“Fucking piece of shit!”
Choi Seungcheol, editor-in-chief of the Seongsu News, was not having a good day. He had been late to work, because his phone had died after he’d blearily snoozed the alarm that morning and promptly fallen back asleep. Once he’d made it to work, the impossibly complicated coffee machine with a million buttons and three incomprehensible nozzles had spat out hot water all over his suit jacket and the pile of papers pinned between his arm and ribs. His work desktop glitched like an old television every five seconds and was well on its way to giving him a migraine. And now, as a final fuck you, the printer wasting space in his already cramped office wouldn’t make as much as a beep. Seungcheol was ready to take a baseball bat to it.
“Fucking useless garbage asshole, you have literally one purpose on Earth and you’re failing at it.”
He had used computers since he was a toddler. He knew how they worked and how they didn’t work. That didn’t stop him from pressing down on control until his finger went white and jamming the P key with another until it felt like the plastic of the keyboard was about to split in half. The printer didn’t appreciate his efforts. The monitor flashed blue and went black with a tinny ping.
Seungcheol screamed. The door opened with a bang, just as he threw himself on the worn two-seater sofa wedged between two filing cabinets along the shorter wall of his little hovel of an office. He caught copy editor Lee Jihoon’s placid yet somehow judgemental look from beneath an ink black fringe, before crossing both arms over his eyes and giving up. If he hadn’t known Jihoon since university, he might have been intimidated by his sharp gaze. As it was, Seungcheol had seen him drunk and flushed, with a tie around his head, screaming power ballads into a karaoke mic too many times for his formidable face to have its desired effect.
“There are other people who work here, you know. Visitors, too, who currently think you’re dying,” Jihoon informed him.
“I am dying,” Seungcheol agreed at once, rubbing his eyes hard enough to see flashing spots, before baring his face for Jihoon’s judgement, “So did my computer. And my printer. And my phone, earlier. I have nothing left.”
“At least you have your good attitude,” said Jihoon and went around Seungcheol’s desk to wiggle the mouse. From his deathbed on the sofa, Seungcheol could see the screen turn back on, all the windows he’d left open still there. The printer gave its normal hellish screech and started spewing out papers one after another. “Fixed it,” Jihoon smirked. Seungcheol was too relieved to even get annoyed at the self-satisfaction oozing out of him.
“Oh, thank fuck,” he sighed and clambered up, ready to cross at least one thing off his to-do list for the day. As soon as he touched the mouse, the printer jammed, the computer went ping again and silence fell.
“Huh,” said Jihoon, head tilted like a curious budgie. Seungcheol stared into the middle distance and breathed very slowly and carefully, hand frozen on the mouse. It would be bad for morale around the office if the editor-in-chief started throwing company property out the windows. He was a grown man, with a full-time job and bills to pay. Throwing a tantrum in public was beneath him. He inhaled deeply, held the breath, and let it hiss out slowly between his teeth.
“It’s like I’m cursed,” Seungcheol said and it sounded petulant even to his own ears. He quelled the urge to stomp his foot. Jihoon made a considering noise. Dread splashed in Seungcheol’s chest and a terrible realisation sank to the very bottom of his stomach. “Oh fuck, I am cursed.”
Curses were, of course, something that happened. They just hadn’t ever happened to Seungcheol or anyone he knew. Unfortunate, cumbersome, and possibly dangerous, they were like car accidents or chlamydia diagnoses. This curse, fortunately, didn’t seem life-threatening, but it was currently very much life-ruining. Upon further, extremely scientific testing that took place in the office breakroom during lunch and utilized the fridge, his cell phone and a table lamp, the staff of Seongsu News hypothesized that anything with electricity running through it was against Seungcheol. He’d been strong-armed into staying away from all machinery, lest he jeopardize tomorrow’s issue of the paper. That left him forlornly spinning around on his plush office chair in the middle of the newsroom, while everyone else went about their business and occasionally glanced at him worriedly, as if his curse might have been contagious. At least Soonyoung had offered him a long wooden ruler he could use to point at people commandingly. How ever patronizing the gesture, it did make him feel a little better.
“You should consult a witch,” Mingyu piped up around two in the afternoon, turning from his perfectly functioning computer that he’d been using to sort out pictures from yesterday’s townhall meeting. “I know a really good one. He made me a tincture when I had an upset tummy.” Mingyu patted his firm stomach a little and beamed, handsome face fond at the sheer thought.
Seungcheol sighed and spun around on his chair, using the ruler to scratch at his neck. A witch was the logical answer to a curse, but Seungcheol had spent all his twenty-nine years on Earth very much keeping away from magic and anything related to it. It seemed to have a way of turning reasonable people into paranoid card-fiddlers and crystal-clutchers, who offered things like “Venus is in the 12th house” as reasons why they couldn’t come to work in the morning. The way Seungcheol saw it was that there was useful magic that could be proven to have some cause and effect, like curses and potions, and then there was a murky soup of more or less nefarious things, like divination, that unscrupulous hacks used to trick the naïve.
