Ten bartered away his name, but the witch gave him a new one. The loss doesn’t trouble him, for all that names are worth more than rubies. Names can be knives, easily turned against their owners, and now that name is gone. He can’t remember the sound of it anymore. It was long, he thinks, but the music of it has left him.
Ten is just a pebble on his tongue, glossy and strange and fascinating. He says it to himself, over and over, and he thinks Taeyong is laughing at him.
For five days, maybe six, he winds up and down the mountain, through hidden marshes and valleys, cajoling the trees to share their gossip and guide him onward. The witch is well-liked, and they tell him little. But as he assures them, he means no harm, and he cannot lie.
Over the days and nights he composes his speech. Very persuasive, he thinks. Charming to a fault. But his charms do him little good when he’s far from home and the sky cracks with thunder. He doesn’t know the locals well enough to pop down to a nice dry den, and in truth he’s still too nervous to walk down the slick black mortal roads he has seen from afar, even if a more inhabited area might offer shelter.
When he left home, he was confident he would reach his destination in a day or so, and how hard could it be? One little mountain. One little witch.
He begins to suspect that either the trees have lied to him, or his sense of direction is far worse than he had previously assumed.
The rain has plastered his hair and tunic down and his feet are slick with mud when he finds the cottage. It looks smaller than he had imagined. Saplings grow a foot high from the bark roof, and shutters obscure the yellow light at the windows.
He would like to tell himself that he glides with dignity and purpose, as in the privacy of his own head he can lie as much as he likes. But he’s fucking tired and hungry with not even sour pomegranates or tubers to be found, so he stumbles gracelessly up to the door and bangs his fist.
The door twists itself up at the center and a knotted face emerges. Scowling brows, a bulbous nose, shiny black eyes. It blows a raspberry at him.
Rude. He tweaks the wooden nose and it yelps.
“Mind your manners.” He means to scowl, but he’s cold and clammy and he probably just shivers instead. “Give me a riddle or let me in. I don’t care which, just hurry it up.”
“Who sent this wanderer, who comes in darkness?” the door wheezes. It has a voice like dead leaves and he hunches to hear it over the rain. The overhang of the roof shields him from the worst of the pelting drops and he flattens himself closer.
“That’s not a riddle,” he frowns. “I sent me. The wind, is this about the wind? You should be more clear.”
“Eh,” the door snuffles. “Erm. How far, um. How far can a fox run into a grove?”
“Only halfway, then he’s running out of it,” he answers, relieved.
“Running out of what?” the door blinks.
“The grove. The fox running out of the grove.”
“What fox? Don’t just stand around wasting my time now,” the door scowls, coughing the words with effort. “Can’t you see it’s raining and any civilized creature ought to be indoors?”
With a sinking certainty, he realizes the door is senile or just very bad at its job.
He resorts to hammering his fist, desperate, until the door swings abruptly inward and he barely catches himself with hands braced against the frame.
A human in an overlarge sweater is blinking at him. With his wide, depthless black eyes he could pass for a pixie. His hair looks red as pomegranates, but that could just be the hunger talking.
He draws himself up with as much confidence as his waterlogged appearance will allow. Should have bought a shiny new glamour before he left to make a better first impression, but just now he’s too cranky to care.
“Um.” The mortal blinks. His eyes dart to each side. Likely he’s realized he can’t close the door with a pair of hands in the way. “I’m closed. I mean— are you lost?”
Well he hasn’t come this far to slink back home with his tail between his legs. Panicked, he claps both hands on the witch’s shoulders. It has to be the witch, it has to be. The witch leaps in his skin and turns pink as a primrose.
“I have journeyed here to make you the most extraordinary offer and— no, wait, sorry, please let me in.” He sneezes. Mostly in the witch’s face. “It’s cold, I don’t get cold at home and I hate this.”
The witch stifles a groan, jerking him inside and scuttling around him to close the door. The chill wind vanishes. The stone floor is warm beneath his feet and he smells bread. Through the paper screens at the opposite end of the cottage — what he hesitantly assumes to be eastward — he can see the clear glow of moonlight. There is no sound of rain. Untroubled crickets sing.
The cottage is bigger on the inside. Herbs hang from the ceiling. There are hand-knotted rugs, antlers woven into wreaths, a king’s ransom in sweet beeswax candles burning. His inspection is interrupted as the witch clears his throat and sets down a basket of folded — oh, god, towels. He reaches for one and begins to put himself to rights, rubbing his hair and neck, then stooping to blot sludge and wet grass from his bare feet.
“Sorry, who are you?” The witch is staring at his muddy feet like vipers.
“A traveler,” he says importantly. Squares his shoulders and starts again. “I am the tenth knight from the blue mountain, and I’ve journeyed from the fair realm to make you an extraordinary offer.” He pauses, and gestures to encompass all of himself, damp and disheveled as he may be.
“You’re not human.” The witch has gone very still.
“Right.” The witch cracks his knuckles and bites the inside of his cheek. “Nobody like you has ever come to see me through that door before.” He sounds unsure, but he rights himself. “Sorry, if you came a long way. I kind of have my hands full with the business I already have, so.”
“You’re the only one who can help me,” he protests. An upsetting whine has crept into his voice. Turning back now is inconceivable.
The witch sighs. “If you aren’t hurt or dying, I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do for you. What do you need, anyway?” A budding green curiosity, studying him head to toe. “I can’t craft a better glamour than yours — the face is a little off, but at least you pass for human. Illusions aren’t really my specialty, but I can dig out a reference, maybe. Friends of mine would know who to ask.”
“I’m not wearing a glamour,” he laughs. “You think I would be soaking wet and foul if I could help it?” The witch’s face goes flat and mortified, and he feels more sure of himself. “But yes, I’m very pretty, thank you for noticing.”
“Can I ask you to leave yet?”
Understandably, he panics. He has a speech planned, but he reaches inside his bag for a leather pouch and throws it at the witch instead. Unlike the rest of him, the bag he packed is charmed, and its contents are dry. Of course he didn’t pack any food, too hurried to leave and prove his point. Taeil warned him and as usual he was right.
“Someone told me the witch on the mountain would want this.”
With visible reluctance, the witch wiggles a finger into the mouth of the pouch and then pauses. Dips his head for a loud sniff.
“Wow.” He breathes in the spice again. “It would take me a year to use all of this.”
“So you can see why I would be useful to you,” he presses. “All the great old casters used to have fairy servants. I could be yours. I can get you more, I’ll find you anything you ask for.”
“Oh, I— wow,” the witch says. “No, thank you. I’m good.”
“If you would let me explain—”
“No, I mean, that’s a great offer. I guess. For somebody else. But that sounds like a pretty raw deal for you, and I’m not in the market for any magical— help. You can stay in out of the rain, and I’ll pay you for the spice, what do you want?”
“Let me stay.” His teeth ache with how he clenches them.
“One night,” the witch repeats. “Because of the rain.”
“Three days,” he presses. The witch deflates and agrees, still clutching the spices. He has no intention of leaving the cottage in three days, but he hasn’t lied. The mortal doesn’t know well enough to press him on the specifics.
Just then his stomach snarls with acid and the witch stares at him. He hazards a pitiful sniff of the air. “Is that a potion?”
“No, it’s stew.” The witch fingers the seam of the pouch a moment more and then tosses it across the room. Unbidden, he shakes out another towel and drapes it over his unwelcome guest’s shoulders. “Have you eaten?”
“I have not eaten in a very long time,” he says seriously. “I could be dying.”
“Don’t whine, you can’t catch cold.” The witch pauses, frowns. “Can you?” So close, his eyes are mahogany, not black.
He blows his nose into the towel with great honking relief. “I don’t know. I never have before. The rain back home, it’s more of a mist. And the cold never bothered me. The snow feels like clouds.”
He sits at a low table, dripping still, and the witch huffs but serves him. A considerate host, with his copper spoons and wooden bowls.
“Where I come from, food is usually a trap.” He prods the steaming contents of his bowl. Shreds of meat, vegetables, and he doesn’t much care what else. He would eat dirt with both hands if it smelled like this.
“I know all about it. Rotting toadstools charmed to look like honey cakes. Sad for you. Now eat.”
It could still be a trap, no matter that he chose his path here. Witches are not always as young as they appear, mortals rarely guileless at all, or so the stories say. And he knows well that beauty is always the first harbinger of danger.
But he moans at the taste and eats three bowls until his stomach is swollen and the witch insists he stop.
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After a bath in a narrow wooden room, where the witch colored and left him alone to discard his sodden clothes before a steaming tub of water, he sleeps. He sleeps not so far from the witch, on a thin mattress. Splayed out on his belly, he stretches so his limbs hug as much of the warm stone floor as possible. The witch drapes a blanket over him and doesn’t speak again. When he looks, he can see him plain as daylight, eyes open and staring at the ceiling in the dark.
He says his name is Taeyong. Mortals give them away so freely.
That he should sleep well is to be expected, after nights spent curled in the roots of strange unwelcoming trees, farther from home than he had ever ventured alone. What he doesn’t expect is to be awoken at dawn by rattling in the kitchen, and to feel well from the soles of his feet to his tingling palms, like his journey were only a dream. No hint of fatigue like when he was a stripling learning sword and bow. The wonders of a hot meal, maybe. It feels as though he slept for a season, like a great hand folded over the top of his head and stretched out his spine, opened up all his cramped and tired spaces.
The air smells earthy and sweet and he stumbles in his haste to rise. Taeyong either doesn’t see him or pretends to be absorbed in his cooking.
“There are more clean clothes on the sofa.” Taeyong gestures with a wooden spoon, its flat side shining with oil. “I don’t know how to wash— whatever you were wearing.”
“What are those?” He reaches out to pinch a morsel from the copper pan, only for the witch to yelp and slap his knuckles away.
“You’ll burn yourself, what is wrong with you?” For a fleeting moment Taeyong takes hold of his wrist and turns up his palm and fingertips for inspection. Muttering something, the witch lets him go. His hands are warm, but so is the kitchen.
What Taeyong is making, so sticky and molten inside that they singe the roof of his mouth, are pancakes. He eats the first one in two bites when the witch’s back is turned, and suffers his scolding for his burned tongue. Taeyong cuffs him upside the head, light as a moth, before seeming to think better of such familiarity. But the witch opens the tall white box in the corner and pulls out ice, magic in itself, and waits for him to open his mouth to place the morsel on his tongue. It’s too cold, novel, and he crunches it between his teeth. His burns would have healed more quickly than any human could reckon, but the witch didn’t ask. And he likes the ice, the faraway taste of the mountains trapped in the water.
“I need to finish these,” the witch continues, distracted, turning a fat pancake in the sputtering oil with a flick of his wrist. “Just don’t - touch anything, and don’t scare my customers.”
He eats another, more slowly. The filling, the sweetest thing he’s ever tasted, spatters warm as blood over his knuckles and he chases each drop with his tongue.
The cottage outside is not the one he approached on the mountain. The roof is tile, not bark, and this house is larger, two wings meeting, where he was certain the other had only four walls. It looks cleaner, newer. The wild has not overtaken it. Circling to the west side, he finds a different set of doors. No guardian emerges when he runs his hand over the wood.
The mountain is gone. The air is chill, the lights of the human town in the valley muted by thick mist. The soft hills undulate with rows of green like fat huddled serpents. When he draws the wind into his mouth he tastes tea leaves. At home they steep their tea cold with nettles and dandelion — nothing like these smooth human cultivars that Heechul the traveler brings each summer to sell.
No sound betrays feet marching up the hill path, but a high sweet whistle warns him. He may be wearing the witch’s clothes — heavy and unfamiliar, disarmingly human — but he is still himself. And so he is poised on the roof when the stranger crests into view. He looks unassuming as any mortal. But the dawn is young, sunlight bending over the horizon and cutting stripes in the mist. Dawn and dusk are funny things. The man looks human, but his shadow stretches long and true, and in it he sees gauzy wings.
The man pauses in his stride and laughs over his shoulder as another figure hurries into view. They link arms, and he can’t make out the new shadow for how the two of them mingle together.
Bare feet dangling from the edge of the roof, he mocks a dry cough and their heads snap upward in unison. The newcomer with hair the color of storm clouds jumps in front of his friend.
“Are you here to see Taeyong?” he calls down to them. His voice is mild but his grin stretches something wicked.
“Are you?” blurts the whistling stranger, struggling to shove past his companion’s broad shoulders.
Out of sight below, the door creaks, and the three of them freeze. He recalls, belated, a few instructions he had rather elected to ignore.
“Jungwoo, what are you doing?” Taeyong calls. Jungwoo elbows his friend behind himself again and his eyes dart to the roof and back. Silence stretches, and then Taeyong groans.
“Tell me that idiot isn’t where I think he is.”
Two more figures appear down the road and halt. Their heads bob from one point of confusion to the next: the pair on the path ahead, the witch at the door, and the creature on the roof. When they spot him, the shorter of the two jumps like a squirrel and shoves his companion off the path.
Pleased with the scene, he drops lightly from the roof and turns a bland expression upon the witch. Taeyong wrings a towel between his hands and stares daggers back.
“This is Blue,” Taeyong says, tight with forced patience. He repeats himself when the newcomers edge up to the doors. The one who was pushed has leaves in his hair and dirt on his cheek. “He’s just visiting. Stop staring at my customers and go chop some onions. Haechan, please stop trying to kill Jaemin.”
“I was helping,” he overhears.
Apprehensive as they may be, they fall on the pancakes, spilling hot brown sugar into cups and chasing it with their fingertips. He doesn’t look so strange, he thinks — he was once told he could pass for human if he remembered to move like a creature of earth instead of wind. But they stare. The last straggler to arrive they call Jaehyun, and his observation is the most acute for all that he speaks the least.
This is what he learns. The witch has callers each morning, and what he feeds them, through no spell that can be seen, nourishes them against iron sickness from living so near the human settlement. Food is the conduit through which Taeyong’s magic flows. He says there are other ways, but this comes naturally, and everyone has to eat. The magic goes docile when he cooks, more easily bidden.
“Don’t fuck with my friends,” Taeyong says mildly, that first day. He’s wearing pink gloves up to his elbows and washing the dishes. There’s a shine of grease high on his cheek where Jungwoo smacked a sticky kiss goodbye, before Doyoung of the hidden wings rolled his eyes and hauled him away by his collar. Taeyong has yet to notice it. “Exiles all have baggage, they don’t need you spooking them like some scrawny reaper.”
Humans come as well. They come with their hands painfully knotted from decades picking tea along the cut hills, and swear Taeyong’s stews are as good as his grandmother’s. A reedy boy returns an empty dish and then lingers in reverent silence, sitting still as a statue as he watches Taeyong work. An expecting mother wants another jar of pickled radishes, and Taeyong sends her with two, as well as a tureen of cold soy milk soup swimming in cucumber and rice noodles.
“You probably heard of my grandmother, not me,” Taeyong says. It’s afternoon, and he’s roped the loitering boy, Jisung, into carrying the pregnant woman’s abundance back to her front door. The boy has flecks of greenish scales over his cheeks and down his knobby wrists, but he can only spy them from the corner of his eye, only when he blinks. Hybrids are funny that way - their true nature sleeps, and they forget what else swims in their blood.
Taeyong looks tired, but it doesn’t stop him from making another pot of tea to share. It all comes from the surrounding hills, and he’s particular about it. This is from the last harvest of the year, he says, and a touch bitter for it. The first harvest is always sweetest, but the village makes the most money selling it and little remains.
In the afternoon he cleans. No naps when the crickets and birds fall quiet, no dice games. He cleans the kitchen until it looks like no human hand has ever touched it, much less prepared pancakes sputtering with hot oil and enough stew to feed a dozen.
Little changes in three days. Taeyong prepares more pancakes each morning, a spicy pork bone stew with potatoes (the mortals seem not to crack the bones for the marrow, a waste, but he devours his own and the witch is equally determined), soft bean curd for those too frail to chew meat. In the evenings, when they are alone, he favors rice and vegetables and any leftover meat scraped from the pan, with an egg on top.
With each recipe, he patiently explains the names of his ingredients, the ways he chops them, boils them, frys them in oil. The magic knows where to go, he says - it moves through him like water.
When preparing his pork, the witch pinches liberal scoops of the spice carried from the fair realm. He crowds close to watch, until Taeyong snickers and bumps him away with his hip.
“What does it do, then?” He’s peering into the pot, and while all of Taeyong’s cooking mystifies him he had expected something more dramatic.
“It tastes good,” the witch says. “Isn’t that what you all use it for?”
“Hot food isn’t so common,” he corrects, a touch deflated. “We eat things the way they grow, and we burn meat until it stops bleeding. No one cooks like you— they stopped stealing humans for that a long time ago.”
“Comforting,” Taeyong grimaces. “So what good is this stuff to you?”
“We use it for burials. You burn it, I don’t know why. It’s just one of those things.”
“You can die?” Taeyong turns to face him, his hands fall still.
“Everything dies,” he shrugs. The witch doesn’t have to look so distraught about it. “We just take our time.”
Every night, Taeyong cleans again before laying down to sleep. His clothes vanish into a wicker hamper. He sweeps the stone floor, and packs any stray morsels of food into the icebox. When the witch sleeps, he goes heavy as a moss-covered stone. He curls in on himself like a child, hands tucked up against his throat, his face young and grave.
On the third day, when his visitors have left, Taeyong hauls his clothes out to the cobblestones and washes them in a wooden basin under the afternoon sun.
“Blue, I can pack you some food when you leave tomorrow,” he says. Too casual, eyes on his work as he churns the wet clothes against a rutted board. “Take some tea, if you want.”
“About that,” he says, and the witch stills. “I was thinking we could revisit the terms of our deal.”
“You were thinking,” Taeyong repeats.
“You work so hard,” he says. “I can see how tired you are. Always doing things the long way. Even I’ve heard humans have machines to wash their clothes.” Taeil told him so and he knows everything.
“What’s your point?” Taeyong sits back on his heels and looks up at him. In the sun, his hair is vivid as summer, as red flowers bursting with life. He appears entirely unimpressed with the company in which he’s found himself.
“You need help. All I need is food and a place to sleep.”
“So what do you get out of it?”
“I’m of age,” he whines. “I have to study for a year, everyone else is. My friend apprenticed to some thousand year old dwarf when his time came, he knows things now and he won’t shut up about it. So help me out.”
“I don’t know,” the witch sighs.
“I can give you my name,” he says in a rush. Unplanned, but the notion settles over him like sugar on the tongue. Yes, this could work. “Do you know what names are worth?”
“I do,” Taeyong squints at him. “You shouldn’t play around with things like that. What if I used it against you?”
“You won’t,” he says, eager. “And I’m not using it anyway. Take it, keep it. Do we have a deal?”
“You said a year .” Taeyong drags the back of his wrist across his brow. “Does it have to be a year?”
“What’s a year?” he shrugs. Calm, like he isn’t buzzing with eagerness.
“A long fucking time,” the witch says under his breath, plunging his hands back under the water.
Taeyong still looks unsure when nightfall comes, when he takes the name in his hands. He has to crowd close, until their knees knock, and when he says his true name the witch reaches into his mouth, presses three fingers flat upon his tongue, and drags it out of him. The name is difficult to see, like a beam of light stoppered inside its glass vial, blue and silver in turns.
“What do you want me to call you?” Sweat beads at Taeyong’s temples. His mouth is white.
“You took my name,” he says, a trifle nervous. He feels light, like a layer of himself has been scraped away. The taste of the witch’s skin fills his mouth. “It’s only fair that you give me a new one.”
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Ten had expected more glamorous work. Rituals under moonlight, chatting with ghosts. But Taeyong likes a clean house, and spends hours making it so. The witch insists they are not to hurry the dullness along with shortcuts or spellcraft.
“Magic builds up, like dust,” Taeyong explains. His hair is pinned back from his brow and he’s scrubbing the floor on his hands and knees. Ten, more the fool, is in much the same position. “Let it accumulate and after a while things forget what they’re supposed to be, and then your tea kettle is spouting frogs and the candlesticks scream when you light them. Cleansing with magic is alright for emergencies, but you’re just slapping a coat of paint over the mess.”
“Fascinating,” Ten says. His borrowed sleeves are folded past his elbows and his knees ache.
These things he learns about the hedge witch on the mountain, who is also called the witch of the valley, and yet also the witch by the sea, who happens to be lovely in a way that must be reserved for mortals passing through the world like cherry blossoms.
The cottage belonged to his grandmother, a witch of renown. Taeyong has resided there for only two, no, three years, he says. Taeyong rises early like a creature of the forest, eyes bright as raindrops. He bites his nails until his fingertips are tender and raw, but Ten has yet to catch him at it. All his spices are in red glazed jars with etched characters denoting their contents and he arranges them in meticulous straight lines, and does the same with his many oils and five kinds of salt.
“Wait, you came all this way to apprentice under Taeyong ?” Haechan gapes. His mouth is full of cabbage and egg sandwich.
“Don’t be rude,” Doyoung says, still watching Jungwoo lick his fingers. “Still. We're all wondering. No offense to Taeyong, but I never heard of someone pledging their year to a human before.”
Ten lifts plates and bowls one at a time to wipe down the table with a fresh cloth before the drippings of their breakfast can dry. The number of times he’s scraped tacky sauce from this table is not to be borne.
“Maybe I’m a genius and they’ll tell stories about how wise and noble I was to overlook my teacher’s inferior nature,” he says, brushing crumbs into Haechan’s lap. It's true that all the old stories are of clever fairy tricksters already seasoned in their magic when they made pacts with mortals, often devouring their souls or their hearts in the process.
“Will they,” Jaehyun hums and sips his tea. “Bold of you to assume Taeyong won’t kill you first.”
