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and what rough beast slouches

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It’s difficult to focus on parchment when there’s a more compelling shade of gold to be found in the sun outside. Spring is fading, and all of the evidence is in the plum blossom trees in their last blooms, the last speckles of soft color in the courtyard before it’ll be inevitably replaced by summer’s more vibrant flowers.

It’s only been two weeks since the journey, but it’s felt like a lifetime. His parents have been reluctant to let him leave the palace, which is just a nicer way to say that he hasn’t been allowed to leave at all. At least before, he was allowed to go into the city quarter if he was accompanied by San or Mingi, but now his world’s dwindled down to the walls of the palace and the outermost hedges of the courtyard—and even there, he has to be accompanied by Mingi, whom it seemed his parents had reinstated as his personal watchguard.

Wooyoung knows it isn’t Mingi’s fault, so he tries not to be actively difficult, but being shadowed nearly everywhere he goes becomes frustrating quickly.

San is his only hope. Even his parents can’t deny that he’s capable enough, given that he managed to bring them all back from that journey, and usually, telling Mingi that San will be wherever he’s going is enough to convince him that he’ll be fine.

Before, this might’ve been a gift. He imagines how he and San might’ve used this to their advantage to sneak off into the countryside, where San liked to lie on the grass and breathe the fresh air and Wooyoung liked to laze near him, cheek to the soft earth, convinced that he could feel every living and non-living thing touched by the Veil.

But San hasn’t entertained the idea of venturing past the palace walls lately. He’s been busy trying to scour for the original reports of the Veil before it apparently closed after the partial mountain collapse, and Wooyoung knows this because of times like now, when he sits on the sill of one of the royal library’s arched windows, a book on Veil magic open in his lap, and he can see San a few paces in front of him, bowed over a table with sheaves of papers and scrolls.

It isn’t a new sight; San’s always been studious. But these days, San won’t even accompany him to the courtyards, and if it isn’t bad enough that Wooyoung really asks, in a way that he hates to ask others and in a way that he thought San would always understand—that he means, it’s awful being made to stay in here, that he means, I feel like I can’t breathe— San does seem to understand, but it’s as if he remembers himself at the last second and reins himself back in a way he’s never done before.

So he isn’t surprised when he calls out, “San-ah, do you want to take a break with me?” and San answers without looking up, “You can go ahead without me, your highness.”

He tries to concentrate on his book again. Outside, a pair of sparrows flutter by. The peach blossom leaves ripple in the wind. 

He lasts about ten seconds before he closes it, stands, and approaches San’s table.

“Sannie, you’ve been reading over those same reports for weeks.”

San has two papers lined together, gaze flicking between them. “Yes. I’ve told you that we might find more information about that place you saw in the Veil.”

Wooyoung comes around the back of his seat to wrap his arms around him from behind. He feels San stiffen. “Or you might not find anything at all, because everything in it was made up just to lure you out there.” Don’t you remember? Wooyoung wants to tell him. Don’t you remember what they wanted to do to you? What they wanted to use me to do to you?

If this information had been enough to nearly bring San into their trap once, where will digging deeper get him?

But no matter how many times he has told San this, San only looks all the more determined, as though he'll be able to solve one of the longest-standing mysteries of history just by rereading a few reports. 

“If you’re tired, your highness,” San says now, “go find Mingi.” 

“I don’t want to be with Mingi," Wooyoung says slowly. "I want to be with you. Preferably in open air, where we can both feel the sun for once. When was even the last time you were outside?”

San sighs. “Last I spoke with your parents, they were considering allowing you into the city quarter again, at least. If you agree to bring one of my homing bracelets, they might let you.”

Wooyoung’s chest feels tight. He withdraws his arms from San—not like San was reciprocating, anyway, the way it’s been since that night, leaving Wooyoung to wonder if it happened at all now that the last of the marks and bruises have faded. “So is that where you keep going off to these days? To speak with my parents, about what I am and am not allowed to do?”

At that, San finally lifts his head. Wooyoung remains where he is, looking at him expectantly, and San looks back. His eyes seem regretful. “You know that isn’t what I meant.”

Right.

