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the prince and the huntsman

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mirror, mirror, on the wall,

who is the loneliest one of all?

 

--

 

In retrospect, Junior should have known that hanging out with fellow Knights might not be the best idea ever.

Maybe he was kind of being a dick, fine, he would admit that much. But it wasn’t like he was trying to stir a fight or the likes. If anything, he was trying to warn them about their fate. Life as a Knight is transient and uncertain; a borrowed soul can only last so long and he’d very much appreciate a good warning before time ran out.

He never thought that JB would react so badly.

With his cold demeanor and ability to manipulate ice, not to mention that he was basically the leader of Inhyung’s Knights, he definitely considered JB as the most cool-headed one of the bunch. He was wrong. He knew it when JB stormed into his practice room unannounced, threatening him with a death grip on their collar. But he won’t blame JB – not in the slightest. He understood the other man’s rage and confusion. After all, the knowledge that he would disappear without a trace was definitely not easy to take.

And for JB, there were too many things to be concerned about.

JB came up to him once again a few nights after, standing quietly at the door of the practice room, waiting for him to turn off the music. But there was no fire blazing in his eyes, a brisk walk or tight grip on Junior’s collar. Junior tried to ignore him but he was just standing there, not even trying to make his presence noticed. He simply waited.

“What do you want?” Junior finally gave up and turned around, pressing the stop button on the music player with one hand. It’s weird, he thought, that JB looked different from how he appeared a couple days back. He looked somehow awkward, apologetic even. He had a plastic bag in his hands, filled with what appeared to be bottled drinks, and he stepped in after a few seconds.

“What’s this?” Junior frowned, examining the sweet drink JB just handed him. The latter coughed awkwardly, rubbing the back of his neck out of habit. “Well… it’s an apology. I’m sorry. I was confused… and a little mad, honestly. But I shouldn’t have stormed here and lashed out on you. It’s just not fair. It’s not like you were the one who made the rules, anyway.”

Junior opened the bottle and took a swig. “Wow, what a change of hearts. I wonder which god I should thank for this.”

JB shuffled on his feet – that was so unlike him – and took a sip from this iced coffee. He was trying too hard not to look into Junior’s eyes, basically giving away the answer for the latter.

“You found out, didn’t you.” He let out a sigh, then a chuckle. “About Jisoo.”

JB took another sip and nodded slowly. “Yeah. I didn’t mean to probe, but I hung out with Youngjae and Yugyeom yesterday. Kid told me everything.”

“So now you know I’m a filthy murderer.” Junior laughed and set his bottle on the floor, sitting cross-legged beside it. JB stood there for a couple more seconds – not sure what to do – before following suit, his bag of drinks set between them.

“Don’t say that.” He muttered. “You didn’t do anything.”

“I left her. I ran away when I had the chance to save her. If I didn’t turn my back on her, she would have been still alive. It’s my fault that she jumped off that bridge.”

“It’s not.” JB insisted. “Those are things you can’t really control. I mean, how are you supposed to know that she planned to do that? It’s…”

“Stop defending me!” Junior’s voice went up unconsciously and the tone got sharper. “In case you forgot, I was trying to make you do the same! I persuaded you to betray Joo Inhyung! I wanted you to be a murderer like me!”

JB’s shoulders slumped at the mention of Joo Inhyung’s name. “I really have no choice, do I?” He chuckled bitterly. “Kill Inhyung or kill myself. But my life is not the only one at stake. My friends’ lives are too. If only it was only mine, I’d be glad to give it up.”

“You really love her, don’t you.” Junior smiled slightly. “At this point though, no matter what you choose to do, somebody will suffer. Both of your choices are equally difficult and painful. Let Inhyung live… and all of you will cease to exist. Kill her… and you’ll have to live the rest of your life carrying the weight of her soul on your back. It’s not pleasant. Trust me.”

Junior’s smile turned into a grimace.

“I’ve been living with that for the last three years.”

As JB began to walk away from the studio, Junior leaned on the doorframe, watching the former’s retreating back. “Hey, JB?” He called out.

The other Knight turned slightly. “Yes?”

“What will you do now?”

JB hesitated for a moment. “I don’t know.”

