Taeyong knows he’s late to class because the sun is up.
There’s a brief, ever-fleeting moment where he stares at the light through the gaps in the blinds, wondering if he even cares anymore.
Then he sits up, and curses.
Taeyong is so certain he’d set an alarm, but he must’ve slept through it, scrambling to pull on his uniform and grab his books and equipment in time. His phone’s lock screen is blocked by a long wall of texts, all of them from Mark asking him where the hell he is.
He punches in a quick coming now, and shoves his phone into his back pocket, fiddling with his shirt sleeves as he races across campus. God he wishes he had a spell to make it less crinkled.
Not that he could use it if he did.
His first class of the week is held outside, which is a small bonus, because it means there’s no awkward sneaking through the doors as Taeyong spots the class gathered on the grass in the Old Quad. Everyone has their laptops out, furiously typing notes as Professor Zhang summarizes the findings of the day.
Taeyong spots Mark towards the back, and creeps towards him while Zhang’s turned away to point at a few clouds dotting the horizon.
“Lee Taeyong.” Taeyong freezes in place, squeezing his eyes shut. “Nice of you to finally join us.”
He ducks his head. “Sorry professor, my alarm--”
“I don’t want any more excuses.” Professor Zhang turns around, giving Taeyong an exasperated look. The raven familiar on his shoulder ruffles its feathers. “It is called divination at dawn, Lee. Not divination in broad daylight.”
Most of the class snickers at that, even Mark. Traitor.
“I know, professor, I’m sorry--”
“As such I would prefer you not disrupt my class any further.” Zhang turns back around, disinterested. “I will speak with you privately after the class has ended.”
Recognising a scolding when he gets one, Taeyong smiles awkwardly, and creeps away from the grassy quad, feeling the judgemental stares of his peers prickle on his neck. Mark shoots him a hopeless, piteous smile, and Taeyong sighs and walks back to their assigned classroom to sit and wait at the first desk he passes. God, he’s so tired. Part of him feels like crying after being so publicly roasted, and part of him is too exhausted to even manage that.
Taeyong grunts, letting his forehead rest on the tabletop. Will Professor Zhang chew him out if he naps real quick before his scolding?
He doesn’t end up finding out, because the class is over and finished a quick ten minutes later, with Taeyong spending it nervously fidgeting in his spot. When Professor Zhang enters the room he looks less strict and more tired, rubbing his temple.
“That was the third time in a row, Taeyong,” Zhang says, exasperated.
“I know,” Taeyong is quick to refute. “I set like, a billion alarms and I still slept through them--”
“If you are not designed for early mornings Taeyong then why did you take this class?” Taeyong’s mouth snaps shut. Zhang crosses his arms and looks at him, filled with disappointment.
Taeyong gulps. “I was told by student support to take as broad a range of subjects as possible,” Taeyong answers, then tacks on, “sir.”
“As great as it is for an aspiring warden to take as many magics as he can feasibly handle, there is such a thing as doing too much at once.” Zhang purses his lips. His familiar’s beady eyes makes Taeyong nervous, but that’s nothing new, shuffling a bit back to put space between him and it. Familiars are only for the most powerful and qualified of witches, and to touch them is considered disrespectful. It always worries him. “If you miss this class again you won’t meet the attendance requirement, and I’ll have to fail you.”
Taeyong’s eyes widen. “What? Professor, please --”
“Rules are rules, Taeyong, I’m sorry.” At least he does look a little apologetic, even as Taeyong’s heart splinters. He’s really fucked up missing so many classes so early in the semester, and none of them by choice. “Have you considered perhaps withdrawing before the consensus date? Perhaps half-timing would better suit.”
Taeyong rubs the back of his neck. “I can’t. Disadvantaged students have to be full-time to be accepted by the program.”
Not to mention that this is the second time Taeyong has made it this far. He can’t fuck it up twice .
Professor Zhang gives a sympathetic smile. “Then perhaps you should cut back whatever it is on the weekends that have you sleeping in on Mondays.” He squeezes Taeyong’s shoulder. “Next time my tea leaves tell me you’ll be late, I hope you prove them wrong. I want to see you there first thing next Monday, Taeyong.”
Taeyong stands, nodding. “Of course Professor,” he promises. “I’ll be there.”
As he walks out of the classroom, there’s a hollow emptiness propelling Taeyong’s feet forward. The more he drowns in it, the more he feels like crying.
His phone chimes with a text from Mark.
Come to the coffee house before you start bawling, you big baby
At least that makes Taeyong smile, even if it’s wobbly.
Mark’s in their usual spot by the corner booth by the time Taeyong crosses campus to get to him. He only has an hour until his next lecture, an hour he should be spending studying for his test tomorrow, but Taeyong’s so exhausted he doesn’t think a single word would stick in his brain even if he tried.
“You look like shit,” is the first thing Mark says, sliding Taeyong’s pink drink across the table.
“I feel like shit,” Taeyong agrees, sighing as the hit of sugar and caffeine increases his will to live incrementally. “I set an alarm... I don’t know how I slept through it.”
“What time did you get back from work last night?”
Taeyong winces. “Three.”
“Well, that might have something to do with it.”
Taeyong stubbornly stabs his straw into the milky slush. “It’s not my fault Professor Zhang chose to host his class at dusk instead of dawn!”
“It wasn’t a choice, he actually explained today why sunrise is better than sunset,” Mark explains. “Dusk is much more suited to psychometry and other past-related magics, whereas dawn helps to channel the new beginnings of the future.”
Taeyong whines. “You’re not helping!”
“I’m sorry man, you know I love divination!!” Taeyong does know this, even if he doesn’t understand it. He hadn’t cared for it even before when his magic worked. “It was a really great class today too... Why don’t you just take Sundays off?”
“I get paid better on Sundays, I need the money.” Taeyong groans and scrubs his face, at a complete loss of what to do. “Maybe if I just… skip Friday therapy I can work then instead and--”
“Woah man.” Mark puts a hand on Taeyong’s shoulder to stop him. “Of all the shit you fill your week with that’s like, the most important one.”
“Is it?” Taeyong grunts. “Because it isn’t working.”
“It’s only been a few months, what do you expect?” Taeyong angrily slurps up a mouthful of pink drink and whines when he gets a brain freeze, pressing his thumb to the roof of the mouth and looking at Mark with puppy-dog eyes. Mark sighs. “Maybe there’s another angle here, like… what do you do on Thursday nights after Enchanting?”
“Try to finish all the writing assignments I have to do instead of practical exams.” Mark pulls a face, and Taeyong groans. “It’s hopeless. I’m doomed. I’ll never get my license, I should just give up now, lose my scholarship, go back home and bury myself in dishonor away from the family graveyard.”
“You have a family graveyard?” Mark looks dazed, then shakes it off. “Wait, that’s not important. What matters here is that being a warden is your dream man.” Mark slaps Taeyong’s arm repeatedly in his excitement. “You can’t give that up just because of a little hiccup.”
“The hiccup being my lack of magic?”
“A small road bump,” Mark offers with a timid smile. Taeyong can barely return it. “You’ll get it back though dude, isn’t that what the doctors said? Isn’t that why you’re here?”
“I guess.” Taeyong rests his chin on the table, and stares at his hands splayed out in front of him. Before, Taeyong would just breathe and feel the magic flood him, spread through his veins to the tips of his fingers like sparks, like chills, like the feeling of going into the warmth after being in the cold, like blood flowing back into cut-off limbs with pins and needles. Now, his skin is numb, and his veins are hollow. Taeyong was promised a change in scenery and a little muscle memory simulation would bring it all back, but he’s just as empty as he had been at the start.
He misses it more than anything in the world.
“That’s the spirit!” Mark slaps Taeyong’s back again with the strength of a small twig. “Chin up dude, I’m sure it’ll work itself out in no time.”
Taeyong frowns when he goes to drink his pink drink and finds the cup is empty, nothing but the dregs of ice and strawberries left at the bottom of the plastic cup.
“You like divination,” he prompts, tipping it towards Mark. “Does it say my future will work itself out?”
“Man you know this shit is hard when it’s not tea leaves, right?” Mark reluctantly takes the cup anyway, popping off the plastic lid to swirl it around some more. He frowns into it. “Huh.”
“What?” Taeyong perks up. He’d only been half-joking when he’d handed the cup to Mark. Fancy coffee drinks give vague prophecies at the best of times, with the same amount of accuracy as an online astrology test, but Mark’s expression looks concerned. “What does it say?”
His big eyes are a little glazed over, like they are whenever time magic speaks to him, whispers words that Taeyong has never been privy to hear, even when he had magic.
“It’s just…” Mark trails off, frowning. “...A coiled snake? Good fortune lies inside its bindings, but don’t let it strike.”
Mark shrugs, and his eyes sharpen back into focus, handing the cup to Taeyong again. “I dunno either man, that’s just what I read.”
Taeyong looks down at his frappucino remnants warily, nothing but watery syrup and ice. Not a snake to be seen in the slightest. “What is this shit, some confuscian proverb?” He grunts, and tosses the cup into the bin beside them. “Waste of money.”
Mark lets out an indignant noise. “Don’t doubt my divine wisdom, bro!”
Taeyong’s week had started off rough to begin with, but still finds a way to go downhill. He finds out he failed last week’s enchantment test and now has to write a two-thousand word essay to make the grade up, his runes class has a group project coming up and neither of his partners will talk to him, and despite having just handed in his essay on the history of modern transfiguration in the 20th century, Professor Kim has already made it clear that she’s not particularly impressed with it.
Which is all just. Great. Fantastic. The Academy was a lot easier for Taeyong back in the regular program, where it was less about books and more about, like, magic .
But that’s why he’d been transferred to this school to begin with,, the board had explained. Their sister Academy in Seoul was known for its exemplary supplementary program for students with ‘disadvantages’ that could hinder their progress towards getting their license, as well as a deep-rooted support network in the city itself for, quote unquote, ‘minority magi’.
On paper it had seemed like a miracle solution, in actuality it feels like the reverse.
Especially since every Friday, instead of going to work and getting money so he can pay all the crazy fees required for the exchange program, Taeyong has to attend group therapy.
He’d been more enthusiastic about it the first few times, knowing that there were other magi out there in similar situations to him, but group therapy is about as tacky as it appears on television. While Taeyong can give kudos to the magi community for being so avant-garde with their treatment of illness compared to their non-magi counterparts, it still kinda sucks.
“That’s because it doesn’t work for you,” Ten supplies as Taeyong complains as much. “You’re kinda… impatient.”
“I’m not impatient,” Taeyong says, frowning. He glances around at the half-empty circle. “Can people arrive so we get this over with already? I have work to do.”
Ten gives Taeyong a look, then quietly sighs. “Somebody had a bad week.”
Taeyong frowns harder. “Of course I had a bad week. I still don’t have my magic back!!” Ten scratches his nose in embarrassment, shirking into his seat as Taeyong’s raised voice gains curious glances from the partially filled circles of chairs.
“I’m telling you,” Ten says, “group therapy just isn’t for everyone. Maybe it’s time you try something different.”
“Like what?” Taeyong bemoans. The medi-witches he frequents calls it MDD: magic disconnection disorder. It’s historically rare, not only out of lack of cases but from lack of information on said cases. It’s only gained real notoriety and attention in the last half a century. It sucks; there’s only so many treatments available. One witch doctor wanted to physically shock the magic back into Taeyong --he still has nightmares about it.
“Like something a little less… mainstream.”
Trust Ten to call medicine mainstream. Taeyong opens his mouth to call him out on such a thing but Ten cracks his knuckles and a flash of black ink at his wrist catches the corner of Taeyong’s eye.
“Woah man,” Taeyong notes. “That’s a big doodle.”
“Oh, this?” Ten blinks down at his hand. “Uh…”
Whatever he’s going to say is shut off by the therapist that runs these sessions, Nayeon. Taeyong likes her well enough, she’s cheery and open and good at getting them all to talk, but she has her magic. She doesn’t know what it’s like.
