Chapter 1: One
“Are we out of wormwood?”
It’s the midst of a very busy day—Taehyung is on his fourth patient and his hands are growing numb—and he hopes very fervently that he’s just heard wrong, that Jungkook did not just suggest they were out of a very important, completely non-substitutable ingredient for their anesthetic draught.
“Can’t be,” says Jin, from where he’s standing right beside Taehyung, casting light onto the patient’s open chest with his wand so Taehyung can get at the slick, pulsing heart with spider-silk and his needles. “We stocked up just two nights ago. Aconite, wormwood, valerian—I remember putting the bottles away.”
“Well, they’re empty. So’s the container with the powdered unicorn horn. Tae, did we have anyone with a thrice-broken heart this last week?”
Taehyung shakes his head no. Thrice-broken hearts are hardest to mend; the scarring and the tears become extensive by then, and spells don’t work anymore. Taehyung needs potions and patience and expensive ingredients to fill all the holes. It usually takes hours.
“I swear we had powdered unicorn horn last night. I gave some to Namjoon—one of his teacup dragons is doing poorly.”
“Then we have a thief.” Jungkook makes an aggravated sound. “Did you let a pixie in, again, Jin hyung?”
“That was once,” Jin protests. “And back then I was researching the language of magical creatures. Do you know that pixies speak only in palindromes, and seventy-five percent of their vocabulary are swear words? They are brilliant swearers, very influenced by their observation of the human world. For example: Ugly Christmas Sweater is thought to be, by a large segment of the pixie population, to be one of the most potently terrible things you can call someone. Ask me why.”
Jungkook throws up his hands and walks out of the treatment room.
“Mmph,” Taehyung says, through the spool clasped between his teeth while he threads a needle. “Why?”
“Because there is nothing pixies hate more in this world than Netflix Christmas specials.”
“Ha! Jungkook likes them.”
“Of course he does,” Seokjin grins. “Aren’t you done?”
Taehyung looks at his handiwork and makes a vague noise of acknowledgment. “Just wondering if I should add in an extra something. Euphoria? Curiosity? Maybe he’s getting rejected because his heart is lonesome?”
Jin tuts and shoos Taehyung away. “Lovely thought, but as I always tell you, darling, you’re a healer. Not an Instagram filter app.”
Beneath the expert flicks of Seokjin’s wand, the neat incisions on the patient’s chest begin to knit together, bone and flesh mending. Taehyung watches it, and ignores the way his own heart gives a sudden, strange, painful flutter. It’s been doing that awhile.
Seokjin siphons all the remaining blood away. Taehyung gets up to fill up a flask of a restorative draught, something to act as a pick-me-up. It’s when he gets to the cupboard where he keeps it that he notices that the little doors to the spiders' cages are all open. They’ve all escaped.
“Fuck,” he says, “the spiders.”
Seokjin raises an eyebrow. “For your sake, Taehyung-ah, I hope there was a period in that sentence somewhere.”
“Are the eels gone too? What about the crystal reserves? Oh shit, hyung, I can’t find any of the moonbug lace.” Taehyung gasps, searching through the cupboards, hands shaking. “Is this a sabotage?”
“Who’d gain anything by sabotaging us? We’re just…us. A not-fully qualified healer, a half-witch fresh out of school, and—well. Me. I’m awesome. But clearly not sabotage-worthy. Do we have a poltergeist?”
“Wouldn’t a poltergeist let us know it was there? That’s their whole brand, laughing and chucking shit at us. I lived with one for years. Wouldn’t stop spanking my butt.”
“I’d spank your butt, too, if I were a poltergeist,” Seokjin says, heartily. “But your butt’s not the issue at hand. Where are all our supplies? Who’s stealing from us? Are you sure it isn’t Jungkook, because if I were Jungkook, I’d totally embezzle you to pay out my student loans.”
“Nah, Jungkook is too nice.”
Jungkook walks back in just then, eyes wide and hands full of empty jars. “Just so you know, the stuff you’ve been growing in the shed for the non-invasive cures is all gone, too. Your familiar barked up a storm when he saw me. I think he’s spooked.”
“Who’s doing this?” Seokjin asks, looking from Taehyung to Jungkook and back to Tae. “You don’t have any haters I’m aware of, Tae. Who’d want to hurt you?”
Taehyung purses his lips. Crosses his arms. His client is starting to wake up, eyebrows furrowing at the pain that Taehyung can’t really sort out without his draughts, and he feels a little surge of irritation at the whole situation. “I can think of one person.”
Taehyung opens his mouth to answer, then shuts it and nods towards the client. “He’s waking up.”
Seokjin uses the butt of his wand to knock the client out. “Who?” he demands again, even as Jungkook squeaks and steps forward to heal the bruise.
Taehyung takes a deep breath. “Min Yoongi.”
“Main street apothecary Min Yoongi?”
Jungkook pats the client’s shoulder nervously. “What’s Min Yoongi’s beef with you?”
“He hates me.”
“Hate is a strong word,” Seokjin says, breezily. “But is he why you always order our supplies from shady online websites? Instead of, like, walking ten minutes down the road to the country’s best magical apothecary?”
“He’d never sell to me even if I wanted his stuff,” Taehyung fumes. “Won’t sell to you two, either. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if all three of us are on a banishment list that’ll make sure we never step foot in his shop.”
“Well.” Jin holds up the last of the spider-silk, just a string or two hanging from the edge of the spool. “In that case, darling, how prepared are you to beg?”
Jungkook goes first, because Jungkook is the least likely of Taehyung’s friends and employees to have pinged Min Yoongi’s radar. Jungkook is confused and half-blooded and grew up with completely clueless foster parents, who nearly imploded upon themselves when they first learned about the underbelly of magic that bubbled and stirred right in front of their eyes. Jungkook has, after school, bounced from temp job to temp job without really sticking anywhere, until Taehyung had taken him in as a receptionist and all-around helper. Not many people wanted to work in his clinic, after all.
Taehyung really hopes Jungkook has been too quiet, sitting at reception playing games all day, for Yoongi to associate his face with Taehyung’s.
That hope turns out to be in vain when Jungkook comes back fifteen minutes later, tripping over his own feet, little bubbles of champagne escaping his little mouth and popping in the air.
“Ha, hilarious!” Seokjin crows, jumping to take pictures. “What a twist on the bubble charm! Ingenious. How do you like champagne, Kook?”
“Enjoy it while it lasts,” Taehyung sighs, sitting Jungkook down. “You’re still two years away from legal drinking age.”
Jungkook blinks. “Hyung, you have big eyes," he says. "Really big. Like aliens. Or Puss in Boots. Or, or, Powerpuff Girls. You’d be Bubbles if we were the Powerpuff Girls. Jin hyung would be Blossom.”
“Are you Buttercup, then?”
“Yeah,” Jungkook says, blissfully, and offers no further explanation.
Taehyung rolls his eyes and pets Jungkook’s head. Seokjin tries to get the charm off him as well as he can. When he’s done, Jungkook smiles dopily up at him, one hand curling around Yeontan who struggles to escape, emitting tiny paw-sparks.
“I didn’t even get past the front door,” Jungkook mumbles, sounding fuzzy and bewildered. Then he looks up, happily confunded, at the phone camera in his face. “Wow, Jin hyung, you look particularly like a Dorito today.”
Jin flexes his shoulders. “Is it the shirt? It’s the shirt, right? I really do fill it out well,” Seokjin takes one last picture of Jungkook’s creepily intense smile before turning to Taehyung. “I’ll try going. Whatever that charm does to me, I need you to swear on your life that you will record photographic evidence. This is brilliant Snapchat material.”
Seokjin’s obviously more likely to be known as part of Taehyung’s little heart-mending outfit, but then again, Seokjin is so unpredictable that he might just have skipped Yoongi’s attention altogether. Sometimes Taehyung isn’t even sure he’s human. Jin could be part fae, or demi-god, or some sort of other magical entity, perhaps with a dab of trickster blood in his blood-line somewhere. Taehyung’s known him for three years, and in that window of time Seokjin’s been a magical linguist, a window-cleaner, a highly successful investment banker, a deep-sea diver, and a diplomat with a special focus on human-goblin relations. He thinks at least one-tenth of Seokjin’s friendship with Tae is based on their mutual disinterest for the rules the world operates under.
Apparently, however, even Seokjin isn’t impervious to Min Yoongi.
“Always wanted thick facial hair,” Seokjin says, once Taehyung cuts him out of the ropes of beard tying his wrists and ankles. “Tangled is totally my favorite Disney movie and all. Perhaps I should reconsider shearing all of it off."
“How did you get here?”
Seokjin looked at him evenly, still a little ginger-bearded, even though most of it had smoked and turned to ash under the tip of Jungkook’s wand. “Why, Taehyung-ssi. I rolled all the way, of course.”
This, of course, leaves Taehyung to face the dragon.
He ignores the little bite of anxiety that leaving the shop brings him, pulling on his cloak and sticking his hands in his pockets as he starts the trek up narrow stairs to the main street. He’s breathing a little hard by the time he gets to the top, a pinch in his chest that feels like a hard fist squeezing. He puffs out one pained breath, then another. The big-mustached man that sells cursed objects next door gives him a dark look and then continues to polish the bloody candlestick in his hands. Taehyung treks past the dingy, dirty shop-windows advertising skulls and chalices, dark moonlight rituals and supplies for vampires, and expert advice on voodoo curses. A witch with her hands full of some violently snapping flowers hisses at him with a forked tongue.
Taehyung trudges up the stairs, burrowing tighter into his cloak.
When would the world of witching e-commerce get with the program and finally start a model like Amazon Prime? Taehyung is ready to pay extra if that meant his supplies came within a matter of one day. Then he wouldn’t have had to drag himself up here, to Min Yoongi’s shop, to face whatever trials and tribulations that Yoongi’s cursed threshold had in store for him.
The trouble is, hearts break all the time.
Whether it’s unrequited love or the death of a partner, a betrayal or a rejection by a crush—hearts wither and crumple and cave. Taehyung’s family on his mother’s side has been mending them for years, and there’s not been a heart with a problem that Taehyung couldn’t learn how to mend from his grandmother’s meticulously recorded medical journals.
The second trouble is, what Taehyung does is not exactly an acceptable form of medicine. Hospitals—magical or otherwise—frown at it, oftentimes taking the stance that as the mind heals, so will the heart. While this is true most of the time, sometimes people’s magic turn on themselves when they go through heartbreak. Taehyung’s had patients who’s waited years to heal before coming to him with withered, scarred hearts that wouldn’t let them move forward.
(“Sometimes, TaeTae, they need us to help them so they can live their best lives,” his grandmother had told him once, “To love freely and fully again. That’s what we can give them, that pills and doctors can’t.”)
The third trouble is, heart-mending Taehyung’s way requires extensive potions and organic ingredients. His is alternative medicine—less wand-waving, more getting bloody—and he can’t do without his reserves of aconite, or wormwood, or belladonna.
So there’s really no way but to suck it up and clomp down main street, past the sunlit square and the ice-cream shop, past the nice fashion stores and the owl emporium, Namjoon’s little Menagerie and the sparkling new bakery, until he stands in front of Min Yoongi’s apothecary.
Ready to beg.
He spots Yoongi almost immediately. The man is at the window, grim-faced above a silenced, grotesquely screaming mandrake root clutched in one hand, cheeks slightly dusted pink and round glasses perched primly on his delicate nose. He drops the mandrake root when he spots Taehyung, his eyebrows pulling together and a furious spill of color turning his ears red. A green, conical hat is perched on his head, at the tip of which blooms a magnificent moonflower even as Taehyung watches.
Yoongi’s robes are tidy and impeccable, even though he works with dirt and critters all day. His hair is neat and nicely combed beneath that hat. There’s a shining hourglass on a long chain around his neck, and he wears a little brooch that bears the crest of a crescent moon and a black cat. They’re symbols of his family. The same crest is painted on the board out front: the cat’s tail proud and standing right up like a question mark, the moon like a cheery lopsided smile. The Min family has owned this shop for centuries.
In stark contrast, Taehyung’s once-red robes have now faded all the way to a vague sandal, there’s probably some blood spatters on it, and he knows for a fact that his hair is a wild mess. That happens when you’ve spent your morning bemoaning the unexpected loss of your supplies. His boots are full of tears from the many times he’s spilled potions on them, and the only jewelry he has is the stupid plastic ring that he and Jimin wear as a token of their unlikely friendship. And as for Taehyung’s family—well.
All of this is probably why Yoongi’s mouth twists into a scowl at seeing him.
Taehyung takes a deep, grounding breath. Yoongi raises an eyebrow, one hand rising to pick the moonflower from the tip of his hat, discarding it to the side as if it’s a piece of trash. Taehyung clenches his fists somewhere deep in the pockets of his cloak. He’s suddenly over-aware of exactly how greasy his face feels from having worked in the treatment room since the morning without a break. Yoongi probably has magically regulated air-quality and temperature in his apothecary. He’s probably really anal about it too: there’s no way those banshee-apples, growing in pots just at window-height, are that glossy without being ridiculously well-cared for.
Taehyung swallows back some bitterness. He’s always known that Yoongi is really good at what he does. That one fact has never been contested, even in his most biased, irritable thoughts about the man: he’s always admired Yoongi for how hard he worked, how he’s spent years and years learning all the names and characteristics of all the plants, how he would only accept the best sort of magical talent for his shop. He’s admired Yoongi for the mergers and agreements he’s made to get rare medicinal supplies in his shop in return for exporting their more local produce. He’s admired Yoongi for going on expeditions to Guyana, to Galapagos, to Kiribati and Socotra, to understand and gather their local witch community’s healing plants.
Yoongi does everything so perfectly, with such devilish attention to details. Taehyung thinks he deserves his place in the Wired Wizard’s 25 Under 25 list every year.
But Yoongi also plays by the rules. And while Taehyung hates the rules of this world, they perhaps hate him even more.
He and Yoongi don’t get along. Period.
Think of the hearts, Taehyung thinks, forcing himself to take one step closer to Yoongi’s shop. The poor, sad hearts. The faces of the poor, sad people carrying them around.
But then Yoongi plucks the second moonflower blooming on his hat and comes barreling out the door.
“You!” he says, and Taehyung jumps back bodily. “You—why have you been sending people all morning? Isn’t everything you’ve done enough already?”
Taehyung gapes, head not working, all of a sudden at a complete loss for words. He’d thought he would beg a little, yell from outside about his situation if that was what it took, try to scrounge just enough of the most vital stuff from Yoongi so he could wait for his delivery in peace without it affecting his patients.
“What did I do?” he asks, instead, old hurt flaring up in him again, uninvited.
“What did you do?” Yoongi asks, in a dark voice. “My hellebore, my emeralds, my chalcanthite—there isn’t another shop in the entire tangled mess of these alleys that need these ingredients. Only you. How are you stealing them, Taehyung? Why?”
Taehyung tries not to sound as gobsmacked as he feels. “You’re…missing ingredients? And, what, you think it’s me?”
Yoongi’s gaze is steady and intense. “Is that not why your people have been trying to walk into my shop all morning?”
“That’s not how stealing works,” Taehyung puffs up a little, righteously indignant. “If I was stealing your stuff, I’d have done it discreetly. You know, without getting publicly hexed by your banishment charm. Why would I steal from you, anyway? I have my own business. I make my own money. And by the way, I came here because I thought you might have been stealing from me.”
Yoongi laughs out loud at this. “Hecate Be Blessed, why would I want to steal from you? You’re barely keeping that place afloat as it is.”
Taehyung feels his insides shrivel up a little. “Hey. I do decent business.”
“Sure you do,” Yoongi sings, condescending. “But seriously, Taehyung-ssi, why would I want to steal from you?”
“Because you fucking hate me.”
For a moment, something quiet and surprised flickers across Yoongi’s face. Then he says, plucking another moonflower from the hat, “I do?”
Taehyung clenches his fists in his pockets. “Of course you do. Everybody—everybody knows that.”
Yoongi looks at the flower, his mouth open in a little, pink O. “They do?”
What an odd conversation. Taehyung closes his eyes and shakes his fists a little. Opens his mouth and shuts it. Purses his lips and puffs his cheeks out. His heart pings again, painfully. “Yeah. They do.”
Yoongi just looks. Taehyung squirms, everything in his head slip-sliding under Yoongi’s confused, considering gaze.
“Anyway,” he says, hating the roughness in his voice, “I came to ask if you’d have some ingredients to lend me. Y’know. Because someone stole all of my stuff. But I guess you don’t.”
“Yeah,” Yoongi says, a little too aggressively. Another moonflower grows in his hat. “I guess I don’t.”
“Your hat’s out of control.”
Yoongi’s ears go furiously red again. “Yeah, I guess—I guess it is.”
“I’ll be going now.”
Taehyung rubs lightly at his chest and stares. Yoongi glares back.
“I didn’t steal your shit,” Taehyung announces again, loud as he backtracks from Yoongi. “I really didn’t, hyung.”
Yoongi startles. “What did you—”
Taehyung kicks himself mentally for the slip. “Sorry. Sorry, Yoongi-ssi, I’ll be going now.”
And then he turns and runs away, as fast as he can.
The heart of the matter is, once upon a time Taehyung and Yoongi used to be friends.
Back at the academy, where Yoongi was two years his senior, he’d perhaps been Taehyung’s only friend. They met over a mutual love for long hours spent in the poisonous greenhouses, faces covered up in masks, digging out roots, grinding pods, mixing concoctions so potent the tips of their fingers were always burnt. Under the canopies of murderous, toxic trees, they kept finding each other picking lush poppies, extracting dittany, measuring crystals and wicked salts. In that hallowed, ancient school, with its changing corridors and charmed bridges, its sweet river and bright gardens, Taehyung and Yoongi only ever saw each other in glass houses full of beautiful murder.
They were strange together.
The bark of trees above them like pale ribs, beautiful death in the air and water and leaves. Even now the memory sits in him, like pale, sweet venom.
Taehyung liked watching Yoongi work. He went about it methodically, snipping and cutting, slender eyes focused on their thick, needlessly obscure textbook. He looked somewhat like a cross between a pixie and a fencing champion in his over-large school robes and hazard mask. Every time Yoongi turned to look at him, Taehyung would get flustered and look away. It was the differences between them: No matter what he tried, Taehyung’s hair wouldn’t lie flat, his frayed robes wouldn’t stay clean, his hands wouldn’t stop being forever muddy. Next to him, Yoongi made an untouchable porcelain figure. He was all clean lines, even back then; small and sturdy, compact yet surprisingly strong. Taehyung enjoyed that, a bit: the Min family heritage made Taehyung think of Yoongi as something coddled, a glass-box specimen. And he was, but he was also curious of shiny things, of the dark jewels of the earth, of Taehyung.
“How are you doing that to the moonflower?” he’d ask, eyebrows furrowed and lips in a thin line, somehow appearing behind Taehyung with not so much as a whisper of sound.
“My grandmother taught it to me,” Taehyung would mumble. “Rubbing villaumite on the stalks makes them more potent. They bloom blue.”
Yoongi would look at his own (very white) moonflower. “Can I have some?”
Taehyung thought he was the most interesting thing. Sometimes he curled up and slept in the sun, on one of the old benches in the greenhouse, only to wake up stretching like a cat. Sometimes he stayed working in the greenhouses the whole day, and Taehyung would know this by the giant dark circles beneath his eyes. Taehyung made sure to sneak him some food those days, especially any spicy meats, because he knew Yoongi liked that. Yoongi never said thanks, just looked at him a bit funny, but he ate all of it every single time.
Despite the burning sun turning Taehyung’s skin a never-fading caramel, Yoongi somehow remained only a shade or two above a ghost. Pale as an egg except for all the bits of him that was pink. (Taehyung has a whole catalogue. His knuckles. His elbows. The tip of his nose, on colder nights. His lips.)
“Maybe you can guess what else about him is pink, Taehyungie,” Jimin cackled, every time Taehyung brought this up. (Which was a lot.) “His little nips, I bet those are pink. And also—”
“Shush,” Taehyung hissed, feeling his cheeks flame. Scratch the aforementioned: Yoongi had perhaps been Taehyung’s only human friend. Unluckily, he also had Park Jimin. “You’ve got such a dirty mind.”
Jimin, upside down with his fingers resting on Taehyung’s windowsills, gave a long-suffering sigh. “It’s boredom, TaeTae,” he sighed, bright blue hair brushing the tops of Taehyung’s line of vicious Venus flytraps. “You try being a century-old poltergeist having to entertain himself with stuttering, stumbling virginal little boy-witches.”
“I don’t stutter.”
“But you stumble. It’s bad enough that I’ve considered submitting an application to exorcise myself. Y’know. Get a preacher in here, scare their socks off, have a last little hooray before getting myself banished to hell.”
“You said hell doesn’t exist.”
Jimin pouted. “See? Everything is fucking boring. Even exorcisms don’t really have a zing anymore. Hollywood took it all away. Everything is so dullsville.”
Taehyung looked intently at his cuticles. They were a little dirt-stained from all the mud he kept sticking his hands in. It was probably a lost cause trying to get them fully clean. He asked, throat full and tight, “Am I boring?”
“Ah, no, no, no,” Jimin crowed, swooping to rub the top of Taehyung’s head. “You’re my baby. You’re my clumsy little poison prince. You’re the shining example of intersectionality in this very elitist, very cloistered university. A wandless witch! How unique.”
Taehyung snorted. “You do know I am a wandless witch because my magic isn’t enough for a wand. Because I’m not enough.”
An empty can of cola came zooming to smack Taehyung in the head. “Idiot. You’re very talented. Has anyone else charmed all the familiars in this school? Has anyone else managed to make friends with the ghosts and the poltergeists? Does anyone else get extra cakes delivered to their room from the kitchens? You’re different.”
