Pop culture has it wrong, Mark thinks. Whoever first said that vampires were mysterious, or alluring—Mark wants to go back in time and shake some sense into them. If it was up to him, he’d probably change it to something along the lines of dry or traditionalist or maybe just straight-up boring. Maybe it’s because the old ones can’t go out into the sun anymore. Or maybe it’s because they’ve all been alive for five hundred years, and when you’re that old, you run out of things to do other than saying no to things for no good reason at all.
“No,” Taeyong says shortly, and Mark winces, feeling Taeyong’s patience fray. “Mark, listen, I know it’s probably fine, but you know how everyone would feel.”
Case in point: Taeyong Lee, vampire, three hundred years old. Mark loves him a lot, looks up to him a ton—but sometimes, Mark gets a little tired of his nagging.
“Nobody would know I’m there,” Mark begs, stepping closer to Taeyong. “I know you’ve got the whole thing against witches, but there might not even be any there—”
“It’s a party hosted by witches,” Taeyong points out, one of his eyebrows hiking up. “There will be witches there, Mark. And if you get caught—”
“Okay, listen, you bring up a very good point,” Mark says, switching tactics, “but this war was almost three hundred years ago—how can anyone remember—”
Taeyong’s face shutters, eyes going dark. “No,” he says, and while his voice is quiet, there’s no more room to argue. There’s something painful that hides behind his carefully-neutral expression—the Witch War was three hundred years ago, but clearly, he still feels the consequences of it.
Abort mission, Mark thinks quickly, taking a step backwards. “Sorry,” he says. If Johnny were here, he’d set his jaw and stand his ground. If it were Jaemin, he’d find some way to persuade him. And if it were Doyoung—well, Doyoung would probably take Taeyong’s side, but that’s just because Doyoung’s been friends with Taeyong longer than Mark has. “That was too far.”
Taeyong heaves a massive sigh. “I hate to be a downer, Mark, but we can’t—I can’t risk it. You could get hurt, or someone could see you, and then we’d be in such massive trouble…” He trails off, forehead creasing. “You understand.”
Mark doesn’t, not really, but he’s not in the mood to get another lecture or poke at more buried pain. The old ones—Taeyong included—count their years so strangely. Mark’s only been immortal for about thirty years, so he’s still young compared to the rest of them. The old ones hold grudges for decades, slights and wrongdoings that Mark shakes off easily staying on their shoulders for far longer than Mark thinks they should.
“Yeah,” he says. Taeyong’s face softens, and he reaches out to pat Mark on the cheek.
“The war took many of our kind,” he says. “To me, they were family. That’s not something I can forgive easily. I’m sorry.”
He seems to mean it, and the last of the stubbornness drains out of Mark. “It’s okay,” he says, forcing a smile. “I’ll go see a movie with Johnny instead.”
Taeyong’s nose wrinkles good-naturedly. “Lycans. They stink. I don’t know how you can stand them.”
Mark laughs, and the last of the tension lifts from between them. “They’re good company.”
“I’ll leave the dogs to you,” Taeyong says. “Stay out of trouble, okay?”
“Okay,” Mark promises, giving Taeyong two thumbs up. “I’ll try.”
And the thing is, he really, really does try. He doesn’t like going behind Taeyong’s back, doesn’t like lying to anyone’s face. Sicheng comes by as he’s leaving the coven house, dusk just starting to gather on the horizon. His hood is down, the rays of the sun weak enough now to walk around uncovered. Also contrary to popular belief, sunlight does not, in fact, instantly kill vampires—meaning windows are just fine. The UV rays, however, can potentially be harmful, depending on the vampire’s age. Sicheng, who hit a hundred years just last month, has to walk around with sleeves and his hood up, or he risks the sun leaching all the energy from his body. Taeyong, who’s even older, can’t go out during the day anymore, because it makes him dizzy and tired, forcing him to spend hours in bed, feeding periodically to replenish his energy. Vampires are slow healers, too, so the old ones have to be extra careful.
Mark, on the other hand, isn’t affected by it much at all. Sure, short sleeves in the summer make him a little tired, but he’s certainly not going to pass out on the street any time soon.
“Going somewhere?” Sicheng asks, leaning against the wrought-iron gate. It’s not accusatory, just curious—though it took Mark a little while to learn the distinction.
“Just home,” Mark says. “I’m gonna see if Johnny and Jeno are around. How were Yuta and Ten?”
“They’re good,” Sicheng says, pulling off his gloves and stuffing them into his pocket. “But upstate New York has always been a little too quiet for my taste.”
“Why doesn’t Yuta move down to you, then?” Mark asks.
Sicheng sighs, and the heaviness in it betrays how old he is. To any passerby, he’s flawless, mid-twenties, and fashionable. To Mark, though, he’s tired, a century old, and very much in love.
“He likes the trees,” Sicheng says, shrugging. “There’s actually a lot of fae in Ithaca for that reason.”
Mark’s phone buzzes with a text. It’s Jeno, asking how the conversation with Taeyong went. Sicheng glances at Mark’s phone, brow wrinkling.
“Ask Taeyong what?” he asks.
“Nothing,” he says, too quickly. Sicheng’s eyes narrow.
“Mark,” Sicheng says, crossing his arms. Mark chews on the inside of his cheek, shifting from foot-to-foot, and Sicheng waits. Vampires are very good at that, especially the old ones, who can stay in the same spot for hours, waiting patiently. Sicheng could literally stand here all night, waiting for Mark to answer him. Better to get it over with.
“There’s a party down in Brooklyn,” Mark says, looking down at his feet. “That Jung Jaehyun is hosting.”
“And Jung Jaehyun knows witches. Absolutely not,” Sicheng says immediately. Mark shrugs. He’s already given up on trying to convince anyone to let him go.
“I know,” he says. “Taeyong already said no.”
“As he should,” Sicheng says. “You’re going to listen to him, right?”
“Yeah,” Mark says, and it’s not a lie. As of right now, he’s not going to go.
“Good,” Sicheng says, relaxing. “Witches are no joke, Mark. They’re unpredictable—”
“Out-of-control, dangerous, I know,” Mark finishes, pushing past Sicheng and out into the street. Around him, the brownstones turn gold in the setting sun. The wind is picking up, and if Mark were human, he’d huddle into his coat, but his pulse has long settled, heart beating so infrequently it might as well be stopped. His skin has cooled like the weather around him, and the October chill no longer affects him like it used to.
“I’ll see you later.” He’s doing a terrible job of hiding his hurt feelings, but Sicheng lets him go. Unlike Taeyong, he doesn’t push.
“See you soon, Mark,” Sicheng says, because even if Mark doesn’t live in the coven house, it’s one of the few places that he can go to get food. He’s only fed off a live person once, and that was Jeno—long story—and it went so sideways he’s terrified of doing it again. So it’s the coven house for him, the elegant brownstone facade hiding the more supernatural happenings inside.
The rush hour crowds swallow Mark as soon as he steps foot onto a main street, people knocking into him and glaring when he takes too long to cross the intersection—people with headphones in, on their phone, clutching books or briefcases or backpacks. Mark, despite Taeyong’s constant offers for a personal driver, still takes the subway, standing in the violent crush of the crowd, swaying as the train takes turns too tight, rattling along the rails so loudly he can barely hear himself think. Sure, the smell is a lot—the rush of body heat, blood pumping through veins, sweet and warm and human. Temptation calls to him in the middle of the packed, sweaty train platforms, asking him to give in.
He hasn’t yet, thankfully. Doing so—without consent, at least—would mean a stake in the heart, and Mark’s not too psyched about that. So he breathes through his mouth and pretends it’s 1999 and he’s listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers on his MP3 player before the camping trip, before the attack, before he was left bleeding in the woods to die. And then had come back alive, hungry, and in the worst pain of his life.
Mark gets off at his stop, shaking the memories off. This is why he’s going to try to listen to Taeyong, even if it’s a little stupid that he can’t move past the Witch War. He owes Taeyong his life, loves him like an older brother, and really doesn’t want to fuck up and make him mad.
His friends, however, have no such reservations. They’re all waiting for him in his apartment when he gets back—he can smell them all from the end of the hallway. Shampoo and dog and something spicy that tingles in his sinuses—Jaemin.
Mark sighs. He should’ve known. Jaemin is annoyingly good at picking locks, and Jeno will always back him up. Johnny’s probably in there, too, because he’s reasonable and too friendly to say no to.
“You guys, I really can’t go,” Mark says as he opens the door, kicking his friends’ shoes out of the way. “Taeyong will bust my ass.”
“Aw,” Jaemin says, sitting on the countertop, peeling an orange. “What if he didn’t know you went, though? Then you wouldn’t get in trouble.”
“That’s not—that’s not how it works,” Mark says, baffled at Jaemin’s logic. “He’d know.”
“Yeah, but, like, what if he didn’t?” Jaemin replies, tossing his orange peel into the trash can. “Jeno, back me up.”
“Uh, you should go,” Jeno says from the couch, looking up from his phone. “It’ll be super fun, first off, and second off, it’s in Brooklyn. There aren’t any vampires there. It’s all witches.”
“And it’ll be crowded,” Johnny chimes in, and Mark sighs in defeat, slumping into one of the chairs at the island counter. As soon as all three of them tag-team him, he’s a goner. “Nobody will even recognize you. You’ll be fine.”
“Come on, Mark,” Jaemin coaxes. “We haven’t seen you in ages.” He gives Mark a pleading look, and Mark feels some of his magic wash over him, warm and persuasive.
Maybe you should, the magic seems to say. It’s a good idea. They’re your friends, and you wanted to go anyway, Taeyong won’t even notice—
God, Mark hates casters sometimes. Them and their stupid people-magic.
Johnny smiles encouragingly. “Well?”
“Fine,” Mark says at last, and Jaemin lets out an excited yell, sliding off the counter and hugging Mark so tightly something in Mark’s back cracks.
“Sweet,” Jeno says, standing, and Mark suddenly notices that the three of them are already dressed and ready to go. They knew he’d cave, even before he stepped through the door.
“Gotta change your outfit, though, it’s an upscale party,” Johnny says as Jaemin nudges Mark towards his bedroom.
“Is it cool if I eat the rest of these?” Jeno asks, holding up a bag of hot Cheetos.
“Those are yours,” Mark says. “I don’t eat people food, dude.”
“Right, you just eat the people themselves,” Jaemin jokes, and Mark gives him a look. “Sorry, sorry, I know you’re sensitive about that.”
“I’m going to get dressed,” Mark says, pinching the bridge of his nose. This is going to be a long night. “Please don’t break anything.”
Not ten minutes later, there’s an immense crashing noise. Mark sighs, yanks his shirt over his head, and opens the door to his bedroom just in time to watch Johnny pull a cabinet door off its hinges.
“Oh, Jesus Christ,” Mark says, crossing the kitchen and taking the door from Johnny’s hands. “How’d you even—”
“It was an accident,” Johnny says guiltily. “Jeno said the cabinets were cheap.”
Mark turns to see Jeno cowering by the couch, also holding a cabinet door and looking incredibly confused. “I just wanted water,” he explains.
“I asked you guys not to break anything,” Mark says, bewildered. “I don’t think—it’s not that hard, right?”
“Theoretically,” Jaemin snorts from the couch, scrolling through his phone. “But they’re dogs, so what can you do?”
“Hey,” Jeno says, kicking Jaemin in the ankle. “That’s not—”
He’s cut short when Jaemin reaches up to scratch the back of his head, flopping face-first into Jaemin’s chest, eyes already closing.
“See,” Jaemin says triumphantly. “Big puppy.”
“Unfair,” Jeno murmurs, sounding half-asleep. “That’s cheating.”
“Can’t you fix it?” Mark asks him, holding up the cabinet door.
“Not my brand of magic,” Jaemin reminds him, still rubbing the back of Jeno’s neck. “If it’s not a person, I can’t do anything to it. You’ll need a witch.” His smile turns a little sly. “Luckily, where we’re going, you’ll find plenty.”
“I feel not-great about going behind everyone’s back,” Mark says, even as he tucks his shirt into his pants and tracks down his jacket. He’s even put earrings in—gold, because silver burns like a motherfucker—which means that no matter what he says, he’s committed to going.
“They won’t find out,” Johnny assures him, clapping him hard on the back.
“If you think being nice to me is going to make me forget about the cabinets,” Mark tells him, “it’s not.”
“I really am sorry,” Johnny says, and Mark sighs, because he’s already forgiven him. It’s not like Mark uses the cabinets—much less the kitchen—often anyways. The whole apartment, actually, remains mostly unused. He doesn’t sleep much, he doesn’t cook, and if he wants company or entertainment, he heads to the coven house. The only thing this apartment really does is give him a place to clear his head and a closet to store his clothes in. A space to call his—even if it’s a little impersonal, slightly dusty, and often empty.
“It’s fine,” Mark says, waving him off. He turns to Jeno and Jaemin, who are still squished together. “Hey, jackasses, get off my couch. If we’re going, let’s go.”
Jaemin is on his feet in an instant, and Jeno rolls off of him and onto the ground with a painful-sounding thud. “I’m ready!” he says brightly. Jeno stands with a groan, rubbing his shoulder. “Me too,” he says.
Mark turns to Johnny, stomach already swimming with a mix of nervousness and anticipation.
“Good to go,” Johnny says, giving Mark two thumbs up. “I called us a cab. They’ll be here in five.”
“Human?” Jaemin asks, crouching so he can put his shoes back on. “I need to know how much charmspeak I can use on him before he crashes the car.”
“First off, the driver’s a she,” Johnny says, “and secondly, she’s fae.”
“Definitely not, then,” Jaemin says, grimacing. “Don’t wanna mess with a faerie.”
The driver’s name is Yeji, and she’s wearing flip-flops and denim shorts despite the weather, driving with one of her legs pulled up to her chest. Her car smells like a florists’ shop and a shoe store at the same time. She chats with them about the city, and about how her family is thinking of moving down to Philadelphia because of the strange spike of supernatural violence New York has seen over the last two weeks. It’d been mostly magic-users, and not anybody Mark knows, so he hasn’t focused too much on it. But it’s strange, for sure.
“That’s just the time of year, though,” Johnny says, frowning. “Darker nights, brighter moons. Everyone gets a little restless.”
“Trust me,” Yeji says, blowing past a stop sign and laying on the horn when a pedestrian tries to cross in front of her. “It’s not just the weather.”
They sit in grim silence for a second, processing this. Then Johnny shrugs, and the moment passes.
“Eh,” he says. “Not too worried. People will take care of it.”
“Just watch your backs, okay?” Yeji says, pulling up in front of an unassuming, tall brick building. Wide, dark windows gape at them. It looks deserted, but Mark knows better. Magic hides more than it shows, and the people inside the building certainly don’t want…outsiders finding their way in.
“Always,” Jeno promises her.
“Hey, thanks for the ride,” Johnny says. “Stay safe.”
“You too,” Yeji replies, giving him a brief, flitting smile. Then she’s gone, peeling away from the curb with a loud squeal.
“I thought fae were prickly and territorial,” Jaemin muses as they skirt around the building towards the back door, as per the instructions included at the bottom of the invitation. Everyone but Mark had been invited on Facebook—though Jaehyun had messaged him privately to tell him that he could come, if he wanted.
And if he didn’t tell any of the other witches who he was.
Because it wasn’t just the vampires that hated the witches—it went both ways. The mutual distrust, hatred, and scorn each side held for the other was so strong it had quite literally played a role in history. In the Revolutionary War, the witches had aided the colonists and the French to spite the European vampire coven, and it was with their magic that America won the war. Formation of the states, especially western ones, were reflective of witch-vampire boundaries. Even New York City, upon the influx of significant witch and vampire populations, had been divided so they could stay separated. Manhattan belonged to the vampires; Brooklyn was given to the witches. Everyone else was left to settle in between, wisely keeping out of the feud. It could get violent very, very quickly if Mark was discovered here, in the heart of Brooklyn, surrounded by the very thing his kind is supposed to loathe—beings of magic, of unspeakable things, of small talents and large ones, enchanting, impossible…and dangerous and unpredictable and stubborn, according to Taeyong and Sicheng and Hyejin and literally every vampire Mark has ever talked to.
Which is why when the small, bored-looking man at the front door looks Mark dead in the eyes, Mark tenses up.
“I don’t think I’ve seen you before,” he says, face neutral, but Mark feels like he’s being x-rayed. Magic pokes at him, and Mark tries his best to keep breathing (something he mostly does out of habit, not of necessity) and not go entirely still or move too quickly—both dead giveaways.
“He’s a friend of mine,” Jaemin says smoothly, stepping in and slinging an arm around Mark’s shoulders. “Part-gumiho. He wanted to see why I prefer supernatural parties over regular ones.”
The guard’s face relaxes, and Mark, not for the first time, is incredibly glad for Jaemin’s charisma. “Got it,” he says. “Well, Jaehyun hasn’t marked him as a no-go, so all of you are all set.” He nods at Johnny. “Good to see you back on your feet. Chanyeol said you had a bad injury a while ago.”
“Yeah, last month’s run was an experience I do not need to repeat,” Johnny says, shaking his head and laughing. “See you later, Baekhyun.”
Baekhyun’s face is entirely transformed by his friendly smile, and Mark huddles closer to his friends, hoping that Baekhyun won’t sense anything off about him as they pass by, but he just wishes Johnny well and tells them to enjoy their time.
Something around them ripples as they step through the door, and Mark watches the true nature of the building be revealed: host to a massive party, stuffed full with people of all sorts, dancing and talking and drinking. The lights are dimmed, and a metal balcony stretches around the interior, more people leaning against the railings and watching the others below. It smells like magic, like life. Mark takes a second to breathe it in, letting it wash over him. The music. The lights. The people.
If only vampires weren’t so afraid and uptight—then, they could have this too.
Johnny laughs knowingly and claps him on the back. “Told you,” he says, and steers them towards the bar.
They drink, catch up. Jaemin finds a group of friends and Mark loses him for an hour or so, only to have him return with a witch and another caster plastered to his side. The caster, Mark already knows—Jung Jaehyun, the host of the party. The other, who gives Mark a long, distrustful look, introduces himself as Jungwoo.
“Mark Lee!” Jaehyun says loudly over the music, leaning forward to give Mark a quick, one-armed hug. “It’s good to see you again! I thought T—”
Panic flashes through Mark, but Jaemin elbows Jaehyun hard in the ribs before Jaehyun can say anything condemning.
“—traffic coming into the city would’ve been worse,” Jaehyun finishes smoothly, most definitely thanks to whatever charisma good-luck nonsense all casters seem to have. Jungwoo doesn’t even blink. “But I’m glad you could make it.”
“Thanks for the invite,” Mark says, and means it. “Really. It gets pretty stuffy back at home, y’know?”
Jaehyun nods, patting Mark on the shoulder. “I get you. But you’ve always got a place here, just so you know. Whether they like it or not.”
“Thank you,” Mark says again, feeling something warm swell in his chest, loosened by the alcohol he’s got in his system. It’s a mistake to drink—it always is, since his body is no longer quite equipped to handle it anymore—and he’ll regret it immensely in the morning, but everything in the atmosphere sings to him, pulling him in.
Jaemin jostles him. “Let’s go dance,” he says, and turns to Jaehyun. “Tell them to put on something good.”
Good turns out to be Britney Spears. Mark is dubious for half a second when he hears the opening notes of “Toxic”, but then Jaemin is jumping, and Jeno’s jumping, and the fifty other people around him are jumping and then they’re all dancing. Mark’s head spins and he stumbles more than he stands, but he laughs so hard his face hurts and dances until his knees give out.
“I need a break,” he says to Jaemin about four songs later. “And another drink.”
“Okay,” Jaemin says. The song changes to something Mark doesn’t recognize, and he fights his way out of the crowd to the bar.
“Can I get another vodka cranberry?” Mark asks the bartender, who nods and turns away. Mark props his chin in his hand, catching his breath. There’s a massive fish tank—super tacky, in his opinion—off to the side, casting the whole bar area in dreamy, wavering blue light, impossible fish flitting behind brightly-colored corals or through silver streams of bubbles.
“Vodka cranberry,” the bartender says, passing him a cup.
“Thanks,” he says, grabbing the drink, and is about to turn away when something in the fish tank catches his eye—a golden glimmer.
A boy. A boy, staring at him from the other side of the fish tank, eyes wide. If Mark were paying attention to his face, he’d see the cupid’s bow of his mouth, parted slightly. The slope of his nose, the shape of his jaw, the lean line of his neck and splay of his collarbones, visible under the wide neck of his tank top, the minimal, bold lines of tattoos down his arms.
If Mark were paying attention to the boy’s face, he’d see all of this.
But he’s not—because his eyes are on the boy, the boy’s eyes are on his, and Mark breathes out. Time is still, and somehow, impossibly, Mark knows that he will come to love this boy more than his whole, endless life and everything in it.
The boy reaches up and presses a hand against the glass. Mark staggers to his feet. The party around them has become insignificant, and the world has narrowed down to the fish tank, its blue light, and the boy whose lips are already somehow shaping Mark’s name.
But before he can get there, the moment breaks. The boy’s friends appear, equally as shimmery and mysteriously tattooed, and sweep him away without a thought. Mark meets the boy’s eyes as he’s carried back into the crush of people, and Mark feels the boy’s yearning and confusion as if it were Mark’s own. A single shared question, poised on their tongues: who are you?
Without thinking, Mark abandons his drink and goes after him. People bump into him, and someone’s beer sloshes out of the cup and onto his pants. He doesn’t notice, too focused on finding the boy, his face a bright, burning picture in Mark’s mind.
Mark shoves through a group of people, ignoring their complaints. His heart is in his throat, and there is a reckless sort of desperation that’s catching fire, filling his lungs with heat.
The air shimmers in the low lights, and the bass from the music pounds through his bones, rhythmic and urgent. Mark dodges past more people, searching for those eyes again—
And there. There he is. Dancing with a girl Mark doesn’t know, made of miles of golden skin and spidery black lines of tattoo ink. His hair is silvery-grey, and Mark feels something in his chest expand at the sight of him.
Mark watches him dance for a moment, loose-limbed and carefree, twisting his body to the beat of the music. He turns, glancing over his shoulder. Their eyes meet again, over the many heads of the people between them, sending another jolt of electricity down Mark’s spine.
And then the boy grins so widely Mark can see the whites of his teeth, beautiful and warm, the way the sun used to feel when he was human.
Then he’s turning away again, the girl’s arm around his waist. Mark moves closer, not wanting to lose sight of him, and he pushes through the last few people separating them as the song comes to a close. The boy steps back, chest heaving, and looks over at Mark just as Mark starts towards him.
A new song starts, the first notes filtering through the speakers. Mark hears it as if he’s underwater, watching the boy walk towards him like a dream.
They stop a breath away from each other, and Mark raises his hand to touch the boy’s face, unable to convince himself that this is real. That this boy is real. Now that Mark is close to him, he can see the golden glitter on his cheekbones, the shine on his lips, the sweat that darkens his hairline and glimmers on his forehead under the lights.
He leans close, not quite touching, mouth at Mark’s ear. “You’re pretty persistent, aren’t you?”
Mark can feel the heat radiating off of him, and every part of him aches to touch. But he doesn’t, not yet. “Tell me you didn’t feel it,” he says, and the boy leans back, smiling.
“Maybe I did,” he says, “and maybe I didn’t.”
Mark gives him a frustrated look. The boy’s smile grows, and Mark’s mouth curls in response, against his will.
“Who are you?” Mark asks.
The boy taps his chin. “Now that’s funny,” he says. “I was just about to ask you the same thing.”
They stare at each other for a long moment, and time seems to stretch out between them again.
“I feel like my entire life—” Mark starts, but he’s interrupted by the boy.
“Me too,” he says, and then kisses Mark hard on the mouth.
Magic sparks on Mark’s lips, electric and staticky, burning across his tongue and scorching his throat. And he immediately knows who—what—this boy is.
There’s a hand on the nape of his neck for half a second before they jerk apart. Mark distinctly feels like he’s been set on fire, both from the kiss and the realization that—
“You’re a witch,” Mark breathes. It shouldn’t have been audible over the noise of the party, but the boy’s face flushes pink.
“And you’re a vampire,” he says. “Your skin is cold.”
“You sparked,” Mark replies.
A heavy, heady moment of silence. Mark’s head spins, and still, all he wants to do is kiss the boy again.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” the boy says, crossing his arms. His eyebrows crease, but he doesn’t look mad or upset. Just curious.
Mark swallows, nervousness churning in his stomach. “You’re not gonna say anything, right?”
“Depends on what you do,” the boy says. Mark takes a slow, hesitant step forward, and the boy uncrosses his arms.
“Can I kiss you again?” Mark asks tentatively, and something dark stirs in the boy’s eyes.
“Yes, please,” he says, and Mark leans in. The boy jerks a little when Mark’s hands, slightly too cold, make contact with his face, but a second later, his eyes are closing and his mouth parts easily against Mark’s, lips soft and slightly sticky. He tastes like orange and beer and something golden and magical, and Mark fits so perfectly against him that for a second, he swears this is exactly where they’re both meant to be.
Something sparks between them, and the boy leans into the kiss, wrapping his arms around Mark’s waist and pulling him closer. He licks into Mark’s mouth with easy confidence, and Mark groans, breaking away so he can breathe.
“Let’s go somewhere quieter,” the boy says, tugging on Mark’s sleeve. “I want to know your name.”
Mark follows him away from the party, ears ringing as the noise dies down. It’s easier to focus, too, now that the smell of bodies has lessened.
They stop in front of a heavy metal door. The boy tugs on the handle, but it doesn’t budge.
“Locked,” he says glumly. “Guess we’ll have to—”
Mark reaches for the handle, easily pulling the door open. The hinges squeak, and cool air rushes over them, the dark sky and the yellow-orange city lights winking at them in the distance.
“Impressive,” the boy says, raising his eyebrows. “I’m guessing that’s a vampire perk?”
Mark shrugs. The strength, the speed, the heightened sense of smell and hearing—those had all come at the expense of his heartbeat, the warmth in his veins and the feeling of being alive. “If you want to call it a perk, sure.”
The boy steps outside, gesturing at Mark to shut the door behind him. They emerge onto a patio of sorts, metal chairs stacked against the wall.
“In the summertime, Jaehyun throws parties out here, too,” the boy says. Mark hums, leaning against the wall. “What’s your name?” he asks at last, facing Mark.
“Mark,” Mark says. “What’s yours?”
“Donghyuck,” the boy answers, “but I think you already knew that.”
The wind tugs at their hair and their shirts when they kiss again, and Donghyuck shivers when they pull apart.
“Take my jacket,” Mark says immediately, shrugging out of it and handing it to Donghyuck. He takes it—it fits him perfectly, because of course it does. Mark would’ve been more surprised if it didn’t.
“Why don’t you think being strong is a perk?” Donghyuck asks, and Mark, uncomfortable by the sudden depth of the question, leans in to kiss him again. But Donghyuck dodges out of the way, shaking his head.
“Do you really not want to answer? You don’t have to,” Donghyuck says. He’s still smiling. “But I’m curious.”
“An answer for an answer, then,” Mark counters.
“Feel uneasy trusting your greatest enemy with secrets of the heart?” Donghyuck teases, eyes glinting.
“No,” Mark says. “That’s not it.”
Donghyuck’s mouth purses. “Then what is?”
I want to know you as much as you know me, Mark thinks. I want you to love me as much as I’ll love you.
The thought should scare him. His kind is often wary of things that happen too quickly, used to the slow pace of their lives. The old ones wait days before making a decision, and a friendship takes years to cultivate. Love takes decades.
Donghyuck, however, was immediate. A sudden flame in the darkness, instant and bright. I’ll know you, I’ll love you, and it won’t take long, their hearts seem to sing.
Mark isn’t afraid.
“So much was taken from me,” Mark says at last. “ So much. And sometimes, it doesn’t feel like a fair trade-off. That’s all.”
“Hmm,” Donghyuck says, tapping his chin again and pursing his lips. “But don’t you get to live forever?”
“Yes,” Mark says. “But forever is starting to feel like too long.”
“How old are you?”
“Twenty-one,” Mark says, a knee-jerk habit he still hasn’t kicked, even after two decades. At Donghyuck’s confused look, he elaborates. “I mean, I was. When I, um, got bitten. But that was in 1999, so it’s been a while since.”
“Oh,” Donghyuck says slowly. “So you’re…forty?”
Mark cringes. “No, no, it doesn’t work like that. Everything stopped. Meaning that while I’ll technically live more life, I won’t ever…grow up all the way.”
“Oh,” Donghyuck repeats. He digests this for a second, and then nods. “Cool. I didn’t know that.”
“What, you’ve never met a vampire before?” Mark jokes, before he realizes that of course he hasn’t, because he’s young and his kind has probably done a good job keeping him out of vampire territory.
“No,” Donghyuck says, brushing curious hands over Mark’s face, his neck, down his arms. “You’re the first.”
“And?” Mark asks, nearly breathless as Donghyuck gets closer, so close that Mark can see a ring of hazel around his pupil. “What do you think?”
“Not as cold as I expected,” Donghyuck observes, brushing a thumb over Mark’s lips. “And Taeil said your eyes were red.”
“That’s a myth,” Mark says, and Donghyuck laughs.
“I’m glad,” he says. “Because I think your eyes are beautiful.”
The bald honesty in his voice catches Mark off-guard.
“What,” he stutters, surprised. “What does that mean?”
