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.
The silence is awkward.
Baekhyun digs toes into the sand that’s accumulated at the bottom of their boat from one too many escapades on and off the water. It’s dirty, more mud than anything else. A piece of dried seaweed clings to his big toe. He can’t get it off without looking really inelegant and… what was that word Sehun used on him earlier? Oh yes, delicate.
“I’m not… delicate,” he repeats, even now.
The merman—Baekhyun’s still a little stunned he’s sitting in a boat with a merman—hasn’t looked him in the eye for the last twenty minutes. Baekhyun’s watch is waterproof. Good thing too, else it might not have survived his extremely indecorous dunking in the salt pool. Baekhyun is still in mourning for his sneakers though, purely because he insists on being annoyed and that’s the least thing he can complain about. He checks his watch for the tenth time this minute. What was he supposed to be doing? Getting acquainted?
A merman though. He’s sitting in a boat with a merman. Even more, the merman has a name, Sehun, and he speaks Baekhyun’s language.
Of all the crazy, mind-boggling things in this world, Baekhyun is sitting with a merman. In a boat. On a tiny island in a basically hidden atoll in the loneliest corner of the Pacific Ocean where merfolk have not only been discovered by humans and studied by them, but in fact the relationship is reciprocal.
Baekhyun tries not to stutter. He shouldn’t be afraid. Sehun is completely harmless according to Jongdae, but he is now quite alone with this otherwise impossible being, and he also managed to start their relationship off rather well (that whole stupid ‘mermaid’ thing). Also, Sehun, if he had legs would probably stand taller than Baekhyun. His tail fin is kind of massive, and the scales are pearly blue and absolutely gorgeous, but they also look sharp. One wrong flip with Baekhyun in the wrong place, and Sehun could probably split his body in two. At the very least, there would be blood loss.
The merman sighs, a great huffing sigh as he stares at the early morning sun. He’s angled away from Baekhyun, only his back visible, his ample lower appendage perched on the small ledge on the back of the motor boat. He beats his great tail fin gently against the surface of the water. Ripples form in his wake. Baekhyun wonders idly if that isn’t a distress signal for a… social emergency.
“So, you were going to tell me about… about your kind?” Baekhyun tries again.
About twenty meters away on one of the unused, more dilapidated piers, Tao sits on a folding chair with shades and a book. He piloted the small boat out here. Now he waits. For what, Baekhyun doesn’t know. For him and Sehun to resolve their differences and declare each other as BFFs? This whole operation is a waste of time. Somewhere, somebody made a mistake, and Baekhyun will get himself fired before he even begins… What will happen to his contract now? Will Jongdae rip it up and send him back on the next boat? Will they kill him instead because this secret is just too precious to let loose in the world? Will Baekhyun ever see his home again? Maybe they’ll just give him tons of money to keep his mouth shut? That wouldn’t be a terrible thing to happen—
“I’m supposed to, yeah.” When the merman speaks, it’s with great deliberation. As if he’s weighing every word to make sure it’s the correct one. “I… guess, I just don’t know where to start.”
Baekhyun gulps. “Maybe we could start at the beginning.”
Sehun cranes his neck around, his profile now caught in the cascading sunlight.
“Yeah. As in, pretend yesterday didn’t happen. Introduce ourselves on our own terms.”
“Our own terms?”
Baekhyun stands up. The boat immediately rocks to one side, and Baekhyun freezes, unsure about this whole balance thing. He really needs to develop some sea legs, and quick, if he’s going to be spending so much time on small boats. His legs wobble. Sehun smirks, but he doesn’t say anything ornery. In fact, he lifts himself with his well-honed muscular arms and angles sideways, the better to look at him.
Baekhyun holds out a hand. “I’m Baekhyun.” Byun Baekhyun, hello, and I’m totally terrified of you and this whole island experiment, but hey, why not give it a go. Of course, the only thing he says is his name while offering up a smile big enough to mask his unease.
The merman seems to consider this for a moment. First, his glassy eyes scan Baekhyun’s face while Baekhyun tries not to blush. Next, Sehun returns his gaze to the outstretched, offering hand.
His handshake is a bit weak. And clammy. It’s skin, but it’s different. Less porous, not as texturous as a dolphin’s. (Baekhyun should probably never tell Sehun that he thought of the merman in the same breath as a dolphin.)
But it’s an earnest gesture, that handshake. “Sehun.”
“You were born with that name?”
“No.” The merman inclines his head, as if Baekhyun asked something dumb. “Merfolk don’t speak your language. I could not articulate what my name sounds like out of water, and you would not understand it underwater.”
“I see.” So, the merfolk’s names have probably been chosen for them so that men can communicate.
In profile, Sehun looks so handsome. His upper body is strong, his shoulders are broad and his chest well-formed. He wears a necklace tied with something stringy of unknown origin. The setting nests between the merman’s collarbones, a great light blue stone resting in the midst of a dozen small white pearls, and below those, three stunning blue-green pearls of almost flawless quality. If Baekhyun saw this necklace at a jeweler’s shop, it would probably be worth more than the biggest mansion he could afford. And yet here it is, worn like a stray ornament around the neck of a seafaring merman.
Sehun catches him looking. He runs a hand over the necklace, half-obscuring it from Baekhyun’s view. It’s a defensive, but mostly curious expression. Baekhyun looks up instead. The sight of all those pearls against the backdrop of Sehun’s tanned chest is a sight to beheld. And still it cannot compare with the merman’s other features. Namely, his magically sculpted face, and his hair.
It’s bright blue with a half dozen other shades mixed in. Baekhyun would suspect the work of a whacked-up hair stylist, except there’s no way such artificial colors would ever survive in the saltwater and sun. Which means it’s natural, and absolutely mesmerizing. Baekhyun’s own black hair, fried from too much hair dye in his youth, is quite boring in return.
But Sehun catches his awe here too. The hand not already covering his necklace goes up to his hair too. He runs his fingers through it and looks at Baekhyun in confusion.
Belatedly, Baekhyun realizes something. Sehun is embarrassed. He thinks Baekhyun is staring at him because he’s an exotic creature worth staring at. And goes a long way to relieving Baekhyun’s fears, because not only does the mermen look suddenly not intimidating, it’s because Sehun, stripped down of his imposing aura is just stunning. Baekhyun is mesmerized, but it’s not because he’s a merman. It’s because he’s beautiful.
“I love your hair,” he blurts out.
If that was a pick-up line at a club, somebody would probably have already slapped Baekhyun by now. He immediately blushes and clasps a hand over his rebellious mouth.
“My… what? Why?”
“It’s just… really, really nice. I love the colors.”
Excellent socializing indeed, but now his watery grave has been dug.
“You… like my hair,” Sehun duly repeats.
“I thought you’d think I was weird.”
Baekhyun cocks his head, half thinking that this thing, whatever it is, could work after all. “Well, maybe you are, but I don’t know you well enough yet to decide.”
The merman stares at him. Then he smiles. Then he looks away, and a small sound like a single laugh falls from his lips. He lowers both hands away from his body and resettles himself on the ledge of the boat, regaining confidence.
Baekhyun may have blustered his way through this second official introduction, but it seems like it’ll work out still. Maybe there was something to those personality tests after all. He could see them becoming friends. They could work together. Lots of time and boating and maybe swimming and—
“You have a lot to learn, Baekhyun,” the merman startles him out of his silent, congratulatory preening, “but I think you’ll do.”
Baekhyun’s smile hesitates for a moment. Then he lets it all pour out. And for half a second, he imagines that maybe… just maybe… it’s the merman’s turn to wince and look away from a smile too blinding to handle.
Baekhyun hangs on for dear life to the steering wheel. Salt water sprays up up from all around, his hair is standing full on end. A few seagulls flock in their wake but can’t keep up with the speed of the boat.
“What are you doing?! Turn! Turn now! Woooo!! You’re doing great!” Tao shouts.
Baekhyun screams. Tao, his boating mentor, looks otherwise extremely calm, despite his evident joy and amusement.
Baekhyun really can’t captain a boat too well, a flaw in his schooling which the corporation has decided needs fixing as soon as possible.
“You call that great? I nearly flipped the boat!” Baekhyun shrieks. His hands are pale white from gripping the wheel, and his breath is coming out in short strokes. None of that seems to bother Tao.
“And if you had, we’d have learned then how to straighten it in open water! Sounds fun, yeah?”
It’s been a week since they started lessons. Baekhyun would gladly lay a punch on Tao’s perfect face because he’s possibly the worst— read : least-confidence inspiring—teacher ever.
“Maybe we could have started with a rowboat?!”
Tao doesn’t bother giving an answer. He lets Baekhyun slow the craft and shift into a lower gear until they’re gliding along at a moderate pace, far from the reefs because Baekhyun knows he’s not ready for that.
A shadow comes up alongside in their wake, roughly the size of a human. Baekhyun tosses it a quick glance before staring straight ahead again. If he wrecks this boat in the presence of the merman, Sehun is never going to let him live it down.
Every day he comes out to watch. It’s kind of nerve-wracking. Sometimes he circles the boat, keeping well away from Baekhyun’s practicing and trouble-shooting. A wise decision seeing as how Baekhyun couldn’t even properly start the thing for a couple days. Somedays, he’d sit at the back of the boat while Tao went through the manual, citing all the bells and whistles on the boat with Baekhyun repeating them back. A few times, Tao left them alone in between lessons so they could… chat more. It usually ended with Baekhyun saying something embarrassing that caused the merman to either blush, or huff and slip back off into the water with an enormous splash. There was that time, Baekhyun remembers with a wince, where he spent too long staring at Sehun’s ass and groin wondering just how things worked down there…
And he never even got around to asking directly.
Sehun surfaces now, his body undulating through the waves, head kept mostly under the water, staying just ahead of the boat. Baekhyun grows more confident in his abilities to keep the boat moving in a straight line. It allows him to spend more time watching the merman in his peripheral vision. The way he swims, it’s magnificent. If only he had time to stand on a rock in the middle of the ocean and watch, undistracted, as Sehun flits in and out of the water… It’s mesmerizing.
“Eyes on the ocean,” Tao reminds him lazily.
Baekhyun blanches. “Helpful tip. Since there’s literally nothing but ocean to look at…”
After another half hour, and a lot of help from Tao, he brings the boat alongside the dock. The pier isn’t the same one in which Baekhyun first arrived on the island. This one is more hidden, obscured in the shade of a dozen palm trees and natural cove formation of the island. It’s rockier along the shore here. It’s where they built the hidden canal and underwater tunnel that leads into the salt pool of the facility, the mermen’s secret entrance. Baekhyun jumps out of the boat to tie it down, and his eyes scan the water looking for signs of Sehun. The merman has been in and out of their range this whole time. As Tao makes the small leap to the dock, both turn and look. Sehun’s blue hair emerges from under the water, hooded eyes peering up at Baekhyun with a bored expression.
“All yours,” says Tao. “I’ll be inside. No taking the boat out for a joyride without me! Although, Sehun can technically sail it better than you right now.”
Baekhyun stares at the man’s back. “Right!” he shouts with a haughty, disbelieving tone.
He turns and watches the dock. There’s a small rope ladder on the opposite side. Sehun climbs it easily, slithering up by virtue of his upper body strength alone. He makes it look easy. Baekhyun would never be able to do that without the help of his legs. He sighs, ever amazed, and goes to join the merman.
“Can I sit?” he asks.
Sehun twists midair on the dock and maneuvers his tail around so that he too is sitting. He grunts. Baekhyun thinks it’s an affirming sort of grunt, so he scrambles down beside him.
His legs and Sehun’s fin both dangle in the air.
“How was sailing? Was I better today?”
Sehun barely peeps sideways across the bridge of his nose. His lips scrunch up like he’s about to say no, but then he smirks. And chuckles. “Better… yes. But still not great.”
“Hey, it’s only been a week! Most people would practice for much longer than me, and they have more qualified instructors.”
“You don’t like Tao?” Sehun peers over his shoulder in the direction Tao last was seen. They’re all alone now.
“I…” Baekhyun falters. “It’s not that… it’s just…”
His mind wanders to one of Tao’s many droll statements about boating. For example, the time he told him when handling a boat, the most important thing to remember is safety. Said on the first day while taking a light snooze as Baekhyun screamed in terror and nearly ran them ashore.
Sehun is still smirking.
Over the last few days they have talked occasionally. Their conversations are still a bit stilted, and sometimes they fall into silence. Baekhyun would happily prattle away, but it does eventually start annoying the merman.
“You… you think it’s easy to manage a boat?” he resorts to instead. “And Tao is such an expert, as he’s always going on about it! It’s intimidating!”
“It’s not that hard.”
“It is! You wouldn’t… wait, do you?”
“Do I what?” The merman looks at him so cheekily, Baekhyun isn’t sure Sehun if is just messing with his head, or if he’s actually gloating.
“Can you sail?”
“Why would I learn to sail? I can swim anywhere, remember?” Sehun’s smirk grows wider still.
“Yes, but.. But, but Tao said…”
Baekhyun shuts his mouth so hard his teeth click together. “Everybody’s always picking on me…”
He’s about to complain more, or else start accusing Sehun of blatantly trying to confuse him. Except the merman drops his smirk and smiles instead. It’s a glorious smile, one that Baekhyun might easily fall right into and disappear forever… He rubs his shoulder, fingers turning over the pin-prick mark of the needle that Yifan make him sit down earlier today and suffer through all over again. At least this time, Sehun’s gaze doesn’t make Baekhyun get woozy, and he’s in no danger of passing out.
(“Do you remember those old siren legends?”
“Yes,” Baekhyun had answered. “Wait, they’re true?”
“Well, there’s definitely a touch of truth in them. Here, sit still. I’ll make this quick.” And painful, apparently.)
That’s another amazing thing about this. The legends are true. Sirens and merpeople do exist, and Baekhyun has met them. Hard to remember that only a week ago he’d been clueless, and now he’s on a first name teasing basis with one of the most beautiful specimens to ever grace the waters.
“Can you come out with me tomorrow?” Sehun asks.
Baekhyun has to shake his head and realize he’s being asked a question. “What? Swim?”
“Yes. You can swim, yes? Underwater?”
“Do you mean scuba diving?”
“That’s what you call it, yes. With all the funny goggles and the air tank?”
“It’s not funny looking,” Baekhyun protests, even if he knows Sehun is right. “Just us? I suppose I can ask… although I don’t think I’m allowed...”
For the past week, Baekhyun has only practiced sailing and when he’s not doing that, he’s inside learning about the company operations and reviewing everything he learned in school. He knows the other divers go out all the time on various expeditions, but he wasn’t given the same clearance. Not until he’d built up enough rapport with his merman would he trusted to actually swim with them.
“Ask Jongin to come if you are scared.”
“I’m not scared.”
Again, the merman smirks. “I bet you’ll look funny under the water. All your kind does.”
Before Baekhyun has time to come up with a stunning retort, Sehun’s head turns sharply towards the water. He’s not alarmed, but Baekhyun follows his gaze. Two more dark shadows are pulling up from the depths of the water. Did Sehun hear them, sense them from so far away? Baekhyun’s skin tingles. More mermen? Would they be mermaids this time?
He clears his throat. Sehun holds his hand out. It catches on Baekhyun’s upper arm but Baekhyun’s first reaction is to flinch. He wasn’t expecting the contact, and truthfully Baekhyun is still getting used to the feel of Sehun’s skin. The merman quickly withdraws it, and for a split second before two strange figures emerge from the water, he looks wounded.
However, it’s hard to focus on that when they’ve been joined by two mermen. Each pokes his head out of the water, wading stationary while they stare at Sehun. Then they look at Baekhyun. One of them hums. The sound verberates across the little cove, like birds chirping but in a deeper, more otherworldly sound.
Sehun ‘says’ something back. He looks upset.
“What. What is it?” Baekhyun asks.
“Nothing? But, they came all the way here. Do they always come here?”
Baekhyun hasn’t actually met any of the merfolk other than Sehun. He knows the corporation works with only a few at a time, but surely there has to be more? Sehun is obviously semi-adapted to the human kind but he’s never had a ‘partner’ before Baekhyun came.
“Want to meet them?” Sehun asks.
The two merman appear to disagree.
“We didn’t come to see him…” says one with disdainful annoyance. His purplish hair swirls around his forehead, and his eyes are large and round. Baekhyun stares distractedly into the merman’s pupils, which are more fishlike than Sehun’s. The merman stares back, blinking several times as a challenge. His skin is also paler than Sehun’s. Both of theirs are, although the second one looks friendlier. He has white blondish hair, almost gray though he’s anything but old.
Sehun responds to them in his way, and Baekhyun has never felt more decidedly like an outsider, an intruder, than he does now.
“This one is Kyungsoo,” Sehun says, pointing to the purple-haired merman. “And that’s Joonmyun.”
"Baekhyun throws them a little wave, smiling. Neither smile back, although Joonmyun does give him a measuring headnod. Then he goes back to pleading with Sehun in their language.
“They… they need me to go back right now. I’ll be back tomorrow.”
Sehun starts to slip off the pier.
“Wait!” Baekhyun shouts. However he’s now only talking to the sea. The two merman immediately sink below the surface and dart away. Sehun splashes after them. After a few paces, all three of them dip so far below the water that Baekhyun can no longer see their outlines.
He waits, mildly bored for another half an hour, kicking his legs up and down on the pier. Wondering why they retreated so quickly. Wondering what it’s like to be them. Tomorrow, if Sehun actually does come back like he said, he’ll get a small chance to find out.
There’s a small walkway the runs along the canal. He follows it now and lets himself through one of the facility’s outer doors. That’s how he finds himself beside the salt pool, alone, watching as it laps at the rim. There’s an even keel to the motion that’s in one part soothing, one part a reminder that all lurks beneath the ocean is a mystery, and a non-fully explored mystery at that, however close the brains behind CJJ Corp. think they’ve mastered it. It’s why they hired him after all. Byun Baekhyun, a nobody with a degree but an excellent personality chart in conjunction with a merman. So that Baekhyun can forge for them an alliance and get Sehun to… what? Divulge more secrets?
What am I even doing here… he asks absolutely no one.
And since he’s got nothing else scheduled to do until the evening, he returns to his room.
Baekhyun can’t say he’s gotten used to his the tiny little half-cubicle of a bedroom that’s been assigned to him. The bed is okay, and he doesn’t feel so claustrophobic with shutters open. The view, as he’d hoped on Day 1 has become again something to appreciate. But still it weighs heavily upon him, the size of the room, and the sheer loneliness he feels from having it all to himself.
He knows everyone on the island now by name and association. They meet up frequently in the small dining area several times a day, and there’s also some elbowing being done in the men’s communal shower stalls. He’s on casual speaking terms with just about everyone, but so far he’s without a true friend. During the day everyone is busy with their work, and since Baekhyun has little to do with the operations of the facility, other than Tao and sometimes Jongin, he doesn’t see any of them for long.
In the evenings, the employees tend to gather in smaller groups, finding recreation as they can. Last night Baekhyun was invited to a barbecue and volleyball match. Two nights before, half the team crowded into Jackson’s tiny bedroom to watch a movie on his laptop. And still, Baekhyun hasn’t found his niche.
At home, at school, Baekhyun was always the center of attention. He never planned it that way of course, that’s just how it was. Him and his loud mouth and the people who found him humorous, the girls who thought he was cute and adorable and the guys who cozied up to him because, well, Baekhyun had all the girls.
He even dated one of them. He was on high heaven, basking in all the light. Never realizing there were cracks in his own facade, doubts, confusion, crushing self-worthlessness when he realized just how flippant so many of his ‘friendships’ were. When one by one, they abandoned him for one, giant, enormous mistake.
He’s never been quite the same since then. Not since Sungjong. Not since Baekhyun, on a crazy, stupid, stupid stupid whim, tried to confess.
He hadn’t even broken up with his girlfriend at the time. Seriously, how bad could Baekhyun have made it?
It’s no wonder he’s still second-guessing himself, even now, even a whole world away. The island is his escape, but it’s also an empty slate, filled with strangers who don’t know him and don’t know why he’s here. They don’t know what he’s running away from, and they specifically don’t know that half the reason he’s running is to get away from himself.
Baekhyun and his stupid big mouth, and his stupid emotions that overtake everything else and cause such chaos. Is it any wonder he’s been more close-lipped here in his first week of work than in any stage of his life so far?
All these new people, these new potential friends who, several months ago, Baekhyun could have taken to in a heartbeat.
They work in three basic teams. There are the merfolk experts, scientists and socialists like Jongin, Chanyeol, Soojung and Baekhyun. Probably Yixing too, although Baekhyun rarely sees the man to be absolutely sure what he does. Then there are the people who mainly work the pharmaceutical angle like Minseok, Lu Han, Yifan, and Wendy. The rest, Baekhyun hasn’t exactly figured out what they do. Jackson and Tao seems to work the odd jobs, doubling as technicians and maintenance. Amber works as Jongdae’s personal assistance working in administration.
And everyone’s so nice, so cordial, so genuinely happy to have another smiling face to greet each day, despite the fact they’re already a bit cramped and that’s one more mouth to feed and one more butt to squeeze onto the limited dining room benches.
Everyone has a shift working in the kitchen, which means meals tend to be tasteless affairs of dubious quality and also dead repetitive. Basically, they eat a lot of rice, and by the end of the week, everyone starts looking hopefully towards the ocean for Minho and Kibum to return with some ‘fresh’ two-day old produce, meat, bread, and and whatever else the mysterious boat captain and his first mate trek back and forth to the mainland.
Baekhyun wonders if they even know the truth about the Blue Pearl Atoll. Somehow, he doubts it. CJJ. Corp is staffed by a lot of long-time veterans, producing hardly any turnover, Jongdae proudly admits ‘to minimize the risk of exposure’. The people who work on the island are, with the exception of Baekhyun and Jongin, in their thirties and forties. Those who have ‘retired’ now work in one of the mainland facilities overseeing the production line and keeping their secrets intact.
All letters, should Baekhyun like to write one, must be screened. He penned a quick ‘mom I’m alive’ letter and handed the unsealed envelope to Jongdae. His boss smiled at him a little too broadly. Maybe it’s a good thing he’s not trying to maintain any more long distance relationships. He’d die rather than hand a love letter over to Jongdae before it could be packed onto Minho’s boat.
His room is quiet when Baekhyun enters it. Technically, he shares the room with Lu Han on the other side of the divider, but the analyst is rarely ever in it. Baekhyun asked Jongin once where he sleeps. He got a vague answer about Lu Han usually crashing where he works, which is coincidentally where Minseok works and sleeps down by the salt pool.
Jongin shares his other wall. He’s a quiet and considerate neighbor, ever friendly, not unlike Baekhyun himself, and since they’re about the same age, Baekhyun isn’t so scared to talk to him. Everyone else is at least five years older, or more.
He taps on his room door now.
A few moments later, Jongin’s face appears.
“Hey, Baekhyun. Something up?” he asks, not fully opening the door.
“Uhh,” Baekhyun hesitates. “Not really. I guess no. Just, looking for something to do since… I was spending time with Sehun and he… suddenly returned early.”
“He did?” Jongin’s eyebrows rise and he holds open the door wider. “Come in. Come in, sorry.”
Jongin’s room isn’t as sparse as Baekhyun’s. He has more clothes lying about the floor, and there are several pictures in small frames littering the top of his dresser drawers, a stack of books underneath his bedside table. Baekhyun should probably ask if he can borrow some. He has absolutely nothing to read.
“Wanna sit?” Jongin points to his unmade bed. After a period of quiet reflection, he clears his throat and quickly walks over to straighten the top blanket.
“Thanks,” says Baekhyun, sitting delicately on the mattress because he knows these bedsprings tend to sink a lot. Jongin’s bed is apparently no different than Baekhyun’s.
The other man waits quietly for Baekhyun to continue, speaking wildly of how their relationship relies more on work than on man-to-man friendship itself.
“I met two other mermen today though?”
“Yeah. Uhm, what were their names. Kyungsoo and… Joonmyun?”
“Oh, right,” Jongin says, like he already knows them. Of course he probably would.
“Do you see them often?”
