Donghyuck leaned back deeper into the dewy grass on the side of the hill, letting the warm spring breeze waft the fragrance of new flowers and fresh soil enticingly around him. His sensitive nose picked up the faint scent of wild bergamot, and he made a mental note to tell his uncle; Taeyong would appreciate the rare gift. The wind gusted again, sending Donghyuck‘s soft brown hair floating gently around his face. As much as he would love to let himself succumb to the stirrings of sleepiness that the warm air tempted of him, there was no more time for lazing around.
Today was the day.
His nineteenth birthday, to be exact: the most important day in the life of a young witch.
Donghyuck sat up in the grass, switching off his dad’s old transistor radio that had been piping in the faint, tinny sounds of a news report he hadn’t fully been paying attention to. The reporter was saying something about a storm, but Donghyuck was a witch – what was some rain and thunder, when he had the power of magic at his fingertips? (Well, not quite – no witch he knew had powers that strong, not even Taeyong, but still). He stretched out his arms above his head, squeaking out a yawn as he looked around for Jeno. His cat usually never strayed too far, except for that one time when he followed the scent of gingerbread all the way to the next town over. Scanning the tall grass, he finally saw the telltale stripe of black sticking up through a patch of wildflowers – Jeno was curled up, his small body forming a perfect donut shape as he snoozed quietly, his small breaths stirring up a flower petal that had landed on his little pink nose.
Donghyuck stood fully and slid the strap of his radio around his wrist, excitement pooling in his gut.
“Jeno,” he cooed, walking over to the cat. Jeno remained where he was in the grass, his only movement a reflexive flick of the tail.
“Jeno,” Donghyuck tried again, his tone getting dangerous. “If you keep pretending to sleep, I’m going to leave without you, and you’ll be stuck as Taeyong’s potion tase-tester for the rest of your life. Is that what you want?”
As soon as Donghyuck mentioned his uncle’s name, Jeno’s eyes flicked open and he sat up, licking at his nose innocently.
“I’m up, I’m up,” he purred, barely masking his annoyance, before hopping up into Donghyuck’s outstretched arms and crawling over to his usual spot on the witch’s shoulder, his claws digging in slightly deeper than normal.
“Good kitty,” Donghyuck said mockingly, which earned him a sharp nip on the ear. Jeno now safely on his shoulder, Donghyuck climbed back up the hill over to the dirt road that wound its way through the forest, towards the small town he called home.
By the time he made it to the front gate of his uncle’s grand, old farmhouse, he was practically skipping. In the quaint town square, people were already busy setting up the lanterns for the night’s ceremony. He spotted a few younger witches nearby, excitedly testing their training brooms by taking turns jumping off the bench in front of the flower shop. They waved when they saw him, and he waved back, chest puffing up from the pride of being the only witch old enough – and qualified enough – to be leaving on his journey this year.
When he stepped inside, Taeyong was nowhere to be found in any of the main rooms of the house. Donghyuck heard the familiar whistling of a kettle and followed it knowingly into the kitchen. Taeyong wasn’t here either, but the door of the adjoining greenhouse was slightly ajar. Donghyuck turned off the kettle and filled a cup with his uncle’s favorite combination of crushed rose petals and sage, poured the steaming water over it, then carried the cup gingerly out into the greenhouse.
As expected, Donghyuck found Taeyong hunched over his old workbench, where he was stirring a large, pewter cauldron that kept coughing an evil-looking green smoke into his face. Taeyong seemed unperturbed by the smoke, though; instead, he was staring intently into the depths of his cauldron and barely even blinked when the rancid gas puffed into his face.
Donghyuck made his way deeper into the muggy greenhouse, carefully ducking out of the way of a tangle of spiky purple vines growing from the ceiling. Taeyong turned around and smiled when he saw his nephew. His smile grew wider when he saw the cup of tea in Donghyuck’s hand. Taeyong covered the pot with a wooden lid and took the cup gratefully when Donghyuck handed it to him.
“For me?” he said, sniffing deeply from the glass mug, where the flower petals and herbs swirled enticingly around the bottom. He took a long gulp of the steaming hot liquid, the beads in his hair rattling as he tilted his head back. He let out a deep, satisfied “ah,” then held the cup out to Donghyuck.
“You should have some. It helps with nerves.”
Donghyuck shook his head firmly. “Uncle, for the last time, I’m not nervous.” Taeyong patted his arm knowingly.
“Yes, darling, of course not.” Taeyong turned his angular face to Jeno. “What about you, little one? Aren’t you nervous, putting your life in the hands of your reckless friend here? And you won’t even have me around to feed you.” At this, Jeno hissed at Taeyong, baring his tiny fangs, and scrunching his eyes into upside-down crescent moon shapes that he probably intended to look intimidating but only ended up looking adorable. Taeyong chuckled. “Point taken.”
He turned to face Donghyuck again. “Are you all ready for the ceremony? I went into your room earlier, and you weren’t even packed yet. The full moon rises in less than five hours – I don’t want you to be scrambling at the last minute.”
Donghyuck rolled his eyes at his uncle, turning on his heel. “I’ll be ready, Uncle. Don’t worry about me.” He walked away and stalked out of the greenhouse, starting to feel lightheaded from how humid Taeyong always kept it. He snuck a glance at Taeyong before he entered the kitchen; his uncle was frowning after him, his face a cloudy mix of worry and tenderness. That was just like his uncle, to overthink everything. Donghyuck was more than capable of taking care of himself; he was nineteen, not a child anymore, and although he still got himself into more trouble than it was worth, he was always able to get himself out of it. So no, he was not nervous. Not even a little. Then, almost like his cat could read his mind, Jeno let out an amused little purr.
“What?” Donghyuck snapped as he walked through the kitchen.
“Nothing,” Jeno said innocently. Stupid cat. Donghyuck stomped up the stairs the second floor, but his annoyance soon faded when he entered his room and saw his broomstick leaning against the far wall. He had spent the whole month preparing it: searching through the forest for the perfectly sized ash tree, cutting it down himself and whittling away at the wood until it was smooth and glossy to the touch. He had hand-selected every piece of straw that would become its bristles, then spent an entire week assembling it with horsehair twine until he had made it into the best broomstick he had ever seen (even Jeno had admitted that it was nice).
Donghyuck couldn’t help the giddiness that bloomed in his chest and sent his heart racing. Tonight was the night. He slid the radio off his wrist and turned the dial to a channel blaring cheery music, then he hopped around his room, messily tossing belongings in his canvas messenger bag. He wouldn’t need much; wherever he ended up, he was sure that he would be able to hustle and haggle for whatever he needed. Just to be safe, though, he jammed a few crumpled bills into a sock at tucked the whole thing into the bottom of his bag. Jeno sat on his usual spot on the windowsill, watching Donghyuck pack with studied disinterest.
“Do you think I need these?” Donghyuck mused aloud, holding up two large spell books, not really expecting an answer from Jeno (and, as expected, Jeno ignored him). “Nah, I’m sure I’ll be fine without them. I have it all memorized, anyway.” He tossed the books aside and zipped up the canvas bag, satisfied that he had everything he needed. “Oh!” he exclaimed, suddenly remembering the most important thing.
He walked over to the full-length mirror and inspected his appearance. In the past year, he had shot up in height (Taeyong credited this to the new recipe of meat pies he had developed; Donghyuck wasn’t so sure) and lost all the baby fat in his face. He looked appraisingly at the high cheekbones the framed his tanned face and the feline eyes that looked back at him. He had been letting his hair grow out, and now it sat in a shaggy mane around his face, a light, ashy brown highlighted with subtle streaks of green.
