when pressed, jae will always say that the ghost thing just kind of, sort of, well, happened.
“that’s not how this works and you know it,” wonpil will tell him when the pull gets too strong and jae starts doubting again. “it’s magic, you’re magic,” he’ll say and jae will huff and cringe and answer back something along the lines of that’s bulshit and don’t call me that, it’s dumb. and then, without fail, wonpil will laugh, eyes crinkled in amusement and fondness, say, “but you are, hyung. don’t try to deny it.”
and then, without fail, jae will shut his mouth and relent because - well.
“are you settling in alright, sweetheart?”
“sure thing, mom,” jae huffs into the phone. he tries to fight down the wave of bitter sarcasm threatening to spill through the phone, though he suspects he doesn’t quite make it, not if the way his mother sighs defeatedly at his tone is any indication. “everything’s going great,” he says, for what it’s worth, still fighting tooth and nail with the damn apartment window that just won’t open.
“it’s only for a year. a year and then you can come back home,” she says, placating, but all jae can think about is that one year is still one year too fucking long. he doesn’t want to be here. he’s made that plenty clear already but the last time they got into this argument his mother ended up crying and jae felt like shit for a whole week afterwards so he chooses to keep his mouth shut and deal with it. he’s been getting better at it.
“i know, mom,” jae sighs, trying and failing - quite spectacularly at that - to budge the goddamn window open before he sweats himself to death.
seoul in july is fucking awful. jae’s already sticky and clammy from lugging all his stuff up three flights of stairs to his new dorm room. it was tedious work, especially with no one there to help him out. all jae had wanted when he was finally done and his boxes were stacked haphazardly in a corner of the living room was to unpack the bare necessities and take a shower.
that - well, that hadn’t gone according to plan. not that anything had been going according to plan lately anyways.
the shower, it turns out, has the water pressure of a public drinking fountain. to make matters worse, what little water does manage to drizzle out of the rusty nozzle is colored a suspicious murky brown. jae is sweaty, yes, but he’s not that desperate. not yet, at least.
sleeping is not anywhere in the near future either. when the uni’s administration told him his assigned dorm was fitted with the minimum furniture, jae had expected something more than this - bare walls, bare floors, not even a desk to set his guitar down on. there’s a bed but the mattress is stained a gross shade of beige and entirely too moldy to be healthy.
he has to go mattress shopping, jae thinks, and sighs.
“i hate seoul,” he mutters, which is a big mistake. his mother catches on the vaguely defeated sound before jae can say much else and latches onto it like a hound to blood.
“honestly jaehyung, this will be good for you. it’s a great opportunity to learn about your home. you know me and your father only want the best for you. would it kill you to be more positive about this?”
“mom, mom. i get it, okay?” jae switches his phone to his other ear, still trying to budge the window open to let some fresh air in. the goddamn thing is stuck. from disuse maybe. maybe it’s just back luck on his part. knowing him, it's probably the latter. “it’s - it’s a great opportunity, yeah. i’m just tired from unpacking, that‘s all.” an opportunity i didn't want, is what he doesn’t say. an opportunity you forced me to take.
“i just don’t want you to think of this change as something negative,” she explains. she speaks carefully, like she’s afraid of setting him off. jae can picture her running her hand through her brown locks, biting at her thumb like she always does when she’s feeling guilty. the way jae does, too.
he swallows. a part of him feels bad for making her worry, for making her hesitant, but the other part of him, well - the other still tastes bitter resentment on his tongue when he thinks about how they made him move to the other side of the world in an effort to learn more about your culture, whatever the fuck that’s supposed to mean.
“i get it,” jae sighs again, because he does, in a way. he knows how much this means for his father, knows that all the man wants is for him to understand where he comes from. still, it stings.
jae misses la. he misses his old uni and he misses his sister and he misses his friends, misses his house with windows that know what they’re supposed to do and open the fuck up.
“i’ll let you get back to unpacking,” his mother says when the silence from jae’s end of the line stretches on for too long. she sounds defeated. jae refuses to feel bad about it. “i’ll tell your father you said hello, too. love you, honey.”
“love you too,” jae says back. if it sounds strained, his mother doesn’t comment on it.
“i’ll call later to see how you’re doing.”
“no need,” jae hurries to add as he pushes at the window once again. ‘later’ for her could mean as little as half an hour and jae doesn’t think he can deal with this kind of conversation more than once a day. it’s draining. “i’ll just, uh- shit, what the fuck-” jae scrambles. he grabs a hold of the windowsill before he can go careening out of the window. the goddamn thing decided to open up and almost sent him tumbling over at the sudden lack of resistance.
“jae? is everything okay over there?”
“fine,” jae chokes out, fighting down the urge to glare at the window because that’s kind of petty, sort of childish, and jae’s an adult now. kind of. he should start acting like one, at the very least. “i’ll text later, mom. gotta go now, bye.”
“bye,” jae says again and ends the call before he can feel too guilty about it. he sits down. down on the bare, dusty floor, down in the middle of the chipped walls, surrounded by his many stacks of unpacked boxes.
his apartment looks nothing like home. jae packed what he could, stuffed the must-haves on boxes and took them with him, but there’s too many things he couldn’t bring with him, too much he left behind.
his posters are still back in la, the ones he’s had since his teens years. his vinyl disks, too, his books. there’s so much that’s not here and his new dorm looks empty because of it. jae doesn’t like it.
he huffs out a tired breath, holding the hem of his shirt up to his forehead to wipe off the sweat beading across his hairline.
the window is open now, finally, letting air flow in from outside, the chatter of uni life along with it. jae stares at where his guitar rests near his crossed ankles, the only one he could bring with, but doesn’t reach for it just yet. music is a comfort and jae knows that if he starts playing now he won’t stop until his fingers bleed red. he can’t afford that.
he needs to go mattress shopping, after all.
his mother manages to hold off on calling him for half a week. jae is considerably impressed, though his sister does text him daily. an effort to keep him updated, she says.
i miss you his sister’s text reads. they miss you, goes the second. jae stares at the thread for a long time, trying to figure out what to say back.
in the end, he sends back a curt me too and leaves it at that. he doesn’t bother to respond to his sister’s chain of sad, crying emojis.
it’s their fault, jae can’t help but think. his parents don’t get to play the separation anxiety card, not when they’re the reason jae had to move here in the first place.
when his mother does call, it goes something like this:
“jae, sweetheart. i’ve got some bad news,” she says and jae’s mind, as usual, flashes painfully through every worst case scenario it can come up with in the short span of time it takes his mother to tell him, exactly, what the bad news are.
you have to finish your degree in seoul, maybe, to which jae will say, not a chance and dig his heels in. they promised him he would only have to stay for a year, an exchange of sorts. seoul offers many great opportunities and don’t you want to go into diplomacy? what better way than to establish relationships than this?
jae digresses. long beach state has a great polisci faculty. then again, his parents are the one paying his tuition, so. so.
what his mother really says, however, is this:
“mamama passed away yesterday.”
“oh,” jae is all can get himself to say back because for that he has no answer. he hasn't thought of mamama in years - he had no reason to. “i’m sorry, mom,” he forces out. “how are you holding up?”
“i’m… dealing, i guess,” she answers. her voice sounds far away, faded in a way jae doesn't think has anything to do with distance or their shitty phone connection. “your sister is driving down so we can all go to rio de la plata for the funeral. i thought maybe you could take a break, come with us. mamama would have liked for you to be there.”
“really, mom?” jae can’t help but bite back. his tone rings disbelieving, angered even. jae can feel his hold on his temper slipping dangerously the more he thinks about what his mother just asked of him.
“you can’t keep pulling this kind of shit,” jae snaps, regrets it almost immediately.
his mother take in a sharp breath through the phone. he fucked up, jae knows he fucked up. he's about to apologise when he sees his apartment, still bare and held in flimsy cardboard boxes and very much not home and he lets the wrong words rush out of his mouth. he’s been holding them back for too long to stop them. “first you ship me off to seoul and now you want me to up and leave for argentina? you’ve got to be kidding if you actually think i’m going.”
“jaehyung,” she warns and the undercurrent of disappointment in her tone cuts her voice thin. “have more respect. i’m you mother,” she snaps. somewhere in the back of his mind jae knows he’s overstepped, crossed a line he really shouldn't have, but there’s a heady mix of righteous anger and resentment clouding his judgment, so he speaks.
“a real mother wouldn’t just send her son away,” he bites back. his mother grows silent, worryingly so. all jae can hear through the line is his own breathing. when she finally speaks again, it’s so soft jae almost doesn't hear her.
“i understand.” jae flinches at the tone; disappointed. cold. sad, too. “i need to finish some last arrangements before the funeral,” she says curtly. “let me know if you’re coming.”
“mom,” jae starts but the call has already ended and he’s left to his own guilty thoughts.
he knows he fucked up, knows he hurt his mother more than he wanted to. god, just the thought that he had wanted to hurt his mother - just a bit, just to show her how hurt he was - it makes him sick. there’s an awful feeling of accomplishment coiling tight in his gut, almost like he’s proud of what happened, but it’s soon replaced with shameful regret.
god, mamama. jae hasn’t thought of his grandmother in years.
out of his four grandparents, she was the one jae got to know the most, though that’s not saying much, really, considering both his father’s parents died when he was too little and vacations to seoul had been nothing but a scratched out hopefully on his father’s new year's resolution list.
jae saw mamama once, when he was seven or eight, young enough that a trip to argentina had seemed like the best of adventures.
mamama had already been sick by then, stuck in bed due to her bad lungs and frail bones. jae had sat next to her at her insistence, awkward and uncomfortable because everyone had been telling him that this woman was family, but jae hadn't felt like she was. not then and not now either.
“ven aquí. dejame verte,” she had croaked out, gruff and low. jae had stared at her, lost, until his mother had pushed him closer. she had smelled like milk and talc powder when she leaned in to peer at him, eyes dark and entirely too attentive. “te pareces a tu abuelo.,” she’d said and jae hadn't understood a word of it but she had sounded sad somehow, lost in her own memories, so he’d let her rest a wrinkled hand against his cheek and stayed with her until she fell asleep.
after that, jae never saw her again.
he knows his mother kept in touch with her, always had. mamama had been alone, after all. her husband, abuelo aureliano, had died young, fighting a war jae had never even heard about. jae’s mother had left for the states when she was young too, lured away by the promise of something more, a bigger future, a greater dream. she’d told herself it would only be for a few years, just until she got her master's degree and her feet under her, but then she met jae’s father and they had settled down, unexpectedly, irrevocably. and so his grandmother had been left alone.
maybe that’s why she had insisted for jae’s mother to return, why she had been so adamant about jae being born argentinian.
to this day, jae doesn't know how to feel about that. argentina is not his home, nor does he want it to be. then again, korea is not his home either but jae doesn’t think he has much say in the matter anymore. he’s in seoul for a year and he has to see it through, much as he wants to just return to la.
still, jae can’t help but think of mamama. jae’s grandmother is dead now. the last one of his grandparents has passed away. he should have - he shouldn’t have upset his mother like he did. she was grieving and all jae did was worsen the situation. he feels guilty enough to reach for his phone and call her back but something stops him before he can.
what’s he supposed to say? i’m sorry? he is sorry but jae also knows that his mother always takes a mile when given an ich. asking forgiveness is like accepting he’s okay with being shipped to seoul and he’s not. and so jae doesn’t call.
you’re not coming, his sister texts him a few hours later. she’s not asking, jae knows, so he doesn’t bother to answer.
there’s other things he has to focus on.
it happens exactly one week after jae gets the call.
he has settled down enough into his new routine to have found himself some friends, thankfully. drifting by himself across campus was getting kind of embarrassing. not to mention that skyping with the guys back in la was getting tedious and different time zones made it all but impossible.
there's jimin now, the tiny girl who reminds him oddly of his sister, if a bit younger and entirely more snarky. jae meets her more by accident than by choice when he accidentally bumps into her as he’s rushing to music theory and she not-so-accidentally digs her crimson high-heel into his right foot in petty retaliation. (it would have been his crotch, jae learns later, but she says she found his pained expression kind of endearing and let him off easy.)
she apologises after she realises jae's not so much an asshole as he is clumsy. her apology: a cup of coffee from the quiet little café by the art department where they exchange numbers over a shared piece of strawberry cake. after that, the rest comes easy.
he also finds common ground with a sophomore named mark, who jae thinks shy up until the moment he scolds jae for blaring music so loudly that it drifts from jae’s earphones and into his personal space when they’re forced to study side by side in a cramped corner of the uni library.
mark is quite, has the type of temper that simmers slowly and remembers, but he's kind and knows how to deal with jae's bullshit. they're friends, not close per se, but they're getting there. jae, at least, is content with how things are going.
through mark, jae meets jackson, who, of course, introduces him to the wilder side of uni.
