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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.”

Chapter Text

“You look like shit.” 

Scowling, Jeongguk stares up at his roommate’s amused face from where he lays on the floor. The night sky twinkles mockingly behind his head.  

“Thanks,” he grunts. “I look exactly how I feel.”

Jimin snorts as he walks off to strip out of his robes, looking equally as exhausted after having spent all day in the library. He apathetically flings his shirt into the corner and pulls on a pair of sweats. “I’m surprised you’re this worn out only two weeks in. Who knew Kim Taehyung could crack the whip so well?”

Jeongguk rolls his eyes, desperately wishing he could refute the truth in the statement. He can’t remember the last time he’s worked so hard with nothing to show for it. 

If two weeks into his apprenticeship has taught Jeongguk anything, it’s that he’s more out of shape than he thought possible. It’s been two weeks of trimming precariously high branches until his arms go numb and watering nursery flowers until he’s ready to fall asleep standing up. Two weeks of harvesting weird mushrooms that shed sparkly dust and catching chipmunk turtle spirits before they destroy the herb gardens. His muscles tremble from overuse and his back still aches from weeding the flowerbeds that haven’t been touched in ages. 

It’s also been two long, fruitless weeks of begging his plant to bloom with not an ounce of help from his so-called mentor. For whatever reason, Taehyung has made himself as scarce as possible, typically leaving tasks in the form of notes instead of bothering to meet him face-to-face each morning. 

But even with his attempts to avoid him, Jeongguk can’t help but run into the mage around every corner. And it may sound conceited, but he’s not sure how Taehyung has survived this long without him. 

Two days prior, he had followed a dense cloud of smoke to the western part of the Arboretum, only to find Taehyung panickedly worrying over a burning tree. His fire magic had spontaneously combusted, refusing to obey him until Jeongguk conjured a heavy rain over it. The week before, Jeongguk had saved him from a nest of hornet spirits that had spread through one of the nurseries, countering Taehyung’s uncontrollable vortex of wind magic with his own. 

Namjoon apparently hadn’t exaggerated when he said Taehyung’s magic was volatile and unstable.

Both times Jeongguk had come to his rescue, Taehyung had been miserably apologetic, so embarrassed and frustrated that his cheeks flushed a deep red and his hands shook by his sides. Even after Jeongguk had concealed his irritation and brushed them off as nothing major, Taehyung has only continued to hide away, working himself until well into the night and rising early the next morning.

And Jeongguk just… doesn’t get it.

Despite his frustration with the lack of mentorship, he doesn’t understand why he still feels strangely sympathetic for someone he barely knows. He should be raising hell about the lack of help he’s getting, but Jeongguk’s never met another witch more isolated and unappreciated. 

He just can’t figure out how to help him while helping himself. Finding his familiar has to take priority over pitying some dysfunctional mage, but who will help Taehyung if not him?

Jeongguk presses a palm to his face. He’s got enough on his own plate as it is. 

“You look like you’re thinking too hard,” Jimin muses, tossing a pillow directly onto his face. “Would I be wrong to guess it’s about a certain hot mentor?”

Jeongguk frowns into the pillow before pulling it away, glaring comically at Jimin before stuffing it under his head. His roommate joins him on the worn throw-rug, his cheeks glowing with the light of the moon from the hatch above. Starlight sparkles overhead with breathtaking clarity and he takes comfort in it. 

“I don’t know what to make of him,” Jeongguk begrudgingly admits, his gaze tracing constellations. “He has raw power but no control. He’s sort of nice but also closed off. He just… makes no sense.” 

“Sounds like he doesn’t even know who he is himself,” Jimin says casually, laying down beside him with crossed arms behind his head. He inhales deeply, eyelids fluttering shut as his skin shimmers with celestial power. 

Though the statement is probably true, Jeongguk doesn’t know how to respond. He barely knows Taehyung aside from his routine and mannerisms. 

Who even is Taehyung outside of the Arboretum? Jeongguk couldn’t say. He doesn’t know why part of him is curious to find out, even a little eager to solve the mystery around him just as he would any academic challenge. 

“If it makes you feel any better, researching sucked today,” Jimin mumbles tiredly. “A weird illness has been cropping up among the local wild spirits that even Seokjin’s never seen. Some of them go into a comatose state if we don’t treat them early enough. I spent all day searching but turned up with nothing.”

A long sigh leaves Jeongguk. Although there are no lives on the line with his research, it’s been equally as miserable. 

“Trust me, I know the feeling.” 

Jimin smirks, blinking one knowing eye open. “Mystery plant still giving you trouble?” 

“Trouble is an understatement,” he mutters irritatedly. “If I could light the damn thing on fire, I would, but it absorbs any magic I invoke. I searched through every botany book I could get my hands on and even asked Joon, but there’s no info on any plant like it. I know Taehyung wouldn’t offer to help even if he showed his face once in a while.” 

Jimin hums thoughtfully. “Maybe you could ask your check-in group.”

Jeongguk blinks. The phrase rings no bells.

“What’s that?”

“You didn’t know?” Jimin replies, raising a brow as Jeongguk shakes his head. “I guess Kim Taehyung really is out of the loop… your mentor is supposed to know it’s a requirement. Every eight weeks, you and him are supposed to meet with other apprentices and mentors to go over your progress. It’s overseen by a professor.” 

“What?” Jeongguk exclaims, sitting up onto his elbows. “I’ve never even heard of that. Taehyung hasn’t said a damn word.”

Jimin shrugs. “Maybe he meant to tell you later this week? The first meetings are always important because everyone discusses how they’ll be judged to pass the apprenticeship. I’ll admit they’re not bad for accountability, but a lot of it is just a bragging contest.”

A tight feeling constricts Jeongguk’s chest. For whatever reason, making a plant bloom doesn’t seem like it’ll go over well as far as bragging rights are concerned, and convincing Taehyung to accompany him anywhere outside the Arboretum sounds… difficult. 

“I mean… Taehyung has to go, right? He’ll have to agree to it. It’s his responsibility, too.”

“Mm… I’d hope so,” Jimin murmurs. “You might have to push him a little, but it’d be unreasonable for him not to show up. You could always remind him Yoongi is the one who started them.”

Jeongguk rolls over into his stomach, unleashing a muffled groan into his pillow. His other struggles aside, he can barely get Taehyung to communicate with him. Dragging him out into civilization when he never leaves will more than likely be a nightmare.

“You said he’s not a bad person, Guk,” Jimin comforts, kicking playfully at his calves. “Most of what he does may be a mystery but I doubt he’d let you go alone. Just wait for the right moment to ask.” 

“The right moment? I can barely even find him some days, Chim.”

“It’ll be fine,” Jimin comforts, though Jeongguk can hear the waver of uncertainty in his voice. “I know you have a soft spot for pretty faces like his anyway. Be patient, it hasn’t even been a month.” 

Jeongguk shoots him a glare, hoping the cover of night hides the red that warms his cheeks. Denying the fact that Taehyung is nothing bad to look at would be a lie he’s not sure he could swing, but it doesn’t change anything between them.

At the end of the day, Taehyung is his mentor and someone he’ll leave well in the past when their contract ends. Pretty face or not. 

“I’ll ask tomorrow,” he mutters tiredly, letting his eyes flutter shut as the crisp night air fills his lungs. Though he’s had some of the heaviest nights’ sleep of his life lately, they’ve been interrupted by short, vague nightmares. 

Unfortunately for the nightmares, his gut tells him dragging Taehyung from the Arboretum will outdo them.







Nothing. No matter how long he stares at it, there are no results or responses. Nothing at all. 

The plant that taunts Jeongguk sits on a log table he’s slowly cleared of debris over the last two weeks. He’s established this as his secret corner of the Arboretum, trimming back snapped branches and weeding the grass by his own volition. Overhead, flowering dogwood trees rain pink petals into his waved hair, rippling the nearby pond that glistens with clear water. He’s proud to say it's finally begun to look inviting with all the care he’s dumped into it.

If only his plant could say the same. 

His elbows ache where they’ve rested upon the wood for hours, fists pressed into his bunched cheeks to hold his head. Open books of incantations litter the table, their pages fluttering in the warm, magical breeze that tempts him to nap instead of staring into the distance. He glares at the plant with a string of curse words floating through his mind. 

Every day is just like the last. 

The entire morning was spent collecting herbs that grow in random corners near the Arboretum’s rear wall and delivering them to Taehyung’s elixir room. Jeongguk took care of it with ease, even after spending the grand majority of his time taking detours to search for the mage himself. 

And of course, the day he actually needs him, his mentor has made himself scarcer than ever. 

He sighs, folding his arms and thudding his head against them. He’s done well to swallow his growing frustration with the whole ordeal, but he can’t help but feel resentful with every day that passes. 

He and Taehyung need to talk, not only about the upcoming meeting but about his studies. He’ll accept the fact that the plant is his burden to bear, but he still could use some guidance on other magic in the meantime. 

He might lose his mind otherwise. 

A sharp prick against his neck has him jumping in his seat, his hand flying up to slap the tickling feeling there. A squeak accompanied by a low buzzing is heard from his palm and Jeongguk cups his hand, holding the culprit in front of his face. 

“A kitbee?” he murmurs in wonder, staring down at the tiny creature with its glittering insect wings and black antennae. He’s only read about it in books, most research assuming it had long since disappeared from the world. It’s body is a kitten smaller than the length of his pinky, its tail a fuzz-tipped stinger and its furry hide made up of black and yellow stripes. 

The creature mewls, fluttering in a circle to rest on his thumb. Its miniscule purrs and tiny white paws have Jeongguk giggling with endearment. 

“Can I help you?” he asks kindly, watching as the creature buzzes into the air to hover above his face. His eyes follow it as it flies to the path leading away from his cozy corner, returning to him and back. 

Jeongguk raises a brow. “You… want me to follow?”

It answers with a tiny mew in response, the sound cute enough to shatter his heart. 

Snorting curiously, Jeongguk stands with a stretch, grateful to have some excitement to pursue for once. He’ll come back for his books and plant later. 

The kitbee leads him through a few well-worn paths he’s familiar with, bumbling through bunches of hibiscus and swooping beneath sweet pea vines. Gradually, Jeongguk finds himself struggling to keep up, stumbling over thick roots.

“W—Wait up,” he calls, watching worriedly as the kitbee flies further out of reach. The surrounding forest grows denser and more neglected, branches scraping his skin and bushes catching on his clothes. He scowls at the prickers that leave scratches and scrapes on his bare arms.

Just when he’s sure he’s lost the creature, a wall of the Arboretum abruptly appears before him. He skids to a stop as the kitbee lands softly on his nose, mewling with an eagerly wagging tail. 

“You could’ve waited, you know,” he huffs, eyes crossing where he stares down at it. It rubs its cheek apologetically against his nose. 

His attention is drawn to the outline of a door built into the iridescent wall. It’s a surprising discovery after thinking he had explored all the paths the Arboretum has to offer. The rusted door handle creaks when he turns it, the unfiltered sunlight of the outside world watering his eyes. 

The overgrown slate path leads to a cottage-sized dome hidden beneath willow trees. It’s front door is open, a massive cloud of foaming bubbles creeping from its entryway. 

Jeongguk pauses as he registers the sight.

Bubbles…?

An aged panel of glass pops off the dome’s roof. Jeongguk jumps at the sound, wincing when it crashes into the ground. More foaming bubbles erupt from the newly formed hole the top, the interior filled from top to bottom. 

“Oh,” Jeongguk breathes. “Oh god.” 

The kitbee buzzes urgently as he breaks into a run. When he arrives at the doorway, he can’t do much but stand by helplessly with a hand running through his hair. 

Not again.

“Taehyung?” he calls worriedly, standing on his toes in a useless attempt to eye him through the mess. The kitbee noses his cheek a final time and he murmurs a quiet thanks before it flies off.

“J—Jeongguk?!” a muffled voice replies. “How did you—”

Another panel pops off the side of the greenhouse, narrowly missing Jeongguk’s leg. He casts his eyes to the sky, sighing exasperatedly. 

Spirits help him. 

“Don’t— don’t worry, it’s fine. You don’t need to come in,” Taehyung reassures as more bubbles squeeze through every crevice.

Jeongguk rolls his eyes as he tugs up his sleeves. 

“I’m coming in. What the hell happened?” he shouts, wading into the mess and cringing at the soap that saturates his clothes. The bubbles shimmer like gemstones, multiplying into a dense mixture that he scoops away with his hands. Taehyung must be nearly submerged at this point.

“Nothing happened,” Taehyung insists, his voice lowering nervously. “I just— my water magic…”

Jeongguk withholds his grimace. From what it sounds like, Taehyung invoked too much water alongside air and now the mixture is self-replicating. Fortunately, Jeongguk learned how to manage his magic in precise doses during his schooling.

After a few moments, it becomes clear that attempting to dig his way through is pointless. Jeongguk stops in his tracks, taking a long breath and steadying his heart rate. With a hand held loosely before him, he invokes his strongest air magic with a sharp jab, willing the bubbles to disperse simultaneously.

They do in perfect fashion... directly onto himself and Taehyung. The foamy cloud filling the room vanishes with a loud pop, coating every surface with a shower of shimmery soap.

…Perhaps he should’ve thought this through. 

The circular area that’s revealed is full of old vials and plants, a small cauldron in its center where Taehyung had likely been brewing a potion. Tiles in pastel colors form an ornate mosaic at his feet with blown glass baubles hanging from the overhead panels. Unlike the regular Arboretum, this greenhouse’s glass walls shine a kaleidoscope of rainbows onto everything in sight. 

It’s breathtakingly beautiful, particularly when covered in shiny soap. 

Jeongguk holds back his laugh when Taehyung spots him. His mentor looks utterly ridiculous, sticky and shining as if greased with cooking oil and topped with silk-spun webbing, though Jeongguk knows he’s no better off. Glistening soap drips from their hair and down their arms, a few bubbles still popping on the floor. He makes a disgusted noise as it slides between his fingers and sticks even when he spreads them apart.

“I know it looks like everything was out of control, but I swear it was under control,” Taehyung says quickly, raising a hand in defense. “I just wanted to make a weak cleansing potion for Seokjin.”

“Mhm,” Jeongguk says skeptically, raising a brow. Taehyung is in a white tee and brown overalls today, every inch of him shining. Even covered in soap, Jeongguk can’t get Jimin’s annoying fucking comment out of his head. 

He’s still just as pretty as the last time they interacted, almost irritatingly so . How can someone still be the slightest bit attractive covered in… whatever this is? 

“I’m telling you, it was fine,” Taehyung huffs indignantly. “You didn’t need to—”

He takes a step forward just as his legs slip out from under him, eyes locking to Jeongguk as they widen. His arms flail comically and his feet slide in different directions for a few long seconds before he falls forward in some ridiculous dance. 

Jeongguk stares in shock, his jaw hanging open. 

He’s never seen someone stumble so dramatically, especially the mysterious and elusive Taehyung of all people. After how tense he’s been over everything, it’s just too much. 

His smile grows alongside the feeling in his chest that he can’t hold back and the loud burst of laughter that leaves him is almost painful. 

To his credit, Taehyung snorts at himself, rising up onto his hands and knees. The effort is meaningless when his arms simply slip from beneath him once again, unable to maintain any grip on the slick surface. 

Jeongguk’s cheeks hurt from his uncontrollable giggles as he watches Taehyung struggle. Slowly, he inches across the room without lifting his feet, taking breaks to double over and laugh himself breathless every time Taehyung faceplants into the ground again. 

“Very— very under control,” he wheezes, approaching Taehyung at a snail's pace with tears of laughter pricking his eyes. 

Taehyung rolls onto his back, managing to sit up. He crosses his arms against his chest and shoots Jeongguk a look of feigned annoyance, though his amusement is blatantly obvious. “I’ll have you know I’ve made that potion a hundred times without error before. My magic has just been… temperamental lately.” 

“Right,” Jeongguk muses, looking over him as he reaches his side. He holds out a hand that Taehyung eyes warily, his flecked eyes flicking between his palm to his face. 

A moment’s hesitation later, he takes it, but not without a smirk that has Jeongguk suddenly second guessing his every move. 

Taehyung cackles as he pulls him with all his strength and gravity takes Jeongguk down, his eyes widening and a curse leaving him as he struggles to regain his footing. It’s several seconds of wobbling and flailing before he falls directly on his ass. 

He narrows his eyes accusingly at Taehyung with choice words on his tongue, but they quickly die out with the mage laughing himself into a mess beside him. 

“You—,” Taehyung gasps, clutching at his side, “you looked—so ridiculous. I can’t—” He leans over, head between his knees. “I can’t breathe—”  

Jeongguk hasn’t yet seen Taehyung laugh like this, the rich sound loud enough to echo off the greenhouse walls and slip itself behind his ribs. It pulls strangely infectious giggles from him too, coaxing them from a place in his heart others don’t often reach. He laughs until his nose is scrunching and tears blur his vision, the pair of them in such hysterics that they fall backward onto the tile. 

Through it all, Taehyung never lets go of his hand. 

The tension between them melts away just as Jeongguk notices the way their fingers are so naturally intertwined. Taehyung’s hand is warm and his grip is reassuring and grounding. Every laugh that shakes him is accompanied by a gentle squeeze that heats him to his core. 

Gradually, Jeongguk’s laughs are exchanged with butterflies in his gut, the flush on his cheeks growing. 

How did he get stuck in the middle of a greenhouse covered in soap? And more importantly, why does he feel so at ease laying side by side and holding hands with Kim Taehyung? 

“How are we going to get out of this?” Taehyung asks breathlessly, his voice still wavering. His tone is so warm that it draws Jeongguk’s gaze, turning to find his flecked eyes staring back. 

His cheeks are red and rounded, damp curls splayed out and shining beneath him. The color cast on his skin from the walls makes him look as sculpted and ethereal as the glass baubles swinging from the ceiling, but it’s his genuine smile that has Jeongguk’s heart flipping. He rips his stare away, his swallow stuck in his throat. 

Maybe Jimin knows him better than he thought. 

“Let’s just—,” he mumbles shyly, sitting up and feeling lightheaded. “Let’s make it to the wall so we can work our way outside. Once we get this shit cleaned off us, we can make a counteracting solution out of meteor dust and pumice.” 

Taehyung hums in agreement, though his demeanor softens. Jeongguk turns to find him staring at their interlocked hands and the matching red ink around their wrists. He still wears the vine bracelet made for him.

“This… doesn’t usually happen with my magic, at least not this dramatically. I’m not sure what’s wrong with me lately,” he murmurs, his gaze flicking upward. “Thanks for helping me again.”

“Why wouldn’t I?” Jeongguk replies casually. He can think of a hundred reasons why he wouldn’t help him, actually, but with the feeling of their fingers still interlaced, Jeongguk pushes them all out of his mind. 

The truth is, he’s not sure why he keeps helping Taehyung beyond it being the right thing to do. Maybe he has a secret savior complex or maybe he’s convinced himself this is all part of his training. Maybe he’s an idiot and really is weak for pretty faces.

Either way, if it lets him see Taehyung laughing himself into hysterics, he can’t deny it might be worth it to cover himself in soap and fall on his ass every now and then.

If that’s what gets him through this apprenticeship, that’s what he’ll keep telling himself.

The pair exchange sarcastic banter as they make their stumbling way to the wall and to the garden outside, latching onto each other’s clothes and jabbing playfully at the other when they fall. 

Between crafting the cleaning solution and scrubbing it away, it takes well into the afternoon to clean up the mess… not to mention the gardening hose shots they take at each other that might have Jeongguk laughing as hard as he did earlier. 

During their trip to the elixir room and back, Taehyung points out plant species Jeongguk’s never heard of, shyly launching into story after story about his adventures in the Arboretum. He breaks down explaining the process of grinding meteor shards with ease, instructing Jeongguk on how to use tools he’s unfamiliar with and gently guiding him during his moments of hesitation. 

But even more fascinating are Taehyung’s small quips about himself. Jeongguk learns of his favorite songs, his interests in art and reading and his surprisingly in-depth knowledge of jewelry-crafting. He learns that Taehyung somehow has no idea what comics are despite loving novels that include pictures and that he has a hatred for coffee after only drinking home-grown tea for years. 

In return, Jeongguk finds himself giggling with more frequency than he has in weeks. He shares his favorite foods, some embarrassing stories involving Jimin and small anecdotes about his favorite places on campus, pointedly ignoring the slight gratification that Taehyung’s undivided attention brings him. 

By the end of the day, he can’t help but think he’s actually enjoyed their time together. Taehyung is rather honest and funny, even if unintentional. The informality between them is refreshing compared to how he’s usually excluded.

He doesn’t know much about friendship aside from Jimin or Namjoon, but Jeongguk wonders if this is what it feels like—if wanting to hear Taehyung laugh and feeling invested in his stories are part of what friends do. He mulls it over even after he’s long said his goodbyes and is travelling back to the Aerie on his invisible wings. 

And in the air, his head swimming with thoughts of whether mentors can even qualify as friends, Jeongguk realizes he had forgotten his whole purpose of finding Taehyung today—forgotten the thought that had tortured him all morning. 

He had forgotten to ask about the meeting. 

“...Fuck.” 










It’s… dark.

Jeongguk supposes that makes sense, since the cave at the edge of the forest is pitch black. Its size is monstrous, stalactites dripping from far above his head as he ventures further inward in search of the serpentroot Taehyung requested. 

According to Jimin, Taehyung has been working overtime making elixirs for Seokjin in an attempt to treat the illness going around. It had been just a little disheartening to learn Jimin knew more about Taehyung’s efforts than his own apprentice. If his tasks are going toward research, he wouldn’t mind being a little informed.

To be entirely honest, Jeongguk had expected Taehyung to greet him this morning after the day they shared yesterday, but he was left yet another note instead. Aside from the vague nightmares still interrupting his usual dreams, he admittedly had gone to sleep more relieved than any other night in hopes that their dynamic improved. 

He’s not disappointed, though. That’d be ridiculous.

The fire in his palm burns brightly, revealing twisting vines and flecked stones as the cave grows deeper. His footsteps echo in the silence, his only company the sound of periodic drips into nearby puddles. It should feel eerie, but darkness doesn’t scare Jeongguk as much as it should. He’s unusually fearless of places like this, although he can’t say it’s where he wanted to spend his hours of daylight. 

Jeongguk finally spots the roots he needs miles deep into the cave. He transfers flame in his palm to the small lantern at his hip, resting it off to the side and withdrawing his knife to slice away at the root. 

Taehyung had shared a lot about himself yesterday, but it was news to Jeongguk that he’s been aiding Seokjin. It makes sense with the number of healing potions he’s seen the mage craft, but Taehyung hasn’t really introduced him to his daily work. 

He still wants to know more—about the work he does and maybe a bit more of his interests too. His curiosity has always been insatiable, but it’s never applied to others like it does Taehyung. 

Jeongguk loses himself in thought as he expertly cuts the roots and slides the pieces into his knapsack. His intake of breath is a roar in the heavy silence, the sound of the knife occasionally scraping the stone like sharp claws on slate. 

It’s when another noise joins his own that he freezes in fear. 

It begins as a low vibration, eventually becoming a rhythm that increases in volume. Slowly, the noises multiply until hundreds of overlapping screeches and flapping sounds ricochet off the cavern walls. 

Wings .

Panic fills Jeongguk’s chest as he tosses the last of the root into his bag, sinking low to the ground just as the first creature flies near his head. A massive swarm of spirits follow as they rush for the exit, their beady eyes reflecting his lamplight in the darkness. 

“Choubats,” he breathes in awe, hurriedly slinging the bag over his shoulder and grabbing his lantern. The bat-like creatures have leathery wings of vibrant color, patterned and shaped like a butterfly’s. They’re rather harmless, but Jeongguk knows their sharp teeth aren’t just for show. 

He takes off into a run, leaping over the rocky outcroppings he remembers seeing on the way in and stumbling over the ones he doesn’t. Pain lances his knees as he scrapes them against the ground and his heart pounds through him with nauseating strength, but he focuses every effort on reaching the exit. 

It’s not long before he senses another approaching presence, a sinister aura seeping into the air. It’s not the choubats he’s fearful of but whatever spooked them into such a frenzy. The hair on his neck rises, his head twisting over his shoulder to glance into the void thickening with ancient magic behind him. Even when he amplifies his fire, it’s easily smothered by the unnatural darkness. 

The mouth of the cave is in sight when a piercing screech echoes from behind. The sound shakes Jeongguk to his core and nearly brings him to his knees, his body curling forward with hands pressed over his ears. It grows nearer and nearer until the magic feels as if it’s piercing him, raking a line of fiery pain across his shoulder blades and down his spine. The sound threatens to pull him apart, constricting his throat and ripping the air from his lungs, folding him inward, trapping him—

Shivering, Jeongguk falls to his knees outside the cave, the wail ceasing abruptly when he feels sunlight warm his skin. Trees rustle overhead and the cool breeze soothes the sweat that beads on his neck. He inhales deeply and fists at the damp grass beneath him to tether himself to reality, embarrassed by the way his arms tremble where they hold his weight.

He has no idea what the creature was, but it wasn’t pleased with his presence. Even out of reach, it caused him pain as if injured, a tingling feeling still sparking over his skin. Shaking himself, he carefully climbs to his feet and puts as much distance between himself and the cave as possible. 

Hopefully, it’s the last time he’ll ever have to see it.









“How…?”

Taehyung presses his lips together, sheepishly glancing away from where he hangs suspended in the air. Below him, Jeongguk stares up in disbelief with a palm to his forehead.

“I— um. I can explain.”

Jeongguk had anticipated it taking awhile to find Taehyung when he returned with a bag full of serpentroot and a racing heart, but he hadn’t expected to discover the mage tied up in his own damn vines. This part of the Arboretum is particularly wild like that of a jungle, it’s spirits standoffish and it’s vegetation dense and unforgiving. It’s not a place Taehyung should venture alone.

He sighs tiredly. He really should’ve known by now. 

“I felt a weird shift in the area’s aura,” Taehyung grunts, wincing at the thorny vines wrapped tightly around his forearms. Blood flows from his palms and down his wrists, enough that the sight makes Jeongguk’s stomach churn. “I ended up losing my focus while trying to treat the trees with slug repellant, and…” 

He trails off, guilt flashing in his eyes, and Jeongguk sighs again. Taehyung has been working himself to the bone at the expense of his health. He withdraws his knife from his bag and rises a few feet into the air with the aid of his magic. 

“I got the serpentroot,” he starts darkly, the blade easily cutting through the vines, “but you’re not wrong about the aura. There was something in that cave that didn't belong there. It freaked out the choubats and chased me out before I could see it, but it made me feel like...” He swallows, the ghost of pain grazing down his spine. “Like my back was being torn open just by the sound.” 

Taehyung’s face visibly pales, his gaze flicking worriedly over his face. 

“It didn’t hurt you, right? Are you sure you’re—”

“Taehyung,” Jeongguk huffs, pausing his slice. Prickers tipped with blood drop to the ground. “Stop worrying over me when you’re the one in bad shape.”

Taehyung’s wrist is freed and his arm sags against him, the broken-off thorns lodged in his skin worse than Jeongguk thought. He supports a bit of Taehyung’s weight with air magic and the effort is exhausting enough to reveal the veins in his temples.

“I’m fine,” Taehyung mutters quietly.

“No, you’re not,” Jeongguk retorts. 

“I am.”

“You’re not .”

“I am .”

The pair glare at each other, their eyes narrowed and jaws tight. Jeongguk doesn’t know why he’s arguing with someone he barely knows about his own wellbeing, but Taehyung’s blatant disregard for his own injuries irritates him. 

The air is tense as he trims away each vine, slowly revealing more and more bloodied skin that blends with the red band around Taehyung’s wrist. From the sight of it, it must be immeasurably painful, enough that Jeongguk’s sympathy overtakes his annoyance. The last of the prickers fall away and he lowers them a few feet to the ground, reaching out to gently grasp Taehyung’s palm. 

“Where do you keep your first aid kit? We need to treat this and disinfect or it’ll—”

“I told you, I’m fine,” Taehyung says, ripping his hand from his hold. He walks off to gather his gardening tools as if nothing happened, but Jeongguk can see the subtle way he limps and how his arms tremble. 

For whatever reason, his apathy is infuriating.

“You’re not fine. I don’t know why you keep saying that,” Jeongguk snaps, stepping closer to steal the tool bucket from his arms. “You need to care for yourself and put your health first before anything else. No one will do it for you. It has to come from you.”

Taehyung glares at him, his eyes flashing with enough color that Jeongguk swears magic tingles in the air. “I have a job to do, Jeongguk. Minor injuries that are my own fault don’t mean shit when I have to run this place by myself. I can’t just stop or the herbs and the spirits—” 

“That’s the point,” Jeongguk argues bitterly. “You’re as much as a part of this fucking tree bubble as anything else here. If you fall apart, all your efforts will be for nothing. You deserve better than this, Taehyung, and I deserve a better fucking mentor than someone who’ll run himself into the ground for the sake of duty.” 

The harsh words are like a slap to the face and Taehyung stills, his mouth opening and closing. 

Jeongguk doesn’t know where his frustration stems from or why he loathes seeing Taehyung in such a state. He’s unused to feeling so much anger on behalf of someone other than himself. Maybe it reminds him of when he used to treat himself poorly just to keep pace with those around him. 

Or maybe Park Jimin is the most irritating human alive and knows him better than he knows himself.

Gradually, Taehyung’s face falls, his eyes cast to the ground. His throat bobs and Jeongguk wishes they could return to yesterday’s rib-aching laughter instead of the tension they have now. 

“...You’re right. I’m sorry.”

His voice is imperceptibly quiet, but it’s enough for Jeongguk to catch what he needs to hear. All at once, Taehyung’s body seems to sag, his adrenaline-filled determination falling away. 

Jeongguk simply shrugs in response, tilting his head toward the pathway that leads to the back. “You’ve done enough today as it is. Let’s go back and get you cleaned up.”

Silently, Taehyung nods, limping by him at a slow pace. Jeongguk considers reaching out to help, but he thinks better of it. 

Sometimes, the path of self-reflection must be walked alone.









The silence between them is thick with a tension Jeongguk doesn’t know how to dispel, and quite frankly, he’s not sure how much more of this he can watch. 

He sits at the small desk opposite Taehyung, the space underneath so clustered that their knees bump together. Incense and sage waft under his nose from the surrounding storage of the upper loft, easing his aching muscles but doing little to calm his anxiety as he watches Taehyung attempt to treat himself. 

It’s been several long minutes of the mage struggling to clean his hands and ankles of blood, wincing in pain as the stray thorns fall into the basin of warm water. Jeongguk’s not sure he’s ever properly bandaged his fingers before with the way he lets the gauze unravel and spill onto the table or how he peels back the adhesives. Taehyung’s teeth sink into his lower lip in concentration, frustration evident in his posture.

Jeongguk grimaces, his leg bouncing anxiously. 

Three… two… one… 

“Let me do it,” he finally mutters, holding out a palm.

Taehyung pretends not to hear him, his brows pinching as his fingers fumble.

“Taehyung,” Jeongguk says pleadingly, “you’re making it worse. Just— let me help. Please.” 

Colored eyes meet his, a moment of hesitation passing before a defeated sigh leaves Taehyung. Without looking, he begrudgingly hands over his bandages and mashed medicinal herbs, resting his hands on the table as an ashamed flush travels up his neck. 

It’s a bit awkward as Jeongguk gingerly lifts Taehyung’s marred hand, turning it over so his palm faces upwards. His own fingers dip into the herbal mixture, spreading over his skin in gentle circles and making sure to thoroughly cover every open wound. 

There are barely-visible scars across Taehyung’s fingertips and along his arms, years of messily healed injuries beneath his touch that Jeongguk is shocked he hadn’t noticed before. It’s clear using bandages and healing ointments aren’t a habit Taehyung developed, his wounds likely unseen by anyone who would care enough to call him out on it. 

The thought makes Jeongguk’s chest squeeze in an inexplicable way. 

“You have to take better care of yourself,” he murmurs softly, surprised at the kindness in his own tone. He always seems to think out loud around the mage, the words leaving his mouth before he can bury them somewhere unnoticeable.

Taehyung is quiet, his gaze following Jeongguk’s rhythmic motions, fingertips twitching when he swipes over the ticklish center of his palm. Jeongguk notes the softness of his skin and the warmth he emanates, recalling the feeling of their fingers intertwined yesterday. 

It’s strangely intimate. Jeongguk can’t remember ever touching someone else with so much care aside from patching up Jimin here and there, but those moments hadn’t ever felt like this. Even as far as physical contact is concerned, he’s regrettably hooked up with the few desperate classmates willing to look his way... but there was never an ounce of compassion involved. Somehow, treating Taehyung with the care he thinks he doesn’t deserve feels more meaningful than a baseless exchange of pleasure. 

The thought has Jeongguk’s cheeks burning quicker than he’d like to admit. 

Professional, Jeongguk. Keep it professional. 

Still, he knows he’ll feel better when he admits it: Taehyung is pretty. Even now, his curls fall over his dark eyes and Jeongguk finds himself staring a beat too long, glancing away when Taehyung finally notices the attention. 

Him being pretty is just a fact, Jeongguk reassures himself firmly. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging and accepting the obvious like any other line in a textbook. He doesn’t have to think about it beyond that. 

His head aches from mulling it over and he hurriedly changes the subject. 

“Why are you working here alone?” he asks, the question leaving him before he can stop it. The implication includes his lack of familiar, but he’s sure Taehyung will avoid it. 

“I... like the job,” Taehyung answers carefully. “It’s not impossible to do by myself. I’ve been managing it for a long time.”

Jeongguk raises a brow. How long has he even been a mage to have worked here for years? They look too similar in age from him to be a veteran caretaker.

His teeth rip open a fresh bandage, unwilling to release Taehyung’s hand in fear he’ll never get it back. He gently wraps the material around his fingers, ignoring the twinge of guilt he feels when Taehyung winces. 

“Even if it isn’t technically impossible, it still seems like you’re spreading yourself too thin. With all due respect, you should look into getting more help than just me,” Jeongguk replies, refusing to mention that he practically does the job of several people. He’s not sure how Taehyung managed before him or how he’ll continue onward after the arrangement between them ends. 

“You’re not normal, you know.”

Jeongguk pauses his wrap to stare at him blankly. He’s met with Taehyung’s serious expression.

“...Valid, but go on.”

“You don’t see it, but the Arboretum isn’t exactly a human-friendly place. The energy is so strong, it can make visitors hallucinate or fall ill and the wild spirits here aren't usually very welcoming, either. I wasn’t exaggerating when I said this place isn’t safe for the average witch.”

He lifts Taehyung’s other hand, wiping away a bead of fresh blood without thought. The information is difficult for Jeongguk to swallow. He’s always been very tolerant of spirit energy and friendly with all spirits themselves, but there’s no explanation as to why he would be the exception. It only makes his missing familiar all the more confusing. 

“Besides, handling a place like this is my fate anyway.”

Surprise flashes across Jeongguk’s face. “Fate?” he says skeptically, swiping more ointment over his wounds. “You mean Yoongi’s placement of you here? He’s ridiculously strong but he’s not a god, Taehyung. You should ask him for more help. Managing this alone is ridiculous.”

Bit by bit, Taehyung seems to soften at Jeongguk’s worry over him, but Jeongguk can’t seem to stop. The more he pictures Taehyung being left alone when their contract is fulfilled, bloodied from his own vines or putting out fires he can’t control, the more the image unsettles him. 

“There have to be others that could handle it, even in small shifts-” 

“Jeongguk,” Taehyung interrupts, unexpectedly lifting his mended hand to halt his bandaging work. Jeongguk’s startled gaze searches for his but Taehyung’s eyes are hidden behind his curls, the corners of his lips quirked upwards. “I appreciate the concern, but I don’t need anyone but you.” 

Jeongguk swallows.

Oh.

It’s said with such confidence that heat creeps up his neck and swarms his cheeks. He sits in stunned silence, resuming his triage only after a long lull and chiding himself for injecting more into the phrase than what Taehyung intended.

Still… it’s hard not to run with it. 

When was the last time he felt truly needed? He can’t think of an occasion he was genuinely useful to anyone—a time where he had a purpose. On top of it, he’s never been so bent on seeing someone aside from himself be treated fairly. 

The tension slowly eases despite the quiet, though the red staining Jeongguk’s cheeks doesn’t let up. He knows he can’t help Taehyung with the Arboretum more than he is already, but he’s learned from experience that there are other ways to coax someone out of a self-destructive routine. 

There has to be a way to chill him out, something they can connect on. 

“Comics,” he murmurs suddenly, tying the last of the bandages around Taehyung’s wrists. The mage sends him a curious look, but Jeongguk finds himself unable to meet it. “I’ll bring you comics tomorrow if you promise to take breaks from work a few times a week to read them.”

Taehyung’s eyes just barely widen. Jeongguk thinks he sees his surprised expression morph into something softened from his peripheral, quiet snort leaving him as a hint of a smile curls across his face. He turns his hand in Jeongguk’s grasp to squeeze his fingers in a gentle handshake. 

Jeongguk pretends the feeling doesn’t make his heart flip. 

“Deal.”







His favorite comics weigh heavily in the bag at Jeongguk’s side as he lands outside the Arboretum, pulling open the door and venturing down the path he’s become all too familiar with. The sky is grey today, dark and foreboding with churning clouds that threaten to unleash their contents at any moment.

He doesn’t like the ominous air they bring, especially not when he has to tell Taehyung about the meeting after forgetting two shameful days in a row. He can’t believe he forgot again, especially knowing the meeting is this afternoon. Jimin will never let him live it down. 

He exhales in frustration, tugging the bag further up his shoulder as his eyes rake over every crack between the foliage. His senses are finely tuned to tracking Taehyung after searching for him day after day. It wouldn’t shock him to find the mage caught up in some kind of trouble again, though he hopes it can be avoided so they can talk properly. 

Hopefully they can discuss it at a distance, too.

Jeongguk grimaces. It’s Taehyung’s damn hands. Every time they somehow end up linking fingers again, any semblance of logic flees his mind. The mage has an annoying way of overtaking his thoughts and holding them captive just like the Arboretum does.

But though he searches high and low, every place Jeongguk checks turns up empty. He investigates each nursery and the elixir room, the nearby waterfalls with their herb gardens and even Taehyung’s favorite corner full of daffodils. Minutes become an hour and an hour nears two before Jeongguk is ready to tear his hair out. 

This apprenticeship will be the death of him.

He’s combing through the spruce trees and muttering low curses to himself when he feels a strange spark of magic crawl over his skin. An overwhelming sense of darkness pours over him that’s heavy with timeworn magic, though it’s much unlike the threatening atmosphere that had emanated from the cave yesterday. 

He glances skyward to find an thanatowl gazing at him with an unblinking stare that seems to dissect his very soul. His breath catches at the sight of the monstrous creature where it’s perched, overwhelming power flickering through the air.

The spirit has protruding antlers and bat-like ears, its face distinctly that of a great-horned owl. Strange, furry limbs curl underneath its puffed chest with talons larger than Jeongguk’s head. It’s wings are neither visible nor invisible, a spectral shadow that can’t be discerned with human eyes. 

Jeongguk knows all too well from his studies that the creature is meant to be feared, but oddly enough, its aura feels more familiar to him than most other spirits. It turns its head in an unnatural motion, tilting clockwise toward a dense overgrowth of trees that Jeongguk hasn’t searched. 

“Is—Is Taehyung nearby?” he asks quietly, his voice muffled in the spirit’s oppressive presence. The thanatowl blinks once in response, holding out a massive wing in the same direction. 

Like every other day, the spirits lead him to Taehyung. 

The pair stare at each other in silent communication and Jeongguk is reminded of what he felt meeting Yoongi’s kitsune. His chest flutters like wings, soothing darkness shielding his eyes for less than a breath. It feels like approval.

Jeongguk can’t place it, but the spirit comforts him.

He was taught that he should bow before creatures of higher power out of reverence, but even before something as great as a thanatowl, Jeongguk is drawn to merely incline his head. The motion is almost robotic despite the fear in his heart, but the creature regards him with similar respect, cocooning its wings of shadows around itself before vanishing. 

He swallows thickly, the daylight brightening through the trees with the thanatowl’s departure. Every encounter with the Arboretum’s spirits is both fulfilling and confusing, spurring more unanswered questions he isn’t confident he’ll ever find the answers to. 

Quietly, he shoulders his way through large ferns and over bushes, avoiding the dragonlizard holes and the poison ivy he recognizes curling up a tree. The branches that brush him are forgiving, their shedded berries occasionally squelching underfoot. 

Jeongguk searches for ages with little luck. He highly doubts the thanatowl would mislead him, but he’s not sure where else to check. Exasperated and frustrated, he casts his eyes to the sky. 

Above him are thousands of branches with leaves of green and yellow and… tan. Tan slacks

Jeongguk’s heart skips at the sight. He backs up and spots Taehyung perched on a dangerously high branch of an ancient tree, his ankles crossed and arms folded in front of him. His chin lolls against his chest, head cast downward. 

An awestruck snort sounds from him. Is Taehyung really napping? Knowing the unpredictability of his magic lately, the sheer fact he made it up there by himself is impressive. 

Jeongguk rises into the air with the aid of his magic, jumping from branch to branch as to not exhaust himself. Fortunately, Taehyung’s wooden perch is many feet wide and strong enough to hold them both several times over. 

It’s not long before he’s crouched before his sleeping mentor. Taehyung appears more at peace than he’s ever seen him, though the gentle shake of the landing stirs him from his slumber. He rubs his eyes as if still dreaming.

“...Jeongguk?” he mutters thickly, heavy eyes blinking open. “You… how did you find me?”

His tone is so sleepy that Jeongguk‘s mouth runs dry. Seeing Taehyung this vulnerable is… weird.  

“A thanatowl showed me,” Jeongguk answers, sitting down a few feet away and receiving a look of surprise. He unslings his heavy bag and rests it on his crossed legs, grateful to relieve the weight from his shoulders. “I can’t say I expected to find you sleeping of all things.” 

Taehyung looks away with a nonchalant shrug. “You told me to slow down and the weather sucks today, so I thought it might be a good day for it. Plus, I want those comics or whatever they’re called.”

A soft snort leaves Jeongguk at the determination in his voice. He unties his bag, revealing a stack of colored booklets with folded corners and fraying edges. Taehyung’s eyes shine at the sight and Jeongguk can’t help but smirk. He felt the same way when he first saw them, enthralled by the small worlds at his fingertips.

“I brought my favorites like I promised. But, before that…” He tucks the bag aside, catching Taehyung’s full attention. “I— wanted to talk to you about something.” 

To his dismay, Taehyung’s expression becomes guarded. An air of tension settles around them as his smile falls away. 

Jeongguk’s chest tightens at the change. Not a good sign.

“I’m not sure you heard but there’s this… meeting on central campus once a month. It’s for mentors and their apprentices,” he starts, tone slow and careful. “I wanted to tell you sooner, but the first meeting is actually this afternoon and apparently it’s the most important—”

“No.”

Jeongguk’s mouth snaps shut before opening again, a cold feeling seeping into his chest. 

“But—”

“I can’t, Jeongguk,” Taehyung says, more defensively than anticipated. “I know exactly what it is and I’m sorry I can’t join you, but I just… can’t. It’s not possible.”

The rejection stings just as it did the first time he had shown Taehyung the letter. A fresh wave of negativity incenses the resentment he’s been building and Jeongguk finds himself spiraling before he can stop it.

“How isn’t it possible? I know you sometimes bring potions to Seokjin and you attended my exam. How is this any different?” 

Taehyung’s lips press together but his hardened exterior doesn’t falter. He curls his knees up against his chest to stare out into the forest below them. “The answer is still no, I can’t attend. Please pass the lecturer my apologies.”

Jeongguk’s jaw tightens, his heart beating erratically. He knows he should have been more prepared for this, but he had at least expected a valid excuse. To outright refuse him without a real reason is infuriating. 

“This is really important to me and you’re not even considering it,” he argues accusingly. “After all I do around here on top of saving your ass repeatedly, how is this fair? I don’t ask for much.” 

Hurt flashes in Taehyung’s eyes as he glances at Jeongguk and away again. “I’m grateful for your help and get what you’re saying, but—”

“You don’t get it. I’ve been nothing but patient even after you’ve dragged me through hell in the few weeks I’ve been here. You don’t help me with your bullshit assignment and you barely take the time to teach me. You avoid me until I conveniently show up to save you from yourself.”

The unfairness of making it this far only to have a mentor that won’t do the bare minimum is crushing. Jeongguk thought that working his ass off, sharing stories and patching Taehyung up might have earned him some respect. He thought he’d be able to face his peers with confidence for once. 

But like nearly every other person he’s begun to care for, he’s ultimately treated as a burden. He’ll never be anyone’s priority. 

He doesn’t know why he bothered to give a shit about Kim Taehyung in the first place. 

“There are things you wouldn’t understand, Jeongguk,” Taehyung bristles, his tone unusually harsh.

“Of course there are,” Jeongguk retorts. “I don’t understand shit because you never bother to explain it. In fact, I don’t know what you do or what the point is to any of this. This apprenticeship is a fucking joke and you know it.”

“A joke?” Taehyung scoffs bitterly. “Fine, then. If it’s such a waste of your time, get the fucking contract dissolved for all I care. I said no in the first place because I knew it’d turn out like this.” 

His cold tone is enough to push Jeongguk over the edge. Although it’s only been a short time, he didn’t think Taehyung would throw him away so easily. 

He should have known it was a lie when Taehyung said he needed him.

“Whatever. I’m done.” He rips the comics from his bag and drops them unceremoniously before Taehyung, shoving his bag over his shoulder. “You don’t care about anyone but yourself. I don’t know why you bother to call yourself a mentor when you can’t even manage your magic without fucking things up. If wasting away in the Arboretum is what you want, you can do it alone.” 

The words are sharp, maybe more unkind than he intends. One look at Taehyung’s stricken expression is enough for him to leap from the branch with the aid of his magic, guilt and rage eating away at his insides as he descends. 

“Wait, Jeongguk!”

Without looking back, he storms away from Taehyung’s voice, leaving him alone among the trees. 

He knew it’d come to this. Though he sympathizes with Taehyung, they’ve always been incompatible from the start. The mage is insistent on remaining stagnant, slaving away at the Arboretum instead of sticking up for himself. Even with his familiar is still mysteriously missing, Taehyung doesn’t seem to make any effort to recover it. 

His apathy for it all pisses Jeongguk off more than anything. 

He doesn’t know where his feet intend to take him, but they carry him straight out of the Arboretum and in an aimless direction away from the main campus. There’s hours before the meeting and he feels he might combust if he doesn’t get some air. The band around his wrist prickles at his untimely separation from his mentor, but he ignores the discomfort. 

It’s minor compared to the bitter pang of disappointment beside his heart. 







Time is forgotten as Jeongguk travels further and further away from Elenia. He hasn’t seen much of the world beyond the campus grounds in fear of crossing the magic boundaries that surround it, but after recently discovering that the barriers don’t turn him away as they should, he hasn’t hesitated to explore in his free time. 

The endless sight of the sky brings him comfort despite its dreary shade of grey. Its expanse allows him to forget—to put aside the responsibilities and feelings that chain him to the ground. He’s had enough of being dragged around by forces that don’t care about him. 

But even the sky isn’t large enough to let him forget the look he had caused on Taehyung’s face, nor will the prickling band around his wrist stop reminding him they’ll have to face each other again.  

Frowning, he pushes the thought of the mage aside with all the effort he can muster. There’s no point in dwelling on Taehyung when he has to first get through the meeting on his own. He’s faced nearly every other challenge without help and this one will be no different.  

A sprinkle of summer rain patters his cheeks and he grimaces at the humidity in the air, his eyes raking over the dense forest below in search of a clearing. He’ll have to take shelter before the sky opens up and unleashes a torrent upon him. Showing up to the meeting soaked won’t do much to help his case.

Curiosity fills him when he spots what appears to be a distant fissure across the ground. It grows into a massive ravine as he travels closer, spanning so far that he can barely see the overgrowth that lines the horizon on the other side. 

The Wilds.

The sheer magnitude of the world fascinates him. There are other academies interspersed among magicless residents who aren’t able to harness spirit energy, some nestled in the hills, among deserts or against the coast. The majority of the world’s ‘regular’ population exists in smaller settlements, relying on travelling witches to provide aid with their magic and to communicate with the local spirits.

The Wilds, however, are uninhabited by humans, the conditions so harsh that the few who have dared to travel there never return. Jeongguk’s always been curious about what lies beyond, but he’s not keen on venturing there without a familiar. The threatening aura from the boundary is enough of a deterrent as it is. 

He flies closer to the edge of the ravine with its sharp cliffs, its depths far darker and more ominous than those that surround the Aerie. Jeongguk wonders if it’s even possible to reach the bottom, though despite his typically insatiable curiosity, he’s not particularly eager to find out. 

A flash of color catches his eye among the green and brown of the earth below. To his relief, a dilapidated structure perched on one of the sharpest, furthest cliffs comes into view. He descends rapidly just as the rain starts to pick up, praying he’ll find it vacant. 

Gravel and debris crunch underfoot where he lands. The small, crumbling building is made of greyed stone covered in ivy and white flowers, the majority of its windows shattered. Through the arched doorway, Jeongguk can see its rear wall is dilapidated, but the remainder of an ornate rose window still protrudes from its center.

He walks forward in interest, eyeing the Wilds that are visible directly through the window. The sight of the shaded glass is reminiscent of the examination hall he had been in just a few months prior, though the colors and shapes are different. It’s an unusual combination of oranges and purples, a mix of rich darkness and pristine light.

It’s dirtied and cracked, but Jeongguk finds it profoundly pretty.

The stone benches facing the broken wall are concealed by overgrowth and branches. He clears an area to sit lengthwise before unslinging his pack and resting it by his side, leaning his back against the stone wall with crossed ankles.

The solitude and the sound of the rain are soothing. Much better than being stuck in tree hell with his shitty excuse for a mentor.

Habitually, Jeongguk pulls his lunch from his bag only to leave it uneaten in his lap. It’s not surprising how weak his appetite is after the argument, his stomach still churning with guilt and anger among other things. Instead, he loses himself in thought, his gaze traveling upward to the webbed corners of the dirtied stone roof. 

It makes little sense for there to be any facilities out this far, especially something that looks eerily like a place of worship. From the direction it faces, it could be related to the wilds or the ravine, though there isn’t enough visible imagery to make any clear assumptions. Still, he’s convinced it must be connected to Elenia with the similarities of their windows. 

He’s tracing the outline of the petal-shaped glass for the hundredth time when the weight in his lap vanishes and his sandwich floats away. 

It’s not his lunch that moves itself, however, but the kitsune that holds it in his mouth. With nine tails flicking and red eyes glimmering like bloody gemstones, he suddenly finds Yoongi’s familiar sitting beside him.

“Y—You,” Jeongguk greets lamely, amused warmth flooding his chest.

Me , the kitsune confirms. He shakes his head to knock away the paper holding Jeongguk’s lunch, biting at the meat and bread as if it belongs to him. 

Jeongguk simply watches in numbed shock. 

“What are you doing out here?” 

The fox creature munches away without care, pawing irritatedly at the lettuce until it falls onto the ground. Eating lunch, which you were most certainly not doing, so I thought I’d help myself. 

Despite feeling like shit, Jeongguk feels a smile work its way across his face. He snorts, shaking his head in disbelief. It’s pointless of him to question the motivations of a spirit.

The real question remains: why are you so far from Elenia, dark one? 

...Dark one? The title is jarring—nothing like Jeongguk has been called before. He supposes the kitsune refers to his typical outfit of entirely black. Maybe he should introduce more color to his wardrobe like Jimin annoyingly suggests every day. 

“I’m… not sure what I’m doing, really,” he replies honestly, his chest tightening when he thinks of Taehyung and the words they exchanged. His reasons for fleeing sound too shallow before a spirit of such status.

I would think one would be with their mentor mere hours before their first check-in meeting. 

Jeongguk side-eyes him in surprise. “You know about the meeting?” 

A soft rumble is heard from the creature, its eyes flicking over him knowingly. There is much I know and much I don’t. I don’t know why we were both drawn here, but I can see clearly that you are unhappy. The ink worn round your wrist cannot lie. 

He lifts his wrist to stare at its blaring contract ink. Jeongguk isn’t shocked the kitsune can sense it; it was created with his invoker’s own blood, after all. 

Trouble with Kim Taehyung? the kitsune suggests, finishing the remainder of the sandwich. Jeongguk’s stomach rumbles at the sight, his insides fluttering with amused laughter that isn’t his own once again. 

“Trouble?” Jeongguk says sarcastically. “You mean the living hell of being his apprentice?”

The kitsune tilts its head, its ears swiveling forward. 

You exaggerate. 

“Not at all,” Jeongguk mutters. “I don’t know what Yoongi was scheming with the arrangement, but it’s been a nightmare. Taehyung can barely care for himself and his magic is unmanageable. I’ve tried to help as much as I can, but even when I bust my ass every day, he won’t bother to talk to me unless I show up to save him.”

The complaints leave Jeongguk with an ease that surprises him. He’s comfortable around the fox despite its black coat and the threatening red markings that frame its eyes. The kitsune must feel similarly when it moves to sit beside him, licking its chops and resting its head atop Jeongguk’s knees. 

Taehyung has told you nothing of his reasons for residency there?

“Not a word,” Jeongguk confirms, glaring at the rose window with arms crossed. The rain that now falls is heavier than he expected, though blue skies peek through on the distant horizon. “I’ve asked over and over again and he pretends to ignore me. It gets really fucking annoying after awhile.”

A gentle huff leaves the kitsune. Despite Jeongguk’s irritation, the creature emanates calm, relaxing his muscles and easing the tension in his heart. He takes a deep breath and releases it seconds later. 

Taehyung runs not from you but from himself. I’m sure you’ve noticed his absent familiar by now. 

Jeongguk nods as the tiniest flicker of hope blooms within him. Maybe the kitsune will have some answers. “He hasn’t mentioned it or my missing familiar once. It’s like he pretends they don’t exist.” He sighs tiredly, head knocking back against the cold slate behind him. “Namjoon told me not to bring it up to him and I haven’t, but why isn’t he searching for it? I don’t understand why he won’t fight for what he wants.” 

Blinking slowly, the kitsune eyes him with sparkling interest. Tiny flares of harmless flame flicker on its tail. 

Taehyung’s trust is something to be earned, Jeongguk. You are not entitled to information or his reasonings simply because you desire them. He is, after all, your mentor. 

Jeongguk rolls his eyes. “I’ve heard that bullshit from a certain scholar before. You all are so greedy with your secrets.”

Another wave of amusement fills him as the kitsune vibrates with laughter. The sound is like the peel of bells in Jeongguk’s mind, his own lips twitching upward at the feeling.

You are correct when you say we keep our secrets. Taehyung entrusted them to us, and with us they shall remain. 

A feeling like a stone settles in Jeongguk’s gut. So much for help. 

Nonetheless, you did provide me with an offering of food out of the kindness of your heart. Due to that, I may be so inclined to aid you… my friend. 

The sly smile that grows on Jeongguk’s face is mirrored by the mischievous emotions shared with him. A sandwich in exchange for some info isn’t too bad of a deal. 

Would you say Taehyung is hardworking, Jeongguk?

He isn’t prepared for the question and Jeongguk hums as he thinks it over. Despite Taehyung’s tendency to overwork himself, he would never consider him lazy or unmotivated. He may actually be one of the hardest workers Jeongguk knows.

“I’d say so, yeah.”

Do you truly believe someone so hardworking would abandon their familiar without attempts to find it? 

His tongue presses into his cheek. Taehyung is perhaps too dedicated to his craft and runs himself ragged with the weight of responsibility, but the mage is also kind and driven. The idea of him simply abandoning his lost familiar does conflict with what Jeongguk has observed. 

I’m sure Kim Namjoon alluded to the reasonings behind pairing you with Taehyung. It seems only natural that you would be more understanding of his plight compared to others. 

Jeongguk swallows thickly. The sympathy has always been there, but it's never been enough to blind him to the unanswered questions Taehyung pointedly avoids. 

“I… feel badly for him because I know what it’s like to be overlooked,” Jeongguk admits, absentmindedly scratching at the kitsune’s ears. “I’ve been helping him mostly out of sympathy, not necessarily because I’m his apprentice. Not having a familiar is… hard.”

You understand then that there are circumstances about others you cannot change. Your familiar does not exist, but there are those that accept that without question. Yet, you expect explanations from Taehyung about what he cannot change. 

The words aren’t spiteful, but Jeongguk still feels his cheeks warm with shame. While he still firmly believes Taehyung should communicate with him better, he supposes he shouldn’t have brought up his… less than desirable performance as a mage without first understanding why his magic misfires.

“I get it,” Jeongguk breathes, pinching the bridge of his nose. The rain beyond the surrounding walls slows, the sound of water drops echoing off the stone. “But he’s still my mentor, you know? If he isn’t going to show up to the meeting, he could have told me why instead of fighting me on it with no explanation.” 

It’s sudden how the fox creature’s head lifts, its ears swiveling as if to catch a distant noise. He glances over his flaming shoulder and beyond the rainy doorway. 

I cannot stay as long as I had hoped, Jeongguk, but I will leave you with my thoughts in hopes they will guide you. 

The kitsune rises to its feet, tails splaying out widely as it approaches the exit. The creature’s voice resonates in his mind, drowning out even the sound of the rustling leaves and summer breeze.

I am the familiar of Min Yoongi, one who is more powerful than you can imagine. Yet, even with such an impenetrable defense such as his, my invoker is not without his flaws. They are flaws that I accept—flaws that he must heal with his own power. I cannot heal them for him, but I can aid in his journey just as I do yours. 

There’s a far off rumble that sends dust crumbling from the ceiling and Jeongguk’s heart lurches at the sensation. He jumps to his feet, reaching out for his bag, though he doesn’t look away from the kitsune’s gaze.

Kim Taehyung too is not without his flaws, as you well know. One of them is that he cannot leave the Arboretum for much time, and such ventures must be few. 

A spike of acidic guilt twists Jeongguk at his core. 

If he did not yet share why he is connected to the Arboretum, it is not my place to reveal it. There is more to Kim Taehyung than you know, Jeongguk, even things he cannot tell you without endangering your well-being. With the extra aid he’s provided Seokjin lately, I cannot imagine he’d have it in him to accompany you to a meeting hours in length.  

Jeongguk nods curtly, hands clenched by his side. There’s clearly more beyond the assumptions he had made and he lashed out like a child anyway.

Even if it was partially justified, he’ll need to apologize. That much is certain. 

I do have a final observation that is not much of a secret, however, the kitsune continues, tails swishing in amusement. 

Jeongguk raises a brow at his change in tone, watching as he exits through the doorway. Outside, the rain no longer falls, blue sky with clouds of soft white stretching onward. 

The Kim Taehyung that has frequented Seokjin’s infirmary seems happier and more at ease than I have seen in my many years as his acquaintance. Whatever help you are providing him is changing him in ways you cannot see. I do not think your dispute signifies an ending of your arrangement but perhaps a new beginning. 

A flush creeps up Jeongguk’s neck. Taehyung has been… happier since he arrived? It’s hard to imagine, but knowing he’s making a difference in the Taehyung that exists outside the Arboretum satisfies him more than he expected. 

Approach him with an open heart and you may find the answers you seek. I must leave you now, and you must return to campus with haste. 

The familiar trots into the clearing, its aura of darkness growing with every step. Jeongguk moves to the doorway, his eyes widening at the power that sweeps over him. 

I bid you a kind farewell, my friend, the voice whispers. A farewell… and a warning. An evil spreads throughout this world and the next that is only growing. You are safe in the Arboretum, but do be careful in your travels outside of it. 

He’s brow furrows. “The Arboretum…?” Jeongguk asks in confusion. “But why is it any safer—?”

His question is lost as the kitsune vanishes in a blink of flame. Embers slowly vanish as they spiral into the sky and Jeongguk stands with his mouth agape, the sudden weight of the information paralyzing him where he stands. 

Guilt threatens to rise from the ground and swallow him whole at the thought of their dispute. Taehyung isn’t just hiding away at the Arboretum… he’s trapped there, cornered in a cell with no visitors that can tolerate even entering his prison. He hadn’t stopped to think that maybe his mentor had limitations too. 

Taehyung may have failed to communicate, but Jeongguk had failed to listen. 

It’s not until he feels another distant rumble that he decides to take to the sky, his mind swimming with questions as he flies back toward campus. He presses his lips together in determination, grateful for the cool breeze that whips through his hair and batters his cheeks. 

First, he’ll handle the meeting. Another endeavor managed alone is nothing new to him. 

Then, he’ll deal with Taehyung and fix things between them… somehow. 










“Jeon Jeongguk?”

At the sound of his name, Jeongguk’s eyes flick upward from his vacant table at the back. He’s in Elenia’s northern library, one of the many study areas on campus that holds memories of long nights with his head buried in textbooks. Apprentices and their mentors sit in front of him with their familiars at their sides. A few of their faces are regrettably recognizable when they turn around. 

At the head of their group stands an older, severe woman with smug disapproval lining her face. The graying professor wears an unshapely dress that reaches her knees, it’s hideous pattern reminding Jeongguk of a moldy banana. Frills droop from the hems of her sleeves, unmatching jewels adorning her ears and her pointed shoes a blaring red. Even her half-rimmed glasses make Jeongguk think of dirtied carpets and mothballs.

He frowns, leaning his cheek into his palm. Roma . How appropriate he’d be overseen by the professor who made every Spirit Studies class a fucking hellscape for him. 

“Present,” he responds flatly.

She scribbles on her paper resting on the podium. Jeongguk is certain she isn’t taking real notes.

“And your mentor?” 

He side-eyes the chair beside him. “Absent.”

“Obviously,” Professor Roma says curtly. “No familiar and now no mentor. How appropriate for you.”

Jeongguk withholds his eyeroll. He’s been through public humiliation at her hand more times than he can count. He won’t let her get under his skin today, especially now knowing he’s graduated and left her behind to rot. 

“If you would be so kind as to share the name of your mentor with us, Jeon,” Roma says, the shadow of a smirk lining her face. Jeongguk ignores it, distracted by the thought of brown eyes dashed with color and how they had flashed with hurt today because of his own impatience. 

“Kim Taehyung.”

There’s quiet as the name leaves his lips. It’s strange to speak of Taehyung in a public setting, as if broadcasting one of his secret hideaways to the world. The Arboretum really does feel like a realm apart.

A soft snicker sounds from the brown haired apprentice two tables ahead. Jeongguk recognizes him as Vernon, a classmate who didn’t hesitate to make his life miserable at every chance during his studies. His mentor conceals his smile beside him and his wolf familiar glares aimlessly as if bored. 

Even Roma herself snorts as she eyes Jeongguk with disdain. “Ah. A sorry excuse for a witch paired with a man playing at being a mage. I see Headmaster Min knows a fitting match when he sees one.”

Jeongguk locks his jaw as more quiet laughter is heard from other tables. He’s always been the target of ridicule and unnecessary quips about his abilities, though he can’t say he’s ever felt like this before. Never has his name been dragged down alongside another. 

It bothers him to hear someone bash Taehyung despite the hypocrisy of him having done it just a few hours ago. 

To his relief, Roma finally moves her stare away and continues to call more names until the attendance is recorded. The sound of her grating voice is like the screech of a chicken-toad spirit and gives Jeongguk a headache as she drones on about requirements and regulations that he doubts even apply to him. A few nearby spirits wander through the bookshelves or flap lazily through the air and he desperately wishes he could join them.

Half an hour is lost to aimless thought before the other apprentices are instructed to share their tasks and goals. Some discuss working with their familiars and strengthening their offensive magic affinities. Others plan to dabble heavily in alchemy or leatherworking, some focusing on enchanting or even striving to become teachers. Their tasks are varied and elaborate, their mentors often chiming in to clarify or speak of their progress. Everyone seems perfectly suited for both their mentor and field of study. 

Everyone, that is, except for him.

“Jeon?” Roma says expectantly, peering over her glasses. The group is far less subtle with their attention this time, rotating in their seats to shoot him curious or expectant looks. Among the crowd, he recognizes the blonde hair of Jeonghan and his usual sneer, his white serpent familiar coiled around his shoulders. 

Great. Another face he wishes he could never see again.

“I’m... blooming a plant.”

A beat of stunned silence follows before more snickers filter throughout the room. Vernon shakes his head in dismissal before turning around, leaning back carelessly in his seat. Opposite of him, Jeonghan lifts a hand to his mouth to barely muffle his laughter. 

And Jeongguk, quite frankly, could not give less of a shit. 

“A plant?” Roma says scornfully, making more exaggerated notes. “Pray tell, what type of plant are you nurturing? I simply can’t imagine such a simple task being much qualification for any mage unless it's quite the rarity, although I know it may still be a challenge considering your… circumstances.”

Jeongguk sighs through his nose at her scathing tone. He’d love to share what the plant was if he knew. 

“I don’t know what it is, Professor. That’s the challenge.”

Roma’s brows rise to her hairline. Ahead of him, a few witches shake their heads or even glance back with pitying gazes. 

“You don’t know?” Roma scoffs, a shocked laugh leaving her. Her ink pen flies over her paper. “Remarkable. Truly remarkable. Don’t take this the wrong way, Jeon, but I can’t help but think you may be lying to us about your… mentorship . I’ll admit, it’s quite clever to use the mystery around Kim Taehyung as a scapegoat, but your assignment is clearly unworthy of mage training.”

A predatory smile unfurls on her face. Jeongguk supposes she expects to get a rise out of him. 

Instead, he raises his wrist. 

“I’m not sure Yoongi would be thrilled to hear you think so little of his binding contract,” he says, his expression one of smooth indifference. The band around his wrist still prickles with discomfort.

Many surrounding expressions fall to shock, his peers’ eyes widening. An awkward quiet lingers, though it’s not long before Roma bursts into a fit of spiteful cackles. 

“I see Headmaster Min had really decided to leash you and Kim Taehyung together like the mutts you are. Can’t say I blame him,” she sneers, though her false confidence reeks of defeat. 

Her statement pisses him off but Jeongguk isn’t naive enough to take the bait. Yoongi’s direct involvement in his mentorship means it would be damn near impossible to lie about it. She can report Taehyung absent from the meeting or complain of his task all she wants, but Yoongi has never dedicated a second of thought to her squawking.

She has no power over him, at least not any that bothers Jeongguk. 

Roma’s demeanor is notably bitter as she makes her final notes. To his relief, she ignores his presence entirely and she instructs them to form discussion tables among themselves. There’s a bustle of motion as the pairs branch off into usual cliques, most other witches pointedly avoiding his gaze in hopes he won’t join them. 

All except Jeonghan. 

“Jeonggukie, join us!” the witch calls sweetly. He and his serpent sit at a table beside a tall window of stained glass. Next to him is Vernon and his mentor Wonwoo, a newly-promoted mage that Jeongguk already knows is cut from the same shitty cloth. 

It takes most of his willpower to hide his grimace at the mocking niceness, his posture tense even when he sits down. He folds his arms against his chest with a guarded expression. 

“So, Kim Taehyung, eh?” Vernon starts with a cocky grin, leaning back carelessly in his seat. “You have my condolences, Jeon. It must suck to be stuck with a fraud.”

Jeongguk huffs an irritated sigh. An oddly bothered feeling churns in his gut, one already far more noticeable than when targeted by Roma. 

He should’ve known they’d go after Taehyung without hesitation. They’ve probably grown bored of tormenting him after all these years. Not enough material.

“It’s fine,” he replies flatly, not bothering to elaborate. Maybe it isn’t actually fine after their argument, but the assumption that Taehyung is a burden is incredibly annoying. 

Vernon’s brows raise in interest, gaze flicking to Wonwoo and back. Clearly, they don’t believe him. 

“Are you staying with him?” Wonwoo asks innocently, resting his chin in his palms. “The Arboretum can’t have very luxurious living conditions. I’m surprised anyone can stomach being within a mile of that shithole.”

Jeongguk blinks in confusion, pushing the rude comment aside. Maybe he’s misunderstanding the question. 

“Staying? Like, living there?” 

The trio exchange another silent glance that only irritates him more. 

“Most apprentices take up residence at their mentor’s place if it’s far enough from central campus. Makes overnight projects and early mornings easier,” Vernon explains. “I’ve been living at the forges for weeks now. Hot as hell but the baths are amazing.”

The revelation is startling and Jeongguk stares blankly at the table before him. Taehyung’s never said a word about a residency. Not even Jimin has mentioned it, though he supposes he wouldn’t give up a room like the observatory unless forced. 

In a way, it’s a blessing Taehyung hasn’t asked. He wouldn’t trade the open sky of the Aerie for the suffocation of the Arboretum even at knifepoint. It’s one of the few places he feels at ease. 

“Not interested,” Jeongguk mutters, glancing away. 

Those around him don’t seem surprised. A smirk grows across Jeonghan’s face as he runs his fingers through his blonde locks, blue eyes piercing him with their knowing gaze.

Jeongguk bites back a sigh. He’s been the target of his venom enough to know he’s about to spew something insufferable.

“At least Kim Taehyung is nothing bad to look at,” Jeonghan says smoothly. “If the man weren’t so damn reclusive, I wouldn’t be beneath hitting that myself. What a waste of a face to keep it so hidden away.”

Vernon snickers and Wonwoo shakes his head with an amused sigh. Jeongguk’s chest burns with an acidic disgust, mouth twisting into a frown. 

“Even you have to admit he’s hot, Jeongguk,” Vernon adds, elbowing him annoyingly. 

Jeongguk presses his lips together so tightly they hurt. His fingers dig into the muscles of his biceps when Taehyung’s genuine smile flashes in his mind. 

So what if he’s attractive? It doesn’t change anything between them.

“That has nothing to do with me.” 

Jeonghan chuckles knowingly as Vernon raises his hands in mock defense. “I’m just saying, I’m sure Taehyung is… lacking in pursuers,” he remarks, ignoring the way Jeongguk goes rigid. “You should be thankful you have such a pretty face to motivate you. At least you’re not stuck with Wonwoo.” His mentor kicks at him with an eye roll and Vernon grins impishly. 

“Whatever,” Wonwoo grunts. “At least I actually do my job at the Forges. Kim Taehyung never leaves the Arboretum and it still looks like a fucking mess. He’s a shit excuse for an earth mage with it looking like that outside.”

Raw anger prickles under Jeongguk’s skin, both at their words and the stupidity he now feels for saying unkind things to Taehyung himself. It’s true that most can’t see what truly happens behind the glass panels of the dome, but the potions and medicinal herbs Taehyung provides should be plenty proof of his efforts, not to mention the rare, powerful spirits that he’s befriended and the flora he precariously maintains. The work is backbreaking and thankless, but Taehyung pours his heart into it.

He can’t help it when the rebuttal flies off his tongue.

“The Arboretum is massive and Taehyung busts his ass day and night caring for it, so keep your comments to yourself,” Jeongguk snaps. His tone is far more scathing than he expected from himself, but he doesn’t feel a hint of regret.

He just can’t get the image of Taehyung’s bloodied fingers and forgotten scars out of his head. 

Jeonghan sends him a knowing look, eyes shining with opportunity as he pinpoints the sore spot. “Woah there, Gukkie. We’re just joking, you know? Everyone agrees that Taehyung must be doing something there. What else are they supposed to think when he never shows his face?”

“He has his reasons,” Jeongguk grumbles. Maybe he doesn’t know the exact reason himself yet, but he knows it’s a good one. He’s sure of it.

“...Right,” Jeonghan purrs, lifting a brow. The dismissiveness makes Jeongguk want to slap the smug look right off his face. 

He’s had enough. He should’ve known the meeting would be a waste of his time. All it's done is put him back in the circle of contempt, except he’s far more heated hearing them mock Taehyung than he’s ever been over comments about himself.

“I’m really not surprised you two get along,” Vernon continues lazily, flashing his teeth. The look is malicious, one Jeongguk knows too well. It’s one he’s seen right before Vernon runs his mouth and he imagines his fist colliding with it. “You know the rumors, I’m sure. Taehyung has no familiar because he fucked up his pact and it cursed him.”

Jeongguk stills as his heart does. 

Taehyung is cursed by his familiar of all things? The thought sends him spiraling, mind spinning as he recalls Taehyung referring to his placement there as ‘fate’.

Could the curse be why he can’t leave the Arboretum?

Vernon’s face changes when he recognizes the surprise Jeongguk wears. He doesn’t hesitate to go for the kill. 

“I’m sure you two can bond over being familiarless freaks or fakes or whatever you failures call yourselves—”

“Fuck off,” Jeongguk growls suddenly.

The retort is dark, far more aggressive than typical of him. The center of his chest burns like a brand but he feels numbed to everything except the bitter outrage constricting his throat. 

A short hush falls over the trio before their taunting looks return. 

“Mm, defensive, aren’t we?” Jeonghan jabs playfully. His fingers trail over the scales of the blue-eyed serpent on his shoulder. “Maybe Jeonggukie’s already a little smitten for his washed up mentor. Absolutely adorable—a match made in heaven.”

Jeongguk’s cheeks flush hot. Enough, he’s heard enough

“I knew he’d be weak for pretty faces,” Vernon jeers. “Don’t hold out on us, Jeongguk. What’s Taehyung sound like when you guys fuck? Does he even know where to put his—”

Crack.

Behind their heads, a line shoots down the stained glass like an arc of lightning, though the pane doesn’t burst. Jeongguk is already on his feet with fists shaking by his side. 

He’s had enough. They can drag his name until the day he dies, but to speak so crudely of Taehyung is beyond his level of patience. 

“Keep Taehyung’s name out of your fucking mouth,” Jeongguk snarls. 

Another crack sounds from behind them as the pane spiderwebs, more fissures erupting across the color. Power rolls off him that he can’t subdue and the area over his heart burns as if alight. The feeling makes his hair rise around him as if electrified by static.

For the first time in the years they’ve tormented him, Jeongguk sees their faces pale. 

“Relax, Jeongguk,” Wonwoo says, eyeing him narrowly. He glances around the room, catching the attention of other wary witches and their mentors as they notice the commotion. “They’re just playing around. No need to make a scene.”

“Yeah. I know it’s probably a struggle without a familiar, but you should learn to control yourself,” Vernon says, attempting to regain face. He ignores the look of warning from his mentor. “Wouldn’t want to end your little arrangement with precious Taehyungie and leave him all alone—” 

Crack. 

Jeonghan’s head whips around in worry. He stares wide-eyed at the window, his earlier sureness nowhere to be found. The glass looks ready to shatter onto their heads at any moment, and truthfully, Jeongguk can’t bring himself to care. 

“Taehyung is just my mentor,” Jeongguk says bitingly, the taste of power thick on his tongue, “and he’s got more decency in him than you worthless pricks will ever have. He actually cares about what he does and works harder than anyone on this fucking campus, so keep your shit to yourself.”

Vernon snorts, though his facade is weak, a few lines of worry lingering around his eyes. To his credit, Wonwoo seems to regard Jeongguk’s flare of power with an air of seriousness, his jaw tightening and hands lowering to his sides as he stares him down. 

It’s too much. Jeongguk can’t stand another minute pretending those around him actually care about what he does with his life. It’s him against the world just like it always has been. 

Although right now, it just happens to feel like him and Taehyung are against it together. 

“What’s going on here?” a shrill voice rings from behind. He turns to find Roma’s glare flicking between him and the window, her face reddening with outrage.

Jeongguk doesn’t have the patience to deal with her bullshit now. Another second here and he’ll likely shatter every window in the place, a possibility he isn’t fond of. Namjoon would eviscerate him for wrecking historical pieces. 

Besides, he needs to speak to Taehyung as soon as possible. He needs to make things right before he evaporates into a cloud of guilt and loses the courage to ever show his face at the Arboretum again. 

“I withdraw from your meetings,” he snaps, brushing by Roma and the rest of the group without sparing any of them a final glance. He retrieves his bag and slings it over his shoulder with finality. “Cry to Yoongi for all I care. He knows Taehyung and I are too busy working our asses off to waste our time with this anyway.”

Jeongguk knows for certain that Yoongi won’t give a damn about his participation. There’s no way he isn’t aware of Taehyung’s limitations by now. Never would he have anticipated the Headmaster’s scheming working in his favor. 

Without another word, he stomps from the library just as another snap sounds from the window pane, revealing the evening sky through its cracks. 

There’s no sound of a shatter as he bursts through the double doors into the courtyard, his dangling earrings swaying and his hair swept back from his stomping pace. There’s only a pounding in his head, his heart beating with a nervous rhythm for the real challenge that awaits him...

Facing his own ego and apologizing properly.









There are no lights on in the back cabin of the Arboretum. That alone is enough to worry Jeongguk. 

Exhaustion pulses through him with dizzying strength after flying all day. He pushed himself too hard with his venture to the ravine, but also hadn’t anticipated losing his cool at the meeting on top of it. Whatever power that had cracked the window had leached from his deepest magic reserves, every muscle in his body now quivering from the exertion. 

Still, the thought of Taehyung and his rumored curse possesses him to press onward.  

He can’t think of a time he hasn’t had to search for the damn mage. With more urgency than this morning, he checks every notable place, from the tiny greenhouse dome out back to the herb nurseries. 

In his own hidden corner with its dogwood trees, he finds only the hazy outline of his spiteful plant still lingering among the shadows. He hasn’t given it much attention today, but there’s no time to think about it now, not when he needs to blurt his apology before the ground opens up and swallows him in a pit of shame.

The earlier adrenaline of facing his former classmates still has him anxious, his feet occasionally lifting him into the air for a better view despite his limited magic. He retraces his prior steps to where he had met the thanatowl, its aura having long since dissipated. The ancient woods are overwhelmingly dark without the sunlight to guide him. 

Not soon after, Jeongguk finds himself staring up at the tree he had found Taehyung sleeping in. He can’t see much aside from the silhouettes of the branches and the navy sky beyond, but when a head of brown curls peers from over the side, Jeongguk’s heart lodges in his throat. 

He’s still there. Why the hell is he still there?

“...T—Taehyung?”

His voice echoes as it travels upward, hands cupped around his shout. Eyes appear once more from around the branch and remain long enough for Jeongguk to lock to them. Immediately, the prickle of the band around his wrist dies out.

“Why..” he murmurs in wonder, eventually raising his voice, “why are you still up there? Have you even left?!”

There’s a pause before he sees the shake of a head. 

No. 

Jeongguk blinks in shock. What the hell is he trying to do—stage a protest? 

“Can you come down, please?” Jeongguk asks loudly, shifting his weight onto his toes in anxiousness. “I… I need to talk to you. I’d come up but I used a lot of magic today and I should save what’s left to get home.”

He’s answered by muttered words lost to the rustle of trees.

“What?” Jeongguk asks, frustration filling him. He’d really prefer not to shout his apologies in the middle of the damn forest. “I can’t hear you. Can you just—come here? Please?” 

There’s another mumble, the chirp of crickets muffling most of what Jeongguk strains to hear. He does, however, pick up a telling piece. 

“...down.”

He furrows his brow, asking Taehyung to repeat himself. The mumbling voice that replies is louder and more embarrassed. 

“Can’t—... down.”

Jeongguk’s hands fall away from his mouth, a stunned look taking their place. A long sigh leaves him and he presses his thumbs to his eyes. 

He should’ve known. He really should have known.

It leaves them with no choice, but he needs Taehyung to confirm his suspicions before he can suggest the plan he has in mind.

“Can you speak up?” Jeongguk calls again, willing as much patience into his voice as he can. “I still can’t hear you.”

More of Taehyung’s face peeks out. Though Jeongguk can barely see him, the illuminated moth spirits that flutter about shed light on his features. Their large wings rain glowing glitter that highlights his cheeks and reflects in his eyes. 

Jeongguk swallows thickly. Even after a day spent in a tree far overhead, Taehyung still looks annoyingly good.

“I can’t—” Taehyung finally says, looking away shamefully, “I can’t... get down.” 

Jeongguk knows he should be irritated. He should be tired of the rescue missions occurring day in and day out. It’s not his place as an apprentice to save Taehyung from himself—he had even said so to the mage’s face just hours ago. 

Instead, he finds himself huffing amusedly.

It’s definitely the exhaustion that spurs sympathy to rise in his heart. It’s his tiredness that makes him smile, a hand pressed to his hip. 

What’s another rescue after all the others?

“Look, I don’t think I can get up there and back without passing out,” Jeongguk states firmly. “But I do have an idea of how to get you down.”

Taehyung’s brows rise curiously as he watches Jeongguk position himself at the base of the tree. It’s admittedly a little embarrassing when he holds out his arms in front of him. 

“Jump.”

There’s a beat of silence before he sees Taehyung back away with a shaking head. 

“Absolutely fucking not. Not happening.”

Jeongguk huffs, rolling his eyes. “I’m not saying you have to free fall. I have enough magic to lower you slowly. You can’t stay up there all night.” 

“I have no problem sleeping here,” Taehyung insists adamantly, fear creeping into his voice. “You’re out of your mind if you think I’m jumping from this high up. I don’t even skip stairs, Jeongguk.”

A long, exasperated sigh leaves Jeongguk. “I fly hundreds of feet in the air every day, you know. You’d think you’d trust me after how many times I saved your ass this week. When have I failed you before?” he asks, a pout on his lips.

Taehyung is silent for a breath, glowing moths fluttering around his head.

“I don’t know, maybe a few hours ago?”

The harsh words are like a blow to the gut. Jeongguk’s face falls as he lowers his arms. 

Shit.

He had wanted to apologize to his face, but it makes sense why Taehyung wouldn’t want to leap into his arms so readily. 

It’s not at all what he had planned but he knows he has no choice but to say it.

“I’m— I’m sorry,” he mumbles, pressing his lips together anxiously. 

“What?” Taehyung shouts. “Can’t hear you.”

Jeongguk grimaces at the ground before steeling himself, gaze flicking upward to meet Taehyung’s confused look. 

“I’m sorry!”

The exclamation is louder than he intends and Taehyung’s eyes widen a fraction. Jeongguk feels his remorse burst through his floodgates, unleashing the wave of guilt that’s built up within him all day.

“I’m sorry,” he repeats, his words leaving him in a rush. “I should’ve been more understanding when you told me you couldn’t attend the meeting. It’s no excuse, but I tend to feel like I’m— like I’m not a priority for other people. It was wrong of me to assume you’d feel the same.” 

Taehyung stares him down, weighing the truth behind his words. Jeongguk takes a shuddering breath before continuing. 

“I also was an ass,” he admits, his voice wavering as an ashamed red crawls up his neck. “What I said about you—it’s.. it’s not true. I was just being spiteful.” He gulps, mustering every ounce of sincerity to pour into his words. “I’m sorry.” 

His mentor watches him quietly. An awkward silence falls over him until Taehyung releases a long breath and disappears again. 

Jeongguk’s stomach falls through him to the ground. 

“Wait— Taehyung! I’m sorry, really, I didn’t mean—” 

His words die out as Taehyung reappears around the corner, this time standing with the stack of comics in his hand. He holds them out over the branch. 

“Prove that you’ll catch me.” 

The comics fly from his grasp. 

Jeongguk gapes, a hand reflexively shooting out to slow their descent. Their fluttering pages halt in mid-air, gradually lowering in a swaying motion like a lightweight feather. He catches them one by one in his arms like raining petals. 

Taehyung raises a brow in surprise. 

“See?” Jeongguk shouts, neatly putting them aside. They’ll have words about him throwing around his prized possessions later. “You’ll float down just like that. Nice and easy.”

He holds out his arms once more, praying Taehyung will trust him. He’s not sure how much longer he can stay awake before passing out. 

“I don’t like this, Jeongguk,” Taehyung breathes nervously, clinging to the tree’s trunk as his shoes peek over the edge. “I really don’t fucking like this, I hate heights so much—”

“Close your eyes,” Jeongguk reassures. “I promise it won’t be that bad. I know I don’t deserve it right now, but please just... trust me.” 

Taehyung sends him a final look of regret before warily covering his face with his hands. He inches forward at a snail's pace, feet nearing the drop with heavy reluctance. 

“You can do this,” Jeongguk yells encouragingly. “You’re a mage, remember? This is baby shit.” 

“B-Baby shit?” Taehyung stutters, his trembling palms firmly over his eyes. “Are you kidding me? This is literally my worst nightmare. I seriously cannot think of anything worse and now—”

A startled shout leaves him when he steps off the branch without looking. A jolt goes through Jeongguk and he grunts as the magic is sapped from him, cushioning Taehyung with a generous amount of air. 

