The man chuckled outside my cell door. I didn’t need to raise my head to know who it was; I’d grown to recognize the voice alone.
Not that looking up would have told me anything. My vision had faded to black long ago. All for the better. I did not want to see what the world had become.
“Your friends left before we could even tell them about you,” the man chortled at me. “Such a crying shame that they’ll never know.”
“I would rather them believe me dead.” My voice was harsh, raspy from disuse. “I am of no use to them now.”
“Such a pity party.” A second voice had joined the first, one of his more talkative cronies. “Look at you, just sitting there, saying you’d be better off dead to your friends.”
“I have made that choice once before. I do not hesitate to do it again. I remember the pain it brought them before.” It had been a knife in my gut every time I’d said that Rika was dead. To know that I was lying…to see Yoosung’s face…it was no wonder I could barely speak to him after. I’d avoided him. I couldn’t see that pain. Couldn’t bear the hatred in his eyes, knowing that he held me responsible for his cousin’s suicide.
And had I not caused it all, in the long run? Would Rika have turned the way she did if I hadn’t been there, urging her in whatever direction I had? How much had I done, simply in my desire to love her? I’d wanted the world for her. I wanted her to see the beauty I saw in her each and every time I looked at her. I’d wanted… I’d wanted so much. I’d tried to give it to her. But her dreams were too big, too impossible, too painful. What she wanted couldn’t be…and when I desperately tried to reel her back, she lashed against me. Turned to self-harm. Spiraled into depression. I tried to protect my friends. I tried to protect myself…and I tried to protect her. I just didn’t know how.
It hadn’t been entirely a lie, to say that Rika had killed herself. The person they all knew as Rika had died by that point. She was no longer the woman they knew. …I hoped that simply wasn’t my way of justifying my actions. I did believe it was true.
“Oh yeah, of course. Didn’t you tell everyone that the Savior was dead?” Leader cackled. “Of course. You tried to hide it all. Tried to push aside Magenta…make our paradise fail.”
“I tried to save her,” I forced myself to say, but my voice was failing me.
The men just laughed. “You’re worthless, pretty boy. You’re a photographer with no eyes. The girl you loved left you a long time ago, and now she’s completely gone from everyone. You ruined our paradise the first time, but we’ll find our way back. Magenta is waiting.”
“Magenta is waiting,” Second echoed.
“Let Magenta wait,” I murmured back. “It’s not going anywhere.”
“Like you, huh?”
I had no response to that.
It had been strange, when Jaehee, Rion, and Chrissy had all been brought to the building. I’d known better than to say anything and risk them hearing me; because of course they did believe me to be dead, and for good reason. There had been a brief period of time where I had been dead, the bullet coming dangerously close to damaging me irreparably. I didn’t blame Saeran. Not at all. Every step I’d taken with the Choi twins, I’d known it was going to come back and bite me. I’d hoped we were doing something good. I’d hoped at least one of them… But I should have seen the way Rika had been talking to him. I should have known. I should have done something.
I could bury myself in the things I should have done, should have said. It would be fitting, to die buried by regrets.
As that had begun to unravel…I couldn’t bring myself to speak to Saeyoung. Couldn’t answer his questions. I knew what he wanted from me, and I knew that I couldn’t give it to him without completely betraying everything he’d come to believe about me. And yes, I deserved that anger, his feeling of betrayal–because I had done just that. I had betrayed my friend. I had taken him away from his brother and made promises I could not begin to know how to keep.
And I had watched as my once-fiancée took his twin, and warped him into something he never should have been. All I could do was beg her not to take any more of our friends. My friends. I didn’t know her feelings anymore.
If I could give my life to ensure that Saeran could be healed…that he and his brother could be reunited and begin to heal…I would do it without question. I did not deserve the life I had. But for as long as I could hold on to it, I would do everything that I could to make it up to those I’d hurt.
I did not expect Yoosung to ever forgive me. Much as I would have given to repair what small relationship we’d ever had, I did not see him permitting me back into his life. And as much as it grieved me to say it, I would allow him that. I’d never shut him out. But I’d allow him to shut the door on me. I’d deserve it.
I hadn’t known Jaehee well, nor Rion or Chrissy. I’d seen Jaehee through Jumin’s work, primarily, and the work she did with RFA. I’d always had a fondness for her. Anyone who could persevere as well as her under the iron fist of my friend was certainly well within my respect. And Jumin returned that respect, though sometimes you couldn’t see it. The other two…I regretted not being able to meet them more thoroughly while they were there. The timing was abhorrent. Just from what little I knew of the two, I believe we all could have gotten along well. I could only hope that I might have that chance again.