Wooyoung moves his gaze away first, looking down at the stupid, thick, crinkly book in his hands. He began earnestly reading into Veil magic in the hopes that he would be able to help San, or at least be somebody San would see valuable in the field, but perhaps he overestimated himself. “Will you come with me or not?”

A last effort. Wooyoung can’t remember the last time he asked San outright for something he wanted when they usually wanted the same things and he could feel San in tandem with him.

He hasn’t felt it since the night they returned from the cave. Hasn’t felt anything, really, as if San had dispelled something else that night other than the marks on their shoulders. Wooyoung isn’t sure what would hurt more: if something was truly lost between them then or if it wasn’t lost, instead sealed away by this distance San has intentionally laid down around himself.

But for a moment, he thinks he might have finally crossed it. For a moment, he thinks he sees San’s resolve fracture, that San might finally relent.

And then San catches himself. Ever a paragon of temperance, he tells him again, quietly, “I’m sorry, Wooyoung. Go find Mingi instead.”

Wooyoung presses his lips together hard. He opens his mouth to respond—then he finds that he has nothing to say. He leaves the library alone, pretending that there isn’t something hot and humiliating lodged in the back of his throat.

He runs into Mingi on the way to San’s tower. Oh, absolutely not. “San and I are going out to the courtyard,” he says quickly, lightening his voice with practiced ease. “And before you can ask, he already sent me to fetch homing bracelets for us, so if a dragon or maybe a giant chicken decides to pluck us right out from the apple orchards, we’ll have a means to find our way back.”

“Please don’t say that about the giant chickens,” Mingi says. “You’ll just worry me more.”

“Mingi, I promise I’m in good hands.” Wooyoung smiles and pats him on the stomach before sidestepping him and continuing down the castle. He holds his breath for a few steps, listening for the sounds of Mingi following, but then he hears Mingi’s footsteps seemingly headed in the opposite direction.

Thank gods.

The door to San’s tower still opens for him. He’s only been back here a few times since that night since San began to periodically disappear somewhere after sundown, sometimes not even returning to his tower at all, and it’s strange how the walls that he firmly believed were his sanctuary just feel like any other wall when San isn’t there.

He tries to be quick, heading for San’s desk where he knows he keeps the homing bracelets. They’re thin, leather, bearing that magical etching that Wooyoung is closely familiar with now.

Remembering that unbearable heat he’d felt the last time this sort of bonding magic was on him, he hesitates. But he reminds himself that San’s magic, in its purest form, has done nothing but good, and that bracelets are easy enough to cast off if it does become comfortable. He slips it on, tightening it by the cord.

He doesn’t expect it will grow too warm, anyway. The city’s still shaken after that shockwave from the Veilwound, and he doesn’t really want to be surrounded by everyone’s theories about the cultists and dragons and harbingers of the ends of the world.

He wants to be in the courtyard, in the air, beneath the flowers. That’s all.

Well, he thinks, lingering on a second bracelet, almost all.

He ends up pocketing it too. Perhaps San will change his mind. He’s surprised Wooyoung before. And perhaps— perhaps Wooyoung’s been overthinking things again, that this is a difficult time, yes, but that it will smooth itself out as it always does. He and San have faced worse threats before.

He’s about to leave when a flash of silver catches his eye. Tucked in the corner of San’s desk, the one he has affectionately called his spot for Wooyoung-related matters before, is an opened scroll, bearing a royal seal.

Not Wooyoung’s family seal, though. He recognizes it as the crest of the royal family to their north: a silver songbird with its wings half spread in flight, framed by alstroemerias. It isn’t so much the seal itself that puzzles him, but the way it catches the light too well to be wax.

A magical seal. He’s seen his parents use it in confidential correspondences before. On the opposite side of the seal, they would place a second marking of its intended recipient’s family crest, preventing anyone else’s touch from being able to break the seal.

The letter is face-down, and Wooyoung can see the second marking on the back of the parchment.

It isn’t San’s crest, nor the nameless crest that was used by those whose true crests were unknown. It’s Wooyoung’s.

What is San doing with a letter meant for Wooyoung’s family?

