(Chapter 12 of the Reign on Me series)
Chapter 12: King of Light
It was after midnight when they reached the border. They stood before a bridge, the wide river cutting between the lands, marking the boundaries between the two kingdoms' lands. The moon was high in the sky, thin wisps of clouds floating through the inky sky.They had travelled in relative silence the entire way.
Taeyeon moved her horse to face Kangin's, "So..."
"I'm escorting you the entire way, Princess," Kangin interrupted, "You can't get rid of me so easily."
"Are you sure?" Taeyeon asked,
"Of course. If something were to happen, I'd never forgive myself for allowing you both to go alone," Kangin explained as he began to transverse the bridge,
"It'll be more dangerous for you," Sungmin stated, "We'll be in our lands."
"The only way anyone will identify me is if I use my magic," Kangin replied, "Besides, one mage is better than two."
"And a full mage is better than a lesser?" Sungmin offered,
"I never said that," Kangin replied,
"No, but I thought it," Sungmin piped, "I - whoa! Minx!"
Taeyeon jolted in her seat. They halted their horses just as they hit the middle of the bridge. She rubbed her eyes with the heel of her palm. Their voices were soothing, had begun to lull her to sleep. Just for a second, she would close her eyes. Apparently that second had lasted a little longer because when Sungmin had exclaimed, she was already hunched over the horse's neck.
"I might be a little tired," Taeyeon said apologetically,
"Understandable considering you got to the Dark Kingdom by river instead of horseback," Kangin drawled as he drew closer, grabbing her reins to steady the horse.
"The river also made it faster," Taeyeon muttered as she adjusted herself on the seat as Sungmin, who brought his horse beside hers, grabbed her by her waist and carried her over to him. "Then again, it could be because I was unconscious the entire time," Taeyeon said lightly as she settled before Sungmin in the saddle.
"Comfy?" Sungmin asked,
"Hmm," she murmured as she leaned back against him.
Kangin secured the princess' reins to his own and continued on. Sungmin set the horse at a pace alongside the Dark Mage's. They fell into a comfortable silence once more and it wasn't before long when the princess' shallow, even breathing denoted her slumber.
"I should have anticipated not doing the journey in one sitting," Kangin said quietly,
"She's fine. She would have argued if we stopped for even a moment, anyway," Sungmin insisted, "Besides, the urgency to return is real. And, you're right, we need the cover of night."
They were silent once more before Sungmin spoke up.
"Will be perfectly fine in our absence," Kangin said knowingly. He glanced sideways at the lesser mage riding abreast with him. He looked ahead again, "I'll be returning almost immediately and you'll be going shortly afterwards."
"I know... I know... I just can't help but worry," Sungmin sighed, "Truly, this feeling of caring about someone is unsettling."
"You can't possibly mean you've never cared about anyone," Kangin scoffed, "It's obvious you care for the princess and, considering your range of emotions, I'm willing to bet she's your anchor."
"No, no, that's not what I'm saying," Sungmin insisted, "But Taeyeon is, more or less, always nearby and, despite of what's occurred this past week, she's okay on her own. Kyuhyun..."
"Is also strong," Kangin replied, "He's just relied on me for so long that he's forgotten to be strong. He's forgotten that it takes strength to protect his older brother. But he's learning again how to be strong. He's learning to trust himself, to take control of his own magic. It won't be easy and he knows that. I'm not saying we can never be there for him again, but he needs to learn to believe in himself again."
"That night when I ran into you outside of his room, all I could think of was the worse," Sungmin confessed, "I thought you two were sleeping together."
"Which is what all the servants believe, too," Kangin said, "I keep up the illusion of sneaking to and from his room for Kyuhyun's benefit, but I know the servants know my coming and going. He doesn't like feeling vulnerable, he doesn't like people knowing his faults or thinking him weak."
"He is so caught up with appearances. He fakes flippancy and happiness to make his brother happy. He gives the illusion you're in an intimate relationship so others don't know his weakness. He pretends he doesn't care what others think when, in fact, he cares very much,"Sungmin commented,
"It's because he knows that, in the end, he's still a prince, he still had appearances to uphold," Kangin added,
"I understand that, it's just..." Sungmin sighed, "If he wasn't so busy pleasing everyone else, he could just... be himself. If he did that, I think it'd go a long way to fixing his nightly problems."
Kangin glanced over at the mage. His gaze dropped to the princess who, against all odds, seemed to be sleeping quite comfortably in the saddle. He felt a curious feeling bubbling up within him. He cleared his throat quietly as he turned his attention back to the road stretching far before them.
"That night when I found you outside of Kyuhyun's room, all I could think of was 'is he worthy?'," Kangin admitted, sometime later; "You see, despite my waning emotions, that didn't mean for many years he was not my friend, or that I didn't care about him all that time. While I run now on mostly duty and loyalty to them, I still wanted to make sure that, when my time to leave came, Kyuhyun would be okay."
"Your time to leave..." Sungmin repeated before stating, "You're planning to go away, like the traditional mages!"
"Of course, just because there's only the two of us left, it doesn't mean I'm any different from the mages of old," Kangin stated, "Besides, you can't expect me to believe that you've never thought about leaving."
Sungmin sighed heavily, "I most certainly have. Indeed, that's what I've always planned regardless of Taeyeon's attempts to keep me around. But my anchor has been working for seven years now and it makes me wonder if it'll work this time... even though it hasn't in the past."
"Do you know why anchors haven't worked in the past, Sungmin?" Kangin inquired,
"No... do you?" Sungmin prompted,
"I have my theories," Kangin replied, "You see, in the past, anchors were traditionally the spouses or significant others of the mages. However, despite their supposed dedication and devotion to the mages, in the end, they become intimidated and scared of the magic those mages wielded. Such emotions chip away at love, slowly destroying the warmer feelings between people. Eventually, the bond isn't strong enough between mage and anchor."
"That makes sense," Sungmin conceded, "Especially since mages are always left alone, in the end."
"Exactly, however, I think that you have an anchor that will surpass all others, Sungmin," Kangin confessed, "I think that you have an anchor that will prove all past beliefs wrong."
Sungmin chuckled softly, "And she calls herself weak."
"The bond you have with Taeyeon is very strong," Kangin said, "You've been training for how many years?"
"Seven," Sungmin answered,
"And you don't seem to have lost any of your warmer emotions. They're always the first to go." Kangin noted as he looked ahead, "She is the type of person, I believe, who will love a person unconditionally. Such a love - that, I believe, is the true essence of an anchor for mages."
Sungmin glanced down at the sleeping princess. He settled his arms around her more comfortably, gripping the reins firmly; "Unconditional love? Yeah... Yeah, that sounds like Taeyeon."
"If she didn't love like that, then, she would have easily given up on Siwon," Kangin commented as they entered a sleeping town.
"It's a blessing and a curse then," Sungmin stated as the only sound were the horse's hooves on the ground as they rode down the town's main street. "It means she'll be easy to hurt by those who do not deserve her love."
"Under the circumstances, I can understand the prince's anger. However, he won't even reason with anyone," Kangin sighed,
Sungmin said nothing, Taeyeon still hadn't told him what had happened.
"Sungmin," Kangin said quietly.
Something in the Dark Mage's tone had him glancing beside him to the older man, "Hmm?"
