual comfort was evident to Renjun and he watched their interactions adoringly, glancing at Onyx and then back to Jeno. The horse suited him well, he was powerful, his stature strong and able. Even in the dim light of the barn he could tell that Onyx was stunning.

“He’s six years old”, Jeno said as he stroked the horse again. “I’ve had him since he was really young, and my mother helped me to choose him. Things were rough at first, he was defiant and didn’t want to go near me. It’s funny looking back on it, but we worked things out between us through the years. His name means protection and strength. It’s fitting, because he’s been all of that for me for the last four years. He’s helped me a lot since the accident, we just understand each other, and he means the world to me. That’s why I wanted you to meet him.”

“He’s very beautiful and… very big”, Renjun said cautiously as he took more steps backwards and breathed nervously.

“Yeah… he’s strong too, you should see him out in the fields. I think he’d be able to hold both of us”, Jeno paused again as he looked up at Onyx who was letting out small puffs of breath contently.

“I’d like to take you riding one day”, Jeno finished as he smiled sheepishly at the other.

“I’ve never done anything like that before, I’d like to try it if you would take me.”

“Well”, Jeno began as he walked forward, Onyx following his lead gently. “You two will need to bond a bit first, he hasn’t been around people much so he can get a bit jumpy, it makes him feel threatened. He’s a sensitive soul underneath it all”, he said as he let out a small laugh. “You can help me groom him now, then you two can get to know each other.”

“I um… okay”, Renjun said, his voice still hesitant as Jeno smiled at his awkwardness, sensing the fear. Jeno strode towards him casually, draping an arm around the smaller’s shoulder and pulling his body lightly towards his own so that he was snuggled there.

“Don’t worry, I’ll look after you”, he chuckled and stroked a hand up and down Renjun’s back, half mocking and half serious in his proposal of care. Renjun dug his elbow lightly into Jeno’s side in response, poking playfully at his ribs.

“I’ll be fine”, he said indignantly and pouted. Jeno took his hand and interlocked their fingers smoothly.

“Come on then, the brushes are a few stables down.”

When they reached the other stable, Jeno pulled the equipment from one of the cupboards and clutched it in the hand that wasn’t holding Renjun’s. The bucket clattered softly in time with their footsteps as they walked in a comfortable silence to where Onyx waited. Once back inside and faced with the horse again, Jeno set the bucket down in the hay and stretched slightly as he readied himself for the task.

“Go ahead”, Jeno started. “Try and stoke his neck first, he usually likes that”, he continued as he watched Renjun reach nervously towards Onyx, clasping at Jeno’s hand just the slightest bit tighter than before. Onyx jittered away in response, making Renjun jump and he removed his touch immediately.

“I don’t think he likes me very much”, Renjun said dejectedly through a slight sigh as he stepped away, looking to Jeno for guidance, who had broken their contact in favour of picking up one of the brushes from the bucket. He began to run it through the horse’s hair gently.

“It will take a while”, Jeno replied calmly. “The first time I rode Onyx, he threw me off. It’s about building up trust between you, I’m sure it will work out.” He continued his brushing, using his free hand to pat the horse on the side of the head and coo a soft “it’s okay”, to the startled animal.

“Here”, Jeno continued softly and he took Renjun’s hand back into his own, sensing the other’s nervousness. Placing his hand over Renjun’s smaller one, he brought it up towards Onyx’s dark mane again, movements guided by him. He stroked downwards, Renjun doing the same as he relaxed under the hold. Onyx was placid after that and Jeno dared to lift his palm off Renjun’s hand, leaving the boy running gentle touches against the mane, Onyx remaining tranquil under them.

A few minutes passed like that, Onyx calm as Renjun brushed along his glossy coat. He was beginning to feel more at ease with Jeno’s companion as he patted him on the nose, mirroring the other’s previous actions. The horse nuzzled into the touch and began to nod its head happily, thrashing about with enthusiasm.

“See, he does like you”, Jeno smiled as he glanced at Renjun, not noticing how Onyx had grown more excitable. In seconds, he had managed to knock Renjun to the floor with his quick movements, the other laying in the hay, slightly stunned.

“Are you okay?”, Jeno spoke worriedly as he ran over but couldn’t control the burst of laughter that rose from his chest when he saw Renjun giggling ridiculously amongst the hay, no longer in shock. He outstretched his hand quickly, the other regaining his composure and taking it tentatively.

“You have to get up and keep going, you need to show him that he can’t bully you”, Jeno said quickly as he stroked the horse’s mane. Renjun stood suddenly and strode over to Onyx, placing his hand on the horse confidently.

“Okay Onyx, you won that time”, he said bravely. “You can be nice to me now”, the words were slightly quieter as they left Renjun’s lips, Jeno laughing at his endearing nature. He couldn’t help his smile as he watched the two getting along soundly. By the time they decided to leave, Onyx was clearly a lot calmer in Renjun’s presence and Jeno felt as though the two had achieved a lot in the small time they had spent together that day. He gave Onyx one last pat on the nose and picked up the bucket again, linking his fingers back with Renjun’s. They moved towards the stable exit and Jeno closed the door behind them quietly, Onyx safely within its walls.

Renjun stared affectionately at the other as they crossed the courtyard towards the stables opposite to return the brushes they had been using. He was awed by Jeno’s ease with his horse, he had been so loving, so tender and between Onyx and him, there seemed to be an unbreakable bond of trust. He snuck a glance at Jeno, who had now let go of Renjun’s hand and was undoing the top buttons of the black shirt he wore, making it loose so that part of his chest was exposed to the warm evening air. He fanned his fingers next to his face, the waves of cooling breeze hitting the skin that glistened faintly with the sweat that had begun to collect there. His hair had settled in front of his eyes and he brushed the blonde strands back quickly, searching for the right cupboard. As he watched Jeno’s movements, Renjun thought then, how truly attractive he found the man he had once called his Master. The one he had come to grow so fond of. Watching the softness in his actions now, he was no longer filled with fright, but rather a pure, unchanging adoration. What surprised him even more than falling for Jeno, was that it seemed, he had fallen for Renjun too, their mutual affections guiding the relationship to flourish and grow. He dared a look at the man’s figure as he strode towards the cupboard and placed the metal bucket back inside it, the lean frame, the toned muscles. It was all too much and suddenly Renjun felt his restraint slipping away at an alarming rate, Jeno now turning back to walk in his direction.

Jeno leant forward and slowly pulled Renjun by the shoulders so he could place an innocent peck on the smaller’s soft lips, satisfied at their closeness. He smiled at Renjun, who stood in front of him, dishevelled and unkempt. The sight was alluring to Jeno and he let out a soft laugh as he looked at where the other’s white shirt had been covered with hay when he fell, then to his messy brown hair. Sighing softly, he reached up to run his fingers through it in order to straighten the tousled tufts and brushed the hay residue from where it stuck to his clothing. The outdoors had ruffled Renjun in a way that made him all the more appealing to Jeno, his flushed cheeks drawing him in towards the smaller’s lips again, the two meeting in a kiss that was slow and sweet, affection burning through their discreet touches.

Renjun pulled the other towards him more roughly, deepening the kiss and shocking Jeno momentarily before he settled in with the rhythm again, their tongues meeting and muffling the sounds they made. Renjun slipped one of his slender hands inside the openness of Jeno’s thin shirt, fingertips grazing the smooth skin of his chest, the other one running along Jeno’s waist as he rubbed slow circles into the skin there. Jeno’s shirt had come loose of his trousers in the midst of his movements and Renjun didn’t hesitate to leave gentle traces of his touch there. Jeno let out a soft moan as he felt this, Renjun desperate yet tender as he continued to work his lips against the other’s. Their bodies were melded together by now, and they allowed their hands to roam without consequence. Jeno gasped, groaning loudly as Renjun brushed a teasing finger across his nipple sensually, sending a wave of arousal coursing through him as he bit his lip out of embarrassment to try and stifle the sound. He pulled the other closer, wrapping both of his strong arms around Renjun’s waist and enjoying the feeling of his body against his own, the smaller shivering from the intensity of their actions. Renjun stopped, looking up at Jeno coyly and sucking in his bottom lip, his pupils blown and his hair a mess again where Jeno’s hands had carded through it. Jeno listened to Renjun’s shallow pants of shortened breath as he clung to his shoulders and the sound was enough to have him gazing heavily at the other.

Oh my god”, he muttered under his breath as he lost all control in a moment of insanity. His hands moved down to Renjun’s small ass and gripped it, lifting him up off the ground as the other wrapped his legs around Jeno’s waist firmly. Renjun giggled softly and encircled his arms around Jeno’s neck for extra support, feeling safe in the warm grip. He kissed softly this time, letting their noses brush as he poured his devotion into it.

Jeno stepped forward with Renjun still in his arms, the need to feel his body pressing harder against his own overpowering him. With his pace quickened, he rushed to the edge of the stable, towards where the bails of hay were stacked up along the wooden frame of its sheltering. With care, he laid the other down on top of one of them and he landed softly with his arms still wrapped around Jeno’s neck and shoulders. Renjun smiled with hazy eyes and pulled Jeno down on top of him, the kisses resuming almost instantly. Renjun guided the movements and soon he felt the friction between their bodies intensifying, Jeno’s hips grinding down against his as a tingling sensation spread through his abdomen. He wanted more. As they both paused to breathe and Jeno looked down into the smaller’s eyes, glassy and dazed, he felt everything finally slow. He was desperate to savour the moment. He put one of his hands on Renjun’s face, feeling the heat from his cheeks as he ran his thumb gently across the skin, as if to clarify to himself that the moment was real, that he really had Renjun beneath him. Renjun who was baring his soul, letting his guard down as they lay together. When Jeno trailed his hand down the other’s face, passing his neck and running fingertips across his chest to where his heartbeat steadily, he was even more sure that this was real. He let his hand rest there, the feeling blissful as he breathed heavily in time with the rhythm of Renjun’s pulse as it beat against his palm.