Wooyoung turns it over, only to find a large brass key underneath, bearing the royal crest too. He recognizes what it's for immediately, because there is only one place that went untouched when all things of brass in the palace were rebuilt with iron, two generations before him: the dungeons underground, long unused.

Why does San have this?

Why does San have any of these things? 

Wooyoung turns mutely to the parchment and, there, scrawled at the top in rich black ink, are the words: Your majesties, thank you for your correspondence. We have deliberated upon your request, and we would be happy to host Choi San in our kingdom for as long as he would wish to stay. We are also prepared to accommodate a more permanent arrangement, should he choose.

It takes a few moments for Wooyoung to understand what he’s reading. Maybe his body understands first, suddenly unable to breathe.

In a gesture of goodwill, our son has agreed to travel to your kingdom along with an escort, to ensure that the journey proceeds smoothly. Although the decision remains to be made, we would suggest that the journey be made before the summer ends, before the northern roads begin to frost over...

Heart in his throat, Wooyoung pushes the letter back down over the key. Are his parents trying to send San away? Did they give this letter to him as some sort of ultimatum?

He stumbles out of San’s tower. The walk back to the library is a blur, half-formed thoughts crowding his mind, but he returns to San’s table only to find the papers haphazardly strewn about and the chair knocked over, as though San had left in a rush.

The lump in his throat grows bigger. He tries not to imagine the worst scenario, unlikely as it is, of San being dragged away by the guards in broad daylight, but once the first thought strikes him then it’s difficult to keep similar ones from coming. He hurries out of the library, trying to think of where else he would finally find San—

He bumps into Jongho carrying a bundle of cloth, looking about as frantic as he is.

“Your highness! I’m sorry, I didn’t see you.” Sounding strangely sincere about the apology, Jongho helps him back up with one hand.

“It’s all right,” Wooyoung says faintly. “Jongho, have you seen San?”

Jongho blinks at him, and Wooyoung sighs a little, knowing that usually he is the one being asked of San’s whereabouts. 

“He just told me that we were going to take a walk together. I went to get the homing bracelets, but now he’s gone.”

“He told you that?”

Wooyoung tries not to let his defensiveness show. “Yes. So have you seen him?”

“He…” Jongho’s gaze flickers past him for a moment. Now that Wooyoung has a proper look at him, he looks like he’s in the middle of a rush too, cheeks faintly pink from exertion. “He told me that he’ll have to postpone your outing until tomorrow. But he also said not to worry, that he’ll be back before the evening ends.”

Wooyoung’s hands fall away from him. “Did he, now?”

“Yes, but he looked very much like he regretted it. Now I’m really sorry, your highness, but I’m supposed to be delivering these to someone.” Jongho backs away with a small bow, clutching the bundle closer to his chest.

Wooyoung nods wordlessly and gestures for him to go on. Moments later, Jongho disappears around the bend of the hallway, leaving him standing in the filtered sunlight.

Jongho detests lying, he knows this. So why…?

At least no one notices him making his way to the courtyards. At the topmost step, Wooyoung stops, gazing down at the rest of the way strangely. There are so many steps here—he can’t remember if it’s always looked this high. He supposes that when he walked them with San so often, it was difficult to pay attention to them.

The courtyard is empty, the iron gates open to the cobblestone path that leads down to the city quarter.

I could go, he thinks. He could visit a few shops, maybe see how Hongjoong is doing and tell him what happened to the brooch. The flower stalls must be selling the last of their spring blooms, too. The bracelet would be enough to guide him back if he did go past the city limits, and if everyone in the palace is truly as preoccupied as they seem to be, then perhaps none of them would notice as long as he returned by nightfall.

He takes one step down. Another.

Every place he’d like to visit is a place he’d like to visit with San. It’s strange to think of it any other way. 

He arrives at the stables, but he finds that he isn’t the only one about to set up. Park Seonghwa is there, saddling his horse, and by the time Wooyoung thinks to turn around before he’s seen, Seonghwa already calls out, “Finally going out too, your highness?”

Wooyoung forces a little smile and urges himself to cross the rest of the way to the stables. “I was just coming to check up on Bora.”