None of them do, in fact. While they all struggle with their connection to magic it’s… different. Even Ten can use magic but not sense it, causing his spells to either spiral out of control or fizzle out. There’s Momo at the other end of the circle, who has a connection that flickers like static, rough and inconsistent. Even Doyoung, who’s usually quiet most weeks, opens up about his struggles with blocking magic out , he’s like a sponge that can’t stop absorbing it, which is the absolute fucking opposite to Taeyong. He’s the one-of-a-kind case at these sessions; he just doesn’t have magic at all.
“Taeyong?” Nayeon prompts. “Do you have anything to share with the group today?”
Taeyong thinks about his exhaustion, about the way he feels like giving up and embracing the life of non-magi in his darkest moments, becoming the family disappointment.
But then he remembers his family, his dream, and shakes his head.
“No,” he answers. “Not today.”
Nayeon nods, looking disappointed but not pushing. “Ten?”
“Actually, I’ve found new methods to balance myself,” he says, which has Taeyong’s eyes widening as he stares to look at Ten. “My magic sensory is heightened and it helps.”
“Really?” Nayeon looks surprised. “How has that been for you?”
“I’ve made a lot of progress.” Ten lowers his hand --the one with the black markings snaking along the forearm, and draws a circle on the ground with his fingertips to conjure a small flame. It’s a simple spell, one all magi regardless of specialisation can cast. It measures control. If the flame flickers, there’s not enough magic being poured into it --if it enlarges, it’s too much. Ten’s flame is steady and warm, something completely unexpected for a person with his disorder. “Work hard enough and you can overcome anything.”
Taeyong can see the way the others’ faces light up, inspired by Ten’s improvement. Even Nayeon looks impressed. All Taeyong feels, however, is dread. He and Ten were shipped off into the same Academy program around the same time --Ten’s magic is under control. Why isn’t Taeyong’s?
“That’s amazing, Ten.” Nayeon looks so proud. Doyoung cheers a little and the others join in. Taeyong just feels his stomach sink lower and lower.
The session ends like all the others before it, and Taeyong grabs Ten’s marked wrist as they’re walking out.
“Hey, how come you didn’t tell me you got so good?” he asks, trying not to sound as prickly as he feels.
Ten only shrugs. “You didn’t ask?”
Taeyong scoffs. “You’re like… cured . How did that never come up?” He’d seen Ten last Friday after all, who’d just stayed silent in the session as Taeyong had, solidarity in how long they’d been attending the fruitless events.
“It’s a recent thing,” Ten offers, looking a little nervous. He glances about and tugs Taeyong further out onto the street, back towards the subway station that will take them back to the Academy’s college town. “I just tried some like… alternative methods. Y’know.”
“Like what?” Taeyong asks, because he doesn’t know but the curiosity is killing him and not the cat.
“There’s this dude in Itaewon, a witch, he does some… alternative stuff.”
“Like…? Casting spells with a wand or what?” Taeyong’s heard of hipsters with sepia-saturated Instagram feeds bringing that back into fashion. It’s dumb. Wands are dumb .
“Like… stuff that’s kinda not legal, Taeyong,” Ten says with an air of exasperation, pinching the bridge of his nose. Taeyong’s jaw drops , it’s a good thing he and Ten are speaking quietly so the people stepping into the subway don’t understand.
“ Illegal!?” Taeyong repeats, shocked. “Illegal how ?”
“Not super illegal just like… lightly illegal,” Ten offers. “He has a killer Instagram page, I can link you and stuff--”
“No!” Taeyong shouts, gaining concerned looks from the people around him. “I can’t break the law! I’ll get in trouble!!!”
Ten rolls his eyes. “It’s not that illegal, just… casually.”
“Casually illegal,” Taeyong repeats in disbelief, voice high-pitched. “Great.”
“You’re being dramatic,” Ten chastises. “Jaywalking is illegal but you do that sometimes.”
“Jaywalking is illegal?!” Taeyong’s eyes widen. “Oh my god, I’ll never be able to cross a road again.”
“Calm down .” Ten pinches Taeyong’s ear, making him yelp. “He’s not like a drug lord or anything, he just does some things he technically needs a license for but doesn’t have--”
“ Stop ,” Taeyong whines. “Just telling me about it feels illegal. I don’t want to know.”
“You should,” Ten counters. “He really helped me, he’s kind of amazing. He might be able to help you too.”
As tempting as that sounds, legal lines aside, Taeyong knows he’s a lost case.
“Can we just talk about something else?” he pleads. “I really, really don’t want to go jail.”
“You’re overreacting, but fine.” Ten scoffs, folding his arms. He looks perturbed, which Taeyong would usually feel guilty about, but these days he’s too busy bathing in self-loathing to deal with empathy. “No one can help you if you won’t help yourself, you know that, right?”
Taeyong stays silent.
After a weekend of working at the dakgalbi restaurant in the centre of the Academy’s college town, going back to class on Monday feels exhausting. At least Taeyong actually wakes up for divination at dawn, and gets to spend his lost hours of sleep staring at peach and apricot speckled clouds wondering if he’s meant to hear mysterious voices through all the quiet.
It’s a no-go, as always, but he gets coffee with Mark afterwards as per tradition --and to wake him up. God bless the pink drink for making espresso palatable.
Life goes on. Lectures to attend, notes to take, papers to write. Taeyong gets a C- on his latest runic masterpiece, which sufficiently kills his mood for the rest of his day. His first run through at the Academy was all about the practical applications of magic, because that’s what matters for a warden. Theory is for the witch academics that want to devote their lives to the science behind magic --not Taeyong. Taeyong had been a hard-worker with the skills of a magi prodigy, and now he’s just… nothing.
It’s a strange sensation, if only because it makes Taeyong’s life blur together, starting to lose track of time and feelings. He can’t remember what he had for breakfast yesterday, and if he can, he can’t remember if that was yesterday or the day before. It’s a strange, numbing sensation that disconnects him from life as much as magic.
Taeyong is, simply put, tired.
Which is why when his enchanting professor pulls Taeyong aside after class on Wednesday, he barely even reacts to it, just approaches her desk at the bottom of the hall with tired footsteps.
“I’m sorry Taeyong, but that paper simply wasn’t good enough.” She frowns at him. “I’m not sure what else we can do. Without you being able to take part in the practical exams it seems unlikely I’ll be able to let you pass this class.”
Taeyong’s eyes widen. “What? Professor, no . I can’t fail this class. I can’t .”
“I’m sorry Taeyong.” She looks it too. “You’re a special requirements student, yes, but if you can’t pass the special requirements I set then there’s nothing else I can do. You were scheduled to have your magic back by now, weren’t you? The faculty had been alerted of such.”
“I--” Taeyong stammers. “--Yes, but my recovery hasn’t been um... as smooth as expected--”
“I can see that.” Her expression turns piteous. “Perhaps a different route should be considered. There’s only so much we can do to adjust.”
She pats his shoulder gently, then packs up her things and leaves, Taeyong standing completely still, unmoving, lost in shock. He doesn’t understand why this is happening. He used to be the top of his class, the nation’s prodigy, streamlined into warden training.
One little fuck up and that all crumbles around him.
There are plenty of MDD patients who regain their powers within a small manner of months, Taeyong was told he’d be one of them. It was trauma-related, after all, not genetic. It would be easy to heal and absolve.
So why isn’t it working?
Why is Taeyong’s life falling apart?
With everything he’s ever known crumbling around him, it’s sheer desperation that finds Taeyong alighting at Itaewon come Friday night, a nervous energy filling him out to the tips of his fingers. It’s uncomfortable, and he ends up buying a paper bag of deli manju just to stop himself from combusting.
When he’d texted Ten an essay-worthy apology and then sent a lot of puppy-eyed KKT stickers, Ten had replied, figured you’d come crawling back , and sent him a link to an Instagram page.
Which is, at first glance, a flower shop, located in the back-alley hills of Itaewon. It’s called the bronze snake , lowercase letters and all; it’s small, tucked between a famous cafe that was a site of a drama-filming and a foreign restaurant, but its interior decoration is quaint and homely. There’s also a lot of pictures of a grey cat lounging around the flowers --something of a store mascot, according to the captions.
It’s so nondescript and normal Taeyong wonders if Ten has told him to go to the wrong place, but Ten ensures him that it’s the place to go to, and if he wants what he’s looking for, he should ask for Baekhyun.
The interior of the flower shop is exactly what it looks like online. It’s cluttered with flowers Taeyong can’t name, and what little space is left behind on the walls is filled with intricate drawings and art pieces that have Taeyong’s attention torn in half. There’s a centre table littered with small arrangements, and a windowsill where a grey cat lounges in the sunlight outside. The bell above the door tinkles as Taeyong walks in, but there’s nobody to be seen.
“Hi kitty,” he greets, offering his hand out. “What’s your name?”
The cat sniffs his knuckles with disinterest, then rubs its cheeks over Taeyong’s fingers. Feeling like he’s the chosen one, Taeyong beams.
“Can I help you?”
Embarrassed to be caught cooing over a cat, Taeyong pulls his hand behind his back and spins around, the cat in question lazily flopping its head back down. Taeyong wants to answer what he knows he wants to answer --that his friend Ten sent him here, that he’s looking for Baekhyun-- but the worker in question is so fucking beautiful Taeyong has forgotten every word in the Korean language.
“I--” he stammers. “I um, I.”
“You…?” the man prompts, looking a mixture of amused and bothered, like Taeyong is wasting his time. He probably is. The man is so stunningly attractive anyone below an eleven would be wasting is time.
“Um, Baekhyun,” Taeyong blurts, because it’s all he can manage. The worker arches an eyebrow, folding his arms across his chest. He’s only wearing a simple white Supreme t-shirt and black jeans, but it accentuates his broad shoulders and the tattoos snaking down his arms. Literally. There’s a long black snake coiled around his left arm, its scales replaced by intricate lines and markings. It’s artistic, beautiful, and intimidating.
“That would be me,” the worker -- Baekhyun -- replies, still looking unimpressed. “Can I help you?”
Regaining himself, Taeyong clears his throat and says, “My friend um, Ten? Sent me.”
Recognition flashes through Baekhyun’s dark eyes. He hums.
“Ah that explains it then,” Baekhyun mutters to himself. “Why you reek of magic but don’t emanate it.”
Taeyong’s eyebrows furrow together. “You’re a witch?” Baekhyun doesn’t answer, simply turns to attend to some of the plants behind him instead. “Wait, I-- Ten said you could help me.”
“That depends,” Baekhyun answers, still examining some of his plants instead. “Do you want to be helped?”
“What?” Taeyong blinks. “Of course I do!” It’s why he’d come here after all, isn’t it? Jeez .
Baekhyun seems unconvinced, but shrugs. “Okay, follow me.” He leads Taeyong to a door at the back of store. “Pija, you’re in charge!” He thinks Taeyong hears the cat huff in answer, but he must be imagining things.
“You named your cat after pizza?” Taeyong asks, still no answer. Baekhyun opens the back room and gestures for Taeyong to sit on the centre cot, which looks like something someone would lie on visiting the dentist. In fact, the whole back room is in stark difference to the rest of the shop, with a high shelf filled with tumbling ivy pots being the only speck of green. There’s a large black cabinet on wheels, and a small kitchenette. It’s stark white and spotless, but the walls are covered in more of those black and white drawings like the ones outside. It’s the only thing that ties the room together.
“Do you drink tea?” Baekhyun asks. Taeyong, completely lost and completely stunned, can only nod dumbly. He presses the button of an electric kettle and leaves it to boil, leaning against the kitchen counter. It’s an effortlessly handsome motion that leaves Taeyong’s mouth dry.
How did he get here again?
“So… you must be Ten’s friend from the therapy group, right?” Still speechless, Taeyong nods. “He told me you might be coming, my tea leaves said the same.”