Kangin subtly gestured with the tip of his head to his other side, "In the shadows, probably on a back lane... someone's following us."
Sungmin returned his gaze to stare ahead of them, so as not to arouse suspicion. "With the sun down, it has to be a border guard. We're not so deep into the kingdom that we would be free of them."
"If it is a guard, will it prove to be an obstacle?" Kangin inquired, taking his lead from the younger man who had lived at the Castle of Light for seven years.
"It shouldn't, especially since Taeyeon is with us," Sungmin answered, "And it's known throughout the kingdom that we're engaged, but not many have seen me. We do look peculiar being up and about after the sun has set. It's not a law, but, ever since the war ended, no one has gone out after dark. If they're going to confront us, it'll be at the end of the road, just before we leave the town."
They rode in silence and a few metres before they reached what seemed to be the town's boundary, a large shadow moved to intercept them. The moonlight revealed details of a large horse and the large man atop dressed in a royal guard uniform. He raised a thick hand to stop them. The mages did so obediently.
"State your purpose for being out at such a late hour!" The guard exclaimed, his voice holding a slight haughty disdain as if they were the bugs crawling on the ground.
"I suggest you lower your voice before you awaken someone," Kangin returned, a single brow rising, his silver eyes slashing.
"You dare speak against me? A royal guard!?" The guard questioned imperiously,
"What seems to be the problem?" Taeyeon murmured softly before she sighed, as if annoyed. Her eyelids fluttered open, her amber eyes seeming to glow in the moonlight as she turned accusatory eyes on the guard.
"Princess Taeyeon!" The guard recognized her immediately. He bowed over the neck of his horse, "Please, Your Highness, I didn't recognize you!"
"Even if it wasn't me, you have the gall to talk to citizens as such?" Taeyeon questioned, "You may be a royal guard, but it is the citizens who build the cities and create the roads. It is the citizens who grow the crops and fill our stomachs. It is the citizens who keep the land prospering."
Sungmin was silent but proud. Taeyeon had rarely left the castle walls and hadn't even visited all of the other royal estates. However, she spoke as if she knew the people, as if she truly appreciated them. Regardless of her naïveté, she knew that while the monarchy ruled the lands, there wouldn't be anything to rule if it weren't for the citizens. He knew Taeyeon was strong; he only wished that she could see her potential, too.
"Yes, Your Highness," the guard replied, still bent over in a bow since the princess had not allowed him to rise yet.
"You will ride to the Castle of Light," Taeyeon commanded, "You will ride far ahead of us to inform the castle guards of my impending arrival."
"Your Highness, I can escort you instead of these mages," the guard insisted,
"Are you arguing with me?" Taeyeon questioned, straightening in her seat,
"No!" The guard insisted,
"You will do as I say. My fiancé will escort me," Taeyeon stated,
"The Mage of Light! Please, forgive my impertinence!" The guard exclaimed,
"The princess will decide your just rewards once we reach the castle. I, however, will not forgive you. If I ever have the misfortune to meet you again, I will make it so you regret believing yourself more capable of protecting the princess than I," Sungmin said quietly, firmly.
"Go," Taeyeon said.
The guard straightened only to bow again, "Yes, Your Highness!" He cried. He turned his horse away from the town and rode as if death chased him.
"I would chide you for being a little harsh, Min... but considering his attitude, I agree with your scare tactics," Taeyeon yawned as she settled back against Sungmin's torso,
"How did you wake up so fast?" Kangin inquired, "You couldn't have been awake this entire time."
"Humph... Sungmin knows me too well," Taeyeon murmured as she slowly began drifting to sleep,
"The fastest way to wake her up is to tickle her side. While you were talking to the guard, I was waking her up," Sungmin explained as they continued on their way, their horses going at a far more moderate pace than the guard's horse. "I'm sorry, Minx, but when he didn't recognize you immediately, I wasn't sure what argument to use. You were our secret weapon."
"Then, next time, just say it's me and they'll back off," Taeyeon yawned, "And if they want answers, just say we were off visiting the royal estates and are on our way back to the main residence."
"You just have an answer to everything, don't you?" Sungmin mocked lightly as the road led into a large forest. "What's our excuse for travelling at night?"
"Avoiding crowds," Taeyeon said sleepily,
"She does have an answer for everything," Kangin mused as Sungmin made a disgusted face,
He used to find solace in the small gardens. He would escape the confinements of the castle - both physical and symbolic - and simply stand at the edge of where the stone terrace stopped and the back fields began. He would tilt his face to the sun, eyes closed and his hands clasped behind him. He would think of everything and nothing at all. In that spot where only natural beauty displayed before him, he would find peace, or something close to it.
However, for the past week, he couldn't find the same enjoyment he once did by escaping to the back terrace. He couldn't relish in the illusion of freedom from castle and servants. He couldn't enjoy the warmth of the sun on his face, the embrace of a light wind or the simplicity of the scenery behind the castle. His life had been thrown into silent turmoil since that morning seven days ago when his sister proved to be missing.
Eeteuk stared down at the terrace's stone floor at his feet. He had stood in that spot the last time he had spoken to her, their dinner a silent affair filled with tension and upset. So many things had gone through his mind since that fateful morning. Things he should and should not have said. He still believed in every word he had spoken to her the last they were together, but, now, he felt there were better ways of expressing his thoughts. Had he acted better, had he been the brother rather than the king, then, perhaps, she wouldn't have snuck away in the night only to, somehow, end up in the Dark Kingdom.
The intensity in which he missed his sister was almost a physical pain. The castle seemed colder, quieter and less like a home. At some point over the years since the war first began, he had fallen deeper and deeper into the role of king to the point where he had seemingly forgotten how to be a brother. He always knew he loved his sister, but the loss of her proved to him just how strong such a love was, how very real the potential of losing her was.
Regardless of his unconditional love and trust in her, they had still grown apart over the years. Over the past week, he had reminded himself the crucial role his sister had played in his life. After their parents had been murdered, he couldn't bear the thought of being alone, couldn't bear the thought of not being able to see his sister with his own eyes every hour of every day. Even as war was imminent, he had rescinded the rule of his sister's constant confinement to the nursery just so he could keep her with him.
After their parents had been murdered, he had seen to Taeyeon's constant protection ruthlessly when she wasn't at his side. Every night of the war, Taeyeon had been unable to sleep at night. He had given her a glass of water each night, stating that one of the mages had put a sleeping spell so she could have dreamless sleeps. He had decided to hide his magic from his sister the moment it was found out a Dark user had killed his parents, never telling her that the water was really nothing special.
After the war, the guards around the princess hadn't lessened, at least, not for a few years. Even as he eventually allowed her to walk about the grounds without a constant sentry, he rarely allowed Taeyeon to go beyond the castle's protective walls. The only times she did walk through the wall's single portal was when Eeteuk had to make a public appearance or if he had to go to one of the estates for an extended period of time.
He had never spent more than a few hours without seeing his sister in the fifteen years since their parents were murdered. Now, it was the eighth day since he had last been with her and it had nearly shredded his sanity.
Eeteuk had considered retreating to one of the royal estates, but he decided against it because he had let word spread that his sister and the Mage of Light had escaped to one of the estates in order to become better acquainted with one another prior to getting married. He had explained that, while still having chaperones, they would be in less formal settings at the other estates.
