Baekhyun wakes up on the softest pillows and sheets he’s ever been on in his life. “What…”
“Good morning,” Lu Han says. “We’re in the imperial palace and you’re engaged to marry the crown prince of China.”
“I’m going back to bed,” Baekhyun says, rolling over onto his stomach. “I hate hanging out with you. We always go on these horrible benders and then I can’t remember anything through the brown-outs. I’m not as young as I used to be, Lu Han.”
“This is not a drill, Byunbaek!” Lu Han says, shaking Baekhyun’s shoulders. The pillows are so soft, and Baekhyun could just go back to sleep… “I repeat, this is not a drill!”
Baekhyun gives up, rolling back onto his back and looking up at Lu Han. “Do you really expect me to believe—“ It comes rushing back, then; the frog, the kiss, the naked man. “Where’s the nude Greek statue?”
“Your priorities, man,” Lu Han says. His laughter is strained, and Baekhyun looks at him more closely. He looks like he hasn’t slept all night, and the tired lines around his mouth make him look kind of droopy and sad, like the flowers on Jongdae’s desk that his girlfriend gave him for Valentine’s Day that he’s watered maybe once. “That naked man turned out to be the Prince of China.”
“You called him Kris, though,” Baekhyun remembers suddenly. “You did!”
“Prince Wu Fan…” Lu Han’s frown has become more pronounced, “Prince Wu Fan is Kris. They’re the same person.”
“Your friend is the prince? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t know,” Lu Han replies stiffly, and Baekhyun gets the impression that they’ve recently fought about that very fact. “But now I do. You’ll be marrying him in two months, by the way. A September wedding.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Baekhyun says. “I won’t be marrying anyone. I hardly know him.”
“You don’t really have a choice,” Lu Han says. “At least, as far as I’ve been able to work out talking to the royal advisor.”
“What do you mean, I don’t have a choice?”
“So it turns out that kissing the frog is a kind of… magical contract,” Lu Han says. “The kind that compels you to get married or something… bad will happen.”
“Something bad?” Baekhyun feels like a parrot, and while he’s always liked them, he likes to consider himself capable of independent thought.
“Something bad,” Lu Han repeats. “So you’re marrying the prince.“
“And in my sleep, I have been relocated to the palace.”
“I tried to wake you up for the fanfare but you were out like a light. Your face was covered in aloe when one of the bodyguards threw you over his shoulder. It was embarrassing. You’re embarrassing.”
“This is all your fault,” Baekhyun says. “You and your delight in other people’s misery.” Baekhyun scrubs at his face with both hands, relieved when they come away clean of both slime and aloe. His skin still burns, but it’s less than it had been the night before. “I’ve kissed a frog and it’s turned into a prince, and fuck, Lu Han, now what am I supposed to do?” His words are half scream, half sob, and Lu Han grabs him in a hug as he starts to shake. “Can I wake up from this dream now?”
“Sorry, but no,” Lu Han says, and Baekhyun’s just about to reply when the door bursts open, a tall, dark-haired man running inside.
He says something in rapid-fire Mandarin, and Lu Han quickly starts talking back, letting Baekhyun go so he can fully engage in conversation. Baekhyun notes that the man has his hand on a firearm, and he only lets go once Lu Han’s hurried explanation trails off.
He nods, his dark eyes scanning Baekhyun like he’s looking for injuries, and then he’s gone again, out the door, leaving Baekhyun and Lu Han alone again inside this room that Baekhyun is beginning to realize is bigger than his flat and Lu Han’s combined. The embroidery of the blanket over him feels good under his fingertips, and he absently plays with it as he waits for Lu Han to tell him what just happened.
“He heard you scream,” Lu Han says. “He’s your bodyguard, now.”
“My bodyguard?” Baekhyun focuses on the colors of the embroidery. It’s a pretty gold, and Baekhyun traces the pattern with his thumb as Lu Han sighs.
“Your bodyguard,” he confirms. “You’re an important person now.” His dayglow hair is not styled, hanging limply on his forehead. “They only let me stay because you can’t speak a word of Mandarin.”
“Because I’m going to marry the crown prince of China,” Baekhyun says. His throat feels like it’s swelling shut, and his heart is beating so fast. “I haven’t been on a date in three years and I’m getting married.” He finds himself laughing, and tears prick at the corners of his eyes. “Married. Terrific.”
“Baekhyun, calm down,” Lu Han says. “Kris… Or Prince Wu Fan, I mean… He’s…” Baekhyun looks up at Lu Han, who’s clenching his jaw so tight that Baekhyun is afraid he’s going to crack his molars. “He’s a good guy. A great guy. He’s kind, and handsome, and…”
“And so very honest with you,” Baekhyun interjects, and Lu Han scowls and slaps him upside the head before Baekhyun can deflect it.
“You’re so violent,” Baekhyun says, and Lu Han gives him an arched eyebrow of look who’s talking before he hunches forward and grabs Baekhyun’s hand.
“This is a huge honor, Baekhyun,” Lu Han says. “I know it must seem absolutely insane to you, but…”
“Why would you think that?” Baekhyun asks. “Why would waking up in what is apparently the royal palace after kissing a frog that turned into a naked man and being forced to get married to him seem insane?” Baekhyun slumps back into his pillows, pulling his hand free of Lu Han’s and dragging his covers up over his head until Lu Han yanks them down again.. “That’s normal, right? Ha. Normal.”
“I never thought the legend would be real,” Lu Han says, and Baekhyun, who has been existing in a subspace created by his own denial, feels himself quaking with fear at the tone of Lu Han’s voice.
“Me either,” Baekhyun says, and while he’s always wanted to believe in magic, a little, Baekhyun has never before wished the world were ordinary and mundane as much as he wishes that now.
Prince Wu Fan knocks on Baekhyun’s door two hours later. An hour previous, a team of four servants had come into the room and kidnapped him, scrubbing him from head to toe as he cursed and whined about his sunburn, Lu Han laughing the whole time. Then they’d carefully dressed him in layer after layer of fabric. Nice fabric, but far too much of it for a hot July day in Beijing.
“I’m not going to make it, Lu Han,” Baekhyun says. “Tell them they’re mummifying me.”
