“Grave news, sire.”
The Devil sighed tiredly. “What is it, Hoseok?”
“The prophecy has been fulfilled,” Hoseok announced solemnly, face as stony as if it had been carved from marble.
The Devil levelled a look at him. “The prophecy. There hasn’t been any kind of prophecy for over two millennia. So, please. Cut the shit.”
Hoseok finally dropped the farce and snickered. “Fine, fine. Seokjin’s gone and had another spawn.”
“Exactly why should I care? I run Hell, I have bigger concerns.”
“This one was with a human.”
The Devil rolled his eyes. “Oh, for fuck’s sake. You know what, he can fill out the paperwork himself this time.”
“Jeonggukie!” Taehyung called over his shoulder, wrestling with the climbing vine that was currently trying to strangle him. “Jeonggukie!”
“What is it?” a quiet, high voice replied. Taehyung half-turned his head and spotted the small boy behind him. Jeongguk was observing his battle with mild interest, chewing absentmindedly on his thumb.
“Can you run and get me the ground jasper? It’s in a jar on the ingredients shelf, do you think you can read the label?”
“G-R-O-U-N-D J-A-S-P-E-R,” Jeongguk spelled with no hesitation. “I’ll go get it.”
Taehyung turned his full attention back to the murderous plant, feeling the familiar burst of pride flicker in his heart. His little Jeongguk, only five but already so clever. If Taehyung hadn’t known better, he would have thought he was his own.
Before long, he heard little pattering footsteps coming up behind him. “I’ve got the jasper!” Jeongguk called. “What should I do now?”
Taehyung would have done it himself, but the vine had grabbed hold of both his arms and didn’t seem too intent on letting them go. “Just grab a handful and throw it at the roots. Make sure it’s the roots too, or else it won’t work,” he warned.
He heard Jeongguk unscrew the jar lid. Then, the little boy was scampering under his arm to fling his fistful of red powder underneath the flailing creepers. The plant shuddered in fury, then, after one last sweep of its creepers, it finally stilled.
Taehyung breathed a sigh of relief. “Good job, Jeonggukie. I really need to make sure the thing’s tied up properly this time.” When he received no answer, he glanced down and saw Jeongguk sitting on the floor looking slightly stunned, a small hand pressed to his cheek.
Taehyung immediately rushed to kneel before him. “Jeonggukie? Are you hurt? Did the vine get you?”
Jeongguk’s eyes were slowly filling with tears. Two fat drops slid down his cheeks as he nodded.
“Come on, let me see,” Taehyung coaxed. “Let me see, honey.”
Jeongguk slowly lowered his hand from his face and Taehyung winced sympathetically when he saw the long, thankfully shallow cut marring his soft cheek.
“Oh no, poor baby. Quickly, come inside so I can fix you up, yeah? Can you stand?”
Jeongguk nodded tearfully, climbing to his feet on shaky legs. Feeling a sudden surge of protective love for the boy, Taehyung gathered him into his arms and swept him up. Jeongguk buried his face in Taehyung’s neck, probably smearing blood on his t-shirt, but it wasn’t anything a quick spell wouldn’t fix. He carried the child into the kitchen and placed him gently on a chair, quickly grabbing all the ingredients he would need. As he ground the beetles in his mortar, he sang Jeongguk the old song he loved, trying to distract the boy from his injury.
“These are the days of miracle and wonder,
This is the long-distance call.
The way the camera follows us in slow-mo,
The way we look to us all.
The way we look to a distant constellation that’s dying in the corner of the sky.
These are the days of miracle and wonder and don’t cry, baby, don’t cry, don’t cry.”
It seemed to work, and Jeongguk’s sobs hiccupped to a stop. When Taehyung kneeled before him to smooth the paste over his cut, Jeongguk smiled at him, eyes still bright with leftover tears.
“There we go,” Taehyung said when he was done. “That’ll be healed up in no time, and then we can wipe that gunk off your face. It smells bad, doesn’t it?”
Jeongguk giggled. “It stinks.”
Taehyung smiled and ruffled his hair. “Does it still hurt?”
Jeongguk shook his head. “It feels all better.”
“I’m glad.” Taehyung made to get up, but Jeongguk wrapped his arms around his neck, stopping him in his tracks.
“I love you, Taetae,” he said, beaming.
“I love you too, Jeonggukie,” Taehyung replied. Jeongguk grinned wider and leaned forward to plant a large smooch on Taehyung’s lips. Taehyung laughed aloud and hefted the boy out of his chair, swinging him around until he shrieked with delight. It was then that they heard a call from the garden.
“Honey, I’m home!”
Taehyung set Jeongguk back on the floor and let him run to the door, rolling his eyes subtly.
“Daddy!” Jeongguk cried in joy, flinging himself at the tall, dark-haired figure in the front garden.
“Hey there, cupcake!” Seokjin greeted him back, catching him with supernatural ease and hugging him tightly. “How have you been?”
“I fought a plant!” Jeongguk boasted proudly. “It tried to get me, but I beat it!”
Seokjin held him an arm’s length away to look at him, finally noticing the poultice that was now smeared over his pink shirt as well as Jeongguk’s face. Sighing, he placed Jeongguk on the ground and snapped his fingers. The goo on his shirt vanished.
“What’s all this I’m hearing about battles with plants?” Seokjin asked Taehyung, who was leaning against the door jamb. “I do hope you’re not putting him to physical labour already.”
Taehyung did feel slightly guilty, but he wasn’t about to let Seokjin see that, although the demon could almost certainly see it in his aura anyway. “It was an emergency,” he explained. “Jeongguk was wonderful.”
“I saved you, didn’t I, Taetae? I saved you from the plant!”
“You did, baby, that you did,” Taehyung agreed, smiling tenderly at him. “How about you go play now, and let me and Daddy talk about grown-up things?”
Jeongguk groaned. “Why do you guys always have to talk about grown-up things? I want to show Daddy my fairy wing collection!”
“You will, pumpkin,” Taehyung assured him. “I’m sure this won’t take long,” he added, shooting a questioning look at Seokjin, who shook his head with a smile.
