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Goodbye to All That We Knew

Chapter Text

 

 

The grass crunched and snapped beneath his tiny feet, sharp and brittle and yellow. It hurt, grass blades poking at his bare soles as he wandered along the riverbank, plucking wilting flowers that left brown stains on his hands.

 

He still clutched them close, as Mother talked so often about the times where flowers had colour and were not crunchy and mushy under your fingertips.

 

The forest was so quiet that he could hear his little heart beating away in his chest, the river’s muddy water swirling not far from his feet.

 

Yixing wandered a little closer.

 

Nurse had told him never to drink the water from any stream or river in the forest.

 

She said that once they had been clear; beautiful, trickling streams that tinkled over rocks or rushing waters that foamed against the riverbanks. She said she could have sat on the banks and watched them for hours, listening to the waters crashing against the bank and watching the deer and rabbits come to drink.

 

But now, they were full of mud and silt, and the water was no longer a beautiful clear blue. No animals came to drink anymore.

 

They had a single well back home that drew water from the deepest depths of the earth, which was the only water safe to drink - the water that sprung from underwater springs so deep that if you fell in, you would never come back out again.

 

Something cracked in the silence and Yixing froze, his little fist squeezing tight around the bouquet of dead flowers.

 

He ducked behind a large rock, lifting his head to watch as a deer, really just a fawn, growing out of childhood, stumble over to the stream.

 

Its spindly legs tripped over the uneven rocks and it went sprawling.

 

Even from a distance, Yixing could see that something was very wrong with the poor creature.

 

Its sides heaved, its coat was stained with sweat and its tongue lolled out of its mouth as it collapsed on the riverbank, tilting its head just enough to reach the filthy water.

 

The effect was instantaneous.

 

The fawn’s back bowed into an unnatural arch, its muscles beginning to convulse.

 

Blood gushed from its nose and mouth as it shrieked, the sound so ugly and piercing that Yixing dropped his flowers to clasp his hands over his ears.

 

He fought down the urge to scream as the fawn’s eyes began gushing blood, rivers of it streaming down its muzzle to mingle with the water, its back arching so stiffly that it looked as if it would break.

 

“Your Highness!” A pair of hands clapped around his eyes before he had time to react, but it was not enough to block out the awful crack that echoed through the air even through his hands over his ears.

 

Yixing began to cry even as his nurse scooped him up, one hand still pressed over his eyes.

 

“You should not have come here, little one. The forest is not for someone like you,” she murmured as she carried him out to the hunting party that his father must have sent out to search for him.

 

“How did he even get out of the castle? You were supposed to be watching him.” His father’s voice was sharp and angry. Yixing whimpered, clinging to his shirt as he was handed over.

 

Wrapped up in his father’s warm, strong arms, the death of the fawn did not feel so real. But that did not erase the horror that he had seen, the gruesome, horrific way that the fawn had died.

 

He clutched at his father’s tunic, burying his face into his strong chest as they returned to the castle, the sound of the horses’ hooves rhythmic in his ears.

 

Even at the tender age of seven, Yixing knew that what happened with the fawn was not right. There was something very wrong with his world.

 

He began to see it everywhere.

 

From the way his father wore a single glove over his left hand that he never removed for as long as he remembered, the servants’ reluctance to touch him after he returned from the forest and how the nobles were always, always warned to never enter the forest alone.

 

Only his nurse treated him the same she always did, except now she whispered words that he did not understand while she bathed him.

 

He chanced upon his father one day, sleeping in his study with no glove on.

 

“Yixing!”

 

His mother opened the door to the study and screamed before he could grab his father’s bare hand, startling him awake.

 

Yixing could feel the terror rolling off him in waves when he pushed him away before yanking on his glove.

 

His mother scooped him up, pressing her cheek against his and her heart pounded so loudly that Yixing could feel it, his fingers gripping at her blouse.

 

“What’s wrong, Mama?” he asked sweetly, not understanding her terror.

 

His father wrapped his arms around the both of them, his glove back on, Yixing squished between the both of them.

 

“Nothing, love. Just- never try that again.”

 

The fear in his father’s voice confused him but Yixing did not question it, merely burying his face into his mother’s neck, giggling when his hair was ruffled.

 

Yixing’s childhood was relatively carefree. He was permitted to wander about as much as he liked, so long he kept within the castle’s borders.

 

After that encounter with the dead fawn in the forest, the young prince had developed an irrational fear of blood, a fact that he discovered the hard way.

 

He had been playing in the gardens, chasing the fat pigeons with the funny red eyes. They squawked whenever he came close and it was great fun to watch them fly away.

 

The ground was uneven, for he had found an unfinished pavilion littered with limestone rocks and after the pigeons had all flown away, he went over to inspect the white rocks with great interest.

 

They left white streaks all over his hands and crumbled away into dust that made him sneeze.

 

So fascinated by the limestone he was that he did not notice the steps leading down the pavilion, nor did he realise how sharp they were until he took a step into midair and his heart flew into his throat.

 

He tumbled down the few steps, landing so hard that the breath was knocked out of his little lungs.

 

Yixing sat on the dirty ground, whimpering softly before wiping his white hands on his breeches.

 

He did not feel the sting until he looked down to realise that the fabric of his breeches had be torn and there was red seeping through them.

 

Yixing stared at the liquid, his world seemingly frozen around him.

 

His mind rewound back to the moment he saw blood pour from a dead fawn’s eyes, and he did not know he was screaming until he was picked up and his mother was bouncing and shushing him.

 

He would not look at the wound when they brought him to his father, the metallic smell turning his stomach.

 

But his father had no such qualms as he wiped the tears from his face.

 

“I’m going to show you something, Xing xing, if you’ll stop crying.”

 

Yixing hiccupped, squeezing a handful of his mother’s blouse in his hand before nodding.

 

“Good boy,” his father praised and Yixing gave him a watery smile, watching as he laid a large hand onto his knee, obscuring the red slash.

 

The torn skin closed, crimson blood disappearing altogether, right before Yixing’s eyes.

 

Even as he touched the once again flawless skin, his father winced, as if he was the one who felt the sting of the wound.

 

“How did you do that, Papa?”

 

His father merely smiled and kissed the top of his head.

 

“You will know in time, my son.”

 

Once he was of age, Yixing attended his lessons religiously and rather enjoyed them, for that was when he had tutors who came from outside of the castle property.

 

They brought books with them, scribbled over with languages that he learnt to read and books full of history.

 

Yixing was full of questions, once he learnt to ask them, about his family, about the kingdom he would inherit and everything beyond.

 

“You ask too many questions, Xing Xing. How is Huang Lei Laoshi supposed to answer them all?” his father teased one study session.

 

He often sat in on his lessons and Yixing loved it when he did, peppering both his teacher and father with questions.

 

Yixing sat back, pouting at his books. He sketched out a character, a rune as Laoshi had called it, onto his parchment and his teacher leaned over to examine in, marvelling at the clean strokes.

 

“He’s supposed to know everything, isn’t he?” he asked, drawing another rune and both men laughed.

 

“The young prince is inquisitive. A good quality to have for a future ruler,” Huang Lei praised, his eyes twinkling with good humour.“But no, Your Highness. I do not claim to know everything, though I do know a great deal. Now if we could continue. Tell me about the runes on the tree.”

 

Yixing turned the page and gawked at the full coloured illustration, a tree lined with gold and silver foil, with runes etched into its trunk.

 

He traced the one shaped like a water droplet thoughtfully.

 

“They represent the seven kingdoms that Elyxion used to have. This one is for the one by the sea, Bada. And this,” he pointed to the one in the shape of a horse with a pointed horn, “is ours.”

 

“Which is the one for shadow then?”

 

Yixing pored over the page, touching one that was shaped like a triangle with a swirl in the middle.

 

“This is one,” he said and Huang Lei raised his eyebrows.

 

“Which is the other then?”

 

The runes seemed to jump out at him as he surveyed them, glowing silver in the light.

 

“This,” his fingers trailed over one almost hidden at the base of the tree, made up of little circles and curved lines.

 

Huang Lei made an impressed sound and Yixing beamed when his father nodded approvingly.

 

“The kingdom doesn’t exist now, does it, Laoshi? They say that it died, slowly consumed by the prince’s shadows.”

 

Yixing did not notice his father’s smile slowly melting away, eager in his thirst to pursue more knowledge. The curses had always fascinated him, ever since he was old enough to learn about them in his history books.

 

He was still not allowed to know much, his parents deeming him a little young at twelve years but Yixing pushed the boundaries as far as he could, eager to learn more.

 

The history of his own kingdom was still a forbidden topic to him, the books locked up tightly in the archives so Yixing turned to the other kingdoms for his reading leisure, devouring all the books he could get his hands on.

 

Huang Lei slid a careful look in his father’s direction and Yixing straightened.

 

“No, it doesn’t. The last prince’s shadows grew out of control because he was not taught to control and temper them. He was the most powerful and the last of the Keurimjeo line. With that, my prince, can you name the four kingdoms that remain out of the original seven?”

 

Yixing chewed his lips, effectively distracted by the new question.

 

“Bada, Chilyo, Olda and Seong.”

 

“Very well. How did the three die out?”

 

“Keurimjeo died when the prince went mad and his shadows swallowed the kingdom. Modak, also known as the Fire kingdom went extinct after the last princess caused the volcano, Peo to erupt and bury everything in its path,” Yixing tapped his book, eyes squinting as he studied the last kingdom’s insignia, the one in the shape of a bull.

 

“Himdeul was levelled by an earthquake, another accident only seven years ago, when the king lost control.”

 

“Very good, Your Highness. Do you have any questions for this lesson?”

 

Yixing turned the pages of his book, frowning.

 

“Are there any people who survived the accidents, Laoshi? Any of the people who lived in those kingdoms?”

 

He watched curiously as Huang Lei glanced at his father once more, cautious before speaking at his nod.

 

“There are rumours that spread even now, that the royal families may have survived. Broken apart and lost, but alive. The powers that the tree blessed them with are passed on, through their children.”

 

“And that’s all you need to know for now, Yixing.” His father’s tone was stern, almost scolding. He rose from his seat, gathering the papers that he had been reading.

 

“No more questions about these. You are still too young, your innocence too valuable to listen to the events that plagued these kingdoms for now.”

 

But Papa-.” Yixing rose too, gathering his books as Huang Lei made his escape with a hasty good bye.

 

“When you are older, I will tell you myself. But for now, enjoy what is left of your childhood while you can.”

 

Yixing did his best, putting the curses and the kingdoms out of his mind as he was bid but always, they were there, niggling questions left unanswered.

 

The year he turned thirteen was the year his parents permitted him to leave the castle grounds to visit the towns and villages.

 

He was always chaperoned and he was not allowed to touch anyone.

 

It was a strange condition, Yixing thought.

 

He assumed that it had something to do with his father’s glove but asked no questions.

 

In the year between twelve and thirteen, he had learnt to hold his tongue, to keep certain questions hidden away to keep from distressing his parents.

 

It was rather lonely, as he watched the children play on the streets, nibbling on a bread roll fresh from the bakery.

 

“Hello!”

 

Yixing jumped, startled. It was rare for any of the children to greet him or even acknowledge his presence.

 

He turned to see a boy with dark chestnut hair grinning happily at him, an apple in hand.

 

“Would you like to play?” the boy asked, tossing the apple at Yixing so fast that he barely caught it in his surprise.

 

“I- I’m not allowed to touch anyone,” he muttered and the boy shrugged.

 

“That’s okay! We can play catch with my apple!”

 

He ran a little ways away, his teeth flashing into a brilliant smile.

 

“Throw it to me!”

 

Yixing tossed the apple into the air and the boy laughed, running to catch it.

 

With a giggle, Yixing chased after him, passing the apple back and forth between the both of them until they were at the other end of the street, panting and breathing hard.

 

He doubled over, catching his breath as the boy ran up to him.

 

“You’re good,” he said, impressed and Yixing beamed, ignoring the sweat trickling down his face.

 

“Thank you,” he answered.

 

“I’m Baekhyun and I’m twelve this year, what’s your name?”

 

Yixing raised his eyebrows. He was sure that he already knew. The guards that constantly stood around him had to be a tell-tale sign.

 

But Baekhyun was still grinning, tilting his head.

 

“I’m Yixing. I turned thirteen two weeks ago.”

 

Baekhyun bumped his shoulder before Yixing could react.

 

“You’re a good catcher, Yixing. You should play more often. It must get boring, stuck in the castle all day.”

 

Yixing bit down on his tongue, nodding shyly.

 

“Come play with me more often,” Baekhyun shuffled his feet, toying with the bruised fruit in his hands.

 

“The other kids don’t like me so much. They say I’m too loud and my hyung is always away. He’s studying.”

 

“You’re alright,” Yixing said immediately. Baekhyun peeked up at him through his long fringe and he squashed down the urge to give him a hug.

 

“You should come to the castle sometimes,” he said before the guards could protest, “my parents don’t like me to be away for too long.”

 

The smile on Baekhyun’s face made him brighten and it lingered long after he had gone home and sat down to dinner with his parents.

 

From then on, Baekhyun became his constant companion and growing up in the castle was no longer quite so lonely.

 

True to his words, Baekhyun was loud and lively. He was also incredibly charming, winning the king and queen’s favour in the first dinner that Yixing had invited him to.

 

He was there for all of Yixing’s ups and downs, reminding him to eat and drink when he studied for an important exam, bringing him tea and sweets from the town when he could not venture out on his own.

 

Baekhyun taught him many things outside of his normal tuition, how to climb trees and pick the driest branches to make a fire.

 

No flowers meant no fruit in their kingdom but if they were lucky, they could get fish or some sort of sea creature from a stall that brought them in from the neighbouring kingdom.

 

Baekhyun had his own way of getting into Yixing’s bedroom when the prince had the doors locked to focus on an examination.

 

The loud rapping on the window startled Yixing out of his study induced stupor and he snapped his head up, cursing when his quill scraped across the page, leaving ink smears.

 

His candle was nearly burnt to a stump and the lamps were flickering, close to burning out.

 

Yixing set down his quill, rising out of his chair to see what was going on.

 

Besides an old dead tree, there was nothing outside his bedroom window.

 

He did a double-take when he saw Baekhyun, perched on one of the tree’s branches, smiling cheerily at him.

 

“Baekhyun! What in the name of God are you doing here?”

 

Yixing yanked open the window hurriedly, his heart in his mouth when the wind rustled through the tree’s creaky branches.

 

Baekhyun grabbed his arm, hopping from the tree branch and into his bed chambers, landing lightly on the window seat.

 

He held out the basket swaying from his arm in triumph and Yixing found himself speechless at his audacity.

 

“Did you climb the tree with that?”

 

“It’s not that hard, truly. Here, you must be hungry.”

 

Baekhyun unpacked the basket to lay out a variety of buns and sandwiches, unharmed from his precarious journey and two glass bottles of milk, with cream still lining the top.

 

“Baekhyun- it’s past dinner time!”

 

“Consider it supper then,” Baekhyun said, twisting the top of the milk bottle open.

 

“Come on. This cream won’t stay good for much longer.”

 

The fresh smell of sweet cream was enough to convince Yixing and he joined Baekhyun beside the window seat, sitting so close that their shoulders brushed.

 

“Shall I do it?” Baekhyun held up the skimmer and Yixing gestured to him, more preoccupied with the rest of the contents still in the basket.

 

He rummaged around, coming up with a paper bag stuffed with roast fish. It was a whole fish, still smoking hot.

 

“Where did you even get these things? Fish is expensive, Baekhyun!”

 

Baekhyun shrugged, grinning mysteriously.

 

“I called in some favours. Now eat up. I’ll bet you didn’t eat much at dinner.”

 

Yixing tore into the fish, ripping out the white flesh without a second thought. He had not realised just how hungry he was after hours of studying.

 

He could only smile around the fish’s bones as Baekhyun skimmed the cream from the milk bottles, delicately spreading it over a scone.

 

His eyes grew wide when he pulled out the tiniest bottle of a dark pink liquid so rare that even he did not have much of it as a prince.

 

“Is that-.”

 

“Jam from Seong? Yes, it is.” Baekhyun was grinning at him proudly, and Yixing could only throw an arm around his waist to squeeze him close.

 

“You’re the best thing that ever happened to me, Byun Baekhyun.”

 

Yixing loved Baekhyun like a brother and often indulged his whims. In fact, he indulged him far too often.

 

“The weather’s so nice, Xing ge. We should go out and have a picnic in the forest,” Baekhyun whined, draped over Yixing’s chair dramatically.

 

Yixing laughed, finishing his sentence with a flourish before turning to look at his friend.

 

“You know we aren’t allowed to go into the forest without chaperones,” he reminded, flicking Baekhyun’s forehead with his quill.

 

“Besides, the forest is terrifying.”

 

Indeed, nothing much has changed since he ventured in as a child.

 

When he turned seventeen, his father had taken him into the forest to hunt, and Yixing could never quite shake the feeling that something was always watching inside the trees.

 

“Yes but I’m bored of the castle grounds, ge. At least the forest is fresh and exciting.”

 

Yixing tickled his nose with his quill, smiling when Baekhyun scrunched his nose up at him.

 

“Choose elsewhere, Baekhyunnie. The forest makes my skin crawl.”

 

“Wimp,” Baekhyun pouted, dropping low enough for his chin to almost brush against Yixing’s shoulder.

 

Yixing merely shrugged, careful not to hit him and turned back to his essay.

 

“Yah, stop ignoring me for your work.” Baekhyun poked his shoulder and Yixing twitched.

 

Touching was a strange thing, a taboo for them. His parents were overly paranoid and with his eighteenth birthday approaching, they seemed only even more on edge than usual.

 

“Don’t. You know what Father has said about touching me,” he said evenly, rolling up his parchment into a neat little scroll.

 

Baekhyun rolled his eyes.

 

“He touches you all the time,” he pointed out and Yixing shrugged. He had learnt not to question his parents, trusting that they had their own reasons for forbidding certain things.

 

“So where do you want to go?” He rose and Baekhyun got up hurriedly, tapping his chin as if deep in thought.

 

“I’ll have the servants prepare the food.”

 

“I want to walk the town,” Baekhyun said as they left Yixing’s study, nicking Yixing’s coin purse from his pocket.

 

Yixing could only smile as he watched his friend toss it up and down in the air.

 

“Perhaps we could beg free buns from Jongwoon again.”

 

“You know I’m more than capable of paying for your buns.” Yixing snatched his purse out of midair, grinning when Baekhyun pouted.

 

“It’s more fun if we don’t have to pay,” he grumbled, “besides, Jongwoon likes pretty things. All you have to do is unbutton your tunic a little and bat your lashes.”

 

Yixing laughed, shaking his head.

 

“You’re such a minx, Byun Baekhyun.”

 

Baekhyun winked.

 

“Just watch. I’ll convince him to bake a cake for your birthday.”

 

There was very little fanfare on his birthday. The castle did not magically sprout the flowers that his mother talked about, nor did the waters of the forest run clear.

 

His father took him out on a hunt, alone this time, without Baekhyun tagging along and making enough noise to frighten away half the forest’s creatures.

 

“Take these,” Yixing looked down at the gloves that his father offered him, made of soft leather and lined with silk on the inside.

 

His father’s brow was creased, though he was smiling and that confused Yixing. He slipped them on nevertheless, smiling with thanks and mounted his horse.

 

“I can’t believe you’re near full grown now,” his father remarked as they made their way into the forest, the hunting party a little way behind to give father and son more privacy.

 

Yixing laughed, squeezing his heels against Yanzi’s sides to urge her into a trot.

 

The forest was silent as always, the horse’s hooves crunching on poor dead grass and red-gold leaves.

 

“It seemed like just yesterday when I held you in my arms and you spat into my face.”

 

Yixing rolled his eyes when his father nudged him playfully, his eyes searching through the thick undergrowth for any sort of game.

 

Meat was hard to come by in his kingdom, what with the lack of clean water in the forest.

 

His skin crawled as they passed the very stream he had visited as a child, the stench of the water absolutely revolting.

 

He shuddered and his father glanced at him.

 

“You still remember the fawn.”

 

Yixing nodded shakily, biting down hard on his lip as the horses crossed the stream, careful not dip their hooves into it.

 

“Death is a part of our world. We cannot live without it.”

 

Perhaps he had wanted to say more but the dogs had scented something and they leapt ahead, following their noses.

 

The king spurred his horse forward and Yixing followed reluctantly.

 

His phobia of blood made him linger in the back as the hunting party jostled for space, each one eager to be the one to shoot the game.

 

As he watched them from the back of the party, Yixing could not help but notice a flicker of movement, a shadow without a host.

 

He frowned, turning Yanzi towards it.

 

He was about seventy paces away from the party, unaware that he had even moved, when his father called out for him.

 

“I’m coming!” Yixing turned and shrieked when he was confronted with the full skeletal body of a stag, hidden in the thicket of bushes, with macabre blood dripping out of the eye sockets.

 

His horse reared and he was flung backwards, out of the saddle so hard that the wind was knocked out of him when he landed.

 

One glove was knocked astray as he lay in the crunchy grass, white faced with shock.

 

“Yixing!” His father was kneeling beside him, one hand reaching touch his cheek.

 

“Did you- did you see that?” Yixing gasped, ignoring the fact that he was shaking, cold sweat sliding down his forehead. He struggled to sit up, even as his father tried to insist he remain still.

 

“What did you see?”

 

He managed to drag himself to his feet, his father clutching him close.

 

“It- It was a stag,” he stammered as the hunting party began to whisper amongst themselves.

 

“A stag’s bones. Antlers and all.”

 

The air was too thin, it was hard to breathe. There were too many people and Yixing wanted out.

 

He wanted to go home and hide in his father’s arms for a good hour.

 

His father ordered men to inspect the thicket before helping him back into the saddle. Yixing clutched at the reins, chewing his lip so hard that he tasted blood.

 

That was enough for him to stop gnawing, the metallic taste turning his stomach.

 

No one noticed the patch of grass that he had touched with his bare hand withering away, turning into dust.

 

“Please stay,” he pleaded that night when Baekhyun made to leave.

 

He had been sent to bed after dinner, with strict orders to rest, after he had emptied his upset stomach into a chamber pot before he could eat.

 

Baekhyun tucked him in, fretting over his covers.

 

Yixing was careful to only grab his shirt and Baekhyun made no move to pull his hand off.

 

“Alright,” his friend folded his legs beneath him, settling into a chair.

 

He lit a lamp and Yixing sighed.

 

Even in his mind’s eye, he could still see the rack of bones dripping blood, the stag’s open mouth almost mocking him.

 

“Shall I read to you?”

 

“No. Sing, please.”

 

Baekhyun had the voice of an angel, sweet and melodic. It lulled him to sleep in moments. He stayed awake long enough to feel Baekhyun brush a lock of hair away from his forehead before slipping under.

 

But his dreams were not peaceful.

 

Over and over again, he dreamt of the little fawn in the woods, blood dripping from its eye sockets, hearing its spine snap and the stag’s skeleton.

 

Little flashes of shadows echoed throughout his dreams, coupled with loud cackling and shrieking that could not belong to any human or animal.

 

Yixing awoke in cold sweat, his pillow and sheets soaked through. His duvet had been kicked off sometime during the night and lay in a heap on the floor.

 

Yixing lay in bed for a few moments, trying to calm his racing heart, his fingers scrunching the sheets.

 

Slowly, he swung his legs off the bed, wobbling over to the window.

 

The sunlight was milky, filtered as he pulled aside the drapes, opening the windows to let the chilly air in.

 

Yixing basked in the cold, until a robe draping around his shoulders startled him.

 

“You’ll catch a chill, dear,” he turned to see his mother smiling at him, sorrow catching on the corners of her eyes.

 

Yixing longed to bury himself in her arms but she stopped touching him too, ever since he turned thirteen. He wondered if there was something so wrong with him that even his own mother could not touch him.

 

“Tell me about our curse, Mother,” he pleaded, “surely eighteen is old enough.”

 

He had felt strange all of his birthday, as if his insides had been rearranged and he was an entirely different person.

 

She hesitated for a beat and Yixing forgot himself, reaching out to grab her shoulders.

 

“Yixing!” The shout was enough to freeze him into place.

 

He turned to see his father standing in the doorway, his face ghost white.

 

“Where’s your glove?”

 

“I-.” Yixing looked down at his hands, drawing them back into his pockets.

 

“I must have lost one in the forest yesterday.”

 

His father grabbed his hands and Yixing found himself frightened of the look in his eyes.

 

“You mustn’t take it off.”

 

“But Father-.”

 

“I will have a new one made for you. But you must never take it off again.”

 

“But why?” There were tears pooling in his eyes and frustration welled up in him.

 

Yixing was sick of being lost and confused, just taking what his parents said without questioning.

 

His father’s jaw tensed and he gestured to the bed.

 

“Sit down.”

 

Yixing obeyed, still gripping his father’s hands.

 

“Do you remember what powers the great tree blessed our ancestors?”

 

Yixing nodded.

 

Huang Lei Laoshi had spoken to him a little about the subject but he never went to great length as it was a topic his parents had forbidden him to touch.

 

Yixing knew only bits and pieces, like how their emblem was in the shape of a horse with a horn and that they were given the power to heal almost any injury inflicted.

 

He said as much and his father nodded gravely.

 

“That’s true. But what you don’t know is that over two centuries ago, the power began manifesting as a curse.”

 

“A curse?”

 

“Yes. A young prince touched his mother with his right hand, merely just grabbed it to hand her something and she fell down dead.”

 

Yixing’s eyes widened.

 

“Some thought it was a fluke, that the queen might have been already poisoned. But when that prince married and his wife birthed a baby girl, the child killed her nurse just by touching her.”

 

Yixing opened his mouth to say something but his father held up his hand.

 

“There’s more.”

 

“We used to be able to heal painlessly, almost endlessly. But the princess who killed her nurse, felt her agony when she tried to heal her and could not complete the process.”

 

The talk with his father was long and arduous and Yixing was so drained by the end of it.

 

He almost wished that he could return back to the time where he knew nothing of the burden that had been placed upon his shoulders.

 

Even though he knew that Baekhyun would be upset, Yixing still refused to see him, sending his servants out to deal with his friend’s inevitable melt down.

 

It was safer that way, with his glove still being worked on.

 

His father had said that the glove had to be made of a particular thickness and if Yixing was going to be wearing it for the rest of his life, it had better be comfortable.

 

Yixing shuttered himself inside his room, eating and drinking only what the servants brought him. His plan succeeded for only two days, before Baekhyun inevitably forced his way back in.

 

It was very reminiscent of when he had brought him food before a tiresome examination. Yixing had just come out of the bath, his body still dripping wet.

 

The air smelt of honey and cotton as he wrapped a towel loosely around his waist, rubbing his hair with another.

 

He was lonely, having spent yet another day without Baekhyun.

 

Yixing did not realise how much time he spent with Baekhyun attached at his hip until he had to keep away.

 

He missed him desperately but there was nothing that could be done until his glove was finished.

 

The window creaked ominously and Yixing whirled around, freezing in shock when he saw Baekhyun, clothed entirely in black and perched atop the old tree’s branches.

 

“Baekhyun,” he said, lowering his hands from his hair.

 

For a moment, he forgot the state he was in, too relieved to see his best friend.

 

And in the next, reality came crashing back down and he gasped, folding his towel around his body as Baekhyun’s cheeks flushed bright pink.

 

“What- How-.”

 

“You’re avoiding me.”

 

Baekhyun was still perched atop the tree branch, gripping the hinges of the window tightly. His lips were pinched and his eyes were squinted in anger.

 

“I don’t have a choice,” Yixing replied, refusing to meet his eyes. He hated upsetting his friend.

 

“Yes, you do.” Baekhyun’s voice was tinged with anger and Yixing’s heart stuttered when the branch he stood upon creaked.

 

“Go away, Baekhyun. I promise I have my reasons.” He eyed the swaying branch and moved closer.

 

Baekhyun did not move, his eyes dark.

 

“We’re best friends, Yixing. You should be able to tell me everything,” he insisted and Yixing’s stomach swooped.

 

The wind picked up, howling and screaming like a banshee and Yixing’s heart rate picked up, his blood roaring in his ears.

 

“Baekhyun, come away-.”

 

But it was too late.

 

In a split second, the branch beneath Baekhyun’s feet gave way, so suddenly that he could not catch the window in time.

 

“Baekhyun!”

 

Yixing leapt forward without thinking, catching hold of Baekhyun’s flailing hand.  He yanked him back, hard enough for him to tumble over the window’s ledge, falling hard against his chest.

 

“Baek, are you-.”

 

His heart flew to his mouth when Baekhyun’s eyes widened, his body beginning to convulse.

 

“Oh-, oh! Baekhyun!”

 

Yixing dropped Baekhyun’s hand as if it were a hot coal but it was already too late.

 

Baekhyun was shuddering, his mouth open in a silent scream. His back arched, so very like the young fawn that Yixing was so familiar with.

 

“No- no! Baekhyun! Help! Somebody please!” Yixing reached out just as foam began to gather at the corners of Baekhyun’s lip. His eyes rolled back in his head and he shuddered, muscles spasming.

 

The sense of helplessness overwhelmed him like a tidal wave and almost instinctively, Yixing grabbed him with his other hand.

 

The pain exploded through him, stars dancing behind his eyelids. Someone was swinging a sledgehammer at his skull, agony piercing his bones. His heart pounded in his chest, as if it might explode into little tiny pieces.

 

His muscles spasmed too and he collapsed onto his knees, screaming.

 

His blood roared in his ears and all he could see was white.

 

We feel the pain of those we heal.

 

The words echoed in his mind as he forced himself to keep upright.

 

Yixing bit down hard on his bottom lip, tasting blood on his tongue as he gripped Baekhyun’s hand like a lifeline.

 

It seemed like a never ending battle, the pain causing his vision to swim. His hearing blurred around him and he heard only a flurry of white noise as he struggled to focus, to harness the healing power he was blessed with.

 

But the agony snatched his breath away, leaving his breathless, boneless. He curled up onto the floor beside Baekhyun, tears streaming down his face as he gasped for air.

 

“Yixing, Yixing!”

 

It was his father calling him, frightened and anxious.

 

Yixing struggled to keep his eyes open, to keep himself conscious as he croaked out.

 

“Baekhyun. Help- Baekhyun.”

 

Even as he was lifted into strong arms, Yixing could not bring himself to release Baekhyun’s hand.

 

He turned onto his side when he was placed onto something soft, the edges of his vision turning black.

 

There were more people, murmuring and speaking all at once and the darkness was welcoming him, the pain not quite so piercing.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“He may never see again.”

 

Yixing exhaled shakily, folding his hands before him. He bowed his head as the physician moved aside.

 

Baekhyun was still unconscious, dead to the world.

 

The physicians that examined him declared that he was still alive, only just barely.

 

He had not yet stirred and Yixing had been afraid he would never wake again but the physicians had assuaged his fears, saying many things that he did not understand but that his best friend would live, even with his damaged body.

 

Yixing wore the guilt like a heavy cape, draped over his shoulders. He would meet no one’s eyes and if it were not his father’s constant reassurance that he had indeed saved Baekhyun’s life, the guilt would overwhelm him.

 

“The magic reached his eyes. It’s a miracle he survived at all.”

 

Yixing’s lips tightened, his fingers on his left hand squeezing into a fist.

 

“Yixing,” he was so distracted that he did not notice his father following him.

 

“If you hadn’t pulled him from the window, the fall would have killed him.”

 

“If I had not shut him out, Father, he wouldn’t have found the need to climb the blasted tree in the first place,” Yixing murmured, flexing his hand.

 

The new glove felt strange, a foreign material wrapping around his hand. It was comfortable, his father had made sure of it, but it was also a reminder.

 

“You saved him, Yixing. A lesser man would have let go. The pain you went through-. It should have driven you mad.”

 

His father’s voice choked up and Yixing touched his hand gently, distractedly.

 

“He was my only friend, Father. I couldn’t have allowed him die.”

 

“But something must be done. This curse- I.” He turned away, his eyes glassy.

 

“I must find a way to break it. I can’t live like this, Father.”

 

Yixing startled when his father stroked his hair away from his face, his eyes full of sorrow.

 

“Many have tried, son. You are not the only one who has had thoughts of driving this curse out. We don’t even know what caused such a mutation in our power.”

 

“Perhaps the tree had enough of us. Perhaps it is the tree’s way of telling us we have been misusing our powers.”

 

Yixing’s eyes lit up.

 

“The tree!” He spun around, breaking into a run.

 

“The tree?” His father had to jog to keep up as he rambled on and on about the tree.

 

His mind was whirling with possibilities.

 

The great tree that gave them their powers was a sentient being. But how could a tree decide the good and bad of mankind?

 

Someone else had to be caring for the tree and watching the dealings of humankind.

 

Perhaps there was something wrong with the tree, thus causing the changes in their powers.

 

“Yixing. There are so many theories on the tree. We don’t even know where it stands. Where would you even begin?”

 

“There are still three kingdoms left standing, Father. If we are not the only ones in search of a way to break our curse, perhaps the other kingdoms will have tried too.”

 

Yixing shoved open the door to his room, pulling out his heaviest winter cloak and thinnest tunics.

 

Bada was the nearest and lived in almost perpetual summer. It would be warm there.

 

He would have to cross the desert that was once Modak, climb the extinct volcano Peo in order enter Shadow territory.

 

Keurimjeo was already dead but the shadows still lived, writhing, terrifying looking things without hosts.

 

What was left of Himdeul would be spread out just outside the borders of Shadow and the mountains of Himdeul were ragged and difficult to pass.

 

The next kingdom over would be Seong, the storm city. Rumor had it that the crown prince brought rainclouds over the kingdom and there they stayed, the weather gloomy and rainy.

 

Right after, would be the last remaining kingdom, all the way into the North where the lands lay in perpetual winter, Olda, the Ice lands.

 

Yixing would have to be prepared for all sorts of weather changes and terrain.

 

“Yixing, what exactly are you doing?”

 

He looked up from spreading his cloak over his bed to see his father leaning against the door frame, his brows knitted in a frown.

 

“I’m packing, Father. I wish to visit all remaining kingdoms to gather everything that they know of these curses. Surely someone, somewhere would know where the tree lies.”

 

“Absolutely not.”

 

Yixing yelped when the cloak was snatched out of his hands, his father towering over him, his face a mask of worry.

 

“I will not allow this. It is an absurd idea. There is no substance to your claims and what kind of father would I be if I allowed you to ride straight into danger?”

 

“A brave one,” Yixing retorted, “one that thinks of the kingdom’s future instead of one life.”

 

His father’s eyes darkened.

 

“You are the kingdom’s future, Yixing. You are the only heir to the throne. What would we do if something happened to you?”

 

Yixing bowed his head.

 

“I cannot live with a curse over my head, Father. Would the people want such a king? One who nearly killed his best friend? The people have their limits, father. You are not the only one who knows of the unrest beginning.”

 

Indeed, after Yixing had returned home after his hunt on his birthday frightened half out of his wits, there was already talk of the prince losing his mind.

 

News of Baekhyun’s injury had already gotten out and his parents were absolutely livid.

 

Yixing had more than one reason to leave the kingdom, reasons that he did not need his father to be privy to.

 

“The people will settle. You just have to lay low and focus on running the kingdom.”

 

“They will not, Father.” Yixing struggled to keep his agitation from showing on his face. It would not do to get angry. He had to show his father that he was serious and possibly that he knew what he was doing.

 

Even if he did not.

 

“Baekhyun’s parents are furious. We’ll be lucky if they do not plan a revolt. Father, let me do this.”

 

He grabbed his father’s hands, pressing them against his lips.

 

“Trust me. If I’m to be king one day, should I not be beginning to make my own decisions?”

 

Yixing could see the moment his father began to waver.

 

“I have time now, before I come of age to take the throne. Give me three years, Father. If I have found nothing worthwhile, I will stay home and rule with you.”

 

“Three years is a long time to be away from home, Yixing. We would miss you so terribly. And what of Baekhyun? What will we tell him when he wakes?”

 

The guilt settled like a rock in his stomach.

 

Yixing could not face Baekhyun. How could he?

 

Because of him, Baekhyun would never see again.

 

He squeezed his hands into fists, shaking his head.

 

“Tell him I went on a diplomatic mission and won’t be back for a while. It’ll be better this way.”

 

Even as he took his cloak back from his father, he could feel his disapproving gaze burning into the top of his head.

 

“You know he would want to go with you.”

 

“He can’t, Father. As you said, it may be dangerous and I refuse to put him in any more danger.”

 

“Do not be foolish, Yixing. This is reckless behavior and I won’t stand for it.”

 

His father’s tone was stern and Yixing faltered, tears prickling at his eyes.

 

“I don’t know what else to do,” he admitted, “I can’t sit by and watch Baekhyun suffer, knowing that I caused his pain.”

 

Arms wrapped around him, pulling him close and Yixing sniffled, pressing his face into his father’s chest as if he were a child again. He hated feeling so helpless, that he had magic running through his veins but it could only do so much.

 

“I know it hurts. And this is all terrifying and new.”

 

His father rumbled, running fingers through his hair and Yixing mumbled affirmation.

 

Already, being eighteen was so much more complicated that he thought it would be.

 

“But we need you here, Xing Xing. Baekhyun needs you here. What would he do if you were gone when he wakes up?”

 

“Be safe,” Yixing mumbled and his father pulled away gently, holding him such that he could not turn away.

 

He met his father’s eyes steadily, despite the tremor in his voice.

 

“I truly wish to go, Father. How else can I learn more about how all of this works?” He gestured with his hands, “ we barely know anything about the other kingdoms. If there is even a sliver of hope that this curse can be reversed, I must take it.”

 

His father sighed heavily.

 

“Your mother will not be happy about this,” he warned and Yixing suppressed a groan.

 

His mother was just as, if not more protective of him, and she would be harder to convince.

 

“Absolutely not. That is an insane idea and I refuse to even entertain it.”

 

Yixing folded his hands in front of him, trying hard not to lose his temper. His mother would not even listen to his theories and explanations before refusing.

 

She turned on his father, who stood nearby with a sheepish look on his face.

 

“And you! Did you give him your consent? You know how dangerous the world is out there and he is our only son!”

 

“Mother, this was my idea,” Yixing tried to placate her, hesitating for one moment before touching her. Even with the glove, he was still wary.

 

“I must learn more about us, about this magic that we were blessed and then cursed with. I will not rest until I find a way to reverse this.”

 

His mother clutched his face in her hands, her brows knitted into a heavy frown, her lips pinched with emotion.

 

“People have tried, Xing Xing. You are not the only one who had such a ludicrous idea. So many before you, from all over the lands, have tried to find the tree and set things right again and failed. Many have died trying.”

 

“I did tell him that,” his father murmured, “but he is insistent.”

 

“Please, Mother. Please let me try,” Yixing pleaded, clutching his mother’s wrists.

 

“No. Absolutely not.” His mother shook his head and pulled away, taking Yixing’s hopes with her, “I will not encourage this and Yucheng, you should not either.”

 

His father folded his lips together at being named, shooting Yixing an apologetic look and Yixing’s hopes crumbled all together.

 

“But Mother-.”

 

“No. There is to be no more talk of leaving the kingdom. You will stay and do your studies like a dutiful son and inherit the kingdom like so many have before you.”

 

Yixing bit down hard on his lip and whirled around, stalking out of the room.

 

Out of spite, he kept to his chambers during dinnertime, obsessively flipping through his history books, hoping to find something, anything that could sustain his arguments.

 

But Chilyo did not keep many records of the other kingdoms, only enough for the students to learn the basics of how they operated and the magic that the other royalty were blessed with.

 

Yixing opened up a map, carefully tracing routes that he would take, things that he would have to pack, if only his mother would cave.

 

His servants left food at the door, wary of his foul mood but he did not touch them, more preoccupied with his thoughts.

 

When he finally left his chambers, late into the night, he was surprised to bump into his father standing outside his door, his fist held up as if he was about to knock.

 

“Father,” Yixing bowed his head, biting the inside of his cheek to keep the anger from swirling and spilling out in words that he did not mean.

 

It was not his fault that his mother was so protective and so against the idea of him leaving home.

 

“The servants said that you did not eat,” his father said in reply and Yixing shrugged.

 

“I did not feel up to it.”

 

He made to step around his father, intent on visiting Baekhyun but something in his father’s face stopped him.

 

“You know she loves you, Yixing. She fears that if you leave, you might never return.”

 

“Then she has no faith, Father. I’m merely suggesting a diplomatic mission, a year in each kingdom to learn their ways, not an adventure on the high seas hunting down unknown treasure.”

 

His father fixed him with a sharp look.

 

“But that is your intention by the end. To gather enough knowledge to find the giving tree.”

 

Yixing chewed his lip, fiddling with the hem of his shirt.

 

“It is only three years, Father. If I find nothing, then there will be no search, no adventure.”

 

A thumb rubbed over his cheek and Yixing leaned into the touch almost unconsciously, squeezing his fingers around the hem of his shirt.

 

“Let us talk about this in the morning, together. You ought to be asleep.”

 

“I’m going to see Baekhyun. Sleep well, Father.”

 

Yixing sidestepped around him, wrapping his arms around himself as he walked down the hallway to where Baekhyun lay, still unconscious.

 

There was no movement from his friend when he entered, only the rising and falling of his chest an indication that he was alive. Yixing fought down the tears that threatened to spill over, crossing the room to pull apart the drapes.

 

The windows creaked when he pushed them open, a soft breeze sweeping into the room and ruffling his hair.

 

Yixing took his seat beside Baekhyun, picking up his limp hand with his un-gloved one.

 

“Baekhyun?” he murmured, squeezing his hand gently. His gut tugged and he let the magic pour out with a gasp, spilling all that he could into Baekhyun.

 

Baekhyun was like an empty vessel, just taking and taking all that Yixing could give, until he was completely drained, too exhausted to do anything more. There was nothing to feel, no pain, for Baekhyun felt nothing in his vegetative state.

 

Yixing was a little relieved.

 

He had feared that Baekhyun was hurting somehow and there was no way to help him.

 

Guilt was a rock in his stomach, sinking and heavy as he thumbed over Baekhyun’s hand, the pulse of his blood beneath his fingertips his only reassurance.

 

“Baek, I’m so sorry,” he murmured, leaning over to look at his best friend’s face.

 

Tentatively, Yixing brushed his un-gloved hand over Baekhyun’s eyelids, lifting them ever so slightly. His stomach pitched when he saw no black pupil beneath the lids, only white.

 

He had done this.

 

A sob ripped through his throat before he could say anything else, his body folding forward to curl around Baekhyun’s.

 

“Hyunnie, please wake up. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have shut you out. I should have told you. Please wake up. I need you, Baekhyun. I really need you.”

 

His tears soaked into Baekhyun’s shirt and into the covers, but Baekhyun did not even stir.

 

Yixing was not sure how long he laid there, curled over Baekhyun’s body, his head buried into the crook of his neck.

 

When he was composed again, he sat back up, clearing his throat.

 

He stroked Baekhyun’s face was a soft hand, determination raging through him.

 

“I will fix this,” he murmured, “I’ll fix this, Baek. You never have to fear me if there’s no curse.”

 

The servants found him sprawled out over the bed the next morning, silver tear tracks on his face.

 

Yixing awoke bleary eyed, his back aching.

 

His parents were already at the breakfast table when he stumbled downstairs, his fringe damp from the water he had hastily splashed on his face in an effort to wake himself.

 

“Good morning, Father, Mother.”

 

He yawned, settling down at the table, reaching for the bowl of bland oatmeal.

 

His father smiled fondly, pushing the jar of honey across to him

 

Honey was expensive to buy, shipped directly from the hives in Seong to Bada before being carried by horse into their kingdom.

 

But Yixing had a sweet tooth and this was one thing his parents indulged him in for their porridge was bland without it.

 

He took a meagre amount, stirring it into his porridge while reaching for his glass of milk.

 

“About your diplomatic mission.”

 

His father cleared his throat and Yixing stiffened, setting down the milk before he had even taken a sip.

 

His eyes flitted from his father to his mother, who was picking at her food, looking sullen and stern. Evidently, his father must have spoken to her at great length about his plans, for she cut in before he could finish his sentence.

 

“You must do your research well. Each kingdom is unlike our own and it would not look good to offend our trade partners.”

 

She took a bite of oatmeal, her eyes cutting as Yixing held his breath.

 

“You must draft a letter to each and every kingdom to ask for permission to cross their borders and explain your interest. Do not take this lightly, Yixing.”

 

“Indeed,” his father jumped in, “our kingdoms have been at peace for a long time. Diplomatic relations have always been smooth and they must be kept that way for everyone’s sake.”

 

Yixing nodded, trying to keep the excitement from bubbling up.

 

“So you’re letting me go?” he asked cautiously, tipping a bit of milk into his porridge and stirring it in.

 

“Your mother and I are in agreement that a year in each kingdom will teach you many things about ruling. Now finish your breakfast and draft your letters. There is much to prepare.”

 

Yixing broke into a smile, rising from his seat to engulf his mother in a hug. He squeezed her tighter when she gave him a reluctant smile, pressing a kiss against her cheek.

 

“I won’t disappoint you, Mother,” he murmured, turning to look at his father.

 

“You too, Papa.”

 

-

 

The letters were drafted and closed with the royal family’s official seal, Yixing’s first use with them and sent out before the day was over.

 

Yixing spread out the maps and books in his father’s study, beginning to plot his route.

 

“Bada would be the first, as it is the closest. It is about four days ride from here if you pass through the Fei Cui Mountains and climb down to sea level.”

 

With pins and ink, his father drew him the route.

 

It would be an arduous climb and then a precarious route to the Bada border. Thankfully, the castle had been built only a little ways away from the border so it would not be far to travel.

 

“Seong is accessible by land if you want to travel that way but it is more than a week’s ride away and the journey would be treacherous, full of bandits and beasts in the forest.”

 

Yixing frowned down at the map, staring at the long strip of just forest leading up to the kingdom of Seong.

 

The mainland was at the center of the kingdom and about two days’ ride from the port side city. It would be so much easier to travel by ship instead of taking the long route through the forest.

 

“It would take longer, would it not? If I travelled by land?”

 

He traced the strip of land that bordered the giant patch indicating sea before drawing a straight line through the water.

 

“If I took a ship, I could get there much faster.”

 

His father nodded.

 

“With the Bada prince’s blessing, you would have a fairly smooth journey with few rough patches. He has power over water after all.”

 

“What is he like, Father? Have you ever met him?”

 

Yixing looked away from the map, intrigued. He had never met any prince before and the only friend he had all these years had been Baekhyun.

 

Baekhyun was enough. Always enough but Yixing often wondered what the other royalty were like.

 

Would they snub him for his power?

 

Or were they like him, cursed byone facet of their magic?

 

“Not since he was born, the same year you were. Your mother and I attended his christening. He was a very sweet baby.”

 

“Oh. He is older then? By months.”

 

“Yes. I have heard that he is kind and charming though how much of it is true, I do not know.”

 

“He will make a great friend, if he is that way,” Yixing said wistfully, carefully making a note in his journal that said ‘ask for blessing from Bada prince.’

 

His father glanced at him, as if he had never noticed how lonely Yixing was, all cooped up.

 

“I’m glad you met Baekhyun,” he said seriously and Yixing looked up, a sad smile twisting at his lips.

 

“Perhaps it would have been better if we had never met at all,” he replied and his father sighed.

 

“Must we go over this again? Yixing, he would have died if he had fallen from the window. I know it does not seem like it right now but you saved his life. I don’t know how on earth you did it without an ounce of training but you did.”

 

Yixing lowered his head, staring so hard at the map that he could have burned a hole through it with his gaze.

 

“I’m doing this for him, Father,” he said quietly, rubbing at the edge of the table with his gloved hand without quite realizing what he was doing.

 

“The fear in his eyes when I grabbed him and the pain swallowed him. I couldn’t stand it, Father. I’m afraid that he will wake up in fear of me.”

 

His father stabbed his pin back into his pin cushion and rounded that table to wrap him into a hug.

 

“You’re a good boy, Yixing. He could never be afraid of you.”

 

The first of the replies appeared over the next two days, the falconer appearing with his messenger pigeon sitting atop his head.

 

He looked quite comical like that, with a bird just cooing away in his hair but Yixing was more excited about the scroll it held in its talons.

 

The man winked in his direction, holding out a handful of bird seed.

 

The pigeon squawked and flapped down onto his wrist, pecking almost viciously at the seeds while Yixing untied the scroll himself, nearly vibrating with excitement.

 

To the His Royal Highness, Crown Prince of Chilyo, Zhang Yixing,

 

Our prince would be delighted to host you while you study our kingdom’s culture and practice for a year’s time.

 

Bada and Chilyo have not had such exchanges in many years and His Royal Highness, Crown Prince Junmyeon is beside himself with excitement.

 

Please relay an approximation of when you might arrive at our borders and we will have an envoy ready to guide you.

 

We look forward to your visit, Your Highness and hope that this letter finds you well.

 

Signed,

The General,

Chanyeol

 

Yixing’s heart warmed at the kind words and he tipped the falconer a pretty penny before returning to his chambers to write out a reply.

 

There were so many things to consider, what to bring, what food would last on the road.

 

The forest had no access to clean water so it would be important to bring enough till the next village. Food would not be an issue as they had plenty of biscuits and things that would last if they had to make camp in the forest.

 

They would arrive at the first village in the mountains by the second night and would only have to camp two nights in the forest for the two villages they intend to make a stop at were a day’s ride apart.

 

So, the plans were made as they awaited the replies of the other two kingdoms.

 

By the time the agreement from Seong came, Yixing was impatient to get going. He had scoured all of the books in his collection, searching for information on Bada’s royalty and it seemed that he would live at the primary castle by the sea with the prince and his servants.

 

According to Bada culture, the king and queen moved out of the castle when their child turned eighteen to another, smaller castle farther out on the bay as a sign of the prince/princess’ independence.

 

It was a very interesting bit of information and Yixing found that he could breathe a little easier at the thought that there would not be any kings and queens judging his etiquette.

 

He wandered down to the markets often while they awaited Olda’s reply, asking the traders who came from Bada far too many questions.

 

But the old traders always had a soft spot for him, for he tipped them well thus always giving him good fish and a story or two.

 

“Our prince is fair, as fair as you are!” one of the traders murmured as he handed Yixing a grilled fish, smoking hot.

 

“I hear that general of his is younger than he,” said another, pushing a bag of potatoes into Yixing’s hand, winking when the prince fumbled to pull out his coin purse.

 

“The general? Chanyeol?” Yixing asked, handing them both a gold coin.

 

“Yes. He was raised in the castle together with the prince and are very close indeed.”

 

“He’s a rather strange boy. A good boy but a strange one. That red hair of his-.”

 

“Not very Bada at all.”

 

When the letter from Olda finally arrived, the poor pigeon shivering so violently that Yixing could not help but give it a hug, tucking it against his body to warm it up as he opened the letter.

 

His parents made him take a carrier pigeon when he packed, so that he could send letters and Yixing had grown attached to that one, an ordinary blue grey thing with a green band around its neck.

 

Yixing packed his bags as quickly as he could when all was set and done, much to his mother’s chagrin. She too, shared his father’s worries about the dangers on the road and secretly hoped that the letters would delay him a little longer.

 

He had agreed to take escorts as far as Bada but the roads after, he would travel alone. 

 

His escorts rode both behind and in front of him, to keep a look out for any bandits that might take advantage of a lone prince.

 

Yixing kept his travelling clothes light and thin, enjoying the soft breeze that ruffled his hair.

 

He had never travelled without his parents before and they had only ever made short trips to the villages at the borders of Chilyo in horse drawn carriages.

 

His little pigeon chirped happily, perched inside a little cage that Yixing hung on his saddle horn and Yixing smiled, reaching between the bars to pet its soft chest, the bird pecking curiously at his fingers.

 

“I bet you’re already bored, huh, little thing? You’re used to flying so far,” he mused, rubbing the pigeon’s cheek.

 

The pigeon cooed and Yixing turned his attention back to the road.

 

It was a pleasant day, the air cool but not chilly and the sun shone brightly in the sky. The horses’ hooves thudded on the wet earth as they navigated through the forest, with a compass to guide them.

 

Their saddlebags weighted down, heavy with water for the horses and Yixing’s mind wandered to the gifts that he had brought with him for each kingdom.

 

He had heard from a trader that the Bada prince enjoyed books and had quite the collection, a fact that made him irrationally excited. A few gold coins at the bookbinder in town earned him a sturdy leather-bound journal that would last quite a few life times and quills, already sharpened.

 

Yixing was so distracted that he did not see the beast that was thundering towards them until his guards raised a cry.

 

His head snapped towards the trees, a gasp ripping out of his throat when he laid eyes on the massive bear that was lumbering towards them.

 

It did not look like a normal bear, too large and hulking. Its skin was too small for its frame, muscles bulging.

 

Yixing reached for his bow, terror rushing through his heart as the bear roared, rearing onto its hind legs, so tall that the horses in front of him shied, whinnying in distress as their riders fought to stay on.

 

“Be careful!” he cried when the bear took a swipe at the nearest guard, the horse barely dancing out of the way in time.

 

A white fletched arrow sprouted from the bear’s neck and it roared once more, beady eyes turning towards the rest of the pack. It swiped again and Yixing’s heart stuttered when it nearly caught the horse in front of him.

 

Its eyes were the wrong colour, reddish, almost glowing instead of brown and the sight of them sent an inexplicable shiver down his spine.

 

Yixing loosed his arrow, one hand catching hold of his reins to guide his horse away.

 

The bear’s answering roar of pain made every hair on his arms stand up and he shrieked in terror when it lunged for him.

 

Yanzi lashed out, her hooves kicking out hard enough to connect with the beast’s snout.

 

She cantered out of reach as the bear howled in pain, Yixing’s grip on his bow white knuckled.

 

“Good girl,” he panted as more arrows sprouted at the scruff of the bear’s neck. He could see an ugly wound on the bear’s flank as he circled it, reeking of decay and death.

 

Yixing frowned as his horse leapt away from the beast, his nose wrinkling.

 

The wound looked weeks old, infected and crawling with maggots, covered in dark, clotted blood that made his stomach turned.

 

The beast should be weak, dying from the infection leaking through his body, not filled with bloodlust, attacking anything that moved.

 

Furthermore, it had been silent.

 

So silent that none of them had heard it come from the undergrowth until it was before them.

 

He notched another arrow, taking aim as the bear leapt, razor sharp claws outstretched towards another of his escorts, red eyes aglow with madness.

 

The arrow flew straight and true, burying itself into the bear’s old wound, causing the clotted skin to burst apart, dark, infected blood spraying outwards. Yixing gagged, clasping a hand over his mouth and nose.

 

He gripped his saddle as the world spun around him, threatening to tip him over, the bear’s roar filling his ears.

 

An unspeakable fear filled his body and he turned away, heaving. Cold sweat beaded at his temples, trickling down his face as he tried not to throw up his lunch.

 

“Your Highness!”

 

A warm body pressed against his leg and Yixing raised his head to see his guards circling him, brows furrowed with concern.

 

“You are unharmed, Your Highness?” one asked and Yixing nodded, keeping his face turned away from the carcass of the beast.

 

It was not even a body.

 

It was a corpse, one that should have been dead weeks ago.

 

If he had looked, Yixing would have seen the black shadows trickling out of the torn wound, dissolving into the dead grass of the forest.

 

As it stood, he was doing his best to keep the bile from climbing up and out of his throat.

 

“That bear shouldn’t have been alive,” he murmured even as one of the escorts pulled out his water skin, holding it to his lips for him to drink.

 

His stomach roiled at the very memory of the stench, the black blood dripping from the old wound.

 

Unnatural.

 

The bear was unnatural and he feared that it had something to do with the poison in the forest. He would not even let his guards skin it for the meat.

 

It was all rotten anyway.

 

The poor pigeon had been shaken about quite viciously and Yixing had to bring it out of its cage to soothe it while they rode, quite furiously in order to outrun the fading sunlight.

 

They still had a good few miles to go before making camp and he was not sure he wanted to stay under the cover of the trees at nightfall.

 

“I’m sorry,” he murmured softly, stroking the pigeon’s head as it cuddled up against his chest, perched on his finger, “I didn’t mean to shake you about like that.”

 

The pigeon pecked his fingers before fluffing its feathers, the leather fetters around its legs fluttering as Yixing put it back into the cage and closed the door.

 

It seemed that the guards shared his sentiment about sleeping under poisoned trees as they found an open space, only partially shaded, out on a cliff with relatively flat ground that they could sleep on.

 

Yixing shook out his bedroll, flopping down onto it as the men built a fire big enough keep the wild beasts from coming close.

 

He crumbled up a little of his bread, holding it out for his pigeon before pouring the bird some water.

 

Yanzi nickered, nuzzling at his hair before flopping down a little ways away. Yixing knew that she would wake again in about ten minutes to sleep on her feet but it was reassuring to know that she felt safe enough to lie down.

 

The stars glittered in the distant sky as he ate his bread, accepting a bit of ale and jerky from the guards before curling up onto his bedroll.

 

He was exhausted from the long ride and his muscles ached in places he did not know existed.

 

Lulled by the crackling of the flames and his pigeon’s quiet cooing, he fell asleep.

 

Yixing dreamt of the young fawn once more.

 

This time, he was eighteen, crouched by the boulder on the riverbank. The terror was nothing different, a raging current of fear that chilled him to his bones and forced him to watch as the fawn began to thrash, poisoned by the river water.

 

Blood poured from its eyes as its spine arched back, further and further and Yixing longed to fling his hands up to cover his ears but he could not move, frozen as the fawn shrieked and shrieked.

 

His blood turned to ice when the screams turned human and the fawn transformed into Baekhyun, his eyes still bleeding, his body forced back in an unnatural arch.

 

“Baekhyun” Yixing screamed, tears spilling down his face as he fought against invisible bonds to get to him. He could save him.

 

He had the power to.

 

You did this. You did this to him.

 

The whispers echoed in his mind even as he squeezed his eyes shut.

 

Crack!

 

The sound was awful, no matter how many times he heard it in his dreams, his screams never quite loud enough to drown it out.

 

You did this!

 

“Baekhyun!”

 

Yixing sat bolt upright, nearly slamming face first into the guard kneeling before him, his brow creased with concern.

 

There was sweat and tears dripping down his face, his bedroll soaked through.

 

He glanced at the sky, still panting.

 

“What time is it?”

 

“Time to go. Are you alright, Your Highness? You were screaming.”

 

Yixing shook his head, inhaling sharply as Yanzi came trotting over to nuzzle at his face. He kissed her velvety nose, breathing in her horsey scent before turning over to inspect his pigeon.

 

“I’m fine. Just- a bad dream.”

 

The guards nodded and Yixing scratched Yanzi’s cheek as he ate his breakfast, dried venison on bread that the men had toasted over the fire with lard.

 

His horse stayed close, even as he shook out his bedroll, stuffing it back into his pack. He did not forget to feed his pigeon as the men snuffed out the fire, the dying embers spilling smoke into the air.

 

They kicked ash over the pit and then were ready to be off.

 

The ride up to the first village was relatively uneventful and Yixing spent most of it admiring the view even as his mind whirled over his horrifying nightmare.

 

He had half a mind to turn back, afraid that the dream was a sign that Baekhyun had taken a turn for the worst but his father was back home. He had promised to take good care of his friend while he was away.

 

Yixing could only trust that Baekhyun would pull through and relearn how to live. And perhaps, he could forgive him, one day.

 

 

Chapter Text

Yixing could smell the salt in the air as they climbed down from the cliffs. He was glad for it as their journey up and then down the mountains had been sufficiently exhausting.

 

The villagers had been kind and when they found no empty inn at the second village, offered a place to sleep in their own homes and had cooked breakfast even at Yixing’s protests.

 

The ride down the sea cliffs was a lovely distraction from the nightmares that he had been having, more often than he had suffered back home.

 

Yixing wondered if it was some form of separation anxiety from his best friend.

 

He pushed those thoughts to the back of his mind. This journey was for him. Baekhyun would understand. Besides, who knew if he would even want to see him after what he had done.

 

The dirt beneath his horse’s hooves crunched, turning lighter and lighter in colour until it eventually became the colour of sand.

 

It was fascinating and he was sufficiently distracted by the time they arrived at the foot of the cliffs, greeted by an envoy from the palace.

 

The general, a man with brilliantly red hair bowed when he saw them and Yixing could not help but feel as if he seemed extremely out of place for someone who lived in a watery kingdom.

 

But he bowed back in return, not wishing to seem rude.

 

This must be the general, for he wore formal robes, a deep navy blue that flowed in the wind and carried a sword with the Bada royal engravings on the hilt.

 

“Welcome to Bada, Your Highness. Our prince regrets that he cannot be here to welcome you but he hopes that you will have a pleasant stay.”

 

“I will not meet the prince then?”


Yixing asked, disappointed.

 

He had heard that the Bada prince was his age, only older by a few months and he had been looking forward to making a new friend that he would hopefully not kill with his new glove.

 

The man’s mouth twisted a little and he bowed once more.

 

“Our prince is rather... inconvenienced at the moment. He will greet you when he is well again.”

 

Yixing cocked his head.

 

“The prince is unwell? Perhaps I could help.”

 

“Oh no. His Highness is fine, only a little under the weather. Perhaps you will enjoy getting out of this heat and into the palace, Your Highness. We have prepared refreshments for you.”

 

Without another word, the man turned his horse and rode down the sandy path that led closer and closer to the sea.

 

Yixing could hear the waves slapping against the sea shore as they rode down, the sea breeze salty and tangy in the air. There were gulls calling, swooping down upon the rocks and the sea as if catching fish and it was quite the sight to behold.

 

His pigeon however, was not quite so happy.

 

Smiling to himself, Yixing stuck a finger between the bars of the cage to pet the bird even as he admired the gulls.

 

The general seemed amused by Yixing’s fascination with the birds, as he turned around in his saddle, calling out.

 

“Have you never seen gulls before, Your Highness?”

 

“No, never. We barely even have birds back home. Everything is so dead from the poison in the forest.”

 

“Ahh. We too have been affected by the poison. But the prince discovered the stream that was leaching poison into the water and built a dam to contain it. Our fish flourish for the most part.”

 

“Your prince sounds like a very clever man,” Yixing commented and the man nodded.

 

“He is.”

 

They rounded the bend and Yixing could see the castle looming.

 

It was built of white sandstone, set against the high cliffs, absolutely beautiful to behold. Yixing had never seen anything quite like it in his life.

 

He stared as his horse followed the general, treading on white sand towards the gates of the palace.

 

His own home was built higher up, above the people but it seemed that Bada did it backwards where the towns and villages lived higher above sea level and the palace was built low, so that the royalty would constantly be in touch with the sea.

 

“This place is beautiful,” he marvelled as the guards at the white pearly gates bowed, swinging them wide open for them to ride through.

 

“The prince will be happy that you think so,” the general said softly and he glanced around him, as if taking in the scenery through Yixing’s eyes.

 

Yixing’s Yanzi fit right in with the landscape as he dismounted, shaking her creamy mane as stable hands came to collect his horse. He thanked them distractedly, still in awe over the construction of the palace.

 

It was all so different from home, white and clean and pristine.

 

“Come, Your Highness. I will give you a tour later. But first, you must fill your bellies. I believe your escorts are hungry.”

 

Yixing looked away from the brilliantly white walls of the castle, his cheeks flushing when he saw his guards standing around, watching him.

 

“Of course,” he took the general’s proffered hand, cringing a little when he looked at the glove.

 

The general raised an eyebrow but said nothing, for which Yixing was grateful for. He did not think it would be polite to enter one’s kingdom and make no mention of what could possibly kill them and thus had written his curse into his reply, hoping that it would not change the prince’s mind.

 

It had not.

 

In fact, the prince had been more than welcome, insisting that as long as he took the proper precautions, nothing should come to harm.

 

Still, it was rather embarrassing to have his curse so publicly displayed.

 

But that was soon forgotten when they entered the castle, gasping in awe at the sunlight streaming in from skylights cut into the ceiling. The castle was bright and airy and even the windows were massive, so much light pouring into the room that it almost seemed like they were outdoors.

 

“Have you had pineapple before, Your Highness?”

 

Yixing stared at the strange, spikey fruit that was the centre piece of the table and shook his head.

 

He knew that because Bada was less dependent on the forest, the poison within it did not bother them as much as it affected his kingdom, but it was still a shock to see fruits of all colours and shapes just sitting in a bowl as decoration when it was so precious back home.

 

“Bring a fruit bowl for His Highness and serve the luncheon please,” the general nodded to the servant standing by the door and she bowed, her sky-blue skirt blowing out behind her as she left the room.

 

Even Yixing’s companions seemed completely awed by the colours and sights of the Bada castle as they sat themselves at the table.

 

“I apologise but I have not introduced myself. I am Chanyeol, the prince’s general and his right-hand man.”

 

Chanyeol pulled out his chair and Yixing slipped into it, bowing.

 

“It is very nice to meet you, Chanyeol.”

 

He found it a little strange that Chanyeol did not offer his family name but made no comment, choosing instead to focus on the array of fruit on the table.

 

Chanyeol seemed to be able to sense where his interest lay and pulled the fruit basket closer to them.

 

“I have never seen any of these before,” Yixing confessed as Chanyeol pulled the giant spikey fruit out first, reaching out a hand to brushing against the odd shaped fruit.

 

“This is a pineapple. Its flesh is yellow and has quite a bite to it. Our prince enjoys them greatly.”

 

Chanyeol held out an oblong shaped thing and Yixing inhaled. It had a green and reddish tint to its skin and when Chanyeol sliced it open with his dagger, it opened to reveal brilliantly yellow flesh with a fragrance that Yixing instantly liked.

 

“Oh, it smells lovely,” he said and watched in amazement as the general made cuts along and across the fruit, pushing on the skin so that all those cut pieces popped right out.

 

“This is a mango.”

 

He held it out and Yixing took it, taking a tentative bite.

 

The flavour exploded in his mouth and he had to fight down a gleeful shout.

 

“It’s wonderful,” he swallowed before speaking, handing it to the guard next to him. They passed the mango around until it was all gone.

 

Chanyeol pointed out more fruits that Yixing had never seen before, like the purple skinned mangosteen, a pink fruit that they called a dragon fruit and a passion fruit, which he cut up for him to try.

 

Yixing was completely in awe as the servants cleared away the basket, setting down plates of fish and rice and a tall drink that smelled like the mango he had just tried.

 

“We eat a lot of fish here. Being by the sea means most of our meat comes from it. It must be largely different for you, being in a landlocked kingdom,” Chanyeol said and Yixing nodded, stripping the flesh from the fish’s bones with enthusiasm.

 

“We eat venison when we can catch it, or rabbit when we can’t. If we’re lucky, we might find a bear. But meat is scarce and the cows are saved for milk rather than meat. My best friend-,” Yixing choked for a moment, his mind flashing back to the last time he had fish.

 

Baekhyun had brought him some right after his examination to celebrate and he could still remember how it tasted, smoky and salty, right off the grill.

 

He shook off the memory, turning his attention back to the fish.

 

It was so fresh and delicious, nothing like the stuff they imported into Chilyo.

 

“It’s delicious,” he said instead, when Chanyeol looked at him oddly.

 

“It is.”

 

There was a dish of slimy looking plants that most of Yixing’s escorts avoided until Yixing took some himself.

 

The texture was slippery just like the way it looked but it tasted like the sea.

 

“That’s kelp. We harvest it from the ocean.”

 

Yixing poked at it, nibbling a little more and decided that he rather liked the taste.

 

Fortunately, as there was more of it, in cooked in a broth with white strings that Chanyeol informed him were eggs. Gull eggs.

 

“I hope the food is to your taste, Your Highness,” Chanyeol commented as the servants set down a bowl full of colourful things before him.

 

Yixing stared at it.

 

He could recognise the mango and nothing else.

 

Chanyeol was very kind and named the fruits as he ate them, each one so unique and interesting that Yixing thought he could eat them for every meal.

 

He was relatively full by the time they began their tour.

 

“There is open access to the beach and the sea at any hour of the day. If you wish to swim, I would gladly accompany you. The prince has granted you access to any books in the library that you wish to read and if there is any that you need help with, you may come to me.”

 

Chanyeol showed him where Yanzi was stabled and introduced him to the prince’s favourite horse, a blue roan mare named Mulgyeol.

 

“He does not ride much but he does enjoy swimming with her. Perhaps he will take you with him, when he is well.”

 

There was no sign of the prince anywhere, when Chanyeol ended the tour at the beach, with the salty sea breeze sweeping through their hair, the sound of the waves soothing to their ears.

 

“Be careful and avoid the rock pools, Your Highness. The rocks are sharp and uneven and the pools are deep with strong undercurrents and riptides. They are unsafe for an inexperienced swimmer,” Chanyeol warned, pointing to a cluster of rocks just outside the castle.

 

They picked their way across, just so Chanyeol could show him just how rocky the ground was and Yixing marvelled the clearness of the water.

 

“Don’t come here, alright? If you fall in alone, no one will hear you.”

 

Yixing nodded, only half listening as he leaned over the edge of the pool, peering into the crystal-clear water.

 

Chanyeol’s grip on his arm tightened.

 

“The rocks are slippery, Milord. Please be careful.”

 

“It is so beautifully clear,” Yixing remarked when they came down from the rocks.

 

With a pang, he remembered the water back home, that they had to draw from a well.

 

“Yes, the sea provides much for us. We can purify this water and drink it.”

 

By the time they returned to the castle, Yixing’s bare feet was a little burnt from the heat, his shoes full of pebbly sand.

 

Chanyeol showed him to his rooms and offered to take his boots out for the servants to clean, which Yixing gratefully accepted.

 

“We wear sandals here, more often,” the General said, presenting him with a pair of leather soled sandals.

 

“The sand gets everywhere otherwise.”

 

Yixing slipped them on, shedding his tunic for the light robes that the servants had laid out for him before Chanyeol took him to the library.

 

“Is there anything on the great tree? I take an especial interest in the powers and its curses. And anything on the history of Bada.”

 

Yixing did not notice the way Chanyeol stiffened at the word, instead pulling out a gold foiled tome from the shelf.

 

“The prince collects books. You may find them in that section over there.”

 

He pointed to a corner of the library shrouded in shadow and Yixing was about to thank him when a servant appeared, bearing a bowl of something red, cut into cubes and a tall glass of what looked like red slush.

 

“His Highness requests your presence, General.”

 

Chanyeol nodded, directing the servant to place the bowl onto a table with a chair beside an alcove.

 

It was a sweet little spot beside the window, bright sunlight spilling into the room.

 

Yixing watched as the general selected several books from the aforementioned shelves, setting them lightly onto the table with a piece of parchment and quill.

 

“I have to attend to the prince. But you’re welcome to amuse yourself here. That is watermelon and watermelon juice for your refreshment. If you require anything else, the servants will fetch it for you. Please excuse me, Your Highness.”

 

When he was gone, Yixing took a cautious bite of the watermelon.

 

It exploded in his mouth, so sweet and juicy and unlike anything he had tasted at the luncheon.

 

If he thought that mango was good, watermelon was even better.

 

Yixing was pretty sure that he had found a new favourite fruit to replace mango from his list.

 

Before coming to Bada, his favourite had been strawberries, found only in Seong and the only version he had ever eaten was in jam, for berries did not travel well.

 

Humming in contentment, he settled himself down for a long afternoon of reading and research.

 

When Chanyeol finally returned to fetch him for dinner, his notes were so long that he had to roll them up and pile them by his chair.

 

His watermelon was long gone, left with only some seeds and a little bit of juice and his glass was empty, drained and his stomach was rumbling for something a little more substantial than fruit.

 

“Your Highness?” The call startled Yixing enough for his quill to slip and he yanked it up hurriedly before he could smear it across the word he had been writing.

 

Chanyeol stood before his table, clothed in a slightly thicker navy coat.