“These are the traditional clothes of my people,” Lu Han says with a smirk. “You should be more respectful.”
“I’ll be more respectful when I’m dead,” Baekhyun says. “Which will be in about five minutes if I’m not allowed to peel off at least three of these robes.”
“I’ll speak fondly of you at your funeral,” Lu Han replies.
“No you won’t,” Baekhyun says, and Lu Han laughs as if to imply that he agrees.
The servants apply makeup to his face, smoothing away the imperfections and the red of the burn, and Baekhyun is shocked when he looks into the mirror when they’re done, the thick eyeliner around his eyes making him look older and more mature.
“You look so different,” Lu Han says quietly, and Baekhyun nods as his hand skims down the robe. “I’ve never seen anyone wear chaofu outside of a drama before.”
“A what?” Baekhyun asks, and Lu Han laughs.
“You have a Chinese roommate for four years and you never picked up anything,” Lu Han says. “You’re a shame.”
“Languages are not my forte,” Baekhyun says, pushing a pieces of carefully styled hair off of his forehead. The headpiece he’s wearing is heavy. His neck is already starting to ache.
“What is your forte?” Lu Han asks. “Imagining things that aren’t there?”
“The frog was there,” Baekhyun says, and then he makes himself smile into the mirror for Lu Han to see. “What if Daniel Radcliffe was there, too? What if, after all this time, it turns out I just have superior eyesight?”
“In your dreams,” Lu Han replies, and Baekhyun prepares a retort.
Everything settles back down into nervousness and solemnity, though, as the knock resounds through the room. The dark haired man Lu Han had said was Baekhyun’s bodyguard steps into the room and clears his throat.
He says a lot of things, but Baekhyun only hears what he thinks is ‘Wu Fan’ before he’s moving aside and admitting the naked man into Baekhyun’s sight.
He’s not naked this time. He’s wearing clothing pretty similar to Baekhyun’s, his hair swept back from his forehead and his eyes dark and serious. His chin is strong, Baekhyun notices, and his hands are huge. “Hi,” he says again, in English, and Baekhyun gulps.
“Hi,” he replies back, and Lu Han exhales heavily.
“The prince,” Lu Han says coolly, and the prince winces visibly at the chill in his voice, “doesn’t speak very good Korean. He knows some, though, so you should be able to speak to him.”
“I can say a few things,” the prince says.
“It’s nice to meet you,” Baekhyun says. “Again. Clothed.”
The prince blushes, and he suddenly seems a lot less cool and a lot more nervous. “You look nicer,” he says. “Without the…” he motions at his face, and Baekhyun is mortified to remember the last time he’d seen this man he’d had his face covered in aloe to soothe a horrid sunburn.
“Thanks,” Baekhyun says, before he looks down to memorize the floor or the pattern on his silk shoes or anything but the prince’s face. “I don’t know what to call you.”
“Kris is fine,” he says, and Baekhyun sneaks a glance at Lu Han. Lu Han is scowling, arms crossed. “I prefer Kris.”
“Alright then, Kris,” Baekhyun says. “I want to go home.”
“I’m afraid you can’t,” Kris says miserably. “There’s a curse on my family. You broke my curse, so you’re stuck with me.”
“So what now?” Baekhyun feels like he’s drowning in all these robes. It’s hot, and Lu Han is upset, and he’s pretty sure his shoulders are peeling. “I stay here? Forever? What about my job, and my flat, and—“
Baekhyun tries not to panic, but it’s hard when he doesn’t know what’s going on or what he’s supposed to do.
“We’ll take care of everything,” Kris says stiffly. “But right now, you have to be introduced to the Emperor and the Empress as my intended.”
“I have to meet the Emperor of China?”
“Yes,” Kris says, standing straighter and frowning. “You do.” He looks apologetically at Lu Han. “I’m sorry, but…”
“I can’t come,” Lu Han says. “I know. I’m leaving the palace this afternoon, anyway. I have my own life to get back to.” He seems like he wants to say more, but whatever it is, he keeps to himself.
“You can’t abandon me here,” Baekhyun says, and Lu Han pats him gently on the back, more gently than he’s ever touched Baekhyun before. Baekhyun isn’t some doll now that he’s wearing these fancy brocade clothes, and he frowns deeply at Lu Han. “I don’t speak Chinese.”
“I don’t have a choice,” Lu Han says. “I don’t belong here.” He looks at Baekhyun, then quickly at Kris, before rubbing his hands on his trousers. He’s dressed up, Baekhyun realizes, and he looks as uncomfortable as Baekhyun does. “You do, now.”
“No I don’t!” There’s not nearly enough air in the room, and Baekhyun balls his hands up into fists, nails probably leaving crescents in his palms. “I can’t even remember my Chinese name!”
“It’s Boxian,” Lu Han reminds him. “Good luck.”
“I’m going to kick your ass,” Baekhyun snarls. “Good luck?”
“Please watch your language,” Kris says, smoothing the front of his robes with one of his monstrous hands. “We try not to speak like that in the palace.”
Bleakly, Baekhyun stares at Kris, and then at the dark haired man who is waiting impatiently at the door, frowning with thin lips and flexing his big biceps.
“No cursing,” Baekhyun says. “Got it.”
“We mustn’t keep the Emperor waiting,” Kris says. “Please allow me to escort you.”
“I don’t have much of a choice, do I?” Baekhyun asks, and Kris’ expression is caught between frustration and sadness.
“No,” he says. “You don’t.”
Baekhyun’s been editing this novel for the past few months about a princess who gets trapped by her jealous stepmother into marrying an evil magician. He can clearly remember the email exchange between himself and the author, Baekhyun writing to ask but why doesn’t she do something about the situation? and the author emailing back to explain, in detailed, bullet point lists, exactly why she couldn’t.
Baekhyun is beginning to empathize with the poor princess now, though, because he’s good and trapped within this palace and he can’t seem to find a single way to get out.
This is the prettiest cage Baekhyun has ever been in, but it’s still a cage, and everywhere he looks there are all these high, mosaicked walls keeping him inside, Rapunzel in her tower.