He frowned down at the reflection of his outfit: the grass-stained jeans and worn corduroy jacket would hardly be suitable for the occasion. He looked through his closet and pulled out a pair of fitted black plants, black tee, and fashionable leather boots. While black was the traditional color for witches like him, Donghyuck just felt that it would be too predictable to show up in all black, as would be expected of him. His eyes caught on a flash of color in the back of his closet, and he smiled. Perfect. He dug through the rack of robes to pull out his dad’s old jacket, made of a rich, purple leather. It wasn’t a gaudy, artificial purple, but rather a deep, midnight color that seemed to refract the light that hit it. Donghyuck had never worn the jacket himself, although he had pulled it out to admire it many times. When he slipped it over his shoulders, though, it fit like it was made for him. He walked back over to the mirror and admired the way the jacket hugged his body. He felt powerful, almost like the jacket itself was strengthening his magic.
“You look like your dad,” Jeno mused from his spot on the windowsill. Donghyuck looked up at the cat in surprise, then back at his reflection. Donghyuck only had vague memories of his father, and most of his images of his appearance came from the faded photographs on the walls of Taeyong’s living room. When he looked at his reflection, though, he could almost imagine his father standing there in his shoes, looking appraisingly back at him.
He suppressed a surge of emotion, then turned away from the mirror, ignoring Jeno’s comment. “I’m hungry. Let’s go see if Uncle has any leftovers from lunch.” Jeno purred with a specific frequency that Donghyuck recognized as hunger, then leapt off the window and padded behind Donghyuck as they made their way back downstairs to the kitchen.
Taeyong had come back inside from the greenhouse and was now stirring a friendlier-smelling pot of something over the wood-burning stove. As Donghyuck entered, he turned and said, “I thought you might be hungry before the ceremony, so I’m heating up some …” He trailed off as his eyes wandered down to Donghyuck’s outfit. “What are you wearing?” he asked, voice growing stern. “You know it’s tradition for witches to wear black for the ceremony.” Donghyuck spun around, holding out his arms to show his uncle.
“I know, but don’t I look cool? And this is dad’s jacket.”
Taeyong sighed, giving Donghyuck another once-over. “I know.” Donghyuck sometimes forgot that his dad was Taeyong’s brother, too, and Taeyong went through the same grief as he did. Taeyong didn’t press him further, though, as much as Donghyuck had expected him to. Taeyong was no stranger to Donghyuck’s antics, and probably knew better than anyone than to try to talk him out of wearing what he wanted to the ceremony. Sure, the townspeople – especially the older witches – would gossip, but let them talk. Donghyuck would be out of this tiny town by midnight, anyway, so why not make a splash?
He helped himself to a bowl of stew (and prepared a small dish for Jeno, who would try to steal Donghyuck’s food if he didn’t get his own portion) then paced around the house for the next few hours, waiting impatiently for nightfall.
Finally, after what felt like an eternity, Taeyong materialized in the doorway of his bedroom, wearing his own black robes. “It’s time,” he said, smiling at Donghyuck wistfully. Donghyuck leapt up from where he had been lounging off his bed, distractedly flipping through a book, then grabbed his bag and his broomstick. He followed Taeyong down the stairs and out into the night. He gave one last look at the house that had been his home for the last ten years, then turned and walked down the front steps to the town square.
Although it was night, the town was practically glowing, illuminated by the light of the full moon and the colorful lanterns strung through the trees. Fireflies floated through the low grass, and the familiar sound of crickets calmed Donghyuck’s racing heart somewhat. The villagers, both witch and non-witch alike, all milled around the small park, the excitement palpable in the air. As Donghyuck walked through the crowd to the center of the square where Taeyong was waiting, they turned to look at him and started chattering. A few of his friends clapped him on the back and called out words of encouragement. His head was buzzing from a heady mix of excitement and (yes, he could admit it now) nerves. He knew Jeno felt it too, as his cat kept flicking his tail anxiously from side to side, his ears flat against his head.
He approached Taeyong and dropped his bag and broomstick on the ground. His uncle was beaming down at him with a look of such intense pride in his eyes that it almost hurt to look at him. He leaned close so only Donghyuck could hear and whispered, “I would wish you good luck, but I know you won’t need it.” Taeyong smiled again, then straightened up to address the crowd. While he was normally a gentle man, kind, unassuming, and a bit quirky, he was also able to summon an air of gravitas that made everyone around him stop and stand enraptured to whatever he was saying. Donghyuck had once suspected that this was one of his powers – some kind of attention spell – but no, it was just Taeyong’s duality, which made him so well-suited to being the village’s head witch.
“It’s time,” Taeyong said, barely raising his voice above his normal speaking volume. The whole crowd grew silent and turned towards them, casting excited glances at Donghyuck. Donghyuck’s stomach flipped. He realized that his hands were shaking when he picked his broomstick off the ground. He slung the buckle of his bag across his chest and looped the strap of the transistor radio around the broomstick handle. Jeno hopped off his shoulder and settled into the bag, with only his head peeking out. A strong wind had started to pick up, and Donghyuck reflexively hugged his jacket closer to him. The leather, despite its age and wear, was warm, and protected him well from the growing chill. Taeyong nodded at him, and Donghyuck nodded back with a grateful smile.
He swung his leg over the broomstick and held it in place with his hands. He felt the surge of magic run from the smooth, cold wood of the handle, through his hands and up his body, until his hair was floating in a halo around his head. He cast one final glance at his uncle, gave him a cocky wave; then, when he heard the chime of bells rustling in the trees behind him, pushed hard off the ground and flew up into the air, aloft on the wind.
The crowd below him cheered but he hardly noticed it, his heart pounding and his ears buzzing from the adrenaline. His broomstick flew smooth and steady and was so responsive to Donghyuck’s touch that it seemed to know where he wanted it to turn before he even pulled on the handle. He flew in a few circles high above the town square, whooping with excitement. The cold wind swallowed his voice, but he didn’t care. No amount of test flights could prepare him for the feeling of complete and total freedom he felt at this moment. The world was his oyster; he could go anywhere, be anyone, with no one to stop him or tell him where to go or what to do. He pulled the broom higher and higher, and the town quickly disappeared into the dark countryside below, just another twinkling spot on an expansive landscape that seemed to stretch on for eternity in every direction.
Donghyuck had been studying the map of the country for as long as he could fly. He changed his mind almost every week about where he wanted to go on the journey that would mark the final stretch of his witch training. Taeyong had wanted him to stay nearby, in the valley, so he could come home if he ever wanted. But Donghyuck had bigger dreams, bigger than the scope of what could be contained in their quaint little valley.
Grinning widely, face pink from the cold air, he looked around in the dark sky for the north star. Although a grey veil of clouds had rolled in, borne by the nor’easter winds, he could still locate the bright star. He pulled the tip of the broomstick to follow the beacon in the sky, then leaned forward, urging it faster. When the broom was moving at a decent clip, Donghyuck finally let himself breathe, his heartbeat slowly returning to normal.
He craned his head over his shoulder to peer behind him.
After a few seconds, the cat warily peaked his little black head through the opening at the top of the bag. His ears were still flat against his head and his fur stood on end. The poor thing was deathly afraid of heights.
“Jeno, you’ll catch a cat cold back there. Come up front with me, it’s warmer in my jacket.”
Jeno hissed anxiously, then climbed carefully out of the bag, slinking quickly over Donghyuck’s shoulder then slipping into the inner pocket of the jacket. “See? Much better,” Donghyuck said, patting the warm lump where Jeno was now curled up against his chest. He felt the soft vibrations of Jeno purring against him.