“Ah,” he says brightly, sitting back on his heels. “So he’s standing right behind me then.” A hand with calluses like polished wood curls over his nape, squeezing once in a silent warning Ten has taken to interpreting as you are the most infuriating creature who has ever walked this earth.
“I think you got it all,” Doyoung snaps at Jungwoo, the latter tonguing the valley between his fingers clean.
“Could you guys not be weird for one day,” Jaemin groans to the ceiling. “Just one, that’s all I ask.”
Taeyong has an errand for him. Ten leaps at the reprieve from washing floors and being sassed by strangers with no regard for his rank. In three weeks, this is the first time the witch has bidden him somewhere unattended.
Ten slips out the west door again, and the wild mountain is waiting for him. The trees are cranky with chill, as he sees plainly now, and want little to do with him until he mentions his errand for the hedge witch.
It is no small thing to ask. They don’t like to be seen naked, so he sits and eats the rice cakes Taeyong packed for him with his eyes low, glimpsing their shadows as they stir themselves and whisper between branches. Their long spines click and rustle like dry acorns. Some crowd together with their sisters in occupied trunks, vanishing like steam into the sap-rich hearts.
Thus vacated, he fells the trees with a bronze axe.
On a wide, faded sheet he drags the lean trunks back to the cottage. It’s slow going. When he stops for water, his hands shake with fine tremors.
Taeyong has flung open the rear door for him, and as he approaches it seems to grow taller, wider, until a chariot teamed by six horses could gallop through. When he passes under the lintel his stomach hooks queerly to the left, and he walks not into the cottage but the rear courtyard facing the gentle green hills.
“Don’t get used to tricks like that,” Taeyong warns him, but he looks pleased.
In the warmest part of the afternoon, when the sun is golden, he begins to strip the trunks, Taeyong working beside him. The outer bark is too fine to be removed, and they coax it away with the inner bark, sticky and stubborn, all as one. Their hands redden and the mound of shavings between them grows.
He’s telling Taeyong about the trees, their fondness for him, and the gaping witch nearly hacks his own finger off. Ten burns himself on the steel chisel stopping him and drops it with a hiss.
“You can talk to the trees?” He sounds young, unsure. A realization dawns and he drops onto his rear in the dirt, staring distraught at the wealth of trunks Ten brought him. “Why did you cut them down?”
“You asked me to.”
“I didn’t want to murder them,” Taeyong snaps, red and furious. His eyes are too wet.
“We’re helping them, I only cut where the forest was overgrown. There wasn’t enough sun to go around,” Ten says slowly. “It has to be done. You just ask permission— don’t ever cut a tree down without asking permission. You don’t know who could be living in there. Give them a chance to pick up and move somewhere else. They don’t love it, but it’s the polite thing to do.”
“Of course,” Taeyong repeats. “The polite thing.” He’s looking back over his shoulder at the stack of logs for kindling piled high against the cottage.
“You really didn’t know? They all like you so much,” Ten hums. He wiggles onto his knees once more and sets his copper chisel at the angle the witch showed him. “They say you’re a nice boy. Very pretty, and dryads have an eye for that sort of thing. They wish you’d come around more.”
“Sure,” Taeyong says. He stares at his hands, but at last he picks up the chisel again. He slides it under the bark like disrobing a lover. Patient, grateful. “Sure, right.”
When the sun is low, they lay out their bushels of bark to dry. Taeyong guides him back inside with a hand at his spine, as if he could forget the way.
“You should have told me,” Taeyong frowns, turning his seared hand under the light. He rubs a sharp smelling salve into the burn and scolds Ten if he uses that hand. So he cuts his meat for him, and pours him a glass of something that burns sweetly going down, headier than the wine back home.
“I don’t know if you’ll be sore as I will in the morning, but you worked hard,” Taeyong says. His skin looks sunset warm. He’s smiling, a little, like he’s not aware of it. “I thought you’d quit if I asked so much of you.”
“You’re not getting rid of me that easily,” Ten grins. His arms feel too heavy to lift. So he sits a while longer, until Taeyong stirs and fidgets with a box in the corner and tinny, distant song spills out.
“Oh,” Ten blinks. “I’ve heard of those.”
“That must be weird for you, I forget how different—” Taeyong pauses, and sketches an uncertain squiggle in the air. “I can turn it off, if it bothers you. The folks in town keep on funding this little station to play old music so we don’t forget.”
“No,” Ten says. “I like it.”
Their hoard of bark dries for days in the sun. Ten returns to the forest to collect sap, and to pay his respects to the spirits in their new homes. They tell him his manners aren’t so bad after all.
Taeyong soaks the bark for a full day, in a great steel vat so vast it makes Ten’s teeth ache just to be near it.
“Go eat a pancake or you’ll get sick,” Taeyong chides. “And stay on the porch, I don’t need you underfoot.”
The next day, after dispensing hot pancakes and jars of clam broth and spicy cabbage fried rice, Taeyong builds a fire under the vat. In the sharp winter sun, he stirs it all afternoon, guiding a dark wooden paddle as tall as he is through the bulk. The steam is acrid with the burnt buckwheat husks he shook in. He warns Ten back again, but his hands are full, and so Ten flits to his side to dab his brow, always with a fresh cloth. He takes turns laying wet kerchiefs in the icebox, that strange and rattling thing, and then draping them over Taeyong’s neck. From time to time he holds up a clay cup of water, the surface throwing off light like a moon, and Taeyong sips gratefully.
“Don’t tell me you want to help,” he laughs, thready with exhaustion as he watches Ten pace the length of the porch.
“This is boring,” Ten says, and watches his arms tremble.
The sun is slanting low when Taeyong rinses the sting of iron from the pulp and disperses it across flat rocks as wide across as mountain bears. He tries to continue but Ten elbows him away. Too tired to fight, he sits on the porch and drinks water with mint from the kitchen window as Ten pounds out the pulp with a heavy pestle.
Ten hardly remembers stirring the mixture with mallow sap and scraping it into urns with care, but it’s dark and Taeyong is pouring him a beer. He doesn’t love the taste, but it’s still better than what he’s accustomed to, and he drinks it all. They eat cold rice and beef marinated in a sticky plum sauce Taeyong mixes together with his eyes half open. Ten scrapes his bowl clean and then licks it for good measure. Taeyong scoffs not unkindly and pokes straws through squat bottles of milk with an elusive flavor he says is banana. He drinks one and Ten finishes three in the same time.
Taeyong’s eyes are drooping, so Ten washes the dishes just to hurry him to bed. “Yeah, I know, you would have done it differently,” he says, shaking out Taeyong’s bedding onto the floor. “I don’t care. Go to sleep.” And Taeyong must be as tired as he looks, because he doesn’t argue.
The next day, Jisung drops his bicycle in the front courtyard long after the usual crowd has dispersed, when Ten and Taeyong are drinking tea and soaking up the pale sunlight for warmth. His grandmother is feeling poorly, and Taeyong invites him in to wait while he makes another stew. Keeps the boy talking, light and easy, even as Ten insinuates himself and minces the garlic with a copper knife, then the onion, passing each dish to the witch before he can ask.
The grandmother lives down in the valley, where Ten begins to smell the ocean but can’t see it over the horizon. As bidden, he carries the clay pot of seaweed stew wrapped in cloth and does not spill a drop. The return passage is slowed as strangers stop him - but not strangers, they know his new name, they call him Taeyong’s assistant, they load him with gifts like fresh prawns for the hedge witch, a bushel of potatoes, a bottle of rice wine he tucks unsteadily under his arm.
He reminds them that Taeyong lives just outside town and they could take their gifts and gratitude to him in person, but they laugh as if he’s made a joke.
Taeyong is working outside when he finds him. His lip is caught between his teeth, and three books are spread out on a cloth beside him as he flips rapidly through one, then the next.
“Can you tell I don’t really know what I’m doing,” he grins when he spots Ten, crooked and bashful. “I’ve just read about it, and watched videos.”
“No,” Ten says, and folds his legs to sit beside him.
“Sorry, what?” Taeyong is hooking his sticky fingers to flip back to an earlier page. The shapes marching in their columns mean nothing to Ten.
“I couldn’t tell,” he says.
Both of them are needed to hang the sheets to dry, each one heavy in Ten’s hold as if it still remembers being a tree. Maybe so, just as the wind has a memory, and Ten sometimes tastes places he has never been on a breeze from the ocean.
The moon rises, and the rows of wet paper gleam pure as snow. He can see it now, how this will cover the walls inside, the inner doors that breathe between rooms, where the old paper has gone yellow as millet.
Neither of them are willing to sleep quite yet, so Ten brings beer and all the sliced vegetables he can scrounge from inside, carrots and radishes and tart things called pickles. They watch until the moon seems to wink down at them, but Ten can’t catch her at it again.
Kudos are love and I'll reread your comments for years, let's be real.
Note: I'm on the fence when it comes to tagging minor/background relationships, but if that's important to anyone just let me know and I will.
Bored? I know way too much about making hanji now. Come at me on curiouscat
As usual, these chapters are not beta read. Apologies for any dumb mistakes, that's all me.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
With spring comes warm, shimmering rain. On dry afternoons the wind is only a murmur, rustling the endless tea leaves. Taeyong moves them from the west wing of the cottage with its stone floor and banked fires below to the southeast, where the wooden planks sit up on stilts and the air flows free and cool under them. They haul aside heavy trunks with leather straps and relocate all the witch’s candles and books and clothes, which are also Ten’s clothes, as Taeyong says his spidersilk and feathers are too conspicuous.
The sighs of the evening move differently in this part of the house, the chittering crickets louder through the walls.
“I can’t even hear you breathe at night,” the witch complains once, voice thready with sleep. “It’s creepy.”
Ten makes a great show of dragging his bedding closer. Close enough to reach out and hover a hand over the witch’s face as he dreams. Feel the warm air leaving his nostrils, the wind he draws inside himself and gives back again.
The winding road is busy now as the pickers with their bicycles and sputtering automobiles swarm over the hills each morning. They wave at Taeyong, and even smile at him though he has given them no cause save his association with their favorite witch. Ten can spot them from afar each day by their pale sun hats bobbing amid the verdant rows, their silvery calls to one another like birdsong.
Now he accompanies the witch every third day, down the path to the town in the valley. They weave between the jewel bright awnings of the street market as Taeyong keenly examines each cucumber and radish. He beams when one vendor brings out a fat yellowfin tuna set aside just for him, so heavy Ten has to hold it, wrapped in paper, with both forearms beneath, bags of produce bouncing against his back.
When he arrived in winter, the witch would bid some eager youth with a smoke belching car of their own to the market of electric lights they keep indoors, which Ten has never seen. They would leave with his list and return with their arms straining under the weight of cabbage and potatoes and beef tongue, and linger to make calf eyes at the handsome witch gutting eels.
Taeyong says the fresh air is good for him, and his customers know to leave a note in the little blue book on the porch if he isn’t home when they come calling. Ten rather suspects the witch feels guilty keeping him in the cottage all day, as if he cares for automobiles or electric lights or mortals with no magic in their hands.
In the evening, Ten extinguishes the buzzing lights in glass and fires the many candles instead, until they blaze a starry sky under the roof. The candlelight is kinder to the witch’s eyes, he’s found, at the end of the day when headaches mount like storm clouds in his skull.
Taeyong is poring over his grandmother’s journals again, turning a teacup absently in one hand as Ten walks the beams of the ceiling and gathers up cobwebs, whispering the spiders outside where they belong.
“I’d like to have an antidote ready— there were two snakebites in the fields last spring. But I don't know how she got her hands on this stuff.”
Ten drops down onto the balls of his feet and glances over his shoulder at the drawing in the book. “That? I can get you plenty of that.”
“It doesn’t grow here,” the witch says, patient.
“Sure it does. It’s shy, but I can find it for you. It likes to bloom where people fuck,” he says, ecstatic when Taeyong chokes on his tea. Offending the witch's delicate sensibilities is one of his favorite pastimes. “Especially if they’re sneaking around. Faithless, they call it, or blueweed. Good gossip if you find some growing where there wasn’t any before.”
“You should see it. These two idiots, a while back, they kept using the same glade, can you believe it?” He curls his fingertips together and then draws them expansively apart to illustrate the sprawl of the weed. “It was everywhere. There were duels, someone made a terrible poem about it. Your friends don’t tell you these things?”
Taeyong frowns. “They don’t talk about— before. I wouldn’t want to ask, they probably miss home.”
“Not likely,” Ten snorts. “I mean, I would, but I’m important. They aren’t, or someone would come looking for them. Who knows why they left. Anyway, I can tell you whatever you need to know now.”
“As always, your modesty is astounding,” Taeyong sighs.
Ten returns with the blueweed, a riot of sticky petals and silver-furred leaves. At the mountain side, the bark roof of the cottage is just as he recalls, saplings dense with fresh green leaves. The guardian wrestles its knobby face from the center of the door and squints at him.
“How are we today, Buddy?” Ten pinches the hem of his shirt and buffs the bulbous nose until it shines. The door sneezes once, grateful. “Hold on—” he fishes a narrow twig along the seam of wood that passes for an ear until a flurry of seeds spills out. “Shit, squirrels again? You’ve got to bite them, I keep telling you.”
Taeyong is in the kitchen, dropping slivers of beef into a sizzling pan. A tall mortal leans against the counter beside him. He’s frozen, glass bottle at his lips as he gapes at Ten.
Ten slides between them in the kitchen’s narrow confines and deposits the blueweed in a wide bowl. The mortal smells wrong, somehow, meatier and more strange than those who work the fields, and Ten leans into his chest for a great whiff. A patch of sweat darkens his shirt at his sternum and the scent is strongest there, wild.
The mortal drops his bottle. It’s delightful. Ten catches it, despite himself, because the soles of Taeyong’s house slippers are paper thin.
“This is my houseguest,” Taeyong says behind him with weary resignation. “Ten, this is Johnny. Please stop smelling him.”
“What are you?” Ten rocks back onto his heels and grins.
“Don’t answer him,” Taeyong cuts in. He reaches around Ten like he were only a ghost and pats the mortal’s arm. “Ten, we talked about this. Please set the table.” Taeyong always says please and thank you like that.
There’s no need to argue, as Johnny is the one who bends down to sniff him back, his nose bumping up against Ten’s throat. His breath is hot as a furnace. “What are you ?”
“I asked first,” Ten says primly. Taeyong is groaning, muffled by a hand over his mouth. Ten can’t see him just now, but he knows the contours of his face under exasperated duress.
“Yeah, you did,” Johnny nods. His shock blooms into glittering fascination. “I’m a wolf.”
Taeyong sighs, once. The pan crackles as he stirs.
“I’m his fairy servant,” Ten says, pressing his thumb at the seam of the wolf’s mouth to feel for his teeth. Johnny opens it obligingly. His tongue burns like an ember. “But Taeyong is too sensitive to say so. Willing servant, that’s important. An invaluable employee. And nobody’s eaten a wizard in centuries, don’t worry. Even longer for witches, they have better manners.” Ten retracts his hand and wipes it on his shirt. Taeyong’s shirt, soft with pinprick holes at the collar.
“Cool,” Johnny blinks. Ten hands him his bottle back with a playful bow. He ferries dishes of spicy cucumber salad and toasted seaweed as Taeyong sets them to the side. There’s more yet, watercress and steamed spinach, bean sprouts, anchovies. It’s a large meal, even by Taeyong’s standards.
“Because I worry about you,” Taeyong laughs when Johnny marvels at the spread. “Man wasn’t meant to live on instant noodles and cheap beer alone.”
“I like how you say instant noodles like you really mean pig shit ,” Ten notes, slipping between them again with plates stacked up his arm.
“Why are you acting like him speaking English is no big deal?” the wolf whispers when Ten’s back is turned.
“He isn’t?” The scraping of Taeyong’s wooden spoon halts. “He’s speaking Korean.”
“Actually,” Ten grins, rounding on them with a flourish, “it’s neither. Not just any little nobody can do it, you know. But there’s wind in me. I understand any spoken tongue, and you can hear me in the manner most natural to you. Or something.”
“Showoff,” Taeyong huffs, but the corner of his mouth is twitching.
“So this is why you wanted my help moving that vat,” Johnny says over dinner, pinching a dumpling in his chopsticks. The wolf has long, deft fingers. More than Ten, who has yet to master the infernal contraptions and eats with his hands as nature intended.
Taeyong looks unconcerned. “Well I didn’t want it sitting out there all year getting filthy, it took me days to clean out the leaves and gunk when I moved in.”
“Sure,” Johnny nods, and looks at Ten like he’s searching for something. The candlelight flares amber bright in his eyes. “You didn’t mention your friend.”
“Slipped my mind.” Taeyong refills their glasses. “I lost track of time, I wasn’t expecting you so soon.”
“Funny how if you’d get a phone I could just call and remind you,” Johnny answers easily.
“Remember when you needed my help with your moons and you used to show me some respect?” Taeyong deadpans.
“Remember when you had a phone and a washing machine and a television like a normal person ? I respect the hell out of you, grandpa,” Johnny says. “I just wish you didn’t have to do everything the hard way.”
Taeyong touches Johnny without seeming to notice. Palming the nape of his neck in passing, leaning into his side when he laughs. Johnny says something too quick for Ten to catch, with the cadence of an old taunt, and Taeyong tosses a napkin at him. The napkin flickers into a great white moth halfway and Ten claps. It alights on a beam and shivers its wings, wide as a plate.
A knock outside startles them all. When Ten looks again, the moth is gone, and the napkin floats back down to the table. It lands across a bowl and soaks up brilliant red sauce like blood. Taeyong’s mouth is pinched.
It’s only one of the girls from town at the door, her bicycle overturned on the path. Her eyes are swollen, her nose dripping, and Taeyong herds her to the kitchen without question. She sniffles something about exams that Ten can only overhear in snatches. When he relays as much to Johnny, the wolf nods, unsurprised.
“It gets like that. When we were in school, there were fistfights over spots in Taeyong’s study group. Among other things,” he adds under his breath.
“You mean fucking?” Ten asks. The wolf chokes. Mortals, for all their hot-blooded frenzy to rut, have the damnedest time talking about it. “I’m sure. Tell me about school .”
“He was a history major, did he tell you that? Not that his mom was happy about it. Minor in art history, even.”
“Art,” Ten groans. “He has books full of squares and squiggles and ugly faces.”
“Yeah, well. He’s a nerd,” Johnny says fondly. “Should have figured he’d do something like this. You two really made all that?” With a loose hand he encompasses all the cottage, the pristine mulberry paper over the walls and sliding doors. “He was telling me. Do you even know how crazy that is? There are factories for this stuff, people stopped making it by hand a hundred years ago.”
“Taeyong is a perfectionist,” Ten says tightly. No cause to be so annoyed, the witch nags him half to death over every mote of dust. “That’s why he’s superior to other mortals.”
Johnny whistles, long and low. Taeyong’s head jerks up and he glances uncertainly between the two of them before pouring a cup of tea for his guest.
“So,” Johnny drawls, watching Taeyong serve the girl fried rice redolent with spicy cabbage, a sunny egg on top. He says something and she nods, fishing one of those so-called phones out of her pocket and tapping with her thumbs. Messages, or so Taeyong has told him, another kind of magic.
“So,” Johnny repeats, and Ten turns to meet his stare again. “Is it a sex thing, or what? You and Taeyong.”
“Did I say it wasn’t a sex thing?” Ten bats his eyes. “If you’re going to proposition me, try harder.”
The girl leaves with her hair freshly braided by a witch with hard, careful hands, her face scrubbed, reverently tucking a vacuum flask of soup into her bag. She bows so many times Ten thinks she’ll stick like that, folded over like a stork. Her snot and grateful tears are all over Taeyong’s shirt, and he changes into another, falling over the pale flash of his belly as he rejoins them.
“Thanks again,” Johnny says at the door, quiet. Ten is washing the bowls in steaming water and keeps his head down, his ears sharp.
“You can take them back any time,” Taeyong assures him. He embraces Johnny, easy as breathing, and they linger there as Ten counts. Twenty-seven seconds before Taeyong pulls away and ruffles his dark hair. Fascinating.
“What did he give you?” Tens asks when they’re alone. He already cleaned the kitchen, but Taeyong is wiping down the countertops and the tiled walls with the herbal concoction he mixes himself and sprays from a bottle.
“He gave me his lies,” the witch says after a long pause, working his cloth into the pristine white grout between the tiles. He glances down as if contemplating a run at the floor, and Ten rolls his eyes.
“Go, sit, get out of my face” he says, and fills a bucket with hot water and soap. Scrubbing down the floor comes easily now, his arms never ache. “Why did he do that?”
“Some people need help saying what they mean.” Taeyong is still rosy with drink, propping his chin on one hand as he watches Ten. His eyes look heavy, sleepy.
Ten pauses. He looks back at Taeyong, considering, and the witch’s tongue darts out like a snake tasting the air.
“Could you give someone lies, then?” His skin buzzes with interest.
Taeyong tilts his head in consideration. “Maybe. I never have before. But I could try, if you wanted. I never thought you’d stick around once you saw how boring my life is,” he laughs. “Got me feeling like I’m taking advantage now, with all you do around here. Not like I’m really fit to teach anyone.”
“The whole year would be worth it just for something like that,” Ten muses, thoughts racing like fleet deer. Not even Taeil can lie, not even their queen.
“Of course.” Taeyong straightens. His mouth is flat and unsmiling. “So we have a deal.”
When he wakes in the dark hush before dawn, the witch’s bedding is empty. Cold, when he lays a hand to it. It’s too early even to be cooking the exiles their morning meal, but he hears Taeyong breathe on the other side of the door. Slow and deep, with a hitch in the middle like he’s holding it. But mortals are peculiar, he's found, and dislike being questioned before breakfast.