“You know Wen Junhui?” Mingyu continued and proved Seungcheol’s point by adding, “He sends in the horoscopes for us. His coven leader is the one who made me the tincture. It tasted like dirt and ham, but it worked really well! His shop is over by the river, you should go see him after work. I think it’s open ‘til six.”
“I suppose it couldn’t hurt,” Seungcheol admitted, because as much as Kim Mingyu came off as a shiny, happy puppy, who could not be trusted to carry a laptop safely down a flight of stairs, he had a good head on his shoulders and wasn’t often actually wrong about anything. “I don’t even know how I’ll get there. My car has electronics, right? It’ll probably jam the breaks and drive itself into a wall, considering how everything else has gone.”
“Oh, I’ll drive you!” Mingyu offered easily, “They have all kinds of cool things for sale, too. The head witch is really funny. And pretty,” he added, a little nonsensically in Seungcheol’s opinion, but then again Mingyu had a photographer’s appreciation for aesthetics. If the witch could lift the curse and return to Seungcheol access to the Internet, he didn’t much care if they had three heads.
“What’s their name? The head witch, coven leader, whatever?” Seungcheol asked, mentally already planning the rest of his day around the unexpected magical detour.
Yoon Jeonghan’s magic shop was a little house on the other side of the town river, at the edge of the forest. It was surrounded by a formidable garden so lush that the house seemed to blend into the greenery. Vines creeped up the dirty-white walls and the brown tiles of the roof were nearly hidden by the moss that grew verdant over them. There was a stone pathway that lead from the open gate by the road to the blue front door. An eclectic collection of pottery, glass jars, and even tin cans, was littered haphazardly along the stone path, every vessel boasting a different plant.
A bell chimed as Mingyu opened the door and Seungcheol followed him in. The front room was devoid of people but filled to the brim with everything else. There was a fireplace along the back wall with a big black pot suspended over it, behind a big wooden desk that held a laptop, an old-fashioned cash register and a huge pile of dry-looking cut plants. The other three walls were lined with shelves and the shelves carried so many things Seungcheol’s brain refused to take it all in. There were crystals, and more plants, things with feathers and twigs, and every size and shape of bottle and jar imaginable. Mingyu had started to peruse the shelves with wide-eyed enthusiasm, while Seungcheol was just spinning around, feeling like an unmoored idiot.
“They have a cauldron,” he told Mingyu’s back, voice strained. He really hadn’t thought a 21st century witch would need a cauldron, when electric stoves and easy-to-clean Teflon pans had been invented already.
“Of course we have a cauldron,” a voice came from behind him. It was airy and condescending. Seungcheol spun around. “Where else would I make potions?”
At once, it made perfect sense for Mingyu to have mentioned that the head witch was pretty apropos of nothing. At the doorway, left of the fireplace, stood a man around Seungcheol’s age and size. His icy blonde hair fell around his high cheekbones in slightly tousled waves and he had bright, intelligent eyes that were directed over Seungcheol’s shoulder. He looked a little untouchable, like if Seungcheol was to reach out, he’d cut his hand. He was wearing plain dark clothes, and a pinstriped utility apron with a big nametag that spelled out Jeonghan.
“Tummy problems again, Kim Mingyu?” The sharp lines of Yoon Jeonghan’s face softened, as Mingyu bounced past Seungcheol and gave the witch an ebullient hug that he accepted more than returned, with a slim hand coming to pat Mingyu between the shoulder blades twice.
“No at all, I brought you a case. This is Choi Seungcheol, he’s the editor at the paper and he’s cursed,” Mingyu smiled and gestured at Seungcheol as if presenting Jeonghan with a gift. Seungcheol felt like a new kid at school, being introduced in front of the class, suddenly struggling with holding his arms like a normal person as they exchanged quick bows.
“Choi Seungcheol,” Yoon Jeonghan repeated, eyes flicking quickly up and down. His face gave away nothing, “Your paper wouldn’t allow our shop an ad slot. How fortunate you were still able to find us, when needed.” Seungcheol winced. It did sound like something that could have happened.
“Probably sold out all ad space for the print?” Seungcheol offered, grasping at straws. Jeonghan’s eyes narrowed.
“The email said that our business wasn’t a suitable fit for your paper,” he replied dryly and Seungcheol felt like he was slowly being strangled by the sheer weight of awkward tension Jeonghan seemed to relish in. It didn’t help that next to Jeonghan, Mingyu’s eyes had gone comically round and betrayed, as if Seungcheol having a less than optimal attitude towards magic was suddenly complete news to him. Then, Jeonghan caught Seungcheol by surprise and smiled. The room felt brighter, lighter, at once. “So, what kind of a curse is it?”