“That’s what my grandma says.”
“She’s right. And different is good.”
Different is good, Jimin kept telling him, even if that was also Jimin’s motto for switching up Friday’s chocolate mud-cake to actual mud, or replacing all of the professors’ wardrobes with nothing but Hooters uniforms. Taehyung didn’t necessarily believe Jimin. He was hopelessly behind in all his classes, because wand-magic just didn’t work for him. He was terrible at committing things to memory, because all the letters in textbooks danced when he looked at them. Maybe he was a little naturally gifted in healing and potion-making, but that meant he barely scraped by in the other classes. He had a suspicion that the only reason he wasn’t being failed was because the school was trying to be more inclusive of students with varying backgrounds.
Inclusivity, however, didn’t come with automatic kindness.
Kids were cruel. Taehyung didn’t mind that much: he’d always been good at finding his own place in the oddest of surroundings. If he were a toxic plant, he’d be a desert xerophyte, flowering in the harshest conditions. (That’s also something his grandma said.) He was never friendless. He had Jimin who not only hung out and helped him with homework, but also chucked rotten tomatoes at anyone trying to bully him. He had Hoseok, the happiest ghost he’s ever met. Hoseok liked yellow and house music and Jimin, so Taehyung’s dorm room at least was never boring. He’d charmed most of the professors into helping him out, and the librarian always let him into the restricted sections to look up more potions.
And then, oddly enough, there was Min Yoongi.
Everyone in Taehyung’s class called Min Yoongi cold. He was that unreachable, impeccable senior that all the kids admired from afar, whispering stories when he passed them in the corridors (Did you hear he interned with Professor Soo? Legendary Professor Soo? All the way in Hungary, I heard. They studied dragons. He rode one.) He was that kid who could break curfew or stagger into class half an hour late with not a wink or reprimand from his teachers. He never picked fights or showed off, preferring to sleep through conversations he wasn’t interested in. Sometimes he seemed to just sit still and do nothing at all.
But he was also Taehyung’s friend. Yoongi told him so. Granted it was after a whole row of Taehyung’s bloodsucking roses died from an aphid attack, and granted Taehyung had been very upset that day, but he remembers vividly that Min Yoongi had come up to him in the greenhouse, face nearly invisible behind the glass and copper mask, and held out two bloody hands full of dark, spurting rose-stalks.
“I can’t take them,” Taehyung had said, morosely. “You’ll need them for the antidote to Professor Kim’s poisons.”
“It’s just a few,” Yoongi insisted. “What’s a few bloody roses between friends?”
Friends, Taehyung thought, a little happy bell ringing clear in his head. Min Yoongi, genius, school favorite: friends with him, little Kim Taehyung, who couldn’t even hold a wand.
He felt dizzy from adoration. Bent beneath the weight of it.
But then he thought of Professor Kim, and how in senior year she literally poisoned the entire class, and you’d need to create your own antidote to save yourself and pass the class. With Taehyung’s sort of luck, these few bloody roses might as well make the difference between life and death for Yoongi. The thought was terrifying.
“I really can’t be responsible for you dying,” he said, pushing Yoongi’s hand away. “They’ll all hate me forever. I’ll be a social pariah. Even Jimin would abandon me.”
Yoongi gave him a puzzled look, blinking slow. The mask somehow magnified this, so he looked a lot like a very pale, rather small bug. “Why would I die?”
Taehyung waved his hands, a little frantic. “Because Professor Kim.”
“You really think she’d try to kill us all?”
“The seniors always say students have died…”
“This is a school, Taehyung-ah. Not a slaughterhouse.”
And when Yoongi said it like that, with a little bit of snark in his tone, Taehyung felt like an idiot. Like a big, dumb baby, believing everything the other kids told him. They probably all laughed at him behind his back for it.
Yoongi looked at his red face and gave a little snort. “Just. Take the fucking roses, kid.”
His fingers left a smear of blood on Taehyung’s arm. Dark red against his skin, a sliver of slick warmth.
After that, Taehyung made sure to share some of his more interesting harvests with Yoongi. The lacewings—those were useful. Yoongi didn’t have any, so Taehyung left him some. He watched to see what Yoongi would do with the little gift—a glass jar with little larvae crawling all over the sides—and was pleased to see Yoongi look it up, label it neatly, and set it on his desk. He did the same with the half of a bat wing (damned useful for healing; Tae had Yeontan to thank for that one), and with the gooseberries, and with the atropine. Soon enough, Yoongi had a whole shelf of Taehyung’s gifts, a fact that rested warm somewhere inside Taehyung, bright as a swallowed star.
Theirs wasn’t a very verbal friendship. Taehyung watched Yoongi work a lot, admired how sure he was. Yoongi never seemed to need validation or friends, he was comfortable enough in his garden, doing what he liked. Sometimes he came up with important, news-worthy medicines. In his fifth year, Taehyung watched him smile, big and gummy, at some clear pink liquid that he’d later learn was a cure for the Hopping Foot condition that affected young male witches. Yoongi was in the papers for that. He looked disagreeable in the photos, covering his eyes from the flash of the camera, scowling and half-shy, but Taehyung cut the picture out carefully and stuck it between the pages of his wand-magic books. (He used them the least; they made great preservers.)
They didn’t interact outside of the greenhouses. The academy was lush and sprawling, and Taehyung watched other kids hang out in alcoves, under the delicate bridges, by the riverside. On sunny days, a lot of them ended up in the hedge maze, coming out of it with bright cheeks and irrepressible giggles. Jimin sometimes chucked apples at them. Taehyung helped him, and tried to think if it made him sad, that Yoongi’s biggest acknowledgment of him outside of the greenhouses was a smile that was nearly a half-wince.
But then Yoongi was like water hemlock. The flashy, lacy parts of him were what was outside, visible to others. Only Taehyung saw the better, secret part of him, the darker half so full of love for murderous blooms.
Did that make Taehyung special?
Maybe he told himself it did. Maybe he believed it.
Yoongi passed Professor Kim’s class with flying colors. He passed the other classes as well. He passed classes and classes until there were no more classes to pass, no more potions to make or spells to cast, no more dreary witching history to recite back.
And then, all of a sudden, Min Yoongi had his big shiny certificate in hand, a large toad-shaped trophy for some award, and a packed trunk full of belongings that included thirty-two of Taehyung’s apothecary jars.
“See you around,” Yoongi said, that last day. “Don’t burn the greenhouse down in the next two years. I’m not around to put your fires out, remember that.”
Yoongi looked at him like he expected Taehyung to stick his tongue out at him. To protest and whine that Yoongi had only ever put out one fire, that too a small one, that too caused mostly by an over-excitable Jimin who wanted to see how flammable fertilizer was. (Taehyung had wanted to know, too, but that was a small detail.)
But Taehyung said nothing. There was a knot in his chest, thick and hot. If he opened his mouth it would—by some alchemy—dissolve in his eyes as tears.
Yoongi stopped looking at him after a few seconds. Then he gulped a couple of times and pushed a bunch of ampules in Taehyung’s general direction. “Uh…maybe these will be useful,” he said, gruff and indifferent, as if Taehyung didn’t matter at all. “You know. Some essences I made and shit. For your classes.”
Yoongi cleared his throat, gaze anchored to some coordinate that definitely did not include Taehyung. “Just. I know you can’t…you know? Wand magic. The curriculum isn’t fair. You’re a great potion maker, but there’s some shit you’re going to struggle with, just because… And that’s not fair. I asked Professor Kim if she could set you something else, a different syllabus, maybe something you could do with spoken incantations, but you know how they are.”
“Toity,” Yoongi said, with a roll of his eyes. “So, uh. Just…cheat a bit. Okay?”
Taehyung licked his lips. “Thank you,” he said, and then, on a hard swallow, “hyung.”
Yoongi’s cheeks went a little pink. Taehyung wondered if he’d made him mad, and then decided that it didn’t matter. He was probably never going to see Yoongi ever again. Their worlds were too different. Yoongi was going to go be some world-renowned potioneer, with patents and newspaper articles written about him. He was going to take over his family’s business. Taehyung was going to be…Taehyung.
Whatever they were, in the quiet of the greenhouses, they weren’t going to be that anymore.
Chapter 2: Two
Sometimes love worked the way curses do
as promised, chapter two.
fu*ck i really didn't think through splitting this properly
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Taehyung closes the clinic for the day.
Jin calls up some suppliers he knows, and the three of them sit on the floor playing Jenga until Jungkook cricks his neck trying to twist himself into a pretzel. Then the two of them leave to get some food, and Taehyung is left alone, to look around at the clinic and feel sorry for himself.
It’s not much.
He’s always known it’s not much, and he’s never cared. This is not medicine, after all. This is Taehyung, quietly telling people that sometimes, when you were magical, love worked the same way as curses: leaving lasting, visible damage in the most delicate, secret parts. This is him, trying to put people back together with thread and potion and heart. Taehyung doesn’t come up with groundbreaking magical cures to stand against any of the seven different times Yoongi’s been in 25 Under 25. He doesn’t file for any patents that will ever have him appear in The Sexy Sorceror’s Most Eligible Bachelors (and their Familiars!).
But Taehyung likes his job, and the little clinic. He likes the dusty bottles of potion on the shelves, and the sterile back room for the procedures. He likes the flowers on the curtains—a little cheer goes a long way in calming patients down—and the Iron Man figurine Jungkook has plopped up at the reception. He likes the large diagram of the heart hanging on one wall, blinking sections of light showing all the ways heartbreak can affect it.
Bloodless white for death. Green for jealousy. Black for betrayal. And then, the most common: purple for unrequited love.
He’s not just barely keeping the place afloat as is.
He does okay. He does decent. As much as he can without a wand.
Fuck Min Yoongi.
These days, he’s pretty much everywhere. The radio is spitting out an ad for his apothecary even as Taehyung arranges a few empty jars. Mr. Min offers custom potions as well, and carefully crafted cosmetics for those of you who don’t want to take chances sourcing expensive, foreign merchandise. Mr. Min also offers hex bags, memory charms…
There’s a rap on the door. Taehyung goes to open it, still rolling his eyes a bit at the radio host’s cheery voice, her Mr. Min that sounds like it’s read right out of a sick pink romance paperback. Taehyung yanks back the door, starting with, “So sorry, we’re closed…” and then trails away.
Mr. Min is at his door.
He looks like he’d just run, all the way from his flashy shop, hair in a disarray and breath coming in spurts. Taehyung notices that he isn’t wearing the moonflower hat anymore. He’s also staring wide-eyed at Taehyung, hands rising almost comically as if to make sure he’s real, his throat moving convulsively.
“You,” he gasps, one finger pointing accusatorily at Taehyung, “you’re okay.”
Taehyung thinks that’s quite a strange thing to be so upset about. “Why—why’re you here?” he asks, his mouth too dry, “What do you want?”
Yoongi’s eyebrows go up in affront. “I…what do you mean, what do I want?”
“What do you mean what do I want? You’re the one at my clinic! What do you want?”
There’s a beat of silence at this, and then Yoongi’s face clouds over. “Kim Taehyung,” he says, tone chilling, “whatever it is that you’re doing, it needs to stop. This game—it’s not funny.”
“What is it that I’m doing?”
“Don’t play dumb,” Yoongi snaps. “Come on, now. Why did you send a letter asking for help?”
Taehyung gapes at him, baffled. “I didn’t.”
Yoongi extricates something from his robe and slaps it hard against Taehyung’s chest. “This is your handwriting.”
It is. And the handwriting is on a crumpled piece of paper, that says something to the tune of hyung, I need you, please help. It’s signed Tae.
Taehyung holds the letter back out for Yoongi. “I don’t sign my name that way.”
“You do,” Yoongi says, off-hand, and then groans. “Seriously? I thought something had happened to you. We’re not in school anymore. This kind of joke is not funny.”
“I never thought it was! I didn’t send this, just like I didn’t steal your stuff. And anyway, what could happen?”
“I don’t know. It’s you. Literally anything is possible with you.”
Bitterness pools on Taehyung’s tongue. “Even if someone was playing a prank with you,” he says, “you didn’t have to come running all the way here. You could’ve just sent…I don’t know. Some acolyte. Someone less famous, who wouldn’t look dumb knocking on my door.”
Yoongi’s eyes go comically wide. “I’m not too famous to knock on your door. Medea’s tits, Taehyung, do you have such a low opinion of me?”
“Yeah, well. I don’t know you.”
A flicker of hurt crosses Yoongi’s face, gone as quickly as it had come. Taehyung looks away hurriedly, uncomfortable.
“That’s right,” Yoongi says, taking a step back. His gaze rests for a minute on Taehyung, then jumps to the dingy handwritten sign above Taehyung’s head that says 100% satisfaction. Jin’s drawn—and how has Taehyung never noticed this?—a pair of hairy balls beneath this, with a fist right below. “Nice place.”
“Thanks, hyung,” Taehyung says, with a clipped, vicious smile. “I know it is.”
There’s a strange pain in Taehyung’s chest that comes and goes, a painful stab every time it recedes. Yoongi gives him a dark, irritable look.
“Just. Don’t bother me again.”
“Never bothered you in the first place.”
How childish. An unsharp barb, unlikely to cut Yoongi at all. Taehyung might as well have stuck his tongue out at him.
When Yoongi’s left, Taehyung storms back inside, fully prepared to grab the first chair he finds to stand on so he can rip that dumb sign off the wall. But then there’s the bookshelf in the waiting room, which has somehow conveniently given out during his conversation with Yoongi. The contents of it lie scattered all over the floor.
Maybe he’s finally well and truly cursed. Maybe, like the rest of his family, an age old dark-magic curse is finally starting to take its toll on him.
Taehyung winces at the crunch of glass his shoes make as he walks over to the collapsed bookshelf. His poor cacti lie in puddles of dirt, the glass pots all broken. He nudges away the ceramic shards of the mug Jungkook had given him his last birthday—it squeaks and brokenly mumbles drink me—and then comes to a stop in front of a couple of large schoolbooks, open right down the middle.
Strewn across the complex wand-movement diagrams are cutouts: starting years ago, with the Hopping Foot article, all the way to 25 Under 25 and The Sexy Sorcerer and so on. Even one of those silly brochures from last year’s Samhain, when Yoongi had had a massive, three-storied tent at the fair. Because that dumb brochure has a tiny, teeny circle from within which Yoongi smiled, surprisingly real for once, as if someone had surprised him with a big joke right as the camera flashed.
All of Taehyung’s pictures.
A schoolboy shrine to an unrequited crush.
Taehyung’s heart aches, something physical. He allows himself a brief, indulgent moment to look, because the pictures still mean something even if he doesn’t want it to. Then he sniffs a little, wipes his nose on the back of his hand, and feels even more childish and grubby compared to the heavily groomed versions of Successful Yoongis smiling at him from between the pages of his unused textbook.
In a different, improbable fantasy-life, Taehyung would show them to Yoongi. See, look, from when I had a crush on you. In that same different, improbably fantasy, Yoongi would laugh and perhaps kiss him.
It didn’t matter. All of this was supposed to stop mattering years ago. Taehyung and his absurd, ambitious want: it was supposed to go away when he grew up, when the gulf between them grew larger and larger, when Yoongi had first rejected him back at school.
But feelings are weird and unwieldy and grow like weeds. It only takes a single second, a brief moment of remembrance, for it all to come rushing back—old hurt in his heart, briefly forgotten yearning settling into a heavy raincloud in his chest.
Taehyung swallows, picks the books up. Stands there for a while, one hand crushed into a fist, still thinking of the way Yoongi had said, all breathless, you’re okay. Maybe there was relief in that. Maybe there was heart. Or maybe Taehyung is just reading too much into things again, wanting them to be true, heart too open and exposed like he’d always been.
Sometimes, he thinks, in his own clinical tone, slamming the books shut, love works the same way curses do.
Being in school without Yoongi was surprisingly lonely.
Surprising, because Taehyung had had a whole summer to get used to the idea. A whole summer with his grandmother steeping tea and reading the leaves, reading the tarot, forcing him to do so many astronomy charts to figure out where in his fate lay a coiled serpent, ready to strike. They were all cursed, after all.
The curse moved through generations, the consequence of some long ago ancestor’s actions. It was malevolent, a cloud of bad luck so powerful that it was almost famous. The countryside was the only place his family could make a living in peace. Everywhere else, people knew them. Avoided them.
Kids in school explained to each other in hushed tones that Kim Taehyung was witch-cursed, like everyone else in his family, unlucky in his bones and blood. Curses weren’t contagious, but the way they behaved, you’d think they were.
“Maybe it missed me,” he suggested, but his grandmother said that was unlikely, that she didn’t want surprises, and to stay away from green-skinned women.
This was what he came back to school with: boxes of magically preserved berries, a whole bunch of sweets for Jimin, and a vague warning against oddly colored ladies.
Taehyung hadn’t yet told anyone that he wasn’t really into women. Taehyung hadn’t yet told himself that. That awareness came to him randomly, one night when he and Jimin were chucking dirty socks at each other, and Jimin swooped to the ceiling sulking that Taehyung had become boring without his boyfriend.
“What,” he quacked, sitting up so suddenly that he cricked his neck. “What boyfriend?”
“Your boyfriend,” Jimin insisted. “Your poison garden crush. Why do you look so surprised?”
“He wasn’t my boyfriend.”
“But you wanted him to be.”
“That’s not true,” Taehyung said. “I don’t even know if I like boys. Or girls. Or both.”
Jimin snorted. “Just because you want to deny something, TaeTae, it doesn’t make it untrue.”
There was no Yoongi around to ogle at in order to confirm Jimin’s theory, and all the boys in Taehyung’s class were gross. He wallowed alone in the greenhouse for a while, amidst a new carpet of glossy, veiny poppies, very carefully trying to attach the word boyfriend to his internal picture of Min Yoongi.
It sent a little thrill through him: a tingling in his fingertips, a sudden bloom of warmth in his chest. That was odd, thought Taehyung—a lot like the sudden need to look at his shoes when Yoongi was looking at him, but muted. A quiet, warm delight, deep in him, like the sweet of fruit through frosted candy.
“Maybe you’re right,” he admitted to Jimin later, sprawled ungracefully over his Lore textbook. “Maybe I do have a crush on him.”
And then, of course, Jimin had to go whooping and singing the K-I-S-S-I-N-G song all over school, to Taehyung’s abject mortification. He couldn’t even stay pissed at Jimin. It was in his nature, the chaos, there was no stopping it. The most Taehyung could do was sulk and stop talking to him, but that always got Jimin even more unhinged.
Taehyung was still shivery over the discovery of his own feelings. He felt oddly effervescent, unable to sit still, something inside of him bubbling to do something. Jimin was useless, so he went to Hoseok.
Hoseok was in the balcony outside the astronomy classroom, looking very closely at squirrels. “So you like this person,” he said, brightly, when Taehyung explained the matter in as much of a whisper as possible, unwilling to scare the squirrels away. “Aw, cutie.”
Taehyung was unsure if this was meant for him or the squirrels. “I do, but he doesn’t study here anymore. What do I do?”
“Who doesn’t study anymore?”
“Hyung. Concentrate. This boy I like.”
One of the squirrels hopped forward curiously, almost bopping Hoseok’s nose. “Well, you can always write him a letter.”
“Do you think I should?”
“I don’t know your person,” Hoseok said, in a baby voice that was definitely meant for the squirrel. “But yes, usually that’s how you tell someone who isn’t around how you feel about things. Unless you have one of those non-magic contraptions. The brick.”
“Is that what the thing is called?”
Taehyung did have a phone, because letter-sending often required wand-magic, but he didn’t think Yoongi did. So he wrote a letter. It came out stilted and formal. How do you do, I’m good, there are foxgloves growing well in the greenhouse, I don’t really like my classes. Taehyung lost a couple of days of sleep over trying to reword it, then gave in and bribed someone to send it. He signed it, pathetically, regards, Taehyung.
Then he moped. Surely, he’d blown it? Who wrote regards? It would be a surprise if Yoongi even deigned to write back.
Which he did. Taehyung’s letter came the very next day, short but real, and Jimin read it out aloud over his head during breakfast.
“Hi Taehyung, It’s so nice to hear from you. How was your summer? I’m doing well, been trying to farm some crystals for more potent healing blah blah he doesn’t talk about kissing your face, what a waste.”
Taehyung, red-faced, yanked the letter out of Jimin’s metaphysical grip and fled to the greenhouse.
Yoongi’s letter was all about the new things he’d learned and how work wasn’t same as school. He asked about the columbines and the delphiniums, and the vervain that grew where their desks had met. He wanted to know if the manchineel had flowered, if the mushrooms had sprouted, if Taehyung had been practicing any more wand-magic. He’d signed the letter Yours, Yoongi, which was approximately three parsecs and four light-years better than his own regards, and also did nothing to toughen up Taehyung’s stupid turkish delight heart.
He wrote back, of course. Near instantly, and with way more detail than his first letter, explaining his summer and his grandmother and the berry-picking and the fortune-telling. He dug up his camera and took some pictures of the greenhouse. Thought a little hard and then stuck a little dried angel’s trumpet in there, a single murderous bloom, because he thought Yoongi might miss them.
This time, when he sent the letter (the envelope bulging with photos), he signed it off as just Taehyung.
Yoongi wrote back in a couple of days with a picture of him at the apothecary, smiling awkwardly at the camera, and a pressed autumn crocus stuck to the back of a black business card. Taehyung fell straight out of his chair when he got it, then spent three hours in the greenhouse obsessively poring over every word of Yoongi’s descriptions about his work and his customers. Are you happy? Yoongi asked, in every letter. Are you good? You know I miss you, right?