“I’m falling in love with you”, he whispered almost silently, yet loud enough to catch Renjun’s attention as he let their eyes meet again. Renjun smiled as his palm lingered on the smaller’s chest, the rhythms of his heartbeat growing more erratic against it.

The passion overcame them and soon enough they found themselves tangled again, their legs intertwining, until Renjun had flipped Jeno over, now straddling the other as he sat with his knees either side of Jeno’s waist. He leant down, wordlessly acknowledging Jeno’s statement and reciprocating it when he placed more wet, opened mouthed kisses against the other’s lips. He trailed his mouth along Jeno’s face, to his neck and across his scar tenderly until Jeno felt him against the bare skin of his chest, burning like hot fire there. He reached up in response, stroking the back of Renjun’s head caringly as he explored Jeno’s body with his mouth, the desire shooting through both of them wildly. Jeno made attempts at reaching an upright sitting position, but Renjun pushed him down instantly, his body flat against the hay again. In one final attempt, Jeno rolled so that he was back on top and leant over Renjun protectively as the other whimpered and whined into each of their needy kisses. Jeno felt the urge to protect and please the other, cradling his frame against his own. He could feel Renjun hard against his thigh as their bodies entangled and a flush of emotion coursed through him knowing that he could illicit such a response from the other. He pressed his thigh a little more firmly against Renjun’s crotch and rubbed slowly. The hedonistic moan Renjun let escape from his swollen lips as he tried to create more friction, was desperately needy and Jeno wanted nothing more than to give him everything; the sun, moon and all of the stars were there for taking and he would make sure they were his. Renjun half opened his eyes and cast a glazed look up at him.

“Are you okay baby?”, Jeno whispered and Renjun nodded helplessly before the other bent his head to kiss him again.

Jeno’s hand was resting on Renjun’s exposed waist, his shirt riding up his delicate skin, fingers dipping slightly below the other’s waistband. With little experience on which to draw but running on instinct and desire, Jeno pulled at the buckle of the smaller’s belt, impressively releasing it with one hand. He nimbly attended to the fastenings of Renjun’s trousers too and slid his palm slowly into the other’s cotton underwear. Renjun gasped and his breathing became erratic, but he nodded consent as Jeno looked at him.

Renjun had one hand behind Jeno’s neck and the other flat against his chest. His mind was struggling to deal with the new sensations he was feeling and all he knew was that he wanted more. He wanted Jeno’s hands on him, he wanted to feel the muscular body touching his, wanted to breathe every breath with him. He pulled himself up and met Jeno’s mouth with a sloppy kiss that he then slid across the other’s jaw before dragging down to swipe his tongue across the exposed collarbone in front of him. He tasted the sweat beading on his skin, and it sent his blood racing south, his cock straining under Jeno’s warm hand.

Jeno curled his fingers and gently stroked up and down, feeling Renjun twitch and tremble under his touch. The hand on the back of his neck gripped tightly and he felt fingernails rake down his chest as Renjun lost himself in the moment, eyes closed tightly and biting his bottom lip to stifle his moans. It was intoxicating, the most beautiful thing Jeno had ever seen.

Renjun opened his eyes suddenly and shot Jeno a panicked look.

“Jeno… I … think I’m…hnngg”, he stammered before losing his speech to a heady moan as he let out a guttural groan of pleasure and came over Jeno’s hand. His eye’s fluttered shut again and sweat dripped from his forehead as he gasped for air when the waves of pleasure flooded his body. Jeno stroked him slowly through his release and he threw his head back into the hay. Once his breathing had calmed slightly, Jeno withdrew his hand, Renjun still sensitive to his touches and purring softly. With his eyes still closed, Renjun reached around the other’s neck with a small whine and pulled him in close.

“Hey”, Jeno whispered softly.

Renjun opened his eyes shyly and looked at Jeno, panicked still, “I’m sorry… I’ve… never done that before… errr… with anyone else”, at which point a heavy blush turned his already pink cheeks a shade of crimson. “I think I was meant to last a bit longer than that”, he frowned apologetically.

“You were perfect in every way”, Jeno smiled.

Renjun grinned and the panic left him, being replaced by a cheeky grin as his eyes sparkled.

“You… called me baby”, he smirked.

“Yeah, what of it?”, Jeno huffed.

“I like it”, Renjun grinned and laughed. His face soon turned serious again as he looked back across to Jeno sheepishly, placing a hand on the other’s leg and stroking it softly.

“What about you?”, Renjun said as he glanced down to Jeno’s trousers where the outline of his erection could be seen clearly. “Aren’t I meant to do something too? I – “

“Renjun”, Jeno breathed softly, immediately taking the hand from where it rested on his thigh and grasping it in his own. He brought it to his lips and kissed the palm tenderly, glancing at the other’s dishevelled state and tired eyes. He then pulled at the edge of Renjun’s shirt gently and the other gasped at the contact, not knowing what he was meant to do next. When Jeno tucked the ends back into his trousers with ease, brushing the creases out of the sleeves, he looked at him in confusion.

“Don’t worry about me, tonight was about you”, Jeno continued, still fixing Renjun’s clothing.

“I can sort it out later”, he said with a cheeky grin and Renjun felt his cheeks redden again, slapping Jeno lightly on the shoulder. He couldn’t help the smile that spread across his face, heart warmed by the man’s kindness as he continued to tend to Renjun’s ruffled appearance.

“You mean the world to me you know”, Renjun said softly as he leaned forward to place a final chaste kiss on Jeno’s lips.

xxx

The next day, Renjun had been busy working. Jeno on the other hand, was unable to distract himself from his thoughts of the other and he let his boredom drive him back to his feelings. He couldn’t stop thinking about him. The two had shared something wonderful the previous day and Jeno felt more and more of himself being given to Renjun. Jeno was beginning to understand the other, what he liked, his responses, what made him feel good. He had fallen and every second that passed made it harder and harder to control his emotions. He knew he couldn’t keep his feelings a secret forever, and there was someone he wanted to tell, who he knew would listen to him without judgement and keep his secret.

“Hey”, Jeno said slowly, awkward as he stepped into the castle dining room.

“What’s up?”, Jaemin answered softly from where he stood by one of the cabinets in the room, alone and quiet for once as he was putting a stack of glasses away. There was a moment of awkward silence as Jaemin continued to place the crystal objects into the cabinet, the soft clinking of the glasses as they were put down, echoing through the quiet room.

“What are you up to?”, Jeno murmured.

“Just… you know… being a butler, Jeno you’re being so weird at the moment, are you okay?”, Jaemin said with a concerned frown.

“Jaemin there’s something I’ve been wanting to tell you for a while now. I don’t really know how to say it but- “

“It’s about Renjun isn’t it?”, Jaemin said before Jeno could even let the words fall from his lips, turning to face the other quickly and halting his stacking.

“How did you know?”

“It’s a bit obvious Jeno. No one else leaves you flowers”, he laughed.

Jeno bit his lip nervously in silent reply. “I really like him Jaemin”, he said finally, a tinge of fondness lacing his voice.

“I haven’t felt this alive in years.”

Jaemin felt the familiar pang in his heart again as he listened to the adoration in Jeno’s voice when he spoke about the other. It was a way that he had never heard Jeno speak, it was different to how he talked about the other’s here. He wanted to grasp Jeno tightly, to cry out to him, to let him know his own feelings but he knew it would be futile.

“I’ve noticed the change, I’m happy for you”, Jaemin said with a short, soft smile.

“You told me I needed to get out more and for that I have to thank you, it’s opened my eyes up to what’s around me”, Jeno said as he smiled back, expecting the other’s face to light up in excitement. It had been Jaemin’s wish for all these years for Jeno to let people into his life again and now that he finally was, Jaemin seemed underwhelmed by the prospect.

“I think he really likes me too”, Jeno tried again with enthusiasm.

“He’s a really good guy Jeno”, Jaemin said honestly as he let out a small sigh, “but you probably shouldn’t tell anyone else for now, I’m sure your uncle would have a great time firing him if he found out anything was going on between you two.”

“I’m sorry Jaemin, I just needed to tell someone.”

“No, I understand. Renjun has been good for you”, he said smiling back towards Jeno who was avoiding eye contact with Jaemin now.

“I really appreciate your advice”, Jeno smiled, looking up.

“Anytime”, Jaemin smiled back, putting the last glass into the cabinet and walking away with a knot in his stomach.

xxx

Renjun sat on the rug in the library as usual that same evening, hugging his knees to his chest. The novel he had been reading was placed to one side as he pondered the latest story that he had immersed himself in. His day in the castle had been long and tiring and he hadn’t seen a lot of Jeno, the both of them busied by their roles. He sighed and looked at the book again.

As he did, Jeno quietly approached him and sat behind, fitting him snuggly between his legs and encircling him in an embrace. His hands rested on the other’s bare arms, the smaller still hugging his knees. Renjun jumped at first and whipped his head around to see the other smiling his usual grin and he relaxed into the touch. Jeno brushed a small kiss on the back of Renjun’s neck and ran his fingers idly over the other’s forearms making Renjun mewl from the touch. Jeno was enthralled as he reminded himself of how the other had made his world vibrant again and taught him how to love so passionately. His fingertips had found their own rhythm on Renjun’s arms and started to tap in formation, combinations pressing down together and then being replaced by others in a different form, a pattern of touches running fluidly up and down his arms.

“That tickles” Renjun giggled, “What are you doing?”

“I’m playing one of Mozart’s sonatas” Jeno stated nonchalantly as he continued his actions, sending Renjun into fits of laughter.

“Sshhh, I’m concentrating” Jeno whispered in his ear, “There’s a soft bit coming up, I need the pedal, push your left foot to the floor for me please.”

Through stifled laughter Renjun pushed his toes down on cue and lifted them again when Jeno whispered a quick “up again” as his fingers maintained their dance on Renjun’s arms.