“It means exactly what it sounds like,” Donghyuck says, shrugging like it’s the simplest thing in the world to understand. “You’ve got the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen.”
And maybe it is simple to understand.
“I can’t believe this is happening,” Mark says quietly, wondrous. He touches Donghyuck’s face again, not sure how someone can be so warm and magical and alive. “This shouldn’t be happening.”
“Two households, both alike in dignity,” Donghyuck says, smiling wide. “Look at us.”
“Nobody’s dying, though,” Mark cuts in anxiously. “Got it?”
“Square deal,” Donghyuck agrees. “Oh, wait, I forgot I owe you an answer.”
“DONGHYUCK!” someone shouts, audible through the open windows and cracked door.
“Fuck,” Donghyuck sighs, drifting away from Mark with a disappointed look. “Those’ll be my friends.”
“MARK!” Another voice comes from the opposite direction, probably from the entrance.
“And those will be mine,” Mark says. Donghyuck leans in and kisses him again, and Mark curls a hand around his waist, trying to keep him close. Too soon, though, they part, and Mark feels the space between them like a physical blow to the chest.
“I’ll tell you my answer later,” Donghyuck promises.
“Mark!” Jeno calls, closer this time.
Mark, still, lingers. “How do you know we’ll meet again?”
“Call it magic, call it a hunch,” Donghyuck says, and his smile is sweet, mysterious, and yearning all at once. “We will, though. Don’t worry.”
“You have to show it to me,” Mark says. “Your magic.”
“I will,” Donghyuck says. They take a few more steps apart. Their friends are getting closer, calling their names, and Mark stares at Donghyuck for a few more precious seconds, trying to remember the exact way his lips shape the words see you soon.
And then he’s gone, back into the big brick building, and the air cools Mark’s skin again. Belatedly, he realizes Donghyuck still has his jacket.
Jeno rounds the corner. “There you are,” he says, relieved. “C’mon, we gotta jet. Someone apparently recognized you and went to Jaehyun.”
“Okay,” Mark says, still staring at the closed door, like he can summon Donghyuck back through it by sheer force of will. It’s already starting to feel like the last forty-five minutes didn’t happen, like they were a dream or a drunken hallucination cooked up by Mark’s lonely mind.
“Mark?” Jeno asks, putting a hand on his shoulder and bringing him back to himself. “You alright?”
Mark turns forcefully away from the door. “Yeah,” he says, exhaling heavily. “I’m fine.”
Will I ever see him again? Mark thinks during the taxi ride back, Jaemin drunkenly babbling about how much fun he had, and how they’ll all have to do it again, entirely unaware of how Mark’s entire universe has been knocked off-kilter by a boy with glittery cheeks and curious hands. And Mark no longer dreams when he sleeps, but if he did, it’d be about a certain dark-eyed boy, fingertips alive with forbidden magic.
By some twist of fate, some glorious miracle, Mark meets Donghyuck again.
But where the time at the party had felt magical, felt special, dream-like, like anything could happen, this time feels like the complete opposite.
In fact, Mark’s day had been pretty shitty up until the point that Donghyuck comes sprinting down the street, laughing gleefully as an irate shop owner chases him.
It had started with him falling asleep on one of the balconies at the coven house, only to wake soaking wet when it started raining. It had continued when Quincy, an ancient, pale vampire Mark hates, showed up and lectured him on the dangers of hanging out with lycans. And then, most recently, he’d been on the subway, which made him irritable because he was hungry and there were a ton of people on the train, smelling warm and alive.
But then comes Donghyuck. Mark hears him before he sees him—the pounding of his feet on the pavement, the bright sound of his laughter, bouncing off the buildings. The shouting coming from behind him, angry, loud, demanding.
His first thought is, no way. Then he turns and sees Donghyuck, pink-cheeked, scarf hanging loosely from his neck as he sprints down the sidewalk, teeth bared in a victorious grin.
“Donghyuck,” Mark says, and there’s no way that Donghyuck should be able to hear him, because witches have magic, not super hearing, but his eyes still snap to Mark’s like they did that one night at the party. And it is just as potent now—Mark’s breath seizes in his lungs, and he has the distinct feeling that he’s being seen.
“Mark!” Donghyuck shouts, absolutely delighted. “Come on!”
“What?” Mark asks, and only has a second to process before Donghyuck grabs his wrist and yanks so hard Mark stumbles before he breaks into a jog to keep up. “Whoa, whoa, why are we running?”
Donghyuck laughs. “Because that guy’s pissed at me!”
“Why’s he pissed at you?”
“Because I stole from his shop, come on, keep up, he’s gaining,” Donghyuck says in one breath, taking a right at the next intersection at breakneck speed.
“What’d you steal?” Mark asks, speeding up so it feels less like Donghyuck is trying to dislocate his shoulder.
“He owns a karma shop,” Donghyuck says, like he expects Mark to know what a karma shop is. “And there was this necklace—”
“GET BACK HERE!” The shopkeep shouts, but he’s starting to fall behind, face red and sweaty.
“Anyways,” Donghyuck says, taking another right, “I didn’t think he’d be that mad about it. Quick, this way.”
He leads Mark straight into a crowd of tourists idly following a guide, who’s pointing out buildings and rattling off facts.
“What’s a karma shop?”
“Jeez, you ask a lot of questions,” Donghyuck says, glancing over his shoulder and relaxing his grip on Mark’s wrist. “I think we lost him.”
Mark squints at Donghyuck. His hair is sticking up in the back, and he tugs at his shirt collar in an attempt to cool off. He’s still grinning, and when he turns to Mark, there is nothing that Mark will say no to.
And this is how his shitty day abruptly turns to good fortune: him and Donghyuck, standing on a busy street in downtown Manhattan, staring at each other and realizing the whole city has suddenly opened up to them.
“Do you drink coffee?” Donghyuck asks, and, without waiting for an answer, grabs Mark’s hand and spins on his heel.
“Not really,” Mark says. “Vampires don’t really…eat or drink anything, if we can help it.”
They stop at an intersection. Mark looks around worriedly, not wanting to be spotted by the wrong person. They’re in the heart of vampire territory, after all—Donghyuck shouldn’t be here. Actually, Mark’s not even sure how he’s made it this far without being caught.
“You were drinking at the party,” Donghyuck says as they cross the street.
“Yeah, and I was hungover for so long,” Mark says. “My body’s not really equipped to handle it anymore. And the old ones, they can’t eat or drink at all, because the food just sits in there and rots and they have to get it removed.”
Donghyuck’s face wrinkles. “Ew. Is it because all of their organs die?”
“Not die,” Mark says, pursing his lips and trying to remember what Taeyong and Mona, another old one—and much nicer than Quincy—had told him. “More like…frozen. Everything just stops, suspended in time forever. Except for hearts, that is. But Taeyong’s only beats like, once every month.” He realizes suddenly that he’s rambling, and claps his free hand over his mouth. “Shit, sorry, that’s a lot of information,” he mumbles.
Donghyuck laughs. “Spilling secrets to your enemy,” he says. “What would your elders say?”
“Old ones,” Mark corrects. “We call them old ones.”
“Oh, I guess because they don’t actually become elders,” Donghyuck says, tapping his chin. “They’re just old and beautiful and biased as all hell.”
“Pretty much,” Mark agrees. They walk for a little while longer, Donghyuck squinting up at street signs periodically. “What about you?”
“What about me?” Donghyuck asks, stopping in front of a steamed-up window. A peeling sign on it announces that this is Ben’s Roast Beef and Coffee, established 1967, open 24 hours.
“You’ve got elders?” Mark clarifies as Donghyuck pushes open the door, letting out a blast of warm, coffee-scented air.
“Oh, yeah,” Donghyuck says, waving to the guy behind the counter and veering towards a table near the window where the glass isn’t as foggy. “But they’re like, actually old. White hair and wrinkles at all. Some of them live to be over a hundred, I think, that’s how strong some of their magics are.”
“Magics?” Mark asks, stopping short just before he sits down. “There’s—there’s multiple kinds of magic?”
Donghyuck stares at him for a long moment, like he doesn’t know if Mark’s joking or not. “Are you shitting me?”
Mark crosses his arms, feeling a little defensive. He plops down in the chair opposite Donghyuck, and asks, “How much do you know about vampires, then?”
“I know that you don’t know about witches,” Donghyuck snips back, tilting his chin up.
“Name one thing that you know about vampires,” Mark says, and only takes a little satisfaction in the way that Donghyuck’s smug expression falls, brow wrinkling.
“You…drink…blood?” Donghyuck asks slowly, and winces. “Fine, you’re right. I don’t really know much.”
They look at each other for a second, and Mark suddenly feels like he’s standing at the edge of a massive, yawning abyss, and Donghyuck is all the way on the other side, unreachable and impossible to get to.
This is not my fault, he thinks, and then, I can change it.
He wants to bridge the distance between them. Wants to prove to everyone—himself and Donghyuck included—that they can do this.
“Okay,” Mark says, loosing a breath. “Question for a question? No judgement?”
“Done deal,” Donghyuck agrees. He turns around and waves at the guy behind the counter. “Hey, Michael? Can I have an Americano and half a chicken pesto sandwich?”
Michael shakes his head good-naturedly. “When you gonna pay for your stuff, kid?”
“Isn’t my eternal love and affection enough?” Donghyuck asks, flashing a grin. Michael shakes his head again, but goes to make the coffee. Donghyuck turns back to Mark, folding his hands. “Alright. You go first.”
“What are karma shops?” Mark asks immediately, “and why’re you stealing from them?”
“They’re like convenience stores for witches,” Donghyuck says. “They sell trinkets to help focus magic, or neat little charms for good luck or nice skin. Jewelry, too—” He pauses and digs through his pockets, pulling out a polished orange stone on a fine gold chain. He sets it on the table between them. “Carnelian,” Donghyuck says. “It’s lucky.”
Mark picks it up, the stone warm against his fingertips. “Actually? I thought crystals and stuff were mostly hoaxes.”
Donghyuck shrugs. “Most people don’t use them right. Some witches can’t even get anything out of them.”
Michael brings Donghyuck his sandwich and coffee, and they sit for a little while, trading facts and myths. Mark is shocked by how little they know about each other—he knows more about naiads, and he’s never even met one of those. Witches and vampires have been living next to each other for centuries, but Donghyuck’s lifestyle is totally foreign to him. He talks about Taeil, who bends moonlight into healing and sings silver notes to show people home. He talks about Kun, who can build things with his mind, seemingly from nothing. He talks about the rose house on the roof of the apartment he shares with Renjun, who has a surprising knack for green things. Plants know secrets, Donghyuck says, which is also why Renjun is great at blackmailing people into doing things.
There is such warmth in the way that Donghyuck talks about his life—folding laundry in the living room with Taeil, Chinese takeout on the couch and going to the theater with friends in the middle of the day. He talks about his part-time classes, learning about cinema and Roman history. Everything seems so full, so alive, and it makes Mark’s chest hurt. It’s not that he doesn’t love Taeyong and Sicheng and Mona and the rest of the coven, because he does—but it’s just not the same.
If Donghyuck’s world is a patchwork quilt of color, Mark’s is a beautiful marble sculpture. Donghyuck listens with wide eyes to stories of Taeyong and the history that is personal memory to him. Mark talks about the neat brownstone coven house, about the cats Sicheng keeps the window open for. He talks about the way they live at night, the way everyone looks out for him, keeping a room free and a spare set of clothes in the closet. He details the neat linens and the clean white walls with their ancient artwork, the quietness of the house despite it being in the middle of the city. He talks about being friends with the lycans and with Jaemin, in all his absurd charisma (“I know, isn’t it annoying? ” Donghyuck interrupts, shaking his head. “You can’t take them anywhere!”) and he talks about the grumpy old ones who lecture him on manners and etiquette and frown when he says he wants to go back to college.
By the time they’re done, the sun is setting and the streetlights have come on. Donghyuck’s coffee sits cold and half-finished, the wax paper from his chicken sandwich folded into an origami crane.
“That sounds nice,” Donghyuck says, and the earnest look in his eye tells Mark that he means it.
Mark thinks about his dusty, empty apartment and the look on Taeyong’s face when he brought up the witch party. “Sometimes,” Mark agrees. “Other times, it’s pretty lonely.”
Donghyuck’s expression shifts to something more pensive. “You said something like that at the party.”
Donghyuck nods, pinching one of the origami crane’s wings. It shivers, coming alive, and bends its paper head forward before taking off, flying in circles around Donghyuck’s coffee cup.
“Did you just—was that just you?” Mark sputters, watching the crane land on the lip of Donghyuck’s cup.
“No, it was Michael,” Donghyuck teases, and Mark is sure that if his blood was still moving, he’d flush bright red.
“Is that your magic? Making things come alive?” Mark asks, holding out his hand. The crane lands in his palm, and Donghyuck gives it a small, fond smile.
“Not necessarily,” Donghyuck says. At Mark’s confused expression, he elaborates. “Well, sort of. I’m still trying to put a name to it, but it’s more like…suggestion? But not in the same way casters do it.” He gives Mark a helpless look. “I’m doing a terrible job explaining it. But it’s like—it’s the same way the sun makes you want to go outside, or how watching someone laugh makes you want to laugh as well. You know? Like that. It works best on inanimate objects—they usually listen—but it works on people, sometimes.”
“That makes no sense,” Mark says, even though it sort of does. Even after all these years, the feeling of sunshine on his cheeks still makes him want to turn his face towards the sky. And Donghyuck, he supposes, is sort of like that—warm and bright, especially after infinite clouds. And now that Mark is facing him, he’s not sure if he can look away, even if it’ll hurt.
“It won’t work super well on you,” Donghyuck explains, “because you’re cold. But I can try, if you want.”
“You can just say I’m dead, I won’t be offended,” Mark says, and Donghyuck snorts. “But go ahead,” he adds. “Give it your best shot.”
Donghyuck leans forward on his elbows, brow wrinkling. The second their eyes meet across the small table, Mark’s chest squeezes, and a heavy, white-hot sensation lashes down his left side. It’s not painful, but it still makes him recoil, clapping a hand to his sternum.
“Oh, shit, I’m sorry,” Donghyuck says immediately, eyes wide. “Did I hurt you?”
“No, no, you’re fine,” Mark stammers, still reeling. The feeling lingers, tingling with familiarity. “What did you—what was that?”
“Your heart,” Donghyuck says tentatively. “I nudged it, and it—well, for a second, it was beating again.”
Mark feels his mouth drop open. “No way. No way. ”
“I won’t do it again,” Donghyuck assures him quickly, mistaking his disbelief for anger. “I just—”
“No, hold up, I’m not mad,” Mark interrupts. “I’m just surprised, is all. I forgot—I’d forgotten how it felt.”
Donghyuck’s expression turns shy, his cheeks coloring. “Was it—did it feel okay?”
“Yeah,” Mark says, hand still pressed to his chest. “It felt nice.”
They make eye contact across the table again, and it feels like the first time he saw Donghyuck through the blue light of the aquarium—like a revelation of the sweetest kind. Except instead of feeling like he’s been struck by lightning, this time feels like a breath of air.
“I still have your coat,” Donghyuck says abruptly. “Come back with me and get it?”
Mark bites his lip. “I don’t know about Brooklyn,” he says slowly. “What if I’m—”
“You won’t be,” Donghyuck says, and he sounds so sure of himself that Mark caves pretty much instantly. Forty years have not made him any less of a pushover. “The sun’s setting, and we can walk over the bridge.”
“Okay,” Mark says, and Donghyuck smiles so widely Mark feels his magic nudge at his heart again.
“You can say whatever you want about New York,” Donghyuck says fifteen minutes later as they make their way across Brooklyn bridge, “but it sure is pretty at sunset.”
The wind has picked up, and Donghyuck huddles against Mark’s side, linking their arms. Mark revels in their anonymity, unrecognizable to the other people on the sidewalk and the cars that inch past them, stuck in rush-hour traffic. The high-rises of downtown Brooklyn glint gold and yellow-blue as the sky shifts to violet and bright pink, the sun painting the undersides of the clouds navy blue.
“It’s nice,” Mark agrees, even though his nose and cheeks sting a little, itching like he’s having an allergic reaction.
“Guess you don’t burst into flames when you see the sun,” Donghyuck says. “Or sparkle, like in Twilight.”
Mark winces at the mention of the book. “Nope, that’s a myth. Is it true that witches have to make sacrifices every full moon to keep their magic?”
Donghyuck bursts into laughter, and Mark grins sheepishly. “Oh my god,” Donghyuck gasps, eyes creasing, “where the hell did you hear that?”
“One of the old ones probably told me that,” Mark says, and he joins Donghyuck when he starts laughing again, his heartbeat thundering so loudly Mark can nearly hear it.
“That’s definitely one-hundred percent a myth,” Donghyuck confirms. “So is the myth that we steal babies—witches are born, not made. We also don’t use human blood in potions.”
Mark opens his mouth to ask about broomstick riding and curse-casting—that one is Quincy’s most firmly-held belief, but Donghyuck reads the question on his face and shakes his head. “No, for fuck’s sake. We don’t ride brooms.”
Donghyuck thinks. “Uh, partially true? But curses are a knack. Only some witches can cast them. You can usually buy them at karma shops, too. Witches with curse and luck knacks sell their stuff all the time.”
Mark digests all of this. “I can’t believe I didn’t know any of this. I had no idea about knacks, or karma shops—or anything, really.”
“Well, we are sworn enemies,” Donghyuck reminds him, even as he sticks his hand into Mark’s pocket so he can link their fingers together. “The scarier the stories, the less likely we are to forgive and learn.”
“I’m lucky you kissed me, then,” Mark says, and Donghyuck gives him a fond look. “And didn’t steal my soul.”
“Another myth,” Donghyuck sighs, rolling his eyes. “I’m surprised you didn’t go insane with bloodlust and suck me dry.”
“That only happens if we don’t eat for like, a long long time,” Mark says. “The old ones can go like, months before they have to eat. For me, it’s a little shorter, but—”
“Not every night?” Donghyuck asks, eyebrows drawing together. “Really?”
“Really,” Mark confirms.
“Are your fangs always out?”
“Christ, no, that’s just Dracula.”
“What about sleeping?”
“Rarely. It’s the same case as eating. We’re not technically dead, Donghyuck. It’s more like…we’re suspended forever in a state of dying.”
Donghyuck stops in his tracks. “What?”
Mark sighs, releasing Donghyuck so he can lean against the railing, looking out over the East River. “In order to be Turned, a vampire has to drink enough of your blood to kill you. But there’s a…chemical, I guess, that floods your system at the same time, which stops you from dying.”
“Is that why being bitten by vampires feels good? My friend said it’s supposedly really hot,” Donghyuck interrupts, eyebrow raised, and Mark sputters. “Is it because of the chemical?”
“Theoretically,” Mark says slowly, not liking the glint in Donghyuck’s eye, “but being Turned hurts like a bitch. You know, because you’re literally dying. ”
“Oh, right, yeah,” Donghyuck says, like he’d forgotten about that part. “Sorry. Go on.”
“So most parts of you get healed, and you get to be strong and fast and see in the dark,” Mark continues, not sure if Donghyuck is going to interrupt again with another very bizarre and slightly concerning question. “But there’s still no blood in you, which means your body shuts down, but in slow motion.”
“Huh,” Donghyuck says. And that’s it. There’s no sympathetic twist to his features, no disgust, no morbid curiosity. Just mild acceptance.
“You’re not…you’re not scared?” Mark asks after a second, and Donghyuck shakes his head, brushing a hand over the railing. A sticker folds itself into a red balloon and floats towards the sky.
“Dying isn’t scary,” Donghyuck says quietly, almost pensively. He nods at the balloon, now a red dot on the horizon. “One day, you just disconnect, and go up. And that’s it.” He turns to Mark, reaching up and brushing a thumb over his cheek. “Maybe you’re dying,” he continues, “but you’re also living, too.”
I think I love you, Mark thinks to himself suddenly, overwhelmed by a fierce rush of emotion that he can’t quite put a name to. The same magnetic force swells between them again, and Donghyuck leans forward, pressing his lips to the corner of Mark’s mouth. Nobody reacts. Nobody looks up from their phone. It’s just them on this bridge, and Mark feels like this is the moment his life finally starts: here, standing with Donghyuck, folded in golden light and thinking about falling in love.
Donghyuck’s house is a worn-in, three-story apartment. Taeil apparently owns the whole building, but rents out the floors to a number of witches—Donghyuck and Renjun have the third floor, which is the smallest but also the nicest of the two. Taeil lives on the bottom, and there are three girls on the second floor that make far too much noise and always break things.
“I think one of them is actually a caster,” Donghyuck says as he rummages around in his coat pocket for his keys. “Because Taeil hasn’t kicked them out yet. She’s probably charming the absolute hell out of him.”
A man on a bike shouts Donghyuck’s name as he passes, lifting a hand in greeting. Donghyuck smiles back. “Hey, David!” he replies, waving. “See you Sunday!”
“It’s alright if I bring my girlfriend?” David asks. “She’s a lycan—”
“Yeah, it’s no issue!” Donghyuck shouts, still grinning. David gives him a thumbs up and then takes a left at the intersection. Donghyuck pulls his keys from his pocket and sticks them in the door. He yanks the handle forward, twisting aggressively, and then slams his shoulder into the doorframe. The door opens with a massive groan, squeaking over the floor. Donghyuck steps inside casually, and Mark guesses fighting with the door is a daily activity for him.
“That was violent,” Mark comments, following Donghyuck inside. The air is heavy with magic—earthy, spicy, metallic, warm and cold all at once. It makes him sneeze so hard he has to hold onto Donghyuck so he doesn’t fall over. “Jesus, there are a lot of witches in this building. It’s making my nose itch like crazy.”
“It is mostly witches that live here,” Donghyuck says, leading Mark up the stairs. “There’s a couple pixies that live down the street, and the family a block up has an adopted son that turned out to be part-kitsune.” He pauses, looking back at Mark. “My apartment’s a mess, just a heads up,” he says, but when he opens the door, Mark immediately disagrees.
It’s not a mess—well, it is, just a little—it’s full. Every inch of space is taken up by something, from the gardening books on the end tables to the collection of chipped mugs in the cupboard. The sink is full of dirty dishes, there are blankets draped over a couch covered in half-folded laundry and what looks like someone’s homework. Pictures of Donghyuck and Renjun with friends are tacked to the wall, along with some artwork in beat-up frames.
It is the complete opposite of Mark’s apartment in every single possible way, and he loves it.
“This is great,” Mark says, doing a slow turn in the kitchen.
“It’s not,” Donghyuck protests. “Look, my dinner dishes are still on the table. It’s a disaster. Come on, I know we have to vacuum. My room’s right here.”
Mark follows Donghyuck to the doorway of his bedroom, which is just as full and wonderful as the living room and kitchen. There are posters from old bands and comics Mark doesn’t recognize stuck around swaths of pictures. The pens on his desk are organized by color but the stacks of books are so high Mark’s afraid they’re going to tip. A Nintendo Switch is plugged in on top of one of the shorter piles. Donghyuck’s rifling through his closet, which is a riot of color and so crowded with clothing it’s a miracle he can find anything in there.
Mark goes to sit down on Donghyuck’s bed, and Donghyuck makes a frustrated sound and steps back. “This is ridiculous,” he says sternly, clapping his hands at his closet. “Get out of there.”
The closet shudders, and spits a familiar jacket out into Donghyuck’s hands. “Suggestions,” he tells Mark, grinning at his amazed expression, and hands him his jacket.
Mark’s about to reply when he hears the front door two stories below grind open. Donghyuck, apparently, hears it too, because he freezes.
“I think Renjun’s back,” Donghyuck says, checking his phone. “He gets out of school at four.”
Mark tilts his head and listens closer. Sure enough, he can hear Renjun’s voice—he sounds like he’s on the phone, and he hasn’t started up the stairs yet, but there’s not much time until he does.
“Shit,” Mark says, jolting to his feet. “Where do I go? Not through the front door—”
“No, definitely not,” Donghyuck agrees. “Um, fire escape, back window, through the flowers.”
Mark follows Donghyuck through the kitchen and towards a closed-in balcony filled with roses of impossible colors, the air sweet. Donghyuck tugs at a window, but it won’t budge.
“Help me with this, quick, quick,” Donghyuck says, looking over his shoulder nervously as Mark pushes hard, the window sliding up with a squeal, scattering paint flecks and rust everywhere.
“You need to get everything in this building fixed,” Mark says, laughing as Donghyuck shoves him through the opening and onto the ladder. It wobbles dangerously, barely attached to the wall, but holds.
“I know,” Donghyuck says, and he leans forward to kiss Mark quickly, missing his mouth in his haste. “Oh, shit, that was a bad one, come back here—”
“I’m about to fall off this ladder,” Mark hisses. “And Renjun—”
“Who cares,” Donghyuck says, and presses their lips together with such force that the ladder creaks again. His mouth is warm, like always, and the air around him smells like flowers.
They separate, and the last thing Mark wants to do now is leave, right when Donghyuck’s mouth is starting to pink and there’s a delighted glimmer in his eyes. His hands linger on Mark’s face, like he, too, is reluctant to part.
“You gotta go,” Donghyuck says, brushing his thumbs over Mark’s cheeks. “But can I—”
“Can we meet again?” Mark blurts at the same time, stricken by the thought of not seeing Donghyuck after this.
“God, please,” Donghyuck breathes, leaning back fumbling for his phone. “Put your number in, and we can meet—meet in Queens, or somewhere—there’s so many things I want to do with you—”
Mark reads his number off to Donghyuck, who types it in, grinning brightly. “We’ll go see so much stuff,” Donghyuck says. “There are so many places I wanna take you.”
“Yes,” Mark says firmly, and Donghyuck puts a hand on the side of his neck, eyes bright, and kisses him again, hard. Mark folds into him without thinking, sliding a hand up into Donghyuck’s hair and kisses back.
He can hear Donghyuck’s pulse, fluttering in his ears like a drumbeat, when he pulls away. The air between them tingles.
“Please,” Donghyuck repeats, and the desperation in his voice is an echo of Mark’s. “Soon.”
“Soon,” Mark promises, and means it. Footsteps start towards the other side of the door, and Mark can hear Renjun say Donghyuck’s name as a key jingles in the lock.
“Okay, go,” Donghyuck says, shoving at Mark’s chest, though he giggles as Mark leans in for one last kiss. “Mark, go. You’re gonna get your ass kicked.”
“Going, going,” Mark says, reluctantly pulling away from Donghyuck and going down the ladder. His timing is perfect—Renjun throws open the door just as Mark’s feet touch the ground.
“Why are you just standing there?” Renjun asks. “And why’s the window open?
Mark can imagine Donghyuck’s smile and shrug. “Just wanted some air,” he says. “No reason, really.”
“You’re a dumbass,” Renjun says, but it’s steeped in affection. Mark smiles to himself, and heads out to the sidewalk, back towards Manhattan.
On the subway, his phone dings twice: once with a text from Taeyong (who’s the only elder vampire who uses a phone, much to the old ones’ confusion) and another with a number he doesn’t recognize—but it’s a long string of heart emojis and the message thanks for today!!! so he’s got a pretty good guess as to who it might be.
He saves the number as Donghyuck and a little sun emoji, thinking back to the way his chest had lit up with warmth when Donghyuck had asked his heart to move.
The fond feeling ebbs just a little when he reads Taeyong’s text, reality settling back down around him.
Where are you? You missed feeding.
Mark sighs. Met with a friend. Sorry it ran late. I’m on the subway right now.
PLEASE be careful, Taeyong replies, and Mark squints at the all-caps. There was a vampire from an outside coven that was attacked and killed on the subway a few nights ago. The second this month.
I’ll be careful, Mark writes back. I’ll be there in twenty.
He gets off the subway fifteen minutes later, and it’s a ten-minute walk from the station to the coven house, which is lit up from the inside, yellow light bleeding through gauzy curtains. The house is always busier at night, and it’s especially packed today because of the feeding.
The door is unlocked, and Mark makes his way through a sea of vaguely-familiar faces, looking for Taeyong.
“Ah, young Mark Lee,” a woman says, stopping him with an elegantly-manicured hand on his chest. “Finally decided to grace us with your presence?”
Mark knows her—Anastasia Trumain, an elder vampire with an ear for gossip and an attitude of exclusivity. Mark knows she thinks he’s socially deviant, not living in or near the coven house, hanging out with lycans and wearing sneakers and thrifted denim jackets. If he told her where he’d just been—in Brooklyn with a witch he’s kissed—s he’d probably drop dead on the spot.
The idea is not entirely unappealing, if he’s being honest.
He sighs, already through with her high-and-mighty bullshit. “Hey, Anastasia. I’m looking for Taeyong.”
She sniffs at him. “He’s in the living room. You smell simply awful, by the way. Like burnt hair and wet dog.”
“Good to know,” Mark replies, amused. She doesn’t even try to hide her insults. “Bye.”
“Excuse me—” Anastasia starts, clearly stunned that he’s walking away from her, but Mark doesn’t stop. Something in him is buoyant and glowing—her indignation simply slides off of him like water on rock.
Taeyong is in the living room, leaning against Doyoung, who’s part-gumiho and one of Taeyong’s oldest friends. When he sees Mark, he waves, though he doesn’t look too pleased that Mark is late.
“Hey, sorry,” Mark says when he’s within earshot. “I was with Jeno and them.”
