Mermaids—those half-human, half-fish sirens of the sea—are legendary sea creatures chronicled in maritime cultures since time immemorial… The belief in mermaids may have arisen at the very dawn of our species. Magical female figures first appear in cave paintings in the late Paleolithic (Stone Age) period some 30,000 years ago, when modern humans gained dominion over the land and, presumably, began to sail the seas…
But are mermaids real? No evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found. Why, then, do they occupy the collective unconscious of nearly all seafaring peoples? That’s a question best left to historians, philosophers, and anthropologists.
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ¹
As far as the eye can see, as far as the mind can see. It’s all blue-green ten meters under the water, growing darker by the moment, and Jongin’s mind is exploding. He signals his dive partner to level off around twelve meters, adjusts the buoyancy device on his vest and breathes long and evenly. They’re far off the island today, well away from the shore cliffs and past the coral reefs. Here the ocean floor is dark and bumpy. Jongin glances at his compass and motions for Tao to follow him.
Every time, every dive, Jongin treats it like a magical event. It’s a different world down here, literally, figuratively. Objects appear closer or larger than they are, sound comes from above when it could literally be all around. More than that, the feeling of weightlessness propels him. He could go anywhere, swim anywhere. The ocean is limitless, or at least it feels that way.
He knows it’s not that simple, but even a routine dive is exciting to Jongin. It’s another adventure, another example of humanity’s mastery of not just the land and air, but of the sea as well, and Jongin has got it all.
Yixing would laugh at him. Yixing, who needs none of these devices, who can swim in any which direction for as long as he so pleases, breathing naturally. Yixing is as unconfined as Jongin is completely trapped and helpless to the cylinder on his back, air valves and regulator between his lips, silicone fins attached to his feet. And yet down here, Jongin, despite all his humanly limitations, feels just as equal.
If you’d asked him three years ago what he was running from—the mundane world, academics and their applied sciences which were dull and uninteresting and rarely ever applied—Jongin would have scoffed and said immediately to leave him alone. No answers could suffice, because that would have implied he cared about such questions. And care he had none of, unless it was carefree. The only thing he liked was diving, and he was going to do it as long as he had funds to travel.
Then he met Kim Jongdae at a dive site in Hawaii where the older man was vacationing, and somehow things fell into place so fast Jongin had no idea life could shift that quick. They lured him in with island living and oceans as vast as the eye could see and something so glorious they couldn’t even begin to describe!
To his luck, to his amazement, they actually delivered on that promise.
After five minutes, Jongin ceases to swim. He lowers his fins and floats vertically in the water. He peers at Tao through his mask and they each check their pressure gauges before calmly twirling around, waiting.
Jongin watches as the bubbles rise from the tip of his regulator, a slow swarm of air pockets every time he exhales. He follows them for a long time as they disappear above his head into the clear blue waters. The shadow of the boat that dropped them off appears like a dot in the underwater horizon.
They shouldn’t have to wait long. Someone will surely hear them.
Instead, he signs in crude hand gestures to Tao as they attempt to describe what they ate for breakfast, and when did Tao get his new neon green snorkel with the matching mask? The water makes his hands move slowly, but Jongin touches his own head, and then points at Tao’s hair which is floating comically straight up in the water, dancing around like its own bed of sea grasses. He could be misreading the annoyed roll of his dive buddy’s eyes, but he definitely doesn’t miss the ethereal, clammy hand that appears shortly on his ankle.
There are no words to describe it. None at least, that Jongin could understand. It’s one of the beautiful things about life underwater. Words have no meaning, only sight and sounds and touch. And Yixing likes to touch.
The foot is his preferred greeting, followed by Jongin’s hand and then his shoulder. Tao moves instinctively aside to let Yixing swirl rapidly around Jongin’s body and no matter how much Jongin tries to follow him, he never can. The merman dances at a rapid pace, sending the waters spinning in a mini vortex. The momentum catches Jongin in its grips and if he could he would smile. Yixing is certainly smiling, and laughing probably, except the sounds that come from his lips are alien, more foreign that anyone who’s never heard a merman speak could possibly imagine. The sound echoes, almost ringing in Jongin’s ears, and the first time he heard it he was impossibly afraid. Now though he recognizes it; it’s the sound of mirth and delight, but mostly mischief.
Yixing clutches Jongin’s fin and tries to pull it off. Jongin kicks and swirls away. Next he tries to detach the mask, his slippery fingers faster than Jongin can stop him. Waters floods into the air mask while Jongin kicks again to get away. He lays the rubber seal part of the mask back against his face, lifts his head and eyes to the surface, and with the bottom of the mask barely pulled out, blows his nose to clear it of water.
Yixing is laughing at him again, and the sound echoes all around, practically through him, as if the water itself is vibrating. Jongin doesn’t stop to see if Tao is having a ball or not, but it won’t be the first time Yixing makes Jongin feel like a fool underwater. The merman swims and stops in front of him and for the first time today Jongin gets a good look at the most glorious, impossible creature in the world. Yixing has the head and torso of a man, mauve hair floating around a gorgeously sculpted head. Strong upper body, ribbed like a man’s and extending from there, his thick muscled arms. The only thing that distinguishes him as otherworldly are the gills on either side of his neck and shoulder blades. That and the fish tail. It’s glowing a blue-green shade of iridescence, but Jongin knows how it can change colors in the sun or in the shade, or against the reef. Every color of the rainbow and then some. And always so lovely.
He stops to admire the dark colors of the scales that run along Yixing’s slim lower body and fins and completely misses the gentle scrape of Yixing’s fingers along his cheek. The mouthpiece of his respirator is out of his mouth before Jongin can do anything about it. He exhales indignantly, bubbles streaming from his lips and is about to reach for it again when Yixing swoops in and kisses his mouth.
It takes a few moments for Jongin to recover.
In all the time he’s worked side by side with the merman, Yixing, for all his playful flirtiness, has never done that before .