Seonghwa casts him a small, somewhat knowing smile in turn. “I’ve been checking on her as well every time I visit. She’s been recovering well from the journey.”

The journey.

Those memories return in fragments, some of them he doesn’t realize he’s missing until something reminds him, like Seonghwa’s mention of Bora. Yes, after they arrived in a clearing midway back to the palace and the dragon left them, Wooyoung had begged Seonghwa to help him find him, please, terrified of what the dragon’s departure meant.

Seonghwa had been the one to find San and bring him back to Wooyoung. Seonghwa’s horse was still lost then, and San insisted on Wooyoung riding Byeol with him while Seonghwa took Bora, Wooyoung didn’t have the will to refuse when San was trembling so badly that Wooyoung didn’t trust him to ride Byeol without falling off.

“She took a liking to you really quickly,” he says, trying to soften his smile into something more genuine. Seonghwa bears no allegiance to any kingdom, yet he has agreed to stay longer at the palace too to help track down the cultists who had managed to escape. For that, and for all he did that day, Wooyoung already owes him more than he can repay.

“She’s a gentle one. Trusting.” Seonghwa leads his horse, a white steed he calls Baekgwang, closer to Bora’s stall and passes Wooyoung a sugarcube. “I assume you’re not permitted to leave the palace grounds alone?“

Wooyoung’s shoulders sag. “No.”

“I thought as much.” Seonghwa nods. “I better accompany you to the city quarter then, yes?”

Wooyoung starts, looking over at him. Seonghwa’s still smiling that secretive smile.

“If I sympathized with keeping birds locked in their cages, your highness, I wouldn’t be a hunter.”

Wooyoung tilts his head. “I’m not sure what else that metaphor might be implying if I’m supposed to be the bird while you’re a hunter.”

“I don’t hunt birds, if that’s what you’re getting at.” Seonghwa chuckles. “Nor do I think people are birds at all, which is why I would be happy to accompany you until we reach the city quarter and we can part ways if you wish. And if you think that your parents would be upset to see you return without an escort, we can meet somewhere once you’re ready, and I’ll accompany you back here as well.”

Wooyoung stares at him. He stares at Baekgwang’s saddle. He stares at Seonghwa again. “Why?”

Seonghwa’s smile wanes, and he turns back to Baekgwang, smoothing a hand over his neck. “It’s the least I can do after what I caused that day.”

“At the Veilwound?” Wooyoung frowns a little. “But that wasn’t your fault. They captured you, too.”

“If I hadn’t thought myself capable of driving them off alone, they would not have caught me at all,” Seonghwa says. “And they wouldn’t have had a trustworthy face to use against you or your San.”

The way Seonghwa insists on referring to San as such, his San, fills his cheeks with a faint warmth. “You’ve made up for it more than enough, I hope you know. If not for you, I might have found San too late that night...if I did at all.” He looks down at the sugarcube, then silently offers it to Bora, still petting her cheek absently. 

“I don’t think you should discredit yourselves so easily,” Seonghwa says quietly. “From the way he speaks of you and you of him, I find it hard to believe that you wouldn’t both fight to return to each other, even under direr circumstances.”

“I would,” Wooyoung says without hesitation. “I wouldn’t have given up so easily. I wouldn’t have left without finding him, no matter where he was. But…” 

He thinks of the letter. He thinks of the growing distance he’s seen in San’s eyes, the way he guards himself from Wooyoung.

“We can always find each other because we want to be found by each other. I’m afraid that if he ever chooses… If he…”

“I don’t think you have to worry about anything like that happening, your highness,” Seonghwa says gently.

Wooyoung swallows. He hates how this feels, being this helpless. “You’ve been working closely with him, haven’t you? Has he been well?”

“He’s focused. Distrustful, but for good reason, and he’s been willing to set aside his first impression of me to work together. He’s eager to learn—for your sake, I think.” Seonghwa appears to hesitate. “However, he does seem prone to illness.”

Wooyoung glances at him, frowning again. “Illness?”

“He gets...bouts of exhaustion. Or— I’m not sure if that’s the right way to put it,” Seonghwa admits. “He’ll rush to excuse himself from meetings, and sometimes I don’t see him until the next time we meet.”

