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there's a demon in my home (and it's here to stay)

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Yeji stares down at the viscous purple liquid in her cauldron. It bubbles rather ominously in response, little golden sparks arcing chaotically across its surface, as if taunting her. 

“I don’t think it’s supposed to look like this,” she says to Chaeryeong doubtfully. 

“I don’t think so, either.” Chaeryeong peers at her cauldron, one eyebrow raised. “What did you do?

“Nothing!” Yeji protests, waving her hands around and nearly knocking a jar of frog legs off their shared table. “I followed the recipe this time!”

“Did you stir five times clockwise and then six times counter-clockwise after adding the juniper berries—”

“Yes,” Yeji huffs. Thick clouds of steam are starting to puff from the mixture brewing in her cauldron, clouding her vision and making strands of hair stick to her forehead. “I followed the recipe, I told you.”

“What you didn’t do,” comes a voice from behind her, and Yeji stiffens, her hand tightening around the rim of her cauldron, “was add the frost salts before you started stirring.”

Yeji takes a deep, steadying breath, tries to look as dignified as she can with steam billowing in her face, and turns to face her classmate. 

Shin Ryujin is standing behind her with the most infuriating smirk on her face, eyeing her cauldron, judgement in her quirked eyebrow. “You sure you followed the recipe?”

Yeji grits her teeth. “I did. It doesn’t say anywhere that you need to add frost salts.”

Ryujin makes a little tutting noise and points to the bottom of her textbook. “What do you think this says?”

With a small, sinking feeling, Yeji reads the text just above her finger. It’s preceded by an asterisk and says in small, italicised print, each time before stirring, be sure to add a pinch of frost salts, or risk the potion overheating—

“Oh,” Yeji says, feeling stupid. She looks up in time to catch another of Ryujin’s smirks, and her embarrassment morphs into indignant defensiveness. “Why would they put that at the end of the recipe?”

“Do you not know how to follow asterisks?” Ryujin counters, pointing to another spot on the page. Sure enough, the first instruction to stir is marked with a little asterisk.

“Sorry, Yeji,” Chaeryeong pipes up apologetically from beside her. “I thought you knew.”

“I mean, Professor Bae reminded us at the start of the lesson. It’s not our fault you didn’t listen,” Ryujin says.

Yeji stares down at her ruined potion hopelessly, which has started frothing violently at the edges. “Well,” she says, and digs her hand into the bowl of frost salts, the crystals prickling painfully at her fingers. “Better late than never?” 

“No!” A hand shoots out and grabs her wrist, nearly dislodging the salts in her fist. 

“Why not?” Yeji tries to tug her wrist from Ryujin’s fingers, but her grip is firm, unyielding. 

“Don’t you know what happens if you add frost salts to an overheating potion?”

“It cools down?” Yeji says. 

“It’s going to explode,” Ryujin tells her exasperatedly. “I knew you were bad at potion-making, Hwang, but I didn’t know you were this bad.”

“How do I know you’re not lying because you want to see me flunk?” Yeji demands. 

Ryujin casts her a look of affronted disbelief, and her fingers slip from Yeji’s wrist. “Okay. Go ahead, then. Prove me wrong.”

Yeji blinks, then looks at Chaeryeong for help, but her friend just shrugs helplessly. “I’m not that good at potion-making, either. Don’t look at me. Ryujin’s the one topping this class.”

“But she could be lying.”

“Why would I lie?” Ryujin says from behind her. 

“If my grade in potion-making drops any lower, I’ll lose the first place in our year to you, won’t I?”

Ryujin rolls her eyes. “Then drop the salts in. See if I care.”

She walks away, back to her desk, where (Yeji is dismayed to see) her own potion has achieved a shimmering lavender hue matching the one in the textbook. She can already see Professor Bae approaching Ryujin’s cauldron, a pleased smile on her face. 

Yeji turns back to the angry-looking sludgy mess in her own cauldron. 

“Well?” asks Chaeryeong, with some trepidation. “Are you going to add it in?”

Yeji thinks of the delighted smirk on Ryujin’s face at her blunder, the agitated way she’d grabbed her wrist. 

She drops the fistful of frost salts into her cauldron.

 


 

“It doesn’t look that bad.”

“My hair is purple, Chaeryeong,” Yeji says in despair. “And my clothes. And basically my entire body!”

Chaeryeong looks at her, then hesitates, as if she can’t decide whether to be nice or honest. “It’s a unique shade of purple,” she admits. 

Yeji just groans.

“We should probably have asked Professor Bae before doing it,” Chaeryeong says.

“Yeah, but—” It would mean admitting she needed help in a class Ryujin was acing. Which would mean Shin Ryujin was better than her. Yeji sighs. “I can’t stand her.”

“She did try to tell you,” Chaeryeong says dryly, not even bothering to ask who she was referring to. At Yeji’s obstinate look, she continues, “I don’t understand why you two are always like this. I mean, you’re neck and neck for first place in our year, but you don’t have to act like you're at war with each other.”

“She started it today,” Yeji mumbles. “She didn’t need to make fun of my potion.”

“Just ignore her,” Chaeryeong tells her. “She was probably being petty because you were the only one in the class who was able to bottle lightning the other day.”

Yeji brightens at the memory, grinning, but it slips off her face as the classroom door opens and Professor Bae steps out. “Yeji?”

“Sorry, Professor,” Yeji says timidly. Her teacher just eyes her, mouth quirking at the corners. 

“It’s very hard to take you seriously when you’re purple, you know.”

Yeji wants to shrivel up in embarrassment. “I know.”

“Here.” Professor Bae taps her head twice with her index finger, mutters something rapid under her breath Yeji can’t quite catch, and suddenly she’s back to normal. 

“Thank you,” Yeji breathes.

“You’re welcome,” Professor Bae says. “Your hair still has a bit of purple, but it’ll wash out over time.”

“Thank you,” Yeji says again. 

She nods. “Off you go to your next class.”

As Yeji turns to leave, Professor Bae calls after her. “Oh, and Yeji?”

Yeji turns, and meets twinkling eyes and an amused smile. “At least follow the instructions in the book properly if you aren’t going to listen to me at the start of class.”

“Yes, Professor,” she says meekly, while Chaeryeong stifles her laughter next to her. 

 


 

A week later, in one of their classes, Yeji stares critically at her reflection in a hand mirror, frowning, twisting this way and that. Her irises are a piercing yellow, instead of their usual dark brown. “I think I did it.”

“Did I do it?” Chaeryeong squints at her. One of her eyes, eyeball and pupil and all, has turned a deep magenta. Yeji flinches back in her seat. 

“Um…no.” She holds up the mirror so Chaeryeong can see herself, and Chaeryeong lets out a little shriek of alarm, waving her hand and reciting the spell on the chalkboard to recover her original appearance. 

“How did you do it?” Chaeryeong demands, as her eye colour returns to normal. 

“I don’t know,” Yeji says honestly, “I just did.”

Alteration spells have always been her strong suit along with Elemental spells (like bottling lightning) but Yeji wasn’t expecting to succeed so quickly; Professor Kang did warn them that the spell to change their iris colour would be a particularly tricky one, and that she wasn’t expecting them to get it right on their first try. A casual glance around the room confirms what Yeji was hoping: she's the first and only one to get the spell right. Some of the students are doubled over in laughter, pointing and shrieking at their partners’ transformations gone awry, while the others gape in horror at their own reflections in the issued hand mirrors. 

Furtively, Yeji sneaks a peek at the desk across from her, only to find Ryujin already staring back at her, brow furrowed in consternation. Both her pupils are a brilliant emerald green, her irises still dark brown. Yeji coughs into her hand. 

“What,” Ryujin hisses. 

“Nothing,” Yeji says brightly. “Was that the look you were going for?”

“Shut up,” Ryujin tells her. Yeji mimes zipping her mouth, and turns back to the front of the class, still smiling. 

A few minutes later, she hears a voice to her right, tone grudging. “How did you do it.”

“I don’t know,” Yeji says. At Ryujin’s look of annoyance, she shrugs. “I really don’t. I just followed the spell and the hand movement and imagined what I wanted in my mind.”

Ryujin peers at her suspiciously, but recites the incantation again anyway, flicking her wrist as Professor Kang showed them earlier. 

“Your wrist movement is too forceful,” Yeji points out. “Flick gently. Slower.”

“I am flicking gently,” Ryujin argues, doing it again. 

“No, like—” Yeji reaches out unthinkingly to guide her, before she catches herself, blinking. “Um.” Her hand hovers awkwardly in mid-air by Ryujin’s wrist, and Ryujin looks at her, an eyebrow arched. 

“Just do it like this,” Yeji says, a little flustered, demonstrating the hand movement, before Ryujin can say anything.

"That's what I'm doing." Ryujin rolls her eyes, recites the spell, and drags her hand through the air in exaggerated imitation of Yeji's.

Yeji's eyes widen. "Wait, no, you're doing it wrong—"

But Ryujin has already dropped her hand into her lap, blinking rapidly as the transformation takes hold. Yeji can only watch with a mixture of dread and curiosity as Ryujin looks up at her, eyes squeezed shut, looking a little dazed. The sight is oddly endearing. Or it would’ve been, if she could stand the sight of Ryujin. Which she can’t.

Ryujin opens her eyes and squints at her, and Yeji does a double take, coughing into her hand. Ryujin keeps staring at her expectantly, and Yeji realises she's waiting for her to say something.

"Did it work?" Ryujin asks, still looking a little disoriented. Professor Kang had warned them that first-time transformations might be accompanied by some nausea. "Do I look different?"

"Your eyeballs are green," Yeji informs her.

Ryujin swears under her breath as Yeji turns back to face the front of the class, struggling to keep a straight face.

 


 

"If you didn't successfully change your iris colour today, don't be discouraged." Professor Kang beams at them from the front of the class. "We'll work on it more this Friday. The goal is for all of you to eventually be able to shapeshift."

Murmurs run through the students in the classroom; Yeji can tell everyone's curiosity is sufficiently piqued, even at the end of a long school day. Professor Kang smiles indulgently at them.

"Yes, you heard me right. You're in your third year, and shapeshifting is part of the curriculum. It's a handy way for a witch to get around without being noticed."

A hand shoots up. "Why can't we learn shapeshifting now?"

"Ah, but most of you couldn't even change the colour of your iris today," Professor Kang reminds them. Her gaze lands on Yeji, and her smile widens. "Well done, Yeji, by the way. I think you were the only one who managed to."

Yeji can practically hear the eye roll coming from Ryujin across the classroom, but she smiles blithely back at Professor Kang, unaffected.

Another hand goes up. "Do we get to choose what we shapeshift into?"

"You don't," Miss Kang answers. "Your animal form chooses you."

Yeji wonders what her animal form would be. Maybe something like a cat or a fox, since people were always likening her eyes to theirs. She doubts it has very much to do with aesthetics, though. (As long as it isn't something embarrassing, she thinks she'd be fine.)

