Eighteen

Small Universes Around Us
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Seoul University — — 2020

When you’re free-falling, the worst feeling is when you reach your hand out and close your fist, hoping to grab onto something that will stop you from hitting the ground. 

And then realizing there’s nothing there to hold onto. 

Taeyong felt that helpless, frantic spiraling when Haeun turned the corner and he was left scrambling with the realization that somehow the roles had reversed and his soulmate had completely forgotten who he was other than the guy in one of her classes. 

He wasn’t sure how long he stood in front of her door, swaying in a daze. It wasn’t until Mark turned the corner and walked toward him that he snapped out of his trance and braced himself. 

“Mark?” He called softly.  

The said boy blinked at him, nudging a pair of circle frames up his nose, “Yeah? Oh, you’re from NCT, right? Did Jaehyun send you? Make sure Haeun doesn’t see you, she’s going to lose it if she thinks he’s trying to recruit me.”

Taeyong couldn’t match his teasing smile and just felt his hands tremble, “Do you know my name?”

“Uh…no, sorry, I don’t know too many of the NCT guys other than Jaehyun, Johnny and Doyoung.” He said skeptically. “What’s your name?”

Taeyong took a step back like he was punched in the gut before turning on his heel and racing out of the apartment. Mark watched him run before tilting his head.

“Weird guy.”

-----

Taeyong ran across campus, ignoring everyone who cast him curious looks when they saw him sweating before he barged into the frat house. 

He heard his name being called but none of it registered as he climbed the stairs and swung open Jaehyun’s door. 

Nayoon was sitting on Jaehyun’s bed, Jaehyun was sitting by his desk and they both froze mid-sentence when Taeyong nearly keeled over. “Taeyong? What's wrong?"

“Your Highness.” He blubbered out, his eyes watering. 

Jaehyun shot up in seat, Nayoon staring in silent shock, “Taeyong? I told you not to call me Your Highness when we’re alone.”

Taeyong let out a strangled sound of relief before stumbling into his friend’s arms with sob, “Thank the Gods.”

“I can’t believe this.” Jaehyun whispered, his eyes wide with shock, “Y-You remember. You finally remember. This…this is amazing.”

Nayoon launched off the bed, her arms wrapping around the both of them, “I’m so happy.”

Jaehyun laughed joyfully, “ing finally. Took you long enough. The family’s finally all back together.”

He pulled back, his gleeful smile falling at the sight of distress written over his friend’s face with tears down his cheeks, “What’s wrong?”

“She doesn’t remember.” His voice cracked as he heaved. 

Nayoon’s face crumpled, “No, that doesn’t make sense. Just yesterday she was talking to me.”

“You both knew?” Taeyong asked, confused. 

Jaehyun nodded, leading his friend to take a seat on his bed, “Yeah, me, Nayoon, Mark, Haeun and some of Haeun’s friends she used to travel with all remembered. You’re saying she doesn’t anymore?”

“I remembered this morning when I thought about the date we were supposed to have. I ran to her place to see her and she acted like I was some guy in her history class that she barely knew. Mark too, he thought you sent me to try to recruit him.” He whispered, pressing his hands to his eyes. 

“Gods.” Nayoon whispered, shooting Jaehyun a worried look. 

He just shook his head, “I have no idea what’s going on.”

Taeyong’s fingers clutched his shirt like he was trying to rip out his heart, “You should’ve seen her. She’s so ing beautiful, I love her so much. She barely looked at me. I’m such a jackass. I ing hurt her so much. I remember every single time she tried to get close to me. I just pushed her away.”

“Taeyong…” Nayoon said softly. 

He squeezed his eyes shut, “I yelled at her. I’m her soulmate and I kissed someone else and then yelled at her. I deserve this. She probably hates me. Oh my god.”

“Stop.” Jaehyun said firmly, his glare sharp, “It’s not your fault. You forgot. You didn’t remember anything from your past. That’s not your fault. You can’t blame yourself for not having multiple lifetimes worth of memories.”

