While the bells toll throughout the town and scrolls are still lethargically stuffed into bags by students suffering the aftermath of dry alchemy theories, Hansol’s long legs are already pumping up and down hard on the pedals of his bicycle. Cutting through the town square and winding along the curve of the road that overlooks the ocean, the mint-green bicycle is a magnificent chariot that carries its owner over boundless skies and the roughest waters - or Hansol likes to imagine every time he cycles to the cottage nestled at the edge of the hill.
The breeze from the coast brings with it the playfulness of the huckleberry trees, the sweet aroma of their ripened fruits wafting his way even from a distance. The thought of spending an hour answering their riddles while he pops juicy berries into his mouth is indeed a temptation he finds hard to resist. But the breeze also carries a hint of meat pies and coriander breads baking in his grandmother’s oven, reminding him that each second is not to be wasted if he wants to finish his tasks before dusk paints the skies and Seungkwan’s voice blesses the summer solstice ceremony.
Newly appointed as Head Choir Mage of the town, this is the first time Seungkwan will be singing the Year Song and Hansol knows that the boy’s hair will turn a livid shade of red if he misses even a second of it. The cold fury of his best friend is really not something he wants to incur again, after the disastrous spell that involved the choir mage getting magically stuck to Mingyu for a whole day.
(Never mind that the incident actually gave Seungkwan the courage to confess his feelings to the gentle giant, never mind that Mingyu had actually been nursing a hopeless crush on the choir mage for the longest time and never mind that they will be tying their souls together in the coming winter solstice.)
Between chaining his bicycle to the fence and hurriedly weighing the pros and cons of bringing the herd to graze in the grassland next to the lake, he has failed to take notice of the nine-tailed fox in the cottage’s garden, sniffing and burrowing its nose in the potted plants curiously.
If he had, then maybe his heart wouldn’t have lurched at the sight of long legs draped over one side of Junhui’s armchair and slender fingers caressing brittle yellowed pages. Maybe he wouldn’t have stumbled and probably, his voice wouldn’t end with a nervous squeak too as he calls out the other’s name.
There are a lot of maybes and probablys in his current situation, all of them rolled into a great ball of mortification that he wishes to be crushed under. Except the floor is nowhere near his face, there are arms hooked around him and when he looks up, he is greeted by the amusement tugging Wonwoo’s thin lips upwards.
“I’ve got you, kiddo.”
(Two years since Wonwoo walked out of town with a backpack filled with more books than garments, the nine-tailed fox sprinting delightedly ahead of him and Hansol still finds himself hooked to every word that slips through the curl of Wonwoo’s lips, still finds his heart tripping over every lilt in the older one’s husky voice.)
Untangling himself from the other’s arms takes a little more than his uncoordinated limbs, all wiry and awkward from his body’s recent growth spurt, could manage but Wonwoo is considerate enough to keep a hand on his arm until he’s planted firmly on his own two feet. (There’s a trail of tingles blossoming under his skin, chasing after the heat of Wonwoo’s palm as it travels down to his fingers.)
“Hyung, you’re back …” He says simply (stupidly), not trusting his speech filter enough to say more but also not quite liking how his courage always drains away in front of Jeon Wonwoo. What are you afraid of, the mini-Seungkwan in his head screams at him and yet the unsaid words (I’ve missed you) are thickening on his tongue, like sawdust choking whatever nerve he has remaining.
His head slightly cocking to one side, Wonwoo’s eyes travel the four corners of the living room before he turns back to Hansol with a sheepish smile, as if he too can’t quite believe that he’s back home, with the loving familiarity of family and friends surrounding him once more.
“That I am, kiddo. Though… I should really stop calling you that, look how much you’ve grown in the two years I wasn’t here!” Wonwoo says this but it still doesn’t escape the attention of the younger boy the way he now stands a little straighter and taller, probably as an attempt to prove some point unknown to no one else, save for himself.
When Wonwoo raises a hand to ruffle soft tawny hair, it takes all of Hansol’s willpower not to lean into the touch, but he can’t help fall deeper because Wonwoo’s grin is wide and bright, the exact same one he always found to be directed at him many a times over the years they have known each other.
Reminiscence for simpler days floods the space between them and it feels like the older one has never left in the first place, in search for magic he could not find here (and taking a piece of the younger boy’s heart along with him, like it was hidden in the folds of his cotton shirt the day he left). The afternoon sun bathes the pair in the golden glory of its rays, accentuating in Wonwoo’s eyes the sparkle of pride and tenderness that is permeating enough to course through Hansol’s body and fills his heart with the abundance of his happiness.
Sunlight shifts behind clouds and with the precarious contrast of light and shadow framing Wonwoo’s facial features, he catches something quite exquisite in the way the other is looking at him – a fierce affection that he feels Wonwoo isn’t willing to explain right now and he doesn’t understand well enough. But it vanishes as quickly as it appears and he hastily leaves it at the back of his mind as a figment of his imagination, when Junhui’s voice calls out from the kitchen urgently.
“Hansol! Why haven’t you-” The winter mage stops in his tracks, his eyes flitting between the both of them before his eyes narrow into a mischievous slit at Hansol and his lips curl into a knowing smirk. “Woo, you’re still here? Didn’t you say that you were going into town to say hi to the others?”
