Jongdae’s sitting in his room exactly where Baekhyun had expected him to be, at the table by the window. Light bounces off the water outside and casts a halo of gold around him, outlining his profile perfectly.
“We will dock soon,” Baekhyun announces, and Jongdae doesn’t so much as flinch, merely looks up to where Baekhyun emerges from the shadows, crouching down onto one knee. “You are expected above deck, your highness.”
Jongdae huffs. “There’s nobody else here,” he reminds Baekhyun, staring at the chessboard in front of him. “You don’t have to be so formal.”
Baekhyun stands, smiling. “I’m practicing,” he says. “I won’t be used to it.”
“What? The formality?” Jongdae raises an eyebrow, amused.
“No.” Baekhyun shakes his head. “Being in the light.”
Jongdae pauses at that, before humming in consideration. Baekhyun is his shadow, after all, but the Isles do not have shadows; too blessed by sunshine and warmth.
Beneath his mask, Baekhyun’s smile remains as he walks forward, examining the chessboard Jongdae fiddles with. It’s his favourite set, carved out of rosewood and embedded with mother of pearl --it had been a gift from his brother, when he’d come of age. He holds the Queen in his right hand in contemplation, tapping the middle finger where he wears his golden knuckle armor against the wood, plotting out new moves.
“What’s bothering you?” Baekhyun asks.
“Nothing,” Jongdae is quick to say, but his speed only gives away the fact that he’s lying. “What makes you ask?”
Baekhyun shrugs, taking the seat facing Jongdae and examining one of the black pawns opposite the white Queen in Jongdae’s fingers.
“I only ever see your chess set when you’re scheming something,” he admits. “So I wonder.”
Jongdae seems stunned, staring at Baekhyun for a few moments before looking away. Baekhyun smiles, grateful for the mask across his face to hide such a thing.
“It’s nothing,” Jongdae replies softly before setting aside the pieces and folding the board, carefully packing it all back into its case and leaving it in his trunk with the rest of his things. “Come,” he tells Baekhyun. “I want to see Redtide for myself.”
Baekhyun nods, trailing behind Jongdae as always. The runes engraved on his palms glow on instinct, prepared to cloak Jongdae’s shadow around him, but Baekhyun has no need to hide, anymore, so he lets the magic fade. It’s strange.
The sun certainly feels hotter when they’ve traveled much farther south, beating Baekhyun’s skin even through his long black clothing, making him sweat. The ocean’s sharp wind tousles Jongdae’s hair, forcing him to brush his bangs back with his metal hand. Baekhyun’s fingertips itch when he notices a few stray curls out of place, so he folds them behind his back.
“Wow,” Jongdae remarks as they approach starboard, placing both hands onto the railing. “It’s… huge.”
Baekhyun nods in agreement, then realises Jongdae isn’t looking at him, and says, “It is.”
The Isles were always thought to be smaller than the huge cities like Veinswood back home, but there’s something about the port city of Redtide being so clustered to the shore that only makes it feel that much larger. It seems to branch and sprawl along the coastline for miles, never ending docks and factories and smoke stacks.
The boat steers, suddenly, and Jongdae loses balance if only for a moment, Baekhyun quick to catch him with a hand on his waist. Jongdae rights himself and pulls away instantly, straightening his jacket and vest. Baekhyun turns to scowl at the nearest crew member, seeking an explanation. Even if they can’t see his face, he’s sure they can feel it.
“Sorry your highness,” someone comes rushing over to apologise, prostrating themselves. “We had to avoid the blackwater.”
“Blackwater?” Jongdae questions, and turns. Baekhyun follows his gaze, and sure enough just to their right a stretch of blackened ocean can be seen. Strange, with the sun hanging over the water, it should be glittering, but it isn’t.
“It’s where the Heart’s Abyss is found, your highness,” the crewmate continues. “Where the ocean is so deep light sinks to the bottom, never to be found.”
“I’ve heard of it,” Jongdae replies, staring into the dark water. “Instead of beheading their criminals the people of Redtide fling them into the Abyss tied to a stone, waiting until the bubbles stop rising.”
Baekhyun tries to imagine it, still alive but left to drown while sinking for eternity. He shudders at the thought of being all alone in the cold, black water.
Jongdae must see this, because his eyes soften when he looks at Baekhyun, touching his wrist lightly in reassurance.
“Thank you,” he tells the crewmember. “That will be all.” Baekhyun stares at the point where Jongdae’s metal fingers brush against his skin, wishing that either of them could feel it.
“Stop scowling,” Jongdae chastises. “A boat lurching is hardly a cause for concern. I do actually have a sense of balance.”
Baekhyun snaps out of his reverie, snatching his hand back. “I was not scowling.”
“You were. I can tell.”
“How? I’m wearing a mask.”
Jongdae’s lips twitch, finding amusement in Baekhyun’s snide attitude, no doubt.
“I just can,” he says. “The same way you know when I’m scheming.”
Baekhyun’s huff makes Jongdae laugh, his bright, loud cackle that outshines the sun above the ocean. It makes Baekhyun’s ears turn red, but luckily the mask hides that too.
As his laugh tapers off, Jongdae turns back to Redtide on the horizon, which seems to only grow larger as they approach. His expression turns pensive, sad, lost in mourning.
“It will be okay,” Baekhyun tells him, trying to be as supportive as he can but it’s-- hard. Words, feelings… they’re not his strong point. He’s always been better with actions. The only thing Jongdae was allowed to take from home was his shadow; even if Baekhyun is permanently stitched to Jongdae’s heels by magic and duty both, he’s made a promise to himself to hold him up as much as possible, to keep his light burning brightly. “You… You are brilliant, and kind, and loyal. They will love you.”
“Who?” Jongdae asks, laughing a short huff, a bitter sound that’s too twisted coming from him. His knuckles turn white upon the ship railing. “The people? Or my bride-to-be?” His smile is wry.
“All,” Baekhyun answers confidently. “It will not take long for you to call Redtide home, I’m sure of it.”
Jongdae turns, tries to search Baekhyun’s eyes even though he shouldn’t be able to -- can’t -- see them through the black glass lenses. Even knowing that, Baekhyun feels bared open and vulnerable, because Jongdae has always had an uncanny sense of directing light to pierce through darkness.
“I thought you promised never to lie to me,” he says, a twisted, amused quirk to his lips.
“I would never,” Baekhyun returns firmly. “I am telling you what I believe is the truth.”
Jongdae looks down into the water, face blank to the waves crashing against the ship’s hull. He scrapes the point of his knuckle armor along the railing, the gold dragon’s face staring up at Baekhyun with its jade eyes.
“And if I do not care for their love or their home?” Jongdae begins to ask, “does that make me a bad man?”
Baekhyun’s eyebrows draw together, but before he can even think of a response the ship’s horn is blowing, announcing their docking to port as the crew rushes to accommodate. Jongdae smiles at Baekhyun, though it doesn’t reach his eyes, stepping back from the railing and stretching.
“We’re here,” he says. “Ready?”
Baekhyun opens his mouth, but words fall short on his tongue, so he bites it back instead, nodding.
At the dock, a greeting party is already set up, a man in a well-fitting suit bowing over as Jongdae is the first to step down, Baekhyun close behind.
“Your highness,” he greets. “I am Junmyeon, an attendant and adviser to the royal family, and son of Duke Kim. I am here to assure you settle in swiftly.”
“The gesture is appreciated.” Jongdae nods in thanks. “It has been a long and arduous journey across the seas.”
“I have done the journey myself, and it is no small feat.” Junmyeon rises, smiling politely. “We will do our best to ensure your comfort with utmost urgency.”
Already, workers board the ship to carry Jongdae’s things to the carriages waiting by the docks, loaded with Jongdae’s possessions and wedding gifts for his betrothed, all the gold and jade to be found in the Emperor’s mines to assure the treaty would flow smoothly.
Junmyeon gestures for Jongdae to take the carriage at the front of the row, smiling as he holds open the door.
“Forgive me, but I do not believe we’ve been introduced,” he says, cutting Baekhyun off from entering the carriage by outstretching a hand, staring into the eyes of Baekhyun’s mask.
“My apologies,” Jongdae intervenes from inside the carriage. “This is my... vassal. I prefer him to be as close to me as possible.” He doesn’t give a name, for shadows aren’t meant to have one.
“I see.” Junmyeon’s smile tightens, something… acidic, about its quality. “You should know, your highness, that shadows do not exist here. There is simply too much sunlight.” He gestures to the sun high in the sky despite it being late into the evening.
Jongdae stiffens, though he forces a smile. “My apologies, but surely I cannot be expected to partake in such a long journey without any form of personal attendant or guard?”
“I understand.” Junmyeon lowers his hands, allowing Baekhyun to pass. “Though we have adequate staff at the palace and villa--”
“I know,” Jongdae interjects. “Thank you. If that is all, I would like to see my new home before sunset.”
Junmyeon’s jaw tightens. “Of course, your highness.”
With the door shut behind him, and the two alone in the carriage, Jongdae sighs, shoulders finally dropping. It’s hotter here, on land, than it had been on the seas, and it makes Baekhyun grimace, sticky with sweat. The carriage is particularly hot and stuffy, so he pulls off his mask, grateful for the clearer air to breathe.
“Nosey attendant,” Jongdae mumbles, flexing out the fingers of his steel hand. He rolls his shoulders with an uncomfortable expression, no doubt the heat and sweat making the section where flesh meets metal ache. Baekhyun can feel it, after all.
“He knew what I was,” Baekhyun points out, frowning. Jongdae shrugs.
“It’s to be expected, I have no doubt most of the higher nobles will.” He continues rolling his left shoulder, wincing. “Curse these clothes,” he mumbles, using both hands to loosen the top few buttons of his dress shirt and tug the collar down. Baekhyun tries not to stare at the curve of his throat as it dips beneath linen but it’s… difficult. He regrets removing his mask. “They’ll stop asking questions soon enough.”
Baekhyun jerks his eyes upwards, nodding.
“Are you sure it wouldn’t be better for me to--”
“No.” Baekhyun snaps his mouth shut. “It’s too dangerous. It would be too suspicious to hide you, and if anyone sensed the magic…”
Baekhyun nods in understanding, staring at the palm of his hands where twin runes are carved into his skin, filled with black ink. The Isles aren’t like the Aymaera continent, where magic is used only in the shadows. There are no runemakers in the Isles, not even for the nobles above and beyond the law. Magic comes at a great physical toll for such limited power; something many do not see worth in.
“But if they know what I am, what I can do…”
“They cannot touch you,” Jongdae states resolutely, meeting Baekhyun’s eyes. “If they so much as think about it, I will consider it treason against their Prince and have them thrown into the Abyss.”
It leaves Baekhyun winded, when Jongdae so firmly says things like that, and makes his heart kick in his chest. Then again, he reminds himself, he is Jongdae’s shadow, an extension of Jongdae; to harm a Prince’s shadow is to harm the Prince himself.
“Besides,” Jongdae restarts, settling into his seat with a sigh as Baekhyun only tenses more, fingers curling into fists at his side. “To have you in the open is like keeping a sheathed sword at my belt.”
Baekhyun cocks his head. “How so?”
“I have not drawn my sword to the Isles,” Jongdae answers, gaze drawn to the carriage window. “But I did not trust them enough to come unarmed.”
The Isles, with their light and their strange holy gods and their rules have some sort of stick up their ass about auspicious dates and auspicious traditions.
Thus the carriage does not lead them to the palace of Redtide, but the royal family’s summer villa instead, Mauville Court. Apparently, it would be unlucky for Jongdae to see his bride before he meets her, a curse upon two nations.
Jongdae had complied to settling in to the villa before they left, though Baekhyun has continued to be perturbed even now. He hates the idea of Jongdae having to stay at the royal equivalent of an inn just so the Isles can ensure the terms of the treaty are met before signing. It makes Baekhyun grind his teeth, annoyed to see Jongdae used as a mere pawn when he’s fit to be King. They fling him around like a toy at their own convenience when Baekhyun knows he’s worth so much more than that, boiling his blood--
Jongdae must sense his anger, because he brushes his fingers over Baekhyun’s lightly, relaxing him.
Junmyeon’s tour of the grounds seem to continue on forever. They enter the iron wrought gates woven with vines and then it’s never ending; sprawling gardens and high-roof ballrooms, a dining room large enough to fit a thousand people, six floors worth of it all.
Eventually, Jongdae excuses himself with needing a bath and a meal. Junmyeon gives that tight, forced smile before saying of course , with servants scurrying off to the kitchen.
There are more servants in Jongdae’s quarters and en suite, and they stare at Baekhyun as he enters with Jongdae, looking away if he tilts his mask in their direction to meet their eyes. He’s sure he’s intimidating, black dragon mask and all, but they could try a little harder to at least pretend they’re not staring.
“If you’d like, my lord, I can show you to your own quarters while your highness bathes?” one of the servants squeaks, despite having such a deep voice with long, clumsy limbs.
Baekhyun looks to Jongdae, who waves him off.
“Go,” he tells Baekhyun. “I’m sure I’ll survive a bath on my own. We’re not in any danger here.”
It’s that same easy-going attitude that had resulted in Jongdae’s arm being cut off, but Jongdae is insistent, and Baekhyun struggles to argue. He lets the tall servant lead him down the hall -- too far down, in Baekhyun’s opinion-- to a guest chamber, with a large four-poster bed and en suite far nicer than anything Baekhyun is used to.
“Does it please you, my lord?” the servant asks. “You are a man of few words, I fear upsetting you.”
“It’s fine,” Baekhyun answers, unused to speaking to anyone who isn’t Jongdae, a shadow, or someone from the palace of Veinswood. Another thing he’ll need to adjust to. “But I am no lord.”
“Then what shall I call you?”
Baekhyun shrugs. “It does not matter. Thank you.”
The servant flusters, before recognising his dismissal, bowing and scurrying away. Baekhyun examines the room, too gaudy for his own taste, with cushioned green velvet walls and leather upholstery, mahogany furniture, and a bath so large it seems like it would take hours to fill from the taps, sprawling across the floor from wall to wall
In Veinswood he had slept in a hidden room not much larger than a closet adjoining Jongdae’s, close to the Prince to protect him need be. In contrast, the spaciousness only makes Baekhyun feel more vulnerable, disliking having Jongdae so far away. It’s that same anxiety that has him retracing the steps of the servant he’d mapped out back to Jongdae’s room, letting himself slip through the double doors, sighing into the empty space.
The servants had already brought up trunks filled with Jongdae’s things and unpacked them during their tour, a fresh outfit of a clean dinner suit laid out on the four poster bed, pressed and perfect. Baekhyun sits on the bed, running his left fingers over the velvet lapel, unable to feel the texture with dead nerves.
His fingers reach the silk shirt, another lost texture, so he reaches with his right hand instead to feel the smooth softness. Self-indulgently, Baekhyun’s eyes flick to the closed en suite door before bringing the shirt up, pulling his mask off, and inhaling. It smells of Jongdae, his spiced perfume and earthy scent, something that helps comfort Baekhyun immensely.
The bathroom doors open, and Baekhyun flings the shirt down, embarrassed as he fiddles with the straps of his mask in his lap with faux disinterest, hoping not to be caught. Jongdae arches an eyebrow at him, running a fluffy white towel through his hair while one is tied around his waist.
“Aren’t you going to bathe?” he asks, then shakes his head in disbelief. “You have a vacation for the first time in your life and you seem even more reluctant to leave my side.”
“I am,” he answers. “We’re in a foreign country. I don’t trust anyone, I certainly don’t feel safe, and I am a shadow. We do not have vacations.”
Jongdae rolls his eyes. “I know, but shadows don’t exist here. There’s no one to uphold you to a standard besides me, and I know better than anyone how much you deserve rest.” He picks up the shirt Baekhyun had smelled earlier, pulling it over his shoulders as his towel falls to the floor, unashamed to be naked in front of his shadow. Luckily, Baekhyun has seen Jongdae naked enough to be past caring, though he does still have to stop himself from looking. “It won’t kill you to have a nice bath for once.”
