The First Fall
Tossing his sheets aside, he rummages in his closet for clean jeans and looks outside his bedroom. He lives at the end of the hall; across from him is his older brother, their parents at the far end of the house, and a bathroom and linen closet in-between.
"Mom?" His voice seems to echo. It never does that; there is always someone home, something going on. They're an active, involved family. Even if they all did go out and leave him home, there should be a note on the fridge or counter or even a text blinking on his phone.
He touches the granite countertop with his fingertips, spreading his fingers until his palm is flat against the cool surface and tries to reason with the thoughts steadily flooding his brain.
Every new thought is worse than the last, and his eyes grow warm with hot tears. As his vision swims, he looks around the open kitchen, looking for something to tell him where his family has gone.
Something makes a noise down the hall, towards his bedroom. It's a whuff sound, like a breeze kicking up papers.
Junhong creeps back to his room, holds his breath, and peers inside.
It's not quite how he left it.
He doesn't remember the feathers. They disintegrate, as if burned, the moment he touches them. He doesn't understand the guilt that grasps his throat.
When he looks at his windows, they are blurs of bright light that refocus to his pretty backyard view when he walks towards them.
In the exact centre of the yard, someone's built a stage. Three pillars stand across it, and he recognises his mom's sky blue night shirt and plaid pants. She's sitting on the stage, between her husband and oldest son. They all have their hands behind their backs and slouch, looking to one another but avoiding the house.
Junhong slams his fist on the glass; it bounces back like he'd punched a trampoline. "Mom! Dad!" He's loud, but it's like he's in a soundproof box, locked far away from his own backyard.
Someone else is on the platform. Junhong blinks, and they simply appear. They're holding someone by arm, who's wearing Junhong's favourite comic printed pajamas.
No one says anything, but all Junhong can hear is his own breathing over the heartbeat in his ears. The stranger takes the boy—Junhong—by both arms and guides him to sit on the stage. The crowd pushes forward, hushed but anticipatory.
His back hurts. There's an itch that escalates to a clawing pain, like fingers tearing at his shoulder blades from inside his body. When they break through, the pain is too great to even gasp, but the blinding white numbs him of any more pain.
A voice cuts through the light.
"Junhong, honey, how long are you planning to sleep?"
He wakes up in his own bed, in his own comic print pajamas, with his mom standing beside him with her arms folded. She's wearing her sky blue pajamas, and she's not brushed her hair, yet. It hangs over her shoulder in a braid, pieces sticking out unevenly.
"Mom?" He wants to believe it's her, but he doesn't know if he can be sure.
She frowns a little and unfolds her arms. "You feeling alright? You feel kind of warm." She bends over him, touching his cheek and forehead. The sunlight from his open blinds hurt his eyes; he squints and nods.
"...It was just a weird dream. I couldn't wake up."
She smiles. "It's just a dream. Don't worry about it. Now get up; get dressed." She swats at his foot. "Or I'll come back with a bucket of water." She leaves with the playful threat, closing his door behind her.
Junhong shifts his head on his pillow, finding a cooler spot, and focuses on his breathing while staring at the white ceiling. It was just a dream.
He musters up the energy to roll out of bed and stumble to the bathroom without falling on his face. He washes his face, brushes his teeth, and pulls on his ironed uniform as fast as his growing limbs allow. The trousers are looking a bit short, again. He tugs them a little until they hang a bit lower on his waist.
"Mom, I think I need new pants," he comments as he rounds the corner of the stairs to the kitchen. "These are too short.
His mom has a bowl of cereal poured for him with cut strawberries on top when he hustles into the kitchen. "You're growing. Gonna be taller than Dad, soon.
Junhong's pretty pleased with that. He scoops up a berry and tucks some cereal onto the side. "Where is hyung and Dad?"
"Already gone, you sackhound. I should've had your father wake you up." Mr Choi isn't as nice as his wife. He grabs blankets and yanks them clean off, regardless of what is worn—or not worn—underneath. "Eat up and get to school. Remember that you need to be home early tonight."
Junhong nods and eats in silence, then, the white noise of his mom working around the spacious kitchen not enough to distract him from his nightmare.
It was just a dream.
Morning classes pass in a blur of monotonous voices, gossipy whispers, and penciled doodles in textbooks. By the time lunch rings, Junhong is more asleep than awake, thinking over every detail of his dream and trying to figure out what it could mean.
Usually, he'll forget them a short while after waking up, no matter how bad they are. Recently, he's having more trouble simply waking from them, as though the dreams want to keep him asleep and vulnerable.
He knows nothing about dreams except what he's read online. WebMD says that dreams are basically imagery that plays while people sleep. They can be vivid, like Junhong's—recognising his mom's pajamas. They can make the dreamer feel all sorts of emotions, and they can be as loopy as Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory or as rational as a remedial math textbook. Most interesting to Junhong is reading that most vivid dreams occur during deep, REM sleep, when the brain is supposedly most active, and that some experts supposedly propose that humans dream four to six times per night. Junhong dreams the moment he's asleep, sometimes even before, and it's one long dream that builds, like he's developing a map in Minecraft.
It makes no sense to him, but he thinks he knows some someones who make nonsense their business. He means that in the most confused but respected manner.
Once his teacher dismisses them for lunch, Junhong waves off a friend's invitation and skips down the short flights of steps to search the back courtyard.
Students sit in clusters. Most have bought their lunches, although a fair number—Junhong included—have a packed lunch. He spots a group of girls sharing a spread of lunchboxes beneath a large ash tree. As he approaches, he hears what sounds like a history lesson mixed with a philisophical debate.
"They just conveniently forget that many of our Wiccan goddesses and gods come from the Roman and Greek."
Yuna, a girl with straight eyebrows and an easy smile, waves a hairbrush as she passes it to the oldest girl. "Isn't it ironic that a religion like Wicca, whose forerunner was destroyed by the Romans—who were technically Pagan, even—has claimed the conquerors' gods for itself?"