He shakes his head. “Not too frequently. Especially not Kyungsoo. He’s a little less friendly than Joonmyun, although he’s put in a lot of effort to learn our language.”
“He spoke it kind of well.”
“Yeah, he’s better than Joonmyun. More confident.”
“Who taught them Korean?”
Jongin looks sheepishly proud. “Me? Kind of? And Yixing helped since he’s been around longer than me.”
“Did you teach Sehun too?”
“Yeah, pretty much. He’s a fast learner though. How do you like him? Sorry I haven’t been around much this week to help you out.”
“That’s alright,” Baekhyun laughs. “Been so busy with Tao learning how not to steer a motorboat.”
He gets distracted by a picture of Jongin sitting on a beach, probably one on of the smaller islands here, his hand around Yixing’s waist, both of them smiling cheek-to-cheek. They look like a couple. There’s another picture with them too just a few frames over. Tao is in the frame as well, but he stands a few feet away from the happy couple with a scowl on his face, arms crossed and shades covering his eyes like he doesn’t want to be there. Unlike Jongin and Yixing who are once again, hugging each other close. Baekhyun remembers them from his first day when he thought it was odd they were so touchy, especially Yixing. Since then though he’s seen the man once or twice.
Are they a couple? Baekhyun’s made some incorrect assumptions about people before, and he’s hesitant to voice them in words. The burn, the humiliation was too real. Either way, and even if they are only really close friends, it must be nice, he thinks, to get marooned in a place like this with someone you like so much. It only makes him feel lonelier.
“So, Sehun…” Jongin prompts again. He pulls out a chair Baekhyun wasn’t aware existed and sits backwards on it. A pile of clothes, either clean or dirty, lands on the floor beside it.
“He’s…” Baekhyun hesitates. “Nice, I suppose. I don’t know how to really put it. I guess I figured we’d hit it off better by now, but it’s kind of awkward.”
Jongin shrugs. “Sehun’s kind of a loner. Takes a while for him to warm up to people, although if you’ve seen him a lot this week, that bodes well.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, when I was supposed to be working with him, he’d promise a rendezvous time and place then just fail to make it. It used to piss off Yixing a lot. Sehun just didn’t want to see anyone, merfolk or humans. Takes off by himself a lot. No one sees him for weeks at a time.”
“Where does he go?”
“Dunno. The ocean’s pretty vast. A merman who wants to lose himself can very easily do it.”
“So you’re saying I shouldn’t be surprised if some day Sehun just doesn’t show up?”
“I’m saying I’m surprised he hasn’t done that already. He must like you. Uhmmm. Keep up the good work?” Jongin laughs.
Baekhyun stares at his fingers and stifles a grin. “Thanks, I guess?”
He wants to ask more questions. Like what he’s supposed to be doing exactly. Is he only supposed to spend each day cultivating a friendship with a merman? Is there a goal? What happens then? Do people ever get out of their contracts and leave this place, and is there a reason they’d actually want to?
There’s a whole pattern of life here on the atoll that Baekhyun hasn’t discovered yet. But it’s only been a week. Time enough to settle in and find his place.
Jongin stifles a yawn, and even though it’s barely evening, he’s looking at his bed like he wants to take a nap. Baekhyun feels like an intruder. He stands up, and Jongin looks remotely alarmed but he doesn’t try to make him stay.
“Oh right,” says Baekhyun at the doorway. “Sehun asked if I would swim with him tomorrow. I said I wasn’t given clearance yet and that I would ask you what to do. Should I talk to Jongdae or…?
Jongin shakes his head. “Nah, I’ll talk to him for you. It should be okay. So, sometime in the morning?”
Before he leaves the room for good, he begs Jongin to lend him a book. It’s a historical novel about pirates and the cover features a mermaid. Somehow, nothing could be more fitting. He laughs, then spends the rest of his evening immersed in the cheesy fantasy.
Jongin meets Baekhyun the next morning by the salt pool.
“Here, help me carry the tanks.” He and Baekhyun lug their dive gear and tanks towards the back door entrance. Yifan comes out of his clinic to watch them pass but doesn’t offer a hand. He’s a strange fellow, Baekhyun thinks, not for the first time. He has to wonder what his backstory is and why a guy with as few social skills as him would voluntarily travel to such a remote part of the world.
“Helpful, isn’t he,” Jongin remarks sardonically while he kicks open the door. They hurtle through it, and Baekhyun drops a few bags. At least he doesn’t drop the oxygen cylinders on his foot. Each one weighs nearly 14kg, and Baekhyun’s water shoes aren’t terribly protective against something like that.
Yixing is waiting down the by the boat. He wears loose fitting trunks and no shoes, a pair of shades which rest in his sun-bleached fading mauve hair.
“You’re not diving?” Baekhyun asks.
For a half second, Yixing looks surprised by the question. Then he glances at Jongin, and the two exchange a look Baekhyun doesn’t recognize.
“No. I don’t need that stuff today.”
Maybe he’s going to stay with the boat.
“Come on,” says Jongin. “We should get a move on. Baekhyun, do you want to drive?”
“Nah, had enough of that yesterday. I’ll let you do the honors.”
Not a few minutes later, Baekhyun wishes he had taken the helm. Jongin has obviously done this before, but his skills are shakier than Baekhyun's ever experienced.
"I... I think you may need to adjust the bow..." he suggests uncertainly while the ship bobs up and down. Baekhyun is officially seasick. Yixing doesn't look affected, but he also holds on tightly to the side of the boat with a broad smile on his face that masks his amusement.
"Isn't there.. a.. a..." he fishes for the right word Tao told him, "a toggle or something to... I don't know, not make us feel like we're dying?"
Perhaps the wind and the salt spray is too loud, but Jongin never responds. Baekhyun continues to hang on for dear life and prays he doesn't fly out of the boat before he actually intends to. The dive gear shifts and rolls along the deck. His heart rate is pumping. He'd ask where they were actually going, or how Jongin knows where Sehun wanted them to meet, but he's never given the opportunity. They sail right through the center of the atoll. Pearl Island lays behind them. A few smaller island chains hang out to the right, but Jongin is steering them along a different course.
"Here we come," says Yixing finally. Baekhyun sits up straight and begs his stomach to settle. A small island, about half the size of Pearl Island lays before them. It's less rugged, just as green. Baekhyun notes the off-colored water several meters from their starboard side which marks the position of a reef. Jongin slows the craft and sails through the deeper water towards a small pier-less harbor.
"This is it?" says Baekhyun.
Jongin nods. "There's nowhere to dock here. We'll set an anchor and swim ashore. That cool with you?"
"Uhhm, sure, why not." It's not like they have a choice.
He and Jongin divide their gear. Oxygen cylinder, which Baekhyun needs help putting on, jacket, mask, and snorkel. He holds his diving fins in his hand, waiting until the last minute.
"Ready?" says Jongin. "Long step into the water. After you."
"But, what about Yixing?" The man offers Baekhyun his arm while he balances on one foot at a time, slipping on the kickers.
"I'll join you later probably." The man winks and Baekhyun shrugs his shoulders.
Entering the water is always his least favorite thing. The ocean is warm here, not cold enough to warrant a wet suit, but it's still colder than air temperature. Baekhyun secures his mask protectively around his nose before sidling up to the edge of the boat. One long step, legs tightly straight, and the next step he lands in the water.
His vision goes under, bubbles pulsing around his body. His skin prickles at the chill as he drops like a rock. Then he remembers what he's doing, and that Jongin is waiting for him to move. He kicks, body rocketing towards the surface where he adjusts buoyancy to where he floats. Then he swims farther from the boat. Another splash behind indicates Jongin is in the water.
"Shore! Let's go!" he shouts. They move their snorkels into position and start swimming.
It's absolutely gorgeous. Fifteen meters of clear blue crystal water drag below them. The reef is still on their right, and Baekhyun dearly wants to explore it. All this time here and he hasn't yet been allowed a peek. He follows Jongin now though. Business is business, and this is far from a vacation. Somewhere, Sehun is waiting.
'What do you mean he doesn't know you're a merman?' Sehun is incredulous. He's been swimming through the reefs examining the populations there out of pure, lonely, boredom waiting for the others to arrive.
Yixing giggles playfully, the sound echoing through the water.
'I don't know how I just know he doesn't'
'That's impossible he met you before'
'Maybe your boy is just that dumb'
'What did he even think you're doing here today then?'
'Who knows maybe he just thinks I like to hang out with Jongin'
There's truth in that, Sehun muses silently. He surfaces in the harbor and spins around to get his bearings. Baekhyun and the other human have just climbed onto the shore. Baekhyun carries his fins in his hand now, breathing wildly and looking perhaps he just swallowed half the ocean. Jongin makes it look effortless of course.
Out of water, Yixing bobs beside him and uses his voice. Air bubbles flow from his throat while his body acclimates. "I think, we should play a prank on them?"
"A prank?" Sehun coughs until he too can use his voice in the human way. It's a skill most of the merfolk don't practice enough, or indeed, even find a use for. Only him and Yixing and half a dozen other mermen, maybe a couple females.
"Well, maybe not a prank. But at least we could… oh yes, we should. It would be fun," says Yixing. He gives Sehun a once over, elbowing him in the ribs while he laughs. "Besides, has he ever seen you naked? I bet he'd like it."
Sehun tosses his head. His blueish bangs fall wetly across his forehead. He dips back into the ocean and resurfaces so they fall directly towards the back of his head. Yixing doesn't bother fixing his own pinkish locks.
"Why would he care? Out of water, we share the same parts."
"Sehun, oh Sehun," Yixing clucks appreciatively, "humans are a very complicated lot. Besides, I've seen how he looks at you."
"Oh, I don't know. Let's just say I've been lurking around watching you two together."
"Of course, why not?"
Sehun sighs. "Figures you would."
It makes him uncomfortable. Just what has Yixing seen? Sehun and Baekhyun's awkward attempts at conversation? The shy looks the human casts his way, or the intent stares Sehun gives him when he thinks the other isn't looking?
"Shall we go now? Can I tell you my plan?"
"You're the expert in this," Sehun defers.
"Of course I am. Just look at how Jongin comes when I all but snap my fingers. I'm an expert in flirtation."
"Who says I want to flirt? And when have you ever snapped your fingers?"
Yixing lifts a hand and tries to snap, but his fingers refuse to do it. They're wet and they rub together without producing the necessary friction for sound. He tries it again and again, then the other hand again and again like he can't believe his fingers won't cooperate.
"Damnit, I did it once... guess that's something else I should practice."
"Can you just tell me your plan so we can get this over with?" Sehun whines. Baekhyun and Jongin have become pinpricks on the sand, and if he's being totally honest with himself, Sehun really wants to see Baekhyun again. Especially since the human hasn't realized what exactly Sehun can do.
Baekhyun is seriously lagging behind, and they're not even halfway across the beach yet. He's barefoot, and the sand is hot beneath his toes. He almost tosses his fins because they're weighing him down, but nothing's as heavy as the tank still strapped to his back.
"Where.... are we... going?" he huffs.
Jongin turns and walks backwards across the sand, smiling as he does. "Not far, just towards the rocks over there. That's where Sehun will be."
"And how do you know that?" Baekhyun petulantly asks.
"Because... because, mermen always like that spot. Trust me, I know."
That makes no sense, but Baekhyun's in no mood to argue. Sehun never told him where to meet. He just said 'tomorrow' and 'bring Jongin' which, he supposes means it's possible Jongin does this all time since he is the expert here. It doesn't help the ache in his back though.
"You can take it off if you want."
"The tank," says Jongin. He's already unstrapping himself. "Here, we can leave them here and walk over to the rocks without the burden."
"I thought we were supposed to go diving?"
Another thing that doesn't make sense, but Baekhyun refuses to argue if it means giving his body a break. They stash their gear next to each other, then Baekhyun follows Jongin as the man begins to hop across the rocks that begin randomly at the edge of the beach and jut out towards the water.
It's slow going, especially since the rocks grow larger and larger, and the steps aren't quite as easy to maneuver the further out they go. It reminds Baekhyun of some manmade piers, except the whole thing looks a lot more natural. The surface of the rocks grow slimier as they walk, wet from the salt spray, certain kinds of seaweed and grasses growing in the crevices. But finally Jongin deems them far enough out.
"We can sit here and wait," he says.
It's high-tide already. The ocean has nowhere else to go except down, which means they have forever to wait. Baekhyun remembers the rule about merfolk not being exactly time-driven, not the way humans are. He shades his eyes with one hand, wishing he still had his sunglasses, but he left them on the boat. The boat looks tiny from here, but it bobs innocently in the water halfway out from the harbor. He can't believe they swam that far.
"I don't see Yixing."
"Oh?" Jongin doesn't sound alarmed. "Maybe he jumped out for a quick swim."
Baekhyun wants to ask him more questions. Like, why is Jongin out here working for CJJ? What sends a young man of his age out to this remote part of the world, and why is he content to stay out here? It can't be because of Yixing, although perhaps that's why he stays. But Baekhyun's mind is teeming with questions. What's his backstory, what else does he do? Does he have a family at home he's forsaken, like Baekhyun has with his. Why does he read epic adventure pirate novels when that book was clearly lame and had no idea what real mermen were like?
"Is it time yet?" he asks instead. He didn't bring his watch. They're going old school out here today and judging by the sun, by which Baekhyun estimates it's not even ten o'clock in the morning.
The sun beats down harshly against his skin. He's wearing SPF 90, but how much has the saltwater already licked from his skin. Baekhyun's going to be so brown by the end of the day. He's already glowing a healthier shade darker than he's ever been in his life, and that’s just from all the sailing.
"Probably not long," Jongin answers.
They don't have to wait long. Baekhyun is mesmerized by the waves. They crash against the outermost boulders with uneven regularity. All other sound is drowned out, although the occasional sea gull barks above their heads, melding in with the wind.
Then he hears that weird, inhuman humming. Jongin sits up as well. They watch eagerly as with the next wave, a pair of hands stretch up over the ridge of the furthermost rock. The next thing Baekhyun sees is the blue of Sehun's hair. He catches him smiling in eager anticipation, a most unbidden action which he quickly stifles the second Jongin catches his gaze.
"Sehun!" He stands up on wobbly feet, preparing to hop the few remaining rocks to where Sehun is clinging on. The waves rock again, then another pair of hands join next to Sehun's, and Yixing’s face appears.
Baekhyun immediately freezes. "What..."
Yixing hoists himself onto the rock, arm muscles pulsing with great strength as he lifts himself, fully nude above the boulder.
"How.... did you get there?" Baekhyun pants, eyes wide open in shock. Yixing's nudity embarrasses him, even as he wonders how on earth Yixing managed to sneak up to their waiting spot beside the merman whom Baekhyun has almost forgotten. Then Sehun too, using the next wave as a boost, lifts himself, twist mid-air mid-water, and lands seated beside the other man. Baekhyun gasps aloud, a pair of also nude buttocks on full display as the two.... mermen?!... slither backwards from the water's edge onto a flatter portion of rock.
Legs, he has legs. Sehun, has legs.
Just behind Baekhyun, Jongin laughs.
"What... h-how... what the fuck...." Baekhyun utters, screw decent vocabulary. "You have legs!!"
Sehun twists his body once more, and damnit, he not only has legs, he has toes and feet, and shins, and knees, and thighs, and a small-for-now actual man-shaped dick nestled between said thighs.
Now Baekhyun could have sworn that just yesterday Sehun was a merman. With the lower body of a fish, and scales, fucking scales, but today he looks fully human.
"That's... that's not possible."
It's Yixing's turn to laugh. Baekhyun watches in horror as the man- no, merman- twists his body until he rests on his knees. Then he pushes himself to his feet, wobbling slightly for just a brief moment.
"Two 'human' looking beings show up on a beach, and you're saying we're impossible? Haven't you ever seen a merman before?" Yixing teases. "Or didn't you realize, that was what you were looking at all along?"
Yixing, is a merman. Hold everything, Yixing is a merman. And now Baekhyun realizes what Jongin's job is, and who his partner is. It's Yixing, a merman. A shapeshifting merman, and that too is exactly what Sehun is. What he must be.
"I don't... how," Baekhyun reiterates stupidly.
"You've heard that some merman were special, right?" Jongin answers for him. "Not all of them can do this. In fact, most can't... but Yixing, and Sehun, were chosen among their tribe to meet with us because they alone among their generation can transform like this..."
"You turn into humans," Baekhyun stutters.
"We, take on the appearance of humans," Sehun answers. He speaks seriously, but his face is flushed bright red, and he doesn't appear to have the same confidence as Yixing does about his naked body. Not that he has anything to be ashamed of, Baekhyun notes with some distress. He's feeling decidedly unmanly right now, and that's with him still standing in front of two creatures who are the least things from human that a creature can get.
He sits down, practically collapsing on his own two feet. It's a good thing they left the heavy oxygen tanks back on the beach.
Yixing laughs some more. Sehun at least looks upset at Baekhyun's uneasiness.
"I'm sorry. I should have told you."
"No... no..." Baekhyun tries to say.
"You know what," Jongin says suddenly. "I think Yixing and I will... let you two have some time together." He pats Baekhyun on the shoulder and then shakes his head in the direction of the beach. Baekhyun doesn't even want to consider what Jongin could possibly have planned for himself and a naked merman on legs. For that matter, Baekhyun doesn't know what to do with Sehun either.
He sputters inaudibly, watching Jongin depart, diverting his eyes from Yixing's nude rear end.
"Baekhyun?" A worried sounding voice draws his attention back to his own problem at hand. Sehun is squatting at the edge of the rock, his lower lip between his jaw, bare legs folded up and angled to cover his crotch. He's embarrassed, the poor merman.
"What? I'm fine. I'm fine. I just, was surprised. But, all that makes perfect sense. Perfect sense," he lies.
It's evident Sehun doesn't believe him either.
"I... I'm not sure what to do now."
"Do?" asks Baekhyun. "What do you mean?"
"I mean that I make you uncomfortable. Should I get back in the water, would that make you feel better?"
"You.... you thought..."
Sehun thought Baekhyun was just some kind of prude. And okay, perhaps he is. The last man he saw naked was by accident and it happened in a locker room after one particularly sweaty day of college tennis. It wasn't even a guy he was crushing on. The guy was big and hairy and had large equipment down under. He caught Baekhyun staring, and Baekhyun has never run from a room so fast in his entire life.
This is not that situation. A million things have changed. For one, Sehun isn't human. That right there alone should set the tone for Baekhyun's thoughts. If only he hadn't been vaguely curious for days about the feel of the merman's toned chest, and maybe his shoulders, and his shoulder blades and maybe even the curvature of his fish-bodied hips.
Not a single scale remains.
"How... how can you do that?" He changes tactics mid-thought. It's infinitely safer to wonder about the science of the whole transformation.
"Become like this?" asks Sehun, with a curious tilt to his head. "Honestly, I don't know. I just can."
Baekhyun stares at his feet. They aren't webbed, not in the slightest. The boy before him is fully human. Thin ankles and under-defined calves. His thighs are little meatier, but not as full as Baekhyun's. And from this angle, there's no telling the exact shape of Sehun's derriere. Baekhyun isn't even sure he wants to find out. Well, maybe.
"But you've been able to do this forever?"
"Not forever. But for a while at least. Yixing... he, he helped me."
"So this is how you blend in... amazing," Baekhyun softly exclaims.
They look suddenly into each other's eyes, the crouched merman, the fallen over, slumped human. Both of them men, and if that's all Baekhyun is supposed to learn from this experience, he thinks it's a pretty damn good lesson. They have the same core, the same root, a gene in common, and perhaps something magical beyond that. It's insanely incredible. Not only do merpeople exist, but they can take on the exact shape of the human species and theoretically blend right into their world.
No wonder they've remained in the world known only through myths and legends. How many of the merfolk might be hiding in the midst of their unassuming enemies? How many can do what Sehun and Yixing can and obscure their very beings? How special is this island chain, and the first men who discovered it? How did they find the merfolk, or rather... why did the merfolk allow themselves to be found. If he’d met Sehun on the street somewhere, Baekhyun would never have known. In fact, he did meet Yixing, and never had a clue.
“Amazing,” he utters softly.
Sehun leans in closer to hear. “What?”
“Nothing. Nothing, sorry.”
"Do you, still want to swim?" he asks Sehun. Maybe if they get in the water he'll be less distracted. Less because of Sehun's nudity, but also because his thoughts are going in a million directions at once.
He's friends with a merman.
A week to digest this, and it suddenly feels fresh once again. How many people have had the privilege of swimming with a merman?
Dolphins are so overrated.
It's strange that Sehun is fascinated by Baekhyun's scuba equipment. He laughs when Baekhyun can barely pick up the cylinder. He makes himself helpful—while actually causing more work—as Baekhyun straps the device around his back and chest. He does carry Baekhyun's fins over to the water's edge, which actually is kind of useful.
They leave Jongin's gear right where the other man left it. He and Yixing are nowhere to be seen which is, interesting.
Sehun does laugh. He pokes fun at Baekhyun's face mask, and the attached mouthpiece and snorkel which will hang loosely in the air until they start to descend.
"It's just, funny."
"It isn't. Have you ever used one of these before?" Baekhyun pouts. "I should teach you and you can try it in your human form, and then you'll realize it's no laughing matter. Just, extremely handy."
“Useful," Baekhyun amends.
"Is it..." Sehun guffaws. His human legs twitch as they make their way through the shallow waves, but don't change. Not until they're wading waist high, and even then Sehun walks with his toes along the wet sand, watching Baekhyun as they tread into the ocean side by side.
"Ready?" asks Baekhyun.
The merman hands him his fins, which Baekhyun shoves onto his feet. Then the merman takes a shallow dive into the water. At first, two feet kick against the waves. Then his whole body descends under the next wave, and when he emerges, one strong tail fin kicks out through the breakers.
It’s the first time he’s ever seen the merman from underwater. Dashing through the waves, yes, on shore in a seated position, yes. But beneath the surface, Baekhyun has never felt so incredibly out of place. And Sehun has never seemed so at home.
He follows the merman’s lead. Shallowly at first, they swim into deeper waters. Baekhyun floats near the surface most of the way, snorkeling as he skims out to the bay. Sehun’s powerful fish body stays just below him. And he’s fascinating of course. The deep blues of his scales reflect with every stray beam of sunlight, a thousand shades of colors everywhere and all at once, and they in turn reflect upon his skin. Out of water, Sehun’s upper body looks fully human, but in the depths where he belongs, there could be no mistaking his alien body.
Baekhyun watches the muscles along his back writhe and torque. Rippling lower muscles, an arching spine, strong shoulder blades that lead up to his neck where the gils have opened up, ocean water pulsing through.
He rolls over in the water, belly up and through Baekhyun’s headgear, their eyes catch and hold.
It’s too late to look away, to pretend he wasn’t staring, absolutely transfixed. He might even be blushing, but with the saltwater upon his cheeks instead, there’s no way Sehun would know. And besides, he finds he doesn’t exactly care. Sehun is beautiful, and he should know it. His lips twitch, the beginnings of a smile he hopes Sehun can see.
The merman returns it, undulating on his back mere meters below. And before they reach their destination, he angles upwards, swimming closer to Baekhyun, until he’s right below him. Gaze still still fixed, Sehun reaches up with one hand and slowly grazes Baekhyun’s shoulder and collarbone.
Baekhyun startles, missing a kick, almost flailing in the water. But Sehun just pulls away, deeper, and smirks. Then he twists and dives away, soaring towards the reef which Baekhyun now sees ahead.
For a minute, he has to surface, and breathe. And shake the water from his ears and the pressure from his ears, and the rapid fire breathing of his chest.
Calm, Baekhyun, slow down, Baekhyun. Breathe easy, breathe regularly. That’s how we breathe underwater, Baekhyun.
Attaching the regulator to his mouth once more, he thinks perhaps this swimming with a merman thing isn’t quite such a safe idea. But for all that, Baekhyun begins to descend.
The clock above Park Chanyeol's office door reads just after 7pm. Baekhyun stands before it, his fist ready to knock, his stomach all in tatters, because he's just had the most exhilarating day ever!
"Come in?" booms a deep voice.