It felt…nice. The exchange. And despite Taehyung’s fears to the contrary, it didn’t immediately peter out into nothing. They wrote each other nearly every week. Sent pictures. Exchanged flowers—dead and poisonous as they were. The Taehyung at the bottom of the letters he sent shrunk to a cheery Tae.
“This is the most grandpa romance I’ve ever seen and I’m 1141 years old,” Jimin complained, even though he always wanted to hear Yoongi’s letters read aloud.
They were in the library, and Jimin was doing his Special Voice where only Taehyung could hear him, even though everyone could hear Taehyung talking back.
“You’re not 1141 years old,” Taehyung whispered. “You’re not even half of that.”
“Eh. True. Still—you two are so boring. Writing letters. Sending dead flowers,” Jimin yawned, pointedly. “Do you think you’re Addams’ Family? Fuck this shit. Send NOODS.”
“I should never have explained social media to you,” Taehyung groaned, and then squirmed in his seat. “Besides. I don’t even know if he’s interested in me that way.”
“Honestly, TaeTae, have you ever actually told him how you feel?” Jimin asked, suddenly grave. “Because what if his letters are just friendly to your own more than friendly? What if you’re, like— what’s that word—brozoned? What then?”
What then? Taehyung didn’t know. He mulled over the possibility of asking Yoongi—(Hey, do you have feelings for me? Because I kind of like you. A lot.)—and then freaked out. What if the letters just stopped? Yoongi had just sent him a newspaper article about his shop in the last letter; Taehyung was still struggling with the smallest summoning charm at school. Yoongi’s magic and inventiveness was incredible, a true marvel, something to be celebrated. Taehyung was ordinary, if also extremely unlucky. What if he lost the little thread of communication that he had with Yoongi?
“Why knock a good thing when you have it,” he muttered, more to himself than Jimin, but saw Jimin’s mouth purse into disapproval anyway. “Sorry. I’m just not ready.”
“Dig your own grave,” Jimin said, slowly unscrewing the library’s chandelier. “I won’t pat your head when you come crying to me.”
“That’s a lie. You’ll always pat my head.”
Jimin asked, curiously, “Do you love him?”
There was somewhere that wasn’t a point of self-preservation Taehyung should answer this from. But he couldn’t. Not yet.
“I’d rather not.”
Jimin sniffed and dropped the chandelier. “You’re lucky I like you,” he said, over the librarian’s yelling, a deep satisfaction brightening his features. “You’re lucky you’re the only weird human I like in this entire school. You’re lucky— STOP YELLING, JAN, IT’S ONLY A CHANDELIER!”
When the shitshow came—as it always would, at some point—it came in the form of Yoongi himself.
Taehyung met him during the Samhain break, while out shopping for extra pants. Met was probably not the right word; he almost crashed into Yoongi, outside the ice-cream shop, where Yoongi was just walking out arm in arm with some man who looked every bit as sophisticated, interesting and beautiful as Taehyung wasn’t.
Taehyung stopped for a moment, frozen in his tracks, an ice cube of shock melting in his belly. Then he popped into an alcove and watched the way Yoongi laughed to something this man said, the way his smile lit up his whole face, and knew what they were.
This man wouldn’t trip over his own robes trying to get to class. This man wouldn’t drop nearly every wand he ever tried because they’d heat up from non-compatibility. This man certainly wouldn’t struggle to find courage to say three easy words to someone he liked.
Taehyung came to a stop, mind gone completely blank.
There was a little quicksand of emotion forming somewhere inside him, a pit of unhappiness, and he didn’t know what to tell himself to make it go away.
Of course Jimin was right. Of course Yoongi’s letters were just friendly. They were friends, after all, weren’t they?
He walked around a little, thought of that little line he’d put in his letter—maybe I’ll come by the apothecary on Samhain break—and mulled over visiting.
In the end he simply walked thrice past the apothecary without going in, heart too full and too empty, sick with misery, too much of a coward still to speak his mind.
You didn’t visit, said Yoongi’s next letter, when Taehyung arrived back at school. I thought you would. Why didn’t you? I wanted to introduce you to someone.
Jimin gave him a thousand lies to put down as an answer—everything from freak kitchen accident to Hopping Foot to an accidentally awesome hookup—but in the end, all Taehyung learned as a lesson was that he was as bad at lying as he was at confessing. His reply sat, half-written at his desk, for a week. Then another. Then another.
He looked at it and felt cold pinpricks at the back of his neck, a chill down his spine, an awkward energy he didn’t know what to do with. The world had tilted a little askew. Things didn’t feel the same.
So he did the absolute worst thing he could.
He did nothing.
And by the fifth week, obviously, the distance had become too much. Taehyung had waited too long.
He felt frozen with heartbreak—which was dramatic, even for him. Numb in his heart. Whatever spark he had was buried beneath an avalanche of dark thoughts, each one clambering over the other until he was sure he would suffocate.
“You okay?” Jimin would ask, without fail every night, hands around Taehyung’s shoulders and phantom weight on the top of his head. “TaeTae?”
And Taehyung would try, very very hard, not to look at him at all, because that would mean tears, and tears would mean that he cared—cared so very, very much about the stupid dead flowers, and that stupid spidery writing, and those stupid photos that Yoongi sent him in which he was always, always smiling.
The first time Taehyung had his own heart healed, his mother had done it.
Stay still, she’d said. How did you go and get your heart broken? Is it a girl?
And Taehyung—lip bitten so hard he nearly bled, fists clenched to his sides on the examination table—had shaken his head.
A boy? She asked. Honey, why didn’t you tell me?
Her hands made quick work of fixing the heartache, the small tears in the muscle that spoke of unreturned love, and when it was done and she sat him down with a potion for Restoration and another for calm, he’d said, very quietly, because it didn’t matter.
Taehyung tells himself that a lot. That the smaller hurts don’t matter, that it is easier to get through the world if you looked at the brighter things. There isn’t much to gain in worrying about a distant, dun future when there’s flowers to pick and things to grow, a best friend to laugh with, a family to love.
But he’s a little rattled today. With the stealing and the weird letter and the bookshelf. With his own weird, stuttering heart.
Maybe something’s wrong. Maybe there’s some magic at work he doesn’t know, or that old thing flaring up again—
Oh fuck. Taehyung makes a little helpless sound at the back of his throat, extricates himself from the (very sad, very pathetic) puddle of robes he’d been cuddled up in in a corner, and peeks through the eye-hole on the door.
Yoongi, of course. Yoongi, again. Does he look mad? He doesn’t look mad. Wild-haired, maybe. Moonflower hat back in place. But not mad.
Taehyung opens the door a crack. Peeks out, feeling strangely imperiled: “Yes?”
“I—ah. I need help.”
Yoongi’s hands are covered in what looks very much like kelp. There’s some on his robes as well, interrupting Taehyung’s overly-perfect mental picture of him.
Taehyung understands immediately. “Is it Namjoon hyung? Again?”
Yoongi drags a frustrated hand through his hair. “It’s his heartbroken mermaid.”
“Rusalka. They’re heartbroken by nature.”
“Whatever it is. Been screaming since the morning, scared away any customers in the vicinity. I tried to give her a calming draught, and she nearly drowned me thrice. Namjoon says she listens to you?”
“Not exactly true.”
“You’re coming, though.”
“Just have to get my waterproof bag.”
And then, of course, there’s no choice but to walk to the Menagerie together. Yoongi sets a quick pace, muttering something about this being a weird day, and Taehyung mostly holds his tongue. What would he say, anyway? When Jin’s back, he’s going to have to get him to give Taehyung an examination, makes sure everything is okay in there. The pain is getting slightly worse, a screw twisting in there rather than the occasional stab, and he’s out of breath and sweating by the time they’re on main street.
“—and I have, like, three hundred customers, school season, it’s ridiculous—” Yoongi stops griping abruptly, and grabs Taehyung’s wrist. “Whoa. You alright?”
Taehyung yanks his hand away. “I’m fine. Just…ah. Didn’t eat.”
“You sure? You look pale.”
“Why does it matter?”
Yoongi’s spine stiffens fractionally. “Bitterness isn’t a very good look on you, Taehyung-ah.”
Taehyung fixes him with a sharp, easy smile. “I’m fine. Hungry. That’s all.”
Yoongi gives him a perplexed look. Taehyung walks, strangely bursting at the seams, biting lightly at his tongue to keep back every single confusing thing in his head from spilling out.
“Didn’t mean to suggest you were a bother,” Yoongi says.
It isn’t the truth, just the edge of one. Taehyung can’t think over the bruising thump of his heart to feel any emotion in particular.
Namjoon waits for them outside, kelp-covered and bespectacled, a bunch of squeaking baby moth-owls in his arms.
“Oh, thank Circe! You’re here.”
Inside the Menagerie, Yoongi watches from amidst glass jars full of glowing, undulating sea-unicorns, while Taehyung steps into the rusalka’s pond.
“She’s pissed,” Namjoon says from a corner, wringing his hands. “I don’t know why, she’s just…”
“Ssshh. She’s coming.”
Yoongi says, from his corner, “Scream if it eats you.”
The rusalka leaps out of the pond, green scales and flowing, lovely green hair, face frozen in a horrific, rictus snarl. Her clammy, wet hands clasp around Taehyung’s neck, drags him down into the depths, and he goes, making sure to hold his breath, letting her fingers press into his throat in a hard choke-hold until they’re at the bottom, in the slow, swaying green of reeds and reefs.
She stares at him—lidless gaze, sharp lamprey teeth till sneering—until a flicker of recognition crosses her face and she lets go, webbed hands falling quietly to her sides.
Hi, Taehyung says, gently, casting the words directly into her mind. Does your heart hurt? Mine too.
She gives a soft, mournful howl. Taehyung lets out a breath, experimental. Inhales. She lets him, large eyes blinking, fingers coming to rest quietly on his chest.
I’ll fix you up, he says. Like always. Do you want a story?
When he emerges, nearly fifty minutes later, Yoongi and Namjoon are both leaning at the edge of the pond, staring.
“Come by later to get potions,” Taehyung tells Namjoon. “She’s fine, otherwise.”
Namjoon’s face sags in relief. “Did you tell her a story? She likes your stories.”
“Yeah,” Taehyung mumbles, pushing his sopping wet hair out of his eyes. Usually, post some rusalka-trouble, Taehyung stayed to talk to Namjoon, to see the animals, for a cup of tea. There isn’t any time for that today. He tries to ignore the worrying patter in his heart while he narrows his gaze at Namjoon. “Why didn’t you come yourself to the clinic? Why did you send Yoongi hyung to get me today?”
A frown furrows Namjoon’s forehead. “I was going to come myself,” he says, eyes skittering between Taehyung and Yoongi, perceptive of the tension as usual. “But every-time I tried to step out, the birds went crazy. Or the hyter sprites. Or the tsukomogami. I literally couldn’t leave the store.”
Taehyung exchanges a quick glance with Yoongi. “Something’s going on,” he says. “Something’s messing with us.”
“You don’t say,” Yoongi says, drily. “Come on, Taehyung-ah. You said you were hungry. Let’s get something to eat, hyung will buy.”
It wasn’t long after Taehyung stopped writing that they met again.
Taehyung was in the greenhouse, reading his grandmother’s journals. He had only recently started to become interested in the old family business. Part of that had to do with how his mother had put him back on his feet again, but a big part had been career’s advice with his mentor.
Professor Hye didn’t have anything for him in the large collection of pamphlets that didn’t require wand magic. “You’re a little strange, Taehyung-ssi,” he’d said, in the same frail, thin voice with which he said oh dear. This was what he said to Taehyung 96% of the time in wand-magic class. “A little odd. I don’t know what to tell you.”
Jimin, silent and invisible, dropped a cake on his head.
‘’Oh dear,” said Professor Hye, wiping frosting from his glasses. He looked at Taehyung with something like pity. “You’ll find something, I’m sure. You always have.”
That didn’t quite help. Potions was becoming harder, too, just like Yoongi had predicted, requiring more and more magic of the kind Taehyung couldn’t properly do. So he took to magical biology—reading theory, dipping into folk magic, using his pocket money on buying books about alternate medicine. He knew a little about heart-mending, already, from everything he’d seen at the farm and the anecdotes from his family, but there was so much more to it.
Sometimes, he learned, the rebound was so bad that they actually broke. Sometimes they slowly withered, and the witch with that heart lived a cold, indifferent life full of indifference and apathy. Some, broken so early and put back together wrong, led to odd, malicious witches—the kind that cursed non-magicals and children.
He was reading about thrice-broken hearts when there was a cough above him, a gentle shadow.
“Hi,” said Yoongi, quietly, when Taehyung put his book down. “Hi, Taehyung-ah.”
He was there to teach a class. Guest lecturer read an ID badge around his neck, shimmering at the corners. Taehyung looked at him—at his pale skin and his pink mouth, his collarbone pearl-smooth where the robe’s slipped a little, his dyed silver hair and the shimmering bracelets on his wrist—and felt like he was trespassing. He could only laugh a little flatly when Yoongi shook his hand, awkwardness clear on his face.
“You good?” he asked, one eyebrow cocked, and Taehyung said he was.
He was—it was true. As well as he could be, with stilted magic and too-proud heart and all. Yoongi’s sweeping gaze took in the plants, the trellises, the crystal farm that Taehyung had been working on. “Wow, look at this place,” he said, jaw dropping, “You’ve done so well.”
“Growing some columbines here,” Taehyung said, pointing. “And some oleander.”
Yoongi went to look. There was silver in his ears now, and jade rings on his fingers. All signs of higher magic practice. He walked with a surer step, fixed Taehyung’s drooping monkshood with a single flick of his wand, cleared the mess of dirt and fertilizer in the corners into neat, square piles. Taehyung tried not to let his painful adoration show too much. That wouldn’t be right. There was too much emotional self-torture in that direction.
“No moonflowers?” Yoongi asked, lightly. “Thought those were your specialty.”
Taehyung swallowed, hard. “Not a good season.”
When Yoongi stopped, he did it so close to Taehyung that a single step would have them touching. Yoongi’s mouth quirked into a small smile.
“Are you really?” he asked. “Doing well?”
Taehyung set his gaze on the autumn crocus, heart beating hummingbird fast. “I’m fine, hyung. You?”
Yoongi shrugged. There was a lengthy pause, during which Yoongi looked straight at him and Taehyung looked anywhere but. “You didn’t write.”
That was blunt. Taehyung winced a little and stared at his book. “Just. Busy, you know? Don’t have it very easy.”
“Is anyone giving you trouble?”
Taehyung shook his head. “I’m good. Really, hyung. Just…lost track of time.”
“So you’ll write?” Yoongi said, the line of his mouth a little hard, and Taehyung swallowed back a sudden burst of spite, childish irritation, goading him into asking why do you care. It wasn’t Yoongi’s fault, he reminded himself. It wasn’t Yoongi’s fault that Taehyung couldn’t get over his feelings enough to be a good dongsaeng, wasn’t Yoongi’s fault that Taehyung couldn’t put pen to paper to write a letter without a whole avalanche of awkward heartache burying him underneath.
It didn’t matter what he told himself, though—he still hurt.
Yoongi asked, carefully indifferent, “You’re not…mad at me or anything, are you?”
“Why would I be mad?”
“I don’t know, Tae. You tell me.”
“I don’t know,” Taehyung echoed, unthinking. “How’s your boyfriend?”
He clicked his mouth shut a second later, horrified. He hadn’t meant to ask that. Hadn’t meant to let on that he knew, or cared. His mouth had just run away with him, as usual. He’d been recalling the memory of that day he last saw Yoongi in an obsessive, furious loop, and now the sting of it colored his tone, turned it bitter.
Sure enough, surprise registered too sharp on Yoongi’s face, his eyes narrowing at Taehyung. “How did you—?”
Taehyung just looked away, stubbornly silent. There was a bright scrape of pain in his chest again. He hated it, hated what it meant, hated Yoongi at that moment.
“He’s good,” Yoongi said, finally. “He, uh. He works in the government. You know. Heads a department, tweaking laws for us and all.”
“Pretty high up.”
“Yeah. Yeah, he’s pretty cool,” a blush crept up Yoongi’s face. “And beautiful.”
“Good,” Taehyung said, weird and breathy, not at all himself. “That’s…good. I’m happy for you.”
Yoongi made an absent, uninterested sound. “Never mind that. I missed you. Really thought I’d see you over break. Why didn’t you come?”
“Had to study. Remedial classes.”
This was half true, of course. Professor Hye had set him a whole bunch of remedial classes to catch up to his peers. Yoongi’s mouth went grim again, and he picked up Taehyung’s book.
“What’s this?” he asked. “Alternate medicine? Is that something you’re into?”
“Ah,” Yoongi said, frowning a bit. “A little unorthodox, isn’t it?”
Taehyung inclined his head, neither confirming or denying. He felt shameful and weird; too much of him seen too soon in a way that felt too raw.
This was his place of comfort, and Yoongi’s too. At one point, it had belonged to both of them. It didn’t feel that way anymore. Yoongi’s clothes were a little too well-pressed, his cheeks a little fuller, his frown a little darker. He looked like an adult. Taehyung still felt like a child, hiding in his gardens. He didn’t know what to say to this Yoongi, with his government lover and lecturer badge, talking to him from some distance so far away they might as well have occupied different worlds.
He swallowed. “Is it?”
Yoongi continued, off-hand, “I mean. I know the medical industry, now that I’m in the business. This isn’t medically acceptable for most degrees. You won’t get a license for this.”
“I know that,” Taehyung said, nonplussed. “It’s folk medicine.”
“Yes, exactly. So the effects…they aren’t quantifiable, are they?” Yoongi flipped through the book, tone very flippant. “This is almost…placebo magic, isn’t it? Hearts have to heal by themselves. There’s no verifiable long-term effects to doing this. The hurt comes back, even, at times.”
“Yes, but. It helps. I’ve seen it help.”
“But it’s not medicine, is it? It’s effects aren’t verifiable to any acceptable statistical degree.”
“Heartwork isn’t medicinally verifiable,” Taehyung said, a little too loud, “Because love isn’t medicinally quantifiable.”
“Love isn’t medicinally quantifiable. Are you hearing yourself? Oh, Taehyung-ah,” Yoongi sighed and put the book on the desk, face down. “You’d just look even stranger, doing this.”
Taehyung felt a pang of terrible cold rearing up in his heart. The numbness tightened his throat, turned his vision a little blurred. His voice came out a little garbled when he spoke. “What do you mean? Hyung. What do you mean, look even stranger?”
Yoongi just looked at him, some sort of muted pity on his face. “I didn’t mean to say it like that.”
“But you did. You said it. What did you mean?”
Yoongi stood there awkwardly for a moment, blinking, concern in his gaze. “I’m just saying, Taehyung-ah. You’re good with potions. You can come work with me after school. I was going to ask you to, in the letters, but then you stopped writing.”
But Taehyung’s head was stuck on the cursed carousel of ‘strange’.
Strange—Professor Hye called him that. The kids at school called him that. Yoongi, in the greenhouse, had never called him that. Yoongi, in the greenhouse, had always been the only one to participate in his weirdness, never batting an eye at the more inventive of Taehyung’s potions, completely fine with helping Taehyung cultivate his interest in murderous plants.
Yoongi wasn’t supposed to think of him as strange. Yoongi wasn’t supposed to think of him as too different, too odd, too difficult.
Of all people…
“I have to go,” Taehyung said, and hurriedly picked up his book again, nearly upsetting a jar of leeches in the process. “I have to go read more about my strange interests.”
Yoongi looked a little stunned. “You know I didn’t mean it that way,” he said, beginning to sound slightly frustrated. “You know. Come on, Taehyung-ah. It’s just that this—this isn’t logical, it isn’t rooted in real science, it isn’t—”
“Love isn’t rooted in real science,” Taehyung argued. His voice came out choked, raw. “I know people…People who’ve carried around the same pain for years. People who my family made happy again.”
Yoongi blanched. “Hecate Be Blessed, you actually believe in this.”
A flare of hot, encompassing rage rose up in Taehyung. It was everything—his own dumb crush, Yoongi’s governmental boyfriend, Taehyung’s belief that their time in school had amounted to anything special, Yoongi’s condescension at something he cared about.
The utter unfairness of it all.
All of that hot churn of feelings came out as a laugh, harsh and dispassionate, the ugliest sound he’d ever made. “I don’t want to work for you,” he said, and Yoongi opened his mouth, as if to correct him. “No, hyung, I know that’s what it’s going to be. We’ll never be equal. I’ll never amount to a partner. So, no, I don’t want to work for you. I’ll make my own path.”
“Right,” Yoongi said, a little hotly. “And if you don’t think I want that for you, if you don’t think I want you to find your place, Tae…I don’t know what to tell you. I want you to be happy.”
It came down to that, though, didn’t it?
The ease with which others moved in this world—how Yoongi moved in this world—didn’t come as naturally to Taehyung. He was always going to be a little unorthodox, a little loud, a little weird.
Happiness was always going to amount to something different for him.
Not respectable work. Not social acceptance.
Something else. Something more…himself.
And love—love was weird, too, wasn’t it? Hearts were weird. There was that pain again, lovely and sharp, that reminded him that Yoongi would always mean something to him. Taehyung hadn’t chosen that. He hadn’t wanted to fuck himself up, mess up the work his mom had done, not be hale and hearty for the long-term.
Love hurt. His heart hurt.
It was fixable. It was unquantifiable. It was weird.
He could work with weird.
“It’s late,” Yoongi said, hoarse. “You should get some sleep. You have classes tomorrow.”
Taehyung let out a slow, shuddering breath. His insides felt somehow scooped out, empty. “Yeah. Classes.”
“Taehyung-ah,” Yoongi said, very soft. “You know I love you, right?”
Something welled up inside him like never before.
