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Unexpectedly Disenchanted

Chapter Text

Once upon a time, in a faraway land, there was a beautiful prince.

 

The prince was well-beloved, and his parents cared for him more than themselves. But the prince was spoiled, and unkind.

 

They lived together in a lovely castle by the seaside, and the infant prince spent his days demanding attention and affection from all who knew him. He slowly grew into a handsome young boy with a short temper and no patience to speak of.

 

But one day, tragedy struck their lives.

 

The prince was cursed, turned into a most vicious and cruel beast. Those who knew of the castle said that it was the boy's ugly heart which drew the attention of a vile witch, who cursed his form to match the shape of his spirit.

 

Tormented by his painful and horrific new body, he was isolated in an enchanted castle, hidden deep within a dark and unsettling wood, away from all who could see him and be struck by his terrible face.

 

The story goes that the prince awaits in his castle, a vengeful heart that never learned to love or be loved in return. Some tales say that there is a way to break the curse, and that it had been tried many times, to no avail. The prince, doomed to his fate, has grown haggard, violent, and inhuman.

 

For who could ever learn to love a beast?

Chapter Text

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Fifteen years later

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The sun gently rose up over the treetops, a cool dampness to the air that woke Jungkook from his sleep with a hazy sort of gentility. He blinked his eyes open, sighing into his pillow, and stared up at the yellow-gold glow of the rising sun. Another day had begun.

 

He groaned, leaning into his pillow and feeling tempted to go back to sleep and pretend he had never awoke in the first place. But the clanging of a distant pot signaled that there was no returning back to blessed slumber.

 

"Jungkook! Time to get up!" called a voice, familiar and not unkind, but tinged with an impatience that told Jungkook that there would be a harsher warning the next time.

 

He rolled over, tumbling out of the uncomfortable bed he had in the corner of the small square of space he called his bedroom. It was not a bedroom properly, in all honesty. It was actually a lean-to which his father had attached onto the house, originally intended for firewood alone. But when a second son had arrived, the room eventually shifted into space for the baby of the family. Now a sharp, strong adult, Jungkook had long outgrown the confines of the lean-to, but he had no complaints, as the firewood in the opposite corner always gave a woody, comforting smell, and it was right off the side of the house where the fireplace was, so it was often rippling with little waves of warmth from the other side of the wall, making it one of the warmer rooms in the house.

 

Jungkook fumbled his way to his feet, untangling his blankets from his thighs and wrapping them over his body like a cloak. He then headed into the main room, which served as a kitchen, a dining room, and general living space. The entire house was somewhat worn over the decades, and had become a bit crooked from unexpected earth settlement after a horrific rainstorm back when Jungkook was a baby, but it was solid and it was home.

 

His brother Junghyun was leaning over the fireplace, a single rust-colored pan on its top, as the older man stared at the small container of eggs they had bought yesterday. The pan was still heating up, as Jungkook could see when he shuffled over to his brother's side and stared into it with him in solidarity.

 

A beat of silence passed, and Jungkook mumbled, "You know pans heat up slower when you watch them."

 

"I know," his brother grunted. "But I'm too hungry to care."

 

"Fair," he assented with a nod. He rearranged his make-shift cloak and walked over to the front side of the home, gently tugging open the stiffly crocheted curtains that their mother had made with a fairly unskilled hand, letting in some small amount of light into their den of sorts.

 

"It's getting colder," Junghyun said. "I'm worried about them getting sicker."

 

Jungkook let out a soft sound of acknowledgement, staring out the window. They could see the end of their little lane, and he knew that beyond the copse of trees that surrounded their house, there would be a small village that was struggling in the increasingly harsh winters. Both their parents had gotten ill within the same year, and at first they had just stayed at home, laying near the fire and coughing terribly. But eventually, Junghyun and Jungkook had decided that they both needed to be sent off to the hospital in the city. It was expensive, of course. But necessary.

 

"They're in good hands," Jungkook said at last. Honestly, he missed them. But being an adult meant taking over the task of collecting firewood, of caring for the house, of paying the hospital fees. Of continuing onward. "And we're in peak season, it's a good time to try and make some extra money. "

 

"Yeah. I'll be driving up to the city this afternoon with our current load. I need you to keep collecting and drying. We may need to use some extra room in the lean-to, to make sure we have enough for later in the winter. You know how people often don't buy enough at the start when they're supposed to, and everything will be too wet to use soon enough."

 

Jungkook nodded. "I'll fill the lean-to, plus I can move my bed out here for now and fill it up all the way. It's warmer in here now anyways." His brother nodded, putting eggs into the pan for their breakfast at last. Jungkook moved to bundle up in his blanket in one of the dining room chairs, and on the table lay a canvas that his brother had left there.

 

The canvas depicted a beautiful scene of the mountains, with their blue and purple forms and their endearing caps of white. A gorgeous lake shimmered across the bottom half of the landscape, sparkling with a small family of ducks swimming around one little cove. Either side of the lake was framed by homey pine trees and sturdy oaks, all painted with a light but precise hand that knew their shape and lean well. Jungkook smelled the sharpness of the pigment stinging his nostrils, and he studied each line with care.

 

"You finished it," he said, and Junghyun looked over and smiled. They often joked that their whole family should have been artists, rather than woodcutters, but Jungkook sort of liked having this shared interest between them. He liked competing with his brother and his parents, trying to outpace their skill, enjoying an afternoon making art in quiet and comfortable company.

 

"Yeah, I'm pleased with the mountains but the lake is a bit lackluster."

 

"I think it looks great. The edges of the cove look so real." Jungkook stared at the painting with wide eyes. His fingers were already itching to try a lake himself, to try and improve his own skill, spurred on by his brother's happy little success. He now sort of wished he did not have a full day of work ahead of him, and that he could have the leisure to start on a painting of his own. Unfortunately, life often did not allow for such things.

 

A hand dropped to the back of his head, and Jungkook looked up to find his brother patting his hair. "We're out of red and blue paint, I'm afraid."

 

"Oh," Jungkook said sadly. He had been talking for some time about doing a fiery autumn scene, with lots of reds and yellows and oranges all bursting across the scene, and autumn leaves drifting across a lake would have been a perfect challenge. But paint was a matter of excess, and while they often mixed their own makeshift paint for their uses, it was certainly an extra they should not be spending money on right now.

 

"After this season we should know what our circumstances are for the winter. We can look into getting some new paint then."

 

Jungkook simply nodded, trying to keep his disappointment to himself. The painting was beautiful, and he wanted to create as well, his hands wanting to construct carefully across the canvas.

 

But instead, he ate his breakfast quietly with his brother, and took up his ax from next to the door. He said goodbye to Junghun and focused his thoughts instead on making sure their parents and themselves were taken care of for the winter.

 

The woods were dark and ominous today, cool with the chilling breath-like wind of the oncoming autumn. Soon, it would be winter. They would be unable to spend their days working as they did over the summer, and he could spend time with his brother around their warm hearth, laughing and talking and resting like groundhogs until the arrival of warmer weather.

 

Jungkook's breath came out in a cloudy exhale, and he wandered deep along the path his family had worn down over the years. Surprisingly, his family was one of the few in the village that even dared to go into the woods, much less to collect firewood, so their business was often more than adequate, before the hospital had been necessary. There had been rumors since Jungkook was a little boy that there was an enchanted castle deep within the woods, with a horrible prince inside who had been transformed by a witch into a beast.

 

When he had been little, it had been enough to scare his brother and himself out of the woods and its confusing dark corners. But as they had grown older, myths and legends had held less of a sway over them, and instead of fantastic magical adventures, the more mundane 'adventures' of real life had taken over. Jungkook still got a thrill from wandering the paths and finding a new suitable tree to cut down. His father had taught him to seek out trees which were choking the trees around it, which ones were healthy, and which ones were a hindrance to the health of the woods surrounding.

 

He found a fir that was suitable to his task soon enough, and he set to work to fell it with a strength and skill that had been honed since his boyhood.

 

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The cold wind bit at Junghyun's face as he drove the cart along the winding woody path. It was a path they infrequently drove down, mostly used during peak season when their cords of wood needed to be sold off and used by dozens of families to get through the cold winter. During this season, however, when homes were getting cooler and the realization set in that firewood would be necessary, it was driven along hundreds of times. People always underestimated how much wood they would need, but Junghyun had always tried to impress upon people that a little more was always better than a little less, as once snow hit the forest ground, all the new wood would be damp and not burn as well. Whether they paid heed or not, that was their own conscience they would have to answer to, not his.

 

He had been tumbling along for some hours when it started to sprinkle. Junghyun sighed, drawing his coat in closer to his body, attempting to shield himself from the rising wind that blew through the trees in an angry hiss. It rapidly grew colder, and he cursed to himself as it started to rain more fully, pervasively pelting through his clothes and quickly chilling him through. If the rain reached back home, Jungkook would be unable to get any work today, and if the rain kept up, his journey would be slowed or possibly even stopped. He cursed the will of the skies and hoped that it would let up soon.

 

But to his dismay, the rain went from sprinkles to droplets, to a quick and furious downpour. He could barely see Rapunzel's ears, much less the direction the mare was pulling the cart to. He tried to squint through the rain, but the sheets of water just continued to fall down about them in a nasty torrent, and Rapunzel fussed and complained in her worried snuffs and grunts as she blindly picked her way along the now-muddy lane. Junghyun sighed, relieved at least that the cart was a covered one, prepared to withstand inclement weather in favor of delivering life-saving resources to the villagers. He looked over his shoulder to peer into the covering, the thick canvas doing its job to protect the wood. No leaks were evident, and he was glad for it.

 

However, what Junghyung did not notice, was that while he was leaning back into the cart to inspect further, Rapunzel slipped a bit on her foot, shuffling off to one side to regain her balance, and at the same time, with her instincts blurred by the seemingly endless downpour of water, she stepped along a path that had not been ventured in a very long time.

 

It was a matter of but a few quick minutes of walking, and by the time Jonghyun straightened up in his seat, the rain-sheeted wooded path looked the very same as it always had.

 

After some hours of shivering along, it was not until coming across a large, fallen tree that stretched across the path that Junghyun began to wonder if something was wrong. One could understandably have guessed that the tree had fallen during the storm, but not so for a woodcutter's son. Junghyun crumpled his brow, the handsome face pallid and ill-looking, as he slowly lowered himself from the cart and went over to see the break.

 

The tree had slid a considerable distance from its base, with mud around it showing thickly-worn furrows where the trunk and branches had dug into the earth. And Junghyun knew that this tree had been down for some time, but his last visit to the city had been earlier last week. There was no way he would not have noticed it.

 

Rapunzel snorted, her nostrils flaring as she picked up on something that Junghyun did not. The young man wiped the water from his bangs, squinting over the mess of branches and brambles to peer down the path. It was difficult to make out through the sheets of cold autumn rain, but Junghyun could just make out the squarish grey-blue roof of a building some ways down the road. He frowned, confused, and then looked over his shoulder at Rapunzel.

 

"Stay here, okay? I'll be right back." He waved at the loyal mare, who shifted with trepidation on her spot, but remained where she was. As Junghyun knelt into the mud and ducked his head below the length of the tree trunk, the mare snorted a bit in protest, then tilted her head to pluck some leaves off a nearby tree, nibbling as she watched the man vanish down the curve of the path.

 

Junghyun shivered again, wrapping his arms around him as he sniffled, soaked through. He didn't want to waste time nor energy backtracking, if this path was near his originally intended destination, and he didn't want Rapunzel to be out pulling the cart for days on end by going in circles. He could just go up to the nearest building with people, ask for clarification on where he currently was, and continue on.

 

Besides, a part of him was innately curious about this path, which seemed utterly unfamiliar to him. As he walked along, the veil of the storm seemed to lessen, the thick sheets of rain tapering off into a haze littered with fat droplets, allowing him to see ahead. It wasn't long before the woods opened up to a large open field, surprisingly bare of trees or foliage, and a long path stretched out before him that led to the center of a beautiful mansion, with ecru-colored bricks and a sturdy blue-grey roof, and so many windows. From where Junghyun stood in the middle of the road, he could see over thirty high-reaching windows, and numerous chimneys, each emitting a faint puffy cloud of smoke.

 

It looked, to Junghyun.... like warmth. Something he definitely did not have here out in the cold and wet. He wanted to finish selling the wood and go back to Jungkook, and their comfortable fire, and their familiar hearth, and their paintings.

 

With a weary sigh, Junghyun walked down the path. After some time of the wide expanse of the wet field, there eventually came to be a line of shrubberies, which were well-trimmed and grew along each side of the path, dotted at even intervals as if it was a line of soldiers waiting to welcome him.

 

The huge mansion stretched out above him and he looked up to see a dim glow in some of the windows. The door was tall and elaborately designed, and he felt the sudden contrast when he stepped into the covering and was shielded from the wind and rain. Junghyun licked his lips, feeling a bit nervous and at a loss as to why.

 

Junghyun reached up, finding a large brass door knocker there in the shape of a gruesome and angry looking demon, its horns twisted toward the sky and its brow furrowed as it glared down at him. Shivering, Junghyun lifted the brass ring and slammed it against the knocker's plate. Once, twice, thrice, then a fourth time. It clanged loudly and abrasively in the cool, wet air, and Junghyun stepped back from the door, hugging his arms around his body.

 

He waited for several long, agonizing minutes, and then leaned around to either side, trying to peek inside the long paneled windows for some sign of life. There was smoke in the chimneys, so there must have been someone living or at least working here. Junghyun was confused.

 

He leaned forward, wiping the sleeve of his jacket along one of the panels and peeking in. He squinted into what appeared to be a beautiful dark foyer, and there was a candelabra set up atop an elegant crimson runner along a dark table.

 

There was a quick movement, like a figure stepping toward that side of the door and then swiftly stepping back, and it came so suddenly that Junghyun gasped and jolted away from the window.

 

He stared up at the strange house, with its owner that would not answer the door, and sighed. He knocked again, this time with harsh cracks against the door knocker, and called out, "Hello? Excuse me, I'm just looking for directions. Will you please help me?"

 

Nothing. No movement, but Junghyun could feel, along with the now-prominent goosebumps rising along his skin, that the mysterious someone was just behind the door; listening, and doing nothing.

 

"Please!" he called out, his voice a little muffled by the rainwater that was running down his face, making him spittle in the slightest. "I just need some direction, my mare is older and I think we are quite far from anyone else. Please?"

 

Still no response. Junghyun sighed. Whoever it was inside just didn't want to help him, it seemed. Junghyun's shoulders slumped, and he turned to go back down the steps, out into the hazy drizzle of the storm as it continued to blow around him.

 

Then, a loud creak behind him, and Junghyun turned to see the great front doors opening before him. Feeling apprehension shake him down to the very core, he gingerly stepped back up the front steps, poking his wet head into the doorway. He looked from side to side, but the open foyer was void of any signs of life, save for one lit candle on the candelabra.

 

"Hello?" Junghyun called out, confused. "Hello?"

 

He felt a shudder run up his spine as the wind screeched behind him, and he was overwhelmed by that moment of grand decision. His body willed him to step inside, to warm up, to curiously inquire as to the mysterious household. The floors looked aged but clean, the furnishings expensive and grand,  but the whole house awash with an eerie aura.

 

But Junghyun's mind reminded him of the stories, the warnings of stepping into strange houses or entering doorways where one was not welcomed. He shivered again, and moved to step outside.

 

As Junghyun turned to leave, he did not see the figure hiding up on the landing, out of sight and peering through the rosewood balusters of the balcony railing. The figure blinked in confusion at this intruder, seen by the hidden figure as a young peasant-looking man with a handsome face and bright eyes. For a moment, the figure thought that the man had matched gazes through the space between the balusters, but it was a mere trick of the angle.

 

Junghyun shoved his hands into his pockets, sighing as he left the steps once again. He started the journey back down the path, when something caught his attention out of corner of his eye. There was a strange hedge that rested behind a short gathering of apple trees, and a garden alongside. Curious, he followed the small footpath off the steps and toward the side of the house, coming up onto an impossibly large hedge maze. He peered inside the first turn of the maze, and then withdrew, certain that that was another warning bell not to meddle or get even more lost within this strange, otherworldly place.

 

But the garden… the garden surprised him by emanating a comforting and familiar sight. There was a wide expanse set aside just for vegetables, growing and drinking up the rain with delight and eagerness. Framing the far edge of the garden, he spotted a wire-made rounded gazebo, with every arch and curve of it blooming with the most beautiful red roses Junghyun had ever seen. There were wild roses which grew in some hidden places, of course, but these… these were not wild things, but nurtured and cherished. Junghyun's mouth was held agape as he walked over to the gazebo, standing beneath it to look up into the roof, walls, and protection of roses all around him. They were deep crimson, blooming beautifully despite the lateness of the season. This must have been their second bloom of the year, and when he reached out to gently cup one of the buds in his hand, he found its petals to be velvety soft, and his love of beautiful things flared up within his heart. And of course, he thought of Jungkook, wishing his brother could see how lovely they were. No one could quite appreciate such a temporal grace and beauty without seeing it so full of life and first-hand.

 

"Ah," Junghyun said to himself with realization. "You would make the most perfect colors for his painting!" With a beaming smile, Junghyun looked all around the inside of the gazebo, and then quietly plucked off three or four of the rosebuds, slipping them with the utmost care into the deep inner pocket of his jacket, careful not to crush them. He smiled to himself, beyond elated that his brother would get to have his beautiful autumn painting after all, using the most deepest of blood-red hues. He would get home that night and start mixing the pigment immediately and--

 

Junghyun spun on his heel, nearly falling backward into the side of the gazebo, as no further than a pace in front of him stood a monstrous creature, looming menacingly. His heart stopped in his chest as he struggled to find his footing in the soft ground, and he stared open-mouthed at a great beast, standing tall and broad like a man but with a horrific face with a twisted mouth, covered in shaggy, dark fur which only showed a frowning mouth and deep, almond eyes. The breath out of Junghyun vanished entirely, but as the monster did not move to attack, he forced himself to breathe and stand up, staring at the creature in confusion.

 

"H-hello?" Junghyun began, clenching and unclenching his fists, unsure what to do or if he should flee.

 

"How dare you," spoke the beast, each word tinged with a growl, deep-throated and threatening. "You would trespass upon my estate, permit yourself freedom into my home, and now you dare purloin my beloved roses?"

 

"I'm--?" stuttering, Junghyun felt himself flush with embarrassment and terror, unable to quite deny the accusations, but unsure how to defend himself. "I didn't mean any harm I just--"

 

"Those roses," the creature continued, stepping heavily toward Junghyun, reaching out and suddenly gripping the man's wrist into a painfully rough hold. Junghyun looked down at the limb which held him, and found that from the fingertips to the wrist where it disappeared into the man's lavishly decorated coat, there was only more long dark fur, and the claws that clutched him were firm as iron. "Those roses are worth more to me than gold or jewels. They are sacred ."

 

Junghyun swallowed heavily, fear making tears prickle at the edges of his eyes as his arm hurt more and more. "P-Please, I didn't know, I just wanted to bring my brother a gift."

 

The beast halted a bit at that, but then growled again, a snarling wicked sound as the other hand reached out and gripped Junghyun by the neck, teeth bracing before Junghyun's eyes. He was sure the beast would break his neck or consume him right there, and his legs shook visibly, unable to fully support him anymore. It was in that moment that Junghyun, cold and weary, scared half out of his mind, simply fainted away, his last thought that he still wanted to protect the beautiful roses tucked into the hidden inner pocket of his worn coat.

Chapter Text

Jungkook sighed, carting water back and forth from the well to the house in a bit of an automated, bored haze. The rain had gone on for three days straight, and now that it had let up, he didn't have any more room to store anymore firewood. They were full up as much as they could, and yet Junghyun hadn't returned. The house was lonely and barren, and Jungkook hated it. He hated the feeling of being bored, and cabin fever was getting the best of him. He had tried twice to make paint like his brother had, but the colors just did not blend quite right. He had tried to make a set of playing cards, but had been dissatisfied with his final product. He had taken to simply sitting and staring out the open front door, the hot fire at his back, and practicing his whistling.

 

Where had Junghyun gone? Surely even if the rain had caused problems along the road, he would have still been back by now. How much longer could Jungkook wait? Had Junghyun been having a hard time selling the firewood? He had no way of knowing.

 

Even if something was wrong, Jungkook wasn't sure if he could have done anything, as Rapunzel had gone with his brother, and it would have been a horrible journey on foot. Besides, his place was here while Junghyun was away. To leave the house except for an emergency would have been irresponsible.

 

Jungkook sighed, wishing he could go off into the woods and just wander around properly, like during his boyhood days. He wished for company, for some task to occupy his mind.

 

After sitting bored in the house for a time, Jungkook sighed, deciding to get up to close the door when he saw someone coming down the path. Jungkook's expression brightened, and he ran out to the yard, past the covered cords of wood. Finally, Junghyun was home, he was sure of it. He turned around the corner, and saw a horse coming down the path, suspiciously without the cart attached. After a moment, he realized it wasn't Rapunzel, but a darker-colored horse with a young woman in the saddle, long dark hair flowing behind her as her horse trotted down the path at an easygoing pace. She slowed the animal as she came to the end of the path, a rich green riding cloak wrapped around her. As she spotted Jungkook, a broad smile grew across her pretty mouth, lips painted a dramatic red.

 

"Good morning, Abélia," Jungkook called out, offering her a smile.

 

"Morning, Jungkook," she drew her horse up beside him, "Does your brother have you working hard today?"

 

"He's actually not in right now, he went to the city a couple days ago," Jungkook said, fighting to keep a smile on his face. Abélia looked down at him, watching his face as if in surprise for a moment, then her expression turned to worry.

 

"A couple days ago? What's keeping him?"

 

Jungkook shrugged, helping Abélia down from her horse out of politeness. He didn't understand the real cause for the way her cheeks flushed, attributing it to the long ride in the cool dampness of an autumn morning. He never noticed. That was Jungkook's fatal flaw. He never heard the way the town talked about the two handsome brothers, who looked and acted like elegant princes of old, despite their low standing. He never heard them tease Abélia for the affection she had held for the youngest brother since they were young, when they used to play together and the young lady did not know what it meant for her family to be the wealthiest nouveau riche in town. Back when she did not know that it would be a large factor in not even being considered by a humble woodcutter, if his lack of self-consciousness and naivety had not been enough on its own.

 

"It could be any number of things. I wanted to wait until the paths had dried after the storm before I get too worried. He may have gone to visit our parents, after all."

 

"Right..." Abélia nodded, but she saw the lines of worry in Jungkook's face. "But it must be lonely, right?" She hesitated, then took his hand and gave it a comforting squeeze. "Would you care for a little company?"

 

Jungkook worked his mouth, considering for a moment before he gave a shy nod. Abélia smiled, tucking her arm through the crook of his before they walked back toward the house, hitching her horse to the front gate before they went inside to sit together. He brought out the silver coffee pot to make them some, even though the cups were chipped and the coffee pot had changed colors long ago. He felt a little embarrassed by it, having been a couple of times in the beautiful parlor of Abélia's father, and knowing that their coffee pot was shinier than an enchanted mirror, and being reminded of it in the elegant movements of the young lady as she drew her seat in and thanked him with no hint of lofty insinuation within her countenance.

 

"How are your parents?" he inquired, pouring them coffee and bringing out the sugar into the nicest bowl they had, knowing Abélia, like most girls, liked a large amount of sugar in her coffee. Both coffee and sugar were expensive and hard to obtain in their little village, but Jungkook had been raised to entertain as well as he could, and due to the unavoidable elements of the storm, he didn't want Abélia to get sick. He was sure his brother would understand.

 

"They are well," Abélia said back, her small mouth rested into a warm little pouting shape as she sipped to test the coffee. Jungkook was often distracted by the shape of Abélia's lips, unsure what it was precisely about them that rendered them eye-catching, but they were. Perhaps it was the expensive makeup her parents bought for her, or the pretty way they curved upward, being thin on the sides and plush in the middle, as if constantly pursed. "My father is actually arranging a ball for later this year, as there have been rumors of new eligible young men buying out the estates on the edges of town." She rolled her eyes. "Will you come, Jungkook? It will be dreadful all on my own."

 

It had become their habit as youths, for Jungkook to arrive at her family's parties as her unofficial escort from time to time, giving her an excuse to avoid uncomfortable, but otherwise obligatory dances with strangers. Jungkook was usually happy to lend a hand and help a friend from a task that was not appealing in the least. Abélia seemed more like the type to court someone not for their grand estate, but for their sense of humor, Jungkook had always thought. He sipped at his coffee, trying not to cringe at the bitterness, then added more sugar to his own cup.

 

"Certainly," he said, "As long as it doesn't keep me from work, I don't see any reason why not."

 

Abélia smiled broadly, sipping at her coffee with delight. "I'll have Papa pull out a suit for you to borrow. They may want to get it fitted, since you have obviously grown some since the last ball."

 

"Have I?"

 

"Absolutely," Abélia said, hesitating before taking the plunge and pursuing the rush of feeling. "You grow more handsome every day, Jungkook. Everyone thinks so."

 

Jungkook flushed, shuffling nervously in his seat as he swiped a hand at his ear, a shy smile blossoming over his face as he stared at the table, allowing Abélia to beam at him behind her own blush. "No, not at all..."

 

"You don't have to see it yourself for it to be true," Abélia argued softly. But knowing how nervous compliments made Jungkook, she shifted the subject. "Shall we play a game?"

 

To that, Jungkook gave a nod, smiling as he stood up, sliding open a compartment his father had built into the table and pulling out a deck of cards. He started to shuffle them together, and Abélia smiled as they talked quietly about goings on in the town and how the winter was predicted to be.

 

When it started to get on later in the day, they were just wrapping up another round of backgammon when Abélia said she needed to head back home. Jungkook offered to accompany her, to which she politely declined to acquiesce even though she would have wished it.

 

"It will be far too dark on your way back," she explained. "Besides, I know the path well. Tell your brother we miss him in the village too, when he returns. And he is of course invited to the ball as well, once we have a date set aside for it. But I don't expect he will accept," she smiled, stepping outside and slipping her dainty shoe into the stirrup. Jungkook moved forward, helping her up into the saddle by awkwardly supporting her waist, and then stepping back. She smiled down at him, for a moment the expression in her eyes one of a great sadness, before she inhaled sharply and straightened her posture in her seat. Jungkook unhitched her horse, handing her the reins. 

 

"Well, then," she said. "I will see you."

 

"Goodbye," Jungkook said quietly, looking up at her.

 

"Now don't look at me like that, with your big sad eyes," she half-giggled. "You're tempting me to stay longer and keep you company until your brother is back, but I cannot stay."

 

"I know..." he murmured again, looking down into the horse's face. "Be safe."

 

"Of course, no need to worry about me. Goodbye, Jungkook," she waved, then turned her horse and started down the path, the late afternoon sun setting behind them, allowing Jungkook to watch her for some time. He hugged his arms about himself, squeezing tightly. Abélia had offered a little reprieve from the utter loneliness of home, but now there was nothing to be done. He wished they were children again, able to use the excuse of naivety which had allowed Abélia to stay until late hours, Jungkook's father eventually driving her home in the dark, a lantern attached to the cart as she huddled next to him all wrapped in blankets. It had been a time with little to no obligations, simply childish selfishness and play.

 

Jungkook sighed, his shoulders drooped as he stood there quite some time after Abélia was out of sight. He turned to go back into the house when he heard a sound like a heavy footstep, and he went round the other side of the house, nearly jumping out of his skin to see an enormous beast there, munching on the grass and looking bored.

 

"Rapunzel!" Jungkook exclaimed, walking over to the horse, the cart still attached to the poor creature. Leaves and branches were all caught up in her bridle and mane, and she had some scratches on her belly, but other than that, she seemed to be alright.

 

The horse snorted in recognition of Jungkook, her skin quivering slightly as he petted her, confused.

 

"Where is Junghyun?" he asked. He looked into the covered cart, which must have been so heavy for Rapunzel to carry, and saw that all the wood Junghyun was supposed to take to the city was still in there. He had never made it to the city.

 

Panic and fear shot through Jungkook like a thunderbolt. He quickly unhitched Rapunzel from the cart, leaving it in the yard as he saddled up the horse, apologizing to her for pushing her when she already must have been tired. He put out the fire in the house, grabbed his own coat and their bag of medicinal herbs and remedies from by the door - where his father had always kept it, and insisted it was kept updated in case of an injury in the woods - and jumped onto Rapunzel's back. The horse protested with a cry, but Jungkook dug his boots into her sides, sending them both racing down the lane.

 

As he rode, Jungkook tried not to let his mind wander and dwell too long on the possibilities of where Junghyun was at now. He had no time to cry or to be panicked, he needed to step up and be strong; for certainly his brother, wherever he was, needed him. Jungkook attributed the wet streaks against the apples of his cheeks to the way that galloping along made the air sting at his eyes painfully, causing them to water.

 

Rapunzel turned a bend, and they came to a place where the road turned, with a little sidepath diverting off to the side. Jungkook pulled back on the reins, frowning. He could see in the now dried dirt path the hoof prints where Abélia had traversed home. It was the path they had always traveled down, hundreds of times.

 

But a cart, heavily laden with three cords of wood, would always leave a mark, especially during the sort of heavy rain they had had. And the familiar lines of wheel marks did not follow the usual path, but wobbled and spun off to the side, following this unknown direction.

 

What had Junghyun been thinking? He knew this path better than anyone, save their father. Jungkook frowned in worry, turning Rapunzel down the side path and kicking into her sides.

 

Branches and brush all covered parts of the path, and it got smaller and smaller as they went along, much slower now for safety's sake. He kept his eyes honed in on either side of the road, in case his brother had fallen off and was lying beneath some bush or at the roots of some tree, injured...or worse. His heart pounded in his chest as he moved mechanically forward.

 

And then, a giant tree blocked his path. Jungkook stared at it for a moment, and then dropped off Rapunzel to go look closer. He could see a mess of marks underneath the tree. He leaned down, trying to make sense of the path before the tree to ensure he could spot his brother's boot marks, but they were too messy now, filled with lumps of grass and impressions of Rapunzel's clumsy feet. He sighed. He would have to investigate further.

 

He led Rapunzel the long way around, taking a deep detour off the path until they were able to pick their way around the tree and return to the road, and then they turned with the road, and a wide field opened up before them. Jungkook's mouth fell agape as he stared at a fairly well-manicured country estate, with beautiful windows and an elaborate hedge. Jungkook, now on his feet, tugged Rapunzel along, eyes darting around in apprehension.

 

There was a great porch before him, with an enormous eerie knocker that glared down at him from its perch. Jungkook gulped, then tied Rapunzel to a fence post nearby, gingerly walking up the steps. One hand reached out, and eventually fingertips reached the cool metal of the ring, and he knocked.

 

Clang. Clang. Clang.

 

Jungkook stood on the doorstep, biting at his lip nervously and looking all around. The lawn was beautiful, the hedge trimmed. He could see walking paths that led off into the woods surrounding. The house was decorated in an antique style, but it was solidly constructed, with beautiful trimmings and so, so many windows. Jungkook loved the windows.

 

There was a noise inside, and Jungkook glanced back toward one of the floor-to-ceiling windows that flanked the door, and he saw a movement there. Worry rose through him, and he knocked again, not wanting to be ignored.

 

He kept knocking repeatedly, relentlessly, for several minutes, and then he heard the sound of a lock. He released the now-abused door knocker, and braced himself. The door opened, revealing a dark foyer with a crimson carpet. Jungkook stared. No one appeared at the door.

 

"Hello?" he called out, poking just his head in and squinting into the dim light of the foyer. "Who are you? I saw you in the window."

 

No answer came, and Jungkook was tempted to turn back, but he just knew… deep in his bones, that this place had an answer for what had happened to his brother. Even giving him a direction or a rejection would have meant something. He stepped into the foyer, his boots looking strange on the elegant carpet.

 

"I'm looking for my brother! I know he came this way. I need to find him," Jungkook argued into the silence. He tried to inhale deeply, attempting to make his voice sound more formidable, and not shaky whatsoever. "He could be hurt!"

 

There was no answer, but the light from the candles in the foyer flickered, and then a door to his left creaked open, revealing a room with a fireplace. Jungkook hesitated, suspicious of this movement, and waited. The door remained open, and no one appeared. Was this the mansion they had heard about, the enchanted one in the woods? Jungkook felt his stomach sink into the carpet with apprehension, but there was nothing to be done. He stepped through the door, and found a sizeable and beautifully decorated parlor. A statue stood propped in the corner, and there was a broad mahogany table for playing games, and a large shelf of books, along with almost a dozen comfortable couches, chairs, and tables. Jungkook stepped in timidly, feeling very out-of-place with his worn everyday wear and dirty jacket, standing awkward as could be just within the doorway. But with a glance upward, he saw that a beautiful painting had been created across the elaborate ceiling, and his mouth fell open as he stared at its soft, plush figures which flew above him with graceful, arching arms and gentle smiles. It was breathtaking.

 

While Jungkook was staring up at the ceiling, the door behind him abruptly shut with a click, and Jungkook whirled around, his heart leaping into his throat as he raised his arms to defend himself, just as his brother had taught him.

 

But instead of some ghostly figure, some brawny beast or whatever it was he had been expecting, it was a young woman. Jungkook froze, staring at her. Based on her dress, he assumed she was a housekeeper, but she was quite youthful for such a position. Her clothes were immaculately clean, practical for her duty, and well-made. Her curly hair was drawn back away from her face, and her eyes were locked on Jungkook in confusion.

 

"You shouldn't be here!" she whispered, looking concerned. "If the master sees you, you'll be done for!"

 

Jungkook felt the panic of warning rise in his breast, but he forced himself to set it aside, slowly lowering his clenched fists to stare at her. "I'm looking for my brother! I won't leave without him!"

 

"You must! Or who knows what master might do!" the woman cried out. "Please!"

 

"I cannot go without my brother. Tell me where he is. Is he hurt?"

 

The woman bit her lip, obviously pushing the boundaries already, merely by letting Jungkook remain in the house. But Jungkook planted his feet, taking a step toward her. She took a half-step back, bumping into the door and letting out a worried sound.

 

"He's...the master's got him now, he made him really angry..." she said at last. "He stole the roses the master grows, specially for his mother and father." She looked about ready to cry, wringing her hands. "He's such a pretty and polite boy, though, I wish the master would just let him go."

 

"You have to take me to him," Jungkook whispered. "I promise, I'll just take him and we will go away, and we will never bother you or your master again. We are just woodcutters, we don't want to cause any problems..."

 

The housekeeper worried her lip some more, torn between two cognitive anomalies in her presumably simple lifestyle. But then she looked up into Jungkook's face, and she seemed in awe of what she found there.

 

"You look just like him..." she breathed. "Too beautiful for such a fate." She steeled herself, visibly plucking up courage and squaring her shoulders. "Right, I'll take you to him."

 

The fireplace flickered and crackled, and the housekeeper led him out into the foyer once more, rushing beyond the main stairs as though they would reach out to snatch her up at any moment. Her hand held onto Jungkook's as they quickly ran through the house. Hallway after hallway they passed through, until Jungkook was certain he would never be able to find his way back out again. The high, lofted ceilings were hung with draperies and elaborate tapestries, beautiful chandeliers hung around various corners, and he stared up at them in awe and confusion. Who was this master, that the housekeeper was so afraid of him?

 

"This way, quick!" she halted, gesturing toward a dark door, covered in a strange metal bar that lifted out of its lock after she yanked on it with all her strength. The door creaked open, and there was only darkness within. Jungkook peered inside, careful to keep a firm hold on the door frame.

 

The housekeeper, meanwhile, walked off into a nearby hidden door, removing from the small housekeeping closet within a single candle, which she lit before leading the way.

 

"It's actually a cellar," she explained, "But it's barely been used in years. The man arrived just a few days ago, and we tried to reason with Master, but he is determined to protect the house at all costs..."

 

As she spoke, they wandered along in the dark, with great heavy barrels on either side of them turned on their side. The floor was cool and damp, and Jungkook could smell the aging wine stinging at his nostrils as he went. At the end of a line of the barrels, there was another little door, this one locked as well. The housekeeper stood to the side, looking at Jungkook with her face drawn in concern.

 

"You must get him out of here, as quick as you can, before the master finds out you're here!" She reached out her hand, giving him the candle.

 

Jungkook looked at the door for a moment, before he heard a cough inside. He rushed toward the door, pulling the latch and lifting the heavy lock with swiftness. Once the door opened, he blinked in the darkness, seeing something moving in the shadows in one corner. A small trundle bed had been set up on one wall, and the shifting form that coughed was huddled across from it, holding up a hand.

 

"Please," came Junghyun's voice, strained and dry. "Please, I'm sorry..."

 

"Junghyun!" Jungkook cried out, leaping forward to wrap his arms around his older brother, squeezing him so tight that another coughing fit was instigated. "I'm so glad I found you. Are you alright?"

 

"Jungkook?" his brother managed, once he had collected himself again. "What are you doing here?! You have to get out! There's a horrible creature here and he--"

 

"Don't worry, I'm going to get you out of here. Are you hurt? Can you stand?"

 

"Y-yes, I can stand. But Jungkook I--"

 

The clatter of a door, echoing all along the cellar, and the housekeeper gasped, vanishing from the doorway and into the darkness. Junghyun began to tremble, gripping onto Jungkook in apparent fear, as they heard the faint sound of footsteps moving along the cellar. Soon, there was a looming figure in the door frame, without a candle but visibly taking up the entire space there as it stood watching them. Jungkook felt fear rush through him, unsure what it could be that was causing his brother to shake like a leaf.

 

Before Jungkook had a chance to otherwise move or react, the shadow spoke. "What are you doing here?"

 

The voice was tinged with a growl, crackling as he watched Jungkook holding his brother close. Jungkook licked his lips, determined to be unafraid. He had to be strong for Junghyun.

 

"I'm here to collect my brother," Jungkook said firmly. "He's sick and needs a doctor. And his freedom."

 

"Your brother," hissed the voice, "Trespassed and then robbed me. The grimy peasantry has always been the same, taking whatever is not being closely guarded, demanding more and more from the lives around them." Jungkook felt Junghyun shivering again in his hands, before another cough escaped him. The shadow continued, "He is here only to pay for what he stole with his own hands."

 

"My brother wouldn't steal from you!" Jungkook started, but Junghyun gripped roughly at Jungkook's coat, letting out a mournful sound. He looked down at his brother, who then reached into his own coat pocket, retrieving something. He held it out for Jungkook, who lifted it up so he could see it against the weak candle light. It was a rosebud, still beautiful despite the way it had become dried and pressed in the jacket pocket, now something that could be easily crumpled in Jungkook's hand.