"I have to emphasise—" Professor Kang's normally smiling face turns grave, and the hushed conversations among the students about shapeshifting and animal forms and whatnot cease immediately "—that none of you should attempt shapeshifting until we reach it in the syllabus. It's very, very complicated magic, and can have serious repercussions if done wrong. Students who attempt it prematurely will risk expulsion. Is everyone clear?"

Around her, students are nodding, Yeji included. She doesn't want to mess with magic beyond her ability, particularly spells that would essentially tamper with her body. Professor Kang smiles, pleased. "Good."

The bell rings, and everyone's chairs scrape back. "If anyone is interested in reading up on shapeshifting, I'll be sending out a list of books you can find in the library later!" Professor Kang calls out over the din.

Yeji sweeps her books into her bag and follows Chaeryeong out the door. As she passes Ryujin, she hesitates a little, but she remembers the Purple Incident of the week before and is ultimately unable to resist a parting jibe. 

"Maybe you should take a closer look at that list," she tells Ryujin, whose eyes narrow, "since it looks like you need it."

She's out the door before Ryujin can retaliate, giddy in the face of her victory.

 


 

"So, for those of you who didn't manage to change the colour of your iris yesterday, please work on that today," Professor Kang announces. "Yeji, come up to my desk when you're ready and I'll let you get started on the next step."

Yeji nods in response. Before she can stand, Chaeryeong nudges her. "Your favourite classmate is absent today."

"Ew." Yeji wrinkles her nose. "I don't care."

She lets herself silently admit it is somewhat of a pity Ryujin isn't in class today; Yeji would've liked another opportunity to lord her grasp of Alteration spells over her normally cocky rival.

"Her seatmate is gone, too," Chaeryeong muses. "Jisu. I wonder why they're both absent. They're friends, aren't they?"

Yeji sees an opening to redirect the conversation away from her and pounces. "Ah, so that's why you're wondering why they're not here. You just want to see your crush."

"She's not my crush!" Chaeryeong smacks her on the thigh. "I said she was pretty one time—"

"Would you look at that, I think Professor Kang is calling me," Yeji says brightly. "Bye!"

"She's not even looking at you— Yeji! "

 


 

Ryujin doesn't show up in class for the next few days. Yeji would be lying if she said she weren't at least a little curious about her absence. Jisu, however, does show up in class on Monday, looking uncharacteristically harried, dark shadows under her eyes, a jarring contrast to her normally immaculate appearance.

Yeji looks at Chaeryeong, who jerks her head away like she hasn't been peeking at Jisu the entire time.

"What," Chaeryeong says, too casually.

"Go ask her what's wrong." Yeji prods her lightly.

"Maybe nothing's wrong. Maybe she's just recovering from something."

"It's a little weird that Ryujin hasn't shown up in class yet. She hasn't missed a day since the start of the semester," Yeji counters. "Something's up. Go ask her."

"You ask her," Chaeryeong mumbles, her cheeks pink.

"I can't ask her," Yeji says. "She thinks Ryujin and I hate each other."

"Mm," Chaeryeong says, "I wonder why."

Yeji sits back in her chair and gives up. "I guess no one is asking her what's wrong, then."

 


 

When Yeji sticks her keys into the keyhole of her dorm room at the end of the day, she hears an odd scuffling noise coming from the end of the hallway, followed by something resembling a mewl. Yeji's brow furrows in confusion, then concern, as she hears a distinct yowl, followed by gleeful laughter.

It sounds uncannily like Hyunwoo, resident troublemaker of their year. And when Hyunwoo is laughing like that, Yeji is sure no good can follow.

She shoves her keys back in her pocket and hurries towards the end of the hallway, only to see Hyunwoo wielding a tree branch, backing a terrified-looking, bedraggled black cat into a corner. Yeji tries to think fast.

"If that's someone's, you're in trouble," she says lightly.

"There's no collar," Hyunwoo sneers. "And look at how dirty it is. It's a stray."

"Some of the professors don't put collars on their familiars." 

Most of the professors, as full-fledged witches, have familiars. Professor Kang has brought her own, a plump little bear cub, to class on more than one occasion to "assist with teaching", as she puts it. Granted, her familiar doesn't do much else besides bumble around on its hind legs and blink at them as they practice Alteration spells, but Yeji likes to think it provides moral support.

Hyunwoo's eyes narrow beadily at her as he mulls her words over. "So what if it belongs to a professor," he says. "They won't know it's me, will they? Unless you snitch."

"I don't have to," Yeji says. "The familiar will."

He scoffs, taking a menacing step towards the cat huddled in the corner. It hisses in response, paws braced against the linoleum, but Yeji can see its hind legs are shaking faintly. She grits her teeth. Her right hand twitches instinctively by her side. Hyunwoo notices.

"You going to hex me, Hwang?" he taunts. "You aren't exactly the best at magical combat, everyone knows that."

"I'm better than you." Yeji raises an eyebrow. "And you know familiars have powers too, right?"

Hyunwoo stops in his tracks and scowls, as if it's just occurred to him. "It would've done something by now."

Yeji shrugs as nonchalantly as she can. "Spells don't always immediately take effect, you know."

"Of course I know that," he snaps. His gaze jumps between her and the cat, wary. Yeji can practically see the gears turn under his greasy shock of hair. "You don't even know if it's a familiar."

Yeji shrugs again. "It's your funeral."

For a few nerve-wracking seconds, Hyunwoo holds her gaze, his eyes bright and suspicious, and Yeji's hand tenses by her side as she does a quick mental checklist of all the defensive spells in her arsenal. Then, he carelessly throws the branch in his hands down. 

"Whatever," he mutters. "This is stupid. It's not worth the trouble."

He stalks away, shoving past her shoulder in the process. Yeji ignores him, exhaling softly in relief, and waits after his hulking figure has disappeared around the corner at the end of the corridor before tentatively approaching the little black cat. It watches her, green eyes following her every moment, cagey and distrustful.

"Hey," Yeji says softly, crouching, making sure to keep some distance between her and the scared animal. "I'm sorry for what he did to you."

Unlike what she told Hyunwoo, she knows it isn't a familiar, so it probably doesn't understand what she's saying; any familiar trained by a professor would've long defended themselves by now. She settles herself on the floor cross-legged and continues talking to it nonetheless, speaking in low, soothing tones, until the cat relaxes ever so slightly from its rigid posture against the wall.

Yeji gives it a brief once-over. Its fur is matted with grime, sticking up in all directions, and it looks like it hasn't eaten in days. A closer look at the peculiar way the cat is poised on the ground tells her that one of its paws is bleeding a little. She clicks her tongue sympathetically.

"Come with me back to my room," she tells it. "I'll take care of you."

The cat tenses again, backing away, distrust in its green eyes. Yeji blinks. It's almost as if it understood her.

"You aren't one of the professors' familiars...right?" she says uncertainly.

She receives a blank look in return. "I thought not. Anyway, you should come with me. You look like you could use some cleaning up."

It might just be a figment of her imagination, but she thinks the cat might be glaring at her. "I have food?" Yeji wheedles, even though she knows it can't understand her.

The cat cocks its head at her.

Yeji stands slowly, trying to test her luck. "Come on," she says, "my room's just over there."

She walks a few steps, then turns around tentatively. The cat has moved out of the corner, but hasn't followed her.

"C'mon," Yeji coaxes, "I promise I'll take care of you—oh..." She trails off, realising the problem. The cat is limping awkwardly, leaning heavily on its uninjured paws. She walks back to it, crouching down. "Is it alright if I carry you?" she asks gently, reaching out, her movements slow, deliberate.

The cat doesn't show any obvious signs of disapproval, so Yeji scoops it up carefully into her arms, taking care to mind its injured paw.

"There. That wasn't so bad, was it?" She smiles brightly.

The cat stares, then hisses lightly.

Yeji stops smiling and speed walks to her room before she can push her luck any further.

 


 

"So where'd you find it?" Yuna asks, tipping a can of cat food into a bowl.

"In the little nook at the end of the hallway. Hyunwoo was bullying it."

"Ugh." They share a look of distaste. "Of course he was."

After entering her room and setting the cat carefully down onto her bedroom floor, Yeji had called Yuna, a friend in the year below her, in a panic, realising she didn't know the first thing about handling cats. Sweet, wonderful Yuna, who had grown up around cats all her life, had come to her room armed to the teeth with cat food and bathing things.

"Thank the gods you're a cat person," Yeji says fervently, as Yuna tosses the empty can into the trash.

Her friend beams at her in response. "I brought wet food instead of dry food just in case your kitty is dehydrated."

"Uh-huh," Yeji says, pretending to understand. She doesn't even know what dry food is. "I wonder why it's so scruffy. The stray cats here normally know how to take care of themselves."

"It might've been Hyunwoo," Yuna says, and Yeji feels a shiver run through her at the thought, remembering the gnarled tree branch in his hand.

"Right—before it eats, its paw..."

"Yeah, you said." Yuna makes a sympathetic noise, crouching down. "Can I see, kitty?"

Yeji looks on anxiously as Yuna squints at the cat's paw. "It looks like there's something stuck in there. I brought an antiseptic 'cause you said it was hurt, but—" she looks at Yeji worriedly "—do you have tweezers?"

"Yeah, for like, my eyebrows."

"Anything works."

Yeji fetches it from the bathroom (after scrubbing it clean with a generous mix of soap, water, and Yuna's antiseptic), and returns to see Yuna and the cat staring each other down. "Should I leave you two alone?"

"It hasn't touched the food," Yuna says, "it's weird. Every cat I know has gone crazy over this."

"Maybe it's in too much pain?"

"Maybe. Here, I'll hold it while you take the thing out."

"Me?" Yeji squeaks.

"Yes, you." Yuna pokes her. "Hurry up, I have class in fifteen minutes."

Nervously, Yeji holds the tweezers out. The cat hisses, struggling in Yuna's hold, little paws scrabbling against the floor. "Hey," she tries to soothe, "It's okay, it's okay. I'm sorry. I just have to get whatever's in your paw out, and then you can eat. Is that okay?"

The cat casts her a look of utter disapproval, but stills in Yuna's hands.

"Okay," Yeji breathes, moving closer with the tweezers. "Here goes."

She plucks the thing sticking out of the cat's paw before she can chicken out any further. The cat flinches, but stays otherwise motionless, looking quietly at Yeji as she examines the little thorn caught between her tweezers.

"I know where these came from," Yeji says, frowning as she tries to remember, "it looks like one of the thorns from the barberry bushes that grow over by the library."

"Nah, it can't be," Yuna says. "How did it get all the way over to the dorms from the library with that stuck in her paw?"

"It is," Yeji insists. "We had a class last year where we had to collect some of them for a potion, and there's only one spot on campus where they grow."

