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Crack Me Open (but Save My Pearl)

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Pale moonlight illuminated the celestial clearing. Silver grass fluttered in the breeze and crystalline amethyst petals of the small flowers dotting the clearing rustled and tinkled against one another. A majestic stag stood in the shadows of a great pearl and topaz tree, sitting quietly in the onyx shadows of the night.

All fell still when a young woman stepped out of the fluttering mist surrounding the glade. “Luhan.”

The great stag slowly stepped out of the shadows, the silver grass crunching and tinkling beneath the weight of his noble hooves. “Taeyeon.”

“Your time will be soon.” Taeyeon folded her arms and lifted her chin to meet the eyes of the glowing god before her.

Luhan surveyed her for a moment before slowly turning around to face the pearl and topaz tree. He lifted his head to gaze up at where the tips of the tree began to vanish into the fluttering mist. “So soon?” he murmured, his voice a great rumble that seemed to vibrate throughout the entire clearing. “I had thought there would be more time.”

“Time has spoken,” Taeyeon said simply. “You may find something…unexpected, below.”

Luhan did not look away from the tree. “There is little that could surprise me.”

Taeyeon laughed softly, and Luhan finally turned his head so that he could see her.

“All the gods find this event unexpected,” Taeyeon murmured, and giggled again.

“All the gods?” Luhan repeated, his luminous eyes darkening with confusion. “What do you mean, all the gods?”

Taeyeon said nothing and melted away into a gust of fluttering mist, leaving Luhan standing alone and uncertain in the silver light.

 

 

 

 

 

“Junmyeon!” a loud and insistent voice yelled next to his ear.

Junmyeon grumbled and turned away from the voice.

“Junmyeon!” The voice followed him and began shaking his shoulder. Junmyeon sighed and blearily opened his eyes. He was greeted by the mischievous face of his little brother, Jongdae.

The tips of Jongdae’s pointed ears twitched expectantly as he gazed down at Junmyeon. “It’s time to get up!”

Junmyeon groaned and closed his eyes again. “Clearly.”

“Junmyeon!” Jongdae whined and tugged at Junmyeon’s ears. Junmyeon sat bolt upright and resisted the urge to swear.

“In the name of Luhan! I’m up, Jongdae!” he growled at his little brother.

Jongdae let go of his ears with an unrepentant smile. “Yay!”

Junmyeon rolled his eyes and ruffled Jongdae’s hair affectionately. “Let me get dressed, I’ll be out in a minute.”

Jongdae rolled away from his hands with a playful yelp and disappeared down the tree. Junmyeon sighed and slowly swung his legs over the edge of the tree branch that he’d been sleeping on. He carefully leaned out over the edge of the branch and looked down at the bustling clearing below. He smiled softly when he saw his father sitting outside of the chieftain’s quarters, holding conversation with two women.

This was his clan, the elvish clan Réalta, on the edge of the Isle of Tears. Down the coast lived the neighboring elvish clan, Marea, and deeper into the isle lived the fey clan, Jobura. All three clans had strong ties—they were more clans and tribes of many creatures, but not for significant distances away on the Isle of Tears.

The Isle had a rich history. The Isle was steeped in magic and mystery—few humans dared to venture here, and when they did, they almost always perished in the treacherous maze of rocks and rapids that surrounded the island. Here, on the Isle of Tears, gods and constellations roamed, the fey danced, elves thrived, and the selkies lived on both land and sea.

Junmyeon’s clan was a special clan. They were steeped in mythical legends and lore, and they had a rich history of connection with their constellation of worship, Luhan. Tradition stated that the four oldest children of the chieftain were assigned four different roles: one child was presented to a member of Marea for marriage, one child was primed to enter the role for the next clan mystic, one child was selected to become the next chieftain, and the final child would be banished from the clan. However, the child to be banished would not be sent away until the current chieftain’s death, and the implementation of the next chieftain. Junmyeon had been too young to remember his uncle’s banishment when his father, Zhoumi, had become chieftain. Junmyeon almost wished that he could remember—but at the same time, he was grateful that he didn’t know, and didn’t dread it as much as he might have. Although he did dread the idea of banishment, very, very much.

Junmyeon couldn’t say that he understood the entire tradition. He understood why one child would be given to Marea—it kept their relations with Marea open, and the bonds between the clans remained strong. His little brother, Jongin, was already being primed for the role, having been presented to the ruling family of Marea.

He understood why one child would be selected for apprenticeship with the current clan mystic. Currently, Jongdae was starting to learn from the wise woman Joohyun. Junmyeon couldn’t say that he fully understood her choice—Jongdae was bright and vivacious; nearly the opposite of the quite, poised demeanor of Joohyun. But Joohyun had made her choice, and Junmyeon, along with the rest of the clan, respected that.

That left Junmyeon, and his older brother Minseok, competing for the title of chieftain. Junmyeon and his three brothers were the only children that his father bore, and so there was no further competition to be dealt with. Junmyeon felt glad—staying one step ahead of Minseok nearly consumed his daily life, let alone having to keep track of anyone else. He always had to strive to bring in the same amount of game and complete the same amount of duties as Minseok to show his father how worthy he was of becoming the next chieftain. Shouldn’t it say more, that he could keep up with Minseok, despite being two years younger than his older brother?

Honestly, they were all so young. Sometimes, Junmyeon felt that they were too young to already start being primed for their roles. Jongin was ten, Jongdae was eleven, Junmyeon was fifteen and Minseok was seventeen. It was strange, that Jongin was already being taught that he would leave home when he became of age at sixteen years old. It was strange that Jongdae’s lively spirit was already starting to mellow out when he was still really just a child. And it was even stranger that Junmyeon pitted himself against Minseok, and vice versa, so vigorously, when they should be forming the bonds of brotherhood as they neared, or entered, their adult lives. Sometimes, Junmyeon wished that he and Minseok didn’t have to outdo each other all the time. He loved his brothers dearly, and he remembered a time several years ago when they had been innocent, and loved each other to the fullest. Things were so complicated now—and they would continue to be, even when their roles had been decided in the future.

Junmyeon sighed and took a step back to gain firmer footing on the tree branch. He nearly stepped onto a sharp thorn resting on the tree, but pulled his foot away at the last minute. Junmyeon glared at the thorn and yanked it up from its resting place on the branch. Minseok had undoubtedly put it there, probably in the hopes of hindering Junmyeon’s work for the day. Junmyeon snorted and pocketed the thorn, glancing around for signs of any others.

Junmyeon rolled his eyes and stepped back into the hollow of the tree. He changed out of his sleeping clothes, from a light robe, into a neat tunic and leggings. He picked up his bow from its resting place on a branch across from his sleeping area, and flexed his toes.

Either Minseok had been sloppy, or he had planted thorns on the ground around the tree. Junmyeon sighed and exited the tree hollow, cautiously looking around before jumping lightly to the ground. Nothing sharp stung his feet, and Junmyeon slowly straightened up, his eyes searching the short grass in the area intently. It seemed that Minseok had simply been sloppy this morning—there was nothing to be seen. Junmyeon strode confidently across the clearing to greet his father good morning. He cast a smug glance at Minseok’s sleeping tree across the clearing. He, on the other hand, had not been sloppy last night. Minseok would undoubtedly wake up in a very uncomfortable position in the morning, due to the rising fungus that Junmyeon had “accidentally” dropped in his sleeping chamber.

“Good morning father.” Junmyeon reached his the entrance of his father’s quarters and bowed respectfully. “Good morning Hyoree and Hyorin.”

The two women giggled at him and responded in kind. Junmyeon’s father gave him a smile in response. “Hyoree and Hyorin were just speaking to me about the upcoming tournament, between you and Minseok.”

Junmyeon’s back straightened at the mention of the tournament. The tournament was what their fates rested on—the results of the stages of the tournament, along with the collaboration of his father’s, and Joohyun’s opinions, would decide who would be banished, and who would be the next chieftain. “Yes father. I’ve been preparing well.” The tournament was set to take place in a week’s time, and Junmyeon had been training himself to be strong in both mind and body, alone in the woods.

“I’m sure you have been.” Was it Junmyeon’s imagination, or had his father’s eyes softened with sadness? “Well. Run along with you—I’m sure you have a busy day ahead of you.”

“Thank you, father.” Junmyeon bowed respectfully once more and turned on his heel to exit the clan dwelling and enter the woods. His stomach rumbled in protest, reminding him that he hadn’t eaten anything yet, but Junmyeon brushed it off. There would be berries and wild plants to eat in the forest before he continued his training.

Junmyeon slipped off into the forest, quietly melting into the shadows of the trees with the grace that came naturally to all elves. He debated running along through the canopy of branches overhead, but then decided against it. It was too risky, what with the upcoming tournament, and Minseok had undoubtedly set up traps overhead if he knew where Junmyeon’s training spot was.

At last, after about half an hour of going into the forest, Junmyeon arrived at the spot. He smiled fondly as the trees thinned to reveal his favorite forest clearing—it was a lovely little spot, with a small brook splashing through the far corner, small white flowers dotting the grass, and a cluster of rocks on the other end. Junmyeon stepped into the sunlight of the clearing, and froze when he realized that he wasn’t the first entity in the clearing. Kneeling at the edge of the little brook was an enormous, magnificent stag.

Junmyeon’s heart flew up into his mouth with fear at the sight of the prominent rack of antlers the stag carried. The tips of each antler glistened with deadly sharpness, and Junmyeon slowly took a step back, hoping that the stag wouldn’t notice him.

Unfortunately, Junmyeon stepped straight back onto a small branch, and the crackle of the branch snapping in two caused the deer to swivel its head around and stare straight at him.

Junmyeon froze again, his heart beating wildly. He stood no chance against a great stag like this, armed only with a bow and his fletcher of arrows, and unable to jump into a tree and climb as far as he could.

The stag got to its feet, and Junmyeon remained frozen in place at the edge of the glade. The stag slowly turned around and turned its head to look at Junmyeon, its deep brown eyes gazing at him with an unfathomable expression. Junmyeon stood very still, and sent a silent prayer to Luhan to deliver him from danger.

The stag to a step away from Junmyeon, and Junmyeon felt his heart ease with relief, only for his heartrate to pick up speed once more when the stag suddenly changed its mind and began to plod back towards him. Junmyeon eyed the heavy indentations that the stag’s hooves left in the grass, and he made an impulsive decision. He pivoted sharply on his heel and raced ten feet to the right to a tree with relatively low hanging-limbs. He launched himself up into the area and his fingertips grazed the edge of the branch when suddenly he was knocked out of the air and he found himself flat on his back staring up at the sky while the great stag huffed over his body. Junmyeon struggled to breathe as the great stag stepped over his body and put its great face near his. Junmyeon felt himself grow light-headed and he thrashed around in panic, but just then air finally entered his lungs and he went limp, closing his eyes and willing the dizziness away.

Junmyeon slowly opened his eyes again and was met with the unblinking stare of the great stag. Junmyeon felt himself blush for a reason that he couldn’t understand.

The stag leaned down and puffed a gentle breath of air of Junmyeon’s face. Junmyeon wrinkled his nose, expecting the deer’s breath to smell of decomposing plant matter and who knew what else—but to his surprise, the breath smelled of springtime flowers and a hint of pine. Junmyeon stared at the stag as it turned around and bounded away, leaving no trace of its presence except for the great imprints it had left in the grass. Junmyeon cautiously sat up and stared off in the direction that the stag had gone. What if it came back? Should he leave? What should he do?

Junmyeon slowly got back to his feet and crossed the clearing to kneel at the edge of the stream. He patted his body down and was relieved to find that there were only bruises, and no open wounds, as a result of his encounter with the great beast. He knelt down and cupped his hands to splash water on his face. He would make sure to stand within running distance of a tree while he trained today, just in case.

But truly, what a strange beast that was! Junmyeon had gotten in close quarters with a variety of deer, wolves, griffins, phoenixes, unicorns, and whatever creatures roamed the forest. None of those creatures had had such sweet breath as that stag. Junmyeon vaguely wondered what the stag had eaten as its last meal.

“Junmyeon!”

Suddenly, Minseok dropped out of the trees and raced to his side. “Junmyeon, are you alright?”

Junmyeon stared at him. “…What does it look like?” He wasn’t used to Minseok being so openly worried about him. Especially since they were always trying to injure each other.

Minseok rubbed at the back of his neck, and Junmyeon felt a small twinge of guilt as he thought about the rising fungus that had undoubtedly given Minseok uncomfortable muscle cramps in the morning. “I just saw a huge stag running away. I was worried that it had gotten you.”

“I also saw it.” Junmyeon decided not to mention the full extent of his encounter. He wasn’t sure why, but it felt right to keep the experience to himself. “It is…a great beast of the forest, no doubt.”

“It will make a fine prize to bring to father.” Suddenly, Minseok’s eyes were glinting with ambition. “Surely, you’ve decided what you will do for the Hunt next week?”

The Hunt was one of three stages of the tournament between Minseok and himself for the position of future chieftain. Junmyeon fought down the sudden wave of apprehension that surged through his body as he thought of Minseok chasing the stag. “I…” Junmyeon hesitated. He had decided what he wanted to do next week—his plan was to capture a phoenix, one of the rare birds of the forest, and bring it to his father. But something told Junmyeon that no one would be catching that odd, magnificent stag anytime soon. “I do have a plan.”

“Better than the stag?” Minseok raised his chin haughtily, his eyes dancing with cold amusement.

Junmyeon got to his feet and turned to face his brother. “I don’t think you can catch it,” Junmyeon responded, folding his arms over his chest. This was familiar territory—more often than not, he dealt \with Minseok in terms of cool jabs and sharp challenges.

“Hah!” Minseok snorted and took a step back. “You’ll be eating your words when I drag its carcass into camp next week.”

Junmyeon raised a carefully composed eyebrow at him, and Minseok turned on his heel and darted out of the clearing. Someone else might have thought that Minseok was fleeing from the challenge, but Junmyeon knew that Minseok was tracking the great tracks of the beast.

