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Until My Lungs Cough Up Water

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Jongdae sits under the coconut tree’s shade, the ocean breeze hitting his face softly, as he threads flowers together onto a head garland. He should be back home helping his mother with the plantations, but he’s managed to escape - and besides, Junmyeon’s already on it.

The sound of the ocean, soothing and repetitive in his ears, helps him relax. He’s always loved the sea - it gives him a freedom he doesn’t feel on the island. He doesn't hate the island, far from it - it’s his home, after all. But the sea calls for him. He learnt how to navigate the stars a long time ago, just so that he could join the members of the tribe that went fishing.

Unfortunately, the tribe only goes fishing once a week, bringing back loads of fish every time, which lasts them longer. The remaining week, Jongdae’s bound to the island. The tribe follows this as custom, tradition. He learnt as a young child that there are sacred laws: what you take from the environment must be allowed to recuperate, never step beyond the bounds of your gifts, prevent invoking the gods’ wrath. Jongdae’s come to understand it as the ocean restores what it’s lost as a week passes, so he knows not to complain.   

It doesn’t mean that he has to like it though.

Of course, he doesn’t stay on the island all the time. He likes to go out on canoes when he can; in fact, Jongdae loves surfing too.

“There you are,” A familiar voice calls out, grin clear in his voice. Two seconds later, an arm is over Jongdae’s shoulder, and Jongdae’s eyes meet Baekhyun’s. “Junmyeon’s looking for you.”

“Then why are you here?” Jongdae can’t stop the grin climbing on his face.

“As if your brother could ever find you,” Baekhyun scoffs before sending Jongdae a wink. “We both know I’m the only one who’s ever been able to find you.”

Baekhyun is the village cook’s son, but as great as his dad is at cooking, he’s just as bad - instead, Baekhyun is training to be one of the village’s school teachers in his free time. He’s also Jongdae’s oldest friend, his best one - but he means so much more than that too. Jongdae can’t remember when he first met the other, but he also can’t remember when it was that he fell for the other - it’s been years, but it’s been as easy as breathing.

Jongdae’s heart hurts with the fondness he feels for the other, and so he hides it behind shouldering Baekhyun lightly, “Yeah right.”

“I see you’re in that mood again,” Baekhyun’s eyeing the flower garland in Jongdae’s hands, and his voice is knowing. Jongdae wonders why it is that Baekhyun knows him so well, and yet is still the most oblivious human on the island. “Don’t worry, Dae, you’ll be on the boat by tomorrow morning.”

Baekhyun isn’t the type to comfort others, so his effort is sweet. But Jongdae doesn’t need him to worry, so he laughs. The flower headpiece is done, and he leans forward, placing it on Baekhyun’s head, “Stop trying to get rid of me, Baek. One day I’ll be gone and you’ll be crying.”

“Crying out of happiness, you mean,” The other teases back, but he reaches up to straighten the flower crown, and sends him a breathtaking smile. The pink hibiscuses look pretty against the other’s dark hair, but Baekhyun’s never needed flowers to be pretty.

Baekhyun stands up, dusting off his shorts, and offers a hand out to Jongdae, “Come on, let’s go.”

 


 

Jongdae slides down the rope, swinging forward to land right in front of the starboard rail. The wind is strong this morning, and he can practically taste the salt in the air, crystallising in his hair.

“Jongdae, careful near the ledge!” Chanyeol calls out, almost routinely.

The other is the son of the village chief - he will be taking over once he becomes twenty-one in three years, just like Jongdae, who will be taking over master seaman of the tribe from his own father. Chanyeol tags along on the sea travels, mostly to understand the proceedings and because he is also fond of travelling. The islanders of Myrau rarely leave the island, but they have relations nonetheless with tribes from other sister islands. Each weekly fishing trip also means travelling far enough to the nearest island (a good three hour sea journey) and so trade is a part of the procedure. And maintaining that may be a part of Chanyeol’s duties as the successor, but Jongdae knows the real reason Chanyeol likes to travel back and forth between the isles.

Two years ago, at sixteen, Chanyeol had become betrothed to Myenyi’s (the nearest island and practically the source of all of Myrau’s clothing) successor - Kyungsoo. They’d known each other since they were much younger, of course, since they were eight. In fact, Jongdae was friends with Kyungsoo too. Kyungsoo travelled between the islands often too, and he’d spend endless hours on Myrau since he was young. Chanyeol, as far as Jongdae remembers, has liked Kyungsoo since they were thirteen, and Kyungsoo...well, he never made it obvious back then. He was never all that good at showing his affection, hiding it behind snark and adorable aggression.

Tradition demanded that a chief’s successor had to get betrothed within a year of becoming fifteen, and when Kyungsoo became fifteen, he’d been the one to approach sixteen-year old Chanyeol and asked the other to be his betrothed. Chanyeol had yet to choose a betrothed (secretly had been waiting for Kyungsoo to turn the right age) and immediately had said yes. There’d only been one person hurt in all of this.

“I always am, Chan,” Jongdae grins. The other is walking over to him, and throws his arm over Jongdae’s shoulders. “Besides, the sea wouldn’t ever harm me.”

“That’s not true,” Chanyeol’s nose scrunches as he looks over the brig. “You can’t ever predict the weather, not perfectly anyway.”

Jongdae hums in consideration, “True, but we always pray before setting sail, so have faith.”

