Timeline note: This chapter was outlined around chapter 180 of the manga, so it's a bit AU regarding anything that happens after that.
Warnings: Violence in the flashback, angst throughout.
It was bad enough that he'd brought Yona and her Dragons to live at Hiryuu Castle. Oh, Soo-won longed to have her back here again, but not like this. This wasn't right.
Hak should be here, for one. He wouldn't leave Yona's side, Soo-won knew that with a certainty beyond belief, so the fact that he wasn't with her now indicated just how wrong it all was. Nothing should've kept him away.
Hak and Yona both belonged here, but Soo-won still wasn't ready to face either of them yet. He hadn't done enough yet, and having Yona so near, and worrying about Hak, made it impossible to focus on anything else. He could only think of what should be, and he knew full well how ironic that was.
Too bad the whole situation had been engineered. Yona coming here, the spectacle of the tournament, Yona's seating and the misconception it had sparked, it had all been arranged by one person.
Soo-won trusted Kye-sook. He was intelligent and efficient, and he loved Kouka. Soo-won wouldn't be half the king he was or wanted to be without Kye-sook's help. But this wasn't about the economy or foreign affairs. This was Yona. Her life wasn't a political scheme to weave, and Soo-won couldn't let that happen to her. Not after everything else he'd done to throw her life out of control.
And so, after the debacle that Kye-sook's tournament turned out to be, he went to talk to Kye-sook in private. His office would do, even if it was piled high with scrolls and books and everything he should be focusing on instead of confronting his advisor about Yona.
Soo-won didn't care. He couldn't focus with this hanging over him anyway. "What were you thinking, putting Yona in the queen's chair?" he demanded. His words were blunt. This didn't call for circumspection.
Kye-sook inclined his head. "I thought only to show her the proper respect," he replied. "She is the only child of the previous king."
"Yes, but she's an honored guest, not a co-regent! Thanks to you, all of the city will think she's engaged to be my wife by now!"
Kye-sook's face was a study in calculated blankness. "I was under the impression that you once hoped to take her to wife, and to marry King Il's daughter would solidify your rule. Would it be so terrible?"
Soo-won bit back any retort he might have had about interference in his love life. After all, love was so rarely a factor in royal marriages. Instead, he asked carefully, "Where is Hak?"
To his credit, Kye-sook didn't avoid Soo-won's eyes. "I couldn't allow him to enter the castle. It would have been an unforgivable breach of security. He is still a danger to Your Majesty's life."
"Or a danger to your plans for me and Yona?" Soo-won asked bitterly. At Kye-sook's silence, he repeated himself. "Where is Hak?"
"In the city, i expect," Kye-sook answered. "I haven't ordered anything done to him, so long as he doesn't attempt to enter the palace."
Soo-won took a deep breath. He could order Hak's welcome into the castle, but what good would it do? Hak's feelings about Soo-won were perfectly clear, and had been ever since that night. Yona had been civil with him when they'd spoken since then, but Hak had barely managed that. No doubt the only reason he hadn't attacked Soo-won after the battle was because he was more injured than he was willing to admit. Or he held back for Yona's sake.
He shook his head. He didn't have time to dwell on things beyond his control. There were too many things he had to deal with.
"With all respect, Your Majesty," Kye-sook said, "it's dangerous to have another possible claimant to the throne running around the kingdom without clear allegiances."
Did he think Soo-won didn't know that? "Do you think Yona is going to lead a rebellion? She cares about the people more than the crown. She wouldn't put so many people in danger for such little gain."
"It might not matter what she wills. As things stood until now, anyone dissatisfied with your rule could use her as an excuse to revolt. You could be overthrown in Princess Yona's name, while she becomes the puppet of those who want to seize power for themselves."
Soo-won took a deep breath, and shut his mouth. As much as he wanted to argue, he couldn't. Hadn't the Fire Tribe general rebelled only a few months ago? He'd claimed authority based on his own descent from King Hiryuu, but if his son Tae-jun had married Yona like he wanted, Soo-jin would have won support from the other tribes.
Soo-won's head was starting to hurt. His arm ached. He wished things could be simple. "Just don't try to do anything more with Yona or Hak. Leave them to me from now on."
Kye-sook bowed. Soo-won couldn't shake the uneasy feeling that this wasn't over.
This was just what he needed. Soo-won didn't have enough on his plate already, not at all. It wasn't as if he had to help the Fire Tribe recover from a famine. It wasn't as though the Water Tribe was full of drug addicts, and the Earth Tribe full of pirates, both in league with Kouka's neighbors. It wasn't as though he had to negotiate an alliance with their former enemy, Xing, and set up a satellite government in the recently conquered Sei. It wasn't as though he had a hostile empire that far outweighed Kouka in resources and soldiery on his northern border that had to be kept back at all costs.