He took a glance at the moon in the sky and let out a long, exasperated sigh. “Before time runs out… I’d like to pretend that I still have a choice.”

.

Back at home, Junior laid alone in the dark, staring at the glowing star stickers he stuck on the ceiling long ago. His mind reeled back to Jisoo – innocent, poor Jisoo living as a prisoner in her own house with no one to care for her. She was ten years old when she got the three dolls as a present and she spent the whole night holding them close, crying her heart out at the thought of her parents who never really cared. Countless tears landed on the soft fabric of the dolls’ body and the contract was made. The three dolls woke up human, branded as her Knights.

Jisoo never questioned why her brand new dolls suddenly went missing. The abundance of toys in her room was a proof that she was raised by money, not love. She couldn’t care less about her material wealth.

But she did care about her new mysterious friends.

He also remembered the day when he began to question his vow. Jisoo was seventeen. She left school and returned home with a bright smile on her face – for the first time ever, Junior noted. He remembered asking her about what made her so happy and she pulled him to sit down on the couch, grinning excitedly as she talked. Word by word, she described the guy she met at school. He was a musician, he wrote amazing songs, he sang extremely well and he seemed to be as interested in her as she was in him. His name was Jun.

She had always dreamed to be a singer, performing in stages around the world and sharing her heart with people through music, so meeting this guy for her was like a dream come true. She wondered if she was Snow White and Jun was the Prince riding on a white stallion, coming to free her from the evil curse.

She didn’t remember that the Huntsman was the one who saved her from certain death at the beginning of the story, risking his own life in doing so.

And then there was the day when Jisoo’s father found out. He was furious. He sent a whole team of bodyguards to find her and bring her back home no matter what – and Junior witnessed the entire thing. He couldn’t bear to see Jisoo crying, to see her suffering while she was dragged to the car and her boyfriend beaten without mercy. He emerged from the shadows to save them both. Two times, three times, Junior lost count of how many times it had happened already and yet he went to the rescue all the time.

But then an eerie thought crossed his mind… he had stayed with Jisoo ever since she was a kid and he longed for the space beside her. He didn’t stay with her and protect her only to see some random man taking away the precious love he’d so carefully nurtured. He couldn’t stop himself from thinking that if the bodyguards managed to get Jun out of the picture, then he…

So he turned his back, even when the girl was crying. He pretended not to see the tears glistening in her eyes, pretended not to hear her pleas for help. He abandoned her in the name of love.

Ironically, his actions forced her to let go of her love.

Later that night, he learned that Jisoo didn’t come home. He made the mistake of looking for her, all alone, and he found her – just a tad bit too late.

He tried to stop her. He screamed on top of his lungs and ran as fast as he could, trying to save her. But the look in her eyes – the pain, the disappointment, the disbelief at his betrayal, stopped him in his track just before he could reach out to her. He realized that he was not the one who would be able to save her. Jun was.

He did reach out, though – but he missed by a split second and her soft white scarf slightly brushed against his fingers as he grasped onto thin air.

Agony.

But now he was human… the three of them were. Yugyeom and Bambam found out about what happened the very next day and Junior was ready to take the beating. After all, even though the two weren’t as close with Jisoo as he was, they devoted their entire lives to the vow and they were also genuinely fond of her. They had every right to be mad at the guy who murdered their Lady; even more so because the murderer was supposed to be the Knight of Honor. But the punch never came. Instead, both young males stood behind him with reassuring hands on his shoulder. They told him to cherish the life she gave them and to keep her as a part of it, no matter how small. So they took up something Jisoo loved more than anything in the world – music – and practiced their hearts out days and nights. They fulfilled her dreams of standing on stage and took a bit of her soul with them every single time.

Junior never thought so much about love before. Love caused him to kill somebody and he would never forget the pain. To him, it would take a little while before he would be able to love with his human heart.

But love was a capricious emotion and it never waits for the perfect time.

Junior hated the fact that he fell in love so easily – he let his guard down for a split second, no longer than the time he needed to reach out and miss Jisoo’s white scarf, and love banged at his door to force its way in. He tried to convince himself that it wasn’t love. But the image of a young lady with four dream knights swam in his field of vision day and night, without pause, not giving him a break.