So many meanings, to that one word, and maybe—finally—Taehyung had the right one for what Yoongi felt. It didn’t have the same meaning as his. Probably never will.
Still—love was weird, but also a privilege. Whichever meaning it had.
“Yeah, I know.” Taehyung said, abruptly drained of any rage, only the vaguest, quietest sadness tugging at his chest. He did know. It just wasn’t enough. Maybe that was unfair to Yoongi, but how could he help what he felt? “I really do.”
“I miss your letters.”
“I’ll write,” Taehyung said, feeling a bigger twinge. “I promise.”
Taehyung wasn’t sure what he was apologizing for. This conversation? Calling him strange? The heartbreak Yoongi didn’t even know about?
Sometimes love works the same way curses do.
Taehyung forced himself to smile, to not knock into anything poisonous as he slowly backed out of the greenhouse. His face felt stuck in a weird, sticky grin. Everything inside him hurt in a slow, aching way.
“There’s nothing to be sorry for,” he said. “See you tomorrow for class, hyung.”
The sparkling new bakery has goods that Taehyung would normally be very enthusiastic about.
There are cream puffs that change flavor in your mouth, and little sugar animals flavored in various strange ways (frostlight, says one, and sunshine another—Taehyung is very surprised to know that these really are their flavors; how delightful). Yoongi gets black coffee and a big, fluffy green cake. Taehyung, nibbling on the sugar animals, realizes he really isn’t hungry.
Nauseous, more like. In pain.
“How have you been?” Yoongi asks.
It’s a little weird. He sounds cautious, looks too closely, his fingers on the table too close to Taehyung’s hands for comfort.
Yoongi’s eyes flick to Taehyung’s throat. “Your skin is bruising. From the rusalka.”
Taehyung’s hands reach to touch the tender skin. That’s definitely going to bruise. Yoongi’s gaze stays on his fingers until Taehyung drops his hand, clasps them together, almost primly settling them on his lap.
“Come by the apothecary. I can give you some cream.”
“I make my own.”
Yoongi sighs and spears his fork through the cake. “Look, I’m sorry I snapped at you, earlier,” he says. “I really thought you were in trouble.”
“Didn’t think you cared.”
Yoongi scoffs. “I love how you can lie to yourself so easily. It takes talent.”
Taehyung stares at his sugar rat. Its tail twitches. He frowns morosely at his coffee, and Yoongi says, on the back of a huff, “I don’t hate you. I don’t resent you. I can’t believe you think that.”
Taehyung feels a little sheepish. He looks around, at the other patrons, trying to see their faces past their coffee mugs. Do they all look happier than him? Has he always been a little unhappy, inside? He remembers Jungkook telling him once, I feel like I only know half of you, hyung. Taehyung had laughed at him, then. What does that even mean, Jungkook-ah? Jungkook had shrugged and gone back to practicing summoning, but then later Jin told him what he’d meant.
There’s something about you. Like you grew up too quick. It’s not sad, not really. Just an intangible thing. It’s why we always ask you, if you know.
If I know what, hyung?
(You know I love you, right? You know we’re here for you, right?)
Taehyung squirms a bit in his seat, tries very hard not to look at Yoongi.
“Sorry,” he mutters. “But you started it. You told me to stay away, first.”
Yoongi winces. His gaze wanders away. “Yeah, well…”
“I’m not saying you were wrong to. I deserved it.”
Yoongi looks briefly pained. Taehyung looks away, heartsick, nibbles on his croissant. There’s some glittery cream inside. It turns his stomach.
“Your hat keeps doing that.”
“Doing what?” Yoongi asks, feeling about in the air until he finds the stalk of the flower. “Oh. Oh, this.”
“Do you remember,” Taehyung says, “that the first thing you asked me is how to get them blue and potent?”
Yoongi nods. “Villaumite. Your grandmother taught it to you.”
Yoongi colors when he says it. The hat blooms again.
“It’s cute,” Taehyung says, fingers inching forward with a mind of their own, wanting to pull the flower free. “The hat.”
“It’s fucking dumb,” Yoongi scowls. “I can’t stop it from doing that.”
Taehyung feels a little laugh bubble up in him. It’s this—Yoongi’s mouth, puckered that way in a half-pout, wry and thoughtful and crooked. It’s the same face he’d made, back forever ago, whenever the potion he was working with didn’t go right for him.
“Why’s that?” Taehyung asks. “Big, genius witch like you—thought you’d have figured it out by now.”
Yoongi shrugs and meets his gaze. “It’s because of you,” he says, completely candid. “It only happens with you.”
Taehyung’s chest pings painfully again. “Oh.”
“Seriously, though,” Yoongi says, quietly. “Do you feel okay? You look…I don’t know, Taehyung-ah. You look bad.”
Taehyung laughs, maybe a little too forcefully. It steals his breath. “I’m fine.”
“You really don’t look fine. What hurts? Maybe I have a potion.”
Sudden recognition flits across Yoongi’s face. “Oh, Taehyungie. Is it your heart?”
And now Yoongi’s looking at his chest. Taehyung feels a sudden surge of terror, pushes his food away and his chair back. What is he doing? He can’t be here. Talking to Yoongi, sitting with him—this is a bad idea. He has to get back to the clinic. He needs Seokjin and Jungkook. They’ll know how to help him.
He stands up abruptly.
Pain explodes in his chest. He gasps, one hand rising to his chest as if that can hold him together, nearly tripping over the table in his scramble to stay upright. His vision swims, and horrific nausea crawls up his stomach. Everything tunnels down to too much light and too much warmth and noise, and the rush of blood in his ears is loud, loud, loud.
Through flickers of awareness, he realizes that he has a bunch of fabric clasped between his fists, and he’s clenching his fingers rhythmically into it. Yoongi’s hands are legato on his body, unsure where to still, but he’s holding Taehyung just the same. And Taehyung thinks—through the haze of pain—oh, this has happened before.
It’s his last coherent thought for a while.
Taehyung spent the summer before his final year learning how to fix hearts.
Hearts broke for many reasons, not just romantic love. Sometimes old people had jagged breaks that had crumpled in from abandonment. Sometimes little kids had gashes from neglect. Sometimes people disappointed each other, hardening their hearts against love and light and joy for so long that they grayed over. Sometimes people were trapped in wrong bodies, wishing they were different, and they came in with withered muscle and sickly swathes of puffy purple marring the flesh.
It was a hard job not because it was technically difficult—this was old, raw magic uncomplicated by newer theory—but because it had the side-effect of stirring up all the little aches in your own mind.
Mostly, Taehyung’s mom just fixed them and sent them on their way. But sometimes, for the sadder cases, she also performed incantations. A little extra, she told him, winking. Joy, energy, wonder, euphoria. Just the slightest pinch, just to kick-start a blue heart into feeling something lovely again.
Taehyung wrote to Yoongi during his unpaid internship, leaving out everything about the actual work, talking instead of the birds and plants and potions in his grandparents’ farm. There was a dokkaebi he photographed—much to his family’s chagrin—emerging scowl-faced ever so often from beneath an old, weed-eaten wheel barrow. There was a bunch of pitcher plants that violently gobbled up whole chunks of meat. These were things that were safe to speak of; things his hand didn’t resist penning down. Yoongi, in turn, wrote about the apothecary, how sales had picked up, how he was developing a whole range of cosmetics, how his boyfriend was helping him source some connections.
Slowly, surely, Taehyung’s bitterness ebbed away to nothing. Yoongi was so warm in his letters. During the solstice, Yoongi went to a gathering somewhere on an island in the Pacific, returning with three letters full of stories on all the weird, wonderful things he’d seen. Maybe hyung can take you next year, he wrote, slightest hint of uncertainty now that he thought Taehyung felt a bit insecure. If you want me to.
Going back to school felt okay. He’d missed Jimin (and Jimin him; every single light fixture being toilet-papered spoke of his boredom). It was his last year. There was a lot to do.
“Heartwork,” Professor Hye said, disappointed, in one of their mentoring sessions. “Very…unorthodox, isn’t it?”
“You’ve spent six years telling me I’m unorthodox, Professor.”
“That’s very true. But still. Are you very sure, Taehyung-ssi?”
Taehyung was sure. What his family did—strange as it were, looked down by the larger magical community as it were—brought happiness to people. Was there anything better?
“Alright, then,” Professor Hye sighed. “But you’ll have to pass all your exams, still. You’ll need that graduation certificate. Folk magic is fine and good in the countryside, but if you want to live in the city, among other witches, not hidden in a village somewhere like a faith-healing hack…Pass your classes, Taehyung-ssi.”
Pass your classes.
Yoongi said that too. Sweetly, hidden amidst other words, trying to be supportive: pass your classes. If he kept saying it, that meant it was a big deal, wasn’t it? A certificate of graduation. Meant he was something, that he’d worked for something, that he wasn’t just an uneducated hack out to steal people’s money. He’d never measure up to Yoongi, obviously, but he’d get somewhere.
Pass your classes.
Sounded easy, wasn’t quite.
Time passed. Every teacher set them the worst assignments possible. Taehyung watched it all pile up—Incantations and Spell Work and Wand Work and Demonology—getting more and more jittery at how impossible it all seemed, how overwhelming, especially when none of it felt like it actually mattered. Why couldn’t he learn what he wanted? Why was the curriculum so rigid, so unwelcoming? How come grades were the only metric to decide how smart or stupid someone was? His frustrations spilled into paper, into long-winded rants that made little sense. His books were an unconquerable mountain, a crevasse of ice so deep and dark that he could not understand how to cross it.
By the time mid-year exams rolled around, he was convinced he was going to die.
“It doesn’t matter,” Jimin said, trying to soothe, but the thing was, it was the system, and the system decided if he graduated. Taehyung wanted to graduate. “You’re not exactly going to go into a field where they need perfect As.”
“But I don’t want to fail,” Taehyung wailed, collapsed over his Invocations text one night. “I can’t fail. It’s not fair.”
It really wasn’t. There was enough and more evidence over the years to prove that there were some areas of magic he was exceptionally good at and some he was exceptionally terrible at—for no lack of trying. The school’s grading didn’t work to include exceptions.
Jimin gave him a slow, considering look. Taehyung wanted to bite him.
“Fuck you. Don’t silently judge.”
“I can’t lock you in the room to make sure you don’t work yourself up over this. I can’t do what I usually do to other idiotic people, which is throwing shit at them. I’ve tried that for six years and it doesn’t work. You won’t talk to me. The only thing I can do is silently judge,” he made a face. “But really, TaeTae, maybe you should breathe. And eat. And shower.”
On the morning of his first exam, he skipped breakfast to go look for Jimin. He was where he usually was when he wasn’t in Taehyung’s room—in the Maze, sticking carrots on the pointy noses of the witches’ statues—and looked around when Taehyung shouted his name.
“What?” he asked. “Don’t you have exams?”
“I do,” Taehyung hissed. “I can’t give them. Cause a distraction.”
Hoseok, carefully making a carrot hover, gave a little twitch. “No, no, bad idea.”
Something was very wrong with Taehyung’s lungs. It was like they’d forgotten what oxygen was, or how to expand. Cold sweat beaded at the back of his neck, and he dimly wondered if he was going to faint. “Just—I can’t do it,” he whispered. “Just. Let a dragon loose. Flood the corridors. Make something explode. Anything.”
Jimin looked at him pityingly. “I can’t. There’s a spell that stops me from interfering during exams.”
“You’re the world’s worst poltergeist ever.”
Hoseok gave him a pitying look. “I think he’s dying,” he observed, lightly, floating by to pat Taehyung’s head. “It’s really okay if you do, Taehyung-ah, it’s pretty nice on this side.”
Taehyung’s words came in a wheeze. “I can’t, I can’t write this exam, I haven’t studied—”
“You’ve done nothing but study,” Jimin said, forcefully. “Circe’s pigs! Why are you so upset? You’ve never been so upset over exams.”
He wasn’t sure. Why was he so upset? Jimin was right, he had never been so upset about exams before. It was just…Yoongi wanted him to pass. And he wanted to pass because then that would mean Yoongi would be proud of him, and that mattered in some big, inexplicable way Taehyung couldn’t describe. Besides, if he failed, the ever-present social distance between them would only get worse.
He couldn’t conceive a future where he failed. His heart went hummingbird fast. The gong rang, signaling the beginning of the test.
“Go,” Jimin said, chucking a carrot at him. “You don’t want to miss it, dumbass. Go.”
So Taehyung went. And he fucked up. And then he continued fucking up, every exam a three-hour ordeal he couldn’t stand, a screw of panic turning and turning and turning in him until the night before his last two exams—Ethics and Wand Work—when it felt like he’d slammed, head-first, to his breaking point. He couldn’t stay awake. None of the words made any sense. What was the point, he wondered, of studying Magical Ethics, when by its own insular nature the community was being snooty anyway? Why wasn’t Magical Snootiness a chapter? What about Magical Discrimination? Or perhaps Dimensions of Power Distance in Magical Society?
How was he supposed to stay awake for this? And Wand Work—that was a big joke. He might as well walk into the practical with one of Jimin’s carrots. At least he wouldn’t go hungry.
One of Yoongi’s letters was poking out of Taehyung’s desk drawer. He only caught the words, to celebrate, and remembered easily what it said. Once your exams are done, and your mid-year break is here, let’s go out to celebrate! Lamb skewers, on me.
Taehyung groaned. There was a poem, an old Chinese thing, about a scholar who stabbed his thighs to keep himself awake. That seemed a bit extreme, but he could enchant a candle to drip hot wax onto his hand if he nodded off. Jimin would make him stop it, which meant he had to draw a line of banishment at his door, which meant tomorrow was going to be a shit day however he looked at it. But it didn’t matter. He needed this night.
By the morning his eyes felt boiled in his skull, his head was full of theory, and the first exam passed by in a blur of furious writing. Jimin ignored him in the four hours between Ethics and Wand Work—just as well, thought Taehyung, because that gave him time to revise.
Later, he wouldn’t remember what the two hours of theory felt like. His brain seized up, trying to answer questions on this subject that he just could not understand. His body ached. The writing brush shook in his hand. When the gong rang, at the end of the two hours, he felt weirdly hollow.
There were burn scars on his hand. His best friend was furious. His wand might as well be a stray stick.
The walk to the practical exam hall felt distant. His head felt detached from his body, floating someplace else. His hand hurt, as did his spine; his throat felt dry. He drew a lot from a bowl, read The Gathaeme Configuration, and tried to recollect the movement from his textbook.
The examiner, Professor Soo, didn’t look up from his crime novel when Taehyung entered. He waited until Soo said, still not looking up, “Well. Go on. Try if you want to.”
A swish, a flick, a circle, a jab. Multiplied twice clockwise, thrice counter. Speed mattered, as did the weight of movement.
Taehyung felt a hysterical laugh bubble up his throat.
“That family curse takes a toll, eh?” Soo said, raising his eyebrow. “Come on. Don’t have all day. Give me a demonstration.”
Taehyung did. There was no miracle. The wand did nothing for him as usual.
“I’ll give you a passing grade if you can make sparks,” Soo said, yawning. “A single spark. Surely that’s not too much to ask after teaching you for six whole years.”
Taehyung thought faintly of the dripping wax. The burn of it on his skin. The marks it left behind—round, dark at the edges, too severe for him to heal himself.
What was he doing?
Anger surged up in him, wetted the corners of his eyes. There were no sparks from his wand. He didn’t try to make them, didn’t try anything at all. Just looked at his wand for a minute, then at the Professor, before snapping it in half.
Soo’s head whipped up. Taehyung offered a faltering smile, a half shrug. He walked up to Soo’s desk and deposited the broken pieces there, the break crackling with violent purple sparks, and said, quite seriously, “I don’t think I need this.”
Soo looked obviously confused. He opened his mouth, as if to say something, but Taehyung couldn’t stay there anymore. He bolted for his dorm room, heart thudding painfully fast, refusing to believe he’d just done that.
He ’d just done that.
It didn’t feel good. It didn’t feel like anything except a ringing, horrified emptiness somewhere at the core of him. He wasn’t sure how long he sat in the dark ignoring the muted thumps of random objects hitting his door. Ignoring Jimin, who went from concerned to angry to concerned again. Hoseok materialized for a while, trying to offer comfort, but he could not seem to comprehend the gravity of the matter at all, just saying morosely, “maybe we can glue it together? Do you want glue? I can get some glue.”
“The wand is not the problem, hyung,” Taehyung said, swallowing a sob. “I’m the problem.”
“Oh.” Hoseok said, clearly distraught. “In that case, glue isn’t helpful.”
“Alright,” said Hoseok, sadly. “What do you want to do?”
What Taehyung wanted to do was melt into these walls and never surface. Seeing as that wasn’t possible, he preferred to sag into a corner, strings cut, miserably recalling the painful loop of exam week over and over.
He was going to fail the final exams, never get a degree, never be anything close to what Yoongi was. Always and forever a laggard, even after he’d tried so hard. Soo was probably even going to give him detention for that stunt. He was probably going to write a letter to Taehyung’s family, too—he could just imagine his mother reading it, eyes wide; his grandmother asking, in disbelief: our Tae?
Just a pile of disappointment on top of disappointment.
He wallowed. He cried a little. The world felt like it was ending, so why did a few tears matter? The dinner gong rang and he stubbornly refused the call, unwilling to face other people.
Everything felt disordered. Everything felt broken.
He wondered, faintly, if this was the curse. To be in love with someone you admired, someone unavailable, someone so far removed from you in power and class that you could never catch up.
It must have been a few hours later when his door finally burst open. Taehyung curled up tighter, figuring it was another student or a teacher—some poor soul Jimin had harangued into checking on him—but then there was the scent of green things, verbana, a little clicking of the tongue that was too familiar.
“You absolute idiot,” said Yoongi.
That didn’t help. Taehyung sucked in a great, shuddering breath, and somehow Yoongi got the cue exactly right, because his arms came down to wrap around Taehyung the moment he dissolved in a torrent of misery.
“Oh, hush,” Yoongi said, shifting so he was settled beside Taehyung, both their backs to the wall, Taehyung’s face ending up pressed into Yoongi’s shoulder. “Come here.”
Yoongi’s grip felt very secure. His fingers kneaded gently over Taehyung’s spine, thumb moving in warm circles, everything about him as soft and comforting as Taehyung had imagined. One hand swept Taehyung’s robe sleeves back, curious as if he’d spotted something, a low breath hissing out of him at the burns.
Taehyung tensed up, hiccuping a bit, tiny sobs still wracking through his chest. Yoongi ran one long finger across the scars, very gently. It still made Taehyung jump, made him almost yank his hands away—to hide them, just like he hid his more uglier thoughts from Yoongi. Yoongi said nothing. He didn’t move at all, for a minute, except for his fingers ghosting across Taehyung’s skin like they were cataloging the scars. Then he took a quiet, sighing breath and held both of Taehyung’s hands, clasped between his own, like a prayer.
Taehyung swallowed. “Hate you,” he muttered, because it was the first thing that came out of his mouth.
Yoongi went a little stiff. “Hmm,” he said, as if there wasn’t point in contesting Taehyung’s words, as if he could fathom—in some horrible way—why Taehyung might mean what he just said.
But he didn’t let go. Just held on tighter, folding Taehyung close, both their hands still intertwined. Taehyung felt incrementally upset that there was now a patch of his tears on the front of Yoongi’s robes.
“Why?” Yoongi asked again. Even gentler this time, some hurt in his tone, finally spurring Taehyung to speak.
“W-wanted to pass,” Taehyung said. More tears spilled down his face. “Wanted to pass the stupid tests. For you.”
“What?” Yoongi said, sharply. He tucked his fingers under Taehyung’s chin, forced him to look up at him, confusion writ all over his face. “You burned yourself for me?”
There Taehyung went, feeling like a big baby again. His whole body hurt and he was tired and sleep deprived. There was probably snot on his face, mixed with the tears. Why was Yoongi here? He wasn’t supposed to see Taehyung like this. Wasn’t supposed to know.
He pulled away, sulking, struggling a little so he could get away, but Yoongi wouldn’t let him go.
“Taehyung,” he said. His expression was complicated. “What the fuck did you do this for?”
“I had to!” Taehyung said, trying to twist out of his grasp and failing. Yoongi was way stronger than he looked. “I was—I was falling asleep. I couldn’t fall asleep.”
“Why not? What was so important about these tests that you put yourself through the grinder? What was so important about them that you couldn’t sleep or eat? God, Taehyung-ah, do you know how worried I got when Jimin showed up? He’s probably never left the school before. Scared the shit out of me, wouldn’t let me take a minute to even grab my coat, kept going on about how you needed me.”
Taehyung’s insides felt like it had tangled itself into a knot. It was a work day. Yoongi had dropped his work to come here, so he could sit in the cold, musty dark of Taehyung’s uncleaned room, having to rub Taehyung’s back and listen to him cry. How silly.
“I don’t need you.”
Yoongi scoffed. “Yeah. Clearly not.”
Taehyung said, abjectly miserable, “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be fucking sorry. Just—for fuck’s sake, what were you thinking?”
Taehyung felt a shiver run down his body. Yoongi made a noise in his throat, something between a growl and a sigh, and gripped him tighter.
“You’re just. You’re so brilliant, hyung,” Taehyung said, half in a wail, unable to help the way his voice hitched. “You’re smart and you do these incredible things and I’ve always—always thought you were so cool.”
“I know that,” Yoongi said, a little hoarse. “I know.”
Taehyung chanced a look at Yoongi and found his expression indecipherable. His own throat felt scraped, every swallow painful. “I just wanted to graduate,” he said. “At the very least. At the very least I wanted that much in common with you. That’s all. But it’s pointless.”
There was another pause, and Taehyung leaned into Yoongi again. Eyes closed. Guilty and hurt and comforted, confused and warm and exhausted.