“No, but it might kill you.”
Jongdae’s fingers pause their buttoning at that, and he sighs, shoulders drooping.
“I’m being protective.” Baekhyun narrows his job. “It’s my job.”
“You’re being stubborn ,” Jongdae corrects. “And your job is what I tell you it is.”
That shuts Baekhyun up, and he turns his face away, grunting. Jongdae sighs again, pulling on under linens and trousers and tucking in his shirt, pulling up the suspenders and reaching for his vest, pulling it taut around his slim waist.
He picks up the dinner jacket, jade velvet and all, and Baekhyun feels the pain before Jongdae curses, the sharp, sting to his finger and the sensation of beading blood.
“Shit,” Jongdae swears.
“Are you okay?” Baekhyun stands immediately, rushing over and prying Jongdae’s right hand open, revealing the pricked finger.
“I’m fine, Baekhyun,” Jongdae reassures, an amused smile on his face as he pulls his hand back to suck the blood away, shaking it. Baekhyun frowns. “Just a stray piece of wire in the collar poking out.”
“No more than a paper cut.” Jongdae snorts, placing his hands on Baekhyun’s shoulders and digging his fingers in to massage them. “This is what I mean when I tell you to relax.”
Baekhyun squirms. “But what if the cut is bigger next time, the pain more--”
“There are servants and guards in the hall, and I know you will come back to me in time.” He gives one last squeeze before pushing Baekhyun towards the door, giving a reassuring smile. “Go. Get the sweat and seasalt off and meet me downstairs for dinner.”
Baekhyun stammers out half excuses but Jongdae is adamant, forcing Baekhyun to grumble as he places his mask back on to march to his room. He scrubs himself off quick and efficient, harsh enough to make his skin turn red, choosing to simply kneel in the bathtub and fill a wooden pail repeatedly to pour over himself than go through the effort of soaking.
He dresses in a clean set of his uniform, and paces quickly enough to get downstairs for it to almost be considered running, relieved to see Jongdae sitting at the dining table and laughing with a glass of wine in his hand. He’s talking to the servant over his shoulder, the tall one from before, grinning so brightly it makes Baekhyun taste the colour green.
“Ah he arrives,” Jongdae announces, smiling at Baekhyun. He’d discarded the jacket and vest altogether, leaving him in only the silk shirt with the sleeves rolled up, suspenders hanging limp at his waist. “How long was that? Four minutes? Your longest time yet.”
Baekhyun grunts, pulling out a chair and seating himself before the servant can run around to do it, making him flounder. He offers a pitcher of wine but Baekhyun turns him away.
“He doesn’t drink,” Jongdae says for him. “He’s a stubborn prude.”
“It would be betraying my creed,” Baekhyun corrects. (Plus, wine tastes really, really bad, but he doesn’t say that.)
“Your creed is null and void here,” Jongdae argues, as servants begin awkwardly placing food in front of them, evidently sensing the tension. “You could be anything you want here, an attendant, an advisor, a servant, a lord , and you still just choose to be... this . My shadow.”
“I--” Baekhyun stumbles. “--I only want to be your shadow…”
“Because you’ve never had a choice otherwise.” Jongdae makes a quiet noise of frustration, tugging at his hair with his hand. “Whatever,” he mumbles. “Eat.”
Baekhyun does so reluctantly, waiting for a majority of the servants to leave before pulling his mask off. Once he does, he can see the tall servant’s eyes widen comically before he straightens his face, making Baekhyun feel self-conscious. He’s not used to eating in front of others --he’s not used to even being uncovered. In Aymaera, for a shadow to act human is to show weakness; Baekhyun ate in his room in the night away from prying eyes. The lax rules here only make him more nervous --he should be standing at Jongdae’s side, not sitting across from him.
But the food is delicious, made to a royal’s standard, rather than something for a servant, causing Baekhyun to be greedier than he should. Throughout it all, though, he keeps catching the tall servant’s eyes and shifting, uncomfortable with the attention.
“Tell me Chanyeol,” Jongdae starts, confusing Baekhyun until he realises he’s talking to the tall servant now re-filling his wine glass. “Why do you stare at my vassal so much?”
Chanyeol stammers, but Jongdae only laughs.
“Relax, I ask out of curiosity, not insult.”
“I… your vassal has a very stern exterior,” Chanyeol admits, gaze flicking to Baekhyun before pulling away. “But a very soft face. It’s strange. The mask he wears, and his skin…” he trails off, flushing, and Baekhyun turns warm too, to be noticed in such detail by a stranger. He feels so bare. “It is very uncommon here.”
Jongdae laughs. “It is uncommon in Aymaera too, which is why he must hide so much of himself,” he explains. It makes Baekhyun feel odd, to be spoken of as if he is not in the room. “But don’t be afraid. He is harmless.”
“To you,” Baekhyun adds, which makes Jongdae laugh and he himself smile at the way Chanyeol gulps, wide-eyed.
Jongdae runs through the plans of the coming days for Baekhyun, relayed to him in writing by Junmyeon. Tonight is their only night off, the rest will be filled with dinner parties and meetings with nobles and royals from across the Isles, coming to meet the groom-to-be to bestow him with well-wishes and gifts.
Of course, it’s more than that, a test for Jongdae to hold his ground, to navigate the snake pit that is the life of nobility. Baekhyun has seen Jongdae do it countless time, always the victor, but it still makes him writhe.
Their plates are cleared, and Chanyeol brings in dessert, a sweet pudding made of figs with creamed ice. Baekhyun doesn’t feel hungry but his mouth still waters, reaching out with silver spoons to let it melt in his mouth. He makes a happy noise around the sweetness, unable to resist, and it makes Jongdae smile.
“I’ll need you more than ever now,” he says, startling Baekhyun as he blinks at Jongdae with the spoon still in his mouth. “You understand that, right?”
Baekhyun pops the spoon out. “Of course.” He nods. He is the only thing Jongdae has here, and he will do his best to serve. “I’m here to take care of you, Jongdae.”
Jongdae softens at his name, though Chanyeol seems shocked by the informality before scrambling away, wide-eyed.
“Then I will take care of you in return,” Jongdae replies, thumbing a drop of cream at the corner of his lip.
Baekhyun frowns. “I do not need to be taken care of.”
“Of course you do,” he counters. “We’re partners, Baekhyun. Don’t argue against it.”
There it is again: that winded feeling. Baekhyun feels himself inhale sharply even as all the air seems to exit his body, leaving him breathless. How Jongdae can say things like that and then be surprised when Baekhyun refuses to leave his side, needing to protect something so bright… Baekhyun will never understand.
"You make me a bad shadow," Baekhyun mumbles, though he's smiling, unable to help himself. Jongdae grins right back, a morning star in the blackest of nights.
In the morning, after a night of fitful rest --the bed too soft and too far from Jongdae-- Baekhyun accompanies Jongdae on a morning walk through the gardens, discussing the strange, bright flora so far south. Out of the servants ears, Jongdae tells Baekhyun which of the nobles to keep close eyes on, the ones he worries of the most. Ones that would do better off if the Isles sided with Karasa in the war, rather than Aymaera. Families who own coal and iron mines, and plots of the northeast sea, likely to be bribed by Karasan nobles.
Baekhyun memorises all of them of course, though as they reach the greenhouse Jongdae asks the groundskeeper questions about the plants, what they grow and how. He's always curious, like that, eager to learn everything he can about the world around him and beyond; it makes Baekhyun smile with fondness, beneath his mask. Jongdae would make a fine scholar, or perhaps a charming adventurer, if he weren’t Prince.
They have a welcoming dinner that night, thrown in Duke Kim's estate --Junmyeon's father. Both high on Jongdae's cautious list. Their family has produced a long line of ministers to the royals, and their power only makes them all the more dangerous. They may not side with Karasa, Jongdae had said, but Jongdae is a variable in their line of power, something he’s certain they’ll wish to deal with --either with control, or elimination completely.
Baekhyun wears his uniform as always, though Jongdae dresses in a lavish, silken three-piece that leaves him complaining about the heat and stuffy nobility. Baekhyun teases him for being stuffy nobility.
He poses as personal guard for the new prince, and skirts the outside of the ballroom, used to how these things go. Jongdae drinks expensive, imported wine from crystal glasses and worms his way into noble gossip while Baekhyun plans every possible exit route. He's no more paranoid than usual, it's just a reflex in boredom.
Jongdae dances with the pretty daughters of dukes and earls and ministers and Baekhyun watches the way he smiles and laughs, so poised yet so calculated, watches the way they all fall for him, one by one.
Fools , Baekhyun thinks. Baekhyun is Jongdae's shadow, his partner , the only one to see what lies beneath the mask of a Prince. The rest are imbeciles to think they'll ever come as close to him as his shadow.
Then again, Baekhyun supposes, eyes drawn to Jongdae's laugh at the sound of it, he's no better off than the rest of them, left to fall perpetually for a prince who shines too brightly to see darkness.
By the sixth day of all the socialising, Baekhyun can see Jongdae is exhausted.
"Go back to sleep," he chastises, pushing a puffy eyed Jongdae back onto the mattress, who falls with little protest, only proving Baekhyun's point. "You're exhausted."
"I can't," Jongdae whines, flailing to stand. "Admiral Choi will be here any moment for morning tea and I--"
"Can keep him waiting an hour or two more," Baekhyun insists. "You cannot let the Islish push you around so much, you are a Prince . If not for your sake, then for Aymaera's. It will be good to make them wait for you."
Jongdae sighs, falling back onto the pillow. "You… make a strong argument…" he mumbles, his eyes slipping shut. Baekhyun waits until his breathing evens out before tucking the covers around Jongdae, sitting on the edge of the bed and running his fingers through his curls. Jongdae sighs into the touch, pressing closer in his sleep. Baekhyun smiles.
He awakens two hours later, more refreshed and less sallow. Jongdae greets the Admiral with barely more than a quick apology, making Baekhyun feel amused. Any disgruntled attitude is diminished when Jongdae asks the Admiral of his days with the navy, charting unsailed seas, making the Admiral smile as he happily speaks of himself and his adventures. Jongdae steers the conversation to what aid the Admiral will be lending Aymaera in the war, an amount that seems to increase across the tea, something that has Jongdae smiling in victory behind his teacup.
When he leaves, the servants quickly clear the dining area to begin preparing for dinner with a Count that evening, and Jongdae sighs.
"If one more noble asks me if I think blue is this summer's in colour, I'll throw myself into the Abyss."
Baekhyun laughs. "You've done well."
"And there is more well to do," Jongdae says, sighing as he rolls the shoulder of his prosthetic arm. Baekhyun can feel the way it throbs, mirrored on his own shoulder, and it makes guilt curl in his stomach. "Tomorrow marks fourteen sleeps until the wedding."
Baekhyun's eyes widen. Had so much time passed already? Jongdae's face hardens, steely.
"I want you to serve as my representative when sending gifts to my bride," Jongdae reveals, stunning Baekhyun.
"Me?" he blurts. "Why?"
Jongdae shrugs. "Many reasons. To send my shadow is both a sign of respect, and a warning, but besides that, selfishly, I…" he trails off.
"...You…?" Baekhyun prompts, as Jongdae fiddles with his earlobe, something he only does when he's nervous.
"I… I want you to find out what she's like, the Princess I… I must know."
Such a thing shocks Baekhyun, but the mask hides the response. He scrutinises Jongdae's face, who avoids eye contact. It's hard to tell if this is an impulsive curiosity or something more --things are rarely ever as they appear on the surface with Jongdae, even to Baekhyun.
He kneels to the ground on one knee, a tradition of shadows, removing his mask.
"It will be done," Baekhyun promises, feeling the rune on his forehead flare as he pours magic into it, sealing the promise. Jongdae nods.
"Thank you," he returns. "Though there was no need for the dramatics."
"I thought you'd like a reminder of home," Baekhyun teases, but it turns Jongdae's eyes sad and thoughtful.
"Home is here, now," he says, a hand to Baekhyun's shoulder as he rises. "But thank you all the same."
Not for the first time in his life, Baekhyun wishes he were better with words, but any response falls away, the same way the warmth from Jongdae's touch does as he lowers his hand.
He departs for Redtide's palace first thing in the morning, with Chanyeol to help him load the gifts and drive the carriage. The first gift is several trunks worth of Aymaera's finest silks --unbearable in the Isle's thick heat, but thought to make beautiful clothes for Jongdae's bride.
It trickles over Baekhyun's skin like melting ice, jealousy and hatred and rage and guilt dripping drop by drop, leaving paths like emerald snakes twisting along his skin.
He sits inside the carriage in silence, watching the Mauville Court fade into nothing more than a speck on a dirt road, loathe to be separate from Jongdae. Being bound to him through the runes on his skin means Baekhyun can physically feel the distance, stretched like rubber waiting to snap taut, pulling him back to Jongdae. Then again, maybe Baekhyun only tricks himself into feeling it, wanting to return to him either way.
Baekhyun had thought Mauville Court was huge, but Redtide's palace is even larger, carved in white marble the colour of seashells and gold sandstone, standing tall in the centre of the clustered portside city. The golden gates are pulled open as Chanyeol announces their arrival and purpose, lead to the curved driveway.
The Princess arrives just as Baekhyun steps off, immediately bowing over.
"Your Majesty," he greets before rising, meeting the Princess' eyes through his mask. She's beautiful, with long curled hair streaked with caramel, delicate, feline eyes that meet Baekhyun's unwaveringly. She wears a dress of baby blue with a wide neck that hugs her tightly, a crown of sapphire and silver and mother of pearl on her head. "I am a vassal of His Royal Highness Prince Jongdae of Aymaera of the Great Continent, sent in his stead to bestow you with his first gift before your holy matrimony."
Princess Seulgi's mouth quirks up in the corners. "Does my betrothed intend insult with such a small gifting party?"
"Of course not." Baekhyun's words may often fail him, but he's shadowed royals long enough to know their tricky silver tongues. It's easier when Jongdae isn't watching, peeling Baekhyun's mask off with knowing eyes even when it's secured in place. "His Highness would rather not waste Your Majesty’s time with a flashy parade that means nothing. He is a man of good intentions and honesty."
Baekhyun gestures for Chanyeol to bring forward the gift, unloading each trunk and snapping it open at the Princess' feet before prostrating himself.
"Finest silks from across the great continent," Baekhyun explains. "Perfect for whatever Your Majesty wishes to make of them."
Seulgi hums, but seems pleased, smiling in a way that reaches her eyes.
"A thoughtful gift," she says. "Give Prince Jongdae my thanks. I have received it well."
"Of course." Baekhyun bows over, rigid. "We will return at the same time each day, if it pleases Your Majesty."
"I look forward to it." Seulgi's eyes sparkle with amusement. "And vassal," she starts, making Baekhyun pause and turn. "I assume that sending his shadow should be seen as a great compliment too, rather than insult? I am unfamiliar with your people's ways."
"Of course your majesty." Baekhyun bows again. "I am an extension of Prince Jongdae." His hands and his eyes. "The closest thing to the Prince himself."
“Then I am grateful for such a grand gesture.” The Princess bows over; not very steep, certainly, but enough to shock Baekhyun.
“His Highness will be pleased. Thank you, Princess.”
Baekhyun boards the carriage, but as they leave the main driveway he tells Chanyeol to wait at the stables.
“What for?” Chanyeol asks.
“I have other business to attend to in his Prince’s stead,” Baekhyun says. “Say the horses need rest or be sick yourself or something, I don’t care. I’ll be back soon.”
Chanyeol turns around to question further through the carriage’s slit window for speaking with the driver, but Baekhyun’s runes have already begun to glow as he pulls at the shadows around him, cloaking himself. He sees Chanyeol’s balking expression as he takes in a seemingly empty carriage, before opening the door and leaping out, landing in the shade of a nearby tree.