Well, at least he knew how Minseok would be spending the next week. Minseok would undoubtedly be keeping track of the great stag’s location for the next few days. Hopefully, he would be occupied enough to leave Junmyeon alone to finish his training.

Junmyeon sat down again by the creek and let out a heavy sigh. Honestly, no matter what the outcome of the tournament was, Junmyeon was just looking forward to getting his brother back next week.

 

 

 

A week flew by. Junmyeon barely noticed the days passing, as he spent all of his time on edge, waiting for Minseok to try and trick him. Minseok didn’t disappoint—Junmyeon warded off a series of “mishaps”—a nest of hornets outside of his tree, traps set up at the edge of his training clearing (Junmyeon had moved away from the area with regret), and mysterious animal burrows that popped up in unusual places. Junmyeon tried to give as good as he got—he felt a pang of satisfaction when he saw Minseok return to camp one day with a severe rash forming on his calves, and another time when slipped and fell into a river from a trap Junmyeon had planted. These tricks and traps were putting Junmyeon in the lead—he would be the one in better health and condition by the time the tournament rolled around.

Dawn broke on the morning of the first day of the tournament, and Junmyeon simply sat in his tree and watched the rays of pink light spread out over the forest. He was undeniably nervous—but he felt hopeful. He had seen Minseok struggling in the past few days, and he knew that he had a good chance of pleasing his father and the village elders, and taking the title of clan chieftain. But then again, it could all be a trap—in fact, Junmyeon wouldn’t put it past Minseok to act like he was struggling, just so that Junmyeon would get over confident.

Junmyeon was drawn out of his musings by the sight of Minseok approaching his tree. Junmyeon rolled his eyes and stood up, stretching his arms over his head and relishing the noise his spine made.

The sound made Minseok stop dead in his tracks, his eyes wide and bright with alertness. “Junmyeon?”

Junmyeon didn’t bother coming any further out of the tree. Minseok was not going to get him with something this close to the tournament. “What?”

“I just wanted to wish you luck, for today.”

Junmyeon paused, his eyes wide with surprise. “…You’re weird, Minseok.”

Minseok laughed, and Junmyeon smiled at the bright sound. “I don’t get any luck from you?” Minseok teased him softly.

Junmyeon could picture Minseok’s mischievous grin from his spot in his tree. “Good luck,” Junmyeon said quietly after a moment’s pause. “You’ll need it.”

Minseok snorted. “Now there’s my baby brother,” he said affectionately. There was a few moments of silence, and then a soft rustle. “I’ll see you later.”

“See you.” Junmyeon waited until he was sure Minseok had left before poking his head out of the branches. He looked carefully at the ground, but didn’t see any signs of trickery or mischief. Maybe Minseok really had been visiting out of goodwill.

What a strange thought. He and Minseok had been at odds with each other for months—years, even. Maybe things still had a chance to revert to the relationship they had before.

Junmyeon waited in his tree. He had no desire to interact with his clan and listen to who was betting on who. He just wanted to get through the tournament. Most of all, though, he didn’t want to hear his father taking sides. He knew that his father probably wouldn’t say anything at all, but there was the slightest chance that he might, and Junmyeon was too scared of what he might think.

The announcement and judging of each round of the tournament would take place in front of the chieftain’s quarters, at the center of the clearing. Junmyeon watched and waited as one by one, every member of the clan, from the elders to the adolescents, came to wait in front of the chieftain’s tree. Junmyeon watched with narrow eyes as Minseok approached Joohyun. He pointed down at his leg, but Joohyun shook her head. Junmyeon felt a twinge of regret—ancient rules stated that the clan wise woman couldn’t heal them unless they were injured in one of the contests. Minseok should have gone to her before now, but perhaps he had hoped that the rash would fade on its own.

Junmyeon watched and waited. He kept waiting, even though the sun had risen up over the clearing, and most of the clan had taken their place. At last, when Jongdae and Jongin joined the crowd, Junmyeon slipped out of his tree. He kept his eyes fixed ahead as he strode into the crowd with his bow and arrow, and determinedly refused to look around him. He didn’t want to see the judgement his clan had of him. He was just going to do his best in this tournament, and that was all.

“Junmyeon!” Jongin grinned at him and ran up to him. Junmyeon smiled when Jongin reached out and pulled him into a hug.

He reached down and ruffled Jongin’s hair. “Good morning.”

Jongdae watched the two of them, his eyes darting around nervously. “Careful. Minseok will think we’re playing favorites.”

“Aren’t you?” Junmyeon retorted, but reluctantly let go of Jongin. “Wish me luck, Dae.”

Jongdae reached out and tweaked the tips of Junmyeon’s ears. “That’s all you’ll get from me,” Jongdae giggled at him.

Junmyeon smiled and reached out to ruffle Jongdae’s hair as well. He noticed Minseok watching them with narrowed eyes, and stepped away from his younger brothers. “I’ll see you all later.”

Jongdae and Jongin smiled and waved, and Junmyeon walked to stand beside Minseok.

“I’ve been going to Joohyun for treatments for this rash for the past three days,” Minseok said abruptly. “What in the name of Luhan did you plant in my sleeping chamber?”

“Don’t be silly,” Junmyeon said softly, his eyes trained intently on the entrance to his father’s quarters. “That rising fungus didn’t give you that rash.”

“Well, you really pulled one on me,” Minseok muttered. “I hope you’re happy.”

“Happy?” Junmyeon looked away from the great oak that housed his father’s sleeping chambers, and gave Minseok an angry look. “You think I’m happy?”

Minseok stared at him, taken aback. “Well…your plan worked didn’t it? Shouldn’t you be celebrating?”

Junmyeon felt as if Minseok had slapped him in the face. Happy? His dearest wish was to get his older brother back, after all of this was over. How could Minseok think that he would find any pleasure in hurting him? Tears welled up in Junmyeon’s eyes, and he turned back to face the oak tree.

“Junmyeon? Junmyeon, are you crying?” Minseok sounded shocked, but Junmyeon kept his face turned away and waited for his father to come out.

“Junmyeon, I’m sorry.” Minseok tentatively brushed their fingers together, but Junmyeon flinched away. “Junmyeon—”

At that moment, Zhoumi emerged from the oak tree, and Minseok fell silent. Junmyeon watched as their father made his way to the center of the crowd, his stately figure clothed in grand, ceremonial robes. Glittering piercings studded his aging face, and elegant earrings hung down to his shoulders. Junmyeon felt a small pang when he saw that his father was wearing a leather cord with a white bone carved in the shape of a swan around his neck. That necklace had been a token from his mother, when she was alive. She had died a few years after giving birth to Jongin, and Junmyeon had fond memories of her as a small child. He hoped that her spirit was watching over him today, and would protect him from the perils of the forest.

The clan parted silently to form a ring around Zhoumi, and Junmyeon and Minseok moved forward so that they were standing directly in front of their father.

“Today,” Zhoumi said, in clear ringing tones, “is the day of The Hunt.”

There was some murmuring from the clan around them, but it quickly died down beneath Zhoumi’s stern, yet warm gaze. “Junmyeon and Minseok,” Zhoumi said as he gestured towards them, “Have until sundown to enter the forest, and return to me with their prey. When they have returned, the clan elders and I will judge their offerings.” Zhoumi turned to look at his two sons. “I will remind the two of you that cheating will not be tolerated. If either of you is caught cheating, you will be sentenced to death,” he said firmly. Junmyeon looked unflinchingly up at his father’s eyes, and Zhoumi’s gaze seemed to soften a little.

The crowd shifted behind them, and Junmyeon glanced over his shoulder to see the clan creating an opening in their ranks so that he and Minseok could enter the forest.

Zhoumi cleared his throat and Junmyeon quickly turned around. “You both understand the rules?” They both nodded, and Zhoumi grunted. “Then let the first task begin!”

Junmyeon and Minseok turned on their heels and sprinted through the clan and into the forest. Their clan cheered and clapped behind them, but the brave sounds quickly faded as they raced into the forest. Junmyeon slowed to a stop at the edge of a clearing and debated his next move. His plan was still to capture a phoenix and bring it back, alive, to the clan. He would have to build his net to catch the bird, and then he would have to find one. Easier said than done, of course, but at least Junmyeon knew that he had a plan.

Minseok stopped a few paces ahead of him and turned around. “Is this where we part ways, today?”

Junmyeon gave his brother a faint smile. “Minseok, you won’t be able to catch that stag.”

Minseok rolled his eyes. “Yes, I know, we bet on it. I’ll prove you wrong.”

“No, Minseok, I’m being serious. Go for something else.” Junmyeon couldn’t explain the urgent feeling in his gut that Minseok should understand not to go after that strange, noble stag. “That stag…it isn’t a normal beast.”

“Whatever, Junmyeon.” Minseok rolled his eyes again, but raised his fist to his forehead in a formal salute. “I’ll see you back with the clan.”

Junmyeon saluted back, and Minseok took off into the trees. Junmyeon stood still for a few moments, and then started jogging through the trees towards an area of the forest where he knew a lot of vines grew. He could use the vines to capture the phoenix. A phoenix couldn’t be captured by force; it carried powerful magic that could destroy an elf. Instead, a phoenix had to be captured through trickery, or by taming it. Unfortunately, Junmyeon didn’t have the time that it would take to tame a firebird tonight, but after looking through old elf lore, Junmyeon had learned that phoenixes were weakened by water magic, and also had a special liking for elderberry. Junmyeon had always had an affinity for water magic (for all elves were magical, and had an affinity to certain types of spells). He planned to charm his net with water magic, and bait it with berries. When the phoenix came for the berries, he would trigger the net and capture the phoenix.

This was all a very tentative plan, and a lot of it hung on sheer luck. But Junmyeon had hope, and decided that his plan was better than no plan at all. Junmyeon quickly reached the vines and began cutting a few down to weave his net.

There was a rustle several feet to his left, and Junmyeon turned away from the vines sharply, his small dagger held out before him. Junmyeon narrowed his eyes; in the shadows of the forest, it was hard to see what was coming towards him.

There was another rustle, and Junmyeon raised his dagger, ready to fight if he had to. There was the sound of something heavy walking through the underbrush, and Junmyeon gasped when the head of a stag came into view.

Junmyeon couldn’t be sure, but he was nearly positive that it was the same stag that he had seen nearly a week ago. It was a magnificent, enormous beast with a great rack of antlers. Junmyeon slowly lowered his knife and tried to stay as still as possible. Luhan preserve me, he prayed fervently.

Unfortunately, the stag kept plodding forward, and Junmyeon took a step back, his hands shaking with fear. Would the stag attack him this time?

To his surprise, the stag stopped moving. It simply watched him for a moment, and then slowly sank down to its knees. Junmyeon stared at it, wide-eyed, as the stag settled down on the forest floor and turned its gaze on him.

Junmyeon took another step back into the vines, but the stag made no move to get back to its feet, and instead breathed slowly and deeply as it stared at Junmyeon.

Junmyeon took a hesitant step forward, ready to make a run for it, but still the stag did not move.

“Are you going to do anything?” Junmyeon asked softly.

The stag huffed and nestled down so that its chin was lying on its forelegs. It closed its eyes, and Junmyeon started to relax a little. Junmyeon slowly turned around, keeping his body angled so that he could see the stag. The stag didn’t move, and Junmyeon slowly went back to cutting down vines.

“You know, my brother is trying to hunt you,” Junmyeon said softly. “I told him that I didn’t think he could succeed. You’re an odd beast.”

The stag opened one eye and gave Junmyeon a lazy look. Junmyeon sighed and shook his head, gathering up the vines he’d cut down in his hands. “Why am I talking to you as if you understood me,” Junmyeon muttered. “Although I guess it wouldn’t be that unusual…” The forest contained all manner of creatures—from great mythical beasts such as phoenixes and unicorns, to common hares and deer. Junmyeon supposed that it wouldn’t be odd to come across an animal that understood human speech, although he never had before. But the forest was vast, and Junmyeon supposed that it was a bit conceited to think that he would ever come across ever creature that lived in the forest in his rather short lifetime.

Junmyeon tentatively sat down a few feet away from the stag and laid his vines out in front of him. It had taken him nearly an hour and a half to come to this area of the forest and collect the vines, and it was now well into the morning.

Junmyeon cast another wary glance at the stag, who had closed his eyes again, and placed his hands, palms down, over the vines. He began murmuring incantations over his breath, charming the vines with water magic. When Junmyeon opened his eyes again, the vines were glowing softly with a faint blue light. Junmyeon could only hope that his enchantments would hold against the powerful magic of a phoenix; but Junmyeon knew that he was already a fairly powerful magic user in his clan, and he continued to hope that his plan would work.

The stag had opened its eyes again, and suddenly, it began to heave itself to its feet. Junmyeon scrambled to his feet as well and bent down to quickly gather up his vines, but the stag let out a warning huff, and Junmyeon let the vines drop and took a wary step back. The stag plodded over to inspect the vines, and Junmyeon gulped.

“Don’t eat them,” Junmyeon said warningly. “I don’t really know what’ll happen when you eat them.”

The stag ignored him and put his muzzle close to the vines. He let out a soft huff, and Junmyeon watched in astonishment as the blue glow radiating from the vines changed to a soft silver.

“What did you do?” Junmyeon murmured softly, instinctively starting forward. The stag didn’t make any move towards him, and Junmyeon tentatively crouched down beside the vines. He placed his hands over them, and was startled to feel a much stronger pulse of magic than when he had first cast his spell. “Did you strengthen the magic?” Junmyeon turned his head and stared at the stag in astonishment. “What…what are you?”

The stag let out a gentle huff, and Junmyeon smelled spring flowers and pine on its breath. The deer raised its head, and Junmyeon watched dazedly as the stag turned around and loped gracefully away, vanishing into the shade of the trees.

This changed everything. The stag could do magic—and Junmyeon had no idea whether the magic was benevolent or malicious. Junmyeon looked down at the vines, his brow furrowing in thought. He hadn’t sensed any ill will when he held his hands out over the vines—but what if the stag’s intent was for the phoenix? Although admittedly, the stag couldn’t have known that Junmyeon was going to try and capture a phoenix. But still…should he trust it?