He has to be coaxed by Tao to do what they came here for, to pass on the message. He does so, somehow managing to get his head back on track and sign the letters Yixing has been taught how to read. Jongin glares at him, a useless threat, but the merman stays outside of throttling distance while he listens and hums—again, with vibrations that strum through Jongin’s body.
Yixing plays with Jongin’s fingers when he’s almost through. Skin that’s not quite skin, and certainly less porous, which never fails to make Jongin lose his train of thought. He almost forgets to pass on the last message before he and Tao need to return.
Br-ing Se-hun one week to-day.
Yixing swims with them as they slowly ascend, still playful, still handsy, still humming. Only when Jongin’s head emerges into the waves, Tao beside them as they trade off their respirators for the snorkel and adjust their gear to float easily in the water does Yixing slide his fingers one last time against Jongin’s cheek before diving back into the depths of the ocean below.
Tao doesn’t talk to him until they reach the boat and are safely settled on the bow of the ship.
“So,” he says with a smirk. “I always wanted to attend a merfolk wedding. You’ll let me know when it is, right?”
Jongin throws his fin at Tao’s head. Unfortunately, he misses.
Baekhyun is going to throw up now. Anytime now, actually. Although he’s been saying this for the last six hours and miraculously, it hasn’t happened yet. But it might. There’s still plenty of time left.
“About an hour left!” the ship’s captain Minho shouts cheerily from the wheelhouse.
Baekhyun groans, but at least that’s down from two days, as when they started out. Then again, he can’t hear very well over the waves and the salt spray so Minho could very well have said ten hours left and Baekhyun would never know. He’s had himself parked down in the aft part of the boat for hours now, pining over the memory of earth and solid ground.
It’s been a hectic week. He started out in Seoul doing last minute health physicals and aptitude tests. Then he had a day to pack all his belongings that could fit into a single suitcase in preparation for a homecoming that might not be for over a year. Then he flew out of Incheon International Airport, had an incredibly long layover in Japan, and the longest damn flight to French Polynesia. Baekhyun had found himself finally in beautiful Tahiti, and he had barely thirty minutes to stare at it before boarding another plane. This time, a small plane, a floatplane. One that takes off and lands on water, and all Baekhyun can say about that is: never again.
The boat ride from a remote island in the Cook Islands to wherever the hell they’re going now actually makes up for that. At least Baekhyun won’t have far to go if he falls out and lands in the water, although judging from the clear blue below, it’ll probably be a long descent into nothingness. For this reason, when he’s not below decks trying to find his happy stomach place and refusing all food and drink except for water, he is hunkered down tight with a death grip on the arm rails of his seat.
Minho’s colleague, Kibum, laughs at him occasionally, and that’s about it. Baekhyun has no earthly idea what the man does on the yacht except lounge around in his wide-brimmed straw hat tied neatly beneath his chin while applying more and more sun block over his nose, but he must be getting paid to do something. Maybe it’s to cook, or look pretty. After two days of this, Baekhyun has no desire for either of those amenities. He’s just mildly craving a shower and a bed that doesn’t rock in every direction of the compass.
Soon, soon. If he can just hang on. Literally.
Around an hour later, he hears the engine starting to rev down, the boat beginning to slow almost to a complete stop.
“Are we there yet?”
Kibum laughs again. “Not quite.”
“Then why are we stopping?”
“Reef’s up again,” Minho shouts down. “Best if we don’t try to navigate it. We’ll wait.”
“Wait?” Baekhyun moans loudly. “For what?!”
Minho speaks into his radio. It’s complicated jargon that Baekhyun might be able to follow if only he had his wits about him. Instead, he decides to surrender completely to the mercies of the ship’s captain and mate and do what he does best: wait.
Who knows how long it’s been, but the sun hasn’t moved much in the sky before Kibum whistles low. “There they are.”
“Who?” Baekhyun sits up to look. If he’d checked before he might have seen in the horizon the shape of an island floating on the edge of the world. Between it and Baekhyun is a vast discolored stretch of water he assumes is the reef, too close to the water’s edge for a yacht of their size to safely pass through.
A small boat can make it though, one similar to the tiny little thing sailing zigzaggedly in their direction. It takes forever but when they’re in hailing distance Minho shouts a greeting, and someone, a man and then a woman, follows suit.
Kibum professionally dumps Baekhyun’s suitcase on the deck with a loud clatter and bids him good day. There’s no other transfer to be made on their side except for two giant crates which appear to be foodstuffs. The smaller boat steadies itself close starboard while Baekhyun dangles his luggage by the handles to the woman reaching for it. She’s around thirty years old with her long dark hair tied behind her head. Little tufts of loose strands blow to and fro in the breeze and across her face, but she smiles at Baekhyun and doesn’t drop his bag, so he’s obliged to like her.
“Soojung,” she says, once Baekhyun hops down too. She shakes his hand. “Glad to see you made it in one piece.”
Baekhyun titters nervously. “I hope you don’t mean some people don’t make it here in one piece? I’m Baekhyun, by the way.”
He doesn’t expect an answer, but the next time she laughs it’s not the most confident sound Baekhyun’s ever heard. At least he is somewhat through with his journey, he hopes. Only the reef and a wide stretch of shallow ocean separate him from his destination.
He turns around to observe the other man pass over a few crates of unmarked items to both Kibum and Minho. He doesn’t hear any other instructions, so he assumes it’s a transaction they’ve made before. Kind of like Baekhyun’s whole journey here. He said his name, showed them his passport, work visa, and company generated ID card, and that was all they needed. They already knew who he was and where he was going, and this whole trip was paid for by the CJJ Corp., Baekhyun’s new employers. It’s all a bit mysterious and now that he’s here, he’s hoping for some better answers.
Like what he’s doing all the way out here in the great blue beyond.
Baekhyun is a marine biologist, just not a practicing one. Not yet anyways. He finished graduate courses barely a year ago, and though he doesn’t hold the top honors in his graduating class, his credentials aren’t too shabby, he’s at least confident to say. On paper, Baekhyun is well-rounded though not specialized in any of the major categories of oceanography, including biological, chemical, and geographical. He holds a minor in coastal zone management, and there was even a brief stint where he thought studying fisheries law would be cool. It lasted barely a week into one of the most boring semesters of his life. All that and he’s never held a real job not related to an internship in a tourist city aquarium.
