Length: 4, 900
Summary: Sehun is the heir to the throne, despised by everyone outside of his family and Zitao.
|The palace is cold - a strong wind blows frost from the south to their doorstep, spattering the windows with white crystals and brewing tumulus grey clouds in the sky. Sehun lounges around on one of the tall chairs, feet propped up over the armrest as he flicks small knives at a dartboard a little crooked to the right of where he sits. Most of the knives have missed the board completely though, and are embedded into the wall, except for one which has buried itself in the wood of the dining table.
"Servant!" Sehun shouts, and one of the men clambers forward, bowing stiffly. "Get me something warm to drink."
The servant nods, but his lips curl in a grimace of dissatisfaction.
"Is my piss warm enough?" he mutters beneath his breath. A knife whizzes past his head and lands on the trophy head of a deer behind him. The servant shrieks and turns wide eyes towards where Sehun glares at him.
"Say that again," he hisses, and the servant hurriedly retreats with a lowered head. Sehun's mother walks in and glances at the knives scattered around the room.
"You're improving so well!" she exclaims, clapping her hands together. One of the guards at the door rolls his eyes, but it goes unnoticed. Sehun puffs his chest up proudly and gives her a thin lipped smile.
"Soon I'll be good enough to join one of the hunting parties."
His mother makes a sound of agreement and coos softly at him.
"Where is father?" Sehun asks, watching the snow melt against the window. His gaze is drawn far away, tracing the patterns of snowflakes as he conjours up thoughts of his childhood and cosy winter days spent together with his family. Now, everything just seems chilled and empty, and he shivers, wrapping his arms around his torso.
"A villager has reported sighting of smoke over the hill in Garasai, so he's talking to the man now."
Sehun hums, frowning slightly.
"When is he coming back? He promised he would teach me some more sword fighting today."
"He'll be back soon, sweetheart."
As though right on cue the door is thrown open - but it's not the King that enters.
"Zitao!" Sehun exclaims, struggling to fight the smile that tugs at his lips. Zitao bends on one knee and bows his head before standing.
"My Queen, my prince," he says, addressing them both. "The King sends me to say he may not be back until later tonight. He sent me for Sehun."
Sehun suppresses a sigh. A servant offers Sehun's warm drink to him, and Sehun takes it ungratefully, sipping it despite the burn that sears his throat.
"Doesn't he need the Captain of the Guard with him?" Sehun's mother asks, gesturing towards Zitao. Zitao smiles softly.
"He says we will talk tomorrow. He knows that I get along with Sehun better than the others," Zitao finishes with a glance towards the prince. What goes unsaid is that Zitao is the only one who gets along with Sehun at all. Sehun snorts and Zitao's smile widens a little.
Sehun and Zitao find a space in a courtyard that is shrouded by overgrown ivy and grey stone. It's freezing outside but it's no longer snowing. Sehun shivers despite the fur that lines his layers of clothes. Zitao wears only a thin shirt that is tied loosely around his waist by a leather belt. He's never been one to feel the cold.
Zitao breaks the silence first. "Sorry your father couldn't make it."
Sehun shrugs, taking out the sword he had made for himself when he was just seven years old. It's small but thin, and the blade glints in the glow of the sun that peeks out from behind the clouds.
"It's fine," Sehun replies, lowering himself into a defensive stance, "he never does anyway."
They step slow at first - a soft blow to the left, dragged to the right and then a clang of metal as their two swords meet again.
"Don't go easy on me," Sehun snaps. Zitao grins and then he is hammering blows, one after the other, twisting and turning, and Sehun uses every ounce of his strength just to block each one and avoid the blade. Zitao presses forward until Sehun's sword is knocked from his grasp and his back is against the wall, breathing heavy as it puffs clouds of white in the air. A sword is inches from his throat and Sehun winces, heartbeat thundering in his ears before Zitao drops his arm and lets out a soft laugh.
"You may be a prince, but you still have a lot to learn."
Sehun pushes him away.