He was falling deeply, hopelessly, in love.

Even stranger still, it wasn’t Joo Inhyung that he fell in love with. Junior often wished that she was, because truth to be told, everything would be so much easier that way. He was a human, she was a human, and even if she had Knights trailing behind her, it wasn’t within his capacity to care about them. It wasn’t like Jun ever cared about him when he ran away with Jisoo, anyway.

But that wasn’t the case, and Junior hated himself for making everything so goddamned complicated. He was supposed to take the role of the prince on a white stallion to Joo Inhyung’s Snow White. It might be true that The Huntsman spared Snow White her cruel fate of death, but it was only the Prince who could promise her a happily ever after (like how Jisoo decided to pursue her happiness with Jun).

Junior’s mistake was falling in love with the huntsman.

JB… he wasn’t even sure what could be so interesting about JB that drew him in. It could be his cold demeanor. It could be his protectiveness over Inhyung, his passion for what he did, or his eyes which always seemed to burn with fiery passion despite the power of ice embedded in him. Or it could be simply the thought of having someone with the same fate as himself – someone who would understand.

When he told JB that he had to choose between two equally difficult choices, he was actually telling himself the same thing. He admitted that a part of his heart wanted to be selfish. He wanted JB to live… to be human and love him back. But at the same time, JB would have to leave Inhyung. To betray her and possibly kill her like how he did to Jisoo. And it was the last thing that Junior would ever want JB to do. Living off a stolen life was great pain and he didn’t want JB to carry the same weight on his back.

In the dark, everything else vanished and he was left with plenty of thoughts – how the three of them started off as Knights, how he betrayed and lost his lady, how they took up music and became famous idols to carry on Jisoo’s legacy… and how the light in JB’s eyes seemed to dim at the prospect of leaving Joo Inhyung. JB appeared to be as torn as he was if not more. Even though he was more than willing to die for her, it wasn’t for him to decide – not when he had the fate of three other Knights on his shoulders.

The stars on his ceiling seemed to flicker for a moment and Junior shook himself awake from the daydream. The last thought that crossed his mind was unthinkable and frightening even for him… but any thought of a plan equals hope. Even if there was only one percent chance for his plan to work, he would take that chance a hundred times.

If JB thought that he had no choice, Junior was intent of making one for him.

.

“Where did you go last night?” Joo Inhyung demanded when she woke up to find JB sitting on the edge of her bed. “None of you came home after practice. I was one step away from filing a missing person report! You could have at least called to tell me if you were going somewhere.” She sulked.

“Stop overreacting.” JB flicked her forehead softly. “I don’t know where the other kids are, but I was just visiting a friend. He was here longer than I am, so if there’s anyone who knows best about how things are around here for people like us, it would be him.”

“Ahh, so he moved here from China too?” Inhyung hummed in acknowledgement.

“You know what though... if – if you feel like you’re having problems, you can always tell me. I may not be able to help all the time, but at least I can listen. I mean, we’re family, right?”

“A crybaby like you?” JB chuckled, ruffling her bangs affectionately. “You’re gonna cry even before I manage to finish my story.”

She swatted his hand away, complaining that I was just trying to help and you’re so insensitive. If only she had looked at him for a little longer, she would’ve seen the pain that flashed over his eyes.

But she didn’t.

.

Their days went on as per usual, and the issue about who has to be killed seemed to be already forgotten. Either that, or everyone was simply pretending not to notice, pretending that time was not ticking away. Maybe they still thought about it at the back of their minds – when the practice was over and the night fell into silence. But as if by mutual agreement, nobody said a word.

It was the day of the battle and Junior watched Joo Inhyung and her Knights practice from the artist platform. He saw her make up with her longtime nemesis, saw Jackson giving Jenny a secret good luck pat on the back, and watched as Joo Inhyung and her Knights went onstage one by one. Junior chuckled to himself. Plenty of talented dancers took part in the night’s battle, but he knew that Joo Inhyung’s team is going to win. They had to.

They did, and Junior was ready. They went on stage to perform with the winning team and Junior savored in the sounds of music and people cheering for him; getting high off the performance rush. It was one of the only things tethering him to the world (with Jisoo’s death trying to drag him away every now and then) – and he felt the slightest pang at the thought of what would happen after the stage was over.

