Jisung wakes to screaming.
At first, he thinks he's in his bed at home, being pulled out of sleep by the noises outside. Then he thinks it might have been his own voice screaming, stuck in a nightmare full of bombs and fire and monsters in the air.
Then he realizes it's Hyunjin.
He's out of bed and on his feet before he remembers his new old bones. Grimacing at the sharp pain shooting up his back he looks around, trying to locate Hyunjin. His eyes land on Minho instead, who is sitting behind his usual log in the fireplace, seemingly unperturbed by Hyunjin's wailing.
"What's wrong with him?" Jisung asks him, feeling helpless.
Minho flickers green for a second before returning to his usual warm orange. "He gets like this sometimes. It's not pleasant."
There's a thud upstairs, then a crash, like several glass bottles breaking at once. Minho makes a noise that sounds like a sigh. "Oh, here we go."
Jisung watches, incredulous, as Hyunjin comes barreling down the stairs, naked except for a towel wrapped around his waist. His shiny blonde hair is neither of those things now, coarse and messy and bleeding out an entire rainbow onto his skin. It looks like someone dumped a glass of used watercolour water on his head.
"Look at me," Hyunjin moans, leaning precariously over the edge of the stairwell, fingers pulling at the mess on his head, "look at me!"
Jisung does. It feels like he's done nothing but look at Hyunjin since he arrived at the castle. The effect he has on him is the same as every time - his stomach lurches, like he missed a step on a ladder, in time with his heart speeding up as if to present itself as Hyunjin's to take. If he wanted to.
"My spells are all messed up," Hyunjin says, crashing down the rest of the stairs and curling into a ball in front of the fireplace. The colours in his hair are slowly fading away to a bottomless, midnight black. Jisung hates how his face looks all wrong, twisted up in indignation. The air of confident serenity that usually surrounds him is gone.
The door rattles. Jeongin is standing in the entrance, the dial next to the door turned to Blue, his face ashen. Behind him, the seagulls in the sky above the little port town have been replaced by smoke. Jisung hears sirens and sees the edge of a warship disappear into the clouds.
"It's getting worse," Jeongin says, pulling off his cloak. "Hyunjin, did you see that?"
Hyunjin ignores him. "What's the point of living if you aren't beautiful?"
He lets out a sob. The look on his face cuts into Jisung's heart, the words hitting much, much too close to home. He thinks of Felix's face, and how it's a direct copy from their mother's face. How his eyes and freckles glow with the love and admiration they've received his entire life, while Jisung's plain features faded into the shadows.
Jeongin stumbles forward, taking Hyunjin by the shoulder. "Stop it," he whispers. "You need to stop."
Jisung doesn't quite realize what he means until he notices the light disappearing from the room, fleeing the slimy shadows creeping out of Hyunjin's body. Minho yelps as his fire goes dim in an instant, and suddenly all Jisung feels is rage.
"You're an ungrateful bastard," he yells at Hyunjin, tears springing to his eyes. "I've never been beautiful and I'm still alive, aren't I?"
And what kind of life it's been, he thinks bitterly. A life in the shadows. Unwanted, unseen, but alive.
Hyunjin doesn't answer. He's slumped over with his eyes closed, consumed in his own misery. The shadows have engulfed him completely.
"Help me get him upstairs," Jeongin says into the deafening silence, tugging at one of Hyunjin's arms. "Please, Jisung?"
Jisung angrily wipes at his eyes. He doesn't want to help, but he needs Hyunjin. He needs Howl, at his full capacity, so he can help him break the curse.
"Fine," he mumbles, gripping Hyunjin's other arm and dragging him upstairs, carefully not listening to the voice in his head, whispering how he's not sure he even wants to break the curse if it means he has to go back to his old life.
Hyunjin's eyes are closed when Jisung pokes his head into the bathroom. He looks calmer in the water, wet, ink black hair sticking to his skin. Jisung moves closer to check if his fingers are pruny - they're not, of course.
"Not beautiful," he mutters, sitting down on the cold tiles next to the bathtub. "Who the hell told you that?"
