Kun didn't notice the smoke in the air until his eyes began to water. He blinked, nearly choking himself as he inhaled, and quickly brought the sleeve of his hoodie up to cover his nose and mouth to breathe. He'd been buried under the covers on the couch with his laptop on his thighs as he stared deep into the screen, and now he rolled himself off the cushions, staying low and hunched over as he sprinted over to the kitchen, where the smoke was thicker, almost purple in color.
Belatedly, the smoke detector went off, its high, shrill beeping grating against Kun's eardrums while he wrenched open the door to the oven and threw the window in the kitchen open. Cold blasted in and Kun watched as the smoke was sucked into the crisp air outside. He turned off the oven, and a quick look confirmed that he'd just badly burned the bread he was trying to bake and hadn't actually set anything on fire. Dragging a chair over the where the smoke detector was wedged into the wall near the ceiling and climbing on top of it, he turned the shrill beeping off, sleeve-covered hand still pressed over his nose and mouth.
The ensuing silence echoed, and in it, Kun watched the smoke form hazy, purple patterns in the air as it slowly dissipated. He stepped off the chair, grabbed a sheet pan from the cabinets under the counter, and stood by the open window, fanning the smoke out with the help of the tool.
That had been stupid. He'd lost track of time and nearly burnt down the house.
If Ten were here, he'd have caught a whiff of the bread burning early on and--
Kun shook his head. Ten wasn't here. Ten had run away, and the hole he'd left in Kun's chest only grew larger with every day that passed with no sign of him. It had been a week and a half, now. Kun didn't like to think about what Ten was doing out there on his own in the snow, in the icy cold, all alone.
He'd looked for him, of course, that day that he ran off, and in the days that followed. But Kun was not a tracker, and when the prints Ten had left became muddied and unclear as he veered off the trail they’d run together so many times, Kun didn't know how to proceed. He had tried waiting by the old, dilapidated shack. He'd even left plates of home-cooked food on the half-rotten porch for four days straight, hoping he might find Ten there one morning, lazily licking the plates clean, but all that resulted from his efforts was a mound of dirty dishes that needed to be washed.
He'd even called Xuxi to ask him the chances of survival a wolf might have in these woods, to which Xuxi had reminded him that the woods were a wolf's natural habitat and that it was good that Wolfie was back where he belonged, that he was probably doing just fine. Feeling foolish, Kun hadn't brought it up with his friend again.
He missed Ten. He missed the way Ten woke him up in the mornings with his nose in Kun's armpit, and he missed the way Ten hovered too close as Kun stood at the stove, cooking and experimenting. He missed the way Ten was curious about everything, about the spices Kun used, about his laundry detergent, about words and phrases, about Kun himself. He missed the way Ten curled up with him at night on the couch, sometimes as human and sometimes as wolf, but always warm and soft and inviting.
A particularly strong, harsh gust of wind made the sheet pan in Kun's hands rattle, and snow that had condensed into hard ice crystals pelted against the skin of his hands and the soft fabric of his hoodie. He shivered, noticing that most of the smoke had cleared, and put the sheet pan onto the counter so that he could close the window again.
Chewing on his lip, he noticed how the salt that usually ran the length of the sill in a thin line was now strewn across the sill and all over the floor in front of him. He wondered if he should draw the line again, to preserve it in the way that it looked the night Ten left, or if he should leave it broken and messy. He knew, because he’d been reading up on pagan rituals online, that salt was often used as a purifier, a repeller of evil or harm, or even just bad luck.
But he didn’t want to repel anything; in fact, it was the opposite. He wanted Ten to come back. He knew Ten wasn’t evil or harmful or bad luck, but he didn’t want to reduce his chances either in case the universe considered shape-shifters something other than good.
With a sigh, he drew the pad of his finger down through the layer of salt spread thin across the sill, carefully carving out characters through the tiny granules with thick strokes. Come back to me, he wrote in Chinese, thinking of Ten as he did so, hoping he was safe. Hoping he was warm.
Kun thought about the day Ten left often, remembering how Ten’s eyes had glowed like stoked coals when his cheek had grazed over Kun’s stubble and how Kun’s very core had turned molten in response. He recalled that moment so well: the pie in the oven, Ten wearing Kun’s hoodie, Ten’s dopey, sweet smile as he told Kun his scent reminded him of a fire that had just been put out. Twilight just before dark. To Ten, Kun smelled like change, like something dynamic. A spark on the tip of his tongue.
Did magic smell the same to everyone who could sense it? Did it have a taste?
He thought of Ten’s head in his lap, he thought of how long Ten had been a wolf before Kun, and how he was a wolf again now because of him. He thought of Taeil when he said, “A bit of silver in the collar might get him to listen to you better,” and how his teeth had glinted like light bouncing off the edge of a knife’s blade when he smiled. The red wine Taeil had brought had been thick and sweet, coating the inside of Kun’s mouth like blood.
Kun hadn’t talked to Johnny or Taeil since their dinner together, having only a mind to search for Ten in the days that followed, but now he wondered why Ten had been so tense, even aggressive, towards Taeil. It was almost like Ten had known him.
Certainly, Taeil unsettled Kun, but Kun had given him the benefit of the doubt because Johnny was so friendly and warm, and perhaps Taeil just needed time to thaw out, get comfortable with new people.
On the other hand, he'd seemed plenty comfortable in Kun's living room, terrorizing Ten and baiting him.
Was that part of the reason why Ten had run off? Did they know each other, and was Taeil...dangerous? Was Taeil even human? Kun couldn't be sure, but now that he knew beings like Ten were real and not just characters in poorly-written teen romance novels, he was curious. He wanted to find out more about the mysterious couple who lived in the house down the mountain from him. He wanted to know if they had any connection or information on Ten.
Kun looked out the window as he closed it. The cold had seeped in. Ten, come back to me when you can, when it's safe , he thought. I'm sorry .
It seemed there was nothing useful Kun could learn about magic online. At first, he had no idea what he was looking for at all, and many of his searches resulted in how-to videos detailing sleight-of-hand tricks, which Kun discovered he was actually quite good at. Under this layer of magic for the sake of entertainment, however, there were many schools of thought, customs, and rituals that related to magic. Sometimes it was described as a kind of faith. Sometimes it was described as a higher power. Sometimes it was described as the way the universe was held together. Kun couldn’t wrap his head around it. Like a sleight-of-hand trick, real magic kept its origins hidden. So then, was magic a religion? Is that what Ten meant when he used the word?
There was talk of crystals, of gatherings and rituals around the moon phases, of drawing energy from intention -- this all sounded like a bunch of make believe on the playground to Kun. People couldn’t actually think that things like love potions worked, right?
As with most things, Kun needed to see it to believe it. Bitterly, he reflected that even with seeing and being with Ten, he’d still been cautious -- resistant, really -- about accepting that things were not always what they seemed in the world. And their worlds, normal and magical, still felt very far apart in his mind.
The gap Ten had left behind in his chest needed to be filled, though, and Kun’s curiosity about magic continued to grow.
Granville Shop of the Metaphysical was not what Kun pictured for a bookstore of the occult. Expecting a small storefront shadowed by heavy curtains, perhaps with skulls and stuffed crows in the corners, he pursed his lips when he pulled into a parking space on the side of a moderately busy road, the bookstore in view. The store’s name was splashed proudly across large windows in block letters that ran the length of the shop, and the store itself was the corner property of an industrial building that also contained a coffee shop and record store on the ground level. Kun got out of his car and checked that he had the address correct on his phone.
“Here goes nothing,” he muttered to himself.
Kun bid his time before entering the bookstore. He bought an oat milk latte at the coffee shop next door and watched the entrance to the metaphysical shop carefully, taking stock of who was coming and going and not noticing anything out of the ordinary.
Finally, when he was halfway done with his latte, he sucked in a brave breath and went into the bookstore. He noticed immediately the smell of burning sage in the air. Then he noticed the stacks of books on one side of the shop and the displays of crystals on the other. Towards the back, there seemed to be apparel, and more shelves that contained items Kun couldn’t begin to name.
“Hello,” the boy behind the front desk and register said when Kun passed him. Kun jumped in his skin but managed to smile at the boy politely in greeting. “You came in after all.”
Kun’s smile froze on his face. “Pardon?”
“You were staring for a while out there,” the boy said, gesturing to the coffee shop. He wore a black sweater that hung from his shoulders. Around his neck was a thin black choker with a small, tear-drop shaped crystal pendant that rested perfectly in the dip between his collarbones. His hair was silver, and his eyes were an impossible shade of violet or grey or green, depending on where he was looking. “I’m Donghyuck,” he continued with a disarming, customer-friendly smile. “Is there anything I can help you find?”
“I think I’ll just look around, thanks,” Kun said, tossing his coffee into the bin near the door.
“Well, you won’t find what you’re looking for wandering aimlessly like that,” Donghyuck responded in a teasing tone.
