Taemin is fourteen when his mother dies.
It’s late, and she’s driving to one of his dance recitals when a storm suddenly hits. It wouldn’t have been a big deal — just some water and thunder — but a driver, drunk out of his mind, doesn’t see her in the pouring rain.
Her car skids off the road and tumbles nose-first down a hill. The paramedics pronounce her dead upon impact.
His father goes to identify the body. No one lets him or his little brother Jongin see her, but they hear whispers as they sit waiting in the hospital emergency room. Apparently, in the accident, a huge, jagged shard of glass cut across her throat, and her head only hung attached to her body by a few strands of muscle.
After that, Taemin’s life changes like the flip of a coin.
His father blames him for what happened, says she wouldn’t have been driving that night if Taemin didn’t have to prance around like a damn faggot.
Sometimes, Taemin believes him.
He gets beaten a lot now. His father’s fist slams into his gut over and over, and when Taemin can no longer stand, a foot kicks him until his vision fades.
But it’s okay, Taemin thinks, because their father is so preoccupied with him that he doesn’t go after Jongin, who always hides and tries to keep his tears silent.
Taemin resigns to his fate. Two years pass this way.
But sometimes, when their father is gone and it’s just him and Jongin, Taemin dances.
They’ll blast the latest Wonder Girls or TVXQ song, and the two of them will laugh and perform like they’re both idols on a grand stage, and for just those small moments, an enormous weight lifts and Taemin feels free again.
Taemin realizes too late that this little bit of happiness is a mistake.
Their father comes home early one night to find Taemin dancing and singing his heart out to “Mirotic.”
For the rest of his life, he never quite remembers that night. He remembers his father’s face, contorted like a raging monster, and he remembers Jongin screaming.
His memory becomes clear again when he recalls what happens next, however.
He remembers waking up in a sterile white room. He had sustained severe physical trauma to both his legs, the doctors tell him, and unfortunately, a blood clot had formed. The muscle in his right thigh was dying, they explain to him, so it had to be cut out.
He’ll walk, but he’ll never dance again.
Six years pass, and Taemin is twenty two now. He walks with a cane.
Since activity is an issue, he works from home answering calls as a technical support assistant. Every phone call he answers, every “Hello! This is LG Electronics. Taemin speaking. How may I help you?” sucks out a little bit of his soul, but it makes enough money to pay for the one bedroom hovel him and Jongin live in, so it’s okay.
He swallows every bit of anger and depression like a bitter pill.
The thing about swallowing one’s emotions though, is that it will build and build until eventually it comes roaring back, stronger than it ever was before.
Jongin comes home from school one evening and makes a biting comment about something or rather, something unimportant, trivial, really. But it ignites the waiting resentment inside of him.
He doesn’t mean to, doesn’t want, oh god he doesn’t want to—
He hits Jongin.
His fist connects with Jongin’s face, and the force of it sends his younger brother tumbling to the floor.
“Jongin? Jongin, I’m… I’m so sorry, I-I didn’t mean to,” he whispers to his brother. Cries.
But Jongin slaps away the shaky hand he offers and picks himself up.
“Don’t talk to me,” Jongin says with betrayal in his eyes.
He leaves their apartment, slamming the door hard behind him.
Taemin cries harder.
He is not his father, Taemin tells himself. He is a better man than that fiend ever was.
He works hard. Provides for Jongin. Tries to give him everything he wants. Shelters and feeds them both. Never raises a hand against him (until today).
But if he is a better man, then why, when he looks into the bathroom mirror, the sink splashing noisily before him, does he meet hollow, empty eyes?
Why is his reflection that of a monster?
He searches the city for Jongin. The muscles in his right leg are screaming for him to stop walking, but he can’t. He has to find his brother, has to apologize, has to set things right.
Except Jongin is nowhere to be found. Not in any of the nearby cafes, stores, libraries. He tries calling, but his brother won’t answer his phone. It occurs to him that Jongin could have gone to a friend’s place, but he realizes that he doesn’t know any of Jongin’s friends.
When he thinks about it, he doesn’t know much about Jongin these days.
When had they grown apart?
They had always been glued to each other’s hip. Twins, others used to call them. They were each other’s everything— the only thing that kept each other alive when their father was blinded by drunken rage.
When had they become mere ghosts to each other, existing and passing by, but never actually seeing the other?
Taemin journeys deeper into the bustling city.
Sometime around midnight, Taemin wanders to Bukchon village near the center of Seoul.
He recalls the traditional hanok homes from a school trip he took many years ago. It doesn’t make much sense to him why his he’s ended up here. Not that anything makes much sense to him anymore.
Taemin travels down the small cobblestone streets of the village. It’s completely empty, it’s inhabitants no doubt inside their warm little homes, sleeping peacefully.
Taemin wants to sleep, wants to crawl into bed and never, ever wake up.
He continues walking.
The droning of summer cicadas is the only thing that accompanies him in the darkness of the night.
If he closes his eyes and listens, he can hear his own heartbeat, and he stands there for a moment, his hand leaning against a stone wall, eyes shut, and listens as his pulse beats in time to match the cicadas call.
It composes a strange little tune, and if Taemin concentrates, he can hear the words of a chorus quietly weaving itself into his mind’s song.
It calls to him softly, singing “Come to me, little wanderer of the earth, come to me.”
A voice, light and melodic, creeps into every crack and corner of his mind, and fills his very being. It wraps around the core of his soul and squeezes tight. It’s slow, melancholic, yet never sad, and addictively enticing.
Taemin feels his feet carry him down a road.
“Aren’t you frustrated, trapped inside this small box?
Isn’t this world, crashing with waves, difficult?”
It knows. His head nods, yes, and tears prickle at the corner of his eyes because it knows. He’s trapped, he’s frustrated, he wants it all to end. The song understands him.
“I know a secret, something nobody knows.
Shall I tell you, little wanderer?”
The question pulls him forward, down a path, around a corner, in a direction he doesn’t know.
“Don’t run away from me, only I want to see the pretty you.”
Taemin shakes his head roughly. Never. He could never run away. His pace speeds up, in fact. almost running. His thigh cries in pain but he can’t feel it, can’t feel anything but the song.
“I will tell the secret to you.
Only to you.”
Somewhere in the back of his mind, Taemin sees that he’s come to a small hanok tucked away near the heart of the village. It stands horribly crooked, leaning to the left, and the gate is ajar. Taemin pushes it fully open and enters the complex.
“It’s only us in the world.
Only dance for me.”
He passes a number of doors, none of them holding the source of that beautiful voice. Where is it? So marvelous, so enchanting.
“Hurry and come to me…”
Taemin lays a hand against a wooden door, and feels the melody resonate through his fingertips. It’s here. The voice is here.
He swings open the door.
Taemin steps into a room, and his breath catches in his throat when he sees him, perched on an open windowsill — the most beautiful boy he’s ever seen.
The boy’s eyes are closed as he hums the last notes of his song, and when he opens them, he looks directly at Taemin.
He smiles sweetly.
“Welcome, little wanderer.”
The boy with hair like snow and shining brown eyes introduces himself as Jonghyun.
“Lee Taemin,” he mumbles in response.
“Let’s talk somewhere else. I don’t like to do business where I sleep,” Jonghyun says.
It’s only then that Taemin becomes aware of his surroundings. He looks around, spotting the messy and unkempt bed in the corner, and realizes they must’ve been in Jonghyun’s bedroom.
Jonghyun latches the window closed and leads Taemin down a hallway and to another room. While they’re walking, Taemin notices that Jonghyun is shorter than he first thought, and looks even smaller in his big, oversized shirt.
It’s suffocating inside the room they enter. There’s more smoke than there is oxygen, and the smell of cedarwood incense permeates the air.
There are dozens of strange things hanging down from the ceiling — glittering trinkets, bundles of herbs, and dried animal parts.
Boxes and scrolls are piled high everywhere, all of it covered in an inch layer of grey dust. It’s impossible to walk anywhere inside the room but straight to a desk with a chair on either side situated in the middle of the room.
Taemin hacks the taste of cedarwood out of his throat while Jonghyun plops himself down on one side of the desk.
“Please, sit.” Jonghyun gestures to the other chair. So Taemin does.
Jonghyun is a witch, or so he says. Taemin doubts that claim the moment it leaves Jonghyun’s full, pink lips, but the boy insists.
“How else do you think you got here?” Jonghyun laughs. “Or were you completely lucid when you decided to follow a voice into a stranger’s home?”
He has a point, Taemin thinks. The other’s words sink into his mind and Taemin furrows his brows. He really had been out of his mind when Jonghyun’s voice enchanted him, but could that really mean such things as magic existed?
The thought makes his head ache with a dull throb. It feels as if his mind has been stuffed with cotton.
Now that he thought about it, should he really even be here?
Jonghyun reaches over and taps Taemin’s hand. His fingers are like ice and they snap Taemin’s attention back to him.
“My song only attracts those in need,” he explains. “So tell me. What do you need?”
He chews on his bottom lip nervously, contemplating whether or not he should tell him.
Maybe this was all a dream, in which case, there was no harm, right?
“It’s my brother,” Taemin decides to admit. There are no lies in dreams. “I, um… we got into a fight, and he ran out. You haven’t seen him by any chance, have you?”
The snowy-haired boy shakes his head.
“Sorry, no. I haven’t seen him,” Jonghyun trails off.
Something tight grips Taemin’s heart, and he nods his head. “Right. Thanks, then. I should probably go— ”
“But,” Jonghyun interrupts him. “I can find him.”
He gets up from his seat and begins rummaging through a nearby pile of dusty junk. A long, rolled up piece of paper emerges from the depths of the mass of objects, and Jonghyun unfurls it atop the desk to reveal a detailed map of Seoul.
“You don’t think he’s left the city, do you? Because I have other maps,” the supposed witch offers.
“No,” Taemin says with a shake of his head. “I don’t think he has.”
Jonghyun hums in response and sets a few small crystals and rocks on the corners of the map to flatten it. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a Swiss army knife.
“I need your blood,” says Jonghyun. “Just a small cut on your finger, that’s all it’ll take.”
Maybe he shouldn’t be here. Maybe it was a mistake, to stay in this foreign place for so long. He’s made so, so many mistakes already. Maybe he should just call the police. Jongin wouldn’t like it, but he had to make sure his little brother was safe, he had to—
And there’s that cold touch again, this time as a hand on his shoulder.
“It’s okay. You can trust me.”
Taemin opens his mouth to object.
“Trust me,” Jonghyun repeats, his voice lifting into a melodic lilt this time.
It wouldn’t hurt to try, Taemin supposes. Just a little cut. If nothing came of it, he could just leave. He could wake up from this dream.
He holds out his left hand, palm facing up, and Jonghyun makes a small cut along his forefinger.
The blood drips onto the map, bright and red, and when enough has spilled to form a puddle the size of a coin, Jonghyun pinches Taemin’s finger and wraps it with a thin band of cloth.
“What’s his name?”
“Jongin. Lee Jongin,” Taemin replies absentmindedly, staring at his wrapped finger.
So, even monsters could bleed.
“Jongin,” the other repeats, and holds a hand over the small pool of blood.
He murmurs something Taemin can’t quite understand, though he thinks it has less to do with the volume of Jonghyun’s words and more of the language it’s in.
To his surprise, the blood begins to move.
It runs along the streets on the map, turning left and right, North to South, before it reaches a little corner somewhere in Gangnam and stops. Jonghyun pulls his hand back and the blood sinks into the paper.
“There,” the witch says with a point of his finger. “He’s in an apartment complex in Gangnam.”
Taemin stares at the bloody mark on the map.
This was too easy, wasn’t it? Too lucky. Taemin wasn’t lucky. He was unfortunate.
“You don’t believe me, do you,” Jonghyun sighs.
He doesn’t reply, doesn’t have to.