“Okay, let’s stop here, it’s a good stop!” Jongdae’s father calls from where he standing at the mast. This particular vessel is large enough for thirty men and some cargo, maybe twelve metres in length and eight in width. “Prepare the nets!”

Jongdae and Chanyeol make their way over to assist the other men as they throw the massive net over the side, letting it sink into the water for a minute until pulling the ropes and bringing up with it over a hundred fish.

They haul it on board, arms straining under the weight and begin sorting through it, tossing back smaller ones back into the sea. Chanyeol never participates in the sorting, never liking the feeling of the live fish in his hands, but will voluntarily throw back the small fish back into the ocean as long as they’re in a wooden basket.

As they are sorting through them, Jongdae spots an object lying between two fish, shimmering a crystal blue under the bright sun. He reaches forward, moving the fish aside and picks up the object. He turns it over in his hands, putting it in his palm.

It’s a shell with the reflective abilities akin to a fish scale. It’s one of the most astonishingly blue colours - like the sea on the horizon at noon, bright and undeniably beautiful. Jongdae runs a finger over the curve of the shell - it reminds him of Baekhyun’s smile.

He pockets the shell in his shorts. He knows what he wants to do with it now.

After another mid-stop to fish and once all of the sorting is done, Jongdae’s father is calling out, “Onto Myenyi! We’ll be there within the hour’s end. Navigators!”

A smile slips onto Jongdae’s face, and he leans against the railing. Chanyeol’s joining him and Jongdae holds back his laughter at the face he’s making, expression scrunched in the bright sun. Jongdae teases him, “Don’t worry, we’ll be there in less than an hour! You’ll see him soon.”

“Shut up,” Chanyeol rolls his eyes, lightly shoving Jongdae’s shoulders. “Besides, I’m not all that desperate to see him immediately.”

“Yeah right,” Jongdae scoffs in disbelief, calling him out. “You’re always desperate to see him.”

But Chanyeol shakes his head, “Nah, I mean, it’s only been a week - ”

“A week too long , I distinctly remember you saying that, like, literally two minutes after we left Myenyi last week.”  

“ - and Kyungsoo’s coming back with me, uh, I mean, with us this time,” Chanyeol added pointedly.

Jongdae’s grin turned sharp, “Ah ha, no wonder. How’d you know that though?”

“They’d sent a ship with some stuff on two days ago,” Chanyeol explained. “He sent a message.”

Jongdae shakes his head amused, “How long is he staying anyway?”

“A week,” Chanyeol’s looking out at the sea as if he’ll spot Myenyi in the distance. “So he’ll be leaving on our ship next week too.”

“Sounds great,” Jongdae smiles, but internally he feels something sink inside him. It’s going to be a long week.

Myenyi arrives faster than they expect - the wind god is on their side, and they have arrived safely to the isle. They get off the boat onto the beach, and Kyungsoo is already standing there, ready to greet them and the others.

Tribal duties come first, and he bows to them, followed by offering each of them a leaf from a kakade tree, a tree specific to the isle of Myenyi, treasured and sacred. It’s meant to represent both a welcome home, and to have a safe journey in the future. It’s a Myenyian tradition, just like how the Myraui always pray to the sea gods for a safe journey.

Once the group has broken, the elders heading to the village market for trade business, Jongdae takes a seat on the beach. He’s never really explored Myenyi except for when Kyungsoo had dragged their group around back when they were eleven.

Once Kyungsoo has greeted Chanyeol (a tight hug, a soft kiss when everyone else disappears and no one is looking), he turns to Jongdae, pulling him into a hug as well. Kyungsoo’s never been shy or afraid in front of Jongdae. “Hello.”

“Kyungsoo,” Jongdae pats him on the back fondly. “How have you been? Chan told me you’re coming back with us today.”

“Indeed,” The other returns. He’s moved to stand three feet away from Chanyeol - but he’s always like this, close but distant in public. As the chief’s son, he’s been ingrained to remain the figure of authority he will become, never too affectionate, an air of a strong figure. But once away from the public eye, he’s soft, Chanyeol’s arms never straying too far from him. “It’s been a while since I’ve been on Myrau.”

“True,” Jongdae nods in agreement. “It’ll be nice to have you around.”

But he’s certain Baekhyun will not be as happy.

 


 

“Chanyeol!” It’s the first name Baekhyun calls when the ship arrives on the beach. Jongdae’s still on board, holding a basket of fish to carry down, and he’s watching Baekhyun, who is standing on a rock under a coconut tree.

Baekhyun runs forward in greeting, just as Chanyeol begins take a step down the boat. But he freezes in his footsteps when he sees Kyungsoo appear from right behind Chanyeol, originally hidden from sight behind the much taller Chanyeol. A frown appears on Baekhyun’s face, before he quickly hides it with a welcoming smile.

Jongdae looks away, a familiar sting in his chest. He turns to his father, “Anything else you want me to take down?”

“Nothing else, we’ve got it covered,” His father ruffles his hair. “Head on down, we’ll meet up at the feast.”

The steps he takes down the boat are heavy, but he joins the other three, where the tense atmosphere is undeniable.

Kyungsoo and Baekhyun used to be friends - they all were - but Baekhyun has liked Chanyeol since they were ten. Jongdae isn’t sure if Kyungsoo had known, but the other is observant, so he wouldn’t be surprised. When Kyungsoo asked Chanyeol to be his fiance, Baekhyun had been enraged, hurt. Chanyeol has no idea why the two had suddenly become so unfriendly, but the two pretend around Chanyeol, not wanting to hurt him.