Jeno had moved just in time, as a powerful gale of wind suddenly blew up from below and caught Donghyuck off-guard, sending the broomstick spinning at a dangerous angle. Heart pounding, Donghyuck gripped the broom handle and used all his strength to pull himself upright. Luckily, the wind passed quickly, but Donghyuck eyed the sky warily. He thought back to the weather report and wished he had paid more attention to the newscaster’s report about the storm, but it was too late now. All he could do would be to fly for as long as possible until he spotted the landmark that he was scanning the ground for. That wouldn’t be for another few hours at least, if his calculations had been correct, so he settled in for the ride, still gripping the broom handle so hard that his knuckles were white.
As this was the last full moon of the spring, Donghyuck kept his eyes peeled for other witches that might have left on their journeys on the same night as him. The full moon would normally have made it easier to spot them, but the clouds had grown dense and heavy and blocked out almost all the light from the moon. Donghyuck closed his eyes, took a deep breath, muttered an incantation, and snapped: suddenly, a spark of purple light materialized at the tips of his fingers, about the size of an apple. He blew on it and the glowing light drifted out towards the very front of the broomstick, illuminating the foggy air in front of him.
Avoiding yet another gust of wind, Donghyuck steered the broomstick carefully around a strong current and away from a huge wall of black clouds that were slowly growing to his left. Although this wasn’t part of his original flight plan, he ended up in a calmer part of the sky that allowed him to take his hands off the broom handle for a few minutes and shake them around until he got the feeling back into his numb fingers.
After about an hour in the sky, still following the direction he was pretty sure was north, Donghyuck spotted a faintly glowing light in the distance a few miles ahead of him. Grinning, he urged his broom forward until the shape of a figure on a broomstick emerged from the dark sky. He pulled up next to the other witch and called out a greeting.
Instead of a magic light, like Donghyuck, the other boy had an antique-looking lantern that dangled from his broom handle by a ribbon, which illuminated his face in a warm glow. The boy was slender, with delicate features and a sweep of pink hair. He wore a long black overcoat that almost swallowed up his slight frame, and he sat perched on his broomstick with an air of elegance and poise that seemed to be far beyond his years. Doyoung noticed that his broomstick seemed to be made of a rich, deep brown wood that looked suspiciously like mahogany.
The boy turned to face Donghyuck upon hearing his greeting. The boy’s gaze flicked over Donghyuck’s face, down to his purple jacket, then back up to his face.
“Hello,” the boy said, a cold smile gracing his lips.
“Hey,” Donghyuck said. “I’m Donghyuck. Where are you headed on this lovely evening?”
“I’m Renjun,” the boy replied, his voice so high and delicate that it almost got drowned out by the sound of the wind rushing past them. “I’m going to the next valley over, to the governor’s private estate. I was specially requested. You?”
“The coast,” Donghyuck answered, silently glad that this boy – Renjun, apparently – wasn’t going the same place as he was. “What’s your specialty?”
Although Renjun looked like the last thing on Earth he wanted to be doing was continuing this conversation, he replied, “charms, music, and healing magic.”
“That’s three specialties!” Donghyuck exclaimed, genuinely impressed despite his growing distaste for this other witch.
“Yes, well, I’m something of a prodigy in my village,” Renjun responded, looking smug. “I’m actually only seventeen, but the head witch decided that my talents were too good to waste in our provincial little town for two more years.”
“Well, that’s just great, isn’t it,” Donghyuck responded, barely suppressing a sneer. What a self-important little piece of …
“What about you, what’s your specialty?” Renjun asked, although he seemed like he was asking more out of courtesy than any kind of genuine interest. Well, Donghyuck was a free man, and he was under no obligation to talk to pompous losers like this for longer than necessary.
“Curses,” he said, baring his teeth and hissing at Renjun. The other boy startled, looking genuinely shocked for a moment before regaining his composure and frowning at Donghyuck, seeing through his obvious lie.
“That’s not funny,” he said, his haughtiness returning. “What is it, really?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Donghyuck said, knowing full well it made him sound like a bratty child, then sped up ahead of Renjun, laughing into the night. He could almost feel Renjun’s scoff from here. He heard Jeno’s voice muffled from inside his jacket and peered inside. “Got something to say, Jen-Jen?”
Jeno yawned, raising tilting up his head to face Donghyuck. “I said, what a prick.”
Donghyuck gave a surprised chuckle. “For once, we agree on something.”
Jeno mewled, then burrowed back into the inner lining of the leather jacket, kneading his paws on Donghyuck’s chest before falling back asleep. They flew on into the night, with Donghyuck looking for the telltale string of lights lining the endless black stretch of the sea that should mark the coastline. Yet as the night stretched on, the dense fog grew even deeper, and even when Donghyuck lowered his altitude, he couldn’t seem to escape from the mass of clouds that was quickly building around him. The air smelled threateningly of rain and something else, acrid and electric. Static electricity sparked through Donghyuck’s hair and crackled in the air around him. He zipped his jacket all the way up to his neck and slid the radio off the broomstick handle, securing it in a waterproof pocket of his bag.
In hindsight, he should have cut his losses and flew down to the ground to seek shelter, perhaps in a barn or an inn, if he were lucky enough to find one. But he was too focused on his destination, too certain that he could beat the coming storm, that he pushed on, ignoring the bone-shaking rumblings of thunder that didn’t seem to come from any one direction, but rather from the air itself.
With a sudden blinding flash of light and an ear-splitting crack of thunder, during which Donghyuck felt his heart stop beating for a moment, the rain finally began to fall, its potential energy seemingly released all at once as it fell in sheets from all directions, a cold wind blowing the droplets into Donghyuck’s face and slicing at the exposed skin on his hands and neck. “Fuck,” he cursed loudly to himself, voice swallowed up by a clap of thunder. He tried to keep the broomstick upright, but the wood was slick and cold with rain, and the wind was too strong. As his concentration broke, the glowing orb of purple light flickered then vanished, leaving Donghyuck to squint his eyes in vain into the raging black storm around him, trying to orient himself. He suddenly felt incredibly tiny, like a fly in the giant, heartless soup of nature around him.
A spidering vein of lightning flashed in front of him, illuminating the seemingly impenetrable wall of swirling clouds around him. Another bolt of lightning flashed, and Donghyuck searched desperately for a break in the clouds, anywhere he could go to escape the dangerous electrical storm. On his wooden broomstick, with the metal of the radio and the studs in his boots and jacket, he was practically a flying lightning rod. Finally, he spotted it – a tiny opening in the rainclouds, a dark sliver barely visible between two clouds below him.
“Hold on!” he shouted, partly to Jeno and partly to himself, then summoned all the energy he had and wrenched the broom handle until it was pointing down, then urged the broom as fast as it could go towards the opening before it would get swallowed up by the storm around it. He was buffeted by the angry winds but kept his course; he may have been shouting, or maybe he was just opening his mouth and letting the frigid, crackling air fill his throat and lungs. He was no longer Donghyuck, just a human-shaped lump of frozen flesh, propelled by adrenaline and the primal, indefatigable instinct of self-preservation.
The opening in the cloud cover was narrower than it looked, or maybe it had already started closing by the time Donghyuck nearly reached it. But it was his only option, so he pressed on, hardly noticing the chattering of his teeth and the rattling of his skull as yet another clap of thunder shook the air around him. He was already soaked to the bone, so he didn’t even bother trying to maneuver perfectly through the two clouds as he passed down through them. For a minute, he was completely blinded by the cloud that swelled around him, freezing particles of condensation clinging to his skin, unsure if he was even still going towards the ground; for all he knew, he could have been flying upside-down.