"Well, Romans borrowed many deities from other cultures, too. We also take many Pagan Goddess names from the Celtic and the Egyptian religions. Even some African. Somewhere in the world, there is a Deity for literally every occasion you can imagine, and we try explicitly to be inclusive and honour the Deities of many cultures."
"It sounds amazing," Halla comments. She's not entirely following the conversation, too focused the methodical brushing and braiding of Jane's hair.
Minju shrugs. "If you dedicate yourself and truly believe, its easier. A lot of us kind of pick one to pay special attention to. Like, my coastal sisters are more attuned to the Goddess of the Ocean."
It's only when Junhong's close enough to make out the diamond pattern on the bark that he stops and shifts from foot to foot. "Hey, guys..."
"Hi, Junhong!" Jane chirps. She's lounging against Minju's knee, content to sit and let her hair be braided and pinned around her crown while she nibbles on pieces of apple and carrot.
Minju smiles, giving her arms a break and allowing the brush to work itself through some stubborn knots. "What's up?"
"Uh, I was wondering if you could help me with something. Because, like," he licks his lips and tries to explain his reasoning without offending the girls, "you guys—g-girls—know all the mystical-ish things, and this isn't something that Google could help much with."
Yoojin, Junhong's age, giggles. He grins and ducks his head, rubbing the back of his neck. "Sorry, that's not very clear."
"What's bothering you?" Halla pats the grass beside her, poking Jane's calf so the girl folds her legs up to make room. "You were spacey in class."
He drops his backpack and sits. "I've been having...dreams."
"Not those kinds!" He lowers his voice. "Nightmares. Even before I'm asleep, now, they start. It's like my body just goes through the motions, just to get me asleep and...I dunno, vulnerable? I can't move at all. I can't even wake up on my own, anymore."
The witches' giggles have died completely. Jane and Halla wear worry clearly on their faces. Minju frowns, nearing the end of one of Jane's braids. "Like sleep paralysis?"
Junhong shrugs. "I guess?"
Yuna offers him half of a sandwich. "You should talk to my mom. Her speciality is dreams."
"Would that be okay?" Junhong bites into the sandwich. He's not sure what kind it is, but it tastes good enough that he finishes it quickly and wipes his fingers in the grass. "I don't want to bother her."
"She'll be happy to help! I'll text her; we can all go after school." She pulls her phone from her bag and types a quick message, grinning at the quick reply. "Cool. She said she'll make dinner for us all, too."
A bit of weight is lifted from Junhongs shoulders, but the uneasiness in his gut remains. What if Yuna's mom has no idea what his dreams mean? Or what if they mean exactly how they look, and his family is all in danger?
Minju finishes pinning Jane's pigtails and offers a bag of mixed seeds that the familiar cheerfully accepts, stuffing as many into her mouth as into her pockets. Jane notices Junhong staring into space, sandwich held limply in his hand, and tosses a sunflower seed at his nose. He puts a smile on and tries to not let panic overwhelm him for the rest of his school day.
Most bizarre, at least to the current generation of nurses and assistants, is the man who literally falls on their doorstep.
Nurses Amber and Krystal are taking their very short but very needed break when Amber's laughter trails off to a confused hum.
"What's up?" Krystal turns to look over her shoulder and about-faces with a slack jaw. "Is that...?"
"It's a person!" Amber shouts, and most of those around them immediately turn to see what she's shouting about. Soon, everyone is shouting and pointing, rooted to the spot and helpless as a limp body careens straight down through the clouds and treetops. There's a muted thud as it strikes the ground, leaving a dent in the earth.
Somehow, they appear alive, groaning low and drawing a knee up to roll themselves onto a hip.
Krystal blinks and smacks Amber's arm. "Get a gurney!" Her training takes over her shock, sending her running to the miraculous patient. She realises once she's across the paved driveway that the person's a young man. "Sir! Are you alright?" It's ridicilous, and she knows so, but she can't think of anything else to ask of a man who just free-fell thousands of feet and survived.
He has no parachute, and his shirt—simple white fabric—is torn over his back. Krystal crouches beside him, hands out but not touching him.
He stares at nothing, eyes unfocused, apparently focusing on his breathing more than anything else. The nurse recognises shock when she sees it and waves Amber and Jinki over with the gurney.
The man says nothing as he's gently lifted and run back into the hospital, not even effected by the sudden chill of the air conditioning. Krystal talks to him the entire time, reassuring him and trying to comfort him with a hand on his arm, but she flinches as if electrocuted.
A doctor brushes past, after the man's been transferred to a hospital bed, and Krystal turns to return to the front desk, since what little breaktime she had has long since expired. Amber grabs her wrist, lifting her arm to stare at her hand with a frown. "When did you burn yourself?"
"I didn't..." The skin over the front of her fingers is swollen and pink; it's sore when she tries to form a fist. "That's weird."
Defying logic just by surviving his fall, the John Doe is unbruised and unbroken but still unconscious. He sleeps most of the day, and Krystal monitors his progress with papers ready for when he wakes up. Nearer the end of her shift, she pulls up a folding chair and sighs, staring at her hand. Most of the swelling went down with some ice, but it's still a bit sore.
A sharp intact of breath draws her attention from her hand to the man on the bed. His heart monitor beeps faster, showing signs of consciousness. He turns his head to the side, slowly, stretching one of the many scars scattered across his skin. They're relatively new but appear to be healing well.
He opens his eyes, vision blurry at first, but the lack of focus partly comes from the entire room being the same shade of sterile white.
"Hello," Krystal greets quietly. "You've had an amazing ordeal."
He looks confused.
"You fell. Do you remember?"
Realisation dawns on him, she sees it in his eyes, and he nods.
"I'll get the doctor, but could you fill these papers out for me? Here's a pen. I will be right back."