Baekhyun doesn’t think Kyungsoo’s good for Chanyeol at all, never as affectionate Chanyeol would like, words too harsh and detached. Jongdae sees where Baekhyun is coming from - Chanyeol and Kyungsoo are an unlikely match, in anyone’s eyes - but he also sees Kyungsoo’s interactions with Chanyeol from an unbiased viewpoint, all of the soft gazes in the distance, the pained goodbyes.

“Well, I have to go deliver this to the village centre,” Jongdae coughs as he arrives amidst the group. Baekhyun has yet to greet him, and he wants nothing less than to see Baekhyun’s broken expression as Chanyeol and Kyungsoo be themselves. “I’ll catch up with you guys later. Kyungsoo, have a nice stay.”

Jongdae’s walking away when he hears rushed footsteps join him, and Baekhyun’s voice comes low, “Dae, you didn’t tell me Kyungsoo was coming to stay for a week.”

“Hello to you too, Baekhyun,” Jongdae hides his hurt behind a low chuckle. “And I didn’t know until Kyungsoo was on board either.”

Baekhyun exhales through his nose, “Right, sorry.”

“Whatever,” Jongdae shakes his head, shrugging. “How was your day?”

“As it always is with you guys gone - boring,” Baekhyun is looking over his shoulders back at Chanyeol and Kyungsoo on the beach. Chanyeol is pointing at something along the horizon, smiling and eyes bright. His other hand is stretched out towards Kyungsoo, who’s simply standing and watching with his head tilted. Jongdae can’t see Kyungsoo’s expression, with Kyungsoo’s back facing him, but he’s certain the other has a smile on his face too.

He turns to look back at Baekhyun, who’s now looking at the sand at his feet, eyes shielded behind a fringe of black hair. Jongdae lets out a sigh, the weight of a heavy heart burdening, “Come on.”

 


 

Generally, when the ship’s not out at sea, Jongdae’s pretty jobless. He helps his mother around the house and fields, but it’s really Junmyeon who’s always doing those tasks since he’s going to be one of the future consulting advisors to the future chiefs.

But now that Kyungsoo’s on Myrau, he’s practically become Baekhyun’s personal distraction. If the other isn’t sending underhanded sly comments to Kyungsoo, he’s with Jongdae, trying to forget all of his worries.

“He knows that Chanyeol feels bad about stuff like that,” Baekhyun’s jaw is locked. “I swear to Nafiti, I’m going to punch Kyungsoo one day if he keeps this up - ”

“Baekhyun,” Jongdae cuts in. It’s Thursday already, and he’s not sure how much more he can hear of this. It’s small events that spark Baekhyun’s anger. As long as Jongdae’s known the other, he’s not anywhere near a hothead, but Kyungsoo brings out this ugly side in him. Jongdae doesn’t know if it’s because Baekhyun can’t accept that Chanyeol’s engaged to him, can’t get over his own feelings and move on, or if he’s simply against Kyungsoo. “Stop thinking so much about it.”

Baekhyun’s glaring in the distance, so Jongdae pulls out the shell he’d found, now strung on a necklace with other small shells he’d found along the beach. He’d spent all monday trying to perfect it, and now he was satisfied. He taps Baekhyun on the shoulder, “Hey, hey, look.”

He holds the necklace up, and Baekhyun blinks before staring at it, “What - oh wow.”

“It’s for you,” Jongdae tells him lightly, voice trying not to give anything away. He can’t. He’ll only be hurt. “I...I saw it and it reminded me of you so just - turn around?”

Baekhyun meets his eyes. They’re glowing, and he’s smiling brightly, the first time since Kyungsoo’s arrived on the island on Sunday.

“You’re crazy,” He tells Jongdae, but turns around as asked. Jongdae takes a deep breath, leans forward to drape it over his collarbones and then knot it at the back. The back of Baekhyun’s neck is just as tan as the rest of his body, but it’s soft as ever.

He swallows and pulls away, “Done.”

Baekhyun turns back around, fingers on the blue shell. His voice is soft as he looks back up at Jongdae, “I love it, thank you.”

The immense relief Jongdae feels is undeniable, but he knows Baekhyun doesn’t understand half of the intention behind the gesture. It’s nothing he can help however.

“You’re welcome,” Jongdae answers, eyes going back to the horizon. He wonders if he’ll ever be able to tell the other what eats him from the inside. Instead, he stands, “Come on, let’s surf.”

 


 

Jongdae’s with his mother in the coconut tree orchard when Junmyeon comes running, “Jongdae! Baekhyun!”

“What?” Jongdae’s confused. “Hyung, Baekhyun isn’t here - ”

“No!” Junmyeon bends forward, hands on knees as he struggles to catch his breath. “He - fight - Kyungsoo - ”

“What?!” Jongdae drops the coconut in his hands. “Did Baekhyun get into a fight with Kyungsoo?!”

“Yes - village centre, hurry!”

But Jongdae’s already gone before Junmyeon can complete his statement, running as fast as his feet can take him. He only stops when he spots Baekhyun standing across Kyungsoo, Chanyeol between them.

“What’s going on here?!” Jongdae pushes through the small crowd, coming to stand in front of Baekhyun and puts a hand on his shoulder. Baekhyun shakes him off, and Jongdae’s eyebrows furrow.