He whimpered before looking up at Jaehyun and Nayoon, “What did she say about me?”

Jaehyun shifted, “I didn’t know that she knew who you were until a few weeks ago but I know that she loved you, so much. She never blamed you or felt angry at you. Just being around you made her so ing happy. When you asked her on that date, she ran to us, nearly tackled us to the ground, she was over the goddamn moon.”

Nayoon nodded, “She even asked me to help her pick out an outfit. She was going to wear that sunflower bow that she wore when you two first met. Even the smallest thing you did made her so happy. She loves you, she never stopped.”

“.” Taeyong whimpered, “I made her sad though, didn’t I?”

Jaehyun lowered her eyes, “Yeah, you did. She cried a lot. She went through hell dealing with the distance and seeing you with other girls. She had to figure out what future the two of you had if any at all. That’s the truth. But it’s also true how much she loved you and never resented you. It’s not your fault.”

“How did she last so long?” He muttered, wiping his eyes.

Nayoon smiled slightly, “Because she wanted to fight for you the same way you’d fight for her.”

“What do I do now?” He whispered, “She doesn’t even remember how we became friends over the last couple of months.”

Jaehyun slid his hands into his pockets, “She may not have made you remember but she made so much progress that you asked her out on a date. Maybe you can make that happen again.”

“I always promised I’d find her, that I’d love her no matter what. I can’t believe I did this to her.” He whispered. 

Suddenly footsteps thundered up the stairs and for the second time, the door to Jaehyun’s room swung open. 

Doyoung and Johnny had their eyes wide and just stared at the others with a familiarity that they never had until today. 

“What the is happening?”

-----

“I’m sorry, Taeyong.” Doyoung said softly, “I’m sure there must be something inside both of you that can trigger her memory.”

“Yeah, it worked for you, didn’t it?” Johnny added.

They were all seated on Jaehyun’s floor, after having caught up with everything that had transpired since the semester started. 

Taeyong’s tears had dried and just turned into a soft throbbing in his head, “I have no idea what caused my memory to return and hers to disappear.”

Jaehyun massaged his temples, “She doesn’t remember you two working on the history project together?”

“No, I don’t think so.” He murmured. “But she remembers you.”

Nayoon chewed on her lip, “Maybe she forgot everything from when she first met you. Her memory was probably screwed up with replacement memories because otherwise, she’d be missing months.”

Doyoung frowned, “How did this even happen? Did she ever get close to figuring it out? We’ve never not remembered all at the same time.”

“She and Mark did a lot of research.” Jaehyun explained, “They had a theory but I’m not sure how good it was, I know they were skeptical themselves but they didn’t want to leave a single stone unturned.”

Taeyong looked at him with a frown, “What was it?”

“Haeun was sure that the days you went missing after you left to travel to the palace where the Princess I was to marry  lived had something to do with it.” Jaehyun said. 

Taeyong blinked at his friend before his brows knit together in thought. Doyoung recognized that look, it was one he saw a lot as guards under Taeyong’s leadership, “Was she right?”

Taeyong gulped nervously, “Guys, how many lives would you say we've had?”

“What do you mean?”

His leg began to shake erratically, “If you had to estimate how many times we were reborn, what would you guess?”

“I don’t know…” Nayoon started, “Probably a hundred.”

Jaehyun nodded at her, “Yeah, I’d say so.”

Doyoung and Johnny agreed and Taeyong felt his vision tunnel and a loud ringing in his ears, “Oh my gods.”

Everyone sat up in alarm, crowding him, “What’s wrong? Are you okay?”

Taeyong looked up and everyone felt silent, their jaws dropped at the anguish and pain reflected in his glassy eyes as tears filled the rim. 

“It was me. This is all my fault.”