Jonghyun fishes his phone out of his pocket and places it on top of the map. He wanders the room for a few moments, digging through the contents of various boxes, before he returns with a pen, a sewing needle, and a small piece of paper in hand.
He write’s Jongin’s name twice, connecting the beginning letters with the end to create a little circle, and stabs the center of it with the needle. He drops the pierced scrap of paper onto his phone and looks at Taemin.
“Taeminnie, you need to have more faith in the world,” the witch murmurs to him.
Taemin wonders at that, if such a thing is possible. People say dreams are premonitions, don’t they? Or that they held secret messages? He wonders what this dream is trying to tell him.
Suddenly, Jonghyun’s phone rings.
The snowy-haired boy nudges the phone toward Taemin. “It’s for you.”
Confused, Taemin picks up the phone and looks at the screen. He nearly drops the device when he sees the number that’s calling.
But, it wasn’t possible.
He presses the green answer button and holds the phone to his ear.
There was no mistaking it. It was his brother.
With a sigh of relief, Taemin pushes the end call button and drops the phone onto the desk.
Jongin, apparently, had been trying to call a KFC, and somehow entered the wrong number. His brother is reluctant to talk to him, but he admits he’s sorry for running out the way he did. It’s okay, Taemin tells him. It wasn’t anything he didn’t deserve.
He had run off to a friend’s place, a friend named Kyungsoo, and he promised he would be back after school the next day. Taemin agrees to that, not wanting to push his luck, and Jongin bids him goodnight.
Jonghyun picks his phone off from the desk and pockets it.
“Believe me now?” asks Jonghyun with a smug grin on his face.
Taemin nods stiffly.
It seems he wasn’t dreaming after all. But that doesn’t make his reality any harder to swallow.
“If witches are real,” Taemin begins tentatively. “Are other things real too? Things like gumiho and ghosts.”
Jonghyun laughs, a sound that’s loud and full of emotion and sweeps over Taemin like the gentlest of waves.
“Of course,” he replies. He grabs the stone paperweights laying on the map and tosses them into some unknown, dark corner of the room. The map is rolled up and stuck back into a nearby mountain of scrolls and other paper-like objects. “Western things too, like vampires and werewolves. They’re really stuck up though. I guess being romanticized in every major Hollywood movie will do that to you.”
Taemin doesn’t laugh — he doesn’t think he knows how to anymore — but his lips curl up into a smile.
“Hey!” Jonghyun points at him. “You smiled. You’re really pretty when you smile. Like a fairy prince.”
Taemin sputters and flushes a deep scarlet at that.
The last time someone called him pretty, he could walk without a cane.
The witch rests his palms against the desk and leans forward into Taemin’s space.
“I’ll tell you what,” Jonghyun whispers as he lifts a finger to gently trace the curves of Taemin’s mouth. Taemin shivers at the sensation. “I’ll accept your smile as payment. You’re lucky it’s such a lovely one. I don’t think anyone else could pay two and a half million won with just a quirk of their lips.”
“Two and a half million…?” asks Taemin dazedly. Jonghyun’s finger stops at the corner of his mouth, and Taemin has to swallow back the request that threatens to leave him.
Jonghyun nods. “My service fee for a consultation and the use of two spells.”
The shorter boy steps back then and returns to his seat on the opposite side of the large wooden desk. Taemin lifts a hand up the his lips, missing the feeling of Jonghyun, but he pretends to merely be covering a sudden cough.
Jonghyun folds his hands in front of him like a professional and asks, “Is there any other way I can help you tonight, Taemin?”
“I don’t think so,” he answers slowly.
Jongin was safe. That’s all he needed to know. Safe and willing to return to him. He hopes Jongin doesn’t regret that decision.
“Are you sure?” When all he receives in response is a confused tilt of the head, Jonghyun continues. “What about your leg?”
The question throws him off guard.
“What do you mean what about it?” Taemin asks with a dull and tired annoyance in his voice. He didn’t want to talk about it, never wanted to talk about it. He had to live it every day— pain and isolation.
Jonghyun licks his lips. “I can fix it.”
Taemin’s world seems to tilt in that moment.
That can’t be possible. In or out of a dream it wasn’t possible, it just wasn’t. It was too good to be true. Taemin doesn’t have such luck. It was too good for him. It wasn’t possible, it wasn’t possible, it wasn’t po—
“But it is, Taemin,” Jonghyun says, interrupting the thoughts that Taemin realizes had become spoken words. “Nothing is impossible. Haven’t I shown you that already?”
With a short snap, the witch pulls open one of the desk drawers and pulls out long cylindrical object. When it’s unrolled, Taemin realizes it’s a silk scroll. It’s old and frayed and yellowed, but the words printed on it stand out as if new— in bold, black ink.
“You don’t have any money, do you?” Jonghyun asks.
Taemin shakes his head, no. Truthfully, he doesn’t. If Jonghyun had demanded the two and a half million won from before, Taemin honestly doesn’t know what he would’ve done. Sell his organs, maybe.
“I thought so,” he replies, and pulls out another item from within the desk. It’s a knife this time, but it’s much different from the one he used to cut Taemin’s finger. This one is old, with a smooth jade handle and a tarnished silver blade.
“We’ll make a deal instead, then. A pact.” Jonghyun taps the scroll with a finger. “It’s all written out here in this contract. In lieu of payment, you’ll work for me. Gather the ingredients, and I’ll make the elixir. When it’s all done, you’ll be able to walk again. For the rest of your life.”
For the rest of his life. That’s nice. Too nice, for him. Monsters don’t deserve happy endings.
“You’re lying,” Taemin whispers.
“I don’t lie, Taemin,” Jonghyun says with a shake of his head.
He stands from his seat and moves around the desk to kneel down by Taemin’s right side. He rests a gentle hand atop Taemin’s thigh and glances up at him.
“This is the source of your pain, right?”
Taemin watches him closely, a question forming on his tongue that he doesn’t voice, and nods.
Suddenly, Jonghyun’s hand presses down hard, and Taemin cries out, his eyes screwing shut. A feeling like daggers stabbing his flesh shoots up his thigh and it hurts so, so much, but as quickly as it comes, it goes.
Taemin opens his eyes, blinking at Jonghyun, whose eyes are closed in concentration, his lips moving to form inaudible words.
Taemin raises a shaky hand to cover his mouth.
It’s more than the sharp, stabbing pain disappearing. There is no pain at all. For the first time in six years, Taemin exists without a shred of pain.
He shifts his leg slightly to the right, not wanting to disturb the mumbling witch, and he wants to cry because there’s nothing. No agony or discomfort. Nothing.
Then, slowly, Jonghyun opens his eyes and pulls his hand back. Almost instantly, the ever-present ache comes rushing back, and Taemin bites down on his tongue to keep from sobbing.
“I can help you, Taemin.” Jonghyun looks up at him through long, snowy lashes. “If you’ll let me, I can help you.”
“Please,” Taemin begs. “Please help me.”
He wants to walk again, but more than anything, he wants to dance again. He wants to spin on the tips of his toes and leap and jump and be free.
“You will collect everything I need to make your remedy, but you must do everything I tell you to, and you must do them alone,” says Jonghyun.
“I will, I promise I will,” pleads Taemin.
Jonghyun stands and grabs the ancient-looking knife.
“Give me your hand,” the witch instructs, and Taemin does so.
Jonghyun cuts the tip of Taemin’s right forefinger, and then does the same to himself. Taemin watches as red liquid immediately pours forth from his cut, but oddly enough, blood moves at an almost sluggish pace to escape from Jonghyun’s wound. The smaller boy’s blood is dark and thick, and Taemin thinks it must be the attribute of a witch.
Jonghyun reaches over, holding his slowly bleeding finger against Taemin’s lips and paints a line of dark red.
“Do the same to me,” he commands, and Taemin paints a similar line of red across Jonghyun’s plump lips.
The snowy haired boy grabs the scroll and presses his mouth to the bottom corner of it.
He holds the scroll out to Taemin, and says with bloodied lips, “Now you.”
Taemin grasps the yellowed silk and looks at the black letters detailing their contract, at the signature line at the very bottom, at Jonghyun’s smudged and bloody kiss mark on that line. He presses his own lips to it, directly on top of Jonghyun’s mark, and tastes a faint hint of copper.
Suddenly, the old silk begins to glow, and Taemin drops it atop the desk to shield his eyes from the blinding light.
When it’s gone, and Taemin peeks from behind his fingers, the old silk has changed from a grungy yellow to a shining gold.
Jonghyun picks up the scroll and rolls it up.
He smiles at Taemin and tells him:
“The contract is sealed.”
“Here, take this.”
The witch boy holds out to him a small vial of an iridescent blue liquid.
Taemin takes the vial and swishes its contents around.
“What’s it for?” he asks.
“It’s not the real thing, far from it. It’s just temporary— should last about a month. But you won’t be able to complete your tasks without it,” says Jonghyun.
Taemin scrutinizes the glowing liquid for a moment, before flicking the cork top off and swallowing the liquid in one gulp.
He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and asks, “What’s it do?”
“Stand up, and you’ll see.”
So Taemin does. His brows are furrowed in confusion, but he rises from his chair and stands on both feet.
A slow grin spreads across Jonghyun’s face. “Notice anything different?”
Taemin looks down, uncertain. Nothing seemed different, nothing except—
His eyes widen.
He takes a step forward, and then another step, and then another.
“It-it doesn’t hurt… I can walk and it doesn’t hurt,” Taemin realizes aloud.
Jonghyun makes a small humming sound. “Well, you’re going to need both legs.”
Taemin finds himself standing outside an old and decrepit manor a few nights later.
It’s late, past midnight, and he shivers in the dark, despite the summer heat.
The estate is located near the outskirts of Seoul, in an area where Westerners had attempted to establish themselves, but failed. The home Taemin seeks out used to be large and grand once, but is now blackened and bending, as if the structure's own weight is slowly pulling it down.
It’s where the first ingredient is, Jonghyun’s words echo in his mind.
Go after dark, or else you won’t be able to find what you’re looking for.
Taemin steps up to the wrought iron gate and gives it a firm push. It opens with a mind-numbing shriek, and Taemin walks up the gravel path.
It’s called a will-o’-wisp. You’ll know them the second you see them.
The gravel crunches loudly underneath his feet. It’s the only sound in the otherwise deafening blackness of the night. Not even the cicadas sing tonight. Not here.
They’re the souls of those unworthy of moving on, the wicked souls of sinners, and you’re going to bring me one.
As Taemin nears the crumbling mansion, he notices overgrown shrubs and vines have wrapped themselves around the building, as if choking it. It makes him feel sad, almost.
Taemin had asked Jonghyun why they needed something so corrupt, and the witch had made a small tsking noise.
Silly Taeminnie. What was done to you was born from wickedness, so it is by wickedness that it will be undone.
The manor has a large wooden porch that Taemin imagines at one time was painted a beautiful bright color, but now sits as a filthy black. The vines creep between the floorboards, and Taemin is careful to step around them.
The hard part will come after you find one. Once you grab it, do not let it’s fire go out. Keep it warm by any means possible.
The front entrance is a tall and wide set of double doors. They have glass panels inlaid in them that once formed dazzling, crystalline suns. They’re broken and jagged now, but Taemin can still see their shape. He lays his hands against the doors and recalls Jonghyun’s final warning.
But most important— listen close, Taemin. This is the most important thing for you to remember.
Taemin pushes open the double doors and steps inside.
Do not, whatever you do, turn around once you have entered the house.
Taemin shuts the doors behind him, and remembers Jonghyun’s words when Taemin had asked why.
She doesn’t like to be seen…
He wanders through the ruins of a once noble manor, ducking beneath fallen beams and stepping around overturned furniture. It’s horribly dark, so dark Taemin can just barely see the outline of things a few feet in front of him. The entire time, however, Taemin keeps his gaze in front of him.