Baekhyun turns the knob and pokes his face meekly into the brightly lit room. It's larger than he expected. Three sides of the room are rimmed with bookshelves, the fourth is a wall length window not unlike Baekhyun's bedroom. Park Chanyeol is sitting with his back to the window in an overlarge arm chair with a laptop resting precariously against his folded, bent knees.
He smiles and gently lowers them to the ground as Baekhyun steps into his office.
"Baekhyun! I wondered when you would get around to visiting me here."
"I've... I've been kind of busy this week."
That's not a lie. In between biology review exams and boating lessons, and learning that Sehun is a freaking human-transforming merman, a visit to the library of the company's expert anthropologist hasn't been exactly at the forefront of Baekhyun's daily plans. So what that Jongdae told him days ago he should probably drop by. After today's revelations, Baekhyun decided he would make no more excuses.
"I bet you have. Here, come in, please. It's a little... messy, I apologize."
Chanyeol stands up, towering over Baekhyun by no meek advantage. A few weeks ago it might have intimidated Baekhyun, but today he swam with a merman and is ready to take on the world.
"I learned something interesting today," he confesses.
The other man points towards a secondary seat. This one is actually facing a desk that looks out towards the sunset. Apparently it isn't used as much more than a secondary place for storing books and folders and binders and another computer with an old-fashioned sleep screen featuring a picture of Chanyeol and a few of the other guys standing on a beach with their arms around each other posing for the camera. Baekhyun recognizes Jongin and Yixing, Jackson and Jongdae.
"Yifan took that." Chanyeol grunts happily, following Baekhyun's gaze.
"Oh?" Baekhyun has nothing to add to that.
"So what did you learn today? Let me guess, wait! If you haven't figured it out already I don't want to spoil it for you!"
"You mean that mermen can suddenly grow legs?"
Chanyeol grins. "That's the ticket. It's incredible right? I'm totally fascinated by it, but I don't have the background in biology that guys like Yifan or Lu Han have. I don't insist on understanding how it happens. Uhm, you know what I do here right?"
"Company historian, or something like that?" Baekhyun takes a seat and rest his palms restlessly against his thighs. Half of the bookshelves on the wall boast titles about ancient myths and sea legends. Some are old with bindings wearing thin, primary sources of pirate diaries and journals and various other collections of mythology. There's a whole volume about sea monsters. Baekhyun wonders if merman are actually listed in there somewhere or if they're too legendary to actually make the pages of such scientific bibliographies.
"I study the merfolk, their history, society, and culture. And... I compile that data into hidden archives that will unfortunately never see the light of the published world. Too great a secret, and I'm under contract on pain of death, like you. It's a great dilemma," says the man like he's never had a stressful moment in his entire life. He continues to smile, one foot perched on the cushion of his chair and knee up in the air. He rests his arm on it and his chin on his arm, still smiling. It's a bit unnerving.
"That's got to be kind of hard for a scholar..."
"Kind of. But then, there are perks. I get to meet with actual merpeople and they tell me things that no one else in the world will ever know. And that, to be honest, is the coolest part of this job."
"I'm beginning to understand that," Baekhyun admits.
"How is Sehun?" Chanyeol asks.
Another interesting question. "Good? He's good."
"You're getting along well? You know, I've always wanted to spend more time with him, but he's really elusive. Doesn't hang out with humans well, imparts half of his tales through Yixing, who's way better adapted, but... and maybe Jongin knows more than he tells, but I swear! I swear Yixing tells us only snippets of what he wants us to know. There are still so many mysteries. So many fascinating gaps in how the merfolk operate that we just don't know, and I'm positive they do that on purpose. They don't trust us 100%, you realize that right? Can't say I blame them. Do you know, that out of everyone here today... only Jongdae can say he's talked with a mermaid?!"
"Is... that right?"
“Of course he might be lying. Mermaids keep themselves scarce for some reason. That’s Soojung’s main role here actually. She’s trying to draw them out, get them to talk or open up, anything. Who knows if she’s been successful or not. It’s all very shush shush, but I can’t wait until she succeeds. Imagine, getting to talk to a mermaid?!”
“As opposed to just talking to a merman?”
“It’s a completely different thing, Baekhyun.”
Chanyeol talks a lot. It's vaguely exhausting, but on the other hand, after the day he just had with Sehun, Baekhyun is kind of starved for details on what the merfolk are like. More and more he wishes he had come to see Chanyeol sooner, although there's no guarantee he wouldn't have had his head talked off before now. Chanyeol’s kind of an anomaly around here, Baekhyun has come to find out. Late 30s, but he acts so young, and whenever he stops in the hall or the dining area to talk, he treats Baekhyun not as if Baekhyun were new, but like he’s always been around. Even if their conversations have never delved very deep.
"Sometimes I think he's just making it up. But then, he's assistant director and... well, he probably knows more than us." Chanyeol sighs, generally unconcerned that the world won't easily divulge all its secrets personally to him.
But he brings up something else Baekhyun has been wondering about.
"Where... is the actual director?"
He doesn't even know his or her name...
"Hong Kong," says Chanyeol without missing a bit. "He comes and goes. Actually he's gone more often than not. They don't trust the rest of us to visit the mainland so much. Only a few people get to travel home often."
"You've haven't been home since you got here?"
"Ohhh, once. But to be honest, it's not a huge draw. I mean, this is basically paradise out here and I can study something no one else has ever gotten to study. Why give that up?"
“So… once you get here, you can never go back?” This job is starting to sound more and more like Baekhyun signed a slave contract.
Chanyeol laughs. “It’s not that rigid. But you’ll notice one thing about all the people who are here… most of us, if you dig back far enough, don’t really want to be anywhere else… for whatever reason."
Baekhyun hums. He remembers that part of his interview. ‘Would you be okay living in a remote island location, why or why not?’ And then the informal, ‘So, Baekhyun, what are you running away from?’ that confused and incited his emotions during the e-mail contact between interviews and paperwork. It’s intriguing though, that Baekhyun was not only hand-picked because of his apparent compatibility to the personality of an otherwise prickly merman, but also because he had no desire to live in ‘the other world’.
He stays for almost an hour, and while it's not exactly the most exhilarating way to learn things from Chanyeol's mouth, Baekhyun still soaks in a lot. Namely about the merfolk and how they live. He knows that they swim in families called tribes, or clans, and there are many loosely related clans. Sehun and Yixing belong to the same one, the most mature of their generation who are allowed by their elders to meet and work alongside the humans.
"We discovered this island, you know, right?" Chanyeol interrupts his own narrative.
"I... heard something about that, once, from Soojung?"
It all sounds very romantic. In the early 1940s a group of Korean sailors were blown off course and landed in the atoll. Mysteriously, magically - Chanyeol has no real explanation - they met with and discovered mermen. Or were discovered by them. Or were saved by them, the history is shadowy and fishy. "No pun- okay, well maybe a slight pun intended."
However it happened, they recognized the importance of their find, and the nature of the secrecy they would have to employ. Several of their numbers remained while half the group returned home working in and between all the wars to consolidate their discovery. Within a few decades they and their associates had developed what would become the Cheongjinju Corporation, ostensibly an operation working on a license to develop medicinal plants from tropical climates, and they were sly enough to never reveal their actual coordinates on any official documentation.
"It was quite easy really. I mean, look around." Chanyeol looks about his office as if that is enough evidence. "The distance, the isolation. Who would even know we're here, and who if they flew by in a plane would suspect something other than what we claim? To anyone who's looking, this looks like a remote resort slash bio-economic research facility. All the paperwork in the world couldn't lead anyone back to the merpeople themselves. Digitally, we’re absolutely silent. It's faultless."
Baekhyun hums, thinking how yes, it's faultless as long as no one ever tells.
"First and foremost this is a pharmaceutical outreach community. We study things few people are studying. And no one knows that our actual source doesn't come from divers. It comes from the creatures of the ocean themselves and what they bring to us…"
“What about the pearls?” Baekhyun interrupts.
“The blue-green pearls? An additional moneymaker and it lends credence to the tale that we’re a diversified company subgroup with various fields of interest. You know, there’s also a strange, rare breed of lizard that lives on several of the islands here, but… nobody actually cares.”
The anthropologist’s tooth-rich smile is both daunting and self-deprecating. Baekhyun tosses his head and chuckles a little.
“Very sophisticated, this secret,” he says.
“Oh yes. And aside from the the people here and the director, not a single employee in any of the three Seoul, Hong Kong, or Shanghai branches knows or understands exactly how we procure what we do. Except for those few who were trained here first. By the way, did I mention I’m also a licensed psychiatrist? In case, you know, the mental stress of… anything ever gets to you.”
So Chanyeol is their shrink just like Yifan, a vet, is their medical practitioner? Lovely. Oh, and let’s not forget Soojung’s needles.
The interview concludes while Baekhyun is in the middle of a yawn, listening duly to the possible-but-not-confirmed migratory patterns of mer-clans, when Chanyeol stands up. His eyes sparkle. "I’m sorry, this is boring. Oh, but I bet I know what would interest you. Come on, follow me!"
Following him happens to take them back pool-side and to the door of another set of office blocks Baekhyun has never actually stepped foot in: it's Minseok's lab, and never once was Baekhyun invited by the scientist to actually come in.
In fact, Minseok himself is kind of elusive, more so than Yixing, who Baekhyun no w understands has an excuse for... not being on the island. Because he's a merman... But Minseok lives and works in his office, and most of the time he doesn't even come out for food. Lu Han, more often than not, does the fetching for him. He's an assistant of sorts, although to what, Baekhyun has no idea.
He gathers he's about to find out.
They knock, and Chanyeol bounces lightly on his feet. The door opens, and instead of either Minseok or Lu Han it's actually Yixing. Baekhyun hasn't seen the merman since he took off with Jongin earlier that day.
(Jongin had returned to the boat alone, and the two of them sailed back to Pearl Island without either of the mermen.)
"Oh, it's you," says the merman happily to Chanyeol. He then nods pleasantly at Baekhyun and steps out of the doorway, beckoning them in with a loud, "Visitors for you, Minseok!"
"Come on." Chanyeol ushers Baekhyun into the room first.
It's darker down here. There are no outside windows, and even though the overhead lights are bright, shadows hang about the room. At least several adjourning rooms lay off to either side. Luhan is sitting behind a computer desk, reclining in a spinning chair. Beside him, on the desk, sits Minseok.
Baekhyun has the strange feeling that they were interrupting something.
"Chanyeol, and uhm... oh, hang on... Baekhyun, right?" says Lu Han, more convivial than the other, sullen man.
"I've been filling Baekhyun in about... well, things," starts Chanyeol. "Actually, I was wondering if you could show him that thing you've been working on."
Apparently, a lot of 'things' get worked on here.
Minseok’s eyebrows shoot straight upwards. He gives Baekhyun the once over and clucks his tongue. Baekhyun expects the suggestion to be shot down immediately due to his… unsuitability? However, the scientist hums a moment later and looks at Lu Han. The other man nods.
“I suppose I could.”
“Uhh, thank you,” says Baekhyun.
“We haven’t been introduced properly. Kim Minseok. I direct most of the research of… merfolk acquired materials. Lu Han is my assistant. He’s a chemist, as well as one of our main analysts.”
Baekhyun shakes both of their hands like it’s the first time they’ve met, which it practically is.
“Come over here,” says Minseok after a moment, motioning to a darker adjacent room.
Chanyeol joins Lu Han on the desk while Baekhyun follows Minseok. He squints his eyes and blinks a couple times, trying to focus in the near blackness. A glass tank contraption sits on a small table, no bigger than an average family size fish tank. It’s what’s inside that makes the difference. Lit by fluorescent lightbulbs, the tank is lined with layer after layer of plastic shelving, small square-shaped holes in which rest dozens of tiny, multicolored fluorescent scales.
“Are those…?” Baekhyun’s jaw drops, stunned.
“Mermen scales, yes. Humans have always whispered about the magical properties of the merfolk, though of course they no longer believe the legends.”
Minseok hums softly. “Not magical, not by that definition. But they have certain… properties that aren’t found anywhere else in nature. Extremely useful for medicines, like the ones we produce.”
Baekhyun stares at them. Blues and greens and pinks, purple, some so iridescent they appear to channel every color the rainbow and then some. The most stunning are the scales that reflect the purest, unblemished white.
“But.. but… how can you use these like that?”
A question Minseok was evidently waiting for.
“Merpeople shed scales like humans shed hair. They molt, they grow out of some. We don’t harvest these like you might be thinking. They bring these to us. As you see, it’s a very delicate balance of trust. The scales are limited, and we make the most of that without demanding more.”
That barely answers Baekhyun’s every question. He wants to know what they do with them, how they’re processed, how they’re used, how they’re shipped.
“But don’t the plants you send these to wonder what they are and where you get them from?”
“They don’t. That’s part of what we do here, breaking down the compounds to something less innocuous. And just in case, there are few people at each of the mainland corporations who oversee their arrival delivery and… potential cover-up.
“We can never let the world know just what we have…”
Minseok ushers Baekhyun out before he has a chance to ask further questions, but in truth, Baekhyun can’t remember how to use his voice. He’s too stunned. Too in awe of the layers of complexity that keep adding up.
Chanyeol beams at him from his perch on the desk. Lu Han stands up hesitantly, waiting.
Baekhyun blubbers incoherent thoughts and then shuts up.
“Thought you’d be impressed,” says Chanyeol.
Impressed is just barely covering it, Baekhyun thinks.
Terrified, actually, is the word he’d probably go for. So many secrets, so many cover-ups, so much potential for this to operation to become deadly, and all Baekhyun can think about is Sehun and Yixing and the two other mermen he met the other day and all the other mermen and mermaids he’s never met but knows live under the surface of this ocean, somewhere deep.
But are they deep enough?
What would happen if someone greedier than CJJ Corp. learned about this secret? And is the corporation even that safe?
He wishes in some way that he’d never come here never gotten embroiled in the schemes of this little facility in a hidden corner of the world. But then he thinks of Sehun, and his beautiful smile, and maybe it’s just a little bit worth it.
The door shuts with a solemn finality. Minseok doesn't react, but he looks tired. His body wobbles, an old tremor he exhibits around strangers and newcomers, human or merman alike. Lu Han get up from the chair and walks slowly towards him. He slides his arms around the man's waist and invites Minseok to rest his head along the crook of his neck.
Minseok sighs deeply and relaxes.
"That wasn't so bad?" says Lu Han with a small smile.
Minseok mirrors it. "No. You're right. It's just strange that I still get... nervous."
The chemist returns to the room they were showing Baekhyun and begins turning out the lights. Minseok follows him, a gentle hand upon his shoulder to draw comfort to himself.
Lu Han grins and resists turning around until he's cleaned up his workspace. Their conversation earlier with Yixing still resonates in his ears, a troubling predicament that only a few seem to grasp. Indeed, no one else outside the mermen and now them know of its existence.
"We should get to sleep earlier tonight," Lu Han suggests, still with his back towards Minseok.
"Aren't you tired? My head is splitting."
"Because of Chanyeol and Baekhyun?" He laughs.
Lu Han does too, even though they both know Minseok doesn't mean them.
"Yixing is going out tomorrow. Are you sure you..."
"I'm sure," Minseok quickly interrupts. Then he changes the subject back to the new kid. "That boy, Baekhyun. What do you think about him?"
Lu Han hums. "I don't know him yet. But I've heard Sehun seems to like him. And you've always held a lot of esteem for Sehun's opinions of people."
"That's only partially true. He's not exactly fond of you," Minseok jokes. It's a private one and only the three of them together would understand it.
"You obviously haven't let that bother you," Lu Han returns. His work put away, he stands with his back to Minseok, waiting for the man to initiate another hug.
Minseok's smaller body is unnaturally cold against his back. Lu Han fears he may be getting sick again and vows to make him rest more this week.
"Let's go for a nighttime walk," Minseok suggests instead. His nose tickles Lu Han's collarbones, and he yips when a pair of cold, moist lips attack his throat. Minseok never fights fair... Lu Han turns around and finds himself caged against the desk and Minseok's lips still kissing up his jaw line, kissing him chastely for a few soft, silent seconds. And just when Lu Han is ready to perhaps forget sleep or walking, or Yixing's words of trouble; just when he's ready to throw all that to the wind and instead grind his hips against the other man and maybe moan his approval, Minseok departs and gives them space.
His eyes are shuddered, but not in pleasure. In fear.
"Lu Han, I don't like this... If, If Sulli really hasn't been seen in three weeks, she could be halfway across the world by now. She could have gone-"
"We don't know that yet, Minseok. We don't know where she is. The ocean's vast, you heard Yixing say it himself that they're not even sure. It's completely possible she took off on a whim and will be be back anytime—"
They continue to interrupt each other. "Mermaids... don't take off on whims, Lu Han. They would never! It doesn't make sense unless... unless what Kyungsoo said is true, and what Joonmyun saw is true..."
Lu Han sighs. They're not going to do anything fun tonight if Minseok keeps up this line of thought. But again, he gets how it might be serious. A mermaid of this clan disappearing is a new insight, especially because Yixing is coming to them directly. Which means he's worried, because the others are worried. Even Sehun is worried. And a worried clan of merfolk with direct ties to the human world bodes badly for everyone involved.
"We don't... we don't know yet, okay?"
Minseok doesn't look like he wants to give it up. But he sighs too and melts again into Lu Han's embrace, not kissing this time but just, leaning there. Lu Han winds his arms back around the smaller man's back and waits for the moment to pass.
Too much, too much is happening this week, and now this.
"Still want to go on a walk tonight? Or we could take the boat and—"
"Walk? Who wants to go outside when the bedroom is right there?" Minseok whimpers. He catches himself, chuckling at his own whiny tone, and Lu Han pulls back to kiss him lightly on the cheek.
"Anything you want, baby. Anything you want."
“Where do you go, when you’re not here with me?”
"What do you mean?" Sehun replies.
Baekhyun sighs and shifts his body until he's laying on his stomach with his chin cradled between his hands. His elbows sink a few inches into the sand. He'll have to go clean off in the water later, but then, they have to do that anyway.
"I mean, what do you do? Do you go home? Where is home? How far is it? Is it very deep in the ocean? Do you have fish friends that you swim around with day in day out?”
“I refuse to answer that last question.” The merman presents a stoic expression, under which Baekhyun detects just the slightest bit of offense.
Baekhyun laughs. “Okay, but do merpeople have underwater castles like in the movies?"
Sehun snorts, officially giving up all pretense. "I don't know about movies, but... you do realize that the ocean floor doesn't stay the same, right? It moves."
"It moves?!" Baekhyun gasps and pushes himself up off the sand to gape. Then he realizes how stupid he sounds. "Oh, right. It does. Plate tectonics and all that..."
And here he'd been curious about whether or not mermen and mermaids lived in these giant underwater palaces with seaweed gardens and coral balconies. He laughs at himself. He's got a masters degree in marine biology and one week with a merman has him losing all sense of reason. At least this is Sehun he asked and not, someone else. Like Jongin. Or Chanyeol. Okay, maybe Chanyeol but definitely not Jongdae, his boss.
"Never mind. Never mind."
Sehun is grinning at him. He's in his human form, wearing a pair of swim trunks Baekhyun raided from Jongin's dresser drawer. It gives Sehun the semblance of modesty Baekhyun needs to be around him. Too many others things that draw his attention. He's supposed to be learning about the merpeople, not checking out Sehun's occasionally-human thighs.
"So where do you live then? Your clan?"
"In the ocean," says Sehun with another laugh. He rolls sideways in the sand and stares at Baekhyun's prostrate form. "Why do you want to know? Is that what they told you to ask me?"
"What? No?" Baekhyun splutters. At least, no one told him to ask that specifically...
"No human has ever gone there, you know that, right? To the centermost place within our borders."
"You have borders?" Baekhyun asks.
"With other clans, yes. Your island chain lies within it. But very close by... is where we really aren't allowed to swim. I mean, we could, but it’s terribly impolite. And maybe just a bit dangerous without a request of passage."
That's fascinating. Baekhyun's jaw drops as he mulls over that thought, that the merfolk really are like the human tribes of old.
"So, which direction is your home?"
"Here." Sehun hesitates for a moment, but then he says, "and due west. It's a very large territory. And as I've said, no humans have been there. Not even you could go."
"Because it's far away?"
"I can go deep." Baekhyun could actually. With the right kind of gear and supplies, enough oxygen and a drysuit, a scuba diver could drop to an incredible depth into the blackest of waters. It would, however, take him quite a long time to ascend without his head and lungs exploding. It's probably not worth the risk.
Sehun smirks. "Perhaps you could. But I am not allowed to take you there. Not even if I wanted to."
"And would you? If you could?" Baekhyun winks.
He's flirting, this he knows. Probably another thing that isn't the worth the risk. He was hired to come out here and befriend the merfolk, learn about their ways, build a relationship. But he's not certain a romantic relationship is what they want.
On the other hand... Jongin and Yixing… if what they have is what Baekhyun suspects it is. Perhaps he should just ask directly.
"You're better off believing we live in underwater castles, according to your movies ," Sehun retorts with a joking smile.
“Maybe we could watch one together just once.”
“ The Little Mer — oh, you know what, forget I said anything.” Baekhyun groans with embarrassment, rolling over onto his back with his arm in front of his eyes to shield the sun. He should have brought sunglasses. He should have kept his big mouth shut.
"Okay, tell me something else then. A secret. Something private. I just want to know more about the merpeople, like my bosses told me to do. Can't you tell me anything?" he whines.
"I knew it. You're just out to exploit us." Sehun prods his stomach, a little too low to his waistband to be a purely innocent attack.
Baekhyun flinches and cries out loud. Sehun does it again. "Stop it, stop stop! That's ticklish!"
Is it too early to engage in a little wrestling? Beach wrestling, in the sand, with a merman on legs. Then again, Sehun's upper body muscles are extremely well defined. There'd be no advantage here, and Baekhyun isn't sure he wants to try. He rolls away, giggling. Sehun tries to follow him, but he overestimates his ability to balance on his knees and stumbles into the sand. He eats dust with a loud cry, meanwhile Baekhyun is scrambling away.
"Not fair!" says the merman, getting up and trying again.
By the time they're both on their feet, Baekhyun's ribs ache from laughter. He backs away slowly, cautiously, in case Sehun tries to tickle him again. His shoulders run smack into the trunk of a palm tree, one of the many dotting this little spot in paradise. All his life Baekhyun dreamed of vacationing abroad on a tropical island such as this.
So many things he’s learned since then that ought to dispel the myths. For instance, that Pacific boat rides aren’t exactly his forte, and that the food kind of sucks, lacking in completely diversity. He sees the same faces every day of the week, and if you want to be indoors, there’s almost nowhere to go. His skin is getting darker, almost burned in a few places, like the tops of his shoulders and for some dumb reason, his thighs.
But then there are the perks. Like the fact that he’s here at all, not for play, but for work. And it just so happens, when your job is to spend time with a merman who looks, talks, walks, and flirts just like a man… work feels a whole lot like play.
The merman stalks towards him and Baekhyun lunges away from the palm tree, back into the sun. They repeat these steps a few more times before Sehun throws up his hands in defeat. "Okay, I won't, I won't!"
"Good," yells Baekhyun.
But Sehun makes him promise him something in return.
"A secret for a secret," he says.
Sehun grins. "You didn't think I'm here just so you can learn from me, or did you?"
The merman, it seems, has a few motivations all of his own.
"You never answered my question about where you go when you're not with me?"
When Baekhyun meets Sehun again the next day, his brain still teems from unanswered mysteries.
"Where I go?" Sehun answers dreamily. "I like to explore. There's so much to see, to do. So many creatures in the ocean that are shy and I like to follow them, wait for them to trust me. Then we play together.”
Sehun rolls over in the sand and cracks another smirk. Sometimes, Baekhyun isn’t sure if what the merman tells him is true or not. Sehun is entirely too cheeky for his own good, with reflections of Yixing’s personality, which is scary.
“So you do play with sea animals,” Baekhyun hums, his eyes glittering, smile fixed and in place because Sehun is just so much fun to talk to, whether he’s pulling Baekhyun’s leg or not.