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“Your hair is falling in your eyes,” Taeyong notes idly, extending an open hand as he stirs with the other. He always wants more red chili with his eggs, Ten is already plucking it from the shelf. “Want me to cut it again?”
“Sure,” Ten tosses back. Oil has risen to the surface of the paste and he agitates the mixture with a wooden chopstick until it shines glossy and even.
Taeyong tilts a nearby pan of sauce for bean curd, judging its thickness. “The color - did something happen to you? I never thought to ask.”
“You don’t like it?” Ten halts with the jar in hand. A rival once said his hair was only as silver as a slug trail, but she was bitter and such cattiness was to be expected. Figurative language has always been a loophole in truth. “Change it for me, then.”
“I— no,” Taeyong rushes to say, so startled he drops his spoon and twists to face him. “No, it suits you. Mine was an accident. So I wondered.”
“Don’t burn the eggs,” Ten clicks his tongue. Taeyong hates wasting food. And he never does get to ask about the accident , because the door is rattling open. Jaemin tumbles in with Haechan braced in a headlock, grass in their hair.
The witch exhales through his nostrils, gusty. “They’re good boys,” he objects before Ten can open his mouth.
Jungwoo can be entertaining when he bats his eyes and croons at visiting townfolk until their faces flame, but this is not such a morning. A shame, because watching Doyoung grind his teeth to dust like a scowling rabbit is delicious.
Instead Jungwoo is regaling them with the latest happenings at his curious pastime, the one he calls a job. Ten cares little for the topic and allows the words to dissolve into meaningless insect chittering. If he recalls right, this bizarre profession concerns the old ones who can’t walk or bathe or remember their names unassisted, notions that knot Ten’s stomach with repulsion like rotting mushrooms.
Instead he watches Jaehyun.
Ten is annoyed, for the hundredth time, that he hasn’t an inkling what Jaehyun truly is, despite his outrageous guesses. Jaehyun, magnanimous giver of gifts, who remembers everything. He’s cradling a half-forgotten cup of tea now, tracing a splayed hand over the floor with intent. A sharp breath, and he holds something up to the light. A single hair, dark. Jaehyun’s eyes glitter.
“And how is Johnny?” he breathes. Ten scarcely sees his lips move. He loops the strand of hair thrice into a ring upon his finger and it holds there as if forged.
“He had to catch the train back to the city last night,” Taeyong says. The tips of his ears flush, and isn’t that curious. “He’s hosting an exchange student or something. Oh— he wanted to tell you that your digital broadcast is working, the stream. Says it sounds good.”
“That’s sweet,” Jaehyun hums. “But if there’s anything Johnny wants to tell me, he ought to do it in person.”
“Right,” Taeyong gurgles. “Right. I have a pan. In the kitchen. I’m going to go— yeah.”
At last Ten is permitted a practical lesson, despite Taeyong’s distraction. The witch wants to plant a garden, sketching out plots of cucumber and cabbage on scraps of paper. And lately every conversation turns to the town as the tea festival approaches. Visitors will flock from across the country, Taeyong says. He bends an ear to his customers each day as they fuss over their shop or restaurant, rivalries over permits for food trucks and craft stalls.
It takes no small amount of bellyaching to remind the witch of his duty and wedge a spot of instruction into the hours of sweeping and mopping and talking, talking, talking.
Ten is confident he can replicate the process, buzzing with eagerness. He knows precisely how Taeyong transmits his magic. With sprinkling of herbs and tea around the pot, with murmured words, the steps of each recipe marching in rigid succession. Ten has seen the witch start over, mouth pinched with frustration, in the rare instance he adds pear before ginger or some such thing.
In the afternoon, when the mortals and their petty worries have drifted back down the hillside, Taeyong hovers with his hands laced behind his back like he doesn’t know how to be still. Ten makes a show of chopping the scallions with care. The witch bites off a sound and Ten snorts at him, folding the fingertips of his left hand beneath his knuckles.
“Better?” he smirks.
“Eyes on the knife, please,” Taeyong grits out.
The witch has assured him no fewer than four times that the pancakes are a forgiving dish, even simpler than those he prepares in the mornings stuffed with chopped nuts and hot brown sugar. Just flour, eggs, oil, scallions, salt sprinkled over the dish in the manner he calls clockwise.
The first pancake is bubbling gently in the oiled pan when Taeyong blinks twice and says “wait—”
Purple flame erupts, crackling with sparks, and Taeyong jerks him away so sharply that Ten is thrown back against the icebox. The witch curses and shoves a hand into the fire, snapping a closed fist.
The pan overflows with a tangled mass of dandelions and Taeyong flips off the gas beneath with a shaken breath. As they stare, the tight bulbs burst into sunny yellow manes. Then like winking eyes the flowers furl up tight into withered darkness. Before Ten can wonder aloud, they burst into fluffy white heads and explode.
“Shit,” Taeyong says, quietly and with great feeling. The seeds, hundreds upon hundreds of them, cover the kitchen counters, the floor, many drifting slowly into the adjoining room on the ghost of a breeze. The ceiling above the stove is scorched.
Something too close to humiliation creeps hot up Ten’s neck. “So we’ll try that again,” he says.
Taeyong stares at him. “Ten. I have to clean this up, I can’t have wild magic buzzing around the house like this.”
“Yes, fine, after that,” Ten waves a dismissive hand.
Taeyong won’t say a word. He shoulders open the back door, to the mountain rather than the hillside, and hurls the mess from the pan out. Ten is reminded, without cause, of the night the wolf came. When the witch’s eyes were suddenly closed to him, frozen over.
“I’ve been thinking,” Taeyong says much later, when every trace of Ten’s failure has been scoured from the house. The front door is flung open now, and Ten copies the witch, fans in each hand, as they beat the air outside. Ten doesn’t answer, and Taeyong sighs.
“What happened,” he says. “You didn’t do anything wrong. Nothing to cause that. But all the things you’ve told me, they make sense now. Maybe you all don’t cook because it’s incompatible with your nature. You said even adepts are more likely to glamour food than make it, if they can.
“When we cook anything, a fish or a potato,” Taeyong continues, “we’re transmuting what used to be alive. The life, the energy, that never really goes away. I just borrow enough magic to bend that energy until it wants to latch onto colds and arthritis and broken hearts. But you,” he shuts the door, “creatures like you. You are magic, right there in your marrow. That’s what you’re always telling me, yeah? That’s why you care so much about learning deliberate magic, spells, instead of being limited to what's in your nature.”
Taeyong is really warming to the topic now, like when he stays up too late reading his dusty books and eagerly explaining to Ten how one might use dowsing rods to find water. As if water were ever hard to find. “The magic in you, the energy, and the life force in organic matter, it meets and combusts . This explains everything, how you all have gold and rubies and harps but you can’t even make broth.”
“I could make broth,” Ten says. He’s helped Taeyong enough that it ought to count. Certainly he knows how, in theory.
“That’s what you’re taking away from this?” Taeyong sets down two bottles of beer unopened, propping a hand on his hip. “Aren’t you the least bit interested?”
“We cleaned.” Ten gestures to the spotless cottage. The daylight through the paper windows is dimming. “We can try again now.”
Taeyong frowns. “I don’t think that’s the best idea,” he says gently.
“That’s our deal. You teach me,” Ten grinds between his teeth. There are embers in his chest, between his lungs, burning up all the air.
“We’ll stock up on some extra ingredients when we go to market,” Taeyong says. Encouraging, which is worse than disdain. Ten has never needed coddling. When he was given his sword and taught to wield it, his tutor said grudgingly that she had never seen better. He is envied, not pitied.
“Or you could teach me now,” Ten scowls. “Like you said you would. There’s plenty of food. I know mortals are shit at keeping their word, but try harder.”
The bottle in Taeyong’s hand blows its cap. The metal strikes the ceiling. Beer foam gushes over the opening, down Taeyong’s clenched hand. His eyes are blacker than Ten has ever seen.
“My responsibility,” the witch says, rigid with effort, “is to my customers. They will always come first, do you understand? I’d like to hear you say it.”
“I honor you,” Ten hisses. “You, little witch, you ought to be thanking me. But no, you only care if grandma has her bean curd, if those snotty children are fawning over you.”
Taeyong hurls the bottle and it shatters in the sink.
“You invaded my life,” he says, voice gone flat and dangerous. His wet hand curls a fist, dripping onto the tiles. “Even I want to be alone sometimes. Did you bother to think of that? I live alone and it’s my choice and you’re always there, always asking questions and never listening.
“So no, Ten. We are not going to try again tonight. You’re going to shut up, or you’ll see how you like spitting toads every time you open your mouth. I’m going for a walk. Then I’m going to sleep. Nod if you understand me.”
“Good,” Taeyong snarls.
Ten has never heard him slam a door before. It rattles the walls. The bushels of dried herbs and flowers shiver in the rafters.
With an unaccustomed stiffness in his joints, he bends and mops the spilled beer from the floor. He picks shards of green glass from the sink one by one, pausing only to press down with the pad of his thumb along one gleaming edge. A dot of blood wells and he feels nothing.
Perhaps he only stung Taeyong’s pride, even as his own was plucked by failure. Perhaps the pretty witch has always resented him so, and lied with greater fluency than Ten could have reckoned.
Perhaps he tires of Ten’s hungry eyes.
The exiles are quiet over breakfast. Jungwoo glances openly between the witch and his mute servant, with such naked concern that Ten can grudgingly envision how he must be with the humans. The frail ones with their smell and their papery skin, rheumy eyes turned up to him in gratitude.
“Jaehyun,” Taeyong says suddenly. The exiles are clumped at the door, shuffling into their shoes. “I thought maybe Ten could go to town with you today. See what you do at the station.”
He doesn’t look at Ten.
The cloud choked sky is hard and flat as eggshell, the sun bottled up inside like a yolk. Jaehyun brings him up creaking stairs to a single windless room over a noodle shop. The walls are plastered with a material dark and ridged to the eye, but soft when he bears down with his fingertips. When the door closes he can’t hear the street, or even the shop below. If he concentrates he can make out the smell of black bean sauce wafting up through the floorboards.
Jaehyun speaks into a contraption and flaps his hands silently when Ten opens his mouth. He shuts it, sullen, and lets him ramble about old village music for farmers. Maybe it makes the crops grow, which would at least be interesting, but Ten isn’t able to ask.
“Now you can talk,” Jaehyun says at last, after thumbing a switch and extinguishing an unblinking red light. The metal switch is taped over like a precaution. “You looked curious.”
“No,” he mutters. Jaehyun waits.
“Songs are just poems,” Ten grouses. “How many ways are there to say someone is like a flower? Even if you think it you shouldn’t go saying that shit out loud.”
“You could learn from humans,” Jaehyun says mildly. “When were you ever unselfish enough to make something beautiful, knowing it would outlive you?”
Ten watches his hands, swift over the foreign contraptions. More delicate than Taeyong, who guts and fillets with single-minded efficiency. “You don’t like me much, do you?”
“I don’t dislike you.” He looks surprised. “You haven’t done anything to impress me yet. Did you think you’d just swan in and dazzle us all?”
“I’m the tenth knight of the blue mountain,” he says. His throat is tight and furious, though Jaehyun has not wronged him. They are the only words he can shape. He wants to shout them.
“A knight is nothing to me.” He smiles, gentle like he’s explaining something to an especially thickheaded ogre. “I’ve known many knights from many mountains. The mountain will endure, but the knight?” Jaehyun shrugs. “Why should we care for your titles or your pride? You’re barely more than a child.”
Jaehyun slides another disc from its sleeve. On the paper are printed faces, pale with age. A tall fiddle with only two strings, a long wooden flute. It sounds like dawn on the mountain back home, after the rain, listening to the wind shiver the branches.
“It’s alright to miss home,” Jaehyun says. He adjusts a dial with one careful fingertip, frowning.
“No one asked you,” Ten snaps. “I’m only here because Taeyong is in a mood.”
“The sun and moon don’t spin around you,” Jaehyun chides. “There are stories unfolding every hour in which you are not the hero. You aren’t even worth mentioning, so little do you matter. Do you understand?”
“We don’t have to talk,” Ten says. The dead woman in the box wails about her lover, and a reunion that will never come to pass.
Ten leaves Jaehyun after a forced lunch of noodles that he doesn’t taste. He cuts blindly through streets he has never seen, jumping out of the way when rumbling automobiles bray at him. A woman he doesn’t recognize waves him down for a cup of cold green tea swimming with ice.
“For the heat,” she dimples at him, stacking up emptied plates from the wooden tables on the pavement. She asks after Taeyong in the absent way the humans share. Like reassuring themselves the sun still hangs in the sky.
“I’m sure he’s fine,” Ten mutters, but she doesn’t seem to hear him.
The days are lengthening, dragging out like the taffy Taeyong makes for children when they shed their milk teeth. Ten slumps back to the cottage under cover of darkness, the world painted in silver and blue.
The door is unlatched. The air inside is still, unstirred by breath.
An array of dishes sit untouched at the table. Cold milky broth, sticky pork garnished with green onions. Ten is frozen with unease when the door rattles and Taeyong stumbles in. He doesn’t stop to remove his shoes and tracks dirt over the pristine floors.
“There you are,” he pants. Sweat gleams across his brow and fireflies cling to his shirt.
Ten nods, cautious.
“Shit, I’m sorry, you can talk,” Taeyong groans.
Ten hesitates and nods once more.
“I owe you an apology,” the witch says.
Ten gapes. If only his rivals could see him now, with his jaw hanging slack like a goat. “I don’t understand.”
“It wasn’t right of me to lose my temper,” Taeyong continues, firm. Unaccustomed to stillness, he sidesteps Ten and fills the kettle to boil. His long hands sketch unseen shapes in the air as he speaks, like yet another language Ten can’t comprehend. “We made a deal, and you do matter. I made you a promise. You’re not, ruining my life,” he sighs, carding his tumbled hair back from his brow.
“So you aren’t angry,” Ten hazards, unsure.
“No, I’m definitely angry,” the witch answers without hesitation. “But that’s no excuse for how I spoke to you. There are some real issues we need to talk about, and we will. But first we’re going to eat dinner.”
Ten makes it through two mouthfuls of pork and a slurp of soup.
“What are you doing? You don’t just forgive people. You send me to walk on hot coals or fetch you the eye of a needle. Make me beg.”
“That’s not what I want,” Taeyong sighs. “What happened yesterday— I was more mad at myself than at you,” he admits. “I could have put that fire out, but I reacted with magic and made it worse.
“My grandmother was incredible. I don’t know if you understand just how powerful she was. But she cared more about helping people than being clever or famous, and so she gave them a kind of magic they could understand.”
“And she taught you?” Ten guesses, chastened quiet and mild.
“No,” Taeyong laughs like choking. He unclasps his cup of tea and shoves both hands through his hair, gripping the roots. “No, not really. I only saw her when I was small, before my mom remarried and we moved away. And a few times once I started university and I could visit her on my own. But we had a lifetime to make up for and then she was just gone .”
Ten rounds the low table on his knees and cautiously pries the witch’s fists away. Taeyong clings to his hands instead, knuckles gone white.
“Your mother couldn’t teach you?”
“She didn’t want any part of it,” Taeyong grimaces. “Seventeen generations of witches in my family, and I’m the only one left. So what happens if I fail them?”
“You won’t,” Ten blurts. Unknowns are not the same as lies, but he would will the certainty into being if he knew how. “You couldn’t. Those humans, the exiles, they’re all obsessed with you, they need your help.”
“I’m glad you see that much,” Taeyong says. He squeezes Ten’s hands once more and extricates himself. They eat side by side, elbows brushing. Taeyong’s skin smells of the tea fields and fresh ginger, of salt sweat Ten can nearly taste.
When the moon rises and the hour nears midnight, Taeyong does not draw a bath or ready himself for bed. At the northern wall of the cottage he unfolds a tall paper screen painted in ink to resemble mist and mountains. Miniscule humans dot the expanse in red and blue garments, their pointed hats not unlike those Ten spies in the fields each day.
“What are you doing?” he asks, but the witch hushes him and continues. He motions to Ten to help carry the dining table up to the screen.
At the far corners he places a pair of candles set in brass. A tablet with wooden feet and a tiled roof like a house is next. From the kitchen begins a procession of food unlike any Ten has seen. Bowls of rice and meat, whole smoked fish, towers of apples and pears with their stems lopped away. Dates, bananas, peeled potatoes. Bit by bit, the abundance from the pantry dwindles to near emptiness.
“I don’t know how things are done where you come from,” Taeyong says, lighting the candles. “But here we take time to honor the people who came before us, and to thank them.” The word honor rings in his mouth and Ten hears his own ugliness in its echo. “The anniversary of their death is important. There are rites to perform. I’d like you to help me. It’s going to take hours, and you’ll probably be bored. But you’re part of this house now, and I’m asking.”
It does take hours. But Ten, who was a terrible student of any discipline that required stillness, never strays into boredom. There’s much bowing and pouring of rice wine. First by Taeyong, and then by himself at the witch’s instruction. Taeyong recites litanies from memory, his voice gone low and solemn. The candlelight flickers in his hooded eyes.
In the hush before dawn he burns paper prayers and grasps an apple from the altar. The crunch of his teeth is like a spell breaking. He passes it to Ten. Though he’s lost any taste for raw fruit, spoiled by rich cooking, he sets his bite against the indentation of Taeyong’s teeth and follows.
Their fingers brush when the witch takes hold of the apple for another bite. More than ever, Ten is arrested by the intimacy of sharing sustenance. The taste on Taeyong’s tongue is the same as his own, as if they occupy the same body.
“Without intention, my magic is nothing,” Taeyong says. His mouth shines wetly. “If you’re going to learn anything from me, you need to see the big picture. The force of your will is what guides the magic. I think of the people who will eat my food when I make it. That’s where the power comes in. If you’re only thinking of yourself then you’ll have nothing to show for your trouble. And if you can’t understand that, you can’t be taught.”
Ten’s throat is tight, like the damned apple lodged and made a home there. Taeyong pours him a measure of rice wine and waits for him to swallow.
“I can be taught,” Ten says.
A million thanks to everyone for your comments and kudos! You've been so kind and encouraging.
Dawn waxes to sun gold morning and the hillside buzzes with a lumbering procession of automobiles coughing smoke, winding down into the valley. The kitchen is crowded and impatient with warm dishes, glass lids beading with steam. The witch has piled up stacks of pancakes with green chili pepper, oyster and rice cake soup, candied sweet potatoes gleaming like citrine. Though he claims otherwise, he loves to make a fuss over guests.
Ten sits on a crate as Taeyong cuts his hair with delicate brass shears.
“You’re sure that shirt is clean?” Ten asks. It’s a struggle to keep his head still. If he moves Taeyong will pinch his neck, and he hasn’t caught on that Ten enjoys the reprimand far too much.
“The blue one?” Taeyong drags a fine comb over the back of his head and snips again.
“It’s cerulean,” Ten insists. “You aren’t filling me with confidence here.”
“I washed it yesterday.” His laughter gusts warm as summer over Ten’s ear. He must be ducking close to inspect his work, always grave and precise over the most inconsequential things. Ever since they fought he’s been uncannily gentle with Ten. “You’re so vain, and with my clothes,” the witch marvels. Ten thinks he sounds nearly fond.
Standing between his knees, Taeyong sleeks down the fringe over his eyes. At first his hands move with confidence, but he hesitates over the final strokes, doubtless seeking straight lines against the inclination of nature to grow in waves and tangles.
“Hey,” the witch murmurs, not quite looking him in the eye. Ten hums, questioning. “Why did you choose me? There must have been better teachers. For someone as important as you,” he adds, dry.
“I like to cultivate an air of mystery,” Ten says. “More importantly, when do I get the good gossip? You flail if Jaehyun even mentions Johnny. Hurry up before they get here.”
“I don’t gossip about my friends. And I don’t flail,” the witch adds, fighting a shy grin that makes him look younger than even his scant mortal years.
“You choke like a three-legged horse racing a tiger,” Ten snorts. Taeyong looks bemused and he groans. “It’s a common expression, come on. You know what I mean.”
Taeyong snips once more, sets the shears aside and drags his fingers through Ten’s hair to assess his work.
“Be nice to Johnny, okay? He’s a sensitive guy.”
“I can be so nice,” Ten presses. The witch stifles a disbelieving sound, stepping out from between his thighs to brush his shoulders clean. Ten obliges by peeling his borrowed shirt off.
“Cool, thanks,” the witch says quickly. He steps behind Ten and dusts a few more hairs away. “Johnny wasn’t born a wolf, he didn’t know about—” he hesitates, hand stroking Ten’s nape. Shivers prickle his scalp. “People like you. You guys are sort of overwhelming.”
“What, you think Jaehyun is going to gobble him up? He spent twenty minutes catching a mouse last week just to let it outside.” Ten won’t admit his private relief that he didn’t eat the wriggling runt, all thin bones and fear. He’s known those who prefer their meals alive and whimpering, but he sees no reason to tell the witch such things.
“Johnny is working up his nerve,” Taeyong says. A touch stern, but his hands are sweet and unhurried. They trace absent shapes over Ten’s neck and shoulders, fingertips skipping down the notches of his spine. Ten fights not to shiver in the warm air. “Don't laugh at him. Promise you’ll keep this to yourself?”
“You have my word,” he says with unexpected solemnity. His voice is hoarse.
“They were involved. I think,” Taeyong winces audibly. His hands find purpose and begin to work Ten’s flesh, thumbs soothing hard circles. His calluses rasp better than a tongue ever could. “Neither one of them likes to talk about it much. But Johnny had been coming to visit me after I moved, and Jaehyun was sort of the welcoming committee, he knew my grandmother. He stayed over here for two days after the funeral to be sure I was okay.”
