Chapter 1: all you'd have to do
Escaping is cowardly - running away from your problems, never facing your demons, is cowardly. Must be. That’s what everyone says, after all.
But some people do it anyway. Some people escape.
Some people escape and never return, and are all the better for it.
He was dying, the first time he saw Yoongi.
It had been his own fault completely - he, who knows, knew the currents like the back of his hand, who’s always warning others off the danger spots, whose job is to prevent that very thing from happening - somehow he’d thought he was impervious to the same waters that could kill with impunity.
Anyway. So there he’d been, drowning, dying, clawing through the water to try and just breathe - to, oh god, to breathe -
The water weighed down on him. Hoseok still dreams about it, sometimes, and he’d always thought he might die in the water, but it’s one thing to think it and one thing to feel it, the -
the burn of it, filling his lungs and his throat, stinging his eyes as he’d tried to get out, suddenly so weak after so much thrashing and coughing, the ocean so volatile -
Anyway. Here’s the bit of the memory he slows down for. He skips over the most of the unpleasantries. The bit that matters. The bit with Yoongi in it.
So Hoseok was drowning, dying, and thinking about how he’d never actually finished that Mario game. Is Mario just gonna be stuck down there, stuck in that fire painting in Peach’s basement just because Hoseok’s dead? Will Jimin complete it for him? And he’s thinking about it, more worried about it than Jimin himself, than about Park Senior and his shop and Jeongguk on the beach, and what he’d say to his mother, what Haewon would think - and he was so worried about Mario, thinking about him, when a slimy thing, like seaweed, wrapped around his wrist.
Okay. Normal. Drowning in the deep sea, so of course weird plants are going to start to claim him before he actually dies.
Here, Hoseok’s memory goes a bit weird. Did Yoongi use the weeds to pull him closer, or did he fight it off him? Either way, it ended with Hoseok bare of plants and drowning, warm hands on his arms pulling him, Hoseok too disoriented to work out which direction he was being hauled.
And then he surfaced. He was coughing, or choking, or crying, or a mixture of all three, hardly aware that he was in the air again, that something had saved him. He still doubts it, sometimes.
Then, in his memory, he was dragged to shore. Cold and soaked through, the hands on his arms now around his shoulders, supporting him until he was tossed roughly onto the rocky outcrops near the beach. His shoulders were stinging almost as much as his eyes. He remembers crying then, if he hadn’t been before.
And then he saw Yoongi’s face for the first time.
Even now, anytime he closes his eyes, he sees it. Him. Pale, rounded cheeks; ears that taper to a sharp point, parting the water-blackened hair tucked behind them; a smattering of brown freckles. Lips. Bitten a little, pink and damp. A snub button nose. Long eyelashes. The curve of a pale neck and the spread of tucked-in shoulders and dripping water down the teasing beginning of a flat, slender chest. Only his head and shoulders had been sticking out of the water. Hoseok remembers that, too.
And he’d stayed, watching, until Hoseok had coughed most of the seawater up and cried out the rest of it. Watched silently.
“Thank you,” Hoseok had said - slurred - wiping drool from his chin. “God, thank you, I - what’s your name?”
Still watching. Quietly. Yoongi had opened his mouth - Hoseok remembers so clearly, lips parting, tongue pressed against the roof of his mouth - and had clicked rapidly, like calling a dog, like the dolphins Hoseok sometimes sees out past the bay, adding a little whistle.
“I’m Hoseok.” Hoseok had been starting to shiver, the ocean seeping into his bones. “Thank you. Thank you so much.”
“Ho...seok,” Yoongi had said, and - oh, god, his voice is still so clear, as if it was just a moment ago, as though Hoseok is living his whole life in that one little moment. Raspy and hoarse. Delicate.
“Hoseok’s me. What’s your name?” Hoseok had asked again, shaking. Shaking bad.
“Name,” Yoongi repeated. “Your name.”
“You?” Hoseok pointed shakily at Yoongi. “Your name.”
“Name. Name.” Yoongi had pursed his lips and whistled, shrill and ringing. He gestured to himself.
Yoongi had paused as though thinking deeply. “Yoongi,” he’d said at last, like he was reading something vaguely visible off the wall. Then he’d turned, and Hoseok wondered what colour his hair was when it wasn’t soaking wet, when it wasn’t dark, and when Hoseok blinked Yoongi was gone.
And now, looking back, what Hoseok remembers the most is what wasn’t there -
He never saw Yoongi walk away, and he never saw the colour of his eyes.
When he’s not being a fool, Hoseok splits his time three ways. In the four months since his near-death experience, nothing about his routine has changed, except that he’s constantly on the lookout for a pale foreigner called Yoongi.
The first thing he does is the lifeguarding. The beach belonging to their sunny little seaside town isn’t that big, and it’s one of those beaches that’s a discovery to the tourists, but there’s still plenty to do. Jeongguk, the other kid on duty beside him, got his badge this summer, and he’s spent all of it so far hopping up and down the beach, alternating between playing with the kids and telling them off when he remembers what he’s meant to be doing.
The second thing he does is the ice-cream. Hoseok and Jimin, who lives right on top of the Park family store, run a kitschy little tourist shop, t-shirts and baseball caps and snowglobes and stuff - but most of their money comes from the ices they sell, sorbet and cream and slushed ice in little tubs, dripping off cones all over the beach.
But the third thing is the swimming. It’s the thing he does no matter where he is, the thing that he does.
No fucking around with surfboards either, the way Jeongguk likes to do in the early morning, and no messing around doing those wave-jump games and taking half an hour to adjust to the water. Hoseok swims. Properly.
Swims constantly. Swims. He thinks he swims like other people breathe, sometimes.
The town is built on the inner curve of a bay, and the main beach is right in front of the boardwalk, the place where Jimin and Hoseok sell their ices, the place with the little town museum and the bikes for hire and the car park and the hostels and stuff. But Hoseok lives on the edge of town, where the bay crooks out to sea and then dives back into land again.
The town is built on one spike of a ‘W’ shape. Hoseok’s place is built on the other.
He lives with his aunt, Jung Haewon, but mostly they stay out of each other’s way - she writes children’s books, mythological fairy things full of sparkles and rainbows. He swims. And they have a private bay, private not because they own it but private because nobody ever bothers to come out to it, and in the private bay Hoseok swims and dives and swims and floats, content for hours on end - he can swim from his house to the boardwalk in town, and that’s how he gets to work most days, slicing through the gentle waves, happy and relaxed, wearing nothing but a pair of shorts, carrying nothing but himself and, sometimes, a few coins to play toss with on the beach.
(It was here that a rogue current caught him, those few months ago.)
“‘Lo, hyung,” Jeongguk says when Hoseok washes to shore one morning. “Hey, I only fell off once today! And I totally saw a fairy on the morning walk, too. I betcha anything I did.”
“Well done,” Hoseok says. Jeongguk’s surfboard is shoved beside their little hut, upright in the sand, water running off it in rivulets, and Jeongguk’s beam of pride is as bright as the sunshine - he’s never sure whether the fairy sightings or the surfing contributes more to the happiness. “Someday I’ll come in early to see you, huh? And the fairies. See them too.”
“I won’t fall off at all. And you’ll get to see fairies, hyung, proper fairies!”
Hoseok ruffles his hair in reply. Jeongguk reminds him of a puppy, sometimes, eager to play and eager to show off and responsive to hugs and fluff and praise, preening under the attention. “Sure, kid.”
“I won’t! And you will!”
“Didn’t say I didn’t believe you,” Hoseok chuckles, although the surfing seems more truthful than Jeongguk’s perpetual fairies. His badge is waiting for him in the hut, along with an orange polo, which he pulls over his soaked frame. The sun will dry him in no time, anyway, and in the meantime he’d like to seem just a little professional.
(Hah. He’s no better than Jeongguk.)
“Can I go wake Jiminie?”
“He’s probably awake already, kid,” Hoseok says, emerging from the hut and sinking his toes into the soft sand. Already he’s covered in it, sticking to his skin with the seawater, but he doesn’t hate it. It smells of suncream and shells and salt. It smells of home.
Jeongguk sighs. “Can I go get him to feed me, then?”
“Didn’t you eat breakfast?”
“Yeah, but that was ages ago.”
Hoseok laughs. “Not my fault you wanna get up before the sun does.”
“I want food, though!”
“Go ahead, kid. Nobody’s here, anyway.”
“Yeah!” Jeongguk sprints off through the sand, kicking heaps of it in the air, jumping up into an abandoned sandcastle from the day before. “Ice-cream!”
Hoseok watches him run. The town itself is alive, but the tourists don’t emerge ‘till mid-morning, so the smell of frying eggs and lazy breakfasts clatters across the square, the sort of summer morning where everybody’s relaxed and nobody has any pressing appointments. It’s early summer, the heavy weeks right after the schools get out, and everybody’s in a rush to be as slow and patient and sunsoaked as possible - the only other people Hoseok can see, apart from himself and Jeongguk, are three little kids that live in the town, settling on the beach the way they do every day of the year, and a couple of cars chugging through on their way to somewhere else.
It’s hard to think that life could be anything other than this.
The town is what tourists call an escape.
Hoseok calls it an escape, too. Sometimes Haewon gets the newspaper, and sometimes they go watch TV with Park Senior, and see stuff happening, but nothing ever happens in the town.
Hoseok loves it. Nothing happens. Activity is as timeless and continuous as the washing in and out of the waves. An escape.
And the ocean carries itself further back. Hoseok checks the calendar quickly before he grabs the stick of chalk to mark out the tide times on the board by the hut, just as a reminder, but anyone visiting already has a sort-of-an idea of when to sunbathe and when to swim, and -
And it itches at Hoseok to leap back into the water and float himself out to sea. Out so far that he has to climb on the rocks (that fill in the space between the two bays) all the way up to the scrub cliffs at the top, and then he’ll run back down to town and get a quick lunch and do it all over again. They do that sometimes, him and Jeongguk and Jimin, just running until they fall down and then doing it all over again.
Jeongguk returns. His cheeks are covered in lemon sorbet; there’s a dollop of strawberry sauce on the tip of his nose; he’s beaming brightly. His hands are full, one with a half-eaten cone, the other with a mess of half-melted chocolate ice-cream. “I got you it!”
“Thanks, kid,” Hoseok snatches the chocolate ice from Jeongguk’s hand, immediately wriggling his tongue around the cone to try and catch the melting drops. “Hey, you wanna go for a swim after this?”
“Whattabout the lifeguarding?”
“We can guard ‘em from the sea.”
It’s always easy to convince Jeongguk to do something fun. He nods quickly, happily, lapping up the rest of his sorbet. “Yeah!”
The orange polos are abandoned on the sand, pooled next to the lanyards with their badges on them, and Hoseok quickly munches down his cone. “Race ya.”
“Winner gets to dunk the loser!”
Hoseok begins to laugh, sprinting down the beach, and he’s almost - almost - forgotten a quiet Yoongi and a face, watching him cough up the ocean as he lay on the rocks. He’ll keep his eye out. That’s all he’ll ever manage to do.
And later that afternoon, he makes his way up to the shop. Jimin, a small, apple-cheeked, energetic sort of a boy, sits on the side of the boardwalk, flipping a plastic spoon between his fingers. “Hyung!”
“Heya, Minnie.” The shop is what makes Hoseok most of his upkeep - the lifeguarding salary is paid by the town hall and is more of a courtesy than an actual wage. But he and Jimin have a booming little tourist trap, and it’s fun to leave Jeongguk on the beach so he can come up here and serve soft scoop to the sunburned little city kids.
Jimin beams. “You up here for now?”
“Uh… unless Jeongguk drowns, then, yeah.” Hoseok sits heavily next to Jimin, ruffling his head of brown hair on the way down. “How’s it been?”
Hoseok smiles. “Yeah.”
“Hm… your aunt came down and bought a bunch of stuff,” Jimin holds up his hand, folding down one finger after the other, “And Jeonggukkie came up and bounced around a bit and brought you ices, and there was a tour bus and they bought stuff, and. And, yeah. We got money.”
Technically, Jimin’s father, Park Senior, owns the shop. A family business for ages, ever since anyone could remember, but the old man’s got his aching bones and hobbled back, and Jimin and Hoseok take a slice of the pie with no hard feelings.
Plus, free ices.
“What did Haewon want?”
Jimin shrugs. “Chat, as much as anything, and then she wanted postcards to send to your family and all that. Talked about your mum a bit. She had three pens in her hair.”
“A new record?”
“Almost, ‘cept last winter she had one behind her ear, too. She gotta get four in her plait before she beats the record.”
Hoseok grins, Jimin giggling and curling his small fist over his mouth. Jimin is cute and easygoing, working hard in the banking side of the business, caring for his father as much as he can, attending accounting classes in the college twenty minutes down the road - he wants to move away someday, to the city, wants to make his money and do something, but any time an opportunity pops up, he shies away. He says he wants to escape from the town, but - but honestly, Hoseok reckons he’s escaped from something else. But Jimin says he wants to get away -
(Hoseok can’t relate. Ever since he can remember, the ocean, the town, has been the place he’s escaped to, not from.)
And that’s Jimin, leaping up in flip-flopped feet, pulling at the collar of his t-shirt, smiling at a gang of little children, coming up to the soft serve machine with crumpled notes clutched in their fists. One of them wanders over to the sorbet freezer - Hoseok grins at him. “Hey.”
“Can I please - have -” The kid’s foreign, his accent thick and difficult, his brows furrowed as he struggles through the sentence. “Please - have a - orange. Please.”
Hoseok waves the scoop near the box of orange sorbet. “This one, kid?”
The child nods his head furiously, handing over a dampish note and accepting the cone with stars in his eyes. Jimin, meanwhile, is jabbering away to the bunch of them, serving out towered cones, strawberries and chocolates, fixing up change and arranging colourful spoons and sprinkles on top of them.
And later that day, they go to the fisher’s place, and buy a bucket of fresh-caught mussels. Jimin cooks up a creamy sauce - Hoseok buys chips - and they hurdle onto the beach, sitting outside the lifeguard’s hut with Jeongguk, eating mussels and licking the sauce off their fingers and piling up the shells in a heap by their feet.
(Later on, Jeongguk arranges them in an ugly face, and crows that it’s Hoseok-hyung, and then Hoseok chases him into the ocean, and Jimin starts pelting the both of them with cold chips and empty mussel shells.)
Yeah, life’s good.
It’d be better if Hoseok could just see him again, just to say thanks, just to see him. Just to see the colour of his eyes.
But life’s still good.
Which leads him to the here-and-now.
The here-and-now proper. All backstory caught up on; this is Hoseok, living one moment to the other.
“See you tomorrow,” Jimin says, the red sunset staining his hair pink. He and Hoseok fold up the trestle tables with practiced ease, and all the stands full of keyrings and little chains are tucked under the shelves they belong. “Are you swimming back?”
“Yeah,” Hoseok shrugs. He never brings anything into town - he may sleep in his aunt Haewon’s house, but he lives out of the shop and out of the hut and if he ever needs anything, home is just a paddle away.
Jimin nods. He’s tired, and there’s sand in his hair, and he smells of cream sauce and mussels. They both do. “Night, then.”
“Night. Look out for that kid tomorrow morning, before he kills himself on the rocks.”
And Jimin laughs. “He’ll kill himself trying to find a mermaid or something. But I will do, hyung. See ya.”
People are still on the beach, but they’re packing up with the setting of the sun. The three kids are still there, in the same spot from the morning, having dug a hole twice as deep as any of them, but Hoseok’s known them for years. They don’t need a warning to get out before the tide sweeps them in and away.
Truth is, he never told Jimin and Jeongguk.
About any of it.
He didn’t tell them about the almost-drowning because he’s Hoseok, and he’s meant to be the best swimmer in the whole world, meant to know the ocean like the back of his hand, and he’d never hear the end of the teasing if he admitted it.
He didn’t tell them about Yoongi because -
Because it shouldn’t matter. Someone was out for a swim, and they saw someone else drowning, and they helped them to shore and waited until they were sure the other wasn’t dead. They exchanged names.
It was four months ago.
And Hoseok’s still stuck replaying the memory in his head, from the first wave that washed over his head to the moment there’d been a Yoongi and a blink.
Which is honestly pathetic.
Hoseok was aiming for the ocean to swim back to Haewon, but once he reaches the shoreline he swerves, heading for the rocky outcrop. It’s possible to get back by climbing on the rocks, and Hoseok knows a lovely spot right at the tip of the ocean, a place to dangle your feet into the sea and think about whatever’s going on - he’s sure there’ll be nobody there, this late in the day. Nobody fishes. It’s just a place for Hoseok, for the people that know it’s there.
“Your name,” he mumbles, pulling his lanyard from around his neck and hanging it on a rock safe enough that it’ll still be there in the morning. “What’s your name?”
Yoongi hadn’t been native, that’s for sure, although he’d looked so pretty in the moonlight. Glowing, almost, his skin flushed and pale, a little freckled. But he hadn’t understood Hoseok’s question.
“What’s your name?” He says to himself. The barnacles clinging to the rocks hurt his feet, just for a minute, but it’s not long before he adjusts to the stinging tingle of the surface and begins to ignore the pain.
What if Yoongi wasn’t his name? What if it was, like, a word to ask if Hoseok was alright?
But it’s a name. It’s a name. Yoon. Gi.
The rocks rise up from the beach, steep, and it’s a sort of a game to see how quickly Hoseok can leap from one to the other without losing his security or his confidence or, worst of all, his grip. Some places here aren’t rocky underneath, but some are, and Hoseok can remember a few years ago, a girl crashing down to the hidden danger, red in the water and the wail of an ambulance.
He won’t, though. He knows the rocks.
“Hoseok.” Hoseok. Does Yoongi think about him?
The sand peters off, now, so there’s nothing separating the rocks from the ocean. Spray hits Hoseok’s legs, flecking up onto the salt-stained orange shirt, dampening his arms and his face, and Hoseok sighs into it. Does he think about him?
Like, Hoseok’s technically saved a bunch of lives. Kids swimming too deep, Jeongguk tripping and getting whacked with his surfboard, that old man that one time that bashed his ankle against a hidden rock.
And he can’t remember all of them.
He climbs higher and higher, almost as though he could climb through the sunset and into the other side. Yoongi isn’t a lifeguard, though, and Hoseok knows everyone in the town, so he’s not someone like that, either, so he must be -
As he comes to the tip of the rocks, the place where they jut out into the water, near the spot Yoongi had brought him in the first place, he sees a someone. A body sitting where Hoseok should be, a tanned back, a head of soft, lilac hair looking out to sea, the rhythmic splashing of feet in water the way it can only be reached when the tide is at its highest.
“Hey,” he calls out - I’m a lifeguard and you’re not meant to be up here - but he’s left his badge down there. By the rocks. And his orange shirt doesn’t mean anything except that he’s got a real bad taste in fashion.
The guy at the rocks doesn’t look around. He’s not wearing anything but a pair of swimming trunks, coloured silver, and there are golden bracelets all up his arms. “Hello,” he says, still not looking around, and shifts over. “I’m not holding you up, am I?”
“You’re staying at the hostel, right? You better get on. Tide comes up quick,” Hoseok says, trying to sound as polite as he can. He just wants to mope.
The guy laughs. Pats the rock beside him. “Nope, I’m good here. C’mon and sit down, though. Tell me your worries. Your shoulders look way too set.”
“You can’t see my - no, the tide’s gonna be too dangerous. You should head back.”
“If it’s too dangerous, why aren’t you heading back?”
Hoseok thinks about knowing the ocean better than anyone else, and then he thinks about drowning in it, and being pulled to shore by a somebody. “Cause I know the tides ‘round here,” he says anyway, shoving a defiant middle finger at his memories. “You better go back.”
“Sit down. I’m not leaving yet. I’m here to do something special, act- ually.” He’s got an accent, this guy, a little lilting. Melodious. Pretty to listen to.
“Do it in the town.”
“No. Sit down.”
Hoseok groans, long and childish. “No.”
“Sit down.” The guy looks back at him, wide smile decorated over his tanned face, his brown eyes glinting with gold, his cheeks speckled with dots that could be mud or freckles. “My name’s Taehyung. Taehyung Sei. So, like, now we’re not strangers. Sit down.”
“Why do you want me to sit so bad?” Yet there’s something about the eyes - compelling, the golden strands through them glowing stronger, and Hoseok is sitting before he knows it. His knee touches Taehyung’s, and he jolts back, recoiling.
Taehyung smiles. “What’s up?”
“Why do you want me to sit so bad?” Hoseok dips his feet in the water. Technically, he could just slip off the rock right now and swim back to Haewon’s, his own beach, and forget Yoongi and weird tourists on rocks. He’s not gonna, though. Why isn’t he?
“Just wanted to hang out.”
“I’ve - you - I don’t know you, though.”
“Yeah, but,” Taehyung shrugs. There’s a little brown mole on his shoulder. “You looked interesting. Hoseok, right?”
“I - what?” Hoseok checked, but he’s taken his lanyard off. There’s no way Taehyung could know his name.
“I been hearing about you. The lifeguard that isn’t an idiot.”
“Guk’s not an idiot.”
Taehyung smiles again, teeth poking out from below his lip. “Just repeating what I hear.”
“You really gotta get back. The water’s gonna come right over the rocks in a bit.”
“But I’ll be safe beside you, Hoseok-ah. After all, you know the sea. The tides ‘round here.”
Hoseok grits his teeth and says nothing. He just wanted to mope in peace, or whatever, and he’s still not sure why he hasn’t just walked away yet.
“You know what I’d do about him, if I were you?” Taehyung’s toes are painted silver, the same shade as his trunks, and his fingers are the gold of the bangles that clink up his arms. Hoseok sees a sliver of a tattoo tracing around his ankle, but he doesn’t get to see what it is before Taehyung’s splashing his feet into the water again. “Hey. Hey, Hoseok-ah. You know what I’d do about him?”
Hoseok-ah? “Who, Jeongguk?” Hoseok says grudgingly. Kicks his heels down into the ocean.
“Not that kid, although he looks cute, too. Like a button. No, you know. Prettyboy. Pointy teeth and pretty lips and all that, right? Right, Hoseok-ah? ‘Cause you know the sea so well?” Taehyung laughs, melodious and gentle, and in the burning blaze of the sunset it’s as though his hair is glowing silver.
Hoseok’s blood runs cold. “Do you know him? Is he part of your tour group or something?”
“Huh.” Taehyung surveys him. “Depends who you’re talking about. Cute li’l ears and all. Button nose. Adorable.”
“Yoongi?” Hoseok catches his breath. If - if Yoongi’s been staying in a hostel somewhere, like a bunch of foreign college students, does that mean this freak could be his lead? “You’re talking about - has he - he told you?”
“Just repeating what I hear,” Taehyung says again. His eyes twinkle, and when Hoseok looks at the water, the silver on his toes seems to be glowing. He’s wearing anklets, too, silver and gold loops that look rippled and hooked, distorted by the seawater.
“I don’t know who you are,” Hoseok fancies he sees the fish darting below their feet. “I just wanna meet him again. Say thanks.”
“After all, you know the seas.”
Hoseok’s not stupid. He knows when he’s being mocked, but he has no idea what to do about it, not when it’s some tanned stranger with perked lips and golden eyes, who wraps all of his insults in a voice like silk and honey.
“Just tell me where he is.”
“He told you his name?” Taehyung wipes a finger across his bottom lip, cleaning some phantom irritation away, drawing Hoseok’s eyes to the thickness of them. “Wow. Aren’t you special, Hoseok-ah.”
“How do you know him?”
“Just repeating what I hear,” Taehyung says, so obviously on the edge of laughing that it just about drives Hoseok to properly throw himself in and swim away.
Fuck this. “Listen, I don’t know you,” Hoseok almost-growls, curling his hands into fists. He feels stupid. And slow. And his head hurts, like he’s drunk a couple bottles of beer and the hazy dizziness is just fading away. “Tell me what you’re gonna tell me, or fuck off.”
“Ooh. Hard- core.”
Hoseok bites down on his tongue so hard he tastes blood.
“Well,” Taehyung says, tracing his finger down his own thigh, drawing Hoseok’s eyes to the long expanse of skin. “You met him ‘cause you were drowning, Hoseok-ah that-knows-the-seas. You met him so he could save you. If I were you, I’d wait ‘till there was a storm, and just… throw myself in.”
“You’re fucking insane.” Hoseok’s mouth is dry, and he’s staring at Taehyung’s knee, and he doesn’t know why he’s still here.
Taehyung shrugs. “I think it’s a good idea.”
“You just told me to kill myself.”
And there’s a golden glint, sparkling inside the brown eyes, and there’s little strands of silver threaded through the lilac hair, like it’s one of those pendant-crowns the fairy princesses always wear in his aunt’s books. “I told you to go get the prettyboy. You want him, don’t you?”
“All soft and quiet. Hmm. All you’d have to do is…” Taehyung walks his fingers along his leg, then hovers them at his bent knee. “Jump.”
His hand splashes in the water.
Hoseok’s head hurts. “You want me to jump into the ocean.”
“I don’t care,” Taehyung shrugs, and dancing sparkles of gold trickle down his arms, and he shines, entrancing as the sun slides down beyond the sea. “But I think you should.”
Hoseok doesn’t remember him leaving. Hoseok doesn’t remember falling asleep.
But he blinks, and when he opens his eyes, the sun is gone.
So is Taehyung.
He takes one look at the ocean - all you’d have to do is jump - and decides to climb up the rocks to the path, and walk back to Haewon’s cottage, instead.
“I’m writing to your mother.”
Hoseok scratches butter over the toast a little louder.
“I’m writing to your mother.”
“Hoseok. I am writing to your mother.”
“Looks like we need more butter,” Hoseok says loudly, clanging the knife into the butter dish. “I’ll get some in town today.”
Haewon sighs. He isn’t looking around at her, but he imagines her shoving her pen into her mouth, chewing on the tip, her brow furrowed over the long, cramped postcard. “Hoseok. You know I don’t mind you living here.”
“Yeah, Jimin’s dad will know where I can get some fresh stuff. Proper butter. I’ll have to go soon.”
“You can stay all you like, in fact.”
Hoseok throws the knife into the sink. It crashes into a chipped mug. “I’ll get some milk, too.”
“But this isn’t right, Hoseok. All this hostility. I’m not saying she was in the right, but I think you should consider - consider -”
Hoseok crunches into the burnt toast, offensively loud, turning around to face his aunt. “And maybe some eggs.”
Haewon is tall and slender, much like Hoseok himself. She’s one of those people that could be any age, hiding behind small glasses and plaid shirts, her long hair plaited and wound into a bun, and sometimes - sometimes, when she comes out of her office after a long day, sighing against the doorframe - sometimes, she looks a little too much like her sister for Hoseok to handle. Haewon is reclusive. And, yeah, most of the time she and Hoseok stay out of each other’s way.
Doesn’t mean it isn’t annoying when she decides to intervene.
“Hoseok. Write to your mother.”
“Listen, Haewon-” he chucks the rest of the toast out of the window. Some crow’s lucky day. “Listen, I’m happy here. I can leave if you want me to, but I won’t be going back there, I’ll be moving into the Park place over the shop. I’m twenty-three.”
“No matter what age you are, you still need -”
“Nah, I’m good the way I’m set now, actually.” If he turned his head, he could read the postcard, but he doesn’t want to. “Listen, just - I’ll bring back dinner. Go write.”
“I was going on a walk.”
“Then go walk, then.” His sandals are by the door; he slips them on, shoving his backpack over his shoulders. “But not towards town, ‘cause I’m going that way.”
He wrenches the door open, stomping out and onto the garden path. It’s not that he doesn’t love Haewon -
Of course he loves Haewon -
But she’s one of those well-meaning people that thinks the whole world should work like books do, and gets stressed when they don’t. Some things aren’t meant to happen.
And then he’s thinking about the colour of Yoongi’s eyes again, and how soft he looked in the moonlight, and how much he wanted to reach out and touch, and how much he regrets not doing so. Who’d that guy been? Taehyung, right?
All you’d have to do is jump.
Hah. Yeah-fucking-right. Like Hoseok would jump. He’s not that stupid, no matter what that weird kid was trying to imply, and the odds that Yoongi would actually reappear are next to none. He kicks up gravel.
He doesn’t want to have a complicated life. He isn’t complicated - he doesn’t like it.
Yeah, he’s complicated, like -
Like, he thinks about things.
But he’d rather have a calm life. He’s already escaped - he’s already lived through his dramatic character arc, and arrived here, happy and fulfilled. He’d rather live simply and keep all the complexity in the ocean, for the times he’s swimming, the water so deep below him he can’t touch the bottom, the whole thing an exercise in trust between him and the ocean. Hoseok doesn’t want to have to deal with Haewon and some kid on the rocks and the colour of Yoongi’s eyes.
But he is.
He kicks at the scrubby dune-grass at his feet. Whatever. Fuck it. It’s not like he has to care. Why does he care?
He doesn’t care.
And the sun has risen, just barely, and the ocean stretches all across the left side of his vision, dwarfing the town that lies to his right. It’s early in the morning, so the water’s blushing pink, skating colour across the green and the blue, and Hoseok wishes he’d swam. He’d been angry. Still is.
He doesn’t want to be angry. He doesn’t want to be complicated. He’s escaped.
He’s escaped. It’s done.
All you’d have to do is jump.
Hoseok banishes all thought of Taehyung from his head, kicks Yoongi out of there too, and sprints the rest of the way down to the town, kicking up sand, the waves calling his name. There’s Jeongguk, and there’s Jimin, and there’s everyone that makes life simple, and Hoseok’s a simple man, too.
All you’d have to do is jump.
He’s not going to.
My name’s Yoongi.
He’s not going to.
Just repeating what I hear.
He’s not going to.
“Hyung! Hyung! I hit the rocks and now my board’s all scratched up, hyung, what do I do- ”
He’s not going to.
Hoseok forces a smile onto his face. “You dumbass, Guk. It’s fine. Just don’t go to the rocks next time, kiddo.”
“But I found your badge there,” Jeongguk says, frowning, the lanyard dangling from his fingers as he holds it out. “Did you leave it there last night?”
“Oh. Yeah. Yeah, I must’ve.”
All you’d have to do is jump. It trails through his mind like the chorus hook of a catchy song, always there, something he’ll be humming under his breath.
Jeongguk sighs. “Today feels weird. You feel it?”
“Thought it was just weird.”
“Nah.” The kid shuffles his feet in the sand. “Heavy day, ‘s what gran says.”
“Huh. Yeah. Heavy, is right.”
Heavy days. It’s a phrase - the older ones use it, sitting out in the shaded parts of town, glaring into iced drinks and saying it’s a heavy old day, alright. The sort of days where nothing feels right and nobody has the energy to do anything and there’s a ticking, right at the back of the skull, like you should be doing something - but what?
“Heavy old day,” Jeongguk mumbles, mimicking the slurred accent of the crop farmers outside town. The voice of his grandmother, hobbling about her slender house reading books and cooking meals for the neighbours. “Should we go up to Jimin?”
“Guess so,” Hoseok slings the lanyard around his neck, his spat with Haewon lying uncertain in his mind. He doesn’t like being at odds with her.
Everything feels… off.
All you’d have to do
“Huh?” Hoseok looks up into Jeongguk’s questioning expression. “Oh. I was just thinking out loud, kid.”
(But all he’d have to do is jump.)
“See you tomorrow, Hoseok!”
“See you tomorrow!”
“See you tomorrow?”
And so the month goes by. Every so often, when he’s sitting on the rocks, or when he’s letting the ocean drift him out a little to sea, he thinks he sees someone tall and lean and tanned, hair shining lilac, legs silver, gold all up their arms - but any time he blinks, and looks again, the figure is gone.
