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Sparks in Our Hands

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one: embers

It’s cold.

That’s the only thing Seokmin can think about, watching his breath come out misty, heavy; watching it swirl before him, mixing with his sister’s breath too as they stand together.  After living in this kingdom - the northernmost inhabited place in the entire world, thank you very much - his entire life, one might think he’d be used to the bone-chilling cold.  And normally he is, but not when he has to don his princely attire that doesn’t quite fit right above anything thermal, no matter how many alterations he makes, just to stand outside for hours on end.

But this is tradition, and he’d be a poor prince if he disregarded centuries of tradition just because he’s cold.

Plenty of his ancestors have stood in this same spot before, back to the grand palace doors, facing the strong, intimidating Theylan Mountain range; left elbow brushing that of their eldest sibling, freezing their ass off as they play their role in the coronation ceremony.

Simply put, he is here to support his sister.

The new Queen.

Despite the cold, despite the dark, looming clouds that threaten a blizzard standard for this time of year, despite the fact that it’s nearing dusk and they’ve been out here all day, Yeoreum is handling everything with the grace of the queen she’s been learning to be.  Hair dark as night and as long as her upper body falls down her back in loose curls, stark black against the white attire she wears.  It matches Seokmin’s own, except the lapels are dripping in gold accents, fit for a queen.  Her face, young and beautiful and so much like their father’s, is icy and severe as she listens to the rites being read, the rites passed down from generation to generation.  The rites that will make her Queen.

She has been preparing for this all her life, and Seokmin has been watching her all of his life.  He shadowed her as eagerly as he could have, ever the loving, supportive younger brother.  Now he is here beside her, still as loving and supportive as ever, watching as their mother quite literally passes on the crown to her.  It sits atop her head like it was always meant to be there, and Yeoreum’s broad shoulders straighten.

Seokmin grins, as do their parents.

And the citizens remain quiet from the sidelines, bundled in blankets and thermal wear Seokmin is incredibly jealous of.

The royal guard, at least, is suffering much like Seokmin, and he catches Soonyoung’s eyes with a friendly smirk, noticing the way his friend shivers in the cold.

But the ceremony is almost over and then they can go inside and eat and drink.  So Seokmin tells himself to hold on a few minutes more.  He silently wills Soonyoung to hold on too.

Yeoreum steps from his side, towards their mother, and then turns her back to the mountains.  Turns to face her citizens with the biggest smile he’s ever seen on her usually stoic face.  It reminds him of his own, and the pure joy in it is palpable.

He returns it with something similar, making his eyes go wide just to draw a laugh from her.

This morning, she’d joked that, as queen, she wouldn’t be allowed to laugh anymore.  Seokmin had retorted with a loving “you don’t laugh anyway so what difference does it make?”

But she laughs now, clear and crisp and happy as it echoes through the crowd, and Seokmin wonders if the people watching at home can see, can hear how utterly happy she is.  If a silly giggle like that translates well through a screen.

Their mother steps forward, ever graceful, even in her aging years, to join her daughter and address their people.

“Citizens of Aerant,” she proclaims, with all the strength and elegance of royalty, “I present to you your new Queen - “

Something sharp and shining whistles past Seokmin’s ear, like a fly without the buzzing, and it glints dangerously in the lights set up out here.  Like a warning he does not heed until it’s too late.

It embeds itself in his mother’s throat.

There is blood on her clothes, blood on Yeoreum’s white jacket, her face -

Screams of terror, of despair ring through the palace grounds -

The ring of daggers unsheathed -

The sharp crack! of rangers cocked -

Seokmin is in the middle of it all, watching helplessly as reality slows to a heavy, dreamlike pace, as a black-clad assassin approaches.  Behind him, Seokmin’s father’s cries sound muffled, far away; Yeoreum’s sharp commands, no doubt to the Guard, are faint.  Like Seokmin’s underwater.

The assassin is tall, thin, and as deadly as the emblem on his jacket suggests.  It’s an emblem Seokmin knows well, a scourge from across the mountains, a scourge that has found its way into their kingdom.  And the assassin’s eyes are cold, calculating as they peer at him above a black mask that obscures half of his face.

“On behalf of Rang Ara,” he murmurs, in a voice far more melodic than Seokmin would expect from someone of his trade, “we are here to take Aerant back for its rightful rulers.”

And just like the emblem he bears, the name is one Seokmin knows well.

It falls off his lips in a choked gasp, stolen from him by a knife to the gut.

 

Seungcheol’s this close to giving up politics for good.  He put one successful senatorial campaign under his belt, that’s enough to be considered a long and illustrious career, right?  With a deep sigh he stops pacing to plop into his chair and bury his face in his hands.  The air in his new office is cold and filtered - it smells like the ocean, crisp and cool, and maybe in different circumstances it’d give him images of black sand shores and the wind whipping through his hair - and it’s not quite enough to cool the sweat on his brow.  Why is he so nervous?  He’s been preparing for this day for months now.  Almost a year.  Ever since he began his campaign.  So why the nerves?  Why now?

His comm vibrates again on his desk and he doesn’t look at it.  All morning he’s been receiving messages - from Jihoon, Chan, Vernon, Seungkwan, even another senator to whom he’s spoken maybe six words - all congratulating him on his first day, wishing him luck.  And it makes his stomach churn even more.

Why did he think he could represent his district?  There’s two million people in Varyx alone, all of them depending on him for help - damn this was a bad idea -

Seungcheol takes a slow, deep breath, the way Jihoon taught him, and then another.

He can do this.  He’s been preparing - and he won the election for a reason.

In his head, he repeats the mantra he’d developed over the course of his campaign, one he’d recited before debates and outings and press junkets.  One his mother used to murmur to him years and years ago.

You are capable, you are strong, you are enough.

A part of him supposes its comforting qualities might have diminished over the last several months, with how much he’s been saying those words.  But the instinct of it makes him feel safe.

Makes it easier to breathe.

There’s a gentle knock on the door and it hisses open.  Seungcheol lifts his head and smiles a bit when he sees Hongjoong.  His aide slips inside the office and closes the door from the console.  He looks as frazzled as Seungcheol feels, dark blue hair askew, face darkened and hands shaking just a bit.  The solidarity brings warmth to Seungcheol’s chest, and he sits a little straighter in his chair.

“Is everything all right, Hongjoong?”

The young man nods and walks over to place a holopad on the desk.  It’s opened on a calendar application - already filled with events and meetings and Goddess knows what else.  “I came in early to talk with the other senators’ aides and then I created this schedule for you this week.”  He sighs.  “There’s so much to do, Senator.”

Seungcheol sets the pad down and smiles.  “Just call me Seungcheol, remember?”  And when Hongjoong opens his mouth to protest, Seungcheol gently cuts him off.  “It’s not a problem; you’re only three years younger than me.  Practically my little brother.”

“Is that a short joke?”

He grins at Hongjoong, looking so young and small in his perfectly pressed suit, tips of his long, blue hair touching the dark collar.  “No?”

They share a laugh that sounds awkward and stilted to Seungcheol’s ears and he blames both of their nerves.  Not only is it his own first day, but it’s Hongjoong’s too.  They’re both outsiders here in this too-cold building.

At least they have each other.

“Thank you for doing that though, Joong,” Seungcheol says softly, finding his dark brown eyes.  “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

“I’m just doing my job,” the young man mumbles, face flushing.

“Well either way, I appreciate it.”  Seungcheol stands and hides his shaking hands in his pants pockets, trying to put a smile on his face but it feels forced, even to him.  Hopefully Hongjoong doesn’t notice it.  “Did Yuto call, or anything?  I’d expect my royally-appointed guard to be here for my first day but I haven’t seen him.”  He’d become Seungcheol’s bodyguard several months ago, once his campaign began picking up momentum, and this is the first time Yuto hasn’t been at his side in a long time.  It’s a little strange, if he thinks about it, but the young man must be doing something important.  At least that’s what he tells himself to keep the anxiety down.

“Yes, actually!”  Hongjoong pulls out his comm and swipes at the screen a few times.  “Ah, so he said he was going over some last minute details with Guard Captain Sohn but that he would be here in a couple hours.”

Seungcheol morbidly hopes no one tries to assassinate him before then, because he’s not sure how deep Hongjoong’s affection for him runs.  Not that he’d ask the kid to actually take a ranger bolt for him but… “Well, all right.  Thank you.  Did I miss anything else before I came in?”

“Yes!”  Hongjoong swipes a few more times, brow furrowed in concentration, tongue poking out between his lips, and Seungcheol smiles to himself.  He always forgets what a sweet energy Hongjoong has about him.  It calms his nerves that much more.  “Your friend Mr. Le - uh, Chan called.  Told you to call Jihoon?”

Seungcheol suppresses a groan.  That can’t be good.  Especially if he’s calling Hongjoong.  Well, he decides, of course they’re calling Hongjoong.  Cheol won’t pick up his own damn communicator.  “I will later, I promise.  Right now I have to deal with… my first day.”

He feels the smile on his face falter.

“Are you nervous?” Hongjoong asks with an arched brow.

“Uh… no?”

Hongjoong smiles.  “If it makes you feel any better, I was talking to Donghyuck and he says his senator wants to meet with you.”

Seungcheol hums and reaches for the discarded holopad on the desk, reading through the schedule as best as he can with his mind unable to really focus right now.  “Who’s his senator?  That uptight jerk from Audym?”

“Nope.  Joshua Hong.”

Joshua Hong.   The pad clatters onto the desk rather loudly and Seungcheol clears his throat, mind suddenly going blank.  The way it always does in Joshua Hong’s presence.  “Oh.”

“You know him, right?  From before you were both senators?”

Seungcheol’s brain takes a moment to start working again, and he remembers being in this same building, a decade ago, and the way Joshua Hong smiled at him.  “Uh… yeah.  Yes.  Ten years ago.  During that year’s Youth in Politics internship program.”

“That’s right.  He brought that up on the campaign trail.”  Something dreamy passes his young face and he smiles.  “I can’t believe you know him.  He’s like - famous.   I mean not only is he the son of Hong Jaeun and has all that money but he’s a war hero.   Dropped out of college just to fight in the Nostrian war?  That’s amazing.  Sometimes I wish I could fight in a war.  It…”  Suddenly Hongjoong frowns, apparently catching onto the fact that Seungcheol isn’t really following his rambling.  But how can he when Joshua Hong wants to see him?  He knew this would happen once he became senator but… well he hoped he’d have more time to prepare.  “Are you all right, Seungcheol?  You look pale.”

Thoughts come and go, flitting around Seungcheol’s head at hyperspeed, and he sighs.  “Yes, thank you.  Just nervous.”

Hongjoong smiles wide and it lights up his youthful face.  “So you were lying.”

“Of course I was.”  Seungcheol smiles though.  “Should we get started with today’s schedule?  I think - “

 There’s another knock on the door and Hongjoong tenses the tiniest bit, no doubt just as scared as Seungcheol is.

But he can’t spend forever hiding out in his office, not when there’s work to be done.  Not when his people need him.  So he takes a deep breath and tries to relax his face as best as he can.

“Open it, please, Hongjoong.”

The young man does as he’s told and presses a button on the console beside the door.

The door opens and in walks none other than -

 Joshua Hong.  Of course.

Fantastic.

A little ways behind him, blocked by the door and Joshua himself, stands his thin but deadly bodyguard, Xu Minghao.  Seungcheol’s heard stories of the way the man has treated those who threatened his senator and right now, with the black ink of his Nostrian dragon tattoo curling along his neck and the side of his stoic face, assassin’s blade resting on his hip, Seungcheol’s pretty certain Minghao wouldn’t hesitate to kill him if he said something bad about Joshua.

