Chung Sol may have only been the second fastest among the Nine — best at tanking, though, whatever Five had to say on this — but the signs were pretty fucking hard to miss.
Like an aristocrat in the full colors of a High House, descending on him in the hospital hallway, torn and singed sleeves of his embroidered robes flaring behind him like wings of a tropical bird open in attack.
“Shut up, or get out, or both,” the princeling screeched, punctuating his words with jabs at Chung Sol’s chest. The ceremonial paint around his eyes had smudged, and a few long strands had escaped the jade ornaments in his hair and stuck to his thin face. “If you can’t be of any use, get the hell out of the way of those who can.” He looked mad, and grieved, and ready to punch a hole in Chung Sol’s chest, even though he trusted his government-issued mecha suit to hold against bony aristocratic fists.
“Just one thing, please, just tell me one thing! Where is the VPX pilot? And who the hell are all these people?” Chung Sol looked over the aristocrat’s head, trying to think of a way to shove him aside that wouldn’t cause a political scandal, but the princeling was immovable. The princeling pushed him back .
“ These people are the best paramedics I could get on short notice, and Five is in their care. Now get out of here, and take those loud idiots with you, whoever they are. No one but the medics allowed on this floor.”
And Chung Sol stepped back, relief washing over him with the nausea of an aborted mecha connection. It wasn’t until the princeling shoved him all the way to the end of the hall and the elevator doors closed behind him with a ding that the rest of the sentence caught up with Chung Sol.
“Wait. Five ?”
When he was finally allowed into the hospital room, Five was already awake.
“You absolute lunatic,” Chung Sol greeted him with open accusation. “You complete madman. You have no moral high ground to give me shit for rushing into danger from now on, you hear me?”
In hospital whites, with wires and warding spells taped across his body as if he was a human-shaped demarcated fallen district, Five looked terrible.
But he was alive.
“You wish,” Five said. “Last I checked, you were still taking orders from me, not the other way around.”
Chung Sol was so relieved he could have wept, or punched Five, or set something on fire. He settled for a loud exhale and threw himself into the chair by the bed.
“Don’t crush the roses,” Five said. Chung Sol rolled his eyes — of course someone was already sweet on Five, a nurse must have swooned at his stoic soldier face, he guessed — and moved an inch away from the arrangement on the bedside table.
“What the hell did you do with that wraith bomb anyway? What if it had gone off over human territory? You had to race with it through half of the city! The bloody thing should have been left to explode where it was.”
“Your friend is right.”
Chung Sol turned in his chair, almost toppling the flowers again, but Five caught them. “Careful, damn it!”
The aristocrat was back again, looking — well, even more aristocratic now. With the soot washed off and his hair put away in an elaborate braid, he looked composed, haughty and displeased.
“My ancestral mansion had sufficient wards to keep the explosion contained within the perimeter. Your maneuvers were suicidal.”
Chung Sol opened his mouth to defend the actions of their squad, willing to forget he was in the middle of chewing Five out for the exact same thing.
“I didn’t know that, and wouldn’t have tested that knowledge even if I’d known,” Five said quietly. He was looking at the princeling, poster picture of blue-eyed sincerity and clenched-jaw soldier stoicism. The princeling stared back at him like he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
Chung Sol looked at both of them in turn, and closed his mouth with an audible clang. No one paid him any attention.
“I- I brought you more tea,” the aristocrat said, breaking the silence. With widening eyes, Chung Sol watched him awkwardly produce a tin can from the flared folds of his long jacket — still too elaborate to be anything worn by normal people, but at least not in imperial reds and azures — and place it next to the flowers.
Five’s eyes crinkled — crinkled! — and he turned back to Chung Sol. “So I hear you two have met already?”
He yelled at me, thought Chung Sol. If that counted.
“I yelled at him,” said the aristocrat.
“Hyeon,” said Five, fondly.
“Hyeon,” echoed Chung Sol in a hollow voice.
The highborn son of Seven Sparrows Sleeping pulled another can of mouth-curdling matcha out of his bottomless sleeve-folds and handed it to Chung Sol with a perfectly executed bow. “Pleasure to meet you, Chung Sol. Five speaks highly of you, when he doesn’t threaten to vandalize your turbines.”