Once, Jeongguk had shown him something he found when he was surfing one morning. A gold bracelet, slim metal curved in a neat circle, unbroken to let the chain slide around it - the chain, connecting a lump of uncut quartz, polished and shining with purple and white. “What do I do with it?” Jeongguk had asked. Then, more excitedly: “Dya think it’s magic? Do you think it’s magic, hyung?”
Hearing the familiar song in his head, the little hum of all you’d have to do is jump, Hoseok had smiled and folded Jeongguk’s fingers around it once more. “Keep it, kid. I doubt the person that owned it has much need for it. I don’t - I don’t think it’s magic-”
“It’s pretty.” Jeongguk had shaken it down his wrist, where the quartz lay against the blue veins, glinting. “Do I look pretty, hyung? Like a fairy. Bet you anything it’s from a fairy.”
“Gorgeous, kid. Magical.”
Jeongguk giggled, then, and ran up the beach to show Jimin, and when Hoseok looked around for Taehyung, he was nowhere to be seen.
And a month goes by, and slowly, the heavy days lift. August comes, and the tourists abate a little, the town filling with a few families, but mostly couples or tour groups that stay for a month or so, soaking in the atmosphere more than the sights. Jimin and Hoseok keep the shop open, but restock it with tour books and history books in multiple languages, and one sly day, Jimin ups the prices for the ice-creams.
(“Might as well milk ‘em,” he whispers to Hoseok, and Hoseok can’t help but laugh.)
And one night in early August, after a raging argument with Haewon -
talk to your mother! -
Hoseok gets raging drunk and storms down to the beach.
(Not the town beach. The other one. The one that he swims in.)
What the fuck does Haewon know? She’s been living halfway across the country from her sister since before Hoseok was born, so surely she should know better than anyone why Hoseok’s doing this. She should know. She should just keep her stupid nose out of his stupid business and let him alone. That’s all Hoseok wants to do, anyway. Keep his stupid nose out of the stupid business.
All you’d have to do -
And it’s not fair that Hoseok’s finally escaped to live here full-time, and it’s not fair that nobody wants to let him. Sometimes he thinks -
(and he hiccups and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, knocking his beer bottle against his teeth as he pours it between his lips)
that the only person that really wants him here is himself. Which is stupid. Jimin and Jeongguk and, and, and, and loads of people like him here. And he likes him here. And it’s great. And his head hurts. And his heart is beating too fast.
And he hates that kid. Taehyung. Taehyung Sei, or whatever.
But, hey. When Hoseok’s drunk he thinks about the colour of his eyes, of Yoongi, and how annoying it is that he still hasn’t met him anywhere else. Taehyung had hinted that he knew him, so where is he? Who is he?
Who is he. Now there’s a question and a half.
All you’d have to do is jump.
Well, fuck that. Hoseok tosses the bottle aside, nestling it in the dug hole in the sand where the other empty bottles are. When he’s sober, in the morning, he’ll come and bring them back up to Haewon’s and chuck them somewhere where they won’t strangle a fish, or whatever. Never too far gone to be ecological, he remembers Jimin saying once, before pouring a shot into the ocean. Fish need to unwind, too.
“i like to drink with fishies cuz fishies are our mates when i go drink with fishies they drink them down in eight-” and Jimin, in Hoseok’s mind, cackling and saying Jeonggukkie drinks like a fish -
Yeah, well, Hoseok isn’t an asshole. Or something. The only person getting damaged by his bad decisions is him.
Who said that?
Him, probably. Or a drama. Or Jeongguk, blood pouring from his busted nose after another failed attempt to surf. Or something.
Anyway. Last time he felt this weird - last time he felt this drunk - he met Yoongi.
All you’d have to do is -
And Hoseok is up to his waist in water, splashing through the chill of the ocean at night, cold and tired and drunk and sick of hearing that stupid voice in his head telling him to -
And who gives a fuck? Haewon only knows the world that she creates, pixies and fairies for little girls to obsess over, family-friendly shit that she could churn out in her sleep, and it’s not Hoseok’s fault he had to leave, had to escape, and it’s Haewon’s fault she won’t fucking listen to him. And who gives a fuck? Hoseok just wants to swim and live on the beach and stay there his whole life, getting old on the beach, collecting shells, browning in the sun, getting old and wrinkled right where he is. He’s happy. He’s happy. He’s happy? He’s he’s he’s he’s he’s
not touching the bottom anymore
And swimming. He’s good at swimming. Swimming is what he knows.
And so he swims.
Fuck Taehyung Sei and his jumping. Hoseok can swim. Hoseok can swim, so why is he sinking? So why aren’t his arms working? So why won’t his legs kick, the breathe-in-out rhythm he’s learnt, so why, so why, so why won’t he swim?
“Fuck,” he gurgles, and begins to thrash.
The ocean is not your friend, Jeongguk recites to every little kid that has a close-call and comes out sobbing, clinging onto Jeongguk’s neck like a limpet. The ocean doesn’t want to help you. You can jump over the waves all you want, but don’t think you should swim out without your parents, without knowing what you’re getting into, okay?
No. Not okay.
Nothing sobers you up faster than trying to swim with alcohol clouding your brain and the waves slowly pulling you out to the horizon. Hoseok is a strong swimmer, but the ocean is not his friend, and he always forgets that, somehow, until he’s struggling back to shore, his arms burning, his body pulling itself far too slowly back. The waves are rougher than they looked five minutes ago. A wind has picked up. A westerly wind.
Burns his shoulders. Not okay, and so he swims, and for some reason all he can hear is the musical laughter of a gold-clattered boy on the rocks, kicking his bare feet in the ocean and telling him to jump.
Yeah, well, fuck it. Hoseok doesn’t want to sink.
So how come the shore isn’t getting any closer?
So how come there’s a dancing hand, tugging his ankle?
So how come he’s so cold?
So how come -
So how -
“You are making this very hard for me.”
Hoseok’s lungs burn. He rolls over on hard ground, feeling barnacles under the bare skin of his back, feeling the hot liquid of his own blood soothing over the cold ocean water at his feet and his palms, and he coughs, the sort of choke that scrapes at the walls of the throat and makes him whimper and cry against the dark surface of what he lies on. Fuck. Everything hurts, and his eyes want to fall out of their sockets, and he can't feel his legs.
“I said that you are making this very hard for me.”
Why did he do that? He’s not, like, impulsively suicidal or anything? Is that a thing he can be? Why did he do that?
“Do your… ears, do they not work?”
Hoseok peels his eyelids open, and realises that he’s almost certainly dead. “Ow, fuck,” he says indistinctly, looking up at the face surveying him, his head spinning when he moves it. He feels something wet, clinging to his face, and it takes a disturbing amount of time to realise that it's probably water, not blood. “Fuck, fuck, ow.”
“I pulled you out,” says Yoongi, blinking, backlit by a glowing moon. “You would have drowned, but I pulled you out.”
Yeah. Yeah, Hoseok’s dead, or dying, and this is some fever dream as he sinks to the bottom of the ocean, weighed down by the sheer mass of his own stupidity. “Y’gotta show me your eyes,” he slurs, trying to lift himself up, leaning on shaking arms. “Needa see your eyes.” If he dies, he might as well go without any unfinished business.
“My eyes.” Yoongi lifts a hand, and - and that’s weird, Yoongi’s in the water, still, and Hoseok’s lying on the rocks, but maybe it’s just the death - he brushes his thumb down the line of his nose.Snub li'l button nose. Round at the tip. Funny, how noses all look the same until you're dead, and then someone's nose is just the prettiest thing you've ever seen in your life. “My eyes?”
“Needa see ‘em.”
Yoongi widens his gaze, black pupils shining harsh into Hoseok’s. Large pupils. So large, the whites are gone. “Is this what you want?”
So large, there are no whites.
So black. No whites at all.
“Fuck,” says Hoseok, and starts to choke again, “Fuck me, I’m actually dead. Oh my go-”
“Did you not hear what I said?”
“I’m - fuck, fuck, fuck, Jeongguk doesn’t know what to do, Jiminie - me and Jiminie never got to finish the - the fucking - we were gonna build a coffee place next to the ice cream and now we can’t, ‘cause I’m fucking dead- who's gonna beat Mario if I'm dead, Jimin won't know- ”
“I said that you would have drowned, but I pulled you out.”
“I don’t wanna be dead.”
“But you are making this very hard for me,” says Yoongi intently. There’s water pouring down the gentle slope of his nose, his pretty nose, his freckles standing out, and his neck slopes down, pale and glowing in the moonlight, and Hoseok thought that his memory had preserved him perfectly. It had not. The memory of Yoongi is a faded pale facsimile of the Yoongi in front of him, water lapping against his shoulders.
“You are meant to be dead. You are meant to be dead twice over.” Yoongi’s voice is rough and deep, smooth, like a rich chocolate. Like being scraped against barnacles in the hot sunshine of early August. “And yet you are not. Why are you not dead?”
“I’m not - fuck, fuck, I’m not dead.” Hoseok lifts his palm, admiring the thick red blood pouring out of the scratches that line his arms, feeling the pain as a dull, salty sting.
“You are meant to be dead.”
“I’m not dead!”
Yoongi lifts his hand out of the water - his fingers are dripping with thin silver bands, embedded with shells, small and pink, like the rings Hoseok and Jimin used to try and make on the beach out of shell-chips and strands of seaweed. He grasps Hoseok’s chin, grip weak despite the strength in his expression, and pulls his face from side to side. Inspecting. Hoseok lets him, boneless in his arms. Surprised. “I was meant to kill you.”
“You - you - what?” He's not dead.
“Gutted and cleaned and beached for a month. Worn around my waist, winning me - winning me the school - you are meant to be dead.”
Now Hoseok’s not so sure he’s alive after all. Maybe he’s knocked his head on a rock somewhere and now he’s having a fevered nightmare while he slowly bleeds to death, squashed between the cliffs where nobody will ever find him, where someone like Jeongguk will see his skull in the months to follow, or something like that. There’s no way someone so pretty as Yoongi can come to him twice, save him twice, have eyes as black as the night Hoseok’s drowning in, and then declare that he’d meant to kill him.
He’s got to be dead.
Yoongi swipes his wet hair over his eyes; pouts his pale, pink lips. Pretty. Pretty, so pretty. As pale as the inside of a shell. “Hoseok.”
“How do you know my name?”
And then Yoongi colours, prettily under the light of the moon, pink - shell - rushing to meet his cheeks, tinting them rosy, turning the tip of his nose a light little spot of embarrassment. “You told it to me, the day I saw you.”
“I - I did? I - yeah. Yeah, I did. ”
“And now.” Yoongi lifts his hand again to Hoseok’s face, but instead of grasping his chin, he trails his thumb down the line of Hoseok’s cheek, down to his jaw and back into the water. The touch is warm, surprisingly so against the cold wet of Hoseok's skin. “Hoseok. I would like you to meet me, tomorrow night, in this place. P-please.”
“In this place?”
But Yoongi is gone again, and with a start, Hoseok realises he’s been lifted to the rocks on the beach.
He rolls over, and vomits water back into itself.
(Ashes to ashes.)
“You look like death, hyung.”
Hoseok won’t deny that he does, though. Haewon was missing this morning, claiming stress, probably from the arguments they've been having with increasing frequency, and so she didn’t see the green clinging to Hoseok’s cheeks - the waterlogged sound of his inhalations, the scent of seawater clutching to his skin. He’s seen himself, though. He looks awful. He looks like he should have drowned last night, and his palms, his legs, are covered in ugly-scabbed cuts.
And Jimin is asking with concern, too, not like how Hoseok looks like death when he staggers up the beach, covered in sand and sea and suncream. Jimin is worried. “Hoseok-hyung, what-”
(Jimin is always worried. Jimin, the unspoken fusser, the one Hoseok and Jeongguk go to to be bandaged up, the one they go to whenever.)
“Just felt a bit of a cough in the water and swallowed a shitload of it,” Hoseok waves Jimin’s concerns away, feeling awful for lying. Is he lying? Last night still feels surreal, like the first time he ever saw Yoongi, and through the swim on the way over, Hoseok spent all his time trying to convince himself that it was a dream - all of it, from the first meeting to the second, to the weird drowning, even to Taehyung Sei and his stupid all you’d have to do is jump.
He’s still not sure he’s not dead, after all.
Or dreaming. But - but - but he doesn't dream like that.
And Yoongi’s eyes had been black, not - not anything else, and he’d said gutted and cleaned and beached for a month, and then he’d told Hoseok to meet him there. Meet him at Hoseok’s beach.
Meet him tonight.
He'd said please.
“Huh. You sure?”
“Yeah,” Hoseok waves away the worried inspection, “I’m fine, Min-ah. You wanna bring food down with me to Jeon?”
“Mm.” From the way Jimin sits back against the freezer, Hoseok knows he’s not in the clear yet, but he’s getting there. “Who’ll look after shop?”
“I dunno, can’t we close for lunch?”
“Then grab your dad down.”
Jimin was always going to say yes, anyway. “He’ll just end up giving the cigarettes out free again,” is his parting shot as he climbs the stairs to the apartment above the cramped little tourist trap, but they both know Park Senior likes to get out into the sun, to soak his ageing bones and give little perks to the people he’s known longer than Hoseok’s been alive.
Why does Yoongi want to see him again? Who is Yoongi, anyway?
And why had Hoseok jumped in the first place, when he’s not that stupid, never has been - well, the first time he met Yoongi, but that was - that was different -
Hoseok dips his head respectfully when Park Senior comes down the stairs, leaning heavily on his son’s arm. He’s the spitting image of Jimin, sometimes, small and lean, the wiry sort of old man that could be anything from fifty to a hundred, and when he smiles the sun comes out to shine. Hoseok can see Jimin so easily, in fifty-odd years, coming down the stairs and beaming to all those that once had the freedom to run on the beach. Just like Jeongguk's grandmother - like every generation before them, timeless and unchanging, washing up and down with the rhythm of the tides. “Morning, sir.”
“Ai,” Park Senior - who’s just been called Senior since time out of mind - sits heavily onto the chair at the door of the shop, half-in and half-out of the sun. “Every time I see you. Your aunt’s the same. Only sir to the taxman and stupid-shit Americans.”
Park Senior cackles. “Go on down the beach, then, you two. Does me good to see the town. And you, Hoseok, you don’t look so good. You coming down with something?”
“Told you, hyung,” Jimin says.
“Just swallowed the sea on the way over,” Hoseok repeats the lie, kicking Jimin where his father won’t see. “Nothing to worry about.”
“You spat it back out?”
“Then there’s nothing to worry about,” Park Senior flaps his veined hands at them, scooting them further out of the store. “Down the beach, you.”
Down the beach they go.
What did Yoongi mean?
Jeongguk is also of the opinion that Hoseok looks like death, but unlike Jimin, he takes Hoseok’s excuse at face value. Jeongguk’s a little too trusting of things like that - he never thinks anyone has anything to hide - but it’s kind of refreshing, to just sit on the wet sand with cheese sandwiches and little strawberry pastries from the bakery, and forget about meeting pale boys with black eyes underneath the light of the lonely moon. (As if he could ever fully forget.)
And there’s always Jeongguk’s fairies to talk about.
(He's been reading up about mermaids, apparently. I wanna ask your aunt how to catch one! I read in a book once you're meant to drop the weight of its sins on its head-)
(That's stupid, Gukkie. What if mermaids don't sin?)
(Everyone sins, hyung.)
(How're you meant to drop the weight of its sins on its head? Mermaids aren't real, anyway, kiddo. You'll never have to kill one.)
(You never know!)
They talk gossip awhile. Jeongguk’s grandmother's cousin's son is going out with the girl from the fish shop, and Jeongguk’s grandmother's cousin disagrees because of some fallout she had with the father of the man who owns the fish shop, and that black hole of town history takes half an hour to work through.
The sun suns them. At one point, Hoseok has to rush into the water, pick up a stranded child, and dump her - yelling and screaming - at the feet of her mother.
“A proper lifesaver, Hoseok-sunbaenim,” Jimin says in a high-pitched voice, and pretends to faint against Jeongguk’s shoulder.
Jeongguk giggles. Hoseok gives them both the finger, and eats the rest of Jimin’s strawberry pastry - yelling indignantly, Jimin makes sure the strawberries are followed by a mouthful of sand, and they spend another entertaining hour chasing each other into the sea, throwing splats of wet sand at each other and shrieking.
And, hey, maybe it was all a dream.
Maybe Hoseok’s just been working too hard. Maybe he got too drunk last night, maybe Haewon pissed him off so much he drunk himself into a dream -
(and he has to go pick the bottles back from the rocks, too)
- and it’s all been a dream.
“Aw, man, my bracelet,” Jeongguk groans halfway through digging a hole with Jimin. “It keeps getting all sandy.”
“Wash it off in the waves,” Hoseok suggests. The purple, polished quartz seems to be mocking him where it glints, halfway down Jeongguk’s forearm. (All you'd have to do-)
Jeongguk shakes his head. “It - it goes funny in water.”
“It - hyung, you’re gonna think I’m stupid,” Jeongguk whines, standing out of the hole, Jimin popping up along with him, and neither of them can hear the little hah Hoseok huffs out - he doesn’t think many things could be stupider than whatever’s happening to him.
“Just say it, then.”
“It’s just… like, when I put it in water, it’s like it falls off - like, like a wriggly thing, like a magnet. But quartz isn’t a magnet, is it? See? See? It’s stupid,” Jeongguk glares at Jimin, who’s giggling at his side, clinging to his arm. “You think it’s stupid.”
“Doesn’t sound so stupid,” Hoseok shrugs. His heart’s beating faster. “Maybe there’s a magnet inside it or something? You did find it on the beach. God knows who it’s from.”
Except that Hoseok thinks he has a fair idea.
All you’d -
“You think so?”
“Yeah, kid.” Hoseok reaches out to ruffle Jeongguk’s hair, pasting a smile on over the sudden drop in his happiness. “You’re not crazy yet.”
“Yet!” Jimin crows. “Yet! Hah, hyung thinks-”
“Shut up, Jiminie!”
“Hyung, I’m still your hyung, I’m-”
Hoseok watches them squabble, but his mind is a million miles away. I would like you to meet me, tomorrow night, in this place. P-please. Yoongi’s voice is burned into his head, just like his dragging touch down Hoseok’s cheek, just like the pale flush to his skin when Hoseok spoke to him, just like the red flooding into his lips every time he opened them. When Hoseok closes his eyes, he sees wide, black pupils - no whites - staring at him, like they want him to understand something he has no concept of.
And that strange kid. That Taehyung Sei.
And Haewon, always on about his fucking family.
“Hyung?” Jimin looks up from where he’s clutching Jeongguk in a headlock. “Where you going?”
Hoseok gestures vaguely. “Climb the rocks a bit. Keep killing the kid, don’t mind me.”
A betrayed “Oi! Hyung!” follows him as he tracks his way across the beach; he raises two fingers behind him, and hears Jimin’s high-pitched giggle, Jeongguk’s groan, in response.
As usual, the barnacles hurt.
(Hoseok can count on one hand the days he’s had to wear shoes this month - there’s not much use for them, when he spends all his life in the sea, on the sand, floating or selling ices or swimming some more.)
But, as usual, he adjusts to the pain, and walks, crablike, sideways until the beach is out of view and it’s just him and the ocean, the waves crashing and receding in a hypnotic back-and-forth play with the rocks. Hoseok has jumped from here before, practicing to dive like dolphins do, and he knows there’s no hidden danger underneath - just as he’s about to spring, about to spend some time just floating and thinking and wondering more about whether or not Yoongi is real -
“You were meant to jump ages ago.”
Hoseok’s head snaps up.
Taehyung, bare-chested, lilac-haired, is glaring down at him from a spot slightly higher on the rocks, his wrists and ankles still glimmering with gold and silver, his nails painted dusky pink. Silver swimming shorts. Childish pout. Taehyung Sei, as solid and real as life itself. Taehyung Sei. Not a dream.
“I told you to jump, Hoseok-ah, and I’m not used to people ignoring what I say. Come up.” Taehyung slides to sit on the rock, beckoning Hoseok with a crooked finger. “I’m annoyed. I was waiting ages, and then I missed you.”
“What?” But Hoseok is climbing up, and god, he had he forgotten how golden Taehyung’s brown eyes really were - they glint, a little shock of hard rock underneath soft skin and fluttering eyelashes. Captivating in a way that makes him want to struggle, and so pulling that he knows the struggle is useless.
“I sung for you, Hoseok-ah-that-knows-the-tides, knows them so well, and the sea already sings to you, so how come you didn’t jump until last night? And then the little prince caught you, instead.” Taehyung shoves his bottom lip out, wobbling theatrically. “Unfair. You’re so unfair, Hoseok-ah.”
“I - what?” Is everybody Hoseok meets these days reading from a script that he hasn’t got ahold of, or something?
“You know. You saw him.”
“You mean Y-yoongi?”
Taehyung sniffs petulantly. “The little cheat. You didn’t even keep my gift, did you? What did you do with it?”
“I - listen,” Hoseok tries to feel reasonable, but it’s surprisingly hard. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“I gave you one of my prettiest little bangles-”
“Gold-y thing? Purple quartz?”
Taehyung huffs again. “And you didn’t even keep it, and there was me being so kind and everything, giving you the nicest little beacon.”
“I - no, I didn’t find it.” Which is true. In Hoseok’s mind, Jeongguk complains about the weird bracelet tugging itself through the water, and his stomach flips over. Taehyung scares him - the bracelet scares him. Everything scares him. The town's meant to be an escape from the things that scare him.
Escaping isn't scary.
“Well. You didn’t find it, and you didn’t even jump, and it was such a pretty song, all for you. And now that little prince has you, smeared himself all over you like some gourami rubbing over a rock. Look at this.” Taehyung lifts his hand and wipes his fingertips harshly across Hoseok’s cheek, digging his sharp nails into skin hard enough to rip, down his jaw, not giving Hoseok time to flinch - when he displays his fingers to Hoseok, the pads are pale blue, slightly shimmery. “Look at this. Ridiculous.”
“I - what?” And his cheek hurts, burns where Taehyung scratched it. Hoseok wonders if it'll leave a mark.
“Last night. You’d been mine! You would have if you’d have just put the pretty bangle on your pretty wrist, but you didn’t, and he’s all over you now,” Taehyung sighs melodramatically.
Hoseok rubs his thumb over his own cheek, where Taehyung brushed it, but it comes back bare. “There’s nothing on my face, though.”
“Nothing for you, maybe, but I see him all over you. Slimy little boy can’t keep his hands to himself.”
“Are we both talking about Yoongi?”
“Although why he told you his name, I have no idea,” Taehyung kicks his leg up, letting the pink varnish catch the afternoon sun. He admires himself a little, wriggling his toes back and forth. “It’s not like he - ugh. His lot. Drive me to the brink. Thieves, the lot of them, and they always want to use me for their stupid rituals. As if they're smart enough to catch me, not when I weigh their - ugh. I suppose he told you to meet him again, then.”
“Y-yeah. Yeah, we’re meeting tonight. I - I - what?” He hadn’t meant to say that. Hoseok’d been biting his tongue so he wouldn’t say that.
Taehyung sniffs again. “And I suppose that’ll be the end of it. Hoseok-ah, you’re an awful tease.”
“An awful tease. But I can annoy him,” Taehyung turns around, and suddenly his face is level with Hoseok’s, locks of lilac hair tumbling into his golden eyes. “Spoilt little prince won’t like this.”
“What - what are you-”
Taehyung’s kiss burns.
His hands cup Hoseok’s face, his tongue licking across Hoseok’s lips, parting them with no resistance from Hoseok himself - he doesn’t know why, and he doesn’t know how, but he feels powerless against the urgency of Taehyung’s lips moving, his teeth vicious as they bite down, bursting through skin and filling Hoseok’s mouth with blood, tanging the taste of sea-salt and Taehyung with the metallic coppery flavour.
Blood and guts and gore - what? All you'd have to do is jump, but Hoseok feels like he's falling, and all he can taste is himself, hot and painful.
It might be years later when Taehyung releases him. “What - what did you -” Hoseok dabs his lip with the back of his hand, feeling dizzy, lightheaded, like he might sway into the sea.
Taehyung’s mouth is red, sanguine red, scarlet red, a pink tongue licking the blood from the corner of his lips. He smirks. Looks rejuvenated, red smeared messily up his cheek. “Let’s see how he likes that. You’re quite interesting to keep around, Hoseok-ah-who-knows-the-tides.”
“See you soon.”
Just like last time, Hoseok blinks.
Just like last time, when he opens his eyes, Taehyung is gone, and there’s a drifting cackle of melodious laughter in the air, and blood in Hoseok’s mouth.
The taste remains.
(Blood of my blood.)
“You sure you’re okay to swim home?”
Hoseok knows he’s been spacey all day, and Jimin had asked if he’d banged his mouth on the rocks climbing back down again; the spot Taehyung bit down on has scabbed over and stings every time Hoseok tries to talk.
“I’ll be fine. I’m always okay to swim home.”
“Hm.” Jimin purses his lips, looking sceptical. “I could pull the car out of the garage.”
Park Senior’s wrecker of a 2CV, from sometime in the sixties, pulled out of the garage once or twice a year. “Nah,” Hoseok says, grinning, ignoring the way his split lip complains. “Even if I was fucked up, I’d rather swim than get in that thing.”
“She’s a good car.”
“She’s destroyed, Minnie.”
Jeongguk, leaning on his surfboard, smiles. “My gran said she remembers your dad driving that thing back from the shop.”
“Your gran is ancient.”
“Your mum is ancient. ”
"I did your mum-"
"I did your mum-"
Hoseok slips down the beach while they’re distracted, making jokes and squabbling, ignoring him while he's padding deep into the damp sand and splashing waist-high into the warmth of the sunset waves. The ocean welcomes him, crumbling under his feet, and he never hesitates before he lifts his feet off the ground and strikes out, arm-over-shoulder, feet lazily kicking.
“I did Jimin’s mum!”
Hoseok rolls over to float on his back, yelling an approximation of a goodbye out before he swivels around again and strikes into the gentle waves - the crests are behind him already, crashing to shore, and this far out he’s just bobbing with the natural ebb of the water. The sun is setting, and come tonight - meet me, tomorrow night, in this place.
He bites down on his lip so hard that he scrapes the scab right off, and the wound Taehyung created begins to burn with fresh blood again.
Haewon doesn’t say anything.
“You know why I’m not calling her,” Hoseok says all the same. “I - not yet.”
Even in Hoseok’s head, it hurts to think about. His room, full of all his stuff, and the application forms sitting there on the table, all filled in and ready for his signature. The slow fall of a smile. The roaring shout of overwhelming disappointment. “I - I don’t - you know why I’m not.”
“But you will.”
She sighs. Hoseok can’t tell which of them is most disappointed by the exchange.
And now it’s night. And now Hoseok’s heart is in his throat, and here he is, scrambling down the rocks, wearing a graphic tee and shorts, sandals slipping on the uneven surface. The moon is big again tonight, round and reflected in the sea - the sea itself is sneaking up to high tide, but not quite there yet, leaving a sliver of beach that drops sharply to meet the water.
Hoseok thuds down onto the sand, sinking into holes made by his feet; he’s the first to arrive, the only soul here.
What does he think he’s doing?
Nobody in real life actually has a moonlit tryst on the beach - nobody in real life does this. Nobody in real life gets stalked by creepy strangers and kissed out of the blue, kissed bloody and red, and nobody in real life just jumps into the ocean because someone tells them to, and nobody in real life gets rescued by beautiful foreigners.
What does he think he’s doing?
“Where do you come from?” Hoseok blurts, whipping around to see Yoongi’s pale shoulders - he must be treading water a while out, but Hoseok didn’t see him swim in and there’s no houses or hostels nearby, save for the ones in the town. Yoongi, who vanishes as soon as he appears. Yoongi, who blushes as pale as pink coral. Yoongi, who said he would wear Hoseok's skull around his waist.
Hoseok hopes there was something missed in translation.
Yoongi shrugs. His arms splash into the soft waves. “Come out to me.”
“I - yeah. Yeah, sure.” Because Hoseok is a weak man, and Yoongi is a mystery, a man that always seems to be right where he’s needed and nowhere when he’s looked for, so of course he’s gonna kick off his sandals and splash into the water.
(Moonlight trysts are real, after all. Hopefully.)
When he’s at waist-height, he can see Yoongi’s face again, freckles and lips and eyes, black as can be but now (and thank God for it) Hoseok can see the whites, just barely, peeping out around the widened circles. “Hoseok?”
“You smell… odd.” Yoongi hasn’t moved, but as soon as Hoseok gets closer, he surges forward, anger curling his lip downward. “You smell of sirens-”
“I don’t-” Hoseok instinctively flinches, but Yoongi moves fast, and hands clamp tight to his waist, preventing him from moving away. “I thought-”
“Who did you talk to? Today?”
“Nobody. I just wanna know - know where you’re staying, or, or whether you’re gonna be coming into town- and -”
“It was that idiot,” Yoongi murmurs, his eyes burning as he stares at Hoseok’s bust lip. “You stink of siren, Hoseok, and after all I’d done to make sure nobody would get you. He likes to steal my things just because they’re mine, and then he laughs.”
“You mean -” Self-consciously, Hoseok pulls his bottom lip between his teeth, hiding the scabbed cut. “You mean Taehyung?”
“I never bothered with names.”
“Taehyung. Do you know him? He’s got - like, fluffy purple hair, and eyes like - like eyes.” Hoseok wants to wriggle out of the grip on his waist, but he’s sort of scared of how tight it is. He's sort of scared. And yet, he doesn't want to escape, not really.
Yoongi sighs. “I know him. I am sorry you had to, too. I - you make everything very difficult for me, Hoseok.”
“You said that yesterday.” Hoseok reckons Yoongi isn’t a native speaker - his accent isn’t as fluid as Taehyung’s, but Yoongi’s way of speaking is too perfect, flooded with proper words, no contractions, and he’s always saying Hoseok’s name, like he has to remind himself of what the topic of conversation really is.
“I said it yesterday because it is true.”
“But I hardly know you.”
Yoongi sighs. His hands are large, but slender, thin fingers gripping Hoseok’s waist loosely. “Do you know what they say about a near-death experience?”
drowning; splashing; the knowledge that all he’d have to do is jump; “N-no.”
“They say that, in that moment, two souls become one to save both from perishing.”
Yoongi nods. He sucks his bottom lip into his mouth, his brows furrowed anxiously, and Hoseok thinks about how pretty he is - how many months he’s kept an eye out for him. How overwhelmingly beautiful the moon makes his skin look, glowing in make-believe translucence. “That’s what they say. And I... and you... and the ocean.”
“I don’t see-” Hoseok clears his throat, feeling nerves clambering up the inside of his lungs. “I don’t see how that’s making things difficult for you, though. I don’t know you at all, so you have no obligation to-”
“Hoseok. You were meant to die. Twice.”
“But you saved me.”
Unnaturally pointed teeth reveal themselves as Yoongi curls his lip. “I was meant to kill you. Twice, I was meant to kill you, and both times I did not, and now all I want to do is save you a third time. Save you from us. I do not have much time, not with Namjoon, not with Seokjin, but I will try my best. And all because, Hoseok, I was meant to kill you and I did not."
Hoseok is -
“Yoongi! Oi! I got a tip-off you would be here!”
“Oh, bastard-ye-siren,” Yoongi swears under his breath. His hands move from Hoseok’s waist to clamp around his wrists, almost protectively, and Hoseok feels like his brain is still stuck several hours in the past, back when everything made sense and pretty boys in the water weren't confessing their need to either murder or save him.
“The one you stink of. That siren.”
Yoongi looks distressed, flicking his head around - and, sure enough, Hoseok can see a figure balanced on the rocks near the crest of the bay. “What is he doing here?”