He supposes no matter what, this will look good on his resume, and if he doesn’t like it after a year he can go home. Maybe he’ll get a better paying job closer to his family and he won’t have to answer any more stupid questions from his friends about when he’s going to start at SeaWorld. SeaWorld. Yes, he may have boasted many times while drunk about his love for all things dolphins and whales, but he was drunk. Drunk, and that has no correlation to financial security in the job market. CJJ Corp. may look something like a remote pearl diving operation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, but since Baekhyun knows nothing about pearls, he assumes they hired him for something a bit more. He tried to look up the company on the internet and he all he found were pictures of unique blue-green pearls and the CJJ manufacturing logo, and also something about pharmaceuticals. Neither field is within the range of Baekhyun’s knowledge, but he’s twenty-six years old and it’s time to make that leap and find out what he can do.
“So, the reef huh?” He wags his eyebrows at Soojung and stands looking across the ocean water.
She follows his gaze and reads his mind. “Yeah. It’s a bit of a bitch, but Tao here can maneuver through anything. Wouldn’t try it at home though.”
“Tao?” Baekhyun asks. He looks to the other man, tall with windswept black hair and bangs too long for his face.
“That’s him, yep. You wanna take a seat? This will take a while.”
By this, Baekhyun understands that she means the boat ride will take a while. Tao finishes up with Minho soon enough, introduces himself properly to Baekhyun for the first time, and then sets a slow course towards the island.
“It’s called Blue Pearl Atoll?” Baekhyun asks Soojung, just for something to say. Tao must know these waters well, but the navigating is slow.
“Yeah. Cheong Jin Ju, specifically. Hence the abbreviation CJJ in English,” she answers.
“How’s an island out here get a Korean sounding name?”
She grins. “Because we found it first.”
Baekhyun finds that hard to believe. He frowns and scrunches up his nose, and Soojung evidently reads his mind.
“I mean, not us as in me or this generation, but a long time ago. Back in the 1940s. You’ll understand soon enough.”
Baekhyun understands nothing, but he’s not about to argue with a woman he barely knows about land rights and history. He shuts his mouth and worries about this whole operation, which already seemed mildly shady. Maybe he just got hired by a rogue branch of the Korean mafia and he never even knew. In any case, the reef looks like a great place to hide a body, and if that doesn’t work, a few bricks and several thousand meters of deep ocean water will do the trick. He’s on their turf now, and Baekhyun probably shouldn’t start by upsetting the locals.
“You’re looking a little green,” Soojung observes.
Baekhyun breathes evenly through his nose and out of mouth.
“Just tired of boats. Are you sure we can’t swim? After all this traveling, I’m about ready swim.”
She covers a smile politely with her hand, no doubt wishing to laugh at his nauseated facial coloring.
“Pace yourself. You’ll be doing a lot of swimming here.”
Pearl Island, the largest island in this particular atoll, as Soojung informs him, is pretty tiny, all things considered. Compared to the last few stops, it’s a blip on the map and maybe not even that. Compared to staring at nothing, however, for the last two days, it looms in a vaguely monstrous way. One side appears to be all cliffs, with a few low hillock looking things hanging in the background which Soojung calls ‘mountains’. The other end is all beach.
Tao brings them in right in the middle where a little bay opens up before a string of low facility buildings. It looks a resort from a hundred years ago that was never brought along to the 21st century. There is only one modern looking building with a red roof framed by a row of palm trees. It’s two-stories tall, like a meeting house or a hotel. Alongside that stand three or four shorter buildings in faded white, palm tree lined paths between them.
“Impressive right?” Soojung jokes. He hopes she’s joking.
Baekhyun settles for a noncommittal grunt while Tao glides the little boat next to a dilapidated looking dock.
“Don’t worry. There’s more to it than just this,” says his guide.
She smiles, and Baekhyun doesn’t bother to tell her, that’s exactly what he’s afraid of.
The motor shuts off and they depart, Baekhyun on unsteady feet. He’s almost forgotten that he wanted to see dry land so much. Now he kind of wants to go back home. When they step off the pier he says a prayer of thanksgiving and one for help as well. Soojung welcomes him to the island with a sweep of her hand, gesturing in one direction.
“Hey, wait a sec-” He falters for a moment when Tao picks up his luggage and strides off without waiting for them to catch up.
Soojung stops him. “He’s just taking it to your room. Wouldn’t you like a short tour of the facility first?”
What Baekhyun wants is a shower and a lie down, but it’s not looking positive on those thoughts.
She purses her lips thoughtfully. “Well, perhaps later will be better. The assistant director asked to meet you as soon as you arrived. Just some formalities, nothing to worry about.”
He follows her along the side of the red house, an itch in his body as he tries to look through the open windows, but there’s nothing going on inside. In fact it looks a bit run down and empty, like the foyer of a resort that never sees guests. Behind it is another set of trees and a ridge that obscures whatever is behind it. Soojung begins to climb a set of wooden stairs woven into the earth and Baekhyun follows hesitantly, hands clammy as he grasps the rope handrail.
Going down isn’t anything the same. Baekhyun gasps and almost forgets to breathe.
On the other side of the ridge, the stairs are paved and lined with a metal handrail. They even out to a stretch of land filled with soft grass and a sidewalk. Tall palms and assorted native foliage partially obscure the complex behind, but from this angle, it’s a monstrosity. A modern age, state of the art science research facility, sharp whites and steel accents. It’s at least three floors high with the lowest level barely peeking out of the earth. The topmost floor boasts large pane glass windows with vertical storm shutters which currently stand propped open above the windows, letting in the light while creating shade inside.
“Okay, now this looks cool,” Baekhyun says to himself. Soojung laughs and waits for him to finish gawking before continuing down the path.