Acquiescing, Jeongguk scampered off to his bedroom to play. Taehyung let Seokjin inside and sent the crockery on the table flying into the sink with a wave of his hand. He’d been practising that spell for weeks just to be able to show it off in front of the demon, but Seokjin looked infuriatingly unimpressed. He was gazing around the small kitchen from his perch on the table, a clear look of disdain on his face.
“I still don’t think this is a proper place to bring up a child,” he said.
“As you tell me every time you visit.” Taehyung set some water boiling and took a seat at the table. “Unluckily for you, it wasn’t up to you. And it never will be,” he reminded Seokjin with some glee.
Seokjin tutted good-naturedly. “I knew I should have insisted on some form of custody when I made the deal with Chaerin. She really fleeced us.”
“Speak for yourself. One simple potion for everlasting youth and I get a bundle of joy for the rest of eternity. You’re the idiot. Honestly, you granted the woman immortality in exchange for her bearing your child and forgot to write any kind of subclause on custody. You technically don’t even have visiting rights.”
Seokjin shrugged. “Chaerin’s fine with me visiting whenever I want.”
“Chaerin doesn’t have custody anymore, either,” Taehyung reminded him coolly. “Jeongguk’s mine.”
Seokjin snorted. “Are you going to ban his beloved daddy from ever seeing him again? That’ll have him hating you within a day.”
Taehyung knew he was right, even if he didn’t like it. “Yeah, yeah, I know. Maybe he’ll grow out of you after a century. Lord knows I have.”
“You haven’t known me for a century,” Seokjin pointed out. “I only gave you your powers ten years ago.”
“Eight,” Taehyung corrected. “And that’s been long enough. But that doesn’t matter. Why are you here? It’s only been two weeks since your last visit, I thought we’d settled on once a month.”
The kettle began to whistle, but before Taehyung could take it off the stove, Seokjin had levitated the boiling water out of it and deposited it in the teapot, narrowly missing Taehyung’s face on its way. The teapot was then transported to the table, where it landed noiselessly before Seokjin.
“It’s about that, actually,” the demon said amicably, conjuring porcelains cups and saucers out of thin air although Taehyung owned perfectly acceptable ones. “Every time I see my son, he becomes more and more perfect.”
“Thank you, Taehyung,” Taehyung muttered under his breath.
Seokjin ignored him. “Contrary to all my expectations, I’ve actually developed a bond with him over the last five years.”
“Five years?” Taehyung sputtered. “You only bothered to show up when he was nearly three!”
“Anyhow,” Seokjin breezed on. “I wish to see my son more often, and spend more time with him. What do you say to weekends in Hell?”
Taehyung stared at him blankly. “Weekends in Hell,” he repeated. “It sounds like a horror movie. Speaking of places that aren’t in any way proper to bring up a child!”
“You know, Hell isn’t actually fire and brimstone,” Seokjin interjected, but Taehyung ignored him.
“It’s only thanks to me that Jeongguk’s so perfect!” he blustered. “You and Chaerin both are barely ever here! I rocked him to sleep when he was a baby, I fed him and clothed him and taught him how to speak! He can even read now! Do you know that?”
“Of course I know that,” Seokjin said, unimpressed. “He’s been able to read on his own since the age of four.”
“Yes, he has! Thanks to me.” Taehyung was standing now, looming over Seokjin but still making a very unthreatening figure in comparison to the powerful demon before him. “So don’t you dare take him away from me! He’s mine!”
Seokjin blinked at him. “How about every other weekend?”
Taehyung sat down again. “Now we can start talking.”
Eventually, they agreed on every second weekend and every other Halloween. By the time they’d finished bargaining, the tea was gone and Taehyung had bartered himself some hellflower for his hothouse, which didn’t naturally grow on Earth.
“Right,” he said, leaning back and trying not to let on how pleased with himself he was. “You can go and break the good news to him now.” Seokjin smiled stiffly and stood, magicking the teacups away again. As he made to leave the room, Taehyung added, “Oh, and when he shows you his fairy wing collection, make sure to comment on the shiny blue one. It’s pretty rare, Jeonggukie’s very proud of it.”
A real smile graced Seokjin’s lips this time, albeit small. “Thank you, Taehyung, I will.”
Taehyung nodded and got up to wash up the teapot.
“By the way, Taehyung.”
He turned to see Seokjin paused in the doorway. “What is it?”
“I acknowledge that you’ve done a marvellous job in bringing Jeongguk up so far. I’m glad that, out of all the witches in the area, Chaerin picked you to raise her firstborn.”
Taehyung was astounded. “…thank you,” he said after a moment.
Seokjin smiled again and left the room.
By the time lunchtime came around, Seokjin had left again, after many hugs from Jeongguk and promises to see each other next Saturday. Taehyung looked on with a small smile on his face. Though he didn’t get along especially well with the demon, he was glad Jeongguk had a father in his life. His mother, the now-immortal human Chaerin, popped by every now and then, but it wasn’t really enough to form much of a relationship with the boy. Taehyung himself had always been more of a big brother figure; not ready for real fatherhood, he had discouraged all of Jeongguk’s attempts to call him ‘Dad’, reminding him that he had an actual father and that Taehyung was not he. This didn’t seem to particularly bother the child, who instead reverted to calling him ‘Taetae’, which Taehyung found infinitely preferable.
“Taetae,” Jeongguk called now, skipping over to him with something enclosed in his tiny fist. “Look what Daddy gave me!”
Taehyung looked, and Jeongguk opened his hand. There lay a flat, round stone with a hole in its centre, grey and nondescript in every way.
“Did Daddy tell you what it was?” Taehyung asked rather sheepishly, feeling like he should know himself.
Jeongguk nodded eagerly. “It’s a…” his brow furrowed in concentration, “long-distance comm…communications device.” He looked proud of himself.
Taehyung had to restrain himself from pinching the adorable boy’s cheeks. “Look at you and those big words!” he exclaimed instead. “How does it work?”