“Oh my god, Jeongguk,” he cries, “oh my god, please get me down—”

“Relax,” Jeongguk comforts, his muscles working to keep Taehyung afloat. With the tiredness that hits him, it’s an effort just to stay standing. “You’re absolutely fine. Look and see for yourself.” 

Taehyung shakes his head vigorously. “Hell no. Do you want me to die ? Because I will absolutely die if I look now.”

Jeongguk snorts. “You’re fine, Taehyung. Just—look at me if you need to focus on something. You’ll feel more grounded if you have a point of reference.” 

Jeongguk sees the way Taehyung chews on his lip and how his shoulders curl inward from fear. Just as he’s certain he won’t look until his feet hit the ground, the mage surprises him by barely parting his bandaged fingers. His dark eyes shine through, quickly disappearing and reappearing again as his throat bobs with nerves. 

“Holy shit,” Taehyung whispers as he peers from between his fingers. “You really did mean it when you said I’d float.”

Jeongguk snorts, rolling his eyes. “As if I would lie.”

After another few feet, Taehyung slowly peels his fingers away from his face. He hesitantly prods at the open air around him, hands flying out to brush nearby leaves as he descends at a painfully slow pace. 

“This is terrifying and I want the ground back,” he laughs nervously, his arms wrapping around himself. “But I can see why you’d enjoy it.” 

A soft smile grows on Jeongguk’s face when Taehyung finally meets his gaze. He doesn’t need him to enjoy flying personally, but the attempt to understand and respect what he loves is enough for him.

“There are no restrictions in the air,” Jeongguk explains softly. “Nothing tying you down or trapping you. I can think clearer when I’m in the sky.”

The look in Taehyung’s eyes changes at his words, his expression falling so suddenly that Jeongguk wonders if he said something wrong. He opens his mouth to ask, but Taehyung beats him to it. 

“Jeongguk,” Taehyung addresses seriously, brown eyes flicking over his face as they grow closer. “I owe you an apology.” 

Jeongguk’s jaw drops. “Why would you—”

“What you said wasn’t wrong, you know. I really am unstable and not cut out to be a proper mentor. I can’t often leave the Arboretum for reasons out of my control, but it doesn’t mean I haven’t been running from myself inside it either.” 

A tight feeling constricts Jeongguk’s throat. “I—I didn’t mean to be critical of you. I know you’re doing your best.”

“I know you didn’t,” Taehyung reassures, his kind tone warming Jeongguk to his outstretched fingertips. “But I’m not doing my best. I was actually so embarrassed about not being able to accompany you that I hid in the tree hoping you wouldn’t find me.” He laughs quietly to himself, cheeks reddening with shame. “I didn’t want to see the look on your face when I’d have to let you down again.” 

“You’re not letting me down, Taehyung. I get it now,” Jeongguk says insistently, but Taehyung shakes his head. 

“I just— I don’t know how to communicate,” he confesses. He lingers maybe ten feet overhead now, finally nearing the ground. “I've never had anyone here worrying over me or offering help just because they want to. I’m sure it’s obvious that I don’t have many visitors, especially not any like you.” 

Jeongguk blinks, unsure if he should be offended. “Like— like me?” he blurts. “What about me?”

Taehyung’s eyes widen at his own statement as he rushes to retract it. “It’s— it’s nothing. I mean— it’s just your face— you know… it’s— your face .” 

The closer Taehyung gets, the more Jeongguk can see the deep red that shoots all the way up to his ears. 

“My face…?” Jeongguk deadpans. “Is there something wrong with it?”

Taehyung sighs loudly, rubbing his eyes with the heels of his palms. “Spirits help me,” he groans to himself. “I’m saying you’re— distracting. Your face is… nice. I’ve never seen one like yours, not that I see a lot of faces, but yours is... I don’t know. Pleasant? Aesthetically appealing?”

If the strain of his magic doesn’t kill him, Jeongguk thinks the shock might. 

“You— are you trying to say I’m cute?” he breathes in disbelief.

Taehyung looks upward and out over the forest, shifty eyes glancing at the ceiling and the surrounding branches—anywhere but at him. “Is it such a bad thing?” he asks bashfully, squirming in the air. “I just hate when you get that— that look. The one where you think you deserve to be rejected when it’s really not your fault. It haunts me in my fucking sleep, you know.” 

He rambles on, but Jeongguk stops hearing it. 

Taehyung… Taehyung actually likes him. He finds him distractingly cute, doesn’t want to make him sad or disappoint him and it bothers him even when they’re apart. 

It sounds exactly like how he feels, like how he wants to hear Taehyung laugh again or see him smile in that genuine way or rain shards of colored glass onto the people who speak ill of him. 

Jeongguk’s heart accelerates, the trees around him beginning to spin. Is this what friends feel for each other? Can he really consider Taehyung a friend? 

He can’t wrap his head around it—can’t think. It’s all too much. Today has been too much information and emotional strain and magic use. 

His magic cuts off abruptly and Taehyung’s eyes find him, instant panic filling his face. 

Jeongguk !” 

Jeongguk’s stomach flips and he curses as Taehyung falls from a few feet above him, arms flying out to collide with his shoulders. The weight of his body hits Jeongguk like a sack of bricks, the air knocked from his lungs with a distinct oof . He staggers and nearly collapses to his knees.

Taehyung trembles against him, arms wrapped like a vice around his neck and his face buried against his pulse. Warm breath cascades over Jeongguk’s collarbone and he shivers at the feeling, unable to calm his racing heart.

Taehyung is close. So close. He’s warm and alive and not at all untouchable in the way Jeongguk has always pictured him. The scent of his hair is like crisp apples and sunlight, his terror so palpable that the hold around him is bone-crushing. 

“S—Sorry,” Jeongguk chokes, “I’m sorry, my magic is— at its limit. Are you alright?” 

Taehyung only squeezes tighter and Jeongguk’s heart sinks. He really fucked up this time.

“You’re— you’re alright now,” he consoles, patting his back awkwardly. He can’t remember the last time he’s held someone like this or even wanted to, but he can’t say he dislikes the feeling of Taehyung so near. It’s easy to keep him safe this way instead of their constant separation, a comfort to know he isn’t in danger. 

He just can’t recall when he began to care about Taehyung’s wellbeing beyond standard empathy.

Taehyung makes a muffled noise against his shoulder, his body quivering. Jeongguk tries to release him but Taehyung only grasps him tighter and huffs into his neck. 

“Taehyung…?” he murmurs concernedly. “What’s wrong?” 

Hands fist at the shirt on his back and surprise fills him as the softest of giggles are pressed into his neck. They slowly grow into full blown laughter, the kind that Jeongguk has found himself daydreaming of more than once.

He goes still as his heart backflips. “What’s so funny?” 

“That was—” Taehyung gasps, shaking him with the strength of his hysterics, “that was— the worst fucking trust fall of my entire life.” 

Jeongguk’s mouth slowly shuts. An unavoidable smile teases his lips. 

He’s tired, so tired, and the relief that Taehyung isn’t upset begins to kill off the last of his adrenaline. Taehyung’s laughter is so smooth and enticing against his ear that his knees nearly buckle beneath him, but he blames it on the exhaustion instead, his own quiet giggles breathed into the night. 

He’s never heard anything like the sound of happiness that stems from Taehyung. It’s as if his joy has healing properties, mending wounds Jeongguk didn’t know he had and sparking life where things feel desolate. Despite the weight clasped around his shoulders, his heart feels lighter than it has all day. 

Gently, Jeongguk puts some space between them, hands lingering on his hips with the lightest pressure. The colored shards in Taehyung’s eyes shine even in evening darkness, brighter when paired with the smile that parts his bowed lips. The arms wrapped loosely around his neck don’t let up. 

Everything feels… different now that Jeongguk has heard Taehyung finds him at least mildly attractive. The sound of his classmates’ voices ring in his head, their observations about Taehyung raising a furious blush to his cheeks. He almost feels guilty with his hands on the dip of his hips, unable to ignore his perfect proportions and the sharp line of his jaw with so little distance between them. 

But Jeongguk knows he’s won here. They can make all the comments they want, but they’ll never know what they’re missing. 

They’ll never know how well Taehyung wears happiness. That secret is awarded only to those who earn it. 

“I’m sorry for always putting you in this position,” Taehyung says, his smile becoming more somber. “I don’t have an explanation for why my magic disobeys me so much. It just… does.” 

Jeongguk shrugs. He doesn’t voice how he’s slowly beginning to like being in this position, specifically the one that puts him this close to his face. Saving Taehyung might be a side job to his real apprenticeship, but he feels it changing him more than any assignment ever has. 

The only downfall is that his familiar is just as out of reach as it's ever been. 

“Explanations are overrated,” he replies, catching the gleam in Taehyung’s eye. There are still many things left unsaid between them, but Jeongguk is fine with waiting longer to hear them. Any more excitement today and he might drop.

“How—how was the meeting?” Taehyung asks, slowly disentangling his arms with a blush still staining his cheeks. “You can tell me as we walk back. You should rest for a moment before you fly home.”

It’s immediate how Jeongguk misses the warmth and reassuring weight around him, but he pushes it out of his mind. He should probably head straight to the Aerie in his current state, but he walks beside Taehyung anyway, ignoring how exhausted he feels with every step.

“It was horrible and a complete waste of time, if you want my honest answer. You didn’t miss a thing.”

Taehyung snorts, side-eyeing him as he ducks beneath a branch. Jeongguk narrowly misses a root with his dragging feet. 

“Can’t say I’m surprised. I’m sure they gave you trouble when you dropped my name. Not many on campus think fondly of me.”

The statement prickles Jeongguk, the crack of stained glass still ringing in his ears. “Well, they’re full of shit. I told them to go fuck themselves and that I won’t be back. They didn’t take me seriously anyway.”

Taehyung eyes him with what he thinks might be admiration, but Jeongguk blames that on his tiredness too. 

“You’re pretty brave to tell them off, you know,” Taehyung observes. “Not many people will speak their hearts so freely.”

Jeongguk shrugs. “Not brave, just tired of running from things I can’t change.” 

He continues walking forward before he realizes Taehyung has stopped, turning to find his wide eyes staring back. The mage seems to shake himself, quickening his pace to catch up. 

A quiet falls over them and Jeongguk feels his eyes droop. Every muscle in his body aches after using more magic than he thought possible. Even the beat of his heart slows. 

Shit. He might not make it.

“No more running,” Taehyun starts softly. He stares at the glass panels of the ceiling, eyes slowly traveling to meet Jeongguk’s. The determination in his voice is strong. “You’re right. I’ve been running from what I can’t change, from myself and my responsibilities and even from my own apprentice. I’m sick of it.” 

The words spark a reminiscent feeling in Jeongguk. He remembers the moment he had decided to stop running from himself too. It was too many kicks to the ribs, too much of the iron tang of blood on his tongue after being thrown against the wall while his professor looked away. Too many nights spent looking in the mirror wondering if he was damaged beyond repair.

It was the first time he learned his own happiness is something worth protecting, but it had only been accomplished with a little help. With Jimin. With Namjoon. With the spirits he called friends.

Taehyung is deserving of the same, maybe even moreso.

“I’ll help you.”

Taehyung turns to him, his eyes shining with surprise. 

“I know what it’s like to be at a disadvantage,” he says softly, the words of Yoongi’s kitsune lingering in his mind. “Everything feels a little more manageable with help. I don’t know what I can really do for you, and I can’t change your circumstances, but if you fall, I’ll try my best to catch you.”

The look that crosses Taehyung’s face is strikingly vulnerable, another flash of something unusual that Jeongguk is certain he imagines. The grass below him ripples like waves and he blinks away the darkness in his vision, a dull worry filling him when it doesn’t dissipate as it should. 

Shit

“I’ll— I’ll help you too,” Taehyung says, his voice choked with emotion. “I don’t think I can give you what you need, but I’ll try my hardest to be the mentor you deserve. I’ll pick you up whenever you need me to.”

“That’s... good,” Jeongguk laughs weakly, his feet dragging through leaves and over grass as he approaches. He can barely make out Taehyung’s confused expression that grows with every step closer. “Let’s— let’s start now.”

Taehyung’s brows furrow. “What? Hey, J—Jeongguk—!”

Jeongguk barely reaches him in time before he falls forward into Taehyung’s arms, his heavy eyes weighing shut. He thinks he hears a cry of worry as exhaustion swoops in and sends him into a cocoon of darkness, one cradled against a chest where a heart beats in time with his own.

Gently, his mind falls away to somewhere warm, safe somewhere he can trust. 

Safe with Taehyung.

Chapter Text

In the darkness, Jeongguk finds peace. 

It isn’t an abrasive darkness, at least not at first. It’s soothing and tender, gentle in the way it wraps around his limbs and slips between every breath. It’s safe and familiar, not unlike the sense of home. 

One might even mistake it for love.

But as the rhythm of his heart gradually quickens, the darkness clinging to Jeongguk tightens his hold. His wrists begin to ache, and when he tries to stand, he finds his body held down by a weight he can’t overcome. It confines him until he exhausts himself in his struggles. 

Time passes with agonizing slowness and no longer does it feel like home. The walls rise around him infinitely, bars gleaming in their windows like a jail cell. The bindings holding his wrists are shackles of cold steel. He can’t move—can’t speak or breathe or blink and every muscle trembles with a need to escape.

It’s not until a shallow breath crawls over his neck that Jeongguk realizes he’s not alone. 

His efforts intensify with a panic that sickens him, but even after using every ounce of his strength, Jeongguk finds himself just as trapped as before. The confines around his wrists grow warm. He glances down and sees fingers now hold him where shackles once did. 

His captor is close. 

Hands cup under his neck, lifting his chin into the air. The lightest touch passes over the bare skin of his nape, shivers coiling along his spine. Hands slide over his collarbone and down his back, their nails sharpening into points. They become as deadly as knives and pierce through his skin without hesitation..

His captor tears him apart.

He can’t see them, but Jeongguk knows they hear his soundless screams. In the darkness filled with malice much unlike the one he calls home, he’s trapped, his soul ripped to pieces until he can no longer remember his own name. 

He inhales sharply a final time as the world collapses around him.









A ragged exhale leaves Jeongguk as he snaps upright, hands flying from his sides to trail over his bobbing throat and slipping over his shoulders. To his relief, there are no longer fingers pinning his wrists and the plane of his back is still in one piece. Panic burns in his chest like bubbling acid, but he’s alive. Alive and unharmed. 

It was another nightmare, one far more terrifying than the last. This time, the pain had felt so real that its ghost still lingers, his captor’s breath still prickling over his skin.

His vision is dark. Every inch of him is covered in sweat, his breath gulped down in erratic pants. The texture of the blanket thrown over his legs is soft and the scent of the air is rich and honeyed, calming after what he just endured. 

“Breathe, Jeongguk,” a low voice urges from beside him. “You were dreaming and you’re safe now, just— just breathe.” 

Jeongguk’s head snaps toward the sound, the deep voice startling but soothing nonetheless. He blinks until his eyes hurt, squeezing them shut and rubbing them with his fists until light finally pierces the shadow that clouds them.

To his shock, it’s the worried form of Taehyung that greets him. His face is pale and knuckles whitened where they grip his knees.

“Are—are you alright?” his mentor asks softly, sympathy shining in his gaze. “I was about to wake you, but I didn’t want to frighten you.”

Jeongguk doesn’t have it in him to answer. His mind works slowly, piecing together his surroundings as his eyes flick around the room. 

Bright morning sun. His shaking palms in his lap. Taehyung’s faceted eyes that shine like gemstones. 

The oaken walls around him are hung with frames of pressed flowers and ink washes. There are curtained windows, the one beside the bed caressing his face with rays of warmth. A carved drawer chest is pushed against the wall and a gingham mat covers the nightstand, the colored baubles atop them sparkling in the morning light. 

It’s not somewhere he’s been before, but it still feels strangely comfortable. 

“We’re... at my place,” Taehyung explains carefully, reading his confusion. “Outside the back of the Arboretum. You passed out on me while we were walking, remember?”

The gulp Jeongguk takes is hard to swallow, his memories slowly returning. He had fainted from overdoing it with his magic… right into Taehyung’s arms, if his hazy mind serves him correctly. 

A red flush travels up his neck. If he made it here unconscious, then that means Taehyung is responsible for dragging his lifeless form all the way back. He even let him sleep overnight in his own home, tucking him in and staying by his side while he tossed and turned.

“I’m—I’m sorry,” Jeongguk starts worriedly, but Taehyung quickly silences him with a raised hand. 

“Please,” he dismisses, “the only reason you pushed yourself to the limit was because of my inability. Letting you stay was the least I could do.” 

“But… I feel bad for intruding,” Jeongguk mumbles guiltily. Taehyung looks tired, his exhaustion like a void beneath his eyes. “You didn’t have to stay with me. You need sleep just as much as I do.”

Taehyung’s gaze is avoidant, fingers twisting in the material of his white shirt. He wears a brown vest and dark green pants, the usual earthen tones Jeongguk is beginning to associate with him. “You seemed like you were suffering. I couldn’t just leave you alone in that state.”

A soft sigh leaves Jeongguk as he observes Taehyung carefully. He doesn’t know why the thought of the mage watching over him makes warmth bloom in his chest. “Sorry for worrying you,” he murmurs, “and thank you for letting me stay.”

Taehyung shakes his head. “You’re not a bother, Jeongguk. You’re always welcome here.”

Bashfully, Jeongguk runs fingers through his hair, the heat trapped within its layers still lingering. While Taehyung probably deserves an explanation of what tormented him, he’s not sure he’s ready to discuss it. 

Whatever the vision was hadn’t been a normal nightmare. 

“Is this… a guest room?” he asks, hoping to change the subject. He glances outside and finds the home several feet off the ground, branches twisting within arms reach of the window. The structure appears to be built around an ancient tree.

“Yeah,” Taehyung hums sheepishly, grip tightening in his shirt. “I… I’ve never had a guest stay here before. You’re the first, actually.” 

Jeongguk blinks in surprise. It’s still a little upsetting to hear how isolated Taehyung really is. Every revealed piece paints a picture of someone swept aside—someone forgotten.

It makes his chest squeeze in discomfort.

“It’s—really nice here,” he blurts, strangely desperate to rid Taehyung of his somber expression. “The bed is nice, really soft, you know? And the blankets are really warm. I like the—um, trees. Outside.”

Taehyung’s gaze travels upwards before he giggles softly. His gentle laugh makes Jeongguk's heart lift. 

“Glad to hear you like trees,” he muses. “I have a whole bubble full of them if you ever need something to do.” 

Their banter makes Jeongguk’s chest warm further, a shy smile revealing itself. He can’t remember when he started to enjoy being beside Taehyung for no reason other than to talk. 

But the mention of the Arboretum and the sun blaring through the window reminds him of the time of day. It must be nearing noon by now. 

“Shit,” he curses suddenly, throwing off the blankets and jumping to his feet. “Wait, what time is it? Shouldn’t I be working?! The gardens—”

“Woah, easy,” Taehyung urges, gently pushing him back down onto the bed. “It’s Saturday, remember? It’s your off day. Even if it weren’t, I wouldn’t want you working in this state.”

A pout forms on Jeongguk’s lips. “I’m completely fine now, see?” He stretches his arms and legs in front of him, rotating his ankles and flexing his toes. Only then does he realize he’s in a pair of grey sweats and an ivy shirt that clings tightly to the curves of his muscles.

Clothes he’s never seen in his life.

Oh god. Oh god . He even changed him? 

“I see your feet are fine,” Taehyung teases, unaware of his inner turmoil. “That doesn’t change the fact that you still need rest. You can stay here while I deliver potions to Jin, but no flying home until tomorrow.”

“But—”

“I’m serious, Jeongguk. Mentor’s orders.”

His smile is coy and Jeongguk’s pout deepens with his glare. Leave it to Taehyung to play the mentor card only when convenient. 

Still, it’s rather a new feeling to have another person worry over him so strongly. He can’t deny the contentment it brings him to know someone cares about his health, particularly when that someone is Taehyung. It makes him feel like he’s doing something right for once. 

“Okay, no flying,” Jeongguk concedes, “but can I please go with you to Seokjin’s? I want to know what you make and how I’ve been contributing. You should let me accompany you as your apprentice.”

He sends him his most innocent look yet, satisfaction rising in him when Taehyung glances away with a light blush. He doesn’t mention the real reason for wanting to join him—to see the Taehyung that exists outside the Arboretum. 

“You’re exhausted,” Taehyung insists, crossing his arms. “I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

“I’ve shown up to work far worse, you know. So have you. This is nothing.”

His mentor still stares him down skeptically. “Just because I’ve done it doesn’t make it right, Jeongguk. You really shouldn’t push it—”

“It’s completely fine,” he waves off, climbing to his feet again only for Taehyung to press him back into bed. Jeongguk glares at him playfully, wishing he weren’t so weak for attention and the touch that lingers a beat too long on his shoulders.

“It’s not fine. I just watched you get shit sleep for hours and I’m not about to let my apprentice fall apart on me.”

“I’m not falling apart,” Jeongguk retorts, ignoring the way his heart skips when Taehyung claims him as his apprentice so adamantly. “I want to stay with you, okay? Is that so much to ask?” 

Taehyung’s mouth snaps shut and Jeongguk knows he’s won. It’s difficult to hide the smug grin from his face despite the embarrassment he feels behind the statement. 

He really does want to stay by Taehyung today. He isn’t sure why, but there's no harm in keeping his mentor company, right? 

“...Fine,” Taehyung relents, rolling his eyes. Maybe Jeongguk imagines it, but he thinks he sees relief flash across his face. “But no flying under any circumstances, you hear me? An inch off the ground and you’re on weeding duty for a week.”

The threat is catastrophic. Horrific. Jeongguk recoils from him in disgust. 

“A week ? Here you are telling me to rest and you’d put me through that hell on earth?” he says incredulously, rising to his feet again. Despite the strain of yesterday, he feels surprisingly well as he stretches his arms above his head. He taps into his magic and finds it ready to go, albeit a bit weaker than usual. 

“If I catch you in the air, it’ll be even longer,” Taehyung threatens. “Besides, I’m not leaving the ground within the next fifty years. Not after yesterday.” 

Jeongguk frowns, standing before him with arms crossed. “What’s wrong with the air? Correct me if I’m wrong but you said it wasn’t that bad.” 

“Yeah, it wasn’t bad before I almost died.” 

“Ahem, you were caught,” Jeongguk jabs, failing to stop the growing smile on his face.

“Being caught by you might as well be colliding with a boulder,” Taehyung mutters, brushing by him as they approach the doorway. “Are you made of rock?”

“I don’t try to be fit, you know.” Truthfully, he’s always been muscular with minimal effort, but the last few weeks of work has tempered his physique more than he thought possible. “I wouldn’t have lost focus if you didn’t say you liked my face.”

Taehyung scoffs, rolling his eyes to face the hallway. “So what if I do?”

The words taper out on Jeongguk’s tongue. He still hadn’t considered Taehyung’s attraction to be in the realm of possibility. Acting upon it is far, far beyond his comprehension.

The pair side-eye each other and glance away, their flushed faces mirrored. Taehyung looks like he’d prefer to die rather than continue. 

“Um—Taehyung.”

The mage hums without looking at him. 

“Can I uh— can I get my clothes back? Before we go?”

Silence. 

Jeongguk turns to find him chewing on his lip. His avoidance is ridiculously suspicious. 

“...Taehyung. Where are my clothes?”

“Okay, okay, alright,” Taehyung bursts, anxiously twisting the bracelets around his wrists. “ Maybe I had used magic to get us here and maybe your clothes disappeared in the process, but I promise I didn’t—didn't look or anything, okay? Wait, Jeongguk—?”

Taehyung stares down at where Jeongguk now squats into a ball, hands concealing his crimson face. 

It’s too much.

His clothes disappeared? All of them? 

“I— I have other things you can wear that are nicer,” Taehyung blurts panickedly, darting into the room across the hall. His voice is muffled as drawers open and close. “I’m sorry, okay? The magic I used to get us here apparently didn’t take clothing into account. I—I didn’t mean it.” He reemerges with a white blouse and black pants, tossing them over Jeongguk’s head. 

Their scent is distinctively Taehyung—apple crisp and honey with pinches of sugar. It makes the heated embarrassment in Jeongguk’s gut wind even tighter when he realizes he finds it unbearably appealing. 

“Come on, Jeongguk,” Taehyung pleads. “I’m sorry, alright? If it’s any consolation, I haven’t—haven’t seen many bodies before, but yours—matches your, um... face.”

Jeongguk blinks, slowly sliding the blouse from over his head. He looks up to find Taehyung with a palm pressed over his eyes and red painting the tips of his ears. 

He’s… embarrassed. 

He’s embarrassed and it’s annoyingly cute.

Jeongguk can’t help the snort that sounds from him. Between the two of them, they’re both clearly a mess, even with Taehyung’s incomprehensible compliment aside. It’s best to walk away now before they both burn up.

“Bathroom?” Jeongguk finally asks, smiling subtly when Taehyung’s hand slips away and he struggles to make eye contact. He points down the hall and Jeongguk follows, grateful to get some space between them.

He might combust into a pile of ashes otherwise. 

The small bathroom is just as charming as the spare room, all plaid curtains and wooden paneling with vines in the window. Colored rocks glisten on the windowsill.

He turns on the sink’s tap until water trickles out and the reflection in the mirror surprises him. His cheeks are beet red but still victim to an unavoidable smile, the shine in his eyes brighter than he’s seen in months. 

Being beside Taehyung…maybe it’s changing him.

“I don’t wear white,” he breathes to himself in amusement, fingers trailing over the cuffed shirt and the ribbons on its sleeves, “but I’ll do it for you, I guess.” 

When he begins to undress and realizes his underwear are on backwards, he shakes with enough laughter to forget his embarrassment in the first place.

This apprenticeship will definitely be the death of him. That, or Kim Taehyung will.











Walking all the way from the Arboretum is not something Jeongguk ever wanted to attempt, but by the time they reach Elenia’s infirmary, he plans to never do it again. Never ever again. 

Sweat drips down his back from the summer heat and his fringe curls from the humidity. He’s never had to take the winding forest path thanks to his flying abilities, but the trek on foot seems even more strenuous than using his magic. Maybe his recovery hadn’t been as quick as he thought, at least not with the way his legs now shake beneath him. 

The only redeeming part of the journey had been Taehyung’s idle chatter about local spirits. Jeongguk hasn’t met anyone else that could entertain him with talks of swamp creatures and their disgusting ooze or killer wasp spirits that apparently lurk around every corner, but for whatever reason, he could listen to the mage ramble for ages without losing interest. 

Just another thing about Kim Taehyung he has no explanation for.

“For someone who said he was fine an hour ago, you’re looking a little rough there,” Taehyung teases as they enter the infirmary lobby. “You okay?”

His tone may be playful, but Jeongguk isn’t blind to the worried glances he sends his way. His hands are held loosely by his side as if ready to catch him as he did yesterday. 

“Just... tired,” Jeongguk grunts. Taehyung’s borrowed blouse clings to his skin, the dressy material not his taste at all, but he admits it's cooler than his usual thermal sweaters. He suspects it doesn’t look half bad either, at least not with how Taehyung’s eyes lingered a little too long when he had emerged from the bathroom.

But even as concerned as his mentor is for his sake, Jeongguk can’t help but worry over Taehyung. He knows the mage can’t be parted from the Arboretum for much time, but what if he does stay out too long? 

Jeongguk presses his lips together. He doesn’t want to think about it. None of the scenarios he can think of are good. 

The many potions in Taehyung’s pack clack together as they make their way up the steps that lead to the infirmary. The expansive stone interior is circular, beds surrounded by curtains lining the walls in either direction. At the center of the space is a smaller room with a transparent glass dome arcing over its ceiling. Jimin has mentioned it’s helpful to have sun and starlight shining down on their medicines, especially the ones he imbues with his celestial power. 

The shining environment is polished and sterile, the scent of fresh lemon wafting under his nose as he follows after Taehyung into the center room. They find Seokjin and Jimin muttering over long scrolls with tired expressions, Seokjin’s squirrel familiar perched on his shoulder with its fluffy tail and webbed wings.

Jimin’s crystalline eyes meet Jeongguk’s with surprise, flicking between him and Taehyung as a knowing grin crosses his face. 

“Jeonggukie! What a surprise!”

Jeongguk grimaces at his wiggling brows. Whatever conclusion Jimin is inevitably drawing from his overnight stay is far from the truth. 

“Ah, Taehyung! It’s good to see you,” Seokjin welcomes. His gaze flashes with amusement when he spots Jeongguk. “I see you’ve brought your lovely apprentice along this time. Nice to see you again, Jeongguk.” 

Jeongguk nods quietly. A smile teases Taehyung’s lips but he remains surprisingly withdrawn, humming in confirmation without much of a word. He pulls off his pack and begins to unload the potions onto a nearby counter. 

“Missed you last night, Guk,” Jimin smirks, tapping his ink pen on the counter with a hand pressed to his cheek. “One night with Taehyung and you show up wearing white, eh? After all my years of effort just to get you to wear a different shade of underwear, this is how you repay me?”

A hot flush travels up Jeongguk’s neck as his friend cackles. 

“Shut up. I overdid it with my magic and couldn’t make it back. Taehyung, he—” he swallows, strangely overcome with embarrassment, “he was kind enough to let me stay.” 

It’s a bit unusual to discuss Taehyung with the mage in earshot. Their relationship has been exclusively between them so far, hidden among the trees and mysteries of the Arboretum. Having him present is… different. Especially after the apologies of last night. 

He doesn’t know why it always feels like revealing a secret to speak of him freely. 

“It was my fault,” Taehyung interjects quietly, finishing his unpacking and moving to stand beside him. He idles so closely their elbows brush together. “He had to help me thanks to my incompetence and I pushed him too hard.” 

Seokjin raises a brow just as a frown crosses Jeongguk’s face. He side-eyes Taehyung, gently knocking against his hip. “Don’t downplay what you did. It was a nice thing to do.” 

“You were falling apart, Jeongguk,” he retorts softly. “Anyone would have taken you in.”

“I wasn’t dying and you were just being a good person,” Jeongguk pouts. They face each other with crossed arms and amused stares. Tingles flutter like pesky moth spirits in his gut but he wills them away.

There’s a quiet cough and their faces fall as they both startle. Seokjin and Jimin look equally amused by the exchange, their sly grins particularly annoying. 

“Kim Taehyung, right?” Jimin asks amiably, crossing the space between them with a hand outstretched. “Park Jimin, Jeonggukie’s roommate. Thanks for getting his stubborn ass to wear something other than black for once. I might shed a tear seeing him like this.”

Jeongguk’s eye roll goes ignored, of course. 

Surprisingly, Taehyung is hesitant in the way he stares at Jimin’s open hand, grasping it delicately only after a long moment. Jeongguk knows Jimin notices the many bandages wrapped around his fingers, though he’s wise enough not to mention it. 

“I’ve heard a lot about you. I’m glad someone’s finally keeping Guk... busy ,” Jimin remarks, sending Taehyung a wink. 

His mentor’s face dusts with red and Jeongguk firmly decides he’s going to kill Park Jimin later. Maybe throw him from the balcony or lock him in the bathroom again. Either way, he’s dead. 

“Jeongguk’s… said… a lot about you too,” Taehyung murmurs timidly, unable to make eye contact as their hands fall away. Jeongguk watches the way his throat bobs, perplexed by his sudden shyness compared to their typical banter. They’ve always been awkward from the start, but it was never exactly quiet between them despite them being strangers. 

“Only good things, I hope,” Jimin replies warmly, shooting Jeongguk a playful glare. “If you ever need any dirt on him, I’ve got years of blackmail and access to his closet.” 

Taehyung purses his lips. He doesn’t seem to know what to make of Jimin’s joking nature, evidently weighing how much to trust him. If there’s anything Jeongguk knows about his best friend, however, it's how refreshing his kindness can be. It’s what drew Jeongguk to him when his faith in making friends had been all but destroyed. 

“I might... take you up on that,” Taehyung says softly. “I um—picked that shirt on purpose. Since he’d never choose it himself.”

Jimin beams bright enough to coax a smile to Taehyung’s face, and despite his imminent wardrobe destruction, it makes Jeongguk’s lips twitch too. The sight of his best friend and mentor together is oddly satisfying. 

“You brought quite the assortment in today, Tae,” Seokjin observes appraisingly, lifting the colored vials to the light. “I’m appreciative of your work, as always.”

Taehyung nods once, his expression becoming serious. “I tried every ingredient I could think of, including the few hybrid mixes you suggested. Having Jeongguk to help has made productivity nearly double.”

Jeongguk’s mouth opens and closes, the praise snaking through him. Busting his ass collecting all those herbs apparently wasn’t for naught. 

“Glad to hear it,” Seokjin commends, clapping Jeongguk on the shoulder. “Keep it up, Jeonggukie. Without these potions, who knows where our patients would be?” 

Jeongguk nods, cheeks burning. Aiding in solving a real problem brings him more fulfillment than any assignment he’s ever had. 

“Still no progress on a cure?” Taehyung asks carefully. 

Seokjin sighs, leaning his back against the counter. “Afraid not. We’ve been able to sedate them, but we suspect the Ire has begun to taint their physical forms just by being nearby.”

“The Ire?” Jeongguk asks curiously. 

His face falls when he receives avoidant glances in response. Seokjin tries to maintain a small smile but can’t mask the bitter lines there. 

“I’m sure Jimin has told you about the illness that’s cropped up in the area. It now extends beyond this region and spreads further every day. Spirits have been dying, and they’ve been dying in pain. We suspect a creature called the Ire is behind it.”

Jeongguk swallows dryly. The fate sounds as bad as the creature does. 

“The Ire is a twisted spirit,” Jimin continues, his eyes hardened. “A creature forced into servitude without a mutual pact whose warped energy drives it to madness. It’s usually the result of a shitty experiment done by warlocks.”

“Warlocks?” Jeongguk repeats. He wishes he weren’t so uninformed all the time.

Seokjin and Jimin exchange wary glances. Beside him, Taehyung stares pointedly at the corner of the room.

More avoidance.

“Warlocks… aren’t good people, Guk,” Jimin says darkly. “Us witches use spirit energy in equivalent exchange, encouraging it to move or transform without harming the natural cycle of things. Even our pacts with our familiars are mutual exchanges of power. They bind their life energies to our hearts, and in return, we devote ourselves to them.”

Jeongguk nods as a sick feeling rises in him. He doesn’t like where this is going.

“Warlocks don’t adhere to those rules. They can force energy to their bidding and usually torment spirits by capturing them against their will. Without the invoker’s heart in it, spirits have nothing to stabilize them. We think the Ire is one of those attempts gone wrong… very, very wrong.”

The warning of evil from Yoongi’s familiar hovers in Jeongguk’s mind. He glances at the quiet form of Taehyung and finds him understandably pale. 

It must sicken him too.

“Wild spirits who don’t become familiars devote themselves to the heart of the earth instead of the heart of a human,” Seokjin explains. “The Ire is poisoning the very life source spirits live on, and in some cases, it's straight up killing them to reap their energy at the source. Yoongi has been working day and night to track it down, but casualties are still showing up in random locations.”

“But— why?” Jeongguk questions, his tone strained. “What would it gain by coming here of all places?”

“We... don’t know,” Jimin says, running a hand through his silver hair. “We can’t even get a good look at it and it’s frustrating as hell. Joon has been running himself ragged with research and Yoongi is barely sleeping. It’s stealthy and deadly with no visible motivation.”

“It’s also starting to reach campus,” Seokjin continues. “This week alone, we’ve had two familiars brought in by their students. The Ire had attacked them at night, though thankfully we caught their injuries early enough to save their lives. The bastard is getting bolder every day and we can’t keep up.” 

Seokjin’s angry stare bores into the ground, his shoulders slumped and eyes tired. His familiar must notice his sadness as it cocks its head, affectionately nuzzling his invoker’s cheek until a gentle snort leaves him. 

Jeongguk doesn’t want to imagine the weight on Seokjin’s shoulders—his or Jimin’s. His complaints of the Arboretum seem laughable now.  

“I’d.. I’d like to see them,” Taehyung finally states, hands clenched tightly by his sides. “If I can sense their energy, I might have better ideas for treatment.”

A hint of pride surges in Jeongguk’s chest despite the heavy atmosphere. It might not solve the root of the problem, but maybe Taehyung can make a difference, especially if he can focus on potion-brewing while Jeongguk takes care of gathering. 

He wants to help in any way he can. It’s the least he can do. 

Seokjin nods solemnly, collecting some of the potions into his arms and handing a few more off to Jimin. His familiar flies off to perch by the windows. “Follow me.”

The group walks in weighty silence as they travel out the opposing door they had entered. On the other side of the infirmary’s circle is a section of far more activity, a few other witches traversing the space from bed to bed. They look as overcome with defeat as Seokjin does, their exhaustion evident in their posture. 

“It’s not an easy sight, Jeonggukie,” Jimin mutters from beside him. Taehyung still lingers in his vicinity with abnormal closeness. “I’d just… prepare yourself. I know you don’t see many injured spirits often and it can be tougher than you’d expect.” 

Jeongguk shrugs, though his throat feels tight. His curious nature would convince him to see them either way, but it’s not something he’s ever wanted to imagine. 

Seokjin leads them to a bed surrounded by a white curtain, shouldering around it before reemerging with forlorn expression. He slides it along the overhead rails to reveal a falcon spirit, its plume of feathers like that of a peacock. It lays lifeless with its beak opened and its wings splayed in an awkward position. Along its lower body are shadowed lesions that emanate pure horror.

The grim sight makes Jeongguk feel ill. 

“It’s gotten worse,” Taehyung observes in a choked voice, approaching its side to run a gentle finger over its head. “Worse than last week.”

Seokjin nods tightly and Jimin pointedly looks away, arms crossed where he stares at the rows of beds surrounding them. “The longer this goes on, the harder it is to stop the progression. We’ve been taking overnight shifts and working with every department to make the injured as comfortable as possible, but some are unresponsive to everything. They’re suffering.”

Jeongguk doesn’t need them to confirm the anguish he senses. Every moment near the creature intensifies the dark around him, a dull sound ringing in his ears. He shakes his head to rid himself of it. 

Maybe he really is still in recovery. He might need to sit down.

“We could try bitterweed or entropy leaf,” Taehyung mutters to Seokjin, the pair falling into discussion with low voices. They lose themselves in their conversation as Jimin strolls to a nearby bed to check on another patient. 

Though Jeongguk remains quiet, the commotion in his mind only grows. The disruptive noise rattles around, increasing in volume until it becomes a screech. Wails scrape against his consciousness like stone dragged on steel and glances around in panic searching for the source, shock filling him when he realizes it stems from the bed before him. 

It’s the spirit. 

Fuck . The sensation is sickening enough for the room to spin. He squats down and curls in on himself, hands cupped tightly over his ears as he squeezes his eyes shut. 

“Jeongguk? Jeongguk!”

He gasps in pain, doubling over.

It’s calling him.

The spirit is lamenting its loss of life, crying out with a voice only he hears. Captive within its own mind, the bird batters its bloody wings against the cage of warped energy that imprisons it. The prolonged torture makes Jeongguk want to tear his heart out. 

It needs help. He needs to set it free, to open the cage and let it take to the sky. He needs to do something—

Knees bump his own as urgent words of comfort are muttered between them. Fingers delicately brush his fringe away from his face and he opens his eyes fully expecting to find Jimin hovering over him. 

Instead, he sees the distressed face of Taehyung. His eyes glisten with worry as they dart over his features, Seokjin and Jimin wearing equally concerned looks behind him.

“What’s wrong, Jeongguk?” Taehyung asks softly, grasping his hands when he lowers them.

“I… I—” He can’t speak, the words caught in the burn of his throat. He trembles as the aura threatens to suffocate him, but Taehyung’s stable presence keeps him afloat. 

“It’s the spirit, isn’t it?” Taehyung asks quietly, squeezing his fingers. 

Jeongguk clings to his grip like a lifeline. He nods once, wincing as another wave of suffering washes over him. 

“Is your magic telling you to help them?” 

The guess is surprisingly accurate and Jeongguk takes comfort in Taehyung's attentiveness. He may worry over him, but even at his worst, his mentor takes him seriously. Being treated as an equal is still new and gratifying. 

“Yes but… I don't—know how,” he grits. “They’re stuck— trapped here. They want to move on but—can’t.” 

The bodies around him shift in discomfort. 

“Sometimes... our magic responds to what needs us,” Taehyung observes carefully. “It might be encouraging you to heal them.”

Jeongguk wishes it were true, but the statement still feels wrong. The spirit seems long beyond returning to the living world. Only one fate awaits it, one that’s being denied by the Ire.

“Death,” he grits, “—it’s death. It needs release.” 

Taehyung’s lips press together as he looks over Jeongguk with pointed worry. He glances over his shoulder at Jimin and Seokjin. 

“Let’s give Jeongguk a chance to act upon what his magic’s telling him. Clearly, he’s feeling something we’re not and I think it’d be wise to at least let him try.” 

Jimin tenses but doesn’t protest. Beside him, Seokjin seems to weigh Taehyung’s request warily. 

“...Alright,” he eventually concedes. “You’re his mentor. If he’s up to it, I trust your judgment.”

Taehyung turns to him again, the grasp of his hand tightening. “If you want to try, I’ll help you. Only if you’re certain whatever your magic attempts to do won’t harm you.”

Truthfully, Jeongguk isn’t sure what his magic wants. He can only picture himself ripping open the door to the bird’s cage and tearing away the bars with all his strength. 

“I’d like to try,” he breathes shakily.

Taehyung nods expectantly. He helps Jeongguk to his feet, holding him steady as he wobbles to the bedside. 

When Taehyung tries to gently withdraw his hand, Jeongguk‘s grasp only tightens. He needs the tether to reality if he’s to delve into his magic with abandon. He’s determined to do this… whatever this is, but having a calming presence like Taehyung’s beside him might make all the difference. 

A long exhale flows from him as his eyes flutter shut. His awareness of the world vaguely remains as he reaches out for the spirit, but his surroundings quickly grow dark and oppressive as his senses are submerged in the spirit’s consciousness. 

An oversized iron cage melts into view from the blackness and reveals the colored bird that trembles within. At the sight of him, it cries out in fear, but Jeongguk lays his heart bare. 

I heard your cries, Jeongguk reassures hurriedly. If you’ll allow me to help, I’ll try to free you. I’m not here to harm you.

To his immense relief, the spirit visibly relaxes. It’s wings go limp, bloodied feathers littering the floor and the bottom of its cage. Jeongguk uses the opportunity to get closer, ignoring the way his stomach churns at the sight. 

His hands extend to gingerly wrap around the metal bars, but when they make contact, his fingers pass through as if swiping through thin air. He lowers his palm to stare down at it in confusion. 

It’s not a real cage. At least not one he can simply dismantle.

So much for busting it open with brute force.

The bird whines helplessly and the sound pains Jeongguk’s heart. He thinks hard enough for his head to spin, teeth drawing blood from his aching lower lip. Every second spent communicating with the spirit drains his already limited magic and he knows he doesn’t have much time. 

The afflicted spirits are fearful of the Ire, that much is certain. Jeongguk thinks over the Ire and its anger, how it preys on connections to the heart. It holds energy captive and binds it. 

The image strikes a familiar chord in him, eerily reminiscent of his recent nightmares. 

You’re... literally trapped by the fears in your heart, Jeongguk states as the realization comes to him. The cage isn’t a material form but a vision of what the bird dreads most: the loss of freedom. 

Sadness and sympathy sweep through Jeongguk’s heart. He runs his fingertips comfortingly over the bird's feathered wings, recalling the hands that had bound his wrists in his own corrupted dreams. In his nightmare, he had cried out in desperate hope that anyone would hear him. All he had wanted to do was to take to the sky. 

If he can be the saving light for at least one spirit, it would be enough for him.

I’ll guide you there, Jeongguk soothes kindly. I can help you break free if you follow my lead. Let me help shoulder your burden. 

He’s not sure why the words flow from him as they do, but the cost of magic is too great for him to question it now. He’s certain he can make the creature understand if it reads his heart. He has nothing to hide.

The progress is agonizingly slow, but the bird’s eyes eventually blink open. It pours its fears onto Jeongguk’s shoulders and he gasps as they cascade over him like a torrent of rain, the frigid sorrow drawing a choked sob from him. It’s difficult to endure but he withstands the pain and mourning as if his own.

The spirit crawls forward into his outstretched arms and passes uninhibited through the mirage of the cage. Jeongguk clutches the creature tightly against his chest, his heart beating with a steady rhythm that sounds like the flap of wings. 

I’m sorry, he laments, his tears beading over its colored feathers. I’m so sorry. 

He comforts the bird until its trembling stops and the screech within his mind eases into a sad coo. His tears slowly dry and the quiet that follows is jarring, but Jeongguk thinks only of flight and the rustle of trees. He thinks of the purity of soaring through the open air, ascending into unfiltered sunlight with nothing but their love for the sky and the wings on their backs. He feels the chill of the breeze and patter of the rain on his cheeks, envisioning the sparkle of dew seen from above on crisp mornings and the flaming sunsets that deliver him home. 

There’s nothing to fear, Jeongguk consoles. He carries the bird until it takes its last breath, his surroundings warping and changing.

Then, they face what lies beyond—a brilliant, open sky. 

To his surprise, the vision that melts into view around him is almost tempting, an escape from the nightmares that continue to torment him. The taste of freedom is immediately addictive and Jeongguk feels his heart catch at the glint of the sun. It makes his own spirit long for flight. 

Perhaps it wouldn’t be unreasonable to venture there too, if only for a moment. 

He inches closer into the realm of the sky and the bird’s bloodied feathers begin to wipe clean, its strength gradually returning. It affectionately brushes Jeongguk’s cheek before flaring its wings, leaving a spark of energy behind that vanishes with a puff. 

Jeongguk watches in awe as it ascends. The longing that pangs his chest feels like heartache.

Maybe… maybe he wants to follow it. 

The thought of abandoning everything flits through him and settles somewhere neutral. What’s so wrong about leaving behind a life bogged down by limitations and hardship? If he doesn’t go now, he’ll be left behind, bound and trapped forever. He’s spent so long tied down waiting for this moment.

He looks out over the horizon, seeing that a sparkling land of lavish growth awaits him. Sparkling streams and fields of waving grass, lotus blooming among twisting wisteria trees. It’s calling him home.

He needs to follow. 

Wait, Jeongguk panics, his mind whirling. His feet carry him through the air but his surroundings remain stagnant. Wait, don’t go, I— I want to join you, wait—!

—guk !”

His chest heaves, feet stumbling over the other. Every muscle shakes with a desire to reach the land beyond. If only a little further—

Jeongguk !”

The sky around Jeongguk cracks loudly as it shatters. The hand cupped around his own squeezes so tight that he’s ripped back to earth, falling through the air with flailing limbs and shards of sky clanging around him. He falls with his heart racing, the ground growing closer and closer. The grass is within reach and he knows without a doubt that he’ll die if he hits it. 

It’s close, so close he can feel his body slamming against it—

“Jeongguk, look at me!”

A harsh gasp rips from his throat as his eyes snap open, a cough bubbling in his chest and sputtering into the air. His body still shakes from the impact.

The ground, he had hit the ground—

“Breathe, Jeongguk,” Seokjin urges, wiping a cool cloth over his face. “You got caught up in your magic and dove too deeply.”

Seokjin’s voice sounds submerged underwater but Jeongguk clings to it like he does Taehyung’s hand. His mentor’s face swims in his vision just as he feels himself begin to sag. Several pairs of arms and shoulders catch him before he collapses, working to keep him upright. 

He hears their words, but the sky—he had been so close. He wants to return so much that it hurts—

“Come back to us. You need to sever your connection with the spirit’s Tranquil state. Looking into a spirit’s heart is costly.” 

Jeongguk blinks at the sound of another voice. It washes over him like warm sunlight.

Taehyung. His tone is choked with fear and Jeongguk decides he doesn’t like the sound of him when he’s scared. He’s laid back onto a cushioned bed, resting gently onto the pillow behind his head. The hand around his own doesn’t let up.

“Come back, Jeongguk. I can’t have my apprentice falling apart on me, remember? I only get one.”

Jeongguk’s lips twitch nonsensically. That’s right—in the living realm, he’s Taehyung’s apprentice. His only apprentice. He can’t fly away now when Taehyung still needs his help with the Arboretum. There’s too much at stake for him to leave.

…What was he thinking?

His eyes squint open, exhaustion permeating every bone. Taehyung hovers over him with dark curls shadowing his face. He wears a crumpled expression that brings reality crashing down over Jeongguk just as the sky had.

What was he thinking? 

Jeongguk’s heart begins to race. He had almost made a huge mistake—had almost thrown his life away and followed a spirit into some sort of afterlife. How could he have even considered it? 

“You invoked death affinity magic,” Jimin explains softly. He sits at the foot of his bed, a hand pressed comfortingly over his knee. “It was some of the most potent I’ve ever felt. Have you always felt so connected to death magic?”

Jeongguk’s swallow won’t go down as he shakes his head in denial. He’s tapped into it a few times, but never to this degree.

“Magic can become stronger in dire situations,” Seokjin remarks solemnly. “Jeongguk is probably the only one of us who can invoke death magic like that. The spirit sensed his ability and its cries for help reached him.”

The bird. Jeongguk had forgotten. The room is still a blur, but he can still make out the curtain where the bird had been. No sound stirs from within. 

He turns his questioning gaze to Taehyung.

“It’s… at peace now,” his mentor whispers soothingly, his thumb trailing over his knuckles. “You did well.” 

The praise heats his cheeks as much as the tender gesture does. Jeongguk soaks up the feeling and tucks it away among his reasons to live. 

“There are a few witches and Academy members with minor connections to death affinity on campus,” Seokjin states, flipping through a stack of paper in his hands. “We can see if they’ll lend us some help. It might not be as effective as Jeonggukie, but any aid counts.”

Jimin nods, murmuring a few helpful tidbits about the abilities of former classmates, but Jeongguk can’t manage to keep his eyes off of Taehyung. The mage must feel the same, his worried stare flicking over his face. 

“Was… was it scary?” Taehyung asks gently. His shoulders are tense, his other hand clenched in his lap as if struggling to not reach out. 

The sincerity in his question comforts Jeongguk. He’s not used to having someone read him this well.

“It was… the opposite,” Jeongguk replies slowly, his voice hoarse. “I didn’t want to leave. The sky and the clouds were… freeing. Like the feeling of flying but better. And there was a garden.”

Just speaking of it makes Jeongguk long to return, though the thought of the spirit’s suffering is still so disturbing that it outweighs the freedom he had felt. 

Heavy emotion clouds Taehyung’s eyes. He gently disentangles their hands, Jeongguk’s grip leaving a shadow of crimson behind. 

“I’m glad you came back.”

The words are faint enough that only Jeongguk can hear them. He tries to read Taehyung’s expression but his face remains downturned, the shadow cast by his curls hiding his eyes. He seems distressed and tired, burdened with words unsaid.

Jeongguk decides he doesn’t just dislike Taehyung’s somber face—he loathes it. It’s even worse when he’s the reason behind it. 

It makes him determined to mend it. 

“Will—will I be on weeding duty now for going overboard?” Jeongguk jokes weakly, strangely eager to see the smile he knows Taehyung will wear. 

The mage stirs in surprise, his eyes finally flicking upward. They shine with surprise before softening.

“Maybe just a day or two,” he replies gently. 

Even his tiny smile is tender enough to make Jeongguk’s breath hitch. If he could bottle the way Taehyung wears his happiness, he’s convinced it could heal the Ire. It’d probably help patch him up, too.

Tiredness slowly begins to weigh on him and he starts to doze off as Jimin asks Taehyung how they’re getting back. There’s a hazy discussion of them taking Zira to the Arboretum, but Jeongguk mostly tunes it out. He’s content just to listen to the steadying voices of his friends, particularly Taehyung’s low, rich tone that sounds like warm blankets and sleepy mornings. 

The dull realization that he actually likes to be beside Taehyung floats through him, enough that he regrets considering the afterlife for even a moment. He couldn’t make him laugh from the afterlife, and his laugh is something Jeongguk hasn’t heard enough of yet. Taehyung still needs someone to patch up his hands and catch him when he falls. He needs company at the Arboretum.

I only need you, Jeongguk. Just you.

“Glad I came back,” he mumbles thickly. His eyelids droop closed, cheek sinking into the pillow. 

Bandaged fingers slip between Jeongguk’s own again, squeezing with gentle pressure. A soft smile teases his lips before he falls into a blessedly dreamless sleep. 









The wind tangles his hair, the grip around his waist like a vice as they emerge from a cloud. Taehyung buries his face in his back and Jeongguk tries to ignore the way his heart clenches at their closeness. He tilts his head over his shoulder, snorting at the disgruntled pout that greets him.

Maybe he’s enjoying this a little too much. 

“How the hell do you people put up with this?” Taehyung whines over the roar of the wind. Zira’s wings flap loudly in the air, the iridescent panels of the Arboretum growing closer as they descend. “I can’t look down without seeing myself falling.”

“It’s about trusting in your spirit,” Jimin replies amusedly. He sits in front of Jeongguk along Zira’s shoulders with Taehyung at the rear. Jeongguk is immensely grateful the familiar is strong enough to carry them all, affectionately patting her feathered hide in thanks. 

“Even for witches like Jeonggukie who fly by themselves, you have to believe your magic will carry you. The second you lose focus, it can cut off. I trust Zira with my life,” Jimin explains.

The gryphon caws happily in response. 

Despite the relief of being in the air, Jeongguk still feels shaky and his exhaustion is stronger than ever. It had taken at least an hour of sleep before he had been able to stand and several glasses of water before he could walk to the nearest courtyard. According to Jimin, Taehyung had insisted on remaining by his side instead of returning to the Arboretum ahead of them, even after Seokjin had pulled him aside to scold him. 

Jeongguk’s frowns as his heart squeezes in his chest. Knowing Taehyung had watched over him makes him feel spoiled, but it’s been hours since they left the Arboretum. Taehyung now looks paler and more nervous than Jeongguk has ever seen him. 

What would have happened if he hadn’t woken up sooner?

The closer they travel to the gardens, the more Taehyung seems to relax against him, his breaths long and deep. Jeongguk surprisingly finds himself reacting similarly, the heavy spirit energy is like a dose of medicine to his weakened body.

Jimin, on the other hand, appears tense as they land at the vine-covered entryway, the leaves and debris kicking up into the air. He expertly hops off Zira’s back and helps Taehyung down, assuring the mage has steady footing before allowing him to walk on his own. 

Jeongguk wishes he could do more, but he knows one step off of Zira will end up with his ass in the dirt. Even staying awake right now is a challenge. 

“I’m fine now,” Taehyung reassures Jimin, gratefully waving him off. “It’s Jeongguk that needs attention. Don’t let his stubborn ass get out of bed for at least a day.” 

“Um, hello?” Jeongguk deadpans. “I’m right here.”

“As I was saying,” Taehyung continues without a glance, fighting a half smile, “don’t let him leave until at least Monday. Threaten his life if you have to.” 

“Your charge is safe with me. I’m an expert in Jeon Jeongguk torture,” Jimin winks. Taehyung sends him a mischievous smile and Jeongguk sighs exaggeratedly. 

Maybe introducing them wasn’t the greatest idea after all. 

A quiet falls over them as Jimin steps aside to calm Zira, running hands over her black wings and soothing her anxiousness from being so close to the Arboretum. Jeongguk sees Taehyung’s eyes soften when they meet, glittering like gemstones in the afternoon sun. 

“Seriously, Jeongguk, take the time to rest and recover. You’ve pushed yourself too hard and it’ll only get worse if you don’t.”

“Only if you promise to relax too,” Jeongguk retorts firmly. He knows Taehyung is going to stress while he’s gone to make up for the missed work and he won’t be around to rescue him this time. 

Taehyung scoffs. “You’re not in much of a position to be giving orders, you know.” 

“Says the one currently on the ground.”

They glare playfully at one another, mirroring each other's smiles seconds later. Even with the darkness of earlier still lurking in his mind, Jeongguk can’t help but feel fond.

It’s a feeling that’s exclusive to Taehyung.

“Ah, wait,” Taehyung startles. He fishes through his pack and withdraws a sparkling glass vial of clear liquid, approaching Zira’s side to hand it upward. Jeongguk takes it gingerly, their fingers brushing for several noticeably-long moments.

Neither of them pull away.

“For… for the nightmares,” he says shyly. “I can’t give you much because it’ll become addictive, but it should let you sleep the day away tomorrow so you can recover sooner.” 

Warmth heats Jeongguk’s cheeks. It’s more attention than he deserves. Even the borrowed clothes he wears are because of Taehyung.

“Thank you,” he murmurs sincerely. “You really didn’t have to do all this for me. Staying out this long and helping me last night and now this.”

“You’re my priority, Jeongguk,” Taehyung answers softly. “I only have one apprentice.”

It’s embarrassing how elated the statement makes Jeongguk feel. When Taehyung finally moves to lower his arm, he catches his hand before he can think. 

“You’ll— you’ll stay out of trouble while I’m gone, right?” Jeongguk asks. He doesn’t bother to stop himself when his thumb swipes over Taehyung’s bandaged knuckles, soaking up the contentment their contact brings him. 

Taehyung grins, eyeing him knowingly through his curled fringe. “Not likely.” 

Jeongguk snorts. As if he would expect anything less. 

“Alright, wrap it up,” Jimin smirks, leaping onto Zira’s back once again. “Not sure how you guys can stomach the energy here but we can’t stick around for long.” 

Jeongguk jolts as Zira eagerly flares her wings and shakes her head. Taehyung’s fingers slip from his hand and he immediately finds himself missing the feeling. 

“See you,” Jeongguk calls as they lift off into the sky. Taehyung smiles gently and waves in response, his form growing smaller as they climb higher. They take off with a burst of speed and he watches his mentor over his shoulder until the Arboretum is swallowed by surrounding trees. 

Stay safe.

With a tired sigh, Jeongguk grasps onto the hood of Jimin’s cloak and thuds his head against his back. He doesn’t know why he suddenly feels empty. Abandoning his mentor for a day or two shouldn’t be anything difficult.

“So…” Jimin teases, “Kim Taehyung, eh?”

He wants a rise out of him, but Jeongguk can’t bring himself to play along. There are so many tangled feelings in him that he barely remembers how to breathe. 

“He seemed really concerned for you at the infirmary,” Jimin continues. “And an overnight stay where you come home in his clothes?” He whistles playfully. 

Jimin ,” Jeongguk whines, his tone unusually pathetic. His best friend twists in his seat to eye him with concern. Jeongguk’s throat bobs as he struggles to say it, head pressing into the darkness of his cloak.

“He said— he... likes my face.” 

Jimin tenses and even the surrounding wind seems to grow quiet. Several moments pass in silence before he bursts out laughing, leaning forward against Zira to hold himself upright. Even the gryphon rumbles happily.

“Oh, Jeonggukie,” Jimin grins, shaking his head, “I think he likes more than just your face.” 

Jeongguk would feel better if he could burn up into the atmosphere. A muffled groan leaves him as his heart squeezes in his chest. 

“Am—am I screwed if I sort of like his too?”

His friend’s answering cackle echoes out over the trees, the body he clings to shaking with laughter all the way home. 

Jeongguk grimaces at the blue sky above. 

Definitely screwed. 










“I read all twenty editions while you were gone, twice through actually. Don’t kill me for saying this, but the lead is a total prick. I can’t believe he’d just throw his love away, and for what? The kingdom? After all they worked for?!”

Jeongguk hums in quiet acknowledgement, counting over the stems in his lap before putting them aside with the rest. He and Taehyung sit atop one of the makeshift wooden lifts that juts out over the Arboretum’s largest lake, their legs dangling over the side. His hands ache from sifting through thorny vines all day and his back is ready to give out from gathering herbs for Taehyung’s potions. 

After the miserably boring week it took him to fully recover, the amount of work that’s piled up is overwhelming. He hadn’t realized just how much they accomplish during one day at the Arboretum. 

But compared to the state of his mind, pricked fingers and achy muscles are the least of his problems. 

The feeling of death still clings to Jeongguk like a shadow. More than once, he’s found himself slipping into vivid daydreams of the afterlife or recalling the bird’s last breath in his arms. The darkness behind his closed eyes is wrought with metal bars and bloodied feathers.

He can’t get it out of his head.

Taehyung still rambles about reading and Jeongguk nods without making eye contact. His shoulders curl inward, neck angled so his fringe hangs over his eyes. He can’t bring himself to hold his head high with the weight of mortality on his back. 

He would normally be ecstatic that Taehyung is investing himself in reading; it brings him relief to know the mage is finally practicing self-care. His presence and the sound of his voice are comforting, but Jeongguk is hesitant to kill the mood with talks of death and fear. Every day since his return, they’ve somehow found time to sit close and talk casually, and every day, Jeongguk buries the thoughts that plague him so that they’ll continue their talks tomorrow.

He’s not sure how he’d cope if they stop.

“—guk?”

Numbers fly though his head as he counts the rose stems again and tries to lose himself in his mess of work. Occasionally, he’s been able to shake the feeling of dread that’s come with using death affinity magic, but it always crawls back to fill his chest with cold. Even now, his lungs feel like they ice over with every breath.

“—eongguk—“

The week spent away was harder than he had anticipated, but not because he could barely move or eat unaided. Even after recovering physically, Jeongguk still felt restless and unfulfilled, obsessing over death to the point of breaking down. He hadn’t realized how much he’s come to appreciate caring for the Arboretum or the distraction it provides from his failures.

He also hadn’t thought it was possible to think about Kim Taehyung and his damn eyes so much.

“Jeongguk!”

The sharp voice sounds from directly beside him. He turns to find Taehyung’s concerned face just inches away, close enough that he can spot the mole on his cheek and count each of his eyelashes. 

He tries to swallow and fails, words flashing through his mind before he can stop them. 

I think I missed you. 

“Do you even know what you’re doing? Look at yourself,” Taehyung says worriedly, gripping his hand and lifting it between them. Blood beads at the tip of his index finger, glimmering in the sunlight. 

He even hadn’t noticed he pricked himself. 

Jeongguk is nonresponsive and Taehyung sighs, resting his hand in his lap. He swipes the blood away and thumbs over the lines of his palm. “Talk to me, Jeongguk. You’ve said about five words to me this week and I know it’s because something is bothering you.” 

Air leaves Jeongguk in a rush and his lips press together tightly. He doesn’t know why Taehyung’s touch thaws the glacier in his chest or why his attention makes him feel choked up. It makes it all the more difficult to put his fears into words. 

“There’s… a lot on my mind,” he gulps.

“I can tell,” Taehyung snorts softly. “You have every right to feel overwhelmed. When I told you to heal, I didn’t just mean your body. Your mind and heart are just as important after experiencing that kind of magic.”

The magic is one thing, but Jeongguk can’t decide if the way Taehyung caresses his palm is bad or good for his heart. 

“Sorry, I just—” he licks over his lips, “I don’t like burdening other people.”

Taehyung side-eyes him with a raised brow. “You’d never burden me with anything, Jeongguk. I’m your mentor, remember? Let me try to actually mentor you for once. I might not be the most experienced in giving advice, but I’ll listen as long as you need.”

Ripples from raining petals pass over the lake below their dangling feet. Jeongguk watches each ridge taper out against the shore before he has the gall to finally speak. 

“When I helped the spirit pass on, it showed me what the afterlife looks like,” he starts. “I’m sure it’s not the same for everyone, but what I saw was... freedom. Open sky and—and the sun with gardens and trees. I saw things about the world that I love without any of the bad. There’s… always been a lot of bad.”

He pauses to take a shaky breath and Taehyung shifts a little closer, laying his hand and Jeongguk’s flat on the wood between them. He slips his fingers between his knuckles and stares out silently over the water. 

Jeongguk should be flustered by the affectionate gesture, but he can’t bring himself to overreact. He wants the grounding feeling—the comfort and safety in it. The wordless support gives him the courage he needs to continue. 

“Sometimes I feel… I don’t know. Trapped. Stuck in the body of someone inadequate. When I fly, I can forget about my limitations and the things that weigh me down. I can finally be the person I’ve dreamt of always being.” 

He’s rambling now, but the words tumble out even as Taehyung’s hold on his hand tightens. 

“When—when I saw the afterlife, it was the freedom from the things I don’t like about myself that tempted me. I felt like what I had always wanted was finally accessible. But the worst part was the guilt that came after.”

Taehyung glances at him in surprise. “Guilt?”

Jeongguk nods, watching the colors of the sunset bleed through the overhead glass. “There are things I would be dumb to leave behind. Things that I’ve worked for and things that are meaningful to me. I actually love being a part of this world, but I can’t stop wondering if I chose correctly. It— it feels like it’s tearing me in half.” 

He doesn’t know how to put it into words that Taehyung has quickly become one of those things. Instead, he simply squeezes his hand. 

The silence that follows is heavy, but the pressure in Jeongguk’s chest eases just a little from voicing his fears. He feels like he can entrust them to Taehyung.

They watch as squallows dart through the air and leopard badgers poke their heads from the ground, returning to their homes or emerging to hunt before twilight falls. The subtle signs of life are another thing Jeongguk finds comforting about the Arboretum.

They’re small, mundane things that make life worth living, like the feeling of Taehyung’s hand or the sound of his laugh. 

“For what it’s worth,” Taehyung finally murmurs, “I don’t see you as inadequate. Any limitations you’ve faced have made you stronger than you think. The way you handle adversity is really admirable, much better than anything I could do.” 

Taehyung doesn’t look at him and Jeongguk doesn’t think he could handle it if he did. The words are meaningful and unlike anything he’s ever thought about himself. He has trouble accepting the truth in them. 

“I… also feel trapped. Surprise, surprise,” Taehyung jokes somberly, swinging his feet. “But during my time here, I’ve found purpose in my circumstances. Things like befriending the spirits or making potions for Jin are what I can do with the hand I’ve been dealt. It’s surprisingly freeing to make a difference with my own power, even if the results are small.”

The implication of their missing familiars is glaringly obvious, but if he won’t mention it, Jeongguk won’t either. Taehyung still seems hesitant to reveal that piece of his past and Jeongguk isn’t inclined to push him there. 

He can, however, say what’s been on his mind for weeks now.

“You— you work really hard, Taehyung. Harder than anyone I know. You deserve better from this world.” 

Jeongguk says the last quip without meaning to, but with the words in the air and Taehyung’s subtle intake of breath among them, he runs with it.

“Even if I haven’t found a reason to be proud of myself yet, I’m still really proud of you,” he blurts nervously. “I might be a failure with how much I suck at growing my plant, but I’m still proud to call you my mentor. I’m grateful I ended up as your apprentice just because I like spending time with you.”

Jeongguk’s heart beats hard behind his ribs and it’s several breaths before he’s brave enough to steal a glance at Taehyung. He finds the mage staring back with glistening eyes and a lip held by his teeth, the hue of the setting sun dashing red across his cheeks. The highlight of his tanned skin makes Jeongguk want to reach out and confirm he’s truly real, his free hand twitching by his side. 

He told Taehyung he had been sick of running and he meant it. Even now, he doesn’t want to run from himself. If he’s to make the most of the life he’s chosen to live, he’ll start by following his heart. 

Fire whatever reason, his stubborn heart keeps leading back to Taehyung.

Taehyung’s eyes follow the motion of his rising hand, fluttering shut when Jeongguk’s knuckle gently passes over the ray of sun. His warmed skin is strikingly soft and Jeongguk splays his fingers out to cup his cheek, his breath catching when Taehyung leans into it without hesitation.

Maybe he did end up in the afterlife. He doesn’t think the real world would be kind enough to reward him with someone as attractive and genuine as Taehyung as a mentor.

Fingers brush over his cupped hand and a shy smile teases Taehyung’s face. Jeongguk is learning that anytime Taehyung reveals his teeth, he can’t help but do the same. Even with the shadow of death lurking in the corners of his mind, his happiness is the most infectious thing Jeongguk’s ever encountered. 

“Would it be off base to say you like my face too?” Taehyung whispers warmly, sealing Jeongguk’s hand to his cheek. The bracelets on his wrist slip down and reveal the red band they share. 

Jeongguk’s nose scrunches and his thumb swipes across his skin again. “It’s not bad to look at, but maybe not as much as you like mine,” he teases.

Taehyung pouts playfully, a soft giggle leaving him that Jeongguk realizes he desperately wants to capture and sew into his heart. If he could live in the contentment Taehyung’s presence gives him, he doesn’t think the afterlife would look so appealing anymore.

Even without a familiar, Jeongguk has never felt as close to being whole as he does now.

But among the sound of Taehyung’s laugh, he hears a scream that rips the joy from the air and cracks through him like the shatter of glass. The pair of them freeze, glancing upward as the last of the sunset is clouded by an aura of darkness. Like the motion of smoke, it curls up and over the panes and plunges their surroundings into starless evening. 

Jeongguk stomach twists. It isn’t a natural twilight. 

“What the hell—?”

As Taehyung pulls away to look over his shoulder, a piercing shriek rips through Jeongguk’s mind. He gasps at the suffering within it, though it isn’t like the one he had heard in the infirmary. 

It’s a shriek from something living, something he would recognize anywhere… and it’s coming from the direction of the plume of darkness. 

Shit ,” he curses, pure terror filling him when he recognizes the call. He staggers to his feet, stumbling toward the source. “I have to go, I have to—”

“Wait, Jeongguk!” Taehyung calls panickedly, following him along the creaking wooden planks. “You can’t just rush after it! Don’t be ridiculous.”

“I have to,” he replies desperately, his eyes wild and heart racing. “Zira— I— I hear her. Something is attacking her and Jimin.” Nausea churns within him as he struggles for air. “They’re in danger— I have to find them!”

He can’t hesitate. There’s no time—

“Jeongguk, wait!” Taehyung insists, grabbing his hand just before he lifts into the air. “You know the Ire is dangerous and I can’t—” he swallows, eyes shining with regret, “I can’t go with you to protect you. Please, just—think this over. I don’t want you hurt.”

Hurt lances the center of Jeongguk’s chest. “I… I can’t leave them, Taehyung. I know you’re worried for me but I won’t turn my back on them. I can take care of myself.”

There’s a distant rumble as more darkness spews into the distance. Another cry for aid reverberates through Jeongguk and even Taehyung winces, catching the sound with his sensitivity to spirit energy. 

He can’t waste another second.

“I’m sorry,” Jeongguk chokes, squeezing his hand. The hopeless expression Taehyung sends him might as well rip his heart out. “I have to go. Just— stay here and watch over things.” 

He knows Taehyung shouldn’t leave the Arboretum and it’s fortunate he doesn’t try to catch him from the air. Taehyung grasps at his hand as he lifts away but Jeongguk wiggles free, his magic carrying him effortlessly off the platform. 

“Wait— Jeongguk!”

Jeongguk whispers apology after apology to Taehyung as he turns away. He rushes through the air for the side door and rips it open, coughing at the malicious aura that blasts him. Dread clings heavy to the air and it’s obvious what lies in the woods ahead.

The Ire is close.

He doesn’t give a damn if it’s the Ire or not, not when Jimin and Zira are at risk. Anything that threatens his friends is an enemy he’ll face head-on. He’s not sure his power will be enough to hold it off, but the details can come later. 

He takes to the sky, leaving the Arboretum and Taehyung behind. 

“I’ll be back,” he whispers, willing himself to believe his own words. “I promise.” 










A roar echoes over the trees as Jeongguk flies through the air at a breakneck speed. Wind stings his cheeks and his body shakes with adrenaline as another cry sounds, this time from the ground below.

An ancient tree rises above the others, branches dripping with vines and trails of glowing flowers. Flocks of wild spirits flee into the air from the commotion, some narrowly missing Jeongguk’s head. He can barely make out the shifting shapes through the dark atmosphere, but the sound of a scream is all he needs to identify who it belongs to. 

Jimin. 

“Zira!” Jimin shouts.

Off to the side, Jeongguk’s spots him sunk to his knees and cradling his limp, bleeding arm. He races to his side with his heart in his throat, eyes raking over his shaking best friend and the brawl taking place before them. 

The Ire is more horrific than he could’ve imagined. 

It’s abominable in looks, hooked claws flailing about and tendrils of inky, dripping blackness protruding from its curved back. Its head is that of a wolf skull with embedded soulless pupils, body phasing out into a spectral shadow where its hind legs should be. The anger it emanates is thick with suffering and loss, so sickening that Jeongguk nearly doubles over to retch.

“Jeongguk?!” Jimin exclaims, his voice raw and gritted. Tears streak down his dirtied cheeks and blood trickles from his lip. A strewn pack of picked herbs is scattered throughout the torn grass that he most likely had been gathering. 

“What’s going on?” Jeongguk asks panickedly. 

“We were trying to get some moonflowers from the Eldertree for treatment but— it showed up with no warning, even with Joon’s concealment charms,” Jimin grits. “Zira— she’s trying to protect me—”

He staggers as Zira cries out in pain, her shrill cry sounding for miles. Jeongguk knows well that the familiar is incredibly powerful in strength, but her air magic isn’t meant for combat. 

She dodges the Ire expertly in the sky, rolling from side to side as it darts at her with inhuman speed. Pools of shadow form from its tendrils and gore drips from its maw. For every scratch of Zira’s massive claws, the creature tears at her pristine feathers and saturates her hide in darkness. 

There’s a bit of damage to the Ire, but it’s no stalemate. She can’t keep this up for long. 

“I— I have to do something,” Jeongguk states, fists shaking by his sides.

“What?” Jimin hisses. “Are you insane? That thing will obliterate you. I know you’re strong, Guk, but— agh —”

Worry climbs like acid up Jeongguk’s throat at the sound of his friend’s anguish. The gash along his forearm is gruesome and it’s obvious from one glance that it needs to be treated as soon as possible. 

They need to escape, and they need to do it quickly. 

“I’m going to distract it,” Jeongguk breathes in a low voice, “and you’re going to run.” 

Jimin‘s jaw tightens. “You’re out of your fucking mind if you think I’m leaving you here to die, Jeon Jeongguk. Your boyfriend will murder me if I let you get injured.”

Jeongguk’s eyes widen as his head whips around. 

“What…?” 

Does he mean Taehyung? 

They stare one another down, eyes ripping away when they hear a sorrowful cry from Zira. A shadowy talon sinks into her flank and tears at her muscle, her back leg going limp from the wound. The Ire takes advantage of her loss of balance and sinks its fangs of bone into her inner wing. It shakes its head despite slashes of her front paws, ignoring the damage to its body as though immune to physical injury. 

“No!” Jimin shouts. They watch in horror as the gryphon staggers and dips through the air. She makes a last stand by sending a hurricane-force wind at the creature, uprooting trees and blasting it away before she crashes to the ground in a heap. 

The cry from Jimin is one of pure agony. 

They rush to the familiar’s side, her unconscious form rising and falling with labored breaths. Jimin sobs with their heads pressed together, repeating choked apologies as he runs his usable fingers over her cheek. 

“I’m sorry, Zizi, I’m so sorry. You did so well.”

Tears sting Jeongguk’s eyes. He wipes them away with the back of his hand and a growing wave of anger surges in him. Rarely does he resort to the loss of life, but he has little mercy for those who hurt his friends.

He’s not confident he can defeat it, but he’ll never know until he tries. 

Power crackles around Jeongguk as he summons every ounce of stray spirit energy he can find. He’s never been one to fight in a typical fashion with no familiar beside him, often having to rely on his wit instead, but he’s not naive. He’ll need more than just cleverness to defeat the Ire.

Nearby branches crack and snap before the creature re-emerges in a twister of darkness. It leaps into the sky with a howling cry, hovering overhead and freezing when it spots him. Its eyes flash red when their gazes meet and Jeongguk’s heart settles, his determination solidifying 

They’ll handle this here and now, and he’ll make it quick so he can go back to Taehyung and continue their talk where they left off. 

The creature screams. Jeongguk begins to run before it moves, putting plenty of distance between himself and Jimin. They don’t need to get caught in the crossfire and he doesn’t want to unintentionally maim them either.  

“Jeongguk, don’t be a hero!” Jimin shouts angrily. “We need to run, not fight, dumbass!”

“There’s no running from this and you know it,” he yells back, stumbling over the rocky ground. It’s not logically possible to escape, especially not with the lifeless form of Zira and Jimin’s injured arm. They’d be dead before they could even turn around and face their fate. 

“Yoongi has to be on the way,” Jimin says desperately. “You’ll get yourself killed.” 

Jeongguk breathes deeply, adjusting his stance. He holds a hand in front of him and glares at the Ire with contempt. 

“If Yoongi’s on the way, I’ll keep it off us until then. Just keep Zira safe while I buy us time. It’s the only way, Jimin.” 

Jimin shouts more protests but they go unheard when the creature finally roars a final time. Without hesitation, it launches itself at Jeongguk with the strength of a falling star. 

They collide in a show of sparks.

Any thought that isn’t of survival falls away. Jeongguk quickly invokes a shield of starlight around him, utilizing the bits of revealed sky from the clouds it dispersed during its descent. It clings to his skin and protects him from the worst of the blows and the corrosive acid that drips from its mouth. 

He had expected the creature to fight with magic, but surprisingly, it mostly relies on its physical form. He notices its pattern of vicious attack paired with short recoveries to reposition and counters each blow with a burst of air from his palms. 

The Ire snaps at him with its pointed jaws, its bony face clacking gruesomely with every bite. Jeongguk knows he can’t keep the dance up forever—he has to take care of those teeth. 

He invokes earth and wind affinity together, retrieving a heavy branch from the nearby forest and fortifying it with layer upon layer of pointed gravel. Just as the Ire snaps at him again, he blasts air into its open maw to widen it and lifts the weapon over his shoulder like a bat. 

“Eat—this,” he grunts, swinging the makeshift mace at its gaping jaws. The rocky spikes pierce through the roof of its mouth and lodge themselves in its throat.

The attack is effective, but the resulting screech is so loud that Jeongguk’s hands fly up to cover his ears. A familiar agony slices down his back in a parallel motion, choking the breath from his lungs. His palms hit the dirt as he falls to his knees and he coughs blood into the blurry grass below him. 

It’s the same scream he heard from the cave he visited weeks ago, the one that inflicted invisible injury. He had never made the connection.

“Fuck,” he sputters, spitting out the metallic tang of blood. His muscles already shake from the exertion, but even after protecting himself from direct blows, the Ire still wears him down. He stumbles to his feet when he hears it finally snap through the spiked branch and snarl in renewed fury.

Jeongguk grimaces as he backs away. This won’t end well. 

He runs at full speed until his path takes him near the Eldertree. Weeping vines of flowers whip against his arms and catch in his hair, a bright thread somehow wrapping around his wrist as if to catch his attention. 

He blinks at it, reminded of Taehyung and his bracelets. 

Taehyung… the Arboretum… 

The Arboretum has its own Eldertree, one he cares for often. Taehyung has taught him a great deal about it, from trimming branches to its flowering schedule.

Taehyung also taught him about its root system. 

An idea suddenly occurs to Jeongguk that just maybe could work. It’s a risk, but fighting the Ire at all is a risk in itself. 

He has to try. 

The Ire lunges at him beneath the shadow of the tree, this time with its claws. They scrape against Jeongguk’s faltering barrier, tearing holes in his starry defense. The shield wavers just as he retaliates with a fist of fire that crashes directly into its side. 

Jeongguk hisses as his fist makes contact and his fire sputters out from the Ire’s cold flank. It’s as if an arctic fury lurks beneath its rough hide, absorbed by the patches of matted fur and loose skin. He’s left with no offense, watching in horror when a claw comes down to rake his arms.

He squeezes his eyes shut and waits for the pain, but it’s deflected with a clang by a shield of constellations and stardust, one of crystalline silver.

A grateful smile crosses his face.

“I owe you!” Jeongguk shouts, sparing a second’s glance at Jimin. 

“It’s— all I’ve got,” his roommate huffs, collapsing next to Zira. “I’m—spent, sorry Guk.”

Worry prickles Jeongguk as he watches his friend lay back in the grass. The clock is ticking on their injuries and his own magic, but the Ire is still fighting at full strength and he’s getting nowhere. 

He has to try his plan before it’s too late. 

“Come on now,” he jeers, taunting the creature with curled fingers. “I heard you were scary but this is pretty stereotypical, no?” 

The Ire roars in frustration with eyes shining red. Jeongguk whips around to sprint closer to the base of the tree, nearly slamming into it when he finally reaches the wide trunk. He spins on his heel, unleashing every bit of wind magic with a gust inspired by Zira’s earlier hurricane. 

The Ire is knocked backwards once more, battered and tangled by the vines that hang from the branches overhead. Jeongguk cracks a smirk and wipes a trickle of blood from his lip. His heavy use of magic saps unbearable amounts of energy from him, but thankfully, his many rescues of Taehyung seem to have unintentionally deepened his reserves. 

Maybe he’s learned more from his apprenticeship than he thought.

The Ire snarls irritatedly, snapping at the insistent vines that cling to it. Jeongguk knows it’s only a temporary solution, though he doesn’t expect when a blast of shadowed power withers the bindings into pieces. The creature’s angry stare pierces Jeongguk’s soul and he freezes at the dread that washes over him, heart stilling in his chest.

It’s going for the kill.

Jeongguk doesn’t move as it rushes for him. Instead, he waits patiently for the perfect moment, muscles tensing with fear and anticipation. 

Now .

Inches away from its jaws, Jeongguk rolls to the side, the chilled darkness leaving burn marks against his arm and cheek. The Ire crashes its bony face into the trunk with a resounding crack. 

He grunts as he invokes the strongest life and earth magic he can muster and the ground creaks loudly from underfoot, snapping sounds resonating through him like thunder. The rumble is so strong that even the Ire pauses for a breath. 

Double or triple invocations aren’t easy for most witches and Jeongguk is considered a rarity to be able to manipulate so much at once. He supposes it makes up for his lack of familiar, but it’s mostly thanks to his years of extra work and his sheer effort to survive. 

He’s especially grateful for it now as the roots of the Eldertree rise from below, lashing out at the Ire and pinning it to the tree. It screams in fury, attempting to wilt them again as it had done with the vines, but Jeongguk is ready this time.

After caring for the Arboretum’s Eldertree, he learned that the roots are both alive and deceased at once. Their exterior is of hardened wood that builds up in layers like shed skin, the vascular threads within full of water. They’ve always been a pain in the ass to dig up when they invade the gardens and even harder to slice apart, but now, Jeongguk uses their liquid base as a weapon. 

He invokes his water magic alongside earth and death. Water to tighten the grip, earth to remove them from the ground and death to hover them by their casings. Tendrils of roots shoot from below in massive quantities, wrapping around every part of the Ire until all but it’s head are bound tightly to the tree. It screams in a violent frenzy, thrashing and whipping its body about, but its power of death is rendered useless when faced with death found naturally in the environment.  

Sweat glistens on Jeongguk’s brow and his jaw aches from the effort it takes to hold it. Warily, he approaches the Ire, standing a few feet away to observe its horrific features. 

The creature snaps warningly, and Jeongguk can’t help but be reminded of a cornered animal. The closer he gets, the more the Ire emanates fear and distress instead of hatred and malice. It cries out in desperation and unwanted sympathy tightens Jeongguk’s chest.

The trapped air in his lungs feels a lot like pity. 

He shakes his head, raising a hand to summon a particularly flat vine with more sharpness than a fresh blade. It snaps from the root and he grips it tightly, cringing at the nausea that comes over him. 

This ends here. It has to. 

“You’ve caused enough hurt. It’s time you return from where you came,” Jeongguk grits. He raises the blade upward in preparation to plunge into its skull.

The Ire’s glowing red eyes lock to his. 

Help— me—

Jeongguk’s heart stops, his arm freezing where it’s pulled over his shoulder. The surrounding noise is softened to the rhythm of his pulse and the pulse of another. 

There’s so much desperation and pain, so much torture. Its voice is one of misery. 

No, no— he doesn’t want to hear it— not now, when he needs to end this—

The Ire’s emotions crash over him without warning. Jeongguk doubles over, gasping at the torment that burns through him like fire. It snaps at the fabric of his soul and wrings his mind out like he’s made of nothing. The creature is calling him just like the bird spirit did, except this one has been tortured beyond belief. Whatever has been done to it is unfathomably cruel. 

I don’t— want this— please—

Tears choke Jeongguk as a sob cracks through his chest, the dirt and roots below him swimming. Inside the Ire is a tormented creature of great power, imprisoned in its own mind by forced magic. It longs to be free. 

His face crumples, heart torn in half. 

“I— I can’t help you— I can’t—”

Despite his words, he still hesitates with a hand shaking around his blade. He should be more than ready to send it to the afterlife with none of the freeing grace he had awarded the bird, but his mind is clouded with empathy and sorrow.