"Sire," he heard approaching footsteps from the castle; a butler as he recognized the voice,
"Yes?" Eeteuk replied as he slowly turned to face the aging man. His eyes swept to the man's hands, finding them empty. Considering the timing, he had assumed he had received another message from Sungmin. Apparently, he was mistakened.
"The cook is inquiring if you would like brunch to be made since you did not have breakfast and the others are surely to be hungry," the butler explained,
Eeteuk's eyes wondered even as his heart began to accelerate, "Others?"
The butler blinked, "Yes, Sire. Princess Taeyeon and her fiancee have returned. Did no one notify you?"
"No!" Eeteuk exclaimed as he immediately began striding across the terrace, the butler at his heels,
"We even got word a few hours ago that they would be returning and no one told you? My apologies, Sire!" The butler insisted,
However, Eeteuk didn't reply and, indeed, didn't hear him. He had begun to run.
He ran through the castle towards the front foyer. He heard voices in a front parlour and bolted in its direction. He stopped dead in his tracks, just inside the door of the parlour. Lungs heaving due to not being used to such exertions, his heart continued to race as his eyes fell upon his sister who sat on a settee, rubbing her eyes with the heel of her palm.
"T... T... Tae..." He stammered, suddenly scared he was imagining it all; that he was dreaming and would wake up any moment.
Taeyeon looked up at him, her tired face suddenly transforming as her lips formed a big smile and her amber eyes lit up with joy. She was on her feet just as her brother reached her and pulled her into a tight embrace. She sighed softly, relaxing against his strong comfort and slid her slender arms around his waist, hugging him back.
"Teuk, I'm so sorry -"
"I would lock you up in the dungeons if I didn't think you'd find another way to drive me crazy," Eeteuk stated affectionately. He drew back from her, hands on her shoulders as he ran his eyes up and down her, assuring himself that she was alright.
Taeyeon stared back at him, startled at the wave of emotions that had overcome her the moment she had seen her brother again. It had been eight days since she last saw him; seven days gone from the kingdom. He was still the brother she loved and, yet, he looked different somehow. His dark brown hair looked slightly skewed as if he had run his hands through the locks several times that morning out of some irritating emotion. He had felt thinner when she had hugged him, something that alarmed her since she had been gone only a week. Lastly, she could see bags under his pale brown eyes as if sleep eluded him.
"We have much to talk about," Eeteuk said finally as his gaze returned to hers,
"I have a feeling it will be mostly you doing the talking and I will be doing the listening," Taeyeon replied lightly, a teasing smile tugging her lips,
Eeteuk shook his head, "No... I fear I have been doing that for too long with you." His sister's eyes widened as he continued, "You're my sister, not one of my subjects. I shouldn't have been ordering you around all these years."
"It was to protect me, I understand that, Teuk, really. I even understand the whole magic argument, too," Taeyeon insisted,
Eeteuk smiled at her then, albeit ruefully, as he leaned foreward and pressed a kiss to the top of her head, "We'll talk later."
"Eeteuk," Sungmin stepped forward, "I would have informed you in the last note that we would be returning, however, it wasn't decided until last-minute that we would be leaving... there."
Eeteuk nodded, "I understand. Thank you, Sungmin, for your work."
"I find after more than half a day in the saddle, it's time I find my bed," Sungmin said as he bowed to Eeteuk, "If you'll excuse me?"
"Of course," Eeteuk replied,
"Also, whenever I am able to rise from my bed, could I have an audience with you?" Sungmin inquired seriously,
Eeteuk blinked, startled at such formalities between himself and the lesser mage. Indeed, despite being friends, Sungmin had always kept some boundaries between them due to their respective stations. However, despite what few formalities they did keep, there had always been a sense of the camaraderie they actually shared. At that moment, however, even that hint of friendship was scarce. At that moment, Sungmin had completely slipped into the role of paying respects to his king and he expected Eeteuk to play the full role of addressing one of his subjects.
"Of course," Eeteuk answered, "After dinner, so that you have sufficient amount of time to rest."
"Thank you, Sire," Sungmin replied, leaving the parlour immediately.
"You must be tired as well," Eeteuk commented, turning his attention back to Taeyeon,
"Not as much, I was sleeping for most of the journey," Taeyeon grinned, "It's the reason Sungmin's so tired. We had few rest stops along the way and never for very long."
"You shouldn't have pushed yourselves -"
"Princess, I just wanted to thank you for allowing my horse to rest before I return..."
Eeteuk's heart literally skipped a beat; quite a few beats, actually. His eyes had widened as his entire being had recognized the voice. Truly, it was deeper and more mature than fifteen years ago, but he had recognized it all the same. He was startled at how flat and hollow the voice sounded. Slowly, ever so slowly, Eeteuk turned towards the parlour's open door. And, there, standing in the doorway, just a few feet from him, was the Dark Mage.
Kangin hadn't been paying attention to his surroundings upon reaching the parlour and, indeed, hadn't noticed the change of persons in the parlour until it was too late to turn back. His gaze had taken in every detail of the older man, even as his back was to him. The small frame which hid the strength the person actually had within was still as he remembered. Granted, the other person was taller now and not as scrawny as he had been at the age of 12, but he remembered him all the same and the way he had wanted to protect the seemingly frailer, older boy all those years ago. Then, when he locked eyes with the King of Light, his heart had stopped. His eyes which were light brown in colour, were different from the princess' and, yet, held their own depth of warmth. Unfortunately, they still had the ability to draw him in and keep him entranced.
Kangin silently congratulated himself on the control he was showing. As he found himself looking directly at the older man's light brown eyes, he found it suddenly hard to breathe, to think. He found it hard to stay in place as his heart wanted to both run towards him and away from him. He felt emotions rising within him, a tidal wave that he hadn't experienced in so long. He had felt trace warmth just a week ago, but stronger emotions had evaded him for years, now, leaving him a shell of his former self. He was overwhelmed at the emotional response he felt at seeing the older man again, sure that if he let his control slip, even just a fraction, he would crumble to his knees.
Then, just as fast as the emotions came, they left and he was empty once more.
'Of course,' the Dark Mage thought, 'One meeting is hardly going to bring them back and, besides, an anchor doesn't work just one-way... I should have known...'
"The Dark Mage..." Eeteuk finally managed to say,
Kangin remained silent and bowed deeply,
Taeyeon stood silently, watching her brother and the mage. She had seen the sudden surprise amongst both men. She wasn't sure what was going on, but she distinctly felt like an intruder in that moment. She had been guessing for days the relation between the two men, and she had a feeling that, whatever it was, things between them were not all well. Indeed, it would explain why she had never heard about the Dark Mage until that week. However, Kangin had been kind to her and she wouldn't allow her brother to be rude to him.
She stepped towards the Dark Mage, "Kangin, I'll show you to a guest room,"
"No, I..." Kangin trailed off, unable to pull his gaze from that of the King of Light's.
"I insist you rest for a few hours before returning," Taeyeon said as she firmly grabbed his arm, smiling at him brightly, "I'll bring you to a guest room so you can rest."