Taeyong’s nose wrinkles at the mention of the lycans, but some of the tension around his eyes eases. “I’m sorry for nagging,” he says, putting a hand on Mark’s shoulders. “But the violence—I’m just worried, is all. Everyone is.” Especially about you, he doesn’t say, but Mark hears it anyway. He’s the youngest in the coven—maybe in the whole city—and he follows few vampire conventions. He goes out during the day, is friends with more non-vampires than the norm, has a Twitter, dresses like he’s from this century. And now—now, he’s seeing a witch.
Maybe Taeyong should worry about him just a little. But only a little.
“I’ll be careful,” Mark promises, because Taeyong is really the only person in this damn house he likes, besides Sicheng.
“Thanks,” Taeyong says, shoulders relaxing. “Are you hungry? Do you need anything?”
“No, I’m just tired,” Mark says. It’s mostly true—but also, his phone is buzzing in his pocket with a storm of texts, and Mark is almost sure it’s Donghyuck. He fights back a smile and focuses on Taeyong, who’s saying something about being hungry, being careful, being safe.
Mark’s phone buzzes again. Taeyong finally notices.
“Do you need to get that?” Taeyong asks, raising an eyebrow. “Is it Jeno, or someone?”
“Probably,” Mark replies casually, lying through his teeth and hoping Taeyong can’t tell. “I’m pretty tired, though. I think I’ll head home, if that’s alright?”
“Yes, of course,” Taeyong says. “Come by if you get hungry later, okay?”
“Will do,” Mark says. “Bye, Taeyong. Bye, Doyoung.”
“Goodbye,” they both reply, and Mark turns on his heel before either of them can say anything else.
As he leaves, he hears Doyoung say to Taeyong, “He’s a good kid. You should trust him more.”
“I do,” Taeyong sighs in response. “I’m just worried about him, sometimes.”
Tomorrow, the first text from Donghyuck reads. Let’s meet tomorrow.
“But I trust him,” Taeyong says, even as Mark walks out of earshot. “He’s got a good head on his shoulders.”
It’s almost alarming how quickly they fold into each other’s lives. A week passes faster than Mark can blink—by Friday evening, ten days after they first met, Mark kisses Donghyuck in the shade of the bright red trees in Central Park and asks if he’d like to meet Mark’s friends.
“The lycans?” Donghyuck asks as they wander back towards the city. Donghyuck had originally brought them to look at the trees, which have burst into color as fall draws closer. “Why, do they wanna meet me?”
“Uh, well, sort of,” Mark says, mouth twisting. “They’ve given me a lot of shit because I’ve been sort of MIA recently. With you.” He and Donghyuck had been around what feels like the entire city of New York—all the tourist traps and local-knowledge-only, bars on Wednesday night and museums in the late afternoon, bridges and skyscrapers and neighborhoods with all kinds of people. Mark’s met Kun, another witch, and Xiaojun, his kitsune roommate, and they’d gotten drunk this last Monday and ended up at McDonalds at two in the morning (Mark had to make up a hasty excuse about already having eaten—he still doesn’t know how people will react to knowing a vampire who’s is dating a witch).
“I’d love to,” Donghyuck says. “If you think they’ll be okay with us—”
“They will,” Mark assures him, entirely certain. “I mean, they’ll be shocked, but they’re not gonna snitch.”
Donghyuck’s shoulders relax, and he smiles, grabbing Mark’s hand. A few leaves peel themselves off the pavement, twisting and shimmering as they turn to golden rabbits, noses twitching as they scamper into the underbrush. Mark laughs, unable to help it.
“Oops, sorry,” Donghyuck says, embarrassed, cramming his free hand into his pocket. “I’m leaking magic, that's my bad, I’m sorry—”
“No, don't apologize,” Mark cuts in. “I think it's really cool.”
“It's really embarrassing,” Donghyuck grumbles. “I haven't been like this since I was in high school.” But he bends down and picks up another leaf anyway, this one changing into a cardinal more red than Mark’s ever seen in his life.
“Little nudges,” Mark says, awed. He holds out his hand and the bird jumps into it, warm and real and alive. If Mark focuses, he can hear its tiny, fragile heart thrumming in its chest.
Donghyuck’s cheeks are bright pink, but he looks pleased. “I was dangerous around tattoos, too. They’d start coming off people and turning into things. Taeil had to get me charmed for a whole year, it got so bad.” He lifts his arms. “I couldn’t get any of my tattoos until I had my magic under control.”
The bird takes off from Mark’s palm, vanishing into the leaves above them. Donghyuck sighs, leaning into Mark again. For a few minutes they walk in silence, and Mark swears he’s never been more comfortable in his life—not since he’d been Turned, at least. Even with his friends, there’s a sense of distance, of space, like they’re all aware of how different Mark is from the rest of them. With Donghyuck, though, there is only the warmth of his hand in Mark’s, the sound of his breath, and the way his mouth curves into a smile every time he looks in Mark’s direction.
“We were gonna go out tonight, if you want to come?” Mark asks, breaking the silence. “A member of Johnny’s pack is having a thing a bit outside of the city—Johnny’s got a car, and you know that they’d love to meet you—”
“I’m in,” Donghyuck agrees easily. “Can I invite a few of my friends, too? They want to meet you as well.”
Mark hesitates. He’s not sure about meeting other witches—lycans are fine, he thinks, because they’re not involved in the feud—
“They won’t tell,” Donghyuck promises, like he can read Mark’s mind. “And they won’t be jerks about it, either. I can vouch for them.”
“I trust you,” Mark says, and Donghyuck grins and whips out his phone just as Mark’s buzzes.
yo is that guy ur seeing coming or not?? Jaemin has texted him.
I still don’t know how you found out about that, Mark replies, because it’s true—Jaemin had just squinted at him one day and asked when they were going to meet the new guy.
magic powers, Jaemin texts back. so i’m guessing yeah he’s coming?
Yeah, Mark writes. He wants to bring some friends too (maybe 2) if that’s okay?
dude you know how lycans are. the more the merrier lmao
“Jaemin says it’s alright for you to bring your friends,” Mark reports. Nervousness—and excitement—start to swim in his stomach, filling him with both a sense of dread and hope at the same time. This could really go either way, he thinks. Jaemin might wrinkle his nose and Johnny will ask if he knows what he’s doing and Jeno will squint concernedly and wonder what will happen if Taeyong finds out. And Donghyuck’s friends might scoff bitterly and snitch on him immediately, and that would be the end of them both.
I can’t lose him, Mark thinks, mildly panicked. Not yet. Not now.
He just has to hope, then, that the quality of his friends’ hearts will be stronger than the ideas of society, or this—this could be the end of them.
It turns out that Mark has entirely over-dramaticized the whole thing.
Mark can hear his friends before he even gets in the apartment, and sighs. “They’re in there already,” Mark tells Donghyuck. “I regret the day Jaemin learned he can charmspeak doors open.”
“Jaemin’s a caster?” Donghyuck asks. “Maybe I’ve run into him, then.”
“Maybe,” Mark says, hoping that’s the case because it would make this whole thing a lot less nerve-wracking, if Jaemin’s already friendly with Donghyuck. “He hangs around with the Flushing pack?”
“Oh, he’s over in Queens,” Donghyuck says, frowning. “Maybe not, then.”
“Mark, you know we can hear you, right?” Johnny says from inside the apartment. “Bring him inside!”
Mark looks over at Donghyuck, whose expression has rearranged itself into something determined, his smile anxious but bright. “Ready?” he asks.
“What’s the big deal?” Jaemin shouts. “What is he, your mortal enemy, or something?”
Jeno’s laugh is easy to identify. Johnny even joins in. Ha ha, Mark thinks. That’s exactly the case.
The usually-sweet smell of Donghyuck’s magic abruptly turns metallic, like ozone, sparking in Mark’s sinuses and making his nose itch.
Mark takes Donghyuck’s hand, squeezing tightly, and opens the door.
“Hey, guys,” Mark says. “This is Donghyuck.”
Several things happen at once: Donghyuck waves, his magic balloons, the lycans’ noses twitch, and Jaemin’s eyes go wide.
“He’s a witch?” Johnny asks, surprised.
“Whoa, yeah, that’s definitely magic,” Jeno confirms, rubbing his face.
Jaemin points. “I know you!” he exclaims. “Holy shit, we went to high school together!”
“Oh my god, we absolutely did,” Donghyuck replies, and the metallic feeling drops from the air so quickly Mark’s ears pop. Jaemin jumps over the back of the couch and pulls Donghyuck towards him, phone already in hand. Jeno, whose curiosity wins out over his surprise, goes over to peer at Jaemin’s phone as well, supposedly at the photos Jaemin is showing.
Johnny still looked shocked. “He’s really a witch?” Johnny asks. He sounds concerned more than anything else, and Mark thinks that he can handle that. At least it’s not disgust. God, he doesn’t know if he could handle disgust.
“He’s really a witch,” Mark confirms, and Johnny’s face creases in concern.
“Listen—” Johnny starts, but he’s interrupted by a bout of laughter and the exclamation that Donghyuck’s friends are here, waiting for them downstairs. Johnny drops the subject, but Mark can feel his worried gaze on the back of his neck.
Then it’s time for Donghyuck’s friends to meet Mark.
“This is Renjun and Chenle,” Donghyuck says. Chenle’s face splits into a massive grin, wispy blonde bangs stopping short of eyes that shift like a kaleidoscope, making it impossible to discern exactly what color they’re supposed to be. A pixie, Mark guesses, noting the mischievous tilt to his mouth and the point to his ears. He’s immediately friendly, shaking Mark’s hand without even reacting to the freezing temperature of skin.
And then there’s Renjun—dark-haired, and looking at him like he can see straight into Mark’s soul. There’s nothing particularly intimidating about him at first—he’s sort of short, fine-boned, dressed nicely—except for the look that he’s giving Mark, and the press of his magic against Mark’s skin, cool and earthy and inescapable. He seems to be listening for something—Mark realizes it’s his heartbeat only a second too late, when Renjun’s eyes widen and his brow furrows, wheeling on Donghyuck with an accusatory look on his face.
Donghyuck sets his jaw stubbornly, crossing his arms. Renjun hisses something to him, and Mark quickly steps away, focusing on not overhearing them. Johnny and Jeno turn their backs, too, and they all shuffle a little ways down the sidewalk.
“Nice to meet you,” Chenle says, immediately friendly. “I feel like I’ve seen you before.”
“I’ve been to a few parties here and there,” Mark says, trying to ignore the way Donghyuck’s voice is rising in pitch.
I know what I’m doing—
Taeil’s going to lose his mind, you know what they did to us—
But they didn’t—that was so long ago, come on, Renjun, I’m not a baby—
What if his coven finds out? What will you do then—
I’ll figure it out, but I really think I could l—
“Hey,” Jaemin calls over to Renjun and Donghyuck. “Sorry to interrupt, but can we at least start walking?”
Donghyuck and Renjun stare each other down, neither yielding. Donghyuck’s frowning, and Mark can feel the irritation rolling off him as he comes to stand next to Mark. Not quite touching this time, probably because Renjun’s glaring, but close enough that Mark can feel his magic, warm and a little staticky with emotion.
Fortunately, Jaemin pulls Renjun into a conversation, easing some of the tension. Donghyuck takes Mark’s hand again, and they follow a few steps behind. They take a bus for a few stops—Mark isn’t paying attention, because Johnny’s navigating. They stand too close and whisper and giggle, Mark’s hand on the small of Donghyuck’s back, Donghyuck holding onto Mark’s sleeve. They are unaware of the nervous, concerned looks their friends share, the way Jeno looks at Johnny like what are we going to do? or the way Renjun raises his eyes at Jaemin—has this been going on for a long time?
But they also see how Mark and Donghyuck already revolve around each other—a hand, a look, a subconscious step to the side to make room.
There’s not much they can do, they realize, except wait for the storm to hit.
The party is in full swing by the time they get there. It’s hit ten o’clock—they’d stopped in a few bars on the way over, the bouncers or bartenders checking IDs no match for Jaemin’s magic—and the night has cooled significantly, though Mark doesn’t feel its bite on his skin. His stomach rumbles at the smell of all the people in the house—maybe he should’ve taken Taeyong’s offer to feed—but he exhales slowly and does his best to ignore it.
The music throbs, and Mark can feel it in the soles of his feet as Johnny leads them around to the back, waving to the lycans watching the gate. They let them all through without batting an eye, though they do give Donghyuck and Mark a curious look as they pass through. Mark winces, thinking about the rumors that will inevitably be passed around. They’ll have to be a little more careful in supernatural settings like this.
Donghyuck fidgets a little, probably thinking the same thing. He draws a little closer to Mark, ushering them into the crush of people. Half of the party is outdoors, where a massive purple-green fire is burning a few inches off the ground, and the other half is indoors. There aren’t any speakers out here, but Mark can hear the music clearly anyway. There’s some guitar-filled pop hit that has the majority of their friends rushing inside to dance. Johnny makes a beeline towards a group of lycans Mark vaguely recognizes—must be pack members, Mark thinks.
Jeno hesitates a moment, looking between the door that Jaemin disappeared through and the people Johnny’s talking to.
Luckily, Donghyuck makes the decision for both him and Mark: he loops an arm through Jeno’s, and pulls both him and Mark to the house.
“Let’s get drinks,” he says.
If Mark thought the smell outside was bad, it’s infinitely worse indoors. A hundred hearts beat, low and murmuring, in his ears. His mouth is suddenly very dry, and he swallows drly. The drink Donghyuck presses into his hand doesn’t do much except make him woozier. It tastes too fruity, but he drinks it anyway until the world starts to take an extra second to catch up. Donghyuck’s hand is in his, pulling him again, into a dimly-lit room where everyone is dancing, jumping and shifting in time to the music.
There are their friends, laughing and swaying and having a good time, and there—there’s Donghyuck, in front of him, grinning. He’s an absurdly good dancer, even if he’s being silly, and Mark cannot take his eyes off of him, not when he seems to glow from the inside.
He shakes his head, which doesn’t do much except send the world spinning. He inhales through his nose, and that’s even worse, because Donghyuck smells sweet and warm and smoky. And when Mark runs his hands up Donghyuck’s arms, he can almost feel the pulse under Donghyuck’s skin, steady and alive. A bead of sweat rolls down the side of his face from under his hairline, and he seems to glitter faintly in the low light.
Donghyuck puts a hand on Mark’s waist, pulling him close. Mark breathes him in again, and his ears start to ring. Every part of him aches in both a good and bad way—bad, because he’s starving and on the verge of passing out, and good, because Donghyuck looks amazing and smells even better. He wobbles on his feet again, and Donghyuck steadies him.
“Are you alright?” he asks, looking genuinely concerned. “Are you drunk? Do you need to sit down?”
It takes Mark a long second to understand what he’s said, since he’s mostly focusing on the way Donghyuck’s adam’s apple moves as he speaks. He wonders what it would feel like to kiss him there. Lower, too, along his collarbones, along the tattoos—what it would feel like to bite, if he tasted as good as he smelled—
“Air,” Mark gasps, jerking away from Donghyuck and shaking his head again. “I need air.”
He pushes through the crowd, head spinning, mouth drier than a desert. His stomach hurts so bad he can barely stand, and it feels like he’s hearing everything underwater.
Someone puts a hand on his back, asks if he’s okay. They smell like dog, shampoo, clean clothes—Johnny.
“Starving,” Mark mutters, and he feels Johnny put an arm around his shoulders, hauling him out of the crowd. Mark’s vision swims, and the cold air hits him like a slap to the face, all of his senses recoiling. There’s Johnny’s voice again, from far away, and they’re on the sidewalk, against the house.
Mark’s knees give out, and Johnny helps him sit. His head bangs against the side of the house, but he doesn’t even register the pain over the hunger.
“Dude, talk to me,” Johnny says. “You need to feed?”
Mark nods weakly. “I thought—I would’ve been okay for another day or two—but the party—”
“Oh, shit,” Johnny says, understanding dawning on him. “Yeah, all those people can’t be helping.”
“No,” Mark says, laughing a little. It hurts, the rolling, cramping feeling in his stomach making him want to vomit and curl up and die at the same time.
“Okay, well, can you go back? Will Taeyong—” Johnny cuts himself off with a worried, nervous look. Will Taeyong know where you’ve been? He was going to ask. Will he know who you were with?
“Yes,” Mark says. He doesn’t even have to check to know he smells like smoke and alcohol and magic, tons of it, steeped into his jacket and his hair. Taeyong will smell the party and the lycans and reprimand him, maybe make him stay a week or so at the house to keep an eye on him.
And then Taeyong will smell Donghyuck, and Mark—well, he won’t kill Mark, but it’ll break his heart and that’s even worse. “I can’t go back.”
“Shit,” Johnny breathes out. “And it’s bad? Like, you-won’t-last-the-night bad?”
Mark does a quick check, and is horrified to find the bloodlust hovering at the back of his throat, pressing insistently against his eyes and his skull, begging to be let out. “Yeah, it’s bad,” Mark says. He pinches the bridge of his nose. This is all his fault. If he’d just gritted his teeth and ignored the old ones, he’d be fed right now.
The gate opens, and Mark hears voices he recognizes: the rest of their friends, coming to make sure he’s okay.
Mark leans his head back against the house again. Johnny explains to them, looking urgent. Jaemin gives Mark a worried look, and says something to Johnny that Mark is too out-of-it to pick up.
He closes his eyes and focuses breathing slowly through his mouth. There’s a gentle hand on his forehead, the palm warm, and magic sparks across his skin.
Every part of Mark’s body immediately responds to the touch, lighting up and going haywire. The bloodlust retreats, surprisingly, but the hunger intensifies. It must be the magic. It has to be, amplifying and muting all at once. Mark has never been around a witch before, much less dated one—he has no idea what Donghyuck’s magic is doing to him.
“You look awful,” Donghyuck says softly. “Why didn’t you tell me you needed to feed? You didn’t have to meet me if you were hungry.”
“I thought I’d be fine,” Mark gets out, trying for a smile. Donghyuck just huffs, wiping sweaty hair off his forehead. Mark wants to kiss him all over, wants to lick down the column of his throat, run his fingers along the line of his jaw, the shell of his ear, the—
“Why can’t he just feed from me?” Donghyuck asks abruptly, breaking Mark out of his thoughts. It’s addressed to the group, but Donghyuck is looking at Mark, determined, nervous, stubborn.
“Uh,” Jeno says. Mark’s had to drink from him before (second worst night of his life, made only slightly better by the fact that Jeno saved his life) and it was mostly a disaster—Jeno reacting to the stupid feeding chemical, Mark getting blood on Jeno’s shirt, an incredibly awkward conversation about where they stood following what was an unfortunately inevitable hookup. Hormones and chemistry, they decided. With consensual feeding, it’s pretty common, neither of them really remembered it (Jeno because of the drug, Mark because of the feeding haze) and they would never talk about it again. “I mean…”
“No,” Renjun says, crossing his arms. “Hyuck’s not gonna be a feeding bag for this guy.”
“I wouldn’t be!” Donghyuck argues. He puts a hand on Mark’s chest. “I trust him. And it’s my choice anyway, Renjun.”
Renjun looks over at Johnny. “Mark’s not just making this up, right? He could die?”
“I’m right here,” Mark says faintly, trying to sit up and almost passing out. “And yeah, I could die. Either by starving to death, or by going back to the coven house and getting killed by the old ones.”
“Because we’re mortal enemies,” Renjun states flatly. “So you shouldn’t even be here, technically.”
“Renjun!” Donghyuck shouts, but Renjun just shrugs.
“I mean, technically speaking,” Johnny says, “it sorta is his best shot at making it through the night.”
“He should’ve fed before he came,” Renjun replies, mouth tightening.
Jaemin finally steps forward, slinging an arm around Renjun’s shoulders and shaking him a little bit. “Come on, Renjun,” Jaemin coaxes, and Mark can hear the magic in his voice. “They’ll be fine. You gotta trust them.”
“I don’t trust Mark,” Renjun says immediately.
Ouch, Mark thinks.
“Please,” Donghyuck says, voice going soft. “Renjun. Injunnie.”
Renjun doesn’t uncross his arms, though something in his expression flickers. Pity? Understanding? Mark can’t tell.
“I trust you,” Renjun tells him. He looks over to Mark. “If you hurt him, you’ll have other problems besides starving to worry about.”
I would never ever ever hurt him, Mark thinks to himself, so ferocious it makes his head hurt. He nods, and Renjun relaxes.
“Okay, right, let’s get you home,” Johnny says, jumping in now that the arguing is done. Together, he and Donghyuck haul Mark to his feet while Jaemin orders an Uber.
“—don’t wanna walk, there was one of those deaths around here—”
HIs vision spots again, the world fading in and out.
How did it get so bad? he thinks. Normally there’s warning signs, a slight twinge of hunger before the pain, the bloodlust—
Maybe it’s Donghyuck, with his magic and scent, every part of him seeming to pull Mark in. Maybe he’s not hungry for blood, per se, but for…for Donghyuck.
Mark has no idea how that would work, or if it’s even a thing. Maybe he’ll—maybe he can ask Taeyong, but only if he can make it through tonight without dying, or even worse, hurting Donghyuck—
“We’re here,” Donghyuck’s voice comes, puncturing through his hazy thoughts like the sun through fog. There’s an arm around his waist, the feeling of magic shifting through him, limbs moving against his will, up and towards his apartment.
He makes it to his floor entirely thanks to Donghyuck, nauseated and dizzy. His breath rattles dryly in his lungs, and Donghyuck tugs him into his bedroom, laying him gently on the bed.
“Your apartment is so empty,” Donghyuck murmurs, and Mark closes his eyes, feeling like he’s made out of paper. “How long have you lived here?”
“Five years,” Mark whispers. “I’ve never—nobody notices.”
“I noticed,” Donghyuck replies, and the bed dips next to him as Donghyuck lies down. “It feels like the same way you looked at me, outside at that party.”
“I have no pictures to put on the walls,” Mark sighs. “There’s no point.”
“We can take some,” Donghyuck promises. “If vampires show up on film.”
Mark huffs a laugh, though it hurts. “That only happens if you use film with silver in it. Same goes for mirrors.”
“Oh, is that why?” Donghyuck asks curiously. “Because of the silver?”
“Then I should probably take my necklaces off,” Donghyuck says, and there’s a note of nervousness in his voice, now, that reminds Mark of why they’re here. Not to lie on his bed and chat—so Mark can—
The thought makes his stomach turn with both anxiety and hunger.
“Yeah,” Mark says, and slowly, Donghyuck reaches up and unfastens his necklaces—silver chains with charms and little stones hanging from them. They clink when he puts them on Mark’s bedside table.
“Now what?” Donghyuck asks, twisting his hands in his lap. “Do I—should I take my shirt off? I have no idea how this works,” he says, cheeks coloring. “And you look way worse than you did ten minutes ago.”
“I’ve been better,” Mark agrees, but manages to sit up. “Can you come closer?”
Donghyuck nods, inching forward on the bed. His hands are shaking a little bit, and Mark catches them, uncurling his fingers from their fists. His palms, as always, are warm.
“It’s going to hurt,” Mark says, “at first. I’m literally—I’m going to bite you, okay? But then it should feel fine, and maybe, um, even a little weird—I don’t know how it’ll work with us, but with Jeno and I—”
“I knew it was sexy,” Donghyuck says, laughing weakly. Mark gives him his best attempt at a smile. “So, do you like…bite my neck? My wrist? My leg?”
“First off, I’m not trying to kill you,” Mark says. “So…neck or arm. More accessible. Less messy. Leg-biting never goes well.”
Donghyuck lets out another shaky laugh. “I can imagine.”
Mark offers him a small smile before he continues. “The chemical I’ll release helps with healing, and I know you’ve got magic, too.”
“Okay,” Donghyuck says. He takes a deep breath, and Mark squeezes his hands.
“You don’t have to do this,” Mark tells him, and means it with every ounce of conviction he’s got. He’d rather face Taeyong’s rage a thousand times than have Donghyuck feel like he’s being compelled to help Mark.
“I want to,” Donghyuck says. He links his and Mark’s fingers, leaning in. Mark breathes carefully through his mouth, not wanting Donghyuck’s scent to distract him from the conversation.
“Tell me if it hurts, or if you want to stop, and I will,” Mark says. “Promise me.”
“I promise,” Donghyuck says, and some of the tension in the corners of his eyes eases. “It’s okay, Mark. I trust you.”
Mark stares at him for a second longer, but Donghyuck remains firm, chin raised. He nods again.
“Okay,” Mark says. “Alright. Here we go.”
And he shuts his eyes and finally breathes in.
The reaction is immediate. First comes the hunger, slamming into him and sending pain racketing down his body. Then comes the bloodlust, scrabbling for control of his mind. And underneath both of these is desire, a hot coal in the pit of his stomach, the way his mouth waters and the hair on the back of his neck raises in response to Donghyuck.
Donghyuck. He looks at Mark with curiosity, maybe a little bit of nervousness—and trust. So much trust.
And this is why despite the fog, the hunger, and the desperation, Mark’s thoughts ring clear and true. He reaches for Donghyuck’s waist, pulling him closer, his knees bracketing Mark’s hips. Mark runs a careful hand up Donghyuck’s arm, watching goosebumps rise on Donghyuck’s skin.
“Your hands are cold,” Donghyuck murmurs, but he doesn’t pull away. His lashes flutter as Mark wraps an arm around him, nosing across his forearm, the crease of his elbow, up his shoulder. Mark lingers for a second at his chest, Donghyuck’s heartbeat a thunderous crescendo in his ears, before he gets to the spot where Donghyuck’s jaw meets his neck.
Mark takes another deep breath, hands tightening involuntarily on Donghyuck’s waist.
“Okay?” Mark asks. Donghyuck’s hands slide across Mark’s shoulders, and Mark can feel his breath, warm against the side of Mark’s head.
“Yes,” Donghyuck replies.
When Mark’s mouth makes contact with his neck, teeth grazing the vein just below the skin, Donghyuck shivers. Mark holds him a little closer, takes a deep, grounding breath, and bites down oh-so-gently.
Donghyuck winces, but it quickly turns into another full-body shudder as the chemical hits his bloodstream. And Mark—Mark feels a rush of warmth all the way to his fingertips, like honey, or sunlight, or new life. Everything that Donghyuck feels like—smells like—is against his lips, in his veins, and it is the best sensation in the world.
He can’t believe that he’d thought blood bags were better. Maybe it’s because he was waiting for Donghyuck, for this exact moment.
His head begins to clear as his hunger eases, pain ebbing from his body as he takes careful mouthfuls, keeping an ear to Donghyuck’s heart—which is speeding. Donghyuck’s fingers tighten against Mark’s shoulders, and his head tilts back, eyes drifting shut, mouth parting halfway. A tiny, breathy noise escapes him, not quite a moan but not entirely innocent, either—the sort of sound that goes directly to the pit of Mark’s stomach, stoking the smoldering ember there, another wave of desire rushing over him.
The bloodlust begins to recede, and in its place comes the want—for Donghyuck’s body, his hands on Mark’s skin, the smell of him, the feeling of him, voice like water in Mark’s ears. Mark pulls away, pressing the flat of his tongue against the column of Donghyuck’s throat, unable to help himself. Donghyuck’s fingers dig almost painfully into Mark’s back, chest heaving unsteadily. His neck is a mess of blood and spit—sort of gory, honestly, but also sort of hot.
Another spike of heat. Mark’s aware he’s half-hard against Donghyuck’s thigh, but he needs to check if Donghyuck’s okay, if he’s going to pass out—
Mark leans back, trying to get a glimpse of his face, but Donghyuck lunges for him before Mark can even begin to form a question. Their heads knock and their teeth clack as Donghyuck slams their mouths together, so hard Mark goes falling backwards into the mattress. Donghyuck’s hands are on his chest, the collar of his shirt gaping wide across his collarbones and nearly off one of his shoulders. There’s an unhinged, ferocious look in his eyes that doesn’t exactly reassure Mark, but doesn’t really… worry him either.
Still, it’s always good to ask—
“I’m fine, that was hot, I’m really turned-on,” Donghyuck says, answering Mark before he can ask. “Just let me—let me—”
“Yes,” Mark says, and Donghyuck leans down to kiss him again. He smells like blood and honey, and Mark’s hips jerk up unconsciously. Donghyuck’s hands are under his shirt, splayed along his ribcage, and grinds down hard against Mark’s thigh, tilting his head back again. His neck is a mess. His shirt is a mess—they’re a mess, Donghyuck is rocking against his leg with his eyes half-closed and Mark is about to come untouched.
“Jesus Christ,” Mark hisses, but there’s nothing he can do except hold on as Donghyuck picks up the pace—frantic, nearly whimpering, before he curves forward and collapses into Mark’s chest. His breath is hot against Mark’s chin, and his hands wander down, deft fingers over Mark’s zipper, his belt, and then—
The heat coils tightly in Mark’s belly, and he tangles his hands in Donghyuck’s hair, still helpless, unable to do anything except let Donghyuck have his way, hand still too hot, breathing against Donghyuck’s lips, their mouths not quite touching.
The air sings with electricity, and Mark feels Donghyuck’s magic in his bones. Mark bites back an embarrassing noise and squeezes his eyes shut, and the embers in his stomach fan warmth out to the tips of his fingers.
They lie there for a minute, Mark’s hands still in Donghyuck’s hair, Donghyuck’s knees pressing into Mark’s side. They’re both still wearing their clothes, sweaty and sticky and sort of bloodstained.