“you sure you need to go?” jackson asks one thursday night from where he’s sprawled over the couch of his and mark’s dorm room. there’s a bunch of empty cans scattered all over the floor, cheap soju they bought from the seedy corner store a few blocks away and drank despite the hell of a hangover that they promised. there’s a heavy bass line drifting from the speakers stuck by a corner of the room, low and rattling enough to make jae’s head spin over the chatter of the few students left in the aftermath of jackson’s get together.
“yeah, sorry,” he answers as he tries - and fails - to put his jacket on. he can’t seem to find the slot for his right arm, which is just pathetic. “got a 9 am lecture tomorrow.”
“you can always skip. we still got a few more hours till the ra comes screaming at us to shut it down.”
“not really,” jae sighs because saying yes to jackson’s offer to come down for a few drinks already took the one (1) pardon for making stupid ass decisions jae decided to give himself in hopes of keeping himself in check but not completely socially isolated.
he had admittedly been feeling kind of lonely and overall just like a pretty shitty person when he agreed to come. his mother hasn't called since their fight and jae hasn’t made any effort to reach out to her either. his sister sends annoying texts now and then to try and get him to call but jae is getting better and better at ignoring the pang of guilt he gets when he ignores them so it’s okay. cheap soju helps with that, too.
“i gotta run. see you guys tomorrow,” he says and leaves the apartment. the walk to his own dorm is a long one because jae decided he could deal with the distance if it meant getting his own personal apartment (what he’s now considering to be stupid ass decision number two), so he chose a cheaper place about twenty minutes away from central campus.
the air has cooled down by this hour of the night so jae is feeling a bit bitter about still not having found the slot for his right arm and shuffles home with his hoodie hanging from one shoulder, blowing on his fingers so that they don't freeze blue.
his apartment is a welcomed sight. there's still a few boxes left to unpack and the whole room is cold because once jae managed to open the window the goddamn thing decided it did not want to close again. still, it’s familiar and right now that’s enough, that’s all he needs.
“i’m home,” he whispers to no one in particular because maybe he’s a bit lonelier than he would have admitted with less shots of soju on him and he’s always said drinking makes him emotional anyways, and well, home seems so far out reach that it kind of burns to think about it.
“about time, hijo. i was starting to worry,” comes the unexpected response and jae sort of shuts down because what. what.
“it’s not good to come home this late,” the voice - the voice, but there shouldn't be a voice. just what did jackson put on his drink? does jae even want to know? - goes on. “you shouldn't be so careless, hun,” it says and it sounds somewhat different this time, sweeter. still, it’s very clearly a voice, one jae should definitely not be hearing when he’s supposed to be in his apartment. alone.
“who’s there?” jae asks, whirling around in search of the owner of the voice. he’s too drunk to be anything close to terrified but there’s a creeping sense of foreboding curling dizzily around his stomach and it's enough to make him sway on his feet and look around the apartment warily. “i said, the fuck is there?”
“language,” comes the voice again. it sounds chiding, like whoever is speaking wants to continue nagging, but jae turns on his heels and starts ranting himself before they can.
“where the fuck are you, you fucking creep,” jae grits out, squinting around in the darkness to see someone, anyone. “what the fuck are you doing in my apartment?”
is it a burglar? it certainly doesn’t act like one. what kind of burglar gives themselves away so easily? jae doesn’t think he owns anything worth stealing anyways. his guitar maybe. then again, toy soldier’s value has always been more of the sentimental kind. so, who?
please don't let it be a burglar, jae thinks, swallows back thickly. can jae even defend himself against a potential thief? he’s all limbs, really, packs less of a punch than a wet cat. he doesn’t even have a bat to act as a deterrent. he’s got a few thick course books. a frying pan, too, bent but solid. so maybe?
“hun,” the voice says again and jae jumps about twenty feet in the air at the sound of it. goosebumps break out across his arms. when it spoke, the voice had sounded like it had been right next to him, a mere few inches away, but when jae turns around to look there’s-
what the everloving fuck.
it - she? - is almost translucent. what little moonlight filters through the window sharpens its -her? - edges, outlines the shape of it. discoloured, faded. there
it's - it's a ghost, jae thinks - hallucinates? there's a ghost hovering just a few breaths across from him, pale and well, ghostly-looking. jae stares at it for a moment, two, and then swears he’s never drinking again because there's an honest to god ghost floating right across from him and what. what.
“i am never drinking again,” jae says, aloud this time, because he feels like his new change of heart in the face of sudden paranormal encounters should be of a more official nature but then-
“nonsense,” a voice - not the voice but a voice, another voice, distinctively male this time - says gruffly. jae makes a sounds that gets caught in the back of his throat, choked in borderline panic.
“sobriety is overrated,” the voice adds when all jae does is stare at the not-so-empty-space beside the ghost because now there’s two ghosts - no wait, make that four - there’s four ghosts hovering inside his apartment and they all seem kind of familiar actually, if jae squints and turns his head to the light, but by the time jae realises where exactly he knows their faces from he’s already driven himself into enough of a panic for his vision to tunnel, then darken, then-
then jae blacks out and he sees the ghosts no more.
when jae wakes up the day after he realises 1. his head feels very much like it’s been run over by a truck, repeatedly at that, and 2. the four ghosts are all still very much there.
“ugh,” jae garbles very intelligently as he stares at the four apparitions. his brain is coming back online painfully slowly and everything feels sort of muted, like jae is seeing everything from underwater. that could have to do with the way the ghosts - the ghosts - are all huddled over him, floating above him so that jae has to stare through them in order to see the clock hanging from the wall opposite him.
and so jae realises that 3. he is very much late for his comparative politics lecture.
jae chooses to do what he does best after that and promptly compartmentalizes the shit out of a bad situation. the ghost are talking, a cacophony of sounds that jar jae enough to have him fleeing his apartment, still clad in last night's clothes and smelling distinctly of a bad case of hangover.
on his his way to class he decides he’s already late so he might as well fuck it and he spends a bitter fifteen minutes waiting for a frazzled looking barista working the morning rush to hand him his dark roast.
by the time jae gets to class he’s half an hour late and his coffee is cold. he is also convinced that the ghosts are either a) a hallucination b) a very, very vivid dream or c) all of the above.
he’s lost it, jae thinks frantically. the stress got to him, homesickness, maybe. wathever the fuck his problem is, it’s driving him bathsit insane.
still, jae remembers how the ghosts spoke, how they looked under the faint moonlight. dead obviously, but still very much there. maybe, he thinks as he bites the pad of his thumb on his way out of class, maybe he should do some recon work before he heads back to his apartment.
dude he sends to mark, smiles tightly at the students who stare at him warily when they try to skirt by him and enter the classroom where jae is rooted to the threshold, boring holes into his phone.
what's up, comes the answer a few minutes later.
had any strange hallucinations since last night? jae types. he hits send before he can think much about it.
no, mark sends back, simple and straight to the point like he always is when he senses jae is up to something. did you?
jae watches as the three grey dots appear and disappear as mark figures out what to send back in response. in the end, what jae gets is a simple, sucks man before mark goes offline.
great, jae thinks before the door to the classroom slams shut and jae thumps his head against it, hard enough to hurt.
jackson - of fucking course - proves to be equally as unhelpful.
“hey, man,” jae begins, sliding up to the other boy as inconspicuously as he can when he tracks him down by the athletic field. he’s flirting with some juniors girl clad in fitting yoga pants and tight sports bras. the whole scene would usually be enough to make jae turn tail and run were he not this desperate.
the girls, upon seeing him, both shoot him a very throughout, very suspicious look. their gazes settle on his rumpled clothes and his jittery expression. something very akin to disdain flashes across their expressions. they give him a once-over before they promptly turn around and leave with a throw-away goodbye jackson’s way.
“the hell, man,” jackson huffs at him and whatches mournfully as they walk away. “way to cockblock a brother.”
“so, about last night,” jae presses because right now he could care less if he lost jackson a good lay, not when he’s got four potential ghosts waiting for him back home. “did you, uh, perhaps… put something else in our drinks?”
jackson blinks at him. “put something - oh, you mean,” he waves a hand around vaguely into something that could potentially imply skirting the edges of the law. jae nods. “nah man, i didn’t,” he says and something inside jae that feels very much like hope promptly shrivels up and dies. “why? you want some? i know a few guys i can hook you up with if you want.”
“no thanks,” jae says, realises he probably sounds all but defeated. then he thinks of his not-so-empty apartment and finds that he can’t bring himself to care much about it. “just wondering, that’s all.”
“yes, well. i’ll catch you later, yeah?” jackson says and doesn’t wait for jae’s answer before he’s running off in the direction the girls disappeared to.
jae watches him go. there's two thoughts running through his head in a loop, going around around around in circles until jae feels like throwing up, bile rising unbidden up his throat.
one: he has four ghosts waiting for him back at home. more specifically, he has his four dead grandparents’ ghosts waiting for him back at home.
two: he's pretty damn well fucked.
“so,” jae begins carefully. he’s sitting on his couch now, hands curled tight into fist and sitting over his thighs as he stares at the ghosts of his four grandparents and fights down the urge to flee. “are you guys, uh, dead?”
“debatable,” grandfather kwan grunts back. he looks exactly like the picture jae’s father has of him, the one he keeps tucked away in the small shrine they have home back in la. deep-set eyes, grey hair, harsh lines and an even harsher scowl. jae would think him real, but there’s something not entirely solid about him. he’s blurred, diluted. like a drawing someone tried to erase but didn’t quite make it through.
“am i going crazy?” jae asks. he’s not really expecting an answer but mamama grins at him, a small, secretive little upcurl of her lips that has jae looking away from her, unsettled.
“who would’ve thought,” she says gruffly, maybe a little proudly. “my grandson, a vidente.”
“a what?” jae turns to her, sees her grin get bigger, but she doesn’t answer.
jae shifts his gaze behind her. there, hovering close to her, is abuelo aureliano. the first thing that came to mind when jae first saw him was that he's - he’s young, doesn’t look a day older than twenty five. and it feels awfully wrong.
jae knows that his mother didn’t get to meet her father. abuelo aureliano died before she was born, fighting for some kind of uprising that torn argentina apart back in the fifties. if he focuses enough, jae can just see a dark smudge on the right side of his abuelo’s skull, a slight indentation. the afterimage of a blow, maybe. jae swallows, looks away.
“vidente. a seer,” mamama answers. “who would’ve thought,” she says again, her voice dipping into something unsettling close to respect.
“but what does that mean?” jae’s reaching for answers. he doesn’t get it. why is he suddenly capable of seeing his grandparents’ ghosts. why him? why now?
“you shouldn't worry so much, hun,” halmeoni cuts in gently. she’s a small woman, a bit pudgy, kindness warm in her eyes.
jae watches warily as she drifts closer. she reaches out a hand and brushes the air next to his cheek like she wants to touch him but she stops a few inches shy of him. her warm smile dims when her hands catches a ray of sun and the light flickers, passing through her to cast faint shadows on the floor. “aren’t you happy to see us?”
“i-” jae starts, finds that he doesn’t know how to finish. he’s - he doesn’t get it. this - them - it’s wrong. jae is twenty and not once in all the years he’s lived has he ever seen something like this. he’s normal. at least, he thinks, he was. “i don’t - i don’t understand.”