Because his case is so unique, Krystal gets a doctor in quickly. "Good vitals. Everything appears normal." He tucks his hands into his pockets. "How do you feel?"
The doctor laughs. "I'll bet!"
Krystal leaves again and returns with a styrofoam cup of water. John Doe's voice is soft, scratchy from sleep.
"Finish these papers, and we'll let you rest. Call the nurse if you need anything."
"Thank you." He sips the water slowly and reads over the papers again, hand holding the pen motionless on his lap.
Krystal sits patiently, watching the man for signs of distress or confusion. He displays both, but he breathes deep and slowly fills out the paper form. His handwriting is shaky, childish, and barely legible, but Krystal's interpreted enough doctors' notes and prescription scripts to read it.
She points to the top of the form when he flips the pages back. "Your full name?"
"Daehyun..." Her nametag reads JUNG KRYSTAL, RN. "Jung Daehyun."
Junhong looks stricken enough that Jane shifts into a parrot again and settles on his shoulder. The unspoken support gives him enough courage to sit across from the older witch and reveal his dream.
His leg begins bouncing near the end of the story, not unnoticed by Mrs Kim. Jane nips encouragingly at his hair every now and then.
"I mean, it was my whole family, some random guy, and then I was just there. And there were a bunch of people from town; I recognised some of them."
"And this...isn't the first time you've had this dream? It's happened before?"
He nods. "Almost every night, now."
Mrs Kim hums and gets to her feet. "I have something that could help." She walks to a tall cabinet and pulls a worn book from the shelves.
As she pages through it, Junhong looks around the kitchen. It's open, very spacious, but it's cosy with onions, garlic, herbs, and other dried somethings hanging from the ceiling or wall. Along with the modern appliances—stove, ovens, microwave, refrigerator—a large fireplace sits on the opposite wall. A cauldron hangs on a hinged hook, spotlessly clean for all the dents and dings in its body.
"Here it is!" Mrs Kim chirps. Jane's curiosity gets the better of her, and she flies the short distance to sit on and read over the woman's shoulder. "Let's see, I need a little bit of this, a little bit of that..." She sings to herself as she gathers ingredients, mumbling names of things that make Junhong's stomach churn. He can't imagine ever keeping narcoleptic newts in the kitchen. He didn't know newts could even be narcoleptic.
"For the dreams," she explains. "The trick is the timing. Sometimes, they wake up before getting in the pot, and that changes the whole spell. And lastly," she snaps the book shut, "I need a bit of your hair." She eyes the shoulders of his uniform jacket. Jane picks a strand of hair from his collar and drops it onto her hand. "Oh, that was painless. Thank you, Jane." The parrot squawks and flaps her wings.
With everything gathered and dropped into the cauldron, Mrs Kim sets an egg timer and calls the girls down for dinner.
"What are you making, Mrs Kim?" Halla peers into the cauldron and wrinkles her nose at the unappealing colour and smell.
"It's a dream potion. It should tell me what is going with Junhong that would make him dream what he's dreaming. I usually use it with young children having nightmares. It's not just the monsters under the bed or in the closet anymore," she sighs. Her own familiar, a cat named Jongdae, leaps to the table and helps himself to a slice of meat before Mrs Kim grabs him and sets him on her lap. "You know better than that, Jongdae. Manners."
They eat in relative silence with the boiling cauldron as white noise. After a particularly loud pop, right in time with the egg timer, Mrs Kim declares it done. Jongdae climbs over her shoulder to lie across her neck; the girls eagerly gather around the cauldron, but it looks just as disgusting as expected.
Only Junhong stays at the table, unexplained unease pushing away his appetite. Jane chirps and lands on his head, picking at tufts of hair until he's smiling and trying to push her away.
"Mom, you're not going to drink that, are you?" Yuna's nose wrinkles. Minju and Halla look no better, but they at least try to hide it. Yujin sits beside Junhong again and murmurs she'll stick with her cards.
"It usually tastes better than it looks. The trick is to ignore the colour." The older witch grabs a long wooden spoon, stirs the potion four times, taps the iron lip twice, and scoops up a spoonful. "You want to try, Jongdae?"
The cat hisses and leaps to the floor.
"Are you sure it's okay?"
"Girls, I've been making this since before you were even born. It's my grandmother's recipe," she assures. No one looks convinced. Jongdae slinks back to sit at hit witch's heels, watching with sharp eyes as she drinks the brew.
For a minute, nothing seems to happen. Mrs Kim looks at the spoon, the cauldron, the girls, and finally Junhong, with Jane's feet tangled in his hair. "Junhong, is it your birthday soon?"
"Yeah. I'm gonna be sixteen on the 15th."
She nods and inhales sharply, reaching out to lean against the mantle. Her other hand comes up sharply, holding off her daughter's concern. "It's alright." But her voice is shaking.
"Hey, look at the clouds!" Yujin runs to the kitchen window and leans down to squint at the sky. "Junhong, look at this."
He breaks eye contact with Mrs Kim that he hadn't known he was holding and joins Yujin at the window. Outside, large, fluffy clouds float through the air like undyed cotton candy, but in the centre of the natural frame of trees, one cloud seems to dwarf the rest. "It looks shiny?"
"It looks like a bubble in the light. Rainbowy."
"Get away from the window!" Both kids are grabbed by the elbow and yanked from the window. Mrs Kim drops the blinds and pushes them towards the other girls. "Do not go outside." The change is frightening. Her eyes are wide without a hint of calm. Jongdae's fur is bristling; he growls at the door, tail lashing side to side.
Minju has Halla and Yuna under each arm. Jane's taken up residence in Yujin's blazer, beady eyes and tiny beak barely peeking out. Junhong crouches in the corner, the unsettled feeling in his stomach crawling up his throat.
"Honey, you know I am so proud of you, of the witch you'd become, and you'll only improve as you grow." Her tone is calm but pitched high, betraying a deeper emotion.