 

His hair was rumpled and wet and he smelt of salt and seawater, as if he had been swimming in the ocean.

 

“Oh- hello! I came across something very interesting! Will you explain it to me?” Yixing asked hurriedly, his mind still half on the chapter he had been reading on Bada history.

 

There were many myths and legends about how Bada was formed.

 

Some said that it rose out of the sea, shiny and complete and others said that merpeople built it from the ground up on the sea floor before the sea receded and the people evolved to walk on land.

 

The legends fascinated Yixing as the blessed power of the Bada royalty were said to have been given by the sea itself and not from the tree like the other kingdoms.

 

But of course, those were only legends without an ounce of truth.

 

“I will, of course. But the hour grows late and you must be hungry from all that reading. Come and take dinner with me and I will do my best after.”

 

Chanyeol’s smile was amused as he held out his arm and Yixing placed his quill back into the ink stand, rising to rest his hand in the crook of his elbow.

 

“Will the prince not dine with us?” he asked and Chanyeol shook his head, fiery red hair bouncing about his face.

 

“His Highness has gone to bed. He tires easily these days. I’m to amuse you until he can.”

 

Yixing frowned.

 

“Are you sure he’s alright? It seems rather early to be taking to bed. I could take a look. My father taught me some healing charms.”

 

Chanyeol shook his head once more, a pained smile flitting across his lips before it was gone.

 

“He does not wish to trouble you, Your Highness. You will see him when he is well and not before. I’m afraid those are his wishes and we will do well to abide by them.”

 

Yixing bowed his head in acquisition.

 

“If you say so then.”

 

He was rather embarrassed by just how eager he was to meet the Bada prince and he was sure it showed on his face as Chanyeol patted his hand gently, his warm smile back on his face.

 

“He does appreciate your sentiment, Your Highness and is also eager to see you. Please try to enjoy as much of our kingdom as you can before you settle into serious talk.”

 

Yixing ducked his head, biting his lip to swallow a smile as Chanyeol pulled out his chair, bowing him into his seat.

 

There was more broth, served in a large clay pot with seaweed and boiled fish and a plate of shellfish that Yixing had never seen before.

 

He watched in fascination as Chanyeol picked one up. The general slid a knife between the two halves of the shell and with a sharp twist, the shells came apart to reveal a wet, slippery looking creature in one half of the shell.

 

“Here,” Chanyeol took up a sliver of what Yixing knew to be called lemon and squeezed some of its juice all over the mound of cream coloured flesh.

 

“It’s called an oyster and we mostly eat it raw.”

 

He held the shell up to his lips and slurped the oyster into his mouth smoothly.

 

“Be careful, the edge of the shell is sharp.”

 

Yixing took up his proffered half and leaned the edge of the shell against his lower lip, sucking like he had seen Chanyeol do.

 

The shellfish smelt like the sea breeze that came off the ocean and it tasted like sea water. Mingled with the tartness of the lemon juice, it made for a very interesting flavour.

 

Chanyeol was watching him closely as he set down the shell, nodding.

 

“It is very good.”

 

One of his companions made a choked sound and Yixing turned to see him scratching viciously at his throat and arms.

 

Already, a red rash was spreading across the man’s skin.

 

Chanyeol leapt to his feet, swearing just as Yixing rose.

 

“What is that?” He gaped, moving around the table as the man managed to draw blood.

 

Chanyeol grabbed the man’s arm, yanking it away from the bleeding scratches and Yixing drew close enough to examine him.

 

“He must be allergic to shellfish,” the general said, hanging his head, “I did not think to ask.”

 

“We would not have known, if you had asked. We do not get shellfish in our markets.”

 

Yixing shook his head, laying his ungloved hand against the reddened skin.

 

His stomach tugged and the itch began at the base of his neck, an irritating sensation that he had to suppress the urge to scratch.

 

As the redness across the man’s chest and neck began to fade, Yixing’s itching intensified into a burn and he must have a sound or scratched as Chanyeol released the other man’s hand, curling his fingers around Yixing’s gloved wrist.

 

Yixing squeezed his eyes shut, not noticing that he was tugging on Chanyeol’s grip, fighting to get free as the itch overwhelmed him, his teeth digging into his lower lip hard enough to leave indents in the flesh.

 

“Your Highness.” His eyes snapped open to find his escort staring up at him in concern, Chanyeol still gripping his wrist with his large hand.

 

“I’m alright,” he murmured, surprised by how exhausted he was.

 

He had never tried healing anyone after Baekhyun and he supposed using his power had a side effect.

 

“You should sit down,” Chanyeol said, one of the escorts rising quickly for him to guide Yixing into the chair.

 

Yixing sat and a glass with a straw was held to his lips, a strange mixture of mango and pineapple and something else that he could not recognise tingling his taste buds.

 

“Have you never used your magic before, Your Highness?” Chanyeol asked gently and Yixing shook his head.

 

He did not feel up to rehashing all the events that had led to him leaving home and he doubted Chanyeol would want him to stick around if he knew the truth.

 

“I’ve barely been taught,” he said and Chanyeol made a soft sound.

 

“You’ve only just turned eighteen, haven’t you? Your powers will drain you the first few times you use it, only because you are unused to the amount of energy it consumes. You won’t be like this after you’ve worked with your magic a little longer.”

 

“Here,” he pushed a bowl of seaweed soup before him that an escort had ladled out, “eat. You need to get your strength back up.”

 

Yixing ate dutifully, feeling his energy surge back as the servants placed more platters on the table.

 

“We eat a heavier dinner here,” Chanyeol explained as he sliced up more fish, cooked in a pineapple sauce that was sweet and tangy.

 

They did, indeed and Yixing was stuffed when it came time for dessert.

 

Luckily, the general had thought ahead and the portions were small, a sweet mango pudding that satisfied Yixing’s sweet tooth.

 

“No more fruit for you, Your Highness?” Chanyeol teased as the servants cleared away the dessert bowls, watching Yixing drain the last of his smoothie and groan in contentment.

 

“You feed your guests well, General. I am so stuffed I can hardly move.”

 

Chanyeol laughed.

 

“It must not be well enough as our prince is small, perhaps a little shorter than you are.”

 

Yixing had never seen pictures of the Bada prince and the thought of him intrigued him so much. But he knew better than to push.

 

“Perhaps I will see him one day,” he said and Chanyeol nodded, pushing back his chair.

 

“Shall we take a walk by the seaside, Your Highness? You can see the stars beautifully from the shore.”

 

Yixing nodded.

 

It would do him good to take a walk and digest all the wonderful food he had just ate. His resolve had only been strengthened to break this curse and cure the forest of its poison.

 

Imagine all of the wonderful food they could have, if only the forest was well and the animals healthy.

 

The air was much chillier than he had expected and he almost wished he had a thicker coat like Chanyeol did when they stepped outside, the sea breeze sweeping through their hair.

 

The leather sandals were definitely much better for walking on sand and Yixing found himself walking right up to the water’s edge to let the waves tickle his toes, giggling happily at the cold water.

 

He hugged himself, lifting his head to look up at the stars twinkling in the fabric of the night sky.

 

Baekhyun would have loved to see this, for the sky back home was clouded and gloomy and the stars never shined quite as brightly as they did in Bada.

 

Sorrow swirled in the pit of his stomach and Yixing chewed his lip, desperate to push his friend out of his mind.

 

He scratched at his gloved hand, shivering as the night wind wrapped around him like a cape, the chill sinking into his bones.

 

“You’re cold.” He was so distracted by his own thoughts that he did not see Chanyeol coming up behind him.

 

Yixing turned, looking up at him in surprise.

 

“It’s alright,” he mumbled, regretting his decision to stick his feet into the waves a little.

 

The water was cold.

 

A weight settling over his shoulders startled him and he clutched at the coat reflexively.

 

“The prince would not be happy if he knew I let his guest freeze,” Chanyeol said and Yixing ducked his head, tugging the coat closer around his body.

 

“Thank you,” he murmured.

 

“The nights are much colder here. The winds come in from over the sea, from Olda’s direction and we believe they bring some of the chill with them.”

 

“Ahh.”

 

Yixing hugged the coat tighter around his body, staring up at the twinkling stars.

 

“It’s so peaceful here,” he murmured and Chanyeol nodded.

 

“We have been very lucky.”

 

They stared at the stars for a little longer before Chanyeol shook himself, turning to Yixing with a querying look on his face.

 

“You had questions from your readings? I do not claim to be an expert but I will do my best to answer them.”

 

Yixing’s questions poured out in a torrent and he was almost embarrassed by how little he knew about the other kingdoms and their cultures.

 

Chanyeol was an excellent teacher and explained that powers manifested differently for all kingdoms.

 

For Chilyo, the age was somewhere between thirteen and eighteen, eighteen being the most common and Bada royalty grew in to their powers by the time they were ten.

 

Because they had control over water, the magic had to be honed and taught, such that by the time the child was of age, they would have almost absolute control over their powers.

 

“The legends exaggerate,” Chanyeol said with a smile.

 

“Bada’s gifts were bestowed upon them by the tree, just like everyone else. It is only because we are a kingdom by the sea, the children are taught to swim at a young age.”

 

“You are not from here, are you?” Yixing dared to ask, watching as a surprised expression flitted across Chanyeol’s face, holding up his hands.

 

“You don’t have to answer that. I just couldn’t help but notice your hair…”

 

A smile broke across Chanyeol’s lips and he touched his hair.

 

“Ah. You are very perceptive, Your Highness,” he tucked his hands into his pockets and shrugged. “I was born here. But I have roots in the already deceased Fire kingdom. Ancestors.”

 

He said quickly when Yixing’s eyes widened.

 

“I’ve learnt more about Bada’s history than my own.”

 

Chanyeol’s smile was sad and Yixing bowed his head, tucking his head against his chin.

 

The winds were getting stronger and they whipped his hair and coattails back and forth, biting even through the thick felt of the coat.

 

“Perhaps we should retire inside, Your Highness. This wind bites even me,” Yixing nodded, accepting the offered hand gratefully. His skin was warmer than he expected and he clung to it a little more than he probably should have.

 

Yixing gritted his teeth to keep them from chattering as they returned to the castle, his frozen toes almost sighing in relief at the fire in the hearth crackling merrily away.

 

Chanyeol looked amused when he did sigh aloud, walking over to toast his hands against the hearth.

 

“Shall I show you to your room? You look as if you ought to have gone to bed an hour or two ago,” he teased, Yixing shaking out of his blissful expression to pout.

 

“Please,” he agreed, shrugging off the navy coat.

 

Chanyeol took it back, draping it over his arm before bowing.

 

“Let’s go then.”

 

The days passed quickly in Bada.

 

Every day, Yixing would have some form of fruit for breakfast and a smoothie that the servants whipped up before hunkering down inside the library to read and study.

 

“What are the powers that Bada royalty were blessed with?” he asked one time when Chanyeol was not busy tending to the prince and actually had the time to sit down and help him.

 

He got an amused glance in return.

 

“You already know this, Your Highness. They can control water.”

 

“Yes, but to what extent? Is it freshwater and salt water or just salt water? Does the water content in our bodies count?”

 

Chanyeol laughed and nodded.

 

“It is just water. Both fresh and salt but they have more of an affinity with the sea. They can swim exceptionally well and hold their breath for much longer than we can underwater.”

 

“That’s fascinating!” Yixing exclaimed.

 

His mind was whirring as he thought about all the possibilities a curse could manifest. Could it be something similar to his own, where it affected their body’s water content?

 

He was too afraid to ask though, as Chanyeol was so secretive when it came to the prince.

 

The mystery only intrigued Yixing more and the more he studied Bada’s history, the more he wanted to speak to him.

 

Chanyeol knew so much about Bada and its origins but he was not native. Yixing wanted to know more, from someone who was descended from Bada’s original queen.

 

The first ruler of the seaside kingdom had been a queen and her beauty was described in great detail in so many of the history books he encountered. There were portraits of her hung up in the castle, if he cared to look, along with an entire line of Bada’s royalty.

 

The new prince’s portrait however, was not hung yet and Yixing mourned that fact.

 

He had hoped to be able to picture the prince even a little. The merchants had said that he was lovely and fair, with pale skin and pink lips.

 

Yixing thought a lot about the prince while he studied, writing down branches of the royal family tree, trying to find connections and links to when the curse could have begun. As far as he knew, the curses would have begun around the same year, but because powers manifested at different ages across the land, they would have shown up at different times.

 

It was hard work.

 

But he kept at it, Baekhyun at the back of his mind.

 

He sent his pigeon off two days after arriving in Bada with a letter to inform his parents that he had arrived safely and hoped that they would write him back about Baekhyun’s conditions.

 

His nightmares receded somewhat but some mornings he would still wake up in a pool of his own sweat, screaming for Baekhyun.

 

The dreams varied little, the most common being the fawn but the red eyed bear had begun to appear too, as a haggard bag of bones with poison tipped claws and a berserk look on its face.

 

Yixing prayed, every night while he awaited his parents’ reply that his dreams were just that, dreams.

 

“Are you feeling alright, Your Highness?”

 

He was startled out of his thoughts when Chanyeol loomed over him, his deep voice piercing through his uneasy musing.

 

“I- I’m fine, thank you.”

 

Yixing prodded at the piece of dragon fruit in his bowl, his appetite gone. He could almost smell the blood in the air, the metallic tang that never failed to make his stomach turn as the bear bore down on him, its body reeking of death and decay.

 

“Your Highness.”

 

Chanyeol was frowning at him and Yixing’s cheeks warmed.


He swallowed the last bite of his fruit and drained his glass, folding the napkin in his lap gingerly.

 

“You’ve gone pale and there are hollows in your eyes. Have you been sleeping well?”

 

Yixing chewed on his lip and shook his head mutely.

 

“The servants say they have heard you screaming in the nights. Should I fetch a physician?”

 

Chanyeol’s concern was touching but Yixing was not sure how much a healer would be able to help with his nightmares.

 

Still, he consented to being seen by one and was provided with an elixir that he was to take nightly, until it was finished. The elixir helped, only a little, dulling the nightmares until he no longer woke up screaming.

 

But still he dreamt, of the fawn and of Baekhyun.

 

When Yixing had enough of his studying and research, Chanyeol would take him out to see the sights that Bada had to offer.

 

“This is common here?” Yixing asked as Chanyeol bought them each a half of a raw oyster, the general slurping his up immediately, to the fisherman’s delight.

 

“Yes. We have an abundance of seafood, far more than we need, even when the fishermen cut down on their catches. They don’t travel well. We only ship them to Seong, across the sea. Sometimes the royalty in Olda crave seafood and they come here for it.”

 

Yixing nodded, drinking in the sights and sounds of the market. There were many vendors hawking their wares and children ran about barefoot, half-dressed as if they were about to go to the beach.

 

Which he supposed they did.

 

“A drink for the prince?”

 

He startled when a man thrust a glass in his face, nearly spilling the yellow slush all over Yixing’s clothes.

 

“I’m alright, thank you,” Yixing bowed, reaching for Chanyeol when the general returned from disposing their shells.

 

The markets back home were never quite this lively as the skies were always overcast and there was very little to sell. They never had much more than milk, honey and jam if the Seong traders arrived.

 

Sometimes they would have specialty traders, pilgrims who travelled all over the world, bringing strange books and artifacts.

 

But the constantly grey skies of Chilyo always made the market rather gloomy and unattractive.

 

Bada however, was so different.

 

It was almost overwhelming, the scents of food being cooked on massive stone plates, hawkers yelling, children running amok underfoot.

 

Yixing basked in it, smiling when he felt tugging on his pants, looking down to see a little boy with big eyes holding an oyster shell up to him.

 

“Hello,” he said, ruffling the boy’s hair.

 

“You’re very pretty,” the boy murmured shyly and Yixing blushed, warmth blooming in his chest.

 

“Why, thank you. What do you have there?” He pointed at the shell and the boy beamed, uncovering the top half of the shell to reveal a creamy white pearl sitting in the middle of the oyster.

 

“That’s a lovely pearl,” Chanyeol commented, “almost worthy of Prince Junmyeon himself. How much for it, little one?”

 

The boy named a price and they watched him run off with the money, Chanyeol’s purchase clutched in his hands.

 

“So the prince enjoys collecting pearls?” Yixing asked, gesturing to the oyster in Chanyeol’s hands and the general nodded, twisting open the shell to have a closer look.

 

“He collects two things. Books and pearls.”

 

For the most part, Yixing had Chanyeol to keep him company, after his escorts had left but some days, he would have business that would render Yixing alone to wander.

 

And wander he did.

 

He did his best to obey Chanyeol’s words of caution but the rock pools were mesmerizing to him and he was almost positive he had seen a shadow dive off the rocks one very early morning.

 

The morning winds were chillier than he had expected when he walked out of the castle and the sky was still mostly grey.

 

Yixing hugged his coat closer around him as he picked his way across the ragged rocks, barefoot.

 

The rocks were jagged and some incredibly sharp but the sandals only made them more slippery. He was careful though, finding the flatter rocks to step on before moving on to the next.

 

The water was crystal clear, rippling up and splashing droplets onto the rocks as he walked, a soothing sound.

 

Yixing was just about to turn back when he heard a splash and out of the corner of his eye, he saw the shape of a human head disappear beneath the waves.

 

Freezing in place, he stared.

 

Was there someone in the water?

 

Chapter Text

 

Yixing took a tentative step, forgetting the rocks and yelped when something sharp sliced across his bare foot.

 

He turned his foot up, eyes widening at the red slash running across his skin.

 

His stomach turned immediately and his mind flashed briefly to a fawn, blood dripping from its eye sockets.

 

Yixing pressed a hand to his mouth, trying to force down the bile that had risen in his throat at the memory. His skin prickled with goosebumps and he could not help but retch, his body shuddering at the smell of blood mingled with the salty sea air.

 

He despised blood.

 

Gagging, he set his foot back down, gasping at the sting when open wound met salt water and tried to compose himself once more.

 

Something moved in his peripheral vision and he whirled around.

 

His heart flew to his mouth when his foot slipped, his thigh jarring painfully against the pointed rocks and he screamed.

 

He struck the water before he quite knew what had happened, the water swallowing him with a splash, soaking into his coat, making it impossibly heavy.

 

Yixing managed to thrash up to the surface, gasping, fingers grasping at the slippery rocks.

 

He shrugged off his coat, yelping in shock when a wave smacked him in the face, his eyes burning as he got a mouthful of salt water.

 

The water was bitter on his tongue and he spat it out, gasping when another wave swept him away from the rocks, his fingertips coming away red.

 

A current tugged at his legs and he barely managed to suck in a breath of air before he was dragged under, his blood staining the water.

 

Yixing clawed at the water, bubbles spurting from his lips as his heart roared in his ears.

 

He could not swim, did not know how, having never been taught. The waters tossed him about like a rag doll, dunking him under before pulling him further and further away from the rocks.

 

“Hel-,” he gasped, choking when he inhaled a lungful of water.

 

His lungs burned as if they were on fire and his legs ached from kicking.

 

Yixing made a desperate grab for the rock wall when the wave swept him closer but only succeeded in slashing his palm open on a sharp outcropping.

 

He cried out, swallowing another mouthful of water that burned going down.

 

An undercurrent caught ahold of him and Yixing only managed a strangled scream before his world went blue.

 

His eyes stung when he tried to open them underwater and he could see only flashes of blue and white before he squeezed them shut again.

 

He did not know which way was up and his lungs were rapidly running out of air.

 

Black spots danced on the edges of his vision even as the currents threatened to pull him apart, yanking him further out to sea.

 

The last thing he saw was a dark shape swimming rapidly towards him before his world went black.

 

-

 

In his dreams, Yixing was drowning.

 

The water was as dark as night and there was no way to see the surface.

 

His lungs were burning, threatening to burst and the fear was like a shot of adrenaline, spurring him onwards as he thrashed in the dark water.

 

Soft singing filtered into his ears, soothing and sweet and Yixing turned, blowing bubbles from his lips in confusion.

 

He could hear underwater?

 

Light filtered under his eyelids and the singing grew louder.

 

Yixing blinked and flinched when light pierced his eyeballs, the sun too bright for his eyes to adjust.

 

The singing was only nearby, a foreign melody with words that he had never heard of before, beautiful and filled with sorrow, coupled with the soft sounds of waves washing up onto sand.

 

He opened his mouth, grimacing when he tasted salt on his lips, sand gritty between his teeth as he tried to push himself into a sitting position, his muscles aching in all the places he did not know they could ache.

 

A hand combed through his hair and he flopped back down, enough for the singer to realise that he was awake.

 

Yixing mourned when the singing stopped and there was only the gulls shrieking in the air as they dive bombed the waves, snatching fish.

 

He managed to force his eyes open long enough to catch a glimpse of a face so beautiful it shocked the air right out of his lungs, his lips parting and gaping, very much like a fish out of water.

 

The man twisted and Yixing panicked when he felt his hand leave his hair, as if he was about to disappear back into the water like an elusive merman.

 

“Wait!”

 

He reached out, grasping his wrist with his right hand.

 

A bolt of fear shot through him and he dipped his head, relief rushing through him when he saw that his glove was still firmly intact around his other hand.

 

THe man tugged and Yixing’s head jerked up, eyes flying wide open to take in the beauty.

 

“Gods almighty, you’re-,” he stumbled, his words falling unbidden from his lips.

 

The sun’s rays fell over a scattering of blue green scales that littered the man’s cheeks, the iridescent scales glittering in the light. His eyes were as strange as they were beautiful, one the colour of the cerulean sky and the other, the colour of seafoam washing up on the shore.

 

They matched his fair skin, so pale that it had a soft blue tinge and Yixing’s cheeks warmed when he realised that the man was nearly completely nude, scales scattered from his collarbones all the way down his body.

 

Yixing was half expecting to see a tail glistening in the water when the man yanked again and he lurched, gasping when his muscles screamed in protest.

 

“Wait, please!”

 

He could not let him go. Not without learning his name.

 

“Let me go.”

 

Even his voice was beautiful, sweet and melodious, ringing in his ears like the waves on a quiet day.

 

“Not without your name. You saved my life. I must have your name.” Yixing was surprised at how coherent he was for someone who had been dragged out of the sea half drowned.

 

The man snorted, twisting his face away as if he was ashamed.

 

“What would someone like you do with my name?”

 

“Please, I just-. Won’t you look at me?” Yixing’s cheeks flushed a little as he said those words, suddenly aware that this man was a complete stranger.

 

His heart was thumping wildly in his chest and he could not think straight.

 

“Why would I? You’ve professed your disgust well enough.”

 

The man yanked harder and Yixing cried out when he managed to slip out of his grasp, sprinting into the waves.

 

He ran after him, plunging into the water with a gasp. The water was freezing, cold enough to numb his limbs and freeze his aching muscles.

 

“Don’t be foolish! You can’t swim!” the man called, turning back to stare at him with a look of disbelief.

 

Yixing stumbled, his heart flying to his throat when he stepped off what felt like a shelf of sand and his foot went down into the water, much deeper than he expected.

 

“Come and get me then!” he cried, flinging his arms up into the air.

 

The waves snatched at him, threatening to carry him out to sea and he was already sinking. Panic clawed at his chest when the man ducked beneath the water and disappeared from his sight.

 

Was he gone?

 

Had he truly thought that he had reacted in disgust?

 

Yixing fumbled, struggling to find the sand bank. His foot bumped against something hard and he shrieked, half in terror and half in surprise.

 

“By god, you are indeed a fool.”

 

The voice by his ear startled him and he thrashed in shock, turning to see the man with his arms wrapped around him, his brows narrowed.

 

A wave surged up around them and Yixing grasped his shoulders tightly when they were washed back to shore, the man depositing him not so gently onto the beach.

 

“Will you tell me your name now?”

 

He gasped, collapsing onto his back as the man rose gracefully from the water, the waves rising to wrap around his nude body like a cloak. Already, he could hear shouts coming from above, Chanyeol, searching for him.

 

God, he was breathtaking, all wrapped up in the waves like that.

 

Sunlight danced off his makeshift cloak and the scales of his face, rippling across the water and Yixing forgot how to speak again, his breath stolen by the sheer beauty of the man standing before him.

 

In his wonder, he must have spoken his thoughts aloud for the harsh look in the man’s eyes softened and he took a trembling step forward, dropping onto one knee to look Yixing in the eye.

 

Yixing could barely focus on anything else more than the prince’s hand on his leg, the disbelief in his eyes at being called beautiful.

 

“Do you speak the truth?”

 

Yixing stared back at him, frozen.

 

“I-.”

 

He was almost embarrassed to admit just how speechless he made him, how much his hands itched to touch those iridescent scales, to touch his cheeks and see if it was truly as soft as it looked. Even his hair, carelessly tousled by the waves, a single strand falling in his face made Yixing’s heart beat a little faster.

 

“Your Highness!”

 

Chanyeol running down the white stretch of sand snapped the fragile peace between them and the man flinched, rising back up, his swirling cloak tightening around his body.

 

The general froze when he saw the both of them, Yixing lying on the sand, sopping wet like a seal and the man, draped in the waters of the sea, his stance hard and defensive.

 

“Your Highness. I am truly sorry.”

 

Chanyeol bowed and Yixing’s stomach lurched.

 

This was the Prince Junmyeon that he had been dying to meet? He had not expected for his breath to be literally snatched out of his lungs at the mere sight of him.

 

Yixing stared when the man merely waved his hand, his lips tightening ever so slightly.

 

“Be at ease, Chanyeol. It seems that Chilyo has not taught their prince well enough on how to heed warnings.”

 

Yixing’s cheeks warmed and he dropped his head, scrambling to stand on the same plane as the Bada prince.


It was hardly the good impression he wanted to make, barefoot, wet and covered with sand and blood, having intruded on what must have been Prince Junmyeon’s private pools.

 

“I-.” He could not find the words to defend himself, still struck dumb.

 

“Return to the castle, Prince Yixing. I will see you at luncheon.”

 

The prince fixed him with an unreadable look and turned towards the sea, clearly dismissing him. Yixing’s heart tripped and he stumbled forward, catching his hand before he could leave.

 

“I spoke the truth,” he said as steadily as he could, watching as Prince Junmyeon’s eyes softened and a flush rose on his cheeks, so sweetly endearing.

 

He darted away without a reply, diving under the waves with a grace that Yixing envied.

 

Yixing watched him for as long as he could, before Chanyeol was draping a heavy coat over him and he realised that he had been shivering, lips blue from the cold, chastising him for ignoring his repeated warnings.

 

His chest was warm as he was led back to the castle, limping on his injured leg and practically shoved into a bathtub filled with warm water.

 

The image of the Bada prince leaning over him, his face with a mask of vulnerability made his heart ache and he wished that he could do something, anything to set his mind at ease. The fact that he could not see his own beauty made Yixing itch to show him, just how lovely he truly was.

 

He collapsed back against the side of the tub, overwhelmed by the emotions swirling inside him. What were all of these thoughts? He had never felt this way about anyone before.

 

But the memory of the prince’s flushed cheeks made his stomach flutter in a pleasant way and Yixing found himself wanting to do anything to see him smile just once.

 

“Your Highness. Are you well in there?”

 

The sound of Chanyeol’s voice jolted him out of his thoughts and Yixing sat up, water sloshing around him wildly.

 

The bathwater was already cold and he was already beginning to shiver once more. Yixing snatched up the towel hanging over the tub, rubbing himself dry as quickly as he could.

 

“I’m alright!” he called back, wrapping himself up in a soft, almost sheer bathrobe.

 

Chanyeol peeked his head in and Yixing tried not to shy away, his cheeks warm from the steam as he held out an outfit that looked nothing like the tighter  tunics and breeches they wore back home.

 

“What is this?” he asked, touching the material. It was soft silk, blue like the prince’s eyes and the thought was enough make his cheeks flush, trying desperately to push the Bada prince from his mind.

 

“It is what the prince desires for you to wear. Come, let me help you.”

 

Yixing dipped his eyes to the floor as he unfastened his robe, turning his back onto Chanyeol so that the man could help him into the shirt.

 

He was surprised at the ease Chanyeol dressed him. As a general, he had expected him to balk at helping a prince dress, the way a servant would but there was nothing in Chanyeol’s hands that suggested this was anything out of the norm for him.

 

“Put these on. I will wait in your chambers.” A pair of trousers were handed to him and Chanyeol slipped out of the bathroom, leaving Yixing to study himself in the nearest mirror.

 

The blue of the silk brought out the copper in his hair and his skin was rosy, flushed pink from the heat of the steam.

 

He straightened himself, gulping under his breath as he exited the room to find Chanyeol waiting for him with a necklace woven with shells that chimed gently, as if they were singing.

 

“A gift from the prince,” the general said and his eyes were knowing as Yixing turned for him to fasten the necklace.

 

Yixing ducked his head, chewing his lip shyly as Chanyeol stepped away to admire him.

 

A servant appeared in the doorway, bearing a velvet tray with a single pearl hung on what looked like a fishing hook and another on a little silver hoop with the tiniest sliver cut out in the middle of it.

 

“We shall have to make do, for you do not have pierced ears.”

 

Chanyeol picked up the pearl on the hoop and attached it such that the open hoop caught the flesh of his earlobe between it.

 

“You look lovely.”

 

Yixing turned towards the mirror, gaping.

 

The little pearl dangled just beneath his ear, reflecting light and he could not stop staring at it, the darkness of the pearl surprising him.

 

“I’ve never seen a black pearl before,” he commented as Chanyeol turned him around, a pot of pink pigment and a brush clutched in his hands.

 

“We have divers who search for them. They are more valuable than the others and far more rare and precious.”

 

He painted Yixing’s lips a soft pink and lined his eyes with kohl, something that Yixing had never done before.

 

“Is this- makeup, more common here?” he asked, when he saw himself in the mirror once more. He looked so different that he hardly recognized himself.

 

“Ah. It’s is a form of courtesy. Our prince likes pretty things and our guests are no exception.”

 

Yixing flushed, ducking his head shyly.

 

His pulse was picking up at the prospect of seeing the prince again and he wondered if the prince had some sort of sway over him, for he had never felt such things for anyone before.

 

He swallowed when Chanyeol deemed him ready, opening the doors for him to leave for the luncheon.

 

“The prince prefers to dine privately these days. Come,” Chanyeol took his arm when he made to move for the regular dining room and his heart pounded in his ears as he was led through a series of doors and hallways, opening up to a large balcony overlooking the sea.

 

Yixing’s breath hitched when he saw the figure already sitting at the table, sipping a glass filled with a strange blue liquid.

 

His palms were damp and he rubbed them subtly against his pants as Chanyeol pulled out his chair, his eyes cast down towards the table.

 

“How is your leg, Prince Yixing? I saw that you scraped it a little.”

 

The prince lifted his head and Yixing froze, caught like a deer in headlights. It was as if time had slowed down and he was drowning in his eyes, pools of mismatched blue and green.

 

Chanyeol cleared his throat and the electricity arching between them snapped, Yixing ducking his head as his cheeks flushed hot. He had forgotten his leg in his haste to see the prince and now that it was brought up, he could feel the sting.

 

Against his will, he winced, leaning down to grasp at the part where the injury had occurred.

 

“Chanyeol, fetch the cream.”

 

Yixing squeezed his fingers into the fabric of his pants when the prince rose, moving out of his seat to kneel beside him.

 

“Ah, Prince Junmyeon-.” His teeth clamped down onto his bottom lip when hands gripped at the hem of his pants and rolled them up, exposing his leg. The abrasion looked horrid, red and inflamed, as if someone had taken a dull, jagged blade to his skin.

 

A servant appeared with a stool and his leg was propped up onto it, Prince Junmyeon leaning over to look at the gash on the sole of his foot.

 

“You should be more careful on those rocks, Prince Yixing. They are not kind to skin.”

 

Yixing sucked in a sharp breath when Chanyeol returned with a little pot of cream and rolls of bandages.

 

“Truly, Your Grace,” he tried, reaching to push Junmyeon’s hand away, “I can-.”

 

“Call me Junmyeon.”

 

Junmyeon ignored his request, unscrewing the pot of cream. Yixing felt as if his entire face was on fire when the prince knelt beside his injured foot with a frown on his face.

 

“This may sting.”

 

It did sting, like a bee’s sting but Junmyeon’s touch was so gentle that Yixing hardly noticed. He was more flustered than anything, forcing his eyes away from the prince’s face to the floor.

 

The prince tied the bandage for him, carefully wrapping his foot with the white cloth and Yixing could only wipe his sweaty palms on his pants, trying desperately to calm his rapidly beating heart from jumping out of his chest.

 

“Shall I serve the luncheon, milord?” Chanyeol asked from the door as Junmyeon rose to his feet, handing the cream and bandages to him. He seemed incredibly amused about the entire situation as Yixing fought down his blush.

 

“Yes. Take your time, please.” Junmyeon’s eyes were upon Yixing’s face once more and his gaze was so intense that Yixing’s lungs seemed to have forgotten how to breathe.

 

Yixing turned his gaze away from the prince’s eyes, trying to focus on the way the sunlight struck the blue green scales on his cheekbones, the iridescence that they danced with as the prince moved back to his seat.

 

“So you’ve got your wish. Chanyeol tells me that you were very eager to meet me.”

 

He tore his eyes away from the scales long enough to meet Junmyeon’s mismatched eyes and blushed even harder.

 

“Yes, Prince Junmyeon. I- I apologize. I did not know-.”

 

Junmyeon waved a hand in the air, his eyes still locked onto Yixing’s face.

 

There was not enough air to breathe with those beautiful eyes so fixated on him and Yixing thought he might faint from the intensity in the prince’s gaze.

 

“Just Junmyeon will do. We are of the same age, after all.”

 

Yixing ducked his head, grasping at the turquoise tablecloth as if hoping it was dry the sweat from his palms.

 

“Then you must call me Yixing.”

 

“As I will.”

 

The longer he looked at Junmyeon’s face, the more Yixing became aware of the blueish tint his skin had, as if it was cold. It was subtle, highlighted by the blue scales but so very becoming.

 

“Have you stared enough, Yixing?”

 

Junmyeon’s tone was laced with exasperation and amusement and Yixing found his fading blush returning in full force. He dropped his head onto the table, suddenly aware of how rude he was being.

 

“I’m sorry. I just-. I can’t stop-.”

 

Junmyeon made a soft noise, reaching over to pat his hand and Yixing twitched as electricity jolted between their bare skin, lifting his head to stare at the Bada prince.

 

“It’s alright. It is incredibly strange.”

 

“No, I-. You’re beautiful,” Yixing blurted and his face exploded into flames. He pressed his hands to his mouth and tried to muffle a pathetic scream when Junmyeon recoiled, a pink flush rising onto his cheeks.

 

“I- well. You are, as well,” he fumbled, flustered and Yixing made a tiny screech into his hands, sure that he sounded like a crow before folding his hands quickly into his lap, sitting up primly.

 

They must have made a very strange sight, Yixing determinedly looking away as Junmyeon stared down at the tablecloth as if he could read the secrets of the universe in its weaving. Yixing made the mistake of turning back when Junmyeon huffed out a laugh and was immediately drawn to the stray strand of hair hanging in his eyes.

 

His fingers itched to brush it away and tuck it behind his ear.

 

“Are the both of you alright?”

 

Yixing forced his eyes away from that stupid strand of hair to look in Chnayeol’s direction.

 

The general stood in the doorway of the balcony, bearing a tray full of oysters and another plate full of sliced salmon, raw and fresh from the sea, Yixing assumed.

 

“Yes.”

 

“Fine.”

 

They both glanced at each other and Yixing looked away first, his flush rising up his neck once more.

 

“Somehow you’ve become stranger in Prince Yixing’s presence, Your Highness,” Chanyeol commented as he set the food onto the table, casting an amused glance in his prince’s direction.

 

Yixing did not miss the way Junmyeon swung his hand out, striking his general squarely in the side as he passed him.

 

“Imbecile,” he hissed and Yixing clamped his lips together to keep from smiling.

 

He reached for the oysters, careful not to spill as he placed it on his plate, Junmyeon’s eyes burning into his face.

 

“I hope you’ve been enjoying our food, Pri- Yixing,” Junmyeon said softly as he picked up slices of the salmon himself, dipping them into a dark sauce mixed with horseradish.

 

The salmon was a lovely colour, soft coral with fine lines of white fat running through them and Yixing focused on them, squeezing the lemon onto his oyster before speaking. He was sweating in his nice silk shirt and he hoped the prince would not notice.

 

“I have, indeed. It is so different from the food back home.”

 

There was a beat of silence when Chanyeol returned with more food, mussels this time, cooked in white wine.

 

Their red flesh was stark against the black shells and they smelled absolutely mouthwatering.

 

Chanyeol set down a tureen of seaweed soup and a massive snow crab, taking his leave but not before casting Junmyeon a look that Yixing could not read.

 

Then it was just the two of them at the table.

 

Yixing ate his food diligently though his heart was screaming for him to speak, to make conversation. He was too afraid of what nonsense he would come up with.

 

It seemed that his brain to mouth filter stopped working when he was around Junmyeon.

 

Junmyeon looked as if he was in the same dilemma, Yixing catching him stealing looks over his soup bowl, his lips parting as if he wanted to speak.

 

“Is this-.”

 

“The food-.”

 

They both stopped and Junmyeon gestured for him to continue.

 

Yixing chewed the inside of his cheek as he took apart a crab leg delicately, cracking the shell with the strange contraption that Chanyeol had taught him to use.

 

“Is that.” He waved the crab leg in the general direction of Junmyeon’s face before realizing how inappropriate that was.

 

Cheeks flushing, he plucked at the crab meat.

 

“Common in Bada royalty?”

 

Junmyeon sat up a little straighter, though Yixing could see tension running in his shoulders and neck.

 

“Do you mean the scales and blue skin? Yes and no.”

 

He gestured to Yixing’s gloved hand and Yixing cringed a little, self conscious.

 

“It is a little like your hand.”

 

“So it is an effect of the curse then?” Yixing asked gently. It seemed like a sensitive topic and he was sure it was.

 

He never liked talking much about the glove he never took off either but he supposed he was lucky that his curse was not quite so physical in nature.

 

Junmyeon nodded, ducking his head as if wishing to shield his face.

 

“It grows worse from time to time. Usually around full moon. I will have an insatiable need to swim and soak in salt water and my face will be covered in scales.”

 

He brushed a delicate hand across the shimmering scales and Yixing’s fingers twitched, as if he longed to touch them too.

 

“This is the last of it. They will fade completely in the next two days as the moon wanes.”

 

“Oh.”

 

Yixing sat for a moment, just staring. He thought the scales were lovely, perched on the high points of the prince’s cheeks, catching the light every time he turned his head.

 

Even his hair had the slightest blue tinge to it, ruffled and soft.

 

“Yixing?”

 

He snapped out of his staring to meet Junmyeon’s eyes, his cheeks flushing.

 

“I’m sorry. I can’t help it. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”

 

A wry smile twisted at Junmyeon’s lips and he poked at his mussel with a fork tiredly.

 

“Well, it isn’t common. In fact I look horrifying at the full stage of the curse. There is a reason why I do not see anyone until it is over.”

 

“They’re pretty,” Yixing blurted out, “I can’t imagine you being anything less than beautiful.”

 

Junmyeon stared and Yixing bit down hard on his lip.

 

Why had he said that?

 

He was fumbling for an apology when the prince laid a hand over his gently, his eyes a little glassy.

 

“Thank you. You are very kind.”

 

Yixing was startled at the words.

 

“Most people think them disgusting. Imagine wearing a fish’s skin on your face. They would call me a monster if they saw me on the night of the full moon.”

 

A jolt of indignation shot through him at that and he sat up, trying to keep his temper in check.

 

“Well they haven’t the eye for beauty then, have they? They’re lovely, Junmyeon. The sunlight dances on them and they- they bring out the colours of your eyes.”

 

His steady speech wavered a little when he got a good look at Junmyeon’s eyes and found himself drowning in them once more.

 

Blood was roaring in his ears and he could hear his own heart rate thumping loudly in his chest as he stared into Junmyeon’s eyes.

 

His gaze flitted to the other’s pink lips and fleetingly, wondered what it would feel like to kiss them.

 

A hot bolt of shame shot through him and Yixing peeled his eyes away, dipping his head to hide the flush that had crawled up his cheeks at the mere thought.

 

“You are too kind, Prince Yixing,” Junmyeon said softly and his smile was sweet, enough make Yixing’s heart trip and his breath catch in his throat.

 

He prodded at his crab meat, taking sips of his drink as Junmyeon polished off the rest of the salmon.

 

“So, about the curse,” Junmyeon started, setting his fork down with a clink. He knocked his glass gently, making a pleasant chiming sound and a servant appeared in the doorway bearing a decanter full of the same blue stuff he had in his glass.

 

“Would you like some wine? We have some lovely rosé that Chanyeol is very fond of.”

 

Another servant appeared with a decanter of a pretty pink liquid, setting it on the table between them before vanishing.

 

Yixing nodded and Junmyeon rose, reaching for the decanter. He poured Yixing a glass but took none for himself, as the servants arrived to clear the table in a flurry of movements.

 

“Come, Yixing. Let’s talk.”

 

Yixing hurried to grab his glass, inhaling the sweet scent of the wine. He winced as he set his bandaged foot on the floor.

 

Junmyeon turned, his brows creased with concern.

 

“I’m fine,” Yixing said before he could comment, smiling as he took a step. The prince did not look convinced but Yixing was afraid he would offer him his arm. He was not sure his heart could handle the proximity.

 

The floor was cold against his bare feet as Junmyeon led him through a maze of corridors, none of which he recognized to emerge into the same library that he had been spending so much time in.

 

But Junmyeon did not stop there.

 

He stepped up to a shelf, tugging a book off swiftly and Yixing jumped when the shelf slid back to reveal a doorway.

 

“I have a private collection that may give you more insight.”

Yixing’s mouth was agape as he entered, the prince walking around to light the oil lamps.

 

Every lamp lit revealed a painting on the wall.

 

One was obviously of Bada, with the white castle by the sea but there were more, of Olda, the ice kingdom, of Seong and Chilyo.

 

But what surprised Yixing the most was that Junmyeon had paintings of the old kingdoms, the ones that had fallen.

 

Keurimjeo, Modak and Himdeul were all depicted on large canvases, painted with glowing jewel toned colours that shone in the lamps’ dim light. Yixing could not help but gawk at the paintings, so lifelike and beautiful that he could felt as if he could reach out and step into the scene.

 

“They are beautiful, aren’t they?” Junmyeon asked and Yixing nodded, stopping before the one he assumed was Chilyo.

 

But there was something different about it.

 

The castle was not quite so worn, the colour of the forest not so dull and there were flowers, blooming on the fields that spread out before the castle, so colourful and vibrant that they almost hurt his eyes.

 

“This isn’t-. Is this my kingdom?” he asked, turning around to look at Junmyeon.

 

Junmyeon inclined his head a little, his smile sad.

 

“Yes. It is. Before the curses and the poison.”

 

Yixing’s lips twisted and downturned. He had never seen flowers of the color that was painted in the painting before. He had only seen the dead ones.

 

Any flower that tried to bloom would die immediately, their stalks turning brown and dry, their leaves shriveling up and falling off. There was nothing quite so brilliantly coloured, nor were there streams as beautifully blue as the one in the painting.

 

“But that is why you are here, isn’t it, Prince Yixing? To seek the giving tree?”

 

The soft thud on the table startled him and Yixing looked up to see Junmyeon turning the pages of a book so large he could not imagine how he could have lifted it from the shelves without help.

 

He hurried over, eyes widening as he took in the softly glowing pages, the pictures painted in beautiful colours.

 

“This book contains everything that we know about the giving tree. How it was formed and its function to us. It details everything that happened all the way up till the curse.”

 

Right in the center of the page, was a picture of the tree, painted with the same symbols that Yixing had once traced over with his fingers as a child, that he had pored over in his history books, hoping to find something that could aid him in discovering its location.

 

“Do you know where it is?” he asked, touching the page gently. Hope was blooming to life in his chest, the tiniest flicker of a flame. That flame wavered and went out when Junmyeon shook his head.

 

“There is a saying that the closer you get to the tree, the stronger and more unpredictable your magic becomes. That you can trace the tree’s magical energy across the lands and use it to find the tree.”

 

“But how?”

 

Yixing wracked his mind for anything in his lessons that might have said anything about powers that could trace magical energy but came up blank.

 

His kingdom’s gift was healing, Bada’s was water. Olda had frost and Seong, storms.

 

Nothing even remotely close to energy or visions.

 

 Junmyeon shrugged, turning the page. His shoulder bumped against Yixing’s as he did and Yixing moved away, his cheeks warming.

 

They were standing shoulder to shoulder, by the table and Junmyeon radiated heat, very welcome in the drafty room.

 

“Are you cold, Yixing?” There was a hint of amusement in Junmyeon’s tone when he looked up and Yixing backed away, chewing his lip.

 

“I-. It’s rather drafty in here, isn’t it?” he stuttered and Junmyeon reached down, grabbing a blanket that he had not seen from a chair and draping it over his shoulders.

 

The gesture was somehow made more intimate by the fact that the room was dim and they were standing so close he could hear him breathe.

 

“You should have said so,” Junmyeon chided before moving out of his space.

 

His hand brushed against Yixing’s glove and Yixing flinched almost violently, yanking his hand away to cradle it against his chest.

 

The sudden movement startled Junmyeon and Yixing wanted hit himself at the hurt look that flitted across Junmyeon’s face.

 

“Wait-.”

 

A knock on the closed door silenced the words from Yixing’s lips.

 

Junmyeon walked to the shelves, turning his back on Yixing to move a book and the door slid open to reveal Chanyeol standing in the doorway, cradling Yixing’s little pigeon.

 

“Hello,” he said jovially, oblivious to the tension in the room.

 

“This little fella just returned with a letter for you.”

 

 The pigeon squawked, flying out of Chanyeol’s hands to perch onto Yixing’s wrist. It preened as Yixing strokes a hand down its back, loosening the ties that tied the parchment to its ankle.

 

“It must be my parents,” he murmured, Junmyeon momentarily forgotten.

 

With the bird still on his wrist, he attempted to spread out the parchment onto the table without disturbing it.

 

The first thing his eyes lit upon was the sentence; Baekhyun has awakened.

 

He gasped, dread and relief filling his chest and Junmyeon looked up from fiddling with his book’s ribbon bookmark in surprise.

 

“Do they have good news?” he asked and Yixing nodded, releasing the scroll.

 

He set the pigeon on his shoulder and unfurled the letter once more, his heart thumping wildly in his chest as he read.

 

Baekhyun has awakened. And the first person he asked for was you.

 

We told him exactly what you asked us to but we don’t know how much he managed to process. His body is so very weak and he must relearn everything.

 

We’re doing everything we can to help him, Yixing. But he would love to hear from you.

 

Do write soon, son.

 

Baekhyun would do well to hear from you.

 

Signed,

Father

 

Yixing exhaled, a weight having lifted off his chest and settled into his shoulders at the same time.

 

Baekhyun was alive.

 

Weak, but alive.

 

And he had asked for him.

 

The guilt clawed at his throat as he rolled up the letter without reading the rest, retying the ribbon with trembling fingers.

 

He could not write back.

 

If Baekhyun knew of what he was doing, what he was doing for him, he would insist on joining him.

 

That was Baekhyun. He would jump head first into danger without ever thinking of the consequences and Yixing could not live knowing that the journey ahead would be long and possibly dangerous.

 

He could not fail Baekhyun again.

 

Junmyeon was watching his face as he reached for the glass that he had set down on the table, draining the rest of the wine.

 

“Good news?”

 

Yixing hesitated for a beat, before nodding. This was good news. Baekhyun being alive was good news.

 

“Is it about someone special?” The prince’s tone was careful, wary and Yixing looked down at the paper, chewing his lower lip.

 

“Yeah,” he breathed, “he was my best friend.”

 

 

Chapter Text

The pain was fire in his veins. His cells turned to dust, his blood to water.

 

He thought he was burning from the inside out.

 

Baekhyun screamed and screamed until his throat was raw and he no longer had a voice.

 

He remembered panicked eyes, his knees striking the floor and a wash of relief, struggling to combat the agony that was eating him away inside.

 

For a few moments, his heart stopped beating.

 

The world turned from colour to monochrome before his eyes and his vision blurred when he struck his head on the ground, hard enough for tears to spring up.

 

Yixing was crying, screaming his name, his fingers gripping his hand so tightly that Baekhyun was sure they would leave bruises.

 

He wanted to speak, to tell him it was alright. That it was not his fault.

 

But his voice would not work.

 

And then all he knew was pain.

 

It was a vicious cycle, coming to consciousness and fading out before anyone noticed.

 

His heart stopped and restarted multiple times.

 

Thousands of his cells were dying and healing all at once, his nerve endings lighting up on fire. The pain was excruciating but he could not scream, could not beg for Yixing to let go of his hand, to him go.

 

He wanted to die.

 

At some point, he would have welcomed death with open arms.

 

But his cells finally stabilized, his heart finally finding a steady beat.

 

When he tried to open his eyes the first few days, he had to shut them again.

 

The world was too bright, painfully so.

 

So Baekhyun kept his eyes shut, almost feigning sleep. His body was lulled to sleep for weeks on end until finally, finally, he could open his eyes.

 

All he could see, was white.

 

Not the blinding white he had seen the first day when his heart had begun to beat steadily again, but just paper white.

 

It was the white of parchment, the white of Yixing’s favourite tunic, the one that made him look like an angel. It was the white of snow when it fell, rarely on Chilyo’s fields and the white of clouds when they got a rare clear day.

 

Baekhyun stared in confusion.

 

His eyes were open, but there was only white.

 

Without sight, all the sounds in the room were exceptionally loud and every clatter, footstep and voice hurt.

 

“He’s awake! Fetch the king! He’s awake!”

 

The shout made him flinched and he jerked away when someone grabbed his hand.

 

He remembered Yixing grabbing his hand, pulling him into the room before he could fall.

 

But he also remembered the pain.

 

He heard frantic breathing, panting, as if someone had run a mile and a voice gasping.

 

“Baekhyun?”

 

“Yixing?” he asked hopefully. Yixing was safe, he had hurt him but he had not meant to. Yixing knew how to take care of him and take those loud noises away.

 

“I’m not Yixing, little one. I’m his father.”

 

Baekhyun panicked when someone else took his hand. It was big and rough and it was not Yixing.

 

“Yixing. I want Yixing,” he gasped, his breathing coming out shaky. His hands trembled and he snatched them out of the man’s grip.

 

He was not Yixing.

 

“Yixing’s not here. He’s on a diplomatic trip and won’t be back for a while,” the voice tried to soothe him, as if he was a frightened animal.

 

Baekhyun balked.

 

He wanted Yixing.

 

“I can’t- why is everything white?” he asked feebly, “could you blow out the lamps please?”

 

Somehow, he could sense the king’s incredulity before he spoke.

 

“The lamps are unlit, Baekhyun. The room is dark as night.”

 

Someone moved to his side and Baekhyun flinched away, his blood running cold.

 

“What did you say?” he whispered, losing all sense of propriety, his fingers balling up the fabric of the bedcovers.

 

“Look at his eyes, Your Majesty. And his hair.”

 

“Baekhyun, look towards me.”

 

Panic was slowly stealing into Baekhyun’s heart as he turned, frantic. There was no face, only a voice guiding him.

 

“Where are you?” he cried, his body beginning to tremble.

 

“I’m right here.”

 

The voice came from his left but when Baekhyun turned, there was nothing but white light.

 

“Why can’t I see you?” His voice pitched higher, terror bleeding into his tone as he gripped the covers, his heart pounding.

 

He knew the answer in his heart but he could not accept it.

 

“Baekhyun.”

 

It was just his name but the finality in it made Baekhyun’s heart race.

 

This could not be happening.

 

“No,” he whispered, “no, no!”

 

Someone reached for him and he screamed, lurching away.

 

“Don’t touch me! What did he do to me!”

 

“It was an accident.”

 

“Where is he? Where’s Yixing?” Baekhyun did not know he was crying until he felt the dampness on his cheeks. He sobbed, pressing his hands to his face.

 

He was blind.

 

Baekhyun cried himself to sleep, much to the dismay and chagrin of the doctors and the king.

 

They left him alone after he would not respond to any questions.

 

He was shaken awake gently a little while later by the queen herself, bearing a tray that rattled as she set it down.

 

“Who goes there?” Baekhyun asked, his body stiffening. His eyes were sore, his tears dry and he felt hollow inside, as if someone had taken a spoon and carved his innards out.

 

“I’m the queen,” a female voice said, gentle.

 

Baekhyun pushed himself into a seating position, trailing his fingers over the mattress until he touched wood.

 

“I’ve brought you soup,” the queen said and he could feel her fingers hovering near his.

 

It was a strange sensation, one that made his skin prickle and the urge to burst in to tears once more rise up in his chest.

 

“Where’s Yixing?” he asked in reply.

 

He did not want soup. He wanted his best friend to come back, to explain to him what had happened and to tell him that everything was going to be okay.

 

“He’s gone on a diplomatic trip spanning three kingdoms. He’ll be gone for at least three years.”

 

It was as if someone had doused a bucket of cold water over his head.

 

Baekhyun sat there in disbelief.

 

Yixing was… gone?

 

He had hurt him and fled like a coward. That sounded nothing like the Yixing he knew.

 

What had changed?

 

He sucked in a sharp breath, his memories rushing back to him in a tidal wave.

 

Before he had climbed the tree, Yixing had shut him out. He had refused to see him, no matter how much Baekhyun begged and pleaded.

 

Could it be-?

 

Baekhyun bit down hard on his lip.

 

Could Yixing have found out?

 

But he had been so discreet. So careful to keep the truth hidden away.

 

Baekhyun swallowed hard, his fingers squeezing around the covers so hard that he nearly tore them.

 

That must be it.

 

Yixing would never leave him otherwise.

 

Getting out of bed alone while blind was a terrible idea, one that Baekhyun learnt the hard way. He had no idea which room he was in, let alone which hallway and where in the castle.

 

But he swung his leg over the bed, trailing his hands over the nightstand and then the wall. The wallpaper was rough and bumpy under his fingertips as he walked unsteadily, following the wall to the doorway.

 

He could hear footsteps coming down the hall as he stepped out of the room, his head swinging round in an attempt to see who it was.

 

But it was futile.

 

The white before him was blank and unyielding and he truly could not see.

 

“Sir Baekhyun.” it was a servant’s voice, meek and quiet. “The king had orders that you were not to be left unattended. Is there anywhere you wish to go?”

 

Baekhyun tensed, swallowing down the ball of tears that had risen up in his throat as his fingers tightened around the doorjamb.

 

“Yixing’s chambers,” he answered, fighting the urge to break down into a puddle on the floor.

 

The servant must have nodded before realizing that Baekhyun could not see her for she took an exceptionally long time to answer.


“May I escort you, milord?”

 

Reluctantly, Baekhyun held out his hand.

 

“Keep me against the wall,” he instructed. With time, he hoped to be able to find his way around.

 

It took him weeks when the doctors said it should have taken months to be able to navigate the world around him. His other senses sharpened without his sight and Baekhyun relied heavily on all of his other senses to guide him.

 

His hearing became extraordinary, being able to tell apart people from their breathing patterns and footsteps and he could scent like a bloodhound.

 

The physicians suggested that when Yixing’s powers could not heal him, they enhanced his other senses just to compensate for the loss. For which Baekhyun was grateful.

 

He trained hard, harder than he ever worked for anything in his life, for he had nothing else in the world.

 

When he met Yixing, his world had tunneled down to a single person and now Yixing was gone. He had left him behind, injured and vulnerable to do his kingly duties.

 

Baekhyun could not deny the bitterness, nor could he bury his feelings into sand and pretend that he had never had them. He wanted Yixing and his heart still yearned for him, even when a part of his mind hated him for what he had done to him.

 

So he worked with all of the healers that the king summoned for him, from all over the lands.

 

He learnt to fight with a sword, a practice that he had only taken up casually at Yixing’s wish, shoot with a bow just by listening to the winds and echoes of sound.

 

The physicians marveled at him, as much as they treated him with pity.

 

“Look at him. He is better than even some of the sighted archers.”

 

Baekhyun heard them speaking, even when they were a good few feet away. He tuned them out, turning his attention back to the scraping of the target board as the attendants moved it further for him.

 

He whistled, chewing his lip as the sound echoed through the air, calculating the distance by the echoes.

 

Baekhyun lifted his bow, drawing the bowstring back.

 

The physicians had fallen into blessed silence and all he could hear was the gentle wind and his bowstring humming.

 

He cocked his head, moistening his lips.

 

Piece of cake.

 

The arrow flew, straight and true and Baekhyun’s lips curled when he heard the satisfying thud when the arrowhead buried itself into the heart of the target.

 

“It’s a pity he’s not interested in joining the king’s guard. He would make an excellent addition.”

 

“Oh please. With that hair and the eyes? He’d scare off half the enemies before they’d even come close,” one scoffed, a little louder than he had intended.

 

Baekhyun rolled his eyes when he tuned back into the physicians’ conversation, reaching for another arrow in his quiver. His fingers met soft fletching and he notched the arrow, letting it fly, smiling to himself when the physicians gasped in shock.

 

He heard the wood splitting as his second arrow sliced straight through the first, cleaving it neatly into half.

 

“You should speak quietly, if you don’t want people to hear you,” he called as he unslung his quiver. A servant materialized at his side to offer him refreshment but Baekhyun waved them off.

 

The physicians’ fear amused him.

 

He turned on his heels, the boots crunching on the gravel of the training grounds heavily.

 

The world was too loud sometimes, with his enhanced hearing.

 

He could hear the servants making beds, the pots and pans clattering in the kitchen when he passed them. Some of the servants were afraid of him, he knew, because of his silver eyes and silver hair.

 

The king had offered him his own chambers but Baekhyun had insisted on staying in Yixing’s. His friend, if Baekhyun could even still call him that, surely would not mind and he knew its layout best.

 

Shrugging off his jacket, Baekhyun dodged around the four poster’s long pillar and flopped onto the bed.

 

It had been difficult at first.

 

He had slammed into that stupid pole more times than he could count and he was sure he had a permanent bruise on his knee to prove it.

 

Nothing in the room was moved or changed without his permission and Baekhyun felt like a prince, most days.

 

The king and queen had been nothing but kind to him, offering him rooms and gifts and the training he wanted in order to live more comfortably with his disability. It was a peace offering on their part, on Yixing’s behalf.

 

But Baekhyun still stewed. Yixing’s abrupt departure had hurt him more than he had realised, when he found himself waking up after a nightmare and obliterating a lamp.

 

The servants had found him curled up in a ball, trembling, shards of stained glass pierced in his flesh and blood all over the floor.

 

That was the first time Baekhyun realised that he could feel something more.

 

It was the strangest feeling, like a tugging in his gut. It had felt like sparks and heat from a fire but also so cold that he thought he had been doused in cold water. He had felt it once before, when Yixing grabbed him and pulled him out of the window, like a snake injecting venom into his flesh.

 

Was this Yixing’s magic?

 

Baekhyun closed his eyes, the world going black around him.

 

It was easier to focus when his world was not completely white all the time.

 

He could feel the magic sizzling as he reached for it, a glowing cord in his mind that he reached out to tug.

 

It had felt like Yixing’s magic at first but the more he fiddled with it, tapping into it, the more foreign it became. Sometimes he could swear he heard the ocean singing, other times, the wind whispering. He felt the douse of ice water and the heat of flames. His skin prickled as if charged with electricity and shadows gathered beneath his lids.

 

Baekhyun rummaged through Yixing’s books, turning the pages until he found the one book with the symbols of the kingdoms engraved onto them.  Yixing’s father had taught him what they all meant.

 

He mouthed the names to himself as he toyed with the magic.

 

It only ever pointed in one direction and Baekhyun knew it was not north. He had asked.

 

Magic was something only ever bestowed upon royalty and Baekhyun was not noble. He was a peasant boy, born in the village and somehow fortunate enough to win the friendship of a prince.

 

But Baekhyun could feeling the magic thrumming away, deep within him, both foreign and familiar. He was drawn to it, itched time follow the trail.

 

He remembered his parents’ reaction when he had displayed magic, completely by accident.

 

“Baekhyun.” The fear leeching through his mother’s voice stung.

 

“What do you see, Mother?” he asked instead.

 

It was such an irony.

 

The man who could not see could weave illusions. Illusions that looked so real.

 

“I see you. As you were before,” her voice was trembling and Baekhyun jolted a little.

 

He had merely been toying with the magic that he felt brim to the surface.

 

Yixing’s magic had turned his eyes white and his hair silver, completely irreversible and he had wondered briefly if he could harness the magic that welled inside him.

 

“What is this sorcery, Baekhyun?” His father had been less kind, his terror translating into anger.

 

“I can wield magic,” he said softly. His fingers tingled.

 

He could not see what his magic looked like but he could feel it, little sparks fizzing out on his skin.

 

“Magic is reserved for the royals, Baekhyun,” his father’s voice wavered and Baekhyun let the magic slip from his fingers like water.

 

His mother’s gasp told him what he already knew, that the illusion was gone.

 

“What did he do to you?” The horror in his father’s tone stung.

 

“Altered my body’s genetic make up, according to the palace physicians,” Baekhyun said frostily.

 

Peasants were not meant to wield magic, not in the way the royals did. Magic was something born into, not created.

 

Baekhyun was the only anomaly. He had survived Yixing’s killing hand and Yixing’s healing powers combined to modify his body such that magic flowed through his veins.

 

Perhaps the magic was Yixing’s way of overcompensating, as he usually did when he annoyed Baekhyun.

 

“You’re a freak.” He was jolted out of his thoughts by his father’s words.

 

“Beom-.”

 

“Did we not warn you away from the prince? Why couldn’t you have been more like your brother? Why did you associate yourself with such people? Now look at you. Blind and useless.”

 

Baekhyun flinched.

 

He was used to being compared to his brother. Baekbeom was their family’s pride and joy. He took up trade and travelled between Seong, Bada and Chilyo to bring money back to the family.

 

But Baekhyun was educated at the castle, at Yixing’s insistence, of history and all sorts of subjects that his parents had no patience for.

 

What use was history and language in making a living as a merchant?

 

But the poison in his father’s hurt. It bit into him, like a snake’s venom, piercing and sharp.

 

He despised the pity he felt in people’s gazes but hearing this from his own family was like twisting a knife in his gut even further.

 

“Put away the magic, Baekhyun. Come back home. Perhaps Baekbeom will take you on his next expedition and you can work with him,” his mother pleaded but before Baekhyun could answer, his father scoffed.

 

“Work with him? He’s as blind as a bat and twice as useless! I don’t want him in this house. I don’t want a freak mooching off our son’s hard earned money.”

 

A freak.

 

Baekhyun’s heart folded in onto itself.

 

A freak was all he was. Not even a son.

 

“Beomseok-.”

 

“You are no longer my son, Baekhyun. Not unless you can dig that magic out of your veins and come back with sight. We have warned you time and again that the royals are not to be touched. And now here you are. Get out of my house.”

 

Baekhyun’s already cracked heart snapped into two and the pain washed over him like a tidal wave.

 

He bit back the tears, squeezing his fists so hard that his nails cut into his flesh, leaving bloody crescents behind.

 

His mother was crying, screaming something incoherent as rough hands grabbed him.

 

Baekhyun was too numb to fight as he was practically tossed out of the house, landing harshly in the mud.

 

Mud splattered all over his clothes and face and he could taste it on his tongue.

 

There were people watching, pointing and speaking. They dared not laugh of course.

 

Baekhyun was under the protection of the royal family.

 

The air was suddenly too thin and it was too hard to draw breath. The whiteness before him was suddenly too empty, isolating.

 

Baekhyun pressed a dirtied hand to his mouth, choking on the sobs that heaved out as he curled up into a ball in the mud, shaking violently.

 

The screams pierced his eardrums and the footsteps pounding on the ground were deafening as a group of palace guards crowded around him, forcing the crowd that formed, back.

 

But Baekhyun’s world was muted, condensed into a little bubble as he was helped to his feet.

 

Someone spoke to him, he was sure, but he did not hear the words.

 

“Catch him, catch him!”

 

Baekhyun welcomed the darkness that swallowed him with open arms.

 

“Sir? Do you require anything?”

 

Baekhyun blinked, turning his head to face the maid who had spoken. He forced down a grimace at her tiny gasp and shook his head.

 

“I’m fine, thank you.”

 

The magic flickering at his fingertips died and he listened as her footsteps grew softer and softer, fading away into the distance.

 

He had a hunch, a pretty good idea of where the magic in his gut was pulling him.

 

The king had told him that Yixing would be in Bada for about a year, before traveling to Seong and then Olda. If he found anything worthwhile, he would stay away a little longer in search for the tree.

 

That mysterious tree, the one blessed all royals with their magic.

 

Yixing had an idea that something might have happened to it, causing their gifts to turn to curses and he was searching for it.

 

If it was true that all magic in the land came from the tree, perhaps then Baekhyun’s own magic could lead him there.

 

His powers were unheard of in all of the lands.

 

Baekhyun would know. He scoured book after book searching for any mention of his magic after his father had thrown him out.

 

Keeping mum about his situation had proved difficult and the king and queen had found out pretty quickly.

 

They had treated him like one of their own ever since, their kindness greatly outweighing his father’s.

 

Baekhyun could hear the king coming down the hallway, from the way his boot heels thudded on the carpet.

 

He smiled to himself, spreading out a map of Elyxion just as a knock came from the door.

 

“May I come in?”

 

“Of course, Your Majesty,” Baekhyun bowed and his skin prickled as he listened to the footsteps coming closer next to him.

 

The king heaved a sigh when he saw what Baekhyun was looking at and without seeing him, Baekhyun could tell that he was running his fingers through his hair.

 

“This gives me so much déjà vu,” he murmured and Baekhyun laughed, flattening his palms onto the table.

 

He traced his finger across the map, feeling the grooves of where a quill had marked Yixing’s path, from Chilyo out to Bada.

 

“You want to find him, don’t you?”

 

The king said when he did not speak, his body radiating heat.

 

Baekhyun could feel his magic, pulsing inside him but the pull of the tree was stronger.

 

“No, Your Majesty. I feel this pull, from inside. It is magic stronger than yours, than Yixing’s. It may be the tree speaking to me. I must seek it out.”

 

He could feel the king’s doubt even before he opened his mouth.

 

“Are you sure, Baekhyun? The tree has never been seen. And if there are roads that lead to it, no doubt they will be dangerous. I promised Yixing to keep you out of danger.”

 

Baekhyun scoffed before he could help himself, fingers clenching around the edges of the map so hard the parchment crinkled.

 

“Forgive me, Your Majesty. But I am no longer a child. I will turn eighteen in six months. If I had any childhood left, my father took that away from me.”

 

The king winced and his hand rested gently in Baekhyun’s shoulder.

 

“I would prefer it if you waited till you were eighteen, my boy. Yixing was eighteen when we allowed him to start his trip. I must insist you do the same.”

 

Baekhyun opened his mouth to protest but the fingers on his shoulder tightened.

 

“Indulge me, Baekhyun. I made a promise and Yixing would be upset if he knew I’m even considering this at all. It was his specific instruction that I keep you safe.”

 

Baekhyun chuckled bitterly.

 

“He should have stayed to keep me safe himself.”

 

He felt the King’s eyes upon him, burning with sympathy and sorrow.

 

“He should have.”

 

The king squeezed his shoulder and a little trickle of shame filtered into Baekhyun.

 

“I will arrange for tutors and trainers. You will need more than archery to keep you alive on your trip. Value this time, Baekhyun. You are not yet of age. The time of responsibilities have not yet come.”

 

Baekhyun bowed his head reluctantly, acquiescing.

 

What were six months to wait? If his calculations were correct, Yixing still had four months left in Bada even if he left on his eighteenth birthday.

 

“Perhaps you should write to him. He would love to hear from you.”

 

The sentence had Baekhyun bristling. He was still angry at Yixing, more for the fact that he had left him than having almost killed him.

 

“I will think about it,” he replied instead, sure that the king could feel how his muscles stiffened at the mere mention of Yixing.

 

The king’s eyes burned even though he could not see them.

 

“You have every right to be angry, Baekhyun. But don’t let the anger cloud your judgement. He loved you like his own brother.”

 

Those were words that Baekhyun mused over as he walked along the streets of the market.

 

Children ran when they saw him, his white eyes and hair too unsettling for young eyes to handle and he could hear the whispers of the young men, the same people who excluded him when they were children, on the sidelines.

 

Spitefully, Baekhyun pulled on the magic buzzing just under his skin.

 

He laughed to himself when he heard a dog barking and the young men running, footsteps a jumble of noise to his ears, his illusion turning to sparks in thin air.

 

Who knew all it took to scare them would be a dog going berserk at them?

 

Baekhyun continued on his way, tilting his head side to side to catch the noise of the marketplace, determining his own location.

 

The fish monger’s hands shook when he handed him coins and Baekhyun was about to make some remark about his cowardice when the sound of hoof beats distracted him.

 

He stepped away from the stall, clutching his roast fish in his hands.

 

The hoof beats were coupled with cart wheels rolling over stone. He had spent a good week listening to the horse carts rolling in so he could tell when his favourite traders were back and they were not familiar to him

 

New traders, perhaps?

 

Baekhyun turned his back on the horses, ready to return to the castle when a voice he never thought he would hear again rang out in his ears.

 

“Little brother.”

 

He spun back around, mouth agape.

 

“Baekbeom?” he asked, hardly daring to believe his ears.

 

“You’ve changed,” came the reply and Baekhyun shifted when footsteps came towards him. He stretched out his hand and sucked in a sharp breath when the man took it.

 

“Look at you. You’ve grown up,” his brother said, so fondly that Baekhyun’s heart ached.

 

“Father disowned me,” he blurted out, still stunned. He thought that his father would have forbidden his brother to speak to him.

 

“I know,” a hand cupped his cheek and Baekhyun leaned into it almost instinctively. Baekbeom had been gone for so long, traversing the high seas and wandering between Seong and Bada to procure precious goods that Baekhyun could barely remember the last time he had seen him.

 

“I got Mother’s letters.”

 

Baekhyun bowed his head, chewing his lip.

 

“I should probably go,” he said softly, “I know Father forbade you to speak to me.”

 

“Why would you go? Baekhyun, no matter what Father says. You’re still my brother.”

 

Arms wrapped around him and Baekhyun gasped, burying his face into his brother’s shoulder. He squeezed him hard, forcing down a choked sob. He had missed him so much.

 

“I’m sorry I wasn’t here to help you through all this,” Baekbeom murmured into his ear, “I should have come home more often.”

 

They wandered through the market together after Baekbeom had instructed his men on what to do with the new cargo he had brought back, telling each other stories that they had missed out on while Baekbeom was away.

 

Baekhyun smelled the rain before it came, sharp and unpleasant.

 

He grabbed his brother’s arm, hustling him off to hide under a tiny umbrella just before the heavens opened up, rain spilling down from the clouds to soak the land.

 

“Oh, we got lucky,” Baekbeom said with a smile and Baekhyun laughed.

 

“I smelled the rain, hyung. Yixing’s powers enhanced the rest of my senses when he could not fix my eyes.”

 

He could feel his brother’s amazement as he turned around to face the stall owner whose stall they had intruded upon.

 

“Two mugs of the chocolate please.”

 

A coin purse rustled but Baekhyun was faster, dropping two coins into the owner’s hand before his brother could even get his purse out.

 

“My treat,” he stuck out his tongue and scowled when his hair was ruffled.

 

“You’re a brat,” his brother said fondly. Baekhyun was mildly relieved that he did not ask where the money came from, accepting the mugs of chocolate with ease.

 

“You know if you told me you liked chocolate so much I could have brought some back from Seong,” Baekbeom said as they stood under the umbrella, waiting for the rain to ease up enough to walk home.

