Johnny likes counting things. One, two… fifty-six, fifty-seven… one hundred thirty, one hundred thirty-one. There are on average two hundred and forty steps up the mountain walkway to the castle where Johnny learns and trains. Two hundred and forty back down to the township at the base of the mountain where he lives with his uncle. That makes it on average, four hundred and eighty steps a day, every day.
Johnny's made this trek practically every day for six years and he never gets the same number from one day to the next. So many times he gets tripped up or grows lazy. There are some bits of stone so worn away Johnny doesn’t know if they even count. Some bits of the way are more of a gentle incline in the dirt than actual stone slats. Still, he tries. Every day he counts. Each morning adds to his physical and mental routine, a necessary stimulation to prepare him for the exertions of the day.
Somehow, someone in the College learned of his routine. Now, when he arrives at the base gate of the castle, there’s always a student, or two or three, who will ask him how many he got today.
“What’s the count, Johnny!?”
Today it’s Jaemin. The young Illusion apprentice stands beside the wall of the castle, auburn hair floating with the breeze, with a parcel of his friends, most of whom Johnny knows. Two of them are Illusion students like he is, though they don’t always share the same lectures or projects of study.
“One hundred and forty-three,” says Johnny cheerfully.
Jaemin makes a face. Beside him, Renjun grins triumphantly. “That’s two more than yesterday’s count! I win! Jaemin, you owe me two hours of scroll translation, and don’t think you can get out of it! I know where you keep your quills~”
Johnny waves to the boys and keeps on walking without encouragement or rebuke. Theirs is a harmless game. Others’ are not so.
He gives a cursory, wary glance around the inner courtyard on his way to the Masters’ Hall. If Johnny can keep his step count to within five counts of variance from the day before, and if he can keep out of the way of a certain group of students, he calls himself fortunate.
Today, evidently, is not that day.
“Hey, it’s Johnny,” says one kid that trio now, and the way he frames his question is entirely different from Jaemin’s. “What’s the count today? One hundred twenty? One thousand thirty-five?”
“Good morning, Dongyoung,” he replies instead because Johnny’s uncle Kun says he should always be polite to people who are rude.
What Uncle Kun doesn’t know is that this particular student hates his given name.
“It’s Doyoung! Do-young ! Are you deaf, dumb, or just an asshole?”
Johnny smiles and keeps on walking. Unfortunately, he still has to walk past the trio to enter the hall. Doyoung is easily riled and therefore too mad to make a more hateful retort. Jungwoo is much to sly and would likelier hex Johnny when no one's looking than attack him head-on. Jaehyun, on the other hand—Johnny finds the path in front of him suddenly blocked by a set of broad shoulders, a hard, handsome face, and dark, dark hair. Johnny has several inches over Jaehyun, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t intimidated. All three train primarily under the School of Destruction, and in a perfect world that wouldn’t mean a lot. Johnny’s a mage apprentice and he also can make sparks fly, or freeze running water. The difference is that he isn’t likely to attack another living thing with this kind of magic. They, on the other hand, are trained to.
“Excuse me,” he says to Jaehyun politely, still with that smile plastered stupidly on his face.
Jaehyun stares him down, refusing to budge. It’s a game they play sometimes. Johnny likes it least of all. If he attempts to go around, Jaehyun moves with him. If Johnny goes the other way, Jaehyun does too. Johnny had learned the hard way to just wait for the game to become boring and let Jaehyun move first. He does, and Johnny continues on his way.
As he’s about to enter the Masters’ Hall though, Johnny gets a strange impression that someone is still watching him. He turns around in the doorway. Jaehyun is watching him long after his friends have moved on to other forms of entertainment. And oddly enough, this time there’s no hint of animosity. He just stares.
There are two kinds of students who train at the College: those who can afford to live there, and those who can’t. Johnny has always belonged to the second tribe. Since he was a boy of thirteen, he’s lived with his uncle in the shadow of the castle. He hasn’t seen his parents in two years. The College only accepts students gifted with the art of magic. Most mages present their skills between the ages of seven and ten, but only those who can prove to be in control of their powers are eligible for full-time enrollment. And by the time a student begins his training, he’s usually already shown to have an affinity with one school of magic over another. For Johnny, it was Illusion.
Johnny finds his Illusions Master Moon Taeil deep in concentration over a tabletop aviary. Two minuscule baby chicks coo softly from inside a nest Taeil seems to have constructed himself from the torn book pages. Johnny spies a mangled copy of Thaumaturgical Theory for the Student of Restoration, Vol IV. For the master’s sake, if no one else’s, Johnny hopes the Keeper of the Arcanaeum never finds out what became of his book.
“Master?” Johnny addresses him softly.
It takes another two minutes before the master acknowledges him. “Ah, yes. Good morning, Johnny. Here, meet my new birds.”
“Carrier pigeons for the Master Wizard. These two are now in a restive Calming trance. Johnny, how would you like to learn how to train birds!”
This is usually about the jist of Johnny’s days at the College. The School of Illusion was once one of the College’s most nefarious branches of study. Illusion magic covers a wide range of spells dedicated to the manipulation of the mind, primarily in others, either man or beast. Spells to elicit fear or a sense of calm dance hand in toe with the ability to project courage, or mayhem. Illusion casters of the past under the guise of the College frequently directed their talents to the more deceptive arts, like swindling or thieving. It doesn’t help that the Illusion practitioner’s crowning glory is the spell of invisibility.
Today’s students are heavily scrutinized and highly monitored. Johnny doesn’t understand the bias against Illusion casters when there’s the entire School of Destruction to consider. Still, he doesn’t make the rules. Which is how he ends spending a full day playing nursemaid to a pair of baby chicks, manipulating his limited magic to the subtle training of the Master Wizard’s future generation of carrier pigeons.
The sun hangs low in the sky when Johnny begins his descent down the mountain. He meets various students and other residents of the college on the way down, most in little groups of twos and threes as they discuss their daily assignments or complain about the masters.
It’s not until Johnny reenters the township below that he meets his friends outside the tavern for their usual evening wind down.
“Johnny, you made it! How was bird watching?”
“Thrilling. What did you expect?”
Taeyong practices under the School of Restoration, and when he and Johnny first met, he couldn’t imagine anyone less suitable to the art. Then he began studying it as a secondary focus and realized Restoration was more than just healing spells. Taeyong, though sweet to his friends, has always been a fit fiery and defensive, kind of like his hair which is flame red and wiry. He holds a lot of bluster within his tiny frame and apparently grew up being bullied by the kids in his town who, scared of his magic, and probably also his looks, would use him for target practice. Then they learned how adept Taeyong was at producing defensive wards which not only protected himself, but frequently deflected and returned all the things they threw at him, including and not limited to dirty boots, tomatoes, rocks, and arrows. Here within the confines of the College now, nobody messes with Taeyong.
“You’re too nice for this place, Johnny. If Master Jongin had me staring at birds all day long I would have told him what for.” Taeyong throws an arm over his shoulder as they waltz through the doors of the tavern.
“You’re full of lies, Taeyong, but I love you anyway.”
The two approach their usual corner table where Yuta and Sicheng already sit. The tavern is a place not just for the locals, but where many students come for food and board. Second only to the governor’s manor, it’s easily the next biggest building in town with three floors and a basement. The rooms above are where Yuta and Sicheng live when they’re not scouring local caverns for the undead or locked in a castle dungeon with the Master Conjurer.
Johnny is envious of their relationship. The two boys grew up together in a village to the north and are terribly close. They’re blond as can be but also intensely scary. Johnny supposes it comes with the territory. When you study under the tutelage of the College’s only vampire master, and you practice necromancy, it’s only right half the student population gives them a wide berth. Not Johnny though, and definitely not Taeyong.
“I see you two are out and about during daylight hours. How rare is that?” says Johnny.
“Master Yangyang is away on a trip starting today,” Yuta replies. He actually looks bummed about it. Normally Yuta would be happy for a short reprieve.
“Why’s that a problem?” Taeyong asks.
Sicheng answers. “Because he assigned so much busy work, and it’s not even fun, and half of it we have to do alongside the Destruction students.”
“Oooof, that sounds fun.” Johnny clicks his tongue sympathetically.
“Yeah. How about you spend hours and hours reconstructing skeletal anatomy just for the Destruction kids to practicing blasting apart.” Yuta groans so loud he frightens off the tiny server boy there to deliver their dinner. Johnny laughs but Taeyong tuts disapprovingly.
“I hope one is these days Jisung develops some magic and hexes all of you out of spite.”
Sicheng smirks. “Him? No way, he’s too sweet for that.”
“So you were as a kid,” Yuta asserts, “and look at you now.”
“I am an angel,” Sicheng insists.
“You raise the bodies of tiny dead bunnies just for fun and parade them across the tavern porch, what version of you is an angel?” Taeyong raises his chin, taunting.
Johnny pushes the trays of their dinner closer to each person in an attempt to diffuse the situation. Holding a mug of ale in his hand he says, “and I remember you , Taeyong, enjoyed the show that day as much as me,” before knocking it back and swallowing deeply.
The door opens and another round of students enter the room. Johnny spies them curiously because he always likes to be aware of his surroundings. Most of the time it’s just the usual crowd, but tonight Johnny nearly chokes on his ale.
There are two kinds of students who train at the College: those who can afford to live there, and those who can’t. And the ones who live in the College dormitory rarely come down the mountain to mingle with the rest.
Johnny turns around fast, putting his back to the door. If he’s not mistaken he just saw Doyoung, Jungwoo, and Jaehyun enter with a group of younger Destruction students.
Taeyong looks at him funny. “What’s that face for– ohh .”
Sicheng whistles, giving away Johnny’s undercover attempt. Yuta actually says, “Well well, look who fell off the mountain tonight. Hope their bums are alright, it’s a long slide down.”
Aside from a few long scowls, the students mostly ignore them.
For whatever reason Johnny hasn’t uncovered, the majority of Destruction practitioners come from wealthier families. Johnny has yet to meet a caster of either Illusion or Conjuration who could afford the steep fees of the College’s tuition and board, and there are only a few students of Restoration, Enchanting, or Alteration who can claim to do so too. Maybe Taeyong could afford it. His family comes from a line of prosperous merchants, but Taeyong says he prefers to save his money for clothes, trinkets, and the various odds and ends, rather than put it all into the College.
So maybe there’s a reason Johnny bands together with the three most fearsome apprentices not studying Destruction: it means he usually gets left alone. Johnny just so happened to get on the wrong side of the Destruction kids his first year here, a mistake he’d gladly go back in time and redo (being young and naive, and misunderstanding the damage a few fire spells could to his wardrobe is no excuse), but since he can’t, he prefers to lay low. Like tonight.
“What sucks more,” Yuta is saying under his breath, “is that Jaehyun is stuck with us for most of the week.”
Taeyong hums. “I forgot he studies Conjuration.”
“Jaehyun’s not so bad,” says Sicheng.
“To you maybe,” Johnny whispers, pouting. He finishes the last of his ale and pokes at his food, pushing it around the plate. When he looks up again, Sicheng is smirking. “What?” says Johnny.
“You really don’t know, do you?”
“Leave him alone, Sicheng. You’ll give him nightmares if you tell him.”
“Tell me what?”
Sicheng leans forward conspiratorially but Yuta smacks his arm. “Don’t do it.”
Taeyong’s eyes flick between all three in confusion.
In the end, Sicheng sits back and just smiles, lips sealed, and Johnny gets this funny feeling in his gut like he always does when something involves Jaehyun. Going by his friends’ silence, he’s either got a death warrant hanging over his head or something more nefarious.
“I’ll find out someday. You just watch.” Johnny's threat feels hollow even to his ears. He steals a glance across the room again, grateful at least that Jaehyun and crew are seated well out of hearing range. He does, however, notice with a jolt that even at that distance, Jaehyun sits facing their direction. For a few perilous seconds, their eyes meet. Johnny can’t hold it for long and he turns back to the table, flustered for some reason he can’t entirely fathom.
“Well,” says Taeyong as they clean their plates, “‘bout time to get out of here. Johnny, can I follow you back to the shop? I wanna try to borrow Ten for the evening.”
“You can try.” Johnny smiles. “But good luck getting him out of my uncle’s laboratory.”
“Nah, I just heard he was researching some new ingredients to make wards last longer.”
“Hmm,” says Johnny, already bored. “Let’s go then.”
They say their goodbyes to Yuta and Sicheng and head out, and Johnny makes zero attempts to look at Jaehyun again. The township isn’t very large. It’s barely even three streets width and several blocks long. Johnny’s uncle lives in a two-story house near the end of the main street. Johnny spots the lantern hung over the door illuminating a sign which reads Kun’s Apothecary, Potions & Ailments for all Thou’s Needs. A little bell tinkles as they step inside.
“Uncle?” Johnny calls out. There’s no direct answer other than the sound of a loud cauldron falling off its pit in the next room over, followed by the sound of two men cursing. “There you are.” Johnny points Taeyong the way. His friend disappears into the room with a chuckle.
Uncle Kun isn’t in fact very much older than Johnny, just eight years to be exact. He, unlike Johnny, hasn’t a drop of magic in him, but he does have an affinity for alchemy which Johnny frankly does not. Kun was the former apprentice to a potions master who served the town before he decided to return to his home country. While the College employs a set of real wizards who are experts in the art, for many locals, making the trip up the mountain is too great a hassle. Kun remains to supply their needs. He also gets a number of students interested in his work and who are also too poor to visit the College Apothecary.
Johnny hears Taeyong’s greeting as he sets down his knapsack. Various books and artifacts on the training of carrier pigeons fall out of the bag along with Johnny’s collection of blank scrolls, quills, and ink. He notes with bemusement that one of his ink bottles spilled a little. Johnny points at the black stain leaking through the fabric of the bag, whispers a short spell, and feels the magic tingle down his arm, emitting a soft light out from the tip of his finger. The stain disappears. He tightens the ink bottle so it won’t happen again.
“Johnny, you’re back.” Kun’s merry voice rings through the small room.
“Uncle,” he replies cheerfully. All around them are shelves upon shelves displaying colorful rare, magical, and medicinal ingredients all tucked into glass phials and bowls. The cheaper of Kun’s potions are displayed along countertops, the more potent ones along the back wall behind. Johnny knows there are even more dangerous materials hidden in locked trunks in the lab and under Kun’s bed. He doesn’t ask what they are or how much they’re worth. The shop looks like an easy target for vandals but locals know not to mess with it. There are enough intruder spells to alert and bring down the whole college if necessary, were someone to try and rob it. Living in the shadow of the ninety percent of the realm’s brightest mages does have its perks.
“How was your day? Wait! Don’t tell me! Illusion magic is so exciting, you know I’ll be too jealous.”
Johnny scoffs. “Yes, and I’d much rather spend my day cataloging seventeen types of dead butterfly wings.”
“That was last week, get with the times, nephew. Today, Ten and I unloaded twenty-one boxes of rare mushrooms and packed them into cold storage.”
“Exhilarating. And don’t call me ‘nephew’. I’m barely younger than you.”
“Don’t call me ‘uncle’ then.”
“Are you kidding? My mother would kill me if I disrespected her dear, dear baby brother.”
“Hmm,” says Kun. “Looks like we are at an impasse. What’s Taeyong up to tonight?”
Johnny shrugs. “Something about one of Ten’s pet projects?”
Kun looks thoughtful for a moment. “Oh, must be the potion for more longer endurance wards.”
“Yeah, something like that.”
“What makes you sound so bored? You study Restoration magic too.”
“Yeah, but I know nothing about potions. You got a dud with me for a nephew.”
Kun laughs. “As if I need your help. That’s what I pay Ten for.”
Ten showed up three years ago with zero training in anything related to magic or alchemy. Kun hired him anyway, said there was something tenacious about him. Kun’s always had a good eye for people. In this case, he was right. Ten works twice as hard as he does and could definitely become a master someday. Not even Kun is a licensed master. He claims it’s not worth the trouble and the expense of appearing before the Master Wizard to become certified. He has greater hopes for Ten though.
Ten is just two years older than Johnny. They share a little room opposite Kun’s on the second floor. And more than that, they use each other as a soundboard for all the neighborhood gossip, stories, and other more personal woes. So Ten knows all about Johnny’s disdain for the School of Destruction, and Johnny knows all about Ten’s abundant admiration for Kun, an admiration bordering on love. Too bad he’s sworn to strict secrecy. He has an inkling that is these feelings were known, his uncle wouldn’t be terribly adverse to them.
In the meantime, he lets Ten and Taeyong do their potions thing, and Kun pats him on the back before asking Johnny to mind the shop for a minute. It’s almost closing time, so there’s little chance of anyone coming in. Johnny reorganizes his books and mentally prepares himself for the next day of bird training. Really he’s just craving the sweet warmth of sleep.
He practically scowls when the door opens behind him and the little bell tinkles again. Instead, he plasters a smile to his face, turns around, and drops it immediately.
“We’re closed,” he says into Jaehyun’s hopeful face.
That expression too is wiped clean to be replaced by an amused frown. “Closed? But it’s not 8 o’clock? Your sign still says Open. Unless I am mistaken and your uncle is being selective with his patronage these days?”
That pisses Johnny off. Insult him, sure, but no one goes after his uncle. Before he can dig up an insult, he forces himself to calm down. It requires even the tiniest bit of his own magic.
“Perhaps I was mistaken. There are still a few minutes left. How may I help you?”
Jaehyun looks incredibly pleased. “How nice of you to ask. Now, I was curious if your uncle carries a special type of giants toe?”
Johnny steps behind the counter and affects a bored expression. “Giants toe, giants toe. Now would be that be a cave giant, frost giant, mountain giant, valley giant, wood giant or–“
Jaehyun looks confused. “There are that many kinds of giants?”
“To be honest I don’t know a thing about giants or their toes, but please, have a look around while you wait to ask my uncle.”
Jaehyun huffs. “Fine, fine.”
He turns away and Johnny stares at an interesting spec of wood grain on the counter. He traces it with his finger for a while before examining his cuticles. Eventually, he scratches his nose. Jaehyun does as instructed and begins perusing the wares. Every so often they overhear the sounds of an elevated, indistinct argument between Ten and Taeyong in the next room. Once, Jaehyun pierces him with a questioning stare. Johnny’s smile is all lips.
“My uncle went the other way. I’m sure he’ll be back soon.”
Jaehyun just smiles. And eventually, Kun does return. Johnny takes off immediately for his little room upstairs. By the time he returns Jaehyun is wrapping his purchases in a small little box, laughing and smiling with Kun as he exits the shop.
“Traitor,” Johnny tells his uncle.
Kun sighs and smiles. “I don’t know what you have against them but Jaehyun is honestly pretty nice.”
“Now you just sound like Sicheng.”
Outside the sky is bright and cloudless. The moon casts long shadows of the town’s homes and shops, the castle illuminated high above. For once it hasn’t snowed this week, not that Johnny minds the cold. But he does like looking at the sky. Johnny likes counting things. One, two, forty-seven, forty-eight. He lays back on a bench outside his uncle’s shop, and with the lantern now blown out, he can see stars. Johnny never counts to the last star.
He stops around sixty tonight, just smiling to himself and enjoying the view. It’s how he winds down at night. It’s peaceful, enjoyable. Usually he’s alone. Taeyong walks out soon after Johnny gives up, waves and bids him goodnight. Ten sticks his head out the door to verify he’s there and then leaves him to it. Kun never looks for him. He knows this is Johnny’s time.
However, there is somebody else who doesn’t know the rules.
“You look comfortable, Johnny.”
Johnny visibly jolts at Jaehyun’s voice. He very nearly jumps off the bench when Jaehyun has the audacity to sit down next to him. His thigh lays inches from Johnny’s head and all the warning bells go off in his mind: Danger! Danger!
Like always though, he doesn’t dare show it.
“Did you need something else from the shop, Jaehyun? It’s officially closed now, in case you’re wondering.”
Jaehyun is silent so long Johnny tilts his head to see if he’s still there.
“No, I don’t need anything else.”
“How come you’re still down here though? Didn’t your buddies go back to the College yet?”
“They did. I didn’t feel like it yet.”
Johnny snorts. He readjusts his head, intertwining his hands to support himself, and pretending he’s suave and cool and not secretly terrified for his life. Was it a generation ago that some hapless unlucky Enchanter found himself in a feud with a Destruction caster? They found the poor apprentice’s body not terribly far from the town, lifeless but still zinging from static lightning. In the official College records, he was the victim of a freak electric storm. Everyone knows differently. The caster was never punished.
Perhaps he and Jaehyun are this generation’s dynamic feud. That doesn’t give Johnny comfort.
“It’s late. Who wants to be on the mountain this late? Shouldn’t you get going?”
“I don’t know?” Johnny is so confused. “Maybe if you’re that out of shape you should do it more often, like the rest of us.”
“Maybe I should.”
Okay, Johnny is really confused . He sits up and nonchalantly stretches. If Jaehyun wants to play mind games he’s going to need to give Johnny something better to work with.
“Well, some of us need our beauty sleep so, goodnight.”
As he enters the shop Jaehyun says one last thing. “Goodnight, Johnny.”
It’s said that mages are born with a propensity towards certain kinds of magic. Any basic spell in any school of magic can be learned with a little practice, but in the same way a person doesn’t decide to become a mage, a mage cannot decide in which school of magic they will excel. All mages with skill and talent are good in at least one field.
Johnny remembers the day he realized he was good at Illusion, and it was not a good day. Having displayed certain magical traits already since birth it was no surprise he was a mage, despite being the only one in the family in several generations. Johnny was eight years old and temporarily occupied playing in the forest hiding his sister’s toys when the seven-year-old girl came angrily to find him. Johnny panicked. Wendy’s favorite doll was caked in mud. When she found him Johnny did the first thing he could think of to hide the damage. He remembered Wendy’s worst fear and caused it to cloud her brain. For hours she envisioned a room crawling with spiders before Johnny could make it stop. Fear, he learned that day, is the primary defense weapon of the Illusion caster. And he would never use it again.
Ten years later Johnny is a much more intelligent mage. Thanks to the apprenticeship first with a local tutor, Johnny learned about his abilities and how to control them. Zhang Yixing was not an Illusion Master but he was a gifted mage in the School of Restoration, having retired many years before in the village where Johnny was born. Through him, Johnny received a recommendation to attend the College, and by his second year here Master Taeil proclaimed him one of his best students yet.
By the end of three days, Taeil determines the birds’ training complete. From here they’ll be sent to the Master Wizard’s assistant until the chicks are old enough to make their first journey.
Johnny compliments himself for aiding with this most important, vital task as he trails after his master through the courtyard. They’ve gathered a little posse of Illusion students, including Jaemin, Renjun, and the ever illusive Haechan. Taeil always seems to know where he is, literally drawing his finger through the air to reveal the bright, curly-haired boy hiding in plain sight before a fountain, if plain sight could reveal a boy so gifted with magic he bends water and light for the most perfect disguise. Or well, almost perfect.
“You, follow me,” says the master without breaking stride, as a stunned Haechan duly steps into line. Johnny bestows a small smile that says you really thought you could hide from the Illusions Master?! Renjun punches him in the shoulder. Jaemin just laughs. Color Johnny impressed though; he never saw him at all.
The three of them continue down the corridor, Johnny’s ankles straining to keep up with Taeil’s unusually fast tread.
“Are we having a lecture today, Master Taeil? Master, master, are we?” Renjun keeps asking.
Lectures are rare in their line of training. Personal study under Taeil’s direction is a much more common pursuit, and they don’t have a very scheduled syllabus. Illusion, even more than other branches of magic, develops in its casters a very individualized form. Haechan has a gift for playing with light; Renjun, spells of disorientation; for Jaemin and Johnny, the manipulation of feelings and mood, a dangerous art. Jaemin by himself takes up more than half of the master’s schedule, and when Johnny was that age, it was him who had the most of Taeil’s hovering tutelage.
“Not a lecture,” says the master, “but perhaps something a little more fun?” Which, knowing Taeil could mean anything and it probably won’t be fun.
He’s leading them up to the highest tower. Johnny doesn’t bother counting the steps. He knows there are exactly eighty-two. Magelight illuminates the winding stone staircase, and their shoes leave little echoing thumps the higher they go.
“Renjun,” says Taeil, “take care of that.”
He points to their feet and a moment later all is muffled. The fact they’re going up stealthily sets Johnny’s mind at anxious.
They hear the soft growl even before stepping foot on the landing. The floor evens out to reveal a circular tower room floor with narrow slits for windows and a single ball of magelight hovering over a large metal cage. The rest of the room is bare of furnishings.
Jaemin is the first to hiss, “By the gods, what is that?”
The creature rounds to face them, teeth barred, drooling, and enraged. Its eyes flash yellow, fur in hackles, with bowed back like it’s about to strike. In the magelight glints two especially elongated front teeth.
Haechan gasps. “Saber-toothed cat! Woah! Wow!”
“Uh, Master Taeil?” says Renjun with a wavering voice.
Johnny’s eyes flick anxiously from the cat to the Illusions Master, who is looking particularly proud of himself. Johnny almost suspects he brought it in himself though for what purpose he supposes they’re about to find out.
“Very well, then. As you can see, it is a saber-tooth cat. Or in this case, a kitten. Still dangerous of course, but a group of some of our more expert apprentices who were out in the field managed to snag this poor beast and bring him home. If you will notice, he has been hurt, possibly by a mammoth going by its injuries, and the Restoration school would absolutely love to do a little practice on it. Once you have tamed it, that is.”
He smiles as each of the students practically dislocate their jaws in shock.
“Excuse me, what?” Jaemin is the first to speak.
“Tame the creature, exactly. That is your combined task this afternoon. Each of you are gifted in the skills required. Together it should be light work.”
“Light work,” says Haechan with a little, uneasy chuckle. “I can do light work but–“
“Precisely,” says Taeil with that infuriating smirk which says he trusts his students completely not to die. Johnny isn’t so confident, although Renjun for one is looking determined.
“Let’s do it,” he says.
Johnny swallows heavily, elbows a still panicking Jaemin and agrees. “Alright. Let’s do it.”
Taeil smiles and lifts his hands. “Ready?”
“Wait, no!” cries Haechan.
But it’s too late. The cage bars open, and the cat snarls in rage. Seconds later it bursts from its prison and leaps at the students.
They emerge half an hour later, tired and bedraggled. Johnny and Jaemin bare light scratches on their arms and legs. Renjun is half blind. Haechan alone among them remains untouched and uninjured.
“Good thing I don’t need my eyes to do spells,” Renjun complains lifelessly. Johnny’s been supporting him down the stone staircase, while Haechan bounces happily behind.
