Once upon a time, the City of Tailtael was no different from the world that surrounds it.
Once upon a time, the worst dangers found on the streets in broad daylight were broken glass and the occasional hostile skunk.
Once upon a time, Jaehyun wouldn’t have been staring up the vicious maw of a giant, amorphous blob of corrosive black ooze, seconds away from being swallowed whole.
Since the fall of a mysterious glowing meteorite over a month ago, situations like these are increasingly common in Tailtael. Brainwashing parasites swarming the air, mutated octopuses dragging sea vessels into the ocean deep, artists trapped inside their own paintings – Jaehyun’s heard it all over the nightly news and from anxious gossip, but hearing about it and seeing it upfront, close and ugly are two very separate things.
The blob gurgles, spewing chunks of black goo that singe the asphalt around Jaehyun’s legs. Jaehyun’s poor hatchback is still partially lodged in the blob’s side, engulfed after Jaehyun unwittingly pumped it full of what he thought to be gasoline. The gas hose is still spewing goo, feeding into the blob’s size until its head bumps the overhanging gas station roof.
The area is deserted except for Jaehyun. While everyone else fled at the sight of the monster, Jaehyun’s feet refused to budge and he’s left sprawled on his backside, crawling backward as the monster slinks toward him. His head hits the chain-link fence surrounding the station and he’s trapped, limbs trembling uselessly and the quaking of his heart drowning out the world around him.
His voice is a wheeze, his chest heaves with terror. The monster is closing in, towering over him and opening its slimy mouth wide.
A drop of goo speckles Jaehyun’s jeans. It eats straight through the denim and leaves a shallow burn on Jaehyun’s thigh, but he doesn’t notice. His fingernails scrape the ground, his eyes are wide as he stares into the pitch-black stomach of the monster. This is it – he’s going to die here.
Another voice shouts from close behind Jaehyun. The wind current just above Jaehyun’s head picks up intensely, only ruffling his hair but slamming into the blob of black ooze directly. The blast pushes the blob back a safe distance from Jaehyun, leaving a trail of scorched asphalt in its wake.
As if having his car devoured by a mountain of mutated pudding wasn’t strange enough, Jaehyun is sure he’s going insane when three figures drop out of the sky and land between him and the monster, all dressed in corset bodices over puffy white blouses and flare miniskirts with frilly petticoats underneath, garish bows tied at their lower backs and jewel scepters in each of their hands.
Jaehyun blinks several times, willing the fear-induced hallucination away. Rather than disappearing, the three figures start posing theatrically and waving their gloved arms through the air.
“Refreshing Aqua!” the shortest of them, silver-haired and wearing light shades of blue, shouts and points at the disoriented monster.
“Bold Onyx!” the thinnest of them, hair blood-red and wearing black, crosses their wrists in front of their chest with indecipherable finger formations.
“Dazzling Rose!” the tallest of them, blond and wearing powdery pink, twirls their scepter through the air and swipes the space in front of them. This one’s voice is deeper than Jaehyun’s and he realizes all of them are men.
“By the Emerald Star’s light, we are…the Macarunes!”
They declare it with such passion, Jaehyun almost feels bad for cringing at the name. “…macaroons?” he repeats, slightly disgusted.
The small one, Aqua, glances at Jaehyun over his shoulder and winks. “It’s a work in progress.”
The blob recovers with a garbled roar, spraying its corrosive goo around the gas station. The Macarunes don’t flinch as globs of ooze land at their feet, staring down the blob with bravery that must come from experience. Jaehyun’s legs finally regain their strength and he feebly climbs to his feet using the fence for support. His brain pleads with him to flee the scene and pretend he never saw anything, but it’s not every day a trio of flamboyant superheroes rescues him from certain death. He can’t help being stupidly curious.
The Macarunes part three ways, Aqua and Onyx splitting left and right while Rose hops back to protect Jaehyun. The blob targets them and belches out a ball of toxic sludge. Jaehyun yelps and ducks behind Rose as Rose raises his weapon at the flying sludge. “Guard!”
A wide barrier, radiant pink and shaped like a cluster of flower petals, materializes in front of Rose and blocks the attack, the sludge scattering on impact. The monster belches up three more projectiles but Rose’s barrier holds steady. The monster howls in fury, the surface of its body begins to bubble and boil, then it charges at them full force.
To Jaehyun’s alarm, Rose chooses now to let his barrier dissipate and taps his scepter lazily against his thigh. “H-hey, you’ve got a plan, right? Please say you’ve got a plan.” Jaehyun stammers. The monster is incoming at too dangerous a speed for them to have no protection. “I just – not to rush you or anything but it’s really coming at us so –?“
“Shut up. Damn,” Rose grouses, stunning Jaehyun silent. When the pudding monster nears them, Rose points his scepter low and shouts, “Contain!” The jewel of his scepter glows and a rich beam of light circles the ground around the monster, halting its momentum and keeping all of its toxic splatter safely confined.
From the right, Onyx leaps to the trapped monster’s side and cries out, “Frost!” with his weapon at the ready. A fog of ice crystals fills the air and clouds the monster’s trunk, freezing it solid from the ground up. It wriggles and gurgles, spitting at Onyx angrily, but its ooze only splatters the transparent walls of Rose’s cage.
“Hold it steady, now.” Aqua walks to Onyx’s side and waits until the struggling monster is mostly frozen over, then he wields his scepter like a bludgeon. “Crush!” The scepter flashes, lengthens and morphs until Aqua is holding a massive morning star, larger than his own body. He smirks viciously, swings his mace with unnatural ease, and smashes straight through the monster’s body, shattering its flank like glass. The monster’s shrieks fray as Aqua and Onyx whittle its mountainous form into a pile of ice shards.
From its core, a mysterious gleam of green shines through leftover muck covering it. Rose perks up, “There,” and holds out his palm. The gleam shudders and heeds Rose’s call, breaking free of the muck and floating over to Rose’s hand. It’s a piece of emerald, no larger than a pebble yet Jaehyun recoils at the powerful aura it gives off.
Without the stone to give it life, the muck simply collapses, resembling an ordinary pile of mud.
Jaehyun is still staring at it warily while the Macarunes huddle up beside him. He hears Onyx compliment Rose with pride in his voice. “Your trapcraft’s gotten stronger, hasn’t it? I didn’t think we’d be able to take it out that fast.”
“No different,” Rose replies. “That one was just easy.”
“Makes sense. It only had a puny fragment with it,” Aqua complains. “Big, ugly waste of time.”
“Don’t pout. We found another fragment and got here before it could hurt anyone – uh, I…think?”
“The heck’s wrong with him?”
The trio goes silent and Jaehyun turns away from the pile of mud, realizing he’s the center of attention. Aqua is staring at him with suspicion, Onyx with concern, and Rose doesn’t seem interested. All three of them have eyes the same eerie dark shade of green.
Jaehyun means to speak at that point, show a little gratitude for being saved from becoming some creature’s lunch, but his tongue fails him when he sees Rose. Without terror blinding him, Jaehyun takes in the long eye lashes and pronounced cheekbones, the lightly bronzed tint of Rose’s skin and the graceful slope of his nose. The pink eyeliner drawn around his eyes makes the green in irises glow, his mismatched ears give him a fey appearance, and his plush lips move in such a hypnotic – wait, moving? What did he say?
“He screamed when we got here. Like a wuss.”
Both Rose and Aqua are snickering at him, making Jaehyun’s cheeks heat up from embarrassment. “Hey! It almost ate me! I-I was scared!” he sputters defensively. Standing in front of three spell-wielding men decked out in color-coded costumes, somehow Jaehyun feels like the strange one.
Onyx sighs, “Guys,” and his partners sober up immediately. He gives Jaehyun a polite smile. “You should…rest your head.”
With that, the Macarunes leap high onto the roof of the gas station and in a flash of color, they’re gone. Jaehyun is still gawping at the spot they vanished from as the drone of police sirens intensifies in the distance. One name falls from his slacken mouth.
● ● ●
Without a car, Jaehyun had nothing but time to think about the encounter earlier as he wandered home in a daze. The police officers offered to escort him to the hospital, but Jaehyun declined and hesitantly recounted the details of his rescue. The officers reacted without skepticism, to Jaehyun’s bewilderment, and let Jaehyun free after a brief interrogation.
Despite the incredible battle he witnessed, Jaehyun doesn’t worry over the monster or the magic or how he’ll explain his missing car to his father. His thoughts are plagued with silken blond hair and pink berets, the scent of cherry blossoms and a bone-rattling baritone, and nothing Jaehyun does can distract from them.
It’s a virus that leads to him tapping furiously on his laptop in the middle of the night, scouring search engines for any and every scrap of info he can find on the enigmatic Macarunes. There isn’t much, at least not under the name Macarunes, and Jaehyun remembers Aqua calling it a “work in progress.” Typing in “Tailtael superheroes” floods his laptop screen with blurry candid photos and cellphone videos, commending news articles and star-struck eyewitness accounts dating as far back as the fall of the glowing meteorite. The Macarunes have also cultivated a healthy international fan community of cosplayers and artists and writers – he barely stops himself from clicking into reader-insert Rose fanfiction…just out of curiosity.