So he’s a divination witch? It comforts Taeyong a little, because he’s surrounded by them. It seems so easy to forget that Ten had called Baekhyun not completely legal when everything has been so harmless thus far. Though the snake tattoo begs to differ, it reeks of rebellion, considering most tattoo artists in Korea work illegally.
“Um, yeah?” Taeyong offers. “But my problem is, um, different to his.”
“He said as much.” Another easy shrug. Taeyong wonders if there’s a store he can go to, to buy Baekhyun’s effortless carefree attitude for himself. “So what is it?”
The direct question makes Taeyong falter. “Pardon?”
“What is it?” Baekhyun repeats. “What’s your problem?”
It’s such a blunt way of asking Taeyong is unsure of how to answer. “Oh,” he says. “I… I lost my magic. I have MDD.”
Baekhyun, mid-way through reaching for teacups in the cabinet above his head, pauses.
“That’s impossible,” he argues. “You can’t lose magic.”
“Well, I did,” Taeyong offers, shirking into his shoulders a little. “I can’t cast spells, I can’t sense it, it’s just… gone.”
“See, that’s different,” Baekhyun points out, grabbing two teacups in one hand and settling them on the counter as he scoops tea leaves into two strainers. “Losing magic sense is not the same as losing magic . Magic is a part of you no matter what happens to you, whether you can use it or sense it. It would be like losing your heart or your brain. You’re nothing without them.”
Funny, because Taeyong doesn’t know how else to explain the cavern in his chest, other than this deep-seated sense of loss.
“Then… I lost my sense of magic,” Taeyong corrects, though it seems somewhat nitpicky to him. “Ten said you could help me get it back.”
“I can help you find the right tools to get it back,” Baekhyun corrects, pouring hot water through the strainer into each teacup. “But using them properly is up to you.”
That makes Taeyong slump, disappointed. Ten’s fix had seemed so quick and simple; why isn’t Taeyong’s?
“Okay, well, how do I get these tools?” Taeyong asks.
“You’re jumping to a conclusion too quickly,” Baekhyun consoles, placing a teacup in front of Taeyong. He watches the steam curl to keep his eyes off of Baekhyun’s intimidating, handsome face. “How this process works is about you . I can’t even begin to think about what the proper procedure might be until I know more about you.”
“Okay,” Taeyong tries, growing somewhat impatient but holding it back. “And what does that mean?”
“You told me you have MDD,” Baekhyun says, holding his teacup and blowing at the steam. “How’d that happen? It’s a trauma-caused disorder, isn’t it?”
Taeyong stiffens at the mention, then says, “I don’t see why it matters.”
Baekhyun smirks behind his teacup and leans forward. “And that’s exactly why it matters.”
It has Taeyong leaning back, somewhat put-off. He swallows. Baekhyun certainly seems eccentric and strange; Taeyong is repulsed and drawn to him both. It doesn’t make sense.
Baekhyun settles back against his seat, giving Taeyong more space and helping him relax.
“Just tell me about yourself,” Baekhyun says, waving his hands. “What you’re doing with your life, et cetera et cetera.”
So Taeyong begins to answer, the somewhat easy scripted response. This smalltalk is familiar for the son of a politician and a warden, used to stuffy gatherings and forced interactions where it’s a common question. He mentions his dream of graduating from the Academy to become a warden, a witch against chaos and the dark arts. Baekhyun seems to roll his eyes at that, but the movement is so quick Taeyong thinks he’s imagined things.
“After MDD, though…” Taeyong curls his hands around his cup, staring into the coloured water. “...I was put into a specialist program for the disadvantaged, but I’m failing.” He looks up at Baekhyun again. “I have to get my magic back. I have to.”
Baekhyun looks at him for a long moment, and at first Taeyong holds his gaze, but then he’s forced to look away, face turning warm. Curse pretty boys for being his ultimate weakness when Taeyong is trying to put up something of a strong front.
“I’m sorry Taeyong,” Baekhyun says, standing. “But I don’t think I can help you.”
Ice freezes the blood in Taeyong’s veins. “What?”
“You’re just not ready to be helped.” Baekhyun shrugs. “There’s nothing I can do.”
The tiny sliver of hope that Taeyong had fizzles out, and sheer desperation rushes to take its place.
“ No ,” he argues. “No, please, I want to be helped, I’m ready, I am, I-- I can’t lose my magic forever. I can’t .”
Foolishly, Taeyong reaches out to grab Baekhyun’s shoulder, but one of the ivy plants reacts faster and tangles around Taeyong’s wrist, tightening. He gasps as the magic sways the plant to hold him back, eyes widening in shock.
“You’re a chaos witch,” Taeyong accuses, tugging his hand back. The plant unwinds and returns to hanging limp. Baekhyun rolls his eyes.
“See? Exactly the issue.” He opens the door, gesturing for Taeyong to leave. “You warden-types don’t deserve my help.”
It shocks Taeyong, even as he stumbles out, hurt and confused.
“I don’t know what else to do,” he implores. “ Please .”
At least, for a moment, Baekhyun looks pitying.
“If you ever decide you’re ready,” he offers, his voice surprisingly soft. “You can come back. But until then, Taeyong, there’s nothing I can do for you.”
He stumbles out of the shop feeling more lost than he had when he first entered. Baekhyun kicks the door shut behind him.
From the shop window, the grey cat watches him walk away, tail flicking in curiosity.
Taeyong dumps his books on the table.
“I can’t believe you,” he hisses.
“Hi Taeyong, I’m good, how are you?” Ten replies flatly, not looking up from his text book.
“A chaos witch!?!?!?” Taeyong glances around the library, paranoid, then melts into his seat. “That’s how you fixed this?!?!?”
“Don’t point fingers at me,” Ten snaps. “You’re acting like people like us have a lot of choice.”
“We do,” Taeyong tries. Ten looks at him. “...Don’t we?”
He feels less sure.
Ten looks smug to be right but also unhappy about it, as something uncomfortable slides over Taeyong’s skin.
“Baekhyun’s a good guy,” Ten defends. “He helps tons of people in the same situation as us. You can’t dismiss him just because he’s… a little different.”
“A little?” Taeyong repeats in disbelief. Magic can be channeled by witches in one of two ways: order, or chaos. Order magic is the way of scholars, saviours, wardens, runes and channels and careful consideration. Magic is at the end of the day just a power source --order magic ensures that it remains constrained and in check.
But chaos? Chaos magic is the embodiment of letting magic fly free. No runes, no channels, no circles nothing , just sheer power and the hope that the witch using it is good enough to control it.
Which is why chaos magic is completely outlawed for those who haven’t undergone the eight year training program to get their license for it --which, Taeyong assumes, Baekhyun has not, otherwise he’d be working for the Order.
Half of a warden’s duty is tracking down rogue chaos witches, the thought of having one help him get his magic back in the first place…
The more he thinks about it, the worse it begins to feel. Baekhyun was right; Taeyong doesn’t want his help.
“Look,” Ten starts. “You can look down on him all you want, but I got fed up with it all, okay?” Ten sighs, and he looks, as tired as Taeyong feels --how had he not noticed before? “They tell us we’re deranged and diseased and throw us into support groups and classes hoping to burn us out so they can pretend they tried their best when we give up on magic altogether so they don’t have to act like the weak are worth their time.” He sounds frustrated, a sort of anger that frightens Taeyong. It’s bitter, grating, and unbecoming of someone as soft as Ten. “Have you ever considered maybe chaos witches aren’t so different from us? That all the Order wants to do is dispose of the things it can’t fit into rigid lines and boxes?”
“I--” Taeyong draws a blank. “I…”
“Whatever.” Ten shrugs, picking up his books. “If you don’t want Baekhyun’s help then don’t bother. But don’t say I didn’t try.” He stands. “I have a class to go to.”
Taeyong wants to stop him, but his words fall short. All he can do is sit in the library, alone, and wonder why everything in his life that was once structured now feels out of place.
Ten’s words bother Taeyong throughout the week, making him zone out in his lectures and classes. It’s not a good thing, considering Taeyong is already so behind, but with each passing day his hope dwindles out further and further, leaving him bracing himself for the inevitable when he fails out of the Academy and is sent back home.
Work is no better; Taeyong is busy packaging deliveries for the majority of his shift on Sunday, and the monotony of the routine makes him wallow in his own head. Therapy on Friday had been as deadended and pointless as always, and Ten’s words stick like goo to his brain. Taeyong isn’t getting help, no matter how hard he tries; not from Baekhyun, not from anyone at all, and the longer he spends trying to deal with it all alone, the less he feels like he can.
Taeyong fists his hands into his hoodie pockets on the walk home against the cool breeze. With the sun gone the air is chilly and bites through the thin fabric. He should’ve worn more clothes.
He shivers, bracing himself against its assault. He hears a disgruntled mrrp sort of noise from beside him, and glances down, blinking when he spots a familiar grey cat at his feet. It stares back at him with wide gold eyes.
Taeyong’s eyebrows furrow together even as he crouches down. “Where have I seen you before?” he mumbles. It nuzzles against his hands as he strokes over its soft ears. Adorable.
“Taeyong?” a voice calls. Taeyong startles where he’s crouched over, nearly falling back as he looks at a pair of slides in front of him. Following his gaze upwards, he finds an amused Baekhyun glancing down at him, an Olive Young plastic bag dangling off his fingertips next to one from a seven-eleven.
“Oh.” Taeyong blushes, despite himself. “Pija,” he blurts. Baekhyun keeps looking at him with that small smile, like he knows Taeyong wants to say more. He does, but Baekhyun is wearing nothing but a plain white tee and some sweatpants and Taeyong feels speechless. “Um. You walk your cat?”
“She’s clingy,” Baekhyun answers, shrugging. “I don’t live far from here, she likes to walk with me.” The amused smile remains, like there’s a joke Taeyong isn’t in on.
“Oh… that’s cute.” He goes down to rubbing his fingers against Pija’s face and listening to her purrs, just so he can’t stare at Baekhyun for too long. Fuck, this is awkward. Their last meeting had left much to be desired, but Taeyong still experiences that same push and pull. Baekhyun is a chaos witch working in the underground magi society, but there’s also something about him that’s just so… mysterious. Alluring.
But maybe that’s just Taeyong’s thirst talking.
Baekhyun shifts the bags over to the other hand, and the snake tattoo coiled down his right arm ripples with the movement.
“What brings you out here?” he asks. “Wouldn’t you live in the dorms?”
“I do but-- I work around here,” Taeyong answers. The awkwardness grows thicker; Taeyong doesn’t know what to say to stay, but he can’t think of an excuse to leave either.
“Where?” Baekhyun prompts.
“A dakgalbi place around the corner.” Taeyong swallows, even as his finger tips scratch underneath Pija’s chin.
“On top of the Academy?” Baekhyun’s eyebrows raise, and he actually looks impressed. Taeyong hates the way it makes his insides flutter. “Damn.”
“Ah. Yeah…” He rubs the back of his neck, feeling awkward. Baekhyun softens.
“How are you going with it all?” Baekhyun questions. “I know the Special Needs program isn’t exactly forgiving.”
“It’s… exhausting,” Taeyong admits, keeping his eyes fixed on Pija’s closed eyes as he rubs his thumb over her short snout. “I’m about ready to give up.”
He laughs nervously, like the comment is meant to be a joke, but Baekhyun only looks concerned. Which is stupid, because they don’t even know each other --why should he care?
“A week and a half ago you were desperate to keep going. What changed?”
“I don’t know,” Taeyong mumbles. “Nothing. Everything?” His eyes glaze over. “I just feel more and more hopeless each day.”
Baekhyun’s mouth twists, and he looks conflicted for a moment before eventually sighing.
“I’m doing like, a thing with some friends next Friday.” He still looks greatly pained. “I think you should come. So should Ten.”
Taeyong is speechless. “...Huh?”
Baekhyun holds out his phone stubbornly, open to KKT. Taeyong blinks at it.