But saying something bad about Joshua Hong is easier said than done.  He’s just as beautifully intimidating in person, like Seungcheol remembers.  He hasn’t aged much since he was fifteen.  Perhaps less baby fat, more muscles.  His suit is dark, the tie a stark black against his too crisp, too white shirt.  Brown hair is styled out of brown eyes, and those brown eyes never leave Seungcheol’s as he steps towards the desk, leaving Minghao in the hall.

Seungcheol isn’t sure he’s breathing, but whether that’s because of his nerves or Joshua Hong’s presence, he isn’t sure.

“Hello, Senator Choi,” Joshua says quietly, always so soft-spoken, a gentle smile on his handsome face.  “Welcome to your first day at the senate building.”

“Uh, Senator Hong.  Hello.”  Seungcheol stands up and makes his way over to shake the other man’s hand, trying to maintain some semblance of professionalism by using his title instead of his name.  It also helps him retain a bit of sanity, too.  Maybe if he pretends he’s the senator he’s supposed to be, it’ll work out for him. 

Joshua grasps his hand tightly, squeezing the little bones in his hand a bit too hard.  “Call me Joshua, please,” he responds with that wide smile, still maintaining eye contact.

What does he see, Seungcheol can’t help but wonder, trying not to shrink away from this all too familiar gaze, still so intense after all these years.  What is he to Joshua Hong?  A scared, poor farm kid?  A nervous senator, sweating under the collar of his suit?  The same wide-eyed teenager he met ten years ago?

“Uh,” he stammers, “right.  Joshua.  You can call me, er - “

“Seungcheol.  Yes, I remember.”  Joshua grins and releases Seungcheol’s hand.  He resists the urge to rub away the stiffness in his bones.  “Did you really think I would forget?”

“I, uh, er…"  He clears his throat and ignores Hongjoong's frown, the way his eyes flick between them, the awkward set to his frame.  "Do you personally greet all the rookie senators?"

"Mm, not really.  But you're special, aren't you?"  His smile softens, and he still doesn't look away, gazing into Seungcheol’s eyes like he can see straight into his soul.  Fuck.   "Not just because of our… history, but because you're the first… Varyx farmer we've had here in ages.  Since my father's early days.  So congratulations, Seungcheol.  You should be proud."

Proud of what, Seungcheol thinks.  Proud of being the only poor guy in a group full of rich people?  "Er, thank you."

Joshua reaches out then and claps Seungcheol on the shoulder.  His hand is strong, palm warm through the fabric of his suit, and he squeezes Seungcheol's shoulder a bit too tightly.  Just like their handshake.  "Come, Seungcheol.  How about a tour?"

"Oh I've already had - "

"Not a tour from an experienced senator though."  He's already dragging Seungcheol out of the office before he can say anything to a bewildered Hongjoong, and he winks as they step out into the hallway.  Minghao glances at Seungcheol with something he can only describe as indifference before moving to stand behind his senator.  "My father was a senator for over thirty years, remember?  I was practically raised here."  His hand slips off Seungcheol's shoulder, down his back, and Seungcheol forces a shiver away.

This is going to be fun.

 

Joshua walks with him around the entire building, showing him everything, Minghao trailing behind them.  He takes Seungcheol to the other government agencies housed here, shows him the lesser-used restrooms and the small kitchen no one's ever in, a smile on his face like he’s revealing some deep, dark secrets.  And then they're walking by the other senators' offices.  Artificial light floods the hallways, as it's too overcast outside to provide any natural lighting, and to Seungcheol it all kind of seems… well, artificial is a good word.  From the incessant silence to the over-the-top blue accented decor everywhere, this place feels artificial.  Like at any moment, the queen's gonna pop out, shout "you've been pranked!" and Seungcheol will wake up at home in his lumpy, shitty bed in the Varyx district, Jihoon snoring from the other side of the room.

"Something the matter, Seungcheol?" Joshua asks as they near the main chamber now, hand still on his back.

The fact that he can probably feel how tense Seungcheol is only serves to make him more tense, and his back already hurts.  "Er, no."

"It's overwhelming, isn't it?"

Seungcheol turns and opens his mouth to respond but the look on Joshua's face sends him into a coughing fit instead.  He’s so handsome, so intense, and Seungcheol is not prepared for it this early in this morning.  "Uh, um, it - yeah.  Overwhelming."

Joshua rubs between his shoulder blades as they stop in front of the main chamber doors and smiles softly, hands warm and seeming to find their way beneath Seungcheol’s suit jacket for the way he shivers.  "Deep breath, okay? Today is easy: we're preparing for our meeting with Prince Jeonghan tomorrow by deciding what we want to discuss with him.  That's all."

Seungcheol nods, and Joshua's comforting hand is gone as he opens the door.  He strides in first and Seungcheol follows, taking a deep breath.  And then another.  The other four senators sit along the table, talking quietly amongst themselves.  Seungcheol recognizes each one of them, but especially Jeon Wonwoo of the neighboring Orixa district.  He'd endorsed Seungcheol's campaign and now he gives him a friendly smile, and Seungcheol remembers his kind congratulatory message from earlier.  Some of the nerves dissipate.

So he has two allies here.  Sort of.  Maybe.

"Friends, colleagues," Joshua says and he grasps Seungcheol's shoulder again.  All eyes are on them.  "This is Choi Seungcheol, the new senator from Varyx.  Make sure you treat him with the same respect you would me."

"And if we don't respect you to begin with, Hong?" Wonwoo asks, as deadpan as his face is.

Joshua laughs, a bit too loudly.  It’s a taut sound that almost grates on Seungcheol’s nerves.  "Oh Wonwoo.  Always a delight."  He leaves Seungcheol's side to sit down.

They're sitting in district order.  Joshua's first, representing the people of the capital city district.  Then Jung Jaehyun from Audym, Zhang Yixing from Dyak, Jo Jinho from Terrai, Wonwoo from Orixa, and then Seungcheol at the end of the table.  As expected.  Their bodyguards stand a ways behind each of them, and Seungcheol wonders how Yuto being absent looks to the others.  Of course, he doesn’t blame the kid - guard matters are guard matters and are highly important, but he might feel better with his guard actually here.  Less of a sore thumb.  He quietly takes his seat and pulls out his comm to take notes.  No one else does.

"What time is the prince supposed to be here tomorrow?" Jaehyun asks.

"Oh eight hundred," Joshua responds.

"So we won't see him till ten or so," Yixing says.  "Probably hungover."

"Hey, have some respect," Wonwoo says with a smirk.  "That's the prince, and Hong's future brother-in-law."

Is this all they do?  Talk and jab at each other?

Seungcheol shifts in his seat, uncomfortable with the topic of conversation.  Sure, he might not be the biggest fan of the prince either but… is this right, for his senators to be sitting here, talking about him like this?

"I might be engaged to Queen Iseul but that doesn't mean we can't discuss the fact that Jeonghan's always late to everything."  Joshua laughs and it seems lifeless.  "We should decide on topics though.  Before we forget."

"Before we forget"?

"I have some ideas," Seungcheol ventures, and he sounds meeker than he would like.

Joshua smiles at him, and those dark eyes are back on his.  "Ah, is this going to be more saving the planet stuff you built your campaign around?"

Seungcheol’s heart sinks.  Just like that, the warm Joshua Hong, a friend from his past, discounts him so quickly.  He expected it from the rest of these senators but...

"Relax, Choi.  No one actually expects you to do any real work around here," Jinho says.

"Goddess knows we don't," Jaehyun says, and everyone laughs.  Like it’s a joke.  Well, except for Wonwoo.  He's fiddling with his suit sleeve, eyes decidedly elsewhere.

"Uh - well."  Seungcheol clears his throat.  Is this some kind of alternate dimension?   "I think my constituents expect me to get some work done on their behalf.  That's why I was elected. Need I point out that I had the biggest voter turnout ever in my district's history?"

Yixing waves his hand dismissively.  "Yes, yes, we're all aware.  Congratulations," he deadpans.

"It's impressive for a farmer from a backwater district," Jaehyun mutters too loudly to be keeping it to himself.

Seungcheol opens his mouth to retort and then closes it.  This isn't the time nor the place.  Goddess, it's his first day.  Of course he's going to face some resistance.  Of course it's not going to go the way he wants.  He takes a deep breath and lets it out.  He just has to get through this and then he, Jihoon, and their friends can go out and get shitfaced, and Seungcheol can complain drunkenly about everything.

Just gotta get through this.

 

Seungcheol ends up getting shitfaced alone.  He called Jihoon while he was heading home to his new apartment building, the one that houses him and the other five senators in the almost unbearably wealthy capital city district, and he wasn't really surprised to hear that Jihoon had run into some issues with the clinic and wasn't going to make it.  There’s always something wrong at the clinic, and Seungcheol tries not to take the wordless, directionless blame in Jihoon’s voice, as their people’s new senator.  But whatever.  He and Chan, Seungkwan, and Vernon could still go out and have a grand old time, right?

Wrong.  Chan had called a few minutes later as Seungcheol was combing his hair and said something about a last minute job for the gang.  Something Seungcheol hadn’t asked for more details on, since that seems to kind of defeat the purpose of his current legal status.  So here Seungcheol is, at the most elite and expensive club on Tellun, sitting alone at the bar on his fifth drink.  He's been here for a couple hours, and the throbbing bass has settled inside his bones at this point.  He glances behind him at the dance floor and his gut twists.  Couples grind to the music, bathed in moody purple lighting, each of them wearing a different mask across their eyes.  Seungcheol too.  Apparently, it's Club Ixorra's speciality.

More power to them.  Now the wealthy and powerful can fuck without consequence.  Just like everything else they do.

Seungcheol takes a drink and winces as the alcohol burns his throat.  Fuck the wealthy.  Fuck the senate.  Fuck Joshua Hong, especially.  He's the face of all these people.  A stupid, handsome face.  He represents the rich and the powerful, most of whom make more money in a year than the average person in Varyx makes in a lifetime.  Fuck, he's pissed.  That "meeting" went nowhere and all they're going to talk to Prince Jeonghan about tomorrow is stupid fluff that isn't going to help anyone.

Angrily, Seungcheol downs the rest of his drink.

He really wants to quit politics.

After a few more minutes of drinking alone and wallowing in his anger, Seungcheol decides to leave.  He’s plenty wasted and he’d prefer to get home at a decent enough time to maybe sober up before bed, so that way his hangover isn’t so bad in the morning.  So he downs another shot and is about to stand up when -

"Hey handsome," a soft, lovely voice says from beside him.

Seungcheol looks over to find a tall, broad-shouldered man standing there.  He's got a black lace mask over his eyes, half obscured by long blonde hair falling over it, and it matches the rest of his outfit: an all black suit with delicately designed lace sleeves and a teasingly low v-neck.  And he's really rather beautiful.  For a rich guy, no doubt.  Seungcheol clears his throat, realizing a bit too late that he’s staring.  "Hey," he slurs, drawing the word out into more syllables than necessary..

The man smiles and sits down next to him, with more grace than Seungcheol’s ever seen a person command.  It’s sort of intimidating, definitely alluring.  A few feet away, out of the corner of Seungcheol’s eyes, a tall, muscular man stands, off to the side.  Maybe this guy's friend.  "You look lonely," Beautiful Man says, and his voice is the sweetest thing drunk Seungcheol has ever heard.  Low and throaty and warm.  "And upset.  Is everything okay?"