Finally, after what felt like an eternity, he broke through the dense clouds. It was still raining in this part of the sky, but not so hard that he couldn’t see the ground below him. Shivering violently, he finally caught his breath and took stock of his surroundings. He had no idea where he was, but he saw a string of lights moving on the ground below him. He tightened his grip on the broom (if he tightened it any more, he would have shattered the wood) and followed the lights out of pure, blind desperation.
As he lost altitude, the landscape below him started to come into focus, although it was still dark and hazy, a wet tapestry of fields and roads. As the string of lights got closer, Donghyuck realized why the lights were moving – they were attached to the top of a train, which chugged along a railroad track between the hills of the valley below him. Pulling up above the train, he saw that it didn’t seem to be a passenger train, as there were no windows in any of the cars. He flew above the length of the train until he saw a dark square in the top of one of the cars – a hatch, somehow still open despite the rain – and alighted carefully on the slippery metal roof. He stumbled off the broomstick with wobbly legs and jumped into the opening, not caring what would be inside. Luckily, he landed with a thud on a bale of wet hay that softened his fall. Grunting from exertion, he slammed the hatch door shut and was plunged into the darkness of the car, the howl of the storm suddenly muffled by the thick metal walls of the train. Before he could lose the willpower, he sparked a small light on his fingertips and sent it to hover just above his head, illuminating the car in a faint, purple glow. He couldn’t muster up enough energy to make it any larger than the size of a pea.
He flopped back down on the hay, breathing heavily. He was completely soaked and his all his muscles were shaking, but he couldn’t help the goofy smile that spread across his face. After ten minutes of just laying there, catching his breath, he sat up and unzipped his jacket. Jeno jumped out immediately, shaking his fur and yowling angrily.
“Oh, don’t be such a baby,” Donghyuck said to the cat as he peeled off all his wet clothes and laid them out around him. “It’s just a little rain.”
“Just a little rain!” Jeno purred incredulously before stalking off into a dark corner of the train car and licking himself dry. Donghyuck chuckled to himself. If Jeno could still muster up the energy to make sarcastic remarks, then Donghyuck knew that the cat would be just fine. He laid back again on the prickly hay, a wave of utter exhaustion hitting him like a ton of bricks. He closed his eyes and fell asleep almost immediately, lulled by the dull thrum of rain on the metal surface above him.
Donghyuck was startled awake by a weird, slimy feeling at the bottom of his left foot. Without opening his eyes, he kicked out blindly and felt his foot graze something small and fuzzy. He sat up groggily, blinking into the dim space around him. It took a second before he remembered where he was – the train car. He looked down at his foot and saw Jeno glaring at him, his green eyes gleaming.
“You almost kicked me,” Jeno said.
Donghyuck snorted. “You licked my foot.” Jeno turned up his little pink nose.
“It was the only way I could think of to wake you up. I’ve been up for hours now, and I’m getting hungry,” the cat purred. “I tried eating the hay, but it is suitably disgusting.” Donghyuck ignored the cat now, letting out a hoarse yawn and smacking his mouth. He patted around for his clothes; luckily, they were mostly dry – nothing that a few hours in the sun couldn’t finish. He got dressed quickly, pulling sharp strands of hay out of his hair and from between his toes. He gathered his canvas bag and patted it, calling Jeno over. Jeno, despite his attitude, padded over and hopped in with no further comment. Donghyuck checked his broom – it didn’t seem to have been damaged in the storm – and climbed up a tall hay bale to the hatch in the roof of the car. He shoved it open and was met with a blinding wall of sunlight.
He pulled himself through the small opening onto the roof of the train. As his eyes adjusted to the light, the bright, green countryside came into view around him. The train was still chugging along at an impressive pace, farms and golden cornfields flashing past. Donghyuck stretched out his arms and breathed in deep, letting the fresh, morning air fill his lungs. Suddenly, he stopped and sniffed the air again.
“Smell that?” he said excitedly to Jeno. Jeno crawled out of the bag and onto Donghyuck’s shoulder. The cat twitched his nose.
“Salt?” he guessed.
“It’s the ocean!” Donghyuck exclaimed. “We must be close to the coast. Look!” He pointed overhead, where a pair of seagulls were swooping through the clear sky. “Hold on tight!” With that, he clambered onto the broom and pushed off the roof of the train, grateful for the sunlight that warmed his body. Like Jeno, he was also hungry, but the hunger was quickly forgotten as soon as he saw it: the ocean, spread out before him, its glittering blue expanse dotted with fishing boats and the white crests of waves.
In only a matter of minutes they were above the ocean, aloft on the warm, sea breezes. Donghyuck swooped down until the broom was just above the water. He skimmed over the waves, his body pressed flat against the broom until he was almost parallel to the surface (much to Jeno’s dismay). As he passed a fishing boat, a few sailors called out and pointed at him. He waved back, grinning widely.
He let the broom gain altitude again until he was flying high above the water, scanning the coastline. After about twenty minutes of searching, he finally saw what he was looking for. The countryside sloped up into a huge incline, where the sparse dotting of farmhouses soon gave way to more densely packed arrangement of houses, pylons, and roads. At the very crest of the peninsula sat the city – the crown jewel of the coast, where the maze of enumerable stone buildings culminated in a massive clocktower at the very highest point of the urban sprawl.
Donghyuck followed the line of the main road, mouth agape at the movement and busyness of the city the grew below him. He had traveled with Taeyong to the county seat a few times, which was a small city in the center of the valley; at the time, he had been floored by the size of town, by the bustle of cars and people that filled the streets around the market. Yet that paled in comparison to the city below him now, which was so mind-blowingly big he couldn’t see where it ended – the houses seemed to cover all the space between here and the mountains in the far distance. The sound of the sea was soon drowned out by the honking of cars, the rumble of engines, and the thrum of voices from the endless crowd of people below. While studying the map of the city in his bedroom at home, Donghyuck had been certain he could easily navigate the streets, but now, his head pounded with the sight of the endless maze of stone and brick.
He shook his head to clear it, then banked lower to the ground to try to get his bearings. The sidewalks were too crowded with pedestrians, so he hovered above the road instead, about three meters off the ground. As he peered at the street signs, he heard shouting and a blaring horn, and as he turned to the source of the noise, saw the tram that was speeding in his direction. He startled and pulled his broom up and away just in time, as the tram missed him by less than a foot.
“What are you doing? You can’t be in the middle of the street like that!” Still shaking, Donghyuck twirled around, still hovering in the air, to see a traffic guard angrily stalking towards him.
“Eep,” he yelped, then zipped away down the first alley he saw, which was thankfully almost empty.
“Get back here, you punk!” the guard shouted after him, but the crowd around him was too dense, and Donghyuck soon shook him. He slowed down and, certain he couldn’t be seen from the main road, let the broom alight on the cobbled stone street of the alley. He sighed and leaned against the grimy wall of the building behind him.
“That was close, huh?” he said to Jeno, who was still digging into his shoulder for dear life.
“Can’t we just go one day without almost dying?” Jeno grumbled.
“There, there,” Donghyuck said, lovingly scratching the cat’s head.
Donghyuck almost jumped out of his skin as the deep voice came from seemingly out of nowhere. He spun around breathlessly and came face-to-face with a boy, around his age, peering curiously at him.
“Can I help you?” Donghyuck snapped as he tried to regain his composure. The boy was around his height, with round glasses and short, black hair topped by a messy cowlick. He wore a baggy striped shirt and denim shorts that showed off his skinny legs. When Donghyuck made eye-contact with him, the boy blushed and scratched the back of his neck.
“Uh, no. I mean, yes!” the boy stammered out. He broke eye contact to point at the broomstick now leaning against the wall. “Uh, you’re a witch, aren’t you?”
Donghyuck squinted suspiciously at the boy. He might be cute, if he weren’t so nervous-looking. “Maybe. What’s it to you? Never seen a witch before?”