“Your number?” Baekhyun prompts, back to being amused. Taeyong flushes and picks up the iPhone, quickly thumbing it in. He hands it back, still flustered and overwhelmed. How does every meeting he has with Baekhyun leave him feeling so winded? “Cool. I’ll message you the details.”
“Wh--” Taeyong blinks rapidly, watching as Baekhyun calmly pockets his phone. “...But we have the therapy group on Friday?”
“Just don’t go.” Baekhyun shrugs. “It’s not like it’s helping anyway, right?”
Taeyong doesn’t have a retort for that one.
“But I--” he stumbles, trying to think of an excuse and coming up short. He doesn’t know Baekhyun in the slightest, doesn’t know what this might entail, doesn’t know what he’s walking into and yet, somehow, Taeyong finds it impossible to say no to Baekhyun.
“So I’ll see you there?”
Baekhyun looks expectant, and Taeyong is weak .
“Great.” Baekhyun turns on his heel, and waves his hand. “C’mon Pija.”
The cat mrrps happily, then trots over to follow Baekhyun, leaving Taeyong crouched on the sidewalk, unsure about what exactly just happened.
Not for the first time, Taeyong feels winded.
Taeyong’s phone buzzes on Wednesday when he’s drafting up his paper for his runes class, and he reaches for it instantly, eager to read the message.
It’s just Ten, asking him where he’s studying. Taeyong slumps, but replies nonetheless.
Five minutes later Ten is sliding into the spare seat across from him, pulling out his books as he does so.
“Man.” Ten yawns. “The regular program is like, so different to the special needs one.”
Taeyong bristles internally. “Yeah?”
“Yeah it’s--” Ten catches his expression and cuts off. “Sorry.”
“It’s fine. It’s whatever.” Taeyong shrugs, even as his leg jumps rigorously under the table. “You can talk about it.”
Ten softens. “Have you thought more about wanting Baekhyun to help?” he asks instead. “He told me you ran into each other last week.”
“You talk to him?” Taeyong asks. “About me ?”
“Uh… you’re not a regular topic but you came up, and yeah I talk to him, he helped me out a lot you know. He’s a good guy.” Ten’s eyes narrow, if only just. “Why?”
“What? Nothing. I’m just surprised.” Taeyong clears his throat.
“Okay… well he mentioned he invited you to his party on Friday,” Ten continues. “Are you going? I want to, so it’d be nice to see you there.”
“Party?” Taeyong repeats. Baekhyun had only said… thing , which Taeyong had assumed meant like, a BBQ restaurant or something. Wow, Baekhyun really is a rebel.
“Okay, party is the wrong word, it sounds more like a… ritual?” Ten offers. “I dunno, it’s some sort of chaos thing I don’t get. Would be cool to see it.”
That makes Taeyong nervous. “Wh-- chaos thing?” he repeats, voice lowered. “There’s no way I can go to that.”
“Of course you can,” Ten counters. “Unless you need a permission slip from your parents.”
“It’s not about them!” he argues. “It’s illegal .”
“This again?” Ten looks exasperated. “Baekhyun said you’d already agreed.”
“I didn’t know the details!” Taeyong squeaks. Now he’s beginning to panic, because he doesn’t want to disappoint Baekhyun but doesn’t want to be a part of some sort of dark… underground… illegal cult ritual. Or something.
“I think you’re taking this way more seriously than you need to,” Ten says, bemused. “I’ve met some of Baekhyun’s friends before. They’re regular people.”
“That practice illegal magic?” Taeyong is unconvinced. He drags his hands through his hair and knocks his forehead against the desk. “I’m doomed.”
“You could just not go,” Ten prompts, then smiles. “But something tells me you kind of want to, don’t you?”
“I don’t,” Taeyong argues. “I really, really don’t.”
“Aren’t you a little curious?” Ten argues, sliding closer and dropping his voice. “Chaos magic is so forbidden and sexy ~”
“I hate you,” Taeyong says, “so much. All the time.” He shakes his head vigorously. “I can’t go to something like that. I can’t .”
Taeyong’s phone buzzes. This time, it’s Baekhyun.
Two days later Taeyong finds himself disembarking off the bus and beginning his hike up the mountains just outside of Seoul, wondering what the hell he’s doing with his life. He’d been so determined not to come, but then Baekhyun had messaged him the details and cutely asked if Taeyong was still coming, and Taeyong is weak . He is so fucking weak .
“I hate you,” he reminds Ten, even while panting. “This is your fault.”
“No I think we can definitely blame your dick on this one,” Ten mumbles.
Taeyong thinks he’s misheard. “What?”
“Nothing! It’s just up here right?”
Taeyong’s brain stutters, and he looks down at his phone, where Kakao maps is pinned with the location.
“Uh, yeah, should just be at the end of this path.”
There’s missing shrubbery and a dirt path that leads off into the trees at the end of the concrete laid down, and Taeyong and Ten follow it, watching as the pine trees around them begin to thin and they’re lead towards a clearing, where a soft light emanates.
As they approach, the light turns into a small campfire, spaced carefully away from the trees. A group of men and women who look around Taeyong’s age or older are all gathered around it, nursing beer cans in their hands and chatting.
“Woah,” Ten exclaims, inhaling deeply.
“What?” Taeyong asks, confused at Ten’s amazement, but he doesn’t get an answer.
“Hey you came,” a voice calls, and Baekhyun appears from beside them, smiling. “How’s it feel, Ten?”
“Amazing,” he admits. “Is this what the full moon is like?”
Baekhyun nods in response. Taeyong, still lagging behind in the conversation, glances up to spot the full moon above them, blinking at it behind the city smog. Huh.
“What is this?” Taeyong asks, eyebrows furrowing together. “A camping party?”
Baekhyun snorts, then stutters when he catches Taeyong’s expression. “Oh you’re serious. So you can’t feel anything then?” Taeyong shakes his head. The only thing he can feel is the warmth from the fire, and the butterflies in his stomach seeing Baekhyun’s handsome face. He’s wearing all black tonight, and his hair is pushed off his face. It’s as devastating as always. “Huh, Your MDD is worse than I thought.”
That just makes Taeyong even more confused, who glances at Ten for an explanation. Ten only shrugs.
“I dunno man, the magic here is just…” he exhales. “...a lot.”
Taeyong feels dejected and excluded both, but Baekhyun just waves them over to the fireplace and gestures for them to sit down as he walks towards a camping cooler at the edge of the clearing to get them drinks. Taeyong does as he’s told but sits rigid, feeling out of place. Everyone here is covered in tattoos on every inch of visible skin, and Taeyong has the distinct feeling that Baekhyun may not be the only chaos witch.
“Here.” Baekhyun has two paper cups and a glass vial that pours a deep, purple liquid into them. Taeyong takes the cup and stares into it, at the way it shimmers and swirls like a spiralling galaxy. “It’s an old witch tonic for relaxation.” Taeyong is wary, but Baekhyun is watching him and he doesn’t want to chicken out in front of him. He sips it; it’s surprisingly sweet. Baekhyun winks. “With a dash of peach soju, for fun.”
The drink is tasty, sure, but Taeyong doesn’t feel more relaxed. If anything, the alcohol only makes his tongue burn, and his face flushes when he meets Baekhyun’s black eyes that have softened in the firelight.
Ten asks Baekhyun about how the shop is going, and they exchange idle smalltalk. Taeyong buries himself in his drink, too awkward to say a word.
“And how’s the Academy?” Baekhyun asks. Taeyong and Ten are sharing a log, but Baekhyun is crouched on the ground in front of them, rocking back to sit on it completely. Why is that hot? Taeyong hates being gay sometimes. He is filled with Longing. “Have they moved you back into the mainstream program?”
“Yeah,” Ten answers. “It’s… different, that’s for sure. My control still needs some work.”
Baekhyun nods in understanding, then holds out a hand. “Can I see it?”
Wordlessly, Ten outstretches his arm, something that piques Taeyong’s interest. Ten pulls up his sleeve to reveal an intricate black tattoo made of lines and shapes that could be almost anything. An arrow, a sword, a sun, it’s hard for Taeyong to place, but it’s beautiful all the same.
“It’s healed nicely,” Baekhyun commends. “A little bit of peeling left but you’ve taken good care of it.” He presses his finger into Ten’s skin, and Taeyong’s eyes widen as the tattoo shifts. The lines begin to move as the drawing spins and wobbles like some sort of machine.
Taeyong’s jaw drops. “You’re a tattoo artist and a chaos witch?” Talk about two illegal careers in one, God.
Baekhyun laughs. “You never told him?” Ten shakes his head, looking sheepish. “The flower shop is more of a front.”
“Baekhyun uses that tattoos to help people,” Ten adds. “It’s cool as.”
“To help people?” Taeyong frowns, but Ten pushes his arm towards him. The tattoo is still shifting in a rhythmic pattern on his skin, but the markings begin to make sense when Taeyong squints at each intricate detail. “These are runes. That’s order magic.”
Baekhyun smiles, but he looks impressed. “I’m surprised you noticed. I try to keep them hidden in the design.”
“Why would you…” But Taeyong doesn’t get to finish his question, because a tall man taps Baekhyun on the shoulder and asks for his help setting up something Taeyong doesn’t catch. Baekhyun excuses himself, and Taeyong watches him leave, more confused than before.
Why would a chaos witch, practicing illegal magic and illegal tattooing, use runes? Runes are a foundation of order magic, and the complete opposite to everything chaos magic is meant to represent. If possible, Taeyong is more curious about Baekhyun than ever.
“Can I see your tattoo again?” Taeyong asks, cutting through the silence. Ten nods behind his drink, and holds his arm out. Taeyong’s fingers trace over the runes even as they shift. Runes of stability, power, balance. Taeyong has heard of witches drawing runes on themselves to cast spells on their own skin, but to tattoo it? “Is this how you fixed your magic?”
Ten hums in thought. “Part of it? It’s more like a crutch to lean on when I need it. Just a little bit of help.” His fingers trace over his forearm gently, a small smile on his face. “But that’s what people like us need, y’know? Just a little bit of help.”
A girl Taeyong doesn’t know approaches and calls out to Ten, who brightens upon seeing her and stands to hug her, leaving Taeyong curled on the log all alone. He curls around his cup to be as small and unnoticeable as possible, observing the commotion. There’s magic being cast everywhere, lights in the air and along the ground, spells to make the music louder or quieter or to hit the next song, images dancing in the fire or in Taeyong’s drink. It’s all strange, messy magic, with no purpose or balance, completely wild and free for no purpose beyond the sheer purpose of doing .
The tall man from before has lead Baekhyun over to shrubbery by the side of the clearing, where Baekhyun outstretches his hands and exhales slowly. Taeyong watches with wide eyes as small, gold light seems to form in spheres around Baekhyun’s skin, and the snake tattoo over his arm curls to life, twisting around the limb to guide the magic. It floats over towards the shrubbery, and the withered bush comes back to life, with deep purple flowers bursting open across it in succession around the clearing.
“Woah…” Taeyong remarks. Green magic is hardly for beginners --through order it requires rigorous amounts of will and focus and set up. To control life is not simple, so to do a spell like that through chaos magic...
Just how powerful is Baekhyun?
“Impressive, right?” A young man asks, startling Taeyong. “Baekhyun’s magic is no joke. Are you friends?”
“I’m…” Taeyong doesn’t even know how to answer. “...An acquaintance?”
“O...kay?” the guy offers. He seems undeterred by Taeyong’s attitude though, happily sitting on the log beside him as he catches his breath from dancing before. He’s tall and tanned and well-built, lean but muscular. Despite the cool air, he’s wearing only a loose tank top, his arms covered in intricate tattoos to match the rest of Baekhyun’s motley crew. There’s a bear on his bicep, but it’s fur is made out of those intricate patterns Taeyong is beginning to recognise as Baekhyun’s style --like the black and white drawings displayed around the bronze snake.
“That tattoo,” Taeyong starts. “Did Baekhyun do it?”