“that’s fine, hijo,” mamama answers, still smiling, always smiling. “magic is not meant to be understood.”
“magic,” jae breathes. it rings disbelieving, lost. “magic,” he says again and the word feels far heavier than it should be.
life with his grandparents takes some getting use to.
there’s adjustments to be made. for once, jae can no longer walk around his apartment in his underwear.
his fridge is now stocked with actual food and not only take-out boxes because halmeoni insists she can count his ribs. grandfather kwan orders him to unpack the rest of his boxes, says he hates the mess. mamama urges him to learn some old boleros for her on his guitar and insists on crooning along with him in her slighted cracked spanish. abuelo aureliano doesn’t say much but he watches - constantly - and most times jae feels like he’s being judged and found lacking.
it’s - it’s fucking bizarre is what it is. jae still thinks he’s going crazy most of the time, especially because no one else seems capable of seeing the ghosts like he can; the increasingly awkward conversations where his friends ask him why he’s talking to empty air are enough proof of that.
he thinks of calling his mom then. jae doesn’t think she’ll have any answers about what the fuck is going on but jae’s dying to tell someone about this - about them. he doesn’t, in the end. it feels far too much like admitting defeat.
jae clings to the hope that the ghosts will go away, that this is just some weird-ass manifestation of his latent identity issues or whatever. but when a week goes by and he still wakes up with four voices bickering over him in gruff korean and exasperated bursts of spanish jae throws the olanzapine pills he bought down the toilet and realises he’s in it for the long haul.
“hi, park jaehyung-ssi? i’m kim wonpil, your new roommate.”
jae blinks at the boy, once, twice, and then opens the door for him with a sigh.
“yeah, come on in. sorry about the mess.” jae shuffles around as he watches the boy - wonpil, jae figures he should call him by his name if they’re going to be living together - look around the cluttered room. “your room’s that way,” he mumbles, points at the other end of the living room where jae had cleared the space up for him.
“thank you, jaehyung-ssi.” wonpil smiles, a bright, beaming thing that does a better job of washing away jae’s annoyance at the rooming mix-up than the many apologies from the administration's office secretary did.
“just hyung’s fine.” jae shrugs, offers the younger boy a somewhat strained smile when halmeoni looks at him pointedly from the other side of the room. “i hope we get along,” he adds when the ghost still raises an expectant eyebrow at his lack of manners.
“hyung then,” wonpil beams back. “please take care of me.” jae lets his shoulders slump over in defeat. his new roommate’s cute, jae can already tell he’s going to have a hard time staying mad at him.
“i really am sorry about this.” wonpil ducks his head sheepishly. “i don’t know what happened. i was supposed to room with another freshman and i know it’s already pretty late into the semester but-”
“don’t sweat it,” jae cuts in. he shuffles closer to door, side-stepping mamama, who’s watching wonpil set his boxes down with a careful eye, and reaches down to help the boy carry some of his things inside. “it was unexpected, yeah, but it’s not your fault. we’ll both just have to deal with it.”
unexpected is kind of an understatement. out of fuckign nowhere is more like it. jae had just about freaked when he got the call from the administration building telling him there had been some kind of mistake and that his new roommate would be arriving in three days, we’re so very sorry about the bother. jae had gotten used to having his own space, not that it offered that much privacy anymore, what with his grandparents’ ghost haunting him and all, but it was still his.
now - now jae watches as wonpil carefully sets down a potted plant on the windowsill and hopes to god he doesn’t fuck up and gets send to the mental hospital if wonpil finds about the ghosts.
“you worry too much,” grandfather kwan grunts at him. jae turns to see him hovering next to him, just a few inches above the floor. if he were alive, jae thinks he would feel the brush of his shoulder against his. as it is, though, all jae can feel is empty air. “i can practically hear you over thinking, son.”
“yeah, well,” jae huffs, taking his phone out of his pocket when he hears it ping. “forgive me for worrying but i don’t wanna end up in a madhouse because of him.” it’s his sister again. she’s been getting harder and harder to dodge lately. sighing, jae clicks his phone off and slips it back into his pocket.
“he looks like a sweet kid, hun,” halmeoni chirps in from the other side of the room. she’s practically right next to wonpil, floating just a few inches away from the younger boy. jae has half a mind to yell at her to step away before he realises that such an outburst will probably freak wonpil out more than a ghost he can’t see. “he even brought flowers. look.”
jae grimaces. as if he could feel his gaze, wonpil turns to look at him, head barely poking out from behind the bushy leaves of the plant he’s holding in his arms. “i hope you don’t mind the green,” he says with a nod towards the bush-thing, smile going toothy and soft.
“it’s fine,” jae relents because halmeoni looks half in love with wonpil already and she can get petty in the worst of ways. “just - don’t expect me to help out with them. i kill everything i touch.”
wonpil chortles. “noted,” he says good naturedly before he disappears into his room to finish unpacking.
jae watches him go. from the other side of the room, halmeoni tuts at him. abuelo aurelino nods his head seriously in agreement and raises an eyebrow up to his hairline in the way jae has come to understand means do not test me.
“fine,” jae huffs and goes to help wonpil unpack.
in hindsight, jae should have noticed wonpil was magic way sooner than he actually did.
there were signs, jae realises that now. they came in the form of wonpil slowly but surely turning their apartment into a sprawling greenhouse, every corner filled with twisting vines, autumn flowers blooming in spring, their leaves clogging up their sink.
in his defense, jae had four ghosts to worry about. his grandparents insist on knowing everything about him, always asking questions and prodding for answers. jae tells them what he feels comfortable with, grateful for the way their presence seems to be limited to his apartment alone. jae doesn’t know what he would do if he had to listen to abuelo aureliano’s incessant questions about his mother during lessons.
the point being, jae feels like he can be forgiven for missing a few hints.
jae didn’t realise the full extent of the greenery until a few months after wonpil first moved in. he was on his way to the bathroom when he accidentally stepped on a meaty vine, went flying, and promptly hit his head against the towel rack. wonpil, because he was as sweet as he was a brat, laughed at him until he noticed the dazed look in jae’s eyes and the trail of blood slowly staining his blonde hair red.
“ah, hyung’s so clumsy. here. let me help,” wonpil murmurs, crouching down next to where jae is sprawled across the linoleum floor, his forehead creasing in concern when all jae does is blink at him, lost. wonpil reaches out, fingers feeling around for the bump in his head. halmoeni is hovering worriedly over them both, wringing her ghostly palms in a show of concern but keeping quiet as wonpil finally finds the cut and presses.
there’s a sudden burst of warmth, a dull flare of heat that trickles its way from the tips of wonpil’s fingers down to the cut on jae’s head. jae hears a sharp intake of breath come from his right and he barely has time to think halmeoni before wonpil is wrenching his hand away in panic.
a choked-back scream rings across the bathroom. “ghost.”
fuck goes jae’s brain. then, “wait. you can see her?”
wonpil turns to look at him, wide-eyed in fear. his gaze flits back to halmeoni, who floats uncertainly a few inches above the floor. no doubt having heard the scream, the three others choose that moment to phase through the bathroom wall.
and again, wonpil screams.
“hey. hey, it’s okay.” jae reaches for the younger, tries to calm him down even when he’s still fuzzy from the receding warmth, vision blurred around the edges. “they’re okay - they’re cool. cool ghosts. no need be be afraid.”
“you mean you see the spirits too?” wonpil asks, disbelief cutting his voice thin. “but - but that’s impossible. only very powerful witches can communicate with the other plane and hyung you- you’re a witch?”
“hey,” jae grunts back. “be careful who you call a witch, brat.”
“you’re magic.” wonpil blinks, once, twice and then breaks out into the brightest smile jae has ever seen from him. “hyung! you’re magic too!”
“what do you mean too?”
“why didn’t you tell me?” wonpil blabbers on, climbing excitedly to his feet and helping jae lean against the toilet so that he won’t kip over into the bathtub. “all those times i had to hide my potions and grimoires. we could have been doing it all together. hyung, why-”
“slow down,” jae’s head is spinning, something coiling tight around his chest. it makes it hard to breath. if wonpil really is some kind witch - if he’s really magic - then.
then jae’s not alone.
“you’re a witch?” he asks, doesn’t dare to breath out until he sees wonpil nod his head.
“yeah,” he says, “hedge witch from the covens of incheon. what about you, hyung? where’s your coven from? i couldn't even tell you were magic until i tried to heal you.”
“i...” jae trails off. covens. that means there’s more witches out there. there’s more of them, entire communities of people like him. that means someone out there has to have answers. “i don’t know.”
“what do you mean you don’t know?” wonpil frowns. “you’re a spirit walker, aren't you? witches like you are usually from daegu. is that where your coven’s from?”
“i don’t have a - a coven,” jae bites back. the word feels foreign on his tongue. “look,” he begins, holding up a hand before wonpil can open his mouth to ask more questions he doesn’t have the answers to. “i - i’m not a witch. this whole ghost thing-” he waves a hand around, gesturing to the four ghost now cramped inside the tiny bathroom, “- it came out of fucking nowhere. i don’t know about covens. i don’t have a coven. i thought i was the only freak who could see the ghosts until you came.”
wonpil’s frowns deepens. “you mean...” he trails off. he looks completely caught off guard, staring at jae like he’s a particularly hard puzzle to figure out. “but you’re magic. i felt it. and the magic coming from you, it’s powerful. it couldn’t have gone unnoticed for so long. did no one train you?”
“no,” jae sighs, climbing up to his feet. he wobbles, legs cramping up, and it’s only wonpil’s hands on his back that keep him from crashing back down to the floor. “at least now i know i’m not going crazy. you can see them, too,” he says and points towards his grandparents.
but wonpil shakes his head, voice soft, almost apologetic when he says, “no, hyung i can’t.”
“but you said-”
wonpil shakes his head again, more firmly this time. his hold on jae tightens when he feels him begin to shake. “that was only for a moment. just a glimpse, really. i can’t see them now. i - i think i accidentally tapped into your magic when i tried to heal you. that’s why i saw them.”
“so, it’s still just me, huh?” jae tries not to sound as defeated as he feels but he doesn’t think he manages to pull through. silently, wonpil herds him out of the bathroom and sets him down on the couch they both chipped in to buy, careful of his head.
“i don’t know what you are, hyung,” wonpil answers, slipping in beside him so that their thighs are pressed together, shoulders bumping against each other. “but you’re magic, that much i can tell. and even if i don’t know why yet, i’m going to help you figure it out.”
“magic,” jae sighs again. from the corner of his eye he can see halmeoni quietly talking with abuela. grandfather kwan watches them both, an unreadable look on his face. abuelo aureliano is nowhere to be seen.
magic. jae is truly beginning to hate that word.
“dowoon-ah, don’t be stingy, c’mon. give hyung more marshmallows.”
jae sighs from where he’s standing behind wonpil, who’s holding up the queue in an attempt to get the flustered barista - dowoon, his nametag reads - to help him in his plight of committing suicide via sugar rush.
“hyung,” the boy grimaces. “i don’t think the mug can fit any more.”
“if you just try-”
“move, dowoonie. i got this,” comes another voice. it’s smoother this time, prompting jae to look up from his text thread with jimin and watch instead as a broad-shouldered blond pushes dowoon away from the counter and levels wonpil a scathing look.
“brian hyuuuung,” wonpil goes and jae sees the corners of the blond’s lips twitch up into an aborted smile for a guilty second before his expression smoothes out.
