“Why didn’t you tell me Chanyeol was a prince?” Baekhyun asks Zitao, and Zitao looks at him guiltily. “Don’t make that face at me.”
Zitao pats Baekhyun’s head, and Baekhyun scowls up at him. “Smiling,” Zitao says. “Boxian, with Canlie, is smiling.”
“Oh,” Baekhyun says, and he doesn’t know why Zitao looks so upset.
“Good night,” Zitao says, leaving Baekhyun alone in his room, and Baekhyun stays awake for several hours afterwards, contemplating the family he’s about to join.
Their first lesson takes place in a part of the palace Baekhyun has never been to before. Zitao leads him there after a short breakfast alone, and he finds Chanyeol curled up in a leather chair with a book open in his lap. His glasses have fallen low on his nose, and Baekhyun tries to reconcile this soft-faced man with the mature one who’d sat across from at dinner last night.
“Good morning,” Baekhyun says, and Chanyeol jumps, book tumbling from his lap and falling to the library floor. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“You didn’t scare me,” Chanyeol says, using his first finger to slide his glasses back up. “You startled me.”
“Then sorry for startling you,” Baekhyun says.
“Are you mad at me?” Chanyeol asks, and Baekhyun frowns thoughtfully.
“I considered being mad at you,” Baekhyun says, “but then I realized you’ve never really lied to me. But--” He points at Chanyeol. “Don’t not tell me things again.”
“I really wanted to meet you,” Chanyeol says. “It was easier to do that if you didn’t know I was Kris’ brother.”
“What if I’d said all sorts of bad things about him?” Baekhyun asks.
“Then I’d know you still had a lot to learn,” Chanyeol replies. He climbs out of the chair, long limbs unfolding, and walks over to a great oak table in the center of the library. “Speaking of learning, do you want to start with the family tree, the dynasty history, or both?”
“Both sound so enticing,” Baekhyun says. “How about option c, where I draw pictures of puppies on these really expensive books.”
“Are you a good artist?” Chanyeol asks.
“Not at all,” Baekhyun says.
“Only a good writer, then,” Chanyeol says to himself, and Baekhyun’s cheeks redden.
“No,” he says. “I’m not a good writer, either.”
“Didn’t you say you write?” He has a few books out, and Baekhyun sighs in relief to see that some of them, at least, are in Korean.
“That doesn’t mean I’m good at it.” Baekhyun walks over to Chanyeol, stopping when he gets close enough that he can see the books Chanyeol has picked out, he stops his approach. “You don’t have to be good at something to do it.”
“You just have to love it,” Chanyeol says, and Baekhyun nods.
“I try to write. I’ve opened my laptop a few times while I’ve been here, but...” All he can write about is, well, Chanyeol, and Baekhyun doesn’t know if he can make a whole story out of a man that makes him smile. “I’m a good editor,” Baekhyun says. It’s easy to see what’s wrong with other people’s stories.
“All those fantasy books,” Chanyeol says. “Can you handle history, you think?”
“Your royal history reads more like fantasy to me.” Chanyeol pulls out a chair, and Baekhyun pulls out the one next to it.
“There’s only a little bit of magic,” Chanyeol says, and Baekhyun smiles.
“Should I believe you?” Baekhyun says.
“Why don’t I lay out all the facts, and we can discuss it.” Chanyeol’s arm brushes Baekhyun’s as he opens the first book.
“Sounds good,” Baekhyun says, leaning forward. “The Chinese Revolution? I studied that in grade school.” He had hated it.
“Good,” Chanyeol says. “Then tell me how we got to a parliamentary government with an Emperor, and a separate law-making body from a straight-up monarchy.”
Baekhyun jostles in his chair. “With a revolution?” Chanyeol laughs, and Baekhyun smiles at him cheekily.
“Well, it’s a start,” Chanyeol says. “But really, it kind of happened like this…”
Chanyeol gets excited, telling Baekhyun about obscure things that Baekhyun will never remember, but Baekhyun never gets bored, because Chanyeol’s face is so animated as he speaks. His smile keeps making Baekhyun forget to pay attention though, so when Chanyeol stops to ask if he’s listen Baekhyun has to comb back through his mind for what they were just talking about.
“I think that’s enough for today,” Chanyeol says, finally. “You look like I’ve overload your circuits.”
“If there were a quiz on this tomorrow,” Baekhyun says, “I would get a seventy percent.”
Chanyeol frowns. “Only a seventy?”
“I made it through school barely scraping sixties, Chanyeol. You should consider this an accomplishment.”