It’s trapped—another creature bound to this realm just like he is. 

It’s just like him. 

Jeongguk exhales a ragged gasp. He can’t do this—can’t take a life without first trying to give it the release it deserves. Every piece of him longs to drive the blade into its skull, but his heart stops him. 

He wavers with another sob, slowly lowering his blade.

The Ire has harmed his friends. It injured Jimin and nearly killed Zira. It’s spread illness across the land, murdering innocents and sowing misery. 

It deserves to die, and yet, Jeongguk can’t end it this way. 

He loathes himself for his own empathy, but a fragile part of him wants to help. Aiding the creature through a proper death might even kill him in the process, but he’ll die if he doesn’t defeat it anyway. 

He has to try. He’ll never forgive himself if he doesn’t. 

“You— you need to let me in,” he says shakily, his blade held limply at his side. “I can try to help you.”

The Ire stills, unblinking stare boring into his own. 

You’ll… help?

“Yes,” Jeongguk breathes. “But I can’t help you unless you open your heart to me. We don’t have much time, please—”

The creature regards him with its most vulnerable look yet, it’s breathing ragged and body sagging against the vines Jeongguk still holds. His magic runs dangerously low and he knows he’ll soon be rendered useless if they don’t hurry. 

I am afraid, dark one. Afraid of—opening my heart.

“I can help you if you do,” Jeongguk says, reaching out with a trembling hand. “There’s nothing to fear from what lies beyond. I’ve seen it myself recently and it’s nothing bad.”

The cold grows stronger and frost bites at his fingers from nearing the bone, but the Ire doesn’t retaliate. 

He’s so close. If his magic can break it out, it would allow the creature to escape into the afterlife it deserves. He could solve this mess and save a tortured soul— could help prevent even more pain and suffering. He could do what’s right. 

“I’ll help you,” Jeongguk coaxes desperately, fingertips barely brushing bone as tears roll down his face. “I can set you free. Please, trust me—”

A breath warms his neck, hands sliding over his back.

“Ah. I don’t think so.”

Jeongguk screams. 

A blade pierces through him, plunged straight through his back and outward from his chest at a sickening angle. He stares down in numbed shock as the Ire roars in protest. 

He’s stabbed—mortally wounded. Blood seeps through his shirt, spreading as the blade is forcibly removed. His hands clutch at his chest and stain his palms with crimson. 

Time moves in a haze of slow motion.

Too much blood, too many vital organs skewered. He collapses to the ground on his hands and knees, retching up blood before falling into his side. 

Pain, so much pain— his lungs—

He can’t survive this. He’s going to die—

“You should have opened your heart to someone that could have managed you properly, Jeongguk. Instead, you chose weakness.”

The voice is silken and deep, full of terrifying unknown like the darkest depths of the ocean. It tries to lull him into a false sense of security, but Jeongguk knows the evil that lurks within it.

A roughened hand grips his chin and he recoils from the touch as if disgusted. He groans in pain as more blood spills from him, grunting when his head is ripped forward by force. His vision wavers violently.

“I know what it is you seek, and I can help you,” the voice whispers, hot breath inches from his lips. 

Jeongguk grits his bloodied teeth, eyes squeezed shut. “Don’t—need—you,” he snarls. He lashes out weakly with his arms and is answered by a harsh grasp to his hair. 

“Oh, but you will,” the man purrs amusedly, drawing a shiver from him when it thumbs over his cheek. Jeongguk chokes on more blood, groaning when he feels his lungs filling with fluid. “How will you find the truth in an entangled web of lies, Jeonggukie?” he whispers, leaning forward against his ear. “Shall I reveal it to you now and save you the trouble?”

Jeongguk can’t make sense of the cryptic words. His vision swims, blackness creeping over his eyes as blood trickles down his chin. Beside him, the Ire cries with a pathetic tone much unlike its earlier aggression. 

It’s sympathetic yelp becomes one of warning and the being that holds him drops him to the ground. 

“A shame those who protect you allow you to live this way,” he mutters. “Rest assured we will meet again.”

Jeongguk feels the dark presence suddenly leave his side. The Ire’s cry fades as his whole body goes limp, the adrenaline that had been keeping him conscious plummeting. All at once, the sky ignites in a sea of flame, a terrifying roar bellowing over the land that pales in comparison to the Ire’s. 

Jeongguk’s body succumbs to the fire, though it doesn’t burn. Its warmth is familiar and kind, like the gentle touch of a friend. His eyelids droop and he tastes more blood, unable to swallow the air he needs to breathe. Willing them to stay open any longer is a battle he can’t win.

Behind his eyes is a brilliant sky. 

Jeongguk is aware that he’s dying. He knew the risks and had fought hard fully knowing it wouldn’t be enough. He accepts the winds of fate as they carry him forward. 

The afterlife that materializes is alluring with its glorious landscape and pristine surroundings. A garden unlike anything he’s ever known appears in the distance, it’s brilliant wisteria trees and fields of darkened flowers beckoning him forward. Calling him home.

He wants to follow, but like the last time he visited, the afterlife is… missing something. Something integral. 

Something important. 

Jeongguk—Jeongguk! Fuck , turn him over— help me, Hoseok—”

His heavy weight presses over his chest before nails pierce through bone. The landscape below him becomes one of darkened flame and Jeongguk is certain he would scream if he were alive. 

“Jeongguk, please— you can’t die like this—not now. Please, come back to us!”

His heart aches at the sound of another voice, one that had once tempted him to live. It’s a presence so kind he’d rather continue to live imprisoned by another’s smile, bound by the gentle caress of their hands. 

Taehyung. 

“—come back to me.”

The afterlife becomes dark. He’s sucked backwards, the excruciating pain in his chest growing with every step away from the land that calls him. He wants to return there, but he needs Taehyung—he can’t leave him alone. He promised he’d come back when he left the Arboretum.

Liquid is suddenly poured down his throat and his hands fly to his neck as he chokes on it. It’s taste is revolting and he refuses to swallow, but any that rises is simply forced back down until he can no longer resist. He falls to his knees as his body suddenly relaxes, dully aware of the arms cradling his body and the shaking hands cupping his face. 

Darkness descends to ease his pain, but Jeongguk thinks only of the softness of a ray of sunlight beneath his palm. 

He needs to come back. He swore not to leave him alone. 

He doesn’t need the afterlife when it doesn’t have Kim Taehyung.

Chapter Text

The haze over his eyes won’t let up. 

Jeongguk awakens thinking he tastes lemon and sugar, but he can’t move his tongue to check. His head feels stuffed with cotton and his eyelids are too heavy to lift. There’s numbness over his chest that he’d desperately like to scratch at, but his arms lie limply by his sides.

Thoughts clutter his mind, slowly arranging themselves in order of importance. He knows he's Jeon Jeongguk, a witch that uses magic—one that has no familiar. He can picture his own face and the places he usually frequents. He remembers the feeling of flying and the rise and fall of the sun, remembers that he likes berries and oatmeal for breakfast and realizes he’s as viciously hungry as he is thirsty. 

—nearly—him .”

If Jeongguk could recall how to frown, he thinks he’d do that too. There are voices that he can’t identify around him, some louder and angrier than others. None of their tones are relaxed and it makes him prickle with sadness. 

For whatever reason, it feels like their anger is his fault. 

“I told you not to—”

“—did what I had to—”

“He would have died, Taehyung. Enough already.”  

Jeongguk swears his heart stops beating as the name floats through his mind. 

Taehyung. 

Kim Taehyung, his mentor. Annoyingly pretty and notoriously clumsy Taehyung. A mage ridiculed and isolated for reasons still unknown, one with a personality like cozy nights and a smile like the sun. A man with a heart and a voice Jeongguk would crawl back half-alive from death just to hear one more time. 

His thoughts screech to a halt. 

...He had crawled back from death, hadn’t he? 

He should have died. He should have passed on while choking on his own blood from a blade through the back. He had left a pleading, desperate Taehyung at the Arboretum and flew off only to fail him. Zira and Jimin were both injured, but he never saw them escape to safety. He was supposed to free the Ire from its torment but instead fell to the ground with a dark voice looming over him.

He fought with every bit of his own strength and he failed , but somehow, he isn’t dead. Jeongguk’s racing heart reassures him that he’s alive, but it still doesn’t answer any of his questions.

How did he survive? How did they find them? What about the man that tried to kill him? 

Most importantly, are his friends safe? 

He can still feel the touch of the man that had stabbed him, his face an unrecognizable blur. The words he had uttered are still a haze, but he remembers something about tangled lies and choosing weakness. He spoke his name as if they’d met before.

Jeongguk wonders what anyone could plan to gain by killing him. He’s sure he’s pissed off a few classmates here and there, but for anyone to go as far as murder is out of the realm of possibility. It doesn’t seem like it had been random.

The more his awareness returns, the better Jeongguk can distinguish the voices that surround him apart. Their words are still muddied as if his ears are plugged, but with every steady breath, his mind becomes clearer. 

Namjoon is firm—angrier than Jeongguk has ever heard him. He trades sharp, quiet words with Yoongi who speaks like he lurks in pure darkness. Another voice sounds that Jeongguk swears he recognizes but can’t place, their observant comments interrupted by the reassuring tone of Seokjin.

But most emotional among them, as well as the closest to his side, is Taehyung. 

His mentor’s voice aches with frustration and sorrow, ripping through the air in a dangerous way Jeongguk could never imagine from him. He tears into Yoongi with reckless abandon and Yoongi retorts with low, threatening murmurs that are like daggers of shadow.

It fills Jeongguk with guilt knowing he must be the reason behind their aggression. He wants to soothe them all—to wake up and show them that he’s alright. Everyone can go back to their lives and he can return to flying under the radar just like he prefers. 

If only he could speak or move. He wills his eyes to open but the desires of his mind go ignored by his body. 

“—better this way. You knew this was inevitable—”

“—up to me to decide what’s best. If you hadn’t forced us into this in the first place—”

“Enough,” Namjoon snaps. The room quiets in an instant as the scholar’s voice rumbles like thunder and even Jeongguk’s heart stutters in fear. “Both of you, out. Now. He’s recovering and doesn’t need you arguing semantics in his ear. Take your shit outside.” 

There’s another silent period and Jeongguk strains to catch the sounds of movement. Yoongi sighs before a creak of the door is heard. Another pair of footsteps follow that he thinks belong to the unidentified voice. 

Shock jolts through him when a hand slips into his own, squeezing with gentle, reassuring pressure, and Jeongguk knows instantly that it’s Taehyung. He attempts to return it with little luck and curses his useless body.

“Sorry, Jeonggukie,” he whispers hoarsely, lifting his limp arm to press Jeongguk’s curled knuckles to his forehead. “I’m so sorry. This is all my fault.”

Jeongguk itches with a mix of sadness and embarrassment. As far as he knows, they weren’t on a nickname basis yet, but he soaks up the term and the purposeful touch with a greedy heart. Taehyung’s skin is just as soft as he remembers it, just as satisfying to touch and still as warm as a sunray. 

He just isn’t sure what Taehyung has to apologize for when he was the one who left him behind. 

The touch moves to his hair, gentle fingers combing it aside. They trail down his cheek and beneath his chin, brushing over his cheekbone before slowly pulling away. A long breath is heard before Taehyung stands, his soft footsteps leading away from the bed. 

“He’ll bounce back from this, Tae,” Seokjin consoles quietly. “He’s in good hands with Joon and I.”

There’s no response until the creak of the door is heard once more. 

“I can’t return for another week,” Taehyung croaks defeatedly. The tears in his voice make Jeongguk’s heart ache. “Just— stay with him, please. Don’t let him endure this alone.”

The door thuds shut and silence follows. Jeongguk longs more than ever to rise and tell Taehyung he’s okay, but the moment he tries, a sharp pain resonates in his chest. He inhales raggedly, loud enough to catch Seokjin’s attention. 

“Easy, Jeonggukie,” he whispers kindly, a different hand grasping his own this time. “He’ll be back, so just sleep now. Your battle is just beginning and resting is your greatest weapon.”

Jeongguk’s hazy mind spins. Battle? But hadn’t it just ended? 

A prick is felt at the crease of his elbow, and as quickly as he had awoken, he descends into another dreamless sleep, one more restful than any other.








The buttons of his collared shirt slip between Jeongguk’s fingers. They travel up one by one and hide the strange black symbol now inked into his chest, its contours like brushstrokes. He runs a hand through his overgrown hair, scowling at his reflection in the mirror with an exaggerated sigh. 

Leave it to Jimin to have brought him the only damn colored top he owns. He doesn’t remember ever purchasing something in sky blue, but he has no choice but to wear it now.

Outside the curtained window of his recovery room, the leaves of the surrounding forests wave their vibrant colors in an autumnal dance. He slept the remainder of summer away in Elenia’s infirmary and had awoken in shock to the chilled September air. The two weeks that followed have been a journey of remembering how to eat, bathe and speak without making a fool of himself, most of his progress thanks to Seokjin’s patience and Jimin’s encouragement.

Aside from a few frustrating hurdles, he doesn’t mind the difficulty, really. He’s just grateful to be alive. 

Two months ago, Jeongguk had technically died. A blade had plunged through his chest and his heart had stopped, but according to Namjoon, Yoongi had used some sort of enchantment to revive him that left a black mark behind on his chest. The incantation had come from Jeongguk’s own magic reserves and drained him almost entirely of his spirit energy, and the pain from his wound had been so great that Seokjin kept him in a comatose state until he had healed enough to cope. 

Since waking up, the infirmary has mostly been frequented by Seokjin and Jimin. Seeing his best friend alive and well had brought tears to Jeongguk’s eyes, the crushing hug they had shared enough to revitalize him and probably bruise for a month. Jimin’s arm is almost fully healed and Zira is still on strict orders to rest, but otherwise, they’re safe. 

They’re alive. 

It’s more than Jeongguk could’ve hoped for, although he’s fortunate Seokjin had been present to stop Jimin from killing him all over again. Apparently, he hadn’t taken watching him be stabbed through the chest on his behalf very well. Jeongguk accepted his teary punches to the arm with only a few complaints.

Namjoon only visited once, happy to see Jeongguk awake but looking as haggard as a sickly patient. He vaguely explained how Yoongi showed up with his kitsune to fend off the Ire and how they’re still searching for it until they drop. There was no mention of the man who stabbed him, but from Namjoon’s evasive demeanor, Jeongguk is certain he wouldn’t have received answers if he asked.

There are too many secrets in the air, all hidden from him behind avoidant eyes and redirected subjects. Their crushing weight is so heavy that sometimes Jeongguk feels like he’s breaking. It’s irritating to be left in the dark, though it’s not anything he isn’t used to. 

And then, of course, there’s his mentor. 

He’d like to pretend he isn’t a little disappointed by Taehyung not having visited, but Jeongguk knows he’s stuck at the Arboretum by no fault of his own. He’s aware the mage had been by his side during his one lucid moment, but his revival won’t feel real until they meet again. 

It worries him to think that Taehyung has worked alone for two months. There are so many messes he could’ve gotten himself into or possible injuries he could have sustained. He needs to be sure Taehyung is okay with his own eyes.

But even more nagging is the urge to see him so he can work out these… feelings that have been buzzing in his mind. 

Jeongguk’s often found himself dreaming of running his hands through Taehyung’s soft, curled hair, tugging him closer by the waist until there’s no space between them and lacing their fingers together without hesitation. He wants to brush knuckles over his face and make him smile in that heart-shaped way again—wants to ease the burdens Taehyung always silently carries. 

He also kind of wants to kiss the hell out of him, but that’s a very… him problem. Not one he’ll burden Taehyung with.

Either way, Jeongguk admits he might have a little crush. But while it’s almost a relief to accept his physical desire for someone so blatantly attractive, the emotional side of it all is still incredibly confusing. He’d rarely ever move this fast in a friendship, and never has someone been so… appealing. It’s like he and Taehyung are pieces of separate puzzles that just so happen to fit together perfectly. 

...At least, he thinks Taehyung fits with him by his lingering stares, intentional touches and the admittance to finding him cute, but he’d like to confirm before jumping to conclusions. 

A soft knock is heard at the double doors and Jeongguk hurriedly finishes buttoning his shirt. He already recognizes the usual rhythm. 

“Come in.” 

Unsurprisingly, Seokjin pokes his head in, brows immediately wiggling at his dressed state. “Ooh, Jeonggukie! Looking dashing finally out of those sweatpants! I was ready to have Yoongi’s familiar burn them for me.”

Jeongguk doesn’t bother to conceal his eye roll. He’s grown closer to Jin through the hours they’ve spent together every day while working to get him back on his feet. His personality strongly reminds Jeongguk of the tough love and gentle guidance of Namjoon, but where Namjoon is often blunt and intimidating, Seokjin is rather smooth. 

Too smooth.

“I must say, even though I’m more than happy to see you go, I’ll miss your constant whining around here,” Jin starts, wrinkling his perfectly-made bed where he plops down. 

“It’s not like you’ll never see me,” Jeongguk retorts, lips twitching. “Taehyung and I should be around within a week depending on how things go. I’ll relay our schedule with Jimin.”

Seokjin hums airily, laying back onto the white blankets with arms crossed behind his head. “Headed straight there, are we? Color me surprised.”

Jeongguk catches the amusement in his tone and shoots him a narrowed look. He knows he’s referring to the Arboretum. 

“It’s my job, isn’t it? I’ve been away for too long to even be called an apprentice at this point.”

“Yeah, because I’m sure Taehyung will be fuming at your near-death experience and want you to start working immediately,” Seokjin drones sarcastically.

Jeongguk sighs, forcing the last of his clothes into his bag. He really has no reason to go back to the Aerie. After two months of rest, he’s reluctant to lay eyes on his own bed ever again. “I don’t care if he gives me shit for it. I’m fine now and I’m still going to follow through with my responsibilities.” 

Seokjin’s smile grows knowingly and Jeongguk wants to knock his head against the wall. 

“He must be a really great mentor for you to want to go back to work so badly.”

Jeongguk presses his lips together. Deny it, deny it, deny—

“Yeah, I mean— yeah… he’s alright,” he mutters, cringing at himself. He can’t be any more obvious, but he also can’t lie: Taehyung is a good person, one he can’t help but praise at any opportunity. Maybe not exactly mentor material, but still just as important to him. 

Unfortunately, it’s a sentiment Seokjin has picked up on with ease. 

Jeongguk let loose Taehyung’s name too many times to count in his drugged state, and Seokjin hadn’t missed a single opportunity to poke fun at him over it. There were too many occasions of Jin opening the door to his hopeful face, only for it to fall when he realized it wasn’t Taehyung. Too many casual questions about the mage’s well-being or discussions surrounding him.

Seokjin’s cackle rings brightly and stains Jeongguk’s cheeks with red. “I’ve gotta say, I’m glad Taehyungie has you. He works too hard and needs someone to set him straight or he’ll overdo it. I think you’re the only person I’ve ever seen him actually listen to.” 

Jeongguk looks away, scratching at his neck. He doesn’t feel like he’s done much for him, but if he can be the rock Taehyung needs in his sea of mysterious hardship, it would satisfy him more than he’d like to admit. 

Even if his stubborn feelings aren’t reciprocated.

“I assume you’ll be returning to your training?” Seokjin asks. 

Jeongguk hums in confirmation. “More like staring at that god forsaken plant for hours, but I’ll still be using my magic to help with the gardens.” 

They’ve been working on accessing his magic again as part of his therapy, rebuilding his strained connection through his own means. The incantation to save him had thrown off his balance more than anticipated and his renewed power is so great that he sometimes has to fight for control. 

Whatever magic Yoongi used changed him. He feels strangely unstable when invoking affinities, kind of like a legendary blade in the hands of a novice. He senses power in the mark over his chest, but most of it is far too unpredictable to harness. It often tingles like an itch he can’t scratch, just like the angry red band around his wrist that’s bothered him for weeks.

“I’m sure Taehyung will have some ideas on how to help you handle your new magic,” Seokjin says, his expression becoming serious. “Make sure to follow his advice carefully.”

For notable reasons, Jeongguk doubts Taehyung would be the expert in magic management, but he keeps it to himself. 

“Be sure to still check yourself, Jeongguk. I expect there’ll be some soreness in your chest every now and then, but if the pain ever gets too bad, you need to come straight here. Understood?”

Seokjin is rarely demanding with him. Jeongguk’s lips seal tightly and he nods in obedience. 

“Good,” Seokjin grunts, rising from the bed. He grips Jeongguk by the shoulders and looks over him appraisingly. “I’m sure Taehyung will be thrilled to see you. Should I send you with a little warding charm so he doesn’t kiss the life out of—”

“Thank you, bye!” Jeongguk yells over him, hurriedly opening the infirmary door and rushing to the courtyard. Jin’s squeaking laughter follows him out, echoing down the hall.

After two flightless months, Jeongguk doesn’t think he’s ever seen anything as relieving as the empty blue sky that awaits him… especially knowing at the other end of it is Taehyung.









If there’s anything Jeongguk appreciates about the Arboretum, it’s that it never seems to change despite growing more every day. 

There’s a familiarity to the air compared to when he had first started his apprenticeship. The surrounding spirit energy almost welcomes him back as he walks the central path, soothing many of his aches and relieving some of the discomfort in his chest. He smiles when spirits poke their heads out in curiosity, some flying over to greet him with nuzzles to his cheeks or affectionate brushes against his arm.

It feels a little like coming home. 

Anticipation flutters in his heart. He hopes Taehyung is in the back cabin so he won’t have to hunt him down as he used to, but at the same time, Jeongguk is unreasonably nervous to find him at all. 

There’s a real chance Taehyung is angry with him. He had flown away promising to take care of himself, and even though he was saved, he still technically ended up dead. 

Taehyung has every right to berate him and never trust him again. He doesn’t want to imagine the worry he put him through. 

The nurseries and loft are largely identical to how he left them. Extra stocks of herbs have been changed out and some boxes are stacked higher than before. The floorboards still creak in all the same places and the scent of chamomile and lavender still hovers in the doorway to the elixir room. 

And just like their first meeting, he finds Kim Taehyung still perched precariously atop a ladder, his arm buried in one of the tallest drawers. 

Jeongguk’s beating heart jumps into his throat. He doesn’t understand why their reunions feel like he’s been away for years, each one somehow more meaningful than the last. Fortunately, he knows better than to announce his arrival without taking proper precaution this time.

Quietly, he tip-toes to the base of the ladder and holds his breath in anticipation. He thinks it’d be easier to face Taehyung if he didn’t look so intimidatingly perfect all the time, his curls having inched down his nape since they parted and his skin looking as flawless as ever. He wears a baggy emerald cardigan that hangs loosely on his frame and Jeongguk is sure it wouldn’t look nearly as cozy on anyone else. 

Not that anyone else could compare to begin with.

He inhales slowly, readying to speak when Taehyung just happens to look down and meet his gaze. Jeongguk’s breath hitches, sparks filling him at finally seeing those flecked eyes again. They’re better and brighter than he remembered, full of such raw emotion that Jeongguk forgets how to form his own words. 

“I— uh… I’m—”

A flask drops to the floor with a loud crash. It shatters to pieces just as Taehyung’s face crumples. 

“You’re— you’re back—”

“I’m back,” Jeongguk replies warmly, unable to hold back a scrunched smile. 

Taehyung rapidly descends in a flurry and Jeongguk is grateful for his intuition when he holds out his arms. His mentor leaps from a step above, knocking the air from them both when they collide in a bone-crushing embrace. 

“I didn’t know—Jin didn’t tell me— I’m gonna kill him—”

Jeongguk has never felt as missed as he does now. He holds Taehyung with all his strength, savoring the heat of his body and the scent of apple and sugar that clings to his skin. The cardigan he wears is immeasurably soft and Jeongguk wants to bury himself in it as much as he does Taehyung’s hair. 

It reminds him of how he had almost lost the opportunity to ever hold him again. 

“Sorry,” he breathes, gently lowering Taehyung’s feet to the floor. He refuses to loosen his hold despite the embarrassment lurking in him. “I’m sorry for— for everything. I should have been more careful.” 

Taehyung trembles against him, burrowing his face into his neck until Jeongguk’s cheeks burn. He swallows back the guilt that eats at him and channels it into holding him tighter. 

“You—” Taehyung chokes, his watery voice muffled, “you’re an idiot, Jeongguk. I was so fucking worried, I—” 

He breaks off with a shuddering breath and Jeongguk cracks a sad smile. Idiot is putting it lightly.

They hold each other until his arms ache, long enough for Taehyung’s breaths to even out into a calmer rhythm. Jeongguk trails comforting hands up his back and he resists the annoying urge to thread through the hair at his nape. 

When they slowly separate, the reddened, swollen look on Taehyung’s face makes Jeongguk want to crawl under a rock. He can’t help himself when he gently cups his cheeks, thumbing away the few stray tears there. 

“I’m okay now, see? Back in once piece, more or less.”

Taehyung’s eyes slowly close as he inhales deeply. He grasps Jeongguk's wrists and lowers their hands between them. There are no bandages or fresh wounds on his fingers, to Jeongguk’s relief.

“I visited right— right after it happened. You didn’t look okay then,” Taehyung replies thickly. “I left the Arboretum too many times and Seokjin was ready to murder me if I showed up again. I wanted to visit, but—”

“It’s alright,” Jeongguk interrupts gently. He gazes down at their hands and resists another urge to lace their fingers. “I was out of it anyway. I’m just… glad to be back.” 

Taehyung huffs a wet laugh. “Glad to be back here just so you can work your ass off again? You missed a lot of weeding while you were busy rising from the dead, you know.”

Jeongguk smiles softly. “I’ll pass on the weeding, but I’m still glad to be back with you.” 

The truth leaves him easily. He doesn’t know where the courage comes from to hint at what he truly feels: that he missed him. Really missed him. Maybe the near-death experience inspired him to be more forward.

Taehyung’s stare widens, glancing over his face before his eyes soften in a way that makes Jeongguk’s heart skip. 

“I’m glad to have you back with me,” Taehyung murmurs as he squeezes their hands. “I missed having you here.” 

It isn’t exactly an I missed you, but Jeongguk still absorbs his words like they’re the only thing he’s ever heard. It fills him with a ticklish feeling from head to toe, one that makes him want to launch through the roof and maybe shout at the top of his lungs. 

It also desperately makes him want to kiss the smile off Taehyung’s face, but that’s about as likely to occur as busting through the ceiling is. 

“How’re you feeling?” Taehyung asks, worry lacing his tone. “Still sore?”

Jeongguk shrugs, his chest aching more from Taehyung pulling away than his injury. It takes some self control not to chase after his hands. “A little, but not much. I mostly feel… restless, I guess. Like something’s crawling under my skin. Jin said it’s because I haven’t burnt off much magic lately.”

Taehyung doesn’t look surprised. He nods and turns away, retrieving a broom to sweep the shattered fragments of his vial. They scrape across the floor and Jeongguk wonders why he doesn’t just collect them with magic.

“Yoongi and I… spoke at length,” his mentor starts carefully, trying and failing to hide his apprehension. A flash of their argument surfaces in Jeongguk’s mind, too hazy to recall much detail. “He said your relationship with magic will be different now. Apparently, his life magic meshed with your strongest available affinity at the time, which was death affinity. Not flight.”

The story isn’t necessarily anything new to Jeongguk, but Taehyung delivers it in a way that makes him nervous. His hands twitch by his side as they fight the urge to scratch at the mark on his chest. 

“Your connection with death will inevitably be stronger. You aren’t trained to handle that type of rare magic and everyone is a bit worried it’ll backfire on you, so it was left up to me how to deal with your training.”

Jeongguk’s lips part wordlessly before he seals them shut again. He wants to argue he can handle himself, but he had said the very same thing before he went off and nearly died. 

“What do you suggest?” he asks quietly, attempting to hide his hesitance. Taehyung is rather... unorthodox when it comes to magic, enough that it almost seems he hasn’t had proper training. An earth mage schooling him on death magic sounds atypical. 

To his surprise, Taehyung glances upward from his dustpan with a sly smile. 

“How do you feel about mountain climbing?”








An hour into mountain climbing, Jeongguk decides he hates it. 

They’re scaling the tallest mountain in the region, one easily seen from Elenia’s towers. Its slopes are dotted with pines and its peak rises above the clouds. Wild spirits crawl between the rocks and scale the cliffs with ease.

Jeongguk has never had an interest in exploring it after hearing its air is too thin for flight, and climbing on foot always seemed like too much of a hassle to be an option. 

Clearly, he hadn’t been wrong.

“How’re you doing down there?” Taehyung’s voice echoes from yards ahead, grinning far too widely for someone who should be ready to collapse. Aside from the extra breath here and there and the sweat glistening on his brow, his mentor acts like they’re taking a casual stroll.

Jeongguk grunts in annoyance and hauls himself up over another boulder. “Great, thanks for asking.” 

Taehyung’s breathy giggle bounces over the rocky cliffs and hits Jeongguk square in the chest, softening the scowl on his face. Without his endearing presence luring him forward, he would’ve turned back ages ago.

They’re climbing higher than Jeongguk anticipated, enough that the forests thin out and shrink behind them. His clothes cling to him despite the cool air and his muscles burn from months of bed rest. Taehyung assured him they wouldn’t be venturing all the way to the top, but they’re still pretty damn far up… enough to coax out his whiny side a little more than usual.  

“Can you tell me where the hell we’re going now?” Jeongguk huffs, hoisting himself up another particularly steep cliff. 

“You’ll see,” his mentor muses, throwing a grin over his shoulder. “Be patient.”

Jeongguk sighs. It’s the third time he’s asked and the third time Taehyung has refused to answer. He’s pretty sure this is some sort of mild punishment for nearly dying. 

It feels like salvation when the treacherous slope evens out into a particularly flat ledge. Taehyung stands with his hands to his hips and Jeongguk puts his head between his knees in a pathetic attempt to catch his breath. 

“We’re nearly there now. Hang in there,” Taehyung says brightly, running fingers through his curls. He tilts his head back, his sharp jawline glistening in the unfiltered daylight. A flush travels down his neck and over the revealed collarbones that peek through his loose top. 

Jeongguk gapes as if blinded by the sun, mortified when Taehyung catches his eye. He smirks and shoots him a knowing wink. 

Jeongguk rips his stare away as his face burns. Fuck.

Speaking to Taehyung without making a fool of himself is already hard enough, but blatant flirting might actually kill him all over again before he gets his ass off this mountain. 

He rubs his hands vigorously over his cheeks and winces at the crack of his bones when he stands. As much as he hadn’t expected to go on a hike his first day back to work, he admits the fresh air and the exercise are as healing as they are taxing. It’s the clearest his mind has felt in weeks, especially with Taehyung beside him. 

Instead of continuing to climb northward, Taehyung leads him around the narrow ledge. It loops so far around the back that the view of Elenia is eventually hidden behind the mountain’s width. Rocks crumble off the edge as the drop becomes more severe, enough that even typically-fearless Jeongguk gulps in nervousness.

“Aren’t you afraid of heights?” he mutters, toeing another pebble off the edge. His stomach churns as he watches it roll until it's too distant to be seen. 

“I am, but I’ve been up here enough not to worry,” Taehyung replies airly, leading the way with a relaxed posture. 

Jeongguk raises a brow. The mountain is far enough from the Arboretum that he’s surprised Taehyung would leave to visit it on a regular basis. The climb alone would be enough to deter him. 

Whatever he’s leading him to must be worth it. 

After another few miles, the narrow pass widens out and Jeongguk finally feels the tension leave him. Taehyung lags behind, throwing him a few amused glances from the corner of his eye. He stops in his tracks and faces the wall as Jeongguk keeps walking.

“Here we are!” 

Jeongguk halts abruptly, turning to find Taehyung staring at a mess of cliff vines and sharp rocks. It looks like nothing more than a piece of the mountain. 

To his shock, Taehyung lifts away a vine and shoulders around another, disappearing between the narrow space. When he hesitates to follow, a head of curls pokes out. 

“You coming or what?” Taehyung asks, smiling in that teasing way that makes Jeongguk’s head spin. He swallows dryly and joins him close behind. 

The vines are thicker than his arm and it takes a surprising amount of effort to shift them away. They reveal an entrance to a cave, one littered with enough illuminated gemstones to make Jeongguk’s breath stick in his chest. Twisting trees made of marble and stone weave themselves into the walls, their geode branches sparkling with crystals and jewels. Glowing flowers peek from the ground beneath their feet and Jeongguk tiptoes around each one with care.

“Where— where are we?” he murmurs in wonder. The spirit energy around them is unlike anything he’s ever felt before, more pronounced and ancient than even the Arboretum. 

“The Everwood,” Taehyung answers softly. Their voices are muffled by the atmosphere, a pure note ringing in Jeongguk’s ears. It resonates through him and sends shivers down his spine, cascading over his skin and travelling down to his fingertips. 

The interior grows larger the deeper they travel. The tunnel widens until it becomes a massive chamber filled with towering stone trees, thousands of colored crystals dripping from their branches. A glowing lake sits far toward the rear with an island in its center, one that boasts living grass and fresh green Eldertrees that droop over the water. 

Jeongguk finds himself speechless as they venture through the stone forest and approach the shore, running his fingertips over granite bark and crystal outcroppings as they pass by. He can’t wipe the awestruck look from his face and sticks close to Taehyung’s side for guidance, only tearing his gaze away from the mirror sheen of the water when he hears a warm laugh. 

“Like what you see?” Taehyung whispers cheerily, near enough that their shoulders brush. “This place is really special to me.”

When Jeongguk turns to him, what little breath he was holding is lost. 

Color shines on every inch of Taehyung’s skin and he wears the glow like it was made for him. His features are both soft and sculpted in the chromatic light, his flecked eyes so alike their surroundings that he looks crafted from them. He’s alluring and powerful, untouchable and yet so delicate that Jeongguk can only think of the fragility of stained glass. 

He wants to preserve him, to capture his light and let the sun shine through. He wants the world to revere and protect Taehyung in the way he deserves. 

“It’s... beautiful,” he breathes, unable to look away. The cave is notably magical, but Taehyung is so ethereal that Jeongguk is certain he could breathe life into what no longer lives. 

Taehyung’s smile slowly falls and a distinct red colors his florid cheeks. He chews on his lip and looks out over the water, pressing even closer to Jeongguk’s side. 

“They say the first source of this region’s spirit energy originated from the Everwood,” Taehyung begins, his voice hushed and reverent. He bends down and dips his fingers into the water, the droplets crystallizing instantly into gems and tinkling as they fall. “The mountain formed around it to protect it and only those who can handle the strongest energy can visit. Most travellers will be turned around naturally or miss the entrance if they’re not tuned to the spirits.” 

Jeongguk nods quietly, eager to absorb the cave’s history. He doesn’t doubt it’s the source of spirit energy when his very soul seems to hum with power here.

“There are said to be Everwoods in other regions too, all hidden away in similar fashions. Namjoon has been researching them in an attempt to track them down, but they usually have to be found in person... and finding them requires a special kind of witch. Not even Namjoon himself can tolerate this place.”

The information shocks Jeongguk. Namjoon is one of the most powerful and brilliant mages he knows. What makes him or Taehyung able to handle it if he can’t?

“What about Yoongi?” Jeongguk asks.

A soft huff leaves Taehyung. He doesn’t break his downturned stare with the water. 

“Yoongi has been here once, but he was forbidden from returning. He managed to piss off the spirit that calls these woods their home.”

“A spirit lives here?” Jeongguk inquires skeptically. “You mean—”

He nearly jumps from his skin as a chorus of soft cries sounds from the island. Taehyung quickly rises to his feet and beams brighter than the glow of the lake. 

On the opposing shore, Jeongguk can just barely make out a small group of excited creatures that dance excitedly on their paws. They cry out to get their attention and Taehyung laughs gently as he waves. He turns to Jeongguk with pure happiness in his eyes, warmth blooming in his chest when he takes his hand. 

“Remember Jimin explained what it was like to fly? How you have to trust in your spirit?”

Jeongguk nods, eyeing him warily. Taehyung turns his back to the island, gently tugging him along by his hand. He steps onto the lake and doesn’t plunge through the surface, to Jeongguk’s utter disbelief.

“If you trust in yourself and your faith in the spirits, you can walk across the water just like this. The lake is made of liquid diamond, one of the purest substances in the world. You uh— you don’t want to swim in it,” he says sheepishly.

Jeongguk gulps as he toes the shore. More crystals form on the sole of his boot. 

“What if I— what if I fall in?”

Taehyung smirks. “Well, you’d make a pretty cute paperweight for the loft.”

Jeongguk’s ears burn and his heart races in his chest. He’s not sure if Taehyung bluntly referring to him as cute or the idea of becoming a human gemstone is scarier. 

“Relax,” Taehyung soothes. He closes the space between them, both feet hovering over the edge of the water. Tender fingertips smooth over his cheek and slide under his chin before his other hand is held. “Eyes on me and don’t look down.”

Jeongguk wants to burst with how warm his cheeks grow and the butterflies that swarm his gut. To be commanded to look at Taehyung is both a blessing and a curse. He doesn’t know how to break it to him that a staring contest might be more dangerous than watching his feet. 

Still, he can’t deny that Taehyung’s confident gaze is reassuring. He’s a different person among the Everwood’s gemstones than trapped within the Arboretum, more at ease with himself and his emotions. 

Jeongguk decides he wants to discover this Taehyung too. It’s as if the mage is a gem himself, every revealed facet just as fascinating and alluring as the last. Each piece paints a picture of something precious. Something valuable. 

Timidly, he takes his first step forward. His stomach lurches at the strange buoyancy of the water, but he doesn’t look away from Taehyung. The mage flashes him an excited smile that nearly has him stumbling.

“The Everwood is one of the few places I don’t feel sick away from the Arboretum,” Taehyung starts, walking backward over the rippled water. Every contour of his body glows, outlining him in an angelic hue that Jeongguk finds mesmerizing. “The spirit energy is strong and similar enough to keep me going. I don’t get to visit as often as I’d like, though.”

It relieves Jeongguk to know Taehyung isn’t a ticking time bomb here. He loathes to think of the last time he had seen him looking ill after being away too long. 

“What are those?” Jeongguk asks, nodding toward the shore. The closer they get, the more Jeongguk thinks he recognizes their forms. 

Taehyung smiles kindly, eyes shining with amusement. “Elderbear cubs. The Elderbear is the spirit that watches over these woods. She’s the strongest wild spirit you’ll likely ever meet and a dear friend of mine.”

A friend. Jeongguk has never met another witch who also considers wild spirits friends to such a degree, but he takes more comfort than Taehyung knows in hearing they’re so similar. 

“Yoongi and I both agree that the Elderbear can teach you more about death affinity than either of us can, which is why I decided to bring you here as quickly as possible. I couldn’t tell you about the location because your heart had to find it yourself.”

Surprise floats through Jeongguk. He wouldn’t think the creatures here would be spirits that harbored death, especially the ridiculously cute bears that now squeal in excitement as they approach. It surprises him when they’re called away, turning their heads toward the island.

He also finds it peculiar that he hadn’t actually felt the Everwood’s location. Instead, he had relied on Taehyung’s presence to lead the way. 

Following his heart apparently has many interpretations.

Taehyung’s smile grows wider and Jeongguk nearly walks into him when he stops moving. He goes rigid, refusing to look away and risk plummeting into the water below. 

“You can let go now, Jeongguk. You did it,” Taehyung laughs, squeezing their held hands. Jeongguk’s stomach lurches as he finally looks down and sees they’ve made it to the shore, his boots firmly on solid ground. 

He did it. They did it. 

A smile blooms on his face that he can’t fight. Taehyung returns it with enough pride in his crinkled eyes to heat Jeongguk to his core, the same nagging urge to kiss him prodding at the back of his mind. He doesn’t want to let go of his hand and instead mindlessly pulls him closer.

“I’m impressed,” Taehyung grins, falling into his space with ease. “I don’t think you even blinked. You must have missed me.” 

Jeongguk would love to retort, but he can’t deny the truth. Every breath he’s taken after coming back from the dead only has drawn him to Taehyung more. 

If his resistance was a battle before his time away, it's one he’s willing to forfeit now. 

Taehyung’s eyes shine at Jeongguk’s speechlessness, flicking to his lips and back. His tongue swipes over his lower lip and Jeongguk swears his heart might give out as he follows the motion. He hesitantly reaches upward, fingers nearing his cheek and the soft skin he knows awaits him. 

They’re interrupted by tiny forms that barrel into them both and knock Taehyung into the grass. Jeongguk’s hand falls by his side as the shock sets in, watching as his mentor is toppled before his very eyes. 

“I know, I know,” Taehyung giggles warmly, attempting and failing to embrace as many wiggly bear cubs as he can. The five of them clamber over him until he lays back in the grass, glowing flowers splayed around his head. “I missed you all too, really!”

If he weren’t so distracted by the cuddle puddle before him, Jeongguk thinks he’d be disappointed he couldn’t kiss Taehyung like he wanted.

The cubs are rather unique spirits, their eyes glazed over with inky white and lacking pupils. Stubs of ivory antlers poke from their heads and the pads of their paws are white instead of brown. 

Jeongguk stands off and observes, his chest squeezing at the pure happiness Taehyung radiates. The cubs clearly adore him as they stumble over his legs and burrow themselves under his arms and Jeongguk is sure he’s never seen anything cuter in his damn life. 

He can’t help but snort softly at the display. It isn’t long before the cubs take notice of him, a few pausing to look him over with a wary air. He immediately feels as if he’s intruding before Taehyung notices. 

To his confusion, his mentor looks strangely hesitant to introduce him.

“Ah— this is my— my Jeongguk,” Taehyung rambles, sending him a second’s glance. The cubs turn their head to him and back, absorbing his presence carefully. 

Jeongguk resists his habit of curling into a ball, ashamed at how ridiculously pleased he feels. My Jeongguk? Not apprentice or friend but... his ?

If not for the several pairs of curious bear cub eyes on him, he’s not sure he’d ever recover.

“H-Hello,” he says nervously. He squats down with an open palm. “I’m, um— I’m Taehyung’s Jeongguk. Nice to meet you.” 

Taehyung pointedly looks away. He presses his lips together to conceal his smile.

A few bears remain firmly in Taehyung’s arms or hide under the crook of his elbow, but a brave cub musters its courage and inches forward, slowly approaching to nose at his hand. It’s touch is cold but their spirit energy is lighthearted and airy, enough that Jeongguk can’t hold back his giggle when the bear nuzzles under his palm. 

His joy must coax the others as they turn to watch in interest, their pearly white eyes sparkling. One by one, they stumble over to rub their noses on him and wedge themselves around his legs. It isn’t long before they topple him over too, their wet snouts tickling him and brushing in his hair. 

Jeongguk laughs himself breathless and tears prick his eyes. They trample on his stomach and sit down in his lap, crawling up to hang over his shoulder. One sticks its head up his shirt while another tugs on his boot laces, and Jeongguk thinks it’s the first time in his life he’s ever wished for more hands just so he could pet them all at once. 

He slowly sits up as two of the bears return to Taehyung and nestle comfortably in his lap. The mage sits among the glowing flowers with his elbow on one propped knee, cheek pressed to his hand as he observes. 

The clear fondness in his eyes makes Jeongguk flustered. 

“They’re— they’re so cute,” he says, filling the quiet between them.

“They are,” Taehyung murmurs, his gaze unfaltering and his voice low. He doesn’t bat an eyelash at the cubs. 

Jeongguk tries to swallow and fails. He’s definitely not making it out of here before Taehyung’s attention reduces him to a mess.

“They’re the offspring of the Elderbear herself,” Taehyung continues, stare flicking away as his lips twitch, “And speaking of…”

Just as the words leave the air, Jeongguk feels a sweeping presence wash over him. He stills as the cubs’ heads turn toward the largest tree and the hole in its trunk that must be a massive den. 

The creature that approaches is magnificent. 

The bear is huge, towering at least ten feet into the air with eyes the same as her cubs’. Several branches of antlers protrude from her skull with a crescent of light between them. She emits a calming aura that has Jeongguk relaxing instantly, the itch in his chest calming more than it has any other time since his revival.

Her presence is commanding and Taehyung tilts his head in respect, but Jeongguk simply stares in awe. A few of the cubs scamper back to her side and brush up affectionately against her legs. 

It’s been quite some time since your last visit, Kim Taehyung.

Taehyung smiles warmly and rises to his feet. He approaches her to stare up at her, embracing her head in a hug when she bends forward to greet him. 

“Too long,” he murmurs affectionately, pressing their heads together. “Way too long.”

Jeongguk’s heart beats loudly in his chest. For Taehyung to be so close to such a spirit is not only impressive but a sign of the power that lurks within him. Many spirits refuse to even acknowledge the existence of witches weaker than themselves.

He might already be slightly infatuated with Taehyung, but it’s a reminder of how little he truly knows about him. It makes Jeongguk both excited and nervous to discover more.

I see you have brought the dear to your heart along—

Malyah ,” Taehyung hisses, gazing up in horror, “don’t— don’t just say things like that! Remember what we talked about?” 

Jeongguk’s mouth opens and closes and he wills himself not to burst into flame. He tucks the interesting quip away for later with a furious blush.

A pleasant tone rings in his mind as the Elderbear shares her compassionate laughter. She noses Taehyung’s cheek and nearly knocks him over with the force of it. The cubs feed off her humor and bray cutely at Taehyung’s feet, clinging to his legs like tree trunks.

Humans are such fickle creatures, so reticent of your own truths. But if you are so insistent, I will do as you say.

Taehyung sighs exasperatedly, pressing his thumbs to his eyes. He doesn’t meet Jeongguk’s curious gaze, but the crimson of his cheeks is telling enough. 

The Elderbear turns her clouded eyes to him next. He goes rigid from the sudden power that pins him where he stands, breath caught in his lungs as she looks him over. The ground subtly shakes as she approaches and she noses over his hair, blowing his fringe from his face when she exhales. 

We meet at last, dark one. Taehyung has told me much of you. 

The title once again takes Jeongguk off guard, almost as much as the knowledge that Taehyung talks about him does. He glances at his mentor and finds him looking sheepish enough to disintegrate on the spot. 

It’s an effort for Jeongguk to remember how to speak. 

“I am honored to meet you, Elder,” he replies nervously. “But I must ask why the spirits refer to me as such.” 

The Elderbear huffs, sitting back on her hind legs. Just as you may call me Malyah, an ancient term for Mother in the dialect of spirits, I shall call you what I read from your heart. 

Jeongguk shifts his weight anxiously. He still doesn’t understand, although the nurturing kindness in her tone brings him comfort. “But— I’m a flight affinity witch. Why is it that the spirits refer to darkness when addressing me?”

Malyah’s ears swivel forward in interest. Beside her, the cubs knock Taehyung to the ground again, although his smile no longer meets his eyes. 

While you possess a great deal of spirit energy for every affinity, your connection to death is stronger than any other. What you call yourself matters not to me, but I speak only of truth. 

The thought of not knowing his strongest affinity is greatly unsettling to Jeongguk. There are already too many unanswered questions about him. He’s more than reluctant to uproot one of his few defining traits. 

Death and its power aren’t something to fear, though its greatest assets must be used sparingly. It is our duty to uphold the natural balance of things. I can share with you my knowledge, but it is your strength alone that will determine your fate. 

Jeongguk takes a long breath. As much as it makes him uncomfortable, he knows he can deal with his identity crisis later. For now, he needs to focus on understanding the new magic within him. Taehyung went out of his way to bring him here and he doesn’t plan to let him down… not again.

“I’d like to learn your ways, if you’d be kind enough to share them with me,” he asks humbly. 

Malyah hums approvingly. I need not your words to see the willingness to learn that lies in your heart. If Taehyung has requested it of me, his desire shall be fulfilled. We shall make great use of the Tranquil state.

Jeongguk’s brow pinches. “Tranquil state?” 

Spirits exist neither here nor there , the Elderbear explains. The strongest can toe the line between the spirit and mortal realms by entering one’s Tranquil state. There, you will find your strongest connection to magic, and you will emerge having trained purely through spirit energy.

It sounds equal parts fascinating and unsettling to venture into a spirit realm, but Jeongguk knows it’s his best chance at managing his power. 

He hasn’t forgotten his familiar either, of course. Admittedly, he has a small bit of hope that being closer to the spirit realm might bring him closer to finding it. It's not like he has any other ideas.

We will meditate beneath the oldest Eldertree, the one I call my home. If you would be so kind, I would ask that you watch over my little ones while we are gone, Taehyung.

A few of the cubs are calmer now, one even nodding off on Taehyung’s crossed legs. He smooths a gentle palm over its head. “If I must,” Taehyung sighs sarcastically, grinning when Malyah’s serene amusement fills the space. 

She turns to tread back toward the center of the island, disappearing beneath the weeping branches of the tree. Jeongguk slowly follows after her, but he finds his footsteps slowing as he nears Taehyung. 

Venturing in without him is… disconcerting, especially after just being reunited.

“Nervous?” his mentor asks, laying back on his palms. Another rambunctious bear cub gnaws on his sleeve that goes ignored. 

“A— A bit,” Jeongguk admits shamefully. “I know it’s important but… the spirit realm is kinda… unknown.”

“You’re stronger than you think, Jeongguk. I wouldn’t have brought you here if I thought you’d have difficulty,” Taehyung states confidently. “Malyah is as patient as she is kind. She’ll show you what you need to keep you safe.”

Jeongguk swallows thickly. It’s unlike him to feel intimidated, but he never expected to be training under the strongest spirit in the region. The significance of a so-called reject now learning from the best is not lost on him.

“You’re my apprentice, aren’t you?” Taehyung says teasingly. He wiggles his wrist with their shared red band around it beside his head. “Go make your mentor proud. I’ll be right here when you’re out even if it goes poorly.”

Heat burns Jeongguk’s cheeks. He brushes back his sleeve to stare at his own red ink and wonders if it’s always mattered as much as it does right now. 

It’s embarrassing to admit, but he wants to be an apprentice that makes Taehyung proud. Regardless of their relationship, he still wants to become the best mage he can. He wants to find his familiar and discover who he truly is so he can protect him properly. 

“I’ll—I’ll be back, then,” he mumbles, sending Taehyung a reluctant wave. 

He clings to the encouraging smile he receives in response. 

“I’ll be waiting.”









The hanging vines around Jeongguk are like suspended snowfall, their tiny crystals casting an otherworldly glow onto his skin. He sits across from Malyah with his legs crossed, far beyond earshot of Taehyung and the cubs. His head may be held high, but that’s where his confidence ends

First, you must relinquish what holds you to the mortal realm, she instructs. Your body is not necessary in the Tranquil state. Rely upon your spirit and your magic will guide you.

Jeongguk takes a deep breath, his eyelids falling shut. He tries to pretend he isn’t nervous but he’s sure the Elderbear can sense his accelerated pulse. Several quiet, fruitless minutes pass and he fidgets where he sits, embarrassed when the bear blinks one eye open. 

It is perhaps easier to focus on a tether that will call you home, Malyah observes in amusement. You will require a connection to your heart during your training, and that connection can be used as a lifeline to the mortal realm. 

Surprisingly, her words stir a memory in Jeongguk. When he had aided the bird spirit, he dove into its consciousness, but his instincts held onto Taehyung’s presence for stability. His mentor’s hand had been the light that pulled him from the dark before it was too late.

There’s no harm doing the same now, he supposes, not that it has anything to do with the feelings for him that keep cropping up at inconvenient times… not at all. 

Jeongguk has held Taehyung’s hand enough to feel like he grasps it this very moment—the effortless way their fingers intertwine and the heat of their palms, Taehyung’s habit of swiping his thumb over his knuckles. The smile that usually accompanies it and the gentle squeezes of reassurance. 

If Jeongguk had the choice, he’d never let go.

His breathing settles into an easy flow and every muscle in his body relaxes. The glowing behind his eyelids fades into darkness and then fills with a piercing light. There’s an uncomfortable sensation that feels like crawling out of his own skin, his sense of gravity turning on its head before solid ground finally returns beneath him. 

Excellent , Malyah commends. We have successfully formed a connection. 

Jeongguk’s eyes water as he squints them open. The surrounding light is harsh until his pupils adjust and reveal an endless landscape of foggy white. Malyah herself is shrouded in what look like clouds.

The Tranquil state allows you to enter the consciousness of willing spirits. It is the most vulnerable of connections and also the most dangerous, as revealing the core of yourself allows access to your own spirit energy and life force. Very few witches are capable of such a connection with spirits.

Jeongguk nods wordlessly. He’s not surprised that Malyah’s heart feels like this—nurturing and kind, wise and powerful. He understands now why Taehyung is fond of her. 

For one to fully understand death and its power, you must understand the energy in all things, she begins. Witches cannot create energy themselves. Instead, they simply borrow it from what already exists, exchanging it in equivalent measures. 

It’s textbook knowledge, but Jeongguk still listens with rapt attention.

However, among witches are few gifted with an incredible aptitude for life magic, similar to that of warlocks and their bounty of power. They utilize the flow of energy from their own hearts and break it off to use as they see fit. There is great power in bestowing life, but it is a heavy burden to manipulate the tides of fate. 

“Like Yoongi?” Jeongguk murmurs curiously, glancing at the red band around his wrist. It explains why Yoongi rarely invokes his life magic and how unbreakable their contract is. 

He jolts when Malyah suddenly growls, her aggression shaking the very ground they sit upon. Min Yoongi is a thief, she says harshly, and a foolish one at that. He has tampered with fate on more than one occasion and has paid for it in blood. You do not wish to follow in his footsteps, Jeongguk. 

It’s a bit of a shock to hear anyone accuse Yoongi so bluntly, but Jeongguk is certain that Malyah doesn’t lie. The Tranquil state stems from her heart and hides nothing from him. 

Yoongi is shrouded in enough mystery that no one truly knows his past, and with Malyah’s displeasure, he’s not sure he’d like to find out. 

Let us begin, she starts. We may feel we have much time here, but the Tranquil state does not acknowledge the passing time of the mortal realm. It will be later than you perceive when we depart, and I do not think you want to keep your Taehyung waiting.  

Jeongguk presses his lips together. His Taehyung. He has no claim to him outside being his apprentice, but the association is satisfying. 

There is much to learn about death magic, and it will be revealed during your time spent training. However, I will bestow upon you the foundation of knowledge so that you may complete said training safely

Jeongguk nods seriously. He’s never taken training lightly and is eager to learn. Since graduating from his academics, he’s admittedly missed exercising his magic to its limits.

Malyah regards him with a respectful air. She begins by summoning a single flower from the foggy ground between them, one larger than Jeongguk’s palm. 

Death affinity allows us to sever the energy of living things and cast it away. It is an exceptionally powerful trait, but is not without exceptional cost. Our own spirit energy is the source for such power, making it quite dangerous to overuse, and removing energy in its entirety disrupts fate’s natural cycle. Thus, we attempt to distribute it in the best way we see fit. 

She turns her attention to the plant between them. 

If I were a careless spirit, I would simply rip the energy from this flower to eliminate it. Instead, I understand it must be returned to the earth. We have the power to direct energy to its destination with little consequence to ourselves, accelerating its natural fate. 

Jeongguk nods. It’s a more direct way of manipulating magic than burning through fire or slicing with air. Instead, he has the power to interfere in its own death and rebirth. The possibilities are fascinating and terrifying.

There are also ways to maim without invoking death in its complete form , Malyah continues. Focus your magic on a single petal.

Jeongguk does as instructed, breathing deeply as he reaches for his magic properly. 

What he discovers makes his heart stop. 

If his well of magic had been unusually deep and varied before returning from the dead, his own reserves are a depthless ocean now, a tidal wave threatening to rise above his head and drown him. The magic begs for release and he struggles to take only what he needs. 

In time, you will find ways to burn your excess magic properly, Malyah reassures. Power is not unfamiliar to you, dark one. Do not allow yourself fear it or you will truly lose control. Instead, ask only for what you need, and it will respond in turn.

Jeongguk eyes her warily before glancing back down at the flower in apprehension. Its alabaster petals are beautiful and delicate and he loathes the thought of ruining a living thing for personal gain. It makes it even harder to invoke the necessary magic on command.

Good, the Elderbear commends. You are thinking not with your mind but with your heart. Should you lose sight of your morality, your magic will trample what you hold dear. Take comfort in knowing that this is not a true living thing but a manifestation of energy created solely for this purpose. 

The knowledge that the plant isn’t real brings him comfort. He swallows dryly, dipping into his magic with hesitation. There’s a struggle for control immediately and his power feels strangely... hot.  

Your magic will take on various forms , Malyah comments observantly. Do not resist them, as they’re driven by the energy within you. 

Jeongguk isn’t resistant, but the flow from his heart feels unlike what he’s accustomed to. It's scorching, sparking at his fingertips and prickling him with sweat.

“It feels like—,” Jeongguk grits, “like— fire.”

The bear is silent as the tiniest black flame flickers into view, incinerating a single petal from the flower. Veins pop at Jeongguk’s temples as he struggles to keep it from spreading. He considers it a miracle when he’s successful, but to summon a black flame—

...Again, but three separate petals. 

Jeongguk raises a brow at the curiosity in her tone. After another momentary struggle, he manages to burn them away, but not without charring the edges of a few others. Controlling the flame is like directing an endless torrent of water with only his hands. 

A heavy silence falls over the pair and he stares at Malyah expectantly, awaiting her command. 

Have you always harnessed black flames, Jeongguk?  

He looks up at her warily. “No. This is the first time I’m seeing it.”

You must use this power sparingly, Malyah murmurs. Practice it within the Tranquil state, but do not reveal it to onlookers unless your life is at stake. 

“Is—is there something wrong with it?” he asks worriedly, his gut twisting uncomfortably. 

There is nothing to be ashamed of to harness death in this way, but you will be feared for this particular power, I’m afraid. It’s a sign of your true self and what you have endured. I can offer you guidance on how to control them, but I cannot see into your past to provide the answers you seek.

An unsettling sense of identity loss wedges its way into Jeongguk’s heart just as it had earlier. Every new discovery about himself only serves to confuse him more. 

Could it have been the loss of his familiar that procured the flames? 

Our time is limited, Malyah presses determinedly. We will use it to our advantage. 

When Jeongguk still appears uneasy, she huffs, crossing the space between them to brush against his head. Her form wavers in the hazy surroundings, but he still feels the softness of her fur beneath his fingertips. She tickles his face with a puff of breath and he can’t help but snort.

All will be well, young one. You are already more capable than you think. The most important and perhaps most difficult lesson of all is to stabilize one’s heart, but I fear I have nothing left to teach you of that. 

“What?” Jeongguk breathes in surprise. “How?”

When we ventured here, I told you that your heart must rely on another for strength. It seems you have already found a source which grounds you, one you can’t seem to keep your thoughts parted from even in death. 

Her amused insinuation is obvious. Jeongguk isn’t sure he can blush in this realm, but his cheeks heat anyway. 

She’s referring to Taehyung. 

A knowing laugh rumbles against him and he sighs exasperatedly. Is he so obvious to everyone but himself? 

Fear not, Jeongguk. You have chosen wisely to place your trust in Taehyung. In a millennia, I have rarely seen such purity of heart, even among the darkest of storms. 

The words are reassuring, though Jeongguk doesn’t need them to see Taehyung’s heart for what it is. While it’s still hidden from him on many fronts, the pieces that have been entrusted to him are precious. 

He just wishes he could find out what burdens him—what happened with his familiar and what ties him to the Arboretum. He knows the answers would make it easier to care for Taehyung properly. 

I see that you are determined to protect him, a cause that is most noble. However, I would advise you to return here often to strengthen your control and your connection to your heart. Without proper spirit training, you will struggle to protect even yourself from your own power.

“Often? Like every day?” Jeongguk repeats in disbelief. A daily mountain climb on top of his usual Arboretum work sounds like hell on earth. 

Malyah’s chuckle is soothing. I would not expect you to visit the Everwood each day, which is why I will now bestow upon you a gift. 

She presses her nose to his brow and magic prickles through him. A weight is suddenly felt around his neck, his fingers lifting to gently brush over a tiny pendant made of brilliant opal and a silver-link chain. To his surprise, the gem is carved into the shape of the black mark inked into his chest. 

It is imbued with a part of my own spiri t, she says kindly. While I cannot offer you as much protection as I’d prefer, I can still provide aid in the Tranquil state. You can access this place at any time during your meditation and I will answer whenever you call upon me.

A sense of comfort sweeps over Jeongguk. Malyah’s heart is a place of solace, a haven to let down his guard without judgement. He knows it’s a privilege and an honor to have such a luxury freely given to him, but it also feels a lot like something a mother would do. 

Between his friends and Malyah’s kindness, he’s never felt more cared for until now. 

“Thank you,” he says humbly, bowing his head in gratefulness. “I will use it well.”

Malyah’s huff rustles his hair. Do not bow to your equals, Jeongguk, for that puts them in a position of power they do not deserve. I am merely a friend, and a friend I shall remain. Bend only to your heart of hearts when all else is beneath you. 

The words are cryptic, but Jeongguk tucks them away for safekeeping. Bending to the desires of his stubborn heart is nothing new—it’s why he’s falling for Taehyung in the first place.

Come , she encourages warmly, rising to her feet. There are many forms of combat and defense that I must teach you before we part. 

Obediently, Jeongguk follows, his earlier nerves abated by the pendant around his neck and the thought of Taehyung at the back of his mind.

In fact, the thought of Taehyung sustains him through most of his training, even when Malyah pushes him to his limits and his body feels ready to break. Though he feels exhausted in ways he hadn’t thought possible, he holds onto the promises they’ve made and the few he’s made to himself, repeating them like a prayer.

For so long, he’s felt driven only to find his familiar and earn respect, but never has he wanted to be someone’s strength. He’s never had any desire to become a better witch for the sake of another, at least not before Taehyung.

He won’t forget that they promised to help one another—to catch each other when they fall. If training makes him strong enough to better catch Taehyung, he’ll endure it regardless of how difficult or taxing it is. 









By the time they emerge from the Tranquil state, Jeongguk is tired enough that his entire body trembles. His muscles ache and his magic has wrung his mind out like a sponge. Malyah walks close to his side for support as they shoulder through the glimmering branches and are greeted by the light of the glowing lake once more.

He worries that he’s kept Taehyung waiting too long, unaware of the time of day with no visible sky overhead. He expects to find him standing by impatiently or ready to scold him for taking so long.

Instead, he finds his mentor sitting beneath the sparkling branches surrounded by slumbering bear cubs. His head lolls on his shoulder and his chest rises and falls in a slow rhythm, curls hanging low over his eyes and a cub held loosely in his arms.

All at once, every bit of energy Jeongguk had spent comes flowing back. 

I see we are not the only ones who were kept busy , Malyah hums fondly. She emanates enough care that Jeongguk feels it in his own heart, but it’s mostly overwhelmed with what he feels staring at Taehyung.

The mage is vulnerable when he sleeps, the usual tired lines of his face softened and his lips in a slight pout. He looks relaxed and safe, his arm curved protectively around the cub nestled under his elbow. The sight makes Jeongguk feel more emotions at once than he’s ever felt capable of.

He turns to Malyah without thought of what to say, strangely seeking her approval. Part of him is hesitant to disrupt Taehyung’s peace after all he’s learned about himself today, but on the other hand, he mostly just wants to hold Taehyung close. He wants to share every bit of what he learned just to hear Taehyung’s hummed reassurance. He wants to hear his laugh when he recounts his embarrassing mistakes. 

Even if it makes him a bit selfish, Jeongguk just wants to stay beside him.

Go on , she nudges encouragingly, knocking Jeongguk forward with her nose. It is time you two return home. I’m sure Taehyung will be proud of your progress and eager to learn of your discoveries.

Jeongguk’s heart swells as a sense of gratefulness rises in him. It’s uncommon for another being to have faith in him purely for his own efforts, but it’s something he now realizes he’s always wanted. 

“Thank you,” he murmurs, embracing her tightly. “Not just for the training but for trusting in me. I’m not—” he gulps, oddly choked, “I’m not used to being treated like I’m worth anything. Like I have something to offer.”

You are not difficult to love, Jeongguk , she answers with soft sincerity. Your will to live is unlike any other, and like Taehyung, your heart is strong. Continue to rely on it and have faith that you will find the contentment you desire.

The words are heavy and profound. Jeongguk’s throat bobs with emotion and he squeezes her a final time, a long moment passing before he turns to Taehyung. 

Be honest with yourself as well, oh Dear to Taehyung’s Heart, she remarks amusedly from behind. 

Jeongguk shakes his head with a snort as he walks off. Between Malyah, Jin and Taehyung himself, he’s not sure he can endure any more teasing today.

Thankfully, Taehyung doesn’t awaken as he approaches. It gives Jeongguk the opportunity to bend down by his side and look him over, his heart thudding loudly in his chest at being so near to him. 

Taehyung’s plane of skin is smooth and unblemished, his hushed breaths rustling the fur of the cub who sleeps against his chest. He looks so soft that Jeongguk can’t help himself when he brushes a featherlight knuckle over his cheek. 

He’s always shining. Even in slumber, the cave’s light makes him appear radiant like the pendant Jeongguk now wears. He still has trouble believing he’s real. 

It’s odd how Taehyung is also beginning to feel a Tranquil state of his own, a place of peace and acceptance. A place that Jeongguk looks forward to returning to. 

It’s a contentment worth protecting.

He brushes Taehyung’s fringe aside and smiles softly when the mage finally stirs. The sleepy eyes that meet his are heavy-lidded but pleasantly surprised. 

“Guk…” Taehyung yawns, his voice thick with tired surprise. “You’re back.”

The shortened name softens Jeongguk until his legs feel like jelly. He likes the casual closeness it implies more than he’ll ever admit. 

“Mm, all done now,” he replies fondly. “Ready to head home?” 

The phrase leaves him without much thought, but the longer it lingers in the air, the more he realizes that the Arboretum is starting to feel like a home away from home. 

It also doesn’t help that departing from Taehyung to return to the Aerie is becoming more and more of a dreaded event. 

“Yeah,” Taehyung whispers, smiling softly. He reaches for Jeongguk’s hand to be helped up, although neither of them move when their fingers meet. “Let’s go home.”











“An Elderbear spirit, eh? Holy shit.”

The cool morning air caresses Jeongguk’s cheeks, his bare feet dangling off the jagged edge of their stone balcony. Zira sleeps soundly behind him as Jimin trails careful fingers over her beak.

“I think I learned more from her in a few hours than I did in a lifetime of classes,” Jeongguk grimaces. “Death magic is no joke. She kicked my ass in ten different ways.”

He’s not sure he’s exactly allowed to talk about the Everwood or Malyah, but keeping the overload of change bottled up hadn’t lasted more than a few minutes around his best friend. It’s always been therapeutic to share his day-to-day experiences with Jimin. He trusts him with his life and their long talks have a way of relaxing him.

“It’s still good she was able to help you,” Jimin hums, palming gently over Zira’s weighty head in his lap. The feathers of her inner wings are still patchy and she sleeps through most of the day, but every broken bone she sustained has been blessedly healed. “Magic is like a limb. If you’ve been struggling with control, you’ll need to work it a lot to get it into proper shape.”

“I guess,” Jeongguk mutters, scratching at the thrumming mark over his chest. Even after yesterday’s excessive training and his subsequent collapse into bed, his magic is still as annoyingly restless as ever. “Whatever Yoongi did made things… weird. What the hell is this symbol anyway?” 

He tugs at the buttons at the top of his shirt, peering down at the inked strokes on the center of his chest. It still looks just as dark and artful with its arcing strokes and oval shapes.

He twists around to show Jimin who tilts his head with a raised brow. 

“Looks kinda like a lotus, maybe.”

Jeongguk blinks, glancing down again. He hadn’t actually put any thought into what it could represent, but from some abstract angle, he supposes it could pass as one.

“What’s a lotus got to do with Yoongi, though?”

“Dunno,” Jimin shrugs. “It’d have more to do with you, wouldn’t it? Jin said it was your magic that sustained the incantation and Yoongi just pulled the strings.”

Exhaustedly, Jeongguk sighs. He truthfully has no idea what the mark could imply. It just leads to more questions without answers. 

He mends his lowest buttons and stares out at the campus landscape, but the sparkling red roofs of Elenia don’t hold a candle to the gemstones he saw yesterday. If he could, he’d return to the Everwood as soon as possible just for a moment of peace, but he knows it’s not a place made for frequenting. 

Everything feels so overwhelming as of late. He had entered his mentorship hoping he’d become stronger, but nothing could’ve prepared him for the changes he’s endured so far. Between his new feelings for Taehyung, his shifted magic and his sort-of death, he finds it difficult to even recall what he spent his time on before he started.

“So much doesn’t make sense, Chim. I still can’t find my familiar or anything about my past, and on top of it, some unknown dude tried to fucking kill me. I don’t even know my own magic anymore, my main affinity might be different and now I have a random mark slapped onto my chest. I just— I don’t know what to think.”

“At least you’re alive… well, sort of,” his friend jabs playfully, prodding his back with his socked toes. Jeongguk throws an eye roll over his shoulder, though Jimin’s lighthearted dismissal brings him comfort. “Besides, I’m sure Taehyung will think it’s hot. He’s probably into that artsy kind of shit.”

Jeongguk nearly jumps off the balcony right then. He presses his lips together until they hurt and focuses on the distant wave of red and yellow leaves in the breeze, but even their calming motion can’t rid him of his invasive thoughts. 

... Would Taehyung like the mark? Would he think it’s attractive—maybe even trace it with his fingertips? Would he smile in his teasing way as he does it, even maybe lower his upturned lips over it and press them gently against his—

He gives his head a deliberate shake.

No. No. Absolutely not. 

Even thinking about touching Taehyung beyond holding hands makes Jeongguk’s face burn hotter than the sun above them. That kind of scenario would require them both to have their shirts off, a sight that’s more than his addled brain is capable of processing right now. 

It would also mean Taehyung actually likes him in that way, another unfathomable idea that tempts him to drop off the balcony’s edge and freefall until his arms go numb.

“Someone’s being awfully quiet,” Jimin teases. “Things going that well with Mr. Hot Mentor?”

Jeongguk is utterly silent. He’s had enough fishing from Jin over the last few weeks to know how easy it is to incriminate himself. 

“Jin told me you mentioned Taehyung every time you woke up in the infirmary,” Jimin smirks. “You’ve done a good job of avoiding talking about him so far, but don’t think you can hide it from me, Jeon Jeongguk. You might as well trade out your lotus tat for Kim Taehyung’s damn initials.”

If Zira weren’t sleeping on his friend’s lap, Jeongguk would probably throw Jimin from the balcony instead of himself.

If only he could hide the guilty look on his face or stop picturing Taehyung’s smile in everything he sees… and he means everything . The sun. The trees. The sky. Pulling weeds from the flower beds and pouring over textbooks. Even in his fucking breakfast or while he’s tripping over his pants trying to pull them on the morning. 

Taehyung’s happiness is everywhere, infiltrating everything he loves and putting it to shame, and he still can’t get enough of it. 

“He’s… fine,” Jeongguk mutters flatly. 

“...Mhm,” Jimin responds, clearly unconvinced. “Fine as in okay, or fine as in hot? I feel like you mean the latter.”

Jeongguk turns to karate chop Jimin’s shin, ignoring the knowing grin he gets in response.

“Please tell me you’ve made a move, Guk,” Jimin whines. “If I have to watch you two make puppy eyes and then act like you’re not a thing again, I might barf.” 

“What even qualifies as a move?” Jeongguk retorts irritatedly, running an anxious hand through his waves. Do they really make puppy eyes at each other? “We’ve— we’ve held hands a lot and like each other’s faces. Look at each other often, kinda. I don’t know.”

“Those are not moves, Jeon, they’re basic communication skills,” Jimin deadpans. “Do you or do you not want more from him? And don’t try to avoid it because I already know the answer.”

Jeongguk squirms where he sits. “I—I mean, yeah, but—”

“Then stop torturing yourself and actually test the waters. You can’t dance around these kinds of things forever, you know. If you’re not honest with yourself and with him, it’ll come back to bite the both you.” 

“There’s just… never a good time,” Jeongguk replies exasperatedly, laying back until his head thuds against Jimin’s knees. “Trust me, I think about—” he blushes, Taehyung’s lips flashing in his mind, “ things happening all the time, but there's so much work and training to do. It’s not like it’s easy to ask someone to drop everything and make out with you.” 

Jeongguk’s head vibrates with Jimin’s giggle. Fingers thread comfortingly through his hair and he lets his eyes slowly close. 

“I get it, I really do,” his friend consoles sympathetically, enough that Jeongguk raises his brows in curiosity. He hasn’t seen Jimin bring anyone around lately, but he admits he’s been rather absent with the Arboretum’s chaos. “But I’m sure you can figure out how to nab some free time for the both of you. You two work too hard as it is.”

The concept of free time is somewhat alien to Jeongguk. His life has been one long, grueling study session that’s focused on finding his familiar, and recently it’s fallen into a routine of working dusk till dawn with a sprinkling of Taehyung in between. He’s never really had a need to focus his efforts elsewhere, maybe aside from escaping with Jimin from time to time. 

But the more he considers it, the more a day off spent beside Taehyung seems appealing.

“Wait… hold on… how the hell could I have forgotten?” Jimin exclaims suddenly, knocking his knees into Jeongguk’s head. Jeongguk sits up with a scowl but Jimin’s wide grin wipes his complaints from his tongue. 

“What now?” Jeongguk mutters, ignoring the anticipation fluttering in him. His roommate’s look is far too excited for his liking. 

“The Spirit Ball!” Jimin announces eagerly. When Jeongguk doesn’t react, his entire body seems to sag in disappointment. “Wait, please tell me you know what the Spirit Ball is.”

Jeongguk shakes his head and Jimin’s eyes nearly roll back into his skull. He sighs dramatically with a palm to his face. 

“God, you really do live under a rock, Jeon,” he groans, running more fingers through Zira’s feathery mane. “The Spirit Ball happens only once every twenty years to celebrate the night of the aurora. It’s when the mortal realm is closest to the spirit realm and their energy can be seen with human eyes.”

Jeongguk raises a brow. A Ball hosted by Elenia is news to him, though he isn’t surprised he hasn’t heard. Rarely does he follow the events and happenings on campus.

“According to Joon, the night sky is really beautiful, all colored and sparkly. He said every spirit around gets caught up in the excess energy and sort of acts like they’re drunk, including our familiars. Us witches throw the Ball to join them, since… well, humans have a certain interest in partying.”

It’s probably fun for someone average, but from the sound of it, it’s not at all Jeongguk’s style. Packed crowds of jeering students aren’t exactly his gig and he typically ends up sulking in the corner nursing his drink. 

“Okay, but… what does that have to do with moving things forward with Taehyung?”

It’s Jimin’s turn to look ready to leap from the balcony. He rests his head against Zira’s, brushing against her feathers as she huffs contentedly. “Zizi, please save me,” he whines. “I don’t know how else to help him. He’s a lost cause.”

Jeongguk glares with narrowed eyes, crossing his arms against his chest. Dragging answers out of Jimin is worse than catching chipmunk turtle spirits with his bare hands. 

“Shut up and tell me.”

“It’s a ball , Jeongguk,” he replies exasperatedly. “Meaning you get dressed up and bring a date . It’s the fucking pinnacle of romance.”

Jeongguk’s mouth pops open. “...Oh.”

A date, like… asking someone to come with him. Someone who’d keep him company and maybe even link arms with him. Someone he’d be proud to have by his side. Someone he could dance with and kiss under the stars.

...Someone who looks scarily like Taehyung when he imagines it.

“Literally everyone will be there, although I’m not going for long because Zira is still too weak to fly,” Jimin continues. “It’d be a crime to miss it entirely though, which is why you should stop thinking about avoiding it and ask Taehyung.”

Jeongguk sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose. “He can barely leave the Arboretum as it is, Jimin. Dragging him out for an entire night is asking for a miracle.”

“Oh, come on . He’d have a month to prepare and it’s not like you have to stay all night. Invitations are going out three weeks from tomorrow,” he prods, elbowing Jeongguk in the back. “Show up for the main event, have a couple drinks and dance until he says he’s done. Don’t you want to see Hot Mentor all dressed up?” 

Jeongguk pointedly avoids turning around, but his answer is obvious. He already thinks Taehyung looks beyond good with dirt smeared across his cheeks and half-buttoned collared shirts, but dress clothes? Maybe even makeup or jewelry? 

Yoongi will have to resurrect him again. 

“Look, asking him won’t make or break what you guys have now. See what he says and hope for the best. Worst case scenario is he says no,” Jimin encourages. 

“But— what if he actually says yes?” Jeongguk mumbles nervously. “What then? I don’t— I don’t do this party stuff, Jimin. I don’t think I’ve ever dressed up other than like… for exams.”

His friend is silent behind him long enough for Jeongguk to turn. The conniving look that greets him is enough to fill him with dread. 

“Oh, don’t you worry, Gukkie,” Jimin giggles darkly, leaning back with a cocky grin, “I’ve been waiting to hear you say this shit for years. You just get Taehyung to show up and I’ll figure out the rest, alright?”

With a long exhale, Jeongguk turns back around and looks hopelessly to the horizon. He’s not sure what he’s more afraid of: Taehyung rejecting his invitation to the Spirit Ball or the panic that will ensue if he actually agrees to it. 

Or even worse...

“I have the perfect satiny dress robes with that v-neck and and embroidery— oh my god , those printed pants I’ve been begging you to wear all these years—” Jimin rambles dreamily, voice trailing off into the autumn breeze. “Finally getting that nightmare hair under control…”

Jeongguk sighs. He pulls his knees to his chest and knocks his head against his crossed arms. 

There’s a lot he’ll endure for the sake of Taehyung, but surrendering himself to the whims of Park Jimin may be among the worst of it.

Chapter Text

A month, to most, would be plenty of time. Enough time to learn a new skill or break an old habit. Enough time to master a new affinity of magic. 

Enough time to fall into a comfortable routine whose monotony enables an avoidance of responsibility. 

And of course, instead of asking Taehyung to the Spirit Ball properly during the first three weeks of October, Jeongguk does just that. 

It’s all too easy to lose himself in the Arboretum’s grueling schedule, toiling away in the herb gardens near the back cabin or organizing the drawers of vials until minutes turn to hours. In the sweat that drips down his neck and the blisters that sting the folds of his hands, he finds it easy to forget the worries that plague him.

The Ire and his assassin. His newfound power over death. His missing familiar.

Or even more terrifying: asking his painfully attractive crush to a party full of former classmates. 

Instead, Jeongguk doubles down on completing his tasks to keep himself busy while also hoping they alleviate the pressure on Taehyung. Between making extra potions for Jin’s patients, staring hopelessly at his unresponsive plant and training in the Tranquil state until he drops, he has plenty of excuses to avoid the topic. 

And yet, even with avoidance in mind, he and Taehyung have managed to collide at every opportunity. There hasn’t been a day that they haven’t ‘accidentally’ bumped into one another, inevitably stopping to talk or aid in the other’s job until well after the sun sets. Even if the topics discussed are as mundane as the weather or ramblings about pointless thoughts, Jeongguk can’t get enough of them.

To be frank, he can’t get enough of Taehyung.

Unfortunately, their recurring meet-ups are also a nagging reminder of how he continues to avoid asking him to the Ball. Jimin continues to pester him about it when he drags himself in at night, but Jeongguk is stubborn. 

He’ll procrastinate until he wedges himself into a corner with no escape.

“Do you trust me?”

The sound of Taehyung’s deep voice jolts Jeongguk where he works diligently in the upper loft. Papers covered in delicate floral illustrations litter the desk he sits at, their corners torn and frayed. 

He turns in his seat to see the mage standing in the doorway with a playful smile. The sight of Taehyung’s face after hours of busy work is like a breath of fresh air, particularly when paired with his glowing complexion and the high-waisted tan pants he wears.

It’s a sight Jeongguk’s grown to look forward to.

“I trust you,” he replies carefully. The answer is honest and somewhat uncommon coming from him. His genuine trust has rarely extended outside Jimin and Namjoon, but Taehyung is in a category of his own as of late. 

“That’s what I like to hear,” Taehyung says brightly, strolling over to the desk. Jeongguk hadn’t noticed his arms were hidden behind his back until suddenly he reveals a plate of food, resting it directly atop the papers he had been reading. There are dark, lumpy mounds of spotted dough that he warily guesses are cookies… burnt, inedible things straight out of hell.

Jeongguk’s gaze slowly travels upward as his stomach churns. He’s absolutely certain Taehyung expects him to eat them. 

“Um—what’re these?”

“Just try one,” Taehyung prods, pressing the plate closer. He grins in that sincere way that makes Jeongguk want to burst to pieces. “I spent all afternoon on them and I need a test subject.”

Jeongguk gulps as dread fills him from head to toe. 

All afternoon. Great. 

He hesitantly picks one up and examines it with all the subtlety he can muster. It smells strangely of cinnamon and nutmeg, a heavy aroma he isn’t sure he’s ever eaten before, but its looks are similar to the dirt he digs through every day.

He’s not sure it’s something he’d even be interested in putting near the flowers, nonetheless in his mouth.

“Please, Jeonggukie,” Taehyung implores, palms flat on the desk and a pout on his lips. “It won’t be that bad, trust me.”

As reluctant as he is, Taehyung’s slip of his nickname and his pleading expression have Jeongguk weakening in an instant. He withholds his sigh and steels himself before taking a generous bite, focused on his mentor’s growing smile rather than the wild mix of spices that hit his tongue. 

The texture is… odd, but the flavor isn’t bad. Jeongguk chews once. Twice. Three times before raising his brows and deciding to take another bite. It’s shockingly good, enough that he shoves the rest of the cookie into his mouth until his cheeks puff. 

They’re amazingly good. Beyond good. So much so that Jeongguk feels he could conquer the world while eating them.

“How—make—this?” he asks in disbelief, his voice muffled around the cookie. He readies another to shove down despite barely having finished his first and suddenly wishes there were more than six on the plate.

Taehyung grins proudly and plops down into the seat across from him, resting his cheeks against his curled fists and swinging his legs so they knock against Jeongguk’s. “A little bit of effort and a lot of special ingredients,” he answers with a wink. “A sprinkle of magic too, maybe.” 

Jeongguk’s chewing stops midway. It's common knowledge that witches have always been heavily discouraged from incorporating magic into food. There’s been too many cases of subtle poisoning or unusual energy reactions when they hit the digestive system. 

For Taehyung to attempt it so nonchalantly is surprising and maybe a tad worrisome, but with how excited he is, Jeongguk won’t complain.

“What do you taste?” his mentor asks eagerly. 

Jeongguk raises a wary brow, swallowing another bite before speaking. “Shouldn’t you know if you made them?”

Taehyung’s grin turns from confident to sheepish, odd enough for Jeongguk to stop chewing again. He narrows his eyes in heavy suspicion.

“Taehyung…” 

The mage winces at his tone. “They’re... specialty cookies,” he explains awkwardly. “They—um… they have meaning.”

Taehyung’s cheeks slowly redden and anxious feet wrap absentmindedly around Jeongguk’s caves. The sudden contact nearly causes him to knee the underside of the table. 

“They’re called neumacookies,” Taehyung exhales slowly. “Their taste is based on what you associate most with their baker. It’s a rare recipe passed down from my grandfather and I’ve always wanted to make them but I— I’ve never had anyone trust me enough to try.” 

Jeongguk’s curious gaze flicks between the cookie and Taehyung’s avoidant expression. If they’re based on his feelings for Taehyung, it’s no wonder they’re the best thing he’s ever consumed. 

His reaction seems painfully embarrassing now. 

“Tell me what you taste,” Taehyung murmurs, flecked eyes hesitantly meeting his. “The flavors in it are ones that— that remind you of me.”

There’s a glimmer in his irises that Jeongguk still can’t look at for too long. It’s all too easy to assume the hope shining there is for reasons he‘s barely dared to dream of.

He chews another bite slowly and thoughtfully. The cookie’s taste is somehow of comfort and home despite rarely being included in anything he eats. Everything about it is utterly addicting, from their texture to how they melt on his tongue.  

“...Nutmeg and brown sugar,” Jeongguk answers softly. “With something like cinnamon, I think… and maybe a touch of berries. They’re incredible.”

The red on Taehyung’s cheeks rises to his ears. He fiddles with the bracelets on his wrists and pointedly avoids his gaze, feet still clinging to Jeongguk’s. 

“It’s weird that those are all kind of— warm things,” he murmurs shyly. “Do I really seem like a warm person to you?” 

Like the sun, Jeongguk thinks immediately, though Taehyung’s self-critical tone makes his heart shift uncomfortably. He’s never met someone brighter, and if anyone should see that, it should be Taehyung.

