The knock on the door comes just as Taekwoon's putting the kettle on. He considers opening the door with an ominous I've been expecting you, but decides against it. The last thing he wants is to reinforce the stereotypes about his line of work.
He settles for a nod and a simple Come in, closes the door behind his visitor and goes to choose two teacups from the shelves against the wall.
He places a completely black teacup with a golden handle in front of his visitor and sits down.
"That looks ominous," Hakyeon huffs as he examines the teacup more closely. "Pitch black, uh?"
"But there's the golden handle," Taekwoon explains, "it symbolizes hope. And glory."
"I see. Do you know why I'm here?"
Taekwoon hums, not quite a yes but not quite a no either. "I'd rather you explain it yourself. I might be missing some details."
"I've been having dreams," Hakyeon starts, voice hesitant and low, a contrast to his previously more assured tone.
"What kind of dreams?" Taekwoon asks.
"The kind of dreams you can help me with," Hakyeon says, more confidently this time as he stares right into Taekwoon's eyes. Taekwoon coughs into his fist, hiding his embarrassment.
"What makes you think that?"
"Well, I'm here without an appointment, transgressing your number one rule, and yet you're still listening to me. You already know what's up or at least you know a little, and you want in on it." Hakyeon pauses, doesn't break the eye contact.
"Your reputation also precedes you, although you were quite difficult to find."
Taekwoon frowns. "My location is more difficult to find for people who don't make appointments. This way I don't lose time with random bypassers."
"Ah, yes, well, I didn't have time for an appointment." Hakyeon says, sounding both petulant but also a little bit sorry.
Taekwoon gets up to fetch the whistling kettle, grabbing a tin box on his way back to the table. He drops a couple of tea leaves in each teacup and douses them with water.
"You're going to have to give me more details about these dreams," Taekwoon says, "but don't say anything before you drink this up. You've greatly unbalanced the magic in my house by coming here unexpectedly. Drinking this should do the trick."
Hakyeon does as he's told and he's quick to put his teacup back on the table, seemingly eager to move on to the reason why he's here.
"I heard that you had unconventional methods but no one ever told me what they were exactly," Hakyeon says slowly, as if walking on eggshells, "I didn't expect magical teas. It seems to work well, though. I can already feel that something has changed in the atmosphere."
Taekwoon hums in agreement. "They can be very powerful. Lots of people dismiss them in favor of using spells instead because spells require less preparation and can be used wherever. I agree that teas aren't always appropriate when you need an immediate solution but when you have more time, they are quite lovely."
Hakyeon chuckles. "I would have never pegged you for the type to work with teas. I was expecting—"
"Dark magic? River spirits? Evil fairies?" Taekwoon interrupts, voice on the brink of annoyance.
Hakyeon swallows visibly. "But now I see that it's fitting for you. It's a very delicate and clever form of magic. Seemingly simple but very mysterious and intricate deep inside, not many people know about its existence. Especially in our times."
"You seem very well educated on it though," Taekwoon interjects, sounding calmer this time.
Hakyeon chuckles one more time. "Well, it comes with—" Hakyeon visibly backtracks his thoughts and quickly switches topics. "Let's just move on to why I'm here, alright. I don't want to waste your time even more."
"Go ahead," Taekwoon says courteously.
"So. I've been having dreams. I see myself in… different settings, universes or realities, probably. It used to happen only once or twice a month but they've become more recurrent recently."
"Do you want the dreams to go away?"
"No," Hakyeon is quick to reply. "I want to be in the dreams. Like, visit those universes. Or at least one of them."
Taekwoon suddenly stands up, grabs the teacups from the table and places them in the sink. He leans back against the counter and stares at Hakyeon in silence. A couple of beats pass by before Taekwoon says anything.
"That's… not an easy thing to do. Even for someone with an advanced knowledge and practice of magic. It's very risky, too."
Hakyeon doesn't tear his eyes away from Taekwoon's, keeps staring, defiant.
"I'm not going to ask whether or not you're sure about your decision. You seem to have made your choice already and you look pretty determined. May I ask why you're so… eager?"
Hakyeon opens his mouth and makes an aborted noise. The change in his attitude from defiant to apprehensive is striking. Taekwoon realizes that maybe he shouldn't have asked — it's not like he needs an actual spoken answer from Hakyeon, he knows enough about him already. The news spread quickly in town and he had been able to sense Hakyeon's different aura as soon as he'd stepped on the grounds of his property. He wonders if he's overstepping the line but before he has the chance to say anything, Hakyeon speaks up.