That was what he should be focusing on. This was the second time since Soo-won's coronation that Li Hazara invaded. Kouka had driven him back both times, but Kai's instability was proving to be a problem. Neither of its two governments could control their vassals. This time Hazara had brought an ally, one of Kai's subject nations.
In other words, the danger from the north was growing. More enemies were appearing.
Soo-won had the measure of Li Hazara by now, but he didn't know how likely Ying Kuelbo was to return. He should talk to Yona, ask her opinion after having spent time as Ying's prisoner. Oh yes, he should just walk right up to her, ignore everything he'd done or she thought he'd done because he didn't know how to talk about it, and instead welcome her back to Hiryuu Palace with a discussion of her recent imprisonment and how to deal with a foreign threat. That'd go over well.
Soo-won sighed. "Never mind about that. Instruct the generals to increase the number of troops guarding the border with Kai. We'll have to rearrange our forces."
"Understood," Kye-sook said.
"Do we have any spies in the Kai Empire?"
"In both courts," Kye-sook replied promptly.
"I want some in Sen Province," Soo-won said. "The Tully Tribe too, if you can manage it." He paused. "Actually, regarding Sen Province . . ." His eyes narrowed. "Get someone close to Li Hazara." He couldn't come out and say why; an official order would be tantamount to a declaration of war, but this was something that had to happen.
Kye-sook took his meaning. "Very good, sir."
All right then. He might not be able to face up to any of the problems in and around Hiryuu Palace, but at least he could get Li Hazara handled.
His mind was still far from easy, but at least it was one weight off his shoulders as he went to Min-Soo to have his arm checked on.
It was unsettling to have to continue on with life as usual with Yona living so close by, and still no trace of Hak. Soo-won couldn't quite bring himself to visit her, but as a decent host he figured he should at least introduce himself to her Dragons.
That was . . . an interesting experience. They'd met before, of course, brief interactions on the battlefield or in towns while everyone was undercover, but this was the first time they'd been able to truly speak. The Dragons primarily knew Soo-won by reputation, through Yona and Hak, and so he couldn't fault them for not quite trusting him.
Oh, they were polite, certainly. The Golden Dragon – Zeno – didn't seem to have a care for his title or what it meant, but he found that refreshing, and none of them were openly antagonistic, but there was an undercurrent of tension between him and them that pricked at his nerves. He wanted to know what Yona and Hak's lives were like now, whether they were happy, how they spent their time, but this probably wasn't the way to do it.
It was a shame. Soo-won thought if they'd all met under the right circumstances, they could be great friends. He still remembered when he met the Green Dragon – Jae-ha – in the Water Tribe lands and they'd had a great time checking for nadai in the liquor of an inn there.
Ah well. If it wasn't to be, then it would only make things worse if Soo-won tried to force it. He'd already drawn a line between what he wanted for himself and what he wanted for the country. He'd decided what his life would be when he drew a sword on the former king. He should stop trying to chase two rabbits, as the saying went. Soo-won was the king of Kouka now, not a lover to Yona or Hak. It would do him no good to try and become friends with their friends. He didn't want to use the power of gods or dragons to create the Kouka he dreamed of, so he should focus on what he himself could do. Kai and Sei might not be easy to deal with, but at least they were manageable. In theory.
It was Zeno who corralled him at last. The Gold Dragon had been having a great time with full run of the castle – something Soo-won was pretty sure Kye-sook hadn't authorized – and when he popped up in the king's study he nearly gave Soo-won a heart attack.
"Hey, Mister King Guy!"
"Hi," Soo-won said blankly. He still wasn't sure how to react to a greeting like that – he had a feeling it should bother him more than it did. His father certainly wouldn't have responded well. "It's Zeno, isn't it?"
"Yep!" Zeno replied cheerfully. He thumped down into a seat that didn't have too many papers piled on it. Kye-sook would throw a fit, but then, he wasn't here. Soo-won decided not to worry about it. The documents weren't so important that a few wrinkles would ruin them. "Zeno's been thinking about some stuff."
"Oh?" Clearly this "stuff" involved Soo-won, or else, why would the dragon be here? "Anything you'd care to share?"
"Mmm." Zeno bounced his head and swung his legs. "About you and the miss and the mister."
Those must be his names for Yona and Hak. Perversely, Soo-won hoped someone would come in and interrupt them with official business for him that just couldn't wait. He missed Yona and Hak more than anything, he longed to be able to face them honestly for the first time in longer than he could remember, but he dreaded talking about them almost as much.
Zeno grinned as though he knew what Soo-won were thinking, and was going to force him to talk anyway. "You miss them, don't you?"
"I do," Soo-won admitted warily.