“I’ll take it, then.” Baekhyun notices that they’ve moved closer to each other as Chanyeol’s breath blows on his ear. Baekhyun shivers, and focuses on the lessons Chanyeol is supposed to teach.
After they study, Chanyeol shows him another secret hallway, guiding him from the library to the kitchen he’d shown Baekhyun on the day they first met. “These aren’t exactly ‘royal’ things to do, Baekhyun,” Chanyeol says, “so don’t tell anyone I taught you how to get dumplings in the middle of the afternoon if you’re caught.”
Baekhyun shoves a dumpling into Chanyeol’s mouth, and Chanyeol licks at Baekhyun’s fingers in revenge. Baekhyun jerks his hand away quickly, hiding it in the sleeve of his robe, and looks at Chanyeol through his eyelashes. “Are you always breaking rules?”
“Not really,” Chanyeol says. “I’m not Kris, so no one expects that much from me.”
“There’s a ‘but’ in there,” Baekhyun says, and Chanyeol laughs.
“I bend the rules more than break them,” Chanyeol says, pulling a dumpling apart so he can pick out the parts he likes best. Baekhyun loves the way his hands are so large but his fingers are so careful. “We always have to wear formal clothes around the palace, for example.”
“When I met you, you were wearing jeans,” Baekhyun says. “And then we went around the palace.”
“Ah ah ah,” Chanyeol says. “We went under the palace.”
“That’s flimsy and you know it,” Baekhyun says.
“I have to get my thrills somewhere,” Chanyeol says, and Baekhyun can get that.
“I have to wear these robes until the ceremony,” Baekhyun says morosely. “As an announcement of status change.”
“I had to wear them every day until my twenty-first birthday,” Chanyeol says. “I know what it’s like.”
“Kris said you can’t leave the palace, like me.” Baekhyun grabs another dumpling, just putting the whole thing in his mouth. He chews it with his mouth open, because no one but Chanyeol is here to judge him, and Chanyeol’s knee bumps his beneath the table.
“That’s so nasty,” he says. “The most uncute thing I’ve ever seen you do.” His glasses fog up from the steam when he cracks a dumpling with his face too close to the plate, and Baekhyun purposefully exaggerates his chewing until Chanyeol puts three fingers under his jaw and pushes up to shut his mouth. “I can leave the palace, but only with a full escort. They’re willing to do that for Kris, but not for me. It’s not as politically useful to have me be seen in public.”
“Because you’re the second oldest?”
“Well,” Chanyeol says, “you probably realize it’s more complicated than that.” Chanyeol sighs. “But because of that, it’s easier for me to get some of the things I want.”
“Like Lu Han coming to visit me?” Baekhyun asks, softly, so Chanyeol can feign that he didn’t hear it if he wants to.
“Like that,” Chanyeol says, his grin so wide his face looks like a cartoon. Baekhyun doesn’t know why he likes Chanyeol’s smile so much, when it’s so very much.
“Why are you doing so much for me?” Baekhyun asks, and Chanyeol wipes his hands on a napkin and looks at the table.
“Because you’re Kris’,” Chanyeol says. “I want you to be happy here. I want you and Kris to be happy, because Kris is my big brother.”
“I see,” Baekhyun says. “I’ll do my best.”
“I know,” Chanyeol says. “I could tell from the beginning that you were feisty. Feisty people don’t just give up.”
“You don’t know me,” Baekhyun challenges.
“I know you well enough to realize that you’re not just the person lucky enough to get Kris,” Chanyeol says, pushing his plate away.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Kris is also the person lucky enough to get you,” Chanyeol says, and Baekhyun kicks at him under the table because he’s blushing and he hates it. “He should watch out for his shins, though.”
“No, that’s just you,” Baekhyun says, and pushes his plate away too.
“Is Chanyeol a good teacher?” Kris asks, and Baekhyun blows blond bangs grown out too long from his eyes.
“He is,” Baekhyun says, and Kris looks surprised, but pleased.
“Chanyeol is the best part of the palace, for me,” Kris says. “We’re the people that look out for each other, here.”
“I’m glad you have each other,” Baekhyun says, and he’s treated to one of Kris’s sincere smiles.
“Me too,” Kris says, and Baekhyun can see, in that instant, how someone could fall in love with Kris.
He takes a huge bite of rice, and swallows down those thoughts along with the grains of it.
He searches for Chanyeol after breakfast. He’s in the main gardens, whispering back and forth with a servant. He smiles over at Baekhyun and Baekhyun goes hot beneath his collar at the way that smile seems reserved only for him.
