Summary: Changmin didn’t mean to stumble upon the concubine’s son. Nor did Jaejoong intend to befriend the prince. And he didn’t intend for them to grow so close, or learn so much. But he couldn’t let it slip away from him, now that he’d had a taste.
It tasted like the season’s fruits that they climbed trees to gather when they were too small to reach. And it tasted like the lake-water that they threw in each other’s faces. And it tasted like the Paper Prince’s dry letters and bitter ink that they managed to overcome.
Author's note: So I listened to Insa and Hoppipolla and looked up the translations. From Hoppipolla I just HAD to write a childhood fic and from Insa, also the ‘finding each other’ prompt, there had to be some sort of loss and conflict XD anyway I hope you like it, I had fun writing~ merry Christmas! <3
The terrace was abandoned except for one lone figure. His clothes were well made and well fitted, but clearly not royal. He was leaning on the stone balustrade in the late evening light, and his voice echoed off the walls behind him, absorbed into the trees in front.
“Fly away, fly away, love
Fly away, fly away, love
Fly away, fly away, love
In the afterlife I will greet my love again…”
“That’s a sad song,” another voice broke the silence in the aftermath of the final note. “Did you lose someone?”
The first figure twitched slightly but made no other sign of surprise. “Yes,” he said softly, “I lost someone…”
The newcomer scoffed, and the bridle in his hands jingled as he crossed his arms across his chest. The first figure — the older of the two, though slightly shorter — looked up and frowned. He took in the gold brocade on the younger man’s riding jacket, the exquisite nature of his muddied boots, the distance in his averted eyes.
Cold, carefully blank eyes rose to meet his. “I am made aware of every death in this palace, Jaejoong. I know when you’re lying to me. It’s disrespectful to lie to your prince.”
Jaejoong turned and leaned on the balustrade, smiling sadly. “I said I lost him, not that he died.”
The prince scowled and tossed the bridle down onto the paving. He crossed to a separate part of balustrade to lean on himself, and looked out at the forest. A flock of birds rose from the treetops, startled by something, circling a few times in the golden sunlight before returning to their roosts.
“You’ve been going riding much more recently.”
“I’ve had more time…” the prince replied absently.
Jaejoong chuckled. “That’s nice.” He glanced over at his companion with a strangely unguarded expression. “It’s been a while.”
“Since two summers ago…”
The prince straightened abruptly and picked up the halter that he had discarded. “Good luck with finding… whoever you lost,” he said curtly, brushing dust off the buckles.
“Changmin…” Jaejoong halted him. The prince spun around, outrage in his eyes, lips slightly parted in shock. Jaejoong met his gaze evenly. “Changmin-ah,” he repeated, softly, sadly.
“That is enough, you disrespectful, fatherless waif,” Changmin hissed.
Jaejoong brushed aside his anger, offering up a lopsided smile. “I’m just the bastard son of a concubine, Changmin-ah. What do I know of respect or manners?”
Jaejoong pushed away from the banister and approached the prince, taking his hand and sinking to his knees on the sun-warmed stone of the terrace.
“My lord, your majesty,” he breathed against the skin of his hand, “Help me find him, I beg of you.”
Changmin swallowed, disarmed by Jaejoong’s sudden swing of emotion. He tried to pull his hand free but Jaejoong’s cold fingers tightened around it to prevent him escaping.
“Perhaps he’s lost for good,” the prince whispered flatly.
Jaejoong shook his head. “No, no he’s not. I know he’s not.” He stood up and looked directly into the prince’s vulnerable, off-guard brown eyes. “Help me find him. Please, Changmin.”
Changmin freed his hand from the older man’s grasp and his eyes closed over, returning to their cold, unreadable state.
“You’re wasting your time,” he muttered, stalking back into the palace.
* * *
Changmin grinned triumphantly to himself as he roamed around the castle alone, having escaped from his attendants. It was a wonderful feeling, having no-one to fuss over him constantly, fixing his clothing or face, making sure he didn’t run, or speak with an unreasonable tone or volume, or go to restricted areas, or skip his lessons. In general, Changmin thought grudgingly, their entire existence revolved around preventing him from having any sort of fun at all. He stopped dead in his tracks as he heard voices and flattened himself against a wall, holding his breath as two of his father’s advisors crossed the hall perpendicular to the one he was hiding in, deep in conversation. He let out his breath as they passed, creeping along the floor to a part of the castle he wasn’t so familiar with. It was the area where his father did most of his work, and therefore, Changmin was not allowed to visit very often. While his father was in those rooms, he tended to be confined to chambers where old men who smelled of age and dust tried to teach him letters, numbers and countries.
The six-year-old boy puffed himself up and moved to the centre of the broad corridor, walking with his head high and his steps confident, as though he were fully permitted to be roaming free, with no duties or responsibilities to attend to, or irate tutors and fretful servants searching for him.
These corridors housed the rooms and small halls that his father, the King, used to entertain or consult when the throne room was less appropriate; for example, when the company was small, or the matters to be discussed were secret. Changmin felt important strutting down such a corridor, as though he were a lord on his way to a private meeting.
A lord that scampered into a dusty nook behind a tapestry as one of his tutors stormed past, muttering incessantly under his breath about snot-nosed brats, disrespectful boys and sneaky, invisible wretches — in the singular. The young prince, safe behind his fabric shield, did not have to bite back his smirk, and as soon as the old man had moved on to search the next corridor for the errant royal, ducked back out into the open and ran the opposite direction.