Zeno rested his chin in his hands. "But you aren't going to talk to them? The miss is right here in Hiryuu Castle, and you could find the mister easy if you tried."
"I wouldn't know what to say to them," Soo-won told him. "You must know what i did to them. It's not something that can be explained away or forgiven."
"Have you tried?" Zeno asked. At Soo-won's silence, he pushed, "The truth? You can't really know what they're thinking. Not without talking to them."
"You say that like it's so simple," Soo-won said wryly. "Like everything can be fixed if we just talk it out."
"You don't know if it can't," Zeno pointed out stubbornly.
"I killed Yona's father!" Soo-won burst out. "I don't think there's any explanation for that that she could accept."
"You don't think she should know why?"
That shut him up. Damn it all. Soo-won knew Yona deserved an explanation. It may have been King Il's life he ended, but Yona's was the life he ruined. And Hak's, for that matter – Hak had given up everything to follow her into exile. Soo-won knew full well he owed them.
He slumped back in his chair with a sigh. "She should. Yes. I know that. They both should. But it's not . . . It's all too complicated to untangle now."
Zeno tipped his head the other way in his hands. "What are you afraid of?"
That they'll kill me. Soo-won didn't say it aloud.
What, was that meant to be some kind of revelation? He'd known from the start that if he took the throne by spilling blood, he was putting his own life on the line. He was fully aware that he could die at any time, and that he deserved to. He'd made a point of living each day as king as if he wouldn't survive it, so that the kingdom would thrive no matter what happened to him. When he expected it, there was no reason to fear it.
That they'll hate me. But they already did, didn't they? Knowing exactly what had happened that night, and why, couldn't make Hak or Yona think any less of him. He'd already sunk to the depths of their ill will.
Zeno had a point. He didn't really have anything to lose.
Soo-won sat up. His mind was starting to buzz. "Hak will be furious if i force him to come here after Kye-sook already barred him. He won't be willing to listen."
Go to them." Zeno suggested the obvious path, the one Soo-won was already calculating. It wasn't as if he didn't sneak out all the time anyway. If he could convince Yona, and he thought he might be able to, with a promise of the truth and seeing Hak, he could smuggle her out as well. He didn't know where Hak was, but he had his own spy network all over the city – and the country – different from the one Kye-sook managed. "I'll have to find him. And hope he's willing to talk."
Zeno stood with a grin on his face. "Leave that to Zeno."
Soo-won had no reason not to trust him. He should do it himself, while he still had the nerve, but if Zeno interceded for him, that might make the conversation go more smoothly. "I'll trust you, then."
His resolve faltered, of course. Soo-won could handle matters of state with no trouble, but matters of the heart were beyond his skill set. He had no idea what he was doing, but now he'd committed himself to this plan with Zeno. He was going to talk to Yona and Hak, and let the consequences fall where they may. He only wished he weren't so afraid.
He wondered what Lili would tell him in this situation. Her friendship had become a lifeline to him, and it was possible she understood Yona's feelings better than he ever could. At the very least, he could count on her to give an honest opinion, honest to the point of rudeness. Soo-won appreciated that about her.
Perhaps he should learn from her example.
But Lili wasn't here now; she was away in her father's lands to the south. Soo-won had no one to rely on but the generosity of Yona's group.
It was only a couple of days until Zeno returned; he may have hoped to get the group together sooner, but Soo-won had his royal duties to attend to as well, and preparations to make in case he didn't come back after meeting Hak. But Zeno did come for him once an opening presented itself, and brought him to meet Yona and another Dragon. Jae-ha.
Yona gasped when she saw him. Soo-won stopped short, anticipating what must surely be running through her head. Jae-ha raised his eyebrows. "What's this, what's this?"
"Everybody's avoiding everybody," Zeno said. "And so it's all just going to keep festering. So it has to come out into the open."
"You said–" Yona swallowed. "You said we were going to go see Hak and Yoon."
"Mm!" Zeno nodded brightly and turned to Jae-ha. "Green Dragon knows where Mister and the lad are, right?"
"Well, yeah . . ." Jae-ha admitted.
"So, Green Dragon takes the miss and Mister King Guy to them. And they all talk to each other." Zeno nodded firmly.
Ooh, no. Soo-won could see how this ended, and it ended in disaster. It couldn't go well, not if this was all there was to Zeno's plan. "Just us? What about the other two?" It didn't feel right, being alone with Yona and only one or two of her Dragons, and he was sure she would prefer to have more of a buffer separating him from her as well.
"They . . ." Jae-ha stared, and trailed off.
"They're going to make a distraction. In case we need one," Yona replied. Her voice was subdued. She didn't meet Soo-won's eyes, but her words were clear. She'd become strong since he knew her.
"I see." As if on cue, Soo-won heard shouting from the eastern wall, on the other side of the castle. "That must be them now."