The longer he traipses through the house, the more Taemin wonders why Jonghyun had been so serious.
From the moment he entered the building, he had felt completely alone. So alone, in fact, that we worries if he’s found the right home.
The more rational part of his mind tells him that there couldn’t possibly be another dilapidated mansion fitting Jonghyun’s exact description, but the more paranoid part of his mind tells him it’s very much possible.
He’s been roaming the ruined rooms and corridors of the manor for thirty minutes when Taemin begins to feel terribly nervous.
Jonghyun had told him he’d recognize the will-o’-wisps as soon as he saw them, but the fact of the matter was, he hadn’t seen any.
He’d seen nothing but dark and cobwebs and ruin.
The thought of leaving the estate crosses his mind as he rounds a corner.
… And almost runs straight into a small floating blue flame.
“Oh!” he cries out, hand pressed over his rapidly beating heart.
The little ball of flame doesn’t seem to take notice of him. It just sways back and forth in place.
The blue fire crackles softly and radiates a dim luminance. Taemin frowns when his ears pick up something. It, it almost sounds like…
I’m sorry I’m so sorry I didn’t mean to light that fire I’m sorry I’m sorry I’msorryI’msorryI’msor—
Taemin jumps back.
It sounds like the voice of a human talking.
These must be the will-o’-wisps, Taemin concludes. And, if the will-o’-wisps were the souls of sinners, then perhaps the flame’s words were it’s deepest regrets.
“You were an arsonist,” Taemin murmurs to the little blue flame.
I was angry I’m sorry I’m so sorry oh god the stench when their flesh burned I’m sorry I’msorryI’msorryI’m—
Taemin sidesteps the flame and continues down the dark hall.
Jonghyun had drilled it into his head that he was to only grab a will-o’-wisp that spoke to his soul. Taemin hadn’t realized at the time how literal that was, but now he understood.
As he moves deeper into the manor, he begins to see more blue flames hovering in the air. Some of them moves in small circles, but most of them simply swish back and forth.
I didn’t want to! He forced me to! It wasn’t my fault it wasn’t my fault itwasn’tmy—
I needed the money what I did was fine I needed the money and that little girl was in the way I needed the money Ineededthe—
—robbed them of their lives and it’s all my fault I got them hooked and it’s all my fault it’sallmyfaultit’sall—
I wish I could’ve stopped she screamed no but I kept going and going and she screamed so much I wish I could’ve stopped IwishIcould’vestoppedIwishI—
The whisperings of the floating souls grow louder and overlap as more and more appear and Taemin can hardly hear himself think, but none of them speak to him, so he keeps walking.
“You’re wrong, all wrong,” he whispers to them.
The woes of the damned fill his hearing, and he doesn’t notice until a floorboard behind him creaks sharply.
He’s no longer alone.
Taemin freezes, not daring to move a single muscle. His ears strain to pick up a sound other than the whispering voices.
There’s no other sound.
Taemin takes a step forward.
A board creaks behind him.
There’s something following him.
Sweat beads across his face. Don’t look back, he tells himself, commands himself. Don’t look back. Whatever you do. Don’t look back.
He inhales a shaky breath and continues his journey forward.
His eyes are fixed on a point in front of him, and he walks and walks and walks, as the floor squeaks behind him every so often. Sometimes, he hears a light scuttling sound, like the sound of a rat racing down the wooden floors.
Except he hasn’t seen a single rat the entire time he’s been in the manor.
The creaks grow more frequent, louder. Something harsh scrapes against the floorboards and the wood shrieks, high-pitched and piercing.
—so delicious I just had to her skin was so beautiful I just had to I just had to I justhadtoIjust—
I wish he would’ve screamed more I waited so long for him he should’ve screamed more heshould’vescreamed—
Something moves at the corner of his vision now. It’s barely there. Taemin doubts himself at first, but he keeps seeing it— a dark blur taunting him.
He can’t make out what it is, but it’s always there, as if something has passed by, as if something is reaching out to him.
Sweat runs like bullets down his entire body now. His eyes are stretched so wide they strain painfully, but he still can’t see it, still doesn’t know what it is. The urge to turn around claws at his mind. He needs to look back, needs to know what’s following him.
His heart thumps so loudly in his chest it hurts and his hands are shaking so, so bad and he keeps walking and walking and—
Something breathes across the back of his neck.
Taemin screams and breaks into a run.
He skids past overturned furniture and more floating blue flames and the floor creaks rapidly behind him.
There’s a door to his left.
He dives into the room and slams the door closed behind him.
He’s alone again. Taemin leans his back heavily against the door and slides down to sit on the dust-covered floor. His trembling hands lift to cover his face. He wants to cry.
The room he jumped into is a ballroom of sorts— or, was, at some point. The floor was a beautiful work of inlaid marble, and there’s windows all along the walls, creating a panoramic view of what used to be a garden outside.
There are dozens of flickering blue flames here. So many, in fact, that the room is cast in an azure glow.
With shaky legs, Taemin picks himself up.
He drifts past each and every will-o’-wisp, listening to their cries, but none speak to him. He continues searching.
The doorknob begins to rattle.
They were so disgusting I had to they didn’t deserve to have eyes they were so disgusting so disgusting sodisgustingsodisgust—
—the blood oh there was so much they bled so much so wonderful so wonderful sowonderfulso—
The rattling gets louder and louder and suddenly the door is being pounded and kicked from the other side.
He wants to leave, oh god, he wants to leave. His body trembles from head to toe. He cries.
I betrayed them they loved me and I betrayed them they depended on me and I betrayed them and I would do it again I would betray them again and again andagainand—
A sharp agony wraps around his heart and squeezes. Taemin knew all about betrayal, knew it like the back and front of his hand. He’s been betrayed again and again, and he’s been the betrayer. It resonates with him. Taemin grabs it.
He hisses in pain the moment it’s in his hands. The flames flicker but it’s cold, so, so cold. His face peers closer to get a better look at it, and is utterly shocked at what he finds.
The blue will-o’-wisp, he realizes, is a miniature human heart engulfed in fire.
It grows colder in his grasp.
Once you grab it, do not let it’s fire go out. Keep it warm by any means possible, Jonghyun’s words suddenly replay in his head.
The pounding grows louder. The door cracks.
Taemin sheds his jacket and wraps it around the little heart, but it’s not working. The flames are dying down and frost begins to spread across fabric.
Taemin opens his mouth wide and swallows the heart. It slithers painfully down his throat like jagged ice and chills him to his very core.
The door breaks down.
It runs across the room, the marble floors screaming as something sharp slides across it like nails against a chalkboard, and it stops.
Directly behind him.
He can feel it almost pressing against him, barely a hair’s breadth from touching him, and Taemin can hear it’s ragged breathing as it puffs against his neck. The blurs he had seen in the corners of his vision form black tendrils that ghost up and down his arms and shoulders, almost touching him, but never making contact.
Taemin sobs quietly.
He’s cold and trembling and there’s a freezing chill spreading from the pit of his stomach to every fiber of his body and there’s something behind him.
Taemin keeps his eyes trained in front of him, out the windows of the ballroom.
It’s a mistake.
He sees his reflection in the window. He sees it’s reflection in the window. His eyes widen impossibly large.
His body whips around to look at it.
It doesn’t have a face.
There’s a mass of black tendrils and sharp needle-like teeth and there’s a bottomless abyss where it’s face should be and—
It shrieks. It lunges.
Taemin manages to duck in time and scrambles out of the room.
He runs. He runs so fast he swears his feet barely touch the floor. He shoves down furniture as he sprints down corridors, hoping it would slow the thing down — the thing without a face — but it doesn’t slow, ever. It screeches and scuttles up the walls and across the ceiling and just before he makes a sharp turn, Taemin can feel a tendril brush against his hair.
Soon, but not soon enough, the front door is straight down the hall he’s running in, and Taemin weeps at the sight of it. He runs across the threshold, slamming the double doors open, and he’s free, he’s outside of the house, he’s—
Something long and sharp slashes at his back, and Taemin is tumbling forward, down the porch steps and into the manor’s gravel driveway.
Sharp bits of rock dig into his back as he lays there, bleeding, and waits for teeth and a black tendrils and death to come.
It never does.
The faceless thing stands in the doorway of the mansion, roaring a bloodcurdling shriek, and reaches for him with tendrils and hideous claws, only to shrink back the minute they pass the threshold.
It can’t leave.
Relief crashes over him like a wave on a beach and Taemin turns his gaze to the night sky above. Hot tears run down his cheeks only to stop halfway down, frozen against his skin.
He’s cold. So, so cold.
Taemin can’t move anymore. He feels like a block of ice. Is he still bleeding? Or has his blood frozen too? His vision begins to fade.
It’s not fair, he wants to scream. He was so close. So close…
As darkness creeps into his vision, he hears someone call out to him: “Hey, are you okay? Can you hear me?”
Taemin thinks he sees someone hovering over him, thinks he sees a blur of white.
“Try.. stay awake… n’t… close… eyes…”
His eyes flutter shut.
When Taemin wakes up, he’s in a soft bed, cold and shivering, the stench of medicine and herbs assaulting his nose. He’s lying on his stomach, and he can feel a hand spread something like thick paste across his back.
“Oh! You’re awake.”
Taemin follows the voice with hazy eyes and finds snow white hair and soft brown eyes.
“Good morning, my fairy prince,” Jonghyun sings to him.
Taemin feels his mouth twitch into something like a smile, and he parts his lips to return the greeting when he feels something bubble up his throat. He bolts right up, sitting back on his heels, and Jonghyun just barely manages to hand him a bucket before Taemin is puking his guts out.
A voice soothes him and a hand pats him on the shoulder.
“Good, Taeminnie, get it all out.”
Taemin vomits and coughs out every last bit of stomach bile he has. His breath comes out harsh and shaky and his back stings with pain and he’s trying to remember what happened exactly because he could’ve sworn he was dying.
“Ah, I’ll take that,” Jonghyun gestures to the bucket when he’s done. In one quick movement, he snatches it away and reaches in, plucking out the little blue flame of the soul Taemin had swallowed.
Jonghyun drops it into a cast iron kettle and hangs it over a small fire he has going in an hearth embedded into the wall.
“It’s to keep the soul warm,” the witch explains, though Taemin didn’t ask. “It may not be as daring as using your own internal body heat, but it’ll do.”
It all clicks in Taemin’s mind then. The manor, the will-o’-wisps, the thing without a face.
“Does, does this mean I completed the first task?” asks Taemin with a raspy voice.
Jonghyun plops himself down on a chair next to the bed, smiles at him, and nods. “Yup! Congratulations, Taeminnie! I knew you could do it!”
Taemin can’t believe it. He actually— he’s done something, for once. Something with purpose.
“Such courage too! The nasty gash in your back is from the thing inside the manor, isn’t it? I warned you not to look at it, you’re too curious,” Jonghyun teases.
But Taemin can’t laugh alongside him, because he remembers the thing. The thing with teeth and claws and swarming black tendrils and a dark, never ending abyss where it’s face should have been.
The memory of it breaks him down.
“Oh god, Jonghyun,” Taemin’s eyes grow wide and his voice shakes. “It-it didn’t have a face, it didn’t— it was just dark, so dark, like a black hole. It felt like it was going to suck me in, make me disappear.”
He covers his eyes with trembling hands and chokes out a sob.
Jonghyun crawls onto the bed and pulls Taemin into his lap. He allows Taemin to bury his head into the crook between his neck and shoulder, and weep his heart out. The witch rubs soothing circles along Taemin’s back, carefully avoiding the poultice-covered lacerations.
“It didn’t have a face,” Taemin cries in a hoarse voice. “It didn’t have a face.”
“I know, Taeminnie, I know,” Jonghyun murmurs.