“Excuse me?” Kun walked to the front desk, interest piqued. From this distance, he noticed that Donghyuck’s eyes were just plain dark brown.
Donghyuck whistled out of his lips as he crossed his arms, chuckling, but when he saw Kun was not laughing with him, he sobered and said somewhat disbelievingly, “Whatever you’re looking for? It’s all over you, that you want to find something so badly. But wandering without direction won’t help.”
Kun bristled as his inner voice warned him to take caution. He would not be fooled into thinking this boy could read his mind because he’d picked up on the fact that Kun was curious about the store and what it offered, even though he was looking for Ten and had been hoping this store could provide him with the just the thing this boy had mentioned: direction.
“How do I…” Kun swallowed, watching how Donghyuck’s eyes flickered violet when he blinked. “How do I know where to start?”
“Well,” Donghyuck said somewhat smarmily, “you could always tell me what it is you’re looking for.” When Kun tightened his lips and glared at him, unimpressed, the smug expression only deepened on Donghyuck’s face. “You’re awfully cautious, aren’t you? Makes me think this thing that’s alluding you is extra special. Very well, I’ll help you.”
He clapped his hands together and the store suddenly plunged into shadowy darkness, only illuminated by the silvery light streaming in through the windows. As Kun swiveled his head around in surprise at the ceiling, where the bulbs were smoking slightly, Donghyuck came out from behind the counter and walked to the front door, where he locked it with an audible click and turned the sign from OPEN to CLOSED.
“So we aren’t disturbed,” Donghyuck said when he turned back to Kun. "What's your name, by the way?"
Kun stared, the whites of his eyes rounded and wide. While Donghyuck approached him, his body language was easy and familiar, but Kun felt as tense as a spring. “It's Kun, and...what’s going on?” Kun asked, frozen in place.
“Relax, man,” Donghyuck said. “We’re just going to backroom for a scrying. You’ve scried before, right?”
“How did you do that with the lights?” Kun asked. “What’s a scrying? You’re not going to hurt me, are you? What’s going on?” He bent his knees and put up his fists, sizing Donghyuck up. The kid was lanky and thin, his limbs elegant and long, but at the same time the way he smirked made Kun feel like he knew his way around a fight. Kun might have had great knife skills, but he’d never needed to use them on a human.
“Do you think scrying is like Fight Club? I’m not trying to fight you, man. I’m trying to help.” Donghyuck pointed at the ceiling. “And the lights are clap-on, clap-off.”
He overtook Kun, ignoring his raised fists, and disappeared into the stacks. “So I take it you’re new to the scrying thing. That’s okay. It’s actually pretty easy if your Eyes are already open.” Kun heard him shuffling books around on the shelves and, with effort, lowered his guard and unstuck his feet to follow him with trepidation. “C’mon, don’t you want to find what you’re looking for?” Donghyuck continued, now already at the end of the stacks.
“Wait, where are we going?”
“I told you, the backroom.”
Kun followed at a light jog, until he was just behind Donghyuck, who now had a book under one arm and a crystal bowl about the size of two palms cupped together in one hand. He kept a wary distance between them, just in case Donghyuck decided it would be a good idea to swing that bowl around to his head and knock Kun out. “And what’s in the backroom?”
“Well, just my coat and the staff lockers, really. It’s just for privacy.”
Kun swallowed and paused, his self-preservation instincts kicking up into the base of his brain as he noticed they were completely alone. Weren’t there people in the store before the lights went out? Where had they gone? The entrance to the backroom was a single, black, unmarked door. Donghyuck stood in front of it, his keys jangling in one hand. “I’m not sure I should--”
“I misjudged,” Donghyuck said suddenly. He turned with narrowed eyes to scan Kun carefully, leaving the key stuck in the knob. “Your Eyes are open, but you don’t See. I didn’t realize you’re a newborn, like a puppy, blind and deaf and floundering.”
Kun frowned. He opened his mouth to negate the comment but then remembered Ten saying something similar, moments before he disappeared into the night. “ You don’t want to see ,” he’d said, the hurt plain in his golden irises. Kun had driven him away with the strength of his disbelief.
“I’m not blind,” Kun told Donghyuck, feeling the Ten-shaped hole in his chest acutely in this moment. “I just need -- time. To understand. I don’t know what I’m doing. I need help.”
Donghyuck considered him carefully, nibbling on his bottom lip. Finally, he nodded, his lips pinched but his eyes soft in understanding. He opened the door, revealing a room as black as pitch. No light seemed to reach inside. “You need a guide. I can’t be your guide, but I can still help you scry for clues.”
“Yes. Yes, thank you, thank you.” The words tumbled from Kun’s lips. “That would be -- thank you.”
He still had no idea what scrying was, but he followed Donghyuck into the dark.
Donghyuck led Kun to a wobbly chair in the backroom and sat him down onto it while Kun’s eyes tried to adjust to the darkness. The boy puttered about the room, arranging things that Kun could not see. “Wait while I prepare,” was all Donghyuck said.
Because there was no light, there was nothing for Kun’s eyes to adjust to, and Kun sat there in darkness as thick as tar, feeling the beginnings of panic climb into his throat when minutes passed like this with only the sounds of Donghyuck’s shuffling keeping him tethered in the growing expansiveness of space. Kun felt like he was floating in a vacuum, and then finally:
A gaseous hiss. A spark so bright that Kun had to shield his gaze.
Donghyuck sat across from him and held a lit match between his fingers, using this to light a candle that was on what Kun came to recognize as a the top of a small, circular table. Beside the candle, Donghyuck had placed the crystal bowl, now filled with water. In the dead, still air, the flame did not flicker or move, but Kun watched it dance in Donghyuck’s eyes and in the reflection it cast on the surface of the water. They sat in its small circle of golden light.
“Scrying is the art of revelation,” Donghyuck murmured, holding a cup in either hand. “It is about revealing the unseen. Often, we know the answers to the questions we ask, but they are buried deep within our unconscious minds. Scrying helps us bring these answers to the surface.” Donghyuck pushed one of the small cups filled with lukewarm liquid into his hands. “Drink this,” he said quietly.
“What is it?” Kun raised it up to his nose and sniffed. He caught strong notes of citrus.
“Psilocybin tea,” Donghyuck said.
Kun sipped it. Underneath the punch of sour lemon and smacking sweetness from the sugar, there was a pungent, earthy taste that clung to the back of his throat. It was not particularly good. He made a face, and Donghyuck laughed softly.
Donghyuck deadpanned, “It’s made from magic mushrooms.”
Kun almost dropped the cup. He looked up abruptly, nostrils flaring. “What the--”
“I’m having some, too,” Donghyuck explained calmly, holding up his own cup. He downed it in one go, like it was a shot of hard liquor. “It’s a microdose. It’s perfectly safe. It just helps to open up the mind. You have to be as open and free as a river for scrying to work.”
“I don’t need alternative methods of therapy,” Kun bit out, each word chewed between his teeth. “That’s not the help or guidance I’m looking for. I’m literally looking for something.”
“Then drink the tea, Kun,” Donghyuck said, “and Look .”
The pupils of Donghyuck’s eyes were huge and blown. The crystal at the hollow of his throat glinted as it reflected the candle’s flame. “You don’t want to see,” Ten had said, as though it were some grave injustice. As though he pitied Kun for his ignorance. Fingers tight around the cup, Kun exhaled out all of his reservations and threw the liquid back into his open mouth and swallowed.
The tea will start to work in another minute or so, Donghyuck said. It is important to remember you are safe here. I won’t let anything happen to you.
Kun smirked as a dry chuckle fell out of his mouth. Uh huh. Sure.
Donghyuck leaned forward, peering deep into Kun’s eyes. Do you have that which you seek in mind?
I do. Kun swayed in his seat, his head light and airy like he was in a cloud. He felt tendrils of thought reach out to touch Donghyuck, to touch the crystal bowl, to touch the flame that burned before him. He thought of Ten and the footprints he’d left in the snow. He couldn’t recall at this moment if they’d been human or wolf.
First, you must open yourself up to the answer, Donghyuck instructed. His voice was like a song, or a hum. Kun’s ears rang and rang and rang. Look into the bowl. Imagine you are white light. Imagine you are safe in your own glow. Keep your intention in mind as you do this.
It was hard for Kun to imagine the light and Ten at the same time. One kept overtaking the other. In the end, he imagined the light as a field, and Ten running off deeper into it. Again he couldn’t make out if Ten had taken on his human form, or his wolf form, but in his mind it didn’t matter, because they were the same. They were both Ten.
Now, breathe, Donghyuck said. Breathe with me. Slow. In and out.
Kun breathed. As he breathed, Donghyuck continued to hum, and the sound surrounded him everywhere like he was being caressed by gentle, lapping waves. He imagined himself floating in water. He drifted for a while.
He opened his eyes in his living room. There was a weight on his legs, over his feet. He pushed against it and sank deeper into the cushions of his couch, and Ten raised his head and threw a soft glare at Kun over his shoulder.