“Fuck off Baekhyun, you don’t even know what you’re talking about,” Kyungsoo’s voice is low, but stern. He has a bruise forming on his bottom lip from where Baekhyun had clearly punched him.

“Then treat Chanyeol better for fuck’s sake!” Baekhyun spits back. He has a bruise forming on his cheekbone too. It seems Kyungsoo’s landed a hit too. Baekhyun takes a step forward again like he’s about to punch the other again, and Jongdae shouts, “Stop!”

“Chanyeol,” Jongdae’s instructs as he grabs Baekhyun’s arm, “Take Kyungsoo to your hut. I’ll deal with Baekhyun.”

He grabs Baekhyun by the arm, ignoring the painful grip Baekhyun holds his arm back in, and drags him back to his house. People are murmuring around them, but Jongdae couldn’t care less right now.  

Once they get to Baekhyun’s house, empty except for them, he pushes Baekhyun to sit on the rug, “Are you insane? What’s wrong with you?! Why would you hit him?!”

“Am I supposed to sit around watching Kyungsoo treat him like dirt then?!” Baekhyun answers back, fire in his eyes. “Chanyeol smiles at him like he’s the Sun, and Kyungsoo barely spares him a glance in public - ”

“Kyungsoo - ” Jongdae can barely hold back the frustration. “ - doesn’t treat him like dirt, Baekhyun. At all.”

“Are you fucking serious right now, Jongdae?”

Yes! ” He near yells. “Baekhyun, maybe it’s because you’re fucking blind to everything except your feelings for Chanyeol, but Kyungsoo has always loved him too - and it’s just the way he’s been brought up, okay? He can’t help maintaining that professionality in public; it’s just the Myenyian upbringing. Have you ever heard Chanyeol complain?”

“That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt him!” Baekhyun shouts back. “I see it in his eyes, Jongdae! Kyungsoo doesn’t love him the way he should!”

“Baekhyun enough,” Jongdae tells him sternly. “How they treat each other is between them - and it’s Kyungsoo’s and Chanyeol’s responsibility to talk about it if either of them is hurt! That’s not your job!”

“I’m the one that loves him, Jongdae,” Baekhyun returns. “Do you think it’s that easy, ignoring how the person you love feels? You wouldn’t understand!”

I wouldn’t understand?” Jongdae scoffs. “Yeah, of course I wouldn’t fucking understand.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Baekhyun glares.

“I’ve been in love with you since we were kids, you fucking dumbass,” Jongdae retorts just as sharply. “Don’t you fucking dare tell me I don’t know what it feels like to love someone who clearly doesn’t love you back.”

“I - Jongdae - ” The fight looks like it’s been drained out of Baekhyun at the revelation. He clearly doesn’t know what to say, but Jongdae’s not done talking, “No. Baekhyun, I know it hurts you, but you have to realise that Kyungsoo and Chanyeol do love each other - ”

“Why do you keep taking his side?” Baekhyun rises to his feet. “Even if that’s true, it’s not going to make me love you - ”

Baekhyun’s words sting, but he realises he doesn’t need to hear this from him. Just because Jongdae gave his heart to the other doesn’t mean he gave him the right to hurt him.

“It was never about you Baekhyun, Chanyeol and Kyungsoo are my friends too,” Jongdae cuts him off. And he turns around, leaving the house.  

 


 

Jongdae doesn’t speak to Baekhyun at all that evening, and the next morning, for once, Baekhyun doesn’t appear to wish him good luck as they set sail. Kyungsoo’s returning back to Myenyi today, but as he talks to Jongdae, it seems he’s forgiven Baekhyun for what’s happened the previous afternoon.

The ship sets sail, but for once, Jongdae sticks to his own corner of the boat. Chanyeol and Kyungsoo leave him alone, sensing his bad mood. The sea seems to reflect his temperance today, strong winds and waves as they travel further out to sea. The sky doesn’t seem bright, cloudy and for once, Jongdae doesn’t feel like being here.

They stop for the first fishing spot, but Jongdae’s heart isn’t in it - he’s left it back in that house with Baekhyun, and all he feels now is a sick conflict.

It’s Kyungsoo who first approaches him, “Jongdae, is everything okay?”

Jongdae tosses a fish overboard, “Perfect.”

“Is it Baekhyun?” He pushes. But Jongdae’s had just about enough, “Kyungsoo - just drop it, please.”

“I know you like him,” Kyungsoo’s voice is hesitant as he speaks nearly ten seconds later. “Did you fight with him? You’re only like this after a fight with him.”

Jongdae is tired, “I told him, Soo.”

Kyungsoo falls silent. It seems even he has nothing to say to that, and it brings a pathetic laugh to Jongdae’s lips, “Forget it. Tell me, why did you punch him back?”

“He needs a wake-up call,” Kyungsoo’s voice is plain. “I’m not sure it worked though.”

“No,” Jongdae looks out towards the sea, “No, I don’t think so.”

“Maybe your fight did,” Kyungsoo retorts, but Jongdae shakes his head, “I doubt it did -”

The boat shakes as a strong wave hits it from the side, water flying up over the railing. Jongdae grabs the rail, and Kyungsoo’s arm, only for another overwhelmingly strong wave to hit.

“Men! Grab the ropes and don’t let go!” Jongdae hear his father, but the sky is suddenly getting darker, and the sea is getting wilder - and is it drizzling?