She doesn't mention to Yuna that that day was only memorable because she and Ryujin had tried, like they always tended to do, to make ingredient collecting into a competition. All the good thorns within arm's reach that were long enough to be deemed fit for the potion had already been taken by previous classes or other classmates. Yeji had won in the end, using her taller height to her advantage, smiling winningly at a scowling Ryujin as she snipped thorns off from the higher branches with ease.

Later, before leaving the library with her basketful of thorns, Yeji had watched Ryujin teeter dangerously close to the spiky bushes, trying to get the remaining thorns. She might or might not have felt a little bad and secretly tossed a few spare thorns into Ryujin's basket (honestly, she had only cut that many from the higher branches just to show Ryujin that she could), but that was something no one needed to know.

"Poor kitty." Yuna pouts, scratching the cat's head. "Let's get that wound disinfected, yeah?"

 


 

Some time later, after Yuna leaves for class, Yeji finds herself standing in her bathroom, Yuna's bottle of cat shampoo clutched in her hand, staring helplessly at the cat in her bathroom sink.

"Okay," she says to herself. "One hand holding the cat, the other washing and soaping it. It's fine. This is fine."

The cat eyes her, whiskers twitching, and then turns around and jerks the tap upwards with its nose, so that water cascades down onto its dirt-caked back.

"What the hell, " Yeji says, jaw dropping. She nearly drops the bottle of shampoo in her hand, but manages to catch it at the last second. The cat ignores her, using its nose to nudge the tap to the left to get the warmer water. Yeji fumbles for her phone on the counter.

 

 

yeji

YUNA

???????

yuna bb

??

yeji

THE CAT TURNED ON THE WATER BY ITSELF?

yuna bb

oh yeah

i've seen the smarter ones do stuff like that before

yeji

yeah but

it also like...pushed it to the warmer end?

is that normal cat behaviour 🥴

yuna bb

it might've seen people do it before and just copied them

it is a little weird though i've never seen a cat who willingly gets wet

also

stop freaking out and start bathing it isnt your tap running

 

 

Yeji looks up in alarm, but the cat is just sitting peacefully under the running water, eyes closed in contentment. She slowly approaches it. 

"I'm going to help you get clean again," she says hesitantly, "is that okay?"

The cat cracks one eye open, looking at her. Yeji reaches out slowly. The cat glares, baring its teeth. Yeji backs away.

"You can't wash yourself, you know," she tells her. The cat arches its back purposefully, letting the steady stream of water trickle down its fur, as if to say, yes, I can.

"It'll feel better if I do it," Yeji says, then feels stupid. She's standing in her bathroom trying to reason with a cat. Not even a familiar. Just a regular cat.

Said cat eyes her warily, but lets Yeji put a careful hand onto its back. "Okay," Yeji whispers. "Please don't bite me."

Slowly, she rubs the water into the cat's fur, gradually rinsing the dirt and grime away. She cups a bit of water in the palm of her hand and uses it to wash its face, avoiding its eyes, just as Yuna told her to do.

Out of the blue, fast as lightning, the cat opens its mouth and its teeth clamp down onto Yeji's finger.

"Ow," Yeji says, more surprised than anything. The cat's mouth is surprisingly gentle, and its teeth haven't pierced Yeji's skin; they just keep her finger in place. Yeji looks at the cat apologetically. "Did I do something wrong?"

The cat's eyes glint up at her mischievously. Yeji exhales a relieved laugh, understanding. "Okay, okay."

She gently extricates her finger from the cat's mouth and turns off the tap, squirts a generous amount of shampoo into her palm, and massages it into its fur in slow circles. The cat arches into her touch, grudgingly pleased, a rumbling noise coming from deep within its body, vibrating against her fingers. It takes Yeji a second to realise—

"You're purring," Yeji says in wonder.

The cat stops immediately, blinking balefully up at her.

"You are, " Yeji says, delighted.

The cat turns its head away from her haughtily, even as it continues to let Yeji lather the soap into its fur.

"There we go," Yeji whispers softly. "You know, you're kind of cute when you aren't all grumpy."

The cat's tail thwacks against her arm with all the consistency of a limp noodle, soaking wet and reproaching.

Yeji supposes she deserved that one.

 


 

With some difficulty, Yeji manages to finish towelling the cat dry—well-fed and no longer hampered by the thorn in its paw, it refuses to sit still for even a second, despite Yeji's pleas. At one point, she makes a wild grab for it, attempting to hold it in place so she can properly dry it off, but the cat wriggles from her grasp easily, eyes defiant.

"Please," Yeji says exasperatedly. "You're going to catch a cold."

The cat just rubs against her ankles, whiskers twitching.

After a while, she gives up, resigns herself to watching the cat track damp pawprints all over her bedroom floor, and thinks about the possibility that she's let a demon into her house. Or some other impish spirit. She's heard those can take the form of animals, sometimes.

Now that the cat is fresh from the little bath she was given, she can see what it actually looks like. It's a pretty cat; Yeji couldn't see it before past the caked blood and grime on its fur, but the cat sports a brilliant midnight-black coat, save for its paws, white as snow and impossibly round. Like little socks, Yeji thinks. She's unable to stop herself from tentatively reaching out and touching one.

The cat looks at her and sinks its claws into her hand. Yeji retracts her hand apologetically, wincing.

"Sorry."

 


 

"You can sleep up here on the bed with me, you know."

Emerald eyes glare at her from where the little black cat is huddled in the corner.

"I don't bite," Yeji says petulantly. She's grown up around dogs all her life, and she's used to her two excitable poodles who aren't stingy with their affection in the slightest; she's not used to being rejected by an animal with a frequency that's almost embarrassing. She wonders briefly if this cat is particularly distrustful towards humans because it's encountered one too many like Hyunwoo, or whether it's just because cats are more introverted. Or maybe it's just that it doesn't like Yeji.

"Suit yourself," Yeji calls out towards the jet-black shadow curled up in the corner. "I'm just telling you the floor gets a little cold during the night."

With that, she slips under her covers and goes to sleep.

 


 

In the morning, she wakes up to a little ball of fur nestled just under her blanket, perched precariously right at the edge of her bed.

She grins to herself, pleased.

 


 

"So you have a cat now?" Chaeryeong whispers to her, while their potions bubble in the cauldrons before them.

"I don't know," Yeji says, trying to concentrate on the beehive husk she's shaving pieces off of. "I couldn't just leave it there."

"I know, but are you going to keep it?"

"I don't know," she says again. "It can stay for as long as it wants, I guess. I'm not going to chase it away."

She empties the bowl of husks into her potion. It froths a little, spitting out little sparks that skitter across its surface, before settling into a pleasant silvery hue.

"A perfect Calming Draught," Professor Bae announces, peering over her shoulder. Yeji jumps. "Well done, Yeji." Lowering her voice so that only Yeji can hear, she says, "A marked improvement from the explosion you caused last class. Good to know you do listen to my instructions every now and then."

She walks away, leaving Yeji blushing. "I deserved that."

"Yeah. But hey, a perfect potion's a perfect potion." Chaeryeong glances furtively at the table where Ryujin and Jisu usually sit, where Jisu now sits alone, looking tired and troubled. "Pity your favourite classmate isn't around to see it."

"She's not my favourite classmate," Yeji says automatically, spooning some of the potion into a little bottle to submit to Professor Bae. Chaeryeong's right, though; it is a little frustrating that the only time she's made a perfect potion is when Ryujin isn't around. She knows Ryujin would be annoyed at her perfect score in a class she's always beaten her in.

"—Yeji."

"Huh?" Yeji blinks.

"Your bottle's full," Chaeryeong says pointedly.

"Oh," Yeji says helplessly, watching as some of the mixture sloshes over the rim of the bottle and splashes to the ground. "Oops?"

 


 

Yeji opens her door and is greeted by silence.

"Hello?" she says tentatively.

A jet-black blur shoots past her ankles and out into the hallway. Yeji startles, nearly dropping everything she's carrying. "Hey!"

The cat turns the corner before she can react. She can only look after it in utter confusion, clutching the scratching post she'd just borrowed from Yuna in her hands.

"Bye?" she calls after her, a little sadly. She supposes it was only a matter of time before the cat felt healthy enough to leave and seek its freedom past the confines of her cramped dorm room, but she didn't think it'd be so soon. "Be careful..."

A little head peeks at her from around the corner, blinking at her with big, green eyes.

Yeji approaches it cautiously, trying not to scare it off. She crouches so they meet at eye level. "I'm glad you're feeling better."

The cat blinks again.

"If you need any food or if you get hurt again, you know where to find me, okay?" Yeji tells it.

"You talking to yourself, Hwang?"

Yeji stiffens.

"Just trying to find something I dropped," she says as casually as she can, shifting imperceptibly, placing her body between the cat and Hyunwoo's line of sight.

The footsteps draw closer. Yeji feels something soft and warm bound up onto her lap and burrow snugly into her jacket. The pitter-patter of a little heartbeat drums against her stomach, frantic and fearful.

"There's nothing on the floor," Hyunwoo sneers. "You're stupid."

Yeji watches him over her shoulder as he slouches off, waits until he rounds the corner, then breathes out, slow and relieved. "He's gone now," she whispers to the soft lump in her jacket. "It's safe."

Slowly, the cat uncoils itself from its hiding place, and Yeji feels soft paws pad across her thigh as it hops down onto the ground. Carefully, she reaches out, stroking the top of the cat's fuzzy head, attempting to soothe it. The cat gives her a wary sidelong glance, tensing, as if deciding whether to bolt or let Yeji continue petting it.

"If you see him again, just run really fast in the opposite direction, okay?" Yeji says, trying to ignore the knot of worry forming in her chest at the thought of the cat trying to fend for itself alone. She remembers what Yuna told her before she left for class yesterday— cats like being touched around their face, 'specially their chin and ears —and gently scratches behind the cat's ears, hoping she's doing it right.

To her relief, she feels the cat start to relax, leaning into her touch, its little body vibrating with the beginnings of a purr. Yeji tickles just under its chin, and it tilts its head in approval, rubbing up against her ankles, pleased. It allows for a few more moments of this before it stalks off, tail pointed high, leaving Yeji kneeling on the floor, hand outstretched uselessly.

"Where are you going—oh," Yeji says. The cat has stopped in front of her door, head tilted. Yeji feels a smile spread across her face. "Okay."

 


 

"I borrowed this from Yuna," Yeji tells the cat, once they're safely back inside her room. "It's a scratching post! You can use it whenever you feel like scratching something."

The cat looks between her and the scratching post, expression coated with disdain.

"Or...not." Yeji frowns. Between this cat turning its nose up at Yuna's supposedly irresistible cat food and glaring at the scratching post, Yeji's not quite sure how to react. With her limited experience being around cats, she can't quite tell whether this is standard cat behaviour or whether this cat is just weird.