"Taeyeon," Eeteuk stated firmly, a warn in his tone,
She looked over her shoulder at her brother, "I know, we'll talk later," she insisted, pretending as if she didn't know what her brother was trying to do; "But, the Dark Mage has been unbelievably good to me this past week. Indeed, he was the one to save me from the river."
"River?" Eeteuk asked, startled having never knowing how his sister had ended up in the Light Kingdom.
"Save?" Kangin murmured, "I found you on the shore."
She squeezed the mage's arm in silent warning as she continued, "I will be eternally grateful to him. The least I can do is offer him rest after ensuring my safety all this time."
Eeteuk's gaze hadn't left Kangin's face in all that time. Even as his sister spoke to him, his gaze was unwaveringly on the Dark Mage; "Very well."
Taeyeon tugged Kangin out of the front parlour, "You didn't look like you wanted to be alone with my brother," she said apologetically, "Was I wrong?"
"No, you were perfectly correct," Kangin replied as he allowed her to drag him away, "But, I must confess, your brother doesn't want to be alone with me anymore than I do with him."
"Well, you have escaped him for now and I really did want you to rest before returning," Taeyeon insisted as she began leading him towards the main stairs, placed exactly as where it had been in the Dark Castle.
Kangin shook his head, "I have no desire to sleep. If I'm to rest for a time here, then I'll train with you more in the meanwhile. It'll help you with your magic even after I leave."
Taeyeon paused at the foot of the stairs and looked up at him, "Are you sure? I don't want you being tired when you leave."
Kangin nodded, "I can take care of myself, Princess, indeed, I'd rather spend my time training you than sleeping."
Taeyeon stared at him for a moment and then nodded, "Okay, we'll go to the ballroom."
A few hours later, Taeyeon walked alongside the mage to the front foyer. She clasped his left forearm with her left hand as his right arm wrapped behind her waist and gripped her firmly above her right hip. They moved slowly to accomodate the fact that Taeyeon was struggling to stand up straight.
"I'm really sorry, Kangin. I thought I was getting stronger since last time I was fine after I practiced," Taeyeon insisted, "I guess I was getting arrogant."
"You are getting stronger," Kangin insisted as they neared the foot of the main stairs, "You're just constantly pushing yourself every time we train. So, even after you get used to the amount of magic usage, you push yourself past it the next time. Anyway, I think you don't have to worry about your emotions unleashing your magic. You've learned how to protect yourself against the full-capacity of your magic. You've learned how to use your magic as an extension of yourself and, thus, have learned how to contain it within yourself."
Taeyeon smiled weakly at him. Her last day in the Dark Kingdom, she had learned how to sense things around her with her fire magic completely free. She was able to accurately locate Kangin as he moved around in the ballroom, shielded by her own fire magic. That morning, she had learned to use that ability of using the flames in reverse, pulling them in, reigning in her magic. She had been startled when, during training, Kangin had ordered her to open her eyes and she found the ballroom empty, save the two of them. She had learned to completely contain her magic in a few hours.
"Taeyeon, I am being completely honest when I say that it has been an honour to teach you," Kangin said as they stopped by the foot of the main stairs,
Taeyeon tilted her head, "That sounds suspiciously like a goodbye, Kangin," she said lightly, a slight sadness in her amber eyes,
"You know that regardless of the state of the kingdoms, it's more than likely that we'll never meet again," Kangin offered with a shrug of his broad shoulders, "And, should I prove to be correct, I just wanted to say that before I leave today."
"Now that I know better of your kingdom, I want to make the peace between both kingdoms real," Taeyeon admitted softly as she leaned her back against the stairs so she didn't have to keep relying on the mage for support, "I know it will be difficult, but if I get my brother on board, then it may be possible to accomplish."
"I'm glad then, that something positive came from your journey," Kangin said, "But I want you to know two things. The first is that I have no kingdom, I just have friends to whom I am loyal to, despite where my soul is borne from. And the second thing is that you should believe in yourself more. You always underestimate yourself and, you cannot become a stronger person if you do not have more faith."
The princess and mage looked in the direction of the voice. Eeteuk was walking towards them from another part of the castle. He saw the way his sister leaned heavily against the stair's post.
"Are we going to talk now, Teuk?" Taeyeon asked brightly, quickly trying to deflect her brother's attention away from her state and the mage.
Eeteuk sighed as he reached her side, knowing immediately what she was doing - what she had been doing in the parlour earlier. "Very well, we'll talk now," he said as he held out an arm to her,
Taeyeon took his arm just as she called over footman. She told him to show Kangin to a guest room where he can rest. Kangin said nothing, simply bowed to the siblings before following the footman up the main staircase.
"We'll have to walk a bit slowly, Teuk, I'm not feeling at full-strength right now," Taeyeon said as he began to lead her towards the library.
"Why not? You were perfectly fine earlier in the parlour," Eeteuk stated as he did as she bade and walked slowly.
"Oh, you're really not going to like my answer," Taeyeon admitted,
"I could have predicted that the moment I saw you with the Dark Mage again," Eeteuk replied, "I thought you were going to give him a guest room earlier. Why was this only being done now? What have you been doing since then?"
"You're really not going to like my answers," Taeyeon sighed as, instead of continuing straight towards the study and back terrace, they turned into the wing opposite the ballroom, heading to the library.
"I'm just going to assume that everything you'll say to me regarding the Dark Mage, I won't like," Eeteuk stated dryly as a footman rushed forward to open the library double doors for them.
The library was a spacious room with floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with tome after tome of the written word. Along the wall opposite of the library doors were tall windows, the view that of the front courtyard. There were cushioned armchairs, settees and couches scattered around the room creating sitting areas and, at both ends of the room was a fireplace framed by a black marble mantle.
Eeteuk guided her towards one of the sitting areas before a wide, tall window. Taeyeon sat at the end of one couch directly facing the window and Eeteuk sat at the other end, turning slightly so he faced her, one thigh even lying on the cushion. Taeyeon turned so her back was against the armrest, crossing her legs before her and adjusting the front of her jungchimak accordingly.
"So, little sister, what have you been up to?" Eeteuk asked,
"I'm guessing you know about why I left the castle that night?" Taeyeon inquired and Eeteuk replied with a simple nod.
Taeyeon recounted the events which led to her ending up in the Dark Kingdom. The entire time, Eeteuk remained silent. Taeyeon grew silent after explaining that her identity was confirmed when Sungmin arrived in the kingdom.
"You weren't mistreated prior to identification?" Eeteuk asked grimly,
"Not at all. Indeed, from the beginning I was treated like a guest. Besides, Kangin believed me from the moment I said who I was," Taeyeon insisted as she unconsciously began to massage her left hand.
"What's wrong with your hand?" Eeteuk asked, his soft brown eyes not missing a single detail,
"It was important I keep my identity secret, especially since it wasn't known in our kingdom that I was missing. There was an instance when I was being questioned because of my eye colour and I had to take matters into my hands. Hand - literally," Taeyeon explained, "I allowed my emotions to off-set my magic, to allow it to consume me completely enough to trigger some response in my eyes. As a result, my hand was completely burned."
Taeyeon immediately held up her hand to stop her brother from jumping towards her as she was sure he was about to do. "It's healed as much as possible given the circumstances, but my hand will never be perfect."