The complex is huge and rectangular. He’s shown into the side door at the end of the building nearest to them. It immediately leads them up to the second floor into a narrow hallway where everything smells like salt water and chemicals, but it’s blessedly clean and sterile like a laboratory. Some of the rooms off to the side look just like that.
“The labs and research stations are all located on this floor. Dormitories are above, along with most of the offices. Belowground is the pool, medic station, a few other research areas.”
“There’s a pool?” asks Baekhyun incredulously. “Why do you need a pool when there’s a whole ocean outside?”
“It’s a special pool, you’ll see.”
“Let me guess. Saltwater pool?” Are there pearls down there, he wonders. Or illegal underwater explosives? What else is this place hiding? And where is the mess hall?
“These stairs here will take you up. Ready to meet the boss man?”
“I thought you said assistant director?”
“He is. But the head director is in Hong Kong for another month, so Jongdae is essentially in charge until he gets back. You’ll like him. He’s a total ass.”
Fantastic, Baekhyun thinks, as he sets his mind for a world of doom.
“Byun Baekhyun, it’s great to meet you in person after all this time.”
“Kim Jongdae, thank you. I assume you’re the one behind my hiring?”
Baekhyun is hard-pressed to act professionally. The boss man de facto is barely older than Soojung. He has a long mop of straight brown hair which can’t decide which way to part so it lays in every direction. His eyes are bright, his smile devilish, and he wears jean shorts with a Hawaiian shirt under a knee length lab coat and flip flops.
Jongdae’s handshake is also on the crushing side of hello’s. Baekhyun flexes his hand discreetly below the desk to see if any bones are broken, sitting when Jongdae asks him to.
“I am. Well, partly. Your academics and areas of training speak much for you already. Gosh, I’m so excited you’re here.”
Jongdae reclines into his chair, tilts his hand and wrings his hands together like he truly is delighted to meet Baekhyun. Perhaps because of an impending human sacrifice, Baekhyun can’t be sure.
“I-I… thanks. I guess. I’m still not entirely sure what I’m doing here, but I’m glad of any opportunity.”
It would be a shame actually, if he came all the way out here only to discover there had been some sort of mistake.
“I know I’ve studied in a several academic fields relating to oceanography,” he continues, “but your company is about pharmaceuticals, right, so forgive me if I’m not sure how my skills will be much help-”
Jongdae, however, cuts him off. “Actually, your personality test results are the real winner here.”
Baekhyun coughs. “My-my personality tests?”
“Yes.” Jongdae leans forward and peers scrupulously into Baekhyun’s soul. “You see, you’re so very compatible. Is that the word I want? Yes, compatible. Exactly what we’ve been looking for, and you have some skills on top of that, so that makes you perfect.”
“Compatible,” Baekhyun deadpans. “I d-don’t understand. Compatible for what?”
“Mr. Byun.” Jongdae leans back like he’s very amused with himself. “It’s true we dabble with other sciences here, but we also have some very unique wildlife on the island.”
He makes the ‘other sciences’ sound puny in comparison.
“Wildlife,” Baekhyun repeats. “Okay?”
“Yes. Very unique. In fact so unique they require concentrated human attention. They’re very picky, these creatures. They like who they like, and they snub their noses at most of us. Very hard to adjust to.”
Baekhyun is still so very confused. “So, I’m a trainer?” What is he going to tell his mother and friends now? That he flew halfway across the ocean just to be a dolphin handler? He could have done all that from much closer to home.
“Trainer?” Jongdae muses over the word. “No, I think more that they will train you. That’s generally how it works anyways. I’ve scheduled a meeting for later today, if that’s alright. Hard to have exact times around here, they don’t particularly work based on the human clock. By the way, I shouldn’t have to stress how this is an entirely secret, confidential relationship, you working for CJJ, that is, and the wildlife. So that said, I have some paperwork I must have you sign. I absolutely must.”
Baekhyun spends the next fifteen minutes filling out paperwork not dissimilar to the ones he filled out for the initial application process. Only this time the contracts are binding and he probably missed somewhere in the fine print a clause about his life becoming forfeit if he ever divulged their secrets. At least there’s no mundane personality review this time. He remembers that being a part of it before, but how that random thing became the deciding factor in his hiring, he hasn’t a clue.
And what exactly is he supposed to be working with? He hopes it’s not monkeys. He kind of hates monkeys.
“Is that all?” Baekhyun passes the papers back to Jongdae who spends another five minutes reviewing them. He doesn’t speak, but he seems to like what he sees and he nods handsomely at Baekhyun when he’s done.
“Looks about right, but is that all? Oh no, of course not. Around here, there’s always something more. Would you like to come and see now?”
Baekhyun was right. There definitely is something devilish in his new boss’s smile. He just hopes the animal he’s partnered with doesn’t share the same intent.
Baekhyun feels fortunate that when Jongdae said right now he didn’t mean right now this minute. After all the traveling and introductions, there’s still nothing Baekhyun wants more than a few minutes by himself, a bed and a toilet.
“And this, is your boudoir!” Jongdae happily introduces him at least some of those things, a few minutes after concluding their interview.
He steps aside and lets Baekhyun enter. His luggage is already sitting by the bed, a weak looking frame and mattress that doesn’t look comfy but he supposes it’ll do.
“Sorry about the size. Space is a luxury around here, but hey, the view is great!”
The far side of the room is one gigantic window with a thick light-blocking white curtain. It’s open right now, and Jongdae is correct—the view is incredible. From here he can see the marina in between the topmost slope of the red house and it’s neighboring building. The ocean view stretches on for miles and miles, every bit of it clear blue, and a sky that never ends. If only he hadn’t spent the last two days staring only at that. Give him some time to adjust and he’ll appreciate it again later, maybe.
The room of course is absolutely tiny. Baekhyun has seen walk-in closets larger than this. There’s room for a bed, a table beside it, one chair and lopsided dresser. If he laid down on the floor and stretched his arms over his head, the width of the room would be only a little bigger than that.