The alcohol in Seungcheol’s body answers for him before he can even think.  "Work's terrible and my friends cancelled on me,” he huffs over a sigh, wishing he had another shot to lose himself in.

"I'm sorry to hear that."  He places a soft hand over Seungcheol's, long, thin fingers stroking along his knuckles, and flashes that beautiful smile.  "Is there room in your life for a new friend, darling?"

They're in the restroom maybe fifteen minutes and two drinks later, door locked and Beautiful Man pressed up against the wall.  Masks came off during the first heated kiss and Seungcheol pulled away long enough to study the man's face. He's got perfectly bow-shaped lips that Seungcheol really enjoys kissing and soft features that almost look feminine but somehow on him, it works.  Big, wide eyes, high, sharp cheekbones that are familiar to him but he can’t really put his finger on it.  Not that he cares to right now, with his half-hard erection tenting his pants rather uncomfortably.

So Seungcheol just breathes out a slurred "anyone ever tell you you look like the prince?" before he's kissing him again, and Beautiful Man laughs into his mouth, a high, utterly perfect sound.

Seungcheol very quickly gets fully hard.  It's been way too long (thanks senatorial campaigns) and it doesn't help that Beautiful Man's moaning softly with every kiss Seungcheol brushes against the smooth skin of his neck.  Smooth, beautiful skin that he very much wants to mar with bite marks.

"You sound so good," Seungcheol whispers before kissing him again, roughly.  

Beautiful Man whines into his mouth - Seungcheol swallows it eagerly - and presses even closer, rubbing his hips against Seungcheol's. And oh fuck he's hard too.

Seungcheol breaks the kiss to meet Beautiful Man's lovely brown eyes.  They're both breathing heavily and the other man's sweet, bow-shaped lips are swollen and red and Seungcheol wants nothing more than to find a bed or a couch or some kind of surface so he can properly fuck him.  But there's no time for that.  Not while his heart's pounding like this and pleasure's coursing through his veins, like liquid heat.  He grinds his hips, and Beautiful Man gasps, eyes fluttering closed.

"Oh…"

"Call me Seungcheol," he grunts as he rubs his hard cock against Beautiful Man's own, the friction of his pants making him moan.  White-hot pleasure bursts through his entire being and Beautiful Man whimpers again.  It's a lovely sound, one that makes Seungcheol shiver and he bites the soft skin of his neck, right at the juncture where it meets his shoulder.  He wants to hear that noise again, and again, and again.

The rutting of their hips becomes quicker, rougher, more frantic.  Beautiful Man’s moans fill the room, echoing off the walls, and Seungcheol’s murmuring dirty praise near his ear, tapping into a side of himself that only ever comes out in these moments.  Confident.  “Tha’s it, baby.  You’re so good.  So good.”

He grips Beautiful Man’s hips harder, probably hard enough to leave bruises but fuck he doesn’t care because this is it, this is all he wants out of life: really hot sex with a damn gorgeous stranger in a club bathroom.  Beautiful Man’s moans are all he wants to hear for the rest of his life and holy shit he’s so fucking drunk.  But it feels good.  Stars, it’s so good.

A few more ruts and Seungcheol’s reaching the edge.  His hips start to stutter and every drag of his clothed cock against Beautiful Man’s feels like someone’s lighting his whole being on fire.

“I’m – I’m gonna,” Beautiful Man gasps, nails sliding under the collar of Seungcheol’s shirt and scratching his back.  “ Fuck , I’m gonna – “

“Th-that’s it, baby,” and Seungcheol moans.  “Come for me.”

He pulls back to watch.

Beautiful Man tilts his head back against the wall as his hips still.  His eyes flutter closed and a broken moan escapes his mouth as he comes.  The way he arches his back, the way his fingers curl into Seungcheol’s shirt, the way the purple lights hit his smooth, flawless skin.  It’s all a bit too much and Seungcheol comes too, spilling into his underwear, muffling a groan in the perfect column of Beautiful Man’s neck.

They’re both still breathing heavily when Beautiful Man brushes his lips against Seungcheol’s, and he laughs softly.

“That was… wow.”

Seungcheol snorts and pulls back.  The uncomfortable wetness in his underwear makes him grimace.  “I uh… I don’t usually do stuff like this.”

“What, dry hump handsome strangers in a club bathroom?”

“Exactly.”  Seungcheol smiles and reaches out to fix Beautiful Man’s soft, blonde hair so that it falls in his eyes again.  Those beautiful, deep brown eyes.  “What’s your name?”

He smiles and honestly it’s sinful the way he looks right now.  Smiling like that with his cheeks flushed and lips swollen and red, breathing a bit heavily with every word.  “Ah, why don’t I stay the sexy, mysterious stranger?”

“And how am I supposed to contact you if I want…”  Seungcheol trails off, uncertain how to phrase it.  How does one ask a one-night stand that they wanna dry hump against a bathroom wall again?

His smile widens and he runs a hand down Seungcheol’s chest.  “If you really want me again, meet me here next week.  Same night, same time.”  He kisses Seungcheol’s cheek as he walks by.  “Maybe I’ll see you again, hmm, Seungcheol?”

Once he leaves, Seungcheol leans against the wall and takes a deep breath.  What was that ?  The last time he’d done something so reckless and without thinking was in college.  He’s a senator , for fuck’s sake.  A poor, rookie senator, at that.  If this gets out… the others are going to lose their minds.  He sighs and exits the bathroom, wincing at the way his wet underwear drags against his skin.

 

It’s cold.

It’s cold and the sharp mountain wind whips through his hair, against his face, and Seokmin feels so numb, every muscle in his body is throbbing, but he keeps going.

In front of him, Soonyoung stops and holds out his arm so Seokmin can grab it.  His face is tight with worry, dripping with sweat, even in the freezing mountain air.  His fingertips are still red with Seokmin’s blood, with Yeoreum’s…

Yeoreum.

She’s behind them somewhere, dead before she ever got to be queen.

At the hands of the assassins tearing through the mountain paths after them.

“Come on, Your Highness,” Soonyoung breathes, gripping him tight.  “We’re almost to the Tellun border.  We’ll be safe there.”

The salve they’d managed to spread along his stomach, to try and close up the wound he now sports, is already starting to fail, Seokmin can feel the wet heat of the blood beginning to spill again, and he stumbles in the snow.

What’s the point of running?  The assassins can just follow their tracks… and-and if he survives… what’s left for him, back home?  Aerant is now in the clutches of some upstart and... 

He sinks into the snow, on weak knees that can’t support him anymore, and he’s never felt more hopeless.  His entire family, his life has been ripped from him so quickly.

So violently.

And for what reason?

Why?

A sob tears its way up Seokmin’s throat and he tries to push Soonyoung away when he comes to help him up, but he doesn’t have the strength.

“Please, Seokmin,” he whispers, sounding as desperate as Seokmin’s ever heard him, and it hurts his heart.  “Please, we have to keep going.  It’s my duty to protect you and I can’t leave you here.”

Images flash through his mind, images of his family slaughtered.  His people.  The white stones of the palace grounds red with blood.  How fast everything just fell apart.

He stands on shaking legs, clutching to Soonyoung for support, and everything’s spinning.

“I can’t,” he whispers.  “Ye-Yeoreum - “

“She’s dead, Your Highness,” Soonyoung says, eyes wide and frantic and shining with tears.  “They all are.  You’re the only one left and Aerant is going to need you.  Please, Seokmin.  It’s not too much further.”

The desire to give up flares up so strongly, it almost overwhelms him.  But he’d be a poor prince if he ordered his guard to leave him to the snow, to the hunters after them.  So he swallows the tears, he swallows his pain and his fears and clings to Soonyoung with everything he has left in him.

They head for Tellun.

Chapter Text

two: zero for conduct

The royal palace sits at the end of Tellun’s Capital district, behind sprawling gardens full of beautiful flowers, massive fountains and stone statues depicting important moments and people from Tellun’s history.  At night the garden paths are lit by soft lights planted along the gravel, and it’s these lights that guide Mingyu’s way as he all but drags Jeonghan along with him.

“Woooo,” the prince giggles softly, swaying in Mingyu’s grasp.  He’s heavier than he seems, and Mingyu almost loses his grip on Jeonghan’s silk shirt.  Again.  “Sometimes - hiccup - I forget how strong you are, heehee.”

After being Jeonghan’s bodyguard for just about all his life, one might think Mingyu would be used to this.  But night after night the prince’s drunkenness continues to astound.  As well as his tolerance for alcohol.  He must’ve knocked back - Goddess, so many shots.  Logically, scientifically, there is no way Jeonghan should still be conscious right now.  Though, Mingyu notes, with something almost fond swelling in his chest, he’s getting there.  So Mingyu tightens his arm around Jeonghan’s shoulder and sighs softly.  “Did you at least have fun tonight?”

“Yeah,” and he giggles some more.  Mingyu easily smells the alcohol on his breath; it’s warm and sour and he doesn’t hesitate to make a face, even though Jeonghan won’t see it or really care in his current state.  “I fucked someone in a bathroom!”

The memory comes flooding back and Mingyu, for his own sanity, has got to start figuring out how to block some of this from his conscious mind.  “I know,” he grumbles.  “I was outside the door.”

“Shh!  Don’t tell Iseul!”  His loud voice carries across the gardens - no doubt if there are any guards or palace personnel awake right now, they can hear him clearly - and with that, he leans into Mingyu with a heavy sigh.  “She’s gonna be mad at meeeee.”

To be fair, drunk Jeonghan is not dumb.  Sure, he’s a shadow of his highly intelligent sober self, but he’s not dumb.  He’s more self-aware than a lot of other drunks at this stage in the night - moreover, he has a point.  But Mingyu isn’t really in the mood to argue or whatever it is drunk Jeonghan is trying to pull.  “No she’s not.  She’s your sister; she loves you.”

“Yeah but she’s also the Queen.”  Jeonghan trips over his own feet but Mingyu holds him up, steady.  It’s like second nature at this point.  Instinct.  “Tellun doesn’t like their royals fucking around the way I do.  Remember?”

“Of course I do,” he says before he can even really think about it - because if they get to talking about this shit, Jeonghan won’t ever stop and he needs to be up in, like, five hours for his meeting.  “You fucked Nostria’s prince while you were supposed to be over there fighting their war.  The kid was eighteen and betrothed.  It was, like, the biggest scandal the royal family’s had in decades.  Do you even remember his name?”

A wicked giggle leaves Jeonghan’s lips and Mingyu steals a glance at his face, at the impish glee in his eyes, lit up with alcohol and stars and the garden lights.  “Ah come on, Gyu,” he whines, throwing a rather bony shoulder into Mingyu’s chest.  It doesn’t hurt in the slightest.  “I’m not that slutty; I remember every person I’ve had sex with, okay?  And Hyunggu was special.”  A wide smile takes over his features and if Mingyu wasn’t so used to it, to Jeonghan, he might be worried.  “His betrothed was something, too.  Wooseok, I think?  Mm.”

Mingyu groans at the memory and once again decides that he needs to just block this shit away.  “You’re insane.”

“You love me!” he sings into the cool night, voice cracking and reverberating against the statues around them.