"Are you sure?" Eeteuk inquired, his eyes narrowed with concern,
Taeyeon nodded, "Even Kangin checked over my hand just in case. Indeed, I hardly notice it at all. The joints and muscles are always stiff or locked, but there's no point. Besides, it's not like it's my right hand."
"Fine," Eeteuk sighed, "Taeyeon, none of this would have happened if I had just listened to you from the start."
"You didn't listen to me, but I didn't listen to you, either," Taeyeon admitted, "I chose to remain in the kingdom despite being free to leave. I learned a lot while I was there and, I understand now your reservations about magic - regardless if it is Light or Dark Magic."
"I'm glad," Eeteuk said simply,
"But, I also know now that those from the Dark Kingdom are not all bad. Indeed, not all of them should be blamed for the sins of one," Taeyeon stated with quiet confidence, "There was fighting and chaos from both kingdoms, so we cannot begrudge them for doing as we did to protect themselves."
"Why do I have a feeling this is leading to something specific you wish to talk to me about," Eeteuk asked,
Taeyeon contemplated telling her brother her plans for the kingdoms. However, she decided if she talked about that along with everything else she wanted to discuss with him that day, it would be too much. "I'm just leading up to what I'm about to say," she said eventually,
Eeteuk raised a brow, "Go on..."
"Well, there was more than one bought with my magic," Taeyeon admitted with a sigh, "And, it finally came down to me using my magic in order to learn to control it."
"Sung... no..." Eeteuk slowly rose to his feet, staring down at his sister who looked back calmly, "K... The Dark Mage?"
"Before you get angry -"
"Who says I'm angry?" Eeteuk questioned as he turned away and walked the few steps to the window. He stood before it, hands clasped behind him,
"It was proving to be very difficult for me to control my magic," Taeyeon insisted, "My emotions were... easily engaged which caused my magic to lose control. It was the only way to go continue on safely and, in all honesty, I knew it would be better once I returned home. Indeed, what Kangin and I have been doing this morning was training more to ensure complete control of my magic."
Eeteuk sighed heavily, "There were so many times while we were growing up when I honestly didn't know if I could calm you down. I don't think you realize how many fires the staff have had to put out over the years... I never wanted you to know because I didn't want you to be so self-conscious about your emotions triggering your magic."
"I didn't know about the fires, but I knew the risk of getting emotional," Taeyeon replied, "But during my time in the Dark Kingdom... everything about me was volatile and, training was the only logical solution. So, please, don't be upset with Kangin."
"I'm not upset with him and I'm not angry," Eeteuk insisted, "If anything, I'm upset with myself. How could I not be when so much could have been prevented?" He sighed heavily; "I always thought I was protecting you -"
"You have been!" Taeyeon insisted, startled to have her brother accepting rather than his usual restrictive self.
"No, I was crippling you," Eeteuk argued, "I was smothering you so much that I made it difficult for you to reach your full potential. By doing so... what kind of life have I given you?"
Taeyeon considered his words honestly. She considered all the decisions people had made in order to protect someone or something. She thought of the engagement she and Sungmin began. She even thought about Siwon's gardens and how they provided solace for him, escape. She pushed away the rising pain in her chest at the thought of the Dark Prince.
"We've all made decisions that we regret," she said softly, "But it's too late to change the past. All we can do is work towards making our futures better."
"To say such a thing... indeed, my little sister has grown a lot since leaving the kingdom," Eeteuk replied. Eeteuk sighed heavily as he turned to face her again, "So, have you accomplished it? Do you have complete control over your magic now?"
"Yes," Taeyeon grinned, "You don't have to worry about the flowers..."
Taeyeon felt her heart stammer. The thought of flowers would always, always remind her of Prince Siwon and that seemed to always cause pain in the vicinity of her heart. She had to try and forget about him, but after only one day, it seemed an impossible feat.
"Hey, Teuk, do you think we could get some lavender oil made? Just a little bit," Taeyeon asked, "I like to use oil on my hand when I massage it."
"Of course," Eeteuk replied, "Whatever you want, Tae."
Taeyeon stood up and walked over to her brother. She hugged him tightly.
"Tae?" Eeteuk prompted, sensing immediately the change in her attitude,
"I'm sorry... for everything," she muttered,
Eeteuk hugged her back, "I am, too... for everything."
"Fifteen years and I never expected this to be how we'd meet again."
"You've lost your manners in that time, I see," Eeteuk said as he didn't even bother looking up from the ledgers opened up before him on the study desk; "Not even a knock on the door."
"Because you and I know that had I knocked, there is no way in hell you'd allow me entry into your inner sanctum," Kangin said dryly as he walked deeper into the study, not even waiting for an invitation to sit in one of the armchairs before the king's desk.
"And, yet, you still come here," Eeteuk returned,
"Yes, because fifteen years ago I let you dictate how things ended between us," Kangin stated as he crossed one knee over the other, "And I decided to do as I please before I go back tonight."
Eeteuk said nothing for a moment. He made aimless words on a blank piece of paper atop of one of the ledgers. He wanted to appear preoccupied when, in truth, he had been thinking non-stop of the Dark Mage since seeing him that morning. Despite all of his misgivings, he envied his sister the week she spent near the Dark Mage. Despite all of his feelings, he couldn't help but feel the rising sense of happiness that had overcome him when he locked eyes with the younger man again.
"What do you want Kangin? If I haven't talked to you over the past fifteen years, then, obviously I'm not inclined to talk to you now," Eeteuk asked exasperatedly,
"You did make it near impossible to even come close to the castle during the war," Kangin mused,
"Near impossible?" Eeteuk questioned as he continued to write nonsensically on the paper,
"Eeteuk, you should know better. If I want to raid your castle, I can do so easily," Kangin said. He tilted his head, regarding the king, "Then again, since it has been a decade and a half, perhaps you wouldn't know better. But, you were my best friend, so, you should have known better."
"You're talking nonsensically," Eeteuk stated,
"Then, look at me when I'm talking to you," Kangin said quietly, firmly,
Eeteuk put down the pen with more force than needed. He sighed heavily as if he was truly being interrupted as he looked up and raised a single brow, "Happy?"
"You should have known better, Eeteuk," Kangin repeated,
"I don't have time for your lectures," Eeteuk replied,
"I didn't betray you!" Kangin exclaimed, slamming his palms on the armrests, "You should have known that, Eeteuk! You should have known I would never have betrayed you or your parents to assassins!"
"There were witnesses," Eeteuk grounded out, folded his arms over his chest, "They saw you talking to someone who was described just as the assassin had been."
"Talking to... when? When did I have time to do such a thing, Eeteuk? I was with the mages for most of the day and when I wasn't with them, I'd be with you!" Kangin reminded, eyes narrowing as a burning, surging feeling akin to anger washed through him. "When - in all that time - would I meet up with someone who was supposedly the assassin?"
"THEY WERE DESCRIBED THE SAME WAY!" Eeteuk yelled, jumping to his feet,
"And on that alone you would believe I betrayed you!?" Kangin demanded,
"You were the only one who knew enough about the castle to direct an assassin perfectly to my parents' bedroom," Eeteuk stated,
"You mean I'm the only one with a Dark soul who knew enough," Kangin corrected, his voice a low growl, "Even after knowing me for two years, you couldn't get past Dark and Light?"