“What? You told me to stun it!”
“Yeah, it! Not me!”
“Whatever. I saved your life.”
Jaemin ignores them. He’s leading the way to the Restoration Ward since Taeil told them not to try and heal themselves with their energies already spent.
“You alright?” Johnny asks him, careful to watch where he and Renjun step. Charming creatures as wild as the saber-toothed cat is an exhausting endeavor. Small little chicks are one thing, predators an entirely different matter. It took Haechan and Renjun distractingly the animal for Jaemin and Johnny to jointly tame it and keep it from mauling their frail, frail bodies. Even now Johnny’s arms tingle with residual magic. His head is pounding. The gash in his right arm bleeds through his apprentice robes and leaves Johnny kind of nauseous when he looks at. Jaemin has several more scratches than him, plus he’s had two fewer years than Johnny to train and control his magic.
“I’m good. Forgive me though if I don’t adopt a cat any time soon.”
Johnny grins. As long as Jaemin is cracking jokes, they know he’s fine.
It’s snowing when they reach the courtyard. Tiny snowflakes cover the ground and the trees as a light wind blows them adrift from the open archways which look down upon the mountain. Johnny pulls his hood up a higher until it covers his ears and most of his bangs, and then because he’s a humanitarian after all, he fixes up Renjun’s too.
Johnny’s looking forward to a quick stop by the Restoration Ward and then having the rest of the afternoon to himself. He briefly bemoans how much fun it is to descend the mountain during a snowfall, thinks about waiting for some of his friends.
There’s a scuffle, however, occurring near the other end of the yard.
“What. What’s that?” says Haechan at the little crowd of kids Johnny recognizes mainly as Destruction novices. Two of the larger boys are crowding around a third boy.
“Isn’t that Hendery?” asks Renjun. The boy stands firmly trapped in a half circle, but clearly wanting to leave. His eyes are narrowed, head downcast and long hair falling across his face
Jaemin nods. “From the Alteration School, Yeah. Are they ganging up on him now? Come on, he’s like ten years old!”
“More like sixteen,” says Johnny. “Come on.”
Haechan gasps. “What? Like now?”
“Wait, where are we going?” Renjun gasps.
Johnny doesn’t answer but strides across the snowy ground. He hates watching the new kids get beat up, especially by those in Destruction, apprentices, novices, or whatnot. Behind him Jaemin, now holding onto Renjun, is griping about the novices obviously having too much time on their hands if they can waste their afternoon terrorizing others.
“Should’ve made them deal with the saber-tooth cat.”
Renjun scoffs. “So they could just blast it to pieces? Destruction magic has no finesse, I swear. All loud bangs and bluster.”
Johnny almost disagrees. Strangely, he remembers that one time he met Jaehyun studying in a dark corner of a quiet corridor when his candle was blown out by the wind. He remembers Jaehyun’s fingers sensually stroking the wick, bringing it back to life with a delicate little flame.
He shakes that thought as he approaches the boys. So far Hendery seems to be maintaining his own. He’s not as young as most novices, but he did join the College considerably later than most mages. Perhaps that’s why he’s attracted the latest wave of bullies. Johnny casts a shadow over the Destruction novices, silently forcing them to turn around. He almost curses.
“Ahh, good afternoon, Jeno.” One of Doyoung’s little prodigies. Johnny swears half the time he sees the kid Jeno seems perfectly nice. He’s not the usual shoo-in for wannabe trouble makers. However, he is deeply in awe of the older Destruction students which makes him court their favor, especially Doyoung’s. And Doyoung for whatever reason doesn’t like Hendery. He reminds Johnny of himself at that age. “Now, I was wondering, would you mind if I borrowed your friend here?”
“M-my friend?” Jeno gapes, and Johnny can feel he’s trying desperately to control this situation. The other novice beside him screws up his lips as the two have an in-depth silent conversation. The remainder of the crowd slowly back away, but Jeno’s idiotic bravery currently wins out. “Uhm, yes. We were just, talking about magic. Can’t you come back later?”
“Magic, huh? Magic is cool. I like magic. What kind of magic?” By the presence forming behind him Johnny knows backup has arrived in the form of the other Illusion students. He wields his gaze now on the other novice. “It’s Chenle, right?”
Jaemin or Renjun or Haechan, or all three of them together, must be flexing hard because Chenle keeps looking over Johnny’s shoulder and getting nervous. Johnny watches him deliberate and then also decide to grow bold. He plasters on the kind of expression only the youth can wear: confidence masking annoyance, masking fear.
“Y-Yeah? Why? We were almost done. Jeno, let’s go.”
Figures. Johnny scoffs. Chenle is a Destruction brat through and through, meaning he’s smart enough to not trying anything undermanned. Best if Johnny gets out of here soon before they can return with someone more powerful, or irritable.
The Illusion students watch them depart, and then Johnny turns to Hendery and smiles. The Alteration novice is a mix between relieved but also peeved. “Er- thanks?”
Johnny gets him. He also hated relying on others’ battles, at least until he got over himself and learned that accepting help from friends was better. The problem is Hendery doesn’t quite know who are or will be his friends, and the Alteration School enrolls for some reason the fewest number of mages. He nudges Jaemin who understands him immediately.
“Hendery, yeah? Hey, did you know I study Alteration on the side? You’re still a novice, right? Have you thought about what you’re going to add when you become an apprentice? You should do Illusion with us!”
Renjun and Haechan jump in, and yeah, they’ve got this. Jaemin is such a good charmer he doesn’t even need spells.
Johnny takes off for the Restoration Ward on his own. He winces as his robes rub against the cut on his arm. His knee feels sore from where he fell once. Fortunately, the Ward is close, just a short path along a mountain ridge walkway. The snow, however, begins to gust as soon as he steps out from the courtyard.
Johnny grew up in a warmer climate, near to a giant lake in the south of the realm. Johnny remembers real summers and mild winters, and when it snowed it was a nice experience and easily enjoyed. Up here though the winters are brutal and last nearly all year long. Johnny’s heard rumors the College was originally built here intentionally to detract seekers from finding it or making the journey with less than intense purpose. For centuries it stood alone on the mountain until the township sprung up organically beneath its midst. Commerce was created, the tavern founded even before it gained a governor. Roads suddenly connected the town from other villages and cities, and what was once a raw hike up the mountain was replaced with the stone steps and ledges Johnny counts on his way up and down. Now it’s easier for travelers to visit the College, but Johnny doesn’t know why they’d bother.
Magic isn’t banned like it used to be centuries past, but the stigma remains. Apart from the scattered mage or wizard serving local communities across the realm, most are shunned or at the very least misunderstood. Magic frightens people. Sometimes it frightens Johnny. Other mages at the College frighten Johnny. The vast work that conjurers like Yuta and Sicheng do is entirely terrifying. He’s seen them raise the dead and summon spirits. He’s seen the Enchanters take the souls of animals and infuse raw power into objects more dangerous than Johnny can imagine. Every mage no matter their school deals in an art so arcane it takes lifetimes to understand and master. Somehow, for Johnny at least, none of them quite compare to the sheer terror of unchecked Destruction.
Jaehyun stands in the open air between towers, back to Johnny at the edge of the walkway facing a sheer drop off down the mountain. His hood has fallen back; his head is looking up. And suddenly Johnny realizes why it’s suddenly so much colder.
Jaehyun chants in a nearly lost language with hands outstretched. From his feet and spiraling outward he controls a whirlwind of snow and ice. Johnny jumps back and immediately shields his eyes. The whirlwind is shaped like a wintry tornado, icy particles flung into the air, controlled by the magic emanating from Jaehyun’s fingertips. The chill is menacing, the sound intense. Far up and away the whirlwind stretches, dancing to the tune of Jaehyun’s commands.
Johnny had no idea. He thought Jaehyun dealt in fire magic like most Destruction mages. And like with Illusion, Destruction casters usually specialize in one of the arcane arts, either fire, frost, or shock. Johnny’s been at the College long enough to know that Jaehyun is especially good at fire magic. That firebomb in the courtyard last year, which sent two Enchanting novices home with severe burns; the raining fire parade over the bridge leading to the Master Wizard’s private tower which destroyed more than one of Master’s favorite ice sculptures. Jaehyun and friends, namely Jungwoo if Johnny remembers correctly, were suspended for a week.
But the phenomenon in front of him proves Jaehyun’s adept in much, much more. The icy tornado bends with his movements, ebbs and flows along to the curl of Jaehyun’s fingers. For a moment it contracts, and the vortex intermingling with Jaehyun’s feet engulfs him suddenly. Johnny cries out, but several heartbeats later Jaehyun’s body reappears from the snowy midsts.
The tornado fluctuates before spiraling outward again, reminding Johnny of a kite. Except the sting is all magic and made of ice. Jaehyun looks made of ice. He’s covered in frost, black hair and black robes tinged with snowflakes and minuscule blue crystals. The expression on his face is one of tranquil concentration. Johnny’s not sure he’s ever seen something so beautiful.
He could probably sneak by if he wanted to. The path behind Jaehyun is clear, and with the bulk of the whirlwind trailing off the mountain poses no great risk to Johnny. He could walk by, he could. Instead, he stays rooted to the spot, frozen in place with his jaw tightly clenched, softly lowering his arm from his eyes because the specter in front of him is so mesmerizing. He’s never seen magic quite like this before, never seen an element so attuned to a mage’s desires, that perfect balance of power, danger, and grace.
How long he stands there, Johnny doesn’t know. He only remembers the exact moment Jaehyun realizes his presence.
Jaehyun’s head slowly turns within the dance of his own magic and their eyes suddenly meet. Jaehyun had clearly not been expecting another person to be standing there. All at once his spell implodes. There’s a blast of bluish-white light, a shockwave explosion that nearly sends Johnny to his knees, and the neatly wrought spell of ice and snow comes undone like a blizzard.
Johnny gasps and jumps back, but the magic now rages around them. Cold infuses him down to his bones. He shudders his eyes and bends low to the ground, a posture of defense and protection, but he can still hear the fear in Jaehyun’s voice as his power rages uncontrolled. Johnny fights to open one eye, sees Jaehyun’s panicked arms and his faltering breath. The storm engulfs them all around, not ever dissipating. Instead, the wind feels even stronger and the temperature around them drops into painful levels of imminent frostbite.
So Johnny does the only thing he can. Combatting Destruction magic this advanced is well beyond him, but seeking the mind of another mage… Johnny reaches out, feeling his way to the nearest source of magic. Instantly his head begins to pound as he encounters resistance. Jaehyun’s panic acts as a block to the intrusion but Johnny is stronger than that. He clenches his eyes and imagines a barrier, imagines it shattering into so many crystals like the air around them. At last, he feels his way into Jaehyun’s mind. He almost hears Jaehyun’s shock.
The mind of a sorcerer is dangerous territory, nothing like infiltrating a regular non-magic person. In the same way Johnny could easily—if he wanted to—manipulate someone without magic, like he did to his sister so long ago, doing that to a mage requires a greater reservoir of power. Power which Johnny has.
He locates the source of Jaehyun’s errant spell, seeking its roots, silencing its words. The echoing backlash of the arcane language grips at him like a monster with claws. It’s painful; it’s fighting back. Johnny deflects it all while gripping his teeth. He kneels on the ground and with one final push, snuffs it out.
A split second later the blizzard vanishes.
Johnny chokes and falls face first onto the ground. Not far from him he hears Jaehyun do the same. It’s a duet of wheezing, spluttering breaths. The air around feels warmer now. Johnny’s exposed face and hands still feel frigid. If he didn’t need to visit the Restoration Ward earlier, he’d definitely have to now.
Jaehyun is sitting on his bottom when Johnny finally looks at him. There’s a stunned, wary expression on his face. He’s breathing hard, his skin looks too pale blue to be healthy. He’s looking at Johnny as if he is actually frightened by him.
Johnny tries to smile. His lips are so cold they refuse to cooperate. “A-are you okay?” Somehow his voice still works.
Jaehyun doesn’t move a muscle. His eyes are glazed, but he stares right at Johnny.
“Y-you. How did you d-do that?”
It’s both a question and an acquisition. Johnny can’t answer either one.
“I had to. I’m sorry.”
The response is typical of the conscientious Illusion mage. Jaehyun shakes his head like he can’t believe it, but his level of wariness doesn’t drop.
“You got into my mind.”
“You actually silenced my magic.”
Johnny bows his head. If only that was all…
“What else did you see?” Jaehyun accuses.
“Not much, I–“
Cautiously Johnny meets his eyes again. “I– I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.
He remembers a conversation from a week ago, Johnny with Taeyong, Sicheng, and Yuta.
“Jaehyun’s not so bad,” said Sicheng.
“To you maybe,” Johnny whispered, pouting. He finished the last of his ale and poked at his food, pushing it around the plate. When he looked up again, Sicheng was smirking. “What?” said Johnny.
“You really don’t know, do you?”
Johnny thought it would take longer to find out. Now, he realizes, he didn’t have to wait long at all. And it only took a fraction of a second before he found that spell in Jaehyun’s mind when he accidentally got a glimpse of more.
Of himself in Jaehyun’s eyes.
Heads up, for a prior tale of unrequited love.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The Restoration Ward is easily the warmest tower in the whole College. Large fires which have nothing to do with magic burning in grates, two per landing. Nestled in a corner farthest from the stairs on the third floor, Johnny basks before their orange glow, grateful for the warmth. His robes and shirt lay across the bed behind him, a nagging Taeyong prodding his bare chest for wounds.
“Tell me again how getting mauled by a cat has anything to do with Illusion?” asks the apprentice, exasperated.
Blue translucent whisps alight from Taeyong’s fingers and knit at the wound on his arm. Johnny gasps as the magic takes effect.
“You don’t know our master.”
Taeyong scoffs. “Well, anyway, you should have been able to heal these yourself. I taught you these spells myself a year ago.”
“Also on my master’s orders.” He doesn’t admit that yes he could have done it earlier—he had been studying alongside Taeyong and the Restoration Master for a year—but that now he couldn’t even if he wanted. All his energies were depleted approximately ten minutes ago on the pathway with Jung Jaehyun. The Destruction apprentice sits facing him on an adjacent bed. They haven’t spoken since Taeyong appeared.
Taeyong finds a few other knicks on his shoulder and then heels his knee.
“It got your face too? For shame. Beauty is wasted on you.”
Johnny dabs at his cheek curiously. His finger comes back stained with a tiny drop of blood. “Err, that probably wasn’t from the cat.”
His face still feels frozen. He guesses now that some shards of ice must have grazed him too.
Taeyong side-eyes Jaehyun, then stares back at Johnny. “Right. Well, cuts I can do but you’re going to have to wait for Master Jongin about the rest. Whatever mess the two of you got yourselves into is more than I want to screw with. Stop preening, Johnny, and put your clothes back on.”
“I wasn’t– I’m not–“ Johnny clucks, but Taeyong is already walking away.
There’s silence on the floor now that he’s gone. And now they’re alone apart from the crackling fire and the snores of a novice across the room who overexerted himself during a Restoration exercise. Johnny leaves his torn, bloodied shirt on the bed. He shrugs on the robe instead. It’s made of soft wool dyed deep grey. If he ever becomes a master one day, he’ll wear a black one. Johnny pulls it roughly around his waist, then adjusts the buttons through their loopholes up the left side of his chest to his neckline. He feels oddly vulnerable to dressing in front of Jaehyun. Then again, after what he just saw, he guesses Jaehyun should be the one feeling vulnerable now, all his thoughts laying out there naked to see.
Bravely, Johnny looks at him. Jaehyun holds his gaze. His lips aren’t as blue now, but they do hold their stern, cold look. Johnny decides to start first.
“I didn’t know you could do magic like that?” He smiles. By Jaehyun’s expression, it must come off either threatening or condescending or both. Jaehyun scoffs, and his frown deepens. His hands, Johnny notices belatedly, are still trembling. It’s the after effects of disrupted magic, Johnny knows that. Some mages call it mana depletion. When the power source of a mage is cut off abruptly, it sends the person into a kind of shock. He should hold some guilt over that, but truthfully that part of Johnny’s intentions was self-defensive. The other part now, Johnny truly didn’t mean it.
Jaehyun deflects the question. His words are still rough. “Do they teach you that spell in your school of magic? Another one of ‘master’s’ instructions.”
Johnny scowls. In some ways, this is exactly what he expected from a Destruction apprentice. It’s the kind of thing Doyoung would have said. Maybe a week ago Jaehyun could have said it and Johnny wouldn’t think differently. That all changed a short time ago.
Jaehyun blinks, taken aback by the curt reply.
“Really now.” Jaehyun huffs like he can’t quite believe it. He looks away as if trying to reorder his thoughts. His hands rub insistently nervous along his thighs. Johnny gives him a minute, and sure enough, when Jaehyun regroups, he looks twice as intense. “So how do you do it? Do you do it a lot? How many minds have you actually read at the College?” A little more breathlessly, “How can you even have that power?”
“Do you mean, how did I snuff out your spell, or how did I see your mind?”
“Both.” If Jaehyun answers too sharply for the silence in the room, neither of them comments on it.
For this query though, Johnny honestly doesn’t know how to answer. When Jaemin first came to the College as the first Illusion student with any comparable talent, Johnny questioned him slyly, but thoroughly. Lightly, they are what is known as mood makers. They can influence others’ emotions, redirect desires, cause a person to experience high spirits or dark tempers.
“Our magic deals primarily with the mind , Johnny,” said Taeil in one of their earliest lessons. “ And it’s for precisely that reason that, over and above the flashier schools of magic, people are scared of us. Blowing things up, summoning demons, turning iron into gold, all of that can be seen. We do what is unseen, and therefore the magic we harness is that much more terrifying. ” The master then proclaimed it his job was to teach Johnny to control his magic, but more than that, how to appropriately use it, how not to abuse it.
It’s a closely kept secret between Illusion masters and their apprentices what each mage can or cannot do. For this reason, no one apart from the two of them, and maybe the Master Wizard, knows about Johnny’s lessons on how to seek the power source of another mage. It’s a defensive art, vital in some fields of magic, especially against rogue practitioners or inherently magical creatures, vampires and werewolves to name a few.
But to his knowledge, neither Taeil nor Jaemin can actively read another person’s mind. And Johnny… Johnny has only done it one other time before. Today’s was truly unexpected.
“As I said, I didn’t mean to do… all that. I didn’t actually know I could.”
“You’re saying it was an accident.”
“And I’m supposed to believe that.”
Johnny lowers his head. “You can believe what you like, I suppose.”
Anger bursts faster on Jaehyun’s face than a fireball. “Tell me what you saw.”
“Like I said, it wasn’t much-”
“Do you know everything about me now? What, did you get my whole life story? Every secret, every thought?”
A door clambers open somewhere below, footsteps entering the tower, voices booming, at least two. Panic claws at Jaehyun’s face as he stands up and strides in two steps to loom over Johnny’s bed. “Hurry and tell me,” he delivers with swift abandon, grabbing onto Johnny’s collar and dragging him up. Johnny stands before he chokes. It’s on the tip of his tongue to continue lying, to drag this out, maybe even to claim something entirely different to what he saw. However, his guilt is too great. And Jaehyun’s vulnerability is too real. Johnny is the one who performed magic out of its place, so he is the responsible one.
As the two intruders make their way thunderously up the stairs, Johnny lowers his voice and looks Jaehyun straight in the eye. He speaks slowly. “I only saw what you saw the moment you lost control of your magic.”
Jaehyun’s pupils enlarge; his face twitches, every minute muscle restless against the skin as he takes in that thought.
“And,” Johnny begins. His throat heaves from the strain around his neck. With two hands he encircles the wrist gripping his robes.
“And?” says Jaehyun, now rushing against time.
“And… felt what you thought.”
That’s how Jungwoo and Doyoung find them. The two apprentices shout and within seconds are upon them. Doyoung rushes Johnny, knocking him out of Jaehyun’s hands and onto the bed. Jungwoo grabs Jaehyun, whose eyes are practically bugging in his panic. There’s a blow to his head, and Johnny cries out. Doyoung’s fist retracts, about to come again until Jaehyun says, “Enough!”
All four mages stop. They stare at Jaehyun where he stands with fists clenched at his sides, eyes narrowed. Johnny’s never seen someone war so hard with their emotions. His face goes devoid of expression, but his body clenches taut with tension. It’s almost unnerving, enough that his friends notice.
Jungwoo is the first to speak. “Jaehyun? Jaehyun, are you alright?”
“What did he do to you?” Doyoung demands.
Jaehyun inhales and turns away. “Nothing.”
“What do you mean, nothing?”
Jungwoo speaks softer. “Half the College saw your blizzard, Jaehyun.”
Jaehyun laughs. “Oh, that? It got a little big for me, that’s all.”
Doyoung frowns, but he keeps his eyes on Johnny anyway, like he expects Johnny to try something. “You’ve never lost control before.”
“No? Well, it happens. Even to me. You should go. The Restoration Master will be here soon. You know he hates it when there are too many people around.”
Jungwoo pulls him gently back to the bed and forces him to sit. He remains beside him, however, and shows no ounce of backing down. “He can’t kick us out.” Reluctantly, Doyoung joins them.
Johnny manages to sit upright again and covertly catches Jaehyun’s eyes. A silent conversation unbeknownst to the other two passes between them, the same they’ve been having this whole time. Johnny doesn’t think they’ll ever not have it. Not now that he knows.
He actually flushes a delicate pink. They both do. He can’t quite get over that image of himself. Johnny’s never seen himself that way and he still can’t believe Jaehyun of all people does. Unbidden, he recalls that fleeting moment when a whole host of feelings not from himself rushed his mind, that exact image which spun Jaehyun’s magic out of control. He doesn’t have words for it. That’s the reason such feelings exist, unspoken, unchallenged, bare threads of recessed information, never meant for Johnny to know. Then again, why did Jaehyun come down the mountain the other day? Why did he find Johnny under the stars, and sit with him on the bench? Why whisper that soft ‘Goodnight’ if he never meant to share.
Sometime later, after Master Jongin has inspected them both, and their respective masters are brought up to question them—Taeil looking both alarmed and impressed at Johnny’s feat—Johnny goes down the mountain. He meanders through the town, takes a short nap in his bed at home, deftly avoids both his uncle and Ten, and eventually finds himself at the tavern for his dinner opposite Sicheng who is sitting there alone.
Johnny stares at him for a long time, long enough for Sicheng to shift uneasily in his seat.
“How long have you known?” he demands.
“That Jung Jaehyun is in love with me.”’
It’s been a long time since Johnny thought about that word: love. And maybe he never considered it serious at the time. He was fourteen and new to the College. There were so many handsome mages and mage apprentices for a teenager like him to fall in love with, or at the very least develop an advanced crush.
Sehun, that was his name. Oh Sehun, Adept Enchanter, one year from graduating. Sehun made a trim figure in his stylish robes and neat haircut. Johnny wasted no time declaring his love—not to Sehun of course, but to a friend, one Mark Lee who was also in Enchanting, barely a novice then, and had plenty to say against his older colleague in the school. For Johnny, it was his first time testing out such feelings. He wasn’t so much burdened by his one-sided puppy love. He knew it was going nowhere and that gave him a freedom to bask in it. He waxed poetic as often as he could. With Mark they would traipse after Sehun around and around, Johnny pretending he was invisible, Mark growing more and more anxious they would be caught. But Johnny didn’t mind, he was fourteen and terribly in love.
Things came to a head half a year later. When Mark had enough. When Mark suddenly and without warning grew so exasperated by Johnny’s crush that he demanded Johnny stop running around and look at him instead. Mark was in love with Johnny. And Johnny, he could not reciprocate.
That was the end of their friendship. Sehun left the College a year later. Every now and then Johnny runs into Mark, and the two are civil with one another, can smile and exchange the occasional word, but their friendship took a huge blow that day, and Johnny has always felt like it was his fault. He should have known. He should have recognized the signs. Even worse, he could not train himself to like Mark back.
“What’s it like to be in love with someone? Asking for a friend, of course.”
Ten gives him a blank look and then laughs. “You’re kidding, right?”
“I’m not, actually.” Johnny is being very, very serious. “Alright, maybe he’s not a friend– just a person I know.”
“Wow, okay, you are serious. Uhm, why are you asking me? Why don’t you ask them instead?”
“I can’t do that.”
Johnny likes this little room he shares with Ten. It’s small and cramped, absolutely littered with their belongings, mostly Ten’s. There are bottles of miscellaneous potions everywhere and the place smells of dried flowers and herbs. The table between their beds is stacked high with books. Knickknacks and curios and clothes litter just about every available surface including a desk in the corner Kun made for Johnny that Johnny hasn’t seen in the three years Ten has lived here.
The candle burns low, wax dripping off the side and onto the wood table. Johnny looks at it, then shoves aside a stray book. The table is beyond helping. Over on his bed, Ten rolls over and laces his arms behind his head. Johnny is still sitting on the edge of his bed, hands beneath his legs and he mulls over everything that’s happened today.
“Love, huh?” Ten laughs again. “I don’t know, Johnny. It’s not something anybody really knows how to talk about.”
“Let me put this another way,” says Ten. “Since you’re asking, it’s obviously important to you. This person, is it about you?”
“How do you feel about that?”
“No idea. I wasn’t even supposed to know.”
“Well, do you like them?”
“I don’t know.”
Ten snorts. “This conversation is going nowhere.”
Johnny agrees. And personally, he already knew that. There’s no guideline for how he’s supposed to deal about this situation; it’s not just something he can talk himself into understanding in one night. There’s only Jaehyun who before today Johnny only thought about in the sense of someone he’d rather avoid. In fact, it was definitely, one hundred percent best to avoid him. Jaehyun is a Destruction apprentice. One of those people who, back when Jaehyun was a novice, caused him a lot of grief… Johnny doesn’t want to remember it. Those were the dark days of his existence, before he befriended Taeyong, Yuta, and Sicheng, after his falling-out with Mark. It takes him back to when he had no one, and Jaehyun… well, maybe there’s a reason Johnny’s a little shook about this revelation. It’s been five years since their ignominious introduction. Somewhere in that time, he’s supposed to believe Jaehyun has changed. Miraculously, Johnny now has the proof that he has. Also, he’s not entirely sure he can call it a miracle. Miracles involve some sort of desire on the part of the person who desires it. And Johnny, he’s still kind of stupefied.
“Tell me about this person,” says Ten. “Do I know them? Him? Her?”
“Oooh, it’s a boy,” Ten sing-songs. “Good choice.”