"You girls need to look out for one another. No matter what happens, do not fear the light."
"Mom!" Minju and Halla hold Yuna back. They watch as Mrs Kim holds something to her chest and walks out the door. It slams shut before Jongdae can follow. Fur still on end, he yowls and claws the door.
White light fills the kitchen, soundless and invasive. Even with their eyes shut tight, it pierces through and sears their retinas. Junhong hears the girls' screams and Jongdae's shriek and covers his head as much as he can with his arms. Far off, he hears wolf howls.
It's a brief instant. Not even a minute, but it feels like hours before they cautiously open their eyes and look around.
They blink away the flashes of afterimages and get to their feet. Jongdae's frantically clawing at the door, yowling over his shoulder. Yuna stumbles to the door on shaky legs and lets him out. The moment the door's open, Jongdae bolts for the trees, and the young witch lowers to a near crouch.
"Yuna? Are you okay?" Minju holds her cheeks, forcing her head up. Yuna's eyes are unfocused, glazed. She looks at Junghong.
With their feet firmly on the ground, their wings fold demurely against their back, less impressive and easily missed. One turns to the other, frowning. "Where is he?"
"Close, don't get your panties in a twist."
"Hyung, please don't start."
"Youngjae," the angel sighs in a mocking tone. "Just relax. We've got time."
"Three days is not much time."
"Time enough. This world is tiny. Where could he possibly hide?"
Even with painkillers in her system, blurring her vision and turning her speech to mush, she swore she saw a man in the hospital room dressed in scrubs with a sort of halo highlighting his dark hair.
The birth was simple, fast, and relatively painless, unlike her firstborn. Maybe this child instinctively knew better, or the exercises and spells she secretly performed helped guide it.
She saw that he's a boy, heard the nurses cooing over him as they clean him and wrap him in a towel. He's held reverently, tenderly, by the angel, and she watched as his tiny body was covered by the angel's hand. Brilliant light filled the room, dimming to flourescent tube lights and bulbs, but a blink and the afterimages passed. No one commented.
The angel handed her son to her waiting arms with something of a smile behind his mask. She returned it briefly before turning all of her attention to her new son. Touching his skin, she watched the redness lighten to white and refill with healthy colour except for a small patch over his heart. It spread out like a five-petaled flower, and it would grow as he did.
She wanted a strong, ambitious name, chosen from among the gods, but her husband's faith called for something closer to home, fiery and independent.
"Junhong," she whispered. The baby whined in his partly conscious state, unused to so much stimulation but soothed by the sound of his mother's voice.
Yuna wakes up a little bit. "Junhong... My mom saw your dream. It's not good, but you shouldn't be afraid of the light. You have friends." She passes out again, and Junhong doesn't feel any better or know any more than he did that morning.
Junhong lets his feet walk him wherever they feel the need to go, and he ends up in the outer limits, where there are more trees than buildings. He sees a dark, furry lump slouched against the porch of the house his feet walk to, and there's a moment of panic before the lump moves.
Jongup, full wolf, wakes up when his tail starts to wag on its own. He smells Junhong, then, and yawns. "Hi. What're you dong here?" He doesn't mean it in a mean way.
Junhong sits beside him, uncaring of the wet dripping from Jongup's fur, and leans against his side. "I think I'm still dreaming."
The young wolf knows when to pry and when to stay silent. He lets Junhong lean against him until the sun slips from the sky and stars begin to twinkle behind the scattered clouds, iridescence gone.
"Want me to walk you home?" Jongup wakes Junhong from his dozy daze.
"No, I'll be okay. See you at school." Everywhere Junghong goes, people talk about the strange clouds and the bright light. Some people try to find where it touched down, thinking it could have been lightning or a meteor, but no one finds anything. The witches still whisper rumours and theories, quick news of Mrs Kim's unexpected death pushing them to find answers.
When he reaches home, that uneasy feeling sloshes around his stomach again. Fingers of memory scratch at his brain, trying to remind him of something he forgot. He toes off his sneakers and notices his cat, Frog, sitting in the farthest corner of the room, eyes wide and watching him with something akin to fear.
"Junhong." His mother appears in the doorway, backlit by the kitchen light. He didn't notice how late it is. "Where have you been?"
He shrugs. "Nowhere special."
"You missed the service."
"Oh, no..." He rubs the back of his neck with a groan. His parents aren't buying the act. "I was with my friends, okay? We lost track of time..."
His mother sighs, rubbing her eyes. "You have the chance to be a part of something great, Junhong. A greater community, a higher state of purpose, but you repeatedly throw yourself into that pack."
"What's wrong with them?" He doesn't bother saying he hadn't been with the wolves. Not the whole time, at least. Explaining that he was hanging out with a coven of witches wouldn't earn him any brownie points.
"You can be someone great, Junhong! You're so beautiful," she breathes, holding out her arms and crading his face like something even more precious than a child. "Tall and pale and perfect." Her eyes look for something, but she must not find it, because she sighs again and dips her head forward, looking at Junhong from beneath her lashes like when she's scolding him in a roundabout, condescending, passive-aggressive fashion. "When you were born, you were touched. There's no denying you're special, baby."
"What your mother's saying is that you need to acknowledge your birthright. Before your next birthday, you will rejoin God and His angels, like He has wanted since your birth."
Junhong knows the story. It's his bedtime story, his lullaby, his legacy, since before he can remember. After fifteen years, he's less inclined to believe any of it. It's just been so long. He used to look forward to it—whatever it was—but it's more a dream than anything else.
He nods and apologises, accepting his mom's dry kiss on his cheek.
"Next time, please tell us when you're late, okay?"
"I called hyung..." His lie is cut short.
"He hasn't been home. Call me or Dad, alright?"
"Yeah. I'm sorry."
He goes to his room for the night. He's not had an appetite since that morning.