Donghyuck’s heartbeat has slowed, now, and Mark reaches up and pushes the hair out of his face, poking his cheek gently.
“I’m embarrassed,” Donghyuck mutters, probably not intending Mark to hear. His ears are pink, and he tucks his face into the crook of Mark’s neck, avoiding his gaze. “Sorry.”
Mark smooths his hand down Donghyuck’s back, swallowing a few times to hide his own awkwardness. He has no idea where they’re supposed to go from here—out of his clothes and into his pajamas, hopefully, now that he’s full and in less pain. “Don’t say sorry,” he says. “It was—I’m not complaining.”
“Oh my god,” Donghyuck huffs, finally sitting up. “You could’ve given me a heads-up that that was going to happen.” He frowns, but his eyes are curving with the smile he’s clearly holding back. Mark reaches up and presses a thumb to the corner of Donghyuck’s mouth, and the scowl vanishes.
Donghyuck’s smile is so wide Mark feels something in his chest threaten to crack, and all the awkwardness and discomfort flees. The sun has yet to rise, but still, it feels like dawn has come early.
I am falling in love with you, Mark thinks. He almost says it, too, but catches himself at the last second. God, he’s turning into such a sap. There’s no poetry in him, no soft romantic love, no eloquence, no perfectly-executed sequence of events. But something about Donghyuck makes him want to do stupid things, like write in a journal or kiss his fingers and hold him for the night.
“Do you feel better?” Donghyuck asks tentatively, sliding off of Mark so he’s sitting on the bed. Breath rushes back into Mark’s lungs now that he’s not being crushed, but he misses the steady weight of Donghyuck’s body. He reaches up and wipes at Donghyuck’s neck, partially-dried blood flaking off and getting all over the bed. Donghyuck winces, but Mark pats his leg and sits up. The pain, the hunger, and the bloodlust have all abated, leaving nothing but a full, sleepy sort of feeling, the best kind of satisfaction.
“Much better,” Mark confirms. “Thank you, Hyuck.” He catches Donghyuck’s wrist before he can look down, shy, and meets their eyes. He wants Donghyuck to know how much he means it.
Donghyuck relaxes a little. “You’re welcome,” he replies, and leans forward to press a brief, sweet kiss to Mark’s lips.
“Stay,” Mark says before he can help it, so full of love he’s nearly sick with it. “Please.”
“Okay,” Donghyuck replies easily, like it’s the most natural thing in the world. “I will.”
They change the sheets. Donghyuck sleeps deeply, evenly, and Mark closes his eyes and dreams about dreaming.
Meanwhile, the world outside Mark’s window begins to whisper.
Dawn breaks over them, and Donghyuck begins to stir.
Mark opens his eyes—he wasn’t really asleep, since vampires simply don’t need it anymore—and watches Donghyuck wake up, bit by bit. His eyelids flutter, and he meets Mark’s eyes. Sleepiness gives way to recognition, and he gives Mark a small, shy smile.
“Morning,” he says, stretching his legs out and rolling onto his side, propping himself up on one elbow.
“Morning,” Mark echoes, reaching up to run careful fingers over Donghyuck’s collarbone. “Did you sleep well?”
“Like a fucking rock,” Donghyuck confirms, nodding. “Probably because I lost a fair bit of blood. Do you feel better?”
“Tons better,” Mark says. “Thanks to you.”
At the same time, their minds go to the after part, and Donghyuck’s ears turn a little pink. Mark swallows, throat dry, and tries for a smile. “I’m sorry I’m being awkward about it,” he says, mustering up the courage to look Donghyuck in the eye. “It’s just—I’ve thought about it for so long, and I didn’t think—”
“It would happen like that?” Donghyuck asks, raising his eyebrows.
Mark coughs and looks away. He can practically smell Donghyuck’s delighted curiosity, rolling off of him in waves, tempered by the familiar smoky-sweet scent of his magic.
“No,” Mark says. Donghyuck laughs.
“Then how did you want it to happen?”
Mark pauses and glances up to see if Donghyuck’s joking. He’s smiling, but there’s a genuine question there.
Mark gives it a second of thought, trying to find the least embarrassing way to say it. “Um, less blood,” he starts, and Donghyuck laughs again. “For some reason…we were in nicer clothes. In a nicer house, with a big bed. I would kiss you a little slower, and you’d get my pants all the way off.” He pauses, mouth pursed. “Stop laughing at me.”
“I’m not,” Donghyuck says, but the mattress is shaking, giving him away. “Okay, I am, but not because I think you’re being stupid—”
“But because I think it’s sweet,” Donghyuck continues, ignoring Mark. “I want to try again, too. Less teeth, maybe. And definitely less clothes.” He brushes some hair off of Mark’s forehead. “I want to kiss you all over.”
Mark’s belly swoops, and he whacks Donghyuck’s hand away. “You can’t just say that,” he says.
“Why?” Donghyuck asks, faux-innocent. He blinks at Mark, pouting a little. “It’s true. ”
“Oh my god,” Mark groans, rolling over onto his stomach. “I’ve let a demon into my house.”
Donghyuck laughs, frown vanishing as his eyes curve. “But in all seriousness, there’s a way we could do that.”
“The nice clothes and the nice house part,” Donghyuck says. “There’s the annual Witch’s Ball coming up, and originally, I was gonna go with Renjun, but if you wanted to come—”
“Yes,” Mark says immediately, and then remembers who and what he is. “I mean, if it’ll be safe?”
“We can make it as safe as possible,” Donghyuck promises, and Mark finds himself smiling at the glee on his face. “This is going to be so much fun, oh my god—we’ll dress you up and do something about your cold hands and nobody will know. You’ll be right under their noses and they won’t even know.”
“Okay,” Mark says, shaking his head and laughing. “Okay, yeah, sounds amazing. Let’s do it.”
Donghyuck laughs, and leans down and kisses Mark briefly on the mouth before springing out of the bed. He’s wearing Mark’s boxers and one of Mark’s t-shirts, and he looks too alive to be in Mark’s dusty, empty apartment. The tattoos on his upper arms peek out underneath the sleeves of the shirt, neat black lines and vibrant color.
“I’m assuming you have no food,” Donghyuck says, fumbling for his jeans, “so let’s go buy some so I can have breakfast.”
“What?” Mark asks, bewildered. He sits up as Donghyuck tracks down his shirt, only slightly ruined by blood.
“The grocery store, Mark,” Donghyuck says, putting his jacket and socks on. “Are you coming?”
And that is how Mark ends up at Trader Joe’s at just past nine, pushing the cart as Donghyuck squints at brands of granola and sniffs produce.
“What day is this party?” Mark asks as Donghyuck tosses an orange and some eggs into the cart.
“This Friday,” Donghyuck replies. “Do you like wine?”
“No,” Mark says, and Donghyuck nods, passing the aisle. “Had a bad experience with it twenty years back, right after I was bitten, but before I dropped out of school.” He tries to sort through the memories, but it’s hard. Years and years have passed, but the only thing that’s changed is the world around him. His memory is just as good as it was when he was twenty-one—but it’s been so many years since then, and things tend to get tangled.
The right memory finally comes to him—he was a senior at Gonzaga, in Washington, and it had been the night he’d left.
“I’d realized that I couldn’t stay,” Mark says, frowning thoughtfully, “so I told my friends that I was dropping out and moving back in with my family—and I told my family I was going overseas because I got an internship in London, or something.”
Then he’d left both of them. Left Washington, his friends, his parents, his little brother. He’d uprooted himself and flung himself headfirst into New York, breaking into blood banks for food, until Taeyong found him and took him in.
“I forget how old you are, sometimes,” Donghyuck says, putting a six-pack of beer and a kombucha into the cart. “But then you get that faraway look in your eyes, and I remember how much you’ve lived already.”
Mark comes back to himself, refocusing. “Sorry,” he says. “I didn’t mean to—”
“No, don’t worry,” Donghyuck interrupts. “You didn’t. And you don’t. You’re just as dumb as the rest of us.”
“I don’t know if that’s supposed to reassure me or make me feel worse,” Mark says dubiously, trailing after Donghyuck as he tosses in some pesto. “Why are you buying so much food?”
“Because your apartment depresses me,” Donghyuck says. “So I’m going to fill it with stuff.”
“But I don’t need stuff,” Mark points out. “I’m a vampire.”
“Yes you do,” Donghyuck says. “Being undead doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a home.”
Donghyuck is true to his word. Mark will come back from errands or from the coven house to find Donghyuck striding up to his apartment with mugs or a new blanket for his couch that his friend made, enchanted to always be big enough. He coaxes the broken cabinet doors back onto their hinges and fills the shelves with mugs. He leaves plates in the sink and sticks polaroid photos he prints from his phone on the fridge and walls, turns disposable chopsticks into flowers that bloom gold and vibrant pink and puts them in plastic soda bottles on Mark’s windowsill.
Mark’s apartment starts to feel less like a shell and more like a place where a real person lives. Between it all is Donghyuck, smiling brightly, kissing Mark on the mouth and the cheek and the jaw when he says hello and goodbye. The outside world seems to fade away, and Mark’s life smells and feels like Donghyuck, magical and smoky-sweet, flowery and bright.
Finally, Friday rolls around. Mark stops by the coven house with Jaemin to see if Taeyong has any clothes he can borrow—his excuse is that it’s Jaemin’s party, some fancy murder-mystery bullshit that Jaemin makes up on the spot when Taeyong asks, threading a little magic into it to make it believable.
“Sure, help yourself,” Taeyong says, and Mark instantly feels bad for lying to him. Jaemin, clearly, has no such guilt, because he bounds up the stairs towards Taeyong’s room. Mark goes to follow him, but Taeyong puts a hand on his shoulder.
“Are you alright?” he asks, tilting his head, gaze searching. There’s real concern in his voice, and it makes Mark want to tell him everything. The magnitude in which his life has changed. “You haven’t been around, and when you are, you’re always in a rush.”
“Just life, I guess,” Mark says, rubbing the back of his neck. “I’ve been busy.”
Busy with life outside of here, he thinks. Life that you’d never approve of.
“You know you can talk to me about anything, right?” Taeyong asks, face going soft. “I know we’ve got a lot of customs and traditions around here, and you’re so young…but I don’t want you to feel excluded. This is a family, too.”
Guilt crawls up Mark’s throat, acidic and burning. The truth sits heavy on his tongue. He could say it, blurt it all out right now—
And screw everything up forever. Whatever Taeyong thinks he’s doing, the truth is infinitely worse.
“I know,” he manages. “Thanks, Taeyong.”
“Be careful,” Taeyong warns. “Something is…stirring out there. I don’t know if you’ve been keeping up with the news, but there’s been more—”
“Mark, get up here!” Jaemin calls from upstairs.
Mark gives Taeyong an apologetic look, but Taeyong waves him off. “Go ahead. We can talk later.”
“Okay,” Mark says, giving Taeyong a thumbs up. “See you later.”
“See you,” Taeyong agrees.
The guilty feeling doesn’t quite leave him for the rest of the night, but he’s able to distract himself enough by trying Taeyong’s clothes, feeling more ridiculous with each frilly shirt and shiny jacket he puts on. Taeyong has a surprising amount of streetwear for an old vampire, but Jaemin refuses to let him wear the Gucci tracksuit to the party.
“It’s a ball, ” Jaemin insists. “As funny as it would be to wear a tracksuit, Donghyuck would kill you.”
“Probably,” Mark agrees, hanging the pants back up in the closet. “That’s a good point.”
They sort through clothes for a few minutes longer, until Mark gets tired and flops backwards on Taeyong’s bed, which probably hasn’t been slept in for months, now. Mark still craves sleep every now and then, and the old comfort of sitting underneath the blankets despite no longer feeling cold. His body no longer needs any of it—needs nothing but blood, every now and then—but there’s still a small, achingly human part of him that remembers the vestiges of his old life.
“Ah-ha,” Jaemin says, holding up a hanger. On it is a suit jacket so dark blue it’s nearly black, and a pair of pants. Nothing too special. “This.”
“That’s just…a jacket,” Mark says slowly.
“No, it’s not,” Jaemin disagrees triumphantly, and shakes the hanger gently. And that’s when Mark sees it—the suit and pants are woven with silvery threads that shimmer in the light, making the fabric look shiny and fluid, like starlight.
“Holy shit,” Mark says, reaching for a sleeve. It’s soft, and much lighter than he thought. Jaemin gives him a satisfied smirk, handing him the hanger. “Where do you think Taeyong got this? It looks…magical, don’t you think?”
“Probably is,” Jaemin says, already elbows-deep in the closet again. He holds out a cream-colored shirt, the kind Taeyong wears when they have their coven meetings.
“But why would he—casters can’t do that kind of magic, and neither can the fae.”
“Fae don’t do magic for anybody but themselves, anyway,” Jaemin adds. “So I’d imagine he probably got it from a karma shop, or something.”
“Witches run karma shops,” Mark says, staring down at the suit and pants, mind spinning furiously. “Why would Taeyong be in a karma shop if he hates them? If they’re his enemy?”
“I don’t know,” Jaemin says, who clearly doesn’t care as much as Mark does. “Maybe you should ask him?”
“That’s a terrible idea,” Mark says immediately, hugging the jacket and pants to his chest. Jaemin throws the shirt at him, and Mark snags it out of the air before it can hit him in the face. “He’d probably just shut down on me and walk away.”
“Probably,” Jaemin says again, still far too casual for the degree of discovery they’ve made. “Why do vampires and witches hate each other, anyway? Sure, they fought a war against each other, but America fought against Britain and you don’t see us holding a three-hundred-year grudge.”
“I don’t know, really,” Mark says, stripping off his shirt and pants so he can put on the clothes Jaemin picked out. “Nobody really talks about it. Ever.”
“All the old ones were alive during it,” Mark says, “and I think they’re still hurt. Taeyong definitely is.”
“Well, then, why are the witches so mad? Their elders have much shorter lifespans, I know that.”
Mark gives Jaemin a flat look. “Dude, if I knew, I would’ve told you.”
Jaemin holds up his hands in surrender. “Sorry for being curious. Tuck the shirt in.”
“I was getting there,” Mark mumbles, shoving the end of the shirt into his pants and buttoning it up. The sleeves slide down on his arms, silky against his skin. “The jacket’s a little dusty,” he says, coughing as he shakes it out.
“Get Donghyuck to use his magic,” Jaemin advises. “Does Taeyong have any jewelry?”
“I don’t want any jewelry,” Mark protests, but Jaemin is already at the vanity, opening and closing drawers that jingle.
“Come on,” Jaemin pleads, holding up a few golden chains. “They’re not silver, they won’t burn you, they’ll look so good with the jacket and the shirt, and Donghyuck will like them—”
“Don’t play the Donghyuck card, that’s so unfair,” Mark complains. He acquiesces anyway, bending his head so Jaemin can toss the necklaces on. They pull at the hair on the back of his neck, but he decides (wisely) not to complain, because Jaemin looks like he’s on the verge of charming Mark’s mouth shut and telling him not to move.
A few minutes later, after some hair-arranging and disagreements about shoes, Jaemin finally deems Mark ball-worthy. They’re about to head downstairs when Mark hears the front door slam open, Sicheng’s voice audible as if he were standing in the room with them.
“Wait,” Mark whispers, grabbing the back of Jaemin’s shirt. “Hold on.”
“What’s wrong?” Taeyong asks, concerned. Mark doesn’t need to see him to know that he’s frowning. “Did something happen with Yuta?”
“Yuta?” Mark repeats to himself, surprised. Jaemin gives him a confused look, and Mark forgets that Jaemin’s hearing isn’t quite as good as his.
“Sicheng’s boyfriend," Mark explains. Boyfriend isn’t quite…right, but it’s the best word he’s got for their relationship. Lover is archaic-sounding and weird, partner is too serious, and the guy he’s seeing makes Sicheng sound like he’s nineteen and far less in love than he actually is.
“He asked me to stay with him again,” Sicheng says, and there’s a brittle quality to his voice. “Because of what’s going on in the city. I told him it’s nothing, he said I was being an idiot, I told him if that’s what he thought then maybe I should go. And then he told me that maybe I shouldn’t come back for a while, if all we’re going to do is fight.”
“Oh no,” Taeyong says, quiet. “Sicheng—”
“I’m fine,” Sicheng says, entirely monotone. “I just need to process it. We’ve been through worse.”
“Yuta’s just worried about you,” Taeyong says gently. “And there have been a lot of attacks recently, it’s got the whole coven worried—”
“Can we not talk about this right now,” Sicheng says, and Taeyong sighs. There’s some footsteps, and Sicheng and Taeyong’s voices get farther as they head for what Mark assumes is the kitchen. Their conversation then becomes too hard to hear, and Mark slowly releases Jaemin’s shirt.
“What did they say?” Jaemin asks, nudging Mark. “I could only make out a few words.”
Mark quickly relays the conversation back to Jaemin, whose brow furrows as he digests this.
“Huh,” he says. “I haven’t heard anything about an increase in attacks—I thought it was getting better, actually.”
“Me too,” Mark says, confused. “So why—?”
“Mark, are you done up there?” Taeyong asks, voice much closer. Jaemin gives Mark a shrug before gesturing towards the stairs.
“Yeah, coming down,” Mark says. Don’t give anything away! he mouths at Jaemin.
Jaemin mimes zipping his lips and gives Mark a thumbs up.
“What did you end up choosing—oh,” Taeyong says, eyes widening as he sees what Mark’s wearing. “I forgot—I forgot I had that.”
“It looks old,” Mark says carefully. “Is it okay if I wear it?”
“Yes,” Taeyong says, but his eyes are far away. “Yes, it’s fine. You look really nice.”
“Thanks,” Mark answers, and Taeyong nods, still distant. “Jaemin and I are going now. I’ll be back tomorrow morning with the clothes.”
Taeyong shakes his head a little, and the glaze over his eyes lifts slightly. “Be careful,” he says, and unease rolls over Mark as he opens the front door.
“I will,” Mark says.
The last thing he sees as he steps out into the night is Taeyong’s worried frown, and his eyes, like he’s recognized someone from long ago.
However well Mark thinks he’s dressed, Donghyuck looks infinitely better. Ethereal. Magical. Stunning. The shirt itself is coppery, embroidered with flowers and leaves that seem to shift along the fabric, and translucent enough that Mark can see the tank top he’s wearing underneath. He’s got rings and necklaces and earrings—none of them silver, Donghyuck points out, slinging his arms over Mark’s shoulders and kissing him hard. He smells like shampoo and incense, and he’s wearing something shimmery on his eyes that make them seem more golden than they are, and Mark wants to fall into him and never emerge.
His fingers are quick to fall on the buttons of Mark’s shirt, and Mark pulls back, startled—they’re in the shadows of the subway station, what is he doing—but Donghyuck only unbuttons a few and steps back, smoothing out the jewelry Jaemin had forced on him.
“Maybe it’s a witch thing,” Donghyuck says, “but nobody wears their shirt that buttoned-up.”
“Definitely a witch thing,” Mark mumbles, buttoning his jacket up. “Also, do I smell dusty?”
Donghyuck leans in, his nose wrinkling. “A little,” he says, “but I can fix that, piece of cake.” He runs a hand over Mark’s jacket and the dust lifts off of it, turning into tiny flakes of snow that melt when they touch the ground.
The train comes, blowing stale air through their hair. Donghyuck’s shirt flutters, and he grabs Mark’s hand, grinning from ear-to-ear.
“I’m so excited,” he says as Mark counts the number of stops. “I can’t wait for you to see my world.”
“I’m excited too,” Mark agrees. And nervous, he doesn’t add, because Donghyuck is radiant in his enthusiasm. “Does Renjun know I’m coming?”
“He does,” Donghyuck says, and shakes his head when Mark frowns. “He’s not gonna give you away, he promised. I think you guys would really get along, if he would only stop being a hardass.”
“I mean, it makes sense,” Mark reasons. “We’re supposed to be mortal enemies. I would be surprised if he trusted me right off the bat.”
“Why?” Donghyuck asks, blinking at him. “I did.”
“Well, I mean—you kissed me, and that’s different,” Mark splutters, and Donghyuck laughs so loudly a few people actually look up. A few of them blink at the two of them—at Donghyuck, most likely, who looks like he’s stepped through from a different world. “Why do the witches hate the vampires?” Mark asks after a second, and Donghyuck’s laughter quiets as he frowns thoughtfully.
“I mean, we killed each other,” Donghyuck says. “It was slaughter on both sides.”
“But, like, why? Why was there even a war in the first place? Did the hatred start before or after?”
Donghyuck sighs. “I wish I knew,” he says wistfully, putting his hand in Mark’s. “Because then it would all make sense, and we could change their minds.”
Mark briefly leans his head against Donghyuck’s, the rumble of the train loud in his ears. The automated voice announces their stop, and the doors slide open, Donghyuck tugging him onto the platform and back down to street level—they’d emerged from the subway tunnels a few stops back, and now Donghyuck leads them through a seemingly random neighborhood, stopping every now and then and tilting his head like he’s listening for something.
“Do you know where we’re going?” Mark asks tentatively as Donghyuck stops for the fourth time, one foot hovering off the curb where they were about to cross the street. “Are we lost? Do you need me to look something up in Maps—”
“No,” Donghyuck says, pointing at a storefront Mark hadn’t noticed before. “We’re here.”
“That’s where the party is?”
Donghyuck’s smile is mischievous. “That’s where the door is.”
“The—the what? The door?” Mark asks, hopelessly confused.
“You’ll see,” Donghyuck says, heading confidently towards the store. Mark disagrees—he doesn’t think that any of this will ever make sense. The whole magic thing has confused (and enchanted) him since the first time he laid eyes on Donghyuck. But he trusts Donghyuck, so he follows him into the shop, which is mostly filled with what looks like junk. Old books and records sit in plastic crates, stacks of comics that Mark has never heard of filling the shelves. An old woman sits behind the counter, and she doesn’t even look up from the magazine she’s reading when they walk in.
“This doesn’t look right,” Mark whispers to Donghyuck, eyeing the old lady.
“What?” Donghyuck asks, turning back towards him. Then realization daws across his face, and he gives a short laugh. “Oh, of course. The wards.” He looks around, reaches up onto one of the shelves, and holds up a bottle of what looks like olive oil. “Drink this,” he says, handing it to Mark. “Witches drink it as soon as we’re given our first knack—it lets you see through magical wards.”
“Oh, wait, Jaemin mentioned this,” Mark says, holding the bottle up. “He got some too, when he got his ability.”
“Yep,” Donghyuck says. “It’s sort of like a rite of passage. You’re officially part of the witch community as soon as you get your first clear-eye concoction.”
Mark twists the cap off. The bottle is about as big as his palm, and it smells faintly like citrus. Tastes like it too, he learns a second later.
At first, nothing changes. Then he blinks, and the entire shop has transformed around him.
Shelves that once held old knick-knacks now display a wide assortment of bottles like the one he’d drank from—some the size of his pinkie, others as big as soda bottles. There are snow globes with trees that move, necklaces with stones, quartzes of all shapes and sizes, from deep purple to snowy white. There’s a range of regular human medicine—ibuprofen and Pepto-Bismol—but also dried herbs and little seed pouches, their printed descriptions claiming to help with everything from growing pains to memory loss. They sell socks next to books on how to bottle lightning, gum and chips next to an assortment of hard candies that supposedly grant you temporary magical charms.
“Close your mouth,” the old woman at the counter gripes, only she’s not old anymore—she looks like she’s seventeen, maybe younger, her hair wavy and short. Her round glasses and brightly-colored sweater makes her look like some sort of bug, the effect not helped by the glittering, clinking jewelry she wears. (Mark is sensing a trend when it comes to witches and jewelry—the more, the better, it seems). “What, your first time in a karma shop?”
“Actually, yeah,” Mark says before he can stop himself, and Donghyuck’s eyes widen in panic as the girl’s narrow in suspicion.
“He’s human,” Donghyuck blurts, and the girl’s face relaxes by a fraction. “Well, he’s quarter, uh—”
“Quarter-lycan,” Mark finishes, “on my mom’s side.”
“Oh,” the girl says, and Donghyuck exhales heavily as she nods like this makes perfect sense. “Then, yeah. Welcome to your first karma shop. What can I help you with?”
“We’re actually on our way to the Witch’s Ball,” Donghyuck says, digging in his pocket and procuring a golden envelope the size of his hand.
“He’s your plus-one?” The girl asks, surprised. But she accepts the invitation, sliding it out of the envelope and turning around to slot it in a mailbox behind her. “I wonder if dating outside the witch community is going to become a thing,” she continues, as the mailbox starts to glow. Something in the wall starts to groan and grind, and dust rains from the ceiling as the wall starts to turn.
Donghyuck and the girl ignore it completely, so Mark assumes it’s supposed to be happening. Still, it’s a wonder they can stand still and not flinch—though he might be overestimating the noise because of his hearing.
He pretends like he can’t hear it, just in case, resisting the urge to cover his ears as the wall—or the door, technically—makes an awful scraping noise as it continues to open.
“Why do you say that?” Donghyuck asks.
The girl’s mouth purses again. She really does look like a bug, Mark thinks. “There have been rumors that there’s some… alternative witches in Brooklyn who are dating vampires,” she says, her voice going low on the last word.
Both Mark and Donghyuck freeze at the same time.
Uh-oh, Mark thinks. “No way,” he says aloud, trying not to be obvious about his panic. “Vampires and witches?”
“Apparently it’s a whole thing,” the girl says, “where they’ve turned their back on the witch community to date vampires.” She rolls her eyes. “It’s whatever, I guess. If they don’t want us, we don’t want them.”
“You don’t think there’s a way they can do both?” Donghyuck asks suddenly, and Mark’s stomach drops to his knees.
The girl looks at him like he’s crazy. “Witches and vampires are enemies,” she says, monotone, like this is something everybody knows. “That’s just how it is, I guess.”
The door behind her grinds all the way open, finally, ending the conversation.
Donghyuck shoots Mark a look out of the corner of his eye. We’ll talk about this later? He seems to ask.
Mark nods, and the girl leans over to unlatch part of the counter so they can get to the door.
“Have fun in there,” she says, sounding glum. “My mom won’t let me go until I’m eighteen.”
“We will,” Donghyuck says. “Thanks for opening the door.”
“No problem,” the girl answers.
Donghyuck turns to Mark, then, and Mark looks through the doorway, but it’s so dark he can’t really see anything. He can hear things, however—water running, the sound of gravel underfoot, the chatter of many, many voices—and knows that wherever this door leads to, it’s not anywhere in New York.
“Ready?” Donghyuck asks, offering his hand.
“Yes,” Mark says, and means it. He takes Donghyuck’s hand, and together, they step into the cool hallway of darkness.
And emerge into the brilliant night.
The scene comes into sight like a polaroid picture: fuzzy at first, details hazy, and then in bright relief. They’re standing in a driveway, looking up at a massive white house, one of those Art Deco-Victorian fusion ones that you don’t really see in New York anymore because they’re so big and expensive. It’s all clean angles and pillars and archways, its windows yellow with light. The front doors are thrown open to let in the mass of people that fold into existence from out of nowhere, dressed in the same way Donghyuck and Mark are.
“Pretty awesome, huh?” Donghyuck asks, smiling. “This is where the Council meets.”
“Where—where are we? Not New York, right?”
“I don’t actually know,” Donghyuck admits. “Honestly, probably not anywhere. This place is so steeped in old magic that it’s probably long-disconnected from its physical location. Oh, look, there’s Renjun.”
Renjun is wearing a crisp-looking linen shirt that ripples in an invisible breeze, making him look windswept and elegant. He’s got two other people with him that Mark doesn’t recognize. There’s a girl, wearing a dress the green color of the sea, while the other’s suit jacket makes him look like he’s standing in sunlight.
“Oh,” Renjun says when he spots Mark, standing halfway behind Donghyuck. “You really did end up coming.”
“Hey,” Donghyuck says mildly, but Mark can see his jaw clench. “Please be nice, Renjun.”
Renjun narrows his eyes, but doesn’t say anything else. He gestures to the two people next to him. “This is Emily,” he says, and the girl with the green dress waves, “and Riley.”
The boy lifts a hand. His hair is cropped closely to his head, and his eyes are startlingly grey against the even, dark tone of his skin. Mark avoids his gaze, feeling far too seen for his liking. He doesn’t know what any of these witches can do, but he hopes mind-reading isn’t a knack any of them have.
“This is Mark,” Donghyuck says, linking their arms. “I met him about…a month ago, now? Two months?”
“Almost two months,” Mark says.
“Nice to meet you,” Emily chimes in. “We’re high school friends of both Hyuck and Renjun.”
Riley nods. He doesn’t seem to be particularly chatty. Emily, on the other hand, makes up for his stoic silence, and Mark gladly lets her talk as they make their way to the doors.
“So, you’re human?” Emily asks, and Mark nods, tucking his hands into his pockets self-consciously. “How’d you meet Donghyuck?”
“He works at a coffee shop,” Donghyuck says as Mark answers, “in class.”
Renjun pinches the bridge of his nose. Emily frowns, and Mark scrambles to explain. “Well, I do work in a, uh, coffee shop, but I didn’t actually meet Donghyuck until we had class together.”
Emily’s expression clears immediately. “Makes sense,” she says, even though Mark’s sure she’s saying that just to be nice. “Is this your first time at a magical gathering, then?”
“Yes,” Mark says, and for the first time tonight, it’s the truth.
“Ooh, then you’re in for a treat!” Emily says, clapping her hands together.