The question seems to shake Wonwoo out of his reverie but it also seems to present an internal dilemma within him and his lips pursed in a tight straight line. As Hansol and Junhui waits for a decision to come, the youngest wishes wilfully that Wonwoo will stay for the rest of the afternoon, that he can forget about his tasks and linger beside the older one, and that most of all, he hadn’t kept silent to Wonwoo’s talks about leaving the town two years ago.
(But of course, how could he have asked Wonwoo to stay? When he knows full well that the older one’s eyes are always looking to the night skies with a heart yearning for age-old magic, buried in the depths of ancient burial grounds and ritual sites?
He couldn’t, not when Wonwoo is made of stars, mystery and the boundlessness that governs the universe.)
“I’ve changed my mind. I’ll take the herd out since I haven’t seen them in a while and Nornu will probably love to play in the lake… Kid- Hansol, I’ll see you at the ceremony later.”
“See you later, hyung.” Hansol nods, barely hiding his disappointment as Wonwoo disappears out of the door, though a small smile later appears on his face at the sound of a whistle and a nine-tailed fox’s thrilled yelp out in the garden.
But of course, Junhui has to be a terrible person and ruin everything with a disdainful scoff. “So how was the tearful reunion? Did you guys hug? Kiss? Did you confess your undying love for him?”
Knowing the volatility of his magic at this time of the year, the flora mage clenches his fist at his sides in an attempt to drive away the urge to wrap the winter mage up in merciless snaking vines, but it’s annoying, all the same, to see the smugness dripping from Junhui’s smile. “Hyung, I don’t know what you’re talking about-”
The voice from the doorway is soft and deep; nevertheless, it is enough to render both Hansol and Junhui into a shocked silence, wondering how much of their conversation has been heard as Wonwoo gazes at them with an unfazed expression.
“It’s strange how there’s a sudden blossom of yellow acacias in the centre of the lavender field when it wasn’t there in the morning… it’s beautiful but I don’t think the colours of the flowers match.”
There is a moment of silence as glances are exchanged between the pair and Junhui shoots Hansol a look of annoyance, but it is also laced with a relief that the youngest share too. “Right, it must be Grandmama experimenting with the soil. Did you hear that, Hansol? You should let her know. Thanks Woo, for your two cents worth.”
A nod is all Wonwoo gives in reply and wordlessly, he turns to leave through the garden. The bell tied to the cottage’s gate rings, assuring the remaining two in the living room that the dimension mage is indeed out of earshot. The winter mage’s smile turns dangerously gleeful immediately and a sudden impulse to bolt out of the room into the safety of the greenhouse creeps up the flora mage’s back.
“You know what I used to read in one of Grandmama’s books about flowers, Hansol-ah? Yellow acacias – that’s flower language for true friendship. Or more accurately in your case, secret love.”
Within seconds, a blossom of purple marvel-of-Peru blooms in a corner of the living room as Hansol’s cheeks turn a dark shade of red and Junhui’s boisterous laughter bounces off the walls of the cottage.
The sky was draped in the velvety of purple and pink as Hansol made his way to the grounds where the ceremony was going to take place. Squeezing into the front of the crowd next to Mingyu, he clasped tightly to himself the pot of coral roses he had been carefully nurturing for the past three months.
The townspeople grew quiet when the first note of the Year Song played and Seungkwan’s voice rose to the clear skies, the blessings he called forth from heaven for the town embedded in the dulcet and soothing tones he offered up as a pleasing melody to the gods. After the final notes of the song had floated up and away, a roaring cheer and applause rose from the crowd (the loudest of them all coming from Mingyu), and if Seungkwan had burst into joyful tears on his soulmate’s shirt after he came down from the stage, Hansol and their friends pretended not to notice.
(Although Seungkwan became more of a crying mess when the pot of coral roses was presented to him and a kiss was left tenderly on his left cheek, clinging to the front of Hansol’s shirt and laughing through snot and sobs at the protests from the floral mage about “crumpling the precious roses I painstakingly grew!”.)
Darkness continued to bleed into the sky, its blood consisting of twinkling stars and the kindness of the crescent moon that shone her beam of light unto the wishing tree standing in the middle of all the festivities. The lights from food stands and game stalls threw a kaleidoscope of colours on every face on the festive ground and yet none of them wore the one Hansol was looking for.
Slowly, as the night wears on and the town enters into the wee hours of the new day, the crowd disperses either to return home or move to a new spot of unending celebrations. Long abandoned by Seungkwan and Mingyu, Hansol roams around the festival grounds with one hand still holding a bottle of rose cider (purely a coincidence that it’s Wonwoo’s favourite beverage) and the other jammed into his pocket, his heart distracted and his mind not knowing what he’s exactly waiting for.
So when purple neon lines start appearing on the ground in front of him, he shakes it off initially as a hallucination of his brain, lulled to silliness by all the meat pies, the marshmallow he stuffed into his mouth in a stupid game of Chubby Bunny and the three bottles of beer he had to drink as punishment afterwards.
“Kiddo, I’m waiting for you at the usual place.” Someone near him reads the characters made by the neon lines and he feels like laughing because the words oddly sound like what Wonwoo would say to him.
As always, he is minutes too late in realizing the current situation but when he does, he sprints in a way he has never done in his entire life.
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