One wall looks solid, but the other is literally made from sound insulating room dividers. Jongdae follows his gaze and motions towards it. “Yes, it might be bigger, but as I said, space is a luxury and since the staff already lives in such tight quarters on the island, we like to treat everyone to at least their own sleeping room. Try not to snore too loudly though. I believe Lu Han is a light sleeper, when he sleeps here.”
Jongdae gives him directions to the bathrooms down the hall and leaves him finally, echoing instructions to find his way down to the pool in an hour where he’ll get his first test.
Baekhyun sinks onto the bed and exhales slowly, tired and completely worn out. If he had time for more than an hour’s nap, he would take it. Instead, he memorizes the room around him, floor to ceiling. He tests the spring of the mattress and sighs.
Back home he would pull out his cell phone and kill time that way, but out here there’s no service for thousands of kilometers, and definitely no wifi.
He didn’t think much of it when he was applying for the job. How much of a break this would be from everything familiar. His life, his family, his recent ex-girlfriend. All his friends and schoolmates, even the ones he probably won’t ever miss. Especially the ones he hopes he never sees again. Especially that one who...
Did he jump too hard into this? Did he fly and sail too far away? Mistake, says a part of his brain, that tiniest of thoughts that he’s been crushing all this time. Perhaps his mother will forgive him… one day. Right now it’s too late to think about that.
“Where is this place and what have I gotten myself into?” he asks his suitcase drolly. It doesn’t answer.
Yifan hears the new guy long before he sees him. An echoing ‘hello’ that causes him to put down his instruments and give the patient he’s examining a brief apology for the interruption. There are quite a few tenuous experiments on this level which he’s not eager to allow a stranger to accidentally ruin. Everything poolside, with the exception of that saltwater reconstruction itself, is quite vulnerable to tampering.
“Hello?” He hears again.
Yifan steps out from the main room of the Medic Station and returns the greeting.
“Hello? You’re the new guy?”
Yifan is mildly disappointed in the apparition. Short and rather scrawny, he looks like he can barely carry around a single oxygen tank, and he has all the reflection of a kid neck deep in something he doesn’t understand. Which, something Yifan has to be fair about, nobody when they first arrive comes anywhere close to understanding just what this place is about.
“Hi,” says the ‘kid’ with a narrow smile. “I’m guessing there aren’t a lot of people around here, if you know I’m new.”
“Something like that. You’re Byun Baekhyun, did I hear that name right? From Seoul? I’m Wu Yifan.”
“Yes, that’s right. Nice to meet you.”
Baekhyun wavers on the balls of his feet and looks uncomfortable, lost, but still curious. His eyes dart around the room, never settling on one thing for too long. Perhaps he’ll settle in quicker than Yifan originally thought.
Yifan towers over him. He notices Baekhyun noticing him. Some part of him expects a bigger reaction—it is rather customary—however, Baekhyun shows no sign of being intimidated. Good, Yifan thinks. Baekhyun will need that tenacity to get along in this world.
He adjusts his doctor’s coat while returning a cursory glare. His eyeball twitches and Yifan longs to rub it, but he knows it’s probably only a muscle reflex. He feels a headache coming along, if he didn’t have a mild one already. Down here every sound tends to echo, and not even the surface of the pool remains even. It laps against the edges even when no one is swimming, and the day hasn’t even begun yet. This poor kid has no idea.
“You should ditch those sneakers,” he says at last.
“Sneakers. They’ll only get wet. Talk to Jongin and he’ll get you some water shoes if you don’t already have some.”
He wants to go on with his work, but Baekhyun came down earlier than expected and he can’t leave him alone now. It’s tedious. It feels like babysitting.
“Oh, I have some upstairs, but I haven’t had a chance to unpack yet. Who’s Jongin?”
Yifan bites his lower lips and holds back a sigh. “You haven’t met him yet? He should be down soon. Why don’t you..” He stares around for a moment and then gestures awkwardly towards a bench. “Sit? By the way…. welcome?”
There, that’s good enough for a newbie, right? Then again, if Jongdae hired him specifically, that means Baekhyun, if he passes muster, will soon become important to the operation. Yifan wavers between turning tail and returning to the exam table, or digging deep down for another wellspring of hospitality. He finds he doesn’t have it.
Unfortunately, he does find that his examinee has left his perch.
“Rude, Yifan,” the patient chides as he slips off the table. He lands gracefully on bare feet before brushing past him in the doorway. Yifan makes one idle gesture with his hands to corral his mostly naked patient back into the room, but then few people have the power to keep Yixing in line. Jongin has enough problems, and Jongin is his primary handler.
“Baekhyun?” says Yixing, “So you’ve come, finally.”
Yifan watches Baekhyun’s eyes turn wide. Yixing is only wearing a pale yellow dressing gown pulled tight around his waist with a drawstring. It catches on his shoulders leaving a part of his chest bare, cause enough to stare except that Yifan knows from his own past that Yixing is an intriguing sight to the uninitiated. Between Yixing’s wild mauve colored hair and the yellow gown, the dim lighting of the pool walls and reflections of the water make Yixing’s skin look sickly pale, like someone on death’s door. To Yifan of course, he’s just otherworldly in every sense of the word.
“I… I am him,” says Baekhyun, not bothering to hide his concern.
They’re the same height, Yifan notices. That may be where the similarities begin and end. Baekhyun visibly jolts when Yixing takes his hand, two clammy palms between Baekhyun’s one.
“Oh,” says the newbie with mild alarm. He looks down at their hands and back up quickly to the merman’s face. And he doesn’t even know what he’s looking at. “Hello.”
Yixing releases his hand and smiles, teeth a bright white and dimples showing. The smile itself, when released to full capacity, is enough to make a grown man tremble. Baekhyun is already starting to wobble, and now he appears doubly panicked. He won’t recognize the symptoms of dizziness. Yifan feels mildly sympathetic except he’s been learning to deal with this for years. It will take some time, or a good dose of medication.
Yifan smirks. “Yixing, now that you’ve met… uhh…”
The merman drops his smile and whirls around. “What, doc, am I cleared now? All good and healthy? Can I swim?”