Baekhyun shadow leaps back to the palace, following the Princess and her servants as they carry her gifts back to her room. The runes on his shoulder blades burn with each leap, while his palms sting from keeping the shadow pulled taut across his body, but it’s a familiar pain.
He sticks to the rafters of the high palace ceiling while following the Princess, obscured by shadow as he observes her. She examines each and every roll of silk with a small smile, and when she’s done with that she heads to morning tea with nobles Baekhyun doesn’t recognise and can’t name. They talk drivel and frivolous nonsense, and once the Princess excuses herself she sits in the Palace garden and reads, her feet curled up at her side.
A dreadfully boring day, fitting for a Princess, Baekhyun supposes. Seulgi’s late Father had had no male heirs dying early in life, having handed over the throne to the Princess’ younger cousin, instead. Though she is Crown Princess in the time being, it is a role she will lose once the current King marries and fathers an heir, leaving her as nothing more than a figurehead to waste her days amongst lavish wealth.
Just as Baekhyun doesn’t think the day can get any more boring, a servant comes to collect the Princess, who puts her shoes back on and follows, intriguing Baekhyun as he creeps through the shadows. The Princess is lead to the King’s sitting room, where her younger cousin now sits, greeting her warmly. He is of age, but only just, portly and covered in sweat in the thick heat. Seulgi kisses his cheeks regardless, and they engage in small talk as they sit down to prepare for a round of chess.
Being Jongdae’s shadow means Baekhyun is well acquainted with the game, using the runes beneath his eyes to enhance his vision as he pours magic into them, watching the game unfold. Seulgi’s strategy seems conserved, though Baekhyun notes she uses the Queen ruthlessly, taking piece after piece from the King’s side.
Just as Baekhyun believes Seulgi has won, she makes a stupid, careless move only a beginner would make, taking her Queen out of play and every piece after it until the King yells checkmate, gleeful.
“One day you’ll win, dear cousin,” he tells her, smug and snide. “I thought you almost had it for a moment there, but I remain undefeated.”
Seulgi smiles at the King in a way that reminds Baekhyun of Jongdae; calculated and careful. It’s then he realises that Seulgi’s mistake hadn’t been a mistake at all.
“Perhaps one day, my King,” she begins to say, “I’ll have a victory of my own.”
Chanyeol jumps as Baekhyun finally lets the shadows fall away, appearing at his side.
“Where did you go ?” he asks, aghast. “How did you do that!? I swear you disappeared into thin air.”
“You imagine things,” Baekhyun tells him, smiling to himself beneath his mask. “Let’s go.”
Chanyeol opens his mouth to argue more, but snaps it shut, recognising that it’s probably best not for him to talk back to his superior, though Baekhyun can tell he wishes to say more, wriggling in the drivers seat as if he’s going to burst with curiosity.
Jongdae is waiting for Baekhyun in his chambers, staring at his rosewood chess set. How fitting.
“Well?” he asks, anxious --something Baekhyun can only tell due to the hard line of Jongdae’s body, like a spring coiled tight. “How did it go?”
“The Princess received the gifts well,” Baekhyun is pleased to report.
“And?” Jongdae prompts, fiddling with his ear lobe.
“...And?” Baekhyun teases.
“What was she like?” he asks, now running his metal fingers over the knuckle armor on his other hand.
Baekhyun hums in thought. Truth be told, he had spent the whole carriage ride through Redtide staring out the window at the port city and wondering how to put into words what he’d seen.
“Beautiful,” he decides, thinking of her kind face and smooth skin, the way the dress had hugged her in all the ways Baekhyun finds pleasing to the eye. Even if women don’t inspire lust from him, he can appreciate their natural grace and beauty.
Jongdae huffs. “As relieved as I am to hear I am not marrying an ogre,” he says drily, “I was hoping to know about something deeper than her appearance.”
Baekhyun rolls his eyes beneath his mask.
“The Princess seemed very well-mannered,” he relays. “Soft-spoken yet… observant, quiet, a little sheltered. From what I could gather.”
Jongdae nods as Baekhyun says this. “And?”
“And…” Baekhyun trails off. “Intelligent. Very much so.” He thinks to her straight face in front of the chessboard, the calculating gaze beneath warm eyes. Is the sweet personality of a Princess who needs constant care just as much a mask as Jongdae’s charm and flirtatiousness? “She appears to be an adept chess player.”
Jongdae laughs, startled out of him.
“Then we’ll have at least one thing in common,” he says, smiling, though Baekhyun can see the way he relaxes, relieved to hear the Princess has received his gifts well and is seemingly of high character. Baekhyun had only observed her for a short time, though, so it’s hard to say how accurate his assessment is. When he voices as much, Jongdae shakes his head.
“I trust your judgement,” is all he says, and it sends Baekhyun’s heart plummeting further still.
After all, in fourteen days, Jongdae will be married for eternity to a beautiful Princess he’s never met, a lifelong partner whether either of them want it or not. What’s to become of Baekhyun and his traitorous heart then?
Each day Baekhyun and Chanyeol travel out to visit the Princess, who receives each gift from Jongdae thoughtfully. Baekhyun assures her that they had all been selected by the Prince himself, for it’s true. Before they’d left, Jongdae had painstakingly planned out each of the fourteen gifts to be something thoughtful. Beautiful Aymaeran artwork and woven blankets for the colder months, simplistic yet tasteful jewellery. Having no idea of the Princess’ tastes or likes the gifts speak more about Jongdae than anything else, and even if they are tradition Baekhyun can tell the Princess becomes more and more charmed with each passing day --Jongdae’s effect seems to work even when he himself isn’t in person.
Jongdae, too, seems pleased that his gifts are received with warmth, because it tells him that he and the Princess may have quite similar tastes after all, something that shines warmly on their future union.
In contrast, Baekhyun is left bitter and jealous, though he tries to quell it, it’s no use. He snaps at Chanyeol to hurry up as they load onto the carriage, eager to get the journey over and done with. The gifts for today are traditional Aymaeran instruments, seeming to please the Princess more than any gift before them. Her happiness serves only to deepen Baekhyun’s green insides, which makes him hate himself for comparing himself to the Princess, as if he could ever come close to her level.
The return to Redtide is as eternal as ever, Baekhyun trying to find solace in the sound of waves out the window but receiving none.
“Can I ask you something?” Chanyeol blurts from the driver's seat into the carriage, wide eyes nervous.
“What?” Baekhyun snaps.
“What are you, to the Prince?” he asks. “You all keep using this word… ‘shadow’. What does it mean?”
Baekhyun grunts. “In Aymaera, shadows are raised with the intent of serving those they are sworn to protect. I am the Prince’s eyes and hands and ears, his fist in the shadows. I am whatever he needs to be, and I am his and his alone.”
Of course, that leaves out most of the details like the runes branded on Baekhyun’s skin or the magic in his blood that fuels them, the eternal bonds binding him to Jongdae's flesh and will, but they are details best kept secret. Chanyeol’s eyes widen, surprised, and he blinks, once, twice.
“Ah,” is all he says.
Baekhyun arches an eyebrow, beneath his mask. “What?” he questions.
“I was curious is all,” Chanyeol admits, rubbing the back of his neck. “You have no name and no title yet you and the Prince seem… close? There are rumours that many Aymaerans keep personal lovers in high rank, I’d wondered if-- well.”
Baekhyun flushes and splutters at such a thing. It stems from shadows, of course, because they exist to serve their lights in any way necessary, but ‘lover’ is not an accurate depiction. When Baekhyun had told Jongdae, factual and succinct, that he could please Jongdae if Jongdae wished it, he’d grimaced and told Baekhyun that he would never take anything from Baekhyun that Baekhyun does not want to give himself. Baekhyun had relived that moment for weeks and weeks afterwards, beyond touched by Jongdae’s kindness, and somehow disappointed too.
“Do not insult the Prince,” Baekhyun snaps. “He is above such animalistic things.” To bring his own lover to his wedding of all things --preposterous.
“I-- I apologise,” Chanyeol is quick to say. “It’s just-- it seems… you love the Prince, do you not?” The question startles Baekhyun, catching him off-guard. Are his affections so obvious? “You do everything he asks of you without complaint or reluctance, you seem to loathe leaving his side, I just thought--”
“What I feel for Jongdae surpasses mere love ,” Baekhyun interjects, for it’s true. Love is what you feel for your spouse, your family, your friends. Baekhyun has none of those things; he only has Jongdae. Jongdae, his light, his home, his king, his god. Love is not sufficient for the bone-deep admiration and devotion Baekhyun feels, for Jongdae is his everything , his reason to breathe and laugh and live. “I am his shadow. It is something only another shadow can begin to understand.”
Chanyeol keeps his mouth shut, after that.
Baekhyun tries not to let Chanyeol’s words bother him, but they do, hanging over him no matter how hard he tries to shake them off.
Love , he thinks as he watches Jongdae dress, rambling on about more gifts for the Princess though Baekhyun has begun to tune out. Love is something Jongdae will save for his betrothed, the last gift of all; it is not something Baekhyun can fool himself into thinking will ever belong to him. Just as what Baekhyun feels towards Jongdae are the feelings of a shadow, what Jongdae feels towards Baekhyun are the feelings of a light; and that’s all they ever will be.
“Are you listening?” Jongdae asks him, arching an eyebrow in amusement.
“Yes,” Baekhyun lies. Jongdae doesn’t waver. “...No.”
“What were you thinking about?”
“Nothing,” he lies again, though Jongdae rolls his eyes, unconvinced. Baekhyun’s fingertips itch for his mask, lying at his side, wishing his face wouldn’t give so much away.
“Fine, keep your secrets.” He spins around. “Black handkerchief or red?” he asks, gesturing to his pocket.
“I don’t know why I bothered to ask,” Jongdae mutters, smiling to himself as he folds the handkerchief accordingly, examining his reflection. Baekhyun can see his own behind him in the glass, a blob of black and greyish skin marked with black runes and the channels connecting them. He shifts on the bed to hide himself from view, preferring to admire Jongdae alone instead.
“You seem more vain than usual,” Baekhyun comments. “What for?”
“ More vain than usual ,” Jongdae mocks childishly, though it just makes Baekhyun smile. “Tonight seems to be a dinner party with all the nobles that hate me most. It’s imperative I appear flawless. They are like wild dogs sensing weakness in their prey.”
“You are always perfect,” Baekhyun tells him honestly.
Jongdae hesitates, caught off-guard, before laughing, rough and a little forced.
“You know better than anyone how untrue that is, Baekhyun.”
Baekhyun shakes his head. “No. I know better than anyone exactly how true it is.”
Jongdae turns to look at him, and something in the air between them thickens, if only just.
“How you can say such things with a straight face baffles me,” he says, and the thickness dissipates as he turns back to the mirror, fiddling with his upturned collar.
“You inspire honesty.”
Jongdae huffs, high-pitched and amused.
“I am a liar and a conman and a thief, just like the nobles around me,” he corrects. “You are simply too earnest.”
He’s missed a part of his collar, so Baekhyun stands and strides over, smoothing it down.
“You are none of those things,” Baekhyun tells him softly, and they make eye contact through the mirror. Baekhyun's hand lingers on the nape of Jongdae's neck. The air thickens again and it frightens Baekhyun, so he steps back. He thinks to lower his gaze, but he can’t bring himself to, too enraptured with tracing out the planes of Jongdae’s handsome face.
His eyes crinkle as he smiles at Baekhyun through the mirror, amused.
“Am I at least handsome?” he teases. The tension dissipates again, and Baekhyun rolls his eyes.
“Very,” he tells him flatly, exasperated.
“At least pretend not to be reluctant about it,” Jongdae whines, so Baekhyun laughs at him. “Handsome enough for the Princess?”
The question catches Baekhyun off-guard, faltering. His stomach sinks with dread as Jongdae’s expression turns pensive.
“You will be a wonderful match,” Baekhyun tells him honestly, knowing it in his heart to be true even if it shreds his insides at the same time.
Jongdae sighs with his whole chest. “Only five days remain…”
“Are you nervous?”
“Nervous? No.” Jongdae laughs shakily. “Terrified, maybe. Anxious. Homesick, reluctant.” He stares at his own eyes in the silvered glass. “No matter how much I try to convince myself I want this, that it’s for the good of my people, of her people too, I…” he trails off.
A knock at the door heralds the arrival of a servant, which Baekhyun moves to answer after fixing his mask into place.
“His Highness’ guests have arrived,” she announces. Baekhyun dismisses her, waiting by the door for Jongdae.
“Go,” Jongdae tells him. “I’ll meet you down there.” Baekhyun nods, turning to leave. “Baekhyun--” Jongdae calls, rooting him in place as he turns. “If… if things were different. If our positions were reversed… would you go through with it?”
Baekhyun tries to imagine it, growing up as Jongdae had, with friends and family, leaving his country and his home for the greater good to fall in love with somebody he’d never met. It’s… hard, for Baekhyun to empathise, when all he’s ever known is Jongdae and so long as he has that he’s happy, but he can imagine how difficult it might be, the weight on Jongdae’s shoulders.
“Would I have a choice otherwise?” he asks.
Jongdae turns back to his reflection, smiling at it sadly, and though it’s not a physical pain, Baekhyun swears he can feel the pang in Jongdae’s heart, the way it aches.
“No,” Jongdae relents. “I suppose not.”
Jongdae is correct, for the tension at the dinner party is palpable and thick. It's not the first of the unending events for Jongdae to host himself at Mauville Court, so luckily everything flows smoothly, giving Duke Kim and the other ministers little to complain about behind thinly veiled words.
"Keep an eye on the advisor," Jongdae tells Baekhyun in a low voice with a hand at his elbow, eyes flicking to Junmyeon at the other end. "He pries."
Baekhyun nods in understanding, and blends himself into the shadow of the living room where the nobles stand and drink. Baekhyun doesn't always need magic to become invisible, trained in ways to remain unassuming, unnoticeable. As Junmyeon slips out of the party, though, thinking he's unwatched, Baekhyun narrows his eyes and pulls the shadows around him, following him.
Baekhyun may be unseen, but it had still taken years to master silent footfall, silent breath, reliving the stern hand of the Meister as he follows Junmyeon through the corridors, watching him closely. He opens bedroom doors and peers into every room with narrowed eyes, seeking something, perhaps but… what?
He passes over Baekhyun’s room with indifference before finally reaching Jongdae's several doors down, opening the doors wider.
Baekhyun is about to reveal himself when a voice cuts him off with, "May I help you, Lord Kim?" Jongdae stands behind Baekhyun, walking past where he's hiding in the shadows. "Your father is looking for you."
"Ah yes, just-- the washroom? All the servants are busy--" he hastily licks his lips, nervous-- "thought it'd be nearby somewhere."
Jongdae smiles, saccharine. "Down to the dining room's left. I'm afraid only empty chambers are up here."
"Ah, yes I-- thank you." Junmyeon turns red, pacing quickly away from Jongdae and downstairs again.
"The man who gave a perfect tour doesn't know where the washrooms are, hm?" Jongdae chuckles to himself. "Were you going to let him have his way with the place?" He arches an eyebrow over his shoulder.
Baekhyun steps out of the shadows, revealing himself. He's never found out how Jongdae always seems to know he's there.
"I would've preferred to catch him red-handed," Baekhyun says, clipped.
Jongdae hums, shutting his bedroom doors until they click softly.
"Whatever he's looking for, I'd prefer he not find it "
"We could've caught him."
"And punish him how? Until I am married into the royal family, I have no power here. I am little more than a privileged guest. Better to leave them squirming."
Baekhyun smiles, despite himself.
"Ruthless," he comments.
Jongdae beams. "Thank you." He places a hand on Baekhyun's shoulder. "Now let's return before more guests get lost."
Junmyeon seems pale and rigid for the rest of the night, amusing Baekhyun greatly. The guests dwindle out one by one until it is only Junmyeon on the couch with his father, who tells a great tale of fighting in the war with the last King, something that betrays his age. Junmyeon is silent and stiff beside him, staring at his glass of rice liquor, rather than touch it, as if it’s filled with poison.