“And you… you came for me, didn’t you?” Taemin lifts his face up to stare into Jonghyun’s eyes. “You came for me… ”
The white-haired boy reaches out to stroke Taemin’s tear-stained cheek. “I did.”
“After that, that thing… what was it?” He asks with wide, frightened eyes. “Why was such a horrific thing created?”
Jonghyun leans forward, his forehead pressing lightly against Taemin’s, and he sighs. “I don’t know. But whatever it is, it must’ve done something to deserve its fate.”
Taemin closes his eyes and sobs.
That night, Taemin dreams of teeth and claws and bottomless abysses.
He runs and runs and runs, but tendrils of black wrap around his ankles and pull him down. He screams and digs his fingers into the ground, breaking off his fingernails, and scrambles with bloody hands to grip the edge before the chasm.
The ground slips from beneath his fingers.
He’s falling, falling, into a cold and empty void.
Jonghyun tells Taemin he’s to rest until his wounds heal to an acceptable state before he continues on to the next major task. In the meantime, Taemin takes care of the minor details.
He runs around the city — and god, does it feel good to run again — gathering herbs and flowers and candles and anything else Jonghyun can possibly think of.
Taemin hasn’t told Jongin anything about the new situation he’s found himself in. Jongin had returned home like he promised, but they hadn’t talked since then. Taemin wouldn’t know how to explain it to him, anyway, so it’s okay, he tells himself.
He keeps his old cane around and pretends it’s still of use. He doesn’t quit his day job, but he comes close, because Jonghyun only lets him into his house at night. He explains it one day, and says:
“Sunlight causes dry skin, dark spots, cancer, and wrinkles, Taemin. Wrinkles! I’ll age ten years if I so much as see sunshine. Besides, I have insomnia. I sleep during the day.”
So Taemin resigns himself to carrying on his pathetic, tech support persona in the daylight.
He knew he was never going to amount to much anyway, but now, statistically speaking, there’s a better chance that some part of him will go on the greatness somewhere in the world— well, somewhere in the city. But he’d rather be partly great than entirely useless.
The two of them grow increasingly closer over the next few weeks. Taemin never forgets for a second that Jonghyun saved him, and the fact that there is someone in the world that cares for him, really and truly cares for him, sends Taemin’s heart into a frenzied state.
But more than that, Taemin comes to realize, Jonghyun understands him, body and soul.
He lashes out at the snowy haired boy for reasons he never remembers. They’re little everyday things that shouldn’t bug him, really, but there’s just so much Taemin has shoved into a bottle over the years that it bursts forth before he can stop himself.
But Jonghyun never returns Taemin’s anger. He waits, until Taemin is red in the face and trying to catch his breath, before he steps forward, arms wrapping around the taller boy, and whispers, “It’s okay, Taemin. You’re safe. You’re safe and you’re whole.”
When Taemin trembles with tears afterwards, chanting “I’msorryI’msorryI’msorry” like a mantra, Jonghyun holds him tighter and shushes him.
“What are you apologizing for? You’re allowed to have emotions. You’re allowed to feel. So feel.”
So Taemin does.
He shatters that little glass bottle of emotions and begins stitching his heart back together. But if all the little muscles and heartstrings are what made up Taemin, then Jonghyun was the thread that held it all in one piece.
He changes, slowly, after that. He’s quicker with a smile these days, and he holds his head up high, unafraid to look toward the sky. He speaks his mind, and tries to be unforgiving of his own opinions.
Once, Jongin comments on the change in Taemin.
“You’re acting more like yourself lately,” is the first thing his little brother says to him after days of silence. “You’re making sarcastic comments and acting like the little shit I know and love you as.”
Taemin smiles at him and tells him to get dressed for school or he’ll stop buying chicken for dinner.
He starts dancing again as well.
In the late hours of the night, when Taemin has finished running errands and the two of them laze about in the courtyard of Jonghyun’s home, Taemin performs for his little witch.
Jonghyun sings, usually a soft ballad about love, and Taemin dances, gentle, melancholic. His limbs, long and graceful, spin and flow and weave a flawless elegance that always sends Jonghyun into a clapping frenzy.
Sometimes, Jonghyun sings about things more intense than puppy love. His voice carries the stories of intense passions and lust, perhaps testing Taemin, in a way. But Taemin doesn’t back down from challenges, not anymore. So he dances, slow, sensual, rolling his hips in time with the climax of Jonghyun’s high notes.
Jonghyun never claps after those. He just stares, an unreadable expression on his face.
Taemin takes a bow anyway.
Once upon a time, when Taemin looked in the mirror, he saw a hideous monster staring back.
Now, Taemin stares in the mirror and sees a rounded nose, pink lips, black hair parted down the middle, and clear brown eyes looking back at him.
And damn if he isn’t one hell of a pretty boy.
The first time they fuck, Taemin is on his hands and knees.
He’s laying on Jonghyun’s bed, his face buried in the sheets, ass in the air, as Jonghyun pushes his fingers deep inside Taemin. He moans, loud and wanting, and Jonghyun leans forward to bite Taemin’s ear.
“You make cute noises, Tae baby,” Jonghyun says in a husky whisper.
It sends shivers down Taemin’s spine, and he lifts his ass to push harder against those wonderful fingers.
“Do you want it, Taeminnie?” that sinful voice purrs in his ear.
Taemin nods, desperate. His cock stands painfully erect, beads of pre-cum dripping down the shaft.
“Beg for it,” Jonghyun commands.
“O-oh god, please. Please please please, Jonghyun.”
Jonghyun’s fingers brush an exceptionally sensitive spot, and Taemin gasps, his entire body twitching at the sensation.
“Please what?” the witch taunts him.
Sweat rolls down his body and his cock aches and he needs to feel Jonghyun inside him, needs him like he’s never needed him before. Taemin groans into the mattress and begs, “Please, fuck me!”
“As you wish,” Jonghyun chuckles, and removes his fingers from Taemin. He positions himself at Taemin’s entrance, and slowly pushes inside.
“Fuck,” Jonghyun breathes. “You’re so warm. So tight. You feel so good, Tae baby.”
Jonghyun’s chest lies flush against Taemin’s back now, his arms on either side of him, his cock buried hilt deep into Taemin’s ass.
Taemin moans, relishing the feeling of being filled so deeply. It’s so hot. Too hot. He needs Jonghyun to move. Now.
“Jonghyun,” Taemin whines, rolling his hips against the body above him.
Jonghyun’s breath hitches in his throat and he nods, understanding what Taemin wants. He moves slow at first, with long, firm thrusts, before he gradually builds a quicker, harder rhythm.
Taemin can’t hear anything but the shuddering gasps of his own moans and the wet slapping of skin and it’s so, so delicious.
“Ha-harder,” Taemin asks between sharp intakes of air, and the snowy haired boy complies.
Jonghyun pounds into Taemin’s ass with no restraint, fucking him into oblivion, and bites down on his shoulder with a loud groan. He licks at the droplets of blood that begin to form and reaches around to pump Taemin’s hard cock in time with his thrusts.
There’s too much happening at once, too much hot, sweaty physical contact, and Taemin can’t take it anymore.
With a hard thrust slamming into his prostate, Taemin screams and cum spurts in little white ribbons onto Jonghyun’s hand. The witch comes a few seconds later, a moment that Taemin remembers by the way Jonghyun’s voice lifts into a high-pitched moan.
He pulls himself out of Taemin’s ass, and Taemin watches as Jonghyun licks and swallows every drop of cum running down his hand.
When they’re done and spent, they lay next to each other, bathing in the smell of sweat and sex, and Jonghyun traces lazy circles across Taemin’s chest. He climbs on top of Taemin a moment later and kisses him slowly, their tongues brushing against each other.
Their time together takes more out of Taemin than he thinks it would, and before he realizes it, he’s nodding off into sleep.
Later, maybe after the fifth day they’ve fucked, this time with Taemin bouncing and grinding his ass down onto Jonghyun’s cock, Taemin rolls to his side and peers into Jonghyun’s eyes.
“Is there a reason you don’t ejaculate?” Taemin asks suddenly.
Jonghyun chokes on air. “Hey… you’ve really gotten more daring lately. What happened to that meek and submissive Taemin I used to know?”
Taemin shrugs. “Dunno.” He didn’t answer his question. “So why don’t you?”
“It’s just a medical condition,” he mumbles in response, his cheeks flushed scarlet.
“Oh,” Taemin replies. “I like it. My ass doesn’t get all sticky like in those porn videos.”
Jonghyun blinks at him. “Thanks?”
Half of a minute goes by and Taemin opens his mouth again. “Is that why you always swallow my cum? Cause you don’t have an— ”
Jonghyun slams a pillow onto his face and attempts to smother him. “Hey! There really is such a thing as asking too many question you know!”
Jonghyun really does seem to have an oral fixation, though.
No matter what, even if they’re tired or busy and don’t go all the way, Jonghyun sucks Taemin’s cock. He hollows his cheeks and hums low in his throat and does all sorts of things that always has Taemin screaming, arching his back, and cumming hard into that pretty little mouth.
And Jonghyun will lick every bit of semen and drink it.
One night, when they’re in the shower together and Jonghyun drops down on his knees to suck him off, Taemin asks him why again.
Jonghyun licks his lips and says Taemin is the most delicious thing he’s ever tasted.
Taemin shivers at that.
One evening, when the sun was just below the horizon and the city was bathed in twilight, Jonghyun throws a bundle of cash at his face.
“We’re out of turmeric powder. Go get some, Taeminnie,” he says.
Taemin is about to protest when Jonghyun swoops in and places a long, wet kiss on his lips.
“Please?” the witch asks with a bat of his eyelashes.
Taemin grumbles but does what he’s told anyway.
Jonghyun gives him directions to a new medicine shop that’s opened out in the old industrial area of Seoul. It’s located amid a bunch of empty lots and it’s a bit far, but the shop supposedly boasts low prices and imports of every herb, spice, and root known to man.
Taemin doesn’t mind the walk, though. He loves any excuse he can get to use his legs. In fact, when he’s sure there’s no one around to stare, Taemin hops and dances down the sidewalk.
Eventually, he reaches this new place, and he’s blown away by what he sees.
The shop is a small, white, ordinary building, but it’s placed right smack in the middle of a huge field of red roses.
Taemin follows the stone path to the store entrance, all the while looking at the flowers all around him.
“Welcome!” A voice immediately greets. “How can I help you today?”
Taemin looks at the cashier, standing behind a counter full of bundles of herbs, and is thrown for another loop.
“K-Kibum!?” Taemin gawks. “Is that you?”
The cashier, Kibum, stares dumbfounded at Taemin for a moment, before his eyes widen in recognition.
“No way… Lee Taemin?”
It’s a small world, after all.
Kibum was Taemin’s closest friend back in high school. He was the top student in all of Seoul, and everyone had extremely high expectations of him, expectations which he met with ease. Kibum had been accepted two years early into Oxford University in England, and the two lost contact after several weeks.
Kibum explains to him that he didn’t feel right in a college setting, and dropped out of his university after only a few months. He stayed in London, joined the local punk scene for awhile, before finding his calling in herbal medicine and moving back to Korea.
“Wow,” Taemin says as Kibum pours him a cup of tea. “I seriously didn’t recognize you for a second. You uh, dyed your hair.”
Kibum, whose hair is dyed a splash of green, blue, and purple, cocks a brow at him. "And you finally got rid of that hideous bowlcut. Let’s toast to beauty.”
Taemin laughs and drinks his tea.
“So,” Kibum starts. “What brings you here? You need something for stress? A cold? Sleep?”
Taemin shakes his head. “I just need a bag of turmeric powder.”
“Turmeric powder?” Kibum asks with a slight frown. “You damage your muscles or something?”
You have no idea, Taemin wants to say, but doesn’t. “No, it’s for someone else who's really into this sort of thing.”