“You…” Yifan clears his throat, “can, but why don’t you wait a while. Jongdae will be down here soon.”
“But I’ve just met Baekhyun?” He turns back around, half a smile this time with his hands reaching out again. Yixing likes to touch. It’s his first, preferred, and most developed sense.
“You’ll see him around,” Yifan promises.
Yixing mopes, comically more dramatic than he needs to be. “Fine, I can wait. Maybe I’ll go find Jongin,” he says.
“That’s… yeah that’s a good idea. Bring him here when you find him.”
He clears his throat again as Yixing finally nods. He draws up the edge of his dressing down, once again playing with the drawstring, and Yifan winces at the image of Yixing walking away, the gown nestled tightly around his buttocks, the trim barely covering the tops of his thighs.
Yixing is very comfortable in his skin. Too comfortable, actually. But for a creature unused to such inhibitions, it’s extremely normal. As a medical professional at least, that’s how Yifan describes it to his superiors and the rest of the assembled staff. He leaves out the part that Yixing is abnormally intuitive as well, having learned what small things like nudity can do towards the unbalancing of the human mind.
“So, you’re the doctor?” Baekhyun asks.
Yifan murmurs and looks down the bridge of his nose. “I’m a vet, actually.”
Baekhyun stares at him. “A vet? So, is there a regular doctor here?”
“No, just me.”
“There’s not a regular doctor on this whole island?”
“No, just me. And well, Soojung.”
“She’s a doctor?”
Baekhyun’s jaw drops. “You’re saying if I get sick out here, my only options for treatment are seeing a vet or getting needles poked into my skin?”
Yifan shrugs silently. Honestly, he expects him to argue, but all he gets from Baekhyun is a casual hmph. The man is clearly out of his element, but at least he’s well aware of that. He sits down on the bench Yifan earlier offered to him, and he looks so very small, knees knocking together as he stares around the room.
They are almost below ground level and completely enveloped by the scent of salt water. The only natural light comes through the windows, which are set up high near the ceiling. A few dim lightbulbs ring the walls closer to eye level, but they do nothing except contribute to the eery glow.
“Why do you have a pool down here?” Baekhyun asks without looking up. “I heard there are… animals of some kind?”
“Of some kind...” Yifan deadpans.
The water lilts gently to and fro, controlled as it is by the outside. There is a portal grate hidden below its dark surface, operated similar to a levy and connected by a short tunnel to the canal they built specifically as a pathway from the ocean to the facility. It’s kept open during the day. Baekhyun wouldn’t yet know about any of it.
“Do you dive?” Yifan asks instead of explaining.
“Yes. Been certified for several years, but I haven’t dived recently.”
“Oh? Well, soon enough.”
All the equipment for diving is stored in an open wing on the far side of the pool to their left, next to the walk-in shower. There’s a walkway way around three sides of the pool. All of Yifan’s experiments are stationed in the four rooms along one side. Minseok inhabits the other side along with his special projects. Yifan knows he’s in there from the lights that beam dimly through the closed blinds of the inside windows, but he hasn’t come out yet.
The fourth side of the room features a low bridge over the pool, set up against the wall on the right. There’s a door on the other side next to Minseok’s lab, and it opens now, Jongdae finally making his presence known.
“Ahh, there we are. Baekhyun, good to see you found the place.”
And now, Yifan assumes, the fun will begin. It’s a droll thought, but, better Baekhyun than him.
Baekhyun can’t say exactly that he is happy to see Jongdae reappear, but if it means getting some answers finally to the creepy mystery of this whole island—an island on which, there seem to be very few people, and not even a real doctor!—then he’ll take the obnoxious smacking of Jongdae’s flip flops any day. He is trailed by another man with too long brown hair, also wearing jean shorts and flip flops, except that his shorts and white t-shirt hug his body in a manner that makes Baekhyun think he should perhaps look away. For the man’s modesty of course. It has nothing to do with his own lack of abs.
Baekhyun stands, vaguely aware of Yifan retreating back into his veterinary clinic and shutting the door. The strange person he met earlier trails behind Jongin, still in his nearly see-through yellow gown although he’s added a pair of loose sweatpants to his ensemble. Baekhyun fights another surge of unexplainable dizziness when he catches Yixing’s eyes and quickly looks away. After such a day it’s no wonder he feels queasy. Since Japan he hasn’t had a proper sit-down meal which he didn’t later vomit up, and that feels like another lifetime ago. It’s truly inconsiderate of his new employers to toss him around like this.
“I found it, yep,” he tells his boss. “So… now what?”
He looks towards the second man for an introduction and learns, through no words out of the man’s mouth himself, that his name is Jongin and that he holds roughly the same position in which Baekhyun will now join.
“You’ll be great together, I just know it,” Jongdae assures him easily, flippantly, and Baekhyun stares at Jongin’s blank expression. The man gives him only the briefest of smiles, and then squeaks as one of Yixing’s hands graze too low down the back of his pants. If Baekhyun’s job description is to spend all his time warding off Yixing’s apparently wandering hands, then he kind of wants a pay raise.
“Pleased to meet you,” Baekhyun chirps. Jongin merely nods, his hands fully engaged now at keeping his shirt from being lifted over his head. Baekhyun can’t tell in this lighting, but he swears, if he could see clearly, Jongin would probably be bright red in the face from blushing.
Jongdae sweeps past him, having cleared the bridge and he stands now beside Baekhyun with his hands on his hips staring at the pool.
“So, this is the pool.”
“Uh huh.” Unbeknownst to Jongdae perhaps, but Baekhyun has in fact already realized that yes, this is a pool.
“Ready to meet your charge?”
Baekhyun gulps. “It’s… so it’s in the pool?”
“It will be. Soon, I think?” He looks at Yixing, as if that strange fellow is there to assure him of this truth.
Jongdae gets a nod in return. Then he checks his watch—waterproof, Baekhyun notes—and looks across the pool to the other set of windowed rooms. “Is Minseok in there? Jongin, do you want to get him? He’ll want to see this, I’m sure. And Lu Han too, if he’s in there.”