The Duke is just about to launch into another grand tale that Baekhyun thinks takes many liberties, when Jongdae cuts him off with a sharp smile and says, "Forgive me if it is rude to ask, but is there something you want from me?" The Duke stares. "The party has long since ended, and I wish to retire for the night. I do not think you the type to linger just for conversation."
The old man bursts into laughter, slapping Junmyeon on the back in a way that makes him wince, not joining in.
"My, my Prince Jongdae, you are as observant and forthcoming as the rumours say." He laughs some more, reaching for his drink. Neither Jongdae nor Junmyeon reach for theirs on the centre table between the sofas, Baekhyun's eyes narrowing behind his mask from where he stands against the wall at Jongdae's back. "But you are correct, I must admit, for I come here not just for my family, but for the King."
The King? Baekhyun thinks to the portly youth of Redtide's palace, the way he'd laughed a fool's laugh as the Princess threw away her victory.
Jongdae tenses, metal fingers twitching in reflex.
"There is something the King wishes to ask of you, as a favour to his family in these times of war." The Duke smiles with wine-stained teeth behind a white mustache.
Jongdae keeps a straight face, but Baekhyun can see him anxiously tracing the point of his knuckle armor along the upholstery.
"I will do my best to provide," Jongdae says eventually, swallowing and covering it up with a tight smile.
"Ah, well…" The Duke strokes his mustache. "...Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it is a favour he wishes to ask of you and your shadow."
All eyes in the room turn to Baekhyun, who remains still, grateful for the mask to hide his surprise.
Jongdae slowly turns, though the Kims' twin gazes remain. One hungry, the other… unreadable.
"I thought the Isles had too much light to deal with darkness?" Jongdae asks, eyebrow raised.
The Duke shrugs. "Maybe so, but you brought it here all the same. His Majesty is… curious, to see these great shadows of Aymaera, and what they can do."
Baekhyun's blood runs cold.
The Duke stands.
"There is a Lord to an island not far east from Redtide, of House Jeon," he begins to say, pulling a cigar from his breast pocket and lighting it, making the room reek of foul smoke. "This Lord fancies himself a King. He refuses to lend any men to His Majesty's army, you see, and in recent years he discovered a gold mine that has comfortably lined his pockets, without thinking to pay back the nation that gave him that land." He exhales another thick cloud of smoke, making Baekhyun scowl. "He even declined an invite to your very wedding, an insult to two great families, one might say."
Jongdae's jaw is clenched so tightly Baekhyun fears it might crack.
"Now, we of the Isles do not deal in the finicky business of shadows, but… if this Lord were to disappear…" The Duke smiles, making Baekhyun's skin crawl. "We would not complain."
Thick silence passes, broken only by the sound of splintering wood as Jongdae drives his steel hand into the centre table, shattering it.
"You have overstayed your welcome," he warns, gritting his teeth. "Please show yourselves out."
The Duke shows only ice cold indifference to Jongdae's stormy rage, huffing before extinguishing his cigar on the splintered table, tarnishing the wood, and walking to the door, a fearful Junmyeon scrambling behind.
"Do try your best to not disappoint your King before you've even joined his family," the Duke says cooly. "Goodnight, Prince Jongdae."
Junmyeon lingers in the doorway, opening his mouth with apologetic eyes, but ultimately says nothing before slipping away.
Baekhyun moves to Jongdae as soon as they are alone, seeing him shake with rage.
"Jongdae," Baekhyun consoles, the palm of his right hand stinging as Jongdae's fists are clenched so tight his nails draw blood. Baekhyun pries them back, taking off his mask and cupping Jongdae's face to look at him.
His eyes are black with fury.
"Who does he think he is?" Jongdae spits, tearing himself from Baekhyun's grip as he stands. "Fucking bastard , the audacity to ask of such a thing--" he scoffs a bitter laugh. "They won't dabble in shadows, but they'll make you do it so they can wipe their hands at the end of the day?"
Baekhyun sighs. "By Aymaeran standards… only you can be held accountable. They don't want to be tied to it."
"It's bullshit," Jongdae hisses, punctuated with the thud of his metal arm against the wooden bookshelf. "Using the King as an excuse... What's the Duke going to do if we don't comply? Call off the wedding?"
"It doesn't matter," Baekhyun says, "because it won't come to that."
Jongdae's eyebrows furrow as he stares at the ground before turning to Baekhyun, searching his face.
"I won't ask it of you, Baekhyun."
Baekhyun shrugs. "You won't have to." He stands, holding Jongdae's gaze to hold his ground. "I can't fail you, Jongdae. Not again. Not when it comes to this."
"Baekhyun--" Jongdae catches Baekhyun's left arm with his own, metal against numbed flesh. It only strengthens Baekhyun's resolve as he stares at the point of contact. Jongdae's hand is strong enough to leave a bruise, probably, but it's not like Baekhyun can feel a thing.
"You can't stop me.”
Jongdae's jaw tenses. Self-indulgent and impulsive, Baekhyun takes Jongdae's metal hand and kisses its knuckles right where the filigree engraved on the gunmetal stops.
"Don't do this," Jongdae begs, eyes swimming with a million colours Baekhyun can't begin to name, too many emotions to count. “Please.”
"I must," Baekhyun replies, barely more than a whisper. "For you, my Prince."
Jongdae’s right hand curls in the front of Baekhyun’s tunic, searching his face, the air thick between them. His heart seems to mirrors Jongdae’s own ache; his hand tightens.
“No.” Jongdae’s voice is firm. “I won’t let you, Baekhyun.”
“It is my duty--”
“ Fuck duty.” They’re so close now their noses are nearly brushing, and Baekhyun feels as if Jongdae is stealing all the air from around them, because he can’t breathe. “Don’t you ever dream of something more?” His eyes rapidly search Baekhyun’s.
“More?” Baekhyun repeats, dazed. “This affects everyone, Jongdae, you, your people, the treaty--”
“Who cares about any of that?” Jongdae snaps back. “What about you ?”
Baekhyun shakes his head. “I don’t matter.”
“Of course you matter, Baekhyun.” Jongdae’s voice sounds tight, his eyes wet. “You’re the only fucking thing that matters and you don’t even realise it.”
“What are you--”
“Promise me, Baekhyun,” Jongdae says suddenly, straightening up and raising his head, staring straight at Baekhyun. “Promise me that you won’t do it, I command it of you.”
Baekhyun’s eyes widen. Jongdae has never commanded Baekhyun of anything --all rune promises Baekhyun makes are out of personal tradition. Jongdae has never enforced a thing, but he’s enforcing this , and Baekhyun is torn between his duty to Jongdae as the shadow of a Prince, and his duty to Jongdae as his partner.
Baekhyun lowers himself to the ground, gritting his teeth. He floods the rune in his forehead with magic.
“I promise.” He feels the skin burn as his promise seals itself, and watches Jongdae relax.
“Good.” He looks relieved, but Baekhyun feels so-- angry. Hurt and frustrated, but touched and confused both. It mixes and clashes inside him and he doesn’t understand it at all in the slightest.
As he rises, jaw clenched, Jongdae softens.
“Baekhyun--” he reaches out, but Baekhyun only slaps his hand away.
“Fuck you,” Baekhyun spits, shocking Jongdae with his outburst. He feels gross and manipulated and it builds like slime on his skin, foul and disgusting.
“I’m protecting you--”
“That’s my job,” Baekhyun arguess. “You are only putting yourself in danger.”
“Gods Baekhyun,” Jongdae groans. “Why are you so-- frustrating?”
“I’m frustrating?” Baekhyun repeats incredulously, after Jongdae fucking commanded him into disobdience like he hadn’t broken his promise to never do it.
“Yes, you are!” Jongdae snaps. “You’re so-- selfless I can’t fucking stand it.” Jongdae growls in irritation. “All you care about is duty and honor and your stupid fucking creed. You make me feel like less of a man for caring about anything else.”
Baekhyun barks out a bitter laugh. “Well I’m sorry that my duty made you feel bad, but I can’t help that you’re just a selfish spoiled Prince.”
Jongdae looks hurt, and Baekhyun almost regrets inflicting the pain he can feel mirrored inside himself.
“That’s not what I meant, Baekhyun.” Jongdae softens, the fight slipping out, but Baekhyun still feels ugly and irritated, like a caged animal that’s been poked too many times through the bars.
“Then what did you mean?”
“I meant--” Jongdae cuts off with a frustrated grunt. “--I just wish you cared about more than your use to your country, to royalty. Haven’t you ever wanted anything for yourself?”
“Of course I have,” Baekhyun replies, imploring, and he feels himself shake with it. “I want so much it devours me from the inside but I fight it because I care about you, Jongdae. Not Aymaera, or the Isles, or any other fucking thing. Just you.”
“Then what?” Jongdae laughs in disbelief. “What is it that you could possibly desire so badly if you’re always putting me before yourself?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Baekhyun questions, smiling cruelly. His heart aches with a sadness he knows can only be his own. “My answer is still the same, Jongdae. Just you.”
Jongdae doesn’t seem shocked in the slightest, only swallowing, nostrils fuming as he searches Baekhyun’s face. He reaches out, cupping his jaw with a tenderness that clashes with their heated argument.
And then he kisses him.
Baekhyun’s reaction is instant, pushing Jongdae away with such force that he stumbles until he lands against the book case behind him, steadying himself with a hand on the shelf. Baekhyun can only look at him in disbelief, brushing his fingers over his lips.
“Prove it,” Jongdae challenges, Baekhyun’s gaze snapping to meet Jongdae’s eyes. “Prove you want more, Baekhyun. Prove you care about more than just duty.”
Baekhyun crowds Jongdae against the book case, face-to-face as he clenches his fists in Jongdae’s shirt. His lips still tingle from the contact, and it causes a storm to unleash in Baekhyun’s chest, knowing he shouldn’t give in to such selfishness but Jongdae is so open and willing beneath him he can’t seem to think about anything else.
But then Jongdae looks at him, and his eyes are filled with nothing but wildness and desperation, and Baekhyun can’t. He can’t.
“Will you command me to if I don’t?” he asks, voice low, and Jongdae’s face is quick to fall as Baekhyun lets go and steps back, scowling.
But Baekhyun is already pulling the shadows around himself, storming out of the parlour, upset and hurt and frustrated, pretending like he can’t feel Jongdae’s eyes on him the whole way.
Baekhyun is silent at breakfast the next morning, stewing in his misery, refusing to meet Jongdae’s eyes. Luckily Jongdae is so caught up in social gatherings so close to the wedding that he doesn’t have a chance to do much more than look at Baekhyun longingly, while Baekhyun pretends he can’t feel the way Jongdae’s insides ache.
He goes to deliver the gifts, a thick stack of leather-bound encyclopedias embossed with gold lettering that make the Princess smile as she receives them directly, dipping slightly beneath their weight. Baekhyun returns to the carriage to continue his brooding, though, staring at his hands.
He hates being so… at odds, with Jongdae, when Jongdae is all he has. Still, he feels used and manipulated, just another chess piece in Jongdae’s collection to meet his goal, and he can’t stand it.
It’s in his nature, after all, to serve Jongdae in any way that he can. Baekhyun had been selected by the Meister before he was old enough to talk, let alone remember his life before. All he’s ever known is what he is.
Yet at the same time, Jongdae had always tried to give Baekhyun something more than the darkness: a name, a life, a choice… but his selfish desperation had made him break his promise, and Baekhyun isn’t sure how to cope. It’s stupid, because shadows are trained in all areas of specialisation across many skills: reconnaissance, martial arts, high politics, camouflage, first-aid.
Yet Baekhyun had never been taught anything to help him deal with… all this, the way his heart aches when Jongdae smiles and the willingness he feels to throw himself into the Heart’s Abyss if it meant Jongdae would be safe. Yet at the same time that clashes against his disappointment and shame that even after cutting open his ribs and baring his chest Jongdae still... Uses him.
Baekhyun was made to be used, made in the image of the Meister on the Dark Tower to serve his light unwaveringly, but Jongdae had told him the day of their bonding that Baekhyun is, and always would be a free man, and that Jongdae would make sure of that.
The wedding grows so near that the air of all the Isles is thick with the anticipation, the streets cleaned and swept in preparation for the soon-to-come procession and the docks filled with the ships of nobles travelling across the seas for the ceremony.
One of which bears the flag of the Kingdom of Aymaera, the black dragon so clear against white cloth even from the port as Baekhyun stands at Jongdae’s side by the docks, watching the ship grow closer. The silence is thick between them, palpable. Baekhyun wonders what Jongdae would say to him, if he ever had the courage to speak.
The ship is anchored and the bay lowered so that Aymaera’s Emperor steps off, head held high. Jongdae lowers himself to one knee.
“My Emperor,” he greets.
“Rise, brother,” the Emperor replies, smiling as he places a hand on Jongdae’s shoulder. “You’re getting married! Don’t be so serious.”
Jongdae cracks a grin, despite himself, and they embrace. Brothers first, royalty second. Baekhyun exchanges nods with Emperor Jongdeok’s shadow, her dragon mask tilting in return. All shadows are born with no name but, similar to Baekhyun, Joohyun had been given one to her by her light, and had taken quite a liking to it. She’s one of the few shadows Baekhyun has met that he could actually call a friend, with a slight twist to it. They understand each other, and with their lights being so close it’s inevitable for them to cross paths so often.
The Queen also steps off the ship, and Jongdae bows to her, kissing her hand.
“Looking beautiful as ever,” he compliments.
“Hey, get your own wife,” the Emperor whines, reminding Baekhyun of Jongdae and making his lips twitch before forcing them back down. The three laugh pleasantly as they’re lead to the carriage by Jongdae while servants unload the ship, chatting amicably about the journey across the seas and the wedding to come.
Baekhyun takes the next carriage down alongside Joohyun, acknowledging each other with a nod.
“Brother,” Joohyun greets. “It’s good to see you again.”
“Likewise, sister.” A tentative beat of awkward silence passes as the carriage jolts forward. “How are… things?”
Joohyun chuckles. “We don’t have to talk if you would prefer otherwise.”
Always so formal --and so straight to the point. It makes Baekhyun think that he’s been around normal people --well, non-shadows-- for far too long.
“Maybe practice would do us some good,” he muses. “How is the Crown Princess?”
Joohyun speaks fondly of the Emperor’s daughter, left in the nursery at the palace, far too young to undergo such a tiring journey. She’s two, now, and walking confidently. It seems like only yesterday she’d been born, to Baekhyun, before he knows it she will be of age to undergo the ceremony binding her to her shadow, who the Meister has undoubtedly already begun to select from a crowd of infants raising to be trained to protect royal blood.
Thinking of such things makes Baekhyun’s stomach twist, so he focuses on Joohyun’s words again instead as she speaks comfortably of changes to the palace and the country around it. Jongdeok’s rule is fairly new as far as eras are concerned, but he’s implemented a lot of good, as much as one can in times of war. He seems to be much more confident with the upcoming treaty; having the Isles to protect their vulnerable shoreline will make Aymaera far more formidable.
Jongdae hosts a tour of Mauville Court as soon as they arrive, showing the Emperor and Queen to their room while marvelling at the architecture, with Jongdae agreeing. Jongdae asks for Baekhyun’s help with ensuring everything is prepared and ready both for his family’s stay and the engagement party the following evening, the last celebration before the wedding. Baekhyun carries out all orders efficiently and obediently, even while his resentment still lingers, unable to shuck his duties.
By dinner time, it’s one of the first free nights Jongdae has to spend time with his brother and sister-in-law without prying onlookers. They speak freely, of Aymaeran news and politics, the light mood turning somber as Jongdeok admits to more attacks from the Karassan army. Baekhyun feels the way Jongdae’s heart twinges in pain, as Jongdeok speaks of the lives lost.