"You know who I am, right?" Taekwoon nods. "Cha Hakyeon, two hundred percent human. Not a single drop of magic in my blood, nothing at all." The words are manifestly difficult and painful to say out loud. "It's overwhelming to be underwhelming."
Taekwoon knows it's hopeless to try to understand Hakyeon's predicament — there's no way he could understand it fully, even if he tried. In their world, magic is everywhere, a constant in everyone's life. Some people have stronger ties with magic than others, using it everyday for all kind of tasks while others barely use magic, just casting a spell here and there when there's no other solution. Either way, magic is an immutable component of the world they live in, making it an uncomfortable place to live in for people who do not possess any magical abilities.
Hakyeon had learned that early in life. His very first day of preschool stood out as one of the most remarkable — or should he say, unremarkable? — days for that matter. Every single kid there was showing off whatever cool magic trick they knew that was within the school's regulations. Standing in the middle of all this, Hakyeon could only stare and nod appreciatively whenever someone finished showing off. At only four years old, Hakyeon already knew that it wasn't going to be an easy feat being the odd one out.
So when the dreams started and Hakyeon saw himself living in different worlds where magic didn't exist and he was fitting in just right, it was easy to decide that he wanted to make the dreams his reality. He had no choice but to resort to magic in order to make that happen and of course, that stung, too — just one more unnecessary reminder. At least, researching how to make it happen hadn't been too difficult. Sorcerers who made a living out of providing magical services weren't exactly hard to find in town. The only difficulty had been finding one who'd be able to fulfill the kind of service Hakyeon was asking for. It wasn't common per se, some sorcerers would frown upon it, claiming that inter-universe traveling was too troublesome, and would straight up refuse to help. But then Hakyeon had remembered Taekwoon. Taekwoon, the mysterious sorcerer who at the young age of twenty-five was already making the headlines for his unbelievable skills and work ethic. Taekwoon who carefully picked out his clientele and lived in the middle of the woods, the exact location of his property concealed to strangers — Taekwoon had always found moving trails and trees to be neat, and even more so when they could help him keep his quiet lifestyle.
Sheer determination had led Hakyeon to Taekwoon and — well, alright, Taekwoon had to admit that as soon as he had sensed Hakyeon's presence approaching his house, the resolved vibes he had gotten from Hakyeon had piqued his curiosity. Whenever he usually picked up on the mindsets of his property's bypassers, he found them to be either nosey or lost. A quick mental rearrangement to the spells and artefacts protecting his surroundings usually led them somewhere else — to some mildly scary encounter with a dragon-goat hybrid for the nosey ones and to whatever place the lost ones were initially looking for. This time though, for Hakyeon, Taekwoon had willingly rearranged everything in order to steer Hakyeon in the right direction, but not too obviously so.
Cue Hakyeon sitting at his kitchen table, asking him for some help.
"It's true that I can help you with this," Taekwoon carefully admits.
"And you will help me, right?"
Taekwoon feels as if he doesn't really have a choice, at this point. He's the one who helped Hakyeon find him in the middle of forest. But at the same time, agreeing to Hakyeon's request doesn't appear too unpleasant. Trust Taekwoon to let himself be roped into Hakyeon's story before he had even stepped a foot in his house.
"I will help you," Taekwoon concedes and the huge grin that appears on Hakyeon's face is enough to have Taekwoon make a face right back at him. He's never been one for overly expressive displays of emotions but — trust Taekwoon to let himself be somewhat charmed by Hakyeon's grin, when he really should know better.
See, the thing about Taekwoon's work ethic is that it's not as strong and reliable as it appears.
The tall, dark and mysterious sorcerer image that radiates off him might be his design — a carefully crafted persona, ensuring him peace, quiet as well as a steady stream of customers — but the real Taekwoon? Miles away from that.
There had been several occasions through Taekwoon's time at the College of Witchcraft where he'd let his guard down, or rather when his real persona had taken over. To Taekwoon's utter dismay, Wonshik had always been at his side in those moments.
Kim Wonshik, who had also been the one to mock Taekwoon when he'd chosen tea as his Specialty during his fifth and last year of school. Taekwoon had always been such a coffee snob that Wonshik just couldn't resist teasing him.
That same Kim Wonshik was the one who'd seen Taekwoon crumble down at the sight of hurt animals on campus, doing everything in his power to try and save them. Sometimes, Taekwoon came along too late for the stray cat or squirrel to be saved and Wonshik was the one who had to remind him that under magical law, it was strictly forbidden to use magic to resuscitate any kind of living being. Wonshik could always see the gears grinding in Taekwoon's head then, Taekwoon trying to figure out if he could circumvent the law in any way.