"It was the only thing that made sense," Eeteuk said, knowing his defense was weak,
"So, you couldn't think of anything that explained what happened without the blame falling at my feet?" Kangin questioned, "You couldn't just simply accept the fact that I was your friend? That despite my soul, I was loyal to you and your family? You couldn't just accept the fact that I WOULD NEVER HURT YOU!?"
"I..." Eeteuk walked towards the nearest window and stood before it, tightening his arms about his torso.
He couldn't explain anything at all that went through his mind the morning he found out about his parents; the morning he had banished Kangin from the castle. He had been 12 and made king upon his father's murder. He had been angry and sad all at once. He couldn't think, could barely stand on his own two feet and, yet, he was suddenly looked upon to be the leader of a kingdom. He had agreed to everything the advisors had said except for when they brought up Taeyeon.
When he had been told about the suspicions surrounding the soon-to-be Dark Mage, he had accepted it all without question, without doubt. It all made sense to him, then. In the days that followed, he had begun to question things, but everything made too much sense for him to lift the banishment, to forgive the younger boy who had been his only friend in the world. Indeed, even now, after he had grown and learned more about life, the world and people in general, he still could not think of any explanation for his parent's deaths, or the witness reports he had received concerning the Dark Mage.
"You can't think of anything, can you?" Kangin asked, his voice barely above a whisper, "You can't think of a damn reason why I would do something as despicable as betray your parents to assassins. And, yet, you still can't acknowledge that there's even a slight possibility you were wrong."
Eeteuk said nothing, leaning his head against the window frame. He fought back the hot, stinging threat of tears as he hugged his arms even tighter, his nails digging into his arms until he was sure they would draw blood. Even at 12, it had hurt him terribly to send his only friend away. Over the years, it was a constant pain in his heart, one that he had learned to live with even as he refused to acknowledge it.
He had banished Kangin from the castle out of grief rather than sense. He had continued the banishment out of anger at the injustice of his parents' murders, at being unable to find the assassin. He had felt incompetent and inexperienced as a king and the decision to send the Dark Mage away was the only semblance of strength he had.
At the age of 27, he questioned if he had been showing weakness rather than strength that day so long ago.
"It's fortunate that your sister is nothing like you," Kangin said, then, "Indeed, with her accepting and generous nature, I wonder how you two could be related. But, then again, you were once like that."
Kangin wanted to push him, wanted to force him into a reaction. He had succeeded once in pushing the young king out of his comfort zone, to establish some emotion that was different from his previous detached demeanour. He wanted more reaction, more emotion. He wanted to keep pushing Eeteuk over and over again until he surrendered, until his walls crumbled and he admitted he had been wrong.
It was selfish and petty of him to want such a thing, but Kangin had never forgotten the betrayal he had felt when he had been forced out of the castle. Even at the age of 10, it had taken four footmen to make him leave. In truth, when he was alone, when he allowed himself to think, remember and acknowledge it, he had never healed from the wound he had been dealt. However, the longer he remained in the king's presence, the more his remembered hurt turned into real hurt. The darker emotions of betrayal and despair seeped in, deeper and deeper, slowly filling him.
"By your leave, Your Majesty," Kangin said, turning to leave,
Eeteuk heard the words and felt as if he had been slapped in the face. After being friends, albeit fifteen years prior, to be reduced to fullest of formalities, to be addressed as if they were strangers, was an insult like no other for him. Those five words were what broke the last of his control, the tears brimming his eyes and then spilling over onto his cheeks. He closed his eyes, as if to ignore the way the tears blurred his vision and stung his eyes. Despite being king, despite needing to be strong for his people and kingdom, he wondered briefly if it was the window frame holding him up at that moment.
Kangin had his hand on the doorknob before he heard his name, said so quietly, he wasn't sure if he had heard correctly. He paused at the door and heard it again, the softly called, "Kangin."
"Yes, Sire?" He replied formally,
"Taeyeon... how is she in training?" Eeteuk asked, his voice even as he forced strength into it in hopes it didn't suddenly break, revealing his true emotional state.
"She learns fast, even far more rapidly than you did," Kangin answered, hand gripping the doorknob tightly as he briefly recalled the days when he would teach the older man - then, just a boy - about magic. "In just three sessions, she has learned to completely keep control over her magic. Not manipulation or use, just control. The fact that she has control after such a short amount of time is amazing all on its own. Considering how powerful her magic actually is and that she has control over it is just... Had she not been borne a princess, she could have been the greatest mage in history."
"She's that powerful?" Eeteuk asked, startled. He had always known she had a great amount of magic, especially since how reactive her magic was despite the control spell he had exerted on her.
"I can easily say she could be more powerful than myself," Kangin answered,
"And, all these years I wouldn't even allow her the opportunity to try and control her own magic. I thought my spell would be enough and every time her magic broke free I thought it a fluke or weakness in my own magic," Eeteuk admitted, "I am grateful that you were able to teach her... I'm grateful that you taught her."
Kangin turned the doorknob before stopping, "For what it's worth... I forgive you. I know you do not want or seek my forgiveness, but there it is."
The Dark Mage swiftly left then and Eeteuk was free to mourn anew the loss of his dear friend.
"And, so, after seven years, you're leaving,"
"You don't... sound as angry as I thought you would be," the lesser mage stated simply as he stood behind the king.
Eeteuk stood at the edge of the terrace, hands clasped behind his back and face tilted towards the sky streaked like fire from the setting sun. He had stayed for hours in his study, finishing his review of the estates' ledgers at the pace of a turtle. When Sungmin had finally sought him out, the sun was already low in the sky.
"Why should I be angry, Sungmin?" Eeteuk inquired, "Because you are living your life? You said you wanted to talk to me so you can leave once the sun sets. Can I know where you planning on going? I like to think I deserve to know at least your destination if my only mage is abandoning me."
"I'm returning to the Dark Kingdom," Sungmin answered, "Kangin is willing to train me every day and..."
Sungmin grew silent, contemplating whether or not to reveal to Eeteuk the truth about his and Taeyeon's engagement. However, when it came down to it, the engagement was done for Taeyeon's protection. Just because he wouldn't be with her every day, didn't mean the engagement wouldn't still keep the suitors away.
"It's a great opportunity," Sungmin finished, "Especially since I've had to train myself all these years."
"Taeyeon is okay with you leaving?" Eeteuk asked, surprise evident in his tone,
"She encouraged it," Sungmin admitted, "She understands what having a full mage train me will mean. In all honesty, Eeteuk, when she decided to return home, she was most adamant I remain behind. Our Taeyeon, she's grown a lot all this time."
"I can tell, especially with some of the things she says," Eeteuk said, "She wasn't self-centered before, it's just that she didn't know life outside of these castle walls. I never thought I'd see the day when she wouldn't immediately hate someone of the Dark."
Sungmin chuckled softly, "For all the trouble this has caused, I don't think I can resent all that has happened seeing as how it has helped the princess grow."
"Was I really so horrible?"
Sungmin and Eeteuk looked over their shoulders as Taeyeon slowly approached them, a footman releasing her arm and stepping back to allow her to walk on her own as she waved him back. Dressed in a simple, short dress of purest white, she came towards them. She stood beside her brother and Sungmin took the few steps to stand on her other side.