“You’re heavy,” Kun complained.
Ten huffed out of his nose and hopped off the couch, his huge paws thumping softly against the floor as he tread over to the stairs and began to lope up them slowly. Kun immediately missed his warmth.
“You don’t have to go,” Kun called out after him. Ten didn’t hear him, and continued his upward climb, so Kun pushed the throw blanket off his lap and shuffled toward him. Snow drummed against the windows. “Wait--”
One of the stairs gave way under his feet, and he stumbled into the middle of the woods. Kun was on the trail behind the house, and Ten was pacing in the snow in front of him, agitated, his golden eyes burning like copper. He lifted his head back and howled before taking off at a run. “Hey!” Kun called out after him, giving chase. Ten looked back over his shoulder but didn’t slow, and only then did Kun realize he was running from something. One moment Ten was running, and the other he was tumbling over himself in the snow, leaving long streaks of dark red blood in the ice as he whimpered and whined and finally came to a stop.
“No!” Kun cried, pumping his legs faster. He skidded onto his knees in front of Ten’s form, which lay heaving, steam rising from his skin as he shriveled into his human form. “No,” Kun whispered, reaching out to touch him as tears burned down his cheeks. He leaned forward and fell through the snow onto Johnny and Taeil’s driveway, alone.
The front door was open. Behind it, Kun saw a flash of red. He stood and followed it inside, ignoring the stinging in his knees.
It was just as dark and stuffy as he remembered. The walls were warm to the touch, thrumming under his hand like they were alive. With every step Kun took, the house shifted three degrees, turning slowly on an axis to keep him from ever reaching the center. It felt like he was in a funhouse ride, and Kun quickly grew dizzy and unsteady on his feet. He needed to reach the center, but when he started to run, the house spun faster.
“Stop!” He called out to whatever was listening, falling to his knees again to make the earth go still. “Stop, I just want to find Ten!”
The house breathed around him, inhaling and exhaling. Out of the kitchen came Johnny. Tall, broad Johnny, with his friendly smile and kind eyes. “Kun?” His voice was full of careful concern, and he approached Kun warily. “Kun, what are you doing here?”
“I’m looking for Ten,” Kun wheezed. It was getting difficult to breathe. He felt like he was trapped in a container and someone was slowly depressing the lid, like gravity was multiplying by the moment and crushing him like a bug.
Johnny touched his shoulder lightly, that easy grin still on his face. He kneeled next to Kun and said, “But didn’t you kill him?”
The house fell away, crumbling into nothing, but Johnny remained. Snow whipped at his hair and face as the storm intensified, the wind howling and screaming.
“What?” Kun gasped. His heart was beating as heavily as a giant’s footfalls, and he thought distantly that it was an achingly hollow sound.
“You know,” Johnny said. He shivered then, and Kun realized he was crumbling, too, just like the house. But he couldn’t leave yet. Kun needed more answers. Ten couldn’t be dead, Kun felt certain he would feel it if he were.
“Don’t--” Kun grabbed Johnny by his sleeve, and Johnny shivered again, his eyes closing and his form wavering, fighting to exist in Kun’s mind.
The snow calmed suddenly, becoming weightless as dust. Kun clutched at Johnny’s shirt, not sure what to do. He held his breath, he pictured Ten in his mind, in his mind’s mind. He let go.
Johnny opened his eyes and they were a brilliant, glowing violet. “Hey--!”
Air burned like fire as Kun drew it into his lungs, emerging from his trance like a man from drowning. Donghyuck cursed, dousing the candle’s flame and striding over to the door to flick on the overhead lights. In a second, Kun’s eyes were burning too, against the fluorescent brightness. They adjusted quickly, letting Kun take stock of where they really were -- in the staff room of a bookstore, one wall covered in small lockers for personal belongings, the other in a bulletin board covered with tacked up timesheets, photos, and takeout menus. He looked down at the crystal bowl and saw that Donghyuck had thrown one of the tea mugs in it, disturbing the water.
“What the hell?” Kun glared at Donghyuck as the images in his mind started to slip away from him, like grains of sand between fingers. “I was just--”
“You saw enough,” Donghyuck said. He was shaking, trembling, his eyes downcast as he stood by the light switch. “You saw enough, I think.”
“I don’t have a clue what I saw,” Kun said hotly. Ten on the couch, Kun fought to remember. Ten in the woods, hurt. Johnny and Taeil’s house. Johnny.
“I can’t help you anymore,” Donghyuck said.
Kun stood and felt wild energy crackle through him like lightning. The lights flickered. “What do you mean you can’t help me anymore?”
“Whatever it is you’re doing,” Donghyuck said. “I can’t be involved with it.”
Donghyuck finally raised his gaze. Kun realized he was frightened. His eyes, dark and glistening, flickered nervously between Kun and the door. “I just can’t. But I wish you the best of luck. Now, you’ve really got to go.”
It was dark outside when Kun went to his car. Impossibly, hours had passed while Kun tripped through visions in the backroom of the bookstore. As he drove back to the house in the mountains, he shuffled through the scenes he’d encountered like they were a deck of cards in his mind.
Was it all just vivid hallucinations, brought on by the psilocybin tea? Or was it something more?
He thrummed his fingers against the wheel as the car’s tires crunched through snow and ice as the roads became narrower and less maintained.
The thing was, the visions didn’t feel like imaginary things. They felt so real that Kun could precisely recall the way Ten’s fur felt under his palm, thick and lush. But maybe that was a memory? His head hurt, trying to make sense of it all, trying to see it from both sides. Maybe it was magic, or maybe it was just magic mushrooms.
But why had Donghyuck stopped the scrying when he did, when Johnny opened his eyes? Had the boy seen Johnny, too? That felt scientifically improbable, though Kun thought he’d read something one time about shared hallucinatory experiences.
Magic or not, there was something nagging at his subconscious about Taeil and Johnny. Something that didn’t sit right with him. He had felt it since the beginning, when he brought the lamb roast over to them and Taeil had smiled at him with glassy eyes. And Ten had certainly felt it, the night Taeil and Johnny came over for dinner. And now this -- even the mushroom tea was trying to tell him something was not right about his neighbors on the mountain!
His brain held onto the idea, the hope, that Ten had known them, or that they had known Ten. Maybe they knew something about where Ten was, now. He had to talk to them, find out how they were connected. It was a long-shot, but he had to try in case there was anything that could lead him to Ten or lead Ten back to him. He felt like he was pulling on a string and he didn’t know what was on the other end of it.
He pulled into the driveway, his headlights illuminating the path to the house. As he neared the front facade, he noticed something strange on the door: an ‘x’ sprayed in dripping white paint across the surface.
“What the...?” Kun muttered to himself. He cut the engine but didn’t get out, his senses on high alert. Should he call the police? Had the house been tagged? He glanced quickly to the sides of the house and jumped at the shadow of a tree that moved, but there was nothing else out of the ordinary. He looked down in search of his phone, which had at some point during the drive fallen from its usual place in the cupholder and was now one the floor. When he sat back up with his phone in his hands, he looked at the door again.
The paint was gone.
The smell of meat caramelizing perfumed the air as Kun used a pair of silver tongs to lay the skirt steak dripping in marinade over the hot grill pan on top of the stove. It sizzled enticingly, releasing the earthy aromas of the garlic, ginger, and sesame oil in the marinade. Kun had rubbed the steak down with brown sugar as well to create a sweet crust, and he grilled it on both sides just a lick past rare, scorching neat grill marks into the flank of meat. He thought about how, if Ten were here, right about now the wolf would be nosing the back of Kun’s elbow or his waist for a taste of what he was cooking, and more often than not, Kun would feed him a morsel from his fingers and chuckle as Ten smacked his lips in satisfaction.
He took the meat off the grill and rested it on a wooden cutting board so that the juices could settle, turning the heat off on the stove. His eyes stung from the smoke that arose from the pan. Blinking away the building tears and crowded thoughts, he went over to the fridge to take out the mason jars of flash-pickled carrots and red onions, the vegetables julienned and still vivid in color. He took out a pale green endive bulb, too, and set these things out on the counter beside the meat.
Where was Ten? Kun couldn’t stop thinking about what he’d seen in that crystal bowl in the bookstore. Some of the images still felt as real and tangible as the meat cooling on the cutting board, but that was what tripping on hallucinogenic tea got you, right? And what about the white 'x' on the door? He hadn't slept a wink last night, tossing and turning with these thoughts zipping through his brain.
Sometime near morning, he'd convinced himself that the 'x' was probably just an after-image, a side effect of the drug still in his system, and pushed it to the back of his mind, freeing up space for him to fixate on the appearance of Johnny in his scrying experience. Johnny had behaved as though Kun had really suddenly run into his and Taeil's home; the look of confusion and concern on his face, mixed with his ever-gentle kindness, stood out like an ink stain on the fabric of Kun's memory. He couldn't recall Johnny looking at him like that in real life -- so could his brain really conjure up an expression that seemed so natural, so convincing?