It’s not that anyone even wants him here. The Emperor had looked down on him with disdain when he’d tried to bow and tripped over his robes, and when he’d turned to greet the Empress the jewels of her necklace were so bright that Baekhyun had sneezed all over himself, his nose running and probably messing up all the servants’ hard work on making his sunburned face presentable. Someone had laughed at him, and then everyone was laughing, and Baekhyun wanted more than anything to go home or that his robes would actually eat him alive like they’d been threatening to since he put them on.
No one talks to him, either, because he doesn’t speak Mandarin and while he’s surprised at how much Korean the people around him pick up, it’s not enough for a conversation.
Kris can talk to him, but he doesn’t, disappearing after the disastrous introduction and leaving Baekhyun on his own with the tall dark-haired bodyguard that Baekhyun realizes, with a sinking feeling, follows him everywhere but into the shower.
The first night, when Baekhyun is all alone in his huge room, he stared up at the gold-decorated ceiling and wishes his family or Lu Han or Jongdae or Jongin were here, or that he’d brought his manuscripts along on his vacation, just to give him something else to think about.
Baekhyun doesn’t want to be by himself, because all he can do is dwell on the fact that for the first time in his life, something magical has happened to him, just like he’d always secretly dreamed of, but it’s left him all alone, with everything he knows ripped away from him and nothing to really look forward to except a future of being stared at and finally having to buckle down and learn Chinese.
By the third night, he regrets not having his laptop. He can’t even write drafts that no one will ever see, buried away in an innocuous looking folder on his hard drive where even a stealthy Jongdae won’t find it.
The days alone are hard, but the nights are harder, because it’s an unfamiliar place and the sheets are soft but don’t smell like his detergent and he likes to sleep in cotton shorts but they keep forcing him into silk. During the day, at least, Baekhyun is forced into manners lessons taught by a woman who seems to despise Baekhyun more than she’d despise gum on the bottom her designer shoes, and food he doesn’t recognize but is delicious. He has his unnamed dark-haired bodyguard following him around and unseen parts of his prison to explore. At night, there’s the silence, and the nothingness.
He has nightmares about frogs, and he thinks he has developed an unhealthy phobia of amphibians.
He can’t sleep, at all, and on the fourth night, he thinks he’ll lose his mind if he doesn’t have anyone to talk to.
He takes out his phone and navigates to the skype option, selecting Jongin’s name and hoping it’s not too late for Jongin to be on his computer.
It isn’t, and Jongin answers the call drowsily. “Baekhyun?”
“Hey,” Baekhyun says, choking up and hating that he’s choking up. “Do you have time to talk?”
“Can’t you just order me to talk,” Jongin says, sleepy and soft. “Aren’t you the king of everything now? I saw you on the news.”
“No,” Baekhyun says. “I’m not the king of anything and I want to go home.”
“Are you crying?” Jongin says, suddenly sounding panicked. “You never cry. Don’t cry. I don’t know what to do if you start to cry.”
“I’m not going to cry, Jongin, so stop yelling.” Baekhyun laughs, the hilarity somehow worming out past the misery in his chest.
“You’re the one who’s always loud,” Jongin says. “I’m the one who tries to sleep through it.”
“You try to sleep through everything,” Baekhyun says. “Jongin, I don’t speak Mandarin.”
“You’re so charming, though,” Jongin says. “In an annoying kind of way. I bet they love you already.”
“They hate me,” Baekhyun says. “Everyone here hates me.”
“Isn’t Lu Han there?”
“He isn’t allowed to visit me,” Baekhyun says. “And every time I call him he gets all sad and stuff and I don’t know what to do about it.”
“He probably feels guilty for asking you to come to China now that you’re trapped there forever,” Jongin says, and then he gasps. “I mean, I’m sure it’s not forever, Baekhyun—“
“It is, though,” Baekhyun says. “I’m stuck here forever and ever.”
“They can’t really keep you locked up there, right? You’re not even Chinese!”
“Apparently there’s some kind of magical contract,” Baekhyun says. “So they can.”
“What happens if you break it?” Jongin is getting sleepy again, and Baekhyun realizes Jongin has work in a few hours. He should let him go. He selfishly doesn’t want to.
“I’m afraid to ask,” Baekhyun says, but later that night, as he tries futilely to fall asleep, he wonders if it could be worse than this already is.
Kris does visit him for breakfast on the morning of the fifth day. He’s wearing a regular suit, and Baekhyun gapes at his broad shoulders before he remembers that Kris is the whole reason he’s here in the first place and pouts at him.
“Why are you allowed to wear real people clothes and I’m stuck in this?”
“I’m leaving the grounds today,” Kris says. “And you’re not allowed to until we’re married.” Trapped, trapped, trapped bounces around in Baekhyun’s head as he glares at his breakfast
“What if I don’t want to get married,” Baekhyun says petulantly, pushing his food around on his plate with his chopsticks. “What if I want to go home and read horrible novels about magical orphans saving the day?”
“I’m sorry,” Kris says, a pained look on his face that Baekhyun is learning to know means he’s annoyed. It looks so similar to the face Baekhyun’s opponents made when he kicked them in the balls during hapkido matches that he’s been starting to think Kris wears his underwear too tight. “But as I’ve already said—“
“I don’t have a choice. I remember.”
“Neither of us have a choice,” Kris clarifies, and Baekhyun feels a little bit guilty that as stuck as he is with Kris, Kris is equally stuck with him. Not really, though, because it’s Baekhyun who basically has to give up his whole life to be here, and it’s all stupid Kris’ fault in the first place.
“I want to go home,” Baekhyun says.
“There’s nothing I can do about it,” Kris says. “I’m just as trapped here as you are, now.”
“Yay,” Baekhyun says. “Well, at least we can be miserable together.”
He drags his bodyguard and a couple of what he guesses are his servants with him out to the gardens that afternoon. They are quickly becoming his favorite place in the palace, because while it is outside, sweltering and miserable and just as humid as the rest of Beijing, at least here he’s not afraid he’s going to make a fool out of himself in front of everyone.
And hour later, his brow is soaked with sweat. His stomach grumbles, too, and his stoic bodyguard, unfazed by the heat, laughs at him a little before he signals to another servant with a single gesture.