The Queen retires early, needing rest for herself and the young child she’s carrying, leaving just Jongdae and his brother to move themselves to the parlour for an imported dessert wine, Jongdeok examining the shelves of the cushiony room while Jongdae lies on the love seat, shirt unbuttoned and eyes puffy with exhaustion. Baekhyun and Joohyun stand by the door with their arms behind their back, barely noticed by the two brothers.
“So tell me how you feel about the wedding, Jongdae, truly,” Jongdeok prompts, avoiding eye contact. “You seem to dodge the topic every time it comes about.”
Jongdae grunts, tugging at his collar further. “How am I supposed to feel? I’m to be married to a woman I’ve never met.”
“But you’ve always known that to be the case,” Jongdeok points out, “ever since birth.”
Jongdae frowns, though he doesn’t disagree.
“It does not make it an easier medicine to swallow,” he mumbles, eyes flicking once towards Baekhyun before pulling away. “You had been betrothed to the Queen since birth, you had met as children and were friends long before you were married. You couldn’t possibly understand.”
Jongdeok chuckles. “Try me.”
“Duty and love were the same thing to you, a one in a million chance.” Jongdae swallows. “What happens if they don’t coincide?”
“Love isn’t spontaneous, it happens over time,” Jongdeok consoles. “You can learn to love each other.”
“And if we don’t?”
“Well… what is there to stop you?”
Jongdae’s silence is thick, heavy, and Baekhyun finds himself leaning forward on his toes, waiting for his answer.
“I don’t know,” Jongdae admits quietly. “Sometimes I just… wonder how nice it would be, to not be Prince.” He chuckles drily.
“Try being Emperor,” Jongdeok jokes, though neither of them laugh. The air turns sour for a moment. “What you’re doing is important, Jongdae, to a whole nation of people and more. You should feel honoured--”
“And I do,” Jongdae is quick to interject. “Of course I do but-- the burden only makes it that much harder.”
Jongdeok’s face softens in sympathy, and he places a hand on Jongdae’s shoulder.
“I know how scary it must feel,” he consoles. “But if you ever need anything, I’m always here for you, okay? Anything.”
Jongdae squeezes his brother’s wrist. “Thank you.” His tone sounds sincere, but Baekhyun wears a mask so often he knows exactly how to spot one.
Come morning, Baekhyun is surprised to find Jongdae talking to Joohyun of all people in the dining room, the Emperor of Aymaera still asleep upstairs. When he enters, however, their voices turn silent, and Baekhyun regrets having entered at all. He should’ve crept in, he thinks, overheard what they’re saying. His stomach rolls around with jealousy.
But then he remembers that it is not his place to be jealous of Joohyun’s place at Jongdae’s side, when it is Baekhyun who is punishing Jongdae. He ignores them and sits down, servants rushing over to give him warm rice porridge cooked in a rich chicken broth.
Joohyun looks at Baekhyun curiously before turning to Jongdae, then back to Baekhyun, plain confusion written across her face. Jongdae clears his throat as he tugs at the sleeves of his shirt, wriggling in his seat.
“So… how did you sleep?” he starts, stiff and awkward.
“Fine,” Baekhyun replies, clipped.
“That’s… good… then…”
Thankfully, anymore awkwardness is saved by the Emperor and the Queen entering for breakfast. The Queen, having married into the family from a small city-state nestled at the border of Karasa and Aymaera, does not have a shadow. Baekhyun wonders if Jongdae envies her, in times like these.
But the tension between them is escapable, if only because Jongdae is too busy caught up in preparations for the wedding tomorrow and the party tonight to worry about Baekhyun. All of Jongdae’s guests tomorrow for the ceremony must attend his party tonight to celebrate his engagement and wish him fortune for the following day, while Princess Seulgi will remain in the Palace, alone for her preparations. It seems like an unfair tradition, to Baekhyun, another strange ritual of the Isles.
For the party, Baekhyun watches as the greatest tailors of the Southern sea bumble into Jongdae to present his suit for the party, having made it to his measurements exactly. It is a deep rich purple velvet that makes his shoulders look broader and clings to his narrow waist, paired with an elegant black tie and black rose in his breast pocket. He looks so handsome it’s devastating, forces Baekhyun to remember the press of Jongdae’s lips against his and how… how good it had felt, despite the wrongness of it.
His fingers brush over the mouth of his mask absentmindedly, and when he glances up he sees Jongdae watching him through the mirror, gaze as calculating as it is when he plays chess.
It sickens Baekhyun, angers him further. He storms out of the room, shocking the tailors as he does so, climbing the steps of the Court to reach the terrace of the top floor.
Surprised, he startles as he finds Joohyun already leaning against the terrace railing, staring out at the sun as it sets over the ocean not too far from the Court.
She turns over her shoulder as Baekhyun enters, arching her eyebrow. “Here to escape Prince Jongdae?”
Baekhyun winces beneath his mask. “Is it that obvious?”
“Only to one who knows you so well.” She shrugs, indifferent, turning back to horizon. “I think it’s habitual for us to seek out high spaces when we need a place to think, it’s reminiscent of home.”
“Home?” Baekhyun parrots.
“The Tower,” corrects Joohyun, “where we were forged into what we are.”
Truth be told, Baekhyun remembers little of the great Tower upon Mount Spire, the Meister’s domain. It is there that those with coin can pay for the deeds to shadows, forge their contracts in darkness and blood. Baekhyun’s earliest memory is of him walking along cobblestones and being chastised by his caretakers, servants of the Meister in the Tower. Other than that, his memories consist only of his training.
“What ails your thoughts?” he asks, to distract himself from his own. He can still feel the Meister’s brand poking the runes of his magic into Baekhyun’s skin, the burn of steel and ink.
Joohyun shakes her head. “Nothing important, just a question that someone asked of me.” She turns to Baekhyun then, her mask pulled aside as she searches the black glass eyes of his own. He feels rude, somehow, to see her so bare and not return the courtesy, so he pulls his own up too. “You?”
Baekhyun huffs through his nose, he should’ve expected it to be reflected back at him.
“Do you…” he tries, frowning as he thinks of his words, swallowing around the lump. “Have you ever felt… frustration, at your light? Not as their shadow but…”
“Because we are human?” Baekhyun startles, surprised to hear such words. Joohyun chuckles at his shock. “Of course, Jongdeok and I do not agree on all matters. I think if a shadow were to be wholly concordant and obedient, we wouldn’t make very good partners, would we? Shadow opposes light, after all, stops those looking on from being blinded, protects burning from the sun. It is only natural to be at odds with Jongdae, Baekhyun, I am just surprised it took you this long.”
Baekhyun flushes, embarrassed at the fact.
“It is perhaps not the first time but… the one where we are both in the most pain.”
Joohyun hums in thought, stretching like a cat on the railing. “It is only natural, you are both far from your country and isolated from the outside world, facing a great deal of change with only each other. It is understandable to be so strongly affected by each other. A pillar of stone crumbling beneath you will affect you more if you are leaning on it than if you are not.”
Baekhyun nods in agreement and understanding both. The wind tousles his bangs in the silence.
“May I… may I ask what it is that happened?” Joohyun finally speaks up. “I know you two, and it is rare to see so much distance between you.”
Baekhyun sighs, looking out to the horizon. What happened, he wonders? His anger doesn’t even seem to stem from Jongdae issuing a command to force his obedience, or using Baekhyun’s feelings like a pawn in a game to move his own selfish agenda forward. No, Baekhyun’s anger and frustration only grows from his hurt, his sadness, the ache inside him that Jongdae doesn’t trust in him to make the right choice, to stay by his side, to earn a place that’s more than just a piece on a checkered board.
But at the end of the day Jongdae will only see himself as someone playing alone versus the world, and it hurts inside like nothing else, aches more than when Baekhyun had felt Jongdae’s arm be torn from his flesh because of his own failure.
“We had… an argument,” he decides to say, “about our duty. My duty to him, and his duty to his people.”
Joohyun let’s out an ah in understanding, nodding slowly.
“It is not uncommon,” she consoles, “for love and duty to have conflict.”
That isn’t what Baekhyun had said at all, and he opens his mouth to quickly voice as such, taken aback by Joohyun’s knowing black eyes.
But then the expression is gone, fixing her mask back in place.
“Come,” she says by the doorway. “The guests are arriving. We should be there as the party commences.”
Baekhyun thinks to argue, but clamps his mouth shut, thinking better of it. He rights his mask and follows her back inside the manor.
He can see the guests stepping out of their carriages as the sun sets while he crosses through the foyer, making his way to Jongdae’s room. He’s still standing by the mirror, examining his reflection. His skin has been smoothed out by powder, his hair pushed away from his face. He is truly the most beautiful thing in existence, Baekhyun thinks.
“Your guests are here,” he announces, leaning against the doorway. “You ought to greet them.”
“Thank you,” Jongdae says, then hesitates. “Baekhyun I… tonight, please lend me your forgiveness, if only for the night. You can be at odds with me again tomorrow but… I need you.”
Baekhyun softens, stepping forward. “I was never at odds with you, my Prince,” he promises, and it is not a lie. “Upset, perhaps, but I am always yours.”
He hears Jongdae’s hitch of breath, watches the way his eyes darken if only just.
He’s cut off by a servant announcing what Baekhyun had only a minute prior, with Jongdae quickly sealing his mouth and nodding as he dismisses them, asking Baekhyun with his eyes to stay close. Baekhyun obliges, of course, because even when he is hurt he is still Jongdae’s.
The party goes wonderfully, or so Baekhyun can gather. The food and wine disappears in its greatness and many of the guests sing Jongdae their praise, wish him luck and prosperity for his union tomorrow and for the long future to come.
The reminder only has Baekhyun withering in the shadows. Tomorrow, Jongdae will be married. It somehow doesn’t feel real, even though they’re here, in the Isles, at Jongdae’s own engagement party… it somehow feels as if tomorrow Baekhyun will wake up and they will both be not much more than boys in the Veinswood palace courtyard, with Jongdae teaching Baekhyun all the games he’d never learnt in the Tower, too busy training, and using the name he’d gifted him.
It makes Baekhyun wistful, but sad too, born from jealousy and selfishness so he swallows it down. Baekhyun has lived his whole life knowing that Jongdae would always be destined for somebody else, and that love was something too bright to be destined for a shadow.
Jongdae gives a grand speech of thanks at the peak of night, and then the crowds break out onto the dancefloor, with Jongdae whisked away by the young daughters of Dukes and Earls before he’s taken forever. Baekhyun watches him from the sidelines as he twirls around, the smile on Jongdae’s face that is wholly ingenuine. He’s struck suddenly by Jongdae’s words: Haven’t you ever wanted anything for yourself? Greed bubbles within Baekhyun like nothing else, and he selfishly wonders that if he asked Jongdae to run with him, if he’d say yes.
The party winds down around midnight as the guests all filter out, with Jongdae farewelling them at the door. His brother and sister-in-law retire to their rooms upstairs, and as the servants clear the halls Baekhyun escorts Jongdae back to his chambers in silence.
At the door, he says, “Goodnigh--”
“Stay,” Jongdae cuts him off. “Please.”
Baekhyun softens, incapable of saying no. He bows his head. “Of course, my Prince.”
Jongdae takes off his suit piece by piece until he’s naked, walking to the bath he’d had the servants draw prior. It’s filled with rose oil and its heavenly scent wafts through the door that Jongdae leaves ajar. Baekhyun sits just beside it, back against the wall. He pulls of his mask and places it on the floor beside him, tracing over its details with his fingers in thought.
The distance between them is so small, but Baekhyun can feel it stretched like a chasm in his chest, aching to be filled. The silence feels thick with things left unspoken, and Baekhyun is not strong enough to break it.
The slosh of water as Jongdae shifts in his bath has Baekhyun’s attention, feeling Jongdae’s heavy gaze land on his shoulder through the doorway, though he doesn’t dare turn around.
“I’m sorry,” comes Jongdae’s voice. “How I hurt you… I didn’t mean it. I shouldn’t have commanded you the way I did, not when I promised I never would.”
Baekhyun’s shoulders drop, and when he tries to reach for his anger to defend himself he finds nothing, only sadness and defeat.
“That is not why I am upset,” he admits, speaking over his shoulder. “It is not what you did, Jongdae, but why.” His voice catches in his throat, and Baekhyun must steady himself, overwhelmed by the amount of emotion that overcomes him. “Do you not trust in me to make the right choice, to keep a promise? Is my word not enough?”
He hears water sloshing as Jongdae stands. “Baekhyun--”
“But more than that, I--” Baekhyun swallows around the lump in his throat. “--You know, you’ve always known, I cannot hide it, but you still sought to use my own feelings as a pawn in your game of selfishness.” Baekhyun’s hands curl into fists. “Do I mean so little to you?”
“Baekhyun, no, that’s not--” Jongdae makes a noise of frustration behind Baekhyun, but he still doesn’t dare turn around. “--You mean everything to me, how many times must I say it?”
“Then why?” Baekhyun asks, a little choked. “Why would you do something so cruel?”
He dares to look around, and Jongdae is only watching him, face filled with emotion, towel around his waist. Water drips down his naked torso and across his skin but Baekhyun can only search his eyes, looking for something, even though he doesn’t know what.
“I never meant for it to be cruel,” Jongdae says softly. “But I suppose selfishness always hurts the ones we care for most.”
Baekhyun’s eyebrows knit together. “What do you mean?”
Jongdae sighs, padding out. He leaves wet footprints on the carpet, but neither of them care or notice, Baekhyun watching him sit on the edge of the bed to face him. Jongdae runs a hand through his wet hair, brushing it out of his face.
“Sometimes... I fear you’d choose something different, if you were given another choice to begin with.” It startles Baekhyun, the sudden confession, words Jongdae has been holding in for quite some time given the reluctance and simultaneous relief on his face. He laughs shakily. “And it’s selfish of me to try to make you stay, but--”
“No.” Baekhyun shakes his head firmly. “Even if I weren’t a shadow, I--” he falters. “I was born to be beside you, Jongdae.” His words come out of him in a rush, a gale before a storm. “I will always go wherever you need me to follow.”
“Would you?” Jongdae asks quietly. “Even if I threw it all away? My title, my money, my duty... you’d see me as no less of a man and follow me to the ends of the earth itself?”
Baekhyun doesn’t even need to think of his answer.
“I never lie to you,” Baekhyun insists. “Why won’t you believe me?”
“Because I know you, Baekhyun,” Jongdae argues, sitting down on the edge of the bed to still himself, inhaling. “I know you’ve put me on a pedestal and it terrifies me to disappoint you, because I’m scared that the day I do is the day you leave me for good. It’s foolish because I can’t bear the thought of you leaving but-- I don’t want you to keep living this way either.”
“I--” Baekhyun splutters. “--I don’t--”
“You do .” Jongdae runs his hands through his hair, laughing shakily. He places them on the posters of the bed. “You’ve fooled yourself into thinking I’m perfect when I’m not, Baekhyun. I’m far from it. And I’m not worth the price you keep having to pay.”
“Do you really believe that?” Baekhyun snaps. “That I’m some--blind fool?” Jongdae’s mouth is a straight line. “Of course you aren’t perfect. You snore, and you sing obnoxiously, and you chew with your mouth open,” he lists. “You can be manipulative, and petty, and spoiled and vain and selfish, but I don’t care about any of that.” He moves forward to kneel at Jongdae’s feet, searching his face. “Because you’re kind, and smart, and gentle and loving and loyal and you’re-- everything.” Baekhyun exhales in a rush, unused to the taste of so many words on his tongue. “You’re everything.”
Jongdae’s jaw clenches, eyes filled with too many emotions to name, watching Baekhyun kneel by his feet.
“So no matter what happens, you would still kill for me?”
Baekhyun answers without hesitation, staring up at his Prince.
“And you would still die for me?” Jongdae’s expression turns contemplative as he cups Baekhyun’s cheek with his metal hand, Baekhyun’s eyelashes fluttering at the touch as he leans into it.
“And you would still love me,” Jongdae asks, tipping Baekhyun’s chin up so that Baekhyun is forced to meet his eyes, “no matter the cost?”