“Yep. Sometimes they show me new things that I've never seen before and I take that back to my clan so they can learn more about the world we call our home. I told you right, it's always changing. You'll never learn all there is to know, not down there. There's so much under there..."
"Like mermen," says Baekhyun in wonder. "Humans are the same way, only we want to know everything that's on the earth, under it, in the water, and in the skies."
"The skies? You mean there's more up there to learn than just what we can see?"
"Yes," says Baekhyun. "Oh, yes. Planets, and moons, and stars bigger than the our own sun."
"But you study them."
"Yes." Well, Baekhyun doesn’t, not intently.
"You study them and you know so much, but you don't even know that another race of species lives in your very own oceans."
And there, that’s that teasing condescension that Sehun loves to throw out so much, where the worst part of it is, he’s totally right.
Baekhyun laughs. "We know about you... we know all about you …” That part isn’t a lie. He sighs and pretends to swoon, looking up towards the palm trees and then out to sea. “We…” he adds rapidly under his breath, “just think you're a myth, yeah."
"Not real. Like unicorns. Or like dragons."
"I know what myths are, Baekhyun. But you know, there are such things as dragons."
Baekhyun rolls over and sits up. "Great big ones? Fire-breathing dragons? Or do you have something different down there that again, we've never seen or found?" he taunts.
Sehun taunts him right back. "We had one once. You’ve probably heard about it."
"No way," says Baekhyun. "Impossible." Because there’s no way Nessie is actually real, and in any case, if she’s there she’s stuck in a land-locked lake in faraway Scot-
"It's not. It existed. Maybe it still does. You humans even have a name for it. Yixing told me Jongin told him. "
"Oh yeah?" Baekhyun asks with a skeptical glance.
"You called it Leviathan."
Baekhyun spends the rest of his schedule-less evening sitting in Chanyeol's library while everyone else is eating dinner. Legends after legends and the sea monsters of old. Sirens and beasts, the lore of the ancients and a goddess from whom supposedly both the humans and the mermen came from. Before their worlds were separated, before light and dark, and day and night, before the dry land was dry, and the oceans became filled. Before humankind were set apart, and the all the rest... the creatures of chaos were left to the sea.
"You're up late?" Chanyeol interrupts him many hours later. The book Baekhyun was reading falls off his lap with a resounding thump. The older man laughs and lifts it safely away.
"I was... I was studying."
"You were studying?"
"Yes... yes, this book... it claims that... Oh, I don't know. It's all myth, these books, right? They don’t actually know what we know about the merpeople, right?"
Chanyeol stares at his library, all the titles, some in ancient bindings, more renditions of every kind of lore imaginable. "Maybe. Legends are fascinating things on their own, but how do we know some of these people didn't know about the mermen?"
"You think humans have met them before."
"And you don't? Can we really be the only set of people in the entire history of our planet to have met and studied the mermen?"
Again, for the second time today Baekhyun feels something like an idiot. Of course, of course they can't be the first. They're only one group of humans, with only sixty years of history with one clan of merfolk in one small corner of the ocean.
So maybe there's more than just a grain of truth in those books. It had to come from somewhere. The legends themselves remain testimony to that.
Chanyeol replaces the fallen book and scoffs at the author. "This guy wasn't the best though. Gets so many of his facts and ideas twisted. Or well, his origins story isn't too far off. They came from the Mediterranean, originally. The merpeople. Years and years ago, our seafaring cousins. Maybe even from the primeval waters themselves in the cradle of human civilization. Before they washed down to the sea. You wanted to know about Leviathan?" He picks up another one of Baekhyun's earlier discarded books. "A merman I knew once said it was the Leviathan that chased them from the Mediterranean. They haven't lived there in over thousands of years. Maybe it was a blessing in disguise. If they had remained in the Mediterranean for long, they would never have been able to keep their existence a secret. But instead they were forced out, and for generations they migrated away. The Pacific is their last refuge. Vast enough that they can always move, deep enough that they'll always be able to hide. For now..."
"I'm going away tomorrow."
Sehun's pronouncement comes as something of a surprise.
"I have to do something for my clan. I'll be gone, maybe a week?"
A whole week without Sehun? Whatever is Baekhyun supposed to do while he's gone? Learn another trade or explore the island all on his own? It's been barely two weeks since he met the merman, but already he's feeling inexplicably attached.
"I don't suppose I can go with you huh?" Baekhyun laughs.
Sehun shakes his head sadly, like he knows what Baekhyun is thinking. "I'll be back. Don't worry."
"Oh, I'll worry," he jokes. "I don't suppose there's a chance you can tell me where you're going and why?"
Again, Sehun shakes his head. It's apologetic, but he's also smiling.
"Not even one little bitty hint?"
This time Sehun laughs at loud. "Nope. Not even for you, not even if you pout and whine like you do when-" he voices trails off, and Baekhyun swears he sees something of a blush on Sehun's face.
"Not even when I..." Baekhyun tries to provoke him. It doesn't work.
Their conversation trails off, each of them resorting to just looking at the other. Why does this feel so easy, Baekhyun wonders. Goofing around and acting silly with Sehun. It reminds him of how he was before. Sehun brings out the best of his past, his nature, his easygoing carefree attitude, the kind that won over so many people until he could call upon a dozen good friends.
Or well, they said they were his friends. Before...
"Tell me a secret, Baekhyun. It's your turn anyways. You owe me."
Sehun had shared earlier that when he's angry, he chases fish for fun and eats them. Whether that's true or not — the merman had laughed — the image was a bit grotesque. Baekhyun does kind of owe him.
"What do you want to know?"
"What do humans do when you grow up?"
"That's kind of a vague question."
"Okay, but I mean, do you ever just... leave? Like run away from everything you've ever known. Did you ever feel like going away somewhere and starting all over from nothing?"
Baekhyun smiles. Of all the questions, Sehun would ask the one he's been thinking about the most.
"Why do you think I'm here actually?"
Because Baekhyun knows that feeling. For he did run away from everything he knew.
"I thought you might have," says Sehun with a knowing, musing expression.
If he knew, then why did he ask? Baekhyun rolls onto his back and stares at the sun through the palm fronds. A moment later the merman scoots on the sand closer towards him. He places a hand gently on Baekhyun’s shoulder.
“I’m right aren’t I?”
"Jongin said, everyone here is running away from something. And not just running away, but running to something. That’s why you come here, and that’s why you stay. But why? What was it that made you leave? What are the kinds of things that would make people want to leave?"
Lots of things, actually. Love, failed love. Parents. Expectations. Rules, obligations, society, pressure. Disgust, being considered disgusting. All the friends who turned their back on him when they realized what he was. Where does Baekhyun even start?
"If I start by telling you about my parents, maybe that would explain a few things?"
He might as well start at the beginning.
"Once upon a time... I liked a person I shouldn’t have. Things got out of control after that."
The following few days without Sehun are stranger than Baekhyun could have imagined. He spends a lot of time by himself, more so than usual since he already had a tendency to wander around and think about things later in the day after Sehun returned home, wherever that was. Some of that was beginning to change before. He missed fewer meals and intentionally sought after human company, content with the presence not only of the mermen but of his fellow colleagues as well. But with Sehun's sudden departure, the last few weeks are set back and Baekhyun feels again like the loneliest stranger on the island. And this time, it’s by choice.
Two nights later on a Thursday evening — he has to periodically check a calendar because who keeps up with days out here when the only thing they live by is the sun, and the moon, and that celebratory first shout when Minho's boat is spotted in the horizon — he finds himself sitting very nearly on top of a roof.
It's the red building he was so mesmerized by the day he first got here. The original facility that looks like a falling-to-ruin cheap resort. Baekhyun was surprised to learn the structure was way more sound than it appeared.
"Don't you ever use it?" he'd asked Jongdae one day when they met on the sidewalk between the two buildings. "Not for anything? Recreation? Extra bedrooms? Parties? The kitchen?"
"We used to back in the day, around the time I started on here. But it leaks when it rains, so anything you store over here, even temporarily, has to be moved at the first sign of a storm cloud. It was easier to leave it and honestly, it's too big for us."
"Too big for twelve people and the odd merman?" Baekhyun asked.
Jongdae only shrugged.
But it's a lonely building, like Baekhyun. He feels a sort of kinship with it and visits from time to time. The first floor is like a ghost town, dirt and sand and the occasional lizard scampering about the floor. The second isn't much better, but each row of old, empty bedrooms is kept with windows open to create a breeze.
He wonders what the first mermen thought of the humans. How they lived, how they ate, slept, played and worked or interacted with each other. Sometimes Sehun has a lot of silly questions for Baekhyun. Like why they can't just eat their food as it’s found, and why they spend so much time 'preparing' it or 'transforming' it into something else. Isn't that just a waste of time? Baekhyun tried to explain the concept of art, and got only a little further in his monologue until, 'but people pay you for create things that are only pretty or unique? Are you not satisfied with making nice things and giving them to other people or just keeping them?'
The necklace Sehun wore was such a gift, from his family. A trinket to them but created with love and gifted to each merman or mermaid when they come of age.
'Perhaps because there are fewer of you, in the sea,' said Baekhyun. 'Humans do that things like that too but, I don't know... there's the economy and job markets and... yeah, I'm not going to try to get into that.'
Baekhyun laughs to himself, remembering Sehun's face when he'd briefly mentioned this thing called a stock market and Baekhyun got himself so tongue-twisted that even he thought he was making shit up.
They're so far apart, their worlds. But in this little corner of paradise, here they have come together.
‘I’ve noticed something,’ Sehun had said that last day.
‘You seem happier when you’re around me.’
And of course Baekhyun thought this was the beginning of a cheesy pick-up line, and his heart briefly raced until he looked, really looked, at Sehun’s face, and saw in his expression only concern.
‘Why do you say that?’
Was it really noticeable? That every time Baekhyun is around the rest of their people, how he can usually manage to relax, but never to open up. That he laughs at their jokes, but other than maybe Jongin, rarely starts a conversation on his own.
Sehun, in between spending part of every day on the beach and sometimes accompanying Baekhyun in and through the facility, had caught on to the difference.
‘Maybe I just feel more comfortable around you.’
So he said, but so he now is, seeking privacy and solidarity all by himself.
The rooftop balcony in the red building is the nicest spot on the Pearl Island. He found it on accident one day, in silence as he mulled over the concept of mermen. From his bedroom window, the view is lovely, but it's still only through glass and shutters than he can see out. Here on the balcony, in the corner where two railings meet, there's nothing else but island and ocean and sky and clouds. So much blue. So many shades of blue.
A graying weather system dots their horizon, the only mar in paradise. They have no weather channel to tap into this far out, but it looks like rain. For weeks the only thing Baekhyun has seen was the sun. Now, he can't help feeling extremely small. One tiny human being on a tiny little island in the middle of the greatest natural creation this earth has ever seen: the ocean.
There's already a flurry of activity when Baekhyun returns to the other building. The salt pool slops side to side, tossing water over the edge and nearly drenching Jongin where he crouches beside it playing with the levy handles. Wendy calls out Baekhyun's name happily in greeting before she's flying to the staircase and taking them two at a time. Amber walks room to room with a checklist and clipboard in her hand. "Jongin? Check. Yifan. Check. Minseok, Luhan, check check. Wendy, oh hello there, Baekhyun, check check. Hey, have Soojung and Tao come back in yet? Has anyone seen them since this morning?"
"No," Jongin pants gruffly while he fights with the lever that pumps water out of the pool and back into the canal. They have already closed the mermen's tunnel entrance. Baekhyun kneels down to assist him, and a few seconds later their combined strength colludes enough to pull the pump lever straight. He holds it there while Jongin oversees the rest of the operation, and then switches another circular wheel knob to lock the system in place. The salt pool now rests at 1/3 capacity, just one meter deep.
"Do you do this every time a... you know... comes in?" asks Baekhyun, pointing randomly in any direction as if the storm can be seen through the small windows near the edge of the ceiling.
"Protocol. Even a little bit of rain here could turn into something bigger, and we are always going to prepare for the worst."
"Is it though?"
"Is it what?"
"Possibly the worst?"
Jongin laughs. "It's no hurricane, but we have a modest weather radar station here so Lu Han is probably checking it out as we speak."
"Lu Han? I thought he was a chemist?"
"And an amateur meteorologist. We all do odd jobs here, haven't you noticed? This is a true Renaissance-type facility!" Jongin grins.
"I'm starting to realize that," Baekhyun groans.
Minseok stands in the doorway to his office suite, curiously immobile in the middle of chaos. He leans against the side with his arms crossed and his eyes to the ceiling, to the windows that dot the the walls opposite the pool above Yifan's clinic. His jaw is twisted, firmly clenched and his lower lip a pouting, mangled set of flesh where he chews it between his teeth.
"Is he okay?" Baekhyun whispers to Jongin.
The other man looks over and frowns. "Yeah. He just doesn't care for storms so much. Makes him nervous. Makes us all a little nervous to be honest, but no one's died here in years."
"P-people have died while out here?"
"Through no fault of ours," Jongin assures him. "Stupidity, however, will find a way to weed out humanity. I don't even know this personally. It's just what I've heard. Anyways, Jongdae asked to see you whenever you got back in. He's probably running around like a wild man right now, but... best do as he asks, yeah?"
"Got it. Thanks. See yah."
He finds the boss up in his office behind a stack of books and paperwork and oddly enough, looking tired and just a little bit stressed. Baekhyun knows by know that Kim Jongdae is a thorough employee, especially since he's in charge of all island operations right now, but usually he's traipsing around cheerfully and throwing smiles and laughter wherever he goes. Baekhyun bumps into Amber on her way, clipboard still in hand. "Baekhyun! There you are! Oh, right, I already checked you off, never mind." Then she sweeps out of the room, and Baekhyun enters in her place.
"This an okay time?" he greets Jongdae apprehensively.
"Isn't every time an okay time?" Jongdae's smile is trying hard to escape. "Come in. Sorry, it's just... we have an extremely thorough list of things that have to happen in the event of a possible storm. Nothing to worry about, but, you know how it is..."
"I heard Tao and Soojung are still out there somewhere?"
"Yes, they took the boat to another island this morning. I suspect they'll be back, but then..." His voice trails off. "So tell me how things are going? I’ve been told by some of the others that you’ve been spending more time by yourself lately? You do know it’s okay to socialize once in awhile right? You’re allowed to hang out with humans, not just the mermen, right?”
Jongdae’s smile is light, like he’s cracking a joke, but with all of Baekhyun’s apprehensive, he doesn’t miss the light hint to relax and quit being a loner.
“I’ll, thank you, yes, sorry.”
Jongdae wastes no further words on the subject. “Sehun is currently... somewhere, is that right?"
Baekhyun nods, glad to be back on a topic he knows how to handle. "He didn't tell me where though."
"No, didn't suspect he would. Which, well... that's not a bad thing on its own."
It just means Sehun doesn't trust him yet. Baekhyun isn't dumb and he can read between the lines of what Jongdae isn't saying. And if this is what being a minor failure feels like, it's not as bad as Baekhyun expected but still disappointing. Sehun is keeping a secret from him, and Jongdae knows it, which means he's equally bust with them.
"I... I could try to ask when he comes back," Baekhyun suggests.
Jongdae leans back in his chair and wipes his hair out of his face. He looks contemplative, his cheerful manner gone suddenly in a wave of seriousness.
"Baekhyun, what do you think we hired you for?"
The question feels like an attack. Baekhyun stills, a shiver racing down his back. Is this it? Is this where he gets told they've made a mistake on his personality test and that Baekhyun isn't really compatible after all? Maybe he and Sehun have the capacity to become friends, but only to a level and more is required. He'll be sent back in the next boat, returned to the mainland on pain of death to never speak of this again. Or maybe he'll meet with an accident on the way home. The coming storm would be such a very convenient way for a man to disappear. He gulps.
"To, get to know the mermen and learn more about them?"
Jongdae hums. "Yes and no. Although the ‘yes’ part of that is extremely important. We hired you, just like we hired Jongin and Soojung. In some ways, it's even the reason they hired me, and to a lesser extent, all the other people you have met on this island and some you haven’t.
"You, and Jongin though... and Soojung if she's ever successful, are actually quite unique in this current lineup. Your main job is to be friendly and to build up tight rapport with our seafaring cousins so that the relationship between us and them is stable, solid. Healthy, and cordial. However you achieve it, that is your primary concern.
"But you're not spies. I didn't hire you to force a bond wherein they might be compelled to spill their every last secret. We don't want that. We are here to protect them as much as they are here to help us."
He pauses. Folding his hands, fingers weaving through the others, he narrows his gaze, waiting for Baekhyun to acknowledge that he understands.
"Yes. Protect them. You do realize that, on paper at least, you and I and everyone here works for and represents Big Pharmaceuticals. Oh yes, we work for the big name. CJJ Corp. which operates on the same level as all those other big companies worldwide with great stakes in the market and the game. It's a high risk world comprised of the greediest money-seeking men and women on the planet, and they'd do anything to keep ahead of the trends, however they see fit. The founders of this company actually knew nothing about the mermen. Did you know that?"
Baekhyun shakes his head.
"They knew nothing when it was founded, and the CEOs and all their honchos still don't know anything. Minseok told me he showed you what he's been working on. What do you think would happen if the highest tier of this company realized exactly what it is they're exploiting?"
He waits. Baekhyun clears his throat and says tentatively, "They'd do anything to get more of it..." His mind trails back to the moment he first realized what he was looking at in that tank: tiny, precious, naturally shed mer scales.
"Precisely," Jongdae continues. "The founders and the higher-ups still don't know what we're giving them. And they won't ever find out. They'll never know that one of their original partners was a crew member on the ship that discovered this place. I'd tell you his name, but then it might compromise his son who sits on the Board of Directors now. Anonymity is the key, and secrecy is our greatest weapon. Baekhyun, that's the world you have entered into, whether you like it or not."
Baekhyun pales, but he can't deny he hadn't wondered about all this a long time before. He shifts his butt uncomfortably on the chair and stares down at his hands. Then he looks up at Jongdae who is still waiting... for something.
"You hired people like me and Jongin because we would come to care about the mermen, so that we would want to protect them, always."
Jongdae's smile unfurls like a viper. "Sorry for playing with your emotions, kid, but your emotions... are vital here. Treat Sehun well when he returns and never turn your back on him. There are things afoot that I can't share with you just yet, but soon... Sooner rather than later, it could be upon us."
Baekhyun is sent out from that conversation with a fear in the pit of his stomach which had nothing to do with the coming storm. He wished he might return to his room, to give himself time to mull over Jongdae's warnings. Maybe allow himself a moment to consider the pseudo-betrayal of getting lured to this island for a greater good, about which he'd been given no warning, and now he can never escape.
What did happen to the people who left this island? Did they all return to work in the mainland facilities as has been implied time and time again? Is that what Baekhyun's future will be? He's a pawn in this organization, played from the start without an ounce of opinion, and something tells him he'll always be one. A pawn, albeit an important one, hidden away in the great game of Pharmaceuticals and Drugs. How he wishes now that CJJ had only been an outpost for the extraction of rare blue-green pearls. Or monkeys.
He heads down to the dock to await Tao and Soojung's return. The storm clouds have shifted closer, and the waves are twice as choppy. There's no way he would go out in a boat right now. The two of them are probably battling it out just to return.
The dock sways a little in the water. Baekhyun stands on the part of it which is still over the land. he doesn't trust the wind, or the waves, or his nerves to not make him accidentally fall in. It's shallow here, but the Baekhyun's world keeps getting grimmer and grimmer. Big companies and greed and the fear of exploitation. It's just one more step to recall Sehun's tales of sea monsters, and who cares if they're real or not, now or in the past. Baekhyun isn't getting in the water when a storm is about to strike.
But he’s been asked to wait and keep a lookout. He holds onto a wooden pillar and stares out into the coming sunset, blocked by the clouds. Lu Han promised nothing more than a good rainfall with a lot of wind, but it’s unlikely the storm will be anything more. Still, Baekhyun’s never realized before today just how precarious island living can be. There’s always the possibility it could worsen.
Something in the water suddenly jolts separate from the swell and cresting waves. He shrieks and jumps back a foot, but it's no sea monster there. Or well, maybe in another lifetime it might have been.
"J-Joonmyun?" he calls down to the shy merman swimming just beyond the reach of the pier.
He hasn't seen the ash-blond merman since that first time over a week ago, when he and Kyungsoo called Sehun back into the sea.
Tentatively, Baekhyun walks towards the edge of the pier. Joonmyun hasn't moved. He sways to and fro in the water, mouth and eyes wide open, staring cautiously at Baekhyun's approach. It's only when Baekhyun crouches down by the edge and holds out a hand that the merman approaches closer. And still, he seems to debate the offer. A wave thrusts him closer, and that makes up his mind. Baekhyun's fingers clasp onto the merman's rubbery hand and he hauls him up onto the dock.
A wave crashes against them, soaking Baekhyun's shoes and shorts. Joonmyun slithers easily next to him, pushing himself away from the ledge towards the center of the pier. Baekhyun follows him.
"It is Joonmyun, right?" he asks again. The merman hasn't said anything yet, but Baekhyun swears he was told Joonmyun could speak their language.
The merman nods. "Yes. And you... you are Baekhyun? Sehun talks about you a lot."
"Does he?" Baekhyun smiles, hoping that will be enough to disarm the merman's nerves. Despite the fact that he's a powerful creature with immense strength and could probably knock Baekhyun right off the pier if he wanted to, he shivers out of fright.
He looks so different from Sehun. Smaller from head to fin, and his scales are of different patterns, almost gray in this light, like they’re taking their color from the surrounding, rocky sea. Baekhyun tries not to stare as the scales closest to the pier fade darker, into brown. Mermen, when they’re in hiding, will often blend in with their surroundings like a chameleon. Baekhyun’s heard they’ll also do that when they’re scared.
"How come you're here?" he asks, nice as he can.
Joonmyun can't transform. He also has no human partner, like Yixing or Sehun, out of choice mainly, because he's too shy.
"I... I didn't know if anyone would be here, but... I hoped someone would. The portal is shut. I could not swim into the pool."
"You were coming inside?" Baekhyun asks incredulously. "We closed off the portal ahead of the storm. Drained some of the water out in case of..." Actually, he doesn't know why exactly, other than as vague precaution that their island isn't flooded with water from the inside out. It’s likely the pool could act as a drainage ditch as well.
Joonmyun wavers, and Baekhyun has the impression it's not him who can help, whatever the merman needs.
"Is, is Kyungsoo here? I was looking for Kyungsoo. I wondered if he had come here?"
Baekhyun shakes his head. “No. I don’t think I’ve seen him.”
“Oh. Well then, never mind,.” says Joonmyun, looking even more downcast. Baekhyun expects the merman to slither straight back into the ocean. And yet, Joonmyun stays. His body quivers with indecision. "Honestly I didn't think he would be here. It was just... a possibility. I should leave you now. Storm's coming, shouldn't you be inside?"
"I'll wait a little longer. Two of our people are still out there on their way in, supposedly."
Joonmyun frowns. "Tao and Soojung? I saw them earlier today. I'll... I'll see if I can spot them too. Wait for me."
And with that he dives head first into the water. Baekhyun is in awe that Joonmyun even talked to him. Now he's running to check on the others?
A gust of wind streaks through Baekhyun's hair. He scoots back again to the base of the pier and hugs a wooden post. He could go inside. He could just watch from the window for whenever the boat comes back and run out to help then. And yet, he feels mildly brave for sitting out in the elements. The sky continues to darken, the blue of the sea turns even more gray. The trees and the palms rock and brace against the wind.
Small droplets of rain splatter suddenly on his forehead, and Baekhyun looks up instinctively. Not too black overhead, just a warning shower of what's to come. He stares longingly back at at sea, hoping the boat comes soon.
Then something else emerges from the sea. Something whitish, and at first Baekhyun thinks it’s Joonmyun returning. Until he spots the streak of pink, the top of a head peeking terrified from between the waves. Baekhyun sits up and his blood begins to pound. Pink hair, long pink hair and two delicate oval eyes, skin the color of alabaster and a tiny, petite nose and chin.