Jaehyun pores over the wealth of content zealously starting from the Macarunes’ first appearance in Tailtael, saving a disturbing amount of Rose content to his hard drive as he goes. Near the end of his investigation, he learns there’s a fanclub for the Macarunes at his university’s campus meeting tomorrow afternoon, “Jewelry Exchange,” and he punches a reminder into his phone.
He gets maybe three hours of shut-eye before his alarm blares in the morning. No car means rushing out of his apartment early to catch the shuttle to school, half-asleep with his head knocking into the window. He doesn’t think he’ll make it through the rest of the day alive without an injection of caffeine, so he trudges to the campus café and stands in line, still drowsily teetering on his feet.
He actually dozes off at some point and a low-pitched voice from behind alerts him. “Hey, line’s moving.”
Jaehyun jolts and sheepishly thanks the person over his shoulder as he shuffles ahead. It takes his sleepy brain a few minutes to realize that he knows that voice, and the glimpse he got of the person’s face is a bit familiar too. Jaehyun whips around again, squinting and leaning uncomfortably close to the – now frowning – man’s face. “Don’t I…know you?”
“No,” the man grunts and leans back to put distance between their faces. “Could you stop being a creep?”
Full lips, sharp cheekbones and a pointed ear, Jaehyun couldn’t possibly confuse them. The blond hair and pink getup may be missing, but there’s no doubt he’s face-to-face with the man who’s haunted his thoughts since yesterday. “This is – I-I can’t believe it. You’re Ro-!”
“Sicheng!” the man states loudly, garnering confused stares around the café. His teeth are clenched and his glare is agitated. “Call. Me. Sicheng. If you’ve got something to say to me – Sicheng – then grab a table or something.”
Jaehyun catches the hint. He nods and faces forward, fully awake and bouncing on his toes now. He didn’t think he’d ever see Rose again, definitely not at his university, and now he sees just how tunneled his vision was before the encounter yesterday. How many times has he crossed paths with Sicheng? Do they share the same major? Are Aqua and Onyx students as well?
He’s ready to burst with questions while he’s waiting at a corner table, yet his mind wipes blank the second Sicheng drops in the chair opposite him. Sicheng is as gorgeous in a plain sweater and jeans as he is in his costume, more regal where Rose is gentle and warm. Jaehyun’s tongue ties in a knot.
“So? What do you want? Talk,” Sicheng orders over the lip of his steaming green tea.
Now nervous and a bit sweaty, Jaehyun goes with the first thing on his mind. “Your eyes!” he blurts out and Sicheng frowns at him. He clears his throat, thumbs the seam of his paper cup while he works on forming sentences. “Your eyes, and your hair. They’re…different now.”
Question or not, Sicheng understands – his hair is black now, no trace of dye, and his once green eyes are chocolate brown. “We’re at school. I’m not gonna stay in my Gem form all day.”
“Gem form?” Jaehyun parrots.
“Yep.” Sicheng sips his drink gingerly, clearly not planning on elaborating. The table falls into silence while the café bustles around them. Jaehyun hesitates at every question on the tip of his tongue and Sicheng gets impatient. “Is that all?”
Sicheng grabs his cup with the intent to leave and Jaehyun jumps. “No! W-wait!” he pleads, holding his hand out so Sicheng stays reluctantly seated. This would be a lot smoother if he’d had time to prepare, he isn’t usually this flustered in front of a pretty face. “I-I want to, um, to…to help you guys. Yeah!” Jaehyun nods.
“You?” Sicheng’s face scrunches, all skepticism. “What can you do? Besides fall on your ass and scream.”
Jaehyun flounders again. He’s only making himself look worse. “Okay, okay, I didn’t mean that.” He takes a deep breath to steady his voice. “Truth is, I was…sort of hoping you’d, like, want to…I don’t know. Hang out? Or something? Whenever you’re free?”
The rejection comes as swift as the lash of a whip, made more painful by how unaffected Sicheng is by his confession. Jaehyun’s hopeful smile crumbles and he slouches in his seat, deflated. “Oh.”
Sicheng stands before it can get too awkward. “Uh, my class starts soon, so I’m gonna…,” he says and points to the door. Jaehyun nods listlessly as Sicheng leaves, taking the shattered remains of Jaehyun’s heart with him. The cup of coffee on the table goes cold the longer Jaehyun stays rooted to his seat, gaze sullen.
Getting through his classes while nursing his emotional wounds is a bitter slog. He absorbs almost none of the lectures, he’s busy replaying every detail of his conversation with Sicheng and cursing himself for messing up again. His first impression went poorly by any standard – the word “wuss” still echoes in his ears – and today must’ve been fate giving him a second chance to be smooth, be charming, be…be not a blundering moron.
It’s a little dramatic for him to sulk over a crush he’s harbored for less than twenty-four hours, he’s fully aware, but his confidence is fractured. He’s never been the one to pursue – he’s been told on several occasions that he’s handsome, that his personality is inviting. People flock to him, seek his affections whether he wants them to or not, and Jaehyun’s gotten comfortable. Even thinking about Sicheng now makes his tongue want to trip over itself.
He’s completely, debilitatingly out of his element.
By the time his last class of the day wraps up, he’s forgotten about checking out “Jewelry Exchange” until the reminder pings on his phone. He considers skipping it to wallow in self-pity a little longer, but his budding fascination with the Macarunes hasn’t waned even with his heart broken.
The computer science wing is still busy in the hour straddling the afternoon and evening. The passersby in the hallway don’t pay Jaehyun any mind as he peeks into different computer labs curiously, and the students inside are too glued to their monitors to notice him.
The clubroom he finds is occupied only by two guys huddled in front of a computer and whispering heatedly. They look no older than Jaehyun, one incredibly tall while the other not so much. The height difference is comical enough for Jaehyun to snort and they glance at him over their shoulders, blinking behind the lenses of their glasses.
“Sorry, computer animation club doesn’t meet for half an hour,” the smaller one relays to him before they turn back to the monitor. From what Jaehyun can tell, they’re watching video reviews of his favorite online game, Dino Basher X.
Jaehyun backs out of the room, squints at the room number and the reminder on his phone, then walks back inside. “Um, this isn’t the…Jewelry Exchange?”
The two students whip around in their seats, leering at him with frightening intensity. Jaehyun takes a cautious step back. “You’re…you’re here for the club?” the smaller one asks and Jaehyun hesitantly nods.
“Aw, sweet!” The larger one grins wide and waves Jaehyun over excitedly, his hand close to knocking over a nearby monitor. “C’mon, c’mon! Grab a chair, man!”
Jaehyun rolls a chair over to sit between them and they introduce themselves. The tall one is Yukhei, a computer programming major, and the short one is Mark, graphic design. They’re the same age, both basketball athletes, both categorically obsessed with the Macarunes.
“We’re not like, an official official club. Not enough members,” Mark tells Jaehyun with his face uncomfortably close. His skin is a little greasy.
Yukhei sighs. “We’ve been recruiting all month, but nobody else wants to join. I don’t get it! The Heartslayers are like…ngah!” he says and waves his fists vaguely. “How do you not love them?!”
“Heartslayers? Is that what they’re called?” Jaehyun asks.
Mark shrugs. “They don’t really have a name. They switch it up all the time, but we call them Heartslayers ‘cause they slay,” he slaps his hand over his chest, “our hearts, yo.”
“Poetry,” Yukhei breathes in awe and high-fives Mark over Jaehyun’s head.
Jaehyun clears his throat loudly. “Uh, right. So…what got you guys into them, anyway?”
“They saved our butts a little while back,” Mark answers. He grabs the computer mouse and clicks through the internet browser at lightning speed to bring up an old news article. The cover photo shows a far overhead view of a four-way intersection surrounded by cars piled on top of each other. There are four figures in the center of the chaos, one grotesquely muscular man standing opposite the Heartslayers poised for battle. “It was insane. We were just going to get some smoothies and this traffic cop went, like, berserk! Started tossing cars and street lights and stuff.”
“Aqua punched a flying car to cover me,” Yukhei tells Jaehyun, his lopsided grin wistful.
“The whole thing was like…wow!” Mark starts wildly throwing his hands around as he recounts his tale. Jaehyun dodges every wayward swipe. “Onyx was tossing out fireballs and like, tornados or something, then Aqua comes in with like, five different weapons and just starts wailing on the guy. I think Aqua had an axe, a big mace, these little needle things, uh –”
“Spear!” Yukhei pipes in.
Mark claps and points at him. “Right! A spear, and um, uh…ah, you get it.” He elbows Jaehyun’s arm roughly. “And then Rose was in the back like Doctor Fix-it. I swear, some guy fell out of his car with like, a broken arm and his face was all bloody and stuff, but Rose did some,” Mark wiggles his fingers, “glow-y magic stuff and the guy walked away like nothing.”
“Not gonna lie, I kinda wanted to break my arm so Rose’d patch me up too,” Yukhei confesses in an unnecessary whisper.
“Yo, same,” Mark says and the two of them high-five again.
“So he’s different,” Jaehyun murmurs to himself. From what he’s seen and from Mark’s story, he guesses Rose focuses on healing and protecting others in battle rather than fighting like Aqua and Onyx. Sicheng must be more compassionate than he lets on and Jaehyun’s affection buds anew.