 

"I was bringing them to you," Junghyun murmured morosely. "For your painting."

 

The creature made a curious sound, then a low growl. "You see? He admits it himself. When he has paid for his trespassing, I will let him go free, but not before."

 

Jungkook stared at the rose, feeling his heart crumble to pieces, as though it were his heart that had dried and become brittle and delicate, not the flower. His brother would die here, he knew, if he left him. But what could he do, when an obviously powerful man was here, keeping him captive? No one would side with them. No one would even believe them, he was sure. They were two woodcutters, with no money to buy his freedom and no influence to force his hand.

 

Tears started to sting at the corners of Jungkook's vision as he stared at the flower, then at Junghyun, who gripped Jungkook's sleeve tighter in worry at the look of determination on the young man's face.

 

"Take me instead," Jungkook said with finality.

 

"No, Jungkook!" his brother clutched at him weakly.

 

"What did you say?" the creature thrummed, sounding confused.

 

But Jungkook's jaw was set in determination. "It's my fault he's here in the first place. He was bringing the roses so I could make a painting." He decided not to mention that they both painted, that Jungkook had never asked him to steal flowers for the sake of their art. That didn't matter anyways, in the end.

 

The creature considered this for a moment. "Do you know what you are offering?"

 

"Of course I do!" Jungkook snapped back, his fear causing him to lash out in defensiveness. "Just let my brother go, and I'll stay for the remainder of his punishment. He'll die if he stays down here!"

 

"I was going to--" the creature began, abruptly cut off by Junghyun, who clung to Jungkook desperately.

 

"You can't, Jungkook, you can't! It's my own fault, I should have known better! Please!"

 

"Junghyun, it's okay. You have to get back and get better," Jungkook said, his voice going soft. He held onto Junghyun tightly. "You're faster at working than I am, right? Our parents need the faster of us two."

 

"You can't do this!"

 

"Is this your final decision? To sacrifice yourself for your brother's mistake?" the creature hummed. "You realize you won't be able to leave."

 

Jungkook nodded.

 

The creature hummed, then moved forward. The candle light finally caught the creature's face, flickering as if the flame itself was stricken with fear. Jungkook looked up at the creature, to find a tall, almost-human figure, with a beast's face. What skin could be seen was covered in thick, dark hair that stretched across his face, with just his eyes and lips peeking through. The eyes were bright, and locked on Jungkook, unwavering.

 

"Are you certain?" the beast asked again, softly. Jungkook felt a chill spread through him, wondering what was going to happen. He could be beaten, or killed, or locked away forever. He could be privy to whatever dark, cruel games the beast wished to inflict on his prisoner. But they could do nothing. Jungkook knew he needed to do this. His brother, ill from the storm, wouldn't last.

 

Jungkook stood up, facing the beast eye-to-eye, and with his shoulders set, he told the beast, "I am certain."

 

Something in the beast's eyes flickered, then, as if utterly thrown by the decision. "Then I will have one of the servants take your brother safely home. You will remain here for one year to the day of his crime, and not a day sooner nor later."

 

He nodded in understanding.

 

"Marguerite," called the beast over his shoulder. With a squeak, the housekeeper appeared in the doorway, abandoning her futile hiding place. "Call Philippe and have him escort this young man back to his home."

 

"Jungkook, please," pleaded Junghyun once again, standing and cupping his brother's cheeks in his hands, his eyes sorrowful. "I'd never forgive myself if--"

 

"I'll be home in a year," Jungkook promised, sending his brother a wry smile. "Trust in me?"

 

Junghyun's lip trembled, and he embraced Jungkook tightly, whispering apologies into his brother's ear, begging him to go home instead.

 

"Thank you," Jungkook said quietly, shyly, as he held Junghyun for what could have been the last time. "Thank you for the rose. But take it home with you, so you can make it into paint."

 

Junghyun still had tears streaming down his cheeks when a tall, thin older man entered the cellar, gruffly leading Junghyun out of the cellar and out of the house. Jungkook watched them go, feeling helpless and exposed somehow in the darkness of the cellar.

 

The beast, meanwhile, stood watching Jungkook for a long time, the deep-set almond eyes wide as if in the throes of a wordless confusion. Jungkook sat still, staring at the last place he saw his brother's back, choking back the emotion that tore at his throat.

 

Eventually, the beast stepped back out of the inner cellar door, shutting it behind him with a strange, half-hearted sort of grunt. The latch fell down with a clatter, locking into place, and Jungkook was left with his lone candle in the cursed blackness.

 

It was not until the footsteps had faded away, that Jungkook was left truly alone, that he truly allowed himself to cry. His body was wracked violently in sobs as he lay on the stone ground, feeling dampness and straw underneath him, and he allowed fear and sorrow to grip at his heart freely.

 

It was some hours later that Jungkook finally was released into the blessed embrace of sleep.

 

🌹🌹🌹

 

Up in the parlor, the beast stood staring into the bright flames in the fireplace, his hands crossed behind his back as he remained immovable before the unrelenting heat, a direct contrast to the coolness of the cellar. Even when Marguerite returned, bringing a tray with her and offering him a cup of tea, he said nothing, continuing to watch the licks of flame dance around the logs there. It was not noticed by the housekeeper, but the beast's hands trembled slightly as he gripped at his own forearms tightly.

 

The shadows grew deeper as night drew its grim darkness over the room, drawing the beast's eye ever further into the ashes of the fire. Eventually, Phillippe re-entered, walking up carefully behind the creature and waiting for his attention with a soft clearing of his throat. The beast turned in a silent question.

 

"The woodcutter has been returned to his… humble abode, master."

 

"Thank you, Phillippe," the beast said quietly. "Please inform the young man that his brother is safe."

 

Phillippe hesitated for a moment, as if he was about to put a question to his lord, but then decided against it, leaving him alone once again in front of the fireplace. Phillippe walked out of the parlor and into the kitchen, where two women sat around the rough wooden table in the center of the room, whispering.

 

"Tis very strange, indeed," Marguerite was saying, "He has not said a word since the boy was taken away. Do you think the boy said something to him?"

 

"The woodcutter? What sort of thing would you be alluding to?" the cook said with a shrug, her hands busy polishing the silver for the third time that month. Celeste was a woman of simple, brash wit and warmth, and had been employed in the house the longest of the three. She often wistfully mentioned days where the staff had been plenty, life had been in the halls at all times, and the table they sat at would have once hummed and thrummed with energy and light. But those days were long gone. Celeste was a woman of no more than 25 years, but she held a grace and age far beyond that time.

 

"I have not the slightest," Marquerite sighed. She dropped her chin into her hand. "But he was so gentle... you cannot imagine..."

 

"The master?!"

 

"No, the woodcutter!" the housekeeper snapped, as though personally affronted at the confusion from her vague meandering about the subject. "His name was Junghyun, he told me."

 

"Don't go getting your head into trouble, Marguerite," warned Celeste with a wag of her finger. "Keep to your duties and stick to the house."

 

"But nothing ever happens here, much less a handsome young man..." Marguerite, being of young mind and body, slumped in her seat, pouting at the lack of prospects on her horizons. Celeste shook her head, turning back to her silver just as Marguerite's eye gleamed with a mischievous shimmer. "Oh, Celeste? Mayhaps I should take some supper down to this new charge? He must be famished by now."

 

"Not until the master says," Phillippe interrupted, sitting at the far side of the table so that he could light his pipe without the smoke disturbing the others. "And not a minute before."

 

Marguerite's pout deepened, the creases on her face exaggerated as she sent a glare of the most daring kind she could muster to her superior. "I don't understand what the master means by keeping them in that dreadful cellar anyways. Surely he could find less dramatic ways to punish trespassers." She sighed again. "Not that we get very many of those ."

 

"Is he really that handsome, Marguerite?" Celeste pressed, her voice attempting to sound nonchalant. "And they are both commoners, like ourselves, right?"

 

"Do not deign ," Phillippe snapped, "To posit that we are on the same level as woodcutters , my dear Celeste." The man, resident steward for the master and privy of happenings on all the levels of the house, puffed away at his pipe with agitation.

 

Celeste, however, was unperturbed, and due to this growth of interest, Marguerite allowed herself the indulgence of divulging information with all due alacrity.

 

"He truly is," Marguerite sang, leaning in. "The most handsome of face and frame, all made of strength and grace. He held himself like a true gentleman, I swear to you. Deep expressive eyes that drew you in as though he were a lighthouse in a storm at sea..."



"Good god," Phillippe grunted, rising from his seat. "I cannot stand to hear of this any longer."

 

"Just as well," Celeste brushed him off with a dismissive hand, making the older man grumble and pout as he stalked out of the kitchens, intent on passing along the message as ordered by his master to the young man downstairs.

 

"And oh, his brother is just as beautiful, too. When I have gone down to the village, I heard people talking of the two beauties, the woodcutter brothers. But I thought they must surely have been exaggerated. Fair to say, it is not as though either of them has any strong prospects as far as money, to be sure. But oh..." Marguerite sighed again, with all the drama of a lead actress in a play. "But Junghyun was so lovely. Lips plush and rosy, strong, rough, masculine hands to hold one with..."

 

"Now you are surely getting as drawn away by fancy and hyperbole as the villagers," Celeste giggled, reaching over to pet Marguerite's curly hair with affection. "Additionally, did you speak to any of the villagers while you were down there? Did anyone ask after you?"

 

"Oh, no, Miss Celeste," Marguerite assured, her tone sincere. "I promise, I was in and out as quick as lightning, just as always. I have no one to speak to, in any matter, I just like to listen to the town gossip, just in case."

 

Celeste nodded, falling back into thought. She twisted a long tendril of her crimson hair, considering the current situation with the curious woodcutter downstairs, and the master's strange behavior surrounding it. They were interrupted once again by Phillippe, who returned with a frown.

 

"The master has ordered that some food be sent down to our charge, and that he wishes to take his supper in the west wing," Phillippe declared, wordlessly turning on his heel and leaving the young ladies to their own. Marguerite looked over at Celeste, triumph and excitement gleaming in her eyes at the promise of a refreshing activity, but the cook merely shook her head, at an utter loss. To hope, to press, would only become an alarm bell right now. As wise as she was to the ways of the master, she knew when to leave well enough alone, even if merely resting on unspoken contingencies for the time being, and with all the due patience of a woman wise with secrets.

 

"Take care, and follow your duties to the letter, my dear," Celeste warned, standing up to start the final preparations on the supper she had already had underway some time before. "And mind that you don't drop anything in the dark of that cellar, one of these forks could easily take out your eye."

 

"I will take all extra precautions," Marguerite promised, practically beaming with glee. She smirked, sending Celeste an impish grin. "I will even watch our poor captor with extra diligence, just for you, Miss Celeste."

 

"I thank you, my dear," the cook allowed with a soft chuckle.

 

The cook turned to heating up the stoves, pulling out two trays instead of the usual one, and smiled as she started humming quietly to herself, an old poem about fairy tales and beauty in days of old.

 

Celeste was not a woman given to the weakness of superstition, suspicion, or jumping to conclusions beyond the facts that were given to her. She was a solidly planted woman of practicality.

 

But even a practical woman can have her wonderings, can ask her questions into the quiet of an otherwise empty kitchen, and when Marguerite took the tray out to master, promising to come back soon for the second, Celeste spoke her wondering out to the silence.

 

"Is his heart ready to change at last?"

Chapter Text

Minutes dragged on into hours...

 

Hours dragged on into days…

 

Or so it felt for the first full night in which Jungkook slept in his newfound prison. The cold settled in after some time, mingling with the thick air filled with dust and suffocating him, making him cough. He eventually found his way to the bed, leaving the candle a short ways from it, staring into its diminishing light as the hours wound on. He instinctively wanted to blow the candle out to preserve it, but he had no way to relight it in this cursed room. 

 

The bed groaned and protested as he rolled about on it, trying to find a comfortable spot that he could warm up with his body among the musty smell. 

 

After the first few hours, he did not feel compelled to cry anymore. That moment had vanished, at the very least for the time being, and he spent the long moments in the dark building up a mental wall, preparing himself for whatever may come, whether it be senseless anger, or utter silence and isolation. At least he would be provided food, for which he was grateful. And he had been informed that Junghyun had safely made it home. 

 

What was he to do now? Nothing, was the plan. Perhaps if he had something , he could begin to scrawl on the wall how many days had passed, although he was not sure how, in the dark emptiness of the cellar, he was to know when a day had truly passed or not. His hopes lay on regular meals to guide him, as well as to keep him going. 

 

It would take one year before he was back home, and he could forget everything from now. One year, and things would go back to how they were before, with him and his brother supporting their parents and doing the best they could.

 

Jungkook rolled over, curling into a ball and huddling closer into the blankets. He wished Junghyun had not gotten them into this predicament. He wished he was home, smelling the deep scent of firewood and of his brother’s breakfast on the stove, instead of the mildewy dampness here. 

 

He would not be broken; it was not a question, he had to stay strong. For Junghyun, and for his parents.

 

The night passed uncomfortably in silence, strangely calm in its lack of event. Jungkook could no longer sleep at one point, and given that he had no idea what hour it was, he sat up in his bed and peered around at the darkness, his back leaned up against the wall, knees drawn to his chest, and thought about home. At some point, he realized with some sadness that he would not be able to keep his promise to sweet Abélia, who expected him to be there for her during the upcoming dance. He sighed, hugging his knees. 

 

Some moments after, he heard a distant, muffled sound, and then the door was being opened with a significant clatter. He waited, expecting to see the housekeeper, Marguerite, appear. 

 

But instead, the doorway was filled with the broad shoulders and firm stance of the beast, who lifted up a candelabra toward Jungkook. The light was astoundingly bright, after so many hours in the dark, and he instinctively held up his hands, shielding his face and eyes while the beast stepped in closer, leaning over the bed from a safe distance and inspecting him cautiously.

 

Jungkook squinted his eyes as hard as he could, trying to look up at the beast, to read his expression; but his eyes stung, and he was hungry, and he did not know what was wanted of him. He glared up at the beast, frowning deeply into the light of the candelabra, and waited in petulant silence.

 

The beast said nothing for a time, unabashedly staring at Jungkook as though it was completely within his rights to do so without any explanation. Then, he indicated with one hand toward the open door. 


“Come.”

 

Jungkook blinked, unsure if he had misheard through the beast’s deep growl. “What?”

“I said to come,” the beast snapped, “Do you not understand simple commands?”

To that, a flare of aggravation blossomed up inside Jungkook’s chest, and he sent the beast a piercing look, and gave a growl of his own. “I understand,” he said slowly, “But I am not some trained dog made to follow blind commands, whatever you may be presuming.”

The beast flinched a bit, as though biting back a rebuttal, but then he withdrew himself and let out a disgusted scoff. “Fine. Then I suppose you would like to remain in this cursed bat cave of a cellar instead?”

 

Filled with confusion, Jungkook slowly stood up. “What do you mean?”

 

“I mean,” the creature said. “That you are to move upstairs. It is madness to leave you down here. And while I may be in the business of madness, it is not my place to bestow such a gift upon others. Now come , if you please .”

 

Without another word, the beast led the way out of the cellar, past the dark, heavy barrels and up the dark set of stairs, back into the hallway where Marguerite had taken him before. Jungkook followed closely behind the beast, noting with some hazy confusion that the beast was not in actuality much taller than Jungkook himself, and that despite his cursedly fur-covered and unapproachable make, that he walked with the easy gait of a normal man, and that the dark and hairy hand which gripped the candelabra did so with no hesitation. He wore breeches of a dark blue, which seemed to be made out of silk, and a waistcoat positively covered in elaborate silvery trimming, which caught the light when he moved about. Twas a disarming dissonance, seeing the gentleman-like mein, whilst the figure looked so utterly disfigured , not unlike some strange, magicked animal had decided to walk and talk as a man. 

 

It was also quite unlike the either man or beast of yesterday to lead him candidly out into the main hall, wordlessly starting up the stairs out of the foyer where he had originally entered the house. But he did not have the heart within him to question it, for every phrasing he could possibly have uttered was sure to have a sharp-tongued bite to it, and he did not wish to press his luck and be forced to return to the cellar, now that he could breathe fresh air again and his skin tingled with the noted increase in temperature. 

 

“Do you know who I am?” the beast asked quietly, walking down one of the upstairs hallways, carpeted and brightly lit by a large window at the end. He did not turn toward Jungkook to inquire, but kept his face trained ahead, as though dismissive to Jungkook’s reaction.

 

“Ah… I have presumed you to be the master of the house?” Jungkook tried quietly.

 

The creature chuckled. It was soft, barely heard among their padded footsteps to the last door in the hallway, but Jungkook heard it, just the same. It was a surprisingly warm sound, and accompanied a wry look from his keeper. 

 

“Fair enough. We shall maintain that.” He took out a key from within the elegant pocket of his waistcoat, holding it up to the light so that Jungkook could watch him fit it into the lock of the door. The creature then gestured for Jungkook to step inside.

 

The young woodcutter had conjured up many images of possible tortures that he may be privy to, beneath a rich man’s rule in an isolated house, away from law and reason, from protection and sanity. And yet, what was within the room was neither torturous nor imaginable.

 

It was a beautiful room, with high-sweeping windows which housed deep crimson curtains to block out any unwanted light. There was a four-poster bed which was almost as large as the bedroom back at home, looking soft and inviting. Draped from it were emerald green, velvety curtains which were drawn aside by matching rope. A fireplace nestled in the corner farthest from the window, already crackling with flame and removing the bite of chill from the bedroom. A great wardrobe rested against one wall, and beautiful tapestries were hung about to give the room more of a welcoming, full feeling, as well as helping to keep the heat in.

 

Jungkook stood anxiously in the doorway, as if he were a small animal waiting for a known trap to spring, and glanced over as the beast. He was watching Jungkook closely, as if gauging his reaction, and once their eyes met, Jungkook was surprised to notice how very human-like the eyes appeared, a deep set of eyes amongst the fur and eerie countenance, nearly disguising an expression which could almost be considered sweet. He felt a shiver run through his body, a visible and instinctive reaction which had the beast beckoning him to step inside. 

 

“These are to be your quarters,” the beast explained at last. “They were, originally, meant to be your brother’s, after a fashion and after a time. However plans have changed, and it was pointed out to me the viciousness and barbarous manner in which we have handled our guests as of late.”

 

He knew it ill-mannered, but Jungkook’s mouth hung agape in disbelief. “Whatever are you…? You cannot mean that this is to be my new room! Am I to be imprisoned on a four-poster bed, truly?”

 

“You will find that cages come in all shapes and sizes,” the creature growled, with more than a trace of bitterness. “You are still to remain within the house, at all costs. I hope this is clearly understood. You still have the whole year to pay your brother’s debt to me, and I expect that will be of no trouble to you here .”

 

Jungkook stared on as the beast pocketed the key once more, straightening his waistcoat and departing the room, closing the door behind him with a demure click. The young man watched the elaborately decorated handle, which showed a magnolia in full bloom, and then the situation sank in abruptly. He bolted forward, trying the door, and his heart leapt into his throat with shock as it came open without any resistance, left unlocked. He stepped out into the hall, still able to the beast’s retreating back. 

 

His throat dry, he watched the figure start down the stairs. It was a curious thing, truly. A part of Jungkook wished to call out after the beast, to ask him a question. 

 

But it was a question, unfortunately, that he did not know the words to yet, nor their rhyme nor reason. 

 

Instead, Jungkook quietly returned to his room. The vastness of it struck him as so jarring, particularly after the cramped and unwelcoming conditions of the cellar. 

 

The drapes in the windows were drawn back, revealing to him that it was quite early morning. He could not have been down in the cellar even a full 24 hours, surely. From his window, he could see down into the gardens below, and into a part of the hedge maze. Flowers and vegetation grew in neatly organized partitions, and it looked to be a cold and cloudy day, with no rainfall but only a sun masked in blue-grey to offer. 

 

A gentle knock came to the door, and Marguerite gave him a brief smile before bringing in a tray, declaring, “Here’s your breakfast! You had better eat it while it’s still hot.”

 

In a daze, Jungkook walked over to the tray she had set down, the housekeeper watching him as he took in with wide eyes the shining silver dishes. There were four types of fruit jams, tea, orange juice, and half a dozen types of bread and pastries. The orange juice was crowned with a layer of foam, indicative of its freshness, and the pastries looked as though they had just come out of the oven not ten minutes ago. Tentatively, Jungkook reached out, picking up one in his dirt-covered hands in surprise.

 

Marguerite seemed unbothered, brightly telling him with a wink, “We’re all relieved to see you’ve been moved up from the cellars! Much nicer, wouldn’t you agree? Celeste - she’s our cook, and a fine lady, too - she made the apple turnovers for you especially! Said they should warm you right up.”

 

Jungkook looked down at the warm, flaky apple turnover in his hand. He took a bit of it, instantly attacked by gooey sweetness, his taste buds shaken by the delightfulness of the pastry. Crumbs tumbled all down his front, and he felt sorry for the loss of even a speck of the delicious food. Marguerite smiled, giggling a little.

 

“Make sure you drink the orange juice,” Marguerite warned in a stage whisper. “It will do you good. And lord knows we can’t tell how long we will have fresh fruit in the house, with winter coming on so fast.”

 

Jungkook looked up at her, still holding the apple turnover as though he was delicately pinching pure gold between his fingers. “Why have I been brought up here? I don’t understand.”

To that, Marguerite could only shrug, sharing in his confusion. “The master does as he pleases, I suppose. We all felt perfectly awful about the way he was keeping your brother.” She stood, holding her apron with eyes flashing with excitement. “I’m glad it all worked out, in the end, though.”

 

Jungkook wasn’t sure if that was what he would call it, but he was relieved to be in the light again, and when Marguerite left him, he turned ravenous, consuming everything on the tray that he could possibly fit within his body. 

 

Afterward, he felt so full he could burst, and satisfied in a way that one could only feel after a large feast.

 

He expected that he would be left alone for the remainder of the day, but he dare not leave the room, for he was not sure the beast would hold to his lenient attitude toward his prisoner. So Jungkook tried to busy himself within the room, perusing the books on the shelf, watching the garden, memorizing the hedge maze as best as he could from his window view. He sat near the fire, dozing in one of the armchairs there, comforted by the warmth and the plush cushion of the chair. He avoided the bed, for quite some time, until it was starting to grow later in the day, and the shadows began to stretch across the floor like villainous paws reaching out to rest at his feet.

 

The bed looked immensely comfortable. Too comfortable. He felt anxious, not wanting to relax into these new living quarters, as he halfway did not believe that they would not return to their previous circumstance, set before this queer addendum. But eventually, Marguerite returned with the dinner tray, signaling the end to another day within this castle-like mansion.

 

"Marguerite," Jungkook said quietly, as she set the tray down with a light-hearted hum. "I know this is an odd question but...is there anything for me to do here? To fill the time?"

 

The housekeeper tilted her head, as though in confusion. "Do you mean like cards or books or something of the sort? We have lots, down in the master's library."

 

"Well, that is..." Jungkook shrugged, smelling the dinner coming from the tray and distracted momentarily by the scent of cooked meats. "I mean more as in...are there any...practical or useful occupations to pass my time here? I will be here a full year, you see, and--"

 

"I don't think that's the master's plan," Marguerite hesitated, choosing her words with care. "If you would like for me to bring you something, I certainly can."

 

There then followed a period of silence, wherein Jungkook was rife with uncertainty and the concerning realization that what this house's punishment consisted of was what he had left behind at home while waiting for Junghyun to return, and in the worst sense - boredom and isolation.

 

"Are you sure there's nothing?" Jungkook offered, pleading. "I can cook, or clean, or--"

 

"Nonsense," the housekeeper snapped, suddenly sounding defensive and impatient. She went to the door. "You will stay as you are unless the master indicates otherwise. I'll be back in later to settle the fire, so don't touch it."

 

She then left him, in the quiet with no conversation or means with which to occupy his mind. Although he had already eaten so much that day, both in the morning and the afternoon, Jungkook found that lack of engagement caused his hunger to rise an inordinate amount, and he greedily consumed all that was given to him once again.

 

Once the supper was filling him up with warmth and satisfaction, it very swiftly became quite the challenge to maintain a wakeful spirit, and soon Jungkook's eyes were shutting of their own accord as he sat in the armchair by the cozy fire. His eyelids felt heavier than iron, and he fought to keep them open for awhile longer before he submitted to his situation, at least for the night.

 

Jungkook stood up, moving over toward the bed and was surprised to find that placed neatly across the footboard was a linen nightshirt. He held it up, the material soft and lovely in his fingers.

 

A knock came at the door, shocking him, and Marguerite appeared once more, giving him a wave and telling him she was just there to stoke the fire one last time for the night.

 

"Uh, Marguerite..." Jungkook began quietly. He felt heat rise on his cheeks as she looked his way, self-consciousness too sharp in his current situation. "Would it be possible, I mean... is there someplace that I could wash up a bit, before bed? I just don't want to...ruin the sheets." He gestured towards his clothes, which still clung to the smell of must, standing water, and hay from the cellar. He knew he looked out of place in the lavish room, in his roughly-cut but solidly-made woodcutter's clothes, and greatcoat. He was accustomed to striking a stark difference when dressed himself when in a more grandeur home, having been to Abéllia's many times. But it was quite different to stand in the room or move about in it as he normally was, and dirtying the sheets with his unkempt garb he had been wearing the last two days. Additionally, the sensation of sweat, water, and earth was something he was used to feeling over the course of a day's work, but never to sleep in. His mother would have murdered him for doing so.

 

"Oh!" Marguerite exclaimed. "Bless me, I didn't even notice! I could arrange a bath for you, if you would like, the master has one we could--"

 

"Please, no, that's far too much trouble," he muttered, flushing with embarrassment. He could not imagine forcing her to help him set up a whole bath, carrying bucket by bucket and then having to heat the water, and then clean up after. "Just... if I could have an ordinary basin and perhaps some cloths, that would be wonderful." He sent her a smile, and watched her demeanor transform into one of gentle empathy.

 

"Of course, I will be right back," she promised. And quick as lightning, she returned with a hot copper basin, hard soap, and a selection of cotton cloths.

 

"Thank you, very much," Jungkook said, bowing his head a bit as he took them from her awkwardly.

 

"You're very welcome," she said brightly. "I'll be off for the night, but just leave everything over in the corner, and I'll tend to it first thing in the morning."

 

Jungkook nodded, waiting until Marguerite offered a final goodnight. Once left alone, Jungkook stood near the fire, undressing with efficiency. In the dim light, he sat before the basin and slowly wiped himself off, washing away all the grime of the last two days with care. As he sat there, he hummed quietly to himself. The mud, the musky smell, all gave way to the strong, comforting scent of the soap that filled his nostrils and occupied the room. Jungkook took his time wiping down his arms and legs, enjoying the refreshing feeling. Then, he rinsed himself off carefully, drying off with the remaining cloths. His hair was still slightly damp when he walked back over to the bed and slipped on the gifted nightclothes. The linen nightshirt dropped over his barren and muscular shoulders, feeling even more fresh and clean than he was, now. He clambered up into the high-rise bed, pulling aside the enormous wool blanket, revealing crisp white linen sheets underneath, and what he thought to be a wonderfully excessive pile of pillows. The mattress lumped and sank beneath his knees as he crawled into the middle of the bed, surprised at its width. Four or five of him would easily be able to lay side by side here.

 

The fresh sheets seemed to suck in around him, the weight of the woolen blanket quickly warming him up. Jungkook wriggled his toes in the wide, soft expanse of the bed, listened to the still-crackling fire, and let out a sigh.

 

He was exhausted somehow, even though not much activity had filled his day. The bed soaked him in with a great heaviness.

 

Jungkook slept deeply that night, with colorful silk-laden dreams and a soft snore that his brother would have teased him about. The sweet repose of the young man, dropped into a strange situation of captivity, was in quite some contrast from the night before, and he could forget for a brief time his woes, and the long days which stretched out before him.

 

🌹🌹🌹

 

When he arose the next morning, Jungkook stretched out across the lovely bed, and quickly answered Marguerite's call for breakfast. As before, he hungrily devoured all that was offered, and left the remaining dishes in a neat stack to be removed later. After that, he went to retrieve his dirty clothes from the day before, intent on finding some way to clean them, when he found they were missing, along with the washing basin. In their stead and laid across the back of one of the arm chairs was a pair of clean undergarments, silk stockings, black shoes, a well-made pair of breeches with matching vest, and a fresh linen shirt. Jungkook stared at these in awe for a time, but as the current situation could only be indicative that the clothing was for himself, he silently put the clothes on without bothering to protest. He felt himself stand more strangely in them, perhaps more elegantly, and he enjoyed the feeling of wearing what was probably a stranger's clothes. It felt adventurous, somehow, and he squared his shoulders a little more than usual, and looked out the window for a while. He felt refreshed, and energized, and knew that the day would drag on for eons if he were to remain only in this room.

 

He glanced over at the door in curiosity. The master of the house had never explicitly ordered him to remain only in his bedchambers, and he had knowingly left the door unlocked. Jungkook decided that he could assume this was silent invitation to the rest of the house.

 

Taking in a breath, he turned the knob and left the room, returning with a gentle step into the carpeted hall. Great tapestries gave the wide space a much more close feel, and there was no echo of footsteps as he wandered along. There were doors here, and at first he simply walked past them without more than a brief hesitation; but eventually his curiosity bubbled up in his chest, and he reached out to one of the knobs. The first one opened up into another bedchamber, very similar to his own, and with a more musky, unlived-in air throughout. The second door was locked, and the third, and so forth. A few of the bedchambers were open, and he found five such rooms aside from his own along that passage. They all emanated an abandoned, empty feel which seemed to seep out from under the doorways. As Jungkook continued down the passage, exploring, he began to feel an increasingly strong sense of being watched, of being followed. The hair at the back of his neck stood up as he turned a corner, coming to another passageway which housed a wall of large windows which spilled in light against the opposite wall. No doors did he find here, but he took his time to enjoy the perfect view of the garden below from the windows.

 

Every once in awhile, Jungkook peered over his shoulder, checking and confirming that there was no one behind him that he could see. The house felt as if it was filled to every edge with some sort of energy.

 

Another passageway, then a set of double doors which opened out into a huge room. It looked as though it had once served as a smoking-room, perhaps to entertain guests. Jungkook had seen a similar room in Abélia's father's house, so he could recognize it at least for this purpose or something of such a sort. He wandered around, opening drawers in a writing desk which rested in the corner, perusing the stack of books which decorated a shelf, staring for awhile at a painting of a hunt, with red coat-bearing noblemen and fat, wide-eyed horses and a dozen hunting dogs all milling around at the horses' feet. He then watched a very strange vase for a time, set out on a special stand, and wondered how expensive it might be.

 

Eventually, he grew bored of the empty room, and went to exit it and find some other part of the house. When he stepped out, he realized that he had reached a dead end for the hallway. He supposed there was nothing for it but to retrace his steps back to his own room. He hoped he would be able to spot his own easily enough, but he imagined the embarrassment that would ensue if he could not.

 

The window-filled passage shone brightly as he returned back through it, but then a movement out the window caught his eye. He halted, looking down into the garden.

 

The beast was out there, standing beneath a great decorated gazebo, all drawn with beautiful red roses that grew up along its side and seemed to consume the gazebo's skeletal structure. Jungkook paused, looking out the window. He thought it must have been quite chill outside, but the beast only wore a light coat of dark green, and he watched the roses in front of his face with a powerful concentration. After a time, Jungkook realized that the beast was speaking aloud, as if to some other soul which accompanied him, although Jungkook could see no one.

 

He knew the distance down to the garden would have been too great to hear the beast's words, but he still looked to the windowpane to see if there was some way to open the glass and to hear outside, and found none. He waited, watching the beast slowly give a nod, and a few very soft gestures with his hair-covered hands, and then his broad shoulders slumped, as though in surrender, and then the beast began to walk away from the roses, and back toward the house. Jungkook watched until the beast moved out of his line of sight, and then he continued down the passageway, feeling a confusion in his heart that was thoroughly unexplainable.

 

After some moments, he began to wonder if he would be chastised for leaving his room, particularly so if the beast was of an unsettled mind to the extent that he would speak to roses as if they could speak, and Jungkook hurried along the passageway with more fervor and concern.

 

He had just turned the corner when he spotted Marguerite coming down the hall, holding aloft a loaded tray of silver with many little dishes on it. When she saw him, her lips pressed together into a tight line of worry, but of complaints she said none, simply opening the door and entering the bed chamber.

 

Jungkook followed her in, at a loss as to the cold nature in which she set down the tray and excused herself. When the door shut a moment later, Jungkook was left alone again. He sighed, sitting down for a moment in one of the arm chairs, and then peered in question over at the tray of food. He had somehow passed some hours walking along nearly half a dozen passageways, and he felt certain that there were many more places to explore within the house. It felt better, he had decided, to spend the hours in some semblance of use. If nothing else, he was a little more familiar with the layout of this floor and this particular wing of the house, and he was also aware that many of the rooms were neglected and unnecessary.

 

The first lid was lifted off the tray, and a puff of steam arose, making Jungkook groan with anticipation and hunger. The soup’s smell of slowly-cooked meats and beautiful, bright vegetables of carrots and potatoes, along with a variety of strong, fresh herbs all wafted up and offered a pleasant air to the afternoon. There was bread again also, which he tore into eagerly as he supped, giving out deep moans of appreciation for the depth of flavor and the warmth of the soup that heated him up from the inside-out on the chilly day wandering drafty halls.

 

As he ate, he felt a strange sensation, as though he was being watched. It was a feeling he elected to ignore after a cursory glance around the empty bedchamber, as the food was deliciously distracting and he so rarely saw a soul about the house thus far anyways.

 

When he was finished eating, he decided to wander around and explore the house again, this time taking a different turn outside his bedchamber door, more towards where the beast had originally led him up the stairs. Eventually, he found the main foyer, and he hesitated a moment, trying to decide whether to stay on the upper level or to go down the stairs, which held more of a risk of being seen by the household. Opting for remaining on the second floor, he walked on from what he had figured to be the east wing of the house and on toward its western wing instead.

 

The banister was old but beautiful, his hand dragging lightly along it as he crossed the upper landing, and he found very swiftly that this part of the house was kept in quite a different manner. All the doors were unlocked, he found, but some of the rooms had not even been cleaned out, or (he supposed) had even been opened in quite some time. There was a sharp contrast to each door. One room would be simply covered in dust, making him cough gently as he peered around the bed for some sign of life or who had once occupied the rooms. But he found none. Then the next room would be obviously lived in, with books lying about or a fire still in the hearth. He eventually came across a room that appeared to be a study of some kind, with a desk full of papers and fresh writing tools. Jungkook shuffled through them, feeling bored and curious. He found that most of them were utterly uninteresting notes about the deeds of the house, a ledger, notes on yearly salaries and costs of the household. He sighed, setting the papers back to exactly as they were, and moving on.

 

It was as he was exiting the study that Jungkook realized that he could hear music echoing along down one of the hallways. It was impossible for him to tell which direction or at what distance the music was coming from, but it sounded elegant and complex, bright and yet somehow eerie. Perhaps it was the strange hollow emptiness of the house which contributed to it, but it made Jungkook shiver, and it made him wish to know who was playing. He continued through the further doors.

 

The music was certainly getting louder, and Jungkook opened a door to find another bedchamber, much like the others, but with some minor differences. For one, there was a fresh-looking silver tray on a table, which made Jungkook pause and question himself for but a moment, wondering if he had somehow looped around and found his way back to his own room. But there were articles of clothing thrown across the back of a chair, and a fireplace glowed against one wall, and the room was much bigger than his own, yet somehow darker. There was a sort of drapery settled across what Jungkook thought to be a mirror or an image of some kind.

 

The curtains were mostly drawn in, and there was a desk with tilting stacks of books to one side, and some shoes kicked off below the end of the bed. It was the most lived-in room he had come across in the house yet, and it made him pause. A large part of him wished to intrude, to enter into the room and see if there was something of interest inside.

 

But a warning in his heart told him that the occupant of the room was likely to return at any moment, and he would not be able to properly explain away his bold inspection of each of the rooms beyond brattish curiosity.

 

Jungkook stepped cautiously back out of the room, shutting the door very carefully, so the lock could not even click as loudly as it normally would, and he turned down the hall.

 

The music was much louder now, and he really wanted to see which room it was coming from, so he continued down another pathway, this time a much darker hallway, which was already lit with candles along the walls. He was about to turn back around, deciding it to be a dead end, when his eye caught something strange. Next to a heavy tapestry, hung a tad aske, was an enormous and detailed portrait.

 

Jungkook's mouth fell agape as he stared at the painting, the entire height of the creation nearly one and a half his height, causing it to loom above him like some heaven-sent power, yielding authority in the grasp of some distant hand.

 

The painting was a simple portrait, showing a young boy of some twelve or thirteen years old. He frowned intensely outward, dark brows furrowed in unspoken intent. He was dressed quite elaborately, like a young prince, with deep green velvet all wrapped about him and small, gangly legs tilted just-so. In one hand he held a strange scepter-like instrument, and the other laid across the arm of his chair he was seated in. The boy's hair was a beautiful deep brown, and he had eyes that seemed to shine of many dark secrets, but which held a gentleness and warmth, so much so that Jungkook could not understand the coexistence of such elements.

 

The upper portion of the boy's face was harsher lines, more masculine, and if so decided upon in observation then the lower half of his face could easily be described as more feminine, with a soft, graceful jawline and thick plush lips which remained a pretty pink. Jungkook noticed the upper lip was thicker than the lower one, and the more he stared at the portrait the more miniscule details he noted in the asymmetrical details of the face.

 

It was a beautiful face, but one which seemed uncertain of what to express. The honesty of the facial features which somehow had bled through into the painting made Jungkook feel somehow reassured and comforted by the young boy.

 

He was not sure how long he stood, watching the painting and studying its minute brush strokes and the usage of blues as shadow. He wanted to stare at it forever. However, his studies were interrupted by a change of the music, shifting from more mellow, calm tones to that of a harsher and more emotive tune. He could hear that it was a harpsichord, around some nearby corner, and he continued to follow it along a strangely curved passage that was draped in deep red curtains, and carpets which depicted miniature caricatures of lions in mid-strike, a silent roar on their open maws as Jungkook stepped across their imagery to a huge set of double doors. The elaborate carvings on the frame made it appear very ancient and beautiful indeed, and Jungkook ran a hand along some of the angelic wings that spread around the upper right panel. The music played on, a few delicate notes that hung in the air. He gently opened the door, peering through just a hair's crack to spy a beautiful music room, with a harpsichord in one corner. The notes cries through the room, echoing off the gold-plated columns, the dark, shadowy statues which seemed to stand in random parts of the room, a silent audience to the player.