He doesn’t know why the weather suddenly descended into chaos, but they need to get to land as soon as possible. Travelling at sea in bad weather is never a good idea. Rakhele, the god of the sea, must be furious.

Another ferocious wave, and Jongdae is scrambling with a few of the others to secure the fish that has been placed in the baskets, as the boat trembles under the force of the sea. The boat tilts dangerously as they try to navigate through the crazy waters, sea spray landing on board and making the surface slippery.

Jongdae’s unfortunate, because as soon as another heavy wave hits, his foot lands on a slippery part and he goes sliding along the tilted deck.

“Jongdae!” Kyungsoo yells, and reaches forward, grabbing his wrist. Jongdae feels the fingers around his wrist bruise the skin, but Kyungsoo’s grip is no use when more waves hit the boat and both of them lose the balance they’d gained a second before.

The boat is on the verge of being overturned, and he sees another man fall overboard. A basket is about to fall off, and Jongdae reaches forward to grab it, just as another wave hits, sending the boat rocking. Kyungsoo loses his grip on Jongdae, Jongdae skidding overboard and precariously holding onto the ledge, half submerged into the sea. It’s freezing.

He hears Chanyeol scream Kyungsoo’s name, Jongdae’s father yell his name, but it’s too late as more waves hit and Chanyeol just manages to grab Kyungsoo before he falls. It’s raining heavily now, and Jongdae’s grip loosens, and before he knows it, he’s fallen under, a scream dying on his lips.

He feels a tide hit him, pushing him away from the boat, and by the time he’s surfaced once more, he’s a good ten metres away from the boat. Chanyeol’s managed to pull Kyungsoo aboard and both are holding a rope, and Jongdae spots his father screaming his name. But before Jongdae can scream for help, another wave crashes into him, sending sea water into his mouth, plugging his ears and Jongdae can’t breathe.

He struggles to rise to the surface, feels himself get pushed further away from the boat, but his limbs are starting to feel heavy. His arms are losing energy, the light is getting further away, and Jongdae is wondering if this is how his life is going to end - death at sea, drowned. How perfectly ironic.

He feels a basket from the cargo on the boat hit him on the arm. He holds it weakly and remembers his mother, his brother, his father...Baekhyun.

And he makes a decision.

No, this isn’t where he’s going to die. There’s still so much he wants to do. It’s not going to end like this.

He pushes. He moves despite the pain in his arms, till his lungs burn without oxygen, till his eyes scream from the salt. But he'll keep fighting until his lungs cough up the water. And he breaks free at the surface, a sharp inhale of precious air.

But when he wipes his eyes of the salt, he sees the boat, further out than he can remember, too far for them to hear his screams. The sound of the rain on the ocean is loud, but not as loud as the fear enveloping him now.

He’s lost at sea.  

 


 

He’s been drifting for nearly five hours now, managing to stay afloat by the basket in his arms. But being in the sea for too long saps energy, and Jongdae struggles between staying conscious and trying to find somewhere, anywhere.

He has no idea where he is, and there’s no land mass in sight.

The sky is starting to darken, but at least the sea is calmer now, and the sky is clear. But as the sun disappears, it’s getting colder, and Jongdae feels goosebumps raise along his skin.

Exhaustion has finally caught up to him, and he feels it in the stiffening of his muscles. He can’t move his arms anymore, even if he wanted to, and resorts to simple floating. He knows he shouldn’t, but he shuts his eyes.

Before he knows it, he’s unconscious.

The next time he opens his eyes, he’s lying on some kind of cloth. He sits up, shocked, only to find himself in a room of sorts, on a makeshift bed, and definitely not out at sea like he remembers having been.

He panics - he has no idea where he is, only relief that he’s not out at sea anymore, but he’s not even sure if being here is the better option.

“You’re awake,” A voice comes from the side, and they sound surprised, if not relieved.

Jongdae jumps, and turns to face a young man. Jongdae can’t tell if he’s older or younger than him. He’s not as tanned as you would expect from an islander, but then again, Jongdae isn’t even sure where he is right now.

Jongdae tries for a smile, but his throat is parched as he tries to speak. The man seems to realise this and quickly grabs a drinking cup with water and hands it to him, “Here.”

Jongdae drinks slowly, but can’t deny the relief he feels when he tastes non-salted water, so he croaks, “Thank you.”

“No problem,” The man nods. “How are you feeling?”

“A bit tired, honestly,” Jongdae’s body is still feeling pretty heavy. The man’s eyebrows shoot up on his forehead, “Really? You’ve been sleeping for two days now though!”

Jongdae chokes on his water, “What?!”

“You must have been in some shipwreck, am I right?” The man guesses. “I can tell. You must have been floating out at sea for hours. I found you passed out on the beach two nights ago and brought you in.”

‘Where am I?” Jongdae asks carefully.

“Oh, you’re on Mavtui right now,” The man tells him. “I’m Minseok.”

But Jongdae’s frozen. As far as he can remember, out of the seven Maucatan Isles, three aren’t on friendly terms with Myrau. Mavtui is one of them. They don’t negotiate with one another, barely tolerate each other. It’s not that they’re enemies persay, but relations soured about fifty years ago - and they do everything not to trespass on one another’s territory. Jongdae’s heard that if one of the Myraui trespass, the Mavtauians are at liberty to kill them, and vice versa.

Of course he’d had to end up here - Jongdae’s luck was terrible. The goddess of luck must be punishing him right now for god knows what.