A few minutes later, the man guides Baekhyun to a table in the middle of the gardens. It’s low, and there are silk cushions spread out in the middle of the small courtyard. There are beautiful flowers all around them, and Baekhyun has never felt as plain as he does here, dressed in clothes that swallow him up and unable to speak.
A servant brings a plate of dumplings out to the gardens, and Baekhyun accepts them with a smile and a clumsy “xie xie”.
He turns to the man, who stands hovering awkwardly behind him, and smiles. “Alone?” he asks. He doesn’t actually want to be alone, but being with people who don’t understand him at all doesn’t do anything to curb his loneliness, so he at least wants a few moments of peace, by himself, where he’s not feeling watched or dissected or stuck. He could maybe eat his dumplings and pretend he’s just visiting some lovely gardens south of Seoul; the kind his mom liked to drag him to when he was a kid.
The man briefly hesitates, and Baekhyun isn’t sure if he’s trying to make sure he understood Baekhyun or if he’s checking Baekhyun’s request against some extensive list of orders he has stored up in his head. “Dui,” he says, which Baekhyun has learned, in the past four days, means a grudging ‘fine’ from his constant escort.
With that, Baekhyun is left alone in the garden with his own thoughts and more dumplings than any normal person could consume. He wishes Lu Han were here with him, sitting across the table and calling him a lardass as he dips the dumplings one by one into the soy sauce with his bare hands, not making the effort to use the ornately patterned chopsticks. They look to be made of ivory, and probably cost more than Baekhyun’s flat.
He angrily shoves a dumpling into his mouth, and barely chews it before he swallows it down.
“Hullo,” says a deep, rich voice, and Baekhyun spins around, elbow hitting the dumplings on the table and knocking them to the grass. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.” He’s not wearing traditional clothes, like Baekhyun is. He’s wearing tight jeans and a thin white T-shirt, and a big pair of black glasses that slide halfway down his nose. His hair is short and dark, soft and ungelled, and Baekhyun admires the fact that even in nothing special, he still looks like he belongs here more than Baekhyun does wearing all the bells and whistles.
“I wasn’t scared,” Baekhyun says, defensively, before wincing down at the remains of the dumplings. “I was only… startled.” He straightens out his back, preparing to tough his way through this conversation same as he has all the others. Baekhyun is starting to get used to the way people here look down on him; they think he’s uncultured and foreign and not quite the princess they were expecting. They’re right on all three counts, but Baekhyun doesn’t want to be here, anyway. Baekhyun would rather be almost anywhere else, but mostly he’d like to be back in Lu Han’s flat in front of the TV he can’t understand, or better yet, back in Seoul, reading through another boring manuscript with the same plot as every Murakami book already in existence.
“Well then, I didn’t meant to ‘startle’ you,” the man says, and his smile is so very wide and blinding that Baekhyun has to blink to clear his eyes. It’s worse than the Empress’ jewels, but Baekhyun doesn’t sneeze, thank god. “I have very much been wanting to meet you. I didn’t expect to find you alone, but I’m glad I did.”
Baekhyun’s first thought is that boy the man is tall. His second thought is that, for the first time in days, he understands what someone who isn’t Lu Han is saying to him. “You speak Korean!” He stands up as he says it, but it doesn’t help, because the man still towers above him like a tree.
“My mother was Korean,” the man says. “So I grew up speaking it.”
“I’m so glad there’s finally someone to talk to,” Baekhyun says, relief spilling out of him. “No one has been cruel, but—“ It’s easy to be nice when you don’t have to say anything, though, and Baekhyun wouldn’t describe anyone beyond his bodyguard and possibly Kris as nice. He sighs. “Everyone stares but no one says anything.” Baekhyun’s skin feels like it hasn’t been fitting over his body right since he got to the palace.
“I’m Chanyeol,” the man says. “And you’re Byun Baekhyun, right?” He makes a short bow, not as low as people have been bowing to him all week, but low enough that Baekhyun scrambles to return it equally.
“That’s right,” Baekhyun says. “Chanyeol.” A nice Korean name. Baekhyun savors how easy it is to say, smiling up Chanyeol as he does so. “Just Chanyeol?”
“Just Chanyeol,” he replies.
Chanyeol is almost as tall as Kris, but not nearly as stiff. Baekhyun finds him easier to stand in front of, too. Baekhyun is no timid shrinking flower, but something about Kris makes Baekhyun feel like he’s supposed to impress him. He’s just met Chanyeol, but Chanyeol, for some reason, seems more comfortable. “It’s nice to meet you,” Baekhyun says formally.
“Don’t go formal on me,” Chanyeol says. “I preferred your pretty smile.”
Baekhyun feels a gush of embarrassment. “What?” Chanyeol is still looking down at him, amused, and if anyone has a pretty smile here, it’s Chanyeol. “You must be confused by all the makeup.”
Chanyeol laughs at him, and reaches out to touch Baekhyun, and Baekhyun jumps at the motion, trying to back up, but ends up tripping on his brocade tunic thing and stumbling. Chanyeol grabs his arm to steady him. “Sorry,” Chanyeol says. “Personal space is hard for me. I forget that not everyone likes to be touched.”
“I wasn’t expecting it,” Baekhyun says. “It’s not that I don’t like to be touched, it’s that no one touches me, here. My friends at home touch me all the time.” Chanyeol looks at him carefully, his glasses slipping lower on his nose. His eyes aren’t the same size, Baekhyun notices, and his ears are too big. “Why are you staring at me?”
“I was right about your smile,” Chanyeol says. “Definitely pretty.”
“I’m not a girl,” Baekhyun says. “Even if they have locked me up like Rapunzel.” Chanyeol lets go of him, stepping away, and Baekhyun’s insides are hissing at him. His face feels red, so red, and not from the remnants of the sunburn that has finally started to heal. He may have to reconsider his whole idea about Chanyeol being comfortable.
“I never said you were pretty like a girl,” Chanyeol says, waving his hands in front of him. “Just that you had a pretty smile, okay?” He reaches up and rubs ineffectually at his hair, and the bits at the crown of his head stick up. “I seem to have ruined your dumplings, too.” He frowns. His full lower lip sticks out and if this were Jongin, Baekhyun would grab it and pull it until he screamed. “Can I make it up to you by teaching you one way to sneak into the kitchens?”