 

There was a figure seated at the harpsichord, with his head bowed. From where he stood, Jungkook could not see the hands that played, but he could see the soft swaying of the musician as his song began to swell and grow, ever-so-slowly building to a slightly discordant melody that rang through the room. The sound was so beautiful, it made Jungkook's heart ache, and his breath became shallow. He watched the shoulders of the harpsichordist continued on, taking no notice around him. The statues, somehow, seemed to grow larger as he played, and perhaps it was a trick of the dim light, a single window that spilled into the ballroom from somewhere above, but Jungkook could have sworn he saw the statues' faces grow long and pained with mourning.

 

The song eventually ended, cast into the emptiness to rest among the walls and to nestle into the darkness once more. The harpsichordist waited, staring at the keys for a long time, before he finally stood up. Jungkook gasped lightly, stepping back away from the door. Once the figure had moved to his feet, Jungkook could see by the light of the single window that it was the beast himself, running a weary paw through his brown hair and letting out a sigh. Jungkook's heart leapt into his chest, worried that he would anger the beast by having intruded on his playing. There had been something about the song that had made it feel very intimate indeed, and he was taken aback to think that it had been the beast playing all the while. How could one so cruel as to lock strangers within his house be capable of such a moving form of expression?

 

Jungkook made to move aside and out of the doorway, but the heavy lion-clad carpet tripped his foot, and he let out a slight sound as he fell backwards on his backside, the carpet rolled up beneath him. He scrambled, trying to get to his feet, but he heard the sharp clacking of shoes in the empty ballroom, and presently the beast appeared at the door, staring down in confusion and wordless accusation at Jungkook, who was sprawled out on the floor.

 

"M-my apologies," he managed, suddenly getting to his feet and feeling very awkward about doing so. He was once again reminded that the beast was about his height, and he had forgotten just how deep the creature's scowl could rest, partially hidden as it was through the mane around his face.

 

But now that he had rose to his full height, and was more able to see the beast's eyes more closely, something about them stood out to him, strikingly drawing his attention. The beast's eyes, deep-set and a deep brown, were surprisingly gentle. He almost looked concerned, almost mournful. Almost lonely.

 

Jungkook inwardly shook himself, and outwardly he brushed off some invisible dust from his sleeves.

 

"What were you doing?" the beast asked, his tone cautious as he looked Jungkook up and down.

 

"I was just... exploring. And I heard some music, so I came to listen." 

 

The beast blinked, once, then twice. "This wing of the house is not so free to roam as the rest. You would do well to keep to the eastern wing for your playing." 

 

Jungkook frowned, knowing he should have held his tongue, but being as surprised as he was by the demeanor in which the beast watched him, he found his decorum quite thinly veiled. "I was not playing . If I am to be here for a year, I thought I might as well have some idea of the lay of the house. Besides, you never explicitly forbade any wandering, and under the circumstances I should think it reasonable for me to be allowed to walk a hallway without it being labeled as childish play ."

 

To this, the beast withdrew physically for a moment, as though defensively ruminating about this particular angle. To Jungkook's surprise, the creature merely nodded his head, as though allowing for such a perspective.

 

"Even so, you should return to your bedchamber. I will have your supper sent up presently."

 

"That's another thing," Jungkook pushed, knowing his luck with the beast would soon run out, but having had to deal with the frustrating and confusing situation, he needed answers when the opportunity was even flickering across his path. The beast, who had begun to move down the hallway away from Jungkook, paused. Not realizing it, Jungkook had stopped the creature with a hand on his arm. A light touch, not aggressive but insistent. The beast seemed fixated with some level of fascination on this hand which was laid upon him as Jungkook spoke. "I don't see why I, as a so-called prisoner in your household, am being treated this way. Do you mean to mock me by having your servants attend to me, and by giving me clothes? I am not speaking of ungratefulness, but considering my reason for being here, would it not be considered inappropriate?"

 

The beast was still watching Jungkook's arm, and it was starting to unsettle Jungkook. He dropped his hand, suddenly concerned that the unprompted touch was somehow extremely insulting to his host, and in addition to his accusatory questions, could have spelled out the end. When Jungkook's hand moved, only the creature's eyes shifted, meeting Jungkook's with a strange expression.

 

"I..." Jungkook continued, his confidence withering under the stare. "I only mean... does it not seem unfair to them? To serve someone who is allegedly your captive?" Silence staggered between them, awkward and unclear. At last, the beast straightened his shoulders, stepping in closer to Jungkook and leaning in until his face was quite near Jungkook's. He seemed to be searching for something, or waiting for some sort of reaction, but all Jungkook knew to do was to stand there and wait for his reply. The creature blinked again, his lips working as if in confusion to the current state of affairs.

 

"You are not , in the strictest sense, my captive, Jungkook," the beast said slowly. "You are merely here to pay, with time as your currency, for your brother's crimes. My servants are a separate matter, as they are paying with time and services for their livelihoods, which they have signed up for. That is their task, their lifestyle, and I expect them to continue it for as long as we bear an agreement of such between us. You are a temporary charge in this household, and you will, in exchange for your brother's freedom, spend your days here with whatever restrictions I wish, as the payment itself is time."

 

There was something throughout this coldly-stated argument that chilled Jungkook to the very bone, and he realized that it was the first time the beast had referred to him directly by name. He felt embarrassed at this accusation, a rebuttal that suggested Jungkook was calling the servants as low as him, in the same category as himself. They had been nothing but kind to him in the time he had been in the house, but they were here voluntarily, and he was not. He was here to pay for trespassing and robbery, and they were not. It was not, as the beast clarified, the same situation.

 

"I am sorry," Jungkook mumbled, his head drooping. "They do not deserve the comparison."

 

The beast said nothing more, but he watched Jungkook's face with that searching look for several more seconds before he turned on his heel, heading down the hallway. He was about the turn the strangely-curved corner when Jungkook called out after him, realizing in that moment that he had never learned what name to call him by, and awkwardly fretting that he would not be listened to.

 

"I just wanted to say," he called out, his voice echoing in the hallway and making the creature pause, looking back curiously. "That your playing was beautiful. I didn't expect it of you."

 

The creature paused, his head tilted as if in amusement. "Even a disgusting beast can appreciate beautiful things, it seems."

 

Jungkook felt a heat rise on his face, and he started nervously, "No, I didn't mean to say--"

 

But the beast merely gave a cold chuckle, and then disappeared down the end of the hall, leaving Jungkook alone once again.

 

It was a sensation that he was quickly becoming quite used to experiencing.

 

Chapter Text

After waiting some moments for the beast to leave, Jungkook began the long and silent walk back to his room, and waited there quietly for Marguerite to arrive with the tray for supper. He thanked her courteously, wishing he could help her set the tray down, or anything, to make her feel that he appreciated her efforts. But he knew that intervening with her duties was a faux pas that she did not deserve to have added on to what must be a stressful way of life, so he could only settle for complimenting the food and showing his appreciation verbally.

 

Underneath the trays this time was a beautiful steaming piece of meat pie, which boasted the chef's obvious abilities with its flaky and elaborately decorated crust. The braids and designs had been lost somewhat in the sectioning-out of Jungkook's portion, but he was able to appreciate it just the same. Along one side was a selection of seasoned samphire, which provided a lovely contrasting color to the rest of the food, and made him all the more ravenous. There was also some bread, naturally, along with a bowl of cut candied cherries for his dessert. They were tied together in groups of three with a blue ribbon, and Jungkook played with the soft ends of this ribbon while his other hand reached for a utensil.

 

In all honesty, Jungkook had to admit that if one had to be held prisoner, this was the type of house in which he wanted to be held a prisoner in. He dug in with fervor, scoffing down the meat pie first and sipping at the glass of wine after it had had enough time to properly breathe. The fireplace crackled and snapped before him, helping to illuminate his meal and offering some sort of solace and the semblance of company during his meal.

 

The cherries were plump and delicious, and he was being very careful about not soiling his loaned clothes while consuming the treat when there was a sudden knock at the door, making him pause.

 

He looked up at the door, confused. Marguerite had just brought the food less than half an hour ago, what could she have returned for?

 

He went to the door, opening it, and was flummoxed to find none other than the beast there, standing with his shoulders drawn back and his lips pressed together in a tight line, holding a small round of common oak wood under one arm.

 

The beast cleared his throat before he spoke. "I hope I am not disturbing you."

 

Jungkook tilted his head in confusion. "Ah, no, you are not." 

 

"Excellent, I simply came to drop this off for you." 

 

The beast offered the log of wood, and when Jungkook reached out to take it from him automatically, the beast's fur tickled against the back of his hand. He stared at the log, lost as to the item's meaning. 

 

"It's... a log?" 

 

"Yes, for your amusement and occupation while here. Let me know if you have need of any others."

 

Jungkook could not have been more bemused by the present than if the beast had handed him three severed heads without a word of explanation. As it was, all he could do was mumble out a hesitant "Thank you?" before the beast turned on his heel and vanished down the hallway. Jungkook stared at the log, trying to find out if it was a particularly unique piece of wood or if it could have borne some kind of special meaning. But it was just a common piece of oak, which could have been picked up from the pile of wood out in the back of the mansion. It was a round that had not even been cut up into sizable chunks for the fire, even so it could not have been intended for that. Was this some kind of test or code?

 

In a daze, Jungkook carried the hefty piece of oak into his room, setting it down and leaning it against the armchair he normally didn't use, and he sat back down to his meal. While he finished off the candied cherries, he occasionally looked over in puzzlement at the wood gift. The fire slowly died down, and Marguerite eventually came in to tend to it one last time before bed. The housekeeper's eyes immediately fell upon the round of wood, and she began to reach for it to pick it up when Jungkook held up a hand to stop her.

 

"Wait! Please leave it," he pleaded, not quite sure why he cared about the strange item so much, but he was somehow very invested in keeping it if he could. Marguerite looked at him in confusion, but left it as it was. She took his tray and bid him a good night, and Jungkook was left in his solitary room once again.

 

When he crawled into his bed at last, it was with a confused mind and a full belly. The master of the house was a strange creature, one with unmatched will and power at times, and then at others he acted like a bizarre individual, as though he was trying to garner some sort of a reaction out of his odd house-guest. Jungkook could not make any sense of it whatsoever, so he tried to place it out of his mind and went to sleep.

 

🌹🌹🌹

 

"He's acting downright unnatural," Marguerite was mumbling, "He's never acted this funny when anyone else happened across the house. He would have had them scared witless and running away by now with some ridiculous tale about curses and witches and torture devices." The housekeeper was positively sighing as she sat at the table, while Celeste was scrubbing a giant pot with care.

 

"True," she hummed, using the hand pump with a muscular arm to load the sink with a bit more water. They were a lucky household, to have indoor pipes to shorten the workload within the house. Even still, a part of Celeste wished she could cook a bit more elaborately, do meals properly like a real, full household for such parties and events as a wealthy household should. She brushed a stray hair from her face and finished cleaning the pot, turning to find Marguerite drawing circles on the table with one finger in a forlorn manner.

 

"Darling, whatever is the matter? You know what the master said - he would be staying on with us for one year to the day. There's still much time left for that."

 

"I know, it's just..." Marguerite sighed. "The Master is acting so strangely. Do you think he's been bewitched?"

 

Celeste turned completely around from her place at the sink, and Philippe, who had been sitting silently at the end of the table shining his shoes, looked up; and they both sent Marguerite a scathingly incredulous look.

 

"I mean!" she threw up her hands, embarrassed at her own choice of words. "You know, don't you think he had better just keep his distance from the boy? It is a highly unusual situation, you must admit."

 

"I see nothing unusual about the Master's actions," Philippe murmured with a huff. "He has always been a bit too generous for his own good, even to law-breaking woodcutters. That very generosity is why we are all here."

 

"I just think it strange, is all. He's a prisoner, why is he living upstairs in one of the best guest bedrooms? I don't intend to sound like I am complaining, I just--" 

 

"Then don't," Philippe bristled, setting his shoe down. "And simply do your job without complaint." 

 

Marguerite rolled her eyes, resting her chin in her palm and looking toward Celeste for a bit more moral support. "You have to admit, though, the whole household has certainly felt like it has more life in it these days, since he arrived. The Master's been playing every day since he got here, and I could swear the whole house has been waking up like it's been in the longest nap in the world." 

 

To this, Celeste merely hummed in acknowledgement, although she had sensed it, as well. Something about the energy of the house was changing. Marguerite was Celeste's biggest informant about the goings-on of the house, and she was not the most reliable narrator, but there had been little signs and changes. The Master finished more of his dinner. The fires seemed to crackle a little more brightly on each hearth. She had even seen the Master in the wood earlier that day, fitfully hunting through heavy and unchopped rounds of wood as though he was eagerly hunting for something. It was amusing and confusing all at the same time, and it stirred as much unsettled amusement in her own heart as was expressed in the side comments and sighs from her two companions.

 

She expected to get further details soon, once things had warmed up a little more.

 

🌹🌹🌹

 

It was the fourth day in the mansion, and Jungkook overslept more than he had intended to. He could have sworn he had already put on a considerable amount of weight since he had arrived, and he felt lazy and dragged down as he slipped out of his bed and into his one change of clothes. He had intended to start his plan at just before daybreak, but the morning tray had already been laid in his room by the time he managed to get up properly. Not a great start, by all accounts.

 

Jungkook slipped his shoes on and made his way downstairs after a hasty breakfast, his hand trailing along the stairway railing delicately. He followed a side door off the main hall, which led to a servant's passageway. He had just stepped inside when out popped Marguerite, looking over her shoulder with a silver tray balanced in her arms, laughing backward at someone in the kitchens. When she turned around and spotted Jungkook, she gasped, nearly tipping her tray in surprise. He bolted forward, catching one end of the tray to help her support it.

 

"You shouldn't be here!" Marguerite whispered, stepping out into the hall and reclaiming her tray.

 

"I...I just want to help out somewhere," Jungkook said back, automatically giving it out in a hoarse whisper. "Please, let me do something."

 

"But you mustn't, I tell you, the--"

 

"Please," Jungkook pleaded. "Let me chop firewood, clean a floor, or help you with your chores, just anything to give me some work to do, I'm going crazy."

 

Marguerite hesitated, looking into Jungkook's eyes. He hoped she could understand. This wasn't like him, sitting around with nothing to do all day. He needed to feel useful, to interact with others in some way, even if it was in mopping a floor over which they walked.

 

At last, she sighed. "Alright, I suppose. Hold this for a moment, I'll ask Celeste if there is something you can do. Philippe should be coming along for this tray any moment." She handed him the tray, leaving him in the servant's hall for a long moment while she vanished back into the kitchen. He could hear women's voices through the crack in the door, but as he stood there, he was struck by how heavy the silver tray in his arms really was. He felt a trace of guilt from having Marguerite carry his tray all the way upstairs to his room multiple times a day, and he frowned down at it.

 

It was a similar breakfast to what he had eaten not long before, so he assumed it must have been for the master of the house. Without waiting a moment longer for Marguerite to return, Jungkook turned around, gracefully carrying the tray out into the hall.

 

In the main foyer, he hesitated, not sure which room was the Master's, in the end. He took a chance that he may have been served in that small parlor room which Jungkook had first wandered into on that first day of arriving, but he found it empty today. Not missing a step, he walked into the adjoining room, finding another area with a purpose unknown and unable to be guessed at by the woodcutter. He tried the third door, and found it to be the right one. It was a beautiful dining room, with beautiful red and orange designs painting along the walls, and a molded porcelain bowl in the middle of the table. The table was large enough for a considerable party indeed, but there was but one place setting at the very end already begun, and there sat the beast, quietly breaking into some bread. He barely looked up when Jungkook stepped into the room, and then did a quite comical double-take when he realized who it was. Offering a smile but keeping his eyes averted, Jungkook swooped in, placing the tray down as gently as possible, but still making some of the silver clatter quite noisily.

 

"Y-your breakfast," Jungkook mumbled, and moved to slip away as quietly as he could, but the beast reached out and gripped his arm, surprising them both.

 

"What on earth are you doing?" the creature murmured. "Where is Philippe?"

 

"He, uh, was busy at the moment, so I decided to assist," Jungkook said, his fingers playing at the edges of his vest. Worrying that he would get Marguerite or Philippe into trouble, he swiftly followed up with, "They did not ask me to, I assure you! I am helping of my own accord."

 

"Was I not clear," the creature growled, "That your duties in this household are not to be seen as the same as the servants? How dare you challenge their competency by overstepping such bounds? Do you not know how much you disrespect not only their abilities but also the arrangement of my household by doing such things of your own will? Do you not see in what a terrible position you place all of us, by contesting an established accord we have had since long before you entered this house?"

 

The look of anger from the beast filled Jungkook with such unmatched consternation that his face started to burn with embarrassment. Moments of shame ticked by, punctuated by the ticking of a clock somewhere in the room.

 

"Jungkook," the creature said, in a much less aggressive tone. "Sit down for a moment, if you please."

 

Fretfully, Jungkook did as he was instructed, sitting down in the nearest chair, feeling very strangely in it, after so many meals as of late eaten in an armchair by his fireplace. He stared down at the silverware that was laid before the master of the house, and he felt more out of place than he ever could have imagined.

 

"I apologize," he mumbled quietly. "It is just... that the hours are so empty, and I feel of no use here."

 

The beast hummed thoughtfully for a moment, looking at his breakfast before electing to ignore it for the time being. He turned to Jungkook, the hair-covered face directed at him and the deep-set eyes unblinking.

 

"That is part of your punishment, Jungkook," the creature explained. "It took me time to grow those roses which your brother took without asking. And so time is what I am asking for in return. Not your labor or your services or even your loyalty." There was a strange silence that held out into the air for a long moment. "But I understand the pain of empty hours of solitude. It is beyond maddening. Therefore, I will be more considerate of how I use the hours you are giving to me."

 

Jungkook sat, a little confused by what was being implied. "What do you mean?"

 

"I intend to require more of your time, which you have elected to give me for this upcoming year," the beast explained. "We can start with having dinner together, in this dining room, this evening." 

 

"W-what?"

 

"I expect you to be dressed properly for the meal at eight o'clock this evening, and you will give me your time in the form of accompaniment to my meal."

 

Jungkook's mouth dropped agape, befuddled at the easy tone with which the creature ordered him about. He then waved a hand toward Jungkook, as though to dismiss him, and returned his attention to his meal. As a consequence of the shocking situation, Jungkook was not sure what else to do, and sat there watching the beast for a few more minutes while he daintily started eating his breakfast, not looking in Jungkook's direction. He offered, as though in lieu of conversation, a few appreciative hums at the delightful taste of his food. Jungkook slowly stood up, walking out of the dining room in surprise.

 

By the time the sun had risen higher into the sky, reaching for its noon position, Jungkook had convinced himself that the beast had been making some weird joke. After the oak round, he seemed like a slightly mad type, given to flights of the imagination and of fancy. He pretended the conversation had never happened, and he sat in his room, perusing a book which Marguerite had left him. After lunch, he decided to take a walk along the windowed passageway that followed the garden, and he enjoyed the view immensely. He truly had quite nearly cleared the memory of the dinner invitation out of his mind, if it were not for Marguerite.

 

She cheerily informed him that an outfit of fresh clothes had been set out for him across the bedspread, and a reminder was given of how much time he had to be dressed and downstairs. Jungkook waited until the housekeeper had left the room before he even dared to look over at the clothes splayed out across the bed. It was just as well-cut as his current outfit, but much more elaborately designed. There were braids of gold lining the edges, with a deep blue vest and coat to match, and new shoes as well. Jungkook, at an utter loss as to what else he could do, mechanically put the outfit on, straightening out the breeches and slipping the jacket on with a lukewarm distance. Surely this was actually some prank or humorous play, right?

 

But when he went downstairs to the main foyer, Marguerite was smiling up at him, wordless as she gave a little bow of her head and gestured toward the dining room, stating that, "The Master is waiting for you."

 

The entrance into the dining room for supper was a strange one, with half a dozen candelabras lit around to illuminate the elongated and elaborately decorated room. The beast stood at the head of the table, as he had that morning, but displayed across the long table were a variety of what appeared to be the household's finest silver and porcelain. A giant display consumed the majority of the central part of the table, a four-tiered spectacle that was draped with various fruits and filled with sweets for dessert. There were various dishes and placed displays, but only two place settings, with the beast's and then one presumably for his guest, at the beast's right hand. Jungkook awkwardly stood in the entrance for a lingering moment, taking in the gleam of dishes and the glow of the candlelight, before the beast shifted in his seat, standing and gesturing to the place next to him.

 

"Please, sit down," the beast hummed, his voice somewhat altered from how it usually was. Typically, the beast spoke in an almost painful-sounding growl, always tinged with the frayed edges of irritation. But in actuality, the voice was much softer, almost whimsical in its tone, and without the bemusing addition of the growling, he almost sounded nervous.

 

Jungkook did as he was told, reminded for but a moment of the rare dinner party at Abélia's family home. Then, there had been just as many unnecessary utensils with which to eat, multiple glasses of beautiful, elaborate crystal. But there had also been many more in the party during those evenings, and always at least one familiar face.

 

Here, he was among few, but among strangers.

 

Philippe served the meal, not meeting eyes as he introduced each dish. Jungkook's mouth began to water as he saw an entire array just of hors d’œuvres, from oysters to pheasant to stewed vegetables. Eagerly, Jungkook began to dig in to whatever was within his reach, and the beast quietly passed back a plate or two from within his own arm's length, so that Jungkook could try it all. He piled his own plate with a sizeable collection as well, and conversation fell by the wayside in favor of beginning their feast.

 

At last, the beast began on a topic which was easily accessible and relatable to them both: the food. 

 

"Do you like it?"

 

Jungkook nodded, swallowing a mouthful of bread with a smile. "It's delicious."

 

The beast gave a little smile, the expression making his eyes almost disappear behind the fur surrounding his face. "I am glad. Our chef, Celeste, is very talented, but often her skills go underused. When I requested that she cook to her heart's content for a proper meal tonight, she began to sing with delight."

 

He had not seen Celeste as of yet, but Jungkook felt a little pang in his heart, wondering at how happy the prospect of the meal must have made her. "I see.. well, she has done an excellent job ever since I arrived." He shrugged a little, chortling. "I must say, I will probably go home at the end of the year weighing thrice what I did when I arrived."

 

"It would not be so unappealing a thing," the beast murmured. "Good air and good food do well for the soul, they say. And while we do not get much good air in the musty corridors of the mansion, we do have good food, thanks to Celeste."

 

"She deserves all the compliments in the world," Jungkook agreed, smiling delightedly as he dug into his food. When he looked up again a moment later, the beast was still watching him dine, as though transfixed. Unsure if he had lifted a wrong piece of silverware or done something uncouth, he glanced at himself and his plate in confusion. The beast seemed to have collected his thoughts together while Jungkook did so.

 

"You should be allowed good air as well," he said quietly, that gentle tone almost becoming a melody, light and unsure. "You are allowed to walk the grounds, you know."

 

Jungkook tilted his head to the side. "I am?"

 

"Yes. I take my turns about the garden in the morning, usually, but the rest of the afternoon you should have them free to yourself.”

 

Jungkook watched the face of his presumed captor, disbelieving. "You aren't afraid of me running away?"

 

The creature took a long moment to consider this, then he turned to Jungkook and actually smiled. "No, I suppose I am not."

 

The young man stared down into his plate for a long moment, his eyes locked on the crumbs of food and freshly-cleaned bones, but his mind a million miles away. "You don't make any sense."

 

A strange laugh escaped the creature then, "I suppose I do not. But let us not dwell on the peculiar atrocity which is me any longer. Come, tell me about your family."

 

Jungkook cleared his throat. "My... my family, sir?"

 

"And now the young gentleman minds his manners of speech," the creature chuckled again. He gestured as the second course was being brought in, an assortment of juicy and steaming meat pies with elaborate designs in their crusts, stuffed mullet, savory puddings, and an entire cooked hare that laid across the table before them as though gently resting. It was such a bizarre thing to Jungkook, to be served such an elaborate meal for only two diners. But he could not argue as the beast reached out to carve into the dishes with an expert, albeit unsettlingly hairy hand, to serve them. "By the by, I trust that you will, of course, not offend me by fussing around in the garden, particularly with the roses. They are very sacred to me, you see."

 

"May I ask why?" Jungkook queried, looking down at his plate as it became once again piled with food, and though he had eaten so much thus far, he was beginning to drool once again.

 

The beast paused, then looked at the other seats in the table, as though consulting with them on how to answer such a question.

 

"They were sent to me by my parents," he said at last. "As an apology for sending me away."

 

"Sending you away? Where are they now?"

 

The creature's eyes suddenly filled with such an unspoken sadness, Jungkook instantly regretted his unnecessary prying. But he did not have time to come up with an appropriate change of subject before his question was quietly answered.

 

"They are dead... They have been dead for over a decade now. But those roses were the last thing they gave me in this world. So I tend to them personally, as an apology for all the harsh words I resentfully assaulted them with, before they left me here. There were many things I did not understand as a boy, and am only just recently coming to see." He turned to Jungkook, facing him yet again, and that expression in his eyes looked so very raw and human that Jungkook felt his heart aching, for but a moment, for the beast's plight. "As I said, you will find that cages come in all shapes and sizes. The key to my cage, it just so happens, was buried long ago, during the age of the guillotine."

 

Jungkook blinked, realizing what the creature meant, and the fate of his parents, who had presumably left their child alone in the world at a very young age.

 

"I'm so sorry..." he breathed.

 

The creature shrugged, but his entire posture seemed to have melted into a much smaller frame, like a candle that had started to bend to the flaming heat of its wick. Still, he managed to collect himself within a flicker of that candle, and drew himself back up to his normal, elegant posture of strength and poise.

 

"But let us forget that more dreary topic. I asked about your family, Jungkook."

 

"Oh," Jungkook shifted, unsettled by the sudden shift in the room's tension. "I suppose there isn't much to say. We make up a fairly unexciting and common brood."

 

"So you claim," the creature smiled, leaning his chin down on the flat on his palm, seemingly endeared by the prospect. "Do you have other siblings?"

 

"No, just Junghyun." 

 

"And he is the elder?"

 

Jungkook nodded.

 

Jungkook gave a soft smile, and then a shrug. "If only he could see me now, sitting at a table like this. It is quite amusing, actually."

 

There was a beat, and then the beast dropped his fork. "Amusement, yes. I trust you found the log suitable for your needs?"

 

The young man bit his bottom lip, trying to hold back a nervous smile. "I, uh..."

 

"In addition to as many logs as you would like, there is also the library at your disposal, various supplies for the arts or music as your interests beckon to you, and--"

 

Jungkook perked up in interest, eyes suddenly sparkling with the offers. "There are art supplies?"

 

"Why, yes. Do you have a penchant for art?" The creature tilted his head, his voice lilting in a strange way. To Jungkook, it sounded like confusion, but to anyone else it would have sounded like an attempt to ensure he appeared fully interested. It reminded the humble woodcutter of a certain young lady back at home, who would also lean forward whenever he spoke, and made him feel warmth in his chest at having someone's undivided attention.

 

"Yes, my whole family loves to paint together."

 

"Excellent, I will make a note of it. There are also some books on the art of painting in the library, I will have them sent up to your room, or I can show you after dinner." The creature seemed to jolt, as though being prodded by some invisible rod. "I, uh, mean, if you would like to."

 

The world just did not make any sense anymore, to Jungkook. He shook his head slowly in disbelief which resulted in eliciting a series of confused sounds from the beast, to which he could not answer for some time. He thought of his brother's experience in the mansion, of his own, of the last few days. He thought of how upset everyone had gotten from him trying to help with the chores, and he thought of the hours and hours that he would be useless and unoccupied, unable to help his family at all, from his strangely gilded prison. He thought of the delicious foods, and being offered anything to amuse himself, he thought of how his life had changed very much in the last week.

 

"Why are you being kind to me?" He put the question to the beast.

 

The creature shuffled in his seat, then, unsure of himself, with less the posture of a wild thing and more likening to an embarrassed youth.

 

"I... I honestly don't quite know myself," he admitted after a bit, licking his lips. "I just feel that it is deserved."

 

"Are you..." Jungkook narrowed his eyes. "Are you saying you are pitying me?"

 

"What?"

 

Jungkook frowned, pursing his lips together. "So this is some kind of cruel joke? I am some poor peasant here to amuse you in the passing hours, like a pet mouse? Some stray you have decided to shallowly pamper until you throw me back out into the cold field?" His chest burned with a fury, and he stood up from his seat, surprising the creature with his quick movement.

 

"No, I just meant. Well. You are amusing to me, but not in the way that--" As he spoke, the beast reached out a hand to stop Jungkook, gently touching his arm in what he supposed was intended to be a reassuring gesture. But as heated as he was by the concept, and with all the little gifts, the clothing, the room, the log, the meals, all fluttering around in his head, he wanted to scream in frustration at being made such a fool of. He was a formidable man of the woods, he was a businessman, part of a self-made family career, of noble profession. He was capable of much, and was not some child or plaything for some unknown animal who somehow had come to reside in such an upper-class castle. The instant the beast's hand touched him, he yanked it out of reach, glaring ahead at his captor.

 

"You reek of old, bad money," Jungkook snarled. "And you deserve your prison for your presumptuousness, your cruelty, and the way you treat others as objects. I am a person, a man, and not some animated piece of furniture or a pet for you. So you can choke on your own cold heart, for all I care."

 

And with that, he abandoned the table, despite the creature calling out after him, an apologetic cry to each syllable. Jungkook ignored it, slamming the grand and heavy wooden door after him. It caused an enormous clamour, echoing throughout the house as he stomped his way up the stairs, still seething. He heard Marguerite call out his name once, in a light and lost tone, but he ignored her as well. He hated this house. He hated its occupants. He hated the posh and shallow comforts, burdened down with the insinuations he had uncovered that night. He hated the beast most of all, with his emotional eyes and his parents' sacred death roses, and his pettiness, and his inconsistencies.

 

When Jungkook finally made it to his room, he slammed the door yet again, hated that this was his one refuge, this was his only home now, isolated in the reminders of how he was being kept as some idle form of amusement. Still in a fit of rage, he dragged over one of the armchairs from beside the fire, pressing it up underneath the door handle so that no one could come in. He would starve himself, if that was what it took, but he could not imagine seeing any of the household at that moment, or for the rest of the night, or mayhap even ever again.

 

Once he was done with this task, he felt himself beginning to cry. He missed his real home, he  missed his brother, and his parents, and the villagers. He hated this, he wished he had never come here. But in his heart, he missed the flicker of hope he had had, the one that had told him that morning that perhaps it would not be so horrid to remain in this great and terrible house for a year.

 

He flung himself onto the bed, weeping openly, unable to stop the tears as he allowed himself to weakly mourn for the hours, the days, the weeks, and months that he would be unable to escape.

 

For the hundredth time, he considered leaving, of just running away. He knew the house well enough that he could have done it easily. They did not even keep the doors locked. But Jungkook knew that at least one of the servants knew exactly where his brother had been taken home to, and he feared Junghyun being brought back here, forced to pay for the rest of his time instead. Their parents needed Junghyun's freedom, and his health, and they could not afford more.

 

A gentle knock then came at the door, and Jungkook lifted his tear-stained face to look over at the shadowy frame. He half-expected Marguerite to have arrived, come to tend to the fire before heading to bed, but he felt goosebumps rise on his arms as he heard the beast's voice instead.

 

"Jungkook?" came the muffled voice, sounding strangely small compared to his usual fervor. "I'm... I'm sorry. I did not mean... that... what you said. I know you are not a pet for my amusement. I merely meant..." A pause, and then a sigh. "I am sorry for my actions, and my uncouth words. Will you.... please...? Do me the honor of returning to supper?"

 

Conflicted, Jungkook stared at the door. He waited for the inevitable turn of the handle, an intrusion, but it never came. Another sigh filtered through the crack in the doorjamb, and then there was silence. He did not know what to make of this strange brute, who moved with the grace of a nobleman but appeared as like some wild animal, a cacophonous blend which he could never predict the actions of. He began to wonder if he had overreacted, not allowing the beast to defend himself, but he also could not set aside his pride for even a moment in order to face him. He was swept off with another resounding pang of homesickness instead, and fell back against the bed once more.

 

Jungkook wept against the pillows for what may have been hours. He knew the room started to darken, and grew colder, as the fire started to die. He put it off for some time, due to his grief, but eventually, he sniffed roughly, wiping his nose with his sleeve, and went to tend to the fire, setting a fresh log on it and watching it glow. He made sure the fire caught on the new wood, ever-so-slowly growing back from embers to true flame.

 

As the night grew, Jungkook knew that his temper was starting to dissipate, and he began to wonder what he should do now. He was just deciding whether or not he should go back to bed when his stomach gave a fervent growl, reminding him that he had not finished his meal of that evening. He was a little thrown aback by how much his appetite had been growing, but he was now accustomed to being fed to his fullest, and he had only had some of the first course at dinner. He now wished he had at least had eaten a bit more before storming off, but it must have been quite late already, and he doubted anyone was even in the kitchen at this sort of hour. Jungkook looked up at the small clock which Marguerite had brought for him, and he began to muster up a certain sort of courage which only hunger pains could provide.

 

He inched his way out of the bed, shuffling toward the door and awkwardly removing the armchair from blocking the doorway. He turned the handle, gingerly poking his head out into the hallway and curiously peering back and forth. It was late, he could tell, and everything was darkness.

 

Jungkook slipped back in to grab and light a candle, slipping off his shoes and walking back into the hallway, silent on his bare feet. The hallway felt much colder than during the day, and Jungkook shivered. The candle light was limited, and barely showed the bit of carpet before him. Eventually, he made it to the foyer, and light spilled across the room from some of the fixtures along the wall. He shuffled silently down into the servant's hall, knowing the way to the kitchen.

 

He was surprised to step into the kitchen and find a woman still awake, sitting at the rough wooden table in the middle of the room and writing something down with calm care. She looked up at him, doing a quick double-take before half-standing from her spot.

 

"Why! Hello, there."

 

"Uh, hello," Jungkook said quietly, his voice unsure. He wasn't sure who this woman was, but she seemed to be the cook, and quite a young one at that. There was something about her that emanated a certain warmth that hung about her like a refreshing heat from a special Christmas fire. She had red hair and a soft, large round eyes that emanated kindness, and a little crinkle to their edges, and a thin but wide mouth that curved up into a welcoming smile.

 

"You're Jungkook, right?" she said warmly. Around the table she swept, like some magical creature whose feet did not even touch the ground. Then, when she drew near enough, she took Jungkook's hands in hers and squeezed them, as though she was encouraging him silently. "I'm Celeste." She said the name with a wide smile, as though she were speaking to someone under her personal care, almost like to a child, but yet not at all.

 

"A pleasure to meet you," he managed meekly, turned shy by her familiarity. "I'm sorry if I disturbed you. It is later than I thought."

 

"Not at all, I enjoy pleasant company, particularly the company of handsome and sweet young men who like my food." She gave a soft laugh, and Jungkook felt more at ease than he had felt since his parents had last been home. "You're hungry, aren't you?"

 

"Uh..." Jungkook's eyes averted, and he flushed in embarrassment. "Perhaps a little, if there's something still left... I'm afraid my, uh, dinner was cut unexpectedly short."

 

"Well, that happens," she said, patting his hand. Then, with a brief gesture toward the table, she turned and swirled away to begin a gentle dance toward the pots and containers on the counter. "Sit down and make yourself comfortable. I can whip something up for you in just a minute. Do you have a yearning for anything in particular?"

 

"Um, anything is fine, really," Jungkook reassured her, sitting down at the table. Despite the fact that the table was at a very awkward height for his legs, with his knees bent somehow upward, and the wood was not fully finished, he felt almost at home at the table. He didn't feel as though he had to stand on any ceremony here, that it was perfectly fine to simply be one's self. He let out a sigh, and Celeste glanced over at him past her shoulder, smiling.

 

"So..." she began slowly. "Are you looking for silent company, or a listening ear?"

 

"I beg your pardon?"

 

"The kitchen is more than a place for filling the stomach, my dear Jungkook. It is also a safe place to fill your heart. And in the world we live in today, those sorts of spaces are very precious." She stirred a pot, and then went to place another log in the fire, a small one which she could finaggle in amongst the ashes with ease. It kicked up sparks in a sort of small fireworks of reds and oranges and yellows, and popped in surprise at her intrusion. She pulled out a plate from one of the cupboards. "So what else have you come here for?"

 

Jungkook stared at the table, feeling shame and guilt eating away at the edges of his mind.

 

"I am afraid I have always been a bit short of temper," he said slowly. "My mother always said it would get me into trouble someday, but today for the first time I feel as if she might have been right in her prediction."

 

Celeste gave a quiet hum, placing dishes in front of him. A little cutting board of breads, the crumbs spilling over happily onto the tabletop, was placed alongside. He reached out and thanked her in a quiet voice, starting to devour it. He was more hungry than he had realized.

 

"I suppose," Jungkook mumbled around his mouthful of bread, a touch of sour to its taste, "That I jumped to a conclusion today, and got angry when I should have been silent."

 

"Sometimes," Celeste said. "It is a good thing to call one out on their harsh words, however kindly or unkindly meant. But I cannot say that there is no harm in it, I'm afraid. Words pierce much more deeply than any blade could."

 

"Perhaps... But I was just so confused. I don't even know what I'm doing here, or why I'm being treated so. He's just… erratic and strange."

 

Celeste giggled, finding that somehow very amusing. "Truer words were never spoken. Here you are, my dear." She set out a small tray of a few but amazing meats, along with cooked apples with sugar and little individual meat pies and what seemed to be the remnants of the hare. His eyes widened in delight and he began to feast with gratitude. Celeste sat down across from him, a cup of coffee in her hands which she sipped while enjoying the sight of Jungkook relishing the food. After awhile, she said, "Did you ask him why yourself?"

 

Jungkook hesitated, then nodded. "He said something about giving him my time as punishment. It made no sense and answered nothing. Then he said he didn't know himself."

 

The cook nodded, her red hair brushing against her cheek as she sipped her coffee again, grimacing at the taste. "I suppose then, that there is nothing for it but to trust him, and believe that he truly does not know?"

 

She made a point, despite how confusing it all was, and Jungkook gave a nod. There had been no lie in the beast's eyes when he had said he did not know himself why he was being kind to Jungkook, other than a feeling that he deserved it. Jungkook supposed there was not usually need for a reason for kindness, but it was just a strange situation.

