The young enchantress is hunched over her alchemy table, thick hair flopped over her face, rubbing each side of her temple. She can’t get this spell right after what feels like fifty attempts, and she’s reconsidering her whole life up to this point. The language of magic has been reduced to just meaningless noise. Nothing is happening.
“Are you sounding it out right in your head?” The voice is soft. It’s Lia, another mage, who notices her pained expression. Not like she was trying to keep it hidden, though.
Honestly, she’d rather die than have to put another broken object back together with her mind alone.
“Maybe it’s the fact I don’t actually want to do it,” huffs Ryujin, pushing herself away from the table and letting Lia rub her shoulder, “So this plate is broken – why can’t I put it back together with glue like a normal person? Or just buy a new one? This was what, 2000 won?”
Lia laughs in a way that’s purely loving, it’s sweet and light.
“Augmenting reality is really useful,” she says, “And you know that.”
Ryujin just pulls a face in response, staring at the splinted pieces of porcelain in front of her. Lia pinches her cheeks, forcing her to listen.
“So, being able to do magic means you have to study. That’s not fun. But let’s be honest,” Lia shifts her eyes towards Ryujin’s table and begins to concentrate, easily making one of the plate pieces hover mid-air, “It’s the best gift to be born with.”
“Stop saying things I know are right that I don’t want to accept!” whines Ryujin, muffled as Lia’s still got a firm hold of her face. The plate piece lands gently back on the table.
She shakes her off and they look at each other for a few seconds, but the younger one can’t keep up the act for much longer. She laughs, loud and husky, almost missing the bleeping sound from her pocket. It’s her eMissary telling her the session’s over, complete with the instant cacophony of other mages rushing out of the room.
“Saved by the bell,” Lia jokes. She softly squeezes her arm around Ryujin’s neck before getting up to pack her vials and books away. And Lia has a whole array of books – she’s a model enchantress. The future’s ultimate political weapon.
She turns to Ryujin just before leaving. “See you at the pub later?”
Ryujin leans back and stretches her arms above her head, drawling out a low “Maybe.”
“The same plans as usual, huh.” Lia gives Ryujin a knowing smile, so she turns her reddening face away. When she looks up again, the older girl’s already gone.
Whenever she has time to spare, Ryujin fills it with her new obsession.
She understands how much of an honour it is to be born a mage, but the way it’s taught is ever so serene. Magical folk are to be used for medicinal purposes, for the greater good, for maintaining harmony. But there is a furious energy that courses through her veins whenever she uses enchantments to their fullest power. The feeling is euphoric - throwing objects through the sky, casting spells on people, anything that packs a deadly punch. To be strong and heroic, that comes most naturally to her.
Today amongst many days, she’s flaking on Lia’s pub invitation to go to the training barracks. Here she’s quick to get envious, for whilst she’s in alchemy classes all morning, those born with physically-based powers get to play with their skills to their heart’s content. It sounds like heaven.
However, it doesn’t exactly smell like heaven. Before even entering her usual gym suite, it stinks of sweat and testosterone, but she likes this one because the air conditioning is always on full wack. Which is especially good because she already feels her hands getting sweaty and breath becoming short.
There’s one slight detail that Ryujin can’t quite admit to herself as the main reason she goes there every day. And sure enough, as she pushes the door in, there she is.
Hwang Yeji. One year older, tall and elegant, and extremely promising. The state views her as a complete marvel, so Ryujin figures she spends her entire life training.
The wonder lies in that fact that Yeji was born with supernaturally enhanced strength but is the only one ever known to have a petite build. Her physique is sharp yet feminine, dominating yet nimble. And right now, she’s tossing a concrete plinth between her hands as if it was a volleyball.
Ryujin is so susceptible to becoming lost in her appearance. Surely, everyone else must be too.
Her eyes trail away from Yeji’s body and onto her face, and oh god – she’s looking right back at her. Ryujin’s been standing at the door for way too long and hasn’t been very discrete with her ogling. Can she cast a spell to make her forget this happened?
“Are you okay?” Yeji gives her a concerned smile, and it’s too late for spells.
“Oh no, I-“ think of something, think of something, “I thought I was in the wrong suite, that’s all.”
“Don’t you usually come to this one?” asks Yeji, and it’s not at all accusative, just curious.
Ryujin feels bad ignoring her question but she can’t think of a good excuse - her head is too fuzzy knowing that Yeji’s noticed her here before. She finally steps into the room to take off her sweatshirt.
Yeji’s just muttering to herself anyway, “I don’t even know what’s in the other rooms,” her smile is shy but direct, “I only do weights.”