He doesn’t mention his mother, and Ten doesn’t ask.
“So,” Taeyong continues, “they got to know each other. I liked them together, whatever it was. Then Johnny became an alpha like, overnight, and— he takes it seriously, when people count on him. Maybe too much,” he says, soft enough to suggest another story untold. He pats Ten’s arm and stands, leaving him chilled even as his stomach churns with steam.
“Too responsible to bone down, Jaehyun is pining, they’re gonna be weird, I got it.” It’s too gentle for a tragedy, too shy for a poem. When the dawn knight fell in love with the moon he painted the sky in fire not to be forgotten. When his queen sighs for her lady in waiting but feels the crown too heavily, she weeps pearls and amethyst. But mortals are odd ducks, as he learns anew each day. A notion occurs to him. “You think I'm overwhelming?”
“Every day of my life,” Taeyong laughs. “Go get dressed, they’ll be here soon.”
“By the way,” Taeyong says as he sets the table, quick and guilty. “I volunteered you in case Jungwoo needs help today.”
“Do you want someone to die?” Ten asks, astounded.
“Why do you do that?” The witch frowns up at him.
“Pretend you don't know how to be kind.” Taeyong throws open the door as voices approach the cottage. Haechan, laughing so hard he nearly topples over. “I’ve seen you. You don’t fool me.”
Jaehyun wears a pale shirt with shining buttons and smells as if he’s rolled in honeysuckles. His sandy hair is swept back from his brow in a frozen wave. When Taeyong greets him he swallows once, tight, and nods. Only days ago he seemed so certain, stubborn as granite, to call Ten a child and bemoan his ignorance.
An engine purrs outside, mutters to a halt, and then drifts away. When Johnny arrives he does so with cut flowers wrapped in brown paper and a smaller wolf in tow, whose ears are all but twitching under his cap.
“Mark is already working on his second degree,” Johnny says as Taeyong arranges the flowers in water, as if he isn’t drinking in the sight of Jaehyun, and the witch makes suitably impressed sounds for whatever that means.
“What, like it’s hard?” Mark quips. The others look as uncomprehending as Ten and the wolfling sighs. “Guys, I’m really funny in English, you don’t even know.”
“You look handsome,” Jaehyun tells Johnny as they linger six paces behind the group ambling down the path. Ten eavesdrops, naturally. Jaehyun pauses, inhaling slow and curious. “There’s something different about you. What is it?”
“I missed you,” Johnny says. His voice is thick.
Ten feels the knife of breath that cuts Jaehyun as if it were his own. “Well I knew that,” he says, unsteady. “I was waiting for you to figure it out.” Ten hazards a glance over one shoulder and catches him straightening the wolf’s collar. His hand lingers.
Their steps grow heavy, lagging further behind. He scarcely hears Jaehyun’s words, low as if he means to pour them up to Johnny’s ears alone. Like a spell meant for midnight, for shadows and blind searching hands.
“What do you have to be afraid of, when I could be so sweet to you?”
Taeyong, who mistrusts spare time like wasps and poison ivy, has invited himself to work the stall of a woman whose son broke his arm two days before the festival. The witch can shrink a tumor with buckwheat noodles in ice soup and still allows himself to be instructed in how to slice bread for pork belly sandwiches. He seems untroubled by it, but then Taeyong’s pride is evasive. He cares little for praise and hardly remembers to collect payment for his services without Ten to remind him.
Under the yellow electric lights his hair is darker, shadows deepening the curve of muscle in his bare arms, filled out these past months. He thinks that having company has helped the witch remember to eat his own food. Some afternoons Taeyong drifts away from weeding the path or mending the tiled roof and naps amid the clover, burnishing his skin sun gold. Ten weaves him flower crowns, as he and Taeil did when they were small and young to the world.
Too soon, his green tea ice cream is gone, and Taeyong has looked up from his work to catch him staring. He mouths what?
Ten waves him off and elbows past the gathered throng.
Jungwoo beams and deposits him alongside an old woman with a yellow scarf wrapped high around her neck in the sunny afternoon. Her chair is affixed with tall wheels, like the conveyance of a queen, lacking only white feathered dragons to team the reins. Though she crooned at Jungwoo, dulcet as a dove, she fixes him with a sharp eye when they’re alone.
“I’m sick to death of tea,” she proclaims. “Make yourself useful and bring me a beer without any of these busybodies noticing.”
Ten slips an unattended bottle from a stall across the field, feigning noises of recognition at the humans who wave when they spot him. Well, save her, the woman who gave him cold tea under the sun when his brain boiled with too many confusing thoughts. And him, the one who had spicy stir-fried octopus for his kidney stones and commented, unbidden, how the witch looked so hale since taking on his assistant.
Emboldened, he snaps the cap from the bottle with his teeth. Full of Taeyong’s cooking and transmission by touch, of which he suspects the witch is unaware, the hard metal reek fills his nose and mouth but leaves him unscathed. The woman accepts it, untroubled, and downs half in one go, smacking her lips in satisfaction.
“Are you going to stand there all day like a stump?” she asks, brows lifting. The paper skin above them folds. Ten sits in the grass at her side. When she hands him a bag of roasted nuts from her lap he accepts them, and they crunch honey sweet between his back teeth.
The stage takes up the center of the field, where earlier a score of women wearing short jackets and rustling silk skirts in azalea and peacock indigo had poured out their tea service. All in unison, kneeling on white cloths. Ten can appreciate a pointless spectacle, the only kind worth having. On the raised platform Jaehyun plays a great flat harp as long as he is tall. Johnny stands before the edge of the stage, his lips parted on nothingness
“Do you like...music?” he asks at last, because Taeyong bid him mind his manners.
“Amateur,” she sighs into the swell of the strings, then asks, more distinctly, “Who do you serve?’ She isn’t watching the stage at all. When he stares she rolls her eyes skyward. “You know exactly what I mean.”
“The Queen of Peace.” First among her many titles.
“I didn’t know there was such a thing,” she muses. “How strange that must be for you. When my grandfather came down from the mountains there was always war. More than one at a time, as I recall.”
“Not anymore,” he mutters.
On stage, Jaehyun takes a bow. Ten can’t recall the song. It passed through him like ice melting. If the assembled mortals notice he is too luminous, too young for his deft hands, that he doesn’t belong with the human musicians beside him, they don’t remark upon it.
“Can I ask you something?” The words take shape unbidden and press out of him like green shoots bursting from a crust of snow.
She drains the last of her beer and vanishes the bottle into the folds of her sweater.
“I don’t see why not,” she says. “You’ve been a good sport.”
“What’s it like?”
“Getting old?” she guesses. Her teeth flash when she grins. “Ah, that horrifies you. You wouldn’t know any better. There’s such a thing as too much time. Makes you think you can waste it how you like. Step aside now, my boyfriend’s here.”
A man in a wheat colored jacket hitches across the field toward them. His white hair is immaculate as swan down, his back straight, and his walking stick glints with nacre. Ten belatedly dips a bow, as Taeyong so often reminds him, and the man accepts with a curt nod. Then he wheels her away, her rope veined hand squeezing his over her shoulder, effortless with familiarity.
Ten follows the breeze to a creek, the lights and sounds and crush of more bodies than he has ever seen far behind. On the sturdy bough of a camphor tree, dense with medicinal fragrance and snowy flowers, he lays on his belly and thinks of the quiet dark cavern under the earth where seven wolves sleep with their eyes open, guarding the garnet heart of the world.
As he reckons the time left to him before Taeyong will come looking, wasting energy and a good fresh egg on a tracking spell, footsteps tramp under his perch. Jungwoo, relieved of duty, carries his shoes in one hand and a bottle of wine in another. Plum, by the smell, so sticky and overripe it hangs on Taeyong’s breath as he sleeps no matter how he scrubs his teeth with bitter paste. Doyoung is humming something light and tuneful, no song Ten has ever heard.
They wander to a wooden bridge curving over the stream and sit on the bank with their feet dangling in the water. Jungwoo drinks from the bottle and Doyoung, face gone soft and open, holds him up with an arm around his waist. It strikes Ten as odd, that Jungwoo should have had time enough to drink so, his laughter loose and loud.
“Let me see them,” Jungwoo is wheedling, twisting to balance on his knees and prod Doyoung’s shoulder. “Please? Just for a little while.”
Doyoung calls him something unrepeatable, grinning hard, and it must suffice because Jungwoo is shoving him out of his shirt, plucking from his finger the wooden ring Doyoung always wears. Glamours can be so simple, a talisman, though costly to lose. A fortune for the sort stitched under the skin, impermeable, siphoning energy from the lungs and belly.
Under the moon Doyoung’s wings unfurl in their dragonfly finery, peeling up like paper from the skin, so sheer the light passes through, veins and facets catching bright as mercury. He flexes his shoulders twice, eyes cast down in pleasure as Jungwoo flatters him.
“I wish you could have been here before,” Jungwoo sighs, tracing the outline of the vast wings in the air. “The lake dried up after they built that dam. You would have liked it there.”
“That was before I was born,” Doyoung reminds him. His slender neck inclines toward Jungwoo though the other is hardly keeping his voice down.
“Before I went wandering, before the war,” Jungwoo muses, one hand flattening upon Doyoung’s chest as if by accident. “Some of the old folks I work with now, whose children have children of their own— they were only kids themselves when I knew them. I don’t think any of them recognize me. I wondered if they would.”
“You never told me that.” Doyoung sounds hurt. Or maybe not, Ten can’t be sure. He’s never heard that note in his voice before.
“Even I like to keep a few secrets,” Jungwoo says. “Makes me feel important.”
“As if you needed any help.” Now Doyoung drinks from the bottle, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
“I don’t want to leave again,” Jungwoo sighs. “How long do you think I have left, twenty years?”
“With your face?” Doyoung scoffs. “Maybe ten. Find some wizard who can make you look older, not just cover up the feathers.”
“Are you calling me pretty?” He leans into Doyoung’s side and bats his eyes.
“You know what you look like,” Doyoung says. His wings flutter in place. The silence is heavy as the hush before rain. He draws his feet up out of the water and folds them under his legs.
“Are you in love with Taeyong?” Jungwoo asks without preamble.
Doyoung, bowled over with shock as by a slap of wind, rights himself and stares askance. “No! Of course not,” he snaps, shaking his head to clear it. “Why would you even think that?”
“I didn’t think so,” Jungwoo hums, short and high through his nose. “Just wanted to be sure.”
Doyoung twitches in his skin, laughs uncertainly. “How drunk are you? Maybe we should head back before it gets cold.”
Ten knows an evasion when he hears one. The night is balmy and singing with insects. Doyoung would be more artful in his dancing shy of truth if he still lived at court.
“Yeah?” Despite his earlier wavering, Jungwoo is steady when he takes Doyoung’s jaw in hand. “You should try me sometime,” he says pleasantly, and darts to lick across Doyoung’s slack mouth, swift as a hummingbird. “I’m warm inside.” He leaves Doyoung reeling on the bank. Too late he curses and gropes for his wooden ring in the grass, and Jungwoo is gone.
In the morning, Doyoung doesn’t show up for breakfast until Jungwoo has already left. Of course the witch stares at each in turn, cheeks pinching with worry. It ought to be funny, Doyoung’s pale and somber face unmoved as Johnny and Mark snore heavily in the next room, punctuated by snuffles and yips.
“Don’t,” Ten says in the kitchen. Very quiet, muffled against Taeyong’s neck. He startles himself and cradles the witch’s head in his hands. Their brows knock together and Taeyong squeezes his eyes shut.
“If you say so.”
Kudos and comments have been so kind on this story, thank you again. And thanks for bearing with this odd duck of a chapter! More soon, back to Ten and Taeyong.
Come at me any time on curiouscat
Once, when two of the queen’s maidens were bickering, they couldn’t be in the same room. And the court, ever besotted with theatrics, bent over backwards to accommodate their feud. Mornings in the stone garden were for one, evenings for the other; knights were forever being roped into passing barbs between them, or instructions necessary to the running of the royal house that they couldn’t be pressed to share themselves.
Taeyong is no courtier. He pouts, he fumes, when Jungwoo arrives with the dawn each morning and leaves before the tea grows cold. Doyoung is never early. Once, tossing offal in the compost pile out back, Ten catches him loitering behind a persimmon tree waiting for Jungwoo to depart. Haechan, a fire imp who without his glamour would stand taller than the cottage, has been hunched small and unhappy all the while.
“I hate this,” Taeyong says as Ten slices cucumber one afternoon. He glances back at him, lips pursed, and the witch waves his hand. “Not this — eyes on the knife, please. I hate watching my friends fight.”
“Hardly a fight,” Ten corrects. He recalls Jungwoo’s offer each day, unbidden. How his voice was like sweet black tea with a glittering edge of hunger beneath. “Don’t interfere.”
“Someone ought to,” Taeyong mutters. “It’s not like them, they never fight.”
“So they’re due,” Ten shrugs. He suspects the witch is airing his concerns at this precise moment to distract him, calm his nerves, which is presumptuous. Ten would never admit to anything as pedestrian as nerves. He pours one part soy sauce and two parts rice vinegar and stirs in a spoonful of sugar with three clockwise turns. When mixed with the cucumber, he drops in a pinch of sesame seeds, red chili, two sliced green onions.
Taeyong has told him to think of wellness, of clear lungs and strong hands. He thinks of Taeyong’s headaches instead, how he pinches his brow and lies about them and Ten can prove nothing.
Nothing combusts. The air is still and untroubled. Behind him, Taeyong sighs in relief.
Ten snares a piece of cucumber with his fingers and snaps it up in one bite. It tastes as he would expect, though somehow still inferior to Taeyong’s cooking. He shrugs, unimpressed. If any magic passed through him, he can’t tell.
The witch presses up along his side and plucks a neater morsel with chopsticks. He chews slowly, considering, his hand warm against the hollow of Ten’s spine.
“Oh,” he says, startled, and blinks down at him. He lays down his chopsticks, hand floating up to touch his brow. Then he grins, and Ten’s stomach turns with desire like a boulder crashing down the mountainside. “Now we’re talking.”
“Told you I was the best,” Ten boasts, unsteady to his own ears, and watches him eat.
Taeyong’s grandmother kept journals, a whole crate of them, and the witch studies the volumes as avidly as his printed books of science and lore.
“There’s next to nothing here,” he apologizes one night, looking over his cramped handwritten notes beside yellowed pages. “It’s a lot easier taking away, like Johnny’s lies, then making room for something that’s not exactly compatible with your nature.”
“That’s what you’re working on?” Ten hadn’t thought of it in weeks.
Taeyong’s dark eyes are inscrutable. “I made you a promise.” He scratches out another note, bearing down hard with his pen.
In the morning, the journals are still arrayed tidily across Taeyong’s desk, polished stones holding down the corners. Jungwoo pauses on his way to the door, makes a small sound. He reaches out to brush a page of sketches. Leaves drawn in ink, each point and vein precise; a fat bullfrog; and crammed in one corner, a creature with sleek pale feathers in place of hair, a long sharp nose, and vast black eyes.
“That’s me,” he says faintly.
“That’s what you really look like?” Taeyong dries his hands on a towel and hurries to see.
Jungwoo shakes his head. “That’s me ,” he repeats. Biting his lip, he traces the edge of page. “No one had ever asked to draw me before.”
“You never said you knew her,” Taeyong says at last. His voice sounds lost and faraway.
“I thought we’d have a chance to say goodbye.” A long sigh rattles Jungwoo’s ribs. He rubs at his eyes until they redden. “Hardly seemed fair to turn up late and make a fuss when you were still missing her.”
The timing is all out of sorts. Jungwoo has to blow his nose, Taeyong forces him to wait and share another cup of tea. And so they nearly bowl over Doyoung and Haechan at the door. Back at the table, Jaemin squeaks.
“Morning,” Doyoung nods. He catches sight of Jungwoo’s blotchy face and freezes with one foot over the threshold.
Jungwoo sighs and pecks Taeyong's cheek. Unexpectedly, he kisses Ten as well. With a thin smile like a lemon rind he ruffles Haechan’s hair and leaves, stepping wide of Doyoung as if he were forged iron, scalding to touch. Ten pinches Taeyong’s waist before he can open his mouth and say something earnest and misguided.
Johnny is visiting again, and heckling Mark has broken Haechan from his unaccustomed melancholy. They’re already racing off with Jaemin to collect Jisung from town, where the latter will doubtless glow with delight at being included. Jaehyun and his wolf lay a blanket beneath the fig tree, and though Ten could perhaps make out their words on the morning breeze he doesn’t seek them.
Doyoung sits in the shade of the porch, a bowl of rice and cucumber stuffed with spicy cabbage and spring onions beside him, a few halfhearted bites taken. The yolk of his fried egg has congealed.
“You look terrible,” Ten announces, plopping down to swing his feet.
Doyoung doesn’t blink. “Did I ask for your opinion?” Watching the pair under the tree, his expression is impenetrable. Johnny’s head is in Jaehyun’s lap, a hand carding through his hair.
“Just making an observation,” he sniffs.
It seems clear given the thickness in the air that Jungwoo is awaiting permission. What Ten has yet to puzzle out is why. Lovers are always so eager when gifted the opportunity to prove themselves. Not wretched like this, moping around and worrying pretty witches.
“I was wrong,” he reflects. “I thought you were the one courting, and that’s why Jungwoo was carrying on like there were sapphires between his thighs.”
“That’s enough.” Doyoung slants him a thin glare.
“Maybe you could explain the feat you gave him,” Ten says, fishing a morsel from the bowl between them. Red chili swims on his tongue. He won’t know what to do with himself when he returns to the bland, raw food at court. Perhaps he’ll make his own. “So I can tell Taeyong what to expect. You know how many joints I’ve had to dislocate to keep him distracted? It’s a nuisance, and one of these days he’s going to throw up when I pop my shoulder out.”
“I’m not testing him,” Doyoung objects, reddening.
“Aren’t you?” Ten cocks his head. “I couldn’t tell.”
“It’s not like that.” Doyoung stabs a chopstick into the gelatinous yolk.
“Forget I asked,” Ten huffs. “You’re no fun at all.”
“You’re one to talk,” Doyoung says.
I can't imagine what you're implying , he wants to say, but the lie chokes like a bone in his throat. The doors of the cottage are thrown open to the breeze and inside Taeyong sings under his breath, humming when he doesn’t know the words.
“That's what I thought,” Doyoung adds darkly. But he reaches out and slaps Ten’s back like a brother in arms.
Ten dreams a river, teeming with fat silver fish that leap from the current in waves. Sunlight meets their splashing and fogs a rainbow haze over the water. Someone coughs beside him, dry.
“I’ve been practicing,” Taeil grins in way of greeting.
Ten pokes his arm, testing. Warm and solid. “I suppose that’s impressive,” he mutters, and Taeil laughs at him. “Isn’t this cheating? What, you’re going to sabotage me before I come home and show you up?”
“It’s only cheating if I come to see you in person,” Taeil says. “What are loopholes for, if not bothering your friends?”
A shadow surges under the water. A vast head breaks the surface, glistening green coils twisting after, and when the dragon lands a wall of water slaps the shore. Ten coughs and Taeil pounds his back, smug.
“Showoff,” he mutters, blinking water from his eyes. Taeil hums, assenting, and goes quiet.
“We’ve been worried about you,” Taeil admits, plucking a slimy clump of algae from Ten’s shoulder. “I woke up and your name was gone. The queen said it was the same for her. But your torch was still burning.”
“You can call me Ten now,” he says, restraining his satisfaction to one twitch of a grin. Only two souls knew his true name, and now there is no name to be known. Taeil looks like he would ask more, but a clanging thunder shakes the air. The dream sky, Taeil’s construction, is blue and unclouded. Ten frowns at him and he shakes his head.
“That’s not me,” he says.
Ten sits upright, stomach gone cold. Another sound reaches him through the paper screens. A low metal clang, like a utensil falling to the floor.
Taeyong never leaves anything sitting out in his kitchen to fall.
On silent feet, he leaves the witch sleeping and slips through the doors.
The kitchen is in shambles. Jars overturned, spices spilled. A bottle of oil is cracked and leaking across the floor. There is nothing to be seen. But when Ten closes his eyes, searching, he follows the stirring of ragged breath. The diffused moonlight twists over nothing, the absence of a shadow, and he throws a fat beeswax candle at the emptiness.
Nothingness falls like a stone from the ceiling and in its place is fur and snapping white teeth. The fox lashes its three tails and slaps streaks of oil up the walls and cupboards. Ten draws his sword, hissing between his teeth at the familiar sting. In truth, he’s always disliked blood. But Taeyong is sleeping so near and his bones are slight as a bird’s, more breakable than he knows.
Taeyong who is behind him, sucking in a sharp breath.
“Yuta,” he says, dismayed. “What did you do?” And he kneels on the floor, in the mess. He reaches for the panting fox and it bares its teeth. Taeyong raps it on the nose like a pup. “Where is it? Ten, do me a favor, please.”
It takes some looking, even for Ten’s keen eyes in the dark. Twice around the cottage, then down the path toward town, shaking the bushes until the birds grouse and complain at him, but he finds what he’s searching for and returns. The top portion of a monkey’s skull, from the crown to the broken teeth of the upper jaw, dry and white with age.
Taeyong sighs, relieved, and mutters something under his breath while guiding it over the fox’s face.
A man is sprawled on the kitchen floor. Ten has known few shapeshifters in his time, and only heard of the foxes from the east. The ones who do not rely on glamours, illusions, but become. The man has a lean and hungry face, hair bright as autumn leaves, and long blue robes with tattered hems. He is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, stinking drunk.