 

"This is such a bizarre and unusual house," he finally said. Celeste chuckled again, warming the room as if her laughter was a proverbial additional log to the fire.

 

"You are correct on that front, for sure." She allowed the silence to stretch between them for a moment, and then she tilted her head at him. "Jungkook, if I may ask, why was it that you took your brother's place here? Was it because he was so ill?"

 

Jungkook shrugged. "I suppose it was that, partly. He is also a stronger woodsman than I am, and more likely to be able to take up my place. But I don't think that is the main reason."

 

Celeste arched an eyebrow, curious.

 

"I guess..." Jungkook poked at his food with his fork, his posture a bit dejected. "I always wished to go off on some adventure, live some different sort of life, than the one my family laid out for me. As a boy, I did not love home the way that my brother and parents did, and I always wanted to just wander off into the blue. I wanted to be tested, to try something new. But I took for granted the home that I have...and now that I have lost it, I feel as though I really did love home all along, and just never realized it until it was swept away from me. I suppose everyone feels that way, when they grow up and they realize that no place is ever perfect except in a child's careless mind."

 

Jungkook sighed, nibbling a little bite of meat pie, and then needing another, the flavor too enticing. "I always looked up to my brother," he continued. "But I haven't been grateful toward him, you know? He's done everything for me, since I was little, even when I was a brat and ruined his work, or I was mean to him, or I hurt him, or left him with more than his share to do. He's not perfect either, but..." Jungkook sighed. "If going away means that I can be useful to him, if I can do something good for him, then that's something, at least. He deserves a much better brother than I often am. And then he got into trouble from doing something for me, even though I did not ask it of him. Why should he have to pay for being a kind brother? The least I can do is take that punishment for him, and keep our family safe."

 

Celeste sat in her seat quietly, nodding along to Jungkook's ramblings and simply soaking in his words with attentiveness. She let the silence rest between them for some time, as Jungkook quietly went back to eating his dinner, and then she reached out and laid her hand across his, in a delicate gesture of goodwill. He looked up in question.

 

"Jungkook," she said quietly, smiling with a twinkle of what seemed like tears in her eyes. "I think you are a very beautiful person, inside and out. And that it shows to the people that you meet, and it has the power to change them. Thank you, for telling me your story."

 

Jungkook flushed, embarrassed by the unexpected praise, but while he was fumbling for a response, she reached across the table and pulled out a simple deck of homemade cards, shuffling them about and laying out cards before him, inviting him to play a game. It worked to distract him from his shyness, and they played cards while Jungkook finished his meal.

 

About an hour or so later, Jungkook's eyes began to droop, and he became much quieter in his conversation, so Celeste sent him up to bed, assuring him that she would be headed off herself once she had finished up a few preparations in the kitchen.

 

When Jungkook made it to his room, he was dragging his feet. He quickly undressed, and flopped upon the bed, feeling full and content, and overwhelmed with that specific kind of exhaustion that comes from a long, hard cry and a bout of following emotional reassurance. He smiled, curling up around one of his pillows and quickly falling asleep.

 

He still was unsure of what he was meant to do, in concerning his dealings with the beast, but he felt a bit more confidence now as to his ability to contend with it, after speaking with Celeste.

 

And so for the time being, he was much more relaxed.

 

Chapter Text

Jungkook rose late the next morning, and he stretched out his arms and groaned aloud as he did so. There was a bright yellow-orange glow coming in the window, and when Jungkook rose to slip across the room, not bothering to put on a robe, he drew apart the curtains and smiled brightly at the warm sunshine that spilled in across his face. He sighed, then fussed with the window, creaking it open after much wiggling and effort. Once it was open, he could feel the light, soft breeze across his skin, and he could hear some birds singing in the distance. His gaze fell down to the garden, where the abnormally warm autumn day had called out all the flowers in their full bloom, and the roses in particular looked bright and faced toward the sky with their crimson eagerness.

 

It took him a moment, but after a slight movement below his window, Jungkook realized that the garden was not empty, and that the beast was down there, standing quite close by and looking up at him. He seemed to be smiling, and Jungkook gasped, wrapping his arms around himself as he realized he was only dressed in the night-shirt. The master of the house laughed at him, then a merry sound that held no malice, and he pointed a short black cane that he was using up toward Jungkook's window.

 

"You've slept late," he called out to the second-story window. "I was half-hoping you would join me on my walk this morning, so I could speak with you."

 

Jungkook flushed, feeling embarrassment creep through his skin. He hunched in front of the window until just his head and shoulders could poke out the window, embarrassed at being caught undressed.

 

"Are you...?" he licked his lips. "Are you quite done with your walk, then?"

 

"No, I have just barely begun. I will wait for you, if you would like to get dressed? Would that be acceptable?" 

 

The beast smiled up at him, and Jungkook felt that he should have been angry with him, but he was not. Perhaps it was merely a part of his personality, to not hold onto such grudges, or perhaps it was the way that the beast looked quite small and approachable from under his window, smiling up at him and waving at him to please come down, and to hurry up about it. Jungkook nodded, reaching up to close the window and the drapes, and then rushed through getting dressed. He nearly tore a hole in his white stockings as he did so, and the buttons seemed to take forever, but eventually he was dressed and headed out of his room. He rushed down the hallway, his footsteps thudding on the stairs, and he raced out the front doors and around the side of the house. The pathway was well-worn and he turned the corner to find the beast standing there waiting for him, tapping his cane against one of the stones of the garden and looking the opposite direction, up into the sky.

 

"Good morning," Jungkook said quietly, leaning into the creature's peripheral  view, trying not to startle him. He gave a smile, crossing his arms behind his back and straightening up as he stepped closer to the beast.

 

The creature looked somewhat relieved, and gave a nod. "Good morning, Jungkook. You look well? Did you sleep soundly?"

 

"I did, actually," Jungkook said. Slowly, they started to walk around the garden, moving slowly and matching each other's paces side-by-side. At the start, they walked in silence, until they reached one of the first turns, and then the beast looked over at him soberly.

 

"I fear I owe you an apology, Jungkook," he said in a mournful tone, falling back out of that slight growling undertone and into a voice that was much gentler, much smaller. "I spoke out of turn with you last night, and lost all sense of propriety, as well as disregarded your feelings. I don't see you as an anomaly or some commodity, truly, and that I insinuated as much is inexcusable."

 

They took a few more steps before Jungkook, mustering up his courage, replied, "I must apologize, too." He hesitated, knowing himself to be nowhere near as eloquent as the beast, nor as easily able to set aside his pride, particularly before such a formidable creature. "I am not good at expressing myself, and as someone who is poor in that regard, I should not be so quick to jump to conclusions and lose my temper."

 

The creature said nothing, and they walked along in awkward silence for a good time, and as the minutes passed, Jungkook realized the garden was even longer and larger than he had originally supposed. They were neither of them particularly skilled at the work of making amends, it seemed, and he loathed the permeating awkwardness in the air.

 

"So you take walks down here every day?" he asked. His tone turned deliberately flippant, attempting to lighten the mood. "Does it not get dull after a time?"

 

They slowed, and the beast looked at him with a shrug of his shoulders. "I have walked this garden since I was but eleven years old. There comes a time when dull is no longer the word for it. But luckily when the spring comes, there arrives with it a feeling of freshness, which I hold to be quite lovely, no matter how many years pass."

 

Jungkook tilted his head in surprise. "Why, since you were eleven?! Have you not traveled or explored elsewhere?"

 

The beast shook his head. "Maybe someday. But it is not as if an abhorrent thing, such as I, can simply travel the world freely, you must understand."

 

"Oh..." Jungkook flushed a smidgen in embarrassment. "I hope you may someday."

 

Chuckling, the beast looked over at him, smiling as he reached out and cupped a bright orange poppy in one hairy hand, tilting it up toward the sun so as to admire it. "You are quite endearing when you do that."

 

"Excuse me? Do what?"

 

The beast shrugged again. "I do not know how to describe it." The beast then looked his way directly, and perhaps due to the confusion on Jungkook's face, he swiftly turned away and his posture seemed to alter quite abruptly. He quickened his pace a bit and they headed back toward the front of the house, and he kept wiping his palms discreetly on the sides of his coat.  "Is not the weather quite warm today?" he suddenly queried, looking up over the piles of a rosemary bush, surrounded by a collection of bright black-eyed susans, which peeked over the rosemary with their humble and vibrant yellow petals that swayed just slightly in the breeze. "It is surprising, for so late in the season. I suppose it means that this winter will be--- Gah!"

 

As he had been glancing sidelong at Jungkook in a momentary distraction, the beast did not pay attention to his footing. A brick that lay along the collection of black-eyed susans had fallen out a bit askew, and his shoe caught against it with a scrape, and he fell forward mid-sentence, letting out a loud cry and then a grunt as his chest hit the ground. Jungkook was concerned for a moment, until the creature started growling and grumbling about "Infernal rocks and things, always getting underfoot." Jungkook smiled, letting out a giggle as he leaned down to offer the beast a hand up.

 

The beast glanced up at his hand, staring at it in confusion, and then flickering his gaze up into Jungkook's amused face. The beast then did a curious thing, reaching up and running his hand across his face as though checking that nothing was amiss, or perhaps some form of injury, and then he gingerly took Jungkook's hand, allowing the man to assist him to his feet.

 

"Thank you," the beast mumbled, brushing off his pants and turning toward the house. "I suppose we should head inside now."

 

"I suppose," Jungkook said, suspecting that the beast's pride was more bruised from the fall than any part of his body. He followed the beast in equal step as they started to round the house, his eyes wandering to the as-yet-mysterious hedge maze. "Mayhaps we could wander the maze another day?" he said, realizing after he'd said it that sounded a bit presumptuous, as though inviting himself along to the beast's daily walk by default.

 

"Oh, uh, certainly," said he, his voice deepening into its more usual grow a moment later. "I suppose that would be suitable."

 

"I wish I knew more about the flowers in your garden, actually," Jungkook continued, keeping apace with the beast as they crossed the front walk. "I know plenty about more wildflowers and plants of the woods, as it is always useful to have a cursory knowledge when you live out of the city, but as far as flowers for pleasure, of breeding, I know very little."

 

The beast looked over at Jungkook, curious as he watched Jungkook open the door for them both, and then the beast took a moment to wring his hands. 

 

"Yes, well? If you would like, perhaps I could show you the library's collection of botanical anthologies? We have quite a few that are specific to the area, as well as its common animal specimens..."

 

"Oh really?" Jungkook's eyes brightened, and this seemed to be enough of a signal for the beast to suddenly go back into his explanation with fervor, leading the way through the foyer and off down one of the hallways, his pace swift. Despite the unusual warmth of the weather, it had still been surprisingly chilly outdoors, which Jungkook more so realized upon reentering the house, due to the slight tingling of his fingertips as they warmed to the slightly more stuffy atmosphere inside. The beast continued his happy relations of the various resources within the mansion's library, from music to the sciences, from the scandalous novel to instructional arithmetic.

 

The beast led the way into the library, and upon entering, Jungkook let out a small gasp of surprise, looking all around him. The library was by far one of the biggest rooms in the house he had seen, with ladders set up in several places so as to allow access to high shelves. The built-in shelves curved and sunk into alcoves for tucking into, and there were two floors of them. It was a collection that must have been built over generations, for sure.

 

The creature watched Jungkook as he walked into the library, and followed after him with a quiet and unsure step, as though he was gauging Jungkook's reaction and was dependent very heavily upon it for his own reply.

 

He gave Jungkook several minutes, as the young man walked the shelves, taking his time exploring the racks. His fingers brushed lightly over the gold-engraved letters in the wood, unfamiliar with the shelving system but knowing they were based upon Greek letters.

 

Randomly, he pulled out a few of the books, leafing through the pages with passing curiosity before replacing it and moving on to another with wonder. The beast still followed behind him, at last interrupting his inspection with a tone that seemed to be asking for approval.

 

"Well? What do you think of it?"

 

"It's wonderful, truly..." Jungkook breathed, looking around again at the enormous room. "There's so many books here...that if I lived ten lives I could never read them all."

 

"Probably closer to fifty lives, to be sure," the creature hummed, seeming to brim with a happiness that spilled over into his words. "Ah, may I ask... Jungkook, can you read?"

 

Jungkook looked up in shock, his face contorted. "What? Of course I can read."

 

The beast instantly seemed to fall back, evidently regretting his question. "I didn't-- I mean--"

 

To that, Jungkook just frowned, moving on from the shelf he had been looking at and moving toward a large book that seemed to serve as a sort of reference. Most of its pages were blank, but in the early portion there were names, dates, and titles of books, indicating when they had been removed from the shelves. Another book on the same podium appeared to have listed the location of each book

 

"Jungkook, I'm sorry," the beast said quietly, as the young man continued to look through the logs. "I spoke without thought."

 

"It is nothing," Jungkook waved a nonchalant hand. "But for future notation, my brother and I have been educated, despite our humble circumstances, and our family employs the village library from time to time, as most do. We have done more than learned to sign our names, although my mother's eyesight has been reduced as of late and it makes it harder for her to enjoy the past-time."

 

The beast grunted in acknowledgement, but was quiet for a time. Jungkook flipped through the log, more for having something to do than to actually accomplish anything. After a moment, he saw that there was a section specifically on botanical studies, and he noted the look of the letter at the top of the page, and spotted the shelf off to their left. He took a step toward it, with the beast not far behind, and he ran his finger along the spines of the books, looking for a title which suggested the subject he was searching for.

 

"Are you looking for that botanical book I suggested?" the beast said, to which Jungkook gave a nod. "Here, it's over on--"

 

In a moment, the tension in the room had multiplied tenfold, as Jungkook straightened up from his half-crouch and turned on the spot, just as the beast had stepped forward toward the shelf and reached one hand up above their heads, resulting in both arms surrounding Jungkook, their chests lightly pressed up together. Jungkook stood still as a statue for a long, agonizingly slow second, and swallowed heavily as he looked up into the eyes of the beast, the emotive gaze which was now locked on him with an intensity he had never felt before in his whole life. Jungkook felt his skin heat up in a flush, and the creature continued to stare at him. They were so close, stood against the bookshelf and frozen in time, that Jungkook could feel the creature's quick and shallow breaths against his chest.

 

"U-um..." Jungkook began slowly, when the silence had become deafening. "C-could you move, please?"

 

This seemed to break the spell on the beast, and he shook himself suddenly and stepped back so quickly that his shoulder bumped up against some of the books behind him, and he apologized. In his hand, he held the botanical volume he had mentioned to Jungkook, and their eyes avoided each other as he gave the book to Jungkook, seeming to take care that they didn't touch one another in the process.

 

"I suppose I should leave you be to read," the beast said, turning and rapidly walking away. It was Jungkook's turn to follow afterward, trying to hurry so he did not get out of earshot too quickly. "You may borrow whichever books you may like, just please make note of it in the log on the stand, and note again when it is returned."

 

"Wait," Jungkook said, reaching out for the beast's receding back, but his steps had quickened once again and Jungkook's hand reached out into the empty air. "Wait, why were you staring at me like that?"

 

"I apologize, it was very uncouth of me to do so, Jungkook."

 

"Wait, don't leave, I--" Jungkook finally caught hold of the beast's sleeve, grabbing it as solidly as he could and making the beast slow, already trying to shake off Jungkook's arm. It was in this moment, much like the moment he had called after him after the beast had found him listening to his harpsichord playing, that Jungkook realized one major point that he had never gotten around to exploring, one infernal and overlooked piece of information that made re-catching the attention of this master of the house quite considerable. He did not know if the fact had been withheld from him on purpose, or if it had simply been the circumstances or his own lack of propriety which had allowed days already to pass before it had been brought to the epicenter of conversation for even a moment.

 

"I'll leave you to it, so please, do not mind my strange behavior, I do not--" the beast was continuing, when Jungkook gripped the beast's whole upper arm with his hands, keeping him from exiting the grand and wide library doors.

 

"Wait!" he cried out obstinately, and that was when the creature finally turned around. His face was a mix of odd emotions, and his thick lips seemed to be trembling of a sort, but the fur which covered his face made his expression difficult to discern with any confidence.

 

Jungkook straightened his shoulders, looking up into the beast's face as he asked, "What is your name?"

 

The beast seemed throttled by this question, and he licked his lips a couple of different times, wiping his hands across the edges of his jacket. "I, uh...my name?"

 

"Yes, your name. There is nothing for me to shout out after you when you suddenly start to flitter away like a scared bird, if you have never given me a name, sir ."

 

To this, the beast frowned, a less serious but somewhat defensive gleam sparkling in his eyes. "You have lived in my house for this long and a name was never something you considered inquiring about? Did you not learn manners as a child?"

 

"Did you never stop being a child?" Jungkook shot back instantly, causing the beast to blink, and then let out a surprised laugh. After a moment, the young man pressed again. "You still have not answered my question."

 

The beast's laughter ceased, and he gently removed his arm from Jungkook's hold, standing there and watching him for a moment.

 

"It is Seokjin," he said at last. Somehow, it was not the sort of name that Jungkook expected. He had presumed it would be something much more exotic, perhaps in a primitive way, given the beast's appearance as some sort of animal cut in the vague shape and attitude of a man. But Seokjin felt like such a normal and familiar name that he became utterly nonplussed.

 

In lieu of any further conversation, the beast - Seokjin - gave a slight bow in Jungkook's direction, having apparently regathered some of his wits from earlier, and murmured, "Now, if you'll excuse me..." He turned and left the room, and it was not until after his footsteps no longer echoed outside that Jungkook realized he had not answered the question as to what he had been staring at Jungkook so intently for.

 

It always seemed as though for any question answered about the creature, another two vague mysteries cropped up, and Jungkook was not sure how to evaluate anything anymore.

 

🌹🌹🌹

 

There was the thud of a door, and Celeste poked her head outside of the servant's quarters to look out into the main foyer. Some door down the hall must have been shut closed rapidly, and just as she looked out across the foyer, she saw Master Seokjin rushing out of the great front doors, looking quite upset and unsettled. Celeste's head tilted to the side, a curious expression on her face. The debate as to whether or not to wait for Seokjin to come back or to go out after him was over in but a moment, as she decided that the food cooking in the kitchens for lunch was simply too important to abandon partway through. She went back to her kitchen, knowing that it would only be a matter of time anyway, and she was of course correct in her prediction.

 

She was just cleaning up the kitchen after herself, reorganizing the space she had in order to lay out the trays properly, when Seokjin came in, not through the servant's quarters, but through the back door which led directly into the wood yard.

 

"Celeste, that...that man is a bane upon my very livelihood!" Seokjin declared, as dramatically as he had been when they were very young, growing up together in the house of Seokjin's father. Celeste looked over, seeing that despite Seokjin's complaints, he had another round of wood under his arm, and he was breathing heavily.

 

"However do you mean?" she asked, unperturbed.

 

Seokjin sat the log down on the floor near the table, sitting down and quickly leaning his face against his hands in an apparent gesture of surrender and confusion. Celeste smiled, starting to plate the trays and waiting. Seokjin always looked a little out-of-place in her kitchen, not the least of reasons being due to his apparent deformity, but also due to the bright energy which he brought out in this room that most never would see. Here, he was no longer master of the household, he was no longer 'the beast', he was merely Seokjin, her lifelong friend.

 

"He's just!" Seokjin sighed, then groaned. "I do not know if this is the usual for house guests, but I do not think it common for them to completely unravel one's wit and self-control! What is it about him that makes me behave so!?"

 

"An interesting dilemma," Celeste mused, trying to hide her knowing smile. "What sort of behavior do you exhibit during those times? And what is going through your mind?"

 

"I do not know, nothing! And everything!" Seokjin reached out across the table, his hands nervously searching for something to do. His long, hair-covered fingers found a couple of backgammon pieces, rolling them in his hands and clacking them together. "I stare at him, and I find my words gone. He has done nothing threatening to me and he has never even verbally acknowledged my hideousness, yet I feel nervous and upset around him as though he held me at gunpoint."

 

"Curious..." Celeste added. She handed him an extra biscuit which she had made, and he nibbled on it, not even bothering to be elegant as crumbs scattered on the table. "What do you think could be the cause of that?"

 

"I do not know, but I hope it leaves soon. If he is to be here a year -- oh god! I wish for mercy upon me, I do not look forward to a whole year of being made a fool in my own house! I have no reason for him to make me act or feel so! I am the master of the house, after all!"

 

"That you are." Celeste chuckled, finishing up with the trays. "And what about the wood?"

 

"Beg your pardon?"

 

"You keep bringing him wood, yet he upsets you so? And what about this walk I hear you two went on earlier, together in the garden? It is unlike you to want any company on those walks, or else I would have gone with you, you know."

 

"No, I know, Cece!" he fumbled, "I did not intend to offend you or make you feel rejected. It was just... a spur of the moment thing, I suppose. I am but extremely curious about him. There are not many that visit this house, you know."

 

Celeste nodded. She knew, and yet she knew more, and still yet more, and her eyes twinkled as she reached over and patted Seokjin's head, making him slump in his seat. In many aspects, the isolation had done Seokjin no favors, particularly in terms of emotional maturity, and she supposed this was one of those times.

 

"My advice," she said warmly, "Is that you simply relax a little, on this front. Whatever it is he or you are doing, it may take some time to figure it out. You two did not exactly meet under the most common of circumstances, after all, and it is for the best that you do not fret too much over the details of things."

 

"But Cece," Seokjin bemoaned, reverting back toward his more child-like whine of a voice, although she knew that he was only half-serious in his complaints. "How am I supposed to face him? Today I practically attacked him in the library for no apparent reason. He is going to think me a complete madman." And with the declaration, Seokjin dropped his head down onto the table, letting out a little groan.

 

"Stop being so," Celeste chuckled, clucking her tongue at him. "I think he would like you well enough if you were just to act a bit more natural."

 

"That was what I was trying to do," bemoaned Seokjin. "And then it all went to the dogs! God, I don't even understand why I care about his good or bad opinion of me." A long silence hung about the kitchen, while Seokjin ruminated on this point, and Celeste waited patiently, humming to herself. "Perhaps it is due to the fact that this will be a very long year if we loathe each other. Yes, that must be why. I have not had any guests in this household for a decade, much less someone like him , with...with his strange aura and his strange way of speaking."

 

"Naturally you would be quite flummoxed as to what to do," she agreed. "So why not just give yourself a little time to adjust, and not be so harsh on yourself? I am sure he is quite unsettled by his circumstances as well. So just try to make him feel welcome, and you will be alright."

 

"Right, right," Seokjin sat up straighter. "Just make him feel welcome, that's all I have to do. And in that, I have been as successful as someone like myself could possibly expect to do."

 

"What have you accomplished, then?" Celeste inquired sincerely, ready to encourage him.

 

"We have taken a turn in the garden, and I have properly apologized for my behavior last night. I may look like a beast, but I would rather he not see me as one who acts like one, at the very least. Ah, then we talked about flowers, and I told him we had books in the library he could access, and that is why I took him to the library in the first place. I was helping him find the right book when..." Seokjin's voice, which had been gaily relating the morning's adventures, cut off abruptly, and he stared ahead with unseeing eyes, which filled with embarrassment, and then horror in turn. He groaned, burying his face in his arms again. "And, god! Why did I do such a thing!?"

 

Celeste had no way to even guess at what Seokjin had done, but with her knowledge of him, it could have been something as small as brushing dust off the young man's sleeve and he would have turned it into a dramatic affair. She walked over to his side of the table, tapping his shoulder. 

 

"I do not know how to explain your actions, but as long as you keep them honorable, I see no reason for you to despair so. Now go get washed up and ready for lunch. You will be taking it in the dining room proper today, yes?"

 

Seokjin looked up, and slowly nodded, standing up from his seat. He took a brief moment to bend down and pick up his round of oak, and tucked it under one arm.

 

"Cece..." he mumbled. As he took three long strides toward the door, his shoulders lifted, his posture more elegant and his voice more demure as he turned toward her, his eyes brimming with sincerity. "Thank you, for listening to me."

 

"Of course, my darling," she giggled, waving him off with a breezy air. "Now go! Marguerite will be down any moment now."

 

Seokjin then nodded, leaving the servant's quarters as he swiftly exited. Celeste stood, shaking her head at his constant foolishness, and then rang the bell for Marguerite, ready to send her out with the trays for lunch.

 

🌹🌹🌹

 

Jungkook leaned into the dining room, finding no one there. He then gingerly stepped inside, a pile of books in his arms which he set near his seat at the table. There was food already laid out, and it looked afresh and inviting. He spent a good deal of time fussing awkwardly with his stack of books, straightening them out to perfection in order to busy himself as he waited. A short cough came from by the door, and he looked up to see Seokjin standing there, giving a little bow of his head before he entered, moving gracefully to the head of the table. Unsure, Jungkook half-stood from his seat and waited until Seokjin was seated first before returning to his previous position.

 

The air felt different somehow, perhaps with more of a note of calm.

 

"Did you find everything you wished?" Seokjin questioned, making Jungkook jump a little in surprise.

 

"Ah, yes, actually! And more. I hope you do not mind me choosing such a large selection." He reached over with his hand, patting the stack of books. The beast smiled at him.

 

"Not at all, it is a library meant to be used." A pause, and they proceeded to eat in a comfortable silence, filling their plates. Jungkook felt a more acute sense of gratitude toward the meals now that he had met Celeste in person, and knew that her heart was as warm and inviting as the food which she made with such strong affection.

 

His thoughts of the red-haired cook were interrupted when Seokjin, leaning past a glass of wine, peered at Jungkook's books. Jungkook arched an eyebrow, biting into a pastry.

 

"May I see which titles you chose?" Seokjin said.

 

"Oh, certainly." Jungkook lifted the stack of books and moved them to the angled space between himself and Seokjin, allowing the beast to bend down and read the spines whilst Jungkook continued to eat his meal. He was cutting into his meat when Seokjin looked up.

 

"By the way, there is another log for you. It will be up in your room once you are finished."

 

Jungkook swallowed the sizable bite that was in his mouth, taking a sip of wine to wash it down. "Uh, thank you."

 

"I trust it will be suitable for you needs, and -- Oh." At Seokjin's word, Jungkook looked up, seeing the beast peering at two of the books in surprise. "Painting? Are you interested in painting, Jungkook?"

 

"Yes, actually, my whole family enjoys making art."

 

"That's right...that was the reason your brother wanted the roses in the first place, wasn't it?"

 

Jungkook swallowed again, feeling a twinge within his belly that longed for home, longed for his brother, or at least some news of him. "Yes, that is correct."

 

"So you made your own paints?"

 

"Sometimes, yes, we didn't really have extra money to spend on superfluous hobbies,of course. But we collected what we could."

 

The beast seemed to consider this, a low growling hum of thought emanating from him before he caught up his wine glass, tipping it in mild salute toward his guest before proclaiming, "Then we will obtain for you all the supplies appropriate for your level of skill and passion, Jungkook. I will have them sent for as soon as possible."

 

"What?"

 

"Is there anything in particular you require? Or shall we just send for a general artist's required effects, depending on recommendation?"

 

"I..." Jungkook licked his lips, surprised at this gesture of kindness. "I suppose the basics would be more than suitable, thank you."

 

"Excellent, I will make a note of it on your behalf." Seokjin sat up, returning to his lunch with glee, and Jungkook scraped the tines of his fork across his plate for a long moment. "And when you have completed one of your paintings, I insist on a viewing!"

 

Jungkook gave a little nod, feeling surreal. "You're the master of the house," he acceded.

 

To this, Seokjin caught his eye in a moment of inquiry, then set down his eating utensils for a moment. "No, Jungkook," he stated firmly, making the young man look up. "I am no master of yours. Remember, I am the hideous beast."

 

The tension that had been slowly ebbing out of the room into the corners and cracks all seemed to seep back in within half a moment.

 

"No," Jungkook said quietly, his eyes mostly locked upon his plate as opposed to the creature watching him. "You're Seokjin."

Chapter Text

A week had passed, now, and the days seemed to grow shorter the more Jungkook relaxed into the welcoming and quiet folds of the mansion's embrace. Life was slowly falling into a refreshing and yet familiar routine. The mornings after breakfast included a walk in the garden, then back to his room for some reading by the fire, joining Seokjin again for lunch in the dining room, often with Jungkook happily reporting on his findings in his morning studies. The afternoons saw Jungkook returned to his room sometimes, or going to sit in the servant's quarters to play cards with Celeste or to watch her start early preparations for dinner, and then he would return to his room to freshen up for the evening meal.

 

Once in awhile, Jungkook could hear the distant scales of the harpsichord, and he would follow it and go listen when he was able, sitting in some corridor or just outside the door and enjoying the music. Some days it was loud and energetic, and Jungkook would note a particularly bright skip to Seokjin's step. Other days, the music was gloomy or pained, and Seokjin's countenance reflected such a mood, and their dinner conversation was quieter and less pressed and present.

 

It was a cold and grey day outside when Jungkook returned from their morning walk to find a plethora of new items in his room. The wardrobe had been opened, and placed inside was at least a dozen different sets of clothing, and the chest of drawers had been filled with other such supplies. Jungkook was surprised to discover that he could wear an outfit every day of the week and not wear the same one twice. Also set out near the fireplace was a grand display of materials. A brand-new easel was folded out, with a selection of brushes of many sizes, and entire boxes of various pigments, with oil included to make the day's fresh set of paint to use. And along the wall were laid a variety of different canvases, obviously meant for Jungkook to practice his art on. Jungkook inspected each article with wide eyes, coming back to the paints at least half a dozen times to stare in wonder. His fingers began to itch once again to paint that bright autumn scene he had played back and forth with in his mind, and he checked the time before he changed his clothes to his old woodsman's outfit, pulling out the brushes and rushing to prepare the paint for his first attempts.

 

It was some hours later, when the smell of chemicals had pervaded the entirety of the room, forcing Jungkook to open his window, that he realized he should have gone and thanked the beast first for his gift before immediately using it. He had been so caught up in his current and beloved occupation that he had not had any time for such thoughts. He sighed, cleaning up the materials and neatly placing them all just-so in the side of the room. He then opened up the wardrobe, staring wide-eyed at the array of clothing to choose from. He resulted in selecting a bright gold-yellow vest and matching light tan breeches, and checked himself over. The clothing fitted him rather well, and he waved his arms about experimentally to get a feel for the new costume. He then swept up his jacket and headed downstairs to find Seokjin.

 

He did not find the beast in the main study, where he often waited in some form of leisure as though hoping to come across Jungkook's path, and he was not any room on the main floor. Puzzled, Jungkook decided to wander off into the west wing, where he had presumed Seokjin's quarters were. He did not hear any music echoing down the hallways, so his steps thudded along quietly alongside him.

 

It was along this corridor that he came once again across the painting of the young boy, who Jungkook had begun to believe was a prince or some sort of noble. He took a moment to take in and enjoy the artistry of the portrait once again, and while he was standing there admiring it, he thought he heard a loud sob. He froze, turning to look down the hallway, and when he strained his ears to listen, he realized that someone was crying in one of the rooms. Careful steps led him to door after door, but although he put his ear to the key holes, he could not find for certain which room it was coming from. He stood between a section of four doors where the crying seemed loudest, and he looked about himself, perplexed. 

 

He waited there for some minutes, and then could not hear it anymore. Jungkook glanced back up at the painting of the boy, and for a moment, he wondered, ridiculously, if the boy in the painting was crying. He shook himself of the absurd notion, then he decided to just try all the doors. The first went into a large closet, the second into a storage room, as well as the third. The fourth, strangely, was locked. Jungkook knocked on it roughly, and then laid his ear against the door, trying to hear if there was any rustling or crying to be heard.

 

"Hello?" he called out, worry leaking into his voice. "Is there anybody in there? Are you alright?"

 

No answer came, even though Jungkook waited in the hallway for quite some time, occasionally knocking on the door again. After a time, he decided that either there was not anyone there, or that they had merely wished to remain undisturbed, in which case his presence lingering was unwanted. He hesitated a moment longer, staring at the door over his shoulder before taking a few tentative steps down the hallway. He glanced up at the portrait of the young boy, looking so somber whilst hanging on his wall for so many years.

 

When he re-entered the main foyer, Philippe was walking through, and he sent the young man a discerning look.

 

"Good afternoon, Philippe, have you seen Seokjin?"

 

"The Master should be headed down to the parlor soon," Philippe said stiffly. "I would recommend waiting for him there."

 

"Thank you," Jungkook said quietly.

 

"Hmm," hummed Philippe wordlessly.

 

He turned to walk past Philippe into the aforementioned parlor, and unsurprisingly found it vacant of its master. Jungkook decided to get himself comfortable, and he situated himself in one of the seats near the fireplace. There was a book of etiquette on one of the nearby tables, and he reached over and flipped through it from pure boredom.

 

It was approximately twenty minutes later when the door to the parlor was thrown aside quite abruptly, and Jungkook looked up in surprise as he saw Seokjin standing there, looking upset.

 

"You sent for me?!" the creature said, a strange note to his voice. 

 

"What?" Jungkook's brow crumpled in confusion, and he smiled a bit without thinking of it. "No, I didn't."

 

"Oh..." Seokjin's posture loosened. "I must have misheard, then, my apologies."

 

"Not at all," Jungkook said, brushing off the miscommunication and shaking the etiquette book in his hand as he brought the subject towards his initial intention. "I did want to talk to you, however. I wanted to thank you for all of the gifts in my room. I appreciate it very greatly, and you certainly did not have to go through so much trouble to give me so many things."

 

"What? Gifts?" Seokjin let out a very awkward sounding guffaw of a laugh, and Jungkook blinked at him for a moment. "They're just. Uh."

 

Jungkook had no idea what else the objects could be called, if not gifts. Perhaps the clothes were merely on loan, of course, which was why he was so careful with them, but it was not as if he could un-use the paints he had. Jungkook wondered briefly if that was Seokjin's limited understanding of paints.

 

"Well, either way, I appreciate them," Jungkook pushed through, "I already started on a painting, actually."



"Oh?" Seokjin smiled, his curving lips visible beneath the usually manicured fur, which Jungkook now noted looked a bit disheveled today. "I look forward to seeing the finished product."

 

Jungkook smiled, a little stiffly. He decided to speak up. "You're acting a bit odd today."

 

"I am?" the beast laughed, trying to brush off the comment and being utterly unconvincing in his attempts. "Ah, then my apologies. I just wanted to let you know that I won't be able to join you for dinner tonight. I hope it isn't too much trouble."

 

"Are you ill?" Jungkook asked, looking the beast up and down.

 

"No, no, not at all, well... yes. I may be a bit under the weather tonight. It's perfectly alright, though. Please, enjoy your meal without me."

 

Jungkook, now befuddled beyond reckoning, just stared at the beast. "Have I... done something wrong?"

 

"Absolutely not," the beast said. "I merely seem to be...slipping, I suppose."

 

There was a long moment of silence, and then the beast took his leave, abandoning Jungkook to the silence.

 

Breaking a new element into their usual routine, Jungkook spent his time in his bedroom, painting away the hours. He then ate in the dining room, alone. 

 

Hours of quiet reading and absent-mindedly stoking the fire passed, and finally he laid down to go to sleep, but there was a certain niggling feeling in the back of his mind that was bothering him. He tossed and turned in the bed, and yet he could not find relief in any slumber, not even temporarily. When a few hours had passed, Jungkook let out a sigh, deciding to leave the bed and take a walk. Perhaps moving around a bit more would calm his nerves and restlessness, and he could sleep properly.

 

It was a strange night, and while Jungkook wandered the corridors, he heard the sound of rain beginning to fall upon the window panes. When he crossed by the hallway with the enormous windows, he saw lightning flash, and he heard the rain roaring. It was a cold, damp night, and he shivered in his robe, which had been hastily thrown over his nightshirt.

 

His bare feet padded silently along the rugs. Eventually, he found himself inexplicably drawn to the portrait of the young boy, and the place where he had heard the crying earlier that day. It had struck Jungkook, in the midst of the day's long hours, that he had never seriously considered that the house may have been truly haunted or cursed, as the rumors in the village had so often been said.

 

And the strange behavior of the beast, coinciding with these odd occurrences, made them stand out all the darker to Jungkook. What had he meant by saying he was 'slipping'? Why did he not join him that evening?

 

Jungkook took his small candelabra and sat before the portrait of the young prince, and he curled up against the wall across from it so he could see the portrait in full view.

 

"I don't suppose you have an answers, do you, Prince?" Jungkook said quietly into the dark hallway, surprised by how loud his voice seemed to be in the silence of the night. He hugged his knees to his chest, looking up at the prince's sad face. "I guess I just felt lonely. I don't like being by myself for too long, even though I enjoy the quiet. Some of us are strange like that."

 

Jungkook wriggled his bare toes, feeling a bit cold. He moved the candelabra closer, and smiled up at the portrait. "You're a very handsome young boy, you know? Your face makes me feel as though I know you very well. Maybe I have seen you in one of my dreams. Where are you now? Did you grow up well?"

 

The prince, naturally, did not answer, still seated there with a complicated expression.

 

The clock ticked by as Jungkook sat, curled up near his candlelight and watching the painting, thinking of very little and occasionally speaking to the painting. He told the painting how he missed his parents, and his brother, and being in the woods and free. He told the painting how his own painting was going, and how he had learned a lot while being in the beast's home, but that he still felt very empty.

 

Jungkook fell asleep like that, at some point during the night. He had only intended to lay down against the rug for a moment, his head feeling very heavy as the night wore on, but eventually, his eyes sneakily shut on him without his willing them to, and he drifted off to sleep.

 

He remembered being lifted off the ground, then, and being carried as though he were but a child again, innocent, uninhibited, and blameless. Jungkook sighed as he was placed back into his bed, a warm figure silhouetted in the dark.

 

Jungkook believed he said something to the silhouette, but he did not remember what, he only remembered the coolness of the pillow as he fell back asleep, deeply, and without remembrance of dreams.

 

When the sun rose, Jungkook did not, and he did not wake until it was well past noon. Marguerite had entered the bedroom, surprised to find him still there. She apologized for disturbing him as he blinked his eyes at the brightness of the day, and brought in his tray for lunch.

 

"Are you not feeling well?" she inquired with worried eyes. "Shall I bring you some soup instead?"

 

"No, it's fine," Jungkook insisted. "I think I just slept strangely." When she left, he realized that he did not remember walking back to his bedroom. He stared out at the window, where a bright but grey-colored day shone outside.

 

He had missed not only most of a day, including dinner, with the beast, but now he had missed over half of a second day as well, and he ate quickly in his bed and then got dressed, heading down the stairs and headed to all of Seokjin's usual rooms, looking for him.

 

And yet he was nowhere to be found.