“I didn’t say I picked him. I’m just saying it’s a guy. And yes, you know him.”
“I’m going to take a wild guess it’s someone you don’t like from the College.”
“That’s a good start.”
“And it’s Jaehyun, that Destruction apprentice who came by the other night.”
Johnny clucks indignantly, sarcastically. “Well my my, how did you know?”
“I thought it was obvious then. Wasn’t it to you?”
“Poor Johnny,” Ten coos. “So oblivious. Besides, Kun told me some things about him.”
This gets Johnny’s attention. “What things?”
Ten shrugs. “Just then he visits a lot. Most of the time you aren’t here. He comes during the day when you are still up at the College.”
“Okay.” Johnny’s voice wavers.
“Sometimes he asks about you. Innocuous questions mostly. How you’ve been, what have you been studying.”
“Why does he want to know that stuff? That doesn’t sound entirely innocent to me.”
“Well it does to Kun. Just like passing the time of day. Besides, half the things he buys Kun knows cost cheaper at the College Apothecary.”
“Jaehyun isn’t exactly poor. Cost shouldn’t matter to him–“
“Johnny, why are you fighting me on this when you said you already know?”
“I don’t know? It’s just, new to me, that’s all. How’s your crush on my uncle, anyway.”
Ten fixates on him with a petulant stair. “You think you can turn the tables on me? I’m a master at this game.”
“You’re an untrained, unskilled alchemy apprentice, your hair is ugly and you stink.”
Johnny gets a pillow to his face and thanks the deities that’s all he got. Maybe one day he’ll learn to throw a proper insult.
He gets a message the very next morning. Chenle is standing in the shadow of the College gate. Bouncing nervously by his side is Jeno. Any other morning Johnny would stride right on past them, grateful to see only novices and not the usual squad of apprentices. Today, however, Chenle calls his name.
There’s a challenge in the air. Again, it’s not something Chenle actually follows up with. Johnny stops beside the two novices, looking down his nose. “Yes?”
“You have to meet someone.”
“Excuse me?” Johnny narrows his eyes.
Jeno elbows Chenle in the ribs. His smile flits on and off. “He means-”
“Dusk. Northwest corner of the Terrace.”
“He said to tell you, please ,” Jeno amends.
Chenle shrugs. “He said you’d know who.”
Johnny hums and makes to continue past.
“Wait!” Chenle cries. “Are you coming or not? I’m supposed to say if-”
But Johnny doesn’t hear anymore. He struts under the archway leading into the main courtyard. From here the pathway continues up to the central part of the castle and the Great Hall. Outerlaying pathways lead around to the other various towers where each school of magic makes its home. Much, much farther up the mountain lies the Terrace. It’s one of the College’s many outlying courtyards, a terrace of mostly level ground hollowed up in ancient times for what the College claims was their resident dragon. If such a dragon ever existed, it’s lost to the annals of history now. Of those ancient beasts, one hasn’t been cited in centuries, and not in this part of the realm. Johnny dreads the hike up there. It’s windy, and the pathway is splotchy at best. At worst it’s loose stone over a sheer precipice.
Of course he’ll go though. There’s no doubt in his mind it’s Jaehyun who sent that message.
Master Taeil sets him up for individual study today. Johnny plops himself down in a cubbyhole in the Arcanaeum with a tall stack of Illusion texts and a roll of blank scrolls. He opens the first book, Vision of the Night Spell, and trains his eyes on the page. Disappointment soon follows, as it does with most texts claiming to teach magic. The book is rather an anecdotal set of stories about a mage named Chen searching the world for the power to see at night. Johnny of course already knows such spells exist but the fictional Chen does not. He prepares himself for two hundred pages of adventure and mishap, wondering vaguely if at the end of the day whether Taeil will tell him it was all just a little fun.
At noon he emerges. Officially the College offers no lunch for the students who live in the town, but that doesn’t mean Johnny can’t still get free food. The kitchen is notoriously lax during the midday hours, cranking out warm pies both sweet and savory from their ovens. Johnny finds Yuta standing outside the doorway leading down to the kitchen, cold hands cupping his mouth as he dances from one foot to another. It’s setting out to be another miserably frigid day, another reason Johnny dreads hiking up to the Terrace.
“Who’d Sicheng sweet talk today?” Johnny asks, joining him for the wait.
“Xiaojun,” says Yuta.
Xiaojun is an Enchanting apprentice who lives in the dormitory. Johnny doesn’t know him terribly well, but since Sicheng managed to befriend half the student body—the other half are scared to death of him—Johnny’s seen him around. Xiaojun happens to be one of the nicer guys in Sicheng’s harem, evidenced today by the theft of not one, not two, but three meat-filled pies, one for each of them. Taeyong does not take part in their daily ingestion of contraband College vittles. He makes his own lunch and typically eats alone.
Johnny is still offhandedly thanking Xiaojun in between scarfing down his pie when the apprentice sees someone from afar and shouts, “Oh, Mark! Over here! I got you one too!”
Johnny doesn’t bother hiding although Yuta does raise a single sympathetic eyebrow as he munches on his pie. Meanwhile, Mark Lee is separating himself from a gang of young enchanters and making his way toward them.
“Thanks, Jun,” he says, accepting the offering. His eyes are bright as always, glittering even as he chows down, two hands wrapped around the steaming hot savory. “Hey, guys,” he adds in between bites, mouth half full.
He never treats Johnny any different, doesn’t act like they have a semi-painful history.
“Hey,” says Johnny.
And that concludes their correspondence. It’s gotten harder over the years to maintain anything longer than that. Johnny feels a twinge of regret that they came down to this. If only he could go back and… not learn about Mark’s feelings. Then again, that wouldn’t help Mark. If only those feelings hadn’t existed… but it’s too late for that.
Yuta wipes his hands on his robe when he’s done, wrangles Sicheng by the neck and drags him off with a muffled, “Gotta study, see yah,” leaving Johnny there alone with Xiaojun and Mark.
Xiaojun observes them like he knows a thing or two about their past. Johnny expected as much. And then Xiaojun says, “I heard about you sticking up for Hendery yesterday.”
“Yeah. I know he probably didn’t thank you right, but he’s really grateful. Just wanted you to know that. And to thank you personally. He’s like a little brother to me. You know what the Destruction guys are like if they aren’t stopped early on.”
“Hmm. I know.”
It’s not exactly a secret Johnny hates them. They haven’t had a major confrontation in years, but still, most students are aware of the tension that exists between Johnny and a certain trio. It’s the kind that gets gossipped about without specific example, and people covertly spy on them when they’re in the same general vicinity.
“He’s okay then, Hendery?”
“Yeah.” Xiaojun smiles. “He’s fine. Thank you again.”
“Ah, no need for that. I’d have done that for anyone.”
It’s a little embarrassing to be having this conversation in front of Mark. Johnny just shared more words with a guy he barely knows than he’s had with Mark in years. Mark has been watching them this whole time, silently eating his pie, eyes darting back and forth like it’s a particularly good sport of banter. He swallows finally and says, “Yeah, Johnny’s good for that, Jun. I don’t think you need to worry about Hendery anymore.”
The praise is unexpected. Johnny flames a guilty pinkish color. He doesn’t deserve that actually, not from Mark. But he tips his head in thanks anyway and makes a hasty goodbye.
The rest of the day goes by achingly slow. By the time Johnny has made note of the many riddles, tales, myths, and locales in the fictional adventures of Chen and then moved onto the next book, it’s nearly dusk. Three texts remain; Johnny can do them tomorrow. He stowes them in a safe place back on the stacks and rolls up his parchment and scrolls.
There’s a light snow falling down upon the mountain as Johnny begins his hike. He should have worn a warmer layer of clothes. Instead, all he has is his second-best wool robe—his better one is still tattered from the day before. He pulls his hood up high, wondering what kind of snowstorm he might encounter today. The path is empty of students. Johnny is glad. He’d like it if today’s encounter went more unnoticed than yesterday’s. Talk of Jaehyun’s blizzard buzzed all around him last night and today. Some students more brazen than their fellows dared to suggest Johnny’s involvement in it was payback for the Hendery thing. He ignored them all. Johnny guesses Jaehyun is doing the same.
He reaches the Terrace just before dusk. On a clear day, the sunset would have been incredible. Now it’s overcast and grey. Somehow the view is still stunning. Jaehyun is right where Chenle said he would be.
“I heard you asked to see me,” Johnny starts.
Jaehyun is already facing him. He leans against the relic of a pillar, hood blown back from the wind, hands buried in the folds of his robe. He strikes a handsome picture there, dark tones and darker hair against the pure white of the mountain snow and stone.
“I did. Thank you.”
“Why’d you send your novices? I’d have come if you asked me directly.” He smiles and tries to keep it light.
Johnny holds out his arms as if to say, I’m here now, aren’t I?
“We didn’t finish our conversation yesterday,” says Jaehyun, and Johnny nods. He’s looking much more composed than in those final moments in the Restoration Ward before Jungwoo and Doyoung burst in. After the masters came and kicked everyone out, the only topic discussed had been Jaehyun’s errant spell and Johnny’s intrusion. No one actually asked if anything else happened too. They didn’t know about Johnny’s accidental mind reading, and they didn’t know about Jaehyun’s… thing.
Johnny has a hard time putting it to words. “What did you want to talk about?”
“You. Me.” Unlike Johnny, Jaehyun doesn’t mince words.
Johnny mumbles something incoherent, hoping he comes off aloof and not hesitant.
“I did mean to approach you one day,” Jaehyun continues. He laughs. Johnny follows the exact trajectory of his bangs in the wind as he sweeps his head sideways and then back. Jaehyun looks so at peace with himself today. Gone is the arrogant boy who’s taunted Johnny for years.
“Did you,” he replies hollowly. Johnny doesn’t want to trust him.
“I did. Yesterday wasn’t exactly how I planned it to go.”
He implies there actually was a plan. Johnny can’t process this. He takes a step toward Jaehyun, wary all the while because there’s something he doesn’t understand.
“Why me, then? For five years you’ve pretended you didn’t like me. And I was content to not like you back. What changed?”
“Well, things kind of changed. I changed. I think I always admired you. I was in awe of you. I just didn’t realize it at first.”
Jaehyun has the audacity to look sheepish. He stands there blushing, dimples in his cheeks—Johnny didn’t know he had dimples—hair and lashes dusted with snow, and all of a sudden Johnny is looking at a stranger. He doesn't know who this person is at all. A war of emotions bursts within: confusion, anger, and disbelief. Revulsion and attraction tangle together, and that last one screws with him the most. Jaehyun has no right to stand there looking so good confessing his feelings when for years he’s fucked with Johnny’s mind. He’s mocked him, belittled him, stood aloof while Doyoung threw insults at him, and Jungwoo much worse. And that was when they were barely still kids. In the last five years, Jaehyun hasn’t done or said a single nice thing to Johnny. And he dares, he really dares right now to smile and grin and not issue a single apology.
Johnny’s not a kid any longer. He hates the trio for what they did in the past, and he dislikes them still because of their attitude. He’s stronger now; he’s got tougher skin. That doesn’t mean all is so easily forgiven. Screw Jaehyun, he can take his newfound feelings and chuck them off the mountain.
“You know what. I think I’m just going to go,” he says, interrupting Jaehyun from saying more.
“What?” Jaehyun pales.
“I’m saying that I’m going home.”
With just those words Jaehyun’s easy countenance falls flat. Gone is his smile, and those dimples vanish. He stands up straighter, no longer leaning on the pillar. The transition back to the Jaehyun Johnny knows is so complete as to give him whiplash. For one bewildering moment, Johnny misses that image from before, the Jaehyun who offered a different kind of relationship. That strange version of Jaehyun who sat on a bench with Johnny and looked at the stars. And Johnny doesn’t know which one to trust.
Jaehyun takes a step nearer. “You won’t hear me out?”
“Why Not? You can tell me that at least, can’t you?”
Johnny struggles to not back away. Jaehyun speaks so softly but he’s closing the gap between them. Is he pleading with Johnny or threatening him? Jaehyun has such a physical presence it’s a wonder Johnny never noticed it before.
Then again, maybe he did. Isn’t that why he’s spent years avoiding him?
“Because I don’t believe you know anything about me.” He raises his chin, forcing Jaehyun to do the same. He could touch him. He could really reach out and touch him…
“So let me learn.”
They say in scenarios like this it’s fight or flight. Johnny feels like doing both. Slowly, he shakes his head.
“You don’t know anything about me either,” Jaehyun says, eyes pleading, gaze hard. “It’s easy.”
Easy, he says, like it’s that easy to start over from square one, right here, right now.
Johnny breathes and looks him in the eye. His throat feels choked, his lungs clogged. The important thing is saying exactly what he wants to say. Maybe. “You’re right. The only thing I know about you is that you’ve appeared to dislike me for years. So, I’m sorry if I can’t- I don’t know if I can like you back. Goodnight.”
The important thing is saying what he feels . If that’s what he feels. And right now, who knows. He leaves Jaehyun standing alone in the snow, and he’s not one hundred percent sure that was the right thing to do. It’s satisfying. But it also hurts .
Yeeaaaah, don't worry. It gets better. I promise!
The plot begins.
By morning the snow has stopped. Johnny sets out on his hike up to the College, passing magically banished or shifted snow banks from the students who went first. There’s a hint of sunlight in the air. The clouds are restless, spaced out and thinning quickly as if anxious to be on their way. Something about that unsettles Johnny. It feels almost unnatural, perhaps magical. The weather has always been strange around the College so that’s not unusual. Still, Johnny sets out with an odd feeling he just can’t shake. Like the world is different today and he can’t decide if that’s a good thing or if it’s bad.
Jaemin and Renjun are hanging out by the gate as always. “Hey, Johnny, what’s the count today?”
Johnny pauses. He frowns. So that’s the second strange thing of the day already. “I forgot to count,” he says, before laughing a second later. He walks on.
“ ‘Forgot to count ?’” he hears Renjun whispering after him. “Johnny never forgets to count. How are we going to decide who gets to do scrollwork today?”
The courtyard is bustling with early morning loiterers, more than is usual, and many of them bear unfamiliar faces. The third strange thing. Johnny accidentally bumps into a guy calling another man’s name. He stumbles and does a double-take. Johnny is not used to being on eye level with another mage, but the guy who grabs his arm and keeps him from falling is tall, as tall as him.
“Oops, sorry about that. You okay?”
Johnny blinks, then nods, smiling. “Yeah. Fine. Don’t think we’ve met?”
“I’m Lucas!” The mage grins brightly and sticks out his hand.
“Johnny,” he replies, shaking his hand.
Someone calls out his name then, and Lucas turns apologetic. “Sorry, man, maybe I’ll see you around.”
Johnny doesn’t tell him the College is so small they’re bound to meet again. He’s still curious about why he’s here though. As he makes his way towards Yuta and Sicheng’s morning hangout, he has to push past several dozen new faces, all mages going by their magical auras, including a whole coven of what look like witches. The women stand in a circle with one of the masters. They are distinctive from the female mages by their peculiar dress, headpieces, and jewelry. Their hair actually tinkles with the sound of musical bells and chimes from the ornaments bedecked in their long, braided locks, a new melody every time the wind blows.
“What’s with the coven?” he whispers to his friends once he’s safely made his way past.
“Twenty foreign mages arrive in a single day, and you’re only asking about the coven?” Sicheng snorts.
“Well, yeah?” Johnny glances over his shoulder dramatically, indicating the women. Mages deal in strict magical code. They’re formulaic, logical, their powers generated through genetics dealt at birth. Witches’ magic, on the other hand, isn’t so easily understood. It comes from the ground, from nature. Anyone, even someone not born a mage, can usually learn it.
“You look scared.” Yuta is laughing. But Johnny shakes his head. He wouldn’t say it frightens him exactly. Destruction magic frightens him. Unbound Illusion magic frightens him. Falling down the mountain and not being found until he freezes to death frightens him. No, he’s definitely more curious than anything else.
Before he can ask though, Sicheng answers his question. “You weren’t here yesterday evening when the masters called everyone to gather. It’s a delegation from Weishen. They’ll be here a couple of months. Some sort of goodwill exchange from the Assembly of Magic. The Master Wizard is hosting a ceremony this evening to officially greet them. I assume we’ll all be released from our studies early.”
“Mages and witches , studying together.” Johnny is still kind of impressed. “What kind of magic do you think they practice?”
Yuta shrugs. “Who knows. They do things differently over there. I guess we’ll find out. By the way, where did you get off to yesterday? That’s two nights you’ve been missing, and I was waiting for you to go down.”
“Ahhh,” Johnny glances at his other friend. Sicheng presses his lips flat. “I had an appointment.”
“Yes, an appointment.” The two of them exchange a look and Johnny sighs impatiently. “I met with Jaehyun.” He’d rather not do this dance around. It’s better to say it.
Yuta looks him up and down incredulously. “Okay,” he drawls, “you are in one piece and I saw Jaehyun earlier so I know he’s alive too so– Oh. You found out.” Yuta’s eyes pop. “Does this mean then–“
“There is nothing between us.” Johnny grins flatly. “I made that clear yesterday.” Again there’s that prickling sensation crawling across his skin.
The mages stare at him silently. “Ah,” says Yuta finally. “Okay then, so what I was saying about the foreign mages-” And he launches into some gossip about the delegation which Johnny politely listens to but forgets moments later.
For the entirety of the day, he refuses to think about Jaehyun. He has the rest of his reading assignments to catalog, and a short summary of each to submit to Taeil. That takes him through lunch and instead of going down to see what he can mooch second-hand from the kitchens, he pulls out a few slices of bread Ten made this morning and eats that instead.
In the afternoon he makes a visit to the Illusion Master’s quarters. Taeil has a small apartment in the basement of the Illusion Tower. It’s two rooms and a small antechamber, the largest room for receiving students. Johnny has never seen the inside of the master’s bedchamber but he assumes it is similarly decorated with charms and baubles hanging from the rafters, and stacks and stacks of books. There’s an earthy, musty scent to the air. Johnny sits on a tattered armchair with his back to the door and waits.
Taeil is leaning over a table, elbows and forearms rubbing against the wood grain, a quill in his right hand. Johnny doesn’t see how he manages to work here, the entire surface is littered with parchment and scrolls.
“One minute, Johnny, and I’ll be with you.”
One minute turns into ten while the master hums to himself and scribbles something down. Occasionally he uses his free hand to swipe the air and a page or a hundred pages of his book flip open and settle down. A single ball of candlelight floats around the table, also directed by the minute direction of his fingertips. By the time he snaps shut the book and rolls his parchment into a scroll, Johnny is thoroughly relaxed and practically dozing.
“Right now, let’s start with the first assignment. What was it again?”
Johnny sits up and clears his throat. “Uhm, it was about the adventures of Chen? Vision of the Night Spell ?”
“Oh, yes. A handy little trick. Would you like to try it?”
“Ah, so the spell listed in the book is real?”
Taeil’s head knocks sideways. “No, I have the actual spell, but the story sure was nice, don’t you think!”
Under his breath, Johnny murmurs, “Thought so,” before leaning over the table to read the correct incantation.
Hours later he gathers with the rest of the College in the courtyard. The cloud cover has returned, blocking the sun. Snow flurries rain down upon the crowd. Johnny stands with Taeyong under an awning, watching the steps to the main hall where the Master Wizard is supposed to appear and make his announcement.
“All afternoon I’ve been dodging the new mages,” says Taeyong sternly. With his arms crossed and his eyes narrowed, anyone would think Taeyong was annoyed. But Johnny knows that’s just his manner; to Johnny’s ears, he sounds more concerned.
“The whole lot of them lost and wandering all over the place. Three ended up in the Restoration Ward after looking for the Conjuration Master in three separate towers. As if Master Yangyang ever comes out during the day.”
Johnny snorts. “Bet they’ll be shocked when they find out.” Vampires aren’t generally welcome in society, even in the magical world. The Master Conjurer is an exception to an awful lot of rules.
“Well, that’s his problem. My problem is when that coven comes near the ward. Messed up a whole lot of meditation spells I had lingering around. The novices were practically in tears, they couldn’t manage a single healing spark with the witches in the room. I had to put up a heavy defensive ward just so they could finish their practice, and Master Jongin eventually escorted the coven away.”
“Huh. That’s a little weird, right?” Witches acting as a bane to a mage’s magic doesn’t bode well for their continued duration in the College.
From across the courtyard, Johnny spots that tall mage from this morning. Lucas sees him and waves, then goes back to talking with his friends. It’s not surprising by his friendly nature that he appears to have made a few more during the course of the day, but Johnny starts violently when he sees Lucas talking not only to Mark but to Jaehyun as well. The other two Destruction apprentices stand a little farther away, Jungwoo whispering something into Doyoung’s ear, Doyoung frowning.
Johnny looks away a split second too late. Jaehyun’s eyes jump to his as if drawn there.
“Jaehyun’s looking at you,” says Taeyong unhelpfully.
“I can see that, thanks.”
“Something else happen between you?”
Like Yuta and Sicheng, Taeyong decides to stay quiet. Johnny appreciates that, grateful as always for his best friends. The other two join them, and finally, the Master Wizard makes his appearance.
He steps out through a massive door three times his height flanked by the other masters and several new unfamiliar faces, two older women, an elderly man with a long white beard, and several mages who must be the foreign equivalent to masters. All of them, even the College masters, bear ceremonial staffs. The Master Wizard carries his with ease despite its length.
The group pauses on the dais, and the Master Wizard looks up. He holds his hands aloft, then swings his staff in a slow arc to the heavens. Little oohs and awws draw from the crowd as the snow flurries halt mid-air and continue to hang there suspended. Another sweep of his staff and they float up and away, clearing the air in an orderly fashion. Below, students doff their hoods in wonder.
“Frost mages,” scoffs Yuta. “Ever the show-offs.”
Satisfied with his efforts, however, the man begins to speak.
“Good evening my fellow mages, colleagues, students, and our most coveted guests!” He pauses for effect. “For those of you who haven’t had the misfortune of meeting me,” he winks, “I am Xiumin, Master Wizard of the College of Magi. Welcome, everyone.”
Polite applause rings throughout the courtyard. The Master Wizard is a smallish man who looks infinitely young for his age. Circuit stories passed among students tell of many a rogue mage in the past who dared by his looks to underestimate him. And of course, those who have severely messed up and ended in his office are loath to share the punishments injected upon them. Not that Johnny has ever had the privilege, but Sicheng would know.
Xiumin goes on. “For everyone who should have noticed our guests, I’d like to introduce you to our colleagues across the continent from the Assembly of Magic. No doubt you will be seeing them join you in your studies in the following months. A special welcome also to the Dreamcatcher Coven. The masters and I are uh- delighted to begin in some cross-magical academic studies.”
“Huh,” says Taeyong.
“And for our guests, please make yourselves at home here in the College. I trust that if anyone of you needs, our students here can act as perfect hosts to help you adjust.” He smiles and everyone heeds the warning.
For a few more minutes he waxes poetic while introducing the mage ambassadors and then the masters for the benefit of the new mages and witches. At last, they are dismissed.
“And now, a rare treat!” He grins broadly, all teeth and gums, staff raised high in the air. “A feast!”
All at once the kitchen doors open as dozens of staff alight carrying tables and chairs, and trays and trays of steaming plates of food.
“Please stay for supper! Everyone is invited. Excellent, good, have fun. Eat well.”
Johnny finds a spot along with the Taeyong, Yuta, and Sicheng at a table farthest from the center of the action. Johnny’s in no mood to mingle, especially since Lucas has given him another wave when their eyes made contact, Lucas who is sitting smack in the middle of the Destruction apprentices. At least Mark, he notices, has removed himself and is sitting with his fellow Enchanters.
No sooner does the food arrive that Jaemin, Renjun, and Haechan show up, the latter looking stressed.
“Did you just get here?” Johnny asks. “You weren’t in time for the ceremony?”
“Why, did the Master Wizard say anything particularly profound?” Renjun’s jibe is standard fare but Johnny can’t help but notice he’s distracted. His arm is on Haechan’s back rubbing comforting circles.
At Johnny’s inquiring look Jaemin leans forward and whispers, “Just had a few issues with Haechan’s magic earlier.”
“Issues?” says Johnny.
Taeyong sits up straighter. “What kind of issues?”
But the harassed Illusion apprentice shakes his blond head and quickly says, “It’s fine. Everything’s good now.”
Johnny doesn’t buy that but he lets it go. It seems strange things have been happening all day but it might still be a coincidence.
The meal is amazing, but Johnny doesn’t taste most of it. He’s eating only out of habit, ears clued into the small talk which goes around the table: Taeyong still talking about those weird events in the Restoration Ward, Yuta suddenly remembering a weird thing when he was wandering around, also involving the coven in their search for Master Yangyang. According to Jaemin, foreign students have been instructed to introduce themselves to each of the masters to interview for placement studies.
“Do they not apprentice into certain schools at the Assembly?” Haechan murmurs. He’s still being mum about whatever magical incident happened earlier, but that doesn’t stop him from also being curious.
“Guess not,” says Sicheng. He’s leaning back in his chair observing the rest of the courtyard with glazed eyes, arm around Yuta’s shoulder. He suddenly squints. “Hey, Johnny.”
Johnny looks up. “Yeah?”
Sicheng is frowning. “Did uhm, you know Ten was here? And your uncle.”
He looks and sure enough, coming through the gate are his uncle and Ten. They’ve been intercepted by the Master Alchemist, evidently a warm greet in spite of the master’s typically stern manner. The two non-mages tower over the woman. With her pale face, long black hair and almost gaunt appearance, Kun looks especially bubbly in comparison.
“Master Sunmi must have invited them?” Johnny guesses. The School of Alchemy has few students but many connections. This isn’t the first time Kun has been invited up to the College, but Johnny usually receives some warning. “Excuse me,” he says.
Ten and Kun are at the far opposite end of the courtyard. Johnny passes a fair number of tables to reach them. Master Sunmi has already taken her leave by the time he gets there. He sees Kun looking around as if deciding where to sit.
“Uncle?” Johnny grins, a little question buried under his voice.
“Ahh, Johnny. Good, I was hoping you’d come to our rescue.” He leans forward and puts his hand conspiratorially on Johnny’s shoulder, whispering, “Wouldn’t want to accidentally sit near my nephew’s arch-enemies.” He winks.
Johnny laughs. “Well, I might have overshot my infamy, but truly there’s only a few, and they’re terribly easy to avoid. Come and join us over there?”