“Help me,” Taeyong jerks his head, and Ten ducks under an arm, the pair of them hauling up the mumbling fox and his slack legs.
“Help me ,” the fox grumbles back, feet scrabbling for purchase to fight them. Ten hoists him higher. The fox spits something far more crude in return.
“Yuta, you’re speaking Japanese, I can’t understand you,” Taeyong says patiently as they guide him onto the stiff couch in the corner. Ten repeats the words back to him and he winces.
The fox jerks up crookedly but Ten is quicker. The jagged obsidian length of his sword is back in his hand, and he presses the point into one shoulder until Yuta growls and sinks back down, fists clenching and unclenching at his sides. Not quite both at the same time, fingers twitching unsteadily. His glazed eyes struggle to focus.
“Maybe we can put that away now,” Taeyong says, strained. He’s staring at the glassy blade.
Ten shrugs, tilts his head forward, and sets the tip of the sword against the jut of bone crowning his spine. When the blade is sheathed beneath his skin he rolls his shoulders, then his neck, until something pops and the queasy rush fades.
“What,” Taeyong says.
The fox hiccups, hitches forward, and vomits between his feet.
“He’s so good, you don’t understand,” Yuta whines, face half crushed into a cushion. The damp towel across his brow slips to the floor. Ten snatches it in passing, depositing a fresh bucket of soapy water beside Taeyong and hauling up the first to dump outside.
“I do understand,” Taeyong repeats, pausing to adjust his pink gloves. “But I’m not hiding anything from you, Yuta, and frankly I wouldn’t make them even if I could.”
If he were so inclined, Taeyong could leave a body weeping from a malicious cut of fish, or press evil dreams into rice cakes. But mortals can fib for such small things, until they forget what the truth ever was. The witch held Ten’s name in his hands, he drew out lies like venom and bottled them, but he's only a dabbler, he says, no conjurer of note.
“Did you think you’d mix one up on the spot?” Ten chimes in. “A little garlic, a little ginger, and one love potion for you?”
The fox cracks one eye up at him. “I don’t like you,” he enunciates.
“You’re going to like him plenty once we sober you up,” Taeyong says.
“How are you always hungry?” the witch asks some while later, his pleasure poorly concealed, and he pours Ten a bowl as well. The stew is heavy with beef broth and fatty pork, mushrooms, white radish, bright fern sprouts. He and the fox eschew spoons and drink directly from the bowls, fishing out hunks of cabbage with their hands.
Yuta must be coming to his senses, as he allows Taeyong to tie a napkin around his neck without baring his teeth.
“Sorry,” he says, downcast. His voice is sweeter than his snapping and snarling would have suggested.
“Why don’t you just give him things? That’s what everybody else does.” Ten asks, but the fox only stuffs more cabbage in his mouth to muffle a groan of distress. “Write a stupid song for him and pledge some pointless task like finding a rice straw in ten thousand needles.”
“That sounds awful ,” Taeyong says, scandalized.
“That’s the point,” Ten says. “People are always running to do awful things for love.” He knows this to be true. But he also remembers Jaehyun’s voice carried by the breeze, aching with patience.
“If Sicheng hasn’t tracked him down by morning I’ll send you to town to look for him, if you don’t mind,” Taeyong says as they clean the kitchen. The fox sleeps in the next room, curled in on himself under a woven blanket.
Ten wipes down the countertops, spilled spices drifting like snow. The pantry is a mess, shelves upended. It’s an embarrassment that they slept through the intrusion for so long. “And who am I looking for, exactly?”
“Sicheng? He’s a folklorist. Every summer he comes to take oral histories from the mermaids, but I wasn’t expecting him so soon.” Taeyong rights a bottle of fish sauce only to find a crack through the bottom leaking sticky and slow.
“And the fox?” Yuta snuffles in the next room. Maybe his ears are burning.
“Yuta’s his assistant. It’s my understanding,” Taeyong adds, twitching a small and private smile, “that after Sicheng finished his studies in Japan, Yuta sort of invited himself along.”
Ten’s eyes narrow. “Is that how you see me?” he asks, sharp. “Like a pet?”
The witch blinks three times and groans. “What the fuck?” He shakes his head and resumes sweeping. “Yuta is in love. Sicheng just isn’t ready to see that. It’s nothing like us.”
“This shit is mystifying,” Ten laughs under his breath. Out of habit, he tallies the dry ingredients for breakfast and sets them aside. His chest feels tight as a drum. “It’s like being back at court.”
“What do you mean?” Taeyong shakes a pan of broken glass and hot pepper flakes into the dustbin.
“All of it,” he snorts, straightening the remaining jars back into their tidy lines. “Everybody’s in such a hurry to be tragic.”
“I don’t follow,” Taeyong says slowly.
“Like, we have courtly love, and blood and honor and song,” Ten wrinkles his nose. The songs tend to be rushed or labored or somehow both at once. “And sex is great, but it’s all the complications. Love is either too serious, or it’s not serious at all.”
“You think so?” Taeyong bends his head to his work, scrubbing fiercely at the baseboards flecked with oil and mud. The position can’t agree with him, his voice is strained.
“Complications,” Ten emphasizes. “Like how you slept with Doyoung and you’re regretting it now.”
The witch goes still.
“Breathe,” Ten reminds him, and he does.
“Did he tell you or did you guess?” Taeyong mutters at last, sitting up with his back to the cabinets and his legs outstretched.
“None of you are subtle,” he declares, though it was a wild half-formed guess and it sits sourly on his tongue now. “And Jungwoo was jealous, but in that annoying way where I bet he would’ve kept his hands to himself and wished you every happiness or whatever.”
Taeyong scrapes a hand through his hair, knocking his pins crooked so that it stands up at wild red angles. “It was only a couple of times,” he says unhappily, staring into the middle distance. “Before Jungwoo turned up. I didn’t know how the two of them would be together.”
Ten seats himself alongside and elbows the witch until he lays his head on his shoulder. “It’s not you,” he confides, and Taeyong breathes against him. “Some people just have to be tragic, and I guess we have to let them.”
“Some people,” Taeyong mumbles back, like he’s said something funny.
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Mark likes to call Johnny the patron saint of the lost boys, and Ten nods along with half his attention. Just a baffling parcel of words like municipal infrastructure and gluten free, and it’s far more impressive to speak any and every language if you gloss over the bits you don’t quite comprehend.
The notion is cleared right up, however, when the pack comes calling.
They stir up more ruckus than a solstice revel, yelps and shouts in a smattering of tongues. Half a dozen of them counting Mark, all scraped knees and skinny elbows and blinding eagerness to tear down to the beach. Packed into a van that jostles over every bump in the long road past town, the wolflings interrupt each other, babbling all in one voice as Johnny hushes them from behind the wheel.
After so long nourished by the witch, being surrounded by steel only makes Ten queasy. But Taeyong frets and lays Ten’s head down in his lap, stroking his hair, and he allows it.
The cove is jagged and narrow with only a thin unwelcoming berth of sand. The mermaids sun themselves on the rocks, far from town and prying eyes, fanning out their long hair woven with kelp and shark teeth. Taeyong and the wolves mind their manners and eat raw fish with them, snatched fresh from the sea, while Ten abstains with a wince.
The ladies get a nice laugh at his expense anyway when Taeyong tries to teach him how to swim. Perhaps he really would float if he could pry himself from the witch, but like a barnacle he clings and the tide drags them under, salt water gushing into their noses and eyes.
The wolflings splash and dive, great claps of sound as they break the surface. Sicheng picks his way over the rocks like a mountain goat, bottling up the voices of the mermaids in a little machine in his hand. Their needle fine teeth flash when they speak and smile up at him. Yuta, light on his feet, executes a tidy flip over two wrestling pups in the sand. Ten sees through him, of course. The fox is shadowing Sicheng from below with a wary eye should the scholar fall.
Ten dries in the sun and sups from the wicker basket Taeyong packed, watermelon punch and cunning rolls of spicy squid in seaweed and sticky rice. The pups are ravenous, better to eat while they’re diverted or there won’t even be crumbs. Taeyong is reciting the names of all the pack for him again despite Ten’s repeated assurances that he has no intention of learning them.
"Will you come to see us again?" Taeyong asks with his eyes on the sea.
"Am I going somewhere?" he evades. Ten hasn't counted the days as of late, unwilling to watch them dwindle away. There is summer left to spend, and autumn still, and even the waxing of winter before his year ends.
"Ouch," Taeyong laughs, unsteady, and Ten stops rubbing chalky sun lotion across his back.
"Sorry.” An unfamiliar word. It catches on his teeth. Even at the cost of his pride, he can’t have the witch thinking he could ever be forgotten. “Why, are you going to miss me?”
"Everybody's going to miss you. Even Haechan says you're not terrible."
"I'm a fucking delight," Ten agrees, and Mark pumps his fist in approval as he dashes past with the imp in question balanced on his shoulders and cursing a blue streak. He kicks up great gouts of sand onto the towel and Taeyong huffs.
“Letting Mark introduce you to memes remains my greatest shame,” he says. “I feel like I corrupted a unicorn.”
“Unicorns are mean sons of bitches, so that would be hard to do,” Ten assures him.
"You know, you and Jungwoo are more alike than I would have thought when I met you,” Taeyong muses. Ten’s stomach seizes like a fist. “He talks a lot, but he’s never saying what he really means.”
Ten recalls Jungwoo’s candor under moonlight, his soft voice urgent, but this story he has held back for reasons he can’t quite name. Still. How like Taeyong to float him easy gossip like a raft the moment he might ask more than Ten would be willing to answer.
“What about you?”
“Me?” the witch echoes, lilting with confusion.
"You could be more demanding," he tells Taeyong's back. Give me an order, I know how to be ruled , he wants to beg. "You might even like it.”
Taeyong slants an unreadable look back over his shoulder. Ten can see only the shine of one eye, ink black.
The days stretch and the nights are thinner, hotter. Taeyong raises the walls of the cottage so the air flows freely and still they sit up talking when they ought to be asleep, whittling away the hours until morning. Some evenings Taeyong lets the radio sing, or he reads the history of his homeland aloud and the husk of his voice drags Ten under. Stories of kings passing on wars like gold coins, snatches of peace like the hush between lightning and thunder.
Some nights silence is easy and his limbs feel honeyed and heavy. Ten fancies he can hear the tender green shoots of their garden inching up from the soil.
Now with quill and ink Ten illustrates how histories are written at court, the rigid characters of carved stone, turning his head so that Taeyong can feed him spoonfuls of sticky shaved ice while his hands are occupied. Ten was a poor student and the curving wing of a falcon, the flick of an eye, come out splotchy and crooked. Strictly speaking it’s sort of, kind of forbidden to teach mortals, but I won’t tell if you won’t is promise enough for the night, the air shimmering with candle flame.
“Seems time consuming,” Taeyong notes, polite.
“Well that’s for the fussy parts. If you were just writing a shitty poem, or a letter to your friend about a shitty poem,” Ten demonstrates with a flourish, the loops and spikes of shorthand running together.
“Is your friend Taeil a knight, too?”
“High mage in training,” Ten sniffs. “I knew him when he ate his own boogers, though.”
“And I’m sure you never let him forget it,” Taeyong coughs, failing to hide his grin behind one hand.
Weeks later, drinking beer on the porch at sunset, Taeyong reprises their conversation seamlessly. As if Ten had only walked into another room and come back again.
“Does your sword hurt you?”
“It would if I fell on it,” Ten says. But Taeyong is waiting for a real answer, and he hitches one shoulder. “I don’t feel it, usually. Sometimes I sleep funny and when I crack my spine it settles again. Drawing it pinches.” It also fucking burns, but it’s a portion of truth.
“Kind of inconvenient for you,” Taeyong notes, soft. “How is it done?”
“Not my magic. I wouldn’t know.” And that seems poor payment, when Taeyong taught him cold soybean soup to ease fevers just that afternoon. The witch ate two bowls full though his own would have been better. “Wait, hold my beer.”
The armor isn’t so troublesome as his sword. As it blooms out of him, it only feels like peeling off a layer of dead skin and shivering himself back into place. The plates are translucent and weigh no more than a velvet robe. The dying light flatters him, he’s pleased to find. The iridescent armor claps up every ray of rose and gold.
“You could have used that in the rain,” Taeyong says unsteadily. He reaches out to touch a gauntlet, dragging his fingertips down the glossy length to Ten’s wrist.
“This is only for show. I’m a flower knight,” he says, looking over himself. His queen calls him her finest ornament. “That means I’ve never been in a real battle. There haven’t been any wars since before I was born.”
“I hope that doesn’t change,” Taeyong admits after a long silence. His mouth twists, apologetic. “I wouldn’t want that for you.”
Ten snaps up his armor like beetle wings. It feels crooked and unsettled under his skin.
“Remember the blueweed?” he asks. “The story I told you.”
Taeyong, still dazed, squints into the blue haze of the air. “The two lovers?”
“Two idiots,” Ten corrects him. “I said idiots. And one of them was me.”
“But you laughed,” Taeyong says, astonished.
Ten cracks a thin smile. “Yeah, well. It was pretty funny.”
“What happened?” Taeyong is struggling to make out his face in the dim. Ten can see him perfectly, painted in silver.
“He was otherwise betrothed. But hey, even if it was a scandal, the court loves those. Scandals for summer and weddings for winter.” And what a summer it was. “I would have had my share of sympathy and supporters if I said I was in love, if I wanted to duel for him. Let’s put a pin in that, yeah?
“So meanwhile, there I am,” Ten grouses, “duelling his betrothed, and all their friends, and their relations. I couldn’t make it through breakfast without someone throwing a cup of tea in my face.”
“But you accepted every challenge,” Taeyong guesses, sudden and keen. “Because you never had a chance to prove yourself before.”
“It’s like you know me,” Ten mutters. “And yeah, I suppose I was less than gracious in victory, which didn’t make me any new friends. But he takes this as a sign of my devotion.”
“No,” Taeyong grimaces in comprehension and Ten nods.
“And he publicly declares himself to me. There was a poem. Forty-seven verses. Very romantic.” Ten squints up at the wakening stars. “I may have laughed. A lot.”
“That does sound like you,” the witch says. Fond, as few people have ever been fond of him, encompassing all the thorns and cobwebby bits that weren’t worth mentioning in forty-seven verses.
He blinks. “Sorry, what?”
“I asked what happened next.” Taeyong repeats.
“Well,” Ten sucks in a deep breath. “Here’s the thing. The dust settles, right, and suddenly my reputation isn’t worth a gnat’s fart. Which isn’t great when you have just the one year of your life to pledge and learn all the impressive shit you can. The courtiers hate my guts now and none of the serious adepts would take on someone so lacking in discretion .”
“A queen’s knight and no one would teach you?” Taeyong sounds offended on his behalf.
“Yeah, well.” Ten drains his bottle to the dregs. “She would never order anybody over petty crap like that. She’s too much like you.”
When he recounts Taeyong's virtues, those qualities which have distilled spasms of desire, he thinks with dismay that the result is not unlike a song. A clumsy one, and Ten could never bear to be clumsy when grace and a cutting word would do. A stumbling ode to careful hands and depthless patience, like a well that passes through the center of the world. An idiot’s sonnet of dark eyes and mercy. How should he have words for things he never knew were beautiful?
“It’s selfish but— I'm glad for that, too,” Taeyong says. His thumbnail worries the label on his bottle until the paper begins to peel. “I'm glad you came here.”
“Sure,” Ten says past the stone in his throat. “I told you a fairy servant was a good deal.”
“No,” he shakes his head, emphatic. “I'm glad it was you.”
Like a spell, his senses are stifled. He doesn’t hear the crickets or the wind in the leaves. He thinks his name is on Taeyong’s tongue by the shape of his parted lips.
But the ragged breath that cuts through the hush is not his own, he realizes. The hulking shadow on the path is too near, and just as he discerns Jaemin’s panicked face he’s crashing up against the porch and tipping the burden from his shoulder. Taeyong snaps a word and the electric lights roped under the eaves flare to life, casting fierce black shadows.
Haechan is clammy to the touch, almost cold, his face slack and unknowing. When Taeyong pries back his eyelid only the white shows.
“Help,” Jaemin croaks, and bursts into tears.
Kudos and comments are love! A million confetti cannons worth of thanks to all the readers who have stuck with this story and offered such incredibly generous feedback.
For those keeping score, it's official! Every damn member of NCT has now been wedged into this fic, if not yet by name. Maybe someday I'll write a side story explaining how Johnny wound up with a pack full of expat wolflings.
As always, these chapters are not beta read and all errors are my own. I am just one idiot doing the best I can.
“Stop looking at me like that,” Haechan glares over his soup. The effect is somewhat spoiled as he shivers bundled under a woven blanket. Jaemin throws up his arms and walks away.
“I’m sorry, who fainted? I remember now.” Taeyong lays the back of his wrist against the imp’s brow and frowns. “You ought to be getting warmer.”
Haechan rolls his eyes and slurps from the bowl. “Don’t you think I’m too hot for you losers already?”
“Don’t tell him I cried,” Jaemin mutters into the dark some while later, tucked into Ten’s bed. Haechan snores softly from his nest of blankets on the sofa. “He’ll never shut up about it.”
Ten sinks along the furthest edge of Taeyong’s mattress. The air is heavy, as with rain, dragging over his lips and eyelashes. Ten drinks in the sight of him and the witch in turn fixes upon him by sound, unerring. They watch and feel each other breathe in the shadows, every hitch and sigh mirrored as if they were a single beast with lungs like bellows. Taeyong shudders, once, and the space between them crackles with electric blue sparks.
In the morning they wake first. Or rather, Ten wakes, and some while later Taeyong opens his eyes already fastened upon him. Like he could find Ten even in the blackness at the ends of the world.
“Quietly,” Taeyong whispers at last, and they rise.
The witch tiptoes past their dozing guests and hitches himself up onto the kitchen counter. His feet swing, gentle, never knocking his heels upon the cupboards.
“Go on,” he says, and Ten nearly reaches out to touch him. “You know what to do. Think of running water and mountain air and everything that iron isn’t. I trust you,” he nods when Ten hesitates.
And so he proofs the yeast, he dices the peanuts. Unbidden, he pinches green tea powder into the dough until the color takes and Taeyong emits a surprised grunt of approval, loud enough that Ten expects the others to stir. The pan sizzles and he feels the magic move through him. Not as an explosion but a tangible presence, like a cat rubbing up against his shins.
“Perfect,” the witch murmurs, still raspy with the dawn. He chews slowly, pushing each bite around his mouth, throat working when he swallows. Ten has watched him eat a hundred times and ought to be immune. “You did well,” he nods again. “Go ahead and wake them up.”
Ten turns, but halts in his stride. He can just see the witch’s reflection in the silver platter that hangs on the wall, the borders etched with lilies.
“I’m glad, too,” he says, mouth gone dry, and stumbles away with Taeyong’s startled inhale lancing through his own lungs.
He finds Jaemin still curled in on himself under the sheet, clutching his knees to his chest. His icy hands are rigid. Ten says his name, and then again, louder, shaking him, but he doesn’t stir.
Ten warms another batch of bricks in the oven.
“Have you eaten?” he asks at Taeyong’s feet. The witch stirs a pot of oxtail soup as tall as his chest and doesn’t answer. His mouth is pinched white, the hair at his temples dark with sweat.
"Show of hands," Ten barks across the cottage, making the pups jump. "Who here has eaten today?"
They all stare blankly back at him. The table before them is covered in open journals and leather bound books stacked three or four deep. Sicheng ignores him entirely, or else he's too absorbed to hear, hunched over a journal while his spectacles slip down his nose, reading at dizzying speed with a fingertip tracing each line of characters. So that's another no.
Ten dices pears, filling tea cups as all the bowls are in use and dumping great spoonfuls of honey on top. He jostles Johnny's elbow to get his attention and the wolf growls. Ten hisses back, without heat, and shoves a cup at him. None of the wolflings will eat until Johnny begins, and he seems to recall this with a wince, jamming a spoonful into his mouth with a hard clack against his teeth. Lucas groans with relief and throws his head back to gulp the contents straight from his cup.
“Jeno,” Ten jerks his head for attention. “There’s still bread in the pantry, go. Maybe even some tinned ham, dig a little.” Johnny grunts his approval and the pup bolts, his gut rumbling into the anxious hush of the cottage. The alpha’s eyes are shadowed almost as darkly as Taeyong’s.
In the kitchen Taeyong is staring at nothing, chewing his thumbnail to the quick as the pot simmers and steams before him.
“And you,” Ten says. The witch doesn’t even look at him.
“There’s no time,” he flaps a hand when Ten jostles him. His brow furrows. “More sage, please.”
Ten pinches a sprig from the rafters and grinds it in the mortar. He waits for Taeyong to sprinkle it in, counter-clockwise, muttering under his breath, and then holds a spoonful of pear to his lip.
“Now,” he presses, and Taeyong glowers but he eats. His scowls couldn’t offend, not even if he tried, not when Ten listens to him breathe each night, those few hours he can bully the witch into resting. Swift and shallow, like there’s a knife between his ribs and he’s fighting not to cry out.
The doors of the cottage are thrown open to the calescent breeze, as they have been these past three days. The wolves are half dressed and sheened with sweat like salamanders. Sicheng’s nose and shoulders peel with long hours in the sun.
“Humans, too?” Ten had muttered as he and the witch stood at the threshold, watching the pups pile out of their van and gape at the battlefield of waxen faces and quilts bright as flags against the grass.
“More than human,” Taeyong said with sinking surety. “Every one of them.”