It was hot, quiet and stuffy in the palace. It was approaching midsummer, and in Changmin’s father’s kingdom, that meant that the air was thick with heat and moisture; and at that point in the afternoon, most of the castle’s inhabitants were taking their siesta. Except the unfortunate aides sent out to search for a particular pesky prince.
The soft curls at the nape of Changmin’s neck clung wetly to his skin and he was glad that he had shed his outer layer of clothing, remaining simply in his trousers and loose shirt. He had abandoned his boots in the interests of stealth, and his bare feet padded softly on the extensive rugs that lined the very centre of the hallways. Another reason to stay in the middle.
“Whoa,” he breathed and skidded to a halt, taking in the sight of the ballroom. He was at the main entrance, with wide, curving staircases trailing down from his right and left. He crouched down and peered through the banister. The room was huge, and he had only been in it once before. They liked to keep him away from celebrations and gatherings, deeming him too young for such occasions. It looked even more expansive without the throng of colour and noise and clothes that filled the space before. One of the room’s six walls was simply columns, leading out onto a terrace that spread down in a staircase to the gardens. Now, it allowed in the sunlight to illuminate the soft cream of the stone floor and the colours of the paintings and tapestries on three of the remaining walls. The thrones on the far wall were bathed in late afternoon gold, and Changmin straightened to see them properly over the top of the banister. There were three, currently; one for his father, one for his mother; and he knew that his father’s main general or advisor occupied the third, depending on the occasion. He also knew that it was rightfully his seat. He felt a sudden stab of possessiveness for the throne and started to trot rapidly down the right-hand staircase so that he could sit in it.
He was halfway down when he noticed the music. He stopped short, small hand shooting out to grab the rail and prevent him from tumbling down the rest of the flight, and listened. It was by no means good playing, nothing like the elegance of the entertainment he was usually exposed to, but it was a coherent and steady piece of music, stumbling its way from the keyboard set at the base of the centre of the stairs. Changmin pushed up onto his toes and sneaked a sidelong glance across at the instrument, eyebrows rising at the sight of short black hair and a small frame, feet swinging under a chair too tall to allow the feet to touch the ground. The boy could not have been more than two years older than Changmin himself, and the prince silently crept the rest of the way down the stairs. He walked towards the piano with equal silence, until he was directly behind the other boy.
“Should you be here?” he demanded, a slight frown on his face, and the other boy’s chord crashed into dissonance as he jumped nearly out of his skin. He spun around with wide eyes, grabbing the keyboard to prevent himself from falling off the stool. The shock on is face faded into a look of confusion as Changmin folded his arms and stared at him. “I don’t think you should.”
“Should you?” the older boy retorted, crossing his own arms, and Changmin’s mouth fell open. No-one spoke to him with such arrogance. Not even his tutors dared; to his face, they used a simpering, respectful tone.
“I’m the prince,” Changmin drawled, drawing himself up defiantly. “I do what I want.”
“I’m the son of the King’s fourth concubine,” the other replied, jumping down from the chair to stand face-to-face with the prince, “I’m allowed to do what I want.”
Changmin’s eyes narrowed dangerously and the other boy grinned lopsidedly. “I’m Jaejoong. I’m eight, but you probably wouldn’t have seen me before, right? You’re not supposed to be corrupted by the likes of me.” He dropped into an exaggerated and mocking bow.
Changmin was at a loss as to how to deal with the situation. Never before had he met anyone like this. Not only because he was less than three times his age, or spoke to him so informally, but because he seemed so… happy.
“Well then, what’s your name?”
Jaejoong raised an eyebrow at his silence.
“I am your prince!” Changmin exploded incredulously. “You should know my name!”
“Regardless,” Jaejoong placed his hands on his hips, “I introduced myself — it’s only polite that you do the same.” He looked pointedly around the empty hall. “Or are you waiting for your assembly to introduce you?”
“I am Shim Changmin,” Changmin muttered pompously — a combination of tones he had managed to perfect.
Jaejoong dropped into a far more genuine and friendly bow. “Nice to meet you, Shim Changmin.” He chuckled. “Would you care to dine with me?”
“Would I… what?” Changmin spluttered, but held up a hand for silence with wide eyes as he heard the rapid slapping of feet on stone that meant one of his frazzled guardians was approaching. “Another time,” he declined hurriedly, turning to run for the columned space and freedom. Jaejoong sprinted after him, bursting out into the open air a split second after the prince and pulling the younger boy to the wall and out of sight. He placed a finger to his lips and kept his hold on Changmin’s wrist, leading him across the terrace, down the stairs and into the gardens.
“Where are you going?” Changmin demanded, trying to free his hand.
“You’ll see,” Jaejoong replied with an irritating and obviously deliberate air of mystery.
Changmin huffed but followed Jaejoong anyway, because Jaejoong seemed interesting — more interesting than his other option, which was roaming alone, aimlessly. This area of the garden was a small grove, and the boys ducked off the path into the shade of the trees. Jaejoong fanned himself with one hand and dropped Changmin’s wrist with the other, grinning. “Hot, isn’t it?” he commented. “Come on, this way.”
Changmin nodded in agreement and continued to follow, at a more reasonable pace now that they were out of sight of the palace, sheltered by the trees. Changmin had a sudden memory of one of his mother’s parties, candles hanging in lanterns from every tree along the path, their laughter and speech inaudible from his spying post on the rampart. It had been night, the lords and ladies spreading out over the lawn and disappearing down the forest path, all ornate clothing and wine.
“Changmin-ah? This way.”
