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Vitrail

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3 months ago

 

Footsteps echo in the stone hallway as a student paces nearby, their clack against the slate a rhythm Jeongguk is beginning to loathe. The velvet seat beneath him is soft, the wood of its decorated legs creaking in protest when he leans backward. Dark, waved hair knocks against the stone behind his head, eyes rolling upward to the ceiling and its bronzed chandeliers.

It’s been hours. Hours of his leg bouncing nervously, fingers wringing in the formal robes he rarely wears. Hours of chapped lips pressing together and pacing until his feet ache. Hours of staring out into the courtyard wishing he were at the Aerie instead of trapped inside Elenia’s suffocating central stronghold. 

This day has been the subject of Jeongguk’s nightmares for years, torturing him day and night, and it never seems to want to end. He’s made it this far, a feat many would think impossible considering his limitations, but he’s still worried. 

Anyone would be with their future riding on one test. 

A few fellow witches still linger nervously on other benches lining the hallway, their attention anywhere but on the door that conceals the examination hall. Some flip through spellbooks in hopes they’ll cram a last answer, thumbing through fraying pages at lightspeed. Others cling nervously to their familiar for comfort while muttering incantations and summoning flames in their palms. 

But Jeongguk simply stares at the stones overhead, tracing their contours with his gaze and hoping he can prove his lifetime of effort wasn't in vain. He knows he has the support of a few Academy members after winning them over throughout the years, and Namjoon in particular will back him up if the time comes. Jimin made sure to even pass his praises along to his mentor, Seokjin.

There are a few members, however, that don’t yet know of him. Out of everything that could go wrong today, they concern him the most, not to mention the headmaster who insists on testing him at every opportunity.

“Jeon Jeongguk!”

The voice is jarring in the quiet, jolting Jeongguk from his thoughts as other students’ heads snap upward. His heart squeezes as he locks eyes with the administrator and he quickly jumps to his feet, flattening the creases of his robes and the black sweater beneath. 

It’s time. 

“Follow me,” the man mumbles, holding open one of the grand double doors. Jeongguk’s pulse beats in his throat as he approaches, hands clenched tightly into fists. 

He can handle this. 

The door creaks shut as he crosses the threshold, thudding with finality and trapping him inside. There are too many pairs of eyes on him to count, enough that Jeongguk feels sweat creep down his neck. 

He’s trained his whole life for this. He can do this.

The room is brighter than Jeongguk remembers. Stained glass windows line the rear of the hall, its cathedral ceilings decorated with curved etchings and winding designs. An ornate rose window casts rays of color onto the silhouetted members and the tiered rows of tables they sit at. There’s a shimmer to the air, each breath Jeongguk inhales laced with heavy, lingering magic.

Some of the onlookers are worn with age but the grand majority are young, their familiars perched nearby or sleeping at their feet. The crowd’s attention makes him tense, his swallow stuck in his throat and his motions robotic. Namjoon spots him immediately and sends him the smallest of encouraging smiles.

The administrator holds out a hand, directing Jeongguk to the wooden chair that sits at the center of the room and the table covered in glass baubles beside it. It’s quite far from the panel of members, the twenty-five of them or so a notable distance away, but he’s certain they’ll be able to judge his abilities even from afar.

Though his hands shake and his cheeks feel hot, he holds his head high, preferring to stand rather than take a seat. Jeongguk has never been one to show weakness despite it clinging to him like his own shadow, refusing to put himself in a position to be looked down upon. 

Even before those who hold his fate as a witch in their hands, he doesn’t plan to change that. 

The navy-haired Academy member at the center raises a brow, cheek pressed lazily into his palm where he rests on his elbow. His apathetic demeanor already has a bitter taste in Jeongguk’s mouth.

“I assume you know why you’re here, Jeon,” Min Yoongi drawls, twirling a pencil expertly between his fingers. His aura is immensely bored for that of Elenia’s founder and headmaster, his deep red robes shimmering like that of fire. Behind him, his kitsune familiar eyes Jeongguk with rapt attention, one of its nine red tails flicking leisurely. 

Jeongguk nods in silent response to Yoongi, but he doesn't break his stare with his familiar despite its sinister appearance. The fox slowly blinks its crimson eyes and Jeongguk feels a foreign warmth bloom in his chest.

A friendly greeting.  

The reassurance of Yoongi’s familiar brings him confidence, their wordless conversation unseen by all. He straightens his back, clasping his hands tightly behind him and hoping his posture reads more self-assured than he feels.

“The final examination of witch Jeon Jeongguk will now begin,” the admin announces, taking a seat by the door. The room falls further into quiet, enough that Jeongguk is sure his racing heart is audible to those nearby. 

He can do this. 

The man on Yoongi’s right smiles, his gaze sparkling and amused. Though they haven’t spoken very much, Jeongguk guesses he’s Kim Seokjin, the head healer for Elenia Academy and Jimin’s friend and mentor. His familiar sleeps curled in his lap, its batlike wings and tail wrapped round its fluffed body, its figure a cross between a chipmunk and a squirrel. Jimin has mentioned its name is Basil.

“State your affinity, if you would,” Seokjin asks politely.

“Flight,” Jeongguk answers, unphased by the few surprised glances his way. For a flight affinity witch that should be sporting airy blues and longing for sun and clouds, Jeongguk dresses entirely in black, shining piercings dangling from his ears and silver rings covering his fingers. Black boots lace their way up his ankles, his hair as dark as night and his robes a velvet obsidian. It’s all very atypical for a flight witch, though Jeongguk’s always considered himself an outlier from the norm. 

Like every other student attending Elenia Academy, Jeongguk is a witch, a being who shows an aptitude for magic. Each witch is drawn to a type of spirit energy that speaks to them most, usually one intertwined with their very soul. That unique energy establishes their affinity, an identifying label that represents their strongest power. Affinities can even influence one’s lifestyle, from living spaces to color preference. 

More importantly, a witch’s affinity determines the familiar that chooses them. Pacts with spirits are usually made during childhood when a witch’s affinity is purest, binding them together for life. They take on a corporeal form that best represents their witch’s heart and are considered the root of the world’s magic.

But Jeongguk aspires to be more than just a witch. After finding one’s niche through extensive training as an apprentice, a witch may be elevated to the title of mage and become a member of the Academy, working to aid society and students alike. The test before him is only one step in the journey to finding the right mentor and becoming the mage he dreams to be. 

“As you know, you were already administered a written exam that tested your knowledge of magic,” Namjoon states from Yoongi’s left. 

Jeongguk holds his breath as he nods, watching carefully as the bespectacled head scholar flips through his papers. 

“Alongside your excellent coursework, it’s clear you demonstrate a strong grasp on magical concepts and properties. Your score was among the highest in the pool of candidates for potential mentorship.”

The corners of Namjoon’s mouth twitch with a smile and Jeongguk’s heart lifts. The test had been hell to prepare for with its endless essays and sleepless nights, but he had dumped every ounce of effort into acing it. Namjoon had supported him through the entire ordeal, answering questions and pouring over texts in his spare time. 

A few Academy members nod approvingly, scratching notes onto the papers before them. Others remain stonefaced, their expressions betraying nothing. 

Of course, Yoongi still appears bored beyond measure.

Jeongguk sighs through his nose. Written skill and memorization will apparently only get him so far. 

“You’ll have noticed the table beside you consists of elixir supplies,” Namjoon continues, gesturing to the set-up to Jeongguk’s left. “Based on the choices for your possible mentors, we determined that your elixir crafting skills should be at the forefront of your talents. We’d like to see what you can do while pressed for time.”

Jeongguk blinks in shock as the crowd’s attention finds him, though he doesn’t allow the surprise he feels to surface. Potions and elixirs are complex and vital magic, but he anticipated they’d be arranging something around his affinity as they do for others. Maybe a flight test or even reading a star chart… not earthen or floral magic. He can use all kinds of magic, of course, but his strongest is felt when he’s free and soaring through the air.

“You have fifteen minutes to create a stable mixture from the ingredients provided to you. The catch, however, is that these particular herbs are quite toxic to both spirits and humans if combined improperly. Should you make a mistake, it could very well result in death.”

Yoongi’s head lifts from his hand, his bored expression morphing into sudden interest. He side-eyes Namjoon, lips jutting out as he loses himself in thought.

Jeongguk’s stomach drops. Yoongi’s interest is never good. 

“Once your time is up, we will have our most skilled botanist analyze it for impurities and then—”

“Mm… don’t think so,” Yoongi interrupts flatly, tilting back in his chair. Namjoon’s mouth snaps shut as he turns to Yoongi in surprise, and Jeongguk stills as the room goes silent. 

“I’m- I’m sorry?” Namjoon asks in confusion. “Is this not what we had planned?” 

“We did plan it as such, but I’ve decided I’ve changed my mind. Jeon will create an elixir within the time constraints and then promptly administer it to his familiar.”

The low murmur of onlookers ceases in Jeongguk’s ears as his thoughts dissolve into static. Despite his normally cool exterior, his hands begin to shake with frustration.

His familiar— Yoongi knows . They’ve even discussed it face to face, so why the hell would he—

“Yoongi,” Namjoon mutters warningly, his gaze hardening in displeasure. At his feet, his white lion familiar blinks open its tired eyes, stirring with a yawn as he senses Namjoon’s irritation.  

“What?” Yoongi asks innocently, waving a hand. “If Jeon’s familiar is incapacitated or otherwise unavailable, that’s something he should address before the panel, no?”

Slowly, Yoongi’s glinting stare turns to meet Jeongguk’s, eyes shining with an unspoken challenge. And as embarrassing as it feels, Jeongguk bristles in anger as he rises to meet it. 

“Understood,” he answers tightly, his face trained into something unreadable. Inside, his agitation boils until it drowns out his surroundings, his expert stare raking over the variety of herbs and dried flowers. Flasks and beakers gleam in their holders alongside a small cauldron, the glass mortar and pestle more polished than Jeongguk has ever seen. It’s an expensive arrangement, some ingredients so rare that he’s only ever read about them. 

It’s clear they had set him up with quite the challenge, one with many easy paths to failure. Still, confidence beats through him like that of his magic, fueling his desire to prove his worth and to kick Yoongi’s pompous ass. Even without a familiar, he knows he can still pass this exam. He can still find a mentor that will help him. 

He won’t rest until he becomes a respected mage with a powerful familiar by his side.

There’s tension in the air as Jeongguk unsnaps his robe and tosses it onto the unused chair, rolling his toned shoulders. The administrator stands by as he looks expectantly to the panel, a timer in hand. 

“Whenever you please,” Yoongi says casually, his red eyes bright. Beside him, Namjoon chews worriedly on his lip and casts Jeongguk an apologetic glance, but Jeongguk doesn’t need it. 

He can do this.

The administrator nods, meeting his gaze. “Ready.”

Jeongguk tenses, hands hovering over his equipment. Even the air stills as every onlooker pauses to watch.

“Begin.”

Time melts into a blur. 

He’s done this a hundred times—grinding oleander into dust and soaking it in a bath of water, mixing valerian and sage with delicate care, squeezing golden seal root until it’s potent enough to neutralize the black hellbore he chops into pieces. Red clover and yarrow are tossed into the empty pot, the jug of water quickly poured on top of it as other ingredients are mixed in. Jeongguk sparks its base with flint, igniting a fire in moments. 

There are tricker pieces made to catch him off guard, but he recognizes them all with ease. Hemlock, white snakeroot, belladonna. The incredibly rare sundew with its sticky points is confusing in particular, though he treats them all as bait, putting them aside as he maintains the perfect temperature of his mixture. 

He won’t allow them to throw him off out of nervousness.

With each practiced stir, the rotations and timing recalled from the toughest chapter of his botany textbook, Jeongguk lets his magic thicken the liquid until it bubbles. Each piece has a texture and scent, a compound he can break down with the aid of floral and earthen magic. He coaxes the red clover to melt and the black hellbore to dissolve consistently, the pot’s contents quickly turning from muddy brown to vibrant crimson.

His lips press together to hide his smirk. Not nearly as hard as he anticipated.