Baekhyun stares into the pool, which is actually impossible. It can’t be very deep, and yet he can barely see anything past the surface waters. Also, the way it rocks as if by an underwater current is alarming. There’s something in there, he realizes. There must be, if everyone is gathering around to watch. Not doing something, but waiting.
“I’m sorry, as I might have mentioned earlier, but there’s no such thing as precise time with these creatures. We’ll have to wait until it appears.” Jongdae actually chuckles, but Baekhyun feels his blood turn cold. He comes to—and passes—a mental check on reality, finds that perhaps he can do this… or perhaps not.
Jongdae continues to check his watch, but nothing happens. He knocks on Yifan’s door, entreats the man to come out as well, but the vet merely deigns to leave open his door. Footsteps echo down the stairwell where Baekhyun earlier descended and a few more people enter the large room. Baekhyun recognizes Tao who is followed by a man even taller than him. Then Soojung, who waves at Baekhyun, and this friendly act may be the only thing that keeps him rooted to his feet, and not bolting away. Jongin reemerges from the opposite room with two more men, presumably Minseok and Lu Han, and a minute later several other women join the crowd too, some intrigued, some positively leering.
It’s never felt more like a human sacrifice, and Baekhyun is terrified.
“Oh, I forgot!” says Jongdae all of a sudden.
Baekhyun jolts when he touches him on the arm. “Huhh??”
“Sorry about this…” The water in the pool is growing choppier by the second, and Baekhyun can’t tell why or what’s going on, but the look on Jongdae’s face includes a hint of remorse.
“Uhhh…” Baekhyun croaks, Jongdae leading him near the side of the pool. It can only be from fear that he allows himself to be lead. His entire brain is settled on the water, as if waiting for something to jump out and eat him alive. He barely registers the few tittering voices of the gathered people; only the bright and frankly terrifying smile on Jongdae’s tooth-rich smile.
“Yeah, should have thought about this earlier, but, well I hope you don’t mind swimming in your regular clothes—”
And he tosses Baekhyun into the water.
Jongdae swore from that day and ever thereafter that he gave the kid proper warning. He did, he absolutely did, and it’s certainly not his fault that Baekhyun thought he was going to die. They all went through the same initiation, almost. Because of course ceremonies like this only get better with time and practice, and Baekhyun was after all, the latest person to walk onto their beach.
Jongin felt only sympathy. But at least Baekhyun got a pool. Jongin was twenty feet underwater with his diving gear and no one else to spot him. He thought he was already dead and dreaming. He forgot how to breathe and had to be helped up to the surface by the very thing which had nearly stolen his life. Hearing Baekhyun’s shrieks was tantamount to reliving that moment.
Soojung laughed at loud, but having spoken with Baekhyun the longest out of anybody here, she knew he would be alright. She told this to confidentially to Chanyeol who stood next to her aghast, his large mouth hanging open, and the two found something to laugh about when Baekhyun’s shrieks grew even louder.
Yifan thought the entire thing was very stupid.
Minseok wholeheartedly agreed, especially because everything Jongdae did was dramatic in a big way that by now, bordered on tedious.
Lu Han wanted to laugh as well, but after so many encounters like this before, it wasn’t really worth the energy. He stood beside Minseok with a smirk on his face and waited for the raucous to die down so they could get back to work.
Tao actually sat down on the floor, despite the crashing wave-like splashes, and giggled silently to himself. He was joined by Wendy and Amber as they squatted next to him and tried to ask questions about the new kid and what he was like, if Tao had gotten any good dirt on him when he’d perused Baekhyun’s luggage.
Jackson walked in late and promptly slipped on all the water tossing up from the pool. “Is that Sehun? Is that Sehun??” he started shouting against all the uproar, but everyone was too preoccupied to answer him. He settled for answering the question himself, and congratulated himself for not arriving too late for all the fun.
Yixing of course had an absolute ball. He was remembering the day he first met Jongin and what a life-changing moment that was, his first encounter with a spluttering, near-dead human specimen of absolutely perfect and near godly looks. He tells people now that he was a menace and a tease, but only Jongin knows the gentleness he displayed that day, how with care, humility, and assurance, he calmed the human man in his arms and slowly ascended towards the air.
Only Sehun would tell the story as it really happened. He’d been warned to expect one very confused, startled, and possibly frightened human man. He got all that and more. From the moment he emerged from the meter-wide tunnel, showed his face above the surface followed by a dive that displayed his beautiful blue-hued fin, he was met with spluttering and shrieks. The man might even be drowning, Sehun worried for a moment. He was fully clothed, sneakers too, and Sehun barely dodged a kick to his ribs while he spun away.
Baekhyun—for he was already told his name—paddled furiously in the center of the pool, switching fearfully in every direction as Sehun circled around. He was beautiful, or he might have been in other circumstances. Jet black hair, and slim shoulders, a wonderfully delicate, pale neckline that craned around, aching to keep up with Sehun’s arcs. Expressive, large eyes.
At some point he stopped shrieking, and Sehun slowed too, still circling, still holding pace with Baekhyun’s gaze. Every now and then he showed his fins, to remind the man what he was. And once Sehun was sure he wouldn’t be attacked, and Baekhyun assured that he wouldn’t die in return, Sehun drew in closer. He expected another wind of frightened exclamations.
He didn’t expect for Baekhyun, still paddling in place, to grow silent. And then to throw his head back on his shoulders and start to laugh. Like a madman.
And then pass out.
Baekhyun wakes up to the shock of someone slapping his cheek. He coughs once, salt water slipping from his lips and his name being repeated over and over again. They sound amused, those voices, instead of concerned.
“Baekhyun? Hey there, welcome back.” His eyes begin to focus and he recognizes Soojung’s face. She’s smiling.
Jongdae is nearly snorting. “You good? Like I said earlier, sorry. I think your shoes are ruined.”
Baekhyun coughs some more but clambers to sit up. His throat feels like he swallowed half the ocean, and if he hadn’t been raised better, he’d had some choice words to say to his boss, curse that man, literally.