Changmin shook his head free from his thoughts and went after Jaejoong. The older boy led him through the grove and into the next, the orchard — an ornamental one, where the lords and ladies could make their leisurely way between rows of fruit trees and pluck off low-hanging, ripe, sweet fruits on their way. Jaejoong led Changmin to the nashi trees and started to climb. Changmin stared.
Jaejoong clambered up the smooth branches with the grace of someone who practiced a lot, until he reached the fruit up high. The lower branches had been plucked bare. He picked an armful of the fruits and leaned down from his perch to hand them to Changmin while he climbed down. “So,” he said, jumping to the ground, taking the pears back and then holding one up to the prince in offering. “Care to dine with me?”
* * *
Changmin lay awake in the darkness, pouting up at the ceiling of his room. He was lying splayed out in his enormous bed, on top of the blankets. It was a ridiculously hot night and sleep was impossible. Not to mention he was angry. A soft thump disturbed his petulant thoughts and he sat bolt upright, with half a mind to scream for his guards, until he saw the silhouette of the thump’s cause.
“What are you doing here?” he hissed.
Jaejoong straightened from falling through the window, dusted himself off and smiled. “Did you get in trouble yesterday?”
Changmin scowled furiously, visible from where Jaejoong was standing by the window, which was answer enough for the older boy. “It was fun, though, right? I bet you don’t do stuff like that often. I’d have seen you if you did.”
“I… I spend my time gaining a substantial education,” Changmin informed him defensively, spitting back words that his tutors and parents liked to use a lot. Then he grimaced. “It’s no fun at all.”
Jaejoong laughed — quietly, so as not to disturb the night guards outside in the Royal corridor. “I bet. Sounds terrible.” He sat down on the prince’s bed and Changmin crossed his legs. “Shall we go again tomorrow?”
Changmin shrugged outwardly, but inwardly he was beaming and nodding and accepting eagerly. “Maybe. If I can get away again.”
“Good.” Jaejoong leaned back on his hands and looked out through the window, sighing. “It’s hot outside.”
“It’s hot inside.”
“Hmm.” Jaejoong pouted thoughtfully for a moment and then stood up. “Well, I should be leaving, I suppose. I was just bored and felt like going for a walk, then I saw your window and thought — maybe I’ll go check in on Changmin.” He grinned at the prince. “See you tomorrow, then. Goodnight, your majesty.”
“Yah,” Changmin protested, but Jaejoong had already jumped out the window with a farewell wave. Changmin ran to the wall just in time to see the boy clamber down the rocky outer wall of the palace and into the window of the floor below his chamber.
So cool, he thought to himself, but would never have voiced it aloud.
* * *
“It’s still too hot,” Changmin announced, marching into the culinary garden where Jaejoong was digging up a potato to see how it worked. The older boy looked up, wide eyes blinking twice, before his face relaxed into its usual lopsided grin.
“I know just the place,” he said, standing up and handing Changmin the potato so that he could dust himself off. The prince looked at the vegetable as though he had just been handed a dead animal, then shrugged and gave it back. Jaejoong snickered and ran off, leaving the prince to follow. Changmin did. He always followed.
Jaejoong took him on a half-hour trek to a large pond, so large that Changmin considered calling it a small lake. It was kept nicely by the small army of gardeners, with pavilions at the banks to keep ladies out of the heat or rain. Jaejoong put his potato down in one of them before starting to strip off his clothes.
“What are you doing.” Changmin made it sound like a derisive statement more than a question.
“Best thing to do in this sort of heat,” Jaejoong answered and, left in just his trousers, ran to the lake and launched himself in with an impressive splash. Changmin’s eyes went huge in shock and he hurried down in time to see Jaejoong’s head emerge, his black hair hanging wet over his face like some sort of demonic beast.
“Come in, Changmin-ah! The water is great!” Jaejoong laughed.
Changmin shook his head quickly. “I’m fine here,” he denied, shuffling over to be in the shade of the willow rather than in the light of the merciless sun.
“Suit yourself,” Jaejoong shrugged unaffectedly, falling backwards to dive under again. Changmin watched him with increasing envy, taking off his boots to dip his feet in the water.
It was nice. It cooled his feet and was a welcome change from the stifling heat of the day. Still, it looked nicer to be Jaejoong, happily splashing around in the deep water, completely soaked and carefree.
* * *
“Sir,” Changmin said suddenly, interrupting his tutor’s lecture of his great-great-grandfather’s reign. The old man’s eyes went comically huge as he realized that his young charge had just interrupted his story.
“Yes?” he said in surprise.
Changmin was gazing out the window. “Can I learn how to swim?”
The history tutor sputtered. “What on earth would a prince like yourself be wanting to swim for? Come now, your majesty, please be attentive. Where was I?”
Changmin sighed and slipped back into his near-eternal state of boredom and thought of cool water surrounding his body, and splashing waves crashing over a head of black hair.
* * *
Changmin was seven and Jaejoong was nine. It was early spring and the days were warming up again.
“Jaejoong-ah,” Changmin called up to his friend, who was gathering oranges in his tree. The fruits had been growing steadily sourer as winter thawed, but were still good at times.
“Hm?” Jaejoong peered down through the branches as he placed the fruits in the cloth bag slung over his shoulder.
“Take me to the water,” the prince ordered.
“Huh? Aren’t you cold?” Jaejoong closed the flap of the bag and swung to the ground. “Why do you want to go there?”
“It’s a warm day,” Changmin informed him decisively.
“Not… really,” Jaejoong said, but shrugged. “Sure, we can go. Whatever you want, your majesty.”
“And stop calling me that,” Changmin muttered, raiding Jaejoong’s bag for the best-looking fruit.