“I - I don’t -”
Taehyung flings himself into the water, a sparkling purple spot on the horizon. Hoseok hears the splash, and then he hears Yoongi, making some sort of guttural hyuk sound with his throat, and then everything becomes a -
splash, a splash of sound and colour and water, and everything cold as Yoongi dunks Hoseok under, hands dragging and pulling through bubbles and waves, and cold and the water, and the strain as he tries to take a panicked breath inwards and this is Yoongi's third attempt to kill him and this time he'll succeed and Hoseok is choking and he's trying trying so hard to breathe and he can't and he inhales and his lungs fill with
fill with air.
“He can’t come down here,” the rough, pebble-hard sound of Yoongi’s voice is close to his ear. Barnacle-scratch in sunlight. There are hands in his, now. “Jung Hoseok. Open your - open your eyes, please.”
It’s funny how, when Hoseok used to read books - Haewon’s books - he’d always complain to his mother that the characters weren’t surprised enough to find out that magic was real and their best friend was a fairy, or whatever. He always used to say it was unrealistic. He'd complain, and refuse to read them. But now, faced with the weeks of weirdness and this, he knows what Haewon had been trying to convey - how, when shown something so shocking it ruins the order of the world as you know it, it’s best to just accept it as truth. Spend time on freaking out when you have the luxury to do so.
Yoongi is in front of him, holding his hands softly, like one or the other of them might break if he squeezes too tight. The tinge of blue scales have crept up his sides, across his shoulders, up his neck, dotting across his cheeks where freckles had been. His hair haloes around his head, pale green and blue. His eyes look down -
nervous? - and here, down here, Hoseok can see them for what they are. Large blown-black pupils; slim brown irises; the hint of white tinging the corners.
Below that, Yoongi’s long tail flicks and flutters, thick and powerful, covered in scales of iridescent blue and purple and green. It’s hard to tell where skin meets scale; it flows, as fluid as the water that surrounds them, down to the tip of the tail, which is as thin and gentle as the fin of an angelfish - it’s reminiscent of hair itself, although there’s no mistaking the power behind every beat to and fro.
And here is Hoseok, breathing underwater.
Around Yoongi’s waist, tied tight in the slender part that is neither scale nor skin, there is a line of what looks like ribbon, or something like it - delicate, in any case. Threaded on silver hooks through it are shards of bone, bleach-white, clean and terrifying in the blankness of them, the lack of life, the overwhelming white clattering over Yoongi’s scales.
Yoongi bites his lip - pearly-white teeth, too sharp to be human, nick at the skin, and redness floats into the ocean around them. It’s dark, still, and under here Hoseok can only see the faint outline of fish, shells discarded in the sand, and the waves crashing above their heads.
“I - I am sorry.” And Yoongi sounds it, too, his voice slightly distorted, like Hoseok’s on a phone call with bad signal. “I just - I did not want him to intrude.”
“I - you’re-”
“You were never meant to know.”
“And I can -”
“And I’m sorry, Hoseok.”
Voices heard through water. Bubbling barnacles in the August sunlight.
Hoseok clings to Yoongi’s hands tighter than he’s ever held someone before, feeling lost and alien and like, at any moment, his lungs will realise that he’s been tricking them and they really will fill with water, just like he’s been anticipating since he submerged. “How come I can breathe?”
“It is me - me, my - my - for this, I killed the white seal-” Yoongi bites down harder on his own bottom lip, and Hoseok’s gaze is drawn there, to the pretty parting of them in self-inflicted pain. “I am sorry.”
“Can we rewind?”
“To six fucking months ago, for a start.” Hoseok doesn’t know, really, what he’s thinking, but the thoughts aren’t pretty - - - - youweremeanttobedead-youwerenevermeanttoknow -
And what the fuck is Yoongi -
And what the fuck -
“To when I -”
“Do you know what they say about near-death experiences and all that, yeah,” Hoseok says, echoing. He hears his own voice, empty of shock in his ears. “I met - after you, I meet him. Taehyung. He told me to - to, uh, to jump in to see you again.”
Yoongi snarls. “It would have been true, but his intentions were less than pure, Hoseok.”
“It’s best if I do not tell you.”
Hoseok scoffs; wishes he had the security to take his hands from Yoongi’s so he could wave incredulously at his surroundings. “You want to keep me in the dark? When I’m breathing underwater and you’re a fucking fish?”
“I’m not a fish.”
“And that’s what you want to clarify?”
Yoongi sniffs. Sighs. His fingers tighten around Hoseok’s hands. “I am - we are - closer to dolphins, in actual fact. Not that it matters-”
“You damn right it doesn’t matter.”
Yoongi sighs again. “We will go, then, talk to that - that -”
“That. He talks more often to your kind. He can explain better than me.”
Oh. As though Hoseok needed confirmation, what with the tail and the teeth and the eyes, but it’s one thing to see it and one thing to hear it from the lips of the pretty, mysterious boy he’s been thinking about for weeks. “How do we get back up?” And he's not freaking out, and he's not freaking out, and he wants to laugh so badly that he feels the hysteria cooking in his stomach.
Yoongi wraps a warm arm around his waist. (It doesn’t feel nice, so shut it.) “Hold on to me and shut your eyes.”
And Hoseok does.
(Blind faith is a fickle friend, and maybe he shouldn’t have as much in Yoongi as he does.)
When they emerge (emerge from being submerged from being under the water) it’s to the sound of Taehyung Sei, shrieking and yelling in his deep, velvet voice, and splashing in the water, and the gentle moon shining unaffected down on the whole bizarre tableau. Taehyung is a picture, lithe and dark, the gold shining on his limbs, the purple glimmering on his head, screaming wild at them on the rocks by the sea. He's laughing. Cackling.
Yoongi huffs. His breath is hot against Hoseok’s neck. “This one is my favourite. And that is not - not saying much.”
“What have you against him?”
A wrinkled nose, cute and so oddly human that it makes Hoseok smile. “He’s a siren,” Yoongi says, as though that explains anything. “He hates us, too. They all do.”
“But you hate him?”
“He steals our -”
“I steal their hunts,” Taehyung Sei calls, sitting on the edge of the rocks, so close that Hoseok might be able to touch him. “They get all mad, don’t you? Sire? Now that you've won against them both, Namjoon and Seokjin and killed him, didn't you, killed Jungsoo-"
Yoongi snarls again.
Hoseok, although in truth could be treading water, lets himself continue to be supported by the arm around his waist. “I’m still confused. And - and -”
“And reacting remarkably well, considering,” says Taehyung mildly. He kicks up his foot; salty seawater splashes in Hoseok’s face, and Taehyung giggles when he splutters in surprise. “You’re cute.”
“Sei,” Yoongi warns. Hoseok feels like there’s a whole ‘nother conversation going on over his head, a page of his script left out, context he’ll never understand.
“Cool it, your majesty. I’m only joking. You’re fun to mess with, too.”
“Hoseok?” The speed at which Yoongi’s head whips around, black pupils focused on him, mouth open to ask, is kind of terrifying. “What is the matter?”
Taehyung laughs again.
“I - I just - I’m confused,” Hoseok mumbles. He feels scales next to his legs, the swish of soft silk, of fins, against his ankles - because Yoongi, the beautiful stranger, is apparently a character from one of his aunt’s novels. And whatever the fuck Taehyung is. Sei. Whatever.
“What you confused about, honey?”
“Hoseok-ah,” Yoongi says, a whisper in his ear, “Tell me what you want to know, and I will do my best to explain.”
Taehyung splashes again. “Brown-noser.”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever.”
Hoseok turns, too, facing Yoongi, ignoring Taehyung’s annoyed huff. “Why did you say I was making it hard for you? Why did Taehyung get blue shit off my face? Why are you - the - you have a tail.”
“I do. I’m - I didn’t mean for you to find out.”
“You meant for us to meet each other, though, right?”
Taehyung throws his head back and cackles, his throat silhouetted in the moonlight; Yoongi looks deeply uncomfortable. Water beads down his cheekbones, and absently, his tongue pokes out to collect it. “I meant to -”
“He wanted to kill you, honey, ‘nd eat the flesh off your bones and cook ‘em and dry ‘em and stick ‘em in the sand. And then he wanted to make a crown of them, a li’l crown of all your ribs and teeth and toes, and then he’ll be the leader, a proper leader, and then he’ll get to kill the other two, and stick their ribs next to his throne at night, moving through the sea. Because he won, and they didn't. Right, your majesty?”
“That’s a joke, right?” Hysterical laughter bubbles up from some well deep within, and Hoseok can feel himself coming apart at the seams, ripped to shreds by the sheer absurdity of the whole - of the whole - “You’re joking, right?”
Taehyung is silent. Yoongi looks ghostly, afraid; like some avenging angel, his sea-blue hair haloed around his head.
“You’re joking, Yoongi.” The hands on his waist loosen, and Hoseok wants them back, wants to go back to swimming in peace and sleeping in peace, warm with someone else’s grip in his. Someone else. Nights spent with Jimin and Jeongguk, at Jimin's house for the comfort of Jimin, Jeongguk whispering about fairies and magic until he dozed off.
“I am sorry,” Yoongi says quietly. Ashamedly. “My people are not like yours.”
“You wanted to kill me?”
“It - it is a ritual-”
“You wanted to kill me?” And Yoongi said it before, and it's like Hoseok's being slapped suddenly by everything that he's been told -
Yoongi’s hands are gone completely from Hoseok’s waist, forcing him to tread water to keep his head above the waves. “I thought you were on a holiday or something! I thought I’d dreamed you! You kept fucking - fucking saving me, instead!”
Taehyung is clapping along, the bangles on his arms clattering, the beads on his ankles splashing in the water. “A real knight in shining armour, your majesty.”
“No, no, really, this is funny. Stringing this sweetheart along when really, all he wanted was a li’l love and attention, right?”
“Sei,” snarls Yoongi again, “You were going to eat him, too.”
Hoseok breaks out from the pair of them, the two shining boys in the moonlight, the glimmer of gold and lilac and seablue-green. “Fuck this,” he says, proud of the way his voice shakes only a little. “Fuck this. I don’t want to know. I’m - I don’t want to know.”
“I don’t care.” Hoseok bites down on his tongue accidentally, and when he opens his mouth, his lips stain pink. He doesn't care. “I don’t care I - I don’t - care -”
He strikes out. Even panicky, he usually has good control over his swimming abilities, save those few nights he met Yoongi.
Yoongi. Ah, fuck.
Hoseok swims on his back, legs kicking under the waves powerfully, facing back at Yoongi and Taehyung. Taehyung has his head thrown back, his throat bobbing as he cackles, looking positively demonic - otherworldly, unreal, the moon haloing around his head like an old religious fresco. He’s not looking back at Hoseok, but too obviously so, like he’s watching him out of the corner of his eye, trying to garner a reaction.
Yoongi is looking back at him. His lips are pulled into a pout, his hair dripping around his head, his black eyes staring right into Hoseok’s.
Burned into his mind. There.
Hoseok swims backwards until he hits the shore, and barely makes it back to Haewon’s house.
And he spits blood into the sand.
(Ashes to -)
Chapter 3: the weight of his sins
sorry this is shorter than usual, but that's just where it had to end. hope you enjoy!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
In the morning, he’s so out of it that he doesn’t even rise to Haewon’s usual remarks about his mother.
He swims into town. He sees a tanned figure, there perched on the peak of the rocks; it waves. Gold glitters on its arms.
“Morning, hyung,” Jeongguk greets, his fingers twisted in the band of gold and amethyst. Hoseok feels like he's looking at everything through a veil - feels like everything's surreal, even the voice of Jeongguk chirruping into his ear. “The bangle stopped being weird last night, can you believe?”
“Yeah, Guk, I guess I can.”
“What happened to your lip?”
Hoseok touches the cut there. “Bust it against a rock, remember?”
“Oh, yeah. Poor you.”
Hoseok can’t pinpoint why, but he feels drained. And everything is distant, today, further back, less important.
He feels like black eyes are still staring at him, into him, and asking - and asking -
What more do you want to know?
“D’ya think - y’know Haewon?”
Hoseok plucks out a mussel shell from the bucket between them, cracking it with his thumbs, catching the cream sauce in one half of the shell. The mussel, small and orange and curled up, he peels out with his teeth, then pours the sauce between his lips - when the complicated process is over, he chucks the two halves into the ocean, near where Jeongguk is jumping over waves and hooting. “Y’know Haewon’s books?”
“Know of ‘em.” Jimin does the same process, white sauce running down his fingers before he licks it away. Mussels are a messy business. “What about it?”
“Y’know mermaids and all that shit?”
Hoseok looks out at the waves. It feels stupid, now, to even voice what he thinks he saw last night, but he knows he hadn’t been dreaming. Yoongi had been there. Yoongi had had a tail, and soft ocean-green hair, and it had stroked against Hoseok’s calves as warm and unfamiliar as the hands around his waist. But it had been real. “You think they’re real?”
“Mermaids and shit?”
Jimin pours cream sauce into his mouth, then takes aim and bangs the shells against the back of Jeongguk’s head, one by one. “Why?”
“You’d think I’m mad,” Hoseok says over the sound of Jeongguk’s childish protests. “You both would.”
“Huh.” Another mussel gone - the fish shop down the street gets them by the pole-in-the-water method of harvesting, and Jimin’s aunt cooks them by the bucketful along with white wine sauce and cream cheese. “You sure? Gukkie’s away with the fairies half the time. Talks about them, too.”
“You mean, my serious opinion on mermaids?”
Jeongguk emerges from the ocean, dripping wet, cream sauce on his nose from Jimin’s well-aimed shell. He grins, twisting his bangle around his wrist. “Any left for me?”
“Yeah,” Hoseok angles the bucket towards him, moves aside for Jeongguk to plop down on the sand so he can feel about in the bucket - the last mussels are drowning in sauce, saturated through with it. “You good?”
“I found a funny-lookin’ seaweed,” Jeongguk says, industriously cracking shells. “And I stood on a crab.”
“Yeah, right? Maybe the crab’s magnet to my bangle. Maybe I got gifted by the sea-god, or something.” Jeongguk shakes the purple stone, smiling in a self-satisfied way as it glints in the sun. "I am the sand-guardian, guardian of the sand-"
"Poseidon quivers before him."
"Fuck off." Jeongguk and Jimin roar with laughter.
A sea-god? I gave you one of my prettiest bangles. Hoseok thinks of Taehyung, biting on his lip, of cackling in the moonlight, and shudders.
Sea-devils and mermaids and murder. (Oh my.)
“Don’t eat all the mussels, Gukkie,” Jimin says, reaching into the bucket. His fingers make splashing noises in the dregs of the sauce, a few empty shells clanging against the metal. He looks up at Hoseok. “What were you saying, before this dork-”
Hoseok grins at Jeongguk’s playfully-injured expression. “I was - but I know what Guk’s gonna reply.”
“You never do.”
“What I’m gonna reply to what, hyung?” Jeongguk asks.
Jimin smiles. “You know mermaids, Gukkie?”
Hoseok can almost feel it, the hands on his waist, the look on Yoongi’s face as Taehyung told all. Mermaids. And Yoongi.
“Yeah, ‘course I know.” Jeongguk pauses, sauce dribbling down his chin. “I mean, I don’t personally know any, but I know they’re, like, real. Me ‘nd your aunt chat about them sometimes. And my gran. Big murdery things. Teeth. Why?”
Jimin stares pointedly at Hoseok. “Hyung, why’d you ask like you were gonna tell me something important?”
“Hyung?” And now Jeongguk’s looking at him, too, full of innocent curiosity. “What about mermaids?”
Hoseok clears his throat. He can hear Taehyung laughing at him, in his head, and the look in Yoongi’s eyes as he swam away - what more do you want to know? “Uh - you know me, right?”
“I’d like to think so. I only run a shop with you, after all,” Jimin jokes. “Honest, Hoseok, what you wanna say?”
“I wanna say something you might not - not agree with. I guess.”
The two of them just stare at him. Slowly, not looking at his hand, Jeongguk tries to crack another mussel.
“I think I met a mermaid,” Hoseok tries.
“Fuck off, Hoseok.”
(Jeongguk says nothing.)
He knew it was a bad idea, but he feels lost without them, without being able to rely on the good advice of Jimin and the slightly-more-dubious, but well meaning, advice of Jeongguk. “I - I met a mermaid. I know I did. Ages ago, months ago, I - I got a bit - I got -”
“Hyung,” and Jimin looks slightly more confused now, “You’re for fuckin’ real?”
“Yes, Minnie, I - four months ago, I went swimming at night, and I got caught in a fucking current. Was gonna die. Was scared, scared outta my mind, and then this boy comes along, right? He’s all… pale, and pretty, and he said his name was Yoongi and then he swam away.” Hoseok swallows. He can taste cream sauce, unpleasantly sweet, in the back of his throat. “And there was this - this, this Taehyung, all long legs and tan, and bangles like yours, Jeonggukkie, and - and he doesn’t matter right now. But - but then i saw Yoongi again, two nights ago-”
(Jeongguk says nothing.)
“And he said I’d made everything hard for him. And then Taehyung showed up and fucking bit me, right here-”
“You said you’d got bust against a rock!”
“I lied. It was that - that creep, and then last night I met Yoongi, and Taehyung was there, and Yoongi took me under the water and he was long and he had scales, I fucking kid-you-not, and this, this, this swish of a tail, and he had all bones around him, and his hair was so pretty and green and-”
Jimin throws a shell, and the splash rings in Hoseok’s ears. Hard and harsh and ringing. “And, and then Taehyung said that he-”
“Yeah, him, Taehyung said he was a siren and that he-”
“Yeah, that Yoongi, Yoongi was a mermaid. And then-”
Hoseok takes a breath. “And then Taehyung said that Yoongi kept catching me to kill me, or something, and Yoongi didn’t deny it. And - and - and I don’t know what to do. Yoongi is - he’s just there.”
Jimin is staring at him, blank and open-mouthed.
And Jeongguk’s eyes are glimmering. Shining with sheer, childish belief, strong and powerful and real. “Seriously, hyung?”
And that’s Jimin. Doubtful. Scornful, even.
Hoseok looks away, his face burning. “I just say what happened. And - and - and I dunno what to do. And -”
“And you don’t have any other friends, so you’re recruiting us to be your sidekicks in the face of mermaid evil?” Jeongguk guesses.
Jimin giggles. “You couldn’t fight mermaids, Guk. You can’t even stand up in the water.”
Hoseok sighs; dips his hand in the empty bucket so he can lick off the rest of the cream sauce. He feels… weird, off, and he’s felt weird since he swam away from Yoongi. The veil, descending.
What more does he want to know?
“Hyung,” Jeongguk says into the silence, “Your aunt lent me a book yesterday. About how to kill fairies.”
Jimin giggles - Hoseok is happy from the respite, happy to go back to familiar conversations, although he wishes there'd been some conclusion, some acceptance or denial of his story. “Like in Peter Pan? Every time someone disbelieves, a fairy dies?”
“Hyung!” Jeongguk looks wounded - Hoseok hides his smile. “No, hyung, for serious. Fairies and stuff, and, like, mermaids. And sirens and dryads and stuff. How to kill them. Hoseok’s aunt lent it to my gran!”
“You mean you hung around ‘til she came into town and then begged it off her.”
Jimin smiles again. “Okay. Okay, so, how’d you kill a fairy?”
“With a sword as small as a needle made out of the gold from coins with holes in ‘em,” Jeongguk recites, beginning to pile up sand in a little heap by his feet.
“Yeah, well, we all got one of those lying around.”
“How’d you kill a mermaid?”
(Jimin asks it. Hoseok freezes. Jimin says it with - with - not with malice, but with a certain sting to his tongue that he gets sometimes, when Hoseok talks too much about the future, when someone tells him that it’s high time he graduated and searched for a job.)
“Ah-” Jeongguk looks up at Hoseok nervously. “Uh. Um. In the b-book, it said you could kill mermaids by - by dropping the weight of their own sins on top of them.”
“Woah,” says Hoseok, dull as a blunt knife. “That’s real useful.”
Nobody says anything else.
He thinks of Yoongi.
What more does he want to know?
Night is falling when Hoseok strikes into the ocean again. Jimin had clasped his shoulder, mumbling an i don’t know what to think, but i know you’re a good guy… hyung, point is, you ever wanna tell me something, you just tell me -
And Jeongguk had been folding up his shirt in the lifeguard hut, his bangle shining on his wrist, and whispered hyung i just want to know if you’re having me on or not -
And Hoseok has spent the whole day chasing children away from the rocks and solidly avoiding the person he could see out of the corner of his eye, sitting on the rocks waiting for him. If Taehyung wants to talk to him that bad, he can fucking well come up to him in public, lilac hair and tinkling ankles and all, and explain to Jeongguk just why he’s given him a cursed bangle.
Hoseok almost reaches own bay before he starts treading water. The sand below him is only reachable if he stretches his feet, sinking his toes into the softness of it, and the water is warm and still and silent. Strands of seaweed bob around him. Every so often, he sees a small, dark shadow in the water; one of the small-fry shallow fish, stunted and stilted, about to be eaten by a something or other.
And here he waits.
What more does he want to know?
((What more does he want?))
((Everything, and more.))
Yoongi’s voice isn’t as unexpected as it should be. It sounds as melodious, as foreign, as it had last night, but less uncertain - and Hoseok wonders how fast those sorts of people learn, because four months ago Yoongi hadn’t even been able to speak. Now, although there's a clear accent, there's more confidence, more vitality, and he wonders if Yoongi's got the hang of contractions yet. “Yoongi?”
“Y-yes. I’m - sorry, about yesterday.” Yoongi, Hoseok sees when he turns around, is hovering in the water a few feet away, his hair wet, his eyes big and watery. There’s a shallow cut along his cheek, oozing redness with lazy privilege. He looks far less… far less terrifying, with wide eyes and a mark on his face and the hunch of doubt in his shoulders. “I was foolish. And that siren didn’t help at all.”
“It’s okay,” Hoseok says, although he’s not sure why. Yoongi’s neck is long and pale, although with closer inspection there are thin flaps of skin cut across it, like the fronds of a fern. Gills? Light and subtle, diagonal slashes that meet along the line of his throat, but gills nonetheless.
“It isn’t okay at all,” Yoongi frowns and rubs at his nose in irritation, adorably human despite all evidence to the contrary. And his inner Jimin is screaming - he - he tried to kill you, Hoseok what are you - “I had never meant to see you again, but...”
Every time Hoseok floats a tentative inch forwards, Yoongi moves back. “But my… my school, I suppose you’d say? My school? They - my excuses were very weak. We aren't meant to pick the same hunting ground for as long as I have. But I - but my excuses. Were weak. As… as I suppose this is.”
It’s hard to see Yoongi as something as strange and inhuman as he is, whenever he seems so upset, so fragile. “I don’t wanna say -” Hoseok stops. Unsure. The moon isn’t out tonight, hidden by cloud, but the tip of it peeks teasingly from behind a few greying wisps. “I thought… I reacted suddenly, yesterday.” He tried to kill you Hoseok what are you saying Hoseok stop it what the fuck
“But to you, violence is unacceptable,” says Yoongi, wide-eyed, wet, and ever-so-pretty. Pretty and alien and the most intriguing thing Hoseok's ever seen.
“I - we’re violent,” Hoseok mumbles. He’s floated so far toward Yoongi that he can’t touch the bottom anymore, but Yoongi still hasn’t allowed him any closer.
“But not to the extent that - that we are.”
“And to what extent is that?”
Yoongi sighs. Sharp white teeth tear at the skin of his lip, harsh enough to bloom blood to match his cheek. “A - we are. We are, uh - god. The sea. The sea-people.”
“That’s what you call yourselves?” Hoseok tries floating backwards, back so his toes stroke sand, and is surprised to see Yoongi follow. “Sea-people?”
“Us, yes, and the people like him, yesterday. The siren. They’re sea-people, but… but we don’t act like you do.” Yoongi’s torn the skin right off, and red to match the cut on his cheek is beading on his mouth. “I have read about you.”
“You elect and you decide and you control yourself, right?”
Hoseok reaches out underneath the water, searching for something, and almost jumps out of his skin when he feels hot fingertips. They both blush - Yoongi bites right into the cut he just made, and Hoseok impulsively links their fingers, pulling Yoongi closer. Maybe he does want to die, doing something like this with a - with a creature that clatters bones around his waist, but Yoongi draws him in. It’s not like he can help it, the weird fascination, the addiction to the sight of his wide eyes, his snub nose, the freckles on his cheeks. He’ll be fucked if they leave without answers, this time. “You mean… like, society and things?”
“My school would kill me.”
“Your - like a family?”
Yoongi gives him an odd look. “No. No - no. That is - a mother? The one-who-gives-life?”
“Huh. Yeah, I guess.”
“My school is hundreds. I know the one-who-gives-life, but we are not close.” Yoongi shudders, another oddly human reaction. “I would hate to treat her as you lot treat yours.”
“Oh, trust me, not all of us do.” Hoseok smiles wryly, thinking of Haewon and the perpetual write to your mothers. Call her. Ring her. Tell her how you're doing.
“My - my point - I came here to apologise, not to talk about my school - my point is that I am sorry, Hoseok,” Yoongi squeezes his hand underwater. The grip is surprisingly gentle.
Hoseok sighs; shrugs; smiles. “It’s okay. I think. I think - I - I don’t know what I think. Why’d you need it, though?” It’s not okay he tried to kill you Hoseok what the fuck
Hoseok calmly, quietly, tells his internal monologue to shut the fuck up.
“Do you really want to know?”
Clouds drift aside for a moment, exposing the silvery sliver of the moon. It glistens like spilt oil on the surface of the ocean for a brief second, and then slides back; but during that shining moment, Hoseok can see the gleam of wetness in Yoongi’s eyes.
(He never thought he’d have to google do fish cry when he gets home, but that’s life.)
“Let’s go sit,” Yoongi tells him, still holding his hand. “I want to explain. Explain… properly.”
And Hoseok has so much to ask.
Yoongi is almost noiseless as he moves through the water, quiet as the grave and silent as a hunter, unnoticeable except for the ripples lapping over his neck and his shoulderblades. It makes Hoseok feel clumsy and uncoordinated, splashing his way through the waves, over to the rocks at the tip of the place that separates the two bays. Yoongi doesn’t seem to mind, though - doesn’t seem to notice, both his hands dedicated to dragging Hoseok behind him as Hoseok kicks out into the water.
“You wanted to explain?”
“Yes.” The sea is well up the rocks, now; Hoseok finds a depression that could be a rock pool when the tide is out, but is now just the curve of a seat, the ocean water up to mid-waist.
“Okay then.” Hoseok settles in his rock; Yoongi floats. He can see the way his tail bends beneath him, like he’s resting on the thick, muscular bend of it. “Explain.”
Yoongi bites his lip again. A nervous habit? My, what big teeth you have - “One moment.”
And his hands reach down, underwater, fiddling with something behind his back. When they come up, it’s because he’s holding the hemp rope he’d had tied around his waist - around the place that’s neither skin nor scales - the one decorated with clean, white bones and bits of dead creature.
“Oh.” Hoseok’s throat feels dry.
Yoongi smiles humorlessly, stroking his forefinger down a small, rattling spine at the beginning of the rope.
“This is the - this is the backbone of an eel. When you are - when you’re five years old, you become a-young-fish, and to prove that you’re ready, you have to kill an eel. We keep it here, to prove that we have progressed.”
“What happens if you don’t?” Hoseok stares at it. It’s - it’s shining, droplets of water in the crook of the bones.
“If we don’t?”
“If you don’t kill the eel.”
Yoongi frowns. “Then we don’t progress. But everybody kills the eel. Not everybody can do what comes next, and the ones after that, but nobody is stuck as an-egg-fish forever. Everyone kills the eel.”
“Oh.” And Hoseok thinks of someone small, like a toddler, zipping through the water with ocean-green hair still curly from childhood, chubby hands grabbing the slipperiest eels the way Hoseok used to do when he was a kid, standing in the water to try and grab them out of the sand.
“We are a-young-fish for ten years, so that we can learn and grow,” Yoongi continues, threading the rope through his hands. The next bone is a claw, the digits long and hooked, threaded through the hemp rope, shiny with constant care - and it’s big. As big as Hoseok’s hand, maybe bigger. “The next stage is development into a-grown-fish.”
“To prove that we can make decisions for ourselves, we have to choose a fish as wide as we are or wider, and kill it. This is the front claw of a sea turtle, you see?” Yoongi plays with the end of it; makes it wave at Hoseok, then grins, scarily innocent with the claw of a sea turtle dangling from his pale hands. “After this, the stages of life come quicker.”
“Yeah. I can see that,” Hoseok manages. He feels faintly like being sick, but he’s not sure if it’s out of surprise or disgust.
“After I became a-grown-fish, I had to swim far from here - to prove you’re ready for courtship, you have to kill a piranha, or any other kind of animal that poses a danger to you,” Yoongi explains. Shows Hoseok the body, hooked onto the rope. It's quite fresh, and Yoongi informs him that he hasn't had the chance to court anyone yet - only to prove himself worthy.
To lead the hunt, he had to kill a baby whale. There’s a chip of its rib on his rope.
To swim beyond the school, he had to kill a dolphin. One of its fin-bones dangles there, pathetic.
“And a few months ago, the leader of our school announced that she would not live past the year,” Yoongi says, sinking the rope back down to retie it around his waist. He won’t make eye contact with Hoseok. Hoseok isn't sure he wants him to. “I and a few other people around my age - we fought for the right to hunt the trophy that would show we were worthy of leadership.”
“I won.” Yoongi smiles, then, a flash of something terrifyingly non-human. Sharp teeth. Skin and bones, and a predator skimming through the water. “I killed one of them, although two of them still remain. They will want to fight me again, soon, seeing as I have not collected the trophy yet, and our leader - her time grows short.”
“What’s the trophy?” Hoseok asks. He thinks he already knows.
Yoongi drifts a little way away from Hoseok, then, pooling out into deeper water. “I… it is-”
Hoseok wishes Taehyung were here, to alleviate some of the cloying pressure with his cackle, with the tinkle of his bangles against the tan of his skin, with his joking way of telling Hoseok he wants to eat him. Or something. Better than the guilt, better than the shame, better than the set of Yoongi’s shoulders.
“It’s a human. We - I have to kill a human,” Yoongi says, and lets out a noise that sounds like -
Awfully like a choked sob -
He kicks up, the end of his tail splashing water all over Hoseok’s soaked frame, and dives into the ocean.
“Yoongi!” Hoseok yells.
He doesn’t come.
Hoseok doesn't know why he wants him to, anyway.
“Hyung, there’s a pretty boy on the beach. I think he might be, like, a fairy. He’s got purple hair,” Jeongguk says, running up onto the boardwalk to find Jimin and Hoseok eating their own ice-cream straight from the freezer.
Jimin giggles. “Hair dye exists, Gukkie-yah.”
“Hyung!” Jeongguk stamps the boardwalk, pouting in his orange shirt, his swimming trunks, looking less and less like a lifeguard with every passing minute. “I know that. But he looks like a fairy. He’s got bracelets like mine, see?”
Hoseok’s mouth feels frozen, and not because of the mint ice-cream dripping down his chin. “Did you talk to him?” He asks indistinctly.
Jeongguk flushes. “No - I - I mean, only a bit. Not about anything important.”
“He didn’t… tell you to do anything?”
Jimin frowns. “Hyung, do you know him?”
“No! No, no, not at all,” Hoseok hands his spoon to Jeongguk and stands up, wiping the ice-cream off his face with the back of his hand and then licking it away. “Listen, you eat a bit too, Guk. I’ll guard for a second and then we’ll go get chips off Sungwoo, right?”
Jimin sighs, stabbing his spoon into the cherry tub. “Sure, hyung.”
And Jeongguk slips into the seat beside him. “Have fun!”