“Yes.” Baekhyun is breathless, his voice barely more than a whisper. “For eternity, my Prince.”
Jongdae kisses him.
Jongdae kisses him, and this time, Baekhyun kisses him back, groaning, lost in something he was never meant to have, pushing closer and closer still.
“What are we doing?” Baekhyun asks as Jongdae pulls back for air, gasping. He presses one kiss to Baekhyun’s mouth, then another. “You’ll be married tomorrow--”
“Then let me have you tonight,” Jongdae pleads, “just once.” His fingers curl into Baekhyun’s tunic like he’s afraid to let go, afraid to lose him. After everything, somehow, Baekhyun thinks maybe he is.
“Touch me,” Jongdae whispers, and Baekhyun gives in. “Please.”
Baekhyun decides to prove that he’s here to stay no matter the cost, coaxing Jongdae’s mouth open with sweeter, stickier kisses, trying to pour all his love and devotion into him until it fills Jongdae out, flooding him with shadows the way he floods Baekhyun with light.
And Baekhyun knows what it’s like to feel whole, when their bodies are finally connecting, gasping at the sensation of Jongdae joining with him. It seems to leave bruises on his soul with every brush of his fingertips against Baekhyun’s ribs, every press of his lips to each rune and the ink channels connecting them. Baekhyun says little, afraid to wake from his dream, and Jongdae intertwines their fingers, pins their hands above their heads. It is something Baekhyun hopes to never wake up from, for they have one chance and one chance alone, and once it’s over it will have ended for good. Baekhyun isn’t sure how long he and Jongdae stay like that, connected, gazing into each other’s eyes, kissing over and over and over, but soon the sun breaks through the clouds outside, and Baekhyun is reminded that their eternity together is only finite.
“I can’t,” Baekhyun sobs, the pleasure and pain becoming too much. He can feel what Jongdae feels through the rune transcribed over his heart, connecting them. Ink-black tears slip down his cheeks, staining the sheets. “Jongdae I-- I can’t I--”
“I know.” Jongdae presses their foreheads together. “Me too.”
They pull each other impossibly close, but their finish is silent and simultaneous, gasping into each other’s mouths, holding onto each other to prolong their unity, if only just.
Baekhyun awakens from his dream to an empty bed long into the morning, disgruntled and confused. There’s a lack of warmth next to his body, and he shivers as he sits up, memories trickling back in slow motion.
And he remembers it wasn’t a dream, even it had felt like one. If there wasn’t an empty space in the bed still carved with Jongdae’s indent, the same way Baekhyun’s skin will be for the rest of his life, having memorised every touch and kiss, Baekhyun wouldn’t believe it. Tasting Jongdae had been like biting into the forbidden fruit, and Baekhyun’s mouth waters for more even though he knows… it’s over. They’d both sought comfort last night, and found it within one another, but the desperation that had pulled them together ends now.
Or so Baekhyun tells himself, for he knows he will never experience that ever again, a silent agreement made with himself in the darkness of last night.
He rises, quickly rinses himself, and dresses, mask in place as he stalks through the hallways to find Jongdae in the parlour, being dressed by numerous servants as they cover him in layers upon layers of red silk robes, a decadent golden crown, lining his eyes with black and his cheeks with gold leaf dust.
He looks up as soon as Baekhyun enters, meeting the mask’s eyes through the mirror in front of him. Baekhyun’s heart squeezes so tightly it feels like he can’t breathe. Jongdae is ethereal, and Baekhyun can no longer distinguish whose pain resides in his chest. No matter how much he had worshipped him in their shared dream, drowned him in praise, it never feels like enough. Baekhyun wants to pull Jongdae back into the bed and peel off each piece of silk as he gives thanks with his hands, with his mouth, marks up the smooth stretches of skin so that Jongdae cannot belong to anyone else.
But he can’t. He can’t. And the sooner Baekhyun controls his impulsive thoughts, the better.
He watches as they transform Jongdae further with the finishing touches, thin gold chains dangling from his arching crown, around his throat and down the v-neck of his robe, across his hands and connected to the rings and seals around both fingers, flesh and steel.
The servants finish their task, and leave Jongdae be, dwindling out one by one until only he and Baekhyun remain.
Swallowing, Baekhyun approaches the dressing table where Jongdae sits, staring at his own reflection.
“You look beautiful,” he admits, voice strained. “The Princess will be lucky to have you.”
“I don’t want to be hers,” Jongdae whispers. “I don’t want to be anyone’s but myself.” He pauses. “Anyone’s but yours.”
He reaches out flesh hand brushing across the wrist Baekhyun still has feeling in. His breath hitches.
“Your wedding is today,” Baekhyun argues, tugging his hand back sharply. “I-- you-- we can’t.”
“We can’t?” Jongdae repeats icily, cocking his head. “Funny, you didn’t say that last night.”
Baekhyun clenches his jaw. “Don’t make this harder than it already is, Jongdae. We were both selfish last night and now we are both hurt because of it.”
Jongdae makes a frustrated noise in the back of his throat. “Harder than it already is? What part of it is hard for you, Baekhyun? Does it even bother you that I’m getting married? Do you even care? You deliver the gifts to the princess, you chastise me for the wedding. God it’s like you lay with me only to appease me.”
Something sparks in Baekhyun then, a taut wire snapping. “Do you truly think that?” he spits. “It destroys me inside that I cannot have you, but I have known this since the day we met. You have always been destined for somebody else.”
Jongdae’s eyes look wet then, and he tears his angry gaze away, scowling at the floor.
“Last night was a dream come true for me, Jongdae.” Baekhyun shifts to his knees, pressing his forehead against Jongdae’s shoulder. “And I regret waking up. But my duty to you comes first before my love.”
Silence passes, but Jongdae’s voice is weak when he says, “Why?” Baekhyun looks up. “Why must that be the case? Why must we be separated from each other?” Baekhyun can only freeze in place as Jongdae reaches forward to unclip his mask, pulling it aside and cupping his face with so much tenderness Baekhyun drowns in it. “I’m sick of us being forced into lives we didn’t choose for ourselves.” Jongdae’s jaw clenches. “I--” Jongdae starts, but falters. Baekhyun’s eyes drop this lips. “I want--”
A servant enters the room, announcing the arrival of the escort party, and Baekhyun and Jongdae break apart, Baekhyun quick to right the mask on his face as he feels his skin prickle with heat from his touch. His whole body feels more attuned to Jongdae than ever, like something in the magic binding them had strengthened last night. Jongdae’s every breath, every heartbeat, Baekhyun can feel it inside him, and it’s driving him more crazy than he already feels.
Jongdae is shuttled into a palanquin to begin the march through the streets, presented to his bride in Redtide’s palace. Baekhyun rides on a dressed up black horse adjacent to Jongdae, one of his guards separating him from the crowds lining the streets. He can make out Jongdae’s silhouette through the veil of the palanquin where he kneels in waiting, feels the dread and nervousness swirl inside him as the towers of the palace grow on the horizon, looming and waiting.
The gates are opened, and Jongdae’s palanquin is carried all the way until the entrance of the palace itself where the carrier servants kneel to lower him, allowing Jongdae to step off and enter. His throat bobs. This is his first and last public appearance in the Isles as an Aymaeran Prince, from now on, he will be Crown Prince of the Isles.
Jongdae enters, his silk train rippling behind him, and Baekhyun lines up with the other guards along the wall, watching the wedding unfold. Princess Seulgi waits at the end of the wedding hall in sea-green and navy robes, the colour of the Isles and the emerald ocean surrounding it. Some of her jewellery, Baekhyun notes, had been gifts from Jongdae, glittering beneath her veil.
He reaches the dais where she awaits him, and they remove each other’s veils in unison, taking each other in. Baekhyun is too far to read their expression, wondering what it says: sadness, disdain, relief?
The ceremony is lead by a head priest, a religion that Aymaera does not follow. He speaks of gods of seas and the sun, beings of light so different to the hellish creatures in the darkness of Aymaeran faith. Still, Jongdae follows, having studied for the traditions of the ceremony long before their arrival. Jongdae and Seulgi clasp their hands, and the priest binds them together with a golden silk ribbon, telling them to seal their union.
The kiss is a little hesitant, Baekhyun can tell, smiling in amusement beneath his mask as Jongdae and Seulgi make eye contact before leaning in. Then their lips meet, and all his amusement does is turn into jealousy. They meet in a clash of blue and red, sea and blood, and the crowd erupts into cheers.
The feast is incredible, seafood of all sorts of size and shape and colour including creatures Baekhyun has never even heard of served on large gold plates. Jongdae sits with his bride at the head of the dining hall, greeting guests and accepting gifts and promises of faith, from nobles of the Isles, relatives of Aymaera, his brother and the King himself. It is incredible to watch, and they are radiant together, royalty born in beauty and wealth. Baekhyun stands behind them, and hears them chatting amicably as they eat, attempting to learn more about each other. It is a relief to him, too, to see Jongdae get along with his bride, as much as it is crushing.
Duke Kim approaches the table, and smiles thinly, bowing over.
“May the light shine upon your union indefinitely,” he says with a dark smile, placing a gift on the table, before walking away, leaving Baekhyun shivering as he sees Jongdae tense. A threat barely concealed, undoubtedly. An enemy already made.
Behind him is his own son, who first says, “My apologies, Prince Jongdae.” He rises. “For the actions of my father and of myself. I serve the Princess before anyone else, I hope we can make acquaintances of one another too.”
Jongdae looks surprised to hear such news, and Seulgi a little sheepish. Baekhyun thinks back to Junmyeon snooping around the court and realises he’d been doing nothing different to what Baekhyun had done to Seulgi for Jongdae. How funny.
“Apologises accepted.” Jongdae smiles genuinely. “I look forward to becoming well-acquainted.”
As the sun falls and the festivities come to pass, they sign the treaty between their nations, sealing the Isles’ duty to Aymaera to lend their aid in the war. The crowd cheers again, there is another round of wine topped up by the servants from silver jugs. Baekhyun can only watch as the drunken crowd egg the newly weds on, spurring Jongdae to carry Seulgi bridal style to their new chambers together in the Palace to… consummate. He watches them laugh, and wonders how genuine it is as the door is kicked closed behind Jongdae, wonders if they’ll lay together, if they’ll enjoy it, if Jongdae will think of Baekhyun instead of the Princess beneath him.
The thought makes Baekhyun sick, and he cannot sleep, relegated to quarters in the servant’s wing of all things to lie in his cot and stare at the ceiling. He tells himself he’d always known that this would happen, that Jongdae’s love would be reserved for somebody befitting of his duty and yet-- it still hurts. Baekhyun’s heart still aches as it withers and fractures, breaking over and over again every time he remembers the sight of Jongdae kissing his bride.
As the sun rises, with no sleep behind him, Baekhyun watches the horizon fade from red to blue and wonders if he should greet Jongdae at his new chambers like he would before, escort him throughout the day.
The thought of seeing the Princess rise with him only makes Baekhyun’s gut writhe, so he decides to meet them at the dining hall instead. There are enough guards posted around the palace to assure he’s safe, Baekhyun reasons with himself, even if he feels guilty leaving Jongdae’s side.
But he’s so unsure of his role now, he realises as he walks through the palace, familiarising himself with the layout. In the Isles he is no longer a shadow, with Jongdae promised to somebody else he can’t be his, and there’s something invasive and deranged about his new marriage, a bond that seemingly overpowers the magic runes binding Baekhyun to Jongdae.
He doesn’t want to make the servants nervous as they prepare breakfast, so Baekhyun conceals himself in the shadows and simply observes, listening idly to the gossip of the wedding last night and following them outside as they prepare one of the pavillions for breakfast, as per the Princess’ request.
They arrive, but Baekhyun doesn’t reveal himself, watching as the couple sit down and the servants pour them a herbal tea before leaving them be. He’s surprised at how quiet it is, a little solemn too, definitely awkward. Jongdae seems intent on watching the garden while Seulgi stares holes into her breakfast plate. Neither of them eat or drink; Baekhyun doesn’t know why it makes him feel so vindictive.
“Sorry about requesting breakfast outside,” Seulgi finally speaks up. “But even the walls of the palace have ears, I’m afraid.”
“It’s okay,” Jongdae assures. “I’m relieved to be unwatched at last, though I’m afraid there’s an extra pair of ears here too.”
Jongdae turns to face Baekhyun in the darkness, cocking an eyebrow. He reveals himself with a huff; the Princess looks surprised, but she quickly covers it up, scrutinising Baekhyun’s magic.
“Playing spy?” Jongdae teases.
“Doing my duty,” Baekhyun corrects. Jongdae only chuckles, looking relieved. It softens the dejection inside Baekhyun.
“I am… unfamiliar with Aymaeran shadows,” Seulgi admits. “Does he follow you always?”
“Not always, but most of the time,” Jongdae answers. “Does it bother you?”
“Do you trust him?” she asks instead.
“Yes,” Jongdae says without hesitation. He laughs, strained. “More than I trust myself.”
“Then what would you do if I said I was bothered?”
Jongdae’s lips twitch. “I suppose I’d tell you to adjust regardless.”
Seulgi hums, as if it’s the answer she’d expected, and dips her spoon into her rice porridge.
Jongdae shifts, turning back to Baekhyun. “How did you go last night?”
He shrugs. “Fine,” he replies. “The wedding went well, but my new room is in the servants wing.”
“Hmm we’ll have to change that, perhaps there is a spare chamber closer to ours.” He sips at his tea. “Did you sleep well?”
“Well enough,” Baekhyun lies. Jongdae watches him for a minute, searches his face. Can he feel him lying? “How was--” Baekhyun thinks to ask upon reflex, but then remembers exactly what had happened last night, and decides he doesn’t want an answer. “--What are your plans for today, my Prince?”
“Lunch with the King later this afternoon,” he says, “then a meeting with him and my brother this evening to discuss the finer details of the treaty…” he trails off, casting a glance at Seulgi, whose face has soured.
“It’s fine,” she tells him. “I am used to being excluded from such things. I am just a woman after all.”
The way she speaks with such venom surprises Baekhyun, but Seulgi returns to her meal, unbothered.
“After that… I do not know,” Jongdae admits, then clears his throat. “Perhaps the uh, Princess will join me for an evening game of chess.” Seulgi perks up. “I’ve heard you favour the game.”
Her eyes narrow. “From whom?”
Jongdae and Baekhyun exchange glances. “I have my ways.”
She huffs, but she is smiling --that’s a good sign.
“Perhaps,” is all she says. Jongdae grins.
Jongdae has Baekhyun’s chambers moved first thing in the morning, and the lunch they have with the King is light but awkward. Seulgi is silent as the King pesters the couple with questions, some bordering on invasive, which Jongdae swiftly dodges.
Seulgi retires to the gardens for afternoon reading, and Jongdae returns to their chambers to re-dress for the treaty meeting, waving the servants away and dealing with it himself.
“Go on,” he says to Baekhyun through the mirror while adjusting his tie. “I know you want to ask.”
“I don’t, actually,” Baekhyun retorts. “I’m afraid of the answer.”
The sheets had been changed and re-made that very morning; he’d watched the servants carry them out on his way to breakfast.
“But you still want to know.”
And god he does, he must , it burns inside him, a mix of curiosity and possessiveness and jealousy mixing into an ugly shade of grey. It’s like seeking mounds of salt to rub them in his own wounds.
“...Then… Did you do it?”
“Do what?” Jongdae teases, smirking. The anger inside Baekhyun boils over.
“Did you consummate your marriage?” he snaps. “Did you fuck her?”
“No.” Jongdae turns around, facing Baekhyun. “Seulgi said she’d rather die than let a man touch her, I said that suited me better too.” He fiddles with his cufflinks, a distant expression on her face. “From what I gather, we have reached a mutual understanding on upholding our relationship to the public to appease them, to maintain our standing.” His face tightens. “But I am still unsure as to whether she is friend or foe.”