The ill lay in the sun, in the heat, shivering under down comforters, winter coats, every blanket Ten could scrounge from every neighbor on the slopes. Three days and Taeyong has prepared eleven different stews and broths, but even spooned still scalding to the afflicted they do not warm. Once Jaehyun’s mouth froze shut and Ten had to ease it back open with the steam of his own breath. His heart still batters against his sternum at the memory and someone is dispatched each hour now with dish towels and a kettle of water to check mouths, eyes, noses.
Jaehyun, Haechan, Jaemin. Doyoung, Jungwoo, Yuta. Jisung arrived with his mother as she weakly argued against her husband’s urging to take them to a hospital instead. The old woman from the tea festival is propped up on the sofa inside. The girl who cried over her exams. And more, so many more.
The porch grows crowded with the shoes of the afflicted. The sight of it twists his stomach into knots every time he bolts back from town with groceries, as Taeyong’s attempts grow more desperate and elaborate.
The sky is searing blue, the sunlight so harsh Ten squints. But on the sloping lawn he hears chattering teeth and groans. Chenle, who is no thicker than a green sapling yet sturdy as a butcher, hauls a cast iron sheet of hot bricks behind him. Ten plucks them up in cloth mitts and rolls them between layers of blankets, near to toes and fingertips gone blue.
Doyoung has somehow twisted half out of his blankets and dragged himself into the grass.
“Fancy meeting you here,” he rasps when Ten’s shadow falls over him.
Ten hoists him the remaining distance to Jungwoo’s bedding and they cling together through a jolting wave of shivers. Jungwoo’s heavy eyes are frosted pale and unseeing but he tucks his chin atop the crown of Doyoung’s head. Like a shelter, or a shield.
On that second night, as Taeyong’s face grew ever more pale and drawn, they watched from the porch as Sicheng propped Yuta up against his chest and pressed sips of hot tea upon him. The stars were clouded over and candles flickered in saucers and glass vases to light the way among the rows of the afflicted.
“Everyone else is sick,” Ten said, with a sour pang at putting the ugly and obvious into words. “All the fair folk. The ones who aren’t even full blood. Everyone but me.”
Taeyong stood in the doorway, electric light at his back as if he were cut from gold.
“You’re part of this house,” he said, guilt so heavy Ten thought he could clap it up in his hands like a stone and hurl it away. “Whatever spirit sickness this is, it didn’t touch my territory . That would be a neat trick if I were any good to the others, don’t you think?”
Ten dozes sitting up against the north wall where once they laid an altar, shadows passing over his eyes as Taeyong and Sicheng and the many, many wolves read around the table. He hears snatches, disjointed. No and we saw that one yesterday and once use some fucking context clues before you ask me , which is Sicheng snapping at Renjun. He cracks an eye at that, seeing as courtiers lose their tempers over far less and love to bleed for honor, but Johnny only mutters the downcast pup off to bed to rest his eyes.
When he wakes again only the witch and the scholar and the alpha remain, like a story for children with a clever rhyme. The pups are tangled together in the floor twitching and whimpering with troubled dreams.
And so he brews tea and takes stock of their ingredients for the morning. Taeyong will want more broth, at the very least, and bean curd for those lucid enough to chew. He tallies on his fingers and notes what will need to be replenished. To those who refuse rest he brings the tea, fried eggs only gently burnt on toast, candied ginger from a forgotten jar behind the plum sauce.
“I’m not sure if this is right,” Taeyong murmurs, tapping a page thin as onion skin, yellowed with years. “It’s so old, she talks about the British at Geomun-do.”
“Your grandmother?” Ten asks, sinking down beside him, because the furrow between the witch’s brow will ease if he can think out loud.
“Her mother’s grandmother,” Taeyong says, and turns the page. “It sounds the same, I swear it does. All the fair folk came down from the hills for her help. She says here they brought it in silver chests, that they needed a mortal. But I’ve never seen this before, have you?”
He turns the journal toward Ten and he hunkers down over it in the flickering light.
“Oh,” he says at last. He hears his own voice from far away, as if he were standing at the bottom of a well and calling up to himself for aid. “I can get that for you.”
Sicheng and Johnny stop chewing and the silence rings.
“We call it queen of the night,” Ten adds, turning the drawing with its faded sepia ink beneath the lamp. A lavish bloom with a halo of gold stamen and long overlapping petals like daggers. He knows it well from histories etched into stone, walls of dead royals holding the flower over their heads with both hands. Like a salutation, or an offering.
“You can get this,” Taeyong repeats high and thin like he dare not hope.
“I can,” Ten nods, and squeezes his wrist beneath the table. The pulse rabbits against his fingertips. Truth, only truth. “But I have to go alone. Tonight, it has to be at night.”
“Is it safe?” Johnny asks suddenly, voice rusted hoarse.
“I know the way,” Ten evades.
Before he leaves, Taeyong slips a brass needle through his shirt to help him find his way home. Ten traps his hand there, over his sternum, and bears down against the bone. Taeyong blinks through his exhaustion.
“What’s that look for?”
“Try to sleep,” Ten tells him, and drops his hand. “You look like hell.”
Ten departs from the mountain door, where the night is thick as velvet. The trick is not so much the knowing as the unknowing. It is no secret. Anyone could make the journey if they chose.
Of all the knights only Amber has ventured so far in Ten’s lifetime. In a week she did not look so gaunt and her impudent grins returned, unlike the two lost fingers from her left hand. She could not say what she encountered, of course. The mages made much of her offering.
It is no secret. He can drink no water and taste no morsel on his way, this he remembers, and he can only hope he will not be gone so long as to have need of them. He winds through the underbrush until at last he hears an owl. Silent wings, the bastards, and one can only wait for a call or, like this, the snap of talons meeting prey and the crunch of bone that follows. At last it swoops and glides again and Ten must fix his gaze upon it in the dark and run to keep pace. With his head craned up he must stumble, jutting roots skinning his ankles and shins until the breeze shivers over the bloom of blood.
When it alights, fluffing its pale wings like a mantle, he drops his hands upon his knees and pants. Then he must find a birch, then a maple, then an alder, and they must be in this order. He thinks unbidden of Taeyong, who will only stir together his sauces from light to dark: rice vinegar, sesame oil, soy sauce. A silly thing to make a vise of his throat.
Birch, maple, alder. Some distance apart, and he must double back, but he finds them and walks seven circles around each, then throws a stone while his head still spins. The stone strikes, clatters just out of reach, and like a curtain rising he comes upon a sheer cliff face that stretches out of sight, though whether from east to west or north to south he no longer knows.
Now as if bidden the wind reaches him, all but drags him straight to a chasm in the rock. The sky is a crooked river of starlight far above, and if he reaches out he touches walls of trickling water and slick stone on each side. On, and on, and the path narrows until he must walk like a crab, his own breath loud in his ears. And then again until he feels himself squeezed as if through the eye of a needle in the airless dark. Just as he thinks he will scream the pressure releases, popping like a cork, and the rock is drier, hotter beneath his hands.
The stars over the great flat desert are crowded like wildflowers, like they might spill and fall, and he does not know them. There is no scorpion, no ox, no dragon chasing the moon. Banners of cloud dart overhead, so quickly he dizzies in staring, and he thinks when each passes that the hidden stars have rearranged themselves, that they might be crawling still.
The bright flat desert is barren.
He stumbles out on his shaking legs, on his bleeding feet, choking on his disbelief. There is no other way. He followed every rule, no cheats, no tricks. Maybe he was found unworthy, not for the first time.
But the cold wind at his back says here and he turns.
There is no trace of the ravine. The mouth of the cave is wide as a fallen oak, with a low protruding roof, and the shadows within are so black he can see nothing at all.
Nothing, until another fringe of cloud scuds away from the vast moon, palest gold, its surface smooth and unmarked as a nectarine. The shadows recede like the tide. Before the maw of the cave the earth is blanketed in cacti, choked with spines and leaves, each crowned with a riot of white flowers. Haloes of gold, petals like daggers.
“On your guard,” someone says, so low and intimate it might have been murmured into his ear. He leaps back, wrenching his sword from his spine, and sees nothing but the parched earth soaking up his bloody footprints until they vanish.
“You could leave,” the voice says, and he shifts his feet and sinks into his knees, raising the length of his sword above and across his body in a blind guard.
“But I won’t,” he replies, conversational, and shows his teeth to nothingness.
“But you won’t,” it agrees, dragging out the words like entrails.
Ten breathes through his nostrils and thinks not of depthless shadow but the practice hall with its ceiling of tangled roots. How every lesson seemed to unfurl before his eyes so slowly, as if underwater, easy as falling down to mimic each pattern with his wooden blade. The face of any opponent that ever stood before him just after he danced inside their guard.
The armor blooms from his skin and flares bright under the moon, quicksilver and pearl. He hunts for the shine of eyes in the darkness but sees only the flash of a knife in Taeyong’s hand, a glass bottle at his laughing mouth.
“Cute,” the shadows drawl, and step out to meet him.
“Wish I could say the same for you,” Ten grins back, and this is a kind of truth. The stranger, the lurker, the much unasked for pain in his ass, stands in black armor craggy as a beetle, crowned in curving horns. Heavy, plain, like nothing in the fashion at court, but the delicate taper at ankle and wrist speaks to speed. Ten crushed cactus underfoot in his haste, a bright astringent smell upon the air, but the stranger does not put a pace astray in the thicket, as if intimately acquainted.
The snap of the whip does not quite stun him, for the knight held no sword. The hot flash of pain will not move him, his grip upon his sword is not weakened. But the drag of thorns is a real bitch, slicing through the armor’s weak point at the bend of his arm, and he says as much.
“Takes one to know one,” the black knight snorts, and the whip answers him, recoiling like a living thing. The gouges over Ten’s elbow pulse icy and urgent. And when the knight catches him at the knee, the same queer numbness overtakes the spot, and he must favor his left, darting like a hare as he reads the coil of the whip, the hitch of a shoulder.
It’s only a matter of range. His tutor would castigate any fool leaving themselves defenseless in arm’s reach. He has only to wait until the knight raises the whip over his head to lash in momentous circles, whistling in the air.
When he cleaves the knight’s head from his shoulders he feels only quiet, and relief. The blade parts flesh like cobwebs, without resistance. And so I am not what I was , he thinks, so dazed that perhaps it will be forgotten entirely, and he will never be sure what flickered through his mind when he snuffed out his first life.
The head bounces, catches upon the great horned helm, and the body still stands. Ten frowns and staggers on his half numbed leg to tug the helmet away.
The knight blinks a single unconcerned eye up at him, a knot of silvered scar where its twin ought to be. He has a small, pointed face, black hair shorn close to the skull, and a severed neck that does not bleed. Raggedly hacked, as if by an axe, not the clean stroke of Ten’s sword.
Beyond all doubt, the face is his own. His own voice, unencumbered by the helmet, cold and rasping.
“Never were the sharpest nettle in the basket, were you?” his scarred self murmurs, and when the whip splits the skin over his cheek he hears it but doesn’t feel.
Certainty fills his lungs like frigid water. It snaps his skull full of frost and bears him down to his knees, and the faceless suit of armor takes him by the throat so easily. No more effort than wringing a chicken’s neck, though he can’t recall ever seeing such a thing, or where he would, no more than he knows why his sternum is burning white-hot against all the cold.
“That’s enough theater for one night,” says the darkness, and a small hand closes over the black cuirass. The headless knight evaporates in a puff of steam, dispelled on the breeze, and Ten knows himself, gasping and gulping down air that is warm again. His armor disjoints, falling away like cherry blossoms, and his skin is flooded with heat. Like standing in the shallows with the sun at his back and a steady arm curled around his waist.
When he regains his feet, the woman stands no taller than his shoulder, and moonlight falls straight through her. One of her feet remains firmly planted in the shadow of the cave.
“What was that?” he pants stupidly. His lungs burn.
“Only your death,” she says, and he watches her mouth move even as he stares through the back of her head. Her long hair is braided, shot through with white at the temples, and she wears a sturdy apron many times patched over. “Quite the mouth on him, too. But I suggest being shocked later and getting what you came for now. Make him wait.”
“You’re a ghost, then,” he says, plucking so hurriedly his fingertips catch on spines and bleed anew. She snorts, unimpressed, and he laughs under his breath in answer. His scored cheek throbs when he grins. “Right. Of course you are.”
“You took the long way,” the ghost observes, looking him over as Ten’s hands twist the neck of a pillowcase filled with white flowers. “I suppose you lot always do. Take the stair, and don’t look behind you, no matter what you do. Nod if you understand.”
The stair is cut into the cliffside, narrow with steep, unevenly hewn steps. He steadies his aching leg and thinks it is not so far, as Taeyong taught him that to think is to make it so.
“Next year, when you drink to my name,” she calls from the echoing chamber of the cave, and his neck spasms with effort not to turn. “Try to smile. It tastes sweeter.”
The stair gives way to dense trees draped in cascades of vines so thick he must part them like curtains. Until at last, shouldering through clouds of azalea, he tastes the sea on the air beneath. Not the mountain, but the hillside greets him, rolling green and soft upon his aching feet. The sun is not yet risen, the stars fading against the softening indigo sky, and he knows their names.
Of course Taeyong fusses. The witch cries out like a dove at the sight of his face. He forces Ten into his own house slippers, his dirty feet still bleeding sluggishly, and sits him down on the kitchen floor. Ten thinks Johnny is asking him something, but he can’t seem to hear, resting his heavy head back against the cupboards. He floats on exhaustion and sees only the curve of Taeyong’s cheek above him, the darting of his slender hands as he plucks thin white petals and dices them with ginseng into a pot of rice porridge.
His eyes grow heavy and he must sleep for a time. When he stirs there is light at the window. Kun and Chenle kneel beside him, wringing rags from a bucket of hot water to clean his wounds. The cottage swells with sound, with cries of relief, voices blazing blue and gold rejoicing.
Leaden as his limbs are, the kitchen floor remains inviting. He grunts his thanks to the wolves as they draw away. He loses time again between blinks and then it's Taeyong at his side, carrying a basket of persimmon leaves beaded with dew.
“Go to bed,” Ten grumbles.
“Shut up,” Taeyong says with his mouth full, chewing the leaves to a paste. He tamps it thickly over Ten’s arm, his smarting knee, twining each in gauze. Slowly he presses the pulp into Ten’s cheek, where it stings, but his haggard and lovely face is so near that Ten can think of little else.
Ten perches upon the arm of the sofa and the old woman opens her eyes. He knows her name, but calls her grandmother instead, and she glares thinly up at him.
“I am not your grandmother,” she says, lofty. Then she shifts her collar and sniffs. “How long has it been?”
“Four days.” He hears a shout outside, wild. Jisung’s father must have arrived unknowing, hauling more extension cords or electric blankets from whatever errand he assigned himself to feel of use.
“So that’s why I smell like rotten trout,” she grimaces.
“We’re not taking a bath together,” Ten says seriously. The plaster over his cheek itches when he laughs.
“I should hope not,” she agrees, and raises her empty bowl. “Any chance of a beer to wash this down, or am I still an invalid?”
And they drink, while the day is young, and listen to the clamor of life outside.
The afternoon grows hot. The lawn is emptied, strewn with mussed bedding and spilled candles like the aftermath of a revel. Twice Johnny filled his van and conveyed the healed back to town. Where the afflicted lay the grass is crisped dead and brown with cold. The spacious hush now is not unwelcome, still threaded with crickets and birdsong and heat like a sizzling pan.
Taeyong sleeps with Jaehyun and the wolves under the persimmon tree, all of them entangled so that each head rests upon a shoulder or a slowly rising belly.
The kitchen is a ruin such as he has never seen, and so he cleans. Easily enough. Though he does not pry away the bandages to look, his leg feels steady, his right arm untroubled. He brews a pot of tea and bears the tray outside to the pair on the porch. Just as he left them, legs tangled under a quilt. Doyoung’s face is wet and Jungwoo mouths words against his cheek.
Into a stack of clean bowls he spoons fresh rice, julienned carrots, bean sprouts, fried mushrooms. The beef steeps in marinade mixed just so, as a curious lightness wells from his belly up to his throat. Light to dark; sugar, sesame, garlic, soy.
Taeyong comes behind him and scrapes unseasoned rice straight from the pot. His hand is warm upon the dip of Ten’s spine. Ten turns against him and finds the shadows under his eyes have eased. If he were a poet, he would say the moon is but a pale reflection of the sun, and the sun only a dim mirror of the hedge witch on the mountain, who is also called the witch of the valley, and yet also the witch by the sea.
“Does that hurt?” he asks, touching Ten’s cheek.
“I can hardly feel it,” he says. The witch eases away the plaster, and the skin is shiny and tight but there is no pain. Ten leans into his palm.
“Good,” Taeyong breathes, and kisses him.
(brb, going to sleep for a year)
This ambitious mess of a story would not be possible without the insanely generous support along the way. To everyone who's dropped kudos or one of your amazing comments, thanks a million! You're the best.
So often Ten had wished that time would hasten. That the years would pass more swiftly, lift him from his feet like a surging white river and deposit him in his future, where he would no longer be the youngest of the knights at court, no longer a stranger with no people to claim as his own. He ached to meet his someday self like a hero from legend.
Now he thinks maybe this too is a gift. That he has not yet grown too old or too wise to be a fool. To be filled up with giddiness like a well brimming over with clear water.
“People can see you,” Jeno notes with discomfort.
Ten cranes his neck to keep sight of Taeyong in the kitchen. The witch is wearing denim trousers tight across his thighs and the high pert swell of his ass.
“I’m aware you have eyes, yes.”
“He got kicked out for being handsy,” Chenle whispers with no small amount of glee.
“People can hear you,” Ten swats back without looking.
“Watch your heads,” Taeyong calls, and swoops in with a steaming pot for the center of the table. “Kun, would you mind grabbing the sides? Thank you. And could someone call Johnny and Jaehyun in for lunch?”
“That’s not the best idea,” Renjun intercedes, throwing elbows as he and the other wolflings scramble to fill their bowls all at once.
Taeyong frowns, not following. It’s adorable. Ten reaches up and palms the back of his thigh while he has the chance.
“They’re definitely making out,” Lucas chimes in helpfully around a half-chewed mouthful.
“You’re not supposed to say it,” Jeno mutters, ears gone red.
Ten snorts, and Taeyong seems to remember himself, slapping his hand away before it can roam higher. “What, like it was a secret? If Jaehyun’s neck gets gnawed on much more he won’t have one left.”
The pups groan as one, noses wrinkling. Sicheng, plucking out choice morsels of beef for Yuta’s bowl, looks distinctly flustered.
“I hate everyone,” Taeyong sighs, and sinks down beside them. What a gorgeous hypocrite he is, curling his grip over Ten’s knee beneath the table.
“You love us,” Mark says, unconcerned. “You’ll miss us when we go.”
“Is that a fact?” his mouth twitches with restrained mirth.
Ten props his elbows upon the table and affects an innocent expression. Not like he can eat while Taeyong toys with the hem of his shorts. “And how soon will that be?”
“When school starts back,” Mark says, piling more spicy cabbage into his bowl. The wolves have a particular fondness for it even though their keen noses redden and run. “So, end of August? Johnny might want to head back a couple days early, he likes making us go to student mixers and stuff for a normal college experience .” The whole pack chimes in on the phrase, mouths full.
“That’s three weeks from now,” Taeyong says faintly. His hand spasms on Ten’s thigh. Kun slants them a knowing look and says nothing.
The moon rises milky and distant and not at all like the golden fullness that shone over the mouth of the underworld. With dusty feet Ten returns from his stroll and finds the cottage hushed, the witch waiting outside under the electric lights of the eaves. Taeyong is wearing his cotton bathrobe, his slender legs bare, a stack of books beside him.
“Not ready to sleep?” he smiles up at Ten, drowsy and welcoming.
“Not without you,” he shrugs. Something startled, then warm, blooms across Taeyong’s face. “I’ll make some tea.”
Taeyong grimaces, apologetic. “Too hot.”
Ten turns the back of a hand against his cheek and blinks. “You really are, shit. Hold on.”
And he slides through the door, picking through the sprawl of sleeping wolves like a deer. As he fills a bowl with ice Johnny sits bolt upright, nostrils flaring in the dim. Ten clicks his tongue for attention and the wolf’s head swivels toward him. The red glow of his eyes fades.
“Alright?” he mumbles and itches his cheek. Ten hums in response and he flops back down, tossing an arm over Mark’s shoulders. The pup snuffles once but does not wake. The pack breathes as one uncanny creature when they sleep. Likely their hearts would drum to the same tune if he could hear them. Something stubborn and loyal. He’s never heard such a song, but if he closes his eyes he can imagine it.
In the quiet, Ten thinks perhaps families are not such a burden as he had always assumed.
This is a kind of recklessness, cradling Taeyong’s wrist and rubbing circles over his pulse in melting ice. The witch sighs through parted lips. Ten strokes a shining trail down to his elbow and one of the electric lights overhead shatters into a cloud of fireflies. They drift away, clumsy in their sudden transfiguration, and Taeyong looks less guilty than he does ravenous.
Ten glides a fresh lump of ice up his slender throat and the witch bares his teeth but does not move, fisting the robe over his knees. He holds himself rigidly and the tendons in his neck jump out like wire.
“Breathe,” Ten says and ignores the ragged edge of his own voice.
The witch shudders out a long exhale. “No such thing as being quiet when wolves are around,” he manages at last, rueful.
“So I’ve noticed.” Ten drags the dwindling sliver of ice under the ledge of his jaw until it vanishes.
Taeyong dips, kisses his palm. “I’m pretty loud, anyway,” he says, conversational, and looks pleased when Ten chokes. He grins like they’re sharing a secret. Ten never considered himself prone to jealousy but he might have to murder Doyoung if he learned this firsthand.