He'd tried calling the bookstore in the morning to talk to Donghyuck about what had happened, but when he'd called the listed number, the line had been disconnected. This was all very strange and made Kun feel like the world was tipping on its axis, and there was the niggling thought that maybe he was still high on shrooms.
In the absence of Donghyuck, Kun decided he had to go see Johnny and Taeil. It was crazy to think that Johnny and Taeil had anything to do with Ten’s disappearance, because Kun knew that was 100% his own fault and that he'd been the one to push Ten away, but he wouldn't feel settled until he'd gone to talk to them.
He took the endive bulb in hand and ripped at the leaves, stacking them neatly into a pile. Then he turned to the steak, which he thought had rested enough, and grabbed a sharp knife so that he could slice it thinly against the grain. Food always seemed to lighten any sort of conversation or confrontation, in Kun's experience, so he was going to his neighbors' place armed with it. Not that he thought going to Johnny and Taeil’s house would be confrontational.
They didn’t know that part of the purpose of Kun’s visit was so that he’d be able to check that Johnny’s eyes were still dark brown, and not neon violet.
"Kun!" Johnny answered the door with a half-grin, his hair a little wild, his chin dotted with short, gristled hairs. Kun didn't miss the way his eyes darted around Kun's body, as though checking him for injuries, and his guard went up around him. Still, his eyes were brown. "Come in, come in. What are you doing here? Didn't you check the weather?"
Kun hefted the pan of skirt steak higher into his arms and stepped through the threshold, thrown off by Johnny's strange behavior. He had seen news of another storm that was due for the area this evening, but for now the skies were overcast as always. "Yeah, I did. Everything okay?"
"Oh, yeah," Johnny said while nodding vigorously. "Everything's great. How are you? What brings you around?"
Kun indicated to the pan in his arms and smiled stiffly. "I thought we could eat."
"How did you know that in this exact moment, I was wondering what the heck I was going to do for lunch?" Johnny took the pan from him and headed down the hall toward the kitchen, and Kun followed him, the dark walls of the hallway seeming to tilt inwards the further into the house they walked.
Kun took a deep, steadying breath, and told himself not to think too hard about it. His neighbors were a bit weird, but he wouldn't lose focus; he was here for Ten. They entered the kitchen, and Kun grinned at the sight of the unique table. "I meant to ask you," he said conversationally as Johnny put the pan down on the counter behind them and started to open the cabinets for plates and silverware. "Did you make the table yourself?"
"Hm?" Johnny peered behind his shoulder. "Oh, yeah. I mean, no. Taeil made it. It's a window frame from an old house of his."
"An old house?"
"Yeah," Johnny said. He brought the plates and silverware over and pointed Kun to a seat. Kun sat. "He has a place in Seattle, in Portland...London. You know, he likes cold, rainy places."
"I see." Kun nodded slowly. How rich was Taeil to own so many homes? The way Johnny talked about the properties made Kun think that this was old money, that Taeil has had these properties for a while. The house was conspicuously quiet as Johnny sat in the seat next to him, and the walls creaked when the wind blew. "Is Taeil here?" Kun asked.
"No, he isn't. Why? Did you want to see him?"
"Just wondering if he wanted to join us."
"Nah, he's fine," Johnny said dismissively. Up close, Kun could tell that his hair had a slightly greasy quality to it, like it hadn't been washed in a while. The sweater Johnny was wearing was old and thin around the cuffs and elbows.
"Johnny, is everything okay?" Kun asked again.
"Yeah!" Johnny said a little too quickly, and with a little too much forced excitement. "Taeil's just not here. He's been gone for a bit. Um. Work trip."
Kun lifted an eyebrow. "What does he do?"
"Real estate," Johnny answered. "He should be back soon, though."
"That's...good," Kun said carefully, even though he wasn't sure if it was actually good or not. Johnny seemed on edge about something, but Kun couldn't begin to guess the cause of it.
"It's just, he said he'd be back today," Johnny said. "And now it's mid-day and still no sign of him." His eyes flicked to Kun's and then to the pan of food on the table. "I mean, he's probably just delayed."
"Sure," Kun said. Johnny must be worried that the approaching storm would delay Taeil's travels even further. "I'm sure he'll be back soon and everything will be fine."
"Anyway, I'm starving," Johnny deflected, dragging the pan closer to them both and lifting the foil cover. "You're the best neighbor who could have moved in. What's for lunch? How do we eat this?"
They polished off half of the pan and Kun promised Johnny that he could keep the rest of it to reheat for dinner. Kun could even come back tomorrow with a new dish. Johnny's eyes lit up at that, and Kun felt his heart soften. How could he think that Johnny had anything to do with Ten's disappearance?
"How's the book coming along?" Johnny asked as he was putting away the leftovers. Kun peeked into the fridge when Johnny opened it and frowned when all he saw were a couple of bottles of what looked like fresh pressed beet juice and beers. You couldn't live on that!
"It's pretty slow," Kun admitted with a sigh. Johnny took two bottles of beer out from the fridge and pointed one at Kun. He nodded, then yelped when Johnny tossed it at him without warning. Luckily, he caught it without fumbling and shattering the bottle on the ground. "I'm kind of distracted, if I'm being honest with you," he added after Johnny came over with a pocket knife and expertly popped off the cap of the bottle with a twist of the knife.
Johnny sank back down into the seat next to him and took a long pull from his own beer. "How come?"
Kun paused, his fingers playing with the condensation on the glass. He absently started to peel at the label as he considered how much to share with Johnny. "Well, Ten ran away," Kun said. "You remember my friend's dog?"
"Oh." Johnny's face fell, and he leaned forward to put a consoling hand on Kun's shoulder. "I remember him. I'm sorry, man."
"It's been almost two weeks. I'm really worried about him and I keep looking but I just keep wondering...what if he's really gone?"
Johnny didn't say anything for a while, but his hand on Kun's shoulder was comforting and solid. "Has it really been two weeks?"
He sat back with a sigh, taking another long pull from his beer before setting it down onto the table and crossing his arms. "Two weeks is a long time."
"I know that," Kun said, frustration creeping into his tone. "That's why I'm so worried."
"Ten's probably fine though," Johnny added quickly. "He's resilient."
Kun narrowed his eyes and heard the blood pounding in his ears. "Is he? How do you know that?"
"He's a smart boy. He did those tricks for treats at dinner? And with his size, he's gotta be at least part-wolf, so he'll be okay in the woods." Johnny grinned but his mouth seemed to be fighting a grimace. If only he knew just how true his words were, Kun thought.
Johnny continued, "He'll know the safe spots to hide away, where to take shelter. He's got to."
He sounded like he was speaking from experience, like maybe he knew where Ten's hiding spots in the woods were, and the little hairs at the back of Kun's neck stood on end like he'd touched a naked fuse. The wind fell away outside, and the house stopped creaking. Tension skirted between them like a line not yet pulled taught. Kun asked, "What do you know about it?"
"Sometimes, Taeil takes us hunting," Johnny answered smoothly. "We've learned these woods and how to read the trees. We know where we can find shelter if we need to, where we have higher ground." He looked at Kun then, his eyes flashing, as Kun stared steadfastly back, jaw set.
"Us?" Kun asked.
"Me and Taeil, of course," Johnny said. He smiled again, but the expression fell flat in his eyes. "There I go, rambling about hunting when you're probably not one bit interested. Hey -- What did you put in the food?"
"Garlic, ginger, sesame oil." Kun rattled off the list. "Soy sauce. Brown sugar. Why?"
Johnny shook his head. "Nothing. No reason. Just -- it's good. That's all."
"Maybe I'll put it into my book," Kun suggested.
"Yes, that might be a good idea."
He wasn't sure what had shifted between them, but he knew that Johnny's demeanor was now cold where it had been warm, and stiff where it had been soft. His skin seemed to have hardened into ice. Kun wondered if he reached out to touch him, how cold Johnny would be.
"Well, thank you for lunch," Johnny said. "I really do hope you find Ten, or that Ten finds you. Best get back before the storm hits."
That was a dismissal if Kun had ever heard one. He had not yet finished his beer, but at this point he wasn't sure he even wanted to. "Me too, thanks," Kun said. "Mind if I use your washroom before I go?"
There was a half bath on the first floor, near the front door. Johnny led Kun to it and then told him to see himself out, as Johnny would be heading back to the kitchen to finish cleaning up.
As he was washing his hands at the sink, Kun noticed the small photograph framed above where the hand towels hung. It was a sepia-toned photo of the house, taken in the early 1950s if the date scrawled in the bottom right hand corner was truthful and accurate. The person standing in front of the house looked a lot like Taeil as he did now, except with longer hair and a change in attire. A huge dog sat on its haunches by the man's side. It looked so much like Ten's wolf skin.