Junmyeon heard a rustling in the trees overhead, and he instantly straightened up, his hands automatically reaching behind him to pull an arrow from his quiver and knock it in his bow. He kept his arrow pointed up at the trees, but the forest fell silent once more, and Junmyeon slowly lowered his bow when it seemed that the danger had passed. Maybe it had been Minseok, pursuing the trail of the stag…or whatever that beast was.

Junmyeon shivered and dropped the arrow back into his quiver. He set his bow down on the ground and sat down once again. He was going to take a leap of faith and trust the stag—the stag hadn’t made any moves to harm him so far, and precious time was passing. Junmyeon began weaving the vines into a net, his hands working swiftly to form a complex pattern that would keep the phoenix caged within. Junmyeon also made sure to weave in designs of water to strengthen the magic. Junmyeon vaguely wondered if the stag helping him out was considered as cheating—but he hadn’t asked for help, the stag had gone out of his way to breathe on the vines. Maybe he really should just start over with the net…

“Hello?”

Junmyeon flinched and dropped the net. He sprang to his feet and knocked an arrow in his bow and pointed it at the source of the voice faster than a blink.

“Whoa, calm down.” An elf stepped out of the shadows, his hands raised in the air. Junmyeon blinked and forced himself not to blush—the other boy was really quite pretty.

Junmyeon didn’t relax his stance. “You’re not from Réalta,” he said coolly. “What are you doing here?”

“I was not aware that Réalta had ownership of the forest,” the elf responded swiftly.

“You are aware of Réalta, then?” Junmyeon asked sharply, shifting his stance so that his feet were pointed towards the elf.

“Of course I am. Few elves in this part of the Isle are not,” the elf scoffed. “I’m not…actively searching for them or anything. I’m just passing through the forest. I live here, you see.”

“You live here?” Junmyeon repeated slowly. “You live here? In the forest?”

“Yes. I don’t often come this way, although…perhaps I should come more often.” The elf looked up and down Junmyeon’s body suggestively, and Junmyeon couldn’t help blushing fiercely. His hands tightened instinctively around his bow, and the boy laughed softly.

“You would do well to not come to this part of the forest so often,” Junmyeon said steadily, despite the fact that his face was on fire. “Not all of the elves of my clan are as kind as I am.”

“Or as pretty, I suspect,” the other elf said lightly.

Junmyeon bit his lip and tried to glare fiercely at the other boy. “Leave, and don’t come back here again,” he said firmly. “Other warriors of my clan will not be so kind to you.”

“Are you worried for my safety?” the boy teased. “I’m Han, by the way.”

Junmyeon raised his bow so that it was pointed at Han’s neck. “Leave,” he said firmly.

Han gave him an appraising look, and then took a slow step back. “Very well. Good day…” his voice lilted up at the end, as if he was expecting Junmyeon to give him his name.

Junmyeon sighed. There would be no harm in it, would there? “My name is Junmyeon.”

Han flashed him a bright smile, and Junmyeon nearly swooned. “Good day then, Junmyeon!” And he turned on his heels and vanished into the shadows.

Junmyeon warily lowered his bow and waited for a few moments before dropping his arrow back into his quiver.

Junmyeon patted dreamily at his flushed cheeks. They were still quite warm to the touch, and Junmyeon blushed even harder when he thought about Han’s handsome face. Han had probably seen him blushing, and Junmyeon vaguely wondered if Han had judged him for it. But then again, no good would come thinking about Han. In fact, he should probably tell his father about Han when he returned to the clan tonight. Han could easily have been lying, and he could have been scouting for a war party from another part of the isle. Besides, what elf decided it was a great idea to live in the forest, full of dangers, and the capricious fey clan residing in its depths?

Junmyeon looked up at the sky, and was dismayed to see the sun nearly directly overhead. Night fell around the nineteenth hour, which meant that he only had about seven hours to capture the phoenix. Junmyeon looked down at his net, and then sighed. He didn’t have time, or the strength to make another net. It would be best to proceed with the plan. First, he had to go gather elderberries, and then head to the part of the forest where he knew a nest of phoenixes was housed. Junmyeon wondered if he would see Han over there—after all, that area was far, far away from Réalta. But then again, it would be a bit awkward, considering that Junmyeon had just threatened him. Junmyeon set off to go collect the elderberries, his cheeks still burning as he thought about Han.

 

 

 

 

 

Several hours later, Junmyeon found himself hiding behind a row of juniper bushes at the edge of a small pond. The pond was utterly still, and on its bank lay the net of vines, carefully concealed beneath the grass. In the center of the net lay a gleaming pile of elderberries. In one hand, Junmyeon carried a trigger for the net, just in case the phoenix didn’t set the net off itself. Junmyeon had been lying in wait for several hours. He had gently scared off any animals that had started to meander towards his next with a few well-placed pebbles.

Junmyeon’s hope started to wane as the sun continued its journey towards the horizon. He was running out of time—he knew that he was close to the phoenix nest. He’d been scouting the area for weeks, and had caught multiple glimpses of the magical birds during his trips. Was there anything else he could do to lure the birds out?

But just as Junmyeon was starting to lose hope, a large red and gold feathered bird approached the banks of the small pond. Junmyeon held his breath and watched intently as the bird surveyed the pile of elderberries. Junmyeon had a moment of internal panic—was the bait too obvious? Was the phoenix going to wonder why the berries had been placed in a convenient pile? But he calmed down when the phoenix cautiously strutted over the net and began pecking at the pile of berries.

Junmyeon yanked the cord in his hand, and the net sprang shut around the phoenix. The phoenix let out a musical cry of terror and began trying to flutter its wings, stamping around the bank in panic.

Junmyeon came out of the bushes, the vine still held tightly in his hand. “Calm down!” he murmured to the panicking bird, moving slowly and quietly to try and help the phoenix quiet down. “I’m not going to hurt you. I’ll just take you back to my clan, and we’ll release you in the morning.”

Unfortunately, the phoenix was either to terrified to make sense of what he was saying (phoenixes were smart birds, and the elf lore had said that they could understand human speech), or didn’t find the notion appealing, and continued to rampage.

There was an answering musical call, and Junmyeon’s blood froze. Of course—the phoenix would call for help from its family. But that wouldn’t do, because Junmyeon needed to get back to his clan. Junmyeon squeezed the vine in his hand and murmured a simple levitation incantation under his breath. The net rose in the air and Junmyeon turned on his heel to make a run for it, only to find himself being faced down by no less than four very angry looking phoenixes.

Junmyeon let out a startled gasp and took a step back. The largest phoenix, at the center of the group, let out a menacing call and took a threatening step forward.

“I don’t want to hurt her! I just—I just want to take her back to my clan, and we’ll let her go in the morning!” Junmyeon said desperately. He wasn’t even sure if the phoenix in the trap was male or female, but it hardly seemed to matter at this point. “Please! I don’t want to be banished from my clan,” Junmyeon begged.

The large phoenix hissed and took another step forward. The other three phoenixes also began to move forward, and Junmyeon let out a small resigned breath. He would have to let the phoenix go, then—but would the phoenixes still let him go, after what he’d done?

Junmyeon was just about to murmur a spell to unravel the net, when suddenly, the great stag bounded up behind the phoenixes. The phoenixes swiveled their glorious heads around to stare at it, and suddenly, they were moving to the side. Junmyeon watched in astonishment as they bowed their graceful necks, and the stag let out a series of huffs and grunts. The phoenix in his net stopped struggling, and the four phoenixes suddenly took flight. Junmyeon watched them fly away in astonishment, and then turned back to look at the stag.

“I—how can I thank you?” Junmyeon stammered, his heart hammering in his chest. The stag had helped him yet again—there was no way that this magnificent beast was just an ordinary stag.

The stag plodded forward, but Junmyeon forced himself to hold his ground. The stag’s eyes were gentle and calm, and he made no move to swing his great antlers at Junmyeon. Instead, he simply stood over Junmyeon and breathed gently over Junmyeon’s face. Junmyeon smelled spring flowers and pine, and for some inexplicable reason, his eyes filled with tears.

Junmyeon raised his free hand let it hover over the air above the stag’s velvety nostrils. The stag snorted affectionately and pushed his nose into Junmyeon’s hand, and Junmyeon smiled through his tears.

“Thank you,” Junmyeon whispered, his voice trembling.

The stag took a step back and gestured back towards the forest. Go, it seemed to say.

“But how can I thank you? You’ve helped me so much,” Junmyeon murmured.

The stag shook his head. It pointed its nose at Junmyeon’s hand, and then turned away, its great bulk vanishing into the depths of the wood once more. Junmyeon watched it go, his eyes wide and dreamy. What was that stag? It seemed almost as if…

“Luhan?” Junmyeon murmured. “But surely not.” There was absolutely no reason for the chief constellation that Réalta worshipped to visit him. He was hardly noteworthy. But perhaps Luhan had seen that a member of Réalta was in trouble, and had helped him because of their steadfast loyalty to him. Junmyeon felt comforted at the thought, and turned back to face the subdued phoenix in his net.

“I promise you, we’ll release you in the morning,” he told the bird. “Ah…you’ve smashed all the elderberries,” Junmyeon frowned. “I’ll go pick you some more, and then I’ll take you back to Réalta.”

The phoenix gave him a wary look, and Junmyeon couldn’t help the small laugh that burst out of him. “I swear, by Luhan, that we will release you in the morning,” Junmyeon said softly. “Will that convince you?”

The bird nodded its magnificent head, and Junmyeon let out a sigh of relief. “Alright then.” Junmyeon wrapped the vine around his wrist and began walking through the forest, the caged phoenix trailing through the air behind him. He wrapped the vine around his wrist so that the cage stayed close to him, and they began to wend their way through the trees. The phoenix stayed calm and quiet, and once Junmyeon collected more elderberries and fed them to the phoenix, they set off back to the clan.

By the time Junmyeon reached the clan, it was nearly dark. Junmyeon held his chin high amidst the murmurs that swelled up amongst the clan at the sight of the phoenix lighting up the clearing in its cage. Junmyeon marched stoutly through the clan to his father’s dwellings and presented the cage to his father.

“It was captured under the condition that it be released in the morning,” Junmyeon told his father.

“This is a magnificent creature, Junmyeon,” Zhoumi said warmly, and Junmyeon’s cheeks flushed at the praise. “You have earned yourself a place at the feast tonight. And more than a little bit of dancing.”

Junmyeon giggled at that. “Thank you, father.” Junmyeon unwrapped the vine from his wrist and passed it over to one of his clan members, who bore the cage away reverently. “Oh, father?”

“Yes, Junmyeon?”

“I…I met another elf in the forest today. He wasn’t from the clan.”

Zhoumi’s eyebrows shot up. “What did he say?”

“He said that he lived in the forest, but not near here.” Junmyeon shifted uneasily. “I told him not to hang around here, but…he was odd.”

“We’ll keep an eye out for any intruders near the clan, then.” Zhoumi’s brow furrowed for a moment. “Usually other clans will keep their distance, or send an emissary…and I haven’t heard of any elves living in another part of the forest. Thank you for telling me, Junmyeon.”

Junmyeon smiled at his father and bowed his head. He blushed again when he thought of Han looking him up and down.

Junmyeon was drawn out of his thoughts by a cry going up at the edge of the clearing. Junmyeon looked up and saw Minseok dragging a great dear carcass into the clearing. Several clan members rushed to assist him, and Junmyeon’s heart turned to ice. Had Minseok actually succeeded in catching the magical stag? Junmyeon looked at the stag’s antlers, and let out a small sigh of relief. Minseok’s stag’s rack of antlers held far fewer than that of the stag that had aided Junmyeon in the forest.

Minseok looked up and saw Junmyeon already standing in front of Zhoumi. His eyes flickered to the floating cage with the phoenix being tied to the branches of Zhoumi’s dwelling, but his face showed no emotion. He presented the great carcass to Zhoumi, and Junmyeon quickly stepped out of the way. Zhoumi congratulated Minseok on his kill, and after a few minutes, Minseok came over to Junmyeon.

“A phoenix, huh?” Minseok looked speculatively at the caged bird, which was calmly watching the proceedings in the clearing.

“I told you that you wouldn’t be able to catch that stag,” Junmyeon said, a hint of smugness in his voice.

“Yeah well. I still made a pretty good catch.”

“You did,” Junmyeon agreed. He glanced at Minseok’s ankles and felt a small pang of guilt. “How’s your leg?”

“The rash started fading a little bit today,” Minseok grimaced.

Junmyeon let out a small sigh and looked guiltily at the ground. They stood in silence for a few moments, until Minseok reached out and gently patted Junmyeon’s shoulders. “Don’t worry about it, Junmyeon. After all, I still did pretty well for myself, didn’t I?”

Junmyeon looked up, and was relieved to see Minseok look at him with a gentle expression. “I guess so,” Junmyeon mumbled.

Minseok smiled at him and moved his hand to rest at the nape of Junmyeon’s neck, his fingers gently massaging the fine muscles there. “You’ll dance with me tonight, won’t you?”

Junmyeon flinched. “Are you sure?” Junmyeon thought that it was a little odd that Minseok would suggest such a thing. After all, they were still technically rivals.

“Aw, come on. I taught you how to dance when we were little. At least do for old times’ sake.” Minseok gave him an affectionate squeeze and let his hand drop.

“Alright.” Junmyeon smiled at him hesitantly. Minseok was being terribly confusing—first, he’d wished Junmyeon luck in the morning. Then, he’d been bitter about his skin rash. Now, he was asking Junmyeon to dance. What was Minseok’s deal?

Minseok grinned back at him, and Junmyeon’s hesitant smile blossomed on his lips. The moment was broken when Jongin came barreling into Junmyeon’s ribs.

“Oof!” Junmyeon went flying backwards into the ground, and he groaned as Jongin lay giggling on top of him. “Hi Jongin.”