Hyun…I didn’t know. Zen and I had gotten along well enough, but I’d always felt like we kept each other at arm’s distance. He seemed the type of person who you could be incredibly close friends with him…and realize belatedly that you’d never really gotten past his inner wall. I didn’t know what he would say…how he would react. There was too much unknown. Add in to all that the fact that he was an actor, and a highly skilled one at that…he could make me believe anything he wanted. And I would not know him well enough to know if he was truthful or not.
The final two members of my erstwhile fundraising group…they were the ones who truly broke my heart. The ones I had done the most damage to. Jumin, my long-time friend. One of the few people I knew from childhood who I still spoke to. The silent force behind anything I did, the foundation to my photography. Even if he never said a word, I knew he stood behind me. I knew he supported what I did. And yes, I knew that he was…perhaps more fond of Rika than he ever wanted to say. What could I say? Not only could I not pretend that she didn’t have the magnetism she had been born with…but who was I to turn Jumin Han away from one of the only people he had ever connected with? I couldn’t do that to my friend. I couldn’t bear to break his heart, and look so much like I didn’t trust him. I did trust him. I knew that Rika was safe with him, because he would never move beyond what was socially “right.”
And what had I done? Abandoned my friend, kept him in the dark, refused help when he offered it to me because I had locked myself into some idiotic martyr complex because I refused to believe that my fiancée was as mentally lost as she was…and I’d betrayed him. To the very end, I fought for Rika…and that meant fighting against my friends. I knew what had to be happening, as soon as the first “attacks” on RFA’s information happened. I knew it had to be Rika, and Mint Eye. I wanted more than anything to keep it all hidden. I didn’t want anyone to know how far we’d fallen. God…I couldn’t forgive myself. How could I expect him to try?
And then, of course… Saeyoung. My self-crafted secret agent 707, baptized in my home parish with the name Luciel…in desperate hopes to give the Morningstar a happy ending. Every word I’d ever said to him had been crafted and planned. Everything we’d done had been scripted and plotted out. I hated myself for it, now. I don’t know what I thought I was accomplishing. What we were accomplishing. Rika believed she could help them. Take them from their pain and hellish home life and find peace somewhere else. I’d always assumed that it would all work out in the end.
But I trusted Rika far too much. I didn’t see far enough into the future, and I let her sway me. Let her rewrite my mind, my ideas. Let her steal my sight from me and let myself believe that I wanted it that way. I deserved it that way.
Seeing his name on my phone hurt far too much. I knew his questions. I wanted to answer them. But I couldn’t bear to hear his voice…hear him fall apart as he realized what we’d done to him.
What I’d done to him.
I didn’t know that I’d ever get a chance to make it up to them. My body was healing what it could, but there was only so much that I could do, locked away in a cell. I couldn’t make contact with the outside world, I couldn’t reach out to anyone. The only person who I thought might still talk to me was much too far away…and from what I had heard, was completely unreachable anyway.
I didn’t know that I wanted to go back to Rika. Even if I could…I don’t know that I loved her anymore. Not the way I did.
What would you do, Jihyun? It was a reasonable question. If I somehow managed to get myself out of this mess and find my way back to something I might call home, what would I do? Where would I go? Did I have anyone left to turn to? I wanted to change my mind. I wanted to take Jumin up on the offer to see if my eyes were salvageable, but I couldn’t remember the name of the doctor. Would I be able to find out without making contact with him? What would he say if I showed up in his office suddenly, re-emerging from the dead like a ghost from a spooky story?
Out of any of them, I believed Jumin would be the most willing to try to see it objectively.
But short of that…I didn’t know. Didn’t know where to go, who to turn to…where I could even begin to start rebuilding my life.
But that still meant I needed to get out of this facility. I needed to get away from the people who wanted to kill me for standing up against the woman I loved in a desperate attempt to save her from herself. Now…who would stand up for me?
My head was pounding. They’d ignored me as they tried to find their best way to attack the people I used to be able to call friends. The people who once trusted me. I only hoped they were smart enough to ignore their jabs. Smart enough to know that nothing good would come out of attempting anything to do with me…with them…anything. I couldn’t let them risk themselves any more over me. Over my mistakes.
God, what I wouldn’t give to go back and take this all away. To escape while I could.
But I knew I wouldn’t. Not even if I went back, because for all that time…and still now, to some small extent, I loved Rika too much. I knew that for her, my heart was broken and would not be mended. Even if we both changed…I could not return to her. But I would always love her. I didn’t think I could ever not love her, as flawed as she was.
As we both were.