“I look into this hole and think of Daddy really hard, and then it works like a phone.”
Taehyung was fascinated. “Does it only work to call Daddy, or can you contact other people with it?”
Jeongguk looked unsure. “Um. I think only Daddy. I don’t know, I didn’t ask.”
“It’s fine, honey,” Taehyung said, ruffling his hair. “It’s super cool! I’m jealous.”
This seemed to surprise Jeongguk. “Really? You can have it!” he exclaimed, holding the stone out to Taehyung.
Taehyung melted. “No, no, sweetie, it’s yours. Anyway, you’ll need to talk to Daddy much more often than me.”
Jeongguk seemed to debate, then closed his hand around the stone again. “Okay!” he said, beaming.
Taehyung grinned back. “Come on, then, give me a hug.”
Jeongguk leaped into his arms and squeezed Taehyung’s neck as hard as he could. “I love you, Taetae,” he sang, “I love you, I love you!”
“I love you too, baby. Now, do you want some lunch?”
Seokjin appeared on the dot of nine am the next Saturday. Jeongguk was packed and ready with two suitcases.
“Why so much stuff?” Seokjin asked, looking amused.
Jeongguk giggled and looked up at Taehyung.
Taehyung cleared his throat. “I didn’t know what kind of weather it would be down there,” he explained, “so he has one suitcase with warm clothes, one with cool.”
Seokjin laughed. “The weather in Hell is whatever you want it to be,” he said, as if it were obvious. He turned to Jeongguk. “What weather would you like this weekend, my love?”
Taehyung tried not to seethe too much at the pet name. Jeongguk was his love.
Jeongguk thought the question over hard. “Snow!” he decided eventually.
Seokjin didn’t look best pleased, and Taehyung had to stifle a laugh. “Warm clothes it is, then,” he declared good-naturedly, handing Jeongguk the appropriate suitcase. “Seokjin, you’ll build a snowman with him, won’t you?”
“Snowman, snowman!” Jeongguk squealed, bouncing up and down.
Seokjin narrowed his eyes very, very subtly at Taehyung. “Yes, of course I will,” he said, not a trace of malice in his voice, yet Taehyung still got a chill down his spine. “Say goodbye to Taehyung, then, Jeongguk. You won’t see him for a while.”
His words made Taehyung very uncomfortable. He wouldn’t just keep Jeongguk…would he? They both knew very well that Taehyung wasn’t able to enter Hell on his own. But they had an agreement.
Jeongguk also seemed to be suddenly getting cold feet. “Taetae?” he said somewhat weakly, reaching for him.
Taehyung picked him up and hugged him tightly. “You’ll be back before you know it,” he reassured the boy. “And you and Daddy will have loads of fun, won’t you?”
“I want you to come too,” Jeongguk whined, face buried in Taehyung’s neck. “I’ll miss you.”
“I’ll miss you too, baby. But we’ll see each other tomorrow, yeah? At bedtime.”
Jeongguk nodded and raised his head to give Taehyung a slightly wet kiss. Taehyung kissed him back, then put him gently down again. “You two go and have fun, now,” he said, playfully shooing them away.
Seokjin held out his arm to Jeongguk, who took it with the hand that wasn’t holding the suitcase. “I’ll bring him back at seven tomorrow,” he said to Taehyung, who nodded tightly.
Taehyung blinked and they vanished. Taking a steadying breath, Taehyung walked slowly back into the house. It was much too quiet. He slowly unpacked Jeongguk’s cool clothes and made his bed, then sat down at his cauldron to make a fresh batch of sleeping potion.
He sang Jeongguk’s favourite lullaby over the potion, infusing it with the notes to make it even more powerful.
“I met my love by the gasworks wall,
Dreamed a dream by the old canal,
Kissed my girl by the factory wall.
Dirty old town, dirty old town.”
The potion bubbled a vibrant blue, fading eventually to a muted lavender, and Taehyung knew it was perfect.
Sleep would not come to him with too much difficulty that night.
Saturday and Sunday were spent in a vaguely busy sort of haze for Taehyung. After he’d nearly passed out over his spell books mid Sunday morning, he realised he’d forgotten to eat anything since Saturday’s breakfast and hurried to fry himself some eggs. After that, he felt much better and decided he was ready to tackle the garden. He’d never really had any kind of green thumb, neither before nor after he became a witch, and after eight years, Taehyung definitely had the impression that the magical herb garden was slowly killing him. The carnivorous vine, now safely tied to the fence once more, was most certainly the worst of the lot, but Taehyung always managed to scratch himself on the moonroses and get a rash from the deadly nightshade. He hated it, but the ingredients were necessary for almost all of his potions, salves and tinctures, and those were necessary for their livelihood, being Taehyung’s admittedly lucrative, but sole source of income. He secretly dreamed of the day when Jeongguk, already cutely fascinated by the things in their garden and the creatures they attracted, would be big enough to take care of it himself. Taehyung could sense that the half-demon boy wasn’t powerful enough to make any potion more complicated than a serenity mist, but he definitely had enough magic to keep the plants flourishing. Taehyung was objectively more powerful, but the plants seemed very reluctant to bend to his will. Perhaps they sensed his hatred towards them.
What felt like three hundred pulled weeds later, Taehyung decided it was time for a proper meal. Jeongguk would be fed before he came home, so Taehyung only had to cook supper for himself, and it didn’t matter that it was only four in the afternoon.
Taehyung’s stir fry tasted awful, even to himself, so he had to add a good dose of his charmed soy sauce, the MSG of the magical culinary world. That made it at least palatable, if not actually fairly tasty, and Taehyung sat happily down to eat it. It was strange to eat alone again for the first time in five years, and Taehyung wasn’t sure if he enjoyed the silence or not. On one hand, it was nice to be able to finish his meal before it got cold, on the other, the lack of chatter made him acutely aware of his uncomfortable lonesomeness.
He would be happy to have Jeongguk back, he decided.
At half past six, he was already on the porch seat, rocking restlessly back and forth while he waited for Seokjin to return with Jeongguk. True to Seokjin’s promise, they appeared at exactly seven, both bundled in thick jumpers.