Hyunjin's hand feels limp in his. His fingers are long and bowed elegantly, almost like claws. That's how he'll pluck your heart out of your chest , his brain helpfully provides. I don't care , his heart whispers, beating against his ribs.
Jisung drops Hyunjin's hand and moves away slightly. What is he doing here, exactly? He needs Howl, not Hyunjin. He doesn't care about Hyunjin.
"I'm a coward. That's why you're better than me."
And yet - his voice, barely above a whisper, holds as much power over him as if his fingers had actually reached into his chest to hold him in place. Jisung takes a deep breath, and stays where he is.
"What do you mean?"
Hyunjin opens his eyes, shifting in the tub. A few droplets of water splash onto Jisung. "You're brave," he says.
Jisung scoffs. "I'm really not."
"I keep running away. All this junk - the names, the doors, the colours, it's just to keep me hidden."
"From who? The Witch of the Waste?"
Hyunjin shudders. "Him too, yes."
Jisung thinks of his own encounter with the witch. His rattling voice as he put the curse on him. He feels smaller than he is just recalling the witch's cold, cold stare.
"What does he want from you?"
Jisung startles so violently he shakes the bathtub. Some more of the water goes splashing over the edge. Hyunjin's heart? He feels uncomfortably warm, all of a sudden.
"Uh, are you two - "
"No, not like that," Hyunjin laughs weakly. He seems amused by the thought of the Witch of the Waste wanting his heart like that , but doesn't elaborate on any other ways he could want it.
"Who else are you hiding from?," he asks when it seems like Hyunjin is not going to explain his relation to the witch any further.
Hyunjin closes his eyes again and sinks a little lower, so most of his chin and mouth are submerged in water, only the curve of his cupid's bow showing. "I've been asked to see the king. He wants me to fight his wars for him."
He sounds bitter, the same kind of bitterness Jisung felt earlier when he thought about his old life. The sour taste of inevitability. Jisung wonders, suddenly, if Hyunjin has any family.
"And what do you want?"
Hyunjin dives into the water completely, his hair closing in on him like a dark cloud. Jisung counts twelve air bubbles rising and bursting at the surface before Hyunjin reappears, hair swept back from his face. He looks sad.
"Everything but that - I just want to be myself."
"I can't believe I'm doing this," Jisung says for the third time.
"I can," Minho snorts from the fireplace. Jisung glares at him from beneath the rim of his hat. Hyunjin spent a dizzying amount of magic on straightening out Jisung's outfit: his pants and jacket are fitted, their fabric smooth and elegant. He even gave the cane the scarecrow gave Jisung a new silver knob.
"Worthy of me," Hyunjin appraises, satisfied, and Jisung feels warm all over.
"Be careful," Jeongin calls from his seat next to Minho, sounding worried. Jisung turns around at the door to give the young boy his most reassuring smile. His attention is ripped away from how small Jeongin looks by Hyunjin taking his hand in his.
"For you," he says, slipping a ring adorned with a dark red gemstone onto his right index finger. Jisung allows himself one thought of how ugly his wrinkled hands look next to Hyunjin's elegant ones, and another one of how nice Hyunjin smells, now that all the sad, dark slime has washed off.
"This will keep you safe," Hyunjin explains. "And I'll also follow you in disguise, so don't worry, okay?"
It's not the king who I'm worried about , Jisung thinks but does not say, and then he's out on the cobbled street of the capital.
Jisung is not sure how he's envisioned another encounter with the Witch of the Waste to go, but it certainly wasn't this.
Staring at the twin puddles of black goo the witch's servants have dissolved into, he takes a cautious step back. The witch, sitting in his now useless palanquin, is seething.
"This damn witch," he mutters, gritting his teeth. "She's never had any respect!"
Jisung tries to breathe normally, subtly taking another step back. The witch's eyes are sharp and green like shards of broken bottle glass, and having their gaze directed at him seems like something he should avoid. The last time those eyes had met his, he'd been cursed.
"I guess both of us are going to have to climb these stairs," the witch concludes, stepping out of the palanquin. He's intimidatingly tall, black-clad form taking up more room and air than a normal person.