“Junmyeon!” Jongin squeezed him tightly and then got up to go give Minseok a hug. Jongdae jogged over to them and offered Junmyeon a hand up. He pulled Junmyeon into a quick hug and gave Minseok a quick squeeze.

“Are you excited for the feast tonight?” Jongdae gave Minseok’s deer carcass a thoughtful look. “I imagine we’ll be having venison.” The four of them watched as a group of six women came and dragged the meat away to a roaring cooking fire at the other end of the glade.

“The sun’s nearly set though.” Minseok pointed at the horizon, and sure enough, the sun was starting to set. “Will they cook it in time?”

“I guess we’ll find out soon enough.” Junmyeon let out a small sigh. “We should get changed for the feast, Minseok. Jongin, why don’t you go help Minseok get dressed?”

Jongin tagged off after Minseok with a happy nod, and Junmyeon smiled when he saw Minseok put a protective arm around Jongin’s thin shoulders.

“Shall I help you get dressed as well?” Jongdae tugged gently at his hand, and Junmyeon nodded and headed off to his tree. The ceremonial robes that he and Minseok were supposed to wear were quite complicated, and Junmyeon was very glad that his little brother was going to be helping him.

The feast was quite fun, and Junmyeon whole-heartedly participated in the celebrations. The results of the first task wouldn’t be announced to the entire clan. Instead, the elders and Zhoumi would wait until all three parts of the tournament had been completed before announcing who had been given what role. True to his word, Junmyeon did dance with Minseok for two dances. It was fun, and it reminded Junmyeon of the old times, when Minseok had first taught him to dance.

Later, when Junmyeon had retired to the safety of his tree hollow, he allowed his mind to wander, and he wondered what it would have been like to dance with Han, in the flickering firelight.

 

 

 

 

The next day, Junmyeon woke up a little bit later than usual, but not too late. Today was the second part of the tournament, and Junmyeon had made sure not to over exert himself the night before so that he would have the energy to participate well in today’s events. Junmyeon slipped out of his tree cautiously; he wasn’t bothering trying to trick or tease Minseok anymore. Besides, Minseok’s rash seemed to be bothering him enough lately. But that didn’t mean that Minseok wasn’t still trying to trick him. Junmyeon shook his head at the maze of thorns and shattered bark around his tree. Instead of leaping out of his tree, he crossed from his tree to Jongdae’s tree and dropped down. He then got to work cleaning up the maze before some unsuspecting soul got their foot stuck in it.

When Junmyeon was done cleaning, he struck out to where the second part of the tournament would take place. Most of the clan was still in the clearing, but once everyone was assembled, they would all go out to a clearing near the lake.

The Isle of Tears had many treasures hidden in the depths of the great freshwater lake a few miles from the coast. It was here that the second task would take place—the clan would wait within the confines of the forest while he and Minseok would dive into the lake and try and find a truly worthy prize for Zhoumi to keep and treasure.

“Junmyeon!”

Junmyeon whirled around and had an arrow knocked in his bow, and he was surprised to find an arrow pointed at his chest as well.

“Han!” Junmyeon breathed, his eyes wide with surprise. Junmyeon was now far, far away from Réalta’s glade, so he supposed it was alright to see Han here. The lake was several miles away from the glade, and Junmyeon was much closer to the lake than he was to Réalta.

“What are you doing here?” Han gave Junmyeon a curious glance, and slowly lowered his bow. Junmyeon responded in kind.

“I’m headed to the lake,” Junmyeon said softly. Junmyeon wasn’t sure why he was speaking quietly, but it just felt right. The forest was alive around them—birds chirped and small animals rustled in the underbrush, but here with Han, it felt like they were alone in the world.

Han slung his bow over his back and dropped his arrow back into his quiver. He took a step closer to Junmyeon, and Junmyeon fought down the urge to take a step back. “Why are you going to the lake?”

Junmyeon hesitated. Han wasn’t part of Réalta, and so Junmyeon shouldn’t be spilling all of his clan secrets to him. “It’s um…a contest of sorts.” He slung his bow over his shoulder and put his arrow back in its quiver, just as Han had. He had a feeling that Han wasn’t going to hurt him.

“Huh.” Han took another step forward, but Junmyeon still held his ground. Han was so close that Junmyeon could count the cute brown freckles on Han’s nose. But all elves were blessed with excellent eyesight, so maybe that wasn’t saying too much. “What kind of contest? A swimming contest?”

“No.” Junmyeon lifted his gaze from Han’s nose to his eyes, and he felt his cheeks burn as he maintained eye contact with Han. “A diving contest.”

“Oh, how exciting,” Han breathed. “Do you have a plan for what you’re going to do?”

“I’ve only been to the lake once,” Junmyeon admitted. “Réalta is quite far away from the lake, so…not really.”

Was it just Junmyeon, or had Han edged even closer? They were standing nearly toe to toe now, and Junmyeon couldn’t bring himself to step away, as if he were a rabbit caught in the harsh gaze of a hawk. Han leaned in and Junmyeon felt something soft brush against his lips. Junmyeon squeaked and sprang backwards in surprise, his hand flying to cover his mouth.

Han’s eyes crinkled as he burst into laughter. Junmyeon flushed bright red in embarrassment, and Han stopped laughing, although his lips were still curved upwards in amusement. “I didn’t take you as shy, given the way we met,” Han said, his lips twitching. “I’m sorry if I frightened you.”

Junmyeon just stared at him mutely, his fingers still pressed to his lips, heart beat wildly in his chest as he stared at Han. The kiss had been nice, and a complete surprise—but what was Han playing at? They’d only met yesterday!

Han held his hand out and gave Junmyeon an expectant look. Junmyeon reluctantly stretched out the hand that had been in front of his mouth, and placed his fingers tentatively in Han’s.

Han suddenly yanked him forward, and Junmyeon crashed into Han’s waiting arms. Han had one hand on the small of his back, and his other hand was still tightly holding on to Junmyeon’s when he pressed their lips together. Junmyeon let out a muffled gasp and leaned into Han as the world spun around him—Han’s body was firm and lean against his own, but his lips and his palms were soft. Junmyeon breathed in through his nose and felt a vague sense of déjà vu. Han smelled faintly of flowers and something sharper…but what was it?

Han eased his grip on Junmyeon and they broke apart again; only this time, Junmyeon was still standing in Han’s arms, and he was staring at Han with a dazed expression on his face. Junmyeon suddenly became horribly aware of the fact that his left arm was awkwardly squished between their bodies, and he froze.

Han let go of Junmyeon, and Junmyeon couldn’t help the little sigh he let out when Han’s warm palm left the small of his back. “I know a shortcut to the lake,” Han said, his eyes sparkling with mischief.

Junmyeon’s hackles instantly went up. Kissing Han was okay, but traipsing through the forest, a forest which had clearly been keeping secrets from him, was out of the question. “I’m already so close to the lake, that’s alright,” Junmyeon said carefully.

Han looked disappointed. “Are you sure?”

Junmyeon took a step back, his guard back up. “My way has some nice scenery,” Junmyeon said lightly. “I think I’ll be okay.”

“Hey, don’t run away.” Han reached out and held Junmyeon’s hand. “I’m sorry.”

Junmyeon blushed bright red and tamped down his initial instinct to flinch away. “Don’t be sorry.” Junmyeon bit his lip. “Do you…do you want to come with me?”

“Asking a strange elf to come with you through the forest?” Han teased him. “Maybe you’re not as shy as I thought.”

Junmyeon flinched and tried to withdraw his hand, but Han hung on tightly and pouted. “Sorry, sorry. You’re probably not used to this,” Han said apologetically. “I would like to go with you, Junmyeon.”

Junmyeon couldn’t help it, and burst out laughing. Han looked vaguely affronted, but he was still holding his hand, so Junmyeon supposed that things were alright. Junmyeon tugged on Han’s hand and started walking. “You’re odd, Han.”

“And you’re confusing,” Han said cheerfully as they began to trek through the forest. “So you’re headed off to some kind of diving contest?”

“Something like that,” Junmyeon acknowledged. “My brother and I will be diving into the lake to find a prize for our father.”

“Intense sibling rivalry?” Han squeezed his hand and Junmyeon looked at him for a moment before turning away.

“Something like that,” Junmyeon said softly. They walked in silence for a while, their clasped hands swinging loosely between them. Junmyeon had no idea what to think—no one in his clan had ever really made a move to court him before, and he had no idea what he was doing. Although, he supposed it wouldn’t make sense for Han to court him—they weren’t even from the same clan. In fact, for all Junmyeon knew, Han could be one of the fey who had taken on an elvish form to try and trick him.

The thought caused Junmyeon’s blood freeze, and he stopped walking. “Han?”

“Yes?”

“What are you really doing in the forest?” Junmyeon frowned and let go of Han’s hand.

Han turned to face Junmyeon. “You don’t believe my story?”

“Of course not.” Junmyeon folded his arms. “The forest keeps very few secrets from Réalta.”

“Maybe I am one of them.” Han raised a challenging eyebrow.

“You really don’t have a clan?” Junmyeon asked suspiciously.

“No.”

“How can you expect me to believe you?” Junmyeon took a step back. “For all I know, you aren’t even really an elf!”

Han sighed. “Junmyeon, I don’t have any malicious intentions towards you, or your clan. I saw you, and just felt drawn to you. I don’t have any ulterior motives.”

Junmyeon opened his mouth to respond, and froze when he heard something moving towards them in the forest.

“Junmyeon?”

Junmyeon blinked in surprise; Jongdae was calling out to him. He hadn’t expected his little brother to come after him so quickly. “You’d better go,” he told Han. “I don’t know what the others will do if they see you.”

“Probably something not very nice,” Han agreed. He stepped forward and kissed Junmyeon on the cheek, and Junmyeon’s breath caught in his chest. “I’ll see you soon.” He turned around and bounded away through the trees. Junmyeon put a hand over his rapidly hammering heart and silently swore at Han. How come Han always affected him so strongly?

“Junmyeon!” Jongdae came into the light, and blinked at Junmyeon. “I called your name earlier when I heard someone walking. Why didn’t you say anything?”

Junmyeon blinked and started breathing slowly and evenly, trying to get his heart rate to slow down. “I didn’t hear you, sorry Jongdae.”

“Hm.” Jongdae gave him a suspicious look; elves had excellent hearing, and Junmyeon knew that his excuse was as flimsy as they came.

“Let’s keep going.” Junmyeon started walking towards the lake; they were quite close now, and Junmyeon could see glimpses of bright blue water through the gaps in the trees. “Have the rest of the clan started to move yet?”

“Yeah, but I ran ahead.” Jongdae beamed up at him as they strode through the forest.

“Where’s Minseok?” Junmyeon reached up and held a vine out of the way so that Jongdae could duck safely beneath it.

“I thought he’d already left with you…he’s probably already there,” Jongdae admitted reluctantly, his eyes warily tracing Junmyeon’s face.

Junmyeon just shrugged. “I wonder if he already has a plan…”

“You definitely have the advantage for this challenge though, since you have an affinity for water magic,” Jongdae said somewhat breathlessly as they hurried along.

“Yeah, I was planning on using it to stay beneath the surface longer,” Junmyeon said. The trees began to thin, and they stepped through the edge of the forest and on to the grassy banks of the lake. “Oh, it’s so beautiful!”

Sunlight lit up the huge freshwater lake, glancing off of the water’s clear surface and forcing the two brothers to squint as they gazed at the lake. Birds floated lazily along the surface, and as the two elves got closer to the water’s edge, they could see fish and other water creatures swimming below the surface.

Junmyeon grinned and flicked some water at Jongdae, who yelled and tackled him into the bank.

“Well, aren’t you two having a good time?”

“Minseok!” Jongdae sat up from where he was straddling Junmyeon’s waist and tickling him for all he was worth.

Junmyeon tilted his chin up and smiled upside-down at his brother. “Hi Minseok.”

“You ready for today?”

Junmyeon shrugged. Part of the training he’d been doing in the past few weeks had included a lot of swimming and practicing spells. “I guess. Are you?”

Minseok shrugged back at him. “Guess we’ll find out at the end, won’t we?”

Jongdae glanced nervously between his brothers as tension silently began to rise between them.

Junmyeon eventually looked away and smiled up at Jongdae, breaking the tension between them. He reached up and tweaked the tip of Jongdae’s ear. “You look so worried. We’ll be fine, I promise.”

Jongdae rolled his eyes and got off of Junmyeon. “I know you will,” he said softly. “Anyways, I’d probably better head back. The clan is probably on their way by now.”

“Alright. We’ll see you in the evening.” Junmyeon smiled warmly at Jongdae, and Jongdae ran back into the trees. Junmyeon sat up and looked out across the water, his eyes scanning the clear waters. Within the lake he could see groups of brightly colored fish, strange colorful plants swaying beneath the surface, and shiny shells and stones. But what would be a worthy prize to present to his father?

“Have a plan?” Minseok plopped down on the grass beside him.

“No.” Junmyeon looked over at Minseok. “Do you?”

“Sort of,” Minseok admitted. “But we’ll see if it works.”

Junmyeon hummed, and they lapsed into quiet silence.

Something rustled in the grass behind them, and the two of them leapt to their feet. Junmyeon had an arrow notched in his bow, and Minseok had a short spear in his hands.

“Calm down, children.” Zhoumi stepped on to the grassy banks, and Junmyeon and Minseok instantly relaxed.

“Father.” Junmyeon put his bow and arrow away. “I’m so sorry.”

“No harm done.” Zhoumi waved a dismissive hand. “Are the two of you ready to begin the second round?”

Junmyeon and Minseok nodded, and Zhoumi let out a soft sigh. “I remember when I had to do this, many, many years ago,” he mused. “My brother brought a naiad to the surface to sing for my father. I captured a monstrous eel and brought it to the shore.” Zhoumi spread his arms out towards the lake. “There are many treasures hidden within the depths of the lake. Your task is to choose one such treasure, and bring it to me before the eighteenth hour. I have time markers.” Zhoumi bent down and slung a pile of large, wooden staves from his back. “The amount of markers that you see whenever you come up to the surface will show you how much time you have to complete the task.”