“Do you remember anything?” Minseok then asks, and Jongdae has two options - either pretend like he remembers nothing or potentially die because he’s from an ‘enemy’ tribe.

First one it is then.

“No, I don’t,” Jongdae shakes his head. “I just remember falling into the water - but that’s about it.”

“Hmm,” Minseok sighs. “Alright, we’ll see what we can do. We don’t know whether you’re from one of the other Maucatan Isles or from the mainland.”

Jongdae is going to have to escape, because if they were to find out who he is, they would kill him.

“I don’t remember,” He repeats simply. Minseok walks over to him, lying a hand on his shoulder, “Don’t worry, get some rest.”

Over the next three days, Jongdae gets to know Minseok pretty well. The other is two years older than him, twenty, and is well on his way to becoming an tribal chief advisor. He reminds him of Junmyeon in a lot of ways, which is nice because he’s like an older brother, but Jongdae gets along with him better than he does with Junmyeon. Minseok has even taught him how to make a traditional Mavtuian dish.

Minseok, he quickly realises, is a neat freak; he keeps his hut cleaner than anyone else he’s met, and now that he’s somewhat taken responsibility for Jongdae, he’s fiercely protective too. A day after waking up, Jongdae had been presented in front of the village council.

Mavtui is nothing like Myrau. Myrau is warm, the people are friendly, and it’s home . They’re all a largely fisherman type tribe, and are navigators. Mavtui, on the other hand, is a highly warrior-type tribe. They carry around weapons with them, and they always seem to be frowning.

Or perhaps that’s just Jongdae’s eclipsed perception of them.  

Nonetheless, despite their more intimidating appearance, they had welcomed him to the tribe. Seeing as how he didn’t remember anything, or at least was claiming not to, they practically claimed that he was free to become a member of the tribe, if he wished, and should he remember who he was, he was free to choose if he wished to leave or stay.

Jongdae just wondered if they would change that opinion if he told them who or where he was from.

It was a decision he was struggling with internally, but if he didn’t tell them, how would he ever leave?

He’d stopped by the beaches, and there were often canoes lying around. He could always...steal one, if it came to it. But how would he know which way to go? He needed a map.

“What are you thinking about?” Minseok asks him over dinner one day, nearly a week after he wakes up. Minseok lives alone, lost his parents at sea too, but Jongdae’s met his closest friend Luhan. Jongdae is certain that Luhan likes Minseok. He can see why - Minseok is the epitome of cool and calm headed, and he’s attractive by any standard, but more importantly, his presence envelopes you with an overwhelming feeling of comfort. It’s why Jongdae was able to get so comfortable with him in the first place; he was easy to click with. “Do you remember something?”

“...No,” Jongdae eventually says, and Minseok’s smile quirks like he knows something but is choosing to remain quiet. At the moment, Jongdae’s only told them his first name.

Instead, Minseok says, “What do you think? Will you stay here?”

“I - where would I stay, even if I were to stay here?” Jongdae asks. “It’s not like I can keep staying with you here forever - ”

“You could,” Minseok puts in, effectively shocking Jongdae into silence. He’s not meeting Jongdae’s eyes, and he sounds a bit nervous. “Stay with me, that is.”

“Minseok,” Jongdae’s voice is low. “I - ”

“I know it’s sudden,” Minseok has his head in his hands. “You barely remember who you are, and this is all new. But I - I feel something for you, Jongdae. And for what it’s worth, it might be something to explore.”

“Minseok,” Jongdae feels an inexplicable sense of guilt. He’s never thought about Minseok as anything more than a brother or a friend. “I - I have to be honest with you.”

Yes, telling Minseok the truth might be the most dangerous thing he may have done, but he couldn’t stay in his house with a guilty conscience. And he couldn’t do that to Luhan either, not when Luhan reminded him of himself, not when Jongdae’s also seen the way Minseok looked at Luhan sometimes without realising it for himself.

And Jongdae loves his family too much to leave them behind like that - and he has someone to get back to at home too, even if Baekhyun doesn’t love him the way he does.

“I’m sorry,” Jongdae completes. “I’m sorry for lying and I’m - I’m just sorry.”

“It’s fine, I was lying,” Minseok tells him, but there’s something in his eyes that tells Jongdae he’s lying. But Jongdae won’t push it, knows he shouldn’t because it’s the least he could do for Minseok. “I just wanted to know the truth because I could tell you were hiding something. I just thought you remembered something, not that...you know.”

“Yeah,” Jongdae swallows. There’s a silence between them now, that Jongdae doesn’t know how to overcome anymore. “I - thank you for taking me in, though. And for rescuing me.”

“It was nothing Jongdae, don’t worry,” Minseok responds. He stands up, still not meeting Jongdae’s eyes as he heads over to the water basin. “I’ll help you get off the island, if that’s what you want.”

“I - ” Jongdae wants to say yes, but at the same time feels as though he’s taking advantage of the other.

“Don’t overthink it,” Minseok then adds. “I’ll get you a map, and you can take my canoe. It’s going to be a long journey home though, nearly twelve hours by sea alone, if you can keep paddling.”

“I - that’s too much Minseok,” Jongdae tries to say, but Minseok cuts him off, “Of course not. Who else will help you?”

“...Thank you,” Jongdae relents, accepting the aid.