"I guess you haven't really scratched anything yet, anyway," she murmurs. The cat cocks its head at her, eyes mischievous, as if to say, not yet.

 


 

Another day, another class where Ryujin is mysteriously absent. Yeji can't help but glance towards her empty chair, wondering where the classmate that made lessons infuriating and interesting all at once disappeared to. 

She'd complained to Chaeryeong frequently about how obnoxious Ryujin was, how frustrating it was that Ryujin was always hot on her heels in some classes, and how she could never quite seem to catch up to Ryujin in the others. In the days following Ryujin's absence, she's never known peace like this. She's enjoying it while it lasts, really.

But she has to admit the prospect of topping the class doesn't seem all that exciting anymore.

The class they're in is being taught by Professor Park, a leading expert in Elemental spells and theory, a difficult and complex field in which Yeji excels. Today, they're learning how to form mini storm clouds out of the moisture in the air around them. The challenge is finding a balance between creating enough instability in the air to form the storm while simultaneously trying to contain the clouds and prevent an outright flood. Several students have already failed in that respect and are waving their hands frantically in an attempt to right the spell, their clothes drenched, puddles of water littered haphazardly around them.

It comes naturally to Yeji, as all Elemental spells tend to. She closes her eyes and reaches out for the moisture in the air, feeling the magic tingle across her fingertips. Carefully, she pulls the moisture into something more tangible, wispy little ghosts of clouds that thicken with each flick of her wrist, each incantation muttered under her breath.

Now for the hard part.

She focuses on the instability in the air that she's exploited, tries to make more of it. Electric blue sparks sputter and pop abruptly in the storm clouds she's created, startling her and nearly causing her to lose her grasp of the spell entirely. She takes a deep breath, steeling herself, and tries again, reaching out and finding the telltale buzz in the air where the magic is potent— there. The hairs on the back of her neck stand as the air crackles with barely contained electricity. Steady, keep it steady.

The storm clouds flash with the intensity of her lightning. Fat water droplets rain down into the bucket on her desk. Yeji waits until her bucket is nearly full, then dissipates the clouds with a wave of her fingers, sagging back into her chair bonelessly. Elemental spells are grand, rewarding, but are almost always the most physically challenging.

"Good work, Yeji," Professor Park says as she sweeps past, nodding at her bucket. "As always."

"Thank you, Professor," Yeji says tiredly.

It's somewhat of a shame. She'd relished seeing the look on Ryujin's face every time she managed to pull off a particularly difficult Elemental spell.

She catches up to Ryujin's friend, Jisu, after class, unable to suppress her curiosity any longer. Chaeryeong hangs back reluctantly to wait for her, sticking to the wall behind her like she's trying her best to become a part of it.

"Jisu, right?"

Jisu turns, and regards her coolly. "Hwang Yeji."

Yeji stops short, sheepish. She'd forgotten any friend of Ryujin's wasn't likely to be a friend of hers. "Um, I was just wondering where Ryujin's been for the past few days."

"Why?"

Yeji doesn't know what to say to that, but Jisu seems more curious than combative, so she shrugs and says, "Just curious why she hasn't been in class lately. It's not like her to miss so much."

"She had to go home to settle some family matters." Jisu eyes her. "It's a good thing, right? For you? You get to be the undisputed first place of our year."

Yeji's mouth drops open in protest. "I wasn't even thinking about that."

Jisu presses a hand to her face, runs it through her hair. "Sorry. I'm just a little worried about her. Haven't been getting much sleep. Too much homework. You know how it is." She attempts a smile, but it doesn't quite reach her eyes.

"It's okay," Yeji says. "Are you doing research with one of the professors, or something?"

Jisu gives her an odd look. "No."

"Oh. Never mind, then." Their homework load is the lightest it's been since the start of the semester, what with their examinations finishing just two weeks ago. Yeji can't help but wonder.

"Bye, Yeji." Jisu gives her another curious look. "It's nice to know you're concerned about Ryujin."

"I'm n—" Yeji starts to say, then (wisely) snaps her mouth shut and thinks better of it. "Um, yeah. I hope everything turns out okay for her at home."

"Me too." Jisu looks exhausted. She turns to leave, but shoots one final glance over her shoulder. "Bye, Chaeryeong."

"Bye," Chaeryeong squeaks from where she's trying to become one with the wall.

 


 

yuna bb

just wave it around

cats like chasing it

i can't talk for long </3 yujin wants to go get ice cream

yeji

omg have fun <3

it doesn't seem that interested...

like the scratching post

it hasn't touched it at all

yuna bb

yeah some cats won't

but it's eating the food right?

yeji

yeah......RELUCTANTLY

yuna bb

ur cat is weird

yeji

........yeah

 

Yeji gives the wand an experimental wave. The toy mouse attached to its end bounces and flails along her bedroom floor.

The cat looks at it, then at her, unimpressed and disinterested.

"Yeah, I didn't think so," Yeji mutters. The wand doesn't seem that interesting to her, either. "Here."

She murmurs under her breath, conjuring light in her palm and letting it spiral outwards delicately in little orbs. "This is a spell we learned in our first year." Reaching up, she switches off her bedroom light. "It lights up the darkness. See?"

They watch the little orbs dance and flicker around them, their golden glow soft and enchanting. Suddenly, the cat's paw shoots up, batting one of them, so abruptly that Yeji nearly jumps out of her skin. She looks at the cat, but it seems just as surprised as Yeji is, wide emerald eyes moving between the lights in the darkness and its paw.

"Better than a fake mouse, right?" Yeji laughs, letting more light spill out of her palm. "Wait—I think you'll like this." She closes her eyes, visualising the storm clouds she'd created earlier, drawing the moisture from the air and weaving them into existence. "We learned how to do this in class today."

Blinking slowly, the cat noses tentatively at the clouds, whiskers twitching.

"I was the fastest to do this spell in class today, you know," Yeji tells the cat, as if it would understand or care. She steadies her hands, stabilising the clouds, not wanting the lightning and rain to form and make a mess of her bedroom. "Professor Park was really happy."

The cat stares at her, then stalks away, tail curling.

"Where are you going?" Yeji says, her hands still outstretched, storm clouds hovering over her cupped palms.

The cat stops in front of Yuna's scratching post—the one it hadn't deigned to even look at before—and swipes one paw down its length, viciously.

"Uh." Yeji blinks. "O...kay."

 

yeji

sorry to interrupt your date but

yuna bb

it's not a date

yeji

:/

yuna bb

:/

yeji

yeah you've only been crushing on her for, what, the past 5 months

sorry to interrupt your date but

yuna bb

FOUR

4 months

yeji

this. cat. is. so. weird

it touched the scratching post but like

it went over to it and just scratched it once from top to bottom

really hard

and stopped

??

yuna bb

......................................

yeji

that's not how normal cats use scratching posts right...

yuna bb

well it's not a familiar or it would've gone back to its owner by now

are you sure it's not a demon

or some other spirit

yeji

omfg do you think it is...

yuna bb

it would be a hwang yeji thing to let a demon into her room and treat it with kindness

yeji

please stop I DONT WANT A DEMON IN MY ROOM

IN MY BED

it's been sleeping in my bed yuna

yuna bb

wait yujin's asking what ice cream i want hang on

yeji

do you th

 

 

Something thuds against her bedroom wall, heavy and ominous.

Both Yeji and the cat jump at the noise, looking at each other. "It's okay," Yeji whispers, after a while. "It's probably just someone messing around—"

"I think Hwang lives here," someone sneers, just outside her room.

It's Hyunwoo's voice. There's another thud against her wall, louder this time. The cat hisses lightly, claws digging harshly into her wooden floor, fur standing on end.

"Come here," Yeji whispers, tentatively holding her arms out. "It's okay, he can't hurt you while you're in here."

The cat looks at her, and she tries to keep her smile as open and inviting as possible. Yeji's never really cuddled it before, given the dirty looks it shot her way whenever she so much as laid a hand on it (excluding the two times she'd ended up purring), but she takes in the cat's bared teeth and hostile stance, and thinks that maybe now is as good a time as any.

Hesitantly, the cat pads into her lap, curling up there, tense and wary. Hyunwoo jeers again, the sound only vaguely muffled by her thin bedroom wall, and the cat’s upper lip curls back over its teeth in a snarl.

"I won't let him get to you again," Yeji promises, stroking the top of its head with her index finger, slow and gentle, trying to soothe its anger. The little balls of light she'd created earlier flit around them delicately, illuminating the darkness. One lands on the cat’s nose, and its eyes follow it attentively, momentarily distracted. Yeji smiles down at the cat, scratching behind its ears, and feels it start to relax in her arms.

"See, there's no need to waste your energy on him—"

Something impossibly heavy presses down on her, forcing the wind from her chest and knocking her back onto her elbows. "What the hell—"

Yeji struggles to push herself back up, but something large and warm weighs down on her chest. She wheezes for breath, alarmed, hands flailing uselessly by her side. Yuna was right. Oh gods, Yuna was right. The cat was a demon in disguise and was waiting for the right moment to attack—

Except she's not attacking. All her limbs are still intact. Her mind is still her own. Yeji shoves her hand outwards, more light spilling from her palm, flooding the room and lighting up whoever or whatever is on top of her.

Then she blinks furiously, rubbing her eyes with the heel of her hand. " Ryujin? "

Yeji is dreaming. She has to be. There is no other reasonable explanation for why her classmate, whom she hasn't seen in days, is suddenly in her bedroom, sprawled on her lap, hands braced on her shoulders, their faces inches apart.

"Hwang," Ryujin stammers, looking as shocked as Yeji feels.

Yeji just stares. Then she remembers Jisu's words, and her eyes narrow. "You're not real," she realises. "Ryujin's back home with her family. You're probably a demon, and you took the shape of my worst nightmare to taunt me."

She breathes a shaky sigh of relief. She'd take a demon over Shin Ryujin any day. At least she's legally allowed to banish the former out of existence.

"Your worst nightmare," Ryujin—or not Ryujin—repeats. She's still sitting in Yeji's lap. Yeji pushes her off, and she tumbles back onto her bottom.

"Unluckily for you, I know how to banish a demon." Yeji braces her hands in front of her, feeling the magic buzz in her fingertips.

"Wait, Hwang." Ryujin grabs her wrist. "It's me. I can explain—"

"A demon would say that." Yeji ignores her, concentrating on the spell. "Never trust a demon; it's one of the first things they taught us."

"I know, I was there with you," Ryujin says, growing frustrated, her hold on Yeji's wrist tightening. "It's me. You hesitated before banishing the demon because you're too damn soft to hurt anything and the demon nearly destroyed the classroom as a result."

Yeji's hands jerk to a pause in mid-air, the spell fizzling out abruptly. "Wait," she says slowly. Demons aren't supposed to be able to tap into the memories of whoever they're mimicking. "You're...not a demon?"

