6 months later
It feels different now, coming back to the atoll. There are the same features, the same beach and the same blue ocean. None of the palms look any different, and the dock is still there. Baekhyun, alongside Jongin and Tao, depart from the small boat and step slowly onto the wooden dock. Baekhyun says goodbye to the red building on their way by. He relives his very first steps just a bare seven months ago when he climbed the ridge and saw the complex, that monument to technology and secrecy hidden so deep within the lost confines of space and sky and sea.
They thought it was far away enough.
They were wrong.
There are only a few things left to gather. Personal items, equipment, and other devices easy to carry away. The rest has either been removed already or completely destroyed. Once everything is gone, another team will come through and dismantle the facility. They'll attempt to leave it as they found it, over seventy years ago.
Baekhyun recalls the spot where he blacked out. He imagines the men dragging him down the path and to the rear dock. He knows, as he didn't know then, that Jongdae had been left stranded on another island. They didn't get back in time to save Baekhyun, but they were able to get Jackson the attention he needed. Yifan's clinic was busy that day. Kyungsoo, Minseok, Jackson. Baekhyun, after the blue-haired mermaid—her name was Luna—deposited him carefully along the sand.
"I thought I would miss this place," says Baekhyun to Jongin.
The other grunts. He doesn't have a response. A minute later he tells Baekhyun where to head and what to gather, and their opportunity to discuss the past comes to an end.
They work all day, sometimes hauling equipment to the boat. Sometimes packing things in boxes to be picked up later. Baekhyun does a lot of sorting through stacks of paper, just to confirm there is indeed nothing incriminating in them. Nothing about the mermen, or all the non-official work they've ever done.
They'll sleep there one night. Jongin, Tao and Baekhyun in their old rooms devoid of everything but the mattresses. In the morning, Baekhyun says one last goodbye to the salt pool, now empty. He first met Sehun there.
"Good times, good times."
"What?" Tao asks him, walking by.
"Nothing," Baekhyun mumbles.
They take a different boat out of the atoll. It should give Baekhyun chills, being on it again. Memories of being beaten and smacked and a knife held to his throat, or Joonmyun and the mermaids coming to his rescue, and of Sehun holding back Eric Moon to let Baekhyun be thrown to safety.
Only the one familiar face gives Baekhyun a moment's reprieve.
"Sunggyu. Nice to see you again," he tells the boat captain who on that day also almost lost his life.
He works for them now.
So does Luo Zhixiang.
Amazing what happens when you stumble upon a pack of secrets and decide, this is way cooler shit than anything else in the whole entire world. Baekhyun would be the first to agree, and that's in spite of the fact that he was kidnapped by men who would attain that secret, held as bait, and nearly died because of it.
A day or two boat ride east, not west, sees them to their destination. The island chain they now call home isn't quite the same as their last, but Golden Reef is a nice enough place, three times the size of Pearl Island and owned technically by Britain. That means security is even more stringent and they're always looking over their shoulders to see who may be watching. Still, none of the previous inhabitants on the other side of the island know anything more than that they're neighbors with a collection of Korean-based oceanic researchers.
"I don't suppose there's any news from Seoul?" Baekhyun overhears Jongin asking Sunggyu.
"About Moon? Still held under strict custody. Story is he tried to divulge national secrets, so it'll be treason for him soon as the verdict is dealt." Sunggyu laughs. "Seems even his defense attorneys think he's gone psycho for claiming he saw mermaids. They're trying to declare him mentally unstable."
Baekhyun smirks, but his eyes are on the water. There's a shadow following them just beneath the waves keeping perfect time with the boat.
"And Hong Kong?" Jongin asks again.
Tao huffs. "I thought I told you that already?"
"Told me what? About the wedding? It was two weeks ago and nobody will quit yacking about how beautiful Sulli was as a bride, even if 'poor thing' she had to be pushed down the aisle in a wheelchair." Jongin snorts.
Even Baekhyun allows himself a private laugh. Having been privy to Kyungsoo's first forays into walking on two feet, he's seen first hand how difficult it is, how stubborn the muscles are when they're doing something they've never done before. Most of the time, Kyungsoo has to be carried around from station to station by Yifan, but Baekhyun has no doubts the stubborn merman will get the hang of it soon.