With how he aches, a completely new world of pain has opened to him, and he almost regrets his decisions. Almost. He misses his friends, but he couldn't live with them any longer. Their ideals are too different.
The greatest commonality among the angelic beings is their ethereal beauty. No two look alike, yet the immediate reaction upon seeing them is "Beautiful."
Even Fallen, Daehyun finds himself shying away from appraising eyes and shy smiles and more lecherous mindsets.
Living among the Enlightened, he remembers discussing the Fallen. Youngjae, his very good friend, said, "The perceived misfortune of fallen angels is only temporary. All of us, the whole of existence, is ever-growing, always expanding, progressing and being freed from false beliefs, from fear. It is love that frees fallen angels, even if through suffering, and it is love that will eventually purge all states of disconnection." Love is all you need.
And the lecture continued, grandly expressing that angels are eternal spirits, one great spirit energy. Energy cannot go away or be altered, so death, punishment, and loss are virtually unknown. A physical body may die, but the spirit remains. Fear is unnecessary, an illusion created by humans based on the misguided belief that the body is just as important, if not more important then, the spirit, and the physical is more important than the untouchable soul. He'd carry on, and Daehyun would tune him out, bored with the tirade, and Yougjae would grab his arm. "It's not too late to be saved." He'd take Daehyun's hand—forcing Daehyun to consciously focus on his words rather than the softness of his hands. "This is why we find God's children, to save them and guide them towards His holy light."
They're all on a mission from God.
He believed in the mission, blinded by the light, and accepted it as his purpose, until he held a tiny life in his hands, scalded His Mark into the infant's flesh, and saw its death sear his eyes. All across his body, something like electricity shocked him still and afraid.
He feared for the baby, and he feared for himself.
So maybe this is no dream, but he hopes yesterday was. He hasn't heard from his friends about Yuna's mom, but he still hopes she's okay and just went to run an errand without telling anyone or taking her familiar with her.
But he can hope.
Frog demands breakfast, but he refuses to get off of Junhong's sternum. The only compromise that saves Junhong from being righteously clawed is to wrap the cat in his arms, roll out of bed, and carry him to the kitchen. There's a note on the counter: Dad and I are out for the day. Behave. Feed Frog. So excited for tomorrow night! XOXO Mom
The day after tomorrow is his birthday. He doesn't remember any plans for tomorrow night. He shrugs and sets Frog on the counter—no one's around to yell at him about it, anyway—and opens a can of cat food that smells absolutely disgusting to any living creature but his own weird cat.
He feeds himself while his cat eats, checks Frog's water and litter box, and finally sends Jongup a text about hanging out, since it's Sunday, and neither of them usually have anything better to do than bum around the skatepark.
Junhong arrives before Jongup and plays with his longboard while he waits, riding back and forth and doing a couple freestyle tricks and trying not to hit any pedestrians. They cast dirty looks his way, regardless.
One couple pretty much ignores him completely, young woman comfortably under the man's arm. He usually wouldn't care, but there's something weird about how they're walking. It bothers Junhong enough that he kicks up his board and follows them.
They disappear around the corner of a bank, and Junhong waits a couple heartbeats before stepping into the alley, ducking down behind a dumpster.
The woman's held against the man, head forward and hands lightly holding onto his biceps. Junhong can't see the man's face until he sees the woman's knees shake, and she almost falls right through the man's arms.
He doesn't know what he's looking at. There's no blood, no weapon, no nothing of any sort of distress, but when a rat noses at Junhong's sneakers, he yelps and falls onto his butt in the middle of the alley. It scurries away with a squeak of its own. Junhong looks up and meets a severe face sporting a frown that only makes it look more severe. The man's big, tall, has earrings in both ears and a bit of ink reaching out of the wide neckline of his shirt.
“Oh God... P-Please, don’t kill me.”
“What?" The man blinks, and his frown melts to confusion. "Hey, now. No one’s killing anyone.”
“Stay away. J-Just-Just leave me alone.” Junhong moves his hand behind him to find his dropped board, keeping his full attention on the stranger and lifeless woman.
“C’mon, just relax. I’m not going to hurt you." He tries to reason with Junhong, but his rumbly voice is not meant for soothing. "I’m not that kind of vampire!”
Vampire. Now Junhong's in trouble. “What kind are you?” his voice cracks a little.
The vampire shifted, feet shoulder-width apart and shoulder relaxed. “Look, there are different kinds of vampires, okay? Some drink blood. That’s the classic, traditional, and honestly really gross vampire. I’m the kind that feeds off energy. Emotions. Feelings.”
Junhong shakes his head jerkily. “...Bullshit.”
“I’m serious!” He licks his lips and holds out his hands. "My name is Yongguk, alright? This morning, I had cinammon cereal with flax milk. Lunch was ramen from the vendor right down the street. I had a couple candy bars, too. No blood at all. Now please," he soothes, "just take a deep breath and try to calm down."
"What's up with her?"
"Her name's Jieun; she's a good friend of mine. She's just asleep. Think about when you run around all day. How do you feel?"
Like shit. "Exhausted."
"And what do you do?"
Read manga. "Sleep."
"Exactly. She doesn't have the energy to be awake, because I have..consumed it." It probably sounded like a better explanation in his head. "She's alive and well and will sleep peacefully for an hour or so."
Junhong wants to believe him. He wants to believe that the whole world hasn't gone insane and that there are still good people who do good things and don't care about bright lights or birthright ceremonies. He gets to his feet and dusts off his jeans. "I'm Junhong."
"Junhong?" Yongguk smiles. His teeth look normal, and he has a goofy sort of smile that shows pink gums. "It's nice to meet you. I'm sorry I scared you."
"Junhong?" Human and vampire turn towards the new voice. Jongup's looking around the corner and approaches when he has their attention; he walks towards Junhong but watches Yonnguk, his own skateboard held tight in his fingers. "You alright?"