He peered closer, shutting off the water. The collar the dog was wearing around its neck was a thick band of leather, but studded throughout with a reflective material.
He left, driving slowly back to his cabin as the sky above him grew dense with heavy, dark grey clouds.
Silver, Kun thought suddenly. A bit of silver in the collar.
Kun sat at his kitchen table watching the light retreat from the sky as though it were being sucked back out into space. Soon, the snow began to fall, thick, heavy flakes that flurried about in the strengthening winds. He estimated he had about an hour before the ice set in and visibility plummeted.
He called Xuxi, who picked up on the second ring.
"Kun? What's up?"
“Hey, are you busy?” Kun chewed at his thumbnail with his teeth, thinking of the photo he’d seen in Johnny’s bathroom. The more he thought about it, the more he became convinced that the person in the photo was, in fact, Taeil. He wasn’t as sure about the wolf-dog in the photo being Ten, but at this point he didn’t feel like he could rule it out. Anything was possible.
His mind teetered on the precipice of knowing, and if he tilted too far, down into the pit he would go. He knew what was down there, what stories had twisted themselves into creatures and myths in the dark, but he wasn't sure if he could let himself fall. The thought of stepping into the pit brought heat into his veins, a fire so hot Kun imagined he’d been struck by lightning. He remembered the lights going out above him in the bookstore, Donghyuck’s violet eyes, the way the backroom where they were scrying closed in around them and hummed with the frequency of the universe.
He thought that down there in the fathomless dark pit was where Ten was waiting for him.
He hoped that Xuxi wasn’t busy.
“For you? Never. You doing okay? I heard about the storm…”
“The storm can wait,” Kun said quickly, ripping at his nail now. His feet tapped under the table. The snow outside berated his windows with the same frantic beat. There were so many thoughts swirling around in his head like pieces of string that he felt were a part of a larger spool. He wanted to find the end of the thread and pull, to see it all laid out in a straight line before him, and his fingers itched. With cooking, he regularly translated the disparate but aspirational sensations, flavors, and ideas he held in his imagination to the plate, his fingers moving to grab ingredients sometimes before his mind realized what he was grabbing. But with this, he hadn’t quite figured it out yet, how to make the thoughts in his head real, and he needed to talk about them with someone he trusted before the spool consumed him. “I need to tell you something.”
He could hear Xuxi knocking into furniture on his side of the conversation, a soft thump. A whispered exchange. Sicheng was with him, wherever he was. “Is this a thing where I should be sitting down?” Xuxi laughed, but his laughter trailed off nervously when Kun didn’t return it. “Kun?”
Kun swallowed hard. “You should sit down. Is Sicheng with you? You should sit down, and hear me out before you say anything, okay? Don’t tell Sicheng anything yet.”
“Okay,” Xuxi said immediately. “Hold on. Let me go somewhere private. Whatever is it, I’m sure it’ll be okay. We’ll figure it out.”
Kun’s heart went out to his friend. Ever since he'd met Xuxi in high school, he’s been such a pillar of unconditional support for him. Xuxi was there at Kun’s graduation alongside Kun’s parents, and he was there at Kun’s college the next year with him. He was there when Kun decided to dump his business degree and change paths completely, and he was there for Kun when his relationship started to fizzle and when Kun and his ex decided to split. Now, he’d be here for Kun through this, too. Right?
“Okay,” Kun repeated, closing his eyes and imagining he could see Ten in the darkness behind his eyelids. “Okay. Okay, so. I think my neighbors are...not human.”
He could hear Xuxi breathing heavily on the other end. “Kun--”
“Wolfie is a shapeshifter, Xuxi,” Kun interjected before Xuxi could really start to question him. “He is a person and a wolf. I’ve seen it. Wolfie is a person who can change into a wolf.”
“Are you--? You’re serious.” He sounded confused.
“And I think Taeil is a vampire,” Kun added, hanging his head with a groan. “I think he might be a vampire.”
"How long has it been since you had anyone over, Kun?"
"Not that long. Not that long, Xuxi." Kun shook his head slowly, eyes still closed, a headache building between his eyebrows. "I know how this sounds. I know I sound crazy! But I -- but Wolfie is real. His name is Ten. He's -- he's a person, and he's missing, and I'm really worried about him, Xuxi--"
"Woah, slow down," Xuxi coaxed Kun gently. "When you say he's missing, you mean he just went back to the woods, right? His home?"
Kun grit his teeth. He knew where Xuxi was coming from, could follow his logic on this, but it was frustrating nonetheless to be written off by his friend. "Yes and no. He did run back into the woods, but it was because we had a -- a misunderstanding, and I have a bad feeling about it. I saw something in these visions. He's been gone too long. I feel like something's happened to him--"
"His leg was all healed up when he left, right?"
"Then he's probably fine. You're getting...a little imaginative probably because you're worried, and it's lonely up there and what's that thing that the dude in The Shining had? Anyway I understand why you're having these thoughts, but--"
"Xuxi," Kun growled, "you're not listening to me." He heard the clack of Xuxi's teeth as his jaw snapped shut, and continued, satisfied now that Xuxi was keeping his mouth closed. "The other day, I went to a bookstore. A metaphysical bookstore. And the guy there, I don’t think he was human either. His eyes kept changing colors, and then we drank this tea, and he took me to the backroom and we--”
“Woah, woah, Kun.” Kun could see Xuxi waving his hands around. “Hold on, is this going where I think it’s going?”
“No. We did a scrying ritual.”
“Is that...is that like a sex thing?”
“No! It’s a -- a mind connection thing? A crystal ball thing?” He was growing more agitated by the lack of clear answers he could provide, the tapping of his feet loud. “Anyway, I saw these visions of Ten getting hurt and then of Johnny, my neighbor, and I think they’re connected. They have to be.”
A pause. Xuxi did not speak, and Kun bit into his bottom lip so hard he tasted copper.
“So,” Xuxi said finally, and nothing more. He sighed and tried again. “So...let me...try to get this straight.” Kun opened his eyes but stared steadfastly at the patterns of the grain in the wood of the kitchen table and waited for Xuxi to continue. “You think Wolfie is a werewolf...named Ten,” Xuxi said. He fell silent again, and Kun realized that Xuxi was waiting for him to acknowledge if he was right or not.
“Yeah. Well, maybe it should be the other way around. Ten is a werewolf. That we named Wolfie.”
“Okay.” Xuxi breathed out long. “So, um. You also think Taeil is a vampire. And that you had visions about...Ten...and Johnny?”
“Yeah,” Kun said. He didn’t want to say the other part yet, which was that he’d started to notice how his fingers heated when he was cooking like he was weaving a spell into the spices he sprinkled over cuts of meat or chopped vegetables. That one pot of soup he’d made could taste like home grown flavors to so many different people. That he could feel the pull of the earth sometimes when he took a fresh pie out of the oven.
“You think I’m crazy,” Kun mumbled. The wind battered snow against the window. It howled. A shiver traversed up his spine at the sound, so achingly familiar.
“No...no…” Xuxi said quietly in a completely unconvincing tone. “I don’t think that.”
His friend was horrible at lying. “Xuxi.”
“I think maybe you need help? Or company? Listen, Sicheng and I were planning to visit you soon anyway, right? Maybe we can come up this weekend…”
The wind howled again, and Kun thought of Ten, alone and cold and distressed, somewhere out there in the storm and in the woods, and he knew that he had to search for him. The connection between Ten and Johnny and Taeil and Donghyuck, between the purple irises and the golden ones, the flashes of red he’d seen between the trees, had taken on a physical, yet amorphous shape in his consciousness, its sticky, webby fingers digging into the crevices of his mind. There was something there. He just had to find the end of the thread and pull.
“I have to go,” Kun announced.
“Go?” Xuxi sounded alarmed. “Go where?”
“I have to go look for him. I’ve got a little bit of time before the storm really hits. I’ll be quick. I just -- I feel something and I have to follow it, I think.” He did feel something right in the corner of his heart, an incessant tugging, weak but not-easily ignored.
“Uh, I think you should stay inside.”
“I’ll be quick,” Kun said again. He sighed as a strange calm settled over him. He had predicted Xuxi wouldn’t believe him, but he was glad that his friend had at least listened. His trapped thoughts had been freed and couldn’t burden him anymore. All he needed now was to find Ten. “Thank you, Xuxi,” Kun said, “for listening. But I have to go find him now.”
“Can’t this wait until the storm passes? It’s dangerous, Kun--”
Kun hung up the phone, inhaling deeply to counter the sudden flutter of his heart. Xuxi was right, but that only meant Kun had to be quick. And if he followed the tugging in his heart, he’d be okay. He stood.
His phone vibrated on the table. Xuxi, calling. Kun turned away from it, and went to the front door, where his outerwear hung on hooks beside Ten’s collar, to arm himself in layers against the cold.