 

“I did not know when you were coming home, hyung. Besides, with everything happening, the last thing on my mind is chocolate,” Baekhyun answered, inhaling the sweet, thick scent of the chocolate in his mug.

 

Baekbeom’s uncertainty hit him like a truck. He did not know when he had become so attuned to emotions but he could sense it when his brother grasped his elbow.

 

“I brought you something from Seong. But now I’m not sure if it was a foolish buy,” he said slowly and Baekhyun whirled around, nearly spilling his drink. He was an excited puppy when it came to gifts and his brother knew it. Or perhaps he used to know.

 

“I want it,” he pouted immediately and Baekbeom laughed, though the uncertainty still clung to his tone.

 

“You must wait till we get you to the castle. I don’t think you can open it here.”

 

Baekhyun tilted his head, licking at the chocolate in his mug as he sniffed the air.

 

“Are you not going home to see Mother and Father?”

 

Baekbeom stiffened and sighed.

 

“I will. But Father would be angry if he knew I was seen speaking to you. I’d like to put off that confrontation for a while.”

 

Baekhyun bowed his head, the guilt trickling through his body like the rain dripping off the umbrella. He shook it off, forcing it to the back of his mind as footsteps echoed past the sound of raindrops falling onto the ground.

 

“Do you need a carriage, sir?”

 

It was a castle guard.

 

Baekhyun could hear the leather of his armor squeaking with rainwater. He nodded and the man jogged off.

 

“You have much influence now, don’t you?” Baekbeom asked. Baekhyun could hear the amazement in his tone and his fingers tightened around his mug.

 

“Perks of being friends with the prince. And almost getting killed by said prince,” he replied shortly as the sound of a rolling carriage filled his ears. That guard was swift. He was going to put in a good word for him with the king.

 

“This is-?”

 

“My brother,” Baekhyun said when the guard held out his arm to block Baekbeom’s way, “let him through.”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

The inside of the carriage was plush and luxurious enough that Baekbeom’s mouth fell open. Baekhyun could hear his barely audible gasp when the guards closed the door behind them.

 

“You truly are living in the lap of luxury, Baekhyun. This is velvet! And they hired it just for you?”

 

Baekhyun bowed his head, unsure of how to respond. It came with being friends with a prince, but he was unsure if it was all worth it, when it had taken his sight and all normalcy away from him.

 

It had taken his family away from him.

 

The thought made him clench his fist as the king’s words floated back into his mind.

 

You ought to write him. He would love to hear from you.

 

Why was Yixing not expected to write him? It seemed clear that he had written to his parents but not even a line to Baekhyun.

 

In the month that Baekhyun had awakened, there was not a single letter from Yixing, though the king and queen both tried to placate him by saying he must be busy.

 

He loves you like his own brother.

 

Baekhyun’s heart throbbed and he folded his knees up to his chest just as his brother finished exclaiming over the interior of the carriage and noticed his silence.

 

“Has the prince returned?” Baekbeom asked gently. The news of the Chilyo prince’s departure had been big news and he must have heard it while passing through Bada.

 

Baekhyun shook his head mutely.

 

“He is not expected to return for three years,” he murmured, listening to his brother shuffle over so that they could sit side by side.

 

“Has he written? Sent for you?”

 

It was as if his brother could sense Baekhyun’s inner turmoil.

 

“You should write to him. I’ll help you, Baek.”

 

“He did this to me,” Baekhyun muttered, but it was weak. He did not blame Yixing, not really.

 

But the anger at being left behind, essentially abandoned refused to fade. It was a fresh wound, one that he plucked at relentlessly.

 

“You care for him, Baek. And he did too. It must have been an accident.”

 

Baekbeom was always so level headed, always one to look to the facts that it riled Baekhyun up. He wanted him to be even the slightest bit angry that someone had hurt him, to defend him, instead of deferring like most people did.

 

Everyone told him it was an accident. Even Baekhyun agreed that it was.

 

But it was no excuse for Yixing to turn tail and run with his tail between his legs like a frightened rabbit. He was a prince, an adult. Not a child.

 

“I know that. I just mad that he left.”

 

“Of course you are.”

 

After Baekbeom was done oohing and ahhing over the grandeur of the castle, Baekhyun settled him before his writing desk with a vial of ink and his quill.

 

His mind was whirling with different possibilities as Baekbeom made himself comfortable.

 

“Dear Yixing?”

 

He tried, the quill scratching on the parchment giving him so much anxiety.

 

“You address him by name?”

 

“Scratch that. Dear Yixing hyung.”

 

He could almost hear the face that Baekbeom was making as he scribbled, crossing out his first lines.

 

“How have you been? Wait, no. Are you well? Ah-, hyung. I can’t do this.”

 

Baekhyun folded his knees up to his chest, squeezing his fingers into the flesh of his thighs.

 

“Does it really matter what you say? He’ll be glad to hear from you no matter what,” his brother soothed and Baekhyun rocked himself back and forth on the seat.

 

“I don’t know what to say to him,” he murmured, “it’s been nearly two months since he went away.”

 

There was a knock on the room door before Baekbeom could answer.

 

“Come in,” Baekhyun called and a servant stepped into the room.

 

“Ah, it’s your gift,” Baekbeom said with a smile and Baekhyun took the out given to him.

 

“What is it?” he asked, bouncing up from his seat.

 

Baekbeom laid the thing onto the floor and Baekhyun followed the rustling of his clothes to find him.

 

“I feel foolish for buying this now that I’ve seen how well you manage without sight,” his brother murmured as Baekhyun ran his hands over the corner of the box.

 

Baekhyun paused for a moment.

 

“I will love it either way, hyung. You need not worry.”

 

He liked that Baekbeom made no move to help him as he felt his way across the entire box, the material rough beneath his fingertips.

 

There were patterns of dragons and lightning bolts embossed into the lid and they were lovely to feel, a new kind of stimulation that Baekhyun had not had in a while. A little slip of satin rubbed across his fingers and he grasped onto it, pulling.

 

The lid creaked and Baekhyun inhaled.

 

The box smelled of wood and enamel. He could smell paint and metal wrapped up together.

 

Satin was smooth and slick beneath his fingertips as he stroked along the edges of the box, reveling in the richness of the fabric.

 

His hand brushed against something solid and he closed his hand around a wonderfully ornate handle, full of carvings and patterns and texture.

 

“Oh, hyung.”

 

Even without seeing it, he could tell that it was beautiful, a cane covered in carvings and metal detailing.

 

“What colour is it?” he asked, his fingers dancing down the length of the cane.

 

Some parts of it were smooth to the touch and others, metallic and cold, full of grooves and curves. Sculptures.

 

“Black and silver. They match your hair,” Baekbeom said fondly as he stroked the cane, marveling at the different textures on the single cane.

 

“Here. It’s not just a cane.”

 

Baekhyun let his brother guide his fingers around the ornate handle shaped like a dragon’s head.

 

His thumb pressed against something that felt like the dragon’s tongue and a tingle shot up his fingertips. The cane unfolded, the globe of the handle growing longer, transforming into the hilt of a sword.

 

“What- how? Where did you find this?” Baekhyun gaped, carefully trailing his hand along the flat of the blade.

 

There were etchings all down the blade, lovely symbols that made it so much more interesting to Baekhyun. He looked with his fingers, thus anything with raised patterns or textures were of immense enjoyment to him.

 

“I bought it in Seong after I heard the news. It seemed… so you. But I’m not sure you need it at all, with the way you navigate the world.”

 

“It’s beautiful, hyung.”

 

Baekhyun marvelled.

 

“This is magic. Who would make a sword like this?” he asked softly and Baekbeom shrugged his shoulders before answering.

 

“I don’t know. But I thought it suited you, based on Mother’s descriptions in her letter.”

 

Baekhyun clicked the tongue once more, grinning when a shiver of magic tingled through his fingertips and the sword folded back into a cane.

 

“Thank you, hyung.” He wrapped his arms around his brother in a hug, squeezing him tight.

 

“I love it.”

 

In the wake of his excitement over his present, the letter to Yixing was forgotten, not to be touched for a long while.

 

Chapter Text

Junmyeon made no mention of Yixing’s violent reaction to him touching his glove and Yixing did not bring it up either.

 

His mind was too distracted, both by the news of Baekhyun’s awakening and Junmyeon’s almost scaleless face sitting across from him at the dining table.

 

They had scoured more books than he could count, searching for anything that made any mention of the tree or where it could be found.

 

Junmyeon was mostly convinced that it existed on a separate plane and could only be found by tracking its energy but Yixing was unwilling to believe it.

 

How could anyone find it if there was no power that could track down energy signatures?

 

They searched and read until the words swam before his eyes.

 

“I’m tired,” Junmyeon announced quietly, closing his book and Yixing looked up, almost relieved.

 

“So am I,” he answered, finishing the last of his sentence. His notes were piled up neatly beside him and Junmyeon walked over, setting his own pile on top of Yixing’s.

 

“I may retire to my rooms,” Junmyeon murmured and Yixing straightened, hiding his disappointment well.

 

The prince was very good company.

 

“Of course,” he said softly and Junmyeon’s eyes bored into him as he brushed past, fingers touching his bare hand almost by complete accident.

 

Yixing’s heart accelerated and he struggled to force down the flush that threatened to overtake his face.

 

“I’ll see you at dinner then, Yixing. In my private apartments. Chanyeol will guide you there.”

 

Junmyeon practically breathed into his ear, warm breath skating down his neck and Yixing shivered, nodding. He kept his eyes straight down at the book he held as Junmyeon left the room, leaving the door open behind him.

 

He spent the rest of the day in a daze.

 

It was almost whiplash, how his day had changed from him nearly drowning to being rescued by this mesmerizing prince and having an invitation to a dinner in said prince’s private apartments.

 

When he saw Junmyeon again, the prince’s scales had faded, leaving his face almost completely scaleless, save for two patches on his cheekbones and another on his jawline.

 

His eyes were still as brilliant as ever, one sea foam green and the other the cerulean blue of a clear sky and his gaze pinned Yixing into place when he stepped through the doorway, dressed once more in clothes that Junmyeon had sent to his rooms.

 

The room was dimly lit with only a few oil lamps and a single candle on the very small table.

 

Yixing thought they would be dining at the balcony once more, but Chanyeol had taken him to a completely different set of rooms.

 

“Good evening,” Junmyeon looked up from his book and Yixing felt all the air leave his lungs.

 

If the prince was beautiful in daylight, he was ethereal at nighttime.

 

In the dim light, his scales shimmered, iridescent. He had lined his eyes with kohl and the white shirt he wore was so sheer that Yixing could see more patches of scales shining through.

 

“You’re staring again,” Junmyeon said and Yixing went red, scowling when he heard Chanyeol snickering as he left.

 

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled, pulling out his own chair to sit down, “but I can’t help it.”

 

Junmyeon shook his head, lips curved into a pretty smile.

 

“Truly, Yixing. You are so kind.”

 

“I just tell the truth,” Yixing muttered, picking up his glass which had been poured full of the rosé he had that afternoon.

 

He needed a drink to wash away his embarrassment.

 

“I’m sorry the lights are so dim, but I have bad eyes during this time,” Junmyeon explained and Yixing waved his hand, sipping his rosé probably faster than he should drink.

 

“It’s alright.”

 

After the servants served their dinner, they were left alone to eat.

 

Yixing surveyed the spread in surprise.

 

There were more things that he did not recognize, including several spiky black balls that did not look like they belonged on anyone’s dinner plate.

 

“I heard that Chanyeol has been introducing you to our cuisine,” Junmyeon said conversationally as he reached for the black thing.

 

He lifted the top half of the thing and smiled.

 

“I imagine he has not served this to you quite yet.”

 

Yixing surveyed the yellow flesh sitting in the shell of the creature and shook his head.

 

“This is a sea urchin. Incredibly difficult to find and a delicacy reserved for royalty. Poisonous, unless prepared correctly.”

 

He held out the shell.

 

“Taste?”

 

Yixing eyed it warily and poked his little silver fork into the flesh.

 

It was smooth and creamy and tasted nothing like he had expected. He examined the black shell as Junmyeon watched him in amusement.

 

“It is quite different isn’t it?” Junmyeon asked and Yixing nodded, setting the shell aside in favour of picking at the other food.

 

Junmyeon’s private dining room was quite a bit smaller than the outside one, with a table just big enough to seat four. Yixing imagined that he did not usually entertain guests in private.

 

“Do you have other intentions, coming here?” Junmyeon asked as they ate, the servants popping in periodically to refill their glasses.

 

“I just wanted to learn everything that Bada has to offer. Our kingdom is small and our resources little. I can’t rule if I am ignorant of the world outside my kingdom.”

 

Yixing prodded at his fish, nibbling at the flesh.

 

The candle flickered, casting shadows onto Junmyeon’s white shirt, the sleeves which he had rolled up to his elbows to handle the crab legs.

 

He was surprised that the prince did not wear clothes made of heavier material, as it was night and the winds that rolled off the sea were not warm. They were chilling and bit to his bones.

 

Even the servants did not wear anything much heavier than a shift or a light tunic at night.

 

“That is a very noble cause,” Junmyeon commented and Yixing bowed his head. He busied himself with his food until Junmyeon spoke again, his voice like rich velvet in his ears.

 

“If I wished to learn of Chilyo’s culture, would you teach me?”

 

Yixing looked up to see the other man staring directly at him, swirling his wine in his glass. He looked so much more sophisticated than Yixing could ever hope to be at eighteen that he wilted a little.

 

“Of course. I will do my best.”

 

True to his words, Yixing taught Junmyeon as much of Chilyo’s culture as possible. To him, it was not much.

 

Their clothes were vastly different to Bada’s because of the perpetual gray skies, consisting of heavy cloaks or coats made of velvet for the noblemen and women.

 

Yixing himself had gone to Bada in a tunic a little too thick for the weather and regretted it.

 

“Those boots. You’d overheat if you wore them here,” Junmyeon teased when he saw the boots Yixing had brought with him.

 

The Bada people wore sandals and loose, light fabrics. Because of it, their clothes were far more colourful and bright than anything Yixing had seen in Chilyo.

 

“What is that?” he asked one morning when Junmyeon had walked out to breakfast wrapped in what looked like a massive scarf but thin and sheer.

 

He had it draped neatly around him, like a robe with nothing underneath and a pair of brown breeches.

 

Yixing could not stop staring at his chest as he left the robe open, exposing his entire abdomen.

 

“You’re staring,” Chanyeol snickered and Yixing growled, dropping his head to pull out his own chair as Junmyeon took a seat opposite him, smiling brightly.

 

His scales had faded completely and would not return until the next full moon or when he used his magic, as he had told Yixing one afternoon and Yixing hoped that he would display his power even just once.

 

He could still remember how the waves had molded around him like a cloak and how much power he had exuded.

 

“It’s a kimono,” Junmyeon explained kindly as the servants set bowls of fruit down before them. Chanyeol took breakfast with them, before disappearing to do his business. He would return about mid-afternoon to teach Yixing more on weaponry, after Junmyeon discovered that Yixing was only skilled at archery and nothing else.

 

“Usually worn on top of clothes. But His Highness likes to show off his hard work.”

Chanyeol yelped when an apple flew across the table, Junmyeon’s smile as bright as the sun as he turned back to Yixing, pushing a pot of honey across the table for him to drizzle over his fruit.

 

Yixing laughed gaily as he ate his breakfast.

 

The relationship between the prince and his general was an interesting one and their dynamic was so amusing.

 

As far as he could see, Chanyeol was the only one who was allowed to tease Junmyeon in such a way and not have his body immediately thrown to the sharks.

 

“It’s a hot day,” Junmyeon said, nibbling at his fruit. He took the most delicate bites that Yixing had ever seen and it was oddly endearing the way he would look across the table at him at whomever he was speaking to.

 

“I was wondering-. If it won’t be too much trouble. Could you teach me how to swim one day?” Yixing asked, prodding at his watermelon.

 

Junmyeon’s bi-coloured eyes widened and his lips curved into a grin so radiant that Yixing almost wanted to look away. He was so beautiful, with the sunlight shining onto him from the nearby windows, his white skin practically glowing.

 

“Of course. It would be my pleasure.”

 

Chanyeol muttered something under his breath and without even looking, Junmyeon snatched up a pear from the fruit bowl in front of him and hurled in his direction, his grin widening at Chanyeol’s yelp of pain when the fruit thudded against his head.

 

Junmyeon kept Yixing company most days and often invited him join on the days he had business in town and could not study with him.

 

The people of the towns adored Junmyeon, as Yixing noticed.

 

They flocked to him in waves, until the guards had to keep them at bay. Those were the only times Yixing had ever seen Chanyeol frown as he directed the guards to map out a path.

 

Junmyeon spoke to as many people as he could, listened to their grievances and played with the children.

 

Some of the townsfolk even brought their children out, asking for his blessings.

 

Yixing’s heart practically melted into a marshmallow as he watched Junmyeon take a baby swaddled in cotton sheets and kiss its nose.

 

“Thank you, Your Highness,” the mother murmured when he returned the child.

 

“The people love you,” Yixing commented as they wandered, Chanyeol having dispersed the crowd. The guards hung back, spreading out to give them their privacy as they wandered through the marketplace.

 

It was a different one that Yixing had not explored, on a cliff running along the sea.

 

“I do my best to help them,” Junmyeon said, smiling and nodding at a girl who peeked out from behind her mother’s skirts. She went bright red and scuttled away, disappearing into a crowd of children.

 

“Do your parents visit these places with you? They are still the acting king and queen, aren’t they?”

 

Junmyeon exhaled at the question and shrugged his shoulders, pulling out his coin purse as they passed a stall selling honeyed fruit.

 

“Sometimes they do. But I am of age and will ascend the throne when I turn twenty-three. They leave me mostly to my own devices.”

 

He turned to the vendor, dropping two silver coins into his hands, receiving a stick of pineapple rings in return.

 

Yixing turned just as he pulled a ring off, holding it out to his lips.

 

“Here.”

 

Yixing’s cheeks went red and he took the ring carefully between his teeth, taking a chunk out of it. He expected Junmyeon to hand it over but instead, the prince merely took a bite out of the same ring, humming with pleasure.

 

“Is it good?” he asked and Yixing could only nod, heart hammering in his chest, his mouth full of too sweet pineapple.

 

His mind swam as Junmyeon periodically fed him more pineapple, even going as far as to lick the juice and honey off his fingers when they were done.

 

The honey made his throat ache and Yixing briefly thought about how nice it would be if he could get a drink.

 

As if she had read his mind, the same little girl that Junmyeon had smiled at appeared before them, clutching a coconut stuck with two straws in her hand. Her cheeks were red and ruddy as they stopped, Junmyeon going down on one knee to greet her.

 

“Hello, love,” he said, Yixing fighting the urge to swoon. He crouched down as well, dimpling at the girl.

 

“He has a hole in his face!” she exclaimed and Junmyeon laughed.

 

“He does, doesn’t he? Isn’t it pretty? Is that for him?”

 

He gestured to the coconut in her hands and the girl nodded shyly, biting her lip.

 

“He’s pretty,” she mumbled and Yixing’s cheeks burned when Junmyeon nodded in agreement.

 

“Are you going to give that to him?”

 

The girl chewed her lip and thrust the coconut in Yixing’s direction.

 

“It’s for the both of you,” she said, pointing to the two straws, “to share.”

 

“Ah,” Junmyeon made a sound and Yixing had to fight down a strangled noise.

 

The two straws were placed far too close together and he was not sure he would survive sharing the same space as Junmyeon, literally breathing the same air.

 

“Thank you,” he replied, reaching into his pocket for his purse but Junmyeon was faster.

 

“Here you go,” Junmyeon smiled, touching her nose, “off you go back to your mother now.”

 

They found a bench overlooking the sea and sat down to drink, admiring the sea view.

 

“You should have let me pay,” Yixing murmured when he turned to see Junmyeon looking at him instead of the view.

 

“You’re a guest here. It is only proper,” Junmyeon replied with a sweet smile. He leant over, wrapping his lips around a straw and Yixing’s heart constricted.

 

“Oh, this is good. Come on, try it.”

 

Yixing leaned over and sucked up some of the water. It was sweet and full of flavor and he found himself nodding as he drank, Junmyeon’s eyes curving into crescents as he watched him.

 

His breath hitched when Junmyeon leaned over, taking his straw between his lips.

 

They were so close that their noses almost touched, the bubbling of the coconut water running low the only sound echoing in his ears.

 

Junmyeon giggled, honest to god giggled when he pulled away and Yixing’s heart damn near burst at the sound.

 

“I’ve always found that sound hilarious,” Junmyeon explained when they were finished with the coconut and were heading back to the town square where a carriage was waiting for them.

 

“It’s just so bubbly and funny.”

 

Yixing smiled, ducking his head when their shoulders bumped, Chanyeol reappearing from wherever he had been hiding to open the door to their carriage with a knowing smile.

 

He did not know when he had begun to feel this way, butterflies fluttering away in his stomach whenever he saw Junmyeon.

 

Junmyeon’s hand brushed against his own when they alighted the carriage, back at the castle, his smile warm as he said.

 

“The hour grows late. We ought to sleep early. Chanyeol will have us up early to train tomorrow.”

 

Junmyeon was very adept at hand to hand combat, Yixing realised the next morning, when he demanded that he trained with him, under Chanyeol’s supervision.

 

Yixing himself had been taught to use swords and daggers and all sorts of weapons but he had only shown aptitude in archery. His bow and arrows were his most formidable weapon and perhaps because he had one hand that killed whatever he touched, his parents had not thought it necessary that he spend a lot of time learning hand to hand combat.

 

Junmyeon however, insisted.

 

“Your stance is sloppy,” he remarked as they stood on the training grounds together. It was far too early and Yixing’s mind was still full of clouds as he drew his dagger, stepping out into the fighting stance.

 

It had been far too long since he had held a dagger.

 

“I have a hand that kills. I hardly need to learn hand to hand combat,” Yixing replied, shaking his head.

 

Junmyeon looked good, just like he did every other day. This time, he had chosen a thin cotton tunic that cut an open v down his chest and it was very distracting. Yixing was starting to wonder if he chose his clothes to be distracting on purpose.

 

“Wrong answer.”

 

Junmyeon lunged without warning and Yixing yelped, his mind leaping awake to defend himself. They were fighting with real daggers and any distraction could cause some serious damage.

 

As Junmyeon’s dagger flashed through the air towards him, he kicked out, wincing when his foot collided with his chest.

 

Junmyeon lurched back, only momentarily winded before he was coming at him again, moving so fast that Yixing could barely follow. He blocked a blow with the hilt, swearing at the pain the shot up his wrist and ducked when Junmyeon swung at him.

 

A kick to the ribs sent him stumbling back, gasping and he fought back with renewed fervor, swinging and ducking, aiming at Junmyeon’s weak and unprotected areas.

 

He could hold his own.

 

Almost.

 

Yixing grunted when an elbow collided into his ribs, swinging his arm forward to try and stab his opponent but a hand curled around his wrist, twisting hard enough for him to cry out, his dagger clattering to the ground heavily.

 

Junmyeon kicked him, hard, to the back of his knees and he twisted as he went down, catching Junmyeon’s arm to drag him down with him.

 

The wind knocked out of his lungs when his back collided with the floor, pain exploding through the back of his head hard enough for him to see stars.

 

Junmyeon was crouched over him, his blade pressed dangerously close to his throat, lips twisted with mirth.

 

“Point-.”

 

Yixing did not let him finish before he grabbed his sword arm and slammed his knee upwards, into his abdomen, twisting as he went to get to his feet.

 

Junmyeon swore, loud and his eyes glittered as Yixing ducked out of range of his swinging blade.

 

Yixing leaned down to snatch up his dagger but Junmyeon darting towards him forced him to step back, ducking under his swing.

 

“Not very fair if I don’t have a weapon, is it?” he gasped, lips curling up into a feral grin and Junmyeon snarled, sweat glinting off his exposed chest.

 

Yixing tried to side step when he lunged towards him but a hand caught his wrist, twisting so hard that he thought his hand had popped out of place.

 

He tried to reach back but Junmyeon shoved his arm up, yanking up to the small of his back and Yixing yelled in pain.

 

A leg looped around his ankle and Yixing wanted to trip him but a dagger point pressing against his throat made him freeze in place, his chest heaving from the exertion.

 

“Point,” Junmyeon panted, so close that he could feel his hot breath against the back of his neck.

 

His chest was pressed up against Yixing’s back, heaving up and down and Yixing was suddenly aware of their proximity, his heart tripping when Junmyeon made no move to let him go.

 

“See why you should learn hand to hand now?”

 

Junmyeon whispered into his ear and Yixing huffed, trying to look unaffected even as his heart rate doubled.

 

He yelped when Junmyeon pinned his arm higher up his back, his muscles straining in pain. The pain sent a jolt down to somewhere very inappropriate and Yixing had to grit his teeth, tapping Junmyeon’s thigh with two fingers before he could be discovered.

 

“Yield. I yield.”

 

He stumbled when Junmyeon let him go, turning around to clutch at his arm with a gasp.

 

Junmyeon was somehow even more beautiful, with his hair mussed and damp, his chest shining with sweat and his shirt soaked through.

 

His eyes glittered as if he knew exactly how he was affecting Yixing, as he bent to pick up Yixing’s fallen dagger, holding it out hilt first to him.

 

“Again. We’ll do that again.”

 

Yixing was beaten, sore and exhausted by the time they were finished.

 

Junmyeon was far more skilled than he was and he had been holding back during their first spar. It became apparent the more tired he got.

 

When they switched over to the training foils for some sword fighting, Yixing found himself standing at the point of Junmyeon’s sword, his own nowhere to be found multiple times, to Chanyeol’s amusement.

 

“I hate this so much,” he gasped by the time they were up to their fourth round, Junmyeon striking his sword out of his hand for the nth time.

 

“Here, I’ll swap with Chanyeol.”

 

Junmyeon handed his foil over and the general took up his stance.

 

To Yixing’s surprise, Junmyeon did not move over to the sidelines to take a rest. He moved behind Yixing instead, grabbing his wrist in his hand.

 

Yixing made a sound of surprise when Junmyeon raised his hand for him.

 

“You’re drooping.”

 

His chest was pressing against his back and it was very, very distracting. Yixing heard his heart thumping away even as he tried to focus on keeping his arm up and pointed.

 

Junmyeon nudged his leg with a firm thigh and Yixing had to fight down the urge to keen at the feeling of his muscles rippling against him. Chanyeol was looking at him again, with that knowing glint in his eyes and Yixing had never wanted the ground to swallow him more in that moment.

 

“Straighten up.”

 

Junmyeon’s hand lingered for far too long and Yixing could not help the tiny shiver after he left to go sit down and watch.

 

Chanyeol thrashed him of course, all with a smile, holding him at sword point until Junmyeon declared that they had done enough for the day.

 

“I hate you,” Yixing declared as the servants put away their swords and they returned to the castle for some much-needed refreshments. Junmyeon chuckled and grabbed for him when Yixing pretended to collapse when he nudged him.

 

“I’m sure you do,” he straightened him and Yixing ducked his head when Chanyeol leveled him with a look.

 

Junmyeon stayed true to his words, dragging Yixing out on a day where the sea was particularly calm.

 

The sky was lovely and bright, white clouds floating overhead as they walked down the path to the beach, Junmyeon and Yixing both dressed in extremely short swim wear and nothing else.

 

“Race you!” Junmyeon tossed his towel into Yixing’s face and he barely caught it in time, laughing as he watched Junmyeon race towards the water, plunging in headfirst.

 

Yixing followed at a much milder pace, draping his own towel about his shoulders as Junmyeon dove in and out of the sea, as if showing off before diving down so deep that Yixing felt the tiniest tickle of fear.

 

“I can’t do that,” he mumbled, staring as Junmyeon popped his head out of the water.

 

The sunlight reflected off Junmyeon’s hair, darker now that it was wet and the way he swept it back carelessly made Yixing’s mouth dry.

 

“What are you standing there for? Come inside!” he called.

 

Yixing took a tiny step into the water. His toes were wet and smushing little imprints in the sand.

 

He stood there, hugging his towel as Junmyeon swam up to him, flopping onto the beach.

 

“Hey. You weren’t this shy when you were running into the water yelling for me to get you,” he teased and Yixing’s cheeks went red.

 

He shoved his shoulder lightly.

 

“I was fully clothed then. And- I can’t swim.”

 

“I know you can’t,” Junmyeon said, tilting his head up to smile at him. He grabbed Yixing’s hand and sat up in the sand, tugging the towel off his shoulders.

 

“I’ll teach you.”

 

Yixing yelped in shock as he was yanked forward, until he was in thigh high water. He lunged for Junmyeon’s shoulders, grabbing on as if they were his lifelines.

 

“Don’t do that!” he cried when Junmyeon laughed. There were scales blooming on his cheekbones and jaw, glistening in the sun and Yixing could not help but touch.

 

“You’re using your magic,” Yixing murmured and Junmyeon turned to look at him with soft eyes.

 

He could feel the electricity vibrating in the air between them, made even more volatile by their physical closeness.

 

The waves that had been pushing them around gently stilled, until the patch of sea around them was completely quiet, like a lake.

 

“You’re not afraid,” Junmyeon said even as his eyes glowed brighter and scales crawled up his arms and shoulders.

 

“Why would I be?” Yixing responded, watching the white skin beneath his fingers turn blue. He stroked them curiously and Junmyeon made a soft sound.

 

“Most people are. It isn’t every day you see skin turn to scales.”

 

Junmyeon twisted around, catching Yixing’s waist in his arms so that they were facing each other, Yixing’s hands still clasped onto his shoulders.

 

“You’re the same person, just a little scalier.”

 

Yixing yelped when Junmyeon made to let go, fingers digging into the meat of his shoulders.

 

“Don’t- Don’t let go,” he stammered. His heart pounded in his chest when he looked around him and realised how far from the shore they were.

 

“I won’t,” Junmyeon promised, shifting to hold him to his chest as if he was an infant.

 

“Not until you’re ready.”

 

He winced a little and Yixing squealed when he bobbed in the water.

 

“Am I too heavy?” he asked worriedly, squeezing his grip tighter and Junmyeon shook his head.

 

“Hardly. You weigh almost nothing like this. Maybe loosen your grip a little. I may be covered in scales but there’s flesh underneath.”

 

Though his tone was teasing, Yixing still blushed. Exhaling, he slackened his grip on Junmyeon’s shoulders.

 

“You’ve never been taught to swim, have you?”

 

Junmyeon asked as he shifted Yixing’s weight around. Yixing shook his head.

 

“All the water in our land is too toxic. There’s nowhere that’s clean enough for me to learn.”

 

“Well, you will learn now.”

 

They spent an entire afternoon in the water, until Yixing’s skin was wrinkled like a prune.

 

Junmyeon taught him how to blow bubbles like a fish and how to kick so that he would float. When he was sure that Yixing could handle himself treading water, he began swimming little distances away, encouraging him to dog paddle towards him.

 

“You’re leaving?” Yixing yelped and his legs faltered in their rhythm.

 

Junmyeon caught him, steadying him upright with a smile.

 

“Not far, I promise. Only a little bit. I want you to try and swim towards me.”

 

He dove beneath the surface and re-emerged about three feet away, holding his arms out towards Yixing.

 

Yixing lurched forward, less than gracefully and somehow managed to land himself into Junmyeon’s arms, hands grasping at his shoulders.

 

“That’s good!”

 

Junmyeon beamed and Yixing could not help but smile back.

 

Junmyeon was so radiant in the water, so graceful that Yixing wished he had been taught to swim sooner just so that he could share his joy.

 

When he had gotten tired of paddling around, he managed to make his way up into the beach and collapse at the shoreline, his legs practically jelly.

 

“Tired?” Junmyeon poked his toes and Yixing kicked out, pouting.

 

“Very,” he answered, watching the sunlight glint off the scales on Junmyeon’s back. Junmyeon released his control over the water and little waves began washing over Yixing’s feet.

 

He was almost disappointed as the scales began to fade, patch by patch until all that was left was milky pale skin.

 

“I think your scales are beautiful,” he murmured almost absently and Junmyeon rolled over to look at him.

 

Junmyeon was so ethereal, like a merman lying in the surf. His dark hair dripped water into his eyes and his skin gleamed beneath the golden sun.

 

Yixing reached out, almost by completely instinct and tucked the stray strand of hair behind Junmyeon’s ear.

 

He was gratified to see him blush and roll into the water with a splash, ducking beneath the surface to hide his face.

 

They stayed until the sun began to dip beneath the horizon, painting the sky in all sorts of colours. Blues, oranges and pinks dusted across the clouds and Yixing forgot the cold as he watched the sun flare out its last rays, drenching Junmyeon in golden light as he rose from the sea, water cascading off his body like a waterfall.

 

“You’re staring, again,” Junmyeon’s tone was fond as he strode towards him. Yixing scrambled to his feet, grateful that the setting sun could hide the blush that was surely dusted across his cheeks.

 

Chanyeol was waiting for them, with warm fluffy towels and a bath that sent steam floating into the air.

 

The bathroom smelled of roses and lavender and Yixing hopped in immediately, sighing in relief as the water soothed his puckered skin.

 

“I’m like a prune, Chanyeol,” Yixing commented when the general appeared to hang up his bathrobes and offer him more oils for his skin. He glanced at him curiously when he approached the bath, a sea sponge in hand.

 

“Will you not tend to Junmyeon tonight?”

 

Chanyeol smiled, gesturing for Yixing to turn and Yixing obeyed, a little confused.

 

“His Highness has asked that I bathe you for tonight. He wants me to ensure that your skin is unharmed by all that salt water.”

 

Yixing tipped his head back, relaxing as Chanyeol stroked the sponge along his shoulder, squeezing scented suds out onto his skin.

 

“Pardon my forwardness, Your Highness,” Chanyeol said suddenly after a brief silence, filled only with the sound of the water trickling from his sponge.

 

“But what are your intentions with my prince?”

 

Yixing froze for a moment, his mind stuck onto the fact that Chanyeol had called Junmyeon his prince.

 

“I- I’m sorry. Is there something between- the two of you?” he stuttered, even if his heart sank at the notion. Chanyeol did spend an extortionate amount of time with the prince and he should have known, with Chanyeol appearing wet and smelling of salt before he had met Junmyeon.

 

“I- I didn’t mean to cause any harm, I swear. He’s just- mesmerizing.”

 

Chanyeol sighed, rubbing at Yixing’s shoulder with the sponge a little harder and Yixing’s unease grew.

 

“Chanyeol-.”

 

“There’s nothing between us,” Chanyeol cut him off before he could finish, his eyes burning into the back of his skull. He scrubbed the sponge a little more, over the same patch of skin before moving on.

 

It seemed like he had more to say so Yixing held his tongue, listening to him squeezing suds out over his back before he continued.

 

“We are childhood friends. And he was always too kind. His heart is too big. He gives too much. I’ve always feared that he would give it to the wrong person.”

 

He paused and Yixing gripped the side of the tub, chewing his lip.

 

“So, I must know. Do you intend to pursue him? Will you court him? As princes should?”

 

Yixing was grateful that his back was turned to Chanyeol for his face had turned red and he was fairly sure it was not from the heat in the room.

 

“I- I barely know him,” he answered carefully and tensed when he felt a hand close around his shoulder.

 

“His Highness cares for you. More than he should. He would do anything to see you happy.”

 

Yixing faltered at the admission. He had been certain that Junmyeon was only indulging his whims. He had no experience with courting or wooing, as Baekhyun used to call it and he feared he would not do Junmyeon justice.

 

Still, he tried.

 

He brought flowers home from the markets, in Junmyeon’s favourite colours, reveling in his startled smile of delight and treats, sweet treats.

 

“A gift from the prince to the prince,” the trader smiled when Junmyeon reached for his purse and Junmyeon raised his eyebrows, glancing at Yixing.

 

They were in the market closest to the castle and Yixing had managed to pay off some of the vendors of Junmyeon’s favourite stalls. Junmyeon’s surprise was so endearing that Yixing had to hold back chuckles of his own.

 

“You didn’t have to do that, you know,” Junmyeon said as they walked side by side, sipping his coconut water happily, “I can pay on my own.”

 

“It’s the only way I can make sure you don’t keep paying for me,” Yixing answered cheekily, yelping when Junmyeon nudged him hard with a smile.

 

“You’re very kind,” Junmyeon said and Yixing could only smile back. He was head over heels for this man and it was no longer a joke anymore.

 

From what he had learnt from Baekhyun, Chilyo’s way of courting was gifting some form of jewelry. He had heard from Baekhyun how the baker’s son had won over his lover with a lovely bracelet.

 

So Yixing took to the markets, wandering the streets until he had found a jewelry store.

 

“Buying for a sweetheart, young prince?”

 

The woman manning the stall grinned as he picked up a pearl bracelet, turning it over in his hand.

 

Yixing blushed and the woman seemed to understand.


“Is it a lass or a lad, dear?”

 

“He’s a prince,” Yixing admitted, his stomach swooping at the mere thought of Junmyeon and his brilliant smile. He picked up another bracelet, the centerpiece a lovely mother of pearl.

 

The woman ahhed and winked, causing Yixing’s flush to darken.

 

“Perhaps he would appreciate these a little more then.”

 

She pulled out a box full of silver bracelets, each one with a different colored stone set into differently shaped bezels.

 

Yixing picked up the one that shone the colour of the sea and smiled. It would suit Junmyeon perfectly. He could almost imagine Junmyeon wearing it around his wrist and his heart stuttered.

 

“How much?”

 

On a day where the sky was clear and the sun was setting, they had an early dinner and Yixing managed to convince Junmyeon go out for a walk.

 

Junmyeon’s face was bathed in the golden rays of the sun as they walked along the shoreline, his sandals in hand so that he could feel the water and the sand squishing between his toes. Yixing watched him with a smile, though his heart was hammering away.

 

He slipped a hand into his pocket, fingering the velvet box that the woman had placed the bracelet in, feeling the nerves flutter anew in his belly.

 

“The sky is beautiful, isn’t it?” Junmyeon asked when he returned to his side, gently nudging his shoulder and Yixing nodded, though he was not looking at the sky. He was looking at Junmyeon, who was staring across at the horizon.

 

“Junmyeon,” he called softly as the sun flared out its last rays and his breath hitched when Junmyeon turned to face him, his profile framed in the light of the setting sun.

 

“Hmm?”

 

Yixing steeled his nerves, pulling the box out of his pocket.

 

The first stars were just beginning to twinkle in the sky when he pressed the box into Junmyeon’s hand, the prince looking up at him in confusion.


“What’s this?”

 

Yixing was grateful for the darkness as it hid his blush. He gestured for Junmyeon to open it, which he did, gasping in awe.

 

“This is beautiful, Yixing,” Junmyeon breathed, touching a finger to the blue stone almost reverently.

 

“It matches your eyes,” Yixing murmured. He lifted it out of the box, holding it out for Junmyeon.

 

“It’s- a courting gift. I don’t know how Bada does these things but in my kingdom, we declare our intention to court with gifts of jewelry.”

 

Yixing chewed on his bottom lip, his hand nearly trembling from the anticipation.

 

“May I-?”

 

Junmyeon looked down at the bracelet that Yixing held in his trembling hand and back up to his face. Yixing held his breath, the nerves almost overwhelming.

 

“Of course,” he smiled and Yixing exhaled with a laugh, carefully fastening the bracelet around Junmyeon’s wrist. His fingers tingled where they touched Junmyeon’s skin and his heart felt as if it might burst from his chest.

 

“Have you been courting me all this time?” Junmyeon asked, turning his hand to watch the stone glint in the light of the stars.

 

Yixing blushed and looked down at his feet, shuffling in his sandals.

 

“I’ve wanted to,” he confessed and the brush of Junmyeon’s hand against his made him turn. Junmyeon had stars in his eyes as he tangled his fingers together with his, leaning against his shoulder as they walked.

 

“You’re not the only one,” he said and Yixing squeezed his hand a little, dimpling sweetly.

 

Happiness was sweet, a little butterfly fluttering in his chest as they walked back to the castle, their hands intertwined.

 

 

Chapter Text

His brother was the silent type. It was telling in the way he attacked, doing his best not to make a sound as he lunged.

 

But Baekhyun was not listening for him. He was listening to the sound of his sword slicing through the air, the creak of the leather of his boots as he darted towards him.

 

It was the sword that gave him away, Baekhyun dancing deliberately out of reach a split second before it touched him.

 

He stepped under his guard, jabbing out and grinned when his silver foil made its mark with Baekbeom’s chest, pulling a grunt from him.

 

“You’re too good at this,” Baekbeom grumbled, shaking his head.

 

He was sweating and Baekhyun could hear his panting as they put aside their foils, heading back into the castle for some food and drink.

 

Baekbeom should technically be preparing for his next journey off to Olda. He was traveling much further this time, to fetch some obnoxiously expensive silks that the people from the ice kingdom produced. But he was at the castle, training with Baekhyun.

 

Baekhyun could never quite hide the guilt that shivered through him when his brother came to visit. He knew that Baekbeom had a massive row with their father over his continued visits. But Baekbeom did not seem to care, actively defying his wishes. He was touched that his brother would  choose to spend time helping him train instead of caving to their father’s demands.

 

The king had upheld his word and sent Baekhyun trainers that specializing in combat without sight and Baekhyun blossomed under their training.

 

His cane had become his favourite weapon in his hands once he had gotten used to the weight. He was also taught to read and write, a skill that he despised, but came in useful when he no longer needed to dictate his letters to his brother.

 

Those letters to Yixing were never sent out. But his brother did not know that. Instad, Baekhyun kept them in a neat stack in the drawers beside his bed, tied up in a little package. He wrote a letter whenever the anger got too much to bear, when he awoke from a nightmare full of pain and grief.

 

Yixing lingered everywhere, in his dreams and bedroom. There were reminders of him all throughout the castle and Baekhyun grew more restless as the days passed.

 

His brother had to go back to his crew and begin organizing their next trip across the lands eventually. Without him to distract him from his grief, Baekhyun took to beating the hell out of his training dummies, toying with his magic just to feel them dance on his fingertips.

 

He felt powerful.

 

Discovering that he had more than just illusion at his fingertips was yet again, another complete accident.

 

Baekhyun had been sulking in his bedroom, exhausted from a night full of nightmares that terrorized him. He was sleep deprived and upset that someone else was leaving him. Baekbeom sent news that he would be leaving for his trip a little earlier than expected because of weather conditions.

 

Baekhyun was not sure if he could last the next three months knowing that his brother was gallivanting about on the high seas while he was forced to stay home and train.

 

“I truly wish I could stay longer, Baek, you know that,” Baekbeom ruffled his hair and Baekhyun scowled.

 

“I don’t want you to go.”

 

He knew he sounded like a petulant child but loneliness was a monster that he wanted to keep at bay.

 

“I know. But I must. We need the money and you know Father won’t take a cent of yours.”

 

Baekhyun’s lips folded and he tried to pretend his heart did not ache at the thought. Their father had forbidden Baekbeom from taking any of Baekhyun’s allowance, so generously given to him by the king.

 

“It’s dirty money,” he had said, breaking Baekhyun’s heart.

 

“I want you to stay, hyung. I hate being alone.”

 

Baekhyun folded his arms across his chest, despising the bitter taste on his tongue. He felt the magic come to life, buzzing beneath his skin.

 

“I know, Baek. I promise I won’t be gone long. Just four months. I’ll be back in no time.”

 

“I won’t be here! I’ll have left for Seong.”

 

The thought of missing his brother made him snap. Baekbeom let out a cry of shock just as the magic in his body crested to a peak, exploding out in a flurry.

 

“What did you do?” his brother asked softly and Baekhyun tilted his head.

 

“What happened?”

 

“All the lights went out.”

 

Baekhyun twitched,  getting a handle on the magic raging inside him. He pulled and Baekbeom exhaled.

 

“They’re back on again.”

 

“Huh,” Baekhyun said, snapping his fingers. His brother’s yelp told him that he was successful.

 

“Does magic not need to be trained? How are you able to switch it on and off so easily?”

 

Baekbeom was astounded.

 

Baekhyun shrugged his shoulders.

 

“I don’t know. It’s feels natural to me.” He folded his arms across his chest stiffly, his brow creasing. “Stay, hyung. Then I can accompany you on your trip. Just like mother always wanted.”

 

“I can’t, brother. But I can meet you in Seong. Send me a message when you’ve arrived. I will see you there. Promise.”

 

Baekbeom’s tone betrayed his smile as he reached over, wrapping his arms around Baekhyun. Against his will, Baekhyun softened into the embrace, turning to bury his face into his brother’s chest.

 

The week passed far too quickly for Baekhyun’s liking. He went to see his brother off, much his father’s displeasure. Baekhyun was hardly perturbed. The crowd parted for him and he knew the castle guards were not far behind.

 

The king and queen treated him like their own son and Baekhyun’s safety was a priority. They could not protect him from the disdain however. Baekhyun did his best to ignore the whispers as he passed through the crowd, heading straight for his brother who was loading up his caravan.

 

“Baekhyun.” Baekbeom wrapped his arms around him and Baekhyun sank into him, burying his face into the crook of his brother’s neck.

 

“I’ll see you in Seong. Please write to me,” he murmured and Baekbeom squeezed him tight.

 

“I promise.”

 

The three months dragged past, even when Baekhyun threw himself into his training. He played with his magic at night, when no one was awake. On the day of his birthday, the king summoned him in the early morning.

 

“Happy birthday,” he smiled when Baekhyun rounded the corner, rubbing at his eyes blearily.

 

“Thank you,” Baekhyun murmured sincerely. The king was not alone. He could hear something pawing restlessly at the ground and snorting. The sound made his pulse pick up.

 

“I have a gift for you, Baekhyun. One that will hopefully aid you on your journey.”

 

Baekhyun cocked his head curiously. His hands were taken up and he gasped when they were laid on something smooth and warm that beat steadily beneath his fingertips.

 

“This is Baixian. He’s yours from today on.”

 

Baekhyun’s jaw dropped open. He could smell the horse’s scent, like the hay in the stables and hear its soft whickering as it dipped down to nuzzle at his hair.

 

“I-. This is too much,” he gaped, stroking his fingers along the horse’s shoulder.

 

“You’ll need a horse of your own if you want to chase your journey, Baekhyun. Baixian is one of the most well trained that we could find and he is trained to help the blind.”

 

“What- What does he look like?”

 

Baekhyun ran his hands along Baixian’s neck, up to his muzzle, touching the soft, velvety nose. He laughed when Baixian mouthed at his shirt, sucking on it like a baby.

 

“A grey horse. Dappled on his rump and a black mane.”

 

Baekhyun hummed, wrapping his arms around Baixian’s neck to give him a big hug. He loved horses and had always dreamed of having one of his own.

 

“Thank you,” he murmured, “thank you for… everything.”

 

The king set his hand gently on his arm.

 

“Be careful. You’re as good as our son now, Baekhyun. Remember to write so that we know that you are safe.”

 

“I will,” Baekhyun promised, pressing a kiss to Baixian’s muzzle.

 

-

 

Bada was bigger than he had ever imagined and the sights and sounds were almost overwhelming.

 

Baekhyun was lucky to have Baixian for the horse was able to sense when everything became too much and nudge him to somewhere with more space to breathe. The smell of the sea clung to his nostrils as he walked with Baixian by his side, in search for the harbor.

 

People were still afraid but they were also curious. He found that the people of Bada were far more likely to help than back home as he stopped a passerby for directions.

 

“Where can I find a ship that will take me to Seong?”

 

He felt the man’s gaze sweep him up and down before answering.

 

“If you go straight, you will be there. I must warn you though, young lord. The seas closest to Seong are not for the faint of heart.”

 

“Thank you. I can handle myself.”

 

Baekhyun bowed, ignoring the fact that the man had called him a lord, hustling Baixian along. With the way he was dressed, in full black clothes too thick for Bada weather, anyone with eyes could tell that he was not local.

 

It was easy to fool the captain of the ship into thinking he was noble, with the quality of his clothes and the cane he carried. Baekhyun had learnt how to carry himself and it came in handy now.

 

The captain bowed as he walked across the gangplank, keeping a tight grip onto Baixian’s reins.

 

“I would like passage on your ship,” he said, keeping his eyes in the general direction of the captain’s face, “to Seong.”

 

He could sense the captain’s unease when Baixian came to a stop behind Baekhyun, nuzzling at his shoulder soothingly. Baekhyun could hear the crew murmuring among themselves as the captain stared.

 

“Name your price.”

 

“For you and the horse? Eight gold pieces. I will take no less, milord.”

 

Baekhyun reached into his purse, pulling out ten. He dropped them into the captain’s outstretched hand without a single one missing. Even as he walked away, he could feel the captain’s awe rolling off him in waves.

 

The crew stabled Baixian in the hull and though they offered him a bed, Baekhyun declined, preferring to sleep with Baixian on the bed of hay. He made himself a little pallet out of the hay and the multiple blankets that the crew gave him. Baixian gave him security and he would very much prefer to stay close.

 

“Milord,” he froze midway of reaching for a spicy novel that Baekbeom had dug out from the depths of a bookstore for him, head turning towards the sound.

 

There was a rattling of a tray and liquid sloshing around in a cup.

 

“Our captain thought- he thought you might want some food,” the voice stammered and Baekhyun sat up, rummaging in his coin purse to pull out two silver coins.

 

“Thank you,” he murmured, dropping the coins onto the tray, “what’s your name?”

 

“Taehyung, sir.” Baekhyun heard the tray rattle once more, as if the man was bowing and smiled to himself.

 

“You may leave it,” he said, “thank you, Taehyung.”

 

The tray was settled down onto the floor and the coins scooped up, disappearing into the young man’s pocket.

 

“Wait,” Baekhyun grabbed for his wrist, ignoring Taehyung’s flinch.

 

“I will give you more coin. If you will come down periodically to let me know how far away we are from Seong.”

 

“As you wish, sir.”

 

He listened to the crew man’s footsteps until they had faded into nothing before returning to his book. The king had told him that it would take him four to five days at sea to reach Seong depending on the weather conditions.

 

Ships with the prince’s blessing would have a smoother journey but Baekhyun was not sure which ships would have such a thing. He was not about to bother the prince for a blessing either, not when he knew Yixing was at the castle, possibly having the time of his life.

 

The bitterness ate at him as he thumbed at his book, his brain not registering a single word on the page.

 

He was so close to Yixing now, so close yet so far away.

 

Yixing would hear the news soon enough, whether from his father or from the locals who would surely talk about him. It was not every day that they saw a man with silver eyes and hair.

 

Baekhyun flipped the page in his book, shaking his head when Baixian nuzzled at his hair, chewing a mouthful of it before stretching out beside him.

 

“You’re a good boy,” he murmured, pressed a kiss to Baixian’s neck.

 

Baixian merely snorted, lipping up a mouthful of straw just to chew on.

 

Taehyung continued to be the only one who served Baekhyun. He heard people moving about sometimes, in the cabins above him but Baekhyun preferred to stay downstairs. It made no difference.

 

His world was a blur of white whether or not he sat in the dark and he knew his appearance unsettled the others. Taehyung held up his end of the bargain, informing Baekhyun of wind speeds and how long the captain estimated they had before they made landfall at Seong.

 

They were about three days into the journey when the winds changed.

 

Baekhyun felt it when the steady rocking of the ship turned rough and uneven. He sat up just as Baixian snorted, rising to his feet.

 

“You feel it too huh?” he murmured, yelping in shock when something hard slammed into the hull, rocking the entire ship. There was clattering on the stairs and then Taehyung’s panicked breathing.

 

“Milord, there’s a storm-.”

 

“I can feel it.” Baekhyun did not know how he was so calm, even when the ship rocked once, so violently that he was nearly swept off his feet.Taehyung stumbled too, yelping.

 

“How far are we from Seong?” Baekhyun asked urgently, flinging his arms out to keep his balance.

 

“Too close,” Taehyung stuttered, “this is no ordinary storm, milord.”

 

The ship shuddered and Baekhyun jerked in surprise when a hand wrapped around his arm, tugging him away from the wall.

 

“Captain says to come up on deck. The horse too.”

 

Baixian whickered as if in agreement and latched onto Baekhyun’s jacket sleeve with his teeth. The ship swayed beneath his feet as he was led up to the deck, where the other passengers were gathered, chattering amongst themselves.

 

“Do not worry, milord. We have weathered Seong’s storms before.”

 

Baekhyun could hear mild hesitation in the captain’s voice even through the roaring of the wind. Salt water sprayed over the edge of the ship and the people on the deck shied, yelping.

 

The ship shuddered and rocked beneath his feet as he was led over to what felt like a coil of ropes masquerading as a seat. He had to be near the railing, as Baekhyun could feel the salt spray on his face as the heavens rumbled.

 

Rain lashed down from the skies and his fingers tightened around Baixian’s bridle.

 

Taehyung had stayed with him, it seemed, as he was peppered with updates. The wind howled and his heart flew to his throat when the ship dipped dangerously low to one side.

 

“How close?” he demanded once more, his stomach tipping. The way the ship was swaying was making his world spin and bile was rising up to his throat.

 

“I can see the-.” Taehyung’s answer was cut off when there was a horrible grinding noise.

 

Rocks.

 

Baekhyun’s stomach pitched as the crowd on the deck screamed, the ship shuddering violently.

 

“Tighten the sails!” the captain yelled and Baekhyun could hear his panic.

 

The wind screamed, as if to drown him out even as footsteps pattered on the wooden deck, crew rushing to secure the sails.

 

“You hang on tight, milord,” Taehyung patted his arm before vanishing.

 

With a sickening crunch, the ship collided into the rocks once more. At the same moment, Baekhyun emptied the contents of his stomach over the deck floor. Baixian nickered worriedly as Baekhyun struggled to his feet, a wave of salt water washing over the ship and drenching then both.

 

The ship tipped upward and the crowd screamed as more waves spilt over the deck, like snaking tendrils snatching at the hems of skirts and pants.

 

Baekhyun snatched at the railing as the entire ship over balanced, seawater pouring over the deck. There were people screaming as they slipped, another crash of waves sending them overboard, into the stormy sea, grey and white with foam.

 

A violent wave slammed into the ship once more and Baekhyun screamed.

 

The waters swallowed him, burning cold to his bones as he thrashed, his leg jarring painfully against what felt like broken wood. There were more people screaming but Baekhyun could only focus on just how cold the water was.

 

He was powerless against the strength of the waves, tossed about in the currents like a tiny rag doll, seawater bitter on his tongue.

 

“Baixi-.” Baekhyun slipped beneath the surface, choking on a mouthful of salt water.

 

The sky roared and the rain pelting on his face felt more like tiny pebbles than water, falling hard enough for it to hurt. A whinny sounded in his ears and he twisted, gasping when a wave washed over his head, pushing him under the water and stealing the breath from his lungs.

 

His fingers found solid muscle and Baekhyun dragged himself back to the surface, coughing and wheezing.

 

“Baixian,” he gasped, pressing his face into Baixian’s sopping mane.

 

Baixian whinnied and struck out strongly against the waves.

 

How he managed to cling on with numb fingers, shivering violently, Baekhyun would never know. He carried as much of his own weight as he could, terrified that Baixian would sink and take him with him.

 

The world blurred around him and he swam in and out of consciousness as Baixian swam towards what he presumed was shore.

 

Someone was shouting, too loudly and Baixian screamed too, as if trying to attract attention.

 

The last thing Baekhyun remembered before his body jarred painfully into hard ground was the sound of footsteps running towards them, the cold fingers of the sea snatching at his body, as if determined to take him back.

 

“He should not be alive.”

 

That was the first thing that reached Baekhyun’s ears as light filtered through his vision.

 

His heart leapt and he forced his eyes open. Only to be met by the same whiteness that he had seen for the past months. Baekhyun’s fingers closed around something soft and he sat up, his arms trembling from the strain. Sheets rustled and a weight moved along his leg, climbing into his lap.

 

A soft mew reached his ears.

 

Baekhyun startled, flopping back into the pillows. He stretched out a hand, sucking in a breath when his fingers brushed against soft fur. A sandpaper tongue licked his fingertip and he gasped, yanking his hand back.

 

“Geoum, get off him.”

 

The voice was lilting and sharp but the cat in Baekhyun’s lap merely meowed louder, circling on his covered thighs before settling down.

 

“Where am I?” Baekhyun croaked, wincing at the toughness of his voice. His throat was patched and scratchy and he wanted water so badly.

 

“You’re in my castle,” the voice replied tensely, “though you should not have lived. The waves wanted you, badly.”

 

Baekhyun heard another voice, softer, making his excuses but a hand settling onto the covers covering his legs distracted him.

 

“Your castle? I don’t even know you.”

 

Thunder boomed in the distance as the voice sucked in a breath, as if offended.

 

“Neither do I.”

 

There was a beat of silence where Baekhyun heard rain pattering down outside the windows. The cat in Baekhyun’s lap mewled loudly, huddling up against Baekhyun’s body and Baekhyun found himself grateful for its warmth.

 

“Who are you? How did you survive that storm?” Where did you get that horse?”

 

A barrage of questions slammed into him and Baekhyun cringed, fingers curling around the cat in his arms as if for comfort.

 

“One at a time,” he answered, “you’re so loud I can hardly think.”

 

“You have some nerve, speaking to me like that.”

 

The door opening distracted them both and Baekhyun turned, stiffening.

 

“Sehun,” the man said and Baekhyun noticed how his tone softened with the name.

 

“Cousin,” the voice that answered was deeper than he expected yet there was a floaty quality to it, as if the person was not all quite there.

 

“I heard you had a guest that the sea brought in. So, I brought him a drink.”

 

There was a tinkling of ice cubes in a glass and a tray being set down beside Baekhyun.

 

“Did the winds tell you that, Sehun?”

 

The man’s voice was gentle, not teasing but Baekhyun could hear the frown in Sehun’s voice when he answered, condescending.

 

“Of course not. The servants did.”

 

Baekhyun reached for the glass, gasping when his skin connected with the icy cold condensation. The cold water soothed his throat as it went down and he sighed as he set down the glass.

 

Outside the window, the wind howled and Sehun went rigid, his breathing growing shallow.

 

Baekhyun narrowed his eyes.

 

“Are you alright?” he asked but received no answer.

 

Sehun crossed the room in short brisk steps and Baekhyun could not hear him anymore.

 

“Who are you then?” The unnamed man turned his attention back to Baekhyun as if it was common behavior for Sehun to ignore a question.

 

“Why should I tell you?” Baekhyun’s hackles rose. He had an inkling of who he might be speaking to but the arrogance that the man exuded made him bristle.

 

“I am the prince of Seong, you fool. You will answer to me.”

 

“And I am a nobody so why did you rescue me if all you’re going to do is patronize me with your status and power?”

 

Baekhyun snapped before he quite knew what he was saying.

 

The tension in the room thickened and he could almost hear the electricity crackling. The prince of Seong, also known as the prince of storms had power over lightning and thunderstorms.

 

Baekhyun almost regretted his words.

 

Almost.

 

Trepidation filled his heart as the crackling became clearer and thunder boomed outside the window. But before he could break, a soft chuckle diffused the tension.

 

“He’s right, Jongdae hyung,” Sehun giggled like a small child and a whisper of wind brushed through Baekhyun’s hair.

 

“I like him.”

 

The tension in the room diffused almost immediately, the prince softened by his cousin’s laughter. Baekhyun exhaled, fingers combing through the fur of the cat that was purring merrily away in his lap, oblivious to the disaster that had almost happened.

 

“Geoum likes him too.”

 

Jongdae grumbled and Baekhyun could hear a shift in his tone.

 

“I apologize. I am unused to guests. Allow me to introduce myself.”

 

Something rustled and Baekhyun assumed that the prince was bowing, an act that amused him greatly.

 

“I am Prince Jongdae of Seong. Bringer of storms. And you are?”

 

Baekhyun forced down the urge to laugh, sitting upright in the bed. He folded down into a half bow, trying not to disturb the cat in his lap.

 

“Baekhyun. From Chilyo. Only a commoner, but I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Your Highness.”

 

Jongdae huffed out a laugh and Baekhyun could hear his disbelief.

 

“Forgive me if I do not believe you, Baekhyun sshi. But your clothes are too fine to be a commoner’s and your horse is of great value, beautifully trained.”

 

He paused and Baekhyun’s heart leapt to his mouth.

 

“Baixian! Where is he? Is he alright?”

 

“He is fine. Stabled with our other horses. He will be well taken care of.”

 

Baekhyun exhaled with relief.

 

“Why have you brought me here, Your Highness?” he asked, slumping back into the pillows, fingers carding through the cat’s fur.

 

“You’re the only one who survived that storm. And you brought this.”

 

Something hard landed at Baekhyun’s feet and he winced, leaning over the cat to trail his fingers over the coverlet. His fingers closed around a familiar cane and he gasped in relief, clutching it close.

 

“You found it,” he murmured, “I was afraid it would be lost.”

 

Jongdae’s gaze burned into him as he remarked, almost too casually.

 

“That cane was made here. In Seong. It is the only one of its kind. How did you come by it?”

 

Baekhyun knitted his brow, confused.

 

“My brother bought it for me, after I- went blind. He said he bought it from a seller here.”

 

“Your brother. Is he a trader?”

 

Baekhyun shifted, fingering the coverlet nervously. The way Prince Jongdae had said it, it seemed that it was entirely uncommon for one to own a magical item.

 

“Merely an ordinary merchant, Your Highness. He bought it because he thought it matched my hair.”

 

Prince Jongdae chuckled lowly as Baekhyun traced his fingers over the carvings on the cane, Geoum the cat butting at him ever so lightly for pets.

 

“It does. But you are still no commoner. That horse alone cost a fortune, more than most merchants make in a year. And your clothes bear Chilyo’s crest.”

 

Baekhyun reeled back when he felt Prince Jongdae lean closer, heat radiating from his body.

 

“Are you perhaps a lord on the run?”

 

He laughed at the question, shaking his head as Geoeum finally managed to butt his cane away and rub its head against his hand.

 

“No. I am a commoner, I assure you.”

 

“A commoner who dresses like a prince.”

 

The statement made Baekhyun flinch, his mind wandering back to Yixing. Would he have run out to the harbor after hearing of Baekhyun’s arrival only to miss him?

 

Did he even care that Baekhyun was out there on his own?

 

“I was close to the prince,” he said abruptly. There was no other way to explain the quality of his clothes or his horse and the last thing he wanted was for Prince Jongdae to think he had stolen them both.

 

“Was?”

 

Perhaps Jongdae could sense his reluctance to talk about Yixing, for he did not push.

 

Geoum mewled and Baekhyun felt the weight being lifted out of his lap. He swept back the covers, swinging his legs over the bed as Prince Jongdae backed away.

 

“Come then. You must be starved.”

 

Baekhyun yelped when his knees buckled and the aches in his body hit him full force, nearly crumpling onto the carpet before his arm shot out to catch the bed, barely able to hold himself up.

 

“Oh dear.”

 

He heard Geoum scampering up to him as a warm hand gripped his elbow to steady him.

 

“Can you walk?”

 

His legs shook when he tried to take a step but with the prince’s help, he could take a few miniscule steps. Geoum was still meowing, trying to twine around his ankles and the fur tickled against his bare skin.

 

“Don’t do that, Geoum. You’ll trip him. Shoo,” Prince Jongdae scolded and to Baekhyun’s immense delight, the cat only meowed back at him before soft footsteps alerted him to Sehun’s presence.

 

He had almost forgotten that he was still in the room.

 

“Come, kitty. Jongdae hyung is a meanie,” Sehun sing-songed and before Jongdae could protest, scooped up the whining cat before disappearing out of the door.

 

“My cane,” Baekhyun murmured and the solid handle of his cane was set into his free hand.

 

It was a relief to feel the ground, especially in such an unfamiliar place. The pull in his gut grew stronger as they left the room, Prince Jongdae still gripping onto his elbow to guide him.

 

Baekhyun could feel the floor beneath his feet as it transitioned from carpet to cold stone and to carpet once more as they walked.

 

“If you don’t mind me asking,” Prince Jongdae spoke up, his voice echoing in the space. From the little bit of sound, Baekhyun could deduce that they were most likely in a hallway. The carpet was soft under his toes as he nodded, sticking his cane out to feel for the edge of the floor. “How did you lose your sight?”

 

Baekhyun grimaced, his grip on his cane tightening. He had never had to explain it to anyone before. Everyone back home already knew.

 

“The prince- He grabbed me with the wrong hand,” he said.

 

That was all he wanted to say on the subject.

 

“You do know that he will be coming here? He wrote us a letter, something about diplomatic missions and boring things like that,” Prince Jongdae said, his voice uncharacteristically gentle and Baekhyun winced.

 

“I have time to leave before he arrives. He is still in Bada and will not be here till winter.”

 

He could tell when the hallway widened and Prince Jongdae was gripping his arm tighter.

 

“Be careful. The stairs are here.”

 

His hand was guided carefully to the banister, a gesture that he appreciated and Baekhyun moved his cane, testing the stairs before him as he descended. They were steeper than he was used to back home and his mind was so clouded, by thoughts of Yixing and all that he had lost that he missed the last step with his cane.

 

His heart flew to his mouth when he lost his balance.

 

“Baekhyun!”

 

Strong arms caught him just as his cane struck the ground with a loud clatter, his ankle twisting painfully before he was tugged upright, pressed against a warm chest. Electricity arced through him and he yelped in shock, Prince Jongdae moving his hands to his waist quickly.

 

His heart was pounding in his chest, blood roaring in his ears as he stood there, pressed up against the prince that he had only just met, with his arms around his body.

 

Thunder boomed loudly and the windows rattled, shocking Baekhyun right out of his stupor. He shook himself just as Prince Jongdae released him slowly, his hands lingering on his waist for a little too long.

 

“I’m sorry. I usually have a better handle on my magic. Are you alright?” the prince apologized as Baekhyun tried to straighten himself out, kneeling onto the floor to grope for his cane.

 

“I’m fine,” Baekhyun mumbled.

 

Where was that damn cane?

 

“Here.”

 

There were no electric shocks this time when Prince Jongdae gripped his wrist, setting the cane back into his hand.

 

Baekhyun exhaled, a little wobbly from the scare. His ankle throbbed and he winced, flexing his hand around the handle of his cane as if that would take the edge off.

 

“Is your ankle alright?” Prince Jongdae asked and Baekhyun nodded. He did not even notice that he was rolling his foot around, trying to get the muscle to pop.

 

“Is it still raining outside? The wind is so loud,” he murmured and the prince made a soft wounded sound just as the wind whistled sharply. The storm outside grew even wilder, rain pelting against the glass windows.

 

“I will fetch a servant to escort you,” Prince Jogndae said abruptly, the tenderness gone from his voice. He sounded just like he had when he had called Baekhyun a fool.

 

Baekhyun did not even have a chance to put in a word before he was gone, leaving him there at the foot of the stairs, wondering if he had done something wrong.

 

Sehun joined him for luncheon, bringing Geoum with him. He was an eccentric young man, picking at his silverware and making tinkling sounds by hitting his fork against his empty glass, giggling as he did so.

 

Geoum did not seem to mind the noise, content to curl up in Baekhyun’s lap and nibble on the occasional titbit that fell into his lap.

 

In between muttering incoherent words to himself and talking about how the wind was screaming, Sehun still managed to answer questions that Baekhyun had. They were simple ones, like what Sehun looked like and what his power was.

 

“Do you mind if I touch?” Baekhyun asked hesitantly.

 

If he was going to be staying a while, it would be nice if he had at least a vague idea of what his hosts looked like.

 

The sound of a chair scraping against the floor rang in his ears and he could feel Sehun coming closer, settling to his right. Geoum mewled and nuzzled into Baekhyun’s chest happily as he set down his silverware.

 

“You can. Is this how you see, Baekhyun sshi?” Sehun put his face right next to Baekhyun’s hands and Baekhyun nodded.

 

Sehun’s skin was smooth, flawless beneath his fingertips as he traced the man’s jaw and lips, making his way slowly up to his eyes and forehead.

 

“What colour are your eyes and hair?”

 

“Grey. Jongdae hyung says my hair is like honey. The wind says it’s more like the maple syrup from Olda,” Sehun said dreamily and Baekhyun tilted his head.

 

“The wind?”

 

“The wind says you’re pretty, Baekhyun sshi. It likes you a lot.”

 

The skin between Sehun’s brow creased and he pulled away abruptly.

 

“No. Stop. Stop! Get away!”

 

Baekhyun flinched back in shock just as Geoum leapt up onto the table, meowing loudly. Something crashed against his plate and liquid spilled into his lap, a cloyingly sweet scent reaching his nostrils.

 

“Sehun?”

 

Sehun was very agitated, his chair screeching back as he rose, screaming something about shadows and fools.

 

The wind outside mirrored his emotions, picking up and howling viciously.

 

Doors slammed and Sehun shrieked, Baekhyun managing to pick up the voices of two servants running over. He gripped the tablecloth in fear as Geoum leapt back into his arms, cries getting shriller as if in scolding.

 

There was fabric rustling and Sehun screaming about letting go. A chair was knocked over and Baekhyun cringed.

 

“Sehun.”

 

Prince Jongdae was back. How he entered the room without Baekhyun hearing him would forever remain a mystery but Baekhyun could hear his footsteps now, as he crossed the room. Sehun stilled in the arms of the servants, sniffling. The wind screamed and he thrashed once more, mumbling incoherently.

 

“Sehun, behave. Listen to me,” Prince Jongdae’s voice was calm, soothing and Geoum purred at the sound of its owner’s voice, nudging its little head against Baekhyun’s chest.

 

It mewled softly, as if asking Baekhyun was alright. Baekhyun pressed a hand to his chest. He had not even noticed that his heart rate was up, too fast to be normal and that he was trembling slightly.

 

“Is he alright?”

 

Baekhyun found himself asking even as he clutched Geoum close to his chest.

 

The cat mewled once before nuzzling into him.

 

He could feel Prince Jongdae turn his gaze onto him, could almost smell the wariness in the air.

 

“He’ll be fine,” Prince Jongdae answered stiffly and Baekhyun nodded, his heart tripping a little at the prince’s formal tone. “This happens often.”

 

Sehun was mostly calm now, sniffling like a small child in a way that tugged on Baekhyun’s heartstrings. Wind whistled in the air and Baekhyun heard him flinch, as if the wind was speaking to him. Perhaps it did, from the way Sehun spoke of it.

 

Baekhyun stroked Geoum’s fur as Sehun was escorted out and Prince Jongdae slid into Sehun’s abandoned chair with a heavy sigh.

 

“I’m sorry,” he said and Baekhyun looked up from Geoum, the cat purring merrily away in his arms.

 

“Sehun is afflicted by the wind. He can control it but his curse means that he hears it speak. Sometimes it whispers. Other times, it screams.”

 

Baekhyun cringed.

 

He could not imagine what it would feel like to constantly have someone speaking in his ears, sometimes calm, a companion, sometimes screaming hysterically. It would drive him insane.

 

Perhaps that was Sehun’s curse. The very element that he could wield driving him to insanity.

 

“People look down on him. They go out their way to avoid him here. He never leaves the castle anymore. It upsets him.”

 

Prince Jongdae’s tone was wary, as if he was gauging Baekhyun’s reaction.

 

Baekhyun could have laughed.

 

He, of all people, knew what it felt like to be ostracized. To be walked around on the streets as if he carried a contagious disease, mothers pulling their children away, children themselves screaming and running at the sight of him.

 

“Be at ease, Your Highness. Even if I did not look the way I do now, he is still a person. Mad or not, he is as human as you and I. As it stands, I should be the last one to judge him. Look at me.”

 

He spread his arms and his heart fluttered when he heard the smile in Prince Jongdae’s voice.

 

“Thank you, Baekhyun. I wish everyone else in this godforsaken world thought like you. You’re a breath of fresh air in this storm.”

Chapter Text

“Where are we going?” Yixing laughed as Junmyeon yanked on his hand.