“Five minutes remaining.”

At the sound of his voice, Jeongguk stirs from his focus, finding all eyes turned to him in interest. Swallowing, he glances away just as quickly. Losing himself to the pressure of an audience is not an option. 

The mixture slowly begins to glow and Jeongguk lets satisfaction wash over him. He had learned how to neutralize toxic agents on his own, keeping the skill in the back of his mind in case the opportunity to use it ever arose, but he had never expected to call upon it so soon.

“Three minutes.”

Jeongguk quickly grabs a nearby flask, removing its cork as he continues to stir in perfect rhythm. Just a few more seconds until every last particle combines and he can incorporate the final life affinity magic required—

He inhales sharply, a chilling magic suddenly prickling his skin. 

Black. The brew darkens into a hellish onyx, its tone deep and threatening. The aura it emits reeks of death and destruction—of horror and dread and everything Jeongguk had intended to negate.

His eyes widen as his heart lurches in panic. It’s rejecting him—rejecting his life magic. 

“Oh?” Yoongi murmurs amusedly, chin tilted upward where he watches from the table. Beside him, a few members shift uncomfortably, some even standing to get a better view.

It doesn’t make sense. He’s used life magic countless times, though never to such a complicated extent. Still, such a dramatic change shouldn’t be happening. His magic wavers as the components screech to a halt, refusing to balance themselves as they had earlier. 

Fuck. He curses internally, running an anxious hand through his hair. A nauseous feeling bubbles up like the cauldron before him. There has to be another option, something missing he’d never anticipate. Something obvious that he couldn’t find in any textbook.

Basics, Jeongguk. Think of the basics.

All things are living, imbued with spirit energy. Even the dried plants and chopped herbs still harbor tiny remnants of life until they’re transferred elsewhere. It’s his job as a witch to distinguish them and ease them into a new form.

Fortunately for Jeongguk, he understands spirit energy to a degree most others have never experienced. His connection stems from his heart instead of his mind, more reliant on his senses and intuition than any written text. 

That feeling rings true now as he hovers his hands over each unused ingredient, pausing over one that pulses with power. It calls him, begging for release. 

The sundew. 

“One minute remaining.”

There’s no time for much thought as Jeongguk rapidly slices the prickly sundew into pieces, tossing them haphazardly into the mix and praying his wild theory stands true. Instead of life magic, he calls upon that of death, muttering an inaudible incantation to send the sundew’s living spirit into the void.

Perhaps he had encouraged the first mixture wrongly, somehow confusing his life magic with that of death. It makes little sense, but he hopes the release of the sundew’s energy can neutralize the turmoil the other ingredients face. Gently, he encourages them to move onward, abandoning their former states to be born anew in the form of a harmless potion.

Jeongguk’s entire body sags in relief as the inky blackness finally dissipates. The mixture churns rapidly, swirling until it becomes the color of wine. With a ladle, he funnels the liquid into several glass vials, watching as their contents drip down like that of watery blood. 

“Time.”

A shuddering breath leaves him as he sets the vials aside, slowly turning to face Yoongi and the rest of the panel with hands held tightly behind his back. He prays they don’t see the sweat that trickles down his temple or the way his arms shake, though Yoongi’s knowing smirk says it all. 

“An interesting performance,” the headmaster remarks, leaning forward with fingers interlaced. “You countered resistance to change with the sweet relief death brings. How utterly charming.”

Jeongguk’s teeth grind as irritation fills him. Yoongi has never been sympathetic to his lack of familiar, but never has he publicly shamed him for his methods of problem solving. Not many could invoke a variety of magic at once, especially without the aid of the spirits. He had only done what he felt was right. 

“You did well, Jeongguk,” Namjoon praises, kicking Yoongi under the table, “despite the last minute requirements. Very few witches are capable of invoking death affinity magic.”

“He’s not done, though,” Yoongi counters, kicking Namjoon back with a scowl. “My instructions were quite clear. Jeon will administer a vial to his familiar and show us that his hard work wasn’t just for show.”

Namjoon grabs Yoongi by the sleeve to hiss into his ear and Jeongguk’s jaw tightens, his determination solidifying into anger. If the headmaster is intent on humiliating him, he’s in for quite the disappointment. After enduring a lifetime of mockery for his lack of familiar, the test’s circumstances and Yoongi’s authority are no different. 

Being looked down upon is not something he takes lightly. 

“I don’t have a familiar.”

A hush falls over the room and Jeongguk feels his insides curl. He hates the sympathetic looks, the harsh judgement and questioning glances. Every class has always reacted the same, his peers avoiding him or accusing him of hiding his familiar for attention. Professors have worked to draw his spirit out of him for selfish gain, some assigning back-breaking amounts of extra work or singling him out despite his excellent performance. Others have chosen to ignore his presence entirely, claiming he’s not a true witch without a familiar by his side. 

But worse, he thinks, are his so-called friends. He’s never been socially accepted, usually flat-out rejected by the few that interest him. Everyone has a built-in best friend with their familiars by their sides, but Jeongguk has always been alone. Painfully, strikingly alone.

Of everyone around his age, only Park Jimin has ever shown him unprejudiced kindness, defending him before he learned to stand up for himself and believing in his future as a witch. And of the Academy members, only Kim Namjoon has ever respected him for his grueling efforts to master magic without a familiar. 

Seokjin’s brows rise to his hairline, his pencil tapping on the table before he makes a few notes. The panel seems to mumble amongst themselves, many with tones of disapproval. 

Let them talk, Jeongguk thinks bitterly. I don’t give a shit. 

“How fascinating,” Yoongi says, a catlike smile unfurling. “I’m sure everyone here would agree that performing such magic without a familiar is rather impressive, Jeon. Your tenacity to make it this far in your studies is admirable, but if you can’t adhere to my rules, I’m afraid this is where your dreams will end.”

Dread fills Jeongguk from head to toe. “That’s not—”

“Fair? No,” Yoongi muses. “Life in general isn’t very fair, is it? However, I cannot in good conscience pass you through if the spirits haven’t accepted your heart. In a way, it almost isn’t up to me. You have no one to blame but yourself for your weak connection to spirit energy.”

Jeongguk’s heart clenches, his cheeks flushing with a mix of shame and anger. 

Namjoon’s lion growls deeply as his invoker shifts in his seat, glaring down at Yoongi with a look of disdain. “You’re being cruel,” the scholar says bitingly. “Jeongguk deserves a chance to prove himself just like every other witch that has walked these halls. Magic clearly obeys him with ease. Is that not enough?”

The murmur of the crowd grows and Jeongguk trembles with frustration. Yoongi had never prevented him from attending classes or living among other witches. In fact, he never seemed to give much of a damn at all about whether he had a familiar or not, so why threaten him now? 

Why enable him for all these years just to rip him down at the final stretch?

“Magic is not just about control,” Yoongi murmurs thoughtfully, his face darkening. “It’s about the strength of one’s heart, which I’m sure you know very well, Namjoon. If a spirit hasn’t yet recognized Jeon despite his talents, there’s something wrong—”

Slam.

The panel quiets as Yoongi does at the commotion. Before them, Jeongguk loudly dismantles his cauldron in a flurry, swiping an unused flask from the table and dunking it into the liquid with his bare hands. 

“You want strength of heart?” he huffs irritatedly, a renewed sense of stubbornness filling him. “Fine.”

Anger prickles like magic through the air as Jeongguk locks eyes with the amused form of Yoongi, raising the flask upward. Shimmering red runs down his fingers and over his wrists.

If they’re to corner him, he won’t back down without a fight. Familiar or not, his claws are his own. 

“I don’t need a damn familiar to prove my worth, Min. I’ve said it to you before just as much as I’ve displayed it. You want better proof of my connection to the spirits? Here it is.”

“Wait,” Namjoon urges, a hand extended, “Jeongguk—!”

Without hesitation, Jeongguk raises the flask to his lips, tossing back the mixture he had conjured without care.

The first swallow isn’t unpleasant. There's a sweet, light fragrance to it that reminds Jeongguk of fresh berries and summer sun. It snakes through his insides and settles nicely in his gut, and to his relief, there’s no death or poisoning, no shriveling of limbs or foaming at the mouth. 

Just… juice. Damn good juice, if he’s honest. 

He wipes the dribble of red from his lips with the back of his hand, clanging the empty glass on the table as he shoots Yoongi the most venomous glare he can muster. 

“Would you like some, headmaster?” Jeongguk offers sarcastically, raising a stoppered vial and swirling it between his fingers. “Not a half bad brew if I say so myself.”

Yoongi is silent and the room holds its breath, Namjoon staring wide-eyed beside him. A snort sounds from the headmaster moments later.

“Your stubborn bravery is applaudable, but we still have no proof the elixir will work on spirits. Unless you can conjure your familiar right this moment, you will return to your studies and continue to work until a spirit chooses you.” 

Yoongi’s expression is one of smug victory and Jeongguk can’t manage to conceal his anger. How much more can he possibly learn that he hasn’t memorized already? There’s no benefit to taking more classes.

A fear he’s long since learned to bury slowly surfaces. For years, he’s waited for this day to prove that even those without familiars can achieve success. He even completed their challenge without one. 

But even more important is the desire to prove that he’s worthy of recognition… that despite his differences, maybe he can earn respect too.

And as for his connection to the spirits, Jeongguk can confidently say he relates to them more than humans. Their carefree, loyal nature is mirrored by his own, evident most when he conjures magic with his heart. The familiars of others have always been drawn to him when they’d ignore any other witch, even disobeying their invokers to visit him. They treat him as an equal.

But although they speak to him, befriending him and offering their respect, none will ever bind themselves to him.

Maybe something is truly wrong with him.

As his self-loathing surges, a surprising warmth blooms Jeongguk’s chest as it had earlier. He recognizes it as Yoongi’s familiar immediately, finding it staring back at him when he meets its intense gaze. 

As if in slow motion, the kitsune rises to its feet, shaking out its red and black coat before artfully leaping over the table. 

“Oi,” Yoongi breathes. Wide-eyed with surprise, he watches as his familiar ignores his complaints and the murmurings of the other members of the panel. Its coat shines with flickering flame as it slowly approaches Jeongguk, tails swishing with every soundless step. 

The more it nears him, the warmer Jeongguk’s chest becomes. Yoongi’s familiar is among the most powerful in the world, its outward appearance so demonic that even renowned mages don’t dare to look it in the eye. The creature’s name is unknown as it's considered a dishonor to speak it, though Jeongguk knows its true nature. 

Beyond its intimidating appearance, it possesses a kind heart and gentle soul. 

Don’t doubt yourself, the familiar murmurs within Jeongguk’s mind, his voice masculine but playful. My invoker only wishes to test your resilience. 

Jeongguk’s breath catches. Never before has a spirit spoken to him so plainly, most choosing to communicate through feelings or images. He hadn’t known they were capable of speech.

But what more can I do? Jeongguk thinks, hoping it reaches him. I’ve tried everything at this point.

A pleased hum flits through his mind as the fox stands before him, it’s height almost nearing Jeongguk’s own. Without thought, he extends a hand, a surprised giggle leaving him when the spirit nuzzles into his palm. His snout is soft and warm. 

You and I are not much different, Jeon Jeongguk. Our energies are feared, yet our intentions are pure. Circumstances beyond our control drive us to our most desperate.

Jeongguk blinks as the words wash over him. Is his energy really so fearsome? And are his circumstances really beyond his control?

And yet, despite the mistreatment from humans who do not understand you, you’ve shown kindness to every spirit you’ve encountered. Where others feel entitled to such power, you have worked tirelessly to earn it. For your purity of heart, I would happy to aid you as a friend. 

A friend...? Can Jeongguk truly consider Yoongi’s familiar, one of the most powerful in the world, a friend of all things? 

There’s not a single hint of maliciousness in the familiar’s tone as it reverberates through his mind. Swallowing, Jeongguk nods, allowing reassurance to fill him in place of his fear. 

I’ll gladly accept any help you can provide, he answers humbly. Although I can’t promise I won’t cuss out your asshole of an invoker if the opportunity comes. 