He’s too cowardly to say it bluntly. Instead, Jeongguk simply hums in response and lays his cookie aside. He gently reaches for Taehyung’s hand and turns it so his palm is facing upward. 

The last time they sat here like this, Jeongguk had smeared ointment over his skin and stared far too long at the wave of his curls. He wondered if his racing heart and his dreams of Taehyung’s laughter were things he’d feel for a friend.

Now, with Taehyung’s wounds having healed and his sparkling eyes no longer downturned, Jeongguk knows he couldn’t have been more wrong. 

He doesn’t think he could fall for anyone like he has for him. 

“This is warm,” he states plainly, curling his fingers against Taehyung’s palm. Taehyung instinctively mirrors his motion until their hands are held together, his curious expression becoming amused.

“This is also warm,” Jeongguk repeats, wiggling his feet where their legs press together. He knocks his boots against Taehyung’s loafers until they both giggle enough to shake the table, the heat blooming in Jeongguk’s chest only proving his point further.

Taehyung’s rounded cheeks are addictive, like a shot of adrenaline to Jeongguk’s heart. They inspire him to make a few of those moves Jimin won’t shut up about, pushing him to be braver than he normally would.

“There’s this, too,” Jeongguk exhales, his softened tone catching Taehyung’s attention. Before he can overthink it, he lifts his free hand to Taehyung’s cheekbone and brushes over his skin with his knuckle, circling around without thought until his thumb is swiping over his lower lip.

The touch lingers in the same way their eye contact does and he’s certain neither of them breathe for a few heartbeats. Taehyung’s lips are soft and warm, pliant in the way they part for him. The sudden spark of heat in Taehyung’s gaze heats Jeongguk to his core.

He’s never felt this way about anyone—the desire to touch and be touched until his body aches with it, the need to make his feelings known to the point of wanting to shout them. He wants Taehyung to see himself as he sees him: strong, bright and resilient. Desired. He wants the world to admire and respect him more than he’s ever wanted it for himself.

He also wants to press Taehyung against the greenhouse wall and kiss him until neither of them can remember their names, but he’s not sure how to jump the gap between sort-of friends and… more than that. 

He knows he can start, however, by accompanying Taehyung to the Ball and showing him that their relationship extends beyond the Arboretum’s glass panels and maybe that he wants more than holding hands.

It’s the perfect time—Jeongguk knows it is. If he’s going to ask, there’s no better opportunity than with their hands held and Taehyung’s eyes locked to his lips. His heart flutters in his chest and his cheeks warm, but he’s determined. 

The words roll to the tip of Jeongguk’s tongue, just about to take shape before Taehyung suddenly jolts upright and puts a regrettable bit of space between them.

Jeongguk’s hand slowly lowers as his chest floods with disappointment. He swallows down his question like a rock and replaces it with another. 

“What’s wrong?” 

Taehyung’s brows pinch, his head turning to stare through the wall. “I… don’t know. I think— I think someone’s here.”

The pair shoot each other confused looks before Taehyung slowly untangles their legs and rises to his feet, Jeongguk following close behind with a mix of worry and frustration gnawing at his gut. They wordlessly accompany one another down the spiral staircase and toward the Arboretum’s entrance, a heavy silence falling over them. 

If it’s a presence that bothers Taehyung so strangely, Jeongguk knows it must be someone who likely isn’t welcome here. He just hopes whoever it is isn’t here to cause trouble. 

They have plenty to deal with as it is. 









“So… uh—how’ve you been?” 

Jeongguk kicks at the gravel beneath his feet. He’s sure the attempts to hide his pissed off look aren’t working, and frankly, he hopes they make his distaste obvious.

He can’t say he expected to see Wonwoo of all witches anywhere near the Arboretum, painfully out of place in his steel grey robes among the garden's verdant overgrowth. The metals mage had been trying to find his way in to speak with him but was stopped by the oppressive spirit energy, alerting Taehyung when he attempted to cross the boundary. 

Jeongguk wasn’t aware Taehyung could sense visitors approaching, but it’s apparently another of his unknown skills.

Taehyung himself lingers respectfully out of earshot, leaning against the vineway with his arms crossed. From the cold indifference on his face, it’s clear that he’s equally as uncomfortable with Wonwoo’s sudden appearance. Jeongguk assumes it’s because he doesn’t trust him so near to the Arboretum, but he also has a suspicion that Taehyung noticed his reluctance to speak with him.

Admittedly, Taehyung’s piercing stare is a little intimidating—a look that Jeongguk hasn’t yet seen him wear. 

It’s a look that makes his stomach flip with attraction every time he glances at it. 

“I’m great, thanks,” Jeongguk answers tightly. “Just busy caring for the Arboretum— sorry, shithole Arboretum, as you referred to it.”

Wonwoo looks away apologetically, awkwardly scratching at the back of his head. “Look, I get the guys were being assholes at the first meeting, but don’t loop me in with their immaturity. Vernon may be my apprentice, but he’s also a pain in the ass. All he does is screw off and I end up fixing his mistakes more than I coach him.”

Jeongguk raises a skeptical brow. It’s not what he anticipated hearing, but he’s also not at all surprised to learn Vernon isn’t taking his apprenticeship seriously. His entitlement has always been thick enough to choke on. 

What surprises Jeongguk more is how freely Wonwoo shares the information. 

“I don’t envy having to babysit him,” Jeongguk says, his tone guarded. “But I know you didn’t travel this far out just to complain about Vernon. Why are you here, Wonwoo?” 

Wonwoo shifts his weight anxiously, his hands burrowed in his pockets. His nervous demeanor only makes Jeongguk more apprehensive. 

“I’m sure you know the Spirit Ball is coming up.” 

Jeongguk nods wordlessly, watching the bob of the mage’s throat. The Ball is the last thing he expected him to bring up.

“I figured you’d be working and this was the only place I could run into you. I wanted to ask you properly.”

Jeongguk’s brows furrow. “...Ask me what?”

Wonwoo appears hesitant as his eyes flick to the distant form of Taehyung and back. “Are... you planning to attend the Spirit Ball, Jeongguk?”

Jeongguk struggles to conceal his surprise. “I was planning to go, yeah.”

The relief that flickers across Wonwoo’s face only confuses Jeongguk further. The answer seems to make him even more determined. 

“That’s good then, since I uh— I wanted to ask you to go to the Ball. With me, that is,” he rushes out. “If you’d like to accompany me as— as my date.”

It takes an embarrassingly long moment for the words to register. When they finally do, Jeongguk’s lips part in shock. 

A date. He’s being asked to be Wonwoo’s date. An actual person he’d consider normal is pursuing him as a date to the Ball.  

Jeongguk flounders for a proper response but ultimately comes up empty. The idea of him being asked to a party by anyone is... unfathomable. He would’ve bet Jimin his entire monotone wardrobe on it never happening. 

For a brief moment, Jeongguk lets himself consider it. Wonwoo is admittedly attractive with his dark hair, angled jaw and sharp eyes. His name was often heard in the hushed giggles of Jeongguk’s classmates like some trophy worth striving for and his talent in metal affinity magic is beyond many of his elders. He became a mage faster than any of his peers, and while he was annoyingly cocky in his younger days, Jeongguk hasn’t ever witnessed him being truly cruel. 

But despite Wonwoo’s desirable traits, Jeongguk isn’t sure he could ever forget his loyalty to the classmates who tormented him. One look at his face reminds him of their sneers while they held him by his collar against the wall.

“I get you might not think well of me and I completely understand why,” Wonwoo hurriedly explains at his hesitance. “I’ve usually let Jeonghan and Vernon run their mouths without doing much about it, but… recently, I’ve realized it’s wrong. The way they’ve treated you isn’t right, Jeongguk. The stories I’ve heard disgust me. It probably doesn’t mean much, but I’ve told them off for it more than once.”

The sudden confession is like an avalanche and Jeongguk struggles to swallow it down. He’s never been defended by a stranger simply because it’s the right thing to do, especially not to two of his worst enemies. It’s beyond his immediate comprehension.

“I also, um—” Wonwoo’s eyes flick to Taehyung again, “I made some rude assumptions about your mentor’s work ethic last time we spoke. I apologize for that as well. I’ve heard about the potions you two are making and it’s really commendable.”

He knows he should respond, but Jeongguk can barely hear him. The shock in his mind blares so loudly that it drowns out all else. 

It might be pathetic or weak to accept Wonwoo’s apologies so easily, but Jeongguk finds himself believing them. He wants to believe that someone actually scolded the assholes who made his life hell. He wants to believe someone truly recognizes Taehyung’s hard work. Even with the usual doubt in the forefront of his mind, he doesn’t think Wonwoo would have come all the way out to the Arboretum to lie to him, nor does his attitude read as insincere.

What he can’t fathom, of all things, is actually being asked to the Ball. 

“Why—Why me?” Jeongguk breathes. “I just… I don’t understand.”

Wonwoo looks taken aback by the question, a bashful look falling over him. It’s a vulnerable face Jeongguk didn’t think the roughened mage was capable of making. 

“I know you don’t have a familiar and people give you shit for it,” Wonwoo starts softly, “but—fuck it. I’ll just come right out and say it. You’re… something of a catch, Jeongguk. You have been for a long time—to me, at least.” 

Jeongguk blinks. The silence is awkward before he breaks it with a cynical snort. 

“No, really, were you put up to this? Is there some bet with the guys, or—”

Wonwoo steps nearer and closes the remaining space between them. He takes Jeongguk’s hand and looks him over with alarmingly sincere eyes. 

It takes everything in Jeongguk’s power to not immediately recoil. He’s not used to being this close to anyone but Taehyung or occasionally Jimin. The unwanted touch lodges his heart uncomfortably in his throat and makes his pulse pound in his ears.

From his peripheral, he swears he sees Taehyung shift an inch.

“Laugh it off all you want, but I’m being serious,” Wonwoo states firmly, his gaze searching over Jeongguk’s face. “You’re hotter than any witch on campus—anyone with eyes has to admit that—and you’re smarter than all of them combined. They’re fucking idiots if they overlook your hard work for something as ridiculous as not having a familiar.” 

It’s shameful how quickly Jeongguk’s breath catches at the words. They’re admittedly what he’s dreamt of hearing for a lifetime, usually having written them off as fantasy. He’s always wanted to be recognized and praised—to have someone see him for who he is despite having no familiar.

He just doesn’t understand why hearing it from Wonwoo is less satisfying than he thought it’d be. 

Maybe it’s for the same reason that the unfamiliar feeling of Wonwoo’s hand makes him prickle with discomfort. His palm is rough and calloused from his work at the forges, and Jeongguk can’t help but compare it to the one he usually holds.

No soft skin or reassuring grip. No natural urge to interlace their fingers or a warmth that shoots straight to his core. No desire to pull him closer or to coax his laugh from him.

It doesn’t feel… right.

“I won’t let anyone mouth off at the Ball,” Wonwoo assures softly. He squeezes his hand and the pressure makes Jeongguk wince. “Let me protect you, Jeongguk. You’re worth more than hiding away here.”

Jeongguk goes still at the last tidbit, his prior shock slowly replaced with growing irritation. He pulls his hand free to tuck it into his crossed arms, ignoring the look of confusion on Wonwoo’s face. 

He doesn’t want to go to the Ball to be protected, paraded or pitied, especially not beside someone who naturally puts him on the defensive. In fact, he only decided to go with one person in mind—someone whose presence outweighs the many he dreads seeing. 

Without Taehyung, it’s a waste of his time.

“I… appreciate the offer, I really do, and I accept your apologies,” Jeongguk starts slowly, pressing meaning into every word, “but—I’m sorry. I can’t accept your offer. I— I was already planning to ask someone else, actually.” 

The hope in Wonwoo’s eyes dies and replaces itself with clear disappointment. It makes Jeongguk tense with guilt, but it isn’t enough for him to back down. 

“Just to set the record straight,” Jeongguk continues, “my worth is determined by me and only me. I’m not hiding away here—I’m choosing to work with Taehyung. What the majority of campus thinks of that means nothing to me.” 

Wonwoo frowns skeptically. “Choosing to work here?” he replies, eyeing the red band around Jeongguk’s wrist. “I was under the impression your arrangement was forced.” 

Jeongguk glances down at the ink that’s partially hidden by the cuff of his onyx shirt. It was forced, maybe at first, but it seems to be quite the opposite now…  at least he hopes it is. 

A flicker of doubt flares within him despite his attempts to extinguish it. He and Taehyung have had plenty of moments he’d consider close, but what proof is there that they’ll continue after his apprenticeship? The thought of their daily meetings ending makes his chest tighten until he feels suffocated.

It’s all the more reason to make a move and ask Taehyung to the Ball. He needs to establish their connection as something separate from their arrangement. 

“The mentorship is under contract,” Jeongguk breathes, his voice unwavering, “but my relationship with Taehyung is by choice, as is my partner to the Ball. I really am sorry, Wonwoo, but I—”

“You’re planning to ask him , aren’t you?” 

Jeongguk’s mouth snaps shut. He follows Wonwoo’s stare to Taehyung, finding his mentor’s silhouette blurred into the growing shadow of the vineway. 

Even from a distance, Taehyung’s eyes still sparkle as if alight, burning brightly amongst the dark. His unblinking gaze warms Jeongguk to his fingertips, sparking through him until he rips it away and returns it to the cold form of Wonwoo. 

“I am.” 

Wonwoo’s frown deepens, his jaw tightening. A few moments pass where he seems to contemplate his actions before he steps forward. 

“Come with me.” 

To Jeongguk’s surprise, the mage grabs his forearm and pulls him even further away from the Arboretum, ignoring Jeongguk’s protests until they nearly reach the treeline. 

As he stumbles through the grass, Jeongguk glances over his shoulder to see Taehyung’s arms fall. His mentor’s tense figure moves away from where he’d been leaning, but he remains at a distance, likely debating on whether to intervene or not. 

“Wait,” Jeongguk grits, not wanting to worry Taehyung, “stop—”

Listen, Jeongguk.” 

He quiets at the sharp warning in Wonwoo’s tone, apprehension filling him when the mage positions himself in front of the Arboretum. It’s as if he deliberately blocks his view of Taehyung. 

“How much do you seriously know about him?” 

Wonwoo’s blunt question is as unexpected as being asked to the Ball, but Jeongguk supposes this is par for the course. His type has never taken rejection with grace.

“What does that have to do with you?”  

“I’m not fucking around, Jeongguk,” Wonwoo presses sternly. “Tell me what you know of Kim Taehyung. I’m not leaving until we discuss this.” 

His demanding tone pisses Jeongguk off and he knows he’s not obligated to answer, but a vindictive part of him wants to prove how close he and Taehyung really are. His mind works for a neutral reply, sifting through his growing piles of fond observations and embarrassing anecdotes. 

The facts he’s left with are few.

“He’s a hard worker,” Jeongguk grits tightly. “Brilliant with potions and lives and works at the Arboretum. Likes jewelry and comics. He’s kind, dedicated and underappreciated.” 

They’re all truths, but by his perturbed look, they’re clearly not what Wonwoo was hoping for.

“What year did he graduate?” Wonwoo asks flatly. 

Jeongguk immediately comes up blank. It’s irritatingly obvious that Wonwoo is fishing for weak spots between them. “I don’t know, exactly. Probably a few years ago.”

“I’m two years your senior, Jeongguk, and Taehyung was never in my classes. I saw him on campus maybe twice in seventeen years, and even then, he was never in a student uniform. He can’t be older than me and he’s definitely not younger than you.”

“Okay?” Jeongguk replies annoyedly. “So he didn’t attend school here. There are other academies in existence.” 

“He’s been working here for years so he wasn’t at another school, but he also clearly didn’t attend Elenia’s classes. He has no visible familiar but is somehow already a mage,” Wonwoo recites curtly. “Does that sound like a normal witch to you?”

“Am I a normal witch to you?” Jeongguk snaps in response, his heart beginning to race. “Not every witch follows the same path, you know. You don’t know Taehyung at all. I thought you apologized for making assumptions about him.”

“My assumptions are no different than yours,” Wonwoo hisses. “The truth is that Kim Taehyung tells you nothing, does he? In fact, no one knows about his past, and you’re not special enough to know either. You have as much information as I do.”

Jeongguk’s irritation quickly fades to true anger, but he holds his tongue. He despises the ounce of truth in Wonwoo’s words and refuting them will just make him look like a lovesick fool. 

“Take a good, long look at him, Jeongguk. I’ve heard he barely uses witch magic, and when he does, it’s worse than an elementary student. He has no record of taking or teaching classes on campus, no proven qualifications and he doesn’t leave this place for more than a few hours. When was the last time you saw him successfully make something other than potions?” 

Jeongguk’s heart pounds with sickening strength. The mark over his chest prickles more than it has in weeks. “He uses magic in the Arboretum all the time,” he defends, though he doesn’t specify what kind, simply because he hasn’t seen it. 

In truth, he and Taehyung rarely complete tasks side-by-side in the Arboretum, and the few they have are magicless busywork. Jeongguk can’t actually recall the last time he witnessed high level magic from him that didn’t end poorly. Taehyung has always typically avoided him during the day.

“Right,” Wonwoo grunts. “So never, you mean. Let me ask you this: have you truly considered who Taehyung really is? He’s shitty at the simplest of magic even though he claims to be a mage and he’s chained to the Arboretum with no past to speak of. Sounds like he’s someone who’s hiding and doesn’t want to be found, not even by his own apprentice.”

Jeongguk tries and fails to pull his arm free. It’s frustrating that there’s not a single point he can refute with fact, but he’s never really needed them. From the beginning, he’s always been reassured of Taehyung’s kindness and power by the people he trusts. He heavily doubts Namjoon would have lied about his talent or that Yoongi would have assigned him to someone incapable. Plus, Taehyung is respected and loved by Malyah, the strongest spirit he knows.

“He’s still incredibly powerful—”

“I don’t doubt that,” Wonwoo interrupts, his voice lowering. “But is he a powerful witch ? Because you’ve provided me with nothing that proves it—no clear affinity, no familiar, no history. There’s no way he’s a mage, and he’s locked away from the rest of us for a reason. You’re blinded by the attention he gives you.” 

Jeongguk’s palms sweat from his clenched fists, the pressure of his tightened jaw bringing on a headache. The questions and statements are too much—too loud and suffocating and the burn in his chest hurts—

“You should forget him, Jeongguk. He’s not good for you.”

For a moment, Jeongguk forgets how to breathe. 

“I get you’re stuck with your apprenticeship for now, but getting personally tangled with someone like him is only going to end badly for you. I don’t say this because I’m bitter about you turning me down, even though it fucking sucks,” Wonwoo adds with a disappointed grimace. “I say it because I care about you. Kim Taehyung isn’t who he says he is. He’s playing you.”

The mark on his chest stings. Jeongguk can’t help it when he finally clutches at the material of his shirt over his heart.

He knows he’s made a hundred excuses for Taehyung, and maybe he’s blind to ignore the gaping holes in his personal history, but he can’t help but feel loyal to the Taehyung that exists now. Regardless of his hang ups, Jeongguk is absolutely certain of his kindness and perseverance. Even if he isn’t a mage, he’s still Taehyung.

He trusts him. Maybe more than he should. 

“His past doesn’t matter to me,” Jeongguk retorts bitterly. “I don’t need to know every detail of someone’s life to befriend them, Wonwoo. Aren’t you the one who showed up here expecting me to do the same for you?”

“It’s not the same and you know it,” Wonwoo states, shaking his head dismissively. “You’re absolutely gone for him, aren’t you? So desperate that you’ll let yourself be strung along by the first person who gives you the time of day.” 

Rage mixes with embarrassment in Jeongguk’s gut. He takes an unintentional step closer, his restless power skating over the surface of his skin. To his credit, Wonwoo doesn’t back down.

“The only thing pathetic here is you not being able to take a fucking hint,” Jeongguk growls. “Taehyung may not be the best witch, but he’s still one of the only genuine people I’ve ever met. His past or his achievements don’t change his character, unlike you.”

“Sure. Keep believing that,” Wonwoo snaps with disdain. “Character only goes so far to cover the tracks of a fucking liar, but I’m sure it’ll be worth it when he puts out for you.”

Jeongguk’s chest feels like it's splitting in two from the contempt that rises in it. The grass below him begins to ripple as he struggles for control over his power.

“What the fuck don’t you understand?” Jeongguk seethes. “I don’t give a shit about what he hasn’t told me and I’m not entitled to hearing about his past. It still doesn’t impact how I feel about him.”

Liar, Jeongguk’s mind whispers, though he buries it away. 

The missing info does stop him from connecting with Taehyung as much as he’d like, but he can be patient. He can wait for Taehyung to open up to him. 

“Then what is he to you, Jeongguk?” Wonwoo grits, squeezing his arm tighter. Their faces are inches apart—too close. “He can’t be a friend if he barely trusts you, but you’re clearly still interested in him. Are you seriously okay with settling for someone you don’t even know?”

Jeongguk glares with all the venom he can muster. It’s true that Taehyung has never been much of a mentor and they haven’t taken the step to call each other friends. He barely knows anything about him other than what he’s learned just by observing and no one will reveal his past when asked. 

And yet, Taehyung has made himself an irreplaceable light in a world that’s always been dark. Jeongguk is drawn to him in ways he hasn’t felt before, from the unique shine of his eyes to the warm sound of his laugh. Taehyung has always been immeasurably patient with him… understanding and compassionate. He’s never once overlooked his abilities or spoken over his opinions. 

He knows he should feel trapped by his apprenticeship, tied down by the Arboretum’s vines and secrets, but Jeongguk’s never felt more free than when they’re together. Taehyung is the closest thing he’s ever felt to flying while on the ground. 

“Taehyung to me is… he’s—”

“Jeongguk?” 

At the sound of his voice, the little air left in Jeongguk’s lungs vanishes. Wonwoo turns to reveal Taehyung several feet behind them. 

The breeze quickens and blows Taehyung’s curls into his churning eyes, but Jeongguk still sees how they flick between himself and Wonwoo with concern. His gaze hardens when he sees the way Jeongguk’s arm is held, the muscles of his neck taught.

He looks angry—threatening, even. Jeongguk swears he can taste the unique power rolling off him in subdued waves.

Wonwoo quickly lets go without being asked. 

“Are you alright?” Taehyung questions as their stares meet, his voice low and deep. His tone is heavier and more dangerous than Jeongguk has ever heard it, the intensity of it coiling heat down his spine. It’s as if Taehyung stands beside him with lips against his ear and an arm around his waist, comforting him. Protecting him.

Jeongguk nods, swallowing thickly. Dark clouds now obscure much of the sky and filter out the sunlight overhead. They cast shadows onto them all, and even in the dark, Taehyung’s eyes sparkle. 

Jeongguk can't look away from them, and after the argument he just endured, he doesn’t want to. He wants the proof that he hasn’t imagined the kindness in Taehyung’s gaze up until now.

Taehyung’s reassuring eyes speak to him, almost calling him in a language only they share. The feeling isn’t demanding or harmful, but the urge to obey is there. He can nearly hear the coaxing words straight from Taehyung’s mouth.

Come here.

Without hesitation, Jeongguk sidesteps Wonwoo and returns to Taehyung’s side. Taehyung’s gaze softens as he approaches, his arms unfolding to extend a hand. 

Jeongguk's heart relaxes as he takes it, immediately relieved by its familiarity. The pain in his chest lessens and even the wind dies down. His mentor pulls him closer by the hand until their toes nearly bump together in the grass. 

“He didn’t hurt you, did he?” Taehyung asks softly, squeezing his fingers. His eyes search over him like they’re looking for injury. “I know it wasn’t my place to interrupt but you seemed… upset.” 

Jeongguk shakes his head and releases a long breath. “It’s— it’s fine. He just wanted to ask me something and wasn’t happy when I said no.” 

Taehyung’s brow quirks, curiosity sparking among the color in his irises. They travel to the lingering form of Wonwoo, a trace of irritation lining his face.

Jeongguk didn’t think Taehyung’s answering smirk could be so attractive. 

“Am I allowed to scare him off?” Taehyung asks quietly. His voice is somewhat playful, but Jeongguk feels the threat hang in the air. 

Despite his current intimidating aura, Jeongguk can’t help but picture Taehyung running at Wonwoo with arms flailing or maybe sending a flock of spirits his way, but he doesn’t think much will happen at all. 

Regardless, he’d still like to see whatever Taehyung is plotting. 

“Sure,” he shrugs. “I think we’ve reached the end of our... discussion. If you could call it that.” 

As Jeongguk frowns, Taehyung gently interlaces their fingers. He pulls him to his side so they’re standing shoulder to shoulder, leaning to whisper into his ear.

“Would I be correct in saying you don’t like this man, Jeonggukie?” 

The warmth of Taehyung’s breath and the endearment in his name make Jeongguk shiver. He nods again and presses their arms closer together. “He’s not a friend, but… he’s not a bad person either. Misguided, maybe.”

Taehyung hums in understanding. He holds his head high as he stares down their visitor, his imposing look piquing Jeongguk’s interest. 

“It’s rather rude to cross one’s barriers without a proper introduction, don’t you think?” Taehyung calls causally. “Especially showing up unannounced just to harass my apprentice.”

His tone dips to that velvety, powerful quality again, one strong enough to silence the wind. It makes Jeongguk weak in the knees.

Wonwoo grimaces. “Your apprentice just made it quite clear that he’s learned almost nothing of magic nor of you during his time locked up here,” he says coldly. “Jeongguk may not be able to see the forest among the trees, Kim Taehyung, but not all of us are so naive.”

In the many times they’ve held hands, Jeongguk thinks this is the tightest Taehyung’s grip has ever been. He side-eyes him and feels his cheeks burn at the cocky grin that greets him.

Protective, confident Taehyung is unbearably hot. 

“I don’t envy those who can see the forest,” Taehyung muses cryptically. “Most of them end up cursed or dead.” 

Wonwoo stills, the shadows of his face darkening. “Is that a threat, Kim?”

Their hands shift as Taehyung shrugs. “Just an observation among many. One such observation is that you apparently can’t take no for an answer.” He huffs a soft, dismissive laugh that shoots straight to Jeongguk’s core. “I must say, an unhappy apprentice makes an unhappy mentor, and unfortunately it appears Jeongguk is… distressed.”

A thick feeling of magic fills the air, so electrified that Jeongguk’s hair stands on end. He turns to Taehyung fully and finds him completely relaxed even as more clouds fill the sky. At his feet, the leaves and vines begin to move as if alive. 

“When Jeongguk is unhappy, well…” Taehyung sighs innocently, glancing skyward before pinning Wonwoo with his stare, “I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all.”

Jeongguk’s heart races at the immense power Taehyung emits. In all their time together, he hasn’t felt anything like it.

It’s obvious from this display that he really doesn’t know who Taehyung is, but if he’s certain of anything, it’s that he’s undeniably, irrevocably attracted to him. Mystery around his past or not, he’s never felt safer and more valued than he does right now, nor has he ever found someone’s power so alluring.

A dull rumble of thunder sounds and more vines slither toward Wonwoo, his face paling at the raw magic in the air. He eyes the movements of the ground warily and clenches his fists by his sides.

“Think what you want, say what you want, spread what you want about me,” Taehyung mutters darkly, voice swooping with true anger, “but leave Jeongguk out of it. He doesn’t need your bullshit.”

Wonwoo begins to back away, but his hardened stare doesn’t falter. “Someone has to tell him the truth and it’s obvious that it won’t be coming from you, Kim. If you cared about your precious apprentice so much, you’d show him who you really are.”

Taehyung seems to freeze, not expecting the retort. He bristles where he stands with renewed anger. “If you cared about him, you’d keep your fucking mouth shut and stay out of what doesn’t concern you,” he growls. 

Jeongguk knows Taehyung doesn’t realize he holds their hands hard enough to ache. He squeezes right back, torn between agreeing with Wonwoo and believing Taehyung knows what’s best for him. 

If Jeongguk were to be honest with himself, he’s sick of feeling left in the dark, though his trust in Taehyung has allowed him to temper his frustration and focus on the present. After his argument with Wonwoo, however, he’s not sure how much longer he can play along before his curiosity about who he really is becomes resentment. He has enough questions about his own life as it is. 

The secrets Taehyung conceals don’t scare him, even if knowing them puts him in danger. He’d face any threat alongside him just like he does now—shoulder to shoulder with his hand in Taehyung’s.

Despite the growing apprehension on his face, Wonwoo still scoffs. “You’re hiding from no one, Kim. You can hope that Jeongguk isn’t bright enough to find out, but you and I both know he is. You can’t protect him from himself.”

Taehyung goes rigid beside him, his jaw so taught that Jeongguk swears he can hear the grind of his teeth. His eyes pierce through his fringe with contempt as leaves spin in a whirlwind motion around Wonwoo, the thunder growing louder overhead.

“Nothing good comes of deceit, Jeongguk,” Wonwoo shouts sternly over the wind, staring him down. “He’s tying you down by lying to you.”

Jeongguk feels Taehyung shift. Vines slither over Wonwoo’s feet and up his calves. He kicks them away with annoyance, irritated when they crawl higher.

It’s obvious that Taehyung toys with him. From the power rolling off him, he could probably strike Wonwoo down and melt the entire Arboretum, but he holds back. It’s a different breed of magic than the kind that usually fails him, and it fascinates Jeongguk to know Taehyung is capable of it, but it also proves Wonwoo’s point further.

If typical magic disobeys him, how is he harnessing it now? 

“Jeongguk’s freedom has always been his own. After his apprenticeship is complete, he’s free to never return here,” Taehyung says seriously. 

Shock falls over Jeongguk and his heart leaps into his throat. It’s not what he wanted, not at all. He has to tell him— has to properly to show him how much he wants to stay—

“After everything I’ve put him through, I wouldn’t blame him if he didn’t—”

“I’m coming back, Taehyung.” 

He quiets abruptly when Jeongguk’s determined voice reaches him. Taehyung’s eyes are surprised when they turn to him, his vines suddenly loosening their hold on Wonwoo. 

“I’m coming back,” Jeongguk repeats, meeting his stare head-on. His pulse is erratic, but he knows it needs to be said. “I’m not leaving you here alone. Do you think you matter so little that I’d just forget about you?” 

“Jeongguk…” Taehyung breathes, heavy emotion flickering across his face. His teeth sink into his lip and his eyes shine, the clouds overhead just barely dissipating. 

Taehyung’s rare vulnerable look floods Jeongguk with a hundred desires at once. He suddenly wants to pull Taehyung close and thank him for sticking up for him, to reassure him that he won’t abandon him and that his past won’t change things between them. He wants to remind him of their promises to one another.

There are also the desires he can’t show with words, things he’s desperate to prove by slotting their mouths together and melding the heat of their bodies. Things he’s been longing to do for a while now. 

Even with a shadow of doubt lingering over him, Jeongguk wants . The feeling is all-consuming, sparking through every limb. It makes their audience all the more unwelcome. 

Jeongguk faces Wonwoo and finds him looking disheveled, clearly annoyed by the vines he still kicks away. Leaves stick messily in his windswept hair and debris litters the grass around his feet. 

“You came here with a question and I’ve given you my answer,” Jeongguk states bluntly. “I don’t think it’s necessary to waste our time any longer.”

The magic in the air slowly relaxes as Taehyung does, a long breath leaving him. He loosens his hold on Jeongguk’s hand but still refuses to let go.

Wonwoo dusts himself off and shakes out his hair, grimacing at Taehyung all the while. Eventually, he seems to accept the battle as his loss, shaking his head in defeat and sending Jeongguk a look of pity.

“My offer still stands, Jeongguk,” he says in a low voice. “Even if he turns you down, you should still attend. I’m confident I could treat you better and with more honesty than he ever could.” 

Despite their argument, Jeongguk can still hear the sincerity in his voice. He doesn’t doubt Wonwoo would make a decent partner, but as long as he disagrees with his trust in Taehyung, even something as simple as friendship is off the table.

“Thanks, but no thanks,” Jeongguk dismisses. 

Sighing hopelessly, Wonwoo turns away without another glance. He plunges his hands into his pockets and ventures back into the forest, his form disappearing among the trees. 

Taehyung and Jeongguk both release a long-held breath as Wonwoo’s footsteps travel out of earshot. The gardens slowly grow brighter as Taehyung calms, the breeze returning to its gentle sweep and the spirits poking their heads from where they had hidden away.

They’re awkwardly quiet for a few moments, long enough that Jeongguk looks to his side and finds Taehyung’s glittering stare pinned to the sky. 

“Will— will you really come back?”

The question is whispered, softened by the wind and the chirp of the birds. It’s nothing like his earlier velvety tone, far more delicate and breakable, but it still makes Jeongguk’s heart flip in the same way. Taehyung’s eyes travel to him as he asks, their colors a mosaic of emotion he can’t place.

“Of course I will,” Jeongguk replies softly. “Even if you’re no longer my mentor, we’re still friends, aren’t we? I’ll stay as long as you’ll have me—unless you get sick of me, of course. I mean, I’d get sick of me—”

The air is knocked from him as Taehyung suddenly throws his arms around his neck. Jeongguk makes a small noise of surprise as his heart nearly leaps from his chest. His hands fly to Taehyung’s waist out of habit and he hesitantly wraps his arms around him until their bodies are flush together, slowly tightening his hold. 

Taehyung still smells like apples and autumn sun. His body is still just as warm as the last time they held each other, still curved in the same perfect places and chiseled in others. His heart beats in equal time with Jeongguk’s and the breaths puffed into his neck still electrify and overheat him all at once. 

They remain still for a few moments, soaking up each other’s presence. It still makes Jeongguk nervous to be this close, but holding Taehyung also puts him at ease. He’s spent so long imagining him like this that it makes the real thing all the more satisfying.

“Sorry,” Taehyung murmurs, voice muffled against his neck. “I just—I’ve wanted to hear that for so long. Since our arrangement started, I realized I don’t—” he gulps down a shuddering breath, “I don’t actually prefer being here alone. I thought I was strong enough to handle the isolation, but… you proved me wrong. When he showed up here, I couldn’t stop imagining you walking away with him.”

The honesty in his statement constricts Jeongguk’s throat. He gives him a reassuring squeeze, holding him so close that the contours of their bodies press together. 

“What he said, that man—” Taehyung continues shakily, “he wasn’t wrong. There are... things I haven’t told you that might change the way you see me and technical reasons why I can’t share them, but I’m mostly just… afraid. Afraid you won’t see me the same way. I don’t deserve you to begin with, but I’m—I’m afraid I’ll lose you.”

Jeongguk shakes his head where it’s hooked over his shoulder. “I’m not going anywhere no matter what it is. You can tell me anything, Tae. Really.” 

“It's not that I don’t trust you,” Taehyung murmurs, his trembling hands fisting at the back of Jeongguk’s shirt. “But I’m not— it’s just not the right time yet. I promise you’ll know soon. I’m—I’m sorry.”

What little hope Jeongguk had of extracting the truth from him fades. “I can wait,” he answers, willing himself to believe it. “I’m more patient than you’d think.”

He feels Taehyung huff into his neck, burrowing his cheek there. “I don’t doubt it after how well you handled that guy. I would’ve decked him for grabbing me like that.” His amused tone slowly dwindles, an apology taking its place. “I’m also sorry for going a little overboard with him. I just— I don’t like seeing you upset.”

Jeongguk shrugs in his hold. “You have nothing to apologize for, Taehyung. I’m glad you were there. I should’ve handled myself better but he… caught me off guard.”

Taehyung’s head tilts against him. Jeongguk can picture the endearing way his lips quirk when he wants to ask a question. 

“He mentioned an… offer,” Taehyung says carefully. “He’s not trying to poach my apprentice, is he? Because I’ll walk right into that forest and kick his ass.”

Jeongguk snorts fondly. “It wasn’t that, though it’s not like I’d leave you for him anyway. He’s always been a bit of a prick.” 

Taehyung hums in understanding. A hand threads suddenly through the hair at Jeongguk’s nape, the feeling so satisfying that it nearly wipes his mind clean of thought. 

“It—it was actually…” Jeongguk trails off, biting his lip. 

He knows he has to ask now. There’s no better time, and after today’s events, it feels even more pertinent than earlier. 

“Taehyung.”

“Mm?” His mentor loosens his hold at his serious tone. He tries to pull back, but Jeongguk’s grip around his waist is firm.

“There’s— there’s something I need to ask you, but... I’m not sure I can do it while looking at your face,” he mumbles apologetically, cheeks burning with shame.

There’s a beat of silence before Taehyung laughs quietly. “You say that as if I don’t like holding you like this,” he jokes airly, making Jeongguk’s blush deepen. “Go ahead, Guk. I’ll wait as long as you need.”

Jeongguk takes a shaky breath, attempting to ignore the way Taehyung’s voice swims with affection. “There’s— there’s this event on campus a week from now. It happens only every twenty years and— it’s sort of special. The spirits go wild from the excess energy with our realms so close and we party along with them. It’s called the Spirit Ball.”

“Sounds interesting,” Taehyung acknowledges patiently. “What of it?”

Jeongguk swallows dryly. “Since it’s a Ball, you can bring a date,” he explains nervously. “Wonwoo actually came here to ask me if— if I’d go with him.”

Taehyung is quiet—composed, but with their chests pressed together, Jeongguk still feels the way his pulse quickens. 

“I told him no—” he reassures, the smallest bit satisfied when Taehyung quietly exhales in relief, “—because there’s... someone else I’ve wanted to ask.”

Jeongguk’s hands fiddle anxiously with the back of Taehyung’s shirt. He presses his lips together and squeezes him tighter. 

“Will you— will you go with me? As my date?”

Taehyung is perfectly still. Before he even has a chance to respond, Jeongguk begins to ramble over his shoulder in panic. 

“I— I know it’s hard for you to leave so we wouldn’t have to stay long or anything. We show up for a while and maybe… dance? Or get a drink? If— if you’re even into that, I’m not usually into it myself, but if you’re with me it could maybe be a little fun and we could dress up and—”

“Jeongguk.”

When Taehyung speaks, his voice is close enough to Jeongguk’s ear that he can feel the brush of his lips. Heat curls in his gut and he bites back a pleased noise when a breathy laugh is puffed over his neck.

“If you didn’t ask me,” Taehyung whispers playfully, “I was going to ask you.” 

Jeongguk’s hold slackens instantly. He finally pulls back and finds Taehyung beaming with a knowing glint in his eye. 

“You— you knew?” 

“I did,” Taehyung says with sly amusement. “Jin gave me my invitation last time I dropped off a new stock. He suggested we go together, but I was afraid you didn’t like parties or that you... had someone else in mind.”

Someone else. Jeongguk could laugh at that. As if anyone but Taehyung has ever occupied his mind this long. 

“There’s no one else,” Jeongguk replies hastily. “It’s you— just you. I didn’t want to go without you.”

Taehyung’s eyes soften with fondness as they search over his face. He uncurls a hand from around his neck to brush it over his cheek. 

“That’s a relief, since it’s the same for me,” he murmurs with a small smile. “But I’ll warn you now, I don’t get out much, obviously. I probably won’t make the most impressive date.”

Jeongguk actually does laugh this time, his chest feeling light. He can’t believe he worried over not being good enough when Taehyung’s felt the same about himself. The thought alone is absurd. 

“Taehyung, you could show up naked and I wouldn’t complain. I’m happy just to go with you.”

Taehyung smiles mischievously, patting his cheek twice. “Careful what you ask for, Jeonggukie. Don’t want to give me any creative ideas.”

“You say that like I would mind it,” Jeongguk jokes, unable to stop the flush that travels up his neck. Flirting isn’t his strong point, but with Taehyung, it’s all too easy to toe the boundary between friendly banter and something more.

Taehyung raises his brows at that, his most teasing grin inching across his face—the one that makes Jeongguk want to press their lips together until it melts away. “I’ll keep it in mind,” he purrs, “but while we’re on the topic of me embarrassing myself, I have one tiny request before I accept your invitation.”

Jeongguk tilts his head in interest. At this point, he’s wrapped around Taehyung’s finger enough to do anything he asks, but he keeps it to himself. 

Taehyung’s tanned face inches closer as his expression becomes surprisingly embarrassed. He mumbles a whispered proposal against his ear before leaning back, a shameful red climbing up his neck.

Jeongguk blinks as it registers, his lips parting in bewilderment. They slowly morph into a grin so wide that his cheeks hurt, his teeth shining in the afternoon sun.

“Oh, that can definitely be arranged.”







“Oh my god, oh my god, why the hell did I agree to this—”

Jeongguk laughs brightly over the gusts of wind that surround them. The crisp evening air stings his cheeks, the horizon just beginning to sparkle with a tint of color that’s much unlike the usual sunsets that paint Elenia’s skies. He’s sure it’s beautiful to most, especially from where they soar far above the forests, but the mage clinging to him for dear life puts even the magic-tinged skies to shame. 

“How much further? And please don’t just tell me to look because I’ll die, Jeongguk—”

“A few more miles,” Jeongguk consoles amusedly, unable to wipe the grin from his face. He has one arm tucked under Taehyung’s knees and another firmly around his middle, curling him against his chest. Taehyung clings so tightly to his neck that he’s surprised he can breathe. 

Although, when he had picked Taehyung up from the Arboretum to fly him to the Spirit Ball like he requested, Jeongguk is sure his heart stopped dead in his chest at the sight of him.

Taehyung’s opalescent dewdrop earrings sway from the current, the wind trailing some of the blue and green shimmer he had dusted into his hair behind him. His locks are curled to perfection and a shadowed hue darkens the lids of his eyes, complimented by a shine that highlights his cheeks and a gloss on his lips. Jeongguk is sure he’ll find glitter sticking to him later—not that he’s complaining. He’d proudly sport it every day if it meant having the freedom to hold Taehyung this close. 

He’s not fond of robes, but if they all looked like Taehyung’s, Jeongguk is certain he’d wear them more often. Tiny flowers of encrusted gemstone embroider his hooded robes of deep green, their stems a woven thread of silver that winds from hem to hem. His sleeves drip from his arms like velvet moss and even his nails are painted with a chartreuse shine that captivated Jeongguk the moment he took his hand. A choker with a pendant of deep purple that adorns his throat, so distractingly attractive that it threatens to short-circuit Jeongguk’s magic and knock them both out of the sky. 

And of course, along his wrists are his usual bracelets, including the one Jeongguk had given to him all those months ago.

Taehyung is utterly stunning, surpassing his highest expectations. He’s always been the closest thing to flawless even in his work clothes and covered in dirt, but now, Jeongguk feels like he’s seeing yet another version of him he hadn’t anticipated.

He’s not sure how he got lucky enough to have Taehyung by his side as his date… or, more accurately, shaking in his arms several stories off the ground. Flying isn’t exactly ideal transport with Taehyung being petrified of heights, but Jeongguk can’t recall ever being so elated at being accompanied in the air. It’s always been a pipedream to fly with Taehyung, but to live it is the most euphoric thing he’s felt in ages. 

“You asked for this, you know,” Jeongguk chuckles, shifting his weight with a soft grunt. “Something about not wanting to travel through the forest at night, if I remember correctly.”

Taehyung groans into his shoulder and Jeongguk suppresses a shiver. By now, he’s become something of an expert at ignoring how flustered their contact makes him feel, but every breath feels different tonight. It’s as if the air is electrified, every touch between them sparking like a strike of lightning. He’s not sure how he’s even stayed afloat this long. 

“I know exactly what I asked for and it’s just as fucking terrifying as I thought it’d be,” Taehyung complains, his voice muffled. “You’re lucky you look so ridiculously good. I think you’re the only thing alive that could convince me to travel this way.”

Jeongguk’s cheeks burn. He doesn’t hold a candle to Taehyung tonight, but he can’t deny that Jimin did his best work with his outfit. The smudge of charcoal around his eyes gives him a mysterious, untouchable aura that he’s never experienced before, and his best friend had even streaked his waved hair with a touch of silver, highlighting the tips around his head.

He took advantage of the many piercings he’s earned over the years, lining each one with chains of platinum that match the many rings on his fingers and the pendant from Malyah around his neck. Black, satiny robes rest on his shoulders with a hood that trails to the middle of his back. They appear rather plain from one angle, but when shifted, they reveal a brilliant metallic purple that’s breathtaking in the changing light. The belt worn around his middle accentuates his narrow waist, complemented by the heavy, black lace-up boots that rest on his feet. The shining shoes weren’t originally part of the plan, but he refused to part with them after Jimin accidentally revealed them in his closet.  

It’s a different look compared to his usual, but he can’t say he dislikes it. If anything, Taehyung’s lick of his lips and his lingering stare when he saw him is more than enough to justify the torture Jimin put him through. 

“You’re the one that looks good,” Jeongguk retorts lamely. “You’ll outdo everyone there in a heartbeat.”

Taehyung snorts against him. “I’ll argue this all the way there, you know. You’re obviously the better half in this arrangement. Next mirror we see, I’m proving it to you.”

Arrangement. Jeongguk doesn’t know how he feels about the word anymore. He thinks he’d like it better if it was a relationship instead, something of more permanence. Something more chosen and less forced.

He just isn’t sure how to prove to Taehyung he’s chosen him beyond just a date to the ball.

Taehyung continues to complain against him and Jeongguk continues to giggle, warming when Taehyung nuzzles against his cheek and slides his fingers beneath his hood. Despite his fear, there’s a hint of contentment in the way Taehyung speaks, a mutually-shared happiness that Jeongguk hopes is due to their growing closeness. 

They talk about their wishes for food at the Ball and Taehyung’s favorite drinks, mentioning their excitement to see the spirits and wondering if their friends will attend. Jeongguk briefly mentions the few old faces he’s likely to run into and how he’d like to avoid them if at all possible.

Taehyung is quiet then, his hold in Jeongguk’s robes tightening protectively. He doesn’t speak until he reminds Jeongguk that he’s not alone anymore—that he’ll stand beside him regardless of their actions.

The sentiment is enough to make Jeongguk weaken with fondness and nearly dip in the air. 

He thinks he’d be just fine spending the night with Taehyung like this—with or without the party. It’s freeing with them both in the sky, uninhibited by the pressures of their daily lives and happy to indulge in the other’s presence. Just talking to Taehyung brings him peace. 

The stars are just beginning to sparkle and the waves of color in the sky grow brighter as they approach Elenia’s main campus. In the dusky light, the Hall of Luminescence shimmers with a hue not usually seen. Jeongguk feels a flicker of surprise when the treeline fades to hedges and then to ornate stonework, his breath catching when he spots the elaborate courtyard and its central fountain. 

“Tae”, he murmurs in wonder, jostling him slightly. “Look.”

“I already told you,” Taehyung whines in response, “if I look, we’re both going down—”

“You trust me, don’t you?”

Taehyung quiets in surprise. To Jeongguk’s satisfaction, he eventually nods into his shoulder. 

“Then trust me now,” Jeongguk hums soothingly. “You won’t regret it, I promise.”

It takes a few moments for Taehyung’s head to slowly lift. His hold on Jeongguk’s neck tightens, his eyes squeezed shut as he turns with agonizing slowness. They just barely open to peer from around his arm and over the landscape. 

Jeongguk smiles when he hears Taehyung’s quiet inhale, his eyes flying open and his neck straining to get a better view. 

Color drips from everything in sight, the many braziers along every path enchanted with a flickering glow. There are lanterns swinging from low tree branches, some floating among the fountain’s waves and others hovering magically in the air. Woven vines of red and yellow leaves decorate every entryway and pumpkins line the walkways, their sides carved with an array of swirling shapes and their insides lit with candles. Airy autumnal drapery hangs from post to post and every inch of space for miles is decorated in illuminated crystal. 

“I thought it’d be beautiful,” Taehyung whispers, “but this is…”

Jeongguk gulps, nodding in wordless agreement. With the colors growing along the darkening horizon and the accenting decor, it’s as if Elenia has been plunged into another realm.

Spirits twirl through the air as they slowly begin to descend over the courtyard’s center. There are already many witches flocking among the many flowering gardens, waving to one another with brilliant smiles on their faces. Some have their dates or their familiars hanging off their arms, sporting shining, colored robes with sparkling accessories. Laughter and chatter mix with the excited cries of the many familiars wandering about freely, their figures like ants as they flow endlessly from the Hall of Luminescence.

The Hall is rarely used beyond special occasions. Jeongguk himself has never seen its interior along with most of the student body, its doors heavily enchanted by Headmaster Yoongi himself. On the few occasions he’s asked Namjoon about it, the scholar claimed it was a sacred place made for humans and spirits to mingle together, but Jeongguk never fully understood its purpose.

But now, with its many glass windows fully illuminated, he understands why it's kept under lock and key. 

There are stories in the colored shapes that make up the windows, depictions of spirits and flora and of nature and magic. Each panel is interrupted by a thin pillar, almost seamless in the way it connects and intertwines their illustrative stories. He hadn’t realized the roof had been covered until today, now clearly made of similar blossoms of stained glass. The sight of it against the evening sky is breathtaking. 

Their slow descent is easy as they hover in the air, the current fluttering the bottoms of their robes. Jeongguk gently releases the hold on Taehyung’s knees and he rights himself, his arm lowering to the front of Jeongguk’s waist. The pair of them stare out over their surroundings with held breath.

Eyes find them immediately and watch with interest as they near the greyed stones below, some even pausing their conversations. There are many faces Jeongguk doesn’t know and a few he’s seen in passing, some relatively friendly and others... not so much. His heart picks up speed and his palms begin to sweat, his arm tightening around Taehyung. 

“Maybe we should’ve landed in the garden,” Taehyung whispers in amusement, lips passing over Jeongguk’s dangling earrings. The ticklish sensation and Taehyung’s steadying hold are enough to snap Jeongguk from his nervousness and remind him of the man that stands by his side. 

He isn’t facing them alone tonight. Not this time. 

Their toes make contact with the ground first, the soles of their feet flattening as they lightly touch down. Taehyung sags against him and releases a long breath when they’re firmly landed, a relieved smile playing on his lips. 

“See?” he says proudly, his sparkling eyes just inches away. “I told you I could handle it.”

Jeongguk fishes for a witty retort but finds himself speechless as he takes him in. The air sparkles even brighter from their view on the ground, raining glowing glitter that dissipates as it lands. It shines down on Taehyung who flattens out his robes and runs a hand through his shimmering hair. 

Of all the surrounding lights, Jeongguk is absolutely certain Taehyung shines brightest. The hues paint his skin like a canvas and the gemstones sewn into his robes now glow like the nearby lanterns. Even the colors in his eyes somehow shine brighter than usual, the tint in his hair like that of the sky. 

Jeongguk is keenly aware of their audience, watching from his peripheral as many drag their impolite stares up and down their figures. Taehyung’s stunning appearance clearly takes them off guard, some openly gaping and muttering to their friends. The gazes on Taehyung make Jeongguk far more uncomfortable than the few lingering on him, enough that he pulls Taehyung even closer to his side. 

But Taehyung only seems to have eyes for him. 

“Let them stare,” he murmurs confidently. “I would too if I ran into someone like you.”

Jeongguk blushes, rolling his eyes and bumping him with his hip. Taehyung’s unabashed compliments will never cease to fluster him. “You seriously think they’re looking at me? Have you even seen yourself?” 

Taehyung just laughs and shakes his head, guiding Jeongguk’s arm down between them. He laces their fingers together and squeezes tightly, sending him a genuine smile. 

“Shall we explore so I can finally show off my hot date?” he says, an infectious excitement in his tone. His eyes glitter, earrings swaying as his cheeks lift.

Speechless, Jeongguk can’t wrap his mind around Taehyung’s unfailing ability to stabilize him. It’s never been this easy to forget the unwanted stares and the social pressures on campus, nor has he ever been able to shake the anxiety that comes with a crowd. Never has anyone looked at him like he holds the world in his hands.

“We’ll go,” Jeongguk exhales, smiling softly, “but only because I want to show off my date.”

Taehyung’s grin grows large enough to turn his eyes to crescents. His floral robes ripple as he steps forward, gripping Jeongguk’s hand tight as he tugs him along. There’s a spring in his step as he guides them toward the Hall’s brilliant archway, weaving around other partygoers as if they barely exist.

“I lied, by the way,” Taehyung says nonchalantly, facing ahead as they walk. 

Jeongguk quirks a brow as Taehyung glances over his shoulder, his teasing smile something ethereal in the light. The expression melts the last of the tension in Jeongguk’s heart and injects it with something new—something identical to the energy that surrounds them.

Something only Taehyung has ever given to him.

“I don’t think I like them staring after all. I prefer having you all to myself.” 

Jeongguk swallows thickly as heat snakes its way through him, the compliment fuzzing his mind. Taehyung’s flirting also feels different tonight, more purposeful and deliberate. 

It makes Jeongguk want to play along. Tonight is the one chance they have to cross the line between arrangement and relationship , after all. 

He quickens his pace until they’re shoulder to shoulder again, surprising the smile off Taehyung’s face when he leans in and purposely brushes his lips against his ear. 

“You have me,” he whispers tauntingly, slowing their advance until they’re standing still among the moving crowd.

Taehyung’s eyes are wide when he pulls away, his cheeks dusting with red. He searches over Jeongguk’s face before meeting his stare with a smirk.

“Is that a promise?” he says with amusement, his tone so velvety Jeongguk could drown in it. 

Jeongguk simply grins in response and tugs him onward with a laugh, but in the back of his mind, his voice all but shouts his reply. 

More than you think. 







They only manage about ten steps into the Hall of Luminescence before Jeongguk has a drink in his hand.

They were given complimentary glasses at the door, filled to the brim with sparkling liquid. As soon as he spots the amount of people flocking the tables and the open floor, Jeongguk tosses it down with all the eagerness he can muster. 

He’ll need it if he wants to survive a crowd like this.

Taehyung raises a brow from over the rim of his own. “Chardonnay,” he recites. “Not bad but not my favorite. Surprised to see you’re the wine type, though.”

Jeongguk shrugs, warmth blooming in his stomach as he swallows the alcohol down. He’s more of a hard liquor type simply because he hates the taste of it all. The purpose of drinking has always been to get drunk—no more, no less. 

On the rare occasions he does drink, he tends to tip from buzzed to smashed far quicker than he’d readily admit. He knows he’ll need to pace himself tonight, but he’s not too worried. Taehyung is enough of a distraction from his anxieties that he doesn’t feel the need to hide in the corner behind a tall glass. 

As they travel further into the Hall, it’s hard not to stop and gape at their extravagant surroundings. The colorful windows rise up to the glass-woven ceiling, the fused shapes splaying out in a fan formation between each pillar. Drapery is hung from corner to corner and magical petals fall from above, disappearing a few moments after littering the ground. 

The floor beneath their feet takes Jeongguk’s breath away. It’s polished to a perfect mirror sheen, reflecting the many partygoers and the rambunctious spirits that soar overhead. Between the echo of light on its surface and the small orchestra playing off to the side, the room feels otherworldly. Straight out of a fantasy.

“This is incredible,” he whispers, his heart alight with a buzzing excitement. A smile quirks the corners of his lips as he watches the antics of the spirits. He wishes he could join them without looking foolish. 

“Not bad,” Taehyung shrugs from beside him, “but easily second best to you.”

Jeongguk’s head whips to him as he begins to protest. He finds Taehyung beaming, thumbing over his knuckles where their fingers are still interlocked. 

“Don’t bother trying to convince me otherwise. I’m a bit biased—my only apprentice and all,” Taehyung says warmly, shooting him a wink. “Shall we explore?” 

Jeongguk just nods, his cheeks like cinders. It’s slowly becoming more and more difficult to hide his blushy smile from this version of Taehyung—a version that’s more adventurous and forward than he’s used to, unbearably alluring in the way he carries himself. 

If Taehyung wanted a night to blanket him in compliments, he clearly picked the right one. Jeongguk already feels a little lightheaded around him and he’s barely met the bottom of his first glass. 

He and Taehyung are pressed even closer now that they’re inside, their arms practically glued together. They stroll around the interior’s perimeter to stare up at the windows and arches, weaving around other witches in ornate robes and ignoring the few who stare a beat too long. Taehyung is utterly entranced by the scenery, chattering eagerly about his interpretation of each depiction and rattling off historical facts, but Jeongguk finds himself far more interested in the work of art that’s Taehyung himself. 

His eyes seem to dance with light when he’s excited, his earrings flashing as his head turns between Jeongguk and the panel. The movements of his bowed lips and the flutter of his eyelashes are immensely captivating, his voice deep and soothing in his ear. When they deposit their empty glasses on a nearby tray, Jeongguk watches how Taehyung’s long fingers leave the glass’s stem, his mouth running dry when his painted nails tuck his curls behind his ear. 

He’s never witnessed Taehyung so elegant and at ease, both breathtakingly delicate and intimidatingly powerful. Every day he’s spent working beside him suddenly feels like a privilege he hasn’t appreciated enough.

They venture to the very back of the room where the crowd thins and the music fades. There’s a dual staircase leading to a small chair that Jeongguk assumes is for the absent Headmaster. Both of their heads tilt upward at the transparent dome overhead, the only clear glass they’ve seen so far. Beyond the panes, the night sky now begins to burn with waves of changing color.

Jeongguk’s heart skips at the sight. His head is a little fuzzy now and he blames it on the wine hitting him, his smile coming easier and his motions a bit languid. Between Taehyung’s presence and the energy in the air, he thinks it’s the most relaxed he’s been in years.

Taehyung distractedly arches his neck to look around the area that wraps behind the seat. He disentangles his hand from Jeongguk’s to slowly approach another window, his footsteps echoing over the floor. 

“Taehyung?” Jeongguk asks softly, following close behind. 

His mentor doesn’t answer. Jeongguk finds him entranced by a window that’s dominated by purples and oranges. A flaming bird soars along the top with embers trailing from its brilliant plumage. Behind it follows a dragon with curled horns of obsidian, hooked claws and scales of purple. They circle one another in a continuous motion, their dance captured in a glass stasis.

“This is…” Taehyung breathes, lifting his fingers to trace along the iron ridges that hold the shards together. “It’s…”

Though Taehyung doesn’t finish, Jeongguk thinks he understands. It’s profoundly beautiful, even more so when hidden away from prying eyes. 

“Are they spirits?” Jeongguk asks, approaching to wrap his arms around Taehyung from behind. It’s a bold move, but his level of shyness is travelling lower with every minute that passes. Every second not spent touching Taehyung feels like a wasted one. 

He hooks his head over his shoulder and inhales deeply, comforted by the scent of perfume on his neck. Jeongguk’s heart thuds hard in his chest when Taehyung readily leans into his hold, reaching upward to play with Jeongguk’s dangling earrings. 

“They are,” he answers. “The two strongest types of spirits known to exist, actually. The stories say that the Phoenix clan still reigns over the spirit realm. They’re the only creatures that can continuously be reborn, transferring their spirit energy from form to form.” 

Jeongguk hums in interest, fascinated to hear of the spirit realm and it’s inner workings. With the changing color of the night sky shining through the glass, it’s as if the bird comes alive. He doesn’t doubt it has great power.

“And the dragon?” 

Taehyung’s hand stills where it plays with his earring. He’s quiet for long enough that Jeongguk peers around to get a look at his face. He sees Taehyung’s lip held by his teeth, his eyes unblinking where they flick over the glass. 

“Dragons eventually became tired of the spirit realm after fighting with the Phoenix clan. They can’t reincarnate, but their magic is so strong that their lifetime spans thousands of years. They came to our realm and brought the first magic to us after mating with humans. Direct descendants became warlocks, most of whose bloodlines dwindled to the witches we know today.” 

Warlocks. Jeongguk had nearly forgotten about their existence, but he recalls Jimin speaking of them with distaste. He even said one might be to blame for the Ire with their ability to manipulate spirit energy without consequence. 

He shudders to think of what they’re capable of if they’re actually descendants of true dragons. Last Jeongguk heard, all dragon spirits were long extinct.

They’re both quiet for a few moments. In the distance, the music seems to pick up and the chatter of voices slowly grows louder, catching their attention. It’s unlike him, but part of Jeongguk is curious to return to the party, eager to let loose with the buzz he has going. 

“Alright, enough history bullshit,” Taehyung proclaims, turning to eye him over his shoulder. “Let's do what we came here for.”

Jeongguk blinks, entranced by how close Taehyung’s lips hover near his own. It’s too long before he rips his stare away from them and sends Taehyung a blank questioning look. 

“And what would that be?”

Taehyung’s grin is catlike, his eyes alight. “To fuck around and look good doing it.” 

Jeongguk slowly grins right back. He grips Taehyung a little tighter, all too aware of the curve of his ass pressing against him. He swears Taehyung just barely grinds back, laughing under his breath all the while. 

“Tease,” Taehyung murmurs amusedly.

Jeongguk exhales shakily, his cheeks flushed and hot. He desperately needs another drink if this is how the rest of the night will go.

“C’mon,” Taehyung grins, turning in his hold and slowly prying his grip away. “Let’s enjoy ourselves among company for once.”







With the set of the sun, the colored glow of the Hall now shines even brighter.

To neither of their surprise, the crowd’s only grown during their time spent observing. The buffet table is flocked by witches with plates and drinks in hand, some venturing off to the sides where circular tables are arranged for seating. The pair of them begin to approach the line for food, but Jeongguk is struck by a familiar pair of crystalline eyes in the crowd.

“Jimin!” Jeongguk calls happily. He waves down his friend, redirecting Taehyung to stroll to his side.

“Gukkie?” Jimin greets, his smile stretching across his face as they grow nearer. “And Taehyungie, too?”

Taehyung stands beside Jeongguk with a bright smile, almost as excited to see him as Jeongguk is when they arrive before him. “You look amazing, Jimin,” Taehyung compliments. “Unexpected after the work you did with my brilliant apprentice.”

The pair of them giggle and Jeongguk resists joining them, rolling his eyes instead. There’s no room to disagree that his best friend looks stunning in his metallic silver robes and their iridescent lining. Tiny diamonds are placed artfully at the corners of his eyes that match the shining choker he wears, his hair slicked back and his fingers covered in rings. 

It occurs to him that Taehyung and Jimin are far too alike for their own good, both scheming and beautiful with hearts of solid gold. He knows they’d make quick friends if Taehyung could leave more often to meet him. 

“It was nothing much, though he sure did whine about it for the entire afternoon,” Jimin jokes, sending Jeongguk a playful glare. 

Jeongguk only pouts, though he can’t hold it for long. The giddy feeling in his chest has him smiling in a heartbeat. “What’re you up to?” he asks over the noise of the crowd. 

“Waiting for the address. It’s just about to start, actually,” Jimin answers, gaze turning to the central dias they had just ventured behind. The three of them jolt as a tolling bell rings out with perfect timing, the orchestra pausing their slow melody. To Jeongguk’s surprise, the crowd falls quiet quicker than he expects, silent enough to hear a pin drop. 

He anticipates that Yoongi will show up to address the student body as Headmaster, since they rarely have a reason to gather so many students together. The several hundred of them present are only a fraction of the thousands that still linger on other parts of campus, but in his many years at Elenia, Jeongguk has never seen so many in one place. 

To his shock, and apparently to Jimin’s excitement if his sharp inhale means anything, appears Kim Namjoon. 

The lights lower as every brazier in the room dims, the overhead chandeliers flickering out. The brightest spot in the room is conveniently over the dias where the glass dome lets uninhibited light through, shining down onto Namjoon’s platinum hair. He looks fierce in his patterned robes of cream and red with accents silken and shining. His undershirt dips dangerously low and Jeongguk swears he even spots a dash of liner around his eyes that reminds Jeongguk all too much of his lion familiar. 

“Some of my best work,” Jimin whispers to Taehyung. The pair send each other a mirrored grin. 

“Good evening, everyone. I thank you for joining us at tonight’s Spirit Ball,” Namjoon begins, his voice booming as it bounces off the walls. His tone is more official than the banter Jeongguk is used to, amplified by magic. “This is admittedly when Headmaster Min would take the opportunity to speak, but unfortunately, he had some urgent matters to attend to this evening. He heavily regrets his absence and conveys his deepest apologies.”

There’s a mumble across the crowd as Taehyung and Jimin’s smiles fall. Jeongguk’s brows furrow, though he doesn’t waste too much time thinking about Yoongi’s preoccupations. Despite only having one drink, he feels as if he’s downed three.

“Therefore, he instructed me to deliver his wishes to you all on this sacred day. As you know, the spirits run free tonight, and we as their companions celebrate their joy as if it’s our own. The Headmaster would like me to encourage you to stay safe, but to also let your hearts run free for a night.”

Though Jeongguk is sure Namjoon is probably making it up as he goes, he can’t help but feel his heart pick up speed at the thought of running free. Taehyung’s hold on his hand tightens as if sensing his excitement. 

“We are all destined to change come tomorrow. Each day, we grow and face a new dawn. We learn from our mistakes and our victories—from our transgressions and our failures. We lift ourselves from the ground and begin again. The cycle of growth is a rewarding one, but even I admit it can have its trying moments where we can only find solace in the ones we love.”

Jeongguk hears Jimin huff strangely beside him, piquing his curiosity. 

At the same time, he can’t help but agree. The days in which he finds solace in Taehyung are growing more and more frequent. 

“Tonight, I encourage you to pause—to find peace in those that you treasure. In your friends, your loved ones and in the spirits that stand alongside us. Remind them of how much you care and that you will be by their side no matter what tomorrow brings. Enjoy their presence and take the chances with love you’d often overthink. For tonight, it is simply okay to be .” 

The quiet over the room is impenetrable, lingering on a tipping edge that Jeongguk feels eager to drop from. The energy nearly vibrates him where he stands and he’s thankful for the grounding stability of Taehyung’s hand. 

“And with that,” Namjoon says, smiling grandly with eyes flashing like lightning, “let the night of the Spirits commence!” 

He snaps his fingers and Khiro roars loudly at his side, stirring the spirits into a chorus of calls. All at once, the lights in the room spark with a rainbow of color far brighter than earlier. The overhead lights remain darkened and plunge the Hall into a celestial ambiance, the crowd cheering as a serpent spirit whizzes overhead and pops sparkles over them all.

If Jeongguk’s feet weren’t firmly planted to the ground, he’d swear he’s already flying. 

Jimin appears stunned, his eyes firmly locked to Namjoon’s descending figure. He blinks to himself several times as he worries his lip, shifting anxiously from foot to foot.

Taehyung’s quiet laugh washes over Jeongguk and threatens to melt him right there. “Go,” he encourages softly, elbowing Jimin in the side. “You heard the man—it’s now or never.”

Jeongguk shoots Taehyung a confused look as Jimin’s eyes search over Taehyung’s, slowly becoming more determined. He takes his free hand and squeezes it, returning Taehyung’s reassuring smile.

“You’re— you’re right. Fuck it. It’s the Spirit Ball, there’s no better time.” He runs a hand through his hair and taps the sides of his face. “I’ve just gotta do it.”

Taehyung giggles. “I don’t think you’ll have much convincing to do,” he says, nodding toward the dias.

Ahead of them, Namjoon descends the stairs with his ornate robes flowing behind him. His eyes search over the throng of bodies until he spots their group, or more accurately, Jimin. 

Jeongguk is sure he’s never seen Namjoon smile so fondly. 

“I’m going,” Jimin breathes, stepping past them. He hesitates briefly, turning around just before he walks off. “And, Jeongguk…”

Jeongguk arches a brow. 

“Don’t forget what we discussed about moving,” he says slyly, turning away with a smirk. He struts off like a shooting star, shouldering through the sea of bodies until he meets Namjoon at the foot of the steps. 

A few moments later, Jimin is grabbing the scholar by the front of his robes and kissing him before the student body. 

There are surrounding whoops and hollers as Jeongguk’s jaw drops open. He watches as Namjoon’s eyes widen, his cheeks slowly lifting into a smile against his lips. It isn’t long before he wraps his arms around Jimin’s waist and kisses him back with abandon, a hand cupping his neck.

Jeongguk short-circuits. Jimin and Namjoon… his best friend and the man that’s like his older brother kissing in public display...

Maybe he’s already wasted. 

“How—” Jeongguk sputters, turning to Taehyung, “how did you know he…?” 

“Intuition,” Taehyung shrugs, his eyes glimmering with amusement, “and personal experience.” 

Jeongguk blinks, his head spinning. Experience with who, exactly?

“What about moving did I just hear?” Taehyung asks innocently, sidling up to Jeongguk with palms on his waist. He hovers well within his vicinity, enough that they share the same magic-tinged air. 

Jeongguk shakes his head, pressing his thumbs to his eyes for a massage before lowering them again. “Nothing, it was just…” 

Taehyung stares at him fondly as the crowd moves around them. The orchestra has doubled in volume and the colors now blare against every surface, enveloping Taehyung as if he’s the focal point in a painting. They highlight his curves and cast shadows over his sparkling eyes. 

Even among the noise, Jeongguk can only hear Namjoon’s words resonating in his mind. 

For tonight, it’s okay to just be. 

“Want—Want to get another drink?” he asks breathlessly, licking over his lips. Taehyung follows the motion, staring long enough for Jeongguk’s heart to race. His knowing smile is almost too much to handle.

“Lead the way.”







The food Jeongguk shoves down does little to quell his growing buzz. In fact, it only seems to make things all the more lively. 

Taehyung tucks his crossed ankles over Jeongguk’s feet beneath the table, their bodies so close that they might as well be sharing a chair. He can feel the heat of his thigh and the way he sways to the music, the musicians now sporting drums and panflutes and tambourines. The uplifting fervor they play with makes Jeongguk’s spirit soar. 

They’ve both had another drink by now, a mixed juice hand delivered by Taehyung himself. Jeongguk swears he couldn’t taste the alcohol in it, but from the way every inch of his body now feels hot, he’s sure it was just expertly crafted. He has no clue of Taehyung’s tolerance, but he thinks he might be loosening up by the way he rests his cheek on his curled fist and stares up at Jeongguk in near reverence. 

The undivided attention makes Jeongguk‘s chest feel like it’s caving in. He’s admittedly always wanted it from Taehyung, but he never considered what would happen once he earned it. 

“You’re pretty.” 

Jeongguk chokes on the last of his potatoes, jolting Taehyung’s feet where they lie over his. He thumps a fist against his chest and shoots him an incredulous look. 

The mage’s eyes are just barely lidded, his flushed cheeks rounded from his quiet giggle. Jeongguk is certain there’s red there, hidden among the shine of the surrounding crystal that reflects on his skin. 

“M’ not,” Jeongguk mumbles, finding that speaking has suddenly become a challenge. He tries to stare at the table, but he can’t keep his eyes off Taehyung for long.

“You are.” 

Taehyung’s smile is lopsided. He runs his free hand from Jeongguk’s temple to his cheek, trailing gentle fingers beneath his chin to tilt it upward. 

Every touch sets Jeongguk ablaze. It’s too much and not enough all at once, solidified into one infuriating tether of tension he’s desperate to snap in two.

“If I’m pretty, then you’re drunk,” Jeongguk retorts weakly. He hopes he doesn’t look as flustered as he feels.

“Yes to the first, no to the second,” Taehyung hums, thumbing over his chin as his eyes flick to his lips. “A little tipsy maybe, but nowhere near where I should be. I need a hell of a lot more if you want me at your level.” 

Jeongguk can’t imagine how Taehyung would act with another drink, especially not with how touchy and talkative he’s been. He’s already mystified by this version of him, taking Taehyung in with repeated shock only for his hazy mind to fall for him all over again. 

Well, he can picture what might happen, but it would involve closing the little remaining space they’ve tolerated between them tonight. 

...Maybe he wants another drink after all.

“Have another then?” Jeongguk suggests. “We still have plenty of—”

He inhales sharply and Taehyung grins.

“—time.”

There’s a hand suddenly sliding down his thigh, the pads of fingers gripping the sides of his knee and trailing back up again. Jeongguk resists the urge to part his legs further as a wave of heat crashes over him, all too willing to endure Taehyung’s teasing. 

“Mm, you might be right,” Taehyung muses, acting as if they discuss the weather and Jeongguk isn’t squirming beside him. “I did make sure to take extra precaution tonight in case things ran late.”

Jeongguk blinks a few times, slow to register the implication as his mind spins. He shifts a little closer, heart lodging in his throat when Taehyung’s fingers slip further inward. “Extra—extra what?”

“There are... potions and things,” Taehyung drawls casually, tracing maddening circles inside his knee, “supplements that help me stay out longer. I can’t leave the Arboretum much after being away this long, though—might even have to take a day off.”

Jeongguk raises his brows at that. Drunk or not, he can’t picture Taehyung missing work unless he’s on his deathbed. Whatever happens when he’s away must be horrible.

“Will you be alright?” Jeongguk asks concernedly. 

Taehyung snorts fondly. “I’ll just be tired, Guk, nothing to worry about. We’re fine for another few hours.” 

Jeongguk still feels unconvinced, but he doesn’t know how to argue with his mind tangled like an unraveled thread. He’d much rather focus on the feeling of Taehyung’s wandering hand. 

“I think I’ll get another,” Taehyung decides, giving Jeongguk’s thigh a quick squeeze before climbing to his feet. “You?” 

Jeongguk shakes his head, immediately regretful when the room moves with it. “No more,” he says, waving a careless hand. “M’ good.”

Taehyung nods, though he hesitates when he notices Jeongguk’s glassy look. He reaches out with a gentle smile to thread careful fingers through his hair. 

“You’re having a good time, right?” he asks softly, eyes flicking over him attentively. “I’m not boring you?”

The sensation has Jeongguk caught between jumping from his skin and relaxing into it. He lets his eyelids flutter shut, focusing on the feeling of Taehyung’s affectionate touch and soaking up every bit of the massage to his scalp. 

“Not boring,” Jeongguk mumbles, his body feeling molten. It’s dangerously easy to say what’s on his mind when the alcohol has all but demolished his filter. “Could do anything with you and be happy.” 

Taehyung’s lips part in surprise before he’s smiling softly, petting over his head and trailing fingers over his cheek. “That’s a relief, since I feel the same.” 

Jeongguk’s eyes flick open as his hand lifts away, his heart skipping at the statement. He’s glad he still has enough self-control not to whine for more of his touch. 

Taehyung retrieves his empty glass and tilts his head toward the opposing side of the room. “I’ll be back in just a second. Don’t go too crazy while I’m gone,” he says playfully. 

Jeongguk sticks his tongue out and Taehyung laughs, his shoulders shaking even when his head of shimmering hair disappears into the crowd. 

The silence that fills Taehyung's absence is a distinct one. Jeongguk can’t say he prefers being alone, a bit on edge with Taehyung gone, but it’s easy for him to entertain himself when he feels like this. The music is mesmerizing, pulsing through him as he taps his feet and nods his head with the ghost of a smile on his lips. He runs a hand through his hair and shakes it out to rid it of the heat, wondering when the hell he got so warm. 

Witches he’s unfamiliar with dance and twirl before him, some more coordinated than others. It makes Jeongguk infectiously happy to see them so carefree, their laughter ringing out over the music like an accompanying instrument. Though he’s never particularly enjoyed being directly among his peers, he’s always liked observing them, fascinated by how others go about their lives. It’s a nice reminder he’s not the only one with hopes and fears—that he isn’t truly alone in his human struggles. 

But among his observations are… other thoughts that keep circling back to distract him. Every time he closes his eyes, he feels the incessant tickle of Taehyung’s breath over his neck or his wandering hand crawling up his thigh. The few drinks he’s had dare him to imagine the feel of Taehyung holding him to the wall, his confident presence crowding him. There are thoughts of fingers in his hair and a thumb prying his lips open. A baritone laugh trailing the curve of his ear. Nails digging into his hips, tugging him closer.

Jeongguk shivers, dragging his own hand up and around his flushed neck.

He’s learning quickly that he loves being taunted and teased—loves the feeling of trusting someone enough to feel vulnerable with them. There’s something liberating about allowing himself to feel treasured, like he has more worth than he ever allotted himself. Choosing to put his trust in Taehyung’s hands is a freeing act in itself. 

He crosses his legs, elbows propped on the table behind him with his head tipped back. The buzz is more of a drunken high now, a bit euphoric as it slips through him. Sweat dampens the back of his neck and he smiles with his eyes closed, immersed in the music and the thick magic in the air. 

When Taehyung comes back, he thinks he might be drunk enough to finally make the jump—to wrap his arms around his neck and kiss him until their lips are raw. He desperately wants to hear the way Taehyung’s velvety voice sounds when it’s caught in a moan, wants to feel his hands slide over his bare skin and slot their hips together until he forgets everything but the feeling of him—

“Alone again, are we? Just like always.”

Jeongguk’s stomach lurches, his eyes snapping open. To his horror, he finds Vernon hovering over him with his trademark sneer, his face far too close for comfort. His facade chases every ounce of Jeongguk’s prior heat away in an instant. 

The witch wears shining silver robes that look like steel, his hair a matte grey that’s slicked back to reveal his sharp eyebrows. Blood-red earrings match his colored contacts and his teeth gleam in the changing light. 

Jeongguk finds them sickening.

“M’ not alone,” he grunts irritatedly, ignoring the way the room subtly spins when he slowly sits up. The perimeter of the crowd is too dark and rowdy to spot Taehyung, but he prays he’ll see him making his way back soon. He’s too drunk to take Vernon’s shit gracefully right now. 

“It’s alright, Jeonggukie,” Vernon soothes, sending him a pout, “you don’t have to lie to me. I’ve already seen you alone here for a few minutes. Reminds you of the last party, eh? Just you and your glass, drunk and alone. Sad.”

There’s no point in arguing—logically, Jeongguk knows there isn’t. But logic doesn’t stand a chance against his growing desire to punch Vernon in the jaw.

“Don’t take it out on me because your personality is too shit to get a date,” Jeongguk retorts, his bitter tone just a hint slurred. “Jealousy is uglier than usual on you, Vernon.”

Vernon grins venomously, stepping too far into his vicinity. He puts his hands on either side of him, holding himself up by the table and shadowing Jeongguk’s face from the light.

“Filthy mouth for someone looking so pretty tonight,” Vernon grins mockingly, his face inches away. His tongue swipes over his lips as he trails his gaze deliberately down his figure. “What a waste. You should let me treat you right since your little boyfriend refuses.”

Jeongguk glowers in disgust. Anyone but Taehyung hitting on him makes his skin crawl, but for Vernon to suggest it is his personal nightmare. 

“Fuck off.”

“Mm.. not the kind of fuck I was aiming for.” His hand slips over Jeongguk’s neck and Jeongguk freezes for a heartbeat, his eyes widening. “Where’s your precious mentor, baby? Stood you up again? Can’t say I’m surprised.”

Jeongguk flashes his teeth, his grip flying to Vernon’s wrist. He hates how unsteady his motions are, the shadow of his face swimming in his dizzy vision. 

“You broke Wonwoo’s heart, you know,” Vernon continues casually, though Jeongguk doesn’t miss the flash of irritation across his face. “And for what? So Kim Taehyung could fuck off at the Arboretum like he always does? Did he really think to send you here alone?”

Jeongguk grits his teeth. “Taehyung is—”

“Save it,” Vernon snaps, his fake smile contorting into a frown. “Wonwoo told me plenty about how fucking blind you are, following around Taehyung like a worthless dog while he lies to you out his ass. It pisses me off that I had to comfort him knowing you chose a fucking fraud over someone hardworking.”

His hand slips under Jeongguk’s jaw, holding his chin upward. “Do you like when he leashes you, Jeonggukie?” Vernon whispers. “Like that he lets you hide away from all the things you hate about yourself? I always knew you were weak, but I never took you for the type to actually enjoy being used.” 

His grip on his chin tightens and Jeongguk grunts, ripping his fingers away. The center of his chest burns more with every breath. 

“If you like it so much, why not beg me for it? I’m sure your Taehyungie has taught you a few tricks.”

“Don’t fucking touch me,” Jeongguk snarls, shoving him away. “Like I’d ever choose someone who can’t even handle his fucking apprenticeship. So sorry that Wonwoo prefers someone with a spine over a lazy prick like you. Heard he spends more time babysitting your ass than working.”

The veins in Vernon’s temples show, his hands curling into fists. It’s a stance Jeongguk knows well, the one when he strikes the perfect nerve and pays for it in blood. He nearly climbs to his feet to defend himself when he spots a flash of color from the corner of his eye. 

“Jeongguk?”

As if he had materialized there, Taehyung now stands beside him with a full glass in hand. Jeongguk supposes he’s drunker than he feels—he hadn’t even seen him approach. 

The expression Vernon makes at Taehyung’s sudden arrival is almost as satisfying as decking him across the face, Jeongguk thinks. He looks utterly dumbfounded by his flawless appearance, gaping when Taehyung rests his glass on the table and stands close to Jeongguk’s side.

Taehyung’s eyes flick between him and Vernon, a harsh glint of irritation among the flashing shards of color. It’s a look Jeongguk recognizes only by knowing him so well, the threat behind it making his breath hitch.

“Who’s this, Guk?” Taehyung asks innocently, speaking in that deep way Jeongguk would gladly drown in. “A friend of yours?” 

“A classmate,” Jeongguk exhales, glaring at Vernon with contempt. “Nothing more.”

Taehyung hums in understanding, returning to his earlier motion of running fingers through his hair, but there’s now a subtle display of possessiveness in it that even Jeongguk’s drunken state doesn’t miss. It takes all of his power not to lose himself in it. 

Vernon’s shock doesn’t last long. He grins confidently, his eyes raking over Taehyung’s form with keen interest. “I see they weren’t fucking kidding when they said the Arboretum holds Elenia’s hottest secret. You should come out of your cave a little more often, Kim Taehyung. Grace us worthless commoners with that face of yours.”

Jeongguk goes rigid, his anger flaring as the burn in his heart does. Taehyung’s fingers still in his hair for less than a breath, continuing after a small scoff leaves him.

“You tempt me,” Taehyung drawls airly, “but unfortunately, it takes quite a bit of convincing for me to leave my cave behind.”

Vernon raises a cocky brow. “And how does one convince the mysterious Kim Taehyung?” 

Taehyung hums thoughtfully before Jeongguk feels fingers slip below his chin. Unlike Vernon’s earlier grip, this one is immeasurably gentle, coaxing him to look upward and meet his stare.

As if Jeongguk ever needs a reason to take him in. 

“I suppose I’m just weak for my only apprentice,” Taehyung murmurs, his lips twitching as his eyes bore into Jeongguk’s. “I can’t say no to a face like this.”

The room grows warm at Taehyung’s touch, hotter still when he slides a thumb over his lower lip. Jeongguk all but melts under his hold, suddenly desperate for them to be alone so he can put Taehyung’s alleged weakness for him to the test.

Vernon snorts dismissively, though he obviously watches how Taehyung handles him. “There are other faces around here, you know. Some with more experience and much easier on the eyes.” 

Taehyung’s stare streaks with light when it flashes to Vernon. “Are there?” he questions, his head tilting. “How curious. I’ve been here for hours and I’ve yet to see anyone else worth a damn.”

Jeongguk can't hold back his grin beneath Taehyung’s light touch. Taehyung brushes his thumb over his lip again, his eyes not leaving Vernon as he fights his own smile. 

Vernon bristles with irritation. He takes a step closer, his patience clearly wearing thin. “That’s funny coming from a fucking fraud—”

“Vernon.” 

Taehyung’s hand slowly falls to his side as Wonwoo appears. His gaze flicks over them before turning angrily on his apprentice. 

“Wonwoo,” Vernon greets quickly, feigning innocent surprise, “I was just—”

“I’m not an idiot, Vernon, as much as you treat me like one. Stop causing trouble and leave them be. This is a sacred night, not one for you to be a dick for no reason other than petty boredom.” 

Vernon shrugs it off, though he frowns like a scolded child. The look has Jeongguk giddy with satisfaction. 

“Jeonggukie had been by himself for awhile. I assumed he came alone and just wanted to keep him company.”

“Then you’re foolish,” Wonwoo admonishes harshly. “I told you he’d have a date. Kim Taehyung only answers to one man.” 

A slow shock settles over Jeongguk at the words, grateful the alcohol in him stops him from curling into a ball of embarrassment. He glances upward at Taehyung and finds his brows raised in surprise. 

“I see you’re far more observant than your apprentice, Wonwoo,” Taehyung addresses bluntly, crossing his arms against his chest. The gemmed flowers of his sleeves gleam like a blade in the light. “But if I happen to catch him threatening Jeongguk again, I won’t hesitate to remind him that some mysteries are best left... unsolved .” 

His threatening tone gives Jeongguk goosebumps. He won’t ever tire of Taehyung slapping the look of confidence off the faces that have tormented him for years. 

“...Fair enough,” Wonwoo huffs neutrally, gripping a whining Vernon by the shoulder. “Let’s go, Vernon. We’ll discuss this later.”