"I'm fine. Yongguk hyung just scared me a little is all."
"I could hear your heartbeat from a few blocks away." He finally looks at Junhong and smiles sweetly. It's almost too sweet, but Junhong doesn't notice. He rubs the back of his neck and pretends he doesn't blush. "You sure you're okay?"
"Y-Yeah, sorry. I've just never met a vampire before." He almost slaps a hand over his mouth, thinking he might have just outed Youngguk, but Jongup's nose knows. Werewolves have better senses than some vampires, so the rumours go. "Uh, this is my friend Jongup."
The wolf steps beside Junhong, right in his personal bubble, and visually checks him for bruises or any sort of distress while the human whines that he's fine. Junhong half expects Jongup to start sniffing him, but the boy thankfully reined in his inner wolf. Once satisfied, he drops his hands but stays close.
Another rumour says that werewolves express more possessiveness than some vampires. This Junhong fully believes, since seeing a couple of boys a year or two younger than him fighting in full wolf over who would get to play with another boy.
Yongguk tries to hide his grin, but it's really too cute. "I didn't know humans kept guard dogs." Jongup's barely older than Junhong and is a few years younger than Yongguk himself. A pup staking any sort of territorial claim is about as impressive as a bunny having a temper tantrum. Thumping feet and huffy whines.
"This kind of vampire is okay," Jongup assures after a snort at Yongguk's comment. "He's harmless." Ouch. Low blow. "He probably scared you on purpose, just for your frightened energy or something."
That doesn't sound like something Yongguk would do, but he shrugs. Water off the vampire's back. He doesn't rise to the bait and lets a smile curl his lips. "You're right. My kind are much weaker; we don't need brute strength to fend for ourselves." He gestures to the woman in his arms. "Would you like to come with me? I'm taking her home; you come along and make sure I don't gobble her up."
The boys exchange a look and shrug. Junhong readily trots ahead, and Jongup sighs behind him but follows.
Yongguk doesn't take them far. He explains that Jieun shares an apartment with some friends close to the studio they all work at, near a bus stop. His knock is answered quickly by a pretty girl with paint staining her clothes. She smiles. "Hi, Yongguk!"
"Sunhwa. Hana and Hyoseong around?" He steps into the apartment and gently lays Jieun—still sleeping peacefully—on the nearest couch.
"Nope. They said they were gonna check something out... Hello."
Junhong jumps, eyes wide, although the attention shouldn't have been surprising, since he literally stands on her doorstep. "Hi! I'm Junhong. This is Jongup."
Sunhwa blinks at them curiously. Yongguk clears his throat. "They're just making sure I don't eat Jieun."
She covers a shrill laugh with the back of her hand. Looking at the boys, she points to Yongguk incredulously. "Him? He's completely harmless!"
Jongup flushes a little, scuffing the toe of his sneaker against the floor.
Sunhwa ushers them all inside, offering tea when the pot begins to whistle. "You know, Yongguk, I'm glad you came when you did."
"As if you didn't know."
"Yes, well, I have been wrong before." She flips her hair over her shoulder and waves a hand. "Come look. I've been at it for a while, now, but it doesn't make any sense to me."
Yongguk frowns. "That's unusual." He sees the open curiosity on the boys' faces and explains, "Sunhwa's a harbinger." They stared blankly, a bit glossy-eyed. "She sees the future." Their mouths open in little "o"s of understanding.
The innermost room has no windows and is set up like a studio of sorts. Paint cans sit open over the floor, various brushes laid across their tops. The floor crinkles when they all enter, lifting their feet higher to avoid kicking up the protective plastic entirely. Jongup pulls his shirt up over his nose, trying to block out some of the stench of fresh paint.
Sunhwa gestures to the far wall. "This is it. Every night, I've been having visions, and it's a bit more vivid each time, but it's still too abstract for me to understand."
The whole wall was painted black and then layered with whites, reds, greys, and blues. Piles piled on top of one another, objects jutting out at odd angles. Brighter colours radiated minutely from the ceiling, barely giving any indication of light. A lone figure—barely distinguishable—sits atop the abstract rubbish. White splashes from one side, spread throughout the wall in careless smudges.
"I don't know," Yongguk admits. "It feels..." he struggles for the right word, sighs, and shakes his head. "It almost feels hopeful, but there's so much distress."
Jongup's tilting his head from one shoulder to the other, intense focus on his face.
Yongguk points out colours and features and tells Sunhwa how the feel to him, what they could possibly be. Junhong hears his voice but can't make out the words.
He's back in another dream, a recent one. It smells awful, worse than paint fumes, and he can only describe it as death. Bodies—feathers, claws, fur, teeth, groans—heap together in an indescribable pile of violence and rot.
Atop it all, Junhong perches with his knees to his chest, eyes to the sky, and white wings dripping blood.
"It's me," he whispers. Only Jongup hears him, turning to him with knit brows. "It's me," he says, loud enough to cut through Yongguk's struggling philosophical lecture. The boy strides up to the wall and points to the blobs of colour with stark white. "This is me looking at the sky." His arm arcs, encompassing the top portion of the mural. "These," he points to the piles, "are bodies..."
"Junhong, are you sure?"
"I've been having dreams."
Sunhwa's eyes gleam with the beginnings of understanding. She grabs a paint brush and adds definition to the painted Junhong and piles of corpses, blurred colours developing clearer lines. He hand hovers over the wall, and she looks at Junhong over her shoulder. "What's the white?"
"Wings." Junhong swallows. His mouth is dry. He could really use that tea, now. "Those are my wings." His back aches.
The Continued Falls
He doesn't notice anything wrong until he splashes some water on his face from a curled leaf.
It's completely silent.
There's a duck pond near his tree that some water spirits play in, but they're solemnly on the rocks, and the ducks are nowhere to be seen. He's about to ask why they're so quiet when he sees a deer lying in the reedy grasses around the pond.