Kibum scoops out a large pile of turmeric from a bowl and pours it into a cloth pouch. “Someone else? As in a friend or…?”
“My, um, boyfriend,” Taemin admits with a blush.
Kibum squeals in happiness as he hands over the bag. “Ohmygoooood! Little bowlcut Taemin is finally gettin’ it!”
Taemin tries not to blush any redder than he already is, and frowns. “Hey! I wasn’t even bad looking in high school! Do you remember how many girls used to tell me they wished they looked like me?”
“Oh god yes please shut up about it,” Kibum responds with a fake gag. “It was so weird.”
Taemin smiles, enjoying the fact that he got to catch up with an old friend, but he glances at the time on his phone screen and decides he should return to Jonghyun.
“I’ve gotta go now, but we should see each other again,” Taemin suggests.
“Of course! Bring that boyfriend of yours. I wanna see this hot stud for myself,” Kibum teases.
Taemin nods. “Sure. Tomorrow?”
“Sounds good. At the cafe we used to hang out in after school?”
“Sure. Give me your number and we can discuss the details,” Taemin says, phone in hand.
“Oh! Before I forget!” Kibum rummages behind his shop counter and places in Taemin’s hand a small, clear bag of something red. “It’s saffron. Totally good for depression among other things. Every customer gets a free sample.”
They exchange numbers and Taemin heads off back in the direction he came. As he passes by the field of roses, he realizes he forgot to ask Kibum about them.
He shrugs, deciding it’ll have to wait until next time.
Taemin tells Jonghyun about the friend he ran into and how they had made plans to meet up the following day.
“Sure, Taeminnie. I’ll meet your friend,” Jonghyun says with a smile. “Did you get the turmeric though?”
They’re sitting in the courtyard when Taemin hands over the bag to Jonghyun, who immediately disappears into the kitchen to tuck it away. When he reemerges, Taemin remembers the free sample Kibum gave him.
“Oh yeah, and we got this for free,” says Taemin as he tosses the tiny bag to Jonghyun.
The witch catches it, and the moment he looks at it, he jumps back a foot and hurls the bag across a stone wall and into his neighbor’s yard.
“Um, Jonghyun. What the hell?” He frowns at the other, before realizing something’s off.
Jonghyun’s face is terribly pale, and his eyes are wide, afraid, as if he’s seen a ghost,
Taemin walks over to the shorter boy and places a hand on his shoulder. “Jjong, is everything okay?”
Jonghyun looks at him warily before nodding. “I’m fine. Just don’t bring that back in here.”
“Why not?” he asks.
“Allergies,” Jonghyun replies simply. “Now follow me. We have to talk about your next task. The real one. It took me awhile to find it, but now that you’re healed, I think it’s time."
The next day, Taemin walks hand in hand with Jonghyun to the cafe he promised to meet Kibum at. It’s the late afternoon and the sun has already sunk below the line of tall skyscrapers in downtown Seoul, but Jonghyun insists on wearing a black, wide-brimmed hat along with a thick layer of sunscreen.
Taemin rolls his eyes at the notion.
They reach the cafe early, and they sit at a table chatting, waiting for Kibum to show.
“So, will I know this friend of yours the moment I see him?” Jonghyun asks.
Taemin coughs into his hand. “Uh, yeah. He’s pretty distinctive... ”
“You better finish that sentence with ‘because he’s drop dead gorgeous’ Lee Taemin or I will kick your ass,” a voice suddenly says.
Taemin snaps his head up and smiles at Kibum, who walks quickly down the cafe aisle and toward their table.
“Hey, you made it!”
Kibum snorts. “Well duh. There was a hold up with my taxi, I dunno. Don’t care.” He reaches their table and immediately sticks his hand out to Jonghyun in a Western form of greeting. “Nice to meet you, I’m Kim Kib— ”
Jonghyun raises his head from where it’s been bent down, staring at a menu in concentration, and the brim of his hat is tilted back to reveal his face.
“—um… “ the boy with multicolored hair finishes dumbly.
Kibum stares at Jonghyun with wide, shocked eyes, and Jonghyun lets out a small chuckle.
“Kibum. It’s been awhile. Still around I see,” the white-haired boy says with a wide grin. “Any luck with your roses yet?”
“Shut the fuck up, you piece of garbage,” Kibum hisses in return.
“Kibum! What the hell?” Taemin asks with a bewildered expression.
“I should be the one asking the damn questions,” Kibum snaps. He glares directly at Jonghyun. “What are you doing here, monster? Shouldn’t you be off skinning children or something?”
Taemin reaches over and tugs at Kibum’s sleeve. “Okay seriously, Kibum. What the hell?”
“Yeah, Kibum,” Jonghyun joins in. “You’re being awfully rude. Still bitter, I see.”
“Yeah, and you’re still a two foot dwarf,” Kibum retorts.
Taemin shoots up from his seat and places himself between the two men.
“Kibum,” Taemin levels a look at the boy. “You’re insulting my boyfriend. Either tell me what’s going on, or we’re gonna have to leave. Right now.”
“I’ll tell you what’s going on,” Kibum says, “You better stay the fuck away from this monster if you know what’s good for you.”
Taemin frowns, opens his mouth to respond, but Kibum doesn’t let him.
“No, let me guess. You’re gonna leave? Here, I’ll go instead. I can’t stand to even breathe near that thing for another second,” Kibum says, pointing to Jonghyun. He turns and stomps angrily across the cafe toward the door.
“Good luck with your roses!” Jonghyun calls just as Kibum reaches the exit. Kibum flips him his middle finger and keeps walking.
Taemin just stands there, wondering what the hell just happened.
“Kibum and I have a history,” Jonghyun begins as they walk back to his home.
He explains that they knew each other many years ago, when Kibum had come to stay with his family for awhile. Their parents had been friends, apparently. So Jonghyun meets Kibum at a young age, and develops a crush on the pretty boy, except it’s an unrequited love.
Kibum came from a wealthy background, and so he was spoiled rotten. He strung Jonghyun along for years, making him complete his every wish, before Jonghyun, frustrated that things were going nowhere, breaks down one day and asks Kibum if he loves him at all. Kibum spat at him and told him no.
“That’s horrible!” Taemin says. “But the Kibum I know would never do that.”
Jonghyun shrugs. “Maybe he matured by the time you met him. But trust me, that kid was a real brat when he was younger.”
Taemin doesn’t respond, and Jonghyun looks at him with a sad gaze.
“You don’t believe me… do you really believe him over me then?”
A pang of guilt hits Taemin’s chest. After everything he’s done for him, was Taemin really going to doubt Jonghyun’s words?
“No,” Taemin says with a shake of his head. “I believe you.”
Jonghyun smiles at him. “Thank you.”
Taemin realizes later that he forgot to ask Jonghyun how he knew about the roses.
Later that same night, after Taemin has had a chance to change at Jonghyun’s place, Taemin stands before a sixty-story tall hotel in the heart of Seoul. The entire building is privately owned, even the club that operates at the hotel’s basement level.
It was the location of his second major task.
Taemin shuffles into the line waiting outside the and practices his bedroom-eye look.
He’s clad in tight, leather pants and a black fishnet top, neither leaving anything to imagination. His hair has been tousled perfectly and his eyes are lined with kohl.
It’s important you look your best tonight, Taemin recalls Jonghyun’s instructions from an hour ago.
The second and last major ingredient we need— the tear of a vampire.
The line lurches forward as the bouncer lets in a few people.
Vampires have an amazing ability to heal any injury, but their blood is no good, cause you’ll turn into one if you drink it.
Speaking of which, have you drunken the stuff I gave you yet? It’ll give you immunity to the vampires’ charms, but it only lasts a few hours, so be careful.
Girls in tight, short dresses chatter amongst their friends, and Taemin tries to look aloof, carefree.
Back to the tear— you can’t force it. It has to be a tear from when they naturally become sad and cry, otherwise it won’t work.
Taemin reaches the front of the line, and the bouncer looks him up and down, nods, and opens the door. Taemin strolls in with a sway to his step and an inviting gleam in his eyes.
Taemin had asked what a vampire could possibly cry about, and Jonghyun gave him a sad look.
All immortals have regrets. That’s their curse— to never be free of them, and to keep creating them.
The club is packed with sweaty, writhing bodies attempting to move to the beat of the loud techno music blasting over every corner of the room. Lights of all different colors shine on the crowd and confetti rains slowly down from metal walkways above the dancefloor.
Taemin easily sways to the melody of the techno song. He’s in his element here, with his arms sliding down his body and his hips swinging and thrusting to the sharp notes of the electronic music. Many people, both men and women, approach him, their eyes watching his ass move in those leather pants, but he turns each of them down.
All of them are people, and he needs a vampire.
Jonghyun has decided to be less vague this time, and said Taemin would recognize a vampire right away by their unnaturally pale, marble-like skin.
So Taemin weaves through the crowd, searching.
He’s just about to start checking the bathrooms when a cold finger taps his shoulder. Taemin turns around, and he knows he’s found a vampire.
The man standing before him is stunning, with perfectly styled hair, gelled back and slightly mussed, and his eyes seem to pierce into Taemin’s very soul.
More than that, however, is the unnatural whiteness of his skin.
“Hey,” he greets in a husky voice. “I’m Choi Siwon. Wanna dance?”
Taemin smirks, nods.
He’s not the best dancer, Taemin quickly realizes, probably relies more on his face to hunt down his prey, but Taemin gives it his all. He grabs Siwon’s hips and grinds his ass against his crotch, then, he spins, crossing both arms around the taller man’s neck, and grinds their clothed dicks against each other.
Siwon groans into his ear, and Taemin hopes he’s pleased.
“It’s too noisy here. Let’s go upstairs, shall we?” the vampire suggests and Taemin pretends to swoon.
Siwon grabs him roughly by the arm and drags him across the dancefloor and into an elevator.
Siwon knocks on a pair of giant, red double doors, and they open to reveal a beautiful ballroom inside. There’s crystal chandeliers and gold fixtures everywhere. In every direction Taemin looks, there’s a vampire, pale and gorgeous, accompanied by their choice human of the night.
Taemin sticks closes to Siwon, not wanting to draw the attention of the other vampires, and follows him to a velvet couch, where he’s pulled into Siwon’s lap.
“Now,” he growls. “Where were we?”
Siwon crashes his lips roughly against Taemin, and it feels wrong. So very, very wrong. His lips aren’t the right shape. They’re not wide and plump like Taemin is used to, but he pretends it’s the best kiss he’s ever had. His heart hammers nervously in his chest, and if any of the vampires can hear it, Taemin hopes they write it off to sexual arousal.
Siwon pulls away for a moment, staring at Taemin’s reddened and wet mouth with hunger in his eyes, and Taemin is about to launch into his “So tell me about yourself!” spiel when a phone goes off.
The vampire sighs and non to gently pushes Taemin off his lap. He removes his phone from his pocket and holds it to his ear.
“Choi Siwon speaking. Yes… Yes… That is correct. No… Well I don’t see how that’s my problem… Are you serious? Alright, I’ll be down there in five.”
The beautiful man ends the call and glances at Taemin.
“I have to go somewhere for a bit. Stay right here. We can continue when I get back,” Siwon says, then he gets up and exits the ballroom.
Taemin looks around the room, trying not to be too conspicuous as he searches for another vampire to make cry.
Then his phone goes off, blasting TVXQ’s “Catch Me” across the ballroom, and Taemin instantly feels dozens of pairs of eyes on him.
He laughs, pretending to be horribly embarrassed, hoping vampires can’t smell fear, and runs into the bathroom he spots in the corner.
Closing the door lightly, Taemin makes sure he’s alone in the bathroom stalls before answering his call.
“Taemin!” Jonghyun’s voice answers. “Listen, there’s been a change of plans.”
“What!?” Taemin shouts in a whisper. “Are you serious? I’m already knee deep in vampire territory, what’s the change in plans?”