“wonpil-ah,” he says and the familiarity of his tone makes jae do a double take, eyes latching onto the boy for any of the signs wonpil has been teaching him to look for.
ever since wonpil found out that jae was magic about a week ago the younger boy has been doing his best to help jae catch up on what he calls his elementary witch education, really hyung this stuff’s basic. jae had been wary at first, especially when he saw just how smug wonpil was about being the one holding all the knowledge, but the promise of getting some answers as to why he could see the things he saw had eventually won him over.
there’s more to being a witch than jae had thought. there’s more witches than jae thought there would be, period. wonpil points them out to him when they walk through campus. “you can always tell,” he says. “every witch has this aura around them. it’s their magic. it leaks out into the air. can’t you see, hyung?”
jae can’t. wonpil talks about herbs and potions, leylines and holy moons. most of it - if not all - goes right over jae’s head. he can barely understand the things wonpil shows him on his grimoires when the younger goes looking for information on just what the fuck is wrong with jae.
the only thing jae has been able to gather so far is this: wonpil has absolutely no clue what the hell jae is supposed to be.
jae grimaces. that’s one of the reasons he’s here, he supposes, waiting for wonpil to finish grappling for his overly-sugary coffee. after finding nothing in his witchy books, wonpil had admitted defeat. he says he knows a guy - a friend of his noona that owns a holistic store in campus that just so happens to double as a witch emporium for the nearby covens. he could, potentially, have some answers. he’s not a witch, wonpil says, but he knows magic better than most.
“hyung, don’t you want something?” wonpil asks and jae forces himself to focus. he finds the blond barista staring at him, eyes half-lidded as he waits for jae’s answer.
“i’m fine. thanks,” jae mumbles, pushing up his glasses to hide how his cheeks color a faint red under the blond barista’s attention. the guy stares at him for a heartbeat too long before he gives a noncommittal shrug and rings up wonpil’s order.
“can we go now?” jae asks once wonpil has his too-big cup of hot chocolate overflowing with marshmallows in hand.
“sure sure,” he says as he hands jae another cup. at jae’s confused look, he adds, “that’s for sungjin hyung. he tends to get bit grumpy in the mornings.”
sungjin does indeed turn out to be a bit of a grump. jae doesn’t know what he was expecting when wonpil said holistic store owner but it was certainly not this.
sungjin’s tall, broad, has the faintest traces of stubble shadowing his chin. he frowns at them when he opens the door to the shop but he mellows out soon after wonpil hands him his coffee, though jae suspect that may also have something to do with the blinding smile wonpil offers along with it.
“so,” sungjin begins. they’re in the backroom of his shop, sungjin leaning against a cluttered desk while both jae and wonpil sit squished together on an old loveseat. the place smells like sweet incense, the lights set on a low dim. jae feels himself getting drowsy, staring blankly at the rows and rows of jars on sungjin’s shelves. they’re all filled to the brim with dried leaves and other things jae doesn't have a name for. “wonpil says you’re a bit of an odd witch.”
“not quite,” wonpil buts in, just this side of sheepish. sungjin arches an eyebrow at him. “that’s actually why i wanted to talk to you, hyung. i’m - i don’t know what exactly jaehyung is.”
cleary curious, sungjin turns to look at jae. “you can see spirits, right jaehyung-ssi?” he asks. “wonpil-ah told me that much over the phone.”
“just, uh, just four,” jae answers hesitantly, forces himself to keep going when sungjin stays quiet. “i can see my four grandparents’ ghosts but that’s it. wonpil says i’ve got magic but i’ve never - i mean, i can’t control it or anything. i can’t even feel it. is that strange?”
“quite,” sungjin answers simply. there’s a different look in his eyes now, though. he’s not as at ease as he was before. he looks calculating. assessing. “there’s many types of witches, i’m sure wonpil must have told you that,” sungjin waits for jae to nod before he continues. “spirit walkers - witches who can interact with the other plane, the dead - they’re incredibly rare. and they usually need some sort of ritual to establish communication with any kind of ghost. to be able to see four spirits almost constantly...”
“so what you’re saying is that even by witch's standards i’m still a freak,” jae sighs. sungjin smiles at him wryly, just this side of amused.
“that’s one way of putting it.” he turns towards the desk, reaching out to flick through a worn down book. it looks like the ones wonpil has - family grimoires, passed down countless generations of witches to hold the secrets of the coven - only older. “is anyone in your family magic?”
“no.” jae had asked. he had thoroughly questioned his grandparents after wonpil told him how magic is more often than not passed down from father to son, mother to daugher. like the genes for blue eyes or lactose intolerance. “my paternal grandparents didn’t even know witches existed until they came back from the dead to haunt their grandchild. and my abuelos, well, they…”
they what? they think this whole coming-back-as-a-ghost-thing is actually normal? yeah, pretty much. neither of them had batted an eye at the thought of magic being real. they had taken it in stride, as if it was something to be expected. once, mamama had told him when jae asked her about magic, once, back home in rio de la plata, when i was still a child, my mother’s aunt flew away as she hung our clothes, drifted away with her sheets. up into the sky. once.
they both talk about magic as one would about superstition. abuelo says magic the same way he says don’t you dare pass the salt from hand to hand or you better knock on wood. for them it’s something certain - not quite real maybe, but always, always present.
“it’s different for them,” is what jae settles on. “they think of magic as a town’s tale.”
“you shouldn’t dismiss that thought so easily,” sungjin answers. he looks serious, eyes hard as he looks at him. “magic comes from tradition, after all.”
“maybe,” jae says back. “but no one else in my family can see ghosts, so.”
“so,” sungjin echoes him. he shoots him one last look before he claps his hands once and says, “i can’t tell you anything for sure right now. i’ve never know of someone who can interact so easily with the other plane and if what you tell me is true, then we’re not talking about a simple haunting. i need to look more into it. ”
jae sighs, standing up from the loveseat. he can’t say he didn’t expected this but it still doesn’t sit right with him. if the witches themselves don’t know what the hell is wrong with him, well, jae is beginning to lose hope he will ever understand it himself.
“i’ll ask around,” sungjin says. “reach out to some contacts of mine, but-”, softer, he adds, “but don’t be discouraged. magic is a gift. you should treat it as one.”
jae smiles at the man. if it looks a bit strained, sungjin is polite enough not to comment on it.
“you coming?” jae turns to look at wonpil when the boy doesn’t join him at the door. the younger doesn’t look like he wants to move from his spot, though. at all.
“ah, i’ll catch up to you later, hyung,” he says, smile apologetic. “i need to uh, to buy some things before i head back. for potions and stuff.”
“sure you do. see you later, brat,” jae says and heads out of the store after thanking sungjin again. he’s smart enough to know when privacy is wanted.
he’s used to being alone, anyways.
there’s a headache simmering just behind his eyelids, a dull ache pulsing right against his temples. jae takes off his glasses to rub at the bridge of his nose in a fruitless effort to keep it at bay. the coffee wonpil had made him - something the younger brewed himself, added some herbs to help fight off stress and a bit of magic and tons of love, hyung! - sits near his scattered papers. when jae reaches for it, it’s already gone cold.
god, how long has he been here? the library is all but empty, just the last few stragglers like him remain, trying to fight off sleep. jae looks down at his notes for his law and society class and forces himself to keep going. when the notes begin to blur, though, jae relents and decides he’s done cramming for the night.
he’s got a midterm tomorrow. today actually. one look at his phone tells him it’s already a few minutes past midnight.
jae steps out of the building warily. the night is cold compared to the stuffy air of the library and when jae exhales his breath comes out in cloudy puffs of white. he huddles further into his jacket, taking his phone out from the depths of bag where he had stuffed it so he wouldn’t be tempted to play candy crush instead of studying.
he’s got a few message notification lighting up his screen and jae scans through them quickly. some are from jimin, asking where he’s been. jae shoots a quick text back to apologize and ask her to meet up for coffee some day this week. he’s been neglecting his friends lately; with all the magic stuff going on jae hasn’t had much time to see them.
there’s a missed call from his mother that jae chooses to ignore until his headache goes away and he can actually think about what it means. the rest of the the texts are from wonpil, excited babbling about a new grimoire he got his hands on that promises some answers. jae smiles, though he knows it’ll end up being useless, just like all the ones before.
they aren’t any closer to figuring out what the hell jae is. wonpil is undeterred though and jae is man enough to admit that it feels nice to have someone looking out for him like this. still, he’s tired. tired of the lack of answers and tired of all the dead-ends. he’s - jae just wants this headache to go away.
huffing, jae pockets his phone and thinks of going home. wonpil must be surely sleeping by now, the ghosts doing their version of it, which just means they disappear for a while. the apartment will be empty. cold, too, because neither he nor wonpil have had any success in closing the goddamn living room window and now their whole dorm has a horrible, horrible draft.
jae thinks of going home.
at the crossroads, he takes a left.
the door to the café is closed. jae really doesn't know what he was thinking, coming here instead of going straight to his apartment. wonpil told him that MY DAY café stayed open till late at night, catering to desperate college students in need of coffee to fuel late night study session. still, midnight was obviously pushing his luck.
jae sighs. the pulsing in his head is stronger than before and his shoulders slump under the weight of it. he’s about to turn around and head home when he hears a quiet sound against the windowpane. tap tap, it goes and jae forces himself to look up.
and there, standing just on the other side of the door, broom in hand, is the blond barista from the other day.
tap tap, it goes again and jae sees the other mouth something at him through the glass. jae blinks dazedly when the barista offers him a small grin before he disappears, going further back inside the café. jae stands there, waiting, and wonders what the hell he’s doing.
maybe he should just go, he thinks, go now before he makes an even bigger fool of himself, but then the barista is back at the front again and the door is opening up. jae feels strong fingers wrap around his wrist and then - and then he pulls him inside.
“uh,” jae unclenches his fingers. it’s warm in here. jae feels stupid like this, standing in the middle of the empty café with his fogged up glasses and his reddened cheeks. all the lights save for the one behind the counter are turned off. the chairs are upturned and tucked over the tables. the place looks almost dead.
“sit,” the barista tells him simply when he sees jae hesitate. he takes a chair down and sets it upright. jae shuffles to it almost an autopilot. his headache aches even worse now, jae can barely think behind the dull throb of it. he doesn’t know how long he spends sitting in the dark before he hears a clink of ceramic against the table and the scent of fresh coffee reaches his nose.
“thankgodfuck,” he gets out in a rush. jae’s reaching for the mug of coffee before he even makes the conscious decision to do so and all but chugs it down. it burns his throat on the way down, scalds his tongue in a way jae knows from experience won’t let him taste right anything for a few days. jae doesn’t care. it helps mute the pain of the headache.
“thanks,” he says when he’s done, setting the mug down. now that his head has cleared a little, shame catches up fast to him. he shuffles in his seat, grateful for the darkness that hides the ugly red of his cheeks.
“it’s no problem,” the barista answers and god, jae doesn’t even know his name. what the hell is he doing. “you looked like you needed it.”
jae knows he must. he hasn't showered in three days because wonpil clogged up their pipes when he poured a whole pot of potion goop down the drain. they’re still trying to get a hold of the maintenance guy. he’s wearing last day’s clothes, too. an old rumped flannel under a faded black tee that has its logo scrapped off from one too many washes, denim jeans that look artfully ripped but are really just the result of an ugly fall. jae grimaces. fucking great.
“yes, well midterms, you know?” jae offers. the barista smiles at him like he knows jae is lying, like he knows midterms don’t even begin to cover the root of his problems. he looks like he knows, but he lets it be.
“it’s tough, man,” is all he says. “i’m brian, if you’re wondering,” he adds when he notices jae shamefully looking for a nametag. jae would take offense at the amused lilt to his voice if he had the energy to be anything more than bonetired.
“jae. jaehyung, actually but - jae,” he says in return. brian’s grin gets bigger, though it’s still just a small, private thing. dimly, jae wonders what brian’s smile would look like. a real smile, though, not the ghost of one like this one seems to be. and fuck, jae thinks again, with much less conviction this time, what the hell is he doing.
“i’m sorry about the trouble,” jae mumbles when the silence stretches on for too long. it’s not uncomfortable, far from it actually. brian looks at ease simply watching jae fidget nervously, that ghost of a smile curving up his lips. still, jae feels like he should apologize, so he does. “i know you were probably just about to close up-”
“it’s fine” brian shrugs, cutting him off. he plays it like it’s nothing when it’s clearly not. at least not to jae, who had been at the edge of breaking down outside the café when brian found him lingering around. “i usually stay here after closing, anyways, use the time to finish some homework before going home. my roommate snores a lot,” he explains, amused, though with clear fondness, too. “it’s quieter here.”
jae can’t help but laugh; it rings tired and drown out in the otherwise silent café, but brian still finds it in himself to crack a smile at the sound of it.