Junmyeon nodded to show his comprehension, and glanced over at Minseok. He was unsurprised to see a fierce look of determination lighting up Minseok’s eyes. Junmyeon had outdone Minseok in the first task—Minseok would be determined to gain the upper hand now.

Zhoumi pointed to the pile of staves on the ground. “You have ten hours from now to complete the task. Your time begins now.”

Minseok nodded and jogged away to a large rock at the edge of the water. Junmyeon saw him undressing from the corner of his eye, and walked a few paces away to do the same. Junmyeon shivered as the cool morning air brushed against his skin and busied himself with stowing his bow and arrows away. He kept a small stone knife tucked away in the waistband of his leggings and kicked his boots off. Junmyeon sat down on the edge of the bank and held his hands over his throat. He began to murmur soft incantations that would help him to withstand the pressure of the lake, and would allow him to breathe underwater.

Junmyeon heard a splash, signaling that Minseok had entered the lake, but didn’t open his eyes until he was finished. Junmyeon twisted around on the edge of the rock and looked at his father.

Zhoumi gave him a soft smile from where he was placing the staves in the ground, and Junmyeon turned back to face the water, his heart a little calmer for the fact that his father still loved him, no matter the outcome of the tournament. Junmyeon took a deep breath, and slipped off of the edge of the rock and fell into the crystal clear water.

Junmyeon closed his eyes on instinct and held his breath as the cold water shocked his body, and caused him to convulse. After a few seconds, Junmyeon took a chance and opened his mouth to breathe. A cold sensation filled his mouth, but his lungs filled with air, and Junmyeon knew that his charm had worked. Junmyeon opened his eyes, and let out a muffled sound of delight as a school of glimmering purple fish swam past his nose. Junmyeon laughed softly and twisted around, taking in his beautiful surroundings. Everything was clear and well lit, up hear in the shallower part of the lake. Junmyeon looked further out and saw where the bottom of the lake curved down deeper, and where murky shadows rippled. There was a flash of movement, and Junmyeon saw Minseok kicking away from him, heading towards the deeper part of the lake. Junmyeon supposed that Minseok had learned similar spells to the ones he had learned, although it must have been more difficult for him, given that Minseok had more of an affinity for ice.

Junmyeon began to swim forward, intently observing his surroundings. There were beautiful fish and beautiful sea plants waving softly in the currents of the lake. But what could be a worthy prize for his father?

Something soft brushed against his toes, and Junmyeon opened his mouth in a silent scream, twisting around sharply to face whatever had touched him. He let out a small sigh of relief when he saw a large trout swimming peacefully away from him, unaffected by the brush. Junmyeon rolled over and continued to swim forward, his senses on high alert. Not all creatures in the lake would be peaceful.

Junmyeon continued to explore the bottom of the lake. He swam through a forest of reeds that housed a variety of beautiful fish, and a variety of not-so-pretty crustaceans attached to their roots. Junmyeon swam past abalone shells and skirted slithering bodies of the great eels his father had hunted. He swam through schools of sparkling fish and laughed with delight when creatures interacted playfully with them. When he heard the eerie song of naiads trembling through the water, Junmyeon quickly swam away. Naiads were not malicious, but if they saw him they might choose to prey on him and kill him, steal his belongings, and leave his corpse to slowly float back up to the surface.

Junmyeon searched and searched and searched. Occasionally, he saw a glimmer of movement in the shadows of the deep that he knew must be Minseok. When Junmyeon felt warning tingles along his throat, he instantly began kicking towards the surface of the lake. He would have to get to the surface quickly and renew the charm to breathe underwater.

Junmyeon broke the surface of the lake and gasped for air, treading water as he looked around him. He saw a large rock jutting from the surface of the lake and he swam towards it, keeping his eyes shut as he got used to the light streaming down from the sun above him. He dragged himself up on to the rock and lay back, closing his eyes and calming his breathing down. After a few minutes, he sat back up and looked towards the banks of the lake for his father.

His father made no sign of acknowledgement that he had noticed Junmyeon break the water’s surface. Junmyeon could see that there were still five staves standing proudly in the earth. Half of the time had passed, and he still hadn’t found a worthy prize. Junmyeon folded his legs and sat calmly on the rock, re-doing the spells that would provide him safe passage beneath the surface. When he was finished, he crawled off of the rock and back into the water. He would have to hurry—Junmyeon could feel his stamina diminishing. He would have to settle on a worthy prize soon, and bring it back to the surface before he got too tired to fend off any danger.

Something glittered to the side, and Junmyeon stopped kicking and turned to look. It hadn’t had the same glimmer as the beautiful inside of an abalone shell. He slowly turned and began to swim towards the object.

Junmyeon’s eyes widened as he got closer. Freshwater mussels lined this part of the lake bottom by the thousands. There were pearls inside of mussels—Junmyeon remembered sorting through a basket of mussels with his mother, when he was very young, and watching her open each shell and search for a pearl. But there was no guarantee that there was a pearl within each mussel, or that it would be a beautiful pearl.

Junmyeon swam slowly along the bottom of the lake. There were so many mussels here that probably contained pearls. But where should he start looking?

Junmyeon treaded water meditatively as he considered his options. At last, he let out a weary sigh, and turned away from the mussels. He had no other choice—he was going to have to collect a bag full of mussels, cut each one open, and hope to find a good pearl within.

Junmyeon swam towards the large plants swaying calmly in the lake. They looked strong, and their stems looked reedy and stiff. He should be able to weave a reasonable net with those. Junmyeon pulled out the dagger from his belt and began sawing away at the stems of the plants. At most, he would need three of the plants. Once he had harvested three stems, he began to gather them into a tightly coiled mass, and he began to kick towards the surface. Here, in the water, it would be difficult for him to manipulate the stems—and besides, he wanted to see how much time was left.

Junmyeon dragged himself up onto a large rock and looked out towards the shore. There were still three staves standing. He could collect mussels for an hour, and then spend the remaining time breaking them open and searching for a pearl.

Junmyeon wove his net as quickly as he could, and dove back beneath the surface. He filled the net with mussels and struggled his way back up to the light, his body weighed down by the heavy net full of mussels. He pulled himself and his load up onto a rock and he began going through the mussels.

At first, the going was slow. Junmyeon had to pause and figure out how to slide his knife in just so, so that the mussels would open. However, the longer he shelled the mussels for, the easier it became.

At last, with only one stave standing on the shore, Junmyeon had gone through all of the mussels. Most of the mussels hadn’t had a pearl, and Junmyeon discarded them from the creatures of the lake to prey on. However, of the mussels that had contained pearls, he had been able to find three good candidates.

Junmyeon inspected the three pearls in his palm closely. They were each relatively large, and had a good luster. Junmyeon had already cleaned them with water, and scrubbed at them with the edges of his kelp net. At last, after some deliberation, Junmyeon chose the largest of the three and placed it in a small pouch at his waist. The other two, he kept in a separate pocket, to give to Jongin and Jongdae when he returned to shore.

Junmyeon stretched his arms and legs, and looked out across the lake towards the shore. He had enough strength to swim to the shore without stopping. He launched himself off of the rock and began swimming towards his father at a steady pace.

At last, when his arms and legs burned, and his chest felt as if it were on fire, Junmyeon’s feet hit the bottom of the lake, and he stopped swimming, gasping for breath. His father smiled benignly at him from the shore, and Junmyeon attempted to smile back at him.

His father’s smile changed to a look of alarm, and Junmyeon twisted around, his eyes widening when he saw the water churning dangerously, not too far away from himself. Junmyeon instantly turned around and began frantically wading towards the shore. Whatever Minseok was doing, Junmyeon knew that he was too weak to be of much use.

Zhoumi went to the water’s edge and swiftly pulled Junmyeon to safety as soon as his son was within reach. They both turned towards the lake and strained their eyes for some sign of Minseok’s safety, but all they could see was waves churning as Minseok tussled with whatever was beneath the surface of the water.

Junmyeon collapsed to the ground in relief when Minseok’s head finally cleared the surface, and he began swimming towards the shore of the lake with strong, steady strokes. Zhoumi waded into the water and helped Minseok out of the lake.

Junmyeon’s eyes widened when he saw the enormous serpent that Minseok had brought in for his prize. Junmyeon knew that his tiny pearl was no match for Minseok’s deed. And so now, they were even—for Junmyeon had surely won the first round, but Minseok had taken this. It would be left to the third part of the tournament to decide who would be chieftain, and who would be banished.

“Junmyeon?”

“Yes, father.” Junmyeon slowly got to his feet, his muscles burning and aching from fatigue. “Here is the prize I have for you.” Junmyeon slowly handed the pouch to his father, his gut tight as he waited for disappointment to show in his father’s face.

To his surprise, Zhoumi opened the pouch, and his entire face lit up with joy. “This is beautiful, Junmyeon.” Zhoumi lifted the pearl out of the pouch and lifted it to the sky, where it glimmered enticingly in the fading light. “Both of you boys have done well tonight. Minseok, take a scale from the serpent, and then release it back into the water. I think that the sedative plant you fed it will only last for so long.”

Minseok looked surprised, and Junmyeon’s eyes widened. “Sedative?” Junmyeon stared at the great serpent lying half in the shallows. “You mean, it isn’t dead?”

Zhoumi’s eyes twinkled. “When you are as old as I am, you notice such things.”

Minseok leaned down to harvest a scale, and Junmyeon sank back down to his knees. He was so utterly, utterly exhausted.

Junmyeon vaguely wondered if Zhoumi asking Minseok only for a scale from the serpent was Zhoumi’s discrete way of evening the competition. Was it possible that Zhoumi favored him over Minseok? Junmyeon looked up at his father, who was watching Minseok harvest the scale. Zhoumi’s face was smooth and passive, and Junmyeon sighed softly. He wished the tournament were over already—he didn’t know how much longer he could wait before he lost his sanity.

At last, Minseok successfully secured a scale, handed it to Zhoumi, and gently slid the serpent’s body back into the water.

Zhoumi pocketed both of their prizes and strode back to Junmyeon. He helped Junmyeon get to his feet and made a soft tutting noise when he noticed how Junmyeon’s whole body trembled with strain. “You exerted yourself too far.”

Junmyeon smiled wryly at him, and didn’t say anything when Minseok came up beside him and put a supportive arm around his waist.

“I will present both of your prizes to the clan, and the elders and I will judge them privately. Tomorrow, as you know, is the final portion of the tournament. You will be summoned to my lodgings at dawn, and Joohyun will direct you through the final portion of the trial.”

Junmyeon nodded weakly, and the three of them headed back into the forest. When they arrived back to the rest of the clan, Zhoumi proudly showed off the scale and the pearl while Minseok guided Junmyeon to sit down by the leaping bonfire.

Jongdae and Jongin hurried over. Jongdae sat down next to Junmyeon and wrapped his arms tightly around his older brother. “What happened?”

“He just over-exerted himself,” Minseok said gently. Junmyeon closed his eyes and leaned his head into Jongdae’s neck as they kept talking. “He’ll be fine in the morning.”

“Will he?” Jongdae drew back to look at Junmyeon in concern. “Neither Joohyun nor I can help him, and he’ll be so sore tomorrow…”

“You know what the final test is. All I have to do is sit for a few hours, which should be manageable, even with sore muscles,” Junmyeon mumbled into Jongdae’s neck.

Jongin patted Junmyeon’s head and then plopped down beside Minseok. “What did you guys do?”

“Isn’t father showing off our prizes now?” Junmyeon raised his head from Jongdae’s neck to look around the clearing.

Jongin begged Minseok to walk with him, and they left to go see Zhoumi. Jongdae and Junmyeon remained cuddled together on the log while the clan milled around, some elves forming a group to dance on the other side of the fire. Others sat on the sides and talked and ate. Junmyeon moved so that his face was no longer hidden in Jongdae’s neck and leaned the side of his head against Jongdae’s shoulder instead so that he could gaze fondly around at his clan.

Except, who knew for how long they would remain his clan? A pang of anxiety rippled through Junmyeon’s stomach, and tears suddenly welled up in his eyes. He didn’t want to leave his loving, wonderful family.

Jongdae’s arm tightened around his waist for a moment, as if Jongdae had noticed his moment of weakness. Neither brother said anything as Junmyeon blinked away his tears, until at last, Junmyeon slowly sat up. “I have something for you.” He reached into the pouch at his waist and drew out one of the pearls. He pressed it into Jongdae’s palm and smiled when Jongdae let out a sound of delight and held it out towards the fire.

“So this is what you wore yourself out for?” Jongdae tucked the pearl into one of his pockets.

“It’s hard work, digging up mussels and prying them open.” Junmyeon yawned and leaned back. “I have one for Jongin as well, when he and Minseok come back.”

“I think they’re getting food—oh!” Jongdae blinked in surprise when a tall elf with gangly limbs and large ears bounded over to them.

“Want to dance?” The elf, Chanyeol, extended his hand towards Jongdae. Jongdae glanced over at Junmyeon, and Junmyeon gave him a warm smile.

“Have fun.” Junmyeon wiggled his fingers in Jongdae’s direction. “I’ll be fine, Jongin and Minseok will be back in a minute.”

Jongdae took Chanyeol’s hand and went off to dance, leaving Junmyeon with a few moments to himself by the fire. He closed his eyes and let his shoulders sag as he tried to calm his mind.

Junmyeon opened his eyes again and smiled as he watched Chanyeol and Jongdae dancing together. His mind drifted to Han, and Junmyeon tamped down the brief longing he felt to share a dance with Han. He shivered, and then slowly stood up. Jongin and Minseok were still standing by the feast, talking to several other elves. They wouldn’t miss him if he left the clearing for a few minutes; he wouldn’t go far, he just wanted a few moments of quiet before he came back to his clan.

Junmyeon slipped into the shadows, his legs twinging wearily in protest. Junmyeon stumbled away from the clearing into the shadows of the trees a few feet away. He let out a deep sigh of relief as the noise from the clearing quieted considerably, and he leaned back against a tree trunk.