“Not in real life!” the boy responded excitedly. “But, aw man, I’ve read about them, and it seems so cool! You can just fly wherever you want, flight physics be damned.” Wait, he’d never seen a witch before? What kind of a city was this? “All witches have a specialty, right? Well, what’s yours?”
Although Donghyuck had to admit that all the attention and flattery was not unwelcome, he was getting kind of tired of being this boy’s novelty attraction for the day. Besides, he still needed to find some food. And somewhere to live.
“Maybe I’ll tell you someday, sweet cheeks, but today is not that day.” Donghyuck patted the boy coldly on the arm before grabbing his broom and sauntering off down the street. He was tempted to look back but kept his eyes straight ahead of him. As expected, after a beat of silence, he heard the pounding of footsteps behind him as the boy ran after him. Donghyuck smirked to himself.
“Wait!” the boy called, panting slightly as he caught up to him. “Just – here, take this.” Still walking, Donghyuck turned and looked down in surprise as the boy shoved a piece of paper into his hand. “It’s my number. Well, not my number,” he clarified, cheeks flushed pink. “It’s the number of my aviation club’s headquarters. We’re just huge nerds for all things relating to flight, and we’d love to have you as a guest sometime!” He grinned goofily up at Donghyuck, still jogging slightly to catch up to Donghyuck’s fast walking pace. “If you call, just ask for Mark. That’s me!” Then, this boy – Mark, apparently – slowed down, letting Donghyuck pull ahead of him. Donghyuck shoved the paper into his pocket – although he was tempted to drop it on the street, that would be pretty cold, even for him. He rounded a corner, smiling to himself.
Donghyuck had walked into at least ten different hotels before giving up. The concierges had all looked at the meager pile of crumpled bills he dumped on the counter before refusing him outright (some more politely than others). They wouldn’t even let him rent out a broom closet with the amount of money he had, and no amount of haggling or sweet-talking would get them to drop the price of a room.
And so, defeated and dizzy from hunger, he slumped down onto the low wall outside of a random shop and let his broom clatter to the ground. The wall was positioned at the top of a hill and had a view that stretched from the quiet neighborhood below, all the way to the sea in the distance. The sun was getting low in the sky, casting a warm, orange glow over the city.
Jeno mewed despondently, matching Donghyuck’s sullen mood. The cat hopped down from Donghyuck’s shoulder and stretched out from nose to tail, before suddenly perking up his head. Donghyuck absently followed the cat’s movements as he lifted his pink nose in the air, then began to stalk towards the shop. Jeno stopped in front of the door, slinking out of the way as a customer exited the shop, then slipped in through the door before it swung fully shut.
“Jeno!” Donghyuck whined. He was not exactly in the mood for his cat’s antics right now, but he stood up, grabbed his broom, and walked over the shop anyway. It was a rustic, Tudor-style building, walls painted a faded yellow, with a covered driveway off to the side. When Donghyuck peered through the dusty glass of the shop window, he realized why Jeno had been drawn to it: rows and rows of breads and colorful pastries lined the display shelves, and more could be seen inside – a bakery. His mouth began to water, and his stomach growled hopefully.
Donghyuck walked into the shop after Jeno, quickly glancing of the sign above the door, which read J & T’s Bakery in an old-fashioned looking font.
He scanned the floor for Jeno upon entering, but once inside, the rich aroma of baking bread filled his nose and all thoughts of the cat were quickly forgotten. He followed his nose to a glass display shelf by the counter and pressed up against it, practically drooling at the sight of plump muffins and perfect, round little rolls. He sidled along the display shelf, practically mesmerized by the breads, until he came face-to-face with Jeno staring back at him from the other side of the glass.
“What the – get out of there, you crazy!”
“Excuse me, can I help you?” said a deep voice. Donghyuck jolted upright, making eye contact with a tall, apron-clad man looking curiously at him from the other side of the counter. The man was carrying a tray of freshly baked baguettes but set them down when he saw Donghyuck.
“Oh! Uh …” Donghyuck glanced furtively back at the display shelf, where Jeno was attempting (unsuccessfully) to hide behind a petit-four. The tall man followed his gaze. His eyes widened when he saw the small black cat squeezed in between the row of sugary pastries.
“Huh. That’s unusual,” the man said, surprisingly calm considering he was witnessing what was surely the violation of several health codes. The man looked back at Donghyuck, his eyes flicking to the broomstick in his hand. He looked back at the black cat on the shelf, then back at the broom, then at Donghyuck again. A friendly smile grew across his face.
“This one must be yours,” the man said, indicating to Jeno, who was now sitting stock-still as though that would make him invisible. Donghyuck was too hungry and tired to come up with a convincing lie, and this man had an air of trustworthiness about him, so he nodded.
“Yeah, he is. I’m really, really sorry about that, but it’s just that we haven’t eaten all day, and he has a weakness for baked goods. We both do, actually,” he said, putting on his most charming, humble smile, trying to earn some sympathy points. Amazingly, it worked. The man chuckled and bent down to the display shelf, clucking his tongue at Jeno.
“Ah, I see! Our cat does the same thing, so it’s not a big deal. But when I saw the black cat, I thought that our little Jaemin had gotten into the charcoal bin again!”
Donghyuck had no idea who or what he was talking about, but he laughed along with the man anyway, genuinely relieved that he wasn’t about to be turned into the guards, or worse, told to leave to store before he could get anything to eat.
“By the way, did you say you hadn’t eaten all day?” The man said, concern coloring his face.
“Since yesterday, actually,” Donghyuck sighed longingly. The man tutted.
“Well, that just won’t do. Here, wait just a minute. Honey!” he said, turning around and calling through a doorway that seemed to lead into the kitchen. “Do we have any more milk?” When no one answered, the man smiled apologetically at Donghyuck. “Let me get a dish and some milk for the cat. In the meanwhile, you can have some of these.” He pushed a basket of crescent-shaped rolls across the counter towards Donghyuck, who grabbed the whole basket greedily. “These are a bit stale and I was going to sell them at half-price anyway, but I’ll let you have them for free. How’s that?”
“Good!” Donghyuck mumbled enthusiastically, a roll already stuffed into his mouth. When the man disappeared into the backroom, Donghyuck carried the basket to a small table in the corner and proceeded to shove as much bread into his mouth as he could without choking. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Jeno jump down from the display shelf and stalk over to him, rubbing against his pant leg and gazing up at him with wide eyes.
“Ha!” Donghyuck said as crumbs spewed from his mouth. “So now want to ask permission? That’s rich.” But even as he said it, he dropped a roll onto the floor in front of the cat. Jeno mewled appreciatively then picked it up in his mouth and hopped onto the table across from Donghyuck.
A minute later, the man appeared out of the backroom with a dish full of milk and a tray of cold cuts. He set them down on the table and lowered himself into the seat across from Donghyuck, scratching Jeno’s head.
“Here you go, little guy,” he said to Jeno. Jeno purred and began lapping up the milk daintily. “Sorry I can’t give you any more than this, but my husband forgot to go shopping this morning, so this is really all we have.”
“Looks great, thanks!” Donghyuck said, his mouth still filled with food. He tore open one of the rolls with his fingers and jammed some of the sliced meat inside. It was delicious.
“Ah! I never told you my name,” said the man. “How rude of me. I’m Johnny. This is my bakery, as you may have noticed. Well, technically, it’s mine and my husband’s, but Taeil is more of a behind-the-scenes kind of guy.”
“Donghyuck,” Donghyuck responded.