His feet are bare against the boardwalk, which is okay ‘cause it’s wood, and then bare against the tarmac of the road that separates beach and boardwalk, which is less okay ‘cause cigarette butts and hard ground that stings his feet, and then sand, and children screaming, and parents going pink in the sunlight, and Hoseok’s home again. Near the lifeguard hut he shrugs his badge over his neck - jung hoseok senior lifesaver - and looks around, scanning the skyline for tanned skin and silver swimming trunks and lilac hair, a knowing smile dancing around full lips, teeth sharp when they dig a phantom bite into Hoseok’s bottom lip.
Yeah. Taehyung’s standing ankle-deep in the white surf of the shallows, looking out to sea.
Hoseok doesn’t herald his arrival. There aren’t any kids swimming, not this late in the summer, not this late in the day - there’s just families packing up, or couples dancing around in the shallows. A couple dog-walkers.
Taehyung doesn’t turn around, although he stretches his hand back out behind him, palm upward. “Hoseok. You and Yoongi talk much last night?”
it's a human we have to kill a human
“What were you saying to Jeongguk?”
a pretty boy on the beach
“His school is getting panicky. I saw a few of them today, all purple and pink, flashing around the place. He still hasn’t taken his trophy, and their leader… she’s very sick.” Taehyung isn’t like himself; he still hasn’t turned around, and his voice is far deeper, far less playful than normal. Hoseok feels almost bad for feeling as angry as he does. “We’re not like you, Hoseok. They aren’t like you. She gets much weaker, she’ll be killed for being a drag on the school. The only reason she hasn’t been killed yet is because Yoongi hasn’t proved himself worthy of leadership.”
it's a human
“I know that,” Hoseok mumbles, stepping forward to join Taehyung, the ocean washing over his toes. His hands hang limply by his sides; Taehyung takes the hand that was outstretched, and tangles his fingers with Hoseok’s.
we have to kill a human
Anger dissipates like a puddle on a hot day.
It doesn’t even feel like it usually would, like sex and fun and Taehyung. It feels innocent.
“How old are you?” He hadn’t meant to ask.
a pretty boy on the beach
Taehyung sighs. Looks across the sea, at the sun sinking into the water. “Don’t you know what I am?”
“You’re a siren. Like in the myths and stuff.”
“And?” Hoseok moves his hand so it’s holding tighter to Taehyung’s. “What does that mean?”
“Means I don’t fucking age. I think I was twenty, something like that, and I fell in the ocean. Fell off a cliff. Maybe I fucking jumped, knowing me. I don’t know,” and Taehyung’s spitting out the words in a dull monotone, like someone so resigned to the story that he can hardly solve it. “I wasn’t found by a mermaid, or anything. Nah, I wasn’t half so lucky. I got found by this siren. We fuck ‘em and we kill ‘em, that’s what we do, and we swim alone, and we do it alone. And she fucked me and forgot to kill me, or maybe she meant not to, maybe she meant to pass it on to every miserable bastard she met-”
“And she fucked me and left me, so I didn’t die. I got made a siren, too. Bitch. I - I’m a siren forever. I don’t age.” Taehyung turns, then, brown eyes flecked with gold and misery. “You’re lucky you got found by Yoongi, ‘nd not by me. He’s gonna end your life, but I’d have ruined it.”
Hoseok doesn’t know what to say.
pretty boy on the
Not much to say, really.
“You were gonna… I thought you were gonna eat me, too.”
“Nah,” Taehyung shakes his head. His hand is warm, comforting. “I’m not allowed to kill what the li’l prince’s lot has marks on. I was gonna…”
Taehyung’s cheeks colour. “I hate them. I was gonna - turn you, so that they’d fuck off somewhere else. I just arrived here. It’s my spot.”
“Why’d you come here?”
“Same reason everyone does.”
“Huh?” Hoseok frowns, turns his head; Taehyung is acting so unlike himself, and Hoseok can’t help but think it’s because of something he did, something Jeongguk did. “What reason is that?”
“Escape. Duh.” Taehyung waves his free hand, takes in the beach - the bay - the point of the rocks. “It’s safe, here. That’s what he said, too.”
“Your friend. Wore the same kinda shirt.” Taehyung chuckles. “Showed me the bangle I dropped for you. I told him it suited him.”
“It does,” Hoseok says cautiously.
“It does. He’s real small.”
“Bigger than me.”
“Small - small.” Taehyung shrugs. “Small like the li’l prince, when he thinks nobody’s looking. I saw them fighting. He won ‘cause Seokjin and Namjoon were out on hunt, and now they’re back and he’s only got a few days - a week, tops - before they go for him. They’ll beat him.”
Hoseok’s brow furrows. “Who’s they?”
“Top contenders for the spot their leader’s gonna leave free. Namjoon and Seokjin. Woulda been the li'l princes, right now, if Yoongi wasn't so fuckin' strong, but they're gonna play dirty. They’re gonna fight Yoongi for the right to hunt you.”
“Not you in particular. But, Hoseok-ah, you gotta admit. You swim the furthest out in the middle of the night, right? You swim where nobody else does. If Yoongi found you, so will the person that defeats him.”
“Defeat…” Hoseok feels suddenly sick, remembering Yoongi saying I killed one of them, although two of them still remain. “You mean-?”
“They’ll fuckin’ rip him to shreds and sling his bones ‘round their waist.”
it's a human we have to kill a
“How do you know all this?”
Taehyung shrugs. “I hear things. The shells tell me, sometimes, when I lift them up to listen. People would do a lot better if they’d listen.”
“And…” Hoseok looks out to see, at the draining sunset. “And what about you?”
“What about me?”
“In this big… picture,” he waves his hand vaguely, “Where do you fit?”
“Anywhere I want.”
But Taehyung is disentangling his fingers, walking into the waves with strong, confident steps, never looking back. “I’ll be seeing you, Hoseok-ah,” he calls, sounding like a fragile version of his normal self. “I’ll be seeing you.”
And then he’s gone, too.
Hoseok feels like he can’t breathe.
He wants a hug.
(He wants his mother.)
((No he doesn't.))
So he turns around, and trudges back up to the boardwalk, and goes to buy chips with Jimin and Jeongguk off Sungwoo.
They only eat half of them, and throw the rest to the seagulls, who have no such problems with stomaching food.
“Your mother rang,” Haewon says. She looks tired, for once in Hoseok’s life looking like the person she is. An overworked, middle-aged spinster.
“She wanted to tell you…” and his aunt clears her throat uncomfortably, fiddling with the pen in her hair. “Wanted to tell you she’s clearing out your room. For - for the new baby.”
“That’s fine by me.”
“She said you’re still welcome home anytime.” Haewon is watching him closely, like she’s observing any minute break in his demeanour.
“And you can tell her to fuck off,” Hoseok says, spreading jam on his toast, the picture of calm. “You know what she called me.”
“Can’t we - Hoseok-ah, it’s hard for a mother to accept-”
“Not you, too.”
“Hoseok,” Haewon starts forward, hand outstretched, and then drops it. “If you give her time to adjust-”
“If she really wanted me back, she wouldn’t have got some new kid, would she?” Hoseok points his toast at her. Tries to seem calm. “She’s clearing out my room. She said-”
“I know what she said!”
Hoseok stops. Stares. Haewon looks torn down, her hair escaping its updo, her eyes wide and watery, her fists balled at her sides. “I know what she said,” she repeats hoarsely.
The silence falls to the floor and shatters, leaving bits of itself to hang for hours in the air.
“I’m going on a walk.”
She watches him leave, and Hoseok isn’t sure whether she wants him to call after him or not.
When Jeongguk was very little, he moved around a lot. Something about his dad, something about a law firm, something about towns and cities and courts.
When he was very little, and then when he was older and still little, he didn’t talk much. Didn’t see the point. He was gonna move soon, anyway, and it hurt more to move when he made friends with people - when he let them play with his action figures, when he got to go to their house and eat toast their parents made and watch cartoons and have inside jokes. So he didn’t make friends, and he didn’t talk much, and he moved.
For two months of the year, he lived with his grandmother.
(Some beach town - his father would leave him with her, and fly out to some other country on business, and Jeongguk loved it there like he’d never loved anywhere in his whole life.)
There was this kid, in the town. His dad ran the ice-cream stall on the boardwalk, and one day the kid gave Jeongguk some for free because -
“Because I’m Park Jimin and I wanna be your friend!”
“‘Kay,” Jeongguk had said, and they’d dug a hole on the beach that day and sat in it, eating sandy ice-cream and flicking globs of suncream at each other.
So, every year, for two months, he escaped to his grandmother.
Sometimes it would be just Jimin - most times, the kid up the hill came down to play, the one that stayed with his aunt as much as he could. A little older than Jeongguk. Jung Hoseok.
So when Jeongguk’s dad was gonna move again, when Jeongguk was about to graduate into junior high, he pitched his idea.
For greater stability, leading to better grades and an increased chance of employment…
“Let me stay with gran? For the school year? Please?”
It took surprisingly little to orchestrate it. Jeongguk’s dad hadn’t seemed to mind either way, and his gran was only too happy to clear out the spare room in the attic, to let Jeongguk buy paint and decorate it with the interesting things he found on the beach, to let him stay and go to school just a year underneath Jimin.
Nine years later -
Well, no. Five years after Jeongguk came to live for good there, so did Hoseok - Hoseok, who already spent as much of his life in the town as he could, skipping school and eventually just dropping out altogether. When Jeongguk became eighteen, Hoseok was twenty-two - that was a year ago - and Hoseok’d already been a lifeguard for four years, on-and-off. Now it's nine years later, and Jeongguk -
Jeongguk doesn’t have any plans.
He’s just happy here.
Hoseok is half-expecting Yoongi to be out in the waves somewhere, but for the first night in three days there’s no glowing head of hair to be seen, no gentle splash of blue tail through water. He swims out anyway, turning onto his back to stare at the rocks - but no Taehyung there, either, and he isn’t expecting him now after what happened earlier.
Everything feels off. And weird.
it's a human
we have to kill a human
And all he can think about is Jimin's strange, sharp little smile, and Jeongguk telling them that to kill a mermaid, you need to drop the weight of its sins on its head.
Chapter 4: lonely whale
basically unedited eh if you see anything glaringly bad please tell me
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Hoseok is half-expecting Yoongi to be out in the waves somewhere, but for the first night in three days there’s no glowing head of hair to be seen, no gentle splash of blue tail through water. He swims out anyway, turning onto his back to stare at the rocks - but no Taehyung there, either, and he isn’t expecting him now after what happened earlier.
Everything feels off. And weird.
Hoseok strikes out again, stroking through water. Haewon and her stupid phonecalls. As if it hasn’t been four years, or whatever. As if they all haven’t cut their losses.
Across the silent water comes a noise - a high-pitched shriek, a lasting note that pierces through the air and fades, leaving echoes of itself across the bay. Hoseok freezes where he floats, bobbing up and down with the gentle waves; it had sounded human, or almost human, the sound of a kid screaming on Halloween.
Then a click-a-click-a-click. The sound of someone drumming their tongue against the roof of their mouth, but far too fast for a human to do it, turning the singular clicks into a rapid spinning around the bay, mirroring where the screech had been. It originates from the left, where the screech had been coming from the right.
Fingers of dread creep up Hoseok’s spine, and, as quietly as he can, he wriggles toward the rocks, the closest land to him. There’s something in the water.
There’s something close to him.
In the water.
Hoseok hits his knee hard on the way up, and in the way of rock in the water it rips the length of skin off his shin. Blood spills into the water, and there’s another screech, another sound from the right, and Hoseok is hauling himself out of the water completely, dripping wet and terrified.
He looks up. “Jeongguk?”
“What are you doing here?”
“What are you doing here?”
Jeongguk frowns. He’s still in his trunks from earlier, his only concession to the nighttime coldness being the black jacket shrugged over his naked chest. A hat, too, balanced on the top of his head. Bare feet. Not bleeding, unlike Hoseok, who’s still dripping slowly into the water. “I - I figured-”
hyung there’s a pretty boy on the beach
And a scream, again, from far out in the water.
“Did Taehyung tell you to come out?” Hoseok asks grimly, pulling himself up the rest of the way and clamping his hand over his knee to try and stop the bleeding. “The pretty boy on the beach, with the purple hair? Did he? Jeongguk, did he?"
“So you do know him!”
“Not important right now, Gukkie.” Hoseok scans the bay. The noises sound so like the sounds Yoongi had made, that first night when he’d thought he was going to die - rapidfire clicking and whistling, like a human trying to mimic the sound of a dolphin. “Did he tell you to… jump, or something?”
all you’d have to do
“Jump? No,” Jeongguk frowns, so innocent of the strange plot Hoseok’s found himself drawn into. “No, he - he-”
Jeongguk saw the jewellery before the rest of him. Bangles and bracelets and anklets, gold and silver and purple, exactly of the sort dancing on his own wrist. He’s slept with it on, the past month, just because it makes him feel pretty; and it’s warm, even when there’s no sun to heat it. He hardly takes it off.
“Hello?” He said uncertainly. The boy was pretty. Unfairly so. Purple hair, lilac streaked with silver, and tanned skin and gold on his limbs, the picture of perfection.
“That’s a nice bracelet,” the boy said, not turning around. “Pretty. Where’d you get it?”
“I’m - I’m a lifeguard. I found it on the b-beach,” Jeongguk stuttered. He wanted to stand beside him, but he was scared to - scared, ‘cause someone so pretty shouldn’t be just here, in the sea where anyone can see them.
The boy turned, then, and his eyes were brown and gold and so delightfully beautiful that Jeongguk took a few steps back, his mouth dropping open, hardly noticing the golden gaze dropping to the place where his lips parted. “Your name’s Jeongguk.”
“It says so on your badge.”
“O-oh.” Feeling like a fool, Jeongguk stayed there, captive of the pretty gaze on his face.
“Jeongguk? You a friend of Hoseok?”
“I - yeah. Yeah, I am.”
The boy reached out, his hand dancing cautiously around Jeongguk’s cheek. “Don’t… don’t go out in the sea. It’s dangerous now, you hear? If you want to… stay safe, then don’t go into the sea. And stay inside at night.”
“He did what, Gukkie-yah?” Hoseok asks, a little impatient despite himself.
Jeongguk draws closer, like he’s seeking out warmth from Hoseok. “He told me to stay inside at night. And he said the sea was dangerous. And he asked if I knew you.”
“Was I right, hyung?” Jeongguk sighs, and they both jump when the clicking noise sounds, far closer than it had been before. “D-do you know him? Isn’t - isn’t Taehyung the - back when you told me and Jimin about it… about - about the mermaids… And - and is the sea dangerous?”
“You hear that noise?”
“That sound like something safe to you?”
Jeongguk stretches out his hand, fisting it in the back of Hoseok’s soaking t-shirt. “Hy-hyung?”
“I never was scared of the sea before.”
Hoseok doesn’t have anything to say to that, not really. “Hey, kid?”
“If Taehyung… that’s the boy with the purple hair… if he told you to stay away from the ocean at night, then why’d you come out?” Hoseok pulls his hand away from his knee, but the blood hasn’t stopped; there’s little chips of rock in the cut, and no matter where he moves his foot, droplets of it spill into the sea. And if the noises are what he thinks it is -
A screech. So close that Hoseok claps his blood-sticky hands to his ears; so close that Jeongguk yelps out.
“I wanted to see wh-what was so scary,” Jeongguk mumbles thickly. “I wanted to kn-know.”
“What’s that noise?”
Hoseok exhales. “I think - I think it’s mermaids.”
Jeongguk looks out over the water, pulling the sleeves of his jacket down over his hands. Hoseok's never been so grateful before for Jeongguk's childlike belief in people, his ability to take anything said to him at face value without questioning any ulterior motives. “Like what you told us about the other day?”
“And you think that’s what it is?”
Hoseok presses his hand back against his knee, the wet salt of his skin stinging the rawness of the cut - and it’s deep, deep enough to still be leaking blood, refusing to clot despite the circling menace of the clicking and the screeching getting ever closer. “Taehyung told me… there’s some people, and they really wanna kill me. You. Anyone, really. I don’t think they’re picky.”
“Hyung…” Jeongguk grabs at the back of his shirt again. “Are they in the wuh-water?”
Yeah. Real good idea, Hoseok. Tell the kid about the murder fish while you’re surrounded by them. “Yeah,” Hoseok says regretfully, pressing his hand harder into his knee. “Yoongi… was one of them.”
“Your mermaid? He’s out there?”
“No. Not him.” All Hoseok can see is the guilt, right there, right before Yoongi swam away - just a day ago, now, a day since the talk and the hand-holding and the sitting on the rocks.
On these rocks.
“I want Jimin, too.”
“He’d… throw ice-cream at them ‘til they went away.”
Then something clicks in Hoseok’s ear, click-a-click-a-click-a, and Hoseok screams -
He hadn’t meant to, but he’s just so damn scared and Jeongguk sounds like he’s on the verge of crying and there’s murderous mermaids in the water, and the screeching comes from the other side of him, and Jeongguk is leaping back up the rocks - there’s nowhere to go, there, just higher rocks - and Hoseok is following, ripping his feet back up on the barnacles and the rocks.
And there’s a shriek, and then more clicking. A human trying to impersonate a dolphin.
Jeongguk and Hoseok sit there, on the rocks, shaking and cold and silent, until the tide recedes and dawn breaks over the horizon.
By that time, Jeongguk’s slumped onto Hoseok’s shoulder, snoozing fitfully, jerking up every time there’s a noise from the sea. But they’ve become distant, more distant, and Hoseok’s knee has stopped bleeding, clotting thick around the skin, and it’s getting lighter. Brighter. What time is it?
Will Haewon have missed him?
What’s Taehyung gonna - What’s Yoongi gonna think?
“Gukkie-yah,” he whispers quietly, lifting Jeongguk by the shoulders. “Do you wanna go back to town?”
Jeongguk blinks at him, eyes gummy with tears and sleep and exhaustion. “But the - the sea-”
“There’s been no noises for an hour. I think they’re gone.”
“Yeah,” Hoseok says, although he isn’t.
“‘Mm’kay.” Jeongguk, agreeable in this groggy state, begins to move. “Whaddaya think Jimin’d say?”
“We’re gonna tell him, though.”
“Course we are.”
The way down is slow, laborious. Hoseok sees some of his own blood on the barnacles, the sharpest ones, and freezes for a moment when he sees the hook of a bleached bone jammed in the rocks between the bloodied barnacles - is it a mistake? But then, when Yoongi prizes his bones so much -
He picks it up, gently. A curved, smooth chip of bone, part of some larger, unseen whole.
“What’s that?” Jeongguk looks up, the tips of his toes in the water.
“Pretty sure it’s a bit of a baby whale bone.”
“Real funny, hyung,” Jeongguk drones.
to lead the hunt - a chip of the rib of a baby whale -
- this is what we earn, this is what we earn, this is what we earn, this is what we
to lead the hunt
Hoseok puts it in the pocket of his trunks, zips them up tight, and casts himself into the water alongside Jeongguk, thinking about strings of bones on seaweed rope and about the resignation in Taehyung’s voice as they looked out on the dying sun.
“What the fuck happened to you two?”
Jimin is staring. Hoseok knows they must look a sight, the two of them - Jeongguk is swaying with exhaustion, they’re both soaked through and wearing a bizarre mix of pyjamas and swimming trunks, and Hoseok’s right leg is covered in gravel and flaking blood.
“Hyungie,” Jeongguk murmurs, reaching out; Jimin lets him slump over his shoulder, and Jeongguk is dead to the world again.
“What happened?” He repeats, but quieter. More concerned.
Hoseok himself feels like falling over, but he can’t. Not yet. “I - we got stuck on the rocks. I’ll explain later. There’s jus’... just, someone I gotta find first.”
“Oi- oi! Hoseok-ah!”
It takes all of Hoseok’s energy to make it into a sprint, across the boardwalk and back onto the beach. It’s so early in the morning that nobody is out, which should make his search only easier. His legs shake when he plunges into the ocean, wading up to his knees, wincing when the water washes against the cut, wading up to his waist, where the water freezes his bare skin, wading up to his chest, and then flinging his body forward into the water, coasting along on the top, hardly with the energy to pull himself on.
He wants to be looking for Taehyung, but the thing his eyes scan the horizon for is a mop of sea-green hair.
Fuck, he’s tired. And scared. And everything from the waist down hurts.
“Yoongi?” He calls out tentatively. When he rolls onto his back, he can’t see Jimin or Jeongguk, but he can see the lifeguarding hut, a rock in the waves. He rolls back around. “Yoongi!”
He’s never seen Yoongi during the day. Are mermaids nocturnal?
(Another question he’ll have to ask google.)
Fuck, it’s cold. Was the ocean always this cold?
And that’s totally Yoongi. Probably. Somewhere out there, out further in the ocean. Just a little further to swim. “Yoongi! Yeah, it’s -” his voice breaks suddenly, without warning, and he wants to cough but he’s swimming, and for a moment he forgets how to swim. “It’s Hoseok!”
“Yeah-! Yeah, I’m… I’m comin’!”
And then he isn’t, anymore. ‘Cause he’s spent all night on a rock, listening to things that want to kill him, trying to keep one of his best friends from panicking and falling into the water, unable to properly panic himself.
So then he isn’t, anymore. Then he’s just sleeping.
“This is the third time, Hoseok.”
“Three times is too many times.”
“You swim far too often for your own - ah, for your own good.”
Hoseok’s head hurts. He feels like he’s been whacked with a rock or something, and it’s ridiculously hard for him to peel his eyelids open, but he’d recognise that voice. He always would. And Yoongi -
“You look awful!”
“I could say the same for you,” Yoongi laughs a little, but it looks like it hurts.
“Yoongi - holy fuck, what happened?”
Yoongi’s face has a smile pasted on it, but that’s the only sign that something might be okay. His face is covered in scratches, the one on his cheek from a few days ago paling in comparison to the red slashes across his nose, his cheeks, his lips - red bruising swells around the socket of one eye. His chest is worse off, three long strikes down the centre of it and a myriad of colourful bruises patterning all over his skin, and his tail is an even mixture of blue scales and red, bleeding flesh. The seaweed rope around his waist looks tattered, the bones hanging by a thread, and the fan of the tip of his tail is ripped and bleeding. “Nothing that I can’t handle. Why did I find you drowning? Why again?”
Yoongi’s skin is pale. When Hoseok reaches out to touch it, Yoongi half-in and half-out of the water, the back of his hand is cold and blueish-grey. “Why do you look like you fought a whale and lost?”
“This isn’t no reason.” Hoseok moves over - Yoongi has brought him to the rocks again, to a flat one he won’t choke on - and feels the nub of bone poke him in the hip. He swears. “Did-”
“Why did you swim?”
“Fuck that. Yoongi, did.. other people do that to you?”
“What do you mean?” Yoongi lifts his hand cautiously, rubbing his hand over Hoseok’s knee where the sea has completely cleaned the cut.
All Hoseok can feel is the damned rib bone. The call to hunt. The sign. The warning. “Other people in your school?”
“What did that siren-”
“What did Taehyung tell you?”
Which is as good as a confirmation, in Hoseok’s eyes. “What did you do to get fought?”
“Why did you swim?”
“I-” Hoseok sighs. “Forget that for two seconds, please. Is this ‘cause you haven’t killed me yet?”
Yoongi pushes his thumb against the cut, ignoring Hoseok’s sudden yelp of pain. “Those are problems I face, and I would appreciate you not wasting thought on them.”
“Quit - ow, fuck, quit doing that,” Hoseok knocks Yoongi’s hand away. “Yeah, but if I wanna worry about you, then I can. Is this ‘cause you haven’t killed me yet? So they beat the shit out of you?”
“Last night was- was confusing. We- we thought - we thought the leader of our school had died,” Yoongi says quietly. “A school cannot exist without its leader, so we - they - the two that I fought originally - they made a pact with each other to hunt last night, and in order to do that they had to fight me again. I tried to win.”
“Jesus,” Hoseok breathes.
“I tried to win, but they were working together. Makes it very hard to… see what’s coming behind you.”
“So there were two mermaids floating about last night? Hunting people?”
“Yes. You didn’t swim, did you?” Yoongi looks worried. It’s gratifying, after the amount that Hoseok’s discovered he cares for him, to see at least a little of it reciprocated, although it also means that Yoongi got all hell beat out of him in an attempt to keep Hoseok safe. “You didn’t? Right?”
“You did,” Yoongi hisses. He widens his eyes, although the right one is so bruised it merely flutters. “You went swimming, you idiot, you - you - did they find you? Is that why I found you? Seok-ah, you can’t just do that!”
Seok-ah, says a little voice in the back of Hoseok’s head, sounding pleased.
Hoseok tells it that this is not the time, and to kindly shut up.
“I did, though,” he mumbles. “And so did my friend.”
“I - I work with this kid, Jeongguk, and Taehyung met him last night and told him to stay away from the water.”
“So how come he went swimming?” Yoongi looks like he’s about to cry, and it’s force of habit that makes Hoseok grab his hand as it waves through the air. “Hoseok! How come?”
“He’s a curious li’l shit, that’s how come. He wanted to know why it was so dangerous, and he’s… he lives with his gran, and he believes every fisherman’s tale and fishwife story that floats his way,” Hoseok conjures up an image of Jeongguk, smiling wide, telling Jimin all about fairies. “He thinks you’re real.”
“I really - I need to find Taehyung, and then I need Jimin and Jeongguk,” Hoseok mumbles, squeezing tight on the hand he holds.
Yoongi squeezes back. “I’m sorry-”
“Well, don’t be.”
“But you need them?” And it turns into a question, although Yoongi doesn’t sound as if he’d meant it to be.
“I need them so we’re all in one place,” Hoseok shifts and the bone moves again, piercing his side even more painfully than before, “So we all know what’s happening. So we can stop anybody from dying.”
Yoongi clasps one of Hoseok’s hands in both of his, looking frantic. “Nobody will die, Hoseok, I promise - I’ll take this far away from here-”
“Idiot,” Hoseok mumbles. “I’m worried about you.”
And the slow smile that spreads across Yoongi’s bloodied, bruised face, a little shy and unused to being there, is almost worth the whole of it. The whole bloodyfuck lot.
“You been gone three hours!”
Jimin and Jeongguk have taken up residence in the lifeguarding hut, now the beach is filling up. They both smell of fried breakfasts, of fried mushrooms and bacon and potato bread, and there’s the frying pan sitting on the chair inside the hut, a forlorn little fried tomato and a curled-up piece of potato bread sitting in the corner. Cold long ago. They must have visited Jeongguk’s gran, then, to make them a slap-up.
“Three hours?” Hoseok blinks sluggishly.
“Yeah!” Jimin looks angry. He’s holding Jeongguk’s jacket; the kid himself is curled up on the chair beside the remains of the fry, blinking sleep out of his eyes. “You yell about finding someone, and you fucking vanish! What the fuck is going on?”
“You’ve been weird for months, you keep running off, you look like hell, your aunt keeps telling my dad how you’re sneaking out at night-”
“Hyung,” Jeongguk mumbles sleepily, and Jimin’s mouth snaps shut, his glare at Hoseok melting into a look of soft care.
“Gukkie? What’s wrong?”
“Hoseokie-hyung tried to tell you what was going on, but you didn’t-” Jeongguk yawns widely, curling back in on himself, “Didn’t listen.”
“Okay,” Hoseok says hurriedly, holding up his hands, “Okay, there’s a friend of mine you really need to meet.”
“I still don’t fucking forgive you, you bastard,” Jimin says five minutes later, holding Jeongguk’s hand as the three of them wade into the water. “You made me think - you made me think.” But his voice is lighter than before, and Hoseok knows he was never in any trouble to begin with.
“I’m still sorry,” Hoseok shrugs.
Jeongguk falls forward in the water. Hoseok catches him.
“Where are we going? Gukkie’ll drown,” Jimin frowns, now mid-chest in the water. “Hoseok, there’s nothing out here but ocean.”
“We’re goin’ around the rocks.”
“I gotta friend waiting there,” Hoseok shrugs, wanting to kick into properly swimming, but also not wanting to accidentally kill Jeongguk.
“Hoseok-ah! Hoseok-ah that knows the seas!”
Jimin’s face twists. “Is that your friend? His surfboard’s pretty deep in the waves.”
Taehyung is hopping up and down on top of the white water, waving enthusiastically at Hoseok, no trace of his solemn self from last night left. “Hoseok-ah! Hoseok-ah!”
“He hasn’t got a surfboard,” Hoseok says quietly.
“He’s not fucking jesus, either,” Jimin giggles a little bit, but the smile slides off his face when he catches Hoseok’s eye. “Oh my god. Oh my god, are you on drugs? Is that why you’ve been sneaking off?”
“Drugs? Hoseok-ah?” Taehyung cackles. Skips closer, then sinks into the water, eye-to-eye with the sleepy Jeongguk. “Oh, I remember this face.”
“Hyung? The pretty boy is back,” Jeongguk mumbles. "Am I dreaming?"
Hoseok groans. “Taehyung, take Jeongguk, go find Yoongi, and stop stirring shit. Jimin, follow me.”
“Aye-aye, cap’n,” Taehyung salutes.
“Jimin - Jimin, it’s not what it looks like,” Hoseok tries, pulling Jimin back from chasing after the other pair.
“I don’t even know what it looks like, so don’t try that line on me. What the fuck have you been doing?”
Hoseok strokes through the waves; Yoongi is only five minutes away, and Taehyung has vanished across the water, carrying Jeongguk at impossible speeds. “Would you believe me if - if - if I said it was mermaids?”
Jimin’s silent, stony swimming is all the answer Hoseok needs.
“But it is.”
The lap of water against skin.
“Yoongi is real, and last night me and Jeongguk almost got killed by some of his friends,” Hoseok says, still ahead of Jimin so he doesn’t have to see his face. “You don’t have to believe me if you don’t want to - God knows, I wouldn’t - but that’s the time-honoured truth. I swear it.”
Jimin’s cold disbelief spreads through the water, chilling Hoseok to the bone.
“Taehyung,” Hoseok says, aware that he’s beginning to burble, “Taehyung isn’t a mermaid, though, Taehyung is a siren, and I met him first, and he tried to kill me too. I don’t think he wants to kill Gukkie, though, but you never know. He won’t, though, because Yoongi is close by. Yoongi’ll stop him.”
“You’ve lost it, Hoseok-hyung,” Jimin says finally. “I’ll follow you, but only so that mad kid doesn’t kidnap Jeonggukkie.”
And that’s really all Hoseok could ask for.
When they round the rocks, heading towards Hoseok’s bay, it’s to find Jeongguk settled half-on, half-off of Taehyung’s lap, his arm hung loosely around Taehyung’s neck, playing curiously with the rope of bones Yoongi must have given him. There’s another golden band on his arm, and one conspicuously missing from Taehyung’s, and the two of them are talking quietly, looking off in a whole world of their own.
Yoongi is scanning the ocean for Hoseok. Hoseok knows he is.
And Jimin screams.
Jimin screams loud.
“Sometimes I make up stories about the stars.”
It’s later. Things have happened. Now it’s just them again, the way it always turns out to be; Hoseok with a wet cloth, dabbing it gently over the dug-out scrapes in Yoongi’s skin, brushing sand and grit away from them. I don’t need it, Yoongi had said, but he seems to like the softness of it. Eyes closed, shuddering into Hoseok’s touch. “When we’re small, we get told that stars are the souls of whales that called out so loudly they rose up through the water.”
“That’s… pretty. Some people - Jeongguk’s gran, actually, always used to say - stars are little children that died before they were adults,” Hoseok squeezes the cloth out into the sea.
Yoongi smiles. “I like to look up at them, sometimes. And think about them. All the whales in the sky, singing to each other until the sun comes up.”
“That’s so… pretty.”
“Whales are nice.” Yoongi turns over to let Hoseok dab over his back, along the three long scratches there. “They’re out there, in the open. We see them.”
“They hoot, right?” Hoseok is careful when he reaches the bottom of the scratches, the place where the fins and the skin mix together. Blue flakes off against his fingertips, and he hisses in shock, but Yoongi doesn’t react much beyond a little wriggle in the water.