“Two changes. First, a tear isn’t going to work.”
Taemin chews his lip nervously. “What do you mean it’s not gonna work? You said it would.”
“Yeah well I was wrong. You need to gouge out the eyes of a vampire instead.”
His grip on the phone slackens a bit. “Excuse me?”
“Yeah, rip ‘em out. A knife might be too dangerous— you could cut them by accident. Try a spoon! There’s gotta be spoons in a hotel.”
Taemin doesn’t know how to respond. He was still working on how to get a tear from a vampire, so how the hell would he be able to take their eyes out? Not to mention, it sounds disgusting…
“Okay,” he says slowly. “So what’s the second thing?”
“They need to be the eyes of a certain vampire— Choi Minho. He should definitely be there tonight. He owns the building.”
“Okay but— ” He’s starting to panic, just a little. “Why this specific vampire? And how will I even be able to recognize him?”
“Because I said so.”
Taemin remains silent, utterly shocked by what he’s being told.
The line clicks dead.
Taemin reemerges from the bathroom a few moments later.
He’s splashed his face with water and hopes he doesn’t look as stressed as he really is.
Taemin sits himself down on the velvet couch Siwon had left him on and tries to look bored. In reality, his mind is screaming.
Honestly, Jonghyun hadn’t given a valid reason on why the eyes had to be taken from Choi Minho, whoever he was. Maybe Taemin could stick with Siwon and gets his eyes instead. It’s not like Jonghyun would know— they were just body parts, after all.
Taemin gets up from his seat and wanders to a buffet table situated in the corner. The food is largely untouched, no doubt more for show than anything really, and Taemin pockets a spoon. He grabs a small piece of cake and acts intensely preoccupied with it.
The sound of the doors slamming open almost startle him into dropping his cake, and Taemin looks to the entrance.
A young looking vampire with brown hair and round eyes strides in. Behind him, two other vampires drag a pair of screaming and kicking girls.
“My fellow creatures of the night!” The new vampire says with a grand sweep of his arms. “I bring to you for tonight’s entertainment, swine!”
The vampires around the room burst into laughter, and they all get up from their various niches and gather in a circle around the new vampire and his two struggling girls. Taemin follows them, trying to blend in.
“Have you ever wondered what the inside of a pig looks like? They’re awfully filthy creatures, so let’s see,” the young vampire tells the crowd.
He grabs the blonde hair of one of the girls and throws her onto the floor. Then, with a sharp talon, he slices her open, from neck to navel. Her insides spill over onto the floor messily, painting the white marble floors with blood and organs, and the crowd of vampires burst into cheers.
Taemin tries to crack a smile and claps loudly.
Why aren’t any of the other humans terrified?
He glances around, but the humans he sees have all been charmed and have eyes for no one but their vampire.
Taemin curses himself mentally.
“Well, that wasn’t very interesting,” the young vampire says with a dramatic sigh. “I know! Let’s skin the other one and see if it can still move afterwards!”
The crowd cheers. The girl screams. Blood splatters onto Taemin’s cheek and he tries not to look as horrified as he really is.
Who the hell is this guy?
“You don’t know who he is?” a voice asks to his left. He hadn’t realized he spoke the question aloud.
Taemin meets the eyes of some tall vampire, and the vampire rolls his eyes at Taemin.
“That’s Choi Minho, leader of this coven of vampires. You better learn these things if you’re gonna be a loyal servant to the coven.”
Servant. Of course. Vampires took humans as servants.
“I’m new,” Taemin attempts to explain, but the vampire has already turned away.
When Taemin reluctantly turns his attention back to the “entertainment”, he has to bite his tongue to keep from making any noise.
The girls. Oh— where were they? There was nothing left of them. Nothing but squelching piles of beating, pink insides. Blood spreads across the marble floors and splashes at his shoes. The vampires scream in pleasure and dance in the sea of red.
Taemin turns on his heel to leave.
Choi Minho, be damned, Taemin was going to find Siwon and take his eyes. It would certainly be a struggle, but at least he wouldn’t be dealing with a maniac.
Taemin just reaches the doors when a hand fists in his hair and yanks him backward.
“And where do you think you’re going, pretty boy?”
Tears blur his vision but Taemin can make out Minho grabbing his hair, and suddenly he’s being thrown into the ocean of blood and organs and skin.
Taemin scrambles backward, slipping and splashing blood all over himself.
His cover is blown.
Minho crouches down in front of him and runs a bloodied claw down Taemin’s face.
“Oh, you’re really pretty,” the vampire says with a wide grin. “I like your face. I want it. Shall I peel it off of you?”
The vampire positions his talon near Taemin’s hairline, and sinks it into the flesh, blood beginning to flow through and tears welling up in Taemin’s eyes.
He’s going to die.
“Stop!” a feminine voice suddenly calls.
Minho whips his head around, a crazed look in his eyes, trying to find she who dared to stop him.
Taemin blinks at the short, pretty vampire standing in the mess of blood with a hand on her hip.
“Bom,” Minho whispers.
She narrows her eyes at him, but somehow it comes off as cute rather than threatening. “That’s Park Bom, to you, Minho. Now let the poor boy go.”
“Excuse me?” Minho looks at her incredulously. “May I remind you that I am the leader of this coven, and— ”
“May I remind you,” she interrupts. “That regardless of your position, I am still your elder, and you will treat me as such.”
Minho glares at her, contemplating her words, before releasing his hold on Taemin.
“Whatever,” he says as he walks toward the exit of the ballroom. “It was getting boring anyway.”
The moment he leaves the room, the vampires burst into whispers of gossip, but Bom gives them all a hard look and they return to their earlier “normal” activities.
The pretty vampire holds her hand out to Taemin.
“Hello. I’m Park Bom. Do you need some help up?”
The elevator ride down to the lobby is a quiet one.
Taemin still can’t quite wrap his head around what’s happened, but he’s grateful to be alive.
Alive, but a failure.
He doesn’t have the eyes.
He glances at Bom from the corner of his vision.
She was tiny, and they were alone. The stupid metal spoon weighs heavily in his pocket. But, she had saved him…
“What did you come here for? Bom says suddenly, startling Taemin out of his thoughts.
“I— don’t know what you’re talking about,” he quickly replies.
Bom looks at him with a raised brow. “I was watching you from the moment you entered the ballroom. The others couldn’t smell it, they’re far too young, but I could. You have the stench of a witch on you. That’s how you weren’t charmed, right?”
Taemin nods dumbly.
“So what did you need from this place?” she asks again.
He chews on his lip nervously. There’s no point in lying now.
“A vampire’s eyes,” he says. “I needed a pair of vampire eyes.”
Bom hums and pushes the emergency stop button on the elevator panel.
“Wh-what are you doing?” asks Taemin when the elevator comes to a lurching stop.
Bom just laughs. “Of all the monsters you could’ve run into, you’ve come across me. Is it a coincidence? Maybe. Maybe not.”
Her laugh makes him nervous.“What are you talking about?”
She raises both hands to her face and points her talons at her eyes.
“Rejoice, little one. I’m giving you my eyes,” she says with a sad smile.
“But… why?” Why was this vampire helping him? They were mere strangers.
“I’ve seen so much… too much. I’m tired of it.” Tears flow down her white cheeks. “I watched my best friend die. Did you know that? There wasn’t a thing I could do. So I’m tired of these things. What good are they if they only cause me more agony?”
Bom’s claws sink into her flesh and blood spatters onto Taemin.
He leaves the hotel that night, alive, with a pair of sad, brown eyes in his bloodied hands.
Taemin doesn’t talk to Jonghyun when he gets back. He just hands over the pair of eyes and disappears into the bathroom. He scrubs his skin in the shower, scrubs so hard his skin turns pink, but it’s not enough. The blood is still there, dripping. He can see it.
After he showers, Taemin looks in the mirror.
His reflection isn’t that of a monster, nor is it the reflection of a confident pretty boy.
Tonight, he’s no one.
Jonghyun crawls into bed and lays down next to Taemin.
It’s his room, but he acts as if it’s Taemin’s, and waits until Taemin is snuggled in the sheets to join him.
He wraps an arm around the taller boy.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers.
Taemin doesn’t move. “I could’ve died. You knew who he was and you wanted me to go after him. I could’ve died.”
“He would’ve deserved it,” is Jonghyun’s reply.
“What about me?” He trembles. “Would I have deserved to die?”
“We need to talk,” Kibum tells him over the phone the next morning.
Taemin is back in his apartment, but it’s past eight in the morning, so Jongin has already gone to school.
A sigh escapes him. “About what, Kibum?”
“The monster you’re calling your boyfriend.”
Taemin feels a dull anger begin to creep forward from the back of his mind. “Kibum, I know you’re my friend and all, but it kinda pisses me off when you— ”
“Taemin, listen to me. He’s not human.”
“Yeah, he’s a witch, magical powers and all that.” Should he hang up now or later, Taemin wonders.
“No, Taemin.” A sigh. “Witches are human. Witches are mortal. They live and die like everyone else. That thing— Jonghyun… he’s been alive since the year 290.”
The world seems to tilt all of a sudden.
“Liar,” Taemin whispers. But Kibum never lied, Taemin remembers. He always stressed that honesty was the best. He was brutal, in fact, with the truth. “How could you possibly know that?”
The other line is silent for a moment. “It’s a long story, but I know because I was there. I was born in the year 291.”
Taemin doesn’t reply.
“Let’s meet. I’ll tell you everything I know.”
They meet at the cafe Kibum had stormed out of only two days prior.
Neither of them speak. Taemin doesn’t know what to say, doesn’t know why he was there.
Kibum was a friend who had stopped writing letters to him only a few weeks after he had left to England. Jonghyun— Jonghyun was his everything. Jonghyun, like a miracle falling from the sky, offered him help, offered him a remedy to an incurable condition, and he saved his life, and he held Taemin close at night and—
“Jonghyun was human once,” Kibum says suddenly. He looks directly into Taemin’s eyes, and Taemin finds that he can’t look away.
“He came from a family of mudang, you know who they are, right?”
Taemin shakes his head.
Kibum sighs. “Children these days. A mudang is a Korean shaman. They are powerful priests who, among other things, soothes the spirits of the dead and repels evil.”
“Okay," Taemin nods, understanding. “Go on.”
“He was the last child his parents had, and the only boy after six daughters. I came to them when I was about thirteen, I believe.”
“Right. Jonghyun said your parents were friends,” Taemin adds.
“Friends?” Kibum pauses to think about that. “No, I wouldn’t say that. His family was famous in that part of the country, for being powerful mudang. So my parents thought their home was the best place for me after my shinbyeong started.”
“Shinbyeong…?” Taemin begins tapping his fingers nervously against his thigh.
“It’s an illness that can happen to anyone, regardless of your background,” Kibum explains. “A spirit enters you and makes you sick. I could hardly eat or sleep for eleven years, and I hallucinated things often. The only way to be cured is to accept it, but by accepting it, you must become a mudang.”
“So you’re chosen by a sickness?” Taemin concludes.
Kibum nods. “More or less, yeah. And I fought it, for those eleven years, because I came from a wealthy family, you see. And by becoming a mudang, I would forfeit all claims to my inheritance.”
Kibum stops, looks away. Taemin recalls this, when Jonghyun told him his version of the story, that Kibum was rich and spoiled.
“I was angry,” the boy with multicolored hair continues. “I didn’t think it was fair that I had to give up everything to talk to a bunch of spirits, so I took it out on Jonghyun.”
Taemin remembers this part of Jonghyun’s story as well— where Jonghyun falls for Kibum and is used mercilessly by him, until one day, he’s finally rejected.
Kibum sighs. “I knew he liked me. The damn idiot was more obvious than an elephant in a pool of rats, and he was kind to me. He tried to befriend me, tried to make my sickness better anyway he could. The hereditary mudang line doesn’t pass onto male heirs, you see, so he’d never know my suffering.”