“He was sickly when we were younger, but never anything like that. Do you know where he goes?”

“I don’t, I’m afraid.” Seonghwa mirrors his frown, reaching out and squeezing his forearm. “I didn’t mean to worry you, either. I make sure he eats and sleeps as best as I can, but I don’t want to overstep my boundaries, either.”

“That just worries me more,” Wooyoung mutters. “Sometimes you have to step into his boundaries to get anywhere with him.”

“Perhaps you’re in a better place to speak to him about it, then,” Seonghwa says.

Wooyoung isn’t sure how to say that San doesn’t even speak to him these days unless Wooyoung approaches him first. He would hate to fracture this rosy image Seonghwa has of their bond.

“Maybe,” he says. I don’t even know where he is now. “Tonight, if he’s less busy then. But I was hoping I could take you up on your offer to go to the city quarter for now.”

Seonghwa smiles. “Of course, your highness.”

 

- ⚘ -

 

Seonghwa accompanies him to the edge of the city quarter, where Wooyoung decides that he doesn’t want to go after all. He suspects that he’ll only find things he wishes to show San, and the ache of his absence will fester worse when he won’t have him to turn to.

Seonghwa lets him lead them out into the countryside instead. It’s still close enough that the bracelet only carries the faintest warmth, which he supposes is what his parents would want.

Seonghwa is good company. He doesn’t seem to mind that Wooyoung never formally tells him he can leave, instead hitching Baekgwang next to Bora where Wooyoung chooses a nice spot on a hill to lie down on and proceeds to spend the better part of the afternoon simply staring at the sky.

“Is it hard to be away from your family?” he asks, following a cloud that reminds him of a crane.

“At first,” Seonghwa replies with a hum. “I knew they knew, though. That I couldn’t stay like that.”

“You don’t seem like the type for the kingsguard, if I’m honest.”

“I’m wounded, your highness.”

“No you aren’t.” Wooyoung closes his eyes with a little smile. “It’s strange to think that you might’ve grown up here with me and Sannie. I would have sooner appointed you to lead our informants, though.” 

“Then maybe I might have enjoyed serving under you, if things had happened that way. Although I’m afraid my heart has always lain somewhere else.”

Wooyoung rolls over to look at him. “I knew it. A lover? Or lovers?”

“I didn’t think the crown prince would be such a gossip,” Seonghwa muses.

“Oh, quiet. You know I’ve been bored out of my mind since we returned.” Wooyoung inches closer. “You mentioned you didn’t set sail with your family because you found a reason to stay. Are they that reason? That would be romantic.”

“Leaving isn’t so romantic,” Seonghwa tells him. “I left because my heart has always belonged to the world. I wanted to know more about the Veilwounds. I thought maybe I could find a way to heal them like the stories say.”

The stories say a lot of things, Wooyoung thinks. Sometimes he wonders if they would be better without them. “They couldn’t just come with you?”

“His heart belongs somewhere else, too. A duty that he can’t abandon.” Seonghwa falls quiet for a moment. “Which is all right. He understood, and so did I. Besides, not all goodbyes are necessarily final, don’t you think?”

Wooyoung opens his mouth. Closes it. “I don’t know. I’ve never had to say goodbye before,” he says, discomfited by the realization.

“You sound anxious. I’d say that’s a good thing, your highness.” Seonghwa opens his eyes too and offers him a smile from where he’s resting with both hands behind his head. “If I didn’t know the world better, I would hope that you would never have to, especially the person you wish you would never have to leave.”

“I know the world less. I’ll hope for the both of us,” Wooyoung says. “Would you ever return to him? Your person?”

Seonghwa hums. “Perhaps one day, when I’m braver.”

“But doesn’t it hurt to be away from him for so long?”

“Does it hurt you to be away from your San?”

“He isn’t mine.” Wooyoung fiddles with the laces of his tunic, turning his gaze skywards again. “He is, but he isn’t. Just like I’m his but I’m not. Do you understand what I mean?”

“None of us ever truly belong to each other,” Seonghwa agrees. “Have you two been involved long?”