An amused sound akin to a bright laugh is shared between them as the kitsune approaches his elixir table. You’d be surprised to learn how often I have scold him myself. He’s quite the handful, my Min Yoongi, though he’s often all bark and no bite.

Yoongi glares at his familiar in confusion, though the fox pays him no mind. Jeongguk finds it difficult to hide his smile when the creature hovers over the cauldron, tails flicking casually behind it. Of his own accord, he dips his head to lap up the elixir without a care. 

There’s a few exclamations of surprise from onlookers as he drinks his fill, but the fox remains in perfect health even minutes afterward. The emotion in Yoongi’s eyes is complex when his familiar turns to face him, gaze glossing over as they communicate silently. 

Jeongguk smiles as he catches what he knows he's intended to hear. 

Delicious. 

A long sigh leaves Yoongi as he pinches the bridge of his nose. He sits back in his chair, tilting it lazily until the kitsune waltzes back to his side, curling up in the shadows behind him. 

Well done, Jeongguk. I expect we’ll be seeing more of each other soon. 

Will we? Jeongguk asks, raising a brow. 

A single eye of the kitsune blinks open, his amusement palpable. Yes, that’s what friends do, is it not? Aid one another when they need it most? 

Jeongguk huffs in amusement. He has little experience with friends to reference, but he can’t help but find the sentiment desirable. When the headmaster finally sighs loudly, a grimace on his face, he dares to hope that relying on such a friend might have actually paid off. 

“While I’m inclined to not let Jeon pass due to his missing familiar,” Yoongi begins begrudgingly, quieting the panel, “it would be hypocritical of me to assess his connection to the spirits while ignoring my own. My familiar has confirmed his elixir is indeed safe for consumption, a feat I considered near impossible. My familiar has also taken a strange liking to Jeon, something that would not occur unless his spirit is... pure.”

Jeongguk’s heart soars, the weight lifting from his shoulders. He swears Yoongi’s kitsune winks in his direction.

“Aside from that, Kim Namjoon is also my most trusted advisor. He too has expressed his utmost confidence in Jeon. Never have I seen those closest to me so ready to jump to the defense of a seemingly underequipped student.” 

Yoongi’s gaze travels to Jeongguk’s, his presence emanating far more power than earlier. It makes Jeongguk’s skin crawl, though he refuses to back down, his sheer stubbornness the only thing keeping him afloat. 

“Per our policy, I will leave the final decision up to a vote from the panel, but we will include my vote as well. You may interpret the examination results and this debacle as you will. We will begin with Minghao.”

A far off member stands, clearing his throat. A yes echoes off the chamber walls and Jeongguk allows hope to spark in his chest. He takes his seat once more as another rises, continuing the chain. 

For the first time since beginning the test, Jeongguk wishes he had chosen to use the chair offered to him. His legs shake with the nervousness as the Academy members slowly announce their verdicts. Every answer brings him relief, although as time goes on, a few dissenters rise to say no, and by the time the majority of the room has finished, he’s collected three skeptical strikes against him. 

Only Yoongi and another member he doesn’t recognize remain. 

“Taehyung?” Yoongi murmurs expectantly, staring at the man seated at the end of the row. Jeongguk follows his gaze, unaware of the stranger’s presence until now. He’s never even heard of a Taehyung’s existence on campus.

Brown curls shadow his eyes and trail down his neck. His robes are an earthy green like that of moss and soil, his skin warmed with a summer glow. Embroidered flowers line the collar of his undershirt and gemmed, sparkling rings decorate his fingers.

Jeongguk blinks, wondering why he hadn’t bothered to notice Taehyung earlier. The man is rather attractive compared to most other members on the panel, enough that he would have remembered him if they had met before. He can’t see many details at a distance, but the man appears young enough to have been his classmate, maybe Jimin’s age. 

There’s an extended pause while they await Taehyung’s answer. Slowly, the man’s eyes travel upward to Yoongi before swiveling to Jeongguk. His gaze is glimmering and vulnerable only for a breath, hardening so quickly that Jeongguk is certain he imagined anything but disapproval.

“No.” 

Jeongguk blinks.

“Oh?” Yoongi raises a brow, his voice tinged with surprised amusement. “Are you quite sure, Kim? I would think this one would interest you—”

“My answer,” Taehyung states flatly, turning his glare on Yoongi, “is no.” 

Silence. The panel eyes Taehyung in shock, distaste evident even among those who had reasonably expressed their concerns. Namjoon turns in his chair to stare Taehyung down, an unspoken argument clearly occurring between them that just perplexes Jeongguk further.

It makes no sense for someone to so aggressively reject him. He and this Taehyung , whoever the hell he is, have never even met. He must be a mage to be a member of the panel, one especially talented to participate in exam reviews. Either the guy has a vendetta against those without familiars or he’s just an asshole. 

Regardless, Jeongguk decides he doesn’t like him just by his blunt dismissiveness alone. 

“Suit yourself,” Yoongi says with a shrug, waving a hand at Taehyung’s tense form. “How appropriate the final vote falls to me.”

A smile curls across his face. He stares at the papers in front of him before lifting them into the air and ripping them down the middle, the tearing noise abrasive as it echoes. Taehyung’s glare pierces through the back of his head. 

“To hell with the requirements,” Yoongi says, throwing the papers behind him. They land upon his kitsune who huffs in amused offense, incinerating them in an instant. “I’m far more interested to see how your mentor will influence you, Jeon. Your fate is still unclear and I’m afraid none of us qualify to stand in its way any longer. None except your mentor, that is.”

Jeongguk’s heart thuds painfully. “So— so does that mean—”

“Jeon Jeongguk,” Namjoon announces, his voice booming, “based on the input of the board and your exceptional performance, with twenty one votes yes and four votes no, we are happy to confirm that you have officially passed your final exam. Your apprenticeship to become a mage will begin in the coming months.” 

Jeongguk finds himself speechless. He’d always imagined hearing the words, tasting freedom from academia on his tongue, but to truly experience it? To know his hard work wasn’t for naught? It’s impossible, he couldn’t— 

“We will assign you your mentor following the summer recess at which time you’ll discuss your plan of work with them.” Namjoon grins, his dimples on full display. “Congratulations-”

Bang

Textbooks slap loudly against the table when the man known as Taehyung rises to his feet, shoving away his chair as his robes ripple behind him. The room watches in stunned silence as he exits through a side door with an abrupt slam, not bothering to spare them a final glance. 

Jeongguk stares after him in disbelief. Is he that unhappy with his success? They’ll likely never even cross paths again, nor have they ever before. 

Maybe Kim Taehyung is just an ass.

Yoongi’s quiet laugh is audible, dispelling the tension as other members slowly stand to stretch and chat. His familiar rests its head in his lap, his fingers trailing delicately over its red markings. 

“You’ll find that not everyone will be pleased with your success, Jeon,” he drawls, eyes glinting knowingly as Jeongguk watches the door Taehyung exited through. “If you thought the journey was tough thus far, I do believe the worst of it is only just beginning. For now, however, you are dismissed.” 

Hands clenched by his side, Jeongguk nods curtly. Challenges have never been an issue. He can handle whatever his mentor throws at him no matter how difficult or absurd it may be. 

He’ll do whatever it takes to get his familiar and become a mage worth respecting. Anything at all.

“You’ll receive a letter when I’ve chosen your mentor,” Yoongi calls as Jeongguk turns to leave. His smile is cunning, laced with hidden motives that make Jeongguk’s skin prickle, but his familiar flicks a tail in friendly farewell.

“Enjoy your summer, Jeon Jeongguk,” Yoongi murmurs out of earshot, “for the trials that await you are not what you might expect.” 












Present




“You gonna sleep in all day or what?”

A muffled groan leaves Jeongguk from beneath his blanket, his eyes squeezed tightly shut. The canopy covering his bed is pulled back so that harsh sunlight beams his face. From the sound of the birds crying out over the Aerie, it must still be rather early. 

Too early. 

“Fuck off.” 

A tch leaves his roommate just as the pillow slides out from where he buries his face into it. His nose thuds painfully onto his mattress, scrunching in discomfort. 

“Get. Up. Asshole.”

Each word is punctuated with a smack of his own pillow to his back. Jeongguk grunts in irritation and whips around in his own tangled blankets, ripping the pillow from Jimin’s hands and clutching it to his chest in betrayal. 

“What the hell is your problem?” he growls thickly, the silhouette of his best friend blurry to his narrowed eyes. “Can I not enjoy my summer—”

“Summer’s over, Jeon,” Jimin taunts, sporting his most playful grin. Between his fingers, he holds an envelope with his name scrawled in ink over the front. Its back is stamped with Yoongi’s red wax seal. 

Jeongguk’s heart nearly leaps from his chest. 

“Let—Let me see,” he demands breathlessly, any prior hint of sleep wiped away in an instant. He reaches out with grabby hands, only for Jimin to step just out of reach with a coy smile. 

“Not until you join the land of the living. It’s almost noon, you know.”

Pouting, Jeongguk runs his fingers through his messed hair, wishing he felt more excited than anxious. For months, he’s awaited the letter that would reveal his mentor, a mage specifically chosen by Yoongi that aligns with his affinity and supports his goals.

Someone that will hopefully bring him a step closer to finding his familiar.

“Get up and open it already,” Jimin whines, tossing the letter to his desk. “I’ve been dying to know who got assigned to you. Another minute and I would’ve opened it myself.” 

Jeongguk grunts in response, pulling back his covers and standing with a yawn. Goosebumps crawl over his bare chest from the breeze that wafts through their open balcony, the sweet scent of summer air filling his lungs.

Their room is positioned atop the Aerie, a residential section of campus dedicated to those with affinities related to the sky. Its cylindrical towers of varying heights cluster together, their sides adorned with many arched windows and open breezeways. A long bridge connects it to the rest of campus, though it’s rarely used when the majority of its residents prefer to travel by air. 

Jeongguk had felt at home the moment he set eyes on the stone and the vines that creep up from the chasm below. The Aerie appears to float on a small island surrounded by a bottomless canyon (which does in fact have a bottom, as Jeongguk had discovered one adventurous day). Birds flock amongst the familiars that circle it, often accompanied by witches on their backs or even in their claws. He had been shocked the first time he saw a flying serpent slither by with its invoker clinging to its underbelly.

Thanks to Jimin being the most talented celestial witch the Academy has seen in generations, he earned the former observatory as his room for himself and a friend of choice. Jeongguk considers himself lucky to be that friend, especially with the unique mechanical roof that sits above their heads. On the starriest of nights, they often open the hatch for Jimin to record star charts, refuel his magic or just to relax. Those nights are some of Jeongguk’s most precious memories, typically spent laying on the floor while swapping heavy thoughts or stupid jokes with his best friend.

The telltale flap of wings is heard before a gust of wind buffets Jeongguk’s tangled hair. Outside, Jimin’s familiar lands on the balcony with a heavy thud, flaring her wings and shaking her head before tucking them by her sides. 

The oversized doorway to their room is more of a blasted hole in the wall, the balcony off the side large enough for Jimin’s familiar to sleep, eat and land safely. Jeongguk’s spent countless hours with legs dangling off the edge, sometimes plummeting through the air just to let his magic carry him to safety once more.

“Zira,” Jimin calls, “get Jeongguk moving, please. He’s dragging his ass this morning.”

The gryphon familiar tilts her head as she leans in from the balcony, large black eyes sparkling with interest. She clacks her beak in soft amusement, huffing wind magic across the room until Jeongguk stumbles backwards, his pillows and blankets flying off the bed. 

“Oi,” Jeongguk muses, waving a hand in defense, “can you both relax? I’m just trying to enjoy my last few minutes of freedom here.”

Zira and Jimin snort in unified response.

Jeongguk is incredibly fond of Jimin’s familiar and would go as far as to consider her a close friend. The creature is a cross between a gryphon and hawk, her puffed chest white and feathered like that of a snowy owl. Dark wings are folded by her sides that mirror the color of her beak and sharp talons. She’s larger than that of a horse, her wingspan intimidatingly wide, though Jeongguk knows she’s more kind and gentle than even most humans. 