“Wow, it’s hot here!” Jeongguk exclaimed in wonder. Then he saw Taehyung and ran to him. They hugged and kissed, and Taehyung asked him if he’d had a good time.
“Yeah!” Jeongguk nodded enthusiastically. “It was great! Daddy can cook so well!” He rubbed his tummy expressively, licking his lips.
“Better than me?” Taehyung teased.
“Way better,” came the answer. Seokjin smirked.
“Well, you won’t be wanting one of the arrowroot cookies I baked today, then, will you?” Taehyung teased, laughing at Jeongguk’s shout of protest. He turned to Seokjin, Jeongguk’s hand in his. “Thanks for taking care of him so well. We’ll see you the week after next?”
Seokjin nodded in affirmation. “I’ll say goodbye now, then.” He held his arms out to Jeongguk, who ran to give him a hug.
“Bye, Daddy!” he said.
“And what else?” Taehyung reminded him.
Jeongguk groaned and rolled his eyes. “Thank you…”
Seokjin laughed. “You really are such a gentleman already,” he commented. “Until next time, then, my good sir.”
Jeongguk stuck his tongue out at him. Seokjin was still laughing as he vanished back to Hell.
Jeongguk thoroughly enjoyed his arrowroot cookie and milk, Taehyung was happy to observe. While he munched, Jeongguk told him all about his weekend.
“We went skiing, and I only fell over once!” he boasted with his mouth full. “And we built a snowman that was even taller than Daddy!”
Taehyung chuckled. “That sounds wonderful, my heart. Are you tired?”
“A little bit,” Jeongguk admitted.
“Let’s get you into bed then.”
Tucked up in his blankets, Jeongguk demanded a goodnight song that Seokjin had sung to him.
“Daddy says it’s hundreds and hundreds of years old, and that an old king wrote it for a lady he was in love with!”
“Did he now?”
“He said you wouldn’t know it, either. It’s too old.”
“Do you want to know a secret, Jeongguk?” Taehyung asked. “Sometimes, I think Daddy forgets that humans have just as good memories as demons.
“Alas, my love, you do me wrong
To cast me off discourteously,
For I have loved you well and long,
Delighting in your company.”
Jeongguk drifted off peacefully to the lilting melody of Greensleeves, a beatific smile on his face. By the time Taehyung had run through all the verses, he was deeply sleeping. Taehyung sat a little while next to his bed, then kissed him gently on the forehead and left, shutting the door softly behind him.
“Jeongguk! Get your shoes on, we’re going to be late!” Taehyung called, frantically shoving Jeongguk’s lunchbox into his backpack.
“I’ve got my shoes on!” came the reply from the doorway.
Taehyung looked up and saw that the six-year-old was telling the truth. “Good boy,” he said, grabbing the car keys and making for the door. “Come on, then, let’s go.”
The ancient pickup truck started first time, for which Taehyung was everlastingly grateful. It had got to the point where Taehyung was more stressed about Jeongguk’s first day of school than Jeongguk himself.
The drive wasn’t long, maybe twenty minutes, and sooner than Taehyung would have liked, they were idling outside the school gates, watching children streaming in.
“Okay,” Taehyung said after a deep breath. “Off you go, sweetie, have a great time!”
“I will,” Jeongguk chirped, grinning as he picked up his backpack from the floor of the truck.
“And remember,” Taehyung said, “I only lifted you today because it’s your first day, you’ll have to get the bus tomorrow.”
“I know, Taetae. I did tell you I didn’t need a lift, though. I’m not worried about getting the bus by myself.”
Taehyung sighed. Jeongguk had indeed told him that. “Okay, honey. Come and give me a kiss now, yeah?” Jeongguk leaned across the console and gave him a peck. “Right, out you hop. Be good!” he called hurriedly, before Jeongguk slammed the door.
He watched the small boy walk through the gates until he lost sight of him in the crowd. Sighing again, he pulled out from the curb and drove home.
The day passed very uneventfully: Taehyung washed, brewed some Essence of Discord to order, cooked, ate, had a nap, then realised it was time to pick Jeongguk up from school already.
It took a while for him to find a parking spot, but luckily Jeongguk didn’t appear to have been waiting long. He climbed in without a word, dropping his bag onto the floor.
“Well?” Taehyung asked him. “How was it?”
Jeongguk shrugged. “Alright,” he said.
Taehyung eyed him in his peripheral vision. “Is something wrong, honey?”
No answer came, and Taehyung resolved to leave it until they got home. After he’d pulled into the driveway and applied the handbrake, he turned to Jeongguk and said, very sternly, “Stay in the car.”
He got out, walked around to Jeongguk’s side, opened the door and gathered the boy in his arms, snagging his backpack with his fingers and carrying him into the house. “This isn’t allowed, you know,” he informed Jeongguk conversationally. “You’re not allowed to be sad after your first day of school. It’s against the rules. And it makes me want to stop you from going to school ever again, which is really against the rules.” They’d reached the kitchen. He sat Jeongguk down on a chair and crouched down to his eye level. “What’s wrong, my heart?”
Jeongguk’s lip wobbled. “They’re mean.”
“Who’s mean? The other children?”
Jeongguk shook his head. “The teacher too.”
Taehyung blinked, taken aback. “The teacher was mean to you?”
Jeongguk nodded morosely. “She said that I’m a very naughty boy that tells nasty lies and gave me this to show you.” He reached into his pocket and brought out a crumpled sheet of paper.
Taehyung took it, skimming the handwritten words quickly. “She says you made up stories in front of the class,” he said, deeply confused. Jeongguk was not a liar. “What is she talking about, my love?”
Jeongguk scowled, tears making their way down his cheeks. “We had to say what our parents did for a living. So I told them what you do, and no one would believe me!”
Taehyung froze. “Ah. What exactly did you tell them?”
“The truth!” Jeongguk exploded, little fists balling. “I said you grow magic plants and make potions with them and send them to customers all over the country!”