"Zeno will go see!" the Golden Dragon waved, as if he weren't cutting Soo-won's lifelines one by one. "Come back soon! See you later!"
Jae-ha gave a weary grin. "Guess that's our cue. Shall we go, then?"
"I suppose we'd better." If Soo-won had been on uncertain ground before, he was sinking fast now.
"Yes." Yona's voice was determined, and she had that glint in her eye he'd seen from time to time, out in the thick of things. "I want to see Hak and Yoon. And Zeno's right. We should talk. About everything." She did look at Soo-won then, if only for a moment.
And he followed her, as Jae-ha led them out into the city.
Hak and the other one, Yoon, were staying far enough from the castle that they wouldn't raise any suspicions, but quite a bit closer than Soo-won might have anticipated. Jae-ha took Soo-won and Yona to one of the city's minor squares, where Yoon had laid out what appeared to be an apothecary's entire stock of herbs on a blanket. He was doing a healthy business selling them and giving medical advice while Hak brought in customers and did a little heavy lifting for their neighbors. Soo-won was almost certain they hadn't applied for a business permit.
Yona ran across the square to her friends without hesitation. Jae-ha followed after her, and Soo-won hung back. Yona clasped the boy Yoon's hands tightly in hers, as Hak ruffled her hair. Jae-ha made some comment, and then it seemed everyone was talking excitedly.
Soo-won let them. They shouldn't have been separated, and they surely had a lot to catch up on. He was being polite, he told himself. That was why he was taking his time to approach.
Whether he was being respectful or stalling, Yona didn't let him do it for long. She seized his good arm and pulled him into the press. "Come on, what are you doing?"
Soo-won watched Hak's eyes grow grim as his laugh died. "What's he doing here?"
"Zeno sent him," Yona said. "He said . . ." She trailed off, looking to Soo-won. The expression in her eyes made his heart ache. He should have talked to them both a long time ago.
"I came to tell you the truth," he replied to Hak. "Both of you. After that . . . You can do what you want."
He'd made his arrangements. If they killed him for what he'd done, then so be it. Kye-sook knew where to find his will if he never came back. Yona would be queen. No one would question it – she was, after all, assumed to be his fiancée, as well as the only child of Soo-won's predecessor. She'd do what was right for the country.
Hak was silent. Soo-won had always found him hard to read, but never more so than now. "Yeah," he said. "Fine." He jerked his head.
"We've been renting a shed," Yoon explained. Hak was already striding to the edge of the square, and the boy had to trot to keep up. Soo-won, Yona, and Jae-ha followed after them. "It's small, but it's clean, and we've stayed in worse."
A shed? Hak? Worse? Yona too? Soo-won's mind buzzed with implications.
The shed was dark, after the sunny square outside. There was one window for light, up near the roof, and a few gaps in the walls. It wouldn't do for the winter, but Soo-won supposed it was alright to stay in while the weather was warm and dry.
Hak spun around and leaned against the far wall, his eyes boring into Soo-won. "So talk," he said.
Yona gave him a quelling look, and went to sit down beside him on the floor. Hak slid down the wall to rest next to her. Yoon settled to the side. Soo-won heard the creak of wood, and looked over his shoulder to see Jae-ha leaning against the doorway just outside. He was very carefully not looking in at them.
"Soo-won?" Yona prompted, and he lowered himself to the ground facing the two of them.
How could he start? He'd been stuck on that for such a long time.
He heard Zeno's voice saying, Just tell them. Zeno hadn't even said those words.
Soo-won bit the insides of his lips. "I've thought for a long time about how i would face the two of you after . . . after," he began. "Since even before i . . . i killed King Il." He watched as Yona's face set and Hak's muscles tensed. "But no matter how much i thought about it, i could never figure out what to say to you."
"I wonder why," Hak said dryly.
Soo-won deserved that. He forced himself to ignore the way Hak's words made the back of his throat hurt. He owed both of them the truth.
His eyes rested on Hak's tight jaw, Yona's furrowed eyebrows. It was time. There would be no more running away.
He took a deep breath.
"That night – your birthday – when i went to see King Il–" Soo-won interrupted himself. "No, that's wrong. It all started a long time before that." He paused, considering that other night, so many years ago, when everything had changed for the first time.
"When did it start?" Yona asked gently. Soo-won realized with a start that he'd sunken too deep into the memory, and forgotten he was talking to Yona and Hak. He didn't dare wonder what kind of expression he'd been making.
"It was ten years ago," he began. "When we were at war with Xing the last time. My father had come back to Hiryuu Castle between campaigns. I was so happy to see him again." He stopped for a moment, remembering the way it had felt to have his father back after he'd been gone a long time. "Then there was one night when i couldn't sleep. I got up to see if i could find him, and i heard arguing . . ."