“They hum. Call out. We - you wouldn’t hear them, but we can.” Yoongi waves his hand at the stars. “Like buzzing in the water.”
“They’re too low for these ears,” Yoongi reaches up to flick his own, the pointy blue tips, and then tugs teasingly at the lobe of Hoseok’s ear. “These ears are weak.”
Hoseok smiles. “So with what ears do you hear them, then?”
“We don’t. The water just shakes, and we can tell the whales are coming.” Yoongi takes Hoseok’s hand, dropping the cloth beside them. “There’s no point, Seok. I heal fast.”
“There’s a whale I met once, though,” Yoongi continues, and his cheeks are a little bit pink like he’s trying to carry it off casually, “And he was on his own. You know they usually travel in big groups? Like us.”
“Y-yeah,” Hoseok manages. He’s Seok. Yoongi called him Seok, and smiled at him, and now he’s telling him about whales and really, he’s the prettiest person Hoseok’s ever set his eyes upon. “Yeah. Whales.”
“One time, I was out. Out looking for something - I can’t remember what, but I was away from the school, and I felt the water shake. The way it does when the whales are coming.” Yoongi picks up Hoseok’s empty hand, gently interlocks their fingers. “Except that there was only one whale.”
Hoseok hardly dares breathe. Yoongi’s eyes, dark and thoughtful, stare into the water.
“The water was different, too. It was shaking faster, like none of the other whales I've ever heard. You know what I think?”
Hoseok shakes his head mutely.
Yoongi smiles at him, then, small and sad and precious, and lifts their joined hands to his lips. Kisses briefly along the line of Hoseok’s knuckles, as gentle and calm as the sea in the morning. “I think he was shaking the sea too fast for the others to hear. I couldn't hear, because my ears don't work so low, and they couldn't hear because their ears don't work so high. So I went back, back to the school. See that star?”
His hand, the one not holding Hoseok’s, points at the North Star. Hoseok nods.
“I called it the lonely whale,” Yoongi says proudly. “So he's not so alone in the sky.”
“You are something else,” Hoseok breathes.
The moment flees. “I just told you,” and Yoongi is laughing. Mermaids laugh. Who knew?
There's a little quiet. It's night, now, deep into the night - Hoseok spent most of the day napping in the lifeguard hut, after he'd calmed down Jimin. He's not as tired as he could be.
“Will that boy be okay?” boy be - how’ll he be?”
“You mean Jeongguk?”
Jeongguk had fallen asleep on top of Taehyung while Jimin was shouting at him. Until that time, neither Taehyung nor Yoongi had known about what happened last night, and when Taehyung yelled shark in the water and snatched Jeongguk into his arms, everybody shut up.
“Yeah.” Yoongi plays with the shard of rib that Hoseok’s given him - the calling card from last night. “I - he seemed small. Is he a fully-grown human? He’s bigger than you, but-”
“He’s younger than me, and he’s kinda… shy. Twitchy,” Hoseok says carefully.
“I am sorry. Taehyung-”
“Was the one that told him. So you have nothing to be sorry for. He wanted to know why he wasn’t supposed to go to the sea, and he found me.”
Yoongi looks pained. “Namjoon and Seokjin, last night, worked together. I could have beat them if they were coming to me separately, fighting each other at the same time, but they didn’t. Some of the members of the school think that - I think that - they are trying to find a skull so they can claim they killed it together, and lead jointly. They’ve always talked about annexing smaller schools, getting power in the ocean, but it never came to anything because our leader… she’s traditional. Now she’s going to go, so they must think they have a chance. And I - I don’t want them to kill you, and I don’t want them to kill your friends.”
“But I don’t want them to kill you, either,” Hoseok whispers. His throat feels like it’s burning up inside.
Yoongi sniffs, a damp, teary sort of a noise. “I wanted to lead them away from here, l-last night. I tried. I don’t - I don’t know why - I do, I do know why I didn’t.”
“Most selfish reason in the world.”
Hoseok grins. “I won’t judge.”
“Wanted to - didn’t want to stop seeing you at night,” Yoongi mumbles, cheeks aflame. “I learn. I learn lots, and you - make me smile. And I like how you look in the moonlight. And I like - even that stupid siren. I like talking to you, Seok-ah.”
“O-oh,” Hoseok says faintly. “I like talking to you, too.”
Yoongi offers him a smile, small and sweet. “I’m glad. Seok-ah.”
“Do you have to go back to them?”
“To the school?”
“Yeah,” Hoseok bites down hard on his lip, anxious and worried and wanting to hold Yoongi’s hand. “Do you?”
“I’ve been out hunting tonight.” Yoongi begins to float away, the swish of his scales under the water like a pool of iridescent stars. “I have to go back and say that I didn’t find any humans after all.”
“How long will they-”
“‘Til she dies. ‘Til she dies, and then something will have to be done, one way or the other.” Yoongi’s out far, now, only his head breaching the surface.
One way or the other sounds too decisive.
“Okay,” Hoseok says aloud. Waves. “I - tomorrow?”
“I’ll be here tomorrow, Seok-ah,” Yoongi murmurs. “No matter what those two say.”
“Okay,” Hoseok says again.
Yoongi smiles and dips his head underwater, and the flick of his shimmery tail is the last wave he gives before he’s going, down deeper than Hoseok’s eyes can see.
“Okay,” Hoseok says to himself. He swims back to the beach thinking of Seok-ah and the small little crinkle at the corners of Yoongi’s eyes when he smiles, and when he goes to sleep, he doesn’t dream.
Haewon doesn’t even mention his mother in the morning.
And it’s such a beautiful day.
Chapter 5: to be scared
i didn't edit it!! bc i'm lazy (whoops)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
bubbles. blood in the water. a worrying night. the onewiththehonourtolead has not yet returned. they hover in the water together. tending wounds.
they are the best. if the onewiththehonourtolead had not tricked them, then one or the other of them would be the onewiththehonourtolead. they have an agreement.
pinktail and violettail. they are the oneswhocanhavethehonour, in their own heads. to everyone else they are both onewholeadthehunt. they want to be the oneswholead.
pinktail has broken a part of his trophyofthehunt from his belt to give as a warning to the onewiththehonourtolead. now he pulls violettail closer by the hand. violettail opens his eyes wide and clicks.
what will we do?
pinktail rubs his hand over violettail’s gills.
i do not know.
and violettail relaxes into the touch. bubbles flood from his mouth.
will we kill him?
theonewholeads will kill us.
they are coming, now.
we may not survive.
i know that, too.
what happens if we do?
pinktail smiles. his sharp teeth bite into his bottom lip. blood in the water.
if we survive, we will find the onewiththehonourtolead. we will find what he does.
and we will kill it, and him, and come back to the school with their heads around our tails.
Park Senior is sitting outside on the boardwalk, rocking backwards and forwards in his chair and fiddling with the little bagful of change. “Kid’s gone round to Jeon’s,” he says, jerking a lazy thumb in the direction of Jeongguk’s grandmother’s house on the beach. “Big slap-up, says her. How’s it going, Hoseok?”
“Going good,” Hoseok responds, hopping from foot to foot, smiling widely despite himself. The sun is shining brightly down on the early-morning town, and there’s the distant yell of the town kids, the country kids, all piling down onto the beach to play fortresses. “Going good, when isn’t it? And you?”
Senior grins. It’s wiry, and slung sideways on his face. “Goin’ good. Get on over there before my kid eats all the eggs.”
And Hoseok’s fighting off singing his way across the town square.
Seok-ah. I like talking to you, Seok-ah. Yoongi said that. With his own -
Do mermaids have vocal cords?
“It’s a lovely day!” He yells at Chaeyoung, the girl that does the grocery runs on her bike. “Have a good one!”
Chaeyoung giggles, her arms full of brown bags to dump into the basket of her bicycle. “You too!”
There’s Jeongguk’s surfboard, leaning against his grandmother’s house, and there’s the bustle of the shops beginning to open, and Hoseok’s so happy he could cry. Yoongi. Yoongi likes talking to him. Yoongi called him Seok-ah and said he likes talking to him.
“Hoseok!” And there’s Jeongguk’s grandmother, old and small and withered, hobbling next to her grandson. The house is full of the smell of eggs and sizzling potato bread. “Did Senior-?”
“He told me,” Hoseok beams. “Thanks for the offer!”
She smiles, wither-wrinkle bright. “Always open for bright boys like you and my Jeonggukkie. And Senior's Jimin.”
And everything is perfect.
“Jiminie!” He sings, darting out the back to the little rose garden, “It’s a beautiful day!”
Jimin is standing next to the rose bushes. He looks a little sleepless. “Yeah. Yeah, it is. Morning.”
There's always a something.
Jimin doesn’t like things changing. He does accounting classes during term-time down at the local college, and he runs his dad’s business for him, the banking bits and the finances, and he’s good at what he does. He’s always talked about escaping from the town, moving to the city and buying a suit and becoming an accountant, but any time anyone moves away - any time anyone changes - his face turns down, and his eyes droop, and Hoseok knows he feels like a part of him is peeling away. Jimin, for all his talk of running away, of escaping, hates things changing. He doesn't want to leave. He doesn't want anyone to stop being how they were. He -
Hates things changing. And what brings more change than a pack of murderous mermaids and - and whatever the fuck Taehyung is doing?
“Oh, Jiminie,” Hoseok sighs, reaching out, mood quashed but not quite forgotten. “I’m sorry.”
“You said nothing was going on. You said you just bashed your mouth against a rock. You said you just slept bad. And you were - you were makin’ out with mermaids and shit, in the bay, for five months?” Jimin slumps onto the yellowing grass of the Jeon garden. Jeongguk's grandmother plants sunflowers and stuff, all bright blue and pink bushes, but in the heat of late summer their leaves are browning and drooping down to the soil.
“I - no, just the past month-”
“That’s not any better!”
Hoseok stares. Jimin gets huffy, and then he gets childish, and not like how Jeongguk is - he works himself into a tantrum, almost, the sort of anger at the world for not working how it should be. “Not any better,” he repeats, curled in on himself. “Why’d you have to go do it?”
It wouldn’t be helpful to say something like i never asked for any of this.
“I’m sorry, Jiminie,” he settles for. It's not like he seduced a mermaid on purpose, or whatever.
(The clatter of pans drifts out the open back door, Jeongguk and his grandmother talking quietly.)
“Jeongguk likes him,” Jimin begins ripping out grass in heavy clumps. “The one. Taehyung.”
“Taehyung isn’t safe to like.”
“We’re meant to be safe.”
“But we - Taehyung-”
“We’re just meant to be!” Jimin throws the grass at him, pathetic in the way it flutters down over Hoseok’s head. “We’re meant to be safe, just going to the beach and having fun and eating ice-cream and there’s not meant to be people it isn’t safe to like, not here! Not here!”
But Hoseok does feel safe, and that’s the problem. Yoongi doesn’t scare him. Neither does Taehyung, not really. They did at the start, and maybe Hoseok got too used to them too quick, or maybe they're tricking him in some way, too weird, too scary, but in the end of it all...
Hoseok feels safe.
And Jimin doesn’t.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbles, reaching out to try and hold Jimin’s hand. “I never thought. I’m sorry.”
“Jeonggukkie likes him. He told me he smells nice. Hoseok-ah. Jeongguk’s a baby.”
“Taehyung’s harmless,” Hoseok says, ignoring his statement from a few moments ago.
“He’s the one that gave Jeongguk that bracelet, that thing he found on the beach… hyung, he’s a siren, right? They kill people. I don’t want him to kill Jeonggukkie,” and Jimin’s welling up with tears, sad and lonely as they drip down his face.
“He won’t kill Jeonggukkie.” Abruptly, Hoseok is reminded of their conversation a week ago - Jimin, sharp and stinging, asking Jeongguk how to kill a mermaid.
“Hyungs! Gran’s got breakfast!”
Jimin leaps to his feet, wiping his eyes with his sleeve, and runs inside.
Hoseok sits on the grass.
And Jimin doesn’t.
“I think Jimin’s mad at me.”
“He’s the other one, right?”
Hoseok glares at Taehyung, fighting the urge to shove him in the ocean. “Fuck off. He’s Jimin.”
“I didn’t say he wasn’t, Hoseok-ah,” Taehyung laughs. “How’s things between you and the li’l prince?”
“He’s not even a prince.”
“Hoseok-ah,” Taehyung drums his fingers on Hoseok’s knee, raising goosebumps at his fingertips. “Do you think now is the time to be worried about this? When you’re at risk? Let Jimin-ah sort himself out.”
“He’s scared of you.”
“And Gukkie-yah isn’t.” They’re on the rocks, watching the sun tuck itself into bed behind the horizon. “Can you trust me? Can you trust him?”
Hoseok sighs. “I’ll go see Yoongi.”
And Taehyung stands up, heading down the side of the rocks that ends at the beach. “And I’ll let you go.”
“Didn’t know I needed your permission.”
But Hoseok is smiling, and so is Taehyung, crooked and glowing as the sun sets behind his back. With familiarity comes the fading of fear, or something like that, and the tinge of blood is long gone from his lip.
For as long as he can remember, Jimin’s job was to look after Jeongguk. To feed him out of the shop, to dab the cuts on his knees, to hug him when he had to leave and follow his father for another year. For as long as he can remember, Jeongguk has been Jimin’s - sure, he’s sharing him with Hoseok, but Jeongguk had still gone to Jimin for advice before Hoseok, and before Hoseok moved here full time, it had just been Jimin and Jeongguk on the beach.
And Hoseok was Jimin’s, too. They were both his. All three of them, sitting in the hut on the beach, eating mussels or burgers or chips or whatever Jeongguk’s gran was cooking, all three of them against the world. That’s how it had been.
“Taehyung is nice,” Jeongguk says quietly. “He didn’t have to do what he did.”
“He didn’t do anything,” Jimin murmurs.
“He told me to stay away. And he let me sleep on him, and then he brought me home. He didn’t have to do what he did.” Jeongguk doesn’t want to look at Jimin right now - he knows that if he does, he’ll be greeted with the sight of him looking oddly like an angry puppy that’s just been kicked.
“I do that all the time.”
“It’s getting late, anyway. Hobi-hyung’s already gone to see his mermaid, so you should go home.” Jimin stands, theatrically brushing the sand off the seat of his shorts. “Good night, Guk.”
Jeongguk stays on the beach.
There’s his surfboard, sitting in the hut to be used the next morning, if he gets the time. There’s the rocks, the headland, the familiar place he calls home. There’s Taehyung, walking out of the surf towards him.
“Hello, Gukkie-yah,” he says, settling down beside Jeongguk in a fluid waterfall of graceful limbs and sand. “Were you waiting on anyone?”
Jeongguk feels his face growing hot. “N-not really,” he manages, which is the truth, right? Jimin just left him. He was going to go home in a minute, he really was, so there’s no reason for him to feel so flustered at the implication that he was waiting for Taehyung -
Who laughs, quietly. “Yoongi waits. I see him. He lurks under the water where he thinks nobody will catch him, and he waits until he sees Hoseok-ah coming, and then he goes and positions himself somewhere dramatic. He really wants to impress your Hoseok-hyung, Gukkie-yah.”
“Hoseok-hyung really wants to impress him, too,” Jeongguk says, staring fixedly at Taehyung’s knee. It’s a pretty knee, all brown and tanned, free of scars or blemishes. “You have really pretty knees.”
“Fuck. Fuck. I don’t - I didn’t say that.” Fuck. Why did he say that? Impressing pretty sirens isn’t done by praising obscure body parts. “I - sorry.”
“I think it’s cute,” Taehyung mumbles. “And I’m sorry about your Jimin-hyung.”
“He’s - not happy with me?” Taehyung’s gaze turns questioning.
“He’s just protective,” Jeongguk shrugs, shoving his fingers into the light, dry sand. “Me ‘nd Hobi-hyung, neither of us came here with very much family. His - Hobi-hyung’s - they’re proper fucked up, and he doesn’t have anyone ‘cept his crazy aunt up on the hill. Mine - mine. Mine. And Jiminie wanted to be my big brother. He was really excited when I moved here, ‘cause he had someone to baby. His dad’s real old and his mum died years ago, and all his brothers ‘n sisters, they all grew up and got married and they live other places, doing proper jobs. Jiminie’s scared. So’m I.”
“You don’t act like you’re scared,” Taehyung says quietly, plunging his own hand into the piles of sand.
“I don’t need to be scared. Hobi-hyung met you first ‘n he said you’re good people.”
What he’d actually said was that Taehyung scared the shit out of him and Jeongguk should stay well away, but Jeongguk doesn’t want to say that. He knows Taehyung’s good people. Good people, like how Hoseok’s Yoongi is good people. “Yeah.”
Through the sand, fingertips brush.
Taehyung, it appears, has no such qualms. He lets his hand settle over Jeongguk - long fingers curling around a sweaty palm - and hums. “Do you know how to kill a mermaid, Gukkie-yah?”
“Why’s everyone asking?”
“Do you know?”
Jeongguk shifts uncomfortably. Will Taehyung make fun of him? “I… borrowed a book from Hoseok’s aunt. It said you were meant to drop the weight of their sins on their head.”
“You know how to kill a siren?”
Taehyung stares out to sea, but his hand is warm on Jeongguk’s. “You make it fall in love.”
And Yoongi is waiting.
“I brought a present,” Hoseok huffs, swimming made harder with the waterproof bag on his back. “Present… present for you.”
“Hoseok!” And Yoongi is waiting, there in the water, his hands on the rock Hoseok sits on, his tail spread out below him in the water, glimmering when it catches the light of the moon. “It is - good to see you.”
“Good to see you too. And all in one piece,” Hoseok adds, slipping onto the rock and shrugging the bag off his shoulders. Yoongi hasn’t gained any more injuries; the ones he had already have aged, the cuts scabbing over and the bruises beginning to yellow, as though it's been much longer than a day.
“All in one piece.” Yoongi’s eyes are curious, following Hoseok’s hand to the bag. “What did you bring?”
“Food. Good food. How was it when you went back?”
Hoseok’s brought marshmallows, a candle in a jar, a roll of biscuits, and a box of matches. Yoongi stares at them questioningly, reaching out his hand to push at one of the marshmallows with caution, like it might bite.
“Our leader had given them a telling-to. It’s forbidden to challenge the hunter as a team, so as punishment, they’re to get a beating from the leaders of the hunt.” Something strange glimmers in Yoongi’s eyes. “Only permanent maiming is banned.”
“Jesus, Yoongi. That’s…”
“We’re not like you.”
“I know, but-”
“We heal faster, and hurt less.” Yoongi reaches out, tapping lightly against the inside of Hoseok’s thigh, apparently unaware of Hoseok’s hitched breath. “There’s blood pouring through you, Hoseok. So close to the surface. You're easily damaged. Not like us - this blood, right here. Not like us.”
“Y-yeah.” Hoseok’s hands shake a little when he goes to light the candle. “I - yeah, I guess so.”
Yoongi smiles. Taps the skin once more, rough fingers against soft flesh, and retracts his hand. “You’re a funny creature too, you know. Why are you burning them?”
“I’m not burning them,” Hoseok holds a pink marshmallow above the small, flickering flame, protected from the spray of the ocean by the jar. “I’m melting them. They’re marshmallows. I’m gonna make s’mores.”
“It’s where you melt them, right?”
“And then you take those,” Hoseok indicates the biscuit packet, “And squish the marshmallow between them. And then you eat it.”
“Oh.” Yoongi watches in fascination, his eyes alight as Hoseok’s fingers squash the half-melted lump over the flame. “It looks like a sea sponge. And it tastes good?”
“It tastes amazing.”
“Is it safe for me to eat?” Yoongi prods at the packet again, squeezing a marshmallow in his hand. “It hasn’t got poison in it? Poison for fish?”
“I - uh - I don’t know? It’s made of sugar, and, like… animal fat, I think. It’s safe, probably.” Hoseok unwraps the biscuits with a little difficulty, holding the packet between his knees as he melts the mallow over the candle flame. “Do you want to try a bit?”
“Yes,” Yoongi mumbles. His arms are folded on the rock, his head lying on them, so he’s looking up at Hoseok. “Yes, I’d like to try it. Very much.”
Hoseok tries not to blush. He isn’t sure how far he succeeds. “Okay.”
When he pushes the marshmallow between the two crumbly digestives, he expects Yoongi to reach out and take it off him; instead, Yoongi drops his mouth open, making a childish ahh noise, his eyes following the ooze of melted marshmallow sealing around the edges of the biscuit. He smiles as he does so, sticking out his tongue, and what is Hoseok meant to do? What, really, would any sane man do?
He lets Yoongi take a bite, watching his face closely. “Good?”
Yoongi closes his eyes. “Let me… Seok-ah.”
Hoseok nibbles at the s’more himself, at the bitten edges, the imprints of Yoongi’s mer-sharp teeth, the Jeongguk in his head shrieking indirect kiss and throwing seashells at the back of his head. It’s good. Warm, melting in his mouth, tasting a little of the scent of the candle. Hot chocolate, the label reads. Hoseok uses it as a lamp, sometimes, holding it above his head like an old-fashioned candlestick so he can read at night.
Yoongi smiles, the crumb of a digestive in the corner of his mouth. “Tastes like nothing else ever. Can I have some more?”
“Yeah,” Hoseok hands the rest of it down, a quarter of it -
“You’re such a baby,” he mumbles fondly, and places the s’more on Yoongi’s tongue.
“I’m the scariest thing you’ve ever met,” Yoongi counters as soon as he’s savoured and swallowed the s’more.
“I tried to kill you. Twice.”
“Still, nah,” Hoseok shrugs, taking out another marshmallow - white this time - turning it over the candle flame in thin, tan fingers. “Your mermaid friends are scarier.”
“Not my friends.”
Yoongi looks at him, mouth hanging half-open quizzically. “Huh?”
“Are they your family? Like,” Hoseok squishes another s’more between his thumbs and feeds it into Yoongi’s obediently-open mouth, “Like are they related to you?”
“What do you mean?” Yoongi asks after he’s finished, once Hoseok’s working on melting a third over the candle. “We’re in the same school, so of course we’re related.”
“I meant, like - like are you brothers? That kind of close?”
“The si- Taehyung. Taehyung told me about that, I think,” Yoongi says slowly. “That is… being so close to someone that it is as if they shared the same blood?”
“It’s more like… no, not like that. It’s like, having the same mother. Being born out of the same mother and father, right? Makes you brothers. Or sisters. That’s family.” Hoseok takes the first bite out of the melted mess on his fingers, having left it over the flame for far too long to be salvageable. “So, those two, Seokjin and Namjoon… they’re family? Brothers?”
“... Did we come from the same birth-woman?”
“I don’t know,” Yoongi says slowly, like it’s Hoseok that’s misunderstood. “Why would I know?”
“Don’t you know who your mother is?”
“No,” Yoongi stares at the sticky gloop on Hoseok’s hand, and then reaches his arm out of the water, grabbing Hoseok around the wrist. “I - do I need to? Nobody does. Do you?” As if it means nothing, casual and cute, he bares his teeth and nibbles softly at Hoseok’s fingertips, pulling sugar glaze into his mouth. “Mm. You’re right, about the marshmallows.”
“Do you know the one that gave birth to you?”
“E-everyone does. It’s family,” Hoseok says softly, trying not to spontaneously combust at the feeling of a hot tongue laving at his fingertips. “Family is like… the people closest to you.”
“Then are you and Jimin and Jeongguk a family?”
Yoongi reaches out, grabbing the packet of marshmallows. Dark eyes, guileless, stare up at Hoseok, his small mouth working at the sweet. “They’re the people closest to you, right?”
“Yeah,” Hoseok manages, voice small. He thinks of his mother. “Yeah. I guess… I guess they’re my family.”
“By that logic, I don’t have a family.” Yoongi looks down into the water, his tail flicking out behind him in the waves, and he looks small and defeated that Hoseok can hardly remember a time when he scared him. “And a family is something you… need?”
“I don’t know,” Hoseok says carefully. Slow and quiet, he slips into the water beside Yoongi, the candle flickering away, merrily forgotten on the rocks, scent left unsmelt as it's defeated by the sea. “I left mine. My family, I mean. My mother and my brother and all that - I escaped. Got out. You don’t need a family, but you - you don’t have to be stuck with the one you have.”
“The sea-people don’t have family.”
“Doesn’t mean you can’t,” Hoseok tries. He’s treading water, here, so he reaches out to latch onto Yoongi’s forearms. “You can pick and choose. And escape.”
Hoseok clears his throat, painfully aware of how red his face is. “Y-yeah?”
“If I can choose my family, can I choose you?”
The water laps around the rocks. Yoongi’s tail brushes softly against Hoseok’s calves, the soft touch of something lighter than gossamer, and Hoseok’s grasp moves from his arms to his waist. To the place where the weave of bones hangs on the curve of the scales, and there he rubs his thumbs in circles around, moving from soft skin to smooth scales within the sweep of his touch. Do mermaids have comfort? Is this nice? Is it weird?
“I never meant to talk to you,” Yoongi says at last, relaxing into Hoseok’s hands so completely that Hoseok has to kick a little more just to stay above water. “I meant to kill you.”
“I never knew why you - why you didn’t.”
“Because I thought I’d never given you a chance,” Yoongi murmurs. “You were going to die anyway. I wanted to even the odds.”
“And the second time?”
“Your mouth. When you talked. It… I didn’t want to stop watching it.”
“And the third time?”
Yoongi laughs quietly. “After Seokjin and Namjoon stalked you? As though I’d kill you, Seok-ah. I’d miss it.”
“Feeling like…” Yoongi struggles a moment, so close to Hoseok that his legs are entangled with the thinned tip of his tail.
Hoseok holds his breath.
“Feeling like I’m alive. And that there’s more to that than just… killing and eating and arguing with the sirens. I’d miss you.”
“You’d miss me?” Hoseok exhales, smiling quietly down at the open face in front of him.
“Mm. I can escape, when I’m with you.”
Hoseok hugs him close, impulsively; after a second of frozen terror, Yoongi melts against him, arms awkwardly encircling his waist. “I hope you always do, Yoongi-yah. I really do.”
And Hoseok, if he hadn’t known before, realises with sudden and murderous clarity that he is fucked.
“Hyung, d’you know how you kill a siren?”
“Something about sin.”
“I don’t care, Jeongguk.”
“Jimin-hyung. Taehyung told me last night.”
“I really - I think he’s messing with you.”
“You make them fall in love, hyung.”
“Huh. Well, good job he won’t be doing that anytime soon.”
When Jimin next sees Taehyung, he doesn’t mean to. Jeongguk’s long gone back home, eyes sparkling, and when he’d childishly asked for a goodnight kiss, Jimin’d kissed his cheek and sent him running, the way they do most times anyway.
And Taehyung is waiting for him on the boardwalk when he returns.
“Goodnight, hyung! Gimme a goodnight kiss,” he chirps, Jeongguk’s accent warped in his own melodious voice. “Goodnight! Good night, Jimin. Is it?”
“Fuck off.” Jimin’s tired and every time he goes to sleep, he hopes he wakes up in a world where his hyung isn’t trying to get off with a mermaid, in a world where his baby brother isn’t trying to get off with a siren. Where the two people he loves most in the world get chased by fucking mermaids in the water at night. Drowsily, he walks up to the shop, slumping over the closed door as he scrabbles in his pocket for the keys.
Taehyung’s hand slams into the wooden frame just as Jimin tries to open it. Blankly, he stares at the dark knuckles, at the golden bangles around his wrists. “You’re bleeding.”
And he is. Scratches on his knuckles, like he’s punched something hard. “Yeah, well. Well, shit happens. Good night?”
“Not really, no.” Jimin wants to go. Wants to go upstairs, and sort out his dad’s tray for the morning and then pass out in his bed. “Go away.”
“Jimin-ah, I need to talk to you.”
“No, you don’t.”
Taehyung’s eyes are heavy with bags. There’s a red, bleeding spot on his neck, like something has bitten him in a perfect circle. And he looks paler than usual. “I do. Come walk on the beach with me, Jimin-ah, and let me tell you a story.”
“Can’t you take a fucking hint? Lemme go to bed.”
“I’d love to,” Taehyung murmurs in the sort of voice that sounds like he wants to flirt but can’t pull the energy together. When he takes his hands off the door, the thumbprint stays there, a red imprint on the old, sea-scarred wood. “But not tonight, Jimin-ah. Let me talk to you.”
“Lemme walk with you, then, Jimin-ah,” Taehyung says in the same tone of voice.
Jimin is angry. (But at - at mostly himself.) (Mostly - always - himself, if he’s honest.)
(Upstairs, next to the books for the shop, the application for an accounting course in Seoul stares blankly at him-)
And he’s angry. “What the fuck are you? I don’t wanna know you-”
“Hoseok-ah is worried. And only partly because Yoongi’s about… three nights from getting his head ripped from his body. He’s worried for you, too, Jimin-ah, and much as I wish I hadn’t, I’ve let him grow on me. I want him and Yoongi to get to work out, and I don’t want Seokjin and Namjoon to kill anyone. You li’l bastards are like… like rabbits. Cute. I don’t want you to die.”
“Why’re you hurt?”
Taehyung ignores him. He looks… scarier, in the night, his eyes flashing gold, his teeth shining between glistening lips. “Jimin-ah.”
“Why’re you hurt?”
“Jimin-ah, I haven’t eaten in a year, y’know that?”
And then Jimin remembers what Taehyung is. He’s pulling at the door, trying to get it open, but Taehyung is deceptively strong, and Jimin feels like his breath is frozen in the back of his mouth - unable to call for his father. “Let me - let me, let me in, let me in-”
“I’m not going to fucking eat you, Jimin-ah. I’d planned to eat Hoseok-ah, but him and Yoongi are just too fun to watch.” Taehyung sighs. “Just listen to me, alright?”
“A-alright,” Jimin says. He feels like crying, maybe, or going to Jeongguk’s house and holding him as tight as he can.
“I know you care for Jungkook-ah, and that’s cute and all, but let the kid do what he wants. And… don’t get all up on Hoseok-ah, either. If I - if something happens to me soon, he’ll have nobody to talk to about the fucking shitstorm going on around him, and he needs that more than he needs you being a pig in the mud. Dog in the manger. Narrow-minded asshole. Take your pick.” Taehyung smiles at him, although the gold in his eyes doesn’t twinkle.
Across his cheeks, as though they highlight the veins below the skin, rivers of gold and silver shine brighter than the stars.
“I don’t want you to fuck it up.”
Taehyung moves his hand from the door; Jimin, who’s been leaning all his weight on it, is thrown backwards with a gasp as the door flies open. “Believe it or not,” he says, and his voice is melancholic, “I’m trying not to.”
“Why’re you hurt?”
“Why do you care?”
“‘Cause I just do?”
Taehyung huffs. “And I reckon you should quit. Wanna know what I found out about Namjoon and Seokjin?”
“Yeah,” Hoseok says slowly. Taehyung’s knuckles are scarred up. “How’d you find out, though?”
“The ocean told me.”
“Yeah, fuckin’ right it did.”
“I fought a barracuda for the information.”
Taehyung picks at one of the cuts, painted fingernails chipping red away. “Can you leave it ‘nd just learn what I found out?”
“Yeah, fine.” Hoseok is reluctant. Taehyung looks like death incarnate, paler than usual, his skin thinning away, losing some of the healthy vitality that so drew Hoseok close to him all those months ago. “Yeah, what did you find out?”
“Seokjin and Namjoon, the two ones that tried killing you and Gukkie-yah, they got fucked. Seokjin lost a couple fingers, and they're not gonna grow back proper. Namjoonie-yah’s tail’s in shreds. It’s gonna be ages before they’re fit enough to challenge the li’l prince again, and there’s nobody else in the school with the right bones and claim for the job. Your Yoongi is safe.”
