The night is particularly inky. The sky looks like glitter covered velvet, twinkling with possibility and promise.
Hyunjin parts the willow branches. The world that unfolds in front of him is the perfect mixture of magical and terrifying, full of glowing neon and shimmering gossamer, and people of all kinds are scattered around the gently lit marketplace. Little fey lights mark paths around all the stalls, and Hyunjin has to blink to try and focus. The thin paper in his hand that holds the directions to where the stall will be tonight crinkles when his fingers twitch. He takes a deep breath and forges onward, glancing at the paper as he makes his way through the crowded marketplace.
He’s familiar with the market, has been for years, but the ever changing layout and placement of the stalls makes for a difficult time finding what he needs.
People are laughing and chatting, and he gets more than a few cheerful greetings as he passes the friendlier stall owners. He’s half distracted by the colourful stalls, covered in masks and silks and foreign crystals, among other things. Trinkets make tiny jangling sounds, music boxes play gentle melodies, and the airy music from the main square echoes around the night market.
He finds himself standing around a stall covered in flowers and gently curling vines. A boy hovers behind it, scowling lightly as plants curl around his arms and flowers materialise in his (extremely, truly very long and silky looking) hair. Golden flecks cover his cheeks delicately, giving him an ethereal look. Hyunjin is curious, but the paper in his hand reminds him that he has a reason to be in the night market.
Sparing one last glance at the pretty flower boy, Hyunjin turns away, speed walking in the right direction. Minho’s stall, tall and surrounded by the masks and glimmering scrolls that he loves to surround himself with, comes into view. Minho is tall, taller than Hyunjin, with mischievous eyes and pointy ears. Hyunjin has known him for years and likes to think that they could be considered close friends.
“Hyunjin!” Minho’s voice is loud enough to be heard but not loud enough to raise complaints from his neighbours. “Don’t tell me. Woojin needs a favour.”
Hyunjin smirks. “I won’t tell you then.”
“Why does he always send you when he needs things from me?” Minho whines. “He should ask me himself! He’s a coward.”
“He’s just busy, Minho hyung. Here’s the list of things he needs.” He hands a second piece of paper to his friend. This paper is sturdier, made more for letter writing than list making, but knowing Woojin well means that Hyunjin is aware that Woojin does things his own way.
Minho spins away to flick through his wares, leaving Hyunjin to his own devices. After a moment of rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet, freezing cold hands find a place on Hyunjin’s neck. He yelps, springing away from the culprit, rubbing his neck rapidly to get the warmth back. He can hear Felix and Jeongin laughing.
“I won’t hesitate to banish you both from this plane of existence,” Hyunjin hisses. “None of us will miss you.”
Felix pouts. “Chan would miss me.”
“Chan is an outlier and shouldn’t be counted. Please ignore his existence.” Jeongin rolls his eyes at Hyunjin’s offhand comment. The two of them are ghosts that have hung around the market for as long as Hyunjin has been visiting it – they’re both nice, if mischievous and prone to playing pranks on unsuspecting passersby. As much as Hyunjin loves to antagonise them, he’s also indescribably fond of them.
Something clatters from behind Minho’s stall, and Minho pops up, looking frazzled and mildly confused. Hyunjin blinks at him. “Don’t think about that.” Minho says, smiling winningly. Ignoring the clatter is probably for the best. “Jeonginnie, go and grab some foxtails from Taecyeon hyung, please!”
“But hyung,” Jeongin pouts, form flickering slightly. Hyunjin can just see the outlines of everything behind Jeongin, an ever present reminder that Jeongin is, well… dead. “I wanted to show Hyunjin hyung the new stall that opened tonight.”
“Hyunjin will be here for a few hours? You don’t need to show him the new stall right now . Just go visit Taecyeon hyung and get the fox tails and then show Hyunjin the new stall.” Minho has gone back to ratting around his different boxes and bags, resolutely not looking at Jeongin’s pouting. Hyunjin understands. Jeongin’s pout is lethal.
Seeing that he’s not going to win this time, Jeongin sighs and disappears. “Did you give him the money to pay for the foxtails?” Felix asks distractedly. He’s half phased through Minho’s stall, looking far over the market.
Hyunjin blinks. Woojin has a tab, and Felix knows this. In all the years that Hyunjin has been running errands at this market, he’s never had to give Felix or Jeongin money if they need to grab him something. They’ve always known that they can tell a stall owner something along the lines of for Kim Woojin and go on their way.