"Don't be condescending."
"Don't be so arrogant."
Sehun makes a sound of displeasure, but a smile follows it anyway. Zitao isn't like the others. Most people treat Sehun with insincere respect. He has seen them, many times actually, call him disgraceful names and treat him with disdain behind his back. They make jokes to each other, they mutter curses beneath their breath or they sneer at him when they think he isn't watching.
But Zitao treats Sehun as a friend. He knows how to rile Sehun up but is never truly hurtful. He is there when Sehun is sad and he is there when Sehun is happy. They've known each other for five years, and Sehun doesn't think anybody understands him quite like Zitao does.
They practice with the swords until Sehun begins to shiver, and Zitao bundles him up in all his fur again and pushes him back inside the palace. They sit in the library together, Zitao leaning against Sehun's side as he flicks through the pages of a book. He can't read, but Sehun knows he likes to look at the drawings.
"Shouldn't you be going back to the soldiers soon?" Sehun murmurs, watching Zitao's slender fingers move across the pages. Zitao hums, and Sehun can feel the sound as it rumbles through the body pressed against him.
"I don't wanna," Zitao says. Sehun laughs. It's so strange the way the both of them fluctuate between being childish and acting mature. They're both just young boys after all, thrown into a world that made them grow up far too quickly. Zitao quirks a smile and looks up at Sehun, eyes bright.
"I'd rather spend time with you anyway."
Sehun blinks, and ignores the heat that tingles at the base of his neck.
"Then let me read to you," he says, quickly snatching the book from Zitao's hands and using it to partially cover the flush across his cheeks. Zitao curls closer to him on the cushions, chin pressing against Sehun's shoulder as Sehun begins to read. When he reaches chapter four, Sehun realises that Zitao is asleep, so he carefully puts the book on the ground and watches the soft rise and fall of Zitao's chest, moving his fingers so they card through the blond hair that is tickling his thigh.
He wishes he could be as brave as Zitao.
Sehun sits at the long table as he waits for his father to return the next day. His feet rest up on the wood beside an untouched plate of food, and he moans to a servant about the terrible state of the kitchens. The servant apologises and hurries away to let the chef know. Sehun hopes the chef is mad enough to tell his father - he never really liked her anyway.
His mother is sitting beside the throne, knitting a scarf for the son of her sister. The monotonous clacking of the needles is giving Sehun a headache and so he masks the sound by humming some old fold song out of tune.
"You have such a pretty voice," his mother says with a smile, although she doesn't look up from her knitting. Sehun sighs.
There's a loud sound from outside and both of them start to attention as the doors are thrown open to reveal Sehun's father with a series of soldiers in hot pursuit. Sehun is about to whine at him about being late, but the words dry in his mouth when he sees the hard determination pressed into the lines of his father's forehead.
Something isn't right.
"What is it?" Sehun's mother is the first to speak, getting to her feet as she gathers her skirts in her hand.
"We're going to war," Sehun's father says.
A servant carrying a drink drops the cup and it shatters into an impossible puzzle of ceramic pieces. Sehun watches the liquid trickle down the cracks in the flooring and seep through the grate. He imagines that it could be blood. It makes him feel sick.
The murmur of his parents arguing is an incessant humming against the walls of Sehun's room. He lies on his bed, fully clothed, with his sheets untouched as he watches the light of the candle beside him cast shadows on the ceiling. The door clicks open, and Sehun looks up.
The dark figure hangs by the doorway, clearly uneasy. His blond hair provides a vivid contrast against his black eyes, and it's long enough to be unsettled by his eyelashes when he blinks. A sword hangs from his waist with a ruby embedded into its hilt. The candle flame is mirrored in its deep red reflection.
"Zitao," Sehun breathes, and he manages to offer a flicker of a smile. Zitao moves over, his feet silent.
"Are you okay?" he asks, and Sehun nods. Zitao frowns, and looks at Sehun closely.