“Nice to meet you.” Over tented fingers, Johnny watched Donghyuck eat, a look of mild amusement on his face. Johnny cleared his throat gently, prompting Donghyuck to look up at him. “Based on your broomstick and your black cat, I’m guessing that you’re a witch. Am I correct in that assumption?”
“Yes,” Donghyuck said tentatively, finally slowing down the rate at which he was shoving food in his mouth.
“That’s wonderful! You know, this bakery used to be owned by a witch, before Taeil and I took over.”
“Oh, really?” Donghyuck responded, although he wasn’t that interested.
“Yes! She used to operate a delivery service from here. It was quite famous, actually. Isn’t that remarkable?” Johnny didn’t seem to expect a response, as his eyes glazed over fondly. “Anyway,” he said, snapping back to the present. “You seem rather young. Are you, perhaps, still completing your witch’s training?”
“Uh huh,” said Donghyuck, swallowing his final bite. “Just left on my journey yesterday, actually.”
“Really?” Johnny looked surprised at this. “Did you just arrive in the city?” Donghyuck nodded. Johnny’s face lit up.
“Wow! I’m impressed. I’m not sure that I’ve seen a witch in this city in years. It can be quite an intimidating place if you’re new. Do you know anyone here? Where are you staying?”
Donghyuck would normally be much more wary of strangers prying into his business like this, but Johnny gave him free bread, so he couldn’t be all that bad. And as much as he prided himself on his independence, the sun had almost disappeared below the horizon and he still had nowhere to spend the night. Maybe this Johnny guy could help him.
“Actually, I don’t have anywhere to stay,” he admitted. “I tried, like, thirty hotels, but it turns out you need money to rent out a room. And I’ve got maybe a hundred bucks, tops. Crazy, right?”
“Yep, that’s the city for you. Nothing comes cheap.” Johnny chuckled, then sat up a little straighter. “You know,” he began, “we actually have a spare room above the garage that we’ve been looking to rent out. It’s not very big, so I can give you a significant discount if you work for me here at the bakery. The hours are pretty flexible and should give you time to do your witchy duties during your time off. I’ve just talked to Taeil about it, and he agreed. That is, if you want.”
Donghyuck looked up at Johnny in amazement, hardly believing his luck. “Really? Even though I just told you that I’m broke?”
Johnny laughed warmly. “Yes, really. Like I said, you’ll have to work for me. So just don’t do anything to get yourself fired, and the room’s all yours! I’m afraid you’ll have to clean it out yourself, though. I’m allergic to dust.”
Johnny stood up, helping Donghyuck clear the food from the table. “By the way, I never asked you your specialty. Or do you not have one yet?”
Donghyuck stood after him, collecting his items as Jeno hopped onto his shoulder.
“I do have a specialty. It’s love magic.”
After Johnny showed him to the room, which was really just a glorified storage space with a bed in one corner and a small table in the other, Donghyuck went to sleep almost immediately, not bothering to clean. That was future Donghyuck’s problem, and current Donghyuck had a hot date with dreamland.
The next morning, Donghyuck woke up leisurely around midday, only to get a scolding from Johnny (which was honestly kind of scary – although Johnny looked like a six-foot tall teddy bear, his angry face was no joke). After he had sufficiently apologized for his laziness, and promised to never, ever, ever be late for work again, Johnny gave him an orientation of the bakery and an explanation of what he would be expected to do during the day. His duties mostly consisted of manning the cash register, signing for ingredient deliveries, and occasionally helping out Taeil in the kitchen.
The job turned out to be laughably easy, although it surprisingly wasn’t too boring. Johnny was a really cool boss, and even Taeil seemed nice enough – although honestly, Donghyuck couldn’t really tell, because Taeil never spoke other than to say good morning or to ask if he had eaten.
Manning the counter during slow business hours gave Donghyuck plenty of time to begin brainstorming his plan for the final year of his training. He knew that there should be a market for love magic in the city, but there was still the matter of finding customers. Though he was particularly gifted at romantic fortune telling, while walking around the day before, he had passed by at least three different storefronts advertising fortune telling. A cursory glance inside told him immediately that the fortune tellers in question were all scammers, not a real witch to be found amongst them. Even though the fortune telling in the city was all bunk, it still meant that he would have to compete with established businesses if he wanted to pursue that as his primary mode of practice.
While Donghyuck had a knack for fortune telling, however, this was not his true passion. What he really loved was to use his magic to channel the love between couples, to unblock the heart chakra and conduct the flow of love – both romantic and physical – between the spirits of two (or more) lovers. Back in his small town, he had helped multiple couples through rough patches in their relationships (he had even helped Taeyong woo his longtime crush, a handsome non-witch from the next town over named Jaehyun). In addition, his love potions were sought after for miles around by couples looking to spice things up. His talent for love magic was nearly unmatched, as far as he knew, but there was one thing missing, one significant, glaring hole in his mastery of love magic: he had never been in love. Sure, he had had crushes here and there, had been on plenty of dates and the occasional roll in the hay, but nothing coming close to love.
Almost two weeks had passed since Donghyuck arrived in the city, and he was finally beginning to feel settled into his new life. As much as he had loved growing up in the countryside, he quickly grew to love the bustling excitement and chaos of the city. He often went for walks alone (leaving his broomstick in his room and letting Jeno go off and do whatever it was Jeno did when left to his own devices – recently, he had been acting suspiciously frisky with Jaemin, Johnny’s haughty white shorthair cat), walking through the city streets until he lost himself in the crowds. The city was also a great place to observe couples, and Donghyuck saw more types of love here in two weeks than he had during his whole life in the small town.
One rainy day, during which business was slower than usual, Donghyuck sat hunched over the counter, busy sketching a draft for a flyer he was planning to hang up around the city to advertise his services. He wasn’t much of an artist, though, and the floor around him was littered with crumpled, discarded drafts. The bell above the front door chimed but Donghyuck hardly noticed it, too intent on trying to perfect the shading on the cartoon heart he was attempting to draw.
“Oh!” Donghyuck finally looked up, shaken out of his reverie by the surprised voice coming from the person who had just entered the bakery. “It’s you!”
Looking at him from across the counter, hair dripping wet from the rain, was Mark, the goofy, bespectacled boy Donghyuck had met on his first day in the city. The boy seemed startled to see Donghyuck and blushed a deep pink from the tips of his ears to his cheekbones (which were surprisingly chiseled - how had Donghyuck not noticed it the first time?).
“Its me,” he replied coolly, giving Mark a once-over. Mark flushed deeper. “How can I help you this fine Tuesday?”
“Uh …” Mark replied, ruffling his hair nervously. His hair did kind of look cute like this, Donghyuck had to admit, all wet and messy around his face.
“Out with it, sweet cheeks, before all the bread goes stale. What are you in the mood for?”
“Um … oh! Well, I’m supposed to be picking up some pastries and things for our club meeting, but I’m not really sure what to get. What do you recommend? Also, wait, aren’t you a witch? What are you doing, working at a bakery? That’s kind of random.” Donghyuck ignored the second question, instead standing up from his stool to walk in front of the display shelf.
“If you’re looking for something sweet, the lemon tarts were just taken out of the oven an hour ago. Can’t beat that kind of freshness. If you’re looking for something a little on the savory side, the onion rolls are top-notch. I can get you a discount if you order at least one dozen of each thing. And I’ll even throw in a free pumpernickel loaf, just because you’re cute.” (What he didn’t mention to Mark was that the pumpernickel was stale and therefore due to be thrown out anyway, but what Mark didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him). Mark startled, visibly flustered at the compliment.
“Uh, ha, yeah, that sounds good. Whatever you think,” he stammered out.
Donghyuck filled two bags with a baker’s dozen of lemon tarts and onion rolls each, with the pumpernickel loaf balanced on top, as promised. After he rung Mark up, Mark just stared at the bags on the counter.