The mood whiplash and Jeonghan’s piercing gaze left Seungcheol reeling and he said the first thing that came to mind.
“The printer won’t work.”
“If a printer not working is a curse, then we’re all cursed,” Jeonghan laughed, a little mockingly, but still smiling. He nudged aside Mingyu, who’d draped himself over the witch like a friendly cape, and came up to Seungcheol, peering closely at his face but never making eye contact.
“I mean, it’s all electronics. My phone, computer, the coffee machine. I was too scared to drive my car here, I thought it’d explode or something. Everything that has electricity goes nuts or breaks when I touch it. But when anyone else touches the same machine, it works fine.” As he spoke, Jeonghan pulled out a rounded piece of glass that gleamed in the light like an oil spill. He looked at Seungcheol through it. Recounting the day’s misfortunes got Seungcheol’s ire up, again, “I can’t do my job without electricity. I can’t do anything without electricity. I have to break this curse. Quick.”
“Lift,” Jeonghan said, meeting Seungcheol’s eyes for the first time. It seemed his curiosity had been sated, as he slipped the glass piece back into an apron pocket, “Lift the curse, not break it. It can’t be broken. It’s all over your aura, kind of like if someone scribbled over you. A lot of power behind it too -- intent. Someone really doesn’t like you. And you need whoever did it to be the one to lift it. If I start hacking away at this thing, I can’t promise you you’ll have your wits about you after I’ve finished.”
“I really don’t think I’ve made powerful magical enemies,” said Seungcheol, looking at Mingyu for backup. He shrugged, but then glanced at Jeonghan long enough that Jeonghan shivered a little and then smiled, giving Seungcheol some space.
“I promise you I haven’t done this,” Jeonghan said over his shoulder at Mingyu, who gave a startled meep in response, “I could,” he added with a little laugh, “But I wouldn’t. It’s not right to use magic like this. If it helps you narrow the search, I’m pretty sure it’s someone young. It’s a juvenile thing to do; someone with more talent than sense.”
Jeonghan looked thoughtful for a moment, but then shrugged. He retreated from Seungcheol and went around to the other side of the desk, pulling a little burlap sachet out from under it. Both Mingyu and Seungcheol watched in uncertain silence, as he nimbly picked little bits from the pile of plants on the desk and put them in the sachet, then closed his eyes and mumbled something inaudible. To Seungcheol, nothing seemed to have happened, but Jeonghan looked pleased with himself as he opened his eyes and held the sachet towards Seungcheol.
“Luck charms are my specialty. It won’t lift the curse, but maybe it’ll take the edge off.”
The sachet caught the low evening sunlight like a beacon of hope and before Seungcheol could overthink it, he’d accepted it. Their fingers brushed against each other’s palms. Jeonghan’s skin was cool to the touch.
“That’ll be ten thousand won, the advice you can have for free,” Jeonghan announced and the cash register dinged.
In the following days Seungcheol learned many things. If he went to bed early enough, he woke up at sunrise without an alarm. It took him forty-five minutes to walk to work in lieu of a ten-minute drive. Jihoon knew the pin number to his credit card without Seungcheol having to tell it to him. Mingyu made better coffee with the monstrosity of an espresso machine than he’d ever managed to make himself. If he asked Chan to do him an electronics-related favour outside his assigned duties as a reporter, he’d refuse with the sort of quiet dignity that made Seungcheol feel like an idiot for asking. And most importantly, he learned, as he dug through archived reader letters in search of a clue to his curser, that their run-of-the-mill daily newspaper, reporting on the mundane happenings of a mid-sized town, managed to piss a lot of stupid people off -- constantly. However, very few of the complaints and criticism sent to them were directed at him, personally. He’d started to keep a tracker of them on a flip board and their culture reporter Jeon Wonwoo was leading by a considerable margin. A result he seemed quite pleased about.
“If the community theatre people wanted a better review, they should’ve made a better show,” he had decreed, when Seungcheol had shown him an eye-watering missive from the director responsible for their latest revival of Mamma Mia.
“This is useless,” Seungcheol finally admitted at the end of day three of combing through letters, both to himself and the office at large. No one seemed very sympathetic or sorry for him. He laid himself supine on the linoleum floor of the newsroom, next to his flip board and the box of letters that was to be his last. Sports writer Boo Seungkwan literally stepped over him on his way to the photocopier. “All our readers complain about are the punchlines to the daily comic strip and Wonwoo being mean. It seems I have never done anything wrong in my life.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Jihoon, perched on a saddle chair by Chan’s desk, where he was ostensibly looking over his work, but mostly playing a rhythm game on his phone. The sleek grey tie around his neck was loosened in anticipation of the clock striking five. Seungcheol missed gaming. He’d have to learn chess, probably. “Maybe you should ask the witches for help again. They do all that divination, tarot card stuff, right? Maybe that could point you to the right direction.”