"You're not," he says. Sehun opens his mouth to disagree, but all that comes out is a choked sound of pain. Zitao hisses and moves forward, delicately removing his sword before sitting down on the bed. Heat radiates from his presence and already, Sehun feels slightly comforted.
"I'm frightened," he whispers. The admittance sends a shiver coursing down his spine. Zitao offers him an empathetic nod, and his hand settles on Sehun's knee. Sehun almost flinches at the intimate contact, but distracts himself with admiring the detailed floral pattern on his bed sheets.
"That's okay," Zitao says, "You're allowed to be."
Sehun's fingers curl into a fist, but before he can say anything more, warm arms wrap around his shoulders and pull him close.
"I'll keep him safe Sehun," Zitao says, "I promise."
Sehun's heart trips over itself. Confusion mingles with fear.
"Please," he whispers, the sound muffled slightly by Zitao's shoulder. Zitao's fingers clench into the thin material of his tunic. He exhales a silent prayer and allows himself to be soothed by the fingers rubbing circles between his shoulder blades.
His father leaves early in the morning.
He chases the sunrise that peeks its head over the frozen city and Sehun watches his silhouette disappear into the trees.
He stands rigid beside his mother and everything is cold. The winter is a disease that turns his bones to ice and his mind numb.
The only thing that keeps him warm, is the memory of the smile Zitao had given him before leaving.
"I promise," Zitao had said.
And Sehun lets himself believe.
Sehun becomes increasingly agitated in the days that follow. He gives the servants near impossible tasks in a vain attempt to amuse himself. He broods in his bedroom and snaps at anyone who knocks on his door. He complains about everything, from the cold of the winter to the small bird that taps at the glass on the window.
Sleep becomes a challenge to him, and he spend hours every night tossing and turning. Heat curls up in his sheets like flames burning his toes. But then it suddenly subsides and becomes pinpricks of ice that creep over his skin and freeze him in his place. Whatever sleep he manages to grasp is plagued with dreams of death.
Sehun spends hours sitting by the front door, waiting for the triumphant return of the soldiers and the smiling face of his father.
Instead one afternoon, the door is slowly pushed open to reveal battle-weary faces.
Sehun scrambles to his feet, but the soldiers just move on past him as though ignoring his very existence. Sehun frowns and pushes through them, avoiding the blood that spatters across their uniforms and the sharp swords hanging limply by their sides.
"Father?" he calls.
A number of faces pass by, unshaven ghosts of men who barely make a sound as they walk. Sehun finds a familiar crop of blond hair and rushes over.
"Zitao, where's father?"
Zitao inhales a breath that is dragged through gritted teeth.
"I'm sorry," is what he says. It's all it takes for Sehun to fall to his knees, fingers curled against the cold stone floor as his body shudders and trembles with turbulent emotions. He doesn't cry - the shock dries his tears before they even form. His vision swims in and out of focus as he swallows a scream. Every breath feels like an impossibility.
He closes his eyes and steadies his breathing, listening to the thump of his heartbeat to navigate himself back to reality.
A reassuring hand touches at his shoulder. Its gentle, just a light press of fingers, but the warmth seeps through Sehun's clothes and manages to stir some sign of hope, however fragile.
"Come on Sehun," Zitao says softly. His voice lures Sehun to his feet. "Your mother will need you."
Sehun looks at him. There is a hint of despair in his eyes, trailed by guilt and suffering. Whatever anger Sehun had felt towards Zitao for breaking his promise, is extinguished by a single catch of his gaze. Distantly, Sehun wonders how they can be almost the same age and yet Zitao seems far more mature than Sehun feels.
Sehun stands up straighter and quells a rising sob.
"After you, my Prince," Zitao says, with a gentle nod. The honorific is enough to remind Sehun of his place, and he offers a nod in response before he turns and follows the soldiers in to the main hall. Fingers curl around his wrist for a brief moment, squeezing gently, before they slip away.