 

Jungkook decided it did not matter, and he went to the kitchens to chatter with Celeste for the afternoon, and she made him laugh with quaint stories of when she worked under her father's tutelage as a chef, in a large house with many members of the household and a large staff, with which naturally came a large quantity of drama and comedy in the daily comings and goings.

 

Celeste did not ask why he did not arrive at breakfast nor lunch, and Jungkook did not ask her if she knew where Seokjin might be. It was not through any suspicion on his mind, but merely a determination not to make a fuss over something so silly as missing a meal with someone he barely knew.

 

All in all, he had a fine afternoon with Celeste, who was just as welcoming in her kitchen and as soft in countenance during the day as she was late at night. Philippe and Marguerite as well passed through, giving commentary on different stories and inquiring about what was planned for supper.

 

By the time the sky had grown dark and had begun to rain again, Jungkook was feeling the edges of that restlessness again, and he did not understand it.

 

He cleaned up for supper, making sure he was in the dining room precisely at eight o'clock, and yet it was not until about ten minutes thereafter that Seokjin entered the room, looking stiff and out-of-place. He gave Jungkook his usual bow of acknowledgement, and then sat at the head of the table.

 

Jungkook felt immediately compelled to speak up and greet Seokjin with some sort of comment or teasing jibe, but he could not come up with one, so he demurely began eating his meal.

 

"I have missed our meals together," Seokjin murmured after a long while, and Jungkook looked up with wide eyes, finding the phrase feeling strangely familiar to how his own thoughts lay. "Let us drink well together tonight in honor of your good company. I did not think I would miss these meals for but a day. And yet here we are. How has your painting been progressing?"

 

"Ah," Jungkook gave a little smile, eager to slip back into their previously established rapport. "It looks dreadful so far, I don't think I am as talented as my brother."

 

"I am going to have to require proof of such an outrageous statement as that," Seokjin teased, wiping his fingertips on the edges of the cloth napkin next to his plate. "Surely if you spent hours working on a task, you are bound to get somewhere with it."

 

"One would think," Jungkook shrugged. "And yet Philippe still seems physically incapable of smiling." 

 

Seokjin gave a snort at that, trying to hide his burst of laughter behind a hand as he turned away. 

 

"He certainly tries," the beast allowed. He returned to his dining, a brighter air to his meal. "We cannot fault the man for being a bit stiff in his delivery." Seokjin smiled, seeming to consider withholding his next comment, and giving in in the end. "After all, that is what ruined his career in comedy."

 

Jungkook imagined Philippe dressed as a clown in the circus for a long moment, laughing at the image. 

 

"Come, Jungkook," Seokjin said warmly, lifting his glass. "Let us drink to poor Philippe's failed career."

 

"To poor Philippe," Jungkook agreed, drinking deeply from his wine glass to mirror the beast, who sighed after he had finished his glass. "In speaking of comedic acts… I have been meaning to ask you. Why do you keep gifting me the logs?"

 

Seokjin seemed startled at this question. He poured them each out another glass, saying, "Why, I figured it would help you pass the time. After all, your family works with wood, do they not?"

 

Jungkook thought about this for a long moment, but could still not make sense of it. "But why bring me a cut round of wood?"

 

"To carve on," Seokjin said, bemused at this point as to where the disconnect lay. "Do you not want them?"

 

In realization, Jungkook let out another snort, sipping at his wine before he answered through a broad smile. "I'm afraid you've misunderstood, Seokjin. My family are woodcutters , that is not the same thing as woodcarvers . I do not carve images out of wood."

 

Seokjin froze, his hand on his wine glass. 

 

"Well, now I feel like a complete buffoon."

 

"That," Jungkook ventured, spurned on by the wine and how approachable and relaxed Seokjin seemed that evening. "Is because you are."

 

To his surprise, Seokjin seemed not to take offense at this, instead giving a dramatic sigh and pointedly pouring out more wine. "I am sure I seem like a complete idiot, but truth be told, I've never met a woodcutter before, much less an intelligent or attractive one. You will have to forgive my complete and embarrassing naivety. Besides, it must be admitted that at this point I would not be surprised if your talents extended to magic potions, Jungkook."

 

It seemed that not only Jungkook was feeling the warm, tingling loss of inhibition of the heavy meal and the wine, which loosened the tongue and made him flush. Jungkook fumbled with his cloth napkin, unable to come up with a proper response to the sudden and unexpected compliment from the beast toward his personality. It seemed Seokjin was only half-aware of what he had said, and most of this awareness turned the conversation with some deliberate tenacity away from any lingering maladroitness of conversation. 

 

"At the very least, I can rest assured that you are enjoying the painting supplies, correct?"

 

"Absolutely," Jungkook agreed. "I am finally able to start on works that I have been wanting to do for a long time."

 

"For that, I am grateful. I wish for your time here to be at the very least passable and to your satisfaction." 

 

Jungkook spoke up slowly, a trace of demureness in his voice, "Perhaps you would permit me to practice with a portrait of yourself sometime?"

 

Seokjin gave a laugh at that, partially cold and partially unbelieving. "This is the first you have even acknowledged my physical appearance, Jungkook. Surely you would gain nothing from painting a monstrosity such as I?"

 

The young man worked his mouth for a moment, unsure how to appropriately verbalize his next thoughts. "I will not say that you are a handsome creature insofar as physicality, Seokjin. You are, after all, a beast. But you cannot deny that you are an intriguing subject, and in addition to that, I am starting to see you as a companion or even a friend…" Jungkook bit his lip, dragging the tines of his fork across his plate for a moment, creating a quite grating sound, and then looked up toward Seokjin's face, those deep set eyes locked on him in question. "As long as it is not a trouble to you, I would very much enjoy making an attempt at your portrait sometime."

 

Jungkook watched as Seokjin's hand clenched, the nails clearly digging into the palms as he winced, torn as he was about what to give as reply. 

 

"I suppose that would be… acceptable," Seokjin spoke as though it came with great difficulty for him, and Jungkook was at a loss as to why that would be, but Seokjin continued to look at him as though he had done or said something completely incredulous. "As long as it is helpful to your studies."

 

"Excellent," Jungkook said merrily, taking a turn to top off their glasses once more. He lifted his, tapping it against Seokjin's. "To portraitures."

 

"To… portraitures." Seokjin sipped quietly.

 

The dinner continued on with a certain level of warmth, and Jungkook went up to his room more than a little tipsy on the wine from dinner and feeling more fulfilled than he had the last day or so. He collapsed upon his bed with grand effect, barely getting undressed before he wriggled beneath the covers and fell asleep.

 

He dreamed deeply that night. Strange, mixed dreams with endless dark voids and a distant voice that called his name. Jungkook tried to call back, but he was unable to reach out to them. 

 

When he awoke, it was late in the night, and the fire had long since turned to cold ash. The room held a chill to it, and the rain poured heavily down against the window as the night before. Jungkook lay in the dark, and he remained so for a considerable time, contemplating the day's events.

 

He knew for nearly an hour before that he would be clambering out of bed again, but it took him some time to work up the courage to do so. Without thinking, his steps found their way to the prince's portrait again, and this time, Jungkook had brought a small blanket to wrap around himself for his late night visit.

 

"I asked to paint him today, Prince," Jungkook said to the cool expression of the young boy. "I'm not sure why I did so. I suppose I want an excuse to have his company, a way to avoid us missing each other for longer days again." Jungkook coiled the blanket around his shoulders more tightly, tucking the bottom hem below his toes. "Is that odd of me? I had Celeste to speak to, and Philippe, and Marguerite, and you, of course, that goes without saying. But yet I did not like not sharing what little time with him I have. He is ridiculous and has a strange temper, a plethora of weird habits. But he somehow seems quite small and gentle, despite his stature and countenance. It is as though he were a child in a beast's body at times." Jungkook sighed. Then he let out a half-giggling snort. "He finally explained why he was gifting me the rounds of wood. Apparently he thought I could not only carve wood, but presumably he thought I could do it without any tools, as well." Jungkook wriggled his toes, trying to stave off the chilliness of the dark hallway. "I suppose I could give carving a try. I have plenty of time, after all, and I would hate for his gifts to go to waste."

 

Jungkook shrugged, as though he had heard some wordless reply from the prince and his strange and eerie stare. 

 

"He's not so bad, I guess. He let me even call him a friend tonight. I hadn't planned on calling him so, but now that I have said it, it feels accurate."

 

He sat there for a time, curled up in his blanket. “Maybe I will try to paint you as well, my friend. Although my limited capabilities may not as yet do your countenance due justice.” He smiled, then leaned back against the wall behind him, resting his head there for but a moment. The next thing he knew, he was waking up in his own bed, and it was very late in the morning yet again.

 

🌹🌹🌹

 

"I think your mansion might be haunted," Jungkook declared over breakfast, making Seokjin look up from his jam-covered pastry with confusion.

 

"What makes you say that?" the beast inquired, frowning down at his hands and the way that the jelly stuck to his fur in a distasteful and probably exasperating manner. He reached over to retrieve his cloth napkin, only succeeding in accidentally knocking the butter over and exacerbating the situation.

 

"There's just some strange things happening in the corridors, especially at night," Jungkook said easily. He glanced over, seeing Seokjin's sticky situation and cocking his head to the side. "Do you need some assistance, Seokjin?"

 

"No," Seokjin said, and a pout appeared from under his hirsute visage. He attempted to continue using his fork, but it was clear that now everything was going to stick to it, providing Jungkook with entertainment enough during their morning meal that he had to take a drink to hide his grin. "But I wouldn't worry about any ghosts or hauntings in a house like this. It was built not long before I came here, and not many have lived here, and none have perished in its halls."

 

"Hmm..." Jungkook hummed, prodding at his plate in curiosity. "Then I wonder where the crying is coming from."

 

Seokjin's bushy eyebrows lifted up, then back down again. "Whatever are you talking about?"

 

"Ah, I've heard some crying down there at times. I was wondering about it."

 

"There's no one crying in these corridors," Seokjin snapped back gruffly, "Unless you mean anyone is crying from pure boredom."

 

Jungkook gave a roll of his eyes. "You're so hasty to brush off what could be an interesting ghost story, it's no fun anymore." When he glanced over, Seokjin was sending him a suspicious look, but Jungkook ignored that, clearing his throat. "You know, this house is immense, and beautiful. It's really a shame that there aren't any balls or parties held here, so you could boast and flaunt it."



"I have no need to impress my neighbors, for I have none, and none of them would pay me any mind in any matter," Seokjin muttered, sitting back. He had taken to ineffectively attempting to slyly lick away the jam from his fingers, frowning at the hairs that got caught on his tongue when he thought Jungkook was preoccupied with eating. "A beast is not known for being a suitable host for a soiree."

 

"There is a first time for every cause," Jungkook said, shrugging slightly. After Seokjin got frustrated by the fur in his mouth and started to pull some stray hair out, Jungkook took Seokjin's napkin from him, dipping it unceremoniously into the nearby pitcher of water before unabashedly taking hold of Seokjin's hand. The beast startled, about to recoil when Jungkook just held him firm, delicately and casually wiping away at the jam while speaking. "Besides, the ballroom is an enormous room, you could house a good half of the village without trouble in there, if you so wished. And it truly is such a waste of a beautiful room. Besides, I'm certain Marguerite tires of keeping it well-tended to when no one goes in there except for herself."

 

"I..." Seokjin hesitated, still watching Jungkook's hands clean his one hairy appendage, looking quite nonplussed. "I go in there occasionally."

 

"What? Once a year?" Jungkook teased, releasing Seokjin's hand and folding the napkin onto the table, and returning to his meal as if nothing had ever transpired. "All I am suggesting is a consideration. It isn't as if the half a dozen people in this house could fill up the ballroom, and it deserves to have some life in it once or twice a year. Besides, wouldn't it look lovely for a winter ball, all done up in bright colors and aglow?" Jungkook smiled. "There were often parties at my friend Abélia's house. Her father made a lot of money after the Revolution, and he has settled himself in quite nicely, and they arrange for the largest balls and events for the whole village."



Seokjin just frowned, as though considering a question, and then he shook his head slightly at himself. "It would be for naught, Jungkook. I do not even dance at all, myself."

 

The young man stared at the beast across the table, looking surprised. "Never? I would have thought you had taken lessons of some sort since you were young."

 

"Well," the beast seemed to collapse on himself, the previously elegant posture crumpling into a carriage of shame. "I did learn a little, but not since I was very young... it is a bit difficult, you see, given my circumstance..."

 

"I don't see the difficulty," Jungkook snorted. "It's not as if you would eat me or something if I were to teach you."

 

The beast reacted to this in a peculiar way, dropping his hands below the table and looking around the room as if searching for a distraction.

 

"I mean, why not? I could teach you." Jungkook stood up, pushing his chair back at the same time and sending Seokjin a smile. "I'll meet you in two hours. I want to get some more work done on my painting this afternoon, but certainly we can get in a bit of instruction before supper, at the very least."

 

"I...beg your pardon?" Seokjin bristled visibly, sitting up straighter in his chair and his voice tinged with defensiveness. Jungkook smiled, waving over his shoulder as he left the dining room, happy to leave the beast somewhat perplexed in return, for a change.

 

He went first to the library, knowing already that although they were quite outdated, there were some books in the library dictating different sorts of dances. He could at least use them to ensure that Seokjin had a cursory knowledge of some basic steps.

 

Jungkook took three or four small books off the shelves, quickly writing in the designated book-ledger which ones he was borrowing, and made his way to the ballroom. Seokjin was already there, standing awkwardly in the middle of the room. When he saw Jungkook enter, he straightened, frowning.

 

"Do you truly intend to humiliate me with such a cause?"

 

"Absolutely," Jungkook declared proudly. He opened some of the books up, showing their pages to Seokjin and explaining what they were called. He would imitate each step as he went, and gradually, Seokjin would stretch out his foot in a gangly, unaware manner and try to imitate what Jungkook was doing with his body.

 

They had no music, and the ballroom was filled with echoes of their steps and their voices. Eventually, the books had been set upon the floor in the middle of the room, and Jungkook was holding his palm up against Seokjin's, giving a small bow as they circled around each other. Jungkook counted the steps, or hummed a simple rhythm for them to move in time to.

 

Seokjin barely spoke for the next hour, giving basic nods or grunts of acknowledgement as Jungkook patiently explained each step, and had them repeat it as many times as Seokjin felt he needed to get it down. They held hands at times, and occasionally Jungkook had to move in close to rearrange Seokjin's limbs or head in the right position. Whenever this occurred, Jungkook noted that Seokjin would hesitate, stiffening up or looking dazedly in front of him or at Jungkook while they adjusted. The feeling of being closer and more casual with the master of the household, as well as the general energy of the ballroom which had been neglected and needed life, was all the brighter for their shared occupation, which passed the time quickly.

 

By the end of the hour they had gone through two or three decent arrangements of dances that would suit him for the basics at a gathering, and Jungkook smiled and gave a little clap in honor of the beast's efforts.

 

"You've done well. We can do a bit more tomorrow."

 

Seokjin did not immediately respond, turning to look around the enormous and empty ballroom (now only most-empty due to their presence), and then glanced over his shoulder at Jungkook, giving a bit of a smile.

 

"Thank you," he said quietly. He bowed his head a bit, "And now I take my leave of you, until supper time."

 

"Until supper time," Jungkook promised, watching the beast leave the ballroom. There was a bit more self-awareness in the beast's steps, and Jungkook could almost see him mentally measuring his pacing and his steps as he exited the room, which made him smile.

Chapter Text

Seokjin paced his bedroom floor nervously. The far reaches of his mind were beyond the walls of his room, instead focused on a being both near and far away. Like a memory of a dream, Seokjin felt as if that person was tantalizingly close to him in thought and importance, and yet they filtered through his fingers like water, unable to be held for even a moment.

 

The hour was late, and Seokjin should have been asleep hours ago. It was over two months since Jungkook had arrived at the castle, with his large, expressive eyes and his open features which told of sincerity and youthful warmth. His posture belied a sturdy frame and his simple mannerisms hid well his graceful heart.

 

Seokjin sat on the edge of his bed, clothed in naught but a long white nightshirt, and he sighed, throwing aside the top blankets of his bed reluctantly. It would not do; to allow Jungkook to hold so much sway over him. Seokjin was not sure what it was that came over him, but it was completely surreal, unlike anything he had experienced with any other person.

 

It was not as though Jungkook acted in any particular way that set him apart from other people, Seokjin thought. It was that there was a particular quality in the way he acted that specifically drove Seokjin mad. What it was, he was unsure of himself.

 

Seokjin stood up again, nerve-wracked. Today they had gone walking in the maze together. Seokjin had walked the maze so many times, each turn and dead end had long ago been put to memory. But there had been a mist settling over the grounds that morning, due to the on-coming cold weather, and Jungkook had been amazed and enthralled by the beautiful mist, exclaiming at its beauty in such a way that it changed the experience through the maze entirely for him.

 

If only Jungkook realized that he had now nestled himself somewhere within Seokjin, and could now ask whatever he wanted of him, and that Seokjin would try his hardest to get it for him so long as it would keep him smiling often and merrily.

 

It was a sensation Seokjin did not understand. After the death of his parents, he had not wanted anything to do with anyone, had not wanted to be close to anybody. Allowing someone in meant allowing them to matter so much that they could hurt you. Allowing someone in meant giving up power over your entire world, and Seokjin, at the tender age of eleven, had decided he did not want to give that up to anyone ever again.

 

But years had passed, and he wondered if his heart, which he had worked so hard to turn to stone, had actually been ice, and was starting to melt away. Was he fickle, or was he growing up? He couldn't tell for sure.

 

And either way, it did not matter, he thought for the millionth time, standing up and looking at his face in the mirror, the curtain he usually covered it with now drawn back so he had to face his hideous reflection. It did not matter what he said, or did, or felt. If he were to melt, then he would melt into nothingness. Because no matter what tenderness had flourished within his soul for the young man named Jungkook, he would eventually leave, as everyone eventually left.

 

Besides, who could learn to love someone who was so cruel to their brother? Who could learn to love someone who was a beast? How could Jungkook, who breezily tossed aside comments as though wealth, or status, could never impress him, be wooed?

 

Seokjin froze, staring at the fur across his face, the image his parents had given him so long ago. He was still, and he was surprised at the thoughts churning in his head.

 

Did he want to win Jungkook's heart? Was that where the nervousness, the fear, the tenderness originated from? Did he want to woo him?

 

Seokjin injured himself mentally with a barrage of negative remarks, beginning to cry as he sat down in front of the mirror. He could not be close with Jungkook, at least no more than they were now. He didn't deserve him. With every gift in the world, with every gentle word he could muster beyond his lips, it still would not matter. He began to weep loudly, confused and pained, and started to tear at his face and hair.

 

When Seokjin was a little boy, his parents had left him. Spoiled and given every whim and desire, he had been demanding, selfish, self-centered, and unkind. He knew that now, and had gradually come to understand it as the years of isolation went by, as the weight of a harbored secret had torn away at every inner mask he once could have tried to run from.

 

His tears thickened as he started to pull at the strange, almost gelatinous material that was stuck behind his ears, making him itchy and uncomfortable when he started to peel away at it.

 

When Seokjin was a little boy, his parents had loved him very much. Maybe too much, as they were gentle and kind even to his self-centered obstinacy. He was eleven years old when his parents heard word of a revolution, of an uprising against the upper class, against the nobles who had once held power over others without question.

 

The room felt cold and dark as he peeled away the mask at last, the fur-covered synthetic face which had been made for him, and which made him appear to be a monstrous beast. It fell to the floor, the spots open for his eyes and mouth and nose looking dark and eerie as it lay on the ground, staring back up at him. How he hated the mask more than anything.

 

When Seokjin was a little boy of eleven, his parents had fearfully drawn him near, not saying the word guillotine at that time, but suggesting an oncoming dread. They told him he had to be kept safe. They spread rumors that their boy, once called beautiful, had become a deformed beast, a creature less than human. They created a mask for him that would instill fear in all, and keep them away, and which would keep their son safe. A mask of fear and ugliness. They promised he would be safe, far away in the country, away from humans, who would seek to hurt him or kill him for his birthright alone, and they left a trail of lies behind him that sufficed to lock him inside his cursed cage.

 

Seokjin knelt on the floor before the mirror, pulling off the gloves, covered with hair, which gave his hands the appearance of the beast as well. Below the mask, his chestnut hair was unkempt and strange. His face was pale but otherwise, he had once been told he was quite handsome as a boy. The marks from the mask still lingered on his cheeks and ears, always hiding the flush they got when he was near Jungkook.

 

It was no use giving his heart to Jungkook, he thought. For he was a fake beast on the outside and a true beast on the inside, an existence built on fear and on lies. His parents had died in the Revolution, had been taken to the guillotine with so many others, and he had been powerless to save them. In his gilded cage he had remained, with no direction and no trust for the outside world, with bitterness and loneliness eating away at his heart until he had thought nothing could overturn or invoke life in it once again.

 

He rubbed at his tears, wishing he could tell Jungkook the truth. He had wanted to tell him for a long time, but he was afraid. Afraid of what explaining the elaborate lie his parents had made, which had been passed on beyond their death as a way to protect their son from murder, would sound like to the ear of a man whose people had been the causes of their deaths. Peasantry had seemed to him, when Junghyun had trespassed onto the grounds, like a vile serpent, a poisonous and toxic element that had found its way in and was going to threaten his life, despite how many years had passed.

 

Seokjin had not realized at the time, but it was Jungkook , not Junghyun, and it was love , not hate, that would be his demise.

 

What was he to do, when actions had already been set in motion and had created a familiar groove for themselves for so long, an automated habitual existence of distrust and secrecy? How could he tell Jungkook that he was not the beast that Jungkook had been so kind to, had spoken sweetly to, and had called his friend, and was just a man? How was he to tell Jungkook that he was but a young man as Jungkook was, only built out of terror and bitterness, and locked away from the world when the only one still perpetrating any curse of captivity on him was himself?

 

What could he do?

 

He sat before the mirror, looking at his face and rubbing at it in despair. He thought of himself as a hideous face, and it was one he did not know very well. He inspected the almond-shaped eyes and cursed them for being the wrong size. He looked at his lips and hated that they were so large, plush, and deceptively pink. He loathed his jaw, his cheek, his entire expression as he wept. 

 

He wanted more than anything for Jungkook to love him, and to be worthy of that love.

 

Puzzled and crippled by this revelation of feeling for the young man, and how deep it actually drove into his heart, Seokjin's heart was broken. No longer did he weep into this night with mourning for his parents, but for his own ugliness and the solitude which he felt he deserved. Jungkook was kind and bright. He was well-liked by the villagers, he was beloved by his family. He could laugh openly and he could match wits with anyone if he wanted, Seokjin was sure.

 

A part of him hoped that he could someday earn that love, that he could work hard, learn the rules, atone for his selfishness and cruelty. He felt ashamed of the way he had treated all the others who had wandered to the mansion. He felt awful for the way he had imprisoned Junghyun, and then Jungkook.

 

By all rights, he should let Jungkook go, free him from the unfair 'punishment' he had inflicted upon the woodcutter's family. He should tell Jungkook to return to his home and he should beg for his forgiveness.

 

And yet? A dark, painful part of Seokjin's heart did not want him to go. Not just yet. He wanted Jungkook to teach him how to be a man again, to be kind and to be worthy of such a love. He wanted to be remembered.

 

What was to be done? The beast wished to keep him here indefinitely, to strike him a deal, promise him wealth, convince him to remain without having to tell him why. Seokjin, on the other hand, knew that Jungkook would have to leave him, eventually.

 

At the very least, he could have this winter. At least here, in his cursed castle, Seokjin knew that Jungkook would be warm this winter, and Seokjin could learn about him, love him, give him anything he desired.

 

Love. Love!

 

What a truly cursed feeling to have, for one that he should not!

 

Seokjin sighed, drawing the curtain over his mirror again, shielding himself from his own pathetic nature. He crawled back into his bed, drawing the blankets over him and waiting for the warmth to lull him into sleep. It would not do, to keep him any longer than the arrival of spring. Besides, once Jungkook had returned home, Seokjin could then cease to act in such a ridiculous manner. He refused to think on the way his heart stopped completely when they touched, and he would waste no more energy on the easy manner in which they spoke, as though they had been companions for years.

 

It would not do. He had until the spring.

 

He eventually drifted off to sleep, but in his dreams all he could see was his own face staring back at him from the darkness. He gripped at his cheeks, drawing the skin down as he pulled at it in sorrow. He saw his eyes, mouth, and nose turn to a black emptiness, looking like the holes of the mask. He screamed, pained and unsure of what to do.

 

He tried to run, but Jungkook was there. He was sitting in the hallway, where Seokjin had found him weeks ago. Sleeping and slumped along the floor, his candle was nearly spent to death.

 

In his dream, Seokjin knelt down to Jungkook, drawing away the blanket from his face and inspecting the young man. But he was startlingly pale, and his lips were blue.

 

He called Jungkook's name, shook him with increasing violence. He cried over his lifeless body, knowing that it was his own fault, that his selfishness, his lies, would take Jungkook's life, if he kept him without telling him the truth.

 

"Jungkook, it's me," Seokjin cried out, reaching out his hands. Suddenly, Jungkook was no longer in Seokjin's arms, and he was no longer in the little corridor. He was awake, and quickly sat up in his bed. Panic still rushed through him, fire-hot as he threw the blankets aside. The hallway was freezing, and Seokjin had hastily grabbed a candelabra from beside his bed. He had not even thought to grab himself a robe, clothed in but a thin nightshirt as he half-ran along the corridors, rushing toward Jungkook's room.

 

The house was as silent as death, and he shivered, finding Jungkook's door and freezing in the doorway, fear gripping him. The dream had been so ominous, had felt so real, that he expected to find Jungkook dead, and he could not rest nor sleep until he knew for absolute certain that the young man was safe. Under normal circumstances, he would not have trespassed into the room. But he knew fear for his well-being out-paced all alternative actions.

 

Gently, he turned the handle, hearing it click as it opened. He peered into the room face-first, unable to see anything in the darkness. The fire had died out at the late hour, and upon gingerly lifting his candelabra into the room, he could just see the frightening, squarish shape of the four-poster bed. Seokjin licked his lips, tiptoeing toward the bed as gently as he could. There was a lump, the shape of Jungkook's shoulder as he was rolled over on his side. He was facing toward the middle of the bed, and Seokjin coiled in on himself, turned into a small, timid child in his moment of consternation.

 

It would not do to simply turn back now, as much as Seokjin knew that he should not be here, that he should not be anywhere near Jungkook's room. But he could not tell from the way the man lay on the bed if he was alive or dead, and the image of him from his dream was still heavily imprinted on the backs of his eyelids, constantly there to torment him without an answer to the question in his mind.

 

He carefully reached out his hand, which looked strangely pale in the darkness, and Seokjin realized with horror that he had not replaced his mask and gloves, and was now exposed and unshielded. His hand drew back, all too human and trembling visibly. But he knew he had to know for sure, or he would not sleep.

 

Seokjin licked his lips, trying to be as quiet as he could, and took delicate hold of Jungkook's shoulder. He pulled him, and bit by bit got him to turn onto his back. Jungkook, with his cheeks flushed from being under the warmth of the covers and full of life, let out a soft sigh in his sleep. Seokjin felt all the tenseness in his body release in one fell swoop, and he nearly toppled to his knees at the bedside. He was perfectly all right, Seokjin reassured himself a hundred times in his head. Seokjin smiled, looking down at the young man, at his handsome features, his prominent nose, the slight freckle below his bottom lip. The way his eyelashes delicately brushed against his cheeks.

 

"It was just a dream," he whispered aloud to himself, barely able to discern his own words against his lips. "He's safe." Then the beast stopped, and stared down at Jungkook's sleeping face in appreciation. "And too beautiful."

 

Seokjin's shoulders slumped, and in so doing, the candles tipped, and hot wax dripped down, falling onto Jungkook's hand. Seokjin gasped as Jungkook's eyes fluttered open in surprise, finding Seokjin standing over his bed, unmasked.

 

Jungkook let out a sound of surprise, sitting up abruptly, and Seokjin stepped away from the bed, holding up a hand in front of him in a futile attempt to shield himself from Jungkook's view.

 

"What the devil is going on?!" Jungkook cried out, hastily trying to throw aside the blankets.

 

"I-- I!" Seokjin panicked, taking the moment where Jungkook was still heavily weighted down by his bed linens to bolt out of the door as quick as lightning, the candles all flickering out and some of them clattering to the ground as he raced down the hallway. Eventually, he simply dropped the candelabra, tossing it under a small table he passed as he ran back to his room, tears stinging his eyes.

 

When he returned back to his bedchambers, he closed the door behind him, leaning heavily against it as he slowly got his breath back.

 

He had done it. Jungkook had seen him. It was all over now. He dropped down to the floor, crumpling entirely in submission to his fate.

 

Maybe he hadn't recognized him, Seokjin hoped. There was a slim chance that he had not gotten a good look at Seokjin's face anyways, with the dim light of the candle and all the confusion.

 

But what if he had? Seokjin groaned, throwing his face into his hands. Why could things not be simpler? Why could he not just throw away the mask? Why had his parents not told him what he should do, in the event of their passing when they were no longer there to tell him what to do about the facade as the years went by?

 

What would Jungkook think of him, if he recognized him? Would he come to grow bitter against a beast that lied, even to protect himself?

 

Seokjin sat against the door for many ticks and tocks of the clock along the wall, and only stood up to his feet and threw himself back down onto the bed when the cold had made his body go numb. His tears were spent, and at least he could rest assured that Jungkook was alive and safe. Even though this may have been the end of everything.

 

🌹🌹🌹

 

The next morning, Seokjin wished he could have, even for a moment, forgotten the painful and embarrassing encounter the night before of being caught sneaking into Jungkook's bedchambers. He blushed horrifically at even the thought, and his shaking hands struggled with replacing his mask and gloves and getting dressed; more so than usual.

 

When he was finally presentable, he cautiously made his way downstairs. He peered into the dining room, half-expecting it to be empty. But Jungkook was there, as he was every morning. The fireplace in the room crackled brightly, and Jungkook was quietly sitting in his usual seat, reading a book. Seokjin bit his lip, nearly causing it to bleed, and then took in a shaking breath.

 

"Good morning, Jungkook," he greeted as calmly as he could, stepping into the room. Jungkook looked up, then did a brief double-take at the beast, then offered a bright smile.

 

"Good morning, Seokjin," Jungkook replied. "You're a bit later than usual this morning."

 

"My apologies," he mumbled, sitting down at the head of the table. He took a look around the room, and was a bit dumbfounded to find that nothing had been altered. In all honesty, he had expected that Jungkook would have insisted on leaving, or would have brought to his attention some accusation or suspicion.

 

"Did you..." Seokjin cleared his throat. "I trust you slept well?"

 

"About as usual," Jungkook responded, setting his book aside gently before turning to start dishing up his breakfast, now that the beast had arrived to join him. "And yourself?"

 

"Uh, not so well, but that is not unusual for me," Seokjin brushed off his reply with a wave of his hand. He gave a smile that was more of hopefulness than anything. "Shall we take a walk in the maze again this morning, or the garden?"

 

"I actually don't think we should go out this morning," Jungkook advised. "It has been snowing all night, and it is still falling even as we speak. We may want to wait a bit and see if it lets up later this afternoon."

 

"Ah..." Seokjin visibly wilted, understanding that a walk in the cold every day through winter was simply not a reasonable request to make of Jungkook. He knew this, and yet it was sad to think that perhaps he had already had his last walk in the gardens with the young woodcutter and had not realized it, nor cherished it for what it was.

 

"Seokjin?" Jungkook queried, leaning in to collect the beast's attention. He waited until Seokjin was brought back to the present, then looked his face over carefully, as though searching there for some hint of a specific expression. "I have an update on the case of your house haunting."

 

"What?" the beast half-laughed in nervous confusion. "Are you still on about all that nonsense?"

 

"Absolutely, nonsense is one of the best ways to pass the time, and I'm here for the entire year, after all. I wanted to let you know that I was visited last night by one of the very ghosts of your house."

 

"You..." Seokjin's glass nearly toppled out of his hand, spilling droplets onto the table. "You what?"

 

"Yes, I'll tell you, it was amazing. I've never seen a real ghost before," Jungkook leaned in, nibbling on some bread with glee. "I woke up very late last night, and there, standing over my bed, was this ghostly figure of a very handsome young man. He was wearing just nightclothes, and his skin was quite pallid, as though he had never seen the sun, and the candelabra he was holding went out as soon as I sat up. I called out to him, but he did not seem able to stay, for he vanished through my door very quickly."

 

"Oh?"

 

"Yes, and he tried to speak to me, but I suppose ghosts aren't able to talk directly to the living. Or else he did not wish to. Do you think? It is quite amazing, is it not?"

 

"It is very amazing," Seokjin said, his laughter sounding more like a wheeze, and he nearly choked on his bread from trying to shove it into his mouth so fast. Had Jungkook truly not recognized him, or was he only teasing Seokjin yet again? The fear from not being able to tell, and not being able to ask, made Seokjin want to throw his head back and moan to the heavens in frustration. Could he possibly have gotten away with this, due to a young woodcutter's superstitious mind?

 

"I wish I could see him again," Jungkook sighed. "I think he's the prince from the portrait I go see."

 

To this, Seokjin paused in his eating, turning to Jungkook and arching one eyebrow, although it was mostly hidden beneath his elaborate mask. "What prince portrait?"

 

"I'll show you after breakfast, we can take our walk about the house today in that manner. But there is a portrait of a young prince in the house, and I've taken quite a liking to it as of late. It's a very unique painting, both in subject and in style, and I have been quite curious about it. I want to try and paint him sometime. But anyway, he looked very much like the prince in that painting, only, of course, he was a full-grown man, and not just a boy."

 

Seokjin's hands laid into his lap, curling into balled fists, wishing he could tell Jungkook that it was himself. That he was the ghost of a prince that Jungkook thought he had seen. He wished he could hold him close, instead of sitting at the end of the table and simply watching him happily eat his breakfast.

 

But he had to be grateful for the small happinesses that life had bestowed upon him, for they were short-lived, like a rosebud. If he could but learn to cherish what he was given for what it was, then perhaps he would be starting down that journey of becoming worthy of love in this world, even if it could not be love from Jungkook.

 

It took him a long moment to realize he had been transfixed on Jungkook, softly and mournfully watching him finish his meal. Seokjin started, then returned to his own breakfast. It would not do to be so obvious all the time, he inwardly cursed himself. But thankfully, it seemed that Jungkook was too preoccupied to even take heed of where Seokjin's doting attentions were directed, a bittersweet fact to be relieved on the part of.

 

Still disheveled from the recent events, Seokjin allowed Jungkook to lead him down the corridors in a leisurely browsing of the halls. When they came across the painting which Jungkook had indicated over their morning meal, Seokjin was surprised with how close Jungkook had managed to wander toward Seokjin's bedchambers. He nervously glanced down the hallway, seeing his own bedroom door, and then turned his attention fixedly back on the detail work which Jungkook was speaking of, explaining in simple but excited sentences different parts that had stood out to him in his previous studies of the piece. It was indeed a portrait of Seokjin himself, as he had suspected earlier, although it had been before he had moved to the mansion of course, and when he was still young, naive, and egotistical. He had been quite perturbed at the prospects of a lengthy and boring portrait being done of him, and the painting had taken far too long and had given no valuable form of entertainment as compensation for having to sit so still, which was admittedly for certain a difficult task to bestow on a young child that had wished to run and be free of responsibility or demand from others. He had thrown a complete tantrum that day, causing quite a bit of turmoil in the house when he had thrown plates and knocked over tables, petulant, short-tempered, and allowed to get his way if he cried long enough. It was not until his parents had arrived home that he was convinced to sit still for the portrait, and even then, it was with considerable reluctance.

 

Seokjin allowed Jungkook to stand and detail different portions of his own portrait to him, unaware that he was speaking to the subject of the painting itself. He said nothing for a time, just nodding along to Jungkook's enthusiastic commentary, and then they quietly walked further along the corridor until they reached a dead end and had to slowly turn back.

 

"You seem different today, Seokjin," Jungkook commented, peering over at him in curiosity. "Are you feeling well?"

 

"Hm? Yes. Perhaps my mood has merely been dampened by the weather, is all," Seokjin chuckled.

 

Jungkook stopped walking, standing just in front of the hallway with its large windows, snow falling down and already covering up their beautiful garden in a thick blanket of white. Jungkook stared up into Seokjin's face, his eyes narrowing even as his lips pursed together as though in concern. "Are you sure?"

 

Seokjin felt his face flush under the mask, worried that Jungkook was able to see right through him, that he wanted to take this moment to finally accuse Seokjin of deliberately deceiving him, even though that was not quite the truth in full.

 

But Jungkook stared at the beast's face, he scrutinized him carefully for a long moment, and then turned away. "I think you look a little ill, so perhaps you should rest this afternoon. It would be no good for you to get sick now, right after the snowfall. It would be hard on a doctor to come all the way here."

 

Seokjin gave an acknowledging noise, finally getting his breath back after having Jungkook look at him so closely, and stare at him so intently.

 

"Do you think Celeste will make those delicious raspberry tarts again tonight?" Jungkook wondered aloud, giving a soft pout as he thought about the mouth-watering pastry. "I could eat an entire mountain of those if I set my mind to it, I don't know how she does it."

 

"She has had a lot of time for practice and not much of an audience for testing, I'm afraid," Seokjin murmured.

 

"If you would let her throw a feast with guests, she would not be so unchallenged and lonesome, as you are," Jungkook teased. They ended along another dead-end hallway and turned back to retrace their steps. "But enough on that subject, let us attempt a more cheerful topic, such as your dreams."

 

"My dreams?"

 

"Yes, do you not have dreams of your own? Things you wanted to do, or places you wanted to see?"

 

Seokjin walked the corridor, his hands behind his back, and worry at his throat. "I... I have never considered it. All I know is what my parents had laid out for me as their dying will, and I know nothing more than that, and these walls."

 

"But surely you have had dreams ," Jungkook pressed. "Think about it. If you could go anywhere in the world, see anyone you wanted, where would you go and what occupation would you pursue?"

 

The beast stopped in his tracks, turning toward Jungkook. The man's eyes were bright and starlit. His questions were none but sincere. His heart felt as though it would burst from his chest, and bleed before them both, exposed and all too vulnerable. He could not lie to Jungkook's question, no more than he could tell him the whole truth of his past just yet, and that he could not trust him with his unwholesome secret of death and pain.