Seungcheol groaned at the mention of divination, but unfortunately Jihoon had confirmed the conclusion to which he’d already arrived. He had nothing. Tarot cards and crystal balls were something. And the lucky charm Jeonghan had sold him had at least kept him from electrocuting himself so far, and even once allowed him a blissfully successful transaction via his credit card, when he hadn’t had enough cash for lunch. The curse was fickle, and the witches were his best bet.
“Will you give me a lift, please?” Seungcheol asked, making his eyes as large and pitiful as they possibly could get, “Please, Uji.” Jihoon looked mildly disgusted, but nodded, nonetheless.
Seungcheol made it to the magic shop half an hour before closing time. Somehow, he felt more nervous returning than he had when he’d first visited. Maybe because Jihoon had unceremoniously declined the invitation to join him and driven off, leaving Seungcheol to face the witches alone. It wasn’t that he feared magic, really, he simply didn’t trust it very much. He was a little scared of Jeonghan, though. Something about being the object of his focus made Seungcheol feel sweaty and squirmy and tongue-tied.
The bells chimed again, as the door opened, and this time around Seungcheol’s arrival was met with three faces turning to him at once. Jeonghan and two other young men were huddled around a stack of crates. From what Seungcheol could see, they were filled with little jars of something golden. Witches sure loved jars, he thought, fleetingly.
“Hello, Seungcheol,” Jeonghan greeted him, “How’s the curse?” He seemed amused, which rankled Seungcheol. His whole life had been thrown into a tailspin. It wasn’t funny even a little.
“I really fucking need help,” he sighed. He meant to say it casually, but the desperation of it rang out loud and clear. To Jeonghan’s credit, he dialled down his amusement and gestured for Seungcheol to take a seat on the tall chair by the desk.
“You haven’t met my coven yet, have you? This is Wen Junhui and this is Xu Minghao. Junhui specializes in divination, Minghao is a herbalist. Our fourth, Seokmin, is currently out of town, he’s only starting his apprenticeship.”
“Nice to meet you,” Seungcheol offered with quick bows, “I know you’re about to close, but I only just got off work.”
“It’s fine, we’ll be here for a while. Jisoo dropped off a new batch of honey today and it’s going to take ages to shelve anyway,” Xu Minghao smiled. All three of them were absurdly good-looking, peering at Seungcheol over the crates like a flock of delicate birds. Seungcheol felt very rumpled and tired in his work suit and ran a quick hand through his hair in an effort to smarten up.
“Have you found any leads on who cursed you?” Jeonghan asked. Seungcheol groaned and shook his head.
“I spend most of my life at work and I’ve been going through everything I’ve done in the past six months to figure out who I’ve insulted, but there’s nothing that sticks out. I came back because I thought maybe you could like. I don’t know. Ask the stars? The horoscopes?”
Junhui cackled and spun away from the job at hand to come lean against the edge of the desk. From his apron pocket he pulled out a drawstring bag and from it, a stack of black cards with white, elaborate hanzi on the backs of them. The bag was purple velvet and had a Pikachu embroidered on it. He shuffled the cards like a poker dealer, paying no attention to his hands. Instead, he stared at Seungcheol, like he’d never seen a person before. His eyes were huge and doe-like.
“Take the one on top,” he said, offering the deck with the backsides up. Seungcheol did. “Lay it on the table.” The picture didn’t make much sense to him, but the bottom edge read Judgement. Junhui scoffed.
“Could’ve told you that without the cards,” he muttered and offered the deck again, “One more, for good luck.”
The second card had two human figures. Lovers, it said. Now Junhui laughed loudly, throwing his head back far enough that Seungcheol felt a twinge in his own neck.
“What is it?” Jeonghan asked, turning from the shelf, where he’d been lining up the jars of honey, “Is it the Fool?”
“Judgement and Lovers,” Junhui sing-songed, “Couldn’t have picked better myself.” Jeonghan didn’t reply. Seungcheol was officially and fully lost. Before he could question Junhui’s methods, the man placed a hand over the two cards and his eyes shifted ever so slightly out of focus, as if he were listening to something Seungcheol couldn’t hear. The quiet clink of the glass jars continued. Birdsong carried in from the open window behind Junhui.
“You don’t know the person, who cursed you. And you didn’t insult them, at least directly,” Junhui said, finally, eyes shifting back into focus. He looked more contemplative now. Seungcheol wondered whether this was the method with which he came up with the horoscopes he sent into the paper; things like beware green and pass the lady with the red hat on the left-hand side. All were equally unhelpful.