"I can explain," Ryujin says again.

Yeji scrambles backwards, her face heating. "Ryujin?" she stammers.

"Yes," Ryujin says exasperatedly. " As I was saying, I tried shapeshifting a few days ago but I did it wrong and I've been stuck in that form ever since."

Yeji's head is reeling. "You...I...you slept in my bed. I fed you." And protected her from Hyunwoo. And petted her. "That was you pretending to be a cat the whole time?"

"I didn't have a choice," Ryujin protests. "I was stuck in that form, I didn't know how to change back!"

"So how did you change back?" Yeji demands.

"I don't know! If I knew I would've done it sooner! You think I'd willingly eat cat food? And," Ryujin pauses, looking nauseated, "you think I'd willingly get coddled by you?"

Yeji's eyes narrow. "I don't know. You seemed to enjoy it. You even started purring at some point—"

Ryujin slaps a hand over her mouth. "If you tell anyone I'll kill you," she says, menacingly.

Yeji shakes herself free. "What, no thank you, Yeji for rescuing you from Hyunwoo, thank you, Yeji for helping you with the thorn stuck in your foot, thank you, Yeji for—"

"Thank you," Ryujin says, very grudgingly.

"Very believable," Yeji deadpans. "Jisu said you'd gone home to settle family problems. The whole time, you've been here in my room—"

"Oh no," Ryujin says, looking slightly panicky now, "Jisu. I told her to cover for me if something happened to me when I tried to shapeshift, but she doesn't know—she probably thinks I've gone missing, Hyunwoo found me before she did—"

"Why did you try to shapeshift?" Yeji interrupts. "You know you could get expelled for that, right? Trying to shapeshift before Professor Kang teaches us how to?"

"I know," Ryujin says. She doesn't elaborate. Yeji squints at her, waiting. Ryujin raises an eyebrow back defiantly.

"Okay, then," Yeji says, giving up. "Well, you're back to normal. Now get out of my room."

"Gladly—" Ryujin starts to say, but she's cut off by another thud and Hyunwoo's distinct nasally laugh. Yeji heaves a sigh at the noise, rolling her eyes as his footsteps stomp away down the hallway. It's only then that she realises something is tugging lightly at her sleeve. She glances down. Ryujin's hand is fisted into her blazer, trembling lightly.

She looks back up, meeting Ryujin's eyes. Ryujin drops her arm from her jacket and scoots away as if burned.

Yeji feels something oddly close to sympathy. She clears her throat. "I'm sorry for what he did to you," she says awkwardly.

Ryujin shrugs, impassive, but her jaw is tight. "It's fine."

Yeji thinks that maybe she should say something else, but she isn't sure what to say. She doesn't normally talk to Ryujin unless it's to argue with her in class.

As she fumbles awkwardly with her words, Ryujin stands up, avoiding her gaze. "I'm leaving."

About time, Yeji thinks. She'll scrub her floors and change her bedsheets tonight.

"This never happened," Ryujin says, heading for the door.

"Ungrateful ass," Yeji mutters as the door closes behind her.

 


 

Ryujin is back in class the next day.

“How’s your cat?” Chaeryeong whispers.

“Um,” Yeji whispers back, “it ran away.”

“Oh no.” Chaeryeong looks sympathetic. “I know you really liked it. You think it'll come back like it did the last time?”

I hope not, Yeji thinks. “Maybe,” she says vaguely. “I hope so.”

Professor Kim is looking at both of them strangely, so Yeji tries to redirect her focus to the defensive spell theory she’s writing down on the blackboard, but her mind keeps wandering now that Chaeryeong’s brought it up. Her eyes stray to where Ryujin sits, thinking of how she'd transformed abruptly on top of her the day before, her weight pressing down onto her lap, startled eyes inches from hers—

"Yeji, something interesting on the other side of the room?" Professor Kim's voice cuts through her flustered haze.

"No, Professor," Yeji says quickly, feeling her cheeks warm as every head in the room turns to look at her.

"Hmm." Professor Kim eyes her. “I hope you were listening, because we’re going to start duelling.”

Nervously, Yeji swallows, turning to Chaeryeong, but Professor Kim’s sharp eyes catch the motion, and her eyes twinkle. “Ah—everyone, pair up with someone other than the person sitting beside you.”

“Oh no,” Yeji says under her breath. 

“It’s a misdirection hex," Chaeryeong mutters to her, keeping her voice low. "After your opponent casts their spell, flick your wrist in a figure-eight, push your palm out, and say the words on the board."

"After they cast," Yeji repeats nervously. "Figure-eight. Palm out. Say the spell. Okay."

"And would it kill you to stop daydreaming in class? You know Professor Kim's always really good at catching these things."

"Split into your pairs, everyone," Professor Kim reminds them loudly from the front of the classroom. The classroom dissolves into chatter around them; everyone else is already choosing their duelling partner. Yeji looks around, panicking a little, searching for someone she won't utterly embarrass herself in front of, someone who might go easy on her or who doesn't have a good grasp of combat spells either. But everyone is either already paired up with someone or heading in the direction of their intended partners.

"Hey, Chaeryeong." It's Jisu. Yeji whirls around to look at her, but Jisu isn't paying her any attention; her eyes are on Chaeryeong, and she's smiling. "Want to be partners?"

"Partners?" says Chaeryeong, looking stunned. "I—um—Yeji doesn't have a partner either!"

Jisu's smile falters a little. "Oh! Yeah...I guess she doesn't."

Yeji looks between them, then steps on Chaeryeong's foot. "She'd love to be partners with you," she says brightly, ignoring Chaeryeong's soft hiss of pain.

Jisu's smile returns, full force. Yeji can practically feel Chaeryeong melting into the ground beside her. "Okay, then."

As they move to a corner of the room, Jisu glances at Yeji over her shoulder. "Ryujin doesn't have a partner, either."

Yeji isn't surprised. Ryujin usually is among the last in class to find a duelling partner if they aren't allowed to pair up with their seatmates (something Professor Kim often takes pleasure in doing); Yeji guesses it has something to do with the fact that Ryujin is arguably one of the best duellists in their year due to her quick thinking and reaction time, as well as her ability to discern the right spell for any situation even in the heat of battle.

It's something Yeji has always silently and grudgingly admired her for, as it's something she's always struggled with; they've learned so many spells, defensive and offensive, that it's hard for her to find just the right one when there's someone opposite her flinging hexes at her. Not that she'll ever admit it to anyone.

True to Jisu's words, Ryujin is standing alone amidst the throngs of her classmates standing in their chosen pairs. Yeji casts a quick look around; regrettably, she's dallied for too long, everyone else is paired up.

"Hey," she says, somewhat reluctantly. "Ryujin."

Ryujin turns, raising her eyebrows. " You want to pair up with me? " she says, a note of incredulity entering her voice.

Yeji can't resist rolling her eyes. "You really think you're all that, don't you?"

"No." Ryujin rolls her eyes right back. "It's just that we—never mind."

"We're the only ones left without a partner," Yeji points out. "Otherwise I wouldn't have asked."

"I said never mind." Ryujin turns on her heel and walks to an empty spot in the classroom.

Yeji sighs. This is going to be harder than she thought.

 


 

Ryujin deflects her attempted hex perfectly, because of course she does.

"Your turn." Ryujin sends the same hex at her, her hand moving faster than Yeji can blink. Instinctively, Yeji dodges to one side, and the hex goes flying behind her. It hits a student squarely in the back, and he drops to his knees, giggling uncontrollably.

Oops. Yeji turns around, feigning obliviousness. Ryujin is giving her an unimpressed look. "You're supposed to deflect the hex, not dodge it."

"Right. Obviously." Yeji tries to remember what Chaeryeong told her. Figure-eight, palm up? She's having a hard enough time trying to remember the incantation word-for-word as it is.

Too soon, Ryujin's hex pelts towards her in a dizzying green-blue blur. Yeji waves her hand in a dubious figure-eight, mutters something that she hopes are the words to the misdirection hex.

The spell hits her squarely in the stomach, almost bowling her over with its force. Yeji gasps for breath, falling to the floor, almost choking on her laughter, one hand pressed helplessly to her midriff—until, mercifully, Ryujin quells her giggling fit with the counter-spell. Yeji stays on her hands and knees for a moment, trying to catch her breath, dreading the smug look that is sure to be on her opponent's face.

"Here." Yeji looks up warily at the sound of Ryujin's voice, only to blink at the outstretched hand offered to her.

She puts her hand in Ryujin's, slowly, and Ryujin starts to pull her up. "Um...thanks?" she says confusedly, meeting Ryujin's eyes.

Something flickers there, as if Ryujin herself has just realised what she's doing. She lets go abruptly, and Yeji falls back on her butt. "Hey!"

"Guess we're trying the hex again," Ryujin tosses over her shoulder, turning around and walking back to her spot.

 


 

Every part of her body aches. Yeji thinks it must be some sort of poetic justice for not paying attention in class; one more of Ryujin's hexes and she would've had to limp her way back to her room. She leans heavily against her door, legs a little unsteady, fumbling for her keys.

"Having a little trouble there?"

Yeji straightens up immediately. " No. "

"You know, if you got the spell right in the first place, I wouldn't have needed to hex you so many times," Ryujin says.

"Not everyone can be as gifted as you," Yeji says, sarcastically. She shoves her hand deeper in her bag; why can't she find her damn keys?

"Come on." Ryujin gives her a look. "Not even you usually take that long to grasp a simple defensive spell. Something was up with you today."

"Do you care?" Yeji says. Her fingertips finally meet metal at the bottom of her bag, shoved under one of her books. Her exit ticket out of this infuriating conversation.

"Ah, so something was up with you."

"I never said that," Yeji says, pushing her key into the keyhole. She can't very well tell Ryujin the reason she wasn't paying attention in class was because she was vividly recalling what happened yesterday, when Ryujin was a little too close for comfort—

"You basically d—" Ryujin begins, crossing her arms, but stops abruptly. In the middle of nudging her door open with her shoulder, Yeji waits, annoyed, but Ryujin never finishes her sentence.

She looks behind her to find a jet-black cat with white paws on the floor, right where Ryujin had been standing.

"No way," she whispers, crouching down to the cat's level. The cat bares its teeth and hisses.

"Poetic justice," Yeji says, delighted. The cat lifts a paw, pushing out its claws menacingly.

"Well, have fun finding a way to shift back," Yeji tells her, before standing up and pushing her door open again. It isn't her problem to deal with, especially now that she knows that the cat is Ryujin—

"Oh, look, it's the dirty stray," a voice crows from behind her. Yeji stops dead in her tracks.

Hyunwoo sidles up beside her, peering at the cat. "A familiar, you said?"

Yeji bends down without a second thought, scooping the cat into her arms. "It belongs to a professor. I'm watching it for her."