Taehyung winced. “Okay, I understand now. This was my fault, I forgot to mention it. The thing is, Kookie, humans don’t generally know that magic is real.”
Jeongguk stared at him, nonplussed. “What?”
“They think it’s all stories. Like Greek mythology, you remember those myths?” Jeongguk nodded slowly. “So if some guy came up to you and told you he was Zeus, what would you think?”
“That he’s making it up.”
“Because Zeus isn’t real.”
“And that’s what humans think about witches and magic. That’s why the teacher told you off for lying,” Taehyung explained.
“So do I just tell them magic is real?” Jeongguk asked, still looking very confused.
“No, honey, it’s a secret,” Taehyung told him. “You see, a long time ago, humans did know about magic, but they weren’t very nice to us. So now we stay hidden.”
“It’s a secret,” Jeongguk repeated, very obviously still slightly confused but nevertheless accepting.
“Exactly, sweetie. Shall we make up a story about what I do, then?”
“So…I have to lie?”
Taehyung felt a twist of guilt in his gut. “I’m sorry, love, I’m afraid so. Why don’t we tell them I’m a pharmacologist?”
“Kind of like a human version of a witch. They make medicines.”
“Okay,” Jeongguk said, seeming to like the idea.
Taehyung composed a letter to the teacher on the back of the note she had written him. In it, he explained his ‘real’ career and added a couple of scathing sentences about the poisonous effects of punishing creativity in young children.
When he’d finished, he told Jeongguk, “I’ve said here that I’m your big brother. I look a bit too young to be your father,” he explained.
“But then what do I say about my parents?” Jeongguk asked.
Taehyung looked into his dark, concerned eyes and was suddenly brought back to a similar moment three years ago.
“Taetae, why don’t I have a mommy or daddy?” Jeongguk asked out of the blue.
Taehyung paused, then put down the voodoo doll he’d been working on to crouch in front of Jeongguk. “You do have a mommy and daddy, Jeonggukie, everyone does.”
“Where are they?” came the answering question.
Taehyung sighed. He’d been somewhat dreading this conversation. “It’s a little complicated,” he said. “I’ll explain it to you, but stop me if you don’t understand something, okay?”
Jeongguk nodded, big brown eyes unusually solemn for the three-year-old.
“Your mommy is a human and your daddy is a demon. Your mommy wanted to live forever, and your daddy wanted a child, so they made a deal that if mommy had you, daddy would make it so she’d live forever. Understand?”
Jeongguk nodded, brow furrowed in concentration.
“Then, mommy found me and told me she didn’t just want to live forever, she also wanted to be young forever. For that, I needed to make a potion, so we made a deal that in exchange for that, she’d give me he firstborn child, which was you.”
“How did that work?” Jeongguk asked, confused. “How were you sure she’d actually give me you?”
“’Give me to you’,” Taehyung corrected absently. “It was a magical deal,” he explained.
“Well, we both promised and then sealed it with a kiss.”
This seemed to both amuse and disgust Jeongguk. “So you’ve kissed mommy and daddy?”
“No, just your mommy. The deal with your daddy was one your mommy made, remember, Jeonggukie?”
Jeongguk ignored this. “Why a kiss?”
“A kiss is something magical. It means permanent, forever.”
Jeongguk suddenly leaned forward and pressed a smacking kiss to Taehyung’s lips. Taehyung jumped, startled, and pressed his fingers to his mouth, subtly wiping away the spit Jeongguk had left behind. He felt his lips tingle beneath his touch. His heart pounded as magic suddenly rushed through his body, taking all his insecurity about raising a child on his own and turning it into pure love.
“There,” said Jeongguk, looking pleased with himself. “Now we’re forever.”
Taehyung snapped himself out of his reverie. “You can say that our parents travel a lot, and that’s why I take care of you,” he supplied. Jeongguk nodded, but his face fell. “What’s wrong, sweetie?”
“I thought that made it sound like my parents don’t want me,” Jeongguk whispered. “And then…then I thought that maybe they really don’t.” He looked close to tears.
Taehyung was horrified. “Jeonggukie, no, no! Of course they want you! Who wouldn’t?”
“But they gave me away,” Jeongguk croaked, the tears coming now.
Taehyung hugged him tightly to his chest. “They did, Jeongguk, but they still come to visit you. Daddy came to me specially to ask if he could see you more often, remember? Of course he wants you, darling.”
“But Mommy doesn’t.”
Taehyung didn’t know what to say. Chaerin was an enigma. She visited very rarely, it was true. She had seen Jeongguk only twice after his birth, and had never stayed longer than a few hours.
Jeongguk was sobbing against his chest and it broke Taehyung’s heart. “Baby,” he said, his own voice thick with unshed tears. “Mommy isn’t really ready to have a child yet, I think. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t love you. Because she does, I can see it.”
Jeongguk sniffled. “You can?”
“Of course, love, remember I told how love is a form of magic? I can feel magic, baby, I can see auras, and I can see that she does love you, in her own way. And Daddy loves you too.”
“And you love me.” It wasn’t a question, and Taehyung felt so, so relieved that Jeongguk didn’t doubt it.
“I love you more than anything else in this entire world,” he said, squeezing Jeongguk tightly. “Do you feel better now, baby?”
Jeongguk nodded against his shoulder. Taehyung pulled back from the hug to kiss Jeongguk gently, not caring about the tears and snot covering his face. “Forever, remember? I love you forever and ever.”
Jeongguk smiled a watery smile and Taehyung felt deep in his bones that all was going to be well.
He called Chaerin that night.
“Taehyung? Has something happened?”
“No, Chaerin,” he soothed her. “Nothing’s happened. I just wanted to ask whether you were thinking of dropping by any time soon.”
“Um. Well, I’m in Russia right now…”
“It’s just we’re having a belated birthday party for Jeongguk next week, and I think he’d love it if you were there. Seokjin will be, too.”
“I really don’t know, Taehyung…”
“It would mean a lot to him.”
A small silence.
“Okay,” came the eventual reply. Taehyung breathed a silent sigh of relief. “I’ll be there. Has he grown a lot since I last saw him?”