“There’s a tab, Felix.” Hyunjin says gently.
“Oh, you’re right.” Felix tilts his head. He promptly disappears.
Startled, Hyunjin pokes his head around to look down at Minho. “Is Felix okay?” He’s worried about the kid now, in all honesty. Minho lifts his head from where it’s tucked into a cubby hole full of scrolls.
“He’s been pretty off for two weeks. Why? Was he being weird again?”
“He… yeah.” Hyunjin frowns, perplexed. But life goes on, and so does Hyunjin, so he continues his errand. “Anyway. How’s the list going?”
When the willow branches part, the smell of sweet vanilla and tangy ginger hits Hyunjin like a truck. The night market is buzzing like usual - kids yelling and lights shimmering, noises echoing from all over the meadow. Hyunjin has no reason to be here tonight, no errands to run, but he’s been thinking about the market all week. It pulls like a magnet.
The first stall he passes is lit with fluttering fireflies, glowing gently and giving just enough light to make the sweets visible. Pastries the colour of fresh pink roses, spun sugar thin like spiderwebs, cakes in the shapes of stars and moons - Hyunjin is oh so tempted to buy one of everything, but holds himself back and only buys enough to feed Minho and the kids. As he pays and begins to walk away, one of the fireflies weaves into his line of sight. He can’t help but smile at the creature, fond of the comforting golden glow that they give off.
Under his feet, the grass is soft and lush. He’d long since abandoned wearing shoes to the markets - the grass just always looked so inviting, so impossibly green and plush that he had to take his sneakers off. He hasn’t worn shoes to the market since that first time. It’s far from odd to not wear shoes here; Hyunjin has seen countless barefoot people roaming the markets over the years.
Resisting the urge to stop by any other stalls is hard as per usual, but Hyunjin manages to make it to Minho’s stall without spending any money, which is a feat in and of itself.
“Hey,” He slips around the stall to be on the same side as Minho. “I have snacks.”
“Snacks?” The look on Minho’s face is comical, almost. His eyes are super wide, grin stretched as far as possible. When he sees the look on Hyunjin’s face, though, he drops it. He smiles his usual serene smile. “What have you got for me?”
Hyunjin hums. “That depends. What have you got for me in return?” He doesn’t actually want anything in return, and he knows Minho is aware of this, but it’s his way of asking if Minho has any of the things he asked for the last time he was here.
Tutting, Minho turns to one of the cubbies that’s built into his stall. They each contain pocket dimensions, full of shelves and boxes of everything Minho could ever need to sell. Hyunjin had helped him enchant them a few years ago.
When Minho’s hand retreats from the cubby, a small lacquered box is sitting snugly in the palm of his hand. “Do you know what Woojin is planning to do with these? It took me a lot of haggling to get them,” He glares the the box. “I never want to see another kitsune again.”
Hyunjin snickers, knowing how tricky and mischievous the fox spirits can be. One of the requests Woojin had made was 6 whole bricks of aburage, from the North. Clearly Minho struggled to get his hands on that, if his distasteful look is anything to go by. “I don’t know his plans,” Hyunjin shrugs. “Could be anything.”
He does actually know what Woojin wants to do with tofu - he’s planning to woo some fox spirit with the food, but Minho doesn’t need to know that.
Absently, Hyunjin glances at the stall that he saw the week previous, the one covered in flowers and vines. The same boy floats behind the counter, hair still entangled with sprigs of baby’s breath and small rosebuds.
“Hyung,” Minho stops glaring at the box to look up at Hyunjin. “Who’s that new stallowner over there?”
“Oh, the flower boy? No one really knows. He just showed up last week. I don’t think anyone even knows his name.” He flicks lint off his flowy shirt. It’s startlingly sheer, Hyunjin notes. He decides not to dwell on it, lest he feel out of place in his threadbare t-shirt and shorts.
It doesn’t normally take more than a few hours for everyone at the markets to meet and get to know at least the name of new stall-owners. For this new boy to evade the nosiness of the markets is remarkable in Hyunjin’s humble opinion. He kind of wants to be the first person to get to know him - wants to know how he managed to get the other stall-owners to leave him alone.
He remembers that Jeongin had wanted to show him the stall last week, but Hyunjin had to leave before Jeongin could. “Is Jeongin around?” He asks Minho.
“I saw him over at Lee Daehwi and Choi Bomin’s stall, when I went to get some dragon horn for one of the Chinese groups I cater for. Why?”