“Of course they’re different, man!” Yukhei turns to Mark with lifted eyebrows. “Poster?”
Mark nods. “Poster.” The two of them huddle close to Jaehyun’s face, Jaehyun scrunches his nose at the sudden wash of hot breath. “We’re gonna show you something, but it’s a club member exclusive and you can’t. Tell. Anyone. You in?”
Though he’s reasonably afraid of Mark and Yukhei’s enthusiasm, Jaehyun can’t deny how much he enjoys discussing the Heartslayers. He nods. “I’m in.”
Mark and Yukhei raise their palms in the air and Jaehyun’s eyes shift between them. “Triple high-five to seal the deal,” Yukhei explains. Jaehyun halfheartedly raises his hand as well and winces when it’s sharply clapped between theirs. “Awesome!”
The poster Yukhei mentioned is rolled inside a cardboard tube inside his backpack. The three of them migrate to a work table and Yukhei unfurls the paper with surprising caution. It’s a full poster of the Heartslayers, which isn’t unusual until Jaehyun realizes it’s an actual clear portrait, not the grainy cellphone shots and realistic fanart he found online. The Heartslayers are in theatric poses and standing side-by-side, it looks more like a magazine photoshoot than a candid photo.
“This is yours?” Jaehyun asks Yukhei without glancing away from the stunning poster.
Mark answers with a smug smile, “Nope, mine. Got the photo and blew it up myself. Still can’t believe it.” At Jaehyun’s curious expression, Mark continues. “Get this, I’m coming back from a birthday dinner with my friend, and right when I get to the bus stop, boom. Heartslayers are right there, like literally shining and stuff. I was so shocked I couldn’t even talk, but I did manage to snap a couple pics. Lucky my friend just got me a new camera, too.”
The story sounds awfully convenient to be just luck, but Mark and Yukhei don’t give Jaehyun a chance question it before they launch into a lecture on the Heartslayers’ outfits.
“Anyway, this is Aqua.” Yukhei points to Aqua’s smirking face with the blunt end of his pen and circles around it. “His concept is rich. Royalty, man.”
“Like a prince,” Mark adds.
“Like a prince,” Yukhei agrees. “See the circlet? The necklace? The piercings? All gold.” Yukhei taps Aqua’s forehead with his pen, “Gold,” then Aqua’s neck, “gold,” then Aqua’s ears, “gold. Got it?”
Jaehyun nods. “Got it.”
Mark takes over, pointing to Onyx in the center and dragging his finger from Onyx’s head down to his legs. “Next, you’ve got Onyx. He’s all like, dark and broody and silent.”
“Kinda feels like he wants to kick your ass,” Yukhei says and Mark nods emphatically.
“Check the bobby pins in the hair, the spiked collar on the neck, the um…,” Mark clears his throat, “…the fishnets.”
“Mark’s into those,” Yukhei stage whispers into Jaehyun’s ear.
“Shut up, I’m not!” Mark reaches past Jaehyun to shove Yukhei, whose boisterous laughter rumbles Jaehyun’s eardrums. “I’m not,” Mark assures Jaehyun with pink cheeks. “Moving on! Last is Rose.”
Yukhei draws a circle around Rose’s head and Jaehyun is focused – as if he hasn’t already memorized Rose’s outfit down to the white flower petals printed on his thigh-high stockings. “Now when you think Rose, think soft.”
“Like a…like a pink sheep,” Mark helps.
“And the beret puts it all together – it’s everything! We live by the beret, man. Never forget that.” Yukhei insistently taps Rose’s pink beret, then points to Rose’s neck and shoes. “He’s also got a ribbon choker thing and some Mary Janes.”
“We learned what Mary Janes are,” Mark says proudly and high-fives Yukhei…again. “The soft concept really works for him, too. We’ve been gathering data from every online Heartslayers community we could find and he’s pretty much the most popular member.”
“Especially with youths age ten-through-twenty and women twenty-through-thirty.” Yukhei nudges Jaehyun and points back to the computer. “We got mad graphs if you wanna see. Pie charts, too.”
“No, no, I – I’m good. Thanks,” Jaehyun swiftly declines. The exhaustion from being around Mark and Yukhei is starting to weigh him down. Yukhei’s pout is disappointed. “I think I learned a lot today.”
“’Course you did. Not to brag, but me and Yukhei are the top –“
“Maaark,” a fourth voice croons from behind them.
Mark’s shoulders stiffen and his face reddens. The three of them turn to the slim man leaning against the classroom doorjamb, covered in black from his hoodie down to his ripped jeans.
“Maaark~” Yukhei teases lowly, giggling while Mark hisses threats and hastily gathers his things.
Jaehyun barely hears them, all his attention on the man in the doorway. He’s handsome, large eyes and sharp jawline, but that isn’t why Jaehyun is transfixed. Jaehyun frowns and double-checks the poster on the table, at the stern expression on Onyx’s face and his heavy eyebrows, then he turns back to the man, brunet and brown-eyed.
It’s unmistakable – Mark’s friend is Onyx.
Onyx feels him gawking and the recognition on Jaehyun’s face must be obvious. Suddenly, Onyx’s eyes goes frigid and pierce straight through Jaehyun, a litany of ways he could be murdered – should he open his mouth – conveyed in less than a heartbeat. Jaehyun recalls the mention of fireballs from Mark’s story and meekly, wisely averts his gaze.
“Coming! I’m coming.” Mark rushes to Onyx’s side, still messily pushing papers into backpack. “My bad, I didn’t know it got so late.”
The hostility Jaehyun met is instantly replaced with fondness when Onyx faces Mark. He smiles and asks, “Did you finish your fanboy meeting?”
“It’s not –!” Mark huffs when Onyx snickers at him. “I told you, we’re supporters, not fanboys. You just don’t get them.”
Mark starts heatedly defending himself and Onyx loops his hand around Mark’s elbow, guiding them out of the room.
“That’s the friend Mark was talking about, the one who got him that awesome camera,” Yukhei tells Jaehyun offhand. “He works in the canteen.” He’s casually rolling Mark’s poster back into its container, no idea that one of the men they fawned over for half an hour just left the room, and Jaehyun doesn’t know whether to laugh or scream.
Judging from Mark’s conversation with Onyx, he’s just as oblivious as Yukhei. It’s no wonder the Heartslayers have comfortably mingled in with normal civilians when, apparently, only Jaehyun can see through their alter egos.
Logically, this oddity should be at the forefront of Jaehyun concerns – what makes him, ordinary Jaehyun, so special?
Yet, after witnessing Mark and Onyx moon into each other’s eyes and remembering Sicheng’s complete indifference to him, Jaehyun’s fists clench at his sides.
Jaehyun hatches a plan – a blatantly reckless plan that’ll probably get him killed, but a plan no less.
Since he joined their group chat, Mark and Yukhei have been blowing his phone up with Heartslayers updates at every hour of the day, spliced in with technobabble and inside jokes that fly over Jaehyun’s head. Yukhei listens in on a police scanner to keep track of Heartslayers sightings and Mark collects information on their battles, compiling a database of the Heartslayers’ abilities and their accomplishments.
Talking with them is the only thing sustaining Jaehyun since, more than a week after they met in the café, Jaehyun hasn’t seen a hair of Sicheng. He’s visited the café every day at the same hour as when he first bumped into Sicheng, he’s popped in the café at random times just to be thorough, but he suspects Sicheng’s vanishing act isn’t a mistake.
Lovelorn and desperate for another shot at Sicheng’s heart, Jaehyun does the irrational when Yukhei messages the location of an ongoing monster disturbance, the address of a bank only a few blocks away from the print and shipping center Jaehyun is on shift at.
Jaehyun bites his lips, scans the barren interior of his workplace with him being the only employee on duty. “This is stupid, Jaehyun,” he scolds himself as his common sense circles the drain, his loafers already inching toward the entrance. “I shouldn’t. I should not.”
The run to the bank is short, the frenzied shrieks of civilians growing deafening with each step. He’s the only fool rushing into the chaos rather than away, he has to push through the crowd and turn the corner before the monster is in sight.
It’s an ATM terrorizing the city, an ATM with four tall mechanical legs sprouting from its base, ambling down the road on all fours and beeping aggressively at fleeing civilians. It’s almost amusing to watch, except there are powerful, lethal claws attached to its feet that effortlessly spear through solid concrete, and the slots on its console shoot out paper bills as sharp as knives, money embedded in the walls of the surrounding shops. Its speaker blares a woman’s calm voice:
TRANSACTION COMPLETE. PLEASE REMOVE CARD.
TRANSACTION COMPLETE. PLEASE REMOVE CARD.
A car trying to speed past fishtails and knocks into the ATM’s leg. The driver barely tumbles out of the car before the ATM’s claw slices clean through the hood, lifting the car up and tossing it into a nearby bakery.
“Ah, hell,” Jaehyun grumbles. Of all the days to choose to play damsel-in-distress, he lucks out with a murder machine.