Suddenly, Junmyeon stiffened and opened his eyes. Someone else was here with him.

A small lantern flared up, and Junmyeon found himself staring at Han.

“Han?” A sudden wave of dizziness passed over himself, and Junmyeon felt his knees weaken. Han was instantly at his side, quickly hanging his lantern from a branch and wrapping his arms around Junmyeon’s waist. Junmyeon instinctively leaned into Han’s side and inhaled Han’s sweet scent.

“Why do you always smell so good?” Junmyeon murmured softly.

Han chuckled, and Junmyeon nuzzled against Han’s chest as the vibrations rumbled against his cheek.

“You’re so tired, Junmyeon,” Han murmured softly.

Junmyeon hummed in agreement. He was tired. So tired, in fact, that he could forget all of his doubts about Han and drift away to sleep in his arms.

“This will feel like a dream to you tomorrow,” Han murmured.

“Will it?” Junmyeon blinked dazedly.

“Don’t fall asleep on me,” Han said gently, and carefully relaxed his grip on Junmyeon’s waist. “You have to go back to your clan. Then you can fall asleep.”

The dizziness slowly passed, but Junmyeon stayed where he was. “What are you doing here anyways?” Junmyeon murmured.

“Just passing through. I heard all the noise and thought I would come see what was going on.” Han tucked Junmyeon’s head under his chin, and Junmyeon let out a little sigh.

“Han?”

“Yes?”

“Can I dance with you?” Junmyeon mumbled.

“You seem a little wobbly for dancing,” Han said gently.

“No, not now. I’m really tired. But just…someday.” Junmyeon was so tired that he couldn’t bring himself to feel embarrassed or awkward.

“Of course,” Han said quietly.

They stood quietly for a few moments. “I should head back,” Junmyeon said softly.

Han just drew him closer. The music from the glade changed from an energetic tune to a slow, sweet melody, and Han began turning them in slow circles.

Junmyeon smiled quietly. “Does this count as dancing?” he mumbled into Han’s chest.

Junmyeon couldn’t see Han’s face, but he had a feeling that the other elf was smiling. “I think so.” Han led them through a few more contemplative circles. “What do you think?”

Junmyeon blushed and stumbled. They stopped dancing, and Han reluctantly let go of his waist. “Go back to your clan,” Han said gently. “Get some rest.”

Junmyeon took an unwilling step backwards. “Good night…”

Han gave him a warm look, and Junmyeon smiled back at him. “Will this really feel like a dream tomorrow?” A sudden pang of sadness struck Junmyeon so harshly that tears welled up in his eyes. “I want to remember this…”

Han’s eyes softened. “Go back to your clan,” he said gently. “We’ll meet again soon.”

Junmyeon felt a little heartened by that. “Okay.” Junmyeon took another step back, and then turned around stumbled back to his clan. He found the nearest log bench he could find and sat down, his mind swimming with fatigue. He vaguely remembered Minseok and Jongin finding him and coaxing him to eat something, and then sweet, blessed sleep.

 

 

 

 

Jongdae shook him awake the next morning, and Junmyeon groaned in pain. Everything hurt, and he was still so very, very sleepy.

“Come on, Junmyeon, it’s the last part of the tournament,” Jongdae said gently. “Get up.”

Junmyeon sighed and slowly sat up, wincing as his arms and back cramped in protest. “Has Minseok gotten up yet?”

“No.” Jongdae gently patted his knee and straightened up. “But I think Joohyun will be in to call him soon.”

“Alright.” Junmyeon ran his hand through his hair. “Will the four of us go to the lake together?”

“No, I’ll take you first. I’m in charge of getting you ready for the final part of the tournament, and Joohyun will take care of Minseok.”

Junmyeon grunted and slowly got up. The clan had remained out in the forest last night because the final portion of the tournament was done at the lake. But after today, they would all go back.

The final portion of the tournament wasn’t about physical strength, cunning, or competition. Instead, the wise woman (and in this case, her apprentice) would lead them through cleansing rituals, and would then lead them into a meditative state where she would be able to judge their characters and help their father decide who would be given which role.

Jongdae helped Junmyeon stand up. “How’re you feeling?” Jongdae gazed at him with concern.

“Sore,” Junmyeon said dryly, “But it isn’t anything that I can’t handle.”

“When this is all over, come to me. I learned how to make a salve that will help your muscles from Joohyun.” Jongdae squeezed his hand, and then gently led him out of the tent. Junmyeon glanced around, and was unsurprised to see no movement in the area; everyone else was undoubtedly fast asleep, given how long the feast had gone last night.

“Once we get to the lake, I’ll lead you through several cleansing rituals. Then, once that’s done, we’ll go meet father at the edge of the lake, and start the meditation. I also have ceremonial robes for you to wear.” Jongdae lifted his arms, and Junmyeon saw soft white cloth with blue embroidery draped over his arm.

“Alright.” Junmyeon yawned and resisted the urge to whine in pain as they walked through the forest towards the lake. Jongdae tried to be helpful and point out obstacles in their path towards Junmyeon, but Junmyeon couldn’t help tripping every so often.

They finally reached the lake, Junmyeon reluctantly let Jongdae help him take off his clothes.

“This is embarrassing,” Junmyeon mumbled. “I’m supposed to take care of you, not the other way around.”

Jongdae giggled softly, but kept helping Junmyeon undress. “Don’t worry about it. This was bound to happen eventually.”

“Brat,” Junmyeon said affectionately. Finally, all of his clothes were gone and he was standing naked on the banks of the lake. “Now what?”

“Come with me into the water.” Jongdae held on to Junmyeon’s hand and guided him into the lake until they were standing next to a large rock, and the lake was at their waists. Junmyeon kept a tight grip on Jongdae’s hand as he struggled not to slip or fall over from the force of the waves and the moving sand and gravel on the lake bottom.

Jongdae squeezed his hand and then carefully let go. He set a small pouch up onto the rock and turned back to Junmyeon. “You need to stand on your own for this bit. I’m going to pour water and oil over your head, and scrub your shoulders with some rushes. The ritual symbolizes the cleaning away of any facades or walls around your soul, and will it also help you slip into meditation later on.”

“Alright.” Junmyeon stood patiently and waited for Jongdae to pull things out of his pouch. Jongdae turned around and cupped his hands in the lake water. He lifted his arms and poured a gentle stream of water of Junmyeon’s head as he murmured under his breath.

Junmyeon closed his eyes and tried to relax. The cold water of the lake was soothing against his sore legs, and Junmyeon sent a silent, fervent prayer to Luhan that he would be chosen as chieftain.

Junmyeon wrinkled his nose when suddenly, instead of plain water, he felt something oily and fragrant run down the back of his neck. But soon, his discomfort faded, and he stiffened in surprise when he realized that the scent reminded him of something. But what was it?

Junmyeon let his mind wander, and then he realized that it reminded of the scent of the great stag that had helped him. He vaguely wondered how the stag was faring, and if the stag had really been Luhan.

Junmyeon opened his eyes when he felt Jongdae scrubbing the back of his shoulders with a stiff reed. Junmyeon winced as the reed rubbed roughly against the soft skin of his back. Jongdae finished scrubbing his shoulders, poured more water over his head, and then gently guided Junmyeon back to the shore.

Junmyeon shivered, his teeth chattering as a cold breeze swept across the lake. Jongdae quickly grabbed a towel that he’d left on the bank, and before Junmyeon could protest, Jongdae was quickly wiping the water off of his body.

“I could’ve done that,” Junmyeon whined.

“It’s part of the ritual,” Jongdae laughed. “Trust me, I didn’t want to dry you off either.” Jongdae dropped the towel on the ground and carefully picked up Junmyeon’s ceremonial robes. “Ok, now lift your arms up.”

Junmyeon obediently lifted his arms up and let out a small sigh when the soft fabric fell over his head. Jongdae helped him put his arms through the sleeves and adjust the robes until they lay straight across his body.

“You look beautiful,” Jongdae said softly.

Junmyeon smiled and reached out to ruffle Jongdae’s hair. “Don’t I always?”

“I mean it,” Jongdae insisted. He guided Junmyeon to the edge of the water. “Look at your reflection.”

Junmyeon looked down at the surface of the lake and blinked in surprise. He did have to admit, he felt rather pretty. The white of the robes looked nice against his skin, and the blue pattern made his skin seem paler and his eyes and hair darker.

“It’s almost like you’re off to be married,” Jongdae murmured under his breath. Suddenly, Jongdae gasped and his eyes widened, but when Junmyeon turned and shot him a questioning look, Jongdae just shook his head.

“Alright, enough preening. Let’s go.” Jongdae grabbed Junmyeon’s hand and they walked hand-in-hand together around the edge of the lake. Unsurprisingly, Junmyeon saw Joohyun and Minseok heading towards them from the opposite direction. They met each other part way and turned away from the lake, peering into the branches of the forest for Zhoumi.

Junmyeon nearly fell over when suddenly, a trapdoor opened a few feet away and Zhoumi popped out of the ground. “Enter,” Zhoumi said calmly, and vanished beneath the earth once more.

Junmyeon glanced wearily at Jongdae, but when Joohyun and Minseok went in readily enough, Junmyeon followed. Junmyeon bit his lip as he followed the others down a set of stairs and into a large dirt room with a small jar of fireflies at its center. Elves were creatures of the forest, of the air, of the trees—elves were not meant to be underground.

Minseok sat down on one side of the jar, and Junmyeon sat down across from him. Their father sat down between them, and Joohyun sat down across from Zhoumi. Jongdae remained standing near the entrance of the little dugout.

“As you know, this is the final part of the tournament.” Zhoumi looked at both of his sons seriously. “Joohyun will help the two of you enter a meditative state, and we will ask you some questions. Do you have any questions?”

“Will we remember what you asked us, afterwards?” Junmyeon asked.

“It will feel as if it were all a dream. Anything else?” Zhoumi looked over at Minseok.

It will feel as if it were all a dream. The words seemed oddly familiar to Junmyeon.

Junmyeon snapped out of it when Zhoumi lit a stick of incense and Joohyun began leading him and Minseok through several breathing exercises. His mind calmed, and soon, Junmyeon found himself breathing slowly and evenly. The walls of the dugout melted away and all he could see and sense were the spirits of the people in the room.

“Junmyeon.” Joohyun’s voice sounded softly in his ear.

Junmyeon hummed softly in response.

“How much do you value your family?”

“The clan is everything to me,” Junmyeon said quietly, all of his intense, tangled up emotions towards his clan surfacing in small bursts of light beneath his eyelids.

“What about your immediate family? Your brothers? Your father?”

“I love my brothers,” Junmyeon said slowly, thinking through the stream of emotions that rushed through his mind. “I love them all very, very much. I worry about Jongin being raised to move away from the clan. I want to stop fighting with Minseok all the time.” Junmyeon thought for a few more moments. “I think Jongdae is my favorite.”

Joohyun laughed softly, and Junmyeon smiled at the gentle sound. “And your father? What about him?”

“I love Zhoumi. He has raised all four of us well, and he takes such good care of the clan.” Junmyeon sighed softly. “As I get older, I hope I turn out just like him.”

“You don’t wish that Zhoumi would get on his years, so that you can finally take control of the clan?”

“No, no.” A small whimper of distress escaped Junmyeon’s throat. “I love Zhoumi too much. Besides, I don’t know very much about leading the clan. I know enough, I suppose, but I would want to wait for my time, and for more experience before wanting to take the reins.”

“Hm. What about Minseok? You said you wanted to stop fighting with him, what did you mean?”

“I miss having Minseok as an older brother,” Junmyeon said plaintively. “We used to have so much fun together when we were little…he would always help me, guide me, play with me, and dance with me. But everything changed when we learned what our fates were.” Junmyeon frowned slightly. “And I’m not complaining about that. Luhan decreed that the ruling family should be given those roles. But I just miss Minseok a lot.”

“I see.” There was a soft rustling noise. “We’re almost done, Junmyeon. I just have some questions about dreams for you.”

“Dreams?” Junmyeon repeated.

“Yes, dreams. What is the most recent dream that you can remember?”

Junmyeon pondered for a moment. Last night, last night had been so odd…He’d been exhausted. He remembered sitting down with Jongdae by the fire, but then things got a bit fuzzy. He’d dreamed about… “Han.”

“Han?” Joohyun repeated.

“Yes, Han.” Junmyeon smiled slightly. “We danced. But not like a fast dance. We just sort of turned in circles…He said I was too tired to dance.” Junmyeon pouted slightly. “But it was nice. I miss Han. I don’t understand why I feel that way about him. I only met him a few days ago, but I always…want to see him. I guess I miss him so much that I want to dream about him.”

“Who is Han, Junmyeon? Is that a nickname for one of the elves of the clan?”

“No.” Junmyeon frowned slightly. Joohyun’s tone had changed from warm and soothing to slightly anxious. What was she nervous about? “Han was an elf that I met on the day of the first task.”

“And you feel strongly about him?”

“I guess.” Junmyeon frowned. “It’s so odd. I’ve never felt so strongly about someone that I only met a few days before. I don’t understand it. I’m even a little bit frightened by it.”

“Love is a frightening thing,” Joohyun said gently, her tone returning back to its soothing state.

“Love?” Junmyeon repeated. “I don’t know if I love Han though.”

“I think you do,” Joohyun said, a trace of a smile in her voice. “Now Junmyeon, I want you to open your eyes.”

Junmyeon opened his eyes and found himself gazing at Joohyun, who was seated directly in front of him. Junmyeon vaguely wondered when she’d moved.

“I have something in my hand,” Joohyun said softly. “When I open my palms, I want you to tell me what you see.”

Junmyeon looked down at her cupped palms, and when she opened her hands, Junmyeon saw a soft scattering of ashes across her skin. He stared it blankly for a moment, but then he saw the answer so clearly that his eyes began to water.