The table was inlaid with a map of Kouka and the surrounding regions. It showed the entire peninsula, Xing and Sei as well as Kouka, and parts of Kai. Not the full empire, but it held the border regions and the interior as far as the capital. The boundaries between countries were marked out by lines of gold. It wasn't merely a political map; the geography was represented as well. The ocean, rivers, and lakes were made of smooth lapis. Mountains were polished granite. Fields were white jade, while forests were a darker green. Tiny, finely carved cedar figures rested on top, showing the number and locations of the different nations' forces. It was a magnificent work of art.
It would have to be redone.
Two men leaned over the map. "If we launch a joint offensive with the Fire Tribe army, here, we can drive back Xing thirty li and take the entire valley," said General Yu-hon of the Sky Tribe.
King Il shook his head. "I've decided to cede the region. We don't need it. There's nothing there that's worth so many of Kouka's people dying for it."
It was an argument they'd had before, one that always ended with the two brothers slinking off to nurse their frustrations separately. It was never resolved.
They'd already dismissed their attendants and advisors for the night. The fewer people who witnessed the rift in the royal family, the better. They both still believed that it could be fixed.
"You can't be serious," Yu-hon replied. "That valley will give Xing a direct line into Wind Tribe lands. If we can't have the valley, we at least need the cliffs! Otherwise it'll be indefensible! You'll be asking them to invade!"
King Il let out a short breath. He didn't like having the same argument over again, either. "There won't be a need for them to invade. This land is what we're feuding with Xing over. If we give up our claim to the valley, they'll be satisfied. There will be peace."
Yu-hon slammed his fist into the table. Army pieces jumped. "You can't appease them, Il! The more you give them, the more they'll take! That's how war works!"
King Il clenched his fists. The tension in his fingers kept the rest of him calm. "That's why i have to end the war. No one else has to die for this."
"For what, their homes?" Yu-hon sneered. "You're not protecting your citizens by giving them up to the enemy."
"They don't have to be our enemies!" Il exclaimed. "They shouldn't have to be our enemies. We can negotiate a peace that will make everyone happy."
"And you think you can do that by giving our neighbors whatever they want, while Kouka suffers for it?" Yu-hon demanded. "What if Kai asks for your daughter for the emperor's harem? Would you sell her for your 'grand peace'?" At Il's stutter, he pushed on. "You would. You'd try to use a marriage to cement a treaty, even if it meant using Yona as a bartering chip."
"You leave Yona out of this." King Il's voice trembled. His entire body strained with the effort of standing still. "That's exactly what you want, isn't it, Yona married off to a foreign ruler, because that'd clear the way for your son. Whoever she marries will be the next in line to rule, and you can't stand the fact that she's my heir instead of Soo-won–"
"That's irrelevant," Yu-hon interrupted him. "Your daughter, my son, whichever one should rule in the future depends on how we raise them. It's in the future. Right now, you're the problem." He planted his hand firmly on King Il's chest and shoved his brother back. King Il stumbled, and caught himself against the map table.
Yu-hon was one of very few people allowed to carry a weapon in the king's presence, as a member of the royal family himself. He was rarely seen without his jian; since he didn't need it for this meeting, he'd set the sword down. It leaned against the table, and King Il had almost knocked it over. He caught hold of it before it fell, and stopped.
His hands were on the hilt. He had been trained to use a sword as a prince, but he hadn't stayed in practice the way Yu-hon had. He'd never liked it, and he wasn't any good at it anyway.
This was what Yu-hon wanted. This was the sword Yu-hon fought with, the one he was going to use to conquer that stupid valley. It was all that really mattered to him, wasn't it?
Il picked up the sword. It was heavier than anything he was used to holding as he drew it from its sheath. Maybe Yu-hon would take him seriously for once if he had a sword in his hand.
Yu-hon didn't see. He leaned over the map, jabbing at the valley. "Look," he said. "Right here, on this side of the border. You see this village?" When Il didn't respond, Yu-hon looked over his shoulder and saw him. He laughed. "Put it down, little brother."
"I'll put it down," Il said. "I'll smelt it down and, and make a shovel out of it, or . . ."
"You don't even know what the tools of peace are." Yu-hon pushed the blade aside with the back of his arm, stepping closer to his brother. "What're you going to do?"
Il backed up, bringing the sword back between them. "I'll end this. I don't care how. I don't want to fight anymore."
Yu-hon grabbed the blade with his bare hand, pushing it towards Il's face so his brother couldn't avoid looking at the blood running down the weapon in his grip. "Do you even hear yourself? Life is fighting. You can't end it. Stop playing around and act like a king!"
Il wrenched the sword back. Yu-hon swore as it sliced deeper into his palm. "I am!" Il snarled. "I'm thinking of what's best for Kouka! You're the one letting your bloodlust get the better of you!"