“Down!”

Renjun placed his foot down again.

“Up!”

Renjun could contain himself no more and spun around to face Jeno, the imaginary piano keys being flung to the air. He threw his arms around Jeno’s neck.

“You’re crazy, Lee Jeno!” he laughed as the other caught him around the waist and grinned back at him.

“You didn’t get to hear the end of it!” Jeno protested, his words muffled by Renjun’s lips as he landed a clumsy kiss on him. Jeno felt himself being pushed and they both tumbled backwards, Renjun finally sitting astride the other and pinning his hands to the floor beside his head.

“I didn’t know you played piano!” Renjun exclaimed.

“I didn’t know you harboured such violence!” Jeno teased as he pretended to struggle.

Renjun let go of his hands and they both sat up again facing each other. Jeno took the other’s hand in his and held it lovingly.

“I wasn’t as good as my sisters, they played perfectly. I was always too busy riding to practice properly but my parents insisted that we learn how to play. To ‘broaden our appreciation of the arts’ and ‘excel in a formal social gathering’, something like that. I did love it though and I’m thankful that I learnt.”

Jeno took a deep breath and stroked his thumb over the back of Renjun’s hand before continuing.

“Our piano was in the ballroom in the West Wing, a magnificent Concert Grand, the biggest of all the grand pianos. I believe my sisters took turns playing it that night for the guests.”

He drew in another deep breath and Renjun squeezed his hand reassuringly.

“It didn’t survive the fire. I’ve not played a note since then. Not felt any urge to. I’m not sure why it just came back to me then.... maybe I am crazy” he laughed. “I’d need a lot of practice now after such a long time.”

“I’d like to hear you play properly one day, I’m not quite sure my arm is a sufficient replacement”, Renjun said as he laughed light heartedly.

“We don’t have much time before dinner”, Renjun continued sadly, as he finally picked up the book he was reading and marked the page he had left it on, closing it quickly and placing it under his arm safely. He knew that his night would be spent finishing it, but first, he would have to help Donghyuck in the kitchen again.

“I have to eat with them”, Jeno spoke through an exasperated groan, slowly rising to his feet.

“You’ll be fine”, Renjun laughed, masking his slight fear as images of Jaesuk returned to his mind. “At least you don’t have to clean up what they leave behind”, Renjun said as he sighed and Jeno looked at him with sympathy.

“Renjun, I’m sorry that you have to do that, I wish I could make them leave.”

“It’s my job Jeno, it’s okay”, Renjun spoke and he laughed at the endearing man before him as they walked towards the door of the library. Renjun walked next to Jeno, in that moment an equal with him as they approached the top of the stairs. They knew their false reality would soon be shattered but for now they revelled in it as Renjun snuck secret glances at Jeno, admiring the other’s beauty. Once at the bottom, they both walked through to the dining room, Renjun almost forgetting his place as the housekeeper as he used the quickest route the kitchen. The dining room was lit carefully with candles and Jeno’s uncle and Jaesuk sat at the table, Yunho tapping his fingernails across the surface of the wood as he waited impatiently for his nephew to arrive. He looked up when he saw the two men walking side by side.

“Excuse me Mr Huang, I think you are forgetting that the servants’ corridors are over that way”, he pointed to one of the exits in the room nonchalantly as Renjun stopped.

“I... uh… I’m sorry, yes Sir”, he bowed towards Yunho and the man tutted as he frowned in annoyance. Jeno shot his uncle an angry glare, the look soon softening to one of worry as he remembered the power that his uncle held. Jaesuk watched the interaction with amusement and sat back carelessly in his chair. He smirked and looked at Renjun who waited for his uncle’s response with worry on his face.

“Off you go then”, Yunho replied with a quick gesture of his hand as he dismissed the housekeeper, the other nodding and rushing off towards the corridor he had been directed to, unable to bid Jeno goodbye.

“Jeno your staff seem to be getting a little over familiar, you really must keep them in order”, his uncle sighed once Renjun had left the room. Jeno took a seat at the table opposite him.

“I’m sorry uncle”, Jeno said with little conviction in his voice. There was a short silence until he spoke. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you about the accounts for the castle again. I was going through them a couple of nights ago and we need more of the money from the trust. There’s bills to pay and work to be done here, you can’t withhold it forever.”

“Jeno, I’m not discussing this with you here”, his uncle bit back aggressively. “You could always find somewhere else that’s a little easier to maintain.”

“You know if I walk away now, I walk away with nothing. That money belonged to my parents.”

“And they left you in my care until you are twenty-one, therefore I make the decisions”, his uncle spoke back patronisingly and Jeno lowered his head again.

“So Jeno, tell me more about your new housekeeper, I’ve heard you’ve got to know him quite well”, Jaesuk cut in sharply as he sipped from his wine glass, leaning forward and smirking at his cousin.

Chapter Text

Jaesuk was playing a game. He was toying with Jeno and he was completely in control. It was a cruel and twisted interrogation, suffocating, but Jaesuk was the puppet master. What he did went and now, he pulled the strings of both Renjun and Jeno merely for his own entertainment. He was twisting the wires inside his cousin’s head, until he was rendered powerless at the mercy of manipulation.

Jeno saw Jaesuk’s sneer of amusement, unable to contain the rage that pulsed through him at the mention of Renjun. The words seemed wrong, offensive, and he could feel the burning in his throat again. It was like Jaesuk knew. He shouldn’t, they had been careful. Jeno clenched his fists, still agitated but needing to respond. It was only those fleeting thoughts of Renjun, that brought his fury crashing to reality and a softness back to his voice. He had wanted only to protect Renjun, but it seemed he had brought him from facing one hell to another.

The familiar name left his lips again, lacking its usual passion and care. “Renjun?”

He paused, trying to mask his concern, but it somehow seeped through his voice. The name left his lips as though it had done a thousand times before, he let it become a habit and his uncle raised an eyebrow but was interrupted before he could question it.

“Yes, Renjun”, Jaesuk confirmed, seething.

“He’s just the housekeeper. What else is there to say?”

Jeno was a liar.

He was betraying Renjun.

He was protecting Renjun.

He knew their affections for each other, how they had to keep them a secret. What he was doing was for the best, he thought determinedly but the sting of his own words still hurt him.

“He’s too casual here, he seems at home. Being soft on your staff doesn’t always make for the most efficient household you know Jeno?”

Jeno swallowed heavily. He didn’t want to let his weaknesses show, to let them see that Renjun was his weakness. “If he’s not good enough, we can get you a new one, all it takes is one word and I can make it happen.”

“It’s okay Uncle”, Jeno cut in sharply. “He’s… good, perfectly satisfactory”, he finished dismissively, rubbing his hand quickly across his face to mask his discomfort. His eyes met with his uncle’s darkened ones again.

“Staff shouldn’t be slacking, I’ll keep my eye on him and we’ll see”, Yunho replied sternly and Jeno stiffened at the harshness of his voice as he spoke about Renjun.

“Yeah, we’ll see how good he is”, Jaesuk barked, look taunting as he provoked his cousin further.

Just like that, Jeno was trapped again. He needed to escape and so he did the first thing that came to his mind to steer the conversation away from the housekeeper. “Jaemin, can we get some more wine please?”

Jeno’s voice was calm through the silence of the huge room. The butler nodded and in seconds he was by the table, Jaesuk beckoning him over.

Once the distraction had worked and Jaemin had taken his place back by the door, they were left in an uncomfortable quietness.

“This wine is good”, his uncle’s voice echoed. “Where did you say it was from?”

“I don’t know, we’ve had it here for quite a while though”. Jeno was uninterested and his voice trailed off vacantly as he waited for the torturous meal to be over.

“I’ve become quite a connoisseur in fine wine, started up my own collection over the years. You can’t beat a good Merlot”, his uncle said as he swirled the liquid in the glass and drank from it.

“I don’t drink it much so I wouldn’t know.”

“Hmm… shame, the basement here would make a perfect wine cellar.”

Jeno nodded to his uncle politely and smiled, unable to form the words of a reply. When Jisung finally tripped through the large doors to the dining room, Jeno was almost relieved. Almost. It hadn’t taken much for the boy to fear Jeno’s family and it was proving difficult to lure him out from the kitchens but here he was striding bravely. Although thankful for the interruption, Jeno could see the flicker of fear behind his eyes as he carried out the plates, placing one down beside his uncle and the other next to Jaesuk. His cousin glared at Jisung but didn’t say anything, not a thank you, barely even an acknowledgement and Jeno shot him a warning look, a ‘don’t you dare do anything’ sort of glare. Before Jaesuk could act though, Jisung had turned on his heels and bolted back towards the door, Jeno only now noticing the mousy haired boy that stood watching him discreetly from the edge of the doorway, glaring at his cousin. Once Jisung returned, Chenle grabbed him softly by the arm, pulling him the rest of the way back towards the safety of the kitchen. The sight only drove Jeno to wish even more so that his relatives weren’t here, watching as Jaesuk simply chuckled, looking down at his plate again in amusement.

“I might have to go away for business in a few days. Jaesuk will be staying here but I shouldn’t be gone for long.”, his uncle chimed.

“What’s that for?” Jeno dropped his fork and squinted with confusion.

“Oh, just some legal things, nothing that concerns you.”

Jeno hummed quietly and examined his uncle carefully, finally deciding against questioning him further. What on earth would he have business with here? His uncle didn’t know anyone. He let his suspicions sink in slowly, the idle conversations continuing, and he tried harder to drown it out as his mind raced.

xxx

Renjun and Jeno had their routine by now. They met in secret. They became themselves, the two that were falling in love. They were happy, at peace in these times. Then, just like that, they were housekeeper and Master again. It was a perpetual cycle of frustration, one they were growing tired of, each day becoming harder and harder to conceal their forbidden affection. Things had been as usual for the next few days, yet Renjun knew Jeno’s patience was wearing thin with his uncle. They kept each other calm though, but even this was becoming an effort as Renjun found it more difficult to avoid Jaesuk. Yunho too, who had previously ignored Renjun, had taken to pestering him, picking up on the smallest of errors and scolding Renjun for them. The workload too was finally starting to catch up with him as he found his exhaustion growing and his free time dwindling. He stood currently, filing through the stack of mail that had piled up throughout the week and sorting it into neat piles.