Ryujin wants to say “I know”, everyone knows you, but it’s sweet to her that Yeji doesn’t seem to realise what a huge deal she is. They lock eyes for a moment – Yeji’s are sharp like a fox, intense and beautiful. Ryujin just nods and smiles back in a way she knows looks confident. She’s a charmer, after all.
For an hour or two they train in silence. Ryujin stays on cardio machines – she doesn’t want to reveal there’s nothing supernatural about her physical powers, and it’s safe because everyone needs stamina. Yeji, on the other hand, is unbelievable to watch. Not only is her strength a novelty, but the way she conducts herself is so efficient. She swiftly moves from one weight machine from the next, making sure she’s mastered each one.
Ryujin snaps out of her trance when Yeji accidentally twists one of the iron handle bars out of place. Those things are pretty much indestructible, but Yeji sighs in a way that’s adorably understated, as if she’s thinking “Not again”. Even the beads of sweat on her forehead are neat and pretty. Her cheeks are pink.
And when she fishes her eMissary out of her rucksack next to her, her brows stay furrowed. Ryujin turns away and switches the rowing machine up a few levels, but she can hear a typing sound, and then a blurry Yeji shape moves past her and leaves.
Ryujin stays for as long as it takes to row Yeji out of her mind.
“You know, I think I will go to the pub.” She announces on a call to Lia, an hour later and freshly showered. The ache is a good ache and she wants to celebrate with some good day-drinking.
“We just left!” chirps Lia, which is annoying because Ryujin’s already halfway there. A tinny-sounding Chaeryeong and Yuna are giggling in the background. Lia tells them she’s putting Ryujin on speaker.
Without missing a beat, Yuna almost screams down the line, “Apparently some guys got drunk and are trying to break into the South Tower and we want to watch the whole mess.”
“Dumb question but isn’t that tower guarded by an entire dragon?” says Ryujin.
“Yeah, it’s going to be hilarious.” Replies Chaeryeong, soft but dry.
Ryujin nods along to no one and keeps walking. “Well, enjoy the show,” she says, “I might still grab a pint.”
Before long, she sees a tatted wooden sign that reads ‘The Division’ and brings her foot up to the step, wiping off the dust from the walk. She walks in nonchalantly as she’s not looking for anyone, however instantly catches the eyes of a familiar face by the bar.
Yeji’s about to take a sip of her drink when Ryujin walks in, and she freezes. The glass crumbles like sand in her brawny hand, shattering all over the floor.
“Oh, hey, don’t worry about it.” Ryujin runs and kneels over, barely registering what just happened, and with a swipe of her fingers she magically pieces the glass back together.
That’s it – the spell she never managed to master, completed without even thinking. She looks up to Yeji, who’s even more shocked than her. Both eyebrows are raised in surprise.
“Why have you been going to the training barracks all this time, enchantress?” she asserts, offering Ryujin a hand up. Her smile is so friendly. How could a smile even be so friendly?
Ryujin takes her hand and laughs, “I wasn’t lying to anyone.”
“Just choosing not to demonstrate the fact you can cast actual spells.”
Yeji’s laugh is kind of hoarse, it’s funny to listen to. Ryujin notices that she’s being offered the stool next to her and slowly complies, trying not to seem too desperate. She doesn’t know what’s gotten into her.
“It’s the coolest gift you can have,” Yeji hums into her glass, soon realising it’s obviously not full of any liquid anymore. Her face scrunches in embarrassment. The bartender’s promptly motioned over to bring two more of whatever she was drinking – one for Ryujin.
Ryujin shakes her head, “Oh, I can definitely think of a cooler one,” pointing to Yeji’s arms. Yeji laughs for a second, then flexes with a mock-serious smize. Ryujin wants to die.
“Have you seen my eMissary?” she asks, sliding her smartphone along the bar.
Ryujin inspects what just looks like a giant metal block, bringing her own up for comparison. “Why is it so thick?”
Yeji seems a bit sheepish. “Whenever I’m stressed I accidentally bend it, so I got given this ultra durable one,” she explains. The new drinks get pushed next to them and she smiles politely, raising her glass to give Ryujin cheers.
“Super strength isn’t actually that fun.”
“Could you still bend it?” Ryujin clinks the glasses together.
Yeji’s a bit cocky. “Maybe.” Ryujin tilts her head and smirks. There’s eye contact and her gaze is electric.