“Whatever,” Vernon hisses, his defeat as clear as day. He rips Wonwoo’s grip from his shoulder and stomps off in a huff, his robes rippling behind him.

Jeongguk waits for a Wonwoo to follow, surprised when the mage hesitates. He looks over the pair of them before shaking his head with a long breath.

“Have fun, will you?” he says, his lips twitching upward. “And be safe.” 

Jeongguk swallows thickly. Maybe it’s because he’s drunk or maybe he’s just too empathetic for his own good, but it relieves him to see Wonwoo having put their argument behind them. The maturity isn’t something he often encounters.

Beside him, he sees Taehyung reveal a small smile. 

“Will do.” 

Wonwoo nods once. He sends Jeongguk a final glance, plunging his hands into the pockets of his granite-patterned robes before walking off along the tables and following after Vernon. 

When they’re finally alone again, Taehyung’s smile instantly slips away. His attention to Jeongguk is immediate, hands worrying over his hair and moving to cup his cheeks. 

“Did he touch you?” he asks, gaze travelling over him in concern. He moves his thumbs back and forth, lowering himself to eye level. “He didn’t hurt you, right? Fuck, I shouldn’t have left you, I didn’t realize—”

“It’s fine, Tae,” Jeongguk huffs, moved by his level of care. He hates seeing Taehyung blame himself for his own weaknesses. “This was nothing compared to… things in the past. Usually there’s blood involved,” he adds, laughing weakly. 

Drunk Jeongguk immediately regrets his statement when Taehyung’s face crumples. 

“Jeongguk,” Taehyung insists, hands sliding to his shoulders with a gentle squeeze. “You never deserved to be treated that way. Not then and not now, not ever. If he tried anything with you—”

“It was nothing, Taehyung, really. He just had his hand here—” Jeongguk moves a palm over his flushed neck, feeling his pulse race, “— but that was it. Nothing I couldn’t handle.” 

They might as well be in their own world now, and Jeongguk is only just beginning to notice the change in the surrounding aura. The music has grown slower, more sultry and languid, the bodies on the dance floor packed closer together. It pairs too well with the way Taehyung’s eyes darken, Jeongguk’s heart stopping in his chest when Taehyung steps between his legs. 

“I hate it,” Taehyung breathes darkly, dragging fingertips over Jeongguk’s neck where his own had just been. “I don’t like seeing them touch you— how comfortable they are with hurting you. It really pisses me off.”

Jeongguk doesn’t like it either. He likes this, though—likes the feeling of Taehyung towering over him, likes how comfortable they are tonight with crossing lines they’ve both avoided until now. Likes the recklessness that being drunk brings him so he can tell Taehyung what he’s actually thinking instead of skirting around the truth.

“Fuck him—all of them,” Jeongguk exhales, holding him by the waist. “They know I’m yours.”

Taehyung’s breath catches audibly, his fingertips stilling at his jaw as he stares down at Jeongguk in surprise. 

The grin that follows has his limbs weakening just from the look alone. 

“You’re right,” Taehyung hums thickly, tracing shapes against his skin. “They should know better than to harm you.”

Jeongguk is so entranced by the glitter on Taehyung’s cheekbones and the protectiveness in his tone that he can’t muster more than a rush of choked air. Taehyung cups the other side of his neck, the feeling of upturned lips warming over his ear when he leans downward. 

“They should know they can’t harm what’s mine.”

Jeongguk can’t bite back his quiet groan, nails digging into Taehyung’s robes at his hips. Taehyung giggles gently as he pulls away. 

A hand slips into Jeongguk’s, bringing him to his unsteady feet. His mind is a haze, worsening with the way Taehyung looks at him heatedly and wraps an arm around his waist. 

“Come with me,” he murmurs. “Wanna talk somewhere private.”

Jeongguk swallows thickly as he nods in agreement. Even if he wasn’t asked, he thinks he’d follow Taehyung anywhere. 








There are too many bodies in the corners of the courtyard, too many couples with their faces pressed together hidden by the sleeves of their robes. Anywhere Taehyung guides him, they inevitably run into another pair hiding away or a drunk witch just looking to get some air. 

Jeongguk can barely make them out as they stroll past. He’s too focused on the wavering color in the sky and the blur of the illuminated bushes as they weave through the garden. Their sparkling colors make his heart feel as if it’s floating away—a bird freed from its cage. The only things better are the grounding feeling of Taehyung’s hand and his words replaying in his mind like a broken record.

They can’t harm what’s mine. 

Jeongguk shivers. He prays he’s sober enough to remember them later. 

Barely a few minutes pass but it feels like an hour before they finally find a small hideaway at the back of the garden, peering around the corner and finding it blessedly empty. It’s quiet aside from their footsteps against the slate path, though the lull of music still rings through the glass window at the end of the walkway. The lack of decor and the tall bushes darken the shadows, but the flickering sky still reflects off the window, illuminating the glass and the small ledge before it.

There’s no real explanation for his eagerness, but Jeongguk still feels electrified. It possesses his intoxicated mind to walk ahead and slide himself onto the ledge, perfectly eye level with where Taehyung is standing. 

It’s several long moments before he realizes Taehyung isn't advancing but staring above his head with a curious expression, rooted to his spot a few feet away. 

Jeongguk twists where he sits to look behind him. The ledge is narrow, his back nearly pressed to the glass, but he can still make out the shards of color. 

Illuminated purples and oranges shine like the sky, the combination dousing him in a blur of mixed tones. There are iridescent scales and flaming wings, shining metals made to look like swirls of magic. The light envelopes his body and casts his long shadow onto the path.

“This one again?” Jeongguk murmurs in wonder. Somehow, they had ventured all the way to the back of the Hall, finding themselves outside the same window Taehyung was moved by earlier. 

“Mm,” Taehyung acknowledges quietly, “strange, isn’t it?” He takes a hesitant step forward, his eyes flicking to him and back again. “What do you think of this panel, Jeongguk?”

Jeongguk tilts his head, eyeing it over his shoulder. It makes him happy that Taehyung is genuinely interested in his opinions, but he wasn’t exactly expecting to discuss history when his body is still vying for his touch. 

“They’re... powerful,” Jeongguk answers lamely, his more articulate observations lost to the alcohol in his veins. The longer he focuses, the more the spirits seem to move as if flying. “And beautiful. The glass…”

He swallows thickly as the ridges before him fuzz. When he turns, his stare locks to Taehyung’s instantly, the color there bright and burning. It renders him breathless in the same way the glass does. 

“It reminds me of you.”

Taehyung’s brows rise in shock. “Me?” he chuckles softly. “Why would you say that?”

Jeongguk shrugs bashfully. The stone ledge beneath his palms is cold, but he only feels warm as Taehyung’s gaze pins him where he sits. 

“You—you shine a lot,” he starts, twisting the rings on his fingers. His cheeks burn, growing hotter as Taehyung slowly smiles. 

“Oh?” Taehyung questions, crossing the remaining space between them. He rests his hands over Jeongguk’s hanging knees, gently prying them apart. “What else?”

Jeongguk’s heart shoots into his throat, instantly compliant to how Taehyung handles him. “You’re very—delicate,” he exhales, voice wavering when Taehyung palms up his thighs. “But still strong. Tempered.”

Taehyung snorts lightly at that, so near to his face that their breaths mix together. He slides his hands around Jeongguk’s waist until they’re wrapped behind him, almost chest to chest. 

“That all?” he whispers. 

Hesitantly, Jeongguk shakes his head. He knows what he really wants to say, but it’s hard to find the words in his current state. Being this close to Taehyung makes him feel like he’s freefalling. 

“You’re—you’re beautiful,” he breathes shakily, gripping the front of Taehyung’s robes to steady himself. “You deserve more than being hidden away, like—like this window—full of secrets and stories I wanna hear more of. Could listen to you talk forever.” 

Taehyung stills against him, gaze widening in surprise. It takes a moment for him to react before one of his hands slides to Jeongguk’s neck. 

“You can’t say things like that so freely, Guk,” he whispers in a dangerously low voice. “Might not be able to stop myself.”

Jeongguk’s heart skips as his mind slips away from their surroundings. He can think only of Taehyung and the feel of his palm over his pulse.

“Why are you stopping?” Jeongguk mumbles thickly. “Don’t want you to.”

Taehyung’s eyes churn with conflicted emotion. He slides fingers through the hair at Jeongguk’s nape, bringing his head closer until their noses nearly touch. 

“You may end up hating me for what I’ve done, Jeongguk,” he breathes, hovering just over his lips. “Not a day goes by where I don’t hate myself for it.”

“I won’t,” Jeongguk argues softly. He can almost feel Taehyung’s mouth brush against his, desperate to close the gap. “I said I wouldn’t leave you alone. No matter what it is, I’d never hate you. You—You deserve to be loved, Taehyung.” 

Taehyung’s breath hitches and Jeongguk feels his stomach flip, realizing what he’s said long after the words are in the air between them.

The utterly terrifying part of it all is that he means them—every bit of them. They bring more to his mind that he’s been dying to say like an avalanche.

“You’ve done so much for me, stuck up for me, took me in and believed in me when no one else did—”

“Jeongguk—”

“Who you are now— that’s who matters to me,” Jeongguk insists, his voice choked with emotion. “Just you. I never knew what it was like to live for someone other than myself but—but now, I never want to go back to that. Back to both of us being alone.” 

His head is a haze, but Jeongguk’s emotions have never felt clearer. Even though his hands tremble where they cling to his robes, his throat constricted with nerves, he can only speak with his heart. 

“I want you—the bad included,” Jeongguk pleads, an edge of yearning in his voice. He pulls Taehyung closer, nearly slotting their lips together. “Please, Tae, let me prove it to you—”

The force of Taehyung’s exhale is huffed into his own mouth when their lips finally collide, and a quiet whine bubbles up in Jeongguk’s throat as he’s filled with instant relief. Taehyung smiles around the sound, amused when Jeongguk fists his hands in his robes like he’s scared he’ll fly away.

“Needy,” Taehyung breathes fondly. “Can never say no to you.” 

Jeongguk doesn’t disagree. He’s wanted this for a long time, but he’s never truly needed it until tonight.

The way they swap kisses is timid at first, less pressure and more feeling as they explore how the other reacts. Jeongguk’s mind is wiped clean of everything but the warmth of Taehyung’s body, every muscle relaxing into his hold when his tongue swipes over his lower lip. He’s always been quick to bend to Taehyung where he’d hesitate with anyone else, offering up a vulnerable part of himself that he never knew he had, but he can’t recall a time he’s ever been so desperate to prove himself through physical means.

“Weak for pretty faces,” Jeongguk mouths against him, breath coming in pants. 

Taehyung snorts. The feeling of his smile pressed against his mouth is almost as euphoric as seeing it. 

“Just yours.”

They part for just a moment, Taehyung’s eyes glassy and his lips shining where they linger just out of reach. They look over him hungrily and Jeongguk cracks a smirk, one that’s mirrored by Taehyung instantly—teasing in the way Jeongguk spends too much time daydreaming about.

Except this time, it isn’t a dream. Taehyung is in his arms and he’s finally able to show him what he’s felt all along. He can show him it’s not just an arrangement he wants, but a chosen relationship. A pact just between them.

Jeongguk’s own smirk is wiped away, replaced with a pathetic look he knows is embarrassing but is far too desperate for his touch to care.

“Taehyung,” he pleads, the name barely leaving him before they’re moving again. 

His surroundings spin when Taehyung slides him even closer to the edge and gently pries his lips open. Jeongguk is more than eager to accept the tongue that slips into his mouth, moaning into it when Taehyung’s fingers dig into his narrow waist. He wraps his legs around the back of Taehyung’s and links his arms around his neck, angling his head to take him deeper and reeling when Taehyung doesn’t hesitate to oblige.

Every second that passes seems to unravel them both. The pressure of Taehyung’s wandering hands are like fire and Jeongguk can’t help but imagine traveling over bare skin, peeling away every layer of tight clothes. The thought has him biting gently at Taehyung’s lip, latching with his teeth. 

Taehyung’s low groan has him aching, his presence crowding him in the way Jeongguk loves. 

“Apprentices should behave,” he taunts breathlessly, slipping downward to kiss over the line of his jaw.

Pleasure rushes his head and Jeongguk arches into the feeling, tilting away to give him better access. “You never said you liked me well-behaved,” he replies playfully, eager to test the waters. He wants to push Taehyung’s buttons, daring to see just how weak for him he really is. 

“Mm, I like good-natured guys,” he hums into his skin, “but I love when they act like bad ones.”

His tone is undeniably seductive now and Jeongguk truly moans this time, subtly lifting his hips against him. The hardness there shoots fire straight to his gut. 

“Fuck.”

Taehyung’s sultry laugh vibrates over his pulse. “Just like that, baby.”

Jeongguk whines incoherently, satisfied beyond belief when he gets to fulfill his dream of threading fingers into Taehyung’s hair. Hearing his sweet-natured mentor praise him for uttering filth might push him over the edge.

Taehyung slowly travels lower along his neck, pressing kisses to every inch of skin. The urgency slows, his touch more leisurely, a heightened affection lingering with every breath. 

“It was here, right?” he asks softly, barely sliding his teeth over the side of Jeongguk’s neck. 

Jeongguk jolts in his hold with an audible gasp. The feeling travels even to his toes, curling them in his boots.  “What—what was?”

Taehyung lifts his head a moment, meeting his gaze with a heavy-lidded look. He traces a featherlight nail over his neck and along his jaw.

“Where that man touched you earlier.”

Jeongguk blinks in surprise, shivering at the dark glint in Taehyung’s eyes. He had completely forgotten Vernon’s earlier bullshit by now, the encounter reduced to nothing beside Taehyung’s all-consuming presence. He nods once. 

Taehyung seems satisfied, his lips quirking. They’re still upturned when he kisses over the ghost of Vernon’s touch, eradicating it completely. Teeth nip at his skin, tiny bouts of pleasured pain that have Jeongguk choking off his pleased sigh and replacing it with a broken groan. 

“Anywhere someone has hurt you,” Taehyung murmurs, “I’ll show you what it’s like to feel treasured there. Properly cared for. You deserve that much and more.”

Jeongguk’s heart races in his chest, a surge of emotion roaring in him. Gratefulness, tenderness, desire—they sweep him up in a whirlwind until he doesn’t have a word to describe them other than love.

No one has ever cared about the invisible scars that cling to him like a shadow. No one has ever cared enough to discover them before Taehyung.

“You— you too,” Jeongguk rushes out, his hands coaxing him upward and bringing Taehyung’s face before him. “I just—wanna see you happy. Wanna stay by your side.”

Taehyung’s glossy eyes flick over his face and Jeongguk is captivated by them, content never to look at anything else again. In his inebriated state, he thinks they might be a kaleidoscope of color, better than that of the sky or any old glass window. 

“They’re always glowing—your eyes,” Jeongguk murmurs in awe. “They’re amazing.”

“My eyes?” Taehyung asks curiously, his brows furrowing. 

Jeongguk frowns. He wonders if Taehyung’s just adjusted to his saturated vision. “You haven’t noticed the color in them?”

“...Jeongguk,” Taehyung says carefully, a hint of confusion on his face, “my eyes are brown. Dark brown. There’s no color in them—there never has been.”

Jeongguk laughs weakly, a flicker of anxiety rising in him. “I’m not that drunk, you know. They’re definitely glowing.” 

“Glowing?” Taehyung asks in disbelief, “like with light?”

“Like the sky and—” Jeongguk turns where he sits, “like the glass—”

A sharp crack rings through the air. 

The pair of them freeze for a heartbeat. They meet each other’s widening stares just before another crack sounds, one Jeongguk knows all too well.

“Guk—”

Behind his head, the endless dance of the dragon and phoenix severs with a slow break that scatters along each piece. In the same moment, Jeongguk is leaping from the ledge and grabbing Taehyung by the arm, hauling him back with all the strength he can muster.

The window bursts just as an ear-splitting roar rings out, the pane shattering to pieces just as every other in the Hall of Luminescence does, and the sound nearly breaks Jeongguk’s mind in the same way. He gasps in pain as the burn in his chest leaps into his throat, heating the surface of his skin like fire. 

He knows that roar—still has nightmares about it. 

Now, the nightmare has come alive.

Taehyung curses loudly, pulling Jeongguk into his arms and holding his head to his shoulder. Glass rains down upon them and Jeongguk waits for the pain, waits for the shards to slice open his skin as he clutches at Taehyung’s robes and buries his face into his neck, but they bounce away harmlessly and litter the ground thanks to Taehyung’s magic.

Slowly, they part to eye one another in terror, their faces darker now that the braziers have gone out. The silence is deafening, neither of them even taking a breath.

The screams begin shortly after. 

Jeongguk’s hands fly to his ears as the horrific chorus of human shrieks and spirit wails assail them in the night. There’s shouting and crashes of magic against stone as a different roar rings out, preluding a massive strike of lightning that crashes down into the center of the Hall and rumbles the ground. 

Jeongguk’s heart stops in his chest as reality hits him. 

Namjoon. 

“Tae,” Jeongguk panics, “They’re in there, Namjoon and Jimin are—”

“Jeongguk, listen to me,” Taehyung says firmly, holding his face between his palms. Jeongguk has never seen him look so devastated. “We’re going to run—do you hear me? We need to run immediately . Stay close to me and don’t let go of my hand.”

Jeongguk’s breath comes in spasms. The sound of pain from the crowd is like a blade through his heart, choking him with unshed tears. His mind is still so hazy, caught between aiding his friends and fleeing.

“I can’t leave them, Tae, I can’t—”

“Listen to me,” Taehyung pleads, the harsh edge to his voice dulled by the glimmer of tears in his eyes. “You’ll be putting them in more danger by rushing in there, especially in your current state. We need to get back to the Arboretum— now. It’s the only place you’re safe. Please—” 

Another roar sounds. Jeongguk whips his head toward it and spots the Ire crashing into a crumbling wall. Khiro and other powerful spirits launch a myriad of attacks that fly into the sky and burst into sparks, more of the Hall collapsing. 

“Please, Guk, I can’t lose you again,” Taehyung begs, pulling him by the arm. “Trust me. Please.” 

Jeongguk trusts him enough to give into his demand, but it feels like his heart is tearing in two when he turns his back on his friends. Taehyung quickly guides him through several winding paths and they begin to sprint toward the treeline when they reach the grassy edge. His lack of balance and his swaying surroundings make Jeongguk feel ill, but he clings to Taehyung’s hand like a lifeline. 

The cover of trees immediately plunges them into darkness, leaves and debris crunching underfoot. Taehyung invokes some sort of magic Jeongguk can’t make out and uses it to illuminate the space around them, slicing the branches in their way. 

“What’s—what’s happening?” Jeongguk says hoarsely, swallowing back his acidic panic. “Why is the Ire here now?”

Taehyung’s grip on him tightens, his burning stare pinned straight ahead. With every leaf swept away, Jeongguk is sure his eyes grow brighter. 

“It’s a decoy,” Taehyung says, his tone gritted. “Chaos and a scapegoat can easily mask the intent of the true culprit, especially when lives are at stake.”

Jeongguk still feels like he’s in shock. The moment he thinks of glass raining down over the crowd on the dancefloor, the image is buried before he has the chance to break down. He can’t even consider it now.

“But… who’s the culprit then?” Jeongguk asks worriedly. 

Taehyung doesn’t answer, cutting away more branches instead. They reach a small clearing and sprint through it to the other side. 

Instead of color, the sky now shines blood-red. 

The center of Jeongguk’s chest burns even with more distance between themselves and the main campus. He thought travelling further away from the Ire would aid him, but it still feels like his rib cage might cave in at any moment, especially as he runs without pause.

They travel at full speed for several minutes, and Jeongguk’s pain only grows worse. Sweat drips from his neck, his legs shaking as they trip over roots and vines. Large, leafy ferns surround them, sheltering the many glowing mushrooms and berry bushes. 

A fresh wave of pain has him gasping and nearly brings him to his knees.

“T—Tae,” Jeongguk wheezes, “wait—”

“I know Guk,” Taehyung answers in sympathy. “I know it’s rough, but we can’t stop yet. If we don’t make it—”

“Chest—hurts,” Jeongguk grits, groaning loudly as he stumbles. 

He can’t take it—his sternum feels ready to bust. There’s so much pressure, molten like lava, a torrent of fire—

Taehyung slows, turning to him in concern. “Your chest?” he says worriedly, holding him up by the shoulders. “Where your injury was?”

“Power—” he gasps, struggling to speak, “it’s—hurting—”

Taehyung’s face tightens, unshed tears lining his eyes. “It’ll be okay, Jeonggukie, we just need to get you back. I can help you—”

“A bold claim for someone only torturing him, Taehyungie.”

Jeongguk’s useless body locks in fear, fight or flight response begging him to flee. He recognizes the smooth tone of the voice behind them, it’s malicious aura sickening him in an instant. He curls in on himself and clutches at his chest.

Taehyung is instantly upon him, pulling him into his arms and shielding his face. 

“It’s okay, Guk, breathe—”

“Why let him breathe when he could just die properly and do us all a favor?”

Taehyung goes rigid. His fingers tighten hard enough to bruise where they hold him. 

“Stay here,” Taehyung whispers. “And don’t move. Don’t intervene.”

There’s a rustle of leaves to his right before Jeongguk feels himself falling forward, barely catching himself on the branches below. 

To his shock, Taehyung is already several feet away. His arm is raised, pinning a man to the tree by his throat. 

Even with Taehyung’s hand to his windpipe, the man still smiles. His grin is repulsive, canines sharpened and eyes stilted. Shining scales adorn his neck. 

From his voice, Jeongguk is absolutely sure it’s his assailant. 

“How dare you,” Taehyung snarls, “how fucking dare you show your face again after what you did.”

“And why wouldn’t I?” the man drawls lazily. “I’ve only grown more powerful since my last meetup with little Jeonggukie here—”

A loud snap sounds and Jeongguk winces. The bark of the tree cracks beneath the man, but even with Taehyung’s unbelievable pressure, he acts as if relaxing on his break from work. 

“I should end you for what you did to him.”

“You’re right there with me,” the man continues nonchalantly. “Somehow, you’ve forced someone to live a lie against their will and you’ve dug your own grave in the process.”

He laughs and Jeongguk feels sick. The sound is oddly similar to Taehyung and yet the complete inverse. Where Taehyung embodies sunlight, the man reeks of horror and blood. 

“Fuck off, ” Taehyung snaps threateningly. “I’ll kill you if you even try—”

“Oh, will you?” the man purrs. “Kill me off and destroy your apprentice in the process? I must say I found it quite comedic when I discovered Min Yoongi had to force you into taking responsibility for the mistake you tried to avoid.” 

Jeongguk can see the way Taehyung trembles. His mind struggles to keep up, lost in the cryptic exchange, but it latches onto one word more than all the others.

Mistake.

“I’m not here to argue semantics with you, Shinah. Either you leave us, or you die. Your choice,” Taehyung replies harshly. 

The power that radiates from him is nothing like Jeongguk has ever felt, his only comparison the ancient power of Malyah and the Everwood’s dense magic. It’s as if he’s never experienced Taehyung’s true aura before. 

The unfamiliarity of it is staggering—frightening, even.

“Ah, but you forget, brother,” Shinah retorts darkly, “blood does run thick when you begin to choke on it.” 

Jeongguk’s mind reels. Brother? The man who nearly killed him is related to Taehyung?

There’s a flash as a cloud of darkness flares around Shinah, shooting for Taehyung at blinding speed. Taehyung quickly releases him and throws up his own shield of shadow, but the force of the attack still launches him back through the air. 

The snap of Taehyung against an opposing tree is sickening. Jeongguk cries out as power dances at his palms, searing the ground as another wave of indescribable agony rips through him. He wants to help Taehyung, but the pain is mind numbing and only growing worse.

“Not enough, Taehyungie,” Shinah tuts disapprovingly. To Jeongguk’s shock, he melts into the shadows, only to reappear at Taehyung’s side. “Break the seal to destroy me and you destroy everything you’ve worked for… or die and let it break when he loses control.”

Blood drips from Taehyung’s temple and over the side of his face. He spits into the grass, wiping crimson onto the sleeve of his robes. “I won’t let you,” he growls, his eyes glowing brightly. “I won’t let you harm him again.”

“You know it’s inevitable. The sooner you get this over with, the sooner I can properly end this chase and claim what’s mine,” Shinah says, his voice slowly growing more threatening. “I’ve had enough of waiting, Taehyung. You destroyed the only thing I ever worked for, my only hope for survival—”

“They never loved you and breaking him like you did wouldn’t have changed that,” Taehyung says bitingly. His tone is so jarring that Jeongguk winces, unused to the harshness in it. “They loved nothing but power no matter what lies they fed you. They would’ve ripped him away from you and tortured him, tortured you both—”

“Oh, they did torture me,” Shinah says darkly, his shadows growing. They’re inky tendrils similar to that of the Ire, dripping into disgusting pools of blackness that make Jeongguk’s stomach churn. “You ran like a coward and let me take your punishment. You got to keep your precious friend and missed every beating, every forced pact, day after day with no food or sleep.”

Taehyung looks caught between rage and sorrow. “I never intended for you to take the blame, Shinah, but what you tried to do was wrong. You know that.”

“No better than what you did,” Shinah snaps, his chest heaving. “Except instead of allowing him the freedom he deserves, you’ve forced him to live a lie.”

Jeongguk can’t keep up. Between the pain and the shouting, he can barely cling to reality, but he’s vaguely aware of the truth beneath their words.

Taehyung has been lying to him—more than he thought possible. He’s just not sure what exactly he lied about. 

“I know what I did,” Taehyung growls, his own shadows growing. With every pulse of his power, Jeongguk’s breaths grow more staggered. “I never claimed to be a good person, but I wanted what was safest for him. I wanted to live out the rest of my days with my punishment like I should, but Yoongi will always have his own fucking agenda. Just like you will. No one will let him live the way he deserves.”

Shinah simply laughs, the sound grating. “Funny you talk about what he deserves. I suppose we’ll see just how sturdy that emergency seal is, hmm? Not even Min Yoongi’s magic is infallible. It wasn’t even strong enough to stop the attack on the Ball.” 

Darkness flickers, suddenly shooting straight for Taehyung. His own rises to meet it in an ear splitting collision, the pair of them sliding backwards in the grass. 

“I’ll never hand him over to you,” Taehyung snarls, “especially not after what you’ve done to the Ire—”

“Don’t you fucking dare speak of him,” his brother snaps. “It’s all your fault that it happened this way. His suffering is on your shoulders alone.”

Tears wet Jeongguk’s cheeks. Agony rakes down his back in a parallel motion, his arms wrapping around himself as he bites the inside of his cheek to withhold his shout. He coughs into the grass and sees his own blood.

“What you’ve done to him is a reflection of yourself. I won’t let you ever touch what’s mine,” Taehyung grits, eyes flicking to Jeongguk in concern.

“Oh, but you will,” Shinah says, violence lacing his syrupy tone. In another blink, he appears before Taehyung, a hand to his cheek. “In the time you’ve spent playing gardener, I’ve perfected everything you’ve barred yourself from by continuing this farce. All those years of magic locked away.”

There’s a violent surge of red and Taehyung’s shadows suddenly extinguish, his eyes widening. His hands fall limpy by his side as panic erupts on his face. 

“No—how?!”

“I told you that blood is thicker than water,” Shinah whispers, unsheathing a blade from beneath his black robes. He slams Taehyung to the ground, kneeling over his back with his hair gripped tightly in his fist. “Now, which death will you endure, Taehyungie?”

Jeongguk freezes when he sees the dagger pressed to Taehyung’s neck. 

“You can die here, and Jeongguk will be mine either way,” he murmurs with a vicious smile, “or you can break the seal and watch the death of every lie you’ve ever worked to uphold. Your choice.”

“Taehyung,” Jeongguk calls, his anger flaring despite his agony. He tries to muster his power and finds it roaring, prickling to the surface of his skin. “Let him go—”

“Don’t, Guk, please,” Taehyung cries, his face terror-stricken. “Leave me and go back, don’t fight him!”

“I can’t leave you,” Jeongguk croaks desperately. “I promised I wouldn’t, that—that I’d protect you.”

“Cute,” Shinah snorts. “Acting like a pair of witches in love.” He adjusts his arm, Taehyung’s skin dipping from the pressure of the blade. A drop of crimson beads at the height of the curve.

“It’s too bad neither of you are.”

At the first sign of Taehyung’s shed blood, Jeongguk sees red. 

“Let him fucking go,” he bellows. The sound of his own voice is too loud, unnerving with how much power lurks within it. His uncontrolled spirit energy ripples the grass around him and his back screams in anguish, but he still keeps his eyes locked to Taehyung.

“What will you do now, Jeonggukie?” Shinah muses. Taehyung hisses in pain as his head is yanked upward, a knee to his back. “Will you break your seal or will your seal break you?”

There’s nothing tangible to hold onto in Jeongguk’s mind, his state far beyond intoxicated now. Talks of seals and betrayal, of his power and Taehyung’s lies—he feels numb to them, numb like his heart when it becomes clear he doesn’t know who Taehyung really is. 

But even though his body feels like it’s snapping in two, he still clings to the earlier feeling of Taehyung’s smile pressed into his, to the words of comfort breathed into his ear and the compassion in his heart. His laughter is all he can hear. 

Maybe he’s been foolish to believe in his mentor, too eager to share himself with the first person who truly accepted him just as Wonwoo claimed. Maybe he should have denied the contract and avoided Taehyung entirely. He can’t deny that meeting him has thrust his life into a hurricane of change and doubt. He’s never thought about his missing familiar less than he has since meeting him.

And yet, even though he knows full well that Taehyung lied, he can’t help but care for him. The man that he’s watched work tirelessly until his hands are stained with his own blood, laughing until his lungs give out in a cloud of bubbles and kissing him beneath the illuminated stained glass…

Jeongguk couldn’t leave him behind even if he wanted to. 

Like the shards of color in his eyes, even if Taehyung himself denies their existence until his last breath, his presence has been sewn into the very fabric of Jeongguk’s heart. To tear him out now would be the end of him.

He’ll fight for him, even if Taehyung asks him not to. Even if it means his death or somehow undoing the magic that saved his life, he’ll do whatever necessary to protect him—to catch him when he falls.

Jeongguk musters his power, allowing the surge he’s buried since his recovery to drag him under, drowning him without relent—swallowing him whole. It envelops him in a pit of fire, permeating his bones and boiling his blood. He hunches over with a hand clutched to his chest and finds himself paralyzed by the shock that slams him.

“Too late,” Shinah grins. He drags the blade over the surface of Taehyung’s throat, blood staining the metal as he cries out. It's not deep enough to kill, but left too long, it could easily bleed out. 

Jeongguk goes still. The blade stained red— he’s… somehow seen it before, far earlier than when it had maimed him many weeks ago. He saw it as it marred his body, torturing him endlessly, his captors prodding his spirit until he was nearly driven to madness. He’s seen it embedded in the trunk of wisteria trees, wedged into his very heart—

“I didn’t want this,” Taehyung cries out, tears streaming down his cheeks. “I didn’t want this for you, Jeongguk!”

Jeongguk doesn’t know why he wants to cry—why the feeling of betrayal cuts him so deeply. Why it feels like the ground is being ripped from under him.

“I’m sorry,” Taehyung sobs. “I'm sorry I couldn’t keep our promise.” 

The seal in Jeongguk’s mind snaps like the crack of shattering glass. 

A low groan is ripped from him as fire razes across his back, the pain wracking through his body so great it nearly knocks him out. The iron tang of blood fills his mouth and he chokes, coughing and spluttering as he tries to inhale and fails miserably.

There’s no part of him that isn’t on fire, the same heat catching the surrounding grass with darkened flame. The pain is worse than the knife plunged through him, worse than anything he’s ever felt. As if his own body is being disassembled and put back together, ripping him apart.

“Taehyung,” he moans, unable to lift his head as every bone in his body aches. “It hurts, it hurts—”

His cries turn to shouts of pain. Taehyung calls his name, but Jeongguk is lost to him, a heavy blackness razing through every vein. 

The power is almost unbearable. He grapples with it to keep it tied to his heart, but it struggles like a cornered animal. It rattles around in his chest and he coughs more blood, nails digging into the dirt below. 

...Nails that sharpen into blackened points, longer than he’s ever seen on any human. 

He begins to panic. Whatever’s happening to him, whatever magic he now has—it isn’t witch magic. It isn’t drawing from the energy around him but from within. It isn’t made for his body—isn’t made for humans.

He isn’t human.

Jeongguk’s mind blanks. He locks eyes to Taehyung, clinging to the color there as his perception of his own existence shatters.

“I’m sorry,” Taehyung whispers brokenly, blood on his lips. His eyes slowly close as his consciousness leaves him. “I’m sorry.”

Jeongguk’s back bursts open and he screams. 

Shinah laughs again, dropping Taehyung unceremoniously into the dirt. He stands and dusts his palms, watching Jeongguk writhe with hungry eyes.

“Show me, Jeonggukie,” he whispers, stepping closer. “Show me what years of infinite power locked away looks like—what it tastes like. Let me feel it.” 

Jeongguk doesn’t hear him as he curls in on himself. He shakes for what feels like hours until he can no longer find the strength to tremble. There’s only darkness as he slowly feels his body realign his bones, any gulp of air denied from him. Existing alone is almost too painful to endure.

At the first pass of the breeze on his cheeks, he wonders if he’s died properly this time. If he has, there must be no afterlife awaiting him. He still can’t breathe—can’t see, can’t feel anything but pain. His back is too heavy and throws him off balance. New sensations tingle through parts of him that feel much too far away and his skin is too hot, fire crawling up through his lungs like an inferno. 

“Show me,” Shinah demands, his tone growing impatient. “Now.”

A breath—he manages a single breath as power ripples through him. Jeongguk swallows it down and shudders.

His heart pounds and his sight is blurry. There are too many new senses, the feel of earth too damp beneath him and the current of the wind too noticeable. Everything has a strange glow that makes him nauseated and he smells too much at once.

When his vision finally rights itself, Jeongguk realizes he’s shaking violently. Memories are slow to return, his emotions having trouble sorting themselves and his awareness hazy. They come second to the feeling now nestled in his chest. 

There’s a new presence beside his heart, like a weak tether that pulses to its own rhythm. He holds his hand over it, counting the beats as his own slows to match it. It feels as natural as his own. 

And it’s source...

His eyes lock to the lifeless form of Taehyung, tracing his contour as he slowly recognizes him. 

Taehyung, his mentor, the one that’s crumpled and bleeding from the neck. 

Taehyung, the man who had held him close and kissed away his fears. 

Taehyung, whose heart beats in his own chest. 

Jeongguk knows he should be thinking more and feeling less, but Taehyung’s injured state consumes him entirely. The rhythm near his heart slows dangerously and he tenses at the sudden calm that comes over him. 

There are urges now, simplifying his human thought process. A few things that had once relied on his emotional state are now accepted as fact, woven into his very soul.

The first urge he feels is to protect Taehyung with his life. 

The second is to obliterate the man who drew his blood. 

Jeongguk turns the weight of his stare on Shinah and chokes out a groan when he shifts the forgotten limbs on his back. Naturally, he brings one into his sight as he would a palm before his face. 

Black curtains of darkness, glimmering with metallic violet and flickers of flame. Tiny pieces of them flutter in the breeze and Jeongguk can feel them rustle—can twitch them as he likes. When he wills them outward, they flare with aching strength, his whole body contorting quivering muscles he never knew he had. 

Comprehension dawns slowly, but Jeongguk doesn’t misunderstand. 

He has wings. Massive wings of shadow. 

He isn’t human any longer—maybe never was. 

“Brilliant,” Shinah murmurs in awe, stepping closer until he’s squatting before him. “You’re even more gorgeous than I imagined. Can’t believe Taehyung would hide you away all these years when you should have been mine.”

Jeongguk is slow to register that he’s being spoken to. He picks apart Shinah’s sentences, eyes rolling up to him when he sees his hand reach out. 

He can feel the energy in Shinah, raw and untempered. It’s destructive and abrasive, the antithesis of the magic he knows. 

It’s magic that hurt Taehyung. 

Just before Shinah reaches his face, Jeongguk’s hand shoots upward, grabbing him by the wrist. He desires to bring him against a tree and his body complies instantly, moving him with the wings he now wears and slamming his body against the bark. 

Shinah gasps in pain, his watering eyes surprised. “Wait, Jeongguk, let me explain—”

Jeongguk can’t think, uncaring for explanations. There’s only the desire to maim in vengeance of his injured partner. He doesn’t understand why a low rumble sounds in his throat, a sound deeper than he’s ever been able to make. He doesn’t know why he’s even here or who he was before this moment. 

He just knows his role is to protect Taehyung, and to do so, this man must die.

Power over death requires little thought now. Jeongguk invokes it tenfold, sweeping through him like a frigid embrace. He takes it from the endless pool of energy in his chest, swirling it around with the intent to rip Shinah’s soul from his body and tear it to pieces, igniting them into ash. 

“You were supposed to be mine, Jeongguk,” Shinah grunts around the hold of his fingers, shivering when Jeongguk’s power begins to creep over him. “You were supposed to hand yourself over so I could help you. I tried to save you.”

Jeongguk’s grip tightens. Power flickers around him and reflects in Shinah’s fearful eyes. 

“Wait, Jeongguk, please—”

A sudden blast of flame rolls over Jeongguk’s head from the treeline. He senses it before it comes close, ducking out of the way and dropping Shinah in self-preservation. In instinctual fear, he rushes to Taehyung’s side with a mere flap of wings and realizes the fire doesn’t harm him as it should. 

When he finally looks Taehyung over, his brows furrow. Horns protrude from his curls, coiled upward into sharp points, and Jeongguk finds he can't comprehend it. He can barely remember his own name, but he also can’t recall his partner ever looking this way. 

Something… isn’t right. 

Images of legs swinging from trees and cherry blossoms flash in his mind, fused pieces of glass and the feeling of bandages at his fingertips. Lips on his jaw, fingers interlaced, a streak of sunlight splayed across his cheek. 

Taehyung’s laugh. Taehyung’s lies. The wings on his back.

Jeongguk’s head hurts. He presses his palms over his face and groans. 

“I see I’m a bit late to the party,” a flat voice rings out. “How predictable that you’d throw away all your progress just for this, Kim Shinah.”

Yoongi appears from the treeline, his kitsune’s eyes ablaze beside him. Fire circles around them and weaves its way around Shinah like a flaming rope. He protests and shouts, his own shadows lurching to rip it away, but the bindings resist his every effort. 

“Keep trying. Struggling will only make it more painful,” Yoongi encourages nonchalantly, hands behind his back. His long robes trail over the grass and he stops before Jeongguk with a raised brow. 

Yoongi’s pointed crimson stare instantly puts Jeongguk on the defensive, his body crouching over Taehyung protectively. The same rumble sounds in his throat again and he bares his teeth, wings flaring in indignation. 

He remembers Min Yoongi, but he doesn’t remember much else other than knowing he’s a threat. 

“Cute,” Yoongi snorts, “but not enough to convince me you won’t kill the first person who touches your injured invoker. Not that I’d blame you, but I have to live to see yet another day, and Taehyung needs medical attention.” 

Yoongi waves a hand and a vial appears, full to the brim of cerulean ash. He dumps it into his open palm and tosses it over Jeongguk’s head, sending him into a surprised fit of coughing.

“Remind me to thank Taehyung for the added precaution for once. He’s always been far too careful with you,” Yoongi says amusedly. Behind him, Shinah’s struggles against his flaming bindings, his cries intensifying as his magic is reflected back at him. 

Jeongguk still growls, the sounds only fading when a heavy sleepiness winds its way through him. He looks down at his arms and finds his skin glittering strangely before he’s glaring up at Yoongi in heated distrust.

He bares his teeth in instinctual aggression.

“What?” Yoongi shrugs innocently. “You think I’ll let you fly off with Taehyung when you’re still a feral little spirit? Been there myself, and let me tell you, it won’t be pleasant for either of you. Fortunately, you have me to stop you. Thank me later.”

Jeongguk knows he’s pissed off but he can't remember how to properly reply. His vision wavers to black quicker than he can comprehend, his knees wobbling and hitting the ground with a thud.

He’s so tired, his mind such a mess that it blurs together like a kaleidoscope. The only consistency is Taehyung and the steady beat of his heart. The rhythm tethers him to reality just as Taehyung’s hand always has. 

It lingers even after the world flickers out and he succumbs to darkness.

“Sweet dreams, little brother,” Yoongi murmurs softly, catching him as he collapses into his arms. “For the world that greets you tomorrow will not be one you recognize.”

Chapter Text

15 years ago 

Every breath Taehyung takes is exhaled in a cloudy puff. Frost clings to the sleeves of his thick robes, the tips of his gloves covered in tiny frozen crystals. He hauls the firewood higher in his arms and grunts beneath the weight of them, the snow crunching beneath his boots as he makes his steady way back to the treehouse.

For six months out of every year, Taehyung leaves the Kim Manor to train under the oldest warlock alive—his grandfather, Kim Ruark. Mid-summer to the end of December are the months he lives for, the months full of learning and freedom. There’s delicious, home-cooked food, stories told round the fire and a steady stream of laughter in the air. There are lessons of respect and patience—of being kind to others and trusting in one’s heart. There are days he’s scolded, but there are more days where he’s praised. Loved, even. 

It’s aura is the opposite of the dark cloud he considers the Kim Manor. Other than their shared blood, Taehyung and his grandfather are nothing like the rest of his family. 

His parents are the stereotypical warlock—cruel, conniving and self-centered. They ignore Taehyung for the greater part of every week, pestering him only to look after the house during their many days away. Injured spirits are often dragged inside when they return, only for them to disappear into the basement behind a door Taehyung is forbidden from entering. Even though he rarely talks back or defies them, he’s still often berated for not using his magic enough or for hiding away in his room. There is no respect or patience in the Kim Manor—no praise or trust, and especially no love. 

Unfortunately, Shinah seems intent on following in the footsteps of his parents. His elder brother regularly takes his anger out on Taehyung, shoving him into the wall if they happen to pass each other in the hall or stealing the few fruits and vegetables Taehyung smuggles for himself out of their dirtied kitchen. He’s made fun of Taehyung more than once for not yet binding a familiar to himself, calling him weak and spineless. He’s mocked him for his lack of scales and his horns that have only recently surfaced.

But Taehyung often lets Shinah’s antics slide, taking his remarks without complaint and picking himself up when he’s knocked down. He’s overheard enough of his father driving Shinah to tears with his shouting or even throwing him against the wall when he makes a mistake. Despite Shinah asking to visit his grandfather with Taehyung, their mother refused, claiming he would be wasting his time when he could be ‘aiding’ the family in hunting for spirits. 

When his brother passes him in the hallway with a split lip or cradled arm, Taehyung now knows better than to question it. He’ll still sometimes leave an ice-pack and some medicinal herbs by his bedside, wishing he was strong enough to protect him. He doesn’t wish harm on his brother, even if he can be cruel.

Taehyung may only be eleven, but his grandfather claims his heart is one of gold. He’s not so sure he has actual metal in his chest, but it still makes him grin proudly whenever he thinks about it. It’s a sentiment Taehyung clings to every day at home and even during his time at the treehouse.

Today began as another normal day at his grandfather’s residence—hauling firewood, hunting for this week’s meals and greeting the local spirits he’s come to love. Every morning, Taehyung studies his reading and writing with rapt attention, followed by the usual hours of instruction administered by his grandfather. He happily completes his chores knowing they help his grandfather through the rough winters of the northern forests, and in exchange for his aid, his grandfather houses him and treats him as his apprentice.

This winter, Taehyung has learned much of the history of magic, how to properly harness his powers and how to communicate with spirits. He’s experimented with different affinities of tricky witch magic and succeeded at imbuing objects with energy. To his grandfather’s delight, he even learned how to shadowshift small distances, a teleport magic exclusive to warlocks. Most warlocks don’t master the skill until adulthood, but Taehyung’s always been an exception. His accelerated talent in magic seems to shock his grandfather more every day. 

But as normal as today has been, Taehyung knows it’s not just any other day. 

Today, he turns twelve.

His grandfather has always celebrated his birthdays with lighthearted cheer. They happen to fall the day before he returns home at the end of the year, wrapping up a period Taehyung usually considers the time of his life. It’s a bittersweet night, both a farewell and a celebration, but they’ve always managed to make each birthday special. 

He climbs the snow-covered staircase with eagerness in his step, quickly spiraling up to the large wooden door of the treehouse. Yellowed light spills from the curtained windows and warms the blue-tinged night air, his heart skipping with excitement. 

Inside, Taehyung is greeted with exactly what he hoped for. 

“Happy birthday, my boy.” 

Taehyung smiles so large it nearly splits his reddened face. He rushes across the room and collides with his grandfather in a heap, laughing when the old man wobbles and steadies the small cake in his hands. A few messily-hung streamers trail from the rungs of the upper loft. On the table behind him, a shining package tied with a red ribbon is practically begging to be ripped open. 

“Easy, Taehyungie. I’m not as young as I used to be. Enough of a running start and we’ll be eating this cake off the ground,” he chides warmly, holding Taehyung close where he buries his face in his chest. 

Taehyung laughs into his robes, the sound as sweet as the crackle of the fire. When he looks up, he can see his grandfather’s dark, coiled horns poking out from his head of grey hair. “I would still eat it off the floor if it fell.” 

“I wouldn’t doubt it,” Ruark snorts, rustling his hair fondly. “I suppose I’ll take it as a compliment.” 

The pair of them take a seat at the central table beside the fire. Taehyung’s feet swing from the massive arm chair as he eagerly forks down a slice of vanilla cake, leaving not one skittering rainbow sprinkle behind. He chatters animatedly about the spirits he saw while gathering wood, his grandfather nodding in interest as he warms a tea kettle over the fire. 

The treehouse is Taehyung’s favorite place in the world. It’s large considering its elevated position among the branches of the ancient tree it’s built into, but every corner of it is cozy with its many nooks and crannies. There are a few small bedrooms, each filled to the brim with bookshelves and trinkets. Mismatched rugs and worn-down arm chairs make the space inviting, the sprawling plants in the windowsills a touch of life Taehyung never tires of. His favorite window is the one in the library made of colored glass, the one with a phoenix and dragon circling each other in an endless spiral. 

By Taehyung’s third piece of cake, he swears he may doze off into his plate. Between the warmth of the hearth and his full belly, he’s more than ready to crawl into bed. 

His grandfather, however, rests his elbows on the table. His wise gaze flickers with enough seriousness that Taehyung sits up straight and rubs open his eyes in an effort to stay awake. 

“First, a gift,” Ruark says. He places the small wrapped box before Taehyung who bites his lip around his growing smile. “Go on, give it a tear.”

Taehyung giggles as he unravels the ribbon and pries apart the paper. Despite wanting to rip it to shreds, he’s gentle in removing it, hesitant to undo any of his grandfather’s hard work. The old man smiles at his carefulness as he shakes his head. 

Inside is a small wooden box with a metal clasp. Taehyung eyes his grandfather in curiosity, his excitement mounting when the man nods at him to open it. His fingers lift up the holder and reveal a piece of jewelry inside. 

It’s a thin bracelet of woven color with a small, glimmering bead at its center. Taehyung’s breath catches when he lifts it from its container and holds it before the firelight. 

The bracelet is undeniably imbued with power. Immense power, the kind of energy that reminds him of the comforts and warmth of home. It’s soothing and calm yet roaring with ancient strength.

“Is this… imbued by you?” Taehyung asks in awe. He learned in his lessons that sharing one's power through an object is a vulnerable thing, as warlocks can manipulate any energy shared with them, but to give so much is a gift beyond comprehension. It may have even taken years to imbue something so powerful.

“It is,” his grandfather says in light amusement. He helps Taehyung slide it on, tightening it by its pull-string. “I would advise you not to take it off for any reason. Draw from it only in dire circumstances, and even then, take care not to overdo it. Follow your training and you will be just fine.”

Taehyung’s eyes shine, his heart overwhelmed with gratefulness. He leaps from his chair and hugs him once more, fingers burrowed into the soft robes on his back. 

His grandfather chuckles over Taehyung’s enthusiastic chorus of thank you’s, patting down his curls. “There will be other gifts in the future, my boy. From friends and those that you love. Even the memories they share are a gift, so take care to treat each of them delicately.”

Taehyung nods obediently as he absorbs the words. 

“There is also something we must discuss,” he continues, motioning to Taehyung’s chair so that he sits once more. “A lesson of importance now that you have reached twelve years of age.”

Taehyung twists the bracelet around his wrist beneath the table, his toes wiggling in his socks from excitement. He’s practiced much of his magic, but he’s never truly had a chance to use it. He hopes it’ll be an opportunity to show everything he’s learned.

“As I’ve taught you many times, our dragon ancestors fled the spirit realm to escape the trials of the Millennia War. They arrived in the mortal realm and bore human children, resulting in the warlocks we know today.”

Taehyung nods solemnly. Even his fidgeting pauses as the air becomes more serious. 

“Dragons were well known for their strength,” Ruark remarks. “Aside from their long lives, they were noble and righteous. Those intimidating traits are lurking within us, and there are still a few visible signs of our heritage.” 

Taehyung lifts his hand, brushing over the tiny bumps that have just started to poke from his hair. Some warlocks have patchy scales on their necks or stilted eyes like his parents, but Taehyung’s appearance is much like his grandfather. The old man often claims he must be a warlock of great power to have inherited horns. 

Ruark pours some tea from his kettle, passing a cup on a saucer to Taehyung who dumps a heaping spoonful of sugar in. “But while strength is admirable, it is not brute force that makes a dragon or warlock strong.”

Taehyung blinks in surprise. “It— it isn’t?” 

His grandfather shakes his head. “In truth, it is the wisdom one carries and the strength of their heart that makes them a true dragon. Those who are humble are the only few who will achieve balance between the spirit and human within them. It is my hope that you too will find balance with what I have taught you, especially that you must trust your heart above all else.” 

Despite his young age, the words are profound to Taehyung. He clutches at his shirt over his heart, feeling it flutter at a quickened pace. 

Ruark sighs before he speaks again. He turns toward the fire and the flames reflect off his spiraling horns. Taehyung knows they can hide them with magic, but his grandfather has always said to wear them proudly around those he trusts. 

He wonders if he’ll ever trust anyone as much as he does his grandfather. 

“You must be armed with the truth, Taehyung,” he begins solemnly. “Of the few remaining warlocks in the world, most remain hidden due to our pasts. Our kind chose to ignore their hearts and became hated for the havoc they wreaked on innocent spirits and humans alike. You should be very wary when revealing that you are a warlock, and those whom you trust must be few. We are a hated kind.” 

Taehyung nods as his stomach turns. He doesn’t understand how someone can ignore the whispers of their heart when his own are so strong. His parents have said relying on one's heart makes them weak, but he believes in the words of his grandfather far more. 

He wants to be a warlock worthy of respect, not hatred.

“An interesting way to confirm one’s loyalty is to ask for an imbued object with their true feelings for you. They will provide you with a piece of their spirit energy that you can manipulate should things become dangerous, and the object will also serve as a reminder of how we must treasure the trust others have in us.”

Taehyung glances down at the bracelet around his wrist. His grandfather must trust him a lot to have shared so much power. 

“I believe you,” Taehyung murmurs timidly, “but… Mother and Father… they say a warlock’s greatest power is in— in the spirits you capture. Shinah said I’m weak without a familiar.” 

Ruark’s face darkens. He sips at his steaming tea, leaning back in his armchair as he gazes into the fire. 

“You must never be like them, Taehyung. They have warped their views of what warlocks are and falsely believe they’re above the laws of this world. Witches were formed by fate to correct the overpowered existence of warlocks, resulting in magic beings that rely on the energy already found in the world. If we are to remain among them, we must act in the best interests of the mortal realm and uphold such balance—not tip it with selfish use of power.” 

It’s a lot for Taehyung to absorb, but he thinks he understands. His parents have never treated spirits with kindness and act as if they’re better than witches. While he still loves them, he can’t bring himself to respect them.

His brother, however, has a bit of a point about not having a familiar.

“Witches have familiars,” Taehyung points out. “Are they using spirits wrongly too?”

His grandfather shakes his head. “When witches form pacts with spirits, they rely on equivalent exchange. Both of their hearts are shared in equal parts using energy that already exists. Thus, a familiar’s form may take on traits of their invoker, but an invoker cannot force a new form upon them. Most common witches are not strong enough to even endure the energy of a spirit’s Tranquil state.”

Taehyung nods. He recalls hearing of a famous young witch with a white lion familiar. The lion’s very body merged with his invoker’s affinity, causing lightning to flicker beneath its hide after their pact formed. 

“Balance is maintained because witches cannot force themselves into a spirit’s Tranquil state, the heart of the spirit and their most vulnerable form. They cannot take control of them and instead must form an equal partnership to join forces.”

“But warlocks aren’t like that, right?” Taehyung asks, recalling his lessons.

His grandfather hums in affirmation. “Warlocks do not transfer energy from our surroundings, since the dragon within us is an endless flow of magic. Our magic is strong enough for us to enter a spirit’s Tranquil state without their consent. Manipulating the raw energy found there can easily form unbalanced pacts of servitude, twisting spirits’ forms around our desires. Without the safety of a mutual exchange, it is very easy for a warlock’s selfish wants to warp a spirit into something horrific.” 

A tight feeling winds its way through Taehyung’s gut. It sounds all too familiar to what he suspects happens at the Kim Manor behind closed doors. 

“Is that— is that what Mother and Father do? Hurting the spirits they capture until they obey them?” 

His grandfather’s eyes shine with sadness. “Yes,” he exhales tiredly, looking older than Taehyung has ever seen him. “My son and his wife are not good people, Taehyung. Humans are susceptible to the temptation of unlimited power, and my son was never interested in my teachings to help control that. Harming spirits will damage not only the spirit themselves, but their own souls.” 

Fear grips Taehyung’s heart at the thought of his own soul being marred. He can’t ever imagine forcing a spirit to do his bidding. They’re creatures not much different from himself, after all. 

Ruark is quick to notice his anxiety. He reaches across the table and comfortingly rustles his curls. “Fear not, my boy. I’m quite confident you’ll find your way in this world with trusted companions by your side—both spirits and humans. I may have taught you much of what I know, but I could not have taught you empathy and kindness. That comes from within.”

Taehyung smiles bashfully, his chest warming with pride. He’s never tried to be kind… it’s just felt like the right thing to do. 

There’s still a sense of dread hanging over him despite the warmth he feels. Knowing he has to return to the Manor tomorrow fills him with fear. In his childhood home, traits like kindness aren’t rewarded. He’s punished for using his magic sparingly and for refusing to participate in their hunts. 

“I can’t make friends at home, though… it’s lonely there,” Taehyung mumbles disappointedly, eyes locked to the bracelet he fiddles with. “I don’t— I don’t want to go back.” 

“I know you don’t,” Ruark murmurs with sorrow. “I will miss you terribly, my boy.” 

Taehyung doesn’t know why the words make his eyes prickle with tears. He swallows them down, wanting to be strong despite his grandfather reminding him that it’s acceptable to cry. Human emotions are beautiful and should not be hidden away, he always claims. 

Taehyung still isn’t sure what he means by that, but the burning in his eyes doesn’t feel beautiful at all. 

“In truth, I wanted to speak with you about going home,” his grandfather continues. “I am not happy with your father’s experimentation and believe it’s endangering you to be there. When you return next summer, I think we will... extend your stay here.”

Taehyung’s head snaps upward, his eyes reddened and puffy. The stare that greets him is one of sparkling cleverness.

“Like, live here with you?” Taehyung asks in disbelief. “Forever?”

His grandfather chuckles warmly. “Perhaps until you find your place in the world, but your home will always be here, Taehyung.”

The tears spill from Taehyung’s eyes now, rolling over his cheeks and off his nose. He doesn’t think he’s ever cried while smiling before. 

He rushes to his grandfather’s side and is quickly pulled into a tight hug. The old man’s hands are always strong, his embraces never lacking in reassuring strength. Taehyung takes comfort in the steady beat of his heart.

“I love you very much, my boy, and I’m proud of you. You will do great things and be loved by many, mark my words.”

Taehyung sniffles against his chest, holding tight until his heart calms down and the tears from his eyes begin to dry. 

He doesn’t need other love… just this kind. He can’t imagine anything better.

“Summer… cake,” Taehyung says, his voice muffled. 

His grandfather lifts him away, raising a brow. “Summer cake?” 

Taehyung nods, wiping his small fists at his eyes. “If I’m here all year, we can have cake during summer for your birthday too. It’s— it’s in June, isn’t it? Before I get here? We can have it this time and— and I can give you a gift too.”

Ruark blinks in surprise, his lips parting before he laughs brightly. The sound is hearty enough to chase Taehyung’s final tears away. 

“Absolutely,” his grandfather says, grinning so widely that his eyes are nearly hidden behind his few wrinkles. “We can have it among the cherry blossoms I’ve wanted to show you. You’ll love the springtime here, especially with the young spirits roaming about.”

Hope blooms in Taehyung’s chest. He’s never considered what leaving his parents’ home would feel like, but with a true light at the end of the tunnel, he’s never been more excited. To live with his grandfather forever feels like a far-off dream.

Eager chatter and giggled stories are swapped between them as the fire burns lower and lower in the hearth. Taehyung quickly begins to feel sleepy again, unable to conceal his yawns. He holds his knees to his chest, resting his head on them in tiredness. 

“I do believe it’s that time,” his grandfather murmurs kindly. 

Taehyung pouts. He doesn’t want the night to end—not this night. When he awakens, he knows his father will be arriving to shadowshift him home. The thought makes him want to hide away, praying he’ll be forgotten. 

“I don’t want to,” Taehyung whines thickly, “I’m not tired.”

Ruark snorts, rising from his chair with a grunt. “Your words do not match your eyes, young Taehyungie. Run along now—”

The pair of them jump as a sharp knock sounds at the treehouse door. 

Taehyung’s sleepiness evaporates instantly. His grandfather’s surprise quickly becomes a hardened look. He juts his chin at Taehyung, shooing him toward the loft. 

“Up,” he instructs quietly. “Do not reveal yourself for any reason.”

Taehyung is not unwise enough to protest. He quickly scrambles up the ladder toward the upper part of the treehouse where a large workbench looks out a grand set of windows. A small opening off to the side leads to Taehyung’s room, the roof angled overhead with a curtain over his doorway. Taehyung lingers by the curtain without a sound, but his curiosity gets the best of him when he peers over the edge of the loft instead of retiring to bed.

A bitingly cold draft rushes into the room as the wooden door opens with a creak. Snow follows the cloaked figure that enters, though there’s too little frost clinging to them to be any old traveler. 

Ruark stands tall at the center of the room. He holds his gnarled staff with a gem of violet embedded into its top, his face impassive. The aura around him is the powerful one that sends shivers through Taehyung, the one he aspires to emulate himself one day.

“You are quite far from home, Min Yoongi.”

The figure throws back his hood and reveals a nest of waved, navy hair. Taehyung has never seen him before, gulping when he spots the shimmer of red in his eyes. If his grandfather’s training taught him anything, this is no ordinary man. 

“Perhaps not far enough,” Yoongi says, grinning lazily. He eyes the few streamers from the ceiling and the opened gift box still lingering on the table. “Keeping warm with a little party, are we?” 

“There are many things in life worth celebrating,” Ruark responds cryptically. “I would offer you tea and a slice of cake, but you don’t seem in the mood for idle chatter tonight.” 

Yoongi nods with a snort. “Ever the perceptive dragon,” he muses. “You are correct that I have other business to attend to. The world of witches never sleeps and managing Elenia Academy is quite the job.”

“To what do I owe the pleasure, then?” his grandfather asks, taking a seat in his armchair and leaning his staff against the side. He crosses his legs, sipping at his fresh cup of tea, but Taehyung can see through his casual aura. 

Ruark doesn’t fear this man, but he isn’t comfortable around him. It’s enough to put Taehyung on edge.

Yoongi moves to lean against the wall beside the doorway, crossing his arms against his chest. “There are whispers among the spirits that frequent the Wilds. They say your son and his partner encountered a rare spirit that resonated through the entire forest within the last month.” 

Ruark raises a brow from over his cup, lowering it to rest on its saucer. It’s a long moment before he speaks. “You know very well I do not interfere with the antics of my son, Min. I cannot heal the darkness in his heart. Fate knows that I have tried.”

Taehyung’s stomach curls. To hear his grandfather write off his father so easily is worrisome. Until tonight, he’s always spoken of his parents neutrally. 

“I’m quite aware,” Yoongi replies, checking over his nails. “However, this is a spirit I am personally quite… invested in.” 

His eyes glint as Ruark’s face flashes with surprise. “Color me shocked to hear a phoenix concern itself with the workings of lesser spirits.”

The air in the room seems to grow warmer at the mention of the spirit’s heritage. Taehyung’s heart races, his unblinking eyes locked to the cloaked man.

A phoenix spirit, the dragons’ very enemy they fled from during the Millenia War, stands in his grandfather’s house wearing the appearance of a human. His presence shocks Taehyung to his core. 

Yoongi sighs dramatically. “Must I explain myself for the hundredth time, Kim? I am in this realm because I care for lesser spirits and humans. I would not have founded Elenia if I intended to do anything but aid witches and their familiars.”

“I don’t doubt that,” Ruark replies, “but for you to venture all the way here must mean the spirit my son holds captive is neither of those.”

Yoongi snorts, though his face darkens enough for Taehyung to inch further over the loft’s edge. “Unfortunately, you would be correct. It appears my younger brother has somehow escaped my father’s clutches and ventured to the mortal realm. Curious that he would appear so suddenly.” 

Ruark is still for a breath and Taehyung swears the shadows in the room intensify. 

“Another phoenix in the world does not bode well. Perhaps our suspicions were not far from the mark.”

The pair of them eye one another silently as Taehyung looks on in confusion. He can’t follow most of their conversation, though he’s heard all he needs to feel shocked. 

Somehow, his family has taken a legendary phoenix spirit captive. 

“It takes much to worry me,” Yoongi mutters darkly. “But I will say with certainty that my brother being held captive by your son is among the worst of my nightmares. If time passes as quickly as you say in this realm, then he still possesses the mind of a child. They will torture him until he breaks, no matter how long it takes.”

His grandfather’s jaw tightens as he leans back in his chair, crossing his legs. “I share your worries,” he replies, “not only because he is your family, but for the repercussions of twisting such a spirit. My son’s aims have always been to bind spirits to human forms, but he continues to fail over and over again. Should he somehow succeed with a phoenix, there is no telling what chaos will be inflicted upon the balance of the world. A human heart is not strong enough to host such power.”

“Then you understand that this situation cannot continue,” Yoongi grunts, glaring at the fire in frustration. “I am confident that I can enter the Kim Manor, but I am also confident that I cannot escape. Their enchantments allow spirits in but will obliterate them if they depart. I cannot shadowshift through it as you can.”

“I also cannot enter the property,” Ruark answers. “I am barred from approaching due to my own mistake. My son possesses one of my imbued gemstones and will certainly kill me with his power should I enter the premises.”

Taehyung goes still, his body flooding with icy cold. 

His father would kill his grandfather? Is he truly so evil that he would murder the man who raised him? A man of peace and kindness?

It’s clear Yoongi’s patience begins to wear thin, his nails digging into his arms. “There must be some way to infiltrate the manor. A weakness on the inside—”

“You underestimate their defenses,” Ruark responds flatly. “They are malicious, but they are scheming and clever. My son may be warped beyond repair, but he was still raised by me. As reckless as he is, he knows how to protect himself—or, more importantly, his experiments.”

“I can’t just leave my brother there to die, Kim,” Yoongi snaps. The air around him flickers with such power that Taehyung inches forward again, his chin hooking around the upper floorboards. “I regret leaving him behind to begin with, but to know what he endures… it sickens me beyond belief. There must be a way.”

“There is not,” Ruark insists, his eyes darkening. “I share your concerns, but there is no way—”

With a yelp, Taehyung leans too far forward and tumbles off the ledge in what feels like slow motion. 

In one moment, his knees are pressed to the wood, and in another, he’s flying through the air with his eyes squeezed tightly shut. He waits to hit the ground, curling his body inward in preparation for the pain that awaits him.

Instead, he collides with a chest of warmth, his fall stopped in mid-air with a quiet oof.

“And who’s this?” the deep voice against him murmurs amusedly. “Do you warlocks keep children instead of familiars now, Ruark?”

Taehyung stares at the man that holds him in awe, his eyes widening when he sees wings of flaming gold on his back. Yoongi slowly lowers them to the ground, releasing Taehyung who looks to his grandfather in panic. 

“I’m— I’m sorry, grandfather—”

“My youngest grandson,” Ruark sighs, pressing his thumbs to his eyes. “Kim Taehyung.” 

“Oh?” Yoongi says in interest. “I was only aware of Kim Shinah. I’m shocked this one was allowed to leave the Manor.”

“Taehyung is my apprentice for half of every year and a commendable warlock. He has surpassed even his father in raw power, but his heart is that of my own. His greatest weakness is his... tendency to fall from high places,” his grandfather says tightly, raising a knowing brow. 

Taehyung’s cheeks burn with shame. He may have expert control over magic, but heights are perhaps his most difficult hurdle to jump. 

“Half of the year?” Yoongi murmurs curiously. “When do you return home, young warlock?”

“Yoongi,” Ruark warns, but Taehyung answers without fail. To communicate with a phoenix spirit has him starstruck. 

“T-Tomorrow.” 

Yoongi’s brows rise to his hairline, his eyes flicking to his sighing grandfather and back. “How fascinating that you traverse their barriers,” he remarks. “It’s almost as if you are exactly the spy I’m looking for—”

“Absolutely not,” his grandfather snaps. “I will not have you using my grandson. He is only twelve years of age.”

Yoongi hums, raking his stare over the meek form of Taehyung as he ignores Ruark’s protest. “You say he has power and a kind heart. Would he not be interested in aiding one of the most powerful spirits now in the mortal realm? Like Taehyung here, my brother also displayed great power and kindness at a young age.”

A spark of interest flares in Taehyung at the words. To free the phoenix from the Manor seems impossible, but he’s been waiting for so long to prove himself and to help spirits in need.

“He would not,” Ruark retorts angrily. “I will not put him in danger for your selfish gain.”

Yoongi bristles irritatedly. “The most selfish man here is you, Kim. You deny my brother aid simply to protect your grandson, possibly endangering the fate of the world. Take responsibility for your own failure of a son.”

Ruark’s nostrils flare as he rises to his feet. “It is not Taehyung’s responsibility to free your brother, nor should he be the one to atone for his father’s sins. It’s not feasible or safe for him to interfere. He is my only apprentice—”

“I’ll do it.” 

For a moment, the room falls silent. Taehyung’s grandfather looks to him with a stunned expression. 

It makes Taehyung feel immeasurably guilty to defy his wishes, and he isn’t entirely sure how he can help the young phoenix spirit escape, but with all his time wasted in the Manor, he’d like to at least try. 

“You’ve been training me to help spirits for years, Grandfather—”

“No, Taehyung,” Ruark growls firmly. “It’s too dangerous to meddle in the affairs of your father. He won’t hesitate to harm you if you’re caught.”

“But I want to do this,” Taehyung argues desperately. With every second that passes, he knows this is the moment he’s been waiting for. He can finally prove himself a respectable warlock and help undo the trouble his father has caused. “I want to help the spirit escape and I’m the only one who can. Please let me help. I can handle it.” 

Yoongi laughs quietly by his side, catching his attention. “I like you, kid. You’ve got bravery in that little heart of yours, unlike most of the cowardly warlocks I’ve met.” 

Taehyung’s heart skips. To be praised by a phoenix spirit is beyond his wildest dreams.

Ruark appears unamused, his eyes immeasurably sad. To argue with him makes Taehyung’s chest ache, but he knows he won’t be able to sleep soundly in his bed at the Manor knowing a young spirit is being tortured just a few floors below. 

“I just want to help uphold balance like you said,” Taehyung whispers in a pained voice. “Please, Grandfather. Please let me help the phoenix spirit. You would help him too if you were there.”

His grandfather heaves a long sigh, staring off into the fire with a defeated gaze. The air is thick with tension when he answers. 

“I loathe the thought of you endangering yourself, Taehyung, but I am fully aware that I cannot control you at the Manor. You’re stubborn enough to go about this yourself and I have no doubt you will attempt to try with or without my approval.”

Taehyung flushes red. He glances away guiltily as Yoongi laughs under his breath. 

“You will write me when you find him,” he instructs firmly. “Do not attempt to break him free. Simply confirm his existence and we decide another plan from there. Am I understood?”

A light feeling rises in Taehyung’s chest, a mix of excitement and fear filling him with adrenaline. He rocks forward on his toes and nods obediently. 

“I appreciate your aid, Kim Taehyung,” Yoongi murmurs, his pointed smile lopsided. Firelight flickers in his eyes, though it pales in comparison to the massive wings on his back. “I’m confident you can help my brother. I will reward you greatly should you help break him free.” 

Gulping, Taehyung nods again. For a phoenix, he thinks Min Yoongi is intimidating, but he doesn’t seem that bad. Maybe a little arrogant, but still kind on the inside.

He hopes his younger brother will treat him similarly. 

“There is… another pressing matter I must discuss with you, Ruark,” Yoongi says, his voice dipping low. His eyes flick to Taehyung for a breath. “Privately, this time.” 

After a long pause, Ruark nods curtly, turning his churning stare on the nervous form of Taehyung. 

“We will discuss this further tomorrow,” his grandfather says tiredly, waving a hand. “To bed with you, Taehyung, and do not try to eavesdrop any further. The second you cross into your room, my soundproofing charm will trigger. Rest well and prepare yourself for the departure that awaits you.”

There’s a tinge of sadness in his voice that Taehyung doesn’t miss, making his heart squeeze with guilt. He does as he’s told, slowly climbing back up to the loft above. Yoongi waves with a smirk as he sends him a final glance, but his grandfather’s gaze glimmers with worry. 

The moment Taehyung enters his room, the surrounding sounds fall away, even the crackle of fire in the hearth and the frigid wind going silent. 

But as he climbs into bed, Taehyung finds the charm does little to calm the noise in his mind and the pounding of his heart. It thuds loudly against his ribs even as he drifts off to sleep in the hours of the early morning, his dreams tinged with the brilliant gold of phoenix wings. 

Wings he hopes he can set free.









The stairs beneath Taehyung’s feet creak ominously as he descends to the basement. He freezes before casting a glare at them, praying Shinah won’t return and hear him sneaking down to the forbidden room. 

It’s been two weeks since he’s returned to the Manor, two long weeks of playing it safe and learning of his parents’ hunting schedules before deciding to enact his plan. They often leave to retrieve spirits for days at a time, and Taehyung is certain they’ll be gone for most of this week. Unfortunately, Shinah will be returning early, though he leaves the house often enough that Taehyung is confident he can work around him.

He’s grateful they’re finally gone. Being cooped up in his room knowing they’re hurting a spirit has him nearly scaling the walls. Even with cleaning the house from top to bottom after they neglected every room in his absence, he’s been anxious to the point of pacing, eager to put his magic to real use. 

It’s the least he can do now that he knows the extent of his family’s cruelty. 

For the first time in his life, Taehyung has been able to see his parents for who they truly are—abusive, manipulative and blatantly evil. Before he left last summer, there was still a shred of sympathy left in him— a false hope that they’d someday leave their selfish ways behind. He wanted to believe they’d change. 

But while he was away, it seems they’ve only somehow gotten worse. 

Aside from the house being torn to shreds, Taehyung has noticed how his parents now barely speak to one another. When they do, it devolves into screams that can be heard even from the basement. His father has kicked down doors and punched holes in the wall, shouting at anyone with the misfortune to cross his path, and his mother seems to quietly take it out on the spirits she drags home. 

Fortunately for Taehyung, he seems to be all but forgotten… except by maybe his older brother.

Shinah seems determined to make his life hell more than usual, but Taehyung’s confidence is different now—more purposeful and defensive. Between his grandfather’s praise and the mission weighing on his shoulders, he’s finally had enough of being pushed around. 

Whenever Shinah attempts to screw with him, Taehyung deflects him with clever uses of magic, tripping him with his own bootlaces or knocking a book from a shelf onto his head. He’s dodged him with slight gusts of mysterious wind and forced him into fits of sneezing with random blasts of spring pollen. The lock on his bedroom door is now reinforced with days worth of focused magic and Taehyung has even managed to take baths in peace using noise-cancelling enchantments. 

Even with his usual tip-toeing around his family, he still feels invigorated. He has a purpose now, one where he could change the fate of a living thing or even the world. 

The steps grow darker as Taehyung travels lower into the basement. He’s grateful he was wise enough to bring a candle, holding the flickering flame high above his head. He knows he could use magic to light his way, but it would be too risky to procure anything without knowing what enchantments lie around the forbidden room.

When the stairs finally come to a blessed end, Taehyung is greeted by a large, steel door. It gleams threateningly in the firelight and emanates an aura that’s thick with magic. Taehyung has visited here once earlier this week in an attempt to decode it and was surprised to find its magic lock all too familiar. 

It’s crafted of the very same warlock magic that flows in his blood.

He bites the tip of his thumb, wincing when he draws a bead of crimson. It’s not particularly comfortable when he drags it over the door’s center, the metal cold and abrasive against his skin, but the door responds instantly to the ancient magic in his veins. A loud, satisfying thud is heard as the internal lock is undone and his blood fades away. 

The hinges creak open to reveal a space of pure darkness and he finds its eerily quiet this far below ground. The energy in the air is harsh and oppressive, filled with a lingering malice that makes Taehyung feel ill. He raises his candle higher and nearly leaps from his skin when the flame jumps to the braziers on the wall, lighting the chandelier overhead and illuminating the room in a flickering orange glow.

There are metal objects along the walls—gemmed knives of varying lengths and curved prods that Taehyung doesn’t dare to imagine in use. Long tables with elixir stations line the sides of the room with stacks of shining jars on the shelves. There are endless boxes of papers on the floors and barrels of rope and chains. The stone below is stained with grime, trailing to the middle of the room where many empty cages sit.

Only the largest of them is occupied.

The breath Taehyung had been holding finally rushes from him at the sight. For years, he’s dreamt of what this room would look like, and surprisingly enough, his imagination had been accurate.

But as for the young phoenix spirit, the real thing is far more breathtaking. 

It glows like the sun in the night sky, the air around it sparkling with a rainbow of color that’s not of this world. Its feathers are intertwined with iridescent pieces of orange-gold that look even purer than Yoongi’s wings. To Taehyung’s heartache, the spirit also looks injured and defeated, clearly malnourished and dirtied. It lays on its side with a wing sprawled out, its cheek pressed to the metal floor of its cage. 

Taehyung knows without a doubt that he needs to save it. The determination that grips him is unlike anything he’s ever felt.

The moment his footsteps make a sound, the spirit jolts in its cage, panicking at his sudden presence. His chest floods with guilt as he hesitantly approaches its side and lifts his hands in a show of neutrality. 

“It’s— It’s okay,” he soothes worriedly. “I’m not— not like them, like my parents or Shinah. I’m an—um—friend.”

The word is foreign on Taehyung’s tongue. He’s never really called anyone a friend before. 

The spirit quivers where it lays, inching away with its little remaining strength. It’s small for a phoenix, its wingspan less than that of Taehyung’s outstretched arms, but its tail shines as if smouldering. Taehyung is certain he hasn’t ever seen anything so beautiful or sensed so much raw power in one being.

It hurts his heart to see such a precious, young creature cower in fear. He doesn’t want to imagine what heinous acts pushed it to this point.

“I know my family has been cruel to you,” Taehyung whispers, his throat choked with emotion. “I know you have no reason to trust me, but I just— I want to help. I usually live here, but before I came home, I was asked by Min Yoongi to try to rescue you.”

The spirit freezes at the mention of Yoongi, gazing up at him with a single, sparkling eye. Managing to catch its attention makes Taehyung’s heart soar with hope. 

There’s intelligence in its gaze, a clear sign of consciousness that’s much like that of a human. Taehyung sees fear and exhaustion there, but he also sees an immense sadness. A desire to be protected and cared for. 

The look is all too familiar to Taehyung.

“I’ve felt the same before, you know,” he says sadly. “Alone and trapped. It isn’t the same but… I can’t leave this place either. It gets lonely.”

As Taehyung speaks, the bird slowly raises its head to listen with interest. Though its body language is still wary, it seems less fearful, finally abandoning its attempt to flee him. 

Taehyung swears he sees understanding flash in its eyes. 

“I— I want to help you,” Taehyung says sadly, “but I don’t know how to break these yet.” He grunts as he pulls at the cage’s metal bars, gritting his teeth when they don’t budge. “Stupid—freaking—cage.”

The bars are warm to the touch, enchanted with complex magic that prevents them from being broken by normal means. His grandfather warned him that the spirits wouldn’t be held by any typical restraint, and as he repeatedly tries to pry them apart, he finds he had been correct.

The bird’s head tilts as he huffs in frustration. Taehyung glances around the room for any sign of a key or unlocking mechanism—anything that would help, but all he’s left with is disappointment.

He sighs, slumping against the back of another cage until he reaches the floor. 

“I’m sorry,” he mumbles guiltily, pulling his knees to his chest and knocking his head against them. “I thought a lot about how to get in here, but I don’t know what else to do now. There has to be something…”

The spirit slowly approaches the edge of the cage, shuffling its wings. When Taehyung doesn’t lift his head, it coos softly, the hoarse noise startling him from his thoughts. 

The bird stares directly at him now, pinning him with its large, black eyes. Taehyung’s breath catches at how they shine and shimmer like stars. The spirit is undeniably cute at its young age, radiating a gentle power that he finds captivating. 

It coos again, the sound dry enough to break his heart. 

Taehyung blinks. “Are you... thirsty?” 

Another coo answers him, this time with more enthusiasm. Taehyung’s pulse picks up speed as he stands, scrambling to his feet. 

“Hungry, too?”

The bird responds by eagerly rustling its wings and Taehyung’s eyes widen. 

He may not be able to break the spirit out yet, but he can still be useful. He can still help with his own power.

“I’ll—I’ll be right back!” he rushes out, electrified by the feeling of renewed purpose. He sprints up the stairs to their dirtied kitchen, retrieving some of the few berries he had put aside for his dinner tonight and filling a cup of water he purifies with magic. On the way back down, he takes the stairs two at a time, the water sloshing around in its cup. 

It’s only a breathless minute later before he’s at the spirit’s side again. 

“H-Here,” he pants, sliding the cup through the bars. To his immense relief, the bird drinks it down eagerly. It even eventually dunks its head into the cup, knocking it over and dousing it’s feathers like a bath. 

Taehyung gapes as the spirit shakes itself out, wiggling from beak to the tip of its tail. It splatters Taehyung with water as it flares its wings and shakes out its feathers. 

“H-Hey,” Taehyung giggles, wiping the droplets from his face. “Watch it.”

The bird seems to share his happiness as it preens its feathers of flame. It acts as if it trusts Taehyung now, lingering near the side of the cage without fear. 

“Feeling better?” Taehyung asks, unable to withhold his smile. 

When the spirit coos again, the pure sound makes Taehyung shiver. The note is otherworldly as it resonates through him like a bell. 

In his heart, Taehyung feels happiness that isn’t his own. Gratefulness. Excitement, even. 

His smile broadens. 

“Here,” he encourages, scooping some berries from his bowl. He wiggles his arm through the bars, holding out his palm for the spirit to eat from. 

To his relief, the bird doesn’t hesitate, gulping them down at the speed of light. Its beak tickles Taehuyng’s hand and he laughs, wiggling his fingers and scrunching his nose. 

The bird’s head tilts every time he laughs. Even when every berry disappears from his hand, he continues to poke at Taehyung’s palm, staring at him expectantly as if he expects his joyous reaction. 

Taehyung laughs until tears prick his eyes. He laughs until his hand is turning over and swiping over the spirit’s soft head, trailing a gentle knuckle over its torrid cheek. It’s thrilling and terrifying to have a phoenix brush against his palm so casually, nuzzling into his touch with a trust that makes Taehyung’s heart skip a beat. 

He’s not sure how long they stand there together, but it’s long enough for Taehyung’s feet to ache. He eventually grabs an empty barrel and sits cross-legged beside the cage, threading fingers down the spirit’s plush feathers on its back and marveling at how soft they are. 

He doesn’t have much of an escape plan, but an effort to keep the spirit calm, Taehyung just… talks.

He talks of his grandfather, of his parents and brother. He talks of spirits and his studies, of his day-to-day observations and the time he’s spent in the Manor. He talks until he’s breathless and the phoenix spirit listens with rapt attention, often chirping with happy or curious tones that resonate in Taehyung’s chest. 

They discuss his likes and dislikes, favorite foods and interests—Taehyung’s warlock aspirations and even his fears. Though the bird can’t respond, it’s as if they fall into easy conversation. 

“This is weird,” Taehyung giggles airly, his cheeks aching from his rambling. “I don’t get to talk much at home. You’ve made me happier in one day than I’ve felt in lots of years here.” 

The spirit stills against him, it’s head lifting from where it rests. The soft sound it makes is one of sympathy as it rubs against his wrist. 

“I’m not sure how much longer I can stay,” he whispers sadly. His heart aches when the spirit’s entire body seems to sag in disappointment, almost as if it pouts at him. “I know—I don’t want to leave either. But I promise I’ll come back every day I can, okay? I’ll come back until I can set you free.”

The promise isn’t something Taehyung says lightly. He feels it with his whole chest, now more determined than ever to save the phoenix—not just any spirit, but also maybe his friend.

“Can—can we be friends?” Taehyung asks quietly, his heart speeding up. He presses his free hand over it, unused to the warmth there that spreads up to his cheeks. “I don’t have any other friends, but— I think they’re supposed to make you feel like this. Like you’re happy to talk to them.”

The spirit makes a humming noise, one of such pure contentment that Taehyung feels like his whole body is melting. It brushes its feathers against his outstretched fingertips, rubbing its head under his cupped palm. 

Taehyung smiles with all his strength, almost certain he can hear the phoenix answer him.

Friends. 








It’s quick how Taehyung’s life begins to revolve around the only friend he’s ever made. 

The days that he has the house to himself are his favorite. Those are the days he spends lounging near the phoenix spirit’s cage talking about anything and everything. He kicks up his feet and teaches it about the history of magic and the workings of the human world, from how to navigate using the sun to the best ways to plant an herb garden. He hauls his books down the endless stairs and reads them aloud, his heart lifting when the spirit shares his excitement and his fondness growing when it dozes off with its head against his palm. 

Two weeks after befriending the spirit, Taehyung receives a response to the letter he had sent to his grandfather. As promised, he confirmed the spirit’s existence, and as expected, his grandfather instructed not to pursue anything further. 

Needless to say, it’s the first time Taehyung has actively defied him. 

Taehyung’s parents return the first weekend, though their visit is blessedly short. It’s laced with bickering and misery, punctuated by shouting matches between themselves and anger toward Shinah. Taehyung busies himself with his studies and takes care to stay out of sight. He’s admittedly filled with fear when his parents address him, petrified they’ll find out about his visits with the phoenix, but they’re usually grunting orders or making snide remarks about his ‘weak’ use of magic.

Their words are easier to deflect than ever knowing the spirit trapped several floors below him. Taehyung grins and bears it, keeping his behavior angelic in an attempt to stay off their radar. 

When they return from their second week away, however, Taehyung finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

He’s just leaving the kitchen with a plate in hand when his father enters the house unexpectedly, stomping in the front door covered in soot and grime. To Taehyung’s relief, he’s empty-handed, no battered spirits hanging from his grasp. 

Unfortunately, his plate of strawberries are enough to set him off. 

It’s not long before Taehyung finds himself cradling a split lip and gathering his ruined fruit from the ground with watering eyes. Apparently, his lack of greeting toward his father is an affront worth slapping him for—hard enough to make Taehyung see stars. 

At the very least, Taehyung can say he didn’t apologize this time. 

His parents remain for only a day, claiming a large wave of spirits have arrived at their usual hunting grounds. Every hour they linger in the basement makes Taehyung more and more anxious, his stomach rolling at the thought of them hurting the phoenix spirit. He prays they’re too busy among themselves to inflict harm, but he isn’t naive. He knows how relentless they are. 

They’ll push his friend until he breaks. He just hopes the spirit is strong enough to withstand them until he can figure out how to help him escape.

By the time they depart the following day, Taehyung’s lip is swollen and bruised. He paces in his room until he hears Shinah slam the front door with far too much force, giving him a good half hour before he sprints from his room and flies down the stairs with water and food clutched to his chest. 