As they walk, Kun explains his wonder at this near last minute invite. “But apparently there are some alchemy students among the kids, and one of the ambassadors is a master who does a lot of trade. I must say, Sunmi is very charitable to let me get to meet them.” Johnny nods. Ten is silent but he trails along happily, eyes taking in everything and everyone, apparently content with his role as Kun’s plus one. After their path is temporarily blocked by a group of students on the move, Ten getting cut off, Kun reaches around and takes him gently by the arm. He’s still talking to Johnny, so he doesn’t notice Ten’s utterly delighted expression. Johnny glances at him behind Kun’s back.
Damsel in distress? he mouths.
Ten blows him a kiss in return.
Johnny is of course terribly aware of where Jaehyun’s sitting. Even if he wanted to forget there is Lucas’s tall head and loud boisterous voice marking the place. Before sitting down Johnny looks one more time, finds himself somewhat winded because Jaehyun is laughing and smiling, completely unaware that anyone is looking.
It’s the Jaehyun Johnny had a glimpse of back on the Terrace. The fun-loving, easy and carefree Jaehyun who is a stranger to him. Yet here he sits among the newcomers, mages he can’t have known more than a few hours, laughing.
“Johnny, your seat’s getting cold.”
Taeyong’s voice brings him back to reality. He pauses with a bite halfway to his mouth, eyes trained on his fork but there’s a knowing lilt to his words. Johnny doesn’t respond.
The feast goes on. Halfway through more of the castle staff emerges with a second course, and eventually dessert. Johnny recognizes more than one familiar face, people brought in from the township, non-mages.
“Hello, Jisung.” He greets the boy happily, startling the kid whose tray begins to topple to the ground. Johnny watches in slow motion as a dozen tarts and pies tip and slide off their plates, candied fruits and sugar falling to the ground–
But they freeze before that happens. Jisung gasps. A shadow falls over him, the strained cries of the Alteration novice Hendery who stands there with furrowed brows, his hands outstretched as he struggles with his spell.
“Hendery!” Jaemin exclaims. The novice can’t respond. Wordlessly, Jaemin and Johnny lunge forward to pluck the tarts and candies out of the air. Johnny’s hand closes around the last pie. He hands it to Jisung who with blank face rights his tray as they load it back up. The whole thing only takes seconds.
“Ah there. No harm done,” says Johnny encouragingly.
They all turn to Hendery.
“Nice catch,” says Ten.
Hendery blushes. “Uhm, thanks. Sorry I only learned levitation this week. I couldn’t remember how to also move them back.”
“Are you kidding?!” says Jaemin. “I couldn’t do that as a novice. You’re good!”
Hendery thanks them again while Johnny apologizes to Jisung. The boy still looks flustered but he scurries on to deliver his tray to the right table. It just so happens to be where Chenle and Jeno are sitting a couple of seats over from Jaehyun.
Johnny braces himself, he can’t really explain why, but as the boy leans over the table he sees Chenle snicker and frown. An insulting exclamation leaves his mouth, the exact words lost in the din of the feast. But Jisung jerks back. Johnny stands up.
He shushes Taeyong, hand wavering in the air as his eyes zoom in on the offended Jisung. His face turns an embarrassing, mortifying shade of red. And still, Chenle is talking to him, Jeno laughing by his side. They’re pointing at the desserts like Jisung intentionally laced them with poison. Johnny sees the boy open his mouth to defend himself and also sees him falter.
“Those little…” Johnny starts to move when another figure at that table stands up, Jaehyun. Johnny freezes. The exact shape of his mouth saying Chenle brings the incident to a halt. Both Destruction novices shut up, Chenle looking cowed. It’s obvious to Johnny this isn’t the first time something like this may have happened. They take Jaehyun’s word as law.
Johnny slowly sits back down. This time when Jaehyun looks at him he doesn’t glance away.
The sun begins to dim, the cloud cover returns, though the snowfall remains magically banished. Within a month spring will be upon the township at the base of the mountain, but up here it remains cold throughout the year. Sicheng shivers as a particularly violent gust of wind bears down on the courtyard. Johnny’s nose twitches when he sees Yuta wordlessly and without looking adjust the collar of Sicheng’s robe.
Kun also shivers and with less subtlety, Ten leans over to fasten the drawstring of Kun’s cloak. Johnny’s uncle is not a master and though he could legally wear an apprentice’s robes, he chooses for the sake of his town customers to dress like a merchant. His brown coat now properly fastened, he looks down at Ten’s retreating hands with no little curiosity. But there’s a light, barely there rosy blush which spreads across his face. No one but Johnny, and probably Ten, would even notice it.
Taeyong engages the two alchemists for the remainder of the feast. Johnny tunes out their chatter. His dis-love for potions is entirely real. Near the end of the dessert round, however, Master Sunmi leads around a small group of students whom Johnny hasn’t seen before and lets them exchange introductions. The visiting master also makes a brief appearance, eliciting a promise to visit Kun himself later this week.
“Are there more desserts?” Haechan sighs as their trays empty and no replacements are delivered.
Renjun sniffs. “You ate your weight in apple tarts. You’re going to be sick if you have any more.”
“Sugar makes me feel better,” says Haechan with a pout, rubbing his belly.
Johnny too leans back, his appetite more than sated. “Guessing it’s done. Does anyone know if this is it? No surprise festivities, or can we go home?”
“I heard some of the masters saying we could leave after this,” Jaemin answers.
“What’s the matter?” says Yuta. “You want to go back already? We can go down with you now if you’re ready.”
“I am, yeah. What about you guys?” Johnny asks Ten and his uncle, but Kun is shaking his head.
“I think we’ll hang out longer if that’s okay?”
“Okay, then! See you later.”
That same simmering anxiety that’s been plaguing Johnny all day seems to quiet with the anticipation of leaving. Briefly, he contemplates the shortest route to the gate. Unfortunately, his efforts are ruined when Sicheng gets waylaid by a group of Conjuration novices begging for his help on something tomorrow. Johnny hovers over the little group. He scratches his ear, trying not to scowl too much, his attention drawn to the Destruction Master maneuvering through the tables. Master Chanyeol is something of an enigma. Ever smiling and pleasant looking, his powers make everyone in the College barring the Master Wizard nervous. Vaguely Johnny wonders if he’s anything like his students with their snide disdain for the other schools. He’s never seen evidence of it, fortunately, else his life would probably be a lot harder.
“Hey, let’s go.”
So caught up in his observations Johnny almost misses that Sicheng is done talking. The Destruction Master is leaning over Jaehyun now and talking into his ear. The apprentice listens attentively, if not puzzled.
Yuta takes Johnny’s arm to lead him away. Freedom is just within his grasp.
“Johnny, wait a minute!”
For anyone else, Johnny could ignore them and pretend he didn’t hear. He turns around warily.
Taeil ambles toward him, not at all rushed. “Good, I caught you.” He smiles.
“Something the matter, Master?”
“Is something the matter? Well, I’m not sure of that but I do have something of an… unconventional message for you. A request actually. And one I would not turn down if I were you.”
Which doesn’t sound ominous at all. Johnny gapes at him. “Okay?”
Taeil, however, is merciless. “Best go and speak to the Master Wizard. He’s asked for you and Jaehyun specifically.”
Xiumin’s office is part of a large network of chambers in the highest tower in the College. Johnny wonders if the nearly ten flights of stairs are punishment for the students who must visit him there and if the Master Wizard doesn’t also bemoan the ascending trek at the end of a long day.
Jaehyun and Johnny reach the foot of the steps at the same time. They’ve definitely beaten the Master Wizard, who was last seen making his farewells in the courtyard. The stairway is dark and narrow, each step a little too steep to be comfortable. Jaehyun raises his eyebrows when they meet.
“Would you… like me to go first?”
“If you like,” says Johnny. Perhaps he’ll feel less trapped if he has an escape route behind him.
Their footsteps echo in the space. The spiral steps stretch up infinitely, and it’s impossible to tell just how high they are. Most of the landings have no door either through original design, or because they’ve been boarded up. There’s no way to know how many rooms have been lost, or why. Johnny guesses they are almost there when they pass a door with a plaque that reads,
Master of Alteration
Assistant to the Master Wizard
Please Knock ~ Use No Magic
Precarious Spells at Work Inside
At the end of another flight, they finally reach the Master’s room.
Here the floor levels out. Magelight dances in every corner casting a yellowish blue hue across the walls and floor. There’s a bench opposite a great doorway flanked by pots of purplish fungi on one side and a tree of pure white on the other. Upon closer examination, the tree is made entirely of snowflakes.
Jaehyun looks around for a moment mimicking Johnny’s inspection and sits down. Johnny paces for several more minutes.
“I thought we were done with that business a few days ago,” says Jaehyun. He sounds merely inquisitive. Johnny hums.
“Do you think this could be about anything else?”
Johnny doubts it, but one never knows. He hates being here, trapped on a landing with Jaehyun awaiting the Master Wizard’s pleasure. Fortunately, they don’t have long to wait. They can hear the Master long before he steps out onto the final landing. He smiles pleasantly and is not nearly as winded as the four mages who follow. Johnny is not surprised to see Lu Han, but he is a little shocked to see one of the foreign ambassadors, a witch of the coven, and of all people, Lucas. The latter smiles at Johnny, and then at Jaehyun. He looks like he knows exactly what they’re all doing there, meanwhile, he and Jaehyun haven’t a clue.
“Shall we go inside?” says Xiumin, and without further ado disappears into his office.
The Master Wizard’s actual quarters are large and circular, taking up the entirety of the castle tower. If the outside landing was filled with unique and bizarre things, the inside is even more. There are bookshelves everywhere, some filled with books, others with strange objects that glow in the dark or make strange noises. Xiumin leads everyone to a small sitting area. Johnny sits in a plump two-seater armchair beside a wooden table with a whistling skull with a lavender blossom sticking out of its mouth. To his absolute horror, Jaehyun chooses to sit right next to him. Johnny inches closer to the skeleton.
The Master Wizard takes his place in a throne-like wooden chair with embroidered emerald padding. Lu Han stands behind him, arms folded and leaning against a desk. Lucas sits between the foreign master and the girl from the coven.
“Shall we start with some introductions? I’ll begin. I am Xiumin, all of you know me, though this is the first time to personally meet some of you.” He smiles at Johnny and Jaehyun. “Apologies to the both of you that we have never interacted, but trust me, I am well informed of your studies and having spoken to both of your masters I have decided you two are definitely the most suited for this little... project of ours.”
He indicates the other mage next. “This is Shim Changmin. In the Assembly he is what we might call an… Illusion Master? Changmin, is this right?”
“It is.” Changmin nods. “Though we do not personally title ourselves so.”
Johnny’s brows furrow in confusion, but the Master Wizard goes on. “Then, Lucas?”
Changmin speaks for him. “My most prized pupil.”
Lucas beams happily and doesn’t deny it. “Ahh, thank you. Actually, I’m really excited to get to be here. Always wanted to travel and now this.” He grins, stretching a little on the sofa. His right leg jitters in anticipation.
“Very happy to have you here,” says Xiumin succinctly. “And our last guest, would you like to do the honors?” He indicates the woman.
Johnny finally examines her more closely. The witch has long auburn hair, partially braided and laced with the crafts of her magic, pearl beads, gemstones, a dyed purple eagle feather and patterned ribbons inked with rune symbols.
“I am Jiu, though you may call me Minji. I have been the leader of our coven for three years now. Pleased to meet you all.”
She holds herself to a dignified pose that impresses Johnny, arms folded delicately across her lap. She wears a half-robe, half-gown of periwinkle velvet.
The Master Wizards smiles back, pleased. “Well, that is done with. Shall we all continue?” He ignores the little snort from the man behind him.
“Jaehyun, Johnny, you must be very confused about why I had your masters send you here.”
“Uhh, we are, sir,” says Jaehyun. “Could this be about that… incident a few days ago?”
Xiumin presses his lips together, contemplative and silent for a few short seconds. Even so, the silence is oppressive. Johnny steals a glance at Jaehyun. The apprentice is also noticeably anxious, much like Johnny feels.
Finally, he speaks. “You are both right and wrong. That ‘incident’ as you call it was impressive, and I’ll tell you why in a little bit. But no, overall this is about a larger matter, and the teamwork between you and Johnny will hopefully play a vital role in that.”
“T-teamwork?” Johnny stutters, almost gasping. He sits forward and stares at the Master Wizard, who only gives him a smirk.
“Yes, Mr. Seo. You may not think so now, but the magical bond you created with your fellow mage two evenings ago is… how should I say it, unique?”
“I, I don’t understand.”
“No, I gather that you do not. But you will learn.”
He looks at Johnny, and Johnny is suddenly assured that there are no secrets in the College which the Master Wizard is unaware of. Even something as miniscule—Johnny thought—as his animosity to a certain Destruction apprentice must be common knowledge, else the man would not be giving him such a looking down. He reminds himself painfully that the Master Wizard is a Destruction mage before everything else. The tables in this place have been stacked against him.
Fortunately, Xiumin chooses not to elaborate. He addresses the room at large. “Now onto the main point of this meeting. I have gathered you all to begin what I, and our ambassadors in the Assembly, hope will be a fruitful interactive project. Gentlemen, and Miss Jiu, we have on our hands a magical anomaly. Perhaps some of you have noticed the strange things that have happened this day due to the presence of the coven among us. Put plainly: six months ago Jiu notified the leaders in the Assembly about a strange dampening of their powers, especially when they walked among mages. Now, most of you are aware that witches and mages practice two completely different types of magic. We, and I do apologize on behalf of the College, have never before admitted a witch to our roster.”
Jiu nods, evidently unoffended. “As most covens do not interact with mages by long design, this is not unexpected.”
“Still,” he smiles back, “perhaps were it not for our long histories of magical separation, we might have studied this sooner. The Dreamcatcher coven, however, is a little different from their fellows. They do not live in isolation. And so it has been discovered that some of their powers are… how shall we describe it… are leaking out. It has rendered some of the witches powerless, also caused the powers of some mages to either malfunction or just not work at all. This is extremely alarming. Fortunately, Miss Jiu let the Assembly know, requesting help, and they have come to us at the College for a joint-investigation of why all this may be happening.”
Johnny’s mouth bobs open and shut a couple of times. Jaehyun sits frigid beside him. Even Lucas is humming to himself as if already pondering how best to proceed. The Master Wizard, however, goes on before they can ask any questions.
“I’ll let the five of you know that you are not the only ones at work on this project, but given each of your unique talents, I believe you can bring much to this investigation. Changmin, I shall leave you in charge of this particular group. You may consult with my Assistant, Lu Han, if needed. Jiu, I think your role here should be obvious, and once again I thank you for volunteering.”
She nods silently. Johnny catches a glimpse of her hands though. They seem to be hovering over her lap, neither touching the other nor the folds of her gown.
“Lucas, as the ‘prized pupil’ here I think you know you will be assisting your master. He will know how best to utilize you.” Lucas also nods.
“Then for my own students… Jaehyun, you wield some of the most powerful magic in the College and I think you should not be ashamed to own it.”
Johnny wants to scoff, but he knows this to be true.
The apprentice bows his head and humbly whispers, “Master, thank you.” He looks up questioningly but does not say anything.
“Good,” says Xiumin. “Because likely as not it will be your powers we put to the test. Now, Johnny.”
Johnny gulps, and here the Master Wizard sits up a little more sternly in his chair and fixes the most determined look in his direction.
“You are an Illusion mage, one of the most impressive in a generation according to Master Taeil. I daresay two centuries ago you might have been cast out of the College for fear of your powers.”
This, this is not what Johnny expected him to say. “Master Xiumin?” he begins. But the wizard holds up his finger to stop him, shaking his head.
“I daresay in any other circumstance I would be reluctant to even speak to outsiders about the breadth of what you can do, and did two nights ago. However, this is a pressing situation.”
Perhaps Johnny is only imagining the cold sensation creeping across the room, like an invisible breeze, but not of air. His fingers curl inward, his thighs contract like he should be preparing to spring. It’s only the impact of who’s addressing him that keeps Johnny rooted to his chair. Even Jaehyun appears nervous beside him, jaw a little too taught. Johnny tries to glance at him, but the apprentice will not look his way. So he speaks to the Master Wizard.
“Sir, are you referring to when I… when I… with Jaehyun’s frost spell…”
To his ears now it does sound awfully similar to what the witches are evidently doing with other mages’ magic. What Johnny can do, what Taeil has actually trained Johnny to do, should theoretically be top secret.
Suddenly he understands why Jaehyun is here at all. Jaehyun knows. He’s the only person outside of the Master Wizard and Taeil who is at all aware of this strange power of Illusion.
“Yes, Johnny. And I think you do understand me. I have let Changmin know of this ability of yours. He and your master will be consulting together tomorrow.” He claps his hands together, and Johnny almost jumps out of his seat. “Now, are there any further questions tonight? Tomorrow begins a new day and I expect you all to meet wherever Changmin designates.
Xiumin’s eyes are no longer on Johnny’s, but that weird spell lingers and creeps upon Johnny’s nerves. Like there is something else at work here, something the Master Wizard still hasn’t said aloud.
For a few more minutes they talk together, discussing the logistics of where and when and how often they are to meet, how especially Jaehyun and Johnny will be squeezing in their work for their respective schools in between this special project. Johnny listens politely but makes no further interjections until it is time to leave. The Master Wizard dismisses them all, except, “Johnny, hang back a moment.” To the rest of the guests, he makes an excuse which Johnny frankly does not hear. Already his nerves are frazzled, and he’s almost afraid of what Xiumin might have to say him.
The rest of the mages and Jiu leave. Jaehyun dawdles so long, looking so apprehensive that Xiumin eventually sighs. “I guess you may stay too.”
He rounds on Johnny finally and says, “Now. One more thing. And this one I absolutely do wish to keep secret from everyone. Everyone not already in this room, do you understand me?”
Johnny gapes at him but he nods. He does not know where this is going. What other secrets does he have except-
Jaehyun is still not looking at him. Johnny thinks he knows.
The Master Wizard looks apologetically at Jaehyun and then says, “Johnny, I have been made aware of some… other things you can do. And I hope you will not hold it against your… friend here. Believe me, I did force him to confess this morning about your other magical skill. Johnny, is it or is it not true that you can sense another’s mind?”
It’s snowing again in great force as they exit the tower into the courtyard as if the weather has something to say to being magically held back all day. Johnny can barely see the other side of the castle. There isn’t a soul around, or at least no one that lives in the town below. All of them would be gone by this time of night, especially in this weather.
Johnny stares at the archway leading to the mountain path. He wasn’t kidding about being afraid of dying somewhere on the descent, never to be found again. Mages are powerful but he can’t hold back the elements like the Master Wizard.
His feet won’t move. He just keeps staring across the snowy courtyard. Jaehyun stands behind him.
They haven’t talked about that thing again. Truthfully Johnny doesn’t blame him for spilling the last little secret. He too would drop to his knees and confess every last thing if the Master Wizard demanded it of him.
“What?” Jaehyun apologizing, Johnny still can’t fathom it.
“What I told the Ma–“
“It’s fine.” He cuts him off.
He thinks it is. Johnny doesn’t know how to convey that but the animosity he felt for Jaehyun a few days ago is starting to cool. Something to do with rejecting him was like closing a chapter in their book. He doesn’t hate him anymore. Actually, he doesn’t know what he feels anymore. Indifference? Maybe? Yes, indifference will have to do.
“You can’t go down the mountain like this,” says Jaehyun.
And okay, never mind, Johnny doesn’t feel indifference after all. That familiar taste of being a contrarian resurfaces, even if what Jaehyun said is valid.
“Why can’t I?”
Jaehyun scoffs. “You want to die? Be my guest.”
“I’m not going to die. I’ve walked those steps every day for six years, more than you ever will.”
“Sure you have. But you’re not going to do it tonight. You should sleep here.”
Johnny’s throat tightens unpleasantly. He really doesn’t want to go down those steps, doesn’t want to be counting and suddenly lose the number and not know where he is at all. As if to frighten him, the wind sends down a particularly fearsome gust which almost knocks him down. He and Jaehyun catch each other before they fall. The last of the lingering mages scatter into the various towers.
“Right, well where am I supposed to sleep, with you?”
Jaehyun shrugs deceptively casual. “Why not? I already know all your secrets, Johnny Seo. What’s there to lose?”
A lot , Johnny thinks, but he finds his legs following after Jaehyun anyway.
Jaehyun evidently lives on the first floor below grounds in the Destruction tower. The steps they descend are dark and gloomy, but wider than the ones to the Master Wizard’s quarters. For a moment Johnny thinks the entire basement is going to be this grungy, he wonders how the mages can stand to live in such an environment. There are no windows, no seemingly free flowing air. However, on the last step it opens out into a warm open room, a roaring fire set into the wall of the tower, comfortable chairs, desks, blankets tossed around for the students to sit upon as they talk and chatter about their days, some still eating plates of leftover food stolen from the feast.
Johnny’s feet will go no farther. He somehow forgot that along with Jaehyun, he’d be following him into the saber cat’s den.
Chenle and Jeno are the first to look up. Both of their jaws fall open, eyes blinking.
“Uhh- Uh, what are you doing here?” Chenle is the first to recover his voice. He sounds less accusing than he’d probably like, more baffled than anything.
Jaehyun treads right on past him, nudging, almost kicking, him in the knee as he says, “Mind your manners. He’s a guest.”
Johnny walks after him quickly before anyone else notices enough to ask. He hasn’t seen Doyoung or Jungwoo yet, so that’s a perk. The rest of the students are either too busy talking amongst themselves or else silently observing. The School of Destruction enrolls the largest amount of students, over a dozen novices, half a dozen apprentices besides Johnny’s favorite three, and a handful of adepts. Most of those novices will give up and leave the College before they become that old. Even for the naturally born mage, magic is hard. Still, it’s enough eyes to make Johnny uncomfortable.
Jaehyun unlocks a small door tucked into the wall. “Come inside.”
The room is tiny. Jaehyun feels his way to a candle hanging from the wall and strokes it to life. He repeats this three more times in each corner as Johnny’s eyes adjust to the light. There is barely room for a narrow desk and a chair, a shelf, a locked wooden trunk, and a bed. Johnny stares at the latter with amounting trepidation. There’s a part of his inner mind telling him this is wrong, that he needs to leave. Instead, he focuses on his surroundings. This is Jaehyun’s room. Even knowing nothing about him, now that he sees it, Johnny can tell. Every mage has an aura, a sheen of instinctual magic, a residue of defense. This room reeks of Jaehyun’s magic. It’s where he’s likely slept for over half a decade, where he practices the most primary elements of magic. There’s an intimacy in this room that Johnny wouldn’t find in, for instance, his uncle’s room, or if Ten had his own space separate from Johnny.
He hopes they aren’t waiting up for him. Johnny barely had time to give a message to Yuta to pass on to the others. Before Taeil escorted him as far as the steps to the Master Wizard’s quarters, Jaehyun lining up beside him.
This whole evening has taken a turn he could not have expected. First that, now here.
To diffuse the awkwardness before it can get worse, Johnny turns and sits right down in the middle of Jaehyun’s bed. He spreads his arms out wide and leans back, hoping to pull off a cool aura, one that hopefully does not invite Jaehyun to sit down anywhere next to him. In matters of magic, it’s best to at least pretend you have the upper hand.
Jaehyun doesn’t bat an eyelash before turning out his desk chair and sitting on it backward, legs askew with his arms resting carelessly over the low chair back. He muses for a moment, looking not quite at Johnny but definitely in his direction.
“Well?” says Johnny.
He means to ask what happens next. And how long are they going to pretend Johnny is comfortable in another mage’s rooms before he decides to bolt. He doesn’t exactly have a Plan B yet, but he’s sure he can find one. There are other apprentices he knows who live at the College; surely they would let him stay. Anywhere is better than in the middle of his enemies.
Is Jaehyun still his enemy?
Perhaps they have more to talk about than just this .
Jaehyun goes first. “Are you really not mad at me for telling the Master Wizard?”
Johnny frowns and looks away. Is he? He doesn’t know. “You didn’t have much of a choice, did you?”
Jaehyun smiles. “No, but knowing you I figured you’d still hold that against me.”
Johnny shrugs. “Yeah, well like I said, we don’t really know each other, do we?”
“Ahh, yes. I suppose you’re right about that.”
The more Johnny covertly observes him, the more intrigued he becomes. Jaehyun in the meeting with the Master Wizard was calm and professional. Jaehyun who teased him in the courtyard and induced him to follow was cool and confident. And when they first entered the room, he seemed a little uptight, however, now he’s mellowed out into that man Johnny met in the Terrace. The one who is casual, comfortable, and effortlessly attractive.
They’ll be working together, for an indefinite period of time. And the Master Wizard never exactly clarified what he meant by “magical bond”. Was it because he barged into Jaehyun’s mind or because Jaehyun didn’t crack in spite of that. Johnny doesn’t know enough about mind reading but it sounds like that’s all about to change soon.
“Aren’t you worried I’ll do it again?” Johnny asks. He means to sound threatening but once again Jaehyun shrugs.”
“Unless you’re after the secrets of Destruction magic—which I doubt you could manage even if you knew technically how—I don’t think I have much more to hide.”
Johnny clears his throat, plainly uncomfortable. The last thing he wants is for Jaehyun to confess again. Johnny… needs more time to process.
“I have to do some reading tonight,” says Jaehyun out of the blue. “Do you mind if I pretend you aren’t here for a while? You can study too if you like, or just go to sleep.”
Johnny is actually relieved they won’t have to talk. “Sure, I can find something to do.”
When Jaehyun nods, Johnny leans down and begins pilfering through his bag. He doesn’t usually take work home with him, but he is carrying a set of scrolls from his last Restoration lecture a week ago. As it’s only his secondary field of study, the time he spends with Master Jongin is minimal, but he does manage to accrue a few necessary study materials. He opens up a scroll on advanced muscle healing for the achy man or mage and does like Jaehyun suggested: he ignores him.
The time stretches on. Johnny reads and reads, his mind growing blurry. With each minute he feels the sustained pressure of being in another mage’s private sanctuary. Jaehyun’s aura practically glows around him. It has a controlled, mellow feel, passionate but powerful. If he had to put a color to it: ice blue, like the snowflakes in the sky. Something about that sends a shiver down Johnny’s spine, but it’s not uncomfortable. The room is warmed by the four lit candles angling from the wall fastenings, warmer still from their two heated bodies. Johnny leans back on what can only be Jaehyun’s pillow, and it’s soft. Overall, Johnny feels too much at ease, as if this room is a trap, and Johnny its prey.