It’s still only the afternoon but neither one asks if the other has anywhere else to be, and they just continue drinking and talking. Three drinks in and they’ve wholeheartedly decided they must already be best friends. Ryujin figures that’s what her attraction towards Yeji was all about. And Yeji gets constant bar snacks – apparently she’s addicted to chips? Most of them just disintegrate in her hand because she’s terrifyingly strong, yet when witnessing this face of disappointment Ryujin can’t think of anything more adorable. Two drinks more – they want to play ‘never have I ever’, so they do. Their stools inch closer. They indulge in the magic of liquid confidence.
“No more, you guys,” says the bartender in response to Yeji’s next order, and their drowsy faces fall in unison. “I can’t let people get wasted before it’s even dark out.”
They’re having such a good time, and Ryujin’s scared of the sickly, self-conscious feelings she’ll get when it ends.
She doesn’t know what she’s saying. “Hwang Yeji could beat you up!” she announces.
“No, no no no no, no,” Yeji insists and pouts, crumpling herself into Ryujin’s shoulder. Her face is so small and warm. The bartender stands there unconvinced. So Ryujin does something she knows is a bit wrong.
She leans in with a mischievous smile. “Two more gin and mixers, please,” she asks, boldly gracing the guy’s knuckle. An enchantment spell is being expertly recited in her head, and with her touch his skin begins to radiate an amber glow.
The frown mystically vanishes, a garish smile in its place. “Of course, ladies.”
And he’s off like an agent to Ryujin’s command.
“Very impressive,” Yeji finally speaks after what feels like an eternity. She hasn’t stopped staring at Ryujin since it happened – those sharp eyes are blazing into the side of her face.
“And morally ambiguous.”
Ryujin turns with an amused look. She appreciates how nonchalant Yeji is. She appreciates being able to know that the state’s favourite girl - always efficient, impressive - makes a cute and floppy drunk. Instinctively Yeji picks up another chip and, of course, grinds it up by accident.
“What an aggressive power wasted on such a gentle person.” Ryujin remarks, giggling now, and the drinks are brought over just in time for the bartender to stop glowing. She knows she should be laced with guilt.
It’ll be okay. The charm was brief, and they’re not that gone.
Yeji’s trying to munch on the tiny chip crumbs and they’re all falling out of her mouth.
Maybe they are.
“Do you want to see what all the fuss is about?” Ryujin says out of the blue, and she doesn’t know why but she takes Yeji’s hands and pulls her over. It definitely wasn’t necessary in order to ask the question, but she’s starting to long for closeness every time she loses it.
“Huh?” Yeji’s eyes are so glassy. Their faces are inches away, and if she’s not mistaken, Yeji’s bringing them closer. She smells nicely feminine, a bit musky. It’s intoxicating.
“Th-those guys trying to break into that dragon tower, do you want to see it?”
Ryujin can feel a light exhaled breath on her face.
“Oh,” Yeji blinks and smiles. Ryujin knows something about the way they were looking at each other was strange. Good strange? Everything’s too blurry to tell. “Yeah, sounds like fun.”
The South Tower isn’t very far away. Yet, they’re out of breath because they keep challenging each other to races, relishing in being two drunk idiots bouncing around traffic. By the time they’ve reached it the sun is beginning to set into a deep orange. There’s still a decent crowd huddled around the gate, and Yeji is quickly spotted.
Deep voices call out her name, pleading “You try!”
Yeji’s head dips and sways as she takes in her surroundings, and Ryujin thinks that if she looks drunk to her, she must really not be with it. Her eyes are so wide and the scenery overwhelming. And it takes Ryujin a second to notice her hand has been grabbed because she’s also very drunk - it kind of throbs from the super-strength.
“You guys,” comes a soothing voice which they both tune their ears towards. Lia emerges through the mass of people, lightly stepping along the cobbles towards them.
Lia managed to sift Ryujin’s fixation on Yeji out one evening that she was sleeping round her place, and facing them now she’s got a cryptic expression. Ryujin’s smirking to counteract how much Lia is ready to drag her through the mud. Yeji’s still obliviously holding onto her.
“Just a pint, huh?” Lia queries Ryujin first with the face of a disappointed mother, but unexpectedly also jibes at Yeji, “And I thought you weren’t staying on after we left?”
“Wait, you’re friends?”
“Yeah?” Lia nods, it’s a fatal blow. Her knowing about Ryujin’s crush is now twice as cringeworthy. “You’re drunk.”
“Wha- okay,” Ryujin interjects, trying to stop her head from spinning with all of this new information, “What’s going on?”
“No one can get past the dragon. We’ve had people who can teleport, shapeshift, throw with accuracy, everything. I don’t even know why we’re doing it. I think everyone just wants to know what’s inside.”