Begrudgingly, he cleared the letters off the table, leaving them by the stairs for people to collect. He took the cleaning supplies he had left in the corner of the laundry room and made his way through the corridors to Jaesuk’s room in the guest wing. He hoped desperately that the man wouldn’t be in there and to his relief, he wasn’t, leaving Renjun able to work quickly without interruption. Setting down the cleaning tools quickly, he slung his apron around his waist and took the duster out from its pocket. The room was a mess, clothes thrown about it and the shelves kept untidy with jewellery and other objects thrown onto them. As he worked, he was reminded what horrible people Jeno’s family were, he’d seen how Jeno was powerless against them, how Donghyuck hated them both, how fearful Jisung was in their presence. Renjun hated it. Jeno had told him that Yunho would be going away soon and for that he was glad, but he still couldn’t shake his uneasy feelings as he dusted the last shelf in the room with haste, afraid the other could return at any point.

With Yunho, he was not so lucky, and when he walked through the door of the other guest bedroom, the man had been hunched at a desk in the corner. He heard the housekeeper enter but didn’t bother to turn around from what he was doing. Renjun was flustered but proceeded to speak anyway.

“I can come back later if you’re busy.”

“No”, Yunho said bluntly, finally turning around and letting out an exasperated sigh. “You’ve already interrupted me; you can do it now.”

Renjun nodded quickly and set down the cleaning equipment a little too aggressively, Yunho still ignoring him as he busied himself with what he was writing. The housekeeper walked to dust the shelf next to him, catching sight of it. On the desk, there was a letter and Renjun tiptoed silently so that he could get a better view. On closer inspection he saw it was addressed to a lawyer in the city, the words ‘property deeds’ printed in bold across the top and Renjun couldn’t help but let his restless mind get the better of him. He wasn’t meant to see it and although Yunho hadn’t noticed him there yet, he was still hunched over the desk cautiously in attempts to conceal it from the other’s view. Renjun knew he couldn’t stand behind him staring forever and so he soon moved on to clean a different part of the room instead.

“Change the bed”, Yunho demanded as he turned and pointed at where the bed was against the wall.

Renjun was tired but after cleaning those rooms, he finally relaxed, walking from the first floor and up to the second to where Jeno’s was. The first thing he saw when he entered the room was not what he had expected.

Jeno spun around at the sound, the housekeeper surprised to see him with a duster clutched in one of his hands and a puppy-like grin worn across his face as he was finally reunited with Renjun.

“Jeno, what are you doing?”, Renjun said loudly to the figure across the room as he stood by a couch at its edge.

“Helping you out”, the other said with a grin as he walked closer.

“Is the Master of the house cleaning?”, Renjun replied with a small teasing smirk, pulling the duster out of Jeno’s hand and inspecting it disbelievingly.

“Hey”, Jeno whined, taking it back again. “Not anymore, I’m done now.”

“You… did my work for me?”, Renjun said, voice still teasing but touched as he looked at Jeno’s proud smile.

“I just thought I’d help you out a bit, it’s hard with so many people here.”

“Awe, you did that for me. Aren’t you cute?”. Renjun’s teasing was back and he laughed as he prodded Jeno’s shoulder lightly with his index finger. “I’ve got a spare hour now”.

Jeno wrapped his arms around Renjun’s waist and pulled the smaller in for a light kiss, fingers caught in the strings of his working apron.

“Is there anything you want to do instead?”, Jeno asked in between one of their soft kisses, his voice tender and caring. His touches were soft as he caressed Renjun’s hips lightly, lips finding their solace against Renjun’s own pillowy ones. Renjun wasn’t sure if it was the draught in the room or the gentle touches of Jeno as he ran his hands across his waist, but he was suddenly aware of the goose bumps that tingled faintly across his skin as he looked into Jeno’s eyes. He could feel it again. The want. The need for Jeno.

“We could- “, Jeno began innocently but Renjun cut in before he could finish.

“Actually, there was something I wanted to try”, he whispered quietly, the blush growing across his cheeks fiercely. He ran his fingers gently down Jeno’s back, letting them rest on his tailbone as he broke away from another soft kiss.

“What’s that then?”, Jeno remarked softly, too distracted by the other’s mouth to hear any reply, his own hands rubbing gently across the dip in Renjun’s waist. Renjun’s breath was hot against Jeno’s ear when he whispered into it.

“This”

As Renjun pulled back and faced the other, Jeno could see his lips, full and swollen from their kisses, glistening in the fading daylight that peeked through the window. They wouldn’t be disturbed, not in the solitude of Jeno’s room. Renjun flicked his tongue out of his mouth and ran it across Jeno’s lips as the man continued to caress his waist in confusion, going along with what was happening as he enjoyed the feeling of the lips on his. Jeno was so distracted by them that he didn’t notice the hand that trailed down his body, until he felt the faint brush of fingertips running across his clothed crotch. Renjun lingered there as he looked at Jeno shyly, and now, the man was no longer drifting in and out of reality. He glanced down quickly, shooting Renjun a half-alarmed and half-needy gaze as the arousal grew in his stomach. He sensed the intent as he looked into Renjun’s lustful eyes for any sign of doubt and when he found nothing but want and desire, he had little ammunition to stop the willing advance. In seconds, Renjun had dropped to his knees, careful not to knock them on the wooden floor of Jeno’s bedroom as he landed softly next to his legs. Reaching a hand up tentatively to Jeno’s trousers and brushing against his clothed cock again, Renjun’s hand stroked softly through the fabric. Jeno’s body reacted to the touches immediately and very soon he had melted into them. He was already so sensitive, all the sensations heightened as Renjun sent sparks through his body, the fire inside him stirring as he grew harder, mind hazed with lust. He dared a glance at Renjun who was still on his knees, running his hands over the area slowly, Jeno gathering his thoughts up in a moment of sanity and reaching down carefully to remove Renjun’s touch gently. He held the smaller’s face with the palms of both of his hands, tilting his head upwards so that their eyes met.

“You don’t have to… you know-”, Jeno said softly as he leant to place another kiss on Renjun’s delicate lips, stroking his thumbs across the other’s face in concern.

“I want to”, was all Renjun could reply with a short smile before his hands moved back to the zip of Jeno’s trousers and tugged so it dragged down slowly.

“Sit down there”, Renjun said mid movement as he pointed to the velvet couch behind them and Jeno stepped backwards hastily and landed softly on the plush furniture. Renjun couldn’t help but laugh at his eagerness as he pulled Jeno’s trousers down to his ankles, the man groaning loudly as he was left in his thin underwear. Renjun was still rubbing gently at the outline of his growing erection.

“These… off”, Renjun said quickly, desperation increasing as he pointed to the shoes that were still on Jeno’s feet. Jeno tugged at them and rapidly kicked them off, pushing them to the side so that Renjun had better access and was now able to fully remove his trousers and throw them behind him. He would worry about the mess later. He pushed Jeno’s knees apart and sat between his open legs, one hand on Jeno’s shirt, fumbling with the buttons so it fell open and left his chest exposed to the warm air. Renjun teased as he trailed kisses on his chest and along his v line, Jeno growing more sensitive with each one. He slid his hand down until it reached the hem of the other’s underwear, hooking his fingers into the waistband and tugging lightly as Jeno helped to slide them off, his lower half now completely bare. Renjun watched as Jeno’s cock was freed and sprang up from his underwear. He swallowed nervously and Jeno glanced at him apprehensively as the other took him in his hand. Renjun watched as he twitched, looking back up to Jeno’s face. His eyes were clouded with pleasure as he gasped lightly, he was stunning and… god, Renjun wanted him so badly.

He leant down slowly and kissed the head of Jeno’s cock, holding the base as he stroked up and down the length. The kiss turned into soft licks as Renjun’s confidence grew and his tongue flicked out of his mouth, earning noisy, unguarded groans from Jeno. It was unfamiliar, but he soon adjusted his movements and Jeno began to moan quietly.

“That feels good”, Jeno could just about whisper in between his light gasps. Renjun smiled around the length, taking more of it into his mouth as he hummed softly. Jeno cradled the back of Renjun’s neck, stroking a gentle thumb against his nape as he started to move his head up and down, steadying himself with a firm grip on Jeno’s thigh.

He released the grip again, pulling his mouth off for air and panting softly. When he returned, he started lightly, swirling his tongue and earning small groans from the other as the noises caught in his throat, Jeno throwing his head back against the couch as he lost control. Renjun adjusted himself again so that he could go deeper, Jeno’s breaths now coming out in short gasps of hot air as he was overwhelmed. It was relentless, the back and forth motions of Renjun’s mouth, the friction, the heat, the pleasure, it was building up inside Jeno. When Renjun’s eyes fluttered shut and he hollowed his cheeks, the jolts of electricity sparked against Jeno’s skin and he was finding it hard to stay sane. He leant forward in an attempt to calm himself but was greeted with the sight of Renjun’s mouth around his cock and it only turned him on more. He watched as Renjun ravished him, eyes closed and concentrated. He looked so beautiful, focused only on pleasing Jeno, the hair on the nape of his neck dampened where the sweat had gathered from his exertion. Renjun’s saliva had collected around the corners of his mouth and had begun to drip down his face messily and he continued to bob his head, uncaring as his vision shifted to look up at Jeno when he noticed the other watching him. Their eyes met and Jeno almost exploded with arousal. Renjun went deeper and although he tried desperately to restrain himself, Jeno couldn’t help the small instinctive bucks of his hips as he thrust up into the heat of the other’s mouth. Renjun gagged suddenly.