Minseok flutters to the opposite side of the pond, landing on a bent cattail, and pushes some grass out of the way to see the deer's face. It's peaceful, and his tiny heart breaks upon recognising the fangs of the little water deer.
A spirit walks over the water to crouch by Minseok. It takes Minseok in its temporarily corporeal hands and lets the grass cover the forest god again. "We found him last night."
"Why would he have been out so early? And why was he here?" The deer of the dawn lived in China; he rarely left his own forest.
The spirit shakes its head sadly. "We don't know. There have been rumours—we heard it from some wolves—that a lot of gods and guardians have been dying, lately. They leave their homes, come here..." it shrugs, "and they just...die."
Another spirit glides over. "Even a dragon left its den to come here. I saw it flying just the other day, but no one's seen it since."
Minseok curls over his knees, hugging them to his chest and trying to control the wild beating of his heart. Gods and guardians, while not necessarily immortal, are notoriously long-living and wise enough to know how to avoid danger. He can't imagine anything being so important that so many would decide to leave the safety and comfort of their homes without some sort of plan. He also can't imagine dying so far from home, alone.
"Too much," Hana jokes, scrolling through her phone. "Hey, Yongguk. Figure out what the mural means?"
Junhong and Jongup sit in the painted room, not really listening to the conversation outside as Yongguk explains about Junghong's dreams and Sunhwa's visions. Junghong stares at the wall, scratching absently over his shoulder; Jongup divides his attention between his friend and the wall showing his friend sitting on a mound of bodies. If he was full wolf, his tail would be tucked and ears flat.
"So who is this kid, then?" Hyoseong leans forward to set her tea on the coffee table. "A harbinger like Sunhwa?"
"I don't think so," Yongguk comments. Sunhwa shrugs. "Maybe he's a wizard? Late to his powers? He's still pretty young."
"You grow up with magic, if that's the case, though..."
Jongup leans over, bumping shoulders with Junhong. "You okay?"
"I dunno. Things have been weird, lately."
"My dreams, this, that light, Yuna's mom disappearing, my mom going on about something happening tomorrow night." He shakes his head and extends his legs, sitting back on his arms. "I don't get it. It's like everything's happening at once, and I don't think it's a good thing."
As if to punctuate just how not a thing thing his feeling is, the doorbell rings. The boys sit quiet as church mice. Someone opens the door and introduces themselves. Cool air from outside drifts inside, carrying with it a smell like nothing Jongup's ever smelled before. He shifts immediately, uncaring of his torn clothing, and Junhong starts to ask him what his deal is when Yongguk literally crashes through the door with the sound of enraged hissing behind him.
"We have to leave, now." He takes Junhong by the elbow, and Sunhwa runs in behind, pushing at Jongup's furry shoulders.
There's a door covered by a large, unpainted canvas. Sunhwa throws it open and nearly shoves them outside. "No questions, just run!"
"Hyung, what happened?" Junhong's an active kid, but long-distance running isn't his idea of a good time.
"Angels. One of them knocked on the door, asking for you."
"Why would they want me?"
"You tell me." Yongguk yanks him by the arm turn after turn, relying on the back and forth to confuse their pursuers.
Angels have wings and can fly, however, which makes tracking prey quite easy when they're running a glorified maze.
Junhong sees the shadows on the walls and points. Yongguk urges him to run faster; they can hide in the crowd once they're out of the alleys.
It's a good plan, but they don't use it.
The sun sets in the west, which is the direction they're running in when they're completely blinded and stopped in their tracks. Giant wings flap, sending gusts of air to pick up random leaves and debris from the cracked pavement and throwing it around in a scaled tornado.
Two angels, dark featured but sporting faces of opposing softness, stand on either side of the trio, blocking off any escape other than up. Jongup could make it, but he's not about to leave his friend. He's not violent by nature, although a clear and present threat rises the fur across his shoulders.
"Junhong." The angel with sharp features smiles, and it's warmer than Junhong expected. Warm and genuine. "We've been looking for you."
"Here I am?"
The softer angel speaks quickly, less patient. "You need to come with us. We're all waiting for you."
Junhong doesn't move either way, backing up against the brick with Yongguk on his left and Jongup on his right.
"You don't have to be afraid anymore. Of anything. We won't hurt you; we want to save you."
"From what?" All he has are questions, the biggest one being Why me?.
The angels don't answer. Someone drops from a fire escape onto the foxy faced angel, tackling him to the ground. Jongup takes the opportunity to charge the other angel, driving him into the wall and whirling around to beckon with his paw to run again. Junhong's caught his breath, already, so he makes sure Yongguk is following and runs once again.
"Daehyun," he introduces before anyone can ask. "My name's Daehyun. I'm Fallen. I'm here to protect you." He's completely winded and collapses on his butt.
Yongguk catches on quicker than the boys. "Fallen? As in fallen angel?" Daehyun nods. "You're not with the others?"
"Fallen can't be. We're gone for a reason."
"Because I want to protect Junhong." He sits back to catch his breath, and Junhong stays near Yongguk while Jongup goes to his room to change and put new clothes on.
"Hyung, what do you think?" In the short time he's known Yongguk, he's come to rely on him. He's a natural hero. Quiet and pensive.
"He's telling the truth, for what it's worth. I can feel it."
Junhong chews on his lip and waits for Jongup to come back downstairs. In the meantime, Daehyun the fallen angel turns chatty. "You've grown a lot since I last saw you. True, you'd literally just been born, and you've obviously grown since then, but you're a lot more mature than I expected." Junhong's not sure if that's a compliment or not. "I know this is weird and an awful lot, but you need to trust me."
"Aren't angels supposed to be good?"