The relief Baekhyun feels drowns him, and all that remains after the flood is self-loathing and disgust, for who is he to pretend that Jongdae belongs to him? He is married, whether he loves his wife or not, that is not something Baekhyun can ever interfere with.
“Why is that?” he asks, wondering if Jongdae can feel his relief too.
Jongdae chuckles. “The Princess may pretend that she is a damsel in distress,” he says, “but I have a feeling that she is just a lioness with retracted claws. She would eat me in my sleep given the chance.”
Truth be told, though he is surrounded by it, Baekhyun has never been one to care for politics, preferring to wander his thoughts rather than listen to the back and forth of the treaty meeting. The only thing he does notice about it is that the whole room is filled with men: Jongdae, his brother, Duke Kim, the King, every admiral and general of the Isles’ navy. The only woman in the room is Joohyun, who says nothing, and isn’t even recognisable as one in her shadow uniform and mask.
It is something he had not considered before hearing the Princess’ scorn; why are women left out of meetings like this? Surely Seulgi has a say in the fate of people just as much as her cousin? But… most countries have never even had female rulers, especially the Isles.
As Jongdae leaves the meeting to rendezvous with Seulgi in the gardens, he scowls.
“Ridiculous,” he curses. “Three fleets is like sending a mouse to fight a lion. All he is doing is sending his own men to die. And Duke Kim convinces him into it, the fool.”
Baekhyun is silent, not knowing what to say. When Jongdae complains as much to Seulgi as she asks after the meeting, her face contorts into a similar rage.
“What is he doing?” she hisses. “Selfishness will only hurt us in the long run. If we are going to fight somebody else’s war we may as well do a good job of it. This will only weaken us.”
“That’s what I argued, but your dear cousin was having none of it.” Jongdae scowls harder and pushes at the chessboard set up on the table. Seulgi’s expression is tight.
“He is a fool and a coward,” she spits. “He should not be on the throne.”
“I am in agreement,” Jongdae consoles. “But next in line for now is me, and I would rather leave this country to someone who was born in it.”
It’s nothing more than a flimsy gesture to make Aymaera feel as if they win more from the treaty; Jongdae may have the title of Crown Prince, but he will lose it when the King has an heir, which won’t be too far once he’s married, and Aymaera cannot harm the King, in fear of losing the treaty. It also traps Jongdae here, a fancified hostage. It is a treasure box with no treasure inside.
Seulgi’s face is unreadable. “Come,” she says, clipped. “Let’s play. It does not do well to dwell on things we cannot change for now.”
Jongdae huffs in agreement, and they begin their game. The match is… long, Baekhyun decides, with each move forcing Jongdae to tap the point of his knuckle armor against the table in thought. He moves the rosewood pieces with hesitance, always watching Seulgi for her next move.
It's unclear who will take victory until Jongdae's queen traps Seulgi's king.
Seulgi sighs. "A victory well taken, my Prince," she compliments.
"If only I could call it a victory at all." He leans forward to pick up her white Queen, standing in the corner of the board. "I'm sure you know better than anyone that the Queen is the most powerful piece on the board, so if you could stop pitying me and play properly I could enjoy my next victory."
Seulgi's lips twitch. "Very well."
If Baekhyun had found the last game long, then this one is an eternity. Each move Seulgi makes seems to leave Jongdae deep in thought, mouth twisted as she sweeps black piece after black piece off the board until nothing is left but the king.
"Checkmate," Seulgi announces, satisfied.
Baekhyun's jaw drops open. He's never seen Jongdae lose, not even once.
Jongdae laughs, startled, at first, but then it turns into delight.
"Maybe next time you will win, my Prince," Seulgi consoles, eyes alight with mirth.
"I doubt that," Jongdae responds. They laugh; even Baekhyun smiles.
Life in Redtide's palace is certainly different, but they settle into a routine of sorts, adjusting. Jongdae attends lessons from private tutors about more of the Isles’ culture, and he meets with the King and the council about the war.
Even their relationship has remained the same; Baekhyun had been a fool to think that giving into temptation would have changed anything. It almost feels like it really had been a dream, with how little it comes between them --how little Jongdae seems to even dwell on it.
The only thing that differs from this and their life in Veinswood is Seulgi; her and Jongdae must make numerous public and private appearances to celebrate their union, walking pair of propaganda for the war and its treaty. She had once been a funnel for Baekhyun’s jealousy and possessiveness but the more time he spends with her, through her association to Jongdae, the more fondness grows. Seulgi is kind, and charming, and smarter than anyone Baekhyun has ever met; it’s clear Jongdae adores her, though it is an adoration born from respect and friendship, nothing else. They are trapped in their game of politics together, so it is good to see that they have made allies of one another.
Baekhyun’s eyes slide to Jongdae now where he lies in the garden with Seulgi beside him, both reading in the quiet. They make a dreadfully boring couple; Baekhyun smiles beneath his mask.
“Eugh,” Jongdae groans, flopping onto the grass, ruining his suit, and leaving the book over his face. “If I have to read one more passage about the unique laws of foreign emissaries within the Southern Isles…”
Seulgi smiles, turning the page of her own novel. “It’s important for the next king to know,” she says drily.
Jongdae rolls his eyes, sitting up and turning his shoulder. “I hate the heat here,” he complains. “Why couldn’t we have moved to Aymaera? The humidity is going to rust my prosthetic.”
Baekhyun can feel it, too, the way Jongdae’s shoulder aches and the itch where the skin meets metal. He scratches at his numb arm subconsciously, trying to deal with it himself.
Seulgi’s face is pensive as she catches Baekhyun’s movement, tilting her head. He quickly pushes his hand down.
“I’m curious,” she starts. “Forgive me for the intrusive question but… how did you lose your arm, Jongdae? Or is it presumptuous of me to believe you were not born this way?”
“Presumptuous but not incorrect.” Jongdae sighs, fingers tracing over the filigree engraved in his steel prosthetic, where the little steam-powered pumps and cogs keep it moving. “There was… an attack in the palace, a few summers ago, Karasan assassins targeting the royal family.” Seulgi’s face softens in sympathy and understanding, as Jongdae’s gaze goes distant. Baekhyun’s hands curl into fists, remembering the day all too well.
“Luckily, Baekhyun got to me in time to defend me, but…” Jongdae rolls up the sleeve of his shirt, revealing the purplish scar where flesh meets steel. Seulgi looks closer at it with both disgust and fascination. “A poisoned blade sliced me here. Amputation was necessary to save my life.”
Seulgi’s fingers brush over the scar. “And what happened to the attacker?”
“I killed him,” Baekhyun answers, as winces at it. “It was my fault they’d gotten in in the first place, if I hadn’t been lazy in my duties Jongdae wouldn’t have been hurt and I--”
“Stop it,” Jongdae hisses it, tugging his sleeve down as Seulgi pulls away. He turns to glare at Baekhyun. “How many times must we argue this? You cannot blame yourself, Baekhyun.”
“If it weren’t for me you’d still have your arm,” comes Baekhyun’s retort.
“If it weren’t for you I wouldn’t be alive at all .” Jongdae huffs. “It’s a small price to pay.”
Baekhyun’s mouth twists, unhappy but unsure of how to argue. Jongdae may say he doesn’t care but Baekhyun can feel it, can feel his pain and suffering through the magic bonding them together, binding Jongdae’s pain to Baekhyun’s. Baekhyun lost his arm that night too, and the price of watching Jongdae scream as the doctors cut it off cost even more. He’d swore in that moment that he’d never let anyone hurt Jongdae again, ever, a rational version of the impulsive instinct that had taken over when he’d pinned the attacker down and slit their throat with solidified shadow.
Sometimes, when Baekhyun sleeps, he can still feel their warm blood pulsing over his hands. Can remember the horror he’d felt as he’d watched them die.
But he’d do anything to keep Jongdae safe. Anything.
“Besides.” Jongdae stands then, moves to hold Baekhyun’s numb arm in his metal one. “It’s my fault you suffer too.”
Seulgi tilts her head at the point of contact where their fingers are interlocked, and Baekhyun pulls back sharply, curling his numb fingers into fists and wishing he could have felt the cool touch of Jongdae's steel fingers.
Some days the routine is easy, swallowing Baekhyun whole.
Other days it’s harder, and he watches Jongdae from afar while his mind itches to remember what it’s like to touch him, to kiss him, to worship him the way he deserves. As far as Baekhyun is concerned there’s no reason for it, no hair-trigger or anything, it’s just that the sun rises and his mind decides to yearn.
Today is nothing special; Jongdae readies himself for another meeting about their support for the war by flipping through his closet in laziness, trying to pick a proper dinner suit, and Baekhyun thinks he’s never seen anyone more beautiful in the world.
“Red or black?” Jongdae asks, holding up the two jackets. Baekhyun is too dazed to realised he should answer. “I don’t know why I bother, I know you’ll say black.” He chuckles and pulls the black jacket on regardless, adjusting the collar. “You seem awfully quiet tonight.”
“I am just…” Baekhyun bites his lip. “Thinking.”
Baekhyun debates whether to tell the truth or not, but it's fruitless hesitation; he can never lie to Jongdae.
Jongdae's face softens, even though Baekhyun doubts he hadn't already known the answer. He reaches out to gently pry Baekhyun's mask off, cupping his cheek with a metal hand.
"I never knew it was possible, before," he says softly, "to miss something that's right in front of you."
Baekhyun's heart squeezes in his chest, or maybe it's Jongdae's. The pain is impossible to differentiate. Self-indulgently, he lets himself kiss the inside of Jongdae's steel wrist, thumb brushing over the spot before lowering his hand.
"We shouldn't indulge ourselves," Baekhyun croaks weakly, failing to find any resolve left behind his words. "I think-- the Princess is beginning to suspect… Advisor Kim too…"
Jongdae scowls. "Is it so bad? To leave them pondering?"
Baekhyun softens in sympathy. "Jongdae," is all he says. Jongdae's anger melts instantly.
"You're right, you're right, I'm sorry, I just--" He laughs drily. "Sometimes I wonder if this would have all been easier, if we'd never…"
Baekhyun's heart thunders dangerously. "Does that mean you regret it?"
Jongdae doesn't hesitate. "Not for a single moment."
While Baekhyun's stomach churns with the knowledge, aching to touch Jongdae but knowing he can't, Jongdae fixes his cuffs and stands by the door.
"Come," he calls softly. "We don't want to be late."
Baekhyun nods, meeting Jongdae's eyes and trying to decipher what swims beneath them. It's impossible; his eyes are as black as the deep sea.
Baekhyun rights his mask in place, cooling his nerves, and follows Jongdae out, like always.
Jongdae is only second last into the room; Duke Kim comes minutes past the original meeting time long after his own son, causing the King to tap impatiently on the war desk.
"Well?" he asks snidely as the man enters, a stern expression on his face.
"I've just received some grave news," the Duke announces. "Our fleets were destroyed by Karasan naval ships. There were no survivors. The Aymaeran army was forced to make a tactical retreat."
Jongdae's reaction is subdued, contained, but Baekhyun watches his fingers tighten on the arm chair, the fury in his eyes burning beneath black waters.
"What?" the King looks shocked, which seems foolish. "How could that be possible? I thought the Aymaeran army is unstoppable." He turns to Jongdae, accusatory.
He swallows, throat bobbing. Frivolous promises exchanged during the treaty; lies that anyone with half a brain would see through --apparently they'd all underestimated this King's idiocy.
"With proper support, it should've been," Jongdae grits out. "But three fleets is insufficient to deal with Karasan blood ships."
"Excuses," the King spits. "Your lies have tainted our nations' unity."
The Duke hums in agreement, and all eyes in the room turn to Jongdae, expectant. The Duke's lips twitch, the slightest of movements, but Baekhyun catches it all the same, narrowing his eyes behind his mask.
"You are naive, Prince Jongdae," the King says. "Do not pretend to know better than the Duke."
Jongdae remains silent after that, all power and sway he'd once had sucked from the room. In one instant the Duke had turned the war council against him, leaving Jongdae powerless. It appears his threats had never been empty after all.
Back in his shared chambers, Jongdae slams his metal fist into the wall, leaving a hole behind the impact.
Seulgi only winces. "What happened?" she asks.
"That snake of a man, the Duke--" Jongdae is fuming, a sort of rage Baekhyun rarely sees from him. "What is his game?"
"Power," comes a fourth voice, as Junmyeon stands in the doorway, shutting the bedroom door behind him. "My father seeks the throne; the King is barely more than a puppet, but you stand in his way."
If Jongdae is surprised to see Junmyeon somewhere so private he doesn't show it, only watching as he untucks a roll of parchment from his inside pocket and lays it on the table.
"He has been making deals with Karasan merchants behind the scenes, he seeks to have two faces in this war."
Jongdae scowls as he reads the parchment, proof of his dealings, as does Seulgi.
"He is a fool," she says. "Siding with them in the shadows reveals our weaknesses.." Jongdae nods in agreement. “Supporting Aymaera was the lesser of two evils if we seek to maintain autonomy as a nation. Giving Karasa power only weakens us.”
“But he doesn’t care for the country,” Junmyeon continues, “only himself.”
Junmyeon’s disconnection from his father sends chills down Baekhyun’s spine --it’s both admirable and horrific.
“He is a thorn in our side,” Jongdae grunts, running a hand through his hair. “He’s a threat both to our countries and to us ,” he tells Seulgi, who only nods in agreement. “What do we do? What little voice I had in the council is effectively silenced no thanks to the Duke and his puppet.”
“I think the answer is clear,” Seulgi says coolly, picking up the Queen piece from the chess board in front of her and moving it forward. Her Queen knocks over the opposing King. Seulgi pushes it to the side. “If there is an obstacle in front of us, we should remove it.”
A funeral service is held for the lost troops; flaming pyres sent out to sea as the Isles’ priests pray to foreign gods in a familiar language. It rains in thick buckets across a blackened sky and a steel-grey ocean, soaking Baekhyun to the bone.
He’s unbothered by the cold, but he’s never liked the rain. It seeps through his clothes, drips beneath his mask. Baekhyun feels so far removed from the people around him, the citizens of the Isles and any of the countries beyond it. Should he feel remorse for the lives lost? He looks to Jongdae in front of him, unsure.
The tension of the palace feels thick, after that, stretched thin between the Duke, the King, and Jongdae and Seulgi, a red string of fate that Baekhyun fears will snap at any moment.
But he rarely bears witness to it; from then onwards Jongdae increasingly finds duties for Baekhyun away from the palace. It stretches the distance between them like rubber, makes the chasm in Baekhyun's chest gape wider.
Is it an attempt at a cure, Baekhyun wonders? Push him farther away to lessen the temptation of being so close. Or is it punishment? Baekhyun can’t tell. Jongdae is so caught up in court politics it’s like he hardly sees Baekhyun even when he is there, lost to the shadows. He wants to reach out and touch Jongdae, ground him, take him away from the games of politics and remind him that he is more than a Prince but he spends so much of his time playing courier to messages that Baekhyun suspects Jongdae overplays the importance of.
If Jongdae’s intention had been to cure the tension between them, then he has sorely failed. Being apart from Jongdae only makes Baekhyun want him more, the distance pulls at his seams and leaves holes frayed in his sides, all the pieces of him falling out one by one.
But he can’t, Baekhyun knows, curling his hands into fists on his thighs. He can’t. He won’t.
The palace looms ahead, and Baekhyun has never felt so grateful to be back in Jongdae’s golden cage, laced with jade and ivory but still a cage in the end. He speeds to Jongdae’s room while hiding in the shadows to avoid being seen by anyone else, needing to feel whole again.
Baekhyun opens the doors with a smile on his face --beneath the mask. “I’m back,” he announces. “The admiral received your message well--”
Jongdae turns, and his face falls.
“What are you doing here?” he snaps. “You weren’t meant to arrive until tomorrow.”
The disappointment and shock causes Baekhyun to falter, withering slightly. “The winds were faster than expected…” he says, timid. “What’s wrong?”