It was a lot.
“I’m just—just me,” he continued, and felt Yoongi’s fingers clench into his shoulder. “Just a weird, possibly cursed, wandless witch. Always the strange one. I just wanted—at least the graduation—”
Yoongi sat back, eyes closed, swallowing. His pulse sounded very loud in Taehyung’s head, a drumming beat. His fingers were still pressed hard into Taehyung’s skin, pushed against bone, protective.
“You’re my fucking best friend,” Yoongi said. He breathed in, then out, a little tremor sneaking into his voice. “One dumb degree is not going to make me love you any less. You’re the one that picked your own path when everyone told you different. You’re so brave to even stay in this shitty place, Taehyung-ah, why can’t you see that?”
“I don’t know,” Taehyung shrugged. “I don’t think I’m brave.”
Yoongi’s lips pressed softly to the top of his head, slightest pressure. “Well, for what it’s worth. I think you’re way braver than me.”
They sat there for what felt like a very long time, Taehyung curled into Yoongi, the sad curve of his spine fitting neatly into the comforting cage of Yoongi’s arms. Taehyung stopped crying after a while—thank Hecate—mostly because he was bone-tired and beginning to drift off. Yoongi’s fingers played gently with the hair on the nape of his neck—swirling, untangling, flattening. A half-hour later, Yoongi woke him from semi-slumber, suggesting they go to the greenhouse so Yoongi could whip up some restoration draught.
“And some burn paste,” he added. “Because apparently you only do things in extreme degrees of dramatics.”
Above the roof of the greenhouse, the stars swam slowly through the sludge of clouds. There were possibilities there, written in constellations, Mercury and Venus and Mars all spelling out stories that could come true. If Taehyung pretended hard enough, he could imagine a perfect alignment. Love and luck and fortune—all for the taking. As it was, his star-chart was probably about as perfect as his broken wand.
Looking at Yoongi hurt. Now that Taehyung knew what he was offering—friendship of the unbreakable kind; so true he felt it in his bones—it hurt to think Taehyung had ever thought he had to measure up to him. Yoongi liked him for what he was. Taehyung didn’t have to be something else to be his friend. This wasn’t charity, wasn’t sympathy; Yoongi wanted to be here.
It still hurt. Why did it hurt so much? He was furious at his own self for betraying him, for never catching on to his insistence that he and Yoongi were just friends.
Taehyung winced from the sting of the burn paste. Yoongi held his hands again, half-distracted. His fingers were long, like Taehyung’s, but slender, made for playing a piano.
Taehyung watched how intently he worked on applying the paste. Lashes low, lip jutting out boyishly, eyebrows furrowed in concentration. His smile was thin and dark.
“Snapping your wand like that? Sort of hardcore,” Yoongi said, when he was almost done. “I couldn’t have.”
“No. Would have thought myself into a depressive tangle before I ever got the courage.”
“I messed up, though.”
Yoongi looked up. The moonlight painted a stripe on his cheek, a clear sliver of pale skin dusted with sun freckles. Taehyung turned the jar of paste around in his fingers. Then he put it down on the shelf beside him, leaned down, and kissed Yoongi.
A siren blared in his head, serving storm warning, but it didn’t matter. All of Taehyung felt incendiary: his skin, his bones, his mouth. He felt the soft huff of breath Yoongi let out against his lips, the light sweetness of his tongue. He tasted like mint and memory. A warm, white fuzz took over Taehyung’s mind and he lapped his tongue softly at Yoongi’s bottom lip, sucked it in when he found no resistance.
They parted, abruptly. Yoongi looked at him, curious and warm and vibrant. Taehyung looked back. They kissed again.
Some part of Taehyung’s fatigued brain was trying to make sense of this—of what he was doing, of what was being done to him—but beneath the stars and the moon and the gentle sharp of Yoongi’s teeth on his lips, coherency slid from him faster than water through cupped palms.
They were a riddle, anyway. Always were, always would be.
“Tae,” Yoongi whispered, into his mouth, and Taehyung was sure he was going to pull back, to walk away, to snap to and remember that he loved someone else, that this was a mistake, that Taehyung was only ever his messier, younger friend.
But then he didn’t. Yoongi’s hands tinkled with the bracelets when he pressed them to either side of Taehyung’s face, steadying him, deepening the kiss.
Taehyung’s mouth felt wet. His body burned. He felt overfull with love, which was a feeling he recognized only because it was the same thing he’d been feeling for years.
He felt overfull with love, and he waited for the heartbreak.
It was always going to come. There was no escaping it.
Yoongi’s fingers rose to cup Taehyung’s mouth shut. “Fuck,” he whispered, lips kiss-pink, eyes blown wide, “We shouldn’t—I should go.”
Yoongi’s face was trying to do multiple things at once. There was shock there—at Taehyung and at himself. There was doubt. There was sadness, of some kind, and Taehyung didn’t want to know what that meant.
There was panic, most of all, a quickening in his breath.
With one last shudder, he pecked curiously at Taehyung’s lips again, then clambered to his feet. Hauled Taehyung up as well, palm against palm, thumb pressing hard to the bones of Taehyung’s knuckles.
“I—” he said, jittery. “I’ll write.”
“You take care. Yeah?”
Taehyung fixed his gaze on the oleander. The kindness felt nearly unbearable, a harsh cleave through the center of his heart. “I will.”
“I love you.”
It wasn’t enough. He ached inside, in a place so center to him that it felt like he couldn’t carry it. But there were lines he wasn’t allowed to cross—not yet, at least.
It wasn’t enough, Taehyung thought.
But this, too, was love.
see you for chapter three tomorrow if work doesn't kill me today. worst case on friday.
Chapter 3: Three
Seokjin’s eyes narrowed shrewdly. “Tell me this, Taehyung-ssi. Why is a raven like a writing desk?”
God I’m sorry for the huge delay, I was SUCH a malfunctioning human over Friday/the weekend I can’t even begin to explain
First, work was crap and then I was too much of a mess over MAMA and forgot to take my work laptop along on the weekend trip I was on
And then I got back home and realized I’d not backed up my edits to Dropbox so I had an unedited file and I could barely deal with that
Basically everything sucked, I drowned in anxiety, and nothing worked the way I wanted it to but eh, at least it’s here now :/
(Try reading the above in the whiniest voice you have this is how I entertain myself)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Taehyung comes to on his back in the procedure room of his clinic.
His chest is still hurting like someone’s run a stake through it, but there are panicked, shouty voices all around.
“I don’t have anything—” Jin is yelling, in the hard, deeper tone he always gets when he’s being really serious. “Everything was stolen, today morning, everything—”
And then Yoongi, coldly, “Then we go to a doctor.”
“He doesn’t need a doctor,” Jungkook squeaks. “This isn’t—doctors can’t help.”
“Like hell they can’t!”
“No, no, you don’t understand,” Jungkook says, and there’s a rustling from somewhere, probably paper. Taehyung clenches his teeth around the bright, violent pain lancing through him and tries to sit up.
Something pushes him down, harshly.
“No, no, no. Don’t get up.”
His head whips around. Jimin is hovering close to the examination table. He looks a little diminished at the edges, fuzzier from leaving his usual haunt, but it’s still Taehyung’s Jimin. He moves closer,
fingers cool where they skate over Taehyung’s fevered forehead.
“You’re going to be okay,” he says.
Taehyung believes him. A single tear runs down his cheek, and he feels Jimin’s hand come up to brush it off.
“Go back to sleep,” Jimin says.
Taehyung’s eyes slide shut. He feels heavy, all over, the pain beginning to mute itself. Outside, Jin and Yoongi seem to be arguing still.
“Idiots,” he hears Jimin say, derisively. “Idiots.”
Something breaks somewhere.
“What,” Taehyung asks, slurring his words a little, because he’s so sleepy now. “What are you doing?”
“Making it better,” Jimin says. And then he says something more, gaze concerned and his palm still cool on Taehyung’s skin, but Taehyung doesn’t hear it.
It’s probably nothing important, anyway. Probably just ‘idiot’.
His fall into the dark is quiet, and warm, and confusing. He dreams vaguely of Yoongi, standing with him in the toxic gardens, under the rain in the part of the greenhouse that’s exposed to the skies.
The poisonous trees swallow up the water and filter it down as hissing, seething venom. But Yoongi puts up a protective dome around them, sparkling and thin, just enough to keep them both safe.
In the setting light of the sun, he’s a creature of red and gold. Wrists shimmering with charms of silver, fingers covered in jade, a single topaz earring casting a lick of gold across his cheek.
But he doesn’t smile.
His expression is hard, mouth pursed in a grimace, and his fingers clench fitfully over his chest. What have you done, he asks, the words spat out with a fury Taehyung’s never seen on him. What the hell have you done?
Taehyung closes his eyes against it, wishes the storm could soak him. A very faraway part of him knows this is a dream, but it doesn’t matter.
It still happened.
“I’m sorry,” Taehyung says. “I had to.”
Yoongi’s mouth twists. “No. No, you didn’t.”
Words keep rising up inside Taehyung, the way they have been for several years now. Words keep rising, but nothing comes out. He folds his arms around himself and kneels to the ground, hiding his face between his knees.
“You didn’t,” Yoongi says again, cold rage in his voice. “Why did you do it?”
Truth is a monster when you’re backed up against it. “I couldn’t lose you,” Taehyung says. “This is the only way I know how to love.”
Yoongi makes a terrible sound and rubs angrily at his eyes. Inside Taehyung, this new, dark fear grows, the knowledge that this is only a dream competing with how real, how awful it still feels.
He says, “I don’t how to make it better. I won’t.”
“Then stay away.”
The dream collapses. Folds on itself, origami-like, and then Taehyung’s left with years of starting and never finishing letters, passing the apothecary, wincing when he spots Yoongi.
Through it all, his heart aches. A faraway pain at first, easily neglected; then longer, more violent lancings. Seeing Yoongi’s face—so familiar but with all the fondness scrubbed from it—hurts in a way that becomes commonplace.
Images barrage him. A map of possibilities: dreamscapes where the ugly energy their relationship now possessed never came to be; closed circuits of probabilities where there are no broken hearts or wayward magic.
Taehyung had understood, in the last year of school, that this was life: a buffeting hurricane, chiseling you into something hard.
It started right after the mid-year break.
To his utmost surprise, Taehyung came back to school to the news that he had passed most of his exams. Wand Work was a lost cause, of course, but everything else was almost decent, and Professor Hye spent their first working session alternately sighing and lamenting that Taehyung could do so well—if only he tried.
Taehyung looked at the faded scars on his arms and smiled at him, blandly. If that was trying, then he’d much rather not. Ever again.
Of course he wanted to do well. But both Yoongi and Jimin had spent a good chunk of time post his meltdown telling him—with varying levels of fond exasperation—that it wasn’t worth smearing himself into the ground.
He got late to Professor Kim’s potions one day, too busy trying to settle a bed of snapping daisies in the greenhouse. The door was already shut, class underway, and when he pushed through—sweaty and breathing hard, an apology on his tongue—it wasn’t Professor Kim standing at her desk but Yoongi, shoulders square and poised neatly, green robes startlingly bright against his skin, holding out what looked like the world’s ugliest baby.
His eyebrows furrowed handsomely at Taehyung, a quirk of a smile on his mouth, and for a moment Taehyung felt oddly like a stranger again—just another tardy student against Yoongi’s unfathomably intimidating presence.
“Taehyung-ssi can tell us what this is,” Yoongi said, lightly. “Since he’s so late.”
“Bryony root,” Taehyung said, automatically, almost in a trance as he finds his seat. “Famous for having a mandragorian root, which, if pulled out by humans, could scream you to death.”
“And what do we use it for?”
“It’s a powerful charm for good luck, fertility, extreme melancholia,” Taehyung recites. “It’s supposed to be extremely powerful. Although it is very rare to find one, owing to the fact that you cannot harvest it yourself. You need to sacrifice an animal just to pull it out, then water it in cow’s milk for 30 days, and treat it with verbana and bat’s blood. You need a piece of dead-man’s shroud to wrap it in so you can use it. Why do you have one?”
Something in Yoongi’s face dimmed. “It’s in the syllabus.”
It wasn’t. Mandragora were, in theory, and Taehyung had been curious enough about it to go searching for it early in the year. He came up with nothing: the plant was banned in school premises, there were to be no practicals around it, and anyone caught using it was going to be expelled.
He frowned at his notes.
“No one’s touching this,” Yoongi said, placing the sleeping root gently in a large bell jar. Twenty pairs of eyes followed him with significantly deeper interest than Taehyung had ever seen in this classroom. “But we’re going to look at properties, uses, treatments. Questions?”
It wasn’t uncommon for alumni to sometimes substitute for teachers. Still, Taehyung knew Yoongi, knew he had a bad feeling deep in his stomach about this. Did he look paler than usual? When had his last letter been?
Ten days ago, he remembers. And it had been strange. Nothing from himself, no discussion of his own life or how things were going, just side-tangents on the plants or responses to what Taehyung had written. He’d guessed, then, that Yoongi might have been in a bad mood. It was starting to get cold, anyway. The winter always messed with people’s heads.
After class, Taehyung stays back, making a big show of slowly stuffing his notes into his bag, idling until the last student’s left and he’s the only one in the huge, cathedral-like space.
Yoongi doesn’t even look surprised, taking a piece of cloth from his pocket to wrap the bryony in, casting a spell to make sure it doesn’t wake up and scream literal bloody murder.
“Just curiosity,” he says, but his voice sounds wrong.
“Hyung,” Taehyung starts, “Are you—”
“I’m fine,” Yoongi snaps, sudden and vicious, startling him. “You looked at me for two entire hours like I’d murdered your family. What the hell, Tae?”
“I’m just worried,” Taehyung says, skipping over to the front so he can be nearer. “Why do you have this? Did something happen?”
“Why are you here? Professor Kim keeps asking you to come in and take classes, but you’ve always said you can’t leave the apothecary. And it’s—it’s been doing well, isn’t it? Why would you take this up now?”
Yoongi took a staggering breath and snapped his suitcase shut. He was still cradling the mandragora uncomfortably close to his chest. “I’m taking a break,” he announced. “From the apothecary.”
Reality must be slipping slowly out from under Taehyung’s feet. “What? You didn’t say that in your letters. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I have a life outside of you, Taehyung-ah. Everything is not about you.”
It came from a place of irritability, Taehyung was sure. Even Yoongi looked appropriately shocked once the words had left him, face falling into a careful blankness Taehyung hadn’t seen on him since before they were friends.
“You said,” Taehyung said, shakily, “that I’m your best friend. So tell me, hyung. What’s wrong?”
For a moment Yoongi looked like he was considering it. Then he shook his head, clutched the bell-jar tighter, and hurried out the door. “You’ll be late for your classes. I’ll talk to you later.”
Taehyung went the rest of the day wondering if whatever was wrong was related to him. Had he fucked up, that night, kissing Yoongi like that? Distraction made his thoughts run in circles, and he dropped the pail of meat he was taking to the water dragon thrice before Professor Choi dismissed him with detention.
Once night fell he went to sit in the greenhouse, watching the swirl of stars above and doing nothing. His mind churned. The letters themselves didn’t seem too awful, but you could miss cues in written text. Little things, squirelly unhappinesses: Yoongi was often too candid to hide it when they were talking face to face, but his words were pretty. Pretty words hid things.
Seeing Yoongi now, speaking to him, was enough proof that there was something desperately wrong.
He lay there on the bench, trying to untangle his thoughts, wondering why everything had to be so complicated. Jimin came around to check on him at some point, asked some questions. But the day’s excitement had taken some sort of toll on him and Taehyung answered in half-hearted grunts, slipping in and out of a doze.
Someone shook him.
“Taehyung-ah, you have to wake up.”
He turned his head a little, wincing at the uncomfortable chill of the bench, and smushed his face into something warm. The warm thing—huh, Yoongi, that was nice—sighed and sat first, on the bench next to where Taehyung’s head was. Then his feet came up and Taehyung mumbled, sleepily, shifting around to make space. Everything was nice and buzzy, in the way it was when you’re half-asleep. He looped his arms around Yoongi’s neck, telling himself fuzzily that it was to keep Yoongi from sliding off the bench and to the verdant floor.
There was a rush of breath from Yoongi’s lips, a long sigh like he’d been holding it in for too long. Taehyung turned onto his side, and Yoongi’s arms went around him, palms flat against his back. He’d changed out of his robes to normal clothes— a sweatshirt and some soft pants. Taehyung balled his fists up in the fabric and stayed very still because he didn’t know what this was. Then he felt a hot tear in the dip of his collarbone and knew exactly what this was.
“Was it bad?” he asked, barely a whisper above the hush of the plants and the stars and the critters in the ground. “The break up.”
Yoongi huffed out a choked laugh. “I’m surprised it was. I’m surprised, I feel dumb, I feel so stupid that I thought—”
“You’re not stupid,” Taehyung murmured. “And there’s nothing wrong in being sad. You told me that, hyung.”
“I usually just get angry,” Yoongi said, into his hair. “I get pissed off, and I do some shit, and then it goes away. I don’t like this, Tae. It feels like there’s a hole in my heart.”
“Did he hurt you?” Taehyung asked, because he had to know. “Why didn’t you just tell me?”
There was a pause. Yoongi let out his breath methodically, small shallow bursts of it, as if he was afraid of hurting himself by inhaling too deep. He ducked his head so more of his face was in Taehyung’s hair, hands tightening at his back.
“I don’t know,” he said, slowly. “Telling you would make it real.”
Taehyung didn’t know what to say to that. For a while he didn’t speak, and Yoongi didn’t speak, and it was just them and the wind and the stars. Then he said, because he thought he could hear Yoongi’s breath hitch again, “So you went and found a magical plant.”
It’s meant as a joke, a means to light up the atmosphere, but maybe Taehyung miscalculated. Because suddenly Yoongi’s sitting up, rubbing irritably at his face, hair all mussed up and eyes sad. “Didn’t even fucking work.”
“It’s okay, hyung.”
“Why didn’t it work? It’s supposed to.”
And Taehyung would honestly just figure this out in the morning, when things were steadier and both their brains were screwed on right, but Yoongi rubs angrily at his eyes again and reaches for the bell jar.
“Why didn’t it work?”
And maybe Taehyung could blame his courage on the dark and the night, on the quiet. Maybe it was the way the line of Yoongi’s body was pressed up against his, one hand splayed thoughtless on Taehyung’s thigh. Maybe it was the curve of his mouth, messier than Taehyung had known it, lips lightly chapped and curious, clever, credulous in a way that could only be Yoongi. Maybe it was all of it, altogether, him burning in his sweater and Min Yoongi pressed up against him.
Taehyung leaned in, pushed him down, held his hands to Yoongi’s sternum and kept him there till he went quiet. Yoongi squeezed his eyes shut, but only for a moment. He breathed out—once, twice, thrice. Taehyung could hear his heart beat, shuddering and arrhythmic. Then Yoongi looked up, at Taehyung, mouth still that messy line Taehyung would gleefully punch someone to fix.
“He was a fucking bastard,” Yoongi muttered, finally. “Couldn’t even tell a rose and a peony apart.”
I can tell them apart, a voice whispered in Taehyung’s head. I can tell them all apart, just the way you can. He buried it vehemently. It was not the time—not at all.
“You’re going to be fine,” Taehyung said, because Yoongi always was. He was always fine, always on it, always with the program. Taehyung couldn’t imagine a situation—in this world or any other—where Yoongi didn’t have a perfect grip of things.
“Am I?” Yoongi asked, frowning. “Am I, really, Taehyung?”
Perhaps the answer wasn’t easily divined.
For a week Yoongi substituted in potions class, and Taehyung watched him closely. He felt like he was teetering on a precipice, waiting for the other shoe to drop: Yoongi looked wan, the dark circles beneath his eyes raccoon-like on his pale face. He was methodical in class, robotic; Taehyung had always looked forward to potions an inch more than the rest of his classes, and now he began to fear it.
“He’s going to keel over,” Jimin remarked one day, when Taehyung was stuffing down his breakfast and Yoongi was at the staff table, staring morosely at a bowl. “He looks like a waterlogged cat. Is he sick?”
Was he? Something inside Taehyung gave a complicated tug. Of course, he knew sometimes heartbreak was achingly real. He knew sometimes love turned on you like a hissing snake, grown chillingly venomous on every vulnerability you’ve fed it.
He knew how, left untreated, it ate at you like slow-acting poison.
What if that was it?
“What if it’s my fault?” Taehyung whispered, mouth full of egg roll. “What if this whole thing happened because I kissed him?”
“Taehyungie,” Jimin said, tenderly, levitating a large spoon very close to Taehyung’s forehead. “I love you, but now you’re starting to piss me off.”
Later that evening, in class, Taehyung watched Yoongi mess up a very easy Elixir of Endurance. The class tittered, several pairs of eyes darting from a dismayed Yoongi to his heavily smoking cauldron. Taehyung’s stomach churned. He was used to them being this way at his mishaps—over the years, he’s managed to sort of turn them all into a joke, laughing bright when he fucked up as if it didn’t hurt—but it didn’t feel right when they were laughing at Yoongi.
He walked up, with a bit of valerian clutched in his hand, saying loudly, “I think your hellebore supply was too dry.”
“Oh,” Yoongi said, glancing red-eyed from him to the plant. “That must be it. How unlucky.”
“I’ll tell the staff,” Taehyung continued, sliding the chopped valerian into Yoongi’s cauldron, “to replace it.”
“Thank you, Taehyung-ssi,” Yoongi’s voice struggled to keep level. “That would be great.”
The smoke cleared. The potion went pale pink, the way it was supposed to be, and Taehyung was sure the rest of the class was gaping at them.
It didn’t matter.
Nobody should be laughing at Yoongi.