They’re coming up on the palace doors, and Iseul’s bound to be there.  She always makes sure Jeonghan gets home safe after his nights out, no matter how late she has to stay up.  Fortunately, they’re home quicker than usual, due to Jeonghan’s meeting.  Mingyu has to get him showered, hydrated, and into bed quickly so that maybe they can get… yeah, about five hours of sleep.  A sigh escapes his lips and he helps the prince up the staircase, step by step, trying not to smile every time Jeonghan giggles.  Even though Mingyu is technically younger than Jeonghan by a couple years sometimes he feels like an older brother to the prince.

It doesn’t help that he tends to double up as caretaker in addition to guardsman.  And listener.  And advice giver.  And sexual adventures keeper away from the Queen...er.  Whatever, it doesn’t have a proper title.  But with Jeonghan, it should.

The palace doors burst open and quick footsteps meet them in the middle of the staircase.  Iseul's in nothing but a t-shirt, comfy pants and her favorite soft robe, dark hair still wet from her nightly shower, and she looks less than thrilled.

But what else is new?

"Oh look it's Seullie!"  Jeonghan giggles again as he falls into his older sister’s open arms and places a wet kiss on her cheek, which she promptly makes a face at.  Probably because of the overwhelming stench of alcohol that no doubt accompanies it.  "Did you miss me, sister?"

"Always, Hannie."  Iseul strokes his long, blonde hair for a moment, in a way that’s so loving, Mingyu’s heart swells just a bit.  Even in her annoyance, even in Jeonghan’s drunken state - she still loves her brother.  And then she turns to Mingyu, her expression hardening just a bit into something he and the other guards call The Queen Look.  It’s a bit tense and unreadable, with all the sharp beauty and cold intelligence the Yoons carry in their faces.  “Thank you for getting him back home safely.”

“Of course, Your Highness.”  Mingyu tries to mimic the same professionalism with a slight bow.  “It’s my job as his personal guard, after all.”

Jeonghan scoffs, reaching back to awkwardly punch - grope - touch? - Mingyu’s chest.  Something he probably sees as intimate, maybe slightly punishing.  “Don’t make it sound like you’re stuck with me.  You adore me.”

Iseul sighs a bit, a crack in her rather indifferent gaze as she smirks tiredly at Mingyu.  “Why don’t we get you upstairs, Jeonghan, and into the shower?  You’ve a long, early day tomorrow.”

The prince mumbles something under his breath but complies, and as the siblings walk - well, Jeonghan stumbles as Iseul holds him up - Mingyu trails behind.  He vaguely hears Jeonghan mention something about being in love and Iseul goodnaturedly responds with “tell me about this one”, and then Mingyu’s mind wanders.  He knows he shouldn’t have let Jeonghan do what he did tonight - have sex with some stranger in a club bathroom - but seeing as how that’s the prince’s nightly routine… well, who is Mingyu to stop him?  It’s not like the people have this naive view of their prince, anyway.  Really, the only reason Mingyu might ask him to ease off would be to please the Queen.

But Jeonghan gave up wanting to please his sister years ago, so he definitely wouldn’t even listen to Mingyu’s logic on that one.

So now here he is, helping a swaying, absolutely shitfaced Jeonghan into the shower.  After getting him undressed and turning on the water, Mingyu joins Iseul in the prince’s quarters.  If he has to he’ll help Jeonghan shower but that’s pretty far down on the list of things Mingyu wants to do, so he’ll risk another scolding if he has to.

Iseul’s looking out Jeonghan’s windows at the sprawling ocean, and Mingyu leans against the closed bathroom door with a tired sigh, watching her for a quiet moment, waiting for her to speak.  But when she doesn’t, he does, hoping that maybe a thinly-veiled joke might help his chances at avoiding a talking-to.

“It’s like watching over a toddler sometimes.”

Nothing changes about the seemingly-endless stress in her back, her shoulders.  She stays still.  “You could’ve taken that position as captain of the entire guard,” she responds, not looking away from whatever it is in the horizon that’s captured her attention.  “Goddess knows you’re qualified for it.”

Mingyu’s heart swells at the compliment, hardly expecting it with how fucked up Jeonghan got tonight.  But hey, he’ll take it.  “Never,” he responds immediately, as if they haven’t discussed this a thousand times before.  “Hyunwoo was and still is far more deserving.  Anyway, I can’t leave Jeonghan’s side.  I don’t trust anyone else with him.  And at this point, I don’t think he’d let me.”

Iseul turns just enough that Mingyu can see her profile, and her smile is soft.  Warm.  Maybe a bit loving.  It’s these moments that the citizens don’t see; Jeonghan doesn’t even really see them either.  So Mingyu treasures them, from his eternally stressed out Queen.  “Good.  I don’t trust anyone else with him either.  Not that anyone else could deal with him the way you do, though.”

Mingyu can’t help it, and he smiles, even at Jeonghan’s expense.  “What can I say?  I’m as loyal as they come.”

A thud from the bathroom grabs their attention and Iseul gives him a tired smile.  “I’m heading to bed.  Make sure my brother doesn’t die please, Mingyu.  And that he doesn’t make any enemies of the senate tomorrow.  It’ll be his first time meeting that new-elect.  Make sure he behaves.”

“Yes, my Queen.”  And with that he heads back into the bathroom, wondering how he’s gonna manage taking care of Jeonghan on five hours of sleep.

It’ll be an interesting day to say the least.

 

Not for the first time in his life, Jeonghan’s so glad the sun shines for maybe ten percent of the year in their little corner of the world.  His headache is already bad enough, even in the backseat of the hovercar with the windows tinted, so if it wasn’t overcast like it is now… he’d be fucked.  He’s been awake for maybe half an hour, enough time to comb and sort of style his hair, brush his teeth, and tug on a suit.  And now he’s sitting next to his sister who keeps opening her mouth as if to speak, but nothing ever comes out.  Frankly, it’s starting to get on Jeonghan’s hungover nerves.  And he knows he probably shouldn’t say anything, what with Mingyu in the front passenger seat and Hyunwoo driving but damn, is he getting irritated.

So he snaps out a, “What, Iseul?”, that’s sure to get her attention.

Sure enough, his sister coughs a bit and then glances at the back of Hyunwoo’s head, in a silent plea for help that Jeonghan’s seen plenty of times before.  Sometimes he thinks Iseul and her guard can communicate telepathically.  Logically, it’s pretty much impossible but they always share these little looks and it makes him nuts.  Especially because most of these little looks have to do with him.  “About last night - “

“What about it?” he bites out, already knowing where this is going.

Iseul sighs a bit, resting her hands in her lap, and she’s tense.  “I just… you turned twenty-five, what, three weeks ago?”

“Here we go,” Jeonghan mutters, and he looks out the tinted window at the Capital district.  Not this shit again.

“I just think that you need to start thinking about certain things.”

“Yeah?  Like what?”  Jeonghan can’t help the faint venom in his voice - he’s sleep deprived and hungover and pissed that he has to go to this stupid meeting in the first place.  And now his sister is, once again, lecturing him about shit like this.  He gets the point.

Iseul sighs and she sounds just as tired as he is.  “Honestly, you need to get your shit together, Hannie.  I’m - I’m getting tired of this.  You’re always sneaking out, getting drunk, having sex with random people.  You’re a prince, you’re twenty-five years old.  Start acting like it.”

In the driver’s seat, Hyunwoo sighs just a bit.

In the front seat, Mingyu shifts in that awkward way of his.

In the back seat, Jeonghan snaps.  He turns towards Iseul, more than ready to let loose all of his annoyance and anger of the day on his sister, whether she’s deserving or not.  He’s had enough.   “You know, you always do this, Iseul.  You think that because you’re Queen you get to control what everyone else does.”

“Hannie, don’t,” she says softly, and the hurt is evident in her soft brown eyes.  Hurt and concern.  “I’m just trying to help you - “

“I can help myself, Iseul,” he retorted.  “Fuck.  I’m not a helpless baby.  Ever since mother and father died you think you can tell me what to do.  I went along with it for awhile because it’s the only way you give me attention half the time.”  Shit, there’s no way out of this now, so he keeps going.  Reaches for that killing blow, because why not?  What else can he do?  “Just because you’re Queen doesn’t mean you get to order me around like a fucking servant.”

The hover stops in front of the senate building, and there’s silence.  Before Iseul can say anything Jeonghan opens the door, steps out, and slams it shut.  Fuck , his head’s pounding so hard.

He wants a drink.

He hears Mingyu exit the hover after murmuring something that sounds like “he doesn’t mean it, he’s just hungover” and Jeonghan almost shouts “hungover, my ass!” but he doesn’t because now is not the time.  Now he has to sit through some boring meeting full of kissass senators.  Including his stupid future brother in law.  As if he wasn’t already getting enough shit from his sister, now he’s gonna have Joshua Hong up his ass about who knows what.  Oh, and this is his first meeting with that new senator.  Choi something.  Probably another stupid asshole who doesn’t actually want to do any work, like the rest of them.

The entire situation just makes him want to scream.  But he doesn’t, because he can feel gazes on him.  Gazes he doesn’t want on him; they pry and they judge and they sentence, and Jeonghan is tired of it.

Mingyu gently grasps his shoulders with strong, comforting hands, forcing Jeonghan to look at him.  His dark eyes are full of worry, the way Iseul’s had been, and guilt immediately invades Jeonghan’s system.  But he pushes it away; he needs to try his best to be attentive and coherent for the next few hours or so.

Easier said than done.

“Hey,” Mingyu murmurs, fingers slowly massaging his shoulders, eyes wide and brows furrowed as he seeks Jeonghan’s gaze.  “Take a deep breath, Han.  It’s all right.”

Jeonghan sighs heavily and just pulls away to walk up the steps.  He wants to get this over with, even if Mingyu is sweet and well-meaning as always.

The Senate building is taller than the palace, but not as grand.  It’s not raining yet (if it’ll even rain at all today), and government workers mill about on the outside stairs, chatting amongst themselves.  They quiet down when Jeonghan walks by and he forces himself to flash a smile, even if these parasites don’t deserve it.  But he is the Prince, after all.  And, contrary to popular belief, he doesn’t like causing scandals or pissing off his sister.  He doesn’t like the way his people look at him, like he’s some caged, exotic bird; awe and disgust and gazes sharpened in that bone-chilling analytical way that makes him want to vomit.  Or maybe that’s just the hangover.  Either way, Jeonghan steps closer to Mingyu once they walk inside, and leads the way to the main meeting chamber.

The six senators are chatting quietly when Jeonghan walks in, and then all eyes are on him in silence he used to revere.  Now it seems forced, anticipatory.  Quickly the senators rise from their seats; even their bodyguards do too.  Everyone stands, except for one.  The new senator stays seated, eyes downcast, and he’s completely absorbed in his holopad.  The guy from Orixa - Wonwoo? - tugs at the other’s shirt collar.  The newcomer doesn’t move.

This fucking…

Jeonghan’s already in a bad mood thanks to his hangover and Iseul, and this isn’t helping.  He huffs and stalks over to the table.  Still nothing; the guy just sits there, totally focused on whatever the fuck he’s doing, black hair barely long enough to fall into his eyes.  It’s a familiar in a way that makes his stomach twist, some blurry, fuzzy memory sinking into his consciousness.  But he can’t quite place it.  So he slams his hands down on the table, smirking when the senator jumps.  “Excuse me, senator…”

The man lifts his head and every snappy, irritated word Jeonghan wants to say dies in his throat.

Those eyes, warm and soft and endearingly wide.  He knows those eyes.  Fuck , he looked into those eyes while getting dry humped against a bathroom wall the night before.  And those plush, pink lips.  It’s like he can still feel them on his neck, damp, slightly chapped...

“Seungcheol?” he whispers before he can stop himself.