“Oh this?” the man reaches for his bicep, and the bear yawns on cue, seeming to flop over. “Yeah. Neat, right?”
Taeyong squints at it in the firelight. The runes for calm, relax, tranquility weave in and out of its fur, rustling with the bear’s movement so fast he can’t catch it.
“Did you…” Taeyong trails off, feeling awkward. “I mean, did Baekhyun do it because…?”
“Because I had issues with magic?” The guy looks amused. “Yeah, it freaked me the fuck out. Took a long time to get over that fear. Part of it was that I’m just not built for order methods though.” The guy leans back, staring out into the fire.
“Not built for order?” Taeyong repeats. “What do you mean?”
“Huh?” The guy tips his head, curious.
“Hey Jongin!” It’s the tall man from before. “You gotta come see this!”
“Well, excuse me,” Jongin pardons, standing up and pacing over to the bush Baekhyun had just caused to bloom. It leaves Taeyong more confused than ever, and he watches Baekhyun smile at the tall man wildly flapping his arms before turning around and disappearing off into the treeline.
Taeyong doesn’t know what pulls him to follow Baekhyun, but he does, curiosity and something… else… something unnamable pulling him forward.
It’s only once he realises he has no idea how to get back to the clearing that Taeyong realises he is not a stalker and is indeed being super creepy, no matter how curious he is where Baekhyun may be going and how desperate he is to talk to him at all times, Taeyong has limits .
Determinedly, he spins on his heel, only to come face-to-face with a grey cat in the darkness.
“Pija?” Taeyong blinks. “Baekhyun brought you here too?”
The cat meows again, and walks past Taeyong, looking over her shoulder in waiting. Dumbfounded, Taeyong can only follow. Baekhyun’s cat is as mysterious as he himself is.
The trees thicken and thin and thicken again until Pija leads Taeyong to a crouched over Baekhyun, his eyes shut in deep concentration as his golden magic flickers around him over the grass and leaf litter. There are green weeds peeking through that seem to recoil at the magic. At the same time, the pine trees around them seem to stand stronger, their bark healing over and their needles going from gold to green.
“What are you doing?” Taeyong blurts, making Baekhyun yelp.
“God you scared the shit out of me.” Baekhyun holds a hand over his heart, startled, the magic around him fizzling out. It’s kind of cute, to see a usually composed Baekhyun so weak to jump scares. “There are a lot of introduced species up here no thanks to humans, it kills the native wildlife. I’m just trying to help cull it back a little while the full moon helps me.”
Taeyong glances up at the sky. “The full moon helps chaos magic?”
“The full moon helps all magic,” Baekhyun corrects. “Order witches just aren’t as attuned to it as we are, since they like to put so many little rigid barriers between themselves and magic.”
Taeyong frowns, but he doesn’t have much of a retort. At his feet, Pija meows and happily pounces into Baekhyun’s lap, curling up and purring. He scratches under her chin.
“Wondering where you went…” he mumbles, then looks up at Taeyong. “So? How do you like our little full moon ritual?”
“It’s…” Taeyong trails off. “Chaotic.”
Baekhyun smiles, pleased. “Good.” His fingers absentmindedly trail over Pija’s back and up her tail as it curls around his fingers. “In the days before the Order it was pretty common for us to cause chaos on the full moon, just to let the magic run free.”
Taeyong huffs. “You make it sound like you were there.”
Baekhyun rolls his eyes. “Yeah well I’m not that old…” he grumbles, rubbing the back of his neck. “But I like to know the history of my own kind.” He turns back to watching Taeyong, his black eyes matching Pija’s gold. It’s unnerving, but Taeyong doesn’t get the sense that Baekhyun wants him to leave.
Feeling brave, he steps closer, sitting opposite Baekhyun on the dirt. It’s wet, and muddy, and Taeyong is going to hate doing his laundry later, but there’s something freeing in it too.
The silence persists, with Baekhyun only patting Pija and watching Taeyong. He feels like prey.
“Your tattoo designs,” Taeyong starts, because he can only squirm in the awkwardness for so long. “Is that how you would’ve helped me?”
Baekhyun shrugs. “If that’s what I’d thought you’d needed,” he says. “Like I said, the tattoo is just a tool to help. The rest takes time.”
But Taeyong’s suspicions still nag at the back of his mind, like clothes hooked on a bramble bush, unable to tug free. A chaos witch that uses order runes…
“Why do you help all these people?” Taeyong asks, voicing the one question that’s been bothering him ever since Ten told him to visit the bronze snake and Taeyong laid eyes on Baekhyun. The Order doesn’t help them, by extension neither does the Academy, and nobody else seems to be assisting. So why Baekhyun? He hardly knows Taeyong, but he’d invited him here despite their mishap, is still kind to him even when he’s done nothing to earn it.
“Because I know what it’s like,” Baekhyun says quietly, staring up at the sky. “To have magic but not and to feel so…” he trails off for a moment, his gaze turning pensive. “...Alone.”
Taeyong inhales sharply. “You were like us?”
“Actually, I was more like you.” Baekhyun tilts his face back down and smiles tightly. “Academy witch with MDD and everything.”
Taeyong’s eyes wideen.
Baekhyun stands up and stretches. “But maybe that’s a story for another time.” He offers Taeyong a small smile. “We should get back to the others.”
“But you--” Taeyong’s words fall short, his eyebrows pinched. The more he knows about Baekhyun, the less he understands, but he can tell that Baekhyun doesn’t want to talk about it. Taeyong’s familiar with that.
“Okay,” Taeyong relents, remembering he’s lost. “Lead the way.”
His last encounter with Baekhyun leaves Taeyong deep in thought, like always, gaze drawn towards the window in his lecture on Monday morning. Baekhyun was like him? It’s hard to imagine someone so sharp-edged and misshapen in something as rigid as the Academy, utilising order. He wonders if Baekhyun was a good student, wonders how he lost it all.
Had it happened like it did for Taeyong? One little mistake, and then--
Taeyong sighs, pulling out his phone beneath the benches. He glances at the professor once, before pulling open KKT.
I kno u dont want to talk about it , he sends, adding a 👉 👈 for good measure, but i kinda wanna ask.
Five minutes later, Baekhyun responds with a sighing Ryan sticker.
It’s K, comes his response. Just didn’t wanna bring down the mood hehe .
You like coffee?
Taeyong eagerly agrees.
They meet at a Starbucks in Itaewon, since it’s near the station, easy to find, and close to where Baekhyun works. It’s as busy and packed as any Starbucks often is, but Taeyong managest to spot Baekhyun camped in a two-man table towards the back corner. He’s got airpods in, scrolling through his phone. Taeyong double-steps to get there faster, buzzing with nerves.
“Hey,” he greets, dumping his backpack onto the seat.
“Hi,” Baekhyun returns. “How was class?”
Taeyong shrugs. “Fine. How was work?”
“Same old same old.” Baekhyun gives a half-smile. Something seems off.
“Oh!” Taeyong says in realisation. “Where’s Pija?”
“Out gallivanting, they don’t like animals in here.” Baekhyun waves it off, like he knows Pija will return to him regardless.
“Wow,” Taeyong remarks. “How well-trained is she?”
Baekhyun’s grin grows. “Very. Do you know what you want? I’ll buy it.”
“Oh, that’s okay, you don’t have to--”
“Relax.” Baekhyun stands and puts a hand on Taeyong’s shoulder as he passes. “I know what it’s like to be a broke student. Don’t worry.”
Being this close, Baekhyun smells like something soft but lightly spiced, and his touch is warm. It flusters Taeyong’s poor, gay useless heart.
“Um, just a pink drink…” he asks. Baekhyun teases him for saying he likes coffee and then not ordering it, but approaches the counter all the same. Minutes later he returns with a tray, two drinks in hand and blueberry muffin.
With precision, Baekhyun quarters it into even pieces. He has nice hands; then again, everything about Baekhyun is nice. Taeyong is Diseased.
The silence stretches. Faux bravado had gotten Taeyong this far, treating asking Baekhyun about his past like he might ask a question to his professor, but now that the moment is upon him it’s like Taeyong doesn’t know how to speak.
Baekhyun laughs, his mouth stuffed with blueberry muffin. “Go on then,” he coerces. “Just ask. I know you want to.”
Taeyong squirms, hating how Baekhyun sees straight through him, always.
“How…” Taeyong frowns, not even knowing how to start. “How did you get MDD?”
It’s more accusatory-sounding than he’d meant it to, causing Baekhyun to laugh.
“It grew over time,” he answers. “I was a witch doctor doing residency… the more horrible things I saw, the harder it was to stay. I kept messing up, people kept dying. The longer I was there, the more I began to blame it on magic.”
His gaze turns distant, foggy, swirling the straw of his light iced americano.
“Oh…” Taeyong says, not sure of what else to offer.
Baekhyun looks up. “What about you?”
Taeyong blinks. “What about me?”
Baekhyun half smiles. “It’s your turn.”
“Oh…” Taeyong pushes his hands into his lap, fiddling with his fingers. “I… I had an exam, we were casting a level three fire spell, I…” He trails off as he relives the memory, horrifying no matter how often he closes his eyes at night and sees it. “I lost control. My classmate, Sana, she got burnt. Bad. Really, really bad.” He stares at his open palms, curling his fingers until they shut. “I haven’t been able to use magic since.”
He can still see it clearly, drawing each line of the casting circle and each rune perfectly, just as he’d remembered. As the fire was contained inside it, Taeyong grew… too excited, too enthused, and the fire grew with his emotions. It burnt off the runes containing it, and hurt his classmates watching, Taeyong unable to do anything but watch as the fire consumed the magic in the air until the professors supervising were able to douse it. He can still smell the scent of charred flesh.
Baekhyun softens, giving Taeyong a pitying look. Taeyong is used to pity from everyone he knows, but from Baekhyun… it feels more like understanding. It doesn’t hurt as much.
“She’s okay,” Taeyong answers. “Just a little bit of scarring but, still…” His knuckles turn white. “It was my fault she was hurt.”
“Yeah,” Baekhyun says. “It was.”
Taeyong looks up, startled.
“If the spell went out of control you have no one to blame but yourself, Taeyong. But guess what?” He smiles. “There’s nothing you can do to change it. And the sooner you grow from your mistakes and learn, the better.”
“I--” Taeyong frowns. “It’s not that simple. I never made a mistake before that, ever, if I fuck up again--”
“It’s just another opportunity to do better next time,” Baekhyun interjects, raising an eyebrow. He gives Taeyong a curious glance. “Just how much of a perfectionist are you? Don’t you believe you deserve a second chance?”
Taeyong thinks about it, remembers Sana’s bandages in the hospitals even as she’d told him she didn’t blame him, remembers the fire and the smoke and the way he’d stood there, hopeless to stop it.
“No,” he answers. “I don’t.”
Baekhyun sighs, though he looks kind of amused. “You’re a harder nut to crack then I thought,” he admits. “At first I thought all the warden justice would be getting in the way, but beneath that you got way more issues, huh?”
Taeyong laughs, despite himself. “Thanks.”
Baekhyun grins. “No worries.” He stirs the straw around further, and Taeyong feels a strange weight pull off his shoulders as the atmosphere lightens. “Do you want my help, Taeyong?”
“With recovering,” Baekhyun amends. “Do you still want my help?”
“Of course I do.” Taeyong sits up straighter. “I told you… I’d do anything.”
Because at the end of the day, drawn to Baekhyun as he is, he’s still very much aware that Baekhyun is a chaos witch, but desperation prevents him from caring. He only has a few weeks until finals approach, and after seeing everything on the full moon… Taeyong misses magic so much it hurts .
“Okay,” Baekhyun says, sitting back. Taeyong blinks. It’s that easy? He’s used to Baekhyun always finding some way to argue and then make Taeyong feel like an idiot. “Then tell me about what you like.”
Now he’s lost again.
“What do you like?” Baekhyun repeats. “Y’know, like, in your spare time and shit.”