At night, Taehyung found him sitting in the greenhouse again. There was something changeling about him—with his pretty skin and the collar of his shirt unbuttoned, hair curling from the humidity of the garden. He was barefoot and sock-less, starlight spattered on his cheeks, halfway unbearable for Taehyung’s heart. But Taehyung had been living with this want for years. He could push it aside. Because Yoongi didn’t need Taehyung’s wild, unruly, overgrown crush.
Yoongi needed his best friend.
That meant Taehyung had to be brave.
He had to be brave, and he had to keep in mind that this could hurt him, and he had to tell himself he was okay with that.
Because this was love, too.
Taehyung pottered around, watering the plants and transplanting blood roses. Yoongi said nothing—just tracked him with his eyes, quiet and breathing slow. Taehyung kneeled down in the dirt for a while, de-weeding, chattering aloud about the plants, how they were, how he thought the columbines were such attention seekers, always following his movements with their heads. The silence didn’t feel oppressive at all: this was how it worked, this was how they did things.
“Where does it hurt?” Taehyung asked, finally, when his work was done, and Yoongi was just sitting there staring into the night.
“Everywhere.” His voice was quiet, petulant. “Why is that?”
“You really loved him.”
Yoongi was right: being in school, insulated from the rest of the world, connected to Yoongi only by a thinning thread of letters, Taehyung’s world was all about himself. His feelings, his problems, his friendships and dreams. Maybe that was why this felt so much like being blind-sided by a revelation. That this boyfriend—who had barely a name and a face in Taehyung’s memory—had meant so much to Yoongi. That when he’d walked out, he’d left behind a hole Taehyung couldn’t fill.
“Yeah,” Yoongi said. “I think I really did. What sucks is—what sucks is that I feel like I’ve exhausted myself on him.”
Taehyung looked at him sharply. “What do you mean?”
Yoongi sighed and looked at the ground. “I’m not sure. I just. I don’t feel like a real person. It’s like I had this big bunch of feelings, and love, and emotions, and I gave it all away. I gave it all away and then he just—left. And now there’s nothing. Inside me, I mean. You know?”
Taehyung didn’t know.
Yoongi shrugged. “Nothing interests me. These plants don’t interest me. That’s what’s scaring me. I’ve never been…apathetic. Do you get it? That’s why I’m taking a break.”
“From the apothecary.”
“Yeah. From that. From potions. Maybe from you, too.”
Taehyung must have looked shocked, because Yoongi laughed. Considering how he’d been acting this past week, it was startling.
“I’ll keep in touch,” he said, robotically. “I’ve just been thinking. I need a break. From everything.”
“Where will you go?”
“I don’t know. Magical hot-spots. Nazca Lines, the Stonehenge, Gyanganj,” he took a deep breath and then said, “I’m not running away.”
Taehyung sat down beside him, keeping his gaze carefully centered on his own hands, folded in his lap. “I know.”
“Just have to get my head screwed on right.”
“You don’t have to right now,” Taehyung said. “If you think going away for a while will help you, then sure. But don’t do it to force yourself to be better.”
When he looked up, Yoongi was looking at him with a sort of rawness that Taehyung couldn’t bear. He felt a sudden urge to save it up, store it away in his memory, because he didn’t know if he could have it again.
It seemed unlikely. With the words Yoongi was saying, with the shuttered, far-away look in his eyes.
For a strange, charged while, neither of them said anything. Then Taehyung, unthinking, threw his arms tightly around Yoongi’s neck. Help, he thought, because oh, this was comfort and home and the only semblance of human warmth he’d known in this place. This was Yoongi’s hand in his hair and his breath at his neck, the sigh catching in his throat and the scent of mint. This was love, love, love like a clear bell in Taehyung’s head, and for a moment he let himself be unbelievably greedy. For a moment he let himself cling—not too long to make it weird, just enough to remember this.
Everything was changing. School was drawing to an end, and the real world—however it may treat him—was more vast and frightening and loud than Taehyung could hope to conquer. And now he was going to lose Yoongi to its clutches too.
It didn’t seem fair.
“Taehyung-ah,” Yoongi said, in that same, exhausted tone he was carrying around like a miasma. His hand rubbed against the top of Taehyung’s head. “I’ll come back to you.”
Taehyung wasn’t sure he believed that.
He didn’t see Yoongi after that for some months. There were no letters, but he hadn’t honestly expected them. Jimin was surprised, but Taehyung knew broken hearts better than him, knew what it was like, knew not to expect. He still wrote. Every week, without fail, he wrote. His enchanted letters found their way to Yoongi, he guessed, because they never came back singed at the corners with the Postal Service’s squiggly Return to Sender message.
He learned impossibly difficult theorems on Conjurings and Vexations, struggled pointlessly with Ethics, scraped by somehow for Creatures and remained mostly afloat in Potions.
Somebody in the fifth year started a social group demanding better inclusivity from the school for half-bloods and demi-magi. Taehyung began to hear that word often—demi-magi. He saw the senior kids scoff at their soft juniors for making up terminologies that didn’t exist.
But I grabbed one of their posters—it’s really cool, hyung, there is this sort of winking design and a purple flag, I’m attaching it to this letter—and I realized that they mean…me. They mean ME, hyung. People like me, who aren’t fully witch, who can’t do one or more aspects of magic, but who deserve alternate options. I think it’s kind of cool, that there’s a word for it. ‘Different’ isn’t good enough, you know? I’m not ‘different’, I’m just me. I’m demi-magi. It’s nice to finally BE something, instead of being defined by the absence of a thing.
I ’ve signed up for their meetings. Maybe I’ll make friends.
Anyway, I hope these are reaching you. Are they? I ’ll keep writing, even if you can’t respond. I know how it goes.
I miss you everyday. Finals are in a month ’s time. It’s going to get harder to write, but I’ll try squeeze in something right before the exams.
Gotta go - the group is meeting now!
Taehyung met Jeon Jungkook at the group. Half-witch, and terribly shy, but he was good at most everything he tried his hands at. Didn’t matter—his employment scope was near zero. No one would take him on.
“I know this guy,” Jungkook said, in one of the meetings, “Advocates for social justice and animal welfare. He told me to start this group. Said maybe— you know. We can stick together.”
Taehyung looked at him sympathetically. There were a bunch of regulars at these meetings—one or two halfies and three demis—but most of the others that walked in and out were just there out of curiosity or a chance to rebel.
Jungkook was so bright. He had bunny teeth and wide, sparkly eyes, and he liked animals, and he was some sort of prodigy with even the most obscure instruments in the music room. Once they were introduced, Jimin positively cooed over him every chance he got, swooping in at random times of the day to pinch his cheeks or snap his collar, hiding bunnies in his bag, filling his tormentors’ shoes with toilet-water.
“Don’t let that kid go,” he told Taehyung very seriously one night, when Taehyung was in the library trying to look up some real estate for his clinic. “He’s so cute. He’s such a little baby. I want to keep him in my ghostly pocket forever. The world will eat him alive.”
So Taehyung asked him if Jungkook would consider helping him out at the clinic for his internships. Jungkook looked ecstatic, nearly knocking Taehyung to the ground with his emphatic yes.
“I was thinking of going to work with Namjoon hyung—you know, the Menagerie guy who told me to start this?—but I’m scared of the big sea creatures. They have creepy teeth. Namjoon hyung thinks they’re really cute. They’re really not, they just look at him with so much devotion because they want to eat him,” Jungkook bounced on his heels for a moment before he suddenly seemed to be struck by an epiphany. “Oh! Come to think of it, Namjoon hyung mentioned a cousin looking to let out a little spot. It’s not on main market street, but it’s close enough. Do you want to go see it?”
And then, the very next week, Taehyung met his future landlord and business partner for the first time. Kim Seokjin showed up to their meeting on a horse, dressed in what looked like a nude leotard and pixie dust, insisting he had method to his madness.
“I’m studying pixies,” he said. “And you’re going to be repairing hearts. Alternative Medicine is getting popular, these days. Might be worth investing. Are you worth investing in, though?”
Taehyung gulped. Was he? Everytime someone had asked him a similar question, it had come back to his grades. To wand-magic. To his famous family curse.
Seokjin’s eyes narrowed shrewdly. “Tell me this, Taehyung-ssi. Why is a raven like a writing desk?”
Taehyung had learned this. One of the conundrums, one of the many footnotes in his textbook…
“They’re both only 100% substitutable for each other when conjuring Laveau’s Demons?”
“No, silly. Because one has flapping fits and the other has fitting flaps,” Seokjin got gracefully off his horse, wandered over to Taehyung, and startled him by pinching thoughtfully at his cheek. “Look at you! Finals are eating you up. Let me buy you some cake, and then we’ll discuss rent.”
And then, before he could blink, he had a space for his clinic, a partner to start his business with, and final exams were right around the corner.
He wasn’t as tense this time as he had been for mid-year. It felt liberating, in a way, that he was going to work outside of the system. That he could use his own family expertise to help himself.
—it’s nice, anyway, and I’m not going to burn myself THIS time, haha. Exams start tomorrow. I have Conjuring and Astronomy first, and then Potions. Kim, of course, is threatening to kill us.
Remember that time, hyung? When I freaked out about you dying in Kim ’s class? You laughed at me for that.
I hope you ’re well. Gotta get back to studying now, but I just wanted to send out the good news! I have a place for the clinic!
Taehyung blinked at that word for a minute. He’d gotten so used to writing it now. Signed off his letters like that, without a thought. Each one a small piece of his heart, committed to ink. And over and over, wrapping through hundreds and hundreds of words:
His finger hovered over the word for a minute. Then he shook his head, signed his name, and sent the letter off.
Of course he wished Yoongi would write back. It had been a while now, and Tahyung had considered pleading with him in the last letter. Please just let me know you’re okay. But then he thought of his own insistence to Jimin that maybe Yoongi just needed space, that Yoongi had promised he’d come back. That should have been enough for Taehyung, right? Why was it never enough?
Don’t come across as a needy baby, he thought, determined. Yoongi would write when he wanted to. In the meantime, he could be at Stonehenge or Easter Island or wherever—Taehyung would just keep writing to let him know he still had a friend.
Taehyung’s first day of exams was a whirl of flapping pages, shaking hands, and giant star charts. He studied for Potions in the greenhouse, looking longingly in between breaks at his grandmother’s journal, so close to the finishing line now that he couldn’t wait to escape.
The Potions exam took place in a special greenhouse. Kim had weird green bottles of poison lined up in front of her desk when they entered, and they drew lots to figure out which one they’d inflict upon themselves. There were many shaking hands and sweaty faces for this test, even before it began, but Taehyung felt confident of her patterns. She always did slow-acting, highly symptomatic types of poisons, the kind with ten to twelve ingredients in its antidotes.
His bottle was shaped like a siren, tail curling suggestively when he picked it up. Something spelled slow alarm in his mind at the sight of it, at the clear potion sloshing around within. He pushed the thought away.
This was potions. Taehyung could figure this out.
“Ready?” Professor Kim asked. “You’ve got three hours. Find the antidote or perish.”
The testing format was ridiculous, of course, but witches loved courting with death. It was part of the aesthetic after all. Cheat death, tease it, make it your friend. Still, Taehyung spotted trained healers among the supervising examiners.
He swallowed hard and stared at his bottle. The siren winked at him. He took a deep breath and took a sip, swilled it in his mouth, and tasted henbane. Something salty—maybe deathcaps?
“All of it,” Professor Kim said, coming to stand in front of him, “now, Taehyung-ssi.”
He nodded and drank.
He didn’t feel very different for the first few minutes. Then the chills started, and the shaking. Definitely some leering violets in there. He began to move, collecting ingredients, choosing a base for his antidote, noticing his accelerated heartbeat, the dryness of his mouth, the slow headache creeping across his skull. Around him, his classmates sweated and gasped and shuffled, frantically gathering things. One girl, clearly panicking, was administered the antidote ten minutes in and asked to leave.
Taehyung knew Potions was super hard to pass—because your own body and brain began to work against you. Crushing vervain in his bowl, he muddily tried to remember weight conversions. What were they like?
Something twisted painfully in his stomach.
There wasn't anything in this that would do that, was there?
Taehyung looked around. His classmates were all doing similar things to him - nipping and cutting, grinding herbs. Some seemed worse off than him, but no one seemed to be in pain.
The siren's face mocked him. He thought fuzzily about her, about her green glass face, her sly smile.
Beware of green women.
Taehyung coughed, highly alarmed. There was blood in his mouth.
Professor Kim was at his side instantly. "That's not supposed to happen," she said, and caught his chin to peer into his eyes. "That's not..."
Taehyung felt another sharp stab of pain. "I don't," he tried, failing to draw breath, "don't feel-"
He fell off the stool, then, but that didn't hurt. It didn't even really register. The coughing rattled his lungs, tore through his frame. Professor Kim was calling the healers, already. He saw them from the periphery of his vision, alarmed and running towards him, but he didn't need them, he didn't need any of them, he knew what this was.
The family curse.
The antidote was bitter, going down his throat. He swallowed, held it, knew it wasn't going to work. He coughed again. More blood.
"Why isn't it working?"
There was black now, crawling at the edges of his vision. His heart felt slow, ponderous, beating a faltering rhythm in his chest. His brain was foggy. Very faintly, in his mind's eye, he saw a tinkling of bottles, Yoongi saying cheat a little.
It didn't matter in the end. Taehyung was cursed to lose this battle.
"Stay with me, kid." Professor Kim said, withdrawing her wand. Her voice came from very far away. Taehyung guessed he was on the floor, judging by the soft green smell of undergrowth. The healers' hands passed over his skin like thoughtful ghosts, barely perceptible to his confused mind.
It hurt. He twisted, whimpered, couldn't keep his eyes open.
There was a bang from somewhere, like a gun going off. Taehyung heard Jimin, which wasn't surprising - there was probably no place in this earth where Jimin wouldn't suss him out if he was hurt. But also, also he heard--
Yoongi's voice was quiet, utterly horrible in the stillness of the greenhouse. Hoarse, like maybe he'd been in the rain for all these months that he'd been away. Taehyung saw him faintly, more a silhouette than anything else, and then - when he dropped next to him and his face was more than shadow - a pale, grimacing figure that bore little resemblance to his hyung.
"Cassandra's Tincture," Yoongi snapped, and the healers whirled away.
Taehyung tried to look at him. Everything was starting to fade. Even the coughing seemed far, far away; the blood not his; the wheezing, rattling breaths an unnoticed apostrophe in an already long worn scene.
Stupid curse. What a time to show up, just as Yoongi came back. Or had Yoongi come back because of the curse? That wasn't possible, was it? Oh, maybe that was the curse after all: to love and love and lose, and then have the object of your affections stare at you while you flopped about, poisoned, like a sad fucking fish.
Yoongi said, looking right at him, "Don't fucking die."
Taehyung coughed again. Something warm dribbled down his chin. "You l-look," he managed, fighting a grimace, "h-horrible. Horrible."
"Bit rich," Yoongi said, wincing at him, and then opened his mouth as if he wanted to say more. Maybe he said something. Taehyung didn't know. The dark descended like a shroud, thick and white, and then there was only silence.
He woke up in the infirmary.
The first thing he noticed was that there was bubblegum stuck all over his headboard. The second thing was Jungkook, sleeping with his head on the bed, butt planted firmly on a visitor's stool that looked clearly uncomfortable.
He woke up when Taehyung stirred, trying to reach the pitcher of water.
"Hey! Let me get that," he said, grabbing a glass. "How do you feel? You scared Professor Kim stiff, she was so sure you'd die."
"Why didn't I?"
"Duh. Min Yoongi-ssi. You know? That alumni who sometimes substitutes in Potions?"
Oh. Oh, that was right. Yoongi had saved him. Yoongi had come running out of Hecate knew where, barking orders and screaming at the healers. Yoongi had looked horrible, all dark circles and pale mouth, thinner than Taehyung remembered him last, hair wild and pushed back with a bandanna.
"W-where," Taehyung asked, "where's hyung now?"
"I don't know. He stayed here for a while," Jungkook said, shrugging. "Then said something about needing to look at your plants."
Taehyung expected to see Yoongi sometime in the next two days he was holed up in the infirmary, but it didn't happen. Jungkook only shrugged. Jimin, unwrapping pieces of gum to stick to Taehyung's headboard to say—so far—TAE HUNG GET WEL, frowned when he asked.
"He looks like somebody personally rained on him, so that's what I've been doing."
"Jimin! You can't rain on him!"
Jimin frowned. "Trust me, I don't think he even notices."
Taehyung looked at the box of chocolates Jin had sent him, scowling at the twerking egg-shaped one. "It's gotten worse, hasn't it?"
"What's gotten worse?"
"I don't know about that," Jimin said, "but he looks like someone flattened his pancake with a steam-roller."
Jungkook’s nose scrunched. "Does he always talk in interesting analogies?"
"No," Jimin said, and stuck a piece of bubblegum to Jungkook's hair. "Sdrawkcab klat I semitemoS."
"Ssabmud a si kookgnuJ noeJ"
Taehyung found Yoongi on the third day after Potions, when he was finally cleared to leave the infirmary.
He was standing knee deep in the small pond adjacent to the greenhouse, wrestling with some of the water plants. The T-shirt he wore hung loosely off his frame, which was worrying, because Yoongi had been skinny to begin with. His hair hung sloppily in his face. The bones of his face seemed more prominent than usual, the cut of his jaw fiercely sharp.
Yoongi went still when Taehyung got closer. "Taehyung," he said, without turning around.
"Hi, hyung," Taehyung said. "How have you been?"
Yoongi looked at him with a sharp smile. "You mean horrible."
"Yes, that," Taehyung said. "Why didn't you come to the infirmary? Thought you would."
"What for? Weren't they looking after you well enough?"
What was Taehyung supposed to say to that? He tried to ignore the frission of hurt the words left in him, instead trying to focus on checking on his plants, but the silence felt like quicksand. They were sinking very fast.
“How did you know to come?” he asked, finally, when he couldn’t bear it any longer.
Yoongi sighed. “Just did. You wrote in your letter that your exam was coming. I thought this might happen. It’s happened to some kids before, and Kim’s always been able to help them, but you’re—different, obviously.”
He was pathetic, Taehyung was—and unlucky as hell. But there was no point going down that road and feeling sorry for himself. Instead he said, quietly, “So you did get my letters.”
“Of course I got them.”
“You didn’t write back.”
Yoongi shrugged. There was something about his posture that screamed a sort of indifference he’d never possessed before. Taehyung couldn’t look at him. Yoongi was a lot of things at times—driven, ambitious, lazy, kind. But he was never disinterested. He had never shown apathy towards Taehyung, towards his plights at school or the wobbly faith he had in their friendship. It was always Yoongi who wanted to reach out and take his hand, Yoongi who wanted him to keep writing, Yoongi who said I love you again and again like a spoken charm.
Never Taehyung. Taehyung lapped it all up with the sort of joy that felt like a kebab skewer right through his chest, but the only thing he had ever initiated was that never-spoken-of kiss.
So this—Yoongi’s gaze sliding off his face, his eyes huge in his gaunt face—was new.
It was new, and weird, and Taehyung hated it.
“I didn’t want to write back,” Yoongi said, tone so absent that he could have been reporting the weather. “I didn’t really want to come here, either.”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Yoongi asked, straightening up so they were staring straight at each other. “Because you’re so in love with me.”
Taehyung’s heart shuddered to a sudden, shocky stop. “Huh?”
“It’s cute, Tae. But I don’t feel anything for you.”
The rush of blood in Taehyung’s head was so loud. “That’s—yeah. That’s okay.”
Taehyung could live with that. He’d always been slightly confused that Yoongi would even bother with him, let alone build years of friendship propped up by letters, murder plants, and Taehyung’s lack of any normal social life. He could live with it if Yoongi didn’t love him. Sure, the air felt punched out of him, and sure, his stomach had dropped at the casual way Yoongi had just said it, but he’d survive.
This was okay.
It was okay.
“I just think maybe writing to you so often gives you the wrong idea,” Yoongi drawled, still in that horrible tone. “Besides, it’s so time-consuming. Such a waste, really.”
Taehyung couldn’t immediately find his voice. Everything in his chest was blaring, hopeless pain, numbness at the edges where his brain tried frantically to turn this into something that wasn’t a straight, sharp blade.
“You’re just saying that because you’re not yourself. You don’t mean it.”
Taehyung took a step forward. “Hyung. How long has it been like this? How long has it been since you started feeling nothing?”
Yoongi snorted. “Don’t go analyzing me now, with your heartwork and all that bullshit. It doesn’t work! Medea’s Tits, how is it that even in running away from your problems you run into these ridiculous solutions? How are you going to keep this clinic of yours running when you don’t have a license to practice healing? Who’s going to give you money to fix them? Why is this the most impractical decision you’ve ever made? Why in Hecate’s name are you happy about this? I worry about you, Taehyung-ah. I worry that you’re taking these fucking unnecessary risks when you could’ve just come worked for me.”
Yoongi’s tone was practically dripping with sarcasm. Taehyung thought of defending himself—Jin had a license that could help them start, alternate medicine was a paying field despite Yoongi’s opinions, and Taehyung was allowed to be fucking happy without wallowing in his academic insecurities all of the time.
But there was no point arguing here. He might as well be talking to a brick wall with all the empathy and sympathy Yoongi didn’t have to give anyone.
“You don’t mean it,” Taehyung said again. “I knew you were getting worse. I knew it.”
“I’m not worse,” Yoongi said, emphatically. His gaze remained unfeeling. “Everything makes so much sense now.”
Nothing made sense to Taehyung. He stood there, frozen stiff, shocked into an utter, absolute stillness. “You’re not well,” he said, finally. “And you need to let me help you.”