“It’s raining,” he said.
“It’s raining,” Donghyuck repeated.
Mark laughed nervously. “Actually, our club headquarters is only a few blocks from here, but … I don’t know if I can carry both these bags and my umbrella at once. I guess I’ll just take one at a time. Unless, ah …” He cleared his throat. “Unless you wouldn’t mind helping me bring them over? I can pay you for helping!”
Donghyuck considered. His shift was due to be over in less than ten minutes, and the rainy streets were empty enough that he was pretty sure no more customers would be coming in before he came back. Johnny and Taeil were out running errands all day. Besides, it’s not like he had anything better to do.
“Alright, Mark, I’ll help you. But I’m not flying, if that’s what you were implying.”
Mark waved his hands in front of his face. “No, no, I know! You can walk, that’s fine. Thank you so much!”
Mark and Donghyuck each carried a bag, with Mark balancing the umbrella in the crook of his elbow over the two of them. The aviation club headquarters was a five-minute walk from the bakery, down a steep, cobbled side street, in a garage overlooking a high flood wall by the seaside. The garage door was open, revealing a cramped space filled with assorted airplane and mechanical parts with posters and blueprints lining the walls.
When they entered, Donghyuck set his bag down on the floor and gave a quick glance around the room.
“Where is everyone else? I thought you said you were buying food for your club thing,” Donghyuck said.
“I am! They won’t be here for another few hours, though. I just like to be prepared,” Mark responded. He began shoving boxes and loose tools out of the way, pushing them into corners or quickly dropping them in bins. “Sorry it’s so messy, I’m usually the one in here tinkering away all day and I always forget to clean. Oh, right! I was going to tip you for helping me.”
“That’s cool,” Donghyuck said. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Really?” Mark asked, stopping his frantic cleaning to look at Donghyuck anxiously. “But … okay.” Just as Donghyuck was turning to leave, his eyes caught on an unusually shaped contraption half-concealed by a tarp.
“What’s that?” he asked, his curiosity getting the better of him. Mark followed his gaze and laughed out loud when he saw what Donghyuck was looking at.
“Oh, that?” He strode over and pulled away the tarp with a flourish, revealing what appeared to be a bike with a biplane propellor screwed to the front. “This is my baby. I’ve been working on her for over a year, and I think I’ve finally finished. All there is left to do is take her out for a final test ride to make sure she’s flight-ready and then I’m going to file for a patent. Beautiful, isn’t she?” Mark gazed with pride at the contraption, while Donghyuck eyed it with suspicion.
“You’re telling me that thing can fly? I don’t believe you.”
“You don’t?” Mark said. “You know, just because there’s no magic doesn’t mean she won’t fly.”
“Hm,” Donghyuck responded skeptically. “It’s not that there’s no magic, it’s that it looks like it’ll fall apart if I blow on it.”
Mark scoffed, affronted. “Is that a challenge? How about this,” he continued, a sly look spreading across his face. “As a favor for helping me carry the bags, how about I let you be the first passenger to take a test-flight?”
Donghyuck stared at him. “You want me to get on that pile of rusty toothpicks with you? Can it even support two people?”
Mark grinned. “Well, I haven’t tested it, per se, but if we get enough initial acceleration on the taxi, we should have enough lift for both of us. C’mon,” he pushed, seeing the skeptical look on Donghyuck’s face. “If not for me, then at least do it for science.” Donghyuck looked at the earnest look on Mark’s face, a hopeful smile lighting up his sharp features, and sighed.
“Alright, fine. But if I die, I’m blaming you.”
Mark whooped. “Sweet! Alright, let me just get everything into place.” Donghyuck followed Mark as he wheeled the bike-plane out of the garage and into the street, where the rain had slowed down to no more than a faint drizzle. He knelt beside the bike, checking the tire pressure, and wiggling the joints to make sure everything was secure. Then, apparently satisfied with what he saw, Mark stood and clambered into the seat. “Okay, she’s ready to go. Hop on!”
Donghyuck walked over – not quite believing that he had just agreed to this – and climbed onto the flat metal seat over the back tire. The seat was a bit wobbly, so he rested his hands lightly on Mark’s waist for balance. He felt Mark’s stomach tense under his hands, but Mark didn’t comment. Instead, he turned around and grinned at Donghyuck. “With both of us on here, I’m guessing that we’ll pick up speed pretty quickly going down the hill. Just hold on tight and I’m sure we’ll be fine. When it’s time to take off, I’ll give you the signal!” Before Donghyuck had a chance to respond, Mark kicked off from the ground and began peddling as hard as he could, standing up off the seat with his butt in Donghyuck’s face so he could get more leverage. Mark must be stronger than he looked because they gained speed faster than Donghyuck expected.
“Here’s the hill, hold on!” Mark shouted over the sound of the wind rushing past them. They turned off the side street onto the road, which sloped steeply down as soon as it rounded a corner. Mark had been right – with both of their weights, the bike picked up an alarming amount of speed; Mark seemed to barely have control over it as they rounded another corner, narrowly dodging a car. The propeller was spinning so fast that Donghyuck couldn’t see the individual blades. When Mark jerked the handlebars to avoid yet another car, the bike hit a lump in the road and suddenly floated off the air for a full second before landing back down with a jolt.
“Ah!” Mark shouted. “It’s working! We’re almost there!” Compared to the smooth ride of his broomstick, the bike was practically rattling his bones every time it went over a dip or bump on the road; Donghyuck was sure he would have bruises on his butt for at least a week after this. Mark guided them through a tunnel, suddenly bathing them in blackness. Just as Donghyuck’s eyes adjusted to the darkness, they sped out into the daylight again. The clouds had thinned and the afternoon sun was glaring through, shining directly into their faces. “Argh, I can’t see – oh shit!” Mark shouted, as he suddenly jerked the bike out of the way of a large truck that had rounded the blind corner ahead of them. Donghyuck shouted alongside him, winding his arms fully around Mark’s waist and clutching tightly as the bike flew up into the air and over the railing of the road. “We have lift! We have lift!” Mark yelled excitedly, though Donghyuck was too shaken up by the near-miss with the truck to share in Mark’s enthusiasm.
Mark peddled furiously in mid-air as the bike floated promisingly over the steep drop-off. They must have been airborne for about five seconds before Donghyuck felt the press of gravity overtake them and they were suddenly falling very, very quickly towards the rocky hillside below them. If he had been thinking straight, he probably could have channeled a small amount of flight magic to slow the fall, but he was too busy digging his fingers into Mark’s stomach and shouting a string of curses loudly into his ear. “Mark – shit – shit – fuck – what the shit!”
“It’s fine!” Mark yelled back, although he sounded just as shaken up as Donghyuck. “The aerodynamics should cushion our fall – ow!” They landed with an ass-clenching jolt on the hillside, narrowly avoiding a cluster of sharp rocks. Donghyuck’s teeth rattled in his skull as Mark barely kept the bike in control and upright, steering around more rocks and debris, heading straight to the beach below. Things did seem to be under control, if barely, until the front wheel hit a tree stump concealed by the tall grass and fell clean off the bike. Without the front wheel, the bike tilted forward then skidded out on its side, sending Mark, Donghyuck, and the propellor flying off in different directions.
Thankfully, the sand cushioned his fall, but Donghyuck still got the wind knocked out of him and had to lie still for a minute to get his breath back. Other than that, though, he didn’t feel any major pain anywhere in his body aside from a dull pounding in his head. He sat, up, rubbing the back of his head, and looked around for Mark. Mark was crawling around a few yards away, blindly feeling around for his glasses. He had a purple bruise forming on his forehead, but he didn’t seem to be seriously injured as far as Donghyuck could tell. When he stood up, he noticed a glint in the sand – Mark’s glasses. He bent down to pick them up, holding them gingerly, and carried them over to Mark.