"You were naive," Eeteuk corrected as he offered his arm,
"Not anymore, I assure you," Taeyeon insisted softly as she tucked her hand into the crook of her brother's elbow, "Eeteuk, I mentioned to you eight days ago that you should use me to help the kingdom. I'm asking you again that same thing, however, not in relation to my magic."
"I'm relieved to hear that, but, now I wonder, how is it you wish to help the kingdom?" Eeteuk asked,
"Let me be an ambassador for you," Taeyeon suggested, her tone soft but confident. "For the past eight years, this truce between the kingdoms hasn't brought the peace you sought, has it? And, it's probably really hard to unite the people when you're stuck here at the castle most of the year dealing with this and that decision. However, I can go around the kingdom, trying to foster acceptance amongst your people."
"You make some remarkable points, Taeyeon," Eeteuk conceded, "However, there is one, very important part, that I must correct you on."
Taeyeon looked up at her brother, his profile in gold relief, "What?"
"They are not my people. They are ours," Eeteuk said brightly. He turned his head to look down at his sister, "If you truly want to do this... if you truly believe you can... then I will support whatever decision you make, Tae."
Taeyeon's amber eyes grew wide, "Really, Teuk?" She hugged him tightly then, laughing with joy, "Really?"
"Of course," Eeteuk returned, "But you have to know that it won't be easy. Princess or not, it will be difficult to convince others of your line of thinking. They will be reverent and grovel at your feet, but will they adopt what you say? Will they agree?" He sighed heavily as he reached out and cupped the side of her face, "It will be difficult, but you can do it."
Taeyeon smiled brilliantly at her brother, leaning her cheek into his hand, always feeling comforted and loved every time he had done such a gesture as she grew up. Indeed, the habit had become her own.
"I really want to do this," Taeyeon insisted as she straightened away from his hand, "I really think that, if we strive for it, publicly promote it, we can achieve the peace that our kingdoms once had."
"Then, that is what we will work on for you," Eeteuk smiled; "Go to the dining room, dinner is sure to be served soon."
"You're not eating?" Taeyeon inquired,
"I'll follow you, Sungmin and I are just finishing some business," Eeteuk explained,
"Ah, very well," Taeyeon turned her smile to the lesser mage. She grabbed his hand and squeezed it, "We'll talk before you leave?"
"Of course," Sungmin replied, squeezing her hand before it slipped from his fingers.
The footman who had escorted Taeyeon to the terrace, stepped forward from the double doors, offering his assistance immediately as she swayed slightly; still weak from the earlier training. Once she had retreated into the castle, Eeteuk turned to Sungmin.
"I know you expected to leave this evening, but can I ask you one last favour, Sungmin?" Eeteuk asked as he raked his fingers through his own hair,
"I suppose since I am leaving you, that it wouldn't hurt to do one last, little task for you," Sungmin said lightly, almost teasingly,
Eeteuk rolled his eyes, "Perhaps I won't miss you so much, after all."
Sungmin merely laughed as they turned back towards the back fields, the sky more than half black already.
Eeteuk retreated to his study instead of heading to the dining room as promised. He had sent his apologies with Sungmin, feeling the sudden need of solitude as the sun's light completely disappeared from the night sky. He sighed heavily, running both hands through his hair as he closed the door and leaned back against it.
So much had happened in the span of a day, it was overwhelming for the young king. After eight years of basically just living in his study, with hardly no one else but advisors as companions, he had forgotten how unpredictable, how exciting life could be. He had forgotten how broad the range of emotions he had. In just a day he had experienced relief, happiness, gratefulness, pensiveness, pride, sadness, guilt... heartache.
He was halfway to his desk when he froze, his gaze suddenly flying towards the dark fireplace. He waved his hand and flames burst atop the logs of wood, casting a soft glow in the study. A large, bulky figure stood at the back of a cushioned armchair, leaning against it, muscled arms crossed.
"K-Kangin?" Eeteuk stammered, "What are you doing here? I thought you were leaving once the sun set."
"You couldn't really have expected me to leave... did you?" Kangin questioned as he pushed away from the chair and closed the distance until there was just a metre separating them. "Without one more word, one more chance to talk to you?"
Eeteuk said nothing; could say nothing. He was enraptured by the younger man's mercurial gaze. He found it difficult to breathe, impossible to think or move. He wanted to do anything, say everything and, yet, he opted for nothing, his fear enveloping him.
"I... Kangin... I..." Eeteuk stumbled for words, his ability for coherent thought completely wiped from his mind at just the sight of the Dark Mage.
"Don't say anything you don't believe," Kangin stated simply without judgement or censure, "Otherwise, it'll be meaningless."
Eeteuk's eyes narrowed at the younger man, closing the short distance between them as he glared unwaveringly at Kangin. His leaner frame shook with barely suppressed emotion, his light brown eyes reflecting a dozen emotions. He raised his hand as if to strike the mage before laying his palm against the other's cheek lightly, his eyes veiled with tears.
"There hasn't been a single day that has passed in which I didn't think about you," Eeteuk confessed softly,
Kangin grabbed his hand just as it was falling away. He gripped it firmly keeping it in the air between them; "Why didn't you believe me all those years ago?" He asked quietly, his voice even as his eyes pleaded with him, "Why didn't you believe me?"
"I was your best friend!" Kangin argued, his fingers tightening unconsciously,
"YOU WERE MY ONLY FRIEND!" Eeteuk corrected, ripping his hand from the other's grasp, the force of which causing him to stumble backwards a few steps. He stared at Kangin, heaving for air as his body seemed to want to completely give up; "You were my only friend," he repeated quietly, "How was I supposed to know if I could trust you? What real friends acted like? How was I supposed to know the difference between a real friend and a fake?"
"You knew me!" Kangin stated slapping his own chest as emphasis; "You know me."
"It's been fifteen years," Eeteuk stated, whirling away and heading towards the fireplace, "Even if I knew you then..."
"I haven't changed, but I'm not talking about knowing me now, I'm talking about knowing me back then," Kangin said, walking over, standing behind a high-back armchair, crossing his arms overtop its back; "Eeteuk, can we just talk without fighting? We never used to fight."
"We fought all the time," Eeteuk scoffed,
"Because you were always bossing me around," Kangin muttered,
"Because you kept forgetting I'm older," Eeteuk countered,
For a moment, they both glanced at each other, their eyes locking for a heartbeat. They both looked away at the same time, Eeteuk fighting the urge to laugh and Kangin chuckling softly. He straightened and rubbed his chest just over his sternum,
"Who knew laughing could hurt," Kangin mused, "I suppose that's what happens after it has been too long."
Eeteuk gazed into the flames, his face warm as he allowed his lids to close, "How long has it been, Kangin? Your emotions... how long?"
"Quite some time," Kangin admitted as he leaned against the chair again, crossing his arms over top of the back, propping his chin on his crossed arms; "But the urge for emotion, for emotional response... those stopped just a week ago."
"The urge for emotion?" Eeteuk prompted, turning around to face him,
"The urge for emotion, a trace of amusement... the urge to care," Kangin explained easily, "Even as emotions drain away, leaving a person with nothing... well, there is still the human need for emotion, the body's responses as if anticipating to react to a person, a situation. The response doesn't happen and the emotion isn't there, but the expectation, the body's preparation... those are things that are physical, not linked to one's soul."