She suits her invoker’s heart perfectly.

He pulls open his wooden drawer chest to retrieve one of his many sweaters, quickly changing into his usual attire: black pants with a leather belt and long shirts of lightweight material. He’s not one for overcomplication, running fingers through his wavy hair and calling it styled. Even the silver rings he slides onto his fingers aren’t over the top, his dress robes most witches wear collecting dust on their hangers.

Jimin watches Jeongguk with a raised brow as he approaches his desk. His hands brush hesitantly over the yellowed paper and Yoongi’s wax seal of pressed flame, lips pressing together as he recalls the tension of his final exam several months ago. He’s trained day and night since then, but it still hasn’t felt entirely real that he’ll be moving forward in his studies. 

At least not until today.

He’s embarrassed to find his heart is already racing. As excited as he is to begin his mage training, he’s still anxious to reveal the name of his mentor. Whoever it is will undoubtedly change him—for better or worse. It’s a little nervewracking to alter the course of his life with just a quick rip of paper. 

“It’ll be fine, Guk,” Jimin calls with a lazy smile, watching from his side of the room with arms crossed against his chest. He wears a shimmering silver blouse and navy pants, his greyed hair and crystalline eyes sparkling like stardust. “I was so nervous I almost puked, remember?”

Snorting, Jeongguk thumbs over the paper’s edge. “I remember. You almost threw your damn letter off the balcony before Zira and I trapped you in our room.” 

Jimin’s giggle is reminiscent, a hand messing his hair. “I know it feels like a lot of pressure, but your mentor will help you figure out where you belong. I’m sure whoever it is will recognize how much you busted your ass to get here.”

Jeongguk hums, shoving thoughts of the few dissenters that had voted no during his exam out of his mind. It wouldn’t make sense for him to be assigned to one of them anyway, but the fear has always lingered. 

As Yoongi had said, not everyone will be happy with his progress.

“Yoongi doesn’t screw around with his choices,” Jimin continues, and Jeongguk wonders if his worries are that obvious. “As much as I doubted my apprenticeship under Seokjin, he recognized spirit healing would be my strength even when I couldn’t. Your mentor will guide you.”

A long exhale leaves Jeongguk. Logically, he knows Jimin is probably right, but he has a hard time believing that anyone can truly aid him at this point. 

How many mentors will have dealt with an apprentice without a familiar before?

The envelope feels heavy when he turns it over in his hands and slips his nail hesitantly beneath the fold. Regardless of his fears, he knows moving forward is inevitable. Any step closer to his familiar is a step he’s willing to take. 

Besides… it’s too late to turn back now.

The rip of paper is oddly loud in his ears. Jeongguk spots the seeped ink through the folded parchment inside, its text illegible through the back. His heart beats in his throat as he eases it out with shaking hands, carefully unfolding it to hurriedly read over the scrawl within. 

He skips the irrelevant paragraph manufactured for every student, eyes finding his own name before they travel to a bold line separated from the rest. The name is written in fresh ink, its brushstrokes in messy cursive.

A choked laugh leaves him. 

 

Kim Taehyung

 

His mind races for an explanation and turns up empty. 

It’s a joke. It has to be a joke. Yoongi is notorious for fucking with him at every opportunity, but this ? To assign him the one guy who particularly loathed him for no apparent reason and stormed out when he passed?

Jeongguk’s hands tremble as a bitter taste fills his mouth. It definitely can’t be. Yoongi’s just being an ass. He’ll have to visit him and get it switched, modified somehow, Namjoon can help—

 

All selections are final. There will be absolutely NO exceptions for any reason.

 

He curses audibly. 

The warning of red ink is written in Yoongi’s irritatingly spiky handwriting, a sarcastic Good Luck! scribbled next to it. Jeongguk envisions the smirk on his face just from the tone alone.

With the letter gripped tightly in his hands, he reads it over from top to bottom three times before he starts to feel nauseated. He drops onto his bed with a bounce, thumbs pressing into his eyes. 

“Fuck.”

Jimin’s brows raise. “Who?” he asks eagerly, swiping the paper off the bed. He reads it over for a moment before shooting him a questioning glance. “Kim… Taehyung? Like earth mage Kim Taehyung?” 

“The one from the test,” Jeongguk mutters defeatedly, rubbing circles into his temples. “The guy who walked out and voted no even though he had nothing to do with me.”

His teeth grind at just the mention of him. He supposes that maybe he dislikes Taehyung a bit more than he should, but the man represents everything he loathed about his examination day and his lifetime of ridicule: quick judgement and flat out denial of his efforts. 

Jimin’s expression becomes complicated. “ That was your Taehyung? Like.. tan, dark hair and sorta intimidatingly hot?”

“He’s not my Taehyung,” Jeongguk snaps in irritation, ripping the paper from his hands and pointedly ignoring the comment about his looks. He doesn’t give a damn if someone is hot if they don’t take him seriously. “And I thought you said you hadn’t heard of anyone like him.” 

“I hadn’t,” Jimin says defensively, “because I never thought they’d let the only Taehyung I know into an exam. He doesn’t teach any classes or talk to almost anyone and works completely by himself at the Arboretum. I’ve only ever seen him deliver a few things to Jin. Apparently, he never leaves the place.”

Any remaining hope in Jeongguk’s chest is crushed by disappointment. There’s no plausible explanation for Yoongi to have paired them beyond some twisted joke. Even their affinities are wildly different with Jeongguk’s longing for open sky and Taehyung’s apparent earth magic. 

“What the fuck am I supposed to do?” he groans helplessly.

Jimin sighs, plopping next to him on the bed. “It does seem a little… odd to have him be assigned to anyone—you in particular—but Yoongi knows a lot that we don’t. There could be a reason that will only make sense once you start working with him. I felt confused when I got assigned to Seokjin, too.”

“But at least Seokjin is… normal?” Jeongguk grumbles. “I don’t even know if Taehyung will understand my affinity. He apparently doesn’t even like me.”

A reassuring hand moves up and down his back. “Look, I know it seems stupid, and I’ll agree that Taehyung is a… weird choice,” Jimin says with a wince, “but maybe you should check it out, you know? Get a feel for his style. If things are horrible, I’m sure Namjoon would help you out before you need to escalate to harassing Yoongi.” 

Jeongguk heaves a long sigh as he tosses himself back on his bed, staring up at the dark canopy and the overhead hatch that’s engraved with golden constellations.

It sucks that Jimin is right. Aside from himself, he’s never met a more stubborn human than Min Yoongi. The man is infamous for playing his students like a fiddle. He’s too powerful for his own good. 

“Whatever,” he grunts. “I’ll talk to Taehyung because I know it’s required, but it’s not gonna work in the long run, Chim. I can already tell you that it won’t.”

His friend casts him a sad glance. Silently, he pats his hair, and Jeongguk knows there’s not much left to be said. Words have only ever brought him so much comfort when his struggles always seem to have no end in sight. 

His life has never gone as planned and this assignment is no different. Once again, he’ll have to fight what fate offers him. But despite the resistance, he’s determined to find a mentor to uplift him, one that will fuel the air beneath his wings properly... not tie him to the ground in a mess of greenhouse vines or whatever the fuck earth mage Taehyung does.

But to do so—to start moving forward on a path he carves for himself, he knows he needs to play Yoongi’s game. 

He needs to talk to Kim Taehyung. 











If Jeongguk weren’t flying with a pit of dread in his gut, he thinks he'd find the trip to the Arboretum relatively pleasant. 

The trees of the gardens blur beneath him as the late summer sun warms his wind-chilled skin. Air magic carries him effortlessly on invisible wings across the Academy, the grounds picturesque with their vibrant grasses, colored flowers and trimmed hedges. Red tiled roofs spiral upward from below, the many bridges and towers flocked with students and spirits. 

Though most academic activity occurs in the classrooms and grand halls of central campus, students’ time is often spent in the scattered dormitories and areas dedicated to individual affinities. The Aerie is near the flight facilities where all students can practice flight safely. Fire and metal affinity students prefer the bustle of the workshops and forges near central campus. There are endless networks of underground caverns and underwater bubblescapes, treehouses decorated with flowers hidden among branches and cabins nestled under giant mushrooms. Every inch of campus teems with life.

The flourishing activity of the Academy brings comfort to Jeongguk, but only when he watches from afar. There’s always been a disconnect from himself and those accompanied by their familiars, one that’s given him even more love for flight and the solitude it brings. The judgement of others doesn’t matter when his freedom is limitless in the sky. 

More often than not, stray creatures that are unbound to a witch will join him wherever he goes. He’s a magnet for spirits’ company and finds opening his heart to them is as easy as using his spells. They give him hope he’ll eventually find his familiar when all else feels lost.

Among the clouds, Jeongguk often loses himself in his deepest of thoughts, and today is no exception. It’s odd to think he’s never ventured to the Arboretum when every other corner of the Academy holds a memory for him. From his favorite picnic benches to the secret hideaways the spirits have shown him, the entire campus is his home. 

Not that he has anything else to compare it to.

He had been dropped at the gateway at a young age with no recollection of family, making Elenia the only home he's ever known. It’s not uncommon for witches to join during childhood while keeping close contact with relatives, but for Jeongguk, there are no documents or answers regarding his past. The concept of his own parents or siblings brings up not a single memory or emotion. He sees little point in pursuing it if no one else does.

Strangely, the vague circumstances around his past bother him less than the absence of his familiar does.

There are, however, those odd feelings that flit through him from time to time. The more he’s considered it, the more he feels something like love existed before arriving at Elenia. There aren’t any flashes of images or voices, but there’s a warmth in his chest that stands apart—something soothing and kind. The feeling is pure, even visiting his dreams to ease his worries with a haze of color. 

Jeongguk’s spent hours mulling over the possibility of such warmth being his familiar, perhaps one that he had in the past and was made to forget. The feeling secretly gives him hope that not all is lost… that a spirit for him is out there. 

He refuses to consider much else. 

The Arboretum is even further separated from campus than the Aerie and it takes Jeongguk several minutes of travel before the shimmering dome comes into view. The greenhouse is massive with its hundreds of translucent panels locked together by iron frames. Its exterior shines like iridescent scales in the bright sun, the dense growth captive within like that of the massive garden that surrounds it. 

He’s never travelled out this far. The place is infamous among students with its unsociable groundskeeper and no classes to speak of, and the area is said to harbor dense spirit energy with its lack of human visitation. The mystery around it scares nearly all away. 

Fortunately, spirit energy and a few rumors do little to frighten Jeongguk. What worries him more is the mage he knows awaits him.

Underbrush flies into a whirlwind as he gently lands at the entryway. A tunneled archway covered in hanging vines leads to the dome’s doorway, the slate path below obscured by leaves and dried petals. The area is little ominous at first glance, but its shadow is easily dispelled when Jeongguk spots tiny eyes peering from nearby rose bushes. 

He smiles, squatting down with an open palm. 

“Hello, little ones.”

Timid spirits with forms of sparrows crossed with mice hop out from undercover, their fur wings, rounded ears and soft tails the color of green. Jeongguk recalls learning of them as squallows in his spirit creatures class.

The squallows appear wary at first, though their hesitation doesn’t last long when Jeongguk’s heart reveals only pure intentions. The bravest of the bunch slowly emerges, hopping into his palm and wiggling under his thumb. Before he knows it, the flock of them are scurrying up his arms, fluttering on his shoulders and nuzzling against his cheeks. 

He may be dressed head to toe in black, intimidating and probably a bit aloof to most humans, but Jeongguk admits he’s incredibly weak for cute spirits. An airy laugh leaves him as one pecks at his hair and another tweets in his ear. Their excited chirps only draw more of the flock from nearby and he giggles warmly at the attention. 

With the sweet scent of summer around him and the company of spirits, Jeongguk is surprised how at ease he feels in the Arboretum grounds. There’s a peace to be found in the tranquility of the swaying grasses and rustling trees. 

Perhaps it’s not as wild as everyone thinks. 

“What are you doing here?”