“Hey,” Taeyong says. “Take off your shirt.”
And he does. Taeyong kisses him once, shallow, and draws back so swiftly Ten thinks their hunger must be the same. How they share it, in this moment; like the apple, the same sweetness upon their tongues.
“I want to try something.” Taeyong unrolls a length of patched silk over brushes with tapered hair bristles, an oblate stone that reflects no light, a glass bottle squat as a plum. He opens one of his books and the pages crackle with age.
Taeyong first paints a lotus flower over Ten’s arm. It crowns the ragged new scar, which he then covers in the sturdy characters of his language, lines which sit upon each other like the beams of a house. He cautions Ten not to move or the ink will run. The witch traces a column of characters down his sternum after consulting his book, deft with the flick of the brush, and when the air eddies over his wet skin Ten feels the cold swoop sink to hot molten silver in his belly.
“What are these?” he thinks to ask at last. His tongue is thick in his mouth.
Taeyong draws out the length of his leg, propping a heel on his own thigh, and begins to write over the knotted tissue. “Protection.” He blows gently over the ink and Ten forgets to breathe, the wind in his lungs stopped up like a bottle. “If it works. This is new to me.”
“What do I need protection from?” he wonders.
“Everything,” the witch glares. Then, after a spell of silence, with his gaze tight on Ten’s ribs. “This should follow you, no matter where you go. Even when the ink fades. So long as I’m alive.” He turns as if to read from the open book but his eyes stare through the pages and never shift. “That’s all I want to say about you leaving. Okay?”
“Alright.” A thorn sits in his throat.
Each day when Ten dons a fresh shirt he draws the brass needle from the last and tucks it along his collar like a charm. The witch finds it now, unerring. When he breathes on the bright sharp point it burns sunset orange. Ten nods his assent before any question need be asked.
“You’ve been doing more of that.” He sucks in air sharply when his ear is punctured though it doesn’t hurt. Yet the sensation ripples through him on the beat of his blood, his skin prickling to attention. “You used to hate it. Not being in control.” Taeyong would insist he was little more than a petty dabbler, that he needed bone and broth to act as a conduit for his magic.
“Is that how it seemed to you?” The witch folds a corner of the discarded shirt to staunch the blood. Then ice, dripping into Taeyong’s cupped hand so as not to disturb the map of ink. “Sort of the other way around. I think I always liked it too much.” His voice, ever low, is velvet in the darkness.
“You’re doing this on purpose,” Ten accuses. Maybe the witch can discern his arousal through his clothes, or maybe he not. He would hardly need to, when Ten shakes, he yearns.
“Maybe,” he agrees, soft. The ring he guides through Ten’s ear is etched, something intricate he can't see clearly before it vanishes from his sight. Taeyong’s face goes solemn, too severe for his delicate bones. “Don’t scare me like that again. Please.” The witch had been so stricken at the sight of his blood. His dark eyes were so wide, vast as the blackness between stars.
Ten shakes his head. His ear throbs in warning. “Are you kidding me? I won’t promise that.” You could have need of me, he doesn’t say. I would do it all over tomorrow, and the day after that.
Taeyong’s eyes tighten up with frustration. “Tell me you’ll take care of yourself, then. Promise me that .”
“I would never deprive you of my perfect body,” Ten says seriously. Taeyong huffs with laughter but still he waits. “I promise I’ll try.”
After a moment’s consideration the witch strokes the scar upon his face. He kisses one end and then the other. Ten thinks of his death, waiting for him at the maw of a cave in jagged armor. He thinks of its black hair and the pit of its lost eye.
He thinks of the scar splitting the bone of its cheek, the twin of his own.
“Do you want some help?” Yuta shrugs when Ten blinks up at him. “Seriously, Sicheng won’t let me do anything but sleep and eat.”
“He does dote on you, doesn’t he?” Ten drawls. Yuta ducks his head to conceal a blush shy and sudden as springtime.
“Let me help,” he presses. “I haven’t even thanked you properly yet.”
Ten winces. “Please don’t.”
“Taeyong said you wouldn’t like it,” Yuta nods and has the audacity to look knowing about it.
The floor of the once tidy cottage is a tangle of mattresses, stacks of books, empty juice boxes, rucksacks full of swimming trunks and dirty underwear. They kick the worst of the mess into a corner and drag the table to the northern wall. Ten props a beeswax candle set in brass at each side. On a length of paper Yuta writes a name for him, the end of his nose twitching in concentration. Ten knows only the sound of it from memory, but he seems to manage all the same.
His offering is meager. After all, he hasn't Taeyong's skill for recognizing the meaning in such things. But he slices the crowns from pears just so, stacking them at the center. A bowl of cold noodles redolent with vinegar is placed beside them, and a platter of fried pork.
After a deferential spell of silence Yuta begins to fidget. “Do we eat it?” he wonders.
“I think we should,” Ten says. He fetches a bottle and pours three glasses of rice wine, positioning one untouched beside the food.
This is how Taeyong finds them, his hands red from scrubbing laundry. A chorus of yelps outside doesn’t bode well for the wolflings hanging all the sheets and blankets to dry without incident.
“That’s not half bad." He sits on the floor beside them and Ten pours him a glass. “It’s barely afternoon,” he objects, but he sips it anyway. “What made you do this? It’s not a holiday.”
Ten’s throat is locked tight, as he knew it would be. He can no more speak about what he found under foreign stars than he can claim rain is dry, or salt to be sweet. “I needed to thank her,” he manages at last, perspiring with effort.
When Sicheng joins them his shirt is damp. A pair of forgotten clothespins are tucked along his collar.
“You know I love you,” Taeyong beams up at him without preamble and downs the rest of his drink. The scholar halts with one foot raised like a stork and stares between the three of them. “Yuta is fine. Better than fine. Fully recovered. Please get out of my house.”
“I miss Landlady’s red bean buns,” Yuta suggests quickly, eyes round as coins. Laying it on a bit thick, Ten thinks in admiration. “And we’re supposed to be helping her with the housework.”
Sicheng bites his cheek and looks lost. “You were so sick.”
“But I’m fine now.” Yuta unfolds himself from the floor and grins with all his white teeth. When he tosses an arm over Sicheng’s shoulders he allows it.
There are no more answers than when Haechan fainted, when Jaemin shivered and wouldn’t wake. Taeyong has guesses, and pages upon pages of notes in his own journal. What flowers remain are drying in the rafters. The witch glances up at them each morning like a talisman.
“Get a room,” Ten mutters. Taeyong clucks a scold at him.
“Trying to,” Yuta tosses back, laughing. Sicheng punches him swift and vicious in the ribs and storms away.
Behind the cottage late blooming azaleas thicken the air, heavy branches muffling the faraway sounds of the road. He finds Taeyong dozing on a blanket in the shade of the plum tree. An opened book rests across his stomach. When Ten sinks down beside him his dark lashes stutter over his cheeks.
“How long was I asleep?” he asks thickly. His mouth tastes of plums. He tries to follow when Ten draws back from the kiss.
“Not so long. I already made lunch,” he adds, and Taeyong emits a garbled noise of thanks and relief.
“It’s quiet back here,” the witch marvels. He shifts up onto his forearms and surveys the branches swaying on the breeze. “Not that I mind the company.”
“Usually,” Ten grimaces.
“Usually,” he grins back, the corners of his eyes creasing. “Even the breakfast club, one of them could pick up for the others or something. Pancakes keep just fine. They act like I don’t know they started coming all together every day just because I was living here alone.”
He bites into another plum and Ten laps the juice from his wrist up to the fissure of his palm.
“Anyway,” the witch continues faintly. He watches Ten’s mouth and doesn’t blink. “Not that I mind. But the quiet is nice. I can’t even hear them back here.”
“That’s because everyone went to the beach,” Ten informs him with forced nonchalance. “Johnny said they’ll be gone until dark.”
Taeyong’s face goes slack. The plum slips from his grasp. “He said what now?”
“He was very precise,” Ten says, the beginnings of a smirk forming, and Taeyong surges up only to drag him down by the nape of his neck, teeth scraping his jaw.
“You asshole, lead with that," he gasps, but Ten isn’t inclined to take it personally, not when lean thighs clamp a vise around his waist. Taeyong’s heel skids down his thigh to the back of his knee as he hauls Ten closer. Only once has he seen the witch outside himself, manners stripped away, and his anger was like thunder. This is a honeyed thing in comparison but just the same as he jolts Ten down to his bones.
Ten is holding him with a hand tucked under his shirt, along the damp hollow of his spine, kissing him crooked and messy and not at all like a poem when Taeyong stills and cups his cheek.
“Your hands are shaking,” he says, brows lowering in concern. Ten has heard him tired and wry and furious but never like this, ragged like he’s been breathing smoke. Dark like he knows everything Ten has ever craved.
“It’s rude to point out the obvious,” Ten mutters. His heart rattles against his ribs.
The witch is undeterred, stroking his hair. His chest rises quick and shallow with his breath. “Are you nervous?” He sounds amazed, not unkind. “I have it on pretty good authority you’ve done this before.”
“I haven’t,” Ten croaks, jerking his head. The witch blinks up at him with his dark and lovely eyes, his swollen mouth, and doesn’t understand. “Never with you.”
“Oh,” Taeyong breathes. “Come here.”
Much as he loves showing off, he can’t seem to remember how. Not how to be clever, or to hold himself back in increments and incite desire like a sickness. There is only this— Taeyong’s shirt rucked up to his ribs, his belly clenching with need, and how Ten can’t stop kissing him long enough to unbutton his pants without aid. He’s warm in Ten’s palm, warm all over, but he groans loudest when Ten gathers up his wrists above his head and bears them down to the grass. Anchors him, for once.
When he pulls away Taeyong bites off a wounded little noise of confusion. He’s close, eyes glassy, a searing blush spilling from his cheeks down below the collar of his shirt.
“Just let me look at you,” Ten says roughly, and the witch lifts a freed hand to cup his flexing forearm as he strokes. The other folds over his nape, and Ten would swear this is a kind of magic as well, that something is passing beneath his skin and taking hold.
Fallen azalea have tangled in Taeyong’s bright hair. He stares back at Ten, bold, and conceals nothing. His mouth shines.
When Ten withdraws his hand and bears down against him they shudder as one. Still tangled in their trousers, their hips find a graceless angle to rut. Too dazed to kiss, Ten pants into his open mouth, and his stomach swoops when Taeyong hitches both arms over his shoulders to clutch him near.
After, he peels off his own shirt to clean Taeyong’s belly and tucks him back into his clothes.The witch wrinkles his nose but voices no objection. He trails his burning fingers down Ten’s chest. Ten kisses him again and his face throws off heat like a stove.
"Was that you being quiet?" he thinks to ask, nuzzling his throat where his lifeblood jumps with urgency.
"You have no idea," Taeyong mutters, still dazed. Or distracted, rather. He looks past Ten at last and his lips part.
The branches above them tremble. A plum falls to the grass. Something moves beneath the skin, pressing as if confined. And when a tawny bird bursts forth, and another, as the boughs above them shake with song and scores upon scores of immaculate golden wings fan out against the sunlight, Ten can only stare at the witch beneath him.
Taeyong looks stunned but unashamed. He does not frown. He does not chase after the birds to insist they remember how to be plums again. He turns his knuckles against Ten's cheek.
"I don't think I've ever been this happy," he whispers, like a secret.
Thank you so much to everyone who has followed this story! See you at the end.
The pack breakfasts at dawn, bleary and wordless. Ten can scarcely see the shine of their heavy eyes. Their bags are amassed by the door. Taeyong presses more dishes upon the already laden table, a fried egg for each of them wedged between cabbage and smoked fish.
Doyoung arrives alone and even Haechan leaves off flicking rice at Mark to stare. In fairness, Ten hasn’t seen him without Jungwoo since their recovery. Once he watched unseen as they meandered up the path, blue dawn at their backs, and when Jungwoo dropped their joined hands Doyoung reached out and took his again. It’s nauseating, really.
Taeyong stills with a platter of pancakes in hand.
“If you two are fighting again I will hex your ears off,” he says, dangerously mild. Ten doesn’t doubt he could.
Doyoung twitches. “I’m just going to grab breakfast to go.”
“That’s not an answer,” Kun notes and blows on his tea. Lucas snorts so hard that soy milk comes up his nose.
Ten observes as closely as he can while darning a pile of Taeyong’s socks. The heels are all fallen to nothing and the witch will have cold feet when winter comes. He threads his needle anew with a flick of tongue for aid.
“Jungwoo is indisposed,” Doyoung says slowly, eyes flitting across the room like a cornered animal. The rest of the pack are rustling to alert fascination. Yuta knows, or he guesses, a merciless grin splitting his face.
Ten stuffs his hand down a mended sock to test his work. “And did he get to be indisposed on his back or his front?”
A sluggish beat of silence and then the younger pups groan in comprehension, shooting Doyoung revolted glares.
“Is that all?” Taeyong laughs. He piles pancakes into a translucent container but holds them back while Doyoung squirms. “You should have said so. I can make a salve for that.”
“Maybe you can help him apply it,” Ten suggests sweetly. The alpha at the table snickers and tries to cover with a cough.
“Johnny, don’t laugh.” Taeyong fights a grin. To see him now Ten wouldn’t believe he was once so tired, eyes vacant with despair as the ill washed up on their shore one after another. “I wouldn't throw stones if I were you.”
Lucas is slowly turning purple.
Jaehyun shrugs, unconcerned, and snaps up the rest of Johnny’s egg in his chopsticks. “I can think of worse problems to have.”
With stiff-legged dignity Johnny stands and begins hauling bags to the van. The pack does him the service of waiting for the door to swing shut before they fall into howls of laughter. Haechan is studying Mark’s lap with an alarming degree of interest.
“We never used to have this much fun,” Chenle gasps, wiping his eyes.
When Ten says he wants to cook dinner, Taeyong counts out paper money for him without question. And though Ten has learned the currency by the faces it wears, no one in town will allow him to pay. Worse, they all want to thank him.
Someone gives him flowers as well, a bundle of blue irises wrapped in paper and twine. He cuts an ungainly figure with them stuffed under one arm while the bags of ingredients opposite pull him off-kilter, and they’re half crushed and wilted from the long walk back in the heat. But Taeyong looks startled and pleased all the same. He fluffs the blooms in a jar of water and when he breathes on them they unfurl vibrant and fresh.
“Okay, but can you do that for dicks,” Ten asks seriously. “Have you tried?”
While Taeyong soaks in his bath, Ten prepares. He only sets off one gout of purple flame in his distraction and experience has prepared him. Starved of air under a lid, the fire is snuffed.
The cure for distraction is clarity of purpose. Ten thinks of fevers, of the heat that rolls from Taeyong’s skin even in the night, and overcomes his gagging as he scoops out the innards from a plucked hen. He stuffs ginseng and red dates inside, cloves of garlic counted thrice in his nerves.
The pot is simmering when Taeyong emerges in a billow of steam. His damp hair falls over his brow and his robe gapes wide across his chest.
“There’s watermelon in the icebox, for after,” Ten announces, hurrying to bandage his cut finger. Ridiculous, he was weaned on blades. Taeyong peeks under the lid of the pot, releasing plumes of vapor, and makes suitably impressed noises. “You told me about that.” What a novel development, his idiot mouth running away from him.
“I did tell you that. How much longer?” he asks lightly. Ten points to the hourglass upon the shelf. “Perfect. Sit down.”
Ten blames the robe slipping down Taeyong’s rosy scrubbed shoulder for how he drops like a stone.
“This is awfully romantic,” Taeyong notes, coming to stand over his legs. He folds himself down to his knees over Ten’s lap. “Are you sure your reputation can take the hit?”
“What reputation?” Ten scoffs. Transfixed, he hooks the bathrobe down until it gathers at Taeyong’s elbows. Skates a hand up the back of Taeyong’s thigh and the longbow arch of muscle leaps to attention. His skin is sleek from the bath, fine hairs soft as down, and he smells of sweet sage oil. “You’re underestimating how much I want people to know I’m the one touching you.”
Of course, there are recreations unsuited for their company the past month. Sharp ears, sharp noses. Perhaps Taeyong senses the direction of his thoughts because he shifts his knees wider in invitation.
Ten’s splayed fingertips meet the slick trailing down his inner thigh. The idiot sound of want he gulps down is so horrifying he thinks Taeyong will reconsider fucking him altogether.
“Sometimes you’re too careful with me,” Taeyong says. He kisses the corner of his mouth. “I didn’t want to wait any more.”
“A few weeks,” Ten rolls his eyes. As though the nights weren’t just as long for him. He gives himself away clutching Taeyong’s thighs beneath the robe.
“Longer.” Taeyong nips his ear. “Remember the first time you met Johnny? Do you know how much I wanted you that night? Of course not,” he answers the animal whine in Ten’s chest, long hands deft on his waistband. “I didn’t want you to know.”
“I had plans tonight,” Ten objects weakly, hips jerking as Taeyong shifts and adjusts to the stretch. His skin throws off heat and inside he’s slick and scalding. Ten goes mindless every time they roll to meet each other. “I was going to get my tongue inside you until you cried.”
Taeyong clenches so hard they both yell, shuddering through the jolt of it. He clings and buries his burning cheek in the crook of Ten's neck until the quaking subsides.
“That sounds like. Something you should remember. For later,” he stutters.
The stain of his blush travels, blooms across his chest and shoulders. Ten bites a nipple and he keens, bucks against him. The cupboards rattle in warning. But Taeyong sets the pace with his knees planted for leverage, toes curling against the tile, and the plates and cups all still in time and mind their own affairs. His hands find purchase flattened against Ten’s chest and he’s only a passenger now, working Taeyong in a clumsy hand and sucking bruises up his neck.
He thinks the air shimmers with heat over Taeyong’s skin, unless his dazzled eyes lie.
Ten knows in all good sense that this is nothing unfamiliar. He knows bodies and their instruments and what they can do. But Taeyong rides him with glossy ease, pushing through the friction, and melts him down to hot white noise. The witch laughs at his state, ragged with want, and mumbles such a string of delighted filth and praise into his ear that Ten can muster no response.
Later, he checks Taeyong’s scalp for knots after upending him too roughly onto the floor. They eat watermelon where they lie sprawled, a shock of cold after the soup. Taeyong’s robe is knotted around his waist. Red marks trail from his neck down his chest. When Ten bends and sucks his fingers clean his skin is warm but no longer searing.
“What?” he asks. The witch is staring.
“You know what,” Taeyong laughs, and kisses him again. “You’re going to ruin me.”
Ten’s mouth goes dry. “For any other help?”
“Sure,” Taeyong murmurs. “That.”
“You have the best kind of untrustworthy face,” Taeyong told him once, long before the scar.
He recalls this when Jisung turns up at the cottage one evening. That’s one of the wolves’ shirts he’s wearing, Ten is sure of it, but he can’t place which.
“How’s school?” Taeyong asks, bright and eager, and the kid mouths something dutiful about interesting classes and making new friends and something marvelous that sounds like a cult.
“I kind of wanted to talk to Ten. Alone,” Jisung mumbles, turning a cup of tea between his palms, and Taeyong blinks rapidly before recovering himself.
“My Ten?” he asks, incredulous, and it’s only a slip of the tongue but Ten feels an ember flare in his gut all the same. The witch probably wouldn’t approve of him dumping Jisung outside so they can fuck on the floor. One of these days Ten will bend him in half properly despite his unyielding muscle and sinew. Someday. He finds himself counting again and slaps the thought away.
“Let’s go for a walk,” he shrugs. “Relax, I’ll bring him back in one piece.”
In the fading gold light the trees are fire, shades of scarlet stark against the tea fields. Ten appreciates the view with such pride that he can’t help but smirk. They turned all at once, the trees. Overnight. Taeyong, who spent the night spilling between Ten's thighs and licking himself out again, took one look that morning and fled to wash the breakfast dishes far from Ten’s cackling.
Ten asks after the cult, the fraternity he shares with the wolves, but Jisung says he’s excluded from the drinking revels and mostly they study and take turns cleaning the house.
“Is that so?” Ten wonders. “Last I heard, the constables brought you in and you begged Johnny not to call your parents when he came to pick you and Chenle up. What is Hunt Master, do you drink it or smoke it?”
“How?” Jisung wheezes, doubling over.
“You should always assume everyone older than you is sharing information behind your back.”
Jisung is quiet now, hands shoved in his pockets as they meander down the path, and Ten clears his throat for attention.
“So do you have embarrassing questions for me or what?”
It breaks the tension. Jisung coughs but his rigid shoulders relax.
“My mom doesn’t know much,” he ventures, peeking at Ten from beneath his fringe. “We got it from my grandma and she died when I was little. Mom just says we’re mostly honest and we shouldn’t go out in the woods alone.”
“Depends on who you meet there,” Ten agrees. “But halflings don’t get stolen at night like they used to, or so I’ve been told. I’m not shocked you were hanging with Jaemin and Haechan already. Like calls to like.”
“You knew,” Jisung guesses. His pout is accusatory. It’s like being menaced by a grasshopper. “You always looked at me funny and I didn’t know why.”
“What you choose to be isn’t my business,” Ten says, unrepentant. “Snakes like you love warm-blooded things. Stick with the pack and you’ll do fine.”
He waits for Jisung to ask after the blue mountain, the veiled realm, and in time he does.
“There’s peace now,” Ten says, and discards any number of truths that will only give wide-eyed Jisung evil dreams. “Our queen made it happen in spite of our natures. But we’re pretty and petty and unkind and unwise. I made a rhyme for you to remember it, kid. Be a man, be a wolf, but don’t go looking under any hills for answers.”
“You’re not like that,” Jisung frowns. “You’re nice.”