With his free hand, Yu-hon punched him. Il staggered back, but he didn't fall, and he didn't let go of the sword. Yu-hon was forced to release it before it did irreparable damage to his hand. "My bloodlust? Is that what you think, Il? You're hopeless."
"I'm not hopeless!" Il lunged forward, coming back to within a breath of his brother's face. "All you care about is fighting! If you had your way, we'd be at war forever!"
Yu-hon gasped. The blood drained from his face. King Il froze, his eyes wide. That wasn't how his brother responded. To anything.
Together, they looked down. King Il still clutched the sword in his hands. Yu-hon's sword. The sword that couldn't fit between them without piercing through Yu-hon's chest.
His blood was so red. Deep, dark red that spread out into his robe like a flower blooming and ran in rivulets down the blade to King Il's hands.
Yu-hon choked and sagged. King Il shrieked as he released the hilt, an impulse, as if there were time to not run him through. No, no.
Yu-hon hit the floor a moment later. King Il was on his knees beside him. He had to get the sword out. Maybe this could still be treated.
Yu-hon caught hold of the blade again, before King Il could pull more than a sun or so out of his body. "It's too late," he rasped. "Il . . ."
His grip on the sword loosened, and his head dropped. King Il had the sword free of his body, tossed it somewhere behind him, before he realized his brother was no longer breathing.
Someone was screaming. It was Il. No, it wasn't. Was it? He didn't know.
Someone burst in, and he flinched away from the doorway. It was one of Yu-hon's subordinates in the Sky Tribe army. Joo-doh.
He took in the room at a glance, and swore. "Your Majesty?" He focused on the king, who held up his hands as if to keep the blood on them away from his body. "Your Majesty! What happened here?"
"I – I –" Il backed away. He couldn't. He couldn't.
Joo-doh swore again. More people were here, guards and servants and maybe everybody else. Joo-doh turned away from him, shouting orders and ushering away the small child who'd wanted to know what all the shouting was about.
"I only came in at the end," Soo-won admitted. "I don't know how the fight started or how it got so bad. But King Il never treated me the same way after that night, and i could never forget it. I . . ." He risked glancing up, ready to meet Yona's and Hak's eyes honestly for the first time in such a long time. Or maybe ready was still too strong a word, but it didn't matter so much anymore.
Yona had one hand covering her mouth; her gaze was downcast and flickering as though she were trying to reconcile everything Soo-won had just related with her own memories of her father. Tears shone at the corners of her eyes. Not for the first time, Soo-won wished everything could have been different. Even though it was an inevitable result of his actions, he'd never wanted to make her cry.
Hak still glowered at Soo-won, but there was a different element to his glare now, something Soo-won couldn't quite place. He reached out, and Soo-won flinched back on reflex, but Hak merely brushed his fingertips against Soo-won's cheek and caught a tear.
Soo-won had been crying too. He hadn't realized.
He turned swiftly away to shield himself as he scrubbed at his face with a sleeve. He couldn't do this now, couldn't break down, that would be manipulating them, he'd just wanted to explain . . .
All he really needed was a minute to get himself under control. He could do this. It was a disaster, but it was one he had made himself, so he owed it to them to finish this.
Soo-won took a deep breath and turned back to Yona and Hak. "I couldn't forget what i saw, and i know that colored how i thought of King Il from then on too. I didn't mean for it to get so . . ." He stopped, composed himself again. "I watched. There wasn't really anything else i could do. I watched the way he ruled, and i watched the way the people lived. I guess i was running away at first, when i went into the city. I was nobody there, so anything could happen. But that's not the point. I . . . I started to realize that the king wasn't protecting the people. They were hungry, there were thieves and murderers. The further i looked from the capital, the worse the problems became." He sighed. "You've seen them. Famine in the Fire Tribe territories, pirates and human traffickers in the Earth Tribe, drug dealers in the Water Tribe. And it was like King Il didn't even notice. Nothing really reached us in Kuuto, so it wasn't happening."
Yoon snorted. Soo-won had nearly forgotten the three of them weren't alone together. His skin suddenly ached with the knowledge of others' presence. His ears were hot. Yoon had been listening attentively, and his expression said a thing or two about King Il not taking notice of the lower classes. Jae-ha was still leaning against the doorway, but Soo-won could see his arm and knew he could hear everything they said.
Yona nodded slowly. She still wasn't looking at Soo-won. "I've seen what's happening in the country," she said. "It started a long time before my father died."
"Yes." Soo-won's voice was soft; he barely heard himself speak. "His policies weren't helping the way they should. Life stayed the same for us, and everyone else was ignored. I tried talking to him, a few times, but nothing changed. He was trying to avoid conflict, but it led him to avoid reality." He swallowed. This was the hardest part of all.