"Oh? Which professor?"

Yeji does her best attempt at a dismissive eye roll, tightening her arm more securely around the cat. "Why do you need to know?"

"Just curious." Hyunwoo watches her, a glint in his eye. "That's allowed, right?"

"Sure." Yeji shrugs. "And I'm also allowed to not want to answer."

He leans forward, greasy hair falling into his eyes. "Why not? It's a simple question."

" Bye, Hyunwoo," she says, closing the door in his face.

 


 

Yeji doesn't make it five steps into her bedroom before the cat in her arms lets out a startled noise and suddenly she's staggering under the full body weight of her human classmate, arms wrapped around her waist. Ryujin's face is pressed into the crook of her neck, nose digging uncomfortably into her collarbone, her fingers splayed across Yeji's shoulders. Yeji freezes as Ryujin stiffens, both of them realising their proximity at the same time. They spring apart, Yeji's hands pushing blindly at Ryujin's arms in an attempt to shove her away.

"Couldn't you have waited for me to put you down first, at least?" Yeji sputters. The faint tickle of Ryujin's hair on the sensitive skin of her neck lingers even after she's pushed her away, and she shudders, irked for a reason she can't quite name.

"I told you already, I don't know how to shift," Ryujin argues back. She's looking everywhere but at Yeji, cheeks faintly pink. Yeji finds it somewhat of a relief to know she isn't alone in being unsettled by their close contact. "It just happens!"

Yeji scoffs. " Try to figure it out. I can't keep sticking my neck out to save your ass."

"I never asked you to." Ryujin crosses her arms, face obstinate.

"Please." Yeji looks up at her ceiling and counts to three. "You'd be expelled if I didn’t."

"Yeah, but you'd like that, wouldn't you?"

Yeji opens her mouth to answer, then pauses, thinking it over. “I guess?” she says slowly, unsure. She would, wouldn’t she? Ryujin’s always annoyed her. Hasn’t she?

Something flickers in Ryujin’s expression. Her eyes narrow. “So next time, don’t play the hero, got it? I’ll deal with it myself.”

Yeji throws her hands in the air, at least ten different variations of the word ungrateful on her tongue. “Fine. Now get out of my room.”

“Fine!”

 


 

"You've managed to transform your iris and hair colour, and you've even successfully altered your nose shape at will." Professor Kang beams at her, as the rest of the class files out of the classroom. "Well done, Yeji. You're progressing even faster than I expected. You might even be able to start shapeshifting in one or two weeks."

"Really?" Yeji grins back, excited. She can't help the little thrill that runs through her at the thought of accomplishing something Ryujin is still struggling with. "How many more steps are there?"

Professor Kang puts a finger to her chin. "Mm, let's see. Transforming your height, the potion that's needed, the ritual..." She counts on her fingers. "Three more preparatory exercises that I want you all to do and two more for the actual shifting." She smiles at Yeji. "I know it seems like a lot, but the shifting process can be dangerous if it isn't done right. A lot of things can happen."

"Ah," Yeji says, carefully. "Like what?"

"Getting the potion involved in the ritual wrong could cause you to be stuck halfway between both forms." Professor Kang winces. "I've seen some, ah, rather unfortunate mutations. And skipping any of the preparatory exercises I've been putting you all through might mean your body won't be ready to handle the drastic physical changes, so...you'll shift successfully, but you wouldn't be able to control it. You might be stuck in one form or the other."

"Or shift without warning," Yeji realises.

"Exactly." Professor Kang nods. "But you won't have to worry about any of that. You've done all the preliminary steps beautifully."

"Would something like that be...permanent?" Yeji asks. Just academic curiosity, she tells herself.

Professor Kang shakes her head. "You'd just have to redo the entire process. If you get the potion wrong, it will be permanent, though." Professor Kang's eyes twinkle at her. "Not that you have to worry about that, either—I've been hearing from Professor Bae about your continued improvement in potion-making."

"Ah," Yeji says, embarrassed. "Thank you, Professor—"

She stops short, movement around one of the room's ornate pillars catching her eye. A black cat slinks into the flickering shadows cast against the stone by the candlelight, emerald eyes glittering in the darkness.

"Yeji?" Professor Kang prompts, when she doesn't continue.

"Um," Yeji says distractedly, turning back to her. "Sorry, I forgot what I was saying."

Professor Kang frowns, squinting at where she'd been looking. "What's that? Is that a cat in the classroom?"

Behind them, her familiar bumbles over on its round paws, blinking blearily as if he'd just woken up from a nap, matching his witch's curiosity.

"Ah," Yeji says quickly, "one of the stray cats from around the campus, I think."

"Strange," Professor Kang says. "I know all the stray cats on campus. I leave food out for them sometimes. I've never seen this one before. It's so pretty."

"Is it?" Yeji says, before she can stop herself. Professor Kang gives her an odd look.

"I mean, it is," Yeji says hurriedly. The cat is making its way to the open classroom door, keeping to the shadows. Yeji wants to scream at it to hurry up, lest one of Ryujin's accidental shifts occur right before Professor Kang's eyes.

"It is, isn't it?" Professor Kang says happily. "I love black cats. Hang on, I want to get a picture of this one."

"No!" Yeji blurts out, hands shooting out, hanging in the air between them awkwardly. Professor Kang looks at her. "Um...it's pretty shy."

"I'll be quick," Professor Kang promises, "it won't even notice." She moves forward, phone in hand. Yeji sees the cat visibly tense. Remembering Ryujin's tendency to abruptly shift back and forth, she darts forward, picking it up.

"Actually, I think this is my friend's cat," Yeji says to her now-confused professor, the words tumbling out in a rush as she speed-walks towards the classroom door. "She was looking all over for it yesterday. I'd better return it. Bye, Professor!"

 


 

She barely turns the corner before Ryujin shifts without warning, again. Yeji staggers back, Ryujin in her arms, her back hitting the stone wall rather painfully. She grunts under her breath, arms tightening around Ryujin reflexively.

"I thought you said you wouldn't—" Ryujin begins, but falls silent as Yeji holds a hand up.

"Yeah, yeah, I know," she breathes, grimacing in pain. "Ow."

Ryujin is quiet.

"Sorry," she mutters after a while. Yeji feels a small hand press gently against her back. Ryujin head bows as she murmurs a few words, and the pain begins to subside, replaced by cool relief.

Ryujin looks up at her. "Better?"

Yeji straightens up experimentally, blinking in surprise. "You're a good healer," she admits.

Ryujin shrugs. "Just basics. Restoration classes, first year. One of the first things Professor Son taught us, remember?"

"I was trying to pay you a compliment."

"I wasn't—" Ryujin looks away. "Never mind."

Belatedly, Yeji realises that Ryujin's hand is still pressed to the small of her back, and her own arms are still wrapped around her. They are uncomfortably close for two people who supposedly can't stand each other.

"Move," she says, dropping her hands from Ryujin's waist and pushing her away. Ryujin stumbles back a little, still not looking at her.

"I thought you said you wouldn't help me anymore."

"Maybe I shouldn't have." Yeji pushes off from the wall, dusting herself off. Ryujin takes an instinctive step back. Yeji just rolls her eyes at her.

Ryujin looks at her, jaw set. "Then why did you?"

"I don't know." Yeji doesn't know what she was thinking when she rushed forward to help her. She doesn't know if she was thinking at all. "Maybe I don't want you to be expelled."

"Why?" Ryujin says again. "You'd enjoy it. That's what you said the other day."

"No, that's what you said." Yeji takes a deep breath. "I do hate having you in class, sometimes." Ryujin nods, looking unsurprised. "But—school would be kind of boring without you."

Yeji regrets it immediately, watching the smile that spreads across Ryujin's face. It isn't smug or cocky, unlike most of the other smiles Ryujin's directed to her in the past; it's slow, genuine. Almost tentative. It's a look she's never seen on Ryujin before. Which somehow makes Yeji regret saying what she did even more.

She can't pinpoint exactly when and how their relationship changed for Ryujin to be smiling at her like that, but it unsettles her in a way that makes her feel like she's been hit in the knees with one of Ryujin's infamous hexes.

"Anyway." She clears her throat. "You heard what Professor Kang said, right? About redoing the entire process? You skipped some steps, didn't you?"

"Maybe."

"Shapeshifting isn't something to be impatient about," Yeji chides.

"I know. Thank you for asking her for me." Ryujin's still smiling, little dimples creasing her cheeks now. And for some godforsaken, unknown reason, Yeji can't seem to tear her eyes away.

"Need to get to class," she mumbles, something funny in her chest she can't put a name to. She brushes past Ryujin and heads off down the hallway, but not before she hears Ryujin speak up behind her, so quietly she almost misses it.

"I think school would be boring without you, too."

 


 

"Alright," Professor Kim says, rapping the blackboard, on which she's scrawled the hex they're supposed to practise for the day. It's a complex one, requiring a hand movement so intricate Yeji isn't even sure she's doing it right, and an incantation that's difficult to pronounce and twists her tongue when she tries. If casted successfully, it would disorient her opponent and cause them to forget why they were hexing her in the first place. If casted successfully. 

“You can pair up with anyone you’d like. Let’s get to duelling,” Professor Kim says, and everyone’s chairs scrape back.

Yeji turns to Chaeryeong instinctively, because if there’s one person in the room she feels comfortable flubbing a hex in front of, it’s Chaeryeong. “So—”

“Sorry,” Chaeryeong says apologetically. “Jisu already…”

To her right, Yeji sees Jisu smiling and motioning Chaeryeong over. “Oh.” She blinks and tries to quell the momentary panic she feels, shooting Chaeryeong a quick, easy grin. “So duelling with her last class went well, I take it?”

So well. Jisu’s a really good duellist.” Chaeryeong smiles, suddenly shy. Her cheeks are pink. “It went better than your duel did, at any rate. I saw you getting knocked on your ass a grand total of ten times.”

“More than ten.” Yeji winces. 

Chaeryeong watches her sympathetically. “You know, I could just pair up with Jisu another time—”

“No,” Yeji says, firmly. “Don’t be stupid. You like her.”

(She cheerfully ignores Chaeryeong’s mortified whisper of shut up I don’t like her I just think she’s pretty. )

“Go on,” Yeji says, giving her a little push in Jisu’s direction. She looks around for a partner of her own, trying to find someone she knows, a little panicked, now—she doesn’t want to run out of options and end up having to partner—

“Want to duel?"

Yeji turns. Ryujin's mouth is quirked in a little half-smile.

"Honestly? No," she says.

Instead of getting offended, Ryujin throws her head back and laughs. "I thought I made class exciting for you."

"I said it would be boring without you." Yeji frowns. "I never said anything about exciting. And I don't want to get hexed twenty times in a row again."

"Thirteen," Ryujin corrects her, as if that's supposed to make anything better. "You would've gotten hexed thirteen times in a row that day anyway, even if you weren't paired up with me."