Ryujin thinks for a moment, studying the tower. The dragon isn’t actually too large, but maybe the building’s just really small from where she’s standing. And she can’t lie to herself that she, too, would love to watch Yeji become even more of a hero.
“They want you to do it,” she turns to her, squeezing her hand tighter even if her fingers could break.
Yeji’s expression is so tender. “You come with me.”
Ryujin looks back to Lia cautiously, who just smiles and shrugs. She looks tired. As the sky darkens, people are getting more impatient to be given a good show. When they walk closer towards the tower, every pair of eyes is on them, shuffling to make way.
“It’ll be fun,” Ryujin tries to be reassuring, but it looks like Yeji doesn’t need it. All of a sudden, her grin is wide and her posture’s ready for action.
Just before the tower, there’s a chasm where it and the land they’re standing on disconnect, met only by a very weak looking bridge. Yeji runs up to approach it, and Ryujin almost calls out for her to stop, but Yeji just easily leaps across. She then throws herself across the stony accents surrounding the tower and the crowd gasps in amazement. Every landing is beautifully precise, and being tipsy only seems to be giving her added confidence. Now she’s scaling the wall. It’s so remarkable that Ryujin forgets she’s supposed to be involved in this too. Her world is still a bit fuzzy.
As Yeji clambers her way around the curves of the tower, she’s fast entering the peripheral vision of the dragon. The crowd stays silent in anticipation, and Ryujin doesn’t know how she should be cooperating. Yeji is unbelievably fearless - too fearless at the moment. There’s a wall accent just above the great beast which she grabs onto, scrambling to lift herself up.
And the dragon begins to thrash.
Ryujin’s scream is broken amongst the rest, deep with emotion. “Be careful!” She yells, threading shaking hands through her hair. Her instincts take her closer to Yeji and the terrified crowd moves off to the sides. “Wait!”
“No, Ryujin,” Yeji responds, low and bold. Her breathing is heavy, well-paced. And she takes her hands off the slab she’s precariously balancing on, slowly beginning to stand up. This and drunkenness is a horrible combination, but Ryujin can’t help but become lost in the way she’s speaking to her.
Yeji waits for Ryujin’s nod, and eventually she gets it. Then, in one brief motion, she reaches over to the thick iron chain keeping the dragon strapped to the tower and bends apart one of the gigantic links. The winged beast is unleashed, pieces of the castle crumbling behind it, charging towards the first person it sees in fiery fury – and that’s Ryujin.
Trust me, Ryujin repeats in her head whilst it seems as though her life will be taken in a matter of seconds. The screams are thundering but she isolates herself from all outside noise, focusing only on her mental repetition. The dragon’s teeth come in the hundreds, it’s breath smells of sewage – it’s close enough for her to know that now. But as Ryujin lifts her hands she’s not afraid. She’s waiting for it to touch her.
A deep scrape is put into Ryujin’s palm, but in a blinding flash of amber light, the dragon lurches back. Her eyes readjust and the sudden silence surrounding her is deafening. She cautiously steps towards the glowing creature, curling her injured hand into a fist to stop it bleeding out. The dragon’s giant beady eye blinks beneath her, and its pupils are also amber.
Almost instantaneously, its eyes shut and it begins to snore.
The crowd erupts in chants and laughter, quickly realising they can charge inside and see what the tower possesses. Ryujin lets them stream off, she couldn’t care less what they find. She just wants to give Yeji a victorious smile. The thought alone fills her stomach with butterflies.
She squints towards where she should be, but her eyes are only confronted by stone. The notices the accent which Yeji was balancing on has even fallen off the wall, probably due to the impact of the dragon stirring off and taking pieces of the tower with it. She inspects the chasm and her heart sinks, her body freezes, her mind sobers up. Somewhere, Yeji has fallen.
The lack of people surrounding her makes her world feel stiff. The sky’s growing purple and the wind is so brittle. All she can hear is a nauseous thump in her ears and the blood moving around her sinuses, all she can do is scan every inch of the cobbles and the land. She has horrendous visions of what she might come across. Jesus Christ, this whole thing was a stupid fucking idea.
She thinks it’s just her legs shaking with nerves at first, but the rocky floor beneath her begins to jitter. Day drinking, hypnotising a dragon and now a natural disaster? This day was a nightmare created just for her. She moves beyond the tremor spot, and strangely it only seems to be situated in one place. However, it’s intensifying at an alarming rate. Pieces of cobble break off into pebbles, drumming all across the pavement, and thick cracks are forming. Ryujin backs further away and kneels over to tie her shoelace – she may have to evacuate the entire tower. But as a large piece of rock is pushed to the side, a long arm emerges with it.