“Luhan’s constellation in the sky. I see the three points of his antlers here,” Junmyeon pointed at her left thumb, “I see the four stars for his hooves. It’s so clear.” Junmyeon stared down at her hands in fascination. He wasn’t even sure that he’d seen the constellation that clearly in the sky itself.

Joohyun closed her hands, and Junmyeon looked up at her face. “I’m going to open my hands again,” she said calmly, “and I want you to tell me what you see again.”

Junmyeon frowned. Wouldn’t he just see the same thing? But nevertheless, he looked down obediently as she spread her palms before him.

To Junmyeon’s surprise, he saw something else now. The ashes had shifted around, away from the distinct points on her hand into the outline of something. It was hard to tell—the outline was bulky and odd, but suddenly Junmyeon realized what it was. “A seven pointed-star,” Junmyeon said quickly.

Joohyun nodded and closed her hands. “One last time,” she said gently. Junmyeon looked down at her hands, and blushed when he saw the ashes. This time, the image was clear right away.

“Two…” Junmyeon hesitated. The surprise he’d felt when he saw the image had eroded at the calm in his mind, and he waited a moment for his thoughts to calm themselves. “Two lovers,” he said at last.

“They’re lovers? You’re certain?”

“I’m quite sure,” Junmyeon said steadily, his face heating up slightly. It was quite clear, from the way the two bodies were entwined with one another. “Two male lovers.”

Joohyun closed her palms again, and Junmyeon looked up at her face. “Very good Junmyeon,” she said softly. “I want you to close your eyes again, and this time, Jongdae will lead you through a few breathing patterns.”

Junmyeon obediently closed his eyes and obeyed Jongdae when Jongdae started talking. When he opened his eyes again, he felt completely normal and back in his body. Junmyeon tried to think about what had just happened, but it all felt so slippery and effervescent in his mind. Junmyeon looked up at Joohyun and Jongdae, and to his surprise, they appeared troubled. He glanced over at his father, who looked absolutely calm, and at Minseok, whose face remained unreadable. Junmyeon wondered if Minseok had been able to hear what Junmyeon had said; but Junmyeon hadn’t been able to hear Minseok, so he doubted that was the case.

Zhoumi smiled at his two sons. “Well done, my children. You’ve completed the tournament. The elders, Joohyun and I will hold a council, and in the morning, we will announce our decision.” Zhoumi got to his feet, and Minseok and Junmyeon followed suit. They climbed out of the small earthen room, and Junmyeon let out a small sigh of relief when a breeze washed across his face.

“Jongdae, go back with Junmyeon and Minseok. Joohyun and I will go to the council separately.”

“Yes father.” Jongdae turned away and started leading Junmyeon and Minseok away. Junmyeon glanced back at Joohyun and Zhoumi, but their backs were turned towards him, and he couldn’t tell their reactions.

“How do you two feel?” Jongdae asked uncertainly, his eyes flitting nervously between Minseok and Junmyeon.

“I feel fine,” Junmyeon said calmly. “Why?”

Jongdae shrugged and turned away. “No reason,” he mumbled. “What about you Minseok?”

“I also feel fine,” Minseok said evenly.

“Good,” Jongdae said feebly, and they walked back to the clan in silence. Back at the clan, people were packing up everything to prepare and move back to their original glade, and Junmyeon quickly rushed over to help, eager for a distraction to calm his mind.

Unfortunately, he could only work for so long, and when night fell, Junmyeon found himself lying wide awake inside of his tree. His fate was being decided as he spoke, in a far off part of the forest by his father, Joohyun, and the clan elders. Would he banished, or would he lead his people?

Junmyeon knew that not so far away, Minseok must be having the same thought process. He wondered who else in the clan was laying wide-awake in their tree, pondering the future of the clan, and who would leave and who would stay.

Junmyeon didn’t sleep all night. He tossed and turned until at last, he got up and peered through the branches of his tree to look at Luhan’s constellation—but tonight, not even that would calm him. When the first rays of dawn broke out over the horizon, Junmyeon watched, wide-eyed as the council came streaming back into the glade. Their faces were all solemn and serene, and Junmyeon quickly scaled down his sleeping tree, along with the rest of the clan, and went to go join Zhoumi and Minseok before the rest of the clan.

Junmyeon felt like throwing up. This was it—it was all coming together so soon, and so quickly. Who would stay, and who would go? Junmyeon clenched his hands into tight fists and stared at the ground. He couldn’t bear waiting like this.

At last, Zhoumi stepped forward, and the clan quieted down instantly. Junmyeon looked at his father’s face and felt a pang of concern when he saw the harsh, tired lines wrinkling Zhoumi’s forehead.

“The council of elders has convened, and we have come to a decision.” Zhoumi swallowed harshly, and the entire clearing held its breath.

“Upon the time of my death, Minseok will become the new chieftain, and Junmyeon will be banished.”

The whole clearing stood in stunned silence. Junmyeon felt his ears ringing, and suddenly, the clan started shouting and talking loudly. Junmyeon looked over at Minseok who looked as shocked as he did, and Junmyeon took a quiet step back.

He was going to be banished. He was going to lose everything. Junmyeon took another step back. The clan had converged on Zhoumi and were standing around him, each elf trying to make their voice heard. No one approached either Minseok or Junmyeon. Junmyeon whirled around and hurtled off into the forest, shock sinking in and settling in his heart. Junmyeon ran as hard as he could, for as long as he could, until at last, he found himself in a small clearing and a tiny pond with lilies waving placidly in the current.

Junmyeon collapsed to his knees and let out a shaky sob. Everything burned, everything hurt, his muscles screamed in pain, his throat felt ragged and raw, and Junmyeon felt as if his heart had split in two.

Junmyeon started sobbing uncontrollably and the world spun around him as he started breathing rapidly. Junmyeon didn’t know how long he’d been kneeling in the glade, panicking, sobbing, struggling to breathe, when suddenly something nudged his side and Junmyeon toppled over. Junmyeon yelped softly and his breathing started to come back under control. Junmyeon looked up, his eyes blurred with tears, and he nearly started sobbing again when he saw the great stag standing over him, his large brown eyes soft with concern as he gazed down at Junmyeon.

“Luhan,” Junmyeon murmured, weakly reaching up with a hand to touch the stag’s muzzle.

The stag snorted affectionately and pushed softly against his hand. Junmyeon slowly sat up, his head swimming from how much pain his body was in. “Where…am I?” Junmyeon murmured softly, looking around. He was positive that he’d never come across a lily pond in the forest before.

Junmyeon slowly got to his feet, stumbling slightly as the full pain in his body registered. He’d run so far, and so fast, even when his body was still sore from the second task. Junmyeon winced and nearly fell face first into the lily pond, but he managed to catch himself in time.

Junmyeon slowly limped over to a large rock at the edge of the pond and slowly sat down. He felt slightly calmer, but as he sat down to face the great stag, his hysteria and pain welled up in a flash.

“Why wasn’t I fit to lead the clan?” Junmyeon implored the great stag. “If you are Luhan…surely, you heard my prayers. You saw all of my hard work. Why was Minseok better than I was?” Junmyeon put his face down into his hands and started crying again.

He knew that Zhoumi had many, many years ahead of him, and that he wouldn’t be banished right away. But Junmyeon also knew that his love for his clan was only going to grow, and keep growing, and it would be even worse to lose his entire clan along with his father at the same time.

There was a soft noise in front of him, and Junmyeon looked up. To his surprise, the stag was glowing, and Junmyeon stared in shock as the stag began to change. There was a flash of light, and Junmyeon was blinded for a few moments, but when he could finally see past the dancing spots in his eyes, Junmyeon gasped and nearly fell backwards into the lily pond again.

“Junmyeon.”

“Han,” Junmyeon breathed, one hand over his heart and the other covering his mouth.

Han stepped towards him until they were toe-to-toe, and Han towered over him. Han gently took Junmyeon’s hands between his own and gazed into his eyes. “I did hear your prayers,” Han promised him softly. “And I did see all of your hard work. But there are greater forces at play here—greater than you can even comprehend.”

“What do you mean?” Junmyeon asked, his heart racing. So—Han, was Luhan. He’d kissed Luhan, and Luhan was holding his hands—he’d been flirting with his god. Junmyeon tried to pull his hands away from Luhan’s, but Luhan just held him tighter.

“I can’t tell you. It would be against divine laws.”

“Let go of me,” Junmyeon gasped. “Please.”

Luhan didn’t let go. “Will you turn me away?” he breathed softly. “I’ve shown you who I am, and now you’ll send me away?”

“No!” Junmyeon gasped. “I just—I’m so confused.”

“I won’t let you go, I won’t ever let you go,” Luhan said softly, and Junmyeon nearly fainted. How could this possibly be happening?

“But you’re sending me away,” Junmyeon choked, “By letting the clan elders decide to let Minseok be the chieftain.”

“It doesn’t quite work like that. I’ll be with you, wherever you are,” Luhan said quietly.

Junmyeon couldn’t help himself, and he started crying again. “Why are you letting them do this?” he sobbed.

Luhan finally let go of his hands, and Junmyeon shrank away into his seat. Why had Luhan taken an interest in him anyways? And…there were so many questions. New questions that sent Junmyeon’s head spinning as he tried to make sense of it all.

“Junmyeon.”

Junmyeon flinched backwards.

“You’re tired and upset right now. Let me send you back to Réalta,” Luhan said gently.

“Will this feel like a dream tomorrow too?” Junmyeon asked softly.

Luhan’s face softened with pity, and Junmyeon bowed his head. “I don’t know,” Luhan said softly. He put his hand gently on Junmyeon’s knee, and Junmyeon stared at Luhan’s long, beautiful fingers. “Let me take you back,” Luhan said again.

Junmyeon sighed and nodded without looking up. Luhan’s hand tightened on his knee. “Close your eyes.”

Junmyeon closed his eyes. He felt a soft whooshing sensation, and a few moments later, Luhan told him to open his eyes. Junmyeon opened them, and he realized that he was back on the edge of the glade. The clan was quiet now, Minseok and Zhoumi nowhere to be seen as the clan went about their daily business.

Junmyeon turned to Luhan. He slowly started to bend down in a painful, formal bow. Luhan caught his shoulder.

“What are you doing?!”

“Bowing,” Junmyeon muttered.

“You don’t need to do that with me,” Luhan said softly.

Junmyeon pressed his lips together in a thin line, and Luhan let out a low sigh. “I said I would never let you go,” he said firmly. “I mean it. You’ll see me again soon, Junmyeon.”

Junmyeon shivered and backed away. “As you say,” he murmured quietly. He turned on his heel and scurried back into the relative safety of the clearing. He hurtled up to his sleeping tree, ignoring the looks on his clan members’ faces as he hurried past. The fatigue of the past week finally caught up with him, and he passed out once he was properly situated in the tree.

The next morning, no one came to wake him, but Junmyeon found a large jar of salve sitting at the entrance of his sleeping hollow.

 

 

 

 

Decades passed. Zhoumi continued to lead the clan well and fairly, and Minseok spent more and more time with their father as he learned the ways of leadership. Meanwhile, Junmyeon continued to do his work with the rest of the clan. At first, the clan had been deeply unsettled. It turned out that the popular opinion had been in Junmyeon’s favor, but Joohyun told the clan that Luhan himself had spoken on the matter, and things quieted down. Jongdae continued on his path to learning Joohyun’s trade, and when Jongin was old enough, he married and left the clan.

Things had been difficult over the years. It had taken everyone a very long time to get used to the idea that Junmyeon would be leaving eventually. Even now, ninety years after the contest, some of Junmyeon’s friends still teared up when they looked at him.

Junmyeon sighed and lay back in the grass of the small clearing he was in. Things in the clan had been so hectic for the past few months—Zhoumi had fallen horribly ill, and the clan was preparing for a transition in power, as well as for the burial rites for Zhoumi’s death. Junmyeon had taken his chance to slip away from it all for an hour and just lay back and stare at the stars.

“Why do you look at the stars when I’m right here?”

Junmyeon didn’t turn his head at the sound of Luhan’s voice. “They seem closer,” he said softly. Junmyeon felt Luhan lying down on the grass beside him, but he stubbornly refused to turn his head.

“Junmyeon…”

Junmyeon finally looked over when Luhan laced their fingers together and lifted their joined hands towards the sky.

Things had been odd with Luhan. At first, Junmyeon had been so terrified of being in a courtship with Luhan. His feelings of devotion for Luhan, his god, seemed incompatible with the great love that he felt for Han. He was also afraid that if they ever fought, or if Junmyeon managed to anger the god, then Junmyeon would be endangering all of Réalta. But Luhan had proven to him over the years that what they had was only between them, and not between the clan. Junmyeon had never told anyone that Luhan was courting him. He suspected that Joohyun (and possibly Jongdae) knew, but he never told anyone else. He was unsure of what they would say, or if they would even believe him—in the history of their clan, Luhan never took interest in a particular elf, and only appeared in times of need for the clan. Junmyeon was mostly happy with the way things were between himself and Luhan; 70 years was a long time for a courtship, and he felt like he knew Luhan like the back of his hand by now.

“What’re you thinking about?” Luhan asked softly, his eyes soft and wide in the starlight.

“Zhoumi is so ill,” Junmyeon said softly. “…When I go, you promise you’ll stay with me?”

“I promise, you will never, ever, ever lose me Junmyeon.” Luhan’s eyes blazed with determination, but the kiss he gave Junmyeon was soft and gentle. “I promise.”

Junmyeon squeezed Luhan’s hand gently and let his fingers fall. “Zhoumi won’t be here for much longer,” he said softly. “I…I’m so afraid. I’ve been living in fear for so long.”

Luhan rolled over and propped himself up on his elbow so that he could look down at Junmyeon’s lovely face. “It will be alright,” he said gently. “I promise you.”

Junmyeon supposed that the promise actually meant something, considering that Luhan was a god.

They lay quietly together, simply enjoying the peace and quiet of each other’s company. At last, Junmyeon reluctantly sat up in the grass and stretched his arms. “I should go.”

“I wish we could have more time together.” Luhan sat up beside him and slipped his arm around Junmyeon’s waist. “You’ve been so busy for the past month.”