Kim Wonshik was also the one who had needed help for a project the night before it was due — serious help, considering the clothes hangers he'd planned on bewitching were, well, not currently doing anything he wanted them to. And Taekwoon had been the one to help him through the all-nighter, revamping the entire thing from start to finish instead of using those last few hours to put the final touches to his own project and get some sleep. That had probably been when Wonshik had realized that 1) Taekwoon was a good friend, one you knew would help you in tough times, and 2) Taekwoon's seemingly tall-dark-and-cold image was exactly just that — an image, and nothing more.
So when Hakyeon comes around asking for help with something that's not really forbidden but not really acclaimed either, Taekwoon gets soft and says yes, just like he'd said yes to Wonshik that evening.
If anything, Taekwoon figures that helping Hakyeon will be good practice — he's never dealt with inter-universe traveling before.
When Hakyeon comes back a couple of days later, Taekwoon's kitchen is in a very different state from the last time. There are books, sheets of paper and teacups all stacked haphazardly on every surface available. Taekwoon's hair's a mess too.
"Are you ready?" Taekwoon asks without preamble. There's a teapot in the middle of the table filled with boiling water that's just waiting for some tea leaves.
"I am," Hakyeon says. "Thanks for the signs on the way here, by the way."
Taekwoon grumbles something unintelligible in reply. Hakyeon would have found his way perfectly fine this time, since he had an appointment, but that hadn't stopped Taekwoon from making Hakyeon's journey easier. He had mentally willed a few signs into existence, making them look old enough and placing them in not-so obvious locations so that Hakyeon wouldn't realize what was going on. Apparently, Taekwoon hadn't been subtle enough.
Taekwoon goes to fetch the box containing the tea leaves he's prepared and drops the appropriate amount in the teapot. He lets them steep for a while, staring at the kitchen wall as Hakyeon strolls around the room, turning some book pages here and there.
"I'm sorry that I can't offer a less dangerous solution," Taekwoon says quietly when he finally makes his way back towards Hakyeon, eyes cast down as he holds the teapot against his chest.
Hakyeon doesn't reply.
"You can choose whatever teacup you want, this time. It's supposed to make it work better."
"Supposed to?" Hakyeon questions.
"You know that inter-universe traveling is a very complicated thing," Taekwoon says impatiently, "this should work just fine, but you never know. It's not like I've tried it for myself so it's better to put all the chances on our side."
Hakyeon picks the same teacup as the last time — the black one with the golden handle — and Taekwoon pours some tea into it. Hakyeon stares at the liquid inside of the teacup, visibly mesmerized by it.
"You should drink now," Taekwoon adds a few beats later, "it's ready."
Hakyeon takes a sip, and another, and another and —
Hakyeon vanishes and the teacup shatters to the ground.
Taekwoon isn't expecting Hakyeon to come back to their world until a few hours later so he busies himself with tidying his kitchen. He'd spent the days since Hakyeon's first visit doing a lot of research and then conducting experiments based on the meager information he'd found.
Taekwoon figures it at least partially worked since Hakyeon vanished somewhere. He has no way of knowing until Hakyeon comes back and the powers of the tea should take a couple of hours to wear off. Taekwoon's curious, of course — if it did work, he'd see it as a great accomplishment and being able to offer inter-universe traveling to his clientele would probably make his business and reputation skyrocket. Taekwoon's not into magical services for the money but he has to admit that the recognition from the magical community is one of the aspects that he likes best about his occupation.
Taekwoon's reviewing his appointment calendar when Hakyeon reappears in the kitchen. He looks a little shaken and he stares at his surroundings with a startled look on his face before he speaks up.
"It worked." He smiles and Taekwoon smiles back too.
Taekwoon's breathing comes back to normal.
Taekwoon presses Hakyeon with questions once he's sat down and breathed a little.
"You were there," Hakyeon says, sounding suspicious.
"Ah…" Taekwoon begins. "It happens, apparently. The sorcerer conducting the procedure can sometimes become inherently linked to the universe visited."
Hakyeon stares at him with shifty eyes but eventually drops his gaze.
"Tell me more," Taekwoon demands.
And so Hakyeon tells him about a big city and a group of six boys with hopes and dreams even bigger than the city.
When Hakyeon is done, Taekwoon wants to ask if it was worth it, if Hakyeon got what he wanted out of it. He doesn't need to though, Hakyeon's the first one to speak up again.