“You sure spend a lot of time outside,” Baekhyun says, and Chanyeol pokes his cheek.
“So do you,” he says. “For someone who’s constantly complaining about the weather, you sure subject yourself to it fairly often.”
“You’re out here,” Baekhyun says, and covers his embarrassment with a frown. “That’s the only attraction aside from the more resilient flowers.”
“Are you melting from me or the heat,” Chanyeol says, grinning down on him. Baekhyun’s heart thuds steadily away at the fast tempo that’s become commonplace when dealing with Chanyeol.
“I wish I could take off all these robes,” Baekhyun says, and Chanyeol’s cheeks darken.
“That would be inappropriate,” Chanyeol says. “I’m your brother-in-law.”
“Not yet,” Baekhyun says, after a beat too long of silence, and Chanyeol’s eyes land on a patch of wilting flowers in the left-hand plot of the garden. “Those need to be watered, don’t they?”
“Just like you do,” Chanyeol says. “Poor Baekhyun, so sensitive. We should head in to study.”
“You don’t have to tell me twice,” Baekhyun replies, but even when they walk into the air conditioning, Chanyeol’s arm still firmly over his shoulders, Baekhyun still feels kind of hot.
They have some sort of lesson every day. Chanyeol meets him in the library, and sometimes in the garden if it’s a cooler day, and life falls into a routine that makes a month pass faster than Baekhyun had ever thought it could.
And in between conversations about Chanyeol’s thwarted dream of exploring the world and Baekhyun’s love of magicians and unicorns, Baekhyun realizes something about his perspective on the palace is changing.
It’s not Kris, who Baekhyun likes more than he’d thought he would despite how difficult he makes conversations by talking around all the things he wants to say. It’s not Zitao, who wakes Baekhyun up in the morning with a Mandarin word of the day that he’s supposed to learn and follows Baekhyun around doing his best to seem menacing when people look at Baekhyun with disdain. It’s not even the Empress, who has thawed enough now that she doesn’t bother to glare at Baekhyun across the dinner table when he makes a mistake with his chopsticks. He makes fewer mistakes now, though, because he’s learning.
It’s Chanyeol who makes all the difference; who has made all the difference since Baekhyun met him on that day in the main gardens, and decorated the grass with all his dumplings at the sound of Chanyeol’s voice.
“Can I tell you something?” Chanyeol says one day in the library, as Baekhyun sets down his pen, hand aching from copying so many characters he hasn’t thought about since junior school.
“Sure?” Baekhyun gulps, his throat inexorably dry, and can’t figure out why he’s so hot, even in the cool and air-conditioned library.
“Even if it’s selfish,” Chanyeol says, his thigh hot against Baekhyun’s, even through layers and layers of fabric, “I’m glad you’re here.”
Baekhyun stares at Chanyeol, and for the first time, he really sees past Chanyeol’s carefree grin and confident posture. Chanyeol, he thinks, is just as lonely in the palace as he his.
It makes Baekhyun want to hug him. Both of them are infinitely less lonely together. “I’m so thankful you’re here,” Baekhyun says, and he carefully leans his head on Chanyeol’s shoulder. Chanyeol’s arm easily comes up around his shoulders, pulling him into his side, and it’s comforting. Chanyeol is comforting, and warm, and Baekhyun doesn’t dream longingly about Korea when Chanyeol is next to him. “I probably would have lost it without you.”
“You would have made it,” Chanyeol says. “You seem kind of tough.” He laughs. “Are you tough, Baekhyun?” He’s joking, and Baekhyun pinches his thigh for the sarcasm.
“Tougher than you,” he says, as Chanyeol begs for mercy. “I was a hapkido champ in college.”
“Vicious,” Chanyeol says, using his free hand to rub at his thigh. He doesn’t let go of Baekhyun even once, and it makes Baekhyun feel gooey inside, like a melting marshmallow. “We should probably head to our rooms. It’s almost dinner, and you’ll be expected there.”
“I wish I didn’t have to go,” Baekhyun says. “I’d rather hang out with you.”
“I’d rather you hung out with me too,” Chanyeol says, and when he smiles down at Baekhyun, Baekhyun can see his dimple and the brightness of his eyes. All of a sudden, he wants to…
He jolts back at the thought, and his heart hammers against his ribs. No, no, no, he thinks, and Chanyeol looks at him in confusion as he works his way free of Chanyeol’s casual embrace. “I should hurry,” he says. “I don’t want to be late.”