“you know wonpil, right?” jae asks him and wonders if brian knows about magic, too. wonders if he’s magic himself.
jae doesn’t think he is. he can’t see the auras that wonpil’s always talking about but something tells him brian is not like him. maybe it’s the way he holds himself, sure and confident, like he knows his place in the world and has made his peace with it.
jae used to to think he was like that, too, used to thinks he had it all figured it out. he’s a polisci major after all, he’s supposed to understand how the world works. now, knowing what waits for him back home, knowing about magic - jae doesn’t even know where the world even stands.
“yeah, he’s a friend of my roommate’s,” brian answers, fiddling with his own cup absentmindedly. his smile turns softer, fonder. jae thinks he likes this one better. “dowoonie. cute kid, tries to act tough. he works here too.”
“oh, yeah i remember him,” jae blinks. “the marshmallow enabler.” and this time, is brian the one who laughs. “yeah, that’s him,” he says. “you know, there was this one time…”
jae listens to him all night. brian doesn’t strike him as the chatty type. he grows quiet sometimes, runs out of things to talk about often, but he talks and something tells jae brian’s doing it so jae doesn’t have to.
they stay in the café well into the morning. jae loses track of time in the rise and fall of brian’s voice. his headaches fades back to a dull sting, easy to ignore. it’s - it’s comfortable and strange at the same time. jae doesn’t know why brian bothers to keep him company but he doesn’t question it either. his headache is receding and all jae can think about is the way brian’s lips look when they shape words and curl around syllables. it’s strange, jae thinks, but is the nice kind of strange - the type he wouldn’t mind getting more familiar with.
it’s only when the floor shadows into an orange glow that they notice the dark blue of the night retreating, surrendering to the first flickers of sunlight. surprised, jae blinks at his phone. it’s already half past six.
“shit,” jae breathes. he stands up quickly - too quickly, and the world sharpens in front of his eyes. he pats himself down, grimacing at his stained shirt and grabs his bag. “i’ve got an exam in half an hour.”
brian looks back at him, a bit wide-eyed after he checks the time himself, like he can’t quite believe they stayed up all night talking. to be fair, neither can jae.
“here.” he slips his leather jacket off his shoulders and offers it to jae, who stares it in disbelief. “to cover the stain,” he explains when jae doesn’t reach for it.
“just take it,” brian insists. “you can return it to me later.”
“are you sure?” jae asks, carefully slipping the jacket on. it’s a bit short on him. jae’s a few inches taller than brian so the sleeves barely come up to his wrists but it’s comfortable somehow. jae’s considerable leaner and the jacket hangs off his shoulders like a coat. it’s warm. nice. smells like brian.
“yeah,” brian answers, grin even bigger this time around. his fingers curl around his wrist, squeezing once before he lets go. “good luck on your midterm. i’ll see you around.”
“yeah. okay.” jae answers dazedly, not really sure what he’s agreeing to. he doesn’t ask how he’s supposed to return brian’s jacket when they haven’t exchanged numbers yet. all brian does is smile again and wave him off as jae hurries away to class.
after, when the exam is over and jae comes home to a frantic wonpil, who had woken up and found the apartment worryingly empty, not to mention four very grouchy ghosts, jae curls his fingers around the collar of brian’s leather jacket and wonders what the hell he’s doing.
(mostly though, he wonders about brian’s smile and the feel of his fingers around his wrist.)
it’s a horrible kind of déjà-vu.
much as he did when the ghosts first appeared, jae starts doubting if that night in the café was even real. the hours he spent locked away with brian feel like a fever dream. maybe he just dreamed it all up. if it weren’t for the leather jacket that hangs off the corner of his desk jae would think he’s going crazy all over again.
sometimes, when he’s studying, jae catches sight of it and remembers how it looked on brian, remembers how the jacket fit the curve of his shoulders and made his eyes look just this side of dark.
“pareces borrego degollado,” mamama snorts at him amusedly one day when she catches him looking at brian’s jacket again. jae’s wondering if he should just man up and go to the café, return it and be done with it all already. something holds him back, though. embarrassment, maybe. jae doesn't think he made a very good first impression and the thought of facing brian again is daunting, to say the least.
“i do not,” jae counters. he has no clue what abuela just said but he recognized the mocking tone for what it is. mockery.
“you’re pining, hijo. i can tell,” she says, hovering closer now. “trust me, i saw that same look on your abuelo’s face every time he tried to take me out to dance.”
“oyé!” comes the disgruntled shout somewhere from the kitchen. moments later, abuelo phases right through the door, glaring at mamama, who merely smirks jauntily back at him.
“don’t you guys ever knock,” jae grumbles, more to himself than anything else. abuelo aureliano just snorts.
eventually, after one too many knowing looks from halmeoni - who has now joined abuela in her teasing which is honestly downright awful; those two like gossip more than they do their grandchild - jae stuffs the stupid leather jacket inside his closet and shuts the doors close. out of sight, out of mind.
it also helps that wonpil is apparently on some sort of crusade to prove to himself that jae is indeed capable of performing magic. as it stands, the ghosts are the only thing that set jae apart from the rest of the human race.
“hold my hand,” he demands one day when jae is far too tired from school workload to put up much of a fight. it must show, the heavy drag of too many essays too many papers too close deadlines because wonpil looks concerned. jae’s headache hasn’t gone away completely. it comes in waves, takes him by force and swallows him down. jae has a bottle of pills stuffed inside his drawer that he takes out when the pain gets too much but he’s been thinking of asking the pharmacist for something stronger the next time he comes around.
that’s a thought for later, though. now, wonpil reaches a hand out to jae, palm facing up, and looks at him expectantly. he’s kneeling in the middle of their living room, curtains drawn and grimoire open. jae stares at him critically. “sorry, wonpil-ah,” he says, mocking tone cut down by the tiredness of it. “but i don’t like you that way.”
“don’t get me snarky with me, hyung.” wonpil rolls his eyes. “we need to see why you can’t seem to access your magic. sungjin-hyung thinks your core may be underdeveloped so we need to check. now, give me your hand.”
grumbling, jae complies. he places his hand on top of wonpil’s and lets the other drag him down to the floor, crosses his legs. he’s sure they must make an odd picture; the both of them sitting in the middle of their apartment surrounded by wonpil’s twisting plants and his scattered old tomes, holding hands like they’re about to sing kumbaya.
“what’s a magic core again?” jae asks. there’s a warm tingling beginning to spread from the tips of wonpil’s fingers down to jae’s own. jae recognizes it for what is - wonpil’s magic, or a projection of it at least, stretching outwards and seeping beneath jae’s skin. when jae turns to look at their joined hands, though, there’s nothing strange about them. except maybe for wonpil’s tattoo. the heart seems to be pulsing, like the ink itself is breathing magic.
then again, that could just be jae, seeing things he’s not supposed to again.
wonpil sighs. “hyung, do you not listen to me at all?” he cracks one eye open, turning to look at him. there’s judgement written all over his face. jae sticks his tongue out at him. his head is beginning to feel fuzzy. cloudy. “you’re such a child,” wonpil mutters exasperatedly.
“a magic core is a where a witch’s magic comes from,” he lectures. “it’s their magic’s center, its source.” wonpil’s grip on jae’s hand tightens as he talks. the warmth of his magic is stronger now and jae can feel it running under his skin, skirting over his nerves and spreading towards his chest. jae’s shoulder slump down. it’s - it’s kind of nice actually, takes some of the pressure from his headache away.
“the bigger your core is, the more magic you have.” wonpil’s words register somewhere in the back of his mind but jae can only listen with half an ear, too focused on the tendril of magic twisting around and around in his chest, spreading outwards until it reaches his head and chases the pain away.
for a moment, jae’s vision blurs, smudging white at the edges. wonpil is saying something but jae can’t focus - can’t, because the magic is slipping away and the pulsing in his head is returning and jae just wants to rest a little longer, cling to wonpil’s magic a little tighter. he needs to - he needs the pain to stay away, so he wills the warmth to remain, draws it back to himself before it can run away and the awful headache can return and-
wonpil flinches, body curving back as if burned. there’s a strangled cry of let go! that has jae’s eyes flying wide open and jae - jae stops breathing.
wonpil is shaking, face ashen and beaded with sweat. he’s looking at jae like he’s afraid - like he’s terrified. of what, jae is not sure, but wonpil is looking straight at him and he’s shaking and he - wonpil’s lips part in a silent scream. jae wrenches their hands apart.
wonpil lurches forward, curling towards the ground until his forehead touches the floor. jae stares, frozen, and watches as wonpil struggles to breath in.
“i,” jae reaches out but wonpil flinches ways from him. “don’t- don’t touch me,” he says and jae rears back. the words feel like a punch to the gut.
“i’m sorry,” he says. he doesn’t understand what happening - doesn’t know what he did - but wonpil looks scared in the worst of ways so jae curls his hands into fists and keeps himself still. “i don’t- i’m sorry, wonpil-ah. i didn’t-”
“it’s okay,” wonpil rasps. he sits up carefully, cheeks pale, eyes dim and just this side of wild. “i should have been more careful. i shouldn’t have been so reckless. you - hyung, you didn’t know what you were doing.” the way wonpil phrases it makes it sound like a question and he looks at jae like he's searching for some sort of answer. he’s still keeping his distance, wary. jae swallows.
“what happened?” he asks. there’s something wrong with him, jae knows that, but he never thought he could be capable of hurting someone, of hurting wonpil. “what did i do?”
“you,” wonpil turns away. he can’t seem to look jae in the eyes when he says, “you were sucking the magic right out of me, hyung.”
jae’s headaches are growing worse.
before, he used to have short respites, spans of time where his head was clear and he could think. but now - now there’s a constant throbbing inside his skull and no matter how many pills jae swallows back it refuses to go away. it stays and it echoes and it hurts and jae can feel it eating away at him the more nights he stays awake because of it.
excess magic, sungjin had called it when jae asked. he had taken wonpil right to the man’s store after the fuck up in their living room. wonpil has insisted that he was fine, that it was okay, but jae had taken one look at the pale hue of his skin and the way he struggled to sit and forced him to go.
as soon as sungjin saw wonpil he had taken the younger into his arms and brought him upstairs, made him drink some kind of pepper-up tea that smelled an awful lot like cinnamon and then let him rest on his bed, carded his hand through the younger’s hair and stayed with him until wonpil fell asleep.
’s not your fault, hyung, wonpil had insisted through it all. time and time again he had murmured ’s not your fault but he had been so tired - so drained that the words barely made it out of his lips and all jae had been able to think was i did that.
excess magic. that’s what sungin says it’s wrong him. there’s too much magic in your body. it’s trying to get out. that’s why you’ve been getting headaches..
and fine, jae gets it, that explains why his head feels like it’s threatening to crack open from the inside out. but that doesn’t explain everything. he can still see the ghosts of his grandparents, who now hover closer, pay more attention, seem more solid even. and, if he’s got too much magic inside of himself, then why did he tried to take wonpil’s too?
sungjin doesn’t know. he says he will look for answers, ask around. jae thanks him and nods.
when he leaves the shop, he has to resist the urge to squeeze wonpil’s hand in reassurance. he’s afraid of what he might do if he does.
the end of the week has jae shuffling into MY DAY cafe with the last stragglers of the late night rush. he’s got brian’s leather jacket slung over one arm and a bunch of texts from wonpil asking him to come home sitting unread on his lockscreen, texts he’s doing his best to ignore.
he isn’t avoiding the younger, honestly - him being his roommate makes that kind of impossible - but jae has admittedly been spending more time out of their apartment than he used to, be it studying in the library or just crashing at jimin’s.
wonpil notices because of course he does. he still treats jae like he always; his wariness dissipated as soon as it came and it’s clear he holds nothing against jae. still, every time jae looks at him he can’t help but remember how he looked gasping for breath, face so pale he resembled the ghosts that started this whole mess in the first place.
so jae is here, waiting in line for his turn so he can give stupid brian his stupid jacket back and then go swallow some pain pills to maybe, hopefully, get some rest.