Hyunjin shrugs. Minho glares at him, but Hyunjin is used to that, so he just slips away from Minho’s stall and heads towards where Minho directed him. Lee Daehwi and Choi Bomin run a small potions stall - mostly basic potions, given the fact that they’re both freshly graduated highschool students - and who were friends with Jeongin when he was alive.
The ghost spends a lot of time haunting their stall. Hyunjin supposes it’s probably nice to have that familiarity of people he grew up with. Jeongin is perched on the bench, waving his hands around. They pass through things with ease, incorporeality lending him a hand.
Hyunjin pushes though the crowd in front of the stall, hands securely around the bag of snacks. “Fools,” Hyunjin pushes the bag over the counter. “Feast upon my kindness.”
Daehwi and Jeongin squint at the paper bag, suspicious. Bomin shrugs and opens it, pulling out a sweet pastry and taking a small bite. Watching the juniors eat pleases Hyunjin. There’s something about providing for them that makes him feel good.
“Does this make you our sugar daddy?” Jeongin smirks at Hyunjin. He takes back what he said about feeling good. He hates Jeongin, and is disowning him.
“No, never say that to me ever again or I will exorcise you.” His eyes catch on a stall a little bit away. He leans towards it, just as enraptured as he was last time he saw it. Vines and flowers continue to wrap their way around the stall, delicate pressed flowers and fresh bouquets sitting on the bench. “I’ll see you three later.” Hyunjin doesn’t bother waiting for a response before drifting towards the captivating stall.
As he steps closer, the sweet and earthy scent makes his heart feel at ease. There’s something about this stall that brings some kind of peace to Hyunjin, settling deep in his bones.
The boy behind the stall looks just as otherworldly as Hyunjin remembers. Instead of scowling, his face is concentrated as he hovers over a half-made bouquet. In his hands, he holds various small flowers, comparing them to the bouquet.
He doesn’t want to look creepy by staring, so Hyunjin decides instead to inspect the dried flowers that are stored beneath thin glass. He suspects that they’re charmed, or at least some of them are. They have traces of magic on them, though that could very well be part of the preservation technique the stall owner has used.
“Can I help you?” The voice startles Hyunjin from his concentration, making him jump and knock into someone behind him. Hyunjin is surprised by the cadence of his voice; it’s quieter than he expected, and a bit higher, feeling like a stream in the middle of a field.
“Ah,” Hyunjin scratches the back of his neck. “I was just looking. Are these charmed?” He gestures to the pressed flowers. The quietly commanding presence of the boy is almost enough to make Hyunjin want to politely excuse himself and go scream in Minho’s face, but he holds steady.
“Yes.” Simple, succinct. The fey lights around the stall catch on the ornaments tucked in his hair. Hyunjin notices little braids trailing into his half up-do and almost dies on the spot. “Protection, luck, wisdom, spirit-seeing, summoning. Almost anything you can think of, I can charm it into a flower.” He clearly isn’t bragging - just stating facts. Hyunjin thinks that if he were in the same position, he’d let himself get away with a little bragging.
Hyunjin hums. “They’re really pretty.” He wants to call the boy pretty, honestly, but refrains. His ears heat up at the thought.
“Thank you,” The boy smiles, and Hyunjin makes a sound like a very sad animal being left alone. The smile changes the boys face completely - his eyes brighten, his cheeks become softer, and he looks like a dream. “Is there any you might want?”
“Are there any… you would recommend?”
He looks at Hyunjin with narrowed eyes for a moment. The attention makes him squirm. After a moment, he slides the flowers out of their protective case and picks up a shimmering blue flower. A vine curls away from the stall and gently tugs Hyunjin closer.
The boy tucks the flower into Hyunjin’s hair, touch light as a feather. “There,” He says, taking his hands away and putting the flowers back. “A protective charm.”
Hyunjin scrambles to get his coins out, but before he can, the vine pushes it back into his pocket. “No payment needed. Consider it a gift.”
A flush covers Hyunjin’s cheeks, unbidden. “Thank you.” He shuffles a little. “Hwang Hyunjin, at your service. I run errands for some people around here.”
“Seo Changbin.” When he tilts his head, his hair falls like a curtain. Hyunjin really does feel like the air has been stolen from his lungs. Someone new comes to the stall, peering at the bouquets. Changbin glances at them before nodding at Hyunjin. “Come back soon, Hwang Hyunjin.”
It’s safe to say that Hyunjin spends the rest of the evening in a daze, mind not straying far from the whole interaction with Changbin.
He’s definitely going to be back.