 

He was sweating profusely, his shirt soaked through as they climbed higher and higher up the cliffs. But Yixing could hardly complain. He had an amazing view of Junmyeon’s sweaty back shining through his white shirt, so sheer that he could almost see his back muscles flexing as he dragged him up the dirt path.

 

Chanyeol was busy with business and had told them to stay near the castle, for he was too busy to accompany them. But the moment the guards’ backs were turned, Junmyeon had dragged Yixing away, slipping out of the castle with only their swords to protect them.

 

Yixing was getting better at swordsmanship as the weeks progressed and he always felt safe with Junmyeon. He could see the trees of the forest now, as Junmyeon slowed to a stop, dropping his hands to clutch at his knees.

 

“Why are we here?” Yixing asked as he surveyed the trees around them, either wounded or dying. His magic twitched and ached within him.

 

He had not used his magic since healing his escort’s allergy rash.

 

“I wanted you to show me your magic,” Junmyeon admitted, shaking himself. Yixing tensed, his jaw tightening.

 

“What?”

 

Junmyeon’s hand closed around his wrist and he tugged him close.

 

So close that Yixing could feel the heat radiating off his body and see the sheen of sweat on his forehead. A stray lock of hair was hanging in his face again and Yixing briefly wondered if Junmyeon’s hair was just designed to fall that way.

 

“You’ve seen my magic,” Junmyeon said, “I want to see yours.”

 

Yixing grimaced, giving in to his urge to tuck Junmyeon’s hair neatly back into place. It made him feel a little better, to see him blush and catch his hand.

 

“It’s not safe. You already know this.”

 

Junmyeon kissed his fingers, payback for his hair tucking and Yixing shook his head.

 

“You can’t convince me like that,” he smiled gently, “I won’t put you in danger just because you’re so irresistible.”

 

“I’m not asking you to show it on me. I’m asking you to heal that tree and kill the other.”

 

Junmyeon reached out, taking Yixing’s gloved hand into his.

 

Yixing did not flinch this time.

 

He had gotten used to the glove and it no longer bothered him when people looked at it.

 

“I know you’re afraid of it. Chanyeol told me you had nightmares and that you always apologize in your sleep. I don’t know what happened but Yixing, you can’t lock up your magic and expect it to go away.”

 

“That’s not what I do. I just… choose not to use it.”

 

Yixing’s cheeks heated up at Junmyeon’s knowing smile and he tugged his hand away, tucking it into his pocket as if that would keep Junmyeon from trying to convince him once more.

 

“Just once, Yixing. Please. If you’re afraid of it, you can’t control it. And an uncontrolled power is even more dangerous.”

 

Junmyeon grasped his wrists and Yixing sighed heavily.

 

“Stand away,” he warned, “as far back as you can. I don’t want to hurt you if I forget that I’m not wearing my glove.”

 

His heart thudded in his chest as Junmyeon pulled him close, pressing a kiss against his cheek, as if it was a reward for being brave.

 

“Start with the healing,” Junmyeon murmured before letting go, caressing Yixing’s face tenderly.

 

Yixing thought it was incredibly unfair that Junmyeon was so good at this convincing thing. Just a flash of his pretty smile and a few charming words and Yixing was ready to peel off his glove, the mask that he had put on for so long for him.

 

The tree closest to him was very damaged, weeping amber sap. Its branches were broken and the leaves wilted, a pile on the ground crunching underfoot as Yixing stepped up to it, resting his hand on the injured trunk.

 

His fingers curled as a surge of power rushed through him, almost as if his magic was relieved, spilling out in a river.

 

The tree seemed to shake itself, the broken branches rustling. Yixing winced when the movement made more branches crack off, showering him with more dead leaves. Behind him, he heard Junmyeon gasp when the crack in the tree’s trunk began to close, new bark growing over the crack, sealing it over.

 

The broken branches were too high up but Yixing focused harder, pulling on the magic deep within him and he could almost see his power climbing up the tree, the bark turning to a healthy colour. Broken branches straightened themselves and new leaves burst out from the tips, bright green and brilliant against the dark forest.

 

Yixing pulled his hand away, swaying a little.

 

His vision swam and he was suddenly breathless, as if just using his magic had made him light headed.

 

“Yixing.”

 

Junmyeon had come up beside him, one hand resting on his waist, keeping him upright.

 

“I’m okay,” Yixing mumbled, leaning against Junmyeon for support, blinking furiously so that the world came back into focus.

 

“This is why you need to use your magic more often. Even on little things,” Junmyeon chided as he helped him stand, grasping his hand to look at it. “You have to build the endurance. It’s like swimming.”

 

Yixing’s eyes snapped open at the touch and he yanked away so fast that his feet could not quite catch up. He stumbled, crashing into the nearest tree and falling down on his ass.

 

“I told you to stay away!” he snapped, gasping, dropping his gaze down to check that his glove was indeed still on. His heart was pounding in his chest, horrifying scenarios racing through his mind. What if he had tried to kill the tree first and Junmyeon had forgotten? What if he had forgotten and allowed Junmyeon to touch his other hand?

 

Junmyeon’s eyes were wide as his outburst, his hands held out, palms open.

 

“You’re okay,” he said softly, as if trying to placate a wild animal, “we’re both okay.”

 

“You promised that you’d stay away,” Yixing said, his voice almost an octave higher, his tone too sharp. “I could have hurt you.”

 

“Your glove is still on, Yixing. Everything’s okay. I’m alive, aren’t I?”

 

Junmyeon made sense, he was alright, Yixing was alright. No one was hurt other than his pride but Yixing could not stop trembling. It was irrational for him to be so afraid of something that was an integral part of him, something that he had lived with for months now.

 

“I promise I won’t come near you when you take your glove off, Xing. I promise.”

 

As if to prove his point, Junmyeon backed away, back to his original position without holding out a hand to help Yixing up. He looked as unshakable as ever, his face calm.

 

Yixing curled up against the tree, his breathing evening as he let his head rest against the tree’s trunk, inhaling deeply. His hands shook even as he dragged himself to his feet, gripping at the tree to gain some stability.

 

Slowly, he pulled his glove off.

 

It felt strange, the bare skin exposed to air after months of being confined in a leather prison. Yixing reached out, feeling the roughness of the tree bark under his skin. He barely had to do anything, the black death practically exploding out of his fingertips, fueled by the flame of fear in his belly.

 

The tree wilted before his eyes, so fast that he barely had time to process what was happening. Leaves curled, the moisture draining out of them, turning crunchy. The tree bark turned black, veins of magic spreading from Yixing’s fingers, until it engulfed the entire tree. With a sickening crack, the tree bark split open, revealing the layers beneath it, all as black as night.

 

Yixing sucked in a breath, pulling his hand away.

 

He hurriedly tugged on his glove, lacing it up before he could do anymore damage, tears springing to his eyes.

 

It had all happened so quickly.

 

His heart was still pounding in his ears when he stepped back, trying to will the tears away. If Junmyeon had not thought him a coward before, he would surely think so now.

 

“Xing?”

 

He could not face him, keeping his gaze focused on the tips of his boots, body still trembling from the aftershocks of his magic.

 

Junmyeon’s fingers curled very gently under his chin, Yixing shuddering even at the brief touch.

 

“You did well,” Junmyeon said softly, his arm moving to slide around Yixing’s waist to pull him close. He moved slow, as if he was afraid of jarring Yixing, treating him like a volatile wild animal.

 

Yixing buried his face into the crook of Junmyeon’s neck, exhaling.

 

All the tension seemed to drain right out of his body and he could not contain a sob, curling in as much as he could to make himself smaller in Junmyeon’s arms. Junmyeon stroked his back, up and down along his spine, whispering words of encouragement into his ears as Yixing sobbed his heart out, fingers curling into Junmyeon’s shirt.

 

“I- I can’t do that again,” he admitted, his body shaking. Yixing kept his face buried into Junmyeon’s shoulders as fingers carded through his hair. “Please don’t ask me to do that again.”

 

“I won’t,” Junmyeon said, his voice soft and gentle. He pulled away, soft eyes raking down Yixing’s distraught face.

 

Yixing sniffled, ducking his head when Junmyeon thumbed over a tear that slipped down his cheek, shuffling his boots.

 

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, “I’m so sorry.”

 

“Shh. You had a traumatic experience. No one expects you to recover so quickly. I shouldn’t have pushed you so,” Junmyeon said, shushing him. He pulled into another hug and Yixing sank into him, reveling in his scent and warmth.

 

A gust of wind whistled through the air, the branches on the trees rustling.

 

A cold trickle of fear leaked into Yixing and he spun around, the hairs on the back of his neck standing up, as if there was someone watching him.

 

Junmyeon had stiffened too, as if he had felt the same thing.

 

“Something’s out there,” Yixing whispered, his blood roaring in his ears. The trees rustled again, as if trying to tell them something, leaves fluttering down onto the ground. The shadows in between the trees suddenly looked menacing, almost as if they were alive.

 

“We should go back,” Junmyeon said, already backing away. His grip on Yixing’s arm tightened, his lips pressing into a thin line. Yixing could not agree more, his heart filling with ice as Junmyeon pulled him forward, breaking into a run as the wind picked up, howling like a wild creature through the trees.

 

Their footsteps slowed as the dirt road changed to sand and the dark dreariness of the forest turned to the bright sunlight spilling down upon Bada, the noise from the marketplace rising up to them.

 

Junmyeon’s relief was palpable and Yixing was glad he was not the only one who had been afraid up there, with the wind screaming like a banshee.

 

“What do you think that was?” he asked as Junmyeon led him down the path, their hands still tightly entwined.

 

Junmyeon shook his head, his brows furrowed as he looked back up, shivering.

 

“I don’t know but I don’t want to find out.”

 

It was easy enough to sneak past the guards, their sandals soft on the swishing sand.

 

Yixing was about breathe a sigh of relief when Junmyeon cried out, twisting around to see a hand clamp down around Junmyeon’s mouth, the point of a dagger pressing against his throat.

 

“What the hell, Chanyeol!” he gasped when the general tugged Junmyeon higher against his chest, his big hand wrapped tightly around Junmyeon’s face even as his prince thrashed and fought to get free.

 

“You let down your guard,” Chanyeol said coldly, Junmyeon whimpering behind his hand, practically on his tip toes. “And you.” He shot the prince struggling in his arms a sharp look. Junmyeon wilted at his pointed glare, his hands fluttering down to his sides. “What were you doing outside the castle unescorted?”

 

Junmyeon mumbled behind his hand, eyes cast down guiltily.

 

“Sneaking out, bringing your guest along, being completely unprepared for an attack- need I go on?”

 

Chanyeol sheathed his dagger, counting off his fingers, his other hand still gripping onto Junmyeon.

 

“He didn’t-.” Yixing tried to defend Junmyeon but the glare Chanyeol shot him was enough to steal the words from his tongue.

 

“I’m not a child, Chanyeol,” Junmyeon muttered under his breath when Chanyeol released him, touching his mouth. He turned to face his guard, straightening.

 

“Yes, you’re not. So, you ought to know better than to sneak around without an escort. What if something had happened to you? To Prince Yixing?”

 

This was the first time Yixing had ever heard Chanyeol sound so stern, wildly beyond his age as he lectured Junmyeon, the prince’s indignant shoulders slowly sinking down. He mirrored his expression, bowing his head.

 

Even with his harsh tone, Yixing could hear the worry lacing Chanyeol’s tone. He was more worried than angry and his worry made him harsh. Evidently, Junmyeon could hear it too, as his defiant gaze softened, expression more guilty than anything else.

 

“I’m sorry,” he said softly, grasping Chanyeol’s hand. “It won’t happen again.”

 

“See that it does not,” Chanyeol said stiffly, setting his hand on Junmyeon’s shoulder. “You’re lucky I was the one who found you. Your mother is here.”

 

Yixing’s stomach dropped.

 

He had not yet met Junmyeon’s parents and had secretly been hoping that he would not have to. Of course that was just wishful thinking as the current regents would definitely have to pay him a visit, even just for courtesy reasons.

 

Junmyeon stiffened, his eyes flitting over to Yixing for the briefest moment.

 

Word of the two princes’ relationship must have already spread to his parents. Yixing’s stomach pitched a little more and for the first time in months, he glanced at his glove, insecurity bleeding into his emotions.

 

“She is here now? Why did she not send word?” Junmyeon asked. As if sending Yixing’s unease, he reached over, lacing their hands together. The touch was comforting, even if Chanyeol’s gaze zeroed in on their intertwined hands, his lips twisting a little.

 

“You might want to tone down the hand holding while she’s around, Your Highness. She’s not very happy about the turn of events.”

 

Yixing’s heart lurched. Chanyeol glanced at him, his smile apologetic.

 

“It’s not about you, Your Highness. She’s more worried about the two of you wandering about unchaperoned.” He nodded at their hands again. “Highly inappropriate.”

 

Yixing’s cheeks warmed at the implication in his words and he made to pull his hand away, much to Junmyeon’s displeasure.

 

“We are of age,” he said, “Mother’s worries are unfounded. Yixing would never-.”

 

“Oh it’s not about Prince Yixing, Junmyeon darling. I’m more worried about you.”

 

The female voice was sharp and lilting, a higher version of Junmyeon’s and they all turned to see a stately woman with dark hair coiled into a tidy bun striding down the stairs. Her sky blue cotton shift swirled all around her as she descended, looking like a goddess descending from the skies.

 

Junmyeon released Yixing’s hand at once, his body straightening.

 

“Mother,” he said, bowing.

 

The woman extended her hand and Junmyeon took it, pressing a kiss to her knuckles.

 

Yixing mirrored him, bowing at the waist.

 

The queen’s hand was warm when he took it in his ungloved hand, pressing his lips against her skin. He straightened, trying to keep his nerves from showing as her eyes raked up and down his body.

 

“You’re the splitting image of your father,” she commented, “so handsome.”

 

Yixing blushed, bowing again.

 

“Thank- Thank you, Your Majesty.”

 

The queen’s eyes were bi-coloured as well, like her son’s but while Junmyeon’s eyes glowed as brightly as jewels, hers were duller, as if they had seen much in her time. She glanced at the silver bracelet Junmyeon wore on his wrist, her eyebrows rising a little.

 

“I trust that you have been courteous to our guest, Junmyeonnie.”

 

The nickname made Junmyeon blush a beautiful rose pink and he ducked his head, glaring at his boots.

 

“Not here, Mother.”

 

“No? Not in front of the man who is courting you?” the queen smirked and Yixing had to hold back his squeal as he watched Junmyeon shuffle his feet, pouting down at the ground. “I hope you’ve been good, Junmyeonnie. Do not defile our guest.”

 

“Mother!” They both turned beetroot red when the queen cut sharp eyes across the both of them, her eyes lingering on Junmyeon’s bracelet once more.

 

“You know the rules, dear. No funny business until you’re twenty,” she said, spinning around. Junmyeon had his eyes squeezed shut, as if he wished the ground would swallow him up at once and Yixing did not know where to look, his cheeks burning hot. “Now let’s sit down for lunch. You can tell me all that you’ve done while we eat.”

 

Yixing reached over to pat Junmyeon’s wrist to tell him that everything was alright but the queen whirled around, waggling her finger in the air.

 

“And absolutely none of that.”

 

Yixing jumped back as if he had been electrocuted, bowing and biting back apologies as they followed the queen into the dining room.

 

Chanyeol waltzed out after them, looking as if he was trying his best to contain his laughter.

 

“You know it is improper to court without asking for permission,” the queen said airily once they were seated. Her bi-coloured eyes bored into Yixing and he did not dare to look up from his plate, his hands folded neatly in his lap.

 

Junmyeon sat across him, his cheeks still tinted pink as he poked at his napkin, as if trying to decide if he wanted to unroll it or toss it across the table at his mother.

 

“Please don’t terrorize him, Mother. He’s been the most proper gentleman,” he said, shooting Yixing a reassuring smile.

 

“I’m not. Am I terrorizing you, Yixing dear?” Her tone was sickly sweet. Yixing shook his head quickly, keeping his eyes down as the servants swapped out his plate for the first course, a light salmon salad. “See, I have every right to question him, Junmyeonnie. He came here to learn our ways but now he’s learning you.”

 

“Mother please!” Junmyeon looked as if he might actually pick up his fork and stab himself with it if the queen kept on. He picked up his fork and then seemed to think better of it, setting it down primly. “He has been learning. I’ve been teaching him. With Chanyeol’s supervision.”

 

He added quickly when his mother looked up from her salad with wide eyes.

 

That was a tiny lie.

 

There were some days where they were left alone to work together but they did work. Yixing did not know what they would do otherwise but he had a very good idea of what the queen thought they might do, judging from her tempered glare across the table.

 

“I certainly hope so because the two of you were missing for the entire morning today. Imagine my surprise when I arrived to see Chanyeol combing the castle for you.” She speared a piece of salmon, daintily putting it into her mouth.

 

Yixing pushed the kelp around in his plate, his appetite lost. It certainly did look suspicious, the two of them leaving the castle together. Why oh, why had he let Junmyeon convince him?

 

“We- um, we went to the forest, Your Majesty. Junmyeon wished for me to show him my powers and it would not be safe if we stayed,” he stuttered, desperately wishing he had kept his mouth shut when the queen’s gaze was directed onto him. “I promise I have no ill intent towards your son.”

 

Her eyes burned and Yixing had to do his best not to scrunch down into his seat like he was intimidated.

 

“I’m sure you don’t,” the queen said smoothly, “if you’re anything like your father. Your father is the most chivalrous man I have ever met.”

 

Junmyeon chortled a little in his napkin and they both looked at him.

 

“You wouldn’t say that if Father was here,” he said, grinning at his mother. It was cheeky but it certainly lightened the mood when the queen merely rolled her eyes.

 

“Even your father agrees that King Zhang is the most chivalrous man in the four kingdoms. Even he has been charmed by him before.”

 

Yixing tried not to let his surprise show as he ate. He had never heard much about his father’s exploits when he was a wee one, all too focused instead on how his father had taken up the mantle of king too early, how he had done so much to help not just their own kingdom but the others as well.

 

“I did not know my father held such a title,” he commented softly, spearing a kelp leaf on his fork.

 

“There is much that your father does not wish for you to know, little one. Your ancestors operated strangely. Not that the other kingdoms were open but Chilyo has always been secretive. So many ‘wait till you’re older,’ ‘you’ll know when you grow up,’” the queen said, nodding when the servant set down a tureen of soup at the center of the table.

 

“But he tries now,” Yixing said, trying not to get defensive. He had been conversing with his father as often as he could, sharing his findings with him.

 

He still had not yet written to Baekhyun but that was a thought for later, when he was alone.

 

The Queen was a flame, bright and beautiful and animatic throughout dinner once she was sure of Yixing. It helped that his father was held in very high esteem here. But they were still not permitted to be in each other’s bed chambers without a third person present.

 

The Queen was taking no chances.

 

Yixing smiled to himself as he shed his clothes after the luncheon, changing into more swimming appropriate attire.

 

He had promised to do some swimming everyday with Junmyeon, just to work on his endurance and it was paying off.

 

“I’m sorry about Mother,” Junmyeon said when they saw each other again, Chanyeol trailing behind them to give them privacy.

 

“It’s alright. She just wants the best for you,” Yixing said. His breath hitched when Junmyeon glanced around to make sure no one was looking before he tangled their fingers together with a secretive smile.

 

“Let’s go!”

 

All thoughts of the strange feeling in the forest had all but disappeared into the wind until Yixing crawled into bed that night. His body was sore from the amount of work Junmyeon had made him do in the water. All that arm swinging really hurt his shoulders.

 

He blew out the lamp, snuggling beneath the cool sheets and sighed.

 

The wind whistled past, the window rattling and the hairs on the back of Yixing’s neck rose.

 

There was something watching him.

 

Yixing turned over, eyes fixed on the trembling glass, his fingers digging into the covers. He inhaled, biting on his lip as a shiver ran through him.

 

Had something in the forest followed him here?

 

He curled up into a ball, dragging his covers over his head as the wind howled again.

 

Something flickered in the window and he scrunched down smaller into his bed, burying his face into the pillow. His heartbeat was picking up, his pulse jumping as he cowered under his blankets.

 

It was difficult to fall asleep that night, with his heart pounding away in his ears, the shadows dancing outside the window.

 

It was not a peaceful sleep. Yixing tossed and turned, his dreams plagued with nightmares.

 

In them, he saw Baekhyun, his skin stretched thin around his bones, his silver eyes somehow filled with malice despite being sightless. Groping fingers worn down to the bone snatched at him when he tried to run, fall on his knees and beg for mercy all at once.

 

Bony fingers gripped his chin, sharp nails digging into his skin. Yixing thrashed, screaming soundlessly as a macabre rack of bones came click clacking towards him, a stag with blood dripping from the eye holes of its empty skull.

 

He could not move, his body frozen in place as a fawn followed the stag, unnaturally arched spine cracking with every step.

 

 “Don’t,” he gasped, “please don’t hurt me.”

 

The fawn bleated, its vocal cords distorted and Yixing squeezed his eyes shut.

 

A roar ripped into the air, terrifyingly like the bear that they had faced down. Yixing screamed and screamed, fingers clawing at himself.

 

“Yixing, Yixing!”

 

His eyes flew open and he lurched upwards so quickly that he nearly slammed his head into Junmyeon, who was perched on his bed, kneeling over him.

 

“Junmyeon?” he gasped, reaching blindly. Junmyeon crawled up next to him, wrapping his arms around his body. Yixing muffled a sob into his shirt, pressing his face into his chest.

 

“You’re okay,” Junmyeon murmured into his hair, pressing kisses against his forehead. He smoothed back his sweaty hair, hugging him close. “It’s just a nightmare.”

 

“I- I saw Baekhyun,” Yixing sniffled, clinging to him as tightly as he could. “He- he was dead. And- and the fawn.”

 

Junmyeon held him until he had stopped shaking, rocking him back and forth gently until he could speak in coherent sentences again.

 

“Was it the forest?” he asked, running his fingers through Yixing’s hair. Yixing shuddered, nodding.

 

“I think there’s something in there,” he whispered, “there’s something stalking me.”

 

He told Junmyeon about the dead bear that had attacked them, the rotting stench that had followed it and the way it had made his skin crawl as if there were ants scurrying all over his body.

 

“We’ll go back,” Junmyeon said, his brows furrowing, “I’ll take Chanyeol and seek it out.”

 

He brushed a lock of Yixing’s hair back behind his ear, his expression soft.

 

“I shouldn’t be in here,” he murmured. “My mother would have my head. Hell, Chanyeol would have my head if he knew.”

 

Yixing laughed, some of the tension bleeding out of his shoulders as he laced his fingers together with Junmyeon’s. Somehow, his nightmares were not so frightening when Junmyeon was there to hold him.

 

“You’re such a rebel,” he said, sitting up, raking his eyes over Junmyeon unhurriedly.

 

The drapes were half open, allowing moonlight to drift into the room, lighting upon Junmyeon’s thin nightclothes, so sheer that he could almost see through them.

 

His cheeks glowed and his bi-coloured eyes shifted colours whenever he moved.

 

“I was worried about you,” Junmyeon said, leaning closer to stroke his cheek.

 

“How did you know?”

 

Junmyeon glanced around as if to make sure that the door was shut firmly and that no one would come in before shuffling over to sit next to Yixing, so close that he could feel Jummyeon’s body heat radiating off him.

 

“I could hear you. We share a hallway.” He pointed towards what Yixing had thought was just a long mirror propped up against the wall.

 

“That’s very naughty,” Yixing murmured, sidling up to him. Junmyeon’s lips curled and he bent to press a kiss against Yixing’s cheek.

 

“Yes, which is why I have to get going before Chanyeol wakes up and finds me gone. Just know that you can always come to me through there.”

 

He slid off the bed, pressing a kiss to Yixing’s knuckles, his eyes glittering with mischief. Yixing thumbed over the bracelet on his wrist, watching him leave with a smile, closing the mirror door quietly behind him.

 

-

 

“We shouldn’t be here,” Yixing said softly when they re-entered the forest, this time with Chanyeol at their sides.

 

The forest had not changed since they had last seen it, dark and frightening with the long shadows of the trees dragging on the ground. They spread out a little, just to investigate. Chanyeol had been skeptical that there was something in the trees but he agreed to go with them just to see and be sure.

 

The wind smelled different, colder than the winds that blew through the towns and beaches. Yixing wrinkled his nose at the scent the wind brought with it.

 

It smelled horrifyingly familiar.

 

He realised why when he had stepped a little ways away to study the poisoned trees and heard Junmyeon scream.

 

“Help me!”

 

A creature leapt from the shadows, so emaciated that Yixing could not place what it was straight away. Junmyeon was backed into a copse of dead trees, his sword drawn. He ducked when the creature lunged, claws outstretched to slash into flesh.

 

Yixing ran, his heart pounding in his ears. His eyes caught sight of another shadow lunging, jumping out to catch him and he ducked just in time, drawing his sword with a muttered curse.

 

“There are more of them!” he cried, slashing outwards wildly.

 

The blade of his sword caught the creature’s shoulder and it fell back with a yelp, dark clotted blood coagulating at the cut.

 

Bile rose up in Yixing’s throat when the smell hit him. He turned around and gagged, hand flying up to cover his mouth, images of the zombie bear flickering through his mind. Cold sweat trickled down his back and he shuddered, desperately trying not to throw up his breakfast as the creature staggered away.

 

“It’s not just one wolf! It’s an entire pack!” Chanyeol shouted out to them and Yixing whirled, just in time to avoid a swipe. The rotting claws swung just in front of his nose, the reek of rotting flesh turning his stomach even more.

 

He slashed with his sword, gasping when dark blood sprayed into the air, flecks of it speckling his tunic.

 

“Oh god,” Yixing gasped, covering his mouth. He staggered away, falling to his knees. The world was spinning around him, the face of a snarling wolf getting right up into his face.


“Yixing!” Junmyeon’s cry snapped him out of his reverie. Yixing turned his face away from the body of the dead wolf lying in front of him, gagging at the smell. It clung to him as he stumbled away, gripping the hilt of his sword tightly.

 

He was trembling by the time Junmyeon came into view.

 

Chanyeol was already there, defending his prince as he slashed valiantly at the remaining wolves. There were two already onto the ground, the grass stained dark from their disgusting blood.

 

“Your Highness!”

 

Yixing whirled, screaming as he raised his sword to shield his face, the tip of his blade slashing open the wolf’s belly. He actually did throw up then, as dark blood and intestines rained down.

 

“I-.” He staggered, muscles turning into jelly. The metallic tang turned his stomach, bile rising up in his throat. His body was shuddering, almost uncontrollably as he pitched down onto the ground, hacking up his breakfast.

 

“Yixing!” There were footsteps running towards him, Junmyeon’s face appearing in his blurry vision. His brows were creased with concern as he knelt, reaching to grab his shoulder. “Are you okay?”

 

Yixing opened his mouth to answer but the words never left his lips before a massive shadow sprung at Junmyeon, razor sharp claws tearing through his clothes and into flesh. Junmyeon froze for a second, staring down at his abdomen in surprise.

 

“Junmyeon!” The rush of terror that poured through Yixing’s veins when Junmyeon collapsed was nothing like he had ever felt before. Fury overwhelmed him and he dragged himself to his feet, growling at the wolf.

 

He yanked off his glove just as the creature leapt at him, maw bared into a feral snarl.

 

His fingers closed around rough, matted fur, dirt and mud dripping onto his hand. The wolf threw back its head and screamed, so high and inhuman that Chanyeol froze right where he stood, staring at Yixing clutching the wolf in his hand.

 

A shockwave of magic streaked through him, blazing fire in his veins. His blood roared so loudly in his ears that for a moment, there was nothing else left in his world, save for the creature that had harmed Junmyeon.

 

Yixing watched the wolf shrivel, its eyeballs rolling so far back that it fell out of its head, congealed blood splattering onto the green grass. Its body shuddered and convulsed, his magic surging through the wolf until there was nothing left in his hand, save for a pile of matted fur and bones.

 

He dropped the body, nausea rolling through his stomach as he tried to fight the urge to throw up one more time.

 

“Yixing.” Junmyeon was calling to him, his tone full of worry. Yixing turned and promptly crumpled to his knees. He could smell the blood, crimson red beading up on the slashes across Junmyeon’s stomach, stark against white skin.

 

“Oh, gods,” he whispered, fingers digging into the dirt, willing himself not to pass out even as the world swam before his eyes. He groped blindly for his glove, gagging when he yanked it over his hand, feeling the muck squish between his fingers.

 

“Yixing, I- I need you.” Yixing blinked rapidly, swallowing. Chanyeol was kneeling over Junmyeon, big hands pressed over the still bleeding wounds. He was ruffled, sweating, his hair mussed from running.

 

Junmyeon was still conscious, thankfully, calling out for Yixing. He managed the few steps it took to get to Junmyeon’s side before falling down beside him.

 

“Help him,” Chanyeol urged.

 

Yixing could hardly even bear to look at Junmyeon, the cloying smell of blood already causing bile to rise up a second time.

 

“I can’t,” he gasped, turning his head away. “Please, I- I can’t.”

 

“Why not? It’s your gift! Help him!” Chanyeol demanded, his voice too loud, too rough in Yixing’s ears. Yixing shuddered, still keeping his face turned away. His hands were clammy, sweat dripping down his forehead. He saw the fawn, the bear in his mind’s eye.

 

“I- I’m afraid of blood!” he choked out, unable to bear it any longer. “I can’t even look at him!”

 

“You-.”

 

Yixing cringed away, afraid of the words Chanyeol would spew forth but a small pressure around his hand kept him from running.

 

“Yixing,” Junmyeon breathed, “Yixing, look at me.”

 

Yixing made a whimpering sound, twisting his head so that he could only see Junmyeon’s face. His hand was shaking as he dug his nails into the dirt, his breathing raspy.

 

“I need you,” Junmyeon murmured with difficulty, squeezing his hand gently, “I need you to focus and help me.”

 

“Just look at me.”

 

Junmyeon’s tone was soft, calm as if he was not practically bleeding out in front of Yixing. Yixing swallowed, keeping his gaze on Junmyeon’s lovely eyes, glazed with pain.

 

He trembled as he pulled his hand out of Junmyeon’s grasp, his shoulders drawing up to his ears in a violent shudder when he tried to place it onto Junmyeon’s abdomen without looking, brushing against a stream of blood.

 

Bile burned at the back of his throat as he forced himself to focus, to look only at Junmyeon’s face. The metallic tang of blood was too sharp to ignore and he gagged, his other hand flying to his lips.

 

“Shh, it’s okay. Take your time,” Junmyeon said, smiling up at him. His smile turned into something more like a grimace when Chanyeol pressed down harder.

 

Unlike his other hand, Yixing had to concentrate in order to draw magic. He splayed his fingers over Junmyeon’s abdomen, taking deep breaths to even his breathing as he felt the magic well up, little trickles of it spilling out.

 

It was more effort than killing and the thought terrified him even as he poured his magic out into Junmyeon.

 

Little webs of gold spidered out from Junmyeon’s wounds, the blood coagulating, the skin slowly knitting together. Yixing could feel the wounds aching, his magic pulsing through his veins.

 

At the same time, his own stomach pulsed, pain filtering through him, a phantom sensation.

 

Yixing keened, his expression twisting. He did not understand how Junmyeon was so calm when the pain flooding his nerves was so overwhelming he had half a mind to let him go.

 

But he did not, could not pull away until the wounds were entirely healed, with not even a scar on Junmyeon’s belly.

 

“Yixing!” The world swam around him, spinning wildly and Yixing swayed. His fingers met the grass and then his cheek was in the dirt, the earthy smell mingling with the salty tang of blood.

 

There were strong arms wrapping around him, lifting him into a bridal carry.

 

“Lean on me, Your Highness. He cannot walk.” He heard Chanyeol say. The world swam in and out of focus as he was carried down, a heavy weight pressing against his head.

 

A hand smoothed over his hair and he closed his eyes, nose wrinkling at the smell of blood.

 

“This was not supposed to happen.”

 

When he came to again, he was lying in his bed, Junmyeon settled into a chaise at the foot of the bed, Chanyeol standing by the door. An elderly man wrapped in a white shift stared down at him, pressing fingers into his wrist.

 

Yixing twitched, tugging to get his hand back and the man frowned.

 

“Do stop moving, boy. I’m trying to get your pulse.”

 

He froze into place, sweeping his gaze over to Junmyeon for reassurance.

 

The Bada prince did not look very much worse for wear thankfully, dressed in a thin pink silk robe. Yixing would have called him over if his throat were not so parched and Chanyeol was not glaring at them so hard they might burst into flames.

 

“He’ll be fine. That magic needs training. His control is weak and he has no stamina.”

 

Yixing’s cheeks flushed at the physician’s declaration, Junmyeon’s knowing glance boring into him. He tucked his hand back under the covers when the physician released him, flexing his left hand with a grimace.

 

No one had cleaned his glove yet. He was thankful that they did not try but it was also extremely vile to feel caked blood and mud inside his glove.

 

After the physician had left, deeming Yixing almost completely well, Yixing slid himself off the bed gingerly, swaying.

 

He wanted to get his glove off and scrub down his hand until he stopped feeling like he was dirty.

 

“You did well,” Junmyeon said softly when he approached him, one hand pressed into the mattress to keep himself upright.

 

Yixing dipped his head, sweeping his gaze over Junmyeon to reassure himself that he was really alright.

 

“I have to-.” He gestured to his hand and Junmyeon’s eyes widened a little, nodding. Without prompting, Chanyeol followed behind him as he went to the bathroom, staying a good distance away when he pulled off his glove.

 

Yixing grimaced at the smell that came off his hand, his stomach turning. He turned on the taps, drenching his hand in water before scrubbing at it with the nearest bar of soap.

 

“I’m sorry for yelling,” Chanyeol said when he twisted open the tap again, the sound of rushing water almost drowning out his voice.

 

When Yixing turned to look at him, the general’s face was a mask of guilt as he studied his fingers as if they were a live wire. He smiled tightly, scrubbing at his skin almost too hard just to remove all traces of blood.

 

“It’s alright. You were afraid.” The water stopped running and he reached for a hand towel, rubbing at his hand until the skin was red and raw.

 

“I should have been better prepared,” Chanyeol bowed his head, his lips pulled down.

 

Yixing shook his head, drenching his glove in water.

 

“I’ve seen something like them before,” he said seriously, shuddering as he recalled the bear he had met on his journey. “There was a bear. Before the first village, we were attacked by a bear in a similar condition.”

 

“A bear? What kind of condition?” Chanyeol’s brows furrowed.

 

“Dead. That bear should have been dead or close to dying.”

 

The silence between them stretched on, with only the trickle of water filling the void.

 

“The prince needs to know this,” Chanyeol said, “you should have told us the moment you arrived.”

 

Yixing cringed.

 

“I was- distracted.”

 

Chanyeol snorted, but said nothing as he followed him back into the room, where Junmyeon seemed to have fallen asleep waiting for the both of them to return.

 

Yixing brushed a hand over the loose strand of hair falling into Junmyeon’s eyes, bent, pressing his lips against his forehead before Chanyeol could stop him.

 

“He’ll get a backache, sleeping like that,” he commented, stroking Junmyeon’s head gently. Chanyeol shot him an amused look, moving around him to scoop up the sleeping prince.

 

Immediately, Junmyeon flailed away, nearly striking Chanyeol in the head with a yelp.

 

“Did I fall asleep?” he asked blearily when Chanyeol set him back down, looking like a soft little bunny with the way he rubbed at his eyes, nosing at Yixing’s belly.

 

“You can go back to sleep. We’ve had a rough day,” Chanyeol said, wrapping his hand around Junmyeon’s wrist. Yixing watched as he tugged him to his feet, Junmyeon going willingly.

 

At the very last moment, Junmyeon pulled himself out of Chanyeol’s hold to wrap his arms around Yixing, hugging him close.

 

“Just so you know. I’m very proud of you,” he murmured. Yixing tried to smile, hiding his face into Junmyeon’s shoulder.

 

He did not know how to admit that he was somehow even more afraid of his own power than he had been before.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

“Where are you going?” The lilting voice startled him. Baekhyun turned towards the direction of the person speaking, the corners of his lips curling.

 

“I’m looking for the stables, Sehun sshi. Would you mind helping me find my way?” he called out, listening as the footsteps drew closer.

 

Sehun’s voice was small when he spoke again, as if he was unsure.

 

“You want me to show you?”

 

“Why not? You live here,” Baekhyun answered, extending his hand. He rather liked Sehun, when he was not having his episodes, as he called them.

 

Sehun was younger, younger than he was, he learned when he had calmed down from his episode long enough to finish his dinner. Prince Jongdae had left them for the night, claiming tiredness and Geoum had gone with him, mewling as if they were speaking.

 

“Most people think I’m crazy,” Sehun said, long fingers wrapping around Baekhyun’s hand delicately. “Even I think I’m crazy.”

 

He sounded so sad that Baekhyun had the urge to wrap him up in a big hug.

 

“It’s not your fault, Sehun,” he said, tracing circles on the back of Sehun’s hand. “You’re not crazy. You’re just a little special.”

 

“You think so?” Sehun’s draggy footsteps lightened up and Baekhyun could only smile to himself at the brightness in his tone.

 

“Yes. Now will you show me to the stables so that I can check on my horse?”

 

Sehun must have nodded because there was a short silence before he went, “oh! I forgot you can’t see.”

 

Baekhyun laughed, surprising himself. The innocence in Sehun’s tone was so unlike anything he had heard before, from the whispers back home. It was so refreshing to hear someone so casually acknowledging his disability without degrading him and showing him pity.

 

“Jongdae hyung likes you, you know,” Sehun said as they walked down the steps. He seemed to have absolute faith in Baekhyun and his cane, only occasionally reminding him when there was a step or a ledge that he had to step over. “He thought you were pretty when they brought you in, all soggy.”

 

He giggled when he said it and Baekhyun had to laugh with him, his laughter was so contagious.

 

“Really? He didn’t act like that when he spoke to me. You heard what he said.”

 

The outside was freezing, so much colder than what Baekhyun was used to. Rain lashed down from the skies pelting down at the ground so heavily that his cane made swishing sounds through water every time he moved it across the ground.

 

Sehun patted his shoulder, carefully guiding him around something before speaking.

 

“Ah, hyung is like that. He’s cold like the blustery wind that blows in from the north in winter. You just have to soften him up a little. It helps that you’re nice though!”

 

“What does he look like?” Baekhyun asked, yelping when something brushed against his calf, all prickly.

 

“He’s pretty small,” Sehun mused, “about your height.”

 

He paused, as if he was listening when the wind whistled past.

 

“He has black hair, parted at the center and very pretty lips. They curl at both ends like a cat.”

 

Baekhyun’s own lips curled at the thought. He could not form a proper picture in his head but perhaps vaguely, he could envision a young man the way Sehun had described.

 

“And he wears a half mask on the left side of his face.”

 

“Oh?” The revelation surprised Baekhyun. They had stopped in front of a stall and he could hear familiar whickering.

 

“Hello, Baixian,” he called, all thoughts of Prince Jongdae and his mask flying out of his head when he felt his horse nuzzle at his hands, nosing at his palm as if looking for treats. “Thank you for saving me, boy.”

 

Baixian snorted, nibbling at his sleeve as if to say ‘no problem’ before butting his whole head at Baekhyun’s chest, as if trying to get out an itch. Baekhyun laughed, scratching between his ears. Baixian flapped his lips at him, ears twitching.

 

“May I pet him? I love horses.” He had been so quiet that Baekhyun had almost forgotten that Sehun was there. Sehun sounded so wistful that Baekhyun could not help but wonder when was the last time the boy had ridden a horse.

 

“Yes, of course! His name is Baixian and he helps me see.”

 

Baekhyun pushed Baixian’s muzzle gently away from him and the horse turned to stare curiously at Sehun.

 

“Hello, Baixian,” Sehun said softly, his accent lilting on the unfamiliar words. Baixian did not seem to mind him at all, allowing him to caress his cheek and stroke his velvety nose.

 

“Hyung said that he was impeccably trained. Did you get him from Olda?” Sehun asked and Baekhyun shrugged his shoulders.

 

“I don’t know. He was a gift for my birthday.”

 

“Hyung said he might be. Or perhaps he was shuttled all over the lands to be trained. Hyung would know best. He loves horses too. Sometimes when he’s in a good mood, he’ll make horses out of clouds.”

 

Prince Jongdae. Bringer of storms. Baekhyun hummed thoughtfully. So the bringer of storms could manipulate clouds and possibly lightning?

 

“He’s beautiful either way. A lovely breed.”

 

Sehun muttered on, oblivious to Baekhyun’s thoughts.

 

Thunder rumbled through the air and he jumped, his grip on his cane tightening. The wind howled and Sehun flinched so hard that Baekhyun felt it too.

 

“Let’s go back inside, Sehun,” he said quickly, not wanting to risk the boy having another fit outside of the castle and scaring the horses.

 

“The wind- the wind-,” Sehun mumbled when he fumbled to grab his wrist, gently pulling him along.

 

“Sehun, listen to me. We need to go back inside. I’m cold, aren’t you cold?” Baekhyun asked, trying not to let his panic show through when Sehun would not budge.

 

“Shadows. The kingdoms,” Sehun murmured, completely ignoring Baekhyun. He was almost in a trance, unresponsive even when Baekhyun shook him.

 

“Sehun, come on-.”

 

A loud meow cut through the air and Baekhyun had never been so happy to know that Geoum was near. The cat padded over to him, winding between his ankles, meowing loudly before moving onto Sehun.

 

As if the cat had called his name, Sehun shifted and his rigid body softened. He bent, picking up Geoum into his arms.

 

“Let’s go inside. I’m cold,” he said as if nothing had happened. Baekhyun was more than happy to leave it at that and follow him in, weaving around stablehands.

 

He had a wonderful night’s sleep after parting with Sehun, Geoum meowing to him as if trying to assure him that he would take the boy to bed.

 

It was relatively easy for him to find his way back to his room, thanks to the help of a servant he met in the hallway. She had been frightened of him at first but pointed him in the correct direction until Baekhyun could remember how the hallway had echoed when Prince Jongdae led him out.

 

“My lord?” Baekhyun stirred, grumbling at being woken. He turned towards the timid voice, grunting out a response.

 

“The prince wishes for you to dine with him for breakfast.”

 

Footsteps came closer and closer, stopping just shy of the bed.

 

Baekhyun fumbled, reaching for his cane. He heaved a sigh when his fingers closed around the familiar figurehead, his mind barely processing the words the servant had said.

 

Once he finally did however, he jerked awake.

 

“Yixing is back? I thought he was to be gone for three years.” His voice trembled, full of anger and longing. His heart shuttered when the servant spoke again, clearly confused.

 

“Prince Jongdae, milord. Prince Yixing is not due to arrive for a long while yet. Now come. The prince does not like to be kept waiting.”

 

Baekhyun blinked, allowing the servant to set her hand upon his arm to guide him to what must be a bathroom, as the floor beneath his bare feet turned to cold marble and he could smell lavender in the air.

 

“Shall I help you undress, milord or are you able to do it yourself?” the servant asked and Baekhyun shook his hand at once, leaning against his cane.

 

“I’ll be fine, thank you.”

 

He waited until the servant had closed the door behind him before leaning his cane against a wall.

 

The water in the tub was warm and soapy when he stepped in, sighing blissfully as his muscles relaxed under the water. Tilting his head, Baekhyun made sure that there was no one around before closing his eyes, reaching for the thread of magic that unspooled in his belly, warm and familiar by now.

 

He had no way of telling if his magic worked but he just knew.

 

Grinning to himself, he toyed with the lamps in the room, lighting and blowing them out before keeping them lit. He was sure he was in the right place. The burning in his gut was stronger than ever. All he had to do now was to follow the trail.

 

Sliding out of the tub, he dried himself down, humming a soft tune to himself. It was the lightest he had felt in a long time.

 

Outside, the storm seemed to have settled down a little more when the servant brought him to the same dining hall he had shared with Sehun the night prior.

 

“Good morning!” Sehun chirped, tapping his silverware against his glass, making a chiming sound ring through the air. Geoum mewled, as if greeting Baekhyun as well.

 

“Good morning,” Baekhyun smiled, turning to where he thought Sehun was seated.

 

Something soft rubbed against his ankles and he bent, rubbing Geoum’s head gently.

 

“Come away, Geoum. You’ll trip him,” Prince Jongdae said sharply and his cat only meowed back defiantly before padding away, his swishing tail brushing against Baekhyun’s leg as he walked to his seat.

 

“Did you sleep well?” His tone was still tense but Baekhyun could hear that he was trying.

 

“I did. Very well, Your Highness. Thank you for your hospitality,” he said formally as he slid into his seat, resting his cane against the side of the table.

 

“You can stay,” Prince Jongdae said stiffly, “we are not used to having guests but Geoum thinks this will be good practice for when the prince comes.”

 

Baekhyun snorted before he could help himself, his tone tone bitter.

 

“So I’m practice now. That’s better than freak at least.”

 

He had no idea why the prince was so cold now, when he had seemed less frigid when talking about Sehun. Not that it mattered. He had better things to do, like hunting down that elusive tree.

 

“I didn’t mean to offend,” Prince Jongdae said after a moment of awkward silence, with only Sehun tinkling away on his water glass. “As I said, we are unused to guests.”

 

“Of course,” Baekhyun said, sarcastically. Perhaps the prince was as odd as he was, but he could not see it, because he was quite literally blind, but he saw no reason why Prince Jongdae would shun people.

 

“You would understand if you saw my face.”

 

As if he had picked up on Baekhyun’s unasked question, Prince Jongdae’s tone was downright frosty.

 

“As you can tell. I can’t exactly see very well, Your Highness. You’ll have to enlighten me.”

 

Sehun laughed at that, clapping his hands. Baekhyun did not see how his sarcasm was funny but if Sehun was enjoying himself, then so be it. He could almost imagine those curly kitten lips tightening when Prince Jongdae spoke again, so stiff that he might as well be a rock.

 

“I am cursed. When my power slips, it adds a new scar to the left side of my face. As you can imagine, I have slipped many times now.”

 

That was why he wore the mask. Sehun had mentioned it briefly the night before.

 

“Jongdae hyung thinks he looks horrid,” Sehun put in, as if Baekhyun could not infer the information from what he had been told. “I think it’s cool. Lightning scars are cool.”

 

“Sehun.” The sharpness in Prince Jongdae’s tone was enough to shut him up and Sehun went back to his tinkling, poking at his plate.

 

“Scars, huh. So that’s your thing,” Baekhyun said absently. He scraped his plate with his knife, thinking of Yixing’s hand. Did the Bada prince have an anomaly as well? The Olda prince perhaps?

 

“Yes. My thing as you say, frightens the servants. I wear the mask to spare them the horror. I even scare myself in the mirror.”

 

Prince Jongdae’s tone was bitter as he speared some fruit on his fork.

 

“But you agreed to Prince Yixing’s request. Why?” Baekhyun was confused.

 

It was exceptionally clear that the prince did not take kindly to having strangers in his home at all but he had answered yes to Yixing’s letter, or Yixing would not be gone for three years.

 

“My mother forced it on me before she left for a state visit to Olda. She said it would be good to have someone my age to talk to, never mind that Prince Yixing is my senior,” Jongdae said sourly, as if he was regretting every moment of his decision.

 

“By how many years?” Baekhyun asked, curious. From the way he spoke, he could not have been much older than himself.

 

“A year. We’re a year apart. I was born during the autumn equinox.”

 

“Oh, we’re the same age,” Baekhyun mused.

 

“It does not bother you?” Jongdae seemed surprised that he did not fuss over his thing as they had deemed to call it now.

 

Baekhyun rolled his eyes. Or well, he tried. He was not sure how well it translated in his sightless eyes but the message must have gotten across because he heard the prince recoil, hissing softly.

 

“Not to be that person, Your Highness. But again, I cannot see. Have not been able to for close to a year and will probably never see again. How can I be afraid of something I can’t see? If anything, you would be beautiful to me because I can feel patterns in your skin.” The words slipped out carelessly, Baekhyun giving almost no thought to his answer but Prince Jongdae must have had some sort of reaction as Sehun started giggling.

 

“You’re blushing, hyung! I’ve never seen you so red!” he cheered, clapping his hands and his forks together so that they made a cacophony of sound that made Geoum hiss.

 

“Be quiet, Sehun.” Prince Jongdae’s voice shook, as if he was close to tears. Baekhyun smiled faintly.

 

“You’ve never had anyone call you beautiful?” he asked and Sehun answered.

 

“Never! Jongdae hyung does not even flirt. He acts all old and dreary. It was more fun when we were younger and he would actually leave the house.”

 

“Sehun, that’s enough!” Prince Jongdae sounded so flustered that Baekyun’s smile widened. It was very satisfying to know that all he needed to crack the storm prince’s façade was to compliment him a little.

 

“Does it count to be called beautiful by a blind man?” Sehun mused aloud and Prince Jongdae gasped, so scandalised that he dropped his cutlery.

 

“Sehun, please!”

 

Geoum meowed loudly, as if he was chiding too. Baekhyun shrugged.

 

“It’s alright. He says it as it is,” he said, spearing a forkful of eggs into his mouth. “It’s better than the people who look and whisper as if I am deaf as well as blind.”

 

“Also.” He turned in what he hoped was Sehun’s direction, brandishing his fork. “It definitely counts to be called beautiful by a blind person. But said blind person cannot confirm until he has ‘seen’ his face.”

 

Baekhyun was enjoying himself immensely, imagining all the colours the prince’s face might be turning right then, at his blatant disrespect of dining etiquette. Perhaps now he would believe that Baekhyun was a commoner.

 

“How does a blind person see, pray tell?” Prince Jongdae asked. He sounded curious now, not so much like the ice prince that he had been when Baekhyun first set foot in the dining hall.

 

Baekhyun wiggled his fingers in the air and Sehun giggled again.

 

“With his hands, of course! He touches your face all over and it feels really nice,” he squealed.

 

The wind outside picked up all of a sudden, as if Prince Jongdae’s control had slipped. Baekhyun winced when Sehun went deadly silent, his happy laughter dying at once.

 

“Are you alright, Your Highness?” Baekhyun asked cautiously. Now that he had established that they were the same age, he was more comfortable ribbing the prince a little more but if the teasing could cause his control to slip, perhaps he ought to be more careful.

 

“I’m fine and please, call me Jongdae. If we are the same age then you ought act like it,” Jongdae said almost pompously and Baekhyun rolled his eyes again.

 

“Can we start by me learning your face?” he asked hopefully, “it would be nice if I could get a mental picture of what you looked like.”

 

He could feel Jongdae’s hesitation rolling across the table when the words had barely left his tongue and backtracked at once.

 

“If you are uncomfortable, of course, then I can just go off Sehun’s descriptions. He’s really good at them,” he said hurriedly.

 

“What, did he call me a cat again?” Jongdae asked, clearly amused. Geoum mewled too and then got up, weaving delicately around all the dinnerware to plop himself squarely in front of Baekhyun’s plate.

 

“Oh- you startled me,” Baekhyun said when the cat’s tail tapped against his free hand, clearly asking for pets. He obliged, reaching over to stroke Geoum’s head, smiling. “I assume you must resemble your cat somewhat, if he calls you one so often.”

 

“Cat,” Sehun murmured, suddenly lucid again. “Shadows. Wolves. I see- a bear.”

 

“A bear?” Baekhyun blinked.

 

Jongdae sighed heavily.

 

“He sees animals these days. Wolves and bears the like. It used to be shadows and wraiths.”

 

“Has he ever seen a doctor?”

 

“When he was younger, yes. We tried to find out what’s wrong. But it’s just the wind. It’s his affliction or thing, as you so kindly called. The wind shows him things, things that we cannot see. Perhaps even his mind cannot comprehend what he sees.”

 

“Will this last his entire life?” Baekhyun felt sorrow weigh him down on the inside. It seemed incredibly unfair that Sehun, who was practically a child, would have to go through all the confusion and isolation because of his powers.

 

“I fear so. Unless we find what is causing these curses that come hand in hand with our inheritance.”

 

-

 

Jongdae seemed to go through phases. After that talk at the breakfast table, Baekhyun thought it would be easier to get the prince to warm up to him.

 

He was not wrong. However, there were days, many where he just simply was not in a good mood.

 

The servants that dared to speak to Baekhyun told him that Jongdae kept himself locked away in his chambers, high up in the highest tower so that his lightning could never strike anywhere else. There were rumours that the prince had killed a child before, by accident, which was why he was so careful to keep himself semi in control at all times.

 

Baekhyun thought he would have grown wiser with everything that had happened to him, the blindness and whatnot but yet, he found himself inexplicably drawn to the reclusive prince. He climbed the tower that Jongdae hid himself in and stubbornly sat outside, talking and talking about the most ridiculous things.

 

“When Yixing and I were younger, when I could see, I had these really pretty brown eyes. The town baker’s son, he was sweet on me, I swear it,” Baekhyun rambled, sitting outside Jongdae’s door one afternoon. “He gave me and Yixing free buns whenever we went in and I even managed to convince him to give us a cake one time.”

 

“You’re loud. And noisy,” came a growl from behind the door. There was a fist slamming down onto a wooden surface and Baekhyun suppressed a laugh.

 

“Well, I’ve been told that. I used to be quieter, you know, when there wasn’t anyone else to talk to back home after Yixing left. I scared all the children and no one would talk to me. It was so lonely,” he said.

 

He could not remember the last time he had talked so much or wanted to talk so much but something about Jongdae made him want to crack him open like a puzzle.

 

Jongdae acted so mysterious and dark, simply because he was cursed. Baekhyun was not one to belittle curses. He knew how devastating their effects could be and in some way, he could understand Jongdae’s reluctance to let people in.

 

But Baekhyun was also stubborn.

 

He wanted to Jongdae to like him, to call him pretty like he had apparently told Sehun Baekhyun was when he had first arrived.

 

If there was one thing Baekhyun was not insecure about anymore, it was his looks. He was no longer defined by having a pretty face and for others, looking good meant nothing to him because he could not appreciate it. It was a shame but Baekhyun could live with it.

 

“Go away, Baekhyun. I tire of hearing you natter,” Jongdae shouted from behind the door and Baekhyun hid a laugh into his hands.

 

“Well, don’t listen then!” he called.

 

Jongdae was listening, he could tell, even though he never came out from behind the door when he sat there.

 

Even though he could talk for hours about nothing in particular, Baekhyun had better things to do than annoy Jongdae for days on end.

 

When he had grown tired of bothering Jongdae, Baekhyun went off on his own. The people still stared but Baekhyun had long grown immune to people looking, more focused on his own business as he saddled Baixian, with minimal help from the stable hand that had whimpered when he had seen him.

 

It stung but Baekhyun had important things to do.

 

Things like chasing down the stupid tree tugging on the other end of the thread in his belly. He mounted Baixian, carefully looping his cane into straps that had been made to hold it before urging Baixian forward.

 

He did not need a guide, for Baixian knew to keep to the roads. Baekhyun only needed to follow his gut, quite literally, a golden trail of energy buzzing in his veins.

 

He could hear the townspeople whisper as he rode past, Baixian’s hooves clip clopping on wet stone. It was drizzling a little, which meant that Jongdae was probably practicing his magic.

 

Baekhyun merely tugged his hood more forward on his head and urged Baixian in the direction he wanted to go, the sounds of the town blurring around his ears.

 

He did not know how far they had ridden until the sounds faded slowly away, Baixian still plodding on as steadily as ever, picking his way across what Baekhyun thought was a dirt road. The grass was long enough to make swishing sounds when the wind blew through them and Baekhyun realised that they must be on the road out of the main city center.

 

His heart tripped a little when he recalled the map of Seong in his mind. The forest, which he assumed had to be the direction they were heading towards was a long way from the castle and the bustling town.

 

Rumor had it that the king and queen had the forest cut out and away so that the poison would not reach them. Baekhyun did not know how much of that was true but in the open field he had stopped Baixian in, he could tell that there was almost no trees in close distance.

 

Damnit.

 

He was going to need to do some rerouting and possibly require Jongdae’s help, if he would help him.

 

“Come on, boy. Let’s go back.” He patted Baixian’s shoulder, turning the stallion around. The thread tugged at him insistently even as he turned away, digging his heels into Baixian’s sides.

 

Without his eyes, he had no concept of time at all and had no idea how long he had been gone until he encountered a group of castle guards on his way back into town.

 

“Milord!”

 

Baekhyun pulled Baixian to a stop, frowning. He twisted his head, searching for the source of the voice.

 

“Lord Baekhyun!”

 

The voices were closer now, combined with the thudding of horse hooves and jangling bits. Baekhyun’s grip on his reins tightened.

 

Was he in trouble?

 

“Lord Baekhyun.” It was a female voice, sharp and accusing. “Do you have any idea how long we’ve been searching for you?”

 

“I wouldn’t know, fair lady. I haven’t got the eyes to see,” Baekhyun said, stalling. They had to be castle guards. No one else would use his name. He could almost hear the eye roll the lady gave him.

 

“Come along now, Lord Baekhyun. The hour grows late and the prince is anxious to have you home.”

 

“How late?” Baekhyun asked, steadying Baixian under his hands as horses moved to surround him into a protective herd. He could almost smell their nerves as the riders herded him back in the direction of the castle.

 

“The sun is nearly setting. We must hurry. Wild beasts roam these fields at night, milord,” the lady said, her voice fading, softer. She must be riding in front of him.

 

“Right. What kind of beasts?”

 

“We don’t talk about them, milord,” a young man chimed in, the lady having ridden too far forward to hear him. “But I hear the townsfolk say they’ve seen wolves the size of bears. Or just shadows with no hosts. We think they come from the forest.”

 

“Is that why the king and queen had them pruned back? How far is it till the forest?” Baekhyun asked.

 

“Less than a day’s ride, milord. Sometimes when the weather is better, the prince goes in to hunt. But it is rare for the weather is rarely ever good.”

 

“He goes alone?” Baekhyun gaped. The forest back home was so dangerous that the king and queen would never even entertain the thought of anyone entering it alone. The king brought his hunting parties when he did go. When he could convince Yixing to sneak in with him, even Baekhyun did not dare venture past the first stream.

 

“Our forest is less like Chilyo’s, milord. The poison is not nearly as strong here. That is why we still have beasts.”

 

“Beasts the size of bears are normal?” Baekhyun asked, trying not to let his horror show.

 

The young man shrugged and then realised that Baekhyun could not see him.

 

“They are a product of the diluted poison, I suppose.”

 

“If the poison is weaker here, does it mean that Olda is almost completely free of it?” Baekhyun asked. If the poison was the most concentrated in Chilyo, it would make sense for the poison to dilute as it flowed down the streams and rivers. Perhaps Olda was flourishing because they had no poison.

 

“Perhaps so. We are not privy to the information of royals, unfortunately.”

 

The town was silent as they rode through, with only the occasional dog barking. It had to be dark by the time they arrived back at the castle.

 

“The stable hands will put your horse away, milord. The prince wishes to see you.” the lady who had led the herd was back, her voice smooth and lilting.

 

Baekhyun was reluctant to put Baixian away without grooming him himself but the stallion nuzzled him, as if sensing his thoughts.

 

“Alright.” He pulled down his cane, steadying himself on Baixian’s shoulder before making his way back into the castle, guided closely by the lady who he assumed was the general or captain of the guard.

 

“His Highness is in the drawing room. A servant will bring you there. I will take my leave now.”

 

The lady bowed and vanished before Baekhyun could even ask her name, stuck mid bow. He huffed. Why were Seong people all so mysterious?

 

Luckily, he did not have to stand in the foyer for long before Sehun came whistling down the stairs.

 

“Baekhyun sshi!” he cried and Baekhyun shuddered.

 

“Please call me hyung, Sehun. There’s no need to be so formal,” he chided.

 

“The winds told me you were back,” Sehun said breezily, “now come on. Jongdae hyung has been mad with worry.”

 

“Mad with worry?” Baekhyun echoed as Sehun took his arm, guiding him up the stairs. “Surely you exaggerate, Sehun. I’m hardly of importance for him to go mad with worry as you say.”

 

“Perhaps it is more political?” Sehun mused, “the crown prince of Chilyo will arrive in soon and you say you are close to him. It would not do for us to lose a close friend of a prince.”

 

Baekhyun bit his lip.

 

He had forgotten all about Yixing.

 

So engrossed he had been in Jongdae and the tree that he had nearly forgotten the entire reason he was in this state in the first place.

 

His stomach pitched at the thought of seeing him again. Would Yixing be repulsed by him? Perhaps he would be horrified at what he had done, his handiwork. Or perhaps he would be completely indifferent, Baekhyun meaning nothing to him anymore.

 

Soft piano melodies trickled out from the drawing room as they drew closer, Baekhyun’s cane moving from carpet to wood floor. Baekhyun hummed a little, trying to discern how far away they were.

 

He heard the door knob creak and the sounds of the piano grew louder, filling his ears. Sehun led him inside, one hand on his back to steady him as the melody grew wilder and wilder, ending in a cacophony of crashes that Baekhyun was not sure was in the song at all.

 

There was a soft curse from Jongdae, as if he had made a mistake.

 

“Baekhyun hyung is here, Dae hyung,” Sehun called amidst the cursing and Jongdae stopped immediately, much to Baekhyun’s amusement.

 

“You summoned me?” Baekhyun asked, one hand outstretched to stop himself from bumping into the piano. His fingers met slick wood and he moved along it, until his finger pressed down onto a key, a soft tinny sound ringing into the air.

 

“I thought you ran away,” came Jongdae’s voice, sharp and unforgiving.

 

Baekhyun raised his eyebrows.

 

“I’m glad you think so highly of me. To leave my host without so much of a good bye. Hardly proper, is it?”

 

“How should I know? You could be upset that I did not pay you any attention,” Jongdae snapped. He twisted in the wooden chair, the material squeaking in Baekhyun’s ears.

 

“Oh, please,” Baekhyun huffed, “it takes a lot more to upset me than a prince not paying any attention to his guest.”

 

“You should still tell someone when you leave the castle,” Jongdae said after a beat of silence. “The forests here are safer than Chilyo’s but beasts still roam those fields at night. It is unsafe to go alone. The next time you decide to go for a hack across town, you should speak to me.”

 

“Yet you hunt alone, Your Highness,” Baekhyun said mockingly. He trailed his fingers over the keys, pressing over them just to hear the notes ring out pleasantly.

 

“Because I am safer alone,” Jongdae replied, stiffly. Baekhyun could feel his gaze sweeping over his hands as he ran them over the keys, pressing them one by one. He brushed over a raised key and pressed it down hard, giggling when a dissonant note rang out.

 

“Your playing is beautiful,” he murmured under his breath, almost too soft for Jongdae to hear. He had never learned any instrument. It was a wonder to him that Yixing so often asked to be sung to sleep by him because he had never had any formal training.

 

The keys were well worn under his fingertips and he was so distracted tracing them that he did not notice the chair beside him.

 

Jongdae yelped when he bumped into him, Baekhyun gasping in pain when his thigh slammed into the corner of the chair. He wobbled, his cane slipping out of his hand before he could right himself.

 

“Be careful!” Strong hands caught him when he tipped sideways, landing in Jongdae’s lap. His hand must have brushed against somewhere incredibly inappropriate because the prince made a sound through his teeth.

 

Baekhyun was certain he must be bright red when Jongdae helped him back up, putting his cane back into his hand.

 

“Perhaps you would be safer sitting down,” Jongdae said quietly and Baekhyun allowed him to guide him down to sit next to him on the bench. The bench was small and he had to sit so close that Jongdae’s shoulder bumped against his.

 

“Do you play?” Jongdae asked when he was safely seated next to him, his cane leaning against his leg.

 

Baekhyun shook his head, feeling at the keys again.

 

“I sing a little but I’ve never learned to play.”

 

Jongdae was silent for a moment.

 

“May I?” A hand brushed against Baekhyun’s arm and he froze.

“I- suppose so?”

 

Warm hands covered his, guiding his fingers over the keys. Jongdae was pressed against him, mouth practically breathing the notes into his ear as he pressed down one key at a time. Baekhyun hummed the notes back to him, little shivers running through his body whenever Jongdae leant in closer to re-sing a note.

 

It was rather romantic, the way they were positioned but it was also the most practical. Baekhyun could not see the keys without guidance. So he pushed the tingling feeling in his gut to the back of his mind and focused instead on singing the notes back to Jongdae.

 

“You have a beautiful voice, Baekhyun.” Jongdae’s words were soft and silky in his ears when he finally pulled away and Baekhyun could breathe again.

 

“I sang the notes on the piano. It’s difficult to mess up,” Baekhyun said, trying not to let the compliment worm its way into his heart. His chest felt warm and his face as well. He was very possibly red from the compliment.

 

Jongdae huffed, as if amused and the weight against Baekhyun’s side moved away.

 

“Are you always this defensive?” Jongdae asked, the keys on what Baekhyun assumed was on the higher octave plinking softly in a familiar lullaby.

 

“I could ask the same of you,” Baekhyun retorted, smiling to himself when he felt Jongdae’s shoulders move in a shrug.

 

“You’re the most disrespectful commoner I’ve ever met. Most of the commonfolk are afraid I would smite them to smithereens if they so much as made me upset.”

 

Baekhyun rolled his eyes, leaning into the prince’s space. Perhaps he ought to be a little more respectful of royalty. But being around Yixing had desensitised him to the exclusivity of their title and status and Yixing had never cared much for the formality of the nobles anyway.

 

He was not sure it was a good thing, to be so blasé around royalty but it was not as if he intended to go around rubbing shoulders with the rest of the monarchs of the land. Jongdae did not seem to mind him either, on the days where he deigned to speak to him.

 

The days passed slowly. It was not always smooth going as, like the ocean and the weather he could control, Jongdae was finicky and difficult to predict.

 

He learnt not to let the prince’s foul moods get to him, realising very quickly that the weather was often the reason Jongdae’s moods changed.

 

For the most part, Jongdae seemed to enjoy his presence, though he did not let on very quickly. Baekhyun realised it only when he had spent some time away from him, riding Baixian out to the edges of the forest to feel out the location of the tree.

 

It was nice to be alone sometimes, but there were also days where Sehun would beg to be allowed to accompany him, a fact that stunned Jongdae and the servants.

 

“Sehun hasn’t wanted to leave the castle in a very long time,” Jongdae mused to Baekhyun after he had been told that Sehun wanted to ride. “He’s always kept himself here because people upset him and the wind changes so often it is unsafe for him to be alone outside.”

 

Baekhyun chewed his lip, fiddling with the handle of his cane.

 

“Perhaps he should be allowed out with attendants. I can’t imagine it is very good for a child so young to be cooped up in the castle.”

 

Jongdae hummed.

 

“Perhaps. But the servants are either afraid of him or dislike him.”

 

“He could come with me,” Baekhyun said. “If you will tell me how to handle him when he has an episode. Or you could come with us, if you’re not in your usual strop.”

 

He could almost see Jongdae’s smile when he was shoved, not hard enough for him to fall but just enough to make him yelp.

 

“You’re such a brat. What does Prince Yixing even see in you?” Jongdae laughed, bumping his shoulder into Baekyun’s. Baekhyun fell silent, rubbing his thumb over the figurehead on his cane. He still had not given Jongdae any details on his relationship with Yixing and Jongdae had not pushed for them.

 

Did he know what kind of person Yixing was? Was he informed of his powers and the destruction he could wreck because of said powers? Baekhyun did not know.

 

He was also too afraid to ask.

 

Here was a man who would not defend Yixing’s actions if he told it to him, unlike everyone back home who had not held the prince fully responsible for the damage he had wrought. Perhaps Baekhyun just wanted his anger to be validated, justified instead of constantly being told that he ought to give it a rest.

 

It was a rare day where it was not raining, with only soft winds blowing. The sky was perpetually dark and covered with storm clouds but on this day, there was just the tiniest bit of sun peeking through. A good day to go out riding.

 

The bond that Baekhyun had with the tree was fizzling with excitement. It seemed like the perfect time to go hunt down the elusive tree.

 

“You’re jittery today,” Jongdae observed as they went down the stairs together, Sehun having run ahead in his excitement.

 

Baekhyun blinked, shifting his cane. His fingers gripped tighter around the banister as he prodded around beneath him for the next step and he focused his attention on going down the stairs before answering.

 

“You’re in a good mood and it’s finally a nice day out.” He nudged Jongdae when they were both safely on the ground, the prince backing away just enough for him to miss. Baekhyun pouted. “That’s not very nice of you, Your Highness.”

 

“What’s not very nice is you treating me like your best friend,” Jongdae grumbled as he ambled away, Baekhyun following after him.

 

“Don’t you like it? I thought you did. After all, I’m not afraid of you,” Baekhyun mused, not at all hurt by Jongdae’s sentiments. He could tell when it was appropriate to tease Jongdae and when it was not now.

 

Jongdae slowed down just enough to shove an elbow into his side and walked away so quickly that Baekhyun could hardly follow.

 

“That was unkind!” he called, listening to Jongdae’s footsteps.

 

Jongdae did not answer him and Baekhyun just barely managed to hop over the ledge in the doorway before catching up to him.

 

“Why are you so fascinated by the forest anyway?” The prince asked when he drew near, the sounds of horses whickering and neighing filling their ears.

 

A stablehand approached before Baekhyun could answer, handing Baixian’s reins over to him.

 

“Hello, boy,” Baekhyun cooed, shifting the reins to his right hand so that he could lean on his cane and stroke the horse at once.

 

Baixian snuffled at him and Baekhyun dropped a kiss on his muzzle, grinning.

 

“He is really very well trained,” Jongdae commented when Baekhyun led Baixian over to the mounting block, mounting the horse with ease.

 

“He becomes my eyes,” Baekhyun explained, feeling around for the loops to slide his cane into. He could almost see Jongdae physically restraining himself from help and the thought made him smile.

 

“I can see that,” Jongdae replied as a stablehand came down the aisle, his own horse trotting obediently at his side. Baixian sidestepped away so that the horse could pass.

 

They set off with many eyes upon them. Eyes that Baekhyun ignored in favour of plaguing Jongdae with questions about the forest. Sehun rode ahead, his horse as spritely as he, chasing butterflies. Baekhyun could hear him as they went, a smile tugging at his lips.

 

The pulling in his gut grew stronger as they crossed the fields that Baekhyun had stopped the day he went.

 

“It’s so far from the forest,” Baekhyun mused softly as they rode on, listening to the way the horses’ hooves pounded into the dirt.

 

“The castle?” Jongdae was a little further ahead, his voice barely carrying over the wind. “Yes. My ancestors had them pruned back and redirected the water keep the poison from reaching our lands.”

 

Baekhyun thought of the almost dead forest at Chilyo’s borders, the castle practically a stone’s throw away from the edges, the undrinkable water.

 

“Chilyo is too close,” he said, shaking his head, “and there’s nowhere to redirect the water.”

 

“Ahh,” Jongdae sighed when he pulled up closer, feeling the warmth of Jongdae’s horse by his leg.

 

“Be careful now, Sehun!” Jongdae called out. Baekhyun startled when he felt Jongdae grasp at his reins to direct him. “There are beasts in the forest that run amok among the trees. Wolves the size of bears and wild boars the size of a horse.”

 

Baekhyun could hear Sehun crunching around, his horse’s hooves trotting over dead leaves but he could also hear something else.

 

Something heavier.

 

“Sehun, come back!” he shouted, reaching for his sword. His blood chilled in his veins when he heard the low growl of a creature, too big to be natural.

 

 

Chapter Text

Sehun’s shrill scream pierced through the air, ringing in his ear drums as he spurred Baixian on. Baekhyun cursed when he fumbled for his cane, the weapon transforming as he yanked it out. He could not tell what sort of creature it was, only that it was big and heavy and that it was far too close to Sehun.

 

“Sehun!” Jongdae was right beside him, practically alight with electricity. Baekhyun could feel his magic humming from where he was.