I heard the door down the hall slam, and footsteps march up to my door. Three, maybe four men. I tilted my head, listening for any of the tell-tale signs of the ones I knew. It sounded like the leader was with them. He’d walked with a limp ever since Rion had escaped with Vanderwood.
“Well, photographer?” Leader’s voice came back to me, irritated. “You ready?”
“Ready? For what?” I was ready for a great deal of things. I wasn’t sure which he’d decided on.
The door to my cell opened, and hands grabbed roughly at my arms, dragging me to my feet. “For your performance, of course.”
My chest went cold. “Performance?” This could not end well.
They dragged me down the hallway and up the stairs, through hallways I’d never been down before. My sense of place was utterly lost–which, of course, I’m sure was the point of the matter. Finally I was pushed through a door, stumbling and failing to catch myself, collapsing to the floor. It’d been too long since I’d truly walked on my own. I felt my hands scrape on the concrete flooring.
“There. You wanted your proof? Here’s your proof. Living and breathing, even if he’s a poor excuse for it.” Leader was talking to someone, speaking loudly. It had to be a video call. Something like that. Who was watching? Why would anyone care? What good would it do to drag me in front of someone…?
“V.” One syllable and I felt myself shatter into pieces. I knew that voice, and I could not stop the tears from forming, and I only wished I still had my sunglasses to hide them.
I couldn’t speak. More than anything I wanted to respond and I could not make my mouth obey my mind.
“Why isn’t he speaking?” The voice on the line was sharp, even through the muffled tinny speakers. It made everything inside me twist.
“Good question.” I felt a boot collide with my shoulder, sending me back into the floor, temple smacking into the concrete hard enough to make my head spin. “Say something, reject.”
“Stop it.” The response was just shy of shouted. “You’ll get nothing from me if he’s hurt.”
“Hurt? He’s already dead, rich kid. I’m just keeping him on life support.”
There was a pause, and when he spoke again, his voice was softer. Personal. “V. Talk to me. Say something.”
He needed to know it was me. I knew why he wanted to hear me. They could get anyone roughly my build, dye his hair, make him act blind. But until he heard me, he’d never be convinced. What could I say? What would possibly convince him that I was who they claimed I was?
How many of these do you have? A distant memory of a conversation from years ago sprang into my head. I had to hope he remembered. He remembered some of the strangest things.
“Do I still have twenty spoons?” My voice was a wreck, cracking in all the wrong places. “I can’t remember if I mentioned them in my will.”
“What the hell are you babbling about?” Leader snarled, and though I heard footsteps approach me, they never made it.
“Stop!” There was a panic in his voice. He knew. He remembered. I knew I could count on him. “Leave him alone. I believe you.”
“Well, Han? Do we have a deal? One simple little trade. You know what we want, and I have what you want. Make the deal, and I let your friend go free.”
Deal? No, Jumin, please…I’m not worth it. Don’t trade anything for me, please. I couldn’t say anything, though. I knew that Jumin had already made up his mind, and hearing me beg would do nothing. If he’d gotten this far in any type of negotiation, he had a plan and probably two backup ideas.
“I’ll be there. I expect you to keep your end of the bargain.” I knew the steel in his voice. He had a plan. I believed in him.
I still wasn’t worth it, but I had to believe in him.
“Oh, we’ll be there. Just bring her and it’ll all be fine.”
Please know what you’re doing, Jumin…
It was only a matter of days before they brought me back out of the cell and into what felt like the outside. I hadn’t been outside in longer than I could remember. I could almost imagine the feeling of the sun on my skin, barely seeing the difference in light quality. Was whatever this trade was going to be happening outside? What was this plan?
I hadn’t been able to eat since I’d heard Jumin’s voice. It was all too good to be true. Something was going to come and ruin everything. I knew it. There was no way I would make it through this. I shouldn’t.
But I could hear the familiar sound of car tires crunching on gravel, and a car door opening–immediately making what sounded like a low female voice screaming.
“I swear to God you son of a bitch you will never get away with this how dare you fucking steal me out of my house and drag me around like I’m some damn trophy I fucking trusted you–I loved you?! What the hell are y–” The voice cut out with a sharp smack, and I flinched. I recognized the voice; it was Rion. The one they’d been the most eager to play with, the one connected to both Saeyoung and Jumin. Of course. The real target here wasn’t me or Jumin…it was Saeyoung. And the easiest way to get to him…was this.
How was Jumin betraying his friend? The person he apparently loved? It didn’t make sense.