Still, Jaehyun presses on and runs behinds the ATM while it rips into a phone booth. The silver hubcap of a mangled truck rolls to his feet. He picks it up lobs it at the ATM. “Hey! Over here!”
The hubcap dings off the ATM’s frame without a scratch. It becomes alarmingly still at first, then it whirs as the body rotates to face Jaehyun. The screen flashes bright red, incomprehensible numbers and symbols clutter it.
THE PIN YOU HAVE ENTERED IS INCORRECT.
TRANSACTION COULD NOT BE COMPLETED. PLEASE CONTACT YOUR NEAREST BANK.
It raises its claw and poises to impale Jaehyun. Jaehyun swallows nervously. “Holy…“
The ATM strikes and Jaehyun jumps back, its claw burying into the ground between his feet. A second claw joins and swipes at his limbs, only narrowly missing his arms with how clumsily he evades. The slot on the ATM’s console slides open and he decides it’s a good opportunity to start running.
“AAAHAAAGH!” Jaehyun shrieks as he dashes down the sidewalk, paper bills raining down from above and slicing into concrete at his heels. He skids into a demolished clothing store and ducks behind a pile of rubble, wincing at the barrage of bills tearing into the pile. When it pauses, Jaehyun slowly peeks over the rubble and blanches. The ATM’s claw is raised and aimed at him again, too close for him to avoid while crouched. “Guh…”
A flash of blue streaks the air in front of Jaehyun and when it passes, the ATM has three deep gashes running through its leg, torn circuitry spilling out and crackling with electricity. The ATM retracts the leg and readies to attack again, but its frame is suddenly blasted by fireballs from somewhere out on the street. Distracted, it pulls away from Jaehyun and stalks out of view.
Jaehyun breathes a relieved sigh but almost loses his cool again when Aqua lands on the sidewalk. Aqua is smirking, a mouth full of perfect white teeth, and brandishing an armored gauntlet with three slick blades jutting from the knuckles. Jaehyun has never seen someone in a petticoat and knee-high heel boots look so deadly. “Well well, fancy seeing you here, loverboy.”
Jaehyun shrinks down behind the rubble to hide his red face and Aqua cackles. The way Aqua stares feels like he can see straight through Jaehyun. “Uh, h-hey.”
Aqua is about to say more until he hears commotion from the ATM. “Sit tight, buddy,” he orders and races off.
Jaehyun’s heart is still pounding in his ears when the voices of the Heartslayers come from outside.
“By the Emerald Star’s light, we are…the Crystelites!”
Better than Macarunes, but Jaehyun’s nose still wrinkles at the new title.
Though the sounds of combat outside make him curious, Jaehyun obediently stays inside the ruined shop to avoid causing trouble. If he strains his ears, he can hear the battle cries of the Heartslayers as they call on their spells. His stomach flutters whenever Sicheng’s full voice floats into his ears.
He knows he’s safe when the ATM console finally crashes on the street, its legs severed and its frame riddled with burns and dents. The screen flickers blue, then fades to black.
Jaehyun is crawling out of his hiding spot when the Heartslayers appear and surround the defeated ATM. He stumbles over the rubble when he finally sees Sicheng’s blond hair and flowing skirts ruffled by the breeze, as beautiful as the day they met. Aqua notices him first and breaks out of their hushed conversation to grin at Jaehyun. The other two follow his gaze, Onyx concerned while Sicheng is confused.
“Ah, I totally forgot!” Aqua chirps. “Your boytoy came to visit. Lucky you!”
Sicheng hisses at Aqua, making him laugh even harder. Onyx says something to Sicheng with a stern face and Sicheng nods. He stomps over to join Jaehyun in front of the shop, Aqua and Onyx working to pry open the ATM console in the meantime.
“What are you doing here?” is the first thing Sicheng asks between gritted teeth. Jaehyun probably deserves the aggression.
“It was attacking me,” he replies, aloof and innocent. As long as he keeps his gaze level with Sicheng’s and avoids being trapped by those plump lips, he can keep his voice from quivering. “You saw it, didn’t you?”
“Your shirt says you work at the print shop down the street, and you’re the only person who didn’t run away.”
Jaehyun checks his work uniform and grimaces at the logo. “I was, uh…on my lunch break?” If possible, Sicheng is more annoyed and yikes, lying really isn’t the best way to improve his image, is it? “Okay, all right, fine. Maybe I did…sorta get myself into this.”
Sicheng rolls his eyes. “Moron.”
“But I didn’t know how else to find you!” Jaehyun defends. “I never see you around campus or that café. It’s like you’re a ghost or something.”
“Why were you looking for me anyway?” Sicheng raises his eyebrow. “We already talked.”
Jaehyun twists his foot into the ground anxiously. “I know, I know, I swear I respect that. Just…I feel like I gave you a bad idea of me? I didn’t even get to tell you my name – Jaehyun, by the way. I’m really not always this weird and I really do like you. If you give me just one chance to –“
“Which me do you like?”
Jaehyun blinks. He glances to the left then the right, looking for a second Sicheng. “Huh?”
Sicheng waves a hand over himself from his beret down to his stockings. “This, all of this, it’s Rose. I’m Rose right now. Is it my Gem form you’re after or Sicheng?”
“…both?” Jaehyun answers, uncertain. He thought Rose was nothing but Sicheng’s alias as Heartslayer, but perhaps it’s more.
It’s apparently not the answer Sicheng wants, his lips purse and his eyes narrow with a tinge of exasperation. “Don’t play dumb. You only asked me out because you met Rose. Just because I’m cute and innocent and nice right now –“
“Nice?” Jaehyun mutters doubtfully. Sicheng continues as if he hadn’t heard it.
“– doesn’t mean I’m this way all the time. It’s one part of me.” He crosses his arms in a huff and scans Jaehyun from head to toe. He doesn’t seem approving. “And you didn’t win any points by trying to get yourself killed, by the way. That’s more work for us.”
Jaehyun shrugs, his smile lopsided and cheeky. “I got to see you again. Kind of feels like a win to me.”
The most incredible thing happens. Sicheng’s glare falls and he’s speechless, his lips part in a noiseless gasp and his cheeks darken just the slightest. He’s blushing – Jaehyun made him blush. He tries to cover it with another glare but it’s too late, Jaehyun is ogling the pretty color on his face and grinning like a fool.
They’re interrupted when Aqua shouts, “Got it!” from behind Sicheng. They glance over to see the ATM’s console in pieces and Aqua victoriously waving a small chunk of emerald in his hand.
Sicheng gives him a thumb up and turns back to Jaehyun. “Pull this shit again, we’re not saving you. Got it?”
Jaehyun nods. “Yes, sir.”
Sicheng looks ready to say more, but he stops himself and leaves to rejoin his companions. In sync, the Heartslayers jump high into the air and disappearing from Jaehyun’s sight.
The screech of approaching news reporter vans startles Jaehyun out of his stupor. “Oh, crap,” he curses and sprints back to the unmanned print shop.
Despite technically getting rejected again, Jaehyun is optimistic.
Now that he knows Sicheng isn’t completely immune to his dimples, there’s an opportunity for him to pluck away Sicheng’s prickly exterior and prove he likes all of Sicheng. He’s no better at wooing someone than he was two weeks ago, but picturing the attractive pink tint of Sicheng’s cheeks fills Jaehyun’s stomach with butterflies and gives him the confidence to try.
His pursuit of dick has to wait, however. Exam season is encroaching on the campus and Jaehyun has enough studying to do to keep him occupied until summer. “Grades first, then love,” he pledges to himself as he heads into the library.
Of course, the moment Jaehyun stops searching for Sicheng around campus is when he finally finds him.
Jaehyun is exploring the lengthy selection of nineteenth century European literature, brushing the dust off the spines of short-story collections and adding them to the hefty pile in his arms. There’s a gap between the bookshelves separating European literature and Eastern literature with sparsely placed tables, and that’s where Jaehyun spots Sicheng.
He’s hunched over in his seat and scribbling furiously into his notebook. There are mountains of open textbooks around him and wrinkled sheets of paper filled to the margins with hastily copied formulae, a laptop and graphing calculator he hasn’t touched yet. In breaks between writing, he bites into a green apple from the few he has bunched together.
Jaehyun stares for a while, dazed by seeing him so unexpectedly. He doesn’t have any romantic displays prepared yet and he really should be studying anyway, and by the looks of it Sicheng wouldn’t enjoy the company. Jaehyun bites his lip while the books in his arm grow heavier. When will a golden opportunity like this fall into his hands again?
His better judgment wins out and he trudges back to his own table instead, burying his thoughts of Sicheng in stanzas of cubist poetry until his brain is fried. He checks again afterward, but Sicheng’s table is vacant by then.
The universe blesses Jaehyun. Mondays and Wednesdays are the only days Jaehyun visits the library and Sicheng uses those same days to study. Jaehyun is ready on Wednesday, backpack slung over one shoulder and a just-in-case apple cinnamon muffin in his hand.
Same as Monday, Sicheng is drowned in work and inattentive to his surroundings, close to gnawing straight through his pen with no apples in sight. He doesn’t notice Jaehyun standing by his table until Jaehyun places the muffin in front of him. He jolts and stares up at Jaehyun, wide-eyed and suspicious. Jaehyun beams and returns to his table to start his own work, feeling quite victorious with minimal effort.