 

“He’s here!” Jongdae’s voice shifted and Baekhyun followed at once, turning Baixian with his legs.

 

Sehun shrieked again and the creature snarled. Baekhyun grimaced at the smell of rotting flesh, slashing out the moment he felt a wave of heat. Hot liquid splashed outwards and he gagged at the foul smell, Baixian leaping away before the creature could catch him.

 

“Sehun, get away!” Jongdae cried.

 

All of Baekhyun’s hair seemed to stand as electricity raced through the air and the creature howled, the smell of burnt flesh reaching his nose. He backed Baixian away, calling out to Sehun as he did so.

 

“How is it still alive?”

 

Jongdae’s tone was incredulous when the creature snarled and Baixian barely had enough time to jump out of the way before it leapt. Baekhyun felt its hot breath brush over his face, could hear the very faint beating of its dying heart. He frowned as he swung his sword once more, slashing the tip straight through the monster’s belly.

 

“It’s barely alive,” he said when the creature fell back. By complete instinct, he let his magic surge through him, trusting Baixian to turn him in the correct direction.

 

“Close your eyes!” he called, praying that Jongdae listener before unleashing his magic, a bright searing light that slashed across the creature’s eyes, blinding instantly.

 

Jongdae gasped aloud, before his lightning came arching down, slamming into the unearthly body and turning it into ash. Baekhyun turned his head away, wrinkling his nose. He had to fight the urge to throw up as bile rose in the back of his throat at the smell of charred fur and flesh.

 

“Sehun!” Jongdae’s voice faded as he urged his horse in Sehun’s direction, Baekhyun following slowly behind.

 

“Is he alright?” he asked, tightening his grip on his reins. Even without sight, the forest felt claustrophobic, as if the trees were closing in around them.

 

Sehun screamed, this time in agony and Baekhyun whirled.

 

“There are more of them,” he gasped.

 

He could hear them, heavy footsteps pounding onto the earth, branches cracking and shattering. Baixian whinnied, rearing upright and Baekhyun lurched, fingers grasping at the horse’s mane just in time. He felt something pass before his face, narrowly missing his nose.

 

The reek of rot and decay followed it. He gagged, lashing out with his sword. The creature howled, the sound reverberating through the ground as he turned Baixian, trusting the horse to guide him.

 

He slashed again and again, the sound of his blade cutting through flesh ringing in his ears. Dimly, he could hear Jongdae yelling as he presumably faced his own pack of foes and Sehun screaming.

 

“Take me to Sehun,” he panted, kicking one foot out of the stirrup to send the creature jumping for him flying back. His fingers burned and another creature yelped, blinded by his magic.

 

“There are too many of them!” Jongdae called over the roar of his magic in his ears.

 

Baekhyun lashed out once more, screaming for them to cover their eyes.

 

Thunder boomed overhead and lightning streaked out of the sky. Baekhyun flung his arms around Baixian’s neck as he leapt clear of the blast. With his leg free however, the impact sent him tumbling from the saddle, slamming so hard into the ground that the wind was knocked right out of him.

 

“Sehun? Sehun!”

 

His ears were ringing from the lightning strike and Jongdae’s calls were dim at best. Baekhyun groaned softly. He tried to rise but the pain in his head made him collapse back down again, swearing. It was strange how the world could still spin even without his sight.

 

Baekhyun turned over, curling up into a ball. As the ringing subsided, he could hear Baixian’s breathing, the horse bending over him to nose at his shoulder.

 

“I’m okay,” he mumbled, pressing his face into his knees.

 

“Baekhyun? Baekhyun, are you alright? I need your help!” Jongdae’s cries reached his ears and there was a warm hand on his shoulder, shaking him.

 

Baekhyun growled, throwing him off.

 

“Don’t touch me, damnit. World’s still spinning,” he snapped and could almost feel Jongdae recoil, stung.

 

“Sehun- Sehun’s hurt. He’s hurt really bad. We have to go. Quickly.”

 

He had never heard such fear in Jongdae’s voice before, the vulnerability in the prince’s tone making his heart clench.

 

“Just give me a moment,” he muttered, fighting down the urge to throw up.

 

“I can’t. We need to go now before the storm comes,” Jongdae urged and Baekhyun groaned, reaching out for his sword. He had dropped it when he fell.

 

The weight of the hilt in his hand made him feel a little bit better as he pulled himself up, digging the tip of the sword into the earth to help him balance. He rested a hand onto Baixian’s shoulder, listening to the horse’s heavy breathing, punctuated by Jongdae’s loud grunts as he heaved his cousin onto his own horse.

 

It took a few tries but Baekhyun finally managed to climb atop Baixian again, tucking his sword back into its place.

 

Come on.”

 

As he drew closer, Baekhyun could smell the metallic tang of blood and a horrible rotting smell emanating from Jongdae’s side. He was immediately struck by terror, his blood freezing. If the creature had contaminated Sehun’s blood, was there anything in the world that could save him? What had the things even looked like? Where had they come from?

 

“Baekhyun. We need to go.”

 

Gone was the fear from Jongdae’s voice. Only urgency and an undercurrent of steel remained as he turned away, his horse’s hoofbeats thudding against the forest floor. Baekhyun spurred Baixian forward, suppressing a shiver when thunder rumbled across the sky.

 

They were soaked to the bone by the time they arrived at the castle and judging by the guards’ horrified gasps, Sehun was in bad shape.

 

“Fetch a physician quickly,” Jongdae ordered above the roar of the rain. His boots squeaked against the marble as he attempted to carry Sehun inside.

 

Baekhyun followed suit, handing Baixian over to a stablehand. He stumbled, nearly slipping on the rain wet floors as he tried to follow Jongdae. The servants accosted him the moment he crossed the threshold into the castle, wrapping him with warm towels and mutterings about a bath.

 

Baekhyun did not even have time to shout for Jongdae to wait before he was being hustled up to his bedchambers and forced into a bathtub of steaming water.

 

“How is the prince?” he tried to ask when he was submerged beneath a pile of bubbles and the attendants were leaving.

 

“We do not know, milord. The physician has been sent for. From what we could see, Prince Sehun looks to be in bad shape.”

 

“Will he be alright?” It was a foolish question to ask, seeing that the physician had only just been sent for and the rain would likely delay his arrival but Baekhyun’s heart was still racing. He could not see what Sehun had looked like when they arrived and the lack of sight was more than made up for by his wild imagination.

 

“I’m sure he will, milord. Try not to worry.”

 

The bathroom door closed behind them and Baekhyun was left to stew in silence.

 

It should have been relaxing, the scent of lavender and honey all around him, bubbles popping languidly in the bathtub but all Baekhyun could think of was the smell of blood and rot and how Sehun’s pained whimpers had faded as he slid into unconsciousness.

 

He shivered despite the warmth of the water.

 

What had the thing looked like? It certainly did not sound like any creature that he knew. It had been dead, Baekhyun was sure of it.

 

Nothing living could smell so much like death.

 

Thunder roared outside and Baekhyun flinched. He could hear the pounding of the rain even through the walls. That must have been what Jongdae was afraid of.

 

His magic slipping loose.

 

Even more than the beast, he had been afraid of his own magic.

 

Baekhyun could not even imagine what he was feeling at the moment, outrage and fear for his cousin all at once.

 

“Will the prince not join me?” he asked when the servants came to escort him to dinner, “is there any news of Sehun’s health?”

 

“The prince remains by his cousin’s side, milord. The physician is tending to Lord Sehun as we speak. He does not wish to be disturbed,” the servant answered and Baekhyun sighed.

 

“Come to me when he has gone then. I want to know if Sehun is well.”

 

“As you wish then, milord.”

 

-

 

“You can wield magic.”

 

Baekhyun flinched at the ice in Jongdae’s tone. It had taken him a long time to find his way to the rooftop that Jongdae was hiding on, soft rain drizzling down around them.

 

The servant had returned to him as he was finishing up his dinner, whispering that Jongdae did not want his cousin disturbed and that he was hiding somewhere, if Baekhyun wished to seek him out.

 

“It is a gift that Yixing gave to me,” he replied, uncaring of how bitter he sounded. “A side effect of his magic.”

 

Jongdae was silent for a beat as Baekhyun made his way over next to him, careful to stand a little ways away to avoid electrocuting himself. He could feel electricity still buzzing under Jongdae’s skin.

 

“Show me.”

 

Baekhyun startled, turning towards the prince. He held up his hand, thinking of the dog he had once conjured up to scare the village children. Jongdae held his tongue but he could feel the awe rolling off him in waves as he crouched down to examine the dog that had materialized at Baekhyun’s feet.

 

“It seems rather ironic,” he murmured when Baekhyun let the dog disappear into nothing.

 

Baekhyun smiled wryly.

 

“It’s the universe’s idea of a joke, I suppose,” he answered, raising a hand to touch his own face.

 

“Why did you come here? Why seek out the forest?” Jongdae asked. It had been a long time coming, it seemed.

 

Baekhyun turned his head to face the wind, sighing softly.

 

“I feel… a pull, if I had to describe it. I think it may be the tree calling to me.”

 

He did not need eyes to see the disbelief on Jongdae’s face. He could feel it radiating off him.

 

“The tree is unreachable to us, Baekhyun. There is no way to find it. Countless have tried and died trying.”

 

“Well I’ll find it,” Baekhyun snapped, “I need answers. Why do I have my powers when they are supposed to be inherited? I’m not royal and never will be!”

 

Jongdae faltered at the poison in his tone and Baekhyun startled when he laid his hand over his arm gently.

 

“I did not wish to burst your bubble, Baekhyun. But truly, there are no ways to find the tree. No one even knows where it is.”

 

Baekhyun sighed through his nose, tugging his arm away from Jongdae’s touch.

 

“I know where it is, vaguely. It is here, in Seong. Somewhere in your forests, the tree resides there. We just have to find a way to reach it.”

 

He turned his head in Jongdae’s direction.

 

“Besides, don’t you wish to know why you and Sehun are cursed? Why all the royals who manifested powers are cursed by the very thing meant to protect them?”

 

Jongdae grimaced.

 

“It does not do to dwell on dreams, Baekhyun. I will forever be cursed and I must accept it.” His tone was full of sorrow as he stroked a finger over the back of Baekhyun’s hand, the residual electricity from his magic startling him. “Though I wish I had your courage and faith.”

 

Baekhyun stood on the roof, silent as Jongdae left him, the cold breeze ruffling through his hair and robes.

 

The prince always confused him.

 

He turned and shouted before Jongdae could disappear completely.

 

“Is Sehun well?”

 

Jongdae’s footsteps stopped.

 

“He is not to be disturbed,” he said sharply, “he requires rest if we want him at full health when Prince Yixing arrives.”

 

“That’s not an answer,” Baekhyun muttered to himself as Jongdae’s footsteps faded.

 

-

 

“Tell me about Yixing.”

 

After days of Jongdae keeping his distance, hearing him speak at dinner was startling. Baekhyun had heard him enter of course, but he was more preoccupied with keeping Geoum from stealing his food than to pay attention to the prince toying with his knife and fork.

 

He stiffened, nudging Geoum away from his plate hard enough for the cat to let out a disgruntled meow. It made him smile a little as he listened to the little creature wander off a little ways away to plop down amidst the plates.

 

“What would you like to know?” he asked, setting down his fork to pick up his napkin.

 

Yixing had barely left his mind at all as the days ticked past and every day that went by was another day closer to Yixing’s arrival.

 

There were so many emotions he was feeling at the thought of seeing his old friend again.

 

“What is he like? Is he kind? Beautiful?”

 

“Why would you want to know that?” Baekhyun laughed bitterly, nudging his bowl aside. “Do you intend to court him?”

 

“Certainly not,” Jongdae snapped, “I only wished to know if he is as charming as his letters make him seem.”

 

“Oh, he’s charming alright. The merchants love him. He always overpaid them and listened well to their stories. He loves stories.”

 

“Is he kind? Will he-,” Jongdae stopped but Baekhyun thought he knew what he would say.

 

“Will he take one look at your face and call you a monster? No. Yixing is one of the kindest people I have ever met. He made me my friend when I was alone.”

 

“But he left you when you needed him most,” Jongdae pointed out, “that hardly bodes well for his character.”

 

Baekhyun snorted. Jongdae was right. Yixing was kind to a fault but no one ever said he was brave.

 

“I never said he was not a coward,” he replied, lips curling.

 

“You were sweet on him,” Jongdae observed, almost casually. “You might even still be sweet on him now.” The comment made Baekhyun’s blood run cold. His heart stuttered and he gripped the table, nails digging into the wood.

 

“I was not.”

 

“You were. Perhaps not now, given your animosity but you once loved him and hoped he would return your feelings.”

 

“What do you know about love?” Baekhyun gritted out, despising how easily he was read despite his lack of sight.

 

“Nothing,” Jongdae replied, “I certainly do not love myself and do not hope for anyone to love me.” He said it so plainly that Baekhyun was shocked.

 

“That is no way to view the world,” he said, his anger fading. Geoum mewled and Baekhyun could hear him padding away across the table, presumably to settle in Jongdae’s arms.

 

“The world has not been kind to me,” Jongdae said, amused, “I will not view it kindly. In fact I am surprised you do not think the same, given your disability and how your love was spurned by a man you think of as kind.”

 

“He is kind. And he- he didn’t know. I don’t think he did,” Baekhyun stuttered. His thoughts were resurfacing, the insecurities he had harboured when he had awoken to hear that Yixing had left him.

 

“You wish he didn’t,” Jongdae scoffed, Geoum’s purring echoing in the air. “Because otherwise, he might have left because of it.”

 

“What are you, a mind reader now?” Baekhyun snapped, stung. He folded his arms across his chest, as if it would somehow protect his heart from the emotional beating that Jongdae was dealing to it.

 

“No. People like you are easy to read.”

 

“What, you mean blind?”

 

“No. I mean you wear your heart on your sleeve. You’re bitter and angry that he left you but you secretly hope that it truly was because he could not bear to stay and face his actions instead of his way of spurning your advances. You want to be mad at him for the first reason because it would hurt more if it was the second.”

 

“So you’re a mind reader,” Baekhyun muttered, only a little gratified to hear Jongdae laugh.

 

“I hope he is as kind as you say he is, Baekhyun. Or I may have to throw him from the kingdom and that would not do at all.”

 

Baekhyun smiled at Jongdae’s tone, about to say something else when the doors to the dining hall was thrown open and a servant rushed in.

 

“Your Highness! You must come at once. It’s the prince!”

 

They leapt to their feet, Baekhyun cringing at the chair screeching against the marble. Even as they ran, he could hear Sehun screaming like a banshee, the wind echoing his sentiments.

 

“Sehun!” When the door burst open, Baekhyun flinched away. Sehun’s screams were tortured, agonizing and they pierced into his eardrums like knives.

 

“What’s happening to him? Why is he like this?” Jongdae asked frantically. There were grunts from someone else and he assumed that Sehun must be thrashing, being held down by servants.

 

“He is feverish. Perhaps something to do with the wounds.” The physician was uncharacteristically calm in the face of Sehun’s screeching. Baekhyun heard straps being pulled, metal clinking and surmised that they were binding him down.

 

Leather creaked as Sehun struggled, his voice growing hoarse. He was calling, shaking in the bed as Jongdae tried to soothe him.

 

“Is he okay?” Baekhyun asked softly, approaching the bed.

 

“He’ll be fine,” Jongdae snapped and Baekhyun could almost see the walls go up. He folded his arms over his chest, pressing his lips together as servants ushered him from the room, whispering that the prince needed the time with his cousin.

 

-

 

“Your Highness?” The servant seemed to be able to sense the tension in the room for she sounded timid and scared.

 

“Yes?” Jongdae asked, irritably.

 

“There was news about a shipwreck at the harbour,” she said tentatively and Baekhyun heard the prince suck in a sharp breath.

 

“It was carrying the prince of Chilyo.”

 

“Oh my god.”

 

All the air seemed to have left Baekhyun’s lungs. He clutched at the table, horrified as the servant continued, but nothing was filtering through. Terror was a stone in the pit of his stomach, a ball in his throat.

 

“Is he-?” He could not bring himself to finish the sentence, the thought.

 

“We don’t know yet,” Jongdae said grimly, pushing his chair back. “Don’t go thinking wild things until the guards have searched the wreck.”

 

Baekhyun heard him leave his chair, mildly surprised when he felt Jongdae’s hand laid over his own.

 

“I will do everything in my power to find him,” the prince said softly, “even if it is a body. I will find him.”

 

The sincerity in his tone surprised Baekhyun, as did the thumb rubbing over the back of his hand.

 

“There’s no body?” Baekhyun choked out, turning his hand over to grasp at Jongdae’s fingers. Jongdae let him hold him, one hand resting upon his shoulder.

 

“Not yet. I’ve sent the guards out to aid in searching. They will bring news back when they’ve found something. We never know. He may have survived.”

 

Baekhyun thought about the storm that had lashed down upon them, how the rain had sounded like a wild animal’s roar. He shuddered at the memory of the screaming wind, echoed by Sehun’s muttering and screeches.

 

Though he did not wish to think it, it was so unlikely for Yixing to have survived such a storm. He had never learned to swim and even if he had, the waters would have been rough, too rough for a beginner to even fathom facing.

 

He let Jongdae nudge him to his feet and lead him back to his room, his mind whirling.

 

Yixing could not be dead.

 

There were so many things he had yet to say to him, so many things they had not done. He did not want his last memories of his best friend to be his terrified face and the pain flooding through his body.

 

“Try to get some sleep, alright? I know it’ll be difficult, but my men are searching. They’ll find him.”

 

The part about his body was left unsaid, hanging in the air.

 

Thunder boomed outside and Baekhyun flinched, curling up onto his bed. He grabbed for Jongdae’s hand, knowing that he sounded so very much like a child.

 

“Please stay. I don’t want to be alone tonight.”

 

The vulnerability in his voice made him want to dig a hole and bury himself in it but he was scared and the uncertainty about Yixing’s fate was hooking its claws into him.

 

“Alright.” Jongdae did not even hesitate, much to Baekhyun’s shock. His voice was kind, almost tender as he pulled down the covers. “Move over.”

 

Baekhyun froze.

 

“What are you doing?”

 

“Sharing your bed,” Jongdae said as if it were the most natural thing in the world. “You said you did not want to be alone.”

 

He slid beneath the covers, pressing up against Baekhyun.The warmth was comforting even though it had been a long time since Baekhyun had shared a bed with anyone.

 

He turned over, smiling a little when Jongdae yelped.

 

“Will you- will you ever let me feel your face?” he asked, cringing when thunder roared outside.

 

Jongdae remained silent for a beat before Baekhyun heard him shift. There was the sound of something slipping and then a soft thunk.

 

“Here.” Gentle fingers curled around Baekhyun’s wrist and his hand was lifted. His fingertips rested against what felt like the base of Jongdae’s chin.

 

Slowly, hesitantly, Baekhyun traced his fingers over Jongdae’s skin. It was clear and smooth until he reached the left side of his cheek.

 

The scars felt like they was in the shape of lightning bolts, with many, many bolts branching off. It seemed that it was sensitive as well, as he heard Jongdae take in a shaky breath as he traced the indentations.

 

It was like reading a language that he did not quite understand but wished very much to.

 

“You really do have curly lips,” Baekhyun said softly, smiling when he felt the corners of Jongdae’s lips lift.

 

“I have to resemble my cat somewhat, right?” Jongdae replied. Baekhyun could feel him beginning to relax as he kept moving, finding his hairline and brows and eyes. He imagined that Jongdae would be quite his type if he could see him.

 

It was those damn lips.

 

“I like your scars,” he said lowly, tracing over the main branch that cut from the top of Jongdae’s hairline across his cheekbone. “They give you personality.”

 

Jongdae scoffed but Baekhyun could feel a tear drop sliding down his cheek, leaving a wet trail. He wiped it away gently.

 

“Get some sleep. We will have news in the morning.” Jongdae shifted, grasping Baekhyun’s wrist with a firm hand. Baekhyun let him move his hand, laying it between them.

 

There was a creak and a soft mewl before the sounds of tiny paws padding across the floor made Baekhyun smile.

 

“Your cat is here,” he said, just as the bed dipped the tiniest amount and there was a little weight circling at the foot of the bed. Geoum mewed softly before settling at his feet, like a tiny foot warmer.

 

“He’s supposed to sleep on my side,” Jongdae grumbled but Geoum only mewled back at him, nestling his head into the blankets.

 

“Good night, Jongdae,” Baekhyun said softly, his heart settling only for a moment. He could hear the moment Jongdae slipped under, his breathing evening but his own mind was too filled with terrifying scenarios for him to sleep easy.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Sehun’s shrill scream pierced through the air, ringing in his ear drums as he spurred Baixian on. Baekhyun cursed when he fumbled for his cane, the weapon transforming as he yanked it out. He could not tell what sort of creature it was, only that it was big and heavy and that it was far too close to Sehun.

 

“Sehun!” Jongdae was right beside him, practically alight with electricity. Baekhyun could feel his magic humming from where he was.

 

“He’s here!” Jongdae’s voice shifted and Baekhyun followed at once, turning Baixian with his legs.

 

Sehun shrieked again and the creature snarled. Baekhyun grimaced at the smell of rotting flesh, slashing out the moment he felt a wave of heat. Hot liquid splashed outwards and he gagged at the foul smell, Baixian leaping away before the creature could catch him.

 

“Sehun, get away!” Jongdae cried.

 

All of Baekhyun’s hair seemed to stand as electricity raced through the air and the creature howled, the smell of burnt flesh reaching his nose. He backed Baixian away, calling out to Sehun as he did so.

 

“How is it still alive?”

 

Jongdae’s tone was incredulous when the creature snarled and Baixian barely had enough time to jump out of the way before it leapt. Baekhyun felt its hot breath brush over his face, could hear the very faint beating of its dying heart. He frowned as he swung his sword once more, slashing the tip straight through the monster’s belly.

 

“It’s barely alive,” he said when the creature fell back. By complete instinct, he let his magic surge through him, trusting Baixian to turn him in the correct direction.

 

“Close your eyes!” he called, praying that Jongdae listener before unleashing his magic, a bright searing light that slashed across the creature’s eyes, blinding instantly.

 

Jongdae gasped aloud, before his lightning came arching down, slamming into the unearthly body and turning it into ash. Baekhyun turned his head away, wrinkling his nose. He had to fight the urge to throw up as bile rose in the back of his throat at the smell of charred fur and flesh.

 

“Sehun!” Jongdae’s voice faded as he urged his horse in Sehun’s direction, Baekhyun following slowly behind.

 

“Is he alright?” he asked, tightening his grip on his reins. Even without sight, the forest felt claustrophobic, as if the trees were closing in around them.

 

Sehun screamed, this time in agony and Baekhyun whirled.

 

“There are more of them,” he gasped.

 

He could hear them, heavy footsteps pounding onto the earth, branches cracking and shattering. Baixian whinnied, rearing upright and Baekhyun lurched, fingers grasping at the horse’s mane just in time. He felt something pass before his face, narrowly missing his nose.

 

The reek of rot and decay followed it. He gagged, lashing out with his sword. The creature howled, the sound reverberating through the ground as he turned Baixian, trusting the horse to guide him.

 

He slashed again and again, the sound of his blade cutting through flesh ringing in his ears. Dimly, he could hear Jongdae yelling as he presumably faced his own pack of foes and Sehun screaming.

 

“Take me to Sehun,” he panted, kicking one foot out of the stirrup to send the creature jumping for him flying back. His fingers burned and another creature yelped, blinded by his magic.

 

“There are too many of them!” Jongdae called over the roar of his magic in his ears.

 

Baekhyun lashed out once more, screaming for them to cover their eyes.

 

Thunder boomed overhead and lightning streaked out of the sky. Baekhyun flung his arms around Baixian’s neck as he leapt clear of the blast. With his leg free however, the impact sent him tumbling from the saddle, slamming so hard into the ground that the wind was knocked right out of him.

 

“Sehun? Sehun!”

 

His ears were ringing from the lightning strike and Jongdae’s calls were dim at best. Baekhyun groaned softly. He tried to rise but the pain in his head made him collapse back down again, swearing. It was strange how the world could still spin even without his sight.

 

Baekhyun turned over, curling up into a ball. As the ringing subsided, he could hear Baixian’s breathing, the horse bending over him to nose at his shoulder.

 

“I’m okay,” he mumbled, pressing his face into his knees.

 

“Baekhyun? Baekhyun, are you alright? I need your help!” Jongdae’s cries reached his ears and there was a warm hand on his shoulder, shaking him.

 

Baekhyun growled, throwing him off.

 

“Don’t touch me, damnit. World’s still spinning,” he snapped and could almost feel Jongdae recoil, stung.

 

“Sehun- Sehun’s hurt. He’s hurt really bad. We have to go. Quickly.”

 

He had never heard such fear in Jongdae’s voice before, the vulnerability in the prince’s tone making his heart clench.

 

“Just give me a moment,” he muttered, fighting down the urge to throw up.

 

“I can’t. We need to go now before the storm comes,” Jongdae urged and Baekhyun groaned, reaching out for his sword. He had dropped it when he fell.

 

The weight of the hilt in his hand made him feel a little bit better as he pulled himself up, digging the tip of the sword into the earth to help him balance. He rested a hand onto Baixian’s shoulder, listening to the horse’s heavy breathing, punctuated by Jongdae’s loud grunts as he heaved his cousin onto his own horse.

 

It took a few tries but Baekhyun finally managed to climb atop Baixian again, tucking his sword back into its place.

 

Come on.”

 

As he drew closer, Baekhyun could smell the metallic tang of blood and a horrible rotting smell emanating from Jongdae’s side. He was immediately struck by terror, his blood freezing. If the creature had contaminated Sehun’s blood, was there anything in the world that could save him? What had the things even looked like? Where had they come from?

 

“Baekhyun. We need to go.”

 

Gone was the fear from Jongdae’s voice. Only urgency and an undercurrent of steel remained as he turned away, his horse’s hoofbeats thudding against the forest floor. Baekhyun spurred Baixian forward, suppressing a shiver when thunder rumbled across the sky.

 

They were soaked to the bone by the time they arrived at the castle and judging by the guards’ horrified gasps, Sehun was in bad shape.

 

“Fetch a physician quickly,” Jongdae ordered above the roar of the rain. His boots squeaked against the marble as he attempted to carry Sehun inside.

 

Baekhyun followed suit, handing Baixian over to a stablehand. He stumbled, nearly slipping on the rain wet floors as he tried to follow Jongdae. The servants accosted him the moment he crossed the threshold into the castle, wrapping him with warm towels and mutterings about a bath.

 

Baekhyun did not even have time to shout for Jongdae to wait before he was being hustled up to his bedchambers and forced into a bathtub of steaming water.

 

“How is the prince?” he tried to ask when he was submerged beneath a pile of bubbles and the attendants were leaving.

 

“We do not know, milord. The physician has been sent for. From what we could see, Prince Sehun looks to be in bad shape.”

 

“Will he be alright?” It was a foolish question to ask, seeing that the physician had only just been sent for and the rain would likely delay his arrival but Baekhyun’s heart was still racing. He could not see what Sehun had looked like when they arrived and the lack of sight was more than made up for by his wild imagination.

 

“I’m sure he will, milord. Try not to worry.”

 

The bathroom door closed behind them and Baekhyun was left to stew in silence.

 

It should have been relaxing, the scent of lavender and honey all around him, bubbles popping languidly in the bathtub but all Baekhyun could think of was the smell of blood and rot and how Sehun’s pained whimpers had faded as he slid into unconsciousness.

 

He shivered despite the warmth of the water.

 

What had the thing looked like? It certainly did not sound like any creature that he knew. It had been dead, Baekhyun was sure of it.

 

Nothing living could smell so much like death.

 

Thunder roared outside and Baekhyun flinched. He could hear the pounding of the rain even through the walls. That must have been what Jongdae was afraid of.

 

His magic slipping loose.

 

Even more than the beast, he had been afraid of his own magic.

 

Baekhyun could not even imagine what he was feeling at the moment, outrage and fear for his cousin all at once.

 

“Will the prince not join me?” he asked when the servants came to escort him to dinner, “is there any news of Sehun’s health?”

 

“The prince remains by his cousin’s side, milord. The physician is tending to Lord Sehun as we speak. He does not wish to be disturbed,” the servant answered and Baekhyun sighed.

 

“Come to me when he has gone then. I want to know if Sehun is well.”

 

“As you wish then, milord.”

 

-

 

“You can wield magic.”

 

Baekhyun flinched at the ice in Jongdae’s tone. It had taken him a long time to find his way to the rooftop that Jongdae was hiding on, soft rain drizzling down around them.

 

The servant had returned to him as he was finishing up his dinner, whispering that Jongdae did not want his cousin disturbed and that he was hiding somewhere, if Baekhyun wished to seek him out.

 

“It is a gift that Yixing gave to me,” he replied, uncaring of how bitter he sounded. “A side effect of his magic.”

 

Jongdae was silent for a beat as Baekhyun made his way over next to him, careful to stand a little ways away to avoid electrocuting himself. He could feel electricity still buzzing under Jongdae’s skin.

 

“Show me.”

 

Baekhyun startled, turning towards the prince. He held up his hand, thinking of the dog he had once conjured up to scare the village children. Jongdae held his tongue but he could feel the awe rolling off him in waves as he crouched down to examine the dog that had materialized at Baekhyun’s feet.

 

“It seems rather ironic,” he murmured when Baekhyun let the dog disappear into nothing.

 

Baekhyun smiled wryly.

 

“It’s the universe’s idea of a joke, I suppose,” he answered, raising a hand to touch his own face.

 

“Why did you come here? Why seek out the forest?” Jongdae asked. It had been a long time coming, it seemed.

 

Baekhyun turned his head to face the wind, sighing softly.

 

“I feel… a pull, if I had to describe it. I think it may be the tree calling to me.”

 

He did not need eyes to see the disbelief on Jongdae’s face. He could feel it radiating off him.

 

“The tree is unreachable to us, Baekhyun. There is no way to find it. Countless have tried and died trying.”

 

“Well I’ll find it,” Baekhyun snapped, “I need answers. Why do I have my powers when they are supposed to be inherited? I’m not royal and never will be!”

 

Jongdae faltered at the poison in his tone and Baekhyun startled when he laid his hand over his arm gently.

 

“I did not wish to burst your bubble, Baekhyun. But truly, there are no ways to find the tree. No one even knows where it is.”

 

Baekhyun sighed through his nose, tugging his arm away from Jongdae’s touch.

 

“I know where it is, vaguely. It is here, in Seong. Somewhere in your forests, the tree resides there. We just have to find a way to reach it.”

 

He turned his head in Jongdae’s direction.

 

“Besides, don’t you wish to know why you and Sehun are cursed? Why all the royals who manifested powers are cursed by the very thing meant to protect them?”

 

Jongdae grimaced.

 

“It does not do to dwell on dreams, Baekhyun. I will forever be cursed and I must accept it.” His tone was full of sorrow as he stroked a finger over the back of Baekhyun’s hand, the residual electricity from his magic startling him. “Though I wish I had your courage and faith.”

 

Baekhyun stood on the roof, silent as Jongdae left him, the cold breeze ruffling through his hair and robes.

 

The prince always confused him.

 

He turned and shouted before Jongdae could disappear completely.

 

“Is Sehun well?”

 

Jongdae’s footsteps stopped.

 

“He is not to be disturbed,” he said sharply, “he requires rest if we want him at full health when Prince Yixing arrives.”

 

“That’s not an answer,” Baekhyun muttered to himself as Jongdae’s footsteps faded.

 

-

 

“Tell me about Yixing.”

 

After days of Jongdae keeping his distance, hearing him speak at dinner was startling. Baekhyun had heard him enter of course, but he was more preoccupied with keeping Geoum from stealing his food than to pay attention to the prince toying with his knife and fork.

 

He stiffened, nudging Geoum away from his plate hard enough for the cat to let out a disgruntled meow. It made him smile a little as he listened to the little creature wander off a little ways away to plop down amidst the plates.

 

“What would you like to know?” he asked, setting down his fork to pick up his napkin.

 

Yixing had barely left his mind at all as the days ticked past and every day that went by was another day closer to Yixing’s arrival.

 

There were so many emotions he was feeling at the thought of seeing his old friend again.

 

“What is he like? Is he kind? Beautiful?”

 

“Why would you want to know that?” Baekhyun laughed bitterly, nudging his bowl aside. “Do you intend to court him?”

 

“Certainly not,” Jongdae snapped, “I only wished to know if he is as charming as his letters make him seem.”

 

“Oh, he’s charming alright. The merchants love him. He always overpaid them and listened well to their stories. He loves stories.”

 

“Is he kind? Will he-,” Jongdae stopped but Baekhyun thought he knew what he would say.

 

“Will he take one look at your face and call you a monster? No. Yixing is one of the kindest people I have ever met. He made me my friend when I was alone.”

 

“But he left you when you needed him most,” Jongdae pointed out, “that hardly bodes well for his character.”

 

Baekhyun snorted. Jongdae was right. Yixing was kind to a fault but no one ever said he was brave.

 

“I never said he was not a coward,” he replied, lips curling.

 

“You were sweet on him,” Jongdae observed, almost casually. “You might even still be sweet on him now.” The comment made Baekhyun’s blood run cold. His heart stuttered and he gripped the table, nails digging into the wood.

 

“I was not.”

 

“You were. Perhaps not now, given your animosity but you once loved him and hoped he would return your feelings.”

 

“What do you know about love?” Baekhyun gritted out, despising how easily he was read despite his lack of sight.

 

“Nothing,” Jongdae replied, “I certainly do not love myself and do not hope for anyone to love me.” He said it so plainly that Baekhyun was shocked.

 

“That is no way to view the world,” he said, his anger fading. Geoum mewled and Baekhyun could hear him padding away across the table, presumably to settle in Jongdae’s arms.

 

“The world has not been kind to me,” Jongdae said, amused, “I will not view it kindly. In fact I am surprised you do not think the same, given your disability and how your love was spurned by a man you think of as kind.”

 

“He is kind. And he- he didn’t know. I don’t think he did,” Baekhyun stuttered. His thoughts were resurfacing, the insecurities he had harboured when he had awoken to hear that Yixing had left him.

 

“You wish he didn’t,” Jongdae scoffed, Geoum’s purring echoing in the air. “Because otherwise, he might have left because of it.”

 

“What are you, a mind reader now?” Baekhyun snapped, stung. He folded his arms across his chest, as if it would somehow protect his heart from the emotional beating that Jongdae was dealing to it.

 

“No. People like you are easy to read.”

 

“What, you mean blind?”

 

“No. I mean you wear your heart on your sleeve. You’re bitter and angry that he left you but you secretly hope that it truly was because he could not bear to stay and face his actions instead of his way of spurning your advances. You want to be mad at him for the first reason because it would hurt more if it was the second.”

 

“So you’re a mind reader,” Baekhyun muttered, only a little gratified to hear Jongdae laugh.

 

“I hope he is as kind as you say he is, Baekhyun. Or I may have to throw him from the kingdom and that would not do at all.”

 

Baekhyun smiled at Jongdae’s tone, about to say something else when the doors to the dining hall was thrown open and a servant rushed in.

 

“Your Highness! You must come at once. It’s the prince!”

 

They leapt to their feet, Baekhyun cringing at the chair screeching against the marble. Even as they ran, he could hear Sehun screaming like a banshee, the wind echoing his sentiments.

 

“Sehun!” When the door burst open, Baekhyun flinched away. Sehun’s screams were tortured, agonizing and they pierced into his eardrums like knives.

 

“What’s happening to him? Why is he like this?” Jongdae asked frantically. There were grunts from someone else and he assumed that Sehun must be thrashing, being held down by servants.

 

“He is feverish. Perhaps something to do with the wounds.” The physician was uncharacteristically calm in the face of Sehun’s screeching. Baekhyun heard straps being pulled, metal clinking and surmised that they were binding him down.

 

Leather creaked as Sehun struggled, his voice growing hoarse. He was calling, shaking in the bed as Jongdae tried to soothe him.

 

“Is he okay?” Baekhyun asked softly, approaching the bed.

 

“He’ll be fine,” Jongdae snapped and Baekhyun could almost see the walls go up. He folded his arms over his chest, pressing his lips together as servants ushered him from the room, whispering that the prince needed the time with his cousin.

 

-

 

“Your Highness?” The servant seemed to be able to sense the tension in the room for she sounded timid and scared.

 

“Yes?” Jongdae asked, irritably.

 

“There was news about a shipwreck at the harbour,” she said tentatively and Baekhyun heard the prince suck in a sharp breath.

 

“It was carrying the prince of Chilyo.”

 

“Oh my god.”

 

All the air seemed to have left Baekhyun’s lungs. He clutched at the table, horrified as the servant continued, but nothing was filtering through. Terror was a stone in the pit of his stomach, a ball in his throat.

 

“Is he-?” He could not bring himself to finish the sentence, the thought.

 

“We don’t know yet,” Jongdae said grimly, pushing his chair back. “Don’t go thinking wild things until the guards have searched the wreck.”

 

Baekhyun heard him leave his chair, mildly surprised when he felt Jongdae’s hand laid over his own.

 

“I will do everything in my power to find him,” the prince said softly, “even if it is a body. I will find him.”

 

The sincerity in his tone surprised Baekhyun, as did the thumb rubbing over the back of his hand.

 

“There’s no body?” Baekhyun choked out, turning his hand over to grasp at Jongdae’s fingers. Jongdae let him hold him, one hand resting upon his shoulder.

 

“Not yet. I’ve sent the guards out to aid in searching. They will bring news back when they’ve found something. We never know. He may have survived.”

 

Baekhyun thought about the storm that had lashed down upon them, how the rain had sounded like a wild animal’s roar. He shuddered at the memory of the screaming wind, echoed by Sehun’s muttering and screeches.

 

Though he did not wish to think it, it was so unlikely for Yixing to have survived such a storm. He had never learned to swim and even if he had, the waters would have been rough, too rough for a beginner to even fathom facing.

 

He let Jongdae nudge him to his feet and lead him back to his room, his mind whirling.

 

Yixing could not be dead.

 

There were so many things he had yet to say to him, so many things they had not done. He did not want his last memories of his best friend to be his terrified face and the pain flooding through his body.

 

“Try to get some sleep, alright? I know it’ll be difficult, but my men are searching. They’ll find him.”

 

The part about his body was left unsaid, hanging in the air.

 

Thunder boomed outside and Baekhyun flinched, curling up onto his bed. He grabbed for Jongdae’s hand, knowing that he sounded so very much like a child.

 

“Please stay. I don’t want to be alone tonight.”

 

The vulnerability in his voice made him want to dig a hole and bury himself in it but he was scared and the uncertainty about Yixing’s fate was hooking its claws into him.

 

“Alright.” Jongdae did not even hesitate, much to Baekhyun’s shock. His voice was kind, almost tender as he pulled down the covers. “Move over.”

 

Baekhyun froze.

 

“What are you doing?”

 

“Sharing your bed,” Jongdae said as if it were the most natural thing in the world. “You said you did not want to be alone.”

 

He slid beneath the covers, pressing up against Baekhyun.The warmth was comforting even though it had been a long time since Baekhyun had shared a bed with anyone.

 

He turned over, smiling a little when Jongdae yelped.

 

“Will you- will you ever let me feel your face?” he asked, cringing when thunder roared outside.

 

Jongdae remained silent for a beat before Baekhyun heard him shift. There was the sound of something slipping and then a soft thunk.

 

“Here.” Gentle fingers curled around Baekhyun’s wrist and his hand was lifted. His fingertips rested against what felt like the base of Jongdae’s chin.

 

Slowly, hesitantly, Baekhyun traced his fingers over Jongdae’s skin. It was clear and smooth until he reached the left side of his cheek.

 

The scars felt like they was in the shape of lightning bolts, with many, many bolts branching off. It seemed that it was sensitive as well, as he heard Jongdae take in a shaky breath as he traced the indentations.

 

It was like reading a language that he did not quite understand but wished very much to.

 

“You really do have curly lips,” Baekhyun said softly, smiling when he felt the corners of Jongdae’s lips lift.

 

“I have to resemble my cat somewhat, right?” Jongdae replied. Baekhyun could feel him beginning to relax as he kept moving, finding his hairline and brows and eyes. He imagined that Jongdae would be quite his type if he could see him.

 

It was those damn lips.

 

“I like your scars,” he said lowly, tracing over the main branch that cut from the top of Jongdae’s hairline across his cheekbone. “They give you personality.”

 

Jongdae scoffed but Baekhyun could feel a tear drop sliding down his cheek, leaving a wet trail. He wiped it away gently.

 

“Get some sleep. We will have news in the morning.” Jongdae shifted, grasping Baekhyun’s wrist with a firm hand. Baekhyun let him move his hand, laying it between them.

 

There was a creak and a soft mewl before the sounds of tiny paws padding across the floor made Baekhyun smile.

 

“Your cat is here,” he said, just as the bed dipped the tiniest amount and there was a little weight circling at the foot of the bed. Geoum mewed softly before settling at his feet, like a tiny foot warmer.

 

“He’s supposed to sleep on my side,” Jongdae grumbled but Geoum only mewled back at him, nestling his head into the blankets.

 

“Good night, Jongdae,” Baekhyun said softly, his heart settling only for a moment. He could hear the moment Jongdae slipped under, his breathing evening but his own mind was too filled with terrifying scenarios for him to sleep easy.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Sunlight filtered softly beneath his eyelids when he awoke. He let out a low groan, pushing himself into a sitting position. The sheets pooling around his waist were soft and cottony but the pillow was rough, made of linen.

 

The sun was shining through wooden slats, like streaks of gold dusting his sheets.

 

His body was sore and achy, his muscles throbbing like he had just swum across the bloody ocean. Which, he technically did, if the pain in his body was anything to go by.

 

"You're awake." The voice startled him. Yixing jerked, eyes widening when a man came into view. He had large doe eyes that watched him like a hawk, the tray in his hands rattling when he set it upon the bed.

 

"Who are you?" Yixing asked warily, fingers grasping at the sheets.

 

The man shot him a very unimpressed look, shaking his head at him.

 

"Someone who will do you no harm," he answered, seeming almost amused at Yixing's paranoia. “If I wished to hurt you, I would have done so last night, while you were asleep.”

 

“Where am I?” Yixing asked, relaxing when the man set down his tray and turned to push open the windows.

 

Sunlight streamed into the room, lighting up the tiny space and Yixing could see more clearly the contents of the room.

 

The wooden bed he lay in was sturdy, made of dark red wood and the wooden dresser across the room seemed to be made of the same material. Both items had gold runes carved into them, as did the chair the man pulled up next to the bed.

 

Unlit lamps hung from the walls, their bases carved with the same symbols on the bed posts and the dresser. The room was small but clean.

 

“You are at the borders of Seong. I found you on the beach, washed up with the driftwood from your ship.”

 

Yixing’s blood ran cold.

 

His hands shook as the man handed him a mug, gripping the warm ceramic tightly.

 

“My horse-,” he started, voice trembling.

 

The man’s lips downturned and Yixing sank back against the pillows, nearly sloshing the liquid from the mug onto the covers.

 

“Eat. I presume you must be headed for the capital,” the man said, not allowing Yixing to stew in his grief. “I have contacts in the city. You will be there in less than five days, if you eat well and regain your strength.”

 

He glanced at Yixing’s gloved hand and whistled sharply. A bird flew in from the open window, a grey pigeon with bands around its neck.

 

“You ought to write home. They’ll have heard of the wreck by now. Let them know that you’re alive.”

 

Indeed, within the next days as Yixing recovered in bed, letters came for him. One was from his parents, frantic to know if he had been aboard the ship that had wrecked upon the shores of Seong and the other was from Junmyeon.

 

Yixing wept when he read both, fingers clenching the parchment so tightly that the paper buckled.

 

Junmyeon’s letter was smudged and almost desolate in his writing, lamenting that he had not let him come with him. The strokes were messy and so very unlike Junmyeon’s usually calm demeanour that Yixing had to put down the letter to draft another just to reassure him.

 

His parents were similarly frantic, petrified and left Yixing in tears by the candlelight.

 

Kyungsoo had very kindly left his soup on the dresser and left, returning to change the dressing on his wounded leg only after he had composed himself.

 

Yixing had forgotten about the mark Yanzi had left on his thigh until Kyungsoo peeled back the bed covers to reveal his left thigh wrapped up neatly in a white bandage. He swallowed, fingers clenching in the sheets as Kyungsoo unwound the cloth, Yanzi’s hoof print imprinted clearly in the skin.

 

“It may scar,” Kyungsoo said quietly as he dabbed antiseptic over the wound, “I don’t know how hard you were kicked, or how you managed to keep yourself afloat long enough to grab onto something.”

 

Yixing held his tongue, still staring at his leg hollowly as Kyungsoo wrapped it back up, barely registering the pain.

 

He recovered slowly, as if his own magic had taken a blow by the shock and forgot how to heal himself.

 

But Kyungsoo was kind, if a little surly because he was unused to company. He nursed Yixing when he fell into a sudden fever, laid cool linens over his forehead and dribbled water into his mouth when he was lucid.

 

Kyungsoo, as he learnt, was a weapon maker. He had a forge in his backyard and multiple tools and equipment that Yixing had never seen before. He worked alone and relished in the solace, only occasionally going into the city to sell his wares.

 

Every piece he made was one of a kind and Yixing found himself rather enjoying watching him work.

 

The forge was hot and sweltering but it did not seem to bother the blacksmith as he hammered out a blade, sparks flying in the air.

 

Yixing was perched on a little chair as far away from the fire as he could get, watching Kyungsoo drop the blade into a cauldron of water.

 

“Don’t you ever get lonely?” he asked when Kyungsoo took a break to accept a drink.

 

Kyungsoo shrugged, jerking his chin in the direction of the yard.

 

“I have my animals. They are company enough.”

 

Kyungsoo also happened to be a descendant from the dead kingdom Himdeul, as Yixing realised when he opened the door to see a flock of deer, rabbits and squirrels waiting to be fed. They scattered when they saw him but regrouped when Kyungsoo came to the door, bearing plates and bowls of fruit and vegetables.

 

“They like me,” he said, in answer to Yixing’s questioning gaze.

 

Kyungsoo was a man of very few words.

 

“I can see that,” Yixing commented as the deer nearly fell over themselves in a panic to let him scratch their ears and stroke their cheeks.

 

“It could be something to do with my ancestors’ magic.” Kyungsoo shrugged, as if it was nothing, going about placing down the food while Yixing stared at him with his mouth open.

 

“You- You’re descended from Himdeul?” he asked, following him back into the house with his eyes wide with awe.

 

Kyungsoo shrugged again.

 

“Somewhat, I suppose. It’s the magic that allows me to create what I do.”

 

He showed Yixing several pieces that he had made, imbued with his own magic.

 

“I only sell these to the ones deserving of it. Magic in the wrong hands can be very dangerous, indeed.”

 

The dagger shivered in his hand, as if sensing Yixing’s magic and reacting to it. Yixing set it down carefully, in complete awe of Kyungsoo’s skill.

 

“They are beautiful,” he said, tracing his finger over the carved rune that ran along the hilt like a river.

 

The dagger shuddered and he yelped in shock when the blade extended, turning into a sword.

 

“Be careful,” Kyungsoo said, not looking up from wiping down a beautifully carved bow. He blew gently onto the wood as Yixing removed his hand from the hilt of the sword, eyes wide.

 

“Here. You try this.” Yixing blinked when Kyungsoo thrust the bow into his hands, nearly dropping the weapon in his shock.

 

A quiver of arrows was slung over his shoulder before he could protest and Kyungsoo was hustling him out to stand before a tree that might have been glorious once, but was marked with multiple scars in its trunk.

 

Yixing inhaled, drawing an arrow from the quiver.

 

The bow was marvellously made, perfectly weighted in his hand as if it had been made for him. It made his heart ache a little, as he thought about his own bow, lost to the bottom of the sea. He drew back the bowstring, his heart beat settling into a steady rhythm.

 

The feather tickled, brushing against his cheek but it was an easy sensation to tune out.

 

He exhaled and the arrow flew from the bow, piercing straight into the heart of the trunk. Beside him, Kyungsoo made a derisive noise.

 

“Well that settles it. The bow is yours.”

 

“What?” Yixing yelped when Kyungsoo brushed past him to yank the arrow out of the tree trunk, the arrowhead having gouged out a hole in the bark.

 

“You’ve lost your bow and need a replacement. This is the best bow you can get in all the land.” Kyungsoo did not stop to chat, continuing his way up to the forge. Yixing followed after him like a little lost puppy.

 

“I can’t just take this. You’ve already done so much for me. Let me pay you what it’s worth,” he said. Kyungsoo shrugged.

 

“I don’t need the money. I have connections. You keep your money for something for useful and let me be happy that my work is in good hands.”

 

Yixing stared after him in shock, the perfectly weighted bow clutched in his hands.

 

“Come along. We have work to do.”

 

Kyungsoo’s voice snapped him out of his daze and he padded after him, hugging the bow to his chest.

 

-

 

“Thank you for everything,” Yixing murmured as Kyungsoo slung the saddlebags over the back of the stag.

 

It was a very strange sensation, to be sitting atop a stag instead of a horse but Kyungsoo had promised that it was every bit as safe.

 

“Tidal will take you to the palace. The prince is already expecting you,” Kyungsoo grunted in reply as Yixing took his hand.

 

“Will I see you again?” Yixing asked, shifting when Tidal pawed at the ground, bleating.

 

“If you write, Your Highness.” The look in Kyungsoo’s eyes softened briefly and he patted Yixing’s hand, taking a step back. “The pigeons will find me always.”

 

Yixing nodded, retracting his hand to wind his fingers into the soft rope that Kyungsoo had secured around Tidal’s neck. It was more for him to hold on to than anything else. He promised that the stag would find its way just fine and Yixing trusted him.

 

“Goodbye!” Yixing called, twisting his head around to see Kyungsoo’s figure grow ever smaller until the trees closed in around him.

 

Seong’s forest was somehow darker than Chilyo’s even without the poison running through the ground. A chill ran down Yixing’s spine as Tidal galloped through the thicket of trees, so dense that the sunlight barely reached through the leaves.

 

His heart thumped alongside with Tidal’s hoof beats against the earth, clinging on tightly. The feeling of his bow and quiver pressing against his back was comforting as they wove around tree trunks.

 

Even though Tidal was moving so fast the forest was practically a blur around him, the hair on the nape of Yixing’s neck stood up as they leapt across a stream, the thicket of trees widening just enough for him feel someone’s eyes on him.

 

He inhaled sharply, digging his fingers into Tidal’s fur as the stag kept going, dislodging small rocks as they climbed down a steep bank.

 

Thorn bushes flared out all alongside the river, sweet red berries leeching a sickly sweet scent into the air. Yixing swallowed when Tidal stuttered to a stop, raising his head to sniff the air.

 

He tried hard not to let his fear show as Tidal paced along the river, searching for a place shallow enough to cross. There was still eyes on him, burning between his shoulder blades.

 

The air was so still, almost eerily quiet save for the earth crunching beneath Tidal’s hooves as the stag nosed at the water. Yixing’s heart rose to his throat when the hair on the back of his arms prickled. He whipped around to look in the direction of the thorn bushes that they had passed.

 

Something was watching him.

 

A hawk screeched and Yixing gasped, his heart nearly jumping out of his mouth when the bird exploded out of the nearby bushes.

 

It was a bedraggled thing that staggered through the air, feathers limp and oily.

 

Yixing shivered when the hawk landed upon a tree on the opposite side of the river, beady eyes blinking at him. It looked unnaturally intelligent, even with its horrifying mass of feathers and blood trickling down its body.

 

Bile crawled up Yixing’s throat when he saw the long narrow gash across the hawk’s throat.

 

It was not really alive.

 

“Tidal, let’s go please,” he said just as Tidal took a step into the water.

 

Tidal snorted, treading across the river floor. The water only reached up to his belly as he walked, the heels of Yixing’s boots barely touching the surface.

 

It was lucky that they reached the bank when they did.

 

Yixing’s blood chilled when the hawk gave an inhuman squawk, lurching into the air.

 

“Go!” he cried and Tidal leapt forward as if he had been struck, breaking into a gallop as the hawk swooped down towards them.

 

He wound the rope around his wrist, his heart thundering in his ears.Before he quite knew what he was doing, his bow was in his hands, an arrow notched to the bow string.

 

The hawk screeched again and Yixing swore its eyes turned red.

 

His arrow sliced through the air, spearing straight through the heart of the zombie hawk but to his horror, it did nothing to deter the bird.

 

His blood was ice in his veins as he shot another arrow and another, each one finding their mark.

 

But the hawk kept going, drawing level with him.

 

As if sensing his fear, Tidal’s strides lengthened as Yixing slung his bow over his back, drawing his dagger. He slashed just as the hawk plunged into a death spiral. Black blood spilled over his hand and wrist when his dagger made its mark, cutting across the hawk’s head.

 

Yixing gagged when the smell hit him, an overwhelming stench of rotting flesh.

 

He shuddered when the hawk went down, a spiral of shadow escaping from its hollow body. The bones crunched when Tidal trod over them and Yixing could not be more relieved when the trees finally widened, pulling back around them to reveal a wide open field.

 

The city scape was laid out before him as Tidal thundered towards the stone buildings.

 

It was almost as if the stag too, was relieved to see civilization with the way he sped across the swaying grass, wind ruffling Yixing’s hair. They drew a lot of attention on the streets, the murmurs of people filtering through Yixing’s ears as they galloped across the town.

 

Tidal’s hooves made a very nice clip clopping sound against the cobblestone when he finally slowed, the shadow of the castle looming over them both. Yixing was very aware of his wind blown hair and flushed face when he climbed off the stag before the pair of astonished guards.

 

“I am Prince Yixing of Chilyo. Your prince has been expecting me,” he said as confidently as he could, trying to hold in a shiver when the guards’ eyes raked up and down his form.

 

He was dressed in simple clothes, courtesy of Kyungsoo as his belongings had mostly been lost at sea.

 

For a moment he was afraid that the guards would turn him away, for he was sure he looked nothing like royalty in his peasant clothing.

 

As the guards conferred with each other, Yixing kept his hand against Tidal’s shoulder, afraid that they would see the blood. They would almost certainly see it when he moved but he would much rather explain it to the prince himself.

 

A guard glanced over at his gloved hand and Yixing tucked it into his pocket, very self-conscious.

 

He wished Junmyeon were there.

 

Junmyeon and his calm and passive authority would surely be able to convince the guards.

 

Yixing swallowed when one of the guards disappeared behind the great doors, fingers digging into Tidal’s fur.

 

“You don’t look very much like a prince,” the remaining guard said casually. “Do you have a symbol or a sword? The prince will ask to see one.”

 

He did not sound threatening at all, which was a good sign.

 

Yixing relaxed, fumbling for his signet ring. He pulled it off just as the doors opened and the guards nodded at each other.

 

“Prince Yixing.” Prince Jongdae’s tone was frosty, chilly even, when he emerged from the doorway, hands folded before him. “I have heard so many things about you.”

 

Yixing had to fight hard not to react at the sight of the black lace mask that covered half his face and the electricity that charged the room the moment he entered it.

 

He smoothed down his hair, bowing.

 

“Good things, I hope,” he said. It was difficult not to show how uneasy the statement made him. As far as he knew, the kingdoms hardly corresponded and he had only made contact with Junmyeon so far. Who had been talking about him?

 

“Kyungsoo writes good things. Perhaps he does not know you very well,” Jongdae said, the hint of a smirk tugging at his lips and Yixing faltered, confused and a little scared.

 

“I don’t understand, Your Highness,” he ventured to say, his skin crawling as the electricity in the room mounted.

 

“You will,” Prince Jongdae shrugged, spinning around. His bootheels clicked on the marble as he ascended the staircase. “The servants will take you to your chambers. I hope your stay here will be pleasant.”

 

With that, he vanished around the corner and Yixing was left standing at the bottom of the stairs, even more confused than he had been when he entered.

 

“You must excuse our prince, Your Highness.” The maid who escorted him to his room was chatty and open, so very unlike the cold prince that Yixing found himself relaxing. “He is unused to guests. You are only the second person close to his age that has come to stay here.”

 

“The second? Who was the first?” Yixing asked curiously as the maid pottered about, straightening vases and paintings.

 

“A lord from the South. I think he came from Chilyo. A remarkable young man. The prince likely is sweet on him if he let him stay this long- oh! I shouldn’t have said that.”

 

Yixing smiled when the maid clapped her hands over her mouth, shaking his head.

 

“So he’s still here then,” he said, lounging on his bed. He had no idea where the prince was and judging from the chilly reception, he did not want his company.

 

“Yes, yes. He stays on the north wing, closer to the prince. You might see him around if you go exploring. Just avoid the prince’s chambers. He likes his privacy,” the maid stated, shaking her feather duster at a painting.

 

Yixing rose from the bed, carefully smoothing the bed covers back into place.

 

“Perhaps I shall go and take a walk around by myself,” he said “since the prince has not offered me a tour.”

 

“Go ahead, milord. Another servant will fetch you for dinner,” the maid trilled, waving as he stepped out of the room.

 

Yixing walked along the narrow hall, admiring the carved hand rails on the walls. Instead of stretches of stone, the hallway his chambers was located in had short ones, overlooking the main entrance.

 

The carvings were so detailed, beautifully sculpted horses and eagles. There were so many depictions eagles and bulls too. One carving was of a man riding atop a bull, an eagle flying alongside.

 

Vaguely, Yixing remembered that the symbol of Seong, was a large eagle. It was to represent their power over weather and storms in particular. Perhaps that had something to do with the electricity that Prince Jongdae managed to conduct in the room.

 

He walked down a long flight of stairs to the main hall, staring in awe at the Greek style pillars holding up the ceiling.

 

His home did not have such pillars.

 

Perhaps it was the size, but the palace felt sadly empty and hollow. Prince Jongdae had stated in his letter that his parents would be away on business and that they were sorry to miss him.

 

Yixing smiled when he heard footsteps coming down the stairs.

 

Perhaps he would introduce himself to this lord that the prince was supposedly sweet on. He was here to make friends after all and the maid had said this lord was from Chilyo. They would have something in common already.

 

He walked around the pillar fully prepared to flash his dimples and greet the man.

 

His heart stopped at the sight before him.

 

“Baekhyun.”

 

His best friend looked nothing like he remembered.

 

Gone was the sweet, endearing smile, the brilliant brown eyes that glimmered with mischief and the carefree character that he had so dearly loved.

 

This Baekhyun was different, colder, harsher in a way that grated on Yixing.

 

Guilt was a rock in his stomach, scraping at his insides as his gloved fingers curled and he lowered his head. From the angle, he could see Baekhyun’s boots, the tops painted silver, the leather covered with silver swirls and metal filigree.

 

“Who speaks?” Baekhyun asked, his silver eyes narrowing. The space between his brows creased and he scrunched his nose, as if he was trying to scent him out like a hound would.

 

Tears balled up in Yixing’s throat and he grabbed at the nearest pillar for support.

 

“It’s me, Yixing,” he choked, a hand flying to his mouth to muffle a sob when Baekhyun shifted, leaning against his cane.

 

Somehow, those sightless silver eyes could still express so many emotions.

 

“Yixing.” Baekhyun said the word slowly, icy cold, as if he was tasting it before spitting it out like something bitter.

 

Yixing nodded, even though he knew Baekhyun could not see him, tears blurring his vision. The last person he had expected to see there in Seong was his best friend.

 

The lights in the room flickered and Yixing’s heart was cold, painful in his chest as he took in the man who he had once known so well. Baekhyun’s hair had turned completely silver, like his parents had told him and his face was paler than Yixing remembered, his lips covered with a thin sheen.

 

His earrings spun and caught the flickering light as he turned his head, as if trying to discern Yixing’s location from listening.

 

The Baekhyun he knew would have flown at him in a rage, beating him with his fists, his tongue as sharp as a dagger with furious words. But this Baekhyun merely stood in place, his head cocked to one side, leaning against his cane as if Yixing was a stranger.

 

“Baekhyun, I-.”

 

“You left me.”

 

“I- I didn’t mean to,” Yixing choked out, his hands trembling as he reached out.

 

Pain settled like a knife to his chest when Baekhyun took a step back, as if he had felt him coming. His face was impassive as he gazed upon Yixing, unseeing.

 

“You hurt me and then you left me,” Baekhyun said.

 

A wounded noise escaped Yixing’s lips but he had no other words. There was nothing he could say that could alleviate Baekhyun’s pain, no excuse he could make for Baekhyun to forgive him. Deep down inside, Yixing knew his own leaving had been partly an act of cowardice.

 

He could not face Baekhyun, knowing what he had done.

 

“Baekhyun-.”

 

The sounds of a cane tap tapping away shattered him and Yixing had to grasp at the nearest pillar, swallowing down the ball of tears that had risen in his throat. He did not know how long he stayed in that position, trembling from the weight of the guilt digging its claws into him.

 

How could he stay, knowing that Baekhyun was there, still hurt and suffering from his actions?

 

Yixing sucked in a sharp breath, blinking back tears when he heard footsteps approaching him. He kept his head down, turned away.

 

“Dinner will be ready in the dining hall, Milord. If you will follow me.” The servant’s voice was crisp, betraying no sign that he could see Yixing’s distress.

 

“I- would like to dine alone tonight, please,” Yixing said, trying to keep his voice from shaking. From what it looked like, Prince Jongdae had already heard Baekhyun’s version of the story and it certainly had not endeared him to Yixing.

 

“The prince will be present, Milord. I’m afraid it would be improper to-.”

 

“Please. Just this night. I am tired from my journey,” Yixing murmured. He wanted to hole up in his room and perhaps scribble a letter to Junmyeon, confessing his cowardice. He needed him now.

 

The servant paused, bowing his head.

 

“I will inform the prince that you won’t be joining them.”

 

“Thank you,” Yixing whispered, listening as his footsteps subsided. He raised his head, wiping away his tears before a loud meow caught his attention.

 

A cat mewled at him, pawing at his ankle as if it could sense his distress and the display made Yixing smile a little.

 

“Hello,” he said, crouching down to ruffle the cat’s ears. “You must be Prince Jongdae’s cat.”

 

The cat meowed back, pawing a little harder at his ankles.

 

“Go on and find him.” Yixing shooed the cat away, turning to find his own way back to his chambers but the little kitty would not leave him alone, padding along behind him.

 

The sound of tiny paws pattering on marble floor made Yixing smile, all watery and he turned around, shaking his head at the feline who had stopped too, tilting its head at him.

 

“You’re not going to leave me alone, are you?” he asked. The cat merely flicked an ear, pulling its lips back into a yawn.

 

“Go back to your owner, little one,” Yixing said, trying take a step but the cat wound around his ankles, mewing so loudly that he could not bear it any longer. He crouched and the cat leapt into his arms, purring like it had just gotten the cream.

 

“Thank you.” Yixing felt a little silly, thanking a cat as he carried it down to his chambers. “At least one person here does not hate me,” he murmured, pressing his face into the cat’s fur.

 

Perhaps the cat was used to being a shoulder to cry on, for it leapt off when Yixing set it onto the bed. When he bent to untie his bootlaces, the cat pounced, pawing at the wiggling laces as if trying to amuse him.

 

“Those are not for you, silly.” Yixing scooped the cat up again and it settled, practically cooing as he made his way over to the writing desk.

 

The servants had put away the clothes that Kyungsoo had given him but he would have to order more soon, some more befitting his status but his bundle of letters from his parents and Junmyeon were sitting on the desk.

 

Yixing pulled apart the twine that held them together, shuffling the letters until he found Junmyeon’s latest one, one that he had not read yet.

 

He took that and the cat back to his bed, curling up beneath the covers.

 

Thunder boomed, startling him and he looked up to see that the sky was dark, angry grey clouds looming over them. Yixing shivered, lighting another lamp for his room.

 

The servants had started the fire for him and it was not cold in the room but still he felt a chill, as if something was watching him.

 

Even the cat seemed to sense that something did not feel right for it crawled right into his arms and stayed there, its warm body pressed against his chest. He could feel its heart beating and every breath it took as he unfurled his parchment.

 

The man took him by surprise.

 

He came out of the shadows, dark and lean, moving like a predator on the hunt, a sleek black panther through the trees. Yixing was surrounded by his element, terror digging deep into his chest.

 

His eyes glinted like onyx stones as he came closer and closer, until Yixing could hear his breaths, feel the warmth from his body.

 

“Who are you?” he gasped, when the man curled a finger beneath his chin, lips twisting into a smirk. He was deviously handsome but there was an edge, like the hidden blade of a knife.

 

Yixing found that he could not move, could scarcely breathe when the man cupped his cheek, drawing him closer and closer until his breath puffed against his lips and he could smell the reek of death that radiated from him.

 

“What do you want from me?” he whispered. His heart was being squeezed in a vice, terror clawing up his throat. He wanted to throw up, but could not pull his eyes from the man.

 

“Come to me,” the man murmured, nose brushing against his. “You’re so close now.”

 

“I don’t want to,” Yixing said, trying to pull away. He tugged but the man pulled back, baring his teeth. “Leave me alone, please.”

 

He had no doubt that this was the person who had been watching him, chasing him from his bedroom in Chilyo all the way to Bada.

 

Now he was here. Somewhere. Still watching him.

 

Yixing’s skin crawled like a thousand ants were walking all over him and he yanked back, screaming when pain burned through his body, a fire in his veins.

 

“Stop, stop!”

 

“Your Highness!”

 

Yixing’s eyes snapped awake and he sat bolt upright, Junmyeon’s letter tumbling off his lap. The cat was meowing at him, so loudly that it was a wonder he had not woken earlier. It had a look that seemed like concern on its furry face as it padded over to lick at the tears Yixing did not know were spilling down his face.

 

“I’m- alright,” he said slowly to the servant standing by his bed, brows creased. “Just a bad dream is all.”

 

“I’ve brought your dinner,” the servant said, pointing to the writing desk. Yixing nodded, dismissing him. As the servant left to draw his bath, he rolled up the parchment on his bed, lowering his head to press his nose into the cat’s fur.

 

The cat mewed, licking at his face with its rough sandpaper tongue and he let out a laugh that was almost a sob.

 

“Silly cat,” he murmured, rumpling the cat’s ear gently, “that won’t make me feel any better.”

 

He wiped away his tears and rose, picking up the cat.

 

“Won’t Prince Jongdae miss you?” he questioned as he walked over to the writing desk to study the food.

 

There was a hearty stew, full of carrots and potatoes and some sort of meat that might be venison and puffed wild rice, dark and brown. In another bowl, there was a thick soup, orange with a white streak that might be cream. It had chunks too, of what Yixing presumed to be pumpkin.

 

The last bowl was filled with wild strawberries that were small and tart when he popped one into his mouth.

 

The servant had brought a bowl for the cat too, a small one filled with a stew of its own.

 

Yixing ate slowly, surprised by the myriad of flavours that assaulted his tongue just from the stew alone.

 

It was rich and thick and the meat was gamey, almost slightly too strong for taste buds used to the more delicate palate of the Bada culture. The rice was a lovely texture and fragrant when he drizzled the gravy from the stew over it.

 

The pumpkin soup was more of his taste, lighter in flavour even with the dash of cream.

 

Thankfully, the cat seemed more preoccupied with his own bowl instead of eating out of Yixing’s as he was not sure what it could and could not eat.

 

He was grateful for the company when thunder rumbled again and lightning flashed across the sky. Rain was lashing down onto the earth, falling in sheets so heavy that they blurred the world.

 

The servant returned and Yixing let himself be undressed, trying not to wince at the sight of the hoof shaped scar in his thigh.

 

He slid into the warm water, shaking his head with a smile when the cat padded into the room just as the servant was leaving, leaping up onto the ledge of the bathtub gracefully.

 

“You’d better not complain if you fall in,” he said, waggling his finger at the feline.

 

All he got was a meow before the cat settled down, licking at its paw.

 

The bath water smelled like lavender and honey, calming as he reclined, wiping himself down with a sponge. He could still hear the thunder booming but it was much more muted in the bathroom.

 

The blue tinged water made him think of Junmyeon and he resolved to finish his letter and write a reply as soon as he could.

 

“Oops,” he said when he rose, some droplets of water splashing onto the cat. He laughed when the cat shook himself, giving him a mournful look before he dried himself and dressed in the navy blue robe that had been left out for him.

 

“Come here,” Yixing smiled, scooping up the cat before he exited the bathroom.

 

In his chambers, all the lamps had been lit and the fireplace was burning brightly, filling the room with warmth. His tray had been cleared away and a small bottle had been left in its place.

 

For your nightmares, the label read and Yixing could only smile, touched by the thoughtfulness of the servants.

 

He returned to his bed, setting the elixir by his bedside.

 

His lips curled into a smile when he read the first lines of Junmyeon’s handwriting, back to being perfectly neat and precise now that he knew Yixing was safe.

 

Dearest Yixing,

 

I miss you every day and I hope you are recovering well. The kingdom is flourishing and Chanyeol tells me there are no more sightings of the zombiefied creatures we fought. It is a relief to me.

 

What is Prince Jongdae like? I have yet to meet him and would love to soon. Perhaps a trip to Seong could be arranged?

 

How is your sleep, my love? I worry for your nightmares. Without me there to soothe them, do you still sleep well? I have consulted several doctors and will send some elixirs across sea if I can.

 

The letter went on to detail some things that Junmyeon had done, more research that he had found before he returned to waxing poetic about how much he missed Yixing.

 

I cannot wait to see you again, however briefly. Write me, Yixing and often. The castle is a bore without your presence.

 

Princely duties await me and I must go. I love you, dearest and await your return faithfully.

 

Signed,

Junmyeon

 

Yixing leaned back against his pillow, unable to stop his smile. He stroked the cat that was now purring in his lap, relishing in the warmth that swept through him at Junmyeon’s words.

 

He missed him too, terribly.

 

A year was a long time to spend with someone and two years an even longer wait to see him again.

 

Yixing hoped that they would arrange some sort of trip for Junmyeon to see him soon. He set aside the letter and the cat before rising to blow out the lamps, stoking the fire higher. The cat padded over to him, circling around the spot by his feet before settling, kneading at the covers several times.

 

Yixing snuggled up under the blankets, closing his eyes. Another roar of thunder made him flinch and he scrunched himself up tighter.

 

The cat mewled at him, crawling out from its cozy spot to clamber over to the nightstand. It nudged at the glass bottle that Yixing had quite forgotten about towards him and Yixing rolled over, stretching an arm out.

 

“Thank you, kitty,” Yixing said softly, smiling when the cat walked over to nuzzle his chin before flopping down in front of him.

 

He gulped down the contents of the bottle, curling up with a hand stroking down the cat’s back.

 

“Good night, kitty.”

 

Chapter Text

“Prince Yixing will not be joining you tonight, milord. He is tired from his journey and wishes to retire early,” the servant said by the door.

 

Baekhyun huffed, shaking his head when Jongdae dismissed the servant.

 

“I didn’t think he was that afraid of me,” he said when the servant was gone and it was just the two of them. They were alone in the dining hall, Sehun still taking his meals in his room while he recovered from his injuries. He was not doing as well as the doctors hoped he would, his wounds festering.

 

Even Geoum the cat had not deigned them with his presence.

 

“You’ve met him already then,” Jongdae said and Baekhyun could hear him scraping at the edges of his bowl with his spoon. His tone was neutral.

 

“Bumped into him by accident,” Baekhyun said, cocking his head. “Why? What was your first impression?”

 

“A little dull perhaps. Or maybe he was not expecting the hostility. Kyungsoo says he is kind and quiet and that he likes him. I told him as much and that perhaps Kyungsoo did not know him as well as he thought he did.”

 

Baekhyun rolled his eyes. Or as much as he could anyway. Without pupils, he doubted it had a similar effect but the sentiment was the same.