His thumb is permanently bandaged now from how often he opens the steel door. The blood comes easily when he bites down and rips it open with all his strength, watching as the firelight flickers between each brazier with a racing heart. 

“Hey.”

At the center of the room, the spirit lies quiet, but it’s head snaps upward at the sound of his voice. It squeaks immediately when their gazes meet. 

Taehyung thinks his heart might burst. 

“Are you okay?” he exhales worriedly, rushing to its side in a flurry. He quickly passes the water through, readying the food he’s kept hidden away for it. “I’m sorry I couldn’t visit… they stayed longer than expected this time.”

The bird seems to be in one piece, though there are some parts of its hide that are patchy. A few feathers are singed at its tail, but it still drinks down the water without issue. When Taehyung holds out a handful of berries, the spirit bypasses them to brush against Taehyung’s forearm, cooing at him with purpose.

A foreign feeling strikes Taehyung’s chest with emotion. It feels like worry… for him.

“Me?” Taehyung asks, his brows furrowing. “I’m fine, but you need to eat—”

The spirit chirps demandingly this time, pushing away his hand. It gets nearer to the edge of the cage, inching toward Taehyung’s face before it cries out again. 

Taehyung feels insistence in his chest. A buzz of concern. He slowly dumps the berries back into the bowl and raises his hand to his face in confusion. 

It’s only then that he remembers that his lip throbs. 

“This?” he asks in disbelief, fingers hovering over his lip. “This is nothing,” he laughs lightly. “I’m fine, really. Don’t worry.”

The spirit makes a noise that sounds all too much like a whine, its feathers rustling in discontent. Its eyes stare unblinkingly at Taehyung as if willing the answer from him. Power rolls over his skin and warms him to his core. 

“Really,” Taehyung soothes, brushing over his beak. “I’m okay. My father, he…” 

He trails off and bites his lip in habit, hissing quietly when he immediately regrets it. 

The bird’s feathers flare at the noise, its power intensifying. Taehyung’s heart picks up speed at the sensation that sweeps over him and draws him inward, the edges of his vision wavering.

“Wait,” he says panickedly, “what are you doing? Wait, stop—!”

In a blink, Taehyung feels his body loosen. His surroundings melt away, the greyed stone and orange fire blurring into a garden of verdant growth. There are wisterias overhead and white lotus at his feet, a gentle creek running nearby. Sunlight sparkles with too much strength and blinds him before his eyes adjust. 

“Are you— are you alright?”

The young, pure voice takes Taehyung’s breath away. Though the presence behind it is familiar, the sound is new, like something straight out of a dream.

He turns to find a boy before standing him, one with sparkling irises and a mop of wavy hair. His outfit is plain—a blouse and dark pants with wings of gold protruding from his back. He’s a little shorter than Taehyung, maybe a year or two behind him, but the softness to his profile makes him look even younger. 

He had forgotten that spirits can take any form they want in the Tranquil state. Apparently, this phoenix prefers to be human. 

“You’re— you’re—”

“Jeongguk,” the boy smiles, flashing his teeth. His grin makes Taehyung’s heart shift in a weird way. 

“Jeon...gguk,” Taehyung mouths, adjusting to the name on his tongue. It seems to fit the boy perfectly, a name he feels like he knew but had long forgotten. 

“I— I was worried because of your face,” Jeongguk says meekly, eyeing his swollen lip. “I’ve never seen you hurt before and I really wanted to ask you, so I just… brought you here. I knew I could trust you.”

Taehyung swallows dryly, slow to absorb the unnatural beauty of the boy and how gorgeous his surroundings are. The garden is nothing like he’s ever seen, even compared to the one his grandfather cultivates himself. 

“Is this… your Tranquil state?” Taehyung says, his eyes darting around in awe.

“Mm, that’s that thingy in my heart, right?” Jeongguk asks, his head tilting just as it does in his bird form. “I guess this is it. I’ve never let anyone in here before, even though your mom and dad keep trying to break in. My mom said only to let friends into my heart, but… we’re friends now, aren’t we?”

When Jeongguk looks to him with hope in his eyes, reality strikes Taehyung all at once. 

He’s able to speak to his friend freely, somehow within a spirit’s Tranquil state without forcing his way in like a typical warlock. Not only has he succeeded in enduring such heavy magic, but he gets to finally see his friend for who he truly is.

The feeling has him ready to combust with happiness. He hurriedly crosses the space between them, pulling Jeongguk into a tight hug. 

“Friends,” he says excitedly. “Definitely friends.”

Jeongguk seems surprised by the contact at first, his stiff body slowly loosening. He giggles a moment later, wrapping his arms around Taehyung’s back and pressing his round cheek into his shoulder. 

“Friends,” Jeongguk laughs warmly. 







Another few weeks pass, and Taehyung soon finds they’re some of the best he’s ever had outside of his grandfather’s treehouse. 

Visiting Jeongguk becomes the highlight of every day now that they can speak through the Tranquil state. They spend much of their time simply talking about their lives, although Jeongguk surprisingly can’t remember much of where he came from. He remembers the kindness of his mother and that his brother Yoongi had fled the spirit realm many years ago. He also recalls having a father, but can’t even remember his name. He can’t remember where he was found or why he left the spirit realm, only that dark nightmares still hide most of his memories.

Taehyung is happy simply listening to him speak, comforted by the sound of his voice and delighted when Jeongguk listens in return. He’s never had a friend, definitely not one at home and especially not one that knows him this well. He’s not sure anyone knows him like Jeongguk does—not even his grandfather. They never seem to have enough time to waste and they talk to each other about anything and everything. 

...Well, almost everything. 

Jeongguk still refuses to tell Taehyung about what his parents do to him on the nights they remain at home, even when Taehyung has found him with injured wings or sprained ankles. Taehyung has begged him for answers, desperate to help him in any way he can, but Jeongguk keeps his mouth sealed tightly. He hides behind soft smiles and avoidant eyes, but his evasiveness only makes Taehyung sick with enough worry to keep him up at night. 

Needless to say, it surprises him when Jeongguk shares that Shinah has been visiting him nearly every day he’s home. 

“He just… talks to me,” Jeongguk murmurs, his head laid back in the field of flowers. Taehyung sits beside him facing the opposite way, twisting the vines of spirit energy into woven circlets. “I think he wants to be my friend too, but it doesn’t feel the same as when you and me talk.”

Taehyung presses his lips together tightly. He still pities his brother, but he can’t see him providing genuine compassion to someone like himself or Jeongguk. 

“You should be careful around him,” Taehyung warns, weaving the vines beneath his bandaged fingertips. He’s resorted to biting his other fingers now after having to open the steel door so often. “My grandfather always said to trust your heart when it came to using your power. I’m sure it’s the same for you.”

Jeongguk’s sparkling eyes travel over Taehyung’s face, flickering with new understanding. He sits up with petals caught in the waves of his hair. 

“My heart trusts you,” he says suddenly. “That’s why we’re friends.”

Taehyung’s lips part before he smiles softly, brushing the petals from Jeongguk’s dark locks. “I’m really happy that you do. Not many spirits trust warlocks... for a good reason.”

Jeongguk’s brows furrow as his cheeks puff. He crosses his arms indignantly. “Well, they’re stupid then. You’re the best and strongest and prettiest human I know.”

Red dusts Taehyung’s cheeks as he blushes. He isn’t sure friends call each other pretty, but it makes him feel warm all the way to his toes, so he doesn’t question it. Instead, he rests the circlet on Jeongguk’s head with a giggle. 

“It doesn’t matter what we are,” he states softly. “We’ll still always be friends.”

Jeongguk’s eyes widen a fraction. “Forever?” 

Taehyung hums as he nods. He’s never been so sure of anything in his whole life. Meeting Jeongguk is one of the best things that’s ever happened to him.

Jeongguk’s answering smile is genuine and warm. He leans his head against Taehyung’s shoulder, staring out over the flower fields. 

“Wanna be with you forever,” he sighs contentedly. “Just me and Taehyungie.”

Taehyung’s breath catches, his heart swelling in his chest. There’s much he knows he hasn’t experienced yet, still struggling to find his place in the world, but the most comfortable spot so far is at Jeongguk’s side. 

Anything less than forever feels too short.

“Me too.”

 






“Going somewhere?”

Taehyung freezes in his tracks, his body flooding with ice. He stands at the top of the basement steps with the door ajar and a bowl of berries in hand. 

He had sworn Shinah was long gone already. Taehyung’s always been careful to wait and listen until it's safe to visit Jeongguk, taking extreme care to make sure the house is empty before even attempting to sneak around. 

“I was just…”

His brother looks at him expectantly, his arm leaning casually across the doorway and blocking his path. Taehyung licks over his lips and flounders for an explanation. 

“We have mice.”

Shinah blinks, his arm slowly lowering as his smirk slips away. “Mice?”

Taehyung nods. “That’s why I had this— this bowl. I can catch them when they come out to eat it.” 

His brother appears unconvinced and Taehyung feels sweat bead on his neck as his pulse accelerates. His mind races for some sort of proof, even if it’s a lie. 

Instead, he feels his magic stir in his chest. 

“I saw one just—just now,” he continues casually. “They really like the basement since it’s dark down there.”

“Right,” Shinah says flatly, inching closer to him. “Is it mice that’s had you looking so… I don’t know, happy lately? Relaxed?” 

Taehyung gulps as he clutches his bowl to his chest, but he doesn’t back down from his brother’s stare. He’s taller than him at fifteen years old, far more intimidating than Taehyung could ever aspire to be, but there’s a discontent in his eyes that never seems to go away. 

“It’s… nice to have something to do,” Taehyung exhales. 

Shinah snorts. His hand shoots out to grip Taehyung by the front of his shirt. 

“Why do I think the only rat wandering around here is you?” 

Taehyung grits his teeth. It breaks every rule his grandfather taught him to use his magic so recklessly, but he has no other choice. 

A calm comes over him as he takes a steady breath and focuses on the energy in his chest. The well of magic that resides there is dark and deep, though comforting in its familiarity. He rarely calls upon it, and when he does, it’s difficult to control the surge of power that flares. 

A drop is sapped from him as he conjures a mouse at the bottom of the stairs. The creature scurries up and around Shinah’s legs. 

“What the hell—” his brother hisses, releasing Taehyung as he lifts each of his legs in a comical dance. “It’s a fucking mouse.”

“Told you,” Taehyung retorts bitterly, satisfaction flooding him at summoning such a convincing creature. It isn’t a real mouse—just an illusion made to look like one. He knows it’ll vanish in a puff as soon as it rounds the corner. 

Shinah scowls at it as it flees, his arms crossing against his chest. He regards Taehyung with an ounce of trust now, to Taehyung’s immense relief, although he knows it won’t last long.

“Even if you’re chasing mice, you shouldn’t be going near that room,” his brother says darkly. “The spirit in there is our family’s greatest weapon. It’s strong enough to easily kill you if you’re not careful and it’s already injured Dad twice.”

Taehyung blinks. It’s a long moment before he realizes that Shinah refers to Jeongguk. 

Jeongguk—sweet, innocent Jeongguk with eyes that shine like stars. 

Jeongguk, his best friend in the entire world. 

“Seriously?” Taehyung asks in awe, praying his years of ignorance and lies will serve him well. 

His brother seems to believe his lack of knowledge as he nods, his lips twitching into a smirk. “It’s a phoenix spirit,” he whispers mischievously. “If we can break a phoenix to our will, it can be the key to finally ending the Millenia War. Binding it to a human form will force it to stay in this world and maybe even end its cycle of rebirth. We can use it to get back the Dragon clan’s reputation and finally get our revenge on the Phoenix clan.”

Taehyung’s mind races, his palms beginning to sweat. He can’t comprehend exacting revenge on anything. It just doesn’t seem worth it.

“It’ll be me,” Shinah says darkly, his gaze hardening. “It’s going to be me who breaks the phoenix. I’ll earn its trust, slip into its Tranquil state and then force it into a human form. Mom and Dad will finally give me the respect I deserve and warlocks will have their name cleared once and for all.”

Taehyung forgets how to breathe. All he can see is Jeongguk, a small spirit with the heart of a boy he cares for more than almost anyone in the world. 

All he can see is Shinah breaking him, harming him. His parents twisting him into a familiar beyond recognition. Shattering his mind and heart until his best friend no longer exists. 

With his brother’s sneer before him, Taehyung decides it right then. 

He needs to help Jeongguk escape no matter the costs. 







“You’re back! You’re finally back! You’re— oof—”

Taehyung nearly topples backwards when Jeongguk collides with him. Arms wrap around his neck like a vice as a face burrows eagerly in his neck. 

Taehyung squeezes back with all of his strength, holding Jeongguk so tight he can barely breathe. His heart aches at how much he missed him—missed the feeling of his hug and the warmth of his presence. Missed the uplifting chime of his laugh and his scrunched smile. 

His world has been dark without Jeongguk in it for the week he’s been away.

“I missed you so much, Taehyungie,” Jeongguk whines in a muffled voice. “Where were you? Are you okay?”

“I’m okay. It’s just— my brother…” he starts sadly, glancing guilty at the flowers beneath his feet. He missed them too—missed everything about Jeongguk and their time spent together. “He almost caught me visiting you. I had to stay away so he wouldn’t follow me and he didn’t leave a lot this week.”

They slowly disentangle and Jeongguk pouts. “It was lonely without you. There’s so much I wanted to tell you and I was so bored.”

”I was too,” Taehyung answers, smiling sadly. He wasn’t bored, though—more anxious than anything, hoping Shinah would leave him alone and busy coming up with a plan. “I want to play, but we have to talk. About… serious stuff.”

Jeongguk’s brow quirks, his wings fluttering in habit. He holds both of Taehyung’s hands and squeezes them. 

“You can tell me anything,” he says determinedly, puffing his cheeks. “I’ll talk about any serious stuff with you. Did something hurt you? I bet I’m strong enough to fight it. Let me fight it, Taehyungie.” 

Taehyung giggles fondly at the way Jeongguk bristles on his behalf. “You’re very strong,” he says prasingly, though the longer he thinks about it, the more his face falls. “Maybe... too strong.”

Jeongguk tilts his head in habit. “Too strong? Is that bad?”

Taehyung nods as he swallows dryly. He pulls Jeongguk by the hand to their favorite tree within the Tranquil state, sitting beneath it with their knees pulled to their chests. They’re quiet for long enough that Taehyung is sure he understands something’s wrong. 

“My family wants to hurt you. I’m sure you know that by now,” Taehyung exhales shakily, picking at the white flowers that bloom from the grass. “If they break into your Tranquil state, they can take control of you and make you do... bad things. Really bad.”

Jeongguk’s face pales, his look filling Taehyung with guilt. He scoots a little closer until their arms press together. 

“I—I try to fight them when they hurt me,” Jeongguk whispers, the sound of the rustling trees nearly obscuring his voice. “Sometimes they almost get through, but I always push them back. I try to think about your visits because you— you make me feel strong. Like I can fight anything.” 

The thought of Jeongguk fending off his parents or Shinah makes Taehyung feel like he’s suffocating, but the possibility of him becoming their twisted familiar is even worse. It’s more sickening than any of his nightmares, even the ones where he finds himself in danger. 

He cares for Jeongguk more than he does himself. 

“Jeonggukie,” Taehyung starts, his voice cracking with emotion. “They’re getting impatient and I think it’s only going to get worse soon. I want you to escape, and I have an idea, but—”

“You do?” Jeongguk chirps hopefully, his head snapping in his direction. “We can finally leave together?”

Taehyung’s fingers tighten in the material of his shirt. He rests his head against the arms atop his knees, his surroundings going dark as his eyes squeeze shut.

“It— It’ll be you. Just you leaving.”

Jeongguk stills against him, his breath catching. “...What?”

“You’ll escape by yourself with this,” Taehyung answers, lifting his wrist. The bracelet his grandfather made for him shines as if illuminated, pulsing with a power unnoticed by all but Taehyung. “It’s full of warlock magic that I think can get you to a safe place, but… I’m not strong enough to go with you yet. I don’t think there’s enough in it for both of us to travel so far, especially with how powerful you are in your spirit form.” 

Jeongguk looks him over with wide eyes, slow to register his words. His face slowly crumples, his lower lip wobbling. 

“I don’t—I don’t want that. I don’t wanna leave you here alone.”

Taehyung’s chest feels like it’s breaking in half. He knew Jeongguk would be upset, but to be thinking of his feelings when he’s the one in danger is too kind. It’s too much. 

I don’t want it either.

Jeongguk’s fingers reach out to grip the sleeve of his shirt. “I don’t wanna leave without you,” he says desperately. “Please don’t make me leave.”

I don’t want you to.

Taehyung buries his face into his arms as a bitter feeling rises in his throat. He knows it’s the best thing to do, but can’t face him, not like this— 

“I wanna stay with you, Taehyungie,” Jeongguk pleads, his eyes welling with tears as he tugs on his shirt. “Even if it hurts, I still wanna see you. I can fight them until we can leave together—”

“You don’t understand, Jeongguk,” he retorts brokenly, “if they get through your defenses, they’ll turn you into something— something evil. I can’t let them— won’t ever let them hurt you. I’d rather be sent away then see you hurt.”

Jeongguk’s tears spill over, his grip on his sleeve slowly loosening. A cloud of defeat seems to fall over him that only makes Taehyung feel worse.

I want you to stay.

A long, quiet moment passes, one in which Taehyung wishes everything could change. He wishes he wasn’t a warlock and Jeongguk wasn’t a spirit. He wishes they could just be plain witches with all the freedom in the world. Just the pair of them together, always side-by-side.

“Can—can we still be friends if we’re apart?” Jeongguk whispers suddenly, his voice pained. 

Taehyung’s eyes widen in shock as his head slowly lifts. 

He finds Jeongguk already staring at him, tears lining the rims of his large eyes and trickling down his face. The look is the worst thing Taehyung has ever seen, maybe the most evil thing he’s ever done. It makes him feel like his heart is being ripped out and stomped on. 

The pair both seem to weaken at once, rushing into the other’s arms with an even tighter grasp than their earlier greeting. The dam of unfairness in Taehyung’s chest breaks with a sudden surge, all of his fears and hopes sticking in his lungs as crackling sobs. 

“Of course we’ll still be friends,” Taehyung sniffles into his shoulder, willing his heart into every word. “Even if we’re far away, I promise we’ll find each other. Nothing can keep us apart.” 

Jeongguk nods fiercely, his own body shaking as he cries. He grabs at Taehyung’s shirt as if he’ll disappear this very moment. 

“I’ll— I’ll get stronger and protect you,” Jeongguk insists thickly. “I’ll get so strong no one can hurt us. And then nothing will ever make us have to go away again.”

Taehyung snorts, feeling endeared even as he cries. It’s the second time he’s ever felt such a strange mix of emotions, unable to stop the way he pulls Jeongguk closer.

“I’ll protect you too,” he breathes, the band on his wrist shining. “Forever and ever. I promise.”

He feels Jeongguk nod against him as fingers tighten in his shirt.

“Forever.”







When Taehyung finally leaves red-eyed, defeated Jeongguk behind, it feels like the worst day of his life. Never has he felt so responsible for hurting someone before, even if it’s a plan that’s supposed to save him. He wishes he could take some of Jeongguk’s pain away for himself, but as always, he’s forced to leave him in the dark of the forbidden room.

He and Jeongguk had already discussed how to go about the plan. On a day he’s certain no one will be home, he’ll sneak down with a bag of clothes, food and water. He’ll slip them through the bars and then call upon the power stored in his bracelet to shadowshift Jeongguk to the treehouse where his grandfather resides. 

He knows it’s dangerous to shadowshift another being without going with him, since Jeongguk will have to rely on his own power to propel himself after the bracelet is drained, but Taehyung is left with no other choice. He doesn’t think he has enough power to get Jeongguk there and accompany him on top of it. 

He just has to get Jeongguk somewhere safe, even if he faces his family’s wrath in return.

Taehyung decides that he’ll help him escape at the end of the week. His parents should be back in a few days before leaving again to attend a hunt in a far away region, one that will keep them busier than ever. He’s overheard enough arguments about it to be sure of the dates, waiting to confirm them when he’s demanded to take care of the house in their absence. Until then, he plans to spend every hour possible with Jeongguk, uncertain of when they’ll see each other again. 

What he doesn’t expect is his parents to return the very next morning. 

He supposes it’s fortunate that he hadn’t yet made his way to the basement, dragging his feet out of precaution as he normally does. His heart slams into his throat when he hears the tell-tale bang of the front door and the muttering of typically loud voices. 

Their untimely arrival scares him, but their quiet makes Taehyung even more fearful. Peace between them is never a good sign for the spirits involved.

He gives it a few minutes before tip-toes down the stairs and peers around the corner. In the living room, he finds Shinah in a shockingly tame discussion with their father, the pair of them holding a curved, gleaming blade of fresh steel. 

Even from a distance, Taehyung can feel the pull of power from the violet gem embedded in its hilt. It’s reminiscent of the hum of energy that encircles his wrist and the power bestowed upon him by his grandfather.

His stomach turns. It’s clearly the stolen gem his grandfather mentioned, the one he said his father could even kill him with. 

“This will do it,” his father says confidently, his voice hushed. “There’s no one alive who can manipulate the spirits like my worm of a father can. With his energy in this stone, the phoenix will no longer be able to resist us. We will weaken him for you before we depart, but you must break him in our absence.” 

Shinah’s smile is near feral as the responsibility is rested upon his shoulders. His look makes Taehyung shudder.

“Do not hold back,” his father says darkly, the violence in his tone making Taehyung sick. “Min Yoongi has just acquired a familiar of incredible dark power, an affinity of death magic rarely seen. He’s slowly eradicating other warlocks and won’t hesitate to come for our family. We must be prepared, and our strongest weapon rests in that phoenix. Do what you must as long as it is kept alive.” 

In the gleam of their hungry smiles, Taehyung sees only horror—a horror that grows in the week that follows. 

Every day, Taehyung’s parents trade off venturing into the basement, effectively barring him from ever visiting Jeongguk. They remain there for hours—hours that Taehyung spends pacing in his room or staring out the window feeling ready to burst. The fear is so bad that he sometimes shakes, sick enough that he sits on the cold washroom floor with his back to the wall. 

He can only hear the words repeated in his head. 

Breaking Jeongguk. Weakening him. Harming him. 

They permeate his dreams and bring nightmares to life during the endless hours of the day. He hopes and prays with every fiber of his being that Jeongguk is as strong as the power around him feels. He’s young, but he’s still a legendary spirit, one determined to fight back on behalf of both of them. 

Taehyung clings to that hope when all else feels lost. 

The quicker he wills time to pass, the slower it seems to drag on. The weekend arrives with an agonizing hesitance, crawling forward at a snail’s pace. He’s barely eaten, the cuts over his fingertips bleeding when he picks at them anxiously. He tries to be patient but finds it impossible to calm down.

The morning his parents finally depart, he sits with his back against his bedroom door, the imbued bracelet clutched against his chest. It’s unlikely that Shinah will remain at home all day since he normally goes into the woods to train. Taehyung waits with bated breath in hopes that will still happen, staring at the carpet below in a thick silence. 

When he hears the sound of the front door opening and closing, he sprints with lightning speed. 

There’s no time to send Jeongguk off with the necessary amenities, so he forgoes the food and water. The sooner he can vanish him into seemingly thin air, the better.

He flies down the stairs with unintentional magic lifting his feet from the ground, his heart beating so hard that he hears it in his ears. The iron tang of blood is bitter when he bites down on his thumb and quickly drags it over the door, ripping it open before the lock even finishes moving. 

The room illuminates, revealing an interior he’s become too familiar with. In the usual center cage lies the lifeless form of Jeongguk. 

He doesn’t move when Taehyung calls out for him. He doesn’t even stir when his footsteps echo off the stone below.

“No...” Taehyung whispers, his eyes already burning, “no, Jeongguk!” 

Panic bubbles like acid in his stomach as he rushes to the cage. Inside is a barely-conscious phoenix, its smouldering feathers darkened. There are innumerable cuts along his body, on his wings and chest and along his cheek. He’s burned, his hide torn and marred.

Taehyung’s tears are falling before he even feels them.

“Jeongguk,” he begs desperately, shaking the bars of the cage, “Jeonggukie, it’s me—it’s Taehyung! Please wake up!”

The spirit is unresponsive, long enough that Taehyung cups his hand over his mouth to muffle his sobs. For days, he’s remained in the same house while Jeongguk has been hurt over and over, powerless to stop the greed of his family.

He failed him. Failed his best friend in the entire world, the only friend he’s ever had. 

“I’m sorry,” Taehyung sobs, reaching through the bars with all of his strength to trail fingers over Jeongguk’s soft cheek, “I’m so sorry—”

The cage blurs away with such a gradual motion that Taehyung is almost convinced he’s dreaming. He’s pulled ever so slowly inward, the feeling of gravity leaving him and making him feel weightless. Seconds trickle by and the walls fade to a greenery he knows all too well, one he thinks his mind resides in more than the real world. 

To his shock, he eventually finds himself in Jeongguk’s Tranquil state. 

Jeongguk lays on his back among the waving grass and flowers, his head off to the side. His breathing is ragged, loud enough that Taehyung can hear it from several feet away. Every inhale sounds like shrapnel rattling in his lungs. 

“...hyung—ie,” he wheezes, his brows furrowing.

Taehyung’s face crumples at the pain in his voice and he hurriedly kneels at his side. He brushes Jeongguk’s fringe away with gentle, shaking hands, cupping his cheek that bleeds with a shallow slice.

“Jeonggukie,” Taehyung breathes, his tears dripping onto his chest. “I’m so sorry. I’m sorry they hurt you.”

His heart nearly shatters when Jeongguk’s lips quirk upward. He smiles weakly without opening his eyes, his fingertips twitching where they lay by his sides. Taehyung grips his hand without hesitation.

“Fought… them,” he murmurs dreamily. “Did—good.” 

“You did,” Taehyung reassures, voice cracking. “You did so well, but we need to get you out of here. Only a little while before you can escape and—”

“So we are going somewhere after all.”

Every muscle in Taehyung’s body freezes. Even his racing heart stutters when he slowly turns his head to look over his shoulder. 

He shouldn’t be present—shouldn’t even be in the house or anywhere near it by now. He had waited and planned and plotted around him so carefully. 

Behind him stands Shinah, his dark hair blowing in the breeze. 

“Nice place here,” his brother drawls, kicking at the dirt and crushing the flowers. “Thought a phoenix’s Tranquil state would be way cooler, but I guess this one is young and weak. Not very impressive, if you ask me.”

Taehyung’s head spins. There’s no way Jeongguk would willingly allow Shinah to cross his defenses. It must mean he’s too weak to keep them up, or…

“You look so unhappy to see me, Taehyungie,” Shinah mocks. “I’m not sure why you would be when it was you who held open the door for me. The second your little friend let down his guard, he pulled me right in with you. All I had to do was wait in the shadows.”

“You— you shouldn’t be here,” Taehyung says panickedly, squeezing Jeongguk’s hand. “You hurt him, Mom and Dad hurt him—”

“I didn’t even touch him.”

Taehyung’s mouth closes, his teeth grinding together. 

He’s a liar. He has to be lying.

“I don’t believe you!”

“I never touched him, Taehyung,” he brother retorts angrily. “I’ve tried to get him to open the Tranquil state by talking with him, but he never bothered to listen to me. Mom and Dad are the ones who hurt him over and over. I tried to save him by breaking in and ending this. The sooner he becomes my familiar, the sooner they’ll let this go.”

“Are— are you insane?” Taehyung hisses. “Do you seriously think he’ll be safe under your control? Safe with Mom and Dad around? Warlocks aren’t supposed to have familiars, Shinah. All we do is hurt them. He deserves to be free.”

“How can a phoenix spirit be free in the mortal realm?” his brother argues. “He’ll be hunted by spirits, witches and warlocks no matter where he tries to hide—he’s too valuable. He’s our kind’s only chance at rewriting our own history with the phoenix clan.”

“Who cares about that? Warlocks can live in this world in peace,” Taehyung says desperately. “Who cares about the past?”

Shinah shoots him an incredulous look and shakes his head. “You’re so naive, Taehyungie—you always have been. Clearly Grandfather taught you only what he wanted you to know. The phoenix clan almost drove dragons to extinction just because they felt threatened by our relationships with mortals. They send spirits after us to murder us and make our lives hell. The rumors spread by the phoenix clan have made us hated by witches and the rest of the world.”

Jeongguk coughs where he lies in the grass and the sound lodges Taehyung’s heart in his throat. He turns to him with a pained expression, clutching his hand tightly. 

“It’ll be okay, Jeonggukie,” he whispers urgently, “we can fix this—”

“It’s over, Taehyung.”

His eyes lock to Shinah and find him smiling. His hungry expression makes Taehyung's stomach turn. 

“The phoenix is mine now,” Shinah says darkly. “I don’t know what you’ve done to earn his trust or how long you’ve been sneaking around, but it’s obvious you won’t do what’s best for him if you haven’t already. This is his fate. He can’t escape.”

Taehyung’s body begins to tremble. He doesn’t have much of a temper, and in all his life, his times of rage have been few. Even when his parents raised a hand against him or when his isolation had been at its worst, he’s remained collected. 

But to have his best friend threatened, to have him used as a weapon—the one thing in his life that’s made him feel truly free…

Taehyung has never felt more fury than he does now. 

“I won’t let you,” he growls, power surging in his chest. “I won’t let you hurt him, Shinah!” 

His brother’s eyes glint with violence. He falls to one knee and presses a palm to the ground. 

“He will become human,” Shinah growls, the grass rippling around him, “and he’ll be mine.” 

A fissure of darkness erupts across the flower fields, cracking the ground like a strike of lightning. Jeongguk’s eyes snap open as his body seizes up, a hand instantly flying over his chest where his heart lies. He wheezes for air and sits up to hunch over in pain. 

“No, no—Jeongguk!” Taehyung says in terror, watching as the whites of Jeongguk’s eyes flood with black before flickering back to white. He meets Taehyung’s gaze with a widened stare, clinging to his hands with breaking force.

“Tae—hyungie,” he chokes, “he’s—” 

Jeongguk coughs and blood drips from his mouth. He groans, swaying to the side just as Taehyung catches him in his arms. Every inch of his body trembles as his wings dim their sparkle and dip to the color of shadow.

Taehyung’s grip around him tightens protectively. Shinah’s influence is changing Jeongguk, breaking him just as he said he would. Rewiring who he really is. 

“Can’t—fight him,” Jeongguk says, crying out in pain as he curls against Taehyung’s chest. “Don’t want—this,” he cries. “Wanna stay—with you.”

The sky darkens with raging clouds and the fissures in the ground glow with purple light. Taehyung watches in horror as the sun is blocked out and the wisterias are caught in a shadowy blaze, warming in the same way Jeongguk’s entire body does. The petals of flowers below the change from a pure white to a distinct black. 

“Stop this,” Taehyung shouts over his shoulder, his tears hot on his cheeks. “You’re hurting him!” 

Shinah’s jaw is tightened, his fingers digging into the dirt as his veins bulge in his neck. It’s clear that unraveling Jeongguk is extreme even for his advanced power.

Taehyung can’t take it. He can’t watch this go on. Even after all his training not to use his magic for selfish purposes, he can’t help it when he lashes out. He doesn’t choose an affinity, relying only on his heart when he begs it to stop Shinah from continuing his spell.

Vines suddenly erupt from the ground with the force of an earthquake. They shoot up Shinah’s calves and pull him forward with force, his concentration faltering as he stumbles. A frustrated growl is heard as he begins to rip them away, but the life magic is relentless, tying him down and twisting around his limbs even when he summons fire to incinerate him.

For a moment, Jeongguk seems to relax, his breath coming in spasms. He clutches Taehyung’s shirt with shaking fists. 

“Tae,” he groans, burying his face against him. “Please—”

Taehyung holds him close, brushing hands over his hair. “You can’t stay with me, Jeonggukie, we have to get you out of here. Somewhere safe, far away from him.”

A trembling hand reaches upward, brushing a knuckle over Taehyung’s cheek. 

“Wanna be yours—instead.”

Taehyung stills, eyes widening as he searches over Jeongguk’s face. The meaning is there, clear as day, but Taehyung can’t comprehend it. Can’t even consider it. 

“I’m— I’m not that kind of warlock, Guk,” he breathes. “I won’t do that to spirits, especially to you—”

“Don’t care,” Jeongguk says, gritting his teeth. “I know—you won’t hurt me—”

He’s cut off when he begins to writhe in Taehyung’s arms, groaning in pain far louder than earlier. The sight makes Taehyung cry as he watches his body contort, rejecting the magic that attempts to change him. Jeongguk’s eyes flicker, his wings flashing different shades and his nails growing long and short again. 

More blood is coughed onto Taehyung and Jeongguk’s chest sounds as if it's shattered.

“Stop!” Taehyung sobs hoarsely, his head whipping to his brother, “he won’t survive this, you’re killing him—”

“Then he’s weak,” Shinah snarls on his hands and knees, his tone reverberating with power. The scales on his neck gleam, ancient power swirling around him to fend off Taehyung’s whipping vibes and swirling leaves. “If any spirit can handle a human form, it’s a phoenix. He either dies here and is reborn or adjusts to what my magic tells him to do.”

Taehyung can’t breathe, can’t think. He had forgotten Jeongguk could potentially be reborn, but what does being reborn even mean?

Does he return to the spirit realm? Does he stay in his arms? Does it hurt to be reborn?

Will Jeongguk even remember him—remember their friendship? 

A selfish part of Taehyung doesn’t want to find out. He wants Jeongguk to stay the way he is, smiling brightly and laughing at everything and nothing. He doesn’t want to lose the most precious thing he’s ever had. 

He’ll protect Jeongguk’s happiness with his life.

“Jeongguk’s death is not an option, reborn or not,” Taehyung threatens. “I won’t let you, Shinah.”

The words are firm, but Taehyung knows there’s only one way to undo the damage his brother has already caused. 

He doesn’t want to think about it—doesn’t even want to consider making Jeongguk his familiar. He can’t picture having someone so free-spirited under his control, petrified of what could go wrong with his magic. His grandfather’s voice rings in his mind that his soul will be destroyed for such a selfish act, that Jeongguk will be warped beyond recognition by his own hand. 

And yet, compared to Jeongguk’s death, Taehyung thinks he’d do anything… even binding them together for life. He’s not certain about the details, but his whole heart is willing to take care of Jeongguk. To protect him. 

If Jeongguk accepts it, Taehyung will welcome him into his heart. He’s already made a place for himself there.

The moment the thought passes through him, Taehyung realizes there’s no choice. His magic acts of its own accord, humming within him from his toes to his fingertips. It glows like a myriad of color and envelops himself and Jeongguk in a bubble of light.

“What… what the hell are you doing?” his brother shouts in disbelief. He fights off the last of the vines, stumbling toward where Taehung holds Jeongguk in his arms. “No, don’t you dare—”

Taehyung doesn’t hear him. In his mind, their surroundings become calm, his heart pulsing with the very energy that makes up his soul. It reaches out for Jeongguk’s spirit energy and finds it immediately, not at all resistant to Taehyung’s influence.

Their hearts tangle, fitting together like pieces. It’s almost too easy how vulnerable they both are, too willing to give in in order to stay beside each other. Too eager to protect the other from loneliness.

For the first time since Taehyung found him injured, Jeongguk takes a breath that comes easy. His body seems to relax, curling closer to his chest. A beam of sun strikes through the clouds and shines down upon them, illuminating their surroundings like colored glass. 

“No,” Shinah screams, his voice distant, “you can’t take this from me, Taehyung! This was my chance—”

He cries out when he steps into the light, shielding his eyes as his skin begins to burn. Taehyung can’t hear him, not when the deepest parts of Jeongguk suddenly open up to him as his true power reveals itself. 

It’s unbelievable—unfathomable. The raw magic Jeongguk possesses is far beyond what the mortal realm is capable of handling. For Taehyung to hold it entirely in his hands is something terrifying, as if he peers over the precipice of a bottomless ravine. By its own accord, it slowly drags him forward and threatens to drop him. 

Taehyung’s body locks in fear, the light around him wavering. The Tranquil state disappears entirely as his body and mind are flooded with the feeling of falling—drowning endlessly in the feeling of Jeongguk’s power. Closer and closer, he nears the edge, torn between his own fright and wanting to protect Jeongguk with his own life. 

It’s terrifying to fall, one of his worst fears. To leap willingly is almost a certain death. 

“I’ll catch you, Taehyungie.”

A gentle breath is huffed into his neck. Taehyung can’t see him, but he knows without a doubt that it’s Jeongguk. 

“Trust in me like I trust you,” he murmurs softly. “If you fall, I’ll catch you. I promise.” 

“You— you swear?” Taehyung whispers nervously, clinging blindly to the hands he feels in his. “Even if I end up hurting you?”

There’s a warm hum of reassurance. “No matter what, I’ll always be there for you. Even if we’re apart, I’ll come back and catch you. I trust you more than anyone.”

Taehyung realizes it then. To trust Jeongguk is to fall. 

To form a pact between them—to intertwine their power and make him a proper familiar, there must be sacrifices from them both. Jeongguk trades a piece of his power and freedom, and in exchange, Taehyung must plunge himself into the abyss without hesitation. 

He can face his fear of falling—he’s certain now that Jeongguk will catch him. 

But facing his own guilt…

“Is this— is this really what you want?” he asks Jeongguk, fear prickling his insides. “To be tied to me like this forever?”

Jeongguk’s presence in his chest grows nearer. “As long as we’re together,” Jeongguk whispers, “that’s all I want. I don’t care about the rest as long as it’s forever.” 

Taehyung’s toes ease off the edge of the precipice. His stomach lurches at the unsteady feeling of falling forward. 

“I trust you,” Jeongguk whispers. “So let me catch you.”

Taehyung inhales deeply, exhaling even longer. Never in his life has he ever felt so close to someone else. Never has someone put his heart at ease like Jeongguk does.

Spirit or not, he wants to be by Jeongguk’s side forever. He wants to save him—to protect him. 

This is just the only way he knows how.

“I trust you,” Taehyung breathes. 

He drops from the edge. 

A blazing light shines behind his eyelids before they snap open. It’s a moment before he realizes it stems from himself and Jeongguk, a strange tether forming between their two hearts. As their pact falls into place, they begin to beat as one. 

Oddly enough, Taehyung feels… happy, the look mirrored by Jeongguk from the blissful smile he wears. Things aren’t much different between them now, still the same friends they’d always been, but where he once feared their parting, they now feel inseparable. 

Jeongguk feels like a part of his heart, integral to his very existence. It’s warm and ticklish, like the flutter of bird’s wings in his chest. He feels like he can shatter the earth if Jeongguk were to be taken from him.

Unfortunately, it lasts for only a moment.

The light between them is dashed as Jeongguk’s body jerks, his eyes rolling back and his smile vanishing. Taehyung gasps as he feels the pain reach his heart.

“What’s wrong?” he asks panickedly, body filling with dread when Jeongguk won’t answer. “Jeongguk, what’s wrong?!”

A sudden glint of metal catches his eye in the distance. Across the destroyed grass and black lotus flowers, Taehyung sees Shinah raise a blade over his head, stabbing the largest of the wisteria trees with the gemmed blade his father had given him.

Shinah’s eyes are wild, his breathing ragged. With every blow to the bark of the tree, it seems to pierce Jeongguk directly in his heart. 

Taehyung feels sick as the pulse beside his slows—Jeongguk’s pulse. His wings turn black as death magic swirls around them, dousing their light in a torrent of shadow.

“Stop it,” Taehyung cries sharply, “it’s too late, Shinah, it’s over—”

“It will never be over!” his brother says in fury. “Even if you’ve bound him to you, I’ll just kill him and break your pact, and when he’s reborn, I’ll make him mine. You won’t take this from me, Taehyung. Not after everything I’ve worked for!”

A different sense of anger sweeps over Taehyung this time—something deep in his core. Now that he and Jeongguk are connected, it only feels right to protect him with his life. He’ll do anything to keep him safe, even if it means using the magic he swore not to rely on. 

He holds Jeongguk’s body close, cradling him in his arms. With the addition of Jeongguk’s magic at his disposal, Taehyung thinks he can get them both to safety, but it will mean exhausting him further than he already is.

But if Shinah intends to kill Jeongguk, he knows he has no other choice.

“I’m sorry,” Taehyung whispers, pressing their foreheads together. “I’m sorry, Jeongguk. This isn’t what I wanted. I just wanted you to be free.”

Jeongguk is unresponsive, but Taehyung feels his heartbeat stutter. 

“I’m gonna get us out of here,” he breathes with determination. “I’ll use the bracelet Grandfather gave me to get Shinah out, and then I’ll have to use our powers to let us leave. It won’t be easy, but I need you to trust me, okay?”

There’s a sharp breath before Jeongguk’s brow furrows. Weak fingers grip Taehyung’s sleeve. 

Taehyung knows he understands. He can feel his unfaltering trust alongside his heart.

Jeongguk’s wings are still that of night when Taehyung dips into the power in his grandfather’s bracelet, the energy that lies there rushing to meet him in eagerness. As instructed, he uses his heart to direct it, willing it not to hurt his brother but to cast him away from them. 

Even if he has reason to hate him, Taehyung wants to believe Shinah can change. He pours his hopes into the flow of magic instead of his anger, praying it will obey him instead of turning on him.

“Wait, no— what’re you doing?” Shinah says, his face terror-stricken when his body begins to disappear. “Taehyung, stop!” 

The bracelet’s gemstone emanates a warm light that shoots across the grass and wraps around his brother. Taehyung clenches his jaw and takes hold of the massive surge of power, using every drop to expel Shinah from the garden.

His brother puts up a fight, but there’s no use. Taehyung can feel the will of his grandfather within it, approving of his actions and keeping Shinah unharmed. Ruark’s steadying presence washes over Taehyung for a breath, similar to that of his own praise. 

“This isn’t over, you can’t escape!” Shinah says desperately, angry tears flowing from his eyes. “You can’t hide a phoenix familiar away or run from what you’ve done! Don’t leave me with them, Taehyung—!”

With a final echo, Shinah’s voice fades just as his body does, his form blinking away. 

The very second he vanishes, the garden seems to brighten, though the surrounding color is still as pale as Jeongguk’s pallid skin. Taehyung’s entire body sags from the effort it took to control his grandfather’s magic. Sweat drips down his neck and his limbs tremble with exhaustion as he gasps for air. 

He knows he can’t rest—not yet. They’re not safe until he delivers them from harm.

Taehyung rakes his hazy eyes over Jeongguk’s battered form and feels concern surge in him. From the look of his wings, he wonders if Jeongguk still hovers near death, the aura of magic around him different after Shinah’s damage to his heart. He knows he’ll have to heal him as soon as possible. Hopefully his grandfather will know how to help him.

Taehyung wonders if his grandfather will punish him for what he’s done—for the sin he’s committed of making a phoenix his familiar. He wonders if Jeongguk will be angry with him when he realizes what’s truly happened.

It’s strange to think he has his own familiar now, a feeling so overwhelming that it doesn’t seem real. Jeongguk will have taken on a different form when they leave the Tranquil state, changed to accommodate their own shared traits. Taehyung knows his strongest affinity of magic has always been that of life, but he’s not sure how it would influence a spirit by his side. 

Deep within his heart, Taehyung has hopes for what Jeongguk will choose to look like, but he tries to keep them to himself. He’s terrified of warping him, of forcing him into a form he doesn’t want. If Jeongguk wants to remain a phoenix, he’ll accept that too. 

He’ll accept him no matter what.

Even if Jeongguk is his familiar now, he wants to give him every bit of freedom he can. He wants him to have a normal life—one of happiness. One where he feels safe and protected, accepted for who he is. 

“Let’s leave here,” Taehyung whispers, holding Jeongguk close. “Together.”

Jeongguk takes a long, deep breath—one of comfort and trust. It’s enough to give Taehyung strength. 

His magic obeys him without question, and all at once, their bodies slip away into the shadows. As soon as the air around them changes, Taehyung’s energy is drained and his consciousness fades as if falling asleep on a cozy winter’s night.

When his heavy eyes open once more, there are cherry blossoms overhead. 









14 years ago



“Taehyungie! Taehyungie! Look what I found!”

Taehyung’s head raises from where he trims the hydrangea bushes, his back aching as he straightens. He wipes the sweat from his brow with the back of his sleeve and shields his eyes to stare at the growing figure on the horizon.

Jeongguk runs toward him with his usual smile, his form glittering in the sun. He carries an armful of bright red spheres that Taehyung guesses are apples—fresh ones, from the looks of it. 

Taehyung slowly grins with enough strength to hurt his cheeks. In fact, any time Jeongguk comes home to greet him, he can’t help the way his heart speeds up to match the pulse beside his own. Jeongguk’s reassuring presence is energizing and calming all at once, intensifying as the distance between them grows smaller.  

Ever since Jeongguk became his familiar nearly a year ago, Taehyung has been able to sense his approaching presence. They can feel when the other is in danger and have a general sense of where to find each other. There isn’t much sharing of emotions, but due to their closeness, they tend to partake in the same moods anyway. Jeongguk knows him better than he knows himself most days. 

Since arriving at his grandfather’s house, Taehyung has worked tirelessly to maintain a sense of normalcy. He manages an assortment of fruits, vegetables and herbs in a sprawling garden behind the treehouse, taking great care to handle the usual housework he did over the years. He encounters the local spirits frequently, healing them with his knowledge of potions and herbs or using his magic in small doses to mend their wounds. In everything he does, he tries to be a warlock worth respecting.

Jeongguk is an excellent gatherer and an even better scholar. Taehyung has slowly started to train him on magic and history, aided by the many books found in the treehouse. They spend hours in the small library, usually side-by-side in a comfortable silence. It’s rare they’re not brushing elbows or sitting back to back, always finding a way to stay close. Being parted is something neither of them are usually willing to do, even sleeping in Taehyung’s bed together most nights. 

Taehyung doesn’t think he could tolerate another presence like he does Jeongguk’s. Although he’s perfectly capable of handling himself when they’re apart, it still feels like half of him is missing. He can’t help but worry about him when he’s gone and even has occasional nightmares of Jeongguk’s imprisonment at the Manor. His stomach feels acidic and even his magic becomes erratic the longer he’s away, especially the witch magic he still struggles to manipulate.

Jeongguk, on the other hand, has the opposite problem.

When they had awoken after escaping the Manor, Jeongguk’s wings were gone. Instead, Taehyung found a human boy beside him, one incapable of manipulating magic or entering his own Tranquil state. Jeongguk seemed shaken by his new form at first, though he seemed to take the loss of power and his new body in stride, happy to simply remain by Taehyung’s side above all else. The only complaints he’s shared have been his inability to protect Taehyung and his occasional desire to fly.

But deep in his heart, Taehyung’s worries claw him apart. 

He worries that his desire for companionship forced Jeongguk into a form he never wanted, curing his loneliness at his best friend’s expense. Guilt eats away at him for locking such a powerful spirit away inside a human body. Some days, Taehyung even considers if it would have been better to let Jeongguk be reborn instead, allowing him to maintain his true form and leave behind the hell his family put him through. 

He wonders if his desire to protect Jeongguk from others’ greed locked his power away, or if Shinah somehow damaged his Tranquil state too much. Part of him even longs to see Jeongguk’s wings again or to visit the garden within his heart, but he’s mostly relieved he won’t be hunted for his magic. 

There are no records of human familiars anywhere in history aside from warlock experiments that end in horror. There’s no advice for Taehyung to follow—no one to rely on but himself. 

Even his grandfather is no longer beside him. 

The hardest part of the last year has been Taehyung’s adjustment to his grandfather’s absence. Soon after arriving at the treehouse, he found it eerily abandoned. A note was left on the table signed by Min Yoongi. 

He’s gone, and it’s my fault. I’m sorry. 

It had only taken a few days after their arrival for Yoongi to show up. Jeongguk was happy to see his brother, even a little wary of him after being parted for so long, but Yoongi had excused himself just at the sight of him and his injuries. 

Taehyung still suspects he cried in relief, but he can’t be certain. His kitsune amusedly reassured them that he’d be okay and provided them with potions to help Jeongguk’s injuries heal. 

Yoongi claimed his grandfather had attempted incredible warlock magic at his request—one that backfired so spectacularly, it took his life force with it. He apologized again and again, claiming it was his fault for asking something so selfish of him. 

The magic resulted in Yoongi no longer being able to summon his wings, his spirit form as inaccessible as Jeongguk’s is. Taehyung feels his fox familiar appeared for related reasons, but his presence has never been explained, and he’s certain Yoongi wouldn’t answer him if he asked. 

In truth, his grandfather’s death made Taehyung furious. He was angry at the unfairness of losing his one guiding light and the first person he truly loved, but he couldn’t find it in himself to hate Yoongi. When Yoongi bowed at his feet, begging for forgiveness and promising to watch over him at his grandfather’s final request, Taehyung quietly accepted his apology with Jeongguk’s hand clasped tightly in his own.

In recompense, however, Taehyung asked Yoongi for something in return. He agreed without argument.

Yoongi left him with a bracelet imbued with a piece of his power, revealing his true feelings just as his grandfather said it would. Taehyung can still feel his sorrow and guilt within it, as well as his quiet love for Jeongguk. He claimed Taehyung could use it to summon him to the treehouse and that, in line with his grandfather’s wishes to see him protected, he would drop anything to help him.

To Taehyung’s surprise, Yoongi also offered them both a place at Elenia Academy with a promise to conceal their identities. Taehyung politely declined… for now. He won’t consider leaving the treehouse until Jeongguk is comfortable in his human form. 

Admittedly, Taehyung doesn’t want to ask Yoongi for help for a single thing—never wants to see him again if he had the choice. He’s not sure he’ll ever truly forget what he’s done, but he isn’t one for grudges. His grandfather always said grudges prevent one from healing, and for a year, Taehyung has tried to let his anger go. 

He cried for weeks as his grandfather’s death loomed over him, comforted immensely by Jeongguk’s unwavering presence. Even now, he still sometimes cries when he thinks of him, stumbling upon reminders all over the treehouse when he least expects it. Taehyung still can’t enter his bedroom very often and has left his staff by the door. His teacup still hangs over the kitchen sink. 

But despite the heavy weight on Taehyung’s shoulders, he’s found peace at the treehouse with Jeongguk beside him. It’s enough for Taehyung to push his grief and the guilt for binding Jeongguk to a human form out of his mind. 

It’s easy to forget what plagues him with the image of Jeongguk running to him in the sunlight, smiling from ear to ear like he does right now. He makes Taehyung feel as light as air, lessening the pressure that threatens to drag him under. 

Jeongguk is panting by the time he reaches the garden. He doubles over to catch his breath, clutching the apples to his chest. Taehyung bends down with his head tilted, catching his eye with a smile. 

“Someone was busy,” he says amusedly, holding out his basket for Jeongguk to dump the apples into. 

Gratefully, Jeongguk empties his arms. “I climbed all the way up to get the fresh ones! I know you like them,” he giggles happily. 

Taehyung smiles through his light blush. There never seems to be a moment Jeongguk isn’t thinking of him, always prioritizing his happiness. He’s not sure what he’s done to receive such careful attention. 

“I also have a surprise,” Jeongguk whispers. His tone is excited, his smile bright enough for Taehyung to raise a brow. 

“Oh?” he asks, watching in interest as Jeongguk winds his arms around his back. 

“I, um— something happened,” Jeongguk starts bashfully, his fidgeting piquing Taehyung’s curiosity. It’s highly unusual for him to act so shy. “While I was taking a break, I started thinking about— about my magic again.”

Taehyung’s breath catches as his mind dissolves into static. They haven’t broached the topic of his missing abilities lately, and if he’s honest, the thought of them makes Taehyung nervous. He’s always afraid Jeongguk might change his mind and decide he’s miserable, opting to leave him behind or resent him for his human state.

But by the way he flutters his lashes and bites his lip around his smile, Taehyung ignores the fears for a brief moment. 

“There’s a lake by the apple trees. I decided to rest there because I got tired of climbing, and— and then, I was just… thinking, you know? About… about you.” He glances upward for a breath before looking down again, shifting the dirt beneath his boots. “Because I—I really like being your familiar. I like being with you.”

Taehyung’s heart squeezes in his chest as his blush intensifies. It’s new and strange to feel this way around Jeongguk, like every word is meant to cause him a fever or reduce him to jelly. His heart feels… weird, but in a good way. A way he wants to feel more and more.

“I felt a sort of burning right here,” Jeongguk explains hurriedly, motioning over his heart. “And then this just bloomed and— and I really wanted to give it to you.”

He brings his arms around from behind his back, revealing a black lotus with petals as dark as night… an exact replica of the flowers in Jeongguk’s Tranquil state after they’d been permeated by darkness. 

Taehyung’s face falls, his eyes slowly searching over Jeongguk’s profile. He’s grinning, holding the flower out between them with reddened cheeks and subtle pride. 

For a brief moment, the existence of the flower scares Taehyung. It’s the first sign of Jeongguk’s magic resurfacing in an entire year, made up of a magic that’s... dark, like that of death. 

But from the way Jeongguk smiles, Taehyung buries his worries and accepts the gift with all the gratefulness he can muster. It makes his chest feel fuzzy to receive a gift from him, especially one made with his own heart. 

Despite it’s darkness, it’s still elegant and beautiful. Its petals are soft to the touch when Taehyung takes it gingerly, holding it before his face in admiration. 

It’s a gift he’ll treasure forever. 

“Thank you,” he says breathlessly. “I—I really love it, Jeonggukie.”

Jeongguk’s eyes widen for a moment before he shyly tucks his hair behind his ear, still toeing at the dirt below. He giggles warmly and Taehyung feels fond. 

He supposes it's only natural for Jeongguk’s magic to slowly return over time. There’s no point in worrying himself sick over something expected. If they’re together, they’re strong enough to endure anything.

Jeongguk’s fingers interlace with Taehyung’s when he takes his hand. 

“C’mon,” Taehyung says brightly. “Let’s go inside. I can make apple crisp with everything you gathered for me just like you’ve been asking.”

Jeongguk’s eyes brighten, his smile splitting his face. He squeezes Taehyung’s hand and follows after him, chatting eagerly about what he observed during his adventures today. 

Taehyung doesn’t hear him. He holds the flower against his chest, wondering just what Jeongguk thought of him to bloom something so beautiful. 

He decides he’ll try to repot some of its leaves. Nothing makes him happier than to cultivate what Jeongguk’s given him.






“Taehyungie, are you listening?”

Taehyung blinks up from the threads woven around his fingers, pausing the colored bracelet he makes in his lap. He and Jeongguk sit on a branch of one of the largest trees in the surrounding forest, one that overlooks the glittering lake.  

“Hm?”

Jeongguk huffs a sigh where he sits across from him, Taehyung’s legs stretched across his thighs. He tickles his calves until Taehyung is forced to let loose a quiet giggle. 

“You’re ignoring me,” Jeongguk pouts, dark locks shadowing his eyes. There’s no seriousness to his whine, but Taehyung knows he‘s feeling affronted. “I was telling you about how I met some chipmunk turtle spirits yesterday. They even had babies with them! I’ve never seen anything so cute in my whole life.”

At the excitement glittering in his eyes, Taehyung sends him a small smile, wishing his mind didn’t feel so heavy. Ever since Jeongguk had managed to make a dark lotus bloom, tiny signs of his magic have been cropping up more often. He’s been tossing and turning in his sleep, moaning through nightmares he doesn’t remember the next day. 

Taehyung can’t get the vision of Jeongguk struggling out of his mind. Watching him suffer is the worst form of torture. 

It shouldn’t make him this nervous to see Jeongguk’s magic coming back. He knows he should’ve expected from a phoenix familiar, but deep in his chest, Taehyung is afraid.

There’s something not right about the magic—not right about Jeongguk’s aura as the days go by. They can’t feel each other’s emotions, and he won’t pretend he can feel Jeongguk’s physical ailments, but he senses something… wrong. 

It worries him until he can think of nothing else. 

Jeongguk continues to ramble and Taehyung takes comfort in the pleasant chime of his voice. He hates that there aren’t any books to help him figure out what might happen to Jeongguk if his powers return, if he’ll simply grow into them or if they’ll cause bigger problems. Despite Jeongguk’s constant company, he can’t help but sometimes feel alone, ridden with anxiety that he can’t protect his familiar like a proper invoker should. 

“Tae,” Jeongguk insists. “You’re not listening again!” 

Taehyung snaps his head up as he surfaces from his thoughts once more, sending him an apologetic smile that doesn’t meet his eyes.

“I’m sorry, Guk,” he murmurs sincerely. “I’m thinking too hard today, I guess.”

Jeongguk tilts his head as he eyes him in concern. “Are you alright?” he asks softly, brushing a hand over his forehead. “Not feeling good?”

Taehyung’s heart buzzes with affection. He smiles gently, shaking his head. “I’m fine,” he reassures. “Just need some cheering up is all.”

The words surprise Jeongguk before he smiles mischievously. “Cheering up?” he says slyly, wiggling his fingertips under the cuff of Taehyung’s long pants. “Are you sure you need it?”

A laugh bursts from Taehyung when Jeongguk fiercely tickles the bottom of his legs, the touch making him squirm and shout. He shoos Jeongguk away as his knees jerk reflexively, eventually wriggling his legs free from Jeongguk’s grasp. 

“Stop, stop,” he cackles, eyes pricking with tears, “please, Guk—”

Taehyung wriggles just a bit too far to his right. The branch isn’t terribly flat and he feels his body slowly roll, the gravity beneath him vanishing. A sickening feeling plunges through his gut. 

Both of their smiles slip away in an instant, their hearts racing in time with the other. Taehyung’s eyes meet Jeongguk’s in fear before squeezing shut. 

“Taehyung!”  

Tight fingers suddenly grip his forearm with enough strength to break his bones. Jeongguk holds him where he dangles, his jaw clenched tight while teetering dangerously close to the edge. 

“Tae,” he grits, his eyes wild, “I can’t— I want to—”

Taehyung tries to remain calm, but he feels like he’ll be sick. Falling is his worst fear, the weightless feeling around him horrifying.

But worse is perhaps the thought of Jeongguk going down with him.

“Let me go, Guk, I’ll try to use my magic—”

“No!”

Jeongguk’s cheeks are flushed from his snarl, his body shaking and his teeth barred. Taehyung’s eyes flick over him in concern, watching how he trembles with more than just muscle strain. 

“I— how am I—” he gasps, his breathing erratic, “how can I keep my promise— without magic? Without—wings?”

Taehyung feels his heart shatter. 

“It’s okay, Jeongguk,” he says in panic, “just let me go, please—”

“I won’t,” Jeongguk growls, pulling Taehyung with all his might. He gasps in pain, a choked noise flowing from him as magic suddenly grows thick in the air, but he still insists on pushing himself. “I won’t—let you—I promised—”

“Jeongguk, stop!” Taehyung pleads, tears lining his eyes. “You’re hurting yourself!” 

The sound Jeongguk makes is almost inhuman as he hauls Taehyung up, tossing him to the side with a grunt. He falls to his hands and knees along the branch, gasping for air before coughing blood onto the bark beneath him 

Taehyung freezes, eyeing his trembling form in horror. 

“Guk,” he says shakily, moving forward with arms outstretched, “tell me what’s happening, what’s—”

Taehyung inhales sharply as he brings him into his arms and feels wet warmth along Jeongguk’s back. Jeongguk jerks when touched, moaning in pain as he collapses into his hold. 

Taehyung’s hands shake when he lifts them before his face, finding them stained with damp crimson. 

Down Jeongguk’s back are two parallel lines of blood. 







The water sloshes as Taehyung shifts Jeongguk where he’s curled in his lap, wincing at his low groan. The feeling of wearing shorts under water isn’t the most comfortable, but Taehyung doesn’t give it a second thought—not when his surroundings are stained blood red. 

Although the bathwater is hot, Jeongguk still shakes as if freezing. His head is pressed against Taehyung’s bare chest with an arm curled around his lower back. Taehyung alternates between rocking him slowly and speaking in hushed tones to keep him distracted, resting his cheek against his head and feeling guiltier with every passing moment. 

It hadn’t taken much convincing for Taehyung to climb in beside him. Jeongguk had refused to remain in the tub by himself, but it seems to be the only thing that soothes the two protrusions from his back. His body tips precariously between spirit and human as his phoenix wings attempt to form, and based on his current state, Taehyung fears his physique can’t take it—can’t handle the surges of legendary power that keep crashing over him like tidal waves.

There was no real reason for Jeongguk to attempt to save him so desperately when he had almost fallen from the tree. Logically, Jeongguk knows that Taehyung could’ve used warlock magic to break his fall. The look in his eyes was the first time Taehyung had seen it: pure instinct driving him into a frenzy. 

Taehyung suspects there’s something changing in him, tuning Jeongguk to his needs beyond what human logic provides. Blooming flowers with his feelings and sprouting wings in desperation aren’t things Jeongguk asked for—they’re his spirit self breaking free, triggered by a part of their connection Taehyung still doesn’t understand. 

What he does understand is that Jeongguk’s human body is currently incapable of housing such power. 

There are too many tangled possibilities in Taehyung’s mind. There’s no precedent for any spirit to have a human form, especially not one of the most powerful types of spirits in existence. To shove a phoenix into the heart of a mortal is deadly.

Jeongguk could die if his power becomes too much for his young frame to carry, his bodily changes tearing him apart. As a pure phoenix, there was the possibility of his rebirth, but as a mortal… 

Taehyung simply doesn’t know if a human familiar can be reborn. 

Jeongguk could very well die for good. He could be reborn without any memory of their pact or even be immortal, his human body resurrecting again and again.

Taehyung doesn’t know, and the uncertainty of his future scares him more than anything else in his life. 

All Taehyung knows is that he did this to him—trapped the person he cares for more than anyone in a box too small. He had been desperate at the time, and Jeongguk had given his consent to becoming his familiar, but he wonders if his own heart made Jeongguk into the human he is today. 

If he hadn’t so selfishly wished for a friend, willing away the loneliness that plagued him, could Jeongguk have chosen his form himself? Would he have become something safer—something more capable of handling his power?

The guilt makes Taehyung feel like he can no longer breathe. The only thing currently keeping him afloat is the obsessive urge that his familiar needs him, his pain taking precedent above all else. Jeongguk’s dire state keeps him alert though the panic that threatens to suffocate him, calming the nerves that would otherwise have him shaking and sick. 

And so Taehyung rocks him in the bathtub until their fingers wrinkle. He cradles him until the minutes turn to hours and the sun sets beyond the window panes. 

He murmurs wishes into Jeongguk’s hair, plans for the future and places they can go when he's finally healed. He recounts the stories they’ve read together, recalling the few they’ve dreamt up on their own and making up new ones as he goes. There are promises of hot meals and apple crisp, dreams of summer nights in fields of flowers and cozy winters spent snuggled by the fire. They’ll chase the shooting stars in the night sky and catch cherry blossom petals in their hair come springtime. 

Taehyung talks, and yet, Jeongguk is no less free than hours ago. His blood still spills over the surface of the water, sticking to Taehyung’s skin. He still suffers, and Taehyung watches helplessly with tears rolling over his cheeks.

Like the first day he had laid eyes on a broken phoenix in a metal cage, Taehyung talks until his throat is dry. Except this time, the bars are his own hands. Jeongguk’s cage is his arms, his captor Taehyung’s heart. 

The moments Jeongguk huffs in weak amusement are precious. Taehyung clings to each one, his heart breaking when they’re punctuated by his groans of pain. More blood drains from his back as the spiked bones poke further from his skin. There are more cries of agony… more coughs rippling over the water. Minutes of ragged breathing and seconds of conversation through chapped lips and chattering teeth. 

Taehyung’s vision blurs with tears when Jeongguk curls in pain in his arms, his nails digging into his skin. Taehyung knocks his head back and looks to the ceiling in despair, the feeling of hopelessness drowning him faster than the surrounding water ever could. 

For a long while after, there’s silence, a thick quiet that’s only interrupted when Jeongguk takes a shuddering breath.

“Hyung..ie,” he croaks, unmoving in his arms.

“Mm?” Taehyung hums softly, willing the crackle of emotion from his voice. He brushes his cheek over his hair. “What is it, Gukkie?” 

“Your horns…” Jeongguk whispers, “they’re—pretty.”

Taehyung goes still, his heart shooting into his throat. In the last year, his inherited dragon horns have spiraled up and out of his curls, now about half grown and shining with an onyx gleam. He’s always been conscious of them, but around Jeongguk, he knows he has nothing to hide. 

He’s never mentioned them until tonight.

“Thank you,” Taehyung breathes, fresh tears pricking his eyes. He doesn’t understand Jeongguk at all. Even in horrific pain, a pain he endures as a consequence of staying by his side, Jeongguk showers him with more affection than he’s worth. 

“Will—will my wings… be pretty too?”

Taehyung bites his lip until it aches, willing his sobs to remain quiet. Swallowing them down is growing more difficult.

“Of course, Jeongguk,” he exhales. “Every part of you is pretty. No matter what your wings look like, I’ll love them just like I love you.”

He’s still not really sure what love is, but Taehyung thinks it might be this. Holding Jeongguk close, brushing his face into his hair, doing everything he can to see him smile and ease his suffering. Wanting nothing more than to return to a time where they laid side by side with fingers intertwined. 

There‘s the feeling of wanting to take Jeongguk’s pain as his own, the nagging urge that words are weak to describe the way his heart feels. They’re both still young, but Taehyung couldn’t care less. 

He loves Jeongguk—is absolutely sure of it. Loves him as his friend, as his companion and his familiar. Loves him like it’s natural, like he was brought into the world to hand over his heart to Jeongguk even if it’s bleeding and broken. Loves him effortlessly—easily. 

Jeongguk’s lips quirk into the gentlest of smiles. His eyes don’t have the strength to open, brows furrowing as another wave of pain wracks through him, but his smile still lingers long after Taehyung whispers words of love and compassion into his hair. 

“Can’t wait— to have wings,” he chokes out, clutching Taehyung’s arm with breaking strength. “Then—I’ll always—catch you.” 

Taehyung stares down at him in shock, his tears rippling the water’s surface. His face finally crumples as he struggles to contain himself, holding Jeongguk against him tightly. 

“I can’t wait to see them,” Taehyung sobs brokenly. “They’ll be beautiful.”

Jeongguk smiles, his teeth peeking out. 

It’s the last expression he makes before his body finally gives in, the pain so great that he loses consciousness in Taehyung’s arms. 

Amid his panic, drowning in a bath of blood and love for his familiar, Taehyung finds himself desperate enough to call upon the spirit he swore he wouldn’t. 







“He’s dying.”

Jeongguk’s head of dark hair is splayed in Taehyung’s lap, his breathing ragged and shallow where he lies on the living room floor. His eyes haven’t opened since a few hours prior, even before Taehyung last saw him smile in the bathtub. 

“I know,” Taehyung whispers. He doesn’t cry—can’t cry. He’s shed so many tears tonight that they’ve ran out, the center of his chest an aching void.

Yoongi’s kitsune sits close to Taehyung’s side, nosing at Jeongguk’s hair with a look of pure sorrow. He’s a child. A spirit trapped in a body that’s barely experienced channeling magic. It’s self-destructing within him. 

The pulse beside Taehyung’s heart beats much too slow. It fills him with fear when it pauses too long, only for him to exhale in relief when Jeongguk finally takes a breath. 

He’s weakening by the moment, his wings stunted where they’re half grown from his back. Taehyung has never wished for time to pass slower than he does now.

“There’s a chance he’ll be reborn,” Yoongi says darkly. Despite his composure, he looks equally as miserable, nearly as pale as Taehyung. “But for a human to reincarnate…”

The doubt in his voice makes Taehyung nauseous. “I can’t lose him like this,” he says, voice cracked and broken. “Jeongguk is— he’s all I have. I never wanted this for him.”

The kitsune noses comfortingly against his neck. Behind him, Yoongi stares with arms crossed against his chest. He looks to the ceiling and then out one of the windows, blowing a long breath out his cheeks.

But Taehyung only has eyes for Jeongguk, brushing gentle fingers through his hair. He’d do anything to reverse this—to give him the freedom he deserves and undo all his pain. 

“We promised to stay together,” Taehyung mourns, a dry sob wracking through him as he presses his head to Jeongguk’s. “Don’t leave, Jeonggukie. I love you so much. Please don’t go.”

It’s all his fault. Jeongguk’s broken state and his imminent death… they’re all Taehyung’s fault. If only he hadn’t taken him as his familiar—had listened to his grandfather when he warned warlocks aren’t meant to control spirits. If only he had been strong enough to fight his parents or Shinah when they hurt him.

Yoongi, the familiar murmurs, watching its invoker carefully. 

Yoongi faces away now, looking tense enough to burst. He reaches into his pocket and doesn’t withdraw his hand, shifting his weight anxiously. His familiar approaches to wedge its head under his elbow with an encouraging nudge. 

It feels like an eternity before he speaks. 

“Taehyung.”

Slowly, Taehyung raises his head, his eyes red and swollen. Yoongi stands before him with a hand outstretched, a brilliant gemstone in the center of his palm. It’s beautiful enough to make Taehyung’s breath catch.

He blinks up in confusion, eyes flicking over Yoongi’s face. 

“This gem is made of pure spirit energy, a perpetual source of magic,” he starts. “It’s incredibly rare, something I risked my life to obtain. It was supposed to be used for… personal reasons,” he says, eyes flicking to his kitsune and back, “but…”

He sighs, gazing down at Jeongguk with a look of raw grief. He runs a hand over his face as his familiar presses into his side for comfort.

“To tell you the truth, Kim Taehyung, I’m jealous of what Jeongguk has. Jealous of the both of you, really.”

Taehyung’s brows furrow. His mind may be a mess, but the sentiment still doesn’t make sense. 

Why would he be jealous of a fate as terrible as this?

“Right now, both of you are primarily human. You still possess the partial spirit of a dragon and Jeongguk holds the spirit of a phoenix, but at your cores, you’re both mortal.”

Taehyung nods once, but he still feels lost. 

Yoongi huffs a shaky breath, threading through his hair. “What it is to be human,” he explains slowly, “is much different than what it means to be a spirit. Humans live without fear of opening their hearts, forming connections and finding love that way. They live with more conviction than spirits can… perhaps not as strong in terms of magic, but stronger in that of heart.”

Taehyung feels his heart beat heavily in his chest. He can’t speak for pure spirits, but he knows he enjoys being human. He likes holding hands and making others smile. He likes sharing stories and laughing until he cries. 

He likes being human alongside Jeongguk the most.

“Jeongguk is a perfect balance, a spirit with the heart of a human. His body might not be able to handle his power now, but with proper training and an adult form, he has a better chance of enduring the magic he’s experiencing.” 

Taehyung can’t even picture Jeongguk surviving the night. Waiting for years sounds impossible. “But... how would I stop it? He’s changing right now—right this second.”

“With this,” Yoongi answers softly, holding out the gemstone. “You can seal his spirit energy away with the power stored here. Once Jeongguk is old enough, we can slowly introduce his spirit form in a safer manner.” 

Yoongi lifts his hand and drops the gemstone in his palm. Taehyung looks over it with a widening gaze, awestruck by the endless life magic within it. It’s warm to the touch, shimmering like colored glass.

“The gem is just condensed energy, but it’s not meant for humans,” Yoongi warns darkly. “As a warlock, you might have a better handle on it, but using it to maintain the seal will come at a hefty price. Your life and your magic will change dramatically—to contain the power of a phoenix is no easy feat.” 

The warning means nothing to Taehyung. There’s no sacrifice he won’t make to keep Jeongguk safe. 

“I anticipate Jeongguk will have some control over witch magic, but it might be… atypical,” Yoongi adds. “There’s no telling what the results will be.”

The uncertainty worries Taehyung. If he’s sealing his magic away, Jeongguk’s inability to follow the instincts of a familiar might make him feel like a failure. He won’t forget the frenzied look in his eye when he had first tried to sprout wings, desperate to fulfill his duties as he grappled for magic he couldn’t handle. 

There’s nothing more dangerous for human Jeongguk than his invoker.

“You said… we could go to the Academy,” Taehyung murmurs, curling his fingers over the stone as his mind races for a plan. “If Jeongguk is to live as a normal human, I want him to have a life like one. He deserves to be happy.”

With every word, Taehyung is more certain of his decision. It’s what’s best for him. 

“Jeongguk should live freely as a human,” he murmurs with sincerity, brushing Jeongguk’s fringe from his eyes. “Not as anyone’s weapon or pawn... and not as my familiar.”

Yoongi drags his stare away, contemplating his suggestion with lips pressed together. His familiar’s ears prick curiously. 

You would eliminate his memories of you, then? 

Hesitantly, Taehyung nods, ignoring the way his heart tears itself apart at the thought. 

To give up all he and Jeongguk have worked for, to seal away his smiles and sever the unbreakable bond of their friendship—to set free the only companion he’s ever had... 

As his stare travels over Jeongguk’s pale face, his heart nearly shattered in his chest, Taehyung thinks it would be worth it. Jeongguk would finally have the freedom he deserves. He could make friends and study magic like someone his age. He could smile and laugh freely without the weight of their pact tying him down.

He could even live forever as a human, if Taehyung can maintain his seal long enough. 

The more he thinks about it, the easier the decision becomes. 

“I don’t agree with wiping his memory,” Yoongi says quietly. “He may be outwardly human, but his power won’t be the same as his peers. If we’re to keep him in the dark, none of us will be able to protect him directly.”

Taehyung swallows thickly as tears finally prick his eyes. 

“I know,” he exhales shakily, “but this is his only chance. If I don’t save him now, he could— he could—”

He can’t say it—won’t say it. He refuses to consider a world without Jeongguk in it.

Taehyung won’t lose him again, not like he almost lost him to Shinah. He’d much rather support Jeongguk’s happiness from afar than watch him die in his arms. 

“I know what I have to do,” Taehyung whispers, holding Jeongguk close. He looks to Yoongi and his familiar, a plea shining in his eyes. “Whatever happens, just—please… don’t leave him alone. Even if he forgets us—forgets everything, he... he’ll still always be Jeongguk to me.” 

Yoongi and his kitsune are silent, the aura around them heavy with sorrow. Yoongi turns away with a frustrated look. 

“He’s your familiar,” he answers tightly. “His heart belongs to you. Unless Jeongguk’s life is at stake, I won’t interfere with your plan.” 

Gradually, Taehyung exhales in relief, feeling the gem warm in his hand. 

“But know this, Kim Taehyung,” Yoongi warns, his eyes glinting red, “Jeongguk is still my brother. He made it clear that he chose you as his invoker, and I will respect his wishes as a spirit would. If the seal begins to harm either of you because of your resistance, I’ll take it into my own hands and bring him back to you.” 

Taehyung’s gut swoops with cold. He knows without a doubt that Yoongi means every word.

He can only pray that the time to break it will never come—that Jeongguk can remain free forever, existing as a normal witch would. 

He clutches the gem to his chest, feeling it pulse when he calls upon it. His head lowers to rest against Jeongguk’s, lips pressing over his ear. 

“I’m sorry, Jeonggukie,” he breathes, his tears falling freely once more. “I love you.” 

Light glows from between his fingers like sun rays. Within moments, the gem nearly bursts with a blinding glow, encapsulating the pair of them in a hum of life magic. Yoongi grits his teeth, shielding his eyes as his familiar tenses at his side. 

“I love you enough to set you free,” Taehyung whispers, willing every ounce of magic he has to seal his power. He feels it withdraw deep into Jeongguk’s heart, an endless ocean slowly drained away. It resists like a cornered creature, but Taehyung’s will is stronger.

Jeongguk suddenly jerks in his arms, crying out as his wings retract with a sickening churn. His hands shoot out to grip Taehyung’s shirt and he groans into his chest. 

Taehyung’s tears fall into his hair, glistening like dewdrops. He gasps when his body becomes flooded with far too much energy and every one of his limbs burns as if on fire. The colors in his vision become too vivid, swirling and shining bright like that of shattered glass. 

Even through his pain, his body at his limit, Taehyung still whispers apologies into Jeongguk’s hair. 

“I’m sorry, Jeonggukie. I’m sorry.” 

Jeongguk’s chest glows hot, his breathing ragged and hands clenching into fists. Taehyung feels agony as their pulses separate, his other half ripped away and torn from the fabric of his soul. 

He hears Yoongi’s urgent voice hovering over him—feels hands gripping his shoulders and a rush of air on his face. He feels the magic in his body burst free with reckless abandon and spread over his surroundings. 

“You're free now,” he breathes, his vision going dark.

But in his heart, Taehyung sees only a young boy, one that greets him among the flower fields with a scrunched smile. There are wisteria trees and dark lotus at his feet, the skies cloudless and blue.

The boy sprints into his arms, holding him tight and burying his face in his neck, but when Taehyung won’t return his grasp, he hesitantly pulls away.

The boy’s smile slowly falls, confusion and anger flashing across his face. He argues in desperation before his eyes widen and brim with tears. He questions Taehyung, mouthing why and gripping his shirt to shake him, but Taehyung can’t move. Can’t breathe.

He can only let go.

“I’m sorry, Jeongguk,” he whispers, tears streaking his cheeks. “I can’t keep our promise after all.”

Chapter Text

Present



When Jeongguk blinks open his hazy eyes, everything feels… heavy.

His eyelids and his arms, his legs and even his mind. Everything is weighed down—burdensome and exhausting. 

Even the limbs on his back are too much. 

He inhales sharply as he’s jolted with awareness, sitting straight up and regretting the motion immediately when pain lances his back and spreads outward to his sides. 

Except… the pain isn’t at his sides, technically. It’s far away, somehow out of arm’s reach but still connected to his body. The new sensations send violent shivers through him like sparks crawling over his skin. He turns his head over his shoulder in what feels like slow motion. 

Wings. Dark, velvety wings splay from his back. It’s as if they glitter in sunlight despite being shrouded in darkness, twitching and flaring with little effort. The clothes he wears have been sewn to accommodate them.

It’s a dream. It has to be a dream. Just a little while ago, he was fully human and attending the Spirit Ball. He was out in the garden beneath the stained glass, his lips pressed to—

To Taehyung’s. 

He raises a palm to his face as pain jolts through his head. He and Taehyung— they went to the Ball together. Taehyung looked amazing, like something out of a story book. They kissed with the colored sky overhead until— until… 

Until the Ire attacked and Taehyung dragged him away. They were in the forest and his assassin was there. He hurt Taehyung, dragged a blade against his throat—Taehyung was crying, apologizing. There was talk of lies, his body changing and his magic breaking free, Yoongi—

It isn’t long before Jeongguk begins to hyperventilate. 

“Relax,” a familiar voice calls. “Everything is fine. Handled by yours truly, to be exact.”

Jeongguk’s eyes swivel to the corner of the room. Its interior is new to him—plush red velvet and tasseled pillows, grey stonework with gold trim. The chair Yoongi sits upon has clawed feet with an upholstered back that rises high into the air. There are curtains along the canopy bed and magnificent frames of art hung on the walls, the scent of incense tickling his nose.

“This isn’t the first time you’ve had them, you know,” Yoongi drawls, sipping sparkling liquid through a glass goblet. He wears a pair of fuzzy slippers and a striped robe, one leg crossed over the other. “Those wings were within you all along, though I’m sure you’re overwhelmed.”

Overwhelmed is an understatement for how Jeongguk feels as his wings shift on his back. His senses are overloaded, his sight so sensitive that the surrounding colors are too bright. He rubs at his eyes and finds his nails long and black, shining like daggers. Half of his rings are gone and the pendant around his neck missing.

Even more disconcerting is the sensation in his chest. It’s as if he has two heartbeats, one beside the other. The foreign rhythm is dull, but Jeongguk stills feels it as he presses a palm over his pulse. 

His stomach churns. What the hell happened to him? 

“Ask away,” Yoongi says airly, waving his glass. “I’m sure you have a thousand questions and I have a thousand answers. We’ve got plenty of time to waste.”

Jeongguk swallows and finds his mouth incredibly dry. He reaches for the water by his bedside with shaky hands and gulps it down with drops trailing carelessly over his chin. 

The icy cold helps his breathing calm. After a long, shuddering breath, he decides to begin with the most obvious.

“Where am I?” he asks, cringing at the grating tone of his own voice. He sounds terrible, as if he’d been out for weeks. 

“Of all the questions…” Yoongi says amusedly, shaking his head. “This is my guest room, a part of my suite in Elenia’s private chambers. I brought you here because I thought it’d be safest for me to watch over you while Taehyung recovered.”

Jeongguk’s heart races just at the mention of Taehyung’s name. His head hurts again, his memories swimming. While their confrontation in the woods is still a mess to recall, the Ball is hazy enough that he’s sure he had too much to drink. 

“What— what happened? How did I—?” he gulps, his sore wings twitching. 

“The Ire slipped by my defenses,” Yoongi grimaces. “I had been tracking its invoker, Kim Shinah, and he surprised me by sending it as a decoy to draw my attention away from him. Namjoon and the other Academy members were able to fend it off until I arrived, and then I followed after you and Tae. There were many injuries, though most have recovered.” 

A sliver of relief worms its way into Jeongguk’s chest. It’s a miracle no one lost their life in the attack. 

“How long have I been asleep?” 

Yoongi smirks, sipping loudly at his glass. “Three days—not too bad for turning your existence upside down. Seems like you’ve finally broken your seal, whether Taehyung likes it or not.”

“Seal?” Jeongguk whispers, automatically clutching at the material over his chest. The new magic there is complex and deep, his prior source of energy a candle in the wind compared to the inferno he now feels.

Surprisingly, it doesn’t seem difficult to manage. It’s as if his capacity for spirit energy has grown a hundredfold. 

“Look, Jeongguk,” Yoongi sighs, running a hand through his hair. “There’s not one thing I’m about to tell you that won’t freak you out. Listen carefully before you inevitably fly off like I’m sure you’re dying to do.”

Jeongguk’s cheeks burn, embarrassed that fleeing was his first thought. He nods curtly, thumbing over the silken sheets that pool around him.

“You’re not a witch. You never were,” Yoongi starts flatly. “You’re actually the only one of your kind, the only perfect blend of human and spirit in existence.”

A soft snort leaves Jeongguk, one of pure disbelief. He’s definitely dreaming. 

“Laugh away, but it’s the truth. You turned up here from the spirit realm fifteen years ago and you were captured by a family of notoriously shitty warlocks. Their youngest son was different, though. He found you and tried to break you out.”

The surrounding walls seem to grow closer. Jeongguk doesn’t know why his hands begin to shake, his stomach feeling sick. He curls his knees to his chest and wills his heart to calm, but it only accelerates. 

“Kim Shinah, the warlock who attempted to murder you and the invoker of the Ire, was a member of that family. Before you escaped, he tried to make you his familiar and bind you to a human form. The youngest son tried to stop him, but in the process, he was forced to make you a familiar of his own.”

There’s a flash of flame in his memory when Jeongguk blinks, the echo of sobs in his ears. He can’t remember a thing—can’t even recall his own past. 

Why can’t he remember?

“Kim Taehyung saved you from his own family,” Yoongi says seriously, his eyes piercing Jeongguk from across the room. “You agreed to be his familiar and the two of you formed a pact. The form you chose was so perfectly human that your young body couldn’t handle your wings or the strength of your magic. Instead of allowing you to die, Taehyung sealed your power away until you were strong enough to handle it. He eliminated your memories too, so that you could live as a human.”

Tears claw up Jeongguk’s throat, his breath leaving him in a ragged exhale. His sharp nails dig into the sides of his arms as words escape him. 

“To seal you, I gave him a gemstone I stole from the Everwood. I planned to use it for my own purposes, but I had a debt to Taehyung and wasn’t fond of watching you die. There’s a price for relying on such power, however—one Taehyung has paid for too long.”

Yoongi peers over the rim of his glass, watching as Jeongguk buries his head against his knees. 

He doesn’t want to know, can’t handle all of this—

“To maintain your seal, Taehyung has continuously borrowed power from the gem, and as his punishment, the gem bloomed the Arboretum from Taehyung’s own life magic. It drained so much of his magic on top of the massive effort to uphold your seal that it would weaken him any time he left. Too much distance from the gardens would have meant his own death.”

The patterned comforter thrown over the bed swims in Jeongguk’s vision. The Arboretum had grown more and more comfortable to him lately, eventually welcoming him with open arms. Its aura felt like home.

Now he knows it’s because the Arboretum is Taehyung—is part of his own energy.

Taehyung has always felt like home to him. He just hadn’t known why.