Baekhyun's first reaction is to freeze. Few have ever seen a mermaid. They never come near the facility, that's what he's always heard. And yet here is one just meters away floating in the water, and she's very clearly observing him, judging him.
"H-hello?" he calls to her.
Even with his up-to-date daze proof shot, he head spins just a bit when he catches her gaze.
She doesn't answer. Instead, she swims backwards from the pier, adding distance between them. Pale, almost translucent collar bones breach the surface of the ocean.
"No, wait, don't go!" Baekhyun calls out again. He doesn't move towards her though, for fear she'll immediately run off.
She halts. Her eyes never leave him, and Baekhyun stares back imploringly. He's just made contact with a mermaid. Sort of. What if this is important? Why, on the same day, has he run into two other merpeople who are rarely seen?
She swims closer, back to where she originally started. Baekhyun moves towards the edge of the pier, slowly, practically crawling to a closer post. He stays perched on his knees, trying to remain calm, trying to look sweet and nice. He smiles. The mermaid, for the first time, falters and breaks contact. She looks almost revolted and Baekhyun shuts his lips. Perhaps that was too creepy, even for him.
"Are you... looking for someone?" he asks. "I just saw Joonmyun a while ago. He said he would be back."
"Or Kyungsoo? He's not here. Joonmyun asked me that too."
Still no answer, although she returns her piercing gaze and swims another length closer.
"What's your name?" he asks instead, wondering if she even has one yet that he can understand.
Her pink locks float everywhere in the water, waves carrying her up and down. Another wave of dizziness rushes Baekhyun's body from head to toe. He palms the needle mark on his arm, wondering if the dose is enough. Their gaze must be more powerful than that of the males. Does the facility knows this? Are they closer even closer to the sirens of legend than Baekhyun had even thought? Does he even want her to answer his questions.
She hums, almost guttural, but more beautiful than that. It sends a small wave of pinprick-like pain through his ears, echoing in his brain and reverberating down his spine. Baekhyun doubles over on the dock, two hands on either side of his head, groaning. His breaths increase for a short while, and when he opens his eyes again, the mermaid is even closer. She looks worried.
He refuses to ask her anything else, for fear of what she might 'say'. Instead, he stares down at her warily, then cautiously, removes his hands. His mind clears up.
She does it again, a smaller chirp, that at the first sign of Baekhyun's renewed pain, she immediately cuts off. Baekhyun cries, the pain just as bad as the first, but combined from his earlier stress feels worse than ever.
This was such a bad idea. He needs to get away, get inside, before she accidentally kills him. At this rate, he wouldn't be surprised if his brain suddenly exploded. Forget mermaids, no one needs them. Let others try their wiles and risk their lives, this is definitely not how Baekhyun wants to go.
He pants and begins to crawl away, hoping he's going in the right direction and now backing up off the other side of the pier. He slithers towards the shore, where the water is shallower beneath the dock. Surprisingly, when he opens his eyes to check his position, the mermaid is right beside him next to the dock.
Baekhyun gasps and shuts his eyes. What if she's following him? What if she never lets him go?
He scoots faster and bumps into another post. One knee slips off the pier, and lands in the water. His foot finds sand and mud he flails irrationally, now probably inches from the mermaid's grasp.
He actually shrieks when she touches him. The action makes him trip and fall completely into the shallow water, waves crashing upon him but fortunately not enough to make him drown. Not yet at least. He waits for her to speak again, anticipating the pain even as he scrambles away towards the water's edge. Maybe on land he has a chance, but in the water, it's definitely the mermaid's element.
A further wave crashes over his head, and the returning current sweeps him a few steps back towards the ocean. He fears the riptide in a storm like this, fears it almost equally as he fears the mermaid and her blinding skills of terror.
But before he can pulled any further out to sea, two strong arms catch him around the middle and hold him steady. Pink hair catches across his face and shoulders, almost shimmering in his line of vision. And that's when he realizes, she's pulling him towards dry land. He coughs and sputters, but his energy is depleted. Baekhyun lets her do as she wishes, eventually being deposited on wet sand, but far from the waves. He rubs salt water out of his eyes, nostrils flailing in search of fresh air.
Minutes probably pass before he can look about himself clearly, with enough calm that he won't dread what he might see.
The mermaid sits beside him. Propped on her side with her torso in the air, she peers at him intently but doesn't speak.
"T-thank you," Baekhyun croaks, hacking up another mini gulp of swallowed seawater.
She opens her mouth, and Baekhyun panics, immediately thrusting his palm towards her mouth.
She freezes, and he freezes, both now equally panicked, Baekhyun because he just assaulted a mermaid, and her because... well...
Slowly, cautiously, he draws back his palm and, blushes.
Her eyes are wide open, and incredibly frightened. Yet she doesn't move. Baekhyun stares cautiously back, realizing now what exactly he's staring at, sitting beside, what he'd actually touched.
Chanyeol was right. It is different, sitting beside a mermaid.
The scales of her body are pure, pure white. Her skin is pure white, as if she's never been touched by the sun her entire life. Slimmer than the mermen, her waist could fit between Baekhyun's palms. Her breasts are tiny, pale pinkish nipples that match the color of her hair, coated in water and pebbling in the wind.
Baekhyun averts his gaze, but if she's embarrassed by him looking, she doesn't show it.
"T-thank you, again, but please... don't speak. It... really hurts," he says softly, not knowing if she can understand his words.
But she nods, and Baekhyun breathes a sigh of relief.
"I'm Baekhyun. I'm Sehun's friend."
Again, another nod. Then a small smile.
From out of the ocean comes another splattering, different from the waves. Both Baekhyun and the mermaid toss their heads to see what, but it's only Joonmyun returning. He looks aghast to find the mermaid there, out of water and and in such proximity to Baekhyun.
Grounded by his shock, Joonmyun's ascent from the ocean is slow-going. He slithers out of the water and up where they sit.
"Baekhyun?" he asks hesitantly.
"I... found her. Well, she was in the water and... I didn't know that when she made noises it would hurt my head so bad, and I fell off the dock."
That's the short version anyway.
"Oh," says Joonmyun, clearly flabbergasted. Then he changes the subject. "The boat is almost here. You should be able to help them dock and get inside before the bulk of the storm hits."
"What about you?" Baekhyun asks.
"Me? I... well I just came back to tell you that. But we'll... we prefer being deep below in weather like this. I'm sorry this happened to you, but we should be going."
He touches the mermaid gently on her arm and stares imploringly at her to go. She slides rather quickly into the water and Joonmyun starts to follow.
"Wait!" Baekhyun calls after him. The merman stops looks impatiently behind him. "The mermaid? I'm just curious since she... kind of helped me. Does she have a name? One I can pronounce?"
Joonmyun tilts his head and thinks for a moment.
"In your records, I think, you call her Taeyeon."
The storm passes just as Lu Han promises, with a lot of rain and wind, but nothing much else. Baekhyun sits in the mess hall with half his colleagues playing board games and eating, since there's nothing they can do outside, and all the shutters are boarded up.
Soojung joins them last, having come in off the boat finally completely soaked in rain water and salt spray. Somehow it didn't affect Tao's good looks. Only Soojung and Baekhyun got the award for looking like drowned rats, and they hadn't had time to talk about it outside.
She sits beside him now, her knee touching his on the bench stool, freshly washed hair hanging down her back, still partially tied up in a towel.
"Baekhyun," she whispers. "Was that... did I see..."
"A mermaid?" Baekhyun whispers back. He quickly looks around the room to see if anyone is paying them attention.
Joonmyun had floated out to sea long enough to watch the boat safely dock, and Tao hadn't noticed him at all. But Baekhyun glimpsed her one last time, and so apparently did Soojung. The sparkling white tail submerging with a crash between the waves before the mermaid and Joonmyun both disappeared.
He nods, still wondering if he's supposed to be talking about this aloud. Soojung's whole purpose on the island is to coax the mermaids into talking with humans. If Baekhyun had been successful where Soojung had not... he hopes she won't resent him for it.
Silently, she coaxes him from the table and out of the room. Tao raises his eyebrows at the two but then sits down in their empty spot, Amber declares there's no better fun to be had anywhere else than here. Jackson smacks his butt. Baekhyun yelps, but already Soojung is leading him from the room. Someone catcalls, and Baekhyun can think of no appropriate gesture to return.
"Come on. Tell me everything," says Soojung. She unlocks an office door Baekhyun's never been into before, pops the light switch and ushers him inside.
It's not as cluttered as Chanyeol's office, not as busy as Jongdae's, not as practical as the two big labs downstairs. Soojung sits down in an office chair and traces her fingers along a bookshelf with dozens of binders. She stops at one and pulls it deftly into her lap. Meanwhile, Baekhyun tells her what happened.
She only looks up when he says the mermaid's name.
"Taeyeon?" Eyes pop open wide. "Are you sure?"
"Yes. That's what Joonmyun said."
"Well for one, I can't believe he told you. But it makes sense now if that was her. Taeyeon hasn't been seen by a single human ever, not since she was born."
"Born? So you know she exists?"
Baekhyun leans forward and rests his forearms on the edge of her desk. He's still so tired from the ordeal, and his head registers some residual pain. He could probably go to sleep for a thousand years and still remember the sound of Taeyeon's hums branded deep within his mind.
"She has an interesting lineage, let's just say. And yes, we know an awful lot about the mermaids, actually. It's just that so few of them choose to reveal themselves. Since this operation began officially in the 70s, over thirty or so mermen have swum through the portal grate. And not a single mermaid. They're only see in the wild, if you can catch them. I used to believe it was a gender thing among their society. Super protective of the female sex, etc. However the ones I have seen-"
"Wait, you have seen some then?" Baekhyun interrupts.
"Well yes, a few. But I'm sorry to say I haven't had the greatest success building up anything stronger than a mild, long-distance acquaintanceship."
Her face falls for a moment, hair slipping out of the towel which she whips off and throws over another chair. Then she remembers the binder in her lap. Squinting her eyes, she runs her finger over the page, then another, then another.
"Taeyeon... here she is. Twenty years old, youngest daughter of Yuri and... a direct descendent of Heechul's line. It's as I thought. The girl's practically royalty down there. And of course she doesn’t speak a word of Korean. Although by what you say, I’m going to assume she can understand some of that. I should… write that down."
"Who is Heechul?"
It takes her a moment to respond, the scribbling of her pencil in the margins besides Taeyeon’s name taking up her immediate thoughts.
"Heechul? The first ever merman to make contact with the humans. He was their leader, when the first human ship landed here 70 years ago, before the corporation even. A vital contact. Of course he's long gone, but it’s his sons and grandsons who rule the tribe now. Yixing is the youngest male out of that line now."
Baekhyun gapes. "Yixing and Taeyeon are... related?"
"In a fashion. There are multiple lines. I would call them cousins probably. Mer family lineage is respected more along the vertical lines, less about who's your sister or brother or cousin. It's all about who your father is, who your mother is. They're all probably related, somehow, honestly."
Again, Soojung turns a page in her notebook and begins to scribble more. Baekhyun waits for her to get done, but he can't help feel impatient. For what, he doesn't know. For the storm to be over, for him to get out of this box of a building. For Sehun to come back so he can ask him questions in turn. He misses him, terribly. Baekhyun realizes that now. In the meantime, he waits for Soojung to finish documenting his story, ask a few more questions about Taeyeon's appearance and mannerisms. When Baekhyun mentions again that his head still hurts, she frowns.
"Go see Yifan. Tell him what happened and how it felt. He should be able to help you."
"Have you... ever experienced this?" Baekhyun asks upon standing up.
She frowns, but then slowly nods. "A few times. I had Yifan up my dosage in case it ever happens again. The mermaids'... stunning techniques are so very much more refined than the males. Deadly probably, if they wanted it to be."
"How many have you met?" Baekhyun dares to ask.
Again, she has to think about it. "Three? Sometimes, when they come to the surface, near the reefs, they'll let me approach from a distance. Never the ones that speak Korean. I've heard there's only one who does, and only Jongdae has seen her. Liyin. If you ever meet one who can actually talk to you... that'll be her. As for the others well... I only know their names because of Yixing. But there's Sunyoung, and Yoona, although I haven't seen her for a while because I think she had a baby. And one more, Sulli. But again, I haven't seen her in a very long time."
Baekhyun leaves her to her thoughts, silently closes the door behind her, and goes down to find Yifan. His head is pounding and the rain is pounding. The wind rattles against the shutters and the doors and he desperately wants everything to just stop. Maybe after he gets a treatment, he can find his bed and sleep away the rest of the storm.
Several days pass by, the storm clouds are gone, the sea is calm and the sky nearly all blue. And still Baekhyun spends hours each day sitting around the docks, occasionally honing his boating skills, or swimming, waiting for Sehun to come back.
"Maybe he decided he didn't like me after all," Baekhyun admits to Jongin one day.
The only good thing about Sehun being gone is that Baekhyun has been forced to play nice with everyone else, which means, acquaintances. Which means friends. The combination of Sehun and Jongdae’s words really hit him deep, urging him to be more forthcoming with the rest of his co-workers. Which means he even got Yifan to smile once yesterday after one particularly lame joke. Or perhaps it was a grimace. Either way, any reaction is better than none.
He and Jongin has been growing closer too. Until yesterday, Yixing was gone as well, and the two of them spent a good chunk of each day in each other's company.
"I think you're overthinking things. In fact, I'm positive you are. Yixing says Sehun has nothing but good things to say about you. Well, at least he did after he got over the whole 'mermaid' incident."
Baekhyun sighs. "Maybe the grudge is still there. Maybe he's just pretending he likes me-"
"You're the one who's spent hours with him. You really think he doesn't like you? I told you, he and the other merman do occasionally disappear for a little while. I don't know what they do exactly, but it's not like their entire lives revolve around us."
"But, our whole lives revolve around them," Baekhyun deflects. "Oh wait, that's kind of depressing actually."
Jongin just chuckles. "Get your things, we're going out today."
Out, it turns out, means a routine swimming expedition with a larger group of scuba divers than Baekhyun's ever gone with. He lines up an hour later beside Jongin on the dock, who's standing next to Jackson, Tao, and Soojung. Yixing is already in the water, and Baekhyun wishes he would come out so he can ask about Sehun. However, the older merman remains where he is, treading water in the deeper spots while he waits for them to set off.
"What's the occasion?" Baekhyun whispers to Soojung.
Her expression is cloudy, jaw firm and shoulders rigid, even as Tao takes them through the atoll and out towards the east.
"Jongin didn't tell you? It's an ambassadorial visit. Every few months one of the mermen, usually Yixing, takes us to see the representative of another tribe of merman. Think of it as a friendly meet-and-greet. Or at least, we like to pretend that's so."
"Are, the other mermen not so friendly?"
"None are as friendly as Yixing's clan, but they're tolerant, and we like to try."
They must know where they're going, or else Yixing is leading the way, which makes far more sense, since he's their go-between. Baekhyun checks his watch. Honestly, he's surprised it still works after all the times he's forgotten to take it off before an impromptu swim. He does this now though, after checking that they've been sailing almost an hour.
All the world is blue again. Sky and sea, and yet none of it is as glorious as the shades of Sehun's body, his scales, fins, and hair. Baekhyun finds himself missing him more and more. Yixing is nice, but he's not the same, and if they're to meet other mermen, Baekhyun kind of wishes Sehun were here beside him.
Finally, the boat slows to a crawl and Soojung gives the nod of approval. Baekhyun, Jongin and Jackson begin donning their gear while Yixing waits in the water. Soojung and Tao will stay with the boat.
There is absolutely nothing in the water beneath them. Baekhyun peers through his mask, nothing but open water as far down as the eye can see before the eye can see no more.
"Where are we going?" he asks
Jackson shakes his head. "No idea. We stay with Yixing until we meet the other mermen. Only he can really navigate the rendezvous point."
Time's up, however, for talk. The three of them sink slowly into the ocean under the shadow of the boat. From there, they wait. And wait. Baekhyun checks his time gauges, and though it feels like forever, it hasn’t been that long. Yixing sends out a long high-pitched hum periodically, until their guests arrive. Or maybe it’s them that are the guests. Supposedly, this is neutral territory but the gathering, once they’re all assembled, feels worse than neutral.
The lead merman of the other clan resembles all the mermen Baekhyun has ever seen. But he and the two swimming behind him are just a little bit different. The shape of their faces, more narrow, the color of their scales, darker and less colorful all around. And their expressions, less friendly.
As Baekhyun watches Yixing begin the negotiations, one thing is clear: the conversation is not going well. While Yixing continues to 'speak' to him, Zhou Mi's responses grow continually more irritable. The looks he throws the humans' way are increasingly angry; hostile, Baekhyun almost dares to say.
He looks hesitantly upwards, towards the dot that marks the hull of their boat, so safe up above the surface of the ocean, where down here he had this feeling that really, they might ought to be moving away from this particular group of mermen.
Jongin gives Baekhyun a cool, measuring glance. Then he turns to Yixing and begins signing to the merman. Baekhyun knows only enough to follow the bare essentials of their dialogue. Why is he unhappy. What's wrong. Should we leave.
Yixing barely returns the gestures. The hums and clicks of his tongue speaking their alien underwater language grow louder and more angered. Zhou Mi's language ups in relation to Yixing's, until the two are circling each other rather closely in the water. Both entourages draw closer to the fray. The mermen who came with Zhou Mi narrow their gazes and stare one by one at the humans in the water. Baekhyun has a distinct feeling of being rather unmatched.
Behind his back, Jackson reaches for a pouch beside the air cylinder for the hilt of a sharp underwater utility knife. It should be used in case of emergencies, if they were to get caught on something in the water. Seaweed, or the jaws of a shark, or something. Baekhyun doesn't know. What he does realize is that it bodes extremely bad.
Eighteen meters. He's already calculating how long it would take them to make a controlled emergency ascent to the surface. At this depth, extremely unwise. Possibly deadly. All the humans have realized this, and Yixing probably as well. As one, at a pace almost minuscule, they rise in the water. It's slight enough to be go unnoticed by Zhou Mi, who by now is so engaged in argument with Yixing that he doesn't realize he has to swim upwards to keep pace with the other mermen.
Jackson touches Baekhyun on the shoulder as they ascend, each with one eye towards the surface, another to the depth calculator on their wrists. Fifteen meters. A few more, and they can safely head for the surface as fast as their feet can kick. If they get that far.
The rest of the mermen, however, must realize their approach.
One sends a warning cry. Zhou Mi stops mid thought, pauses, and shoots an evil glare at the humans rising around him. All at once, his expression changes. He hisses and makes a swipe at Yixing. The merman dodges, but shrieks in return. Jongin is the next closest victim, and Zhou Mi all but lunges towards him in the water.
It grows out of control after that. Baekhyun and Jackson are the farthest back, but could they out-swim a merman? Unlikely. And Yixing knows this. He crashes his body towards the attacking ambassador and lets out a terrible howl, the sound so high-pitched, Baekhyun feels it reverberating between his teeth.
Twelve meters. He didn't realize they'd be coming out into danger. He had no idea this could even happen. But now the two other mermen behind Zhou Mi's back open their mouths and let out similar shrieks, the twin banners of war echoing their leader.
And still it's not safe to ascend any faster. Jackson's knife is between his fingers. Baekhyun's hand is too numb to go for his, although he fumbles for his knife anyways. He's too stunned to get it out, too frightened by the sudden shift in the mermen, all of whom are now looking murderous, particularly towards Yixing. Their only ally flips erratically in the water, angered bubbles leaving his lips, like a panicked dog whose only task is to protect those it’s sworn to love. He swims with his arms outstretched, hands curled like talons, Jongin behind his back.
There's a hesitancy to attack in the others. It's possibly the only thing that saves them: whether or not Zhou Mi's tribe want a war on their hands.
Eleven meters. Baekhyun stares at them, between them and Yixing, and if he wasn't desperately trying to maintain his breathing rate, he might have gasped and dropped the regulator from his mouth. Yixing's scales, every last one of them from the curve of his hips down to the very lowest fin, flew outwards at a menacingly sharp angle. Like a cat with a puffed up tail, or perhaps more to the point, like a porcupine ready to attack. Yixing underwater, with his body arched cruelly and his scales all at arms, reminds Baekhyun of a scorpion just waiting to be messed.
He's prepared to do battle, and his body is the weapon.
The other three mermen bristle, and Baekhyun sees their scales flex, but remain largely at rest. They back away, scowls on their faces, teeth sharper than any of the ones Baekhyun has seen from Yixing's particular clan.
Ten meters. How could he have thought them beautiful. Only minutes ago he was amazed, impressed by their longer bodies, the glistening layers of their tails and fins. So beautiful in the water, so mesmerizing. But now, they look just hideous.
Jackson taps Baekhyun's shoulder again and nods. Baekhyun looks to the surface, imagining the boat is much closer than it is.
Nine meters. Time to go.
Jackson nods, and Baekhyun nods, but Jongin isn't looking at them. Baekhyun leans forward to touch his shoulder.
It was evidently the wrong thing to do.
The mermen, taking his movement, any movement, as an act of aggression, immediately bristle in the water and lean towards them. Baekhyun panics. He shoves Jongin in the back, Jackson immediately inhales, preparing for that one long exhale that will last until his head breaches the surface.
But they still may not have time for that.
Zhou Mi shrieks, and the others echo him. He slams straight into Yixing's body, who lashes out. He shoves Zhou Mi in the chest even as his tail fin clips a second mermen in the chest. Dark, congealed blood oozes from the wounds like a honeycomb, and the merman howls in pain. There isn't time to wait. Baekhyun and Jongin begin swimming like their life depends on it, and it does. With only Yixing between them as their champion, the odds are slim.
Baekhyun looks upward as he kicks, exhaling vocally and it might even be a scream. He sees the shadow of a merman approaching, prepares to be attacked, prepared even for the same kinds of wounds he saw Yixing inflicting.
However, another body ripples from behind him, soaring through troubled waters with a high-pitched warning. A streak of blue and powerful muscles, that's all Baekhyun sees. His legs are aching, thighs warming from the unintended exercise, but he shoots towards the open water happier in the knowledge that now it's not just Yixing.
Sehun has come.
Baekhyun hardly remembers everything after that. Somehow he and Jongin and Jackson all made it to the surface, signaled the awaiting boat a sign of distress and were picked up immediately thereafter. The whole time he expected to be attacked, to have his feet perhaps pulled and be drug down into the depths.
But none came fortunately.
"What the hell was that!" Jackson immediately proclaimed boatside. Jongin was still sputtering, leaning over the side of the boat as if he could see beneath the waves.
"Jongin? What was that? What happened?"
Tao helps Jack to remove his gear. Soojung helps Baekhyun. The air cylinder lands in a thunk on the deck, Baekhyun is shivering from head to toe. Soojung hands him a blanket which he throws over his shoulders, both a shield from the sun and his own nerves, his fears of what may yet be happening below.
"Those mermen," Jongin coughs, "they think... they think we have something to do with the missing mermaids..." One look at his torso reveals half a dozen small scale wounds. Soojung is torn between getting him aid and wondering what on earth that means.
"Missing mermaids? What?" Jackson exclaims. Soojung and Tao look just as stunned.
"Should we get out of here?" Tao asks, one hand already back on the wheel.
"No!" Jongin cries out. "Yixing, and Sehun are still down there."
"Sehun is back? When did he get here?"
"What actually happened?" Soojung interjects.
Baekhyun lets Jongin do the talking. Now he too just wants nothing else but to stare over the boat and hope the best of what's going on below. Sehun came back. Sehun is here. And he came at just the right time to save them.
He chokes and leans so far outside the boat Jackson has to pull him around his middle to make him sit down.
"I don't know what they're talking about exactly," says Jongin. "Just that Yixing was in part denying something, and they didn't like his answer."
"I really don't want to wait out in the open," Tao interjects, impatiently nervous.
"I know you don't but if... they're able to come to us, I'd rather wait."
"It's not Yixing or Sehun I'm worried about being able to get to us," Tao mumbles.
Now that part of the danger is passed, Baekhyun sits down and shuts his eyes. His heart's still pounding, every nerve in his body tingles. He choked on a few good gulps of saltwater trying to get out of the water, and Sehun is... Sehun is...
"Hey, buddy, you alright?" Jackson sits down beside him.