Renjun let Jeno slip out of his mouth and averted his eyes in embarrassment.

“I’m so sorry”, Jeno was quick to make his apology as he looked at the other in concern.

Renjun laughed and his eyelashes fluttered gently against his skin as he looked up at him innocently and wiped the mess from his mouth. He knew he had Jeno at his mercy in those moments, he was in control. He stroked down and seeing Jeno’s eyes closed, Renjun’s confidence grew again. He held Jeno’s cock in his hand more firmly and ran his tongue up slowly from the base to the tip as he left another soft kiss there, Jeno’s concern melting away into pure pleasure. He whined at the loss of contact as Renjun released his hand and stared up at him, biting his lip softly and moving his mouth back onto Jeno so that he swallowed him boldly. Renjun looked stunning, so unreal that it made Jeno bring a hand up to the other man’s face. His other fisted Renjun’s hair with little force, rifling through it as Renjun took more of him than he had before. He could feel Jeno’s hands as they caressed the back of his head and he felt oddly safe in his hold, Jeno guiding him gently as he let out a loud groan of satisfaction. Renjun sensed that he was close to his release. As he reached the edge, Jeno’s legs began to tremble, and Renjun bobbed his head more vigorously, eager to please in the most overwhelming and satisfying way possible. His hand stroked along the parts that his mouth couldn’t reach, Jeno’s groans continuous as he lost himself to lust, the beads of sweat running down his forehead and neck. He didn’t care. In that moment, all he could focus on was Renjun, how beautiful he was, the intensity that the other made him feel, how alive, and then the feelings were urgent.

“Ren…jun - “

The word’s died in Jeno’s throat as he used what sense remained in him to pull Renjun off his cock, the smaller still using his hand to pump up and down and bring him to his release. In seconds, Jeno was moaning loudly as he came in streaks of white, the other still stroking up and down in rhythmic movements.

Jeno threw his head back again, hands dropping from Renjun’s hair and falling limply to his sides. He was incapacitated, blissed out on pleasure, body recovering from his intense orgasm as Renjun stood up from where he had been kneeling, glancing at Jeno. The man’s eyes were closed as he rested contently, breath heavy from exhaustion.

“You’re beautiful”, was all Jeno could muster as he opened his eyes and grinned at the smaller. Renjun proceeded to climb into his lap as he peppered small kisses along Jeno’s chest, the other’s senses still heightened from his stimulation. Renjun explored his body greedily, the intense pleasure from the kisses almost unbearable to Jeno. Each one sent a blush of tingles spreading across the area of skin where Renjun had left it, Jeno whimpering softly. He moved so he rested next to Jeno on the couch, carefully pushing back the loose strands of sweaty hair that had fallen into his beautiful face. Jeno’s eyes were closed again now and Renjun snuggled into the crook of his neck where his scar was, the man at ease as Renjun pressed his body against his. He kept his eyes shut, but his arm came around Renjun’s shoulders encircling him, so the embrace held the smaller closer. They stayed like that for a while, both glowing and Renjun listened as Jeno’s heavy breaths turned shallow as he calmed down.

“You didn’t have to pull me off you know, I would have been fine”, Renjun broke through the silence with a soft laugh.

“I didn’t want to push your limits”, Jeno replied as he dared a look at the man in his arms. “Maybe next time”, he grinned and Renjun smiled, nodding.

“I can’t believe you just, you were… amazing”, Jeno was almost speechless. “I was only going to ask you if you wanted to go for a walk or something.”

“The other day in the stables Jeno… I’ve never felt so…”, Renjun trailed off and Jeno drew gentle patterns into the skin exposed by his short-sleeved shirt as he felt the warmth that radiated from the smaller.

“So?”

“So loved”, Renjun finished carefully and he buried his head against Jeno’s side and laughed. “I know it sounds cliché but it’s true. You make me feel loved.”

“You make me feel loved Huang Renjun, you make me feel alive”, he said earnestly as his eyes trailed over Renjun’s form before he remembered their current state.

“I should… uh… clean up, I’ll be back in a few minutes”, Jeno said as he stood shakily. “Rest here for a bit, I’m sure they don’t need you downstairs right now”, he finished as he bent down to kiss Renjun’s forehead as the other curled up on the now empty couch. As Jeno walked towards the bathroom door, Renjun let his eyes flutter closed in the safety of the room, letting himself drift off to thoughts of Jeno.

xxx

Renjun hadn’t been tending to the rose garden so frequently since his work had increased, and when he had found himself with a spare afternoon the next day, he felt it to be the perfect chance to spend a few hours there. As he stood by one of the bushes, carefully cutting the dead blooms, he felt at home again. He missed coming out here with Jeno and looked forward to when they could again. For now, though, he daydreamed about when he would see him that evening. He would tell him about his progress today, about how the red roses they planted had finally started to flower. He sighed softly to himself as he thought about it. He’d been waiting to tell Jeno about the book he was reading, he knew the other would love it too and Renjun still treasured their visits to the library together.

“Your boyfriend told me all about you.”

He jumped as he heard the voice behind him, his blood running cold.

Jaesuk had seen him leaving through the doors that led to the garden, and, curious to see what the housekeeper did with his free time, he had followed him here. They were alone now, face to face and Renjun dropped the cutters he was using in his surprise.

“He said you were just his housekeeper… yesterday at dinner. Are you sure I wasn’t right about what I said Renjun?”

“It’s Mr Huang to you.” Renjun gritted his teeth.

“Is it now?”, Jaesuk sneered as he raised an eyebrow. “Tell you all about this place, did he?”, Jaesuk gestured around the garden. “About the castle too? Poor lost little Jeno all alone here, tragic really isn’t it?”, Jaesuk laughed as he strode over to where Renjun stood.

“I’m surprised he let someone like you in here.” His voice was arrogant as he picked up the cutters from the ground and placed them back into Renjun’s hands.

“You’re just a troublemaker, I’m not afraid of you”, Renjun spat back as he tried to turn around to continue, picking up a pile of the dead roses he had already cut. As he did, Jaesuk’s hand gripped his wrist tightly, forcing him to spin back around to face him.

“Why don’t you show me what you do for him?”, he whispered.

“If you just came here to provoke me, I would appreciate it if you left.” Renjun tried his best to sound fierce against the other’s iron grip, but it only tightened.

“I’ve given up trying to be nice to you”, Jaesuk sighed.

“Get off me now.”

“How dare you talk to me like that!”, the man screamed but his face turned placid soon after.

Jaesuk let go suddenly and laughed.

“You’re a servant, Renjun. Remember that.”

Renjun balled his fists and shot Jaesuk an icy glare.

“You’re quite cute when you’re angry.” Jaesuk leaned in closer, Renjun’s fury intensifying as the other laughed in his face.

The wires in Renjun’s brain short circuited and he lost control of his body, forgetting his position and barging past Jaesuk with his shoulder, throwing the roses onto the ground as he went. He knew that he shouldn’t have, that Jaesuk was more powerful than him, but he needed to get away before he let his anger get the better of him. Jeno’s cousin was left standing in the garden, agitated and annoyed at the housekeeper’s defiance. He picked one of the white roses from a nearby bush where Renjun had been and held it between his fingers. His anger soon transpired, and he crushed the petals between his fingers harshly so that they were destroyed under his hold, crumpling and falling to the grassy floor.

xxx

“When are they leaving?”, Donghyuck groaned, turning to face Jaemin from where he sat on the kitchen counter, his legs resting on a chair.

“I wish I knew”, Jaemin huffed. He’d finally had a moment of peace that day and found himself chatting idly to the frustrated cook.

“I don’t think I can stand them much longer.”

“Tell me about it.”

“Jaesuk, that bastard, you’ve seen how he’s been treating Jisung and Chenle”, Donghyuck growled protectively. “It’s one thing to pick on people your own size, but those two, they’re just kids. Then to me, do you know what he said the other day? That my cooking was ‘inadequate’– it’s like he’s trying to get me fired”. He tutted. “I’ll show him inadequate… all he needs to do is look at himself, bastard”, Donghyuck muttered under his breath as he picked up the nearest object to him, which happened to be a metal whisk, and waved it about threateningly.

“And…calm.” Jaemin snatched the cooking utensil out of his clenched fist and put it back down on the counter.

“I know it’s bad, but we’ve been through this before. They’re usually gone within a few weeks. Although...”

“Huh?”

“I overheard Yunho talking to Jeno about some business he had in town, said he’s going to be away for it, I don’t know but it probably means they’ll be here longer this time.”

Donghyuck sighed. “Bloody brilliant”, he retorted sarcastically as he threw his hands in the air defeatedly.

“Anyway”, Jaemin gushed, opting for a change of topic in their conversation. “Have you heard from Mark lately? I saw the mail came earlier and I though maybe there would be something from him.”

“Not in a while. It’s strange, I sent him the last letter ages ago. I thought he would have responded by now.”

“I’m sorry Donghyuck… it must be hard, I know how much he means to you”, Jaemin said sadly as he took the cook’s hand into his own empathically.

“I just miss him a lot and you know, seeing those two doesn’t help much”, Donghyuck nodded his head to the door and let out a small laugh, unsure if he should say Jeno and Renjun’s names out loud.

“You’ve noticed it too, right Jaemin? There’s something going on there I’m sure of it, Jeno’s not the only one to have fallen for a housekeeper before, I know what it’s like”, he said with a low chuckle.

When Jaemin was silent, staring almost blankly at Donghyuck, the other man bolted upright, Jaemin’s silence speaking louder than words ever could.

“I knew it” , Donghyuk smiled. “Well at least he’s found someone, I always knew Jeno had so much love to give, but he was always so angry at the world and it stopped him. Looks like he found someone after all”, he finished happily as he let the grin spread across his lips.

“It’s good that he’s found someone… I just… its kind of weird because it was me and him for so long”, Jaemin confessed and the cook furrowed his eyebrows.

