The summer was turning to a warm autumn when Kangin arranged another visit to see the Mongolians of the North, it being over a year since he last saw his friend and ally Lord Yunho. Kyuhyun was eager to escape the tension of the court that hadn’t dissipated with the reinstatement of Yoochun to the position of Crown Prince, in fact it seemed to have escalated, with Yoochun’s paranoia and suspicion of his brothers, and his anger at the bid to have him replaced with another creating a dark cloud.
It would seem that Kangin was well aware of the scheming of his sons and the bitter fighting that was still taking place, even though they tried to hide it from him. He had ordered that both Yoochun and Hangeng accompany him on the tour, with Siwon being left as interim leader back in the capital and that Yesung, Eunhyuk and Sungmin were to stay in Beijing as advisors. Having separated the most rebellious princes from their followers Kangin had then decreed that no communication was allowed between anyone on the expedition to anyone at the capital – and that a messenger was to be sent daily from the capital to wherever he was so that he knew exactly what was happening in his Empire.
All knew why this was happening and what it meant. The Emperor was suspicious of the Eighth Prince’s political motivations and intentions, he didn’t trust Hangeng enough to leave him in the city unchecked by him, however, nor did he trust the Crown Prince to be left either. Yoochun’s position was weaker than it had been before being stripped of his title; he was actively shoring support much like Hangeng had been quietly doing for several years. Both his children would try to wrest as much power as possible while trying to undercut the other if he didn’t watch them carefully. Hence, the Emperor was taking them both with him and cutting both of them off from their support base.
“Are you going to continue learning to ride?” Ryeowook asked as Kyuhyun watched the horseman riding alongside their carriage as they travelled towards the Mongolian border. Kyuhyun was dragged out of heavy thoughts as he turned his gaze onto the other boy.
“I have been given permission by His Majesty but I’ve been so tired recently, and also the soldiers that have been assigned as my teachers are of the same stock as the General who was sent to teach me last year.”
“In other words, they are more concerned about you accidently hurting yourself than actually teaching you how to ride.” Kyuhyun nodded his agreement while pulling a face. He suddenly thought of Siwon and the lessons the prince had given him those few evenings on the last trip and he shook his head to try and clear the thoughts. Thinking of the Fourth Prince wasn’t going to do him any good.
Kyuhyun let himself be dragged into the conversation starting between Jinki and Ryeowook about the handsomeness of some of the imperial guards. He jokingly supplied his input which was vetoed immediately.
Arriving at the same meeting point as last time, the camp was quickly set up and organised, years of practice and repetition speeding the process. The Mongolians were already there having arrived a few days previously and had set their camp up just the other side of a small hill. Kyuhyun watched as the two rulers greeted each other, both happy to go back to their talks and reminiscences of their younger days, especially since last time their meeting had been cut short, though no one mentioned the Eighteenth Prince to prevent the Emperor’s sores being reopened.
“We parted ways so hastily last time, this time we must make up for that,” Kangin spoke loudly in the tent full of both Qing and Mongolian nobles.
“Your brothers from the grasslands will try to satisfy you. We’ll drink until you’ve had your fill,” Yunho chuckled at the enthusiasm the older man was showing.
“We will see who lasts longer,” Kangin promised the other.
“I will happily drink with you, my Lord,” Yoochun smiled from where he was sat at his father’s side. The Horse Lord stilled when looking at the Crown Prince. “Obviously Lord Yunho hasn’t forgotten the slight that was dealt to him by Prince Yoochun,” Kyuhyun thought from his position beside Leeteuk.
“When Mongols drink and make merry, we make sure we have the right companions,” The sharp eyed general that was seated at the Mongol Lord’s side spoke softly yet his voice cut deep. Kyuhyun wondered who he was to be seated so closely to Yunho and to openly insult the Crown Prince of the more powerful ally. Though he was older, nearer the age of the Emperor and Lord Yunho, the man was still handsome, when younger he most certainly must have been a beauty.
“Your Majesty is generous, I’m sure with wine shared we can forget past grievances and also get drunk enough for everyone’s satisfaction.” Hangeng entered the conversation when he noticed his father becoming restless; no one wanted to discuss the last trip and the incidence of Yoochun’s rudeness against the Mongolians and this exchange was dangerously heading towards a red zone.
Kyuhyun watched as Hangeng artfully caught Yunho’s attention and steered the talk to times of celebration and also promises of renewal of friendship. He smiled at the eloquence of the Eighth Prince’s speech and how well he was able to draw attention, it was no wonder that so many people admired and praised him, it was such a pity that Kangin cared so deeply for his second son to the detriment of all his other children, many whom would have excelled with a bit more of their fathers attention and even a few who would have been much better candidates for the position of Crown Prince.
After leaving the tent, having been quietly dismissed by Leeteuk, Kyuhyun headed out to the plains determined to see some more of the views that he saw last year. He had hoped that the next time he was on an expedition he would be able to ride but he was still only just able to steer and walk, he didn’t trust himself to do more and there was no one else that would teach him properly. He thought as he had a few days earlier of Prince Siwon and the concentration and effort he had put into teaching him, a palace maid, how to ride.
The mentioned man started at hearing his name called. Turning around he saw a smiling boy bearing on him. “Prince Junsu,” he bowed at the Mongolian Prince.
“You can stand,” Junsu beamed. “I recognised you from a distance and knew I had to talk to you. Do you have time for a walk?”