Still, he reads until he can’t anymore, and his eyes are drooping. He wraps his robe more tightly around his body and steals a glance at Jaehyun. The mage is absorbed in a heavy tome open on the desk, quill in hand as he makes notes on a piece of curling parchment. The sound of scribbling is peaceful to the ear. Johnny lets himself go.
That night he dreams of the incident with Jaehyun on the icy path, of the magnificent whirlwind of ice and snow. Only this time Jaehyun turns to look at him, and his magic does not fall. It swirls and grows until the tornado spirals wider than the path and envelops them both. They stand frozen inside, unbothered by the magic, covered and surrounded by it, hugged by it. And in the middle of the vortex, Johnny looks into Jaehyun’s eyes and reflected there he sees himself again, the way Jaehyun sees him. He’s standing tall, confident, secure in his powers, in himself. The vision swirls with the magic around it, and it’s another image of Johnny with his friends. He’s laughing, eyelids practically shut in his mirth, an arm around Yuta, another around Sicheng. Taeyong is laughing at something he said. The vision changes again, and it’s Johnny practicing magic, eyebrows furrowed in concentration. His hands wrestle before his body, fingers practicing a magical dance of illumination as an orb bursts from their midsts and flies away into the night.
The images continue, fading one into another until there is nothing at all. When Johnny opens his eyes, the room is gone dark, and Jaehyun sleeps beside him. There’s a blanket thrown across them both, and Johnny is so warm .
He only stirs reluctantly, twisting beneath his robes which are trapping him to the bed. Jaehyun shifts but doesn’t fully wake.
Johnny has to ask himself, was he only reliving that original vision? Or is he doing it again?
I’m dreaming , he tells himself. I’m only dreaming .
Yet as he settles back into sleep, the bed rustles again. Jaehyun is turning onto his side facing Johnny, his arm subconsciously seeking warmth. Johnny feels a hand curl around his bicep and even through all the layers of his clothes, it burns cold. Johnny doesn’t move. Instead, he sighs in content and falls back asleep wondering if Jaehyun’s not the only one with a store of images of another mage with whom he’s in love.
Morning dawns quickly, even in their blacked out basement room. When Johnny peels his eyelids open, it’s to see Jaehyun already getting out of bed. He yawns as he lights a single candle, then reaches down to open the trunk at the foot of his bed. When he stands up he glances at the bed, and Johnny instinctively closes his eyes. By the time he dares peak again, Jaehyun has thrown off his robe and stands with a clean shirt in hand. He whips off his old one, the shirt sticks to his neck, and Johnny is treated to bare skin, toned and muscled. He watches as his shoulder blades flex, gets a glimpse of a firm stomach and chest when Jaehyun twists. So absorbed is Johnny, and so single-minded is Jaehyun, that neither of them hears footsteps approaching the door.
It swings open with a bang as another mage stomps in.
“Jaehyun! You didn’t tell us last night what the Master Wiz- ahhhh! What! Is going on here!?”
Jaehyun calmly finishes dressing, and Johnny sighs as he brings a hand up to his temples. Dreams and decent sleep be damned now. Doyoung is staring wide-eyed in horror, and there’s probably no dissuading him now that they only slept in the same bed.
Johnny already knows there are no words he can say right now. None that Doyoung will believe, none that Johnny wants to make up. It’s a moot point, right? He was just caught sleeping in Jaehyun’s bed, so there goes their carefully maintained rivalry.
“J-Jaehyun?” Doyoung continues stuttering. He looks like he wants to either murder Johnny for being here or strangle Jaehyun for letting him.
Jaehyun still doesn’t address him directly. He does up the buttons of his shirt, then bends over his trunk to produce a second shirt. This one he lays discreetly on the bed for Johnny as he says, “I’ll tell you about the Master Wizard later. We’re late for breakfast, aren’t we?”
Doyoung splutters for a few more seconds. His eyes dart to the second shirt which Johnny is now fingering, to Jaehyun’s face. “We? B-breakfast? Uhh, yeah you are kind of late.”
He looks like there’s more he wants to say. However, when he opens his mouth again Jaehyun gives him such a look that he quickly shuts it. He backs out of the door and closes it quietly, and Johnny sighs again because he just knows this is going to be bad. Doyoung is no doubt on his way to tell Jungwoo. By that time the entire Destruction School will know, and from there, the rest of the College. His friends will likely hear as soon as they enter the gate, so that’ll be another intervention for Johnny to make later.
His head hurts. He’s already exhausted thinking about it all. Later this afternoon they’re to meet Shim Changmin and the rest of their team. Somehow, that seems like the easiest thing he can do compared to dealing with the consequences of this particular moment. Johnny holds up the shirt and he knows it’s for him. He doesn’t have the luxury of going home to clean up, doesn’t have an extra shirt or pair of underpants lying around to exchange.
Jaehyun finishes tucking in his shirt then pulls his robe around him. His eyebrows ask the question.
“Is there… anything else you need?”
Johnny still hasn’t moved. Eventually, he rolls his legs out of bed but doesn’t undress. “I uhm, still need to get my notes packed up. You can go on ahead of me.”
Jaehyun stares down at him. “You really want to walk out of here by yourself?”
And yeah, Johnny didn’t think about that either. Since when did Jaehyun seem like protection from the world. He inhales sharply and then just does it. Robe, off. Shirt, off. Clean shirt, on. It fits perfectly. Jaehyun’s shirt . Fortunately, nobody will know about it under his apprentice robes.
Jaehyun does mind his own business during this time, but when Johnny stands up he knocks his head toward the door. “Come on. I’ll show you to the dorm lavatories. And then maybe steal you some breakfast. Sound okay?”
“Sounds fine,” Johnny huffs.
He shoulders his bag and walks out to his doom.
Johnny is a little surprised when he runs into Yuta and Sicheng in the courtyard and they don’t say a thing. Already he’s gotten weird glances from everyone in the Destruction Tower and a few other students on his way around the castle. He stops in front of his friends, sweet roll in his hand and waits for it to drop.
But nothing happens.
“How’d your visit with the Master Wizard go?” Yuta asks instead like there’s nothing else he’s curious about.
“Uhhm, it was. Well, it’s sort of weird. I guess I’ll be working on some project with some of the foreign students.”
“Really?” Sicheng mumbles. He’s eyeing the sweet roll with suspicious eyes. A second later Yuta follows his gaze and he too frowns.
“Where’d you get that from?” He sounds anything but casual.
“This?” Johnny smiles and devours the last bite. He shakes the crumbs off his hands and jumps back into the topic at hand. “So there’s at least one of the witches in our group. I’d tell you more but I’m not sure I’m allowed to yet and—“
Before he can continue Taeyong pops up behind Johnny’s shoulder, his own sweet roll in his hand, saying, “So, Johnny. I heard you slept with Jaehyun last night.”
Johnny turns pale and Taeyong gives him a wide, shit-eating grin, just as Yuta sighs and says, “Thank the gods, I didn’t want to say anything first.”
“Johnny? Is it true?” asks Sicheng, like he’s so relieved his curiosity can now be properly assuaged.
“What do you mean, is it true? Of course, it isn’t true! We’re not—“
“But you slept in his room,” Taeyong replies cooly.
“I didn’t- I mean, I did, but—! Where did you get that sweet roll?”
“Yeah, where did you get that sweet roll?” says Yuta.
“Those are from the College kitchen, aren’t they? Who stole it for you, huh?” asks Sicheng.
Taeyong shoots them a bewildered stare. “What do you care? Anyway, Johnny. What did the Master Wizard want?”
Yuta is still interrogating Johnny. “Did Jaehyun get you your sweet roll?”
“Wait, he had one too?” Taeyong whistles and by now Johnny is so done with them all he huffs and stomps away to a raucous choir of laughter. He hates his friends sometimes. Honestly, truly hates them.
“How’s your relationship with Jaehyun,” asks Taeil not half an hour later.
Johnny sits opposite him in the master’s office and visibly cringes. He hangs his head and sighs, palm covering half his face. “I didn’t sleep with him, okay.”
Taeil doesn’t immediately reply and Johnny looks up. The Master is blushing and leaning back in his chair, a bit shocked looking.
“I– I wasn’t asking about that, exactly? I only wanted to know how well you get along since you’ll be working closely for a while.”
And wow, now Johnny feels like a true idiot.
“Oh. We’re… fine?”
Taeil shoots what he suspects is supposed to be a comforting, albeit awkward, smile.
“Let’s talk about the project, shall we?” He leans back, evidently settling into his chair for the long haul. Johnny watches him cross his fingers and his eyes lengthen their gaze as he decides on his next words.
Johnny’s always thought Master Taeil was eccentric to some degree. A good instructor, a devoted master, a little bit dangerous, but mostly kind of quirky. He remembers when he first joined the College he was actually a bit unimpressed. Why did he get the master with the wild orange hair and the spaced-out personality? Why did he have to study novice level Illusion, so much of which was book study and two-bit tricks?
Over the years, of course, Johnny has come to appreciate his school of magic, and Taeil as well. But there was still this lingering doubt Taeil was as powerful as his position demanded.
Not so anymore.
“You should have told me you can read minds. Is this the first time it’s happened?”
Johnny swallows thickly and says, “No. It, it’s happened maybe once before. A long time ago.”
Taeil hums. “With a family member, I presume.”
“Y-yes. With my mother. How did you know?”
Taeil chuckles. “Are you afraid I have read your mind?” And Johnny doesn’t want to admit that yes, he has that fear.
“No, Johnny. I have not, but the skill you possess does often manifest during childhood through a person you are close with. Let me explain:
“Illusion magic as you know is often about connection. The mage connects with the world around them, dividing and reconstructing really, or he or she connects with people . You understand this, of course.”
“Spells that project courage or fear, silence, sound-even sight and invisibility-rely on the mage’s connection with the person experiencing those effects. You do not actually turn invisible, you merely make the other person believe you are invisible. This is how mind magic works, and the way I have taught you to quell another’s magic operates on the same principle.
“Mind reading , is a little different, but related. Most Illusion mages rarely discover this talent or else cannot do it consistently. The College also does not teach it.”
Johnny was following, but now he sits up confused. Taeil is staring at him like he wants him to ask.
“Why, doesn’t the College teach it?”
“Because it is incredibly dangerous.”
“I- I see.”
Taeil goes on. “For whatever reason, most Illusion magic casts only a veneer over another’s mind, a curtain of you will—I can recommend some books on Illusion theory if you are interested—But it does not pass the actual barrier of a person’s brain, it does not permanently tamper with their memories or abilities. Quelling magic as I’ve taught you walks a balance here, which is why it is kept secret and strenuously practiced between masters and apprentices. Without the form you’ve been instructed with, you might have seriously injured Jaehyun the other day. Fortunately, you are adequately skilled. And fortunately , both of you were strong enough that your little mind reading venture did not go awry. Tell me what happened with your mother when you were a child.”
Apprehensive at this entire train of conversation, Johnny tries to remember. He was nine, maybe ten. The same circumstances as what happened with his sister were present then too. Johnny had stolen his mother’s favorite book. She’d been so secretive of it, but she wouldn’t let Johnny read it, and he desperately wanted to know. What secrets were there, what wouldn’t she share with him? Every other book in their home contained wild stories and tall tales, scenes he and Wendy would act out for hours in the woods behind their house.
One night Johnny crept from his bed and stole it right out from under her bed. By moonlight, he read it all.
“What was it about?” Taeil asks, interrupting.
“I… well that’s the weird thing. I don’t remember.” Johnny scratches his jaw. Even after all this time, it’s still perplexing how he has no memory of it at all.
“What happened next?”
The following morning Johnny grew paranoid. His mother hadn’t apparently discovered the theft. She said nothing and acted no different. Johnny, however, suspected a trap.
“I… wanted to know if she knew what I’d done.”
“So you read her mind. And?”
“That’s, that’s what I think I did. I spent half the morning making myself scared. The more I thought about it the more I thought she must know. So I kept, thinking. Suddenly she fainted. And I realized she didn’t know, but as she fell, in that split second, she must have realized. I had, I guess, told her through magic what I had done.
“I was so afraid I was going to get in trouble, but after she collapsed I did too. When I woke up I remembered only that bit, and nothing else. I had a headache and so did my mother but she didn’t punish me for anything. And she never brought it up again.”
Taeil hums, still frowning. “You are certain you felt into her mind?”
“Yes. I just remember her being so disappointed. But after that she never did anything. I didn't try it again of course. To read her mind and find out why.”
“Smart of you.”
He falls silent for a long time. Johnny tries and fails to catch his gaze, but the master only stares at his hands resting in his lap. His forehead creases in anguish. Johnny guesses that once again he did wrong not telling Taeil in all the time he’s been his student.
Finally, Taeil looks at him. “You told us when you joined the College that you were the first mage in your family in several generations?”
Johnny nods. “To my knowledge, yes. I didn’t know my grandfather, my mother’s father, because he passed away before I was born, but supposedly his mother was a mage.”
“That's very interesting. Tell me, what are your parents’ opinions about magic?”
Johnny blinks. “They’re okay with it? They support me, at least. It’s my uncle who’s really into me pursuing my studies, though he’s not a mage either.”
“Ah, Kun, Yes. Great alchemists always have a trace of magic even if they don’t become true casters.”
“What?” Johnny didn’t know this.
“It’s very rare actually that mages are born out of nowhere, you realize. Skipping generations is quite strange. You don’t often hear about it happening as magic is passed down quite literally from one generation to the next. You are sure you don’t remember what your mother’s book was about?”
“No? I mean I remember what the cover looked like, sort of. But it too disappeared and–“
“What did it look like. Can you draw it?”
Taeil quickly produces a parchment and his inkstand, turning it around for Johnny to use. He picks up the quill and tries to remember. The symbol is buried somewhere in his brain. He hasn’t thought about it in years. But when he goes to draw it comes back mysteriously easy. He draws a circle first, then three or four lines radiating upward, one shorter than the rest until it resembles a palm. Johnny sits back and stares at it. It seems familiar, but there’s something off about it.
Satisfied at least that he’s finished the symbol he turns it around and shows it to Taeil.
The Master, when he sees it, frowns even deeper. In fact, if Johnny didn’t know any better he’d say Taeil might almost want to cry.
“Master, what is it?”
Taeil stares at it some more and then slowly levels his eyes upward. And yes, those are definitely tears forming in the corner of his eyes. He twists his jaw like he can’t trust himself to properly speak.
“This symbol is the ancient symbol for Destruction magic.” He suddenly wipes his face and sits up straight. “Johnny I have another appointment soon but let’s resume this right after lunch. Lucas, the other mage you met last night, will be joining us then, as will your friend Jaehyun. I will you see then, alright?”
Never has Johnny been so hastily dismissed but he gets up as instructed and leaves the room, overburdened with a sense he must have done something deeply wrong.
Sure enough, when he closes the door, he hears the Master sigh, whispering, “ Oh my. Now that is tragic…”
And yes, Johnny, putting two and two together, is starting to agree.
He doesn’t often walk the ramparts between castle towers, but today, instead of finding a quiet place to study and wait for lunch, Johnny’s feet take him automatically there. At least the snow is gone and with it most of the clouds. Johnny has a view that stretches all the way down the mountain. He can even glimpse a part of the town which is not hidden by the mountain’s shadow. It looks so entirely far away. Spending one night away also feels like an eternity. The place where he makes his bed and chats with his uncle and laughs and plays with Ten, how innocent all of that seems now. Johnny can barely dwell on it without feeling sick to his stomach.
He focuses his gaze farther afield. A great valley settles before him, mostly snow-covered but dotted with dark green pines and other evergreens. The landscape goes on and on until it disappears into the fog of another mountain range, yesterday’s snowstorm pummeling the soft slopes of its foothills and obscuring the rest.
Johnny walks, turning the corners with overly casual ease as if he treads this way every day. As if he has nothing else to do.
That’s how he finds Renjun sitting in the shade of another tower, feet out straight, books and scrolls laid out around him but he’s not studying.
It’s unusual to find him so alone. Renjun looks up startled, but he smiles. “Hey, Johnny.”
“You’re by yourself.”
“I could say the same thing about you.”
Johnny grins and drops down beside him. It feels good to relax, to find a wall to sit against. Easier than sitting in Taeil’s office.
“Looks like we’re neither of us alone anymore. What’s up?”
Renjun doesn’t immediately answer. He turns his head and looks at Johnny, sighing. “Jaemin’s meeting with Master Taeil right now. I said I’d wait for him.”
So that’s who Johnny got kicked out over. It’s a relief actually to learn Taeil had another appointment already lined up, that he didn’t just dismiss Johnny because of their conversation.
“How’re your studies going?” he asks.
Renjun only made apprentice a couple of months ago. That’s when the real work begins. As a novice most mages are still learning the basics. They’re tutored in general in all schools of magic, rotating through all the masters about equally. Pass that level, and you become an apprentice. Then you spend most of your time studying the magic you have an affinity for, and if another master approves, you choose your secondary school. Twice the work, quadruple the stress. Johnny spent his first years as an apprentice with many a sleepless night.
“It’s going alright.” He pauses. “Johnny, have you ever considered what you want to do when you leave the College?”
“When I… you mean as a career?”
“I uhm.” He laughs. “I guess I kind of don’t know yet?”
He knows what’ll happen if he doesn’t graduate. His father does consulting work for a minor Lord with connections to the royal court, a very inglorious politician. With or without magic Johnny could become his apprentice. As for his mother well, he doesn’t want to think about that right now. She stays home and manages the estate, raises Wendy who also doesn’t appear to have magic.
The career path for the mage is elusive at best. There’s always the army. Every division has a chapter for mages, usually Destruction or Restoration mages. It’s probably the most acceptable career. Most people look down their noses at mages, or they’re scared of them. Put them in an army fighting your enemies, however, and nobody complains much. Too bad the realm isn’t currently at war, but that can always change. Royals and their distant kin are always squabbling over some invisible boundary.
“I could always try for a Court Wizard.” That’s the other coveted position, at least in theory.
“You?” Renjun laughs. “You’d hate it. Admit it.”
And Johnny starts laughing too. “You’re probably right.” Court Wizards are often from the other less violent schools of magic. Perfect for Illusion mages like him, but also Alteration, Restoration, and Enchanting. But the politics of it, oh no. Johnny wouldn’t want that career for the same reason he doesn’t want to go home and work for his father. After the freedom he’s known, who’d actually want to live at the beck and call of the court. Besides, those positions are limited and usually for life.
Renjun sighs. “Maybe I could be an adventurer.”
“Freelance work? Let’s do it.”
Lots of mages earn their living that way, traveling from town to town, all those places off the beaten track who can’t afford to retain a permanent wizard. Johnny’s met a few, former College students who pop in when they’re in the area. The smartest of them travel together in small groups.
“We’d need to hire out from a few different schools,” Renjun says for fun, eagerly planning their hypothetical careers. “Alteration, Conjuration, Destruction obviously to keep us safe, Restoration for when that inevitably fails.” He laughs.
“What, you think two Illusion mages couldn’t handle ourselves?”
“Of course we could! But what’s the fun in that? Get your friends to join us, and we’ve got it made! Most famous set of adventurers who ever lived! Get your boyfriend too. We need a Destruction mage, even if he is an asshole.” He pats Johnny on the back, laughing a little too loud.
Johnny chokes. “My… what? Who?”
“Relax. You think I haven’t heard about you and Jaehyun? It’s all over the College. Heard about it before I was halfway up the mountain.” He’s still laughing, and Johnny feels his face burn bright red. “Not sure what you see in him, but I suppose I’ll have to live with it.”
Johnny doesn’t know what to deny first. “I uhmm… J-Jaehyun’s not that bad, but-”
Renjun gives him a mean smirk. “Okay, but I actually don’t want to know what you two get up to in your spare time. Long as his cronies stay off our backs. I mean, have you met Jeno and Chenle? Arrogant, pricks!”
“I’ve… met them, yeah.”
While he’s still working up his denial, Renjun sighs and leans back against the wall. His countenance falls, and he’s back to the same forlorn looking Renjun whom Johnny first encountered. “Being an adventurer does sound nice. But I’ll probably just go back home, work in my father’s shop. Cast pretty little charms on the textiles. My brother’s learning smithing. Maybe I could do some basic Enchanting spells to help him out, earn my keep. Should I petition Master Junmyeon to let me into Enchanting? I haven’t declared my second yet.”
Renjun’s family isn’t wealthy, especially since they’re sending half their profits to keep him in school. And Johnny is painfully reminded that Renjun’s prospects are faced by over half the mages who enter the College, even those who manage to stay past apprentice, become adepts, then masters. There are unfortunately plenty of master mages wandering the realm, trying just to earn a buck.
“I guess we’ll have to see.” Johnny sighs.
It doesn’t occur to him until the minutes have gone by and Renjun is jumping up to find Jaemin: Johnny never corrected him about being Jaehyun’s boyfriend.
It’s the lunch hour and Johnny has neither food from home, nor does he want to go down to the courtyard and try his luck mooching food. It’s always possible. Sicheng would never let him go hungry, but now that he’s alone again Johnny can’t make himself go down and socialize. His conversation with Taeil still weighs heavily in his head. Thoughts about his mother, his uncle. His incredibly powerful, dangerous magic and the havoc it could wreak; the havoc it’s already wreaked.
He should never have done what he did. He could have walked away from Jaehyun. Johnny didn’t need to mess around with his magic when he might have easily protected himself another way. The fact he did not one but two counts of terrible magic was stupid , so stupid. And Jaehyun could have… might have…
He almost thinks it’s a mirage when Jaehyun appears on the ramparts. Johnny stands up; he waits.
“Found you at last,” says Jaehyun with a smile. He’s carrying a small bundle in his left hand, looking effortlessly proud of himself. The aroma of meat pie wafts tantalizingly toward Johnny. “I assumed you wouldn’t have lunch.”
He leans against the wall and folds his arms over the stone, looking out at the same view Johnny had meditated on earlier. Not much has changed. The snowstorm still envelops the faraway mountains, more of the foothills visible but foggy.
Johnny doesn’t say anything, but he takes the bundle and unwraps it. There are two pies. He hands one to Jaehyun and silently bites down on the other. Together that’s how they eat, elbow to elbow and staring off into the distance. There’s a strong gust of wind, and Johnny once again stares sideways at how it catches Jaehyun’s hair. When it’s over, Jaehyun raises a hand to his forehead and runs his fingers through his bangs. It doesn’t change a thing, but Jaehyun does it two more times before he resumes eating. He catches Johnny looking once, and he smiles. Johnny has to look away before those dimples can form. He’s already feeling weak from the day; he doesn’t need this too.
Jaehyun still doesn’t force him to talk, even after they’re done. Instead, he maintains a respectable silence as if he senses Johnny’s bad mood. The minutes go on. Soon they’ll be required back in Taeil’s office, and Johnny knows he doesn’t want to be there until he’s talked to Jaehyun, really talked to him.
“I’ve only read one other person’s mind before. In my whole life. I was nine years old.”
Jaehyun hums encouragingly but doesn’t look at him, doesn’t say anything else.
“It was almost unintentional, like early magic usually is. I… I didn’t realize it until today, but I erased my mother’s magic that day. All knowledge of it, gone. Her precious talent, gone. She doesn’t even know she used to be a mage. And the rest of my family, I don’t know how they can look at me knowing what I did. If they understand what I did.”
A knot forms in the back of his throat. He tries to swallow. It’s getting harder and harder to breathe. He leans over the rampart and clutches the stone painfully hard.
“I’m so… sorry. I could have done that to you as well, and I- I didn’t even know. Your magic, I could have wiped it all too.”
Jaehyun barely touches him. He doesn’t accuse him and he doesn’t look scared. He leans his shoulder into Johnny’s and says, “But you didn’t.”
His presence is the only comfort Johnny is going to get, Johnny realizes this now. He’ll never be able to go home and apologize to his mother because she won’t remember . He wiped her mind because he was scared and defensive, and ultimately it worked. He didn’t get in trouble that day. He only has the rest of his life to feel that kind of remorse.
“You didn’t know what would happen then,” says Jaehyun softly. “And you didn’t end up harming me. You’re going to learn how to do it properly now, and I’m going to help you. I was strong enough the first time, so I can be that again. Trust me.”
“I don’t want to.” Johnny pouts.
For the first time, Jaehyun allows himself a smug smile. “I’m afraid you don’t have a choice.”
“No.” Jaehyun laughs, and Johnny... can’t help but grin.
The more Johnny gets to know Lucas, the more he thinks he’s never met a guy with such an exuberance of energy and enthusiasm. Lucas evidently applied for this excursion ready to learn much and work hard. The scary thing is Johnny is fairly sure based on his accounts of his own accomplishments that Lucas would be an adept already were he a regularly enrolled College student. Johnny tries to smile and occasionally laughs, but getting to know Master Changmin’s prized pupil is a little intimidating, albeit certainly entertaining.
“So then, we realized we were stuck in that dungeon, who knows how deep below! But there was no light and all our mage light just popped! the second we tried to use it. Pitch black and crazy cold, I’m telling you! My buddy and I got separated from the rest because we had this genius idea to split up and see how else to escape– It was insane!”
Privately glancing at Jaehyun’s face, he and Johnny exchange a shared smile, part wonder part hilarity at Lucas’ story.
“And if you think the most dangerous things we found in that dungeon were skeletons, then my friends, let me tell you about the demon mages who raised them!”
Assuming all facts true, the experience was surely a high-level training arena with real life or death stakes. Johnny is impressed. From time to time the College does take groups of students out into the world for a little hands-on experience in the ancient and abandoned places, usually at the behest of local magistrates and village governors. Centuries of magic running afoul do often cause these sites to accrue malign magical phenomena, or at least criminal activity with hired mercenary mages too small-scale for the army to bother. That’s where College-trained mages do their best, adventures and the like.
“How did you get out?” Jaehyun eggs him on.
Johnny quietly snorts.
“Oh man, it was wild! Let me just tell you—“
Half an hour later Lucas has exhausted his tale. The three of them plus Jiu sit in a small circle in a quiet corner of the courtyard. Here at least the snow has been swept away, but the stone-laden ground is still cold enough that Jaehyun casts a warming spell every so often.
“I’ve always wanted to go on an excursion like that,” he says while pressing his palm to the floor between them. Instantly Johnny’s butt grows warm and Lucas shifts around, happily adjusting his robes.
“You haven’t gone?” says the foreign mage.
“No. Trips like that are usually for adepts preparing to test as masters. I’ve still got… maybe two years?”
“No way. That long? Really?!”
“Maybe three. What about you, Johnny?”