Hours later, the very same muffin is dropped in the center of Jaehyun’s table, untouched. Jaehyun blinks at it, then at Sicheng pensive expression – it’s an improvement from the usual frown. “We can’t eat foods that aren’t green. Naturally green,” Sicheng states and points to his eye cryptically.
By the time Jaehyun figures out Sicheng’s meaning – the unnatural emerald eye color the Heartslayers share in their Gem forms flashes in his mind – Sicheng is already leaving the library and Jaehyun isn’t as victorious as he thought. “Traitor,” he accuses the muffin and snatches it up, violently stuffing it into his mouth as payback.
Next week, Jaehyun totes a sandwich bag of shelled pistachio nuts and makes a determined beeline for Sicheng’s study table. He sets the bag down and matches Sicheng’s glare with his own. “Shelled them myself,” he says, showing the roughened skin on his thumbs as proof before he goes to his own table.
Like last time, the bag of nuts is dropped on Jaehyun’s tables when Sicheng finishes studying. Jaehyun sighs bodily, his soul is already defeated after dissecting a particularly macabre set of short stories and now Sicheng is kicking him when he’s down. “But…but these are green.”
“I’m allergic,” Sicheng sniffs and Jaehyun groans, of course. “Pretty sure you just wanted to think about me eating your nuts, anyway.”
Jaehyun sputters and reddens at the tips of ears as Sicheng stalks off. “I-I didn’t mean it that way!” he whisper-yells after him. The other students studying nearby scowl at him until he quiets.
On Wednesday, Jaehyun’s excellent memory does him a solid. He skips the food altogether and orders from the café, the same green tea Sicheng ordered a while back. His smile is confident, a little smug when he places the steaming beverage on Sicheng’s table. Sicheng is focused on his laptop screen and doesn’t acknowledge him, brow pinched and fingers flying over his keyboard like mad. Jaehyun doesn’t mind.
He’s rewarded for his dedication when Sicheng sits the cup gently on the table, the inside dry. Jaehyun raises his eyebrows at it and lifts his gaze to Sicheng’s face to find the barest, probably involuntary smile on his lips. “Not bad,” Sicheng admits.
Jaehyun’s heart bursts into a cloud of flower petals. He manages a shaky smile of his own without ever blinking, afraid Sicheng’s friendliness is a fevered hallucination. “I manage,” he responds after he finds his tongue. It doesn’t matter that Sicheng is technically leaving his trash for Jaehyun to toss out – a win is a fucking win.
He considers making it a routine, coaxing Sicheng’s affection with food and whatever other gifts he can think of until he scores a date, and almost puts it in action on Monday. When he reaches for the door of the café, a bony set of fingers curls into the sleeve of his jacket.
Onyx is standing beside him, the wrinkle in his forehead and his lips bitten raw spelling out distress. He’s a lot shorter without the strappy heels he wears in his gem form, not as intimidating. “Come with me, please,” he requests and starts tugging Jaehyun across school without another word. He’s not very strong, but Jaehyun is too dumbfounded to pull away and ask questions.
They sneak into an empty foreign language classroom and Onyx shuts the door behind them. “You – you’re in that club with Mark. Have you seen him today? Or heard from him?”
The uneasiness Onyx’s voice sends gooseflesh prickling up Jaehyun’s arm. “No, I haven’t seen him since last week, but…,” Jaehyun pauses to check his phone, scrolling through his group chat with Mark and Yukhei. It’s been muted since he started studying for exams. “Last message I got from him was…last night, seven forty-six.”
“Did he say he was going anywhere?” Onyx asks. Jaehyun shakes his head and Onyx lets out a shuddering sigh. “I can’t find him. He’s not in his dorm, he hasn’t answered any of my calls or texts, he hasn’t gone to any of his classes – Mark never ditches lectures.” Onyx’s hands tighten to fists at his sides. “I know something’s not right.”
“Have you checked with his friends? Or his family?” Although Jaehyun hasn’t known them long, Mark and Yukhei have been nothing but warm and friendly to him and the thought of Mark in danger puts his body on alert.
Onyx shakes his head. “I don’t have his family’s contact, and the only friends of his I know are you and Yukhei. He says Mark hasn’t back in their room since –“
The classroom door clicks open and Onyx breaks off, breathing easy when he sees Sicheng enter the room lugging his heavy backpack. “Taeyong.”
Having Sicheng nearby calms Onyx – Taeyong – immediately. He leans over until his shoulder bumps Sicheng’s arm and Sicheng circles a loose hand around Taeyong’s wrist. “Sorry, I know you were busy, this isn’t –“
“Stop saying that,” Sicheng scolds. “Of course I’m helping right now. It’s Mark.” He isn’t surprised to see Jaehyun there and tilts his head in greeting.
Taeyong smiles weakly. “Thank you.” He turns to Jaehyun and says, “And thank you, Jaehyun. If you hear or see anything, could you let us know?”
“I want to help out, too!” Jaehyun fiercely replies instead, startling Taeyong and Sicheng. “If I can, I mean, I want to help find him. I know I’m not strong like you guys, but it can’t hurt having another pair of eyes, right?”
Taeyong stares at him contemplatively, as if measuring Jaehyun’s sincerity. He nods. “You’re right. I still don’t know how you recognize us out of our Gem forms,” he cuts a loaded look to Sicheng, who smoothly avoids it, “but we’ll be counting on you, too.”
A notification tone rings from Taeyong’s pocket. He checks his phone while anxiously biting his thumbnail. “Okay, Yukhei’s back at their dorm to let me in. I’ll search for anything out of place there, or at least find his parents’ phone number.” He starts tapping on his phone and speaks to Sicheng. “I’m forwarding his message to you. There’s list of places he and Mark frequent, so I need you to check them out – but lay low. We can’t rule out the possibility this is related to us.”
Sicheng frowns down at his own phone screen as he scans the list. “These are all over city. How am I getting around out of my Gem form?”
Taeyong fishes his car keys out of his pocket and turns to Jaehyun. “You know how to drive, right?” Jaehyun nods and Taeyong tosses him the keys. “Sicheng knows what it looks like.”
“Did you tell Ten yet?” Sicheng asks. Jaehyun can only assume Ten is Aqua’s real name.
“He can’t get out of the studio right now. He’ll help us out when he’s free.” Taeyong checks his phone one last time and walks to the door to leave. “I’m going. Text me if you find out anything.”
Sicheng leads Jaehyun out to Taeyong’s car, a modest black model that’s a bit too compact for their height. Jaehyun squeezes into the driver seat and they pull off toward the first location on Yukhei’s list.
The drive is tense, stuffy, the humming motor staves off the worst of the silence. Jaehyun keeps his eyes ninety percent on the road, ten percent on Sicheng. Sicheng stares out the window with his elbow propped on the door, absently swiping his thumb over his bottom lip. They’re both on edge from the situation and Jaehyun’s back sweats from how uncomfortable he is.
“So…er, how do you guys know Mark?” he asks, simply craving a distraction instead of flirting for once.
For a few minutes, Sicheng doesn’t talk and Jaehyun assumes he’s been ignored. Sicheng exhales through his nose. “Same neighborhood. He lived across from us when he and I were in high school.”
The way Sicheng frames “us” makes Jaehyun curious. He could be mistaken, but Sicheng doesn’t resemble Ten or Taeyong in the slightest. “You mean across from you, Taeyong and Ten? Since high school?”
Sicheng senses the unspoken question and answers, “We’re not related. We were kids in the same foster home before we found our own place.”
“Oh,” is all Jaehyun can think to say and the conversation is dropped. It’s definitely not a topic to pry into if Sicheng isn’t sharing.
They’re saved from another grueling silence when their first target appears on the right, a tropical smoothie shop with a palm tree stickered to the window. Sicheng pulls a picture Mark and Ten up on his phone and shows it to the few staff members present, none of whom claim to have seen Mark recently. They thank the staff and file back into the car for the next location.
Half the ride through, while Jaehyun is drumming his fingers against the steering wheel and screwing his mouth from side to side, Sicheng says, “You’re not gonna ask?” Jaehyun shoots him a confused frown. Sicheng is studying him closely. It rattles his nerves. “About our spellcrafts? Our Gem forms? The emerald fragments?”
Jaehyun clears his throat. “I’ll listen. If you want to talk.”
“Hm.” Sicheng faces out the window again. “I thought you’d wanna know all about Rose.”
There isn’t even an attempt to hide the bite in his voice and Jaehyun groans. “Oh, come on, I said I liked both of you. Rose was the first one I met!” They pause at a red light where an older woman is walking a horde of poodles down the crosswalk. Jaehyun turns and jostles Sicheng’s shoulder so Sicheng faces him. “Hey, I’m serious. If I’d met you – Sicheng first, I’d be just as,” obsessed with, “stupid about you as I am now. I mean, Aqua and Onyx are both good-looking too –“
Sicheng’s eyes narrow venomously and Jaehyun freezes.
“– not as good-looking as you, of course, never – and you don’t see me taking on crazy ATMs for their attention. I like you, period.” Jaehyun smiles, honest and hopeful and heart beating far too fast.