Yeji lifts her torso out of the hole she just made with her bare hands, pausing to check the surroundings. Her eyes widen at the sleeping dragon, and her smile is like sunlight. “Oh sick, well done Ryujin,” she mutters to herself.
Ryujin is charged with nervous energy and right now, Yeji is the most beautiful thing she’s ever seen in her life. She runs over to her, lifting her out and sweeping her into an embrace.
“Hello?” Yeji laughs the laugh that’s funny to listen to, and Ryujin wants to laugh with her, but she’s waiting for her body to exit fight or flight mode.
“I thought you were…? How are you?” She moves apart from Yeji for a moment to check her skin. She’s pretty dusty and scraped up, but virtually unscathed.
“My body can withstand impact well,” Yeji says like it’s nothing, “Part of the gift.”
Ryujin loves to be bright and friendly, but when she’s outwardly emotional she just wants to hide it. Right now, she physically cannot. The intensity of it all is making tears brim in her waterline, which Yeji notices and smooths out with her finger.
“Hey.” The touch is so soft, which makes Ryujin think.
“Are you trying really hard to be gentle?”
“No, actually,” Yeji responds. She pauses to consider it, moving her hand down Ryujin’s cheek. “I guess when I’m getting used to someone my body just knows not to crush them?”
Ryujin sniffs back her tears and laughs. Their faces are the closest they’ve ever been, and if she’s not mistaken, there’s a certain quality to Yeji’s smile that makes her feel like it’s okay to be like this. After a few moments Yeji’s smile falls and she gasps quietly, breaking apart to study her arms.
“Are you okay?”
Yeji frowns. “I just-“, then she stops herself, “Nothing.”
Ryujin tilts her head in confusion – she can also hear the rumble of those in the tower and remembers that other people exist. They’ll all be done with their fun soon enough, so they should probably sit down somewhere quieter. They walk aimlessly for a bit where they’re out of earshot, and Yeji is uncomfortably silent.
Ryujin rakes her hands through a patch of grass, bringing Yeji down to sit. She just says the first thing that comes to mind. “I don’t know about you, but that all really sobered me up.”
“When you put one of your charms on someone, they usually glow, right?” Yeji asks suddenly, looking quietly distraught. Ryujin blinks back at her. “That’s how you can tell they’re enchanted?”
Ryujin pulls the grass from the earth. She observes Yeji’s expression closely.
“When I do it, yeah. I don’t know about any other mages. Did something happen when you fell?”
“No,” Yeji’s face fluctuates between a nervous frown and a pained smile, “It sounds so stupid.” She keels over into the grass, letting out the slightest chuckle. But Ryujin’s fully prepared to listen, and she’s already gone and started it.
Ryujin’s slight smile is warm and inviting. They’ve only properly spoken for a day, so perhaps Yeji has nothing to lose.
She takes her head out of her knees, her still-sleek ponytail swinging back with it. “Just, I’m usually pretty composed and I have lots of female friends. But when I was looking at you just then - I felt different. I felt like I was looking at you like the dragon you made go drowsy on you. I thought,” she rambles, afraid to look Ryujin in the eye, “Maybe you did something to me?”
Yeji looks like she’s forgotten how to breathe, holding it all in her throat as she watches Ryujin realise what she’s saying. Ryujin’s heart is doing somersaults in her chest. She has a cheeky smile on her face. “I didn’t do anything, promise.”
She leans in for the closeness, and Yeji subconsciously leans in too, laughing as she puts their foreheads together. Looks like she’s breathing again.
“Are you still a bit drunk?” Ryujin laughs.
“Honestly, I think I may have a concussion.”
She’s seriously cute, and Ryujin thinks what the hell, letting herself run her finger along Yeji’s jaw with her good hand. It just feels right.
She kisses her and it’s easily reciprocated.
Yeji moves deeper into the kiss, turning her head naturally. Ryujin can feel her smiling as each one breaks, and she wants to see it. But they don’t break apart for long, because Yeji shuffles to be next to her and softly cups her chin. Ryujin gives into whatever Yeji wants to do – it’s her dream, after all – enjoying every millisecond as it passes. Yeji’s tongue slips into her mouth, lightly, and the kiss alternates between more heated and less so.
Yeji dances her fingers along Ryujin’s neck and pushes her into the grass, and with the pressure of her thigh - there’s the supernatural strength. Ryujin cries out.
“Oh my god, I’m so sorry,” Yeji’s face flushes the deepest crimson. The domineering coolness has melted away – she’s just sat above her, apologising profusely. Ryujin brings her hand to Yeji’s face and shuts her up.
“I wasn’t against it.”