Jaejoong raised his eyebrows. “Oh? Aren’t you the one always going on at me for my lack of manners?”
“Yes, but… it’s weird when you call me that.” Changmin selected his orange and dug his thumbnail into the top. “Because you don’t really mean it.”
Jaejoong laughed. “I guess I don’t,” he agreed, taking an orange for himself. “Oh well. Let’s go then, Changmin-ah.”
Changmin sighed as he looked at the lake. A few flowers on the banks were just coming into bloom, giving the area a peaceful, springtime atmosphere. He knelt down and dipped his hands in to remove the sticky orange juice.
“You brought me all the way up here just to wash your hands?” Jaejoong shook his head.
“No, that’s not why!” Changmin frowned.
“Then why?” Jaejoong grinned, taking the bag off his shoulder and placing it in the pavilion.
Changmin flushed and looked at his shuffling feet. “I… well…”
Jaejoong tapped his lip. “Hm, what is this? The Prince Changmin at a loss for words? What happened to his snarky confidence?”
Changmin glared. “I want to learn to swim,” he announced. “I can’t. I… neglected to ask all summer, and then it got too cold. Now it’s warm enough — teach me.”
Jaejoong blinked once and then beamed. Changmin was startled by the expression, but Jaejoong just looked down and started taking off his clothes. “Of course, Changmin.”
Changmin quickly shrugged off his thin spring jacket. Jaejoong had already stripped down to his bare torso. “Let’s go over to the open bank.”
Changmin nodded, throwing his clothes with Jaejoong’s bag. Warmed from their hike out to the lake, the boys had little problem with the brisk air on their skin.
Most of the lake was ringed with stone, but there was one portion of the shore that sloped out into the grass like a quasi-beach. Jaejoong trotted in without hesitation and Changmin followed, eyes widening. He let out a strangled noise and Jaejoong turned to look at him. “You alright?”
“You’re right, it is cold,” Changmin choked through clenched teeth. “Let’s do this another day.”
“Nonsense.” Jaejoong scoffed. “Don’t be such a weakling. You were the one who said it wasn’t cold.”
“I changed my mind,” Changmin growled. “Let’s head back. There are still some fires kept going.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Now swim,” Jaejoong ordered briskly, grabbing Changmin by his thin shoulders, swinging him around and throwing him down into the water.
Changmin shrieked, both from surprise and the sudden shock of the icy water. He sat up, gasping, drenched and too stunned to be angry — until he caught sight and sound of Jaejoong barely able to stand from laughter and his face hardened. He lunged forward, wrapping his arms securely around Jaejoong’s legs, and heaved, sending the older boy crashing down into the cold, sticky mud of the bank.
“Yah!” Jaejoong yelled through his laughter, wiping the mud from his bangs. Changmin laughed as well, in a sort of satisfied, vengeful way, and Jaejoong tackled him back into the lake.
They wrestled, battling for the dominance to force the other underwater. Although Jaejoong was two years older, they were about the same size. They fought until they were chest-deep in the lake and Changmin clambered onto Jaejoong’s shoulders, forcing his head into the water. Jaejoong struggled for a few seconds and then went still, before heaving his torso up and throwing Changmin off. Changmin clawed at Jaejoong’s hair as he fell, but couldn’t get a grip, and ended up flailing as he splashed into the lake.
He struggled to regain his footing and tried to glare, but he was laughing too hard. Jaejoong laughed back at him, ruffling the prince’s soaked hair. “Lesson one: getting used to the water,” he said innocently, as though everything had been intentional. “Now come on, let’s go. I can’t feel my toes.”
* * *
Changmin’s nurse shrieked when they returned to the castle and she caught sight of them. They had dried out significantly on the walk back, but it was still obvious that they had recently been drenched. She dashed into the prince’s quarters and brought out a towel (one towel), wrapping it around Changmin’s shoulders and rubbing him briskly.
“Aish… I’m fine! I’m fine! Stop!” he cried, trying to get away, but the nurse held him still.
“What have you been doing?” she demanded shrilly, pulling off his still-wet jacket and slinging it over her arm.
“Swimming,” Jaejoong replied helpfully, with a winning smile.
The nurse would have none of it. She narrowed her eyes disapprovingly at him. It was far from a secret that the young prince liked to spend most of his time with the fourth concubine’s only son, but she didn’t have to like it. “You…” she scolded coldly, “Always leading him off places, taking him away from his lessons, getting him into all sorts of trouble… it’s terrible. I have half a mind to have you and your faithless mother kicked out of this place.”
Jaejoong just smiled, but it wasn’t the normal smile that Changmin knew. It was tighter and more uneasy and he bowed lowly to the nurse. “I deeply apologize for today’s inconvenience,” he said humbly but cheerfully, and waved to Changmin before running off.
* * *
Changmin was ten when he overheard part of his mother’s conversation, as she and the four concubines painted their fans together in one of the Queen’s chambers, and he learned exactly what concubines were for. He had run, that morning, with a ten-year-old’s disgust, and only the next day had considered the implications of that on himself. He was lying on a hill with Jaejoong, munching on a plum, attentively failing to listen as Jaejoong pointed out the shapes he saw in the clouds.
“Jae,” he interrupted.
“Hm?” Jaejoong took advantage of the interruption to pop the last of the plum in his mouth and suck on the seed to get the most out of the fruit’s juicy flesh.
“If you’re Miyoung’s son,” he began, referring to the fourth concubine and rolling onto his stomach to look at Jaejoong’s face, “That means you’re my brother, right?”