"Anyways," Jongin continues, "I didn't mean them. I meant the informant? I heard they caught him finally?"
"Also jailed," says Sunggyu, "from what I heard. He's a no name though, except that he knew a fellow who used to work on the island twenty years ago. He'll go down the same way as Moon probably, but nobody will care."
The shadow beside the boat is now arcing higher and higher to the surface. Baekhyun smiles at the familiar streaks of blue. Sehun will probably swim alongside them the entire way. Unless he tires himself early, which at this rate he may very well do.
"Is..." Tao sighs when the merman flips himself out of the water, crashing back beneath the waves. "Sehun's turning tricks again. I'm going to start calling him a dolphin, I swear. I'm going to do it."
Jongin nudges Baekhyun's side. "He's doing it for you of course."
Of course he is. Because privately, Baekhyun calls him all kinds of pet names and Sehun, that little brat who risked his life for Baekhyun's, loves earning new ones.
"Anyone wanna bet on how long Sehun keeps this up?" Jongin grins.
"Only if I can bet the same for Yixing," says Baekhyun.
"I, what?" Jongin splutters.
There are now two shadows beneath the blue water.
Sunggyu laughs. Tao huffs loudly and declares he's going to take a nap. Jongin and Baekhyun lean over the rail watching the sun finish rising. It takes approximately ten minutes before the two merman realize they're being intentionally ignored, and their antics grow even more.
It's going to be a lovely time sailing.
5 ½ months ago:
Baekhyun rolls over to hide from the sun. His small mattress creaks and groans, but he doesn’t get far. It’s been almost two weeks since the Ordeal, he calls it with a capital O. Anything to persuade himself that it wasn’t a big thing. Just a minor blip in the radar, and not a major life-changing event, for Baekhyun and for a dozen others. Most of the time, he fails, but mornings are a good time to reset the clock and focus only on the good things in life.
Not the sun though. The sun is definitely not one of those good things in life. Or at least, it won’t be for a few more hours.
Sehun, however. He is one of those good things. Better than good.
“Hmm?” Baekhyun moans. He peels apart his eyelids and tries to focus. He should be used to waking up like this. Sehun is always so cool and moist, always so close to Baekhyun’s bare skin.
“It’s morning, Baekhyun.”
“I’m aware of that,” he replies back grumpily.
“So?” the merman insists. “Wake up and play with me.”
Eyes closed and already rolling away, Baekhyun snorts. “Do you have any idea,” he drawls out lengthily, “how you sound when you say that?”
“Do I? Did it sound like something sexy?”
Baekhyun cracks a smile. “Whiny at best.”
“Sexy whiny?” Sehun pokes Baekhyun in the side, his finger digging in between a rib and of course it makes Baekhyun squeal.
“No, just whiny,” he repeats, trying not to laugh.
The hand on his skin, however, feels good. Baekhyun still has a lot of bruises on his body from where Moon’s men tossed and beat him around. The scars are healing, and most of his coloring is back to normal, but underneath all that, his muscles are still sore. Sehun’s probing hand turns into a calming touch that smooths away all of Baekhyun’s aches and pains. Baekhyun would call it magical and claim that only the mermen can do that. In all likelihood though, it’s just Sehun, and it’s just because whenever he touches Baekhyun, Baekhyun can’t seem to bring himself to think of anything but that.
Hours after the mermaids brought Baekhyun to shore, Sehun was there. He has to rely on others’ testimonies about how distraught he was. How Sehun almost wouldn’t let anyone else touch him. It took a combination of Jongin and Yixing to persuade the merman that Baekhyun, now the fourth patient in Yifan’s clinic, was in good hands.
There’s no one to hold him off this morning. Not Jongin, not Yixing, not even Baekhyun wants him to stop. Especially when not when Sehun’s hands dip lower beneath the blanket and Baekhyun groans from his touch. Not when Sehun climbs carefully over Baekhyun’s sleep-ridden limbs, nothing in between them now, and lowers himself just enough to make Baekhyun’s whole body alight.
“Baekhyun, I love you,” says Sehun, right before his lips drop to Baekhyun’s.
When he can speak again, twenty minutes later, Baekhyun finally says it back. “I love you too.”