Hoseok swallows. “W-why-”
“They take breaking the rules pretty fuckin’ serious, for a bunch of fish,” Taehyung drawls, kicking his feet against the rocks. (When he pulls his legs up, Hoseok sees black and purple blossoming on his heels.) “They weren’t authorised to go after humans ‘til Yoongi’s either caught one or given up, so they get punished by the school.”
“But a couple fingers-”
“They get punished bad.”
Taehyung hums. “You ever going in?”
“Dunno,” Hoseok shrugs, feeling the twin judgement from the rising sun and Taehyung. “Jiminie’s mad at me, and Jeonggukkie hasn’t been surfing in a while, so he feels shit, too. Dunno if I’d make it better or worse.”
“Go anyway. You’re a lifeguard, right? Go guard lives.”
“Fuck you, Taehyung.”
Neither phrase is said with any feeling behind it - only said because that’s what they do, so that’s what they have to say. That’s how they’re meant to be.
Hoseok wishes he could be back where he was, roasting marshmallows over a hot-chocolate scented candle with a pretty mermaid in his arms.
“You ‘n Yoongi. You like each other, right?”
Taehyung elbows him in the side. “You… y’know?”
And Hoseok tries not to blush. “What?”
“Have you ruffled his fins?”
Hoseok almost falls off the rocks. “Taehyung!”
“Tickled his tentacles?”
“What the fu-”
“Stroked his sand-eel?”
Hoseok jumps, then, free-floating in the water and glaring up at the cackling siren. “I don’t even know what that one means.”
And Taehyung smiles, looking a little brighter than before. “When you do, I expect all the details.”
“Fuck off, Taehyung.”
“You love me, really.”
(But, as he swims to the beach to start the day’s work, fin-ruffling with Yoongi is at the forefront of his mind.)
“Morning, hyung,” Jeongguk chirrups, trying to prop his surfboard against the lifeguarding hut. Two pots of half-melted strawberry ice are sitting on the table inside. “Jimin-hyung told me to give this to you.”
“The ice-cream or the surfboard?”
“Hyung. The ice-cream. He said him ‘n Senior would do shop ‘til lunch, and then you can come on up after your aunt leaves,” Jeongguk finishes with the board - gives up, more like, and lets it fall face-first into the sand. His bracelet tinkles down his wrist. “Is everything… okay? With you?”
“With you and hyung, I mean.”
“I think so.”
“He seems mad. About Taehyung-hyung and Yoongi, y’know?” Jeongguk can be irritatingly observant when he wants to be, something continually overlooked by Hoseok until it comes back to bite him. “He didn’t talk much, when you brought us to Yoongi.”
(“My name is Yoongi,” Yoongi said, looking down into the water. Underneath the waves, he was clinging to Hoseok’s ankle, unseen by everyone, unfelt by everyone but Hoseok. “I’m sorry I’ve - caused - I caused you trouble.”
“It’s okay,” Jimin said faintly.
“Way okay,” and Jeongguk had been more excited, because he’s always more excited, and because it’s a real-life mermaid just here in front of him, blue hair sparkling, telling them all about how much he doesn’t want to kill them.)
“I thought he’d just been surprised,” Hoseok says carefully. The ice-cream is fresh, some of today's, which means Jimin isn’t trying to send some passive-aggressive message through frozen goods. Not that he would, but -
“Me too,” Jeongguk says, “But yesterday me and him - I wanted to talk about Taehyung,” and his cheeks burn scarlet, although Hoseok doesn’t comment, “I wanted to talk about Taehyung, and he didn’t, not really. Is he mad about Yoongi-ssi?”
“I think he might be.”
Jeongguk shrugs. “I mean, it’d be best for Yoongi-ssi to talk to him direct, but…”
“Yoongi stays with his school during the day,” Hoseok says. Buries his feet in the sand. “I go talk to him every night. He was only up yesterday morning because of me. Me and you, I guess.”
Jeongguk’s eyes glitter. “Do you li-i-ike him?” He sings childishly, shoving half a scoop of ice-cream in his mouth. “Hyung!”
“Hyung has a boyfriend,” Jeongguk dances, laughing around the hut, merry and light. “Awh! Hyung’s in love.”
“Then why’d you go all pink any time someone mentions Taehyung?” Hoseok challenges. He doesn’t really want to talk about why he’s very, very, very fucked when it comes to feelings and Yoongi and all that sappy shit, but it’s fun to make fun of Jeongguk, who always goes pink and stutters when he feels cornered.
Bingo. “I don- oi, hyung, I don’t,” Jeongguk says, whines, setting his empty pot on the table. “I don’t know him, hyung-”
“Only a matter of time, Gukkie, right?”
Hoseok chuckles, and everything is okay again.
Mid-morning, Taehyung wanders onto the beach, barefoot and glowing with water and gold, a little paler than he usually is - a little scrawnier, the delicacy of slender bones somehow melted into something more resembling a half-starved cat. He walks in from the ocean, and nobody much is there to pay him any heed - it’s getting late into the summer, and the majority of the holidaying people are gone back to the cities, back to their jobs and their schools. A few old couples remain, and the kids that live in the town, but nobody who cares enough to look at a pretty lilac-haired boy stepping out of the surf. “Hoseok-ah! Gukkie-yah,” and the latter is gentler, quieter, without so much of a tease behind it.
“Huh-hello, Taehyung,” Jeongguk says.
(Hoseok doesn’t miss the way Jeongguk hides behind him, and grins at Taehyung. Taehyung ignores it.)
(Now there’s a thought.)
“The school is getting restless again,” Taehyung says, plonking down on the sand. “Yoongi should have got his skull by now, and they’re starting to talk about letting Namjoon and Seokjin have another crack. Starting to talk about how, maybe, what they did the other night was the right thing.”
“You mean us?” Jeongguk sits beside him - Hoseok, on Taehyung’s other side, content to let this play out in front of him.
“Yeah. Yeah, you two. Hoseok-ah that knows the tides,” and there’s the sarcastic brat Hoseok knows, “And - and Gukkie-yah.” And there’s the new Taehyung. Odd. “Sooner or later, Namjoon and Seokjin will come back at it again.”
(Taehyung’s hand, twitching on the sand.) “It’s okay, though. If they do, we’ll get the school to fuck off somehow. And - and we’ll get to keep Yoongi. I know he’s… he’s not as fucking hateful as he used to be.”
“Funny,” Hoseok remarks, “I think he thinks much the same about you.”
Jeongguk giggles, cute and soft behind his hand. “Didn’t you like each other?”
“Not exactly,” Taehyung says carefully.
It’s Hoseok, this time, trying to hide a tiny grin. Because Taehyung, Taehyung who’d spared Hoseok no mercy in describing the bone-tearing, flesh-shredding he was going to do to him - that Taehyung is trying to carefully dance around the topic of interspecies sectarianism with Jeongguk. Because Jeongguk is looking at him with stars in his eyes and a chunk of amethyst around his wrist, and because Taehyung calls him Gukkie-yah. The new Taehyung.
When did that happen?
“Hoseokie-hyung had a massive bruise on him, the nights he tried telling me and Minnie about you,” Jeongguk says. “Did you ‘n Yoongi fight?”
Taehyung looks at Hoseok in horror. “I - no, we-”
“Taehyung kissed me.”
“No I didn’t-”
Hoseok grins. Jeongguk looks like someone’s just told him his puppy has died. “Yeah, he did. But he only did it to piss off Yoongi.”
“Yeah,” Taehyung, laughing nervously, and a tan hand creeping towards Jeongguk’s on the sand, “Yeah, who’d wanna kiss him? He’s not… cute enough, and his laugh’s all funny. And he doesn’t even know how to surf. Who’d wanna kiss that? Gross. Right, Gukkie-yah? Gross, right? I only did it to make Yoongi mad, but he wasn’t even angry, and as if I’d do anything with this hyung except, like, eat him. Except I wouldn’t.”
Hoseok’s trying his hardest not to laugh, but it’s difficult. Not when Jeongguk’s staring wide-eyed at his and Taehyung’s hands, a grain of sand away from touching - and not when Taehyung’s babbling fit to burst about how much he doesn’t want to kiss Hoseok.
“I’m going to see Jiminie.”
Taehyung keeps talking. Jeongguk nods furiously, but doesn’t look up.
Whatever. Let Taehyung do what he wants - let Jeongguk do what he wants. Hoseok brushes the sand from his shorts, waving at the kids digging their hole again in the corner of the beach, and prods Jeongguk in the small of the back with his foot as he’s going up. A little tease. ( Hyung, Jeongguk hisses.)
In the mid-morning, the town is… busy enough. Chaeyoung, delivering groceries - Park Senior sitting outside the shop, rocking back and forth in an old chair and having a conversation with Kim Jinseong, the old baker, sentences yelled out in hoarse, accented squawks.
And Jimin is sitting on the boardwalk, cross-legged, talking quietly to one of the foreign kids on holiday, a straggler from somewhere where school hasn’t started yet. “I - please - sweeties-”
“You want sweeties?”
The kid, a little girl covered in sun-cream and sand, shoves one thumb in her mouth and pokes the other one at the stall. Lemon sorbet. “Yellow. I yellow. Please.”
“Lemme get it,” Hoseok says, stepping over Jimin’s outstretched feet. “Lemon? Lemon?”
The girl nods.
“Lemme take that, hon,” Jimin smiles up at her, opening his palm for the grubby handful of coins and assorted circular objects, pouring them into the cash register behind him. “Thank you!”
She takes the cone and dips her head down awkwardly, a mock of what she must have seen others do, before she scampers away and gets lost further up the town.
“Morning, Jiminie.” Hoseok feels awkward. He remembers yesterday morning like a brand on his brain, and wishes he didn’t - wishes he’d done something more.
(When Jimin met Yoongi, Yoongi looked like he was about to cry, holding Hoseok’s hand underwater, covered in battered bruises and cuts. “I’m sorry for the trouble,” he kept saying, “I’m sorry,” and Jeongguk was half asleep as he sat on Taehyung’s lap, his hands curled into fists at Taehyung’s chest, and all Jimin could manage to say was it’s okay, it’s okay, stop apologising, although from the shellshock in his eyes and the tremble in his shoulders, Hoseok knew Jimin would say anything to get everyone to shut up for a moment - just so he could breathe. Could think.)
“Morning.” Jimin stands up, patting down his knees. Neither of them attempt to make eye contact.
I don’t want him to kill Jeonggukkie. That’s what Jimin had said.
“Jimin, c’n we walk down the beach? Get some stuff for them down there?” An olive branch extended.
Jimin reaches out, and hooks his hand around Hoseok’s arm. “Taehyung scares the shit out of me,” he says.
“You scare the shit out of me, sometimes.”
That one stings a little more. “I know,” Hoseok mumbles, eyes closed. “I try not to.”
“Your mermaid scares the shit out of me.”
“And Jeonggukkie, worst of all. He scares me so much I think I might throw up.”
Jimin’s hand tightens, but not painfully; it’s just a grip to let Hoseok know that he’s there. “I got told a few things, last night. Some things. Hyung, you don’t think I’d wanna sabotage you, or anything? You know everything I - I say, I - I don’t wanna hurt you.”
Serious conversations shouldn’t be held in the sun. It drips down on them, melting hearts and making it very difficult to do anything but want to hug Jimin and never let him go. “I know that, too.”
“I don’t want either of you to get killed.”
“Taehyung wouldn’t, and neither would Yoongi,” Hoseok says. Quiet enough that Park Senior looks around, clearly intrigued by the whispered dialogue between them.
Jimin looks pained. “But the others. You and Jeonggukkie, on the rocks - Taehyung said you almost died. Your Yoongi, the other morning, holding your hand, all beat to shit and looking like he never wanted to let you go. There are others.”
“There are,” Hoseok says slowly, wondering how on earth he’s going to sort this. “But Yoongi has right. And they don’t, not yet, not for a long time… and, if the worst comes to the worst, you know what Guk always says.”
Jimin smiles crookedly. “Drop the weight of a mermaid’s sins on its head?”
That turns out to be the thing that lightens the air. Hoseok laughs. “Yeah, exactly.”
They scoop out sorbet into little cardboard pots, and plastic spoons in garish colours, and Park Senior is yelling across the square again, and every so often you scare the shit out of me, sometimes, floats across Hoseok’s mind, but he tries not to pay it any heed. Jimin is - Jimin is scared, that’s all, and he hates change, and for Jimin - for Jimin, to have his escape invaded by mermaids and sirens and the threat of death, it must be hell. So Hoseok can’t be mad, really.
He can be worried, but he can’t be mad.
The sorbet and sprinkles are carried down to the beach. Around is the feeling of being barefoot, hot cement, beach towels hanging out of upstairs windows. The sound of a bike wheel, a piece of cardboard taped to the side so it makes a rattling noise when the wheel turns fast enough - that’s a couple of the kids from town, pushing their bikes to the top of the hill and freewheeling back into the square.
Taehyung, when they get there, sees the pots of sorbet for what they are. A peace offering.
“Thank you,” he says - takes one, in a hand that’s far more skin and bones than it used to be, and he shuffles over so Jimin can sit between Jeongguk and Hoseok.
Taehyung-Jeongguk-Jimin-Hoseok. All in a neat little line facing the surf.
“This is good,” Taehyung says, breaking the awkward silence with the scrape of the plastic spoon against the bottom of the pot.
“Thank you.” (Jimin.)
(Jeongguk and Taehyung, right-hand-to-left-hand buried under a pile of sand. Are they touching?)
Hoseok sighs, and stretches out his feet, burying his toes in the sand. “Do you lot wanna come help me cook mussels tonight?”
“It’s for Yoongi,” Taehyung says, small and cute and sweet. His eyes glimmer gold, teasing. “It’s always for Yoongi.”
thank you for reading and hopefully liking (nd you should comment about it, if you liked it, i would appreciate the compliments thnkx)
(an fin ruffling. fin ruffling indeed. it is c o m i n g.)
Chapter 6: fin rufflin'
i think there's gonna be 8 chapters. 2 more to go.
also, the fin rufflin got more attention than i thought. i hope you're proud of what you've done, nel. (ehe)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
A bucketful of mussels, hot and steaming, is a lot harder to lug down a cliff face than a packet of marshmallows and a candle. Hoseok doesn’t swim; he clambers crabwise with the bucket along the rocks, ignoring Taehyung’s yells and catcalls - they get fainter, then die, the further he climbs around the headland.
He just wants to give Yoongi a good meal, that’s all. S’mores is step one. Mussels in cream sauce is step two, the delicacy of the town, the stuff that everyone should try. Yoongi mentioned, one night, about bringing his food to Hoseok, but then stopped - would raw fish disagree with you? - and, since then, hasn’t mentioned it again. Hoseok thinks that maybe, he’s a little embarrassed. (It's cute.)
He’s waiting. Kicking his feet in the water, watching the sun set, waiting.
“Mussels ‘n white wine sauce,” Hoseok sighs, lets the handle of the bucket fall out of his hand. “Thought you’d wanna try. It’s, like, the food we all eat, us ‘n the town and all.”
“Really?” Yoongi is smiling, wide and gummy and cute, soft and defenceless behind the veil of blood and sharp teeth he presents. “We talk to mussels.”
“You - what, oh my god- am I eating, like, your pets?” Hoseok drops a shell into the water, “Oh my god, is this like the Tiddles of mermaids-”
“I was joking, Seokseok-ah.”
Yoongi chuckles at the blankness on Hoseok’s face, splashing a little water up at him. “You should have seen your face. We don’t talk to mussels. They’re stupid, and they don’t even taste nice, so we leave them alone. They're stupid.”
“Maybe when they're alive, but these are a taste explosion,” Hoseok gestures to the bucket. Kicks some water at Yoongi. “You’ll never eat raw again.”
“I never did eat raw, that’s my point.”
“You’ll avoid eating raw with even more passion than before?”
Another laugh. Yoongi’s taken off his belt, the bones lying forgotten on a rock next to Hoseok, cold and impersonal now that they’re not around his waist. He looks nicer without them, Hoseok thinks, although he can’t tell why - just the way he lies in the water, flicking waves up at Hoseok and making lighthearted jokes. He looks nicer without them. “I’ll avoid them with passion, Seokseok-ah.”
“As we all should do.”
They giggle. Hoseok takes a shell from the bucket and shows Yoongi how to crack it open, thumbs underneath the corners - “then you dip it back in-” and he sucks the little orange mussel out of the shell, the sauce tangy on his tongue. He tosses the shell into the sea. “Yeah?”
“Yeah,” Yoongi looks fascinated, staring at Hoseok’s mouth. Self-consciously, he licks his lips, getting rid of the last traces of the white sauce still clinging there. “So I just…?”
“Crack it open. Yeah.”
Yoongi fumbles with the cooked mussel within, plucking it out instead of sucking it from the shell, dipping his hand into the bucket to scoop up more sauce. “I eat it? Just like that?”
He does; pink lips part, licking over the mussel before he swallows it whole. White wine sauce pours into the cracks of his mouth, the corners of it, and Hoseok suddenly can’t look anywhere else.
“They taste amazing.”
“Don’t they?” He says quickly, clearing his throat, hoping he isn’t as red as he feels. Yoongi’s throat bobs as he swallows, and he tips his head back, and when he gets more adventurous he’s dipping empty shells into the bucket to scoop out sauce and drink it from the mollusc husk.
Yoongi nods, happy and enthusiastic. “I can’t believe - wait, do you do anything with fish?”
“We cook it? We have to cook everything. I mean, we can eat raw fish, but mostly-”
“Bring me some tomorrow,” Yoongi asks. Pleads, really, sticky hands pressed together, empty mussel shells floating in the water around him. “Ah, Seokseok-ah, you have me spoiled. I hardly want to go back.”
Hoseok smiles. He wants to kiss Yoongi, he realises quietly. Wants to kiss him. “You spoil me, not the other way ‘round.”
“I’ll believe that when I see evidence of it.” And Yoongi’s lounging against the rocks, his arm resting on Hoseok’s thigh, his tail flicking out in the water beyond them. “Do you know, had I not met you I’d be courting as we speak? Some dreadful thing with a broken eel-spine hanging from her belt.”
“You’d be courting?” Hoseok wants to run his fingers through Yoongi’s hair, although he’s not sure how many boundaries that’d cross. When he touches Yoongi’s head, experimentally, and Yoongi makes no reaction but a happy little huff, he splays his hand out, running through the sea-blue roots.
“Courting. It’s quite complex, really. I only killed - do you remember?”
“Uh…” Hoseok tries to cast his mind back. “You have to kill… something as wide as you or wider?”
“Almost. That’s to prove our worth as a-grown-fish. To court, we have to kill something that poses a danger to us - this, right here,” Yoongi points a lazy finger at the open jaw of a fish, slung on the rope, “I killed a piranha, although I do confess, I took the easy route. I never cared much for courting, because the leader of the school cannot court, so… why should I have wanted to?”
Hoseok notes the past tense, although he's not sure of its significance - not yet. Yoongi’s hair is soft and damp, passing through his hands with ease, so he thinks about that instead, and how lovely it is to just stay like this. “How do you court, even?”
Yoongi doesn’t reply. He lifts his head from Hoseok’s thigh, sighing in displeasure when the touch leaves his hair, and slides fully into the water. “Join me?”
Hoseok hardly hesitates.
(He wants to kiss Yoongi. He wonders how long he’s known for - how long he’s kept it from himself.)
“Do you trust me?” Yoongi asks, in the water now, the gentle lap of moonlit waves crashing over their shoulders. Both of Hoseok’s hands are held in his, tight and warm, although Hoseok could tread water with ease if he wanted to.
“Yeah.” And he doesn’t hesitate there. None at all.
“Do you remember - when I took you underwater?”
The first time, then, with Taehyung yelling madly at them, when everything was scary and new and Hoseok had been ready to explode with fear, when Yoongi was nothing more than an intriguing stranger with pretty eyes. “Yeah. How could I forget?”
Yoongi has the grace to blush. “I - you are in no danger, Seokseok-ah. When I swim, there’s a layer of air between the water and my skin - my… otherwise the water would soak into me and I would break apart. When I h-hold your hand, the protection stretches to you, too. You’re never in any danger.”
“I don’t think I am, anyway,” Hoseok says quietly. Softly.
Yoongi smiles. “And do you still want to… know how we court?”
It feels like they’re hovering on a knife-edge, though of what, Hoseok isn’t certain. “Yes,” he says. “If you’re willing to… tell me.”
Yoongi ducks his head underwater, and Hoseok -
It should be dark under the water, but there’s enough moonlight to see clearly, and a sort of pearlescent glow surrounding Yoongi’s whole body. “Is this okay?” He asks, voice muted and bubbly. Hands warm. “Are you okay?”
“Always,” Hoseok replies. Maybe a little too quickly, but then -
“The one that wishes to be courted… after he… after I, in this case, have killed the trophy,” and Yoongi gestures upwards, presumably towards his belt. “After that, the other traditionally kills and brings forward the rarest, or the best-tasting fish for them to eat together. Isn’t it funny, how these things work?”
Hoseok smiles, the taste of white wine sauce fresh on his tongue. Funny. That’s one word for it. “Would you believe me if I said I didn’t know?”
“Of course. I just… it’s odd, how these things pan out. Do you want to know what happens afterwards?”
Everything is different, under the water. There’s something surreal about what Hoseok’s seeing, Yoongi’s lithe body, skin melting to scales melting to tail, shimmers with the ripple of the water, and he shines, almost, scales reflecting and multiplying the moonlight. His hair fans out above him, a natural halo. “Yes - if you’ll tell me.”
“It’s something I’ve only seen others do. They tuh-touch,” Yoongi’s hands loosen on Hoseok’s to slide up his forearms, wet and dry at the same time, until they’re wrapped around his neck, his body flush against Hoseok, his tail brushing against Hoseok’s feet, “Here,” and his long fingers brush against Hoseok’s neck in diagonal slashes, “Across the gills.”
Yoongi has them, of course, darker stripes of skin running in slices across his neck, meeting at his throat. Hoseok stares. “Can I..?”
In response, Yoongi crooks his neck, the curve trusting and submissive, his dark eyes fixated on Hoseok the whole while.
It’s no doubt the weirdest thing Hoseok’s ever done, but he lifts his hand and rubs his thumb shyly along the crease of the uppermost gill. It feels - not unpleasant, but odd, warm and soft under the pads of his fingers, but what intrigues him isn’t the feeling; it’s the noise Yoongi makes, his head rolled back, a small, fluttered gasp escaping his open lips.
“Wow,” Hoseok mumbles. “Talk about sensitive.”
Yoongi holds Hoseok close like he’s at death’s door, looking shocked. “I didn’t - I didn’t - that felt so odd-”
“Like a shudder, all through me,” Yoongi breathes. Tilts his head to the side, a little hesitant. “Could you - could you do it again?”
Hoseok does. He doubts he could do anything other than what Yoongi asks of him, at this point, especially when Yoongi looks so pretty, so laid-back, like a strip of silk lying in Hoseok’s arms. “You look pretty,” he says softly, pressing his fingertips against the edges of Yoongi’s gills and drawing them downwards along the line of the slit. “You really do.”
Yoongi smiles, mouth still open, eyes half-shut. “As I think of you, Seokseok- ah!”
The exclamation shouted as Hoseok moves one of his hands down to brush experimentally against the darkened nub of Yoongi’s nipple. “Does that feel good?”
“Yes,” Yoongi mumbles. Bubbles through the water. “I never - the courted do not-”
“But humans do,” Hoseok wonders if it would be too forward of him to kiss Yoongi, right on his pale pink lips. “Want me to show you where we touch?”
Yoongi’s eyes twinkle bright. “If you - ngh- if you want to.”
Hoseok keeps stroking down the line of Yoongi’s gills, hot under his skin when he sees how it affects Yoongi - makes him writhe like a caught fish, pink on his cheeks and bubbles and groans in equal measure flooding out of his mouth. With his other hand, he tries finding other places - and he tries to remember trysts in bathrooms back in high school, fumbling hands and fingers, and drives back to one house or the other, a grasp tight on Hoseok’s thigh. Except Yoongi doesn't have legs, and so none of this should be working -
When Hoseok tweaks a nipple again, Yoongi moans, low and deep and cracking. “Ah - ah, Seokseok-ah-”
None of this should be working, but it is.
“Humans touch wherever they can,” he says against the shell of Yoongi’s ear, his head a weight on Hoseok’s shoulder. “Along their necks,” he presses his thumb lightly to the base of Yoongi’s throat, next to the end of a gill, “and their chests,” he brushes his fingertips against Yoongi’s nipples, the resulting noise making him smile, “and their waists.” He ends with a tight grip, both hands on the curve of Yoongi’s body where skin-scales creep up him, the tuck of his human half and the flare of the fish. Yoongi lets him, compliant and trusting in his arms. “We experiment, see what feels best.”
Yoongi looks fucked-out and ragged, eyes wide and watery, cheeks flared pink. The water around them feels warm and pleasant, welcoming instead of something to be scared of.
“Yuh-yeah,” Yoongi says breathily. “Very good, very - ah,” his hands tightening around Hoseok’s shoulders when Hoseok digs his thumb in harsh circles around the skin of his curved waist. “Lord.”
“It feels okay?”
Hoseok laughs, but more out of happiness than anything else. He’s not denying that the sight of Yoongi like this isn’t doing something to him, although he’s not about to bring attention to the problem in his swimming trunks. Giving Yoongi whatever mermaids hold equivalent to an orgasm appears to be the goal of the night, and he is fine with it. “You want me to keep going?”
“Yeah, I -” Yoongi seems to struggle a moment to stay upright in the water on his own, but then the weight lifts a little from Hoseok’s shoulders. “The courting ritual ends when I would - secrete these things from a gland in my tail, and the one I choose to - ngh, the one I choose to court, she would allow them to sink on her skin, and - and I don’t, I don’t know, what are you doing, Hoseok- ah-”
Hoseok’s lowered his head to lave his tongue experimentally over Yoongi’s gills. “That good?”
“Yuh-yeah, yes,” and Yoongi’s lying in his arms like some fainting maiden, arms around Hoseok’s neck, the curve of his body settling into one of Hoseok’s arms like they were meant to fit together.
Yeah. Yeah, Hoseok definitely has a problem.
But it’s fun, surprisingly so, to do something like this to Yoongi, to make him fall apart. His skin tastes of saltwater and sweat, and when Hoseok reaches the base of his throat he sucks a hard, harsh hickey into the skin there. Roses, blooming.
“Ah- ah, Seokseok-ah, I feel-”
“Yeah, yeah,” Hoseok gasps. Accidentally, probably, Yoongi’s tail is pressing against his cock through the swimming trunks, and it’s both the best and the worst feeling in the world - maddeningly close to relief, but not quite there. “Yeah, I gotcha, gotcha, sweet, gotcha-”
How to tell if Yoongi’s coming or not? Hoseok doesn’t want to think about glands in tails; he’d rather think about pale pink nipples and parted lips and moaning little whimpers against his neck, but-
But, with Hoseok’s tongue playing with Yoongi’s gills and his fingers rolling over Yoongi’s nipples -
Hands on his waist -
Yoongi exhales. His fingers feel like they’re trying to dig through Hoseok’s skin, he’s holding him so tight. “Hoseok,” he breathes, and when Hoseok looks down in the water, Yoongi’s tail is floating free and a white haze, a messy spurt, is falling slowly through the waves. “I feel… ngh. I feel good.”
“Good. Guh-good.” Bizarrely, all Hoseok can think of is a post-orgasmic human Yoongi, stretched out in cotton bedsheets, smoking a cigarette idly and talking about love and… and the human condition, or whatever.
But Yoongi now is pretty. All sharpness and bite, reduced to a sighing mess against Hoseok’s side. Love and the human condition.
“Yeah?” Tail against him. Hoseok tries not to think of Yoongi, of sharp teeth and soft lips gentle against his cock, of thin fingers rubbing against the tip.
Tries and fails.
Yoongi sighs. One of his hands is pressed to the side of Hoseok’s neck, the other around his waist, as though he’s trying to touch Hoseok’s own pressure spots. “I want - you to tell me how you do it.”
“Humans,” Yoongi pokes his tongue out childishly, but all Hoseok can think of is how good it would feel. “How do you do it?”
Underwater. Hoseok is breathing underwater with a gorgeous mermaid clinging to him, having just got said mermaid off, and now the mermaid is offering to return the favour. Underwater. He’s underwater.
“How do we - oh, right, yeah,” and Hoseok just wants a kiss. He doesn’t even know what he’d like beyond that, but Yoongi is looking at him so intently, so focused on him, that all he wants to do is see how he tastes. How he kisses. “We - we connect, our, like - our lips, together… here, lemme show you.”
“Oh-” Yoongi’s mouth drops open in confusion, and Hoseok, ever the opportunist -
He’s only ever kissed two people before. One, a boy in his class back when he lived with his parents and Haewon’s house was a mere glinting method of escape every few months. The second was Jimin, years ago, when they stole a bottle of cider from Park Senior and got very, very drunk and decided to test it just to see. Yoongi’s kiss is like neither of those.
For one, Yoongi hasn’t got a clue how kissing works, so his mouth is clamped shut. Hoseok pecks around his lips, his cheeks, the tip of his nose. “Yoongi, you’re meant to… here, just do what I do, right?”
Yoongi doesn’t say anything, but he tilts his head up. His lips look softer, inviting; the tip of his tongue swirls from one side to the other nervously.
Hoseok presses his mouth to Yoongi’s, and definitely isn’t expecting Yoongi to groan suddenly, a muffled sound caught by Hoseok’s tongue. Kissing is weird underwater, and Yoongi isn’t good at kissing, but Hoseok’s not very good either, so it’s strange and weird and perfect, somehow, with Yoongi’s tail in between Hoseok’s legs, with Hoseok trying not to come from that alone. God.
So, kissing. Kissing is good.
“What do you - you do next?” Yoongi huffs.
The only time Hoseok ever had sex, or a remotely sexual encounter, was when the boy in his class back when he lived with his parents had pulled him into the bathroom cubicles in school. They’d exchanged handjobs, a sloppy kiss, and had tucked themselves back into class feeling sheepish and sticky. “We can do whatever we want, next.”
“How do you - Seok-ah,” Yoongi pouts into the kiss Hoseok lands on his lips, “How do you please yourselves? You don’t have gills, you can’t…”
“Uh.” How does he do this? “Uh, we…” He drags his hand down his trunks, awkwardly stroking at the head of his cock. “Sometimes we do this. Um.” He tries not to think about how good it feels to finally give himself attention - any attention at all.
“You touch yourself? You touch that?"
Yoongi looks down at Hoseok, who tries not to cover himself up like some embarrassed toddler. “Does it feel good?”
Hoseok nods, teeth dug firmly into his bottom lip to prevent him from doing something totally ridiculous, like moaning into the water.
“When I do this?” Yoongi knocks Hoseok’s hands away, pushing his trunks down to mid-thigh, and replaces the loose grasp Hoseok had on his cock, rubbing in small, uncertain circles around the head of it. “Is that good?”
“Uhm. Uh, yeah.”
“How do you…” Yoongi rests his head on Hoseok’s shoulder, his free arm still clinging to Hoseok’s waist. “How do you-”
Okay. Yeah, sure, this is happening.
“Like this,” Hoseok says, struggling to keep his voice even, “You just move up and down, right,” and he holds Yoongi’s hand in his and guides it up and down his cock, shuddering as his rough, damp fingertips work precome down the length of him, as water runs past his skin. “Up and down, and, fuck, it’s like, like stimulation-”
“Oh.” Yoongi’s fingers are longer than Hoseok’s, his hands bigger; he looks smaller, when they’re sitting on the rocks, but in the water he’s taller. Longer? And the grasp he has on Hoseok’s cock, the tentative slide from head to base, rhythmic and methodical, is hardly the most creative handjob he’s ever had.
(He’s only had one, but that’s beside the point.)
“How do I-?”