“Oh, don’t be stupid Jaemin, you’ll always be his best friend, he’d never let anyone get in between that.”

“Yeah, best friend”, Jaemin said with a small laugh, interrupted by the voice of Chenle as the younger stopped at the entrance of the kitchen.

“Hey guys”, he chimed softly with a grin.

“Hey Chenle, where’s Jisung?” Donghyuck questioned and even Jaemin was peering behind the boy expecting to see the other behind him.

“He went to check on the vegetable garden outside, said he needed some fresh air too.”, Chenle paused. “Ever since Renjun introduced him to gardening, he’s always going out there, he loves it.”

“Oh right”, Donghyuck chuckled with relief. “Well uh… if you see him, tell him to pick me something from it for the meal later”.

“Will do”, Chenle laughed softly as Donghyuck watched him step out of the doorway back into the corridor, walking in the direction of the doors to the garden.

“It’s good to see those two okay again, I hope Jaesuk isn’t going to cause any more trouble”, Jaemin fumbled with the sleeves of his suit as he grimaced.

“Right, I’d better be off and make myself look busy; I don’t want to look like I’m slacking.”

Donghyuck let out a gasp of laughter as the other trudged back out into the hallway.

xxx

Renjun had a book open across his chest and he flicked through the pages in the dim evening light of the library. He was sprawled across the floor with his head resting in Jeno’s lap. The other man sat crossed legged so that he could accommodate Renjun, occasionally running his fingers through the smaller’s hair as he watched him deep in thought over the words on the pages, sighing occasionally as he read.

After some time in silence, the other put the book down beside him and rolled onto his front so he was facing Jeno.

“You okay?”, Jeno grinned.

Renjun nodded, pushing the events in the rose garden out of his head as he looked at the softness in Jeno’s face.

“Want to head back downstairs?”

“Hmm… soon”, Renjun nodded lightly, thinking for a moment.

“What exactly is it that your uncle does Jeno? Does he have a lot of properties?”, Renjun questioned curiously.

“Well, he has a big house that he stays in, but he definitely doesn’t work in property, he doesn’t really do anything actually, why?”, Jeno said, perplexed at Renjun’s sudden interest.

“Oh I… I don’t know if should be saying this but when I was cleaning his room there was a letter on his desk. He was writing to a lawyer, it said something about a property deed, I’m not sure, it wasn’t that clear, but I thought maybe you’d know why…” Renjun trailed off as Jeno’s face scrunched up in confusion. He shook his head.

“That’s really strange. I wonder if it’s to do with his trip. He’s not very forthcoming with conversation about anything meaningful. I doubt he’d tell me.”

“Jeno…”, Renjun spoke in a hushed voice as he sat upright. “You don’t think it’s about this place, do you?”

Chapter Text

“Are you okay?”

Chenle hadn’t seen him before, he must have been the new one everyone was talking about. Word got around quickly in the orphanage and when someone new arrived, it was big news for the children there. The boy looked similar in age to him, features delicate and hair a shade of darkened brown as he crouched on the path by the stream, wincing with his face scrunched up in pain. Chenle gaped at him, seeing how the other had tripped on the uneven ground and was now holding one of his knees close to his chest with a grimace.

“I’- “, the boy was stuttering, nodding his head timidly in an attempt to hold back the tears, this soon changing as his face suddenly crumpled. A noisy sob escaped him, he covered his mouth with his shaking hand and wailed loudly, palm lifting from his knee to reveal a reddish graze.

“Hey, it’s alright, it’s only little.”

The seven-year-old tried his best to console the sobbing boy, extending a hand quickly to distract him. When he took it tentatively, Chenle pulled him up from the ground and smiled.

“I’m Chenle, what’s your name?”

The boy sniffed. “Jisung”, he hiccupped.

“You’re hurt.”

Chenle pointed at Jisung’s injury and the other looked down at his knee, eyes widening slightly.

“A little bit”, Jisung nodded back shyly.

He furrowed his eyebrows after that, not knowing what to say next.

“I know! Do you want to play with me?”

Jisung looked hesitant.

I can show you the den I made earlier”, Chenle giggled and when Jisung smiled back, he finally relaxed.

“You can’t tell anyone about it though.”

He brought his finger up to his lips in a gesture of secrecy and Jisung nodded.

“Come on”, he beckoned, pulling them both excitedly towards one of the trees where he had stacked up an array of different branches and leaves into his own imaginary world.

“It doesn’t look very… strong.”

Jisung watched as the elder stood in front of it proudly.

“We’ll be fine.”

The next twenty minutes were filled with their laughter. When one of the tree branches fell and hit Chenle’s head softly, Jisung whispered a small ‘I told you’. Chenle frowned but saw the smile on the boy’s face, and they both erupted into fits of giggles.

The bell rang, signalling the end of playtime. They had both looked at each other, saddened by the sudden interruption.

“Oh… we should go now, I guess I’ll see you around.”

That wasn’t the last time they saw each other though, or the last time they had sat together in the same den, and so their friendship blossomed. In fact, Jisung had been thrilled to find that his dorm was on Chenle’s corridor, only a few doors down. After that, the two had become almost inseparable. The times when Jisung missed his parents, Chenle was there to pick him up, when Chenle got into trouble for his mischief, Jisung was there to keep him grounded.

They laughed together, they cried together, they grew up together.

They were the perfect pair of best friends. The orphanage wasn’t much, but it was all they had, and although they didn’t have any actual family around them, Chenle and Jisung had learnt to find a home in each other.

Chenle smiled to himself as he thought about that first time he had met Jisung. The now fourteen-year-old looked to his left where the other was sprawled across his bed with his eyes closed. Pulling his own covers down from his chin, he sat up. These times of night were his favourite, the times when he and Jisung could talk freely in the comfort of their shared room.

“Jisung”, his call was followed by a short pause. “Are you awake?”

There was a silence before the other replied.

“I am now”, Jisung groaned as he sat up in his bed and rubbed his eyes sleepily. He blinked a few times, waking himself up by stretching slowly.

“Oh… I …”

“S’okay”, the boy mumbled incoherently, and then he was silent again as his face turned serious.

“Thanks for looking out for me at dinner the other day”, his voice was sheepish as it continued, “thank you for always looking out for me.”

“Remember what Donghyuck said, take no notice of them”, Chenle bit his lip hesitantly.

“Yeah… I guess.”

“Jisung, I’ve known you long enough to know that you’re better than to let some bully get to you.”

Jisung was looking at him with a softness in his eyes. “When we were in the orphanage, you wouldn’t ever let any of the others pick on me.”

“Yeah well… you’re my best friend, I wasn’t going to let anyone pick on my best friend”, Chenle’s reminiscent laughter radiated from his speech and he grabbed one of the pillows from behind him, resting it under his chin.

“I’m going to make sure I’m doing it right next time, maybe then he won’t keep – “

“It’s not you though, it’s him, he’s just causing trouble.”

Jisung huffed and folded his arms stubbornly. “I’ll be glad when they’re both gone. I wish Mark was here, he’d know exactly what to do.”

“I miss him too, but he promised us that he would visit. Anyway, Renjun seems nice” he grinned, thinking about Jisung’s new interest, “and he showed you the garden.”

Jisung let out a small squeal. “Oh, it’s wonderful. He taught me how to grow so much and helped me plant all the seeds. The carrots were finally ready today… and…and the tomatoes, well I gave some of them to Donghyuck because he said he wanted something to use for dinner but then he told me he didn’t want those he wanted the turnips so I went back and- “

Jisung’s speech was cut short as a pillow was hurled in his direction and hit the top of his chest.

“Okay go to sleep now Jisung”, Chenle laughed as he slung himself back down onto his bed at the sound of Jisung’s rambling.

“Hey”, the younger whined and Chenle sighed with amusement as he rested his head on the remaining pillow, eager now to sleep before facing another day at the castle.

xxx

“Jeno.”

Jeno froze. He thought he would be able to sneak past his uncle without the other noticing. He hadn’t been so lucky though as he was standing in the dining room, smiling expectantly. It was evening now and the dark shadow of the man that the moon cast, by its soft streaks of light through the panes of the glass window, fell onto the oak table in the centre of the room. Jeno rolled his eyes before turning slowly in the doorway to face him.

“Will you join me for a drink?”

Yunho’s voice was stern, the question not really a question but more an insistence as it left little room for Jeno to refuse.

“I was actually just going- “

“You look like you need to relax, let’s go to the drawing room”

He nodded his head towards the bottle of port on one of the cabinets and before Jeno could resist again, his uncle had set down another glass and begun to pour the liquid carefully.

“Grab that bottle and bring it with us.”

Yunho picked up the glasses and gestured for his nephew to follow him through to the room. It had been so long since Jeno had been in there, that he had almost forgotten the castle had a drawing room and without much thought, he found himself following reluctantly. When they entered he took a seat at one of the large leather armchairs, drink placed next to him on a small, round table. Yunho hummed briefly but was soon distracted by the glass in his hand, Jeno not so enticed as he let his sit beside him. He knew that there was no avoiding his uncle now and so his thoughts drifted, Renjun’s words about the letter finding their way back into his head. He folded his arms.

“Uncle, you said you were going away tomorrow, tell me more about it, is it a new business?”

“You could say that”, Yunho replied with a light chuckle.

“What kind of business is it?”

“I like it round here. I’m looking into acquiring property in the area.”

Yunho sat back in the large arm chair and took another swig of his drink.

Jeno frowned. He liked it here? The area around the castle was virtually abandoned.

“Do you have anything in mind?”, he blurted impulsively, still unsatisfied.

“Yes, actually I do.”

“Drinking without me?”

Jeno’s head shot round as he heard the voice of his cousin and looked up to see him with a conceited grin plastered across his face.

“Jaesuk.”

Jeno’s tone was blunt, the suspicions dissolving momentarily before he could find it in him to scrutinize his uncle further. Jaesuk slunk down in one of the chairs opposite Jeno so that the two were facing each other. He was dressed plainly in his evening attire as he slouched forward, elbows resting on his knees with little restraint in his posture. Jeno disregarded him and shot a look of fire to his uncle again.