“Um.” Fuck, why is Taeyong drawing a blank. “Uh.”
Baekhyun’s eyebrows. “This wasn’t meant to be a hard question.”
“I know!” He’s panicking, shit. “I just, um--” Fuck fuck fuck, what does he like? “Schoolwork?”
Baekhyun looks impressed. “Your favourite hobby is writing essays?”
“No! No… I just…” If Taeyong isn’t in class, then he’s at work. If he isn’t at work, he’s at home, catching up on the world that tries to leave him behind. “I like, um, music? And uh… video games? Gundam?”
“Why are you phrasing that like a question?” Baekhyun teases. “Am I meant to know the answer?”
“No! I…” Taeyong wrings his hands together. “I just…”
Baekhyun softens with something that might be pity or empathy, maybe a mix of both.
“I’ll make it easier for you,” he prompts. “What did you like to do before everything happened?”
Before he lost his powers and his spells and a part of himself with it? Well…
“I liked…” Taeyong recalls days in his parents gardens, making flowers bloom, sitting in his bed and drawing encantation circles over and over, practicing his spells well ahead of the syllabus. “...Magic.”
Baekhyun nods, sipping up the last of his americano. He twirls the ice around at the bottom of the cup.
“Okay,” Baekhyun says. “I think you need a tattoo.’
“What?” Taeyong’s eyes widen. “Really?”
“Just something small to start, but it might help,” Baekhyun continues, still fiddling with his straw in his drink. “If you’re up to it, I think we can make something great.”
Just the thought makes Taeyong’s insides flutter, hope sparking in his chest. It’s been so long since he’s felt it, the thought of having a tattoo doesn’t deter him at all --in hindsight, he’s always found them kinda cool anyway.
“I want it,” Taeyong blurts, more eager than he’d meant to be. “Please.”
Baekhyun laughs, endeared, it makes Taeyong’s cheeks warm.
“Okay, then it’s on you to think of what you want the base of the design to be,” Baekhyun explains. “Ten used one of his own drawings for his, I just integrated the right runes into it. Jongin liked bears so we used bears --it’s important to focus on something important for you in order for it to work.”
“That’s fine,” Taeyong says, rushed. “Really. Very doable.”
“Okay.” Baekhyun nods, short and succinct. “Then that’s your homework. But remember Taeyong, we’re starting small. Small and personal . Once you have your idea…” Baekhyun reaches for his second quarter of the muffin, popping it into his mouth. “Let me know.”
Taeyeong had left the Starbucks with warmth in his chest, partly from the hope, partly from getting to spend so much time with Baekhyun. He feels greedy, when he steals Baekhyun’s time like that, like he isn’t worthy of it.
He stays up that night on pinterest, searching tattoo at the top and making a board filled with hundreds of pins for ideas. Baekhyun had reminded him it had to be about Taeyong and not anybody else, but it’s so easy to get swept up in the grand back pieces and face tattoos --the image of Baekhyun’s coiled snake comes to mind too.
It makes Taeyong a little dizzy, and like most of the days around him he zones out during classes, lost in thought. This time, though, instead of letting Professor Zhang’s words about divination float in through one ear and out the other Taeyong spends his time doodling in a work book, imagining interesting tattoo concepts. An owl in a tree, a crown and a dagger, a little alien in a ufo. All of them images Taeyong likes, certainly --but then he comes back to Baekhyun asking what he likes, and his pen stops on the page.
By the end of the week, he’s filled with ideas --none of them outstanding-- and all he wants is to see Baekhyun again. Taeyong’s crush had already been dangerous at the start when Baekhyun was a snake in the grass, but now that he knows him better, has spent time with him, knows the sound of his laugh and the way he takes his coffee… well, Taeyong feels strangled, and wonders if the snake has coiled around him too, slowly choking out all the air.
He’d texted Baekhyun during his lecture if they could maybe catch up again --over coffee or not-- to discuss Taeyong’s ideas. Baekhyun had just said to swing by the shop whenever he was done with classes; apparently his afternoon is quite free.
Taeyong has group therapy, of course, but he doesn’t care when he knows Baekhyun can actually fix his problem. He gets on the subway just as the rush starts, crammed into the car and jostled around in the crowd. He departs at Itaewon with a gasp for air, beelining it to the winding hills beyond the station to find the bronze snake.
It’s as quiet but cluttered as always, though Taeyong spots a young customer at the back of the shop asking Baekhyun questions about the succulents. He answers her, though he catches Taeyong’s eye midway through and smiles before turning back to her. Taeyong just ducks to the side, spotting Pija in her usual spot by the window in the last remaining sunlight.
“Hi there,” he greets, listening to her deep purr as she nuzzles her grey cheeks against his fingers.
The customer buys three pot-plants and thanks Baekhyun for his help --Taeyong picks up Pija and listens to her small mrrp as he repositions her so that he’s sitting in the loft with her in his lap. She curls up comfortably, flopped over his thighs.
“I close at six-thirty,” Baekhyun tells him. “Can you wait until then?”
Taeyong nods, it’s about six now. “Sure.”
There’s something peaceful about sitting by the window with the cat in his lap, watching Itaewon wake up and come to life as night arrives. Taeyong wonders if Baekhyun is annoyed with him just sitting there like this, but Baekhyun seems happy to just hum along to the pop music playing through the speakers, spraying a few plants with a mistifier and checking up on their health. Taeyong spots him working some magic here and there in between customers, but he doesn’t say a thing.
He startles, however, when the backdoor opens, and another attractive man --are all of Baekhyun’s friends thirst-traps?-- wearing black latex gloves comes out, peeling them off his fingers.
“Just wash it twice daily with scent-free soap and put the ointment I gave you on it,” he tells a young girl as she walks out, staring at her plastic wrapped wrist. “What did we decide on? One-fifty?”
“Yeah.” She hands over a wad of bills that make Taeyong’s eyebrows raise, before thanking the man and heading out.
“How’d you go?” Baekhyun asks.
“Fine, super fun design.” There’s a little trash can beneath the front counter that the man drops his gloves into. He spots Taeyong, blinking.
“Taeyong, Taemin. Taemin, Taeyong.” Baekhyun waves his hands. At Taeyong’s bewildered look, he laughs. “I don’t run this place alone, you know. Front or back.”
“I, uh--” Taeyong fumbles to a small bow he can manage sitting down. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“You too.” Taemin looks amused, turning to Baekhyun. “You let him touch Pija?”
Baekhyun shrugs, crossing his arms over his chest. “Pija is happy with it. Who am I to deny her?”
Taeyong blinks, the cat still happily purring in his lap. “Is she meant to be off-limits?”
“Well, she is his familiar,” Taemin points out.
Taeyong’s mouth hangs open. “Oh my god,” he picks up the cat, suddenly panicked, holding her up. Pija only remains dangled in the air, making a small noise of discomfort. “I didn’t realise I’m so sorry I--”
“It’s fine, keep patting her before she scratches me for making you stop.” Baekhyun laughs it off. “I’m not as uptight about it as some people.”
Which is crazy, because Pija is an extension of Baekhyun’s soul and magic both, manifested into reality. And she’s sitting in Taeyong’s lap. God he’s so stupid --he’s used to sensing familiars through magic, but with MDD he can’t .
“You must be the kid with MDD then,” Taemin deduces, making Taeyong frown at the mention of kid. He’s not that much younger.
Baekhyun laughs nervously, rubbing the back of his neck. “Sorry,” he tells Taeyong. “We work together so…”
Taeyong hadn’t even thought of it as intrusive. “Oh no, it’s okay. It’s not a secret.” He scratches Pija to keep his hands occupied --though he feels far more self-conscious about it now, like he needs to scratch her perfectly or something. She’s connected to Baekhyun, after all. “Do you also work with people like me, or…?”
Taemin chuckles. “I’m not as generous, or as gifted. I’m just a regular tattoo artist. No witchy blood here.”
“Oh.” Taeyong is surprised. Yet again he hates his stupid condition, for making him unable to tell. “I’m sorry, I didn’t--”
Taemin laughs. “I didn’t think you did, relax. You and I aren’t so different at the moment, though, right?” Baekhyun winces, rubbing the bridge of his nose, but Taeyong just smiles.
“Yeah,” he answers. “I guess not.”
Baekhyun looks surprised, which Taeyong doesn’t have time to dwell on because Taemin asks why he’s here. He answers easily, pulling out his workbook of rough, clumsy designs to show the two artists since he describes it poorly in words.
“Woah,” Taemin remarks. “These are damn good for someone who isn’t an artist.”
“Oh, um. Thanks?” Taeyong flushes a little, embarrassed. “I guess I drew a lot of runes and casting circles and stuff.”
Baekhyun narrows his eyes at Taemin and says, “ My client. Don’t you have somewhere to be?” Taeyong feels Pija shift and make a small grumble in the back of her throat.
Taemin laughs it off. “I’ll take a hint. Catch you round, Taeyong.” He gives his goodbyes and heads out with a bag slung over his shoulder, the doorbell tinkling shut behind him.
Suddenly alone with Baekhyun, Taeyong feels overwhelmed, even as he watches Baekhyun flip the open sign around to display closed.
“Should I go too, or--”
“You can stay and hang,” Baekhyun cuts in. “If you want.” He clears his throat. “I know Pija is happy to have you attention, so.”
“Oh.” Taeyong’s insides flutter. “Okay.”
They talk more about the designs, the placement and the meaning, but Baekhyun warns Taeyong he hasn’t quite found that personal best just yet. It’s okay, though, because Taeyong then asks about Baekhyun’s tattoos, and learns about his journey as a medi-witch, being qualified enough to try for a familiar exam and succeeding, being lost when MDD broke the connection between him and Pija but finding a way to renew it again. How snakes are misjudged but are also symbols of growth and rebirth, of finding new meaning. It turns into Baekhyun showing more of his tattoos --flowers along his ribs and a tiger across his back, all tied together by miniature tattoos that seem like doodles in comparison, each with their own meaning and memory to tie to it. Throughout the explanation the sun sets, Baekhyun is shirtless, and Taeyong is well aware that he’s fucked. It’s unhelped when Baekhyun suggests they get dinner together once he assures the shop is closed off, and Taeyong can only agree.
They get mexican around the corner, and talk about PUBG while eating burritos. Taeyong is tipsy off the tequila in his overpriced fruity margarita Baekhyun insisted on paying for and drunk off of Baekhyun’s undivided attention. Despite his rough exterior Baekhyun is just a secret nerd with a soft side for misguided witches, who records his own PUBG clips to rewatch his greatest plays and lets his familiar wander off unbothered because he trusts her implicitly, and named her Pija just because it’s the only thing he can think of. He’s handsome, and funny, and kind, and so far beyond Taeyong’s league it’s pitiful.
Taeyong is more than a little bit fucked.
“You missed therapy,” is the first thing Ten says when they meet for lunch in between classes. “...Again.” He frowns.
“You’re still going?” Taeyong asks. He’s surprised, is all --Ten has his magic under control and seems fully assimilated into the regular program, for regular witches.
Ten shrugs, a little defensive. “I dunno, it’s nice to talk about it, that’s all.” He frowns harder. “Don’t you think so?”
“No,” Taeyong answers. “Not with them.” Not with anyone but Baekhyun, who understands Taeyong like nobody else. He keeps skipping his Friday therapy sessions to hang out at the bronze snake with Pija in his lap so they can get assorted foreign food after, talking about nothing and everything. It’s not just Fridays, either. Taeyong will make up any excuse to hang out with Baekhyun, drawn towards him.
“That’s…” Ten pulls a face. “Harsh.”
“It’s just the truth.” Taeyong shrugs, defensive. “It’s fine, though. Baekhyun and I have nearly finalised a design, so I won’t need to show up to the group.”
They chose a flower, a peony, because Baekhyun had given Taeyong a small bouquet one night of them and he hadn’t stopped thinking about them since. They’re the same kind he used to sit amongst in his parents’ garden, practicing his enchantments to see them bloom. Runes can be woven into their layers of petals with ease so it should be relatively simple to get the spell working.