Baekhyun nods, but his head bobbles uncontrollably and he wishes they were already on land. Soojung is cleaning up Jongin's wounds, an accidental collision with Yixing's body, he claims, and not because one of the other mermen got near him. It stings apparently from the saltwater, but the cuts aren't deep. Jongin toughs it out better probably than Baekhyun ever would. Especially right now.
The boat rocks to one side and Tao nearly swallows his tongue screaming.
"Nobody panic," comes a gurgling voice. "It's just me."
Baekhyun immediately leans over the side to see if he's alone. Sehun greets him cheekily from the water's edge and in any other situation, Baekhyun might smack him for giving him a scare.
He slumps back down on the bench seat, sighing expressively. Through half clenched eyes and the towel still over his head, he peeks to see if Yixing and Sehun are alright. Aside from Yixing being totally naked again, and not a tiny bit ashamed, they appear alright. A few nicks and cuts, but nothing serious. With a little help from the guys Sehun slithers over the edge in mermen form and slinks against the deck like a dying fish. He's breathing heavily but he looks relieved, almost pleased. His skin is glistening, tail scales almost back to their normal, sleek position.
He catches Baekhyun's eye and winks, smiling. Baekhyun looks away but he can't help the sigh of relief when Tao finally gets the boat turned around and moving.
Soojung hovers with one hand on Tao's shoulder as the boat picks up speed, a stern look on her face. "Someone get Yixing some shorts please, and then someone, anyone, tell me exactly what happened down there."
The rest of their conversation happens in Jongdae's office, with certain details that neither of the mermen were able to properly tell finally coming out into the open.
"We have a situation," Jongdae addresses the room quietly. It's almost unusual for him. He sits on his desk, back to the window with a somber expression. Yixing, now dressed, stands beside Jongin with his arm's crosses. Jackson, Tao and Soojung share a few chairs. Baekhyun leans against the wall with Sehun warming his side.
"A month ago, one of the mermaids of this clan, Sulli, disappeared. Most of you will understand how extremely unusual this kind of this is. Mermaids, almost never leave the nuclear part of a mer clan's territory, and certainly they don't leave the fold entirely. For a while, it was suspected she may have died accidentally. However, a second mermaid finally came forward with the barest hints of her supposed whereabouts, and a few of the mermen then put two and two together." Jongdae pauses for dramatic effect before continuing. "It's now thought that Sulli has taken off, on her own, for the mainland."
Only the faces of Yixing and Sehun betray no surprise. The rest, Soojung's in particular, turn scandalous in their intensity.
"She would never-"
"Why would she do that?"
"For what reason?!"
"She'll be caught undoubtedly!"
Jongdae holds up his hands in a manner to calm them. "I know.. I know what everyone must be thinking."
"You mean that not only is her life in danger, but the secrecy of our work here is possibly jeopardized, and all the mermen as well?" Soojung's words direct all of their thoughts to the bigger, looming issue.
Jongdae frowns, but even he must admit, "Y-yes..."
Again, the room erupts into chaos. Voices fighting against other voices with every threatening possibility, and Baekhyun can no longer deal with it. He snaps his eyes closed, and sinks down a few inches on the wall.
Sehun is there to catch him. "Here, let me help you to your room..."
They let them go without issue. Baekhyun's whole body aches. He's tired, worried, relieved that Sehun is back, but without outlet to tell him that, and with everything else they've learned today, he hasn't been able to dwell on it properly. Now, with Sehun walking steadier than Baekhyun down the hall, up one flight of stairs and to his room... Baekhyun relishes in the silence.
Sehun puts him down on his bed. With one long exhale, Baekhyun sinks onto the squeaky mattress and accidentally-purposefully-pulls the merman down with him.
All quiet. Mercifully quiet, and peaceful. Sehun doesn't resist, but goes down like a lump next to Baekhyun's side, head barely hitting the pillow, but it's close enough. Baekhyun exhales slowly, smiling into the blanket. One hand is clasped around Sehun's as they face each other on the bed. The other he balls into a fist and taps against the merman's unclothed chest.
Baekhyun closes his eyes.
And sometime soon, he falls asleep. And dreams.
Of bright scales, and the color of the ocean, everywhere and all around. He dreams of Yixing, and in his mind the merman isn't the happy, friendly person he knows, but a deadly and dangerous beast. Razor sharp teeth and scales, with the power to kill. And so is Sehun. But when Baekhyun cries out in his sleep, he finds not the monster, but the man.
And when his eyelids flutter open, it's the man who lays before him, snoozing lightly. Not entirely awake, not completely asleep.
"Sehun," he whispers.
"Sehun... Sehun, wake up?"
It can't be much later than when they lay down. The early evening rays still stream through the window, less stronger than they were before, less glaring. Sehun's lashes twitch, and his eyelids peel away from his eyes.
"I see now why you prefer things like soft beds and mattresses," says Sehun under his breath. His lips roll into a lazy smile, and Baekhyun titters in response. One of the merman's arms is wrapped around his hips — how, when, did that even happen? He doesn't move away though. He's cozy enough right where he is.
"It's nice huh?"
"Yes. So are you."
Baekhyun blushes. There's really no other reaction he could give.
"Long day?" Sehun spares him having to speak about it. "I thought I wasn't going to reach you in time."
"At the rendezvous?" Baekhyun asks. "How... how did you know we'd be there? Where've you been this whole time? When did you — "
Sehun removes the arm from his hip and hopes a single finger before Baekhyun's lips. Laughing, he says, "One question at a time now, okay?" Then he softens, and smiles once more, a little brighter this time.
"When did you get back?" is the only question Baekhyun wants to know. And, "I missed you."
Sehun opens his mouth to answer. Instead, he's caught by Baekhyun's confession. His lips falter, smile drops. A mesmerizing look overtakes his expression.
"And here I thought you'd enjoy having all this time to yourself."
"I didn't. It was boring... I was worried because you were gone so long. I thought maybe you wouldn't come back."
"I went to find out about the mermaids," says Sehun.
"Mermaids? Plural?" Baekhyun remembers only Jongin saying something about it on the boat, more than one missing mermaid that was the reason Zhou Mi was so upset.
"That's what I went to find out. Sulli, who's part of my family has been missing for a long time. But then we heard one of Zhou Mi's clan was gone as well. They thought the two events were linked. Turns out, they were not...."
"Then Zhou Mi's mermaid?"
"On an unrelated little adventure, hiding no doubt for fun. She's definitely been seen in the area, but it's not like Sulli. Sulli is... truly gone to the mainland."
A far-off look clouds his eyes.
"How... is that even possible?"
Sehun sighs and looks back at Baekhyun. "You realize, she won't be the first one to do that. To take off into your grand dry world, to pass for a human and live the life of a stranger."
Baekhyun hasn't actually.
"The difference is, she's the only female to try that. The rest have all been like me... or Yixing. Or... well, but generations have done that, and the only ones that achieve it well are the ones who gain the support from... people like you. That's partly what you're here for, did no one tell you? You and Jongin. If... Yixing or I ever want to go there... that's part of the Exchange."
Baekhyun gulps. "What?"
"And you were probably wondering when you'd ever get to go home..." Sehun teases him, the smile back in place, practically a smirk.
"Y-you mean. I'm, I'm your ticket to the human world if you wanted to go?"
"Yes," says Sehun succinctly. "You could do it right? Be my guide, my aide, my eyes and my legs, keep me from tripping up and committing some grave faux pas, right?"
Baekhyun sits up. "Hang on hang on hang on... You... you want to go? Actually go there?"
But Sehun frowns. "Maybe. I don't know yet. It's just an option."
"How many mermen from this island have gone to the human world?" Baekhyun presses.
Sehun leans back and starts to think. "Dozens probably? Not every mermen wants to. In fact, most don't. But a few occasionally do. I haven't given it a lot of thought. Apparently, Sulli gave it even more thought, but she's unprepared for it. She can barely... Actually I don't even know if she can transform at will. I know she was practicing it, but I thought it was a whim. We all did. We didn't take her seriously and now... now she's in danger." Sehun groans and runs his hand messily through his bangs in utter frustration.
"Oh." Right. That takes Baekhyun back to the situation at hand. Sulli. "Did you... did you know her well?"
"Of course." Sehun frowns like Baekhyun just asked something stupid, which he probably did.
"Did you like her?"
Once again, the mermen's eyes narrow for a moment as they take in Baekhyun's wavering gaze.
"You mean, did I like her... like that ?"
Hesitantly, Baekhyun nods.
Sehun snorts, but then he turns serious. "No. I didn't. But she is still my family, like everyone in the clan is my family. We have to find her..."
A gentle knock on the door takes their attention elsewhere.
"Yes?" says Baekhyun, sitting up and immediately extricating himself from the tangle of sheets and Sehun's stray limbs.
Jackson opens the door, and if he's surprised to find Baekhyun and the merman sitting up together on the bed, he doesn't show it.
"Sorry to disturb you, but we need everyone downstairs. There's a merman in the pool. I think it's Kyungsoo, and he's acting pretty livid right now..."
"I told you! I told you this would happen, and you didn't take my warning seriously! I told everyone!"
By the time Baekhyun and Sehun race down to the pool, it's to find a swirling chaotic mess of splashing water, and one extremely angry merman. Yixing is kneeling on the ledge trying to avoid being hit by Kyungsoo's flailing arms.
"Kyungsoo... Kyungsoo, wait! Calm down! Please!"
"I won't! I warned you!"
"Kyungsoo, I know... we looked. We've all looked. We tried."
"Well you didn't try enough."
Baekhyun glances around the room. Every employee on the island is currently gathered around the pool, some huddled together, some standing like they don't know what to do. Most of them, Baekhyun gather, have never seen Kyungsoo before. And who knows how long he's been there causing a scene and shouting words of hate. The only strange thing Baekhyun notices is that out of all of them, neither Minseok nor Lu Han look surprised by this news. Jongdae stands apart with his back resting on the doorway of Yifan's clinic, one hand cradling his elbow, knuckles of his other hand in his mouth, contemplating something silently.
Yixing manages to cage Kyungsoo's wrists. Baekhyun has never seen someone so distraught.
"Who was Sulli to him?" he quietly asks Sehun. The merman observes the scene with a pallid expression, jaw hanging slightly in second-hand distress.
"A longtime unrequited love?" Sehun suggests. He hangs his head, and then walks forward as well.
"I told you... I told you," Kyungsoo continues to cry, now held entirely in Yixing's embrace. Over his shoulder, he stares daggers at Jongdae like somehow this is all his fault. "I saw her with him... I overheard them..."
"With Jongdae?" Even Sehun looks aghast.
"No." Kyungsoo's glare turns into a sneer. "With the other one. Choi. Jae. Ho."
Several more gasps little the room, and Baekhyun has no idea who Kyungsoo is is talking about.
"He promised her so many things, told her she could come and live with him whenever he wanted, but I heard him when no one else was around, and all he did was laugh and call her names. He doesn't even care about her, but nobody listened, and now she's gone to follow him!"
Baekhyun walks over to Chanyeol, the closest friendly person and nudges his arm. Chanyeol's eyes are twice their normal size, and he looks fairly stunned.
It takes a little coaxing, but he finally gets the man to respond, and when he does, it's only say, "The boss..."
The following few hours are absolute chaos. Jongdae shuts himself in his office with Amber and Soojung. And surprisingly, with Minseok and Lu Han. Everyone else paces around aimlessly, all normal duties hindered by this strange turn of events. And truly, Baekhyun doesn't understand just what is the problem.
The boss, the head of their operations here whom Baekhyun has never met... would never do something to jeopardize their mission, right? The one who travels between the three CJJ home bases overseeing the continuing secrecy of operations... Even if a mermaid grew so infatuated with him that she followed him home, he would still keep it a secret, right?
"I don't know," says Chanyeol when Baekhyun manages to track him down again. "Jongdae, man... I don't know what he knows, but I swear he's been preoccupied with something lately that has to do with upper management, and now this... I'm not sure it's good. Prepare for the worst, honestly. I am."
The worst. "What's the worst?" Baekhyun refuses to panic, but everything Chanyeol's saying has his heart rate pacing a million beats a second.
"Emergency shutdown. Burial of our work. Evacuation."
Sehun barely stayed long enough to touch Baekhyun reassuringly on the shoulder. "I need to see my clan. I haven't even gone home yet today." But when Baekhyun stutters a goodbye, Sehun turns back to him one last time and... hugs him.
Before dawn the next morning, there's a plan set in place. Soojung's bags are packed, and Tao has the boat, both ready to intercept Minho's incoming supply yacht due around noon. Jongdae disappears sometime before that, leaving Amber in charge and the voice of action.
"Is anyone else leaving?" Wendy asks in concern.
"Not yet, no. Soojung is going after the boss to find out what she can. It may take a little while, but she promises to get a message to us by midweek. Something, anything. In any case, it'll be at least a full week before we can know anything."
Two days on the yacht, plus flying and island-hopping. Baekhyun well remembers the length of time it takes for someone to get back to the mainland. In this case, Hong Kong, where Choi Jae Ho was last planning to be. And even if Soojung can learn something immediately and wire a message back to the nearest service, it's two days until Minho can return with the message.
So much rides on this island remaining isolated and shut off from any possible hacking devices, yet at a time like this, they're far too remote to feel completely secure.
Baekhyun shuffles behind Jongin and leans on his side. Soojung's ponytail flips in the wind, and Baekhyun swears the air feels like another storm. Most of the employees have come out to see her go.
"Where's Yixing?" he asks Jongin.
"I saw him this morning. He was taking a message to the clan elders about what we intend to do."
Jongin shrugs. "I saw him hug you, and then he was gone."
Baekhyun shivers, trying in vain to distance himself from that one, all too brief memory last night.
"He'll be back," says Jongin reassuringly, hint of a smile. "Seems he likes you after all. What were you so worried about?"
Unfortunately, they had much to be worried about. Soojung’s message comes right on time with the arrival of Minho’s boat.
Code Blue , it reads.
“That means,” says Jongdae with trembling hands and voice, “that means there’s been a breach of information, specifics unknown.”
And practically, it means dropping everything they’re doing to take immediate action. Everything, must vanish.
The pool stirs ominously, the small, natural daily rippling tides growing larger by the second. Yifan stares down at the water’s edge, waiting. There isn’t a peep coming from Minseok’s room. There’s no one else on this floor, but everyone is rather sound asleep upstairs. It’s the dead of night, and tomorrow will certainly be one busy, hectic day. Only Yifan is awake. And also, whatever is in the water.
The water convulses once more near the portal. Air bubbles streak to the surface and a dark head emerges from the water. It’s streaked in purples and violets, damp from the salty, ocean water, and Yifan has seen that face before. Just a few days ago.
Yifan holds his position, watching the mermen shake his head above the surface and get his bearings. To his knowledge, this is only the second time this particular mermen has come into the facility.
The merman finally sees him standing there, and he freezes in the water. Then, after a few tense moments, he swims towards the side. Two small, pale hands grip the edge of the pool and Yifan finds himself moving towards him. He stops but a meter away, and squats.
Cautiously, softly, Yifan whispers a single word. “Hi.”
Baekhyun has never seen the island in such a bustle. Not even before the storm was there so much activity. But then, as now, there's an urgency about everyone's tasks, and underlying that—calmly controlled panic.
"What do you want me to do?" he asks Chanyeol, to whom Jongdae assigned Baekhyun to help. There's almost no place for him elsewhere. Jongdae is locked away in his office, Amber is running everywhere. Tao took Wendy with him to scour all the other islands in case something was left behind there that might give them all away.
"Help me pack these. Just throw them in the boxes, it doesn't matter how."
Baekhyun hasn't seen Sehun in a day. The merman and Yixing were immediately dispatched to their clan to warn the other merfolk to keep a low profile. No one is to ascend anywhere close to the surface until the all-clear is given, no one except them.
"Where are we going with these?" Baekhyun starts throwing all of Chanyeol's books and notebooks into giant open boxes. The shelves are starting to empty, row after row of bare space. A thin line of dust marks where each of them had sat and the space behind.
"They need to disappear. All this work, everything, anything that could lead to what we do here."
The only books remaining are general studies about the ocean, textbooks and other publications too mainstream to contain anything about myths or mermen. The rest of Chanyeol's collection, over half of his office, including all the binders where he keeps his work files, are loaded away.
"Are you taking them off the island?" Baekhyun asks.
Chanyeol grunts. Ten minutes later, Jackson and Jongin arrive to help carry them down the stairs. It's then that Chanyeol begins to look glum. He lets the younger men including Baekhyun carry the boxes. Sweat pours off his brow when the last one sits lands on the ground, but they're nowhere close to the dock as Baekhyun expected.
They stand around the boxes in an open clearing, behind the ridge line of the bay and far enough away from any of the buildings. Jongdae comes down, and Amber, even Yifan and Lu Han. Each of them carries their own stack of boxes, countless publications, files and notebooks inside. It's not until someone lights a match that Baekhyun realizes what's happening.
"No!" he shouts on impulse.
Chanyeol holds him back, long fingers tightening around his arm while Jongin adds kindling and branches to the pile.
"You're burning it. Everything. You're burning everything!" Baekhyun cries.
It takes a while for someone to answer. Jongdae looks across the fire, small tendrils lapping at the boxes, and grimaces. "We have to."
"We can't leave even a trace," Chanyeol adds.
"But your books, your library. All your work." All the handwritten files and notes of countless generations of mermen that have come through their system. Names and births and behaviors, stories and anecdotes, history and culture, the research painstakingly gathered over the years, passing hand to hand down the line until this one moment, when it all goes up in flames.
"They're just books, Baekhyun. Just paper. Nothing we know can truly be lost. They can be compiled again."
But in spite of his words, nobody is cheered. They stand there for a long time. Minseok comes out and puts his arm around Lu Han's shoulder. Jackson sits down a little ways away and stares at the fire. Amber has tears in her eyes, Yifan's gaze is hard. Chanyeol disappears halfway through the ordeal, after one of the boxes collapses, sending a shoot of sparks into the air.
The smoke burns Baekhyun's nose. Jongin pulls him farther away, and together they stand by a cropping of trees and watch as it dies down. Only Jongdae stares at the bonfire impassively, as if reminding himself repeatedly every second that this is the right thing to do.
Baekhyun is the youngest person here. He shouldn’t even feel so invested, not like the guys who have been here decades longer. It hurts Baekhyun to see everything go, how much more would it be to see your life’s work go up in flames? Yet he feels it. Maybe because he doesn’t understand why, why this has to be. Why now. He was just starting to feel comfortable here, and now this.
Hours pass. There are probably more productive things they could be doing. Yet no one leaves the pit, not even when the ashes are low and the fire burns cold.
Baekhyun shivers. The sun is low in the sky, already hidden by the ridge, and a cool evening wind blows across the remnants of the fire. He hadn't even realized when Jongin left his side. Not until someone lays a jacket over his back and sits down beside him.
Sehun is there. Shirtless, as he isn't cold, he leans against Baekhyun's shoulder and hums noncommittally. There's nothing to be said. Sehun must know the extent they're going to protect his kind, his family, his clan. Maybe it was spoken somewhere, written in the fine print of all those documents, that when it became necessary... everything would disappear. All for the sake of the mermen is everything burning.
"I'm cold," says Baekhyun. An understatement. He can't see Sehun's expression in the twilight, other than his head turning towards him.
"You can go inside."
"I don't want to go inside." It's depressing, the thought of all that empty space in everybody's offices. On everybody's desks. How much knowledge have they lost here tonight...
He wonders what Sehun and Yixing would have told their clan. Did the other mermen realize the danger they were actually in? Would this be it, the conclusion of their program, the Exchange. Or just a temporary blip on the landscape that could be restarted later, after the crisis is over. If they passed it all in one piece.
"But I thought you said you were cold."
"I don't want to go inside," Baekhyun repeats. "It's sad in there. Everyone is so, so sad."
And tomorrow will be another day of prep work and hiding and absconding with evidence until no hint remains.
"I'll go with you."
"What?" Baekhyun looks at him, shocked.
"I'll go with you inside."
Baekhyun's brains reels and turns. "Do you not have somewhere else to be?" he asks.
"Not tonight, no."
"I'll stay with you tonight," Sehun insists quietly. "If, that is if you want..."
Morning dawns grey and cloudy. Even with the shutters open, Baekhyun has to blink his eyes and check the clock. It’s early, before when he needs to wake up, but something has already caused him to shift.
The merman is passed out beside him, naked beneath Baekhyun’s blanket, and it’s only by virtue of them sharing two separate comforters that they’re not lying together with skin-to-skin contact. At least, that’s how they started last night.
‘What do people sleep in when they go to bed?’ Sehun had asked, and Baekhyun had believed in his innocence when he gave multiple answers.
‘Pajamas. Underwear. Sometimes nothing.’
It’s not like he hadn’t seen him naked before. Many times now, in fact. However, it’s different when you’re together, alone, in a bed. And somehow, in all those candid conversations of theirs, Baekhyun has never gotten around to asking Sehun about… se- stuff .
Surely merpeople did… stuff with each other. Baekhyun read about it in Chanyeol’s files. Merpeople chose mates and had children, sometimes they were everlasting bonds, and sometimes temporary. Like humans, they had their peculiarities and their desires and one couple might look vastly different from another.
But Baekhyun has never asked Sehun specifically. And he doesn’t know what they have. The last few weeks have been extremely enlightening in terms of merman-human bonds, and the double-option of being their go-between from ocean from land has been weighing heavily in his mind.
Is that all Sehun wants, needs him for? To be that option if he ever wants to leave?
It’s almost laughable. Here, all this time Baekhyun thought the relationship was mutual, but probably more beneficial on the human front. They’re the ones who learn, who research, benefiting economically and thus financially while all the mermen receive is a certain knowledge of the world. What if Sehun has seen it differently? What if he’s been flirting with Baekhyun, instead of the other way around, to gain an advantage?
Baekhyun’s heart rate bounds inside his chest as these thoughts draw him awake. To the situation, to this room, to their circumstances. To the merman sleeping peacefully beside him, skin damp from natural perspiration, glistening eerily in the grayish light of the cloud-blocked sun.
Why is he here? What does he want? To comfort Baekhyun because his world was spinning into chaos?
If Sehun still wants the ultimate dream of living like a man, he won’t be getting it now. Baekhyun can’t take him home. He’s not ready. The company isn’t ready, not with the exposure they’ve taken on and the strangers approaching. It’s too risky, and Sehun must know it.
Which means, Sehun might be here now for an entirely different reason.
Baekhyun pokes his cheek. The merman doesn’t stir, and it’s enough to verify he’s indeed still sound asleep. Someone in the room next door is awake. Through the thin barricade of a wall splitting his and Lu Han’s bedrooms, he hears the other man rummaging through drawers, probably packing. They’ve all been packing. Not to leave, but to conceal.
The sounds doesn’t wake Sehun. Lu Han shuffles around for a few more minutes. Then the door to the hall opens and shuts loudly behind him. Baekhyun trails his finger down Sehun’s prominent jawline and stares wordlessly at his body. In this light, it’s impossible to see the gill marks on his neck. Even in broad daylight it’s a difficult task, and you have to know exactly what you’re looking for.
Human, he looks so incredibly human. It’s only through touch, and because Baekhyun recognizes that alien feel, that he knows Sehun is not. The dampness of his skin, sweat to the untrained eye, is one such sign. More so than humans, mermen are made of water molecules. The moisture is always there, always bubbling, inside and out.
‘The longer I’m out of water, the more I get like this. It’s not serious. Nothing ever happens. I just… get wet.’
Baekhyun had laughed. Awkwardly, almost hysterically because of course Sehun wouldn’t know why Baekhyun thought that was funny. He didn’t think it worthwhile to share inside secrets of his overly-rated and hormonal mind.
Why are you here? Do you like me this much? He wonders to himself.
“Sehun…” He whispers aloud instead, softly.
No response, but it’s nearly time for Baekhyun to wake him up. Half of Sehun’s blankets have fallen off his body, and one leg somewhere in the night decided to free itself. It’s sticking out now diagonally along the bed, overlapping with Baekhyun’s. And Baekhyun may have gone to sleep in his boxers, but he has a tendency to toss and turn until his bed is wrecked. Thus, he has one nearly hairless thigh draped over his own, and the sensation is becoming agony.