Jaejoong smiled and turned his head away to spit out the plum pip before replying. “Nah,” he denied, sliding his hands behind his head. “There’s a reason my mother’s only the fourth concubine… she had an affair with a visiting lord, and had me. She used to be the second concubine, you know. When the King found out… well, he was kind enough to let us stay, but she got demoted to last place.” He gave Changmin a strange sort of grin. “We’re not related at all.”
“Oh.” Changmin sounded disappointed as he rolled onto his back again.
“Well, it would’ve been nice to have a brother…” Changmin admitted, throwing his half-finished plum away.
Jaejoong shrugged. “I’m your friend, though. Isn’t that enough?”
“Sure.” Changmin shrugged as well. “Of course it is.”
* * *
It was Jaejoong’s thirteenth spring and Changmin’s eleventh when the concubine’s son clambered through the prince’s window to find him awake and sitting up in his bed.
“Changmin-ah? Why are you up? Is everything alright?” he asked, seating himself on the blankets.
Changmin shrugged. “Just thinking.”
What about? Jaejoong smiled.
Changmin just smiled at him vaguely. “What are you doing here?”
“Couldn’t sleep,” Jaejoong admitted with relish. “Came to check on you.”
“Why is it,” Changmin sighed, “That you only worry about me when you can’t sleep?”
Jaejoong chuckled. “I like my sleep, Changmin-ah.”
“Yeah, I know.” Changmin couldn’t resist smiling back. “Mother’s having another baby,” he blurted out.
Jaejoong’s eyebrows rose. “Really?”
Changmin nodded. “She told me this morning.” He rested his chin on his knees and rocked slightly side to side. “I might have a brother,” he murmured, staring at nothing.
Jaejoong frowned slightly, then smiled like normal. “Yeah, you might! And we could teach him all the things we know, and get him into all sorts of trouble.”
Changmin laughed. “As if we don’t get into enough trouble on our own.”
“Exactly!” Jaejoong raised his arms excitedly. “It’d be so much fun! We could teach him to climb trees, hide in the corridors, steal food from the kitchens, scale the wall, swim…”
Jaejoong was rewarded by the genuine smile on Changmin’s lips. He ruffled the prince’s hair and left his hand on his head, peering into Changmin’s eyes. “What are you so worried about?” he asked gently.
Changmin shrugged. “I guess because… the last pregnancies didn’t go so well…”
Jaejoong looked surprised. “Wait… your mum was pregnant before?”
Changmin nodded. “I heard Miyoung and Qian talking.” The second and fourth concubines. “She’s been pregnant twice before, and I still don’t have any brothers or sisters.”
“Oh.” Jaejoong shifted closer. “Well… I’m sure everything will be fine this time. She told you, right? And not about the others? So she must be more confident for this one.”
Changmin nodded. “Must be.”
Jaejoong ruffled his hair again. “You should get some sleep,” he said, pushing the prince down and sorting out his blankets for him.
“Stay,” Changmin ordered.
Jaejoong didn’t hesitate, even for a second. “Sure,” he said, lying down next to the prince. “Whatever you want, your majesty.”
“Shut up,” Changmin muttered, curling up and closing his eyes.
* * *
Jaejoong and Changmin took their weapons training sessions together. Their instructor was Changmin’s favourite tutor in the entire castle, possibly because he was at least two decades younger than any of the others. Possibly because he taught them something where the lectures were not conducted in a monotone. Possibly because he laughed a lot and answered questions succinctly, without going on a waffling tangent about something unrelated.
Possibly because he was allowed to share the ‘class’ with Jaejoong.
The boys were all practicing outside on the lawn on one spring day. There were others with Jaejoong and Changmin, other youths who worked in the castle. Around half of them were practicing with each other, but the other half were staring at Jaejoong and Changmin in awe. The two of them were easily the best of all — they were required to be, being members of the household. Changmin had a glare of concentration on his face because he always won, he had to win, but Jaejoong was getting better and better and their contests were slowly becoming more equally matched. Sweat dripped down his face and into his eyes but he refused to let himself be distracted. Jaejoong was grinning at him — hot, tired, sweaty, bruised and losing — but grinning. It drove Changmin insane. With a sudden spurt of energy, he raised his wooden sword and danced around Jaejoong, delivering a series of swift and brutal attacks that finally — finally — brought Jaejoong to his knees.
He let out a cry of victory as Jaejoong laughed defeatedly, dropping his sword and raising his hands in surrender. A few of the onlookers let out cheers for the prince, and it wasn’t until they died down that they heard the heavy clap. Everyone turned and everyone, except one particular prince, scrambled to their feet to bow ninety degrees for the King. Changmin looked at his father in surprise.
“Father! What are you doing here?” he said, somehow excited at the unexpected visit. Then he noticed Jaejoong beside him, crouched in a horrendously respectful bow.
“I came to watch my son’s progress,” the King replied, walking forward to approach Changmin. Changmin dropped his training sword and bowed slightly to his father, who chuckled and ruffled his hair. “You’re doing well, I see. A good fight. But I see that you’re getting your work cut out,” his attention shifted to the boy still stooped before him. “Jaejoong.”
“Your majesty,” Jaejoong responded, but it was not the same way that he addressed Changmin. Changmin had never seen Jaejoong treat anyone with the fear and respect that he was showing the King now. Jaejoong was always smiling, always friendly, always informal; and when he was formal, he was mocking someone. Not this time.
Changmin had been too caught up in his thoughts to hear the details of the compliments his father was paying his friend, but he tuned back in in time to hear Jaejoong thanking the King profusely. The King smiled and turned back to his heir.