 

“I’m sure your parents would appreciate that. Scaring away the prince that you are supposed to befriend.”

 

“You’re one to talk. You were his best friend,” Jongdae snarked.

 

“I have a valid reason to shun him. Do you?” Baekhyun shot back but there was no heat to his tone. He was a little touched that Jongdae had been so defensive.

 

Jongdae was silent, with only the scraping of his spoon echoing in the room.

 

“How is Sehun?” Baekhyun asked softly. He knew Jongdae had more than one reason to be cold to a visitor, given that Sehun was still in bad shape.

 

“Doing as well as he can be. His wounds are not healing and his fits come more frequently. The doctors think that whatever attacked him had been magical, perhaps from the land of shadows.”

 

“But Keurimjeo is dead. The entire bloodline died out after they wiped the kingdom off the map,” Baekhyun said, confused. They all knew of the incident. A mad prince with power over shadows and enough power to level a kingdom.

 

No one ever tried to cross the desolation that was the remains of the kingdom and if any did, they never survived.

 

The desert was all black sand, full of dangerous bandits and swirling quicksand pits. Strange creatures lurked there, though they never ventured far from the borders.

 

“Only shadow magic can inhibit healing like this. Whatever that attacked him, it wasn’t natural.” The worry in Jongdae’s tone was clear to Baekhyun as he sipped his soup, listening to the wind whistling outside.

 

“Perhaps Yixing would help, if you haven’t frightened him too much,” Baekhyun muttered. He was only joking. Jongdae only needed to ask and Yixing would help him in whatever way he could. The man was so soft hearted.

 

“I doubt it. Between you and me, I think we may have scared him enough to end his trip early,” Jongdae replied, leaning back in his chair.

 

“Yixing doesn’t scare that easy,” Baekhyun said, nudging at his cup of tea. “I would know. I’ve lived with him for so long.”

 

“Are you still sweet on him?”

 

The question came out of nowhere, hanging in the air.

 

Baekhyun froze. His mind whirled. He had not thought about his feelings in a long time.

 

When he had awoken to Yixing gone, he had shoved his feelings into a little box and buried them deep inside him. He had done everything to make Yixing stop existing in his mind, so that his heart would stop aching every time he thought about his best friend.

 

Meeting Yixing here, in Seong had been completely unplanned, though Baekhyun thought he handled it better than Yixing had. He did have the upper hand of knowing when Yixing would arrive, after Jongdae received a letter from a friend stating that he had been found.

 

No matter how much he tried to forget him, the weight lifted off his shoulders when Jongdae relayed the message that Yixing was a little bit banged up but alive.

 

“Maybe,” he said, offhandedly, “why?”

 

“It’s just a question,” Jongdae replied. “He doesn’t seem like your type.”

 

Baekhyun huffed out a laugh.

 

“What would you know about my type?”

 

“Nothing at all. I was just assuming. Forgive me for being presumptuous.” He could hear the faint smile in Jongdae’s voice and that was enough make his chest warm.

 

“Do you have a type? I’ve never even heard you talk about a beau. Have you ever had one?” he asked. He regretted the question the moment he felt the atmosphere change, Jongdae stiffening.

 

“No. I don’t get out much. No one could ever get past the scars on my face.”

 

“That’s a shame,” Baekhyun said as lightly as he could, “I think you’re pretty.”

 

Jongdae snorted and Baekhyun was relieved to feel the tension ease, allowing a smile to grace his face.

 

“You’d be the first,” the prince said, but there was amusement in his tone. Baekhyun sank back into his chair, grinning in triumph. He always enjoyed making Jongdae laugh, pulling that stick from his ass.

 

Really, a man his age should be happier, being outside and living life, not locked up in a castle hiding his face. He could understand Jongdae’s trepidation however. People were often unkind to things that were different and between him and Jongdae, they had enough differences to last a lifetime.

 

“We should both rest,” Jongdae said at last, setting down his spoon. “This storm isn’t going anywhere for a while.”

 

Baekhyun heard his chair scraping back and then footsteps coming towards him. A hand touched his arm and he sat up.

 

“Shall we?”

 

Allowing a smile to grace his face, Baekhyun took the proffered hand.

 

The days passed almost sluggishly. Jongdae was reluctant to allow Baekhyun to return to the forest in pursuit of the tree because Sehun’s condition was worsening by the day. He was fearful that whatever had attacked Sehun might hurt him too.

 

Baekhyun was touched but also being cooped up in the castle all day was never good for anyone like him.

 

So he wandered, keeping out of Yixing’s way as best as he could. He could hear him sometimes, when he went down a garden path and a little surprised cry echoed in the air before footsteps hustled away.

 

Yixing attended dinners with Jongdae sometimes and those were the ones Baekhyun actively avoided, choosing to eat on his own in his room or in Sehun’s room.

 

Geoum the cat seemed to have taken a special liking to Yixing, much to Jongdae’s frustration and Baekhyun’s amusement. The two were never very far apart. Perhaps the cat had sensed Yixing’s loneliness and was keeping him company.

 

Baekhyun had heard the servants whispering that Yixing often left the castle on his own, only coming back after the sun set. The scent of the forest clung to him whenever he did and briefly, Baekhyun wondered if he should tell him about his connection.

 

He never did however, choosing wander through castle grounds on his own whenever Jongdae was not available. Which was becoming rare.

 

The prince spent most of his days with him, even when he had princely things to do. He would invite Baekhyun to his study to read the few Braille texts that he had or sing while he signed papers and read complaints from the people.

 

But something felt different.

 

Baekhyun’s heart was heavy and he wondered if it had something to do with Yixing’s presence. They had not spoken since that first day and Yixing had gone out his way to avoid him.

 

The thought made Baekhyun’s heart ache and he was confused.

 

What did he truly want?

 

Did he wish for Yixing leave him alone as he was doing or did he want Yixing to speak to him, to beg for his forgiveness and be friends again?

 

He did not know.

 

Sehun was at the forefront of his mind now, however and he always went to see him everyday, in the hopes that he would have gotten better.

 

“You should talk to Yixing,” Baekhyun said the moment they stepped into the room. He could hear Sehun’s laboured breathing and the way it caught, as if he might stop anytime. “He could help.”

 

“Why can’t you speak to him? You know him better,” Jongdae snapped. He was as taut as a bowstring, tense and easily irritable that day. “And you’ve been moping about like a lovesick fool.”

 

Baekhyun flinched.

 

He knew Jongdae did not mean it. That he was hurting, worried.

 

It was that thought that made him speak to a servant about taking him to Yixing’s chambers.

 

He could hear Geoum purring from behind the door when he knocked and that was enough to still his rapidly beating heart for a moment.

 

“Baekhyun?” Yixing’s tone was surprised, even a little hopeful, “can I help you?”

 

“Jongdae’s cousin is ill. Will you please take a look at him?” The words came out stilted, awkward and Baekhyun cursed internally. Yixing still had an affect of him no matter how much he tried to quash it.

 

“Oh, Baekhyun. Of course.” Yixing sounded almost relieved.

 

Geoum padded out at that moment, mewling. Yixing must have picked him up, for his contented purring became much louder.

 

Baekhyun cleared his throat and began walking, tapping his cane in front of him.

 

Yixing was silent, as if he sensed that Baekhyun did not want to speak or be spoken to but the relief radiating off him was almost overwhelming. It was horribly awkward and Baekhyun could not wait to arrive at Sehun’s chambers, if only it meant that there would be someone else to break the ice between them.

 

“Prince Yixing.” It was strange to hear Jongdae so formal. Baekhyun could not remember the last time he had heard the prince so proper.

 

“Thank you for coming,” Jongdae said, stiff. He was uneasy and it showed in the way he spoke but Yixing seemed to have no such reservations, going straight to the bed.

 

Geoum jumped off, meowing mournfully and Baekhyun found himself moving closer to pet him, listening as Yixing pulled away the covers and unwrapped the bandages.

 

“Do you know what attacked him?” His voice was calm and professional.

 

“A bear. A mutated bear.”

 

Baekhyun could hear Yixing’s frown in his tone when he asked.

 

“A mutated bear? What did it look like?”

 

“Unnaturally big. It was-.”

 

“Dying. Should have been dead,” Baekhyun interrupted. He could not forget the rancid smell of death that followed the creature, not the reek of its blood when he cut into it.

 

“Oh- gods,” Yixing murmured. “That’s not- natural. I did not know they would come here.”

 

“What do you mean? Have you seen them before?” Jongdae asked sharply.

 

Yixing must have nodded before he spoke again.

 

“I encountered a similar bear whilst traveling to Bada. We were also attacked by a pack of zombie wolves and a hawk trailed me before I killed it on my way here.”

 

Jongdae made a horrified sound.

 

“Why did you not tell us this? There are more of them? Why are they here? Why do they exist at all?”

 

“I- didn’t know. I thought they were only coming for me,” Yixing stuttered and Baekhyun could almost see his eyes wide with guilt and worry.

 

“Why would they come for you?” he asked, trying not to sound accusatory.

 

“I don’t know. But I’ve been having nightmares. Someone’s been watching me,” Yixing said, the tremor in his voice pulling a string in Baekhyun’s heart.

 

“Can you fix Sehun? We can figure all of that out later but Sehun- Sehun’s fading. Nothing has been helping at all,” Jongdae cut in, panic colouring his tone.

 

“I can try,” Yixing murmured.

 

Baekhyun shifted away almost involuntarily. Yixing must have heard him however because he felt his gaze upon him immediately.

 

“I won’t hurt him.” He heard him say softly.

 

Baekhyun wished he could see, when Jongdae gasped and Yixing’s breath hitched. He could hear Yixing’s breathing change, becoming stiffer and more laboured.

 

A soft moan of pain echoed from Yixing and he could hear his teeth squeak when he gritted them.

 

Almost instinctively, he reached out, grasping Yixing’s gloved hand.

 

“Oh- oh.” Yixing’s breathing stuttered and he hissed. His fingers tightened around Baekhyun’s hand and then he was squeezing, his breaths shaky and trembling.

 

“Are you alright?” Jongdae asked, concerned but Yixing did not reply.

 

“Ah-!” he gasped and this time, Baekhyun winced. He was squeezing his hand so hard he was sure there would be bruises.

 

“His power brings him pain when he heals,” he said in Jongdae’s general direction, more preoccupied by just how tightly Yixing was holding him right then.

 

Yixing’s heart was beating erratically, his breathing heavy. Baekhyun was afraid that it would stop, that he would be too overcome by the pain to finish but at last, Yixing dropped his hand.

 

“I think- I think- he’s better,” he gasped before Baekhyun felt his weight shift.

 

“Damnit!” he cursed, lunging forward to catch his friend haphazardly. “Yixing?”

 

“I’m okay,” came Yixing’s breathy reply. He sounded strained, as if the pain still lingered, “just. A little stunned.”

 

“He’s breathing normally,” Jongdae said, sounding much closer now. He touched a hand to Baekhyun’s shoulder and the weight in his arms shifted, as if Jongdae was helping him straighten Yixing. “You’ve done it.”

 

Yixing’s breathing was still shaky and his other hand was cold and clammy when Baekhyun reached for it, pressing his fingers into his wrist to check his pulse. He inhaled deeply as Baekhyun massaged along his pulse point, lacing their fingers together.

 

“I’m fine,” he murmured lowly, “tired. Not used to magic. But thank you, Baekhyun.”

 

“I should-.” Baekhyun moved when he made to rise, catching him before he could fall.

 

“Sit for a while,” he urged, surprised by the tenderness in his own voice. “You need to rest.”

 

“He’s right. Rest for a moment. If you have not used your magic often, it will be rough on you. Healing magic most of all,” Jongdae said and Baekhyun could feel his hand coming to rest on his shoulder.

 

Faced with both of them, Yixing did not have much of a choice.

 

For a moment, all Baekhyun could hear was his strained breathing and his pulse beating too quickly against his fingertips. He did not know that he had begun to rub his thumb in long strokes down Yixing’s wrist until the man huffed out a laugh.

 

“I’ve really missed you, you know,” Yixing said softly and Baekhyun clammed up at once, his walls flying up.

 

“You never wrote,” he replied shortly, dropping Yixing’s hand like it was a hot coal. Yixing made a pained sound.

 

“I didn’t think you would want me to,” he said quietly. “I’m sorry.”

 

There was a beat of silence broken only by the shifting of the sheets. Sehun was stirring.


“Silly, silly man,” he intoned and Baekhyun could not help the smile from blooming on his lips.

 

“You’re better,” he said and could almost see Sehun beaming at him.

 

“Silly man,” Sehun said again. “Of course he would want you to write. You’re his best friend.”

 

The gentle admonishment made Baekhyun laugh and he could hear Yixing laugh too, albeit shakily.

 

“It’s nice to meet you, Sehun,” he said.

 

The bed rustled again and Sehun was moving, crawling across the bed to kneel before them both. The amount of strength he had garnered was remarkable considering he had been bedridden for so long.

 

“You’re Yixing,” the boy said.

 

“Yes, I am. I’ve been talked about a lot here, haven’t I?” The smile in Yixing’s tone was weak and it made something harden in Baekhyun’s stomach. The way he could still make Baekhyun ridiculously protective while still being mad at him was insulting.

 

“Only a little bit,” Sehun said breezily, as was his way. “The wind says you’re nice and I believe them.”

 

Jongdae laughed at that. Baekhyun reached out a hand blindly and shoved him.

 

“Yixing needs rest. I’ll send some servants-.”

 

“No. I can take him back,” Baekhyun interrupted. “I think we need to talk.”

 

“Thank god.” He could hear the exasperation in Jongdae’s tone and it made him reach around Yixing to push him again. “You’ve been so mopey I was about to lock you in a room with him myself.”

 

“I have not,” Baekhyun retorted. He had indeed been mopey but Yixing did not need to know that.

 

Yixing chuckled. It was a nice sound to hear, familiar. Baekhyun was too proud to admit that he truly had missed his best friend but he was sure Yixing already knew. He was always more perceptive than Baekhyun would have liked.

 

“Take him then. And don’t come back until you’ve kissed and made up,” Jongdae said. Baekhyun scoffed, snatching up his cane. It was with great satisfaction that he stabbed him with the foot of the cane, taking Yixing’s arm to help him up as Jongdae yelped.

 

“I didn’t know you were such great friends,” Yixing murmured lowly as Baekhyun helped him out of the room, Geoum mewling at their feet. The cat really liked Yixing, given the way he had just abandoned Jongdae to follow them. Or he had just sensed that Yixing was not completely himself.

 

“It took a long time to get him to open up to me,” Baekhyun admitted, “he built a wall around himself when I first got here.”

 

“Well if there was anyone who was going to coax him out, it certainly would be you,” Yixing said fondly. There was an almost teasing note in his tone. “You were always good with people.”

 

“Not anymore,” Baekhyun replied, “people are afraid of me now.”

 

Yixing stiffened and he wanted to take the words back. He had not meant for them to sound so accusatory.

 

“I truly am sorry, Baekhyun. I know you might not believe me but I was afraid that you would hate me when you woke up. I couldn’t face that. I can’t live in a world where Byun Baekhyun hates me.”

 

Baekyun swallowed. The sincerity smacked him in the face and he had no idea how to respond.

 

“I’m- not a Byun anymore,” he managed.

 

“What?”

 

“My parents threw me out when they found out about um- this.” Baekhyun waved a hand before his face. Yixing sucked in a sharp breath, stopping his tracks.

 

“Why did my parents never tell me that?” he asked, “what about your brother?”

 

“Baekbom’s still my brother. In fact he’s been writing me. He’s coming here soon. He would love to meet you.”

 

Yixing relaxed briefly in his hold and he heard the sound of a knob turning.

 

“It would be a pleasure,” Yixing said softly as Baekhyun helped him over to the bed.

 

Geoum mewled at them, jumping up onto the bed to curl up at Yixing’s feet once he was properly tucked under the covers. Baekhyun fumbled for the jug of cool water he knew was set on the bedside, pouring a glass.

 

“Here. Drink this and rest. A servant will wake you for dinner,” he said, handing the glass over. His heart skipped when Yixing’s fingers brushed over his, tender.

 

“Thank you, Baekhyun.” There was nothing but sincerity in his tone as he took the water. “I will see you at dinner.”

 

-

 

It was slow going but Baekhyun felt almost indebted to Yixing for his help. He had not changed much from the kind, easy going person he had known since childhood and Baekhyun did not know if that was a good or bad thing.

 

He was so easy to like, with his soft smiles and gentle voice.

 

Baekhyun’s traitorous heart still skipped beats whenever Yixing grasped at his arm or leaned in close enough for him to feel the warmth radiating from him. They talked about everything, Baekhyun laying out everything that had happened back home since Yixing’s departure with a big bowl of walnuts between them.

 

He taught Yixing how to crack their shells like Jongdae taught him and in turn, Yixing told him about Bada.

 

About Junmyeon.

 

Was Baekhyun disappointed to hear that Yixing had a beau? Perhaps.

 

But he concealed it as well as he could.

 

Yixing was head over heels for this prince and he would be happy for him, his own suppressed feelings be damned.

 

Jongdae joined them sometimes but he was… different, to say the least.

 

He did not speak as freely, his words carefully chosen. Baekhyun could tell that he was uneasy. He was distant and Baekhyun was surprised to find that he missed him.

 

The real one that let down his walls when he ribbed him, when Sehun made jokes at his expense.

 

“Why are you so cold to Yixing?” he asked on a rare day that Yixing and him spent apart. Yixing had left on a ride, with a pigeon in hand to send his letters and Baekhyun knew Jongdae had arranged for someone to take him to a falconer to look at some of the royal falcons that they kept.

 

Jongdae’s hand on his wrist tightened.

 

“What makes you say so? I’m perfectly civil,” he answered stiffly.

 

Baekhyun raised his eyebrows, though he was not sure if it worked.

 

“You’re not like that with me,” he said, “you’re keeping him at arms’ length. Were you not supposed to make friends?”

 

At that, Jongdae hissed.

 

“You have known him all your life, Baekhyun. I have only known him for weeks at most. It is difficult. Give me time.”

 

“Do you want to be friends?” Baekhyun asked cautiously. He never made light of Jongdae’s guarded walls. It took a lot for the storm prince to trust and he was flattered he trusted him at all.

 

“Perhaps. You like him. So I shall… try.”

 

Baekhyun’s shoulders relaxed and he nudged Jongdae, drawing a yelp from his friend.

 

“That’s better,” he praised, not knowing that Jongdae’s cheeks had flared with a bright red at the praise. “That’s the spirit.”

 

“Do you still- are you sweet on him still?” Jongdae’s words were careful, spoken in measured tones as if he did not wish to offend.

 

Baekhyun’s heart throbbed and he curled their fingers together delicately.

 

Jongdae jolted and he yelped when he felt the sparks.

 

“Sorry. I’m sorry.” Jongdae yanked his hand away and Baekhyun reached for him at once.

 

“No. I should have warned you,” he said, taking Jongdae’s hand in his once more. He traced gently over his knuckles, swinging his legs as he thought about his answer.

 

The wind was gentle, almost calm as it wrapped around them, soft rain pelting down onto them.

 

“I think I have lingering feelings,” he admitted. He could feel the moment Jongdae began to tense, his hand stiffening. “But Yixing has a beau. The prince of Bada. They have been courting for close to a year. I could not compete with that.”

 

“But if he weren’t, would you make a move?” Jongdae’s tone was stiff, unwieldy as if he did not trust himself to speak. Baekhyun’s brow knitted.

 

It was strange to hear him sound so unsure.

 

“I don’t know. I don’t think he feels the same way,” he replied.

 

It was getting colder on the roof and in the distance, thunder boomed. The storm was approaching and they would have to leave soon.

 

But time alone with Jongdae was something Baekhyun treasured and he had not realized how much he missed it until Yixing came back into his life.

 

“You ought to move on. There are others who would love you more.” Jongdae’s voice was small. He shifted and Baekhyun took the chance to wrap his free arm around his waist, nestling his head onto his shoulder.

 

He smirked to himself when he felt Jongdae stiffen briefly before settling.

 

No one had ever had the privilege to cuddle with the prince of Seong like this before. Baekhyun would almost feel honoured if he could not tell how stiff Jongdae was.

 

“The storm, Baekhyun. I would love to stay longer but it comes and we must go. Yixing must have returned by now,” Jongdae said, his words a little too quick, almost a little breathless.

 

Baekhyun could hear his heart pounding, feel his pulse jump against his hand. He frowned, turning Jongdae’s hand over to press his fingers on the inside of his wrist.

 

“Are you unwell? Your pulse is too quick,” he said, brows furrowed in concern.

 

“No. The storm. We need to go.”

 

Jongdae was already moving, grabbing his wrist to help him down onto the balcony. The roof tiles were slick with rainwater, Baekhyun’s heart stuttering when his foot slipped.

 

“Easy.” There was a hand on his waist, Jongdae steadying him.

 

A rush of warmth surged through Baekhyun’s chest as Jongdae took him by the hand and helped him down. His heart did not stop hammering away until he was on solid ground again.

 

“Milord.” A servant bowed them into the dining room and Baekhyun was surprised to hear that Yixing had not returned.

 

A shiver of unease ran down his spine, a feeling that he tried to ignore as they took their places.

 

“It is unlike Yixing to be late,” he murmured, picking up his fork.

 

A loud meow interrupted his thoughts and Geoum leapt onto the table, tail swiping at his arm. The cat meowed again and ambled over to Jongdae, settling down in his lap.

 

“Should we wait?” Jongdae asked. “I can’t imagine he will take much longer. The skies look horrible. If he does not return soon he shall be drenched.”

 

Indeed, the skies were black and roiling with angry clouds. Thunder boomed again and Baekhyun shivered, tightening his grip on his fork.

 

A few moments passed, silent except for Geoum’s purring.

 

“Perhaps I should search for him,” Baekhyun said, worry beginning to creep into his shoulders. Yixing was seldom late and though he had not explicitly said that he would take dinner with them, he had not said no either.

 

“The falconers will bring him home,” Jongdae replied, “there’s no need for worry. Let’s begin without him. He will not be offended I’m sure.”

 

Yixing would be mortified if he knew he had made them wait. So Baekhyun dug in, trying to ignore the constant twinge of worry in his belly.

 

It only eased when he heard the castle doors open and muffled footsteps came hurrying towards the dining room.

 

“I’m sorry I’m late!” Yixing gasped and Baekhyun blinked.

 

“You’re dripping,” Jongdae said, his tone pinched.

 

“I- I’m sorry.” Yixing sounded genuinely distressed. He had to be undressing, as Baekhyun could hear the flapping of wet clothing.

 

Had he not even let the servants take his cloak?

 

“You need a bath. You’ll catch your death like this,” he said worriedly, rising to his feet.

 

As if on cue, Yixing sneezed.

 

Jongdae sighed and Baekhyun had to hide a smile.

 

“Come on then,” he said, grimacing when his hand met sopping wet fabric.

 

-

 

The sky was covered by storm clouds, lightning flashing when Baekhyun awoke, covered in cold sweat. His stomach ached and his heart was strangely heavy.

 

The sound of knocking and a flurry of movement had him sitting up, swinging his legs off the bed. His fingers closed around the head of his cane and he rose, fear a ball in his throat.

 

There were people speaking, Jongdae’s voice cutting through the fray. Thunder boomed and Baekhyun flinched, grasping at the door handle. Jongdae’s voice grew louder when he stepped out, following the sounds to arrive at the top of the main staircase.

 

“Baekhyun.” He had never heard Jongdae’s voice sound like that before, so pained.

 

“What’s happened?” Baekhyun asked, a horrible feeling swirling in his belly.

 

The rain was so loud, pelting down in such heavy sheets that he could barely hear himself think. His fingers tightened around the handle of his cane when Jongdae’s hand wrapped around his elbow.

 

“What’s going on?” Yixing appeared at his other side, his voice groggy, as if he had just woken from sleep.

 

“Baekhyun, I- it’s your brother,” Jongdae stuttered.

 

Baekhyun’s heart tripped.

 

“What about him?” His voice came out stiff and harsh, “tell me.”

 

“I think you need to sit down.” The hands on him tried to steer him but Baekhyun refused to budge, his stomach falling.

 

“What’s happened to him?” he choked out. Geoum mewled at his ankles and a weight pressed against them, as if he wished to comfort him.

 

“He took ill on his way here and-.” Jongdae’s voice trembled. He must have said something else but Baekhyun did not hear the rest. All he heard were the words ‘he didn’t make it’ and everything stopped moving. The sounds blurred together when he gripped his cane so tightly that it hurt.

 

But nothing could have compared to how much pain he was in in that moment.

 

The world spun and his cane fell from his grip. He vaguely heard Yixing cry out and his knees buckled. An arm wrapped around his waist and he collapsed against a warm body, his body shaking violently.

 

“No.” He did not even recognize his own voice, it was so full of devastation.

 

“Baekhyun.” There were more hands on him, helping him stand. His cane was placed back into his hand but he had no cognition to grab onto it. It slipped away, falling down the stairs to land at the bottom with a hollow sound.

 

“No, no, no!” Baekhyun cried, struggling against the hands that held him.

 

“It’s going to be okay.” It was Yixing’s voice, tender and gentle. “It’s okay.”

 

How could he say that?

 

Baekhyun wanted to scream. Nothing was going to be okay. He already lost so much.

 

The only living family he had who actually cared about him was gone.

 

“Let me go,” he snarled, thrashing but the hands held tight. He was pulled against a firm chest and that was all he needed to break down.

 

Tears streaked down his cheeks as Yixing held him, loud sobs heaving from his chest. Yixing was speaking, mumbling into his ears but he could not hear him, too focused on the heavy rock of grief balling in his throat.

 

A finger traced down the bridge of his nose, tingling and his world began to blur. The darkness pulled at him, threatening to take him and Baekhyun was too tired, hurting too much to fight.

 

He let the abyss suck him in.

 

Chapter Text

It was pouring outside, the rain pattering so hard onto stone that Yixing could barely hear himself think. The last thing he had wanted to hear when returning from yet another trip from the forest empty handed was more bad news.

 

In this case, bad news delivered in the middle of the night with rain so heavy that he had woken up thinking he was back on the broken ship, drowning in water.

 

Putting Baekhyun to sleep had been mostly unintentional. Yixing had only just recently discovered he could do that after Geoum fell asleep while he had stroked him. But it was better.

 

His breakdown had been one of the worst things Yixing ever had to witness and it shattered his heart knowing that there was nothing more he could do for him.

 

Only time could heal his wounds now.

 

He sat quietly by the bed, watching the lightning dance over Baekhyun’s face. Thunder rumbled and he shivered, reaching over to clasp Baekhyun’s hand in his. In the darkness of the room, he could feel dark eyes staring at him from across the bed.

 

“You should tell him,” he murmured, so low that he was sure Jongdae did not hear a word.

 

Jongdae’s head whipped upwards so quickly that Yixing winced.

 

“Tell him what?” he snapped, just loud enough for Baekhyun to stir between them, murmuring.

 

Yixing smiled, stroking his finger along Baekhyun’s wrist.

 

“I do have eyes,” he said, “I’ve seen the way you look at him.”

 

Jongdae flinched back, almost melting into the darkness with his dark robes and hair. His black mask had shifted slightly, just enough for Yixing to catch the curl of a scar on his pale skin.

 

“He deserves better,” Jongdae said bitterly, not even bothering to deny it.

 

“Why?” Yixing asked. He was almost positive he knew what the prince would say.

 

“Look at me,” Jongdae said, his shoulders stiff. “I cannot leave the castle without my mask. I bring storms, death and destruction wherever I go. I can barely touch him without electrocuting him.”

 

“You have better control than I do,” Yixing replied mildly, flexing the fingers of his gloved hand. “You would never hurt him. Not like I did.”

 

Jongdae stared.

 

“Why?” he asked. It was a fair question.

 

Yixing barely knew him, yet he trusted him with his best friend’s heart. Part of it might be the guilt talking, his shame at having left Baekhyun when he needed him most, for not being there when he should have been.

 

But the other part was convinced that Jongdae was what Baekhyun needed.

 

He was the storm that Baekhyun could temper, the strength that Baekhyun needed to move on from him. Yixing was not completely unaware of how Baekhyun felt about him. He would have to be blind not to notice.

 

“He needs you just as much as you need him,” he replied, smoothing down Baekhyun’s blankets. “Look at how he’s brought down your walls.”

 

Jongdae bristled like an angry cat and Yixing drew back.

 

“Just think about it, alright?” he said softly, “he deserves to know.”

 

-

 

When Baekhyun came to, his eyes glassy with tears, Yixing had to force himself to remain by his side, chewing his lip as Baekhyun crawled into Jongdae’s arms for comfort.

 

He had to remind himself that there was a reason why there was still a rift between them, that only time could repair.

 

Baekhyun trusted Jongdae more than him with his feelings and it was only fair that way.

 

But it did not make it any easier, watching his best friend make his home in another man’s arms. If he did not have Junmyeon, he would have almost thought that he himself was jealous.

 

“Can you help him?” The request took him by surprise. He had been sitting by Baekhyun’s bedside, a book in hand while Jongdae was cuddled up beneath the covers, Baekhyun curled up in his arms. When he looked up, Baekhyun was sound asleep, with tears still running down his face.

 

“He is not hurt or sick,” he answered softly, “my magic cannot help him.”

 

Jongdae chewed his lip, fingers smoothing unconsciously over Baekhyun’s hair and Yixing watched in amusement when Geoum flicked its tail at him.

 

The cat had stayed, warming his side while he read. Occasionally, Sehun would come through, a flute in hand. He would sit and play a while until the wind distracted him and then he would be off to god knows where.

 

“I hate seeing him in so much pain,” Jongdae said softly. The tender expression on his face startled Yixing. He had never seen the prince look like that.

 

Jongdae had been cold and impassive towards him from the moment he arrived and even healing Sehun had not endeared Yixing much to him.

 

“Only time will heal his wounds,” Yixing answered with a rueful smile. “I wish I could take his pain away too, but it isn’t possible. Loss hurts but we are stronger for it.”

 

He would never say so to Baekhyun’s face. Not so soon after he had lost his brother but Yixing could see how his friend had grown since losing his sight.

 

He was not the same boy Yixing had left behind a year ago. Jongdae looked almost contemplative as he stroked Baekhyun’s hair, studying the clouds outside the window.

 

“Did you know that he loved you?”

 

The statement startled Yixing, but he was not quite as surprised as Jongdae expected him to be.

 

“I had my suspicions. But he’s like a brother to me, I could never see him like that,” he said, rubbing the silk comforter as if it could stop his thoughts from spilling out.

 

“He thinks you left because you knew.”

 

“Does he think of me so poorly?” Yixing asked, pained. He chewed his lip, picking up his book. “I love him like a brother. I left because I could not face him, knowing that I hurt him.”

 

Jongdae’s lip curled in the darkness.

 

“Coward.” The words stung but Yixing could only smile. The prince was not wrong. He was a coward and absolutely petrified of his own powers. No matter how much practice Junmyeon had made him do, how much he thought he could control his magic, it could not erase the trauma left behind from seeing his best friend unconscious on his bedroom floor, blinded by his own hand.

 

He was not sure even Junmyeon knew just how afraid he was of his own magic. Perhaps it stemmed from his parents’ own fear even, his father’s permanent glove and refusal to allow him to interact with other children until he was thirteen.

 

But it was no excuse for his cowardice. He had run from Baekhyun, just like he had run from using his magic, the very magic that he should be proud of. He was weak and unpracticed.

 

Lightning cleaved down from the skies, illuminating Jongdae’s face and Yixing could see the set in his jaw. He had meant for that to happen. This cold, almost cruel man who spoke of his own lack of control and fear had far more command over his power than Yixing had. And he was afraid too.

 

Shame was a fire that coursed through his veins as Yixing forced himself to meet Jongdae’s eyes.

 

“How do you control your magic, Jongdae?” he asked candidly, pretending he did not feel the judgement seeping from the other prince. “You are not much younger than me yet your control is almost impeccable.”

 

Whatever response he had expected, he had not expected the prince to laugh. It was a sharp and bitter sound that sliced through the air like his lightning bolt.

 

“I control it because I have to. I could level this castle to the ground if I slipped, kill everyone within a six mile radius. It is not a choice, not something I can suppress.”

 

His gaze slid to Yixing’s glove and Yixing had the sudden urge to hide his hand.

 

“I do not have the luxury of fearing consequences if I fail, Yixing. Because I cannot. The lives of my people depend on it.”

 

“You say that as if I do not face consequences,” Yixing said as mildly as he could. But the shame was very present, along with a hot wave of anger. How dare he look at him like that when he of all people should understand.

 

“Oh, you do. But you have the luxury of suppressing it. A glove is enough. Put it on and you never have to think of it again. My power is me, Yixing. Every move I make, every little emotion I show, I have to be conscious of how it affects my magic, the weather. I do not mean to belittle your- curse. But it does not permeate your everyday living. Your every waking moment.”

 

“You-.”

 

“Cousin Dae?” Sehun peeked his head into the room, rubbing at his eyes with his fists like a child. A strong wind swept into the room with him, wrapping around Yixing once before curling around Sehun.

 

“Yes, Sehun. You ought to be in bed.” Jongdae’s tone softened when he turned to face Sehun. Sehun toddled up to him, looking much younger than he was and wrapped his arms around him without another word.

 

Yixing saw the prince tense, a stray spark flying from his fingertips before he settled, one hand moving to stroke Sehun’s hair.

 

“Nightmare. Wind said I should look for you,” Sehun mumbled into his neck. “I-.”

 

His voice trailed off before he could finish, the lucidity in his eyes fading.

 

“I see shadows. A man. Death.”

 

“Sehun,” Jongdae said, turning quickly. He rose, sweeping his cousin into his arms. “Sehun?”

 

Sehun looked past him, staring straight at Yixing. He raised a hand, pointing a finger at him and said in a trembling voice.

 

“Dead. You’re dead. You’re dead!” His voice rose into a shriek and a blast of wind howled in Yixing’s ears.

 

“Sehun!” Jongdae gasped, hugging him close. Sehun collapsed with a cry, breaking down into sobs and Yixing could only sit there, watching in bewilderment as he hustled his cousin away back to his bed chambers.

 

Sehun was completely normal the next morning at breakfast, one that Yixing shared with him because Jongdae was sleeping in with Baekhyun. He tinkled with his glasses, giggling and whispering to the air as if someone was speaking to him.

 

Occasionally, he would look over at Yixing and wave. Unsure of how to respond, Yixing waved back. That got him a laugh before Sehun went back to playing with his utensils.

 

Geoum climbed into Yixing’s lap and stayed there, washing his whiskers and mewling every time Yixing had to reach across to get something. His presence soothed him and he contemplated getting a cat himself when he returned home.

 

That made him think of Yanzi and the tears bubbled out of nowhere. He must have dripped onto Geoum for the cat mewled and jumped up, stretching until its tiny paws could reach his face.

 

“I’m okay,” Yixing whispered when Geoum meowed, licking at his face. He kissed the tip of the cat’s nose and stroked his ears until he stopped meowing. Geoum patted at his face with his paws, lapping at his face. It was ticklish and it made Yixing smile. He giggled, setting down his fork to nudge him away.

 

“Geoum likes you,” Sehun proclaimed solemnly. He had stopped with his tinkling and was watching them with a somber look.

 

“I’m glad he does,” Yixing replied, wiping at the remaining tears. He scooped Geoum up before the cat could start licking him again, scratching his chin until he was purring contentedly away in his arms. “Has he been here long?”

 

“Dae hyung got him when he was a kitten. He was very attached,” Sehun said, waving his fork around. His eyes were distant, as if he was listening to someone else. “I like Geoum.”

 

“Sehun?” Yixing called when the boy fell silent. Geoum leapt out of his lap with a loud meow the very moment Sehun swept the glasses he had been playing with to the ground. Glass shattered, the sound piercing to his ears. Sehun began to scream, his entire body convulsing in a fit.

 

Yixing gaped in shock, regaining his senses just in time to run to Sehun’s side, catching him before he could throw himself from his chair and impale himself upon the broken glass. His boots crunched on the ground as he held Sehun, the boy thrashing wildly and shrieking.

 

Geoum was meowing, padding around the table frantically before jumping off on the other side and streaking out of the room. Servants rushed into the room, wide eyed and terrified. Sehun only shrieked louder at the sight of them, almost begging as Yixing tried to get him to sit.

 

“Sehun. It’s okay. It’s okay,” Yixing soothed, stroking his fingers through the thrashing boy’s hair. He injected just the tiniest bit of magic into the gesture as he did so. Sehun sobbed and cried out something unintelligible before going limp in Yixing’s arms. He was trembling when he set him down in a chair, whimpering whenever one of the servants tried to move closer.

 

There was blood on Sehun’s bare feet when Yixing crouched down to look. He must have stepped on the glass despite Yixing’s efforts.

 

“Sehun. Sehun, look at this. Look.” Yixing took Sehun’s feet in hand, gesturing to the gash. Sehun gasped and hid his face, shaking his head.

 

“Sehun, it’s alright. Look what I can do.” Yixing had not done it in a while but he pressed two fingers of his right hand to the bleeding gash, forcing his magic out into Sehun’s skin. Sehun’s whimpering slowed as he watched the torn skin knit back together in awe.

 

Yixing was starkly reminded of himself as a child, watching his father heal his scraped knee. He patted Sehun’s leg gently, smiling up at him.

 

“Good as new.”

 

“Sehun!” Jongdae came crashing into the dining hall, clothes and hair astray. His eyes widened at the sight of all the broken glass.

 

“He had a fit,” Yixing said, “but he’s alright now. Aren’t you, Sehunnie?”

 

Sehun blinked at him and grinned when Geoum plopped himself into his lap.

 

“How did you-?”

 

“Magic. Just a little. He’ll be calm now. I didn’t know- I didn’t know how you would handle it but I was afraid he would injure himself,” Yixing hurried to explain, suddenly realizing that using magic on a person without their consent could be a very big problem indeed.

 

“I- thank you,” Jongdae said slowly, stepping over the broken glass. He cupped Sehun’s cheek, looking into his eyes before dropping a kiss onto his head. “He’s worn out now. I’ll take him back to bed.”

 

Yixing nodded, smiling when Jongdae shot him a tiny smile. He had not expected to make any progress with Jongdae quite so soon but it seemed that his cousin was very beloved to him.

 

-

 

“Baekhyun.” Yixing blinked twice when he saw the figure outside the window, sitting on the tiled roof. He had gone outside to get some air and the light drizzle showering down upon him was very welcome, if slightly cold.

 

“Baekhyun, how did you get up there?”

 

Somehow even blind, Baekhyun still managed to find a way to climb impossible things. He was sat on the roof, face tilted up to the sky, his hair damp from the rain.

 

“Jongdae helped,” Baekhyun answered, his eyes closed. He did not even turn his head to pretend to look in Yixing’s direction. “He knows I like being up high.”

 

“That’s seems- um, unsafe,” Yixing said, wincing when a flash of lightning lit up the sky and thunder followed closely.

 

He squeezed the banister of the balcony, squinting against the rain.

 

“Are you alright?”

 

“My brother is dead. What do you think?” Baekhyun replied shortly and even so far away, Yixing could see his shoulders tense.

 

“Do you want company?” Yixing asked, ignoring the venom in Baekhyun’s tone. He was hurting. It was only natural for him to snap and lash out. His stomach pitched a little when Baekhyun shook his head.

 

“No. I’d like to be left alone.”

 

A soft mewl at his ankle startled Yixing and he looked down to see Geoum pawing at his pants. The cat leapt up onto the balcony and stretched, glaring at the rain in distaste. He rose onto his hind legs to put his paws onto Yixing’s chest, licking his face with a rough sandpaper tongue.

 

“Thank you,” Yixing said softly when Geoum mewled again, scrambling his way up to the roof where Baekhyun was seated. The cat plopped itself into Baekhyun’s lap and Yixing sighed.

 

“Please come in before the storm gets worse,” he commented, “you don’t want to catch a cold.”

 

The only reply he got was a hum before he turned around and left, shrugging out of his damp clothes.

 

Baekhyun was distant for weeks. Yixing worried for him but made no attempt to approach him unless he showed otherwise. He left him his space, let him grieve. Baekbeom’s body was brought to the castle and Jongdae held a service for him, even though he did not even know the man.

 

The body would be sent back to Chilyo for proper burial but they all knew Baekhyun needed to see for himself. For closure, even if said closure sent him spiraling into a breakdown that plunged the entire castle into darkness for a day or two,

 

That was how Yixing learnt about Baekhyun’s powers.

 

“Why did no one think to tell me?” he asked, trying to suppress his anger. His heart was cold and he was frightened. Powers were a gift but they clearly came with a price. Like Jongdae’s lightning scars or his inability to control his left hand of death.

 

What price had Baekhyun paid for those powers? And how had he even received them? He had no royal blood as far as Yixing knew.

 

“It was not my secret to tell,” Jongdae replied plainly. They were standing outside of Baekhyun’s rooms, after he had been put to bed. The service would be held in two days, giving him time to recover from his shock.

 

“What’s his curse? If I have my hand and you- what happened to him?”

 

The look Jongdae gave him was almost incredulous.

 

“What do you mean what’s his curse? You gave him those powers.”

 

Yixing froze.

 

“What? That’s not possible. Only the tree-.”

 

“He awoke from his coma with those powers. I suspect they have a role to play in why he got so good at his archery and combat skills so fast. He is excellent in both and his control is superb.”

 

Yixing blinked and shook his head rapidly.

 

“You’re saying that I somehow managed to take his sight and give him magic. Magic reserved only for folks with a direct royal bloodline. Magic that never existed before our time.”

 

“That’s what he said. We theorized that perhaps your powers had damaged his sight beyond repair and the magic were there compensate for it.”

 

“But I- that’s not possible.”

 

“Yet he has those powers. He is searching for the tree. For answers.” Jongdae shifted, looking uncomfortable. “I’ve already said too much. If he wished for you to know anything, he will tell you himself.”

 

Yixing swallowed, nodding. He had questions too but there was nothing to be done right now. Not when Baekhyun was so fragile.

 

He slept poorly that night, tossing and turning until he heard scratching at the door. Geoum came padding in. Yixing smiled weakly when the cat crawled into his bed, settling beside him. It was nice not to be alone and he fell into an uneasy sleep where he dreamt of Baekhyun and the shadow man.

 

He dreamt of Baekhyun when he had yanked him from the window, collapsed onto the floor. His face was so pale and his skin damp with sweat. Yixing knelt beside him, sobbing as he grasped his hand, wave after wave of pain swarming his body.

 

Baekhyun was barely breathing, a trickle of blood dripping from the corner of his lips. His pulse was a mess, stuttering and jerking and slowing as Yixing forced his magic into him, begging for him to be alright.

 

When his breathing stopped, Yixing’s heart did too.

 

When he opened his eyes, Yixing screamed and tried to pull his hand away. Blood dripped out of Baekhyun’s eye sockets, entire pupils swallowed by red. He was dead. Yixing could feel no pulse.

 

Yet he held onto Yixing’s hand with the strength of a living man, his lips slowly parting to reveal blood stained teeth.

 

“You killed me,” he rasped as Yixing fought to get away, his hand cold and clammy and his legs having lost their strength. “You killed me and then you left me.”

 

Yixing screamed when he grabbed his other hand, instinct driving him to yank it away but this Baekhyun was dead. He turned his head away, gagging as bile rose up in his throat. The smell of blood was prevalent, flooding his nostrils as he struggled.

 

“No- no, Baekhyun please. Please let me go!” he sobbed. He was weak and his body felt as if all energy had been drained from it.

 

“He’s dead, dearest.”

 

There was a choking sound and Yixing looked back in shock to see Baekhyun gurgling, his throat filled with blood. He pressed a hand to his lips, turning away to retch violently. Baekhyun hit the floor with a thump, truly dead this time.

 

“Look at me.”

 

A cold hand wrapped around his chin and Yixing lashed out, crying out when his left hand met shadow, the man reforming at his other side.

 

“Come on now, dearest. You’re so close. Come to me.”

 

“Go away!” Yixing shrieked when hands curled into his hair. He kicked out, thrashing and swearing. He was a blubbering child again, terrified out of his wits by the sight of the dying fawn at the river’s bank. “Leave me alone!”

 

The man tsked. To Yixing’s horror, his limbs locked into place, black tendrils of shadow wrapped around them to keep him still.

 

“You’re rude,” the man said to him. Yixing shook his head, preparing to shout even though there was no one around to hear him. Thunder boomed in his ears and the illusion shattered around him. His eyes flew open and he gasped aloud.

 

Yellow eyes glowed in the dark. His nerves only settled when he felt a rough tongue lick at his chin, soft fur following close behind. Geoum was purring at him, nuzzling and licking at the tears that Yixing did not know were streaming down his face.

 

“I’m okay,” he murmured, raising a hand to stroke Geoum’s head. His chest was heaving as he nudged the cat down to his lap to sit up. “You’re a good boy.”

 

His skin tingled and the hairs on the back of his neck rose as he pushed aside the covers, unbuttoning his shirt. It was too warm, even with the rain pattering down outside his windows. Yixing walked over to the fireplace, stirring at the embers with the poker.

 

Geoum mewled at him, curling up at his feet when he plopped himself onto the rug before the fire.


Yixing did not know he had fallen asleep until someone shook him hard and he jerked upright to see a concerned servant looking down at him. His body was aching, sore from him sleeping on the hard floor.

 

“Is it morning already?” he murmured and the servant nodded, holding out his hand to help him up.

 

“The prince is waiting for you in the dining hall.”

 

“And Baekhyun?” Yixing asked as he headed into the bathroom to change. There was no time for the bath that he usually took. He was already late.

 

“He’s in his room, milord. Asleep. Prince Jongdae did not insist on his presence at breakfast. A breakfast tray has already been sent up to him.”

 

It seemed that Seong was a bad influence on him as Yixing realised it was the second time he was late to a meal when he was always punctual back home and in Bada. At least Jongdae did not take offense to it when he burst into the dining hall, flustered.

 

“Good morning,” Jongdae said wryly, barely deigning him with a glance. He was buttering his toast when Yixing sat down, his face flushed.

 

Geoum meowed at him, as if chiding him before leaping up into the table, weaving delicately between the cutlery and plates to flop down in front of Jongdae, batting at his fork.

 

“Morning,” Yixing murmured, poking at his eggs. He did not feel particularly hungry. They ate in silence while Yixing debated in his mind what he wanted to do for the day.

 

It was possibly one of the worst ideas he has had in a while, traversing the forest on his own, so close to sunset.

 

But he had been searching for weeks and weeks now to no avail.

 

Yixing was positive that the tree had to be in Seong. All of Junmyeon’s books pointed him here.

 

He slowed his horse, swinging out of the saddle. His skin prickled whenever he took a step, leaves crunching beneath his feet.

 

The man in his nightmares had been returning with a vengeance, calling out to him, mocking him.

 

Yixing had kept it from both Baekhyun and Jongdae. They had better things to worry about than his waking up in cold sweat almost every morning now. Baekhyun was still recovering from his shock and Jongdae had been spending more time with him, much to Yixing’s delight.

 

That meant less time for them to worry about him.

 

He could hear his heart pounding in his chest as he drew his sword, one hand grasping at his horse’s saddle.

 

A movement at the corner of his eye made him tense and when he whipped around, a blur exploded from the bush, spooking his horse. Yixing stumbled, yelping in shock when he was dragged forward a few paces before his horse had vanished into the dense thicket of trees.

 

He landed awkwardly on his knee, swearing under his breath.

 

His blood chilled when he saw the blur settle into the shape of a hawk with bleeding eyes.

 

The creature was just as raggedy as the one he had shot down, feathers broken and limp and it radiated a smell of death that made Yixing’s skin crawl. He retched, bringing his suddenly shaking hand up to grasp at the nearest tree trunk.

 

The hawk was regarding him with its bleeding eyes, head cocked. It screeched, ruffling its damaged feathers and a wave of dizziness swept over Yixing when he saw blood dripping down its wings.

 

A whisper echoed in his ear and he startled, nails digging into the tree trunk.

 

“Go away,” he snapped, swinging around.

 

But there was nothing there. Nothing but the wisps of shadows cast by the trees. Yixing shivered, swallowing.

 

The hawk screeched again and he could have sworn he saw the shadows twitch. He tightened his grip around the hilt of his sword, cold sweat drenching his tunic. Something struck him hard on the back of his head and he yelped, knees buckling when the pain sent his world spinning.

 

He fell, grasping at the earth desperately as his vision blurred.

 

“What the-!”

 

His heart pounded in his ears as he turned, his grip on his sword slackening.

 

His wrist was snatched, something that felt like a vine twisting around it.

 

As if it was a leech, a fully corporeal shadow latched onto his sword arm, dragging him to the ground. He coughed and spluttered, spitting out a mouthful of dirt.

 

Yixing yanked, cursing and swearing when another winding shadow lashed around his other arm, pinning him face down to the ground.

 

He yelped when the grip around his wrist squeezed so hard that all the feeling in his hand went numb. His fingers slackened and his sword clattered to the ground.

 

“Let me go!” Yixing yelled, struggling against the black, twisting ropes of shadow. They were slippery and slick against his skin, like that of a snake.

 

The hawk on the branch squawked almost in triumph and Yixing’s blood ran cold when he heard a voice.

 

The very same voice that had been tormenting his nights.

 

A figure practically melted out from the shadows as Yixing was yanked upright onto his knees, terror surging through his bloodstream. He struggled, writhing even as the man stepped forward, teeth bared in some semblance of a smile.

 

“Who are you?” Yixing snapped, tugging at the shadows.

 

Everything felt so wrong.

 

Shadows should not feel like anything, much less be able to hold him so tightly that his circulation felt like it was cutting off. Shadows should not respond to his movements, winding around his spread thighs, up his abdomen towards his neck to pin him so thoroughly into place that he could scarcely breathe.

 

“Never you mind,” the figure said, lips tugged up into a smirk. He looked just like the man in his dreams, his movements fluid like water, his eyes so dark Yixing thought he was drowning in them.

 

His teeth gleamed white against the shadows that coated his face and they were the brightest part of him.

 

“What do you want with me?” Yixing gasped when the vines around his throat tightened, “why have you followed me here?”

 

“Silence.”

 

Yixing’s eyes narrowed and he twisted, fingers closing around the tendrils that kept him bound. He tugged and squirmed but they would not give.

 

“I do not obey- aah!”

 

He choked, gagging when a tendril curled around his jaw, forcing itself between his lips. It was skinny at first, but quickly grew so thick that he could not speak, the weight pinning his tongue to the bottom of his mouth.

 

“Isn’t that so much better?” the figure crooned and he was really much more shadow than man as he crossed to where Yixing knelt, a finger coated in shadow tipping Yixing’s chin up.

 

Yixing made a strangled sound, desperately trying to make some noise. Any noise.

 

He hated the feeling of the shadows on his skin, gliding over his arms, into his sleeves. One desperate look told him that the shadows were spreading like black oil over him, as if they intended to coat him like they did the man.

 

The thought terrified him, but there was nothing he could do to stop them as they climbed all over his body. At the same time, his strength was waning.

 

If it were not for the tendrils holding him upright, he would have collapsed to the ground. His vision blurred as his struggles grew weaker and weaker, a sob trapped in his throat. The figure drew closer, cupping his jaw and Yixing did not have the strength to lurch away.

 

“How do you like it, little prince? All swallowed up. No words, no choice.”

 

The words were a sneer but Yixing barely heard them. It was hard to draw breath, his lungs protesting every time he tried to inhale.

 

It was as if the shadows were sucking out his magic like a leech, like multiple leeches and replacing it.

 

He arched against his bonds when pain slithered into his core, grasping at his skin, clawing at his bones. He screamed but there was no one to hear him as he fought even with his waning strength, tears sliding down his cheeks uncontrollably as the pain overtook his senses.

 

The darkness was welcome, a balm to soothe his pain as everything went numb.

 

Chapter Text

The castle was in an uproar.

 

Yixing had been missing for hours now, after he failed to arrive for dinner.

 

Baekhyun could not help but fret, clenching at the handle of his cane as Jongdae barked out orders at his guards. A group had already been dispatched to comb the forest but as the sun sank deeper below the horizon with still no sign of Yixing, another group was being sent out.

 

“I cannot believe we lost a prince,” Jongdae muttered, flopping into the armchair next to Baekhyun. “Why are the both of you so obsessed with the forest?”

 

Baekhyun bit down on his lower lip.

 

“I told you that the tree is in the forest. He’s looking for it too.”

 

“It’s a myth, Baekhyun!”

 

“Then explain our powers. My powers!” Baekhyun snapped, startling Geoum into jumping off his lap.

 

The cat was uneasy too, pacing back and forth and winding between Baekhyun’s ankles. Every so often, he would pause and meow mournfully, as if searching for Yixing.

 

“You said Yixing gave them to you,” Jongdae replied, stung.

 

“Only a Royal can inherit magic, Dae. I’m not royalty, no matter how much I like to pretend I am,” Baekhyun muttered, folding his hands into his lap.

 

He reached deep into him, seeking out for Yixing’s energy signature.

 

A frown creased in his brow when he had to search for it, tangled amongst the tree’s, Jongdae’s and his own. It was very faint, not pulsing with life like it usually did and that was enough to strike fear into his heart.

 

“He’s in trouble,” he said aloud.

 

“How do you know that?” Jongdae’s tone was sharp, disbelieving.

 

“I can barely feel him. His signature is fading away,” Baekhyun answered. “We have to go. We have to find him.”

 

“The forest isn’t safe at night,” Jongdae argued. “I won’t let you go out there and get hurt.”

 

“It isn’t up to you, Dae. Yixing is in danger and I have to go!”

 

A hand curled around his elbow when he rose and he gasped in shock when the momentum yanked him back. He slammed into a firm chest before he could steady himself and Jongdae’s voice was curling into his ears, firm and authoritative.

 

“You’re not going. Not if I can help it.”

 

“Well, you can’t!” Baekhyun raised his voice, tugging his arm free. Lightning crackled in the sky and he shuddered, grasping his cane.

 

“Baekhyun-.”

 

The doors slammed open before Jongdae could finish his sentence and a servant came rushing in. They was soaked all the way through, from the squelching of their clothes and the way their boots squeaked on the marble.

 

“Milord, Your Highness! You must come quickly! It is Prince Yixing!”

 

“They’ve found him?” Baekhyun gasped, hurrying along behind the servant as quickly as he could.

 

The wave of magic smacked him in the face the moment they turned the corner. He was stunned for a brief second, struggling to keep his composure before the energy faded until it was an almost imperceptible hum.

 

“Baekhyun?”

 

Baekhyun straightened at Jongdae’s voice, swallowing hard.

 

“It’s nothing,” he said, allowing Jongdae to grasp his elbow and guide him down the stairs.

 

“He’s been brought back to his chambers, milord and a physician has been sent for,” the servant rambled as they skittered down the stairs.

 

“What happened to him?”

 

“Poisoned, milord. He had black veins crawling up his neck and face.” An unfamiliar voice spoke when they arrived at the base of the steps. It was deep and honeyed and put Baekhyun on high alert at once. He was positive that the wave of magic had been coming from that person, if the low hum of energy radiating off him was any indication.

 

“I found him in the forest,” the man continued.

 

Baekhyun could feel his energy shift as if he was not telling the whole truth. He tapped into it as Jongdae responded, tuning out of the conversation.

 

The man’s energy was suppressed but it felt deliberate and if Baekhyun was not looking for it, he would have thought the man was an ordinary civilian, with no magic at all. Yixing’s energy signature mingled with his, which told him that he was leaning in close over his friend.

 

Baekhyun tuned back into the conversation just in time to hear Jongdae thank him profusely.

 

“You ought to stay,” he cut in before the man could take his leave. He gripped Jongdae’s wrist, squeezing it once as a signal. “Yixing will want to meet his savior.”

 

“I couldn’t-.”

 

A loud rumble of thunder cut the man off and Baekhyun raised his eyebrows. He was sure that Jongdae had called that thunder in for him.

 

“You can and you will. The storm grows worse with every moment. We have spare rooms.”

 

“Yes. How would it look on me if I let someone leave in this weather?” Jongdae slid in smoothly.

 

The man appeared to hesitate for a moment before he agreed.

 

Baekhyun exhaled in relief when the servants hustled him out to take a bath and change out of his soaking wet clothes. The man unnerved him, especially with that huge wave of power he had felt.

 

“Why did you want him to stay?” Jongdae asked as he guided Baekhyun to sit down beside Yixing. Baekhyun could hear his breathing, labored as he reached for his hand.

 

It was cold as ice.

 

His stomach turned and he swallowed, the reality slamming into him hard. Cold fear crawled up his throat as he tightened his grip on Yixing’s hand, fingers creeping along his wrist to feel his weakened pulse.

 

Yixing was hurt.

 

“He’s suppressing his magic,” he murmured in answer to Jongdae’s question. “I want to know why.”

 

Jongdae was silent for a few moments.

 

“Do you think he’s the man in Yixing’s dreams? The one chasing him?”

 

“No,” Baekhyun said at once, trying to distract himself from the fact that Yixing was currently unconscious, his pulse so weak that he could barely feel it fluttering against his fingertips.

 

“His energy isn’t malicious. It’s overwhelmingly powerful but not malicious. I don’t think he intended to harm Yixing at all.”

 

Jongdae mulled over this for a while before a hand landed on his thigh and squeezed.

 

“The physician is on his way. He’ll be fine,” he said softly and Baekhyun cracked.

 

He burst into tears, his hands trembling as he gripped Yixing’s hand. Jongdae shifted closer, his arms wrapping around him in an almost hug and Baekhyun folded into him,  burying his face into his chest.

 

“I should have told him,” he whispered, “I- should have gone with him.” He choked and then there was a hand in his hair, stroking.

 

“You didn’t know. It’s not your fault,” Jongdae soothed.

 

Baekhyun shook his head.

 

“N-no. I knew. I knew what he was searching for. I should have told him about me,” he murmured. “Jongdae, I can’t lose him.”

 

Jongdae’s arms squeezed tighter.

 

Baekhyun let go of Yixing’s hand to fist at Jongdae’s tunic, balling up the fabric in his hands.

 

“You won’t. The physician is here. He’ll fix him. He’s going to be fine.”

 

True to his words, the door was shoved open and footsteps came barreling towards the bed. Baekhyun was helped off and into a chair, the world blurring around him while the physician did his job, administering all sorts of medicines and elixirs.

 

Jongdae stayed by him, murmuring soothing words while the physician worked.

 

“He’ll be fine, won’t he?” The man who had brought Yixing home spoke up and Baekhyun startled, turning his head towards the door.

 

“He will. He has to,” Jongdae answered, rising from his crouched position. A hand landed on Baekhyun’s shoulder and he reached for it, patting it gently.

 

“Shall we leave him to it? We have questions and there is nothing we can do for Yixing right now.” Jongdae’s tone was soft, as if trying to coax a frightened animal.

 

An answering mew came from the floor and Geoum leapt into Baekhyun’s lap.

 

A rough, sandpapery tongue licked at his face before the weight in his lap vanished. Baekhyun could hear the cat padding over to the bed before settling onto the covers.

 

“Geoum will watch over him and alert us if anything changes,” Jongdae said.

 

Baekhyun turned his head and inclined it slightly. He loathed to leave his best friend but they needed answers.

 

“Who are you?” Baekhyun asked the moment the door to Jongdae’s study closed behind them. He fiddled with the head of his cane as Jongdae led him to a chair.

 

“My name is Yifan. I am a traveller,” the man answered. He seemed very at ease considering that he was being interrogated like a criminal.

 

“Why do you suppress your magic?” Baekhyun got right to the point. He did not think the man meant any harm to Yixing or them but he had to know for sure.

 

The man startled and he could hear it in the way the leather of his armchair squeaked.

 

“How do you know I have magic?” he returned stiffly.

 

“I can feel it. You’re suppressing it very well. If I didn’t have the powers I did, I wouldn’t have noticed,” Baekhyun answered.

 

“There is no magic in the land that allows you to feel others’ powers,” Yifan retorted.

 

“Well I do. I’m an anomaly,” Baekhyun shot back, his hackles rising. “So why do you do it?”

 

There was a long pause. Jongdae shifted beside him. He was pressed close to Baekhyun’s side, enough that he could feel his warmth and that was enough to reassure him.

 

Whoever Yifan said he was, Baekhyun had faith that if he turned out to be malicious, Jongdae would be able to handle him.

 

“It’s easier for me to stay under the radar,” Yifan said finally, “I would much rather not have people finding out that I wield magic.”

 

Baekhyun sat up in his seat.

 

“Are you not royalty?”

 

“I am.” Yifan’s words were awkward, stiff. “Royalty of a kingdom that supposedly died out years ago.”

 

Jongdae’s sharp inhale caught his attention, Baekhyun turning towards him.

 

“There’s another one of us. The blacksmith,” Yifan’s tone shifted to knowing. Jongdae tensed beside Baekhyun and the grip on his shoulder tightened.

 

“How do you know about him?”

 

Yifan scoffed, slumping back in his seat.

 

“I’ve met him. Magic like that doesn’t hide very well.”

 

“You mean the blacksmith that made my cane?” Baekhyun cut in, turning the handle of his cane over and over again.

 

“Where else could you get a weapon like that? He’s the only one of his kind. I’m the only one of my kind.”

 

“Does this mean that the shadow prince lives too?” Baekhyun asked, brows furrowing.

 

“He does. And he was the one who took your friend.”

 

“Why?”

 

Yifan must have shrugged because there was no answer.

 

“Then why are you here? Why did you come to Seong and what were you doing in the forest?”

 

“That’s a lot of questions,” Yifan huffed out a laugh. “My sources led me here. I came to confirm the location of the tree. I imagine that was what your friend was doing as well when he was captured.”

 

“So the tree is real,” Jongdae cut in.

 

“Of course it’s real. Where do you think our powers come from? It’s been compromised and we must find it and save it before the shadow prince has his way with it.”

 

Baekhyun suppressed the urge to say ‘I told you so’ to Jongdae, instead schooling his expression into something serious.

 

“Who is this shadow prince? What does he want with the tree?” he asked.

 

Yifan shrugged again. Had he not realised that Baekhyun could not see him?

 

“I don’t know. He has indeed gone insane like the rumors say and that alone makes him dangerous. We must find the tree and find it quickly.”

 

“He’s been targeting Yixing. Yixing said he followed him from Chilyo till here. He plagued him with nightmares.”

 

“Then we protect him. Whatever the shadow prince wants, he will not get.” Yifan’s tone was sharp, raising no room for argument.

 

“You don’t know why he might want Yixing?” Jongdae asked carefully and Yifan scoffed.

 

“My sources tell me many things. But this shadow prince works alone. There’s no one who can report what he does and what he wishes to attain.”

 

“Well, what do your sources tell you to do next then? If they are so well informed,” Baekhyun huffed.

 

“Go to Olda. There is a book hidden in the vaults of the castle that has the information we need to summon the tree.”

 

“That’s Yixing’s next stop,” Baekhyun mused, “after he rides out the year here.”

 

“Pity. He won’t be joining me then. I intend to go as soon as the worst of this storm passes. Any time spent here is wasted time,” Yifan said.

 

Baekhyun tapped the head of his cane.

 

“I’ll come with you,” he said at once, ignoring the way Jongdae stiffened. “I’ve been seeking the tree as well.”

 

“Baek-.”

 

“Why have you been seeking the tree?” Yifan asked. His glare burned and Baekhyun could feel his energy roiling just beneath the surface. He could not imagine just how powerful the man had to be if he could feel his strength even suppressed. Shaking his head, he clicked his fingers.

 

Jongdae and Yifan both gasped, informing him that his little trick had worked.

 

“How did you-? That’s not  -.”

 

“A power that royals wield. And I am not royal.” Baekhyun snapped his fingers again, relighting the room. “I want to know why I have it and why the tree gave it to me.”

 

Yifan was silent for a moment.

 

“Very well then. If you’re sure. One extra hand on the journey will be of great help.”

 

“I know Yixing will want to join you,” Baekhyun said.

 

“He has a contract to fulfil,” Jongdae said the same time that Yifan spoke.

 

“He will only slow us down.”

 

Baekhyun sighed at that, shaking his head.

 

“He will insist and you will not like it.”

 

“We shall see,” Yifan replied. The leather creaked when he rose, leaving Baekhyun and Jongdae alone in the room. Even without seeing his face, Baekhyun could feel the displeasure radiating from Jongdae’s form.

 

“Spit it out,” he muttered, folding his arms over his chest. “I know you want to say that I don’t know him and that it could be dangerous.”

 

“If you knew that, why would you want to go with him?” Jongdae asked, his teeth clenched. Thunder boomed in the distance and Baekhyun winced.

 

“I have to. Don’t you see? He’s the answer. I can get my answers. I did not come here to stay, Jongdae. I came for answers and I will get them.”

 

“And then what? When you have gotten them, what will you do? Where will you go?”

 

The question startled Baekhyun. He had never thought about it. Perhaps the subconscious of his mind had not wanted to think about it. He would go home, to Chilyo. To the people who cared about him.

 

“I- home?”

 

“Is it really home?” Jongdae pressed, “do you truly feel at home there?”

 

Baekhyun did not answer. He dipped his head, fiddling with his hands.

 

“You are not royal, Baekhyun. You don’t have an obligation to stay in a castle and rule. You are free and you would rather go home?” Jongdae sounded more exasperated than angry. “You’ve never truly thought about it, have you?”

 

He huffed, reaching over to pat Baekhyun’s shoulder.

 

“You have a place here, Baekhyun. If you want it.”

 

It was the most lackluster invitation Baekhyun could have received but for some reason, it still filled his heart with warmth.

 

“I’ll think on it. But I must go with Yifan. Answers first. The future can wait.”

 

“I cannot stop you. I have no place. Just- be careful,” Jongdae sighed. Baekhyun was too worried about Yixing and his future journey with Yifan to tease. He felt a squeeze on his shoulder before Jongdae was rising to his feet.

 

“Try to go to bed,” he said, as if he knew that Baekhyun would just stay up anyway. There was no way he could sleep when he did not know if Yixing was going to be alright. Baekhyun listened until he was sure he was out of the room, before moving himself to the piano.

 

He touched the keys, absently poking them until he found a melody he liked. It was a lot harder to replicate without being able to see the keys but it killed the time.

 

“Milord.” It had to be hours later when Baekhyun looked up at the sound, turning his head to the doorway. He moved his hands away from the keys of the piano, folding them primly into his lap.

 

“What is it?” he asked, reaching for his cane.

 

“It’s Prince Yixing, milord. He has awakened,” the servant answered meekly and Baekhyun gasped, leaping to his feet. He did not know how he found his way as quickly as he did but hearing Yixing sit up, the bed covers rustling around him made the weight on his chest lift.

 

“Baek?” The soft, quiet voice made him hurry over to the bed, Geoum scooching over to make room for him. Baekhyun reached over, grasping Yixing’s hand. It was still too cold in his hand, damp with sweat but the weight made Baekhyun exhale with relief.

 

“What happened?” he asked, “why did you go to the forest on your own? You of all people should know how dangerous it is. Why didn’t you at least take me with you? Yixing, I can’t lose you-.”

 

A thumb brushed over his cheek and Baekhyun choked, throwing himself into Yixing’s arms. He buried his face into Yixing’s chest, sobbing as if he was a child all over again. He had come so close to losing him and with the loss of his brother still so fresh in his mind, Baekhyun was not sure he wanted to let Yixing go at all.

 

“I’m sorry. I should have said something,” Yixing murmured, his fingers brushing Baekhyun’s hair out of his eyes. He wiped at the tears running down Baekhyun’s face and Baekhyun felt a gentle pressure against his forehead. “I’m really sorry for scaring you, Baek.”

 

“I was so scared,” Baekhyun mumbled, hugging him again. There was the sound of a door opening and Yixing stiffened in his arms.

 

“Who is it?”

 

“Yifan.” Yifan’s voice rang out in the room. “A servant came to inform me that he had awakened.”

 

“Who is this man?” Yixing asked, tensely. Of course he would not recognize him. Baekhyun settled himself into Yixing’s side, taking his hand.

 

“This is Yifan. He’s the one who rescued you.”


“Oh.” Some of the tension left Yixing’s shoulders though he still seemed suspicious. “Thank you.”

 

“It was rather foolish of you to be wandering about in the forest alone, wasn’t it, Your Highness?” Yifan’s tone was not quite mocking but there was a bite in it that made Yixing shift. Baekhyun blinked. He did not know what game Yifan was playing at but if the goal was to rile Yixing up, it was working.

 

Yixing’s breathing was deepening, his heart rate picking up as he surveyed the man.

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“You are a prince. Even without the supernatural dangers, there are plenty of bandits who would not pass up the opportunity for a snack as sweet as you are.”

 

Yixing choked at that, his body shuddering.

 

“Yifan-,” Baekhyun started, worried when coughs wracked Yixing’s body. He was shaking, slamming a fist at his chest. Baekhyun held him, feeling at his forehead in concern when Yixing attempted to speak, only to be interrupted by another bout of coughing.

 

“How dare-,” Yixing gasped and something warm and wet spilled onto Baekhyun’s hand. He smelled the metallic scent and yelped.

 

A large hand covered Baekhyun’s own, joining him in patting Yixing’s back as he expelled the rest of the blood from his lungs.

 

“There was poison in his lungs,” Yifan said by way of explanation. He handed Baekhyun something soft and it took him a moment to realise that it was a handkerchief to wipe his soiled hand. “I will fetch a servant.”

 

When the door closed behind him, Baekhyun helped Yixing out of bed, his friend still bristling at the insult.

 

“How dare he-.”

 

“Don’t talk now. Your nose is bleeding,” Baekhyun chided, mopping at Yixing’s nose gently. He sat him down on the chaise at the foot of the bed. “I’ll be right back.”

 

It took him a while to find his way into Yixing’s private bathroom and even longer to find a towel and sink. He succeeded in the end, soaking the towel in warm water after washing his hands. Thankfully, Yixing had not tried to move himself when he returned and he could find him relatively easily.

 

“Here.” Baekhyun pressed the towel against Yixing’s face and got a muffled sound of thanks. He patted down Yixing’s body, relieved that the blood had gotten only on the sheets and not on his clothes. He was not sure anyone would be comfortable changing his clothes.

 

“Baek. I have to tell you something,” Yixing murmured as servants swarmed into the room, tearing the soiled bedding from the bed. His hand was still too cold for Baekhyun’s liking when he grasped it. “I know about your- powers.”

 

Baekhyun froze.

 

“How?” he demanded. Yixing sighed but before he could speak, Yifan was back, hovering over them.

 

“The bed is clean,” he said quietly. “Let me-.”

 

He did not finish his sentence before he was picking Yixing up. Yixing did not have strength enough to protest, it seemed as he was settled back into the bed, the covers tucked neatly around him.

 

“You lost control a couple times. I made Jongdae tell me,” he murmured. “I’m sorry, Baekhyun.”

 

“Why didn’t you take me then? I could- I could have been there,” Baekhyun snapped. He was not angry at Jongdae, more angry at the fact that Yixing had known and still did not ask for his help.

 

“You were in a bad place, Baek. I didn’t want to burden you.”

 

Burden me? Do you have any idea how terrified I was?” Baekhyun roared, cutting himself off when an upset mewl echoed in his ears. Geoum had found his way back into Yixing’s bed at some point. He had been so quiet that Baekhyun had forgotten about the cat completely.

 

“I’m sorry,” Yixing said again, in the silence that followed. They both could hear the sound of the door clicking close and Baekhyun could only presume that Yifan had left. Geoum meowed in warning, batting at Baekhyun’s hand when he tried to take Yixing’s hand.

 

The dumb cat had gotten so attached to him. Baekhyun rolled his eyes, retracting away before he could get clawed at, settling on the edge of the bed.