“That’s not…” Ten frowns. “Isn’t there a saying for this? About eggs and counting baskets?”
“That’s two different sayings,” Taeyong points out, amused. “Though they both mean the same thing. Why are there so many idioms about eggs...?”
“You’re missing the point,” Ten cuts in. “I just-- I know what this means for you, Taeyong, I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“I think the pain of a tattoo is inevitable,” Taeyong jokes.
“Not just the tattoo, Taeyong.” Ten gives him a pointed look that makes Taeyong feel like glass. A heavy beat of silence passes. “You and Baekhyun spend a lot of time together.”
“It’s not like that,” Taeyong quickly argues, because even if he wishes it was, it isn’t , it never will be.
“I know.” Ten looks pitying, and Taeyong hates it. “I just don’t want you to put everything in him. Baekhyun isn’t a miracle worker, and I know how much magic means to you.”
Something about that irritates Taeyong, like he isn’t an adult who can make his own life choices, like he’s still just this broken thing everyone tiptoes around because they’re afraid that one more crack and he’ll shatter.
“Do you?” he snaps. “Because you’ve always had it, whether you could control it or not it was always there , and you have no idea what it’s like to lose it and feel so… So…” He runs a frustrated hand through his hair. “...Empty.”
Ten is speechless, wincing.
“Whatever.” Taeyong leaves his lunch behind, unfinished. “I’ll see you later.”
In class, Professor Kim starts giving details for the final practical exam, the spells they’ll be expected to cast and control. It doesn’t concern Taeyong, so he ignores it, frustration still boiled inside him. He’s sick of being looked down on, sick of being useless, sick of missing so many parts of himself he can’t even call himself whole.
He pulls out his phone underneath the table.
I’m ready .
“Are you sure?”
“Positive.” Taeyong nods, just to affirm the fact, scratching Pija in his lap. Baekhyun lets out a long breath.
“Okay well, we can do it once I’ve closed up. Since it’s small it won’t take too long.”
Taeyong’s eyes widen. “What? Tonight?”
“Unless you’re not ready…?”
“No no! I am! I am…” He swallows, anticipation lighting in his gut. He’s finally ready. “I’m just surprised but-- we’re good.”
“Okay.” Baekhyun softens. “Give me fifteen to close and ten to set-up, okay?”
Taeyong nods, burying his hands in Pija’s fur as he watches Baekhyun begin the meticulous process of closing the bronze snake. He knows the process well, knows the particular plants that need spells casted in which order to keep them blooming over night, knows how he’ll spray the mistifier in double bursts on the plants that look a little droopy.
What he doesn’t know is how Baekhyun pulls open the back door, sanitizing the station at the back, putting on black latex gloves.
“Okay,” he calls. “Flip the sign, would you?”
Taeyong obeys, moving a disgruntled Pija before flipping the open sign over and heading towards the back room. Baekhyun holds up the peony design.
“This size good? I can make it bigger.”
“No, no. It’s good.” Even in the stencil Taeyong can make out the runes. Unlock, connect, fulfill. He and Baekhyun had decided on them together with combined spellcasting knowledge, and Baekhyun had drawn them into the overlapping petals. “It’s perfect.”
Baekhyun nods. “For a spell like this, it needs to be on the spot that makes the most sense,” he explains. “Jongin has his on the outside of his body because he needed to feel like he had the proper protections up, Ten has his on the inside of his wrist to control the magic as it flows to his hands.” He places a gloved hand over Taeyong’s heart. “Yours needs to be here, because this is where you’re the most closed off. I’m going to warn you, though, it’s going to hurt.”
Taeyong swallows. “It’s okay. I can handle it.”
He pulls off his shirt, watches as Baekhyun shaves the area down and overlays the stencil. He tells Taeyong to look in the mirror for placement, so he does, seeing the blue lines of a peony bud right in the middle of his chest.
“It’s great,” he tells Baekhyun sincerely. “I’m ready.”
Baekhyun gives a small smile, telling Taeyong to sit down as he prepares the black ink.
“Since this is your first, we’ll just try it out, okay?” Taeyong nods. The needle digs into his skin not unlike the feeling or carpet burn, as Baekhyun begins to outline the flower. “How was that?”
“Fine,” Taeyong assures, beginning to grow impatient with Baekhyun’s care. “Keep going.”
Baekhyun does as asked, continuously glancing up at Taeyong’s face every time he inhales through the pain or grits his teeth or winces.
“Pija,” he calls, mid-way through one petal. The cat wordlessly leaps up and curls onto Taeyong’s lap, giving him something soothing to focus on. He wonders if maybe there’s some sort of magic being cast on him, not that he’d be able to tell.
Eventually he grows more accustomed to the sensation of a needle threading ink through his skin, and far too aware of Baekhyun’s proximity towards him, his face drawn in focus on the centre of Taeyong’s chest. He’s so pretty even like this, intense and single-minded, and Taeyong hates it, forcing himself to stare at the ceiling so he won’t pass the time staring at Baekhyun’s lips.
“We’re nearly done,” Baekhyun assures quietly after too much time has passed, Taeyong tuning out to focus on the lo-fi beats playing through Baekhyun’s portable speakers. “I’m really surprised, you know.”
“Surprised?” Taeyong repeats. “Why?”
“Well, months ago you were just some guy telling me chaos magic was bad, now look at you.” Baekhyun glances up to smirk at him. “Hanging out with a rebel like me and getting a tattoo.”
Taeyong laughs as best he can without trying to move his chest too much.
“I still think chaos magic is inferior.”
“You would say that.” Baekhyun rolls his eyes, though it’s with fondness. It makes Taeyong smile.
“A lot of things in my life have changed lately,” he admits, staring at the ceiling as he scratches beneath Pija’s chin. “I guess I’m used to it, now.”
“Don’t sell yourself short,” Baekhyun counters. “It takes strength to change.” He looks up, meeting Taeyong’s eyes. “I’d know.”
Their faces are so close, and Baekhyun’s skin is so warm where it brushes against Taeyong’s ribs. He sharply looks away, hoping Baekhyun is too focused on the tattoo to see the red on his face.
“Okay.” The sharp snap of latex sounds. “I’m done. Let’s get this cleaned up.”
Taeyong can only nod dumbly as Baekhyun cleans it a few more times before pulling out cling wrap and taping it to Taeyong’s chest. He runs through the instructions of cleaning and moisturising it, which Taeyong listens to.
Then comes the moment of truth.
With his gloves, gone, Baekhyun reaches out to gently touch the tattoo above the plastic wrap.
Taeyong inhales sharply as the flower blooms beneath his magic, a few stray petals flying free and floating beneath it as it fades. The flower seems to sway in an unseen breeze, tucked into Taeyong’s heart.
He keeps waiting for it, for some kind of rush or spark or maybe a pin amongst all the needles, but nothing. There’s nothing .
“How do you feel?” Baekhyun asks, searching Taeyong’s face. His breaths are coming in short.
“Nothing,” Taeyong answers. “I don’t feel anything . Nothing’s changed.”
“Taeyong, relax,” Baekhyun urges, noting Taeyong’s imminent panic. “I told you it’s not an instantaneous fix, just a tool.”
“Well, it’s a tool I’m using, isn’t it?” Why is it so hard to breathe? “Am I so useless I can’t even do it?”
“Taeyong, stop.” Baekhyun looks upset; it’s strange for someone so usually composed. “You can’t talk about yourself like that. You’ve worked hard to get this far and it’s admirable, but you just need a little more time.”
“I don’t have any left!” Taeyong argues. There’s no magic near him, not even a spark, order, chaos, it doesn’t matter. Taeyong has nothing. “It’s over.”
“It’s not over.” Baekhyun interjects, wrapping his hand around Taeyong’s wrist to force him into looking at Baekhyun. “You’re kind, and smart, and hardworking, Taeyong. You’re more than what you’ve lost.”
It’s the slightest of impulses, really, with Baekhyun’s face so close to his saying so many kind things even while Taeyong breaks. His gaze flicks towards Baekhyun’s lips, and Baekhyun jerks back like he’s been burnt.
“Did you really think I was...?” Baekhyun winces, guilty. “God,” Taeyong laughs, though there’s no humour in it. “I’m an idiot.”
Baekhyun sighs. “No, Taeyong, you’re not--” He bites his bottom lip, torn. “I like you, really, I do, but I don’t think you’re ready to come to terms with that. Especially not now.”
“So now you’re telling me how I feel?” Taeyong asks, the bitter sting of rejection makes him feel like crying, but he refuses to crack anymore. “God I must really be pathetic.”
Baekhyun lets out a frustrated sigh. “It isn’t like that--’
“Isn’t it?” Taeyong asks. No response. “Isn’t it…”
He stands, ready to leave, PIja meowing at his feet as she’s displaced. He can text Baekhyun about payment later, right now he just needs to get out of here before the walls close in and compact him.
“Who are you without magic, Taeyong? Really,” Baekhyun speaks up suddenly, searching Taeyong’s face as he pauses in the doorway; he wonders what Baekhyun finds. “Do you know how to see yourself the way I see you?”
Taeyong doesn’t respond.
Taeyong knows he’s late to class because the sun is up.
There’s a brief, ever-fleeting moment where he stares at the light through the gaps in the blinds, wondering if he even cares anymore.
He decides he doesn’t, rolling back around.
His phone buzzes consistently beneath his pillow, however, preventing him from getting any sleep. Taeyong groans and pulls it out, witnessing the long string of texts from Mark, demanding where he is, why he hasn’t shown up yet, whether this means he’s failed.
Fucking probably, Taeyong assumes, but he failed a long time ago.
Even now, like this, he just feels numb. He pulls up the covers to stare at the flower bloomed on his chest, though the magic has worn off and it’s no longer in motion.
Nothing. He feels nothing.
Taeyong sits up, staring through the gaps of the blinds dazedly. The worst part is, he can’t even tell if he feels defeated or relieved. Remembering his argument with Baekhyun only makes him wince, but there’s something oddly relaxing about losing so bad, like knowing he doesn’t have to try anymore. It’s freeing. All that exhaustion that’s piled up, he can just… succumb.
Taeyong gets out of bed an hour later, if only to soothe Mark’s constant calls, agreeing to meet him in their usual coffee spot after class. A weekend of work and nothing else has left Taeyong in a state of lull, though it’s a constant rollercoaster ride of fear, panic, and acceptance, like he can’t quite make up his mind.
“Dude,” Mark calls as soon as he spots him. “What the hell?”
“Sorry.” Taeyong shrugs. “I overslept.” He slides into the booth seat, rubbing at his eyes.
“Why aren’t you more freaked out man?” Mark asks. “Won’t Zhang fail you?”
“Probably.” Taeyong shrugs again. “If Professor Kim doesn’t do it first.”
“What?” Mark searches his face. “What do you mean?”
“I--” It seems even speaking the words is still too hard, like it will make them real. “--I can’t be fixed, Mark. My magic’s gone.”
Mark’s eyes widen. “Huh?”
“I’ve tried everything.” Taeyong buries his face in his arms on the table, releasing a shuddery breath. “Nothing works. It’s gone .” Realisation hits him like a ton of bricks. “I’ll have to drop out.”
“Oh…” Mark’s open face softens in pity. “That sucks man, I’m sorry.” Taeyong just curls into himself further. “It’s okay, though. I’m sure you’ll work it out.”
“Will I?” Taeyong asks. Mark isn’t acting like the bone-crushing deal this feels like. Everything Taeyong has ever known is lost .
“I mean… yeah, you’re still you,” Mark points out. He laughs almost childishly. “You still attended witch school even when you couldn’t cast spells. I don’t think you know how to give up.”
Taeyong stares at his hands, curling them into fists. He wonders if that’s true, when he thinks he gave up a long time ago; he’s only just come to terms with it.