“I forced Taehyung to be your mentor because he was content to punish himself for binding you to him. He would’ve let you live as a human for the rest of your life if he had his way, stuck in the Arboretum for good,” Yoongi grimaces. “But your magic was starting to surface and it was draining him more and more to keep you under wraps. I also didn’t like watching you search for your other half when it was right under your nose.”

Yoongi sighs loudly, sending him a look of sympathy.  

“The point is… you have no familiar, Jeongguk. You’re a spirit, and Kim Taehyung is your invoker.” 

Jeongguk’s head spins. There are a million responses on his tongue, all of them too weak to express the confusion and devastation he feels.

He had gone to the Ball thinking he was a witch searching for a familiar, only to find out he is a familiar—that his years of hope and efforts to prove himself weren’t even for the right reasons. He fell for Taehyung, even asked him to the Ball in hopes of blooming a relationship when they’ve been secretly connected all along. 

Every meeting and fleeing smile, every day spent working beside him, every embrace and promise… their affectionate glances and lingering touches…

They were the product of a lie. Taehyung forced him to live a lie thinking he knew what was best for him. 

Jeongguk’s arms curl around his head as his throat constricts with panic. He swallows down a breath with difficulty. 

If he’s truly Taehyung’s familiar by some unfathomable possibility, were they drawn together just because of their pact? He thought the last few months were some of the best of his life, but were his feelings of affection for Taehyung even genuine? 

Does Taehyung care for him as a person or because of his duty as his invoker?

Murmured words flash through his mind, each one cracking through his chest more than the last.

You may end up hating me for what I’ve done, Jeongguk.

They should know they can’t harm what’s mine.

—we’re far away, I promise —each other. Nothing can— apart.

The last bit flickers and Jeongguk groans as his head prickles with pain. There are old emotions he can’t sort out, his mind cleaved in half between the present and the past. 

But among them, one theme rings true. 

Taehyung lied— he lied. He betrayed him more than he can even comprehend. 

“I’m sure things are confusing right now,” Yoongi says, his low voice pained. “I never enjoyed watching you struggle all these years, but without the extra effort you put in, I don’t know if your body could have ever handled your true form. You were remarkably resilient considering your circumstances, though. Stubbornness runs in our blood.”

Jeongguk blinks, his head slowly lifting.

“Our?”

Yoongi snorts, his lips twitching. “We’re both phoenix spirits, although my circumstances are much more… complex. We grew up together before I fled, but time passes much quicker in the mortal realm.”

He rises to his feet, hesitantly approaching the side of the bed. Jeongguk warily follows his hand, flinching when Yoongi threads fingers through his hair. 

He tenses at the touch, surprised by the sudden comfort it brings him. It’s a momentary release of the pressure on his shoulders. 

It’s hard to believe that Min Yoongi, a notorious asshole and one of the most powerful beings he knows, is rustling his hair with affection. It sounds like something from a dream. 

“I missed you, little brother,” Yoongi murmurs fondly. 

Jeongguk’s lips part. He’s absolutely certain he’s dreaming now.

Yoongi’s eyes sparkle with a glittering emotion that Jeongguk feels mirrored on his cheeks, his sudden tears rolling effortlessly. He doesn’t even understand why he cries—doesn’t understand any of this, but it feels strangely fulfilling to know he has family. 

Yoongi stands beside him for what feels like hours, his presence reassuring and calming as Jeongguk’s tears dry. But even with the steadying aura he emanates, Jeongguk can’t get a solid grasp on reality no matter how hard he tries to align the pieces. 

Min Yoongi is somehow his brother, another phoenix spirit just like himself—the most powerful type of spirit known. 

He no longer has to search for a familiar and instead has to accept the wings on his back and the power in his heart. His whole prior reason for living is now gone. 

And Taehyung… brilliant, beautiful and secretive Taehyung... 

He owns his heart in more ways than one. 

“Now that your seal is busted,” Yoongi continues, a huff leaving him as he plops onto the bed, “Taehyung no longer has to maintain it. As long as the Arboretum remains healthy, it can sustain itself on the gem instead, and Taehyung can leave as he wishes. I wouldn’t be surprised if he already sensed you—”

Jeongguk throws the blankets off him, standing straight up as a shock jolts straight to his core. The presence within him grows stronger and weaves through his consciousness like a gentle whisper. It wraps around his heart and tugs gently, increasing in strength until his feet are moving of their own accord.

It’s... calling him. 

“Jeongguk?” Yoongi murmurs, standing with a look of concern. He positions himself between Jeongguk and the door. “What’s wrong?”

Jeongguk’s breath is erratic, his teeth clenched together. He’s never felt anything like this, like a piece of him is in distress when he knows he’s not in immediate danger. The pulse within him races hard enough to hurt, his own heart speeding up to match it. He reaches for the door in panic. 

He needs to see it—needs to confirm it with his own eyes.

“Don’t,” Yoongi warns, resting a hand over his on the doorknob. “I know your instincts want to see him, but you still need time to process all this mess. Your memories probably haven’t even had a chance to return—”

“Move.”

Jeongguk barely recognizes his own voice. It’s immeasurably dark, churning with a threatening tone he‘d rarely find himself using. A buzzing rings in his ears that he can’t shake.

He can’t help comply with the tug that pulls on his very existence, one he’s been searching for since before he can remember. He always thought the dull feeling of warmth might have been his familiar waiting for him, pestering him at the back of his mind. As it quieted over the last few months, he had thought Taehyung was responsible for distracting him from it.

He was only half wrong. Taehyung was the source.

Yoongi’s face flashes with surprise before he snorts, his body tensing defensively. “You might regret seeing him this early, Guk. I’m sure your human side probably misses Taehyung, but your spirit has been trapped for over a decade. Spirits don’t take captivity lightly, especially the Phoenix clan.”

Jeongguk hears him, but the words mean little compared to the pull within his chest. His power flares hot as he feels the presence grow more and more agitated, nearing closer to him until it’s all he can feel—all he can see or think.

He has to obey. Even if his mind is reluctant to give in, he can’t fight his heart.

Jeongguk yanks the door open with force, uncaring of how he brushes the complaining form of Yoongi out of the way. His wings collide with the doorframe and he grunts in discomfort, reeling them in behind him and gritting his teeth at the soreness near his spine. 

“Jeongguk, wait—!” Yoongi calls, his warning ignored. 

In the hallway, the pulling sensation seems to grow even stronger. He starts off at a brisk walk and quickly breaks into a run, careening around every corner. He barely registers every stone staircase, unconsciously allowing his wings to carry him down each flight. 

It’s odd to glide by physical means, but Jeongguk finds the motion as easy as breathing. Aside from the irritating aches and pains in his back, his wings seem to work just as his flight magic did. 

He supposes that makes sense too—it all does. His flight affinity, his desire to protect Taehyung and his easy relationship with spirits. Others’ familiars weren’t drawn to him just because he was friendly but because he’s one of them. 

So much makes sense now—so many of his questions answered. 

It fills him with bitterness that he still feels more lost than ever. 

He’s never laid eyes on Elenia’s private chambers before. They’re lavish with sparkling windows and artful curtains, the many rooms hidden behind rich wooden doors with shining knobs. He ignores every one of them, their polishes blurring by as he descends through the winding passages, directed purely by the magnetic force in his chest. 

There’s no time to consider what he’ll feel or say when he sees Taehyung, only that he knows he’s ready to burst when he pushes through a set of grand double doors and finds himself in a sparkling atrium.

Columns rise up between the staircases around him, marbled like the tiles at his feet. The front doors are wide open with sunlight and cerulean sky shining through. This part of campus is rarely frequented by students, occupied mostly by Yoongi and his confidants. 

He’s grateful he’s alone when he locks eyes with the warlock in the doorway.

Taehyung is draped in darkened, opulent robes that Jeongguk’s never seen, his eyes glittering with a radiant array of color. His skin looks healthy and full and his cheeks are reddened with life, though his eyes are puffy and swollen. Jeongguk can sense his magic like a tether between them, stunned by the new allure of his spirit energy. 

Taehyung’s expression is caught between immense relief and soul-crushing misery. He wears a bandage around his neck that immediately makes Jeongguk’s stomach swoop with concern, but the torrent of emotion holds him firmly in place. 

“Jeongguk,” he breathes, eyes wide and glistening as they take in his wings. A tear rolls down his cheek and catches in the light.

Taehyung has called Jeongguk’s name time and time again, but never has it felt like this—syrupy and all-consuming, dripping over him with a heated pull so great he can barely remain standing. He’s never felt so eager to reply and desperate to resist at once, the demand tearing him in two. 

Maybe it makes him weak, but the human in Jeongguk hasn’t forgotten the feeling of Taehyung’s palms sliding up his thighs and lips brushing along his jaw. He can still feel the smile pressed against his own, the memory filling him with want. He worries for Taehyung’s well-being, his hands itching at his side to embrace him. 

But part of him worries that the Taehyung he once knew is gone. He worries that the relationship he dreamt of was a lie. 

Beside the extra pulse in his chest is another foreign sensation—a festering wound that’s been torn open. He feels bitterness and unshakable resentment, a stab of betrayal plunged so deep that he’s surprised he doesn’t bleed out onto the tile. His lungs burn with disappointment, hands shaking when he lays eyes on the repentant form of the person he trusted more than anyone. 

He trusted Taehyung, confident he could be vulnerable around him. He trusted him with his fear and moments of unease—with his happiness and contentment. Jeongguk knew Taehyung kept secrets and was more than ready to accept his faults, but he didn’t think they’d drag down his very identity with them.

Taehyung’s face crumples when Jeongguk doesn’t move. He takes a hesitant step forward with a hand outstretched. 

Jeongguk bristles instantly, his wings flaring out of instinct. 

“Don’t.”

His breaths are uneven, his chest heaving. He doesn’t know what he wants. 

He’s not sure he ever did. 

As Taehyung’s arm slowly lowers, Jeongguk’s head splits with the same pain as earlier. He presses a palm to his face and groans.

There are flashes of memories now, their details blurred and shredded at their edges. He clings to them just as they fade away, like a dream slipping through his fingers. 

“I’m sorry,” Taehyung says, his voice cracking with sorrow. “I’m so sorry, Jeongguk. I had no choice.”

Jeongguk slowly rolls his stare upward, his blurry vision focusing on his form. There are tears on Taehyung’s cheeks, his face more defeated than Jeongguk has ever wanted to see it. A blossomed plant he hadn’t noticed earlier is held in his shaking hands.

Jeongguk’s heart stills in his chest. 

The plant is one he’s stared at far too long, willing it to grow even in his dreams until…

 

Until he realized he never wanted his mentorship to end. Never wanted to leave Taehyung’s side. 

Taehyung holds it with a delicate grasp, his tears falling over its leaves of deep green. He can’t look at Jeongguk—can’t even lift his head.

In his hands is a pristine black lotus. 

Memories flash in Jeongguk’s mind once more. Trees with petals overhead and black flowers at his feet. Cracks along his heart that look like fissures of darkness. An embrace in the arms of a boy who felt like home.

“I saved these leaves before— before I sealed you,” Taehyung says thickly. “They were part of the flower you bloomed for me from your own heart. It was the first magic you used as my familiar, a gift for me just because you cared. I told you how much I loved it then and I—I still do.”

He laughs wetly to himself, the sound clawing through Jeongguk’s ribs. He wants to remember that day, wants to see it but can’t—

“When you began your apprenticeship and I asked you to pick something to grow, I couldn’t believe you were drawn to it after all this time. Even if you didn’t know why, you—you had finally come back to me. It was the first sign I couldn’t stop you from remembering me, even if I didn’t feel deserving of it,” Taehyung says miserably. “I didn’t have it in me to stop you either.” 

Jeongguk’s heart lodges in his throat. He remembers how the plants were tucked into the shadows, all but forgotten. He remembers his wish to bring them to life. 

He remembers his strangely pertinent desire to unravel the mysteries around Taehyung, driven to uncover what he was burdened by until it was all he could think about.  

He remembers the day he decided being friends wasn’t enough—that being beside Taehyung was all he ever wanted. 

“You did it, Jeonggukie,” Taehyung whispers, his eyes overflowing with tears. “You did as I asked all those months ago. I’m so proud of you.” 

Jeongguk knows he waited for this. He waited to complete his apprenticeship in hopes he could grow stronger. He wanted a chance to rely on his own power and to become someone with respecting. 

But in his self-centered desire, he found something better. Something more fulfilling.

In protecting and caring for Taehyung, he found the strength that comes with friendship. He found that there’s more to gain from the gleam of another’s smile and the chime of their laugh than in his solitude—that there’s more freedom in a contract that links him to the person he loves than soaring alone in the sky.

He didn’t want the apprenticeship to end. Ending it would mean the death of their time together. He didn’t want to be separated from Taehyung, content to help him with the Arboretum forever. In his captivity, he found what he was looking for all along. 

Taehyung became his dream, one far more satisfying than any future he ever dreamt of alone—a dream in which he was loved. 

“You’ve completed your apprenticeship,” Taehyung whispers, smiling weakly through his tears. “And our contract is now dissolved.” 

Jeongguk feels sick. He didn’t ask for this. Not now—not ever. Their contract is the last piece of the Taehyung he once knew. With its completion, it feels like what they built never existed. 

But the worst may be the nagging feeling that this isn’t the first time Taehyung has left him. 

“No,” Jeongguk exhales, a foreboding sense of finality falling over him. He takes a step backward, his wings bumping the doors behind him. “It’s not over, Taehyung. Please, don’t—”

The bands around their wrists glow hot. Jeongguk raises it before his face, watching with dread as the red ink gradually slips away and vanishes without a sound. 

The feeling is much too reminiscent. He presses his palms over his eyes as he grits his teeth, images and emotions crackling through him like lightning. 

There’s the sound of his own shouts, begging the boy he loved to reconsider and shaking him by his shirt. He sees the boy turning away, leaving him among the lotus flowers. The feeling of abandonment, his trust shattered by the one person he believed could care for him. 

The details are still unclear, but Jeongguk slowly begins to understand. 

Just like their apprenticeship, he never wanted their pact to end. He had felt lost all this time because he was looking for an invoker that didn’t want to be found. 

Jeongguk sees it then, the memory flashing for a fleeting moment—his face buried in Taehyung’s neck, fingers bunched in his shirt as his body shakes with sobs. 

Even if we’re far away, I promise we’ll find each other. 

He feels his heart snap in two. 

Nothing can keep us apart. I’ll protect you.

Among the whispers of trees, he hears a single word.

Forever. 

“...You lied.” 

The words slip from Jeongguk with bitterness, years of captive resentment surging to the surface. 

Taehyung didn’t just seal his power, locking away a phoenix within a human… he sealed their friendship. He chose Taehyung—chose to place his trust in him and become human to stay by his side, and Taehyung turned away from him.

“I couldn’t tell you, Jeongguk—”

“You lied ,” Jeongguk snaps, voice echoing off the marble. “You broke our promise because you thought you knew what was best for me, but did you ever consider what I wanted? That I chose you?”

Taehyung’s lips part. Silent tears fall to the tile below. 

“I’ve—I’ve been trying to choose you all this time, over and over,” Jeongguk exhales brokenly. “Even when you sealed me away, I still came back to you. I meant it when I said forever, Taehyung.” 

Taehyung’s eyes are desolate, his heartbeat racing in Jeongguk’s chest. “I—I trapped you, Guk,” he sobs. “I almost killed you just because I wanted you near me and wished you were human instead. You deserve better than someone who’ll tie you down—”

“I wanted to be human,” Jeongguk insists bitingly, more sure of his words than anything. “I wanted to be human because of you. I chose this form so I could stay by your side and now you’re throwing it away again.”

Taehyung’s watery gaze flicks over his face. “I… I thought…”

Jeongguk can’t watch him, his idea of past and present so tangled that he can’t even recognize himself— can barely recognize Taehyung. 

He feels a presence enter behind him, a firm hand gripping his shoulder. A sense of calm washes over him for a breath.

“Go, Guk,” Yoongi murmurs softly. “I’ll watch over Taehyung. Get some air.”

He exhales raggedly, his fists unclenching by his sides. He glances at Taehyung a final time, greeted by the vulnerable look he’s seen cross his face on rare occasions. 

Only now does he realize they were glimpses of the real Taehyung. 

“I’m sorry,” Taehyung whispers faintly, unable to meet his eyes. He clutches Jeongguk’s lotus to his chest as if it’ll fly away with him. “I’m sorry I broke our promise.”

Jeongguk tears his gaze away, his eyes stinging. He can’t face him anymore. He isn’t even sure what he wants to hear.

He sweeps past Taehyung in a gust of wind and lifts off from the courtyard with shocking ease. Pain shoots down his back and his wings ache at their base from the strain, but the discomfort is nothing compared to the despair he feels. 

There's a twinge of guilt at leaving half of his heart behind, but with the absence of the prickling red band around his wrist, Jeongguk doesn’t look back.








All his life, or at least what he can currently remember of it, Jeongguk has taken to the sky when the weight of the world becomes too heavy. 

The scent of the breeze and the wind in his hair have always calmed him. Even now, when his idea of reality is shattered to pieces, soaring through the clouds makes coping with it a little easier. He takes comfort in knowing the sky belongs to no one, the quiet something unachievable on the ground.

There’s an instinct within him to avoid revealing his form, so he opts to circle around the outskirts of campus and hovers low to the trees. He tries to distract himself from dwelling on Taehyung by thinking of the wings on his back, focusing on the current of the air and the techniques to propel himself forward. His muscles seem surprisingly well-adjusted for sprouting two entire new appendages, working expertly without so much as a single thought. 

If the addition of his wings weren’t so mind-numbingly shocking, he thinks he’d be content with them… maybe even a little excited. Not even Taehyung’s seal could bury his love of flight.

He isn’t sure how long he spends in the air, but it’s long enough to make his wings quiver with fatigue. Before he realizes it, his body carries him out of campus boundaries just as it had after his last confrontation with Taehyung. The ravine’s depths that slowly appear are still as dark and foreboding as ever and the Wilds still lurk menacingly in the distance. 

And there, at the edge of the cliff, is the dilapidated chapel. 

There’s something inviting about the small structure when he lands before it, his curiosity just as strong as his previous visit. Maybe it’s the building’s pensive aura or the vines crawling into its broken windows, but it feels like a safe haven. A place to collect himself. 

The interior is largely the same, a few more piles of autumn leaves huddled in the corners from the months that have passed. The sun sparkles beyond the hole in the rear wall and shines dimly through the shattered remains of the rose window. 

His wings smack against the doorway when he enters and he hisses irritatedly, dust and debris trickling from the ceiling. They fold behind his back with an ache and an exhausted sigh leaves him as he runs a palm down his haggard face. 

It’s going to be a long learning curve when it comes to being half spirit. 

There are a thousand thoughts clamoring for attention in his mind, but they’re silenced when a glint of color from the window catches his eye. His footsteps crunch the leaves beneath his feet as he ascends the few steps to the altar and stands before the glass with held breath. 

It’s… familiar, the colors echoing like a distant shout. He bunches his sleeve and wipes away the years of grime and moss, the dust obscuring the sun with a cloudy puff.

There’s a wing of burnt gold, a shard of deep violet and spirals of onyx. 

His breath catches in his chest as recognition comes over him. He had held Taehyung beneath the larger version of this window… had watched closely when he smoothed his fingertips over the ridges and gazed at it in reverence. He knew Taehyung liked it more than all the others, but he hadn’t understood why… at least not until today.

The glass is a depiction of their kind, a recitation of their history. One of the very same existed in the Hall of Luminescence, its smaller, circular replica miles away in this very forgotten chapel. 

Jeongguk’s brows furrow as he drags his touch over the delicate glass in the way he’d seen Taehyung do it. It’s as beautiful here in its broken state as the one in the Hall was, but there’s something… strange about it. He remembers how it looked when it enshrouded Taehyung in color, an ethereal highlight against his skin. He remembers resting his head on Taehyung’s shoulder in its light with arms wrapped around his waist. He remembers crouching before him to wipe his tears— 

His mind ices over, his body tensing. 

There was a room with tall bookshelves—a library full of treasures and trinkets. He liked the cozy quiet to it... wherever it was. Taehyung was usually tucked by his side with no space between them, his support unwavering even in the moments he wasn’t teaching him. 

Jeongguk was absorbed by his textbook with a pen in hand when Taehyung walked in, a teacup held against his chest and hot tears rolling down his cheeks. 

He remembers the feeling of forgetting how to breathe at seeing Taehyung’s face. Jeongguk had quickly slid off the chair, bunched the sleeves of his shirt and wiped the seemingly endless tears from Taehyung’s eyes. He remembers hugging him with aching defeat when he couldn’t chase his sorrow away, his lighthearted banter and bright smiles too weak to soothe him. 

And then, there was the stained glass. 

Taehyung told him it was his favorite window of the house, but that it was even better with their friendship in mind—a little piece of shining light made just for them. There was a small rose window of purple and orange in the library, a phoenix above and a dragon below. When the trees blew in the breeze, the light shimmering beyond the glass would dance over the pages he wrote upon. 

In the present, the shards are warm beneath Jeongguk’s touch, warmer still when his fingers curl inward into a fist. He grits his teeth, confused as to why tears now sting his eyes and spill over with ease. 

Taehyung had asked him what he thought of this very motif just a few days ago, and Jeongguk’s first instinct was to relate it to him of all things. Even when his mind couldn’t recall their pact or what they’d been through, his heart has never forgotten Taehyung—never let go of how easy it was to love the window because Taehyung did. He’s held onto the fondness for it all this time. 

But there’s more to the memories that itch at the back of his mind. Taehyung had suffered in the past, crying as he mourned the death of someone close to him. Their passing had shattered Taehyung and turned him into a shell of what Jeongguk loved. As a child, he didn’t know how to help him, often bringing him food or flowers he panickedly gathered to cheer him up. He felt miserably helpless when Taehyung still stared off into the distance and did everything he could to coax a smile to his face.

It’s strange. Jeongguk feels Taehyung’s mourning as if it happened yesterday, the locked away emotions overwhelming him until he’s hiccuping through tears and collapsing onto the stairs. 

He feels the purity of their friendship and the comfort he took in the safety of their pact. There’s a trust he thought was unbreakable and a need to stay close—to protect Taehyung as Taehyung protected him. The feelings return to him hesitantly—slowly, like the gentle rise of the sun, but when it finally reveals itself in the sky, Jeongguk finds himself blinded by its brilliance. 

Though they were painfully young, he has no doubt it was love in his heart at that time. An unclouded, softhearted love. Effortless and simple.

He puts his head in his hands, his sobs echoing off the surrounding stone. His heart aches —mourns the Taehyung that was his mentor and mourns for the years they lost. Mourns for the Taehyung buried in his memory.

He’s beginning to realize Taehyung’s always looked at him the same. In his fragmented visions of the past, Jeongguk can still see the crescent of his eyes and his heart-shaped smile greeting him among the flowers. He was always weak for the feeling of Taehyung’s hands cupped around his own, tugging him forward or holding onto him for strength. His skin was always sunkissed and his heart was always full, eager to shower him in the affection he always longed for.

It’s too much for him to make sense of. Instead, Jeongguk lets himself cry until his chest hurts and his throat burns raw. 

His head throbs and his wings twinge from curling around him, but once the tears begin to flow, it feels impossible to stop them. The thoughts of his confrontation with Taehyung and the look of misery on his face wind him up over and over again, punctuated by moments of longing and bitterness over his betrayal. 

How can he ever go back? How can he face him again?

More importantly, just how much did he love Taehyung to come back to him despite the seal over their pact?

Jeongguk’s face is buried against his crossed arms when a warm head suddenly wiggles between his knees and under his elbow. He jumps, his heart jolting before he realizes the culprit is a large, flaming fox— Yoongi’s familiar, in fact. The kitsune is insistent as it sneaks into his grasp and rests its head over his shoulder, nuzzling against his cheek and nosing it’s way into a hug. 

After a long moment of stunned silence, Jeongguk doesn’t know why the sudden act of comfort makes him cry even harder. Gradually, his grasp tightens around the creature as he buries his face in its scruff. The kitsune’s presence is warm and calming as it leans into his hold and brushes against his ear. 

As his tears fall, Jeongguk feels the creature change. 

The fox’s fur slowly melts away, receding into its skin and replacing itself with a firm plane of muscle. There’s a cloth shirt, the snout pressed into his shoulder exchanged for a chin and the weight of arms appearing around his neck. Jeongguk goes still as shock washes over him, his hold loosening and his eyes widening when the familiar pulls away. 

Inches from his face, he’s greeted by a human. 

“You can keep crying, you know. It’s good to let it all out,” he says, smiling sympathetically. “I really don’t mind.”

Jeongguk gapes, resisting the urge to smack his cheeks and wake himself from his dream. If he really is asleep, it’s been going on for much too long.

“You… you—”

“Hoseok,” he snorts, “but Hobi works too.” His gaze softens as he disentangles himself from Jeongguk, opting to take a seat on the crumbling stair beside him. “I’m sorry for surprising you, but Yoongi thought you could use some company.”

His hair is a flaming red, the sparkle of his eyes dark just like his fox form. Shadowy tails dance behind him that smoulder like a flickering flame in the wind. He’s strikingly good-looking, his tanned skin unblemished and his smile warming Jeongguk’s cheeks.

“You’re— you’re a human?” Jeongguk whispers hoarsely, his heart racing. “Like me?”

“Mm, we’re similar, but not quite the same. I’m more of an experiment gone wrong,” Hoseok answers smoothly. He rests his chin in his curled hands and gazes over the stone pews. “I can explain in detail… only if you’re okay, of course. I haven’t been able to tell you until now because we were afraid to trigger your memories.”

Jeongguk can’t seem to close his open mouth. He nods numbly, glad to have a break from his thoughts. 

Hoseok smiles gently, releasing a long breath before he launches into a ramble. 

“I was a witch once—a rather weak one. But as feeble as my power was, my weakness for a certain phoenix spirit was much greater. Meeting Yoongi changed me—changed us both quite a bit, as you can see.” 

Jeongguk quiets, the last of his tears finally forgotten in his shock. Hoseok’s eyes sparkle with fiery amusement when they flick to him and back. 

“I was younger then, working as a mediocre healer for non-magic folks in a secluded region. Your brother had been searching for the Everwood there and stumbled upon yours truly. We fell in love pretty quickly considering how damn stubborn Yoongi is.” 

Your brother. It takes Jeongguk a long moment to remember he has family now. He’d never thought he’d feel fond of Min Yoongi, but he supposes he never thought he’d be a spirit inside either. 

“It was easy to fall for a phoenix—I’m sure Taehyung can relate,” Hoseok continues with a wink. “You and Yoongi are brilliant in all but the obviousness of wearing your hearts on your sleeves. Both your biggest strengths and weaknesses are your fondness for humans and your capacity for love.” 

Jeongguk’s cheeks dust with red. He’s never considered how much love he can fit in his heart, but after breaking his seal, he thinks it's a bit too much. Maybe even more than his capacity for magic.

“Yoongi first used magic to maintain the illusion of a human form, but after we grew closer, we ran into… issues,” Hoseok sighs with a sad smile. “One being that his human form wasn’t exactly physical, and the other being that I was too weak of a witch to enter his Tranquil state, meaning making him my familiar wasn’t possible.”

There’s a ring in Jeongguk’s ears at the words. If Yoongi had a Tranquil state, it might mean he has one too… if he can even still access it. 

It pains him that he can barely remember it.

“Around that time, warlocks were actively poaching spirits and causing havoc. Yoongi had been working to eliminate them and happened upon Kim Ruark in his search. He was the oldest warlock in existence and the most brilliant among them, as well as Taehyung’s grandfather.”

Jeongguk swallows dryly as he registers the name. Taehyung had certainly spoken of his grandfather before, but the details are still unclear. 

“When Yoongi realized Ruark was unusually kind for a warlock, he begged him to use his magic to make him human. Ruark actually agreed, but refused to perform something so complex without proper balance. He suggested we take part of my human heart and swap it with a piece of Yoongi’s spirit energy—something Yoongi… didn’t think kindly of,” Hoseok says, his lips twitching. 

Jeongguk doesn’t miss the shine of pain in his eyes. He thinks of his own pact, his heart squeezing in his chest at the thought of Taehyung in human form while he remained a spirit. It’s almost as incomprehensible as him being a phoenix at all.

“We agreed on it, but Yoongi still felt inadequate until the very day of the ritual. His reluctance to borrow a bit of my human spirit upset the balance of the trade. It would’ve taken my spirit entirely had Ruark not intervened with his own life.”

“He—he died?” Jeongguk breathes, his blood running cold. 

Hoseok nods sadly, his shadowy tails drooping as Jeongguk feels another missing piece of his memory snap gruffly into place. 

Taehyung had been mourning for his grandfather for months, taking on his responsibilities even as a child. For the duration of their time together, he repeatedly mentioned being alone if not for the company they shared. 

Jeongguk swallows thickly, his chest tightening. Taehyung hadn’t just sealed away his power but his only living support when he darkened his memory. 

He’s been alone all this time. 

“Yoongi did become human, so much so that he can no longer access his spirit form,” Hoseok explains softly. “As I started to fade, Ruark bound me to a partial spirit form to keep me here, but the act was so costly that it took his life. The involvement of his death resulted in my death affinity magic and my rather dark form. He was much too sacrificial in nature, that man… a trait inherited by his prodigy.”

Hoseok side-eyes him knowingly and Jeongguk sighs. 

Even as his mentor, Taehyung has always been too quick to let himself suffer. He was so reluctant to accept the love he deserved that he sealed it away. 

“I just— wanted to be close to him,” Jeongguk whispers, pulling his knees to his chest. “I can’t remember everything, but I definitely chose to become human for that reason alone. I don’t know how else to convince him that I chose him, especially after…” He gulps, struggling to accept the finality of it being over—the lies Taehyung told through it all. “...After ending the apprenticeship.”

Hoseok hums in sympathy, leaning back on his hands. “I can’t tell not to feel hurt, Jeonggukie. I think anyone would after what you’ve been through. Taehyung’s always felt guilty for making you his familiar, enough to convince himself he deserved a life of isolation as punishment. The good news is that you’re more capable of understanding him than anyone, especially as a human.”

Jeongguk’s body relaxes a fraction, relieved just to hear his confusion is valid. He’s never been more angry at Taehyung, so distraught he could shake him, but he’s also never wanted to comfort him more in his life.

“I don’t regret becoming part spirit myself,” Hoseok says, flashing his teeth in amusement. “And Yoongi doesn’t regret becoming a human. It’s taught him a lot about how we work, especially our hearts.”

Jeongguk resists the urge to press a hand over his chest. Taehyung’s rhythm pulses faintly, soothing and deep like the tenor of his voice. 

He can’t recall a time he wasn’t primarily human until today, but Jeongguk thinks having this form helps him understand Taehyung’s reasonings—how the human heart can deny what’s in front of it when it comes to love. How it can be weak for the simplest of things.

“Yoongi still blames himself for changing my form,” Hoseok grimaces. “I’ll admit it was a bit of an adjustment, but I prefer to be a spirit if it means I’m beside him. He’ll always feel guilty, and although I can’t change that, I can still support him. I can prove I don’t fault him for the human traits in his heart.”

There’s a long moment of quiet in which Jeongguk feels his breathing settle at the words. 

He can’t solve Taehyung’s guilt right now—isn’t even sure if he wants to, really—but maybe… maybe they can finally meet on honest terms. When he’s feeling less frustrated, he’d at least like to hear Taehyung’s side of things. 

Hoseok shakes his head with a snort and sends Jeongguk an apologetic smile. “Enough about me—I didn’t come out here to whine about myself and Yoongs. I just wanted to remind you that you can lean on your friends when you feel like things are too much. All of us are here to listen, Joon and Jin and even Yoongi. Wings or not, we’re not going anywhere.”

Gratefulness flickers in Jeongguk’s gut and he swallows back the choked feeling in his throat. Having friends is still something he’s adjusting to, almost as foreign as the existence of his family. 

Somehow, he’s grown unable to picture his life without them.

“Thank you,” he murmurs quietly. “I don’t— I don’t know what to feel right now, but I know it just—hurts. I feel like the Taehyung I knew is gone.” 

“Understandable,” Hoseok shrugs. “If it’s any consolation, I felt the same when Yoongi and I fucked up the ritual, but I learned over time that we hadn’t really changed and are still the same inside. Everything you felt for Taehyung is still within the heart you’ve always had.”

Jeongguk can’t help but glance down at his chest as if Taehyung’s heart will appear. “I—I hope so. I don’t even know if I could look at him right now without just feeling… betrayed. I sort of understand the circumstances, but there was so much time just… wasted.”

“You’re human, Jeongguk,” Hoseok replies kindly, the words taking Jeongguk off guard. “You’re allowed to feel conflicted and upset. It’ll take time apart and a bit of work to mend what you have with Taehyung, but I’m confident you’ll meet in the middle. Wounds will always heal if given proper treatment.”

From Hoseok’s words alone, Jeongguk already feels the smallest bit lighter. He breathes deep and finds his heart still still aches, but with Hoseok beside him, it feels grounded—like his cycle of self-pity can finally end. His wound is still too raw to see Taehyung again soon, but he’ll try to find ways to heal in the meantime, and talking to friends is apparently healing in itself.

He’s grateful that Hoseok has always been there to calm him recently, popping up just when he needs him most. It makes him want to be a better friend to him—to all of them. 

“Thank you… for coming here and always knowing what to say. I’m— I’m glad we’re friends, Hobi.”

Hoseok shoots him a blinding smile, ruffling his hair with a bit too much enthusiasm. “I’m just doing my job, silly. I wasn’t going to let you beat yourself up all alone… Although it’s curious that you’d come here again, of all places.”

Jeongguk follows Hoseok’s gaze over his shoulder and pinpoints the remains of the window. They glow as if imbued with fire. 

“What is this place?” Jeongguk asks softly. 

“Interestingly enough, this was a chapel used by humans before magic was introduced to the mortal realm,” Hoseok answers, rising to his feet. In the sunlight, Jeongguk can sometimes see the ghost of his shimmering tails. “They believed that phoenix and dragon spirits were the key to balance in the world.”

His eyes shine with underlying amusement when they turn to him, but Jeongguk can only feel surprise as he slowly stands.

“Taehyung told me they were enemies,” he whispers, envisioning the glass as if it were whole. “That the phoenix clan chased dragons from the spirit realm.”

“Taehyung isn’t wrong. They did become enemies, but their offspring seem to be a bit more... headstrong,” Hoseok muses. “You and Taehyung had to be in perfect sync to achieve the form you have now, Jeongguk. There’s no better example of balance between human and spirit than the love and respect you two share. You couldn’t have formed your pact without it.”

Jeongguk’s eyes widen when they finally meet his gaze, as if the words are spoken directly from his heart.

He knows Hoseok understands what it’s like to love someone out of reach better than anyone… to rewrite his own existence just to be beside the one he loves. 

Maybe he’s just projecting, but Jeongguk wants Hoseok to succeed in finding happiness with Yoongi almost as much as he wants to work things out with Taehyung. As his friend, he desperately wants to see him happy. 

“You’ll find it too,” Jeongguk says suddenly, a spark of confidence filling him to his fingertips. “You’ll find balance with Yoongi, even if it isn’t perfect. I know I can’t say much about my own experience but— but as your friend, I know you will.”

Hoseok’s grin slowly slips away as a stunned look falls over him. He presses his lips together, the bob of his throat apparent. In an instant, he’s pulling Jeongguk by the arm and capturing him in a bone-crushing hug. 

“Thank you, Guk,” he murmurs into his shoulder. “I’m really glad we’re friends.” 

Jeongguk is touched at first, smiling softly as his gaze lingers on the shattered glass before him, but he isn’t prepared when the breath is pulled from his lungs at the words. 

Friends.

He blinks as it echoes through him, every muscle going rigid. A stray tear rolls down his cheek as another memory surfaces, one of a boy and the gentle caress of his hand. 

There are flashes of torture and cruelty, the scent of iron and the grating chill of cold metal. There’s pain in every bone and feathers burnt to ash in a cage among the endless dark. There’s the bitterness of cold berries and a sweet laugh he’d gladly listen to forever, the soothing lull of a voice he grew to love.

Jeongguk buries his face into Hoseok’s neck with a tightening grip. Behind the darkness of his eyes, he sees Taehyung’s gentle smile and a hand outstretched… a boy who was his voice in the silence and his light in the darkness. He sees endless compassion and patience, frustration as he tried to break him free and tears when he failed to protect him. He sees bravery and fearlessness.

It only becomes clearer with each memory that returns. The selflessness, the vulnerability, the desire to be loved and love in return...

In Taehyung, Jeongguk sees what it means to be human.

He’s never seen anything more beautiful. 









In all the years he’s called the Aerie his home, Jeongguk’s never once felt nervous to return… not until tonight.

The cover of evening and the chill of the air are calming as he flies around the edge of campus, but his stomach still churns with anxiety. He and Hoseok talked for hours until exhaustion began to overwhelm them and the questions he asked still swarm his mind. 

They spoke on whether to reveal his form to other students and his concern about flying over Elenia. Hoseok claimed they’ll eventually teach him to conceal his wings on the ground, but staying out of sight in the air is the safer route for now. There’s no telling what scorn he might receive for the jarring sight of his wings and the unfamiliarity of his power. His aura is apparently different since his seal broke—not entirely human, but clearly that of a spirit to skilled witches. Some may be fascinated while others may loathe his very existence.

Taehyung, on the other hand, is much worse off.

Jeongguk had somehow remained blissfully unaware of witches’ hatred for warlocks. Taehyung’s kind has tortured spirits throughout recent history, and although it’s believed that most have gone into hiding or were killed, there are still some witch covens that seek to eradicate all warlocks from the world. Hoseok warned that Taehyung would be in immediate danger should his identity be revealed. The act of forming a pact with a familiar alone would be grounds for his execution. 

The bitter sentiment reminded Jeongguk of Wonwoo and his threats to reveal Taehyung’s alleged secret . It’s likely he caught onto the signs of Taehyung’s warlock identity between his uncertain use of witch magic, his lack of familiar and his mysterious absence from classes. Taehyung’s threats make more sense now—his refusal to reveal the truth when pressed and his irritation with Wonwoo’s interference. 

Jeongguk prays Wonwoo is smart enough to keep the suspicion to himself.

According to Hoseok, Namjoon has known about their circumstances since he became Yoongi’s advisor. He’s been helpful to Taehyung over the years, aiding him with supplements that allow him to leave the Arboretum for extended periods and assisting with identifying the spirits that flock to the Arboretum’s overgrowth. He even advocated for Taehyung to break the seal at his own discretion, but Yoongi was adamant that Jeongguk deserved to know the truth. 

Even Seokjin learned of his connection to Taehyung during his prior recovery, though Hoseok claimed he only grew fonder of Jeongguk knowing his circumstances. Jin is determined to do more research on human spirits and will likely be much too excited to see his wings in person.

Jeongguk is relieved that he won’t have to explain his tangled history or changed appearance to his friends. Their acceptance already lifts a weight off his shoulders he hadn’t realized was there. 

But among them is a single friend still left in the dark, one he trusts with his life… the very same friend that stands in the balcony doorway as he approaches the Aerie. The closer Jeongguk gets, the more he can spot Jimin’s silver hair glinting in the moonlight, his pulse beginning to race at the thought of facing him. He stares off into the opposite direction with arms crossed over his chest.

Jeongguk’s heart shoots into his throat. He knows Jimin would never judge him for something like this. His best friend in the world would never turn his back on him just because he happens to be a warlock’s familiar. So what if he’s partially one of the most powerful spirits in existence now?

Despite his thoughts, an irritating voice whispers at the back of his mind as he descends. He wouldn’t blame Jimin for being wary of his wings or nervous of his power, but if other witches hate warlocks and their familiars so much…

His stomach flips nervously. He doesn’t know what he’ll do with himself if his best friend doesn’t accept him.

Jeongguk’s landing is surprisingly quiet, though his knees wobble when he makes contact with the stone balcony. His wings rustle loudly as they fold behind him and he grits his teeth at their soreness. 

Jimin’s head whips around at the sound, his eyes widening and his lips parting the second they flick over his form. The shock he wears makes Jeongguk nervous enough to feel sick.

“Gukkie,” he whispers, taking a hesitant step forward. “You’re— you’re back, and you’ve got...”

Jimin’s gaze rakes over the shadows that protrude from his shoulders. Jeongguk’s wings twitch at the attention, flaring and tightening with embarrassment and fear. 

He’s suddenly desperate to tell Jimin everything—every anxious thought he’s had, every revealed secret and devastating truth. He still needs to tell him about the Ball and his confrontation with Taehyung so he can calm the panic in his gut and assure himself he isn’t going crazy. He needs Jimin’s blunt attitude and his sympathetic chain of swears, someone who’s equally as blindsided and angry on his behalf but level-headed enough to ground him. 

He opens his mouth to explain, frustrated when he can’t seem to make a sound. The sudden pressure in his chest is too much and his throat feels blocked. It’s as if a lifetime of events come crashing down all at once when he tries to put them into words. 

His past. His future. The torture he endured.

Yoongi and Hoseok and the end of his apprenticeship. All the years spent dreaming of his familiar wasted.

And Taehyung… how can he explain everything about Taehyung when all he feels is hurt?

How can he tell Jimin the person he thought he loved isn’t who he thought he was? 

“Hey, hey, it’s okay,” Jimin urges, crossing the space between them without a second thought. He quickly cups Jeongguk’s cheeks and thumbs away the moisture there. 

With Jimin before him, his touch comforting and familiar in a sea of doubt, Jeongguk begins to spiral. He’s the only friend that truly chose him despite not knowing his past, the only remnant of his life as a witch. Jimin is one of the few friends he’s trusted at his most vulnerable.

Will things feel different now that he’s changed? Can they have the same friendship as they had before, bickering and laughing and staying up all night just to stare at the sky?

Will he lose Jimin in all of this too?

The thought is so awful that it makes Jeongguk cry harder, his face crumpling in his friend’s delicate hold. 

“Chim,” he says brokenly, “everything— everything is changed now. I don’t even know who I am anymore.”

Jimin looks over him with pure sorrow, his own eyes glistening. “It’s alright, Guk. We can talk it out, okay? I wanna hear everything. Joon refused to tell me a single thing and Taehyung wouldn’t even look me in the eye at the infirmary. I-I almost thought the worst.” 

Jeongguk’s sob catches in his throat at the mention of Taehyung’s name and the knowledge that Jimin was worried for him. The sound is pathetic enough for Jimin to huff and pull him into a hug, a hand cupped around the back of his neck. 

“It’s Taehyung, right?” he asks softly. “Something happened with you two that caused… these.”

Jeongguk nods into his shoulder, his wings drooping until feathers brush the ground. He sags against him tiredly, comforted by the steady beat of his heart and the warmth of his grasp. Unlike the flurry of change around him, it’s exactly the same as he remembers. 

“I thought so,” Jimin sighs sympathetically, pulling away with gentleness. His fingers slip into Jeongguk’s hands to squeeze them. “No matter what happened, I’m just glad you’re safe. After everything with the Ire at the Ball, I’ve been a little… tense.” 

He smiles weakly and Jeongguk suddenly feels immeasurably guilty. He hadn’t even thought to check for Jimin’s well-being after the attack. 

“Are you okay?” he rushes out. “Did you get hurt? Yoongi said there were injuries—”

“Relax,” Jimin snorts, his smile genuine this time. “I made it out without a scratch on me. Turns out Namjoon’s power isn’t all talk.” 

A twinge of relief fills Jeongguk. If there’s anyone in the world he’d trust to watch over his best friend, it’s Namjoon. 

“Still, I can’t say I’m not a little curious about these babies,” Jimin says amusedly, glancing over his shoulder. “Even though you look like you’ve seen hell, you apparently got a badass pair of wings out of it. Zira might even get a little jealous.” 

The joke is lame, and yet Jeongguk still finds himself snorting weakly as he wipes his sleeve over his face. He’s cried more today than he has in years and Jimin still can manage to coax a smile from him, soothing any fear of judgment in an instant.

Slowly, he realizes the implication in Jimin’s words. Last time he had been at the Aerie on the night of the ball, Zira had still been recovering. He hadn’t seen her leave her alcove in months and watched over her nearly as much as Jimin did. 

“Does— does that mean Zira is—”

A loud cry cuts cleanly through the air—one Jeongguk knows well, like the warm greeting of a friend. The creature dives straight through the sky and lands on their balcony with a rumbling thud, claws skittering across the stone as they rush to Jeongguk.

The air is huffed from him when Zira knocks her massive head into his own. He quickly parts from the giggling form of Jimin to throw his arms around her neck, running fingers through her mane. 

“You’re healed?” he asks in disbelief. “Finally able to fly again?”

He expects the usual caw in response, but instead, he’s flooded with images that aren’t his own. There are wavering emotions attached to them—excitement to see him, worry over his absence and protectiveness over himself and Jimin.

Above all, there’s a surprise at the wings on his back, a sensation that quickly becomes reverence.

Jeongguk stills as he gazes up at Zira’s sparkling eyes. With his seal broken, it seems his uncanny connection to spirits is now at its full potential. Apparently, not all spirits are capable of speaking with language, but they can still share their thoughts through flashes of memory and feeling. He’s just never been fully capable of listening until now.

Zira tilts her head to the side as she takes him in, her excitement slowly softening until she makes some space between them. To his shock, she slowly bows her head in respect, dipping forward on her taloned claws.

“...Spirits bow to other spirits of great power,” Jimin says curiously, his awestruck gaze flicking between them. “That would—that would make you...” 

Jeongguk swallows thickly, his heart racing with embarrassment as he urges Zira to lift her head through the link between them. She remains stubbornly in place until Jeongguk plays along and acknowledges her with a small nod of his head. 

The gryphon relaxes instantly, approaching again to nose at his ticklish feathers. She clacks her beak indignantly and coos as she flares her own, shaking out her coat and spreading her wings as if making a comparison. 

Jeongguk feels her amused jealousy in his heart, an unbreakable pride just as Jimin predicted. He giggles weakly as he flares his own wings, endeared when she flaps a gust over his head and sends him an image of them flying side by side. She's eager to teach him what she knows, content to have another winged companion. 

The welcoming acceptance makes Jeongguk’s smile grow. He hadn’t considered how his relationship with other spirits would change, but the idea of finally communicating with them properly brings him excitement. 

At the same time, it’s a reminder of the reality he now faces… that he isn’t fully human after all. 

There’s no denying it—no running from what he can’t change. The quicker he can adjust to his new identity, the sooner he’ll be ready to face Taehyung. He knows he has to heal, and the first step is to be honest with Jimin… and honest with himself.

“I’m— I’m part spirit,” he says breathlessly, addressing Jimin as he turns to him. “A phoenix that took the form of a human. Taehyung is a warlock and I’m his familiar, but our pact was entirely my choice. He never actually wanted this and did it to save me from his family.”

Speaking the words themselves feels like freefalling, especially with the shock that grows on Jimin’s face. But even with the weightless sensation it brings, Jeongguk finds he can’t stop. 

“We were just kids when we made our pact. He sealed my power when my body couldn’t handle the changes, but he sealed my memory with it. Memories of— of him and what we had. He wanted me to live as a normal human and was willing to stay locked in the Arboretum forever to do it.”

His fists tremble where they’re held by his sides, but he feels stronger just by saying his feelings aloud. Zira slowly approaches to knock her beak into his shoulder for support. He pats her cheek gratefully.

“I… I love Taehyung, Chim,” he breathes, his heart aching as the words are lost to the wind. “I think I’ve loved him for— for a long time. I love him now too, but it feels like he’s never actually believed it—never thought he was deserving of it. The first thing he did when he showed up was dissolve the mentorship contract.”

Jimin is silent for a long moment before he sighs through his nose. He moves closer to pat the other side of Zira’s head.

“I’m sure he fears the worst,” he observes quietly. “He’s probably spent the last few months convinced you were only drawn to him because of your pact.” 

Jeongguk blinks. He hadn’t even considered Taehyung’s perspective from that angle, but the more he thinks it over, the more it explains Taehyung’s abrupt ending of their apprenticeship. “That’s— that’s ridiculous. I liked him because I liked him,” he retorts, but in his heart, he fears it too. 

Was it just their pact that attracted him to Taehyung all this time?

Jimin shrugs, eyeing Jeongguk carefully. “After years of convincing himself it was better for you to be sealed, he was probably fearful to believe you choosing him again was real. It’s completely valid for you to feel betrayed since you had no say in either decision—both sealing your memory and ending your apprenticeship. He tried to do what was best for you, but he forgot the most important part of any relationship.” 

Jeongguk stares at him expectantly, captivated by Jimin’s wisdom. His friend huffs fondly at his wide-eyed look. 

“Communication,” he finishes softly. “By ending the contract and walling off your memories, he stopped himself from facing what he fears most—that the human in you would eventually choose to leave him for what he did. He made the decisions alone before they could happen.” 

A more recent memory pops into Jeongguk’s head, a moment where Taehyung threw his arms around him outside the Arboretum after confronting Wonwoo. He mentioned how lonely he felt and how grateful he was to hear Jeongguk say he’d come back—how he thought he could handle the isolation until their arrangement began… almost as if he regretted sealing him in the first place.

It reminds Jeongguk of how he promised he’d return to him after the apprenticeship ended. He swore he wouldn’t leave him alone.

They’re words Taehyung has likely longed to hear for years.

Even so, the thought of flying there now and facing him tears Jeongguk in two. A deep, unshakable part of him is desperate to take in who Taehyung really is, but his other half is too volatile and unstable to even imagine speaking to him. 

There aren’t words to describe what he feels for Taehyung right now, especially as his memories flicker and fade. Spoken language seems too weak. 

“You look ready to burst, Guk,” Jimin says sympathetically. “I think you’ve done enough for today. You need a hot bath, some pajamas and to sleep in till noon.”

Jeongguk sighs, staring out over the darkened landscape. In the distance, Elenia is alight with a typical flickering glow. His eyes are so tired that the colors look like swimming starbursts.

“You’re right…” he mumbles, running a hand down his face. “I’ve had enough shit today to last for years.” 

“Don’t ask for what you don’t wish for,” Jimin jokes, tugging him by the hand toward the doorway. He waves Zira off and smiles when she caws affectionately, retreating to her alcove. “We could always seal your memory again and add a few more.” 

Jeongguk rolls his eyes with a snort, every step reminding him just how tired he feels. “Like you’d ever let me forget you and your stupid— agh—”

Bits of rock crumble as he smacks his wings against the jagged doorframe. He hisses as he reels them inward again, muttering irritatedly about how they have a mind of their own.

Jimin holds a hand to his mouth, a poor attempt to conceal the way he snickers. He beelines for their bathing chambers to run water for the tub and his giggles are audible over the squeak of the faucet. 

Jeongguk can’t wait to collapse into bed, but the sound of Jimin’s hushed laughter and the sparkle of the stars through the hatch overhead give him pause. The circular interior of his dorm is exactly the same as it's always been, his pillows still askew and his clothes littering the floor. The carpet is as ugly as before and the curtains still flutter in the chilly breeze. 

Everything is blessedly in place, exactly as it should be… except for one oddity. 

As he crosses the space, the floor-length mirror beside his belongings reflects a stranger. There are still remnants of silver in his hair, his skin impeccably smoothed beyond that of a normal human and his wings a spectacular blend of violet and obsidian. His feathers seem to glitter at every angle, breathtakingly beautiful when he extends and curls them. Their ends even smoulder with an undertone of fiery light. 

The reflection raises a hand to his face, gently hovering over the swollen eyes whose irises now boast a shred of deep purple. His nails aren’t sharp anymore, though his pink nailbeds have been dyed a shiny black as if he sports polish. He still wears all his silver rings from the Ball.

But most of all, he looks… human. Like he had a rough day at work and cried over a bowl of ice cream. Definitely not as if he harbors the most powerful spirit inside him. 

Even after a day spent feeling foreign in his own skin, he’s still blessedly, painfully human. 

“Bath’s on, Guk,” Jimin calls as he exits the chamber, quieting when he spots Jeongguk frozen by the mirror. He walks up behind him with a smirk, peering over one of his velvety wings. 

“They look good, right?” he says, poking lightly at Jeongguk’s feathers. The sensation makes his spine prickle with sparks. “I guess I finally know why your stubborn ass always chose all black outfits. A pop of color will still complement these, you know.” 

Jeongguk blinks from his daze, unable to stop his lips from twitching at the thought. Apparently, his heart knew his true aesthetic the whole time. He still isn’t sure why his wings are dark instead of the gold he’s seen in the stained glass, but it’s a question for tomorrow. 

“I’ll have to dye my hair something wild so you don’t outdo me every time we’re out,” Jimin sighs exaggeratedly, sprawling lazily on Jeongguk’s bed. “I could do pink. Would Joon like pink, you think? Is it too much?”

He meets Jeongguk’s gaze with a sly smile, his eyes glimmering playfully. The expression is familiar enough to soothe an ounce of pressure in Jeongguk’s chest just as his surroundings do. 

He’s never noticed how easy it is to be human—laughing when he feels like his chest is caving in or crying because he’s happy. The power his friends hold to hurt or heal him is frightening, but it’s something he wouldn’t trade for any true spirit form in the world. 

If earning a best friend as loyal as Park Jimin was the result of becoming human, he’d gladly do it all over again. 

“If Joon doesn’t like pink,” he says seriously, glancing over his wing, “we throw the whole man out.”

Jimin’s grin nearly splits his face.

“Now that’s what I like to hear.” 









There are a few rare moments in which one can feel the course of their life change direction. It’s often prevalent enough to feel physical, like the fleeting awareness of the earth turning beneath one’s feet. 

In the weeks after his seal is broken, Jeongguk thinks he feels just that.

He meets regularly with Yoongi and Hoseok to discuss his power and how to manage his wings. Hoseok teaches him how to control the seemingly endless flow of energy from his heart and how to better communicate with the spirits. Unsurprisingly, he’s warned that many powerful spirits will bow to him as customary for those of the phoenix clan. 

Jeongguk doesn’t think he’ll ever get used to it. The custom still makes him blush despite Yoongi’s insistence that he’ll learn to appreciate it.

He and Yoongi have gotten along surprisingly well considering Jeongguk’s years-long irritation with him. His older brother is still as sarcastic and blunt as ever, but the breadth of knowledge he possesses is staggering. He talks Jeongguk through how to identify the changing air currents, helping him detect weather patterns and guiding him through difficult aerial maneuvers. After each lesson, Jeongguk’s wings feel as if they’ve been crushed under a boulder from the strain, though his back is slowly becoming more defined with every day that passes. 

The biggest challenge has been to conceal his wings entirely, manipulating his magic to disperse their physical form and recalling it at a moment’s notice. He’s spent full days attempting to perfect the technique, and after a few weeks, he finds he’s able to hide and reveal them in the blink of an eye. Though it’s nice to have the freedom to frequent campus again, his wings are annoyingly itchy when hidden. He prefers to keep them visible whenever he can.

They discuss a few heavier topics too, like how the Ire was defeated by Namjoon and how Kim Shinah is still in Yoongi’s custody. The thought of the Ire passing without peace makes Jeongguk’s heart twinge with guilt, and Yoongi and Hoseok are surprisingly secretive regarding Shinah’s state, but he doesn’t press the issue. 

A different warlock occupies his mind enough already.

He’s avoided Taehyung more than he prefers to admit, and with each day that passes, it seems his feelings get more and more difficult to sort through.

He’s angry. Upset. Frustrated. Hurt. He wants to find Taehyung just to give him a piece of his mind. 


And then he misses him, standing at the edge of the balcony and gazing longingly in the direction of the Arboretum. Half of his chest feels empty despite the twinge of rhythm there, worsening with the passing of time. 

He worries for Taehyung, tossing and turning all night at the thought of him curled up alone in his own bed. Guilt fills him when he wonders if Taehyung waits with eyes locked to the sky. There are visions of his bloodied fingers that mix with hazy memories from the past, the bittersweet scent of apples following him wherever he goes. 

Just like before, Jeongguk can’t stop picturing Taehyung in everything—the sun and the sky, the stars and rain. He sees the ghost of Taehyung’s fingers tug on the sleeve of his cardigan and the flecks of his eyes among the glass windows in the library. Sometimes, he thinks he hears the whisper of his soothing voice in the wind, and on other days, he hears the bright laugh of a child among the rustle of fallen leaves. 

But as days turn to weeks, Jeongguk still struggles to put his feelings into words. He refuses to face Taehyung until he can speak his heart properly, but there’s never a clear path through the mess within his mind. 

He flies around the Aerie in circles and aids Seokjin in the infirmary, training under Yoongi until he collapses and watching the sun rise with Jimin. He sits among the cliffs with Hoseok and studies in comforting silence beside Namjoon. Every encounter with his friends heals the wound in his chest, reminding him of how much he loves to be human—why he loves this world as much as he does. They remind him that he’s not alone. 

Weeks pass as the season grows colder, and with it, Jeongguk finds his friends begin to change. He doesn’t miss how they avoid every mention of Taehyung as if afraid to unravel his progress. Sometimes they’ll catch themselves muttering about his state, like when Seokjin mentions his potions before clamming up with wide eyes. Namjoon will slide a history book on warlocks his way, never lifting his gaze from his parchment. Hoseok speaks on the vague difficulties of love and Jimin refrains from discussing his relationship with Namjoon in an effort to save him the heartache. 

And Jeongguk simply… lets it go. 

As the first frost of December arrives, he finds his smile no longer meets his eyes. The weight of unspoken words grows heavier among his friends until he prefers to remain quiet, often staring into the distance as opposed to facing the questions that linger in the air. He no longer cries, but the feeling of laughter feels out of reach, usually forcing its way through his chest like shrapnel the few times his friends drag it from him.

In truth, discussing Taehyung at length scares Jeongguk. He’s ashamed that he claims to love him when he can barely muster the courage to speak to him. He doesn’t want to hear if Taehyung has moved on or if he’s running himself into the ground. He doesn’t want to believe that Taehyung is fine without him, but he also doesn’t want him to be alone. 

He doesn’t know what he wants, only that life without Taehyung in it feels like a tunnel with no visible exit. 

Jeongguk’s spent more time alone this week than he has with his friends, often making unconvincing excuses not to show up for training. He spends hours at the Aerie mulling over his few memories of the past while staring at the ceiling, desperate to fill the gaping holes in his own personal history. When the sun shines through the doorway, his heart feels a little hopeful… like it might finally be the day the words he needs will come to him.

But as the sun dips below the horizon, Jeongguk’s heart begins to ache, and his cycle of despondency continues. 

Most nights, he closes the hatch over their dorm room and flies up to the dome overhead. With the addition of his wings and the newfound strength of his muscles, he can steady himself in the early winter breeze, gazing up at the unfiltered moonlight.

Tonight is yet another one of those nights. He gazes out over the forest with a knee pulled to his chest, his dark waves fluttering in the wind. The metal beneath his palm is blisteringly cold, but the flames that dance in his heart are like a second skin, shielding him from the frost. 

A light snow begins to fall in the hours he sits in silence, dusting over his wings and melting away along his arms. There’s something profound about the air this evening, tugging on his heart in a way that makes him restless. 

He doesn’t know what he wants. The thought is a common one, the waves of confusion rising and falling until he forces it from his mind. For weeks, he’s harbored a growing guilt for remaining apart from Taehyung, the initial shock of the truth waning.

But tonight, for the first time since confronting him, Jeongguk is sure of one thing.

He doesn’t know what he wants, but this… this isn’t it—sitting alone as the snow falls, the silence around him suffocating. There’s no warmth to the air without Taehyung, no gentle guidance or chimes of laughter. There aren’t any pointless discussions for him to pour his heart into—no ridiculous run-ins with spirits or rescues from towering trees. There are never any fingers slipping between his own or arms wrapping around him from behind, no lingering gazes or praises whispered heatedly into his neck. He feels exposed and vulnerable without the safety he found in Taehyung.

“—guk—”

Jeongguk grits his teeth, his head knocking back to stare at the sky. It’s the first time his throat has felt choked in awhile, every recent memory of Taehyung rushing to the surface. 

The color in his curls at the Ball, the choker threaded around his neck. Fingertips sliding under his jaw and hands threading through his hair. An arm wrapped protectively around his waist with lips murmuring praises against his ear.

He has all the love and support from his friends he could ever need, but it isn’t Taehyung. It isn’t the same patience or compassion, no heart shaped smiles or unspoken understandings. No one has ever known him like Taehyung has. 

He misses him so much that it hurts. 

“Jeongguk—”

Tears prick his eyes. He hasn’t allowed himself to feel so much at once in a long time, attempting to bury and dissect it piece by piece instead. It feels weak to give in so easily, though his mind is still just as clouded as it's ever been. 

He doesn’t know what to do, doesn’t know what to say—

“Jeongguk,” Jimin snaps as a sound creaks through the air. 

Jeongguk jolts as the feeling of gravity leaves him, his stomach dropping as he falls through the opening hatch and nearly lands on the ornate carpet of his dorm room. He catches himself only thanks to his training, his wings barely flaring quickly enough to soften his fall, but his heart still pounds as if he hit the ground. 

“What the fuck was that for?” he says accusingly, glaring at Jimin where he stands with a hand around the hatch lever. His roommate’s cheeks are reddened from the cold and a scarf is wrapped around his neck that Jeongguk has seen Namjoon wear a hundred times. 

Jimin snorts, rolling his eyes. “You’re the one moping yourself into oblivion and you’re asking me what that was for? I called you at least three times, Guk. You’re spacing out.”

Jeongguk’s mouth twists into a frown. He turns away to flick his hand at their small fireplace and sparks a flame that catches along the wood there. A moment later and he’s sitting on his bed, chin tucked against the knees pulled to his chest. He’s sure his pout looks childish but he’s too annoyed to care.

So what if he’s spacing out? His mind is so crowded with a nightmare of emotions that freezing himself to death is his only moment of peace.

Jimin sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose. He seals their doorway with a sprinkle of magic, busying himself with undoing his layers and dusting the fresh snow from his coat. He changes into a plaid set of pajamas and runs fingers through his hair, eventually turning his determined gaze in his direction.

Jeongguk gulps, pressing his lips together as Jimin approaches to plop unceremoniously onto his bed. 

“Look. I think I’ve given you plenty of time to sort things out for yourself, but as your best friend, I have to say it.”

Jeongguk stares at him as his heart begins to race. He doesn’t like where this is going… really doesn’t like it—

Jimin lifts his palms and presses them flat to his cheeks, squishing them until Jeongguk’s vision blurs.

“Jeon Jeongguk,” he deadpans, “you are an idiot sandwich.” 

Jeongguk blinks.

“Wot?”  

Jimin shakes his head, shaking Jeongguk’s with it. “You’ve spent over a month now sorting out your feelings and, really, I get it. Everything is fucked up and backwards and you don’t really have a sense of normalcy to return to. Anyone would be losing their mind with the position you’re in, but honestly, you’re being hypocritical.”

Jimin slowly lowers his hands and Jeongguk scowls, massaging his sore cheeks. “The hell are you on about?” he grumbles, though he already knows the answer. 

He just doesn’t want to hear it when he’s avoided it for weeks.

“You were so pissed off that Taehyung was punishing himself in isolation, and yet you’ve been sitting here doing the same. You need to talk to him, Jeongguk. You can think about it as hard as you want, but it’ll never move either of you forward. I think it’s time.”

Jeongguk sighs, throwing himself back on his bed. He grabs one of his pillows to pull it over his face, hating that Jimin is right.

“What am I supposed to say?” he whines in muffled exasperation. “I don’t know how to talk to him anymore—I barely could before all of this.” 

“There has to be some way you two met on common ground before,” Jimin replies, poking at his sides until he squirms. “Some people aren’t great at hashing things out face-to-face, but maybe you could write him a letter? Something you can pour all your feelings into and get them out of your head. It’s not good to keep them bottled up this long.”

Jeongguk presses his face into the soft velvet of his pillow. He’s pretty sure a letter would look like a warzone. Taehyung is more of the feeling type anyway, someone with an appreciation for sentimental value… like a teacup or a comic book or a—

He rips the pillow away as he sits up, startling Jimin when he flares his wings in shock. 

It’s obvious, so obvious.

He really is an idiot sandwich.

“Your sewing kit.”

Jimin raises a skeptical brow. “Sewing? Is this like… an ugly sweater kind of thing, because if I’m being honest, that idea is kind of shi—”

“I just need red thread,” Jeongguk pleads. “That’s it. It’s not a sweater but— it’ll work. Trust me.”

A long sigh leaves Jimin as he slides from the bed. He pulls open the bottom drawers of his wardrobe, sifting through the tangle of supplies before withdrawing several spools in different shades of crimson. They’re tossed across the room into Jeongguk’s lap. 

“Are you planning to sew him clothes?” Jimin inquires doubtingly. “Because I just may so happen to know some smoking lingerie patterns—”

He grunts as Jeongguk hurls a pillow directly at his face.

Though his cheeks now burn, a prickle of hope flares in Jeongguk’s chest as he wraps the thread around his finger. Just the act of holding something tangible in his hands already brings him relief, the weight on his shoulders lessening a fraction. 

From the very beginning, he and Taehyung never communicated with words. It was always feeling, sometimes through the images he shared as a spirit and sometimes through… other means. 

“Chim.” 

Jimin narrows his unamused stare, his hair mussed by the pillow’s assault. 

“Can— can you show me how to make a bracelet?”







The day Jeongguk decides it’s finally time, he nearly launches himself across the room when he opens his eyes, even after a restless night sleep. 

He puts on his favorite pair of dark pants and his softest sweater, a long black jacket and his trusty silver rings. He can’t remember the last time he wore his favorite dangly earrings and his most faithful pair of black boots, but it feels… good. Like he has purpose.

He’d even feel a little confident if not for the obnoxious holes he had to cut into his clothing to accommodate his wings. It’s a blessing he can materialize them at will instead of having to slip his shirts over such massive appendages, grateful that Jimin had expertly sewn the gaps.

He takes the time to right his feathers, smoothing them over with a warm cloth and brushing them with a bit of soap and water. He had thought it ridiculous when Yoongi insisted he preen his wings, but when he stands before the mirror, he has to admit they look… sleek. Intimidating and mysterious, even.

His lips twitch upward. If Taehyung is okay with them, then they’re good enough for him. 

It still doesn’t feel real that he may see Taehyung today after so much time apart. He’s nervous enough to feel sick but his mind is electrified, overwhelmed just by the thought of being in his presence. He runs fingers through his dark hair, repeatedly brushing it away from his face, but even the anxious habit doesn’t calm him.

There are so many ways Taehyung could react—anger at the distance Jeongguk put between them or sorrow for leaving him alone for so long. He hopes he’ll be happy to see him again, maybe even welcoming when he returns to the Arboretum, but he can’t make any clear predictions. 

He tugs on his cheeks before the mirror, smushing them into a smile that looks more like a grimace. The feeling of scrunching his nose and flashing his teeth is almost unusual now, an expression he really only wore around Taehyung. 

His long breath flutters his fringe as he drags a hand down his face. What does Taehyung truly see in him? Is he still a phoenix spirit in his eyes or the child he sealed away? Or is he the Jeongguk that appears before the mirror, fully grown with a sharp jaw, pouted lips and wings as dark as night? 

He isn’t sure, but today’s the day he finds out… for better or worse.

It’s strangely comforting to kick off from the balcony in the direction of the Arboretum. As annoyed as he was with the early days of his apprenticeship, slaving over the gardens and losing track of Taehyung at every moment, he learned to love the routine they established. He found peace in rising with the sun, learning more about the spirits and caring for the fauna and flora. It helped him and Taehyung grow closer, so content to be beside one another that it ceased to feel like work. 

He’s sure any activity with Taehyung would be rewarding.

The trees below him blur past as he flies toward the glass dome. His heart races as his lips press together in anticipation, but when he finally crosses the Arboretum’s boundary, he halts in his path as if caught by invisible wire. 

Taehyung’s pulse is… distant. Too distant.

He furrows his brow and presses a palm over his chest, gaze raking over the snow-dusted bubble that peeks out from over the leafless trees. It’s still the same as ever, though the overgrowth outside is now withered and frosted. A sharp longing for returning home fills him, but it isn’t what he expected.

There’s a bizarre tug again, a pull that reels him in an aimless direction. He knows that it’s his thrumming link to Taehyung and had anticipated feeling it as he got closer, but it doesn’t draw him to the Arboretum.

Wherever Taehyung is, it isn’t here. 

His eyes flick to the mountain in the distance, his breath before him a clouded puff. His heart skips with a thud of encouragement. 

A moment later, he takes off into the sky.







As a human, Jeongguk thought the Everwood had been beautiful—the stuff of dreams. The moments he’s envisioned it have usually left him breathless and longing to return, especially to visit the spirit who calls it home. He’s missed Malyah after losing her necklace in the battle with Shinah and looks forward to seeing her again.

But now, as a spirit himself, he realizes he’s never seen the Everwood for what it truly is. 

The moment he bypasses the vines concealing the cave’s entrance, there’s a low hum that grows with every step forward. When the sunlight vanishes behind him, submerging him in the glow of the surrounding gemstones, he swears he may have left his body outside. 

It's as if his human self is diminished so close to the spirit realm. His skin now glitters with shimmers of violet and black, his wings glistening like amethysts. Power rolls off of him in waves and illuminates his eyes with a dull shine, his nails sharpened into points.

As he begins to walk, his steps hesitant and soundless, the gems embedded in the trees slowly change. Their colors melt away, exchanging their varied hues with a radiant purple. His breath sticks in his lungs when the cave opens up into the stone forest, each bright crystal acknowledging the power in his heart with its own spirited flicker.

The sight is indescribable, moving him in a way that nothing else ever has. Jeongguk has always longed for some sort of recognition, a simple acknowledgement of his identity. He had hoped for a pat on the back and maybe a congratulations, even a plaque if he got really lucky, but for the Everwood to bow before him in this way…

Jeongguk swallows thickly as his body trembles with gratefulness and awe. He doesn’t know why the display nearly brings him to tears as it highlights his skin and embraces him in its warmth. There’s undeniable power in him, roaring and tumultuous as it would in any legendary phoenix, but the color around him is soft and kind—human in nature. It reflects the human he is at his core, the part of him he’s worked so hard to nurture and strengthen. 

He thinks he could stare at the sight for an eternity, but the beat beside his heart suddenly lurches. He inhales sharply as it picks up speed, inching closer and closer from the back of the cave. Jeongguk’s eyes lock to the glittering lake that sparkles beyond the stone forest. He steps forward as if mesmerized, his pace quickening and his wings twitching as he shoulders around granite trees and their branches dripping with light. 

The lake that greets him is a seamless mirror, deceptively calm in its unmoving state. Crystals from the surrounding walls reflect off its surface, thrumming with ancient spirit energy as Jeongguk approaches the shore. 

He remembers Taehyung standing before him with the soles of his shoes atop the water, his faith in his own magic keeping him afloat. He was so enticing that Jeongguk had crossed the lake without looking down once.

Taehyung had outshined every inch of the Everwood then, stunning in the way he donned the glow like it belonged to him. Jeongguk has always found him captivating to behold, and paired with the ease of his smile and the gentle grasp of his hand, he was utterly enamored. 

But nothing can compare to the form he sees on the opposing shore, their lips parted and their hand clutched over their chest. They wear a long brown jacket with a grey sweater beneath, the sleeves nearly to their fingertips. 

Jeongguk feels frozen—paralyzed by the grip around his heart. Every day spent worrying over all that’s happened, every rehearsed conversation and frustrated scenario… they vanish as if they never existed, paling in comparison to the simplicity of his present thoughts. 

With the living, breathing form of Taehyung across the water, the answers Jeongguk had so desperately searched for come easy. He takes a shuddering breath and musters every ounce of courage he has.

“Hey.”

Jeongguk’s voice echoes over the water, its soft tone amplified. His cheeks burn as he spots Taehyung’s head of curls that now trail over his eyes. 

“H-Hey,” Taehyung replies quietly. 

It’s pathetic, but Jeongguk feels his body weaken with just one word. The sound of Taehyung’s voice is exquisite—a deluge he’d willingly drown in. Every bone in his body warms at the low tone.

Still, he can’t help but snort and shake his head. A month apart with the truth revealed and all they can manage is the lamest greeting of all time. 

“This is kind of ridiculous, isn’t it?” Jeongguk asks, letting the tension around him fall away. There’s no point in clinging to it now—not after he’s waited this long to speak with him.

Taehyung’s eyes widen a hair before he’s huffing amusedly, concealing his face with his forearm as his cheeks redden. 

“It is.”

More weight crumbles from Jeongguk’s shoulders. He takes a deep breath and finds his heart fuller than it’s been in a long while. 

He needs to get closer… needs to see the way Taehyung’s face will change when he confesses. Needs to see the lines of his smile before he bursts into pieces. 

Jeongguk supposes he could fly across the water, but unlike his first visit to the Everwood, he’s confident now—assured of his own magic and who he truly is. He’s certain of his friends and his abilities, and above all, he’s absolutely certain of his feelings for the man in front of him. 

He takes a step onto the lake and finds himself weightless.

“I missed you.” 

Jeongguk’s sincere words reverberate through the air. Taehyung slowly lowers his arm, his teeth sunk into his lip and his eyes already glimmering. 

He takes a step forward, matching Jeongguk’s pace. 

“I missed you too.”

It takes all of Jeongguk’s willpower not to sprint to him. He knows they need to meet on equal ground, and with their trust as their footing, there’s no better way to prove he’s willing than taking it a step at a time. 

“I’m sorry for staying away,” Jeongguk murmurs apologetically. “I just… needed time to think.”

He steps forward again, but Taehyung lingers where he stands. His expression slowly becomes pained.

“You have no reason to be sorry, Jeongguk. I was the one who started this. I just wanted you to be free, but I…” Taehyung trails off, tilting his head toward the ceiling as his throat bobs. “I was selfish.”

He slowly looks to Jeongguk again as he finally steps forward.

Jeongguk shakes his head dismissively. “You’ve never been selfish, Tae. If you’re talking about me becoming human, I would’ve chosen this form whether you wanted it or not. My best friend in the world was human, after all.”

The rims of Taehyung’s eyes begin to glimmer. “You… you remember?” 

“Not all of it, but there are a few things I’m certain of. One of them is that we’d always find our way back to each other. That's what friends do, right?”

Jeongguk smiles softly and Taehyung’s tears spill over, crystallizing where they fall on the surface of the lake. The sight hurts Jeongguk to his core, but it doesn’t reopen the wound he’s worked hard to heal. 

He had forgotten that the most healing thing in his life was always Taehyung, even in the times they’re upset with one another. The second he had laid eyes on him, any ounce of resentment in his heart had been decimated. 

“I’m—I’m sorry,” Taehyung says brokenly, moving closer even as he wipes his sleeve over his eyes. “I’m sorry I broke our promise to stay together. I just— I wanted to do what was best for you.”

Jeongguk’s near enough to see the way his hands tremble and the glisten of moisture on his cheeks. His skin is smooth, shining radiantly in the light.

If Taehyung could see himself, Jeongguk thinks he’d understand why he became human so readily. 

“That’s where you went wrong.”

Taehyung’s watery gaze flicks to him in surprise. He stops in his tracks again, a ripple flaring out from beneath his feet. 

“There was something better for me this whole time,” Jeongguk continues softly, his footsteps careful and confident. “One of the few things I’ve always wanted and the reason I became human. For some reason, you’re determined to keep it from me.”

A look of horror erupts on Taehyung’s face.. “What— what is it?” he asks desperately. “I’ll fix it, I swear it—”

Jeongguk can’t help the gentle smile he wears. He stands dead center at the middle of the lake. 

“It’s you, Tae,” he breathes. “It’s always been you. As soon as you found me, I knew you were the best thing for me in this world.”

Taehyung stills, his hands slowly falling away from his face. He looks over Jeongguk as if seeing him for the first time.

“I wanted to be human so I could be beside you, no other reason,” Jeongguk says softly, ignoring the way he begins to choke up at the words. “You gave me the greatest gift by letting me choose this form. I get to laugh with my friends and cry when things hurt…”

A sob catches in Taehyung’s throat. He holds his sleeves to his face, taking another step closer.

“I can learn from my mistakes and work hard to improve without relying on just my power. I can admit my weaknesses and accept help when I need it. I get to live life to the fullest. All this time, I’ve loved being human more than anything.”

Taehyung nods weakly from a few steps away. Jeongguk bites back the tears he feels crawling up his throat.

“But the best thing is that— that I can tell the person I care about how much I love them,” he breathes, his smile lingering even as his face breaks. “I can hold their hand and kiss them and bandage them up when they’re hurt. I can wipe their tears away and catch you when you...”

The air is suddenly sucked from Jeongguk’s lungs. He inhales sharply enough to draw Taehyung’s attention as he presses a palm over half of his face.

Catching Taehyung when he falls, begging for his trust as he lingered on the edge of forever. It was a promise Jeongguk vowed to keep with everything he had, so intent on seeing it through that his own body nearly destroyed him just to fulfill it. 

His eyes are wide, his chest heaving. He meets Taehyung’s shocked stare as tears trail down his cheeks. 

“I—I promised,” Jeongguk whispers hoarsely, his ribs aching from the hurt that surfaces in his memory. 

A tub stained with blood, nails breaking Taehyung’s skin. Dreams of brighter days whispered into his hair as he was gently rocked to sleep. Taehyung surrendering himself to his power, leaping into his heart with nothing but the trust and love they formed between them.

He promised, he promised—

“Taehyung,” he sobs. He curls his wings around himself, the force of his sorrow doubling him over. “Taehyung.”

A breath passes before arms wrap around him tightly. Taehyung’s face presses into his neck, a shaking hand cupped around the back of his head.

“You’ve always fulfilled your promise, Jeongguk,” he says through tears. “I thought you needed wings to do it, but even without them, you’ve still caught me over and over. You always have, even when I did everything I could to stop you.”

A piece of Jeongguk settles at the words despite the emotional turmoil he feels, soaking up every bit of reassurance. He wraps his arms around Taehyung tighter, suddenly petrified to ever be parted from him again. 

“Just wanted—to keep my promise.”

“I know you did,” Taehyung soothes. “I sealed you because I wanted to free you from that. When you came back to me and we got closer, I thought— I thought it was just the pact. I was afraid it wasn’t something you wanted.”

Jeongguk’s heart aches as he shakes his head. “Always wanted you. Wanted to protect you,” he says thickly. “I’ve wanted to prove how much I love you for— for a long time.”

Taehyung stills against him before hesitantly leaning back. His eyes are still colored, now filled to the brim with glimmering shards of violet. It’s as if his adoration for Jeongguk is reflected in them.

There aren’t words to describe the overwhelming love Jeongguk feels at the sight, but he came prepared for that. He reaches into his pocket with shaking fingers, withdrawing a woven bracelet of tangled red.

“I— I made this for you. To replace the ones we had.”

Taehyung’s glistening eyes follow the motion of his hand, watching with parted lips as he lifts his arm and shimmies away his sleeve.

“We’ve never had the chance to choose,” Jeongguk murmurs. “I wanted to prove to you that I’d choose you again and again, not just when we’re desperate or in danger.”

Taehyung barely breathes as Jeongguk delicately slides the bracelet onto his wrist. Satisfaction fills him when it fits perfectly, just like the red bands they once shared.

“I want this. I want to be human, but a human that can live by your side. Someone that can catch you when you need it. I hope— I hope that this proves that.”

He lowers their hands between them and grasps at Taehyung’s fingers. 

“I love you, Tae,” he exhales, pouring his heart into every word. “I meant it when I said forever.”

Taehyung is noticeably quiet as he searches over his face, his gaze slowly travelling to the band on his wrist. He slips his fingers from Jeongguk’s grasp to hold it between them. 

“Guk,” he whispers shakily, wide eyes flicking worriedly to his own. “I think— I think I need—”

Jeongguk’s brows furrow, confusion washing over him.

“I think I need you to catch me again.”

In a blink, Taehyung’s feet plunge through the lake. 

Jeongguk’s heart lurches with sickening strength. It’s as if he feels the danger before it occurs, his wings flaring to their full width as he grabs Taehyung by the arm and flaps into the sky. The soles of Taehyung’s shoes are lined with sharp, protruding crystals as he’s lifted into the air, many pieces tinkling onto the surface of the lake before submerging into the liquid. 

Jeongguk is quick to pull him into his embrace, an arm under his knees and another behind his back. Taehyung wraps himself around his neck in a familiar motion, but he doesn’t look away as they fly higher. 

Once they’re safely in the air, Jeongguk wonders if he’s ever felt so enraptured by another sight. The crystals overhead are much brighter now, encapsulating them in a mesh of light. Like the space was made for Taehyung himself.

It feels euphoric to hold Taehyung like this again, content beyond words by the feeling of their bodies pressed together. His warmth and the soothing murmur of his voice, the feeling of his racing heart—they’re better than anything the body of a spirit could ever give him.

But even better is the way Taehyung stares at him like he can’t look away, more relaxed in the air than Jeongguk’s ever seen him. To his shock, his lips quirk into a smile before he burrows into Jeongguk’s neck. 

A fit of giggles suddenly overtake Taehyung, shaking them both where they hover. It’s the same laugh Jeongguk has clung to in his darkest of hours, desperate to bottle it and dump it over him at every opportunity. Taehyung laughs until fresh tears stream down his cheeks, holding Jeongguk so tightly he almost struggles to breathe. 

“T-Tae,” he says confusedly, “are you alright?” 

Taehyung leans back, his cheeks reddened and eyes swollen. The happiness on his face is better and brighter than anything in the Everwood. 

“I’m just— I was so scared,” he laughs, “and all I—could think of was—turning into a fucking paperweight.” 

A smile splits Jeongguk’s face, one paired with a warm relief. “You’d make a cute paperweight, though,” he jokes lightly, feeling endeared as Taehyung slowly calms his giggles and wipes the tears from his eyes. 

“It… it wasn’t just that though,” Taehyung murmurs thoughtfully. He steadies himself with a deep breath before moving a hand to cup Jeongguk’s cheek. “It’s just— for a second, I doubted what you shared with me was real. It was so heartfelt and sincere and I...” His throat bobs, his eyes shining. “I was terrified to believe it. The second of doubt almost sent me under.” 

Taehyung looks downward, his eyes gazing out over their surroundings. His newfound bravery takes Jeongguk aback. 

“As soon as I accepted what you shared with me, I realized I wasn’t afraid of flying anymore—not if I trusted you to catch me,” he says, smiling gently. “And you kept your word, just like you promised.” 

Jeongguk’s gaze rakes over his grin, committing the sight to memory. He’s almost afraid to feel this much happiness after the last month of doubt, but Taehyung always has a way of convincing him to live life to its fullest.

He knows now that it’s okay to grow and change, learning from the difficult times and treasuring the simpler ones. It’s okay to make mistakes knowing they’ll catch one another without fail. 

They’re both only human, after all.

“But… the bracelet…” Taehyung whispers, looking down with a shy expression. “Is—is it true?”

Jeongguk tilts his head curiously. “Is what true?” 

Taehyung glances away, a flush creeping up his neck. Only then does Jeongguk realize their faces linger mere inches apart. 

“Do you really love me this much?”

The glint of hope in his eyes makes Jeongguk’s breath catch, his heart softening until he feels like he’s melting. Truthfully, the bracelet is only an ounce of what he feels, but he’s content to let Taehyung discover that over time. 

“I think so,” he murmurs, the ghost of a smile on his lips. “It’s hard to say since it’s a feeling that doesn’t have words.”

Taehyung’s answering grin has Jeongguk weak enough to nearly plummet through the air. Their heads gently press together, his breath tangling with Taehyung’s amused exhale. The grip around his neck tightens just as his heart does in his chest. 

“I think... I understand,” Taehyung breathes, leaning forward to press his smile into the corner of his mouth. Jeongguk’s heart shoots into his throat at the softness of his lips. “It’s how I feel when I see you like this—with your wings.” Another kiss, this time over his eyes. “You’re so beautiful, Jeongguk.” 

He kisses his nose, travelling over his features until Jeongguk’s cheeks are flaming and his face is scrunched with hushed giggles. Each touch is purposeful, full of care and devotion.

“Can’t believe you really want to be mine.”

A lick of heat coats Jeongguk’s insides at the way his voice dips, velvety and deep. Before Taehyung can kiss him again, he catches him midway, slotting their lips together as his body surges with relief. There’s a desperate need to show Taehyung how much he wants him, a determination to prove it by any means necessary. His fingers tighten in the soft material of Taehyung’s jacket as a pleased noise sounds in the back of his throat. 