"I wish i could say it was a crime of passion," he said slowly. "I wish i could say that it just got to be too much and i lost control of myself. But i didn't. I kept thinking about my father, and the country, and what could be done. The only way out i could see . . . was if King Il were no longer the king. He would never abdicate for me, and he wanted to keep you sheltered from all the sorrows of the world, so . . ." He sighed. "I thought i had to kill him. I still don't know if there was something else i could have done, and i know i wasn't using my best judgment, but it's what happened, and i've been trying my best to live with it."
Yona snuffled through her nose. Her face was still turned down, moreso than it had been, and Soo-won's heart ached.
Hak hadn't said a word throughout Soo-won's story. He didn't speak now, either, but he did make eye contact with Soo-won for a moment. What Soo-won saw in his gaze almost made him hope, until he heard the flat tone of Hak's voice. "Why didn't you say anything?"
Soo-won gestured helplessly. "How could i?"
Yona looked up then. Her eyes and nose were red and running. "You should have said something. Before. We could have figured something out."
Soo-won let his head drop. "You're probably right," he said. "No, you are. But it's too late now. I can't exactly go back and change things."
Somehow he could hear Hak rolling his eyes. "So what are you planning? It's not like you can get off scot-free for it."
Soo-won shook his head. "No, i know that. I'm ready – I told you that you could do what you want when i was done. I've always known what the consequences of my actions would be."
"Soo-won," Yona said. She was still crying, and her voice wobbled with it.
Hak lunged forward, seizing Soo-won by the front of his robe and pulling him forward until their faces were only a breath apart.
Soo-won didn't fight him or look away. This was what he deserved. It was . . . fitting that Hak should be the one to kill him.
"You think i'll be satisfied with that?" Hak demanded, his voice a low growl. "If you just die here? You think the princess will be satisfied with that? You're just running away! You think that will make up for killing the king?"
Soo-won snorted, out of shock rather than derision. "Nothing i can do will make up for that! I know that! So if the only thing i can do is offer up my life, then–"
"Yeah, offer your life," Hak interrupted him. "Nothing you can do now will make up for it, so you have to spend the rest of your life trying. You owe us too much to ever rest in peace."
Yona threw her arms around Soo-won's neck. "We're never letting you off the hook," she sobbed.
Soo-won was too stunned to consciously react. His left arm, nearly healed, went around Yona's waist, and his right hand came up to Hak's shoulder. "I thought . . . Don't you want me dead?"
"Don't get it wrong," Hak snapped. "I still haven't forgiven you."
"You have to work really hard," Yona murmured into his shoulder. Her tears were starting to soak through the cloth. "You'll have to live until you're at least a hundred."
That startled a laugh out of him. "How am i going to live that long?"
"Figure it out," Hak told him flatly. He let out an angry sigh, and let his head drop against Soo-won's. "You bastard." Somehow, he almost made it sound like an endearment.
"Right, right," Jae-ha said. Soo-won startled – he'd forgotten the man was there. "I think that's enough for now. You're embarrassing your big brother over here."
"Really." Yoon rubbed at his face. "Do you have to do that kind of thing in front of people?"
Yona's face went a horrified red, and in the space of a breath she was well back from both Soo-won and Hak, clutching the fabric over her legs as if she were trying to hold herself back. Hak released Soo-won as well, but was much less dramatic about it.
Soo-won rubbed over his face with his sleeve, and again, as if he could wipe away the embarrassment along with the streaks of tears on his skin. "Thank you. For listening." And for not killing me for it, he didn't say.
Hak cuffed him on the side of the head. He didn't mean it seriously, so it only knocked Soo-won slightly sideways. Yona rubbed her sleeve over her face again. "I guess we should go back." She didn't sound like she meant that. Hak made an indeterminate grumbling sound deep in his throat.
"I'm not leaving you behind!" Yona hastened to clarify. "Or Yoon," she added. "I just . . . i need to think some things over. And i want to talk to the others." Hak sighed and cuffed her head too, slightly more gently than he'd done Soo-won. "Guess so."
Yona went over to the boy, Yoon, and took his hands to exchange some quiet words. Hak slapped Jae-ha's shoulder, much harder than he'd done with Yona or Soo-won, and said, "Later, Droopy Eyes." With an exaggerated wince, Jae-ha replied, "See you." Soo-won was reminded again of how much of an outsider he'd become in their lives. He felt increasingly awkward standing here, now that it was clear Hak and Yona didn't want to kill him after all.
Yona approached him and attempted a smile. "Shall we?" Soo-won glanced past her to Hak, and didn't know what to say. He settled for a nod and a tight smile. "I don't see why not," he said to Yona.
But still he hesitated. "You're welcome to come with us," he told Hak. "I've talked to Kye-sook."