Taeyong withdraws from the Academy on a Wednesday afternoon. It’s an easy, online process that involves clicking a button and dealing with a phone call from student services asking why he’s withdrawing so late in the semester (and if he’s aware full fees still occur). Taeyong merely says he’s a witch without any magic --it seems to be a valid enough excuse.
It doesn’t seem to hit, really, as he stares at his dorm room ceiling, that he’s withdrawn. All the progress made towards his warden license, gone, every grade, every assignment, all of it surmounted to nothing. It makes Taeyong laugh to himself, somehow, that it’s all gone.
Ten visits him the next day, knocking down his door just as Taeyong dies in PUBG.
“It’s open,” he calls, watching as Ten barges in.
“Dude, what the fuck,” he says. “Mark told me you dropped out??”
Taeyong shrugs, numb by this stage. “I was already bound to fail two classes,” he says. “I just stopped them from having to bother.”
“And you’re just…” Ten looks at him for a long moment. “...Okay with that?”
Taeyong takes a moment to mull it over. “I mean--” he laughs under his breath. “--I think it’s inevitable. I’ve already lost everything, why bother caring anymore?” What more can hurt him after all this?”
“You can’t…” Ten frowns. “You can’t give up just like that. That’s not you .”
“Isn’t it?” Taeyong offers a sad smile, remembering the way Baekhyun had looked at him like he could see Taeyong so clearly it left marks on his skin. “Maybe this is just what I’m like, when I don’t have magic.”
“Stop pretending like you’re nothing without it,” Ten scolds. “You’re still you.”
“Everyone keeps saying that,” Taeyong snaps, beginning to grow irritated. “But how am I supposed to know?”
Taeyong has had magic for as long as he could remember, in his memories and his nightmares, in every waking breath. It followed him to school, to work, to his mother’s garden. It followed him in his dreams, it made his dreams, and now he has nothing.
“Well, for starters, you could actually trust the people who know you when we tell you this,” Ten says. “You don’t… have to endure everything alone, you know. School, work, your condition, everything …” he trails off, and he looks so sad it hurts inside Taeyong, startling him. He never knew Ten felt this way. “The reason we were told to go to group therapy is because the Order is full of shit, yeah, but it’s also because it’s important to know that you’re not alone, Taeyong. You never have been. Even if magic leaves you, we’re still here.”
For the first time since the failed practical exam, since the diagnosis in the doctor’s office and the subsequent office, since being told he’d lose everything if he couldn’t gain it back in time and having Baekhyun ask him if he knows how to see himself, Taeyong cries.
Taeyong attends group therapy for the first time in weeks, noting the new faces and the missing old ones. When Nayeon sees him, she doesn’t point it out, but she does smile at him sincerely. Taeyong offers a flimsy one back.
He takes a seat in the circle, feeling vulnerable without Ten nearby. They start their sharing going clockwise from Nayeon, with Momo talking about how her connection seems to cycle between good and bad days, and Doyoung speaking up about how everything is so loud. There’s even a new face, Taeil, who admits he can only sense magic when he’s asleep, like some strange sleeping disorder. Taeyong still feels like a one-of-a-kind here, but he doesn’t mind so much anymore.
“Taeyong?” Nayeon prompts, looking towards him hopefully. “Do you have anything to share with the group today?”
Taeyong exhales, long and slow.
“Yeah,” he admits. “A few months ago, I was diagnosed with magic disconnection disorder. I was three years through my four-year warden license qualifications when it happened.” He pauses, searching for his words. It feels locked inside his chest, so he opens the cage up and sets it free. “This week, I had to drop out, because I’m not sure if I’ll ever get it back.” He stares down at his hands in his lap, fiddling with his fingers. “I haven’t told my parents, I’ve barely told my friends.” He laughs, self-deprecating. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
The group is silent, nodding along. They give him looks, but for the first time it’s not pity --just empathy. Everyone here has experienced the word in a way most witches never will, even if the how is different, they’re still all the same.
To Taeyong’s surprise, Nayeon speaks up.
“I’ve seen a lot of people in this program recover as the Order expects them to,” she starts. “And others who heal in unexpected ways. Regardless, the path they’re put on is always the one that’s right for them, in the end.”
Taeyong lets the words sink in, furrowing his eyebrows together.
“Why do you run these groups?” he asks her, then double backs. “I mean, sorry maybe that’s rude, but you’re young and--”
Nayeon laughs, smiling regardless.
“I’m here because I want to be,” she answers. “I’m sorry it’s not more interesting than that.” She chuckles. “When people are lost, all they need is someone to take their hand and show them the way.” She gives Taeyong a sincere smile. “I just wanted to be that someone.”
It’s raining, when Taeyong alights at Itaewon, casting all the cluttered buildings in a misty haze. It smells damp and seems solemn; oddly fitting, considering everything.
The bronze snake is tucked into the hillside like it always is, nestled and overflowing with blooming plants that stand out in the fog of grey. Taeyong supposes the store is just like its owner --a splash of colour in a world of monotone.
He hesitates going in, staring through the front window as the rain pelts against his umbrella, the sound of the rubber pitter patter drumming in his ears.
Taeyong looks down, surprised to see Pija at his feet, looking up at him with big gold eyes.
“Pija?” he says. “What’re you doing out here?”
The cat doesn’t answer, through means of being a cat, but she does brush her face against Taeyong’s shins, circling around him and purring before sitting down and looking up at him expectantly again.
“You’re not… telling him I’m here, right?” Can familiars do that? Is Pija a snitch? Taeyong has no idea. She just keeps looking at him. He bends down with a sigh, scratching behind her ears. She nuzzles into his hand happily. “I should probably stop being a coward, huh?”
No response, but Taeyong assumes Pija’s affection is a mildly good sign, considering she’s a part of Baekhyun. He picks her up in one hand, hearing her mrrp , and pushes open the door to the shop with the other.
Taemin looks up to smile and greet a customer, though his face falls as soon as he registers Taeyong, mouth opening and closing dumbly, looking between the front door and the storeroom in the back.
“I uh… I’m going on break!” he calls, beelining it for the door and dashing past Taeyong. “Good luck!” he whispers, the bell tinkling behind him as the door shuts.
“Break? What? We close in like two hours--” Baekhyun comes out, confusion falling off his face as he spots Taeyong. “Oh.”
“Um. Hi,” Taeyong offers.
“Hi…” Baekhyun returns, narrowing his eyes at the cat in Taeyong’s arms. “You’re useless, you know that?”
The cat just squirms so that Taeyong will let her down, happily moving to her favourite window sill. Her tail flicks around in amusement.
Without Pija to shield him, Taeyong feels vulnerable, holding his arms over his front, unsure of what to say. Baekhyun crosses his, looking unimpressed.
“What’re you doing here?” he asks. “Don’t you have class?”
“Usually.” Taeyong swallows. “But I um, dropped out.”
“Oh.” Baekhyun’s eyebrows raise. “Oh wow.”
Taeyong rubs the back of his neck. “My deadline was up, so…” Baekhyun looks speechless, which doesn’t inspire confidence, since he always has something to say. “I um, I haven’t paid you, right, so?”
Baekhyun softens at that. “It was a gift for a friend, Taeyong, don’t worry about it.”
“Oh.” Taeyong blinks, staring at the floor boards. “Um, okay.”
The silence stretches on for so long it seems to hurt, physically tearing Taeyong apart, broken only by Baekhyun’s sigh.
“So what are you going to do now?” he asks. “Without your warden dreams…”
“I don’t know,” Taeyong admits. “I don’t know and it’s kind of… amazing?” Baekhyun looks at him, searching his face, and waits. Baekhyun has spent so much time waiting for Taeyong to catch up --it’s time he finally did.
He takes a step forward, though it’s hesitant. Baekhyun stays in place, just watching.
“It’s hard, losing everything the way I have, but--” Taeyong swallows. He’s always been shy, and kind of closed-off, but Baekhyun says it takes strength to change, and Taeyong wants to prove himself. “--You were right, when you said I don’t know myself without magic.” He inhales shakily, focusing on a nearby group of blooming peonies instead of Baekhyun’s shrewd eyes. “I don’t. But… I figure now’s a pretty good time to find out.”
He’ll have to call his parents whenever he stops putting it off, maybe move back home, and then he can just… find something else. Art, maybe, or music, or even PUBG --maybe he can look more into the training program Nayeon told him about after therapy last week. Whether his magic comes back or not, Taeyong will always have his friends, and himself; that’s what matters.
“I’m sorry,” he tells Baekhyun. “For… everything. For the… fight… and… me… and… everything.” He squirms on the spot, uncomfortable. He laughs self-deprecatingly. “I was stubborn, but you were always nice to me, even when you knew I was wrong.”
Baekhyun softens, looking at Taeyong --not just looking, but seeing . He’s always seen him.
Baekhyun shakes his head. “I shouldn’t have let you get the tattoo,” he says. “I knew it was too soon, but I thought maybe it would help you, even if it didn’t work.” He winces. “It was a harsher lesson than I meant for it to be.”
“...Eh.” Taeyong shrugs. “It’s beautiful. I want it whether it helps or not.”
Baekhyun huffs. “Flatterer.”
“I’m just being honest.” Taeyong rocks on his heels, like he could step further but unsure of whether he should. “You were wrong about one thing though.”
“Oh?” Baekhyun arches an eyebrow. “Do tell.”
Taeyong swallows, taking a tiny step forward --small, but forward all the same.
“When you said I wasn’t ready,” he elaborates. “That wasn’t for you to decide.”
Baekhyun lets out a long breath, deflating. “Maybe so…”
Taeyong laughs under his breath.
“I’m starting this phase,” he begins explaining, “where I let go of the old way of things holding me back and try new stuff. So that makes it hard, to know if I’m ready or not.” Taeyong watches one of the hanging pot plants spin around on its chain. “Maybe I never will be, but I don’t think that should stop me from trying.”
When a seed sprouts, it never instantly finds sunlight; it just keeps growing until it does.
“I think I owe you like, maybe a billion light iced americanos?”
Baekhyun laughs, startled out of him so suddenly he covers his mouth, eyes crinkling. He’s beautiful, but out of all the new things in Taeyong’s life, that one is still the same old.
Baekhyun walks towards him, meeting Taeyong halfway.
“We can figure something out,” he assures, smiling. Taeyong inhales sharply, but Baekhyun only walks past him, holding the door open. “You coming?”
“What?” Taeyong blinks. “Now?”
“The Starbucks is just down the road,” Baekhyun prompts, still smiling.
“What about the shop?”
He shrugs. “Pija’s on it. Aren’t you?” The cat happily chirps out a meow. “Besides, Taemin will come back soon enough.”
“I--” Outside, the rain has stopped, and the sun is starting to part the storm clouds, outlining Baekhyun’s head in a halo of light. Taeyong can always trust a chaos witch to be unpredictable. “--Okay. I guess I’m paying.”
Baekhyun smiles. “Good, you’re learning.”
He holds out his hand, and Taeyong takes it.
“Oh, but one more thing,” Baekhyun starts.
“Huh?” Taeyong asks, before Baekhyun pulls him in and kisses him. It startles him, but he melts into it regardless. Baekhyun’s lips are as soft as they’ve always looked, and he kisses with a tenderness that doesn’t suit his rough exterior, cupping Taeyong’s cheek to hold him close. In response, Taeyong just winds his arms around Baekhyun’s neck, determined to keep him there for as long as possible.
They pull back, and Taeyong feels dazed, blinking back into focus. Did that just happen? Did Baekhyun really just kiss him?
“That’s just a little something to keep your motivation going,” Baekhyun teases, his lips so close to Taeyong’s he could just--
Baekhyun pulls back.
“Now c’mon,” Baekhyun whines, tugging Baekhyun forward as he interlaces their fingers. “I want my coffee.”
Taeyong laughs, helpless to do anything but follow the whims of the ever-chaotic chaos witch. He knows he may not have magic anymore --at least for now-- but he doesn’t know how else to describe the moment.