He’s not sure his sincerity has any effect, Sicheng is more troubled after hearing him and stares out the window again, gnawing his bottom lip to shreds. Jaehyun watches until the traffic light shines green, a sinking feeling in his stomach. He licks his lips. “Is…is there another reason? Like, another person? I swear, I’ll back off if you –”
“No,” Sicheng cuts him off. “It’s not that.” He doesn’t continue and Jaehyun is left puzzled until their reach their next destination.
The cybercafé is mostly empty in the late noon, no greasy high school gamers holed-up in their chairs for hours on end like Jaehyun is used to seeing. The clerk at the front counter shakes her head when Sicheng shows her the picture of Mark, but she allows them on the desktop Mark frequents without charge.
“Row F, number seventeen,” Sicheng reads from Yukhei’s text as they walk down the leftmost aisle. Jaehyun leads them there and sits at the computer, logging in with the password Yukhei sent and clicking through public Wi-Fi agreements on autopilot. He navigates through the cybercafé’s unique user interface with ease, scanning recent files for anything suspicious and snooping through Mark’s private messages on Dino Basher X. Sicheng notices.
The interested stare makes Jaehyun shift nervously in his seat. He wishes Sicheng would sit down. “I – uh, I play a lot of Dino Basher. When I can,” he explains. It isn’t the side of himself he wants to expose, the side that stains his keyboard with potato chip grease as he farms weapon materials late into the night. Sicheng’s opinion of him isn’t very high as it is.
“What’s your rank?” Sicheng follows up, leaning over with his hand on back of Jaehyun’s seat.
Jaehyun’s fingers fumble over the keyboard. “My – huh?”
“Your basher rank, what is it?”
Jaehyun blinks at him, surprised to find something in common between them. “Uh, my gladiator’s rank is one-twenty-seven. You?”
“My archer is one-sixteen,” Sicheng answers. He’s frowning, seemingly upset Jaehyun’s rank is higher than his. “You’re past one-twenty, that means you beat Mega Queen Salamandox.”
“Yeah, a few weeks ago.” Jaehyun is typing while he talks, sending messages to Mark’s fellow guild members for any help they can provide. “She’s not so bad once you slice off her tail. Takes the range out of her fire attacks.”
Sicheng hums thoughtfully. “Makes sense. I’ve been hitting her weak points with water element.”
“That works, but you’ve gotta disable her first. I’ve beat her a few times. If you want, we could party up and…” Jaehyun’s offer trails when he remembers the conversation in the car, Sicheng’s unhappiness at his confession. The last thing Jaehyun wants is to burden Sicheng, and he begins to reconsider what’s more important to him. “Um, anyway, I didn’t find anything here. We can go.”
The suffocating silence returns when they’re on the road again, this one Jaehyun doesn’t try to break. He’s inside his own head, reexamining how selfishly he piled his unwanted advances on Sicheng without realizing Sicheng’s reasons for rejecting him weren’t so simple, so easily mended. His chest is heavy with guilt, sadness, and he doesn’t think apologizing to Sicheng alone will relieve him.
“We don’t…,” Sicheng starts to say, dragging Jaehyun out of his thoughts. Sicheng is gazing forward, his fingers are toying with a fray in his jeans. Jaehyun waits patiently. “We don’t…have any guidance in this, you know. The Gem forms, the spellcrafts, the emerald fragments – we don’t know where any of it came from or how to get rid of it. Me and Ten and Taeyong, we’ve been running on instinct this whole time, instinct we never had until that meteorite hit the city. All we know is that the emerald fragments, the meteorite falling and the three of us are all related somehow.”
Sicheng’s fingers curl into fists on his thighs. “Everything’s changed, and I’ve been thinking a lot. About how strange it is that the three of us happen to have no families, the way we’ve always stuck together since we were little, and now these Gem forms. It can’t be coincidence, right?” He blows a frustrated breath from his purse lips. “At first, I thought we were infected by the emeralds like the rest of the city, but now I think we’ve always been like this. Secretly. And it’s just been sleeping inside us until the meteorite fell. It is us.”
Sicheng pauses for a moment and Jaehyun glances at him, seeing him still fidget absentmindedly. He’s more exhausted than Jaehyun thought, but he continues. “I don’t even know if we’re humans or not, and Ten and Taeyong just sorta…accepted it. They work and live like this isn’t a big deal and I try to be like them, but I can’t help feeling like it’s worse that way, pretending to be normal. We have powers but no control, and if we’re only in Tailtael to find these emerald fragments…what happens when they’re all found? When the job is done and Rose isn’t needed? Should I…sh-should I bother studying for these awful fucking exams or – or feel things if I’m just going to disappear tomorrow?”
Jaehyun grabs Sicheng’s hand before he can stop himself. It’s balled into a trembling fist, Jaehyun massages it open with his thumb so he can squeeze his fingers around Sicheng’s longer, thinner ones. Sicheng eyes don’t stray from the road, but he squeezes Jaehyun’s hand back. There’s no tears despite the warble in his voice and Jaehyun isn’t surprised. Sicheng doesn’t seem the type to cry in front of others.
“I…don’t really know how to answer that,” Jaehyun admits when they reach a stoplight. “I can barely wrap my head around it, honestly. But, um…I can guarantee you’ll never really disappear.” Jaehyun nudges Sicheng to get his attention, then he pats his own chest proudly, over his heart. “You’ll always be right here. For what it’s worth.”
Sicheng stares at him, open-mouthed and disbelieving. He turns away to sink his face into his palm. “You’re seriously a moron,” he groans, making Jaehyun grin bashfully. Then, “You make this a lot worse, you know.”
He hasn’t taken his hand away yet. “Sorry,” Jaehyun lies.
A cellphone ringing shocks them, their hands fly apart as if they’ve been caught. Sicheng clears his throat and answers the call on speakerphone. “Hello?”
“Heeey!” the other line sings. It sounds like Ten. “Get your butt back to school. I’ll meet you guys there.”
“Did Taeyong find something?” Sicheng asks.
“Nope! I did. At home, actually.” Sicheng makes a confused noise and Ten says, “There was a calling card in the kitchen – er, well, a business card. Unless you guys know someone from the pawn shop? Johnny Suh?”
It takes only a few minutes in Ten’s company for Jaehyun to grasp how different he is from Taeyong and Sicheng.
The info scribbled on the back of the calling card is sparse, a location, a time and a request. The caller wants to exchange with them at a neighborhood baseball field late in the evening. Ten, now black-haired rather than silver, tells them he searched the apartment from top to bottom for anything missing, but the caller evidently hadn’t found what he wanted – the emerald fragments.
Jaehyun observes Ten while the four of them discuss how to handle the issue, noticing how laid back Ten is in comparison to his partners. While Taeyong looks troubled and Sicheng is irritated, Ten is lazily swinging his legs back and forth where he’s seated on a desk, tapping a beat against the desk with his fingernails. There’s no concern on his face, no effort to comfort his companions, nothing besides unflappable serenity.
It’s unnerving, especially after hearing Sicheng’s worries. Jaehyun wonders if Sicheng would be happier in Ten’s frame of mind, if Sicheng would even be the same person without a world of weight on his shoulders. Their relationship hasn’t changed after Sicheng’s confession in the car, not that Jaehyun truly expected anything. All the affection in his heart isn’t replacement for the security Sicheng desires.
Jaehyun is still studying Ten while they file out of the car in the brisk night air. Ten catches his eye and winks. “I don’t mind if you stare, loverboy, but get it outta your system before the fun starts. ‘Kay?” Jaehyun flushes and Ten laughs brightly as he catches up with Taeyong and Sicheng on the grass.
His advice is fair, if terribly phrased. Sicheng only allowed him along for the exchange so there’s someone to get Mark to safety – it would arise suspicion if one of the trio is missing, and Jaehyun taking care of Mark means the three of them can fight without distraction. Jaehyun won’t fail Sicheng’s confidence in him.
The field brightens the closer they get to the baseball diamond, the LED lights still active this late in the night. When they’re beside the tall bleachers and Jaehyun has to split from them, Sicheng slows his pace to walk beside him, a stern glint in his eye. “When you find Mark, you get back to the car and wait until I can heal him.”
“I know. Don’t worry.” Jaehyun nods. Sicheng gives him a tight smile and rejoins the other two. They continue ahead and turn past the chain-link fence into the baseball diamond.
His heart is thumping while he waits to hear any conversation. A foreign voice greets the trio and Jaehyun moves with the soft crunch of grass under his shoes, trailing behind the bleachers toward the dugout.
“Hey hey, right on time. I like that,” the voice, Jaehyun assumes Johnny, says.
“Where’s Mark?” Taeyong cuts straight to the point.
“Around. And the emerald pieces? I know you guys’ve got a nice stash hidden somewhere.”
“Didn’t find jack-shit at our apartment, huh?” Ten teases and laughs.
Through a break in the bleachers, Jaehyun spies the profile of the caller standing at home plate. Johnny is incredibly tall and wears patches of brown and black in his vest and cargo pants. His hair hangs slick with gel, one long and ominous black bang covering his eye. Jaehyun glares at him and keeps moving.