“Loose to tight,” Hoseok gasps, burying his face in Yoongi’s haloing hair. “Oh, fuck, that feels-”
So good. Really good, because Yoongi seems encouraged by Hoseok’s little noises, encouraged enough that he moves Hoseok’s hand aside so he can take over on his own, rubbing his thumb over the tip - through the pooling precome - and spreading it down along the length, experimenting, and it feels overwhelming. Overwhelmingly good.
“You’re fuckin’, fuck, impossible, oh - oh, shit, Yoongi-”
“Coming,” and Hoseok does, long white streams into the water, over Yoongi’s fist, over the waistband of his own swimming trunks. The come in the water spreads out softly, moulding into the wetness; Yoongi raises his fist to his eyes, staring at it. “Sorry,” Hoseok mumbles. Fuck. He feels - boneless. “I didn’t mean to - on your hand.”
“Oh,” says Yoongi again. The small red tongue peeks out between his lips, and he licks it.
Fucking hell. “You-”
Hoseok is so overwhelmed, so tired and happy and all-over-the-place, that he starts to giggle. Not like he can help it, exactly; he’s just so. So happy. “You’re so odd, Yoongi.”
Yoongi, a vision of an underwater angel, smiles. “And so are you, Hoseok.”
They kiss. It tastes of mussels and salt and happiness.
“When are you going to call, Hoseok?”
“God knows,” Hoseok says, beaming at Haewon. “God knows.”
She looks shocked enough that she doesn’t question where he’s been at this time of night.
Hoseok doesn’t care.
“You’re acting so fuckin’ weird, hyung.”
Hoseok sighs. He’s been lying on the sand for half an hour, waving his arms and legs up and down to try and make a sand angel. “I just had an awakening. I just - I just -”
Beside him, spread out in the same position as Hoseok, Jeongguk sighs. “Same, hyung.”
“You’re both idiots.” Jimin is wearing both of their lanyards, swinging them around his neck. “Literally. Fucking idiots.”
“I had an awakening.”
Jimin dribbles ice-cream from his spoon onto Jeongguk’s forehead. “You’re meant to be guarding lives. Do it. I’m going back up shop before Senior sells half the shit to his friends for a quarter of the fuckin’ price, or something. Quit moping about fairies.”
“He’s a -”
“Whatever, kids.” Jimin stands, leaving his empty ice-cream pot on the beach, and wanders back up it, the sound of his humming swallowed by the salty wind.
Hoseok is thinking.
Thinking about the bone.
When he found it wedged in those rocks, he took it home. He could have given it to Yoongi, but he didn’t; he took it back to Haewon’s house and washed it carefully in the kitchen sink until the weed and salt and stench stopped clinging to it, although even now when he holds it in the air, the smell of the ocean wafts through him, carries him right back to the centre of the waves. It sits in his mind, taking up far more room than it should, far heavier than a chip of bone has any right to be.
“Hyung, does Taehyung come onto the beach often?”
“Yeah, but does he come on the beach often?”
“Sometimes Taehyung’s nice and sometimes he wants to kill you.”
“Yeah, but does he come on the beach often?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“The rocks, usually.”
Hoseok waves him go dispassionately, a tanned figure running towards the sun. Jimin has left their lanyards beside the pot of ice-cream, but Jeongguk hasn’t taken his; Hoseok slings them both around his neck and lies back down in the imprint of his own body on the sand, thinking some more.
The bone scares him.
Yoongi scares him, in a way. Yoongi is so very human, yet so very not, and it confuses him how different Yoongi seems to be from the rest of his school. He describes them as if they don’t feel.
So how come Yoongi’s different?
But the bone. It’s a warning, or a message, probably aimed at Yoongi before Hoseok unwittingly intercepted it. A message to stay way, or back off, or whatever - telling him what would be damaged if Yoongi kept going. Keeps. Is keeping.
And Taehyung, getting thinner and mellower.
And Jeongguk, talking about him as if nobody else even exists in the world anymore.
Everything is scary, now, and the only time he feels really fine, like all of himself is here, is when he’s talking to Yoongi about whales or stars or mussels or love or sex or whatever.
The bone scares him.
It seems to weigh more than it does, in his mind.
bubbles. theonewiththehonourtolead is different.
he is different. pinktail. hand on violettail’s shoulder.
he studies the humans.
theonewiththehonourtolead ignores them. bubbles. no blood in the water. the hint of blood somewhere far away. he is going to study the humans again. ask the elders. use his own influence.
he taught himself to speak. violettail. he taught himself to say his name in their tongue.
so did i.
so did we all.
pinktail smiles. i am seokjin. does it not sound funny?
it does. violettail nods his head. his hair flies out in a halo of yellow. no blood in the water, but bubbles. and i am namjun. he says it wrong. tongue thick. not meant to use sounds that way. not used to it.
bubbles. blood in the water.
he has a human.
what will we do?
violettail, namjoon, touches seokjin. theonethatwouldhavethehonourtolead. we will wait.
we will lead.
bubbles - blood in the water.
“Hello, Jeonggukkie,” Taehyung says, turning around. He smiles, and sharp teeth split two scabs on his lips in two. “How are you?”
“Hi,” Jeongguk says quietly, settling beside Taehyung, a little further away than he might normally sit - Taehyung feels a little off. A little less welcoming, and a lot wilder. “I’m good, I guess. Hoseok-hyung is in love with Yoongi.”
“He doesn’t know.”
“I know that, too.” Taehyung is staring out across the water, his painted fingernails drumming on his thigh. His lilac hair sparkles. Jeongguk thinks he’s the most beautiful person he’s ever met in his entire life, ever. “I think your Hoseok-hyung-that-knows-the-seas, him and Yoongi, I think they must be the stupidest people in the whole world.”
“I think hyung is scared,” Jeongguk offers timidly. “I would be. If I were him.”
“If you’d fallen in love with a mythical being that originally wanted to kill you?”
It’s mid-morning, still. Jeongguk can’t see the beach from this position on the rocks, but he can imagine it; Hoseok-hyung lying on the beach, in the imprint of his own body, pretending to lifeguard; Jimin-hyung, making soft serve for little foreign kids and collecting their pocket money, making it cheaper for the kids that look like they haven’t much money to spare. It’s mid-morning.
If he’d fallen in love with a mythical being that originally wanted to kill him.
Good for him, then, that he hasn’t done that.
“Jeongguk, I eat people.”
Okay. Okay - “I… what?” Jeongguk shuffles a little further away, his heart beginning to race a little in his chest.
“I’m a siren,” Taehyung says. He looks almost transparent, the bright sun shining through his skin. “I eat people. That’s how I survive. Jeongguk, I haven’t eaten in - in a year, maybe longer. Since I arrived here.”
“Taetae-hyung,” Jeongguk squeaks quietly. He’s scared. Scared.
“I’m not trying to eat you, Guk. I’m trying to tell you that I don’t want to.”
“And that’s good. That’s good. Do you remember what I told you? The only way a siren can die?”
Jeongguk remembers - he isn’t sure he could forget. “You, you said only if they fall in love.”
Taehyung turns a sad smile on Jeongguk, and his hand stops tapping on his leg, stretches out to land lightly on Jeongguk’s knee. It should be scary, after what he just said, but it isn’t - it isn’t at all. It’s comforting. “Even if I starve, even if the skin melts off my ribs and my eyes hollow in their sockets, I won’t die. Because I haven’t fallen in love.”
“Oh.” Jeongguk likes it when Taehyung touches him - he likes it when Taehyung tells him things. Jeongguk might like Taehyung.
“I’m trying not to fall in love with all the strength in me,” Taehyung murmurs, rubbing his thumb in circles around an old scar on Jeongguk’s knee. “If I do, I’ll shrivel. And I don’t want to die. I want to talk to you for as long as I can.”
Taehyung’s laugh is dry and pretty and sad, all at once. “I’m as surprised as you are, Gukkie-yah, believe me.”
Yoongi is pink.
(The sun is setting behind him, making his hair glow red and pink, a shimmering mirage behind the blue it truly is.)
(His cheeks are red.)
“I brought you some fish.”
Hoseok, who’s swam straight here from the beach, smiles a little. “I can’t eat it like that. But - but thank you.”
“You ca- oh. Oh, you can’t.” Yoongi looks disappointed, hovering a few inches away from Hoseok in the water. “I forgot.”
“Someday I’ll build a fire on the beach. Cook what you catch. How about it?”
“Cooked fish. It’ll taste like those things did last night?”
Which makes them both think of last night, which is not a good idea. Or maybe it is. Hoseok wants to, certainly - had thought about it when he went home, had thought about it when he woke up; when he slept he’d dreamt of long tails and pale hands, of gills and dusky nipples and the slow exchange from skin to scales.
“Yes?” Hoseok says, too fast, too quick. He clears his throat. “Uh… yes?”
“I didn’t get to finish telling you what happens in the courting,” Yoongi says shyly, looking down at his own tail flickering in the water, at the fish held in his pale hands. “Do you - would you like to know what happens next? You don’t have to.”
Hoseok feels warm. Warm and soft and safe. You don’t have to. “But I want to,” he says. “I mean, if you want to, too, then I want to. Tell me what happens next.”
“You’re coupled for life, during the courting, if you want to be. It’s a ritual. Bonded in the closest physical way you can be, just out of love - out of, uh, a willingness to care for, to defend, to the end. If the school turns on you, the courting partner will stay by your side. Their punishment is yours, and yours is theirs. It’s… quite lovely, really.”
“Lovely,” Hoseok echoes. He wonders how red he is. “Yes. Yeah, it’s lovely.”
Yoongi sets the fish down on the rocks, then dips his hands underwater, rubbing them together. “You. Your, your courting rituals. What happens at the end of them?”
“Sometimes it’s a one-off thing,” Hoseok says, watching Yoongi’s face fall. “Sometimes you’re meant to forget all about it and move on. But sometimes it’s for love, and sometimes they stay together ‘til they’re both old and they still hold hands and kiss and make fun of all the kids that are doing the same all around them, just like they used to do.” (He remembers Park Senior, telling endless tales about Jimin’s mother. Cute. Sad, but cute. He’s still in love.)
“Do you get the choice?” Yoongi breathes.
“And… have you made yours?”
“Yeah,” Hoseok mumbles. He slides closer to Yoongi in the water; Yoongi’s taken his belt off again, slung it across the rocks, so there’s nothing stopping his hands slipping around his waist and holding tight. “Yeah. Do you get the choice?”
“Mostly,” Yoongi says, “And I have made mine, too.”
“Are you gonna tell me?”
“Will you tell me?”
“I think you already know,” Hoseok says softly. Scales are warm, oddly so, under the curve of his circling thumbs, the brush from skin to scale and back again hardly recognisable. “It’s not like I’m hauling buckets of mussels out here for just anyone.”
Yoongi smiles. “I think - I think I know what you mean. I want you to… like we did last night.” Awkwardly, he twists his head around, his lips half-open. “A kiss.”
Hoseok makes it more awkward than it should be, but he can’t stop smiling against Yoongi’s mouth. And Yoongi is inexperienced, and just copies what Hoseok is doing, and when Hoseok cups his face he gasps (a hand brushing over the gills) and it’s perfect. Just perfect.
Yoongi kisses him again. Once, a little quiet and soft and small, on the tip of Hoseok’s nose. “I like that.”
“I like it too.”
“You do it often?”
Hoseok laughs. “With one other person, back when I lived with my family. But I think you’re way better, personally.”
Yoongi preens. “Who was it?”
“Some boy in my class at school. He was in the swim team, too.”
“Did you love him?”
“Him?” Hoseok thinks back to the swim meets, to Jihyun - or Jihan? Jisun? Ji-someone, anyway - to sneaking out of the house at night to drink shitty vodka by the pool and talk about swimming, and the family business, and how much they hated living where they did. And those times during class, meeting in bathrooms, awkward handjobs and even more awkward eye contact after them. “Did I - no. No.”
“Did he love you?”
“No,” Hoseok says. He’d shouted, shouted about the swim team and about the family business and how hateful Hoseok was, how fucking selfish, that night Hoseok had ran away to Haewon. “No, he definitely didn’t.”
“Why not?” Yoongi stretches out his hands, too, winding around Hoseok’s waist. “Why not?”
“He thought I should have stayed with my family,” Hoseok says slowly, trying to recall. “They wanted me to go away to the city so I could do my dad’s job, and they wanted me to drop out of the swim meets. I said no. He said I should have done it, and we argued, and I came here.”
“I don’t understand,” Yoongi’s brow furrows.
“My family wanted me to go and study money and stuff so I could earn a living the way my dad does, but I didn’t want to. We had a massive row, I went to his house, we had a massive row, and I got the first train up here. That was years ago, though. When I was a little younger than Jeongguk,” Hoseok explains. Tries to explain. He’s pretty sure he’s not doing a good job of it. “It’s complicated.”
“But now you live here?”
“Because of that.”
Yoongi sighs and kisses him again, at the side of his mouth. “Then I want to be selfish, just a little, and say that I’m glad you ran away. If you hadn’t… uh…”
“I get it,” Hoseok smiles softly. “I’m glad, too.”
Yoongi squeezes his waist a little tighter, and moves a little closer. “Can we kiss again?”
“You know, you don’t have to ask. I’d say yes no matter when.”
Yoongi laughs. They kiss.
And then it’s later, floating front-up in the gentle waves, feeling the sun set in long, hot dribbles across his chest. Yoongi is trying to float, too, but he’s not built for it, so all he’s doing is thrashing through the waves, blue tail cresting, before falling back to a vaguely-upright position. Hoseok’s laughing at him, the sort of softness that comes only in the light minutes when the sun is swapping places in the sky.
“The school is going to be moving, as soon as our leader dies,” Yoongi reaches out, splaying his hand against Hoseok’s bare stomach, an idle touch. “The two - they want to contest me, remember?”
“How could I forget?” The heaviness of bone, hard in his hand.
Yoongi sighs. “They’re going to the others. Making a case for killing me. Saying I’ve taken too long, so I must be unfit to live anyway, and beside that - I asked too much about humans, months ago, trying to learn the language, and they’re convincing everyone of my disloyalty.”
“Hm.” Hoseok holds Yoongi’s hand over him, letting salt water wash past them quietly. “If your school moves… will you move with them?”
“No,” Yoongi says with such finality that it feels as though the world should have shaken. “I couldn’t. Not now I know what… what more there is that I could have. What fool would I be to let you just slip by?”
“You really are something else.”
“You mean - not human?”
“Huh.” Yoongi tries again to lie flat, and again he fails, his translucent tail flicking through the curve of the waves, raining a brief shower on Hoseok’s face. “I’m just saying, that as she gets weaker, the more questions I get about where my human is. Those two are planning something. Something soon.”
“You really think?”
“Something soon,” Yoongi says solemnly. “Something bad.”
“What will we do?”
“I don’t know,” Yoongi traces his hand around Hoseok’s stomach again, and when he next speaks, his voice is quiet and tremulous, “And I’m scared. I never was scared of dying before.”
Hoseok doesn’t say anything.
“I think it’s because I never had anything to lose, before.”
“I don’t want to lose you, either,” Hoseok says thickly, tugging Yoongi’s hand tighter to him. “If something happens…”
“Yes?” Measured black eyes, staring at him - trusting him.
“If something happens, we’ll win, right?”
Yoongi presses a feather-light kiss to Hoseok’s fingertips. “I hope so.”
“Can you eat normal things?”
Taehyung looks up. “What?”
And Jeongguk feels like an idiot. “Uh… can you eat normal things? I know you need to eat, eat puh-people, but can you eat normal things too? Even if they don’t fill you?”
“Yeah,” Taehyung, lying on the sand, looks like he’s melting away. “It won’t help, but I like the taste. Don’t worry, Gukkie-yah.”
“I brought us ice-cream.”
“I didn’t know what kind you’d like, so I just got my favourite,” Jeongguk shifts uneasily on his heels, only sitting when Taehyung prods him in the back of the knee. “Uh, it’s strawberry. You want it?”
“Sure.” Taehyung holds out his hand for one of the pots, staring with weird fascination at the neon green spoon stuck in the scoops. “Thanks, Gukkie-yah.” His eyes flicker to the pink spoon hanging from Jeongguk’s lips; Jeongguk blushes and turns his head away, shuddering at the speed at which the cold ice-cream slides past his teeth. “It’s good,” Taehyung prompts. “Thanks.”
“You haven’t eaten a bite yet.”
Taehyung dips his finger theatrically into the tub, licking the sticky pink goop off his nail. “Happy now? And it does taste good. Just ‘cause it doesn’t fill me up doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy it.”
Jeongguk gets weird when he talks to Taehyung. He always gets the feeling that they’re having two conversations at once. “Jimin-hyung might be coming down soon. He’s closing up shop.”
“It’s six in the evening.”
“He usually stays open later.”
All of the glimmer and glamour has fallen from Taehyung. His hair is dull, dark purple. The gold bangles around his wrists have faded to scratched bronze - even the amethyst Jeongguk owns has faded and paled, a shadow of its former beauty. The paint on Taehyung’s nails is chipping off. His skin lacks the shine it had. His eyes are sad and quiet and distant. “He does,” Jeongguk agrees, “But he wanted to come down and eat with us early, because Hoseok-hyung is out meeting Yoongi-ssi.”
“Is he lonely?” Taehyung, as he always does, covers Jeongguk’s hand with his as if by chance. “Jimin. Is he missing you?”
“I don’t know.”
“I need to go, soon,” Taehyung mumbles, quiet as though talking to himself. “I’ve been here too fucking long.”
Jeongguk’s heart drops to his feet. “No! Jimin-hyung’s not lonely because of that, hyung, you can’t - don’t go-”
“I stayed because I was bored, at first, and I thought there’d be no harm in seeing how tragic the ending would be to the story between a mermaid and a human,” Taehyung says. His hand is cold - very cold, and on impulse, Jeongguk turns his palm upward to curl his fingers around Taehyung’s, to try and warm him up. Taehyung gasps. A quiet inhale.
“But hyung and Yoongi-ssi aren’t being tragic,” Jeongguk says. “So why did you stay?”
“Because I made friends. I haven’t had friends in years.”
“We’re your friends?”
“Of course you are.”
Jeongguk smiles happily, licking the back of his spoon. “I’m glad. You’re the most interesting person I’ve ever met, I think, hyung.”
“Is that the only reason you talk to me as much as you do?” Taehyung’s voice is muffled by the chattering of his teeth, and Jeongguk shuffles closer, trying to - whatever, share body heat or something. The wind blows softly around them. The sea smells beautiful, quietly lapping against the shore, caressing the beach with gentle love.
“I talk to you because you’re interesting,” Jeongguk says slowly, “But also because you listen to what I say, and you say pretty things, and because I think you’re the prettiest person I’ve ever seen. I don’t care if it’s put on. I still like it.”
Taehyung swears under his breath. “You’re killing me here, Jeongguk.”
“Don’t be. You’re… you’re really something, y’know?”
Jeongguk blushes; pushes his toes into the sand. “You can’t say that when you’re properly magical.”
“I don’t think so.”
“But you are.”
The sun is setting pink across the sky; the clouds blush at the attention. There’s hardly a breeze, so the waves are quiet and rhythmic, setting a little tune across the surf. “I’m just different, is all. I wasn’t always a siren, and I probably won’t always be a siren. I think, when I die, I’ll be who I was again.”
“Who were you?” Jeongguk doesn’t like talk of dying. He doesn’t want Taehyung to die. Taehyung oozes vitality with every breath; with every gesture, every movement, he sparkles with life.
Taehyung shrugs. He’s leaning into Jeongguk’s warmth, his body lax and calm. “I was Taehyung. I had a brother, I think. I used to like to go to art museums and wonder how the people that painted the paintings thought.”
“Can’t you do that nowadays?” Jeongguk asks timidly. The water eases closer, until he fancies droplets of far-reaching spray are tickling his toes.
“I can’t leave the ocean. If I go too far away, it hurts.”
“I love the ocean.”
Taehyung smiles; his cheeks move against Jeongguk’s shoulder. “I know you do. The ocean is pretty.”
For the second time today, Jeongguk finds himself struggling to explain something he never thought he’d have to. “It’s not that it’s pretty, although it is. It’s just… that the ocean doesn’t mind. About anything. You could have stolen a million dollars, or you could be the best person in the world, and the ocean doesn’t care. It’s just.. always gonna be there, just up and down and up and down, no matter who you are or why you’re there. And it helps. It’s like a… like a friend. A really good friend.”
“That’s your ocean?”
“Yeah,” Jeongguk mumbles. Taehyung smells like salt and the sea and something unplaceable - really pretty. Gentle. “Why, what’s it to you?”
“Home,” Taehyung whispers into Jeongguk’s neck. “I used to go all over the country. I don’t remember where I came from, or what my family name was, or how my home was. I don’t remember my brother’s name - I don’t even remember if he existed or not, or whether I invented him because I was lonely. Everywhere changes wherever I go, except the ocean. And the rocks. And the splash, every day and every night. Everything changes except the ocean.”
“You’ve been here for real long, though.”
“I didn’t mean to be.”
“But you are.”
Taehyung nods. His hair is tickling underneath Jeongguk’s chin, but Jeongguk doesn’t want to move, particularly. He’s warm and nice and Taehyung is pretty and the ocean washes up and down and up and down. “Yeah, I am.”
“You’re not going to leave, are you?”
“I don’t think I am.”
Taehyung lifts his hand where it rests in Jeongguk’s lap, and links his pinky finger together with Jeongguk’s. His voice sounds heavy and sad. “I promise, Gukkie-yah. I couldn’t leave now if I tried, I think. I promise.”
“Cross your heart?”
“And hope to die.”
Jeongguk swallows. Around them, the ocean creeps up, silent and steady.
! hopefully next chapter is when things happen ! but i haven't got it all written yet and i'm in school and lots of kinda bad things are being stressful so it might not come out next friday. maybe a little longer. eek.
Chapter 7: blood in the water
sorry this took so long. it was kinda hard to write an actiony conflict, and it might be a bit rushed even then. still, hope you enjoy ~
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
When fishermen set out from harbour, they fear one thing above all else.
Usually, the ocean is rocky, and a little wave never hurt anyone. It's fun to balance on the sea, to beat it, to sit and rock with it while casting the net.
On occasion, the waves will die.
On occasion, the water will be perfectly flat.
And their blood will run cold.
(It is calm.)
(What comes after calm?)
Jimin calls up to the house late.
“Hoseok!” Haewon calls from downstairs, and Hoseok’s so close to ignoring her that it’s painful. “Hoseok!”
But he doesn’t. “Yeah?”
Jimin is thundering up the stairs before Hoseok has time to yell back a why. It’s late, late enough that everyone should already be asleep - the town rises with the sun and sleeps with it, and so to have a Jimin bursting into his room at a little past midnight is pretty unheard of.
“Hyung, there’s - there’s something in the water,” Jimin pants, hands on his knees, wheezing out painful breaths. “I can hear it, I can - the whole town, there’s something in the water-”
“What do you mean?” Hoseok says sharply, swiping his hand over his desk trying to grab at his house keys; in a panic, he sweeps the keys, a few pens, and the shard of bone into his palm, pouring them distractedly into his pocket. “What do you mean?”
“I mean there’s a fucking noise in the fucking water and I can’t find Jeonggukkie,” Jimin all-but-yells. “I’d swim here if I fucking could, but according to you there’s fucking mermaids out there looking to rip off our heads and I can’t find Jeonggukkie, his gran thinks he’s with me-”
Dread, cold and wet, pours into Hoseok’s stomach. “When did you last -?”
“He came to get ice-cream from me for him and Taehyung.”
“And not since then?”
“No! When did you last see Yoongi?”
Hoseok grips his hands into fists. “Literally just there now. I just came back from - like, like an hour ago, maybe.”
“Did he say anything?”
“He said - oh, god…” Hoseok’s running down the stairs now, two at a time, Jimin thundering after him, ignoring Haewon’s pale, confused face. “He said that those two, the ones from before, they were planning something…”
“Hoseok!” Jimin wails. They burst out into the night; up here, looking out over the moonlit ocean, everything looks deceptively still and peaceful.
Across the waves, something screams.
“Hoseok,” Jimin grasps Hoseok’s arm so hard his fingerprints leave white pressure points behind, “Hyung, I’m - scared, I’m-”
And Hoseok can’t say that he is too. He can’t. He's meant to be the strong one - panic be damned.
“It’s gonna be okay, Jimin,” he says, his voice empty and pale. “It’s gonna be okay. Go down to the town. Check Gukkie’s room.”
“Check it again.” Weird - Jimin’s panicking, his breaths short, his eyes watery, and Hoseok’s worried too, of course he is, but he’s never felt so calm. Like a piece of himself has detached. This feels too important to waste time on worrying about it, like he has to be the one to do something, or everything will go to shit. “Check it again, and I’ll go looking for Yoongi.”
“You’re gonna swim?”
“Did I say I was?”
Jimin chokes back on a word. Something seems to be bubbling, an outburst in his throat, but he lets it die down unspoken. “I’m running to town. Hyung-”
“Fucking go, then,” Hoseok pushes Jimin’s shoulder, lightly, and that’s enough to get Jimin tearing down the grassy hill, down the path to the town in the dip of the bay. He’s barefoot. They both are. The grass whips Jimin’s legs; Hoseok watches it smear itself, green and viscous, on his skin, flecking in contrast to the nicks and bruises of daily life.
He thinks about the cocoon he found one day. Him and Jeongguk and Jimin, back when they were kids, back when only Jimin lived in the town.
They’d been at the top of the hill - right here, during summer, when the wind whipped the sand against their bare skin, burning them, when the birds were swooping low, when the fishermen were hauling in nets full to bursting. “Hyung!” Jeongguk yelled, and he was holding a little cocoon, an empty husk where a butterfly must have escaped from very lately. Cocoons don’t survive much longer than a day. And they’d kept it, the cocoon, tried to make cocoons for themselves out of blankets pulled from the old lifeguard’s hut, and Hoseok had taken it back to Haewon’s house and set it on his windowsill.
Slowly, he walks down the hill towards his beach. Every so often, something screams across the water.
Hoseok is deathly afraid, and somehow he isn’t.
The summers used to last forever, when he was younger. Days and weeks and months and years of sun, of running and swimming and making faces at the mussels and eating the chips and licking salt off his fingers and learning to make crepes with Park Senior - days stretching for centuries.
The beach is empty.
There are no footprints.
“Yoongi,” Hoseok whispers across the water, the curve of the cliffs and the hills and the dunes amplifying his voice. “Yoongi.” Yoongi… yoongi… yoongi…
And that cocoon, all summer, sat on his windowsill, delicate and fragile but preserved. Hoseok kept it carefully. Jimin and Jeongguk forgot about it after that day, but Hoseok kept it - sometimes he’d talk to it, ask it where its butterfly was now, and how it was doing, and about all the things Hoseok did that day.
A rapid-fire clicking.
Then, worse than the screaming -
From the point of the rocks, the place unseen from both beaches, comes the drifting lilt of someone singing softly. Not words. A harmonic, distorted song, low and humming, wavering and weak and yet ever-so-enticing. The sort of song Hoseok would do anything to listen to.
All he’d have to do is jump?
“Taehyung,” he says - it’s not a call, but the cliffs pick it up anyway, Taehyung, taehyung, taehyung, and the singing goes on. He wonders if Jimin has found Jeongguk’s room unoccupied. He wonders if Jeongguk’s grandmother will be woken by the commotion.
On the last day of summer, it took one careless little action. The nudge of Hoseok's elbow, and the cocoon was crushed. Irreparable. Fragile - weak - precious - unique -
Blood in the
is it time to go?
namjun, violettail, pushes his hand. fingers lock in blue hair. fingers shake unmoving skull on limp neck. pinktail himself, holding theonewiththehonourtolead by the shoulders. shaking.
it is time to go.
pinktail lets him shake theonewiththehonourtolead again.
the only one that would protest -
and he doesn’t protest. eyes closed. blood in the water.
then it is time to go, says pinktail.
he brings theonewiththehonourtolead with him.
he doesn’t know why.
Hoseok shoves his fists into his pockets, knocking against the shard of bone; the loose, cracked edge scrapes against his knuckles, opening a tiny cut there barely healed from some random accident a day or two before. “Fuck.” He overreacts more for something to do than because it really hurts - it doesn’t - but looking at the dark sanguine leaking past his skin gives him something to think about that isn’t Yoongi. Isn’t Yoongi.
Think of the blood.
And then he’s thinking of Yoongi, and blood, and all the panic he’s been suppressing rises to the surface and he feels so dizzy he sways back and forth, right there on the sand. The singing is getting louder.
What was that?
A siren song is meant to lure sailors to their deaths.
Hoseok is reminded of another kind of singing.
“Taehyung,” he says, and he’s up to his knees before he realises it, “Yoongi, Yoongi, Yoongi, Yoongi-”
A swan song.
One last hurrah. A final melody before death, a final effort before the end, and that’s Taehyung’s voice out there, singing as mournfully and slowly as though he were drawing out his own funeral dirge. Hoseok is up to his waist, the fragment of bone digging painfully into his hip, the water chilling him to the teeth, and it reminds him so harshly of the first time, of getting drunk on sadness and regret and memories of his mother and wading in and finding Yoongi. This is how it began.
This is how it began, and Hoseok can’t shake the idea that this is how it will end, too. Wouldn't that be poetic? “Yoongi? Yoongi!”
Jimin will have found Jeongguk now, or maybe he will have not found Jeongguk. He’ll have discovered one way or another whether Jeongguk is still around, anyway, and for his own sake as much as anyone else’s, Hoseok wishes Jeongguk would stay put. Jimin, too. Hoseok began this mess when he didn’t die, the first night; began this mess when he didn’t jump like Taehyung told him too. Began this mess when he kissed Yoongi.
When he fell in love.
Swimming proper, now. The moon burns bright in a cloudless sky. There are the stars.
The souls of dead whales, endlessly swimming in a star-filled sky. The North Star - the loneliest whale of them all, and Hoseok, striking out in their reflection, among them but unable to hear. He wants Yoongi. Something’s gone very, very wrong.
Out across the waves, something shrieks, and the singing gets louder, wobblier and more passionate. Hoseok wishes he could split himself in two; go to Taehyung, on the rocks, but he knows the screaming has to do with Yoongi. Those two. What had Taehyung said?
They’ll kill him.
There's a crushed cocoon lying on his windowsill, destroyed by a careless action.
“Yoongi,” he says, mouth filling with water, salty and cold and impersonal as the sea ever gets, “Where are you? Yoongi!”
And Taehyung, singing so hard and harsh, so mournful and painful. Where is Jeongguk? From the beach, Hoseok fancies he hears yelling, and hopes it’s one of them, Jimin or… or Jeongguk, please, but the yelling is so faint it’s practically drowned out by the frantic screeching, by the sharp screams, the melancholic singing over the heads of them all. Hoseok strikes through waves and salt and sea, cresting through them with dogged determination - it’s that, or panic, and lose everything.
Maybe he already has.
where do we go?
the singing. it’s a siren.
pinktail, pulling theonewiththehonourtolead. bubbles. blood
i smell him.
no you don’t.
violettail, tongue in the water. he is angry and afraid. he does not know what to do.
we have his onewiththehonourtolead.
are we taking him?
pinktail strokes his hand down theonewiththehonourtolead’s body, limp and unmoving. still, as though dead. (not quite.) we need a trophy for our belts, do we not?
that is only one skull.
it splits. you can take jaw. i will take cranium.
violettail smiles crookedly. i will carry theonewiththehonourtolead. it will scare his human.
will he think he is dead?
pinktail smiles too. that will be good. will he be dead?
pinktail pats violettail on the head, then drops to his gills. thumb over the slits. i taught you well.
violettail shudders into him. you did.
bubbles. blood in the water.