Kun drew his scarf up higher over his nose and mouth, breathing in damp but warm air that flashed over the bottom half of his face whenever he exhaled. He had his hood drawn up over his beanie, and every inch of him outside of the space between his nose and forehead was covered in thick layers of fleece and down, and a waterproof shell. The world was muted in the storm. The wind gusted overhead, and sometimes blew thick swathes of snow into his path as he stumbled through the trail behind the house.
“Ten?!” he called out, but the wind carried his cry away immediately. Snow pelted his face. It was so dense now that he could barely see ten steps in front of him, but the tugging feeling had not stopped; it had grown stronger. He had to keep going.
He trudged through the snow that was now up to his shins, leaving deep wells for his footprints that were immediately blown away or filled again. When he looked back from where he’d come, it was like he was not leaving any trace of himself at all. He rested when the wind became so forceful that he had to hide behind a tree in order not to be felled and so that the snow that whipped past would not turn to shards of ice on his exposed skin.
He had never experienced a raging storm like this before, and for a moment he wondered if there was something else at play, but he carried on, calling for Ten, chasing the tugging in his heart. He wasn’t sure why he hadn’t felt the tugging before. Maybe he had not been open to it. Maybe Ten was in more danger or trouble now, and needed him. Maybe all that meat-eating had finally caught up to Kun and his arteries were actually clogged.
Kun paused, stopping to look how far he had traveled on the trail, and realized he could no longer see the back of the house through the trees. It was like he was staring at a television screen that was showing nothing but static. The white crept in from the sides of his vision, threatening to overtake his sight.
He blinked. The white cleared. A huge gust of wind punched him right in the chest and sent him sprawling backwards into the snow. He tumbled with the force of it, stopping only when he knocked into the base of a tree. Coughing snow out of his lungs from landing face down in fresh powder, he raised his head to look at his surroundings again. Nothing looked familiar.
It was not just the snow-covered trunks, or the blanket of white covering the trail. The trees were shaped differently, gnarled and old with long-fingered branches. The sky was a sickly pale green. He sat up and heard a ringing in his ears, a pressure in between his temples like his brain was a balloon about to pop. Disoriented and lightheaded, he clawed his way up the tree at his side so that he could stand, and then he noticed the marking in the center of the trunk.
A white x.
A cry of surprise escaped his throat, and then something carved through the air beside his head, and an arrow lodged itself in the center of the x, its shaft vibrating with the force of impact. Kun was tilting sideways, stumbling away from the weapon, when another arrow shot past his nose and into the storm, lost.
“What the hell!” he shouted up at the sky. He remembered, suddenly, the feel of Ten’s chest pressed against his back as he shielded him against the ground, and wished desperately to return to that day. If he’d known what he knew now, he would have done things differently. A wildness sprung up inside of him like oil spurting from a fountain as he realized he was being hunted.
He ran into this strange white world, zigzagging his steps in an attempt to dodge more arrows. It felt impossible to know where the hunters were coming from, so all Kun could really do was focus on getting away. He ran until his thighs burned, and then he kept running, the snow slowing him. More than once, he stepped through the snow and the ground was not where he’d expected it to be, and he fell, scrambling to right himself again. He thought he had circled back and was heading in the general direction of the house. If only he could get back inside, he could protect himself, or call someone for help. He shouldn't have left his phone on the kitchen table.
“Stupid,” he gasped to himself when he fell again. His scarf had fallen under his chin and his face burned with cold. He needed cover. Somehow, the storm was not slowing these hunters down. Another arrow whizzed by his head, so close he felt the shaft graze the fabric of his hood. Up ahead he could make out the shape of a house.
When he got closer, he realized it wasn’t his house. It was Johnny and Taeil’s. It would have to do. Johnny would let him in, and he’d help him. Even though Kun had his misgivings about his partner Taeil, he needed safety and cover more than anything else.
The storm around the house seemed different than the storm that Kun was in right now. Running and pushing through the fire in his lungs, he couldn’t muster enough mental energy to try to figure out what made it so. He saw, through one of the windows, a dark shape moving. Johnny.
The back door flew open. Johnny hurtled out of it, wearing thermal long sleeves and sweats, but nothing more. “Kun!” Johnny shouted. Kun could not hear him, but he could recognize the shape of his name on Johnny’s lips. He pushed harder, through the fatigue, as another volley of arrows fell behind his heels.
Johnny skidded to a stop about twenty paces from the house and held his hand high up above his head. Then he brought it down in a slicing motion. Sparks trailed from his fingertips, following the trajectory of his hand. Kun felt electricity snap through the air. He ran towards him with the last of his energy and crashed to the ground beside him, eating snow and panting hard.
“I have to close the ward,” Johnny said. “Don’t move.”
Kun didn’t dare move. He saw out of the corner of his eye Johnny sweep his hand up from the ground, his eyes closed as his lips moved around words Kun couldn’t recognize. The pressure in Kun’s skull built, and built, and built, as Johnny chanted silently. An arrow lodged itself right by Kun’s feet. Then, the pressure burst, and Johnny sagged forward onto his knees, winded and drained. Kun caught another arrow speeding toward them out of the corner of his eye and darted forward to push Johnny out of the way, and they fell to the side as the arrow shattered against an invisible wall an arm’s length from Kun’s face.
“The ward will hold,” Johnny said, breathing heavily. “C’mon, let’s go inside.”
“I…” Kun tried to stand and found he couldn’t move his arms or legs at all, no matter how much he willed it. His eyelids were growing heavy. “I…” He swayed as the adrenaline left his system, leaving him exhausted and confused. “Johnny--”
“You’ve been hit,” Johnny said gently. “Grazed. Don’t worry. I’ve got you. You’ll be just fine.”
He helped Kun to his feet, and the world went black and numb.
Kun came awake swaddled like a newborn in thick blankets on an unfamiliar bed, but he instantly recognized the dark, reddish stain of the wood paneling the walls. It smelt of burning sage, and the lingering smoke in the air burned the back of his throat and tickled his eyes. He coughed.
“Kun?” Johnny loomed over him, emerging from the hazy, smoke-filled background to materialize into a shadow in front of Kun’s face. “Easy does it. You’re almost there.”
“What’s going on?” Kun tried to say, but his words came out half-formed and slurred. His eyelids drooped as his mind became cloudy, like his thoughts were all trapped in a vat of molasses.
“The arrows were dipped in a powerful sedative, but it’s almost out of your system, now,” Johnny explained. “You’ll be okay.”
“Where’s Ten?” Kun asked next. He tried again, eyebrows furrowing when he realized his mouth wasn’t working properly. “Where’s Ten?”
“Ten?” Johnny sighed. His hand was rubbing circles on Kun’s chest. “Ten…We’re looking for him, too. Taeil should be back soon with him. I can feel it.”
“You’re connected. It tugs at you,” Kun babbled.
“Yeah, kind of like that,” Johnny agreed gently. “He’s got his fish hooks in you, huh? Or maybe you in him?”
Kun pouted. He didn’t know what he had with Ten, or what Ten had with him; he just wanted to sleep. His body felt as heavy as a boulder.
“So sleep,” Johnny coaxed him.
He let his eyes fall shut, and in the next moment, he was out again.
Kun knew he was dreaming. Nevertheless, he opened his eyes to find where his subconscious had taken him, and found himself still in the same bedroom in Johnny and Taeil's home. The skin of his arms, no longer bound to his sides by layers of blankets wrapped around him like a shroud, prickled with cold as a breeze gusted in through the crack in the window. The skies outside were clear and cloudless. At the foot of his bed, Ten lay curled around the mounds Kun's feet made under the covers, his face relaxed in sleep. He was naked.
Ten, Kun whispered. Ten, is it really you?
Heat blazed under Kun’s skin, but outside of his cocoon of blankets the air was frigid. The sweat forming at his temples chilled immediately. Ten’s eyelids opened, his irises a pale, watery gold.
Where are you? Kun asked Ten in his dream. The other whimpered and curled himself tighter around Kun’s feet, shivering in the cold. Is it cold where you are? Where are you?
Where are you? Ten echoed, in Kun’s voice. When he blinked, his eyes flickered red, then purple, then gold again. Kun shuddered like he’d heard the screech of nails being raked over a chalkboard. Is it cold where you are? Where are you?
Kun pushed himself up onto his elbows as Ten rose to a seat on his haunches. He was trembling like a leaf in the wind. Come here, Kun begged him, reaching out his hands. He wanted nothing more than to draw Ten into his warmth, to comb his fingers through his unwashed hair, to ease the knots of tension from his spine.
I’m trying, Ten cried. Wake up, Kun!
The wind battered the window and Ten fell from the bed like he’d been shoved from a great height. Kun sprung forward, going to him, dragging half of the blankets down to the floor with him as he tried to wrap Ten’s convulsing form in warmth. He watched Ten’s eyes roll back into his head. He watched his bones shift under his skin, like his wolf-shape was trying to erupt from its human-shaped prison. Ten spat up blood.