They walk through a massive set of French doors into an even more massive room. Mark loses his breath just looking at it. A high, arched ceiling limned with gold stretches above their heads, and the windows along the walls overlook a hedge-bound garden. There is no visible light source, yet the whole room is illuminated, the shadows soft and fuzzy against the walls. The air is sweet and cool, though if Mark breathes too deeply, the many layers of magic tingle in his sinuses. There is something electric in this ballroom—a feeling of outside, like he’s standing in a dream and watching the world around him.
Donghyuck’s grin is wide and giddy, like he can’t help but smile. Mark wonders, briefly, what it feels like to feel excited to be in a room of people just like him. Anytime the Manhattan vampires call a coven meeting, all Mark feels is unease, or judgement as he shows up five minutes late with his laptop and denim jacket, out-of-place among the designer clothing and flawless faces of the others.
“Pretty cool, right?” Donghyuck asks, nudging Mark, who tears his eyes off a seemingly-impossible four-tier fountain of what looks like champagne. “They always go all out. Just wait until you try the food.”
Mark is about to ask what the hold-up is—everyone is mostly standing around in their magical clothing, smelling like smoke and flowers and post-rain showers—when the light dims suddenly, and a hush ripples across the crowd, voices fading to whispers and then to silence.
“Welcome, everyone,” someone says, and a figure, hovering above their heads, illuminates. It’s a woman with a narrow, angular face, her hair parted neatly to the side. Her smile is mysterious, and kind. “Thank you to all my kin for joining us; thank you as well to our esteemed guests. We hope you feel welcome.”
Her gaze lingers on Mark’s face for what feels like a second too long as she says this, and Mark shuffles closer to Donghyuck.
“Who is she?” Mark whispers.
“Jade Liu,” Donghyuck whispers back. “She’s the Council leader. She’s, like, seventy years old, but she’s got some of the most powerful glamour magic in the world. That’s how she looks that young.”
Renjun shushes them as Jade continues.
“Tonight is an evening of celebration,” she says, “as we honor the witches that came before us. Their havens around the United States, their establishment of the Council, is what keeps us safe and allows us to flourish and learn.
“It is also an evening for grieving, because on this night, nearly three hundred years ago, over two hundred witches gave their lives to defend our birthrights, our magic, our home.”
A long, lengthy pause. Mark doesn’t need to ask Donghyuck what she’s talking about—Mark has seen the same pain, the same grief on Taeyong’s face. His heart contracts painfully, and he is aware of how still Donghyuck is next to him, how them standing here is violating the very victory, the very separation that Jade speaks of.
“The November War is why we’re here,” Jade says, and the room is so quiet and still Mark is afraid to breathe too loudly. “To my Brooklyn witches, we feel your loss tonight. But we also feel your relief and your triumph. We are glad you have a place to call home, and magic of your own.” Her expression shifts, and her voice lifts. “It is important to remember where we came from,” she says, “but even more important to remember where we are going. So dance, drink, celebrate. Love. Live, my kin, for the ones that could not—to spite of the vampires that sit now, comfortably in Manhattan, removed from the pain they have caused.”
The room explodes into cheers, ringing out so loudly that Mark’s ears ring. Emily wipes her face; even Renjun is a little misty-eyed. Donghyuck looks like he’s on the verge of celebrating with them, though there is guilt in his face as he turns to Mark.
“Are you okay?” is the first thing he asks, and Mark feels worse—he knows he shouldn’t be here, standing next to Donghyuck and making him feel awful for being a witch, for enjoying the speech and the company of everyone like him.
“I feel like I shouldn’t be here,” Mark admits. “You can—you don’t have to feel bad for me, you know. I know the Witch War was wrong, and—”
Donghyuck shakes his head, and Mark stops mid-sentence as his frown deepens.
“I don’t feel bad for you,” Donghyuck says. “I just know what she said wasn’t true.”
Mark blinks at him. “You…what?”
“There’s no way the vampires aren’t just as hurt as we are,” Donghyuck says thoughtfully, tapping his chin. “Maybe even moreso, I think, because you said some were old enough to remember it.” He looks over at Mark, and Mark realizes he’d completely misread Donghyuck’s expression—it wasn’t guilt so much as it was empathy.
“Oh,” Mark says quietly. “Um.”
“You don’t have to say anything,” Donghyuck tells him lightly, taking his hand. “We can move on, if you want.”
“Okay,” Mark agrees, still a little bewildered by what he’d just heard. He hadn’t expected so much… understanding from someone who was supposed to hate his kind. Well, he knew Donghyuck didn’t hate vampires—he’d let Mark drink from him, had held him close and walked in the rain, tucked Mark’s head under his chin, run careful fingers along too-icy skin—
“Wasn’t that amazing?” Emily interrupts cheerfully. “I’m so glad she’s in charge, it makes me feel so reassured.”
“Agreed,” Renjun says. “Hey, who wants a drink?”
It’s not really a question, Mark learns, because five champagne glasses come floating over to them anyway, summoned by Renjun’s request.
“Cheers,” Renjun says, taking the glass and raising it. “To witches.” He gives Mark a long, measured look as Mark raises the glass to his lips.
The champagne is cool and fruity, crisp against his tongue. It tingles as he swallows, and unlike other food and drink, it doesn’t make him immediately nauseated. Warmth spreads through his belly, and the ballroom takes on a dreamy, warm tint. Mark’s fingers are a little numb, and his mouth turns up without him realizing. Giddiness swells in his chest like a bubble, and he reaches for Donghyuck, laughing at something Emily says.
“Whoa there,” Donghyuck says, giggling as Mark tugs him forward. “You okay? That’s charmed champagne, you know.”
“Oh, is that what it is?” Mark wonders, and laughs again. Donghyuck laughs with him, eyes glittering. He smells incredible, Mark thinks, jubilant. He’s always smelled good, even when his magic acts up—but ever since he’d let Mark feed on him, he’s smelled even better. Soothing and exciting and comforting and new, all at once.
“Let’s dance,” Donghyuck says, and Mark realizes music has started up, gleeful and bright, notes leaping across the air above their heads. Donghyuck pulls Mark into the whirling crowd in the center of the ballroom, and the music sweeps them up and away. Donghyuck’s hands find his waist, and Mark leans forward to kiss him, brief, before the music and the crowd brings them apart, twirling and stepping, before they meet again in the middle.
Mark’s face hurts from smiling so widely. They part again to the time of the music—Mark has no idea what he’s doing, or what the dance is even supposed to be—and a girl next to him grabs his hand and squeezes tight before he can stumble over his own feet.
“Come on!” she encourages, and Mark notices that her eyes are kaleidoscopic, fractured into a million different colors. “Keep up, you’ve got it!”
The music gets faster, more frantic, and Mark hangs onto the girl’s hand, heart beating high and fast. Sweat beads on his brow, and his feet begin to ache as he dashes forward again to the center of the room and then back, rows of people moving in and out like waves against the beach. The girl puts a hand on his waist and spins him out—Mark barely stays upright—and back in again, and then the music ends with a flourish. She releases him to clap, grinning so widely Mark can see the golden teeth she has towards the back of her mouth. Her friendliness surprises him, her smile like a jolt of warmth down his spine.
“You did great,” she says honestly. “Make sure to eat something, though—nobody wants you dead on your feet when the night’s just begun.” She jerks her chin over Mark’s shoulder. “Hey, Donghyuck!”
Mark turns to see Donghyuck, silvery hair darkened at his temples, eyes curving. “Hey, Juliet,” he says. “How are you?”
“Pretty good,” Juliet answers, nodding. “This your boyfriend?”
“Mark,” Donghyuck says. “This is his first magical gathering.”
“He did really well in the wheel spin, even for a human,” Juliet says, eyes glittering. “You should get some food in him, though—his heart’s going a million miles an hour and he looks like he’s going to pass out.”
“Will do,” Donghyuck agrees. “Catch you later?”
“Definitely,” Juliet says, and then turns to catch up with a group of people calling her name.
Donghyuck and Mark stand for a minute, breathing heavily. Mark’s heart finally begins to slow—
“Wait a second, ” Donghyuck yelps, turning to Mark at the same time Mark claps a panicked hand to his chest.
“Whoa, holy shit, my—my heart is beating,” Mark half-shouts. Donghyuck grabs his hands, eyes going wide.
“Your hands are warm,” he says, and touches Mark’s cheek. “Your cheeks are, too. You’ve got—you’ve got color in your cheeks, holy shit, what’s happening?”
“What’s happening to me?” Mark echoes. He starts to say more, but his stomach turns abruptly, and bile rises in his throat. “Oh my god,” he says, swallowing hard. “I think I’m going to vomit.”
“What?” Donghyuck says, voice cracking with surprise. “Vomit? ”
“Outside, outside, outside,” Mark chants, pushing through crowds of people towards the doors that overlook the garden. He feels Donghyuck at his back, one hand pressed between his shoulder blades.
Mark can feel his pulse thundering in his ears. The sound is startling in its loudness. Was it being alive always like this? Heart slamming against his ribs, the rush of blood of his veins heavy and almost unbearable?
He manages to get past the very neat rows of roses and into the hedges before he pukes, his body contracting painfully. His throat burns, his eyes water, and he can’t breathe, holding onto the bushes for support as Donghyuck pats his back.
“That sucked,” Mark croaks when he’s finished, staggering backwards and sitting down hard on a bench tucked into the hedges. Donghyuck wrinkles his nose at the mess Mark made, pointing a finger at the soil, which churns like a whirlpool. A second later, the vomit is gone, and Donghyuck joins him on the bench.
Mark puts his head in his hands and breathes steadily through his nose. The nausea is gone, and his heartbeat begins to fade. He can feel his fingers getting cold again. Everything is settling, going back to normal.
“What was that?” Mark asks, sitting upright. Donghyuck frowns, his arm around Mark’s shoulders.
“The wheel spin is about life,” Donghyuck explains. “Stories say that it was developed a long time ago, when witches generally had far fewer and less extraordinary knacks. They danced at the turning of summer to fall to produce energy to store when the weather got cold and the magic got sticky.”
Donghyuck nods. “Hard to cast. Unwilling. Magic is an external thing, you know? You call it into yourself, shape it, and your knack gives it purpose.”
“Donghyuck?” a voice rings out over the garden, and Donghyuck’s face lights up as he bolts to his feet.
“Taeil!” he shouts, waving. “You made it!”
A short, well-dressed man rounds the corner. He’s got one of those smiles that uses his whole face, pushing some of his neatly-styled hair back into place. “I got here as soon as I could. Kun said he saw you run out here—is everything okay?”
Donghyuck puts a hand on the top of Mark’s head. “He didn’t feel so great, so we came out here for some air.”
“You must be Mark, then,” Taeil says, holding out a hand. Mark shakes it, hoping the chill in his fingers doesn’t give him away. “Donghyuck’s told me a lot about you! It’s great to finally meet in person.”
Once again, Mark is overwhelmed by the genuine friendliness and warmth in Taeil’s voice.
“We were just talking about the wheel spin,” Donghyuck says. “I think that’s what made Mark a little woozy.”
“That’ll do it,” Taeil agrees, nodding. “If your body isn’t equipped to handle that caliber of magical energy, then it’s a little disorienting.”
“He barfed,” Donghyuck says cheerfully, and Taeil laughs at Mark’s embarrassed expression.
“No judgement here,” Taeil says. “I broke my wrist at my first Witch Ball and had to sit out for the rest of it. I’m glad nothing worse happened—you can never tell with humans. Sometimes their hearts get going a little fast—well, no need to go into detail, you get the point.”
Donghyuck and Mark exchange a look. That’s probably what happened, Mark thinks. Except instead of too fast, the magic restarted his heart, like an old motor whirring to life after years of disuse.
“Anyway,” Taeil continues, “if you’re feeling better, Mark, you two should head back inside.”
“Why?” Donghyuck asks. “Is it because of the—”
“People are just worried,” Taeil interrupts firmly, though his tone is still kind. “We’re perfectly safe here, of course, but it’s better to be safe than sorry, you know?”
Donghyuck gets to his feet, and after a second, so does Mark. “Alright,” Donghyuck agrees. “The fireworks are going to start soon, right?”
“They should,” Taeil says, leading them back towards the doors they’d left through a few minutes ago.
They head back into the ballroom, where Mark sips on more euphoria-inducing champagne, carefully tossing any food Emily or Taeil hands him away or putting it back onto the plate. He dances with a bunch of Donghyuck’s friends, but his heart doesn’t race again, the blood in his veins back to being still.
Donghyuck parts with him eventually to dance with Taeil, and Mark steps out of the flurry of people to (metaphorically) catch his breath. Riley, the silent boy from earlier, joins him a second later, just as the giddy bubble in Mark’s chest recedes enough for him to stop finding stupid things amusing.
Mark nods at him. Riley nods back. For a moment, they stand next to each other in silence. It’s far less awkward than Mark would’ve thought.
Then Riley asks, “where’d you get your suit?”
Mark looks down at it, midnight blue velvet and glittering silver thread. “Oh, um, I borrowed it.”
Riley raises an elegant eyebrow. “Borrowed?”
“Yeah,” Mark says, trying not to fidget as Riley looks him up and down, appraising. “Why?”
“It’s really, really old,” he says, and his expression shifts slightly, apologetic. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to come off so forward.”
“No worries,” Mark says, relaxing slightly. “How do you know it’s old?”
“The silver thread,” Riley says, growing more animated with each word, “is starlit. Meaning, a witch with both a light knack and a sewing knack took starlight and wove it into thread. There’s only been one of those—Taemin Lee—and he was alive during the early twentieth century. That’s one of his suits. I’d know it anywhere.”
Mark blinks at Riley for a long moment, whose entire face has transformed as he’s talked. “Taemin Lee?”
“A witch tailor,” Riley explains, clearing his throat and settling back against the wall. Some of the coolness returns, but there’s still an excited gleam in his eye. “He made one-of-a-kind clothing. Stuff spun from sunlight and lightning. Or in your case, starlight.”
“Did he sell them?”
Riley shakes his head. “That’s why he was so cool. He never accepted money for any of it—he’d give them as rewards, as favors, but mostly as gifts.” Riley touches the fabric on Mark’s arm briefly. “Is your friend a witch?”
“Um, no,” Mark says. He’s the mortal enemy of them, though.
Which is why it doesn’t make any sense why Taeyong, of all people, has a vintage suit made by a witch a hundred years ago.
“Some of them ended up in thrift stores, or vintage shops,” Riley says. “He probably picked it up there.”
“Probably,” Mark says, but he’s doubtful. He’s never seen Taeyong step foot into a thrift shop in his life. He’s just not the type.
Donghyuck reappears in front of Mark just then, chest heaving and face flushed.
“My baby,” he coos, and Mark can smell the champagne on his breath as he leans forward to kiss Mark hard on the mouth, one hand coming to Mark’s waist for balance. His magic sparks and rolls across Mark’s skin.
“You smell good,” Mark says before he can help it, into Donghyuck’s ear. Donghyuck shivers slightly and pulls away, brushing some of the hair off of Mark’s forehead.
“And you look hot,” Donghyuck replies, leaning in to kiss Mark again. Riley has peeled off the wall to join the rest of Donghyuck’s friends, and Mark has already forgotten their conversation because Donghyuck is looking at him with half-lidded eyes, mouth quirked.
“Okay, enough, the fireworks are gonna start,” Renjun says from behind them. Donghyuck kisses the corner of Mark’s mouth once more before linking their fingers and turning them both around.
They head towards the balcony with the rest of the people from the ballroom, crowding just beyond the doors, staring up into the clear sky. There are more stars than Mark has seen in his life, and the moonlight is so bright that Mark can clearly see Donghyuck’s face, cast in silver.
“You guys are really cute together, by the way,” Emily says on Mark’s left side as Donghyuck turns to talk to Renjun and Taeil. “I hope you don’t feel self-conscious. Everyone who’s talked to you really likes you.” She leans in, winking. “Even Riley. I don’t know what you did, but I haven’t seen him talk that much in a long time.”
“Really?” Mark asks, genuinely surprised. “I mean, everyone’s been so nice, and the whole night has been—”
“Magical?” Emily fills in, nodding. “Yep. Oh, look! The fireworks are starting.”
There’s a whistling noise, and then a loud boom.
Magical fireworks, Mark learns, put ordinary ones to shame.
They form fantastical shapes in the sky—faces, flowers and trees, massive dragons that glide for a few seconds before exploding into showers of red and gold.
“I’m glad you came,” Donghyuck says, just for him. “I couldn’t imagine this without you.”
There is so much light in Donghyuck’s face, Mark thinks. So much light and so much love. He smiles, and Mark has never, ever loved anything—or any one—more than he loves Donghyuck in this moment, standing under the stars.
As soon as the fireworks are over, Donghyuck turns to Mark with fire in his eyes, and Mark’s stomach swoops.
“Do you want to—” Taeil starts, but Donghyuck shakes his head. He’s already got a hand tangled in the front of Mark’s shirt, and Mark can practically smell the desire coming from his skin, heady and dark.
“Hey, let’s go—” Renjun tries.
“No,” Donghyuck says. Mark kisses his cheek, his jaw, and he shivers and moves them farther from the party, closer to the inky black shadows that extend from the side of the house.
“Oh,” Renjun says, eyebrows shooting up. “Well, be safe.”
“And you’re lucky,” Emily tells Mark, “because any door in this house will lead to anywhere, if you ask it nicely.”
“Okay, bye, see you guys in the morning,” Donghyuck says briskly, and then he and Mark are finally in the dark. Silence falls around them like a blanket, sudden and heavy. Donghyuck pushes at Mark, who stumbles backwards with no grace until his back makes contact with the outside of the manor.
Donghyuck’s eyes look liquid. He runs a slow hand up Mark’s chest, fingers catching on the buttons on his shirt. He taps a finger underneath Mark’s chin, and their eyes meeting feels like lightning striking, shivering down his spine. He leans in close enough that his breath ghosts over Mark’s mouth, and it takes all of his willpower to keep the fraction of space between them.
“Did I already tell you how hot you looked tonight?” Donghyuck murmurs.
Mark swallows dryly. “You mentioned it,” he replies, and hooks his fingers in Donghyuck’s belt loops, tugging him closer so their hips line up, not an inch of space between them. “But you’re beautiful, you know? All the time.”
Donghyuck’s face softens, and he kisses Mark more gently than Mark had anticipated. But the heat still builds—between their mouths, between their chests, in the air around their heads. Donghyuck’s tongue brushes against Mark’s, against his teeth and his lower lip, hands raking through his hair. He pushes against Mark, the siding on the manor digging into his back, and then wedges a thigh between Mark’s legs.
Mark slides his hands down over Donghyuck’s hips to his ass, and Donghyuck makes a noise that’s far too loud for the quiet of the garden.
They break apart. Donghyuck’s mouth is shiny, and color sits high in his cheeks. The smell of his magic is drenched in heat, smoke at the back of Mark’s throat.
“A door,” Donghyuck says. “We need to find a door, right now, so I can get you on a surface—”
“And do what?” Mark asks, even though he’s got a pretty solid idea of what Donghyuck has in mind.
It does not take them long to find one. Mark assumes it belongs to a gardening shed, but Donghyuck puts his palm on it and whispers a few words. The door seems to sigh, and opens on its own to what looks like a hotel room—nondescript, clean. Mark doesn’t get much more than a glimpse, because Donghyuck is pushing him back towards the bed, kicking off his shoes and socks, fingers deftly tugging Mark’s borrowed jacket off.
“Magic doors,” Mark pants as Donghyuck flicks the buttons on his shirt open one by one, kissing each inch of new skin that appears. “Of course there are magic doors.”
“There’s magic in everything, baby,” Donghyuck says. He kisses Mark’s sternum, his stomach, his hipbone. “That’s why no witch knack is alike.”
“What?” Mark says breathlessly, struggling to focus on anything but Donghyuck’s mouth slowly tracing lower and lower. “What are you saying?”
Donghyuck huffs. “You’re not even listening to me.”
“Tell me about it later,” Mark says, tugging Donghyuck up so they’re face-to-face again. He smooths his hands down the front of Donghyuck’s shirt. “Can I take this off?”
Donghyuck lifts his arms. “You don’t have to listen to me,” he says, voice muffled by fabric, “talk about witch stuff all the time, if it bores you. We can always—”
“No,” Mark says, pulling the shirt off of Donghyuck with a flourish and tossing it aside. Donghyuck is still wearing a tank top, and his hair is ruffled in the back. Mark can see a few of his tattoos, the ones along his collarbone stark black against his skin. “I like hearing about magic. It makes my side of the city feel less empty.”
Donghyuck sighs, reaching down to run an affectionate hand through the hair over Mark’s forehead. “Sometimes I wonder,” Donghyuck says softly, “how I got so lucky.”
Mark opens his mouth to respond, but can’t find the right words. It’s new, Donghyuck being this vulnerable, moonlit instead of sun-burnished. Donghyuck has seen the hungry parts of him, the cracked parts of him, the bloodlust and all the undead parts—and still, he kisses Mark so tenderly. Like the fact that one of their hearts doesn’t beat is irrelevant.
Donghyuck gets rid of Mark’s shirt first, and then his pants, leaving Mark in his underwear, shivering in anticipation. Then, Donghyuck finally lifts his tank top over his head in one smooth motion, and Mark reaches up to touch the tattoos along his rib cage, his chest, even a few across his stomach, muscles tensing as Mark runs his fingers along lowercase French and Chinese characters, Celtic symbols and Nordic runes, colored-in flowers for luck, for memory. The abstract shapes on his clavicle, the words on his upper arms. The whole shifting patchwork that is Donghyuck, alive and warm, sitting in Mark’s lap and looking down at Mark like he’s in love.
Maybe he is. Mark doesn’t know, is afraid to ask. But the curve of Donghyuck’s waist says I love you and the hard press of his fingers against Mark’s shoulders says I love you and the way he fits just right against Mark’s chest when they collapse into each other says I love you too.
Looking into Donghyuck’s face as the sweat cools on their bodies is like that first moment all over again—a gaze through the blue light of a tacky fish tank, golden glitter and dark eyes—pure magic, under Mark’s skin.
Later, it’s Mark’s turn to hold Donghyuck close, hoping the blanket will be enough to keep him warm to counter the fact that Mark gives off no body heat whatsoever. Donghyuck’s chest rises and falls slowly, legs tangled with Mark’s under the blankets.
“I love you,” Mark says aloud to the silent room, testing the weight of the words. They’re not as hefty as he thought, and they ring with truth. “I love you, Donghyuck Lee.”
Donghyuck doesn’t wake, of course, but the arm across Mark’s torso curls a little tighter, like he can hear Mark all the way in his dreams.
Their perfect little world shatters as the sun comes up.
Donghyuck sits upright so quickly he nearly falls from the bed. He turns to Mark, eyes wide and terrified, the blood draining from his face.
“Something’s wrong,” he whispers hoarsely. “Something’s gone really, really wrong.”
Donghyuck scrambles from the bed, yanking on his clothes as fast as he can find them. Mark is a half-step behind him, shirt poorly buttoned and pants slightly wrinkled as he hunts down his socks.
Donghyuck doesn’t even bother smoothing down his bedhead as he grabs Mark’s wrist and puts a hand on the door.
“Brooklyn,” he says to it. “Please. I need to go home.”
He opens the door and pulls Mark through it, and they stumble into Donghyuck’s apartment. Renjun is sitting at their tiny dining table, frowning at his phone. He hardly looks up when Donghyuck appears, but his frown deepens just slightly at the sight of Mark.
“What happened?” Donghyuck asks urgently.
Renjun purses his lips. “There was another attack. Four witches—”
“Four?” Donghyuck echoes. He sits down heavily in the chair across from Renjun’s, and Mark wonders if he should go. There’s an air of solemnity in the air, a grief that is distinctly not his.
“They think a vampire did it,” Renjun continues, and once again, his eyes flicker to Mark. “They were all slashed-up, and their necks—”
Mark’s stomach turns, and Donghyuck shakes his head vehemently. “Stop,” he says. “I don’t wanna hear the details.”
“Okay, fine,” Renjun says, setting his phone down. “The point is, Donghyuck, is that it’s not looking good for the vampires right now. They’re calling an emergency council tonight to discuss how we proceed from here.”
Donghyuck looks over at Mark, and his eyes are filled with pain. Last night feels like it happened long, long ago, to two different people.
“Tell me it wasn’t your kind,” Donghyuck says, and Mark’s throat feels like it’s filled with glass.
“I don’t—I don’t know,” Mark replies, and Donghyuck’s face falls a fraction. “I mean, it doesn’t make any sense—nothing like this has happened in decades, not since the coven—”
“But vampires hate witches, right?” Renjun asks, crossing his arms. “So who’s to say that there wasn’t a reason?”
To that, Mark has no answer.
“Renjun,” Donghyuck murmurs, putting a hand on Renjun’s. Renjun looks at him before he sighs, the anger dropping away.
“Sorry,” he says. “I didn’t mean to attack you like that. I’m just—I’m still in shock, a little. I was…friends with one of the guys. Shane Hardy.”
“Oh, Renjun,” Donghyuck says, and Renjun blinks hard, his eyes shiny. Mark shifts uncomfortably from foot-to-foot, inching towards the door.
“I’m going to go,” he says, and Donghyuck nods.
“Probably a good idea,” Donghyuck replies, catching Mark’s wrist and pressing a kiss to the inside of it. “Be safe.”
“You too,” Mark says, and Donghyuck tilts his face up as Mark leans down, kissing Donghyuck briefly before pulling away. “Call me.”
“Okay,” Donghyuck agrees. He clears his throat. “I’m sorry.”
“You don’t need to be,” Mark says, reactionary, though he’s not quite sure if that’s true or not. There’s mistrust in both his and Renjun’s faces, grief that feels directed towards him. It doesn’t matter if the vampires are actually to blame for this—the witches believe they are, and none of them can help it. Still, it hurts. The idea that Donghyuck doesn’t trust him, his kind, is almost too much to bear.
There’s a flicker of guilt across Donghyuck’s face, like he can read Mark’s thoughts, and he pulls away.
“See you later,” Mark says, and he slips out of Donghyuck’s apartment, closing the door behind him.
He’s halfway down the stairs when he hears Renjun burst into tears, and Donghyuck’s voice, soothing and a little hoarse, “I’ve got you.”
Mark curses at his good hearing, trying to get out of the house as fast as possible. He can’t take the sound of Renjun’s sadness, Donghyuck’s fear, or the smell of their magic—thick, cloying, and unpleasantly starchy.
There’s a lump in Mark’s throat the entire subway ride back, and he feels bone-tired, his limbs heavy. An ache has started behind his eyes, and he gets off at the stop for the coven house before he can even register what he’s doing. He wants nothing more than to sit and unload everything that’s happened in the last twelve hours or so. He should be calling Jeno or Johnny or even Jaemin, not lifting the latch on the wrought-iron gate and knocking on the door to the coven house. He shouldn’t be leaning into Taeyong’s hug, breathing in the clean, neutral scent of his clothes and feeling, for the first time in a long time, like a lost twenty-one year old.
“What’s wrong?” Taeyong asks, pulling away so he can look Mark in the eyes. “Did you not have fun at the party? Did you get hurt?”
“I had fun, and I’m fine,” Mark says. “But the attacks—the witches—”
“It wasn’t a vampire,” Taeyong interrupts firmly. “The old ones checked. There’s no bite marks—their throats were slashed.”
“They still think we did it, though,” Mark guesses, remembering the look on Renjun and Donghyuck’s faces when Renjun had said vampires.
Taeyong sighs heavily and leads Mark into the living room, which feels a little homier than usual thanks to the flames crackling cheerfully in the massive fireplace, and the fancy blankets thrown over the backs of the couches. Creature comforts, Mark thinks, watching Taeyong move someone’s laptop to the coffee table. There’s no need for blankets or for fire, or even for couches, really—they could sleep on the hard wooden floors, if needed. But even hundreds of years, it seems, isn’t long enough to kill their humanity entirely.
“I assume the witches will call a council meeting,” Taeyong says carefully. “To discuss the nature of what happened. We may…be looking at the start of another war.”
Mark’s stomach drops to his knees. “Can’t you tell them that we didn’t do it?”
Taeyong sighs again, and the weariness in his voice betrays his age. “They’re not particularly rational creatures, witches,” Taeyong says. “Passionate, yes. Protective, absolutely. But they’re unpredictable, dangerous, and in the council’s case, extremely powerful. They will look at this incident and see what they want to see—that a vampire slaughtered four of them for no good reason—and not the truth.”
The corners of Taeyong’s eyes tighten, and an unfamiliar emotion flashes across his face. “That this is something far, far more dangerous.”
“Does the coven think so?”
“They’re…of many differing opinions,” Taeyong says delicately, which is code for they can’t agree on anything, ever. “Some think this is a set-up by the witches. Some think it’s just a human, and we should leave this to the police. Others are entirely unconcerned.”
“But…this isn’t new,” Mark says slowly. “Right?”
“Right,” Taeyong agrees. “But at this scale, with this level of violence—I haven’t seen anything like it in a—” He cuts himself off, eyes flashing. His expression shutters, and Mark suddenly feels cold. “Well, I don’t know. We’ll have to see.”
Mark bites back the wave of questions that rise to his lips. Taeyong’s only made it more confusing, more empty gaps in the story. Mark feels like there’s a bigger picture he’s supposed to be looking at, but he can’t tell what. He wishes Donghyuck were here. He wishes he and Donghyuck were still in that bed in the magic room, Donghyuck’s arm around his waist, legs tangled together.