Hoseok sees Taehyung after a while. (Well. He sees the glimmer of lilac and gold, and the high, cracking voice of someone desperately trying to hang on.) There’s splashing in the water, someone thrashing, and the clicking and screeching is so close now - close enough that Hoseok could find them if he wanted. Definitely close enough that they could find him.
And there’s a figure on the beach.
And it’s -
Jimin is frantic with worry. He knows he’s doing a bad job of hiding it, but really - really, with Jeongguk huddled in the lifeguard’s hut, a blanket around his shoulders and tears dripping down his cheeks, how else is he meant to feel?
“What’s wrong,” he bites through gritted teeth. “What’s wrong with you? What’s happened?”
Jeongguk refuses to look up. He’s sitting underneath the little table next to the window, rubbing his hands up and down his chilled arms - he isn’t wearing any shoes. “Go away, hyung.”
“No. Something’s happening out there, and you’re… and you’re…”
Jimin could tear his hair out. He really could. “Hoseok-hyung! His Yoongi is in trouble, Guk, is this the time to -”
“Taehyung’s in trouble too,” Jeongguk says softly, a fresh well of tears swelling in his eyes, “He’s in trouble, and nobody’s gone to help him. Is this the time to… time to. Time.”
When Jimin kneels, he stretches out for Jeongguk, resolutely ignoring the menacing screeching coming across the ocean. “Guk. Gukkie, tell me what’s wrong. Tonight… tonight is fucked up, and we gotta… we gotta fix it. We gotta fix it.”
“We can’t fucking fix it,” Jeongguk says listlessly. With his thumb, he fiddles with the bangle around his wrist, tracing around the amethyst chunk embedded in the bronze.
“That’s Taehyung’s, isn’t it?”
“Yeah.” Jeongguk sniffs loudly. “Hyung… he’s in trouble. He left. I dunno where to find him.”
“... Where did you last see him?” Jimin asks, thinking with a sort of morbid humour about adults helping little kids find their lost stuff. on the beach. Where did you last have it?
“On the beach. Hyung, y’know what he said?”
“No, I don’t.” Jimin takes Jeongguk’s hand, helping him stand. (The night is dark and full of terrors.)
“I said something, and he said, you’re killing me.”
“Was it a funny joke?” Jimin tries not to scour the seas too obviously for any sign of Hoseok or the mermaids, but he sees nobody - all he hears is the crash of the surf on the sand, and the murderous screeches and clicks drifting through the air.
“No!” Jeongguk clings to him like a lost child. “Don’t you remember how you kill a siren?”
“The weight of… sins?”
“That’s mermaids, hyung.”
A fresh sob breaks through Jeongguk’s throat. “You make ‘em fall in love.”
Jimin doesn’t say anything to that. There’s nothing he can say that would crease away the curse, and curse it seems to be - because how could anyone in their right mind stop themselves from falling in love with Jeongguk? Who in their right mind would stop themselves?
So Taehyung is dying.
And Jeongguk is killing him.
“I know where he is,” Jimin says, ankle-deep in the freezing water, the ocean creeping up the beach as the tide comes in. He leads Jeongguk along behind him, like a little lost balloon being tugged by an overexcited child. “I know where he is.”
“I shuh.. shouted for him, and he didn’t,” Jeongguk sniffs, “And he vanished. And I don’t know what to do - hyung, hyung, how do I stop him from falling in love?”
“You don’t,” Jimin’s dragging him into the ocean, only hoping that Jeongguk’s too concerned with his own problem to hear the mermaid screams across the water. It’s a fool’s errand, trying to swim like this, but he’d never forgive himself if he didn’t. If he didn’t at least try.
“Taehyung doesn’t deserve to get killed over… over being in love with me,” Jeongguk sighs. He gives no sign he’s even noticed they’re in the water. “It’s not fair.”
“No, it isn’t.”
The rocks cut themselves into the water, and now Jimin can hear the singing, long and low and almost tuneless -
“Shit - Guk, no-”
Jeongguk wrenches his wrist out of Jimin’s grasp and, breathing as though he’s just run a marathon, plunges into the sea. Knees, waist, chest, shoulders, swimming before Jimin has time to catch his thoughts, cutting a lonely figure, stroking steadily towards the rocks to the tune of the singing and the screams.
“Jeongguk,” Jimin says. Alone. All he wishes he could say builds itself up inside his throat, inside his head, trying to claw its way out of his mouth, and he wants Hoseok next to him - wants Hoseok to be able to worry on his behalf.
And then he, too, is swimming, ignoring the sounds around him, following in Jeongguk’s splashing weight.
Hoseok swims out further than he ever has before. His bay, the one below his and Haewon’s house, has a jut of rock running parallel to the ones that split the two bays, but he hardly ever climbs on them; they’re more unforgiving, harsher, and further away from the town, so why would he?
But they reach farther out to sea.
So he aims for them, casting out in a little desperation, unable to tell if he’s panicking or not. It could be the waves - it could be the pump of blood in his body.
When he pulls himself onto the frontmost rock, the one slippery and wet from the sea, he scans the waves. Yoongi glows, or maybe his eyes are pulled towards him, but tonight all Hoseok sees is the blackness of night, the glimmer of the stars (whales) and the inexorable crash of the wind-battering water against the rocks. He hears Taehyung. He hears the screech of a mermaid. He thinks he hears someone, very faintly, yelling hyung! hyung!
And then he hears them.
The voice is lyrical, stiff, unused to speaking any language with tongue and teeth and sounds, dreadful in its likeness to Yoongi’s voice the first night (my name. your name. hoseok. name? yoongi.) “Hou-man.”
“Yoongi!” Hoseok yells, fighting to make his voice heard over the battering water. Spray flies into his face. “Yoongi! I know you’re out there!”
“Hou man,” from closer - from the right, where the first voice had come from the left. And what had Taehyung said? Something about two contestants to the right to hunt, a Namjoon and a Seokjin, and Yoongi beaten and bruised, battered by two on one.
A chip of whale bone. The right to hunt.
Something in his pocket, digging into his thigh.
“Taehyung,” and Jeongguk is sobbing, Jimin scrambling in his wake up the rocks. His shins are being bashed mercilessly against the shingles and the limpets, the harsh scrape of nature peeling his skin away, hot blood pooling in between his bare toes. “Taehyung, Taehyung, Taehyung, hyung, hyung,” and Taehyung is singing.
His body, skin and bones, have melted against the rock - he looks less like a human and more like a deflated balloon. Without looking around at Jeongguk, without stopping his song, he sings on and on - defend and the spray and i and i and i and hello gukkie hello gukkie gukkie defend and the spray
Nonsensical words made ever-so-pretty in his mouth.
“Hyung,” Jeongguk says. His throat feels torn out. “Taehyung, I’m - you’re scaring me-”
The small, comforting weight of Jimin’s hand descends on his shoulder, and Jeongguk has never felt less reassured in his life.
“Yoon-gi, hou-man,” says the whisper of the wind and the splash of the spray. Hoseok tries not to shake where he stands, his toes clinging to the slippery rock surface. “Lead, Yoon-gi, hou-man.”
“Fuck you,” Hoseok shouts out to whoever might be listening. Taehyung’s singing has gotten louder. “Give me him!”
And, out of the mist and the surf, they materialise - as though they’d been there the whole time.
Dark plum and dark peach, skin a little darker than Yoongi’s, features different yet the same - lines of gills down their throats, and burning black eyes. Teeth a little sharper than the norm. A pair of shamelessly staring eyes, blood on the lips of the peachy-haired one, in the hair of the other, and pinned between them -
“Yoongi,” Hoseok says, voice cracking in his lungs. “Yoongi-”
Yoongi is the sort of person that sparkles. Hoseok’s seen him every night for months now, has seen him coming undone and seen him in the middle of a joke and seen him listening, eyes bright, lips parted, always ready with some neat little retort, some diamond remark that makes Hoseok laugh or smile or fall just a little harder. He’s seen Yoongi lying face-up floating through waves, napping, but even then he’s glimmering with life. And now.
Now, Yoongi’s head falls limp from his neck. His face is obscured by shadow, but Hoseok can see the bloodstains dripping into the water, and there are fresh clawmarks and scratches all down his chest, scabs and blood and scars and bruises. His blue hair is shorter, as though someone’s ripped fistfuls of it out, and he looks small. Tiny. Fucking defenseless.
The plum mermaid smiles, a wide mouth stretching, cheeks dimpling far too innocently. “I. Namjoon. Yo-ou, hou-man.”
“Give him to me,” Hoseok says, trying to step forward; his feet slip on the rocks and he’s banging down, knocking his head sharp against the layers of rocks he stands on. “Give him to - ow, fuck, give him to me-”
His head aches, and he’s scrabbling like a sewer rat. The rocks below him are unforgiving. If he falls into the water, he won’t be resurfacing as a functional person - maybe a body. A cautionary tale.
“No,” sings the pink one, taking Yoongi into his arms; Yoongi’s head falls to the side, and his neck is a long curve, his gills flapping open and shut in a desperate, unconscious attempt to save their body. The mermaid ducks his head, a sharp red tongue laving over bloody streaks. “No, no-o. Never.”
And Namjoon - that’s one of the names Taehyung said.
(What was the other? Seokjin.)
Namjoon, the plum-haired mermaid, flicks the tendrils of his tail up into the air, diving momentarily under the water. “We won, houuman. You lost.”
“I haven’t fuckin’ lost-”
“We have Yoongi,” says Seokjin, the pink one, his hands so big and powerful on Yoongi’s pale shoulders. “What do you have?”
“It’s my f-fault, hyung-”
Taehyung’s song is getting stronger by the minute, but it’s the sort of strength that’s building to a grand finale, one last climax before the slump of the song, and Jeongguk’s no fool - he knows what comes next, after Taehyung is finished, after he’s spent all he can on the song and the dance of it. He - Jeongguk - is crying, because he always cries, he cries at puppies and at movies and at bruises and at ice cream, and Taehyung isn’t.
He looks as old as the ocean. As sad as the ocean.
And, like the ocean, Jeongguk knows he doesn’t have a hope in hell of stopping him.
“Jeonggukkie,” Jimin whispers, “Jeonggukkie - did you see Hobi-hyung-”
“Did you see Yoongi?”
Jimin’s looking grimly out over the waves. Jeongguk only has eyes for Taehyung.
And then, slowly, Taehyung’s song begins to die down.
“No!” Jeongguk yells, “Keep - hyung, please, you gotta keep, you’re hungry, right, you gotta eat p-p-people-”
“That’s not why,” Taehyung sings into the song, his hair so dull it’s hardly lilac anymore, just a faded silver, “That’s not why… defend the sea the surf Gukkie that’s not why-y-y…”
Like Jeongguk doesn’t know it.
Like Jeongguk doesn’t know why.
“I love him, too, hyung,” Jeongguk whispers into the hug Jimin forces on him, “I love him too-”
“What do you have?” And Seokjin, so smug, holding his Yoongi like a limp little ragdoll. That’s his Yoongi’s blood on his hands, on his face, on his lips, that’s his Yoongi’s blood in his hair. That’s his Yoongi.
(How do you kill a -)
(The weight of its sins-)
Hoseok’s fist closes around the chip of whale bone, and he feels so fucking lightheaded he sways where he stands. “What do I have?”
Nothing!” Namjoon calls, tail flicking saltwater into Hoseok’s eyes, “Nothing!”
“I have this,” Hoseok says, hoping like hell he’s right about what he’s about to do, and unfurls his fingers to display the bleached-white bone. “Fucking sinful bastards-”
Seokjin throws back his head, his throat bobbing, his gills flapping, cackling. And Yoongi. Pale as bleached bones, bloodied as a slaughtered calf.
Taehyung’s stopped singing. Taehyung’s stopped singing.
“Tae - Tae, Taehyung, hyung,” Jeongguk’s touching his shoulders, his hair, his hands, bones prominent under withered skin and dulled, dirty bronze. “Keep singing, please keep singing, you’ve got to keep singing-”
“You fucking… kid,” Taehyung whispers. “Don’t beat yourself up.”
“What is it, hou--m-an?” Seokjin balls a fist in Yoongi’s hair. “Come into the water. Let us use your pretty skull.”
“I always thought sin was pretty fuckin’ heavy,” Hoseok says, more to the bone than to the pair of mermaids. His hands are shaking. His whole body is shaking, really. “Turns out it’s one of those fucking, those fucking metaphors or some shit. Fuck you.”
It’s the middle of the fucking night.
Hoseok wants Yoongi.
“See how you like it,” he says, and snaps the bone in half.
Taehyung’s hair is fading, too, purple and lilac bleeding out of it, dripping down and leaving it a dark shade of brown. His skin is paling. The gold around his wrists and ankles is melting away, slipping back into the ocean. “Oi. Yah. Gukkie-yah.”
Jeongguk, clutching Taehyung’s hand like a lifeline, sniffles.
makes him nervous. theonewiththehonourtolead is light in his arms.
thehumanwithhisheart looks determined. his face is wet. from sea spray?
“see how you like it.”
i am scared.
don’t be. what can he do?
that is what i am afraid of.
the snap is loud across the ocean. theonewiththehonourtolead does not stir.
Hoseok aims at Namjoon, first. The smaller half of bone, balanced in his palm.
It seems to weigh the world.
“You know I’d do it all again.”
“You don’t m-mean that, hyung, you can’t mean-”
Taehyung doesn’t grip Jeongguk’s hand, but he tries to. “‘Course I do. And just think of the ocean, right?”
And Namjoon sinks like a stone.
Seokjin shrieks. High and mournful and piteous, he screams, screams until Hoseok is sure the blood must be scraping itself off the inside of his throat.
He doesn’t feel good.
violettail. isn’t dead. feels painful - feels sore. the weight of a thousand worlds on his shoulders.
bubbles. blood in the water.
The other half of bone, the longer half, fits around the curve of Hoseok’s four fingers. “Give him to me,” he yells. “I just… I just want Yoongi!”
Seokjin’s eyes are full of rage. “The depths to which you sink,” he snarls, fingers digging into the wounds on Yoongi’s shoulders. “The depths!”
bubbles. blood in the water.
“The ocean… doesn’t care,” Taehyung’s voice is beginning to fade, “The ocean doesn’t… it always stays the same.”
Jeongguk isn’t crying. This is too important for frivolous things like tears.
Behind him, Jimin’s hand, rubbing comforting (nothing is comforting) circles on his back.
Hoseok takes aim.
“The ocean is a really good friend, right?”
Jeongguk can’t breathe - doesn’t want to breathe.
blood in the water.
he is sinking. there is a great weight on his head.
somehow, without being told, he knows why it is there. his grip loosens on theonewiththehonourtolead.
so much blood in the water.
so much blood in the water
Taehyung melts. His skin froths away from the rock, a bubbling burst of lilac and silver, and streams down the rocks, dropping in a gentle waterfall into the surf. Across the bay, the sun is rising.
Jeongguk, clasping thin air.
And Yoongi, and Hoseok. Yoongi, floating in the water, serene and at peace, turning the waves red with blood, blue with flakes of scales.
Hoseok stares at his hands, where the weight of their sins - where he held -
He’s never felt so empty in his life.
Is that it?
Chapter 8: the ones that have escaped
welp. its been a ride.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Jimin offers to help Hoseok, but his voice falters and dies when he looks up.
Hoseok holds Yoongi close. No time to think. No time to feel.
Nestled in the rocks are a few small, deep rockpools, full of crabs and seaweed and endless little fishing nets dropped by kids trying to catch shrimp and eels and shimmery fish. The water is still - the winds have dropped, now the sun is rising, but in the rockpool it’s as undisturbed and still as the grave.
As the grave.
Yeah, whatever. On the rocks running parallel, Hoseok thinks he hears someone crying. He’s got Yoongi’s blood on his hands, and his fingers are trembling with the weight of -
Well, someone’s sins, at least. Jury’s still out on who.
As soon as he’s settled Yoongi into the pool, making sure his tail is sitting right, he slides back down the rocks. Yoongi’s gills keep opening and shutting with the briefest brushes of saltwater, like they’re trying to fix him on their own, and he’s still covered in blood.
No time for that.
Hoseok swims to Haewon’s. It’s five-thirty in the morning.
“Were you out all night?”
He ignores the questions, shouldering past her to the kitchen cupboards while she twitters and squeaks about his mother in his ears. A bar of soap. Antiseptic cream. A hand towel. Wet wipes.
“Do we have any marshmallows?”
Haewon sighs. “Where were you last night? I hope you’re not… Hoseok-”
“Do we have any marshmallows?” He asks again, not trusting his voice not to shake. “I need them.”
“In the... cupboard,” she mumbles. Maybe there’s something in his face.
He doesn’t thank her, but he takes them, an unopened packet, the front proclaiming that they’re perfect for melting and create fun for the whole family!
He swims back to Yoongi.
He’s lying how Hoseok left him.
Jimin and Jeongguk have left the rocks where Taehyung was - or maybe Jeongguk’s been dragged by Jimin, and Hoseok can bet they’ll be in the lifeguard hut now, watching the sun rise over the ocean. He saw it. Saw it from across the sea, the drip-drip of the puddle that used to be Taehyung floating into the ocean. He just can’t bring himself to feel anything about it.
He steps into the rockpool, ignoring the slightly-gross movement of slime and weed against his feet, and unpacks the wet wipes.
Yoongi’s blood is darker than normal. Last time it had been sunset when he’d met Hoseok, and Hoseok hadn’t noticed, but now he can see that it’s a darker, blacker sort of a red, browning rapidly in the hot sunrise, and more viscous, oozing slowly out of the scratches and clawmarks and rough digs all over his body. Hoseok brushes the soapy rag through the streaks of blood, the water in the rockpool colouring.
Yoongi doesn’t even twitch.
Hand towel next. Hoseok soaks it in the water of the rockpool and washes off the rest of the blood, as well as the residue left by the wipes. Yoongi looks soft and still and clean, small and bruised in the sunlight.
Hoseok swallows. Sets the towel down beside him.
God. God jesus fucking christ --
He stares at his hands.
Did he kill them?
He snapped it in half. Something in him, the little kid reading his aunt’s fantasy books, says that means they aren’t dead.
Did he kill them? Or just scare them? Scare them away?
Is he a -
Did he -
Hoseok swallows. He picks the towel up again.
The sun floods the sky yellow and blue, and it’s like nothing ever happened; like last night was just another night.
Behind him, in the water, Yoongi is trying his hardest to open his eyes, or to move his hands, or flick his tail, and he would were he not so murderously tired. He hears Hoseok breathing. Long ago, months ago, Yoongi memorised the pattern of Hoseok’s heart, of his breaths forming in his lungs and then shoving themselves out his mouth.
His mouth. Kissing. Yoongi enjoys it very much, more than he expected. The first time Hoseok kissed him, the night they’d brought their courting to a head, Yoongi had swum back to the school with two fingers pressed to his lips, trying to preserve the feeling of Hoseok’s against his.
His body feels heavy and light at the same time. It had been odd, watching Seokjin and Namjoon try to kill him.
Theonewiththehonourtoleadtheschool is surely dead by now, at least, and Yoongi feels as though something happened to stop anyone from dying. Nobody’s skull will be bleached and hung on a belt.
He threw his away, last night, right before Seokjin had bitten deep into his shoulder. He’d torn the stupid thing off, all of the bones rattling along the length of it, only thinking of how badly Hoseok was trying to understand, how badly Yoongi wanted - wants - will always want -
“Hoseok,” he tries to whisper. His tongue feels odd between his teeth, but then, he never had much cause to use it like this until he met Hoseok. “Hoseok? Are you… there?”
His head hurts when he opens his eyes, but he does so anyway. Everything hurts, little concentrated specks of pain. Hoseok isn’t smiling at him, but his hands are tight and firm around the curve of Yoongi’s tail. “You’re… feeling okay?”
“I feel sore,” Yoongi says. “What happened?”
He smells hot saltwater, although not from Hoseok. He smells grief, from Hoseok most strongly, although a clear path of it lies across the water and towards the beach. He smells siren on the rocks. All over the rocks, like Taehyung had been lying over them. He smells anger from Hoseok, although it isn’t directed at him.
“I don’t know,” Hoseok says. His voice seems scratchy. “I don’t know. Do you feel okay?”
“You asked me that already.”
“I want to make sure.”
“I feel okay,” Yoongi tests his extremities gingerly, twitching each finger individually and then flicking his tail up and down in the water. It hurts, but not a lot. “Why am I in a rockpool?”
“I needed to clean you. You were… you’re pretty beat up,” Hoseok’s hands move up his chest, brushing over the sore spots.
Yoongi nods. “Seokjin and Namjoon came again last night. Did they hurt you?”
“I hurt them, I think,” Hoseok whispers. He sounds more horrified than happy. “I think I hurt them real bad.”
“Did you kill them?” Yoongi’s trying hard to make himself think of everyone like he thinks of Hoseok; trying to make himself think that it would hurt him if anyone died. He’s too used to the skulls and the belts. Too used to being part of the school.
“I don’t know if I did.” Hoseok’s never been part of a school. It hurts him, Yoongi knows, to think about killing anyone.
“I don’t think you did.”
“I don’t smell death,” Yoongi says quietly, wincing as saltwater laps around his gills. They feel weirdly sensitive. Maybe Seokjin bit him there, too.
“Y-you don’t -” Hoseok looks confused. “You don’t smell it anywhere?”
“I smell you, and Seokjin and Namjoon, and I smell… grief, a lot of it, and I smell Sei all over the place. But I don’t smell death.”
“Are you sure?”
Yoongi feels something squeezing his heart. It’s being nervous. He’s got more - sensitive, these past months. “What happened last night, Hoseokie?”
Hoseok’s jaw moves like he’s chewing air, his eyes droopy and wide, his cheeks pale, and Yoongi suddenly realises that Hoseok hasn’t got any sleep. “I - last night? You almost died and I used the weight of their sins and Taehyung melted into the ocean, that’s what happened last night.”
Yoongi mulls it over for a moment or two. “The weight of their sins?” He chooses the middle ground. He doesn’t want to ask about Taehyung Sei. Annoyingly, the stupid thing has grown on him, and - but he didn’t smell his death.
“The bone,” Hoseok mumbles into the water. “The whale bone. Seokjin’s hunting trophy. I snapped it in half and I threw it and they sank, just like they were dead.”
“They aren’t dead,” Yoongi says.
“How’d you know?”
Yoongi taps his chest, then regrets it as something on his skin burns. “I feel it. The school. I know they’re not dead. I think… snapped in half, it loses its… potency.”
“Are you sure?”
Hoseok breathes in deep, burying his face in Yoongi’s neck, and Yoongi lets him. He feels warm and light and sore, yes, but ever-so-weightless.
“Tell me about Taehyung, now.”
Jeongguk isn’t hurting.
It’s been a week.
Jimin spends most nights crying, because he always opens shop with a red nose and soggy eyes, and Park Senior has taken to manning the shop by rocking back and forward and giving his son concerned looks when he thinks Jimin can’t see him. He hasn’t seen Hoseok at all. He thinks Hoseok might be hiding in the bay, because Haewon’s coming down the hill looking more and more worried.
(There are five pens in her hair. Jeongguk wishes it was normal, so they could laugh about it.)
It’s been a week, and Jeongguk’s grandmother - an astute old woman when she wants to be - has started cooking him more food, prompting him into more games of draughts and chess, encouraging him to take on more shifts with the council as a lifeguard. He smiles at her. Plays her games when she wants, eats her food when she wants, goes out when she wants.
He feels a bit like a person with all his insides scooped out. A little hollow. A lot empty. He’s going through his day because he doesn’t know, really, what else to do.
The last coachful of tourists spills out onto the boardwalk. It’s evening, the sun pooling yellow and lazy on the sand, heating up the tarmac under Jeongguk’s bare feet until it’s almost, but not quite, too uncomfortable to stand on.
He’s sweating quite a bit. Annoyed at the stickiness, he pulls at the neck of his orange polo, then continues on his treading path - up along the street to the tip of the holiday houses, then back down the boardwalk, down the steps to the beach to the lifeguard hut, and back again.
His feet hurt a bit. The sun is nice and fat and yellow, like a freshly cracked egg yolk.
Jeongguk has thought a lot about it, these past few days. About how Taehyung looked, dripping off the rock.
Taehyung was into art. Is into art. Was?
Anyway. Jeongguk researched it in the town library, then, Modern Art of the 20th Century, and although Taehyung had been talking about the sort of art that was curving yellow strokes in the sky, Jeongguk himself was weirdly drawn to art a little further on. Big hulking creatures - odd forests with faces in them - a sofa that was simultaneously a pair of lips - a set of droopy, melting clocks over a sunless, sunfilled landscape.
That’s what Taehyung had reminded him of, as his hair slowly melted into his skin. A droopy clock in some obscure hellscape, draped over a rock like discarded clothing.
The coach, a battered white thing driven by old Kang that lives up the coast, hoots twice. Park Senior hollas in his croaky, battered voice, and they talk for a while about the weather and about young people and about the state of business. Cheerily pessimistic in the way that old friends will be.
Jeongguk starts walking up the street to the tip of the holiday houses.
The people getting off the coach are mostly late holidaymakers. It’s almost September, after all - all the families with kids are heading back to school, so it’s a crowd of elderly couples and students on tour crowding ‘round the town square. It really is getting hot.
Jeongguk wonders why he isn’t more upset, but he shoves it away. He knows that -
That somewhere in his brain is a dam, and when it bursts it will flood. He can feel it creaking against his heart. And he doesn’t want to feel the loss of Taehyung - doesn’t want to hurt that bad.
In dribs and drabs, the crowd from the coach disperse, and old Kang starts up the engine with a reluctant grumble, all conversational threads with Park Senior exhausted. A trio of students consult their maps.
Jeongguk reaches the tip of the holiday houses, and turns around back down the street, the sun burning the soles of his feet.
Two of the students have left - one is still there, holding a map over their face. The Bumper Museum Map, it says on the front, a little doodle of the Mona Lisa with a moustache drawn underneath the title, a few scribbled letters under the Mona Lisa. It looks pretty new, although Jeongguk can already see the outlines of post-it notes and scribbled lines around the coastline. Is this kid looking for museums exclusively along the sea?
What do you like about the ocean, Jeonggukkie?
Jeongguk reaches the boardwalk.
When the student lowers the map, somehow Jeongguk had already known who was going to be looking back at him.
“You said the ocean stays the same,” says Taehyung - bronze skin, brown hair, sparkling eyes. An amethyst bracelet around his wrist. “I had a dream about you on the bus. My name’s Kim Taehyung. What’s yours?”
Jeongguk feels like his feet are burning, solidifying skin against the hot wood of the boardwalk. “I’m - don’t you remember?”
“I don’t remember anything much,” Taehyung says cheerily, his backpack bouncing when he shrugs, like nothing is wrong, like nothing is hurting, like nothing is how it should be - this is how it should be. But- “I remembered your face when I looked at the sea.”
“I - I’m Jeongguk.”
“That’s a pretty name, Jeonggukkie.”
Jeongguk sways dizzily on his feet, and then everything breaks. “Hyung, I missed you so much,” he pants, his tongue thick and heavy between his teeth, and he falls down on the sticky-walked wooden boards and buries his head in between his knees and bursts into tears, right there, in front of the whole world.
“Oh,” Taehyung says. “Oh, dear.”
He’s wearing shoes. They click as he gets closer, and then there’s a heavy hand on Jeongguk’s shoulder. “I don’t remember you,” Taehyung says seriously, his map fluttering by his leg, “But I feel like I might have missed you too.”
Jeongguk buries his head in his hands and wails.
He hasn’t felt this happy in a week -
He hasn’t felt this much in a week.
And Taehyung, beautiful stupid senseless Taehyung, slides down to sit beside him and puts his arm around his waist, and asks if he’s feeling okay, if he wants some of Taehyung’s water.
Fuck droopy clocks. The sun is a warm egg yolk in the sky, and Taehyung remembered what Jeongguk had said.
(“When I die, maybe I’ll come back as a human. I don’t think sirens die.” Says something in his memory. “Do you think sirens die, Jeonggukkie?”)
"I..." Jimin sighs, his head tucked between his knees, sitting between Hoseok and Jeongguk on the beach. It's mid-October, the sea air frigid, the frosty fingers of winter beginning to tease their way through the whole place. "I..."
Hoseok nods. "It's okay. I think... me too."
"Same," Jeongguk says in a scratchy little rasp. "Oh, god, same."
Jimin thinks that, although many things will change, this will not.
The three of them, sitting on the beach JeonggukJiminHoseok, staring out at the sea beyond them, every one of them knowing what the others are thinking without anyone having to say a word.
Jimin's okay with it.
He really is.
And they swim around the rockpools and the open ocean. Yoongi is working on something, some magic with the sandeels. He says he wants legs.
Hoseok doesn’t mind. He floats, face-up, salt washing over his bare frame, looking at all the lonely whales in the sky while Yoongi tells him stories about the bonefish, the rattling schools of skeletons that chase endlessly after little fishlet children - about the mermaid that came out wrong, with his head that of a dolphin, two useless legs poking out of his neck - about the flying fish, deep in the centre of the ocean far away from land, the flying fish so large it’s possible to grab them by the neck and fly with them, propelled into the air, in a glimmer of rainbow drops and sunshine.
In return, Hoseok tells his stories. He talks about his family, about his mother telling him never to darken her doorstep without a change of attitude, and then he talks about Haewon’s books and about fairies and about Jeongguk’s endless fascination with the little creatures. He talks about berry-picking and sailing and how to fry the perfect egg.
Some nights, they make slow, gentle love under the waves, surrounded by the filmy bubble of air. Yoongi discovers he has a taste for sour skittle sweets, and Jimin carries them in his pockets; jokes about feeding the fish when he throws them into the water. Yoongi dives for them. It’s a game.
And they swim around the rockpools and the open ocean.
Yoongi threw his belt away, long, long ago. One night that December, he and Hoseok dived downdowndown and found two cracked and broken halves of a whalebone, half-buried in the sand.
“They’ll have led the school away,” Yoongi says softly, gathering the bones in his palm, weighing them up, “Far away from here. This will be a cursed place. There will be legends told about you, Hoseok, the human who slays the school.”
“I never -”
Yoongi laughs. “But what a story you make, Seokie, regardless of how true they are.”
When they eat mussels and chips dipped in white wine sauce, dizzy on each other, they laugh. And smile. And Haewon stops asking Hoseok to call his mother. Maybe she sees how happy he is.
Jimin takes over the shop full-time when Park Senior becomes bedbound permanently. Hoseok helps with the ice-cream, but in the winter months there aren’t any tourists and their little town goes into a sort of hibernation, all the residents working on their farms or going to college as a way to pass the time.
Hoseok throws himself into helping Haewon, and to swimming, and to spending time with Yoongi. Yoongi paints himself across Hoseok’s skin in marks - some seen, some unseen. Hoseok knows that none of them will ever really fade.
Taehyung doesn’t remember. Jimin and Jeongguk tell him anyway, and one day the ocean washes the pair of the amethyst bracelet onto the shore, the little purple gem twinkling merrily.
And they stay.
And they swim.
And, when the summer comes back, it sees all five of them in the water - Taehyung, helping Jimin balance books in the shop, going on little daytrips to the big cities to see his favourite artworks - Jeongguk, lifeguarding, getting some obscure literature degree in the community college - Hoseok, simply existing, just living with Yoongi and the sea. Yoongi and the sea, two people tangled together, and Hoseok, as intertwined as they are.
And so they stay.
And so they swim.
And they’ve escaped, and have no intention of returning, and are all the better for it.
if you've ever been to northern france (specifically a little tourist village called arromanches) this is basically where the fic is based. if you haven't been you should totally add that to the top of your list right now.
thanks for reading! it's the first big fic i finished for this fandom so i feel pretty good about it, and i'm happy with how it turned out. i'll probably be doing future edits to make it cleaner and nicer to read but thanks a lot for reading through the first one as i wrote it. hopefully i'll be back again soonish to write another thing.
stay loving sope and stay happy <3