Taehyung smiled to himself. “So much.”
“I look forward to seeing him. And you and Seokjin, naturally.”
“We’re looking forward to seeing you, too. Goodbye, Chaerin.”
Taehyung hung up and grinned to himself in pride.
It was three in the afternoon and Jeongguk was supposed to have arrived home over an hour ago.
For the first half hour, Taehyung had refused to let himself get worked up, telling himself that the bus was probably stuck in traffic, that it had maybe broken down and needed to be repaired, but as the minutes ticked by, his arguments had appeared steadily less plausible and by now, Taehyung was in full-blown panic. Images preyed on his mind of the nine-year-old getting into a strange car, lying motionless by the side of the road, crying alone in the rain.
He was currently trying to regulate his breathing in order to enchant a tiny thrush sitting on the porch outside. It was a trick his friend Yoongi had taught him, but the enchantment was a difficult melody even when one was breathing normally, which Taehyung most definitely was not.
Finally, he managed the appropriate verse:
“Oh, say you pretty speckled thrush,
That changes his note from bush to bush,
My love has left me here alone,
I fear he never will return.”
The thrush stilled, head cocked to listen to him, then dutifully flew off to look for the school bus. It was an agonising twenty-minute wait before it returned, chest bursting in full song, twittering of the empty bus that was parked in its lot, as it always was after bringing the children home.
Taehyung made certain to thank the bird and present it with some crumbs before he dissolved into desperate tears. If the bus was parked and not broken down, then Jeongguk could not have been on it at all, and Taehyung didn’t want to think of what that might mean.
Steeling himself against further tears that might blur his vision, Taehyung extracted his old broomstick from the garage and set off to scout around the school, wondering if Jeongguk had perhaps missed the bus and was waiting, cold and alone, for someone to help him.
The wind was freezing as it whipped around Taehyung’s ears, and he deeply regretted forgoing both hat and warming potion before he left. However, he ignored the pain and numbly steered his broomstick to circle the school, praying nobody was looking up at that exact moment.
After three slow laps in the air and one on ground, Taehyung had to admit to himself that the search had proven fruitless: Jeongguk was nowhere to be found. He was dry sobbing as he traced the road back to the house, scanning all the while for a small figure in a red coat traipsing through the damp cold. He saw nothing, and arrived home with his nose running, fingers frozen and tears streaking his cheeks. In all his thirty-four years, Taehyung had never felt so helpless. Not even before he’d received his powers, when he’d been a small, human child crying for his mother who was dead and his father who never came home. Now, Taehyung was crying for something, someone who was completely reliant on him, who would most certainly get hurt or even die without him, and Taehyung had lost him and might never see him again.
He was on the phone to the police when he spotted the red coat outside.
“No, no, wait, he’s here! He’s back! I’m sorry to waste your time, thank you!” he cried, overjoyed. He dropped the phone and ran outside.
Jeongguk was in the garden, holding Seokjin’s hand and wrinkling his nose at the drizzling sky.
“Where have you been?!” Taehyung shouted, stumbling over his own feet to crush Jeongguk in his arms. “I’ve been worried sick! I thought you were hurt, or someone had taken you, I called the police, Jeongguk!”
Jeongguk’s aura turned and fearful yellow and he started to sniffle. “I’m sorry…” he started, but Taehyung wasn’t listening, instead rounding on Seokjin, his magic flaring up so violently that even the demon took an alarmed step backward.
“You!” Taehyung spat. “You took him! You didn’t even tell me, why the fuck would you do something like that?!”
“Taehyung, you will control your tongue,” the demon said, eyes smouldering in muted fury. Taehyung felt his skin tighten in response to the crackling aura of dark magic suddenly surrounding the both of them. Even Jeongguk seemed to feel it, eyes wide in fear as he stared up at the two of them, his guardian and his father, both looking ready to rip each other’s throats out.
“Taetae?” he whispered brokenly, “Daddy?”
They turned to him immediately, and the murderous aura evaporated.
“Sweetie, no, please don’t be scared, I’m sorry I lost my temper,” Taehyung crooned, reaching out for the boy.
“I’m sorry as well, Jeongguk,” Seokjin said, looking genuinely and uncharacteristically remorseful. “You know I would never hurt you or Taehyung, right?”
Jeongguk nodded mutely, still looking scared.
“Now,” Seokjin sighed. “Why don’t you explain to Taehyung what actually happened, hm?”
“I missed the bus,” Jeongguk told Taehyung, looking guilty. “And so I decided to walk home. I didn’t realise how far it was!” he protested at Taehyung’s horrified gasp. “I didn’t think it would take so long. But then I got lost, and I didn’t know where I was, and my phone wouldn’t work and it was getting dark…so I called Daddy with the stone.” He held out the ring of grey rock clutched tightly in his palm. “I called him and he came to fetch me and took me right here.”
Taehyung started, first at the rock, then at Seokjin. The demon regarded him rather coolly, arms folded over his chest. Taehyung opened his mouth, closed it, then opened it again. “I believe an apology is in order,” he said finally, feeling rather ashamed of himself.
“Accepted,” Seokjin said, not overly curtly. “It was understandable, given how worried you’d been. But I do hope you know that I only ever want what is best for Jeongguk. He loves you. I’m not going to steal him away from you.”
Taehyung nodded, cheeks burning. “I do know that. Thank you for coming to him when he needed you.”
“You don’t need to thank me for that,” Seokjin said, finally smiling.
Taehyung smiled back, feeling tears prick inexplicably behind his eyes again. He swallowed hard, then said with a brave smile, “Who’d like a hot cup of tea?”
Everyone did, so they all filed into the kitchen. Taehyung sent Jeongguk off to take off his coat and shoes and change into something more comfortable than his school clothes. While he was gone, Taehyung turned to the demon once again.
“I know you said I don’t need to thank you, but I want to anyway,” Taehyung said before Seokjin could protest, “…and I would also like to ask a favour of you.”
Seokjin raised an eyebrow. “What kind of favour?”