“How was the party?” Taeyong asks, changing the subject. Mark looks up, startled, and scrambles for his cover story.
“Good,” Mark says. “I, um, had a good time. Met a bunch of people.”
“Mm,” Taeyong replies, leaning back into the couch cushions. “And you like one of them?”
“What?” Mark yelps, wondering if Taeyong can read his mind, too. Or maybe Mark is just really, really terrible at hiding things. “I mean, I wouldn’t say—”
“It’s okay,” Taeyong cuts in, and Mark can hear the laughter in his voice. “You don’t have to go into detail if you’re embarrassed.”
“It’s not that,” Mark admits, because he could never be embarrassed of Donghyuck, ever. “It’s just…complicated.”
“Ah,” Taeyong says, nodding wisely. “I see.”
No you don’t, Mark thinks, a little dryly. If only you really knew.
“I think I love him,” Mark continues, and Taeyong’s smile softens a little. There’s a familiar look in his eyes, but Mark can’t quite place when he’d seen it. “But I don’t know if we could ever be together.”
“Vampires love differently,” Taeyong starts slowly. “They have no mates, like lycans do, no soul-partners like fae. There are no magically-perfect fits, like witches and casters often find.”
Mark thinks briefly of Yuta and Sicheng. They’ve been together for so long that it never occured to Mark that Yuta might love Sicheng in a different way than Sicheng loves him.
“Because unlike the rest of them,” Taeyong continues, “we were made, not born. We were human once, Mark, and our hearts—as dead as they may seem—remember that.
“So when we love, we love imperfectly. With flaws. We doubt ourselves, our partners, and the strength of the connection. Sometimes we only can love halfway. We can only love to the best of our ability. And sometimes, that’s not enough for the other person.”
Mark tries to keep the disappointment off of his face, but his eyes prick uncomfortably anyway. He sniffs hard, and Taeyong puts a gentle hand on Mark’s knee.
“It will always be hard work for you, Mark,” he says. “Even when the person is worth it. Especially when they’re worth it.”
“But how will I know that it’s enough?” Mark asks, voice cracking.
“You’ll know,” Taeyong says firmly, and for a second, Mark swears Taeyong knows exactly who—and what—he’s talking about. “Because it’ll feel like the sun rising in your chest, and you’ll know.”
The day progresses with something approaching normality. Then Donghyuck texts him, and Mark remembers the precarious ledge their world is standing on.
The Council is gathering now, Donghyuck has written. I’ll keep you updated.
Mark’s thumbs are poised over his keyboard, ready to text him back, when everything goes to hell.
The front door slams open. Cold night air ruffles Mark’s hair just as the bitter, metallic smell of vampire blood fills the room, setting off warning bells in his head. He turns to look over the back of the couch just as a group of vampires come running into the foyer. Two of them are holding a bloody, unconscious boy, and the third is supporting yet another bloodstained person, a girl whose eyes are half-open, her body limp and sagging.
Mark recognizes all of the conscious ones—they’re all slightly older than him, but not by much.
“Yo!” Ayala, who’s supporting the unconscious woman, shouts. “Mark, get over here, help me get her to the kitchen.”
Mark tosses his phone down and jumps over the back of the couch, helping Ayala drag the girl to the kitchen, where they dump her in one of the dining chairs. Evan and Wes, who are carrying the unconscious boy, lay him on the island. All three of them are covered in blood, though it looks like it’s entirely from the victims.
Taeyong and Mona, another elder vampire, come sprinting into the kitchen. Mona’s hair is mussed on the side, like she’d been lying down before.
“Get them blood, right now,” Mona barks at Wes, who nods and scrambles towards the refrigerator. She points at Evan. “What happened?”
Taeyong is already leaning over the unconscious boy, wiping the viscous, nearly-black blood that covers him from head-to-toe. Mark winces at the wounds—massive, nasty-looking slashes scored down his arms, the front of his shirt and chest shredded by similar cuts. And his throat—
“Cut,” Taeyong murmurs, reaching behind him as Wes slaps a blood bag into his hand.
Mark looks up at Taeyong. “Like the witches?”
Taeyong doesn’t say anything, but his tense, stony silence is affirmation enough. He tilts the boy’s head back to get his mouth open as Evan rattles off what happened.
“—and the guy’s a friend of mine, Tyler—that’s his girlfriend, Whitney. She called like ten minutes ago, telling me something had just attacked Tyler—she was in a panic, and I only got the location before the line went dead.” Evan gives Whitney a worried look as Wes wipes her face and coaxes her to drink. Whitney’s head lolls, her eyes rolling back into her head. Her wounds aren’t as bad as her boyfriend’s—her chest and arms are torn-up, but there’s no cut along her neck.
“They’re Bronx vampires, you said?” Mona asks, her phone in hand. Evan nods.
“Help Taeyong and Wes,” she says to him and Mark. “I’m calling the Bronx coven and the rest of the Manhattan vampires. It’s time to decide what we’re going to do about this.”
“Mark, I need your help,” Taeyong says urgently, and Mark turns his attention from Mona to Taeyong and Tyler, whose chest is moving again, though very shallowly.
For the better part of an hour, Mark goes between the kitchen, the basement, and the bathroom, getting bandages and blood and wet towels. Behind them, in the living room, the New York covens assemble.
Donghyuck texts him again.
Vampires were attacked????
Yeah, Mark writes back. Taeyong says it’s in the same way the witches were.
No way… Donghyuck replies. Do you think it was a vampire?
Taeyong doesn’t think so, Mark says. And neither do I. vampires aren’t territorial, and most are too lazy to do that amount of damage. there’s literally NO reason a vampire would attack another, especially not here. the covens here are friendly.
Then what could it be?
I have no idea, Mark replies. Donghyuck doesn’t reply to that, probably because he’s just as confused—and scared—as Mark is.
They move Tyler and Whitney to some of the guest rooms upstairs once they’re clean and bandaged. Whitney lapses out of unconsciousness a few times, but once her head hits the pillow, she’s out cold, mumbling her boyfriend’s name a few times as Wes gently pulls the covers over her.
Mark meets her, Ayala, and Evan in the hall. Taeyong thanks them quickly and then heads downstairs where the rest of the old ones are gathered, discussing the future of their covens.
“I bet it was the witches,” Ayala says spitefully, leaning against the wall. “Cutting throats. That would be just like them, wouldn’t it?”
“I can’t believe we’re not allowed at the meeting,” Evan says, shaking his head. “Why do we have to stand around and wait for them to make decisions for us?”
Wes puts her hands on both Ayala and Evan’s shoulders. “It’ll work out, guys,” she says. “Let’s just be glad that both Whitney and Tyler will live. Thank goodness vampire bodies are strong, right?”
“Strength in exchange for a hella long healing time,” Ayala points out, but she doesn’t try to argue with Wes.
“Do you think there’s gonna be another war?” Mark asks.
Evan gives him a nervous look. “Don’t jinx it, man. I don’t wanna fight anyone.”
“Even the witches?” Ayala says, crossing her arms.
“Can you imagine Evan fighting anyone?” Wes asks, stepping in before Ayala can get too heated. “Even if it’s technically his mortal enemy?”
“Fair point,” Ayala concedes. “Though personally, I think we should fight them again. Chase them out of New York once and for all.”
“No,” Mark blurts before he can help it. All three vampires stare at him, and Mark scrambles for an explanation that makes sense—that isn’t I’m in love with a witch and I couldn’t stand it if he left or got hurt. “A war would tear the city to shreds. We’re not the only ones here—there are tons of others that love it just as much as we do.”
Evan and Wes nod, relaxing. Ayala does too, after a minute, but suspicion still lingers in her eyes.
The noise downstairs suddenly spikes, and Mark can pick out conversation. The four of them exchange a look.
“Is it over?” Wes asks tentatively. Evan shrugs.
“Should we go downstairs?” Mark suggests, but none of them move. Finally, Ayala rolls her eyes and marches down the stairs, not trying to be sneaky in the slightest.
The rest of them follow her, and the room of vampires fall quiet as they approach the living room. Half of the faces Mark knows, the other half he doesn’t—he assumes they’re the old ones from the Bronx coven.
“We have come to a decision,” Quincy, who Mark hasn’t seen in a while. He hasn’t missed his high, reedy voice and the emotionless gloss to his eyes in the slightest. “Regarding the attacks. And that is, we will not act. We will not give our enemies any more reason to doubt us, or any chance to hurt our kind. Instead, we will shelter, and we will wait out the storm. We cannot have another war on our hands.”
Mark bites back a retort at the last second. Quincy hasn’t outright said witch but it’s implied—in the disgust, the fear that clouds the rest of the vampire’s faces.
The old ones think it’s the witches, he thinks to himself. It takes a couple seconds to sink in. The absurdity of it almost makes it seem like a dream. Or his imagination. Or maybe a joke. Except Quincy probably lost his sense of humor when he was bitten like all the other old ones.
They’ve gone nuts, Mark thinks. The witches? Slitting throats? He gets the feeling that’s not their style at all, even if they were trying to kill people, which they aren’t. He’s sure of that. The old ones are so convinced that everything that happened is the witches—and maybe once, Mark would’ve believed them.
But not now. Not after he’s peeked into their world. Not after he’s seen the beauty of their magic, felt the kindness in their smiles. Their shared grief at their loss, their burning, brilliant hope for the future. No, the witches aren’t the ones targeting the vampires, just how the vampires weren’t the ones to kill those witches.
“They are dangerous, they are unpredictable, and they are out for blood,” an old one from the Bronx continues, her voice whisper-soft. “But they cannot hunt us in our streets if we empty them. So that is what we must do.”
Behind her, Taeyong crosses his arms. It’s a small motion, but Mark can see the frustration in his eyes. He clearly doesn’t believe either of them. Good, Mark thinks. I don’t either. But it’s not like he can go to Taeyong to voice his concern. And with the increased surveillance, the expectancy that he’s going to cower in the coven house, he’s not sure how he’ll be able to get to any of his friends—or even more importantly, to Donghyuck. Now, more than ever, Mark aches to be by his side, for the willful warmth of his body, the playful spark in his palms, the way he breathes life and change into anything he touches.
Instead, he’ll wait. Stay quiet.
And in the meantime, he plans.
Unfortunately, the world does not give him very much time to plan. It gives him about two and half days of showering, pacing, and sitting down at the breakfast table with far more vampires than he’s used to. Taeyong had very firmly advised Mark not to go back to his apartment, so he coops himself up in his room in the coven house, waiting for Donghyuck or someone to call him or text him. The humans remain oblivious to the fear that has begun to trickle through the supernatural community, rippling out like someone’s tossed a stone into a still pond. The doors are locked at night, the windows shuttered. The old ones feign indifference verging on apathy, but Mark can sense their tension, coiled tight beneath the hard porcelain masks they seem to wear.
Still, though, he adjusts quickly to the sting of Donghyuck’s absence, which hurts more than any of the tragedy that has occured. He wants to text Donghyuck, reach out and ask if he’s okay, if he wants to meet, if there’s something they need to talk about. But he can’t quite seem to put his emotions into words—so they stay locked inside of him, and his phone remains silent.
The silence breaks on Tuesday morning, when Mark’s phone, facedown on the breakfast table, buzzes.
All heads in the room swivel in his direction, and Mark slowly picks his phone up, self-conscious. He makes sure nobody’s looking over his shoulder before he unlocks his phone and reads the text.
The lycans, Jaemin’s written. The same thing.
Mark stands up from the table so quickly he almost knocks his chair over. It takes an immense amount of control to keep his face neutral, to keep his hands from trembling as he pretends like he’s gotten a regular, boring message.
Some of their packmates, Jaemin writes back, and Mark’s heart sinks. Fuck, he thinks, shaking his head. Mark can’t fathom the depth of their pain—losing a packmate, Johnny’s described, is like losing a limb, an essential part of yourself, torn away.
This is getting out of hand, Mark writes. Who knows? We haven’t gotten any word of it here.
I heard personally from Jeno, Jaemin responds. I think they’re trying to keep it under wraps…they know how tense things are between the witches and the vampires.
And you’re sure it was the same way?
Jaemin’s reply is immediate. Yes.
Everyone's eyes are still on him, so Mark feigns nonchalance as he walks towards the door, urgently typing out another message to Jaemin as soon as he's free of the prying stares.
Should I come?
YES, Jaemin replies. We need to do something about this.
Agreed, Mark writes, and sticks his phone back in his pocket. He’s about to head for the front door when he catches sight of all the old ones—Taeyong included—standing in the living room and foyer and acting like they’re not guarding the entrance.
“Just, uh, wondering if there’s anything to eat,” Mark says quickly before anyone can ask if he’s trying to leave.
“Didn’t you just have some?” Quincy asks, his brow creasing. “You know, we must watch our supply—”
“Oh, we’re fine,” Mona disagrees sharply. She’s never been shy about expressing her dislike for Quincy, something that has long-earned Mark’s respect. “If he’s hungry, he should eat. There’s no reason to start fasting yet.”
“I can go—” Taeyong offers, but an opportunity suddenly presents itself, and Mark tries not to seem too eager as he interrupts.
“It’s fine, I know where the bags are, no need to get up,” he says. He doesn’t wait for Taeyong to reply, already on his way to the basement.
“Don’t drink the O-negative stuff, we need that for the victims!” Taeyong calls after him, and Mark throws a thumbs-up over his shoulder as he takes the stairs down two at a time.
He pulls his phone out as he races down the long hallway, past the walk-in freezers where they keep the blood and the other miscellaneous storage closets.
Meet at my place?
Yup, Jaemin replies. We’re on our way rn.
Me too, Mark replies, heading past the laundry room, all the way towards the unassuming door at the end of the hall. It’s locked, but no match for Mark, who gives it a solid shove. It gives way instantly, and Mark finds himself in the dim garage, which has a few cars parked in it. He skirts his way past them and towards the side door—he knows he doesn’t have much time left before they come looking for him, because there’s no way it takes this long to get blood, even if he’d never been in the walk-in before, which he has.
Sure enough, he can hear distant footsteps on the stairs as he unlocks the side door. By the time they’re checking the fridge for him, however, he’s already out in the alley, shutting the door behind him and taking off as fast as he can (which is pretty fast, he’s lucky there’s nobody around).
He gets to his apartment at the same time Jaemin and the lycans do, the thrill of escaping from under the old ones’ noses fading as soon as he sees Johnny and Jeno’s shattered expressions.
“Oh, man,” Mark mumbles, and pulls Jeno into a hug. Jeno sniffs, shaking a little, but when he pulls away, Mark is glad to see that there’s still life in him—determination blazes hot in his eyes. Johnny, too, has not let grief set in his features, even though his voice is thick with unshed tears.
Mark doesn’t ask who it was, or how it happened. The first is unimportant, and too painful—and the second, he already knows the answer to. Slash marks, a cut throat, too much blood. At first glance, the work of a vampire. At a second, the immolating work of a crazed witch. At a third glance—which so few have taken, much to everyone’s shared frustration—it’s something far more dangerous.
“I can’t believe you escaped lockdown,” Jaemin says as Mark unlocks his apartment. He hasn’t been in here for a while, but everything is just the way it was last time he was here. The dishes in the sink are still dirty, Donghyuck’s book is still lying facedown on the couch, Mark’s shirt from weeks ago is still sitting on the counter, the blood on the collar sprayed with stain remover. The air smells like dust, and like magic—like Donghyuck. He thinks of his silent phone, of their old chain of text messages, and wonders if the silence will continue to stretch on.
Johnny’s nose twitches, and he turns to Mark like he can read his mind. “You haven’t heard from Donghyuck, right?”
“Right,” Mark confirms. “I don’t think he’s…upset, or he thinks vampires are to blame. I think he’s just…”
“Unsure?” Jaemin offers, moving a few coffee cups into the sink and pushing a few houseplants—also from Donghyuck—to the side so he can sit down at the table. “I would be, too.”
“I don’t know what to do,” Mark says helplessly, plopping down across from Jaemin. “It feels hopeless.”
“Well, at least this’ll take your mind off of it,” Jeno says quietly, and Mark scolds himself for being so insensitive. Here he is, complaining about his love life when people have been killed.
“Sorry,” he says to Jeno and Johnny, tamping down guilt.
“S’alright,” Johnny assures him, patting him on the back. “We get it. Donghyuck’s important to you.”
Jaemin opens Mark’s computer—he knows the password to it, somehow, but Mark’s assuming that’s just because he’s a caster and that’s part of his magic—and clicks on the browser. “Okay, um, where do we start?” he asks, typing in monster that cuts throats new york city, which, unsurprisingly, gets no relevant results. A few movies, some subreddits, pop culture mythology mostly about vampires, which are pretty funny to read. Johnny and Jaemin scour history websites and conspiracy pages and Jaemin’s Google searches get increasingly more specific, but at the end of an hour of research, the Internet has failed them and they’re still at square one.
“This sucks,” Jaemin says, putting his head in his hands.
“Agreed,” Johnny says. “I need a drink.”
“Seconded,” comes a voice from the doorway, and all four of them swivel around to look.
Donghyuck is standing there with a hand braced on the doorframe, hair windswept. He’s holding a wet umbrella; it must’ve started raining at some point. His coat is zipped to his chin and he looks exhausted, but he still offers Mark a tiny, nervous smile.
“Sorry,” he says, looking at Mark. “Your phone was off, and I really, um, want to talk. Am I interrupting?” he asks, looking at their set-up at the table.
“No, not at all,” Mark assures him, standing up. “We were just doing some research on the attacks.”
Donghyuck’s face falls. “I heard about your packmate,” he says to Jeno and Johnny. “I’m so, so sorry.”
Something seems to crystalize in the air as he says the words before it melts again like a sigh. Some of the tension releases from Johnny’s shoulders, and Jeno’s eyes don’t look quite as sad.
Magic nudges, Mark thinks to himself, and his awe is familiar. Donghyuck can coax things to become others, can breathe life back into still things—why shouldn’t he be able to transform some of their grief into something else?
“Thanks,” Johnny says. “You guys definitely go talk, though. We’ll still be here.”
“Being unproductive,” Jaemin adds. “I don’t think I’ve thought this hard since I was in school.”
“Have you found anything?” Donghyuck asks as he and Mark head towards Mark’s bedroom.
“No,” Mark says, shutting the door behind him. He crosses to sit on his bed, but Donghyuck doesn’t move, fidgeting with the zipper on his coat. “We keep getting results for bears or old serial killer cases or, like, really cheesy vampire lore.”
Donghyuck laughs. “Like what?”
“A lot of garlic nonsense,” Mark says. “I mean, it doesn’t taste great, but that’s just how all regular food tastes. And don’t even get me started on Twilight.”
“Garlic,” Donghyuck echoes. “Sorry, um. I was just a little nervous. I didn’t know if you’d want to see me.”
As he speaks, some of the paint peels off the doorframe, turning into tiny red butterflies that kiss Donghyuck’s cheeks before dissolving into glitter.
“Maybe I still am nervous,” Donghyuck admits, laughing breathlessly.
“Why wouldn’t I want to see you?” Mark asks, genuinely confused. “All I’ve wanted for the last few days was to see you.”
Donghyuck’s shoulders drop, and his mouth slackens in surprise. “What?”
“What do you mean, what?” Mark asks. “I wasn’t—am I missing something here?”
“I thought you were mad at me,” Donghyuck says slowly. “So I was trying to give you some time.”
“I was trying to give you some time!” Mark replies, not sure if this conversation is really happening or if it’s a delusion. Maybe he’s been cooped up inside for too long, and he’s hallucinating. “You were grieving.”
“I was,” Donghyuck agrees, “but I wasn’t trying to distance myself from you.”
“Oh.” Mark blinks hard. “You weren’t?”
“No,” Donghyuck says. “Were you?”
“Then, um—we were both just being a little dense, I guess,” Donghyuck says, and finally comes to sit down on the bed next to Mark. “I’m sorry. It’s just—I can’t believe what’s happening to the city. I walked here, and the streets were completely empty of any magic. All the fae in our neighborhood have moved out, because they’re afraid they’re next. All the karma shops are closed, and Renjun and I fought about whether I should come see you—” He cuts himself off here, putting a hand on Mark’s cheek. “Anyway, I’m glad I did.”
“Me too,” Mark says, and some of the weight vanishes off his shoulders as Donghyuck pulls him into a tight hug, arms around Mark’s shoulders. Mark closes his eyes and breathes in the familiar smell of him.
Donghyuck pulls back just enough to kiss the side of Mark’s neck, his jaw, and behind his ear, making him shiver. He puts his hands on Mark’s waist when he kisses Mark’s mouth, full and sweet, tongue brushing at the seam of Mark’s lips, and Mark falls into him, unable to stop himself from smiling.
Donghyuck laughs when their teeth clack, and sits back. “What are you smiling about?” he asks, and Mark almost says it, right then and there.
But then the light in the room dims as he remembers what is happening outside of these walls. He thinks about Renjun’s grief-struck face, the bloodied bodies of the Bronx vampires, the way Jeno had trembled in his arms.
He bites his tongue instead and brushes some of the hair from Donghyuck’s forehead. “Nothing,“ he says instead. “Just glad you’re here.”
Donghyuck tucks the front of Mark’s shirt back into his pants, rumpled from where he’d tugged on it a few minutes ago. “I just thought of something,” he says. “A way to maybe get the information we’d need. But it’s sort of dangerous.”
Mark listens to Donghyuck’s plan, chewing on the inside of his cheek as Donghyuck details everything they’d have to get just right in order to pull it off.
“What do you think?” Donghyuck asks when he’s done. “Too risky?”
“Absolutely,” Mark says. “But I don’t think we have another choice.”
The Library of Ancients, Donghyuck explains, is where they’ll find their answers.
“It’s got records and history books and first-hand accounts of everything that happened, ever,” he says as they hurry down the rapidly-darkening streets. “We’ll be able to find something there. The Council has a separate branch just for taking care of all the books in there.”
“You’ve explained how great this library is,” Jaemin points out, “but you’ve failed to mention how we’re all gonna get in there. Isn’t it witches-only?”
“Um, sort of,” Donghyuck says. “More like…you have to go through three levels of clearance before they give you access to it.”
“And you have that clearance level?” Jeno asks hopefully.
“Nope,” Donghyuck answers, much too cheerful. “But they won’t know that when I walk up.”
“This sounds like a terrible idea,” Johnny comments mildly. “What if we get caught?”
Jaemin and Donghyuck exchange a look. “Bad stuff,” Donghyuck says, waving a hand. “But we’re not gonna get caught. It’s just magical wards that protect the place—no actual people, besides the witches at the doors. And I have this,” he says, holding up a tiny vial filled with green liquid, dangling on a string. “From Renjun.”
“Is that what I think it is?” Jaemin asks, tilting his head.
“What is it?” Johnny asks.
Donghyuck smiles, closing his hand around the vial and tucking it back into his pocket. “Very illegal and very effective. It’ll poke a hole in the ward long enough for you to get through.” He turns to Mark. “Jaemin and Mark—you’ll both be able to see the wards, and once you’re in, Jaemin will just charmspeak the guys at the door and let the rest of us through.”
“Why can’t I go through the door?” Mark asks, nervously looking at the potion. “I don’t really wanna mess this up.”
“Jeno and Johnny can pass as witches,” Donghyuck says, “because they’re alive.” His expression softens. “And you’re not. And it would be really, really bad if they found out.”
A lump rises in Mark’s throat. “I’m sorry.”
Donghyuck shakes his head. “Don’t be. I just want—I just want to keep you safe.”
Me too, Mark thinks. That’s why we’re doing this. “Alright,” he says. “I can do that.”
“Sounds easy enough,” Jaemin agrees, nodding.
“Are you kidding,” Jeno deadpans, looking between the two of them. “This sounds like a terrible idea.”
Donghyuck stops suddenly in front of a metal door with a Do Not Enter plaque drilled to the front of it. “Here we are,” he announces.
“The biggest, most magical library in the world is in a power supply closet?” Mark asks, but Donghyuck lays a palm on the door. The surface lights up with a hundred golden symbols, and the tattoos on Donghyuck’s skin glow in turn, temporarily casting his face in warm light and making him look ethereal.
A second later, the door clicks open, opening silently. Donghyuck turns to them, a satisfied look on his face. “You’re staring,” he remarks, and they all blink and file in through the doorway.
There’s a tingle of magic across Mark’s skin, and then they’re in a dimly-lit hallway, the walls dark and the floors carpeted. There’s no sign of the door they came through.
The hallway splits into two directions—in one direction, the carpet continues, and in the other, it quickly turns into scuffed-up floorboard. There’s a cone at the start of it, and a handwritten sign that says please do not enter.
“More polite than the sign on the door,” Jaemin says. “Where’s it go?”
“I don’t know,” Donghyuck. “A side entrance, probably, that’s closed. But that’s where you and Mark are going.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out the vial. “Look for a shimmer—that’ll be the ward. Pour this—” he presses the vial into Mark’s hand, “onto it. You’ll have literally no time to get through before the ward closes, so be ready.”
Mark grips the vial and nods. Donghyuck kisses his cheek. “See you soon,” he says, and Jaemin and Mark part ways.
The hallway gets darker and darker, and Mark squints along the walls, trying to see the glimmer Donghyuck was referring to.
“Do you have a flashlight?” Mark whispers to Jaemin. “I can’t see a thing.”
“Aren’t vampires supposed to have super-sight or whatever?” Jaemin grumbles, but he turns his phone light on. As soon as he does, Mark catches a glimpse of the ward—nearly translucent, shimmering in and out of focus near the wall.
“There,” he says, pointing. “Is that it?”
“Um, yeah, looks like it,” Jaemin says, following Mark to the left. He reaches out to touch the ward, but it’s insubstantial, slipping through his fingers. He uncaps the vial. For such a small amount of liquid, its smell is overpowering, noxious and burning.
Jaemin coughs, waving a hand in front of his face. “Jesus Christ, ” he says, wrinkling his nose. “That’s awful.”
“Okay, I’m gonna pour it,” Mark says. “Get ready.”
He splashes the liquid on the wall. Nothing changes.
“Um, do we just—?” Mark asks, half-turning to Jaemin, but Jaemin loops an arm around Mark’s waist and charges at the wall. Mark winces, bracing for impact…and stumbles to his feet as they emerge into a massive room. Or maybe room isn’t the right word for it, because Mark can’t see any walls, just a tall, arched ceiling, artfully shaped arches supporting huge skylights that let in the last of the quickly-dimming light. Shelves go on as far as the eye can see, filled with infinite books, some weathered and old, others brightly-colored and new.
“Stay right here and don’t move,” Jaemin says, putting his hands on Mark’s shoulders. “I’m going to get Donghyuck and the rest of them.”
Mark nods, and Jaemin takes off into the distance, turning a corner and vanishing from sight. Mark has no idea if he actually knows where he’s going.
Minutes wear on, and Mark shifts uneasily. The air around him feels heavy, and he swears he can hear someone whispering, a presence shifting behind him, like whatever spirits live in this library know he’s not supposed to be here.
“I’m really sorry we broke in,” Mark says, his voice too loud in the strange stillness of the library. “But we had to. Something terrible is happening, and nobody is really doing anything about it. We’re on the brink of another war, and we’re here to find out what’s going on before it’s too late.”
Unsurprisingly, the library doesn’t answer him. But the air no longer feels so heavy, like some of the suspicion has lifted.
“The boy I love brought us here,” Mark continues. “Donghyuck. He’s a witch, I promise. I want to protect him.”
There’s a gentle pressure on the top of his head, the ghost of a reassuring touch.
Mark startles; the presence and the sensation fades. His friends—with the addition of Renjun and Taeil, bizarrely—come rounding around the bookshelves.
“Whoa, Taeil?” Mark asks, laughing nervously and giving Donghyuck a pointed look. “What are you, um—”
“Chill, Mark, he knows,” Renjun says, brushing past him and into the rows of shelves. “What are we looking for?”
“Nice to see you again,” Taeil says kindly. “How have you been?”
“He knows I’m a vampire?” Mark asks, double-checking just to be sure.
Donghyuck slings an arm around his shoulder. “I only told him because I knew he’d handle it just fine,” Donghyuck informs him. “Besides, without him, we wouldn’t have made it past.”
“The charmspeak didn’t work super well,” Jaemin continues. “But Renjun had sort of guessed where we were gonna be, and Taeil showed up, put the lights out, and the guards passed out.”
“They’re just sleeping,” Taeil corrects. “They’ll be up in a few hours, so if we want to get what we need, we should hurry.”
“There are indexes right here,” Renjun says, paging through the largest book Mark has ever seen in his life. “We’re looking for throat-slitting, bloodthirsty monsters—”
“Um, check to see if there’s anything about this from, like, a hundred years ago or so,” Mark says, walking over to join Renjun at the book. “The old ones definitely…had seen this before. They recognized it, at least.”
Renjun flips the pages. “Monster attacks…nineteen-hundreds…” He looks up. “Over five thousand articles. Have fun.”
Jaemin groans. “This is going to be a long night.”
They sift through works for what feels like hours. The library is immense, the texts are dull and dusty, and by eight, Mark is both hungry and tired, a headache building behind his eyes.
“This is getting us nowhere,” he groans, sitting back in his chair and closing the massive book about demonic possession (he has no idea where that was going, except the wrong direction). “I need a break.”
“Me too,” Donghyuck says, closing the book of newspaper clippings and standing. “I have to pee.”