“Since my seventeenth nameday. But I’ve loved him for longer.” Wooyoung’s lips curve into a little smile. “Is it that obvious?”

“With all due respect,” Seonghwa says, “I sincerely don’t know how your parents don’t see it.”

Wooyoung giggles before he can help himself. “My— Jongho, have you met him yet? He always says the same thing.”

“Mm, yes. And his partner Mingi — your guard, I presumed? — as well.”

Now he’s snickering. “They aren’t together, actually.”

“What?”

“Those are my thoughts exactly!”

Time passes like this: with the cool, crisp breeze, the summer-warmed sun beaming above them. Seonghwa tells him stories of all of the places he’s traveled, and Wooyoung barters with stories of the things that he and San used to get up to when they were younger. They stay until sunset, when Wooyoung’s stomach begins to grumble and Seonghwa laughs at him. 

They stop for some skewers in the city quarter after all. A few recognize him, but they seem cognizant of whatever happened, keeping a respectful distance. Still, Wooyoung pays for their meals, and he leaves the rest of his coin pouch with the stall keeper. 

By the time they finish eating, night has fallen, but he feels no sense of urgency as they ride back to the courtyard gates. The night sky is dark, dotted with stars and shimmering with the faintest sheen of emerald. It’s been that way since the night of the mountain collapse, according to Jongho. 

“I don’t think you really answered me earlier,” Wooyoung says. They ride side-by-side, close enough to speak at a comfortable level, something that he appreciates. “Do you regret leaving?”

“I believe that when you’re so fond of someone, it’s hard to say that you truly ever leave them,” Seonghwa says. “Nor they, you.” He casts his gaze upwards and Wooyoung follows, like he might find another answer there. “But yes, sometimes I do wish I had stayed longer. Or that I’ve at least been able to visit him all these years.”

“It isn’t too late,” Wooyoung says. “You should, before it is.”

Seonghwa doesn’t say anything to that, but he flashes him a grateful smile.

Together, they return the horses to the stables, and together, they walk back to the courtyard. But before they ascend the stone steps back into the palace, Wooyoung stops him with a hand on his arm.

“Seonghwa. I want you to have this.” He presents the second homing bracelet he had brought with him. “This etching would guide you back here if you are ever lost.”

“I couldn’t call myself a hunter if I get lost, your highness,” Seonghwa says, but he’s smiling. 

“Be quiet,” Wooyoung chides, forcibly closing Seonghwa’s fingers around the bracelet, “and take it as my way of saying that you’re always welcome to visit here. Your lover too, if you’d like to bring him.”

“I still have some unfinished matters to attend to—is this your way of rushing our goodbyes?”

“Maybe. You know all of my secrets now.”

“I’m truly hurt, your highness.”

“I told you to stop being so formal!”

“Your highness?”

The new voice makes Wooyoung jump, his hands falling away from Seonghwa’s.

Still, there is San at the top of the steps, looking as though he’d seen anyway. In the moonlight, his eyes shine amber, the most vivid Wooyoung has seen them, but he also looks immeasurably more pallid, exhausted.

“I should return to those matters I mentioned.” Seonghwa squeezes his arm meaningfully. “Have a good evening, Wooyoung. You too, San.”

San looks at him, giving a slight bow of his head, but he says nothing as Seonghwa ascends the stairs and passes him. Wooyoung watches him in turn, making no move until San’s jaw seems to unset and he descends to where Wooyoung is. Like a cloak discarded, Wooyoung feels the lightness of that afternoon slip off of him, baring him to the elements once more, to this reality where San no longer seems to trust him enough to tell him where he goes when it's dark.

Where have you been? Wooyoung wants to ask. Don’t you know how worried I was?

He wants to tell him about what he saw on his desk. He wants to make San explain, to tell him why he didn’t throw that letter away, why he keeps disappearing, why Wooyoung is afraid that he might have already made some decisions without him.

But I find it hard to believe that you wouldn’t both fight to return to each other, Seonghwa said.

Perhaps San is just fighting in different ways. Perhaps Wooyoung needs to understand that.

“Hi,” Wooyoung says when he’s close enough.