Kun felt wetness on his cheeks and scrubbed the back of his hands over them, smearing Ten’s speckled blood over his skin like blush. Hold on, please, Kun pleaded. You’ll be okay. You’ll be okay. This is just a dream. A dream--
Wake up, Kun! Ten thrashed in his arms. With how tightly Kun was holding onto him, he could feel how Ten’s bones were breaking and knitting themselves back together, sometimes in the wrong shapes. The wind rattled the glass in the windows like prisoners clanging against the bars of their jail cells. Wake up, wake up!
I’m trying, Kun cried. He could not have Ten dying in his arms. He didn’t know what to do.
Then suddenly, Ten stopped shaking.
Kun’s heart dropped to his feet. Ten was so still. No, no, no, no--
Wake up! the wind screamed. Ten opened his eyes. They were colorless. He lunged toward Kun and closed his teeth around his throat.
There was someone screaming downstairs when Kun awoke, his skin on fire, the remnants of his dream burning in his veins. The tugging in his heart, now like a drowning man pulling on a lifeline, was telling him that the screaming was coming from Ten. Kun bolted out of bed, finding steadiness in his legs after a couple of wobbling steps, and threw himself down the stairs.
Ten's sobs echoed through the walls, and Kun thought of the wolf he had found in his backyard the night of the storm, leg caught in a trap. This was much worse. The sound tore at his heart. He ran down the dark hallway and rounded the corner, into the kitchen where all the lights were on and Ten was on his back on the table, clawing at Johnny’s forearm pressing down onto his chest.
Kun cried out in rage. “Get off him--!”
The next thing Kun knew, he was gasping for breath against the wall, blinking stars out of his field of vision.
“You are not welcome here!” Taeil snarled at Kun, teeth bared. His incisors were long and thin, like needles, and his eyes were glowing red. He drove Kun into the wall, knocking his head back against it again for good measure as the blade of his hand crushed Kun's windpipe. Kun hissed at the sharp pain that spiked in the back of his skull, his fingers desperately scratching at Taeil's hand at his throat.
“ Taeil .” Johnny spoke with restrained urgency, clearly struggling with Ten still writhing underneath him. “Not now. I need you.”
Taeil snapped his teeth aggressively at Kun, making him flinch back. “Stay out of this,” Taeil growled. “You’ve done enough damage.”
When he retracted his hand, Kun dropped to the floor like a sack of flour, wheezing for air.
Ten was drowning, Kun’s heart was telling him. He was there spasming on the table but he was drowning, yanking so hard on the thread that connected them to each other that Kun’s eyes pricked with painful tears feeling each desperate pull to keep from sinking into the deep. “He needs me,” Kun choked out.
Within the blink of an eye, Taeil was crouched over Ten’s form on the table’s surface near his head. He took Ten’s flailing arms, one in each hand, and crossed them over Ten’s neck until he could pin his wrists down to the wood. Restrained like this, Ten fought against himself, kicking his legs and arching his back, but his upper body might as well have been nailed to the table, Taeil’s hold on him stronger than steel. “Shh,” Taeil whispered, almost gently, almost soothingly. “Let Johnny do what he must.”
Ten threw his head back and howled, the anguish coloring his tone thick and tangible in the air, but he stilled and sagged into the table, whimpering. Kun stood on shaky legs. He could feel the blood draining from his face. “What are you doing to him?”
Johnny held a stone bowl in his hand. In it was a fine black dust, so saturated and dense that it seemed to swallow the light around it. He dipped his thumb into the powder and swiped it over Ten’s chest to draw a thick line down Ten’s sternum. “An extraction,” Johnny mumbled. “He’s been poisoned.”
Kun inhaled sharply, walking over to the table. Here, directly under the overhead lights, he could see how Ten’s skin had taken on a sickly hue, greyish and dull. His lips were dry, peeling, and cracked. There was an open sore right over his ribs that bubbled and wept dark blood under Kun’s eye. He ignored the glare Taeil sent him and reached out his hand, cupping his palm against Ten’s cheek. Despite the paleness of his body, he was burning with fever. His eyes, when they darted to Kun, flickered weakly.
“Ten.” Kun’s eyes dripped with tears. Ten’s cheek under his palm was real, and solid, but Ten himself seemed to be on the brink of shattering into a thousand pieces. “Ten, I’m so sorry--”
“Don’t distract me,” Johnny said. “But keep touching him, it keeps him calm.”
It was true. Ten’s breathing had slowed, though he still whimpered and groaned as he pushed his cheek into Kun’s hand. Meanwhile, Johnny had been working, drawing the black powder over Ten’s body in patterns Kun didn’t recognize. When he was done, he seemed to hesitate, and he looked at Taeil.
“What are you waiting for?” Taeil snapped.
“This will hurt,” Johnny said.
“It already hurts,” Taeil said. “Do it, or he will die.”
Johnny nodded and closed his eyes. He whispered rapid words under his breath, the hushed syllables reminding Kun of a serpent’s nest. The sound raised the little hairs on Kun’s forearms and at the back of his neck. The windows began to rattle, but the air was dead outside. Gravity pressed down on Kun and time slowed in the vacuum that had been created in Johnny’s kitchen. On Ten’s body, the dark lines began to glow like embers in a dying fire.
“ Kun ,” Ten whimpered, before the pressure burst and everything expanded. Ten’s spine arched impossibly, his strangled scream curdling in the air. When he sank back down onto the table again, Kun watched in horror as Ten’s skin split open, tiny fissures and cuts all over his body that bled and bled until the skin sewed itself back together again. Out of the gashes emerged grains of dull metal that Johnny quickly swept into his hands.
Silver, Kun realized as nausea crept into his stomach. The smell of blood, coppery and sweet, hung in the air. Ten convulsed under his and Taeil’s hands, and Kun realized he was choking. He turned Ten’s face to the side and swallowed around bile when blood trickled out of the corner of Ten’s mouth.
“Stop, please--” Kun’s voice was thin and strained. Panicking from all the red he was seeing, Kun’s hand slipped down to Ten’s neck, where his pulse beat sluggishly under his palm. “Ten, oh God, Ten--”
“He’ll heal,” Taeil said. “You just have to let him.”
Ten’s eyes rolled back into his skull. He stopped shaking. Silence rang in Kun’s ears.
Then, in filtered Johnny’s labored breathing. Kun looked to the other man and saw the grains of silver he had gathered in his palm and formed into a sphere the size of a marble. It dropped to the table with a dull clank and then rolled into a groove in the wood.
Johnny slumped to the floor, suddenly, and the sound reminded Kun of meat hitting the ground after being chopped from a hanging hook.
“Watch him while I take care of Johnny,” Taeil demanded, raising an eyebrow when Kun jumped at his voice and didn't respond. He pointed with his chin to Ten, who lay unconscious on the table, drenched in his own blood. “Watch this one," he specified.
"O-Okay,” Kun whispered. He could barely get the word out. “Wha--? What’s wrong with Johnny?”
Taeil appeared at Johnny’s side on the floor, moving too quickly for Kun’s eyes process. In the next moment, he was at the kitchen’s entrance and he had Johnny cradled in his arms like Johnny was a sleeping child and not a man nearly a head taller than Taeil at his full height. “Magic depletes him,” Taeil explained. “For him, its power does not come without a cost. A power nap and a strong cup of coffee usually does the trick, though. I’ll come back down for the mutt.”
Kun bristled at his careless tone, but Taeil only chuckled and disappeared. A second later, the floorboards overhead creaked. Underneath Kun’s palm, Ten’s pulse was growing steadily stronger. He used his other hand to swipe at the drying blood on Ten’s skin, above his ribs, and found him unblemished and whole. He exhaled a long breath he hadn’t realized he was holding and curved over the table to press his forehead against Ten’s shoulder, afraid to move him but craving closeness. Shifting to rest his cheek on Ten’s arm, he watched Ten’s chest rise and fall with his breaths.
Kun allowed himself a moment to try to understand what had just happened, what he had just witnessed, now that he was alone with Ten and assured that he wasn’t going to die on him. He reached over and picked up the silver marble and rolled it between his fingers. It was still warm.
Upstairs, he heard the sound of the water running. A tub being filled.
“I was so scared you weren’t real,” Kun whispered into Ten’s skin. “But you are. You’re real. You’re here. You’re going to be okay.”
Taeil appeared at the kitchen entrance. He made an impatient noise. “Tch, look at you. You’ve got blood on your face, now. And that’s my shirt.” Kun blinked, and Taeil was beside him. He startled back from Ten’s form and began to protest when Taeil scooped his arms under Ten’s shoulders and knees. “He needs a bath,” Taeil said. “And you, you should wash your face and hands.”
Kun looked down at his hands. They were smeared with drying blood. When he looked up again, Ten and Taeil were gone.
Kun cleaned himself off as best he could in the bathroom by the front door, suppressing his gag reflex when the water running down the drain was brown, then pink, then finally clear. He could do nothing about the front of Taeil’s shirt, a plain grey tee that Johnny must have put on him when he was out, that now had a dark splotch in the front. It kind of looked like someone had tried to punch out Kun’s heart.