“hi, what can i get you-” brian stops mid-sentence. jae sees his lips part in surprise when he catches sight of jae awkwardly shuffling behind the counter. his eyes slip from the red tips of jae’s ears down to the leather jacket he’s clutching and then his mouth curls up up up into that ghost of a smile jae has come to expect from him.
“i was wondering when i’d see you again,” he says lightly, fondly. jae pushes his glasses up his nose and forces himself not to blink so damn much. he doesn’t remember brian being this goddamn handsome.
“sorry, i got caught up in school but i’m here to return this.” jae reaches awkwardly over the counter, intending to give brian his jacket and just hightail it of there, but brian shakes his head no, lips stretching into a grin as he says, “tell you what,” he grins boyishly, “i get out in fifteen minutes. wait for me and then you can treat me to dinner.”
“treat you to dinner,” jae echoes back. he thinks he hears the girl behind him snickering quietly at the whole xchange but as it stands, jae is far too bewildered to do much else than stare at smirk playing on brian’s lips.
“yeah, dinner,” brian agrees easily. he’s surer now, something almost cocky in his gaze. it looks unfairly good on him. “let’s call it paying your interests for keeping my jacket this long.”
“i,” jae says, then he stops because brian is looking at him and the girl behind him is definitely laughing now and jae just - “okay,” he says and god fuck did he just agree to this. “okay,” he says again and then figures it’s time for him to stop talking before he makes an even bigger fool out of himself. so he presses his lips together tightly and settles for nodding dumbly when brian says, “great! see you in fifteen,” and goes back to serving customers.
it’s something closer to twenty minutes later when brian walks up to the table jae had been sitting at. he’s lost the apron, now only in a pair of tight fitting jeans and a white tee with a denim jacket thrown over it. he looks - he looks great; even dressed down and casual jae can't help but think he’s the kind of person people do a double take for. jae fidgets with the hem of his flannel and wills himself to calm the fuck down.
“ready?” brian asks. jae nods and stands up. he follows after him as brian makes his way out of the café, calling out a low goodbye to the barista still cleaning up behind the counter.
“your jacket. take it,” jae insists when they step into the street. the air outside is not cold enough to be biting but jae feels the first shivers already running down his spine.
“keep it,” is what brian says. he smiles at jae, the curve of it made a little softer by the streetlights as they walk down the block. jae can’t seem to look away. “at least until we get to the restaurant. i like how it looks on you.”
jae blinks, blinks again, and then blushes what must be a truly awful shade of red. brian laughs, stepping closer so that their shoulders brush as they walk. wordlessly, jae slips the jacket on. He can recognize a lost fight for what it is.
“where are we going?” he asks when he realises brian’s leading him further away from the more commercial side of the city. “didn’t you say we were gonna have dinner?”
“yeah, you’ll see,” brian answers simply and then says no more. jae huffs at him, not nearly as annoyed as he should be, and keeps close.
brian takes him to a hole in the wall stuck between an apartment building and an 24-hour laundromat. there’s a neon sign shining dim and pink at the top of the door and jae squints at it a bit judgingly. when brian sees him staring he slips his hands into his and tucks him closer. “it’s good,” he says. then, “trust me.”
i shouldn’t, jae thinks, but then he remembers a kind smile and an empty café, thinks that maybe he already does and lets brian pull him inside.
inside; the place is cozy. made up of warm lights and embroidered curtains and wooden chairs. there's a window overviewing the back kitchen and jae can make out a fire burning inside. the whole place smells like homemade food. the kind jae hasn't tasted since he stepped a foot in seoul.
brian seems to be a regular because as soon as they step inside the ajumma behind the counter huffs out a fond younghyun! and ushers them both to a table by the corner of the restaurant.
“you’re much thinner than when i saw you last, younghyun,” she chides as she bustles around them. she looks at brian with exasperated affection in her eyes. jae can't help but be reminded of halmeoni, a little bit. “you haven't been eating well, have you?”
“you know how it is with school,” brian answers, sheepish. it's endearing, seeing him being chastised be a tiny woman with wrinkles in her hands. “sorry,” he adds when the woman just huffs at him.
“be sure to come visit now and then,” she says. “and bring that big child with you, will you? i haven't seen that boy in ages.”
“i’ll be sure to tell dowoonie to drop by sometime this week.”
“you better,” she says, nodding curtly. then she turns around to look at jae and eyes him critically. “nice to see you got yourself a boy, younghyun. you've been too lonely lately. too lonely. and he seems like a sweet one, too. if a bit thin,” she adds, gaze roaming over jae's lean figure judgingly. “but what’s one more mouth to feed. i like him already.”
“i- we’re not, i mean,” jae fumbles, more than a bit embarrassed.
brian turns to look at him, eyes bright. “that’s good,” he answers simply, shooting the old woman a fond smile. “i like him too,” and doesn't bother to correct her.
jae coughs. “so,” he starts once the ajumma has left and the food has been brought to their table. they didn’t even have the time to look at the menus before the ajumma was shouting an order towards the kitchen. not that jae minds it; his headache is coming back strong and frankly, he doesn’t think he would have had enough presence of mind to order something without stumbling through his words. not to mention he’s still stuck on the i like him too to think properly. “they seem to know you here.”
“sure do,” brian laughs between bites. and it’s gross and messy but also oddly reassuring. seeing brian stuff himself full of japchae without a care for table manners makes jae realize that as handsome and cocky as brian seems to be, he’s still got his imperfections. “i practically lived here my freshman year. didn’t even know how to boil an egg. ajumma aerum took pity on me and started giving me leftovers from the day to take back to my dorm.”
“that’s nice of her,” jae says. “i probably would have starved by now if it weren't for wonpil, honestly.”
brian laughs again, freer this time. jae bites into his kimchi and chews viciously. “yeah, wonpil-ah told me you almost burned the kitchen down one day.”
“that brat,” jae mutters before he realizes he actually said that out loud and hurries to add, “it was not my fault. like, at all. wonpil was the one giving me instructions.” for a magic potion, is what he doesn’t say. one that went up in flames as soon as wonpil had jae stir the thing.
“right,” brian clucks his tongue. he doesn’t sound like he believes jae at all, which has jae scowling at him. by the way brian can’t seem to stop smiling jae guesses he doesn’t believe that one either. “how did the midterm go, by the way?”
“as well as it could.” jae passed. barely, but he passed. “i’ve got a headache i can’t seem to get rid of. doesn’t help much when it comes to studying.”
brian makes a sympathetic noise at the back of his throat. “i get it. sometimes i get migraines if i stay too long at the studio. i’m usually able to sleep them off, though.”
“you’re a music major?” jae leans forwards, almost toppling over a plate of kimchi in his haste.
“yeah,” brian laughs. “with a minor in business administration.”
“that’s so cool. what instrument do you play? can you sing?”
“easy there,” brian breathes. there’s a softness to his expression that wasn’t there before, some kind of openness jae hopes he’s not imagining. “we’ve got all night.”
“yeah,” jae echoes, and smiles. “we’ve got all night.”
after dinner is done and their plates are licked clean, ajumma aerum sends them both off with a few boxes of take out full of food. she reminds brian to drop by more often, forces jae to lean down so she can pat him fondly on the cheek, and then waves them away with a wink.
brian walks jae home to his dorm. jae tells him it’s not necessary, really. brian lives all the way on the other side of town and it's already pretty late but brian is determined. so they walk close together and then closer still. their shoulders bump with every step they take and jae can feel the brush of brian’s hand against his own, the ghost of a touch.
when they get to jae's apartment jae shuffles on his feet, reluctant to head inside. something about being with brian feels easy, comfortable. jae wants to cling closer a little while longer.
“i - i had fun tonight,” jae says. it's a lie. he didn't just have fun, that's too small a word to encompass the ease of the night. jae’s never been good with words though, not when they really seem to matter. so fun is what he has to settle on, lest he blurts out something embarrassing like please don’t go. or worse, he thinks, and swallows back the words sitting at the back of his throat. “thank you for tonight - for everything.”
“tell me if i’m reading this wrong,” brian says. he leans forward, his fingertips resting atop jae’s thin wrist to keep him from entering his apartment. there's something determined in his gaze, something steely and sure and certain. jae’s breath hitches in his throat at the sight.
“i just- i want,” brian doesn’t finish his sentence, but jae thinks he knows - knows by the way brian presses lips to his. it’s a flutter of a touch, lighter than the lights of the streetlamps they’re standing under and softer than the small twist inside jae’s chest when he hears brian sigh against his mouth.
“i-” brian says after they part. he doesn’t get to finish this one either before jae is pulling him closer and back to him. their kiss firmer this time. settled.
when they part again brian is laughing silly and jae can’t keep his bitten lips form curving up into a smile. “what were you saying?” he asks. “what were you going to say?
“it’s okay. doesn’t matter,” brian breathes back, smiles. “we’ve got all night.” and kisses him again.
“what’s got you so happy, hijo?”
“nothing.” jae is quick to click his phone shut. mamama is hovering close, leaning a few inches above the couch were jae is sprawled all over, limbs hanging everywhere.
“is it a girl?” comes abuelo’s demanding question. “men only smile that dumbly whenever a girl is involved.”
“it's not a girl,” jae grunts at them. halmeoni raises a disbelieving eyebrow up at him. grandfather kwan snorts incredulously. “it's not,” jae insists because brian is not, in fact, a girl. he's not lying. his grandparents can suck it.
“anyways, i’m late already.” jae stands up, grabbing his jacket from his room and then heading out, deaf to the complaints of his grandparents.
the four of them have been awfully annoying lately, more than usual. maybe it’s because they don’t disappear anymore so they’re constantly annoying. they seem realer, too; have more color to them somehow. sometimes jae feels like if he were to reach out to them he would touch actual flesh and not a mere afterimage.
it’s - unsettling. jae feels like his control is slipping even though he never had much of it in the first place. it doesn’t sit right with him, not after what happened with wonpil. maybe he should tell sungjin, he thinks, hopes the older man has some answers to give.
“there you are.” jae looks up to see jimin striding across the quad, coming closer. jae lifts a hand in greeting and meets her halfway.
“long time no see, loverboy,” she drawls, tone all sugar but still edged in steel. jae rubs the back of his neck and offers an apologetic shrug. “sorry,” he says. “i know i’ve been busy. school’s hectic.”
“oh, don’t give me that,” she rolls her eyes. “i know you don’t go to the café by the arts department just for coffee.”
flushing, jae tries to defend himself. “i don’t know what you’re talking about.” honestly, jimin can get worse than his grandmothers when it comes to nagging.
“right,” the girl clicks her tongue. “play dumb all you want but i’ve seen you and that hot barista sneaking around. you can’t fool me, stupid.”
“‘m not stupid,” jae answers but it’s half-hearted at best. ever since brian took him to that restaurant a few weeks ago they have been going out more. it’s not sneaking around, not like they’re hiding or anything, but it’s also not like they’re dating per se - at least jae doesn’t think they are.
they haven’t really talked about what they are yet, what they’re doing. all jae knows is that sometimes brian calls him up and takes him out. some nights they go stuff themselves full at ajumma's aerum place - who now calls jae sweetie and claims brian is no longer her favorite - some nights they catch a movie or walk through the streets, content to drift.
(some nights when brian’s on closing duty, he texts jae to come by the café late at night and jae pushes through his headache and scatters his books and notes over a shared table, crams for his classes while brian clicks away at his computer and writes rhythms and lyrics that are all starting to sound dangerously close to love songs.)
“we’re not dating,” jae says because they’re not, even though jae wishes sometimes that he had the courage to ask brian if maybe they could. maybe.