“No, you don’t,” Chanyeol says, and Baekhyun hurries back toward his rooms alone, feeling Chanyeol’s eyes on his back until he rounds a corner. Only then can Baekhyun catch his breath.
Baekhyun calls Lu Han that night, far later than he should. “I want to go home,” he says. Lu Han laughs at him, not mocking, but sympathetic.
“You’ve always wanted to go home,” Lu Han says. “What’s different about today?”
The answer to that, Baekhyun thinks, as he grabs massive handfuls of his pretty embroidered blankets and pulls them up over his head, his phone trapped between his cheek and his shoulder, is that yesterday, he didn’t realize that he wanted to kiss Chanyeol, and today, he definitely does. “They tried to feed me cucumbers,” Baekhyun says, since he can’t say the truth. Admitting it out loud is like giving in. You have to say ‘surrender’ during a hapkido match when your opponent has got you on the mat.
“Ugh, Baekhyun, you’re marrying the most eligible bachelor in China and you’re on the phone whining at me about cucumbers?” Lu Han swears into the phone, and Baekhyun’s gotten so used to no one doing that that it surprises him. “I’d trade with you, if I could.”
“If only,” Baekhyun says. He feels bad for Lu Han, and for Kris. He also feels sorry for himself, too, because he’s gone and done the one thing that could make him even more miserable here: fall for the wrong prince.
Baekhyun’s parents are an unexpected but welcome surprise. They arrive in the early afternoon, after a lesson with Chanyeol.
“I have a surprise for you,” Chanyeol says, putting his large hands over Baekhyun’s eyes. “Will you trust me?”
“This once,” Baekhyun says, his heart beating triplicate the number of times it has to when he feels Chanyeol behind him, so tall and warm.
They walk slowly through the hallways, Baekhyun aware of every breath Chanyeol takes and every press of his wrists against Baekhyun’s cheeks. “Almost there,” he says into Baekhyun’s ear, and Baekhyun feels the heat in his stomach, rolling around like fire.
When Chanyeol moves his hands from Baekhyun’s eyes, it’s his mother standing there, and Baekhyun can’t believe it until she swoops him up in a crushing hug.
“You wouldn’t believe my shock,” his mother says after a little while, “when I found out you really were marrying the crown prince of China.”
“I’m not in the habit of lying to you,” Baekhyun replies, and his mother gives him an arch expression. “Except about Grandmother’s glass plates, but—“
“Is this what you want?” His mother runs a hand along the silk of his robe, admiring the embroidery on the sleeves. “I thought you wanted to write, Baekhyun. Or keep working at the publishing company. Is getting married really what you want?”
“No, it’s not what I want,” Baekhyun says, and she narrows her eyes at him. “I told you over the phone, that there was an element of… magic.”
“You’ve always had your head in the clouds,” his mother says. “I like him.” She points to Chanyeol, who is making his father and brother laugh with some story, his button up shirt making him look far less formal than Baekhyun does. He must notice them staring, because he turns to them and waves, and Baekhyun’s rib cage collapses in on itself at having that smile turned on him full blast when he’s least expecting it. “You like him too.”
“He’s not my betrothed,” Baekhyun says, and his mother frowns. “He’s his younger brother.”
“I see,” Baekhyun’s mother says, and she rubs his back in small soothing circles. “I’m sorry, Baekhyun.”
“Me too,” Baekhyun says.
Kris is perfectly polite to Baekhyun’s family, so stiff and cordial that Baekhyun’s father clams up, and Chanyeol tries his best to ease things along but nothing gets better until Lu Han arrives, escorted by two guards.
Lu Han immediately takes charge of Baekhyun’s parents, poking and prodding at Kris until he opens up and smiles. After that, the afternoon goes more smoothly, Baekhyun’s brother and Kris finding common ground over American basketball while Baekhyun’s parents fall more and more in love with Chanyeol.
Baekhyun’s mother yawns, and Chanyeol volunteers to show them to their rooms for the night. There’s no reason for him to, because about thirty servants wait in the wings to attend Baekhyun’s parents’ every need, but Chanyeol insists. “I can tell you about the palace as we walk,” he says. “And isn’t it better if it’s with someone who speaks Korean?”
Baekhyun, Lu Han, and Kris stand alone in the once busy small reception hall, then, and Lu Han looks down at his watch. “I should go.”
“Why?” Baekhyun asks.
“Some of us have work tomorrow,” Lu Han says. “And by some of us, I mean I have work tomorrow.”
“You’re laughing,” Baekhyun says, “but Minseok won’t let me quit my job.”