Just as he had imbued the bracelet, he pours every ounce of feeling into their kiss, praying Taehyung finally believes in his choice. When Taehyung gently pulls away, huffing fondly at the pout he receives in response, Jeongguk swears he finally understands.

His eyes shine like the fractured glass in the abandoned chapel, illuminated by light and love. Jeongguk wants to fuse the pieces back together until they reflect the picture made just for them. He could lose himself in them forever if Taehyung would let him.

For the first time, he thinks Taehyung just might.

“I love you too, Jeongguk,” he whispers, a smile hovering over his lips. Fingers trail over his neck and cup his cheek, his gaze ardent and warm. Vulnerable and trusting. “Forever.”

Chapter Text

”You look like you’re about to make out with the glass.” 

Jeongguk lifts his head upward from where it’d been pressed into his curled fists. His cheeks warm at Yoongi’s teasing, eyes tearing away from the window he hadn’t realized he’d been staring holes into.

They’ve sat across the table in Yoongi’s private library for hours while Jeongguk has waited for him to finish his paperwork. He originally arrived with a simple question and somehow ended up daydreaming of a certain warlock instead. 

“Things with Taehyung going that well?” Yoongi asks amusedly, raising a brow as he taps his quill in his hand. “Any longer and I think you would’ve started drooling.” 

Jeongguk rolls his eyes, glancing away with a guilty blush. He wishes he could lie, but the time spent with Taehyung lately makes him so elated that he can’t deny the truth. “Maybe... I guess.” 

Yoongi sends him a knowing glance, crossing a line over his paper. “Well, at least you’re honest.”

Jeongguk lets loose a long breath, relieved when quiet falls over them again. It’s still surprising how quickly he came to appreciate Yoongi’s company. His presence is reassuring, his aura different than that of his other friends—casual and uninhibited like typical siblings. They’re much too alike in their headstrong nature and pensive observations, though Jeongguk is clearly the more tactful of the two. 

“Took you both long enough,” Yoongi grumbles to himself. “If I had to watch you wallow in self-pity another day, I would’ve dragged your ass there myself.” 

Jeongguk narrows his eyes, flicking a folded piece of paper in his direction. He holds back his snort when it collides directly with Yoongi’s forehead. 

He can’t disagree, though. Returning to Taehyung’s side was the best decision he’s made in recent memory. 

There’s probably a word for the way Jeongguk’s felt in the few weeks since they’ve reunited. It could be enamored or maybe even infatuated, but he thinks it lingers somewhere around disgustingly smitten. 

He’s managed to fall for Taehyung even harder than he thought possible. They were quick to reestablish their work routine just to spend every free second together, their endless discussions ranging from heavy topics involving the past to laughing about nothing at all. He still retreats to the Aerie at night just to give them a bit of space, but each parting comes with more reluctance than the previous.

The presence of their pact hasn’t changed much about their dynamic, although Jeongguk still finds his heart pulled to Taehyung when he’s nearby. He feels at home beside him, like he can breathe easier than anywhere else. Hoseok theorizes there might be some new quirks to his magic as Taehyung’s familiar, but Jeongguk has yet to see anything out of the ordinary. 

There’s a new freedom to their relationship that he finds himself addicted to, one in which words have been all but abandoned. It’s exhilarating when Taehyung wraps his arms around him from behind, sometimes hooking his chin over his shoulder or even nipping at his ear. He’s always testing new boundaries, kissing Jeongguk when he’s least expecting it or finding reasons to pin him to the nearest wall. Taehyung likes making him squirm, much too pleased with himself when he can coax a hushed groan from deep in his chest.

He’s always teasing, and to his satisfaction, Jeongguk can’t seem to get enough of it.

He’s become a bit braver these days himself, countering Taehyung’s taunting with his own growing forwardness. His favorite moments are when he manages to surprise him, responding to taunting kisses with eagerly parted lips or perching on Taehyung’s lap when he least expects it. Slipping his hands under Taehyung’s shirts has become a habit, greedily exploring more of his skin with every day that passes. Jeongguk likes the way he blushes when he whispers compliments in his ear and has begun to look forward to the racing of Taehyung’s heart in his chest.

Even better are the rare times Taehyung appears to drop all pretense, his sweet and simplistic nature exchanged for something sensual and alluring. They’re the moments Jeongguk feels ready to burst just from the silken tenor of his voice or the heated wandering of his touch. He loves when Taehyung showers him in praise, prying him apart with delicate demands until his mind is all but consumed by them. 

Even now, miles away from the Arboretum, Jeongguk feels his body go molten at the thought of Taehyung dragging him away as he did yesterday. Knocking him against a tree with ragged breaths, Jeongguk’s fingers clinging tightly to the collar of his shirt just to kiss him deeper, their legs tangled and hips grinding and the sound of Taehyung’s moan—

“You’re doing it again,” Yoongi sighs, not bothering to look up from his paper. 

Jeongguk blinks, slowly loosening the grip of his teeth on his lower lip. He had been biting it hard enough to nearly draw blood as he stared into the courtyard.

He huffs in embarrassment, rubbing at his face until the coil of heat in his gut slowly loosens. Without a distraction from Taehyung, he’s clearly a lost cause. 

Fortunately, Yoongi’s life is complex enough to keep him occupied even when he doesn’t ask for it.

“What’re you working on?” he asks casually, gaze flicking over Yoongi’s report. From his rotated view, he can see diagrams with sketches, some even drawn in vibrant color. 

“Planning,” Yoongi answers simply, resting his quill aside to stretch his arms into the air. “The Hall of Luminescence can’t stay in its shitty state forever. I’ve got the mages from the campus forge working on new flooring, but our glassweavers have their work cut out for them to replace the windows.” 

Jeongguk’s head tilts curiously, his interest piqued when Yoongi slides a paper his way. The mockups for the windows are breathtakingly beautiful, their pieces complex and strategic even in their drawn form. This one in particular shows a weeping tree with leaves of brilliant crystal. Beneath it is a bear with eyes of white and a crescent of light between its antlers. 

“Malyah?” Jeongguk whispers, his heart twinging with sadness. The Elderbear hadn’t been present when he reunited with Taehyung, supposedly still recovering from the mending the area’s energy when the Ire passed. 

Yoongi nods as Jeongguk hands it back. “Most of the panes depict the history of local spirits, and this one is dedicated to the root of the region’s magic. Guardians of the Everwood are the largest pillars of balance in the mortal realm. She and I may not be on the greatest of terms, but I can’t overlook her devotion to protecting this land.”

Jeongguk agrees to himself, pleased that Malyah will get the recognition she deserves. He can’t think of another spirit as compassionate and humble as the Elderbear herself. Even with the obvious knowledge of Jeongguk’s seal, she still took the time to train him as a witch, an act of kindness he won’t ever forget. 

But the thought of the shattered panes reminds him of the one he had observed with Taehyung, the dance of the phoenix and dragon. He wonders if it’ll be included again, the question on the tip of his tongue before Yoongi interrupts his thoughts. 

“You said you had a question earlier,” he mutters, thumbing through the stack before him. “You might as well ask now so you can get back to Taehyung sooner. I’m not keen on the idea of you slobbering on my table.” 

“I’m not slobbering,” Jeongguk retorts. “As if you don’t lose your shit every time Hoseok turns around in his human form. For one of the most ‘mysterious men’ in the region, you’re not subtle at all.”

Yoongi’s face remains impassive, but Jeongguk winces when he feels a swift kick to his ankle. He kicks back with a grunt, forcefully smacking the toes of his boots into Yoongi’s shins. 

There’s rarely a discussion between them that doesn’t devolve into some sort of altercation, but Jeongguk finds a weird sense of comfort in it. In a way, it brings them closer. He supposed it’s a family thing.

“Ask your question and get out, pain in the ass.”

Jeongguk reels his throbbing ankles back with a grimace, flicking more rips of paper at his brother. “I just wanted to ask about my wings,” he mutters. 

“Wings?” Yoongi repeats, his eyes finally flicking upward to watch Jeongguk fidget. “Was there something I missed in our lessons?”

Jeongguk’s wings twitch where they hang over the back of his stool. It’s a question he’s had for awhile now, unsure if he even wants to hear the answer. Although it’s still a work in progress, he’s adjusted rather quickly to the presence of wings in his life. Any reason to regret them would be a step backwards.

“In most of the historical texts I studied, phoenix spirits have... golden wings. Like orange flames and sun flares,” Jeongguk starts softly, curling a wing around himself to trail fingers over his dark feathers. The shine of the winter sunset makes them sparkle with a violet hue. “But mine are dark, and the flames I summon are black.” 

In fact, the more his seal has come undone, the more Jeongguk has noticed his close relation to things of the dark. His wings and his nails, his taste in clothing and even his magic. Malyah had even seemed shocked by his ability to call black flames so readily and always referred to him as ‘dark one’. 

Yoongi releases a long breath. He thumbs through a few more papers as if he hadn’t bothered to listen, but Jeongguk has grown used to his habits. His brother mulls every word over before it leaves him, careful not to misconstrue his intent. 

Jeongguk isn’t sure if it comforts him or makes him nervous. 

“When Hoseok had his energy attached to a spirit form, he had been on the brink of death,” Yoongi starts, his tone unexpectedly serious. “I believe he also has an inkling for death affinity and some manipulation over black flames for that very reason.” 

“Death…” Jeongguk repeats softly. “Then I was…”

“You had nearly died thanks to Shinah’s will. He had been close to making you his familiar and was warping your form in a way your mind and body couldn’t have sustained. Taehyung ripped control from him and made your pact instead, but according to him, that’s not where Shinah’s attempts to harm you ended.” 

Jeongguk’s brows slowly furrow, mind racing as his gaze traces over the wood grain of the table. He barely remembers forming his pact, but he remembers promising to catch Taehyung in exchange for allowing him to use his power. He tries with all his might to recall where or when it happened, but it doesn’t come to him like it should. 

Instead, his chest flares with a hint of pain. 

Yoongi eyes him observantly, watching how his hand rises to grip his shirt over his heart. “He attempted to destroy your Tranquil state himself,” his brother continues. “As with Hoseok, I believe a part of your heart already hovers between life and death, but perhaps you are much closer. Your wings, your magic and even the marking of your seal are touched by darkness.”

Jeongguk swallows thickly. He had put two and two together to realize the inked marking on his chest was related to the black lotus he conjured for Taehyung. He thinks his Tranquil state may have had them too, but he can’t be sure. 

The knowledge that he can’t access his own core as a spirit unsettles him more than he’d like to admit. 

“Is it… bad that I can’t get in?” he asks quietly. “Will it ever harm Taehyung?”

Yoongi shakes his head. “I doubt you’ll have much trouble without it, but I do theorize that accessing it may result in the completion of your death. If Shinah attempted to kill you, that piece of your spirit might still contain the part of your heart that’s been destroyed. Taehyung’s presence as your invoker and your human heart likely protects that.” 

A chill ices Jeongguk’s blood. He’s not desperate to enter his Tranquil state, but if it’s the heart of his death magic, he’d prefer to leave it well alone. 

“Interestingly enough,” Yoongi muses, “we don’t know what would happen should you die. You’re half human, so your energy could easily be repurposed and you could never return to this form. As a phoenix, you could become a full spirit again, or you could even be reborn just as you are. I informed Taehyung of the possibility of your rebirth as it occurs in the spirit realm, but he didn’t want to take the chance.”

Jeongguk exhales audibly, his fingers curling into fists. He’s not interested in finding out either, even if he’s seen a glimpse of the afterlife. Any course of action that ruins what he and Taehyung have worked for is not an option. 

“Chill, Guk,” Yoongi snorts, sliding one of Jeongguk’s folded papers into his knuckles. “It’s not something to worry about anytime soon. You’re not dying on my watch. Just focus on your boyfriend and catch up on the time you’ve missed with him. Isn’t his birthday coming up next week?” 

The words may as well detonate a small bomb in Jeongguk’s mind. He hadn’t really considered the status of his relationship with Taehyung. Invoker and familiar, mentor and apprentice, friend and stranger—there are so many titles that intertwine them that he hasn’t really bothered with asking him out. 

But that worry is pushed to the back of his mind when he registers Yoongi’s words.

“Birthday?”

Yoongi smirks, leaning back in his seat with crossed arms. “I actually met Taehyung on the day of his twelfth birthday. His grandfather had been throwing him a party or something. I doubt he’s aware I know and most years have passed without him mentioning it.” 

A tingle prickles Jeongguk at his fingertips. He’s never been much of one for birthdays either, but it’s clear Taehyung must have been celebrating it with his grandfather. Since then, he’s likely had no one around to remember or even anyone close enough to throw him a party.

The thought of him isolated and alone on his own birthday makes Jeongguk’s heart positively ache. 

He twirls the folded paper triangle for a long, quiet moment, racking his brain before an idea finally sparks in the back of his mind. Yoongi startles when his wings suddenly flare as he’s struck with an idea.

“Um—Yoongi,” Jeongguk inquires, flashing his most innocent look. “Could I maybe ask you… a favor or two?”

His brother’s gaze narrows at his comical pout. “No, but I know you’re going to ask anyway,” he grunts. “What now?” 

A flicker of hope wiggles its way through Jeongguk, his lips twitching upward. 

“Well, first… I’d need you to talk to Joon and Jin for me. Hoseok too, of course. I have an… idea for Taehyung’s birthday.”

Yoongi huffs a tired sigh. “Unfortunately, I see their faces more than I’d like, so I suppose I can pass along a message,” he drones. “But that’s not all you want, is it? You’re much too obvious, you know.”

A toothy grin unfurls across Jeongguk’s face. He pries the stack of paper from across the table, flipping through the pages until he lands on a particular scene before glancing upward at his brother. 

“I have a small request.”








Despite the inches of snow now coating every surface outside the Arboretum, its inside is still as sweltering and stuffy as a summer afternoon. 

Jeongguk grimaces as he tugs at his collar, adjusting the cuffs of his shimmery lilac button-down. For a winter evening with the sun having already set, he hadn’t expected to be sweating his ass off. 

Curse Park Jimin and his incessant whining about his wardrobe. If his best friend hadn’t crafted the silken shirt himself, he would’ve left it in his closet to collect dust. So what if it happens to look somewhat good, accentuating his curves and his narrow waist where it’s tucked into his dark pants? Even though his dangling earrings sparkle like shooting stars, he still feels out of his element dressed in color.

He sighs, combing through his wavy locks to release the heat trapped within them. Throughout this entire week, Jeongguk has managed to hide his scheming alongside his usual work, flying through every chore at lightspeed before secretly attending to… other matters. He’s utterly exhausted after sacrificing a few hours of sleep each night to put his plan into motion, but the excitement tingling in the air far outweighs the tiredness he feels.

Now, he just needs to nab the final piece for it all to fall into place: his… friend… or boyfriend. Or whatever the hell he is. 

His Taehyung. 

Today is their singular day off, the one day a week they make an active effort to pry themselves apart and give the proper attention to life outside the Arboretum. Before his seal was undone, Jeongguk usually visited friends on these days, occasionally having dinner with Namjoon or shooting the shit until early morning with Jimin. But since he and Taehyung reunited, it’s been a challenge to stay parted for more than a single night. An entire day without seeing him feels like a pathetic form of torture.

Taehyung shouldn’t expect him around this evening, but knowing how clingy they’ve both been, Jeongguk doubts he’ll be truly surprised to see him. He just hopes he won’t be irritated with him.

As with most of his evenings off, Jeongguk expected Taehyung to be in the back cabin busying himself with his potions. But after a nervous search of the elixir room and the upper loft, Taehyung’s presence in his chest feels slightly… displaced. It slowly becomes apparent that he’s in his treehouse in the woods, a place Taehyung rarely frequents outside his sleeping hours. 

It doesn’t make sense for him to be at home so early. The change in his usual pattern worries Jeongguk that he may have caught on or might be feeling ill, but he buries his baseless assumptions before he can psych himself out. 

He’s worked much too hard to back out of his plans now. 

Jeongguk hesitates by the doorway that leads to Taehyung’s lodgings, staring out over the snowy path. He’s only visited once—the time he had passed out early on in their apprenticeship. They’ve never explicitly discussed Jeongguk having the freedom to visit and he’s always tried to remain respectful of Taehyung’s personal space. The thought of intruding makes him anxious.

Still, he is Taehyung’s familiar now. It only makes sense that he’d be allowed to retrieve him, even if he doesn’t go inside. Taehyung should be able to feel him approaching anyway, so it shouldn’t be a big scare.

He gulps in anticipation, shifting his weight from foot to foot. He knows he just needs to do it, even if Taehyung forbids him from visiting again. He’s on a time crunch, after all. 

Mustering his courage, Jeongguk decides to forgo walking along the icy path and opts to fly over it instead. His heart beats in his throat when he slowly descends on Taehyung’s small porch, his wings kicking flecks of snow and ice into the air. 

The treehouse is a bit like he remembers, homey and warm among the frigid cold. He admires the rich grain of the wood and the shining glass baubles in the windows, habitually fluttering his wings as he raises a tentative hand to knock on the door.

“Um—Taehyung,” he calls, cringing at the shrill of his voice in the quiet air. His knuckles tap softly against the wood, perhaps too delicate to be heard. “Are you there?” 

At first, there’s no answer. Jeongguk can see the flickering glow of the fireplace through the curtained windows, a beacon of light in the dark. He knows Taehyung is home, but a minute goes by without so much as a sound from inside. 

He swallows dryly. This is going… well. 

“Tae?” Jeongguk inquires again, knocking with a bit more force. “It’s— it’s Jeongguk.” 

After another moment of waiting, he begins to feel hopeless. He really doesn’t want to bust down the door and intrude, but there’s also a lot riding on his plan—things that really can’t wait much longer. 

He opens his mouth to call out one last time when he feels a lurch in his chest that isn’t his. A thud sounds from inside, quickly followed by a swift pair of feet that rush over the floor. Jeongguk can’t help the way his lips twitch, pressing them together to hide his smile.

A moment later and the door is thrown open, the disheveled form of Taehyung standing before him. 

Jeongguk immediately finds himself speechless. He does every time he lays eyes on Taehyung, but this is...

“J-Jeonggukie,” he murmurs thickly, his sleep-laden eyes widening. “I’m—I’m sorry, I hope you weren’t waiting long. I fell asleep on the couch—the fire always knocks me out.”

Taehyung’s hair is misconstrued and sticking up at odd angles. He wears a pair of circular glasses that are slightly askew and a black heathered hoodie— Jeongguk’s hoodie, one he left in the loft months ago and swore Jimin stole in his quest to destroy his wardrobe. Its cuffs extend just past his fingertips, pairing all too well with his plaid oversized pants and his brown fuzzy slippers.

But his outfit pales in comparison to what protrudes from his head.

“Um—Tae—”

Taehyung’s brows raise as they trail over his outfit, his tongue swiping over his lower lip. “You look… good,” he praises, revealing a half-grin. “Really good. That color is perfect with those wings of yours.”

Jeongguk’s cheeks burn so hot that he’s surprised they don’t catch fire. “It—it was all Jimin,” he mutters bashfully, rubbing at his neck. “He’s been… experimenting on me.” 

Taehyung beams as he steps out of the way, beckoning Jeongguk inside. “Remind me to send him a fruit basket,” he teases. “Come in before I freeze my ass off. You might be immune to the cold, but I’m certainly not.”

Gulping, Jeongguk nods. It’s clear Taehyung doesn’t realize it yet and he doesn’t know how to bring it up. Is it even his place to say anything? 

His mind races as he crosses the threshold, smacking his wings into the doorframe as he’s done a hundred times. He grunts in pain, scowling over his shoulder and scolding himself for acting like a fool.

“You alright?” Taehyung asks airly, failing to conceal his amusement. The temperature around them rises instantly as the door slowly creaks shut. “I thought you learned your lesson after running into the loft doorway a hundred times.” 

Jeongguk rolls his eyes, pouting at the corner of the room. He hasn’t seen the inside of Taehyung’s house in months, but it’s exactly as he remembers—potted plants in the windows and fraying books next to some borrowed comics on mismatched shelves. His worn, oversized couch looks temptingly comfortable and the fireplace roars with vibrant light, the tasseled blanket still unraveled where he had been sleeping.

The space is so endearingly Taehyung that Jeongguk loves it just by association.

“I did, but I’m just— distracted.”

“Hm?” Taehyung asks curiously, a sly grin unfurling that immediately has Jeongguk feeling weak. He dusts a bit of snow from Jeongguk’s hair before trailing a warm knuckle over his cheekbone. “Distracted by what? Missed me that much that you had to come by on our day off?” 

Jeongguk’s face flushes with red, embarrassed by the way Taehyung can reduce him to a mess with a single touch. He has to focus on the plan or he knows he’ll end up curled in his lap before he can help himself. 

“Yes,” he answers bluntly, enjoying the surprise that crosses Taehyung’s face at his honesty. “I missed you and wanted to see you. Is that a problem?” 

Taehyung blinks with parted lips before he’s shaking his head with a small smile. “No, of course it isn’t. I was bored as hell without you and almost tracked you down on campus myself, but I figured you’d want to see your friends without being bothered.”

There’s a strange air to the statement that doesn’t sit well with Jeongguk. He furrows his brow, watching as Taehyung folds his glasses and peels off his hoodie. He dutifully attempts to ignore the flash of his smooth stomach, swallowing the immediate urge to run his hands over his skin. 

“They’re your friends just as much as mine, Tae. I’m sure they’d love to see you. You’re never a bother.”

Taehyung hums in weak agreement as he glances away, clearly unconvinced. He rubs at his eyes and runs a free hand through his messed hair in an attempt to tame it. 

Jeongguk winces as Taehyung’s body goes rigid a breath later. His fingers collide with his two spiraling horns, his flecked stare travelling up to Jeongguk in a slow display of horror. A flush crawls up his neck that quickly spreads to his face. 

“I…” Taehyung whispers, his eyes wild. “I forgot. I completely spaced, I didn’t realize—”

“It’s okay,” Jeongguk soothes instantly, uselessly waving his hands at his display of panic. “It’s completely fine. They don’t bother me at all.”

The horns are thicker at their base and point toward the back of his head with a subtle spiral, their obsidian shine gleaming in the firelight. They’re not overly large, blending with the dark shade of his hair all the way to their sharpened points, but they’re strikingly intimidating.

In fact, Jeongguk thinks they might be one of the hottest things Taehyung’s ever revealed about himself.

“I— I just—” Taehyung covers his face with his palms. “I haven’t worn them around anyone since— since before you were sealed. No one’s ever seen them like this and I was afraid to show you.”

Jeongguk huffs sympathetically as he crosses the space between them. He gently pries Taehyung’s hands away from his face and is greeted by a look of avoidant shame. 

He hates that Taehyung feels the need to wear it around him. 

“Let me get this straight,” Jeongguk muses. “I spout massive fucking wings and you’re perfectly fine with them, but you think I’d be deterred by these? They look insanely cool, Taehyung—you have nothing to worry about.” 

Taehyung’s throat bobs, his eyes locked to the floor beside them. “I… I was always told to keep them hidden, so I got used to it, I guess. My grandfather warned me to only reveal them to the few people I trust.”

“And you trust me, don’t you?” Jeongguk asks kindly, giving his hands a supportive squeeze. “You don’t have to hide things like this from me, you know. If it’s a part of you, I love it just as much as the rest of you.”

Taehyung’s wary stare flicks upward, searching over his face. “I trust you,” he whispers slowly. “I’m just… afraid. The few who know what I am seem accepting of it, but not everyone is actually comfortable with warlocks. I might as well wear a sign that says ‘spirit murderer’.”

Jeongguk scoffs, cupping Taehyung’s cheeks with a narrowed glare. “That’s bullshit and you know it. I think I’m plenty proof that you’re the opposite of a stereotypical warlock. You gave me all the freedom I could ever ask for, and if your horns are a result of that, I wouldn’t trade them for the world.” He clears his throat, ignoring the blush that extends to his ears. “They’re also, um— kind of hot.”

Taehyung gapes in his hold, his cheeks slowly lifting from the curl of his lips. He exhales a breathy giggle, shaking his head and Jeongguk’s hands with it.

“You’re such a stubborn ass, you know that?” he jokes fondly, his tension slowly ebbing away. “You always see right through my fears and tear them down before I can run from them.”

“It’s like I know you or something,” Jeongguk replies playfully, leaning forward to press a kiss to his forehead. Taehyung’s quiet inhale fills him with satisfaction. “You’re perfect the way you are, Taehyung. Your heart speaks for itself to anyone that knows you.”

There’s a moment of reluctance, but to his relief, Taehyung eventually appears to believe him. 

“If you say so,” he sighs. “It might take some getting used to, though. No hard feelings if I somehow headbutt you and you end up with a puncture wound.”

Jeongguk snorts, lowering his hands. “As if I haven’t had one before.”

He’s answered with a sarcastic eye roll, though his heart lifts as Taehyung returns to a careful version of his normal self, rambling about a dream he had during his nap. They part while Taehyung folds up his blanket and arranges his pillows, busying himself in an effort to change the topic. 

Jeongguk can only hope he takes his words to heart. He loathes the effects of Taehyung’s sustained isolation and how reluctant he is to reveal his true self, hiding away as if he’s something damaged. He wants Taehyung to see his worth for what it truly is—that his heritage as a warlock will never define him. He wants him to know how loved he truly is.

“Did you want me to put some tea on?” Taehyung asks, his arms already reaching for the tea kettle over the sink. 

The sight is domestic enough for butterflies to stir in Jeongguk’s gut. “Actually,” he replies, careful to keep his tone airy, “I was wondering if we could go somewhere tonight.”

Taehyung raises a skeptical brow, slowly lowering his arm. “Oh?”

“Not anywhere far from here,” Jeongguk reassures quickly. “There’s just… something I’ve been working on that I’m ready to show you, if you wouldn’t mind. I think you’ll really like it.”

The interested look on Taehyung's face only grows. “Alright. Should I get dressed, then?”

Jeongguk nods, leaning against the back of the couch. “I’ll wait. Take your time,” he answers nonchalantly, though he prays Taehyung won’t take long. He feels excited enough to jump from his skin and they’ve already dragged their feet. 

Taehyung doesn’t hesitate to venture down the hall and into his room, emerging a few minutes later in a beaded blouse of sparkling gold and blue. The material is luminous in the changing light, mesmerizing like a vision of the cosmos. He tugs on a heavy winter jacket and slips on his winter boots, grinning from ear to ear at Jeongguk’s obvious attention.

“You’ll catch a cold like this,” Taehyung teases, tapping fingers beneath Jeongguk’s chin until his parted lips close. He swipes a thumb over the lower one with a playful smirk. “Can’t have my familiar falling apart on me.”

Jeongguk is too enthralled by his appearance to give a damn about embarrassment, baffled as to how he got lucky enough to be the familiar of someone so painfully attractive. He shakes his head to clear it of the oncoming haze, ignoring the way Taehyung chuckles knowingly and pats his cheek. 

They make for the door after Taehyung snuffs out the fire. The burst of cold air from outside is bitter and unrelenting, but the sky overhead shines with crystal clarity. 

“Follow me,” Jeongguk says, unable to conceal his eager smile as Taehyung readily takes his hand. Their fingers interlace easily, the door creaking shut behind them.








“Is this a kink? Because I think I’m into it.”

Jeongguk rolls his eyes with a furious blush, poking Taehyung in his sides until he’s giggling and squirming. A small strip of black cloth is tied around his eyes at Jeongguk’s request, concealing the path they take through the Arboretum and out the side door. 

“It’s not,” Jeongguk snorts, “but I’ll admit the look is kind of sexy. Very ‘demon roleplay’ with the horns included.”

Taehyung’s silky laugh sounds over the crunch of snow beneath their boots. Jeongguk prays it's loud enough to distract from the obnoxious pounding of his heart. 

“We’re outside again,” Taehyung observes after a few minutes. “In the gardens, if my tingling senses mean anything.”

“Mm,” Jeongguk confirms, slowing their pace until they come to a stop. “Almost there, but think we’re close enough to take this off now.” 

He turns to stand before Taehyung, wondering why his hands tremble as they reach around his head to untie the blindfold. He’s never contained so much excitement that his body practically vibrates with it, but Taehyung’s presence in his life has always shown him there’s no limit to his range of emotion. 

Tonight is no exception.

His breath catches when the colored shards in Taehyung’s eyes blink back into view. Taehyung is quick to check over their surroundings, stilling when he spots the flickering lanterns along the path and the glowing dome in the distance.

The tiny greenhouse is repaired now, the glass panels that had popped off from Taehyung’s bubble extravaganza sealed tight. Its interior shines vibrantly against the backdrop of the night sky and casts rays of color onto the surrounding banks of snow. 

“Guk…” Taehyung breathes, meeting his gaze in shock. “What’s going on?”

Jeongguk is already smiling, slipping his fingers into Taehyung’s again. He slowly pulls him forward to guide him toward the doorway. “I was told that today was a special day. I thought it might be worth celebrating.”

Taehyung’s jaw might drag against the ground if it gets any lower. There’s a soft melody of a vinyl record trailing from the greenhouse door, but otherwise, the space is deceptively quiet. Tiny snowflakes dance in the breeze and catch in their hair like constellations.

“There’s—there’s no way you could know,” Taehyung laughs nervously, rooted in place just beyond the entryway. He clings to Jeongguk’s hand like a vice. “It’s impossible, I never told…” 

Jeongguk huffs an amused cloud into the cold, holding both of his hands between them. Affection warms his heart at the red bracelet peeking out from under Taehyung’s sleeve. 

“Since my seal broke and you no longer have to use the Everwood gem, the energy in the gardens is a lot more tolerable to visitors,” Jeongguk says, eyes glinting with hidden purpose. “I thought it’d be a good opportunity to remind you how important you are… not just to me, but to your friends.”

Taehyung inhales sharply as his face slowly cracks with emotion. “Jeongguk…”

Jeongguk gently knocks their foreheads together, bumping their cold noses. He can’t help when he brushes his lips over Taehyung’s soft pair and leaves a chaste kiss behind. 

“You deserve this, Tae. You’ve deserved it for years. I hate that you’ve been alone all this time, but I thought maybe I could make it up to you… even if it’s little by little. This is just the beginning of that.”

“I don’t…” Taehyung starts, trailing off as he searches over Jeongguk’s face. Jeongguk gently coaxes him onward by both of his hands, walking Taehyung backwards into the greenhouse.

Inside, his eyes grow wide enough to swallow the stars. 

Namjoon somehow knocks a chair over and Jimin elbows a hissing Seokjin in the face, but they still manage to clamber out from under the table. Yoongi is already scowling, a party hat slipping from his head that Hoseok adjusts in panic. 

“Happy birthday, Tae,” Jeongguk says with a scrunched smile, moving aside just as their friends inhale in unison. 

“Surprise!” 

A party popper goes off that has Yoongi nearly leaping from his skin and Hoseok hits a glass with a spoon until the cheers die down, but Taehyung is shocked into speechlessness. 

The silence around him lingers for a beat too long, heavy alongside the drone of the record player. It makes Jeongguk’s heart flutter nervously until he hears a quiet laugh, one that grows into a fit of wet giggles. 

The group of faces before Taehyung slowly smile. Jimin and Seokjin hurry to his side to pull him into an eager hug, showering him with elated birthday wishes and boasting about the flashy dishes they slaved over. Jimin thumbs away the moisture on his face, admiring his horns and cracking lighthearted jokes about how he had to wrestle Jeongguk into his outfit. 

Through it all, Taehyung doesn’t even seem to notice the tears that well in his eyes, laughing and nodding as he’s swarmed with infectious joy. His smile is the same one Jeongguk remembers all those months ago, the afternoon they’d spent covered in soap with fingers intertwined.

The only difference is that they walk the same path now, never realizing it led to the same place.

Taehyung doesn’t miss when Jeongguk finally lets go of his hand, glancing over his shoulder as he’s dragged to the table. He mouths a soundless sentiment, eyes glistening with radiant happiness among a few shards of violet. 

Thank you.

Jeongguk thinks his answering smile might contain every shred of love he has. He closes the greenhouse door with one last glance out into the snowy garden, feeling more grateful to be human than ever. 









“And then, Jeongguk— he… he sat straight up in bed,” Jimin laughs, tears streaming down his face, “and he screamed that the big nuts were coming for him. All because I threw walnuts at him while we were studying.” 

The group laughs so hard that there’s a moment of quiet from their collective wheeze. Seokjin’s high-pitched squeak seems to only incense the chorus that follows and even Yoongi doubles over with a hand slapping the table.

Even though the joke is at his expense, Jeongguk can’t help but laugh until his ribs ache. The hilarity in the air is infectious, paired perfectly with the glitter of gift wrap and the lines of illuminated lanterns strung overhead. Empty plates and bowls litter the table alongside far too many opened bottles whose contents have long been drained. Namjoon’s familiar slumbers heavily in the corner, Seokjin’s flying squirrel buried in his furry mane. 

It’s immensely fulfilling to see his friends together this way—comfortable and content in each other’s company. Gathering the group together is a rare occurrence, especially with Taehyung’s prior restrictions involved. He can already spot the bits of weight lifted off their shoulders thanks to the break from their usual responsibilities.

Though he’s had the time of his life so far, it’s hard for Jeongguk to truly lose himself in anything but the sight by his side. Taehyung nearly topples off the seat adjacent to him as the group exchanges stories, tearing up from the strength of his cackles. He’s been more relaxed than Jeongguk has ever seen him, his blouse glittering and his horns shining like the surrounding iridescent panels. Every laugh that rumbles through him shakes his dangling earrings until Jeongguk feels mesmerized by them.

Neither of them have drank much tonight. Taehyung seems plenty intoxicated by the happiness drenched over him and Jeongguk isn’t keen on cleaning up while drunk. He wants to remember the joy Taehyung currently wears for the rest of his existence anyway.

“Where are the gifts?” Jimin asks suddenly, haphazardly waving his glass. His hair is now a bubblegum pink, his legs thrown over Namjoon’s lap with an arm wrapped around his neck. Namjoon’s cheeks are stained like the color of wine, his face comically blissed in his boyfriend’s presence. “Let’s not keep Taehyungie waiting. Jeonggukie, could you grab them?” 

He wiggles his eyebrows and Jeongguk snorts, heading for the pile stacked off to the side. He grabs an armful of packages tied neatly with ribbons and slides them onto the table before a wide-eyed Taehyung. 

There’s one from him too, but he puts it aside for now. It’s one that’s likely saved best for last.

“These are… for me?” Taehyung asks softly, gazing up at Jeongguk where he stands beside him. 

“Of course they are,” Jeongguk reassures amusedly. “What kind of a party would it be without gifts?”

“Open them,” Hoseok encourages, his tails flicking eagerly behind him. His legs are crossed where he’s pressed to Yoongi’s side, sipping on a mixed drink of vibrant orange. “You’ll really like them!”

Taehyung bashfully picks at the ribbons as all eyes turn to him, hesitating long enough for Jin to plop one in his lap. “Don’t be shy, Tae,” he nudges. “I wanna hear how mine is better than Jiminie’s.”

Jimin shoots Seokjin a glare before turning it on the chuckling form of Namjoon. His boyfriend’s mouth snaps shut immediately. 

“...Alright,” Taehyung says nervously, slowly ripping away the paper from the largest of the packages. Jeongguk lowers into his seat with an elbow to the table, smiling so fondly that his cheeks ache with it. 

The first gift is an ornate wooden chest engraved with Taehyung’s initials. Inside is a new set of pristine vials in various sizes, their stoppers made from glimmering gems of color. They rest in a bed of plush velvet that’s almost too pretty to be disturbed.

Jeongguk can practically feel the way Taehyung’s face lights up, his genuine smile spreading to the other expressions in the room like wildfire. His eyes positively sparkle as he thanks Seokjin repeatedly, holding each piece up to the light as he gushes about what potions he can make for the infirmary. 

“These are absolutely perfect. I smashed a few of my best pieces thanks to a certain apprentice scaring the shit out of me,” Taehyung snorts, shooting Jeongguk an affectionate glance. 

Jeongguk elbows him playfully, whispering a promise in his ear that he’ll surprise him in a different way next time. It takes all of his willpower not to kiss away the mischievous grin he receives in response. 

“You deserve them for all your hard work these few months,” Seokjin commends brightly, the compliment staining Taehyung’s cheeks. “But if Jeonggukie breaks them, I’ll break Jeonggukie.” 

Jeongguk throws a napkin at his head. 

Jimin’s gift is laid in Taehyung’s lap next. He seems more at ease now, guessing the present’s contents by massaging the paper and sending Jimin a knowing smile. Beneath the starry wrapping is an iridescent, hand-knitted scarf. It’s immeasurably soft, an uncanny match to the panels of the Arboretum in looks. 

“It’s gorgeous, Jimin,” Taehyung praises breathlessly, his voice muffled as he momentarily wraps it around his face. Its interwoven threads shimmer like silk and compliment the colored eyes that peer over it. “Thank you so much.” 

Jimin looks delighted enough to burst, his eyes forming tiny crescents. “I’m glad you like it. I imbued it with celestial magic to give it that sexy lunar shine. You could always use it as an accessory for a certain someone too,” he jokes, sending a Jeongguk a wink. 

Taehyung does just that, tossing the scarf over Jeongguk’s head with a warm giggle. Jeongguk lets it sit there for a full minute before folding it up and tucking it away. 

It’s so soft and luxurious that even he’d wear it willingly, but he plans to take that thought to the grave.

Hoseok comes around the table to peer eagerly over Taehyung shoulder when the time comes for his gift. The box is small and square, stuffed to the brim with colored tissue paper. Taehyung gingerly unravels it layer by layer until a porcelain cup emerges. 

Jeongguk’s brows knit together. He’s sworn he’s seen something like it before, maybe in Taehyung’s treehouse or the loft. 

From the way Taehyung reacts, it's apparent that he recognizes it too. His eyes glimmer as he turns it in his grasp, thumbing over the painted lotus flowers and the ornate golden handle. 

“Hobi…” he breathes in admiration. “It’s— it’s beautiful.”

A twinge tickles Jeongguk’s mind when Taehyung holds it to his chest. He had seen him cry over a similar teacup in the past, and with the hazy memories Jeongguk has now, it’s rather easy to assume it had been his grandfather’s. 

“You deserve your own place in the world, Tae,” Hobi says softly, hugging him from behind. “I sculpted it myself with the technique I learned from home.”

Taehyung leans his head against his arm in a returned embrace. “Thank you— it’s… it’s perfect,” he murmurs sincerely, gazing down at the cup in reverence. “I’ll use it every day.”

The surrounding faces are softened despite a few of them not knowing the meaning behind it. Just the sight of seeing Taehyung happy moves their hearts, something Jeongguk can most certainly relate to. 

He gently squeezes Taehyung’s knee in support, his heart swelling when fingers brush over his with affection.

Namjoon’s gift is next, its shiny paper crinkling loudly and fluttering to the ground as Taehyung tears it away. From the weight of it, Jeongguk guesses it could be a brick.

“...A book,” Seokjin deadpans, peering over Taehyung’s shoulder before shooting Namjoon a look of judgment. “You seriously got him a book on…” He looks down again, his brow furrowing. “...moss. Moss, Namjoon? Seriously?” 

Jeongguk and Hoseok both promptly look away with puffed cheeks, laughing into their hands as Namjoon rolls his eyes and avoids Jimin’s cringing glare.

“I—I really like it though!” Taehyung blurts reassuringly, clutching the book to his chest. It’s bigger than his head and thicker than his fist, likely heavier than the chairs they sit upon. “C’mon guys, Joon knows I love plants. You’d be surprised how much moss the Arboretum has.”

“It’s a great book,” Namjoon replies warmly. “You should flip through it now just to check out the pictures. The illustrations are the best part.” 

Clearly, Namjoon knows his weakness. Taehyung doesn’t hesitate to do as suggested, even when Yoongi groans and scolds Namjoon for having done enough already.

Jeongguk watches in interest as Taehyung thumbs through the pages, stunned when they immediately fall open to a surprisingly crafty cut-out. The center of the pages has been sliced away to create the illusion of a regular book from the outside, but it’s actually a cleverly-disguised container. 

Inside that container is a stack of shining comic books. 

“You didn’t,” Taehyung rushes, his entire body alight with uncontrolled excitement. The group turns to Namjoon in surprise and Seokjin’s jaw hangs open.

“Those… those are first editions,” Jeongguk observes in awe. He’s already excited to borrow them from Taehyung and it hasn’t even been a minute. “They’re super rare—even the library didn’t have this version. How did you find them?” 

“I have my ways,” Namjoon touts proudly, crossing his arms over his chest. “As if I’d seriously give Tae a textbook for his birthday. You all have no faith in me.” 

Jimin placates him with weak reassurance, but Hoseok and Seokjin press their lips together in immaculate silence. 

“You would, though,” Yoongi says flatly. 

Namjoon scratches his neck, pointedly looking away. “There’s nothing wrong with the gift of knowledge.”

Taehyung giggles as he flips eagerly through the vivid pages, utterly enamored by the drawings and color. The sight of his unadulterated joy makes Jeongguk grin in the same way.

“These are fucking amazing, Joon,” Taehyung gushes. “You’re the best.”

Namjoon blushes, sending him a shy smile. “I’ll bring the real book on moss next time too, if you want.” 

Several voices insist that he absolutely should not as Yoongi quietly steps away. There’s a box off to the side that isn’t wrapped, its long form propped up against the glass. Jeongguk hadn’t been sure of its origin, but by the delicate way Yoongi handles it, he guesses it’s something quite valuable.

The group falls quiet as Yoongi approaches to stand beside Taehyung’s chair. He appears a little tense, though Jeongguk knows it's just his intrinsic preparation to do something heartfelt. For such a confident and well-spoken headmaster, it’s surprisingly how shy he becomes when things get personal. 

“I, um—” he starts, clearing his throat as Taehyung gazes up at him. “I’ve held onto this for years. Since the night you performed the seal, actually.”

The air in the room grows tense. Jeongguk feels Taehyung’s heart flip in his chest, his eyes flicking to the box as Yoongi begins to unlatch its locks. 

“When you used the gemstone to seal Guk, you lost control of your power and took out a lot of Ruark’s house with it. We were able to save a few things, all of which I’ve returned to you… except for this.”

There’s a creak as the case opens, the air punctuated by Taehyung’s sharp intake of breath. Jeongguk’s grip on his knee tightens in encouragement. 

“Your grandfather was a true warlock in every way. He trusted in the balance of the world and believed that your kind could bridge the gap between spirits and humans better than anyone. Laying down his life for Hoseok and I is proof of that, and your pact with my brother is even stronger proof.”

Taehyung’s teeth sink into his lip as his hands begin to tremble. Every gaze in the room shines with a mix of sympathy and heartache, and Jeongguk is no exception. 

He never met his grandfather, but in Taehyung’s existence himself, he’s seen the echo of kindness he lived by. If Ruark was anything like Taehyung is today, he must have been one of the most admirable warlocks to walk the mortal realm. 

“Since we’ve met, I’ve noticed you’ve been… reluctant to use your power. You lost the pride you had in your heritage and punished yourself instead, something I know Ruark wouldn’t have approved of. In fact, he made me promise that I would watch over you until you found a place to call home.”

Yoongi’s face softens as he withdraws the staff from the case, its embedded gemstone in its top flickering with life. The presence of the stone makes Jeongguk go still, the magic within it oddly familiar as it resonates through his heart. 

“Before you arrived here, I was still unsure if it was the right time,” Yoongi continues, holding the staff against his palms. “But tonight is the first time since you’ve sealed Jeongguk that I’ve seen you wear your horns again—the first time you decided to trust us all with your true self. Your grandfather made me promise that you’d find true contentment, and for the first time since our meeting fifteen years ago, I’m confident that you’ve found it.”

The emotion that crosses Taehyung is heavy as Yoongi lowers the staff into his hands. He smiles gently, surprising them when he rustles Taehyung’s hair with an amused huff. 

“Jeongguk may technically be my younger brother, but you’re both equally a pain in my ass,” he jabs, smirking when Taehyung laughs weakly. “I’ll watch over you both until my energy departs this world, and as your unofficial brother, I guess I can say it now.”

Jeongguk feels his heart shift, gazing at Yoongi with parted lips just as Taehyung does. He doesn’t know why he wants to cry alongside him.

“I’m proud of you, Taehyungie,” Yoongi says softly. “I’ve watched your journey since the day I asked you to locate Jeongguk. I never expected you to love him or even to rescue him, but I guess I can’t blame you. You dorks are made for each other.”

Taehyung wipes his eyes, chuckling wetly as he slowly stands and lowers the bottom of the staff to the ground. It suits him well, powerful and intimidating, but the grain of the wood is earthy and serene. It pairs neatly with the sharp sight of Taehyung’s horns and the gentle kindness in his face.

“Thank you,” Taehyung whispers, his gaze flicking over Yoongi’s face. “For— for bringing Jeongguk back to me and watching over him. I couldn’t have saved him without you.”

Yoongi shakes his head. “Jeongguk found his way to you himself. I just gave you both a little push,” he muses, though his smile slowly slips away. “Besides… I don’t deserve your thanks. Not after all I’ve done.” 

Taehyung chews on his lip. In a sudden flurry, he’s throwing his arms around Yoongi with the staff gripped in his hand. Yoongi’s arms shoot out to balance himself, his body going rigid at the contact. 

Taehyung whispers words into his shoulder that only Jeongguk can hear, quiet as falling snow.

“I forgive you, Yoongi.”

Yoongi’s eyes widen, his hands resting limply by his sides. From where he sits, Jeongguk can see his face begin to crumple, his arms hesitantly lifting to wrap around Taehyung’s back. He rests his head on Taehyung’s shoulder and lets loose a long-held breath. 

“Thank you.”

Yoongi’s voice wavers with such crackling vulnerability that Jeongguk feels his own throat constrict. Behind him, Hoseok quickly turns away to rub at his eyes. 

Jeongguk thinks he understands how Hoseok feels… how gratifying it is to watch the person you admire finally accept the love they deserve. For Jeongguk, he sees two people he’s recently come to treasure more than his own existence, watching as the wounds in their hearts begin to heal with his own eyes. 

Just as it felt when he slowly came to terms with his own existence, Jeongguk feels the earth shift beneath his feet again, the direction of his life subtly changing course. It’s simple in passing, but deep in his heart, he knows this moment will change his understanding of what it means to live.

It’s a very human thing to forgive—to question if one is truly deserving of love and devotion. To make mistakes and harbor regret is easy, but only the human heart is strong enough to overcome them, mending itself until it becomes something whole again. 

Jeongguk’s never seen a wound make the body become stronger, but he thinks this is it—a healing that occurs only among the compassion and empathy of friends. He may be a phoenix, the only spirit capable of rebirth, but the reasons why he and Yoongi were drawn to humans over their power are becoming more clear.

There are always new beginnings when it comes to humans—vibrant sunrises and the changing of seasons, the first whisper of love or the last bitter tear shed. There are infinite ways their hearts can love, each one more unique and complex than the last. 

With Taehyung before him—with his friends and family surrounding him and the sparkle of magic in the air, Jeongguk knows he wants to discover them all. He’s never felt stronger than after his heart has healed, growing and changing from his own willpower alone. 

He chose to become human out of love, the most powerful force of them all. Better than any phoenix flame or dragon claw or any source of magic. 

What he feels for his friends—for Taehyung…

It's what makes him human.

“There’s still one more gift, don’t forget,” Seokjin says, gazing at Jeongguk with a smile. “Maybe you can break up the sob fest with it, Jeonggukie.”

Taehyung snorts as he and Yoongi slowly disentangle. Yoongi rubs at his embarrassed face before returning to his seat with a shaky sigh. He accepts the arms Hoseok wraps around him without a shred of complaint, leaning his head on his shoulder.

Jeongguk’s lips quirk upward as Taehyung turns to him. His eyes are red and swollen again, though he clearly works hard to hold himself together. The sight makes Jeongguk want to remedy his tears all the more. 

The eyes in the room watch him as he slowly rises, venturing to the side to retrieve the small box wrapped with a violet bow. He stares down at it in determination before facing them all, wondering why he should be nervous at all.

“All these gifts have been really nice,” Jeongguk starts, unable to conceal his smile as he stands before Taehyung, “but all of us here know what your favorite thing is.”

Taehyung raises an amused brow, leaning his staff against the table to cross his arms against his chest. 

“You?”

Jimin snickers as Jin whistles tauntingly. In any other moment, Jeongguk thinks he’d be curling into a ball to hide his scarlet cheeks, but he decides he has nothing to hide when it comes to love anymore.

“Aside from me,” he grins, mirroring Taehyung’s smirk. He holds out the box between them, resting it in Taehyung’s cupped palms. “This is my gift because it was my idea, but everyone helped with it. These guys are surprisingly resourceful if you pester them enough.”

“Oi,” Hoseok calls. Namjoon and Seokjin boo in unison.

The laugh that sounds from Taehyung is heartfelt. He looks expectantly at the gift in his hands, glancing at Jeongguk with affection. 

“Go on,” Jeongguk encourages softly, his heart fluttering in anticipation. “Open it.”

Taehyung does as he’s asked, gently undoing the ribbon and peeling away the paper. The small wooden box is plain, its clasp one of tarnished gold. He lifts its lid with hesitant fingers, his breath immediately catching.

Inside is a delicate bracelet on a tiny chain. Seven stones of different color are strung along, each shining with a hue as if illuminated.

The box trembles in Taehyung’s hand as he lifts the bracelet out, holding it up to the light. The overwhelming emotion he wears makes Jeongguk heart soar. 

“I told you you wouldn’t have to feel alone anymore,” Jeongguk starts, gently taking his hand. “I had everyone imbue a gem of their choice and linked it all together. Whenever you start to feel like life is too much, just know you have us—all of us. Even if we’re not directly at your side, we’ll always be with you.”

He pries the bracelet from Taehyung’s fingers and clasps it around his wrist. The colored stones shine like a rainbow—a sunny topaz for Jimin and aquamarine like the surrounding sky for Namjoon. Rose quartz for Jin’s elegant warmth, onyx for Yoongi’s soothing darkness and a brilliant ruby to mirror Hoseok’s tails. 

“This one is mine,” Jeongguk murmurs, thumbing over the faceted amethyst. “To match the highlight in my wings. I chose emerald for you so— so you’ll always have a piece of the Arboretum.” 

Taehyung stares at the bracelet in awe. He trails his fingers over each gem, rotating his wrist as his eyes glimmer. 

“Thank you,” he breathes, turning to face each of his friends. “All of you. This is—” he swallows visibly, his voice breaking, “it’s the best birthday I’ve ever had. I never thought I deserved so much love from you all, but if you’re entrusting it to me, I’ll—I’ll  treasure it always. I swear it.”

The group sends him a variety of fond smiles. “You’re stuck with us, Taehyungie,” Jimin replies playfully, coaxing a warm grin from Taehyung. “Both you and Guk. We’ll always be there for you both no matter what.”

“We’re family,” Namjoon continues as Seokjin nods in approval. “Whenever one of us needs a push, we’ll be at their backs.”

“A push…” Yoongi mutters, shaking his head. “How about a swift kick in the ass? I can think of about six of you here that need one.”

Hoseok prods him in the side. “Yeah, starting with you. I’m sure Jeongguk’s got years of pain in store for sweet little Headmaster Min.”

“Get in line,” Namjoon sighs, grinning apologetically in Yoongi’s direction when his friend flashes a look of betrayal. “What? If we’re a family, I can challenge you to a fist fight when we disagree now, right?”

Yoongi raises a brow, grumbling a response that has Seokjin and Jimin cackling loudly. They devolve into a banter that ricochets across the table, the hum of amusement in the air putting Jeongguk into a daze.

He thinks it might be the atmosphere that draws him closer to Taehyung. They share the same contented look that neither can fight, slipping into each other's embrace like it's the most natural thing in the world. 

“Happy?” Jeongguk inquires with a grin. 

Taehyung hums warmly, his eyes flashing with words unspoken. He retreats to his seat and pulls Jeongguk down with him, tugging him sideways onto his lap. 

“Now I’m happy,” he murmurs, burying his face in Jeongguk’s neck.

It’s not the first time they’ve done this. Jeongguk thinks Taehyung likes him perched here, holding him close as if afraid he’ll fly away. He likes to slip his hands in the ticklish space between his wings and palm over the curve of his thigh. 

Even surrounded by their friends, Taehyung’s fingers trail beneath his chin as they always do, sliding in a familiar motion to cup his cheek. He stares up at Jeongguk like he’s the only one in the room.

“This might be the best night of my entire life,” he admits softly, “and it’s all because of you.”

Jeongguk blushes a delicate red. “It wasn’t just me, Taehyung. I had tons of help. Jimin made the decorations and Jin did the cooking—”

His words are lost when Taehyung suddenly presses their lips together, kissing him with all the gentle love in the world. The feeling fills Jeongguk with an energy only their contact has ever given him, like he’s never been more alive in this very moment. The heat in his gut makes him curl closer until Taehyung is all he can see or taste—all he can think about. 

“Everything I was given tonight was perfect, but the best gift I’ve ever received is you,” Taehyung breathes, the words making Jeongguk feel weak. “I spent so long looking for comfort and was finally convinced I deserved to be alone. But when I became your friend…”

He smiles with a quiet huff, sliding a hand up Jeongguk’s thigh and pausing to squeeze his waist. The sensation makes Jeongguk dizzy, torn between wanting more of his touch and the shyness of a public space.

“I found a safe place in the love you gave me. Nothing else has ever come close.” Taehyung hovers just before his face, thumbing over his lower lip. “You’ll always be home to me, Jeongguk.”

Jeongguk’s breath catches just as Taehyung slots their mouths together again. There's more force behind it this time, as if desperate to prove his devotion. Jeongguk doesn’t hesitate to return it, his fingers tightening in Taehyung’s shirt.

It’s a little thrilling to display his love for Taehyung so blatantly before his friends, but there’s still a tiny part of him that feels possessive— the smallest facet of Taehyung’s heart that Jeongguk wants to keep for himself. It feels greedy and heated when Taehyung nips at his lower lip, the soft groan in his chest like a whispered secret. 

Without much thought, Jeongguk curls a massive wing around them both, shielding them from the light and prying eyes. Taehyung’s gaze widens before he reveals a playful grin and cups his neck. Their heads knock together before Taehyung is eagerly parting Jeongguk’s lips with his own and tonguing into his mouth. 

Jeongguk is sure he’s seeing stars, but the daze pales in comparison to the sudden sensation of fingers along his inner wing. His entire body jerks under Taehyung’s touch, an shamefully loud gasp leaving him that floods his body with heat. 

“Oh?” Taehyung observes in surprise, raising a brow with a sly smile. “Sensitive here, are we?” 

“T-Tae—” Jeongguk hisses, every nerve in his body sparking at once. He’s never actually had his inner wings touched by anyone other than himself. The shock of pleasure in it is mindnumbing, so strikingly intimate that he can’t find the air to breathe. “Not here—”

Taehyung looks like he wants to touch them again, but they’re forced to part when hands suddenly grip his upper wing to peer into their makeshift cave.

“Jeonggukie,” Jimin whines, smirking at the shining slick of their lips, “stop making out and feed us already. We’re starving.”

The pair of them gape as Jeongguk slowly retracts his wing, their faces and necks equally flushed. Seokjin sends them a thumbs up with wiggling brows. 

“Idiots,” Yoongi mutters, grunting when Hoseok elbows him again. 

Jeongguk can’t help but snort, shaking off the embarrassment in his gut as he reluctantly climbs from Taehyung’s lap. It takes a bit of convincing to make his pouting invoker let him go, but the peck to his forehead placates him just enough. 

When Jeongguk retrieves the dish from the buffet to place it on the table, he might as well be throwing meat before a pack of starving wolves. The group swarms hungrily, the majority of them unsteady on their tipsy feet. He quickly dishes out scoops of crumbling pastry and dripping ice cream, taking care to put the most delicious-looking one aside for Taehyung.

“What’s that?” Taehyung asks, following the plate Jeongguk carries with shining eyes. 

“Apple crisp,” Jeongguk replies, a hint of pride in his voice as he takes his seat beside him. “Made it myself just this morning.”

Taehyung’s lips part in shock, his flecked eyes searching over Jeongguk’s face. It’s a long moment before he speaks.

“How did you know it’s my favorite?”

Jeongguk shrugs, forking a bit off his plate. It’s just as heavenly as he predicted, sickeningly sweet when the cinnamon and brown sugar hit his tongue. “Dunno,” he replies, voice muffled from his puffed cheeks. “I feel like I dreamt it. We were in a garden and I had a shitton of apples. The dream changed to something underwater… except we were wearing clothes? You swore we could eat it if I was okay, and I felt pretty well behaved lately, so—”

The plate before Jeongguk slides away from him in an instant. Taehyung begins to devour it at an alarming pace, so quickly that a few of their friends eye him in concern. 

“T-Taehyung,” Jeongguk says worriedly. “There’s tons more, seriously—”

He inhales sharply when he notices Taehyung’s eyes are filled with tears. He eats as if his life depends on it, wiping the moisture away with his sleeve like he barely even registers he’s crying.

“Tae…” Jimin whispers sadly, catching the attention of the group, but Jeongguk shakes his head with a small smile.

He understands now that it wasn’t just a dream after all, that the boy who had rocked him to sleep and the hazy promises of apple crisp whispered into his hair had been real. 

Taehyung had promised they’d eat it if he lived.

“Slow down,” Jeongguk murmurs fondly, wiping a stray tear from Taehyung’s face. “I can always make more, you know. We have forever.” 

Taehyung stops his chewing mid-way, swallowing down a particularly large mouthful. His eyes don’t lift from his plate for a long moment, though his slowly lips quirk upward. 

“You’re… you’re right. We have forever now, don’t we?” 

Jeongguk smiles, squeezing his hand beneath the table. Their fingers intertwine without hesitation.

“We always have.”









“Are you sure it’s alright for me to stay?”

Taehyung’s question is a visible puff in the frigid breeze. He tries to conceal the bit of anxiety he feels starting down into a massive chasm, masking it with his excitement at being granted a deeper look into Jeongguk’s personal life. 

They’re at the top of the Aerie, their feet dangling from the edge of the balcony where they kick out beneath the moonlight. As a rather visual person, Taehyung’s always wondered where Jeongguk slept and what his living space looked like. He’s seen the Aerie from a distance on the rare occasions he’s frequented campus, but being flown by Jeongguk up to the very top was... something. 

He wouldn’t exactly call it terrifying since he trusts Jeongguk with his life, but he can’t say he’d be comfortable ever living there permanently.

While it’s not to his personal tastes, he admits the view of their surroundings is beautiful. The interior of his dorm is cozy and lived in, covered in personal touches that are endearingly Jeongguk. Taehyung hadn’t pegged him as the messy drawers and silken sheets type, but the insight into how he lives just makes him all the more appealing. 

“Of course it’s alright,” Jeongguk readily replies, his wings curling around them to keep them warm. “Jimin’s been staying at Joon’s a lot lately. He told me he wouldn’t be back for a few nights, which is why I asked you to keep me company here.”

Keep him company. Taehyung’s lips quirk at that. 

They’ve been keeping one another a lot of company lately, particularly the night after his birthday party two months ago. Jeongguk had nearly flown home before he latched onto his sleeve and sheepishly asked him to stay the night. 

It was a little embarrassing, but Taehyung couldn’t help himself—not with the thought of Jeongguk’s plush lips and the feel of his silky wings swimming through his mind. He’s been painfully attracted to him since the moment they reunited for the apprenticeship, but only recently has he felt it appropriate to act upon it.

Taehyung thinks he knows him quite well by now. From his work ethic to the way he speaks, Jeongguk has always been rather careful and honest, never hesitating to be forthright or apologetic when the situation calls for it. He’s learned how to speak his mind, and on the occasions he finds he struggles to choose his words, he shows his feelings in other ways… imbuing objects with magic or silently completing little favors. Picking flowers to leave by the bedside or inquiring about a topic most would have long forgotten. There are a million ways Jeongguk works to reveal the love in his heart, and with every new piece of him, Taehyung falls harder and harder.

He loves every single part of him—loves the tiny quirks and the obvious flaws. Loves Jeongguk’s seemingly endless list of strengths. Loves watching him blossom into someone confident, facing every challenge he comes across with calculated thought and a pinch of compassion. 

But among the traits that Jeongguk reveals, there are a few outliers that drive Taehyung utterly wild. 

He’s convinced that Jeongguk doesn’t know how unbearably attractive he is, his point proven the first night Taehyung took him home. They shed their clothes minutes after entering the treehouse, but not before Taehyung had pinned him against the front door to pick up where they’d left off at the party. 

And as he’s done every time things get physical between them, Jeongguk handed himself over without a second thought.

It’s shocking how pliant he becomes. If Taehyung wants to tongue into his mouth, Jeongguk parts his lips wider. When he thinks about wanting to hear him, Jeongguk’s moan will already be rumbling in his throat. When Taehyung wants to peel their clothes away, Jeongguk is already halfway there, desperate to tear away the fabric between them. 

Desperate to please.

Unlike his usual stubbornness, Jeongguk succumbs to his touch instantly. Taehyung had noticed it early on, particularly in the way Jeongguk’s cheeks would flush at any slip of teasing possessiveness. He’s always been more than willing to leave himself in Taehyung’s hands. 

Jeongguk is selective about it, limiting it to just their relationship. He’s responsive to every touch Taehyung is willing to give. Deep down, Taehyung thinks he knows why. 

While erasing the boundaries between them is the stuff of Taehuyng’s dreams, he admits it was awkward at first. There hadn’t been many opportunities to hook up with his prior imprisonment in the Arboretum, nor was he all that interested in anyone but Jeongguk to begin with. He’s read books—lots and lots of books with illustrations that make him embarrassed just to think about, but they apparently didn’t do the real thing much justice.

That… or Jeongguk is inhumanly hot. He is technically dating a legendary phoenix, but he thinks Jeongguk would be mouthwateringly gorgeous either way. 

Even with his inexperience during their first time, their bodies had melded together so seamlessly that Taehyung barely remembers a coherent thought. There were some slip-ups here and there, moments where Jeongguk was so considerate and patient that Taehyung nearly fell apart just from his kindness, but it felt so effortless that he can’t help but wonder.

Things are still… unnaturally smooth when it comes to sex, as if they were crafted to fit each other’s needs. He has his suspicions as to why, but doesn’t think Jeongguk recognizes it. 

He isn’t sure if he ever will. 

“Have you ever thought about what this world would look like without magic?”

The question snaps Taehyung from his thoughts. He glances to his side and sees Jeongguk staring out over the landscape, his waves fluttering in the breeze. If he’s upset, his face doesn’t show it.

It’s a surprisingly heavy topic. Taehyung loves their hours-long discussions, but with the relaxed mood of their night so far, the question feels strangely out of left field. 

“I’m... not sure,” Taehyung replies, mulling it over carefully. “It’d obviously be different, neither good nor bad, but the only world I’ve ever known is with magic in it. It makes me sad to think of life without it.”

Jeongguk hums in quiet acknowledgement. Taehyung is sure he probably thinks he’s being nonchalant, but he knows him far too well not to recognize the twitch of his brow and the slight inhale of breath.

Something is bothering him.

“Sometimes…” Jeongguk murmurs, “sometimes I seriously wonder if the spirits are good for this world.” 

Taehyung’s stomach drops. “Jeongguk…”

Jeongguk huffs with a small smile, curling his wing tighter until they’re pressed together at the shoulder. “I don’t mean myself,” he reassures. “But... I can’t help but think about why witches take familiars in the first place. What is it about spirits that truly draws them to humans? What do humans want from spirits?”

Taehyung searches over his face in concern. It isn’t like him to be so somber. “Is there really much thought to it? I’d think it would be more about feeling. Magic affinity too, for the similarities in energy.”

Jeongguk is still quiet, clearly unconvinced. “Maybe.”

The prickle of anxiety in Taehyung’s chest grows. There’s something not right about Jeongguk acting reserved. The more he considers it, the more he realizes he’s slowly grown more closed off the entire week. He had thought he was just tired or relaxed, but if he’s been holding this inside the whole time...

“I’ve been thinking…” Jeongguk breathes. “Thinking a lot about— about what I wanted when I was searching for a familiar all those years. I didn’t really care about magic or usefulness. I just wanted someone to recognize my heart for what it was.”

Guilt rips through Taehyung, his hand moving to grip Jeongguk’s forearm by its own accord. He was clearly looking for his invoker without realizing it and it’s his fault for pushing him away.

“The more I come to terms with being a spirit, the more I’ve realized I’ve looked at familiars differently the whole time. Instead of having one, I am one.” He glances at Taehyung with shining eyes. “Yours, to be exact.”

“You are,” Taehyung exhales, the words still a little unbelievable. “You’re—you’re my familiar.” 

He watches Jeongguk inhale sharply at the statement before blowing out a long breath. When he finds Taehyung’s hand beneath the blanket, they’re already trembling. 

“Lately, I’ve been having… thoughts,” Jeongguk says shakily. “Weird thoughts about if— if I’m doing this right. The more time we spend together, the more I feel like…” He swallows thickly, avoiding Taehyung’s gaze. “Like I can feel what you want from me. And even though I’m primarily human, there’s this… instinct that’s started to bother me.”

Taehyung’s mind spins, hating that his suspicion had been correct. 

“I can’t stop wondering if I’m a good enough familiar,” he admits, his voice cracking. “Most of the time, I get the sense that you want me to be free. My human side understands that completely, but my spirit side…” His eyes flick to Taehyung again, glimmering at their rims. “It kind of feels like—like you don’t need me.”

Taehyung feels his heart crack in his chest. “No, Jeongguk… no, no, no, that’s not it at all—”

“I know it isn’t,” Jeongguk says, smiling weakly. “I really get it. It’s just— when we’re… physical, it satisfies both sides of me. My human half wants you, and my spirit half wants— wants to be what you need. It’s one of the only times I feel fulfilled, like I’m really yours.”

The words cut deep, but Taehyung hears the bitter truth in them. It’s something he’s tried to avoid thinking about with everything he has.

They’re beyond hiding their true feelings now. There’s no point in concealing them.

“It’s— it’s true,” he whispers, feeling miserable when Jeongguk’s sorrowful gaze widens. “It’s true that I’m afraid to treat you as my familiar. I’m terrified you’ll put my needs above your own because of your instinct as a spirit. I… I’ve never wanted to control you. Not now and not ever.”

Jeongguk takes a long breath. To Taehyung’s surprise, he locks their fingers together beneath the blanket.

“To be honest, the boyfriend in me appreciates that,” he laughs weakly. “But the spirit in me still isn’t satisfied. I’m not exactly sure how to fix it.”

Taehyung presses his lips together, running a thumb over Jeongguk’s knuckles. He doesn’t understand how to find the balance needed between them, where to draw the line between lover and invoker. Everything is a blurred mess in his head with all paths simply leading back to Jeongguk. 

He runs an exasperated hand through his hair, blinking in surprise when his fingers bump into his horns. He’s overlooked their presence a lot lately, growing more comfortable with their existence when he’s with Jeongguk.

It makes sense as to why he forgets about them now. Where he once felt shame for being a warlock, he’s only been showered with praise. Jeongguk never misses an opportunity to support him, satisfying a piece of his identity he never knew needed acknowledging. Instead of feeling like he used his power the wrong way, Jeongguk is the proof he did something right.

“They’re pretty, you know. Your horns.”

Taehyung’s heart skips at the compliment, stilling as a pertinent memory flickers through his mind. His gaze slowly travels to Jeongguk and finds him looking painfully endeared. 

Maybe… maybe the answer to all of this is simpler than he thought. 

“Jeongguk,” he says seriously, “your wings are pretty.”

Jeongguk’s brow furrows as his wings twitch. He begins to smile in his usual gentle way, but the hint of confusion on his face is slowly exchanged for a wide-eyed stare. 

Taehyung can see it as if it just happened—cradling the helpless form of young Jeongguk with half-grown, featherless wings in the porcelain bathtub. He remembers how the water stained red, how Jeongguk still thought only of Taehyung and his well-being as his own body punished him for it. 

How Jeongguk wished for his wings to be strong enough to catch him, but also for them to be pretty—beautiful enough for Taehyung to love him as he would any familiar. A form crafted to his tastes thanks to the influence of his heart. 

As his invoker, Taehyung now realizes he had forgotten the sacrifices Jeongguk made to be by his side. He’s ignored his familiar’s simple desire to be reassured—to be reminded of who he belongs to. He’s neglected his half of their deal.

Without the tether to Taehyung’s heart, the spirit in him is destined to feel lost. 

“Your wings are perfect, Guk,” he rushes out, rising to his knees to cup Jeongguk’s shaken face. “Everything about you is pretty and perfect. So, so pretty for me.” 

Jeongguk sucks in a harsh breath as Taehyung kisses over the moisture beneath his eyes, exhaling raggedly as his hands cling to Taehyung’s hips.

Just as it had been in the past, there’s still no precedent for their relationship—no guidebooks or research on what a human will feel when they’re perfectly half spirit. They can only listen to the needs of one another, taking extra time to understand the nuances of their unique pact. 

He realizes now that he’s been avoiding it out of fear. It’s time he takes responsibility, not just for providing Jeongguk with a human form, but for promising to care for the phoenix he fell in love with from the start. 

“I’m sorry,” Taehyung whispers apologetically, thumbing his few tears away. “I’d been so focused on making you comfortable as a human that I forgot to tend to the rest of you. I’ve been slacking as your invoker, haven’t I?”

Jeongguk huffs bashfully, though he still nods his head. “Don’t—don’t ask me to explain it because I can’t. All I know is that hearing I’m yours makes me calmer, like— like I have a place to go back to. I’ve been wondering if that’s how other familiars feel about their invokers.”

Every piece of Taehyung seems to melt at once. If telling Jeongguk he’s his makes him feel more fulfilled, he could say it until his lungs give out. 

“No matter what other spirits feel, I’ll always be here for you. I’ll give you whatever you need from me,” Taehyung reassures, tracing fingers down his neck. “Sometimes it’s hard to remember you’re really mine, but I promise to do a better job of showing it from now on.”

Taehyung watches carefully as Jeongguk instantly weakens at the words. It’s clear a primal part of him wants to be treasured—to be reminded of why he became a spirit in the first place. He’s always liked verbal affirmation and words of praise, both his human and spirit halves. 

Fortunately, Taehyung just so happens to like giving them. 

“Pretty, pretty baby,” Taehyung breathes, kissing every inch of his face again. He hovers over his lips, brushing them together and relishing the way Jeongguk inhales. “You belong with me, Jeonggukie. Your place is by my side.”

“Tae,” Jeongguk whines, grip tightening on his waist. He lifts his head to chase after his lips, but Taehyung only smiles as he rises to his feet, prying a hand away to pull Jeongguk upward. 

“Take me inside?” Taehyung asks softly, eyeing Jeongguk with a sparkling gaze as he thumbs over his cheek. “I wanna praise other pretty parts of you, but it’s a little cold out here for that.”

He thinks this is what Jeongguk needs right now—delicate touches and soft-spoken comforts. A physical connection that surpasses human thought. If it’s Taehyung’s needs Jeongguk seeks to satisfy, he’s more than willing to let him.

Jeongguk is wobbly on his feet as he stands, the temperature of his skin already rising. Taehyung steadies him by his arm, huffing amusedly at how easily he seems to flip-flop between the solid calm of his human mind and the instinctual inferno of his phoenix heart.

 

It’s much warmer when they’re out of the wind. Jeongguk seals the door with the curtain and a bit of magic, his wings fluttering as he turns to face Taehyung where he stands in the center of the room. Half of their faces are shadowed in the dim firelight, the tension in the air thick and heavy. 

Taehyung’s tongue darts out to lick over his lip. Jeongguk is hesitant with cheeks already flushed, his hands tugging at the hem of his shirt. He seems eager, though he doesn’t advance as Taehyung expects, standing rooted in his spot.

Reassurance, Taehyung reminds himself. Remember his desire to please. 

“Jeongguk,” he murmurs patiently, holding out a hand. “Come here, love.”

Jeongguk inhales, moving to take his hand without hesitation. There’s a tick of relief in his motions, a subtle ease at being instructed as his feet soundlessly traverse over the carpet.

Taehyung thinks he can work with that. He’s confident in his ability to take care of his body—to placate his desires. It’s one of the only parts of himself he’s never questioned.

“Want me to make you mine, baby?” he asks, breath warming over Jeongguk’s cheek as he noses over his jaw. He draws him in by the waist, pulling him closer until their bodies are flushed together. “Gonna be good for me?”

A shaky breath slips from Jeongguk when Taehyung’s hands travel under his shirt. His pupils are already blown, his gaze darkened with a lidded look that makes Taehyung’s stomach flip with want. 

There’s always been a scent to him, airy and exhilarating like an open blue sky. Taehyung is overwhelmed by it, desperate to swim amongst its clouds. He’s not sure touching every inch of Jeongguk’s bare skin helps, but he does it anyway since they both can’t seem to get enough of it. 

“Turn,” he instructs, his voice low and deep. 

Jeongguk flushes as Taehyung gives him a bit of space, slowly turning in his hold until his wings are before him. 

In the few months they’ve experimented, Taehyung’s favorite discovery has been the sensitivity of Jeongguk’s delicate wings. They’re a bit more tolerant to touch from the outside, but at their base and inner feathers, they’re tender enough to have him falling apart in seconds. 

He trails through them teasingly, starting at their middles and dragging his fingertips toward the dip of Jeongguk’s muscled back. Their softness and luster are clearly not of this world, so luxurious that even Taehyung feels heat spark in his gut just from the privilege of touching them. He loves to burrow his hands through the many layers, biting his lip through his smirk when Jeongguk trembles with anticipation. 

He can’t imagine how it must feel to Jeongguk, but he can certainly hear it, particularly when he reaches the base of his spine. 

“Oh,” Jeongguk gasps, his wings going rigid of their own accord when Taehyung scrapes over the sensitive middle. They flare out as if to make room for him to get closer, fulfilling Taehyung’s desires before he can even register the thought. 

He wraps his arms around Jeongguk’s narrow waist, hooking over his shoulder and pressing lips to his racing pulse. He loves the way Jeongguk angles away, loves the pretty line of his jaw as he throws his head back. Loves how he can see his chest rise and fall so clearly from this angle, how his nails prickle over his abs and slip beneath the waistband of his pants.

“Let’s get this off,” Taehyung suggests, tugging playfully at the material of Jeongguk’s skin-tight shirt. Jeongguk is quick to obey, dispersing his wings momentarily to pull it over his head before reappearing them in an instant. There’s a sharp stab of complex magic in the air as they materialize, an impressive display that shocks Taehyung every time he sees it. 

“Hot,” Taehyung snorts, tugging on his waist until he turns again. The sheer amount of magic locked away in Jeongguk’s lithe, flawless body is heavenly. Maybe it makes him shallow, but Jeongguk’s power is sickeningly appealing.

It’s as if he watches Jeongguk come undone before his eyes. Their mouths meet just as Taehyung cups his jaw and slides fingers into the hair at his nape. He likes to take his time with him, letting Jeongguk slowly submerge himself in the thickening air of arousal until it nearly drips from him. Likes their lips to be bitten raw before they’re even fully undressed.

“Taehyungie,” he whines, breaths broken and wanting. He tugs on Taehyung’s shirt, eliciting a cocky smile as Taehyung peels off the sweater he wears. Jeongguk may enjoy being coddled but he certainly doesn’t act helpless, sighing into his mouth in relief as he runs his hands over Taehyung’s bare chest. 

“Needy,” Taehyung hums amusedly, one hand lifting to thread through the smallest, softest feathers just above his shoulders. Jeongguk’s entire body jerks from the sensation, his loud groan muffled into Taehyung’s shoulder when he rests his head against it. 

“G-Good,” Jeongguk huffs, “feels good.” 

“Does it?” Taehyung asks softly, rubbing circles into the feathered muscle. Jeongguk’s wings are warm and solid, twitching and curling beneath his touch. “They’re so pretty, you know. Just like you are.” 

The flush Jeongguk wears is pretty too, Taehyung thinks, even more beautiful as it blossoms over his neck and dusts the tips of his ears. Taehyung sucks marks into his neck that slowly fade, his hand leaving his wing to slip down in the little space between them. 

He parts two ringed fingers to trail over the hardness in Jeongguk’s pants, smirking when Jeongguk automatically lifts his hips in a desperate grind. 

“Fuck.” His sharpened nails dig into any part of Taehyung they can grab hold of. He opts to hook his arms around Taehyung’s neck, caught between grinding into his hand and going tense from the stimulation.

Ever since they began to explore each other’s bodies, Taehyung’s also learned how much he adores the sound of filth on Jeongguk’s perfect lips. He likes to taste it—addicted to the bite of his curses and the way his mouth moves to form them when they’re breathed into his kiss. 

There’s a whine that brings a smile to Taehyung’s face as he pulls away, careful to remain steady as Jeongguk grips onto his arms with shaking knees. 

“Let’s get more comfortable.”

Taehyung guides Jeongguk to his bed, lifting away the sheer canopy before letting it flutter shut behind them. Jeongguk lays back with his wings splayed behind him, their tips glowing with a subtle violet that also just barely shines in his eyes.

The light is dimmer here, dully reflecting off the silky grey sheets and the onyx comforter that’s thrown to the side. It highlights Jeongguk’s smooth plane of skin, dancing over the inked lotus on his chest and his revealed legs as Taehyung undoes his pants and gently slides them off. Jeongguk is more than compliant, his cloudy eyes locked to the tender way Taehyung handles him. 

Taehyung cusses quietly when Jeongguk’s cock springs into view, his own twitching in his pants at the sight. Jeongguk is already painfully hard, flushed and leaking at the tip. His fingers grip the loose sheets as if he resists the urge to touch without permission. 

Usually, Taehyung gives himself a moment to rake his stare over the art that’s Jeongguk’s chiseled body, but there’s a tug in his heart today that feels different than before. He wonders if it’s the pact or just the tension between them that’s ready to snap, but he doesn’t have a coherent moment to dwell on it, not when Jeongguk’s rutting upwards already.

“Fuck, Guk,” he groans, quickly shedding the remainder of his clothes. “You’re always so gorgeous laid out like this for me.”

“Want— want you,” Jeongguk exhales in response. “Hurry.” 

Taehyung smirks, palming over his thighs and sliding up to the indent of his hips. “I’m not planning to rush this, love,” he murmurs, bending down to kiss over his abdomen, but he feels like it's a lie. He’s never had such a desperate flutter in his chest before—never wanted to soothe and devour Jeongguk so much at once. The feeling makes him dizzy, his hands moving of their own accord.

There’s a tinge of heated spirit energy in the air as Taehyung trails wet kisses over every untouched part of him, taking extra care to hover over the lotus on his chest and trace it with his fingertips. He thinks the lingering magic might be the tether between them, but if it makes him feel like this, he doesn’t plan to fight it.

He can’t help but grin when Jeongguk gasps and grinds upward at the feel of his teeth, nipping and sucking at the skin of his chest before flitting his tongue over his hard nipples. Jeongguk’s back arches off the bed, his hands immediately flying to Taehyung’s hair to grip it from the back.

Taehyung loves the tiny sparks of pain when he tugs, moaning into Jeongguk’s chest before traveling up to slot their open mouths together. It’s messy and slick without any of the earlier teasing grace, tongues tangling and lips sliding before catching between Taehyung’s teeth. Jeongguk lifts his hips again, his damp cock leaking onto his stomach as his arms wrap around his head. 

“So eager,” Taehyung murmurs, pressing their damp foreheads together. “My needy Jeonggukie.”

He’s answered by a rush of breath as he slips a hand up his side. Jeongguk’s pulse races so hard, he can feel it in his ribs. 

“Yours,” Jeongguk breathes, the crack of his voice taking Taehyung by surprise. There’s a glimmer to his eye that makes his heart lurch. “Wanna make you happy, Tae. Wanna make you feel good. It’s—it’s all I can think about, please hurry—”

Taehyung’s lips part at the desperation in his tone. He feels the same tug again in his heart, his eyes flicking over Jeongguk’s flushed face. It feels like another side of him, frantic and hot. Uncontrolled.

“Okay. Alright,” he soothes, cupping his cheek to kiss him tenderly. Jeongguk’s lips part around it, puffing a pathetic blow of air. “Do you have…?”

Jeongguk directs him to the nightstand beside the bed. Taehyung doesn’t hesitate to rifle through it before he finds a small vial. He uncaps it, pouring a generous amount over his fingertips and smearing them together to warm it. Jeongguk watches with a ravenous expression as it drips down to his knuckles.

The first night they slept together, Taehyung hadn’t been confident about working Jeongguk open or handling himself gracefully. It was a little silly, but Jeongguk had guided him with all the patience in the world, vocalizing what he liked and moaning around what he loved. Even then, he’d been willing and pliant, craving Taehyung’s touch with a hunger that might be a little inhuman.

Tonight, it seems to have surpassed human thought and lingers somewhere around animalistic instinct.

Taehyung doesn’t hesitate to part his thighs, kissing along his bent knees and any of his body within reach as he pads around his hole. For someone worked into a mess, Jeongguk is shockingly relaxed when he gradually presses a finger in, his eyelids fluttering and his muscles contracting as he clenches around Taehyung. 

“Always so good for me,” Taehyung praises, gentle and slow in the way he knows Jeongguk likes. He waits for the telltale signs of his comfort—Jeongguk’s teeth sinking into his lip and the curl of his toes, the tiniest movement of his hips rising before pushing wider and deeper. 

The sight of him like this is hot, so fucking hot that Taehyung wonders if he’s human himself.

Everything about him is stunning, from the gloss of spit on his lips to the wings of darkness splayed behind him. Taehyung’s mouth waters at the view of Jeongguk’s cock against his belly, his own need surging and growing until he feels painfully hard, resisting the maddening urge to stroke himself. When Jeongguk’s legs begin to spread in eagerness, opening up and spreading, Taehyung obliges without hesitation.

“More, Tae,” he cries softly, “please, more—”

His words break off into a moan when Taehyung finds his prostate. He grinds back with such reckless abandon that his muscles shudder and shake, the words on his lips incoherent. 

“Feel good, love?” Taehyung grins, quickening his pace just enough for Jeongguk to lean forward with a gasp, his eyes widening before squeezing shut. He clenches around his fingers so tight that Taehyung’s cock twitches just at the feeling, electrified with anticipation. 

“Too good,” Jeongguk chokes out, “too much. Tae—”

Taehyung huffs fondly, gently slowing before pulling his fingers free. He teases circles around his sensitive hole, kissing his inner thigh and letting him catch his breath before climbing up over him to bring their lips together again. 

Jeongguk is positively panting now, red in the face and touching Taehyung anywhere he can reach. He reaches for his hair, his chest, his waist—tugging him closer and groaning into his mouth until Taehyung starts to feel his own haze wash over him. 

It’s odd. Taehyung remembers the feeling of forming his pact with Jeongguk, and he thinks it might have looked like this—staring into his eyes but seeing an endless drop into an abyss. There’s a weightless sensation and a growing heat, a tidal wave of fire looming over them both. He pulls back just to meet Jeongguk’s eyes and finds them blown out, tinged with ancient magic and a lust so powerful he can barely breathe.

Jeongguk seems to sense the change. He reaches up with trembling hands to gently cup his cheeks. 

“I—I chose this form, Tae,” he exhales shakily, slow to form his words. “And you’ve given me all the freedom in the world because of it. But this— this body was still made from your heart—made for you, just like I wanted it. If you ask it of me, I’ll give you everything.”

The weight that falls over Taehyung is staggering. He knew having a human familiar would change things between them, but he didn’t think it’d incense their intimacy beyond human thought. His whole existence feels centered around Jeongguk, the rawest and purest their connection has ever been. 

Spirit or human, Taehyung finds he no longer cares. Jeongguk is everything he wants—everything he needs.

“You’ve already given me so much, Jeongguk,” he murmurs, sliding down to grip his thighs and gently pry them apart. “But I’ll accept it all from now on. As long as you let me return it.”

Jeongguk’s eyes are alight with anticipation as they flick over him. He nods, throat bobbing as Taehyung slides him a little closer by his waist. His palms slip beneath his legs to hold them upward until his knees are bent over his chest. 

Taehyung’s cock is heavy in his hand. He strokes it once and sucks in a rush of air, more sensitive than he’s ever been. He thinks he grips Jeongguk’s thigh harder than he intends when he drags it over his hole, pushing in with agonizing slowness. 

He’s tight, so tight that Taehyung is sure he sees stars. Although the tightened coil in his gut begs him to move, he hesitates at Jeongguk’s gasp. He deepens only when he’s asked, Jeongguk’s puffed breaths gradually becoming pleas for m