The Queen stands when she sees the procession of men enter the room. He face is gaunt, lips pale as they flutter at her sharp inhale. There is a pause and then everyone kneels, heads hung low, faces impassive. Sehun walks over to be by her side, setting his jaw as firmly as he can.
Zitao is the first to stand, moving closer so he can be heard.
"My Queen," he murmurs, "We won the battle but, it was at a devastating cost."
Zitao places a hand over his heart and nothing further needs to be said. Sehun watches his mother in awe as fury twists her face for a single second before it is overcome with passive acceptance. Her lips tremble when she speaks.
"This battle will be known as The Fall of the Great King," she breathes, "We will honour his life on the eve of the full moon."
"All hail the king," Zitao says, and the soldiers chorus behind him.
The full moon is in a week, and Sehun's thoughts are clouded with his ascension to the throne. For as long as he can remember, he has been prepared for this day. His lessons of life as a royalty date back from before he could even walk. It's as though everything before now, has led up to this point - and Sehun is terrified. For all his self-assured act as prince, Sehun feel frightfully inadequate.
He cries only once in the days that follow his father's death. Tucked up in his room with the darkness enveloping him in an empty sadness, Sehun feels the first tears prick at the corner of his eyes. He hasn't allowed himself to cry over his father's death until now, and it's as though something has snapped inside him. Tears begin to chase each other down his cheeks, collecting on his chin before falling to the floor.
He knows they all hate him - anyone who isn't a family member and therefore expected to love him would much rather have seen Sehun gone. He lets out a dry laugh that becomes a sob because he had always wanted attention, and soon he will have the entire attention of the nation on him. Irony is certainly cruel.
The door to his room opens and Sehun hurriedly tries to wipe away his tears, smearing them across his face in the process. A candle is placed on one of the cupboards, and the light illuminates the sharp features of the Captain of the Guard. Zitao looks at him, and immediately rushes over.
"Sehun, are you crying?" he exclaims, and Sehun shakes his head, looking away. A gentle touch to his chin turns his face back.
"It will be okay," Zitao says quietly, and his lips twitch in an attempt at a smile, but it glimmers and fades. His thumb begins to caress the side of Sehun's cheek.
"I'm not ready for this," Sehun says, and Zitao hums.
"It's scary," he replies, "But you are ready. You've been ready all of your life."
"But they hate me. Nobody wants me as king."
Zitao frowns. The wrinkle between his eyebrows is softened by the dull light.
"I want you as king," he says, and Sehun manages to snort a soft laugh. Zitao pulls his hand away from Sehun's face but shifts closer on the bed, their thighs touching.
"Let me tell you a story," he says softly. "There was a boy once - just a small, skinny peasant who lived in the slums of the city. He used to get teased for being so weak, for being from a foreign country - for being different. Nobody used to like him. So he decided he would become stronger and he practiced with a wooden sword nearly every day. He trained himself to fight with his fists, to control kicks and swings and understand the people who hated him."
"And then one day when a group of boys attacked him, he fought back and won. He stood there, holding the wrist of the boy who attacked him, bending the arm behind his back. And the kid looked up at him, pleading to be let go, fear in his eyes. So the boy let him go. He didn't stop after that though, he continued to train every day until one day, he snuck his way into the inner walls of the palace and entered a competition for the Kings Guard. He was half the age of every other contestant, and yet he managed to beat all of them. So this small boy, at the age of thirteen, was awarded Captain of the Kings Guard. He was thirteen years old, but finally he had earned respect."
Zitao trails off, and lets a hand fall on Sehun's knee. His eyes are sharp but kind, and Sehun is drawn closer to them.
"I didn't realise..." Sehun begins, but he isn't sure how to finish. He knew Zitao was the youngest Captain of the Kings Guard in a century, but he has never bothered to ask about his life previous to that. His chest clenches and suddenly he feels guilty. Zitao's fingers press slightly harder into Sehun's knee.
"Hey, I didn't tell you that to make you upset. I just wanted to show you that you might have to earn your respect. One day Sehun I can guarantee they will all adore you. You're very loveable, they just haven't seen that yet."