The same night, Jongdae sets about getting his kit for the journey ready - filling it with food and water supplies, some medicines, and a few weapons and clothes. Minseok brings him a map of the seven isles, draws out the safest route back to Myrau, and gives him a few tips for navigation. Jongdae’s not too worried, if he leaves early morning, he’ll still have the aid of the stars to lead the way.

It’s on the beach, under the stars, when the farewell really hits him. Minseok’s set up his canoe for Jongdae, and he turns to Jongdae. Minseok’s eyes are glistening, and the sea breeze blows lightly through his hair, “Here you go.”

“Thank you for everything,” Jongdae tells him softly. He understands what Minseok feels for him is different from what he feels for him in return. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine,” Minseok discreetly wipes his eyes. “I’m just glad to have had a chance to meet you.”

“Me too,” Jongdae tells him genuinely. Maybe he should have fallen for someone like Minseok. Perhaps in another lifetime, when they weren’t separated by thousands of nautical miles, when they didn’t have someone else they were both entangled in. “I wish there was more I could have done for you.”

“You’ve done plenty, Jongdae,” Minseok helps him into the boat and then pulls him into a hug. “Be happy, that is all I ask.”

“You too, hyung,” Jongdae looks down for a moment before meeting Minseok’s eyes. “Be honest with yourself and Luhan.”

Minseok’s eyes are conflicted, but he smiles, “Thank you, Jongdae.”

“What will you tell the council?” He asks finally. Minseok spares a look back towards the island, “Don’t worry, I’ll handle it.”

Jongdae trusts Minseok, “Be careful.”

As Jongdae sails away from Mavtui, he realises that he’s learnt something new about the tribe. They maybe be stiff, but not all of them are - and they don’t need to be at war with them. It may still be a longshot, but maybe in the future, the Myrau could try extending a hand forward in friendship.

 


 

The journey is harder than expected. The sea, at least, is cooperative. Rakhele is in a good mood today.

He’s been travelling for hours. He’d left when the stars were still out, and now it’s almost time for the sun to set again. His arms are tired from rowing and controlling the sail, and he hasn’t even passed Myenyi yet.

By the time Jongdae’s seeing Myrau’s beaches, Jongdae feels like crying. In fact, as the canoe softly pushes onto the beach, Jongdae's already jumped into the soft sand. The sky is dark but the stars are shining, and a tear makes its way down his face. He’s back. After over a week, he’s back.

He knows everyone will be at the feast. As per Myrau tradition, everyone has dinner together everyday. But as he heads up the beach, he spots a single figure, sitting against the coconut trees in a spot he used to sit so often, fast asleep.

Jongdae’s heart hurts at the sight.

Baekhyun’s sat there, knees raised to his chest and head leaned back against the tree. The necklace Jongdae had given him is sat against his collarbones. It feels like an eternity since he saw the other, and Jongdae’s knees feel weak. He’s missed the other beyond imagination.

Jongdae approaches him carefully, silently, and then leans forward to place a hand on cheek, “Baekhyunnie.”

His thumb strokes the other’s cheekbones, and Baekhyun’s eyes flutter open.

“Jongdae?” He sounds confused, and then his eyes well. His voice is tired, far from how Jongdae remembers it, but he’s still so beautiful. “Please, this is just a dream - this is too cruel, please.”

“Baekhyun,” Both of Jongdae’s hands are on the other’s cheeks now. “Baekhyun, it’s me. It’s not a dream, it’s really me.”

“Jongdae?” Baekhyun sits up, his eyes widen, snapping awake within seconds. Jongdae’s hands fall to his lap. “Jongdae.”

His eyes tear up, and before Jongdae knows what’s happening, Baekhyun’s tackled him into a hug. He feels Baekhyun stiffen as he cries into Jongdae’s neck, grip on Jongdae’s shirt unrelenting as he sobs.

“Baekhyun,” Jongdae runs his hands down the other’s back comfortingly. “Calm down, breathe. It’s okay.”

But there’s nothing stopping Baekhyun’s tears.

After another five minutes, Baekhyun finally stops sniffling, but his grip on Jongdae doesn’t weaken a smudge, “I thought - everyone thought you were dead. Jongdae, I was so scared.” He breaths harshly into the side of Jongdae’s neck, and the grip on Jongdae’s shirt tightens, “But I knew. I knew you wouldn’t leave us - leave me like that.”

“Baekhyun,” Jongdae runs a hand through the other’s hair, feels the other tremble in his arms. “Baekhyunnie, breathe - ”

“I was stupid - Nafiti, I was so stupid! ” He pulls away slightly, and looks at Jongdae in the eyes even as his arms remain tight around Jongdae’s waist. “I couldn’t live Jongdae, knowing what I’d last said to you, and you just disappeared after that. I - how could I say that to you? And how could you just...just go? You’re supposed to be the one that’s always there! If you wanted to be mad at me, you should’ve just stayed! You should’ve been standing in front of me that evening and punching the sense into me, Nafiti knows I deserved it, but you -”

“Baekhyun, I’m sorry,” Jongdae sighs as Baekhyun cuts off in a ragged breath. “But it wasn’t like - ”

But Baekhyun shakes his head, “No, I’m sorry, because I was immature and I...I didn’t realize. There’s so much I didn’t realize, but I understand now. When Chanyeol and Kyungsoo came back and you didn’t...Jongdae, there isn’t anything I wouldn’t trade just to not hear the words that they lost you at sea ever again. This entire week, I haven’t thought about anything, anyone except for you.”