The stairs in question - they're endless. If Jisung squints, he can see two guards flanking the entrance to the castle at the end of it, but just looking up there makes him feel dizzy. The individual stairs look high enough that his old knees hurt from just looking at them. Almost unknowingly, Jisung takes another step back.
And nearly knocks himself out stumbling over an obstacle. Has that dog been there the entire time? Jisung looks down at it questioningly. The dog, a small, stocky thing with shaggy white and brown fur, looks back.
Jisung crouches down. "Hyunjin?"
The dog just stares at him. Jisung looks over the shoulder and sees that the witch has started climbing the stairs, huffing with every step, and makes a split-second decision.
"Where do you get all that energy from?," the witch wheezes as Jisung passes him, arms circled firmly around the dog as he stomps his feet on every step. It's heavier than it looks, and Jisung saves his breath instead of giving an answer. I'm eighteen years old, of course I have energy , he thinks and hopes that the witch can somehow hear his thoughts. He should know that, since he's the one who turned Jisung into an old man.
He makes it up two thirds of the stairs before he has to take a break. His lungs feel like he's sat in the six o'clock train's coal smoke for an hour and the dog seems to weigh a million pounds.
Don't look down , the dog seems to say. Jisung swallows and very carefully does not look down. He can see the entrance to the castle more clearly now, lined with soldiers in blue and red. He doesn't look back (he can't) but he can hear the witch's laboured breathing, dark presence creeping closer.
"Next time follow me disguised as a bird," Jisung tells the dog who might be Hyunjin, just in case, and starts his way up the rest of the stairs.
The reception hall could have fit Jisung's entire house and hat shop, and Howl's castle next to it. The ceilings are so high he feels dizzy again looking up, so he quickly focuses back on the soft tap-tap-tap of the dog's paws hitting the gold floor.
The witch is still breathing hard. It's strange - he looks a lot smaller now, and the outlines of his person are weirdly smudged. It gives Jisung a queasy feeling in his stomach, so he turns away when they both reach a smaller section at the end of the hall, where the witch sinks down onto the single chair deposited in the middle of the room.
His eyes land on a narrow gold door. The dog is standing in front of it, wagging its tail, looking very much like he wants Jisung to go over there and open the door.
"Hyunjin," Jisung tries, as quietly as he can. "Come back."
The dog doesn't budge. Jisung steals a glance at the witch, who is now slumped over in his chair. The air around him seems to be vibrating, anticipating something… something big. Something unsettling.
Jisung gulps. "Okay, time to go," he whisper-shouts at the dog and yanks the door open.
"Oh, my," the woman in the wheelchair says. "Who do we have here?"
She's dressed in dark red robes, holding a long wooden staff in her right hand. There's a blanket spread across her lap like she gets cold easily, but the glint in her eyes betrays the fragile look.
A shiver runs down Jisung's back. Five seconds ago, he wanted to get as far away as possible from the Witch of the Waste and the strange humming in the air, but now he feels the urge to turn on his heel and go right back.
"Hello," he manages, stepping closer. "My name is Jisung. Hyu- Howl sends me."
The woman regards him with a distant sort of curiosity. "And why would he send you, when the king has asked for him ?"
Jisung tries to force down the pained blush spreading across his face. This is a good question, one he would like the answer to as well. He asks instead, "who are you?"
The woman smiles. "I'm Suleiman. I'm the creator of all that you see -" Jisung follows her sweeping gesture around the room, from the jungle of plants to the greenhouse glass ceiling, "- and the owner of this one."
She points to something next to Jisung's feet and he looks down, sputtering as the dog huffs and calmly walks over to Suleiman's side. She sinks her long fingers into its fur and smiles.
Jisung is pretty sure his eyes are going to bulge out of his head. Under Suleiman's hands, the dog contorts and expands, until he's transformed into a young boy around Jeongin's age. His hair is cut in a straight line across his forehead and he's wearing a schoolboy's uniform.
"Seungmin," Suleiman calls gently, patting the boy on the head, "be a dear and bring in the witch."