Johnny shoots him a narrow glare. They’re the same age and have had approximately the same number years of training. Because of their schools, however, there’s really no comparison beyond that.
“Who knows? I haven’t talked to my master about it.”
That’s a lie. Taeil specifically told him several months ago that he could become a master in four or five years. Johnny’s just going to pretend that the nuances of Illusion magic are greater than Destruction. Who knows, it may not even be a lie.
They’ve been out here for over an hour ‘getting to know one another’ as instructed by both Master Taeil and Shim Changmin. As far as Lucas goes, it’s been a hit but Johnny keeps shooting Jiu curious looks where she sits in her corner, a blase look to her face like she’s interested in the dialogue but not enough to jump in.
Johnny won’t deny he’s anxious to know more about the witches, or at least Jiu. The others too.
“Have you ever been places like that?” asks Jaehyun who is clearly trying to get her to talk.
Jiu grins broadly and laughs. “Places like that? My girls and I practically live like that.” Then she turns her eyes back to her lap and Johnny tries not to stare but her hands keep moving above her gown but they’re not touching anything. Her eyes shoot up and he quickly looks away.
They haven’t tried any magic in front of her. That’s not the point of today’s exercise. In their meeting with the masters she apologized for being tired and Changmin quickly explained that they’d had some difficulties getting the witches’ quarters properly established—far enough away from the practicing College students.
Jaehyun tries to engage her again. “I guess you know a lot then.”
She twists her lips contemplatively, not looking at them. “I think that can be said.”
Lucas coughs, but he’s grinning and trying not to look terribly intrigued. Johnny’s still staring-not-staring at her hands. Jiu looks like she’s petting something. But there’s nothing there? Undoubtedly, the witch is full of secrets she doesn’t want to share. The mystery goes deep.
“Well, what else do we have to talk about?” asks Lucas changing the subject.
They all look at each other and shrug. So far they’ve covered Jaehyun’s background and training, Johnny’s original disappointment with Illusion magic, and Lucas’ overhyped enthusiasm for, well, just about everything. They know next to nothing about Jiu, but that’s likely going to be an ongoing project.
For once, however, she suggests something. “Tell us about Master Yangyang?” It’s directed to Jaehyun, the only one who actually trains with the Master Conjurer. And the four of them are due to meet with him tomorrow evening.
“Master Yanyang?” Jaehyun tilts his head. “What do you want to know about him?”
“He’s a vampire, isn’t he?” says Lucas, already hyped about it.
“Do you know how old he is?”
Jaehyun hums. “Don’t know? He gives vague answers when anyone asks about his past, but I’ve heard he’s been around at least three generations. My grandfather studied under him, and even then nobody knew much about when he arrived.”
“Your grandfather was a Conjuration mage?” asks Johnny surprised.
Jaehyun looks at him. “No. Destruction. But he studied Conjuration as a second, just like me. And my father.”
Jaehyun’s mother was also a mage who studied Restoration. She left before she could make master, which doesn’t negate Jaehyun’s impeccable lineage at all.
“Ahh, I see,” says Johnny. A little softer, he adds, “That figures.”
Lucas goes on to ask more questions about the Master Conjurer, meanwhile, Jaehyun directs Johnny with a very bemused look.
“I heard he looks very young,” says Jiu.
Jaehyun nods. “ Very young, actually. Acts like it too sometimes.”
Johnny privately agrees. He hasn’t seen the Master Conjurer in weeks, but that’s not unusual for the vampire of course. The Master isn’t especially reclusive, he just doesn’t enjoy the sunlight, and most of his students will go down to him instead of the other way around. The last time he did see him though, the vampire was practically skipping down the corridor, a mess of novices practically running to keep up with him.
“Anyways,” says Jaehyun, “It’s getting late. Should we get some dinner?”
Lucas eagerly agrees, and Jiu nods prettily.
“Not me,” says Johnny. “I need to be getting down the mountain.”
Truthfully, he’s not looking forward to going back home. He doesn’t think he can look at his uncle without spilling everything he’s learned, and then Ten is going to be there and he won’t be able to keep it from him either.
Lucas hums sadly, but Jaehyun says softly, “Are you sure you need to go? I can always persuade someone to let you eat with us. And…” But he stops there. Johnny suspects he knows exactly what he’s feeling right now, and Jaehyun isn’t even the mind reader here.
“No. Thank you, but I haven’t been home in over a day. Need some clean clothes, you know?”
He makes to act casual, blatantly ignoring Lucas staring between them like he’s party to some rumor--and of course, he is. Everyone is, curse it all. Johnny’s grateful at least that neither Lucas or Jiu have directly asked about him and Jaehyun, not that Jiu seems to care about anything. But they wouldn’t have been the first. Even Haechan earlier had cornered him on his way out of the meeting with the masters.
“Johnny!” He’d screech-whispered, pulling him aside. “You’re dating Jaehyun? What? Why??”
For once Johnny was able to answer honestly. “We’re not dating, okay? It’s a misunderstanding.”
Haechan had stopped in his tracks. “ Really?” And looked, oddly disappointed. Who knows what that was about.
“See you tomorrow then,” says Jaehyun. There’s a quiet intensity about his eyes that makes Johnny nervous, but he doesn't dare show it. He bids Lucas and Jiu a good night, turns around and bumps right into the Master Wizard.
“Oh! Apprentice Seo, I didn’t see you there.”
The Master Wizard is a literally foot shorter than Johnny, but he bows and says, “I’m sorry, Master Xiumin. Did you uhm, need anything?”
Xiumin looks a little miffed, but he scratches his head. “No, no, just seeing that everything is going well with your four.”
“It is,” says Johnny. Jaehyun and Lucas both nod in agreement and Jiu, slower than the rest to react, smiles.
“Great. Great. By the way, have you seen Master Changmin around? Do you know which way he went?”
Jaehyun stutters. “H-He said he was going down to the dungeons? But that was an hour ago.”
“The dungeons! Ah yes. Good evening to all of you. Byebye.”
Then he flits like a cat around them and vanishes.
Lucas just stares. “Okay, that was weird. I mean, I know he seems a little strange, but is he always that strange?”
Johnny, who is still reeling from their conversation last night, wouldn’t exactly call him strange. Eccentric, dangerous, all-knowing . He shivers, but Jaehyun says, “Usually so. Occasionally I’ve had private lessons with him. He’s a Destruction mage, you know.”
“Yes, we know,” mutters Johnny.
Jaehyun rolls his eyes and keeps talking. “If he’s not scaring the crap out of you, he’s being vague and weird.” He laughs.
Jiu speaks. “He seems like an interesting man.” Her eyes twinkle and the casualness of her tone belies her curiosity.
Johnny doesn’t have time for this. He says his goodbyes again and makes for the castle gates. Yuta, Sicheng, and Taeyong are all waiting for him there. Johnny heaves a huge sigh of relief once he’s back in their midsts. There’s shade this side of the mountain as they gather their things.
“Wait,” cries Sicheng last minute, and then runs back towards the castle.
Sighing, Taeyong throws his arm around Yuta’s shoulder to rest his head. Yuta jolts, but tries to do the same with Johnny. He fails and whines, and Johnny laughs. Already he can feel part of that stress leaking away from him. With friends like these, their quiet presence--even their not so quiet presence--is peace. Nobody asks him about Jaehyun again, and they chitchat a few minutes watching students buzz around the courtyard.
“I start working with Master Yangyang tomorrow,” Johnny offers.
Yuta mock gasps. “You? You’ll love him.”
“I thought you say you always hate him,” says Taeyong.
“Yes, but that’s because he’s a hard master. Is this for your whatever project, Johnny?”
He scrunches his nose and says, “He’s crazy. I’m sure it will be fun,” and no matter of begging can get Yuta to share any more important nuggets of wisdom.
Taeyong is practically nodding off to sleep on Yuta’s shoulder muttering about the novices he worked with today when the Alteration Master sashays through the courtyard with an intent and a purpose. He pauses next to a group of Enchanting apprentices to ask a question and when all of them shake their heads he proceeds on to Johnny’s group.
“Master Lu Han?” says Johnny preemptively.
“Evening, Johnny. Yuta. Taeyong.”
The other two gape like fish out of water and Taeyong stands fully upright, shocked that the master even knows their names. Yuta dares to blush.
“Would you have by any chance have seen the Master Wizard anytime recently?”
Johnny grins and points. “He was looking for Master Changmin? He was going down to the dungeons?”
Lu Han sighs. “Of course he was. Thank you, boys. Have a good rest of your day.”
When Sicheng finally returns cradling a heavy tome he forgot in the library Taeyong practically hurrahs. All their stomachs are craving some meat, and by the end of their descent, there’s nothing better than a hot bowl of stew and some bread and ale. The normalcy of it all gives Johnny a little bit of a reprieve.
He knows it won’t be enough.
Johnny approaches the house he shares with Kun and Ten with a hesitant heart tonight. Outwardly it looks the same as always. The sign above the door, the lamp warm and inviting. It’s surrounded by a weird little garden mainly worked by Ten and containing who knows how many rare, otherworldly specimens. Johnny steps around the bench he likes to lie upon when the night is cloudless and opens the door. The bell above him chimes prettily, and Kun is standing behind the counter leaning over an accounting book with Ten right by his side.
“Hello to you two.” Johnny’s voice wavers, and his uncle obviously knows something is wrong.
“Johnny. Good to see you home.” He smiles but his eyebrows shoot up. Ten stands up beside him and moves a short distance away. He too is looking at Johnny suspiciously.
“Johnny?” says Kun again.
He and Ten share a look then Ten whispers about needing to get… something. As Johnny shuffles through the small room, Kun comes around the counter. “I can close the store right now if you want.” He tries to smile. “You didn’t come home last night. Is anything the matter?”
“Last night? Nah, snowstorm, remember? I got out late and stayed over with a friend.”
Right, Johnny’s going to have to tell him about that too sometime.
“You don’t have to close up yet. I’m going upstairs for a little while.”
His uncle nods, every face muscle taut with concern, but he lets him go. Ten is in their room and he looks surprised to see Johnny so soon.
“Oh. So I didn’t need to vacate.”
Johnny laughs. “Do I look that bad?”
Ten muses for a second. “Yes and no?” He doesn’t return Johnny’s laugh, which lets Johnny know he really does look that bad. Away from his friends, from their banter down the mountain and around the dinner table at the inn, Johnny doesn’t have the same level of self-distraction. Nothing he can hide anyways from the two people who know him best.
Ten yawns, stretching his arms up as he sinks down onto his bed. “Taeyong said you were summoned for something super important last night?” His eyes are careful, gauging whether this is a sensitive topic or not.
Johnny’s relieved. “Oh yeah! You won’t believe who I have to spend time with for the… oh, who knows how long remaining future.”
“Because this seems like a rhetorical question and you wouldn’t say lit like that if it was somebody you liked, I’m guessing it’s that dude who likes you.”
“Jaehyun,” says Johnny imperiously.
“Jaehyun.” Ten huffs. “Wow, looks like you get romance after all.”
“It’s not a romance.”
Ten’s smile turns sheepish. He looks away as if deliberating whether to share some private joke. Johnny suddenly has a bad feeling about this.
“You already knew that though, didn’t you?”
Ten presses his lips together. His eyes narrow. Finally, he laughs. “What, that you and Jaehyun have magically become a thing ? My my, Johnny, events surely run fast.”
“And gossip runs faster.” Johnny sighs. He drops onto his bed with a thump so loud the bed springs squeak and the wood protests. The irony isn’t lost on him that he’d have been less stressed staying over with Jaehyun as the mage had very nearly suggested.
Ten lets him lie there in silence for a while. It’s appreciated. Six years since he’s lived under this roof with his uncle, Kun, whom he adores. Six years and even more that he’s been living a lie.
Later on, Johnny hears Kun closing up the shop. He drags himself off the bed. Ten gives him a little wave for a send-off. The crease on Kun’s forehead is bothersome. Johnny wants to wipe it off even as he knows it’s justified.
“I can tell you want to talk about something?” he asks.
There are twins moons in the sky tonight. A chill breeze rushes down off the mountain, the flowers and the brush sways under its power. Johnny and Kun walk to the edge of the township, past the last wood cabin home and the last of the shops. Water trickles down the middle of a frozen stream. They sit on a large rock and watch it gurgle, more frost and mist than water as it the creek valiantly shakes off the last effects of winter.
They’ve come here often in recent years. When Johnny missed home and his parents; when being a College mage got too hard; when he was supposed to be making new friends but made some enemies instead.
Kun sighs and rests his weight on his palms. Johnny mimics him. They still don’t talk. The night sky is too beautiful, too peaceful for what Johnny wants to talk about. He starts with the project. Tells Kun about the witches and their strange abilities, all the things he’s not sure he can share with his fellow mages. But Kun is his uncle and he’s not a part of the College. He tells him about Jaehyun being his partner, but not about the weird tension between them. There will be time enough for that later, if he has to.
Kun hums. “That is all very strange. Personally, I haven’t met too many witches, though the rare few do come by the apothecary from time to time ordering things I don’t often sell much of.”
There’s no law against this brand of witchcraft in the land, not anymore at least. Most witches though of course are even more reclusive than mages, and even less well received by the general public.
“You never wonder how they get their power?” asks Johnny.
“Wonder?” He laughs. “I do all the time, but as a professional in this business, it’s impolite to ask. And anyway, alchemy is a different art. We serve mages, witches, and the regular old common folk, anyway we can.”
This is Johnny’s cue. He sucks up his courage and takes a deep breath. “Uncle, how come you’re not a mage?”
“What?” Kun looks almost bemused. But his shoulders tense the smallest bit and Johnny knows he’s on the right track here.
“Master Taeil said all great alchemists have a trace of magic in them. But you come from a family of mages.”
Kun looks away and blushes. It might even be genuine. “That he considers me a great alchemist is gratifying. As for your question though… that is rather a long topic.”
Johnny grins, all cheek and no teeth. “We have all night.”
Kun chuckles but he face turns grim and Johnny suspects he’s going to brush him off altogether. Maybe tell him this is a tale for another evening. He doesn’t actually expect him to talk.
“Johnny, I am a mage. Just not a very good one.”
Johnny swallows what feels like a rock down his throat. “What… do you mean?”
“I mean I have no affinity for magic. I never developed one. When I was twelve I studied for a year with a Destruction Master who occasionally took on students from the outlying areas... I learned all the basics: Destruction, Conjuration, Restoration, yes even Illusion and Alteration and some Enchanting. Johnny boy, I thought I was so good. I had big dreams. I was going to learn everything I could and then come to the College.”
He pauses to laugh. “A year later she told me I was actually pretty terrible and that my affinity for one of the schools of magic would never come. I tried to force it, but in the end, I gave up magic. Took up with an alchemist who was much more likable and encouraging and, just like that, I found my niche.”
Johnny sits in that thunderous silence, staring into the purple sky and those magnificent twin moons, trying and failing to imagine a young Kun being ripped from his dreams. He can’t envision Kun as anything other than an alchemist. Perhaps that really is the way this world works.
“Did you study with my mother?”
Kun’s head drops. His hands cling tightly to one another in his lap. He doesn’t look one bit surprised by the question.
“I always worried one day you would ask me that.”
“Whose idea was it not to tell me? Yours? My father’s?”
Johnny wants to be bitter, but this is his beloved uncle and it’s impossible to be mad at Kun. His question is more weary than anything.
Kun hums. “We did… discuss it with one another. I’m guessing you know what happened.”
“That’s weird. Even I don’t know exactly what happened.”
“Yeah, it seems kind of crazy now.”
But he tells Kun as much as he understands and little by little his grief over his mother fades into acceptance. She may never remember, but Johnny receiving forgiveness from her brother is almost as good as the real thing.
Kun tells him stories he’d never heard before, stories of his mother and the adventures they got into when they were little. Of her being the troublesome one and Kun the tortured younger sibling. They laugh and Johnny cries, but there’s a smile on his face when Kun leans into him and drapes his arm around Johnny’s shoulder. Somewhere off in the distance the sky lights up, pink and green, a hint of the auroras to come, always prominent this time of the year. Johnny can almost feel its magic, even from here.
He yawns and Kun stretches his body, arms lifted high above his head.
“Did she really like being a mage?” That’s the final question Johnny wants to know.
“Your mother?” He meditates for a moment. “Of course she did. But she never really used it much, especially after you were born.”
Kun grins. “She was a Destruction Mage. Other than using her magic for household spells I rarely saw her doing anything larger than lighting up the hearth. She was awfully crafty with fire, and though she didn’t join to the College I know she studied advanced magic. With that Destruction master I tried to learn from too, actually.“
Johnny shakes his head. “She never really used it, even before I took it from her?”
Kun murmurs a yes, but Johnny can’t even fathom it. What is the use of all that magic if one doesn't use it at all? What is even the point of Destruction magic? Johnny’s spent so many years with a bias against that school, it’s colored his entire impression of Destruction mages. Loud, brash creatures with cataclysmic magic, firebombs and lightning shows and… whirlwinds of frozen air-
Jaehyun is a Destruction mage. Like his mother was.
And thanks to recent events, neither one of them exactly fits his description of every other Destruction mage. Johnny pockets that thought for another day.
Kun is standing up, ready to wander back in the direction of home. Johnny joins him as side by side they meander back into town, passing the city watch with a wave and a nod, quietly talking about the things Kun has noticed changing since he came here all those years ago. When he finally took it upon himself to move close to the College just like his childhood dream.
“Mine was the only apothecary here,” he shares quietly.
“No way,” says Johnny.
Kun looks up at the mountain. “Apart from the ones up there. You know, after all these years I’m still terribly intimidated by that institution. But I am proud of you, that you are a College mage. Even if you decide to retire and never use your magic again I would be proud of you. And your mother would be too.”
It’s the final string as something in Johnny’s heart painfully snaps .
Kun doesn’t even give him time to recover. “But I think you’ll go on to do great things. You’ve got it in you, I can tell. Magic. Even your masters know. Why even the Master Wizard. Scares me to death, that man, but he does have a good eye for talent, else why would he bring you on for this witches’ dilemma?”
Fighting back years, Johnny pushes on with the topic. “I’m not the only one. After all, he chose Jaehyun too.”
“Jaehyun, your arch-rival?” Kun laughs.
Johnny mutters, “Or something,” which has his uncle guffawing knowingly. “How do you even know about that? Did Ten tell you?”
And Johnny can’t help it. “Ten, your would-be boyfriend if you would just ask him out.”
Kun stops in his tracks and actually hisses. “Johnny!” He looks around to see if anyone’s listening in even though it’s late at night, the streets are deserted, and their house is still three buildings down. “What are you saying ?”
Johnny’s eyebrows shoot up. All that mischief he’s been suppressing due to weightier subjects comes rushing back to the surface. “Uncle, everyone can tell. You’re the only two who won’t say anything out loud.”
In lieu of talking, Kun starts walking again. His footsteps are quick. Johnny trots to catch up. Kun is frowning and Johnny suddenly regrets bringing it up if the topic is as sore as that.
“Kun?” he calls out before they can get home. “Uncle?”
Kun does finally slow, and turn around. “Johnny, I hope you don’t talk about this with… anyone.”
By anyone, he means Ten.
“Good. Because…” and he looks so stressed, running his hand through his bangs. “Ten is… well, he’s my apprentice. Ten is my apprentice . You understand that, right, Johnny?”
No, Johnny does not. He approaches his uncle with a bemused expression and wills himself to get this right and say it only once. “Kun, you’re not a master. He’s not a real student. You just found each other and you work alongside each other, day after day. That’s not the same thing.”
Kun doesn’t look like he believes it, but the crease of his eyebrows does soften the tiniest bit.
Johnny shivers. They’re still outside and the night is growing colder. A small animal passes hidden in the brush between the houses, other larger creatures croaking out their nightly songs. A nightwatchman with his torch passes slowly on the other side of the street, prompting Kun and Johnny to hurry inside.
The bell jingles softly in his holder, and Kun unbuttons his coat. Johnny yawns, suddenly eager to get to bed and sleep in his room. He begins up the stairs when Kun stops him, face in shadows.
“I… I don’t want you to think I’m mad at you.”
He smiles. “I don’t think that.”
“Good. Because, what you said… I don’t not think about things like that… anyway, well, goodnight.”
“Goodnight. And uhm, Kun? Thanks for talking to me too.”
That finally melts the last worry off his uncle's face. “Anytime, kid.”
Going about the College pretending nothing’s changed between him and Jaehyun, Johnny’s finding out, is exceedingly hard. No, not hard. Damned near impossible. It’s a beautiful morning when he and Taeyong arrive in the courtyard.
“One hundred thirty-nine steps today, Jaemin,” he says before his fellow apprentice can ask him the daily tally.
Jaemin whistles, nudging Renjun with his elbow. “A hundred and thirty-nine, and he still doesn’t break a sweat.” He’s still a bit red in the face from his own trek up.
“Give yourself a few more years and you’ll be as fit as me,” says Johnny, already passing them by.
Jaemin calls after him. “Maybe I’d be more fit if I had a boyfriend like yours!”
Johnny almost stops walking. Taeyong bumps into him. He curses, but then snorts at the look on Johnny’s face.
“Destruction novices in the corner,” he whispers. “Keep walking ‘less you want to fight it out right here.”
And no, he doesn't want to fight it out. He has to see Jaehyun before lunch for private lessons with the Master Wizard, before their marginally more public project dealing with the witches’ dilemma. Before all of that he has Illusion magic to study, and friends to see, and an entire College of people buzzing around because ‘Johnny and Jaehyun have been close lately? Have you noticed?’
The more they talk the more Johnny keeps his head metaphorically down and ignores everybody, the school of Destruction more than most. The last thing he wants is to run into Jaehyun’s friends, Doyoung and Jungwoo, or their prodigies.
Jeno and Chenle are already glancing at him across the courtyard with twin expressions of confusion. Johnny walks in the opposite direction, intending to get some quiet time in the library before he has to meet Taeil. Taeyong leaves him and Johnny gets ten steps towards the right tower, however, when Jaehyun comes out to intercept.
He’s got a smile on his face like he’s happy to run into Johnny. So maybe it’s not an interception but just a happy coincidence. Johnny isn’t sure how exactly he feels about this. He strides toward him as naturally as possible, not one to turn away or avoid a confrontation.
Are impromptu meetings with Jaehyun always going to be this awkward?
Johnny plasters a smile onto his face and he greets him first. “Jaehyun.”
“Morning, Johnny,” he says, returning a cheeky grin. “Seems like you didn’t get lost on the mountain.”
“I’m very skilled, actually. Lots of practice.” And Johnny hopes he’s out of earshot of Jaemin at least. Anyone else would at least pretend to turn a blind ear.
“Are you?” says Jaehyun, dimples out. “Guess we’ll find out today. You, me, alone in a room with… right, with the Master Wizard.” He feigns a disappointed expression.
Johnny has goosebumps already, but he holds Jaehyun’s gaze and tells himself over and over again that theirs is a professional relationship now. No longer enemies, though perhaps they never were. Not lovers, despite what half the castle thinks. But Jaehyun is someone who knows Johnny’s secrets. The first person he talked to about his mother. Not even Taeyong knows. Not Yuta or Sicheng. He wonders offhandedly if they would blame him for keeping them in the dark. Just days after he shut down Jaehyun’s confession, and now the Destruction mage knows more about him than anyone outside of his uncle.
“Guess we will.”
Johnny’s lesson with Master Taeil is brief. He’s in and out of the office after verifying that his Vision of the Night Spell has been perfected, then instructed to find Haechen and send him in. Johnny’s certain this is part of his assignment because finding the Illusion mage is half the problem. Johnny spends far too long scouring the castle using every trick of vision and of the senses. After the third time he passes Hendery sitting on the pavement staring at a stack of bricks, he decides it's time.
He goes back to his primary magic. Haechan just has to be around. And knowing him, seeing as how he’s unfindable, he must be feeling smug.
Johnny resorts to the kind of magic that makes people anxious. He searches for him, feels through his mind the subtle character he knows. Haechan has such a blooming disposition, bright and mischievous, easy enough to find in the dark but when he’s in sunlight it becomes his second home. He blends and melds with the light until he’s all but invisible. So indescribably gifted that not even Johnny can find him without cheating.
So he does cheat. He seeks out the mage blindly and by stealth.. Johnny takes that image, molds it, folds it, capturing everything about Haechan’s personality that he knows. Then, he makes him reckless .
It only takes a few minutes. Johnny waits in the corner of the yard, hidden in shadow, full of patience. He admires the plants, the small garden planted by the alchemists with its small footpaths and signs warning students not to touch, trample, eat, or in some cases, not even to look at.
He senses the ripple before he sees it. A part of the light, a mere shimmer, crossing the barrier between sun and shade. It’s Haechen, magic so stretched and mood so emboldened he’s actually trying to hide in the darkness.
“The Master wants you,” says Johnny with a low, even voice.
The ripple actually jumps in air and Haechan materializes right in front of Johnny.
“Johnny, what! How–?” He looks around as if finally realizing where he is. “Wait, why am I in the garden.”
Johnny shrugs, examines a loose thread on the knee of his robe, and feigns innocence. “Don’t look at me. I’m just the messenger.”
Haechen narrows his eyes and actually points. “You did something to me, didn’t you! Ugh! I hate you!” There’s no real malice there, just despair. “Fine, fine. You’re good. Are you happy now?”
“Maybe you should take up some further lessons on susceptibility,” says Johnny. He finally grins.
“Wouldn’t need to if you or Jaemin weren’t always around. You think the school of Illusion is your plaything, huh? Always messing me with.” He huffs, crossing his arms and looking away.
“Really? This is coming from you? The whole castle is your plaything. Hey, I heard the other day someone has been stealing quills right out the students' backpacks and writing lewd messages on their owners’ backs.”
“Lies and slander,” says Haechan with a toss of his head. But he looks thoughtful, as if already perfecting another scheme.
“Yes, Some is those phrases were.” Johnny grins and Haechen gives in and starts chuckling too.
“Guess I’ll go see the master then.”
“That’s probably a good plan. Do tell him how exactly I found you.”
“No way I’m putting in anything flattering about you! I still think the position of master’s best pupil could be mine.”
“After I graduate perhaps.”
Haechen throws him a snarky look and disappears back into the sunlight.
It’s with a lingering headache that Johnny approaches the base of the tower to the Master Wizard’s quarters. This time there’s no Jaehyun waiting for him, no one to invite him up, no one to follow. By the angle of the sun, he guesses he’s early. Even still he sets his feet onto the step and begins counting them one by one up to the landing he last visited several nights ago.