“Can you make one of those stones for Jeonggukie so that he can call me? I want to avoid a situation like this ever arising again.”
Seokjin nodded in understanding. “I’d be glad to do that. Although the charm’s so simple, you could probably do it yourself. But in any case, that particular kind of stone can only be found in Hell. I’ll send it to you within a few days.”
Taehyung could have cried with gratitude. “Thank you. Thank you. I’m so glad he has you as a father.”
Seokjin looked surprised, but pleased. “That’s kind of you to say. I’m very glad to have him as a son.”
By the time Jeongguk came back down for his tea, all previous animosity had vanished and Seokjin and Taehyung were sniping good-naturedly at each other about the various shortcomings of their respective races. Before he sat down, the boy pulled Taehyung down by the shoulder to give him a kiss, soft and apologetic.
“I’m sorry I made you worry so much,” Jeongguk said. Taehyung forgave him immediately.
Three months after his fourteenth birthday, Jeongguk came home from school on a sweltering summer’s day with a snapback cap that Taehyung had never seen before, aura a moody, bruised purple.
“Jeonggukie!” Taehyung called from behind the bougainvillea, dropping his secateurs. “Did you have a fun day at school?”
Jeongguk nodded absently and said, “Don’t call me Jeonggukie.”
Taehyung smiled fondly to himself and walked over to the boy. “Sorry, I keep forgetting. Did you have a fun day at school, Jeongguk?” He leaned in to kiss him.
“I already said yes!” Jeongguk said, somewhat exasperatedly, dodging the kiss.
Taehyung huffed, slightly hurt that Jeongguk wouldn’t kiss him hello, but mostly irritated by his attitude. “Actually, you didn’t. But I’m glad! Where did you get the hat?”
“What is this, the third degree?” Jeongguk demanded, crossing his hands over his chest.
Taehyung sighed deeply. Jeongguk had been getting more and more confrontational lately. Taehyung was writing it down to puberty, but it was starting to seriously get him down. “I’m just curious, Jeongguk,” he said levelly.
Jeongguk shrugged. “Whatever. My friend gave it to me.”
“Which friend is that? Sammy?”
Jeongguk groaned loudly. “I haven’t hung out with Sammy for a year, Taehyung, God!”
Taehyung drew in a shocked breath. “Jeongguk! You know we don’t say that name!”
“What, you’re scared he’ll smite you?”
“No, Jeongguk, I’m afraid he’ll smite you, and you know very well that he could!”
Jeongguk rolled his eyes. “As if God’s interested in any of this bullshit.”
Taehyung was horrified. “Jeongguk! First of all, no swearing! Second of all, you’re half demon, of course he’s going to have taken an interest in you!”
Jeongguk shook his head in mocking disbelief. “Wow. You really are stupid.”
Taehyung’s mouth fell open. He stared at Jeongguk in shock, the boy staring defiantly back, though his cheeks coloured and he eventually dropped his gaze. His aura swirled with guilt.
“’M going upstairs,” he mumbled grouchily, hurrying inside.
Taehyung stood awhile in the garden, trying to process what had just happened. Jeongguk had been grumpier lately, it was true, but this was the first time he’d ever been downright hurtful for no reason.
Maybe he’d just in a bad mood, Taehyung reasoned with himself. It’s normal, he’s going through a lot of changes right now.
It didn’t really make him feel much better. Taehyung finished his garden work anyway, then numbly set about cooking dinner. He decided to make bibimbap, an easy option, but he was feeling too drained to try anything more complicated. He set the rice boiling and the carrots and spring onions chopping themselves, then rootled through the fridge trying to find their various pickles. Within a quarter of an hour, the dishes were steaming on the table. Taehyung steeled himself with a deep breath. It was time to call Jeongguk down.
When a simple shout brought no response, Taehyung sighed and climbed the stairs to Jeongguk’s bedroom, knocking loudly before entering.
Jeongguk was standing shirtless in front of the mirror, examining an angry-looking pimple on his forehead in concern. As was common these days, he had earbuds in and had obviously heard neither Taehyung’s call nor his entry. As Taehyung moved, Jeongguk saw him in the corner of his eye and whirled around with a shriek.
“What are you doing?!” he half-screamed, ripping out his earbuds.
Taehyung took a step back, alarmed. “Dinner’s ready,” he said, trying to keep his tone light.
“Have you never heard of knocking?” Jeongguk spat, hurriedly tugging on a t-shirt.
“I did, loudly,” Taehyung informed him. “You can’t blame me for not being able to make myself heard through your headphones.”
Jeongguk scowled. “Why can’t you just text me?”
“I refuse to sent you a text calling you to dinner when you’re under my roof!” Taehyung snapped.
Jeongguk snorted. “Why not? You make a giant fuss about coming up to my room to call me anyway.” He barged past Taehyung and made his way downstairs.
I do not, Taehyung retorted mentally, following the boy to the kitchen. He may have been nearing forty now, but his body was still twenty-two, and it did not take kindly to direct cheek from someone a head shorter than him. But this was Jeongguk, he reminded himself. He loved Jeongguk. He needed to be patient.
Patience came with difficulty as Jeongguk wolfed down his meal without so much as a word of thanks, leaving Taehyung to clean up the dirty dishes by himself. He really didn’t feel like washing them by hand, so he cast a cleaning charm on them instead. It wasn’t as thorough as hand-cleaning, but it didn’t matter once. Afterwards, Taehyung braced himself to enter Jeongguk’s room once more, this time knocking very loudly indeed and waiting for a grouchy “What?” before he entered.
Jeongguk was lying on his bed with his phone, probably watching YouTube.
Taehyung smiled slightly forcedly at him. “Hey, do you wanna watch that new Pirates of the Caribbean film? I heard it’s got mermaids in it.”
“I was going to watch it with the guys,” Jeongguk said.
“Aren’t I a guy?” Taehyung asked teasingly. Jeongguk just stared at him. “Okay. Well, I was just asking. I thought it would be nice to spend some time together.”
“We always spend time together,” Jeongguk grumbled.