Joseon Dynasty — — 1890

Taeyong panted, his lungs burning, sweat dripping down the sides of his face as he stared up at the grand palace in front of him. The trek up had been laborious, the sun set came with a sharp drop in temperature, and his body was stiff with tension. 

With the rebels approaching, there would be no way the Prince, his guards, and royal procession could all make their way unnoticed. If any of them saw the Prince, there would no doubt be an uprising. 

It offered Taeyong the perfect opportunity to break off from the group and head to the palace himself. His mind raced, as the last few weeks of planning and preparation culminated to this moment. 

He was a man on a mission.

Jaehyun’s future bride was only a few steps away.

Taeyong chewed on the inside of his cheek as waited to be allowed in. Jaehyun’s future was going to be determined tonight. He knew that his friend was dreading meeting the woman he would be wed to. He had been silent and contemplative the entire journey. 

Ever since Nayoon was moved to another palace, Jaehyun wasn’t the same person that Taeyong had grown up with. He was empty, miserable, and broken, operating like a machine that had no soul. Jaehyun was typically warm and friendly but he wasn’t frivolous with his emotions. Nayoon opened up a side of him that no one ever could. And now she was gone. 

Whoever this Princess was would never be able to compete with her. And this marriage would be nothing but a cold facade. Jaehyun would never love another woman and having to rule the Kingdom with whoever she was would break him. 

If this failed, Taeyong wasn’t sure he would ever be able to look his friend in the eye again. 

“You must be the Prince’s guard. Guard Lee, correct?”

Taeyong snapped out of his daze and bowed respectfully at the aide, “Yes. It is good to  meet you.”

“Likewise. Is the Prince here? Did something happen?” He asked as he led Taeyong into the palace. 

Taeyong nodded tersely, “The rebels are nearing and we worry that the journey up to the palace would be too dangerous. I came up here to request some assistance from your guards to help guide us back up.”

“Oh! Of course.” He said. 

Taeyong smiled, “Thank you. They are currently seeking refuge in a shelter at the base of the hill.” 

“Okay, I’ll go notify the guards and help them mobilize. We’ll bring you with us.” 

Taeyong bowed, “It is much appreciated.”

The aide spun on his heel, rushing off to find the guards. Taeyong waited until he was out of sight before glancing around to check if the hallways were cleared, before sneaking up the large spiral staircase.

He moved quickly down the hallways, opening doors and peeking in until he found a single locked door, with lights glowing underneath. Collecting his breath, he knocked sharply on the door. Light footsteps tread towards him before the door swung open. 

She looked like every other Princess he had ever seen. She was beautiful, dressed in expensive silks that looked familiar and carefully applied makeup. Not a hair out of place, not a bruise on her arms. She was nothing like Nayoon who had little sores on her fingers from fabric burns or needle pricks. Or like Haeun with burn marks from touching hot pans or nicks from the accidental close cut. 

Taeyong tried his best never to rush to judgment but he already knew that Jaehyun would never be happy with a woman who was born in privilege and lived a life with no understanding of the struggles of it.

“Who are you?” She turned her nose up, looking at him with a dirty look. 

He bowed before meeting her eyes, “I am the Crown Prince’s head guard.”

Her eyes suddenly lit up as she fixed her hair, “Oh really? I wasn’t expecting him so soon. Is he here? Why didn’t my staff come get me?”

“Your Highness, the Prince is waiting to be escorted up by your guards as the tensions with the rebels are heightening. He will be arriving shortly. I came to request your palace’s help.” He explained.

Her shoulders dropped and she frowned, “Oh. Okay, so why are you here? A regular guard shouldn’t be in the bed chambers of an unwed Princess.”

He bit down the urge to snap at her snotty tone. She would make such an awful Queen, talking down to people below her, only bothered by her own needs. How anyone would believe that she would be compatible with Jaehyun was beyond him. 

Which meant what he was about to ask wasn’t going to be easy. “I came to request your audience. I have a…rather unconventional request that only you can help me with. I wanted to speak to you before the Prince’s arrival.”