The sitting room outside of Master Xiumin’s office looks different in daylight. There are several small slits set into the wall, illuminating the room and setting the tree of snowflakes awash with a warm, orange tinge. The pots of fungi besides the door, in contrast, appear smaller, their furls curled inwards, retracting against the sunlight as they must unfurl in the darkness. There’s no magelight this time, just the bench and the austere majesty of the Master Wizard’s semi-open door.
Johnny doesn’t mean to listen in…
But really who could blame him. He hears the voice of the Master speaking with Jaehyun, and once he hears his own name fall from the lips of Master Xiumin, Johnny’s curiosity gets the better of him. He steps lightly towards the frame, careful to avoid making a shadow, feet lightly muffled by a spell so refined it barely takes any energy at all.
“... and now this thing with Johnny, you are sure you want to undertake it?”
The Master Wizard speaks casually as if talking to an old friend and not to his pupil.
“I can do it.”
“Hmm, I know you can , but do you want to?”
Jaehyun must nod because the Master continues. “ That’s good then. Because I did want to be sure. I mean, considering…” But he doesn’t elaborate.
Johnny holds his breath and goes one step closer.
“ I’ll be fine. I look forward to it.”
“Yes, I rather figured you might. You know for a Destruction mage you’re awfully… well, how should I put this. Your mother was rather ambidextrous too, if I may borrow that word .”
“Y ou knew her?”
“I was a young master when she trained here. But I heard the others talk. Although her affinity was for Restoration, all the masters wanted her as a student. I almost believed Master Zitao would win her over to the School of Illusion, he was the former head before Master Taeil took over, but she did prefer playing with her ice crystals and blowing things up. A woman after my own heart.”
Johnny can hear Jaehyun’s appreciative chuckle.
“She did talk a lot about her days here . I think she secretly continued practicing in all kinds of magic. She would always surprise me and my father with random new spellwork.”
“She still curates the court library in your part of the world?” asks Xiumin.
“Well, I’m very glad to hear it. Books are just as magical as you and me flipping our hands around in the air, but I do believe it’s time to get this started. Would Johnny who’s been waiting outside the door please come in now?”
Johnny prays he isn’t red-faced when he pushes the door all the way open. He bows to the Master Wizard, barely nods at Jaehyun, then takes a seat where indicated. Master Xiumin is giving him quite the stare-down, an appraising gesture like he’s wondering where to begin. Alternately, he might be planning to roast Johnny and call it an accident.
“Your Master Taeil will have told you a little about this thing we are about to do, yes?”
Both of them agree.
“Excellent, then let’s begin. Several days ago, Johnny, when you broke into Jaehyun’s mind you did two unique things. You stifled his magic and you also read his mind. I will tell you why this is important. It created a bond between you.”
Jaehyun nods as if this information is not new to him. Johnny, on the other hand, has only heard it mentioned once, and without elaboration.
“Uhm, Master Xiumin… how so?”
The Master Wizard smiles like he expected this query. “So good of you to ask, seeing as you are the one responsible.” Jaehyun looks smug for a whole second until Xiumin also says. “And you were the one with the prerequisite adoration to make it possible.”
Both of them gulp.
“Quelling magic is simple, all things considered. At least against a lesser powered mage or one of your own equal. Mind-reading, however, requires a two-way connection. In short, as Jaehyun has told me, the connection was made because the moment your magic took root in his mind, Jaehyun was fixated on you. I hate to tread on delicate ground but believe me this isn’t the time to attend to feelings. You could not have easily done what you did, Johnny, without that prerequisite I mentioned. Simply, that Jaehyun likes you. That made him receptive to your magic.” He sighs pityingly. “I do always say that love makes a mage funny. It can also be dangerous. Fortunately, as I’ve told you both before, no serious damage took place. Instead, I would describe it as a meeting of the minds. By your magic you are now connected. Congratulations. That’s why I put you two on this project together and why I also believe our little venture here today will be well worth the effort. Shall we begin?”
He reclines in his chair, a proud little grin on his face, as both Jaehyun and Johnny sit uncomfortably still.
“Uhm, Master, what would you like us to do?” asks Jaehyun.
“Well, we’re going to practice of course. Have no fear our Illusion apprentice here will do any mischief. I am perfectly capable of sensing both your magic, in this room, a confined and controlled space where believe me, nothing would be allowed without my express permission. Let’s start. Jaehyun, think of an image, please. Johnny, I would like you to discern it. Ready? Three, two… go.”
Johnny isn’t ready for this to be so easy. Jaehyun thinks of a shape in his head, and Johnny immediately sees it.
“Good,” says Xiumin. “Next.”
“A pile of books.”
“What kind of books.”
“ Spell books?”
“Good. Keep going.”
Johnny furrows his brows and fixates on Jaehyun, whose eyes are closed, but clenched. He appears to be concentrating hard, image after image passing through his mind as fast as Xiumin can direct and Johnny can answer.
“It’s, a picture of the castle.”
“In, silhouette? No. Black and greys. A painting.”
“Where is this painting?”
Johnny falters. “I… I don’t know. Wait.” Hard to decide whether he’s seen it before and is only now remembering, or if he knows it because Jaehyun knows it. “The Restoration Ward.”
They take a break after a few minutes as the Master Wizard passes a glass of water to Jaehyun and asks him very softly how he’s feeling. The Destruction mage gulps it but nods off Xiumin’s attention. “I’m fine. We can keep going.”
“Great. Now comes the tricky party. Jaehyun is going to put up an image, but with a block in front of it. Johnny, let’s see if you can pick it out this time.”
Johnny adjusts in his chair, swallowing once as he prepares his mind once more. Jaehyun takes a big inhale.
“Memories first, Jaehyun, please.”
The image is fuzzy in Johnny’s memory, covered in fog, or some kind of swirling smoke. A little boy runs through the fog, but Johnny can’t get a good look at his face. He closes his eyes, aware now that their connection will remain even without a direct glance. He concentrates, straining his brain. The muscles in his jaw twitch, his fingers start to tingle. The little boy is laughing, a loud boisterous chuckle and he turns to the foreground in Johnny’s view. Johnny grasps at it, reels him in.
“It’s a boy, brown hair. He… He is Jaehyun.”
“What is he doing?” says Xiumin softly.
Again that fog consumes everything around the child, but suddenly Johnny hears a dog bark.
“He’s playing with a dog.”
“ Where is he playing with this dog?”
Johnny’s head pinches with too many energies. He shakes his head and grunts, eyes popping open as the image fades. Before him, in the opposite chair, Jaehyun looks a little ill. His face is pale.
“I couldn’t see,” Johnny has to admit. “There was too much fog.”
“Fog? Xiumin asks Jaehyun. “Is that what you put up?”
“I… was trying to think of a black screen as you told me.”
“Hmm. So we’ll need to work on that.” The Master Wizard reaches over and pats Jaehyun on the shoulder. It’s unclear the person who needs to work on it is Jaehyun or Johnny, or both.
“Do you need a break, or shall we go again?”
“Again,” says Jaehyun. And for one small second he and Johnny trade glances, a minute challenge exchanged through the air. Johnny cannot say he isn’t thrilled with the prospect of beating Jaehyun’s ‘screen’.
By the end of their session though, Johnny is unable to fully pick out one of Jaehyun’s concealed memories, although with each invasion Jaehyun’s defenses waver with decreasing strength. The Master Wizard clasps each of them on the back then shoves them out of his office just as the Alteration Master comes up the steps. They pass the master in the foyer, then descend the staircase in single file line, Johnny first.
He steps into the bright sunlight of the castle courtyard and has to shield his eyes from the sun. Jaehyun does the same. Quickly they step into some shade.
Johnny feels exhausted. Like he’s just run up the mountain steps and then run down, twice in a row. Jaehyun actually wobbles when Johnny bumps into him. He grabs his arm, steadying the mage and Jaehyun looks at his hand with a quiet, surprised fixation. Slowly, Johnny lets go.
“So uhm. That was interesting,” he says.
Jaehyun hums. “Interesting? I suppose you can say that. We only have a little bit of time now before we need to be in the dungeon. Come with me.”
He starts to take off but Johnny hesitates. “I brought my own lunch actually.”
Jaehyun stops. He turns around and stares, a smirk of amusement on his lips. “What did you pack, a small meat roll? After the last hour, I could eat an entire horse right now and I’m sure you can too. Come on.”
Johnny doesn’t try to argue again.
“You ever been down here?” says Jaehyun, leading him to another part of the castle underground.
“The kitchens? Sure.”
Johnny isn’t such a good boy he and Taeyong haven’t snuck down there to check it out, although he can’t claim to have done so recently.
He’s never gone down there when so many people and students were present. The staircase leads to a short hallway lined with cabinets and barrels, dried herbs hanging from the ceiling. But the door opens into a wider hall. On one side the great kitchen, or at least part of it. On the other, rows of tables darkly lit with small pools of overlapping magelight. At least half those spots are occupied and Jaehyun is leading him right to the table with Doyoung and Jungwoo.
“Beef stew?” He asks, looking into the great pot in the center of the table.
Jungwoo nods but Doyoung remains frozen in place, his spoon halfway to his mouth, a potato falling overboard.
“You’ll waste your food,” Jaehyun chides. Johnny sits down next to him as he reaches for the empty bowls stacked beside the pot, a couple of utensils too. “Help yourself,” he tells Johnny.
That spurs Doyoung into action. “The food is for the students who live here?” But he seems unsure of this in the face of Jaehyun’s blatant flaunting of the rules.
While Jaehyun ladles the stew into his bowl he says, “So he can eat off your credit. Your appetite has been so stingy, I’m sure the kitchens are crying.”
Doyoung doesn’t immediately retaliate so Johnny takes that as confirmation he’s allowed to eat.
Between the four of them, it’s silence for a long time. All around them groups of students are chatting or complaining about their lessons. Jaehyun and Johnny ignore the obvious tension. Jungwoo continues to eat quietly and every time it looks like Doyoung wants to argue he gets an elbow to the side and a look. Eventually, he just grabs a roll, stuffs it into his pocket and storms off with his bowl.
Jaehyun and Jungwoo just look at each other.
“What’s the matter with him?” asks Jaehyun.
Jungwoo gives him a look that says Really?
“You’re sleeping with the enemy, Jae,” he says. But then he winks at Johnny and returns to his bowl of soup.
Once again, neither of them correct him. Even though Johnny is itching to say something he’s honestly curious what Jaehyun’s said about him. Do they know they’re just working on a special project for the Master Wizard? Or that Jaehyun’s been in love with him for years. Are Jungwoo’s words just a metaphor? It seems a little unfair that Jaehyun would maintain a complete lie in front of the two people he’s closest too. Maybe that’s why Jungwoo just takes it in stride. But Johnny can’t shake the memory of a younger Jungwoo wearing a cruel smile after he trips Johnny in the courtyard. It may have been years ago but the person then is the same one today. A person who’s currently challenging Johnny to a staring match. Deep brown eyes with that hint of sparkle, slightly hooded. A seemingly innocent face. Johnny perks up, and he wonders for all of two seconds if he could read his mind, find out exactly what Jungwoo thinks of him.
“Stop that, both of you,” says Jaehyun before it can get out of control.
Johnny looks quickly away. He feels a little thrill of excitement lurch through his body, a spark, something static dancing across his skin drawing goosebumps in their wake.
Was Jungwoo just about to perform Destruction magic on him? But Johnny was about to do the same.
The shame of it leaves a bitter taste in his mouth. He takes another large spoonful of the stew then tears off a loaf of bread and stuffs that in too. He chokes.
“I said I thought you could eat a whole horse, I didn’t say you had to eat it all at once,” says Jaehyun. He’s smiling. Like he likes all this animosity thrumming around him.
It reminds Johnny why he’s always thought of Jaehyun as dangerous. Somehow, he doesn’t mind it quite so much.
They’re gathered at the foot of the dungeon steps. Everyone but Lucas, that is. Jaehyun and Johnny approach the darkened overhang, Johnny perking at the throng of witches encircled around Jiu who laughs in a way he hasn’t heard when she’s off by herself. Her entire face becomes animated, body language relaxed, a whiff of authority still on her features as the women huddle close asking questions Johnny can’t hear.
She sees them over several of the witches’ shoulders and her smile freezes. It’s not intimidating but Johnny’s blood freezes too. He wants to know so much more about their magic. Why they seem so dangerous, why they have the power to reduce the mages’ tricks to… nothing.
“Hey. Jiu. Uhm,” he smiles at the remaining witches, not knowing their names.
“Are we all going down?” asks Jaehyun.
“No,” says Jiu, back to her professional demeanor. “We’re just chatting. Passing the time. Lucas is late, isn’t he?”
There’s an accusation there but the remark isn’t biting.
“Seems so,” says Johnny.
For fun, he attempts the smallest of magic spells, invisible tendrils that glow blueish white in his mind’s eye cast toward each the witches. The intention of the spell is to reveal their moods. Not too invasive, not persuasive in the least. On a normal person, mage or otherwise, an Illusion mage like Johnny can see past a person’s outer barriers. Like a person’s smile, but underneath a whiff of curiosity. Sometimes in a glare, a feeling of simmering discontent.
He gets nothing.
The witches smiles remain just that, blank, placating. Johnny’s magic hits an invisible shield, and if any of the women know what he just did they don’t show it. Perhaps the thing they do is unconscious, or unintentional. Johnny’s shudders to think what the alternative would be. That they do it intentionally, with sinister motives, or that they know what Johnny tried and have all decided to play along with this farce. They’d all have to be playing the same game though since none of them gives a single thing away. So he thinks it’s unlikely.
He doesn’t get long to dwell on it. Lucas comes running across the courtyard, cheeks red and brows sweaty like he’s come a long way.
“I’m here! Sorry, sorry, I know I’m late. I was uhmm.. I got side-tracked. Lost track of time.”
Then he beams at every in turn, and even Jiu softens. She turns to her coven, says, “We’re wanted in the Destruction tower this evening. Try to lay low until then. I heard we may visit the township whenever we like. Err,” she turns to Johnny, “you live down there, right? Are witches allowed, do you think?”
Johnny shrugs. “Allowed, sure. But, maybe not do too much magic?” There are always plenty of mages around but that doesn’t mean the locals like watching their chickens float away in the air, or minor explosions upsetting the children. Any practicing mages are expected to stay off the street and exercise some basic courtesy. Not doing so results in stern glares or missives sent up to the College to complain.
Jiu nods understandingly, then sends the witches off.
Johnny looks to Jaehyun, then to the stairs. “This is your territory. You lead?”
Johnny knows very little about the School of Conjuration. Beyond the little he did as a novice studying the basics of every art—low level conjuration of ethereal objects, such as daggers, or a spoon—what he does know comes from Sicheng and Yuta. And they aren’t exactly the most normal mages around. That Jaehyun also studied Conjuration had always added to his dangerous, and hated, mystique. Conjuration is the home of spirit summoners, of soul magic, and of necromancy, one of the most feared forms magic of all time and spiraling into some of the greatest ethical and moral dilemmas ever talked about in and out of the magical community. Arguably more misunderstood than Illusion magic.
Johnny has been biased like all the rest. It didn’t bother him when his friends resurrected those dead bunnies to dance around the inn. That was just for fun. But imagining Jaehyun, even a week ago, practicing the same kind of thing would have made him cringe in disgust. The things he’s having to reconsider now because of Jaehyun just keep hitting hard.
“How many steps is it anyway?” Lucas is asking.
He follows Johnny who is following Jaehyun. Jiu elected to go last.
“It’s pretty down there,” says Jaehyun.
There is no magelight lighting the stairwells here, only torches which cast flickering shadows as they move past.
“Is that because he’s a vampire?”
When Jaehyun doesn’t answer right away, Lucas continues musing.
“What does he eat anyway?”
“What?” says Johnny, with a laugh. Vampires consume human blood of course, although for the life of him Johnny’s never wondered until now from where Master Yangyang gets his supply.
“It couldn’t be from students, right? That would be unethical,” Lucas keeps wondering.
Jaehyun snorts. “He doesn’t feed on the students.”
“Yeah, but then how? I’ve heard that in the real vampire courts they keep humans like pets, down away somewhere where they can visit whenever they’re hungry. Or there are vampire thralls! Charm them to be these weird, docile servants, I don’t know.”
“If you don’t know,” says Jaehyun, “then what are you saying?” At least he doesn’t sound mad. More ponderous.
“It’s just something I’ve heard.”
“Anyway,” Jaehyun goes on. “Vampire courts aren’t real.”
“They are,” says Jiu suddenly. Nearly all of them slow on the descent. Johnny and Lucas turn to look at her.
“Really?” says Lucas, eyes wide.
“Yes,” she says. “But few vampires have ever actually seen those halls. Most are rogue, live out in the wild, mind to their own business.”
“Have you ever seen one?”
“Yes. One time in particular was not pleasant but…” she trails off, and Johnny knows he’s not the only one wondering what exactly happened. “Most of the time they’re easy to avoid if you know how.”
Jaehyun is the one to interrupt this time. “How?”
She turns her eyes on him. “By scrying of course.”
Mages, don’t scry. Or at least none do at the College. Divination and seeing and crystal balls don’t seem to fit into the neat and tidy system of magic as taught in sophisticated institutions as this. But maybe in other lands they do. Apparently, it’s something witches do. Johnny’s intrigued, but once again, he doesn’t get to linger on that.
They reach the floor of the basement and Jaehyun strides onward without pause. The four of them clump together as they walk through darkened tunnels littered with what Johnny suspects is only junk. No arcane objects hanging from the ceilings, no human thralls waiting for their blood to be sucked.
No seriously, he really wonders now how Master Yangyang feeds. Is that why he goes out periodically, disappearing into the night? Does he invite people back? Does he use any of the teachers!? Are they sure he doesn’t feed from the students? Yuta complains non-stop about the master, but Johnny’s definitely sure it’s because he’s a hard teacher to please. Sicheng is actually rather protective of him, the first to line up and glare at any other student who dares to insinuate there’s something wrong with having a vampire employed by the College, and one with such a coveted position too.
The Master Conjurer, they soon find, is sitting in his office surrounded by a pile of books, and two complete skeletons. Unmoving, unresurrected, Johnny immediately checks. They’re held together by a string and wires, so no necromancy at work here today. In fact, the office setup rather reminds him of Master Taeil’s. It’s normal, average, a little boring.
Master Yangyang, however, is anything but boring.
He snaps shut his book the moment Jaehyun knocks on his open door. Then he grins so broadly, teeth gleaming in the torchlight.
“My new project students! And Jaehyun. Come in, please! Please!”
Jiu stands to the far most right so he greets her first, then Lucas. He evidently knows everything about them already shaking their hands with great enthusiasm.
“The Dreamcatcher coven, huh? Goodness, I knew the matron of your coven, was it eighty something years ago? An amazing woman! Splendid witch, but uhh, I don’t suppose you’d have met her.”
She smiles politely. “No, I don’t think I had the opportunity.”
“And Lucas! Changmin’s prized boy.” He gives him a once over which is comical as he has to look up before he looks down. His grin twists in place, one elongated fang getting caught outside his lower lip. “Well, I suppose we’ll just have to verify if you’re really all that.”
Lucas gasps silently. Jaehyun laughs and turns away.
Then it’s Johnny’s turn.
“Apprentice Seo, yes?” Johnny doesn’t bother answering out loud. He nods his head and assumes that’s it. An Illusion mage in the Conjuration dungeon, there’s not usually overlap. Johnny’s only interacted with the master once since his novice days and back then he worked more with an Adept Conjurer named Victoria, not the master himself.
But Master Yangyang doesn’t bother giving him a once over as he did with Lucas. Instead, he muses pleasantly, absentmindedly for a moment and says, “Johnny Seo, yes. I’ve heard of you and your... honeyed words.”
Johnny just gapes at him. “Excuse me?”
“Hmm, yes?” Master Yangyang gives him an utterly vague and innocent look. “It’s just a figure of speech, of course?” His eyelashes actually flutter.
Johnny looks at Jaehyun who is looking just as puzzled, then at Lucas who still looks confused at not being immediately praised. Jiu alone retains her poise, though she does seem to be hiding her amusement.
Master Yangyang has no words of greeting for Jaehyun. Instead, he immediately directs the apprentice the begin collecting items from a chest outside his office like Jaehyun’s done this before. He obviously knows his way around the dungeon. In the meantime, the master leads them to a larger room with six chairs set up in a circle. He himself stands behind one, draping himself over the chair back like he can’t be bothered to sit down.
Speaking fast, “Into the center, Jaehyun, thank you. No! A little more to the left- there you go- whoops! Too far, back to the right, that’s it, that’s it, Jaehyun, you’re a doll. Now sit. Let’s start. Wait! Who are we missing?”
Jaehyun sinks wearily onto the chair on Johnny’s left, but the remaining sixth chair remains empty.
Master Yangyang stares expectedly at them as if they’ll know the answer. Is this a test already, or rhetorical?
But the silence lingers and still, the master waits. Lucas is the first to break it. “Master Changmin?”
“Wrong!” He shouts cheerily. “Who else wants a go?”
So Johnny tries, thinking of the only other person besides the Master Wizard who was in the very first meeting. “Master Lu Han?”
“Incorrect! Someone else?”
Johnny bites his lip and humphs back into his chair.
Jiu offers no suggestion. Neither does Jaehyun. Finally, Master Yangyang tires of his little game and draws out a staff laying against the wall. He makes a show of holding it up and then, laughing a little, puts it down. “As if I need this thing.”
Within seconds, his palms spin and connect, casting a flash of orange light, as his eyes go narrow and red, his lips mouthing an incantation under his breath, too low and too fast to be picked up by the normal ear. Johnny jolts; Lucas and Jiu both gasp. Jaehyun just looks tense. Where the sixth chair stood formerly empty, there is now perched upon it a terrifying conjuration. Reddish skin, a horrifying face, horns, and armored with a kind of metal Johnny’s never seen, not even in the army. It carries an immense weapon longer than its body, and Johnny’s already estimating the creature is at least two heads taller than he is.
Which is, fascinating!
Master Yangyang smirks, particularly impressed by their reactions to his soul conjuration.
“Jaehyun will know him. As for the rest of you, say hello to my friend, a dremora lord. He doesn’t have a name, so we’ll call him Li.” At their continuing stunned expressions, Yangyang smiles even brighter. “What, did you expect we could solve our little dilemma without consulting those on the other side?”
Despite the master’s assurances that the dremora lord is perfectly docile, even Johnny can’t help being terrified out of his mind every time the demon moves or speaks, voice booming as if still on the other side. On the other side of what, who can say with real clarity. That belongs to the realm of the dead, from where no one has gone and returned. Even vampires, the undead, can not be said to inhibit the same category as what only conjurers can give temporary corporeal form.
But as Master Yangyang claims, the demon lord brings a unique gift to the table on the dilemma of the witch’s bizarre magic. It can apparently sense the threads of magic from Jiu’s body every time one of the apprentices attempts magic. As of yet, only the master can effectively perform a spell completely unhindered, as he did with the dremora’s conjuring.
The problem is definitely related to skill and strength, and the particular magic in effect. Like the unobtrusive mood spell Johnny had attempted earlier, any weak spell is immediately canceled. But Jaehyun can almost conjure a fiery wolf familiar before it disappears in a whiff before his eyes, and Lucas does manage to brighten the dungeon room sunlight bright until it goes out like a fast eclipse. Master Yangyang, clearly blinded, graciously only glares at him for a minute.
Jiu remains in her chair, hands hovering over her lap, and wryly apologizes. “I’m very sorry. I don’t understand it either.”
But she smiles and Johnny frowns as he stands up for his attempt. Jiu may have volunteered her coven for experimentation, and perhaps the College and Assembly masters know more in private, but it doesn’t seem like Jiu genuinely cares about the problem. That or she is by now used to having this effect on people—mages—and is at least enjoying it partway. Johnny can maybe relate to that. Having power over someone else is a position of strength, and usually appreciated. At the very least respected. Even if she truly doesn’t understand it, she has to be enjoying this somewhat.
With this in mind, he ponders what spell to try. Anything small will have no effect. That means no tricks of the light, no illusions of the mind. No enhanced senses, no soothing magic. Johnny doubts he could even spook Lucas as he has half a mind to attempt. But no, it needs to be something bigger.
Something like mind reading?
But that’s supposed to be a secret.
How about then, that other thing he wasn’t supposed to be good at? The trick that got him into this predicament in the first place?
Johnny closes his eyes and feels his way around the room. It’s harder than it used to be, like there’s a barrier to wade through pushing back against his mind, the source of his very power.
So, he pushes back. If something can touch upon his magic, then surely Johnny can return the favor? He swims through the barrier, squinting hard against the pressure, that something which seems so determined to stop him. It’s good, and it’s powerful, impersonal. But he can almost feel it, and it’s tangible.
Within the inner eye, he seeks its presence. It’s Jiu of course, but it’s different from a normal mage, whose magic is controlled from within. When Johnny meddled against Jaehyun’s magic he could find it, isolate it, and make it stop. But this energy is a force that surrounds and engulfs the witch like an oblong shield.
And Johnny still isn’t powerful enough.
With the last of his energies failing he makes a split decision and seals the only other source of continuous magic in the room.
Master Yangyang yelps as the room explodes in a reddish haze of smoke and embers. Lucas falls out of his chair and Jaehyun makes a startled gesture. Johnny opens his eyes and blinks at the clearing smoke.
Jiu looks around aghast, clearly not understanding what just happened until the smoke is completely gone. “Illusion magic? But...”
Suddenly Jaehyun laughs. Yangyang stands with his hands on his hips, but he too looks a little impressed.
Where the dremora had once been, he stands no more.
“Well, indeed,” says the master. “Congratulations, Johnny, even with the opposition in the room you have succeeded in murdering my dremora.”
This concludes their first session, and the students are encouraged to take an easy afternoon. Jiu ponderously leaves first, then Lucas, Jaehyun, and Johnny. Master Yangyang happily shoes them away, but not before they hear him bustling inside his office to conjure the same dremora back from the dead as he begins to ask it questions.
“You really are good at that spell, aren’t you?”
“What spell?” says Johnny, though of course he knows.
Jaehyun’s walking along beside him. Johnny supposes they didn’t pick any direct pathway, but here they are, meandering along the chilled paths that wind around the College.
“You know what I mean.”
“I do,” Johnny replies cheekily.
Jaehyun isn’t looking at him when he scoffs, impressed.