“I’d like that,” Baekhyun says, and the tension eases out of him. “But what about, uh, my big, tall, shadow?” Baekhyun pulls at the neck of his robes. He feels like a popsicle, slowly melting underneath them. Chanyeol looks him up and down in sympathy, which also has Baekhyun blushing. “I don’t think I’m allowed to go anywhere without him.”
“Of course you are,” Chanyeol says. “At least here in the palace. Zitao’s probably just worried about you.” Chanyeol laughs. “He’s overprotective with the people he likes. You just have to let him know you’ll be okay. He left you alone today, didn’t he?”
“Zitao?” Baekhyun files the name away for later. “It would be easier if I could talk to him.”
“I can let him know you’re with me. He might not like not coming along, but he won’t really mind.” Chanyeol starts to pat Baekhyun’s shoulder again, before remembering what had happened the last time. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I can’t help myself.”
“It’s okay,” Baekhyun says. “I’ll learn to expect it.” Chanyeol’s smile turns up a notch. Baekhyun is going to get sunburned all over again from it.
“In exchange, I’ll teach you a few things to say to Zitao,” Chanyeol says. He grabs Baekhyun’s sleeve, pulling him away from the table and the spilled dumplings.
“He understand me, a little,” Baekhyun says, staring at the hand for a moment before taking it. Chanyeol’s skin is soft and warm. “Korean, I mean.”
“Most of the staff here understand a bit because of me.” Chanyeol laughs. “Not too much, because that would be unseemly, to speak another language other than the mother tongue here in the palace, but enough.”
Baekhyun’s stomach grumbles again, and Chanyeol laughs again too, rumbling and loud. He lets go of Baekhyun’s sleeve and Baekhyun immediately feels the loss. “How about that snack?” he asks, and Baekhyun nods enthusiastically and then has to quickly reach up and steady his headpiece. “Follow me.”
“Shouldn’t we clean…”
“If you have to wear the heavy robes and do all the hard bits,” Chanyeol says, “the least you can do is enjoy the fact that being royal comes with certain benefits.”
“Who are you?” Baekhyun blurts out, and Chanyeol looks at him, surprise making his big eyes even bigger. His mouth parts in surprise, and he looks really young when he does that.
“Just Chanyeol,” he answers, winking, and even as his stomach does a hapkido flip, Baekhyun thinks things here at the palace have gotten just a little bit better.
In the morning, Baekhyun wakes up to Zitao’s face close enough to his own that he can smell his aftershave. “Good morning?” Baekhyun says, in tentative Mandarin, and Zitao’s face lights up with excitement.
“Good morning,” he says back, in Korean. “Yesterday… Did you have fun?” His tongue curls funny around the past tense, and Baekhyun wonders if he sounds that odd in Mandarin to Zitao. He doesn’t doubt it.
“Dui,” he says, and Zitao looks so excited that Baekhyun maybe should have waited a little longer before taking Chanyeol’s advice. “Very fun,” he adds in Korean, and Zitao pulls on his arm so hard Baekhyun can almost feel it come out of the socket.
“Hurry,” he says, and then something else in Mandarin that Baekhyun doesn’t catch.
Baekhyun’s shocked when he walks out of his room and finds Chanyeol there, leaning against the wooden walls wearing a suit. “Took you long enough,” Chanyeol says, and Baekhyun, who had been sort of dreading some formal event, feels his whole face break into a grin.
“Do you have any idea how long it takes to get dressed like this?” Baekhyun says. “I thought I took a long time before.”
“I might have an idea,” Chanyeol says. “Do you want to see something cool?”
He looks back at Zitao in askance, and Zitao nods in response. “Go,” he says, before glaring at Chanyeol. “Safe.”
“I’m always safe,” Chanyeol mumbles. “Not always the most graceful, but safe.”
“Should I be worried?” Baekhyun says, and he barely reacts this time when Chanyeol latches onto him. “Are you going to get me injured?”
“Not unless I want Zitao to have my head on a plate,” Chanyeol replies. “It won’t be too dangerous for you, Rapunzel.”
Baekhyun doesn’t hesitate to slap Chanyeol’s arm, and Chanyeol gives him a shocked look before his face crinkles up into something significantly less handsome.
“You’re feisty,” Chanyeol says. “Our crown prince has his hands full with you.”
Baekhyun side-eyes Chanyeol. “I doubt it,” he says. “He’s got rather large hands.”
Chanyeol laughs, and it rings down the hallway. “Come along, Byun Baekhyun.” He winks. “Let me show you around.” He doesn’t relinquish Baekhyun’s arm, but that’s alright.
“You can’t tell anyone about this,” Chanyeol warns him, after they’ve gone through what feels like an endless maze of hallways and made an uncountable number of turns. “It’s an absolute secret.” He moves away from Baekhyun, and on instinct Baekhyun moves too. He’s not some character in an old rpg, he reminds himself. He doesn’t have to make every move the party leader makes.
“Who am I going to tell?” Baekhyun asks, to cover his thwarted movement. “More importantly, how am I going to tell them?”
“Good point,” Chanyeol says, and he pulls aside a tapestry to reveal a section of the wall that’s a slightly different color. “Then I guess my secret’s safe with you.”
Baekhyun walks up behind Chanyeol as he pushes on the door, watching in amazement as it slides to the side. He bumps into Chanyeol’s back, his chest pressing into the blazer, and he rapidly jerks back. “Sorry.”
“No big deal,” Chanyeol says, throwing an easy smile over his shoulder. “Let’s go?”
“Where does it lead?” Baekhyun asks.
“It’s a surprise.” Chanyeol says. “Do you like surprises?”
“Not especially,” Baekhyun replies, and Chanyeol makes a sad, pouty face at him that has him backpedalling. “But I’ll make an exception for you, just this once.”
“Excellent,” Chanyeol says, and Baekhyun is right behind him as they enter the tunnel. It’s dank and dark, but still clean, and Chanyeol keeps him close. Baekhyun’s cheek occasionally brushes the expensive fabric of Chanyeol’s suit jacket. “If we see any bugs, you may have to protect me,” he says. “I really hate them.”