“Have a good day, Cousin?” Jaesuk sneered.

Jeno’s frustration was growing.

“Yes, rather good actually.” He shifted uncomfortably in his seat before returning the glare to his uncle, but the man’s attention was no longer fixed on his nephew.

“Oh Jaesuk, perfect timing. I need to pack, at least our dear Jeno here will have some company for the rest of the evening”.

With that it became clear that Jeno wasn’t going to get anymore answers for now as the man rose from his chair and walked towards the door, glancing back over his shoulder.

“Don’t bother waking up for me tomorrow. I’ll be heading off early in the morning”, he turned, leaving Jeno and Jaesuk alone, his empty glass left out on the sideboard.

“I should be off to bed too.”

Jeno started to get up but Jaesuk’s cold voice stopped him dead in his tracks.

“Does it still hurt?”

The voice was roughened, cruel as he taunted the ghosts of Jeno’s past branded on his tainted skin. They were calculated and coarse and Jeno knew immediately what he was referring to, hand clamping self-consciously over the area where the scar lay on his neck, the top of it peeking out from above the collar of his white shirt. He stared at his cousin in disbelief.

“Not really”, Jeno’s voice came out little above a whisper as he sunk back into his chair, the weight of the words heavy, “I’m learning to live with it.”

“Awful, awful the events of that night, such a tragedy.” Jaesuk feigned a solemn frown as he looked at his cousin again.

“Since when did you start caring?” Jeno snarled.

Jaesuk smiled coyly.

“You do me such an injustice, of course I care about you, Cousin.”

“We may be related by name, but we don’t share any values, all you care about is yourself and your own greed.” Jeno’s anger had gotten the better of him again.

“I don’t know Jeno, I think there are some similarities between us - we both know what we want.

He paused. “We’re willing to be greedy if it gets us what we desire.

Jeno’s head shot up in confusion at the ambiguity of the statement, the words like venom as he tried to decode them.

“Be careful, I might actually start to think you have emotions”, Jeno muttered sarcastically with a glare. The glare was held by Jaesuk’s own piecing eyes but then his attention was caught by an ornate box on the sideboard next to him and he lifted it into his hand with ease.

“Those were my father’s”, Jeno growled as he looked at the cigars that had been left untouched for four years, now in Jaesuk’s palm. He took one out of the box and played with it between his fingers, running it under his nose slowly and inhaling the strong aroma of tobacco.

“Well, he’s not here now, is he?”

“Don’t touch them.”

The laugh that rose from Jaesuk’s throat was enough to push Jeno over the edge and he lunged forward, snatching the cigars out of his cousin’s hand swiftly and putting them back where they belonged with the rest of his father’s things.

“I said, don’t touch them”, he muttered before composing himself. “Excuse me,” he sighed deeply as he turned and exited the room without another word.

xxx

“So, your uncle found another house here and that’s what he’s going to talk to lawyers about, that’s what he said to you?”, Renjun frowned as he tried to piece together the puzzle inside his head.

“Well, not exactly, he says he wants to ‘acquire’ property,” Jeno shook his head. “I’m not sure. He was vague again and then Jaesuk interrupted so I couldn’t say anything else.”

Jeno watched the smaller cringe as he sat with his legs dangling off his bed, swinging them casually. He frowned but pushed his worry away when he saw Renjun’s familiar pout return to his face as he flopped back onto the bed with a sigh, letting his arms fall above his head and into the blankets.

“And he left this morning”, Renjun sighed.

It was early morning of the next day and he had made his way to Jeno’s room, the two now sitting idly as they pondered together.

“I guess asking him will have to wait”, Jeno’s voice was stifled and nervous.

“I guess so…”

Renjun sat up from the bed, trying to push the thoughts to the back of his mind for now.

“I need to clean his room.”

There was a tinge of disappointment in Renjun’s voice as he considered the prospect of leaving both Jeno and the warm bed he was laying on.

“Now that you’re so good at cleaning, want to come with me?”

To Renjun’s surprise, Jeno nodded enthusiastically. He knew that with Jeno’s uncle out of the way, they had one less person to worry about and the two would be free to spend more time together. As well, he had not come across Jaesuk since the previous evening and so he assumed the other must be sleeping in.

“As long as I can spend time with you”, Jeno grinned.

Renjun walked towards the door and beckoned the other to follow, rolling his eyes at the line as he laughed under his breath. Jeno followed him like a lost puppy down to Yunho’s room in the guest corridor. It was empty as they walked, standing as usual, just a few feet apart in case anyone was to see them. It wasn’t likely though as they were the only two that rose this early in the morning, Renjun because he had work to do and Jeno because he wanted to catch the other in the early hours.

Once they were inside the room, Jeno listened as Renjun instructed him to strip the bed of its sheets, whilst he occupied himself with cleaning the windows. Jeno took the bedding off carefully and placed it in a heap beside the door, picking up a clean sheet. He glanced over at Renjun and stopped, transfixed by his figure silhouetted against the window. The sun’s rays shone exquisitely through his baggy shirt, highlighting the soft curve of his waist and creating a halo around his upper body. Jeno was mesmerised by each simple movement. His concentration faltered and the sheet slipped from his hand carelessly. He picked it up again quickly, but his eyes were still on Renjun, vision trailing down his form to the small of his back. Renjun furrowed his brow each time he wiped the panes, on his tiptoes, the effort causing the faint rasping of his breath as he stretched.

“I think you missed a bit”, Jeno teased, gesturing upwards.

“I know that.”

Renjun gritted his teeth, not twisting his body around, but reaching up again with desperation and failing. He stopped struggling immediately when he felt a hand, warm fingers sliding over his, the touch soft as they took the cloth. He peered behind him to see Jeno lean up and run it over the far reaches of the window, his tongue protruding slightly from the corner of his mouth as he worked. Once finished, Jeno gave him a lopsided smile and placed the cloth back into Renjun’s hand gently.

“Thanks.”

Jeno leant forward, placing a kiss on Renjun’s lips, the kind of kiss that was soft and warm, that he lost himself in. He was left wanting more when Jeno pulled away, hazy eyes fluttering open as he smiled down at Renjun.

“You looked stunning.”

“There’s a bed over there that needs changing”, Renjun teased as he gestured to the unmade bed that Jeno had left behind, feigning a stern voice and turning back to the window. He wavered for a moment though when he looked at Jeno’s lips, leaning forward to press another kiss against them, the familiar comfort hitting him before he patted the other’s behind gently, pushing him towards the messy sheets.

While Jeno busied himself again, Renjun moved to the desk, the same one that Yunho had been writing at the last time he cleaned the room. There were three drawers. He couldn’t.

He tidied the surface, straightening the writing set and other objects that had been strewn upon it, staring at it a second time. Before he could resist his temptation, he slid the first drawer open.

Empty. Renjun frowned but brushed his fingers against the handle of the second and tugged on it.

This one definitely wasn’t empty, jammed with stacks of paper. Renjun pulled at it harder so it flew open in a rush, a few of the loose pages flying out and drifting to the ground. He bent and picked one up, examining the words as he read them carefully.

“Jeno?”, he called quickly, eyes wide with panic as the other spun around at the call. “Did you sign something?”

Renjun stared at the papers in disbelief.

“Huh?”

Jeno dropped the bedsheets, this time in a fluster as he rushed over to Renjun, the smaller’s arm instinctively wrapping around his waist and fitting there as Jeno read over the documents he held.

“I’ve never seen these before”, Jeno said desperately as he flicked through all the papers that Renjun had handed him, his signature and name printed at the bottom of each one. The concern flashed across Renjun’s face and he looked up at Jeno.

“That bastard, he’s forged my signature to get the deeds of the castle.”, Jeno spat as he flung the papers back onto the desk and read them again. He was angry, he wanted to grasp onto something, anything he could see for support, the dressing table, the side of the bed and cry out in his frustration. Instead, he held Renjun closer, his voice softening when he felt the smaller rubbing his waist sympathetically.

“Why would he do that?” Renjun asked.

“He’s already living off my parent’s money… if he got this place it would all be his, I would have nothing and nowhere to go. That’s where he must be now, talking about this.”

“Jeno, if you didn’t sign them, surely you can contest it.”

“I don’t know…I…I don’t know what he wants to do with these, but I can’t let him.”

“Papers alone would never stand up in a court, no matter how good of a lawyer he has, you would have to be present for it to go through and you would need legal representation too. He can’t just do that. We have time, but -”

Renjun paused apprehensively.

“You need to confront him when he comes back, he needs to know that he can’t just walk all over you.”

“Renjun I…”, Jeno trailed off as the other took his hand and squeezed it gently.

“It’s going to be okay, we can fix this, at least we know what he’s up to now.”

“I hope so, this place is the only thing I have”, Jeno murmured sadly as his voice dropped. “I don’t know why he wants this place anyway, it’s falling apart”, he let out a choked laugh.

“Don’t be silly, I know how much it means to you.”

Renjun still held Jeno’s hand tightly, rubbing slow circles over the top of it, whilst he brushed the strands of hair comfortingly that had fallen in his face.

“I suppose it’s just bricks really, what means the most are the people inside it. Jaemin, Donghyuck, Chenle and Jisung too, I don’t know what they would do if he got this place, I wouldn’t be able to help them. And, you Renjun, if he ever succeeded….., you’re the most important person in my life now.”

He stopped and looked at Renjun whose eyes were clouded with pity.

“I just want to protect you.” Jeno’s voice was sincere, Renjun’s lips on his in seconds as he tried to console him. He melted into the touch, Renjun now cupping his face between both hands this time, the kiss drawing comfort for Jeno.

They kissed again, the contact seeming to brush away every hardship, to make Jeno forget in those beautiful seconds. When Renjun pulled away, their noses were still brushing against each other as he stared into Jeno’s wild eyes.