Seungcheol, quite literally, chokes.

Oh fuck fuck fuck.

Somewhere in his consciousness he hears the other senators murmuring amongst themselves.  And he can almost picture Mingyu’s face.  He’s probably smug right now, waiting to get Jeonghan alone so he can declare a victorious “I told you not to go to Ixorra last night!”  It’d be comical if Jeonghan didn’t want to sink into the fucking ground and never come back up.

“Is everything all right, Prince Jeonghan?” Senator Jeon asks, and Jeonghan remembers that he’s in the middle of a meeting.  He remembers that he has responsibilities to attend to.  He remembers the way Seungcheol’s hands felt on his body, burning through their suits.  The way he looked when he came...

“Uh - uh, yeah,” he responds, and he can’t seem to take his eyes off of Seungcheol’s face, flushed a bright red.  Looking much like he did the night before except now, well, his face is flushed from embarrassment.  Shame.  Definitely not arousal (well, hopefully not).

“Showing favoritism already, Prince Jeonghan?”

Joshua Hong’s patronizing tone brings Jeonghan back to reality and he turns to frown at his future brother-in-law, standing a few feet away, looking pompous and infuriating as always.  Jeonghan really wants to wipe that stupid smirk off his face.  “Hardly.  Let’s get this meeting started, hmm?”

Without another look at Seungcheol, Jeonghan steps away from the table and braces himself to meet Mingyu’s eyes.  His guard, his friend, the closest thing he has to a brother gives him a soft, supportive smile and Jeonghan has never wanted to stop existing more in his life.

 

So that just happened.

Seungcheol sits quietly, as still as a rock, while the prince and the other senators begin their meeting.  All he can think about is the fact that the man he drunkenly fucked last night is standing right there and he’s the fucking prince of Tellun.

Honestly, he’s messed up before but never this badly.  He’s not really sure what to do, what to think.  All that’s running through his mind right now is the way Jeonghan looked like last night, coming undone in his arms the way he had.

“Anyone ever tell you you look like the prince?”

Shit, how could Seungcheol be so stupid?

Next to him, Wonwoo tugs at his sleeve.  “You okay?” he whispers, confusion swimming in his dark brown eyes, and he parts his lips as if to ask something else.  No doubt he’s wondering what just happened.

But there’s no way Seungcheol’s going to tell him.  Even if Wonwoo’s sort of the only senator he can stand.  “Uh, yeah.  Just - I don’t feel very well.”

“Hmm.”  He lets go of Seungcheol’s sleeve and sits back, though his eyes are still questioning.  “Well, these meetings never last very long so when we’re done you can rest?”

Seungcheol nods and glances up to find the big guy he remembers from last night - Jeonghan’s bodyguard, apparently - watching him closely.  And for a moment, Seungcheol wonders if he’s going to get arrested.  If it’s illegal to fuck the prince.  He takes a deep breath in through his nose and looks up at the ceiling.

Please let this day end.

“Senator Choi?”

He looks up at the mention of his name to find all eyes on him.  Suddenly his collar feels too tight, these lights are too hot, fuck.   “Uh, yes?”

Joshua smirks just a bit and smooths a hand down his dress shirt.  He looks like he did yesterday, perfectly put together, not a hair out of place.  But today there’s a warmer air to him, some sort of happiness Seungcheol can’t put his finger on.  “The drought plaguing your district was brought up, and we figured you might want to discuss it.  Seeing as how you built an entire campaign around it.”

Drought?  What drought?

Oh.  Seungcheol clears his throat, coming back to himself.  “Oh.  Uh, yes.  I’d love to.”

“Go ahead, senator,” the prince says, looking at him with those lovely eyes, and Seungcheol is pretty certain he’s going to die.

He takes a deep breath, closes his eyes for a moment, and speaks.  For a few moments nothing but awkward stammers come out as he tries to get his thoughts together.  And then he meets Jeonghan’s gaze, tired, annoyed, distant, and the usual spite that fuels Seungcheol’s political spirit finds its way back to him.  If none of these senators will listen, or refuse to, then he needs to make the prince see what’s going on.

It’s his only hope.  His people’s only hope.

After another breath, he looks at Jeonghan again, his quiet, indifferent gaze, and he’s ready.  “As I hope you all are aware, this drought started more than two years ago, according to the research I’ve studied,” he says, letting confidence sneak into his voice.  He thinks back to the campaign debate stages a few months ago, how fired up he’d get over this same subject.  As well he should.  He has educated himself; he knows what he’s talking about, and his people expect him to fight for them.  So he will, whether the senators and the prince like it or not.

He continues, reciting facts he’s had memorized for months now.  “As you also are aware, the Varyx district, which I represent, is largely agricultural.  Ever since this drought began my constituents have lost thousands of credits.  The median income has dropped drastically, from an average of seventy-five thousand credits a year to less than sixty in most families.  And it’s still dropping, steadily.  Experts say that, by the year is out, most people in Varyx will be making less than fifty thousand.”

One of the senators snorts, but Seungcheol isn’t sure who.  And it hardly fazes him.

“And that’s a problem?” Yixing asks.

“It is indeed, Senator Zhang,” Seungcheol responds, sparing him a glance.  “If a one thousand square foot apartment - big enough for the average Varyx family, which is larger than every other district - costs five thousand credits a month that comes out to roughly sixty thousand a year.  How are my people supposed to live if they can’t even afford a decent home?”

Jeonghan frowns deeply, concern etching itself across his features in a way Seungcheol wasn’t sure the prince could feel.  “Is it really that bad out there?”

Seungcheol sighs, and the naive part of him has to wonder how Jeonghan had no idea.  But then he remembers the corrupt politics in this building, how far the capital is from Varyx, and he understands.  As angering as it is.  “It is, Your Highness.  That’s why my people elected me, to help them through this.”

“Droughts are a force of nature, Senator Choi,” Joshua says, eyes narrowed, and Seungcheol tries not to balk at the sharpness in his voice.  It feels, strangely, out of place - and yet, like it belongs.  “I doubt it’ll go on much longer.  Besides, there are plenty of low rent options in Varyx.  Are there not?”

“Sure,” he concedes, his annoyance starting to rise to a level he doesn’t enjoy, “but they’re dangerously overcrowded at this point.  Spreading illness like a pandemic.  And owners have begun charging more for rent because there’s no one to stop them.”

“And what about the abandoned farmhouses along the outskirts?” Jaehyun asks with a huff.  “Can’t people just move into those?”

Seungcheol takes a deep breath and tries not to scream.  These senators, the Prince, the Queen - they just don’t get it.  And they never will, sitting up here in this damned building, in their royal palace, so far removed from people with real problems.  “I mean, I suppose so but - “

“Well, there you go,” he says, with a rather fake smile that makes Seungcheol want to punch a wall.  “Problem solved.  Now why don’t we discuss the issue of traffic in the Audym district?  The warm season will be here sooner than we think, and that always leads to awful congestion due to all the people coming to visit the beaches.  I think - “

“No offense, Senator Jung, but I think Senator Choi’s issues are slightly more important than traffic,” Jeonghan says coolly, and he looks at Seungcheol with a soft smile.  It’s far less than he was expecting, but he’ll take it.  And confidence surges in his chest.  Maybe he’s actually starting to get through to someone.  “What do you think we should do to help your people?”

“Well, I think - “

“Hold on a minute,” Joshua says, a frown marring his handsome face.  He meets Jeonghan’s gaze straight on, piercing him with those dark brown eyes.  And just like that, Jeonghan seems to deflate.  Shrivel up.  It’s - it’s alarming.   “Senator Jung was speaking.  I know you’re the prince, Jeonghan, but that doesn’t give you the right to interrupt someone.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Seungcheol sees Jeonghan’s bodyguard tense.

And Jeonghan looks between Joshua, Jaehyun, and Seungcheol for a few moments before he sighs.  The air about him has changed now; gone is the standoffish, indifferent prince they all know well enough.  This is a completely new side of him that Seungcheol has never seen before.  Like he’s… he’s afraid.  But of what?  HIs future brother in law?  “You’re right, Senator Hong,” he says quietly, not even meeting Joshua’s gaze.  “My apologies, Senator Jung.  Please, continue.”

With that, Seungcheol slumps down in his chair and heaves a defeated sigh.  That’s it.  If the prince won’t even listen to him, who will?

Beside him, Wonwoo sighs as well.  “This is how it always goes, Seungcheol,” he murmurs.  “It’s better if you just be quiet and let the richies talk.  Unless you want to feel like shit.”

Seungcheol mumbles “yeah okay” in response and glances at Jeonghan.  The prince’s lovely brown eyes meet his and it leaves such a weird feeling in Seungcheol’s body, a bitter taste in his mouth.  Jeonghan is supposed to care.  He’s supposed to want to help.  But he’s just as callous and unwilling as the rest of them, when it comes down to it.

And Seungcheol fucked him.

Goddess, he can’t do this.

He stands up in his chair and Jaehyun groans.  “Not again.  I’m still talking, Choi,” he snaps.

“I uh - I have to go...” Seungcheol stammers, looking everywhere and focusing on nothing.  “Uh, throw up.  I have to go throw up.”  He hears the other senators laugh amongst themselves as he exits the room but it’s muffled - and he wonders if Prince Jeonghan is laughing at him too.

Besides, it’s only a partial lie.  His stomach is actually churning and his hands are shaking and he can’t believe what a shitty week he’s been having.  And it just started yesterday.

As he steps outside the building into the cool, morning air, he fishes his comm from his pocket.  He finds the first number on his speed dial and waits for the call to go through, trying to calm himself down with slow, deep breaths the way Jihoon taught him.

And then, speaking of, Jihoon picks up the call.  He’s in his white coat because of course he is; it might be early in the morning but that doesn’t stop people from being sick.  His eyes are tired and droopy and Seungcheol wonders exactly how much sleep he got last night.  And he’ll ask; later he’ll tend to Jihoon and make sure that his best friend is okay.  But right now he’s the one that needs the comforting, the attention.

“I know you’re busy,” he says, hating how frantic, panicked, he sounds, “but can we do something later?”

Jihoon studies him with a soft look he’s very familiar with.  “I mean, yeah of course.  But why?  Everything good, senator?”

Seungcheol can’t help the groan that escapes his lips at the title; he already wants to just shut this day away as best as he can.  “Don’t.  Just… I’ll meet you at the house tonight.  I really need to talk.”

Jihoon looks behind him, into the clinic Seungcheol can’t see, and he’s pretty certain he hears Chan’s voice but he can’t make out what he’s saying.  “Sure thing, Cheol.  I gotta go, okay?  Just - remember to breathe.  We’re all proud of you up there in the capital.”

With that he ends the call and Seungcheol’s left alone on the steps of the senate building, ignoring the strange looks the employees milling about must be giving him, trying to make sense of his morning so far.

But that’s the thing - he can’t.  Not a single part of it seems to process in his head.  Not Jeonghan being his mystery beautiful man from last night.  Not Joshua and the weird sort of power he holds over the prince.  Not the way the entire senate shut him down.

Just like yesterday, he feels defeated.  But he knows he can’t give up, even if he’s fighting this war alone.

 

There’s no sun to shine on the Theylan Mountains this morning, and Junhui feels a bit cheated.  He’s heard countless stories of how beautiful this mountain range is, with its pure snow and tall, magnificent trees.  And according to legend, the landscape seems to sing when the sunshine hits.  Everything sort of comes together in this bizarre, perfect harmony that only seems to exist in Aerantian fairy tales, and for a moment the world feels right.