“I don’t feel sick. I’m definitely not heart sick,” Yoongi chuckled. “Look. Come here. I’ll show you.”
What did it mean that he’d still go? Even with his whole chest burning and his throat tight, even with the beginning of tears threatening at the corners of his eyes—he’d still go to Yoongi.
Up close, he looked even more sallow. As if he hadn’t been sleeping.
Taehyung swallowed several times. Didn’t dare breathe. It felt like he was walking the line between nightmare and a worse sort of wakefulness.
Everything was terrible.
And then it all became even more terrible because Yoongi stepped close enough that Taehyung could feel the heat of his breath on his collarbone.
Yoongi’s mouth swallowed the rest of Taehyung’s protest. He managed a sudden gasp of breath, a choked out sound of surprise. Yoongi’s lips pressed into his, his tongue slid right into Taehyung’s mouth. His hands, cupping Taehyung’s face, left it to clench tightly at his shoulders.
Taehyung shivered. This kiss was nothing like the last time; nothing like the sweet, warm thing Taehyung guarded so preciously in his memory. This kiss didn’t make him feel dazzled and dreamy and glad.
This was the shade of a thing, a shadow; Yoongi’s hands traipsing cool down the length of his spine, his mouth teasing the line of Taehyung’s jaw. His teeth scraped at Taehyung’s lower lip and it felt harsh, hard; the sudden shock of it cutting through the chaos in Taehyung’s brain and leaving him frozen, chilled to his bone, struck still with awfulness. Yoongi’s hands felt cold; his gaze dead and hollow. The line of his body against Taehyung’s felt sharpened, somehow, by loss and apathy.
Taehyung didn’t know what to do with his hands. Everything about this—the mechanical roughness of Yoongi’s mouth on his, the entirely loveless press of his tongue against Taehyung’s—made him feel ill inside, and he pulled away when Yoongi’s hands pressed flat to the front of his chest.
“Stop.” He said, shuddering, his voice choked up and scratchy in his throat. “Hyung, stop. What are you doing?”
“Oh, come on. We both know you want this.”
Taehyung stared at him, hardly able to process the situation. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, noticed his fingers were shaking. “That doesn’t—I don’t—”
“You don’t what? Want to ever act on your feelings? Ha. You’ve been writing to me for years. Just wallowing in your feelings. I wished you’d stop, but apparently you don’t take a hint.” Yoongi’s tone was indifferent, meant to hurt. “Oh, you’re so happy I’ve found a boyfriend, you’re so happy I’m in love with someone else. How does it feel to do nothing but lie?”
“I wasn’t lying,” Taehyung said, forcing a wan smile. “I wasn’t. I just wanted to be your friend. I didn’t want to lose you.”
Yoongi’s face remained blank, dispassionate. “So you didn’t want me? Don’t lie.”
Taehyung’s heart raced painfully. “I—I did. I love you, hyung, but that doesn’t mean—”
“Love.” Yoongi smiled, sarcastic, his voice awfully, theatrically shocked. “You love me. Sometimes I think that’s why he left, because you poisoned me. You and your little puppy-dog crush. Maybe he could tell. Maybe he could tell that I knew, that I’d let you kiss me—”
Taehyung sucked in a harsh breath. “If he betrayed you, hyung, that’s his fault. Not yours. Not mine.”
Yoongi shook his head. “When I got your letters, I wondered if I wasn’t wrong. If I did like you the way you do. Pretty sure I didn’t, but I—maybe I hoped. It’s pretty clear now, don’t you agree? Love means nothing, Taehyung-ah. It doesn’t matter. It never fucking did. And I’m better off like this. Free. Alone. I don’t need you. I don’t want you. Just fucking let me go.”
Taehyung’s whole body felt electric, awful; he wanted to hide very badly or flee. Yoongi’s expression was strange, a struck match glittering behind his eyes, no warmth on his face. His own soul felt coiled and simmering, slow anger stirring within him at the unfairness of all this, but what was he angry at?
It isn’t his fault. Taehyung had to remind himself that: it wasn’t Yoongi’s fault. This was rogue, violent, lovely magic, twisting his heart, carving runnels into him, a physical consequence of bitter, broken trust. It wasn’t Yoongi’s fault, and if only he’d let him, Taehyung could fix this.
Taehyung could fix all of this.
“If you want to be free of me so much, why did you come here?” Taehyung asked, softly. “If you feel nothing, if you don’t want me to write, if you don’t want me at all—why did you come running here? Why did you save me?”
A muscle ticked in Yoongi’s jaw. He hesitated, opened his mouth, and then shut it again.
“Why didn’t you just stay away,” Taehyung asked, “and let it happen?”
There was a stillness to Yoongi’s expression that was almost frightening. He seemed at war with himself, Taehyung thought, and that was good.
That meant he was salvageable.
“You came because some part of you still cares.” Taehyung continued, relentless. “Some part of you still knows love.”
“Deny it if you want. I’d be dead if it wasn’t true.”
Yoongi’s face twisted in sudden, furious pain. He hunched over like he’d been sucker-punched by some nameless, unfathomable emotion. He whispered, eyes hooked on Taehyung, “No.”
Taehyung swallowed. “You’ve helped me all my life, hyung,” he said, his own heart twinging, “You’ve always been there for me. So let me help you now.”
“Fuck you,” Yoongi said, in a snarl. “Stay away from me. You don’t know—you have no idea—”
Yoongi wobbled off to the side and picked up his traveling cloak. Taehyung surged forward, in a wild attempt to try and stop him, somehow, but he was less than half the witch Yoongi was, and Yoongi’s form was already shimmering when he got there.
“Stay away,” Yoongi said, glassy-eyed. “It only just stopped hurting. I don’t want you to—I don’t want you.”
And then he was gone.
School was ending. Taehyung gave the exams he missed in a state of fugue, gauze-headed and distracted, Jimin hovering close to him always like he feared Taehyung would hurl himself off a spire or something. Taehyung didn’t have the heart to tell him to stop. When Jungkook tried to cheer him up—suggesting everything from games on the new Nintendo Switch his foster parents had gotten him to pranks worth a thumbs-up of approval from Jimin— Taehyung only hid in the library pretending to study.
He wondered where Yoongi was. What he was doing. How he was fortifying his heart, with what unhealthy coping mechanism designed to scar it even further. Taehyung wanted to help. He wanted to help so badly. It grew in his heart like a mushroom, deep and secret, and he could scarcely breathe around it.
“You’re helping by giving him time,” Hoseok said, the day Taehyung’s last exam ended and he began packing his trunk. “But then, sometimes, interventions help, too? I don’t know? Have you noticed I’m really bad at advice?”
“I can cry with you if you want.”
Taehyung sighed. “I think I’m done crying.”
“Oh okay. You don’t know how to find him, anyway, so this is all null and void. What a stupid conversation!”
“You’re trying to make me feel better,” Taehyung pointed out. “It’s not stupid.”
Hoseok stared at him pearlescently. “I’m going to miss you, Taehyungie. You were always so dramatic, I forgot to be bored.”
“It’s just me and the squirrels from now on.”
“You can come visit,” Taehyung said, “Jiminie’s promised he will.”
Jimin, draped over Taehyung’s trunk in some ill-natured attempt to stop him from leaving, blew a loud raspberry. “You’re dead to me,” he pouted. “The moment you leave, you’re dead to me.”
Taehyung rolled his eyes. “Who are you going to tell all the gossip you overhear in the bathrooms if not me?”
“I’ll find some new first year and be best-friends with them. I’ll tell Jungkookie. I’ll talk to the statues.”
“You said we were soulmates.”
Jimin’s face crumpled. Taehyung gaped at him, stricken, because he had never seen Jimin look actively anguished, but now he was. Now he was, and he was sniffling a little, and it hurt to look at him.
“I don’t want you to go,” Jimin said, but in this quiet, thoughtful way. Like he’d known for a while how things were wheeling to an end. “I don’t want you to go, TaeTae, but I also know you’ll be so much happier outside these walls. I told you, remember, when things were bad? That school’s not forever.”
“And now it’s over.”
And now it was over.
On his last day, he took a walk through campus—the hedge maze and the bridge, the old aqueducts and the tunnels. He trailed through hallways, thinking of days long past—of Jimin hooting and heralding him as he ran red-faced and late to class; of Hoseok popping up randomly to discuss the properties of the cell-phone brick; of Jungkook running up to him bright-eyed saying hyung, hyung, hyung, do you want to play a game?
The hallways were empty, now. Memories hung, ghostly, in the air.
Taehyung meandered through the library and the stone circles, past the Witches’ Way where the statues showered sparks for every outgoing student. He spent a while doing seven rounds around the Fountain of Hecate, tossing in a single bloodied coin for nine years of luck. These things were tradition, for every student leaving the school. Maybe Taehyung did it mostly alone or with a poltergeist for company, but it felt like closure anyway.
He went to the poison gardens last, leaving it for the midnight hour when the flowers were at their most dazzling. There was rain, drizzling hot through the toxic leaves, and Taehyung pulled up a dome of protection around himself, standing beneath the seething water like it was the blessed waters of the Fountain itself.
So much of his life was here. And there would be more to come, of course, but he already knew this place was going to stay potent in his memories. This greenhouse, with the poppies and peonies curling up against the steamed glass, fireflies winking from amidst dark leaves. This archway, twisted with fruit and flower, deceivingly charming and deviously toxic. This old bench, where he’d sat with a handful of burn scars and had his first kiss. These flower beds, laced through with pennyroyal and lily, where he’d stood and argued over the meaning of love and heartache.
“I miss you,” he said, to no one.
Somehow, unbidden, it seemed to work like a conjuring.
There was a little crack of sound, a hissing like something burning. Taehyung startled. He turned, and there was Yoongi: white-faced, reeling, pain writ on his face and gaze muddied.
Taehyung yelled out; Yoongi collapsed. It all happened in the crack of a minute.
Jimin appeared, gaping. “What—” he said, “What in Circe’s name!”
Taehyung fell to his knees. “Hyung,” he said, and Yoongi cracked an eye open. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know,” Yoongi whispered. “I don’t know, it just hurts. It just hurts, and I wanted to—to see you.”
Taehyung nodded frantically. “Okay. Okay, I’m going to help, I’ll help you—”
“No. No, I don’t want—”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Taehyung moaned. “Please, just let me help.”
“You don’t understand,” Yoongi whispered. “You don’t understand, it will hurt more if I can feel things again. It will just hurt more. It will—”
Taehyung felt his breath catch, and very carefully reached out to smudge his thumb across Yoongi’s wet cheek. “But it will be better. Please, trust me. It will be better.”
“You don’t understand!” Yoongi cried, somewhere between a soft whine and a rough snarl. One half of his face was pressed into the ground. Taehyung tried to drag him up and he just curled back into the dirt, like an unwilling potato rooting itself deep within earth. His pallor was horridly pale. Jimin dumped a pile of blankets on him, without warning. Taehyung looked up at him gratefully.
“You don’t understand,” Yoongi said again, trying to pull away, worm-like under the blankets. He looked completely out of his mind, like a scared animal. “I don’t want to feel things, I don’t want—”
“You said I was brave,” Taehyung said. “I’m not brave. I just had you. And now I’m going to—I’m here for you, hyung. I’ll always be here.”
Yoongi gave him a slow, fearful look. He tugged listlessly away from Taehyung’s grip again, a deer-in-the-headlights look painted across his face.
Then his eyes rolled up into his head.
Taehyung bit his lip, tasted blood in his mouth. He pulled at the buttons of Yoongi’s shirt and saw his pale chest was marked up red and purple, a network of veins and capillaries lit up under his skin, dark like a many-rooted tree.
Jimin said, from somewhere above them both, “Oh my god this is so fucked up. Oh my god this is worse than that time Hoseok hyung almost got me trapped in that Chinese lock box. Oh my god this is horrible—”
“Please shut up,” Taehyung said, in traumatic dissociation, looking around for his grandmother’s journal on the usual shelf, and remembering with a start that it was packed in his trunk. “You don’t even believe in god.”
There was a whoosh, and then Jimin thrust the book into his hands. “I brought this.”
“You’re amazing, thank you, Jimin-ah.”
Taehyung rifled through the book feverishly. What could cause this sort of damage? Rejection, betrayal, double heart-break, he read, and swallowed hard. Double heart-break? What had Yoongi done?
Left untreated, the book read, the rogue magic can eat through the heart. Turn it hard, indifferent. Flares of emotion are consistent with this condition, putting further strain on the affected heart. Left unchecked, damages can be irrevocable, and the heart can wither down to dust.
Taehyung gulped. The thought of Yoongi cold and unsmiling, with none of his normal, quiet affection and gentleness—that felt like a whole heartbreak of its own to Taehyung. There was already a knife between his ribs, twisting.
Left unchecked, the effect of it on his own heart was going to be awful, irrevocable.
He sniffled. Dug his fingers into the dirt of the flower beds by Yoongi’s side, and thought hard. He had to do something. He had to help.
His kit was still lying here. Making a quick decision, Taehyung reached for it. The athame in its leather sheath felt strangely warm to touch beneath his fingers—he took that as a good sign.
“What are you planning to do?” Jimin asked, sharply. “Taehyung-ah, what are you doing?”
“I’m helping,” Taehyung said, calmly. “I’m helping. You’re not going to tell him how.”
Jimin glared at him. “Whatever you’re going to do—it’s not something your mother would do, is it, Tae?”
“And if Yoongi knew, he’d stop you, wouldn’t he?”
“He’d stop me anyway.”
“I don’t want you to do it,” Jimin said. “I don’t want you to put yourself at risk, I don’t want you to hurt for him, not again, not after all this time—”
Taehyung heaved in a shuddering breath. “He’d do it for me,” he said. “I know he would. I’m bespelling you. You are not to speak of this to anyone. You are not to clue Yoongi hyung in on it. You are not to find loopholes to escape this situation. You are not to stop me.”
Jimin’s face shuttered. “You asshole.”
Taehyung bit his lip. “I’m sorry.”
And then he pulled the athame off its sheath and slashed a line through his own chest.
Taehyung wakes up to a weird fish-bowl face staring at him.
He frowns at it, puts a hand out as if to touch it, and the fish-bowl resolves itself into two separate faces.
Jimin and Hoseok.
Weird—he must have really screwed up for them to come find him outside of school. Taehyung doesn’t remember shit. Had something happened? He’d been in pain, and he’s lying on the examination table in the clinic right now, so he must’ve been sick.
Jin’s face bobbles its way through the other two, peering down hard through work glasses. “Hi,” he says. “Please say for me, in no order of preference, your top three favorite anime.”
“One Piece, Boku no Hero Academia, Full Moon o Sagashite.”
Jin sighs. “Still no taste. Why won’t you admit Digimon is the best? At least your dumb brain is working.” He puts a hand out and Taehyung takes it, head still swimming. Sitting up is weird. He tilts sideways until Jin’s wand does a slow circle in front of his eyes and the fog vanishes.
“You okay?” Jin asks. “Nothing hurts?”
“Your apparent experiment back in school backfired a bit. You took too much of the damage. But you’re okay. I’ve fixed you best as I can. Good thing Yoongi was around, though. I suppose you have Jimin to thank for that.”
“What did he do?”
Jin glances warily at Jimin. “Well, if he hadn’t forced you two to keep running into each other, Yoongi would be in Guatemala by now. Luckily, he had to cancel his plans. On account of today suddenly being a completely shit day.”
Jimin’s pointedly not looking at either him or Seokjin. Hoseok looks fitfully between them all. His hands have kelp on it, and Taehyung wonders if he’d been Jimin’s accomplice, the architect of Namjoon’s sudden house arrest.
“I’ll let Yoongi in, he wants to see you,” Jin says, standing up. “Oh, Jimin-ssi, if you’d be so kind to return all our stolen things. And Yoongi’s too.”
“No way,” Jimin says. “Finders keepers.”
“You literally actually slole it off the shelves. What will you even do with a bunch of potion supplies?”
“No clue. Torment some kids.”
“Do you want to go back in a Chinese lock-box?”
Jimin looks sheepishly towards Jin, and then right at Taehyung. “I’ll get the dumb potions.” He rolls his eyes a bit. “Feel better, idiot.”
Taehyung’s mouth feels dry. “Thanks, Jiminie.”
“No talking—not right now,” Jin says, as he helps Taehyung down off the table and onto the nearby bed. “Sleep. And hydrate. I’m giving you a potion.”
“I’m still confused.”
“Good. Consider it your punishment for keeping this secret from us. Now drink.”
Jin stands there, glaring, until Taehyung finishes the entire flask of potion. Then he nods to himself, pats Taehyung’s shoulder once, and walks out. It’s a few minutes of antsy waiting before the door opens again and Yoongi shuffles in.
Yoongi’s dumb hat is a bouquet of moonflowers. Taehyung half wants to laugh and half weep into his pillowcase. He thinks it’s the potion, making him feel all muddled, but he curls up anyway. Feels more protected with his arms wrapped around his pillow.
Yoongi stands there, scratching unconsciously at his neck. He looks pale, eyes huge in his face, like he’d looked back then when his love had gone so wrong. Taehyung feels his heart give a harsh, sympathetic twinge.
Yoongi looks at him for a long, vaguely uncomfortable while. Then he says, very quietly, “You left out some things when you explained how you saved me, didn’t you?”
Taehyung manages a laugh that somehow comes out bitter black, horrifying. “You were so pissed at me. How was I supposed to tell you?”
“You know I was pissed because it wasn’t fair you were risking your life for me,” Yoongi says. “I’m older than you, Taehyung-ah. It’s my job to look out for you.”
This feels absurd and wasteful and unhappy to Taehyung, but he’s still a little too confounded to figure it out. “But you did,” he says, confused. “You looked out for me more than anyone else.”
“Until I fucked up. I fucked up so bad. And now look at you.”
Taehyung wipes a hand over his face. “I feel fine,” he says. “I only did what I did because I loved you. I couldn’t watch you get hurt. And right now I feel fine—stop hiding your face.”
Yoongi peeks at him half-heartedly from the cage of his hands. The hat situation is a bit absurd, Taehyung wants to say, but his voice is stuck somewhere in his throat. He thinks maybe he’d like to cry, and he’s not exactly sure why. Maybe because Taehyung almost expects Yoongi to start yelling again.
Like that last night in school, when Yoongi had woken up in the garden with a heart full of feelings and near exploded in terror-fueled anger.
Why would you? He kept asking. I told you not to.
And Taehyung, confused, could only say: you would have died.
Yoongi would have died, of heartbreak. And Taehyung—Taehyung would never have been able to live with himself. Not with what he knew, what he’d spent so much of his life learning. Maybe Yoongi didn’t believe that love was as dangerous as magic; as twisted as curses; just as exciting. Maybe he didn’t want to believe. But Taehyung did—knew better than anyone how sometimes both love and magic weren’t enough to not hurt.
Taehyung knew, and he had to help.
“It hurt when I woke up,” Yoongi says now, with a little shrug. “I had gone so long without really feeling anything, so when I woke up, and it was all fixed, I had so many…feelings. Everything was so awful. Everything was so wonderful. It all just felt raw and weird and I couldn’t think over everything I felt. And you—you were both the reason for the pain, and the one who saved me, and you were you…and I just. I lost it. I know that now. I said some things I didn’t mean. Do you—do you remember?”
There’s the softest flinch across his features.
Taehyung winces, remembering.
He remembers feeling broken inside at Yoongi’s insistence that Taehyung undo his work. Take it back, he’d spat. Take it back, I didn’t ask for it.
He remembers sitting amidst the flowers wishing he could just melt into the earth so he didn’t have to face Yoongi; remembers the harsh, aching pain in his own heart and Yoongi’s icy glare, the way he hadn’t looked Taehyung in the face when he said you only did this because of your dumb crush. Remembers how he’d growled at Taehyung that he wasn’t to make decisions for him, that he’d have rather died, that Taehyung and his stupid unscientific bullshit had fucked him up.
He remembers telling himself, in a mantra, over and over, that he knew this, knew people reacted this way to heartwork sometimes, knew it wasn’t either of their fault.
“I didn’t want to feel anything,” Yoongi said, with a faltering smile. “I was convinced I was going to be betrayed again, be rejected again, and the thought of it—I don’t know, it was frightening. I feel stupid about it now. But back then I felt like you’d betrayed me, Taehyung-ah. Like I had a scab that was protecting me, and you ripped it open to expose the wound. You made me vulnerable again. That felt fucked up. You know? Inside my head. I’m sorry, I don’t feel that way anymore, but now you hate me.”
Taehyung tries to force words past his numb lips, but doesn’t get anywhere. Don’t apologize, he wants to say, and I don’t hate you, and we’ve wasted so much time. There’s a dull ache somewhere in his chest, a reminder of everything that’s been done. He ignores it in favor of curling tighter around his pillow.
“I’m sorry,” Yoongi says, and then he’s somehow real close and Taehyung’s brain is short-circuiting, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry—I was so stupid, I was so— I said all that and you still refused to undo what you’d done.”
“Of course I did,” Taehyung mumbles, sleepily, wondering if reaching out to hold Yoongi’s hand was a bad idea. His fingers are right there. The unused potential energy of them seems truly wasteful. “You were being a right idiotic bastard. You might have died if I didn’t do what I did.”
“True,” Yoongi says, thoughtfully. He sounds a little gravelly, like maybe he’s choking up too. “You know the truly fucked up thing? The first thing I felt when I woke up, the very first thing that exploded into my head was how much I missed you. I just missed you so much. I missed your letters. I never wanted you to stop writing. It hurt so much that you did. You don’t know how much it hurt.”
“You told me to,” Taehyung says, foggily. “You told me to stop. You told me to stay away from you. And then you left.”