Jeongguk’s heart jumps into his throat as a voice sounds behind him, scattering a few squallows into the air. He hadn’t even been able to sense the approaching presence. 

He turns to find none other than Kim Taehyung staring at him with lips parted in shock, the breeze gently tousling the brown locks that frame his face. Dirt is smeared across his sun-kissed cheek and over the apron he wears. The rolled-back sleeves of his cream blouse are stained with grime, the first few buttons undone to reveal his sharp collarbones.

Though he hadn't forgotten his behavior, Jeongguk must have forgotten his face. He definitely doesn’t remember Kim Taehyung looking like... this .

“I came to find you,” he starts, his mouth suddenly dry. “I received a letter today regarding my mage apprenticeship.”

Taehyung’s eyes flick to the squallow burrowing itself in his hair and back to his face. He shifts the basket of flowers in his arms uncomfortably.

“What does that have to do with me?”

His tone isn’t unkind, but Jeongguk can see fear flash across his face. It makes his stomach twist into knots of apprehension. He withdraws the letter from his pocket, holding it out by its corner between them.

“Read for yourself.”

A bitter taste rests on Jeongguk’s tongue as Taehyung eyes him warily, lowering his basket to the ground and dusting the dirt from his hands. Never did he imagine meeting his mentor with confrontation in mind, especially one who apparently doesn’t care for him. 

The last of the squallows fly into the air with a staccato of chirps as Taehyung crosses the few feet between them, gingerly stepping over low hedges and withered leaves. He’s careful in the way he gently reaches out, the paper connecting them by their fingertips. 

The moment he makes contact, the pair of them jump as something hot sparks between them. 

A flicker of pain crosses Taehyung’s face at the same moment Jeongguk’s arm twitches with discomfort. He looks down to find a thin red band snake its way around his wrist, the sight mirrored on Taehyung’s tanned skin. 

“Binding magic?” Jeongguk murmurs in wonder, scratching at the dormant band that arcs across his veins. The crimson is bright and jagged like blotchy ink. Red ink, like that of the brushstrokes on the paper.

He’s only read about the advanced incantation in his studies. Such magic requires enormous energy from an exceptionally powerful mage.  

He can only think of one culprit. 

“Min Yoongi,” Taehyung whispers darkly, confirming Jeongguk’s suspicion as he glares at the band on his wrist. He takes the letter from his hand with a frown, unfolding it to read it over repeatedly. 

Jeongguk watches the rapid movements of his brown irises, unable to look away from the unusual flecks of iridescent color there. The bow of his lips is striking when paired with the sharp line of his jaw, his symmetrical features an unusually artful collision of rough and smooth. With the sunlight highlighting his cheeks, he appears to glow.  

It’s odd, Jeongguk thinks, that someone so effortlessly good-looking prefers to hide away from the rest of the world. 

Slowly, Taehyung folds the letter up and hands it over. His expression hardens, shadows lining his tired face.

“No.”

Jeongguk blinks. 

“No?”

“No,” Taehyung repeats, backing away to retrieve his basket. “My answer is no. Absolutely not.”

There’s a panicked edge to his voice that has Jeongguk’s heart accelerating. 

“Why not?” Jeongguk asks. He already suspects the answer, but a destructive part of him still feels the need to hear it—to be told his lack of familiar is the problem once again. 

Taehyung ignores him, hastily retrieving his flowers. It’s clear from his body language that he plans to run from him instead of addressing it. 

“Look, I don’t understand the decision myself,” Jeongguk continues neutrally, following after Taehyung as he hurriedly ducks beneath the vineway. “But Yoongi will make both of our lives hell if we don’t attempt to play his game. The binding magic—”

“I don’t care about binding magic. He’ll have to break the contract ink somehow,” Taehyung states irritatedly. “I’m not doing this.”

Jeongguk huffs, increasing his pace to match his brisque walk. “I don’t like it either, but if you know Yoongi, you know he won’t lift it so easily. Not if he cared enough to invoke a contract in the first place.” 

“Tell him I refuse, then.”

Jeongguk’s jaw tightens. He shouldn’t have to beg a mentor he doesn’t even want for a civil conversation. It’s not like he agreed to it.

“You know it won’t work like that.”

“I’m still not doing this.”

“Why? Because of my familiar or because you just can’t be bothered?”

Yet again, Jeongguk’s question goes unanswered. Taehyung sets his irritated gaze straight ahead, his footsteps quickening. 

“Wait— Taehyung!” Jeongguk snaps, his patience wearing thin as he rushes to keep up. Without much thought, he reaches out, pinching the material of his bunched sleeve. “Can you at least look at me?”

The mage finally whips his head around as he’s pulled to a stop, a web of accusation in his glimmering eyes. Even in the shadows of the vines, Jeongguk thinks they still somehow shine with lingering sunlight.

“Can we just—discuss this? I’ll talk to Namjoon about it, but can you at least tell me why?” Jeongguk asks quietly, his heart thudding. “I can’t expect them to resolve it without a reason.”

Taehyung chews on his lip, unspoken words written on his face. “I’m sorry, Jeongguk, but— I can’t. I can’t be what you need,” he answers, his voice strangely choked. 

His tone pierces Jeongguk with inexplicable guilt, the fresh band on his wrist stinging. 

It’s unbearably confusing. Jeongguk had anticipated being brushed off with how adamantly Taehyung had opposed him during his exam, but his apologetic rejection is somehow worse. He doesn’t want Taehyung as a mentor, but the blunt dismissal cuts deep.

And now, thanks to the binding magic the letter held, he’s not sure they’re getting out of this anytime soon.

“Why?” he asks, eyes flicking over Taehyung’s face. “I don’t understand what I’ve done to make you upset with me if this isn’t about my familiar. We don’t even know each other.” 

Taehyung pointedly glances away, pulling his shirt from Jeongguk’s weak grip and quickly making his way to the glass double doors of the Arboretum. He props one open with his hip, staring into the dense overgrowth that lies ahead. 

“I’m sorry,” he whispers, unable to meet his gaze. “Please leave and don’t bother returning. Don’t waste your time on me any longer.”

With an abrupt thud, the door slams shut, leaving Jeongguk standing dumbfounded outside. Slowly, his open mouth contorts into a frown, hands plunging into his pockets. 

“Fine,” he mutters, his insides curling tightly. He doesn’t know why he feels a hint of disappointment when he knows they aren’t compatible anyway. Part of him might have believed Taehyung would think he’d be worthy of training after all. 

Regardless, if he won’t even entertain the thought of discussing it, it makes Jeongguk’s life all the easier. Yoongi can’t possibly force him to work with someone who refuses to cooperate. There shouldn’t be a problem dissolving the binding magic with his refusal.

He’ll visit Namjoon first, he decides, strolling away from the Arboretum and taking to the sky without wasting another minute. The scholar is his best advocate to fend off Yoongi’s bullshit. He’ll help him sort out this madness. 

Namjoon will definitely save him. He always does.











“I can’t save you from this, Guk.” 

From behind his desk, Namjoon stares Jeongguk down over his interlaced fingers, an apologetic grimace on his face. His collared shirt is buttoned against his tanned throat, a bolt of platinum lightning dangling from his ear and his white hair matching that of his familiar’s mane. It’s rare for him to appear anything but intimidatingly handsome, but Jeongguk thinks he looks exceptionally powerful today.

He’s spent countless hours hiding away in this very office, often pouring over books beside Namjoon in silence, venting to him about coursework or swapping complex academic theories. The surrounding bookcases tower up to the cathedral ceiling, their sliding ladders used by Jeongguk to retrieve texts with spines of glittering gold more times than he can count. Arched windows overlooking the central courtyard are framed by heavy velvet curtains, a few flickering lamps along the walls fending off the growing evening darkness. 

The place is a second home to Jeongguk. Whenever he’s needed wisdom or just the sympathetic ear of a friend, he’s visited Namjoon. With tears sliding down his cheeks or even blood dripping from his face, the man has never once turned him away. He’s scolded him, patched him up and held him tight when he’s needed it most, but he’s never been harsh.

He’s never had a brother, but if he did, Jeongguk thinks Namjoon would be the closest thing to it. 

From the earliest days of his arrival, the lightning mage has watched over him despite his rapid ascent to his Academy position. By sixteen, Namjoon was out-performing nearly every Academy member at Elenia without breaking a sweat and was appointed head scholar without a single word of protest. Even Min Yoongi considers him his right-hand man, valuing his input when any other voice goes ignored. 

And for Namjoon, Jeongguk’s own personal voice of reason, to say he can’t help him with Taehyung… 

He’s obviously screwed. 

“How am I supposed to work with someone who wants nothing to do with me? I can’t force Taehyung to teach me and I’m not thrilled by the arrangement either,” Jeongguk complains exasperatedly, running a hand down his face. He had barged in a little less than politely, his emotions wound up after Taehyung’s rejection.

Fortunately, Namjoon is used to his life of chaos by now. 

“You won’t be the one forcing him,” Namjoon answers, twirling a finger as his magic stirs cream into his coffee. “Yoongi’s life-binding magic will do that for you. He only uses it when he’s bent on something working out.”

The red line around Jeongguk’s wrist prickles at the mention of the binding contract. It’s only been a short while since his confrontation with Taehyung, but it’s already beginning to itch thanks to their time apart. Jeongguk knows well from his studies that the magic will poke and prod at them with physical discomfort until it becomes unbearable. 

He knows he’ll have to face Taehyung again, even if Yoongi drags him out of the Arboretum kicking and screaming. 

The fact that Yoongi had used life affinity magic to invoke it worries Jeongguk all the more. There’s rarely a stronger type of magic to be found with it being tied to one’s own heart. The headmaster had signed their fate away with his own blood, and he’ll have to shed his own blood to break it. 

Somehow, Jeongguk doesn’t see that happening anytime soon.

“Why the hell would he pair me with an earth mage knowing my affinity? It makes no sense.”

Namjoon sighs, sipping at his steaming coffee and scratching absentmindedly at Khiro’s head. The lion rumbles happily, stretching with a loud yawn before curling up beside him. Armor adorns his joints and shoulders, the tiny cracks throughout his body flickering with the neon-blue lightning that lurks beneath his hide. His temperament, however, is that of a lazy house cat.

“You know affinities are only part of what determines a mentor,” Namjoon replies. “Yoongi might see something you can’t from your perspective. As ridiculous as it may seem, I’ve never seen him make a mistake when it comes to contractual binding.”

It’s an echo of Jimin’s earlier sentiment, but Jeongguk is still annoyed. If Yoongi is insistent on them working together, why is it on him to convince Taehyung to agree to it? 

“How isn’t it a mistake if Taehyung won’t even give me the time of day?” Jeongguk mutters bitterly. “And honestly, what the fuck is his problem? First the exam and now this. We’ve never even spoken until today and he still treats me like he can’t stand to be around me.”

Namjoon is quiet. Too quiet. Quiet enough that Jeongguk’s scowl falls away, his eyes narrowing as he leans forward in his seat.

“You know something, don’t you, Kim Namjoon?”

The scholar coughs behind his mug as Khiro’s tail flicks lazily at his feet. He doesn’t meet Jeongguk’s gaze, looking suspiciously interested in the table of magic trinkets in the corner.

“Joon,” Jeongguk demands flatly. 

A long, exasperated sigh leaves Namjoon as he slowly lowers his cup. He massages his temples, letting the silence linger between them before finally speaking.

“You’d be… surprised to learn that Taehyung is actually a rather close acquaintance of mine. I know a bit about him thanks to Yoongi’s files and my own observations.”

The tiniest bit of hope blooms in Jeongguk’s chest. “Do you know what his issue is with me, then? Is it because of my familiar? He refused to answer any of my questions no matter how many times I asked.”

“I said I know him,” Namjoon remarks, his stare piercing from over his spectacles, “but I didn’t say that his information is mine to share, Jeongguk. Taehyung’s business is his alone, and you’d do well not to pry in what doesn’t concern you.”

His tone is rather scolding compared to his typically patient demeanor. The oddly strong defense of someone who’s bent on rejecting him only frustrates Jeongguk more, especially when Namjoon regularly lets him in on secrets not shared with most of the student body. 