 

But toward his questions, there was only one answer he could give with an honest conscience, and before he could reply, a chill seemed to sweep through the room and make them both shiver a little. He wished he could embrace Jungkook and hold him close, to tell him what a comfort his presence had been, when in all honesty, a part of him had once hoped that Jungkook would prove himself like all the other trespassers before him, and that it would be Jungkook's hand that would end Seokjin's life once and for all.

 

Seokjin met Jungkook's eyes, which were now dimmed from concern at the baited breath which they were both withholding.

 

"If I could go anywhere in the world, I would go wherever you would will me to go, Jungkook. Whether it be the highest mountain or the darkest, cruelest dungeon," Seokjin said somberly. "If I could go and be with anyone, I would ask that you allow myself, a gruesome and wicked beast, to remain at your side, although I could never deign to be worthy of such a beautiful soul."

 

Jungkook stared at the beast for a long moment, and then he let out a bit of a laugh, thinking that it was some melodramatic joke or a recitation of poetry which the beast spoke, but when there came only a mournful look of self-pity from Seokjin, his smile crumbled and fell away in much the same way that the autumn leaves fell from the trees around the garden. Seokjin reached down and delicately took Jungkook's hand in his own, and the young man's eyes widened as Seokjin gave a small, slow bow.

 

"You know not the power you hold over me yet, Jungkook, just as I do not understand the bewitching way you have stolen the eternal, broken soul of a wretched creature such as I, who cannot live among men or exalt you for the purity of your existence in the ways which he desires. Have pity on me but a bit, Jungkook, and realize that my dream is only for your happiness, anymore. May I..." Seokjin licked his lips, feeling the tautness of the mask which kept him self-aware enough that he did not start to cry. He could see the shock on Jungkook's face, and he could only take it for horror when he boldly said, "May I have the honor of kissing your hand?"

 

The young woodcutter's mouth fell agape, as Seokjin stood holding his fingertips so delicately within his glove-covered hands. Then finally he managed to close his mouth, and nodded, seeming to be in a daze.

 

Seokjin bent forward, gracefully and gently drawing Jungkook's hand toward him, and laying three breath-light kisses across the knuckles there. He smiled, standing up to his full height, and releasing Jungkook from his hold. 

 

"Thank you. I shall be asking nothing more of you, my dear friend. Now shall we continue our walk?"

 

"I… I suppose," Jungkook managed, sounding flummoxed as he moved to follow after the beast. They walked in silence for some time, and Seokjin tried not to look too often in Jungkook's direction, feeling the turmoil and confusion which he had caused. He wanted to curse himself, furious at his own selfishness and the way in which he had so instantly crumbled to his own feelings for the young man. If it had been a mere fancy, a passing feeling for which he could bypass and conquer by absence or time, Seokjin would have understood it as such and given it no power over him. But in the action of melting Seokjin's heart, Jungkook had fully succeeded in winning it entirely.

 

"Tell me your dreams now," Seokjin encouraged, attempting to break the wall of silence that had begun to be constructed between them. "If you could be anywhere in the world with anyone, where would you be?"

 

Jungkook gave a shrug, as though his mind was blank. "I am not sure. I would like to travel, however."

 

Seokjin hummed, then smiled softly with a suggested, "Would you wish to travel with your family? You must miss them."

 

"I do..." Jungkook agreed, although quietly. "It has been months since I have seen my brother, and even more months since I have seen my parents. I worry about their health, and their happiness." 

 

They walked a few more steps, until they came back until the main foyer. Wordlessly, they agreed to continue walking along the other wing of the mansion. "You see, before I left, both my mother and father fell ill, and they have been sent to the city to recover. Unfortunately, the hospital is costly for a humble family of woodcutters, and I fear that my brother has not enough to tend to them and himself properly... especially without my parents there and now myself absent, as well."

 

Seokjin felt a stab of guilt in his heart, knowing that it was himself who worsened the plight of Jungkook's family. He should have known that there would be loved ones which Jungkook would worry about, responsibilities he must have had before coming to the beast's mansion. He puzzled over this problem for a long moment, and then lifted his head once more to Jungkook.

 

"You must write to your brother," he said. "And see that he is well again, and to inquire about the health of your entire family. I will have Philippe send it on your behalf, and I swear to you that the letter will be delivered in the strictest confidence, so you may correspond with your brother freely. I would not wish for the void you have left to give your family such a lasting pain, nor for your uneasiness."

 

"Would you truly?" Jungkook's eyes glittered with relief. "Oh, thank you! I would wish it! May I write to them at once?"

 

Seokjin smiled at him, "Of course you may. I will speak with Philippe presently, and he will collect your letter later this evening, to be delivered first thing in the morning."

 

"That would be divine! I take my leave of you!" Jungkook took off like a bolt, running toward his bedchambers. 

 

He had never really finished answering Seokjin’s question, but no matter.

 

Seokjin let out a sigh, settled in the fact that he could at least, in some small way, begin to make amends for his own temper. He returned to his bedchambers, and rang for Philippe, who arrived within a few minutes.

 

"You called, master?" Philippe said with a deep humming noise that rattled in his chest.

 

"Philippe," Seokjin turned around from his writing desk, a small box in his hands which was elaborately decorated. "Tonight, our guest will have a letter to send to his brother, which I would ask for you to deliver with all due promptness on the morrow, bearing in mind that we are to give the letter a strict confidentiality."

 

The steward blinked a few times, then hummed again, his disapproval glowering beneath the surface. "As you wish, sir. Will there be anything else?"

 

"Yes, two more things, actually," he stood up, handing the box to Philippe. "I would like you to give this to his brother at the same time. But I wish you to impress it upon the recipient as though it came from his brother, not from the household."

 

Philippe looked down at the heavily decorated box, knowing the glittering coin which was housed inside. "But sir...?"

 

"Please, do not argue with me, Philippe. And the second task, which you should pass along to Marguerite, is that the next time she is sent to the city for provisions and necessities, that she should mail this as well. It should be sufficient payment on behalf of Jungkook's parents at the hospital in the city. I trust Marguerite would already have weaseled out of Jungkook their names and where to find them, so it is just the task for her."

 

"Sir?" Philippe hesitated. "If I may be so bold, is this truly how you wish to spend your inheritance?"

 

"My inheritance is more than secure, I can assure you, Philippe. You know the state of my affairs as well as I do. This is a mere trifle in the grand scheme, and you are aware of that."

 

"Yes, sir," Philippe hummed. "But this is no member of our household, he is a stranger, if you do not mind me speaking plainly."

 

"You do not have to speak plainly," Seokjin said back in a brusque manner, pushing the box toward Philippe's reluctant hands. "And you do not have to like it nor approve of it. It is my own money to spend as I please. So I would ask of you to bring forth the loyalty and trust in me which has harbored this household for this many years."

 

Philippe frowned. "As you wish, sir."

 

"Good, and we shall speak no more of it. Thank you." Seokjin waved a hand, dismissing the man as he turned back to his writing desk with fervor. He pulled forth his ledgers which served in calculating all the comings and goings of the money his parents had passed onto him with their death, and he noted down the amount sent both to Jungkook's brother as well as to the hospital for the sake of his parents.

 

Even if he would be releasing Jungkook from his obligations come spring, he could at least make the depth of this winter more easy to pass through for him and his family. He hummed a much lighter tune when he went down to supper, waiting there for Jungkook, who arrived not long after.

 

"My letter is prepared," Jungkook said, holding up a hefty envelope which he had written his brother's name on.

 

"Excellent, Philippe will be delivering it in the morning," Seokjin reassured. "Now, please sit. How is your painting coming along?"

 

"I actually finished it," Jungkook declared with glee. "In fact, I would like to ask for you to sit for me tomorrow, if that is alright."

 

"Oh..." Seokjin's expression fell as he recalled that some weeks before, Jungkook had requested him to sit for a portrait. Beast form or not, he could not comprehend why Jungkook would wish to paint him, but it had been requested, and he had stated that it was a possibility for the future in his reply. He supposed the time had come. "Of course."

 

"I'm very pleased with the autumn painting, but I want to do it again later, and give it another try. Perhaps when the winter is over, I shall do a spring painting of the garden, for it offers a great scope for the imagination and beauty to practice with."

 

"If only the garden still had flowers enough for you to paint now," the beast said with a note of sadness. "For to please you."

 

Jungkook nodded, brushing past the comment and sitting up straighter in his seat.

 

Seokjin lifted his wine glass slowly, then nodded toward Jungkook.

 

"To the oncoming spring, and to your completed painting," he toasted. Jungkook, with a mouthful of bread, gave a nod and lifted his glass as well, the two elaborate cups of crystal clinking against each other in a melodic chime before they drank.

 

And to my love for you, may it but teach this beast to be more of a man. May it bloom like the roses we love, and let me allow it to die gracefully, like all flowers must with the changing of the season.

Chapter Text

The next morning, after their planned walk along the corridors, Jungkook called Seokjin back to his bedchambers, the beast stepping foot gingerly into the room to find that Jungkook had already arranged for a rather comfortable armchair to be drawn over by the window, the drapes drawn open to allow a considerable amount of cold winter light to shine in. The easel was set up near the edge of the four-poster bed, and Jungkook immediately set to work preparing his art materials, asking Seokjin to be seated however he wished.

 

The beast looked extremely unsettled as he tried to find a suitable position in the chair, blinking at the brightness of the sun as it reflected off the snow on the windowsill, and looking as though he were in an uncomfortable spotlight.

 

"Now, I'll begin with a few drafts, so I can figure out the position and the colors," Jungkook clarified, and the beast gave a little nod. He was a broad-shouldered creature with a particularly elegant outfit today, with a white ruffled caravat set below his fur-covered chin and his hairy hands crossed over his lap. Long, curved legs drew the length to the ground, and his face was turned away from the window, almost throwing his face in the shadow of his own head.

 

"Could you… face this way a little bit, please?" Jungkook queried, and the beast turned his face toward the easel, staring intently into the back of it. Jungkook smiled. "Will you not look at me , Seokjin?"

 

Seokjin licked his lips, as though attempting to remain a cool expression, and then mumbled, "I would ask that you not demand it of me. Is not looking at the easel suitable enough?"

 

"I suppose, for now. But when I do the detailing on the face, it would be best if you would look at me directly."

 

To this, the beast made a growling sort of grumble, as if in wordless protest, and looked increasingly nervous. Jungkook smiled, feeling a flush come over his own cheeks at the realization that the beast really felt so odd around him as to cause such a childish pout.

 

He began to shape out the general lines of Seokjin's figure, surprised by the detailing of the muscles that were suggested on his edges, softened by elegant and expensive fabric but nonetheless an enviable physique.

 

"Would you like to tell me about yourself, Seokjin?" Jungkook asked. The beast looked up, confused at the question. "You had me tell you about my family, after all. Tell me about your parents, when you were a child." He knew the hours would be long for the painting practice, and they might as well fill the air with some sort of discussion.

 

"I don't know that there is much to speak upon," Seokjin said with a shrug. "I had a fairly normal childhood. My parents employed a governess from when I was quite young. She looked after me as well as she could, however I tended to wish for playmates my own age. There was a daughter of my father's head chef, a talented man who was teaching his daughter his own techniques. We got along very well, until eventually we became close friends."

 

"Celeste?" Jungkook asked, poking his head up higher around the easel so he could see the beast's legs a bit better. Seokjin nodded.

 

"I got into all sorts of trouble," he continued. "I wasn't a very good son, I must admit."

 

"What, did you get dirt on your stockings?" Jungkook snorted.

 

"No," Seokjin huffed. Then, his shoulders slumped. Jungkook silently cursed, as this changed the posture he had been working on drafting for the last few minutes, and he would have to adjust it again. "I threw terrible tantrums. I would weep and throw myself about to get my way. I did not appreciate how wonderful it was, to have both my parents so close so much of the time, and of how affectionate they were towards me. I cannot count the number of times I rudely interrupted their dinner parties or their alone time with my noisiness and brattish behavior." Seokjin gave a sigh, and luckily this time he did not alter the setting of his jacket too much, for which Jungkook was relieved, as he was still outlining the creature's broad shoulders.

 

"I'm sure they knew you loved them," Jungkook said offhandedly. The beast looked up at him, eyes wounded and pitiful.

 

"I wish I could know that," Seokjin murmured. The young man watched him for a moment, feeling the sensitivity and pain he must have been going through, knowing he had been quite wicked toward his parents when they were alive. "The truth was, I never deserved them. They were beautiful people, beloved even by the lowest of their servants. Even now, the loyalty to them is a large part of the reason why my skeleton of a staff remain here. That, and the fact that my inheritance has greatly enhanced their family's lifestyle through the years."

 

"Why are there so few of them?" Jungkook asked. "I don't know too much about grand houses, but usually they have a much larger staff, do they not?"

 

"A much larger household staff would suit a much larger household," he replied uneasily. "Besides, the less people who live here, the less people to worry about trusting."

 

Jungkook let the silence reign between them for several minutes, studying his strokes carefully as he used a scrap bit to test his colors out. After a time, he spoke again, a gentle curiosity to his words. "Do you not trust others, Seokjin?"

 

The beast shook his head, a wistful smile on his lips. "That I do not."

 

"Is it due to your...your visage?" Jungkook flushed pink with shame even as he put the question to his host, worried about overstepping a boundary.

 

Seokjin paused, and considered. "The truth," he began with rough hesitation. "The truth is, it is not. I am caged here due to many things, Jungkook. When my parents were alive, I was given the curse of this ugly face and body, and my parents wished to protect me from the world's evils and cruelty. It was a justified fear which they held, as they died during the Revolution. They told me that I would be sent to the countryside with a few well-trusted companions, and that I would be well-hidden here. I remember the fear in their eyes as they promised to come to me when they could. They allowed the rumors of their hideous beast-child to spread, in efforts to conceal me within the myths, legends, and the truth. It was wise for them to know that the stories of a cursed beast-child would keep most everyone at bay, as humanity is superstitious and fears retribution of divine powers beyond their understanding.”

 

He continued, "My parents were of a noble bloodline, and my father particularly so. Due to their birthright, during the Revolution, they were killed by beheading. That was years ago, however, and the world for me has remained the same. You see, Jungkook, this face....is but a mask. It has held me back only by excuse, and excuse is what my occupation is. I know this to be true, but yet I have never found the courage in my soul to break free from my own confines, even though I am the only one alive who possesses that key."

 

"Then… what is holding you back? What do you fear?"

 

The beast hummed, looking away from Jungkook to glance toward the fireplace across the room, as though searching for some semblance of an answer there amongst the embers.

 

"I do not know," he said haltingly. "I suppose I fear that were I to step outside these doors, that everything I have been told about the outer world, about the hate-mongering that rules humanity, were to be proven true. That man greedily consumes man, that they would kill on birthright alone, even a child. I fear that my fears would be proven absolutely correct, and that I could do nothing to stop it, nor curb the foreseen hatred toward myself, nor even be given a chance to do any good in this world before I am severed from it."

 

Jungkook let out a sound of acknowledgement, confused as to the riddled meanings Seokjin implied with his little speech, but finding some general understanding of Seokjin's character through it. "I do not know if it is of any help to you, Seokjin... But in my lifetime, there is always risks and dangers when you step out your door. I do not think you are so special as to be the only one with that danger. Do you not think it worth the speculated hazard, to see, to feel, to experience?"

 

There came no answer, and even when he moved a bit around the easel to look at the beast more squarely, his eyes were still avoided as though they were a trouble to the beast. Jungkook chuckled, and this caught the beast's attention, causing him to glance over and accidentally meet Jungkook's eyes. Seokjin shifted (a terrible motion for Jungkook's practicing, to be sure) and mumbled to himself.

 

"Seokjin, what troubles you so?" Jungkook inquired.

 

"Nothing," Seokjin said stiffly. He straightened his shoulders, facing off at an angle from Jungkook.

 

"Hear this," Jungkook snapped suddenly, stepping around the easel and making Seokjin visibly startle. "You must stop your fiddling about, or I will certainly strike you with my paint palette, Seokjin! Hold still!"

 

"Y-yes, of course." Seokjin instantly seemed to freeze, but Jungkook could see that he was trying to surreptitiously wipe his sweaty palms off on his trousers yet again.

 

Jungkook clucked his tongue, shaking his head as he had to start again on fixing the position displayed on his canvas. "La, but you're still a troublesome child."

 

"I am not!" Seokjin protested. "See, this is exactly why going out of the house would be a ridiculous notion. If you had not come here and disrupted everything , I would not even be this irascible, and--"

 

"Don't even begin to attempt to blame your bad temper on me ," Jungkook scoffed, turning up his nose at the creature. "I did nothing to make you feel so testy or strange. It's nothing to my fault that you are bad at controlling yourself, like some child or an old, cantankerous man with no manners."

 

Seokjin's mouth fell agape, opening and closing repeatedly, clearly insulted beyond his own belief. "Why! You dare --"

 

"There's no reason my presence in particular should make you feel uneasy," Jungkook insisted with a huff, returning to his painting. "It's not as if you were in love with me, and could use that as your inane pretext for bad, unrestrained and erratic behavior when I am in your presence."

 

There was a long, pregnant pause, and Jungkook's hand froze against the easel, waiting in earnest for some sass-filled rebuttal from the beast. But when there came none, he peered around the easel fully once again, and found that the beast was staring with a very hard, shameful-looking gaze at the floor. Jungkook felt a strange sensation of heat go all over his own body, as though he had just stepped within a close ring of flame.

 

"Seokjin?"

 

No answer was forthcoming. Jungkook gave a bit of a laugh.

 

"Stop toying with me, Seokjin, that's not very amusing, you know. Feelings such as love should be a very serious matter. Not something to joke about."

 

Seokjin still said nothing, just staring off at the floor. Eventually, he gave a sort of sound like a harrumph, and replaced his gaze off into the middle distance as he had held it before, his lips pressed together in a hard, thick line. Jungkook was not sure how to contend with such a heavy insinuation in the air, almost feeling it as palpable as the brush in his hand. His head became a bit dizzy, and he was not sure he could fully blame it on the chemical smell of the paints as reasoning enough.

 

They fell into an awkward silence as Jungkook focused on his paintings, and nearly half an hour passed before they spoke again.

 

"Would you... if you could..." Seokjin started. Jungkook glanced up toward him, and the beast was actually meeting his gaze, eyes gleaming and dark. Distinctive almond eyes which held a complex cobweb of emotions that laced in and out among that look. Jungkook doubted he could capture the eyes right, as he had suspected before.

 

"What?"

 

Seokjin seemed to be going through a quite tremendously difficult moment of decision, and Jungkook could imagine from the torn look in his eyes that he was standing on the precipice of some monumental moment. Eventually, he backed down, as though beaten by his own mind.

 

"Just... Nothing, I suppose."

 

Jungkook scoffed yet again. He felt his palms go a bit sweaty and his hand shook a bit as he lifted a paintbrush with its tip covered in paint the same sort of shade as the beast's jacket. "If you have something to say, just say it."

 

"I just... does my ugly countenance bother you? Does it disgust you?"

 

It was a strange question, but somehow, it was one in which Jungkook was not surprised had been put to him, as he had expected it for some time. He had lingered long on what sort of an answer he would give, when the beast eventually asked him, and had decided on a response that was as gently sincere as he could be, without being entirely misconstrued.

 

"While it is true that your face as I see it is not exactly handsome ," Jungkook said slowly, "As you are a beast, are you not? But I would not say that I am bothered by it much."

 

"... Not bothered by it... much ?" Seokjin pressed.

 

Jungkook just smiled weakly, his eyes still on his canvas. "Well, I just mean... it does not intervene with our friendship on any level, does it?"

 

The air in the room seemed to deflate as the word friendship hung heavily between them. It was a deliberate choice on Jungkook's part, but even still, he felt a sense of awkwardness and even guilt at the reply, as he could sense the beast's disappointment.

 

Eventually, Seokjin mumbled a quiet, "I suppose it does not." And that subject was left at that.

 

"I do think that it would be good for you, however, to reconsider joining the world of the living," Jungkook said, adding a certain level of light-heartedness to his tone that he hoped would be contagious to the atmosphere. "For example, my friend, Abelia, her father often holds a ball in the winter months, to celebrate the oncoming year. Would it not be a gay event to attend? It would only be for one evening, and there would be so much clamor and activity going on, you could not possibly stand out too much, you know?"

 

Seokjin gave a chuckle. "It does not sound plausible that I should not cause a general unpleasantness by my presence. That is but folly, an unattainable dream."

 

"It would not ," Jungkook pressed. "Listen, I could even write to her, and tell her all about you. I am sure we would not be a bother. She had already extended an invitation to me, and it would only be one night . You could take a risk for one night, could you not? When my whole time in this household could be seen as a risk to my safety?"

 

The beast stilled, a more dark and active look to his eye that made the hairs on Jungkook's arms stand on end with their emotive quality. "No," Seokjin said firmly. "You were never in any real danger within my home, Jungkook."

 

That embarrassing heat flushed up Jungkook's body again, the attentiveness of the beast's stare forcing him to hide behind his easel, hoping his ears were not absolutely scarlet. It was a shock to his system, to feel this self-conscious, and he was not sure how to address it with any form of grace.

 

"Just consider the ball, please?" Jungkook finally continued. "For my sake, at the very least. It would be a good evening out, and you could use the practice being brave."

 

Seokjin did not answer to this, and in all frankness, Jungkook did not require an answer. He returned to his painting, and they completed the afternoon with his sit exceedingly well. He had two or three possible poses from which to work, and they could practice it again the following day.

 

In the meantime, Jungkook humbly showed off his autumn scene painting to Seokjin, explaining which parts had been particularly difficult. He had gone with a simpler scene than his brother, drawing on parts of the garden which he could see from his bedchamber window, and adding in colorful reds, yellows, and oranges, as well as browns and greys to create an elaborate autumn scene, with leaves strewn about and a small grey rabbit in one corner of the painting to add a trace of life.

 

"It is beautiful, Jungkook," Seokjin gasped, absolutely in awe with no sign of putting on airs. "You should be very proud of your talent."

 

"Tis no such talent," Jungkook insisted. "It is all hard work, I can assure you. When I started, I could not make a tree look as if it were a tree. But my whole family enjoys art, so we pass the time together with it whenever we can."

 

Seokjin nodded. "I would that your family could be rejoined again under one roof, and that you could continue your happy relations as you once did."

 

A gentle sound from Jungkook, and he had nothing to say in response. It was not as though he could act like it was not Seokjin's word that kept him here, bound to the household and bound to Seokjin as the master of the house wished. It was not as though Seokjin could not free him of his obligation at any time. But he found himself surprisingly torn in his heart. It was not so horrible a thing, to keep Seokjin company. He wished he could say it was purely selfish, a spoiled gain he had come to expect, living in a huge household and eating so well, having so much time for leisure. He had begun to suspect that he truly did enjoy Seokjin's presence, if not with the same depth and breadth of affection which was given to him by Seokjin. He felt as though he would have enjoyed visiting Seokjin even if the creature lived in a small, humble cottage with no one else around for hours, and they could sit quietly and talk, read, or paint.

 

It was an awful thought to have, he felt, for there was no way to reassure Seokjin that it was meant so sincerely without confusing the beast further. He did not want to mislead Seokjin into believing there were more deep, concerning feelings at the root of his affection, nor did he wish to sound as though he had been shallowly wooed by the richness of the household or its benefits which he had unequivocally been reaping since the day after his arrival.

 

It would not do to say anything so forward, Jungkook had decided. For it would only cause more cacophony where there was already far too much.

 

"I want to thank you for letting me paint you," Jungkook said quietly. "I appreciate all you have done for me."

 

Seokjin gave a little smile. Jungkook knew that smile so well by now, as masked as it was by the hair on the beast's face. He returned the smile in kind, and they bowed to each other slowly as Seokjin took his leave.

 

This left Jungkook once again alone in his bedchambers, and he realized that the room felt mightily emptier without the beast's presence. He managed to clear up his painting supplies in a sort of half-hearted daze, reliving the past few hours until he came upon the portion of the conversation regarding Seokjin's unspoken affections. Once again, Jungkook was overcome by an embarrassing flush of heat, and he glanced into his mirror to find that his face was very much red with shyness, and he attempted vainly to cover his face with his hands.

 

It was a new feeling, a rush of sensation that he was unsure what to do with but to indulge in private and to otherwise set aside as though it did not exist. And so Jungkook curled up on his bed and let the excitement rush through him, the experience of being admired so forthrightly. He was very much confused and with no one to go to about his mixed reactions.

 

He sat up in bed abruptly, his hair standing on end as he looked across the empty room toward the door.

 

Perhaps he did have someone.

 

🌹🌹🌹

 

The night was once again chilly as death, and Jungkook lifted up his candle and headed down the stairs in the main foyer, exiting the east wing and entering the west wing with a light step and an open expression of near-felicity and optimism.

 

"Hello again, my Prince," Jungkook called out when he turned the corner and found the young boy's portrait there once again. It was the same as it always was, both silently assessing him with that cold, evaluating glare, as well as never speaking an ill word of Jungkook's presence.

 

The young man looked up at the portrait with a look of fondness, seating himself against the opposite wall per his usual habit. It was hard for him to say what precisely it was about the portrait of the boy which he found so comforting, whether it was the fact that it was a painting itself and an area of interest which he had studied some in the past with his family, or whether it was the boy depicted and the eerie but familiar expression which he bore in the silence.

 

"I think Seokjin has much deeper affections for me than I expected," Jungkook began directly, able to relay the thoughts heavy on his heart to the inanimate object, as if it contained some sort of magic in it which would allow him to understand himself and his needs much more acutely. "In fact, he may be infatuated with me. I do not know what to do with this information, but..." Jungkook's expression twisted as he tried to verbalize what was in his mind. "I do not think that I mind his feelings, if that makes sense. He has a gentler heart than he likes to admit, so I feel a warmth in my heart from his affected mannerisms due to his feelings. But I do not want to throw him into turmoil or destroy our friendship by addressing this matter. So I suppose it is best to leave it as it is for now, without an answer or finalization."

 

Jungkook looked up toward the portrait once again, as if looking for understanding and approval there. After a moment, he gave a nod. "I agree," he said. "It is a good thing, but not a thing to draw out of him too much, that would be cruel, I suppose. So we shall leave it as it is."

 

Silence drew on, and Jungkook's candle melted, the thick drippings of half-heated wax slipped down the length of the candle, as its light grew dimmer and less intense. He laid down and made himself comfortable on the rough rug, his blanket curled around him for warmth. He tilted his head playfully up at the prince.

 

"He is quite amusing, and I like his company very much. It is endearing when he becomes awkward, and it is familiar when we are together and talking about books or food or other amusements together." Jungkook yawned. "And I do hope that he decides we can attend the ball. Abelia would be quite relieved that I am still able to attend for her sake, and it would be good for some change to come about in the beast's heart."

 

Jungkook paused, then, and his brow crumpled. He sat up a little straighter, pouting his bottom lip in an expression of distaste. "I have never called him a beast before," he said. "It does feel too strange, and unlike him in many manners. I should think he a bit more like a prince, in all due forthrightness. It is most unlike him, other than his unfortunate visage. But mayhap someday this view of him can change for the outer world. I do not know. I am no philosopher nor any great harbinger of great exoduses or epochs, that is for certain."

 

He curled up onto the floor on his stomach, obtaining a comparably comfortable position on the floor, before his eyelids began to droop a bit. A great yawn escaped him yet again, and he laid his head down against the back of his hands. "True be it, I am merely a woodcutter, and he is a kind of bitter prince. Perhaps the new year will bring him better tidings and youthfulness. In fact, sometimes I feel he is but the same age as myself." Jungkook considered this, grunting a reminder to himself. "I should really ask him sometime about that. Maybe the next time he sits for me."

 

The next few minutes, Jungkook thought that he had continued to speak to the prince, but he could not remember it the next time he awoke. He did, however, feel quite conscious when arms lifted him up, grunting with the effort as they bent and collected his things, carrying him the extensive walk back to his bedchambers. The figure which held him knew the way well, and it was not until they entered his room, where Jungkook's main candelabra had been left to illuminate the way through his bedchamber, that Jungkook mustered the courage to peer up at the figure with one eye fluttering just slightly open.

 

As he had suspected, it was the figure he had declared a ghost. A young man who could not possibly be much older than Jungkook himself. He wore a soft white nightshirt which lay partially untied at the top, revealing a portion of a broad chest with a deep collarbone. A long, craning neck led to a soft chin. Delicate features around the mouth, with plump, pink lips that seemed permanently pursed. Then a round and childish nose, and stern almond eyes that looked up ahead in the dim light of the bedroom. Jungkook knew that face, had spoken to its younger version on well over a dozen occasions by now. It was the face of the boy prince in his favorite portrait. Jungkook likely would not have recognized it, had he not spent so many hours in study of the painting itself, but he was sure of the mysterious figure's identity.

 

This self-assuredness was why, when he was placed down into his bed by the prince, Jungkook waited until the trembling hands were tucking the blankets around his form before he reached out and gripped at the beautiful wrist, halting the prince there and making him jump with fear. He even cried out with a shocked sound, making Jungkook smile a bit as his eyes fluttered open.

 

The candlelight was but a little, and now it rested behind the prince's broad frame, intimidating and yet curved in its silhouette. He attempted to pull away from Jungkook's hand, but the young man held fast, half-sitting up in the bed.

 

"Please do not run, Prince," Jungkook half-whispered. "Please."

 

In response to his words, the prince seemed to still, like a startled deer which has heard a noise and is turning its ear in curiosity in the direction of a sound, waiting for a following movement or crackle of a breaking twig to signal if the danger is indeed real.

 

He did not speak, but he allowed Jungkook to sit up more properly, looking up at him.

 

"Why do you bring me back to my bed, Prince? Why do you wander these halls in the witching hours, all alone in the dark?"

 

The prince continued to look at him, as though still gauging the situation. Jungkook sighed.

 

"Thank you, for keeping me company, in either matter," Jungkook said. "But know that I do not fear you. And I hope you do not begrudge me demanding your listening ear when I cannot sleep."

 

This, somehow, seemed to inspire a bit of courage in the prince's heart, and he whispered in a hoarse, thin voice, as though afraid to use his sounds to their full capacity.

 

"Are you unwell? Do you not rest properly in your bed?"

 

Jungkook shook his head. "The bed is comfortable enough, perhaps too comfortable. I simply miss, in some strange sense, my uncomfortable and cold bed at home, where my family is. It is not an ungratefulness, I assure you. Purely it is from missing the comfort of familiarity."

 

"Then why..." the prince whispered again. "Why do you come to me?"

 

This made the young man smile up at the prince, laying back amongst the bed linens. "Why, because you are beautiful, and your expression is somehow sad, and petulant, and powerful, all at once. I feel as though I could tell you anything."

 

The prince stared at him in wonder, his amazement unmasked. "Do you think me handsome?"

 

Jungkook tilted his head to the side, smiling coyly. He crossed his arms over himself, leaning down to place his weight on his palms on the bed between his legs. "What is your name, prince?"



"I...cannot answer..." the prince said. "I'm sorry. If you do not know my name, I dare not speak it to you. For fear of losing my heart."

 

It was a strange thing to reply to, but Jungkook figured that if one was to be within the occupation of ghost prince , some discretion was likely for the best. He continued to smile up at the prince, nodding his head in understanding. Then, a spark of worry seemed to overcome the man, and he leaned in, frowning.

 

"Do you hate me? Please do not hate me." His words sounded so very wounded, the forced hoarse whisper set aside in a moment of grief-stricken, half-sobbed words, and one hand took the lightest hold of Jungkook's elbow. With the increased nearness, Jungkook was able to make out his features a bit more clearly, and he scanned the face in all its delicacy for a long moment, searching the deep brown eyes.

 

"I don't hate you," Jungkook whispered, sincerely.

 

The prince let out a sigh of relief, slumping in on himself as though all the strength had gone from his bones, and his entire posture seemed to shrink. Jungkook gave a soft smile, then reached out with both hands, wishing to cup the prince's cheeks within his grasp. He had meant no harm by the gesture, merely wanting to see him more clearly in the light and to understand his features better, but the prince jolted backward from the bed as though he had been burned, and began to wring his hands in nervous energy.

 

"I... I'm sorry, I shouldn't be here..." he whispered hoarsely. "I will take my leave of you."

 

"Oh, alright," Jungkook said quietly, and he knew his disappointment was evident. He shuffled a bit in his bed, fingertips playing with the edges of the fabric, and he watched the prince vanish from his room, closing the door very carefully behind him. And so Jungkook was left alone again.

 

Why should the prince believe that Jungkook hated him? Jungkook flopped backward into the bedsheets, his head making the pillow fluff up around him in a gentle disarray. One hand reached out to the spot of the bedding where the prince had sat a few moments ago. There was no warmth there, but Jungkook fiddled with the threads of fabric there all the same, as though he could will the prince to return to that spot.

 

🌹🌹🌹

 

"Good morning, Jungkook," Seokjin greeted when the young man came down the hallway stairs. Jungkook had dressed warmly, having been promised a wintry morning walk. Seokjin was waiting for him with a long colorful scarf wrapped around his neck and a smile peering through the fur-lined cheeks. "Are you ready?"

 

Jungkook nodded, and they opened the grand front doors to find snow was upon the ground, piled up high along the front steps and up into the door frame. Delicately they stepped their way down the slippery walk, and then avoided the deep drifts as they headed toward the gardens.

 

It was a very different experience of a walk, with most of the plants in the garden dead. Jungkook reached out and brushed his fingertips along a faded rose, and found the brown and blackened petals crumpling beneath his touch and fluttering to the snowy ground. He looked up at Seokjin, who was watching the light breeze tear at the petals and drag them across the smooth, unbroken surface of the snow, and then he released a long sigh.

 

"Would you still like for me to sit for you today, Jungkook?" he asked quietly after a time. Jungkook had noted that the beast no longer spoke in his strange half-growing voice, as he had before. It was something he wished to question, but feared that provocation would cause the beast to bristle once again, and pull away into brusque behavior, holding the answers close to his chest without admitting they were in all likelihood a link to vulnerability.

 

"Of course," Jungkook replied. He led the walk along the path, noting that the beast tended to follow him just a couple of steps behind, even though he usually held his body and head tilted in the direction away from his walking companion. It was as though he was orbiting around Jungkook. "Why wouldn't I?"

 

Seokjin shrugged. "No particular reason. I was just wondering."

 

Silence enveloped them. The wind picked up, tearing its icy fingers around them and going right through their layers of clothing to chill them right to the bone. They quickened their walking pace but a little, and Jungkook watched the snowflakes being torn at by that same wind, sending the snow flying in a wild flurry against the many drifts and piles along the edges of bush and brick alike. The edges of the mansion's grounds ended in the thick of the woods, a tall natural fence looming with privacy. Oak, pine, chestnut, and more all lined the confines of the property, making a dim border of many browns and greens. There was a movement along some of the trees - more than likely a random rabbit or other creature of the underbrush - and it caused a crackling of dried branches and leaves to arise. The two of them stopped their meandering, to look up and watch the treeline in curiosity. No sound came, however. In fact, the presence of the snow seemed to create a sort of sound barrier among the world, deepening the solitude of the house and the beauty of the grounds.

 

"It's so quiet," Jungkook commented, still looking toward the trees. Seokjin took another step nearer, until he was standing at Jungkook's side. He seemed more nervous in this position, shuffling his feet a little back and forth as though to keep himself busy, or perhaps to keep his body warmed by motion.

 

"Indeed. It'll become noisy again soon, however. When the storms start sweeping in. I trust that Celeste and Philippe have already arranged to fill the cellars and kitchens with plenty to last a few weeks, in case no horses can get through."

 

Jungkook was, indeed, paying attention to Seokjin's words. But the majority of his attention was on staring over at the beast's face, studying it with perplexity. He was inspecting the features of the beast's face, or more particularly, the depth of his eyes, and the space just above his ear. When he made no answer to Seokjin's comment, the beast turned his eyes over toward Jungkook, and when their eyes met, his eyes instantly flickered away, and Jungkook could have sworn that the entirety of Seokjin's ear, although mostly covered in thick fur, had turned a bright scarlet.

 

"What?" Seokjin shot back in an accusing tone. "Do you find some portion of my face that hideous?"

 

The young man watched Seokjin, waiting until he was sure that the wind had died down, leaving them in the quiet again. "No, not at all," he said soberly.

 

Seokjin gave out an attempted grouchy sound, gathering himself up again and then stomping forward through the snow. He made an exaggerated affair of it, so much so that soon Jungkook was laughing and dramatically stomping along at his side. Snow piled up inside their shoes, wetting their feet horrifically, and Jungkook found himself tumbling into Seokjin's side suddenly, knocking them both over into a snowbank.

 

If it was entirely by accident due to slipping in the snow, or half-on-purpose, that was for Jungkook to keep to himself. As it was, Seokjin reacted by scooping snow in one hand and tossing it over toward Jungkook's general direction in a defensive panic. Some of it brushed against his cheek, and Jungkook beamed with mischief, half his torso pinning Seokjin into the snow, allowing for him to scoop up snow and properly pat it into a roughly roundish shape before he pelted it directly into Seokjin's face, causing the beast to sputter and complain. They both wriggled about, then, with Seokjin trying to shuffle his way out of Jungkook's range, but the man was relentless, grabbing Seokjin's arm and forcing snow into his face repeatedly. Seokjin also started to get in a few good snowballs, once he had gotten over his initial shock, and Jungkook was laughing as he was being forced to eat snow, blinking it from his eyes even as it melted against his eyelashes. Seokjin was laughing, and it was a warm, pleasant sound that Jungkook felt a spark of pride in his heart for eliciting such a reaction from the beast.

 

Soon they were wrestling, and snow was not just melted inside their shoes, but inside all their clothes, until Seokjin pointed out that Jungkook's lips were trembling and starting to turn blue in hue. Reluctantly, they called a truce, and shuffled their awkward way back into the house. Philippe was walking through the grand foyer when they entered, and he actually gasped upon seeing them, with wet hair and half-melted snow shoved into each other's collars.

 

"Heavens! You will both die of a cold at this rate! I insist you both hurry in toward the parlor, the fire is stirred in there." And off Philippe rushed, at an increased and worried pace that was the most emotion Jungkook had witnessed in the steward. He looked over toward Seokjin, and then began to laugh merrily at the disheveled and lost look on the beast's face. The fur had bunched up weirdly in the places where the snow had met it, and some of it was standing on end. It was a bit like a sopping wet cat, dripping on the fine carpet and feeling cold and miserable.

 

"Come on, let us find that fire, Seokjin," Jungkook said, patting Seokjin's shoulder. He kept his hand there, half-leading the beast in toward the aforementioned parlor.