Yoongi makes a noise of impatience. “I wasn’t thinking straight, was I? I missed you so much, Tae, but you were the one that fixed me, without asking me. My fucking best-friend, and I thought you’d absolutely broken me. I had never asked you to do heartwork on me! I had never said it was okay to fix me that way! It wasn’t right but that’s how I felt, then. That’s what my head told me.”
Taehyung licks his lips. Says, hazy, “I know how you felt.”
Hurt. Confused. Broken. Taehyung can still taste that night in his mouth, sharp as dirt, blood in the soil and Yoongi nearly crushing half the lilies as he paced angrily through the gardens.
Now Yoongi opens his mouth, as if he wants to argue. Then he closes it. “Yeah,” he says, so soft Taehyung would have missed it if Yoongi hadn’t been sitting this close. “Jungkook told me about that.”
Taehyung stares at him, slightly dismayed. “I never wanted you to find out.”
“Yet I did,” Yoongi sighs. “You ridiculous, ridiculous boy.”
Taehyung rolls his head back. Blinking feels very heavy. “Mmm that’s true.”
Yoongi’s fingers inch forward to undo the top buttons of Taehyung’s pajama shirt. Taehyung knows what he’s looking for, doesn’t stop him, thinks he doesn’t have the strength to stop Yoongi anyway. His head is swimming. He just wants to sleep.
Yoongi’s eyebrows are knit in intense concentration as he pulls back the material to stare at Taehyung’s chest. The tip of one fingernail skates the old athame scar. Taehyung jolts unconsciously under the touch, and Yoongi sighs, palm coming to rest flat against Taehyung’s chest.
“Idiot,” he says.
“Sso I’ve heard,” Taehyung murmurs. “S’okay.”
It was okay. The procedure he’d done back at school was unorthodox—bond a healthy heart to an unhealthy one and hope for the best—but it had served them both alright all these years. Using a spell, Taehyung had taken on half of the damage, and that freed Yoongi to feel again, to breathe without curse-magic choking him. Over the years, sometimes Taehyung felt it flare up, a dull, horrid ache that made him wonder if Yoongi was hurting. Did he still think of that ex who had broken his heart? Did he find someone new who didn’t return his feelings? Why was Yoongi hurting, and what could Taehyung do to help other than bear half of the hurt? He felt other things at times—elation, nostalgia, melancholy; a whole gamut of feelings. It felt strange, sharing this with someone who he no longer spoke to, but this was Yoongi. Taehyung would do whatever he could for Yoongi, in this life or any.
Taking on half of the heartbreak was nothing.
Of course—sometimes the balance broke. Sometimes things went skewed, and all of the damage and blowback fell onto one person in the bond, and perhaps that’s what happened here.
Just a mistake.
Taehyung can fix it. He can fix it, when he wakes up—as long as Yoongi doesn’t leave.
Please don’t leave, he thinks, and feels childish. In his chest, his heart gives a dull, aching throb.
Yoongi sighs into his interlaced palms. “What if Jimin hadn’t figured out you were unwell? What if no one was around when you collapsed under the strain? Why are you so dumb sometimes? I just don’t understand. ”
“Yeah,” Yoongi glares. “Very silly.”
“Hey,” Taehyung asks, swallowing hard. “How d’you—how did Jin fix it?”
Yoongi looks away. “Oh. That. I thought it’s only fair I pulled my weight of this arrangement now. So we flipped the spell. You’d better stay away from heartbreak from now on, Taehyung-ah. I don’t want to walk around feeling like there’s a knife between my ribs, all because you’re pining after some boy.”
This is faintly alarming and also ironically funny in some manner, Taehyung thinks. He’s not sure why. Everything is muddied in his head anyway, and he considers the possibility of Yoongi taking on the damage to Taehyung’s heart and thinks maybe he misheard.
“Reversed the spell,” Yoongi says, patting Taehyung’s shoulder. “I’m not doing too bad, now. I can take a bit of the damage until we’re both better.”
“But…why? You don’t even b-believe in heartwork.”
Yoongi shrugs. “Apparently stayed alive because of it, didn’t I?”
Taehyung can’t argue with that. “I’m gonna fall asleep now,” he says, and Yoongi blinks down at him. “But when I wake up, I wanna talk.”
“That’s good with me.”
“Don’t go away again.”
Yoongi shrugs, obviously keen to dismiss that entire idea. “I told you, once. Even if I do, I’ll always come back to you.”
Taehyung smiles at him as he lets his eyes fall shut. Maybe, he thinks, he can believe that now. “Thanks.”
He wakes up with questions.
Then that turns to horror.
What had Yoongi said, he’s pulling the weight of this arrangement now? What does that mean? Does it mean he’s taking on Taehyung’s damage, now? How does that even work?
He gasps, sits up, throws his head into his arms.
Okay, he thinks. Calmly, now.
The flipping of the spell—all right, that isn’t ideal but it’s okay, Taehyung can reverse it if necessary, he isn’t going to let any harm come to Yoongi because of him. But then this begs the question of why he had been hit with the blowback in the first place. What fresh hell is going on with Yoongi now that the spell weighed so heavily on Taehyung?
Maybe he ’s in love again.
It would make sense, wouldn’t it. Unrequited love sometimes hurt almost as much as rejection. Taehyung would know.
He’s been fixing himself from the effects of it for years.
Now that the anesthetic potion wears off, Taehyung’s heart feels oddly lighter in his chest. Lighter than in years. He’s not quite glad for it. He’s relieved— because it no longer feels like an oil-spill ready to catch fire at the first struck match. But it also means things have changed.
Things have changed, and Yoongi knows, and he should never have known.He should never have known and he should never have changed the way things are.
Taehyung slides out of bed and mopes around for a bit, wishes Jimin would show up so he can get yelled at. At least being yelled at is better than being given the silent treatment. He’d been ignoring the signs for days and Jimin had known it. But the spell on him prevented him from actively saying anything to anyone. It must have been frustrating. If Taehyung were him, he’d be pissed, so it’s only fair that Jimin’s cold-shouldering him now.
Outside this room, obviously, he’s going to run into Jin and Jungkook. Jungkook had known, somehow—Taehyung isn’t sure how but that kid is perceptive like that. Jin hadn’t, and he’d seemed calm enough when Taehyung had first woken up but he knows Jin’s sort of anger. Knows that it isn’t in raised voices and yelling as much as a charged sort of silence.
It doesn’t matter. He’ll make it up to them, somehow. He’s good at keeping his friends—mostly.
(Yoongi, of course, is the big exception.)
Taehyung breathes in. Okay, he thinks. I can fix this.
But when Taehyung finally finds the courage to leave the room, it isn’t Jin and Jungkook he runs into.
He’s sitting on the floor in the waiting room, two large textbooks open in front of him. Taehyung doesn’t need 20/20 vision to guess what they are.
His stomach drops. All the unsent letters are tied together neatly in their ribbon, but the ribbon itself is frayed, as if it had been carelessly twined. All the pictures and photos and articles are scattered around Yoongi. He’s midway through reading one of the earliest articles—I Have More Than A Green Thumb—some shit newspaper feature that traverses everything from Yoongi’s cures for bacne to his ideal type of man.
Taehyung’s stomach churns.
“Hyung,” he says, choked, and Yoongi startles. He looks around, sheepish, and then waves his hand. All the photos and letters fold themselves neatly back into the pages of Taehyung’s wand-magic texts.
“I, ah,” Yoongi starts, not really meeting his eye. “Just wanted to pass the time. Thought it was interesting you had these textbooks out of everything else.”
“Where’s Jin? Jungkook?”
“I asked if they could give us some time,” Yoongi says. “Lots to discuss.”
Taehyung doesn’t trust himself to speak. He’s suddenly fifteen years old again, standing in the gardens sick with adoration over his older, smarter, much cooler schoolmate. He’s sixteen again, hiding in the alleys, avoiding Yoongi and his beautiful, successful ex-boyfriend. He’s seventeen again, with a heavy heart, hearing I don’t feel anything for you from Yoongi himself.
Yoongi flinches a bit when Taehyung doesn’t say anything, raising an eyebrow as he looks at him. “Taehyung-ah,” he says, with a little smile. “I can feel your angst in my heart. You’ve got to stop.”
Taehyung swallows. Tries to tamp down on his feelings, and then realizes that he can’t. It’s been so long. It’s been forever since he’s been carrying all this within him, wound-up-tight, and now the jack was out of the box and he didn’t know how to push it back in. It sucks, because he can’t even really hide it anymore. The spell makes sure of that. His own heart is weak, a mess, needs time to heal. Yoongi’s taking some of that brunt, but that also means he knows when welts form, when muscles wither. When Taehyung’s hurting for lost friendship or the years they’ve lost, Yoongi’s going to feel the lancings. When he self-torments himself with the memory of that kiss, Yoongi’s going to feel the sharp, achy jabs.
Taehyung feels awfully, helplessly connected to Yoongi.
This is why he never wanted to tell. This is why he’d rather Yoongi stay angry at him—so he can be hale without feeling dependent on Taehyung.
“I’m sorry,” Taehyung says. The apology feels useless, falls hopelessly from his mouth.
Yoongi’s face softens. He puts one hand out, fingers curling towards Taehyung, and says quietly, “Why don’t you come here? Sit with me.”
Taehyung hesitates. But the books are still there, and there is some even more embarrassing stuff glamored to remain hidden from a superficial search. There might even be poetry—an ill-conceived idea, lifted directly from Namjoon, to be never spoken of or read again. If Taehyung fled now, and Yoongi went through the books once more…
Yoongi winces again. “Ow. You have a lot of emotions,” he says. “Was I like this? Always angsting?”
Taehyung rubs self-consciously at his chest. “Sometimes you angsted. It felt…lonely. Melancholic.”
“Did it hurt?”
Taehyung shrugs. “Sometimes,” he says, and Yoongi makes a face. “It was okay! I hid it pretty well though. Jimin noticed, because he keeps popping up, but Jimin couldn’t tell anyone. He didn’t like that one bit. Hoseok hyung would probably have noticed if he wasn’t distracted, but he doesn’t visit all that often anyway. He doesn’t like blood. Or looking at actual hearts. Which is basically my job.”
“How’s Jimin not been haranguing you all these years?”
“Oh, trust me, he has. I don’t have a single cloak with all the buttons. Every Yuletide my naked baby pictures somehow make it to Jin’s Christmas tree. Jungkook’s chased entire flocks of pigeons out of the clinic thrice. It’s been a party.”
Yoongi laughs and pats a spot next to him. Taehyung goes, finally. Sits himself down. It feels exactly as charged and electric as he thought it would.
“I’m not sorry for what I did,” he finds himself saying. “I know you hated it, but I’m not sorry for what I did. I’ll probably never be. The choice was letting you die or hurting your feelings, which wasn’t a choice at all.”
Yoongi gives him a long, considering look. “Maybe I understand it now,” he says, gaze flicking to Taehyung’s chest. “I’m not sorry for what I just did, either. But I am sorry that sharing the curse hurt you. I’m sorry I hurt you. Did it feel like I was missing someone?”
“Everyday,” Taehyung says. “He weighed so heavy on your heart, hyung. You missed him so much. I wished you wouldn’t. It’s his loss he left.”
Yoongi looks surprised for a moment. He rubs unconsciously over his heart and Taehyung wonders if Yoongi feels the sudden lurch of old hurt in him; all the thick, unrequited love Taehyung is carrying around like an unhealed welt. Why does it come out like this, he wonders, at the sheer thought of his old jealousy towards Yoongi’s ex? Why does this magic work like this, baring him open, letting his emotions blare into Yoongi’s head like he’s a fucking radio tower?
This spell-reversal should never have happened. Why had Taehyung been so careless? He should have fixed himself, somehow; should have stayed awake; shouldn’t have let Jin perform the magic that reversed the spell between them.
He should have, he should have, he should have—
Taehyung breathes in, the first swell of panic stirring in his gut. It’s so unfair how he’s leashed Yoongi to himself. So unfair, and it shouldn’t have happened, and gods, he just wants to melt into the earth right now.
Turn into a daisy.
Or no, no, daisies are good, so something smaller, more useless. A maggot maybe. Or a root nodule. Taehyung can be a root nodule, he thinks. They probably don’t feel too many emotions.
He has a lot of emotions.
“You’re going to kill me if you don’t stop overthinking everything,” Yoongi says, swatting hard at Taehyung’s thigh. “Stop being sorry.”
Yoongi snorts. Then he leans over and taps the very top of Taehyung’s old athame scar, where it’s peeking out of his pajama shirt. “This is honestly such an interesting spell? I feel like there are different grades of heartache. Like earlier, you had a little pang of jealousy. Now what you’re feeling is…shame?”
Taehyung’s face burns. Of course Yoongi’s going to identify grades of heartache. Of course. Taehyung himself has never even gotten past ‘ow, it burns, when are you getting over your long-ago heartbreak, hyung’. But Yoongi knows when he’s feeling sorry, and he knows when he’s ashamed, and this— Taehyung decides— sucks.
“Why do you feel shame?” Yoongi asks. “You can just tell me, you know.”
“I’m just sorry.”
“But you don’t have to be. I wanted to help, like you helped me. I’ll always want to help. Why’re you sorry?”
“I can’t help it,” Taehyung mumbles. When Yoongi quirks his eyebrow again, Taehyung gulps, trying to find the words to explain. Then his mouth decides that all words are good words, because what pours out of him is a torrent.
“This is just so unfair,” he says, voice going high and accented the way it always does when he’s upset. “Now you have to feel what I feel, and all I’ve ever felt is this stupid crush for you. And it’s so dumb, I know it’s dumb, but I can’t make it go away. I’ve tried—I’ve tried telling myself that you’re still in love with someone else, that you’ve had enough heartbreak and a messy relationship to deal with my bullshit on top of it, that you want to be my friend and I should be okay with that—and I do, I do want to be your friend, please don’t get me wrong— but I can’t make this feeling go away, hyung. I can’t. And now you’re going to keep feeling my sad, sad, schoolboy adoration for you, and how I get a little thrill every time I buy a 25 Under 25 with your face on it, and how I sometimes want to come into the apothecary and say hi to the blue moonflowers, and I just—I just—it’s so stupid, hyung, and I wish I wasn’t in love with you. I wish I wasn’t, but I can’t help it. It’s been more than eight years and I can’t help it.”
Yoongi’s mouth hangs open for a minute. “You’re in love with me,” he says. Atop his hat, a moonflower bursts into violent bloom.
Taehyung tries very hard not to burst into tears. “Of course I am! Of course I’ve been, for years.”
Yoongi licks his lips. “Oh. Oh, yes. That makes…that’s interesting.”
Taehyung is just so tired. He’s so tired, and still sleepy, and he wants to escape this awkward, embarassing human-form and astral project himself into a root nodule.
He’s so tired, and he can’t face Yoongi, and—
“Tae,” Yoongi says, getting to his knees so he can cup Taehyung’s face. “Taehyungie. Listen to me very carefully. Can you do that?”
Taehyung gives a frantic nod. Yoongi’s going to tell him that it’s okay. Yoongi’s going to tell him that it is alright to still have these sparkly teenage feelings, that they’ll slowly fade as Taehyung steps deeper into true adulthood, that Taehyung will meet someone else who will maybe, possibly, one day love him the way he wants Yoongi to love him. Yoongi will always say something like this, because he’s usually kind, if a bit gruff in his kindness. Yoongi will be kind, and friendzone him in a nice way, and Taehyung will take this crumb, the proferred rekindling of their friendship and try to be happy.
He can do that. He owes Yoongi that much.
“I don’t miss my ex,” Yoongi says, jerking Taehyung out of his many thoughts. “I don’t miss him. It’s not him who’s been fucking up my heart.”
Taehyung swallows. “Oh,” he says. “Oh, that double rejection. There was someone else.”
“Yeah, there was,” Yoongi says, calm. “But I messed things up with him. Made him think I didn’t care. Got into a bad head-space and said some shit I should never have said. And when he tried to snap me out of it, to break me out of my slump, I fled. I ran. But it broke my heart a second time.”
Taehyung holds his breath. “…and?”
“And he fixed it for me,” Yoongi’s thumb rests just above Taehyung’s bottom lip, pressing light into the corner of his mouth. Taehyung feels cursed with the awareness of it. “He fixed it.”
All Taehyung can do is nod like a dumb bobblehead.
“Cool,” he says, finally, and Yoongi looks at him like he’s considering whacking Taehyung with his wand-magic text. “Very cool. Very, very cool. Very…lit.”
“This Jungkook kid,” Yoongi says, “is a bad influence.”
Taehyung frowns. “But what does any of what you just said have to do with missing your ex?”
“I never missed him, you idiot,” Yoongi near-shouts. “I missed you. I missed your letters, and I missed seeing you graduate, and I missed on how hard you’ve been working here. I missed celebrating the certification you took for heartwork, despite half the world trying to go against you. I missed telling you how happy I was that you found good friends—friends to support and help and encourage you. I missed telling you things about the plants, and the poisons, and the weird crystal farms. I missed arguing with you about heartwork. I missed you.”
“What,” Taehyung says, gulping, “what are you trying to say, hyung?”
In answer, Yoongi pulls the hat off his head in a flourish. Then he reaches in, like a mortal magician, but instead of a bunny or a bunch of flowers, what he pulls out is a thick stack of letters. Taehyung looks down at them, scarcely believing it, but he can see dead flowers tucked in at the edges of the envelopes. He can see Yoongi’s messy writing, and Taehyung’s own name scrawled across the front of many, many envelopes.
All these letters that never saw light.
It’s very lame, and very much like Taehyung’s dumb unsent letters in his unused wand-magic textbook, and now Taehyung wants to cry even more.
“All the sadness was for you, Tae,” Yoongi says, red in the face. “All the pain in your heart—It was always for you. I just—I’m sorry I wasn’t brave enough to just tell you. It’s just that after everything I said, and the way we parted…”
Taehyung’s lip is doing some outrageous wobbly thing. “I—I wasn’t brave either. Keeping it secret, never telling you the truth.”
“Doesn’t matter now,” Yoongi says. “I love you.”
This time it’s different. This time it feels different, a muted thump of heavy relief in his heart, echoed in the gentlest flinch of pain across Yoongi’s features. This time it feels right, feels enough, feels what Taehyung wants it to be. His heart swells.
“That’s love,” Yoongi says, quietly. “That’s the good sort of heartache. Right?”
Yoongi’s knees press up against Taehyung’s, his hands braced against Taehyung’s thighs. It’s an awkward position, with most of his weight pushed into Taehyung, but Taehyung likes it. Likes it a lot. Up close, Yoongi smells the same as always—green things, mint, verbana. Up close he looks the same changeling-pretty as Taehyung’s always remembered, with his little nose and little mouth and the round curve of his cheeks. Cat-eye glasses perched on his nose: that’s new, and Taehyung loves it.
Loves it all a sickening amount.
He breathes in and is light-headed, feels like he’s going to astral project anyway out of how overwhelmed he is.
Yoongi asks, “Can I kiss you?”
They should talk more. They should talk about the ways things went wrong, and talk about the implications of the spell, and talk about communicating better. They should talk about the moonflower hat and Taehyung’s half-obsessive shrine and how it had been so difficult to send one fucking letter trying to explain. They should talk a lot more, but Taehyung thinks it can wait.
They’ve waited years. One or two more fucking hours, it can wait.
“Yes,” he says, and Yoongi’s smile is a creature all its own—dazzling, bright, a Cheshire-cat curl to his lips.
It’s a punchy little kiss. Yoongi holding his face and turning it a little so Taehyung feels a bit small and dangerous and weirdly delicate, lips parting under pressure, the taste of mint in his mouth. And they keep kissing—trembling, not really careful at all, Taehyung grasping to hold the back of Yoongi’s head and to not moan when a sudden wet kiss is pressed to his underjaw, reveling when his own tongue and teeth manages to extract a little wretched sound from Yoongi. A little kiss to his eyelid, to the mole on his nose—and oh now he’s being coy, Taehyung thinks, shivery from the sweetness, pressing his nose to the round curve of Yoongi’s cheek. He smudges kisses over it, tongues shallowly into his mouth, and then sighs.
The whole of Yoongi’s face is a dull, candied pink. Taehyung loves it. He’s so undone by it, a ribbon falling loose from around some precious ornament, and all he wants is this. Little sips of lip, the slight drag of Yoongi’s one crooked teeth, his hands that have somehow ended up pressed up against Taehyung’s ears.
He could stay here forever.
He could actually, honestly—
“Seriously,” Jimin intones, from somewhere in the room, “It’s been 1147 years. When will you get to the NOODS?”
This too, Taehyung thinks, grinning into Yoongi’s bony shoulder, avoiding his groans of exasperation at a wheeing Jimin; this too, is love.
Dobby is finally free of this fic! I swear this was supposed to be like 5k and for TaegiWeek, and now it’s like a month late and 30k??? To everyone who’s been hyping this on Twitter/commenting on Ao3/sending CCs etc: thank you! I’m sorry I didn’t update on the promised time but I hope you enjoy this anyway. I’m always a little nervous posting fic because angst is my thing and I myself would rather read all the soft, funny holiday fic, so the fact that you are here means a lot to me. Really, it keeps me functioning. <3333
Uh, if you like this pls consider reading my life’s work, the very angst-filled and incredibly plotty cop-AU that has given both me and many readers giant migraines and spawned Excel spreadsheets in three languages. This is probably not the best way to market your WIP but I genuinely bled for this fic (…a papercut, but still) and I am going back to slave over it now that witch-fic is done. I will! Finish it! In January! Or die! (Not really, but.)
Follow me on twt for updates and new fic. If you have thoughts about this or anything else you can hit me up on curiouscat as well - it can be anonymous, which means u can yell all u want, but pls yell nice things, I’m a sad marshmallow