"When can I come back again?" He asks, hopeful look in his eyes and just the hint of a smile playing on his lips. He radiates hope and Taekwoon feels like he could agree to whatever Hakyeon asks of him. This could be dangerous.
"This could be dangerous," is what he also tells Hakyeon. "No one has really ever traveled to other universes on a regular basis. There's also another issue…"
Taekwoon feels a little bad for not telling Hakyeon earlier, for just rushing into things and getting it over with.
"Even magic has its limitations and for this particular kind, the limitation lies in the fact that once you've traveled to one universe, you're stuck with visiting that one over and over again, should you travel again. It's... very limiting, I'm aware of that and I'm sorry for not—"
"It's fine, I don't mind." Hakyeon interrupts. "I'm happy with whatever universe and the one I just visited seemed just fine, honestly. I'll take anything."
Taekwoon sighs quietly, decides not to let himself linger too long on the subject.
"You can come in two weeks. Same time?"
Hakyeon quickly agrees and when he leaves, the grin on his face is even bigger than when Taekwoon had agreed to help him out.
Hakyeon comes back once, twice, thrice and then — Taekwoon kind of stops counting. He reads up as much as he can on inter-universe traveling to see if there are more limitations, specifically relating to frequency. He doesn't find anything on it and hopes that it's simply because there's nothing to say rather than a lack of material due to not being here anymore to discuss it.
Hakyeon always smiles when he comes in and when he leaves, sharing bits and pieces of his time out there, as he says, before he bids Taekwoon goodbye.
Taekwoon doesn't have it in him to mention to Hakyeon that maybe this isn't safe, that there might be some unknown risks. He just prepares the tea week after week, accept Hakyeon's payment after that, and leaves it at what is it: a simple business transaction. It's better this way, probably. Taekwoon wouldn't want to stray away from his work ethic even more.
Hakyeon reappears into Taekwoon's kitchen once, looking even more shaken than the first time he had traveled.
"I was sad," he begins, "you were sad, too."
He looks like he doesn't know what to make out of it, which is understandable when his brand new happy world suddenly stopped being nothing but happy. Hakyeon's doing all of this to escape the hardships of this world and inter-universe traveling had been working just fine — up until now, apparently.
Taekwoon doesn't really know what to make out of it either. He gets up wordlessly and puts some water to boil, coming back with a steaming cup of tea for Hakyeon.
"It's just some tea with calming properties, don't worry." Hakyeon accepts it, not without staring at it for a while beforehand.
It's a sudden reversal for him, somehow going back to seeing magic as this unpleasant element he doesn't even get to use but has to live with, after a couple of months where he'd eventually accepted that magic could help him escape. Hakyeon drinks it up and instantly feels its effect.
Taekwoon remembers that he doesn't have any other appointments today. "You can stay for a while, if you want. Get yourself back together." Taekwoon tries to cling to the last strands of his work ethic, uselessly repeating "business is business" in his head. "We can talk about it, if you want."
"Alright, yeah, I'd like that." Hakyeon nods and slumps a little in his chair. Taekwoon stays standing up, as if putting a physical distance between him and Hakyeon would mean that he's not really blurring the lines between business and… the personal feelings of his clients.
"I'm sure you don't need me to tell you that magic is not a cure-all."
Hakyeon huffs at that.
"And I'm sure you don't need me to tell you that there are no regulations on inter-universe traveling and that the reason why most sorcerers refuse to have anything to do with it is mostly because of personal preference and the lack of literature on the subject. And, well, most people don't see the appeal of traveling to other universes where magic doesn't exist when—" Taekwoon trails off.
"What are you trying to get at?"
Taekwoon blinks, flustered.
"Sometimes," he starts, quieter than before, "going away isn't the solution." Taekwoon hears Hakyeon take a sharp intake of breath. "I'm not trying to say that you should stick with your current universe and just get over your… circumstances but… traveling to that other universe isn't going to help with anything, in the long run."
"It was helping me, so far," Hakyeon protests. But even Taekwoon can see through it, knows that the cogs are turning in Hakyeon's head and that maybe he's realizing something.
"Yes, I can understand that but let's get into the technicalities of it, alright?" Taekwoon goes to sit next to Hakyeon, stares at him right in the eye to get his point across. "Whenever you travel to that other universe, you take the spot of that universe's Hakyeon. When you leave it, that Hakyeon comes back."
"Where does Hakyeon 2.0 go while I take his spot?"