“I know.” Junmyeon leaned into Luhan’s hold. “I miss you.”

Luhan hugged him, and then let him go. “I’ll see you again soon, love.”

Junmyeon blushed. “See you soon,” he said softly. He got to his feet and left the clearing, his cheeks still aflame. Even though he’d been with Luhan for a long time, he’d never gotten used to the pet names that Luhan called him.

“Junmyeon?”

Junmyeon startled at the call of his name and ran towards the source of the sound. He hurried into the clearing and was shocked to see Jongdae looking very distressed. “Jongdae!” Junmyeon flew towards his brother and wrapped him up in a tight hug. “What’s wrong?”

“Father wants to see all of us, and I couldn’t find you,” Jongdae mumbled, and Junmyeon felt a pang when he felt Jongdae trembling in his arms.

“I’m here now,” Junmyeon said soothingly. “Are the others already here?”

“Yes.” Jongdae sniffled and then stepped away from Junmyeon. They both quietly entered Zhoumi’s quarters, and Junmyeon couldn’t help the small breath he sucked in at the sight of his father. Zhoumi had been looking sickly for weeks, but now he simply looked frail and exhausted as he lay propped up on the bed. Jongin had returned home from his wife’s clan two weeks ago to take care of Zhoumi, so Jongin and Minseok were already seated at his bedside, and Junmyeon and Jongdae hurried over to them.

“Junmyeon.” Zhoumi reached out a thin hand towards him, and Junmyeon clasped his father’s hand tightly. “Junmyeon…if things would have been my way…I would have made you chieftain, all those years ago.”

Junmyeon smiled sadly at his father. “It doesn’t matter now, father.”

“I know.” Zhoumi coughed weakly. “And that’s why I’m telling you. I’ve always been so proud of you, Junmyeon.”

“Thank you, father.” Junmyeon gently squeezed his father’s hand. “I love you, so much.”

“You and Jongdae look like your mother,” Zhoumi said suddenly. “Of course, Jongdae, you probably don’t remember her very well.” Zhoumi leaned back into his pillows with a heavy sigh, and Junmyeon released his father’s hand. Zhoumi gazed at all four of his sons. “She would have been so proud of all of you. I know I am.”

Jongin let out a small sob, and Minseok put a comforting arm around his brother’s shoulders.

“I love you all very much,” Zhoumi sighed.

“And we love you, father,” Jongdae said tremulously.

Zhoumi gave him a fond look. “I’m tired now,” he said suddenly. “I know I called you all here so suddenly, but I just…wanted to see all of you.”

“We wanted to see you too, father,” Minseok said evenly. “Don’t worry about. Please, rest well.”

The four of them made sure their father was safely tucked in before they filed out of his quarters.

“It won’t be long now,” Minseok said suddenly. “We can all feel it.”

Junmyeon bowed his head in agreement, and Jongdae and Jongin clung to each other as they both tried to hold back their tears.

Minseok reached out and pulled Junmyeon into a tight hug. Junmyeon hugged him back and felt tears sting his eyes at the realization that this might possibly be the last time he saw all three of his brothers in the same place.

Junmyeon didn’t have anything to prepare for his banishment. Long, long ago, when he’d ventured to ask Joohyun about it, Joohyun had told him that he wasn’t allowed to pack anything or bring anything with him besides the clothes on his back when he was taken away from the clan. There was nothing to prepare, nothing to keep his hands busy—nothing to do but wait.

As it turned out, Junmyeon didn’t have to wait long. The following morning, Joohyun poked her head into Minseok’s quarters, where all four brothers were staying, and told them that Zhoumi had passed away.

Junmyeon sat up instantly, his mind already alert. He looked at Joohyun, and she nodded back at him. With a soft sigh, Junmyeon got to his feet. He gave Minseok a tight hug, and told him how much he loved him, and to take care of the clan. He did the same for Jongin, and he wished him happiness in his marriage, and then he left the tree with Joohyun and Jongdae. According to Joohyun, Junmyeon would go through a short ritual and then he would be forced to leave Réalta forever.

The three of them crossed the clearing, where Minseok was starting to gather the clan members and tell them of Zhoumi’s passing, and hurried out into the woods. Jongdae grabbed his hand and squeezed it tightly as the three of them walked along, and Junmyeon squeezed back.

Junmyeon felt surprisingly calm, considering how fast everything was moving. But he had a feeling that the moment he had a second to stop and think about what was happening, he would break down.

At last, Joohyun stopped walking, and Junmyeon was surprised to find himself standing in a small clearing with a babbling brook running through the far end. This was the clearing where had first encountered Luhan, all those years ago.

Junmyeon knelt down at the edge of the brook and let Joohyun pour ceremonial oils through his hair and wash them out in the creek. At last, when she was finished, the three of them sat down in a triangle.

“I’m sorry I pulled you away so quickly, but tradition states that your ritual begins as soon as the leader passes away,” Joohyun said softly. “Now, we are here to talk, so that you can leave us with no regrets. Is there anything you want the clan to know?”

Junmyeon hesitated, and chose his words carefully. “I want them to know that I love them all,” he said at last. “And…can you tell Minseok a special message from me?”

Joohyun nodded, and Junmyeon took a deep breath. “Tell him that I’m sorry,” he said softly. “For all of the animosity and hatred we had when we were competing in the tournament. I loved him, all of that time, and it was my pride and ignorance that led to the wall that built up between us.”

“I’ll tell him.” Joohyun reached out to pat his knee, and Junmyeon gave her a wobbly smile as his emotions threatened to catch up with him.

“Also…Jongdae?”

“Yes?” Jongdae reached out and grabbed Junmyeon’s hand tightly. Junmyeon squeezed Jongdae’s fingers affectionately, and smiled at him.

“You were always my favorite, out of the other three,” he said gently. “I’ll miss you so much, little brother.”

Tears started streaming down Jongdae’s cheeks, but he still smiled back at Junmyeon. “I love you too.”

Joohyun let them dry their eyes after a few minutes, and then gently asked “Are you sure that’s all?”

Junmyeon thought back to Luhan’s words. I promise that you will never lose me, Junmyeon. “I’m sure.”

Joohyun’s eyes filled with tears, and she leaned over to kiss Junmyeon’s forehead. “I’ll miss you, Junmyeon,” she said softly. “Everyone will miss you.”

Junmyeon sniffled a little, but didn’t say anything. After a few minutes, the three of them got to their feet. “We’ll accompany you out of the forest,” Joohyun said softly.

“You will?” Junmyeon stared at her in surprise. “But the forest…”

“There’s a special part of the forest that we’ll lead you to. It’s a portal of sorts.” Joohyun started walking, and Jongdae and Junmyeon trailed after her. “The thing is, this portal only opens when the clan leader passes on, and it only stays open for a short period. That’s why everything is moving so quickly.”

“Oh.” Junmyeon hurried after Joohyun. He wasn’t sure how long the three of them had been walking for, but Joohyun finally came to a stop in front of a large boulder on the side of a hill. Junmyeon raised an eyebrow; he’d passed by this area of the forest many times.

Joohyun and Jongdae grunted and heaved, and finally shifted the boulder until there was a gap large enough for Junmyeon to crawl past. Junmyeon gasped when light streamed out through the gap, and purple and blue light danced across the grass. “Is it magic?”

“We think so.” Jongdae wiped some sweat off of his forehead. “And for some reason, the magic is only triggered when a clan leader passes away.”

“I see.” Junmyeon stared at the gap apprehensively. “Where…where will the portal take me?”

“We don’t know.” Joohyun shook her head sadly. “All we can do is wish you luck.”

Junmyeon stared at the portal apprehensively and slowly got down on the ground so that he could crawl in. “Thanks for everything,” he said softly. “We’ll meet again in the afterlife.”

Joohyun smiled sadly, and Jongdae gave Junmyeon a heart-wrenching smile. “We’ll meet again,” Jongdae agreed tremulously.

Junmyeon nodded and took a deep breath. He slowly crawled into the space between the boulder and the hill. Purple and blue light filled his senses as he entered the portal, and all of sudden, Junmyeon felt himself falling through blackness. He let out a scream of terror as he continued to fall, fall, fall…

And then suddenly, Junmyeon realized that he was falling towards a shimmering green field with an enormous, oddly shiny tree. Junmyeon screamed even louder as he hurtled faster and faster towards the ground. Junmyeon closed his eyes and braced himself for an impact, when suddenly something caught him out of the air and softened his moment as he gently hit the green field.

Junmyeon sat up and looked around wildly for whatever had caught him. He hadn’t seen anything on the field, and he hadn’t seen anything flying above him—

An enormous stag with soft brown eyes and the biggest rack of antlers Junmyeon had ever seen stood over him. Junmyeon felt his heart start to beat faster, and a small flutter of hope wavered in his heart. “Luhan?” Junmyeon whispered softly.

There was a flash of blinding light, and Luhan was standing in his human form above Junmyeon. Junmyeon sprang to his feet and threw himself into Luhan’s arms, sobbing harshly as he clung to his beloved.

Luhan patted Junmyeon’s back soothingly until Junmyeon stopped crying. Junmyeon stepped back in Luhan’s arms, and they simply looked at each other for a few moments.

Suddenly, Junmyeon noticed a glimmer of silver out of the corner of his eye, and he looked around. To his surprise, he realized that the little field was surrounded by sparkling silver mist. In fact—Junmyeon shifted his weight, and nearly slipped on the emerald grass beneath his feet.

“What is this place?” Junmyeon gasped, gripping tightly on to Luhan’s arms.

“This is the Grove of Jewels.” Luhan helped Junmyeon turn around so that he could see the field, and then he pulled Junmyeon into a tight back hug. “Otherwise known as my palace in sky.”

Junmyeon gasped and turned his head so that he could see Luhan. “Your palace in the sky?”

“That’s right.” Luhan rested his chin on Junmyeon’s shoulder.

“You mean…we’re in the immortal realm?”

Luhan nodded. “Yes. I couldn’t tell you this while you were on earth, because divine laws prevent from doing so, but now I can explain everything to you. You know the doctrine, of how I told your clan that the first four sons of the chieftain would take on certain roles. Three of the four roles made sense, but the role of banishment has always seemed arbitrary, hasn’t it?”

“I suppose so,” Junmyeon said softly.

“The thing is, the elf that is banished, comes through a portal to the afterlife. This elf has the most important role in the clan, because he or she watches over the clan, and does their best to help the clan in times of need from the celestial world.” Luhan gazed across the field towards the great tree at the far end. “It is an important role that needs to be filled. I designed the portal so that it would open only on certain conditions, to make sure that someone from each generation of the clan, who knew the people, who knew the clan’s needs, would be able to come here and make sure that Réalta could thrive.”

Junmyeon blinked and nodded slowly. “So…when Réaltan elves die…do they all come here?”

“Well, not here specifically. You, my love, are a very special case.” Luhan nuzzled into Junmyeon’s neck, and Junmyeon gasped softly when Luhan lay a gentle kiss there. “There is a specific realm where members of Réalta go.”

“Will…will I be able to go that place?” Junmyeon asked breathlessly.

“You will.” Luhan started gently rocking them back and forth. “I told you that it wouldn’t’ be so bad, didn’t I?”

“You did,” Junmyeon whispered, his eyes filling with tears. Junmyeon had been expecting to be thrown to a completely new place, and a completely new way of life. Granted, the celestial realm would certainly be different from earth, but…he wasn’t really saying good-bye to his family forever. Instead, he would be able to watch them and take care of them, forever.

“Junmyeon?”

“Yes?” Junmyeon reached up and scrubbed at his eyes.

Luhan carefully let go of Junmyeon and helped him to turn around without slipping on the bejeweled field around them. “I want you to be my divine consort,” he murmured.

“What?” Junmyeon stared at Luhan in shock. “But…”

“You must have guessed,” Luhan said softly. “Or have you really believed that all this time, I’ve had a special interest in you for no particular reason?”

“Aren’t divine consorts pre-ordained by the fates?” Junmyeon bit his lip.

“Yes,” Luhan said simply.

“Our love…?”

“Yes,” Luhan said again, a small smile curling at the corner of his lips. “It was.”

“I’ll be your consort,” Junmyeon whispered in a rush. “I…I’m…”

“I love you,” Luhan said softly, leaning in to nuzzle his nose against Junmyeon’s.

“I love you too.” Junmyeon wrapped his arms tightly around Luhan and clung to him as if he would never let go.

This was certainly not the ending Junmyeon was expecting himself to end up with. He had thought he would live in misery for the rest of his days, mourning the loss of his father and his family. Instead, he found himself happily in Luhan’s arms, ready to serve his clan and watch over them for the rest of his life.

Down on earth, the elves of Réalta were gathered in the forest, pointing up at the sky in wonder. Besides Luhan’s constellation of seven stars, a new constellation had appeared.

Joohyun pushed through the crowd of elves and pointed up at the sky. “This new constellation will be named The Pearl,” she said clearly as she pointed up at the new ring of five stars. “We will look up at him, and always remember Junmyeon.”

There was some murmuring amongst the clan members, but the gathering dispersed, leaving Jongdae and Joohyun alone beneath the stars.

“You knew all along, didn’t you?” Jongdae asked suddenly. “What Junmyeon’s real fate was.”

“I’m still not certain,” Joohyun said softly. “But it does support my idea that Junmyeon was Luhan’s soulmate. The palm reading Junmyeon gave me, back when he and Minseok were taking part in the tournament, made me suspicious.”

Jongdae snorted. “It seems so impossible though. And Junmyeon never mentioned anything about seeing anyone.”

They looked up at the stars in silence for a few minutes before going back to their respective sleeping trees. Zhoumi’s burial rites combined with the heavy mourning for Junmyeon’s loss signaled tough times ahead for Réalta. And yet, as the elves looked up at the sky at night and saw Luhan and The Pearl seated side-by-side in the sky, they were reminded of the great love that Luhan had for them, and they fell asleep feeling protected, and believing in brighter days ahead.

 

The End