Jack might have been a hunter, but that didn't mean he didn't know how to cry.
Standing in a clearing, knife in one hand. The shredded remains of a black cloak resting around his shoulders, what was left of a tattered pair of shorts just barely clinging to his legs. His hair was long, matted, red. His face was soiled and freckled. And there were tears in his big blue eyes.
Only when he was sure he was alone did Jack lower his knife and let the tears fall in earnest.
And only once the sun began to shine through the thicket of trees and illuminate his face so that it appeared it were shining, did Jack Merridew begin to sing.
Once upon a time, what felt like another life ago, Jack hadn't been a hunter, but a choirboy. He had been the most beautiful soprano his school had ever seen, and that was why he'd been assigned to be the leader. The best. The most important. The chief. The day they pinned that golden star to his cap, he couldn't ever remember being more proud.
Now here he was on an island paradise turned island hell. Here, without his voice, suddenly he wasn't the most beautiful. Here, on this island, suddenly he wasn't beautiful at all.
He couldn't be chief. No one had voted for him. So the only way for Jack to be the best was to be the best hunter there was.
The only way for Jack to be beautiful was for Jack to become a killer.
The blood of the pig stained his knife and his heart. And his song reached every end of the island but he doubted anyone heard it at all.
Except for the fact that one person did.
Jack didn't see the figure enter the clearing, didn't notice the pale, slight frame and thick, dark hair until two arms wrapped around him and a voice spoke softly into his ear.
Jack didn't look up, but he knew who it was, and it was enough to just to hear his voice and feel the other's arms on his shoulders.
The other smiled.
How could anything ever be okay again after what Jack had done, after what he'd become? Even so, the word soothed some part of his nerves he hadn't even known were tensed. Jack looked up slowly into Simon's eyes, his mouth formed in a perfect little o.
"Everything's going to be okay," Simon said, his eyes sparkling, tranquil but glad. "Also, I was saying, it's okay to cry."
Jack buried his face in Simon's old ripped undershirt and cried.
Simon put an arm around Jack's back and laid his head on top of the hunter's. They stood there for a long while, understanding.
When Jack finally straightened up and wiped the last few tears from his eyes, Simon held out his hand. Jack stared at it blankly, afraid to make a move of his own, until Simon smiled.
"Come on. There's something I want to show you."
A moment's hesitation, and then Jack's hand shot out from his cloak and grabbed Simon's in one sharp movement. His grip was firmer than steel—not because he wanted to hurt Simon like he'd hurt that pig, that pig, but because he wanted to make sure that Simon would never let go.
Simon held up both of their hands with a gentle smile, entwined together, nowhere near ready to part. He would die before he let Jack down.
And holding hands like so, the boys ran.
Their bodies flew swiftly through the trees, light flitting in and out of the overhead branches—one moment darkening the forest floor, and the next flooding everything with light. It wasn't so much of a run, really, as a dance.
They arrived in the clearing within minutes, but it felt like they'd been suspended in time for days. Slowly, Simon stepped through the passageway into the realm he'd so far kept only to himself, for fear of what others would do. If he'd told anyone else, they might use it for a fort and destroy his home, or worse, ridicule him for it so much that the magic of the place was sucked clean away. He walked silently through the tall, white grass and into the very center of the circular clearing, raising his arms first out at his sides, then afterwards up to the sky. Here was a place in the forest where there was no darkness.
As if on cue, at the very moment Simon's arms raised upwards, a breeze picked up and made its way through the clearing, blowing Simon's hair around his face and rustling the leaves of the trees so that they sounded just like one giant chorus of acceptance and consent. The only other sound, other than the happy roar of the trees and the blinding sunlight filtering through them, was Simon's laughter.
It took a moment for Jack to feel comfortable enough to step into this world himself. When he did, he picked up the edges of his cloak and waded his way carefully through the grass to reach a specific point at the clearing's other end. Simon followed his path with his eyes, and when Jack reached his destination, he pointed forwards at the ground. There in line of sight with his finger was a small, quiet row of flowers.
"Candle-buds," Jack observed, the edges of his mouth twitching slightly into a smile.
Simon was suddenly overcome with a sense of hope so strong the only thing to do was run forward and hug him.
And safe between the folds of Simon's tiny arms, Jack began to sing. But instead of a sad, mournful, operatic tune, this one was beautiful in a different way. It was a song of celebration.
"In tempore necessitates,
Et docuit me vivere.
Te amo, te amo,
Simon looked up from Jack's chest and smiled, his eyes full of wonder, but sad. "You're a beautiful singer."
Jack shrugged modestly, eyes still on the flowers. "I used to be the leader of the choirboys," he softly replied.
"And a very good one." There was complete sincerity in his words. Simon paused for a moment, arms around Jack's waist, both of their hearts pressed against one another. He looked up into Jack's face with its freckles and blue eyes. "What language is that?"
"'S Latin. It's what they all sing in." Jack looked down at the boy around him and felt a sudden surge of pride. Suddenly he couldn't think of a better person to please. If Simon thought he was beautiful, than he must be beautiful. "Though I dunno if the grammar's right, since I think my teacher wrote it and he doesn't speak any Latin. It might really mean nothing after all. But do you want to know what I think it means?"
And Jack began to sing.
"In my time of need,
You found me,
And instructed me to live.
I love you, I love you,
One who dreams."
There was a moment's silence after that, save the forest's chirping birds and the occasional ruffling of the trees. The sun shifted over them constantly, shifting the position with which it climbed down through the leaves, but there was never a time when Simon couldn't see Jack's face fully lit.
There seemed to be no words to describe it, or to describe anything, anymore. Words weren't enough to convey life on the island, a life that had quickly spiraled from mundane to hellish to beautiful. Jack's song had been enough, but Simon wasn't a singer.
So Simon just kissed him instead.
And for the moment, as he pulled Simon closer and wrapped his arms around the neck of the one he truly loved, Jack Merridew didn't feel like a killer. He felt like a true choirboy, someone very worthy of his cap's bright gold badge. He felt like the chief of chiefs, the most powerful boy alive. But it wasn't because some flock of kids had voted him their leader, or that he'd stabbed a pig with a bloody knife. It was because Simon loved him. And Simon wouldn't love him if he weren't beautiful, because Simon was beautiful, too.
It was then that Jack decided he didn't need to be a hunter or a chief or even a choirboy. All he needed in the world was this clearing and this person and this song, and he could live on forever.
When they finally broke apart, Simon reached down and plucked a candle-flower gently from the ground, and reached up slowly to place it softly in Jack's hair. It appeared now that every strand of Jack's red hair was part of the candle's fire, and that every piece of Jack Merridew's body was part of the candle itself.
Had he owned Ralph's conch, he would have blown it so strong and proud that the whole island would hear it and wonder.
But at the moment all he had and wanted was a tiny, dark-haired boy.