Maybe it’s his mood, or the fact that it’s overcast enough to threaten a snowstorm, or just the way his morning’s been going, but nothing about the world “feels right”.

The prince’s tracks mysteriously stopped along the Aerant-Tellun border, like he was picked up by someone, or something.  And there’s no sign of that guard that followed him either.  They just - disappeared.  And Junhui can’t believe his fucking luck.  This is the best paid job he’s ever had and he can’t even do it right.  Can’t even hunt down some stupid prince.

Yet, his brain reminds him as he eyes the dense stretch of forest, at the base of the mountain range, that belongs to Tellun.  The stretch of forest Seokmin must have found his way into, with some sort of help.

The stretch of forest that Junhui’s heading into, if he wants his money.

Chapter Text

three: sensitive politics

When Jihoon pictured royalty sleeping in one of the clinic beds, he always assumed it’d be Prince Jeonghan, passed out after some unfortunate, drunken trip to Varyx.  Maybe to go to one of the shitty bars out here or something.  A change of scenery.

(The thought, of course, is laughable.)

But the royal currently resting in one of his beds is decidedly not Yoon Jeonghan, nor is he even of this kingdom.

No, Jihoon is all but certain that the man he’s looking at right now is Prince Seokmin, of Aerant.

Listen, Jihoon might not be the smartest or the richest or the most cultured person in Tellun.  But he does consider himself to be one of the most politically active.  Which means when he’s not treating Varyx’s sick and poor, he’s usually bingeing news from across the world.  He might not be able to whip out answers to many math equations nor could he tell you, with any certainty, who created some particular art piece - but he can tell you what’s going on in the Theylan Republic right now; he can tell you all about Nostria’s modern history; and he can explain the careful politics plaguing Aerant as of late.

Which, he assumes, is why Prince Seokmin is here in his clinic, bleeding out from a stab wound in his midsection.

He’s unconscious so Jihoon can’t really confirm why he’s here but going off of the way his companion is currently pacing around; going off of the royal fucking emblem on said companion’s uniform…

Well, Jihoon might not be a genius but he’s not stupid.

“We found them in the forests just outside the border,” Chan says quietly, leaning against the near wall in all his “gangster swag” - leather and boots and practiced indifference that falls flat the moment he even looks around the clinic.  But apparently it’s swag enough that Prince Seokmin’s guard keeps eyeing him with reluctant trust.

“Can you help him?” he asks, looking up at Jihoon now with fearful eyes, holding the prince’s hand tightly.

There’s dried blood on his face, dark marks that’ll probably end up bruising, and Jihoon wants to ask what happened.  The news reports are just now barely starting to trickle in but they’re frustratingly vague, no doubt an act of the new Aerant ruler.  But now is not the time to ask, not when the guard has yet to even confirm that they’re who Jihoon thinks.

Again, Jihoon isn’t stupid.  If they’re hiding their identities, it’s for a reason.

“Of course I can,” he says to the guard, and the guard visibly relaxes.  He’s young, too young to be looking this haggard, at least in Jihoon’s opinion.  But he tends to think that way about everyone who finds themselves here in his clinic.  So, sighing softly, he approaches the prince’s bedside.  “What happened?  Why were you in the forests?”

The guard clears his throat and a glance at him shows a hesitant, blushing man.  Someone with a secret, something to hide.  “Uh, w-we - we were hunting and he… tripped.”

Chan snorts.  And then under Jihoon’s glare, he leaves the room quickly, quietly.

Then there’s a moment where nothing happens; the guard surprisingly holds Jihoon’s gaze, hands shaking, but no one speaks.  They hardly breathe.

And then the prince stirs.  Doesn’t wake.

“Did he fall on something?” Jihoon asks softly as he’s brought back to the present, reaching out to undo the buttons on the prince’s shirt -

His hands are, quite literally, slapped away by the guard’s, whose eyes flash darkly for a moment.  Like he thinks Jihoon moved to wound, not aid.  And then not even a second later he’s blushing bright red and apologizing profusely, the words tumbling from his lips quicker than Jihoon can really latch onto them.

Whatever these two have been through…

Jihoon sighs heavily and meets the man’s gaze.  His small eyes are wide with fear and sharp with determination.  Obviously he’s afraid but he’s also lucid.  Ready to step in if he deems Jihoon’s actions threatening.

It’s a dangerous combination, one that screams training.  And loyalty.

“It’s okay,” Jihoon says softly, and he means it.  “I’m not gonna hurt him.  You can trust me.”

The guard takes a deep breath and moves back, leaning against the wall similarly to the way Chan did.  But he watches closely; as he works Jihoon can feel those eyes on him, severe and analyzing.  And when he glances up the guard holds his gaze.  Never looking away.

Jihoon strips the prince of his jacket, shirt, and undershirt (all obviously custom-made with material Jihoon will never be able to afford) and then turns towards the row of cabinets, opposite the guard.  He searches  for something to use to stop the droplets of blood slowly oozing from the wound, as well as to clean up what’s dried.  But fuck, there’s not much here.  A couple towels, a few rolls of gauze, enough strips of medical tape for maybe three injuries like this.

With a sigh that sounds way more tired than he’d like, he reaches for one of the towels, a roll of gauze, and some tape.  It’ll have to do.  He just hopes no one else comes here with deep cuts like this until Chan can get him some more supplies.  But knowing his luck…

He crosses the room to wet the towel in the sink and then he’s back to dab at the wound.  Honestly, he’s pretty damn glad the prince is still unconscious because the last thing Jihoon wants to deal with is the pain this kind of wound would bring.  Which is pretty selfish on his part, since the prince still has to endure said pain once he wakes up - but at least for now, Jihoon doesn’t have to field sobs or groans or what have you.

And he works in silence, another bonus.  The guard doesn’t speak, doesn’t butt in or smack his hands away again.  He just stands, scrutinizing, with his mouth shut.

Jihoon’s grateful for it, really.  Even if it’s a little weird.

“You know, it’s not deep enough that I need to stitch it,” he says anyway, just the teensiest bit unnerved that someone can be so quiet.   “So with some rest, he should be pretty much healed in a few days.”

The guard raises a brow.  “That’s it?  Just… gauze and rest?”

Jihoon smirks as he takes in the man’s confusion, a part of him actually feeling bad because of course someone from Aerant, a royal at that, wouldn’t be used to something so simple.  “That’s all I can offer.  No drugs, no shots, no salves.  We’re pretty bare bones around here.”

“I see,” he says with a deep sigh, eyes straying to the prince still passed out on the bed.  And just like that, his gaze softens with concern.  “But he’s… he’s gonna be okay?”

“Definitely,” Jihoon murmurs, moving back to the sinks to remove his gloves and wash his hands.  “It might scar but that’s what reconstruction surgery is for, right?”  With that, they fall into silence again.  Really, Jihoon can’t blame him for being so quiet.  He’s a refugee - unless the Aerantian reports are to be believed (but Jihoon thinks for himself) - in a foreign country, with nothing but his prince and the clothes on their backs.

It’s a shit situation, to say the least.

“So you guys aren’t from around here, I assume,” he says carefully, drying his hands.  “Do you have a place to - “

He turns around, and his heart drops.

The guard is bent over the bed, forehead against the prince’s, and his shoulders shake softly.  Like he’s crying.  So Jihoon shuts up and decides to shuffle out of the room to give them space.

He’s greeted by the clinic’s usual chaos and he sighs, retroactively grateful for the solitude the examination rooms provide him with.  Because out here… out here it’s cuts and scrapes and pregnancies and terminal illnesses.  Out here it’s constant.   A neverending stream of coughing and blood and pain that Jihoon has decided, against his own better judgment, he’s going to take care of.

He takes a breath and heads for the nearest patient.

 

By the time the meeting with the senators is over, Jeonghan wants to curl up in his bed and block out the world.  Well, to be fair he wanted to do that long before the meeting started but now that want has become a need.  You’d think that, as prince - especially a prince who doesn’t stand to inherit the throne - he wouldn’t have so many responsibilities.  That he could just do whatever he wanted and it wouldn’t matter (not for lack of trying, if he’s being honest).  But no, he definitely has responsibilities.

Right now, the big one is to report to his sister regarding the meeting.

As he heads to her office, he can’t stop replaying that morning in his mind.  The way he just… snapped.  Literally and figuratively.  Really, he could blame the hangover and maybe he’d get away with it - like he has before - but that doesn’t seem… well, responsible.  There’s obviously something deeper, something they probably need to talk about.

Too bad Jeonghan’s not in the mood.

The two guards outside the door let him in with low bows and Jeonghan waits along a far wall for Iseul to finish with her current guest.  Looks like one of the Ministers, Jeonghan can’t really tell which one.  Not that he particularly cares, to be honest.  The Ministers, like the senators, are usually a bunch of dicks and Jeonghan doesn’t want to engage with one right now.

So he busies himself.  He’s far away enough from Iseul’s desk that he can tune them out; he turns his attention to the holophotos along this back wall - and almost immediately regrets it.

Staring back at him are warm, familiar faces.  Faces he hasn’t seen in years, since the Nostrian War a few years back.  But they’re faces he misses nonetheless; he tries to swallow against the lump rapidly forming in his throat as he takes in the images.  Mother’s sharp, wise eyes, even in photo form.  Father’s long hair and glittering smile, somehow still capturing the light.  The way Iseul smiles in their arms, as carefree as a twelve year old princess can be.  Jeonghan himself, standing to the side, the ghost of a scowl on his lips and a bit too much distance between him and the rest of his family but no one ever questioned it.

In retrospect, he looks like a fool like this.  A petulant child.  Granted, he was nine but… nine year olds don’t usually feel the way he did about his family.

And then… Taekwoon, flanking their mother.  Looking as princely as ever, even at fifteen.  Severe features that could give way to the dumbest, dorkiest grin when he wanted.  A grin Jeonghan can’t remember as well as he used to be able to.

Tears climbing his throat, he turns away.

The Minister visiting with Iseul leaves almost immediately, as if on cue, and Jeonghan takes a breath before he steps towards Iseul’s desk.  “I don’t have much to report today,” he says, trying his best to ignore her gaze.  “As usual, not much got done.”

“What about the new senator?  Choi.  Is he settling in well?”

At his mention, the breath leaves Jeonghan’s body.  And once again, his mind replays their most recent interaction.  Though this time it’s more tinged with anxiety than a hangover; he remembers the way Joshua Hong looked at him.  Like he… like he owned him.  Like he could say anything and Jeonghan would comply.

He remembers how pale Seungcheol looked.  How passionate he was when he spoke.

Fuck, the whole meeting was a complete disaster and really, he has no desire to tell Iseul all about it.  But he has to.

Damn responsibilities.

“Uh, I mean he’s intelligent and from Varyx,” he says to Iseul.  “What do you think?”

She raises a brow at the snap in his voice.  Nothing gets past her apparently, but Jeonghan already knows this.  “I see.  Well, what can you tell me?  What did they discuss?”

And like the petulant child he is, Jeonghan lets out a heavy sigh, looking at her desk.  He doesn’t like what he sees in Iseul’s eyes; it’s too similar to disappointment and other such parental/older sister reactions, so he’d rather stare at the holophotos on her desk.  These ones are older, mostly of the three siblings.  And in each of them, Jeonghan looks upset.  Pissed off.  Like he doesn’t want to be there.  In one, he’s at Iseul’s side and pulling away and Taekwoon turns to snap at him.  Probably telling him to stand still or look thrilled or something.