“We’re not going to let that happen, I promise”, Renjun whispered against his lips.

“When I hear you say it will be okay, I know it will be, whatever happens.” Jeno pulled the smaller into an embrace, as though he were afraid to lose him. “You’re a genius you know?”

“I’m not so sure about that”, Renjun laughed back shyly. “Come on, let’s not do anything now, we need to think it through properly, he can’t know we found them.”

He turned and swept the letters back off the desk, placing them as they were in the drawer and hesitating before he shut it.

“I’m going to finish up here, then I said I would help Jaemin with a few bits.”

“I’ll help you. Then… I think I’ll take Onyx out for a ride, that usually helps me to clear my head.”

“Renjun”, he began but before the smaller could question it, Jeno had pulled him towards his own body impulsively, one arm flying around his shoulder and the other round his waist. Jeno was hugging him. He froze in surprise but let himself relax into the hold, Jeno’s chin resting on his shoulder. Jeno could feel the rush of helplessness again and he clung to Renjun tighter, the smaller brushing the hair on the back of his head with his fingers.

“Thank you.”

xxx

Renjun returned to Jeno’s room later that evening when the others had gone to bed. He too had changed into his night clothes but still, he knocked on Jeno’s door once, eager to see him before he slept. There was no reply. After his second attempt, he threw it open anyway and peered around the room expectantly, but Jeno was nowhere to be seen. Only his riding clothes, the white shirt and leather boots, were slung messily across the bed and Renjun glanced at them quickly.

“Jeno?”

He looked around again until his eyes focused on the door of the ensuite.

“Renjun? I’m just in the bath, I’ll be out in a second”, he heard the voice call from behind the closed door.

“I just came to see how you were doing” Renjun replied.

Renjun was thankful that no one else was here to see the light blush that rose on his cheeks when he thought about what lay on the other side of the door. He moved swiftly to fold the clothes into a neat stack and placed the boots by the foot of the bed before making himself comfortable on the blankets.

A few minutes later, the door to the bathroom opened gently and Jeno walked out with only a towel around his waist, modestly covering his nakedness. The chest muscular, shoulders strong and broad - Renjun’s breath caught in his throat at the sight. Jeno was still fixing the towel around his slender waist, hair wet and chest still damp as he noticed Renjun on his bed, smiling at him tentatively.

“Hey”, Jeno breathed out, voice small but Renjun smiled back as the other walked past the bed.

That’s when Renjun saw it for the first time, the full length of Jeno’s scar. It ran from the top of his neck where Renjun had grown to see it so familiar, down his back in angry lines of damaged flesh, jagged and reddish from where the chandelier had ripped through his skin. The scar thinned into lighter streaks on his shoulder blade and ended at his ribs. Renjun trailed his eyes over it and, feeling the tightening in his throat with a short intake of breath, he gasped. Jeno sensed the eyes on his back and Renjun watched him tense up, palm resting on the wardrobe as he let out a breath he had been holding.

“I’m sorry, I’ll put a shirt on.”

He cast his eyes to the floor.

“It- “

Renjun couldn’t find the right words.

“It’s hideous.” Jeno muttered as he kept his eyes fixed to the ground, his doubt suddenly catching up with him.

“No, it’s not. Don’t apologise, never apologise. I was just shocked; I hate the thought of you in so much pain Jeno.”

Renjun stood up from the bed, stepping forward cautiously as his mind trailed over everything Jeno had been through in the last four years, the physical evidence only reinforcing his pain. He was hit by a wave of sadness.

“I don’t want people to see it”, Jeno muttered quietly as he reached for a shirt, stopping when he felt the gentle brush of fingers skimming across the tainted flesh on his back. The fingertips soon became a palm that rested on his shoulder blade so softly that Jeno almost didn’t believe that he could be treated with such gentleness, that someone was putting so much care into their touches. He felt the warm breath of the smaller fanning across the back of his neck.

“It’s part of you.”

Renjun noticed Jeno turn his head slowly so that he could see the hand on his shoulder and, if he wasn’t mistaken, he saw the glimpse of a smile across the man’s lips, fleeting before it faded into sadness again. His palm still rested on the exposed scar, the other hand now running lightly on Jeno’s back to join the first one and dance across the skin in gentle flutters, each movement working as though Renjun was getting to know the skin beneath it, becoming one with it as his fingers tapped gracefully with feathery touches.

Jeno was humbled by the action, giving a little more of himself to Renjun with each of his caring movements. He felt Renjun’s lips moving delicately against his skin with a tenderness that fuelled a blush down his spine and through to his fingertips. With each paper-thin hold, Jeno felt as though his scars were healed a little more, the kiss making the skin fresh and loved again. He dropped the shirt to the floor and turned to face the other, meeting the hands that had been pressed against his back, with his own so their palms were flat against each other’s, emotions fusing together as they stood in silence.

“I spent four years hiding away because of it. Now I’m standing here, you make me feel like the most beautiful thing in the world.” Jeno’s voice was shaky and quiet and Renjun could see the faint glisten of tears in his eyes. The sadness of the other’s pain hit him again, this time like a tidal wave that knocked him off his feet, defenceless.

“You are”, Renjun whispered, on the verge of tears himself but he blinked them back, “and beautiful things shouldn’t be hidden away.”

Jeno leant to rest his forehead against Renjun’s, their bodies so close that he could feel the breath of the other as it ghosted against his skin.

“I’m not the only one that’s suffered, you’ve seen hell too Renjun, my scars are just physical.”

Renjun didn’t say anything then and so Jeno waited in silence for a moment longer then kissed him compassionately, Renjun matching the movements in unspoken acknowledgment and closing his eyes, basking in Jeno’s warmth. A tear raced down Jeno’s face, catching at the corner of his mouth where his lips were still against the other’s smooth ones.

“It doesn’t matter, any of it, we’re here now and we have each other.” Renjun wiped his thumb across the other’s cheek in comfort. “Don’t cry”, he choked out in a small laugh.

Jeno blinked back at him, his heart beating faster and faster as Renjun’s face came close to his allowing him to bury his head in the smaller’s neck as Renjun held him in silence stroking him slowly. There was a rawness to it that tore through Renjun as he let the other cry into his shoulder, Jeno eventually pulling away and looking deep into his eyes.

“I’d forgotten what beauty was until I met you, you changed me. The library, the garden and… you. My life feels beautiful again.”

Jeno paused, the silence heavy in the air.

“I love you.”

His heart beat faster as the words became real, his chest tightening with emotion as the world around him blurred so that all he could see were the gentle brown eyes staring back at him, full of passion and… love. Jeno had brought happiness back into his life. Jeno loved him. The words seemed too brief for the overwhelming intensity of his feelings but in that perfect moment they were the only words that mattered.

“I love you too” Renjun confessed.

Stroking the smaller’s cheek with affection and wiping his own tears, Jeno smiled. “I don’t know how to thank you for everything you’ve done for me”, he whispered.

“Just being yourself is enough.”

Their confessions were honest and pure, filled only with the greatest of love as they held each other comfortably in the quietness of Jeno’s room.

Jeno suddenly remembered the state they were both in, Renjun in thin pyjamas and him with nothing but a towel around his waist. The towel had twisted awkwardly around his hips and was slung around them loosely now.

The realisation seemed to hit Renjun at exactly the same moment, the two breaking apart quickly, their shielded reality broken.

“I…uh… I should get changed”, Jeno muttered quickly, moving back to his wardrobe and opening one of the drawers. He took out his nightwear and let the towel drop from his hips, quickly pulling on the silk shorts.

“I should go back to my room”, was Renjun’s instant response, blushing at once.

Jeno spun round quickly.

“Please Renjun- “

Jeno’s words were sheepish and Renjun turned to look at him.

“I don’t want to be alone tonight; would you stay with me?”

Renjun wanted to stay. Renjun nodded and intertwined their fingers, pulling Jeno tentatively towards the large four poster bed. He was already in his nightwear, his usual loose white shirt and matching shorts and Jeno tugged back the covers, gesturing softly to Renjun. He climbed under the blankets, tucking them over his body so his head peeked out from above them and shuffled to the other side so Jeno could join him. Jeno never had put his shirt on and he climbed into bed next to Renjun, wearing only his shorts and enveloping the other in a soft hug from behind, his arms wrapping easily around Renjun’s slender frame, running his hand along the fabric of the shirt covering Renjun’s chest.

“I remember these,” Jeno laughed.

“I was wearing them when we first met, not really the best first impression was it?”

Jeno ran his fingers across the skin of Renjun’s stomach where his shirt had risen up slightly now. “They suit you.”

“That feels like a long time ago now.”

“I was a different person then.”

Renjun hummed softly but snuggled his head further back into the crook of Jeno’s neck, the man inhaling his cottony scent. They were silent for a few minutes and Renjun could feel Jeno’s erratic heartbeat as it wavered against his back and he turned around to face the other, frowning softly. He reached to Jeno’s forehead, running his hand across his temple as he sighed.

“You’re still stressed about your uncle aren’t you?”

Jeno nodded faintly. “I’m sorry. You’re really helping by being here though.”

Renjun hummed again, still concerned but with the warmth of Jeno’s bed, he felt the tiredness overcome him and his eyelids were heavy as he tried to force them to remain open. Eventually though, he gave up and let his head flop back into the fresh linin of the sheets, drifting off into a comfortable sleep. Jeno’s mind still raced. He hadn’t slept properly for so long but after a few minutes of listening to the steady, heavy breaths that sounded from Renjun’s chest as he breathed lightly through his nose, he felt himself slipping. Renjun’s mess of chestnut hair had flopped into his face and was scattered there as he laid with his lips slightly parted. The sight was endearing to Jeno, and for the first time in four years, he felt like the peace in his heart might finally return. That was how he fell asleep, listening to the soft lull of Renjun’s steady breathing, whilst he held the man he loved in his arms.