"Ah... that's really unfortunate then," Eeteuk said slowly as he moved and leaned his back against the wall beside the fireplace, shrouded almost completely in shadows; "You were always so full of happiness... bursting with it, really. There was rarely a time when you weren't smiling."
"And, you, Eeteuk... have you changed so much?" Kangin asked simply, his silver eyes locking with the other's pale brown eyes.
"I thought I was only changing the way I acted in order to grow up fast and become a good king. Recently, however, I have begun to realize that while I truly believed I had remained the same on the inside... in truth, all of me had changed," Eeteuk confessed. He broke eye contact, leaning his head back against the wall and staring at the dark ceiling, tinged occasionally by light of dancing flames; "Whether it was for the good or the bad, I'm still debating, but to answer your question - yes, I have changed, even when I didn't want to."
"You were stubborn and knew what you wanted, which meant you always fought and argued until you got your way," Kangin recalled, "You ran away during lessons because you found it boring to sit in a room all day reading. And, eventually, your parents allowed you to go to my training sessions with me because you finally showed interest in learning."
"It wasn't the learning they wanted, but it was better than nothing, I suppose," Eeteuk laughed softly, "Mother would tease Father that he was spoiling me and Father would say I was learning valuable things while attending your training. He would always proclaim that I could transfer what I learned to other aspects of life." Eeteuk sighed, blinking back the tears quickly forming before his eyes, "Theirs had been a political match, but they had learned to love one another."
"Eeteuk," Kangin said quietly, "I don't know how many times I can say this and I don't want to have to keep defending myself. I don't want to keep saying the same things over and over again."
Eeteuk felt his heart constrict painfully. The lump quickly forming in his throat was rapidly suffocating him. His hands, clasped between his back and the wall were tightening, his nails digging into his skin. Was this it, then? Was this their final goodbye? Kangin had said he didn't want to keep saying such things. Did that mean they wouldn't meet again? The thought pained Eeteuk. The prospect terrified him more than the thought that an assassin was loose in the kingdom fifteen years ago.
To lose Kangin again and, this time, forever, was a fear he didn't realize he had until that moment. Now, it ripped through his composure to the point where he wasn't sure if he could continue standing. Had he been in a different mood, the irony would have amused him: the great King of Light who had risen to the throne after the death of his parents and led the kingdom through war and peace had been brought down so easily by one man. Eeteuk wasn't a vain person, but he knew how the people respected him for becoming king when he had the option of allowing the advisors to run the kingdom until his majority.
"Kangin, please..." Eeteuk murmured, shutting his eyes as the ceiling blurred due to his tears,
"I want to keep saying these things, however, over and over again until you finally believe me," Kangin interjected and the king was startled at how close was the other's voice.
Eeteuk opened his eyes and lowered his gaze from the ceiling until he found the Dark Mage no more than a foot away, "Kangin -"
"I should leave and forget about you and, yet, something within me tells me to stay and keep trying..." Kangin confessed, "I fear the unknown because I haven't felt my heart in a very long time. I fear my heart because I don't know if it's being foolish again. And, yet, I know if I do not say something now, that I will regret it. So, please, tell me how many times I must say the words, how many times I must defend myself in order for you to believe me."
"I don't want to hear you defend yourself anymore," Eeteuk said quietly, "I don't want to hear any more defenses from you any longer." Eeteuk swallowed hard, his mouth dry, his heart pounding painfully. He looked directly into the younger man's gaze, seeing the rejected inflection in those silver orbs; "I believed you the moment you said you didn't do it."
"W... What?" Kangin stammered,
"Fifteen years ago... I asked you - no, I told you what the accusations were against you and you said you hadn't betrayed me. I believed you then," Eeteuk admitted tentatively, the tears falling freely down the sides of his face; "I banished you from the kingdom, despite believing you because I was scared to be wrong. I was scared to make a mistake. So, I did as I was advised and banished you."
"Then, why haven't you let me talk to you all these years?" Kangin questioned, "Why, during the war, you wouldn't let me even come inside the walls?"
"Because what would the people think if I allowed one of the Dark into the castle during the war? What would be thought of me if I made one decision and then went against it?" Eeteuk defended; "What could I say to you?"
"What do you mean 'what could I say to you'?" Kangin asked, "I just wanted to talk to you!"
"And I didn't know how to say sorry," Eeteuk managed, his voice breaking. He uselessly wiped at the tears with the back of his hand, "From the moment I made the decree I've been avoiding you because I didn't know how to take everything back... to apologize." He shrugged helplessly, "That's why I didn't want to see you today... why I didn't want to see you leave... because I'm a coward and I still don't know how to say I'm sorry."
"Sorry for what?" Kangin demanded gently, taking a half step closer, propping one hand against the wall beside the other's head. When Eeteuk remained silent, he prompted, "For what, Eeteuk?"
"For believing you and acting as if I didn't. For banishing you when I never wanted you to leave. For keeping you away when I wanted you here..." Eeteuk swallowed again, the lump in his throat seeming to expand, air unable to get past to his lungs; "For breaking our friendship... for ruining it... for not being strong enough to stand against the advisors."
"You were twelve, Eeteuk," Kangin said quietly,
"I DID IT FOR TAEYEON, I SHOULD HAVE DONE IT FOR YOU, TOO!" Eeteuk exclaimed angrily through his tears. Slowly, he slid down the wall until he sat on the ground, his legs curled up before him. He propped his elbows on his knees and threaded his fingers through his hair.
"All these years... all these years I've played the victim," Eeteuk said, his voice shaking and breaking with each word, "I've acted as if you had betrayed me. I was even afraid you might not protect Taeyeon out of revenge... I even... I even had the nerve to tell you that you owe me... that you owed it to me to protect my sister when, in truth, I owed you. I owe you everything."
"Eeteuk," Kangin sighed softly as he squatted down before the king,
"I was the one to betray you, Kangin," Eeteuk managed, "I betrayed you." He raised his head, bringing their faces just centimetres apart. His light brown eyes gazed into the Dark Mage's silver ones, searching and searching for the right words, the right way. "Kangin... I..."
Kangin kissed him, silencing the words he knew were difficult for Eeteuk; the words a king should never have to say, needing to keep an appearance of strength, steadiness and reliability for his people, his kingdom. For so long, he had wanted Eeteuk to apologize, wanted the older man to admit he had been wrong. He didn't need the words, however, to soothe his heart, he just needed the intention, the sincerity.
And, so, he kissed him, his heart reacting faster than his soul could catch up. He kissed him despite not recognizing the emotions rising up within him like a hurricane. He kissed him wondering if he was being strong for accepting the king's apology or being weak for surrendering so easily. He broke the kiss without moving back, leaning his forehead against the other's.
"I'm sorry" Eeteuk said,
"You don't have to say it," Kangin interrupted,
Eeteuk raised a hand, cupping the side of the mage's face as he kept his head bowed, his forehead pressed against the other's. His thumb caressed slowly, affectionately.
“I do,” Eeteuk whispered, "I'm sorry I never told you I love you."
(Next, Chapter 13: Away from Darkness)