“That narrows it down,” Seungcheol sighed; tired, defeated, and almost ready to accept that he would live as a lone caveman live-action role player for the rest of his days. At least he’d develop great calves from all the walking. “How much do I owe you?” he asked, reaching for his wallet. Junhui waved him off, and instead turned around to pick a jar from the nearest crate.
“That one’s on the house, sorry I couldn’t be more helpful. Take some honey, too, pro bono.”
Seungcheol eyed the jar, uncertain of what its purpose was. There was no label, just a little purple ribbon tied around it in a neat bow.
“Is it magic?” he asked, cautious. Junhui frowned like he was an idiot.
“No. It’s honey. You put it in tea. It makes it taste nice.”
“I – alright.”
Seungcheol knew when to stop arguing, so he just held on to the jar and bowed a little in thanks. Behind the crate, Jeonghan was doing a terrible job of hiding his laughter. Their eyes met and Seungcheol spared a brief thought to the fact that Jeonghan had surprisingly childish giggle; soft and high. It was nice.
“I assume someone dropped you off here?” Jeonghan asked, then, “We’re a little far from town. If you hang around until we’re done here, I’m sure Jun or Minghao can give you a lift back. And if you grab a jar and start shelving, the sooner we’ll be ready.”
After Seungcheol shrugged off his suit jacket and rolled up his sleeves, it didn’t take the four of them long to empty the crates. The witches were surprisingly easy to talk to. It was clear they’d known each other for a long while, as the conversation between them ebbed and flowed in incomplete sentences that someone else picked up and ran off with. Minghao seemed sweet and quiet, Junhui bewildering but friendly – he kept looking at Seungcheol like he was something brand new and curious. Finally, Jeonghan sent them all home, declaring dramatically that he was very tired of their faces and needed his ten hours of beauty sleep. He squeezed Seungcheol’s arm, as he saw them off, and Seungcheol sat in Minghao’s old red Honda, clutching his jar of not-magic-honey, and feeling the phantom fingers still there, just above his elbow.
After a week of being cursed, Seungcheol finally had a lead. Or rather, Soonyoung had presented him with it in the form of a printed-out comment section of one of his online editorial columns. The piece itself had been about online gaming and Seungcheol had only briefly discussed magic users’ advantage in playing Maple Story 2, but it seemed to have incited discussion that had been blown absurdly out of proportion. That in itself didn’t surprise Seungcheol – the comment section on their website was often a battleground for idiots and the only reason he allowed it to remain open was the extra hits they received – but a comment left by user calling themselves xclbr69 addressed him directly.
editor choi seungcheol is a noob nd hates witches !!
“This is ridiculous – I don’t hate witches. I was just pointing out an advantage,” Seungcheol complained, eyeing the thread of messages. For an online comment section, there was a startling amount of consensus that yes, Choi Seungcheol was indeed a noob and a witch-hater. Soonyoung cackled, perching himself on the edge of Seungcheol’s desk like an old-timey secretary.
“You’re not denying being a noob, though,” he said. Seungcheol thought it was rich coming from the man who typed with four fingers. He told him as much. Soonyoung promptly pretended to not hear him and continued, “I had the web admin trace the IP address to find out who this guy is, but it didn’t make any sense. The comment was sent from Seoul.”
“Maybe it’s just a random troll, then?” Seungcheol suggested.
“This was sent the night before you started blowing shit up, though,” Soonyoung pointed out, tapping a finger on the timestamp next to the username. He was right. “Seems like too much of a coincidence.”
“I guess I could show this to Jeonghan, ask him for advice,” Seungcheol said, trying not to let the creeping excitement be heard in his voice. It was just that he was tired of being cursed. That morning he’d made the mistake of pressing the crosswalk button at a red light. The little red man had flickered, and then stayed red until someone else had arrived, pressed the same button and the light had turned green at once. Seungcheol didn’t even want to think about, let alone admit out loud, how long he’d stood there as cars whizzed by. He was simply looking forward to possibly using a light switch, nothing more. Soonyoung didn’t seem to buy it.
“Oh, Jeonghan,” he drawled, practically draping himself over Seungcheol’s desk. Seungcheol tried to knock his arm out from under him and failed. Soonyoung had the freaky core strength of a pole dancer. “Oh, poor Seungcheol, having to go see the pretty witch, who’s so your type. How ever will you make it?”
“I’m your boss,” Seungcheol said, feebly, “And how do you know he’s pretty? Is everyone else in this office friends with all the witches in town?”
“I follow his shop on Instagram,” Soonyoung scoffed, fishing out his phone and tapping open the app to show a picture from the shop’s garden on the feed, Jeonghan posing with Minghao and a pail of herbs in butter yellow sunlight, “Some of us can still use phones, sparkboy.” It hurt doubly coming from someone, who’d once accidentally livestreamed himself in the bath. At least Soonyoung was kind enough to offer him a ride.