“I was trying to do you fellas a solid,” Johnny explains, sounding disappointed. “I’m not much for fighting or hostages, you see. Would’ve been nice to take the emerald pieces and leave it at that but, well, here we are. Heh.”
“And you think we’ll just hand them over to you?” Taeyong asks.
Johnny sighs. “It’d be nice? Seriously, I’m an easy guy. This could be over and done with and we can all go home unbruised. Sounds good, doesn’t it?”
“How did you even get in our –?”
“I used pixie dust. Who gives a damn? Emeralds. Now.” Johnny’s impatience is palpable.
Jaehyun reaches the other side just as the trio prepares to transform. He’s behind Johnny now, given a safe front-row view of them, and he’s ashamed to admit he unintentionally pauses to watch.
The trio closes their eyes, crosses their open palms in front of their chests. Their bodies rise inches off the ground and shimmer radiantly in the lights, the wind beneath them picks up and ruffles their clothes. The shimmering over their bodies bends and materializes differently for each of them – Ten suddenly in the center of a vortex of water, Taeyong in alternating bands of red and black sand, Sicheng in a storm of a cherry blossom petals. Jaehyun’s view of them is completely obstructed momentarily and when the field clears, he marvels at three human-sized crystal clusters hovering in their places, aquamarine, onyx and rose quartz.
The clusters shatter, glittering shards that dissipate in the wind, and the Heartslayers stand ready. Jaehyun loses his breath at the sight of Sicheng’s Gem form in a rain of glitter, but he pushes himself to remember his mission. Find Mark, get him to safety.
Johnny gives the Heartslayers an impressed whistle and applauds. “Nice miniskirts.”
Sicheng raises his hand and a translucent spherical container appears above his gloved palm, numerous emerald fragments floating in the container. “This what you’re looking for?”
Johnny takes an excited step forward, eying the emerald fragments greedily. “Whoa-ho, nice, nice! I’ve just been scamming pieces off the idiots bringing them in my shop, but you fellas have been putting in overtime.” He chuckles and smooths back his bang. It immediately falls back into place. “When I’m towering over mountains as the tallest person in the world, I’ll remember your hard work.”
Ten scrunches his face. “That’s what you’re collecting fragments for? Some extra height?”
The bleachers are empty when Jaehyun searches through them, but he spies a peculiar shape lying under the bench in the dugout. He ducks down and drops inside, edging closer until he can make out Mark’s face. He’s asleep, mumbling aggressively and twitching, and Jaehyun sighs his relief. Mark’s limp body is awkward to maneuver, but Jaehyun manages to crouch down and sling Mark’s arms over his shoulders in a piggyback carry.
“’Course you wouldn’t understand, twerp,” Johnny taunts and Jaehyun hears Ten snort. “Being tall is being powerful. It’s being superior to everyone below you and never worrying about being belittled, stepped on. I’ve had a taste of it, now I need more, so I’ll say this one time.
“Give me the emeralds, or I’ll crush both your pals over there.”
Jaehyun freezes, alarmed gaze on Johnny’s back. Johnny is holding out his hand, showing off the small collection of glowing emerald fragments in his palm to the Heartslayers. Without ever turning around, he sensed Jaehyun behind him, meaning perhaps his abnormal height isn’t just for appearance’s sake –Jaehyun really needs to pick up the pace.
He’s climbing out of the dugout as Johnny clenches the fragments tight into his fist. The glow of the emeralds spreads over his entire body and he begins to morph, limbs lengthening and torso broadening, a layer of brown fur sprouting from his skin and sharp horns curling out of his skull. When the glow fades, Johnny resembles a minotaur more than a human, towering over the Heartslayers with bulging muscles and massive fists. The only remnant of his previous self is the single ominous bang that now hangs far beneath his muzzle.
Sicheng locks eyes with Jaehyun as he’s ambling across the bleachers as quickly as he can with the added weight. Johnny faces Jaehyun and Sicheng swiftly raises his scepter. “Veil!” he calls out, but nothing happens and Jaehyun assumes the spell failed.
Johnny grabs the chain-link fence, shaking it so the bleachers wobble. Jaehyun loses his footing and collapses painfully on all fours, Johnny’s large hands curling into fence in front of and behind him. A foul gust of hot breath blows over he and Mark as Johnny leans close, wide nostrils ravenously sniffing through the fence. Strangely, he doesn’t attack, beady black eye shifting from side to side as if searching for something, which baffles Jaehyun’s terrified mind.
Unknown to Jaehyun, Sicheng’s spell is working exactly as intended. To anyone other than Sicheng, Jaehyun and Mark have abruptly vanished, incapable of being perceived by any sense. It’s a perfect opportunity to escape, only Jaehyun is stuck on his knees in fright while Ten and Taeyong are still readying their spells. Sicheng scowls and yells, “Would you run?!”
“Party…trick…,” Johnny growls gutturally. His hand rears back and balls into deadly fist. Jaehyun snaps into action at Sicheng’s command and scrambles to his feet just as Johnny’s fist crashes through fence and destroys a column of benches. The punch misses by a wide margin, but the torn fence lashes out and steel wires slashes through Jaehyun’s leg. Jaehyun bites his lip harshly at the intense pain but doesn’t stop, limping down the stairway and out of danger.
“Pummel!” Ten cries out mid-leap, striking the back of Johnny’s skull with a brass knuckled fist. Johnny roars and swipes at Ten, whirling around in time to catch a bombardment of boulder-sized hailstones from Taeyong.
One of Johnny’s horns is chipped when the hail ceases, his face having taken the blunt of the barrage. He snarls at the Heartslayers and drops into a crouch, clawing into the dirt furiously and panting from his nose. “No…more…games!” he bellows as he charges forward, and the battle begins in earnest.
Jaehyun doesn’t make it to the car, the pain in his leg becomes crippling a safe distance from the baseball diamond. He sets Mark down against a tree before falling to the ground himself, hissing while rolling up his pant leg to see the damage. There are two deep gashes along his left calf bleeding heavily. He pulls off his shirt and ties it around the leg until the blood flow slows, shivering at the cool air against his bare skin.
From where he’s sitting, the view of the battle is clear. He sees Ten climbing onto the minotaur’s back and stabbing him through the shoulder with a spear, Taeyong conjuring a whirlwind to blast the minotaur into the stands, Sicheng controlling vines that sprout from the ground and wrap around the minotaur’s legs, holding him trapped while Ten and Taeyong attack without rest. The minotaur swings his mighty fists and slashes at them with his horns, but he’s unfamiliar with his hefty new body and easily outmatched by the Heartslayers fighting at their fullest.
When he’s worn down and unable to battle any longer, the minotaur collapses his to knees and quakes the ground. The emerald glow overtakes his body, shrinking him down until Johnny is back to his human form, bruised and disheveled but still alive. He sways left to right, groans weakly, then falls flat on his face in the center of the diamond, emerald fragments tumbling out of his hand.
“Yeah!” Jaehyun cheers with a fist pump, wincing when his wound shifts. Mark’s head rolls from one side to the other, more mumbled words before he falls back asleep.
Other than a fine layer of dust on their blouses, the Heartslayers are untouched when Sicheng leads them to Jaehyun. None of them seem particularly fazed by the fierce battle Jaehyun witnessed – Ten is whistling and casually tossing his scepter from one hand to the other as if he didn’t shove a spear through a minotaur a minute ago, as if taking down a hulking beast and saving a young man’s life is nothing special for him, probably because it isn’t. They’ve been fighting long before Jaehyun discovered them, they’ll keep fighting long after.
It makes Jaehyun realize just how brave the men in front of him are, selfless despite the uncertainty in their lives and powerful to boot. He didn’t think it as possible, but his admiration for all of them rises higher.
“You guys…seriously kick ass,” Jaehyun gushes when they’re in earshot.
“We know,” Ten informs him, hands smugly on his hips.
Sicheng waves his scepter in the air, likely dispelling the veil, and kneels between Jaehyun and Mark. He examines Mark first, cradling Mark’s chin in his hand and turning his face left and right, then touches two fingers to the center of Mark’s chest. “He isn’t hurt,” he announces after a moment, aimed mostly to Taeyong. “Just asleep.”
“Thank goodness,” Taeyong sighs. He crouches at Mark’s other side, smiling and brushing hair from Mark’s forehead.
Sicheng takes care Jaehyun next, having Jaehyun plant his foot flat on the ground so he can hover his palm directly over Jaehyun’s wounds. “Mend,” he murmurs and a soft green glow emanates from his palm. Jaehyun’s entire leg warms, uncomfortable at first then incredibly soothing. Jaehyun tilts his head back against tree trunk and his eyes slide shut while his body heals.
“I would’ve cloaked you earlier if I could have,” Sicheng suddenly says. Jaehyun peers at him with one eye, noting his pursed lips and pinched brow while he concentrates on Jaehyun’s wounds. “Some of my spells are harder to craft. Cloaking more than one person drains me a lot. I…need to get better.”
If Jaehyun didn’t know better, he’d believe Sicheng is apologizing to him. He hums and reaches for Sicheng’s arm, squeezing it lightly. “You’re incredible.”