Kibum shifts his eyes to the side as their waitress comes by to refill their water glasses.
The moment she leaves, Kibum takes a breath.
“So I used him. He was at my beck and call for all eleven of those years that I was sick. He would tell me that he loved me and I told him to bring me a snack. His parents didn’t pay much attention to him either since he was a boy. I suppose those years were lonely for him… ”
Kibum laughs. “He even started going on about an imaginary friend at some point, except his continued way into adulthood.”
Taemin frowns, his fingers tapping harder against his thigh.
“Keep going,” he says, anger edging his voice.
Kibum realizes he’s crossed a line, and mutters an apology.
“It’s strange,” Kibum hesitates. “What happens next— I’ve never figured it out. A few days before I was to be officially initiated, Jonghyun asks me if I ever loved him. I told him honestly, no, and that I never could. I stop seeing him after that, but I thought he was just sulking in a corner somewhere…”
The boy with the multicolored hair breathes, continues.
“The day after my ceremony, Jonghyun comes back, and he’s angry, so, so angry… My memory gets really fuzzy around here so forgive me for the lack of details. He wasn’t himself. He moved like a puppet on strings, and there was something dark surrounding him. There was a huge storm all of a sudden, it flooded the nearby village… People died, Taemin.”
“That happens in nature,” Taemin says smoothly.
Kibum recoils at his comment. “You’re quick to defend him.”
“You’re quick to insult him,” Taemin retorts. “Continue the story.”
“… I don’t know how, but suddenly, he has an unbelievable amount of power. It just doesn’t make sense, people don’t suddenly gain a witch’s abilities in one day, but he… he cursed us. All of us. Every one of his sisters, his parents, me… I don’t see him again until the 1970s. I left Korea for a long time after that.”
“That doesn’t make sense though,” Taemin says with a shake of his head. “You’re going on about how Jonghyun isn’t human, when maybe you should be explaining why you’ve lived for so long. And how am I supposed to believe any of this anyway?
“I don’t lie, Taemin,” Kibum mumbles. “And how else do you think I was the top student in the entire city? I’m not smart, I’ve just lived through everything they teach in school.”
“Okay,” says Taemin. “Then how have you lived for so long?”
Kibum looks at him with sad eyes now.
“That’s my curse. It was to teach me a lesson, about love. I’m cursed to walk this earth and watch everyone I know and care about die, forever.” Tears begin to well up in Kibum’s eyes, and he wipes them away. “I can only die and join them after I’ve made a million roses bloom at once.”
Taemin’s mind flashes to the hundreds of red roses surrounding Kibum’s shop. Was that really why…?
Taemin furrows his brows. “I don’t understand though. Why roses?”
“It’s the flower of love,” Kibum says softly. “And you can only make flowers bloom when you’re able to attend to their every need— water them, nourish them, cut them back. You have to care for them.”
Taemin’s eyes widen as realization dawns upon him. “He knew you were selfish, and could never love anything more than yourself, so he gave you an impossible task.”
Kibum nods. “I’ve never even gotten close. Damn things always need something or rather. I tried hiring a company once to plant a whole field for me. Didn’t work. I have to make them bloom myself.”
Taemin bites the inside of his cheek. “Let’s say I believe you,” he begins slowly. “What happened to the others? His family members?”
“I don’t know what happened to all of them,” Kibum replies. “I’ve lost contact with them. But I know of one in Seoul.”
Taemin perks up, curious. “Really? Where?”
“There’s an old and ruined mansion on the outskirts of the city… The whole building is blackened and bent— ”
“I know,” Taemin interrupts. Images of teeth and claws and faceless beings flash across his mind. “I’ve been there.”
“Then you’ve seen her,” Kibum whispers.
Taemin narrows his eyes. “Seen who?”
“The thing, inside, don’t you think it kind of resembles a girl?”
Taemin doesn’t answer. He remembers that thing well, too well, but now that he thought about it, it did sort of look like…
“That was Sodam,” says Kibum. “His favorite sister.”
Taemin’s eyes widen in horror.
“Why?” he whispers. There was no way, absolutely no way anyone would intentionally make something so hideous and cruel.
Taemin’s mind flashes back to the night of the manor horror.
“Why was such a horrific thing created?”
Kibum offers nothing but a slow shrug. “Jonghyun thought she was too vain. So he took away her face.”
“I don’t know. But whatever it is, it must’ve done something to deserve its fate.”
Long moments of time go by. Taemin doesn’t say anything. Neither of them order anything from the menu. Their waitress gets annoyed.
“Taemin,” Kibum says tentatively. He reaches out across the table and grasps Taemin’s hand.
Taemin doesn’t look at him.
“Taemin, I need you to tell me everything you’ve learned about Jonghyun.”
“Learned?” Taemin glances at him with weary eyes. “Like what?”
“Anything. Everything.” There’s a fierce gaze in Kibum’s eyes. “If we can find out what he is, we can stop him.”
“Stop?” He retreats his hand from Kibum’s grasp. “You mean kill him?”
The boy with rainbow-like hair nods.
“… What sort of things would you want to know anyway?” Taemin hates himself the moment those words leave his mouth, but the thing with teeth and claws and no face was Jonghyun’s sister, and that was, that was—
“It’ll be hard to tell what’s important,” Kibum admits. “No one would suspect someone who doesn’t like garlic to be a vampire, after all. But if there’s anything even the slightest bit strange, tell me.”
Taemin thinks about the past few weeks he’s spent with Jonghyun, thinks about the freedom and happiness hadn’t felt for a long time before Jonghyun.
It didn’t have a face.
“I dunno,” Taemin shrugs his shoulders. “He hates the sun, but he says it’s ‘cause he’s afraid of wrinkles. He’s not a vampire though, I’ve seen those up close and he looks nothing like them.”
Kibum blinks, surprised. “And you lived. Wow. Okay, what else?”
Taemin sighs and begins to list anything he can think of. “Um, he sleeps during the day because of his insomnia. He chews mint leaves all the time. I think he’s allergic to saffron? He chucked the sample you gave me the second he saw it.”
“Saffron?” Kibum repeats. “I’m not sure what that could mean, but alright.”
“Sometimes his skin is really cold— look, Kibum, I appreciate what you’re doing, but none of this stuff is really all that suspicious,” Taemin shoots the other with a pointed look. “He’s got quirks, we all do.”
Kibum rolls his eyes. “Yeah and one of those quirks has been bleaching his hair white like some damn avant garde model since the 70s.”
“Bleach?” Taemin frowns. “Jonghyun said it was natural. Like some sort of special witch gene or something.”
“No, his hair was never white when we were growing up, his hair was black like the rest of us… “ Kibum trails off, his eyes narrowing as a thought seems to cross his mind.
Kibum begins mumbling something that Taemin recognizes as the list of attributes he’s given so far.
“I think,” Kibum starts, but shakes his head. “No, I’m not sure. I’ll have to do some more research. Can I call you tomorrow?”
He doesn’t want Kibum to call, though.
As they stand outside the cafe, the sun beginning to set along the horizon, Taemin asks Kibum something that’s been gnawing at the corners of his mind.
“Kibum, do you believe in reincarnation?”
“Of course,” the other replies with ease. “I’ve run into some of my friends’ souls in different bodies over the centuries. Why?”
Taemin chews his lip nervously. “Back then, when Jonghyun was still human, did you guys know someone named Choi Minho?”
“Whoa, that’s a name I haven’t heard in a long time,” Kibum blinks. “Yeah he was part of the village guard, and he came to visit a lot. He had a thing for me and I used to flirt with him. Jonghyun hated him for it.”
Kibum tilts his head in contemplation. “You haven’t seen— ”
“No,” Taemin says too quickly. “It’s just a name Jonghyun mentioned once.”
They part ways, after that.
For the first time in almost a month, Taemin doesn’t go to Jonghyun’s place.
His phone rings incessantly and Taemin ignores it, rolls over and huddles underneath a mountain of blankets on his bed.
He thinks about the pact they made, the contract he’s signed, the horrendous tasks he’s undergone, and wonders if any of it was worth it.
He lays on his back and swings his legs back and forth in the air.
Yes, he thinks, it was.
True to his word, Kibum calls him the next morning.
“Taemin! Listen, I think I know what he is, but I need to ask you a few things. It’s kinda invasive and really personal but I need you to answer, okay?”
Taemin hasn’t even had a chance to eat breakfast yet. It’s too early for this, he thinks.
“Yeah, I’ll answer your questions,” he says while grabbing a box of cereal.
“Are you two having sex?”
Taemin coughs awkwardly and pours milks and cereal into a bowl. “Um, yeah.”
“Does he have any strange habits while you two are, ah, doing it?”
“I really don’t know Kibum considering he’s the only guy I’ve ever slept with,” Taemin grunts around a spoonful of cereal.
“Okay but is there anything he does that you think normal, vanilla people wouldn’t do?”
A lot of things, he thinks as he chews his cereal. A lot of things. His face flushes scarlet as memories play in his mind.
“… Taemin, you promised you’d answer.”
“I don’t know, Kibum! He always likes to suck me off I guess? Says I taste good. And he, he doesn’t ejaculate.” And god is he glad Kibum isn’t in the room to watch him say this because his face is probably beet red.
“… It makes sense.”
“What does?” Taemin snaps angrily.
“I think he’s a gangshi.”
Taemin stops chewing. “A gangshi? You mean the zombie thing that sticks it’s arms out like an idiot and has to hop everywhere? You’ve gotta be joking.”
“No, listen, it makes sense. The mint leaves, the cold skin, the white hair, his fear of the sun, him sleeping during the day. Taemin, he’s dead.”
Taemin picks up his bowl and throws it into the sink. “This is stupid. Gangshi? Really? Well he moves pretty damn well for a dead guy.”
“Taemin, gangshi feed off the life force of people in order to get stronger. If he’s been like this for hundreds of years, he would’ve had plenty of time to get strong enough to pass as a normal person.”
“Mmkay. Did you figure out the witch part too?”
“That’s a little more unclear, because only he knows what really happened, but… but suppose that imaginary friend he had for so long was the spirit of a witch? And— see, there’s a belief that the body holds two souls, one good, one evil. What if he gave up his good soul to let in the witch’s soul?
“And that makes him a gangshi how?”
“The moment one of his souls left his body, he was dead, but when the spirit of the witch entered his body, he would become a reanimated corpse — a gangshi.”
It sounds like the plot to a bad video game.
He realizes the bowl lies broken in the sink and Taemin curses himself as he throws away the chipped pieces. “Explain the saffron then.”
“All evil spirits fear the color red.”
He accidentally cuts his finger on a sharp piece and watches as blood begins to push out from his wound. “He’s seen me bleed before.”
There’s a sigh on the other end of the line. “That’s different. A gangshi would see that as food, and would be attracted to it instead of repelled.”
Taemin stands, tapping his fingers harshly against the kitchen countertop. “And how exactly did my sex life put this all in order for you?”
“Well, gangshi live off human life force— ”
“Yes I know,” Taemin says with a roll of his eyes.
“… It’s a Taoist belief that semen contains the most life energy, Taemin.”
Time freezes for Taemin in that instant.
“I… don’t know how to say this… but I think he’s using you as a food source. And it makes sense that he doesn’t have any, ah, semen, because he’s not a living being.”
His phone rings.
He checks the screen. It’s Jonghyun.
“I’m sorry, Kibum, I gotta go… “
“What? No! Why are you— he’s calling isn’t he? Taemin, don’t answer that call, stay away from— ”
Taemin ends his call with Kibum and answers Jonghyun’s.
It’s dark and the moon hangs ominously in the sky as Taemin stands before the gate to Jonghyun’s crooked hanok complex. The witch had called him, informing him that the promised elixir was ready.