Again, there was someone at the shop Seungcheol didn’t recognise. Jeonghan was sitting behind the desk, shoulder to shoulder with a man, their heads bowed together and temples touching, as they leafed through a heavy looking book. There was something in the way they were relaxed against each other that made Seungcheol want to back out of the room to give them privacy and sent a wholly unjustified spike of disappointment down his gut.
“It’s just like in the pictures!” Soonyoung declared loudly, shouldering past a hesitant Seungcheol and directly towards Jeonghan’s desk, “Hello! I’m Soonyoung!”
“Nice to meet you,” Jeonghan nodded with a surprisingly charmed smile. Seungcheol really hadn’t expected him to take to Soonyoung so well, but it seemed that so far Seungcheol had caused the chilliest first impression. It chafed. “You’re Seungcheol’s friend?”
“Yes, and he’s still cursed but we think we have a lead,” Soonyoung handed Jeonghan the printed-out comment section with a flourish – the suspicious comment circled with pink highlighter. Jeonghan eyed the paper, brows scrunching down into an almost worried furrow.
“I’m Jisoo,” the stranger next to Jeonghan said then, addressing Seungcheol first over Soonyoung’s shoulder. He was very handsome in a slightly unsettling way – much like Junhui, there was something about his eyes that made Seungcheol think he saw something a little more than other people.
“I’ll be right back, I have to go – check something out,” Jeonghan interrupted, flapping the paper a little, as he made a swift retreat through the back door. Seungcheol very much wanted to follow him, instead of hanging out with his newly discovered boyfriend, who, he was fairly sure, could see right through his skull and into every oafish thought he’d ever had about Jeonghan’s pretty face.
For too many painfully slow seconds, a silence fell in the room. Jisoo looked at Seungcheol appraisingly with a hint of a smile, while Seungcheol tried, desperately to come up with anything to say that wasn’t “I’m sorry for thinking your boyfriend is the most beautiful person alive, please don’t hurt me, I’m already cursed”. Soonyoung followed the silence between them like he was at Wimbledon. Finally, something sparked.
“Oh, Jisoo. You do the honey, right?” Seungcheol offered and Jisoo’s smile widened, “Junhui gave me a jar the last time I was here. It’s… very nice.”
“I’m glad to hear it. The yield has been good this summer. Jeonghan thinks it’s because we finally sowed enough sunflowers.”
“How long have you and Jeonghan known each other?” Seungcheol asked then, mostly just to firmly stamp down any remaining vague ideas he might have hypothetically had about asking Jeonghan out for a coffee.
“We met in university, so ten years, just about,” Jisoo said and the polite smile on his face softened into something warm and sentimental. Seungcheol couldn’t even bring himself to resent him for it when the love there was so obvious and deep. “We lived in the same first year housing. Back then he had this long blonde hair and he wore crystals everywhere. Everyone on our floor was obsessed with him.”
Seungcheol had never regretted not having access to Instagram more than he did at that moment. Soonyoung, however, seemed to be on the same wavelength, as he’d pulled out his phone and started scrolling the moment Jisoo had mentioned long hair.
“Oh, you don’t have to stalk him, I have a picture,” Jisoo laughed and tapped a few things on his screen before turning it towards them. His wallpaper was a stylishly lo-fi rendering of two young men crammed in the same armchair, in what looked like a hovel of a student apartment, heads resting together, thighs overlapping, giving peace signs. Jisoo’s hair was some shade of orange, while Jeonghan’s gleamed honey blonde and reached beneath his collarbones.
“Cute!” Soonyoung exclaimed with a cackle, just as Jeonghan reappeared, gnawing on his lower lip. He blanched at seeing Jisoo holding his phone towards them and slapped his wrist down.
“You don’t have to humiliate me like this the moment I leave the room,” Jeonghan said, clearly trying for stern and falling short, eyes soft as Jisoo grinned at him, unrepentant. Then, he looked to Seungcheol, and his face stiffened.
“I need to do some more… research. I’m sorry, but I can’t help you right now, Seungcheol. You’ll have to hang on for a bit longer. Is the luck charm helping at all?”
“It is, actually, but – “
“Good. Here,” Jeonghan handed him a purple rock, the colour so deep that at first glance it looked black, “For luck, too. It should amplify the charm. Have a good night, sorry that you came all the way here for nothing. It was nice to meet you, Soonyoung.”
“Cool rock,” was all Soonyoung had the time to say, before Jeonghan had disappeared back through the doorway. Even Jisoo looked taken aback by his abruptness.
After Soonyoung purchased an odd-looking contraption with glass beads and feathers, they bid goodbye to a thoughtful looking Jisoo. Seungcheol felt a gnawing in his stomach all the way home that was partly lingering disappointment, but mostly the uncomfortable sensation of having been lied to.