“Won’t let you quit?” Lu Han leans forward to push a piece of Baekhyun’s hair behind his ear. “What’s his reasoning?”
“I sent him a picture to prove I was marrying the crown prince of China and he told me cosplay wasn’t a valid career choice.”
Lu Han laughs, distorting his features, and Baekhyun punches him lightly and Lu Han punches him back too hard. It feels like old times, like when Baekhyun had gotten into Lu Han’s car at the airport; in all these robes, it feels like a lifetime ago.
“I wish you could stay,” Kris says, quietly, and that’s when Baekhyun sees it; the way Kris stares a second too long at Lu Han’s profile as Lu Han turns away, or the way he watches him go with a longing that Baekhyun has seen before.
Baekhyun and Kris stand in the hall in silence. “You were waiting for Lu Han, weren’t you?”
“My parents had picked someone out for me,” Kris says. “But then I met Lu Han.” He looks down at his shoes. “It seemed so unreal when he didn’t recognize me. He asked me for my name, and I gave him the one I used when I went to college overseas.” Kris exhales. “I should have told him the truth but… it was easier to spend time with him as a no one, even if I always had to disguise myself to go outside.” Kris laughs then. “I told him I was afraid of wrinkles.”
“That part wasn’t a lie, though,” Baekhyun says. “Chanyeol told me you spend hours on your skin.”
“Lu Han has tiny crow feet at the corners of his eyes,” Kris says. “I like his wrinkles.”
“So when the curse hit…” Baekhyun thinks back to the first time he’d seen that frog, outside Lu Han’s flat window. “You came to find Lu Han. You wanted Lu Han to break your curse.”
“That’s it,” Kris says. “Only my plan backfired.”
“And you ended up with me, instead.”
“Yes, I did,” Kris says. “It’s not the worst thing that could have happened. We can be happy together, Baekhyun. If we try.”
For the first time, Baekhyun thinks they can. “Do you need a hug?” Baekhyun asks, and Kris looks at him like he’s crazy. “It’s funny, because I don’t think you and Chanyeol look anything alike except that you’re both tall. But right now, you’ve got the same look on your face that he has on his when he’s concerned about something.”
“Do I really?” Kris asks, and then he wraps his arms around Baekhyun, dropping his head to Baekhyun’s shoulder. Baekhyun nervously pats Kris’s back and lets him rest there.
He looks over Kris’ shoulder and he sees Chanyeol standing there, staring at them both. His eyes go from Baekhyun’s hand on Kris’ back to Kris’ head resting where Baekhyun’s neck meets his shoulder. Baekhyun looks back at him, and Chanyeol’s mouth twists in the mockery of a smile, and he nods.
“Good night,” he mouths, and Baekhyun wants to tell Chanyeol it’s not what he thinks, but he doesn’t know what Chanyeol thinks, and besides, Chanyeol is gone, leaving two people who don’t love each other in the hall, clinging to each other as the evening ticks on.
Baekhyun’s parents leave after three days. “We’ll be back for your wedding, sweetheart,” his mother says, and Baekhyun doesn’t beg her not to go because he doesn’t want to look weak now.
In those three days, Baekhyun doesn’t see Chanyeol at all. He misses him. He hopes Chanyeol misses him too.
“I meant what I said,” Kris tells Baekhyun, as the doors close behind Baekhyun’s family, leaving Baekhyun still trapped behind pretty walls. “We can make each other happy.”
“Can we?” Baekhyun asks, staring at Kris, who is stiff and polite and soft-hearted and kind, and doesn’t ever make Baekhyun laugh or lean into Baekhyun’s personal space or create piles and piles of butterflies in Baekhyun’s stomach.
Kris is a total catch; tall, handsome, and a prince.
But Kris probably won’t ever be responsible for Baekhyun’s rapid heartbeat, like Chanyeol is without even trying.
There’s no way Baekhyun can marry him.
“I need to find out what happens if I break the magical contract,” Baekhyun says, interrupting Chanyeol mid-lecture.
Chanyeol is so surprised he actually meets Baekhyun’s eyes for the first time in days, and Baekhyun can feel triumph mingling with his determination.
He’d thought about it carefully the past couple of days, spending most of his time wandering the palace halls with Zitao because it was too hot to go outside, the air thick and gray with smog.
“Why?” Chanyeol asks. There’s space between their thighs today, and Baekhyun shifts to close it. “You’re finally starting to… get along with Kris, right?”
“We’ve always gotten along,” Baekhyun says. “That doesn’t mean I want to marry him. Because we’re cordial.”