Actually, that’s pretty much what’s happening in all of the pictures.

“Jeonghan?”

He sighs again at the impatience in Iseul’s voice and looks up, finding a nonthreatening spot on the wall behind her to focus on.  “I don’t know, okay?”

She scoffs and it’s like barbed wire in his ears, wounding as the sound meets his brain.  “You don’t know?  How could you not know?  You were there, weren’t you?”

“Yes,” he bites out, closing his eyes for a moment.  “I mean - what do you want from me?  They’re all corrupt, nothing gets done anyway.”

“What about that Senator Choi?  He’s not supposed to be corrupt.”

He definitely isn’t, but what is Jeonghan to say?  That Senator Choi got shut down easily because Jeonghan capitulated to Joshua Hong’s infuriating fucking bullshit?  That the moment Seungcheol saw Jeonghan he looked freaked out, since they’d drunkenly fucked in a bathroom, and apparently they’d had no idea who the other was?

Yeah, because saying all that is gonna make the situation better.

He just sighs and looks down at his boots, hoping a show of submission - whether he means it or not - might make her a little more apt to be lenient with him.

It doesn’t work.

Another scoff, another harsh sound escapes her lips and it hurts the same as the first.  “The whole reason I send you in my stead is because I’m too busy to go every month.  Especially with all this Aerant stuff now.  But if you can’t even do this one thing - “

Her words strike a chord within him, the same from earlier, and he’s done.   Looking at her in the eye for the first time all afternoon he snaps, “You know what, I don’t wanna fucking hear it.  You spent all morning lecturing and berating me - I’m done, Iseul.”

And he storms out.  He ignores the holophotos watching after him, ignores the way his parents look worried about him even though those pictures are almost ten years old.

Or maybe they were just worried about him back then, and it showed.

He tries not to think about it.

 

Heart settling in her stomach, Iseul watches Jeonghan leave.  In his righteous anger - in everything he does, really, when he sets his mind to it - he’s fierce like a storm wind, fraying at even the strongest of structures without thinking.  The problem is, Iseul’s not sure how much more of it she can withstand.

Sighing heavily, she calls towards the open doors for Hyunwoo and he steps inside with his usually carefully-guarded expression and a “how can I assist you, Highness?”

Ever the perfect guard.

“Clear my schedule for the rest of the day, Hy,” she says softly, reaching up to smooth back her hair.  “And find me Mingyu, please.  I need to speak with him.”

He nods once and goes to do exactly that; Iseul collapses in her chair and groans.  Maybe she should just keep her mouth shut from now on.  At least around Jeonghan.  Since apparently every time she opens it, it just pisses him off.

When did he get like this, she wonders?  Sure, he misbehaved a lot as a child but he’s the youngest of three.  And in their familial structure, well… he got cast aside more often than not.  Ignored.  But he never, not even when he was a young child, threw tantrums and fits like this.  Never said such wounding words, just to hurt.

She could blame the hangover but that would be irresponsible, disregarding something far more sinister bubbling beneath the surface.  But she doesn’t have the energy to talk about it, not when he’s shut down and closed off like this.

“Your Highness, you sent for me?”

Iseul looks up and meets Mingyu’s worried gaze.  “Am I a bad sister, Mingyu?”

His shoulders relax ever so slightly, as if he was expecting a different topic of conversation, but his body is still taut.  “Of course not, my queen.”

Iseul fixes him with a look and Mingyu sighs and lowers his head.  “I’m asking as Iseul, not the Queen.  Be honest with me, Mingyu.  Am I a bad sister?”

Mingyu is silent for a moment, no doubt thinking over his words.  And when he’s ready to talk, he lifts his head again.  “I think,” he begins, speaking slowly, no doubt choosing his words carefully, “that you have a lot to do, as Queen, and that you don’t always have time for Jeonghan.  I also think that you, as the, um, eldest, feel responsible for him.  Especially since you were both so young when your parents and Taekwoon died.”

Iseul sighs at the assessment, true as it is, and reminds herself to not discount Mingyu.  Not when he’s so much smarter than he seems.  “Thank you, Mingyu,” she says, “but I know all that already.”

“I - well, what I mean to say is that… maybe Jeonghan has a point,” and he’s quiet, hesitant.  Like Iseul would strike him down for agreeing with Jeonghan.  “Maybe you are a bit controlling but only because you feel responsible for him.  I mean, you were twenty-one when when Taekwoon and your parents passed; Jeonghan was nineteen.  We were aiding Nostria in the war.  Not only were you forced to be Queen without being ready, but you were also forced to take care of your brother and make sure that he made something of himself.”  He runs a hand through his hair with a soft look on his young face.  “I understand where you’re coming from with Jeonghan.  But maybe he doesn’t.  I might suggest finding more time for him and sitting down and having an actual conversation.  Maybe when he’s not hungover.”

Iseul looks at Mingyu, at the youth and concern in his eyes, and she smiles in spite of everything.  “You’ve always been wise, Gyu.  And I’ve always liked you.”

He laughs softly, shoulders relaxing more.  “I try my best.  Was I at least helpful, though?  I… I worry about him.  And you, my Queen.  I don’t like knowing you’re fighting.”

She sighs softly; that makes two of them.  “You were, Mingyu.  Thank you.”

He smiles wide, making him look so much younger than he is.  “He’ll - he’ll be okay, my Queen.  He just… he’ll be okay.”

“I know,” she murmurs, and she remembers how young Jeonghan looked last night, once Mingyu had gotten him into bed and he’d fallen asleep (she’d come back to his room in her bedclothes to make sure Mingyu didn’t need any help with him, and of course he hadn’t; being his guard and closest friend for two decades teaches one a few things.).  So young and innocent, curled up under the blankets among his plethora of plush animals.  Like a kid.  “But he’s my brother and I love him.  I can’t help but worry.”

Mingyu lets out a sigh and he looks like he wants to cross the room and comfort.  Maybe a hand on the shoulder, or a hug.  But Iseul stays sitting where she is, feeling like she - like she doesn’t deserve Mingyu’s kindness, in word or in deed.  “Tell him that,” Mingyu murmurs, not looking hurt in the slightest.  “I don’t think you say it enough.”

She sighs too, knowing that once again Mingyu is right.  “Thank you, Guard Kim,” she says quietly, signalling that any informality between them is over.  As if on command, Mingyu straightens up.  “You are dismissed.”

He gives a nod and turns on his heel, walking from the room.

Iseul is left in silence.

 

As it turned out, Jihoon in fact couldn’t meet up later; a few hours after the mess that was the meeting with the prince, he’d texted Seungcheol a brief but Jihoon-esque apology, and Seungcheol brushed it off.  Something like the clinic required his full, almost constant attention, so he really wasn’t bothered.  It just meant he could bury himself in work.

And bury himself in work he did.

He did whatever he could to busy his mind; anything from studying the bills on the table from before the election (there aren’t many), perusing current events - the situation unfolding in Aerant had absolutely caught his attention and then he’d found himself a couple hours’ deep into Aerant’s political history - and starting work on a plan, any plans, for Varyx.  It got to the point where he found Hongjoong dozing at his desk outside of his office, and Yuto swaying on his feet.  So, realizing it was getting late, he dismissed them both.

Which leaves him here now: alone in the senate building after dark, pretty certain there’s not a single soul left.  It’s a little bit frightening, if Seungcheol’s being honest.  But that’s just the ghost of anxiety pressing at his mind; exhaustion and leftover shame wearing him down.  So he swallows it and gets back to work.

Until there’s a knock on his door.

Seungcheol gulps and moves to open it, suddenly irritated that he sent Yuto home.  The kid might be a few years younger than him but he sure is tall and -

Joshua Hong stands in the doorway, handsome features illuminated by the lowlighting, and Seungcheol’s face begins to heat up.  The last time he saw Joshua was this morning, when he’d stumbled out of the meeting feeling like he wanted to die.

Not a great impression for someone he’s only recently reconnected with.

But if Joshua’s fazed by Seungcheol’s antics, it doesn’t show.  He just fixes him with that soft smile of his, the one that brings comfort with it, and Seungcheol finds himself smiling back.

“Senator Choi,” Joshua says softly.  “May I come in?”

“Uh, s-sure.”  With a slight panicky tremor in his hands, Seungcheol turns back to his desk to tidy up as best he can in half a second.  He puts away the Aerantian wine Jihoon had gifted him a few months back - wine he just now broke into because he can - and pushes his books and holopad out of the way.

When he turns around, Joshua’s watching him with careful eyes and a smile that doesn’t quite reach his lips.

It’s less than comforting.

“I’m curious about something, Seungcheol,” he asks in that gentle voice of his, closing the door behind him.  “Do you and the Prince know each other?  After the meeting today - “

Seungcheol’s so quick to speak he chokes and coughs on his own lie; Joshua looks at him with a raised brow.  “Er, no we don’t.  I guess he thought I looked familiar?”

“Hmm.”  Joshua perches himself on the edge of Seungcheol’s desk and smiles once more.  Still unnerving.  “I have a proposition for you, Seungcheol.  A project, of sorts.”

Still trying to shake off Jeonghan’s mention, Seungcheol breathes in before he meets Joshua’s dark gaze.  “What do you mean?”

He shrugs a bit.  “Well, I figured - since you’re so interested in helping your constituents, I thought I might give you some aid.  Seeing as how the other senators don’t really want to help.”

“I see.  And what’s in it for you?”  Truth be told, Seungcheol can’t really help his skepticism.  Especially after today, the way Joshua treated him.  It feels… slimy.

Well, they’re both in politics after all.

Joshua laughs and he slips off the desk, making his way over in a slow gait.  “Why does anything have to be ‘in it’ for me, Seungcheol?”  He reaches out to fix Seungcheol’s tie and collar, warm, strong fingers brushing against the skin of his neck.  It takes every fiber of Seungcheol’s being to force his shiver back at the sudden contact, and then Joshua meets his eyes with the slightest of smirks.  Like he knows exactly what he’s doing.  “Maybe I just want to work with you.  For old times’ sake, hmm?”

Seungcheol sighs softly, searching Joshua’s face for anything… sinister.  Not that he expects to find it but this just doesn’t match up with his behavior earlier.  And, well… he wouldn’t be surprised if Joshua isn’t his father’s son.  A sleazy, snaky, skilled politician like the rest of them.  But there’s nothing on Joshua’s face that sets off warning bells.  That comforting smile is even back, warm and bright will all the light in the world.

So, against his better judgment, Seungcheol agrees.

“Why don’t we get started tonight?” Joshua says, sounding too excited for this time of evening.  Any normal person would want to go home right now - Seungcheol’s pretty much there.  But Joshua seems eager to jump in.

“Or,” Seungcheol says, deciding in the moment that he’s not done with that Aerantian wine, “why don’t we call it a night on work and just… talk?  Catch up a bit.  I have alcohol.”

Joshua eyes the bottle on his desk with amusement.  “Can Aerantian wine even be considered alcohol?”

“Hey,” Seungcheol says around a gentle laugh, reaching for the neck of the bottle.  “This is the good shit.  My friend saved up for a while to get it for me.”

“Then let’s drink it all tonight.”

And they do.  By the time they pour the last of its contents into their cups, Seungcheol’s feeling a delightful buzz in the back of his skull and he’s laughing about something he can’t really remember.  But one thing he knows for sure: Joshua’s always looked so nice with his tie tugged off and his shirt undone a few buttons, collarbones on display.

“Do you remember,” Seungcheol says, “during the Youth in Politics internship program, when we’d do this?”