“Then why are we here?”
“There’s an old legend about my family,” Chanyeol says, and Baekhyun groan. “What?”
“The last old legend about your family got me into this,” Baekhyun explains. “I’m a bit wary of the next one.”
Chanyeol’s smile is visible even in the dark tunnel. Baekhyun should inquire about his toothpaste brand. “This one’s a little less magical and a little more historical,” Chanyeol reassures him. “Once upon a time, when a great Emperor’s wife died, he thought he would never fall in love again.”
“How sad,” Baekhyun says, but Chanyeol shushes him with one finger to his lips, leaving Baekhyun’s mouth tingling when it disappears.
“But the Emperor was wrong,” Chanyeol says. “He did fall in love again, with a foreign beauty who was sweet and kind and loved the water.”
They’re nearing the end of the tunnel now. He can tell by the way it gets narrower, can how Chanyeol starts to slow down. “Then?”
“He brought his new love to the palace, expecting everyone to love her, but because she was from another kingdom, she had trouble fitting in.”
“Like me,” Baekhyun says, and Chanyeol stops, causing Baekhyun to bump into him again.
“Yeah,” Chanyeol says, reaching behind to grab Baekhyun’s sleeve without a second thought. Baekhyun might like that; the ease with which Chanyeol reaches for him. His hands aren’t as big as Kris’, and they’re a tad more square. “Like you.”
“Did she want to go home?”
Chanyeol pushes lightly against what Baekhyun had though was a wall, and it clicks, and falls open, revealing the outdoors. “She wanted to go home, but she loved the Emperor as much as he loved her,” Chanyeol says. “So she stayed.”
“It’s beautiful,” Baekhyun says, following Chanyeol into a garden unlike any of the others he’s seen so far. It’s overgrown, with weeds pushing up in between the flowers, but the pond more than makes up for it, surrounded by soft lush grass that seems to be surviving the Beijing summer.
“The Emperor built his foreign Empress a beautiful garden just for her, that she could care for and spend time in, away from everyone else while he was away on official business.” Chanyeol pulls Baekhyun toward a metal bench next to the pond. “She would be the only one besides the builder to know the location of the door.”
“That’s really romantic,” Baekhyun says. “What happened to her?”
“She died,” Chanyeol says. “Oh, don’t make that sad face, it’s just a story!”
“My whole life is built around stories,” Baekhyun says. “That’s what I do for a living. I work with stories.” He sits down on the metal bench. It’s long enough to sit with space between them, but Chanyeol doesn’t seem to notice, sitting right next to Baekhyun. His suit jacket pulls across his broad shoulders. “I read books.”
“Quite the day job,” Chanyeol says. “There has to be more to it than that.”
“I edit fantasy novels,” Baekhyun says. “I kind of… well, I write them, as well, but never…” Feigning confidence he doesn’t feel, he pushes out the wrinkles in the silk of his robe where it lays across his thighs. “I’ve never got around to finishing them. Not that it matters, anymore.”
“Why wouldn’t it matter?” Chanyeol has his head resting in between both of his hands, and he’s looking over his glasses at Baekhyun curiously. “You can still write here, right?”
“I don’t know,” Baekhyun says. “What’s there to write about when you’re not allowed to do anything?” He looks at the pond, watching the tiny silver fish he’s just now noticing flutter back and forth underneath the clear surface. “I don’t have my laptop. I’m not allowed to see my friend. I’m just… here, and no one wants me here.”
“I thought you might feel that way,” Chanyeol says. “That’s why I showed you this garden.”
“Any time you want to escape, you can come here.” He laughs, more quietly than Baekhyun’s ever heard him laugh before. “I’ll share this place with you.” He rubs at his neck, thick fingers roughing up the nicely styled hair at his neck. “I’ll see what I can do to make things better for you, Baekhyun.”
“Thank you so much, Chanyeol,” Baekhyun says, invading Chanyeol’s personal space for the first time to fix the hair at his neck where he’d ruined it. Chanyeol’s skin is hot beneath his touch, from the summer sun. It’s not even afternoon yet, still morning, and the heat is already setting in, sun blazing overhead relentlessly. “But I don’t think anyone can make a fairytale out of this.”
He looks into Chanyeol’s eyes, and he’s looking back at Baekhyun so steadily that it makes Baekhyun shiver despite the heat. “The crown prince is a good man,” Chanyeol says. “You couldn’t have gotten accidentally engaged to a nicer one.”
“If you say so,” Baekhyun says.
“I do,” Chanyeol says firmly. “He’s the best person I know.” Chanyeol smiles again. “Anyone would be lucky to have someone that great.”
Baekhyun returns to his room after dinner ready to sleep.
Dinner had been an unmitigated disaster, Baekhyun dropping food on the floor at least twice because someone asked him a question out of the blue, and Kris staunchly refusing to look anywhere but at his plate unless Baekhyun discreetly prodded him to ask a question about manners. Kris was always polite, and always helpful, but Baekhyun could clearly feel the distance between them. It could be a long lifetime with that kind of silence. Baekhyun hadn’t wanted to consider that.
“I can’t wait to go to bed,” Baekhyun says to himself as he pushes into his room, holding out his arms and letting one of his servants start to take the bracelets off his wrists.
“Do you think you could hold out a little longer?”
Sitting on Baekhyun’s bed is Lu Han. He’s wearing his work clothes, his trousers slightly wrinkled from a long day of wear, and his button up slipping out of his pants.
“You’re here!” Baekhyun says. “How are you here?”
“I don’t know what you said, but suddenly I was being invited back here so fast I got whiplash.”
“Kris said you weren’t…” Baekhyun scrunches his face. “I didn’t think you wanted to come, anyway. You’ve been strange, when I called.”
“It’s complicated,” Lu Han says. “But I’m getting over it.” He bounces up from Baekhyun’s bed, leaving the covers a wreck, and gives Baekhyun a hug, slapping his back hard enough that Baekhyun is winded when Lu Han lets go. “You look alive.”
“I notice you don’t say ‘well’.”
“You look like a miserable little kid at an adult’s birthday party,” Lu Han says honestly. “You’ve got that pissy look on your face like someone told you couldn’t have any of the cake because it’s only for the older people.”