“I’ll walk with you,” Mark agrees. “I need to stretch my legs.”
“Vampires get leg cramps?” Johnny teases, crumpling up another piece of notebook paper. Jaemin flips through a book of Navajo mythology while Renjun and Taeil squint at pages of reports written entirely in Spanish.
“This one does,” Mark says, getting up and following Donghyuck out of their little bubble of light.
Night has truly fallen. Everybody else had eaten dinner earlier, and watching them had only made Mark hungrier. Nothing like that night at the party over a week ago, of course, but enough to make him a little lightheaded and uncomfortable.
As Donghyuck ducks in to use the bathroom, the presence from before comes back, nudging him insistently.
“What?” Mark asks aloud, but once again, there’s no answer. “We’re trying our best, I promise,” he tells it.
The thing pushes him to the right a little, urging him farther into the library and away from their friends.
The bathroom door swings open and Donghyuck comes out. “Who are you talking to?” he asks curiously, peering around them.
“Uh, nobody,” Mark says. Donghyuck raises an eyebrow, but doesn’t say anything.
Another forceful nudge, and Mark tries not to lose his balance. “Hey, wanna walk around a little more? I’m not sure if I want to go back quite yet.”
“Sure,” Donghyuck says, and Mark sets off in the direction he’s being pushed towards.
They walk in silence for a minute or so, past symmetrical-looking rows of bookshelves.
Then Donghyuck asks, “Do you think we’ll find anything?”
Mark purses his lips. He wants to believe they’ll find all the answers and convince everyone to stop pointing fingers. But they haven’t made any headway in hours, and Mark can feel the grief and fear weighing on each and every one of them, a deadly burden on their shoulders. “It doesn’t matter what I think,” Mark says. “We have to. We can’t let this go on.”
Donghyuck bites his cheek and doesn’t say anything, just slips his hand into Mark’s.
Mark is about to ask what’s wrong when the air abruptly changes. The dust and silent, stifling warmth lifts, replaced by a cool, summery-sweet breeze.
And then the floor transforms into grass, the shelves into trees, and the ceiling gives way to a sky bursting with silvery stars, and Mark loses his breath.
Magic, he thinks, will never cease to amaze.
They’re standing in a small, circular garden. In the center, a small fountain quietly feeds a pond, the hedges and trees shaking with the occasional gust of wind.
“Whoa,” Donghyuck breathes. His hand tightens around Mark’s. “Did you know about this?” he asks without taking his eyes off the sky, so bright it dazzles.
“No,” Mark says, and it’s the truth. “But I did get…a feeling.”
“Is that who you were talking to?” Donghyuck asks. At Mark’s affirmative silence, he exhales slowly. “I knew we weren’t alone. This library is too full of old magic to be completely empty.”
Another gentle nudge. Donghyuck’s eyes widen, and Mark knows he felt it too.
“I think they wanted us to find it,” Mark says, flopping down on the grass, propping himself on his hands.
“Why, though?” Donghyuck wonders thoughtfully. “There aren’t any books in here. Just trees and stars.” He sits down next to Mark, eyes liquid in the starlight. “I’m afraid.”
“Me too,” Mark admits.
“I wonder—what happens if we don’t find anything?” Donghyuck asks cautiously.
“Stop,” Mark says, catching Donghyuck’s face between his palms and turning it. “Don’t think about that.”
“But what if—”
“Shh,” Mark says, even though his own heart is thundering with anxiety and a hundred what-if s. He kisses Donghyuck anyway, firm at first but softer as Donghyuck melts into him, mouth opening easily against Mark’s. He tugs at the back of Mark’s shirt and Mark slings a leg over Donghyuck’s hips, knee digging into the ground. Mark curls his tongue against Donghyuck’s, and Donghyuck makes a low, needy sound in the back of his throat and pulls Mark closer, winding his hands into his hair.
Mark kisses down Donghyuck’s chin and under his jaw, down the column of his throat where his pulse beats steady. The smell that comes off his skin is enough to make Mark dizzy, and he bites down before he can stop himself. He doesn’t break the skin, but Donghyuck shivers anyway, hands sliding under Mark’s shirt and over his ribcage.
By the time they finally pull away, Donghyuck has a slowly-darkening bruise on his collarbone, and Mark’s lips are tingling.
“Our friends definitely know we’re up to something,” Donghyuck says at last, and Mark laughs, rolling off Donghyuck to lie next to him. His heart leaps a little in his chest, knocking faintly against his ribs. He puts a hand against his sternum, feeling his pulse thrum weakly for a few seconds.
“Is your heart going again?” Donghyuck asks, reaching over and putting his hand next to Mark’s. He gives Mark a quiet, knowing smile. “Sorry about that.”
“I like it,” Mark admits. “It reminds me that I’m more alive than I think I am.”
They lie there as Mark’s heartbeat slows again under their palms, the heat fading from his skin.
“We should probably go back,” Mark says.
“Mm,” Donghyuck agrees, but neither of them move. The stolen minutes tick past, even though they don’t have any to spare. Outside of the garden, their friends wait, and supernaturals bleed and die in the slowly-emptying streets of New York.
“My parents have a garden like this,” Donghyuck says. “They live in Colorado, in the mountains, and in the spring, it fills with wildflowers. When I was little, my dad would cook outside and my mom and I would bring a blanket out when it got warm enough and she would tell me stories about the oni and the angels in the sky.”
“The oni and the angels?” Mark asks, eyes back on the stars. Donghyuck is pointing out constellations that Mark can’t quite make out.
“My mom liked to say that the stars were battlegrounds,” Donghyuck says. “The first supernatural beings were made from angels, and the oni went crazy from the smell of their blood. So the angels’ offspring threw them back into the sky and the angels sealed them up there, where they would fight for eternity.”
“They wanted to eat us?” Mark asks dubiously.
“That was her threat,” Donghyuck laughs. “Behave, or an oni will break through the sky and gobble you up. They’d scratch you up and hang you by your ankles, and—”
Donghyuck sits up abruptly. “Mark, that’s it,” he says, dragging Mark up by the front of his shirt. “We’ve been looking for things that drink blood. But then wouldn’t that apply to humans, too?”
Realization starts to dawn on Mark. “But it’s only attacked supernaturals—”
“Meaning it’s not just any blood, but supernatural blood,” Donghyuck finishes.
“Oh my god,” Mark says, scrambling to his feet. “We gotta tell the others.”
“Right behind you,” Donghyuck says, locking his fingers with Mark’s as they tear through the library, following the sound of their friends’ voices.
“What’s wrong?” Taeil asks concernedly as they skid to a halt in front of the table, slightly out-of-breath. “DId something happen?”
“No, no,” Donghyuck says, and for the first time tonight, he looks genuinely hopeful. He quickly explains his theory, and the same realization Mark had minutes before lights up the faces of his friends.
“I can’t believe I didn’t think of that before!” Renjun exclaims, hitting his fist on the table.
“God, duh,” Jaemin says. He smacks his forehead. “We were so concerned about the blood part that we ignored all the rest!”
“They never said if the bodies had been drained,” Johnny says, flipping through his pages of notes with increasing energy. “Just…torn-up. Not like vampires, or kappas, or anything magical. More like—”
“A wraith,” Jeno interrupts. Everyone stops what they’re doing to turn to Jeno, who’s got a stack of yellowing papers and a massive book with tiny text and grainy pictures. “Listen—the result of incorrectly cast curses or forbidden spells, wraiths are soulless creatures capable only of the most depraved emotions. One touch from them will pull the magic from any witch’s body, leaving them hollow and empty as their attacker. ” Jeno looks up. “There’s more,” he says, “but it’s not very useful.”
“It says nothing about blood, though,” Taeil points out. “Or physical attacks. It just sucks the magic out of witches.”
“I’ve seen one,” Renjun offers. “They’re awful. But certainly not capable of the level of violence we’ve seen.”
“Someone wrote in an addition,” Jeno continues. “At the bottom. About—about bloodwraiths.”
All the witches in the room stiffen at the mention of it.
“That’s a myth,” Donghyuck says slowly. “There’s no way. Absolutely none.”
“Jeno, read what it says,” Renjun urges.
Jeno licks his lips, giving Donghyuck an uneasy look. “It’s short,” he says, and clears his throat. “ A bloodwraith—different than their cousins as they are malicious in intent, purposefully created—as such, it is capable of great bodily harm—victims identified by the damage to their chests, and of course the cut throat, which allows them to slowly bleed to their death. It is controlled by a single master, who has given their soul and their life to wield such a creature. ” Jeno stops abruptly, eyes going wide. “Um,” he says, squinting at the page. “It says—it says—”
Johnny leans over to look at the book, and his face pales. He looks up at Mark, and then back down at the book.
Mark’s stomach drops like a stone. “What?” he demands, striding around the table to come see what they’re looking at.
Jeno was right—the note about bloodwraiths is indeed printed neatly at the bottom, underneath the dusty text. Printed neatly in handwriting Mark recognizes—and signed by Taeyong Lee, 1916.
Mark stares at the name, and the letters, for a long moment. Then, carefully, he flips to the front of the book. If his heart beat, it would be in his throat right now. Published with thanks to the Coven of Witches, with help from the historians at the Library—introduction by dear friend and fellow storyteller, Taemin Lee.
He feels like he’s just been sucker-punched in the stomach. First, there’s the fact that it’s Taeyong who’d written about the bloodwraiths—and not just a story, or a myth, but a firsthand account. With details. Meaning—meaning he’d probably known, this entire time, about just what, exactly, was hurting people.
Pieces start to come together, clicking in place: Taeyong’s expression as he’d looked over Tyler and Whitney, their chests and throats slashed. His insistence at something more, something worse.
And then there’s the whole witch thing. Suddenly, the magic suit makes sense—Taeyong had it because he’d known Taemin Lee, whoever he was. It was probably Taemin Lee who brought him this book, who asked him about the bloodwraith.
“Mark?” Donghyuck asks, and the gentle hand on his shoulder is enough to startle Mark out of his thoughts.
“Huh? What?” He looks around, and everyone’s staring at him, their faces a mixture of shock and concern.
“Are you alright?” Donghyuck asks.
Mark glances down at the book again, Taeyong’s faded penmanship on the page taunting him.
“I don’t know,” he says honestly. “But I think I have to go talk with Taeyong.”
“Are you going to tell your elders that you think it’s a bloodwraith, not the witches?” Jaemin asks, propping his chin in his hands.
“Why, are we?” Donghyuck asks.
“Duh,” Renjun says. “They’ll know what to do, right? If a bloodwraith comes from a curse, then can’t we just undo it?”
“Not…exactly,” Taeil finally speaks up. “It’s a little more complicated than that. If it actually is a bloodwraith, which wouldn’t make sense, because they’re incredibly difficult to summon, not to mention super dangerous—”
“Isn’t your Council super powerful?” Johnny asks, and Taeil sighs, resigned.
“Yes,” he explains patiently, “but it takes a certain kind of witch with a specific knack to undo curses. Someone like me, for example, couldn’t. It’s just not in my magical capability. But someone like Donghyuck, who’s good at changing and coaxing, would have an easier time with it.” He gives Donghyuck a stern look. “Not that I’m saying you should even try, Hyuck. A curse like this would kill even the most skilled cursebreaker.”
“Wasn’t even thinking about it,” Donghyuck says, but the look in his eye says the opposite.
“So what you’re saying,” Jaemin says, “is that even if we tell them, there’s nothing they could do?”
Taeil sighs again. “Yeah, pretty much. It would take strength in numbers and power that we don’t have,” he admits, and everyone’s face falls. “But I’m not a hundred percent on that. Even witches with completely different knacks have united before. How do you think we held on during the November War?” He gives Mark an apologetic look. “Sorry.”
“No problem,” Mark says. His head is spinning with everything that he’s learned—and lost, too. With each passing minute, it feels like the chance they have of winning, or stopping this—this bloodwraith, holy fucking shit—is decreasing. If the Council won’t listen, there’s no chance the old ones will be bothered to act. They’re too set in their ways, wrapped up in their elevated sense of authority, taking cruel delight in saying no.
He’d thought Taeyong was the same way—but the text on the page about wraiths is saying something different.
There’s still no chance, though, even if he does get answers.
Donghyuck sits down next to him as the rest of them dissolve into side conversations. Jaemin, Jeno and Renjun flip through the mythology book, searching for more information about wraiths, and Taeil attempts to explain how witch magic works to Johnny.
“I don’t know what to do,” Mark admits, unable to stop his voice from trembling.
Donghyuck, because he’s brilliant and lovely and fits up against all the fearful parts of Mark like a balm, puts a hand between his shoulder blades and breathes out. Mark’s heart stirs in his chest, and for a second, his hands feel warm.
“Me neither,” Donghyuck replies. “But we’ve got to do something, right?”
Only three questions, then, remain.
The first: how did Taeyong know about the bloodwraith, if it was supposed to be a myth?
The second: why does he hate witches, if he’d known one well enough to contribute to this book?
The last, and possibly the most confusing: what are they going to do now?
Sicheng is sitting on the front steps of the coven house by the time Mark gets back, sometime just before midnight. There’s a suitcase by his legs, and the faint glow from his phone screen illuminates the frown he has on his face.
“They’re going to kill you,” Sicheng states simply. “They’re so mad.”
“I don’t care,” Mark says, crossing his arms. His irritation, fueled by frustration and fear, surges to the forefront. “People are dying, Sicheng, and I just found out what.”
“I know,” Sicheng says. “I’m going to stay with Yuta.”
“You’re running away?” Mark asks, struggling to keep his voice down. “Why?”
“Because there’s nothing I can do,” Sicheng says. “And I refuse to get my hands bloody when this war starts.”
“What?” Mark asks, blinking. “What war?”
“Haven’t you heard?” Sicheng asks. He taps his phone a few times, and then holds it up to Mark.
TWO BODIES RECOVERED IN BROOKLYN AND MANHATTAN; POLICE SUSPECT PREMEDITATED MURDER, the article headline announces.
“A witch in Manhattan, and a vampire in Brooklyn,” Sicheng confirms, clicking his phone off. “The humans noticed. The police are involved. This city is falling apart, Mark,” he says. “And I’m not going to be here when it finally crumbles.”
A car pulls up to the curb, and Sicheng stands, one fluid motion. “They’ll have heard you by now,” he says, pointing behind him. “Good luck, Mark. If this works out, I’ll see you sooner than later.” Sympathy softens his face for a half-second, and then he’s gone, dragging his suitcase past the wrought-iron gate and to the street.
Mark watches him, not sure if he should shout goodbye or cuss him out. Both, maybe? Anger and hurt that Sicheng is abandoning them—but also the nagging feeling that maybe Sicheng’s doing the right thing. Maybe they should run, before the bloodwraith tears them all to shreds, gutting the city of all its magic.
Right now, though, he’s got a different problem to face: the old ones, who are all waiting for him in the living room, sitting stock-still and silent on the couches. Their faces are impassive—even Taeyong’s—and that’s how Mark knows that they’re furious.
“Judging from the look on your face,” Quincy says snidely, “you know what you’ve done wrong.”
“I don’t even know why we’re here,” Anastasia comments, studying her nails. “He knows the punishment—no feeding for three days, he stays in his room, we shave his head and cut his fingertips.”
“That is not going to happen,” Mark blurts before he can help it, and every single vampire curls their lip at him—save for Mona and Taeyong, who just look disappointed. “C’mon, the fingertips? That’s barbaric.”
“It’s what you deserve,” Anastasia snips, and Mark takes a deep, calming breath through his nose, trying not to let his frustration get ahead of him. He dislikes Anastasia on a good day—and today has not been one of those.
His patience, after sneaking out of vampire prison to break into a sacred library to study for most of the day only to find out that the thing hunting them was pretty much impossible to take down without the force of an army, is wearing quite thin.
“Look, I know you guys didn’t want any of us out of the house because you’re afraid,” Mark says, gathering up every ounce of courage he’s got. “But I think—I think I found something. Answers.”
“And where, exactly, did you go to get these answers?” Quincy asks, raising a thin eyebrow. “Not your Internet, I presume?”
Your Internet, Mark thinks, barely holding back a snicker. God, this guy is insufferable.
“Um,” Mark says, stalling as he realizes he can’t tell them the truth, because the truth is infinitely worse than just sneaking out. “The, um.” He looks to Taeyong, whose face is still impassive. I know you lied to me, he thinks at Taeyong. I know you’re a liar.
“I can smell the lycans on him,” Mona says. “Perhaps they found something. I know they recently suffered an attack, as well.”
“By the same thing,” Mark insists. “Which means it wasn’t the witches, because why would they—”
“Enough,” Quincy says, raising a hand. “I will hear none of your drivel, and certainly none of your ridiculous theories. You broke the rules, Mark Lee. That is why we are here.”
Mona meets his eyes. Apologize, she mouths at him. Leave the rest.
Mark swallows his pride—barely—and looks down at his feet. “I’m sorry,” he gets out. “I just—I missed my friends, is all.”
“As expected,” Mona replies. Her voice is gentle. “Come now, Quincy. He didn’t do anything to endanger himself or us. He just went to his apartment, I assume?”
“So how about we let him off with a warning?” Mona suggests, and Mark feels his heart swell with gratitude. He tries not to let it show too much on his face.
Quincy is silent for a long moment. Mark keeps his eyes fixed on his shoes. “Fine,” Quincy snaps at last. “But I’ll not hear another word out of you. Understand? You jeopardize everything we stand for.”
Maybe that’s a good thing, Mark thinks bitterly. The truth burns hot and bright in his chest—he knows about the bloodwraith. He knows about the world outside of this fucking house. He doesn’t give a damn about the formalities or the traditions, about living forever, about staying inside, about keeping away from the things people have told him to just because they’re afraid.
The truth burns hot, bright, and steady in his chest: he loves Donghyuck, magic and all, and there’s nothing a single one of them can say that will change that in the slightest.
“Thanks,” Mark tells Quincy. Fuck you, he adds for good measure.
Then he walks out of the room.
He knows Taeyong is following him by the quiet sound of his footsteps—he doesn’t say anything, not yet, but Mark knows that Taeyong can sense that something’s up.
They go all the way to the top floor. Mark pauses at the landing, listening; he doesn’t want to be overheard in the slightest. The only occupant is Tyler, the Bronx vampire, still passed out cold in his bed as his wounds slowly heal. Whitney, who’s usually by his side, has gone downstairs—Mark passed her on her way in. She’d looked haggard, but alive.
They all deserve more than this—more than being trapped inside because the ones that make the rules are petty and blinded by hatred over three hundred years old.
Mark picks an empty room, and Taeyong closes the door behind him. He folds his arms over his chest and doesn’t say anything, just waits.
So that’s how it’s gonna be, Mark thinks. He’d been hoping, just a little, that Taeyong would start the conversation, and the truth would just pour out of him. Mark doesn’t like confrontation; he likes resolution, and he likes having a plan. He’s always been a little too anxious to ask the difficult questions—especially to Taeyong, who’s much older than him and looking at him carefully.
Mark picks the most neutral topic out of the three: not the witches, not Taemin Lee—the bloodwraith. The most immediate, too, which is good.
“I know it’s a bloodwraith,” Mark starts, clearing his throat when his voice comes out a little hoarse. “I mean, I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure. The—we read about the cuts on the throat, how it’s got no soul—all of it.”
Taeyong’s face still doesn’t budge. “Who’s we?”
“Um, me and Jeno and Johnny,” Mark says.
Taeyong waits, like he knows there’s more to the answer.
“And some other friends,” Mark rushes out, and hopes Taeyong won’t push too much farther. Because Mark will tell him the truth—has wanted to tell him the truth for forever now—but there’s no way that will end well.
“The witches,” Taeyong says slowly.
Mark freezes, shock numbing his fingertips. Whatever he was going to say next is struck from his tongue; all thoughts flee his mind, replaced with crackling static.
WHAT? Mark’s brain screams, a single demand.
“Um,” he says instead, because that’s all he can manage.
Taeyong crosses his arms and sighs. “Vampires can’t smell as well as lycans, granted,” Taeyong says, “but we can still smell pretty damn well. Especially when it’s magic. Especially when that magic is in you.” He gives Mark a pointed look.
A hot wave of embarrassment floods through Mark, chasing away some of the shock. “I thought—”
“Nobody else noticed,” Taeyong assures him. “You spend enough time away from here, and all of the old ones already think you’re socially deviant. But I know you, Mark.” His face finally, finally softens, the first flicker of emotion pulling at the corners of his mouth and eyes. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
“You cannot expect me to answer that,” Mark says dubiously. “Why didn’t I tell you sooner? Our whole thing is hating witches. You said they’re dangerous—”
“They’re that, too—”
“I know about Taemin,” Mark blurts, and then claps a hand over his mouth. But it’s too late—it’s Taeyong’s turn to be shocked now, eyes going wide.
“You…how?” he whispers, looking over his shoulder at the still-closed door and crossing the room, so he and Mark are only a few feet apart.
Mark eyes his feet guiltily. He was expecting the surprise, sure, but not the… pain. The grief that had shot through Taeyong’s expression at the mention of the name.
“How?” Taeyong prompts again. He doesn’t sound mad, and doesn’t look it, either, when Mark sneaks a glimpse of his face. “Mark.”
“Same way we knew about the bloodwraith,” Mark says finally. “Your handwriting was in that book—”
“The mythology one?” Taeyong asks, eyebrows shooting up. “But that’s in the—oh my god, Mark, please don’t tell me that you didn’t break into the Library—”
“Um, then, I won’t,” Mark says, waving his hands. “That’s not the point. The point is—”
“What have you been up to these past few months?” Taeyong asks, completely bewildered. “See, this is exactly why you shouldn’t be getting involved with witches—”
Mark shakes his head vehemently. “This isn’t about me, Taeyong. I mean, we can talk about it later, but people are dying, and you lied.”
The last part rings truer than he would’ve liked. Taeyong winces, crossing his arms again, and there’s that same flicker of sadness across his face. But it’s not—melancholy, Mark thinks, like the way Renjun’s was. And it’s not angry, either, like Jeno or Johnny’s. It’s nostalgic, almost, the same way Donghyuck’s face had looked in the glow of the moonlight in the garden.
He loved Taemin, Mark realizes with a start. He loved him just the same as I love Donghyuck.
“Do you know much about the Witch War?” Taeyong asks quietly after a moment.
“I know the gist,” Mark says, trying to think back to what little he’d heard from both the witches and the vampires. “The witches killed a bunch of our kind, they said we killed a bunch of theirs, they pushed into our territory, we fought back.”
“It was complete and utter devastation,” Taeyong says. “A bloodbath. I’d just been Turned, had fallen in with a bunch of other vampires like me—aimless, drifting. We’d just put down roots in New York when it happened and all of them—they all died.” He looks at Mark, his eyes hard. “We would’ve become a family.
“They were turned to ash,” Taeyong continues, “by a woman whose hands glowed brighter than the sun. She looked their way and that was it. I don’t even think she meant to, either, which is even worse.” He glances at Mark. “Unpredictable. Dangerous. She let her magic get away from her for half a second, and dozens of my friends suffered for it.”
Mark thinks briefly of Donghyuck, of the paint on the doorframe turning to butterflies, tattoos flashing violet and gold, the spicy snap of his magic in the air when his emotions shifted too quickly.
The thought makes him a little uncomfortable, despite there being nothing accusatory in Taeyong’s voice.
“Quincy was cursed, you know, during that time. He used to be a lot of fun,” Taeyong says, and the idea of Quincy being fun lightens the mood somewhat.
“No way,” Mark says, shaking his head. “ Quincy? ”
“He had a great sense of humor,” Taeyong says dryly. “But someone just…scooped it out of him. Told him he didn’t deserve to feel much of anything, ever again.”
Taeyong sighs, and sits down on the edge of the bed, its sheets white and immaculate. He looks down at his hands, chewing on his lip. This time, it’s Mark who waits for him, letting him gather his thoughts and make sense of the memories.
“I’m guessing,” Taeyong starts slowly, “that when we talked the other day about vampires and love, that was about your witch?”
Mark nods. “Donghyuck,” he says quietly. “That’s his name.”
“It’s a good name,” Taeyong says. “Taemin was like that, too. Bright. Brilliant. He loved easily. Loved me easily.” He swallows, and his smile is tinged with bitterness. “Even though maybe I didn’t deserve it. I struggled a lot with it.”
“Because of the war?”
“Because of the war,” Taeyong confirms. “So much pain, still in my heart—but Taemin believed it was all for nothing. A fluke, if you will. Before the final battle, neither side had done anything wrong. Rather, he thought it’d been a set-up.”
Mark feels his eyes go wide. “Someone wanted you to fight?”
“Hatred is powerful,” Taeyong says. “Hatred that strong could most definitely raise a bloodwraith. Taemin—he traveled a lot. That suit you wore was by him, if you didn’t know. He had this gift with light, I don’t remember how he put it—”
“A knack,” Mark says, and Taeyong nods. Riley was right all along, Mark thinks. And actually the catalyst for this whole conversation, too.
“That’s it,” he says. “Light, and fabric. And while he was making all these things, he listened. And wrote a lot of it down. Most of what’s in that mythology book is from him.”
“So he found out about the bloodwraith—but why didn’t he put it in the book?” Mark asks, and Taeyong’s whole face changes.
“It was after it’d been published,” Taeyong says, “that Taemin wrote, saying he had evidence his theory was correct. He was supposed to sail back from London…and at first, I thought his boat had been delayed, weather and all of that…and then Sicheng brought me a newspaper one Wednesday morning.” He sighs heavily, and Mark comes to sit next to him on the bed. Taeyong’s shoulders slump with the weight of the memory.
“I remember that day so clearly,” Taeyong says. “They said there’d been a stowaway who’d had a sort of psychotic break and murdered everyone on board.”
Mark puts the pieces together, and his heart sinks. “Oh, no,” he whispers, and Taeyong just smiles sadly.
“Their throats had been cut, their bodies mauled,” Taeyong says, “and tossed into the ocean. I didn’t even get to say goodbye to him.”
The silence feels heavy, and Mark holds perfectly still as Taeyong wipes his face, breathing deeply.
“Loving him took a part of me,” Taeyong finishes. “And you’ll understand, Mark, if you stay with this boy. They burn so brightly. All of them, no matter what kind of magic they use. And either you’ll turn to ash, or your heart will break.”
Mark wants to protest, but there’s a note of truth, of real wisdom, in Taeyong’s words that he hates. He doesn’t want to think about Donghyuck burning him up or breaking his heart. He doesn’t want to deal with uncertainties—only absolutes.
And there is only one absolute here: the bloodwraith.
“There’s a chance for us to undo it,” Mark says, nudging Taeyong gently. “The bloodwraith—you know it’s back. You know it’s what’s hurting people. Whoever started the war three hundred years ago is trying to start a new one.”
“Last time, lycans and pixies and the rest of them weren’t hurt,” Taeyong points out. “It was targeted, very precise. So you can’t be certain.”
Mark can’t believe what he’s hearing. “You don’t…you don’t believe me. You don’t want to help.”
“I can’t, Mark,” Taeyong says, imploring. He grabs Mark’s hand and squeezes. “I’ve done all my fighting—in the battle, against everything our kind believed in, for a love that was sure to fail. I can’t do it again. I don’t have it in me to watch you—or anyone you love—get hurt.”
“We won’t,” Mark promises. “We just need to undo the curse around it—”
“No, Mark,” Taeyong says firmly, but still kind. “I can’t. And you won’t. Promise me.”
Mark feels like he’s been stung. He yanks his hand out of Taeyong’s, head reeling and eyes stinging. Hurt shivers down his spine. “I’m not gonna promise that,” he says, standing abruptly.
Taeyong sighs like he knew Mark would say that, and he opens his mouth to reply just as Mark’s phone vibrates. He pulls it out; he’s got a text from Donghyuck.
get over here RIGHT NOW it’s about the bloodwraith
No follow-up text, which means it’s incredibly bad news that Donghyuck is afraid to break alone and by text.
Great, Mark thinks tiredly, sticking his phone back into his pocket. Bad news is the last thing he needs tonight—this whole day has already felt like it’s lasted a lifetime or two.
“What is it?” Taeyong asks, brow furrowing.
Mark almost tells him. Almost. But he feels a little betrayed, a lot hurt, and very emotionally drained; he’s not sure he can handle more guilt tripping or another lecture or cripplingly sad story.
“Just my friends,” Mark says vaguely, and Taeyong’s frown deepens. “I’m leaving again,” Mark continues. “I don’t care what any of you do, but you’re certainly not going to stop me.”
Taeyong lets out one of those sighs that all the old ones seem to have—the sort of heavy exhales that betray the immense number of years they’ve lived, years their faces and bodies do not show. “I’m not going to stop you,” he says. “I’ve never been able to, you know.” He looks up at Mark. “You’re the closest thing I have to a little brother,” he says, unexpectedly fierce. “So please, please, be careful. Watch out for yourself. And if you know what’s good for you, and for your witch—you won’t go after that thing.”
He doesn’t ask for Mark to promise, and Mark doesn’t offer one, either. Taeyong just squeezes his hand once more, and Mark leaves the coven house with the increasingly ominous feeling that he might not see it ever again.
“We have bad news,” Jaemin says as Mark kicks his shoes off at the front door. Jaemin lives with a bunch of roommates, which is usually annoying because they’re mostly pixies and half-gumiho, and thus are loud and messy. But most of them have gone back to their parents’ houses, leaving the normally-noisy house eerily quiet.