“You speak to me like that again and I will make sure this transition goes less than smoothly.” Jumin’s voice was liquid poison, and my stomach churned at the sound. I’d never heard my friend sound like that in all the years I’d known him. Something was wrong. Something was very wrong.
“Now now, don’t harm the goods too much.” Leader chortled behind me. “We can still find use for her before we string her up for Seven to see.” I bit down on my tongue hard to keep from saying anything. I needed Jumin to work this plan, and I wasn’t going to interfere. I didn’t understand it, but…as always, I needed to trust my friend.
“Don’t worry. I haven’t done anything you can’t undo.” A thread of wicked glee snaked through his voice. “She’s not too tarnished.”
“I fucking hate you,” I heard Rion spit back. “I can’t believe I ever thought I loved you. I can’t believe Luciel trusted you. You’re nothing but a sleazy snake.”
“Sticks and stones, darling.” I could almost hear him pat Rion’s head, and they snarled. “Now. I give you her, and you release the photographer to me.”
“Sounds like a plan to me. Hell knows we’re not gonna get anywhere using him as leverage.” I felt a shove on my shoulder, but this one I had expected and managed to keep my balance. “You send her over, and I’ll send him.”
“The same time. Equal footing,” Jumin countered.
“Fine, why not. Go, reject.” He shoved me again and I took a few hesitant and wobbly steps forward. I could only hope I was walking in the right direction. A few paces more and I felt a hand on my arm.
“Don’t fucking touch me.” Rion’s voice was caustic and I flinched back but they caught me again and pulled me close to them. “This is all your fault.” Their grip tightened–and in a voice so low and fast I almost didn’t catch it, they added a few final words: “Don’t worry. We got this.” And then they were gone, walking past me.
“V. Here.” Jumin spoke up and I reoriented myself toward his voice, and kept walking. There was a strange peace now, after hearing Rion’s words. So calm and collected. It was an act. But how were they going to get back? There had to be an extraction plan! There was no way that the Jumin Han I knew was going to leave the person he loved–the person Saeyoung loved–in the hands of these lunatics. They’d gotten everyone out before. There had to be a plan.
A few paces later and I felt a hand catch my arm and pull me close. “Stay here.” I could feel my body shaking at the voice. The proximity. I was safe. Was I safe? Was this really happening? How could any of this be real? I was going to wake up again, locked in my cell, and be confronted with another lifetime of agony. Self-hatred. More time to analyze every mistake I’d made and how I could have prevented it.
But he spoke again, in a low tone almost matching Rion’s. “In a moment, I am going to pull down to the ground with me. I want you to cover your head, as if preparing for an explosion. Understood?”
“I…yes.” I nodded once, keeping my head lowered. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t see anymore. Habits died hard. I didn’t want to know what was happening in front of me. “Is Rion…?”
“It’s fine.” His tone brooked no argument, and I didn’t push further.
I heard Leader say something to Rion, which they didn’t seem to take well. “Well, thank you so very much, Mr. Han.” Leader’s voice was gleeful. It made me sick. “I’m sure you’ll be hearing about us again.”
“A pleasure doing business with you.” His grip tightened on my wrist, and I tensed, waiting for the cue.
A moment later, I heard Jumin hiss “now” and pull me down with him. Not ten seconds later, a huge explosion went off to my left–the direction of the building. I could hear cursing from the Mint Eye members.
“Get up, get up,” Jumin urged me, and I clambered to my feet the best I could, but a few steps later I heard him pause. “Rion!” No response. “Dammit. Here. Get in, fast.” He set my hand on a car door handle and I heard him run off.
I didn’t want to just get in the car without him, but without my sight, there was nothing I could do to help. I climbed in the car.
A lifetime later, the door opposite me opened, and I heard someone in pain. “Shh, shh, it’s fine.” Jumin’s voice was low, but shaking. “Get us to the hospital. Now.”
“Yes sir.” I recognized Jumin’s usual driver’s voice speak from in front of me, and the car peeled off.
Rion–it had to be, by process of elimination–was still gasping in breaths. “Ow, ow, son of a bitch Jumin ow…”
“I know. I’m sorry. God, I’m sorry. You’ll be fine.” I’d never heard him so distressed.
“Rion?” I reached out a hand and found a shoulder, and a hand raised to meet mine.
“Hey. I’m–ow ow ow–I’m okay. Just…aaaah, shit. Just my ankle.” Their voice was trying so hard to be cheerful. “Good to see you. Wish you could say that same.”
And for the first time in I couldn’t remember how long, I laughed. “I feel very much the same way.” I turned my head to where I assumed Jumin was. “And Jumin? I think I’m ready to have that conversation about that doctor you know.”