“You looked more than cordial,” Chanyeol mutters, and Baekhyun puts his hand on Chanyeol’s knee.
“We’re not,” Baekhyun says, nails scraping the seam of Chanyeol’s trousers. “More than cordial. At all.”
“I…” Chanyeol looks down at the books on the table, but he doesn’t seem to really see them. Baekhyun rubs his hand in small circles, silently pleading for Chanyeol to look at him again, but Chanyeol just keeps his eyes on the table. “I might have some books in my room,” Chanyeol says. “I keep family legend stuff in there for when I have trouble falling asleep.”
“This is why your brother turned into a frog,” Baekhyun says. “You were hiding the facts.”
“There’s nothing concrete,” Chanyeol says. “Just stories.” Chanyeol pouts. “I just like them.”
“I have a lot of experience with stories,” Baekhyun says. “Will you help me, Chanyeol?”
“You know I will,” Chanyeol says, reaching down and setting his hand on top of Baekhyun’s hand. His hand covers the entirety of Baekhyun’s, and Baekhyun feels comforted and safe. “We can go to my rooms.”
“What about…” He looks at Chanyeol’s notes, “the representation of the Emperor’s official opinion during parliamentary proceedings?”
“There’s always tomorrow,” Chanyeol says. He holds on tight to Baekhyun’s hand, and Baekhyun holds just as tightly back, because he selfishly doesn’t want to let go. “Let’s see what we can find.”
Chanyeol’s rooms are larger than Baekhyun’s. It makes them feel emptier. But there are pieces of Chanyeol around the room that Baekhyun has never seen before.
“You play guitar?” he asks, and Chanyeol, who had immediately gone over to his bookshelf, looks back in surprise.
“Yeah,” he says. “My mother used to teach me when I was little.”
“Are you any good at it?”
Chanyeol smiles at him, grabbing the guitar and sitting down on the edge of his bed. He pats the space next to him and Baekhyun sits there, their knees brushing as Chanyeol adjusts the guitar in his lap. “Not good. But not bad, either. I could play you something?”
“What happened to your mother?” Baekhyun asks, and Chanyeol’s fingers stop plucking at the strings, the G ringing loudly in Baekhyun’s ears.
“She died,” Chanyeol says. “This place has a way of taking the life right out of you.”
“Help me, Chanyeol,” Baekhyun says, and Chanyeol rubs his hands on his trousers, putting the guitar back where it belongs and returning to his bookshelf. He selects two volumes with confident hands, and brings the books back over to Baekhyun.
“These both have the frog legend in them,” Chanyeol says. “I don’t think anyone’s ever… not wanted to marry the prince that selected them before.”
“Kris didn’t select me,” Baekhyun says. “It was an accident.”
“It was?” Chanyeol’s elbow keeps hitting Baekhyun’s, and it makes it hard to think. “I didn’t know that. I thought there was some reason you both weren’t mentioning that brought you here.”
“No,” Baekhyun says. “My stupid friend made me kiss the frog on a stupid bet, and ruined all of our lives, basically.” Baekhyun’s headpiece slides down, and instead of fixing it, he throws it across the room. “This isn’t ancient China, anyway. There’s no hurry to get married. I haven’t even been on a date since college—“ Baekhyun can feel the burn in his eyes, frustrated tears that he refuses to shed.
“I’m really surprised,” Chanyeol says, “You have a job and you’re funny and you’re so attractive.” Chanyeol gently pushes the hair away from Baekhyun’s forehead, his fingertips burning wherever they brush the skin there. “Why wouldn’t you go on dates?”
“Do you go on many?” Baekhyun asks, looking down at the books resting on his thighs. They’re in Chinese, and Baekhyun knows enough that he can tell it’s traditional by all the extra lines.
“You’re not the only Rapunzel around here,” Chanyeol says. He takes the books from Baekhyun, opening the top one. “We’ll see what we can find.”
They sprawl across Chanyeol’s bed, Chanyeol reading from the book and Baekhyun staring at the way Chanyeol mouths the words, his lips making the shapes of Mandarin sounds before he turns to Baekhyun and translates it into Korean.
In one of the books that Baekhyun has started to write but will never finish, he couldn’t figure out the main character’s motivation. He’d wanted it to be a breakup, but it hadn’t seemed real enough, or strong enough. “It doesn’t make sense for him to be so sad,” he’d said to Jongdae. “Sometimes relationships just don’t work out.” Jongdae had glared at him. “If you can say that,” Jongdae says, “you’ve clearly never been in love.”