“I don’t mean to interrupt your practice, though. Continue,” he ordered with a sweep of his arm, backing away. Jaejoong and Changmin picked up their swords again and raised them in preparation. Their instructor stood beside them with his own sword between their two. Jaejoong’s hands were trembling on the hilt. Changmin stared at him.
“Start!” the trainer cried, pulling away, and Jaejoong flew forward in an immediate attack. Changmin, taken off guard, frantically deflected the blows, and quickly returned to his concentrated mindset. Jaejoong had a determined, steely glint to his eyes that Changmin hadn’t seen before. His fighting was abnormally intense, as well; Changmin was unused to the passion that his friend was attacking him with.
But he did recognize it. The desperate, overpowering need to impress.
Jaejoong hadn’t counted on one thing, though. Changmin held it too. His father was watching, for the very first time. He also needed to win. He hardened his resolve and brought the fight around, returning with his own offensives. He let out an involuntary grunt of pain as Jaejoong clipped his shoulder, but retaliated with a savage blow to Jaejoong’s hip.
The older teen stumbled, but he used his momentum to swing his sword into Changmin’s waist. Winded, Changmin fell to the side, wobbling long enough for Jaejoong to regain his balance. Changmin forced himself to straighten and not think about the bruises he would feel in the morning. He and Jaejoong faced off, swords raised. The entire field was watching them with bated breath. Changmin’s gaze trailed down the length of Jaejoong’s sword, down to his trembling hands, up his stubbornly steady frame, the drops of blood spilling from the corner of his mouth. The instant their eyes met, they were at each other again, fast and furious, fighting for real.
Changmin forgot that he was fighting against Jaejoong, his friend. His opponent was his rival, and they were each battling for their own sake. They alternated defense and attack, unintentionally, but neither of them let their concentration slip enough to end up with the lower hand. Until Changmin managed to get in two consecutive blows, one to Jaejoong’s upper right arm to momentarily disable him, so that he could deliver the second, right across Jaejoong’s kneecaps.
The older boy fell to the ground and Changmin stood over him, pressing the tip of his training sword to his throat to confirm his victory. The boys around them cheered even louder than the last time. As the desperation and competitiveness died in both their eyes, Changmin tossed his weapon aside and grabbed Jaejoong’s arm — his left, as his right was probably too sore still — and hauled him upright.
“Dumb prick,” Changmin chuckled, and Jaejoong punched his arm playfully. Changmin glanced over to where his father was standing, heart thumping at the proud smile the King wore before he raised a hand and walked back to the castle.
* * *
“That was intense,” Jaejoong groaned as he collapsed onto the mattress beside Changmin. “I’m glad you let me in. I wouldn’t have been able to climb the wall tonight.”
Changmin chuckled and his eyes raked over Jaejoong’s bruises. “That was pretty intense…”
Jaejoong smiled and turned to look at him. “I’ll beat you one day, Prince Changmin. Just you wait.”
Changmin grinned impishly. “I’m not patient enough to wait for that day, Jaejoong.”
* * *
It was early in the winter where Changmin would turn twelve and Jaejoong fourteen that the second prince, Minho, was born.
It was in the early hours of a chilly morning that his first cries echoed around the stone walls of the castle.
It was the ninth of December that Jaejoong played piano by himself in the ballroom while Changmin went to meet his new brother.
* * *
Changmin was fourteen and Jaejoong was sixteen when they abandoned the three-year-old and extremely clingy Minho to his nurse and ran off to the lake by themselves, Jaejoong’s old cloth bag full of sweet and juicy cherries.
Changmin stripped as he ran and dived in with professional grace. Jaejoong laughed as he hopped to remove his boots, fondly remembering the days where he had taught the prince to swim. He launched himself off the rocks at the bank and onto his friend’s back, causing them both to crash below the surface. Changmin shook him off and splashed his face when he tried to come up, making him splutter and cover his mouth and eyes as he struggled to breathe through the water and laughter.
It was in the middle of a water fight when Changmin pressed his large hands to Jaejoong’s thin shoulders, changing the atmosphere abruptly with a single look. A summer morning, where Jaejoong’s laughter fell silent and his smile was obscured by Changmin’s lips in a gentle, experimental kiss. The kiss itself was spawned from adolescence and isolation, but it seemed real enough to the two teens standing together in the water where Changmin had, so many years ago, confessed his first weakness; and Jaejoong had shown his patience and determination to commit in teaching him how to swim.
And Changmin, now the shorter one by less than an inch, had pulled Jaejoong close and laughed softly into his wet hair.
* * *
Minho was five when he decided that since Changmin and Jaejoong were practically brothers, and he and Changmin were real brothers, he was perfectly within his rights to clamber into bed with them at night.
“Aish… yah! Minho! What are you doing?”
“Can’t sleep!” Minho declared, slipping into the space between the two older teenagers.
“No! Go away!”
“Why? Jaejoong-hyung is here!” the child whined loudly.
“Hm, he’s right, Changmin-ah,” the eighteen-year-old Jaejoong smirked with a raised eyebrow, “I am here…”
Changmin glared daggers at the older boy as he grudgingly replied to his brother. “Fine, you can stay. But just for tonight.”
“Fine,” Minho replied, knowing full well that he could come back as much as he wanted.
Changmin grumbled, but couldn’t repress his smile as Jaejoong wrapped a motherly arm around the young boy and went back to sleep.
* * *
Minho was in Changmin’s bed, sleeping and snoring noisily in Jaejoong’s arms when Changmin kept him awake with soft nips and kisses to the back of his older lover’s neck and Jaejoong hissed at him to stop, there was a child in the room. He was midway between sixteen and seventeen when he chuckled and ignored the warning, pushing Jaejoong’s sleep shirt aside to run his lips over his shoulder.