"In theory, yes. I've known them my entire existence, and I can honestly say I've ever met such a boring, petty group." Daehyun sits up more when Jongup comes downstairs. "You know they were pretty popular for a long while, before other kin decided to stop hiding." Vampires, werewolves, shapeshifters, ghouls, fae, and more came out of the woodwork many years after being written off as legend and folklore. Humans were shocked to find magic-using witches in their very midst. Shops discovered their wares were so sought after was because of the little people who worked through the night to make everything perfect.
Everyone should have gotten along as well as when they were blended in, but humans just don't work that way.
"And neither do angels. They don't like change, good or bad. They started spreading rumours that God wanted humans to be pure again, like when he first made them."
"Eve ate the apple," Yongguk points out. "She was tempted by the snake."
Daehyun nods. "And that snake has multiplied." He levels a look at Jongup. "It's become wolves. Witches. Dragons. Phoenix. Our Father," he leans forward again, arms on his knees, "asked us all to help him return his children to their original state, pure and naive. The only way to do that is to get rid of them."
Angels are on an extermination mission.
"What's that got to do with me?" Junhong doesn't want to know, but he has to know. That feeling in his gut is clogging his throat and sitting thickly over his teeth. The itch in his shoulders has gotten worse. He's expecting to hear wings any minute.
"You're the one who's going to lead the charge. A converted child, born from a converted mother, whose friends are Unnatural. They'll trust you implicitly.
"Thing is," he continues, "our Father has been gone for a long time. I don't know who's giving these orders and starting these rumours, but this crusade is not something he'd want. When he made man, he made you all, too. I saw Junhong as a leader. If Himchan and Youngjae take him, he'll wipe out a great part of the population in no time. If he can avoid it, he'll save an entire world."
The Big Question
"You were chosen by unique circumstances. My job was to give you the mark, what you've called a birthmark your whole life." Junhong rubs at the spot the handprint lies on his chest. "When I did that, I saw your future. It scared me, and angels aren't supposed to know fear."
"So what'd you do?"
"I gave you to your mom and told her to protect you, which she's done for many many years, but she gets weaker every day she's under the influence of misinterpretations and guided deception of your dad's faith. It's all blind. There's nothing to show my father's love, like there was a long time ago, because he's moved on. He's probably bored and moved to a different universe to reshape it.
"Because of that, I applied to be Junhong's guardian angel. Even Fallen, I'm still your guardian. It's my life to protect yours." He doesn't mention all the others who did the same and died. Humans are not as forgiving as angels, but it's not saying much for either's character.
Jongup's unimpressed. Junhong looks to Yongguk, who shrugs.
"Say I believe you," he says slowly, rubbing his chest. "What do we do now?"
"The shindig to convert you is tomorrow night. You just have to miss it."
"Avoid the angels, avoid your family, avoid the people you don't know." It's thirty-two hours. Junhong can handle avoiding Life for thirty-two hours.
He can't handle Jongup's whining for thirty-two minutes, however. "Dude! It's going to be fine. We can trust Daehyun."
"How? I don't know him. You don't know him. You don't even know Yongguk."
"It's just...a feeling. I dunno. Good vibes or something. Relax. Want to play frisbee or something?" Jongup doesn't. He wants to sit and whine to Junhong about how poor his decisions are for another thirty-two minutes before he gets bored and falls asleep.
"Kidnapping is kind of an uncouth way of doing things, Youngjae. We've still got time."
"Barely a day," Youngjae grouses. He feels in a block of houses but doesn't find Junhong. "And with Daehyun, now, it's going to be harder to find him, let alone take him away."
"Daehyun's harmless." Himchan rolls his shoulders. A human would be sore from someone jumping on top of them; Himchan won't even bruise. "Took him a while to fall. Must've been pretty bad."
"He disobeyed Father's order. What else would you expect?"
With a shrug, Himchan calls the attention of a street vendor, who points in the direction leading out of town. The angels take to the sky and follow the direction to a more secluded area of homes that immediately sets them on edge. "Wolves. Gross." They walk around perimeters, looking in windows, and avoid being smelled until they reach the final house.
Jongup and Yongguk greet them stonily.
It feels like a distraction, but the angels can't be certain, so they face the duo and slowly open all of their eyes. White light pours from the pupils, beams expanded by the lenses, and they don't notice Junhong and Daehyun slipping away.
The Unexpected Help
Frog greets them eagerly, winding around Daehyun's ankles like he's an old friend.
The house is quiet and dark, but Frog meows and looks at them, walking a few feet before looking at them again and meowing. He leads them to the master bedroom and noses the door open. A lamp is on, shining on the page Mrs Choi has been reading for the last hour.
As if waking from a trance, she blinks and looks around, finally noticing her youngest and surging to her feet to gather him in a hug. She recognises Daehyun; he can see it in her eyes, and she grasps his hand fondly.
"Junhong," she leans back and takes his face in her hands. "It's dangerous here."
"You said to be home for—"
"It's not important. I can't let it happen to you. I won't." Her eyes are wide and watering. "Please," she begs Daehyung, "watch over him. He's my baby. I don't..."
"I'll keep him safe," he promises. "It's always been my job."
She pulls something from her pocket, woven from some sort of fine string. "Take this. It'll help."
"What is it?"
"It's a charm blessed by some of the oldest witches known to our kind." Our kind.
"It'll keep the angels from finding you," she explains. With a kiss to Junhong's cheek—and one to Daehyun, who blushed a little—she pushes them both towards the door.
The day is spent in an old warehouse building Yongguk says used to belong to some vampires before they moved on. The walls are spray painted and tagged so thickly that nothing stands out. The furniture left behind looks like something from a carnival; there's even a rusted miniature carousel.
It's boring, but they're safe.
The frustrated screams are felt rather than heard and go silent in the shock of light.
Birds and crickets start singing when the light is gone and blink back at the stars in the sky.
If any more fall, it's for sheer joy.
Life is pretty good.
He stretches his wings a bit, still uncoordinated and painful, but he's kind of excited to try them out.