He went upstairs after, seeking out Ten and Taeil. There weren’t many doors on the second floor landing. The first one opened to Johnny’s sleeping form, curled on his side in bed with the covers pulled up to his chin. The second opened to another bedroom, the one Kun had occupied earlier, and this one was empty, but there was another door off to the side of it that was opened, and from within, Kun could hear water sloshing.
Before he could even think to step forward, Taeil was in front of him. His shirt was drenched and he did not look too pleased about it. “He is awake,” Taeil announced. “But barely. If you hurt him, I’ll eat your heart in front of you.”
“I’d never hurt him,” Kun said. Taeil huffed, but stalked off to the room where Johnny was sleeping, leaving Kun alone. He approached the bathroom carefully, as though afraid of what he might see. But it was just going to be Ten, right?
He let out a sigh when he peered around the door frame and saw Ten sitting the tub with his knees pulled up to his chest, his arms wrapped tightly around them. The water sloshed against the sides because he was trembling again.
“Ten,” Kun gasped. “Oh, Ten -- you must be freezing. Let’s get you dry.”
Kun whisked the towel from the rack and went to him, helping him stand. He threw the towel around his shoulders and unplugged the drain. The water was lukewarm and clear. Taeil must have already gone through a couple rounds of rinsing. Ten’s teeth were chattering, his cheeks flushed, and he made no effort to do anything with the towel.
“Come on, Ten,” Kun coaxed. As the water drained from the tub, Kun grabbed another towel. This one, he drew around Ten’s waist, rubbing him down with gentle movements. Ten finally moved his hands to clutch at this one, so that it didn’t fall when Kun let go. Kun moved to the towel around Ten’s shoulders, pulling it up over his head and slowly drying his hair. “Let’s get you all warmed up,” Kun kept saying as he dried him off as thoroughly as he could. “You’re gonna be just fine.”
Kun froze when Ten lifted his hand and wrapped his fingers around Kun’s wrist. “What is it?” he asked him.
Ten pointed at Kun’s shirt with his other hand, and the towel around Ten’s waist dropped into the tub. Ten didn’t seem to notice.
“It’s fine,” Kun said. “I’m not hurt at all. It’s -- it’s your blood.”
Ten covered his eyes with his hands and let out a distressed sound. Kun held onto his wrists and pulled them away from his face, worried Ten would press too hard and hurt himself. “I’ll change,” Kun said. “Want me to change?” Ten nodded, golden eyes fixed on the splotch of dried blood on the shirt. “Can we get to the bed first, please?”
Ten shuddered. “Okay,” he said, his voice as brittle as dry leaves cracking underfoot. They made their way slowly, with Ten using Kun as a crutch for support. Once there, Kun managed to get Ten into some boxers he found in the dressers, and a huge shirt. “Smells like Johnny,” Ten said hollowly. He sat on the edge of the bed listlessly, expression vacant.
Kun felt himself start to grow anxious as he changed out of his soiled shirt and into a fresh one from the dresser, similarly huge on him. “Better?” he asked Ten.
Ten nodded, and Kun started to fold down the covers so that Ten could get under them. He helped him with this, too, tucking the covers in around his body. Ten turned his face into the pillow and inhaled deeply. “Smells like you,” he said.
“Yes, I was here before. Johnny helped me.”
“Stay,” Ten said. He looked panicked for a moment at the thought of Kun leaving. “Please.”
“I’ll stay. Of course I’ll stay,” Kun said. He sat on the edge of the mattress and rounded his hand over Ten’s cheek. Ten kissed the center of his palm, digging his nose into his skin. The tugging on Kun’s heart returned. He wasn’t sure if it had ever left. He folded down the covers again and slid under them so that they were sharing in body heat. Chest to chest like this, he could hold Ten properly, cup his face in his hands.
They stared at each other for a long time. Kun could see Ten's eyes roaming the details of Kun's face slowly, as though committing everything to memory. He was doing the same for Ten. He wanted to memorize the way that Ten blinked, the way his lips parted when he breathed, the exact curve and shape of his eyes. Kun had never noticed the little mole under Ten's eyebrow. He leaned forward to kiss it softly, and a sweet sigh fell from Ten's lips.
"I am so happy he found you," Kun whispered. He had missed this, Ten's warmth and scent. His touch. The way Ten always seemed to be able to find every nook and cranny in Kun and fill it. He could no longer imagine a world without him. "I'm sorry for everything. For everything from before."
"You're forgiven," Ten said. His eyes blazed with the color of the setting sun. He shuffled closer, millimeter by millimeter on the pillow, until when he breathed, his breath fanned over Kun's lips. "I thought of you when I needed to remember I was human," Ten whispered. "I thought of you a lot."
"What happened to you?" Kun held him, his eyes burning.
Ten shivered and closed his eyes. He shook his head, lips brushing over Kun's with the movement. "I--I don't--I can't--"
"You don't have to tell me yet," Kun said.
“Your spell,” Ten said. His eyes flickered open, and his breath hitched with emotion as his they welled with tears. Kun found himself mirroring him, even as he thumbed away the wetness from Ten’s cheeks. “It worked. I felt it.”
“What spell?” Kun asked.
“Come back to me when it’s safe,” Ten said with the last of his steadiness. He crumbled before Kun, his shoulders shaking as he cried, and Kun pulled him closer until he was weeping into Kun’s neck. “I tried. I tried so hard. I could feel you pulling at me, but I -- it was never safe.”
Kun's resolve broke, too. His gratitude at Ten's return to his arms was soured by the knowledge that something terrible had happened to him. Something terrible that Kun would never allow to happen again. As his tears fell to the pillow and Ten's hair, he traced circles with his palms on Ten's back. “Shh, it’s okay. It’s okay," he soothed. "You’re safe now. You’re safe with me, I promise."
Kun drifted awake groggily as he realized the pounding at the door downstairs was someone knocking incessantly and not part of his dream. Ten groaned and buried his face into Kun’s armpit when he moved and stretched his legs out under the covers. It was still light out, but just barely. The knocking continued, followed by shouting.
“I should see what it is,” Kun said.
Ten gurgled something incoherent. Reluctantly, Kun left the warmth of Ten’s body and the blankets and shivered as he adjusted to the chilled temperature of the house before heading out onto the landing. Johnny’s bedroom door was still closed. He wondered if Taeil and Johnny were inside, completely unconscious to the world. He wondered if Taeil slept.
The shouting at the door took on a familiar tone the closer Kun crept.
“--just a quick question, please! Sorry to bother you! Promise it’ll be quick, I--”
Kun opened the door to see Xuxi standing on the doorstep. Xuxi froze, stunned into silence, his fist still raised and poised to knock. “Hi?” Kun hazarded.
Xuxi blinked to regain his bearings and then: “What the fuck , Kun!” He shoved through the door and inside, throwing his arms around Kun’s body. “You had me worried to death , man!”
“I? I did?” Kun asked, bewildered. He stumbled back with the force of Xuxi’s hug and tried to swing the door shut.
“Talking crazy about werewolves and vampires and then the storm, oh god. The storm! You had me believing you ran out into it looking for Wolfie!” Xuxi seemed to have switched over from righteous confusion to bubbling joy. He laughed and bounced Kun in his arms. “You’re fine! God, you had us thinking that we should call the police--”
“We?” Kun peered behind Xuxi but didn’t see Sicheng in his shadow.
“Yeah, when we went up to your place and found your phone abandoned on the table, we thought the worst. Sicheng is still there. Good thing I thought about checking with your neighbors, huh? Where are they, anyway?” Xuxi detached himself from Kun and started wandering further down the hall, towards the kitchen.
Panic spiked in Kun’s chest.
“Still napping, I think,” Kun said, stalking after him. “Listen, Xuxi, I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to be here right now. We’re kinda--”
“What the hell is this?”
Dread knotted itself in Kun’s stomach. He knew what Xuxi was looking at from the entrance to the kitchen. The blood staining the table. The charcoal striped across the floor. It would definitely look like a Satanic sacrifice or something, from anyone’s perspective.
“It’s, um, it’s--” Kun ran forward, trying to think of a believable explanation but coming up with nothing. He reached Xuxi’s shoulder, peering over it, and gasped. Xuxi skipped forward.
The kitchen was entirely spotless save for the mixing bowls filled with cake batter and frosting sitting on the table. Taeil stood at the counter, casually flouring a cake tin over the sink. “Hello,” he greeted pleasantly, putting the tin down and wiping his floured hands over his apron before holding his hand out for Xuxi to shake. "Kun, you didn't tell me you'd invited guests over for dinner. You must be Xuxi.”
"I am," Xuxi greeted enthusiastically. "Is that chocolate cake? Sorry. And you are?"
"Taeil," Taeil said, eyes glittering with amusement. "Really, it's a pleasure to meet you."