“Stop, Changmin. It’s not like we have no other time to do this.”
“But, as I’ve told you many times over the past years, Jaejoong, I am not a very patient person.”
Changmin sighed as he fell back and obeyed Jaejoong’s hiss. “I suppose we do have time…”
“Of course we do.” Jaejoong pulled his shirt back up and settled down on the soft mattress.
Changmin wasn’t finished. “After all… I am a prince, a King’s son, and you are a concubine’s son… equivalent steps away from King and Concubine… I can have you forever.”
Jaejoong’s laugh was soft and airy, and Changmin drank it in in the still air of the night. “Whatever you want, your majesty.”
* * *
Minho was not there a year later when Jaejoong, nineteen, responded to Changmin’s nighttime kisses. He was safely asleep in his own room when Changmin nipped at Jaejoong’s collarbone and Jaejoong gasped into his hair. It was one blissfully private night and they left marks on each other’s skin that were not, for the first time, wood-sword bruises.
A concubine’s son clung to a prince’s shoulders and moaned softly into kingly pillows.
* * *
Changmin was nineteen and Jaejoong twenty-one when the latter visited the former in his very own office and leaned against the doorframe to appreciate the sight. The prince’s hair was no longer wavy and determinedly unkempt, but brushed back into a neat ponytail. His jacket was sitting on his shoulders, instead of discarded in the grass or slung over a tree. He had grown up into a mature and handsome prince…
Changmin looked up and spared the concubine’s son a brief glance.
…And left behind the boy who ran amok with a carefree boy, who spent his nights with his naïve and optimistic lover, who smiled and laughed easily.
Jaejoong sighed. “Changmin-ah, do you have a moment?”
“Not really.” Changmin scrawled another line of the letter he was writing. “My father is unwell. I have more work than usual.”
Jaejoong didn’t move. Changmin looked back at him after a long moment of silence. “Why? Is it important?”
Yes, Jaejoong wanted to say, it is. But he was no longer sure if Changmin would agree. He no longer knew where Changmin’s priorities laid; if he still saw his lover and only friend as significant.
But he never had been one for manners.
“Yes,” he said.
Changmin heaved a sigh and placed his pen down, leaning back in his chair. “What is it?”
Jaejoong crossed the room and sat on the desk, careful not to disturb Changmin’s papers. He looked at them though, trying to read what Changmin had been writing when he arrived. “Who are you inviting?”
“The King of the land over the mountains.”
“He’s the father of my betrothed. I feel, now that I’m older, it’s only fitting that I should actually meet this girl.”
Jaejoong’s head snapped up. “You’re betrothed?”
Changmin raised an eyebrow. “I’ve been promised to her since I was nine, Jaejoong.”
“Oh.” Jaejoong dropped his head.
“What did you come for?” Changmin tried to get them back on topic.
“Oh… I’m taking Minho for a walk. We thought we might go to the lake and the orchard and… wondered if you would like to join us.”
Changmin’s eyes hardened. “I thought you said it was important.”
Jaejoong shrugged, but didn’t meet the prince’s eyes. “I thought it was. Give you a break from… from paper and stale air.”
Changmin rubbed his face and Jaejoong was made acutely aware of his pale complexion and tired eyes. “Jaejoong,” he started slowly, “Do you not understand the responsibilities I have to the running of this kingdom?” he raised his head and dropped his hand. “I am busy. I have a hundred things to do and my father is unwell. His advisors claim to have their hands full and refuse to consult with me and my advisors are utterly incompetent. I do not have time to play games with you and… and a seven-year-old boy! Can you not understand that!”
Jaejoong flinched away from his rising tone and Changmin scowled at him. “No, of course you don’t. You’ve never been bound to any responsibilities or duties. You’re just the son of a concubine!”
Jaejoong stood up and stared back at Changmin harshly. “And you’re just a prince,” he whispered bitterly and stalked out before he was told to leave.
* * *
Minho was seven when Jaejoong first began to teach him to swim, when Jaejoong lifted him up to reach the high-growing fruits, and caught him when he fell from the branches trying to climb up himself.
It was Minho’s eighth spring when Jaejoong taught him to ride a horse and took him out every four days, to explore the grounds of the palace, go to the citadel, or hunt in the King’s forest.
Minho was nine when Changmin signed a letter to give away his young brother’s hand to a princess in a faraway kingdom. It was later that year when Minho and two young stable hands charged at Jaejoong’s legs with wooden swords, attacking him from three sides while he laughed and desperately fended them off.
And it was on Minho’s tenth birthday that he and Jaejoong sat alone in Changmin’s room, and Jaejoong bitterly remembered the day exactly ten years earlier that he had worried this young boy would be the ruin of his and Changmin’s relationship.
* * *
Changmin was twenty-two when he looked out his study window and saw his brother and ex-lover riding out together, their combined laughter finding its way up to his window and into his ear (scratched raw from the constant sound of a pen on paper).
Or perhaps the laughter was his own imagination.
After all, how could it possibly reach this far.
* * *
Changmin was twenty-three when he barged from his study, having finished all his urgent matters. He all but ran for the stables and brushed the stable boys aside as they tried to prepare his horse — they were not quick enough for his racing mind. He got ready his horse himself and rode it out, spurring her to a gallop almost immediately.
They ran out of the palace grounds, through the citadel and out to the forest.
Changmin felt as though he was fleeing from his prison.
Oh, how Jaejoong would smirk at that.