Sehun feels a wave of gratitude sweep through his chest and he looks up. Zitao's smiling at him, properly now, his lips crooked over white teeth. Shadows are cast from beneath his eyes and they caress his cheeks, fading across the slope of his nose.
"You think I'm loveable?" Sehun asks, with a hint of amusement. Zitao bites his lip, and a light flush works its way across his face.
"You're the Prince," Zitao says.
"That's not an answer."
Zitao clears his throat and goes to stand. He glances back at Sehun before he does though, and he seems to consider something for a moment before he leans forward and presses his lips against Sehun's in a gentle kiss.
"Sleep well future king," Zitao murmurs.
And then he is gone with a rustle of clothes and the soft click of the door.
It's snowing outside, but Sehun's skin feels like it's burning.
The palace is quiet, swept silent with grief. Sorrow drizzles down the windows with the rain and dances in the depths of the shadows. Sehun walks slowly down the corridor, passing by the enormous portraits of his ancestors that line the walls.
"You will be up there within a week."
Sehun glances to his side as Zitao walks to stand beside him. Each portrait is made just after the new king has been crowned. It's something Sehun had forgotten about until just then.
"I suppose I will."
Zitao looks at him, and his mouth twists nervously. He hesitates, and then-
"Sehun, I'm sorry," he whispers, "about last night...it wasn't my place. I shouldn't have-"
Sehun reaches over and links their hands together, fingers finding a perfect fit.
"I said, it's okay." He smiles, despite the knowledge that his face is burning like a thousand suns. Zitao looks at him, and then looks down at their joined hands. A small laugh escapes him and it bubbles from his mouth in bewilderment.
"You'll stay with me, won't you?" Sehun asks. He hates how timid he sounds, the way his voice wavers across the sentence and trails off into a whisper. Zitao nods.
"Always," he replies.
Sehun lies awake on the night before the ceremony. He paces his room, counting the steps beneath his breath before he collapses backwards onto the mattress. He shifts to become more comfortable and only ends up tangling the sheets around his ankles. There's a soft knock to his door, and Sehun gets up, rubbing at his eyes as he goes to open it.
"I'm sorry," is the first thing Zitao says when he enters, "I couldn't sleep."
Sehun sighs. "Neither can I."
"Because of tomorrow?"
"Yeah. What about you?"
"Why are you worried about tomorrow?"
Zitao shuffles on the spot. He looks so much softer in this light and without his sword by his side. Just a tall boy with skinny arms and gentle eyes.
"Because of you of course. I want it all to go perfectly for you."
Sehun lowers his head to hide his smile.
"Everyone in this place hates me you know, and then there's you- and you don't hate me. I don't understand."
Zitao walks forward and captures Sehun's hands between his own. He ducks his head and kisses Sehun, soft and slow, their noses bumping a little as he pulls back.
"It's because they don't know you like I do. Just give them time. And maybe stop yelling at the servants." He smiles and kisses Sehun again and Sehun feels his heart thud painfully in his chest. It's still so new to him, and he kisses back shyly. When Zitao presses for more, he opens up after a moment's hesitation and suddenly everything is far more heated.
His back hits the bed and Zitao is on top of him, legs on either side.
Sehun gasps at the first jolt of friction that sparks between the touch of their hips. But then his hands fumble for purchase against Zitao's waist and he pushes up as Zitao grinds down and the pleasure that courses through his entire system is like nothing he has ever felt.
He distantly thinks one day, he will need to have a bride. Things like this are tolerated, but pushed beneath the dirty rug of the royal family - something to be ignored by everyone.
But for now, he lets Zitao pull him close and whisper sweet things in his ear as they tumble over the edge and fall into satiated bliss.
He wakes in the morning to the soft glow of lamps and a gentle, but firm, shake.
"Sehun, you have to get ready." Zitao's voice swims into his awareness, and Sehun yawns, blinking his eyes open properly. Zitao smiles at him, and places a light kiss against his nose.