“Sehun…” he whispers a little louder into Sehun’s ear.
The merman squirms, but his eyes remain shut. His leg moves though, the one Baekhyun particularly wishes would stay absolutely still.
“Please… wake up,” Baekhyun pants. His voice is nearly gone. “Sehun, it’s time to get up.”
Finally, after what seems like an endless amount of minuscule movements, the merman opens his eyes, turns his head sideways, and smiles.
Baekhyun’s heart drops to his stomach, and he tries to smile back. “G-Good, morning.”
Sehun’s smile rolls even wider, this time his eyes joining the expression. “I always wanted to say that to someone.”
“What? ‘Good morning?’”
Sehun beams, and Baekhyun looks aghast. Mostly because Sehun in the morning is brighter than sunshine, and it’s more than a little intoxicating.
“Where I usually sleep, we don’t see the sun like this, in the morning.”
“It’s barely even out today. You should see what a real sunrise looks like,” says Baekhyun.
Sehun hums. “I have. Many times. But never with you. We should go sometime.”
It’s too much to deal with. Baekhyun forces himself to remain silent, even biting his lower lip to keep from saying something stupid or else groaning in frustration. Unfortunately, that doesn’t do anything to fix their physical proximity. Sehun rolls onto his side, and the blanket slips even lower to the top of his hip, and still there’s a bare leg brushing entirely too close to Baekhyun’s skin.
Whatever happened to the Sehun who was embarrassed by his nudity? Who covered himself up when Baekhyun first saw him, not because he was shy but because Baekhyun was. Where, in the past few weeks, did that Sehun go? Because the one in front of him now is looking at him with steady eyes that, possibly, took a nosedive downwards to gaze over Baekhyun’s lips, maybe even his collar bones. Hopefully not any lower than that.
Baekhyun answers so fast. “What?”
“Can I ask you a question?”
“M-maybe…” He tries to tease.
“You told me once, that you liked someone before you came here. A human. I mean, of course they were human. But… what happened, exactly?”
Does he have to ask these questions while they’re in the same bed?!
“What, do you mean by ‘what happened’. I told you. I liked someone and… I thought maybe they liked me, but I was wrong. I got it all wrong.”
“You said that, yes. But tell me more about it? Who did you like? What were the signs you liked them. It was a girl?” The relaxed posture Sehun effects during this string of questions don’t really help Baekhyun’s excitability. “I mean, what did you say and… how did you confess. Or, was it not a girl? I know that can… happen, in your society.”
“How, how do you know?” is the only question to which Baekhyun can respond.
Sehun reclines his head back onto Baekhyun’s pillow and lazily smiles, his eyes panning upwards to the ceiling. “Yixing told me. Actually… Yixing says he knows, how it… works.”
Well of course it would be Yixing. But now it’s Baekhyun’s turn to be flabbergasted. “What do you mean he knows, how it works?”
Baekhyun is aware that he isn’t answering any of Sehun’s questions. But somehow, they’re not important. Or rather, they’re not as important as driving into the source of Sehun’s fixation.
“Don’t you know about him and Jongin? I thought it was obvious to everyone. Especially to me. I’ve seen them… on the beach.”
For one split moment, Baekhyun really hopes Sehun means, he’s seen them… playing volleyball on the beach. Somehow though, he thinks that’s wrong. And he doesn’t know how to address it.
“You’ve seen them…” he repeats with a deadened tone.
“I just wondered. Is that how it always is between us?”
“Between our species,” Sehun clarifies, although Baekhyun needs no clarification. His heart rate has resumed its beating, a sure difference for the few times this morning that it has stopped completely. His temples are sweating, and Sehun’s leg is still touching his.
“I… I don’t know. I mean I only know you, and Jongin and Yixing.” He manages this without stuttering too much.
“So you don’t know if that kind of… relationship is typical?” Sehun’s words are even, measured, probing, and Baekhyun knows exactly what he means.
Baekhyun shakes his head, an action so minute that he can almost believe he’s denying this entire conversation is happening.
“What happened to you, before you came here?” Sehun asks again.
And this time, Baekhyun has to answer. “I… liked a person I wasn’t supposed to. A boy. His name was Sungjong. I thought he liked boys too. I thought he liked me. But he was… or rather, I was wrong.”
“Why didn’t he like you?”
“Because he thought I was disgusting.”
Baekhyun has never said that out loud before. The words leave his throat before he can think about them, a hollow, emptying feeling that actually feels kind of good. Except he’s telling this to another man, a merman yes, but a man, who is currently occupied with tearing down Baekhyun’s inhibitions while laying beside him naked, and has already confessed to watching other men doing… stuff on a beach.
He shuts his eyes, half-reveling in this confession, half panicking. The bed shifts, and Baekhyun’s panic doubles. Sehun, when he opens his eyes, is leaning closer to him, one elbow propping himself up, the other seeking Baekhyun’s forearm.
“You didn’t let that hurt you did you?”
Baekhyun gulps. “Maybe.”
It had been awful. Sungjong’s reaction, and that incredible sinking feeling of having made the worst mistake ever. Baekhyun hoped it could be contained. At the very least, maybe no one would hear about it. Another false hope. Sungjong, so worried about his own honor, had told everyone, laughing while he did so. And it was that casually thrown sneer, hidden behind fake mirth, that caused Baekhyun’s world to fall apart.
“You’re not disgusting,” says Sehun.
But that’s not what people said at the time. The rumors made it around the university. His family even found out. His mother didn’t know what to say. Baekhyun took her silence to mean she hated him too, and he threw that in her face. Maybe it wasn’t true. Maybe she just needed time. But Baekhyun didn’t give it to her, he was too afraid of facing a possible worse truth.
“Hmm?” He’s barely paying attention to Sehun’s words, too caught up in the past, too caught up in trying to leave the past behind that he misses completely the look in Sehun’s eyes.
“Would you think it disgusting if I kissed you right now?”
That shocks his system all right. His eyes fly open, Sehun is so close to his face, and there’s hesitation in his gaze, but also a resolute desire to remove the distance. Baekhyun doesn’t think. His breath fails him, but his head shakes no, and somehow he gets out a few words.
“I… wouldn’t, no.”
All of the past is wiped away the moment Sehun presses his lips to his. He gasps at their touch, warm and moist like the rest of the merman’s body, salty and fragrant. The hand on his forearm slides up his body, around his shoulders and around the curve of his back. Without removing his lips, Sehun is caging him in, rolling over his body until Baekhyun is completely on his back.
And maybe he doesn’t know the difference between a simple kiss and something more, but it’s a full blown make-out session within seconds. Baekhyun doesn’t bother with slowing it down. His lower half is still covered in blankets, but Sehun’s slips off entirely as he brings his knees around either side of Baekhyun’s hips until he’s crouching on all fours, elbows and knees and his mouth still on Baekhyun’s.
Baekhyun groans at the first taste of tongue. He parts his mouth wide, Sehun greedily takes his breath. Nostrils flailing, Baekhyun gasps and Sehun returns the action. For one second, the merman withdraws. It’s barely enough space for each of them to resume breathing, and Baekhyun’s eyes shoot straight open. Sehun is staring at him. His tongue runs along his upper lip, chest heaving slightly. He looks like he might draw away, but then Baekhyun retrieves one of his shell-shocked limbs and reaches up, drawing the other man back to him. In the moment before Sehun’s body stutters and collapses, he looks down and gets an eyeful of toned, tanned abs, a narrow waist and a half-prominent erection, but then all that weight falls on top of him, and he can’t find it in himself to complain.
Sehun kisses him through the panic, sometimes tenderly, sometimes hungrily. Baekhyun keeps his hands up high, too afraid of where this might go if he lowers them any farther than the small of Sehun’s back. Even with all that skin on display, Sehun only asked him for a kiss. And the merman, despite going above and beyond, hasn’t reached any lower than Baekhyun’s chest either.
It’s a lot of think about. Even in the back of his mind, even though his body has taken over most of the functioning of his brain, there’s an awareness here that Baekhyun is currently kissing a merman passionately in his own bed, and surely there are consequences to this?
He lifts his head when Sehun tries to draw away, a murmur of protest already passing through his voice when Sehun only falls to the side, now pressing his lips against the side of his neck.
Where does this lead? How far does it go? And Baekhyun doesn’t just mean right now, but today. Tomorrow. The day beyond that. With so much tension racing across the island as they await the consequences of the leak, where does Sehun fit into that? More importantly, where do Baekhyun and Sehun fit into that?
Sehun whimpers, and Baekhyun notes that it’s because he’s finally stopped kissing his throat. His breath is still hot against his skin, and his entire body is a furnace. It’s a match to Baekhyun’s too, but all he can do at this moment is let gravity have its way and sink onto the mattress with half an additional body on top.
“Th-that was more than just kissing,” Baekhyun laughs, half-wheezes. He feels Sehun’s lips form a smile into his skin as well.
“Because you liked it?” Just using his lips to speak has them brushing, tickling Baekhyun’s throat.
He squirms playfully. “Yes.” Maybe if he pretends this was just a fun little reprieve, Sehun won’t notice that his crotch is on fire and beneath his blanket, his dick is rather hard.
“I liked it too.”
An understatement too if the state of Sehun’s arousal is anything to go by. Baekhyun can feel it against his leg even through the blanket, although he’s determined not to say anything. Not unless Sehun brings it up first, and of course there’s a tiny hope that maybe the merman won’t.
It’s going rather fine, each of them lying together, breathing together, calming their bodies down. Until Sehun tries to move, and when he does, he stops, all too painfully aware, as Baekhyun guesses, of their mutual problem.
Baekhyun covers an arm over his eyes and chuckles. It’s the only thing he knows to do in a situation like this where he’s pretty sure they don’t need to make any further major leaps in their relationship. ‘Kissing’ is all very well, but he’s not ready to explore everything that Sehun has ‘seen’ Jongin and Yixing doing on a beach.
Unbidden, he wrenches Sehun’s former blanket out from the strewn tangle and hands it to the merman. Sehun takes it gratefully, and when Baekhyun dares to look at him again, there’s a sheepish grin on his face.
“I’m not sure what to do right now,” he says, squirming under Baekhyun’s gaze. Baekhyun has to look up, but surprisingly he feels like he has the upper hand in this. Sehun is the one who kissed him, Sehun is the one who attacked him, who rolled on top of his body and put them in this situation, but now… he looks cutely out of his element.
“Don’t tell me you don’t know what to do about… that.”
Sehun cheekbones tense, and his skin colors slightly, but he bites his lip and attempts to look mature. “I know how it works. In two forms, thank you very much.” His bite is cold, but his smile two seconds later says otherwise. “I’ll give you some privacy.”
Dragging the blanket around his body, he makes to stand up.
“Wait!” Baekhyun cries out, unprepared to say his goodbyes so soon. Who knows what’ll happen today. What if Sehun plans on disappearing again. What if Baekhyun gets so busy that they don’t have time to meet. What if the company reps choose today to show up and Baekhyun never gets to see him again. He already had one terrible goodbye with the last person he liked. He won’t let it happen again, and especially not in these circumstances.
Sehun stands up, but he pauses, waiting.
Baekhyun sits up, drawing the covers over his lower half. Now he doesn’t know what to say. He takes his time, stares at the floor, at Sehun’s human toes that don’t even exist in another dimension of magical ocean-to-land convenience. Baekhyun scratches his neck, feels the place where Sehun pressed slow, intimate kisses against his throat, and mumbles.
“Will I see you again today? Where are you going?”
He doesn’t just mean now. He means, for the whole day.
“Home, for a little while.”
“But you’ll be back?”
“Of course.” Sehun’s voice is a little shaky, like he may not believe his own words. “Soon, if I can.”
Baekhyun can’t say anything to that. It’s not his place to demand where or where not Sehun is supposed to be. His first duty is to his family, to his clan. After all, preserving their safety is why everyone on the island is going crazy. It’s selfish of Baekhyun to want Sehun around all the time. And right now, it’s also extremely dangerous.
“Stay close, if you can. Please.”
Sehun doesn’t falter. Standing tall over the bed, he smiles. It’s the most reassuring thing he’s done all morning.
Half an hour later, after Baekhyun has taken care of his little domestic problem, he showers and finally shows his face in the kitchen. Breakfast is usually a free-for-all affair, and today is no different, except that everyone is visibly more nervous.
They don’t know when the boat will arrive. They don’t know how long it will take for ‘somebody’ to make their way to this distant atoll in the middle of the ocean. All that uncertainty shows in everyone’s faces. They eat nervously, quietly. All normal routine chatter is dead. Instead, it’s hushed conversations about what they need to get done today, and was Tao’s sweep of all the islands yesterday completely thorough?
“Chanyeol. Wendy. See me, please, in five in my office.” Jongdae’s voice booms loud from the hallway door. Everyone looks up, but their boss is already gone. He’s looked gaunt ever since they received Soojung’s message.
“What do you think he wants?” Wendy asks Chanyeol. The older man shakes his head, although Baekhyun suspects he knows at least part of what’s going on.
When they exit, Jongin confirms his suspicions. “When Minho gets back, Jongdae wants them to leave straightaway. Before the others get here.”
Baekhyun nods his head as Jongin goes on, but he already knows what he’s going to say. Chanyeol had hinted as much the day before. Their physical records have all been destroyed, but there must be back-up records to ensure that not everything is lost. It’s their evacuation plan. What information they want to preserve will be snuck out with Chanyeol. What working experiments they don’t want to lose will be snuck out with Wendy.
“What happens to the rest of us?” Baekhyun asks aloud.
He feels almost like they’re being left behind as some sort of sacrifice. Although of course it can’t be that bad. Nobody is coming here to kill them, Baekhyun hopes. They just need to… maintain some semblance of operations to justify their occupancy of the atoll. Jongdae promised everyone instructions today. Baekhyun has a wild guess they’ll assign him First Researcher of the rare island lizard species that nobody as yet has bothered to name.
He looks around the tables in wonder. The only ones left by that point will be him, Jongin, Tao, Jackson, Yifan, Lu Han, Minseok, Amber and Jongdae. Soojung is already gone. Chanyeol and Wendy will be gone soon. Baekhyun didn’t realize it, but he’s going to miss Chanyeol. Half of what he knows about mermen, Baekhyun learned from him. But soon, they won’t have any mermen around. Not until—not unless—they make it through this hurdle.
He wonders where exactly Sehun has gone. Did he dive into the water with a hard-on? Would Baekhyun be quite as attracted to him in merman form as he is over Sehun’s human skin. How weird would that even be…
A few people trickle out, their breakfast done. Baekhyun is the last person in there with Jongin when the other man says quietly, without insinuation, “Sehun stayed with you last night?”
Baekhyun stares at his plate and clears his throat. “Uhmm.”
Jongin chuckles. “I could never get Yixing to actually stay overnight. He likes his human form, a lot. But never for so long.”
Still, unable to respond, Baekhyun says, “Oh.”
He’s thinking about what Sehun must have seen. What Jongin is correctly assuming Baekhyun already knows.
“When was the last time you saw him? Yixing?” he asks instead.
“Two days,” Jongin replies, and he sounds about as wistful as Baekhyun feels.
“You really like him,” Baekhyun says. It’s not a question, not with the way Jongin’s emotions are bleeding through.
When Baekhyun first got here, he used to think Jongin was embarrassed by the merman—or man, as Baekhyun originally thought he was. Now he realizes that Jongin was probably embarrassed by Yixing’s public attention. Less so privately.
“Do you know he has a child?” Jongin shocks Baekhyun completely.
Jongin is nodding sadly. “Yes. A boy, should be around two years old. His mother is mermaid called Yoona. I try not to be jealous of her. They’re not in an official relationship. At least, that’s what Yixing says.”
“I-I didn’t know.”
Jongin makes his pronouncement sound almost like a funeral.
“Yixing wanted to go to the mainland with me. When I first got here and befriended him, he was so excited. It’s all he would talk about. But the laws of the clan are strict. For every merman who wants to leave their tribe, they must leave behind something of their seed. So he had a baby…”
But… Baekhyun can almost hear Jongin saying that word.
“Now he doesn’t really want to go anywhere. I guess it’s understandable. You don’t know how attached you’ll get to a child of your own, I suppose, until it happens. I guess it’s also a good thing that I don’t really want to leave here either. Or well, I don’t know what’s going to happen now… but I was kind of satisfied, being here. Close to Yixing.”
He makes it sound like everything will soon belong to the past.
“Have, you ever seen his son?”
Jongin huffs. “Not likely. Like their mermaids, children born to the merpeople won’t ever come to the surface.”
“But some do…” Baekhyun insists. By now, everyone has heard how Baekhyun nearly died at the hands of an equally frightened mermaid, yet everyone agrees that was the most extraordinary event.
“That’s quite rare. And anyways, I was happy to share Yixing in whatever way. We’ve only… become close recently.”
Baekhyun falters. So all this time, Jongin was undergoing his own private romance, full of its own private woes, and Baekhyun never noticed because outwardly they are so casual.
Jongin jolts, like he’s suddenly realized how mopey he sounds. He pats his own leg twice and gives a sideways smile in Baekhyun’s direction. “We’ll get through this. It won’t be so bad. Can’t be all that bad.”
When Baekhyun leaves a few minutes later, he chances upon Amber in the hall carrying a stack of manilla files. She looks rushed and stressed as usual, but her face lights up in reprieve at Baekhyun’s apparition.
“Baekhyun! Are you heading pool side? Can you take some things down for me?”
He doesn’t contradict her. Not a minute later he’s knocking on Minseok’s lab with a sealed envelope for delivery. It takes longer for them to answer. Minseok opens the door with a haggard look, takes one look at Baekhyun’s envelope and accepts it without a word. The door shuts in Baekhyun’s face before he can even smile. It echoes across the pool. Baekhyun steps back, feeling almost wounded. He knows everybody is overloaded with worry, but that was rude even for Minseok’s nature.
Yifan is staring at him from across the room when he turns around. Normally the doctor/vet just looks at him with a sly smirk or grimace of superiority. Now, however, his expression is completely blank. Almost contemplative. Baekhyun sees him glance once towards the portal opening, but only briefly. He bristles a little when he sees Baekhyun looking back.
“Need anything?” he says, when Baekhyun walks around the pool.
Baekhyun shakes his head and sees the tension slowly relieve itself from Yifan’s postured shoulders. He’d offer to help the man with anything, but doubts Yifan would accept it. Ever since the first time they met, Baekhyun has felt nothing but closed-off cynicism. It frightens him. Without the few friendships he’s tentatively developed since arriving here, that could very well be him in a few years’ time.
Who was it that said, everyone on the island is here because they’re running from something. They stay, because they’d rather be here than anywhere else.
What’s Yifan here for then? What’s his story, why does he relegate himself to this kind of living. For that matter, why is Chanyeol here? Other than his love of studying the mermen, he couldn’t have possibly known what he was getting into when he arrived. Like Baekhyun, everyone probably flew and sailed out here in a daze, not knowing what exactly they were doing, or where they were going. Did Jongdae ever suspect he’d be leading a covert operation aimed at the complete cover-up of a supposed-mythical species?
So many possibilities, so many stories, none of them known. And somehow they all ended up here, and in spite of that, here they are happy. Even Yifan, when he thinks no one is paying attention, seems content in his work.
It’s a retreat, a last resort, a haven for misfits like Baekhyun. A paradise for the guys who like only sun and sand, like Jackson and Tao. An adventure, a challenge, for Soojung and her endless mission to court the mermaids. A hideaway for the quiet ones. Like Minseok and Lu Han, always holed up in their lab.
And now it’s all about to be jeopardized.
“Are you sure you don’t need anything?” Yifan asks again, more gruffly this time. His eyebrows are furrowed, like he wishes Baekhyun would leave already. Baekhyun has been thinking all this time, without moving. He hadn’t realized.
“No, no, sorry. I’m good.”
He’s not actually. But everyone already knows that anyways. None of them right now are ‘good’.
Two days later, Baekhyun’s sitting on the dock, waiting.
Chanyeol and Wendy left this morning with their most prized research data. Suddenly, there’s no more ‘work’ to be done. The task of the day, every day, until their visitors come is to bolster the facade of their cover-up operations. Minseok and Lu Han are working only on plant-based research. Jongin and Baekhyun have been given a crash course on monitoring the health of all nearby reefs, something they usually oversaw anyways but with help of the mermen themselves. Jongdae and Amber still oversee the entire facility, Jackson and Tao still do all the maintenance and odd jobs. Yifan is just a doctor. Baekhyun hopes no one will look too closely at his credentials and see he’s not actually a doctor of humans. Everyone has been thoroughly mock-interrogated to make sure they don’t crack under fire, and Baekhyun knows it was a good seminar because even Jongdae almost made him cry demanding he tell all he knows, and still Baekhyun didn’t crack.
It’s cloudy again. Lu Han says there’s a chance for rain, but so far there’s nothing except a slightly more troubled sea. The waves crash against his bare toes, then retreat. He numbers each crest out of boredom until he loses count.
Yixing came back this morning, all smiles and winks for Baekhyun—Sehun probably told him everything—before bounding off to find Jongdae. Baekhyun watched Jongdae hand Yixing an envelope and whisper something in his ear. Then he and Jongin disappeared together and no one bothered to follow them.
Sehun will be back though. That’s what Yixing said.
That’s why Baekhyun waits. Because he has nothing better to do than sit around waiting on a merman like a lovestruck loser.
What if when Sehun comes back, he will have thought about things? Could he regret giving away his kisses so freely? Or maybe he didn’t mean anything special by it.
The longer he waits the more nervous he gets. Every abnormal ripple in the surface of the ocean gets his heart beating loud and his breaths growing weak. Each time, it’s not Sehun. Not yet.
The wire Minho brought them included a cryptic remark about the status of their company execs. Jongdae translated it as giving them two days. Two more days until… what. The end? No one knows.
Baekhyun stares far out into the horizon, almost willing himself to see what will happen in the future.
He misses the change in the water, misses completely that hand that yanks on his ankle and drags him down into the water. No time to scream, because he’s underwater and halfway panicking, but all around him is the sound of mirth. Eyes shut and blind, he kicks his feet and flails his arms, looking for the merman who did this to him.
He gasps once when his head breaches the surface, immediately treading water to the rhythm of Sehun’s laughter. The merman grabs him from behind. He fears he’s about to be pulled under again, but Sehun just hugs him to himself. The scales of tail fin are sleek and just a little bit prickly against his legs, but the arms that hold him are strong, and the nose pressed against his nape is gentle.
“Sehun… Sehun …” Baekhyun splutters, still coughing salt water. He can’t actually be angry though.
“Miss me?” the merman asks loudly over Baekhyun’s splashing. He’s having a hard time trusting that Sehun won’t drop him and let him sink like a rock. His feet want to kick, even though he’s being held.
With a supreme act of willpower, he forces himself to calm down and only then does he look over his shoulder and say, “No,” rather haughtily.
Sehun doesn’t believe him, but that’s okay because Baekhyun knew it was going to be a lost cause.
“Where were you?” Baekhyun asks instead.
Sehun chuckles. “You always ask me that, and I can never tell you.”
“It was worth asking,” he teases.
“Hmmm. Hey, want to go for a swim?”
“Like this?! You’re not carrying me like this out into the ocean.”
“Why not, don’t you trust me?”
Baekhyun does of course, but he doesn’t trust himself not to flail all over the place due to proximity, and this time it has nothing to do with a naked body. It’s the intimacy of Sehun’s presence all on its own. It’s his hands, one of which is wrapped around Baekhyun’s waist dangerously close to his elastic swim trunks, and the other which is skirting his upper body, several fingers grazing close to what’s beginning to be an extremely sensitive nipple.
“Fine. We can do other, more boring things,” Sehun concedes.
Baekhyun tries not to choke on his frightened laughter.
He wants to talk about it, them, all that scary stuff they didn’t really get around to the other day. Like, was the kissing a one-time experimental thing, or does Sehun really like it. As in, really, really like it?