Jongdae shakes his head, beginning to frantically pace. “You shouldn’t-- you shouldn’t be here Baekhyun.”
“What do you mean?” Baekhyun’s eyebrows furrow together, and he pulls off his mask, searching Jongdae’s face. “My place is by your side, always. You can send me off all you like Jongdae but I will always return to you.”
Jongdae stills for a moment, faltering. “That’s not--” he bites his tongue.
“I don’t understand.” Baekhyun steps forward, searching Jongdae’s face. “Have I done something wrong? Why are you pushing me away so suddenly?”
Jongdae swallows, throat bobbing. “It’s for your own good, Baekhyun.”
“My own good?” Baekhyun retorts. “Being apart from you--” his voice chokes up, and Baekhyun clamps his mouth shut, knowing he should keep his feelings to himself. Traitorous words. A few weeks ago Jongdae had openly expressed his longing, but now it’s like looking at Baekhyun only disgusts him.
Jongdae softens. “It’s not about us, Baekhyun. Just you.”
Baekhyun steps closer until their noses nearly touch, trying to make sense of Jongdae’s guarded expression.
“What aren’t you telling me?”
Jongdae’s mouth parts, but the doors behind them are opened, with Baekhyun swiftly stepping back and righting his mask in place. Seulgi stares at him, shocked.
“You’ve returned early,” she blurts.
“That is what the Prince said,” Baekhyun replies, narrowing his eyes behind his mask. Seulgi and Jongdae exchange eye contact that Baekhyun can’t read and he hates it, loathes it like nothing else, feels jealousy and pettiness bubble within him, filling out all the space left behind by distance tearing him open.
Any chance he has to ask what the hell is going on is lost by Chanyeol telling the Prince and Princess that the King is ready to receive them for an evening meal.
Baekhyun scrambles to follow behind Jongdae, who casts wary glances over his shoulder at him. Having had no idea of their plans due to his early arrival he’s shocked by such a meeting with the King, though his surprise wears off as the meal continues onwards and Jongdae and Seulgi both try their best at whittling him down from his stubborn place to keep sending such pathetic supports to Aymaera.
It doesn’t work. The King is adamant, and it sours the atmosphere.
“Please,” Seulgi implores, “surely you can see that Duke Kim manipulates you, my King, he seeks to abuse your trust in him to gain his own power with the Karasan nobles--”
“Ha!” the King scoffs, spitting out food in the process. Baekhyun grimaces. “You insult me. What would you know of court politics or war? You’re just a little girl.”
Whatever sympathy Seulgi had had instantly washes away, darkening her expression so much it shocks Baekhyun. Jongdae’s hand tightens around the stem of his wine glass like he’s bracing for something.
“Enough talk of politics,” the King demands. “Is it not enough for me to enjoy a dinner with my cousin without such frivolous nonsense?” He chuckles as he holds up his own glass, calling for a servant to come refill it. Chanyeol scrambles out, hands shaking around the jug. “Perhaps when you beat me in a game of chess, dear Princess, I will take your advice more seriously.” The wine is poured, thick and red like blood. The King sips from it and hums happily.
“You are a fool,” Seulgi hisses. “And you will be remembered in history as nothing more.”
The King’s face purples in indignance, and he splutters angrily, turning redder by the minute. Baekhyun only watches as he fails to speak or make any sound, confused for a moment until the King’s hands wrap around his throat in a choking gesture.
Neither Jongdae nor Seulgi move, watching calmly as he chokes and splutters in front of them, foaming at the mouth for a few moments before falling forward into his food.
Jongdae turns away, and Seulgi opens her mouth and screams.
Time seems to pass in a blur; guards flood the dining room at Seulgi’s scream, and they’re ushered out as the castle doctor is called in.
Jongdae paces his study as Baekhyun watches, lost in thought. The King is dead? How? Or more importantly… who ?
Baekhyun hadn’t even realised until it was too late --it must be poison, he reasons, remembering the way the King had purpled as the life faded from his eyes. Baekhyun was designed for death, but Jongdae had kept him so far removed from the darkness he can’t help but feel perturbed. The King had been selfish and greedy and a fool unfit to run the country and yet… Baekhyun can’t help but begin to panic. About Jongdae’s safety, about his crown.
“I’m sorry,” Jongdae says suddenly, making Baekhyun jolt a little, shocked.
He eyes Jongdae carefully. “About what?”
Jongdae’s expression swims with a thousand things Baekhyun doesn’t dare to name, but he can’t answer as guards enter the palace, and a servant kneels before them.
“The palace medic has finished his examination,” she announces. “The King is dead, poisoned with cyanide.”
Jongdae’s face is hardened like steel. “Have they found the culprit?”
“Not yet my Lord,” she replies. “The servants who served the meal are currently in questioning. We will find the murderer soon enough. In the mean time we will double the guard upon you and the Princess, my Lord.”
Jongdae inhales. “And my coronation?”
The servant lowers herself a little bit farther down. “Once proper mourning has taken place, the High Council wants you crowned immediately.”
Which can’t be in more than two or three days, knowing how little a nation will want a throne to remain emptied, especially in times of war. Baekhyun’s heart pounds in his chest as his worries grow. If someone is targeting the Isles’ nobles, then is Jongdae next? Would it have been someone from Aymaera or Karasa? Or someone in their midst?
Baekhyun thinks back to every party, every dinner, every meeting, the wedding itself, but it’s impossible --every noble face that comes to mind has motive behind it.
Baekhyun turns to Jongdae as the servant continues talking, no longer listening as realisation hits him like a bucket of icy water. He’s left with guards outside his door as the silence stretches between them.
“Jongdae,” Baekhyun calls, and he turns, a guilty expression on his face. “Please… Please tell me it wasn’t you.”
Jongdae winces in place of an answer, and Baekhyun’s heart breaks.
“You’re a light,” he continues, “to stain your hands in this way--” his head swims as the world slips underneath his feet, dizzying around him. “Why… Why wouldn’t you tell me?”
“I told you you shouldn’t be here, Hyun.” Jongdae’s voice is soft, yet solemn. “I didn’t want you to see.”
“Is being King that important to you?”
Jongdae doesn’t answer, but Baekhyun can’t take the guilt and disgust and self-loathing that fills his chest so he storms out of the room, refusing to turn back.
The King’s funeral is a grand event, but Jongdae’s coronation overtakes its importance.
Baekhyun doesn’t partake in a single thing, however, crouched on the roof of the Palace’s highest tower he watches the preparations take place. He doesn’t eat, he doesn’t sleep, he only sits in the rain and thinks, wondering how to reconcile all that plagues him. Part of him is disgusted Jongdae would succumb to such tricks, wondering if Jongdae is truly so petty and manipulative that he would seek power this way but… then part of Baekhyun argues that Jongdae isn’t , that he can pain this picture of a villain in his own head but he will always think of the Jongdae that tires of his duty, that despises nobility.
But then what? If he truly did take part in killing the King then… why? And more than that, why did he leave Baekhyun out of it?
Because at the end of the day, that’s what hurts most --selfishly, as always. Not that Jongdae did it, but because he didn’t trust in Baekhyun to tell him --didn’t trust in him to do it for him.
On the morning of his coronation, Baekhyun slips into Jongdae’s chambers, concealed to the shadows. Jongdae is beautiful, just as he had been seasons ago at his wedding --but unlike his wedding he is alone. There are no servants dressing him up or fussing over his clothes, just Jongdae and his reflection in the wardrobe mirror.
“You came back,” he croaks weakly. “I thought you’d left for good.”
Baekhyun reveals himself, stepping into the light.
“I’d never leave you,” he says, for it’s the truth. He’s so tired.
Jongdae turns, an eternal sorrow over his face. “You must understand, Baekhyun, I-- I couldn’t risk involving you, if you got hurt or caught or worse…”
“So it is fine to endanger yourself but not me?”
Jongdae doesn’t even hesitate. “Yes.” He strides across the room, cupping Baekhyun’s face. “Everything I did… I did for you. Even if you don’t realise it yet.”
“By sunset you will be King.” Baekhyun pushes his hands back, stepping away and glancing out at the darkening sky. Tears prick the corners of his eyes. “How does that do either of us any good?”
Jongdae’s throat bobs as he swallows. “Will you love me less if I were your King?”
“No.” Baekhyun doesn’t even have to think. “Of course not, Jongdae, I would love you if you were a poor beggar on the streets of Veinswood I couldn’t care less I just… is this what you have wanted? All this time? Have you lied to me?”
“No, Baekhyun, I told you,” Jongdae implores, squeezing Baekhyun’s fingers. “Everything I did, I did for you. The only thing I want is you.”
“Then what are you--”
Jongdae captures Baekhyun’s lips in a kiss, and Baekhyun forgets how to think. Forgets how to breathe, forgets how to be, forgets how to do anything except kiss Jongdae back, melt under his touch. How long has it been since they’d let each other give into temptation, giving themselves to one another? Baekhyun can’t remember, but it tastes so sweet he drowns in it.
“Jongdae,” Seulgi calls from the doorway, with Junmyeon by her side, and Baekhyun stumbles back, humiliated, both hands over his mouth. “It’s time.”
Jongdae adjusts his robes with a smile, walking past his wife. Baekhyun can only look at Seulgi with wide eyes, afraid of her judgement, her thoughts. Jongdae had assured Baekhyun that night moons ago that he and Seulgi had never… but what if that had changed alongside everything else?
“Look after him,” is all Seulgi says, voice soft. “Please.”
Baekhyun’s eyebrows furrow, having expected more shock or disgust. “What--”
Seulgi walks away before Baekhyun can receive an answer, stumbling to follow behind. Jongdae marches the way to the throne with Seulgi’s arms linked through his, sitting on it as he faces his court. Baekhyun bows down with the rest of them.
“Long live the King!” the High Priest announces, and they echo it with him.
Jongdae looks so much older, beneath the golden crown of a King, Baekhyun can hardly fathom it. It was never meant to be this way.
Jongdae stands, robes flowing behind him, crown heavy upon his head to make his first address as King. Baekhyun’s heart squeezes in his chest --he wonders if Jongdae can feel his pain too.
“I, King Jongdae of the Isles,” Jongdae begins, “son of the Eighth Emperor of Aymaera of the Great Continent, Brother to the Ninth…” Jongdae inhales carefully. “...Denounce my nobility, and abdicate the throne.”
Thick silence passes throughout the throne room.
“I beg your pardon!?” the High Priest shouts. “Such a thing is preposterous, impossible--”
“No, it isn’t.” Jongdae takes off his crown, shaking out his black curls. “I have not lived in the Isles long enough to be fit to rule, culturally and socially I am too immature.” Jongdae grins, smug. “Thus, I will give up all my noble titles, in every country, in order for a better ruler to take their rightful place.”
Confidently, Seulgi steps forward, smiling as she bows her head. Jongdae places the King’s crown on top.
“Long live the Queen!” he announces.
There is hesitation, at first, of course. The Isles have never had a female ruler as far as Baekhyun knows, to make such moves is bold-- but.
“Long live the Queen!” Junmyeon shouts.
“Long live the Queen!” Baekhyun echoes.
The whole room rings out in chanting of their new Queen. Seulgi smiles at the beaming crowd.
After the outburst and confusion of the throne room, it is difficult for Baekhyun to find Jongdae. He’d been quickly escorted away by guards as he was no longer nobility, lost amongst the cheering crowd.
But Baekhyun tugs on that thread wrapped around his heart, letting it close the gap between them to find Jongdae sitting by the docks, his bare feet in the water. He’s dressed only in the shirt and trousers of a common man, rolled to the elbows.
“Do you know I’ve never done this before?” he announces as Baekhyun approaches silently, without turning around. “My mother always told me it was improper for a gentleman to take his shoes off in public.” Jongdae tips his head up to the night sky, sighing. “It feels better than I imagine. You should try it too.”
Baekhyun is speechless, for a moment, wondering how Jongdae could do all that and then speak to Baekhyun as if a night dip in the ocean is a casual occurrence, but then he relents and unlaces his boots anyway, joining him.
“So,” Baekhyun starts, “was that the plan all along?” He peers at Jongdae sideways.
Jongdae chuckles, shrugging. “It took a while for me to realise that the Queen and I actually had common goals,” he admits. “She was tired of her country being ruled by men, and Junmyeon and I were both plenty happy for her to sit on the throne instead of myself.”
Baekhyun’s mouth twists. “And the King?”
Jongdae looks guilty, at least. “He was an obstacle,” is all he says, “he had to be removed.” He turns then, facing Baekhyun.
“You don’t agree,” Jongdae points out, then chuckles. “I thought you wouldn’t. You’ve always been about duty before or else.”
“No,” Baekhyun interjects. “Jongdae I-- I don’t care about you being Prince or King, but to kill…” He wraps his numb hand around Jongdae’s flesh one. “It is a price that cannot be unpaid.”
“I know, but I’m selfish.” Jongdae’s smile is self-deprecating. “I would do anything to get my way, you know that better than anyone.”
“How did you…”
“I did not do it alone. Seulgi and Junmyeon admittedly had a greater hand in doing it than I did, though it was my own plan.” He sighs, looking up at the stars, little lights breaking the darkness of night. “In a few hours I imagine maids of the Kim residency will find a small vial of cyanide and will know what to do with it. Another obstacle out of the Queen’s way.”
Baekhyun shivers. “She’s ruthless.”
Jongdae laughs. “It’s what made better at chess than me, it’s what will make her a better Queen. She’s dedicated to being a good ruler, it’s not her fault the throne was taken from her in the first place for being a woman. She had to reveal her claws to get it back.”
Baekhyun nods, unsure of what else to say. He’s still so-- overwhelmed, so surprised, so truly happy too. The relief that comes with Jongdae being free from court politics is indescribable. Yet the guilt that accompanies it is like an anchor rooting him in place.
“So what now?” Baekhyun asks. “If you’re no longer nobility…”
“Then your services as my shadow are over.” Jongdae stands, the hems of his pants dripping onto the deck of the pier below. “You are a free man, Baekhyun, as am I.”
Baekhyun stands, narrowing his eyes. “You can’t expect me to go anywhere, can you?” he asks. “I told you, Jongdae, my place is by your side. Always.”
Jongdae’s smile is brighter than the moon in the sky. “I’d hoped you’d say that.”
He walks a little bit down the dock, then, and jumps into an old row boat, rocking beneath his still-bare feet.
“There is so much of life to see outside the palace walls,” Jongdae admits, stretching out a hand. “Care to join me?”
“In that?” Baekhyun bellows out a laugh before he can stop himself, then covers his mouth. Jongdae’s grin widens. “You are insane, Jongdae.”
“Yes and you like me regardless.” Jongdae outstretches his hand. “Are you coming or not? We won’t be young forever, my love.”
Baekhyun rolls his eyes again, but he can see the fear and hesitation that Jongdae masks carefully. He’s probably worried that Baekhyun won’t choose him, after everything, that he doesn’t truly want Jongdae beyond his duty to him as a shadow but that’s all just preposterous, of course. Baekhyun can’t believe Jongdae even needs to ask, when he should already know the answer.
“So impatient,” Baekhyun clicks his tongue. He at least has enough common sense to pick up his boots from the pier in one hand, taking Jongdae’s with the other. He leaps into the boat, placing his shoes down. “What am I going to do with you?”
“Love me,” Jongdae answers. “A lot. Hopefully. For eternity, until kingdom come.”
Baekhyun laughs at Jongdae’s nerves --somehow endearing, despite everything.
“Of course,” Baekhyun answers. “Even if you give up everything, you will always be my Prince.”
Jongdae smiles, so Baekhyun kisses him under the moonlight like the renegade lovers they are. Jongdae sighs against his mouth, hands lifting to Baekhyun’s hair, and he unclips Baekhyun’s mask from around his head, tossing it into the ocean. Baekhyun doesn’t care, too busy basking in the sensation of fullness to worry about some cheap piece of wood sinking into the dark depths of the water.