His shoulder stings, like a particularly vicious bug bite. “What the…”
He cranes his neck around and sees Yifan squatting beside him with a needle and a syringe. He doesn't feel quite as dizzy now, but earlier… earlier… he remembers catching the glance of something extraordinary and beginning to hallucinate.
“You should have let me give this to him earlier,” Yifan complains above Baekhyun’s head. Jongdae inclines his head but doesn’t respond.
Baekhyun stares at his ruined shoes and begins kicking them off. His socks are soaked, squelching too as he tears them off his feet. He wanted a shower earlier, but now he definitely needs one. Couldn’t these people offer him a more traditional way of getting clean?
He stares at his toes in wonder, dazedly fathoming his near death experience and wondering if it’s possible to sue when Soojung taps his shoulder to say goodbye and moves out of Baekhyun’s line of sight.
He’s sitting beside the pool, the waters still churning, but then he remembers.
And just as he remembers, he sees it.
There’s a half-human, half-fish sitting on edge of the pool. Head and bare torso poised and watching Baekhyun, everything below his belly is covered in blue scales and long, multi-layered fins which disappear into the water.
And this time he does curse, out loud.
So he wasn’t hallucinating at all...
“Mermaid!” he follows this up with.
The man instantly scowls and beats his tail on the surface of the water, showering Baekhyun once again with a wave of saltwater.
“Merman, I mean, merman!” Baekhyun corrects himself with a gasp. “You’re a….” he looks around at the others, face to amused face. “You have mermen!”
“We don’t have them, Baekhyun,” Jongdae gently reproaches. “They just live here too, around. We work with them, study them. They study us. This is why you’re here. We want you to get to know this one. His name is Sehun. Come on, say hello, why don’t you?”
Say hello? Say hello?
These people just shoved in him a pool with a creature straight out of a fairytale where he almost drowned and now they want him to say hello?
Again, he starts to laugh.
The scowl on the merman’s face grows deeper. Baekhyun just shakes his head in disbelief, still laughing.
“I think he’s lost it,” says another voice from behind him. “Yifan, what did you give him? He looks drugged.”
“He is drugged,” the vet answers sardonically. “but it’s the right dose, don’t worry. He’s just shocked.”
Baekhyun registers all this, and it should alarm him except… he’s still caught up in the fact that he flew halfway across the ocean for a mystery job, expecting to be doing something cool and mature and not working at Seaworld where all his friends joked he’d end up. Instead, he’s sitting in a room with a merman, and none of his friends will ever believe this .
Sehun hugs his arms tightly to the side of his body, tail kicking boldly as he shoots out of the narrow canal into the slightly wider bay. He breathes in the fresh ocean water and is soothed by the sensation of it passing through his gills. The small churning pool may be plenty comfortable, and he can also breathe well enough in the open air but nothing is quite as calming as swimming, moving, out in the open where he’s not hampered by barriers, or walls. Or the wretched human race.
Yixing swims beside him, chortling bubbles, his manner of laughing.
Sehun knows he’ll want to talk now that they’re on his own, but Sehun is still coming to terms with this new… thing.
Ever since the humans arrived on the atoll, the two species have had a thing. What did they call it? The Exchange? A coalition between the two species that fifty years ago gave their tribe an edge. For the mermen, they gained knowledge, power, and allies. To the humans they traded their own brand of knowledge of everything that lived in the waters. They had no such thing as science like the humans called it, but for a generation and a half Sehun and Yixing’s people had grown up in this new world, living and swimming side by side.
‘The human what did you think’
Sehun feels more than hears the words Yixing tells him, soft vibrations picked up by his inner ear and processed into phrases and thoughts.
He dodges the other merman’s question, and his subsequent nudge.
‘Tell me you know you like him’
It was a delicate balance. The elders had done it for years. In every generation, mermen were selected to carry on the tradition. Grandfathers, fathers, uncles, elder brothers. Each did their part and chose their path. And now it was Sehun’s turn. Sehun’s and Yixing’s. It was time for a new generation to carry it on.
Yixing nudges him again. They pick up speed in the open waters, darting past the reefs. A school of fish scatters as they approach. There’s a part of Sehun’s predatory nature that aches to give chase, but he suppresses it and continues on.
‘I don’t’ he repeats.
The human, Baekhyun, called him a mermaid. How undignified. Sehun was expected to get to know this man, become his friend.
‘You like him you’re intrigued’
‘No’ he continues to deny.
‘You think he’s cute’
‘I saw that look he gave you he thinks you are gorgeous’
Sehun doesn’t like him, he doesn’t. In fact, he didn’t even want to go there. If he had his way, he wouldn’t have anything to do with the humans. Waste of time, and nothing to gain. Nothing personally, at least. He’s met some of the researchers before and doesn’t like a single one. Only Jongin is halfway decent, but mermen are possessive and Yixing won’t let him share. Baekhyun is… supposed to be the one for him, to get to know and befriend and create another solid link between the species, and Yixing promised he would like him. (‘They did tests or something - you’re compatible or something’)
If Sehun had his own way he’d be swimming along enjoying life at his own pace, and not meeting some supposedly ‘compatible’ human man who called him a mermaid and is definitely not cute or remotely intriguing.
But Sehun is young, valuable to both species, and gifted like Yixing with an extraordinary talent. He does what the elders say, and he listens to Yixing as their acting ‘ambassador’. Another pompous title the humans taught them. What more nonsense will he have to learn in the coming months?
Baekhyun, he keeps thinking about Baekhyun, even as the sunlight is filtered away and the ocean darkness swallows them up.
Definitely not intriguing. Boring, annoying, a waste of time, Baekhyun. Stupid humans and their stupid agreement of cooperation. He doesn’t want to come back tomorrow and get to know a human being. There’s nothing in it for him, who cares what Yixing says that he may even enjoy it. He won’t, he really won’t, because Baekhyun doesn’t interest him at all.
Okay, maybe though… just a little bit. Maybe. But probably not.