"You hex fast," Yeji mumbles.

Ryujin eyes her. "Let's see you do the misdirection hex again."

"Do we have to? I did it last class," Yeji protests.

"Yeah. Once." Ryujin leads them over to an empty corner of the classroom. "Are you confident about it?"

"No," Yeji admits. Ryujin raises her eyebrows as if to say, see? I told you so. Yeji purses her lips, annoyed, wishing she could wipe the expression off her face.

"It's a good spell to have if someone tries to hex you in the hallways," Ryujin tells her.

"No one has ever tried to hex me in the hallways."

"At the rate you're going with Hyunwoo?" Ryujin gives her a sidelong glance. "I won't be surprised if that changes soon."

"If Hyunwoo hexes me, it'll be because of you, you know."

"I know," Ryujin says. "And I'm helping you do something about it, aren't I? Now—"

Her index finger draws a complex pattern in the air, too fast for Yeji to catch. The hex streaks towards her, a deep, angry purple. Yeji moves her wrist in a figure-eight, pushes her palm out, calls the magic to the tips of her fingers—

Too slow. Ryujin's hex slams into her gut, and she keels over, her legs giving out under her.

"Your problem," Ryujin says, coming over to crouch by her sprawled form, "is that you wait for your opponent to act before doing something about it."

"I don't know what they're going to throw at me," Yeji mumbles past the curtain of hair that's fallen messily over her face.

"It doesn't matter. This is a misdirection hex, not a counter-spell. It's a catch-all for anything your opponent throws at you. The second you think someone might hex you, call on your magic. Recite the spell. When they cast, push your palm out. Let's try again." Ryujin holds her hand out. Yeji stares at it blankly.

"Are you going to drop me back on the ground again?" she says warily.

Ryujin just grins, bright and insufferable. "Want to find out?"

Wrinkling her nose, Yeji knocks her hand away, pushing herself off the ground. Ryujin giggles, heading back to her spot opposite Yeji. "For the record, I wouldn't have dropped you."

"Sure," Yeji deadpans, readying her casting hand. "I believe you."

 


 

When Yeji shifts for the first time, she's completely and utterly disoriented.

She doubles over, collapsing onto her knees, hands braced against the cold stone of the classroom floor, her vision clouding, head spinning. Then—the discomfort stops. Yeji casts a dazed, cautious look around. 

The classroom seems…different. Everything is thrown into sharp relief, from the faint smudges of chalk on the blackboard, to even the dust motes that swirl in the air, catching the light streaming in through the high windows, delicate and mesmerising. Yeji watches them for a while, still sprawled on the floor, entranced and overwhelmed. She can smell the aged oak grain of the desks and cabinets scattered around the classroom, pushed aside to allow them room to shift, and if she concentrates just a little more, she can catch a whiff of a day-old apple someone’s shoved in their bag.

Professor Kang's familiar bumbles over to her, blinking at her placidly.

I'm alright, Yeji tries to say, but it comes out as a soft whine. She pushes herself slowly to her feet, finding herself at eye level with the bear cub.

"I see everyone's managed to shift," Professor Kang calls. "Good work. Now try to shift between forms. If you can't do it immediately, don't panic. Just try again, just like how I taught you. Take it slowly."

Yeji shifts back slowly. In the corner of her eye, the fox to her left starts to do the same, russet fur rippling as it transforms.

"What did I shift into?" she asks eagerly, once Chaeryeong is back to normal as well. She can see Professor Kang nodding approvingly at both of them from the front of the classroom.

"A wolf, I think," Chaeryeong said, trying to catch her breath. "A white one. Want to go over to the mirror?"

Professor Kang has set up a mirror, balanced precariously against the edge of her desk, for students to check out the forms they've shifted into. Yeji nods, shifting back as Chaeryeong does the same. She walks over to the mirror a little unsteadily, unused to walking on four legs instead of two, and almost trips over nothing more than once, but eventually reaches the mirror without any further incident.

Piercing yellow eyes stare back at her. Yeji takes an automatic step back, then does another double take as the wolf in the mirror mimics the movement. Her fur, white as snow, bristles in astonishment. The red fox by her side nudges her with its snout, bushy tail flicking.

In the mirror, she sees a little black cat with white paws pad into the frame. It curls itself around her legs, rubbing against her ankles in a way that's familiar, looking at her with a cheeky glint in its eye. Relief courses through Yeji, before she can stop it. So, Ryujin did manage to get her shapeshifting under control, after all.

Hesitantly, she noses at the cat's head by way of a greeting. The cat reaches up, bumping her nose playfully with its own.

She catches movement in the mirror again that doesn't belong to the three of them, and her body goes rigid. Slouched against the wall at the back of the classroom, hands stuffed sloppily in his pockets, is Hyunwoo, eyeing them both with a lazy smile on his face.

 


 

Yeji catches up to Ryujin after class, her frantic steps echoing in the vast hallway. "Ryujin. I need to tell you something."

Both Ryujin and Jisu turn to look at her curiously. Behind her, Chaeryeong catches up to her, panting a little. "You forgot your bag again, gods— oh." She reddens as Jisu smiles at her. "Hi."

"Hi," Jisu says, her smile widening.

Yeji ignores them. "I need to tell you something," she repeats, tilting her head to an empty part of the hallway, away from prying ears. "Can we...?"

"You're so dramatic," Ryujin says, but she follows her anyway, motioning for Jisu to go on ahead without her. Chaeryeong looks at Jisu like a deer in headlights, as if she doesn't know what to do with herself. Under any other circumstances, Yeji would've found it funny.

"Hyunwoo recognised you," Yeji says when they're alone.

"Okay?" Ryujin squints at her, then her eyes widen in understanding, and she pales. "Oh."

"You're lucky Professor Kang didn't," Yeji says. "But what are we going to do?"

"We?" Ryujin blinks at her.

"I'll probably be expelled or something, too, for helping you," Yeji reminds her.

"Oh." Ryujin looks away. "Yeah. You're right. I'm sorry."

"I would've done it anyway." Yeji shakes her head. "It's not important. We need to figure out—"

"So," comes Hyunwoo's drawling voice. Yeji goes still. "A professor's familiar, was it?"

Ryujin steps forward, placing a hand on Yeji's forearm. "Something you need, Hyunwoo?"

"This whole time, it was you," he sneers. "I should've known."

"What are you talking about?" Ryujin says, a note of exasperation entering her voice. 

Yeji stays silent, watching. She isn't a good liar, has never been, and Ryujin is surprisingly good at feigning obliviousness; she doesn't know whatever Ryujin has in mind, but she prays it's enough.

"Shifting prematurely?" He walks closer, hands clasped jauntily behind his back, stopping a few feet from them, the very picture of cockiness. "That could get you expelled, you know."

"Either speak plainly or don't speak to us at all," Ryujin says impatiently.

Yeji has a very bad feeling about this. The hairs on the back of her neck stand up as Hyunwoo leers. His hands are still behind his back. Yeji's eyes narrow.

The second you think someone might hex you...

"I'll spell it out for you, then. Your animal form is exactly the same as the dirty stray I saw lurking around the dorms weeks ago. What would you be doing in your animal form when the rest of us hadn't even started learning how to alter our facial features?"

Call on your magic.

Ryujin makes a theatrical show of rolling her eyes. "Hello? Do you know how many stray cats there are on this campus? Do you know how common black cats are at a witch academy?"

Hyunwoo's lip curls in a snarl. "It was you. I know it was. Why else would Hwang be so protective of you?”

Recite the spell.

"Hello?" Ryujin says again. "Do you know us at all? She hates my guts. We both hate each other. Are you stupid?"

Yeji blinks, nearly losing her concentration. "I don't hate you," she murmurs, so only Ryujin can hear. "I mean, I used to, but—"

"Yeji, you're not helping," Ryujin mutters back through gritted teeth. To Hyunwoo, she says, "Yeji's protective of everything defenceless because that's just who she is. Anyone would be, seeing the way you treat animals."

"And what if I just go straight to Professor Kang and tell her—"

"Sure, you could." Ryujin shrugs, blasé. "But who would believe you?"

Sweat is starting to bead on Yeji's forehead with the exertion of barely contained magic.

Hyunwoo hisses in irritation, but Ryujin's right. He doesn't have any evidence save his own word, and one would be hard pressed to find a professor who would willingly put faith into Hyunwoo's word, nowadays.

Ryujin grins. "You know, your animal form actually really suits you. What was it again—a snake, right?"

Quick as lightning, Hyunwoo's hand shoots out from behind his back, slicing the air with his palm in a series of slashes too quick for Yeji to follow. "You bitch," he snarls.

When they cast...

Hyunwoo's hex streaks towards Ryujin's head, a blinding emerald green. Yeji pushes Ryujin behind her instinctively.

Push your palm out.

The hex glances off her palm, rebounds, and slams straight into Hyunwoo's chin, knocking him to the ground.

"Nice aim," Ryujin says, peering over her shoulder, while Yeji stares at her palm, stunned.

"I've never actually managed to hit someone with a misdirection hex before," she says in wonder. She has Ryujin to thank for that, she supposes. "What did he try to hit you with?"

"It looked like an enlargement hex when he cast it—yep," Ryujin says cheerfully, pulling out her phone and snapping a photo. "Look, his chin's starting to swell."

Hyunwoo tries to say something, his face almost purple with rage, but his bulbous chin, now almost half the size of his head, locks his jaw in place, hindering his speech.

"You should get that checked out, it doesn’t look healthy," Ryujin tells him, her voice dripping with faux concern. "C'mon, Yeji."

Yeji lets herself be tugged away amidst the unintelligible noises Hyunwoo spits as he clutches his grotesque chin with his hands. Ryujin glances back at her.

"I don't think he'll be bothering us again. Not while I have this flattering photo as a reminder that his own spell backfired on him. Nice hex, by the way."

"It's because of what you taught me," Yeji admits. "You're...really good at combat spellcasting."

Ryujin grins. "I know."

Yeji sighs. "You're good at everything and you have an ego the size of Hyunwoo's chin growth. It's annoying."

Ryujin snorts at that. " Please don't compare anything of mine to Hyunwoo's chin growth. And I'm not good at everything, you know. There's one thing I can't do."

"One," Yeji mutters. "If you're talking about messing up shapeshifting, you've fixed it."

"Not that." Ryujin avoids her gaze. "I, um, still haven’t been able to bottle lightning."

Yeji stares at her. "Isn't our assignment due in—"

"—two days, I know," Ryujin says, sounding frustrated. She runs a hand through her hair. "I just...it's hard for me."

"I'll help you," Yeji finds herself saying.

Ryujin looks at her.

"If you want," she says quickly.

Ryujin nods slowly. "Okay." There's a smile stealing across her face, the kind that lights up her eyes and dimples her cheeks. The odd feeling returns to Yeji's chest, warm and unidentifiable.