It makes more sense to Baekhyun now, because he looks at Chanyeol and thinks he wouldn’t mind spending the rest of his life lying next to him like this, looking at things in Chanyeol’s books and listening to Chanyeol talk about the things he loves. He’d also like to take Chanyeol to a movie and see if he claps stupidly loud at the funny bits of a comedy, or if he’d still smile as brightly once his friends sank their hooks into him.
He would like Chanyeol to meet his friends, and not have to introduce him as “my husband’s brother.”
“I found something,” Chanyeol says, breaking Baekhyun’s thoughts. “In the original legend.”
“Really?” Baekhyun scoots closer. “What did you find?”
Chanyeol’s breath hitches slightly, before he falls into Baekhyun, warm sides against each other. “The Emperor’s cast-aside betrothed put a curse on the family,” Chanyeol says. “There’s the bit about being twenty-five… and then there’s this.”
Chanyeol’s tongue runs over his lower lip absently. Baekhyun looks quickly down at the book. “What’s ‘this’?”
“One person who left,” Chanyeol says. “After kissing the prince, and seeing him turn into a man, his chosen bride, despite her love, ran away in fear of a royal life, wanting to stay with her elderly father and help him through his infirmity.”
“Seems reasonable to me,” Baekhyun says. “What happened to her?”
“She was cursed to never fall in love again,” Chanyeol says, and Baekhyun can barely hear him over the sound of his own heart. “I think that’s the punishment. If you leave Kris, you’ll never fall in love again.”
“Does it say anything after that?” Fairytales always end before you have to work out the real life parts, Baekhyun thinks. Novel after novel ending with the kiss instead of all the fights over who’s going to do the dishes.
“She spent the rest of her life in her father’s house,” Chanyeol says. “Alone.”
“I’m not afraid of being lonely,” Baekhyun says, and Chanyeol looks down at the book in front of him with serious eyes.
“Isn’t everyone?” Chanyeol’s voice is sad. Baekhyun scoots even closer to Chanyeol then, looping his arm around Chanyeol’s so they’re hooked together at the elbow, lying on their stomachs in the middle of Chanyeol’s bed. “You might play at not hating it, but you like people, Baekhyun.”
“You don’t have to be in love to have people around,” Baekhyun says. “I’ve never been in love. I wouldn’t even know what I was giving up.” It might be the way Chanyeol steals his breath away, though, or the way even when he’s really miserable, Chanyeol’s bright grin lights up the whole room.
“You’d be giving up a lot,” Chanyeol says. He heaves a great sigh. “Kris is really a good person, Baekhyun. You could love him.”
“That’s what he said,” Baekhyun says. “But you can’t just… tell yourself to love someone, or not to love someone.”
“How would you know?” Chanyeol says teasingly. “I thought you’d never been in love.”
It’s on the tip of Baekhyun’s tongue to tell Chanyeol that if people could choose things like that, Baekhyun would shut off all the things he feels when Chanyeol sits next to him or smiles his way. He would stop wanting Chanyeol and start wanting Kris instead, the way he’s supposed to.
“I’ll keep reading,” Chanyeol says hoarsely, and Baekhyun watches him dive back into the text alone, thinking that it would be nice if he could hold Chanyeol’s hand again. Chanyeol wouldn’t mind it. Chanyeol likes to touch and be touched. “I’ll let you know if there’s anything interesting.”
As Chanyeol reads to himself, not translating anything out loud, Baekhyun gets so caught up in his thoughts that he’s surprised at Chanyeol’s soft snore. “You would fall asleep, wouldn’t you?” Baekhyun says, “As I sit here and have a crisis about holding your hand.”
He untangles himself from Chanyeol and Chanyeol rolls onto his side, cheek mashed into a book and glasses smashed at a bad angle on his face. His mouth is open, and he’s drooling.
“It wouldn’t be so hard if everything weren’t so complicated,” Baekhyun says softly. “I’d probably just go along with it.”
Baekhyun isn’t expecting Chanyeol to reach out for him and pull him close, so he squeaks with surprise when Chanyeol manhandles him like a teddy bear, arm wrapping just above Baekhyun’s stomach and trapping him to the bed.
He fits perfectly into the curve of Chanyeol’s body, his back sitting against Chanyeol’s chest. Chanyeol’s arm squeezes tighter around him, grabbing onto Baekhyun’s waist and pulling him harder into him, close enough that he can feel Chanyeol’s hips pressing into his backside. Baekhyun’s chest is going to combust. He feels the licks of arousal, too, at Chanyeol’s hand flat on his stomach, and Baekhyun reminds himself that he’s not supposed to feel that way about Chanyeol.