“You know, at first I thought it was a fluke, you suppressing my magic like that. I thought I was just weak around you, that it was my fault. And then”—he’s grinning—“I found out it’s something you’ve practiced all along and you’re just really damned good at it. Killing Master Yangyang’s spell like that? He’s not an apprentice. He’s a hundred year old vampire and the Master Conjurer. Johnny, you’re really just that good.”
Jaehyun laughs. “That’s it? That’s all you’re gonna say?”
“You’ve complimented my abilities. I have thanked you.”
But the faux stern look on his face cannot stand against Jaehyun’s smile. He grins back and then tries to suppress that . All his magical abilities and Johnny can’t even stop himself from smiling like a fool. Fortunately, Jaehyun lets it go.
They’d started by walking around with Lucas and Jiu. But the witch was her usual silent self around the mages, and eventually she excused herself, claiming she needed to return to their tower dormitory so as to not bother the rest of the mages. Johnny doesn’t point out that the rest of her coven is likely down in the town by now, but Jiu apparently doesn’t mind being alone by herself.
Lucas wandered off shortly after that when they encountered a group of foreign mages, his friends, from the Assembly.
And so they are now.
“You know,” Jaehyun starts. But he hesitates and Johnny wants to know.
“Do I know what?”
Jaehyun slowly veers to a balcony railing, protected by the castle overhang but with a great view of the side of the mountain and the valley below. There are already several students sitting around in the corner studying a large tome and conversing with one another, two novice girls and a boy. All three of them stop at the sight of Jaehyun and Johnny. The boy, who can’t be older than thirteen, looks half terrified out of his mind.
Jaehyun smiles at them anyway. In spite of his reassurances, or maybe because of that, they close the tome rather hastily and scamper away.
Johnny hums. “You’re really good at that too.”
“Frightening little kids.”
Jaehyun rests his elbows on the thick-stoned half wall, looking off into the distance. “All I did was smile at them, Johnny. Maybe it’s you who scared them off.”
“No, it’s definitely got to be you.”
“Because I’m a Destruction mage?” Jaehyun replies like he’s only amused by this conversation. And Johnny has the bug. He wants to tease him back.
“They’re afraid you’ll freeze them dead.”
“In which case, they should have been glad you were here too. With me.” Then, softer. “Maybe it’s just us. ”
Something about the tone, the word, makes Johnny’s heart beat frantically.
Since when has there been an us? he wants to say, although the answer is staring him right in the face.
“That’s what I wanted to say,” says Jaehyun. He looks relaxed, content, only a hint of apprehension. “I can’t help but notice you don’t seem to hate me anymore.”
When Johnny goes to draw breath, he finds he doesn’t have breath at all. His mind flashes back to their meeting at the Terrace which can’t have happened more than a week ago. And yet it feels like an eternity.
Johnny doesn’t hate Jaehyun anymore. What he said is correct. Consciously realizing that, however… why does it take Jaehyun saying it out loud?
“Huh,” is all he says, his exhale coming out more forceful than he intended.
Jaehyun is looking at him, eyes wary but hopeful.
“Am I at least right?”
It suddenly dawns on Johnny how close they’re standing. At some point, Johnny must have followed him to lean on the half wall. They’re in shadow, alone, practically the most private spot they could be in on the entire ground floor. There’s a breeze coming off the mountain that catches Jaehyun’s hair, and he does that horrible thing where he runs his hands through his bangs. Johnny catches himself watching his fingers run past his hair and unbidden, he licks his lips.
Jaehyun is still waiting though, and if he’s aware of where Johnny’s attention has been for the last thirty seconds he doesn’t say it.
So Johnny tears his eyes away and looks out beyond the horizon.
“You’re right,” he says to the sky, “I don’t think I hate you anymore.”
So I got lazy and brought in the first expressly Skyrim demon, the dremora lord. They're super cool and look this
Sooo is this fic slowburn enough for everyone? I think the relationship drama will be picking up the pace pretty soon. Also, another 'couple' is revealed in the next chapter. ;)
Hello, I'm back!
Before Jaehyun, there were three seasons of memory Johnny has about at the College, three blocks of time he compartmentalizes for the sake of sanity alone. There is the now , Johnny having the time of his life, an accomplished Illusion apprentice with a great set of friends. Then there was the time, pre-Taeyong, Yuta, and Sicheng. Back when Johnny had no one, and he was barely a struggling novice with too much on his place and a master who was constantly exasperated by him.
Johnny remembers the day he met Taeyong. He was a late transfer, joining the College already at the age of fifteen, a new boarder at the inn below. Johnny, on his way down the mountain nursing a bruised ego from a failed Illusion spell and actual bruised fingers from the same said spell, ran into the novice who was dallying on the slope just playing with the snow, no magic involved at all.
Taeyong was a lot nerdier back then, his hair a dull shade of brown instead of today’s vibrant red. His robes were all secondhand, his knapsack torn and frayed from carrying all of his books.
Johnny had liked him at first sight.
They traded spells. Taeyong cured Johnny’s hands, Johnny fixed the hole in Taeyong’s bag. They traversed the rest of the way together to the tavern for their evening meal, and there Taeyong introduced him to Yuta and Sicheng, two Conjuration novices Johnny had obviously met but never really talked to before.
And then, there was the time before that. When Johnny was barely a teenager and accidentally ran afoul of a certain group of Destruction mages. Back when Mark was his best friend, his only friend, the only person on his side.
“You know, you could have used Destruction magic back there.”
Jaehyun snorts, another smile blooming upon his face. Actually, he hasn’t stopped smiling in nearly the entire last hour.
“In front of the Master Conjurer? Never. He treats all his students like there is no other form of magic. Doesn’t matter my affinity is for Destruction magic. I wouldn’t dare perform another kind of magic in his presence.”
“Yuta says he’s a hard teacher.”
Another smirk. “He is, partly. Also, Yuta slacks off a lot. He shouldn’t have to, he’s really talented. But he does.”
Johnny hums. “I can see that.”
“Speaking of people who don’t like me…” Jaehyun’s voice trails off, and he shoots Johnny an amused grin, eyebrows raised.
“Yuta? Yeah, that’s probably my fault. I’m sorry.”
Jaehyun sighs. “He’s one of your best friends. I suppose I could give him some credit for being loyal to you. I admit I haven’t been the best person to you all these years.”
There’s a big part of Johnny that wants to pry into that. Find out exactly the reason why they started off on the wrong foot all those years ago, both of them barely out of their boyhood. So much of it is foggy to his mind now that shining some light on that could act as the final catharsis.
On the other hand, in spite of all those bad years, Johnny kind of likes the thing they have going on now. It’s an easy partnership because they haven’t talked about the past. And maybe it’s developing into something more. Johnny doesn’t want to revisit his thoughts of even a few days ago. Theirs is a tenuous relationship relying on Johnny’s unsaid forgiveness, all because of a stupid magical bond which he unknowingly began. So, finding out Jaehyun is a human being, as well as a terrible, scary mage, is just the start. Anything more and Johnny won’t be able to handle it.
He changes the subject instead.
“What did you want to be, growing up, when you realized you’d be a Destruction mage?”
Jaehyun’s surprised by the question. “Wow. Uhm, I don’t know.”
“Just, at the time. What did you imagine your life would be like?”
“The army, Destruction battalion. I wanted to blow stuff up, of course.” He laughs.
Johnny grins. “Figures.”
“It figures? What do you mean by that?”
“Just that that’s how I always pictured you,” says Johnny, shrugging. “All Destruction mages, actually. It seemed to me that all of you liked fire and explosions and…”
“Chaos and destruction? You know our school is more than that, right?”
“Like icycle tornados?”
“About the elements, Johnny! It’s about controlling the elements, the wild things of nature. Fire, wind, water, earth, lightning.” Jaehyun cuts off his impassioned explanation when Johnny starts laughing. “I’m being serious here.”
“I know! I know.”
“So then, what about you? What was the first thing you were so good at that you started imagining the rest of your life as an Illusion mage?”
He says it so fast, even Jaehyun shuts up. His smile drops at the stark expression on Johnny’s face. Then an awkward silence creeps up around them. Slowly, Jaehyun leans back against the half wall. He hums.
“Fear, huh? Well, they use those too in the army.”
“They do,” Johnny solemnly agrees. “But for an Illusion mage, even in the army, I can think of a dozen more nobler spells.”
Jaehyun doesn’t say anything for a while, though he does nod once. Maybe Jaehyun is right. The two of them together are scary to the young novices.
He opens his mouth to make a joke but is interrupted by the most startled grunt of a person walking around the corner into their once secluded, shadowy enclave. He and Jaehyun turn their heads from the mountainous view to the newcomer who’s stopped in the middle of the pathway.
“Oh. Uhm. Sorry, no one’s usually here at this hour.”
Jaehyun is the first to smile. “Ohh? Uh, we were just wandering around. Mark, right?”
Mark nods, gives a feeble smile in return. Then he looks at Johnny like it’s his turn to say something, but Johnny is partially tongue-tied.
“I’m pretty sure I hate them.”
“Why, what happened this time?”
The fact you said ‘this time’ means you already know. They’re just mean. What is their problem anyway?”
“Uhm, Jungwoo’s just rude. Jaehyun is an ass. Doyoung has an actual stick up his ass?”
Mark laughs at his joke, but Johnny just grumbles and looks around like they’re about to get caught. “Shhhh, don’t say that so loud. What if they’re listening?”
“They aren’t here. Besides, if they do come by, I’m here .”
“What are you going to do, throw an enchantment?”
Mark is giggling. “I could enchant their robes. Make Jaehyun’s get caught around his legs. Trip him up.”
“The last time you told me about enchanting it seemed like you needed to take the object separately and do… magical stuff to it. How’s that going to work?”
“What? Details, man. I don’t know. Anyway. I’d be here…”
The irony of standing robe to robe with the mage he and Mark used to jokingly and sometimes not so jokingly conspire against isn’t lost on Johnny now.
So he does his best rendition of innocence and says, “Hi, Mark.” And leaves it at that.
The silence lingers. If Jaehyun picks up on the situation, he doesn’t say anything.
“We can go, if you want to stay here and err… study, or whatever,” says Jaehyun.
Mark doesn’t respond. He’s clearly torn between leaving them alone, taking up Jaehyun’s offer, or—to make this worse—Johnny swears he sees a bit of that old protective comradery fighting to make a play, the kind only a couple fourteen-year-old boys would do because they’re young and overconfident, even if they never take steps to put it into action.
Mark is actually worried about Johnny but confused why he and Jaehyun are so close. Nostalgia and something like regret burn inside Johnny’s nose.
So he says, “We’ve been working on a project together. But we’re done for the moment.” Like that will clarify everything when Mark has most likely heard the rumors already. He lives in the castle in the Enchanting Tower, there’s no way he hasn’t heard that at least something is going on between Johnny and Jaehyun, two former rivals.
“Oh. Well then.”
Make this a whole two conversations he’s had with Mark this year. Both have made Mark out to be the better person.
“See you around,” says Jaehyun politely as they walk past. Johnny smiles at Mark and nods once, whether in acknowledgment or apology he doesn’t even know.
Barely a few minutes later, while still meandering together, Jaehyun says, “You were friends once, weren’t you? What happened?”
“You remember that?” Johnny starts.
“Yeah?” Jaehyun grins sheepishly. “Should I not?”
“I don’t know. It was a really long time ago, I guess.”
“I gathered that. So?”
Jaehyun flicks his eyebrows upward, amusement on his face. “Mark? You used to be friends.”
Johnny frowns. This is not the conversation he thought he’d be having right now. And this is definitely not one he wants to be having with Jaehyun of all people. Then again, why can’t he just say it?
He clears his throat, walks a little faster in an effort to make this go faster, if that’s even possible. “He told me… that he liked me.”
Jaehyun keeps the pace excellently. They’re through the main courtyard, walking now past the place where all of this started. No hurling balls of freezing air today just muted sunlight and a cold, bitter wind. Johnny glances up at the Restoration Ward, its stern walls beating back at the weather.
“I have to actually pick up a book from Master Jongin,” Johnny says quickly. “Busy work, as usual. Do you uhm, want to come up with me?”
Jaehyun agrees, but he still appears to be considering what Johnny said.
The first floor of the Restoration Ward is relatively quiet, only a single novice asleep on a cushioned armchair. She startles awake when they enter, but as Johnny assures her he’s just here to get a book and not for any emergency, her head plops back down on the back of the chair. They hear her snores before they’re halfway up the first flight of stairs.
“You didn’t like him back, did you?” Jaehyun chooses this moment to whisper.
Johnny sighs. “Not like he liked me, no.”
Before he reaches the top step, Johnny freezes. There’s something left unsaid in Jaehyun’s words. Something that chills him. He lets Jaehyun catch up until they’re standing on the same step, halfway in darkness between the torches on the wall and the light of the ward.
Jaehyun is looking at him uncertainly all of a sudden. And Johnny grimaces because he knows what Jaehyun is going to say.
“Is it… the same as now?”
Johnny bites down on the inside of his lip. Their eyes meet and he absolutely can’t look away. Jaehyun’s eyes are a piercing shade of brown flecked with orange illuminated by the angle, and so so vulnerable.
Even still, Johnny lets him down.
“It’s not the same. You and I were never friends.”
He sees the exact moment Jaehyun’s hopes tumble to the ground. All those glittering stars, snuffed at once. Jaehyun’s eyes never leave his, but his will is gone. His arms hang limply by his side and his shoulders sag.
Johnny aches .
Before Jaehyun can do anything, say anything, or go anywhere, Johnny makes his move. His arms reach up and corner Jaehyun’s face, crowding him into the wall. He braces one foot on a higher step and makes himself close.
“We weren’t friends,” he says again to Jaehyun’s trembling lower lip. “So that’s two things that are different.”
He waits for a moment, checking the reaction in Jaehyun’s reflective eyes. The mage stares at him, pupils widening even as Johnny lowers his gaze, eyelids softening.
“I like you,” he whispers.
And oh, how he loves the look on Jaehyun’s face, anxiety just melting away.
“Is this okay?” Johnny asks, their lips almost touching. He waits to feel the nod, a motion so minute Johnny would not be able to feel it except they’re so close. Then he leans in all the way and kisses him.
Jaehyun lets out an immediate groan. His lips part. Johnny presses his fingers deep into the dimples of his cheeks. Jaehyun’s hands wrap around his waist as he sighs into the kiss. His lips are chapped but soon moistened.
Not long ago Johnny would not have imagined them like this, wrapped in each other in a dimly lit tower, one hand falling to Jaehyun’s neck to feel that smooth and delicate skin, Jaehyun’s face upturned as Johnny keeps him braced against the stone wall.
Jaehyun knees him slightly to force him back, their lips breaking apart for the first time, but it’s just so Jaehyun can look him over in wonderment before he digs his fist into the front of Johnny’s robe and pulls him back.
“I couldn’t believe it…” he gasps in between kissing, “that you and I… would really… someday… like this.”
Johnny just knows he’s going to lose a few buttons by the way Jaehyun’s holding him. He’s strong, as strong as Johnny imagined he might be. Enough to keep him from moving, robes pulled taught and tight around his neck. But Johnny doesn’t mind. Their mouths move hot and warm together, bodies held flush. He uses his feet on the steps as a lever to keep Jaehyun from going anywhere, knees locked around him, not that he thinks Jaehyun is at risk of fleeing.
Something drops, loud and heavy, from around the corner.
“Gods!” says Johnny pulling away, smiling.
He’d entirely forgotten where they were, in a public place.
Jaehyun is grinning too. “Maybe… not here?”
“Definitely not.” Johnny laughs. “Come with me. I still have to pick up that book. It’s on the third floor. We can sprint there in a heartbeat.”
“Sounds good to me,” says Jaehyun.
There’s a flush of pure exhilaration running through Johnny’s breast as he grabs Jaehyun’s hand and runs. They dash across the floor, hearing voices but seeing nobody, making for the next flight of stairs. Johnny let’s go only so he can climb the steps, their feet almost soundless. His body feels lighter than air despite the hefty pounding of his heart.
Master Jongin’s office is located in a corner right next to the stairs. Johnny is in and out in barely a few seconds. He grins as Jaehyun stares at the heavy tome wide-eyed. Restorative Spells of the Night.
“That’s your homework?”
“Not to be confused with the stuff that only works during the day. It’s good stuff, yeah.”
Its Jaehyun who takes his hand when they skip down the stairs, only to come up short on the bottom step. Johnny slams into his back, but Jaehyun is a rock.
“Wait–“ says Jaehyun.
Jaehyun shushes him and Johnny is confused until he points to the stairs on the other side of the room where Doyoung has just appeared.
Johnny casts muffle then says, “You’re hiding from Doyoung?”
His words bounce back at him within the bubble, ringing in his ears.
Jaehyun says, “Not exactly, but—he’s been kind of weird lately. And what’s he doing in the Restoration Ward anyway?”
The answer comes seconds later. Taeyong comes out from one of the rooms, a look of mild surprise on his face, but not shock.
“You again, huh?” says Taeyong. He’s looking though at a small wooden canister in Doyoung’s arms. “Is that for me?”
Doyoung nods. He’s chewing on his lip, anxious about something even as he sits down on the nearest bench and opens the box. From it he pulls out two meat pies and hands one to Taeyong who sits down beside him.
“Thanks,” says Taeyong who eats it nonchalantly.
Johnny is… so very confused. And by his expression, so is Jaehyun.
“How uhm… are you?” Doyoung starts.
Taeyong shrugs. “Being stalked like always, but hey at least he brings me food.”
Doyoung scowls and looks away. “You could always tell me to leave.”
“And miss out on this?” It’s unclear whether he means the pie in his hand or the direction he waves it in, at Doyoung’s person. “You’re persistent, I’ll give you that. Wooing skills boosted by your gifts if not by your face.”
Doyoung screws up his lips and looks, if anything, even more pissed off.
“Ahh,” laughs Taeyong. “There’s the attitude we all know and love.”
“Yes. And you’re resilient. Which one of us will win out?”
By now Johnny would have stomped out but Doyoung does nothing except dig his fingers into his thighs and grimace from emotional pain.
“Why then?” He whispers after a few seconds of silence. His own pie lays untouched in the box. “Why do you sometimes act so nice to me? And other times not.”
“It’s because you’re fun to mess with. And you haven’t caught on that I don’t really like you and I find that fascinating. ”
Taeyong actually gives him a sympathetic smile but then goes on to finish his pie all supremely unconcerned.
Johnny feels Jaehyun’s fingers digging into his waistline, feels the anger beginning to radiate from his body as only an Illusion mage can detect. It’s within his power to calm him down, he thinks, but then that wouldn’t be fair and in any case, he’s interrupted by Doyoung speaking again.
“I don’t know why I bother. You’re just like your friends.”
Taeyong hums. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You’re all just so damn loyal.”
“And?” says Doyoung incredulously. “You seriously don’t forget anything. Anything! You, your stupid Conjuration friends. You think Johnny even knows how to be nice, with the way he’s acting like he likes Jaehyun.”
Johnny’s jaw drops. Jaehyun’s fingers are already loosening and falling away.
“I don’t get your point,” says Taeyong, and Johnny silently begs him to say something in his defense.
Except, Johnny’s hasn’t talked to them honestly about his feelings. He barely even knew before today that he had them!
And then Taeyong says, “Whatever games Johnny wants to play is not my business.”
Doyoung stares at him with livid fury. Moments later he’s slamming the box closed and standing up. Johnny doesn’t realize Jaehyun has left his side until the muffle pops and the spell comes down around him. Johnny reaches out. Jaehyun’s robes are already beyond him. Helpless, he watches Jaehyun stride across the floor until he gets to Doyoung’s side. With a hand on his shoulder, he says, “Let’s go.”
Doyoung doesn’t have time to react. Jaehyun is pulling him away from Taeyong and down the final flight of stairs, down and away from Taeyong, and Johnny.
The floor is quiet. Taeyong sits there still in no small bit of shock. That’s when Johnny steps out of the shadows and Taeyong’s eyes widen even more.
“Johnny? How- how long were you… you two standing there?”
But Johnny doesn’t answer.
“You really are an ass, do you know that?”
They’re sitting around a corner table in the village tavern, Johnny with his dinner mostly untouched, Taeyong with a scowl on his face.
“Look! I’ve told you it hasn’t even been that long. I just don’t know what to do with him.”
“You don’t have to do anything,” says Johnny. “If you don’t like him tell him—“
“You think I haven’t done that!? Multiple times?”
“Well, you obviously haven’t said it enough!”
Taeyong grabs Johnny’s arm which is flung up in indignation and drags it towards his bowl of stew. “Eat, by the gods, just eat, will you? And since when have you been Doyoung’s defender.” Softly, he adds, “I thought that was Jaehyun’s job.”
At the mention of his name, Johnny feels a terrible chill drop through his spine. Jaehyun hearing those words, Jaehyun walking away from him. By the time Johnny had sprinted down the stairs, neither Doyoung nor Jaehyun were anywhere to be seen. And Johnny wasn’t about to barge into the basement of the Destruction Tower on his own, not if there was the least possibility Jungwoo could be waiting there to turn him into a pile of smoldering bones.
“I’m not… defending him… I’m just…”
Neither Sicheng nor Yuta have contributed anything to this conversation so far. Both are sitting there, side by side with their eyebrows lifted high and making subtle motions to the other not to interfere.
With Johnny’s argument dying upon his lips, Taeyong finally turns to them.
“Seriously, if any one of those guys had suddenly approached one of you, trying to be all ‘sweet talk’ and nice and bringing you food, you’d have hexed them, right?”
Sicheng says, “No,” but Yuta nods his head vigorously. “Seriously?” says Sicheng.
“What? I’d be suspicious. Wouldn’t you?”
Johnny finally agrees to take a spoonful of his dinner but the stew tastes flat and tasteless on his tongue.
“It is suspicious,” says Taeyong. “Anyways, at first I thought it was. Now, I’m honestly not sure.” The doubt is there to be heard.
“So,” says Johnny. “You’re saying you just don’t believe his intentions or what?”
Taeyong sighs. “He’s so persistent, Johnny. I’ve been… testing him to see if he’d give up, but I’m starting to believe it really isn’t a game and… it’s just weird! Ok?!”
“I get it, I get it.” Johnny doesn’t want to, but he really does. Isn’t this almost how it began with him and Jaehyun?
Uhhhhnnn , Jaehyun. Once again, he’s terrified about Jaehyun.
“You don’t have to be so mean though, ok?’
Taeyong nods but mutters, “He’s lucky I didn’t hex him. Seriously lucky.”
Yuta says, “You’re a Restoration mage, what hexes do you even know?”
Which Taeyong takes great offense at. “Excuse me, I have other skills, thank you very much! Are you done eating, Johnny, or do you want to sit there and stare at your food for another hour? Come on, I’ll walk you home.”
Taeyong apologizes after that, for the words he insinuated, for the problems he might have caused. “I wasn’t thinking, I’m really sorry.” And, “Do you really like Jaehyun?”
Johnny counts the number of buildings between the tavern and his uncle’s house. There’s thirteen of them tonight and every night. Half of the porch steps have gone dark, their owners blowing out the lanterns and torches. Just a few are lit by magelight controlled by lengthening spells prescribed by the castle mages.
“I think so, yeah. What do you actually think about Doyoung?”
Taeyong sounds tired. “Honestly, I don’t even know yet. Kind of want to see if he’ll even talk to me again after today. If he does, maybe then I’ll consider it.”
It’s hard to stay mad at Taeyong. He is, after all, Johnny’s best friend and the guy who saved him from his friendlessness existence. Not to mention he took Johnny’s side immediately in the feud between him and the Destruction mages. In all this time, Taeyong has never wavered, never betrayed him, never even annoyed him for longer than a day- that time he got so stressed about choosing his second school of magic, Alchemy over his first preferred choice, Destruction.
Taeyong’s never been mean though, not to anybody. But he’s also never shown signs of really liking somebody either.
“You’ve really never liked anybody since you came to the College?”
Taeyong laughs. “I’ve liked loads of people. Doesn’t mean I wanted to date them all.”
“But with Doyoung?”
Taeyong stops and puts a hand up on Johnny’s shoulder, smile a little crooked and teeth shining in the reflection of the moons. He opens his mouth a couple of times, so Johnny finishes for him.
“Too soon to tell?”
“Yeah, man. Too soon.”
They keep on walking, past the tenth house and Johnny can see his uncle’s shop coming up. The lantern above the door is still lit as it always is until Johnny gets home. There’s a light on above in the room that belongs to Kun.
There’s also a silhouette leaning against the door, and it’s too tall to be Ten.
“Jaehyun,” breathes Johnny with so much relief. The tension immediately drains from his shoulders and Taeyong laughs low beside him.
“Guess this is where I get off. Goodnight, Johnny, and… for what it was worth… I was just trying to be a loyal friend.”
Johnny shoves him away and Taeyong wastes no time turning around for his bedroom above the tavern. Meanwhile, Johnny’s feet shuffle forward with a life of their own until he can see Jaehyun perfectly in the flesh, arms crossed over his chest, one ankle crossed over the other, a slightly beleaguered smile that confirms what Johnny has been hoping this whole time: that they’re going to be okay.
“Hi,” he says.
Jaehyun continues to smile, body unmoving. “Hi.”
Johnny is suddenly feeling sheepish. Isn’t this the guy he dared to push against a wall and kiss not a couple of hours ago? “You’re uh… here, huh?”
“I thought about going to see you at the tavern but got intimidated by the idea of walking into your pile of friends.”
“You wouldn’t have died.”
“No, but one of them might’ve.”
Johnny laughs. “Uh yeah, take that up with Taeyong. I’ve already said my words to him.”
“I figured you had.”
Johnny takes a step closer. His arms hang limply by his side, unsure if he’s supposed to do something useful like reach out to Jaehyun or scratch his own ass.
“You’re not… I hope you didn’t believe what he said about me, about us.”
Jaehyun hums, and for once he looks a tiny bit doubtful. “I’ll admit at the moment it had me pissed, but… it’s not that way between us, right?”
“It’s not. You’re right.”
Jaehyun unfolds his arm and stands upright. Johnny finally gets his nerves under control and slinks one large hand over the outside of Jaehyun’s wrist.
“It’s not a game,” he says. “And I really, really want to pick up where we stopped earlier.”
Half an hour later, the moons have climbed a little higher in the sky. More of the street lights have flickered off, and Ten finally sticks his head outside the door to find out why Johnny is taking so long to come inside. Johnny barely moves his lips away from the curve of Jaehyun’s neck when Ten says, “Oh! Hi, there. I’ll just… go bunk up with Kun tonight, if you guys… you know… Ugh, what a hardship for me. Goodnight!”