He wishes it didn’t feel a bit like a betrayal. 

“I think I have a right to know why the person I’m supposed to rely on secretly hates me,” Jeongguk retorts, crossing his arms against his chest. “How can I make this work when Taehyung can’t even look me in the eye?”

Namjoon presses his lips together in firm silence as he fiddles with the ink pen on his desk. The large grandfather clock above the mantle ticks with Jeongguk’s ever-increasing frustration. He grinds his teeth, pressing him further. 

“Do you really expect me to go into this blind? I even tried to talk to him myself and he slammed the door in my face. I’m here because I need help, Joon,” Jeongguk pleads, his tone growing desperate. “I want this as little as Taehyung does, but I’m also not naive enough to believe Yoongi will break the contract on day one. I want to play the game to end it as soon as possible, but Yoongi is forcing me to play it without the pieces.” 

Reluctantly, Namjoon finally meets his gaze. He shifts uncomfortably in his seat, his behavior so strangely guarded compared to that of their usual banter that Jeongguk’s worries only grow. He hesitates for a few prolonged moments, clearly torn on how much to share. 

“What I’m to say will not leave this room, Jeongguk. Can I trust you with that?”

A stronger flame of hope flickers in Jeongguk’s chest once more. “On the spirits,” he swears firmly, raising a hand. He knew he could count on Namjoon. 

The scholar looks over him suspiciously and Jeongguk widens his eyes, his face the picture of perfect innocence. With a hand outstretched, Namjoon magically locks the door behind them. 

“Alright, listen. Kim Taehyung… he…”

Jeongguk holds his breath. 

“He really likes bracelets.”

The grandfather clock ticks once. Twice. Three times before Jeongguk’s disappointment reaches his mouth.

“...What?”

Namjoon huffs wearily. “Hear me out. Taehyung is incredible at many different affinities of magic. There are times when myself or even Yoongi have been challenged by the power he holds. He doesn’t have quite the same control, however, which makes his abilities volatile and sometimes unstable.”

Jeongguk stares at him in disbelief. He had known Taehyung was talented enough to become a mage, but to be powerful enough to challenge Yoongi? The thought is almost incomprehensible. Yoongi is one of the most powerful beings in the world.

Every new thing Jeongguk learns about Kim Taehyung is the exact opposite of his expectations. He has no idea how he’s never heard of him before.

“He can even sense when spirit energy is imbued into objects,” Namjoon continues. “Several of us— even Yoongi—had to earn his trust by pouring our true feelings into an object for him. Only then did he entertain the thought of listening to us. I suspect you’d be able to get through to him at least for a moment by doing the same.”

Jeongguk stares, his mouth agape. Ridiculous. This whole thing is fucking absurd.

“As much as I can call Kim Taehyung a friend, he’s still quite the mystery to us. But I do happen to know he wears a lot of bracelets.”

“Bracelets?” Jeongguk repeats in bewilderment. “So you’re saying I should give him a bracelet?”

Namjoon nods solemnly. “I’m not saying you have to forge something… even a piece of twine would do, I would think. It’s the feelings you pour into it that must be strong. He trusts spirit energy more than his own senses.”

A baffled snort leaves Jeongguk, his gaze flicking helplessly to the ceiling. The concept of winning over his own mentor with a piece of jewelry borders on insanity. Most students just meet with their mentor and develop a plan. They work for them until they’re deemed them worthy of passing. It’s professional. It’s enriching. 

Not… this.

“I know it seems… unorthodox,” Namjoon continues sheepishly, “but Taehyung isn’t exactly the average witch. Nor are you. I suspect that’s why Yoongi thought you’d benefit from working together.”

Jeongguk’s brow twitches in irritation. “ Working together ? I thought a mentor was supposed to guide me, Joon, not the other way around. How am I supposed to get any closer to finding my familiar at this rate?”

The silence that follows is heavy with reluctance. Namjoon’s face falls and Khiro’s ears prick at the change in aura. 

“There are… extenuating circumstances around Taehyung’s familiar that are even further complicated than yours,” Namjoon answers, his tone clipped. “You’d do well not to bring it up to him, Guk. I mean it—if I hear you pressing him over it, we’ll have words.”

Jeongguk bristles, his anger steadily growing. He finds it hard to believe there are worse circumstances than having no familiar at all. “How is that fair to me? I’m not asking for a lot except to work under someone reliable, especially someone I can ask questions of. Wouldn’t it make sense to be paired with someone who has a strong familiar?”

“Perhaps from one perspective, it would,” Namjoon remarks, his eyes flashing with a power Jeongguk rarely sees. “But it’s also not unreasonable to think that you and Taehyung have quite a bit in common. Not only are you both abnormally well-liked by spirits, but you both function well without familiars in a society that relies heavily upon them. You probably won’t like to hear this, but I’m partially inclined to trust Yoongi’s judgement.”

Jeongguk’s fists clench in his lap. He had sincerely thought passing his exam would put him on track to find someone that would help him, that maybe he could be treated just like everyone else. Namjoon is supposed to defend him from being singled out, not agree with it. 

“I’m not Yoongi’s fucking experiment,” he growls. “He can’t just pawn me off on another problem and hope for the best from us. It’s not fair to me or Taehyung.”

Namjoon grimaces. “Jeongguk, you know that’s not the case—”

“It is. This is bullshit and you know it,” he snaps irritably, feeling more cornered by the second. Without Namjoon backing him up as he expected, his only voice is gone. Every decision that’s forced upon him just traps him further, dragging him away from hope… from the spirit he knows is out there waiting for him. 

“Enough,” Namjoon says, his voice harsh enough that Jeongguk’s head snaps upward. He finds the scholar’s eyes flashing like lightning. “You know I’ve always been your biggest advocate and that hasn’t changed, Jeongguk. I fought Yoongi’s decision with everything I had, but it’s still at his discretion. You said you wanted to be treated like any other student. Now you’d like to be the exception to the rule?”

Jeongguk’s mouth opens and closes, his cheeks flushing hot as he glances away. Despite his level of comfort with Namjoon, the man is still his senior. He’s done enough for Jeongguk to earn his respect for a lifetime.

“I get it,” he mumbles. “Sorry. I’m just… frustrated. This wasn’t what I expected.”

The scholar sighs through his nose, leaning back in his chair with crossed legs. The churning storm in his eyes flickers out. “Trust me, Guk, this wasn’t my idea. Yoongi listens to me, but it doesn’t mean he follows everything I say. I’d like to throttle him just about every day, but he’s also brilliant and cares deeply about his students. He wouldn’t have invoked life magic unless he trusted you to handle this in the best way possible.”

Jeongguk withholds his snort. The thought of Yoongi trusting him is laughable. To be cared for by someone like him is a stretch he’s not willing to believe. 

“Let your arrangement with Taehyung take its course and see where it delivers you. If he continues to violate the binding contract to the point where it becomes harmful to you both, Yoongi won’t hesitate to step in. That, or I will. I draw the line when it begins to hurt you.”

From his tone, it’s clear Namjoon isn’t lying. The words aren’t what Jeongguk wants to hear, but he allows them to comfort him anyway. He knows there’s no getting out of this, but at least the man recognizes the difficulties he faces. He knows he’ll defend him from true danger. 

“It sounds stupid, but make Taehyung his bracelet and get him to agree to the mentorship. He has more to offer than you think. I wouldn’t underestimate him.”

Quietly, Jeongguk nods, his former as anger quickly replaced with exhaustion. He rises to his feet, plunging his hands into his pockets. 

“It’ll be fine,” Namjoon comforts, sensing his tension. “You know you can come complain to me any time. I can’t change the decision but I’ll always be here to listen, alright? I have faith that you’ll make the best of this.” 

Jeongguk hums a weak acknowledgement, unable to conceal his defeated expression. He makes his way to the door, but not before Namjoon clears his throat one last time. 

“Taehyung is a kind person, Jeongguk,” he murmurs, his eyes sparkling. “He’s not what you’d expect and a little strange at times, but I don’t think you should judge him too harshly. You’re both fighting battles in very similar wars. Be yourself and it’ll work out one way or another. The answers you seek might be in the most unlikely of places.”

“Right,” Jeongguk says flatly, muttering his thanks before pulling open the door. It thuds shut behind him and he presses his back against it, his head knocking against the wood. The disappointing sight of the ceiling above is a familiar one. 

Be himself . What the hell does that mean? Be a fuck-up? A nuisance? An ever-enduring problem? They’re all things he’s heard before, qualities he’s sure will haunt him again. 

If Taehyung wants him to be himself, the mage will surely be disappointed, but he doesn’t have much choice. 

No choice is ever his, really.










It’s been a day, a single day, and Jeongguk already wants to rip the red band from around his wrist and fling it into the sun. 

He had barely a wink of sleep after scouring campus all night for the perfect materials to make a bracelet. The Forges, the Mines… hell, even the stockrooms beneath the elixir labs in the oldest part of Elenia. 

Nothing has felt right. 

Maybe it’s because he knows nothing of Kim Taehyung, or maybe it’s because he’s never imbued his spirit into an object before. Maybe he’s simply fearful of another rejection or fucking up his life even more. 

Regardless, Jeongguk is at his wit’s end. 

The itch of the binding magic is maddening, the sensation like prickers and poison ivy scraping over his skin. The longer he and Taehyung remain apart, ignoring the terms of the contract that demands they work together, the worse the feeling becomes. 

He now regrets not asking Namjoon what kind of bracelet Taehyung would prefer. Metal? Gemstones? Leather? Some sort of gaudy thing straight out of hell? Jeongguk knows absolutely nothing of him. Not his tastes, his preferences or even his favorite color. 

To top it, he’s somehow ended up before the Arboretum once more. It’s the only place he hasn’t searched, and with the magic pulling him to Taehyung, it hadn’t taken much convincing for the wind to carry him back to the ancient gardens that surround it.

The early morning light filtering through the foliage looks different than that of yesterday’s afternoon sun. It’s as if the flowers and shrubbery come alive, dancing in the breeze and tempting Jeongguk to relax among their waves. The squallows must recognize him as he descends from the air, abandoning the cover of their rose bushes with much more enthusiasm than the day before. They twirl around him in excitement, hopping onto his shoulders the second his feet make contact with the ground. 

“Hello again,” he laughs, cupping his hands and smiling when they nestle in the warmth of his palms. Even with the worries of his apprenticeship fresh in his mind and the heavy exhaustion weighing on him, he can’t help but feel lighthearted at the purity they display. 

But the reprieve they bring doesn’t last long. He glances over his shoulder repeatedly, expecting Taehyung to pop out of nowhere as he did yesterday. To his relief, he seems to be alone aside from the dense spirit energy and creatures that surround him, but the nerves still linger. 

His feet carry him to where Taehyung had spotted him the previous day. He stares at the stones below, wondering if the man had somehow teleported to the space after the stealthy way he had appeared. There’s only a few squares of shattered slate, however. No residual magic to speak of. 

Feeling exhausted and defeated, Jeongguk sits down with legs outstretched, his palms holding him up behind his back. The squallows that are fondest of him hop over his legs and poke at the laces of his boots, some curling up in his lap. He brushes a hand over them, grateful for their company.

“I’m not sure what to do,” he murmurs, knowing well that they can’t comprehend him. In any case, he speaks to them as friends anyway, hoping they understand his heart if not his words. “I’m not sure what Taehyung would like. I don’t know him at all, really. This whole situation is stupid.”

One of the squallows pauses where it preens in his lap, tilting its head to stare up at him with glittering, black eyes. 

“I’d be grateful if you could help me, somehow,” he pleads gently, brushing a finger against its cheek. “You probably know Taehyung better than I.” 

More of the creatures pause to listen, their heads turning back and forth. To his surprise, a few of them flee into the air, rising up into the sky only to dip back down below the bushes. 

Jeongguk smiles wistfully, watching the rapid motions of their wings. “It was worth a shot,” he muses, wishing he could fly away from what holds him to the ground too. 