 

As they were stepping into the room, Seokjin was looking down at his feet, complaining under his breath that his shoes may be quite thoroughly ruined. Jungkook glanced at the back of Seokjin's neck, where his hand rested, and at the place where the ends of Seokjin's hair usually lay down and covered the collar of his shirt, he could see a sliver of pale, clear skin. Jungkook quickly lowered his hand from Seokjin's shoulder, stepping toward the fire first and keeping himself up close to the warmth as much as possible. He shivered, and shuffled his feet, and loudly complained of the cold and the wet, and Seokjin followed in kind, half-laughing through his complaints. Jungkook had never seen him look so mirthful as he did on that day.

 

"We may have to delay the sitting," Seokjin said at last, rubbing his upper arms with his hands to try and warm them. "It would be best if you get into bed and gather some warmth about you. You don't want to fall ill just before that party at your friend's house, do you?"

 

Jungkook started to open his mouth to offer a snide comment, but then he paused, looking up at Seokjin in surprise, eyes wide. "Wait, do you mean...?"

 

"Now, I do want to preface with a warning," Seokjin said, holding up his hand cautiously. "I still do not know if I myself will be in attendance. But I see no reason for you to break your promise to this Abelia, and it would just be for one night, after all. You should write to her and to your brother, and let them know you can see them there."

 

"Oh, Seokjin!" Jungkook was completely overcome, suddenly darting forward and embracing Seokjin in a tight embrace, squeezing his chest within his arms as strongly as possible. A grunt of surprise escaped the beast, and he stood stock-still until Jungkook pulled away. 

 

"Ah.. I hope you enjoy the night. Even if I do not go, I wish to hear you tell about it when you return...." A long, hesitant pause, and Seokjin touched at his lip with one hand, as though trying to control his expression more thoroughly. "You, ah... will return, will you not? Do you promise?"

 

"Of course I will," Jungkook said, relinquishing Seokjin entirely from his hold and turning toward the door to see Philippe stepping back in and offering them a quick bow.

 

"We have started fires in both your chambers respectively, and there will be fresh clothes upstairs for you. I advise you both to get out of those wet things as soon as possible."

 

"Of course, Philippe, please rest your mind at ease that we will take all precautions as per your instructions." Seokjin's eyes gave a warm twinkle, and Jungkook imagined it was due to their shared secret arrangement that caused the expression. "Will you also send something warm, such as a broth, upstairs at some point? And do ensure that the servant's quarters are kept as comfortable as possible. I would hate for the whole household to fall ill in the cold turn of weather."

 

Philippe gave another bow, turning on his heel and leaving the room presently. Jungkook, who had now partially dried one portion of his body and clothes, crossed his arms and smiled at Seokjin.

 

"I do hope you will attend alongside me, Seokjin," he said. "It will be a riot."

 

"To god above, I pray not," Seokjin responded, snorting in amusement. "Now get upstairs and change, and get into bed as quick as you can."

 

"Understood!" And with that, Jungkook was shivering in the hall again, then taking the steps two at a time as he rushed toward his room and the promise of a warm fire waiting for him.

 

The room had still not accepted the radiating heat of the fire, so Jungkook stripped himself of his clothes as quickly as possible while shivering right up next to the hearth. Only one side of his body could face the heat, so he did a sort of a naked dance in trying to warm all sides of himself while he pulled on a fresh set of clothes. Then he rushed underneath the covers, still shivering. Presently, Marguerite entered with a bowl of hot broth for him to sip at, for which he expressed his gratitude, and then he was left alone to pass some time.

 

The afternoon was spent warming himself under the covers, a book in hand and the blankets tucked around him as tightly as possible, to maintain the heat within. He was reading a novel, which happened to be a rather intriguing love story, and he was finally just getting to the part where the more gentlemanly, stoic figure was about to admit his feelings for the bold young lady who had captured all his rare affections. He then decided to flip over on the bed and rearrange himself underneath the blankets, rushing in order to settle in before the warmth was lost, when a slip of paper fell out from the pages of the book.

 

It seemed to be a page-marker of sorts, a simple folded piece with some randomly drawn markings of lines and circles, as though it had been used as the canvas for a distracted mind to absently write upon. 

 

His fingertips played with the edges, which were just beginning to fray. He let out a sigh.

 

And then he let out a horrific sneeze.

Chapter Text

By the next morning, both Seokjin and Jungkook were abysmally ill, required to remain in their beds for the entirety of the day. Jungkook, when he awoke, felt unquestionably miserable. Marguerite informed him that the master was also sick, and that he was quarantined to his bedchambers until he was feeling better. Jungkook sniffled, coughed, and blew his nose into many sorry handkerchiefs, and moped about in a dizzy feeling of self-pity for his sorry state. He attempted to read some, but got nowhere. There simply was nothing to do, all by himself, and he wished dreadfully for some sort of company or entertainment to wile away the hours. From boredom and the ensuing exhaustion which comes from being sick, he slept on and off for most of the day. Whenever Marguerite came in to bring him his meals, he would beg her to stay awhile and talk to him, but she always shook her head, smiling softly and apologizing, for there were things to do on a tight schedule, especially with winter oncoming.

 

So Jungkook pouted and slept on, coughing and feeling his head heavy and achy and filled with the strange heat of fever. His dreams were bizarre and incomprehensible, and only half-remembered. Most of that day passed in long, uncomfortable silence.

 

When night came, he found that no matter what he did, he could not sleep. He fussed about in the bed for hours and hours, and thought about going to see his prince, or if his prince would be coming to see him, instead. But he knew he needed to stay in bed. He felt the disgusting clamminess of his own sweat building up along his skin, but he could do nothing. Jungkook realized his fever was probably worse than he thought, and he wondered if he should be worrying.

 

It was late, when he heard a light scratching in his room. He lifted his head, cocking it to one side as he looked across the room into the darkness. He could have sworn someone had given the very lightest of knocks against the wood.

 

"W-who is there?" he called out, and then waited, listening in the dark.

 

"Jungkook?" said someone, the door opening with a creak.

 

"Prince?" Jungkook asked, unable to hide the excitement in his voice. The door opened more fully, and Seokjin stood there, dressed very tightly in a robe that seemed to cover all of him from his chin to his feet, the hem brushing against the floor.

 

"I'm sorry," Seokjin said with a soft smile, holding up his candle. "It is but me, Seokjin."

 

Jungkook blinked up at him for a moment, and he felt as if he should be careful of what dripped from his tongue next, but all he found he could say was a breathy," Oh."

 

"My apologies for disappointing you," Seokjin continued. "I came to check on how you were feeling. May I sit with you for a bit?"

 

The man nodded, and Seokjin made quick work of drawing a chair over to the bedside, politely sitting with his hands across his lap, looking Jungkook up and down.

 

"You're not even sick," Jungkook found himself complaining, feeling as though he were about to melt into the linens that surrounded him.

 

"I was… but I'm feeling much better now. I should probably still be in bed, just in case, but..." Seokjin shifted, leaning forward and frowning at Jungkook. "I was worried about you. You look just awful."

 

"Thanks," Jungkook snorted, causing a coughing fit. "I feel absolutely dreadful."

 

"Where does it hurt? Are you feverish? Do you feel dizzy?" Seokjin continued for a few minutes to go through a slurry of questions about all of Jungkook's symptoms, sounding flustered as he went. In the end, he sat up, straightening his shoulders. "We should call you a doctor at once, I think."

 

"Oh, no, a doctor would be even worse," Jungkook complained, his voice drawn out and raspy, almost as though he were a child whining. "They're so awful."

 

"Nonsense, we don't want you getting any worse, do you hear? Whatever I had, it must have been nowhere near as serious as what you've caught. Which is strange, you would think a woodcutter would be better able to handle the cold."

 

"We stay indoors and use the firewood we've collected, thank you very much!" Jungkook snapped, but there was no malice in his voice. He had no energy to be malicious, in any case, and Seokjin gave a wry smile as he looked at him.

 

"Either way, I would feel better if we call one first thing in the morning, at least. If you're feeling better by then, no matter, we can send him away and I will compensate him for the journey. But it would be better if you were looked at by a professional."

 

Jungkook frowned, he huffed, and he shuffled in his bed. But after a few minutes of agonizingly forced silence, he finally mumbled half to his pillow, "Fine, as you wish."

 

"Good, I'm glad." Seokjin smiled. "Now, do you mind if I keep you company for awhile? If you're tired, I can leave of course, but... I can't really sleep after being in bed all day."

 

"Me neither. It's a horrid bore," Jungkook said. Seokjin chuckled.

 

"I heard a bit of a drama was going on in the kitchens, today," he said, striking up an easy conversation topic. Jungkook's eyes opened more fully, and he shuffled about on the bed until he was better able to see Seokjin.

 

"There was? Over what?"

 

"Celeste had made something special to give to you tonight, to make you feel better. But it was mysteriously missing a large portion of it when she went back. She apparently was giving Marguerite quite a pressing amount of questions, thinking she may have done it. But it was Philippe. It turns out he had mistaken it for a testing, and thought it fine to just eat away at it. It's been a long time since I've seen Celeste in such a tizzy."

 

Jungkook smiled, rubbing his face against the pillow for a moment. "I can't imagine Celeste angry. She seems like someone that would be calm at all times."

 

"Oh, no, I can assure you, she has her tempers, they are just very rare. She is like a mother bear in that sense." Seokjin paused, then leaned forward until he was closer to Jungkook's bedside. "When we were kids, she would always be the meanest to the boys she liked."

 

Jungkook's eyes widened. "I knew her father worked for yours. But were you two so very close when you were young?”

 

"Of course. We were always playing together." Seokjin tilted his head to the side. "Her and I are childhood friends. We shared many things, growing up. It is like she is an older sister to me, in many ways."

 

"That's amazing," Jungkook breathed. Then, he coughed weakly. "What were you like, as a child? Did your appearance cause other children to bully you?"

 

Seokjin froze, as though stunned. His words seemed hesitant. "Well, not at first, I guess. My parents were very protective of me. Most of the people I saw when I was younger were just other adults, like my parents, or the servants, or guests of my parents. When I got a bit older, and was sent here, then… yes, there were some troubles and some… misunderstandings. I can't say I was an obedient child in any sense, but Celeste usually was there to box my ears soundly if I stepped too far out of line."

 

"Did Celeste ever bully you?"

 

The beast did not answer for a long moment, and he sat back a bit. "No, not in that sense."

 

"Then in what sense is there?" Jungkook laughed a little, and sniffled hard.

 

"I used to think she liked me a bit, but I don't think so now. It made us have some awful rows for a time there. I was quite petrified that if she were to say anything, then our friendship would be ruined. So I used to avoid her if I thought the subject could possibly be broached. It turned out I was wrong in my presumptions, of course. But I suppose the lesson remained, and I was never adept at asking others about their opinions before jumping to an assumption."

 

"I see..."

 

Seokjin sighed. "But other than that, I suppose I've experienced a less-than-normal amount of hatred and contempt that's to be expected of someone like me. There were others, I've heard of, but never met. Mostly they were treated like animals, paraded about in courts for a high price, to admire and to trade and buy for their amusements. One or two have become quite scholarly, despite their faults. Myself, my parents sent me away soon enough that I was left fairly unbothered, and luckily for myself, I suspect that Celeste has always kept the household a bit kinder toward me in opinion than I could have otherwise ended up with. But I cannot keep a large household, as you see. There would be too many incidents, inevitably speaking."

 

"But if there are those that became scholars or were treated quite normally, why couldn't you? Your parents must have left some form of estate to you, an inheritance, and you could set up a life for yourself among common people, could you not?" Jungkook looked up at Seokjin, who had turned to look quietly into the light of the candle, a wistful expression to his mien. 

 

"You hold a valuable treasure in your chest of sweet optimism, Jungkook," he said at long last. "Deplorable beings are always treated deplorable, if not for their appearances and ungainly speech, then for their tactless actions and their sins. I believe I have earned a life of solitude and discontent, here in my castle with all its silence."

 

"But you mean that you do not wish to stay here," Jungkook pressed. "You wish to be among humanity, surely. I do not intend to idly toss aside the risks you sincerely face, Seokjin, but what sort of living are you doing, if you are merely a ghost of your own life, wandering halls without anything to occupy yourself, and no one to do good towards?"

 

Seokjin seemed to dwell on this thought, and then he gave a slight shrug of his shoulders. "I suppose I do not know myself."

 

"Then come with me," Jungkook managed, before coughing. "Come see the village, talk to people, see how you come along. Experience but a little of living before you die."

 

The beast gave a smile, then nodded. "Alright, then. It's settled. I will go with you. But only if you are well by then, so you must make sure you rest, and don't go wandering about the halls late at night, at least until you are better, understood?"

 

Jungkook nodded. "You have my word. And another question, while we are speaking about years wasted--"

 

"You begin to speak too harshly, woodcutter," Seokjin protested with mock injury. "Have a bit of heart toward your friend."

 

The man chuckled, blowing his nose on his handkerchief before he continued. "I was wondering, how old are you?" The beast stiffened again, very transparently quite unsettled by the unexpected question. "Surely you cannot be that old, but sometimes I feel as though you are truly quite ancient indeed, for the way you grouch and complain about every insignificant thing."

 

"I did request," Seokjin hissed, rolling his eyes, "That you consider kindness , you brattish imp. But I am soon to enter my twenty-fifth year, as of this winter season."

 

Jungkook blinked, his mouth falling agape, "Why, twenty-five! You are only a few years older than I am!"

 

"Does this surprise you that much?" Seokjin laughed, seemingly amused by Jungkook's shock. "Did you expect me to be some immortal elf or some creature cursed to living for eternity?"

 

For some time, Jungkook did not answer, feeling unsure at this point whether the heat on his cheeks was from the fever or from embarrassment, but knowing that it was making it a bit difficult to squarely make eye contact with the beast. "You are... an enigma, Seokjin. Truly. Five and twenty..."

 

"Not forty, nor eighty-nine, nor yet three hundred," Seokjin teased. "If I should be handsome and uncursed, I would be of an age where mothers would start begging me to marry their children, for of course a hefty allowance is a welcome allowance, indeed."

 

"It could still yet happen," Jungkook grouched. "If you would but allow them the chance, I'm sure some mothers would not even care about what level of handsome you are, so long as you offered a safe and considerable sum."

 

"Oh?" Seokjin's eyes sparkled with mirth, and he leaned his elbows down on the bed, resting his beastly face in his paws. "And what of yourself, Jungkook? Would you be wooed by a solid and dependable income, even if your marriage was to a hideous creature?"

 

Jungkook gave a snort, rearranging the other side of the bed so that he could shift his legs a bit. "I doubt I would have any use for great wealth. While it is fine to have delicious foods, to me the most important thing is good company."

 

"I see... so you do not find any purpose or use for wealth?"

 

He paused, and considered. "I suppose it would be good, to have my parents taken care of, and allow my brother to grow our family income at a consistent pace... But for myself, I don't need any large mansions or slew of staff to make me feel happy or love someone."

 

Seokjin frowned, seemingly dissatisfied with this answer. "No? So you care not for wealth, then, for yourself. Only if it were to do your family good?"

 

Jungkook thought about it hard, considering how Abélia and her family were rendered much more wealthy, a rising member of a new class of people who had made themselves well off due to hard work and meeting the needs of many. It seemed like a win-win situation on the surface, but Jungkook knew how much strain was now on Abélia and her father, to not only maintain their new-found status in a rapidly changing society, but also to constantly expand, to grow, to prove themselves.

 

"I would that whatever match the universe might have in store for me, that it would come with a partner I can trust and depend on. I have seen wealth make distrusting bitterness grow in people, and I would not wish for that. I do not need fancy halls or elaborate parties, but I do wish to experience all that life has, and for that, I think it is less important what his larders hold as what it is in his heart."

 

Seokjin sat in a long stretch of silence, soaking in this answer, which Jungkook felt he should have thought through more thoroughly. But then, Seokjin gave a somber nod, and it almost appeared, in the candlelight, as though there was a tear forming in his eye.

 

"I think that is a beautiful way to look at love, Jungkook. I hope you find that person someday." He laughed, then sniffed a bit and wiped at his eye with the back of one finger. "I told you before that I suspected you were worthy of kindnesses, and I see more and more each day that I am correct in that evaluation."

 

"Whatever could you be talking about now?" Jungkook laughed, feeling nervous beneath what was starting to sound like high praise.

 

"You inspire those around you to rethink the very heart of their motivations, Jungkook, and no matter what you do, whether it be in living, or listening, reading, or painting, you always seem to put your whole heart into it very sincerely, until it makes others look like brass compared to your gold. You deserve to be treated to a wealthy, homely lifestyle, for you would not take it for granted, I feel. Those who expect it will never appreciate it so."

 

Jungkook swallowed. "You allow me too much of a rosy appraisal, Seokjin. Would that you were to turn that breadth of feeling upon yourself."

 

Seokjin's smile began to fade, and he seemed to mull upon Jungkook's words for a long moment, letting out a measured breath to the side.

 

"You repeat yourself with such a sentiment..." Seokjin tilted his head to the side, and a sort of sly smile came over his face. "Would it make you happy? Were I to do as you ask, and turn a much kinder evaluation towards myself more often?"

 

Jungkook nodded. "It would."

 

"As friends do, then," Seokjin said softly. He gave a nod of acceptance, and then let out a sigh. "I will do my best. I'm quite determined and can do many things when I set my mind to it."

 

"There you are," Jungkook chirruped, feeling quite pleased with the progress. "That sounds much kinder to yourself already."

 

Seokjin did not respond to this comment, only giving a wry grin and shifting on his seat. "I am sad that I could not sit for you once again, Jungkook. It is more enjoyable than I remember it being when I was a child."

 

"That's probably because we have only just started," he reasoned. "Wait until we're a few weeks into the painting sessions, and we'll just see how you feel about them, then."

 

"What other things have you painted, Jungkook?"

 

He gave a bit of a shrug. "All sorts, I suppose. Mostly landscapes. I usually don't feel too compelled to paint portraits, but they're a different sort of challenge. My mother loves to paint animals in particular, so sometimes she has me practice sketching stray cats or the like."

 

Seokjin nodded, opening his mouth for what was undoubtedly further inquiry to the particulars of Jungkook's familial hobby, but he was interrupted by the sound of the clock chiming the late hour, and they both turned toward the mechanical device with a bit of surprise.

 

"Is it really that late?" Seokjin asked, standing up. Jungkook frowned, a bit disheartened that their conversation was already ended. "I should head back so that you can rest properly. My apologies for keeping you up so late with random ramblings."

 

"Not at all," Jungkook said, dropping his head back against the pillows, and smiling at Seokjin. He still felt odd and feverish, which was quite irksome, and he had enjoyed the company to distract him from illness for a time. "Will you come back tomorrow? It's so boring to be sick."

 

Seokjin smiled. "Of course I will, if you wish it, Jungkook."

 

"That's what I just said," Jungkook scoffed, rolling over onto his side and allowing his eyes to blink much more lazily and slow. Now that he had in his mind that Seokjin would be leaving for the night, he was being overcome rapidly by the sensation of extreme exhaustion, as though all the hours spent laying in bed had been evanescent, and now he was truly beginning to feel like he could rest properly. "Come back tomorrow. Please."

 

"It's a promise," Seokjin said. He returned his chair to its previous place and mumbled a quiet goodnight as he left the room, and then Jungkook stared into the red-orange flames of the fireplace for quite a time.

 

He was still feeling quite horrible, now that he had nothing to distract himself with, but he was pretty sure he hadn't said anything too embarrassing to Seokjin in his ill state. He supposed he should have apologized for his disheveled appearance, but he had a sneaking suspicion that Seokjin could not possibly care less if Jungkook looked one way or another, focusing instead on complimenting him and asking him whatever his wishes were, than for him to be bothered by etiquette or the like. Jungkook felt his face heating up a little, and his brow crumpled with delayed embarrassment at the way Seokjin seemed to say things that dug right beneath Jungkook's skin and made him feel comfortable and entertained. He thought about how hard it was, sometimes, to hear the way Seokjin used the word "friend," with resolution and silent injury. But what else was there to do? He was at least grateful that Seokjin was trying to dutifully follow the boundaries that Jungkook himself had set between them.

 

"My friend," Jungkook said quietly to the empty room, clenching his fist a little around the sheets, feeling the dampness there from his sweating. "It's just so nice to have a friend."

 

🌹🌹🌹

 

The next morning, Jungkook was feeling much the same, and to his chagrin, a doctor was called presently, just as Seokjin had agreed with him. The man who arrived must have been old enough to be Jungkook's grandfather, easily, and he smacked his lips in a manner which quite discomfited the poor patient, and he asked Jungkook a great many questions about how he had been feeling. Jungkook, who when ill usually felt more guilt than pain, for being a bother to anyone, awkwardly attempted to answer the questions to the best of his ability, but mostly remained in whatever position the doctor had left him last, sitting as still as he could and hoping not to be in the way.

 

Philippe remained in the room as the doctor attended to him, but the steward was utterly useless in answering anything much further than "What was the first day of symptoms?"

 

After some time, the doctor gave a deep grunt and sat up straight. "Well, it seems you do have a fever, which I'm sure you could tell yourself, but otherwise you appear to be already on the mend. I will be leaving a bottle of tincture of Peruvian bark. I advise you to take it if the fever does not cease by late this afternoon, or if it should get worse in the next few hours. Other than that, continue doing as you currently are. Rest well, keep your insides clean, and eat things such as soups or broths."

 

"Yes, sir," Jungkook said, nodding. The doctor bent down to look into the bag which he had brought, and Jungkook looked over at Philippe, asking, "Where is Seokjin?"

 

Philippe let out a very dissatisfied  "Hm!" but he refused to answer. Jungkook felt his heart sink, but he waited until the doctor had left, taking Philippe with him to settle his payment before he left. Jungkook curled up on his side, wondering how he should spend the empty hours laying in bed, when Philippe returned alone, looking up at Jungkook from the doorway and sending him a crumpled and unreadable expression.

 

"The master will be joining you presently, if that is permissible," Philippe said.

 

Jungkook sat up in bed promptly, feeling less dejected by far. "Oh, really? I mean, yes, that is permissible, if you please, Philippe."

 

Philippe did a brief double-take at Jungkook for a moment, and then bowed his head and exited the room, shutting the door elegantly behind him with a sharp click. Jungkook felt relieved, arranging the pillows on his bed so that he could sit straight up.

 

He sat and waited for some time, finally sitting back against the bedding more thoroughly, as he was beginning to tire. An hour passed, and still, Seokjin did not come knocking upon his door. Jungkook began to worry that he had done something wrong, or perhaps that Seokjin had fallen sick again, or that he had decided he did not wish to see Jungkook anymore for some strange reason.

 

Another hour passed, and Jungkook was falling asleep. He leaned back against the pillows, burying his face into them as he drifted off to unconsciousness, his fever starting to lessen but his body still tired and weak as he coughed intermittently.

 

The room was beginning to darken when Jungkook was awakened by a strange sound. His eyes flickered open as he listened, getting his bearings. There was someone singing, somewhere just outside his door, and the tune was jaunty and well-humored. It was some light-hearted ditty about a maiden waiting for her lover to come home from the war, and it was punctuated at the end of its stanza by a sharp rapping against Jungkook's door.

 

"C-come in!" Jungkook called out, sitting up again in his bed. The door opened much more slowly than expected, and when Seokjin appeared in the entryway, he could see that it was because the beast's hands were completely full of items. He had at least six books, writing materials, an actual lute, and a bottle of wine.

 

"I have arrived!" Seokjin declared, fumbling into the room. The beast nearly dropped half the items in his hands, the books sliding off each others' surfaces and forcing him to comically jostle in order to reset their balance for the relatively short distance left to the bed. "My apologies for the delay, I had some things come up. What was the verdict from our venerable doctor?"

 

"He has declared me commonly ill, other than the fever. He left some medicine for me to take if it doesn't go down, but I think I'm already feeling more like myself."

 

"Excellent, excellent," Seokjin nodded, arranging his items on the foot of Jungkook's bed. "I assumed you would need some entertainment for your use until you feel better, so I brought some things."

 

"So I see. You don't expect me to know how to play the lute, do you?"

 

"Not at all, that one is for me , naturally."

 

Clearly, he had spent quite a bit of time summoning up a decent selection of amusements for Jungkook and himself to take advantage of, and his air somehow resembled that of a young child opening presents, rather than a fairly broad beast who was arranging novels around Jungkook's covered ankles.

 

"I suggest we start with some light reading, I can read aloud so you don't even have to have energy to lift up a book, you see. I'm not the best reader, but I will do my utmost," Seokjin promised. "Then, we can play some games. I'll bring them up so don't even fret about it. Then perhaps when you want to nap I'll try to play something amateur on the lute."

 

"Do you sing, as well?" Jungkook queried.

 

Seokjin shrugged. "Fair enough for most purposes, I should think."

 

"All in addition to playing the harpsichord and the lute. I see, I see."

 

"You say this as though you have uncovered some great secret in me," Seokjin teased back. "But in fact, it's very common for someone with my status to have had some at least remedial studies in foreign languages, art, music, and literature."

 

"I am not suggesting it is surprising , so much as impressive ," Jungkook countered. "One can be entirely unsurprised and yet still find your skills an impressive feat worthy of note, even if you yourself see it as commonplace ."

 

"Now you lace your retort with the tone of insult." Seokjin's voice held no malice, his eyes sparkling, and he looked like he had a slight smile on his face, although the hair there covered most of the expression. He lifted up one of the books. "Shall we begin?"

 

"As you wish," Jungkook said, smiling as he lay back into the pillows, making his head more comfortable to hopefully soothe the achiness that remained there. Seokjin pulled up his chair as before, once he had arranged his tools of amusement, and then moved in close to the head of Jungkook's bed. He pulled out the first book and began to read, with graceful slight intonation alterations for different characters, and a bright and energetic air to his demeanor.

 

The hours passed very quickly in the shared company, and even though Seokjin was always a safe arm's length away, Jungkook felt the room more filled with warmth and energy by his mere presence alone. It was as though something had sparked off in the room, and he found himself smiling and laughing, teasing Seokjin back, and keeping his mind very much off the slowly descending fever and the horrid exhaustion that had been filling the very marrow of his bones.

 

The light in the room gradually lessened, and the fire crackled happily. Seokjin pulled up the lute, cradling it in his slender arms which carried a fairly wide spread. He spent some time tuning the instrument, chatting with Jungkook until he was fairly sure it was quite perfect. He began to play, the music echoing throughout the chamber. Jungkook waited a few seconds, and then he leaned back and closed his eyes, sinking into the sound of the music.

 

It was some bars into the song when Seokjin began to sing, quietly and unsure at first, but gradually with more confidence and air to it, making for stronger notes. His voice was light and soft, and slightly nasal, Jungkook determined, around the edges, and this edge would fade and flicker out as his voice went higher in pitch. It was a rounded sound that felt comforting and approachable, to Jungkook's mind.

 

As Seokjin sang, Jungkook naturally hummed along, adding his note to the song quietly, harmonizing with Seokjin as they went through each lyric with care and attentiveness. With his eyes shut, focusing his senses on the music itself as it bounced and echoed in the room as though they were in the midst of a performance in a great, silenced hall, Jungkook began to half-dream. He did not know when he started the dream; his exhaustion making him only slightly delirious regarding the passage of time and the gravity which reality often gives one with such regularity that we come to take it for granted. But as it was, Jungkook imagined himself and Seokjin, singing and smiling at each other in the illusion of a spotlight, bowing and beaming toward a strange, colorful audience of shimmering shadows which reached in and clapped just before him.

 

He felt himself dropping, as off a deep cliff or right off the far, shadow-filled end of the stage. He heard a watery sound like a drumbeat against his ears, and then suddenly, he was blinking his eyes open, and Seokjin had moved over to sit near the fireplace, and he had his back to Jungkook as he quietly read a book. Jungkook glanced over at the clock and saw that several hours had passed, and it was now past suppertime.

 

"Seokjin?" Jungkook said quietly. The beast looked up abruptly from his reading, and stood, taking the half dozen strides it required to get to Jungkook's side again.

 

"You're awake," he said with a smile, his teeth peeking through. "I thought you might have been out for the night. How are you feeling now?"

 

Jungkook looked up at Seokjin, who was hovering protectively over his bed, and his mouth fell a little agape as he realized Seokjin had been waiting for him to wake up for ages and ages. His cheeks felt a little flush from embarrassment, but other than that, he felt much more revived, if not somewhat clammy still from the fever and from being bedridden so long. But his head was much clearer, and he felt as though he had actually rested somewhat.

 

"Better," he commented. "Not quite at the readiness to wield an ax at a tree, but we are getting there."

 

Chuckling, Seokjin gave a nod of approval. "I suppose you would be at least a bit hungry by now, would you not? I can go send for Celeste, if you are feeling up to it."

 

Jungkook assessed himself for a moment, wriggling up until he was sitting upright again, his blankets tucked across his chest and beneath his underarms as he gave a brief nod. "I do think I am hungry."

 

"Excellent. If you would not mind, I may join you. I have not eaten yet, either." As Seokjin spoke, his stomach gave a loud, strange sound, as though in protest to even the implication of waiting but a moment longer. He seemed embarrassed and surprised by this bodily reaction, and apologized under his breath before he walked away to call Celeste for the leftovers of their dinner.

 

When he returned, it was to sit at Jungkook's side and to continue his chatter. He spoke of random topics, of various facts or figures, intriguing commentary and documentation of the comings and goings of the local animals in the area, which he had been reading up on. Jungkook mostly sat and listened, but occasionally he would smile, nod, or throw in his own thoughts. There was a point in the waiting period wherein Jungkook realized that this chatterbox-like shift in Seokjin's level of amiability and talkativeness was inspired by Seokjin's desire to keep Jungkook busy and distracted. He remembered asking Seokjin to promise he would return and keep him company, and he had kept that promise, even though he had arrived later in the day than expected of him.

 

Their food was soon brought up, and Seokjin gave his thanks for it before they started on their belated supper. Not much in the way of conversation was utilized, in order to not distract them from the main joys of their meal, and they soon finished everything that was brought up. Jungkook felt a little nauseated from eating so much after having barely eaten all day, but he laid back into his blankets and pillows with a deep sigh of satisfaction, and Seokjin was finishing off his plate with an inordinately humongous bite of potatoes, filling up his cheeks quite comically as he attempted to chew.

 

"Seokjin," the man started, after the beast had already wiped his mouth clean on his napkin. "Why did you not come here when the doctor arrived? I thought for sure it would be you who spoke with him, rather than Philippe, who is not exactly known for his tact nor his bedside manner, particularly when it comes to me."

 

"I think he is warming up to you, in all honesty," Seokjin commented. "After all, it has been a couple of months since you came here."

 

"That isn't an answer to my question, Seokjin.," Jungkook pointed out. Was he always going to evade such direct interrogation?

 

The beast gave a shrug. "I was busy this morning."

 

"Is that really all there is to it? Philippe even said you would be coming along presently, and you took hours and hours to come."

 

"You make it sound almost as if you missed me, Jungkook," came the teasing tones of the beast.

 

Frowning, Jungkook crossed his arms and sniffed upwards in distaste at Seokjin's suggestion. "I said no such thing. There is nothing overly sentimental nor telling in the fact that I was told you would be coming soon, and you did not come very soon, so naturally, I would be curious."

 

"Well, if you must know, I stayed away because I did not want the doctor's visit to be disrupted by my own appearance or actions. It would be too easy for him to see me and to become offensive or even defensive, and to throw your important health check into a disarray of unnecessary distractions."

 

Jungkook considered this, and then reluctantly, he had to admit that this logic seemed fairly reasonable. After all, even if there was a doctor in town who knew of the beast's appearance, and of his strange household, if they were beyond the fad of shock and horror at what seemed to Jungkook to be a fairly meaningless physical attribute, he would - as a man of science - be naturally compelled to shift his focus over to the more bizarre anomaly to human health.

 

In addition, the confidentiality of the visit was not to be overestimated, as only one trip to see a beast's house guest would suffice to create an entire slew of vicious rumors and gossip, with no care toward whether or not such statements were at all based on fact or falsehood. It was a lot of risk and in essence, having Seokjin there when the doctor arrived would have been akin to kicking up dust in an abandoned room filled with dangers. Until Seokjin could appear and speak for himself, Jungkook could at least sympathize with Seokjin's plight.

 

He also could hope that the scenario could change in the near future, and for the betterment of all involved.

 

"Do you want to read some more, do you think?" Seokjin offered, now that Jungkook had been sufficiently satisfied in both the answer to his question and in the bodily needs of his stomach. "I don't mind staying a bit longer, if you wish it. But I can understand if you would want to rest properly, now that it is night."

 

Jungkook considered for a long moment. It had indeed been a long day, and he was not sure if he would be able to sleep, as he had just woken up from a nap. But his body did in fact feel heavy still, and he did not want to keep Seokjin up too much later.

 

"Would you sing to me again? Then once I fall asleep, I think I will try to sleep through the night, if I can. And then you can return to your room, as I'm sure you're weary of keeping me entertained."

 

"It is no trouble at all, I assure you. To tell the truth, today has been a good day in a long stretch of dark days, for me." Seokjin sat up a bit straighter, lacing his fingers together and tapping the knuckles against the backs of his hands. "In fact, I've been thinking a lot about what you said, about how I do not even have the chance to 'do good unto others,' given my isolation. And I think that is an excellent point. What is the use of wealth if it cannot be used to purchase things from others? What good is a life if it does no good to anyone else and never learns how to offer? I think it would be good, even if a beast cannot be loved, to at least spend the time to learn how to love others, if that makes much sense?"

 

Jungkook gave a hum, curious about this long trail of thought which Seokjin had apparently been down whilst Jungkook was slumbering on. "There is indeed much to love in the world."

 

"And maybe, just maybe," Seokjin's eyes sparkled as he smiled. "I could learn to love myself. Isn't that such a magnanimous way to defeat one's demons, so to speak?"

 

"It's certainly a formidable struggle." The man turned over onto his side, his back aching somewhat from being in bed for too many hours. "But I wish you luck with it, Seokjin. It is very hard to love one's self."

 

As though he found some aspect of this responding remark curious, Seokjin tilted his head to the side, leaning in where Jungkook was resting with his eyes shut.

 

"Jungkook? Don't you love yourself?"

 

"What?" Jungkook laughed.

 

"Do you love yourself?"

 

Jungkook's eyes flickered back open, and he gave a bit of a grimace. "I guess I like myself enough to get by. I am a man of many little failures but all the opportunity."

 

Seokjin frowned, letting out a displeased sound. He sat up, then fidgeted with his hands for a moment, and then came back to Jungkook again, planting his paws on the flat part of the bed and leaning in.

 

"I think you should learn to love yourself, Jungkook. I cannot imagine you feeling anything but love toward yourself. It is simply a ridiculous notion to feel otherwise."

 

"Like I said, Seokjin, loving yourself is a great struggle. I don't think it just happens and you feel good for the rest of your life." He coughed a little, then wriggled his toes under the blanket. He could feel cool spots where his body heat had not touched the linens for quite some time. "It's a constant battle. I think even for very strong people, their self-image is something that fluctuates quite a bit up and down. Like a fishing lure that bobs in the lake water." He curled into his blankets tighter, even though he could feel that Seokjin was eyeing him with a considerably hard look. He gave a great yawn. "But I do wish you luck with it. It is a battle worth fighting, I would say."

 

"Hmm." Seokjin hummed, thoughtful.

 

"Now you sound like Philippe," came Jungkook's half-amused complaint. "I don't want to be lulled to sleep by Philippe sounds. Meaning no disrespect, naturally."

 

"Naturally." The beast then lifted his lute once again, and he sang a very sad song to Jungkook, about a soldier going off to war, as he played a very simplistic and forlorn accompaniment on the acoustic instrument. Jungkook smiled, nestling further into his pillows, and waited silently for sleep to wander in and lull him away on the sounds of Seokjin's gentle and comforting voice.

 

🌹🌹🌹

 

It took Jungkook just a couple of days more to recover from being so ill, and luckily, additional medical care was not necessary. Soon he was left with merely an annoyance of a cough, which was not so bad to deal with, even when one was trying to paint. He eagerly called Seokjin back for a few more sessions of sitting, and now, things were not nearly so awkward. Why this change had come about, Jungkook was not quite sure, but it was a welcome shift in the atmosphere. They chatted freely while he painted, and eventually, he was able to create a version which he was at least somewhat pleased with. He began to add in more details, to refine the way the light hit Seokjin's eyes and the various hues of his fur which stood out to the artist. In this manner, many more days passed into the oblivion of happily-spent hours. And the date of Abélia's party was approaching quickly.

 

While Seokjin arranged for more supplies and clothes for Jungkook to be made and sent to the house, Jungkook sent a long and descriptive letter to Abélia, explaining their situation as delicately as he could, and inquiring as to the level of welcome he would still be, in addition to bringing along a very unique guest. Jungkook highlighted Seokjin's more charismatic and amiable points, but he could not shy away from the fact that he was, indeed, in appearance, as many of the rumors in the village said.

 

But you must understand, Abélia, that having been in this close and intimate a company as I have been allowed for these past few months, I can vouch for his good character and his willingness to abide by any rules herein which you may provide, and we will adhere to any parameters which you and your father may devise. We would abhor the very implication of depriving your annual ball with any sort of feelings of ill will. He may be a beast in appearance, my dear Abélia, but he is quickly transforming to a prince within his heart, and I hope you can appreciate the delicacy of the situation from multiple perspectives, with your empathic soul.

 

He also sent plenty of inquires as to herself and her family's health, tempted for a moment to get a current word on his brother's current situation, but he thought that too jilted an insinuation to ask about his own brother, given his limited interaction with the outside world. It was a bit too complicated and nuanced a situation to explain to Abélia through the written word, and he hoped they could go to see her without any issue so that he could better elaborate on everything that had happened in the last few months.

 

The letter was soon sealed and sent off with Philippe to send by post. It was only a matter of time now before they heard back, but there was plenty to do to occupy the time. The painting was nearly finished, and Jungkook was already beginning to plan a second complete one of Seokjin, perhaps this time in a more vibrant manner to best display the complications of such a personage.

 

The winter days grew colder, and the candles seemed to glow with a cooler color than before, fighting against the surrounding chill which seemed to freeze the very air. Jungkook sometimes woke up in the morning to a frosty cloud on his every exhale, and Marguerite sometimes shivered as she stirred the fires in the morning.

 

It was on one such of these particularly freezing mornings that the returning letter came. 