But no.

He’d had plenty of time to think it over and his decision was final.

He shook hands with everyone, giving them brief congratulatory hugs. When he arrived in front of JB, things got a little bit awkward. The last time they met in the presence of others, they fought, remember? But with a resolute calm, Junior shook JB’s hand and wrapped an arm around his shoulder.

“I need to talk to you.” He whispered. “Behind this building. Right now. Come alone.”

Surprised and confused as he was, JB certainly didn’t show it a bit. He gave Junior a slight nod and turned back to Joo Inhyung and the others, basking in the hype of having won the competition of her dreams. Junior smiled, feeling his heartbeat rise a little.

It’s time.

He gathered both of his younger bandmates in his arms, pulling them close and patting their heads gently. “Bye kids.” He grinned at their confused faces.

“Where are you going?” Bambam frowned.

When he pulled away, Junior was smiling. But there was an unfamiliar air hanging around him – like some sort of eerie peace, a stark difference to his usual heavy and mysterious presence.

“I need to apologize… to Jisoo.”

.

 At the back of the building, JB was already waiting for him. He had such an unassuming look on his face that Junior almost felt guilty for what he was about to do, but he shook it off as quickly as he could.

He was certain that the end would justify the means.

He approached, trying to set the mood as light as possible with bouncy steps and a cheerful smile. “Hi.” He greeted the other male happily.

“Hello.” JB replied.

“I just realized that I’ve never apologized properly.” Junior chuckled, extending a hand towards JB. “I’m sorry. For everything.”

“Why are you apologizing?” JB retorted, but he took Junior’s extended hand anyways. “You didn’t even do anything. We’re all good.”

“You’ve always been too nice for your own good.” Junior laughed. “Thank you. Anyways, congrats for the win. You guys deserve it. The choreo was mindblowing.”

The implications of winning seemed to hit JB and the fire in his eyes dimmed a little. “Thanks.” He answered, trying to sound nonchalant; but through the silence that followed, Junior clearly heard his rage screaming – shouting out questions of why fate was such a cruel mistress and if there was any way for him to run away, escaping fate.

Very soon, he would have the answers.

“So this means your time is running out.” Junior prodded really carefully. He saw JB tense up and he stepped back, giving the other male a little space he needed.

“Yeah.” JB answered with a low voice. “So what’s going to happen now? Am I going to just disappear? Right here? Right now? What about the others? What about Inhyung?!”

“Calm down.” Junior placed a gentle hand over the other’s shoulder. “Remember the legend. We’re born from tears of despair and will perish in tears of joy. The moment a drop of her tear land on you, you’ll disappear. I’m simply buying you some time.”

“Oh.” JB slumped back. “But what’s the use though? Sooner or later, it will be inevitable. Like you said, I don’t really have a choice.”

“Actually, it’s quite the contrary.” Junior stepped forward. “I brought you here because I have an answer. I’m here to give you the choice you need.”

I’m looking at you but I can’t reach you

So I’m only drawing out my heart

“You’re going to hate me for this, I’m sure.” Junior chuckled, steeling his soul one more time before taking the leap forward. The fear was settling in, gnawing at his heart like a persistent little monster and he was so tempted to just ditch his plan and run away. But he won’t. This was the first ever time he fell in love as a human, and he didn’t want to do everything wrong like back then.

This time, he wanted to love properly.

My love that I couldn’t tell you on the night you shed tears

I’ll tell you now

“I’m sorry, JB.”

He leaned forward, closing the distance between himself and the petrified male in front of him. Wrapping his arms around JB’s shoulders, he could feel the Knight tense up – but he made sure to embrace the other male firmly, slowly pulling him closer.

On a night filled with memories

I have to say goodbye, words I don’t to say

Their lips met and Junior shut his eyes close – the tears he’d been holding back for so long finally falling in lonely drops. He was confessing, apologizing, and saying goodbye at the same time. He knew that the other male is going to despise him for what he did, and Junior wouldn’t even mind accepting a single punch or two.