“No, we don’t. You shut yourself away in your room and only come down for meals and snacks,” Taehyung retorted sharply.
Jeongguk looked sulky when he didn’t have an answer to that, scowling hard and pouting in a way that Taehyung secretly found adorable. Taehyung walked in and sat down on the edge of Jeongguk’s mattress, ignoring the way the boy shuffled away from him.
“Come on, Jeongguk, let’s at least do something together,” he beseeched. “I feel like I haven’t properly spoken to you in forever. I miss my little boy.”
That had been the wrong thing to say. Jeongguk was suddenly furious, aura darkening in way that reminded Taehyung strongly of Seokjin. “I’m not your little boy!” he spat, shoving Taehyung away.
Taehyung saved himself from being tipped off the bed and hurriedly stood up. “I know, I know, I’m sorry! I know you’re not little anymore, I just forget sometimes. Your first day of school seems like yesterday to me!”
“You forget everything!” Jeongguk snapped, incensed. “You forget to wake me up for school, you forget to make my lunch, you forget to sign my permission slips!”
Taehyung frowned in disapproval. “Do you realise how selfish you sound right now?”
Jeongguk guffawed. “I’m selfish! Me!”
“Yes, you!” Taehyung exploded, finally losing his temper. “You never used to be like this! What happened to my Jeonggukie, huh?”
“I’m not yours!” Jeongguk bellowed, face turning a deep beet red. “You’re not my dad, you’re not even my brother!” Taehyung shied backward, hurt slicing into his chest. “You’re just some stupid witch who stole me away from my parents to force me to take care of your stupid plants!”
“In case you’ve forgotten,” Taehyung enunciated carefully, voice cold, “your mother sold you to me. Accusing me of forcing you to take care of the plants is laughable, you haven’t watered them once during your tiny lifespan. But you know what? If you really hate me that much, if you really want to go back to your parents,” Taehyung spat the word out like it was poison, “then go ahead! Because I did not sign up for an eternity of abuse at the hands of a brat like you!”
“Like hell you didn’t!” Jeongguk cried, voice cracking and tears springing into his eyes. “You knew I would be immortal when you bought me!”
“When I bought you,” Taehyung retorted, venom in his voice even as it broke, “you were a beautiful, charming baby boy. I’m not a soothsayer, how the fuck was I supposed to know you’d grow into a horrid, vicious teenager?!” Taehyung finally broke down, clutching his face in his hands as he sobbed his heart out. He legs buckled underneath him and he sank to the floor, hiding his head in his knees as he cried. Jeongguk was suddenly eerily quiet, the only sound in the room Taehyung’s broken sobs. “Just go away!” Taehyung yelled into the silence. “Leave! Run off to Seokjin and never come back for all I care!”
Contrary to his expectations, no retort came and Taehyung looked up. Jeongguk was hunched on his bed, eyes red and nose streaming, tears dripping quietly from his chin. He had his blanket in a white-knuckle grip, his other hand fiddling numbly with his dead-screened smartphone.
“Do you really want me to leave?” Jeongguk whispered brokenly, looking as though his heart had been broken. “Do you really hate me so much?”
Taehyung’s throat clogged up completely and his next sob came out choked and horrible.
Jeongguk began to shake, face ashen and eyes wide and horrified. “You really want me to go,” he whispered, and it almost sounded as though he were talking to himself. “You want me to go.”
“Baby,” Taehyung wailed, so loud and jarring it made Jeongguk jump. “Of course I don’t really want you to go! I was so, so angry, I was talking nonsense, I’m so sorry!”
Jeongguk shook his head slowly. “I made you angry,” he mumbled. “It’s my fault.”
Taehyung didn’t know what to say.
Jeongguk began to cry with renewed vigour. “I’m evil!” he sobbed in abandon. “I’m horrid and I made you sad and angry and I said so many horrible things and I’m evil. I wish God would smite me!”
Taehyung stumbled over to the bed and dragged Jeongguk into his arms, ignoring his struggles. “My love, you’re the least evil thing in this entire world, don’t ever say that again, never say anything like that ever again!”
“I made you cry,” Jeongguk protested, still trying his best to wriggle his way out of Taehyung’s embrace, cheeks flaming and eyes panicked.
“And I made you cry,” Taehyung reasoned, “so why don’t we call it quits now, hm?” He chuckled through his tears. “My poor baby, please don’t be so angry anymore.”
“I’m not yours,” Jeongguk mumbled, sounding like an empty echo of his own voice.
Taehyung pulled away to look deep into his eyes. “You are mine,” he said fiercely. “You are my Jeonggukie. I raised you. I taught you your first word, your first step. I love you so much. And I will always love you, forever, remember?” He kissed him, wet and salty with tears.
Jeongguk didn’t kiss him back, body stiff and motionless. Taehyung let go of him slowly, feeling something small break inside of him. It must have shown on his face, because suddenly, Jeongguk was hugging him, tentatively, but Taehyung sank into it anyway.
“Let’s watch that movie,” Jeongguk whispered. “It’ll be cooler with you anyway, you can tell me if the mermaids look like the real thing or not.”
“I’ve never seen a mermaid,” Taehyung reminded him gently, stroking his hair.
They watched the DVD on their old TV, lounging on the sofa in their pyjamas. Jeongguk enjoyed it greatly, and Taehyung found Captain Jack Sparrow as hilarious as always. After two hours, it felt like it always had between them, except for Jeongguk’s puffy eyes and the small, broken thing inside of Taehyung’s chest.
After the credits rolled, Jeongguk turned to him. “That song she sang…” he said hesitantly. “Is it real?”
“It’s real. But she only sang a part of the story.”
“Will you sing me the rest?”
Taehyung breathed for a moment before he began.
“Upon one summer’s morning I carefully did stray,
Down by the walls of Wapping where I met a sailor gay,
Conversing with a young lass who seem’d to be in pain,
Saying, ‘William, when you go I fear you’ll ne’er return again.'
"My heart is pierced by Cupid, I disdain all glittering gold.
There is nothing can console me but my jolly sailor bold."