“Hello,” San says quietly. He seems to reach for Wooyoung, only to stop halfway there and glance up at him questioningly. Wooyoung takes his hand for him. “I thought you were supposed to be with Mingi.”

Wooyoung recognizes that tone. “Don’t start on that. Seonghwa just accompanied me because he actually understood that I was two breaths away from losing my mind in this place. He was good to me," he says, and he can't help the shortness of his own voice, knowing now all he does about Seonghwa.

San flinches. “I’m sorry.” He looks down, and finally, hesitantly, closes his fingers around Wooyoung’s hand. “That I haven’t been.”

“I—" Wooyoung pinches his lips together restlessly. "I didn’t say that, San. I'm just...” He's never felt so helpless before. He wishes San would at least look at him; he can’t remember the last time San did without looking away quickly, the way people do when they believe they overstep by meeting his eyes. It hasn’t been that way for them since they were children. “I wish it was you, with me.”

San sighs quietly, like an I know. Then he must know too that neither of them can change that anymore. “Is the city well?”

“The city lives. I suspect it might even live until tomorrow, and perhaps the tomorrow after tomorrow, if it dares.” Wooyoung lays a hand on his cheek, where he finds San warmer than usual. “I wish you’d let me bring you out there. It isn’t healthy to stay cooped up in there for so long, you know. And Seonghwa tells me you've been falling ill?”

“Did you eat?”

Wooyoung bites back his own sigh at the abrupt switch. He hates that he’s begun to get used to it. “Yes, Sannie. Did you?”

“Mm.” San lays a hand over his and guides it down gently, clasping their joined hands to his chest. “Tomorrow evening, we can visit your favorite food stall in the market for dinner, if you’d still have my company. Maybe we can visit Hongjoong after too and see about getting you a new a brooch.”

Wooyoung thinks he should be angrier that San can speak so casually after leaving him in the dark, but he’s tired. He’s tired and he's missed him, so he will be angry in the morning, and for now he mutters, “I think he’ll pinch my ear once he hears that I’ve lost another one of his creations.”

“I’m sure you’ll live,” San says with a hint of a smile. It makes Wooyoung’s mouth twitch into a small smile too, hope flickering dangerously in his chest. “But if I promise to keep you safe from whatever pinching he intends to do, will you say yes?”

“Will you pinch me if I say yes?”

San’s smile becomes a full one, a real one, and Wooyoung doesn’t realize how much he’s missed it until he feels his eyes suddenly grow wet. Yes, he doesn’t think he can be angry even if he wants to be tonight.

“Of course it's a yes, Sannie,” he answers before San can truly say anything. “Like you would be able to rid yourself of me that easily, anyway.”

“I don’t want to be rid of you,” San says, still smiling, but he seems to notice Wooyoung’s eyes because he gives their hands a squeeze. “You’re my heart, Wooyoung.”

Wooyoung reluctantly frees one of his hands to rub at that wetness before it spills over. “Well, I don’t know how you expect me to outdo that, Choi San.”

“Oh, my full name, hm?” San hums. “Did I strike too well?”

Wooyoung kisses him to shut him up. He feels San freeze for a moment, before he grows relaxed against him, reciprocating. Relief floods into Wooyoung at once. He didn’t realize how afraid he was that San would simply push him away.

“You feel a little feverish,” he whispers. He remembers what Seonghwa said about San and illness, but he’ll be damned if he lets San shake him off if he falls ill now. “Do you feel okay?”

“It’s just been unbearably warm lately. The coming summer, I figure.” San pulls away to press a kiss to his forehead. “Will you spend the night with me? It’s… I think I would sleep better with you there.”

“Yes,” Wooyoung says. He winds his arms over San’s shoulders and brings him into an embrace instead, trying to tell him, I’ve missed you, don’t you know? I would do anything for you, don’t you know? “But if you’re falling ill, you have to tell me. I’ll make you that porridge you like.”

“I won’t have my prince in the kitchens for me.”

“Your prince will be in the kitchens for himself, stealing desserts at midnight,” Wooyoung says. “Your porridge will simply happen to be on the way.”