Clearly, Baekhyun has something to get off his chest, so Jongdae remains silent, trying to give him comfort as Baekhyun leans his forehead against Jongdae’s collarbone.

“The thought that I wouldn’t ever see you again, your smile, your love for the sea, even your dumb whining, was so scary. I sat here everyday, just waiting for you to get back, I knew you would. I know I don’t deserve you but - I couldn’t function Jongdae, not without you,” He draws back now. He’s no longer touching Jongdae, but is still standing close enough that Jongdae can feel the other’s breath on his lips, sees that Baekhyun has aged beyond something explicable, dark circles beneath his eyes and stressed lines. “How could I? You’re a part of me. How could I survive without you?”

Jongdae is stunned but Baekhyun is still not done, “I realized Jongdae. I’ve realized now, what it’s like to lose someone you love, someone you never cherished when you should have, leaving only regret for not realizing earlier.”

Jongdae pulls him into a kiss.

It’s everything Jongdae had wanted, dreamt about, but it’s so much more. There’s an infinite amount of love behind it, and Jongdae feels tears land between their lips. He’s not sure if it’s him crying or if it’s Baekhyun, but right now, he’s lost himself, surrendered himself to Baekhyun. Jongdae would drown himself in the love he feels for Baekhyun again and again if it meant being in his arms.

“I love you,” Baekhyun whispers between kisses. “I love you, and I’m sorry it took so long.”

“I love you too,” Jongdae returns. “And I forgive you, Baekhyunnie, how could I not?”

They sit together on the beach, where the sea comes up to tickle their feet. Baekhyun’s stuck to him like a barnacle, head resting on Jongdae’s shoulder, and sneaking kisses as he tells him about what had happened over the past week and half that Jongdae’s disappeared.

They hadn’t had his funeral yet - it would have been on Sunday, in two days, had he not had shown up. The tribesmen had faith at first, and they sent out search-boats everyday, only to come back empty handed each time. Even Nafiti, the goddess of the land and protection, it seemed, turned her back on the tribe’s hopes. Baekhyun had fought all the way, had lashed out at Chanyeol and Kyungsoo until he realized they too had lost a friend, and they all cried together.

“You were right,” Baekhyun chuckles lowly, but there was no bitterness in his voice. “Kyungsoo and Chanyeol are perfect for each other.”

Jongdae raises an eyebrow.

“What?” Baekhyun sits up. He looks affronted, “Come on, I’m not blind, okay? I was, before.” He looks out to the sea, and Jongdae expects to see some disappointment, but there isn’t any. “Chanyeol was a crush, perhaps for the longest time, but I think I knew somewhere inside that I was fighting a losing battle - and at some point, it wasn’t even about him anymore, it was about him choosing Kyungsoo over me. It hurt, and I was bitter about it - and I kept lashing out at Kyungsoo.”

Jongdae watches quietly as Baekhyun falls back, gazing into up into the starry sky. Baekhyun’s fingers are now playing with the shell on his neck.

“It wasn’t about Chanyeol, after awhile, but I didn’t know where to go from that, you know? I was still hurt, but now there wasn’t any reason, and I didn’t know any better.” His eyes shut, “And then you disappeared, and all of a sudden, my axis tilted.”

“Dramatic,” Jongdae comments. Baekhyun hits him on the shoulder, but a snort still escapes him, “Shush, listen.”

When he’s sure Jongdae’s not going to comment, he continues, “I - I was waiting for you guys to get back that day, because I wanted to apologise to you for what I’d said. But then you never came back, and Kyungsoo...he was crying because he let you fall and felt so guilty about it, and I saw Chanyeol comfort him, but all I felt was so empty and broken because none of it mattered all of a sudden. I realised that I was so busy being angry and bitter and hurt, that I never realized how much I was hurting you, Jongdae. And it was painful Jongdae, without you around. I couldn’t eat, sleep, breathe...and I was blind to how much you meant to me. I woke up one morning, and I saw the necklace and I realized. I think - somewhere along the way, I’d fallen for you too, but I just wasn’t ready to accept it.”

He sits up, shoulder touching Jongdae’s, and says, “I won’t get back the time I lost...but I hope you’ll let me stay by your side now.”

“You’ll always have a place by my side, Baekhyun,” Jongdae smiles and he feels Baekhyun’s fingers intertwine with his. “For as long as you want it.”

Jongdae tells him about his adventure too: about Mavtui, Minseok and Luhan, and being out at sea. Baekhyun listens in an unusual silence, but he sits by Jongdae like he needs to know he’s always going to be there, and interjects with soft commentary as though trying to make Jongdae laugh, but even Jongdae can tell it’s forced. Baekhyun’s still nervous that Jongdae will disappear. The other is relieved before anything else that he is back, is going to take some time to recover from the shock.

It’s only an hour later that they actually head out to the village. They’re all shocked to see him. His parents would not leave his side; his mother is in tears, but so are his father and Junmyeon. Jongdae is surprised to see Kyungsoo present in the village, but he hasn’t stepped foot off the island since Jongdae fell into the sea. Chanyeol is there too, but he lets Jongdae hug Kyungsoo first. Kyungsoo’s crying into his shoulders, mumbling a ridiculous number of apologies he doesn’t need to make. Chanyeol’s father welcomes him back, but even his eyes are teary. Jongdae knows in his heart he made the right decision to come home. Mavtui could never have compared.

Myrau is home after all. This is where he belongs.