“So do I,” Mark says.
“Ours is worse,” Renjun says from the couch, his hand in a bag of pretzels. “So you go first.”
“It’s a really long story,” Mark warns them, sitting down next to Donghyuck, who puts his arm around Mark’s shoulders.
“Give us the summary, then,” Jeno suggests.
So Mark does—the highlights of Taemin and Taeyong’s relationship, and how his handwriting ended up in the witch’s book. He leaves out the stuff about the war—that will just do more harm than good, he suspects.
“He doesn’t think it’s a bloodwraith,” Mark says, “because apparently, it’s been too messy and imprecise. But even if he did, the old ones wouldn’t listen. They’re set on starting this war.”
“Taeyong’s half-right,” Donghyuck tells him, fingers playing with the hair at Mark’s nape. “It’s not a normal bloodwraith. We managed to find an article that Renjun translated—the same thing apparently happened in China five hundred years ago, and we think it’s a bloodwraith without its master.”
“Without its master?”
“Well, it’s controlled by the person who summoned it, we know that. But if its master dies before it releases the bloodwraith—well, it’ll continue to try to follow its master’s last order,” Donghyuck says. “But over time, they get more violent. Unchecked, its hunger for death and blood only grows.”
“So you’re saying its original master ordered it to kill supernaturals, but—” Mark starts, but Donghyuck holds up a hand, cutting him off.
“Not, um, not quite.” Donghyuck takes a breath, and Renjun gives him an encouraging nod. Donghyuck unlocks his phone and pulls up a picture of a yellowing sheet of paper, the writing on it spidery-thin and faded.
“We found this report from the November War in the records archive,” Donghyuck says. “We left the Library, and were going through our notes, and Renjun had the idea to ask the historians—perfectly legal, thankfully—for anything they could find about similar attacks.”
Mark gets a sinking, heavy feeling as Donghyuck talks. He sort of knows where this is going—and if he’s right, they’re in massive trouble.
“They gave us this,” Donghyuck continues, handing his phone to Mark. “It’s a Council report regarding the first attacks.”
The vampires, the note says, sent assassins again, at mid-night. They have torn some of our very best, with tooth and claw, to shreds. Just this morning I discovered them, laid out behind the stable, their skin pale and bloodless, torn to shreds; their throats, cut by fang or finger, I do not know—
Mark turns Donghyuck’s phone and looks up sharply. Renjun’s face is grim; Donghyuck squeezes the back of his neck apologetically.
“We think it’s the same one,” Donghyuck continues softly. “That attacked both the vampires and the witches.”
“Why didn’t Taeyong say anything about that, then?” Mark demands.
“He might not have known,” Jeno offers. “There’s a bit in there about the attacks only taking place on the ‘darkest night of the month’, which means it probably only happened once or twice before the war started.”
“And then we’re guessing its master was casualty in the war,” Renjun says. “They were probably a witch, based on what we’ve read.”
“Okay, wait, let me get this straight,” Mark says, breathing deep. His head is spinning with information overload, his mind so saturated with revelation and realization he can hardly think anymore. “So its master ordered it to attack the vampires and witches, because they knew they’d blame each other and start a war?”
“Right,” Donghyuck says.
“Why would anyone want a war, anyway? Why’d they target their own kind?”
Renjun shrugs. “A lot of reasons. Hatred for the Council, a sick kind of boredom, extreme desire for change. All of the above, maybe.”
“So then it’s the same bloodwraith today?” Mark guesses. “Its master died, but instead of just killing vampires or witches, it’s gone feral?”
“Pretty much,” Jaemin says.
Mark groans. “You’re kidding me. I can’t believe that this entire time—the war was a set-up, the same creature from three hundred years is back, and Taeyong was in love with a witch. Which should be fine, because we hate each other for no reason.” His voice cracks on the last word, and his eyes sting with bitter tears, chest contracting painfully. He doesn’t need to breathe, but his body aches for air anyway.
Donghyuck pulls Mark into a tight hug, and Mark squeezes his eyes shut and tries not to cry. “It’s alright,” Donghyuck murmurs. “I got you. We’re gonna figure it out.”
Anxiety rips through Mark, scorching his bones and clogging his throat. He wants so desperately to believe in Donghyuck, but with every piece of information he receives, his ability to hope shrinks.
“Fuck,” Mark sighs. “This sucks. ”
“It might turn out okay,” Renjun says tentatively. “Taeil went to go talk to the Council, and Johnny went to his packmates, to see if they’ll help. If we don’t intercept the bloodwraith soon, it’ll just get stronger. It’s only a matter of time before it attacks again and the war starts.”
“How soon is soon?”
“Um, preferably tonight,” Renjun says, and it’s been such a long day that Mark isn’t even shocked anymore.
“Do we have any idea how?” Mark asks. He needs something concrete to hold onto, besides the pointlessness of pretty much all of history.
“So, um, technically,” Donghyuck starts, “I could, in theory, undo the curse. I’d just need someone to distract the wraith long enough for me to shift things around and get it to go away.”
“It’s the exact opposite of what Taeil told him to do,” Renjun says, crossing his arms.
“I’m going with you,” Mark says immediately, sitting up straight. Donghyuck’s eyes go wide, and a shock of warmth dances across the backs of Mark’s hands. “No way you’re going in alone.”
“I didn’t want to ask,” Donghyuck says, his voice wavering. He blinks a few times. “And you don’t have to, please don’t feel like you have to—”
“I want to,” Mark interrupts. “I’m coming with you. We’re gonna do this together.”
“I’m in too,” Jeno adds, raising a hand. “This thing isn’t gonna hurt any more of my pack.”
“Then I’m coming with as well,” Jaemin says, and when Mark raises his eyebrows at him, Jaemin shrugs. “What? Jeno will need someone to watch his back.”
Donghyuck turns to Renjun. “Renjun?”
Renjun lets out a heavy sigh. “This really is a terrible idea. But you’re my best friend, and until Taeil and Johnny get back, our best shot in ending this once and for all.”
“Um,” Jeno says, holding up his hand again, “Johnny and Taeil are on their way right now. Johnny says it…didn’t go well.”
The light dims in Donghyuck’s eyes for a half-second before he lifts his chin, squaring his shoulders. “So we’ll do it on our own,” he says, and though his bravery is shaky, it’s still real. “Now, it’s up to us.”
They get a very tentative plan worked out in the next few hours, working through exhaustion and the pervasive, heavy feeling of hopelessness that hangs over them. Renjun and Jaemin try to map where the bloodwraith is due to appear, while Taeil carefully decodes old, magical languages in an attempt to understand just how Donghyuck is supposed to break this curse. Johnny and Jeno head back to the apartment complex their pack lives in around three in the morning, and Donghyuck starts to nod off around then, head pressed against Mark’s shoulder as he cradles a glass of water between his knees.
Mark gently cards his fingers through Donghyuck’s hair. “Should we go back?” he asks quietly.
“Yeah,” Donghyuck mumbles. “I’m about to fall asleep.”
Taeil looks up from his papers and offers them a tired, wan smile. “You two heading out?”
“Yep,” Mark says, standing up. Donghyuck lets out a noise of protest before peeling himself off the couch as well. “Let us know if you need anything, or find anything out.”
“Of course,” Taeil agrees. “I think I may have an idea as to where this thing might be living…but I want to be absolutely sure.”
“Where?” Donghyuck asks curiously, tying his shoelaces and zipping his coat up. “Central Park?”
“Well, not the exact location, not yet,” Taeil says, “but I think it may be where its master died.”
“In the war?” Renjun asks. “Taeil, there’s no way you’ll be able to find that exact location.”
“I know,” Taeil says tiredly. “But if we find the location of the big battle, then that’ll have to be close enough.”
“Mark can ask Taeyong,” Donghyuck offers, but Mark immediately shakes his head.
“He’ll know what I’m up to, and he’ll stop me,” Mark says. “If I go back to the coven house now, I’ll be locked in the basement where they put the feral vampires.”
“Then definitely don’t tell Taeyong,” Donghyuck modifies, and Mark laughs hollowly.
Renjun lifts a hand in farewell. “See you tonight,” he says to them both. “Sleep well.”
They catch the subway and take it to Mark’s apartment, Donghyuck yawning and stumbling over his own feet. Mark gets him out of his clothes and coaxes him to brush his teeth—Donghyuck had left a toothbrush here a while ago, before everything had gone to hell. Donghyuck scoots to the far side of Mark’s bed, patting the spot next to him and pulling the sheets up to his chin.
“Love you,” Donghyuck mumbles, already half-asleep as Mark lies down next to him.
“Mm,” Mark hums. It takes a minute for the full impact of Donghyuck’s words to puncture through the exhausted, hazy fog in his head. “Wait, what? Did you just say you loved me?”
Donghyuck doesn’t respond—he’s fallen asleep, his breath already slowing.
Mark itches to wake him up so he can double-check, so he can say it back—but resists, because Donghyuck has a long day to recover from, and a long night in front of him.
“If this all goes well,” Mark says, quieter as to not wake him, “I’ll say it back. To your face, while you’re awake.”
Donghyuck murmurs something faintly, and rolls onto his stomach. Mark’s heart swells with affection, and his chest feels so tight it’s nearly painful. He hates that Donghyuck is the one that has to do this—that Mark won’t be able to do anything but distract the bloodwraith for as long as he can.
He turns this thought aside and curls closer to Donghyuck, the warmth of his body easing the permanent chill of Mark’s skin. Mark breathes him in, the smell of his skin and hair and clothes, and tries not to think about how this, too, could be the last time.
There are so many uncertainties.
Uncertainty in Donghyuck’s face that evening as they get ready. Uncertainty in the way he tucks charms and crystals into his pocket, slides rings blessed with holy magic on his fingers, and slings runes and silver necklaces around his neck.
They meet Renjun, Jaemin and Taeil in front of Mark’s apartment, sitting in Taeil’s Volvo. They’re dressed warmly, hats pulled over their ears. Renjun has a black backpack in his lap, and when he opens it, Donghyuck’s face pales at the contents.
“Where did you get all of this?” Donghyuck hisses. “Your people in the hidden market?”
Renjun’s face darkens. “You’ll need everything you can get to break this curse, Hyuck.” He catches Mark’s confused look, and explains, “it’s just some stuff to help him amplify his magic. If he gets caught with it, he’ll be in big trouble, but at least the bloodwraith will be gone.”
Donghyuck doesn’t look happy accepting the backpack, but he doesn’t disagree. Johnny and Jeno are waiting outside, holding a few things that Mark can’t distinguish through the glare of the headlights. They rattle in Taeil’s trunk, though, as the city slowly diminishes around them as they head east, over the bridge. The traffic clears up as the buildings get shorter and the trees more numerous. The sky darkens, but still, Taeil drives farther.
“Where are we going?” Donghyuck asks about half an hour into the drive. “This is all country clubs and golf courses.”
“Are we going to visit Theodore Roosevelt’s house?” Jeno asks, peering out the window into the dark.
“No,” Taeil says, pulling into a parking lot and turning the car off. “This is where the last battle was. Give or take.”
“You’re telling me,” Jaemin says, opening the car door, “that there was a massive fight here, a bunch of people died, and they turned it into golf courses and manors?”
“Pretty much,” Taeil says. “Well, there’s a couple forest preserves around here too.”
A swath of black trees stretch out in front of them. There are paths just barely illuminated in the dim light from the sky, but the lack of moon makes it hard to distinguish them.
Renjun gets out of the car, breathing deep. “These are all old-growth trees,” he says quietly. “They’ve been here a long, long time. Seen a lot of stuff.”
“Will they help us?” Donghyuck asks.
Renjun purses his lips. “Maybe,” he says, striding forward to where the path meets the sidewalk. “I’ll ask.”
Donghyuck opens his mouth, but before he can say anything else, a hair-raising shriek echoes from the trees in front of them.
All seven of them freeze in their tracks. There’s a tense, distinctly animalistic way in the way Johnny and Jeno are both standing, like they’re on the verge of taking off. Jaemin’s face has gone white, and Taeil shivers.
Donghyuck squares his shoulders. “Guess we know where to head towards,” he murmurs, hefting the backpack over his shoulder.
Mark leads the way—the lycans can smell better than him, but a vampire’s night vision is unparalleled, probably because they used to hunt at night before the whole blood-bag technology was invented. All three of the witches balk at the idea of using flashlights, so the three of them plus Jaemin creep along behind, cautiously picking their way over uneven ground.
None of them speak. The air is cold in Mark’s lungs, and the wind gently shifts through the last of the leaves on the trees, the tall, old evergreens groaning and creaking. There is the distinct feeling of being watched—a set of baleful eyes on the back of his neck, waiting for them to get close enough to strike.
Mark makes his way down a gentle slope, holding onto a tree for balance. He tries not to think about the bloodwraith, but he can’t help but picture the bodies of his friends, torn to shreds—Donghyuck, splayed out on the ground, eyes unseeing, throat cut open—
Another high, awful shriek rings out, much louder. Either they’re getting closer to the bloodwraith…or the bloodwraith is getting closer to them.
Renjun stumbles and curses. “We need to move faster,” he says. “It’s coming. And it’s hungry.”
The whispering in the trees picks up in intensity as they all scramble downhill. The path flattens out up ahead, the trees cleared on either side of it—enough to maneuver. Jeno finally hefts the thing he pulled from Taeil’s trunk—a wooden baseball bat, a little mud-stained and scratched. He offers it to Mark, who accepts it slowly.
“This feels silly,” he says.
“Trust me,” Jeno replies, tilting his face up to the sky, head tilted to the side. “It’ll be way less funny when that thing gets here.”
“Three witches and a vampire, this close,” Jaemin murmurs. “The bloodwraith must be going crazy. ”
They just have enough time to make it to the flat area before the temperature around them drops so quickly the air snaps.
“Donghyuck, go,” Taeil says urgently. “Jaemin, go with him.”
The two of them don’t even bother arguing, just sprint a couple yards into the trees. Donghyuck slings the backpack off his back and throws it onto the ground, dumping out its contents.
“Mark!” Renjun snaps, and Mark turns back around just in time to see the bloodwraith appear between the trees.
The first thing that Mark notices are its eyes: coal-black, and so cold they seem to freeze through Mark’s skin. The rest of it is not any prettier, either—its body skeletal and elongated, covered barely by its tattered black rope. Its face is hooded, but those eyes burn out from the darkness, oozing malice and murderous intent. Its hands are long and clawed and bloodstained—Mark feels sick to his stomach thinking about the damage those hands have done.
“NOW!” Comes Johnny’s voice, shattering the shock and horror that had frozen them over. Taeil shouts something unintelligible, and the clearing flashes with silvery light, blinding the wraith long enough for Johnny to leap forward, grunting with pain as his whole body cracks and bends. Lycans don’t shift often because of the toll it takes on their body—it’ll take Johnny a day to recover from just the shift—but when they do, it’s not without drama and flair. One second, it’s Johnny, tearing his shirt off, and the next, it’s a massive russet wolf slamming into the bloodwraith. The two of them go tumbling to the side, and a tree shakes as Johnny rolls into it.
“Okay, okay, okay,” Jeno says, bouncing on his toes. He kicks off his shoes and takes off his jacket and hoodie as Johnny gets to his feet, barking when the bloodwraith hisses at him. “This better be worth it,” he tells Mark regretfully, before he, too, takes off at a sprint, throwing himself headfirst into the shift. A second later, Jeno’s gone, replaced by a grey wolf, slightly smaller than Johnny but just as strong.
“Take the right side,” Renjun tells Mark. “I’ll go left, we’ll flank it, and keep it away from Donghyuck while he sets up the amplification ritual.”
“The what?” Mark asks, but Renjun waves him off as the bloodwraith throws Johnny and Jeno off of its back and screams, raking its claws in Jeno’s direction. Jeno yelps, jumping back, ears flattening against his head.
Mark takes a deep breath, and centers himself. Something ancient stirs in his belly—the vampires of New York City are all about tradition, conservation of value. They live forever in their mansions and brownstones, impeccable and clean.
But that is not how they always were, and Mark feels it.
They were hunters. Creatures of the night, of the forest, of the darkened sky. Silent, swift, deadly strong. Parts of himself that he’s hated, wished away, ignored—all of them are now his greatest assets.
The first step he takes is near-silent, muscles coiling as he leaps, kicking off a tree and swinging his baseball bat with all of his might, making contact with the bloowraith’s face. Its head snaps to the side with a sickening crunch, a blow that would have killed any lesser creature instantly. It spins around immediately, unharmed but way more pissed-off.
Mark lands on both feet and slips away again, vanishing into the shadows. The bloodwraith turns in the direction he went, but Mark has no heartbeat, no heat signature, no magic—it cannot smell, hear, or sense him. He is practically invisible.
In the moment of distraction, Taeil and Renjun strike together. Renjun stomps hard, and roots rip through the ground towards the bloodwraith, tangling around its body. Taeil shouts again and sends a hand up towards the sky, pulling down pure light, which stuns the bloodwraith long enough for Johnny to tear into its chest. Bones crack as its robes tear, but the injury heals almost immediately. Mark is forced to emerge a second earlier than he would’ve liked to pull Renjun to the side so he doesn’t get taken out by a taloned hand.
They regroup, doubling back as the bloodwraith eyes them and hisses. It makes no move to attack—it’s learned by now that they’re no ordinary bunch—and Renjun winces. The bloodwraith had grazed his left arm, and it’s not a regular wound—the skin around the cut is turning black, and the bleeding doesn’t stop even as Taeil presses a hand to it and murmurs a few words.
“Fuck,” Renjun mutters. “It’s cursed. We need to kill this thing fast. ”
Jeno launches towards the bloodwraith just as it dives forward to attack, patience run thin. Mark and Renjun scatter, Taeil blinding it with another flash of light.
“What’s your timing, Hyuck?” Renjun shouts.
“We’ve got it!” Jaemin shouts back. “He’s got a hold of the curse! We’re coming closer so he can focus better!”
“You hear that?” Renjun yells at the lycans. “Donghyuck’s coming closer, which means we can’t let up on this thing!”
Johnny barks, and they redouble their efforts as Donghyuck emerges from the trees, eyes shut tight and hands glittering with golden light. Jaemin is next to him, mouth moving, probably doing all he can to persuade the bloodwraith to look away and ignore them.
But as the minutes press on, nothing continues to happen. The skin visible through Renjun’s torn coat continues to turn to ashy black, and Johnny gets slammed into a tree so hard he doesn’t get up, eyes half-closed and breathing heavily. Renjun moves to go help him and gets sideswiped, flung so far into the forest he vanishes from sight.
Jeno yelps, focus breaking, and gets pinned, the bloodwraith rearing its ugly head and raising a clawed hand, aimed right for Jeno’s throat.
“Go help Renjun!” Mark yells to Taeil, before charging headlong at the bloodwraith, knocking it off of Jeno, whose flank sports the hauntingly familiar scratches all the other victims had.
Mark and the bloodwraith wrestle for a second—the bloodwraith is stronger, fueled by its desire to kill Mark—but Mark is smaller, faster, and smarter. He slams his elbow into its face, crumpling it, and staggers to his feet. His strength is waning—he can feel the exhaustion settling into his bones. It’s only so long before he gets hurt like the rest of his friends, and the bloodwraith is free to cut all their throats and attack the city again.
Donghyuck’s tattoos have started to glow, too, so brightly they’re visible through his jacket. Jaemin is running away from him, towards Mark, lips white. The bloodwraith is temporarily preoccupied with its smashed-up face, and Mark takes the chance to try to catch his breath.
“Jeno—” Jaemin starts, but Mark gets it, can see it in the wrinkles by Jaemin’s eyes, the fear that shakes his hands.
“Keep them alive,” Mark says. “Get them out of here. I’ll take care of Donghyuck.”
Jaemin nods and takes off towards the fallen lycans, while Mark heads over to Donghyuck.
“Hi,” Donghyuck says tiredly, without opening his eyes. “Sorry. It’s taking me longer than I thought. This is an old, twisted curse, and my magic isn’t—watch out!”
Mark turns at the last second, swinging his baseball bat. The bloodwraith goes reeling backwards, and Mark chases after it, determined to keep it away from both Donghyuck and the lycans. Jeno has dragged himself over to Johnny, licking at his ears and nosing at him, trying to get him to move.
“How much more time?” Mark shouts at Donghyuck.
“I don’t know!” Donghyuck yells back, voice cracking desperately. “As long as you can give me!”
It goes fine for a few minutes. Adrenaline—or something like it—burns through his veins, the only thing keeping him on his feet and out of the reach of the bloodwraith’s claws. He’s painfully aware that each minute wasted is another minute his friends slip closer to death, pulled by the curses on their wounds.
All it takes is one mistake—one misstep, and Mark’s baseball bat is shattered between the bloodwraith’s hands and suddenly he’s pinned, frost gathering on his eyelashes and lips as the bloodwraith bears down on him. It smells like rot, like death, like misery, and Mark’s eyes roll back in his head. Searing pain rips down his arm as the bloodwraith pins it against his side, and something in his chest cracks as it presses closer, not giving him space to budge. His consciousness wavers, and he has never felt more mortal than he has in this moment.
The bloodwraith shrieks again, lifting a hand—but instead of bringing it down to slice through Mark’s neck, it’s to shield against a flurry of copper birds that swoop towards it furiously.
Mark sits up in time to watch Donghyuck point at the bloodwraith, its robes coming alive and twisting around its neck and arms. His eyes are open, and his hands glow with a different sort of magic. No more incantations hover on his lips, and Mark’s heart aches, because in saving his life, Donghyuck has doomed them all.
More birds fly. Donghyuck pulls air and twists it into arrows, coaxing the ground to shake and the trees to bend. It’s beautiful magic, it really is. And it would’ve been a beautiful fight, too, if Donghyuck hadn’t expended all of his energy trying to break the curse.
The bloodwraith pins Donghyuck the same way it’d pinned Mark. Fury jolts through Mark, and he pulls himself to his feet, raising his fists—only to come crashing back down to the ground, arms numb and throbbing, vision yellowing in the corners.
“Mark,” Donghyuck gasps. His lips are purple, and tears leak out of his eyes. He reaches out a weak, burned hand across the damp soil.
Their fingers don’t quite touch, but Mark can feel the electricity from Donghyuck’s skin.
Mark coughs, and tastes blood, thick and ashy and unpleasant. “I love you,” he whispers, not sure if Donghyuck can hear him anymore. There’s so much blood, hot and familiar-smelling, seeping through Donghyuck’s coat and pooling in his palms. The bloodwraith is shrieking victoriously, its face towards the sky, and raises a hand to make the killing blow.
Donghyuck and Mark’s eyes meet one last time, and Mark is struck with a feeling of absoluteness. Completion.
The same kind of absoluteness that he felt meeting Donghyuck’s eyes through the fish tank, the first time they kissed on the patio, lying with Donghyuck in his bed, sated, a little bloodstained and entirely in love. This is the beginning, he’d thought once, tracing the tattoos on Donghyuck’s chest and collarbones.
This is the end, he thinks now, and the bloodwraith lowers its hand.
And then is promptly blasted backwards.
No, he’s seeing things. Not blasted, tackled—by a vampire with a familiar face.
“Taeyong?” Mark asks, wondering if he’s died or if he’s hallucinating. But as the seconds tick by, the image doesn’t change—Taeyong, wearing his designer clothes, tearing into the bloodwraith with cold fury.
Then he’s joined by others—a woman with skin like midnight, striking out with darkness. Mona, driving her heel into the bloodwraith’s face. Bronx vampires. Witches Mark met at the ball. Sicheng, who hurls a baseball bat like a javelin. A witch with red hair sets it aflame, and it strikes the bloodwraith so hard it reels back. There are ten or so of them, witch and vampire both, working, somehow, together, side-by-side.
And there, with a ferocious, powerful expression—Jade Liu, Council leader, her hands raised above her head.
“O woe,” she chants, her voice echoing off the trees, “to you, foul creature, who has brought us darkness and misery. Do no more, be no more, and with these words, I cast you out. ”
She opens her palm towards the creature just as Taeyong plunges his hand through the bloodwraith’s chest.
The bloodwraith freezes in place, quivering slightly. And then it simply…unravels, from the bottom of its torn robe to the top of its hood, crumbling to ash and taken away by the wind into the empty, dark sky.
The clearing falls silent, the sudden lack of activity making Mark’s ears ring. The severity of the moment comes crashing down around him, and he suddenly realizes that Donghyuck isn’t breathing.
“Oh god, oh god,” Mark whimpers, crawling towards Donghyuck. There’s so much blood, and his lips are purple, face devoid of life, of color. “Hyuck. Holy shit—”
There are gentle hands on his shoulders—Taeyong, eyes wide but expression gentle.
“Mark,” he says, “thank god. I’m sorry we didn’t come—wait, you’re bleeding—”
“How did you get here?” Mark asks, dazed, looking between the vampires and witches, gathered together like they're not mortal enemies. “How did you know where we were?”
“Taeil told us where he suspected the creature would be,” Jade Liu says, crossing her arms. “At first, we were reluctant to act, but...” She glances at Taeyong. “We were urged to put aside personal differences for the chance to save lives. And perhaps...make amends.”
“Mark, we—” Taeyong starts, but Mark's focus has snapped back to the knot of witches around the boy he loves.
“Donghyuck,” Mark gasps. He’s still not moving, and Mark’s vision is narrowing, his chest tightening. He’s feeling so much all at once that it’s overwhelming him, and his body aches for relief, for emptiness. “Someone—someone tell me he isn’t—”
Witches descend upon Donghyuck, talking in hushed voices. Mark sighs and leans back into Taeyong, tears burning at his eyes.
“Mark,” Taeyong says. “Talk to me.”
“If he dies,” Mark whispers, “I don’t know what’ll happen to me.”
A pair of boots enter his view, and then Jade Liu is squatting in front of him, not a hair out place. “Mark Lee,” she says, cooly but not unkindly. “Taeil has been catching me up on what happened here tonight.” She glances behind her. “Though I think it has been going on for a much longer time.”
“Please tell me he’ll be okay,” Mark begs. “Look, I’m thankful you guys are here, and that you’re working together—but Donghyuck—”
“Do you love him?” Jade Liu asks, lifting an eyebrow.
“Yes,” Mark says immediately. “More than anything.”
Jade gives Taeyong an assessing look. “Did you know about this?”
“You know how our kinds feel about each other,” Taeyong says. “No, I didn’t know.”
Jade looks back down at Mark. He knows how he must appear to her—a vampire, nearly in tears, covered in gore and blood and blabbering about an impossible, miraculous love.
A lot of impossible things have happened tonight, Mark thinks. What’s one more?
There’s a gasp from the knot of witches around Donghyuck, and then a familiar voice, high-pitched and panicky: “Where is he? Where’s Mark?”
“Hyuck?” Mark says, pushing away from Taeyong as Donghyuck breaks out of the circle of witches around him. He looks awful—torn-up and pale and exhausted. But the warmth of his body is real, and so is the solidness of his arms around Mark’s shoulders.
“I love you,” Mark says into Donghyuck’s hair, squeezing his eyes shut. “I love you so much.”
“You’re okay,” Donghyuck babbles, tightening his grip. “You’re okay.” He presses his face into Mark’s coat. “I’m never letting you go. I don’t care if all of them know about it now. I don’t care if I’m supposed to hate you.” His voice gets thick, and Mark feels his hands tremble. Relief crashes over him, exhaustion following close behind. Donghyuck sighs, and his shoulders sag. If he wasn’t holding on so tightly, Mark suspects they’d both tip over and never get up.
His eyes itch. He’s not sure if he’s capable of crying anymore, but a strange, scooped-out feeling expands in his chest, like his body is doing its best to shed tears.
“Well,” Jade Liu says from behind them. “It looks like that’s that, doesn’t it?”
Donghyuck sobs into Mark’s neck. Mark leans his head against Donghyuck’s and tries not to shake too much.
There will be plenty of things to do after this. The full story will be told, from start to finish, witches and vampires both gathered. Still sitting far apart, on opposite sides of the table, but in the same room nonetheless. There will be grief across the faces of the witches, pain on the vampires, and understanding on both. That evening will be a catharsis of sorts for both. There will be talks of peace, of forgiveness. The time for mourning will come to a close.
The lycans will heal first—Jeno has a nasty set of scars across his ribcage that he wears with a fair amount of pride. Then, the witches get back on their feet, thanks to Taeil. And as soon as Mark’s wounds close, finally, they meet once more, in front of the witch Council first, and the vampire coven second.
The witches forgive them for breaking into the library, and for dealing in the black market. (Renjun’s sigh of relief is audible, and Jade Liu almost smiles). They’re thanked for their bravery, and apologized to by coven and Council both for not believing them and coming to their aid sooner. Well, most of the coven apologizes. Quincy and Anastasia both call for him to be punished for breaking the rules for the third time in the span of a week, but they’re quickly silenced.
But most importantly, Donghyuck will hold his hand and call him baby, and they’ll ignore how some scoff and others hiss, how people ask how could you and why him? Because there’s something absolute in the way Donghyuck looks at him—like nothing else in the world matters. Not magic, not blood, not history or future. No convention or tradition to follow or to mind—Mark finds the future in the shape of Donghyuck’s mouth and the bright gleam of his smile, in the way he says I love you, I love you, warm like the stirring of Mark’s heart in his chest.
And in a forest somewhere, sitting under the dim light of the sky, two boys hold onto each other and breathe.