Hak only stared at him, and this time there was a note of real anger in his voice when he spoke. "You've got to be kidding."
Well. He had tried. If Hak didn't want to come back to Hiryuu Castle, Soo-won couldn't force him. "Then – i'll see you. Sometime. Some place."
"Yeah," Hak agreed. He had his arms crossed now, and it looked like he, like Yona, was ready to do some serious thinking.
Soo-won couldn't shake the feeling that he'd end up deciding he never wanted to see Soo-won again. Soo-won could spend the rest of his life working for Kouka, trying to be worthy of Yona and Hak, like they'd told him, but at the end of the day, he was still the man who killed her father, the previous king.
Right now, all he could do was turn his back and return to the castle with Yona and Jae-ha.
Soo-won lay awake long into the night. People always said that once you confessed to the terrible things you'd done, got it all out in the open, it was like a weight lifted off your shoulders. You'd think that with the relief of finally talking to Yona and Hak about why he'd killed her father, he'd be exhausted and fall into a deep slumber. They'd even – well, not forgiven him, but they hadn't taken revenge on him.
Soo-won was exhausted, but he couldn't sleep. He was too busy picking over the afternoon, everything the two people he loved most had said and hadn't said, everything he'd said and hadn't said, what did Yona mean by that, what was Hak thinking, what it all meant for him. His mind would never allow him to sleep.
Eventually, the Moon set, although the stars were still bright in the sky. Soo-won heard a soft tapping sound, and then a rattle as his door slid open. Soo-won sat up to watch Yona slip into the room. She was dressed more simply than she had been since returning to Hiryuu Castle.
"You're leaving," Soo-won guessed, and stood.
"How did you know?" Yona's voice could almost be termed a wail, if she weren't trying so hard to be quiet.
"You're not happy here," Soo-won admitted. "You haven't been, without Hak, or with me, or–"
"It's not you!" Yona said fiercely, crossing the floor to him. She reached out, as if she were about to take his hands, but she stopped herself. "Maybe it is, a little," she admitted. "I sill don't really know what to do, or even how i feel, really." Soo-won bowed his head. He'd expected as much, but it was hard to hear from Yona herself.
"It's hard to think my father could have done something like that. I trust you, but i can't imagine that happening the way you saw. I just . . . i need time to think. And space. Hak – Hak probably needs to think things over too." She reached out again, and this time she took his face in her hands, drawing him up to meet her eyes. "We will meet again," she whispered. "I don't know what will happen, but i can promise you that much."
Soo-won lifted one of his hands, pressing it to Yona's on his cheek. "Thank you," he said. "For – for trying."
Yona smiled at him, but it was a pale imitation of her usual. "So – i'll see you."
"See you," Soo-won whispered, letting go of her hand. Yona took a step back, and opened her mouth as if she were about to say something, but no words came out. She lowered her head and turned away. Soo-won watched her go.
No. The thought hit him full force. No, he couldn't just let things stand like this for however long it would be until he saw Yona again. Maybe forever. "I'm sorry!" The words burst out of him. Yona stopped and looked back at him. Her eyes shone in the darkness.
"I'm sorry for everything i did. For the way it all turned out. If i could do it again . . ." he trailed off. He wanted to believe that he'd handle things differently, if he had another chance, but could he really be sure of that?
Yona stared at him for just a moment. He heard her draw a breath, and then she was there with him again, her arms flung around his shoulders. "It wasn't all bad," she whispered. "I still miss my father, every day, but i've been able to do so much too. I've learned so much, and helped so many people. Even Shin-ah, if he were–" She cut herself off, and Soo-won felt her chest hitch.
"Even so," he murmured. "I'm sorry. Tell Hak, too."
Yona nodded and pushed back from him. "I will. And – i don't – i've missed you. Hak has, too." She took a deep breath, while Soo-won staggered with the revelation. "I'm really going now."
"Go on," Soo-won replied. He had breath enough for that. "I won't stop you."
Yona huffed out what could have been a laugh, and slipped out. Soo-won knew he'd never be able to get to sleep now, and so he went to the window, looking down at the courtyard. It wasn't long before he saw Yona and her group below him, passing through with exaggerated stealth.
There was a lot he had to do, if he was going to be ready for Yona and Hak when they came back.
A/N: And so, the story i thought was a one-shot when i started it has revealed itself to be a trilogy. To those of you who have been waiting, thank you for your patience. Hopefully the final chapter won't take so long. (I mean that sincerely. I've been fighting with this chapter for nearly a year, and words cannot express how much i have come to despise it.)
I was stuck for a while trying to figure out how to show the readers that Yu-hon's death was unintentional without letting Soo-won know that (no closure, only communication. Catharsis writing 2k20), and this flashback was what i settled on.