“didn’t say you guys were,” jimin shrugs, though the side glance she gives him tells jae she doesn't quite believe him. “now. costume shopping. jackson was very clear about the dress code for friday’s party. let’s go, i need you to be my second opinion.”
“what do you mean you’re going to a halloween party?”
“uh,” jae starts, caught of guard by the way wonpil huffs incredulously at him. the younger stands with his arms crossed over his chest by the door to jae’s bedroom, where jae is trying to fit himself into a pair of stupidly tight pants. “exactly that. i’m going to jackson’s for a party.”
“but it’s halloween!” wonpil cries throwing his arms up in exasperation when all jae does is raise an eyebrow at him. “all hallow’s eve, hyung!”
“yeah, so?” jae stumbles, grabbing onto wonpil’s shoulders to keep himself from tripping his way down to the ground when his foot gets caught in a hole on the jeans jimin insisted he wear for the party. to impress that barista of yours, she said when jae started to refuse because those were fucking tight and had more holes cut into them than fabric. you’ll look hot in them. trust me. and well, jae can’t say he put up much of a fight after that. “everyone’s partying tonight. did you wanna go trick or treating or something?”
“no,” wonpil scowls, then deflates. “but it’s still a special time for witches. all hallow’s eve is supposed to be spend in coven, hyung.”
“i, uh, sorry wonpil-ah but i promised jackson i would go.” brian too, but jae figures wonpil doesn’t need to know that. “can’t you go to sungjin’s?”
“yeah, maybe,” wonpil sighs. he seemed to perk up at the idea of spending the night with the older man but there's still a disappointed slump to his shoulders that has jae feeling guilty enough to say, “i’ll make it up to you, yeah? this weekend, we can make that potion you found the other day. i’ll help.” he will, even if they have found that potions are definitely not jae’s area of expertise wonpil always says he likes brewing better when he has company.
“okay,” wonpil agrees, louder this time. “okay, i’ll hold you to that, hyung.”
honestly, jae would stay. he doesn’t enjoy making wonpil unhappy (though his teasing may suggest otherwise) but halloween is the perfect opportunity to just forget everything for a while. jae wants to pretend he’s normal for once. he wants to drink and will his headache away and watch drunk people dressed up as ghosts instead of the four very real ones hovering inside his apartment.
so he bids wonpil goodbye and heads out. jimin meets him halfway to jackson’s apartment, decked out in full poison ivy costume, a better match to jae’s bastardized version of harley queen, which is really just a pair of too-tight black jeans and badly done red-and-blue makeup on his part.
the party is already in full swing when they arrive. the dirty bass pulsing through the speakers is loud and heavy and as soon as jae steps inside a very drunken nun thrusts a solo cup his way, filled to the brim with some radioactive-colored punch that smells awful and taste even worse. jae swallows it back with a grimace and asks for another. he’s determined to have a good time.
he loses jimin when they make it to the living room but it’s then that he catches sight of slicked-back blond hair and a broad back. jae pushes his way through the crowd until he reaches the other side of the room. there, brian leans against the wall and surveys the room like he’s searching for something - someone.
“hey you,” jae greets him easily. there’s just enough booze diluting his blood for him not to care much about the stupid smile plastered all over his face. he thinks it doesn’t matter much, not when brian turns to him, grins wide wide wider and then leans close so he talk over the loud thrum of edm music.
“hey yourself,” he says and even though his voice rings low and clear jae still steps closer to hear him better. “you look good, hyung.”
“thanks,” jae licks his lips. “you too,” he says because he does. brian is dressed as a stereotypical vampire, eyes dark and mouth red. jae hopes he’s not staring. at least not too much.
“wanna go somewhere quieter?” brian asks, nodding his head towards a pair of glass doors that open up into a small balcony.
“yeah, okay,” jae says because he’s learned that he’ll agree to almost anything if it means getting to see brian smile at him like this.
outside, the balcony offers some privacy. jae leans against the railing and watches some guy dressed as a cop throw up in the bushes below them while a girl wobbling in her high heels rubs his back and laughs.
“fun, right?” brian grins when he sees jae looking. “i don’t remember much of last halloween. i drank so much i blacked out. woke up the day after on a friend’s bathroom floor with dicks drawn in permanent marker all over my face.”
laughing, jae bumps his shoulder against brian’s and nods at his empty hands. “is that why you’re not drinking?”
“partly,” brian answers. “but i also knew you were coming and i actually wanted to ask you something-” before brian can finish, jae’s phone pings, drawing his attention away.
“sorry,” jae fumbles for his phone, intending to shut it off. “sorry. let me just-” then he sees the notification lighting up his screen and he’s swiping it open before he can think much about it.
miss you the text from his mother reads. below it, a picture of his parents and his sister. the three of them are wearing silly witches’ hats and have a bunch of jack-o’-lanterns they carved themselves sitting on the kitchen table. happy halloween, sweetheart.
swallowing, jae pockets his phone, but he’s not quick enough. “cute,” brian says when he sees the picture flashing bright and damming from jae’s phone. “you look like your mom,” he comments and something awful tightens in jae’s stomach, something like regret and shame and guilt all rolled into one.
“i,” he stutters because god, when was the last time he talked to his mom? when was the last time he thought to call her? “i look like my grandfather actually.”
“oh?” brian raises an eyebrow. something of the mess inside of him must bleed into jae’s expression because brian’s face creases with concern. “hey - hey are you okay? is something wrong?”
“i just-” jae looks down at his phone. it’s almost midnight now, just a few minutes before the clock turns and that means soon it’ll be november, which means it’ll be more two months since jae last talked to his mom and that - that stings like a bleeding wound. “i think i fucked up,” he says and then the whole story comes rushing out.
brian listens to him blabber, brow raising in disbelief the more jae talks about how he was practically forced to move here to study in between frantic drinks of punch, talks about fighting with his mother and finally stops, drunk enough to turn to brina and ask him, “do you believe in magic?”
“magic,” brian echoes, caught of guard by the sudden change in subject. “you mean like-”
“like ghosts and stuff. witches and potions. just fucking magic.”
“i guess i never really thought much ab-,” brian starts but then the clock strikes twelve and jae’s head cracks in two.
his headache flares. crying out, jae reaches up to claw at his head. it aches like a bad burn and jae feels fire run from his temples down to his arm and his belly, where his stomach churns with nausea. his knees grow weak, his grip on the railing goes slack, and jae barely has time to see brian’s panicked face swim in front of him before his world splits apart.
if jae thought that waking up to find the ghosts of his four dead grandparents hovering in front of him was bad enough, then waking up to find himself as a fuking ghost is - it’s-
jae doesn’t even have the words for it. he just screams.
“it’s okay, hijo. it’s fine. we’re here.” jae whirls around when he feels the touch on his shoulder. then he pauses because he’s not supposed to feel his grandparents’ touch. not when they’re dead, not when they’re ghost and jae is not. except -
except he’s not exactly alive, is he? jae stares down at himself, stares at the way the light from the window passes right through him, leaving him diluted, as if he were a painting made of watercolor with too much water put into the mix.
“the fuck,” he cries. “what - what is happening? am i - did i die?”
“don’t think so,” grandfather kwan grunts at him. at the same time, abuelo aureliano says, “you would know if you were dead, pibe. besides, your body’s right there.”
“what?” jae blinks because abuelo is not wrong. there, laying on his bed with his eyes closed and still clad in those goddamn jeans is him. he’s right there.
except he’s also right here, floating just a few inches above the ground and watching himself breath in and out. in and out.
before jae can do much else - like panic. panic seems like an adequate response to this whole fucking situation - the door to his bedroom opens softly and wonpil steps in, sungjin right behind him.
“i don’t know, hyung.” wonpil is saying and jae watches as the younger witch wrings his hands together, frowning in concern. “brian hyung brought him home last night. he’s asking questions and i don’t - i don’t know what to tell him. i don’t even know if hyung’s going to be fine. is he- is he-”
“it’s okay, wonpil-ah,” sungjin cuts in softly, squeezing wonpil’s shoulders for a moment before he walks closer to the bed and reaches out a hand to jae’s prone form. “he’ll be okay. we’ll figure it out. jaehyung,” he says then and jae forces himself to focus on the man’s voice. “jaehyung, can you hear me?”
“yeah, i’m here. i can hear you,” jae starts before he realizes that as much as jae can hear them both, neither sungjin nor wonpil seem capable of hearing him.
“jaehyung,” sungjin tries again and then keeps quiet, cocking his head to the side, waiting for something, waiting for jae.
“i’m here,” jae says. there’s a clog in his throat that makes it hard to speak, hard to breath, though maybe he doesn’t even have to anymore. not when he’s fading so. still, he’s “-here. i’m here but i - i don’t understand. what’s going on? hey,” he says, voice cracking when wonpil buries his face in his hands and sungjin sighs. “wonpil-ah, please don’t cry, i’m here. i’m here, i’m-”
“hun.” jae feels halmoni come to stand behind him. her hand latches gently onto his, fingers hesitant. like she’s afraid they’ll pass right through.
but they don’t - they don’t and it gets harder to keep the panic at bay when jae sees how much his hands looks like hers; ghostly, pale. fading. “hun, stop. they can’t hear you.”
“i-,” he tries again but sungjin hangs his head and steps away, reaches for wonpil and tugs him out of the room, says they need to start looking for answers.
“i’m here,” jae says again but only the ghosts are there to hear him plead.
back in la - back home - jae used to take the underground to uni.
everyday, there was a moment where the line he took passed another by. the wagon would speed across the rails and jae would stare at the faces on the other train blur together just inches away from where he sat with his head pillowed on the wagon’s cracked window pane. the fluorescent lights from the tunnel would blink onoffonoff and the dirty darkness of the underground would be cut into pieces by the passing train.
being a ghost feels a lot like that.
moments are fractured into pieces. the present comes in flashes of awareness that pass too quickly to latch onto and the now is so fickle jae doesn’t know what now is anymore. jae lives caught in the space between two speeding trains and drifts on the in-between.
his grandparents are there with him but not. jae can touch them but there’s no warmth to the point of contact. when mamama holds his hands it’s a solid touch, present and weighed and heavy, but it’s not real. not human.
jae is scared. he thinks he’s beginning to forget what that warmth felt like.
after, jae watches as wonpil takes a seat beside his body on the bed. the boy hasn’t moved far from that spot in the time jae’s been - out. he always staying close, afraid jae will wake up and find no one there with him. jae thinks he’s skipping class but he can’t be sure. as a ghost, he seems to be stuck inside his room. the few times he’s tried going out he felt himself fading faster, turning paler and less solid. so jae keeps close to his body, lest he disappears for good.
“hey hyung,” the younger witch begins carefully. his hands flit around nervously for a moment before he settles for laying them over his lap. “i just wanted to tell you that sungjin hyung thinks he found something to help us bring you back. i know he took a bit of time but i think we’re really onto something here.”
jae doesn’t know how much time has passed. a couple of days maybe. maybe more. time does not seem to hold much weight for a ghost. still, he’s glad they seem to have found something. it’s getting harder to keep himself from drifting away.
“he thinks the excess magic forced you out of your body,” wonpil says. his hands comes to rest over jae’s forehead, smoothing his thumb over the crease he finds there. jae feels nothing. “normally a witch doesn’t have to worry about that; magic is needed for potions and spells so we’re always extracting magic from our core but you - well, you’ve always been an odd one.”
jae huffs softly. “brat,” he says even though he knows it’s useless.
wonpil smiles, strained, small, but he smiles. “i know. i know. i’m a brat, “ he rolls his eyes and jae can’t help but drift closer, try and reach out to comfort him when wonpil laughs weakly and watery. “it’s true, though. you’ve always done things backwards, hyung.”
“anyways,” wonpil sighs. “sungjin hyung thinks he understands now. your magic works differently from ours so he’s looking for a way to drain it, try and get you back. i just - i hope we can do it in time. i don’t like seeing you like this, hyung. please hurry up and come back.”
with one last touch to jae’s forehead wonpil steps away, lets the door click shut behind him.