Ten pinches his ear so hard he yelps. “Don’t you ever say that again,” he hisses, then thumps Jisung between his bony shoulder blades. He ought to put on weight if he plans to keep running off with wolves.
“Everybody knows you saved us,” Jisung mutters, rubbing at his ear.
Ten shakes his head. “Taeyong saved you.”
Jisung snorts. “They aren’t mutually exclusive.” He sounds more and more like Chenle.
Later, when the evening cools, Taeyong stuffs Jisung’s bag with leftovers and reminds him twice to wear his helmet.
“I’ll be home longer in February,” Jisung says. He peers hopefully at Ten. “Could you tell me more then?”
Beside him Taeyong’s face goes still, his easy grin slipping away.
Ten counts the days and his stomach turns. “That sounds nice.”
On a clear night Doyoung brings Jungwoo and bottles of a clear spirit that seems to singe Ten’s nose hairs when swallowed. But Doyoung throws it back with ease, so he refuses to be caught sputtering. He thinks Jungwoo guesses, anyway.
The brazier out back smolders and their bellies are full of short ribs. Taeyong insisted on wrapping the meat in lettuce and feeding Ten by hand, which was slow going.
On the porch, Jungwoo lays back against Doyoung’s chest and snickers at something.
“You need a phone,” he tells Taeyong, thumbing through his own. It scries like a silver basin under moonlight and shows them Sicheng sitting on Yuta’s shoulders on a searingly bright beach. His voice crackles as he shouts at the fox to get closer to the sea serpent looming above them, its coils trailing into the waves beyond.
“Well he’s happy,” Taeyong observes faintly. He tilts his head and mirrors the dragon, which chuffles something Ten can’t make out over the crackle of surf. Ten taps the phone to clear the static, like the radio, and the scry vanishes.
When Taeyong pours the spirit it glows, and so they’ve forced every round upon him. Ten downs another shot and coughs. He’s pleasantly drunk, the way floating in the sea ought to feel, with no tide to pull him under.
“Yuta wouldn’t have made a terrible knight,” he thinks aloud. “He’s loyal enough.”
“Plenty of knights aren’t loyal,” Jungwoo says, so soft he might have missed it. Doyoung goes cross-eyed blinking down at him in surprise.
“I don’t mean you,” he adds before Ten can really set his teeth into a nasty response.
Ten blinks and works his jaw from side to side, contemplating. “You never said what court you came from,” he says instead.
“Not everybody wants to talk about it,” Doyoung snaps back immediately. His thumb rubs circles over Jungwoo’s shoulder.
Jungwoo sits up, his soft hair rumpled. “I came from the white hills,” he says. “And when I was a knight, there was no loyalty. I knew seven crowns. Everyone played the odds when the royals were poisoning each other and cutting throats.”
Ten cannot unfasten his tongue from the roof of his mouth.
“You are so fucking dramatic,” Doyoung shakes his head in disbelief. Something obscure and fond shades his tone. “It’s always something with you.”
“What I’m saying,” Jungwoo presses on, his voice like churned cream, “is that there are more important things than titles.” He doesn’t look at Ten but he feels the words like a stone on his chest all the same.
“How old are you, really?” Taeyong sounds mystified.
Jungwoo shrugs. “Years? I’m not so sure. Older than any of you. Not as old as Jaehyun.”
“Is anyone as old as Jaehyun?” Ten asks, but Jungwoo is tossing the empty bottle lightly between his palms. He shoots an expectant look over his shoulder and Doyoung clears his throat, taking the bottle in hand.
“Since you two assholes saved our lives but you’re impossible to thank,” he says, plowing over Taeyong’s squawk of protest, “Jungwoo wanted to play a game.”
“You’re kidding.” Taeyong, for whatever reason, is staring at the bottle.
Jungwoo beams back at him. “Let us appreciate you,” he says. Doyoung reaches around him to lay the bottle down and sets it to spinning with a flick of his wrist.
It comes to rest. Ten struggles to string one thought to the next. “How do you win this game?”
“Everybody wins,” Doyoung says, amused, and looks unfazed when Jungwoo turns on his knees and slants their mouths together. It’s not a polite kiss. He can hear their tongues.
“Ten.” Taeyong repeats his name and leans forward at his side, catching his eye. He bites his lip. “We don’t have to.” Ten pats his arm clumsily. That worried face won't do.
“Your turn,” Doyoung announces. He waits until the bottle stops spinning and hums in consideration. “What do you think, Ten or Taeyong?”
“Definitely Ten,” Jungwoo supplies, and he’s quick, quicker than he’s ever seen him. He settles across Ten’s thighs and licks his nose. There's more mass to him than Taeyong, like he won't float away. His palm is soft on Ten's nape. “We really do like you, don’t listen to Doyoung,” he says, and his lips are plush and inviting. But it feels like a test, the dry kiss he presses to Ten’s mouth.
Taeyong squeezes his wrist and on his deathbed Ten will never admit to waiting for permission.
Kissing Jungwoo is easy. It doesn’t set his hands to shaking, but it’s pleasant all the same, warm as the down quilts in winter and floors with fire below. He moans deep in his chest when Ten holds his mouth open with a hand clamped upon the hinge of his jaw, and louder when he curls his tongue inside and gets acquainted, wriggling in Ten’s lap. He kisses the corner of his mouth in retreat and Jungwoo all but sparkles back at him. He thinks he hears Taeyong choke down a noise.
“I’m impressed,” he says, hazy, as Doyoung lifts an arm for Jungwoo to melt against his side. “You used to be jealous.”
Doyoung shrugs. “And you used to be an idiot. We grow.”
“Can he say that?” Taeyong marvels. His chest rises with shallow, rapid breaths.
“It’s subjective,” Ten mutters, ears burning, and sets the bottle to spinning. When it stops he squints. “How am I supposed to do this when you’re on top of each other?”
“Kiss Doyoung,” Jungwoo says too readily. He shuffles out of the way. “Taeyong wants to see, too.”
Taeyong stifles another sound, this one high in his nose, but he denies nothing.
Though Ten doesn’t regret biting Doyoung’s lip, he licks him afterward in a sort of truce. Doyoung snorts but leans back in, head turning for access, and the kiss is inquisitive, unhurried. But this time he hears Taeyong suck in a breath. It’s reason enough to make it look good, messier. Until their chins are wet and something low rumbles up from Doyoung's chest.
“I like this game,” Ten decides as he draws away. Doyoung touches his tongue to his upper lip, eyes gone dark, and scarcely turns his face in time when Jungwoo swoops for a kiss.
“Not your turn,” he mutters. Jungwoo blows a raspberry into his neck instead.
“My turn,” Taeyong agrees unsteadily. He doesn’t reach for the bottle.
“Can’t you just kiss both of them?” Ten asks. “Do we have to sit around spinning a bottle and acting surprised?”
The witch inches forward on his knees. When Ten presses up behind him he moans, breath burning with liquor, and his spine arches.
“I want to feel how it is for you,” Ten mumbles behind his ear. Taeyong quakes. Something shimmers at the edge of his sight. Ten turns his head, hair tickling his cheek, and watches as fallen leaves float from the ground and flap into moths. Taeyong seems not to notice.
He and Jungwoo laugh into their kiss, and Taeyong is diverted for a spell simply sucking on his lip and petting the length of his spine. Jungwoo has his hands in Taeyong's hair, caressing his face, trailing up and down his warm arms, and an involuntary tenderness comes upon Ten like a sneeze. Taeyong will never be alone, he thinks. He ought never be lonely. At last he’s melted back against Ten, his toes flexing. His grin is crooked.
Then Doyoung has the nerve to peck him like a stranger. Jungwoo boos.
“Have you two done this before or was that a figment of my imagination?” Ten wonders. He skates his hand under Taeyong’s shirt and finds his belly tight with held breath. He pushes his heat blindly back against Ten like a cat, groaning for a scrape of teeth over his jugular. “You’re supposed to be appreciating him. So kiss him properly,” he orders.
“Make me proud,” Jungwoo laughs.
After, when Taeyong is soundly kissed, his hair ruffled, he sleeps pillowed on Ten’s chest. He’s too warm, like a pile of embers, and his jaw is too hard, but Ten can’t be troubled to move him. At a distance, Doyoung rolls Jungwoo beneath a shroud of azaleas.
It’s not such a terrible song, he thinks. Somewhere between too serious and not serious at all. Taeyong has never asked him to stay, and so there’s no tragedy in his leaving. He lies awake and fixes the night in his memory. The sliver of a new moon. Jungwoo drunk and giggling, Doyoung hushing him. The sounds Taeyong made held between the three of them, stunned warm and open.
How he sleeps now, as Ten cards his fingers through his hair. For a moment he aches to shake him awake just to see his eyes again.
The worst morning in his memory unfolds like a dream.
Ten wakes in the early dark and the birds call. He spots two pairs of feet tangled beneath the azaleas. Dew has settled upon his skin but Taeyong’s brow is hot and dry to the touch. Ten shifts from under his weight so as not to wake him.
The witch could throw together most anything for iron sickness, but pancakes are what Ten knows by heart. And yet the knife slips from his hand like a viper and he catches it with ice flooding his veins. A spatter of oil catches him high on his wrist and burns. The door opens, Jaehyun well accustomed to letting himself in.
A charm has hung over the lintel all the months Ten has lived in the cottage. A cormorant skull with a hooked, gilded beak and pearls set in the deep sockets of the eyes.
It falls, shattering, and he and Jaehyun are one creature frozen in dread.
“Where’s Taeyong?” he asks thinly, and Ten tells him.
He turns off the stove and counts Jaehyun’s steps. Waits, not breathing, and prays to titans of stone and sky in whom he never believed.
But Jaehyun howls his name, and it all spills together after that.
“What are you going to do?” Doyoung crowds past him, pressing more ice packed towels along Taeyong’s side. His skin sizzles. The question could be for anyone.
“You know what this is,” Ten accuses. He holds Taeyong’s head in his lap. His fingertips well with blisters from touching his face, his slack mouth, prying at his eyes.
Jaehyun curses, flipping through a journal so quickly the pages tear. “Haven’t you been paying attention?”
“Can you do something or not?” Haechan is holding Taeyong’s wrists, coaxing the heat into himself, but unlike fire it does not answer him and still the witch burns.
“Not me.” Jaehyun sits heavily. The journal falls from his hands. “You’re supposed to know. If you’re here then you really are his guide. This is his exaltation, he needs you.”
“No, I’m not,” Ten croaks. “Just help him already.”
“It has to be you. A witch who comes into the fullness of their power needs a divine wind. It was the same for Ja Rhee, but Taeyong’s grandfather was a shaman and not useless,” Jaehyun bites down a shout. His eyes look wild. “You aren’t here by accident.”
There is no enemy to strike and no ghost to save him. Ten blinks his hot eyes until they clear and dwells in the shade of happier afternoons, Taeyong’s low voice instructing him in the kitchen.
“Rice,” he says unsteadily, and Jaemin bolts before he can finish. “There’s a wooden box. With a lotus carved on it. Behind the art books.” Jungwoo nods. He passes a trembling hand over Ten’s hair in passing.
One by one, he bites grains of rice in half. One half of each he tucks beneath Taeyong’s tongue, and the other beneath his own. Every time he gentles the witch’s mouth open a tendril of smoke curls free. The blisters on Ten's hands swell and burst. This is no spell he knows. There is no instruction, no brush of rightness as when a stew becomes a potion.
At last he gestures Jungwoo closer. From the box he withdraws a vial, not so large. Easy to forget. It glints as if light is trapped inside, blue and silver in turns.
When he pours his name down Taeyong’s throat, covering his burning mouth, his nose, he feels nothing. The wind doesn’t answer him. He breathes and his lungs are slack and empty. Deafening voices surround him. Even the sunlight is a sound and it crushes him.
Blackness rushes up to meet him.
The mists take him. Ten remembers them. He remembers the fear. And then he remembers nothing.
The hall is vast. It echoes. He cranes his neck back to see the ceiling woven with roots. Soft lights like fireflies hang from nothing.
He is very small and his legs strain across the back of a white horse as he clings to the waist ahead of him. He presses his cheek to a rich blue mantle sewn with stars and squeezes his eyes shut. When she dismounts, the woman in the silver diadem curls her hands over his own.
Never show fear he hears, a whisper curling inside his skull, and he opens his eyes.
He is very small still. The chair he sits in is high and his swinging feet do not meet the floor. His socks itch, as does his freshly shaven scalp. The television hums in the next room and he is alone.
An open book sits before him on the table, but he watches a bowl of fruit instead. A pressure builds between his eyes. His ears pop. A single green grape twitches. It rolls toward him, bouncing, and then as if weightless it begins to rise.
A heavy hand seizes his shoulder and wrenches him from his seat. The bellowing strikes his sore eardrums like a hammer and he hunches, covering his ears.
The grape drops and rolls from the table onto the floor. It does not move, but he watches it crushed between thumb and forefinger all the same.
The light is blue and the music is loud. He thinks to move but walks through himself, and then he is only himself again, nameless, and the man who leans up against the bar is a stranger. He wears many rings and chipped black varnish on his fingernails, and his dark eyes are impossibly large in his face, which sears his sight like a burning brand in the dim.
The taller man beside him laughs and his incisors catch the light. When he speaks the sounds are nonsensical. He holds a bottle in each hand and passes one off.
But the one with the vast dark eyes is holding the bottle loosely by the neck, fishing in his pocket for a phone. He aches to call out, to summon those eyes upon him, but he doesn’t know why.
Ducking into an alcove, the man cradles the phone between his cheek and shoulder, covering his other ear with his free hand. The lights flicker blue and green over his face. He shouts nonsense over the din and then his face is stricken of all expression.
The bottle shatters on the floor.
Electric lights explode overhead. The air swarms with fragments of glass, spinning a storm. Windows smash inward and though the throng cowers with their arms shielding their heads he is unscathed. The tall man drops, shielding those nearest with his broad back. Across the room, he spies a wall of mirrors just before they rupture and a stranger stares back at him. The scar cleaving his cheek makes him look cruel.
A lone unsundered bulb hums above him. The humming grows louder, until he tilts his head back to stare, drawn like a moth.
The humming recedes and he blinks the glare from his eyes.
The hall is dim, harsh white lights and long grey swathes of shadow between. The overwhelming smell of bleach rolls over him like a wave. A voice drones on high, distorted and faraway. Figures rush past no more substantial than smoke, wheeling a prone form on a cart.
A man sits in a hard chair with his head cradled between his hands and his fingernails are black with chipped varnish. His fists tighten as if to rip his hair out from the roots.
Now his feet answer him. Each step comes slowly, pushing through some unseen resistance. Something weighs down his arm and he blinks down at a black sword, its glass blade chipped to a jagged edge. When he drops it, rattling against the tiles, the sound punches through him like thunder. He feels lighter.
The man looks up. His eyes are swollen red. Confusion knots his flushed face.
“Ten? What are you doing here?”
Ten breathes as if for the first time, shuddering with relief. When he sighs through his mouth the wind stirs their hair, flaps papers pinned to boards along the wall. It smells of cinnamon, of sweet sage, of boiling mulberry bark.
The witch hunches in on himself, clutching his elbows so hard his knuckles whiten.
“You have to come back,” Ten says.
Taeyong sways where he sits, disoriented. “Why?”
“Because you promised me something,” Ten says thickly. He forces himself through air dense as summer mud and kneels. Taeyong unfastens one stiff hand and lays it upon his head like a baffled king.
“Do you know the way?” he wonders. He sounds steadier.
“Close your eyes,” Ten says at last. He tugs Taeyong’s hand away and kisses his palm. “Follow my voice. The mist will make you forget, if you look.”
Ten is choking. His mouth burns. When he keels to the side and coughs he spits charred and smoking rice. Beside him Taeyong hacks, his shoulders heaving. His eyes stream but still he gropes for purchase on his hands and knees and finds Ten, clutching at his wrist. His hair is white as bone.
“I know you,” Taeyong says.
Ice crashes over their heads and Jaemin stares down at them, bucket held aloft. The moon shines past his shoulder.
“Oh,” he says weakly. “Hey. What’s up, guys?” Behind him Haechan hiccups, snot running freely.
Ten allows his head to thump back against the planks, ice and all. He drags one of Taeyong’s hands over his chest where his heart batters his ribs.
“I don’t want any more adventures,” he mumbles, eyes smarting with smoke. “I take it all back.”
When the days grow chill they pack up the cottage again, shifting sides, and Taeyong banks fires below the stone floors with only a twist of his fingers.
Late, when they ought to be sleeping, they lie tangled in sheets and Ten trails fingertips up and down his spine. Taeyong watches him with his cheek pillowed on his forearms. His hair is like a spill of snow, but not so bright as his eyes, which throw back light like polished coins in the dark. Ten has yet to inform him of this particular acquisition.
The drowsy witch blinks as with a thought.
“I could craft you a glamour now,” he murmurs. “Come to think of it, I could probably peel the scar right off you. Turn your hair back.” It’s been black since they woke from the mists. Ten still startles at his reflection some mornings. “Whatever you want.”
“Leave it,” Ten decides. His past vanity would recoil. Likely the courtiers will, too. Ugliness is out of fashion, scars are passé.
“You only got them helping me,” Taeyong says, fading fast. His eyes droop shut.
“Yeah,” Ten snorts and drags the blankets over them both. “I know. I was there.”
A great boulder rises from a becalmed sea, its top flat as a table. There Taeil sits with a pile of oysters. He twists the shells apart and they spill raw sapphires, glittering citrines, garnets like drops of blood. He stirs the mound of gems that he amasses with a fingertip, squinting at what he finds there, and only then does he look up to greet Ten.
“What happened?” he breathes. Ten seats himself and a cool hand brushes his cheek. Concern flickers across his face. “No armor and no sword, are you trying to make more work for me?” His hand lingers.
“That’s a tragic face,” Ten says. “Don’t worry about me, it makes you look constipated.”
“Why would I worry over a brat like you?” Taeil scoffs, unconvincing.
Ten holds a sapphire up to the light. Something moves inside but he hasn’t the eye for it.
“How long has it been?” he wonders aloud, though in truth he knows it well.
“A year next week,” Taeil says. He plucks the sapphire away and stirs the gems again. A soft breath leaves him. “You’re going to tell me you’re staying. Are you an oathbreaker now?”
“I know who I serve,” he says carefully. “But the sorcerer by the sea is more powerful than the stories said. If he wants to employ me, should I refuse him? You would tell me not to make an enemy when we could have an ally instead.”
Taeil sighs, resigned. He stares out across the shoreless horizon and the sky darkens to cobalt blue. A rosy moon rises like a paper lantern.
“You’ve changed,” he says at last. “Is it for the better?”
“Never,” Ten laughs. His chest is tight.
“You could be of use,” Taeil declares. Too readily, Ten suspects. He’s a better friend than he could ever earn. “But it won’t always be quiet like this.”
“No,” Ten says slowly. “No, it won’t.”
“So take your time.”
Taeil stops him before he wakes, trapped between layers of gauze and gray.
“You’ve always been wanted here,” he says, and his eyes are bright. “And you always will be.”
“It’s been a year,” Taeyong says, soft as if he hopes Ten might be sleeping.
Ten rouses, propping his chin in his hand. “Has it?”
The witch cuts him an unimpressed look and bites his lip.
“There’s something I owe you,” he says.
The moons have waxed and waned. Ten wondered if he had forgotten entirely.
“This seemed so impossible before,” Taeyong muses. In the kitchen he pours a single ladle of cold bone broth into a shallow bowl. He adds a sliver of cucumber so thin as to be translucent, a shaving of bitter radish, a pinch of tea. It all seems improvised, effortless. He draws the needle from Ten’s collar and pricks his finger, squeezing out a single drop of blood like garnet.
“You could look happier about it,” Ten nudges him. “What’s the fun of being a badass sorcerer if you don’t gloat a bit?”
“Witch,” Taeyong corrects out of habit. He leans upon the counter with both hands and stares all unseeing ahead. A muscle in his cheek jumps and he swallows audibly. “You have to go,” he says at last, choked. “You said people will come looking for you.”
“Haven’t you heard? The witch on the mountain,” he says, dutiful, “who is the witch by the sea, the great and powerful. He owns my name. So I suppose I’ll stick around until he decides to get rid of me.”
Taeyong stares. Ten reaches around him and downs the contents of the bowl in one gulp. He’s suddenly ravenous, as if he could swallow the world whole.
“I can lie,” he tests, and shivers with delight. “Think of the criminal applications. There’s a reason we’re so stingy in making promises. We have to keep them or they won’t be true.”
“Are you sure?” Taeyong strokes his hair back over his ear and waits.
“Do you want me to lie to you?” Ten slithers up against his warmth and noses his throat where the wind becomes breath.
“Try,” Taeyong laughs, giddy and breathless, and kisses his smirk.
Ten hums and kisses him back again. He laces their fingers together, one hand and then the other, and Taeyong looks bemused.
You don’t know, he thinks. Someday you’ll be gone. There will be another war, and another, because there must be, because peace is not an ending but an uncomfortable pause. And you will be waiting on warm black sands beside a calm sea, with the sun in your eyes. Or maybe outside a cottage in the darkness, with lights to guide me. In that other kingdom, I’ll find you there.
These things he does not say, for they’re true, and so prove nothing.
“I don’t love you,” he says, and Taeyong’s face is like the dawn.
This story started as pure self-indulgence, just writing what I wanted to read. The fact that so many people have enjoyed it and offered so much support just flattens me in gratitude. This is where I sign off.
I opted not to publish 'no choir', a prequel from Jaehyun's pov, but you can read an overview of that story here
Peep the loveliest portrayal of hedge witch taeyong here