There was an incessant sound that went on forever. Everything was dark and warm and muddy, and the sound pierced through it all again and again. Time pulled like taffy, before Seungcheol snapped out of his semi-fugue dream and realised that the sound wasn’t just a sound, but his doorbell. Which was ringing and had been ringing for a long time. He was face down in his bed, and it was barely light outside and most importantly of all it was Saturday, which meant it was his day off and whoever was ringing his doorbell at dawn was evil and heartless.
He staggered, still mostly asleep, to the door and flung it open.
Jisoo’s eyes were wide and certainly not looking at his face, which gave Seungcheol just enough to realise that he didn’t have a shirt on. He crossed his arms awkwardly and tried to not look like he was cowering, which he very much was, as he backed into the hallway and allowed Jisoo in.
“I’m sorry to wake you so early, but Jeonghan can help lift your curse now. He asked me to come pick you up, he figured you wouldn’t want to stay in the caveman times a second longer than you had to. Also,” Jisoo paused for dramatic effect, as he held up a large takeaway cup, “I got you coffee.”
Seungcheol had never dressed quicker.
Jisoo’s car was fancy. German and silver, with a white leather interior. Seungcheol couldn’t feel or hear the engine as he sat in the passenger seat, carefully sipping coffee as they glided through the mostly empty streets of Seongsu.
“You’re not a full-time beekeeper, are you?” he asked after a few blocks of silence. Jisoo laughed.
“No. I have a very proper, boring career in financial law. The bees are more of a passion project.”
“A passion project,” Seungcheol repeated, mostly to himself.
“Bees are crucial to the ecosystem,” Jisoo said gravely, “They’re very important.”
“No, I know that!”
“Without bees, we’d all die within weeks. Do you want us all to perish, Seungcheol?”
“No, I was just – ,” Seungcheol stopped and ran the tip of his tongue across his teeth, as he caught the smirk pulling at Jisoo’s mouth, “You’re fucking with me.”
“A little,” Jisoo laughed, eyes crinkling merrily, as he turned onto the bridge across the river, “You’re very easy to fluster. I think it’s why Jeonghan likes you.”
Mortification walloped Seungcheol in the gut. He’d thought that Jisoo had probably noticed something in the way he looked at Jeonghan, but he hadn’t expected to be confronted with it so plainly. Except.
“Wait, you said Jeonghan likes me?” he asked, “Aren’t you –“
This time, Jisoo didn’t bother with smirks or teasing, he just quite plainly laughed in his face.
“Jeonghan and I are best friends. We’re not together. I know that’s what you thought, and I let you believe that yesterday, because I thought it was funny. But we’re not together. We’ve never been together. And lately, whenever I come around, he keeps talking about Seungcheol and Seungcheol’s curse and how cute Seungcheol is.”
The car turned onto Jeonghan’s street. Seungcheol could see the shop and a distant, blonde figure waiting at the gate.
“He likes the waffles and strawberries from Café Art,” Jisoo said, like it was a reasonable to way to end a conversation, as he stopped the car right in front of the wooden gate, “Off you go, I’m going back to bed now.”
Seungcheol got out of the car, and barely managed to greet Jeonghan, who looked jittery and exhausted, as Jisoo pulled around and stopped again, the driver’s side now closest to them. His head poked out the window.
“You know, without a shirt, he’s very buff for a journo,” he said, like he was commenting on the weather and then drove off with a rev of the engine and a cackle. Seungcheol gave into the urge to bury his head in his hands, because it was 5:30 on a Saturday morning and he was not strong enough for any of what was happening.
“Listen,” said Jeonghan, tugging a little on Seungcheol’s elbow. Seungcheol turned to him, helplessly, and let himself be walked towards the house. “We’ll get this sorted out, but I want you to know I’m sorry. I’ve had an idea about who cursed you for a few days now, but I wasn’t sure before you showed me the comment and this is the earliest I could get him to come back and sort this out. He didn’t mean anything malicious and he’s my apprentice, so if you’re going to be mad at anyone, be mad at me. He’s my responsibility.”
“Your apprentice?” Seungcheol frowned, “Junhui or Minghao?”
“No,” Jeonghan sighed, “They’re not my apprentices. Seokmin is.”
He opened the front door. The bell chimed and by this point Seungcheol had been conditioned to expect something odd when he heard that sound. A worried looking young man with brown hair pushed back off his forehead was sitting by the desk and he gave them a meek wave as they entered.
“Choi Seungcheol meet Lee Seokmin. Seokmin, this is the innocent civilian you’ve cursed for no good reason.” Jeonghan gestured between the two of them.