"Lucky for you, I think there's a storm forecasted for tonight," she says lightly, trying to ignore whatever it is she’s feeling. "Meet me by the west tower at ten with your glass jar."

 


 

"This storm looks bad," Ryujin says.

"Is that nervousness I hear coming from Shin Ryujin?" Yeji says, a note of teasing in her voice.

"No." Ryujin makes a face at her. "Maybe. Yes."

Yeji feels her gaze soften. "It's okay if you are," she tells Ryujin. "Do you still remember the spell?"

"Yeah." Ryujin runs a hand through her hair. "The spell isn't a problem, it's—" her eyes dart anxiously towards the window. As if on cue, a bolt of lightning crackles in the air, scorching the earth where it strikes. Yeji understands.

"You cast the spell," she says, "and I'll take care of the lightning. Okay?"

Ryujin tears her eyes away from the window long enough to look at her. "Okay," she says, after a pause, her gaze steady. "I trust you."

Yeji feels a shiver run lightly through her, one that has nothing to do with the chill in the air accompanying the storm. "Alright. Let's do this."

 


 

There's something perversely exquisite about the white-hot lightning that sizzles in the air, the deep rumble of thunder that follows soon after, the torrential rain that falls around them in sheets. The air crackles and vibrates with the storm's energy, charged. Yeji feels the buzz of magic all around her, prickling at her skin, untapped power wherever she looks. She's in her element. It's exhilarating.

Next to her, Ryujin looks terrified, her jaw set stubbornly like she's trying to hide it. "You're sure the lightning won't hit us?"

Yeji has to shout to be heard over the cacophony of the storm. "I thought you said you trusted me?"

Ryujin scowls. "I do, but—"

She inches closer to Yeji as another bolt of lightning crashes down to earth.

"The sooner you finish the spell, the sooner we can get out of this storm," Yeji reminds her.

A lightning bolt streaks towards them, jagged and menacing. Yeji dismisses it with a few muttered words and a wave of her hand, but blinks as Ryujin flinches, clutching at her jacket. Yeji can feel the hard bump of Ryujin's nose bridge press into her collarbone, Ryujin’s heartbeat thudding against her own chest, and it nearly causes her to lose her grasp on the spell sheltering them from the rain's wrath.

"Sorry," Ryujin says after a while, stepping away once she realises what Yeji's done with the lightning. "I—that never happened."

Yeji hides her smile in her hand. "Sure."

Ryujin unscrews her jar, reaching up to the storm with her free hand and reciting the incantation. But she keeps flinching every time lightning strikes, dissipating the magic she's called forth, breaking the spell.

"It's a finicky spell," Yeji shouts over to her, waving away another lightning bolt. "Elemental spells need you to be firm, especially this one. You can't hesitate."

"I'm trying," Ryujin grits out through her teeth, "it's hard. "

Yeji looks at her, feeling her gaze soften in sympathy again. She doesn't know what else she can do to make this easier for her, past keeping the rest of the lightning from frying them both.

Lightning strikes. Ryujin flinches again, her eyes darting towards Yeji. Yeji remembers the way she'd ducked into her arms earlier when the lightning came especially close, and wonders.

Ryujin makes another failed attempt, and Yeji throws caution to the wind. "It's okay," she murmurs, stepping forward and wrapping her arms around the smaller girl. "We're okay. The lightning can't touch us."

She feels Ryujin stiffen in her arms. "Yeji, what—"

Another bolt of lightning crashes down to earth, and Yeji feels two hands grip onto her jacket again as Ryujin pushes her face into her shoulder. She can't help it; she giggles a little.

"Stop laughing at me," Ryujin tells her, trying to sound stern, but Yeji finds it very hard to take her seriously when she's wrapped up in her arms, face buried into her shoulder.

"You're cute," she whispers, knowing Ryujin won't be able to hear her over the din of the storm.

"What?" Ryujin says.

"I said, try the spell again," Yeji says, still smiling.

Ryujin's eyes narrow at her suspiciously, but she reaches up to the sky again, reciting the incantation. Lightning strikes again, but Yeji waves it away with one hand, the other still snugly wound around Ryujin's waist. Ryujin doesn't flinch this time, completing the spell as her hand curves through the air.

When she's done, there's a ball of lightning in her jar, volatile and sizzling. Ryujin all but slams the lid back on the jar, screwing it tightly shut. "I did it," she breathes, cupping the jar reverently in her hands, as if she can't believe it.

"You did," Yeji agrees. She looks at Ryujin, whose eyes are alight with unadulterated joy, grinning wildly, hair slightly damp from the slight rain Yeji's spell hadn't managed to catch. There's that fluttering feeling in her chest again, the one she can't put a name to.

"What?" Ryujin says.

"What?" Yeji echoes.

"You're staring."

"I'm not," Yeji says, but she can't tear her eyes away.

Ryujin raises an eyebrow, tipping her head back to look at Yeji, wet hair sticking to her forehead. "You are."

"You're so annoying," Yeji complains. The air around them crackles with electricity, tense and charged. Ryujin doesn’t even flinch this time, staring at Yeji, lips quirked in one of her infuriating smirks, an unspoken challenge in her eyes. And Yeji’s never been one to back down from a challenge issued by Shin Ryujin.

She pulls Ryujin in by the lapels of her jacket and kisses her.

 


 

When she pulls back, she panics, wondering what the hell possessed her to do something like kiss Shin Ryujin. Ryujin is unmoving, her eyes closed, lips parted. Yeji's panic intensifies.

"Sorry," she begins anxiously, but before she can even finish her sentence, Ryujin’s hand is on the back of her neck, pulling her down into another kiss.

“Shut up,” she mumbles against Yeji’s lips, then presses closer, hand carding through her hair, kissing her again. Yeji pulls her closer by her waist, swallowing the hitch in her breath it elicits, deepening the kiss. Around them, the storm rages on, lightning stinging the ground, rain pelting the little pocket of air Yeji has created with her magic.

Ryujin takes her bottom lip in between her teeth and tugs. Yeji’s concentration shatters.

The rain drenches them immediately, and they both shriek, making a mad dash for the tower, Yeji waving her hand frantically in an attempt to simultaneously re-cast the spell and keep the lightning away from them. 

“This is your fault,” Ryujin yells at her, but she’s laughing, clutching her jar of lightning to her chest, eyes wild, elated. 

“Maybe if you hadn’t kissed me like that I wouldn’t have dropped the spell,” Yeji shoots back, trying to keep the laughter out of her voice.

“You kissed me first, dumbass!”

 


 

Once they're safely inside the tower, they collapse against the wall, breathless, their clothes a sodden mess, tracking messy splotches of water everywhere they step. Yeji slumps against the cool stone, her head lolling tiredly. She’s fatigued from all her spellcasting, the adrenaline of the storm draining out of her, leaving a tired sort of satisfaction and a chill that sinks deep into her bones. Beside her, she can see Ryujin start to shiver lightly.

"Here," she murmurs. She runs her hand up Ryujin's arm, stopping just shy of touching her skin, reciting the words to a drying spell under her breath. Ryujin exhales as her clothes start to steam lightly, the water bleeding from the fabric and evaporating into the air.

Ryujin catches her wrist between her fingers. "I can do it," she says.

Yeji meets her eyes. "I know," she says. She gently detaches her wrist from Ryujin’s hold and continues to dry her off.

"At least do yourself first," Ryujin tries to protest, but Yeji just smiles, beginning to draw the moisture from her damp hair instead.

"You looked cold."

Ryujin huffs in displeasure, but falls silent, watching Yeji as she works. A moment later, Yeji feels her clothes start to dry, too, Ryujin's brow furrowed in concentration, lips moving as she recites the same spell.

"So," Ryujin says, once they're both warm and dry.

"So," Yeji echoes.

"I'll see you in class?" Ryujin says, her voice barely above a whisper, the jar of lightning clutched in her hands, the only thing between them. The lightning sizzles frantically in the jar, trying to escape its glass prison, painting Ryujin's face in shades of white and electric blue. Yeji feels her breath catch in her throat.

"See you in class," she agrees, when she manages to find her voice again.

She walks back to her room once Ryujin's disappeared around the corner, her lips still tingling faintly, the smile on her face making her cheeks ache.

 


 

When their end-of-semester results are released a month later, Yeji takes one look at the rankings and smiles to herself, wryly.

She and Ryujin are tied for first place. Yeji's managed to beat her for the fifth semester in a row in Alteration and Elementals, but Ryujin's skill in combat magic and potion-making has always been unrivalled. Ryujin has her beat in Restoration by just a few points, too, but Yeji's Alteration grade makes up for the gap.

Chaeryeong nudges her. "Don't get mad. At least you didn't lose first place to her."

"I'm not mad," Yeji says. She hides a smile in the palm of her hand. "Why would I be?"

Chaeryeong squints at her, trying to gauge whether she's joking. Yeji looks at her innocently. 

"Alright, who are you and what have you done with Hwang Yeji?" Chaeryeong demands.

Yeji feels a chin come to rest on her shoulder, a hand curling affectionately around her little finger. "What a shame," Ryujin says. If Yeji turns now, she knows there will be an obnoxious smirk playing on Ryujin's lips. "I guess I still have next year to beat you."

"You're not going to," Yeji tells her. "My scores in combat magic and potion-making are catching up to yours."

"After that disaster of a potion you made last week?" Ryujin snorts. "I don't think so."

Yeji reddens. She remembers it vividly; just as she had been about to drip a pinch of snowberry juice into a potion that Professor Bae had warned them was extremely volatile, Ryujin had caught her eye from across the classroom and smiled at her, dimples catching the light. "That was because you—that was your fault!"

"Whatever helps you sleep at night," Ryujin says. Her thumb rubs back and forth on Yeji's wrist in an affectionate caress, and Yeji leans back into her, somewhat placated.

Beside her, Chaeryeong stares, first at them and then at their linked hands, her brows pushing together like she's trying to figure them out. "I can't tell if you guys hate each other or what," she says finally, giving up and returning her eyes to the board where their results are pinned.

"We hate each other," they say in unison. Yeji feels Ryujin laugh into her shoulder.

"Chaeryeong, I think Jisu was looking for you," Ryujin says, and Chaeryeong disappears so quickly into the sea of students that both Yeji and Ryujin dissolve into a fit of giggles.

"There's supposed to be a storm tonight," Yeji says, once their laughter has subsided.

"Oh?" Ryujin murmurs, her thumb resuming its back-and-forth movement along Yeji's skin. "I think I saw something about that, too."

"Want to go catch some lightning?"

Students mill around them, peering at the board, chattering excitedly about their results. In the midst of the chaos, no one pays them any attention. Yeji leans back into Ryujin again as Ryujin presses a quick kiss to her skin, just behind her earlobe.

"I thought you'd never ask."