A few moments later, the same squallows resurface. He raises a brow in surprise as they fly near with small objects hanging from their beaks. They swoop low to drop them in his lap, leaving twisted pieces of thin vine behind. 

Jeongguk’s eyes widen as he picks them up, rolling them between his fingers. The material is malleable enough to intertwine, perfect for that of a bracelet… especially one that’s a gift for an earth mage. 

Beside him, the squallows chirp expectantly, staring up at him with knowing eyes. He snorts amusedly, gathering them and holding them close to his chest. “Thank you,” he murmurs sincerely. “I owe you guys big time. I’ll bring seeds next time. Maybe even berries.” 

They chirp excitedly and Jeongguk giggles, grateful for their company as he begins to weave the strands of brown vine into a circular form, braiding them in the only messy fashion he knows how. 

The combination of the sun’s warmth on his neck and the monotonous task are strangely comforting. It’s been forever since Jeongguk’s crafted anything with just his hands. He had forgotten how it gives him time to breathe—to look at the world through a clearer lens.

The light breeze on his cheeks soothes him. Leaves that haven’t been cleared away for years tumble by, the bits of stonework that make up the crumbling walls and dried fountains covered in ivy. With a keen eye, he can spot the fruitless attempts at maintenance, but it’s clear the work had been too much for Taehyung alone. 

The thought of the mage toiling away in isolation is strangely irritating. Jeongguk hasn’t even seen the interior of the Arboretum yet, but the sheer size of it is overwhelming just from the air. He can’t help but wonder if Taehyung really cares for it all by himself… if it’s healthy for him to shoulder such a large responsibility. It seems unusual that he’d have no assistance with such a wide space to manage. 

And to top it, Taehyung apparently doesn’t even have a familiar available. Or maybe he does, since he couldn’t have become a mage without one, but maybe it isn’t helpful to him or resists his commands. It’s nearly impossible for Jeongguk to imagine anyone having worse circumstances than his own, but then again, he’s never considered relating to someone on such uncommon terms before.

And if Taehyung truly has no familiar by his side, why would he have voted not to pass him through his exam? Shouldn’t he be sympathetic? 

Jeongguk sighs quietly, glancing upward at the cloudless sky and the squallows circling playfully overhead. He could theorize all day and likely never find the answer to Kim Taehyung’s motives or past. The only things he feels are confusion and frustration… and maybe the smallest bit of sympathy for someone who’s beginning to sound as eerily trapped as he is.

He shakes his head, his black earrings tapping his cheeks as they sway. He shouldn’t feel sympathy for someone who’s likely going to reject him all over again. 

Taehyung may be his mentor, but he doesn’t have to like him. 

It takes longer than he expects to finish weaving the bracelet, the sun traveling from the east to overhead by the time he finishes. The end result isn’t the prettiest, but he thinks it’ll do… hopefully. 

The true challenge arises when he knows he has to imbue it with energy. He supposes he simply needs to harness an affinity that will convey some sort of neutrality at best, but he’s not sure how when he’s just as reluctant as Taehyung is with the forced arrangement between them. How can he play nice when they haven’t had a single friendly interaction? 

Sighing exasperatedly, he lays the piece in his lap. The red band on his wrist prickles uncomfortably like a ticking time bomb. 

He knows he can’t put this off much longer. 

The moment he attempts to summon his magic, the bracelet is grabbed by the claws of the squallow most fond of him. The creature carries it into the air, darting toward the Arboretum. 

“Hey!” he exclaims, leaping to his feet as his heart lurches. The remaining birds scatter as he takes flight, heading directly for the vineway and the glass double doors Taehyung had slammed in his face just a day ago. 

Jeongguk is fast but the squallow is even more agile. He’s forced to land outside the tunnel, unable to remain airborne in the close quarters. His stomach drops as the bird nears the doors, aiming headfirst for the glass and a lethal collision. 

There’s no time to stop it even with magic. 

“Wait, don’t—!”

He winces with an arm outstretched, awaiting the morbid sound of impact, but there’s only silence. To his shock, the bird melts through the glass panels as if they simply don’t exist. 

Jeongguk blinks. Maybe he hadn’t slept enough after all. 

With a shaky breath, he ventures beneath the vines to approach the doors of the Arboretum. Though most of the walls are opaque with age, he can still spot the overgrowth within, the entryway like a portal to another world. Forehead pressed to the glass, he peers through the door on the tips of his toes. 

There are unidentifiable spirits fluttering through the air or scurrying along the ground, but there’s still no sign of the squallow or his bracelet. 

Even outside the doors, the surrounding atmosphere is oversaturated with ancient magic, far thicker and heavier than Jeongguk is used to. The taste of life curls down his throat and nestles in his chest, the tingling feeling like flowers blooming behind his ribs. It doesn’t surprise him that the average witch couldn’t handle visiting this place.

His palm sweats as he hesitantly wraps it around the glass doorhandle. He’s not afraid of venturing inside, of course. While the energy emanating from the area is rich and mysterious, there’s no maliciousness to its aura. 

What he fears is Kim Taehyung’s reaction if he just so happens to find him intruding after telling him not to return.

He knocks lightly upon the glass and murmurs a soft hello, but there’s no sign of Taehyung or the bird. Lips pressed together, he waits another moment, shifting his weight anxiously from foot to foot. 

It’ll be fine, right? 

If Taehyung is his mentor by contract, he should be entitled to at least entering the same space. He’d have to go inside to speak to Taehyung anyway. 

“It’s fine,” he mumbles to himself, convincing no one in particular. “I’m sure it’s fine.”

Jeongguk lets the thought carry him past the guilty feeling of intruding. He’s surprised to find the door unlocked, the hinges creaking as he gently pries it open. The scent of damp earth and moss rushes him as the humidity immediately moistens his skin. 

Jeongguk wrinkles his nose. He probably should’ve left his sweater at home, but it’s far too late to consider it now.

Carefully, his feet carry him forward, boots sinking into the fresh dirt of the path beneath him. It winds aimlessly around endless varieties of trees with hanging vines and colored leaves, zigzagging under wired archways and around overgrown pots. Flowers and shrubs he surprisingly can’t identify sprout wildly from the ground, some haphazardly marked with strange neon ties. 

As he quietly travels onward, the number of unidentifiable spirits that cross his path leave him awestruck. Strange fish crossed with otters lap through a nearby pond, an ancient waterfall pouring beside it. He nearly jumps in surprise when a winged rabbit meets him nose-to-nose, pawing at its snout before taking off again. Jeongguk thinks he even spots a spectral deer spirit with antlers larger than trees. 

Despite how wild it is, he can’t help but notice tiny signs of human life. Ancient camellia bushes are upheld by heavy stakes, the wisps of insect spirits fluttering from petal to petal. Silver cedar trees are juxtaposed oddly near azaleas with ladders resting against their trunks. Overhead, the glass ceiling and blue sky beyond are only visible thanks to trimmed branches clearly snapped by clippers.

The further he ventures, the more organized the interior becomes. He spots overgrown gardens arranged around fountains and small stump benches beside quartz tables. Side paths lead to makeshift stairways and overhangs that appear dangerously unsteady with their wooden planks. 

Before he realizes it, Jeongguk is a mile deep into the Arboretum with a look of open-mouthed wonder plastered to his face. If he had thought Taehyung’s job was overwhelming before, it seems utterly impossible now.

Oddly, the more he sees, the more he finds himself itching to explore. There’s so much magic in the air that he doesn’t recognize, so many species of plant and spirit alike that fascinate him. It’s like he’s been dumped into another world, one where the spirits dominate the environment without much need for humans.

Time passes differently here and Jeongguk wonders if the magic puts him in a stasis as he continues onward. He almost forgets why he had ventured inside in the first place, the thought of the bracelet bringing a frown to his face.

After what feels like hours, he finally spots the first sign of the opposing walls. Another doorway leads to an attached wooden building that surprisingly hadn’t been visible from the air. It’s entryway is wide open, appearing to be more of a large cabin than anything.

Through the doorway, he catches a glimpse of the squallow’s tail, vanishing as quickly as it appears.

Jeongguk chews apprehensively on his lip. He’s come this far without repercussion, so he supposes he might as well continue. He needs that bracelet.

The air changes the moment he exits the dome. Inside, he finds a room with rich wooden walls, the many side doors leading to greenhouses with rows of tables covered in potted plants. Rich, herbal scents mix with the potent sweetness of flowers, the aroma luring him up a small spiral stairway to a charming loft, though there’s still no sign of his squallow. It’s decorated with cases of books and colored glass windows, the nearby tables covered in baskets of mushrooms and bags of soil. On the wall, old tapestries hang as if they’ve been there for a millennia. 

At the size of it, Jeongguk concludes that Taehyung is nothing short of amazing to maintain the place alone. He’s not sure how the mage finds time to sleep. 

The twinkle of chimes from the attached room piques his curiosity. Silently, he inches toward the opposing doorway to peer around the corner. 

A large elixir station greets him, its equipment more extravagant than even the Academy’s classrooms. Wind chimes ring with notes of purity in the many surrounding windows, their crystal sound making the hair on Jeongguk’s arms rise. There are endless shelves of colored jars and dried flowers hanging from the overhead rafters, wooden drawers with scrawled labels rising up to the ceiling and a ladder perched precariously against them.

And atop that latter, humming away with curled hair tied back, is Kim Taehyung. 

It’s unsettling how quickly Jeongguk’s heart begins to race. Taehyung’s side profile appears contemplative, his brows furrowed as he lifts a vial from the drawer to hold it up to the light. He seems completely unaware of his presence, giving Jeongguk a few moments to observe.

Curiously, he finds himself drawn to Taehyung’s motions, attentive to the way his fingers gingerly hold the glass and the soundless motions of his lips when he reads their labels. Unlike Yoongi’s intimidating facade, he doesn't appear to be as powerful as Namjoon claims, his aura humble and down-to-earth. None of the arrogance Jeongguk assumed he had is present. 

His attractiveness can’t really be overlooked either, despite Jeongguk’s best attempts to ignore it. Today, Taehyung wears a beige knitted sweater and dark green slacks, the earthy tones a satisfying accent to his tanned complexion. His figure is noticeably curved and his waist narrow, the fraying bracelets worn round his wrists colored like the bands inked into their skin.

...Bracelets in which Jeongguk was supposed to add to. 

He curses to himself. The Arboretum had been so strangely alluring that he lost track of his goal and ended up finding Taehyung without thinking. The issue solves itself, however, when the squallow suddenly darts in from behind, circling the air with the bracelet held in its beak and unleashing a chorus of muffled tweets. 

Taehyung’s head whips around at the commotion. The ladder beneath him rocks dangerously from side to side and Jeongguk’s heart lodges in his throat. 

The squallow swoops low, dropping the woven bracelet onto Taehyung’s mess of hair before fleeing back through the doorway. Taehyung slowly reaches up with a confused expression, looking it over before his eyes widen in recognition.

“Jeongguk,” he whispers, twisting to glance around the room as if suddenly aware of his presence. 

Jeongguk's heart skips at the sound of his name, but there’s no time to be confused over it when the ladder wobbles in slow motion, suddenly flying out from under him. 

“Shit,” Jeongguk curses panickedly, stepping into the doorway without thought. He thrusts out a hand with gritted teeth, unconsciously summoning his strongest of magic just as Taehyung begins to plummet toward the ground. 

Thankfully, the ladder is the only thing that falls. 

Several feet overhead, Taehyung hovers as if suspended, his head turning toward the door. A shock sparks through Jeongguk when their eyes meet, his breath catching in his chest. 

It’s strange that of everything in the Arboretum so far, Jeongguk finds Taehyung’s flecked eyes to be the most breathtaking.

“Are… are you alright?” he asks worriedly, stepping forward as Taehyung slowly descends through the air. The mage appears speechless, his gaze glimmering and his cheeks flushed. 

“‘M fine,” Taehyung exhales shakily, righting himself to land on his knees. The bracelet trembles where it’s grasped tightly in his hand and Jeongguk can’t help but feel responsible. 