“i’m trying, brat,” jae whispers into the empty room, sees his feet pale and fade even as he says, “i’m trying.”
slowly, surely, his grandparents start disappearing.
jae doesn’t notice it until one day - who really knows when - grandfather kwan flickers out of existence in front of him. one moment he’s there and the next he’s gone, as if someone had turned to tv off. suddenly. simply.
jae blinks at the space where the ghost of his grandfather had been just seconds ago, now only empty air, and fights down the urge to scream.
when grandfather kwan comes back he’s less of a ghost and more of a shape, barely outlined by the lamp wonpil insists on keeping turned on. the man lifts a hand up to his face and watches it flicker. then, he turns to look at jae and his face - doesn’t soften exactly but it loses its rough edges, smoothes out and becomes a bit less guarded.
“it’s time,” he says.
“for what,” jae asks even though he knows. he knows because it’s been getting harder for him to stay solid and jae’s been trying to cling longer, doing his best not to disappear. but that means he’s been drawing all his energy - all his magic - to himself. means he’s been cutting his grandparents away from the source that kept them here. with him.
“goodbye, son,” he says and jae thinks he sees the beginning of a warm smile on his lips before he flickers again.
“brian hyung is worried about you,” wonpil says the next time he comes into jae’s room. he’s sitting in his usual spot by the bed, hand combing through jae’s hair to keep it from falling into his eyes. jae hovers beside him, watching him close. “he came by yesterday but i couldn't let him in. he was this close to yelling at me - i’d never seen him so mad - but it’s better this way. sungjin hyung is going to come by later and we’re going to try and drain a bit of your magic away with. maybe it’ll work this time.”
“maybe,” jae echoes and doesn’t say anything more because lately even words feel like too much work. jae’s legs are all but faded now and he stares at where his knees turn into air, thinks; maybe.
it doesn’t, in the end. whatever it is sungjin brings with him proves to be useless. when he tells wonpil so the younger boy runs out of the room and slams the door close behind him. jae sees sungjin rake his hands through his hair in a rare show of frustration when jae’s body remains still, unmoving. then there’s a crash from the living room and something that sounds awfully close to choked sob drifts down the hallway and sungjin is gone.
jae itches to run after the younger boy too but the father he goes away from his body the harder it becomes for him to stay present so he doesn’t. instead, jae watches as abuelo aureliano flickers into view in front of him.
“hijo,” he say. there’s a determined slant to his eyebrows. behind him, jae can see both halmeoni and mamama hovering together. “you need to let us go now.”
“I don’t-” jae starts but halmeoni holds up a hand to stop him before he can continue.
“we know what you’re doing, hun,” she says and jae ducks his head down so he won’t have to look at her in the eye. “i can feel you feeding magic into us to keep us here. but you don’t have to anymore, okay? it’s time to let us go.”
“we’re just a burden now,” mamama says, her tone oddly soft to the usual gruff voice jae’s grown used to hearing from her. “and that’s the last thing we want to be. you need all your energy. right now most of all.”
“that’s right, pibe. you gotta keep fighting,” abuelo aureliano grunts, a wry smile on his face. jae swallows.
“please don’t- don’t go,” jae whispers. he knows what he’s doing is stupid, god he knows. he can feel himself fading the longer he tries to keep his grandparents here with him but just the thought of losing them - of being left in this limbo-like state alone with no one to hear him - jae doesn’t think he can stomach it.
“you have to be brave, hun.” halmeoni drifts closer, reaching out a hand to rest her palm against his cheek. instinctively, jae leans into the touch. “we’ll always be around, don't forget that. but it’s time.”
“i’m sorry,” jae breathes. he never got to know his grandparents while they were alive - not even mamama, who he only saw once - and even if this whole magic thing has brought him more trouble than not, at least there was this. at least there was them. “i wish - i wish i could do more for you guys.”
“you’ve done enough,” halmeoni answers softly. “now let me go, jaehyung.”
and jae does. he shuts his eyes and when he opens them up again, halmeoni is gone.
jae looks away.
abuelo drifts closer then, clamps a hand down on his shoulder and tells him firmly, “i never got to know my daughter,” and oh god, jae thinks, his mother. “but i like to think that if she had a son like you, hijo, then i can be proud of her. just like i am of you.”
“and as i am too,” mamama agrees softly. “promise us you’ll settle things with her. family is family. you must remember that.”
“i will,” jae promises. his throat feels parched. mouth full of cotton as he watches the last of his grandparents say goodbye. “i promise.”
“that’s good,” mamama nods. “and remember too, magic does not come from blood, child,” she says, taps him once on the forehead. “magic is born from home.”
“i’ll remember,” jae says even if he doesn’t fully understand what his grandmother is trying to tell him.
“then that’s all i have to say,” mamama says and grins. “we’ll go now. try not to follow us.”
the next time jae gathers enough energy to be aware, he’s alone.
he’s more solid now, after his grandparents left, but he’s still fading. his fingers are completely see-through and jae can barely keep himself from drifting away.
it takes work to focus but when jae finally manages to he notices someone sitting at the foot of his bed. he’s about to call for wonpil when he realizes it’s not wonpil here with him but-
“brian,” jae breathes out but the boy’s head remains bowed. the younger boy is hunched over, shoulders tense and hands curled into fists by his side and he’s - he’s talking. talking to him.
“-didn’t know what to do,” brian says and his voice rings heavy with tiredness. “you scared the shit out of me, collapsing like that. and then wonpil wouldn’t let me see you, kept insisting you were fine but i knew you weren’t - i knew. god, i’m such a mess.” and brian laughs, but it’s a hollow sound.
“you know, i was going to ask you out that night. for real this time. told myself i was done skirting around. had it all planned out,” brian pauses, smiles wryly and like it pains him. “guess i was too late.”
“you’re not,” jae says - tries to, at least but no sounds comes out of his mouth, not one brian can hear. still, jae answers, “i would have said yes.” and he would have, no two ways about that. not with brian.
“wonpil says you’re gonna be okay, told me he talked to a doctor and everything,” brian goes on. “he says i just need to wait and stop worrying but i can’t. i can’t stop thinking about you and it’s fuckign awful becuase i don’t even want to stop. i don’t know what you’ve to me, hyung,” he laughs quietly, lifts jae’s hand to he can thread their fingers together.
“you asked me if i believed in magic,” brian says and jae watches with his heart on his throat as brian leans down and brushes his lips over jae’s forehead in a whisper of a kiss. “i didn’t give you an answer then and i won’t give you one now. i’ll wait for you to wake up, okay? just wake up and i’ll tell you. how about that?”
“okay,” jae laughs and if it comes out choked then well, it’s not like brian can hear him. “you’ve got yourself a deal.”
after that, jae tries harder.
wonpil talked about how every witch had a core, how it was a tether to their magic, so jae does his best to find it.
he’s never been good at meditation, always had trouble staying still for too long with nothing to occupy his mind, but he figures he doesn't have much choice in the matter anymore. and so jae closes his eye and forces himself to focus.
“for me, it’s like a warm light,” wonpil had said when he tried to coach jae on how to look for his core. “like the feeling you get when you eat too-warm soup and it sits on your stomach long after.”
“that’s weird as fuck,” jae had replied whereupon wonpil had him hit over the head and given up and that day’s lesson.
weird or not, jae can feel himself flickering, diluting more and more with every moment that passes him by, so he thinks fuck it and looks for the soup.
except try as he might there’s no fucking soup to be found. there’s nothing. jae huffs a breath. honestly, the soup thing was just too stupid to work. who thinks about soup anyways? jae would much rather think about this dish his mother used to make, some kind of steak recipe she brought from argentina and oh.
there you are.
“remember,” mamama had said before she flickered away, “magic is born from home.”
and home, jae thinks as he finds that flare of magic he felt earlier and pulls, home, in the end, is family, isn’t it?
jae garbles back an answer. he breathes in, presses his fingers to his temples where his head is threatening to split in two as wonpil drops the bowl of water he had been carrying and runs to his side.
“hyung!” he cries, grabs jae by the shoulders, grip tight and warm - and god, does it feel nice to be back - like he’s trying to make sure jae won’t go away.
“i-” jae starts, then lurches forwards as another wave of pain rushes through him, spine tensing enough to ache. “fuck,” he breathes. “what’s happening to me.”
“it’s the magic in your body,” wonpil recovers, “there’s still too much of it. you have to let it out hyung. you have to let it out now.”
“i don’t- how?” jae pants. “just - just tell me what to do.” but even as he says it jae thinks that maybe he knows. he’s more aware now; even through the painful cut of his headache jae can still feel the magic inside of him swirling around, pushing against his boy in an effort to be let out let out out out.
“oh,” jae breathes as he just - lets go. he’s been holding it back for so long, repressing it under layers and layers of frayed control, too scared to acknowledge it and too scared to use it, but now, when it finally snaps, it snaps free.
“is that jaehyung? is it him? is he awake?” comes brian’s voice just before brian himself. he’s just stepped through the door, eyes wild and clothes frazzled, looking like he hasn’t slept or showered in days, when the whole apartment shakes.
“the fuck-” brian shouts as the bed wobbles and the doors rattle on their hinges. jae hears ceramic hitting the ground from the kitchen, no doubt their plates. a window shatters. his besides lamp tumbles to the floor and breaks on impact.
jae breathes. in. out.
his headache is gone.
“you,” brian says, the first to speak after the ground and everything around them has stopped shaking. he’s looking at jae, half disbelief half pure relief and jae stares wide-eyed back at him.
“i’m sorr-” brian kisses him before he can finish, lips urgent, almost frantic. his hands clutch at jae’s shirt like he wants to make sure he’s actually here. real and present.
“you,” he says again when they part. “explain.”
jae shares a look with wonpil, who smiles back at him, bright and beaming and completely unburdened, and then he laughs, pulling brian closer to him and says, “i think you already know, don’t you?”
“magic,” brian breathes, sounds like he doesn’t quite believe him, which okay, jae can’t blame him. even though he thinks a small quake is plenty of proof already.
“magic,” jae agrees and kisses him again.
it takes some getting used to.
a lot changes. jae goes back to walking around his apartment in his underwear, for once. wonpil shouts at him to just put some clothes on, christ and throws a pair of pants his way but jae finds his face funny so he never does.
brian comes by more often now and he even fixes the living room window for them. when jae introduces him to people he says “brian, my boyfriend,” which makes him undeniably happy and has him smiling stupidly - something jimin points out with great pleasure. ajumma aerum takes a liking to wonpil the moment she meets him and declares him her new favorite - a title jae is starting to believe is fickle at best.
his grandparents are gone, for good this time. the apartment feels empty without them but jae is taking some spanish courses online and he’s also teaching brian to play old boleros on his guitar so they’re still there, in a way, if not as present.
some thing don’t change. classes are a pain, especially because jae missed a whole week of lectures while he was having his out-of-body experience. somehow - jae doesn’t ask - wonpil managed to get his hands on a doctor’s note and jae is excused as long as he catches up on what he missed.
through it all, there’s magic.
jae can feel it now, sitting at the pit of his stomach and under his fingertips, running through his veins. he’s still flimsy at best when it comes to controlling it and sometimes he forgets to do the training exercises sungjin taught him. he gets headaches from the buildup of excess magic but when bad gets to worse brian drives them out of the city proper to an empty field he found on google maps and jae sits down on the yellow grass and lets the magic out, watches it leak into the ground and turn into budding flowers and twisting vines.
it’s not perfect but it’s getting there.
there’s just a few promises he has to make good on.
“hey mom,” jae says into the phone. in the kitchen, brian and wonpil are bickering over how much salt wonpil put into the food and sungjin’s hearty laughs drifts down the hallway. through the ajar door jae spots dowoon doing his best to make himself as inconspicuous as possible when wonpil brandishes a wooden spoon and threatens them all.
“i know it’s been a while,” he says. “i’ve missed you guys - a lot. i’m sorry i was such an asshole before. a lot has happened since we last talked and i just wanted to - to say sorry.”
“jae,” his mother says. “sweetheart, what happened?”
and jae - jae laughs. “well,” he begins.