It was when he returned that evening that he saw a familiar silhouette leaning on the terrace balustrade, watching him ride back to the stable. His eyes lingered, and he imagined the silhouette’s head turning to follow his progress along the path. He dismounted and stroked his horse’s nose, heading into the castle — specifically, the terrace. He was halfway there when he realized the bridle was still in his hand, and impatiently decided to take it back later.
Jaejoong was singing. A song about loss and death. Jaejoong used to always smile.
“That’s a sad song,” he found himself saying without his brain’s approval. “Did you lose someone?”
Jaejoong didn’t turn around as he replied.
“Yes… I lost someone…”
* * *
Changmin, the note on the prince’s pillow read.
Seventeen years of knowing you and I never once felt that I was wasting my time.
* * *
spinning in circles
the world is a blur
except when you're standing
running inside of us
wants to burst out of the shell
and the smell of your hair
i hit as hard as i can
with my nose
jumping into a puddle
wearing no boots
completely soaked (dripping wet)
wearing no boots
* * *
“What the hell is this?”
“Peaches.” Jaejoong caught one as it almost rolled off the edge of Changmin’s desk, placing it back and slinging the bag over his shoulder as he turned and left the office.
Changmin stared at the blushing orange fruits for a long time before he brushed them aside and returned to his work.
His hands were shaking.
* * *
“What—! What are you doing here?!” Changmin cried as Jaejoong and Minho came crashing into his bed chamber and leaned against the door, breathing heavily with bright eyes.
“Shh!” Minho raised a finger to his lips. “We’re hiding from my teacher.”
* * *
Changmin was returning home from a ride when he caught sight of the young palace boys practicing their sword work outside the stables.
“Hyung!” Minho cried, waving frantically. “Hyung, fight with me!”
Changmin left his horse to the stable boys and approached. Jaejoong handed him an old and battered practice sword, and Changmin took it hesitantly.
He stared at the weapon in his hands for a long time, then at his brother, as though unsure of how to deal with such a small child, until the younger prince dealt him a savage whack against his thigh and he couldn’t suppress a yelp.
“Yah!” he cried and Minho laughed in delight.
* * *
“CHERRIES, HYUNG!” Minho cried, bursting into Changmin’s study and startling the older prince out of his stolen nap. “Look! Jaejoongie-hyung and I went out and collected them! He told me that you used to eat so many when you were younger… I did too… actually I collected much more than this! Just that… I kind of… ate them.” He dumped Jaejoong’s half-full bag on Changmin’s desk anyway, beaming proudly up at his brother.
Changmin blinked. “…thanks,” he said dumbly.
Minho cackled as he ran from the room and shut the door behind him.
* * *
“Your majesty,” a voice rang out across the open space between the wall and the stable, and a particular concubine’s son dropped into an exaggerated and pompous bow.
Changmin’s face was trapped between a gape and a scowl at the address. Jaejoong laughed and threw one of the training swords at him.
“Let’s see if you’ve still got it in you, Paper Prince,” he challenged quietly.
“Hah!” Jaejoong lunged forward and Changmin’s arm came up of its own accord to parry.
Jaejoong grinned and took a step back. “You do remember.”
Changmin frowned and stepped forward, lunging out himself. Jaejoong knocked his attack aside with one hand.
Changmin circled, both hands coming up to wrap around the wooden hilt. Jaejoong mirrored his actions, although there was a smirk on his face where Changmin’s held an expression of concentration. They lunged and retreated. Changmin’s eyes hardened in resolution.
The men flew at each other and fought as a battle to the death. Changmin’s body, although he hadn’t practiced in a long time, remembered everything he’d ever learned. He showed snarling grins when he caught a blow and grunted in pain when Jaejoong slipped through his defenses.
The sun beat down on them as they fought. They went at each other like animals, forgoing rules, forgoing etiquette. Punches and kicks found their way into the mix as well as the wooden swords and the sweat dripped down their faces.
Changmin didn’t know how long they had been fighting, sparring, dancing. All he knew was that he was feeling the strain. He could see that Jaejoong was feeling it too. But neither would give up.
Changmin didn’t know how long it had been before he slipped and Jaejoong dived in for the kill, using the wooden sword to mercilessly sweep his feet from under him. Twin bruises on the back of his calves. He fell to the ground gracelessly and as he scrambled to his feet, another slash of Jaejoong’s arm knocked his weapon from his hands.
The battered end — no longer a point, from years of use — of Jaejoong’s sword nestled under his chin.
Changmin was blown away. He stared disbelievingly into Jaejoong’s eyes. He had lost. For the first time in his entire life, all his childhood years spent training and practicing, he had lost to Jaejoong. Jaejoong.
Jaejoong came closer and dropped his weapon, replacing it with his hand. He angled Changmin’s chin to look into his eyes.
“Ha,” he murmured, grinning triumphantly.
“What?” Changmin snapped, furious at his loss.
Jaejoong beamed. “Found him,” he said simply.
Changmin’s anger slipped away faster than a leaf following the stream downriver. He blinked at Jaejoong. Once. Twice.
“Thank you,” Jaejoong whispered, coming even closer, “For helping me search.”
Changmin blinked again. Three times. Four.
“Ah, seriously,” Jaejoong rolled his eyes and wrapped his arms around the prince, burying his face in his chest.
After a moment, Changmin responded, lifting his hands to Jaejoong’s back. “You’re really sweaty,” he commented, hastily tightening his grip when Jaejoong made to pull away. “But don’t go anywhere.”
Jaejoong’s laugh was light and airy. “Whatever you want, your majesty.”