Chapter Text

The letter arrived as Seokjin and Jungkook were seated to breakfast, and Philippe brought it in on a special tray, holding it out to Jungkook wordlessly and surprising him for but a moment. He gingerly reached up, beginning to tear at the seal which he recognized.

 

He opened the letter, unfolding it and finding Abélia's elegant and curved handwriting, a full page of close writing, and then a second page.

 

Jungkook stared down at the letter, wide-eyed, and it wasn't until some moments later that he looked up to find Seokjin watching him very closely, an almost mournful look in his eyes. When Jungkook met his gaze, he straightened, and a somewhat forced-looking smile spread across his features.

 

"What does your young lady say?" he queried.

 

"She said they would be more than happy to host both of us," Jungkook said, beaming with excitement. "And the date has been set to but two weeks from today! It's so soon, and I shall see them all again!"

 

"I am glad," Seokjin replied, but his posture seemed more worried than anything else. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat, and fussed with his breakfast. His dark, gloomy stare into his plate was interrupted when Jungkook abruptly reached out, laying his hand over Seokjin's paw, looking into his eyes with sincerity and fervor.

 

"It will be alright, you'll see, Seokjin. Just trust me, okay?"

 

The creature watched Jungkook's face, and for some reason, instead of looking reassured, Jungkook's smile seemed to make him want to cry. He nodded, and pulled his hand out from beneath Jungkook's, resuming his meal quietly. There was a demure and regretful feeling to the air, as if there had been bad news given among the good news, but try as he might, Jungkook could not understand it whatsoever.

 

But no matter. He would have happy times in the upcoming weeks, and he was determined to outshine Seokjin's fears, and assuage them with his own optimism and energy. The following two weeks were filled with preoccupations, extra work on dances that Seokjin simply had to be familiar with before the party, and fittings for new clothes which Seokjin had insisted upon. He was of the opinion that a special party was just such an occasion which called for new and beautiful clothes, and he insisted on Jungkook getting a proper fitting beforehand, so that they could have them made as soon as possible by a company Seokjin used in the city.

 

Jungkook had to admit that he walked with a certain extra skip to his step as he walked about the mansion in those following few days. He would greet Seokjin with a smile in the mornings, and he was awash for hours with memories and nostalgia for the last time he had been to the village, with the memories of Abélia and her family, and the curiosity that dug into the back of his mind about whether or not his brother would be there for him to see.

 

"I just hope he comes, so I can at least check on how his health is, and how our parents are," he explained to Celeste, his mouth full of one of the leftover raspberry tarts she had made that morning. "It would be good to see him, if just for a little while."

 

"I hope for that, too," Celeste said, her tone cautious. After a few moments and another round of cards, she inquired, "And what did the Master have to say about this great ball you are both going to?"

 

Shuffling the cards, Jungkook gave a bit of a shrug. "Well, he did not seem to be as enthused as I was, when we actually got the word that he could accompany me. I thought he had seemed more intrigued about it before, but I suppose he has his own reasons for being hesitant. He believes the whole world is out to get him, after all."

 

"His fears are not entirely unfounded," Celeste said, her voice gentle but her words making Jungkook look up. The cook twiddled her thumbs together for a moment, biting her lip a bit. "There have been occasions before. The Master tends to downplay it, due to how long ago it was and how fragile his self-esteem can be below his many layers of pride, but..." She sighed. "Men have come before, and tried to trap him, or attack him, or carry him off to who knows where."

 

Jungkook blinked. "They… they just tried to walk in and carry him off? Like he's some sort of animal? But anyone can talk to him for five minutes and know he is probably better read than they are."

 

"They did not come here to talk," Celeste pressed, increasingly emphatic. "All I am trying to impress upon you, is that the Master has good reason for his fears. Jungkook..." She reached out, taking a hold of his hand in both of hers and squeezing them tightly. "Please, promise me you'll look after him, and make sure he gets home safely."

 

Jungkook met her eyes, seeing the sincere dread that was twinkling there with great emotion. Celeste usually seemed infallible, an angel sent from above with bright eyes and a soft laugh and ever a gentle, understanding word. Her limitless power of authority and elegance was being cast aside for a moment, revealed to be a mere veil of good character which masked a very human, very real person who did not possess the ultimate power to always protect those she cared about. Jungkook did not know what it was she feared would happen at Abélia's party, but he knew that Celeste was much wiser than himself, and that asking such a favor of him was a great task to undertake. She was bestowing upon him a responsibility that confused and alarmed him, but he simply nodded, and promised her he would do as she asked of him.

 

🌹🌹🌹

 

It was the night of the ball, and Jungkook's nervous energy was reaching a climax. He was dressed in finer threads than even the ones Abélia's father had previously loaned him for such holidays and affairs, and he stood in the foyer waiting for Seokjin to arrive. His suit contained a bright yellow silken handkerchief and golden detail work on its hems and edges, and his freshly polished shoes clacked against the floor in excitement to be on their way.

 

Seokjin arrived at the top of the stair, dressed in a deep blue suit that fitted him quite well, and he carried in one arm some extra coverings to shield them from the cold during the ride. When he saw Jungkook below, he paused for a moment and looked down on him, as though withdrawn for a moment in surprise. Then, he smiled.

 

"You look extremely handsome, Jungkook," he commented. As though automatically, he reached out and straightened the collar around Jungkook's neck with one hand, tickling the skin there with the gesture. "Very well, so shall we go?"

 

They stepped outside, where a rented coach for the evening was already waiting for them. The interior creaked as they sat down, and Seokjin set about covering them with the blankets they had brought for the ride. The coach took off, and Jungkook tried to peer out the window, only finding darkness without. The horses clattered along, and soon enough the mansion lights twinkled out of view, and a dark road lay out before them. The journey was quite slow, and they had some time during the journey to make some light chatter, mostly in terms of what they expected to find upon arrival at the ball.

 

Soon enough, however, the town started to appear on either side of their windows, going from the occasional cottage to much finer-laid streets. Seokjin now started to look outside, curiosity showing in the little details of his mien. There were still people about even though twilight had gone, and they presently pulled up to the great estate which Jungkook recognized as Abélia's.

 

"There's the stables, Abélia has a perfectly beautiful gelding that she takes out for rides on occasion. It does not look like it but the estate goes much further back beyond the house..."

 

Seokjin was peering through the small windows, and they were slowing down. They could see elegantly dressed ladies in gowns and gentlemen in their fineries, walking arm-in-arm toward the front steps. Seokjin instinctively curled back against the seat, and Jungkook tried to give him a reassuring smile.

 

"I will look out for you, I promise," Jungkook said quietly. "We do not even have to stay very long, alright?"

 

The creature looked over at him, looking somehow much fiercer and yet somehow smaller within the very seldom lights pooling in from outside. Seokjin gave a sound of acknowledgment, and then the door to the coach doors were being opened, and they had to get out.

 

Jungkook stepped out first, leading the way with confidence that was manifested by half exclusively in order to give his companion something to work off of. He turned around, standing by the side of the coach in wait for Seokjin. For a long moment, the beast sat inside the coach, seated very much so as if he intended on staying inside for the entirety of the evening. Then, quite hesitantly, he reached out and laid one hand against the doorjamb, pulling himself out in one smooth movement, feet padding onto the ground as he looked up into the bright lights emanating off of the house. Several people passed by, and glanced his direction, but they continued walking. Seokjin looked over to Jungkook, and that was when he noticed that Seokjin's hands seemed to be visibly shaking.

 

To combat this, Jungkook offered the crook of his arm, smiling and bowing his head just slightly. Seokjin looked between the arm and Jungkook's expression for a few moments, and then slipped his arm into the offered space, and they walked in such a manner up to the front steps, where Abélia's parents and herself were standing just inside the grand foyer to greet their incoming guests.

 

"Jungkook!" Abélia called out. She was dressed in a beautiful red dress, her hair drawn up into an elaborate style that looked as though it had taken forever to accomplish. She rushed in, cheeks crimson as she went up to Jungkook and took his hand, clutching it warmly. "Oh, I'm so glad you were able to make it!" She turned, seeing Seokjin. Jungkook watched her quite carefully, to see if she would have any sort of violent or negative reaction to Seokjin's appearance, which stood out quite sharply amongst the well-groomed population of the room, but not an eyelash did flutter, nor a twitch abstain her smile. She reached out and took Seokjin's hands as well, not seeming to notice how hairy they were, or how they seemed to be still shaking. "Oh, I'm so glad both of you could come! You must be our dear Seokjin, correct? I am Abélia Couture. It is so fascinating to meet you. I am afraid Jungkook did not give me your family name in his letters, so I apologize if I am too familiar."

 

"Ah..." Seokjin hesitated, as though thrown utterly aback by the warm reception. After a second and a quiet nudge from Jungkook's shoulder, he smiled back at her, giving a bow. "It is an absolute honor, Mademoiselle Couture. My name is Seokjin Kim, but you may call me however you like."

 

"The pleasure is truly mine, Monsieur Kim," she beamed up at him, her eyes sparkling. She looked radiant this evening, and brimming with warmth. "Surely you will not be too troubled if I request a dance with our beloved Jungkook at some point during this evening? We are such old friends, you see, and usually we keep each other company during these often very long affairs."

 

Seokjin gave a nod of his head, his eyes sincere as he quietly allowed, "I would not keep you from such a privilege."

 

"Excellent, you are too kind," Abélia smiled up at him. "I should take my leave now, I'm afraid, as we have other guests to greet, but please, do enjoy yourselves!" She smiled again at Jungkook, a sparkle in her eyes as though she had something she wished to say, but did not have yet the freedom or timing to. She wandered away, and Seokjin cleared his throat once or twice. At first, Jungkook thought he was merely doing it out of true need, but eventually, he looked up and Seokjin was meeting his eyes with a bit of a surprised look.

 

"Ah, Jungkook..." he said, lifting his elbow and looking down at their still-linked arms. With a sound of apology, Jungkook slipped his arm away, standing a more appropriate distance from Seokjin.

 

Perhaps it was due to seeing Abélia welcome them in such a friendly manner, or if there had been some positive gossip going around the town which warned them beforehand, but Jungkook noticed that people at the party did not seem so surprised to see Seokjin walking around as he originally supposed they would. They did send stares, of course, but there were even a couple of gentlemen who came up and spoke with Seokjin and Jungkook in a cordial manner, always ensuring they acknowledged the both of them, although the former more in a distantly polite manner and the latter in a more familiar way, due to their shared histories.

 

There was still some time before the dancing became properly organized, so Jungkook and Seokjin weaved their way through the party with Jungkook in the lead, searching for any sign of Junghyun among the crowd. There were many faces, both painted and unpainted. Someone was laughing in a warm and obnoxious manner, and there were ladies gossiping in a congregation in a corner, all huddled together while they defrosted from the cold wintry night.

 

He did not see his brother, but he reassured himself that there was still time for their paths to cross; and besides, when Abélia had a free moment, he was sure she would find him, and she could potentially update him on the goings-on of his family home.

 

Seokjin, meanwhile, hovered around Jungkook as though he was in a tight orbit, never wandering very far or out of arm's reach from the young man. Jungkook chalked it up to understandable nervousness, but once the dances started to become more organized, and groups of people in the large rooms were beginning to clump up into their temporary groups, he tried to encourage Seokjin a little more.

 

"Why not see if there's someone you wish to ask to dance?" Jungkook asked. "You know this one."

 

The beast looked out at the twenty or so people engaged in a dance, moving about the room while a lively fiddle played on. The stamps of their feet hitting the ground with certain steps kept the beat, and they filled in with gentle claps and bright smiles to flesh out the song in its entirety of influence. Seokjin looked back at Jungkook, and shook his head in the negative.

 

"I do not think I can," he said simply.

 

"Why not? Just see if there's someone on the outskirts who looks like they want to go out there. Go on, you cannot remain glued to my hip all night."

 

Seokjin sent Jungkook a reproachful glare at the comment, but he took two steps outside of his orbital field, and did take a look around the room. While he was searching thus, Jungkook continued looking for his brother, and incidentally came across the town baker, who was looking to interrogate Jungkook and ask him how things were lately. He was quickly wrapped up in a difficult conversation of smiles and nods, trying to steer the conversation away from specifics about where he had been and what had transpired in the last few months, but he was doing his best. This meant that when he was finally freed once more, he turned around to find Seokjin no longer there. He looked out on the dance floor, and did not see him amongst the dancers, and he started to panic.

 

Pushing his way gently among the lines and lines of people, he rushed from the ballroom to the grand hall, then to the parlor, looking frantically back and forth and trying to spot him amid the many more familiar and ordinary faces. Eventually, he spotted him along one of the walls, sitting at a table and talking to some older gentleman, and Jungkook breathed a sigh of relief. They seemed to be sharing a quick drink and talking about something satisfactory to his conversation partner, as the man lifted his glass, gesticulated excessively, and laughed several times as he spoke, with Seokjin mostly listening. He leaned in, waving his arm out in a gesture as he explained something to the man, and Jungkook was only able to hear the tail end of it as he crossed the parlor and edged his way to their side.

 

"--But you see it's just less practical than it once was, so naturally the focus is shifting toward more scientific arts than in the religious, so it is understandable we would come across some contemptuous and controversial findings, especially in realms of… Oh, Jungkook." Seokjin looked up, sending him a smile. "You found me. Here, this is a Monsieur Dubois, he is researching new forms of medicine in a very revolutionary time. Monsieur Dubois, this is my companion--"

"Oh, we have met before," M. Dubois explained, smiling at Jungkook. "I have actually conducted some research at the facility where his parents are being cared for at present."

Jungkook smiled, and gave a respectful bow. "It is good to see you in such health, Monsieur Dubois. Have you been to see my parents as of late?"

 

"No, not personally, I am afraid. However, I did receive word from their facility, and extra funding has been going to its management in order to provide as much help and care as possible to its patients. I can inquire after them if you would like."

 

"That would be wonderful, if it is not too much trouble," Jungkook breathed a sigh of relief, giving a small, gentle smile.

 

"Not at all, I have been meaning to check in with them in person anyways. It seems they have recently received a grand donation and have been able to extend their staff as well as how many beds they are able to keep." M. Dubois smiled. "And how have you been keeping yourself? I would love to be able to give just such a report to your parents of your good health.”

 

"Ah," Jungkook flushed, scratching absently at the back of his neck where his collar rested. "You can just tell them I've been well. I am well-fed and well-rested, I have everything I need and then some, to be sure."

 

"I see," said M. Dubois, who looked up toward Seokjin for a momentary glance, seeming to be studying him with a quick look. "Anything else?"

 

"Ah, I suppose that I have been able to pursue my hobbies at my leisure as of late. They may be interested to know that I have finished several paintings since they have been gone, and I hope to do a few small ones which I would like to send to them, if it is permitted."

M. Dubois gave a nod. "I am sure they would love to see your paintings. Now, if you'll please excuse me, I think I will go fetch my coat for a moment, I forgot a match in my pocket, you see…" His hand reached out, settling on Jungkook's shoulder and giving it a squeeze. He looked straight into Jungkook's eyes, searching there for something. Confused, Jungkook just blinked up at him for a moment, and then M. Dubois seemed satisfied at the wordless answer which he had somehow been provided. He nodded, and stood up while saying, "It has been a pleasure meeting you, Monsieur Kim, and I hope you two will visit around here again soon and that it paths will cross. I beg your pardon." And he stood up, leaving their table. 

 

Seokjin looked over at Jungkook, a concerned look on his face as though he had been told there would be no supper that night. "Did I say something wrong to make him leave, do you think?"

 

"What? No. I think he legitimately wished to find his coat. Likely he has some sort of special leaf which he wishes to enjoy with the other medicinal crew with whom he associates more regularly." Jungkook looked up, tilting his head to the side and giving Seokjin a playful look. "However, you seemed to be having a surprisingly cordial and level conversation with him."

 

Seokjin smiled, shrugging his shoulders. "I agreed with some of his points and not with others. It allowed for an interesting and animated chat." 

 

"I do recall advising you to ask someone to dance, however," Jungkook further teased. 

 

"Does dancing with words not count?" Seokjin gasped in mock surprise. "Well, how embarrassing for me, for you certainly did not clarify when you mentioned it earlier. How was I supposed to know?"

 

In reply, Jungkook just shook his head, rolling his eyes and half-laughing at Seokjin's playfulness, even amid so many surrounding strangers. Within this room were a few small tables which had been assembled for cards, with various guests seated around them in their warm and fine garb. There were also a few gentlemen pouring drinks and laughing gaily. Most of the occupants of the room did not seem to pay them any mind, and when they did, it was usually someone with whom Jungkook had been long acquainted, and they merely gave him a quiet wave and a smile of acknowledgement from across the room before returning to their respective conversations. 

 

From what Jungkook could tell, nothing had been said about his current residency at the allegedly cursed mansion in the woods. Likely they all thought he was still staying with his brother in their family home. Which meant that neither Abélia nor his brother had said anything to the general townsfolk. It felt strange, to be aware of such a monumental change in his living situation and for most of the people who he associated with to not even know about it. He supposed it was probably a good thing, however, looking at the grand scheme of the situation and how he had wished for this night to go. 

 

"Jungkook?" 

 

He looked up and saw Seokjin looking at him, a shy look in his eyes and his fingers all tangled together as he fidgeted a bit. 

 

"Yes?"

 

"Well, I was wondering, if it is not too much trouble... See, when you said I must ask someone to dance, I--"

 

"Jungkook!" cried out Abélia, who had just stepped into the parlor. She beamed at them both, but moved over to Jungkook's side, holding his hand in hers once again with that expression of rapt emotion. "I'm glad I found you! Might I intrude to ask for that dance we mentioned earlier?"

 

"Oh, no, that's no problem at all, Abélia." He stood up, glancing over his shoulder to see a quite dejected-looking Seokjin slumping a little in his seat. "I'll be back soon. Try to mingle a bit more!"

 

Seokjin grimaced, holding up a hand in a sort of child-like farewell as Jungkook left the room. He allowed Abélia to continue dragging him out and toward the grand ballroom, where there was music playing which assaulted their ears and hearts as soon as they entered the room. There were already a lot of people dancing with great cheer and energy, and Abélia pulled Jungkook out onto the floor the moment a space opened up for them. Abélia's hands felt small and delicate in his, and they grinned and leaped about together around the floor, joining hands or stepping around each other in lively time with the jaunty tune playing nearby. He laughed when Abélia did a particularly perky twirl, lifting her skirt and waving it a bit in play, and he exaggerated a couple of the bows to make himself more amusing to his dance partner. 

 

The music played on, and Jungkook felt himself being a bit winded by the dancing, which was unusual for him. He felt he should be a bit embarrassed by it, as it was likely due to less outdoor activity as of late, but when Abélia was pulled in closer again, her eyes sparkled up at him and she said, "Your steps are much improved in terms of grace, Jungkook. Have you been practicing? Or taken a secret tutor?" 

 

"Not much," he assured her. "I was in fact instructing our friend Se-- Monsieur Kim." 

 

"Oh? Does he not dance much?"

 

"I think he would, if he would gain some confidence and give himself the chance," Jungkook supplied. "He is really very kind and funny, but he lacks a certain level of gumption with those he is not familiar with, I think. I feel as if he would act much more boldly, were it on someone else’s behalf." They parted each other for a moment in the dance, Abélia walking along the line of partners while Jungkook stood with his arm outstretched, so that it appeared the men were forming a line up and down the dance floor for the women to walk through. When they returned to each other, Jungkook finished. "I think his shyness is understandable, given his circumstances. I find I am a bit of an inspiration to him in that regard."

 

"You speak very highly of him, given his circumstances," Abélia stated, her voice light but a tone of more serious curiosity lying beneath her words as she smiled. "Are you very certain of such a pure and positive opinion?" 

 

Jungkook instantly felt a wave of protective defensiveness burst into his chest like an arrow, and he frowned. "Are you so certain of a tarnished or negative opinion? You have spoken with him this very night, after all."

 

"Jungkook, I'm not declaring an opinion on a man I have only spoken to once in my life," she stated calmly. "And I am not accusing anyone. I merely think that as your friend, it is understandable that I am concerned for your well-being. Will you not answer the question?"

 

Jungkook was quiet for a moment, considering how he should respond to her. Their dance for the moment had diverted into a much slower song, and they were walking a quiet circle about each other, hands outstretched and their palms laying flat against each other as they spun at a delicate tempo. 

 

"We have known each other all our lives, Abélia," Jungkook began. "You know my good opinion, a truly good opinion of mine, can only come through merit, not through age or status or demand. I have been with Seokjin for months now, and we have spent many hours together in cheerful and amicable company. We have had our disagreements, and we bicker often over both serious and ridiculous subjects." Jungkook chuckled a bit, glancing away. "He has not ever been a perfect man, and I could never see him as such, nor do I wish to. But I see in him a growing man who longs to change his fate and to do good into others, to live more like a purer soul than his own, if at all possible. I have seen him in sincere moments and I have seen him hide. So I cannot say he is perfect, but I can say that he is trying. My good opinion of him has been slowly earned through his actions, so if I am able to find that I can forgive him, I should think that others should, as well."

 

He looked up, and Abélia was smiling softly at him. They spun once more for their dance, and he bowed and she curtsied, and the beautiful Abélia had a tear which glistened in one bright and intelligent eye. 

 

"W-what is it?" Jungkook asked, concerned as they started to move off the dance floor, their song now ended. "What is wrong?"

 

"Oh, Jungkook," she said, giving a bit of a hollow-sounding laugh. She took both of his hands in hers, clasping them within hers. "I feel you have met a soul which matches yours and challenged you in all the most fascinating of ways. I still worry for your safety and well-being, but at the very least I can be assured that you are happy." She squeezed his hands tighter, and leaned in to quietly say, "That being said, if ever you need help, you know how to find an inconspicuous way to alert me, I am sure. Do not hesitate to call on me at any hour of the day. If you do not signal me, I will assume that things for you are continuing along this unique and beautiful road as it is." She smiled, and reached out a hand, laying her palm very delicately against Jungkook's cheek. He could see that Abélia was quite emotionally distraught, however calm and sweet her words seemed. He did not understand the way that tears continued to silently streak their way down her beautiful cheeks, dipping into the curved of the smile she must have been wearing for his sake. She blinked, her long eyelashes releasing further tears, and sighed at him. 

 

"I wish you all due happiness, Jungkook." Her words sounded strange, like a deep and meaningful goodbye. She hesitantly lowered her hand from his cheek, and released his hands. "I must take my leave of you now, dear Jungkook. You know where to find me, if you should need me."

 

"Ah, yes..." Jungkook stared after her as she walked away, a bit confused but sensing a heaviness to the air around them. "Thank you, Abélia. For all you have done and are doing."

 

"Of course, my love," she smiled, waving over her shoulder. "Take care."

 

And off she vanished into the crowd. Jungkook remained in the spot he was, staring forward, utterly baffled. The noise of the music and the many conversations surrounded him, and occasionally someone bumped accidentally against his arm as they passed, mumbling an apology. 

 

Jungkook felt as though much more had transpired in his dance with Abélia than the surface discussion would have allowed transparency toward. He swallowed, feeling a sting of regret pierce through his stomach. He needed to be more observant of others' feelings and of their positions in relation to himself, he felt. After all, as he had stated, they had known each other their whole lives. If anyone was to understand the mystery of Jungkook's mannerisms or his internal workings, or of Abélia's, he supposed it would best be each other. 

 

But things change, as he had been told, and seasons bring with it new revelations, new beginnings, but also new deaths and endings. That was something people did not mention, when they talked about how opportunities knock and that new doors may open to you; they failed to mention that sometimes, to open one new door was to close an old one. That taking a new path in one's life meant that some things are, inevitably, neglected or left behind altogether. 

 

His shoulders slumped a bit, and he finally turned around to begin his search for Seokjin, as well as to continue keeping an eye out for his brother, whom he had not seen nor heard from across the evening. 

 

This time, finding Seokjin took a much more significant portion of time than he had expected, based on his first experience hunting him down. He was quietly sitting in one corner, somehow privy to being on the edges of a conversation between some half a dozen different people, and he was holding a drink in one hand with a bit of a nonchalant expression. There was a lady talking quite animatedly next to him, and it sounded as though she was trying to convince Seokjin to do her a favor, her head tilted just so with a coy smile plastered on her face. 

 

Jungkook neared the series of chairs, and then hesitated. He saw Seokjin lean in to a handsome young gentleman to his other side, and he saw an amused smile flicker across the beast's face for a moment. He thought back to what Abélia had said, mentioning happiness and a well-matched but challenging soul. He felt his palms and cheeks begin to heat with embarrassment for a conversation which had already transpired and been completed. At that moment, Seokjin happened to glance up and spotted Jungkook standing nearby, clenching and unclenching his fists where he stood watching on. 

 

"Jungkook!" Seokjin stood up, then seemed to eagerly bid the other group members a swift goodbye, apologizing with the excuse that his friend seemed to be requiring him at the moment, before he swept away with Jungkook away from the corner. When they were well out of earshot, Seokjin leaned in and murmured, "Thank goodness you showed up when you did. I think that lady was hoping I would tell her the sum of my inheritance for some devious plot she was contriving."

 

Jungkook smiled. "I would not be surprised, with the way you hold yourself and the make of your clothes. You emanate an aura of being rich sometimes, you know."

 

"Do I? Well sometimes you emanate an aura of being a rebellious brat," teased Seokjin lightly. 

 

Rolling his eyes, Jungkook stepped easily next to Seokjin as they wandered the edges of the party. 

 

"You seem to be enjoying yourself quite to the full extent to which one can utilize their first party, Seokjin. How do you feel about it?"

 

"Fairly enough," he responded. "Although I could do less with the niceties, I have had some interesting discussions and have met some fascinating people."

 

"As you should at a party more than anywhere else," Jungkook agreed. "I am glad it has been a positive experience for you, my friend. You still must have a dance, however."

 

Seokjin paused for a moment, his steps slowing as they came into the large doors of the grand ballroom.

 

"May I inquire," Seokjin said quietly, "As to whether or not you would consider the validity of my having a dance, if it should be you with whom I ask?"

 

Jungkook blinked, and then laughed. "Why! You really would use me as a way to weasel out of overcoming that level of shyness which retains you? I understand you perfectly."

 

Seokjin said nothing to this needling comment, and only remained staring at Jungkook, waiting for his answer. 

 

"I suppose it still counts. At least for your first dance, although it must be awkward to dance with me, after all."

 

"I would not even consider it awkward for a moment, to dance with you," Seokjin said easily. "I would be honored."

 

And so then he bowed, extending a hand for Jungkook to accept, and they stepped out onto the dance floor together, getting into position for the next dance as the fiddle-player on his seat took a moment to acquire a drink. They stood, facing each other, and Jungkook could feel eyes on them and could hear people starting to murmur nearby, catching little whispers of his name. 

 

The first notes of the music rang out, and Seokjin carefully took Jungkook's hand in his, and Jungkook realized that he did not even truly mind how hairy and monstrous the hand seemed - to him, the home was gentle and reassuring. They began their steps just in time to the beat, and Seokjin's posture was devoted and well-suited to the song, and he clapped and swept around the floor with a grace Jungkook had never witnessed in him before. The faces around them, the voices he had been listening to but a moment before, seemed to blur and fade away into obscurity, as ripples in a pond do to one's reflection in the water. Seokjin's eyes rarely left him, keeping his focus entirely on his dance partner while retaining a level of grace and sophistication to his very posture. Each time their hands touched, as never before, Jungkook's breath caught in surprise, like he was expecting something strange or unnatural to happen. But it was only Seokjin, and only Seokjin's touch.

 

Only Seokjin! If that were but capable of describing all that he was. 

 

His feelings were a turbulent mix of emotions. Why had he felt the need to defend Seokjin so animatedly to Abélia? Why did he not have any specific reasons why? It was not just because Seokjin was kind to him, or that he had a pleasant sort of humor which matched Jungkook's in a way that was hard to find in the world. It wasn't for any singular reasons which he could logically place a bookmark on for explanations later. Even as they stood, not speaking, and danced, their eyes met and it felt to Jungkook as though they had figured out, over much trial and error, a silent mode of communication. He started to seriously wonder if Seokjin could hear his very thoughts, if he could sense how unsettled and confused Jungkook felt during that dance, as a thousand flutters started up in the pit of his stomach in a most distracting manner.

 

The song ended, and Jungkook realized that he did not even remember completing half of the steps. Seokjin gave a deep bow to him, smiling.

 

"Thank you very much, Jungkook, for offering me this one dance."

 

Jungkook gave a bit of a laugh, confused. Seokjin looked up, past Jungkook's shoulder, and gave a wry look. "What are you talking about?" Jungkook asked. "You say that like it's the only dance we'll have a chance to..."

 

He slowly trailed off, hearing voices stirring behind him, a break in the music that allowed a din of murmurs to rise. Seokjin smiled at him, stepping forward and meeting Jungkook's eyes squarely as he swept him off the dance floor and over into a further, darker corner. The dark eyes sparkled but they looked unbelievably sad, even though his lips were curved upwards.

 

"I had already decided some time ago that, come spring, I would let you go back to your family, Jungkook," Seokjin said. "But after seeing your excitement for the ball, and hearing you speak of your friends and family which you had left behind, I don't have the heart to detain you even for a moment onger, so... this was indeed our last dance."

 

"What are you talking about?"

 

Seokjin stepped back. "I'm sorry for all that I did. I do not expect you or your family to forgive me for jumping to one of the most pathetic assumptions, but I can't say that I am sorry that we have met, even though that is a bit selfish on my part."

 

The young man shook his head, moving forward to follow after Seokjin. "You're being ridiculous. I still have months and months to pay off before I go, don't you remember?"

 

"After all the light you've given me in just a few months, it would be practically a sin for me to keep you to myself any longer, Jungkook. I promise you, there won't be any retribution. You have come to know me and trust my words. You are free."

 

For some reason, the words did not rest within the cavity of his chest in quite the way he would have thought they should. He clenched his fists, standing there completely dumbfounded.

 

"Jungkook!" called a voice behind him. Instantly, Jungkook knew it was Junghyun, making his way through the crowd toward them.

 

Seokjin took hold of Jungkook's shoulders, squeezing them slightly. "I must go. I have called your brother here to collect you. I will have all of your things sent to you - please do not do me the injustice of rejecting them, as they were for you to keep from the start. All I wish is for you to remember me, even if it is not so prosy a memory of me which you may yet hold."

 

"Seokjin, wait, I--" Jungkook began, but Seokjin gave him a bit of a shove backward, until he had to take a step or two to balance himself. The beast slipped off through the crowd, disappearing as he left by a wide doorway. Jungkook moved forward to follow him, but was grabbed from behind by none other than his brother.

 

"Jungkook, thank god you're safe!" Junghyun cried out, causing people around them to step away from them and stare in amazement. Junghyun clutched his brother as though his life depended on it, silent tears already streaming down the woodcutter's face. "Oh thank god, did he hurt you? If he hurt even a hair on your head I swear upon God that he will rue the day. A curse upon his house, if it is not already in full capacity for curses!"

 

"Hold on, Junghyun! Seokjin, wait!" Jungkook slid his arm from his brother's, fighting against his clutch of a hold before he turned the corner he had last seen the beast, finding that a side doorway had been left ajar, and no sign in the darkness of the lawn outside bore any resemblance to his poor, wretched beast.

 

🌹🌹🌹

 

The return journey home was, in a strange sense, one of the more difficult treks of Jungkook's life. His brother, who held closely to him and apologized profusely for the whole 'damned affair,' as he called it, whisked Jungkook off into the night as soon as they could, hurrying Rapunzel down the familiar path.

 

As though in a daze, Jungkook sat, chilled to the bone, behind Junghyun on the saddle, hugging his brother from behind and shivering as they hurried home.

 

The little cottage was there, as it had always been. With the creak in the door and the warm hearth inside. The smell of wood and of wool.

 

"You must tell me everything, when you're better rested," Junghyun said, wrapping a blanket around Jungkook to ward off the chill. "I'm so glad you're home. I've missed you so."

 

"I've missed you too," Jungkook managed to squeak out, still in shock. His brother had him sit down on the chair, simply holding his brother's hand and squeezing it. Jungkook stared at the fireplace, and Junghyun stared at Jungkook. Long, heavy minutes passed in the silence, and Jungkook felt his image of the beast had been warped, like a bent mirror.

 

"Are you... are you actually alright?" Junghyun asked. "You don't seem well."

 

"No, I..." Jungkook was not sure how he felt about being back so suddenly, when but a few hours ago he had been living in the beast's mansion, riding to the ball with him in their shared coach. Just earlier that evening he had been accompanying a close friend to his first party, encouraging him and taking part in bright conversation. Now, he sat in the dark, feeling as though he had been injured in some strange sense, or as though something had been ripped from his very hand. He swallowed, and looked to Junghyun. "I'm home," he said at last. "That's all that matters."

 

"Absolutely," Junghyun agreed. He moved forward, embracing Jungkook.

 

"I'm glad you are well," he finally managed to say. "I was looking for you the whole night at Abélia's."

 

"I had not received word that you would be there until this evening, and then I rushed off immediately to collect you."

 

"Word?"

 

"Yes, there was an urgent message delivered by this young woman, she said it was most pertinent I should read it. I was told that you were freed of the beast's captivity and that I would find you there this very evening."

 

"I see..." Jungkook mumbled, mostly to himself. "So he really did plan the entire thing..." He shook his head, as though to be rid of the thoughts and the messy strands of his emotions. It was time to focus on some more important questions, for the moment. "How are our parents? Have you heard or seen from them lately?"

 

"I went to see them a few weeks after I left you," Junghyun explained. "I was well enough not long after I got home. When I got to them, they were doing pretty poorly, so I was at my wit's end, not being able to hear or see from you, and not being able to tell you about our parents. But a couple of months ago, there was a donation to the hospital, and they were able to bring in more medicine and a lot more supplies in general, and the hospital informed me there would be no more fees in the foreseeable future for their stay there. I was completely thrown aback, but it does no good to look a gift horse in the mouth, so I accepted it at that time. Since then, they have been doing much better. We may be able to bring them home in the spring, if things continue as they are."

 

Jungkook felt tears welling up in his eyes, and he nodded, biting his lip. "That would be wonderful."

 

"Yes! Especially now that you're home and that we can be together as a whole family again! Thank god for whatever miracle brought you home tonight!"

 

Despite the fervor of his brother's exhalations, Jungkook did not have the heart to tell him that it was the beast himself who had freed Jungkook, who had informed Junghyun that he needed to go and fetch his brother, who had decided to apologize for the whole situation. Hearing what had happened with their parents, he suspected that Seokjin had had his hand in that affair, too, what with the way he was quietly and determinedly trying to make amends for the past.

 

Jungkook realized that he had not even had the chance to say goodbye. He had also not kept his promise to Celeste, either.

 

"I think I shall go to bed now," Jungkook said quietly. 

 

"What are you going to do with those?" Junghyun asked. He was looking at Jungkook's fancy and elaborately-designed party clothes, which seemed to glimmer as though made of gold pieces themselves, in a strange contrast to the rest of the house and his brother. Jungkook felt, for the first time, as though he were the out-of-place one in their humble cabin. He did not look as though he belonged here; at least not anymore.

 

"I shall just place them aside in a storage box, most likely," he said slowly. "They were given to me in good faith, and besides, it would be nice to not have to accept a proper suit on loan from Abélia's father at future parties, I suppose."

 

He also wanted to remember this night. He wanted to remember Seokjin, as he had been asked to.

 

"I suppose that makes sense. It does look rather gaudy and bright, does it not? But that suits Abélia's parties."

 

Jungkook did not reply to this, merely removing the jacket and then moving over to the fire to remove the breeches and tights, before he pulled on his old clothes. Each article was very tenderly folded away and placed into his room, before he began to get ready for bed. Junghyun hovered about in the main room for a long time, fidgeting and poking at the fire to busy himself, obviously disbelieving that Jungkook was really and truly home. Jungkook noted that the front door was not only locked, but that a wooden bar had been placed across it, as though Junghyun was terrified that his brother would be stolen away in the middle of the night.

 

No one knew better than Jungkook how unfounded that fear was, as he knew with every fibre of his being that Seokjin would keep his word, and that he would not be coming after either brother nor their family in regards to the forgiven debt of the roses.

 

Eventually, his brother fell asleep in the front room, curled up near the fire and sprawled around the doorway to Jungkook's lean-to bedroom. Jungkook also went to sleep, awkwardly tossing and turning on the uncomfortable mess of a bed, and shivering slightly in the chill of the winter's night in the drafty cottage.

 

He had to keep reminding himself that he was happy to be back home, whatever the circumstances of going home were. Certainly, he wished he could have had a proper goodbye with Seokjin, or that he had had some warning of the release prior. But it was good that he was back home, and free to go wherever he pleased, and able to be a proper and useful woodcutter able to serve his family in the future.

 

But he still felt a very real and terrible pang of regret when he realized that he would most likely never see Celeste again, or Philippe or Marguerite. That he would never wake up in the warm, comfortable bed to a bright sun, with a relaxed and lazy way about him as he started his morning. He felt awful that he had been a trouble for so long, and could not even end the adventure with a thank-you to them for their sincere efforts and their devoted hearts.

 

He had none of that, as he lay in the dark, and told himself that it was good to finally be home again, after all those weeks of longing and boredom.

 

When Jungkook slept, he dreamt of Seokjin dancing, of the smiles he had borne at the party. He thought of Abélia's tears, and what they insinuated, and he thought of the long, dark, and painfully cold race on horseback home to their family cottage. Instead of arriving at their house, however, each time the horse would get near enough that she should have trotted into their front yard, instead there would be a great black abyss that was freezing and endless. Being within it felt to Jungkook like drowning silently, and he would wake up in the dark with his heart racing in his chest, and the air so cold around him that he could see a dim puff around his mouth every time he exhaled.

 

This continual cycle of sleeping nightmares and then cold, anxious wakings eventually and inevitably lead to the dawn of a new day, when a frost lay on the grounds around the cottage and made the grass crunch beneath the weight of Rapunzel's hooves. The birds did not sing on such mornings, and a grim and blue-grey quiet blanketed the earth as a cloudy sky loomed overhead. Jungkook had not slept well, and when he awoke, he found that to his surprise, he felt like weeping, hard and sincerely. He did not understand this state of affairs, and it continued to bother him as the feeling dragged on through the morning; the opposite of what he had wished for.

 

His brother went about his day as they always had, stoking the fire to warm up the cottage and preparing them breakfast. Jungkook stared down at his plate, and he thought of Celeste's cooking. He thought of their card games together and of how lovingly she had made every hot biscuit and course. He had to bite his lip to force the tears back as he listened to Junghyun's utensils clack against his dish with a lack of self-awareness.