Kyuhyun smiled at the chatting prince who was as friendly and open as he remembered him to be. “Of course, Your Highness.”
As they walked through the sparse trees that ran along the borders of the camp, Kyuhyun asked, “Why are you walking not riding as you normally do?”
“Mongols ride every day and everywhere, we don’t need an excuse to escape the city and ride like I have noticed the Qing court does. Life in the city and the Imperial court seems stressful and restricting to us, to have to find an excuse to ride seems amusing to us.” Junsu explained while laughing loudly. “I have to walk occasionally, otherwise I would lose my legs!”
Kyuhyun laughed at the high pitched but infectious laughter of the other boy. He knew why Changmin had taken a shine to the other prince – he was so unaffected and had a naivety that those it the Imperial city lost from a young age.
“Can you ride?”
“I can sit on a horse, but that is it I am afraid. I have little opportunity to learn and few wish to teach me. They think it is a waste of energy.” Kyuhyun sighed.
“I can teach you if you want!” Junsu started to bounce on his heels in excitement. “I have never taught anyone before but I’ll make sure you can ride as well as a Mongolian.”
Kyuhyun bit his lip with indecision, he could refuse the generous offer and upset this new friend, or he could accept and maybe end up in a bush. However who else would be willing to teach him to ride properly due to fear of hurting one of the Emperor’s favourites. “Okay.”
“This’ll be fun,” Junsu shouted as he pulled Kyuhyun towards the Mongolian camp in search of horses.
Three hours later Kyuhyun wasn’t having fun. He ached all over; his calves were killing him and the skin on the palms of his hands were rubbed raw. He didn’t want to think about what he would look like walking after this, that was if he could walk.
He wasn’t sure how he could rank Junsu in terms of being a teacher. He certainly was more enthusiastic and taught him more than anyone else did but at the same time he was impatient and expected Kyuhyun to remember and adapt straight away. He didn’t have the heart or the energy to scold the prince who he was secretly envying for still having so much energy.
“I think you should try a gallop!” Junsu spoke loudly and suddenly in Kyuhyun’s ear causing him to wince as he was jolted out of his stupor. His head being heavy and his reactions having slowed, Kyuhyun thought he would probably drop off his horse any moment.
Nodding slightly because he hadn’t the energy to even open his mouth to talk, before he had time to process what the other man had said, he was shocked when Junsu hit the flank of his horse. His horse jolted forward as his foot slipped from the stirrup.
Struggling to regain control of the horse that had sensed the panic of the rider and so was panicking itself, Kyuhyun felt as if his heart would burst from how hard it was hammering in his chest. After what felt like an age but must have only been a few seconds his horse was yanked to a standstill by someone chasing after him and grabbing the reins from his hands. Looking up, he barely saw a frantic Hangeng before he fell forward and lost consciousness.
Waking up in the arms of another wouldn’t normally be so relaxing, but Kyuhyun knew whose arms they were. Smiling slightly before wincing at the pain that was reverberating through his body, starting from his head that felt like it could split open to his calves which felt like they were on fire.
“You’re awake?” Hangeng spoke softly, and Kyuhyun saw that he too was smiling. He also became aware of exactly where they were. Kyuhyun was sat in front of Hangeng firmly pressed against his chest, as the other rode back towards the camp, his head safely tuck into Hangeng’s neck.
Kyuhyun didn’t reply, his eyes wanting to have their fill of the prince. Normally he had to hide how he looked at the other, guard his expression but with no one around he allowed himself to do whatever he wanted. He permitted himself to wrap his arms around Hangeng, reasoning that it was just to prevent him from slipping off when he knew he was just making excuses. Burying his face further into the elder’s neck, he breathed in the musky scent and secretly wished he could smell it every day. He indulged in the fantasy of embracing the prince anytime he wanted to.
“I sent Prince Junsu back to his camp with the horse you were using. I told him I would take you back.”
Kyuhyun let himself forget that Hangeng was the Eighth Prince, that he had wives already and children, that he would lose the his bid for power and be killed by his brother for plotting against the throne; he let himself imagine that they didn’t live in the complicated world of the Qing court but in the modern day. He wondered what job the other man would have, whether they would have pets, where they would go on days, how the other man would like his coffee.
“You have me in your heart.”
He wished he could say ‘yes’. If only he had the courage to say yes and live with this man. Were there really people who loved another enough to willingly enter a relationship with someone who would die as this person would die? If he did, how would he cope after his death? To fall in love with someone that hard was only signing himself up for suffering in the future. Was he brave enough?
He withdrew his face from the others neck when he felt the other still the horse. He gazed up at Hangeng as the other smiled at him with gentle eyes, “I am really in your heart?”
Kyuhyun couldn’t find any words as Hangeng chuckled happily and lifted a hand to stroke his cheek, pushing his head to stay resting on his shoulder as he made the horse continue on its steady walk back to the camp.
There was no denying that Kyuhyun did like his brother-in-law, though he shied away from admitting more, love was too much, even in the recesses of his mind. Hangeng’s steadfastness and continued affections over the years had gotten to him. The prince had made sacrifices and looked after him. And yet there was a barrier that seemed to prevent him falling into this relationship. His brain was screaming no while his heart was screaming yes. He had so many fears and considerations. Hangeng was too ambitious and already had wives and concubines, he reminded himself weakly. He had no idea what to do. So he let himself forget everything except the warm of the man that was wrapped around him and he let himself dream of other things.