Chung Sol caught the can in his clammy hands as if it was a spirit grenade. “Hyeon-jin.”
Five laughed, opened his can one-handed and chugged back half of his vile vending machine brew. “Don’t fret. Hyeon here is a fan of casual conduct.”
Hyeon’s lips pursed, but there were two blotches of high color on his cheeks.
Five’s eyes continued to crinkle.
Hyeon turned to pedantically rearrange the roses in the vase.
Chung Sol’s worldview rearranged along with them.
When Five was discharged from the hospital and came back only to find his aristocrat bristling uncomfortably on one of the common room sofas, as out of place as a Ming vase would have been in their barracks, Chung Sol was not surprised.
Chung Sol was ready to enjoy himself.
“Since my house is now ghost territory,” Hyeon offered hastily to Five’s raised eyebrows, “housekeeping is currently preparing one of our other estates to serve as the main residence.”
“So what, do you want to crash on my couch until they are ready?” Five walked past Hyeon to drop his small hospital bag into his cabin, and missed the beautiful vision of a noble scion of S3 nearly sliding off the arm of the sofa, utterly flustered.
Stretched out in his favourite bean bag, Chung Sol had the best damn seats in the house for this show.
By the time Five returned and sat down in a chair opposite him, Hyeon had regained his posture, if not all of his composure, and was doing his best to look casual and absorbed in the room decor.
There wasn’t much to by the way of decor, so his eyes returned to following Five’s every movement with an awkward, painful intent.
A whole field of spring flowers blossomed in Chung Sol’s generous, kind soul at the sight. “Show a little hospitality, Five,” he said. “Accommodating him would be the least you could do for your friend in thanks for his care.”
Both of them were startled when he spoke, as if they’d forgotten Chung Sol had been in the same room all along. How rude.
Chung Sol offered his sweetest smile and continued. “I’m sure the Nine could find a spare bunk if needed. Don’t you sleep alone, Five?”
The blotches of color on Hyeon’s cheeks turned to almost the same shade of crimson as his House’s banners. “I would never impose — That would be —” he spluttered.
“I don’t think S3 has lost so much real estate that their sons need to look into sharing rooms,” Five said evenly. He didn’t look at Hyeon as he said that, and his perfect stoic jawline was looking particularly stoic, Chung Sol noticed with delight.
“Oh, but I wasn’t suggesting he share,” Chung Sol waved him away. “Me, I’m a simple soldier, but I know my manners. You could crash on my spare bunk, Five, and he could take your room. All to himself,” he wiggled his eyebrows.
Beneath all the red blotches, Hyeon’s face looked distinctly crestfallen.
Five was too busy frowning at Chung Sol to notice. He had a tragic lack of appreciation for what his friend was doing for him.
Hyeon cleared his throat. “As I said, I am not here to room with — with anyone.”
Five smiled and nodded, and piled on enough stoicism onto his face to bury his own disappointment.
With another small cough, Hyeon continued. “I am here on my sister’s behalf. Ji Hae wanted me to extend an invitation to you for the goodwill dinner she is throwing next week, as a thank-you for the rescue.”
“I’m not sure my Nine can attend in full,” Five frowned. “Someone always has to be on standby.”
Chung Sol groaned. Wasn’t his captain supposed to be quick on the uptake?
“I’d prefer to leave my squad with the second-in-command on call,” Five continued, completely oblivious to the cause, “but I can come with Chung Sol. He is too reckless for command, but is my best fighter, with highest ops success ratio.”
“So you have told me before,” Hyeon said, with a half-joke, half-bow. When he straightened, his words were for Five only. “I will be looking forward to seeing you there.”
Well, Chung Sol had his work cut out for him.
“Your best fighter? Did you really say that?”
The dinner had approximately a million guests wrapped in jewels and miles of expensive fabric. Chung Sol estimated that because they each had shaken at least a million hands, and his eyes were swimming from the lights reflected in all the diamonds and polished tableware.