Seungcheol hadn’t given much thought to how he’d react, when he finally met whoever had been making his life miserable for the past week. He’d mostly just been angry at the faceless person, but as he watched the way Seokmin winced at Jeonghan’s unimpressed voice, he found that anger diluting rapidly. It was still there, theoretically; Seokmin had messed with his job, his life, and his safety without ever having met him over a perceived slight regarding a stupid online game. But he looked very young. He had guileless eyes and it was immediately obvious that Jeonghan’s disapproval weighed heavy on him. Whatever anger he held towards Seokmin was more akin to a stagnant glass of water than a storm.
Seokmin got on his feet and practically threw himself into a deep bow.
“I’m sorry. I’m very sorry,” he said. The sincerity dripping off his words combined with the deepest bow anyone had probably ever given to Seungcheol triggered a wildly irrational urge in him to return the apology.
“It’s alright,” he said and made a face at himself, “Well, it’s probably not quite alright, but I’ll accept your apology if you lift the curse. And explain.”
“Let’s all sit down,” Jeonghan suggested, herding Seungcheol into a chair on the customers’ side of the desk and Seokmin on the other side, taking his own seat next to his apprentice, who was literally wringing his hands. Seungcheol had never actually seen anyone wring their hands in distress. His anger was disappearing at an alarming rate and being replaced by bafflement. “Seokmin, why don’t you just take it from the start and explain why and how we’re in this mess.”
Seokmin nodded at Jeonghan and took a deep breath. He made direct eye contact with Seungcheol and his shoulders squared like he was readying himself for a fight.
“I was visiting family in Seoul and I was already upset, because my granddad has some less than flattering things to say about my apprenticeship. Then I went to check the news back home on my laptop, and I read your column and got mad. You said something mean about witches and I already didn’t like you because I knew you didn’t let us advertise on your paper, so I just snapped, okay? It wasn’t personal – not really. Even though I didn’t like you, I would’ve never cursed you if I hadn’t been mad at my family already. Jeonghan came to pick me up from Seoul late last night and he’s already explained to me everything I did wrong and that I abused my power and upset the balance. I understand that it was badly done, and I am sorry. I will never do it again.”
Seungcheol nodded, though there was one thing left that confused him.
“Why curse all electronics? That’s a weirdly fucked up and convoluted way to get back at someone.”
Seokmin laughed a little, helplessly, and shrugged.
“Honestly, I didn’t mean it. Jeonghan hasn’t taught me how to curse people, so I just kind of hurled some bad intent towards you and this is what happened. I’m not sure why or how. I think maybe because I did it through the computer? I really don’t know - I’m sorry.”
Next to him, Jeonghan gave a little shrug that seemed to say “probably?”. Seungcheol sighed and let it go.
“But I can fix it!” Seokmin said with a determined smile, “It’s easy and quick, I promise.”
To his credit, it was easy and quick. Seokmin gave Seungcheol a fistful of artfully tied together herbs and wrapped his own hand around Seungcheol’s. They both closed their eyes, and Seokmin mumbled something faint under his breath rhythmically, seemingly repeating the same phrase multiple times. Then followed a moment of silence that finished with Seokmin lightly squeezing Seungcheol’s hand and exclaiming, “Alright then!” like he was about to slap the table and head out.
“It’s done?” Seungcheol asked, a little apprehensive. He hadn’t felt anything. Not even a breeze or a static jolt. It was so hard to believe in something that left no trace.
“Try it,” Jeonghan offered him a phone across the table. He lifted his chin a little and added, “Why don’t you put your number in there.”
“Oh ew, okay. Sorry. Bye,” Seokmin waved and scrambled out the room. Seungcheol could hear his heavy footsteps going up a staircase, while he smiled and tapped his personal phone number into Jeonghan’s contacts. The phone worked beautifully. He’d missed screen glare.
“Thank you,” Seungcheol said, as he locked the phone and passed it back to its owner, “For figuring it out. And I’m sorry. I’ve been a dick about magic, clearly. None of this would’ve happened if I’d been less prejudiced about it. I was wrong to treat you and other witches like that.”
Jeonghan smiled a little wryly. He spun the phone between his fingers and considered Seungcheol for a moment.
“I’ll be honest – if my experience with magic was limited to the horoscopes Junhui fully makes up for Seongsu News, I’d probably be a dick about it too.”
“I knew it,” Seungcheol sighed, “You know, I tried to take those out the paper, at one point, but my copy editor vetoed it. I’m pretty sure he genuinely believes them.”
Jeonghan laughed, then. A full, lovely laugh that crinkled his nose and made him flop sideways a little. A collarbone peeked out from under his oversized shirt, as Seungcheol helplessly followed the long line of his throat. It occurred to him then that this was the first time he’d actually ever been alone in a room with Jeonghan. He could feel the edge of the lucky crystal press against his thigh in his pocket. His mouth took over from his brain.
“Come get breakfast with me. I’ll buy you a waffle.”
Jeonghan propped his head on his fist, blonde hair falling over foxy eyes, and pretended to think about it.