 

“Just- don’t do that again, alright?” he said, voice wobbling. “I can’t-.”

 

“I know,” Yixing cut in gently. He nudged Geoum’s head away gently, picking up Baekhyun’s hand. “I know and it won’t happen again. I promise.”

 

Baekhyun crawled into the bed beside him, lifting the blanket so that he could fit under them. He curled himself against Yixing’s body just like they used to when they were children and Yixing rolled over to hold him.

 

“I’ve missed you,” he murmured.

 

“Me too,” Yixing said quietly. There was a beat of silence where Baekhyun thought he might have fallen asleep but his hand was suddenly taken and pressed against Yixing’s lips.

 

“Baek, there’s so much I have to apologise for.”

 

“Don’t start,” Baekhyun said quickly, “if you do, I might start crying. Besides, you’ve already apologized.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Yixing continued as if he had not heard him, “I’m sorry for being a co-coward. I’m sorry for leaving you.”

 

“I already know all these,” Baekhyun muttered, nosing his way into Yixing’s space. Yixing let him, still on holding onto his hand. There was a soft shuffling and a weight came to lay itself on Baekhyun’s chest. A soft brush of fur tickled against Baekhyun’s neck and he huffed out a laugh.

 

“I should have been there. I’m sorry for not acknowledging your feelings.”

 

That made Baekhyun start.

 

“Did Jongdae tell you?” He was already planning all the ways that he could murder and dismember his corpse when Yixing kissed his forehead tenderly.

 

“Yes and no. I already knew. He only affirmed it.”

 

“I’m going to kill him,” Baekhyum muttered, earning a laugh from Yixing that made him smile.

 

“Please don’t. He’s good for you.” Yixing snuggled closer, one hand moving to pet Geoum, who seemed to be half asleep. His tail flicked and Baekhyun yelped when it brushed over his neck again.

 

“Did you- ever feel the same?” Baekhyun did not know why he asked. He was not sure he wanted to hear the answer at all.

 

“Baek, you’re like a brother to me. But I could never love you the way you want me to,” Yixing said and Baekhyun could hear the guilt lacing his tone. He wanted to laugh. Imagine being guilty about rejecting someone.

 

“That’s fine.” He heard himself saying. “I figured as much.”

 

“Baek. I’m so sorry.”

 

“Don’t apologise for that,” Baekhyun hastened to shush him. He was torn. On one hand, he should be devastated that Yixing did not feel the same but on the other, he felt only relief. His mind wandered back to the question Jongdae had asked when they had barely just made up.

 

Are you still sweet on him?

 

Any lingering feelings had vanished the moment Yixing answered his question.

 

“Xing. It’s fine. Truly. I promise I’m not lying just to make you feel better,” he said absently, his mind still thinking of the way Jongdae’s tone turned slightly bitter, as if he did not appreciate the thought of Baekhyun still harboring feelings for Yixing.

 

“That’s good.” Yixing’s breathing was deepening, evening out as if he was drifting into sleep. Baekhyun kissed the side of his head gently.

 

“Go to sleep,” he murmured. “I’ll be here when you wake up.”

 

Yixing did not need much encouragement at all. His eyes fluttered close and very soon, was deeply asleep. Baekhyun had not slept beside anyone in a long time and he found it difficult to. He lay there in the dark, listening to Yixing breathe, occasionally pressing fingers into Yixing’s wrist to reassure himself.

 

He must have fallen asleep for some time because when he next awoke, Yixing’s breathing was erratic and he was twitching and jerking. He grasped at the sheets, gasping for air.

 

Alarmed, Baekhyun reached for him, shaking him roughly. The movement must have woken Geoum as well as the cat leapt onto Yixing’s chest. With practiced ease, he started to meow and lick at Yixing’s face periodically.

 

Yixing jerked awake in his arms and Baekhyun could feel the sweat sticking to his clothes. He hugged him close, his heart cracking when Yixing buried his face into his shoulder without saying a word. His chest was heaving as he sobbed.

 

“Do you want to talk about it?” he asked quietly. Yixing must have shaken his head for there was a beat of silence before he spoke, the words muffled into Baekhyun’s shoulder.

 

“Not really.”

 

Baekhyun hummed in acknowledgement, hugging him close. He trailed his fingers into Yixing’s hair, stroking him gently until he stopped shaking.

 

“Does this happen often?” he asked when they pulled apart. Geoum jumped into his lap, padding over to Yixing. He could hear the sounds of the cat licking at Yixing’s face, mewling softly.

 

“Only since I came here. Geoum helps a lot. He’s a smart cat,” Yixing murmured.

 

“He is,” Baekhyun agreed, reaching out to stroke long strokes along Geoum’s body. Geoum did not even seem to notice, too preoccupied with cleaning Yixing’s face of tears. “Go back to sleep then. I’ll wake you if you have another.”

 

Yixing shuddered and he reached out, grasping Baekhyun’s hand for a long moment.

 

“Xing?” Baekhyun called when it seemed like he might have fallen asleep upright.

 

“I’m fine,” came the reply. There was more shuffling as they rearranged themselves back under the covers. Just for good measure, Baekhyun pressed himself up against Yixing, laying his head on his chest so that he could hear his heart beat. Geoum was shifting around too, before he picked a spot on Yixing’s abdomen, his purring rumbling through his body.

 

Baekhyun blinked, rubbing at his eyes, unsure of what had woken him again. Yixing was still next to him, his breathing even and calm. He bent, kissing his forehead before sliding out of bed.

 

There was a knock on the door and he turned, frowning at the unfamiliar footsteps.

 

“It’s me. I wanted to tell you to start packing.” It was Yifan’s voice, stiff and surly. “I intend to leave tomorrow.”

 

A loud boom of thunder punctuated his words and Baekhyun winced.

 

“The weather is not conducive for travel today.”

 

“Where are you going?” Yixing’s voice cut in, sleepy and confused.

 

“Olda,” Baekhyun replied, reaching out to touch his forehead. He was not expecting Yixing to push aside the covers, sitting bolt upright.

 

Chapter Text

“You’re going to Olda? I wish to join you,” Yixing said, pushing the covers aside. He did not care that he barely knew the man, only that he had to get to the bottom of this mystery. Why had the man in the forest come for him? What did he want?

 

He had to know.

 

“With all due respect, Your Highness. You are weak. You will slow me down. The roads to Olda are not devoid of danger and you are in no state to travel,” Yifan said slowly, as if speaking to a child. His tone made Yixing stiffen, his eyes narrowing.

 

“I heal fast. I will come with you,” he insisted. “If Baekhyun gets to go, I don’t see why I shouldn’t.”

 

“Because you’re sick, Xing. The poison has taken a toll on you. And I’m not bound by a diplomatic contract to stay in this kingdom for a year,” Baekhyun spoke up, his hand resting against Yixing’s elbow. He made an attempt to guide Yixing back to the bed but Yixing did not give in.

 

“Contracts can be rewritten. This was why I left home. I have to go.”

 

“I can’t spend the entire journey worrying about you or trying to protect you. There are-.”

 

“Excuse you.

 

From the way Baekhyun and Yifan recoiled, you would have thought Yixing had cursed aloud. Yixing rolled his eyes, pushing Baekhyun’s hand away.

 

“Have I not survived travelling on my own to here? I can take care of myself.”

 

“Not like this you can’t,” Yifan challenged and a wave of heat puddled in Yixing’s belly. He did not know why but the way Yifan spoke always seemed to fill him with an inexplicable rage.

 

He had no idea what to think of it but the man was so infuriating.

 

“I’m not asking you to protect me, Yifan. If anything, I’m sure Baekhyun will do a better job,” he snapped and Yifan’s snort of derision only made his blood boil.

 

“Yixing hyung. He’s right. You’re not in a state to travel right now.” Baekhyun was astonished, as he should be. Yixing was fairly certain he had never seen him so fired up before. He himself was not even sure he had ever felt so angry in his life.

 

“I don’t care, Baekhyun. I refuse to sit here and watch you galivant off with him. This is my quest too.”

 

“We aren’t gallivanting off anywhere,” Yifan sneered.

 

Baekhyun shot them both worried looks, his grip on Yixing’s elbow tightening. Yixing had to swallow down a wave of fury, forcing himself to turn away from Yifan.

 

“Please, Baek. You know how important this is to me. I have to go.”

 

He knew he had him the moment Baekhyun’s hand on his arm softened.

 

“Can we not wait another day, Yifan? The poison is almost out of his system now with your help last night. If he gets the all clear from a physician couldn’t he join us?”

 

Yixing rolled his eyes when Yifan’s lip curled. He clearly did not think very highly of him but Yixing hardly cared. All he cared about was going and seeing whatever they was that could give him answers.

 

Right at the same moment, the door opened and a physician came shuffling in. When he noticed both Yifan and Baekhyun, his eyes narrowed.

 

“Out, out!” he screeched. “He’s supposed to be resting.”

 

Yixing winced, clutching onto Baekhyun. He had never liked doctors and judging from the needles the man held in his hand, he was not going to like this one even more.

 

“Please stay,” he begged, tugging Baekhyun back before he could leave the bed. Yifan turned back at the sound and Yixing despised the smirk that crawled over his face.

 

“Awww, is the princess afraid of needles?” he mocked.

 

“I’m afraid of blood, you-.” Yixing cut himself off when pain ballooned in his chest. He clutched at his heart, gasping in pain.

 

“Yixing?” Baekhyun called when he buried his face into his shoulder.

 

“I must draw out the rest of the poison,” the physician said quietly. “His magic is combatting it well but it hurts him to heal, does it not?”

 

Yixing whimpered when Baekhyun squeezed his hand, missing the way Yifan’s brow furrowed in concern.

 

With difficulty, he held out his arm. It was trembling when the physician took it, clicking his tongue.

 

Baekhyun’s fingers threaded in his hair and his face was turned away, into his shoulder as the first needle went in.

 

He kept his face hidden until the third needle was drawn out and his arm was wrapped neatly with a bandage.

 

“You should be alright now. All the poison has been taken out,” the physician said, much more kindly.

 

“Will he be able to travel in two days?” Yifan asked before Yixing could reply, startling him. He did not know that the man was still in the room.

 

The physician looked surprised before nodding slowly.

 

“Yes. I don’t see why not.”

 

Later that night, Yixing scribbled a literal essay while Baekhyun was in the bathroom. His best friend refused to sleep alone and Yixing could not help but let him be. He had frightened him terribly.

 

He wrote to Junmyeon, ranting and raving about Yifan and his absurdity. He thought the man might be kinder to him but no. Everything he did was met with criticism and mockery and he had never quite wanted to crush anyone’s face into a wall as he did with Yifan.

 

Yifan was always smirking, always commentating and he knew just how to get under Yixing’s skin. Once he had learnt that Yixing had a beau waiting for him, he had become even more insufferable, making suggestive comments that made Yixing go quite red.

 

Yixing was dismayed by Junmyeon’s reply a day later, more amused than anything. He was not falling for that man.

 

How could he? He had Junmyeon and he was very happy with him.

 

If he did not know better, he would say that Jongdae was trying to delay their leaving as the rain did not let up for days on end.

 

So two days became three and then a week and then three weeks, before they could set out. The rain had caused quite the flood in the town and Jongdae was to join them on their carriage so that he could direct soldiers to help clean up.

 

Yixing wrote many letters to Junmyeon in this time. Baekhyun had begun smirking at him whenever Yifan was in the room as if he was amused by Yixing’s absolute lack of decorum around him.

 

Yixing prayed for his sanity as he sent page after page of parchment off to Junmyeon, prattling off everything that Yifan had done to offend him that day. From his mutterings about Junmyeon to Yixing’s tiny waist.

 

What was wrong with having a small waist? Yixing seethed over it. He was so worked up that the nightmares barely phased him at all. Everyone else seemed more amused than anything and it drove him mad.

 

He was not sure how he was supposed to survive days in a carriage with him.

 

-

 

“Easy there, princess,” Yifan murmured and he was so close that Yixing could feel his breaths puffing against his lips. He had an arm around his waist and Yixing hated himself for wanting to snuggle closer. It was the cold, he told himself as Yifan released him. He straightened his heavy fur cloak, pulling it closer about him.

 

“Who are you calling princess,” he snapped but there was no real heat to his tone as he stepped out of the carriage. Baekhyun was smirking at him from the ground but Yixing chose to ignore it, huddling down into his coat.

 

The landscape was all white, with hints of blue blinking at him. Snow was falling down thickly, blurring the world around him. He could feel the chill all the way through his boots.

 

Yifan held out his arm and Yixing had half a mind to ignore it. But that would seem too rude. So he settled his hand into the crook of Yifan’s elbow, all too aware of the man radiating heat beside him.

 

He was shivering as they strolled up to the big oak doors, the guards bowing respectfully at him.

 

“Prince Yixing,” the nearest one murmured as the door swung open. “King Minseok will see you now.”

 

Yixing could not wait to get out of the cold. The puff of warm air that floated out when the doors opened was so inviting that he almost let go of Yifan’s arm to stride ahead. But he swallowed down his impatience, waiting for the guards to pat down both Yifan and Baekhyun.

 

Clearly the king of Olda was very meticulous about his security.

 

The halls of the castle were massive, icicles hanging from the ceiling. Though there was a fire burning in the hearth and Yixing’s boots sank into a plush blue velvet carpet, there was still a chill that hung in the air.

 

Yixing shrugged out of his coat, letting the servants take it away. He watched Yifan drape his cloak over his arm for entirely too long before the sound of boots clicking on marble drew his attention.

 

“Your Majesty.” He swept into a low bow long before he even saw King Minseok’s face. The sweep of the fur lined cloak on the carpet was enough to tell him it was the right person.

 

“Prince Yixing,” King Minseok intoned, touching his shoulder. Yixing straightened, swallowing the gasp in his throat.

 

The king was younger that he had ever imagined. He remembered hearing a rumour that the king’s father had died young, thus passing the crown onto him too early but he had not indulged in them.

 

King Minseok looked as if he was years younger than himself.

 

“You must be Yifan, I presume?” Yixing was surprised when he turned piercing blue eyes onto Yifan, eyebrows raised. Yifan bowed, taking the king’s hand to kiss in greeting.

 

For some strange reason, the gesture made Yixing’s stomach curdle. He clenched his fists into the fabric of his pants, resolutely keeping his eyes away.

 

“And this is?”

 

“I’m Baekhyun, Your Majesty.” Baekhyun swept into a bow and the king’s eyebrows rose a little. “I’m Prince Yixing’s valet.”

 

Yixing twitched at that. They had agreed that it was easier to claim Baekhyun as his valet than a friend. It would be a little tricky trying to explain a commoner being so close to a prince but it still felt strange. Labels had never been very important when they were younger.

 

To his credit, King Minseok did not comment. He made a gesture and they followed him to a sofa and two armchairs by the fire.

 

“You must be freezing. I apologise. The weather here is nothing like your kingdom, I’m afraid,” King Minseok smiled kindly when a servant dropped off a basket packed full with blankets.

 

“I’m alright,” Yixing said, shooting Yifan a glare when the man huffed, lips curling as if he was amused. A big hand reached out, dragging a blanket from the basket to plop onto his lap. Yixing grabbed it, jaw working.

 

“Thank you,” he gritted out. He could not decide if the look Yifan shot him was mocking or amused. Yifan tossed another blanket to Baekhyun and Baekhyun caught it effortlessly, draping it around his shoulders.

 

“I presume you are here for the book, Prince Yixing, if you are here earlier than the stipulated time. You stated in your letter that you would be coming much later than this,” King Minseok said mildly as servants bustled around them, mugs and trays clattering.

 

“Yes, we are. He insisted on being here, though he did not have to,” Yifan cut in before Yixing could answer. Yixing bristled, barely controlling the urge to roll his eyes.

 

“My guardian has told me of your correspondence with him, Yifan. He is already expecting you. I am surprised however that you are in Prince Yixing’s presence. No offense.” King Minseok cut Yixing a look and Yixing shrugged.

 

“None taken, Your Majesty.”

 

“Just Minseok is fine. Or hyung. I assume you are younger than I am. If the news is correct.”

 

Yixing blinked.

 

“I assure you, Prince Yixing, I am older than I look,” Minseok said, an amused smile playing at his lips. Yixing flushed. He had not realised how obvious he was being.

 

“Yifan saved me.” Yixing tried not to say those words in distaste. After the man did save his life. “I do not know if you have heard of the creatures roaming the forests of Seong and Chilyo, Minseok hyung. But they are dead. Dead animals that have been distorted and resurrected.”

 

Minseok’s eyes widened and he looked alarmed, his jaw tightening.

 

“And you know who is controlling them?”

 

“A man of shadow. A prince from Keurimjeo.”

 

“Surely you jest, Yifan. That kingdom is dead, wiped out by the shadow prince’s madness.”

 

“No,” Yixing spoke up before Yifan could. “He’s telling the truth. I saw him with my own eyes. His shadows are corporeal and he has been hunting me for a long time.”

 

“Then we must act quickly. Come.” Minseok rose, his cloak trailing behind him as he swept through the castle. He smelled like snowdrops and morning dew when Yixing caught a waft of him.

 

He was grateful for the blanket when they descended deeper into the bowels of the castle. The chill penetrated through the stone walls and the walls themselves were covered in frost. The floors were slick with ice and he had to catch himself multiple times, cursing under his breath whenever his hand made contact with the wall.

 

“You’re shivering,” Yifan whispered from where he had a hand on Baekhyun’s elbow, helping him down the stairs. Baekhyun’s head tilted towards Yixing in concern. Yixing glared.

 

“I’m fine,” he insisted even though his breath was coming out in puffs of white mist and he could not feel his lips anymore.

 

His fingers felt as if their joints had been frozen into place as he stepped down onto the floor. Yixing swallowed a yelp when his foot slipped on the ice.

 

An arm around his waist caught him before he could fall and he exhaled in relief. Yifan was right there beside him, amber eyes almost glowing in the dimness.

 

“Thank you,” Yixing said tensely, extracting himself from Yifan’s embrace before it could get awkward. His heart was thumping wildly in his chest and he was suddenly reminded of Junmyeon’s gentle teasing in the last letter he had received.

 

Sounds like you’re falling in love, dearest. I can’t wait to meet him.

 

Yixing scoffed to himself, tugging the blanket closer around his body. Yifan was infuriating and the last person he could ever fall in love with. Junmyeon was more than enough for him.

 

Still, the thought plagued him as Minseok nodded to the guards at the single door at the base of the stairs, the door swinging open to reveal a library.

 

There was a man standing in the centre by a table. The sight of him snatched Yixing’s breath away.

 

If he thought Junmyeon was gorgeous at first sight, this man was ethereal. He almost seemed to glow in the flickering light of the oil lamps, his hair the colour of sunshine on a cornfield.

 

“Your Majesty.” The man bowed and Yixing could not conceal his surprise when Minseok swept over to him, pressing a kiss to the side of his head.

 

“This is Luhan. He guards my books or rather, the one book that everyone desires to get their hands on,” Minseok said, his eyes glinting like flint stones.

 

“You’re not from here,” Baekhyun said aloud. Yixing startled. His friend had been silent the entire time they had spoken to Minseok and while they walked. “You have magic too.”

 

Luhan twitched, so minutely that if Yixing had not been watching him, he would not have seen it. A slow smile spread across his face when he turned to face Baekhyun.

 

“Your valet is very perceptive, Prince Yixing,” he said softly, his voice like a silvery river running over rocks.

 

“He’s blind,” Yixing said almost apologetically, “and he means no offence.”

 

“Oh no. None taken, Your Highness. Not many can tell that I do not belong here.”

 

“I can feel you,” Baekhyun interjected abruptly. He was tense, his brow furrowed. The hand clutching his cane was white knuckled. “You’re like him. The shadow prince.”

 

The proclamation made Yixing gasp aloud, his cheeks flushing.

 

Before he could stutter out apologies however, Minseok raised his hand, his eyes narrowed.

 

“How do you know that? You said he is just your valet.” His eyes were accusing when he turned to Yixing.

 

“I-.”

 

“I’m his friend. And there are a great many things we have not told you, Your Majesty. But explain first, why does your guardian reek of shadow?”

 

The statement made Yixing’s blush flare. He reached out, grasping Baekhyun’s elbow in warning but Baekhyun shook him off. Beside him, Yifan has stiffened as well, his eyes darting between Minseok and Luhan.

 

“Your- friend, Prince Yixing, is right,” Luhan said after a very tense pause. “I am from Keurimjeo. I was born there and I inherited some magic from my mother’s side of the family. But then the kingdom was eradicated. We escaped and I came here to start a new life.”

 

“Your prince still lives,” Yixing pointed out, shaken.

 

“He is not my prince. Not after he let the shadows consume him. Prince Jongin was kind and a sweet child. The prince of shadows you speak of is none of that.”

 

“So you knew this prince,” Yifan stepped in and Luhan raised his head. His eyes were beautiful to behold, glittering like a doe’s.

 

“I knew him and well. He was younger than I and we often played together. But he had- issues. Of the mental sort. He had someone else inside him. Kai, he called him. Another prince that coveted power. His powers.”

 

“But they shared the same body, no? How does that work?”

 

Luhan shook his head.

 

“I do not know. The prince was never the same again. I will do everything in my power to stop him from doing the same to the world what he did to his own kingdom.”

 

“He intends to level this world?”

 

“Perhaps. His shadows have driven him mad and must be stopped. Jongin would have sooner died than let him tear the world apart.”

 

Luhan turned to the book that Yixing somehow had not noticed before. It was spread out on the table, its pages scribbled with ancient text that Yixing could not read. But he could recognize the drawing on the page and symbols that vaguely looked like four different elements.

 

“The tree must be summoned. It lies on a different plane and is guarded by another guardian. The guardian of time.”

 

“If there is a guardian then how could someone compromise the tree?” Yifan cut in before Luhan could continue, his eyes narrowed.

 

“They must have taken out the guardian as well.”

 

“This makes no sense,” Yixing argued. “You said the tree must be summoned but somehow a fledgling prince with powers over shadow was able to summon it alone? Why does he seek me out now then?”

 

“I do not know how Kai got to the tree, only that he must have. Or perhaps his ancestors did. The rulers of Keurimjeo are far from the sanest. He might not be alone in his quest.”

 

Yixing blew out a breath, ignoring the way his skin prickled when Yifan leaned over his shoulder to study the book.

 

“How do we summon the tree then?” he asked, folding his arms over his chest. “That seems to be the most important part right now.”

 

“We must gather all four elements. Fire, water, air and earth. Four people who can wield such elements or have powers in relation to such elements. And someone who can channel the energies of all four. This is the reason why no one has been able to successfully summon the tree in decades. We have not had such a power in the land,” Luhan said, his hand looking amusingly small against the vastness of the book.

 

He pointed to the center of the tree, in which a soft light glowed.

 

“Baekhyun,” Yixing said at once, the name spilling from his lips before he could stop himself. “Baekhyun, this- this must be why you received your powers. Because the tree knew. Because it needs you to save itself and our world.”

 

“Your va- friend has powers?” Minseok’s voice was incredulous as Yixing reached for Baekhyun’s wrist. He set Baekhyun’s hand delicately on the edge of the book, watching him trace his fingers over the text.

 

“It is how I was able to tell your guardian is not from this kingdom,” Baekhyun answered, his breaths coming out short. Yixing rested his hand on his shoulder, excitement building up inside him.

 

They could do this. He could feel it. They were so close.

 

“I will not be able to go with you for water, I’m afraid,” Minseok said before anyone could suggest. His lips pulled into a wan smile and he held up his hand. Yixing could see closely now, the pattern of snowflakes that danced on his skin.

 

“I am bound to this land. If I leave, I shall melt like ice on a summer’s day.”

 

There was a collective wince and Yixing laced his fingers together with Baekhyun’s.

 

“I’m sure Yixing’s beau can be persuaded to leave his land for an adventure,” Yifan muttered and Yixing rolled his eyes at once. Yifan did not believe that he had fallen for Junmyeon at first sight and took any chance he could to mock him for it.

 

“His name is Junmyeon and yes, he can be persuaded,” he snapped. Minseok’s eyebrows arched up but he made no comment, to Yixing’s relief.

 

“Jongdae will insist on accompanying Sehun but it can be arranged,” Baekhyun put in and Yixing could have sworn Minseok’s eyebrows rose even higher at his friend’s casual use of Jongdae’s name.

 

“Can you still wield your fire, Yifan? Even with your kingdom dead?”

 

Yifan visibly winced at that and nodded, though his jaw was tense.

 

“It is possible.”

 

“Then we are covered. Kyungsoo will help us, I’m sure,” Yixing said confidently.

 

“You’re just so eager to throw your friends into danger, aren’t you?” Yifan commented. He was staring at the book, not meeting Yixing’s eyes.

 

“What are you talking about?” Yixing snapped back. He was just about finished with Yifan’s attitude. The man might have saved his life but he was snippy and mocked him at every turn and Yixing had had enough.

 

“I’m just saying that it might be dangerous,” Yifan replied, holding up his palms up in surrender. Yixing glared, mist puffing from his lips.

 

“You’re the one who’s spent half their lives chasing down this tree,” he glowered. Yifan’s eyebrows rose and everything around Yixing seemed to fade away. It was just him and Yifan, growling and snapping at each other like wolves.

 

“Precisely. I have spent half my life preparing for this. Your friends have not.”

 

“Well, we don’t exactly have a choice, do we?” Yixing gritted out, feeling Baekhyun’s warning squeeze on his elbow.

 

Gentlemen,” Minseok cut in. His tone was dangerously soft. “You can take your argument with you on the road. I do not have time for it here.”

 

Yixing flinched, narrowing his eyes at Yifan, who did not look away. He had to restrain himself from throwing a punch in his face as he swept past him, following Minseok back up to the throne room.

 

Thankfully, the only time he had to suffer Yifan’s presence was at dinner, where Minseok served them Olda’s delicacies. It was the first time Yixing had tried frozen, raw meat and it disagreed with him very much.

 

He still ate them, to not seem rude but he still bristled when Yifan shot him amused looks all the way from across the table.

 

The soup was delicious, thick and creamy and nothing like the thinner soups that Junmyeon had introduced him to in Bada. The reindeer meat was gamey and he could not quite decide if he liked it or not but the raw fish that they served after was a surprising treat.

 

Minseok had the servants bring out a cherry pie and ice cream and then coffee, imported from Seong. It smelled absolutely divine but the taste left much to be desired.


The king however, took much enjoyment from it.

 

They talked but Minseok was more distant than Jongdae was. Or perhaps it was just Yixing’s imagination. He was more comfortable chatting with Luhan, who accompanied them to dinner and was much brighter and open than Minseok was.

 

It was quickly established that once they returned to Seong, they would have some time to arrange for Junmyeon’s arrival. Luhan was to attend as well with the book though Yixing had the feeling that Minseok was not very happy about the situation.

 

He seemed rather protective of his so called guardian. But they had no choice. Only Luhan could decipher the words of the book and it was not something they wanted to take a chance on.

 

Yixing was ashamed to say that he was rather relieved to leave Olda behind. Minseok lent them a carriage, one that would take them as far as the borders of his kingdom and someone would be waiting with horses.

 

Travelling by carriage through the forest of Seong was a foolish idea and they were not about to risk alerting bandits.

 

Yixing shrugged off his heavy cloak with relief when the air began to feel warm again, tucking it into his saddlebags. He ignored Yifan’s glance, more focused on the road in front of him.

 

“You know for a royal, you’re incredibly improper,” Yifan commented and Yixing could feel his blood pressure start to rise. He tried to tamp it down, sucking in a breath and biting down on his lip.

 

“What would you know about being royal?” he shot back. He regretted it immediately when Baekhyun gasped and Yifan’s eyes darkened.

 

“Well I do know that they aren’t supposed to be nearly as rude as you are. Didn’t your parents teach you any manners? How did your beau even fall for you? Is he as rude as you are?” Yifan fired back. Yixing whirled around, glowering at him.

 

“I was about to apologise but I see that I shouldn’t,” he snapped, “and don’t bring Junmyeon into this. He’s perfectly polite.”

 

Yifan snorted at that.

 

“Perfectly polite,” he mocked, “then he must have terrible taste in men.”

 

Yixing’s cheeks reddened. He squeezed his fingers around the reins, trying to force down the anger welling up inside him.

 

“You don’t know him,” he gritted out, “don’t you dare say a word against him.”

 

Yifan huffed, lips curling into a smirk. He looked terribly proud, knowing that he had gotten under Yixing’s skin and Yixing could not stand looking at him any longer.

 

He turned his horse, squeezing his legs tighter around its sides. The horse lengthened its strides until he had outpaced both Yifan and Baekhyun and was riding alone ahead. Yixing knew he was being terribly childish but he needed to cool off.

 

Hoofbeats echoed in his ear and he turned to see Baekhyun drawing up to him, a soft smile playing at his lips.

 

“You always let him get you,” Baekhyun said lowly. Yixing rolled his eyes, clutching at his reins. He was about to reply when Baekhyun reached over and shoved him so hard that the breath was knocked out of his lungs.

 

He fell with a shocked cry, spooking his horse. Yixing yelped when he landed hard onto his side, yanking his boot free of the stirrup just as the horse leapt forward.

 

“Baekhyun!” He heard Yifan cry and rolled to his feet to see Baekhyun hanging half out of his saddle, eyes wide with shock.

 

Sticking out of the right side of his chest, was an arrow as black as ebony wood.

 

“Oh gods,” Yixing gasped, bile rising in his throat. He staggered over, thankful that Baixian was well trained enough not to bolt. There was blood dripping down Baekhyun’s shirt, seeping into the fabric.

 

The smell was enough to make his stomach turn. His knees buckled and he had to grasp onto the saddle to keep from falling.

 

“Baekhyun.” Yifan pulled up beside him, his face as shocked as Yixing felt. He reached over, pulling Baekhyun onto his own horse. Baekhyun’s face was pale, too pale as he wrapped delicate fingers around the arrow’s shaft.

 

“Don’t pull it out,” Yixing managed to say. “You’ll bleed out before we even get to the castle.”

 

“Get on his horse. We need to get him to a healer. Now.”

 

Yixing did not need to be told twice. He scrambled into the saddle, Baixian startling beneath him. Baekhyun’s breathing was growing ever more laboured as Yifan spurred his horse forward, riding as quickly as he could without jarring his injury.

 

The guards at the castle took one look at them and sent someone running at once.

 

“What the hell happened?” Jongdae’s face was almost as white as Baekhyun’s when he came running down the stairs.

 

“There-.”

 

“Prince Kai attacked Yixing. Baekhyun pushed him away,” Yifan said before Yixing could even try to speak. His brow was furrowed as he hefted Baekhyun in his arms. Black veins were already beginning to climb up Baekhyun’s throat, his body trembling very slightly.

 

Jongdae’s jaw tightened.

 

“Escort Prince Yixing to bed. He needs his rest. Yifan, you come with me,” he ordered to the servants that had clustered into the room. Yixing tried to protest but his knees were weak from the hard riding and shock.

 

The servants herded him into the bathroom, stripping him off his travel clothes. He was scrubbed down and examined by another physician at Jongdae’s insistence before he was allowed to eat.

 

But he had no such appetite.

 

Yixing flopped onto the bed, shaking. He wrapped his arms around his knees, pressing his face into them. Terror still clawed at his throat, threatening to spill over as he shook and trembled.

 

His mind was still full of the arrow sticking straight out of Baekhyun’s chest, the arrow that Baekhyun had taken for him.

 

The memory of the horror on the prince’s face had only made the guilt in Yixing’s stomach grow.

 

It was his fault. He had been so caught up in his argument with Yifan that he was completely unaware of his surroundings. Yifan did that to him.

 

So the arrow whistling through the air had completely been off his radar. If it were not for Baekhyun, he would have been the one bleeding out in Yifan’s arms.

 

Yixing shuddered, biting down so hard onto his lower lip that he tasted metallic blood in his mouth.

 

He rocked himself back and forth, tears streaking down his face. Thunder boomed outside his window, the window panes rattling. Yixing grasped at the bed covers, a sob tearing out of his throat.

 

He whipped around with a gasp when there was a gentle knock on the door.

 

To his surprise, Yifan’s face peeked around the door. His brow was creased with concern, a look that Yixing had never seen on his face before. Yixing was starkly reminded of Junmyeon as the man crossed the room, sitting down on his bed without so much of an invitation.

 

“What do you want?” he tried to snap, wiping at his tears but only succeeded in giving a very wet sniff. Yifan’s hand hovered in the air, as if he was unsure before it was set gently onto Yixing’s shoulder.

 

“He’s going to be fine.” Yifan’s voice was uncharacteristically gentle, his big hand warm through Yixing’s thin sleeve. “They’ve stopped the bleeding and the poison did not go far.”

 

Yixing sniffed again, wrapping his arms around his knees.

 

“It was my fault,” he said weakly, “I should have been paying attention.”

 

“And then what? What could you have done?” Yifan asked, his tone darkening. “Baekhyun heard the arrow moving. You could not have. If it had been you, you’d be dead.”

 

“It should have been me,” Yixing muttered. “Baekhyun is needed.”

 

“So are you. Do you think your beau would be happy if he arrived to news that you’ve gotten yourself killed?” Yifan’s tone was harsh but Yixing thought he could hear a trace of wistfulness in there somewhere.

 

“Yifan-.” When he raised his head and their eyes met, Yixing’s heart skipped a beat.

 

He had never seen Yifan look at him the way he did then. It was the way he looked at Junmyeon, the way Junmyeon looked at him.

 

His breath caught when Yifan leaned in and he moved too. It was almost unconscious when he tilted his head, their lips meeting for the briefest kiss that snatched his breath away.

 

The moment was broken when Yifan made a sound of horror, yanking himself back. Yixing yelped too, hand flying up to his lips at the realization of what they had done.

 

“I’m sorry-,” he tried to say but Yifan cut him off, breathing ragged. His thick brows were furrowed as he backed away, nearly falling off the bed in his haste.

 

“No. I’m sorry. I know- we were just talking about your beau,” he stammered and Yixing’s heart sank.

 

“I-.” But he was not given any time to speak at all as Yifan fled, the door slamming shut behind him before he could get the first word out of his mouth.

 

Yixing sucked in a breath, burying his face into his hands.

 

What had they done?

 

Junmyeon was due to arrive the next day and he would have to explain this. He had to be honest.

 

Yixing did not sleep well that night, between worrying about Baekhyun and being terrified out of his mind about Junmyeon’s reaction. How could he explain the bubbly feeling at the pit of his stomach whenever he saw Yifan that had replaced the slow burning anger?

 

Junmyeon has made jokes about him falling for Yifan but what if he was right? What if Yixing truly had fallen? What did that mean for him? For Junmyeon?

 

The questions plagued him all night and morning when Yifan did not appear at the breakfast table. Jongdae was cooped up at Baekhyun’s bedside so Yixing was alone when the steward entered to announce Junmyeon’s arrival.

 

His stomach swooped when he stood at the top of the stairs, looking down to see the door open.

 

Junmyeon lit up the room the moment he stepped through and despite the nerves fluttering away in his belly, Yixing felt at peace almost at once.

 

When he looked up and the gentle smile that Yixing had so dearly missed curved on his lips, Yixing could only smile back.

 

He was as beautiful as he remembered, perhaps even more so.

 

“Prince Junmyeon.” Jongdae’s voice startled him out of reverie and he turned to see the prince appear beside him, his hair ruffled. His blazer was less than perfect as he attempted to straighten himself. “I apologise and welcome you. We’ve had quite a night.”

 

He bowed and Yixing followed suit, barely restraining himself from running straight into Junmyeon’s arms. There was still no sign of Yifan.

 

“It’s quite alright, Prince Jongdae. I am happy to be of service.” Junmyeon swept into a low bow and the scales on his cheekbones glittered as he ascended the stairs.

 

He glanced at Jongdae before taking a step towards Yixing. Yixing took his hand, pressing a kiss against his knuckles as warmth bloomed in his chest.

 

“I’ve missed you,” he admitted when Junmyeon smiled at him, warm and sweet.

 

“So have I, my love,” Junmyeon murmured, lifting his hand to press his lips to the inside of his wrist.

 

“My servants will show you to your chambers, Prince Junmyeon. If you have any needs, they will be attended to. I have business to deal with, if you’ll excuse me,” Jongdae blustered. At Junmyeon’s nod, he vanished down a long hallway that Yixing knew led to Baekhyun’s bedroom.

 

His stomach lurched at the memory. Hopefully he was well enough to be allowed visitors other than Jongdae soon.

 

“Where’s Chanyeol?” he asked, trying to keep the guilt from welling up. “It doesn’t seem likely that he’ll let you come on your own.”

 

Junmyeon made a face, bumping his shoulder gently.

 

“You’re right. I put up quite the fight but alas, Mother agreed with him. He’s with the horses.”

 

Yixing shook his head with a smile, leaning in close.

 

“Then we better savour these moments. He’ll never let us stand this close again.”

 

“You look like you’ve lost weight,” Junmyeon commented was they wandered along the corridor, following the maid that had popped up after Jongdae’s departure. He laced their fingers together and gave Yixing’s hand a little squeeze. “Have you not been eating, my heart?”

 

“I have,” Yixing replied, his heart skipping a beat when one of the doors in the hallway opened and out came Yifan. His golden hair was rumpled on his head and he looked very much like he had just gotten out of bed. He was sure Junmyeon could hear how his heart sped up at the sight.

 

Yifan resolutely avoided his gaze when he bowed before Junmyeon and vanished without another word.

 

“Is that-.”

 

“Yifan. He’s the one I’ve been telling you about.” Yixing took a breath, his fingers tightening on Junmyeon’s hand. Junmyeon raised his eyebrows when they stopped in the hallway, Yixing clutching onto his hand like a lifeline.

 

“Is there-?”

 

“I need to tell you something,” Yixing rushed out before he could lose his nerve. Junmyeon surveyed him with a calm gaze and gently squeezed his hand.

 

“Not here, love. Perhaps somewhere a little more private?” he asked and Yixing could not help the rush of affection that swept over him. Junmyeon was always so perceptive to his needs.

 

They stepped out onto a balcony, hidden away by tall walls. Gentle rain sprinkled down onto them and it made Yixing smile to watch Junmyeon lean back, his scales glimmering wherever the raindrops touched them.

 

“You’re pretty,” he said softly, reaching out to brush his fingers over Junmyeon’s cheek. Junmyeon’s eyes blinked open and his lips curved. He wrapped his hand around Yixing’s wrist, bringing his fingers to his lips tenderly.

 

“That’s not what you wanted to tell me, was it?” he asked teasingly. Yixing’s cheeks flushed and his fingers clenched into a fist. He pulled away slowly.

 

“I didn’t mean to distract,” he said. Junmyeon looked at him, those navy blue eyes piercing his soul. Yixing swallowed, ducking his head when Junmyeon tucked a lock of his hair behind his ear.

 

“I kissed him,” he blurted out, grasping for Junmyeon’s hand. “I kissed Yifan last night.”

 

Junmyeon’s eyes widened but to Yixing’s surprise, he did not look too upset. In fact, he barely looked surprised at all.

 

“And how do you feel about him?” he asked, his tone gentle.

 

“You’re not mad?” Yixing asked, his grip on Junmyeon’s hand tightening.

 

A smile broke across Junmyeon’s face and he leaned in closer, until their noses were touching.

 

“Should I be? I saw this coming when you started ranting about him in your letters, love.”

 

“But I- I thought we are-.”

 

“In a monogamous relationship? Yes, we are. But my love is not so fragile, Yixing. How do you feel about him?”

 

Yixing did not know how to respond. He had spent the night worrying and now Junmyeon was holding him and telling him he was not surprised?

 

“I think I like him,” he said, confused. “But I’m also in love with you.”

 

Junmyeon’s smile widened and he cupped his cheek, kissing him fiercely.

 

“Then we’ll figure it out. Together. If he feels the same about you, I’ll make room.”

 

Yixing kissed him back, wrapping an arm around his waist to pull him even closer. There were no words to describe the relief and love he was feeling in that moment.

 

The sound of a throat clearing made them pull apart and Yixing’s cheeks went hot when he realised who was standing in the doorway.

 

Yifan, looking a lot more put together than he had earlier, shuffled his feet awkwardly.

 

“Jongdae sent for you. Baekhyun’s awake,” he said, not looking either of them in the eye. Yixing glanced at Junmyeon, relieved when the prince only lifted his hand, pressing a kiss to his palm.

 

“You go on, love. I have to have a word or two with Yifan here.” There was no malice in his tone, his eyes twinkling as he lifted his head to look Yifan in the eye.

 

Yifan went rigid, his gaze sweeping between the two of them warily. Yixing could have laughed but the worry on Yifan’s face made the urge melt away. He patted Junmyeon’s shoulder.

 

“Go easy on him,” he said lightly, “you might break him.”

 

Junmyeon shot him an amused look that told Yixing everything he needed to know. He walked away, his heart lighter than it had felt in days.

 

Chapter Text

Baekhyun groaned when he pushed himself into a seated position. His chest ached and he was hyper aware of the bandage wrapped around it.

 

“Baekhyun.” Jongdae’s voice reached his ears and there was a hand at his back, helping him sit up.

 

“Yixing-.” A cold hand of fear gripped at Baekhyun’s heart and he twisted, yelping when he felt the stitches pull. His fingers clenched into the bed spread as he inhaled, trying to breathe through the pain.

 

“He’s fine. Prince Junmyeon arrived today. He’s probably with him. I’ll send for him at once,” Jongdae said, one hand resting on Baekhyun’s shoulder.

 

Baekhyun slumped back when Jongdae adjusted his pillow, swearing when the pain filtered through. He touched the bandaged area, wrinkling his nose.

 

“How are you feeling? Do you need anything?” Jongdae asked, fussing with the edge of Baekhyun’s blanket. He tugged it up over Baekhyun’s belly and tucked it in. Even without seeing him, Baekhyun could feel the nervous energy radiating off him.

 

“I’m fine, Dae.” He reached out, grasping Jongdae’s forearm. “Are you okay? You’re jittery.”

 

The last thing Baekhyun expected to happen was for Jongdae to fling his arms around him and hug him close. He froze for a moment, his brain short circuiting when Jongdae pressed his face into the crook of his neck.

 

“I thought I lost you.” The words were whispered into his skin, so softly that Baekhyun barely heard him. He wrapped his arms gingerly around Jongdae, hugging him close. “You were so still- so pale. I thought you were dead.”

 

Baekhyun touched his hair, stroking his finger through the strands.

 

“I’m alright,” he murmured, relaxing into the hold when Jongdae did not seem like he was about to let go any time soon.

 

“Don’t scare me like that again,” Jongdae said, in a rare show of affection. Baekhyun could feel the drip of tears, warm against his skin and made no comment, stroking Jongdae’s hair until the man shifted and sat up.

 

“I will send for Yixing,” he said, blinking away his tears. Baekhyun felt him leave, the weight on the bed replaced by a purring mass.

 

Geoum padded onto his lap, mewling. Baekhyun smoothed his fingers over his fur, smiling to himself. He did not think he would be able to make Jongdae the ice prince cry but somehow they had gotten close enough for Jongdae to care for him.

 

“Baek!” Yixing came careening through the door, stopping just shy of the bed.

 

Baekhyun shifted on instinct and yelped when he tugged at his stitches again. The bed sank down as Yixing sat, nudging him to lay back against the headrest.

 

“You shouldn’t be moving,” he scolded gently, hand wrapping around Baekhyun’s wrist. Baekhyun squirmed, turning his hand so that he could catch Yixing’s wrist in his palm.

 

“It’s not your fault,” he said before Yixing could continue, “I know you were about to blame yourself.”

 

He could not see but Yixing’s lips were curved slightly into a tight smile as he patted the covers over Baekhyun’s belly.

 

“You know me too well,” Yixing said. Baekhyun smiled at that, draping his other hand over Yixing’s.

 

“If it had been you, you’d be dead. The prince knew what he was doing,” he said. He heard Yixing take a shuddering breath and could not help moving forward despite the pain twinging in his chest to wrap his arms around him.

 

“We need to find him. Why does he want me dead?” Yixing mumbled into the crook of his neck in a strange parody of what Jongdae had felt like before he left.

 

“I don’t know. But we’ll get him. You’ll be okay. We will be okay.”

 

Yixing smelled like the sea somehow, a salty tang clinging to him even as he pulled away. Baekhyun cocked his head, inhaling deeply.

 

“Were you with Prince Junmyeon? I can smell the sea on you,” he said knowingly, surprised that his heart did not ache at the thought any longer. “How is he?”

 

“He’s good. Better in fact, than I remember.” Baekhyun could hear the smile in Yixing’s voice, the way he tried to downplay his affection but not quite successfully. His smile widened. Yixing was so whipped for this prince that it was sort of adorable.

 

“I can’t wait to meet him,” he said sincerely.

 

“Baek- is it okay?”

 

“Hm? You mean if it’s okay that you’re in love?” Baekhyun hummed, tilting his head up when Yixing held him close. Yixing was fidgeting with his fingers, picking at his nails. He reached out, trapping his best friend’s hands with his own.

 

“I just thought that-.”

 

“That I’m still in love with you? Even though we’ve had this discussion before? I was. Very much so,” Baekhyun cut him off, squeezing his hands tight. “You’re my best friend, Xing. And I will always have a place in my heart for you but not like that. Not anymore.”

 

He paused, his mind flitting unwittingly to Jongdae. 

 

“That’s good,” Yixing exhaled. “I never want to hurt you.”

 

“You won’t,” Baekhyun tried to assure him. His mind was still on Jongdae. Even though he had been there earlier, he already missed his presence. The very thought of him made his stomach flutter, as if there were butterflies flying around in there.

 

“Have you considered Jongdae?” The question took him by surprise. He did not think Yixing had noticed.

 

“Why do you ask?” Baekhyun deflected, scrunching at the covers around him. His face felt oddly hot and he was thankful for his blindness all of a sudden.

 

“I’ve seen the way he looks at you,” Yixing murmured, tucking a lock of Baekhyun’s hair behind his ear. “Do you-?”

 

“I don’t need another person to make me feel complete, Xing. I’m fine on my own,” Baekhyun said.

 

“Oh, it’s not a matter of feeling complete, Baek. You are complete. I didn’t mean to insinuate otherwise. I just meant that he might be someone who could share your burdens. The way you share his without even realising.”

 

Baekhyun faltered at that statement.

 

“I’ve thought about it. But we have bigger things to worry about than my lack of romance,” he admitted. It felt shameful to admit, to think about such mundane things when there were much larger, looming problems to fret over.

 

“It’s alright to worry over these things. I know the state of the world is at stake but you’re only human.”

 

“I’ll think about it,” Baekhyun said. “Now tell me about Junmyeon.”

 

Junmyeon turned out to be far more intriguing than Baekhyun could have imagined. He had a calming aura to him that permeated the room when he entered Baekhyun’s chamber in search of Yixing.

 

Even if he had wanted to, Baekhyun would have found it difficult to hate him. He made no mention of his blindness, perfectly poised and polite. He even allowed Baekhyun to touch his face, only hesitating when Baekhyun’s fingers brushed over the scales on his cheekbones.

 

“What colour are they?” Baekhyun asked.

 

“Blue. But they change colour,” Yixing said, almost dreamily. He was seated on Baekhyun’s other side and he sounded so lovesick that Bakehyun could not help teasing him.

 

“You’re so whipped.”

 

“I am not,” Yixing retorted, poking Baekhyun’s side. Baekhyun jerked away and yelped at the pain blooming across his chest. He grabbed at it, swearing. Junmyeon recoiled, as if he was unused to hearing such crass words.

 

“I am a patient!” Baekhyun whined.

 

“That’s enough for now. The physician wanted him to keep still and clearly, Yixing is not helping,” came Jongdae’s voice. He sounded unusually stern as his footsteps came closer and closer to the bed.

 

“I’m sorry,” Yixing pouted. Baekhyun fumbled his hand into Yixing’s hair, ruffling it carelessly when he leaned in to press a kiss against his cheek.

 

Once they had left, Jongdae settled into Yixing’s seat and Baekhyun could hear the sounds of pages being rustled.

 

“Shall I read to you?” he asked quietly.

 

Baekhyun’s heart fluttered and his mind unwittingly wandered to what Yixing had said. He scrunched at the sheets and nodded fervently.

 

As Jongdae’s voice echoed through the air, Baekhyun settled against his pillow, his mind drifting off.

 

-

 

They kept him bedridden for days, until the stitches could be taken out and Jongdae was there for every single one of those days. He sat quietly at Baekhyun’s side, stoically holding his hand when the servants cleaned the wound with brandy and changed the dressings.

 

He read to him and even sang to him when Baekhyun begged him to. Baekhyun had to chase him out some days, insisting that he entertained his guest.

 

But Jongdae always returned to him, no matter how late.

 

The servants had even brought in a chaise so that the prince could sleep at the foot of the bed without doing his back some proper damage. Baekhyun was starting to think that it was Yixing’s doing.

 

Yixing protested innocence however, when he visited, always with Junmyeon in tow. He seemed so much lighter around Junmyeon, always bubbling with joy. It only served to remind Baekhyun of what he had said about Jongdae, no matter how unbelievable it seemed to him.

 

There was a ring of truth however.

 

The servants whispered whenever Jongdae was not in the room, telling Baekhyun that they had never seen Prince Jongdae so concerned over anyone that was not his cousin. Sehun came by too, with Geoum twining around his ankles. There was something off about him, something that Baekhyun could not place his finger on.

 

Sehun would come in and sit at the foot of his bed, humming tunelessly. He plucked at the sheets and seemed incredibly listless. From what Baekhyun had heard, Sehun had been like that since they returned from Olda.

 

He did however, form a ridiculously adorable attachment to Junmyeon. Sehun talked about him the most when he did more than hum, talking about Junmyeon’s pretty scales and his kindness. And the bubbles that he made for Sehun to play with.

 

Baekhyun enjoyed his presence, but he was also worried. They needed Sehun to be stable long enough to channel his magic. From what Jongdae had said, Sehun had never learnt to truly harness his power. He could create tiny breezes when he wanted to but was never taught how to truly use his magic.

 

Baekhyun knew from Jongdae that Junmyeon had been coaching him a little and was making more headway than Jongdae had in years. He thought it was adorable that Jongdae even sounded a little jealous that his cousin was getting so attached to someone else.

 

“I grew up with him,” he sulked one afternoon. The skies were rumbling but it was soft, distant. Baekhyun laughed, lifting his hand to poke at what he thought was Jongdae’s lips.

 

“Don’t pout, Your Highness,” he teased, “it’s good for him to meet new people.”

 

“I know that. But that Kim Junmyeon is far too perfect. How can anyone be so- charming?”

 

“Oh? You think he’s charming?” Baekhyun asked, unsure of why that made his stomach twinge. That was a lie. He knew exactly why. Yixing’s words were humming in the back of his mind as Jongdae responded.

 

“Don’t you? He’s perfectly poised, not a hair out of place anywhere. Polite, excellent control over his powers and absolutely stunning. Even with those scales, he’s a vision.”

 

“Well-.” Baekhyun had no words to counter that. Everything coming out of Jongdae’s mouth was true.

 

“You’re gorgeous as well,” he blurted out before he could think. Jongdae’s barking laughter echoed through the air, almost mocking.

 

“Baek. You’re blind. Quite literally.”

 

“Ouch,” Baekhyun snapped, recoiling away.

 

“I’m scarred, Baek. And angry and bitter. I’m nothing like him.”

 

“You’re not supposed to be,” Baekhyun argued, folding his arms across his chest. “You’re your own person and beautiful in your own way. I wish you’d stop comparing yourself.”

“I’m not,” Jongdae retorted, “I’m just saying that he’s charming and quite possibly your type.”

 

“What?” Baekhyun blinked. “Are you delusional, Jongdae? He has Yixing.”

 

“I’m saying I want to be your type!” Jongdae roared back before he gasped, as if realizing what he just said. Baekhyun reeled back, wide eyed in shock. The skies roared with thunder, as if in response to Jongdae’s outburst before the world fell silent.

 

It was so quiet that Baekhyun could hear Jongdae’s breathing.

 

Jongdae made a strangled sound, before his footsteps echoed in the room, growing farther and farther away before Baekhyun could call him back. Baekhyun sat in his bed, frozen in shock. His mind could not stop replaying Jongdae’s words.

 

Thankfully, he was relieved from bed rest the next day and was allowed to hobble around the castle in search of Jongdae.

 

Said prince did not visit him at breakfast, a fact that made Baekhyun’s insides curdle. He gave vague answers when Yixing questioned him worriedly and insisted on going up to Jongdae’s tower alone. He had a feeling that the prince would not want anyone else to witness the conversation they needed to have.

 

“You shouldn’t be walking around.” Jongdae’s tone was curt, defensive. Even through the door, Baekhyun could hear the strain in his voice.

 

“Well, open the door and let me sit down then. I’m tired,” Baekhyun responded smartly. There was no answer for a beat before he heard the door creak open slowly. Silently, he patted himself on the back.

 

“Did you speak the truth?” he asked the moment he crossed the threshold into the room. Then tension was almost palpable when Jongdae closed the door behind him. There was no answer.

 

Baekhyun rolled his eyes, tapping his cane on the floor.

 

“Jongdae, answer me,” he said, shifting the cane to try and seek out where Jongdae was.

 

“Do I speak anything but the truth?” Jongdae replied, wounded. “I shouldn’t have said it. I’m sorry.”

 

“Sorry? What are you sorry for?” Baekhyun asked, folding his arms over his chest. He glowered. “For speaking your mind? For loving me?”

 

“You deserve better. Not a scarred, cursed man like me,” Jongdae spat as if the words were poison.

 

Baekhyun could almost picture the prince turning away, one hand lifted to shield his face but that seemed like a foolish thing to do in front of someone who could not see.

 

“Enlighten me then, Your Highness,” he said softly, taking a step forward, his cane clicking on the stone floor.

 

“What is better?”

 

He could hear Jongdae’s breathing, harsh and ragged as if he was trying to tamp down his temper.

 

“Someone more whole. Like Yixing. Haven’t you been in love with him for half your life?”

 

Baekhyun flinched, squeezing the handle of his cane tighter. Yixing was wonderful but he had also left him when he needed him most. Jongdae had been there with him through most of it, by complete accident. He had been a stranger who helped him when he did not have to.

 

The more he thought about it, the more Baekhyun wanted to hit himself. How could he have been so blind? He was supposed to be more perceptive because of his lack of sight. Jongdae had always been there for him, despite the fact that they had been strangers when they met.

 

Had the servants not told him how guarded the prince was? Had he not seen for himself how much Jongdae pushed people away?

 

Somehow in Baekhyun’s mind, he had never once considered the Jongdae might feel for him something other than friendship. How Baekhyun’s own feelings for him had taken a turn.

 

“Yixing has a hand that could kill me if he touched me with it.”

 

“Junmyeon then.”

 

“I don’t want either of them, Jongdae. I want you.”

 

The words were out of his mouth before he had time to process them. But when he said them, he realised how much he meant it. With his whole heart, he had fallen for Jongdae without even knowing.

 

Baekhyun poked his cane at the toe of Jongdae’s boot, taking one more step closer. He had to be right in front of Jongdae now, close enough to hear his ragged breathing.

 

“I care about you, Dae. And I never meant to cause you pain. I’m sorry if you thought I couldn’t feel the same way.”

 

“That’s not-.”

 

“Then what? As you’ve very aptly put it, I’m blind, Jongdae. Your looks do not factor into my feelings at all. Do you think I give two hoots about what you look like?” Baekhyun cut him off, reaching out to grasp his hand. He fumbled, heart tripping when Jongdae moved to take it.

 

“But I-.”

 

“No buts. You don’t get to shut me out now. Not after you’ve told me the truth I’ve been too blind to see. Har har,” he tried to joke and was relieved to hear a wet laugh spill from Jongdae’s lips.

 

“You’re incredibly rude for interrupting a prince,” Jongdae murmured, a hand moving up to cup his cheek.

 

“And you like me that way,” Baekhyun said brusquely, stabbing at Jongdae’s boot with his cane. He wobbled, warmth blooming in his chest when Jongdae steadied him at once.

 

“You’ve been hurt by your love before, Baek. I don’t want to hurt you like that. I’m scared.” Jongdae smoothed a finger over Baekhyun’s brow, a tingle spreading over Baekhyun’s skin. He pulled away but Baekhyun followed him.

 

“I know you are. But I’m not. I’m not afraid of you.”

 

“I’m afraid of myself,” Jongdae admitted and Baekhyun’s heart cracked a little more. “I- didn’t tell you before but I was afraid of getting too close. Of burning you like Yixing did. But you’re so- irresistible, Baek. You’re like a beacon.”

 

“Thanks. That was not directed at my magic at all, was it?” Baekhyun snarked, smirking when Jongdae burst out laughing. He could feel him shaking against him and it only made him grip him tighter.

 

“I’m serious. You’re like a flame.”

 

“Like a beacon in your storm,” Baekhyun said, cringing the moment he said it. Jongdae laughed again but this time, it was fond.

 

“You’re incorrigible,” he murmured. Baekhyun’s heart clenched and he tilted his head, wrapping his arms around his middle.

 

“Kiss me,” he urged. “You’re talking too much.”

 

“I’ve barely said a word,” Jongdae shot back but he obliged. It was nothing like Baekhyun imagined or thought his first kiss would be like. There was no sparks, no fireworks. There was just Jongdae, trembling minutely against him, sharing his space, his lips pressed against his.

 

“Take it off,” Baekhyun murmured. He could feel Jongdae’s smile against his lips.

 

“You’re the most demanding commoner I’ve ever met,” Jongdae said when they pulled apart, Baekhyun’s hand cupping at his jaw. He could feel his mask, stiff leather against his fingertips. Baekhyun traced the edge of it slowly.

 

“Let me rephrase,” Baekhyun replied. He touched the mask again. “Will you take it off for me?”

 

Jongdae’s hand was shaking when he grasped his wrist, lifting it away from his face. Concern flashed through Baekhyun and he pulled his hand away at once.

 

“You don’t have to,” he said hurriedly, “only if you’re comfortable.”

 

“You said you want me. I want to give you all of me,” Jongdae murmured. He placed Baekhyun’s hand against the base of his mask. “Take it off for me.”

 

Baekhyun sucked in a sharp breath. It felt almost too intimate as he slid his fingers beneath the edge of the mask, feeling the patterns of Jongdae’s scars swirling under his fingertips as he lifted away the leather and lace.

 

“You’re beautiful,” he whispered against Jongdae’s lips as he traced his fingers over every one of those scars, pressing a kiss to Jongdae’s nose.

 

Jongdae wrinkled his nose and tugged him in for a proper kiss, one that snatched Baekhyun’s breath away.

 

-

 

“Is there something going on between you and Yifan?” Baekhyun asked the next time he found Yixing. His best friend was hiding out on a balcony, acting rather secretive.

 

“N-no. At least not in this moment,” Yixing stammered. Baekhyun could smell the lie on him. He grabbed Yixing’s arm, furrowing his brow.

 

“Does Junmyeon know?” he demanded. Yixing choked and a laugh echoed in the air. Footsteps that he had not heard earlier registered in his ears and a gentle hand touched his elbow. Baekhyun could smell sea salt as he turned to greet the newcomer.

 

“I do know but thank you, Baekhyun for looking out for me,” Junmyeon said, his tone tinged with amusement.

 

Baekhyun scowled.

 

“You’re keeping secrets. I hate secrets.” He tapped his cane on the floor, not releasing Yixing’s arm.

 

“We’re working things out,” Junmyeon said evenly, taking Yixing’s hand from him. Baekhyun could have rolled his eyes at the wave of relief that seeped out of Yixing at the gesture. He nudged Yixing as hard as he could, blowing a puff of air where he thought his neck was.

 

“Whipped,” he teased.

 

Yixing whirled around, slamming into Junmyeon with a smack that made Baekhyun chortle with laughter. He could practically feel his best friend’s withering glare.

 

“I could say the same of you, Baekhyun. Jongdae looks at you with such fondness,” Junmyeon chastised him. Baekhyun heard a soft kiss being placed on Yixing’s cheek and wrinkled his nose.

 

“The two of you are insufferable. I hope Yifan is prepared,” he grumbled, secretly reveling in Yixing’s choking on air again. He seemed to have rendered him speechless as he prepared to make his departure.

 

“You don’t think I’m greedy?” Yixing’s question would have been too soft for anyone to hear but not Baekhyun. He turned around. Junmyeon was silent, possibly just holding his beloved close as Baekhyun processed the question.

 

“No, not really. I think your heart was always too big, Xing. It makes sense that you need two people to fill it,” Baekhyun answered honestly after a beat of silence. He shrugged, a smile playing at his lips. “If Junmyeon’s alright with it, who am I to judge? I’m your best friend, Xing!”

 

The relief that radiated off Yixing was palpable and Baekhyun wanted to laugh when he was tugged into a tight embrace. He snuggled into it, squeezing Yixing hard.

 

“You deserve all the love in the world and more. How could I fault you for this?” he asked softly, “how could anyone fault you for this?”

 

“Thank you,” Yixing breathed into his ear, releasing him. A hand cupped his cheek, rubbing over his cheekbone fondly. Baekhyun leaned into the touch, basking in the affection. They had a war to win and a world to save but in this moment, he had Yixing and they both had people they loved.

 

They were happy. He wanted to bottle up the moment and keep it close.

 

“I think Jongdae wants me,” he murmured, extracting himself. There were more footsteps thumping along the hallway outside, growing louder and then softer before stopping completely. “Yifan’s here. Have a good talk!”

 

Baekhyun fled before Yixing could say anything incriminating against him, laughing to himself when Geoum popped up out of nowhere. The cat followed after him, mewling when he stopped to pick him up.

 

“Good morning, Baekhyun hyung.”

 

“Morning, Sehunnie!” Baekhyun called, smoothing his fingers over Geoum’s head. The cat meowed, clambering up to sit on his shoulder.

 

He turned to greet Sehun and froze up at once when a wave of magic swept over him.

 

“And to you too, Yifan,” he said, trying not recoil. Yifan must have given up suppressing his magic as the sheer volume of it made Baekhyun shudder.

 

“Morning. Have you seen-?”

 

“They’re just behind me,” Baekhyun pointed quickly. It was hot, with Yifan’s burning energy signature and he could not wait to escape to the roof where he knew Jongdae was waiting.

 

“Thank you,” Yifan bowed. Baekhyun noted with amusement that he treated him, a lowly commoner with more respect than he had treated Yixing. But then Yifan and Yixing always had a strange dynamic.

 

Now that Yixing had admitted his attraction, Baekhyun could finally see why.

 

He could hear Yifan’s footsteps fading behind him and Sehun’s coming closer. A hand touched his elbow and he turned to smile at Sehun.

 

“Let’s go see Jongdae, shall we?”

 

It was the proverbial calm before the storm as he climbed up the roof with both Geoum and Sehun to guide them.

 

He could not stop the smile from blooming on his lips when he felt Jongdae’s hand grasping his wrist, pulling him to sit on the tiles. It was drizzling, a cool fine rain that Baekhyun liked.

 

He tipped his head back, inhaling the smell of the rainfall.

 

“Careful,” Jongdae murmured, gathering him close. Baekhyun sighed, leaning his head onto Jongdae’s shoulder. A kiss was pressed against the side of his head, Baekhyun’s smile widening in response.

 

“I’m always safe with you,” he replied. He did not need his sight to feel Jongdae’s fond gaze. “Is there any news on Kyungsoo?”

 

Jongdae sighed at that, turning his head away.

 

“I’m trying. He’s not much for people. It’s hard to convince him to come over without a proper explanation.”

 

“But it’ll be easier to explain in person,” Baekhyun said, toying with Jongdae’s hand. They were just waiting on Kyungsoo now and the wait was beginning to wear on him. “I thought you said he’d be easy to convince.”

 

Jongdae snorted.

 

“Yixing said that. I did not. Your friend does not know Kyungsoo as well as I do. If he can avoid it, he will not come to the capital.”

 

“Because of his powers? Or because he just doesn’t like the people?”

 

“Both. Kyungsoo likes his solitude too much. If it weren’t for our powers I might never have met him.”

 

Baekhyun pushed his head into the crook of Jongdae’s neck like a cat, turning to press a kiss against his skin.

 

“Well, tell him the entire world is at stake. That ought to stir him.”

 

“It’s not so simple. I told him about the shadow prince,” Jongdae admitted.

 

“And?”

 

“He sent back a reply that on no account did he want to encounter the prince. It’s as if he knew him before.”

 

Baekhyun’s lips tightened.

 

“I didn’t know you were friends with a coward.” He got a nudge for his efforts, Jongdae pinching his side gently.

 

“Don’t. That’s not fair. He watched his kingdom fall. It is understandable that he does not want to meet the person who might have caused it to.”

 

“Himdeul was leveled by an earthquake-.”

 

“It was. But now the shadow prince is alive and the tree is under threat. Who can say that Keurimjeo was not behind all those kingdoms‘ deaths?”

 

“So he would rather watch the world burn than try to save it. I’m not sure I like this friend of yours, Dae,” Baekhyun commented with a frown.

 

“Don’t be like that,” Jongdae murmured, nudging him again. A finger curled under his chin and Baekhyun let himself be pulled forward. The corners of his lips quirked up into a smirk when Jongdae kissed him deeply, tongue flicking at his bottom lip.

 

Baekhyun curved his hand around Jongdae’s jaw, pulling him closer. He opened his mouth, groaning when Jongdae licked inside, his knees turning to jelly.

 

Jongdae was so close, one hand braced on his knee, the other cupping his cheek. Baekhyun’s heart was thundering in his ears and he could not help the whine that spilled from his lips when Jongdae nibbled at his lower lip gently.

 

He was wrapped up in him, the smell of ozone that always seemed to cling to Jongdae mingling with the rain. The heat of his hand burning through the thin layer of his pants. Even the sprinkling of rain spraying down onto them could not ruin the mood.

 

Baekhyun moved his hand from Jongdae’s face to his hips, tugging him as close as he could until the prince was almost laying on top of him. Their breaths mingled when they pulled apart for the briefest moment to catch their breaths before diving right back in.

 

Jongdae’s laugh rang in his ears when he pressed his hand into the tile beside Baekhyun’s head, licking into his mouth. Baekhyun laughed back, sliding his hand under Jongdae’s tunic to feel his skin, burning against his hand.

 

The sky rumbled and the rain began to pelt down harder. Baekhyun squirmed, pressing his mouth to Jongdae’s cheek. He followed a line down from his jaw to his neck, pressing little butterfly kisses that made Jongdae shiver.

 

His hair was damp and sticking to his forehead when Jongdae pushed him away to reciprocate, hot mouth sucking a mark into Baekhyun’s neck. It tickled and he laughed when he did it, tangling his fingers into Jongdae’s hair.

 

“Dae- wait- oh!” His fingers scrabbled on wet tile and they both yelped in shock when he slipped. Thunder boomed in the distance and the rain poured down, drenching them both.

 

“I saw that!”

 

“Damnit,” Jongdae murmured and Baekhyun’s cheeks heated when they heard laughter ring from beneath them. It was Sehun, standing at the balcony with his face tilted up to the rain.

 

“You have terrible timing!” Baekhyun yelled, hiding his face into Jongdae’s chest and Sehun whooped again. He fell silent when the wind howled, his words lost to it.

 

“Go back inside, Hunnie. You’ll get sick!” Jongdae called down. He hugged Baekhyun close to him for a moment, the rain drowning out Sehun’s reply. Baekhyun lifted his hand, tracing the lip of his half mask before he was leaning in, pressing their lips together again.

 

“Mmph- uh uh. We need to go,” Jongdae breathed against his lips. Baekhyun was delighted to hear that he was just as out of breath as he was.

 

“But I like it out here,” Baekhyun pouted. Jongdae pecked him gently and patted his cheek with a wet hand.

 

“I know. But we have to go before the lightning comes. I can’t control myself around you,” he said fondly and Baekhyun could not help but lean in again for another kiss.

 

Somehow they made their way down without falling to their deaths.

 

The hallways were mysteriously empty as Jongdae dragged him into his bed chambers, Baekhyun laughing breathlessly at his antics. They were both sopping wet, dripping water all over the carpets and floors as they raced through the hall.

 

Thankfully, the servants had already left Jongdae’s bedchambers for the day when they entered.

 

Baekhyun gasped when the door was slammed shut and he found himself being pushed up against it, Jongdae’s hands on his chest.

 

“Kiss me again,” he demanded, reveling in Jongdae’s laugh.

 

“That’s the plan,” his lover replied and then Baekhyun was drowning. They were soaked, possibly leaving puddles beneath them and the servants would have a fit later but in that moment, all that mattered was Jongdae.

 

His hands gripping at Baekhyun’s shoulders, his warmth seeping through their wet clothes. Baekhyun kissed him back with as much fervor, one hand wrapped around his hip to pull him close.

 

The room was warm at least when they finally pulled apart for breath. Jongdae pressed his mouth into the crook of Baekhyun’s neck and Baekhyun could not suppress the moan that slipped out of him.

 

He scrabbled at Jongdae’s wet jacket, tugging at it until the prince got the hint and moved. The jacket was shrugged off while his mouth was still attached to Baekhyun’s neck. Teeth clamped down onto his skin and Baekhyun yelped, the sound distorting into another moan when Jongdae began to suck.

 

“Why- do you do this like you’ve done it- before?” he gasped, clutching at Jongdae’s tunic. Jongdae hummed, fingers pressing into the dips of Baekhyun’s hips.

 

“I read. A lot,” he murmured, tugging Baekhyun towards him.

 

Baekhyun whimpered, arching his back as Jongdae sucked another mark into his throat.

 

“We should bathe,” he struggled to say, utterly distracted by the way Jongdae kissed down the length of his throat, moving to unbutton his shirt.

 

“Yes,” Jongdae breathed, blowing hot air across Baekhyun’s skin. He mouthed at Baekhyun’s exposed collarbones until Baekhyun was whining, squirming in his grip.

 

“Dae- bath!” he gasped, finally managing to get a grip on himself long enough to put some distance between them. “We’ll both catch colds.”

 

“Join me,” Jongdae panted, tugging at his shirt. “We won’t do anything but I-.”

 

He cut himself off, cheeks flushing crimson. Baekhyun grabbed him by his collar, muttering things about him being far to cute. He yanked him back in for another bruising kiss, one that had Jongdae gasping and swearing when they parted.

 

The bath water was deliciously warm. Baekhyun shed his clothes, feeling his way around until he could climb into the tub without help. He groaned, relaxing against the wall instantly.

 

“Where are you?” he complained when Jongdae did not join him.

 

There were timid footsteps on the tiles and then a soft splashing sound. Baekhyun shifted, too comfortable to move. Something brushed against his leg and he turned, stretching his arms out of the water.

 

“I forget that you can’t see me,” Jongdae commented when he took him into his arms. Baekhyun turned his head, moving his hands along Jongdae’s bare chest to find his face.

 

“Please tell me you took the mask off,” he said, thumbing at Jongdae’s cheek. “I want to feel you.”

 

Jongdae’s heart rate picked up under his fingertips at once and he shifted away. Baekhyun’s lips curled and he tightened his grip on Jongdae’s jaw.

 

“What are you thinking?” he asked silkily, pressing his lips to Jongdae’s shoulder. Jongdae shuddered when he nipped him gently, turning to face him.

 

“Don’t- I won’t be able to resist you,” he murmured, cupping his cheek. Baekhyun raised his eyebrows and tugged Jongdae closer.

 

Jongdae was letting himself be kissed, softer and slower than they had done in the bedroom, fingers tangling into Baekhyun’s hair. He tugged and Baekhyun moaned.

 

Baekhyun splayed his fingers over Jongdae’s chest, pushing him back down when the kiss started to get heated. He moved, sliding his leg over Jongdae’s to straddle him.