He feels San chuckle. “I can never win against you, can I?”

Does he know that Wooyoung would let him if he asked, too?

“No, you can’t.” He presses another kiss to the corner of San’s lips, then to his brow when San seems to shy away. It’s been so long since San has done that that Wooyoung draws him into his arms, embracing him tighter than before. “Sannie,” he murmurs. “Whatever you’re bearing, you know that you don’t have to do it alone, don’t you? Let me bear it with you.”

He feels San's shoulders suddenly lock up with tension again. For a moment, he thinks that San will step away, but San just clutches him tighter. “It asks too much of me,” San mutters, “so I would be asking too much of you, too. I couldn't.”

“Let it ask the same from us both,” Wooyoung insists. “I don’t care. Whatever it demands from you, it can demand from me as well.”

“Let’s drop this for tonight, sweetheart.” San squeezes his hip lightly before he indeed pulls away. He looks at Wooyoung once, then looks away, his voice gentle but firm. “Please?”

Tight-lipped, Wooyoung studies him. The way the shadows fall across his face makes him seem so much wearier, and Wooyoung wants answers, but he wants peace for San even more, and he can see just how much the day has worn on him alone. “All right,” he says reluctantly, reaching for San’s hand. “Let’s go to your room, then.”

He says nothing of the letter. Perhaps San will be more likely to answer tomorrow when he’s better rested. He lets San lead them to his tower, where it feels less cavernous than it did earlier. He lets San loosen the bracelet and kiss the inside of his wrist, then strip away the rest of his clothes, and Wooyoung isn’t once cold even in the time it takes for him to slip a nightgown on after. He undresses San too, imagining that he peels off the world from his shoulders with his vestments, and when San is also bare, he leads him to the bed and kisses him.

It’s usual for San to curl into him and for Wooyoung to cradle him against his chest, but tonight, San gathers him into his arms instead. His skin is heated to touch, and Wooyoung almost voices his concern again if not for the way San seems to drift off to sleep quickly, breaths warm and even against his hair.

“I love you,” Wooyoung murmurs into his neck. He doesn’t think that San hears, but he thinks it again and again, until he drifts off to sleep too, vowing that in the morning, he’ll tell him in the light.

 

- ⚘ -

 

He wakes sometime in the night, as he’s been doing lately, with emeralds and golds lingering in his vision. It isn’t a nightmare, but he still reaches for San by instinct, only to find his side of the bed empty.

“San?” He sits up, the covers pooling around his lap. The tower is dark, the air almost oppressively hot. Now he understands what San meant—he’s never felt the air this heavy in his chambers before.

He calls out for San once more as he slips out of the bed, only to trip on something on the floor. He cries out in surprise, falling to the carpet that’s barely thick enough to cushion his weight, and then he realizes—

He hasn’t made a sound.

“San?”

He feels his mouth move, the vibration in the back of his throat from that single syllable, but not a single sound fills the air. He repeats it anyway, whirling around to try to find San by sight instead, but the tower is silent and still, all color washed out by the dark.

Heart racing, he fumbles to get back up on his feet, but that’s when he sees it: two scorch marks on the floor, mirroring the spread of his hands where he had caught himself before hitting the floor, and a silencing ward glowing faintly in the dark, partly on the carpet and partly on the floorboards below.

Did San do this?

Wooyoung wrenches the carpet back. The instant that the edges of the ward on the carpet are displaced from the edges etched into the floor, the sound of ragged breathing floods the air.

His own. His heart is beating so harshly that it’s painful. 

He can see it then, so vividly that he might have mistaken it for a vision than an inference: San stumbling out of bed in the middle of the night, hurt, and landing on the floor, only to place that ward there so that Wooyoung wouldn’t hear him.

Why? Why?

Wooyoung stumbles to San’s desk where he knows he keeps a candlestick, struggling to find the matches in the dark. He nearly drops the match once it’s lit, but he manages to light all three candles before waving the match out.

Before he turns away to begin his search, his gaze catches on the letter. It has moved from where he remembers setting it down before, now strewn about with a portion of San’s belongings as though carelessly swept aside by a hurried hand.

The key to the dungeon is missing.