JB was still standing stiff, unresponsive, and Junior thanked his lucky stars for that. Knowing JB, he half expected a harsh shove and a swift punch in the gut – but the other male was just staying still, as if he wasn’t even there.

As they part, the rain started to fall and the drops landed on them – masking the tears and everything else. Slowly, but still with a firm stance, Junior pushed JB away and spun him around. “Good.” He whispered. “Now do me a favor and leave. Walk away. Just – don’t ever look back.”

And leave JB did, like he was in trance. His head felt empty and he could barely see where he was heading to, instinct leading the rest of his body like he was on autopilot. Just a couple steps behind him, Junior was watching him leave, tears washed away by the slight downpour. If only he looked back, even once, he would be able to catch a glimpse of the boy sending him a pained smile.

But just as Junior told him to – he didn’t look back.

Joo Inhyung welcomed him with a tight hug the moment he stepped back into the building. She instantly began rambling about him being in the rain and all that stuff as soon as she felt his wet hair, but the smile never left her face.

“We won.” She smiled so brightly – the smile that hid nothing. Then without any warning, she launched herself onto him, burying her face in his chest, hugging him as tightly as she could. “We won.” She repeated. “JB. Thank you. Thank you so much. I’ve gone through a lot – the death of my mom, losing everything I ever had, being diagnosed with this illness… I thought I won’t be able to do anything ever again. But then you guys came and it… it changed everything for me. Maybe my mom’s tale was true after all – the four of you are angels sent from the sky just for me.”

The irony stung a bit and JB felt her warm tears seeping through his already damp shirt. Strangely, his thought went over to the man who had told him the truth. He wondered what might be the reason behind the man’s sudden weird act – what he was trying to do and what he did to make him feel so hypnotized.

He thought to himself – maybe it was because a man known as JB was about to disappear. His existence was about to get wiped out. And Junior was simply giving him a parting gift.

The inevitable change was hurtling at him – coming way too quickly and JB shut his eyes, bracing for the impact.

Here it is.

Searing heat began to spread from where the tears land – scorching and burning, so much that JB’s entire body went numb. Briefly, he thought so this is what death must feel like and he prayed – for his friends to forgive him, for the girl in his arms to be happy even when he was no longer there, and for the former Knight to just let go of his past and live his life in peace.

The pain was over in a flash – almost as soon as it began – and it was replaced with warmth; gentle warmth flowing softly under his skin like a river of thick honey. He was just about to start feeling confused when he felt something else – something he never expected to feel, something he wasn’t supposed to feel.

There was a single thump, then two, and eventually a steady heartbeat started to thrum in his chest cavity. He nearly mistook it for Joo Inhyung’s heartbeat – but hers was distant and echoed against his skin in a rhythm not matching his own. His eyes went wide at the revelation. He had a heartbeat. He was alive. But Joo Inhyung was also there, very much alive and breathing.

He remembered clearly that his life as a Knight was a loan from the lady. For that very reason, he was unable to have a heartbeat, and he had no blood or breath flowing inside him – everything that he was was a part of Joo Inhyung’s tears and soul.

When he felt the first heartbeat, he noticed in an instant that he was no longer Joo Inhyung’s Knight.

He was human, and he was free to live in the world where Joo Inhyung smiled and cried.

For a very brief period, he was the Knight of someone else.

Someone else who must’ve –––––

Somewhere across the town, under the dim moonlight, Junior placed a hand over his heart and smiled. The small red pills he swallowed earlier were bitter and they burn in his throat, but he figured out that it was probably the simplest and quickest way to get the job done. He pictured JB, alive and human and celebrating with his friends and Joo Inhyung – pictured Jisoo at her last moments before her death – and he knew that he was making the right choice. He knew that he would never be able to pay back for taking Jisoo’s life – albeit indirectly – but still, he prayed that his sacrifice would let someone else experience the entirety of a love life. His next heartbeat would be the last one, but he was content. At least, JB will never know the pain of losing a true love.

And Junior never regretted having to experience it twice.

The last thing I want to tell you, I was happy

Because I was able to be by your side, like a gift

I love you, I miss you, the words I couldn’t tell

Even though I’m saying goodbye, I’m not far away

I’m forever in your heart