The boy , no, Seungmin, nods and walks off. He shoots a quick glance at Jisung as he passes him, but it's too fast for Jisung to react. Jisung feels distantly betrayed, for having carried the dog all the way up the stairs.
"So Howl won't be joining us then?"
Jisung forces himself to look into Suleiman's eyes. He's not that great at lying, but he practiced this with Hyunjin before leaving, with Minho's occasional snarky comment in the background. "No. He's not in town right now, and he won't be for a while."
He clears his throat, careful to keep eye contact. "He won't be joining the king's army."
Suleiman regards him steadily. "I see. It's a shame, he was my best apprentice before he left. He could have been a great heir to my position, to help make this kingdom even greater."
Jisung shifts uncomfortably in his chair. Suleiman keeps going, pinning Jisung down with her stare. "But then he made a pact with a demon and abandoned me. Now he uses his magic for selfish reasons instead of the greater good. And he's out of control. He's dangerous, too powerful for someone with no heart."
Jisung hears the door open behind him, but he doesn't dare to look. He hears footsteps approaching. "If he keeps going," Suleiman says, "he'll end up like the Witch of the Waste."
The footsteps stop. Jisung turns and sees Seungmin and a servant, carrying someone around Jisung's height. The person's hair is the same ashen colour as his face.
"Do you recognize him?"
Jisung furrows his brows, then jumps to his feet. The Witch of the Waste is nothing but a shadow of his former self. His clothes hang loose on his now much smaller frame, and the cold light in his green eyes looks splintered and unfocused. He looks nothing like the witch who put the curse on him. Jisung turns to Suleiman with a lump in his throat.
"What did you do to him?"
Suleiman tilts her head. "Don't you see? I've stripped him of his powers. His demon devoured him whole a long time ago, first his heart and then his soul. Really, I've done him a service - now he's free."
Jisung's heart is beating painfully in his chest as he gets to his feet and raises his chin. "I understand now why Howl didn't want to come here. Why would he give up everything he has to work for you?"
He thinks about Hyunjin's sad eyes when he said that he just wants to be himself. About how Jeongin clings to him, and how his castle is open and warm and full of hidden surprises. About how his fingers felt between his, old and young, and how his words made him feel safe during their first encounter.
"You call him heartless, but he's not. He cares about others and about being happy. Why would you want to take that away from him? And he won't turn into an evil monster. Yes, he can be selfish, but he's also strong. He's not like you, or the Witch of the Waste, he's good !"
He's breathing heavily by the time he's finished. His cheeks are hot and his heart is pulsing in waves, out for everyone to see.
"You may be right," Suleiman says after a pause. "Howl is not heartless. He doesn't have a heart of his own, but he has yours."
It feels like a slap in the face. "What?"
"You love him," she says matter-of-factly. "You love Howl."
The no, I don't is on the tip of Jisung's tongue. It grows in his mouth, until it's too big to spit out, and transforms into I can't love him. My heart is mine, I've worked so hard to keep it. He says neither.
Something tugs at his sleeve. He looks down and sees the Witch of the Waste, or what's left of him, grasping blindly at nothing. "Howl?," he asks, sounding frazzled. "Where is he?"
"Not here," Jisung manages.
Suleiman laughs drily. "I wouldn't be so sure about that."
The servant who came in with Seungmin earlier takes a step forward and bows. "Ever so perceptive, madam."
"I saw right through you the second you stepped in."
Hyunjin takes off his hat, black locks falling down to his shoulders. Jisung catches a gold-green glimpse of his earrings and feels the tiniest bit reassured through the haze of shock and embarrassment. Did he hear everything Suleiman said about Jisung and his heart? Does he agree?
"I have no wish to fight," Hyunjin says diplomatically, looping an arm around Jisung's shoulders. "You know my answer. We'll be leaving then."
Suleiman sighs as if she's bored, looking at Hyunjin like he should really know better. "I won't let you."
Her staff knocks on the ground, one, two, three times. Hyunjin's grip on Jisung's shoulder goes painfully tight, and then everything is swallowed by darkness.