Sicheng looks at him, just a glimpse before he immediately refocuses on Jaehyun’s leg. The glow from his healing spell illuminates the blush on his cheeks. Jaehyun doesn’t understand it until he remembers his current state of undress, his blood-soaked shirt clumped in the grass and his bare torso on display.
He grins cheekily and says, “Y’know, if you really wanna look –“
“Shut up,” Sicheng grunts and taps Jaehyun’s calf, making Jaehyun yelp in pain. The gashes are nearly gone but the flesh is still tender.
“Ugh, you two are damn cute,” Ten tells them, though it sounds more like an insult than a compliment. Jaehyun had forgotten he and Sicheng weren’t alone and flushes at the gazes of both Ten and Taeyong. Taeyong laughs softly behind his hand and Ten rounds on him. “And you, can we finally tell Mark who we are? I’m sick of walking on eggshells around him!”
Taeyong makes a guilty face. “Er, well, I guess it’s only fair at this point. You know I didn’t want him involved.”
“Lot of good that,” Ten sniffs. “He’s always gonna be involved as long as he hangs around us and stays in that dinky club. At least he’ll know to watch his back if we tell him.”
“He and Yukhei could probably help us out,” Sicheng adds. “They’re both pretty smart. And obsessed.”
“And we can finally use that boss name he and that big lug came up with!” Ten sounds excited to put the search to an end. “It’s better than anything we’ve used so far. Macarunes?” he pulls a disgusted face.
“Remember ‘the Magicats?’” Sicheng grimaces. Jaehyun distinctly sees him shudder.
Taeyong frowns in offense. “But I liked the Magicats.”
“No!” both Ten and Sicheng shut Taeyong down immediately.
When Jaehyun is fully healed, Sicheng looks to both his companions. Ten is cackling at Taeyong’s expense and Taeyong is ignoring him, cradling Mark against his chest with an arm around Mark’s shoulders. Sicheng stares at Taeyong and Mark the most. His expression is muddled with confusion and frustration, a bit of longing as well.
“How…how are you guys like this all the time?” he questions.
Ten and Taeyong blink at each other and then him, obviously not understanding.
“How do you guys not worry? You do things like we have all the time in the world, but…” He pauses to take a breath and points to Ten, “You’re still building up your performance studio,” then he points to Taeyong, “and you, you have Mark.”
Ten quirks an eyebrow at him. “Should we…not?”
“No – I mean, I don’t know!” Sicheng is upset again. Jaehyun considers rubbing his back, but he feels awkward sitting in on their conversation as it is. “You’re making commitments we don’t know we can keep. What happens when we find all the fragments? Everything could just be for nothing!”
Ten glances at Taeyong and they share a secretive laugh, upsetting Sicheng even more. It’s the first time he truly feels like the youngest of the three. “That’s what been eating you all this time?” Ten scoffs. “I figured you were just horny or something.”
“I’m being serious.”
“So am I!”
“Ten,” Taeyong chides and Ten mimics zipping his mouth shut. Taeyong smiles crooked at Sicheng. “You’ve been holding this in for a while. Why didn’t you talk to us?”
Sicheng wrings his hands in his lap. “It’s been bothering me. Recently. I feel like there’s no point in wanting things if we don’t know what’ll happen to us.”
Taeyong reaches out and Sicheng takes his hand immediately, squeezing it in his. “You’re not wrong. We don’t know what’ll happen to us once we finish the emerald, but think, have we ever known the future? Even before this emerald business started?”
“We could all be hit by a bus tomorrow, for all we know!” Ten chimes in. Taeyong glowers at him and Ten, again, zips his mouth shut.
“What he means is that life is always going to be uncertain, no matter what. The three of us might have a couple extra variables thrown in, but we’re no different from Mark or Jaehyun or anyone else.”
Jaehyun nods in agreement when Sicheng looks for confirmation. “It’s true. I freak out about getting hit by buses all the time,” he admits. Ten shoots him a thumb up, Taeyong shakes his head at them.
Sicheng isn’t completely convinced, but he’s listening. “Then how do you all put it out of your minds? These thoughts.”
“Simple!” Ten chirps. “Do you like sitting around worrying about buses all the time?”
Sicheng shakes his head.
“Do you enjoy thinking about things you like? Or people, maybe?” Taeyong asks, and this time Sicheng doesn’t answer. Taeyong grins. “There. Focus on what’s in front of you, what makes you happy, not the unknown. You’ll run yourself ragged looking for ghosts over your shoulder all the time.”
A hush drapes over the group and suddenly the atmosphere is uncomfortable where it had been friendly, as if there are too many people sharing the same space. Sicheng is staring down at his lap contemplatively and Jaehyun is staring at him the same.
Ten senses it first, he clears his throat deliberately. “We should wait in the car, shouldn’t we?” he asks Taeyong, who immediately agrees. Taeyong hefts Mark up in his arms and follows behind Ten, both shifting out of their Gem forms as they leave.
“Hey,” Jaehyun starts when he and Sicheng are alone, poking Sicheng’s forearm. There’s no response. “Are you all right?”
Sicheng’s gaze snaps to him, Jaehyun flinches. Sicheng’s eyes are fiery, fierce like those of a warrior staring down an opponent. He shuffles on his knees until his body is lined against Jaehyun’s side, uncaring that his white stockings are stained green now. He takes Jaehyun’s face in his hands and squeezes enough for Jaehyun’s lips to pucker hideously, and then…
…he kisses him.
Jaehyun doesn’t react, stunned at sensation of plush lips moving timidly against his. His hands rise slowly to cradle Sicheng’s waist, his eyes flutter shut and he breathes softly through his nose. He presses back against Sicheng’s lips, drawing him in closer with arms around his waist, fingers tangling in loops of the bow on his back, and Sicheng hums. The silk of his gloves cools the fire under Jaehyun’s skin as his hands travel down Jaehyun’s jaw, his neck, and settle on his shoulders.
Sicheng pulls back, bottom lip bitten between his teeth. Jaehyun is pleased to see a matching blush on Sicheng’s face. “You’re…really fucking cute,” Sicheng tells him. He sounds distressed about it.
“Sorry,” Jaehyun lies under his breath.
“I like you,” Sicheng tells him again.
Jaehyun has already confessed several times, but he doesn’t mind repeating himself. “I like you, too.”
Sicheng nods, satisfied. “And I’d…I’d like you to be my boyfriend – but let’s go on a date first. A nice one.” He pauses to think. “Dinner. You pay.”
Jaehyun squints at him. “Aren’t we like, the same age? Why am I –?” he almost complains. Sicheng’s expressions blanks. He begins pulling out of Jaehyun’s hold until Jaehyun’s arms tighten around him in an apologetic hug. “Okay, you win, you win! I’ll pay,” Jaehyun grumbles.
Sicheng beams so brightly that his eyes curve, two sparkles in the night. “Good,” he says, then leans in to kiss Jaehyun again.
“Do you have any super potions? I’m running low.”
Jaehyun clicks through his dragon gladiator’s inventory, grabbing half the stock of super potions and trading them to Sicheng’s overly busty blonde archer. The mob of fire golems around them is dense in the center of the volcano, but Mega Queen Salamandox’s chamber is only a zone away.
“Wait, what’re these steel lavamites weak to?”
“They’ve got shells. Just use a blunt weapon skill.”
Jaehyun takes the advice and plows through a horde of lavamites, his gladiator catching enough burns to whittle is health down to half. In the chair beside him, Sicheng snickers as he demolishes wave after wave of lavamites from a distance with water arrows, his archer in perfect condition. Jaehyun narrows his eyes, wondering why he gave away so many precious potions.
“Why isn’t the door opening?”
“Didn’t you grab the boss key from upstairs?”
“I was supposed to? I’m out inventory space.”
Sicheng glares at him and Jaehyun glares right back. They’ve already cleared out the queen’s antechamber, moving to a different zone will just make the monsters they’ve killed respawn and Jaehyun’s gladiator is already half dead.
“Great, now we have to –“
Sicheng’s head shoots up. He turns toward the entrance of the cybercafé, face stern with concentration. In an instant, he stands and rushes past Jaehyun, but not without leaving a kiss to Jaehyun’s head and a hissed warning in his ear. “Don’t steal my loot.”
As soon as the chime above the cybercafé door rings, Jaehyun smirks and sends his gladiator running around Sicheng’s archer to snatch every valuable piece of loot he can. He locks both their computers and sits back in his seat, stretching his arms over his head. There’s a clamor outside, the sounds of screams and beastly howls growing louder as the seconds pass. The clerk at the front counter makes a confused noise and checks outside.
Jaehyun follows her out and sees the chaos for himself. Brightly colored dinosaurs swarm the sky, plastic pterodactyls made of children’s construction toys. They let out ear-piercing screeches and swoop down to scoop fleeing civilians into their talons, they dive into semi-trucks and flap their tremendous wings in the middle of the road. They’re as dangerous as they are well-crafted, holding together even after being rammed by cars.
The clerk beside him shrieks in terror, but Jaehyun isn't worried.
On the rooftop of the building opposite the cybercafé, three valiant silhouettes land in the glow of the setting sun and wave their arms through air.
“By the Emerald Star’s light, we are…the Heartslayers!”