 

“What are you doing?” Jongdae asked warily, his breathing heavy. He reached for Baekhyun’s wrist but Baekhyun batted him away.

 

“Let me see you,” he said seriously and Jongdae relented.

 

It was strange to be so exposed but not being able to see.

 

Baekhyun trailed his fingers across Jongdae’s collarbones, down his chest. He paused for a moment over Jongdae’s rapidly beating heart, smirking to himself.

 

“You’re so riled up,” he commented, running the pads of his fingers lower, over Jongdae’s left nipple. Jongdae tensed, the water rippling.

 

“Baekhyun,” he said, voice low. Baekhyun tilted his head innocently, flicking at the bud before Jongdae could react.

 

“Ow!” Jongdae yelped, grasping at his wrist. “Don’t do that.”

 

Despite his words, his heart rate was already picking up. Baekhyun shook his head at him, trailing his hands lower, over Jongdae’s abdomen. He nodded in appreciation, feeling Jongdae go stiffer and stiffer the lower his hands went underwater.

 

“That’s enough now,” Jongdae said firmly. He tugged Baekhyun’s hand up, spilling water onto his chest. Baekhyun leaned in and then they were kissing again, inhaling the perfumed steam rising off the water.

 

It was all very romantic, when Baekhyun could separate himself from Jongdae to listen to him describe the room.

 

Thunder boomed outside, rain still falling down in sheets. The servants had laid out candles and blown out the lamps and petals floated in the bath water, soft pink and red.

 

“Do you remember colours?” Jongdae asked quietly as he rubbed soap over Baekhyun’s shoulders. Baekhyun shrugged, tipping his head back onto Jongdae’s shoulder. He left streaks on his skin but Jongdae did not seem to care.

 

“I don’t know. I think I do. I remember white at least. And black. Because those are the only things I see.”

 

“Do you- dream?”

 

Jongdae kissed his ear and Baekhyun turned.

 

“Why all the questions?” he asked, voice tender. “I’ve made my peace, Dae.”

 

“ I just wanted to know. If you still see things in your dreams.”

 

“To be honest, I don’t remember my dreams. If I do dream, I forget them. It’s not worth it. This is me now.”

 

“Yes,” Jongdae whispered softly into his ear. “This is you. And I want all of you.”

 

Baekhyun rolled his eyes, twisting around in the prince’s grip to kiss him on the nose.

 

“Don’t get all sappy on me now,” he scolded, wrinkling his nose when Jongdae booped him gently. “You already know I love you.”

 

“I know,” Jongdae murmured, resuming his soaping, “I love you too.”

 

 

Chapter Text

The fact that Yifan and Junmyeon were sat in the room talking when he returned from his walk made warmth bloom in Yixing’s chest.

 

He hurried in, shutting the door gently behind him.

 

“Have I missed anything?” he asked. Junmyeon looked up, lips curving into a warm smile. He made a tiny gesture and Yixing moved over at once, settling on the arm of his chair.

 

“Not much,” his lover murmured into his ear, “we were just talking about how we should proceed.”

 

Yifan looked quite shaken, when Yixing took a good look at him. He was clutching at the fabric of his pants, his jaw tense.

 

“What did you do? I told you not to break him,” he chided. Junmyeon’s brow furrowed but Yifan cut him off before he could protest.

 

“I’m fine. I’m just shocked.”

 

“Um hm,” Junmyeon hummed, toying with Yixing’s fingers. “See.”

 

“It’s nothing like I’ve ever heard of before,” Yixing said quietly, “I didn’t even dream that I could have both of you.”

 

“He doesn’t know what he wants, love. Only that he wants you,” Junmyeon supplied, bringing Yixing’s hand up to his lips. He kissed his fingertips tenderly, lacing them together. “And how could he not?”

 

Yixing flushed, batting at him.

 

“Don’t distract me. I’m trying to be serious.”

 

“I- I’ve never been in anything serious,” Yifan admitted. He steadily would not look Yixing in the eye. “I’ve fooled around plenty on my travels but you-. You make me feel different. And the way you are with him. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve seen. I don’t want to mess it up.”

 

“Oh, love,” Junmyeon murmured, running his hand along Yixing’s biceps. “You won’t. We’ll do our best. It won’t be perfect because love doesn’t make anyone perfect. It just makes us want to be.”

 

“How do you know that? As far as I know he’s your first love,” Yifan snorted.

 

“It’s what Mother told me,” Junmyeon answered simply, squeezing Yixing’s arms, “when I talked to her about Yixing falling for another man.”

 

To say Yifan’s eyes bugged would be an understatement. In fact they looked as if they might fall out of his head.

 

“Your mother approves of- this?”

 

“She wants me to be happy. I want Yixing to be happy.” Junmyeon’s face was serene and Yixing could not help himself. He leaned down, pressing their lips together.

 

Junmyeon kissed him back, stroking a hand across his cheek. His smile was fond when they pulled apart. Yifan made a delirious noise.

 

“You’re perfect together already,” he said, his voice unsteady, “why would you want me in the mix? I’m not an experiment.”

 

“Of course you’re not,” Yixing exclaimed, “I wouldn’t have kissed you if you were. I truly do care for you, Yifan. But it is your choice. We would never force you into anything that you don’t want to.”

 

He glanced at Junmyeon, who nodded his head in understanding.

 

“You ought to have time to think on it,” Junmyeon said, “it is not a decision to make lightly. Come to us when you have an answer, Yifan. We’ll be waiting.”

 

Lacing their fingers together, Yixing leaned into Junmyeon’s side as they walked. Almost as if he had been waiting for them, Geoum jumped from behind a corner and scurried over to Yixing.

 

He pawed at his ankle and Yixing laughed, picking him up. It was comforting to have the weight in his arms as they walked down the hall, away from Yifan.

 

“Do you think he will accept?” he asked as Junmyeon petted Geoum’s head with a gentle hand.

 

“Perhaps. I cannot say. He is used to be wild and free. I don’t know if you are strong enough to tie him down.”

 

“I don’t want to tie him down,” Yixing answered, scratching behind Geoum’s ears. Geoum purred happily as he hefted him, dropping a kiss onto his head.

 

“I want him to love you too, Myeon. It can’t just be the two of you loving me.”

 

“Oh, you don’t have to worry about me, my heart. He is not a difficult man to love, despite all that attitude. He’s a big softie inside.”

 

“Is it? Is that why you’re not afraid to show him your scales?” Yixing raised an eyebrow, glancing pointedly at the shimmering scales on Junmyeon’s cheeks that had been growing as the days passed.

 

“I don’t think he will judge me for them, Xing. He’s like you. Open and kind, if you look hard enough. I won’t show him the real me though. It’s too soon for it. I might scare him away.”

 

“If he’s afraid of you then he doesn’t deserve you,” Yixing said at once. Junmyeon had grown so much more confident since he last saw him but the scales clearly still bothered him.

 

“You’re too sweet, dearest,” Junmyeon sighed. He reached out and touched the fingertips of Yixing’s gloved hand.

 

“How is your magic? Have you been practicing?”

 

“No- not really. I haven’t had the chance.” Yixing wilted under Junmyeon’s disapproving look. He buried his face into Geoum’s fur instead, the cat turning around to lick his nose with a sandy tongue.

 

“You need to be practicing. Especially if you’re going to be using it in battle.”

 

“I won’t. It’s too dangerous. There will be people all around me and I can’t risk it.”

 

“Yixing-.”

 

“No. This discussion is closed. I won’t use it again,” Yixing snapped, hugging Geoum tight enough for the cat to squirm, mewling in protest.

 

Junmyeon sighed, exasperated but did not press the matter.

 

Dinner was a quiet affair. Baekhyun kept nudging him throughout and Yixing did not have the heart to tell him that Yifan was still thinking on it. He slipped away alone after, fully intending to take a bath alone but when he got to his bed chambers, the bath was already drawn.

 

Junmyeon was standing in the middle of it, wearing only a bathrobe and nothing else.

 

“Oh!” Yixing yelped, backing away from the door. Junmyeon’s robes were almost completely sheer, a soft periwinkle blue that made his scales stand out. And Yixing could see the scales on his hips, trailing up his abdomen in patches.

 

He looked away at once, blushing furiously.

 

“I’m sorry. But you have the bigger bathtub.”

 

That was a blatant, blatant lie and Junmyeon knew that.

 

“How did you get here before me?” Yixing asked, still with his head turned away. He had never seen Junmyeon naked before and the robe he was wearing was much more sheer than anything he had ever seen him wear.

 

Junmyeon shrugged.

 

“I walked, I guess. The maids drew the water for me,” he murmured.

 

“I’ll- wait outside. Or use your tub,” Yixing stuttered. He jumped about a foot in the air when a hand wrapped around his elbow.

 

“Come here,” Junmyeon said. Hot air brushed against the shell of his ear and Yixing shivered, turning his head. Junmyeon smelled like salt and the sea. He rested his hand delicately onto Junmyeon’s arm, sucking in a sharp breath.

 

“Come.” Junmyeon said again, tugging him closer. Yixing resolutely looked away as he was drawn nearer to the tub.

 

“May I?” Junmyeon’s fingers hovered at the hem of Yixing’s shirt. Yixing swallowed, raising his head to look Junmyeon in the eye. The dim light of the lamps flickering danced off the scales on his cheeks.

 

“Yes,” he managed.

 

“You weren’t so shy when I taught you to swim,” Junmyeon remarked as he peeled Yixing’s shirt from his body. He had the tiniest smirk on his face.

 

“That was different,” Yixing retorted. “You weren’t going to see me nude.”

 

“I would not mind. You know that.” Junmyeon trailed a hand down the front of Yixing’s abdomen and he flushed, nudging him away.

 

“Behave,” he breathed, yelping when Junmyeon tugged him flush against his chest, leaning their foreheads together. “You’re such a rebel, Kim Junmyeon.”

 

The quirk of Junmyeon’s lips made his knees weaken. He grasped his hips, nosing at his throat. The scent of the water wrapped around them, minty and fresh, a scent that Yixing had not smelled for a while.

 

It was so Junmyeon.

 

“Come on. I’ll wash you if you don’t want me in the tub,” Junmyeon said with a sly look in his eyes. Yixing pinched him, turning him around before shucking off his pants and climbing into the tub.

 

The water rose up to meet him, wrapping around him gently like a cloak and he was once again amazed by the amount of control Junmyeon had over his magic. He turned around, marveling at the scales spreading over Junmyeon’s skin.

 

Junmyeon’s fingers were gentle when he buried them into Yixing’s hair, dripping bubbles onto his head. He massaged his scalp, Yixing leaning into his touch.

 

“Are you upset with me?” Yixing was falling asleep when Junmyeon spoke, startling him. Water was rinsing out the suds in his hair while Junmyeon sponged soap over his back.

 

“Why would I be?” Yixing asked, his eyes fluttering open.

 

“I pushed you on your magic. And I still think it’s better if you practice,” Junmyeon answered, squeezing his sponge. Water trickled down Yixing’s back, mingling into the tub as he turned.

 

“I’m not. But I do wish you’d stop bringing it up,” Yixing said, “I can’t control it. I don’t want to. It feels so wrong.”

 

Junmyeon’s lips parted as if he wanted to protest but a knock on the door interrupted him. With a flick of his hand, the water settled back into the tub.

 

“Who’s there?” Yixing called, reclining under the bubbles.

 

“It’s me.” Yifan’s voice came from the other side. He sounded stiff and nervous. Yixing exchanged glances with Junmyeon before sweeping the bubbles over himself.

 

“Come in then.”

 

Junmyeon’s scales had just barely faded when the door opened and Yifan peeked in. His cheeks flushed when he took in Junmyeon hiding behind the tub, the light shining through the sheerness of his robes.

 

“I presume you’ve come to tell us something important?” Junmyeon asked. His hand dangled in the tub and Yixing could not resist picking it up. He toyed with it, fluffing at the bubbles around him as Yifan shuffled into the room, closing the door behind him.

 

“Yes.” Yixing had to hide a smile at the way Yifan could not take his eyes off Junmyeon’s face. Perhaps Junmyeon had noticed it as well, as he waved his free hand, water rising up to splash at Yixing’s face.

 

As he did so, his scales resurfaced.

 

Yixing’s grip on Junmyeon’s hand tightened when he heard Yifan inhale sharply, his eyes fixed upon the scales growing larger and larger in number on Junmyeon’s face.

 

“I want-.” Yifan’s hand reached out, before he yanked it back, chewing at his lip.

 

“You want to touch?” Junmyeon asked, his smile turning coy. He took a step forward, trailing in his hand in the water. Yifan was still staring, transfixed when Junmyeon reached him, raising a hand to cup his cheek.

 

“I- yes,” Yifan stuttered, stuffing his hand into his pockets. He blinked and ducked his head. “That’s not what I came here to say.”

 

“That’s alright,” Junmyeon murmured, “you can join us if you want. I was about to get into the water.”

 

“You were?” Yixing raised his eyebrows and Junmyeon smirked. He lifted the edges of his robes as if he would drop them right there and Yifan backed away at once, eyes widening.

 

“I’ll- watch. But I just wanted to say yes,” he said shyly.

 

“Excellent,” Junmyeon smiled. “Then you won’t mind if I-?”

 

He cupped Yifan’s cheeks, closing the distance between their lips. Yixing watched, wide eyed when Yifan’s hands flew out of his pockets, held mid air as if he did not know what to with them before he set them so delicately onto Junmyeon’s hips.

 

“Help me bathe and we can take this to the bedroom for a more,” Junmyeon paused, “thorough discussion.”

 

He winked and Yixing rolled his eyes, reclining back against the walls of the tub. He kept his head turned away as Junmyeon dropped his robes, climbing into the tub with him.

 

“You’re going to break him,” Yixing reprimanded once Junmyeon was close enough for him to drape his arms around. He pressed a kiss against his cheek, watching fondly as Yifan picked up the sponge, lathering it up.

 

“Excuse you,” Yifan said, shooting him a mock angry glare. “I’m not a delicate flower.”

 

-

The bath made Yixing warm and sleepy, so he was completely unsuspecting when Junmyeon grasped him by the collar and yanked him into a deep kiss. He yelped, flailing slightly until he was put down before burying his face into Junmyeon’s chest at Yifan’s rumbling laughter.

 

“You’re so mean,” he whined, cuddling into his warmth. Rain was falling softly outside and his limbs were becoming soft and cottony. Yixing curled up under the sheets, nosing at the base of Junmyeon’s throat as fingers threaded through his hair.

 

“Don’t fall asleep now, dearest. We need to talk.”

 

“We’ve done nothing but talk,” Yixing grumbled. But he rolled over obediently, stealing Junmyeon’s hand to play with. It was incredibly endearing to watch Yifan stand at the foot of the bed, awkwardly shifting from foot to foot before climbing on.

 

He moved until his head was pillowed in Junmyeon’s lap, tucking the hand he had stolen into his hair until Junmyeon began to stroke him on his own accord.

 

“Have you gone any further than kissing?” Even the implication was enough to make the both of them flush red and it certainly was not the question Yixing expected.

 

“No- certainly not!” Yixing spluttered. He could not look Junmyeon in the eye when Yifan leaned over him, tipping his chin up.

 

“Why not?”

 

“We-.”

 

“Inexperienced, I take it?” Yifan smirked and Yixing just had to bury his fingers into his collar. He yanked him down hard, pressing their lips together just to wipe the smile off his face.

 

A large hand wrapped around his waist, pulling him closer. His breath hitched when they pulled apart, Yifan looking down at him through his lashes.

 

“You’re a very good kisser for someone who’s only ever kissed one man,” Yifan murmured, his voice an octave lower than usual. It went straight into Yixing’s core, stirring him in places that made him blush.

 

“And you’re a very rude man,” Yixing muttered, shifting away to try and get some air. But Junmyeon was moving behind him, draping himself around him, cradling him in warmth. “Inexperience and Junmyeon’s very overprotective watchdog who- ah! Should be here stopping him right about no-!”

 

Lips pressed against the crook of his neck and Yixing was ashamed when a strangled sound fell from his mouth. He squeezed his fingers into fists, shuddering as Junmyeon mouthed along his throat. His shirt was gently tugged away to reveal more skin.

 

“He hasn’t done much more than kissing,” Junmyeon murmured lowly, dropping one last kiss onto Yixing’s shoulder. “But I have. I fear I may have deceived you, Yixing. I do have much more experience with- sex, I suppose, than I have let on.”

 

Yixing squirmed in his arms, breathing heavily when the look in Yifan’s eyes darkened.

 

“It was before you, of course. With another man. Yifan reminds me a little of him.”

 

Junmyeon continued, stroking his fingers along Yixing’s arms. His breath was hot against Yixing’s skin and he was holding him firmly enough that he might leave bruises. Yixing turned his head and Junmyeon kissed him hard, nipping at his lower lip until he groaned, fisting at the sheets.

 

“Was it Chanyeol? Did you- oh!”

 

“Yes, it was Chanyeol. He- taught me a great many things, outside of fighting.”

 

Yixing shuddered at that, the heat of Junmyeon’s mouth tracing down the side of his neck making him shiver.

 

“Where is he? I didn’t think he’d let you out of his sight knowing I was here,” he asked.

 

“I may or may not have bribed Sehun to keep him busy,” Junmyeon admitted with a  smile.

 

“I want to know what experience you have,” Yifan broke in, catching up Junmyeon’s chin to kiss him firmly.

 

“Well, I know I largely prefer men over women,” Junmyeon sighed into the kiss, his fingers tightening around Yixing’s arms.

 

“Have you lain with women before? Is that why you say that?” Yifan asked when Junmyeon returned to mouthing at Yixing’s shoulder. He was much closer now, one hand on Yixing’s thigh, tracing circles.

 

Junmyeon paused in the middle of making a mark on Yixing’s skin, cocking his head.

 

“I’ve never but I would, if I didn’t have the both of you.”

 

“Well. They’re much softer than men, I’ll tell you that much,” Yifan said gruffly, “much more breakable.”

 

His hand slid up Yixing’s thigh and he leaned down. Junmyeon met him halfway, connecting their lips with a sigh. Yixing whimpered at the sight, writhing in Junmyeon’s arms. He could break free anytime he wanted to but he was held captive by the sight of Yifan kissing Junmyeon senseless.

 

“I thought we were supposed to be talking,” he managed when they finally broke apart, Yifan’s eyes shining like stars as he stared down at Junmyeon as if he was the most beautiful man alive.

 

“We are. In a way,” Junmyeon replied, kissing the top of his head. “We won’t have time once the fighting begins. It’s better to enjoy this now.”

 

Yixing hummed, cuddling up to him. He grabbed hold of Yifan’s arm and tugged, until the other man was sprawled across him and Junmyeon like a large blanket.

 

“Stay the night,” he murmured, eyes already half closing. Yifan’s amber eyes burned into him, his lips pressing against his temple before he was nodding, pulling them both close.

 

Time was not on their side. They stole precious few moments together, in the midst of all the planning and preparations for the fight they had ahead of them. Kyungsoo was a tough nut to crack and Jongdae had taken Baekhyun to meet him, hoping that the sight of Baekhyun would be enough to convince him.

 

Luhan was arriving soon and Yixing was put in charge of taking care of him and his needs. The man was much less intimidating when he did not have the Ice King hovering at his side. He was sweet and friendly but also incredibly pushy. Yixing found that out the hard way.

 

“You do not hone your other magic.” The statement made Yixing choke on his soup. There were only four of them at the table. Sehun was feeling poorly and had been sent away to bed. The others looked at him, Junmyeon even reaching over to hold his hand.

 

“It- doesn’t feel like my magic,” Yixing confessed, “my kingdom’s magic is of the light. Healing. The destruction belongs to shadow.”

 

“But it could be helpful.” Luhan’s gaze bored into his face and Yixing had to look away.

 

“No. I’ve had enough. It’s not mine to control. I’ve tried and failed. If I can keep it contained, I will.”

 

“Shadow is drawn to shadow, Yixing. If you can’t control it, someone else will.”

 

With that, Luhan’s gaze slid away and Yixing was left oddly shaken. He tried to ignore it, choosing instead to focus on the fact that Chanyeol had yet to kill him and Yifan both for possibly defiling his prince.

 

But then he had no right to, now that Yixing knew the truth. Not that Chanyeol did not give Junmyeon a stern talking to that he overheard while on his way to Junmyeon’s chambers.

 

“They’ve been most gentlemanly, Yeol. You have nothing to fear. You already know Yixing.” Junmyeon said, loudly enough that Yixing withdrew his foot back from crossing the threshold, ducking behind the wall.

 

He could see both of them from his position, Junmyeon grasping at Chanyeol’s hands, his expression pleading.

 

“I don’t like this Yifan. I don’t trust him,” Chanyeol said gruffly, “you’ve been hurt before, Junmyeon. I won’t let it happen again.”

 

“I know. He won’t hurt me. His heart is true, I promise.”

 

“It’s not your promise I want.”

 

“Chanyeol, please. We have more important things to worry about right now. You can fight for my honour when we’ve returned. Just let me enjoy this time. I like them both a lot and I’m happy. Is that not enough?”

 

“You know I only want to protect you, my friend.”

 

“And you have. I’m not fifteen anymore, Yeol. I’ll be careful.”

 

“Why are you hiding?” The hot breath against his ear made Yixing jump. A big hand clasped over his mouth before he could scream and he was dragged out into the hallway, Yifan’s eyes twinkling with amusement.

 

“How much did you hear?” he hissed at him the moment Yifan removed his hand.

 

“Enough to know that I will be challenged for Junmyeon’s honour as soon as we return from this fight. And I’m ready to prove myself to keep him.”

 

Yixing smiled, sticking his hand into his pocket.

 

“I’m glad you’re here. I was going to look for you after I had seen Junmyeon.”

 

He pulled out a box not so different from the one he had given to Junmyeon almost two years ago now. Yifan inhaled sharply, eyes going wide.

 

“It’s a courting gift. A Chilyo tradition,” Yixing explained, holding it out. Yifan cracked open the box and he could see his hands shaking as he pulled out the bracelet. A wave of nervousness pooled in his belly when Yifan was silent for a moment.

 

“You don’t have to wear it,” he said hurriedly, “I know it’s not what you’re used to but I wanted it to match Junmyeon’s somewhat-.”

 

“No. I’ll- I’ll wear it. It’s lovely, Yixing,” Yifan cut him off, thumbing over the yellow gem with such care that it made Yixing’s heart warm. “Will you put it on for me?”

 

“I would love to.”

 

His tongue stuck out of his mouth as he clasped the gold chain onto Yifan’s wrist, stroking over it with a smile.

 

Footsteps echoed in the air and Chanyeol came striding out of the room with a tightness in his jaw that Yixing had never seen before. He paused when he noticed the both of them standing by the door, eyes cutting from Yixing to Yifan sharply.

 

“Your Highness,” he nodded at Yixing, bending into a crisp bow. “Good morning.”

 

“Good morning,” Yixing smiled, “I’ve barely seen you at all since you got here.”

 

Chanyeol snorted at that, rolling his eyes in the direction of the room, where Junmyeon was watching him.

 

“Thank that one over there. He’s been keeping me busy. I wonder why?”

 

Yixing’s cheeks flushed and he had to fight to keep his head high. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Junmyeon’s lips pull into a faint smile, his head shaking the tiniest bit.

 

“I- wouldn’t know,” he managed weakly. Chanyeol’s lips twitched before he glanced at Yifan, pulling down into a scowl at once.

 

“You should be getting ready. I’ve received word that Prince Jongdae and Baekhyun are on their way.”

 

By the time Jongdae and Baekhyun returned with Kyungsoo in tow, they were all ready. Yixing mourned the fact that he did not have more time to spend with Yifan and Junmyeon as they packed.

 

Swords, shields and Yixing’s bow. They would not do much good against shadows or the undead that Prince Kai raised but it was better than nothing.

 

To say Yixing was afraid would be an understatement. He was not looking forward to confronting the man who had invaded his dreams and kidnapped him. But he had Yifan and Junmyeon now. He had much bigger things to lose.

 

“He knows we are coming. Protect the ones needed to raise the tree and give him hell,” Jongdae said. He looked incredibly regal on horseback, in full armor that reflected the weak sunlight.

 

Storm clouds were gathering in the distance, no doubt his doing and Baekhyun would be riding at his side. Yixing’s heart settled a little at the sight. If anything, he could feel secure in the fact that Jongdae would never let anyone do Baekhyun harm.

 

“Stay close,” Junmyeon murmured as they entered the forest. Shadows were creeping into the corners of Yixing’s eyes everywhere he looked, shivers running down his spine. He grasped the reins of his borrowed horse, suddenly wishing that they were not squeezed so close together.

 

“You alright? You look pale,” Yifan whispered into his ear, reaching over to grasp his wrist. Yixing nodded, gently shaking him off. The back of his neck prickled and he snapped his head around, a familiar trickle of fear pooling in his belly.

 

“He’s here. He’s watching us.”

 

“Where?” Junmyeon tensed, reaching for his sword.

 

“Everywhere. He’s everywhere.” Yixing shivered, pressing closer to Yifan.

 

“It’s strange that he has not attacked,” Jongdae commented from up ahead where he was riding with Baekhyun and Kyungsoo. “You’d think he would do anything in his power to stop us.”

 

“He might not,” Luhan answered, eyes cutting across the clearing. He had one hand on his saddlebag, his jaw tense. “We don’t know what he wants.”

 

“Well, we know what we want. So let’s hurry,” Yifan cut in brusquely. He was looking at Yixing, his brow furrowed in concern. Yixing smiled weakly back at him, urging his horse forward when Jongdae and Baekhyun pulled ahead.

 

A shadow moved at the corner of his eye and Yixing snatched up his bow, firing an arrow just as the creature leapt, foaming at the mouth. His arrow pierced straight through the dead eye, into the creature’s skull before anyone else could move.

 

“How did you?” Jongdae was staring at him, open mouthed. Yixing shrugged, his shoulders never quite relaxing. He gripped his bow in one hand, adjusting his quiver.

 

The forest was eerily quiet as they followed Baekhyun deeper into it. The trees grew denser around them, the foliage thickening until sunlight barely filtered through. Only the sound of the horses’ hooves crunching on dead leaves could be heard.

 

Until a hawk screeched.

 

Yixing turned in the saddle, ducking when sharp claw swooped down towards him. He lashed out, his bow barely grazing limp feathers before the dying hawk exploded into flames. The smell was acrid, stinging his nostrils as he turned to look at Yifan in disbelief.

 

Yifan stared back, a slight pucker to his lips as he surveyed his own hand, still burning with orange and reds. The skin was blistering as he snuffed out the fire, a wrinkle forming in his brow. As if he had sensed Yixing watching, he flashed him a wry smile, settling his hand back onto the pommel.

 

“Is this a game?” Jongdae demanded, eyes cutting to Luhan who was watching the proceedings with a grim look on his face. “What’s he playing at?”

 

“Dae,” Baekhyun chided. He stiffened before he could say anything else. Yixing’s heart skipped a beat when he shuddered and a stream of light spilled out of his hands.

 

“Baekhyun?”

 

“I see it.” Baekhyun’s tone was dreamy, almost as if he was in a trance. “It’s here.”

 

Without another word, he gathered up his reins, kicking Baixian into a trot, leaving the rest with no choice but to follow.

 

Yixing managed to shoot down two more birds and a wolf-bear monstrosity before Baekhyun pulled Baixian to an unsteady stop in the middle of a clearing. He dismounted before anyone could stop him, hands spread.

 

“How did he find it so quickly? Jongdae said he was searching for months before this,” Yifan murmured lowly.

 

“Because you’re all here with him. He can channel all of your magic into the tree and it calls to him,” Luhan answered. He dismounted as well, pulling the book from his saddle bag. They all tensed when he drew his sword, only relaxing when he sketched a large circle around Baekhyun.

 

“The four of you, find a place on the circle. Fire, water, earth, air.”

 

Wind whistled into the clearing and they all turned to look at Sehun whose eyes were unfocused and glassy.

 

“Danger,” he whispered, “shadows.”

 

The ground erupted just a horde of bear-wolf creatures poured into the clearing. Trees shook, tearing from their roots as a wall of earth erected itself around them. Kyungsoo’s face was a mask of pain as he dropped like a stone, clutching at his wrist.

 

“Fucking hurry,” he gasped as Yixing rushed to his side. A coil of revulsion swirled in Yixing’s gut when he reached out to take his hand, the others unfreezing to move quickly to their positions. Kyungsoo’s wrist bone was shattered, nothing more than a mangled mass of flesh and bone.

 

He guided Kyungsoo into position, guilt a ball in his throat as he forced his magic into Kyungsoo. The pain in his wrist was excruciating, his blood a roar in his ears. He was trembling by the time the healing was complete, tears and sweat mingling down his face.

 

“You will all need to channel your magic into Baekhyun. Doing so will activate every curse that has been placed upon you. It will be painful,” Luhan warned, standing just outside the circle. He toed the line he had drawn, jaw set. “Only when Baekhyun has taken hold of all four magic can you relent. The tree will not come otherwise. Jongdae, Yixing and Chanyeol, you will stand guard and feed Baekhyun energy if he needs it to sustain himself.”

 

He glanced at all of them and Yixing could almost feel his heart shrivel up in his chest when his glare pierced him.

 

“Protect them at all costs. If they fall, we will have failed. And any point, do not break the circle.

 

Wolves howled in the distance as Yifan gritted his teeth. He raised his hand, a blaze of fire scorching the ground between him and Baekhyun. Baekhyun’s body glowed the moment the fire touched him, his eyes sliding close.

 

Orange flames licked up his boots, infusing into his hands. As he gathered the magic, Yixing could see the skin on Yifan’s arm turning an angry red. He bit down hard on his lip, trying to remain focused as he watched the skin blister, turning dark as the fire burned through him.

 

Junmyeon seemed to be having a hard time too, his eyes pinned onto Yifan. His jaw was twitching, as if he could feel his pain as he unleashed his own magic. Waves of water roiled through orange flames, engulfing Baekhyun in a blue glow.

 

Yixing stared, transfixed as Junmyeon closed his eyes, the full force of his blue green scales shimmering to the surface. His skin tinged blue, before being completely overtaken. Every inch of his bare skin was covered in it.

 

When he opened his eyes, he met Yixing’s gaze steadily. Yixing let his lips twitch upwards in a smile, jerking his head ever so slightly towards Yifan, who was staring as well, wide eyed. Yifan’s arm was a mess of blackened skin, fire creeping up his forearm. His face was flushed red, dripping with sweat and there was a haze over his eyes. Chanyeol moved over to him, murmuring under his breath.

 

To his shock, Yixing watched him touch a hand to Yifan’s shoulder, flames licking over his hand. The haze over Yifan’s eyes dimmed somewhat and he staggered, turning questioning eyes onto the man.

 

Relief swept through Yixing but it was short lived, as Chanyeol’s skin began to blister as well.

 

He clenched his fingers, tearing his eyes away as the ground rumbled. Kyungsoo was screaming as the ground cracked, crumbling and shuddering. Baekhyun stumbled, his eyes flying open and Yixing could see in the split second that his pupils were a mass of swirling colours. He broke into cold sweat, running over to the earth wielder.

 

Kyungsoo was on the ground, his magic practically tearing him apart from the inside. Yixing clenched his teeth so hard he swore he heard them crack as he placed his hands onto Kyungsoo’s shoulders. His magic pooled into the man’s broken body, desperately trying to suck away as much pain as he could.

 

Sehun was quiet, Jongdae murmuring softly into his ear before he unleashed his winds. A tornado lashed through the trees, lashing through everyone’s hair. Lightning flashed down from the skies, striking the ground just beside Jongdae and the winds grew stronger.

 

Baekhyun was glowing in the midst of the chaos, his hair tossed about by the winds. He was lit all the way through by all four elements, beautiful and wild.

 

As Yixing watched through tears streaking down his face from the pain, he extended his hands, golden light emanating through them. The moment the magic left his fingertips, all four men collapsed with relief.

 

The fire extinguished, Junmyeon’s water leaving the earth a damp mess of soil and mud. There were leaves and broken branches scattered all over the crumbled ground.

 

“Thank you,” Kyungsoo murmured when Yixing tried to get up but stumbled over his feet. He shook his head, smiling weakly. He did not have strength enough to speak quite yet. As they watched, Baekhyun’s hands glowed brighter and brighter until the shape of a tree began to take form. It was faint, almost indecipherable at first but as Yixing crossed over to Yifan’s side, it grew ever clearer.

 

Yixing rested his fingers against Yifan’s destroyed arm, cringing when the pain flooded into his nerves.

 

“I’m fine, you don’t have to-.”

 

“Shh. Let me,” Yixing soothed, trying not to let it show how much it hurt him as Yifan’s skin began to smooth over. He was breathing hard when he was done, trembling so much that he almost missed the shadows spurting through the wall of earth.

 

“Look out!” He drew his bow, sending an arrow flying straight through the chest of the owl swooping down towards Junmyeon.

 

Junmyeon ducked, wide eyed.

 

“Do not leave the circle!” Luhan snapped when Yifan moved towards him, feet still on the line that was glowing together with the tree.

 

Yixing fired another arrow that stuck into the chest of a snarling wolf and reached for his sword the same moment a crack appeared the wall. He dove aside when the entire wall exploded, raining dirt down onto his friends.

 

“Stay on the circle. Don’t let him break it!” Luhan called when Junmyeon shifted, as if to help Yixing. Yixing looked back to see that Yifan had taken Junmyeon’s hand and pulled him towards himself, their feet toeing the line.

 

Relief swept through him before it was replaced by pure adrenaline. He ducked, slicing through another bird that he could not name. Lightning crackled through the skies in warning and Chanyeol started towards him, clutching at his burned arm.

 

If they had been afraid that Kai was attempting to break the circle, they need not have bothered. The shadows lashed out, encircling Yixing’s wrist. He yelled and swung when more joined them, twisting and winding around his chest and down his body.

 

“Get away from me!” Yixing shrieked when his glove was torn off. He twisted, squirming against the tendrils that held him. They were squeezing too tight and there was so much of them, writhing like snakes all tangled up in each other.

 

He could not breathe, terror seizing like a ball in his chest.

 

A shadow curled around his left hand and Yixing bit down hard on his lip, sending a wave of magic blasting through his fingertips. But the shadows only writhed harder, encircling him as if they wanted to burrow under his skin.

 

He screamed again, flinging out his hand when he saw Junmyeon swing around, sword in hand. Yifan was by his side, golden eyes wide as he watched him struggle.

 

“No- no, don’t!” Yixing gasped when Junmyeon made to take a step forward to break the circle.

 

Baekhyun’s magic faltered too, as if he had sensed the disturbance. He turned towards him, the white glow emitting from his hands washing over Yixing. Chanyeol was half frozen in shock, his sword in his non injured hand.

 

Yixing arched his back, a screech of pain tearing through his throat when he felt something sharp scratch across his back, slashing open skin.

 

“Yixing!” Junmyeon was trembling in his spot with only Yifan’s hands on his shoulders to keep him from leaving. Chanyeol snapped out of his daze, fire blooming on his fingertips but he did not know where to strike. He could not, for the shadows had Yixing so trapped in their grasp that he would burn him no matter where he tried.

 

The shadows were indeed crowding over the gash, wriggling like worms as blood dripped down Yixing’s back.

 

“Keep- goi- ah!” His knee collapsed as something slid into him. His arms were spread, held apart by the shadows currently burrowing into his skin. Black veins were crawling up his throat, infusing into his blood.

 

Jongdae raised his hand but Junmyeon cried out before he could summon his lightning.

 

“No! You’ll kill him!”

 

Yixing’s hand shook. He could feel his magic warring inside him, the light and the dark fighting for place. Fear balled up inside his throat. The dark was winning.

 

This was why Prince Kai wanted him. He wanted the death that Yixing could wield. It was just like Luhan said. He could control what Yixing could not.

 

Yixing shuddered, a strangled sound emitting from his lips.

 

All at once, the shadows vanished into his body. His vision went dark as pain overwhelmed his body, white hot and freezing cold all at once.  It was pain like he had never felt before. Not even healing Baekhyun from his own destructive power has felt like this.

 

Yixing crumpled to his knees, his sword falling from his hand. His ears were ringing as his vision cleared just enough for him to see Junmyeon’s terrified face. Yifan was staring back at him, full on restraining Junmyeon from running now.

 

Sweat dripped down Yixing’s forehead as he coughed, blood trickling out of the side of his mouth. His magic was rebelling, dark smoke fluttering from his fingertips as he grasped at his chest.

 

“Yield. You have already lost.” Kai’s voice echoed in his ears. Yixing watched in horror as his hand moved on its own accord, burying into the soil. Darkness spread from his fingertips, the grass withering and dying at once. The black veins spread across the soil, reaching for the roots of the tree.

 

“No-,” he choked. His eyes flicked to his fallen sword and in his mind, he already knew what he had to do. And it looked like Junmyeon figured it out too as his eyes widened and he lunged, a scream tearing from his throat when Yifan yanked him back.

 

Yixing was grateful that he was holding onto Junmyeon, that despite the realization dawning upon him, he understood. Yifan’s bottom lip was caught between his teeth when he met Yixing’s gaze, unshed tears shimmering in his eyes. He inclined his head the tiniest bit and Yixing’s breath seized in his lungs.

 

“I’m sorry,” he mouthed, lunging for his sword. Junmyeon’s wail rang in his ears, crushing his heart as he slashed the blade across his own throat.

 

He saw the world clearly for one beat, two beats before the metallic taste of blood filled his mouth. Yixing collapsed onto the ground, the pain barely registering as the world went into slow motion, Junmyeon screaming as he fought against Yifan’s grasp.

 

The shadows in him fluttered, the blackness in the soil dimming as his vision began to blur. With his last remain breath, he dug his right hand into the soil, forcing the magic from his veins to burrow down, white streaks bleeding across the black too fast for the shadows to stop.

 

He saw the tree glow, heard Baekhyun’s strained grunt as he struggled to contain the magic. Prince Kai must have screamed in fury as well as new leaves unfurled from the bare branches. A smile curved onto Yixing’s lips even as his strength left his body. His magic would die with him.

 

He had done it.

 

 

Chapter Text

Something was wrong.

 

The tree was healing. It was healing much faster than Baekhyun was capable of processing but it was not his magic. His magic could not heal. Someone screamed but he could barely make out the word past the roaring in his ear.

 

Something snapped inside him and dread rose in his throat. Baekhyun scrabbled at the tangled mass of signatures inside him, desperately searching for Yixing. He was always there, had always been there from the moment he had his magic, however full.

 

But there was nothing.

 

“Yixing?” Baekhyun called, terror freezing in his chest. The tree was sustaining itself now and he no longer had to concentrate. He spread out his hands, clawing through the signatures. “Yixing!”

 

Slowly, the roaring subsided and he could hear clearly again. Junmyeon was sobbing, almost hysterical in his grief. A cold hand gripped Baekhyun’s heart as he took a step.

 

“Yixing.” It came out as a sob. The truth slammed into him and his knees buckled. Arms wrapped around him, catching him before he could fall and he turned away, burying his face into Jongdae’s chest.

 

“He’s- dead, isn’t he?” he whispered. Jongdae was silent and it was answer enough.

 

Baekhyun screamed, a hole wrenching open in his chest even as the tree exploded in light that he could not see. He wept as the tree shook itself, its trunk splitting open. The entire world seemed to freeze into a split second, golden streaks dusting the air around them as a hooded figure stepped out of the trunk.

 

“You have done well,” the guardian’s voice only made Baekhyun weep harder. He clung to Jongdae, sliding to his knees, half in shock. The guardian sounded like Yixing.

 

“The tree is restored. The poison has been purged. And the world is now free of shadow’s control.”

 

A hand rested against Baekhyun’s shoulder and he jerked back when a face filled his vision. A face. Jongdae’s face. He gasped against the tears, trembling all over, cupping Jongdae’s cheek.

 

“Jong- dae?”

 

“It’s me. Can you-?” Jongdae’s eyes widened and Baekhyun lost all power of speech. His hands shook as he traced over the edges of Jongdae’s mask, a sob ripping out of his throat.

 

“This- this isn’t happening,” he gasped, “I can’t really-.”

 

“No. This is your friend’s magic. It can only do so much. The tree can only give you so much.”

 

Baekhyun sucked in a sharp breath, staring deeply into Jongdae’s eyes, desperately to commit every detail to memory. There was no time to grieve or mourn. The shock had barely settled when a howl ripped through the clearing. Shadow funneled down beside the tree, congealing into the shape of a man. Baekhyun’s vision flared and he flung a hand up, crying out when everything went white.

 

“Defend us,” the guardian said, brandishing his staff. “Don’t let your friend have died in vain.”

 

He vanished just as the first streak of shadow came blasting towards Baekhyun. Baekhyun flung up a hand, crying out in shock when he reached inside him to find that his magic no longer responded to him.

 

“Get behind me!” Jongdae shouted, pushing Baekhyun. There was a blur of movement and Baekhyun found himself tucked amongst the roots of the tree. He touched the dragon’s tongue on his cane, mourning the fact that he could no longer feel the tingle of magic in his fingers when the cane transformed.

 

Magic or not, his senses were still sharp from years of honing and against Jongdae’s protests, Baekhyun stepped out into the fight. He cut down monster after monster, pain bleeding in his heart. When the powers had been bestowed upon him, he had never thought them as much of a gift, but now that they had been taken away, so had the only reminder he had of Yixing.

 

Yixing.

 

Baekhyun screamed as he fought. His loss was a hole in his chest, carved out of his heart. He took it out on the creatures that were foolish enough to think a blind man was an easy target. Black blood splashed onto his hands, reeking of death and rot. Baekhyun danced, his sword a deadly arc amongst the flashes of fire, water and air.

 

The ground rumbled as Kyungsoo collapsed an entire section of the earth, green vines shooting through the soil to twine around the shadow man. But Prince Kai was slippery. He vanished and reappeared in different places, one time so close that Baekhyun caught the edge of his shoulder with his sword.

 

That earned him a black bolt to the chest, one that would have killed him had Jongdae not stepped in, blasting the bolt to shreds.

 

“Baek- please.”

 

“Do not ask me to stand down,” he snarled, his sword disemboweling another wolf that had gotten close.

 

“I just want to keep you safe!”

 

“Not like this,” Baekhyun snapped, whirling around. Blood spurted onto his chest, across his face. Thunder rumbled and lightning cleaved the sky into two, barely missing Junmyeon. Shadows disintegrated into dust.

 

“He wouldn’t want you to-.”

 

“Don’t you dare!” Baekhyun screamed when a bear raked poisoned claws across his side, Jongdae’s lightning turning it to ash barely a second later.

 

“Sehun, Sehun, help me!” Jongdae called and Baekhyun shrieked in fury, breaking down into sobs when he was wrapped up in a whirlwind, swept up against a skinny body. He struggled, but Sehun was much stronger than he remembered, keeping his arms pinned at his sides.

 

“It’ll be okay, hyung,” he soothed. The madness was gone and his control was absolute. Sehun floated them down at the edge of the clearing, handing him off to Luhan. Baekhyun was boneless, collapsing into the other man as Sehun flew off to help the others.

 

Heat flared up in their faces as Yifan and Chanyeol combined their powers, forcing the prince into a circle of flame. Snakes of vine burst through the ground, sending earth flying everywhere. It seized hold of his arms, pinning them behind him. Before he could try to break free, a bubble of water descended upon him, trapping him thoroughly.

 

Baekhyun whimpered in pain when Luhan set him gently on the ground. He did not know what he did, only that he could subdue the wild prince. The roar of battle died around him and it was suddenly too quiet.

 

“Baekhyun.” Jongdae was beside him, touching his shoulder. Baekhyun flinched away, turning his face away.

 

“Is he really dead?” he asked.

“No, we have him contained.”

 

“Not him,” Baekhyun choked, grasping at Jongdae’s shirt when his lover gathered him into his arms. He could not speak even as the trunk of the tree split open once more, the guardian stepping forth to examine the unconscious prince of shadow.

 

“Prince Kai. Do you admit that you have been complicit in the actions of your elders?” the guardian still sounded like Yixing and Baekhyun knew he was not the only one who thought so when he heard Junmyeon choke down a sob and heard Yifan scoff wetly.

 

“Do you still need more proof? How much more do you want to prove that its him?” Yifan snarled before he was quickly shushed by Junmyeon.

 

The guardian did not speak again but Baekhyun heard Kai shriek, the water bubble around him falling flat with a splash. The flames around him died and he could hear him thrashing, screaming as the tree guardian presumably killed him. Baekhyun found that he could not summon the energy to care if he lived or died.

 

He was hollow inside, his grief seizing hold of him even as Jongdae held him in his arms.

 

“Jongin.” Luhan’s tone was one of disbelief, once the screaming died. Kyungsoo took a sharp intake of breath as well. There were murmurs and fretting all around but it all turned to noise around Baekhyun.

 

He pushed himself into a standing position, Jongdae holding him up.

 

“Baek-.”

 

“Can you bring him back?” he croaked. All conversation died around him. The guardian was staring directly at him, the heat of his gaze unmistakable.

 

“I can grant you one wish. It is the tree’s will. One wish for all that you all have done for the world.”

 

Baekhyun sucked in a sharp breath.

 

“Bring him back,” he said. “Please.”

 

“Life and death retains a difficult balance. In order to bring one back, another must be taken,” the guardian said tonelessly.

 

“You have already taken Prince Kai. Now bring him back,” Junmyeon cut in before Baekhyun could speak. It was a good thing he did, or Baekhyun would have offered to be taken himself. He nodded, his sword turning back into a cane in his hand.

 

There were murmurs of agreement, even from the newly restored Prince Jongin. The guardian inclined his head, gripping his staff.

 

“If everyone is in agreement. Prince Yixing will wake when he is returned to his home.”

 

Baekhyun could not see but something must have happened, as Junmyeon gasped and Yifan drew in a breath, as if he might say something.

 

“Thank you,” he said weakly, leaning against Jongdae as the pain of his wound finally filtered into his consciousness.

 

“The tree thanks you for your service. All of you.” The guardian’s voice sounded different now, deeper and less mellow that Yixing’s had. He bowed and the golden tree dissipated into nothing.

 

They must have made quite a procession returning back to the castle, bloody, bearing a body and a prince that everyone thought had died in seven years ago. It was all a blur to Baekhyun. He remembered only bits and pieces after the guardian vanished, including being lifted onto a horse, set into a bath of water before he was tucked into bed.

 

When he awoke, there was a warmth beside him.

 

“Baek?” Jongdae murmured sleepily, a hand brushing over his hair. Baekhyun turned, gasping when his stitches pulled. He kissed his fingertips and cuddled up to him, ignoring the twinging in his side to tuck himself under Jongdae’s chin.

 

“How is Yixing?”

 

“His pulse has restarted. But he remains unconscious. When Junmyeon and Yifan have recovered sufficiently, they will escort him back to Chilyo. He will only awaken there.”

 

“Can I see him?” Baekhyun asked softly. “I want to see him.”

 

He had come so close to losing Yixing twice now. And he had lost him. If the tree had not been able to bring him back… Baekhyun did not want to think about it. He sat up slowly, pushing the covers from his body. Jongdae rose with him, lacing their hands together.

 

“Your stitches, Baekhyun. When they have healed enough, I will let you see him. I promise,” he murmured, kissing his temple. Baekhyun wanted to protest, but it would only be futile. Jongdae was so overprotective.

 

“How- how is everyone?” he asked, curling himself around Jongdae.

 

“Sleeping. Chanyeol’s arm was badly burned before we even started the fight but he is all bandaged up. Junmyeon was very worried about him despite his own injuries. He sustained a few broken ribs from one very vicious shadow bolt and some scratches. Yifan had a few deep gashes but nothing that won’t heal. The rest of us are fine. Sehun is fine.”

 

“His madness is gone,” Baekhyun observed, toying with Jongdae’s fingers. “He can go out now.”

 

“Yes.” Jongdae was looking at him, he could feel his gaze. “Thanks to Yixing, to everyone. He can have a life now.”

 

“So can you,” Baekhyun murmured, raising his hand. Jongdae never slept in his mask anymore so he could feel the bumps and grooves under his fingers as he traced his cheek.

 

“They won’t go away. Not like Junmyeon’s scales. Because they’re not magic. They’re scars,” Jongdae said.

 

“You’re beautiful. I remember,” Baekhyun said as steadily as he could. He was telling the truth. When he had seen Jongdae’s face, his breath had been snatched away. He cupped his face, kissing him deeply. He did not know he was crying until he tasted salt on his lips. Jongdae wiped his tears with a soft laugh.

 

“Don’t cry. I love you. Nothing could change that,” he murmured, kissing Baekhyun again.

 

It took much longer for his body to heal now that he could no longer wield magic but when Baekhyun was brought to Yixing’s room, both Junmyeon and Yifan were present. It was the strangest experience he had to endure. Yixing’s pulse jumped strongly against his fingers when he checked and it did much to settle the terror and worry in Baekhyun’s chest.

 

“We will take him home in a day or two. If you wish to come,” Junmyeon said quietly. He was hovering on the other side of the bed, calmed only by Yifan holding his hand. Baekhyun had never seen the prince quite so unsettled.

 

“I will. The king and queen will want to see me. And I have not written home in a while. They must be worried,” Baekhyun paused. “Will you explain what the three of you are or-?”

 

“We’ll wait for him to awaken,” Yifan spoke up. He shifted uneasily.

 

“They are very kind. I’m sure they will try to understand,” Baekhyun responded before either of them could say anything. He was reluctant to leave, knowing that Jongdae would be left alone to deal with all the stragglers but with Sehun healthy, at least someone would be there to help him before Baekhyun got back.

 

Minseok had already extended an invitation for them all to visit whenever possible and Baekhyun knew that Kyungsoo fully intended on taking the very lost Prince Jongin back to his little cabin to recuperate. He did not envy him. Being stuck in your own body, semi-conscious of what your evil alter ego had done could not be fun. It would take years before Jongin could be trusted with his magic again.  

 

The ride back to Chilyo could not have been more awkward. It was long, because there was no other way to transport an unconscious Yixing other than by carriage and by sea.

 

At least when they were on board a ship, there was enough room for them to spread out. But Baekhyun had a job as Yixing’s best friend to do. He found Junmyeon first, as he was predictable and liked standing on the deck, enjoying the sea breeze. The creatures of the ocean came out more often when he was out, as if his magic called to them.

 

Junmyeon reached out a hand to help him when he went wobbling up the stairs. Baekhyun did not have sea legs at all.

 

“How are you faring?” he asked politely and by touch, Baekhyun could discern that he was probably wearing his robes from home. Thin, sheer and probably blue. They were blowing back and forth by a gentle wind and he could hear the whistle of a dolphin popping up near the ship.

 

“As well as I can be. I’m not much of a sailor,” he admitted.

 

“I’ve steadied the sea as much as I can. Jongdae told me about your seasickness,” Junmyeon said gently. Baekhyun wanted to roll his eyes and sigh at the same time. How could anyone be this charming and kind?

 

“Thank you. I was going to threaten you about hurting Yixing but I don’t think you will. You’re too sweet for it,” he said, gripping his cane. Junmyeon huffed out a laugh, guiding him over to the railing. He called out a greeting to the pod of dolphins that was definitely waiting on the other side before he answered.

 

“Thank you for your faith, Baekhyun. I would never hurt him,” Junmyeon said.

 

“Well then you better make sure Yifan doesn’t either. Or I’ll cut both of you up, powers or not,” Baekhyun said but he was smiling as he patted Junmyeon’s hand. “Speaking of Yifan, I better go find him.”

“Oh, he’s with Yixing. He’ll be up shortly but I doubt that’s a conversation you want to have in public,” Junmyeon said, completely serene. He had to make a really pretty picture, silhouetted against the blue sky in his blue robes. Baekhyun mourned the fact that he would never see it for himself, before reminding himself of his job.

 

“Thank you!” He descended back belowdecks, hunting around until he found Yifan as Junmyeon had stated, sitting in the chair beside Yixing with a book in hand.

 

“Baekhyun! I didn’t hear you come in.” Yifan set aside the book, reaching out to grasp Yixing’s hand as if to reassure himself that there was still a pulse. Baekhyun squared his shoulders, flopping onto the bed.

 

“I come with a warning. If you ever hurt my best friend, you will find this.” He swung his cane around, the shaft unfolding into sword form. “At some very unsavory places. Trust me when you say you do not want that.”

 

He was pleased to hear an audible swallow.

 

“Did you have this talk with Junmyeon too?” Yifan asked, clasping his hands together.

 

“Yes and no. He’s an angel and would never deliberately hurt Yixing. You on the other hand, are not.”

 

“I’m hurt but also not upset that that’s true,” Yifan said absently. He leaned forward and Baekhyun could feel his chin brushing against the tip of his sword. “I swear to you, Baekhyun. That if I hurt either of them, I give you full permission to cut me in said unsavory places.”

 

“I don’t need to cut you for Junmyeon. Chanyeol will do that fine. In fact, I think he will be looking for you for a talk of his own very soon.” He was not lying. Baekhyun indeed had a discussion with Junmyeon’s right hand man on when they should ambush Yifan. He was being very kind to warning Yifan about it in advance.

 

Yifan gulped and gently nudged the sword point away.

 

“Fair. I will give him the answer that I give you. That I’ll never deliberately hurt them. I’ve never been in a- shall we say, serious relationship.” He sounded nervous and Baekhyun took pity on him enough to put away the sword.

 

“But what they have is precious and that they have deigned to share it with me, I am honoured. I am very in love with Yixing and Junmyeon is growing on me as well.”

 

“Growing on you, ha. As if you didn’t fall head over heels the moment you saw him. I heard that he is ravishing,” Baekhyun said blithely. Yifan laughed too, almost relieved that the tension was broken. He continued on.

 

“He is. And a wonderful person. I may make mistakes along this- road but I promise I will never hurt either of them if I could help it.”

 

“Your honesty is very much appreciated” Baekhyun replied seriously. “I will repay you by telling you that Chanyeol intends to come for you when we dock at Bada. He is possibly not as kind as I am.”

 

Yifan bowed his head.

 

“Thank you?” His tone lifted at the end and Baekhyun could not help his laugh.

 

“You’re very welcome.”

 

Baekhyun was gratified that he did not have to witness Chanyeol’s confrontation with Yifan, only the after effects in which Junmyeon chastised his guard over breakfast for.

 

“You’ve scared him away.”


“If he scares so easily then he does not deserve you,” Chanyeol said, “he may be my very, very distant cousin but my loyalties lie with you, my prince.”

 

Junmyeon only sighed an exasperated sigh before returning to prodding at his food. Yifan was also unfortunate enough to encounter Junmyeon’s parents, who were worried to death over their son and Yixing’s unresponsiveness.

 

Both of which made them rather hostile when Junmyeon explained their arrangement. Baekhyun had not heard the exchange but he had heard from Chanyeol that it had become incredibly heated until Junmyeon broke down into tears. His parents were relieved enough to see him safe to let him have his way, promising more explanations when they returned. Baekhyun certainly did not envy that.

 

He did not know how much he had missed home until their carriage rolled into the market square and he heard the many exclamations and people trying to peek in. Yixing was cradled in Yifan’s lap as they rolled into the courtyard.

 

“Baekhyun!”

 

Baekhyun did not expect to be assaulted the moment he made his appearance. Arms were flung around his neck, yanking him into a bear hug. He was overwhelmed by the scent of the queen’s perfume as she held him, near tears.

 

“You stupid, irresponsible boy! Where were your letters? You promised us letters, even if you had to ask someone else to write them for you!” the queen scolded, brushing his hair away from his face. He clutched at her hands, quite stunned.

 

“I’m- sorry. I got distracted. There was a prince and-.”

 

“A prince. Oh, you have to tell us everything later. Where is Yixing?”

 

Baekhyun was nudged not so gently into the arms of the king, who embraced him less enthusiastically than his wife but no less warm. His tone was chiding as he cupped Baekhyun’s cheek in his hand, sweeping his eyes over him.

 

“You’re unharmed,” he said.

 

“Yes sir,” Baekhyun answered, lowering his head.

 

“And the magic?”

 

“Gone. The tree gave it and took it away.”

“Good boy,” the king murmured and it took Baekhyun two beats to realise that he was touching him with ungloved hands. Jongdae’s letter must have arrived with the news. Tears sprang to his eyes and he could not help but fling his arms around the king for one more hug.

 

“Thank you,” he murmured as hands stroked his head. “Thank you for trusting me.”

 

There was a shriek from the queen and he was gently nudged aside in favor of rescuing Yixing from his mother’s arms.

 

“He will wake,” Yifan was trying to assure the queen, who had broken down into tears at the sight of her unconscious son. Junmyeon was murmuring reassurances as well, trying to soothe the terrified queen.

 

Baekhyun heard the king speaking in hushed tones, taking his wife aside while Yifan and Junmyeon exited the carriage, Yixing cradled in Yifan’s arms. He laced his hand together with Yixing’s, reaffirming that he was indeed alive, that his pulse was jumping.

 

“Come. I hope they haven’t changed anything around since I left,” he said quietly.

 

They had not. Baekhyun was grateful for it. He led them into Yixing’s old bedroom, exactly the way he had left it but cleaned and readied for his arrival. Yixing was tucked in and just to pacify the queen, a physician was called.

 

He was pronounced perfectly healthy, just sleeping and the queen was finally put to rest.

 

“Just let him sleep. He’s done a lot,” the king murmured, pressing a kiss to his son’s forehead. He leveled a glance at all of them, just standing by the bed and made gesture. “The maids will show you to your rooms. Baekhyun, yours has not changed at all. I hope you wanted it back.”

 

Baekhyun nodded sagely, bouncing on the balls of his feet. He did not want to leave Yixing but they could not possibly sit around just waiting for him to wake up.

 

One very long nap later, he was awoken by Junmyeon’s gentle shaking.

 

“The queen sent for us. He’s waking up,” he said softly and Baekhyun jumped to his feet at once. The terror had fled, replaced only with the urgency to see for himself. It was difficult to contain his delight and excitement after weeks of fear as he hurried down the halls as quickly as was polite.

 

He arrived to a quiet room filled with the queen’s relieved weeping as she held her son. Junmyeon took him by the hand, leading him over to the bed.

 

“Baek.” Just the sound of Yixing’s voice made his knees buckle.

 

Baekhyun’s eyes filled with tears as he scrambled onto the bed, Yixing unwinding himself just in time to catch him in a hug.

 

“You- you scared me. You really, really did,” he murmured into Yixing’s shoulder, sobbing hard that he could barely speak. “You promised you’d never scare me like that again.”

 

“I know. I know. I’m sorry, Baek. I hope you understand why-.”

 

“I did but never again. I can’t survive losing you a third time. Please don’t leave me,” Baekhyun whimpered, uncaring that he was soaking Yixing’s sleeve in his tears. Fingers brushed through his hair and he sobbed, clinging as tightly as he could to Yixing.

 

“I won’t. I promise. And this time, I’ll keep it,” Yixing murmured, pressing a kiss to his forehead.

 

There was a knock on the door and a servant peeked in.

 

“There’s a visitor for Lord Baekhyun.”

 

Baekhyun sniffled, wiping his nose as he pulled away from Yixing. He had to look a right state but he was already past the point of caring.

 

“A visitor?”

 

“She’s waiting in the great hall.”

 

Baekhyun squeezed Yixing’s hand, before getting off the bed reluctantly. He could hear the beginnings of an explanation before the door closed behind him. He started down the stairs, completely not expecting the voice that called out.

 

“Baekhyun!”

 

“Mother?” Baekhyun froze, mouth agape.

 

“Oh, my Baekhyun!” Arms were flung around him and he was pulled into an embrace not dissimilar to the one the queen had held him in. He inhaled and choked on tears as her scent washed over him, warm and familiar.

 

“I’ve been so worried! You left and I didn’t know if you’d ever come back. Look at you! All grown up!” His mother cupped his cheeks, practically hiccupping with joy as she hugged him again.

 

“Mother- did Father-?”

 

“Oh. He didn’t want me to but I wasn’t going to let him stop me from seeing my boy. I’ve already lost one, I can’t lose you too, Baekhyunnie,” his mother said, tears streaking down her cheeks. “I’m so sorry-.”

 

“No. Please don’t apologise,” Baekhyun murmured, squeezing her close. “I grew up. I was fine. Baek- Baekbeom sent me letters from you. I read them, Mother. I know.”

 

“I failed you, child. But I’m so grateful that you’re here. Baekbeom would be so proud.”

 

The mention of his brother made the tears well up again. Baekhyun wiped at his eyes hurriedly, sniffing.

 

“Can I- Can I see him? Where is he?”

 

“Your father wanted to bury him in that cemetery, you know. The one where they bury the sick?” His mother took him by the hand, leading him towards the door. A servant stopped them and Baekhyun sent a quick note to the king and queen not to expect him back for dinner.

 

“But I insisted. We buried him by that old apple tree that never bore any apples. The one where you boys played as children? You remember that one.”

 

Baekhyun did. The memory made him smile as he was tugged along down the steps, gripping his cane. It was where it all started, where he had met Yixing. The apple tree never bore any apples but it was bursting now.

 

Its branches were so laden with fruit that it was bending over double. He could hear children’s laughter cut off as they approached, his mother stopping to pluck him fruit from the tree.

 

Baekhyun weighed the apple in his hand, tossing it into the air and catching it before taking a bite. The sweetness burst across his tongue, reminding him instantly of the bruised fruit he had used to play catch with Yixing when they were twelve and thirteen.

 

His hand was taken and gently placed upon smooth stone.

 

“I’ll leave you two alone,” his mother said, her voice gentle. She patted his shoulder, ambling off to presumably fetch him something else to eat.

 

Baekhyun crouched down, tracing the grooves of Baekbeom’s name on the headstone.

 

The wind was still and he could hear the children’s laughter resume now that he was no longer in view. He smiled to himself, laying the half-eaten apple onto the grave.

 

He was at peace now, content with all that he had and did not have.

 

 

Chapter Text

Yixing remembered only bits and pieces from the fight. He remembered the shadows clinging to him like a second skin, the crimson blood on his blade when it fell from his hand and then there was nothing else.

 

He was swirling around in a dark void one moment and the next, he was opening his eyes to see his mother staring at him. She had taken one look at him and burst into tears. Even his father’s eyes were glassy as he was hugged so tightly that he could barely breathe.

 

“Mother. Father. Did we do it?” Yixing asked weakly when he was released.

 

“We did it.” He turned to see Junmyeon standing by his side, his eyes watery. Yixing gave a little yelp of surprise as he was engulfed again, the smell of wind and the sea wrapping around him like a blanket.

 

“Someone fetch Baekhyun. He will want to see you,” his mother said, stroking Yixing’s hair away from his face. The door burst open and Yifan came stumbling in, his hair ruffled as if he had been sleeping.

 

“Oh.” He rushed straight over to the bed and Yixing had to brace himself for another hug. “You’re awake!”

 

“I’ll go fetch Baekhyun,” Junmyeon smiled, patting Yifan’s shoulder. He nodded to Yixing’s parents as Yifan pulled away, a sheepish look on his face. Yixing winced a little when his father’s eyes narrowed. There would be plenty of time for explanations later.

 

As Yifan moved off the bed, Yixing let his hands be taken by his mother.

 

“What happened? Prince Jongdae’s letter did not explain much, only that you were injured and that you were coming home.”

 

“And about the curse,” his father added and for the first time, Yixing noticed that his father was not wearing his glove. And neither was he.

 

“It’s been broken?” he gasped, turning wide eyes to Yifan, who was shuffling nervously at the bedside. Yifan nodded, flashing him a tiny smile. He held up his hand, a spark of flame dancing between them before snuffing it out.

 

“Yixing saved us,” Yifan said quietly before Yixing could even begin to explain. “He sacrificed himself to heal the tree.”

 

Sacrificed? Did you-?” His mother’s face paled and the hands gripping Yixing’s shook.

 

“He died. His heart stopped,” Yifan confirmed, bowing his head. Yixing shot him a glare when his mother went completely white and his father looked as if he needed to sit down. He shook his mother’s hands gently.

 

“But I’m fine now, Mother. I’m here.”

 

“You are.”

 

“You died,” his father cut in, pale and shaky. “You-.”

 

“I’m fine, Father. Something brought me back. The tree brought me back. It didn’t hurt. I’m fine and I’m here,” Yixing murmured, pulling his mother in for another hug as she began to shake, quiet sobs wracking her body.

 

He looked up at the sound of footsteps and his heart clenched at the sight of Baekhyun, still blind, holding onto Junmyeon’s hand and his cane in the other.

 

“Baek.” Watching Baekhyun’s face crumple with relief was never something Yixing wanted to experience again. He pried himself free from his mother’s arms just in time to catch Baekhyun in his arms. As Baekhyun openly wept on his shoulder, Yixing made a vow to himself to never, ever see Baekhyun cry so hard anymore.

 

“I promise,” he murmured, kissing Baekhyun’s temple. Baekhyun sniffled and his heart broke a second time. He squeezed his hand back when Baekhyun’s visitor was announced, nodding at him to go. Baekhyun looked like he desperately wanted to stay but Yixing was not going anywhere.

 

Judging by the looks on his parents’ faces, they had a lot of explaining to do.

 

“I think we both want an explanation, Xing. About a lot of things,” his father said once Baekhyun had left. He looked up at Yifan and Junmyeon and huffed, gesturing for them to sit.

 

“You can start with these two. I know you’ve been courting Junmyeon but who is this?” Yixing winced when his father waved his hand up and down at Yifan.

 

“This is Yifan. He’s-.”

 

“The prince of Modak,” Yifan cut in. He held out his hand, his palm filling with fire. “I survived the fall of my kingdom and have been nomadic since I turned thirteen.”

 

“He saved my life once in Seong. And told us where to find the book to summon the tree,” Yixing explained. He had been dreading the next part, when he reached for Yifan’s hand, extinguishing the flames when he tangled their fingers together. One look at Junmyeon told him that his lover was just as nervous as he fiddled with his bracelet.

 

“And the bracelet?” His father looked pointedly at the gold chain wrapped around Yifan’s wrist, inset with an yellow topaz that matched his eyes. It looked like nothing that Yifan would wear, with his leather bands and rough tunics.

 

Yixing swallowed, squeezing Yifan’s hand for comfort.

 

“Courtship, Father,” he managed. “We have a-.”

 

“An unusual arrangement,” Junmyeon put in gently. “Completely consensual on all sides.”

 

There was a beat of silence where Yixing thought his heart might jump out of his chest, it was beating so hard. He squeezed Yifan’s hand, almost trembling from the anticipation. The tension in the room was so thick he could cut it like butter.

 

“Somehow, I am not surprised that our son managed to snag the attention of two princes,” his mother said at last and Yixing let out a breath. He could not relax completely, not yet, when his father had yet to say anything, his face like a storm cloud as he surveyed the two men.

 

“You’re in love with both of them?” The words were stilted, slow as if his father was still trying to process what was happening.

 

“That’s the idea,” Yixing said, “that there’s room in my heart for two.”

 

His father exhaled, tilting his face to the ceiling. He still looked completely confused but Yixing was relieved when his mother gave him a soft smile, reaching out to take his father’s hand.

 

“I do not understand this. But I will try,” his father said at last, after several glances passed between him and his mother. “If this makes you happy, Yixing. I will try. But be warned.”

 

His gaze sharpened, passing between Junmyeon and Yifan.

 

“If you hurt him,  I will not hesitate. Especially you.” He levelled his glare at Yifan, who only sighed, nodding sagely.

 

“Yes sir.”

 

“Understood sir.

 

“And the three of you will sleep in separate rooms. No funny business. I know you’re turning twenty one but I was just informed that my son was dead only days ago.”

 

“Yes, Father,” Yixing murmured.

 

“And you will have the talk when your- partners are not in the room. I was not expecting you to go picking up boys when you went on that trip.” Yixing’s cheeks flushed. He buried his face into his hands when Yifan huffed out a laugh. At least Junmyeon was kind enough to muffle his smile in his sleeve.

 

After a truly mortifying, lengthy talk with his father that Yixing never wanted revisit again, he was finally allowed out of his bedroom.

 

“Why am I the one they always threaten in your honour?” Yifan grumbled as they ambled through the gardens. Already, the effects of the poison was lifting. The bushes were beginning to grow in new leaves and Yixing was fairly sure he saw a rose bud or two.

 

Men had returned from the forest talking about the streams and rivers clearing up and woodland creatures wandering about. The trees were blossoming, laden with fruit that they had never seen before and the kingdom was flourishing.

 

“Maybe because they know Junmyeon. He is the human embodiment of an angel,” Yixing teased, laughing aloud at Yifan’s offended face. Junmyeon chuckled too, shaking his head. Yixing pressed a kiss to his cheek after a sneaky look around before turning around to grasp the collar of Yifan’s shirt. He tugged him down, kissing him gently.


“It’s okay. We love you all the same,” he murmured when Yifan rubbed their noses together. Junmyeon hummed in agreement, resting his hand on Yixing’s shoulder.

 

“It’s all a ploy,” Yifan muttered when they entered a more private section of the garden, hidden by tall hedges that hid them from view. “They think he’s this sweet, innocent prince when he’s the most devious one of them all.”

 

That earned him a pinch to the side and Junmyeon’s sweetest smile. But Yifan’s point was proven later two nights later when Yixing’s bedroom door slid open just as he was about to slide into bed.

 

Junmyeon appeared, with Yifan in tow, dressed only in his thinnest sleeping robes. His smile was devilish when he climbed into Yixing’s bed, cupping his face to kiss him so hard that Yixing had the wind knocked from his lungs.

 

“Rebels all of you,” he murmured with a smile when the covers were thrown aside. Yifan’s hand slid up his thigh not so innocently and he caught it. Yixing pressed a kiss against his knuckles, arching up with a soft cry when Junmyeon attached his lips to his neck.

 

“It was his idea,” Yifan replied, leaning down to kiss him. Yixing laughed, winding his arms around Yifan’s neck to tug him down on top of him.

 

“We don’t have much time together left. I wanted to savour it,” Junmyeon said, pulling his face from Yixing’s throat. Yixing sobered up at once. He spoke the truth. In a few days, Junmyeon would have to return home to Bada and Yifan… Yifan had yet to decide if he would stay or go with him.

 

Perhaps he would travel, he had told them with a smirk. Now that he had two places to call home.

 

“Hey. What are you thinking of?” Yifan kissed Yixing’s cheek gently, catching his attention.

 

“Just- us,” Yixing said, cupping his cheek. He kissed him again, this time a little more desperately. His fingers threaded through Yifan’s golden hair, tugging until Yifan was lying down beside him and he was cocooned between the both of them.

 

“We’re not going anywhere,” Junmyeon murmured, always so perceptive. He nuzzled into Yixing’s neck, planting kisses onto his skin.

 

“I know, I’m just- thinking.”

 

“Very loudly,” Yifan said, lacing their fingers together. “You’ll get wrinkles if you keep frowning like that.”

 

“I don’t feel frowny.” Yixing furrowed his brow at him, earning a laugh and another kiss on the cheek.

 

“We’ll be here, Xing. You’re not alone anymore.” It was as if Junmyeon had read his mind. “I know Baekhyun has left for Seong but you have us. You’ll always have us.”

 

A thumb brushed against his cheekbone and Yixing blinked. He had not realised that he was crying. Everything had changed and would continue changing. His kingdom was no longer dark and dreary and dead. Baekhyun had grown up and was living his own life with promises to write and visit often. And Yixing, Yixing did not feel alone anymore.

 

He had friends, more than just Baekhyun and Yifan and Junmyeon to see him through.

 

“Yixing?”

 

“I love you,” he said aloud, “both of you.”

 

The twin smiles on Yifan and Junmyeon’s face made warmth burst in his chest. He snuggled up against Yifan, feeling Junmyeon curve around his back, one arm thrown over his waist.

 

He fell asleep like that, tucked in between the people he loved the most, knowing that when he woke up the next day, it would all start anew.