Inhaling the last canapes off his plate, he leaned over to speak into Five’s ear. “Have you seen Hyeon? I lost him after he made his speech.” They were seated at the high table and served with all possible attention as the guests of honor, but their hosts were never still, minging with the crowd.
Five stopped chasing a morsel around his plate — a tiny piece of fish wrapped in enough thinly carved layers of something starchy to qualify it as paper art — and pointed with unerring accuracy somewhere to the left. “Flirting with the same three people in that corner for the last quarter of an hour,” he said, in a tone firmly telegraphing he didn’t have any opinion on this subject whatsoever.
If anyone asked Chung Sol, Hyeon was more or less being aggressively flirted with : a woman whose hair was done up in an elaborate pagoda held together with long golden pins was steadily sending him smiles with too many teeth in them, another to her right energetically laughed at everything Hyeon said, and the man in clothes fancier than even Hyeon’s was finding excuses to put his arm around Hyeon’s shoulders. All of this was happening with as much decorum as predatory competition. Chung Sol found the dances of the high-born zoo very fascinating.
Five, not so much. A serving maid noticed his empty glass and poured more fragrant plum wine into it.
“He looks in need of a rescue,” Chung Sol whispered to Five.
As if he had overheard them, Hyeon’s eyes found them from across the hall. His lips narrowed, and he turned back to his group.
Chung Sol couldn’t see what happened next, because his vision was blocked by none other than the head of S3 herself.
“I wanted to thank you again, more personally this time,” said the resplendent Ji Hae.
Five shrugged and turned his gaze away, uncomfortable. “I was just doing my job, Your Ladyship.”
“My baby brother talks about you a lot,” she hummed. “Among other things, he mentioned your authority to refuse to go into an operation zone if you deem the situation too dangerous. For all intents and purposes, it had been a situation of that kind.”
Five said, stubborn, “It was a judgement call.” He still didn’t look beautiful Ji Hae in the face.
“I trust it was,” she nodded. “For that, I wanted to thank you. And for being such a good friend to Hyeon. From a very young age, he has learned to put the needs of the House above his own wants, but you —”
“— but you shouldn’t believe anything she tells you about me.” She was interrupted by Hyeon’s out-of-breath voice, immediately followed by the rest of him. “She loves telling people embarrassing stories about me, that’s why I don’t have many friends.”
Standing side by side like this, one could see the family resemblance between Hyeon and his sister, who looked like she’d stepped out of an old painting from an imperial palace. Chung Sol was a little star-struck by her presence, which was completely wasted on Five.
“You have enough admirers, though,” Five said, raising one eyebrow at Hyeon. Five had lost his grumpiness somewhere in the seconds that had passed since Hyeon showed up at their table, so his voice only came off as disgustingly fond.
Chung Sol caught Ji Hae’s eyes and saw his own thoughts reflected in them.
“Sadly, we didn’t get to any embarrassing stories about you,” he improvised, sensing his chance. “Noble Ji Hae was telling us about the —
“— chrysanthemums in the inner gardens of this house. Why don’t you show them to your friend, while I direct Chung Sol to the weapons room?”
Wide-eyed, Hyeon threw his sister a long look, then wordlessly pulled Five away by his sleeve.
Once their backs disappeared in the crowd, Ji Hae murmured to Chung Sol, “Eun Hwa was playing her cards too boldly anyway, don’t you think?”
“What?” asked Chung Sol faintly, dizzy with her proximity.
“I said, the weapons collection is in the big hall on the floor above,” Ji Hae said pleasantly. “Please enjoy your evening.”
It turned out that the weapons hall of the High House of Seven Sparrows Sleeping was very much worth a visit.
Besides innumerable, meticulously dusted artefacts of war, displayed on the walls and in glass cases tastefully arranged around the room, it had a window that offered an excellent view of the inner house gardens.
Being a true friend and a celebrated officer of the defense force, Chung Sol didn’t spend his time in that room looking at two figures pressed into each other with enough abandon to threaten heavy chrysanthemum stems hanging over the narrow pathway across the garden.
Most of his time, anyway.