Joshua smiles, cheeks flushed a pretty red.  “You mean when I’d sneak alcohol into your room to get you drunk?”

“Exactly.”  Seungcheol takes another sip of his wine and smiles at the memories through a haze of alcohol.  “We’d try and study but then you’d make a drinking game out of it and we’d be so hungover the next morning.”

“Your roommate really hated it.”

“Jihoon?  Yeah, he did.”

Joshua’s quiet for a moment as he takes a sip and swallows.  “He didn’t like me.”

It’s not a question but Seungcheol still feels compelled to respond.  Mostly because of the way Joshua’s voice changes.  Like he’s sad.  “I… well, Jihoon doesn’t like a lot of people.  That’s just him.”

“Are you two still friends?”

Seungcheol nods, and he can’t help but smile a bit as he thinks about Jihoon.  “We’ve been friends for almost twenty years.”

“That’s a long time.”  Joshua bites his lip a bit, swirling the wine in his cup.  “And what is he up to these days?  Nothing in politics, I’m assuming?  Since you told me years ago the only reason he joined the program was to make sure you were staying safe.”

Seungcheol takes another sip of his drink.  “He runs a clinic back in Varyx.  Totally free and - “

“Oh, yes, I know of it.  Hmm.”  He sits back in his chair and looks at Seungcheol quietly, but his eyes are as intense as they always are.  Like they sear through him straight to his soul.

Heat rises to Seungcheol’s face beneath Joshua’s gaze and he clears his throat a bit, hating how awkward he always is.  Especially in front of handsome men.  “Um.  So.  You and the Queen, huh?  How long has that been going on?  A few years, right?”

Joshua waves the questions away with a flick of his wrist, and smiles.  “Oh, I don’t want to talk about that.  No, I’d rather talk about you.”

Oh.   His face heats up even more and he blames it on the alcohol.  “Um - well, all right.  There’s not much to talk about.  I’m not that interesting.”

“Aren’t you?”  He reaches out to place his hand on Seungcheol’s and Seungcheol blames that on the alcohol too.  “You’re one of the smartest, most eloquent people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting, myself included.  And you’re such a hero among your people.  The son of poor farmers, finally a senator after so much hard work?  I’d say that that’s all rather interesting, wouldn’t you?”  And then he’s stroking the skin on the back of Seungcheol’s hand with his thumb and -

Seungcheol finds himself leaning in, despite his better judgment once more.  He just - he feels drawn to Joshua, he always has been.  The moment they first met at the internship ten years ago, and now here, tonight.  It’s as if there’s a current between them, pulling Seungcheol in whether he likes it or not.  And, judging off of the throbbing in his veins, the way his cells seem to ache and cry out for Joshua's touch -

His communicator goes off with a rather incessant ringing.

Joshua pulls away before Seungcheol does, sighing softly.  “I believe this is my cue to leave.”  He runs his hand through his dark blonde hair and gives Seungcheol another smile.  Always, always smiling.  Always looking straight into his eyes.  “Till next time, Seungcheol.”  And then he’s gone.

Seungcheol sighs, long and loud, as he sinks back into his chair, trying not to focus on the blood rushing to his dick.  So he reaches into his pocket instead to grab his comm, intent on giving his disembodied intruder what for -

Except that it’s Jihoon.

He answers the call, hoping he doesn’t look too tipsy.  “What’s wrong?  Why are you calling so late?”

Jihoon doesn’t look… great.  Well, to tell the truth he never usually does lately.  Pulling ridiculous hours at the clinic and working himself half to death when Seungcheol, Chan, Seungkwan, and Vernon have all insisted he find more help - yeah.  Gaunt cheeks, dark circles under his eyes, pale skin.  It only adds to the worry building in Seungcheol’s heart ever since he left Varyx for the capital district.  Ever since he left his best friend behind.

“It’s only after eight,” he says.  And then, staring critically, “Are you still at the office?  Go home, Cheol.”

“I could say the same to you,” he retorts, recognizing one of the exam rooms in the background.

Jihoon sighs heavily.  “I am, I swear.  I just - I wanted to call you and apologize for having to cancel - “

“It’s all right, Ji,” Seungcheol says, and no matter what he can never stay mad at Jihoon.  Even if he interrupted what could’ve been an amazing makeout session with Joshua Hong.  Which isn’t the first time that’s happened, believe it or not.  “Listen, go stop by Key’s - put it on my tab.  Okay?  You deserve it.”

Jihoon makes a face at him; Seungcheol ignores him.  “Yeah fine.  As long as we can go to dinner tomorrow or something.  I miss you.”

“I miss you too,” and his drunken heart warms.  “Maybe lunch here in the capital?”

“Yeah right,” Jihoon scoffs.  “Like my clearance is any good out there.”

Seungcheol stops at this, and he knows he’s looking at Jihoon rather incredulously.  But he can’t help it because… that makes no sense?  “How - your clearance was fine a few weeks ago, when you helped me move stuff into my office.  What changed?”

He shrugs, reaching up to run a hand through his hair.  “I don’t know.  Ask those senators of yours.  Or the Minister of Transportation or whatever.  They’ve been revoking a lot of Varyx clearances lately.  I can’t even get into Dyak to get the overstock the hospital sells.  And Chan’s clearance has been shit lately, too.  Kind of feels like they’re trying to keep us here.  Away from the richies.”

“I… I haven’t heard anything about this,” Seungcheol whispers, and suddenly he feels sobered.  Too sobered.  Out of his element.

“Of course not,” Jihoon says like it’s the most obvious thing in the world.  “You’re not here anymore and… well, the news doesn’t really go around covering Varyx to begin with.  Don’t feel bad, Cheol.  Okay?  Just… talk to someone.”

“Yeah,” he says but his mind is running too quickly for him to catch up with it now.  So shortly after he and Jihoon exchange goodbyes and Seungcheol hangs up.

He really needs to go home.  Sleep this off.  And have Hongjoong schedule a meeting with the Minister of Transportation tomorrow.

So, heaving a sigh, he packs his things, turns off the lights, locks his office.  And he heads out of the building.  But on his way, he’s distracted by light pouring out of an open door.  An open door he’s pretty certain belongs to Joshua Hong.

Sure enough, it does.

Joshua Hong is currently sitting at his desk, listening intently to whatever it is Minghao says to him.  From out in the hallway, Seungcheol can’t make out his words.  But their conversation looks heated.  Intense.

And then Joshua turns his head.  Meets Seungcheol’s gaze with those sharp, severe eyes.

He smiles.

It’s just as rattling as his gaze, as the tension in his shoulders and hands.

Cold.  It’s cold.

And it makes Seungcheol shiver.

 

That night, long after dinner has been eaten and most of Varyx is asleep, Jihoon finally allows himself to rest.  He makes his final rounds, checking on each of the patients in the few exam rooms - all of which are full - and then he comes to the one that houses the Aerantian Prince.

The more news reports that come in (the ones he’s read during the few breaks he’s been forced to take by the clinic’s volunteers), the more Jihoon starts to wonder if maybe he shouldn’t be helping Prince Seokmin.  If maybe he should drag his unconscious ass to the border for the new regime to imprison or whatever it is they plan to do.

But Jihoon’s smarter than that.  Whatever shit this new regime is spouting - “Aerant’s true, rightful rulers!” or whatever - well, it’d take a bunch of herd mentality to actually have anyone believe that.  Something Tellun, unfortunately, has a lot of.  Add that to the growing list of reasons why Jihoon will keep his mouth shut as long as he can about the prince’s identity.  If anyone were to find out that he was here…

Well, Jihoon’s not really interested in starting a war.

Sighing softly, exhaustion beginning to weigh down his bones, he knocks on the door.  After some rustling he’d greeted by the guard who looks as sleepy as Jihoon feels.  And Jihoon hardly blames him.  The day they’ve had…

“Sorry if I woke you up,” Jihoon says immediately, feeling like shit when the guard blinks at him.  “I’m just - I’m leaving for the night and am doing my last rounds.”

“Oh.”  He stretches a bit and sighs.  “So - who’s going to be here, then?”

“Some of our volunteers.  Don’t worry; they’re more than capable.  I just like to double-check everything before I leave.”

The guard nods and steps aside to let Jihoon in.

So he flips on the light and gets to work.

The prince is sleeping, but not unconscious; Jihoon can tell by his soft snores.  “When did he come to?”

“A few hours ago,” the guard said around a nod.  “I was going to come get you but the Pri - er, he didn’t want to disturb you.”

“I see.”  Jihoon gently lifts the prince’s shirt up to change the bandages.  Most of the bleeding has already stopped, which is good news.  And he tells this to the guard, who smiles softly.

“He’s always been resilient like that,” he murmurs.

Jihoon applies the new gauze, once again making a mental note to talk to Chan about more supplies (he’d been too damn busy all day to do it earlier).  But what is he supposed to say to that?  Of course he is, he’s a prince?   No, that’s not good.  So Jihoon just sighs softly and works in silence, the way he did this morning.  It doesn’t take long and when he finishes he plans to leave as quickly and as quietly as he came but -

“Your name is Jihoon?” the guard asks.

He faces him from the door, meets soft, tired, inquisitive eyes.  “Yeah.  What’s yours?”

“Soonyoung,” and he gives a gentle smile.

“Nice to meet you, Soonyoung.”  He sighs heavily as something bubbles up in him; the desire to help, to do more than he should.  But this is a damn refugee prince and his royal guard; besides, Seungcheol would kill him if he knew he wasn’t doing more.  “Um, listen.  If you guys want, I have - well, I’ve got some old clothes in my apartment.  My friend left them there when he moved to the capital and uh, I mean, they’re not much but you look sort of the same size and - “

“It’s okay,” Soonyoung says rather quickly.  “We wouldn’t want to impose.”

Jihoon shakes his head, spurred on by thoughts of Seungcheol watching over him proudly like some kind of do-good ghost.  “I promise, you wouldn’t.  I don’t mind.”

He sighs and glances down at himself, eyes no doubt catching the royal insignia on his chest.  “All right, maybe that’s not such a bad idea.”

“I’ll bring some with me in the morning, okay?”

Soonyoung nods, a smile touching his lips.  “Thank you, Jihoon.  For - for everything.”

He gets that compliment all the time and usually he’s able to brush it off; but something about this instance leaves him blushing and wracking his brain for words.  And he’s not sure why.

Exhaustion.  Yeah, that’s it.  “Uh, you’re welcome.”

With that, Jihoon leaves.  He bids the volunteers good night and heads up the staircase along the backside of the building; towards the shitty old apartment above the clinic.  He’ll whip up something quick and easy for dinner (he doesn’t quite feel like going to Key’s right now, no matter how tempting the food is there), send Chan a few messages regarding supplies, and then it’s bedtime so he can do all this again in the morning.

As he eats, alone in the kitchen, he thinks about Seungcheol.  His bright laughter and easy smile and the way he seems to fill an entire room just by himself.  Look, he’d never admit it to Seungcheol’s face but he misses the guy.  Of course he does.  Even if the last year or so was spent hardly seeing each other due to Jihoon’s day work at the clinic and then Seungcheol campaigning all morning, afternoon, and evening, and insisting on taking half-nights working with the patients.

It’s worth it though, being alone.  If it means that Seungcheol’s in the capital fighting a battle none of them are equipped to fight.  He’s barely ready for it, but knowing him he’s not gonna give up.  Not until his last breath.  Jihoon just hopes that something comes of it.  Otherwise, to put it elegantly, they’re all fucked.