Today was the last day the temporary liquid Jonghyun gave him would work. A whole month had passed in the blink of an eye, but somehow, Taemin had survived it. After tonight, he wouldn’t have to worry about deadlines and pain returning. Now, he stood ready to collect his prize.
Taemin enters the familiar home and quickly finds Jonghyun sitting in the courtyard. Besides him, there’s a small fire going with a cauldron hanging above it, suspended by a metal frame.
“Taeminnie!” Jonghyun smiles as soon as he sees him, and runs to envelop him in a giant hug. “I was afraid you wouldn’t come. You didn’t answer any of my calls last night.”
“Sorry,” Taemin mumbles. “I forgot my phone was on silent.”
Jonghyun hums, accepting his answer. “It’s alright. It happens.”
The witch detaches himself from Taemin and hops over to the boiling cauldron. Taemin peers into it’s depths, and sees a thick, orange sludge bubbling inside.
Jonghyun leans against Taemin’s shoulder, and he too looks into the cauldron. “Don’t worry, it’s not finished yet. I wanted to save the best part for when you were here. Wait right there, don't move!”
The snowy haired boy rushes off into one of the rooms, and returns a few minutes later with a cast iron kettle and a jar of water.
His smile quickly turns into a frown when he notices Taemin’s expression, however.
“Hey, Taeminnie. I’m not the only one excited here, am I?” He pouts. “You’re about to get the use of your leg back. Permanently!”
Taemin can’t look at Jonghyun without Kibum’s words playing over and over in his mind.
A gangshi. An evil, life force consuming monster. A fiend that straddled the border between life and death, yet this one had the power to curse others with immortality, the power to remove one’s face and create a heinous creature.
Jonghyun blinks up at him with big brown eyes, the kettle and jar still in his hands.
Taemin shakes those poisonous thoughts from his mind. He smiles at the little witch, his witch.
“Of course I’m happy. I almost got my face torn off by vampire Choi, remember? I deserve this.”
Jonghyun laughs, loud and joyous, and hands Taemin the jar of water. When Taemin opens the jar, two familiar brown eyes stare back at him.
Jonghyun stands over the steaming cauldron, opens the kettle, and tilts it forward.
“Our final ingredients, the most important of all,” Jonghyun sings. “A wicked heart.”
The little blue heart of flame tumbles out of the kettle and plops into the boiling sludge. The orange muck glows and suddenly turns into a pleasant, blue color.
He gestures to Taemin, who hands him the jar of water and eyes.
Jonghyun pours its contents in. “And wicked eyes.”
The eyes float atop the blue goo before slowly sinking in. The thick, tar like consistency suddenly lightens, and it seems more like an iridescent, cerulean water.
Jonghyun grabs a wooden ladle and dips it into the lustrous blue liquid. He lifts it close to his lips, murmuring words Taemin can’t quite hear, and holds it out to Taemin.
“Take it,” the witch says. “You’ve earned it.”
Taemin grasps the ladle in his hands and lifts it to his mouth, gulping down the shimmering blue water.
Almost immediately, he feels a warmth that travels through him and stops at his right thigh. It grows warmer, hot, almost, and then it’s gone as quickly as it came.
Taemin blinks at Jonghyun.
“That’s it?” he asks in disbelief. There didn’t have to be a rainbow shooting out of him, but shouldn’t something magical and mystical happen?
Jonghyun snorts at him. “What were you expecting? Magic circles and fireworks appearing outta nowhere? Fairies and unicorns falling out of the sky? A symphony of violins and piano?” The boy shakes his head of beautiful white hair. “Nope. Sorry. Real life magic is quiet and boring.”
“That’s okay,” Taemin laughs. “I’m done with excitement and adventure.”
Taemin bounces lightly on both feet and gives a twirl.
It doesn’t feel much different than before, with the temporary potion working it’s magic, but there was something slightly more.
He felt… complete.
A thought crosses his mind suddenly and Taemin pulls down his pants.
“Lee Taemin!” Jonghyun shouts, but Taemin pays him no mind.
He twists to see the side of his right thigh and runs a hand along smooth skin.
Smooth skin. No scars. They’ve vanished.
Jonghyun tackles him to the ground, sending them both sprawling across the grass. Jonghyun crawls on top of the taller boy, effectively covering Taemin with his own body.
“If my neighbors see you they’ll call the police,” the witch hisses at him.
Taemin just laughs.
“Good, let them,” he replies.
Jonghyun arches a brow at him. “You may have plans for a career within prison cells, but I sure don’t. You know what big, tough guy criminals do to little guys like me?”
Taemin smiles. “Use them as stepping stools?”
“Exac— wait. What did you just say to me?”
“Don’t worry, Jjong. You probably wouldn’t even fit in the line-up picture.”
“Oh your ass is mine you little twerp.”
This time, Taemin lies on his back with his legs wrapped around Jonghyun, as the snowy haired boy pounds mercilessly into him.
Jonghyun runs his tongue up Taemin’s sweat beaded neck, and he captures Taemin’s lips in a heated kiss.
Taemin's hands are fisted in the sheets and he sobs, begs for more.
Jonghyun pulls out of him, and when Taemin whines at the loss of the other deep inside him, the witch grabs him by the hips and drags him into his lap.
“Not close enough,” Jonghyun whispers, and Taemin nods, understanding.
He sits himself on Jonghyun’s large, erect cock, taking it all in at once, rolls his hips hard against the delicious feeling.
Taemin bounces shamelessly over him, their sweaty bodies pressed flush together, chest to chest. It’s so hot, so good. The friction feels amazing, and Taemin grips Jonghyun’s broad shoulders tight, using him to push himself harder, deeper, faster.
Taemin moans between their sloppy kisses, and he wants to cry when Jonghyun reaches a hand between their moving bodies to curl around his wet cock.
With one good, hard, well-aimed thrust, Jonghyun pounds into Taemin’s sweet spot, and Taemin screams as he comes hard, ribbons of white painting their chests and going as far as landing in Jonghyun’s hair.
Jonghyun comes at the same time he does, Taemin thinks, unsure. All he can hear is his heart beating loudly in his ears and his ragged breathing as he tries to come down from his high.
They sway together slowly, riding out their orgasms, until finally Jonghyun pulls out of him and Taemin flops onto his back. He watches with sleepy eyes as Jonghyun runs his fingers along both of their chests, gathering every last bit of cum, and sucking his fingers clean.
He even makes sure to get the droplets in his hair.
“You know,” Taemin starts, as they’re both lying blissfully fucked out next to each other. “Kibum had this weird theory about you.”
Jonghyun grunts, and rolls over to lay flat on Taemin’s chest. Taemin can only see the top of his head from where he lays.
“What theory?” asks Jonghyun.
“It’s stupid,” Taemin says as he runs his hand through Jonghyun’s soft, white hair.
“You brought it up,” Jonghyun says with a firm poke against Taemin’s chest. “So finish it.”
“I dunno why, but he’s convinced you’re not human,” Taemin laughs. “He even made up this crazy backstory about how you two were born before, like, the year 300.”
Jonghyun makes a humming noise, and Taemin continues.
“Long story short, he thinks you’re a gangshi.”
“The hopping zombie?” Jonghyun asks with a snort.
“Mhmm. He even made up all these crazy details about how you were friends with the spirit of a witch and let it enter your body.”
Jonghyun runs a hand slowly down Taemin’s hip. “Tell me everything.”
So he does. Taemin relays in great detail everything Kibum had thought up and said. He’s just gotten to the end of it, where Kibum tells him that Jonghyun is using him as a food source, when the witch bursts out laughing.
Taemin laughs along with him, his hand still playing with Jonghyun’s hair. “Yeah, it’s ridiculous, isn’t it?”
“Not at all!” Jonghyun laughs.
Taemin chuckles. “Why not?”
Jonghyun lifts himself up, straddling Taemin’s naked body with his thighs, and reaches over to gently caress Taemin’s cheek.
Jonghyun smiles and tilts his head. “It’s not ridiculous, because it’s true.”
Taemin laughs awkwardly. “What?”
“Yeah,” Jonghyun nods. “I have to give him credit, I never thought Kibum would figure it out. Guess he’s smarter than I thought.”
Taemin frowns, tries to back away, but he’s pinned underneath Jonghyun’s weight. “This isn’t funny.”
“I’m not joking,” the witch sings.
He climbs off Taemin and hops off the bed and begins pulling his clothes back on.
Taemin tries to move, but he can’t. Not a single muscle. It’s as if something invisible is pressing down on top of him, restricting his every movement.
“I don’t understand,” Taemin says. They’re a tight feeling of fear building in his chest, but he can’t be afraid, this is Jonghyun of all people. “Jonghyun, let me go.”
Said boy zips up his jeans and turns to Taemin. “Nope.”
Taemin’s eyes are wide now, frightened. “Why?”
“It’s your penalty,” Jonghyun replies. “For failing to act in accordance to the laws of the contract you signed.”
“I didn’t break any of the rules!” Tears well up in his eyes. “I did everything you asked. I got you everything you needed!”
Jonghyun nods. He begins to pick up Taemin’s clothes and folds them. “True, you did. But the fact is, you had already broken the contract before you even completed the first task.”
“What are you talking about?” Taemin sobs now, hot tears flowing down his cheeks.
“I told you, and I quote, ‘You will collect everything I need to make your remedy, but you must do everything I tell you to, and you must do them alone.’ Alone, Taeminnie. No help.” Jonghyun shakes his head. “That’s where you went wrong.”
“No I didn’t,” Taemin whispers. “I didn’t. I was alone the entire time.”
“On the night that you went into the manor, I saved you from dying,” Jonghyun explains. He sets the folded pile of clothes on a chair by the bed.
“Yes, yes you did,” Taemin nods. Jonghyun had saved him and cared for him and—
“That counts as help. You didn’t complete the task alone because without me you would’ve never survived to bring the soul back.”
Taemin’s eyes widen impossibly large as realization dawns on him.
“You planned this from the beginning.”
Jonghyun laughs, cold and venomous.
Taemin doesn’t want to know, but asks anyway. “What happens now?”
Jonghyun smiles at him, all pearly white teeth and eyes crinkled into pretty little crescents.
“Silly Taeminnie, didn’t you read the fine print? I own you now. Mind, body, and soul.”
It’s cold now. And dark.
Always cold. Always dark.
There’s nothing to keep him company except for the slow drip of water.
Taemin wishes he could see it, find it— he’s so thirsty nowadays— but he can’t see anything but pitch black.
At least twice a day, the light above him is switched on — it hurts his eyes, always, blinds him for a good minute — and someone descends down stone steps.
No, not someone. His master, owner.
He hums a merry tune and drops a tray of food in front of Taemin.
“Dinner time, Taeminnie.”
Chains rattles as Taemin looks up from where he’s curled himself into a ball and at the beautiful face of his owner.
“Well, aren’t you going to say hello?”
Taemin bows his head. “Hello, Jonghyun.”
Jonghyun smiles, crouching down to ruffle his unkempt black hair.
“Good. Now eat up. We need to keep you healthy.”
Taemin eats slowly, letting the flavors sit on his tongue so he’ll feel less hungry later. Jonghyun watches him— always watches him, and always talks to him.
“Guess what, Taeminnie? Kibum came looking for you again today.”
Taemin flinches at the name.
“Yeah, I know. I don’t like him either. He always goes on about me kidnapping you! But that’s not true, right Taeminnie? You want to be here.”
Taemin nods, slowly savoring the last piece of bread Jonghyun has given him. “I want to be here.”
Jonghyun beams at him. “Good! Now that you’ve had your dinner… ” His beautiful owner with snow white hair shoves aside the tray and crawls into his lap. “It’s time for mine.”
Jonghyun kisses him, runs his hands down Taemin’s body, and Taemin lets him.
He's not lucky. Never lucky. He's just unfortunate.