“How long can you stay?” Baekhyun asks, and Lu Han grins.
“I have a few hours before I have to leave,” he says. “Oh, and before I forget—“ He leans down and picks up a familiar bag from the floor. “I had your brother drop by your flat and overnight this to me. Your parents, by the way, are--”
“So tripped out,” Baekhyun says. “I talked to them a couple of days ago and they still think Kris and I tried to elope or something. As if.”
“It is a little farfetched,” Lu Han says. “The whole ‘I kissed an animal and it turned into a really attractive man’ thing.”
It really is. “Is that really my laptop?”
“It is really your laptop,” Lu Han confirms. “You can write all about the time you kissed a frog and it became my liar of a friend.”
“Hey Lu Han,” Baekhyun asks, with a moment of insight, sitting down on the edge of the bed and looking up at Lu Han until he slumps down next to him, kicking his legs out in front of him and avoiding Baekhyun’s stare. “A friend or a friend?”
“A friend,” Lu han says, after considering. “That I might have liked to be a friend.”
“It looks like both our fairytales got all messed up, doesn’t it?” Baekhyun asks, leaning into Lu Han and wishing he could go back in time and put his vacation off a good couple of months. “I should have come in October,” he says.
“The weather’s nice then,” Lu Han agrees, and Baekhyun thinks about his flat, and his desk at the office right across from Jongdae’s, and feels so homesick he’s sick with it.
Breakfast with Kris the next morning is less frosty than their first breakfast, if only because Baekhyun is in a better mood.
“You seem happy,” Kris says. “I’ve never seen you smile before. It’s nice.” Baekhyun waits for the embarrassment that had surged in him when Chanyeol had complimented his smile, but there’s nothing but the pleasant satisfaction of being complimented.
“Lu Han came to see me,” Baekhyun says. “And he brought my laptop.” Baekhyun takes a bite of rice. It’s hot and burns the roof of his mouth, but he doesn’t spit it out because he’s made enough bad impressions about his eating abilities. “Was that your idea?”
“You’ll have to thank my brother for that, actually,” Kris says. “Canlie. You haven’t met him yet but the Emperor wants him to come to dinner tonight so you’ll meet him then.” Kris exhales. “He said you must be lonely. And bored. And that you would want contact from outside and some of your belongings.”
“I didn’t know you had a brother,” Baekhyun says. “I’ll thank him as soon as I meet him.”
“Half-brother,” Kris says. “We have different mothers.”
“Which one of your mothers is the Empress?” Baekhyun asks, and Kris raises his brow in surprise.
“You really know nothing about China,” he says. “Lu Han said that you didn’t know a thing and I didn’t really believe him.”
“I have other interests,” Baekhyun says.
“I’ll see if I can find you an instructor,” Kris says. “You need to know. If you’re going to rule by my side.” He sets his chopsticks down. “Neither of our mothers is the Empress. She is my father’s third wife.”
“Where does your brother live?”
“In the palace,” Kris says. “You will like him.” Kris hesitates. “He’s like you.”
“He can’t leave, like you, I mean.”
“Why can’t he leave?” Baekhyun asks, and Kris doesn’t answer.
“You’ll see.” Kris’ long fingers tap indistinct patterns into their table. “Dinner will be…” Kris searches for a word. His Korean is not good or bad, but they don’t talk enough for Baekhyun to see him trying this hard very often. “Tense. Dinner will be tense tonight.”
“It’s always tense,” Baekhyun says. It’s nothing like family dinners at his house, with his brother loudly describing his day and Baekhyun taking advantage of it to steal all of his banchan.
“More tense,” Kris says, and just like that, Baekhyun’s good cheer evaporates just like the morning dew under the Beijing sun.
“What’s with the face?” Chanyeol says, when he finds Baekhyun in the garden Chanyeol had shown him. “Zitao said you’d asked to be left alone.”
“More like made wild hand gestures at him until he shoo’d me off saying okay, okay in Mandarin,” Baekhyun says, and Chanyeol laughs, collapsing next to Baekhyun on the metal bench. “I almost felt bad about how emphatic I was. How’d you know I’d be here?”
“I didn’t,” Chanyeol says. “But I hoped you might have taken me up on my offer.”
“How’d you get past all the scary bugs?” Baekhyun asks, and Chanyeol makes a disgruntled frown. “I saw at least three spiders, for sure.”
“Don’t tell me that,” Chanyeol says, “or I’ll never make it back inside.”
“Staying out here forever seems tempting, doesn’t it?” He wipes at his face. “Maybe not.”
“It’s better as the year passes. It’ll start to get cooler in September.”
“My wedding is in September,” Baekhyun says. “I don’t want to be here then.”
“I can understand that.” Chanyeol nudges him with his elbow, and Baekhyun stares at the water. “Is that the only thing that has got you down?”
“Do you know what the consequences are?”
“The consequences for what?” Chanyeol is dressed down again today, Baekhyun sees. Just a pair of black pants and a white button down. Baekhyun wonders what Chanyeol does when he’s not with Baekhyun.
“Breaking a magical contract,” Baekhyun says, and Chanyeol sucks in his breath through his teeth.
“I don’t know,” he says, undoing a few buttons of his shirt. “It’s been a long time since this has happened.”
“A long time?”
“A few hundred years,” Chanyeol says. “We’d all started to think it wasn’t real. Then, the crown prince pushed his luck and…” He reaches for the cuffs of his shirt, trying to unbutton those, too, but his fingers are too thick and the buttons are too small.
“Push his luck?” Baekhyun reaches out and grabs Chanyeol’s arm, pulling it into Baekhyun’s lap. Then he easily undoes the two buttons at Chanyeol’s wrist. He peeks up at Chanyeol through his eyelashes and Chanyeol is staring down at Baekhyun’s hands. They look so small in comparison to Chanyeol; the fingers slim where Chanyeol’s are wide, and the nails long and smooth where Chanyeol’s are blunt and square. He rolls the sleeve up three times, until it’s at Chanyeol’s elbow, and Chanyeol’s adam’s apple bobs up and down. Baekhyun’s own heart is racing, just a little. “Other arm,” he says, and Chanyeol obeys, taking a surprisingly shaky breath.