"The ceremony begins in four hours, you'll have a lot to do," he says. He speaks as though urging Sehun to get up, but the fingers that trace patterns against Sehun's naked hip suggest that Zitao also doesn't want to move.
Sehun brushes a strand of blond hair away from Zitao's eyes and sighs. He moves off the bed, and misses the warmth immediately, pulling on his undergarments with quick precision. Zitao steps behind him and helps to put on the tunic, and then the dress shirt, lacing up the back of it with deft fingers. His breath is hot against Sehun's neck, and Sehun revels in the feeling of having someone love him as much as he loves them.
"The royal robes will all be with your mother," Zitao says. His nose is cold, and it touches against the skin just behind Sehun's ear, before warm lips follow suit. "Now go find her, and I'll see you later."
Sehun turns in his hold and kisses him shyly. Zitao's crooked smile follows him as he hurries away.
The ceremony begins on a sombre tone. They carry the body of the King around on wooden planks, down from the main room of the palace and out across the streets so the people can pay their respects. It's the first time Sehun has seen him since the battle. Cuts adorn his cheeks, and there is a wound deep in his chest. Flowers spill across his stomach, but even their white petals aren't enough to conceal the dark red blood beneath them.
Many of the people in the streets are crying. Some bow their heads and mutter prayers, while others, often the small children, place wreathes across the ground in front of the procession.
They burn him at the edge of their city, and Sehun watches the fire as it licks across the wood and spits black embers into the grey sky.
When they return to the palace, everything is far brighter. Decorations adorn every surface in honour of the crowning of the new king. Gold glitters on the table and colour seems to be injected back into the atmosphere.
A servant accidentally bumps into Sehun as he walks inside, and the man stutters out an apology. Sehun frowns but he catches Zitao's gaze, and his heart softens. He bends down a little lower to be on eye level, and places a hand on the man's trembling shoulder.
"It was my fault," he admits, "I'm the one who should apologise."
The servant gapes at him, and the others who are nearby also look on in shock. Sehun offers a soft smile, and continues to the throne.
The high priest holds up the crown and Sehun kneels before him.
"Like a phoenix from the ashes, as one king falls, another must rise. Oh Sehun of Tianoth, son of the Great King, and grandson of the Wind Maker, I pray that you will rule this land with a just hand and a ready blade. May your reign be long and your kingdom prosper."
The priest lowers the crown until it sits on Sehun's head. It's heavy, and the largest of the gold leaves that are wired across it's frame press cold against his forehead. The priest raises his hands out towards the audience.
"I present to you, the seventh King of Tianoth, King Sehun."
Sehun stands slowly, the white fur-lined cloak falling out behind him. As he turns around, the entirety of the people before him kneel in a single swift motion. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see his mother also bend her knee. Sehun looks out over them all, and the power he feels crushes his ribs and sucks all the air from his lungs. He doesn't want this - he never wanted to have so much control.
"I am grateful," Sehun says. His voice is soft, but the lack of noise allows it to wander out across the crowd. They all look up, as Sehun drops to his knees. There is a soft murmur, and Zitao watches him, an eyebrow rising.
"I will serve you well," he continues, before he leans forward and bows all the way to the ground, nose touching the cold stone of the floor. When he looks up again, he sees wonder and awe in the eyes before him. Zitao smiles, and Sehun stands with the knowledge that he made the right decision.
As the crowds disperse to enjoy the feast prepared by the palace kitchens (Sehun supposes he should thank the chef later, despite their previous differences), Zitao slips in to the space beside the new king.
"Congratulations," he says, bowing his head low, "You will be a fine king, Sehun."
Sehun smiles and fiddles with the gold brooch that clasps the cloak around his neck.
"I will do my best," he says. When Zitao's hand brushes the inside of his arm, fingers touching just a moment too long, Sehun smiles and a feeling of tranquillity blossoms inside his chest.
Everything will be okay.
Authors note: Title taken from lyrics to Pompeii - Bastille.