She eyes him suspiciously before holding the door open for him, “Okay, but make it quick, I need to finish getting ready.”

He stood behind her as she sat in front of her vanity and picked up her hairbrush, “Well? Hurry up with it.”

“I need you to turn down the Crown Prince’s proposal.” 

She froze before laughing, “Are you insane?”

“I’m deadly serious, Your Highness. This marriage is against the Prince’s wishes. He is being forced by his family. This marriage is not what he wants. I want to give him a chance at his own freedom but I believe the only way I can do so is if his prospects all reject him. That isn’t possible without you.” He said. 

She gaped at him and then scoffed, “Why on earth would I do that? He is a Crown Prince, marrying him will make me a Queen. I would be a fool to say no to him.”

“Because he will not love you. He will not fall in love you. That is fact.” He said sternly. 

She smiled brightly, “Oh, you’re quite naive for a head guard. I am not bothered by that at all. I don’t need a King who will love me. I need a King who will rule his people with an iron fist and find ways to make our Kingdoms the most powerful.”

Taeyong paused, his eyes wide at her brazen statement, “You’re okay with a loveless marriage?”

“A King and a Queen don’t need love. And I want to be Queen.” Her smile dropped and she stared him dead in the eyes.

Taeyong felt his head pound. He had hoped that the Princess would be more understanding and compassionate. He foolishly believed that could appeal to her emotions and need for freedom. But it seemed that there were people who weren’t concerned with such matters. 

They only cared for power. 

They only wanted to rule. 

They only wanted a throne. 

There was no way he could let Jaehyun marry her. 

“The Prince only wants to marry for love.” He argued. 

“Then he is naive.” She spat back, “A future King should be focused on more important matters when deciding who to marry than love.” 

Taeyong felt his hands tremble, he could feel his last bit of hope slipping through his fingers, “Please, I beg you to say no.”

“I want to be Queen. I have an older brother so his bride will be Queen of this Kingdom, marrying the Prince is the only chance I have left.” She said darkly. “I will not give up a chance at a Crown.”

Taeyong felt his throat tighten but he didn’t have anything left. That was his last and only option. He had nothing else. “He is in love with someone else. Marrying him, he’ll spend the rest of his life unhappy and feel nothing towards you.”

“He will be King.” She said firmly, “He’ll have to learn to live with a lot worse than a broken heart.”

He fell silent, wondering what sins were committed that Jaehyun would be fated with someone so awful and callous. “Your Highnes—“

“Leave.” She ordered. “Before I have you forcibly removed.”

Taeyong hesitated but with her back turned, it was obvious that she was done. He turned, tears filling his eyes as he stepped out of her room shutting the door behind him. 

He used to promise that he’d always protect Jaehyun. 

This was the first time he had failed to keep that promise.

“Such a handsome face doesn’t deserve such sadness on it.”

Taeyong jerked his head up to find a shaman watching him with a knowing look. He cleared his throat before bowing. He tried to walk around her but she grabbed his wrist, stopping him. 

“What if I had a solution to the problems that are causing you such sadness?” She asked. 

His eyes trailed over the wrinkles in her skin and wisdom in her eyes, “What?”

“I overheard your request to Her Majesty. Perhaps I can offer you some assistance.” She said.

He frowned, “How so?”

“We shall make a trade.” She announced.

Taeyong could only stare, bewildered, “What kind of trade?”

She tapped her finger against her lip in thought but it was clear she already had it in mind, “I will tell her to turn down the Prince if, on your 100th life, you give me your greatest treasure.”

"What?” Taeyong asked with a laugh.  

The shaman just smiled, “This palace takes my predictions very seriously. They come to me for advice all the time. If I tell them that a union between this Kingdom and yours is cursed, they will not allow the Princess to marry your Prince.”

Taeyong’s lips parted, “Right, but what you said about my 100th life…”

“Yes dear, if you give me the thing most important to yo

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