He doesn’t remember falling asleep, or how he fell asleep at all with his heart going so fast, but he wakes up turned the other way, Chanyeol looking at him from a position so close all Baekhyun would have to do is lean forward slightly to kiss him. Chanyeol’s eyes are open, and his glasses are gone. “Your makeup is smudged all over my sheets.”
“Sorry about that,” Baekhyun says. “I didn’t mean to fall asleep.” Chanyeol’s leg is between Baekhyun’s, and he hasn’t moved yet so Baekhyun doesn’t move either. It’s warm and comfortable with Chanyeol, even if he knows it shouldn’t be.
“You have freckles,” Chanyeol says. “Your sunburn faded and left behind freckles.”
“Lu Han never has freckles,” Baekhyun says. “I really need to get sunscreen, or I’m going to—“ He’s babbling, and he stops himself by squeezing his lips together so tightly he’s sure they must turn white with the effort.
“I like them,” Chanyeol says, and then he laughs, his breath hot on Baekhyun’s face, blowing Baekhyun’s bangs. He seems to notice how close he is then, immediately rolling away and sitting up, and Baekhyun feels the loss keenly.
“Are you calling to invite me to your wedding?” Jongdae asks. “I saw you on the news, man. You’re a celebrity now.”
“I’m not a celebrity,” Baekhyun says. “I’m…” He thinks. “I’m Rapunzel.”
“Like I said, a total princess.” Jongdae laughs. “It’s not like you’re trapped in a castle.”
“I am,” Baekhyun says. “There’s a curse on the crown prince, and when I kissed him, a part of that was transferred to me. We’re cursed together.”
“Wait, really?” Jongdae coughs. “I thought it had been kind of a whirlwind romance for you, since you overthink everything. Minseok is still in disbelief. He wouldn’t let Sehun take your desk.” He adjusts the phone, creating a little static that Baekhyun ignores. “Is it really that Chinese legend about frogs? The one you asked me about?”
“Would you believe me if I said yes?”
“The prince is too hot to be stuck with you, otherwise,” Jongdae says.
“I appreciate your vote of confidence.” He pauses. “I have a question. If you found out that you could get a free pass out of all your troubles, but you’d have to give up something in the future for that free pass now, would you take the free pass?”
“You mean like Rumplestilskin? Giving up your first born child?”
Baekhyun glides his hands down the silk of his nightclothes. “Like love,” Baekhyun says. “What if you’d never be able to fall in love?”
“No deal,” Jongdae says. “That’s part of being a person.”
That night, Baekhyun dreams of Chanyeol closing the distance between their mouths and kissing him, slowly and carefully like he’s afraid he might break him, big hands cupping Baekhyun’s hips and nose bumping into Baekhyun’s with every break for air.
He wakes up with sticky skin and it’s difficult to go back to sleep. His large room feels very small, and Baekhyun feels even smaller.
Kris knocks on his door in the morning. Baekhyun opens it. “It’s late. I thought I would be eating breakfast alone.”
“I got all of my work out of the way. I thought we might spend the day together?”
Kris is wearing a suit, and he’s holding a single flower, which he holds out to Baekhyun in offering. “Like a date?”
“Like a date,” Kris confirms. “Since we’re getting married and all, we might as well get to know each other.”
Kris is the perfect gentleman, opening doors and asking all the right questions. He says all the right things, and were this a first date, in his old life, Baekhyun would think Kris was the best thing since sliced bread. He would get Kris’ number and ask him out on a second date, because, hey, maybe he’d loosen up if Baekhyun took him out for drinks.
This isn’t Baekhyun’s old life, though. This is Baekhyun’s new life, in Beijing, engaged to the crown prince of China that just so happens to be in love with Baekhyun’s friend.
And as it is, Baekhyun prefers Chanyeol’s gentle shoves to Kris’s awkward pats, and Chanyeol’s loud laugh to Kris’s quiet one.
Once, when they were studying in the library, Baekhyun halfway in Chanyeol’s lap as Chanyeol tried to explain, for the fourth time, whose aunt was married to whose uncle in some southern province Baekhyun can’t pronounce, Baekhyun had looked up at Chanyeol only to find Chanyeol looking back down at him. Chanyeol’s arms had fit nicely around Baekhyun’s waist as he explained, and Baekhyun had thought ‘this is right.’
The thing that Baekhyun likes most about Chanyeol is how much he takes away the sting of being alone here in the palace. With Chanyeol, Baekhyun always feels like he belongs.