“I thought…” Chanyeol seems distracted, his eyes still watching Baekhyun help him with his shirt, and Baekhyun finishes but doesn’t let go, his hands staying there in the dip of Chanyeol’s arm. “We all thought he liked someone. But when his birthday passed by, and nothing happened, we figured the curse must not be real anymore. Like it had worn off. But then, out of nowhere, in June...” Chanyeol coughs.
“Are you okay?” Baekhyun asks, cuffing the second sleeve, and he looks up to Chanyeol’s red face staring down at him. “We should go inside, if you’re that hot.” Baekhyun is that hot, too. He’s boiling in all these robes, and he can feel the back of his neck burning.
“Your hands,” Chanyeol says, his eyes looking anywhere but at Baekhyun. “They’re lovely.”
“You’re always complimenting me,” Baekhyun says, and now his insides are as hot as his outsides, blood rushing hot up to his cheeks.
“There’s so much to compliment,” Chanyeol says, freeing his arm from Baekhyun’s gentle hold. “Your fingers were tickling me.”
“I was just trying to help,” Baekhyun says. “You’ve helped me so much already.”
“I haven’t done anything,” Chanyeol says. “Except charm your socks off, right?”
“You gave me this,” Baekhyun says, one arm extended to indicate the pond. “And you talk to me. Listen to me.” Baekhyun’s hair feels gross, and his skin does too. “Even if I can’t figure out how to break the magical contract, I’ll still have you, right?”
“You will,” Chanyeol says. “I’ll be your friend here, Baekhyun.” Chanyeol stands up. “Don’t you need to get ready for dinner?”
“I do,” Baekhyun says. He doesn’t want to leave the garden. More than that, he doesn’t want to leave Chanyeol. Chanyeol feels like a safe space in the midst of all the places Baekhyun has to watch his every move, even more so than this garden.
They get to the door, and Chanyeol winks at Baekhyun, that weird twitchy movement that Baekhyun shouldn’t find endearing but that he totally does. “Can you go first?”
“Why?” Baekhyun asks suspiciously, and Chanyeol gives him a sheepish grin.
“You said there were spiders,” he whispers, and Baekhyun laughs, openly, and feels completely free. “Protect me, Rapunzel.”
“Don’t worry,” Baekhyun says, still laughing. “I’ll look out for you.”
It’s the least he can do.
Baekhyun walks into dinner not sure what to expect. Kris is in his usual seat, and the Empress sits across from him, her frown as present as always when she looks up to see Baekhyun. The Emperor looks tired.
“Boxian,” Kris says, in greeting, and Baekhyun bows the way Zitao has tried to teach him, curling forward enough to be respectful but not far enough to lose his headpiece, which falls no matter how carefully his servants try to fasten it.
The Empress says something harshly to Kris, her back straight as a board, and Baekhyun can already feel terror at how horrible this dinner is going to be.
“I’m here,” say a voice behind him in Mandarin, and Baekhyun knows that voice belongs to Chanyeol. He doesn’t turn around to confirm it. Instead, he walks straight ahead, taking his seat next to Kris.
Chanyeol walks down on the opposite side of the table, taking a seat next to the Empress, and the Emperor clears his throat and signals for service. Dishes come streaming out into the room, filling the table with more food than even Jongin could possibly eat, and Baekhyun stares at Chanyeol.
“This is my younger brother Canlie,” Kris says. “He speaks Korean.”
“We’ve met,” Chanyeol says, searching Baekhyun’s purposefully vacant expression for some clue as to whether Baekhyun is made at him or not. “Haven’t we?”
“Really?” Kris leans forward. “At breakfast this morning, Baekhyun said he didn’t know I had a brother.” Kris’ Korean is remarkably slow in the face of Chanyeol’s fluency, but Baekhyun appreciates the effort so much that he smiles at Kris in thanks.
Kris smiles back at him, surprised, and he really is handsome when he smiles.
“You have breakfast together in the morning?” Chanyeol asks, and Baekhyun looks back to him. “I didn’t know that.”
“We are getting married,” Kris says. “We should get to know each other.”
“That’s right,” Chanyeol says. “You should.” Baekhyun takes the opportunity to look, really look, at Chanyeol dressed in his formal robes. At least he tries, but he keeps going back to Chanyeol’s eyes, which gleam in the room’s brilliant bright lighting.
“I wasn’t lying,” Baekhyun says, implying with his voice that he’s not like either of them, who seem to have constant identity crises. “I didn’t know that… Canlie…” It doesn’t sound right, but Baekhyun knows, instinctually, that Chanyeol is not what he should call him here, “was your brother.”
“I need to find him a tutor,” Kris says. The Empress is staring at them with disdain, and Baekhyun knows it’s because they’re all speaking Korean at the Emperor’s table. The Emperor ignores them, whispering back and forth with a harried looking man in a suit with a tablet PC.
“I’ll do it,” Chanyeol says, and Kris’ eyebrows shoot together like he’s eaten bad shellfish. “It’s not a problem.”
“We should find him someone…”
“With more free time?” Chanyeol laughs, and Baekhyun’s surprised at how unhappy it sounds. “There’s no one with more free time than I have, Wu Fan.”
“You have classes—“
“I’m not going to rule, Wu Fan. You are.” Chanyeol’s eyes are harder to read without his glasses on. Baekhyun doesn’t think that makes much sense, but it’s true.
“If something happens to me…”
Chanyeol grins, fierce and controlled. He’s smiling like Baekhyun had smiled for his high school photo, right after he’d found out he’d been rejected for his first choice school. “I still won’t rule,” Chanyeol says. “Do you really think they’d let me?”
Kris looks at the Empress, and then back at Chanyeol. “I’m trusting you with this, then,” he says.
“You can,” Chanyeol says. “You know I’m trustworthy.”
“I would trust you with anything, Canlie,” Kris says, and Chanyeol’s smile goes from hard to soft, and Baekhyun can see how much he loves his brother, right then and there.
Baekhyun looks down at his food, and wonders if he’ll ever be able to love Kris as much as Chanyeol does. He hopes, for both their sakes, that he can.