“I’m— I’m sorry,” Jeongguk says, stepping closer to squat down. Adrenaline still pulses through him, his heart racing as the words leave him in a rush. “The squallow took that from me before I was able to imbue it and I ended up following it here. I didn’t mean to barge in.”

Slowly, Taehyung’s puzzled gaze travels upward. “What do you mean before you imbued it? It’s already been imbued.”

Jeongguk’s brow pinches. “What? But... I didn’t have time to invoke any magic.”

Taehyung stares down at the piece held delicately between his fingers. “Imbuing an object isn’t about the magic you use but the spirit you channel while crafting it,” he explains softly. 

To Jeongguk’s shock, the woven vines are greener than they had been outside, as if a bit of spirit has returned to what was once lifeless. He supposes he has the Arboretum’s magic to thank for that.

Nervousness fills him as he considers what had gone through his mind while weaving it. His thoughts of Taehyung hadn’t been good nor bad, but he’s not certain they’d be enough to convey anything sincere. He swallows dryly, running a hand through his hair.

“I… spoke with Namjoon last night,” he starts quietly, his eyes locked to the ground below. “Even he agrees with Yoongi’s decision. I tried to convince him otherwise but… he was adamant. He suggested you, um— like bracelets.”

Awkwardly, he trails off, willing the blush of his cheeks away with all his strength. Taehyung looks over his face and back down to the bracelet, running his thumbs over its twists. The corners of his lips quirk upward and Jeongguk swears he imagines it. 

“I’m supposed to be the one helping you, but you seem bent on aiding me instead,” Taehyung murmurs thoughtfully, sliding the bracelet onto his wrist. It fits perfectly among the other frayed bands there, overlapping with the red ink they share. “I’m undeserving of this after the way I dismissed you yesterday. Thank you.”

He reveals a soft smile and Jeongguk’s blush only grows.

If he had thought Taehyung was good-looking earlier, the way he smiles is almost unfairly attractive. Even more perplexing is the slight disappointment he feels when that smile slowly falls away.

“I’ll say again that I don’t think this arrangement is ideal for either of us,” Taehyung continues, gradually rising to his feet. “I’ll be honest—I’m not exactly cut out to take on an apprentice and I don’t think I’ll be able to provide the answers you seek.”

Jeongguk moves to stand, hands burrowing into his pockets as he watches Taehyung stroll to his workbench. He’d like to mention their lack of familiars, glancing around the room for a sign of one nearby, but he holds his tongue with Namjoon’s threat still lingering in the back of his mind.

“Still, I understand now that you’re willing to do what it takes to end this contract with your own power, and I’m inclined to admire you for that. Your training won’t be easy or ideal, but I can’t deny there are more secrets to the Arboretum than there are trees. There are things here worth learning that the average witch couldn’t handle—physically or magically.”

“Hard work isn’t something I’m afraid of,” Jeongguk replies. “Nor would I consider myself an average witch.”

Taehyung simply raises a brow at the implication, turning away to rummage through the drawers left open from earlier. Without his flecked eyes on him, Jeongguk feels some of his tension slip away.

He doesn’t know why Taehyung’s stare makes him feel like his own soul is laid bare. 

“How did you even get in here?” Taehyung asks as he busies himself. He slides a drawer shut with his hip, turning back around with arms full of colored vials in various sizes. Carefully, he delivers them to a nearby table, arranging them into a pile before laying his palms flat against the surface and looking at Jeongguk expectantly. 

Jeongguk scratches at his neck. “I—um... walked in. You left the front door wide open.”

“...You encountered no resistance from the spirits?” Taehyung questions skeptically.

It sounds like a trick question. Was he supposed to have been stopped by them? “None at all. Spirits have never bothered me.”

Dark eyes flick over Jeongguk like they’re searching for a lie behind his words, but Taehyung seems to accept it as his attention returns to his work, his motions mechanical as he loses himself in thought. Jeongguk stands by in awkward silence, observing how he dumps cerulean liquid into a flask and sprinkles powder into it. It promptly pops like a cork from a bottle, unleashing a ring of smoke in Taehyung’s face and sending him into a fit of coughing. 

To Jeongguk’s bewilderment, Taehyung simply wipes the water from his eyes like nothing had happened, transporting the liquid into a disk over a burner. It combusts into a flame hot enough to be felt several feet away. He hisses as he prods at the ashes with his bare hands, scooping them up and sprinkling them into a cooled dish.

Jeongguk’s mouth opens and closes. Is this guy really on par with Yoongi?

“Come here,” Taehyung instructs suddenly, waving a hand.

Jeongguk eyes him warily, feet firmly rooted to the floor. “Why?”

The mage glances upward, his gaze amused through his curls. “I won’t bite, Jeongguk, though you dress like the type who’d like that. Come here, please.” 

Jeongguk’s cheeks ignite, any response utterly obliterated. Of all the observations he expected to come out of Kim Taehyung, that was not one of them.

Dazedly, he approaches the opposite side of the table, and Taehyung’s hand flies over his head as he tosses the ashes over him like confetti. Jeongguk coughs in surprise, inhaling a few in the process and thumping a fist against his chest. 

“What— what the hell was that for?” he wheezes. 

“Protects from flesheaters,” Taehyung answers simply, scraping the remaining mixture into a bag and delivering it to another drawer. He doesn’t elaborate further.

“...Flesheaters?” 

There’s no answer. More drawers open and close before he returns to the table with fresh ingredients. Jeongguk stares at his arms in wonder as the ashes slowly turn to glitter, seeping into his skin.

What the hell is he getting himself into?

“Second nursery on the right on the first floor,” Taehyung instructs, eyes locked to his work as he nods to the doorway. “Avoid the left row—there are hornet spirits I’m still dealing with. Pick a potted species and bring it back to me.” 

Tilting his head curiously, Jeongguk hesitates another moment, watching Taehyung work. He hadn’t expected to dive headfirst into anything and they haven’t explicitly agreed to the mentorship yet, but he’s still curious about the request.

With a long exhale, exits through the door he came in and navigates cautiously to the nursery, careful to stay far, far away from the row Taehyung had warned him of. The long tables are overflowing with thousands of plants of varying heights and growth, some curling toward the tarp that’s pulled taught over the roof. A few even have rows of sharp teeth or poisonous colorings that he pointedly sidesteps. 

He walks what feels like miles before spotting a section that’s hidden away by oversized ferns. Its shadows catch his eye, their setup less vibrant than that of the rest of the plants. Uncovering the area reveals a few flowerless pots of leaves, their features nothing particularly special. He’s surprised he doesn’t recognize them from his studies. 

Jeongguk thumbs gently over one of its leaves, finding it immeasurably soft. There are no signs of buds or blooming flowers, but there’s something about the small, unintrusive plant that he finds profound. While most other pieces dominate the space with oversized leaves and petals of blaring color, these few pots had been left in the shadows, persisting quietly in the tiny corner they’ve carved for themselves. 

It’s too similar to the way he’s always survived.

Jeongguk takes the weakest-looking plant of the bunch, scooping it gently into his arms. He strolls around the nursery, observing the blooms he knows and noting the few he doesn’t. 

It’s surprisingly peaceful. There’s more life to be found he had expected. The running of water and buzzing of nearby insects are a symphony, its woodwinds the summer breeze that rustles every leaf and stem. Like Elenia’s campus, life is vibrant and active in its own way. 

It’s a bit of a shame Taehyung’s work goes unseen by all.

His heavy boots are loud against the wood when he returns inside. He finds Taehyung eye-level with his table, a smear of purple now across his chin and the tips of his hair singed. Jeongguk withholds his snort. 

“Done,” he announces, resting the plant on the table. It’s several moments before Taehyung acknowledges him and his choice of flora, but when he does, the beaker in his hand begins to glow. His eyes widen, flicking to Jeongguk and back. 

“You chose… this one out of everything?” he asks, his voice softer than Jeongguk has yet heard it.

“Mm. Is there a problem?” Jeongguk replies curiously, unconsciously mimicking his hushed tone. 

Taehyung’s lips press together tightly, his flecked eyes shimmering. He sets his illuminated vial aside in silence. 

Yet again, Jeongguk’s question goes unanswered. It seems no matter how closely he watches him, he can never make out what Taehyung is thinking. The earth mage is apparently as much of a mystery as the Arboretum itself is, unpredictable at every turn.

“If you can convince this plant to bloom properly,” Taehyung murmurs, “I’ll consider your apprenticeship completed and our contract should dissolve.”

Jeongguk raises a brow in surprise. “Isn’t that a bit too easy? Blooming is a pretty basic skill.” 

“See for yourself,” he answers with a shrug. 

Jeongguk shoots him a wary look before turning his attention to the plant. Deep in his chest, he feels his life magic stir as his fingertips brush over the fuzzed leaves. He encourages it with a gentle kindness, nudging it’s small life force to accelerate its efforts, but nothing happens. 

He frowns. 

With a different approach in mind, he tries again. And again. And again. Each attempt, he invokes a different magic… water for growth, earth for stability, air for extra oxygen. Celestial magic to determine its fate, metal to release its impurities, fire to warm it like the sun and even ice for the hell of it.

The plant remains completely unbothered. 

Jeongguk’s frown deepens as he folds arms against his chest. Of course he managed to pick the most stubborn bud of the bunch. He and the plant are apparently more alike than he thought. 

Taehyung peers through his fringe with a knowing look. “You won’t be able to bloom this plant by normal means or through any typical magic. I won’t be able to give you much help aside from what you can glean from other tasks around here, but it has to come from within.”

Jeongguk stares down at his plant as if trying to unravel a puzzle. Though it seems simple at first glance, he’s sure Taehyung is roping him into a challenge he doesn’t fully understand. Frustratingly, it doesn’t appear to relate to his quest to find his familiar, and he’s not in a position to ask. 

Still, it’s not like he has a choice. He has to make it work or…

Or what?

“What if it never blooms?” he asks.

To his surprise, a heavy quiet falls over Taehyung. His eyes shine, expression becoming so somber that Jeongguk almost feels guilt twinge in his heart for asking. The mage turns away, fiddling with his work without purpose as the windchimes tinkle in their windows.

Another question that goes unanswered. 

“Meet me here tomorrow morning,” he instructs, continuing as if Jeongguk hadn’t spoken. “And make sure you’re prepared to work. I’m sure you observed that there’s no easy task to be found at the Arboretum and you’ll need to be well rested.” 

“That’s it for today?” Jeongguk protests. “But I can still—”

“You’re ready to drop, Jeongguk,” Taehyung huffs, shaking his head in amusement. “I don’t need magic to see that. You should sleep properly tonight or you’ll fall ill, and I can’t have my apprentice slacking off.” 

“I’m— I’m not—” 

Jeongguk pauses as the words reach him, his excuses falling away. 

It’s strange. Despite the circumstances around his assignment, it’s surprisingly fulfilling to finally be called an apprentice. In a way, the casual agreement between them is appropriate for their bizarre relationship so far. 

Taehyung’s subtle worry for his well-being may be adding to it, but he pushes that out of his mind. 

“Fine,” he mutters, rubbing at his eyes. There are still so many questions unanswered, from their familiars to Taehyung’s tasks for him, but it can wait until he has time to process the whiplash of the last few days. 

Quietly, he makes his way to the doorway. It’s a bit awkward to say goodbye and he’s still unsure of how much formality Taehyung prefers. They don’t know each other at all, really.

“See you, then,” he says softly, leaning his shoulder against the trim. 

“Take care,” Taehyung calls. “Watch your step on the way out.”

Jeongguk hums, turning away. It’s been awhile since anyone told him to take care of himself. Even though it’s just standard politeness, it still makes his chest feel oddly warm coming from Taehyung.

He shakes his head. He must really be exhausted.

“And… Jeongguk.” 

Pausing, he glances over his shoulder to find Taehyung staring right at him. Even from afar, Jeongguk can spot the flecks of color in his eyes. 

“I look forward to working with you,” he murmurs, a half grin lifting his cheeks. 

After a moment, Jeongguk snorts, casting him a sidelong glance. He’s surprised by the truthfulness of his own response.

“Likewise.”