Taekwoon opens his mouth to reply but then stops. "I… Uh… I don't really know. Somewhere. Magic." He makes a weird motion with his hands as to explain the magic part. "The point is, you're only living tiny fractions of time in that universe. It's not a complete life and it will never be. You're basically fractioning yourself between your original universe and that other one. It's—"
"Not a viable solution, I see your point."
Taekwoon gulps down. "Yes, that. There's also the possibility that my teas stop working all of a sudden, for some reason."
"Yes, magic, exactly." Taekwoon nods. "And like I've said, there's a lot of unknown around inter-universe traveling, no one's really ever written about all its risks and implications. I don't know how it could affect you in the long-run, but I'm pretty sure that it will have repercussions, whatever they are and whenever they happen."
"What do you want me to do then?" Hakyeon asks, voice shaky.
"I don't want to pressure you into doing anything, or changing anything. It's not my call to do that and I don't claim to be able to understand all the intricacies of the reason why you're doing inter-universe traveling in the first place. I just wanted to let you know my point of view, that's all."
"You might as well have just said that you want me to stop because I'm basically jumping into the unknown," Hakyeon snorts. "Maybe that's why I like, jumping into the unknown, the unexpected. It brings some thrills to my existence."
Hakyeon gets up and doesn't come back for a couple of days, weeks — months, even.
Taekwoon's just finished with an appointment when he senses Hakyeon's presence on his property. He quickly rearranges the path to his house in the way he used to do it for Hakyeon, signs and all — it's muscle memory, even after all these months without Hakyeon's regular visits.
Hakyeon is jittery when he comes in, settling down in his usual chair.
"Something got messed up. You were right."
Taekwoon presses a cup of calming tea he's prepared while Hakyeon was making his way to his house into Hakyeon's hands.
"I went to see a different sorcerer… Kim Heechul." Taekwoon winces at the name and the reputation that precedes it. "I wanted a different point of view and—"
"You don't need to justify yourself, these things happen often." Taekwoon cuts in politely.
"I started traveling again, with his help. The process was a little different because he doesn't use teas like you do but it still worked just the same. Even if the fact that he used cats was a little weird. Anyway, I'm traveling one day, and I'm about to walk into the usual practice room and—" Hakyeon pauses, breathing uneven. "He's there. Hakyeon 2.0 is inside the room when he's supposed to be gone and I'm supposed to replace him for a couple of hours."
Taekwoon nods in a "carry on" way, hope he looks encouraging and sensible enough to convince Hakyeon to say more.
"I watched him from outside and— that's when I understood what you told me all those months ago. I'm only living a fraction of the life of Hakyeon 2.0. I don't get to experience everything and I'm easily replaceable. It pained me to see them interacting with him, while I couldn't do anything but just stand there. I understand now, why you said it's not a viable solution. It was never really my world, I just convinced myself that it was just because I thought I was fitting in better there than here. But it wasn't true, it wasn't real."
"When did that incident happen?"
"About three weeks ago."
"Did you try to travel again after that?"
"I did, and the same thing happened except this time I almost got caught. Thankfully though, the magic stopped working at that moment."
Taekwoon hums, taking in all the information.
"I'm gonna stop, if that's what you want to know. I didn't come here to ask you to help me travel again. I just figured you'd want to… you know…. know what happened." Hakyeon looks up at Taekwoon, who's standing up next to him, keeping his usual distance. "I'm thankful for all your help."
"I can—" Taekwoon breathes in sharply and exhales loudly. "I can still help you. But not without magic this time. It's been the problem all along I think, trying to solve you being non… magical," Taekwoon had never liked the expression, far too clumsy and impolite, "with the use of magic. The only way to get around to it is to make you realize that living in this world can be a pleasant experience, even for you."
"And how do you suggest I do that? It's never worked that way for me, all these years—" Hakyeon spits out.
"You need to find the right people." Taekwoon murmurs.
The atmosphere visibly shifts, then. Hakyeon almost wonders if it's Taekwoon's doing, purposely fine-tuning the mood to his liking.
That's probably when Taekwoon admits this to himself: there's no magic in Hakyeon but Taekwoon stills thinks he's the most beautiful person ever, inside and outside.
"It's not that easy," Hakyeon finally answers.
"It's not, I'll admit that. But we can try, if you're willing to. I'd be happy to." And that, right there, is Taekwoon throwing all his work ethic out the window, irremediably crossing the line.
"Let's… try it, then." Hakyeon agrees inaudibly. He breaks into a smile after a few seconds and that's all Taekwoon needs.
For all his magical abilities and intuition, in this moment, he feels like he's jumping into the great unknown. But, for once, that seems okay.