“Looking for these?” he said, standing over Mark. Mark squinted up and him, then gratefully grabbed his glasses when Donghyuck handed them to him. When he put them on, they hung a bit lopsided on his face, but the lenses were intact.
“Thanks,” said Mark, but even as he smiled at Donghyuck, his eyes caught on something in the distance and his face fell. “The propellor!” He ran off down the beach, whining and cursing. Donghyuck turned to see Mark awkwardly trying to chase the propellor, which was still spinning around in the air in an unpredictable trajectory. When the propellor got close to the ground, Mark lunged at it but missed, tripping over his feet and falling into the sand. The propellor fell with an unceremonious thunk into the sand ten feet away. Even though Donghyuck couldn’t help but chuckle at the sight, he did feel genuinely bad for Mark. It reminded him of his first attempt at flight, during which he had gotten tangled into the branches of a tree and broken Taeyong’s favorite broomstick, along with his own arm.
Finally regaining his composure, Mark stood and gathered the fallen propellor, then huffed back over to Donghyuck. “You were right,” he mumbled, looking glum and defeated. “It was a piece of junk.”
“What? No way!” Donghyuck insisted, his growing affection for Mark getting the better of him. “You got airborne, didn’t you? I bet that’s more than most people could do. Now at least you know what doesn’t work, and you can make it even better for the next time. Right?”
Mark sighed. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. Thanks.” He scratched his head. “Now what?”
“Let’s worry about the bike later. I haven’t been to the beach before, so why don’t we hang around here for a bit, then I’ll call my boss and see if he can pick us up.” Donghyuck helped Mark carry the mangled frame of the bike-plane (although, without the propellor, it was really just a bike) over to a shady spot under a tree, where they settled down, cuffing their pants and taking off their shoes to feel the damp sand between their toes. They sat side-by-side for a while, watching the boats pull in and out of the harbor as the sun warmed their faces and calmed their nerves.
“Can you tell me now?” Mark said suddenly, sitting up from his reclined position in the sand.
“Huh? Tell you what?”
“Your specialty! C’mon, you said you would tell me one day.”
“I did not say that.”
“Yes, you did! When we met on the street a few weeks ago, you were being all cryptic about it, then you said you would tell me.” Donghyuck cast his most judgmental look at Mark, who was unperturbed.
“Okay, fine. My specialty is love magic.” Mark stared at him, then burst out laughing.
“Ha! Love magic. That’s funny,” Mark said, wiping his eyes. “What is it really? Wait, let me guess – potions? Possession?”
“Possession?” Donghyuck made a show of being offended, getting up and huffing loudly.
“Stop,” said Mark, still laughing, and grabbed Donghyuck’s arm in an attempt to pull him back down. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, sit down.”
Donghyuck glared at him for a moment, but his heart skipped a beat when he saw how earnestly Mark was looking up at him. He flopped back down into the sand, this time a little closer to Mark.
“This is why I hate telling people,” he admitted, “because either people don’t believe me or they think it’s weird, like all I do is give people potions for erectile dysfunction.”
“It’s not weird! It’s sweet! I’m sorry I laughed, really, but it just doesn’t fit with your whole persona.”
“And what persona is that?” Donghyuck retorted, though he was genuinely curiously what Mark thought of him.
“Uh … kind of like, the hot tough guy, loner type.”
“Hot, huh?” Donghyuck repeated with a smirk, as Mark’s ears turned a bright red. Yet Mark just returned his look, staring defiantly at Donghyuck. “You’re a weird one, Mark.” Mark blushed deeper, finally breaking eye contact to stare into the sand and play absently with a twig. “You know what …” Donghyuck began, and Mark met his gaze again. “Since I feel bad that you broke your bike-copter” (“bike plane!” interjected Mark) “I’ll read your fortune for free. How’s that?”
“For real? You mean, like, you can see who I’ll marry and that kind of thing?” Mark asked, looking surprised.
“Maybe. It doesn’t usually get that specific. It’s more like, I can follow the trajectory of your love life like I’m playing a game of pachinko. There are many paths that the ball can roll down, and it’s just a matter of finding which one. It’s not an exact science, but I’m a better gambler than most.” Mark pretended to nod thoughtfully, although Donghyuck could tell he had no idea what he was talking about. “I can do it in the sand, right here. Just go find me five shells.”
“On it!” Mark said, hopping up and running down to the shore. After a minute or so, he came running back with a small pile of shells in his hand. “Here! How’re these?” he asked, dropping the shells by Donghyuck.
“Perfect.” Donghyuck used a stick to draw a large circle in the sand, in which he drew several rows of short lines. He grabbed the shells, then shook them and blew gently on his hand (the rest was real; this part was admittedly just for show). With a meaningful look at Mark, who was staring at him with pure fascination, he scattered the shells over the circle. Two landed almost on top of each other in the center of the circle, while the other three landed in different spots on their own lines.
Huh. “You see this, here?” Donghyuck said, pointing to the shells in the center. Mark leaned over with unabashed interest to stare at the shells. “The formation in the middle here is pretty rare. This one is upside-down, which means you’ll have an open and honest relationship with the person you love. The one on top of it is face-down, which means the person you love will love you back, but it may take some time to break through their shell. The ones scattered around – this line means you’ve already met this person. This one means you may encounter some physical pain. And this one means you’ll find great happiness, as long as you follow the signs in front of you.”
Mark sat back, an unreadable expression coloring his face. “Whoa. Is that … is that all true?”
Donghyuck nodded. “Like I said, it’s like very accurate gambling – I can’t tell you for certain it’s true, but I would bet good money on it.”
“Huh.” Mark wouldn’t meet his gaze, and his blush was returning. “It says I’ve already met the person …”
“Any ideas who that could be?” asked Donghyuck, though his own heart skipped a beat at the question. Mark didn’t answer immediately, but he did finally look up to meet Donghyuck’s eyes. Now it was Donghyuck’s turn to blush. A slight smile began to grow across Mark’s face.
“I may have an idea.”
They ended up staying at the beach until the sun set over the ocean. Mark may have tried to hold Donghyuck’s hand, and Donghyuck may or may not have held it back.
Johnny came to pick them up in his delivery truck and dropped Mark and Donghyuck off at Mark’s garage. Mark peered inside, then smacked himself on the forehead. “Damn, the club meeting! I completely forgot.”
“Ah, that’s too bad,” Donghyuck said as he walked up close to Mark, crowding him until his back hit the wall. Mark flushed.
“It’s – it’s okay. There’ll be other meetings,” he said, eyes darting to Donghyuck’s lips.
“That’s the spirit,” said Donghyuck, his voice low and teasing. Then he tilted his head and pressed a gentle, almost cautious kiss to Mark’s lips. Mark made a slight noise of surprise, before closing his eyes and melting into the kiss with a contended sigh. He grabbed the front of Donghyuck’s jacket and pulled him close. Mark’s mouth was warm and sweet, his body so hot and delicate against his, and Donghyuck felt himself getting lost in the feeling. Finally, he pulled away, and Mark chased his lips with a dazed look in his eyes.
“If you really want, I’ll take you for a ride on my broomstick some time. Show you what real flying feels like,” he whispered. Mark’s eyes lit up.
“Sure, sweet cheeks. You know where to find me.” And with that, he pulled away completely, spinning on his heel and leaving the garage without a backwards glance. Yet he was grinning from ear to ear, his heart pounding wildly as he made his way back up the steep, cobbled road leading back to the bakery.
This was going to be a fun year.