As soon as his feet touch sand, Baekhyun crawls out of the water on all fours until he can stand up. He turns around, expecting Sehun to transform. Instead, all he sees are the merman’s eyes shining brightly, caught up in something that’s got him so fixated, Baekhyun turns around to look.
There’s nothing there.
It’s him Sehun is looking at.
“What?” he asks, for lack of a better response.
Slowly, the merman pulls himself onto the sand, sitting there with all his bluish scales sparkling, even in the muted cloudy light.
“You know, Joonmyun told me about meeting you. And Taeyeon too.”
“Oh?” Baekhyun whispers nervously.
“They said they liked you.”
“Even the-the mermaid?” He feels awkward saying her name like they’re somehow best friends. He kind of remembers her scaring the shit out of him, and vice versa. To get a glowing seal of approval was not something he expected.
“Well, she said you were kind of scary, but that was probably because she tried to talk to you. She just wanted to say Hi, you know. Once she realized she couldn’t communicate without you passing out, she got really sad. I don’t think she’s ever tried to talk with a human before.”
“Why was she here then?”
“Looking for Sulli. Looking for Kyungsoo, who was looking for Sulli. Our kind, we get kind of desperate when we lose someone.”
Is he talking only about them, or did Baekhyun just detect a deeper emotion.
“Sehun?” he says tentatively.
The merman hums.
“You won’t lose me, you know that, right?”
And who knows if that’s a promise he can keep. But it’s one he definitely has to make. Anything to put a smile back on Sehun’s face and keep it there for good. For as long as Baekhyun can.
“Thank you,” he says simply in reply.
D-Day dawns bright and cheery. In contrast to the weather, everyone’s moods are gloomy, nervous, scared. It’s a slap in the face to stand beneath the sun’s warm rays, aligned as they are in single file row behind the dock. They wait for Tao to bring their guests from the overlarge yacht through the reefs and to their island home.
“Look lively, everyone. Remember your lines.” Jongdae recites his crisp and perky. A few mumbles linger down the row, and even Jongdae’s words suddenly drown out into sighs.
There are four strangers on the boat with Tao. The shapes loom larger the closer they get, details coming into focus, a better picture of their possible doom. Only the eldest of the strangers is smiling. In his forties, imposing, fake and cheerful, he introduces himself as the Chief Procurement Officer under the CEO for their head offices in Seoul.
“Eric Moon. Pleasure to meet you, Mr…”
“Jongdae. Kim Jongdae.”
As if he didn’t know who he would be meeting here at this puny little outstation.
He doesn’t introduce the rest of his staff, all men, mostly mean looking, in their twenties and thirties. Baekhyun privately names them Goon #s One, Two and Three.
“Well, Mr. Kim, I’m sure you know what I’m here about. I checked the files, and it’s been over twenty years since this station was visited by the upper managemeny. Just a formality of course, but if you’d be so kind to give us a tour of your… err, lovely facility, and prove once again that our investment here is still lucrative, well… we can go from there.”
Baekhyun remembers from experience that the only thing Mr. Moon can see from this angle is the dilapidated red building. He’ll sing a different tune when he sees their state of the art science building. Of course, that’s exactly the point. No one wants him singing anything.
He doesn’t ask what the rest of them do. Baekhyun follows behind Jongin as Jongdae leads their guests up the hill. There’s the first thrill of seeing the actual facility, wordless ahhs and ohhs from the mouth of Mr. Moon. Who can tell if they’re exaggerated or not. Baekhyun doesn’t care. He notices rather that while Mr. Moon seems quite intent on Jongdae’s narrative, the goons are each stretching their necks taking in every little sight as they pass their way across the grounds.
So, it’s not just the CPO they have to be aware of. Baekhyun nudges Jongin’s shoulder and points to their intense, craning curiosity. Jongin visibly shudders.
After the initial outdoor tour, it’s every man to his own station. Jongdae and Amber go with the guests. All others return to their labs, clinics, points of interest or, in Jongin and Baekhyun’s case, to the pool area to wait out further instructions.
For once, the door to Minseok’s lab isn’t shut fast. The two chemists sit idling on their desk, quiet and probably chilled to the bone. Their cover-up had to be one of the vastest on the whole island.
Baekhyun sits down on the floor to wait. Yifan comes in last, snaps his fingers at Jongin and the two of them rush quickly to close to the portal gate. Yixing was here with them this morning. He’ll be long gone by now.
Or at least, he was supposed to be.
The door above the pool bridge opens and the merman appears, his face already pulled into an expression that says, ‘Oops!’ rather unapologetically.
“Yixing!” Jongin exclaims, aghast. “What! You’re…”
“I know, I know… Where are they? Still upstairs? It’ll be fine. I have my ID card on me. And passport. Amber is so talented with those things, truly. Hey, where is Changsha anyways? Is it a nice place?”
Jongin just groans. Yifan looks mildly put out. Minseok comes to his door, Lu Han behind him and they stare.
“Yixing …” Jongin still complains.
“What ID card?” asks Baekhyun.
Yixing walks to his side and pulls out a very ordinary looking wallet. Inside is a photo identification card and official looking papers. Obviously they’re forged, but Baekhyun wouldn’t know any better.
“You’re seriously going to… pretend you’re not…” Baekhyun doesn’t finish that statement.
“Of course! Wouldn’t be the first to do so.”
“But it’s dangerous right now…”
“It’ll be fine.” Yixing isn’t the most persuasive person alive. “Besides, I could be of help. You never know.”
Yifan walks past them with a disapproving look, but he doesn’t say anything directly. Turning to the knob to his clinic door, Baekhyun imagines he’ll probably disappear inside and not come out until he’s called for.
The knob doesn’t turn.
“Huh?” he hears the veterinarian mutter, before pulling out his keys and unlocking it manually.
By now, all eyes on are his back. Especially when Yifan shrieks and and freezes right in the doorway.
Another door slams open from the stairwell, and Amber comes marching down.
“They’ll be down here in five. Everything ready?” She stops. “Yixing! What are you—”
But nobody else is looking at Yixing. They’re watching Yifan freak out, his legs trembling, voice on the edge of a freakout. He slumps over to the side, and Baekhyun gets his first sight of the source of Yifan’s panic.
Kyungsoo is in the clinic, on the examination table, shivering and sweating… and he has legs.
“Kyungsoo!” Yifan whispers harshly.
Amber drops her clipboard and sprints towards the doorway. “Oh my god. Oh, my God! Yifan, what is he doing in here?!”
“I…” The doctor can’t even use his tongue. He pulls himself together and rushes to the table where Kyungsoo is looking up at him, sick and deathly pale, but with an enormous grin of accomplishment. Baekhyun never knew. He thought there were only two mermen alive right now who could do this. Kyungsoo has just proven everybody wrong.
“I did it. Yifan, I did it. I changed.” His voice is weak, his hair is still purple, but he definitely looks completely human. Fully, completely, nakedly human.
“I-I… see that, good job, but… Kyungsoo you can’t be here right now.”
Amber pauses in the doorway, her eyes blown wide, hand holding up her bangs like she can’t believe her eyes. “He has to get out of here. Now . Jongin, the portal.”
“He can’t,” says Baekhyun, taking a step towards the action.
She looks murderous. “Why not?”
And then Jongin steps up. “Because I just closed it! It’ll take longer than five minutes to get it open again.
Yifan backs him up, backing them all into a serious corner. “He can’t shift again anyways. This, sapped him of too much energy.” He immediately reorients himself, grabbing his stethoscope and other instruments. Meanwhile Kyungsoo collapses on the bed looking thoroughly drained and unfocused.
“You’re giving him a physical now, Yifan?” Amber cries. “Can he even walk?!”
Yifan lifts a knee. The appendage, brand new and unused to any physical exertion, wobbles and falls to the side. Kyungsoo whimpers in pain. It’s a far cry from Yixing or Sehun’s muscular legs, since they’re more used to walking on them. Kyungsoo, in this state, is almost as feeble as a newborn baby. Baekhyun aches to do something to help, but.
“I take that as a no,” says Amber. “We’re ruined. We’re totally ruined. Yifan, what has been going on around here?! When did this even happen?!”
“Right now. In my absence,” the vet responds absentmindedly, still racing through his examination. Suddenly he pauses. “And… for a little while, recently.”
“He came to me because he was scared, Amber.”
“That we would have to leave. That we would depart and leave all the mermen behind. He wanted to learn how to shift so he could be human. I’ve been helping him, not thinking the situation would really warrant itself necessary. Amber, I swear,” and Yifan looks not only at her, but every other person in the room, including Baekhyun, as if to give them all his multiple apologies, “I swear, I didn’t know he would sneak in this morning and try to do it all by himself.”
Yixing pushes past Amber into the room. He steps up beside the table and places Kyungsoo’s hand in his own. That small touch gives the other merman a twinge of comfort. Kyungsoo’s eyes flicker open and he smiles gratefully, but then his eyes drift sideways to fall on Yifan.
“Baekhyun, keep an eye on those stairs,” says Amber.
“We don’t have time for this,” says Yixing. “We need a diversion, anything. He can’t be moved, so make it around him.”
Amber sighs. “I don’t care what you come up with, but do it quickly. They’ll be here any second and there are already three—oh, never mind.”
Voices sound suddenly from the stairwell, and no one needs Baekhyun to sound the warning to know, time’s up. Amber’s face turns sheer white as she leaps out of the room. Yixing too darts past the doorway, whispering, “Now, Yifan! Anything!”
Five seconds of deliberation later, Yifan stares at the exhausted merman, whips off his shirt and start to pull it over Kyungsoo’s head.
“What…?” Kyungsoo echoes softly.
“Just play along. And don’t look at anyone directly in the eye. It’ll give you away.” He lowers the shirt, much bigger than what Kyungsoo would wear, to cover the essentials. Everything lower than his thighs are still on display. Amber stares back into the room with wide eyes, but when Yifan shakes his head so his hair is standing on end and starts to unbutton his own pants, she gets it.
He leaves his clothes in disarray like that. Fly open, the hem of his boxers a little askew. Kyungsoo needs no additional help to appear completely debauched.
At that moment, Jongdae’s voice can be heard introducing Mr. Moon as his associates to the poolside area. They come into view just as Amber throws up her hands looking thoroughly put out.
Jongdae pauses on the bottom stair, causing a mini pile-up behind him.
“What… is going on?”
Amber immediately cries. “Jongdae, I’m so sorry. I have already scolded them, and heartily threatened their jobs but… Mr. Moon, please accept our apologies. This kind of thing… unfortunately does happen from time to time. When you’re stuck on an island with nothing else…”
Jongdae, looking like he doesn’t want to know, walks towards the clinic door, the party of guests behind him. Jongdae stares at everyone he passes, their quiet, scandalized demeanor. Baekhyun grimaces blandly because, the alternative would be to act petrified and he thinks, that’s not that they’re going for her.
Yifan appears second to last in Jongdae’s line of vision, playing the part of misery and guilt like a pro. With one hand he’s trying to flatten out his hair. The other tugs on his pant zipper like he just can’t get it up. Behind him, Jongdae’s eyes flutter when he sees Kyungsoo panting on the exam table. Mr. Moon just smirks.
“It’s alright, miss. I quite understand how these things… just happen. But Mr. Kim, seriously. You should do better to discipline your staff.”
The goons look on in arresting silence, all their faces for once on the exact same thing. Yifan backs towards the table like he’s protecting Kyungsoo’s modesty, grimaced expression. He finally gets his pants zipped up.
“Sir, it won’t happen again.”
“Quite right it won’t,” Jongdae quips like a disappointed boss, with just the hint of affronted disgust. “We’ll talk about this later. Now please, make yourself presentable. We’ll start with the labs and get back to you.
Baekhyun wills his heart rate to slow. Nobody but Goon #3 looks at him when they round the pool edge towards the opposite suite of labs. Baekhyun tries not to wither in response to the man’s gaze. Thankfully, Yixing happens to step up in front of him, diverting all eye traffic to himself. The goon’s eyes narrow. A second later he shakes his head and continues moving past.
Jongdae, Mr. Moon, and two of the other men enter through Minseok’s lab. The third one stations himself right out the door, hands folded across his body like he’s standing guard for his master. Or, keeping a lookout.
Yifan quietly closes his door, and it’s on him now to make Kyungsoo presentable. No one else will be able to help.
Amber sighs and disappears quickly up the stairs. Jongin comes to stand between Baekhyun and Yixing. The three of them don’t talk, and they don’t make eye contact with Goon #3, even though the man keeps looking in their direction.
“What’s your name?” Yixing finally asks, after about the fourth direct, sweeping stare.
The man doesn’t answer, but re-postures himself bristly.
“Oh, come on. You must have a name. Mine’s Yixing. I’m from Changsha. What’s yours, and where are you from?”
It takes a full thirty seconds for the man to crack. Without looking in their direction, he answers briefly. “Luo Zhixiang. Taiwan.”
“Oh, you must work in one of the Chinese branches. Shanghai or Hong Kong?”
Again, it takes several seconds before he answers. “Hong Kong, mostly.”
Hong Kong, where Choi Jae Ho was going to when left the facility, and where Sulli was headed to chase him down. None of the three in the room miss that ‘coincidence.’ Baekhyun tries not to wobble.
Several minutes later, Jongdae exits the lab with the guests in tow. Mr. Moon is nodding his head at something satisfactory. Behind them in the doorway, Lu Han peers out with a sigh of relief.
“Alright, gentleman. That concludes the tour of the facility. Now, I think you’d like a boat tour of the atoll, yes? Please, follow me out these doors.” He takes them in the direction of the back dock before anyone can ask the purpose of the pool, or in fact notice the lever which opens and closes the portal. Nobody but Goon #2 mentions the closed door of Yifan’s clinic. The goons stalk wordlessly behind him, including Luo Zhixiang. Neither Jongin nor Baekhyun need to go with them. Tao and Jackson, as the more senior employees will take care of this part of the tour.
The door closes behind the last stranger, and everyone sighs. No one yet speaks. Yifan casually peels his door open and peeks out.
“Gone?” he asks.
Yixing nods. “Gone. See, all is well.”
Amber reappears with a different stack of papers and marches right into the clinic.
“Kyungsoo?” Baekhyun hears her calling. “Here, take this. It’s an emergency ID card for you. I made one for every merman long ago, just in case something like this ever happened. Hold onto it tightly. Oh, and Yifan, please get him some real clothes before anyone comes back.”
Minseok piles out of his lab, pushing past Lu Han uncharacteristically bold. He sinks onto the floor right outside his door. His face is red.
“How’d it go?” Yixing asks him.
Minseok doesn’t speak for a minute. But he nods his head up and down a few times before finally uttering, “Good. Fine. Everything’s. Fine.”
“See?” Yixing repeats himself. “Everything’s going fine.”
“Everything’s going just a little too fine, don’t you think?” says Amber on her way out of the door. She issues a few more cautionary instructions to Yifan before disappearing upstairs.
Lu Han sits down beside Minseok. Jongin squats on the floor as well, sighing heavily as he finally lowers himself all the way to the ground until he’s laying flat on his back. There’s nothing else any of them can do today except wait, so Baekhyun sits down again too. Perhaps they should think of moving some chairs down poolside, since so much of this day appears engaged in a waiting game.
Amber’s words flit through Baekhyun’s mind.
After twenty years without a visit from corporate, why now? Eric Moon, Chief Procurement Officer of CJJ Corp. wouldn’t show up randomly after all this time just because he thought it had been too long since the last routine inspection. Not when they were sitting on a landmine of secrets. His story doesn't add up.
They watch, still silently, as Yifan reemerges from his room and trips up the stairs. A few minutes later he comes down with a set of clothes to give to Kyungsoo.
“You’re really giving him clothes?” Jongin asks. “Shouldn’t he be going now?”
“They’ve already seen him. It’ll be more suspicious if he disappears now.”
Baekhyun suddenly recognizes the shirt and grey sweats thrown over Yifan’s arm. “Hey, are those mine?!”
The vet pauses only momentarily. “Uhh. Yeah, sorry. Thanks.”
Only Yixing chuckles when the door shuts again. Jongin looks at him like he’s gone crazy. Baekhyun decides to be the one to ask the serious questions.
“So, he’s never… changed before, like that?”
Yixing shakes his head. “Never wanted to, from what I thought.”
It’s strangely silent in the room, like the last few minutes never happened. Even the slow motions of the pool have grown non-existent since they closed the portal.
“I thought he hated everything to do with humans,” says Minseok randomly, his voice echoing in the din.
“I thought he really hated us after what happened with Sulli,” Lu Han adds.
Baekhyun slides his legs around, pulling them in cross-ways so he can better turn to look at Lu Han. But then he sees the shadow on the ground, long before everyone else. His throat runs dry and he wants to choke. Unfortunately, everybody hears the terrifying words at the same time.
“Who, about what, and who exactly is… Sulli?”
It’s Goon #3, aka Luo Zhixiang who did not go off with his employer like everyone thought he did. He steps out from the staircase making pointedly clear that whatever he overheard, it was much too much.
Nobody answers, least of all Baekhyun. Shell-shocked, he looks to Jongin who’s mimicking the same expression, now pushing off the ground with his elbows for support. Yixing’s face has drawn a blank like he’s seriously thinking about what next to do. Minseok stands up, Lu Han right behind him.
The stranger from Taiwan stalks cautiously towards them. “Or maybe I should ask, what is Sulli?”
When still no one responds, he smirks. “Oh come on. We all know you’re hiding something here. Something big. You, me, Mr. Moon. Are you really so good that you can keep everything a secret?”
It’s not a full admission that he knows about the mermen, but it’s enough.
“I think you’re out of line, Mr. Luo,” says Minseok staunchly. “This is an open facility, we have shown your employer everything of note—”
“Liar.” He stalks even closer, around the edge of the pool towards the lab.
“I’m calling you a liar. What’s in your lab exactly that has your associate so cooly blocking the door, huh? If there’s nothing in there to hide, then why the posture?”
Baekhyun turns to stare. Yixing takes two steps towards the man. Minseok looks behind himself as well, and that turns into a big mistake. Lu Han, despite the fact that they’ve already successfully completed the tour of those rooms, has planted himself right in front of the doorway.
And Luo Zhixiang is a pretty fast sprinter. He streaks past Baekhyun and Jongin, side-steps around Yixing who reaches for him and practically lunges towards the doorway where Lu Han stands. Lu Han cries, maintaining his position boldly, but Minseok wrenches around and drags the other man back by the shirtsleeve. Luo Zhixiang fends him off, and Minseok hits the ground in a loud thunk. Baekhyun is instantly by his side, but Minseok shoulders him away and jumps back onto his feet.
Jongin is by the doorway now with Lu Han. If ever they looked like an incriminating bunch, this is it. Luo Zhixiang, short of punching them outright, shoves Lu Han to the side like a rag doll. Jongin is a little harder to push around, but then Minseok is grabbing the man again, this time by the collar. With strength Baekhyun didn’t know he had, he tugs on the shirt enough to choke the goon into stumbling backwards. Both of them land on the ground this time, inches away from the pool edge. Even with the number of them on hand, no one gets to Minseok before Luo Zhixiang, in his haste to get up, lands a kick right in the center of Minseok’s chest.
Minseok wheezes, a great gasp as he’s shoved away. Lu Han screams his name, but mere seconds later, Minseok lands in the pool with a heavy splash.
“Minseok!” Lu Han shrieks even louder.
Yixing actually curses. He looks seconds away from diving into the water before he thinks better of it.
Baekhyun, wiping the splashed sea water out of his eyes, watches as instead, Lu Han jumps feet first into the pool, while Jongin tackles Luo Zhixiang, and Minseok’s muffled, water-logged shouts grow crazed.
He can’t not look. Even with Luo Zhixiang barely contained, Baekhyun’s eyes are drawn to the water where Minseok wrestles with himself. His body undulates and his back stretches to an obscene, impossible angle. Lu Han is treading water trying to get a hold of him, but Minseok won’t be still. His head disappears under the water, and when he emerges again, gasping for air, Baekhyun swears it’s turning green.
Even Luo Zhixiang, on his hands and knees with Jongin on his back, stops to watch the scene.
“Minseok!” Lu Han chokes through the splashing water. “Minseok, relax!” He holds onto the side of the pool with one hand, the other trying to reach the drowning man.
But no, not drowning. Changing…
“Yifan!” Yixing shouts! “Yifan, help!”
Minseok, still wrestling with his own true nature, finally shrieks one final harsh, high-pitched trill, and transforms.
“He’s… a merman,” whispers Luo Zhixiang.
At least he got the gender right, thinks Baekhyun. He never knew. The way Jongin is staring at Minseok, he also didn’t know. Why didn’t they know?!
Yifan’s door burst opens as he takes in what’s happening. Ignoring the stranger who’s witnessed it all, he races to the side of the pool where Lu Han is freaking out, Minseok half in his arms, half slipping away.
“A hand, Minseok, give me your hand!” Yifan calls to him, reaching over the edge. “Someone help me.”
Baekhyun rushes to his side, also reaching for one of Minseok’s rubbery, water-slicked hands. Between him and Yifan and Lu Han from inside the pool, they manage to pull and push the stunned, almost faint merman out of the water. His body is slim, his scales a dull green. He looks about to vomit, but he can barely keep open his eyes.
Yifan rolls the merman onto his back, pulling back his lids and checking his pulse. Baekhyun turns to pull Lu Han out of the pool as well. The older man immediately pushes him aside and crawls to Minseok’s side, beginning to cry.
“What’s wrong with him?” Baekhyun asks. He’s almost completely wet and risks slipping back into the pool when Yixing jumps over his outstretched legs to get to Minseok. Between Yixing, Lu Han, and Yifan, Baekhyun can’t get anywhere close to Minseok, so he can’t see clearly what is going on. He crawls then finally to the other side.
“It’s been too long,” says Yixing, kneeling by Minseok’s side. “His body has grown unused to the change. It’s been over five years. He’s going into shock.”
“Minseok? Minseok?” Yifan is telling the nearly unconscious man. “Listen to me, okay. You have to change back now, okay?”
“He can’t,” Lu Han immediately protests.
“If he doesn’t do it now, we can’t contain this situation and also he’ll probably be unable to transform for days, maybe weeks. He can’t even swim like this. Would you rather we cage him up in the pool for all that time so he doesn’t drown, or force him to change back so we can actually treat him?!”
“He’s a merman,” Luo Zhixiang repeats like he’s gone mad.
“And would someone shut him up, please?! Thank you!” Yifan growls.
“I’m on it,” says Yixing.
Out of the corner of his eyes, Baekhyun watches the other merman approach the fallen stranger and kneel down before him.
“Hey, hey hey,” Yixing shushes him calmly. “You want to know all about mermen, huh? Well, I’ll tell you. Just look deeply into my eyes. Can you do that for me? That’s right … right into my eyes…”
“Medical bag,” says Yifan brusquely.
Baekhyun runs to fetch it. Over the next few minutes, he observes the vet injecting Minseok with various drugs and stimulants. Minseok’s eyes open, and his consciousness is regained, but the more alert he grows, the more he cries. It takes a combination of Yifan’s and Lu Han’s coaxing to persuade him that the right thing to do is to turn back human before he can’t do it anymore.
Luo Zhixiang sits now calmly against the side of the wall. His eyes are dazed. He’s hypnotized, and Yixing looks down proudly at his work. “I’m going to take him out of here now. Jongin, help me.”
They exit the large room to the sound of Minseok’s pained cries, and for the second time in minutes, the merman’s body twists and contorts, bones cracking in and out of position. It takes almost ten minutes to achieve the transformation they all want. His body is coated in sweat, tears streak down both his and Lu Han’s faces. Baekhyun himself is hardly dry-eyed by the time Minseok collapses onto the tiled pavement, fully human once more. Then Yifan scoops him up into his arms and walks briskly towards his clinic.
“Do you need any help?”
Baekhyun feels useless now. Minseok is mumbling wordlessly on the second exam table, Lu Han and Yifan standing over him in various states of worry. Kyungsoo is still lying on the first table, now dressed but just as impotent as he was before.
“We got this,” Yifan tells Baekhyun without looking up. “Find Jongin and Yixing. They may need help with that other man.”
Baekhyun finds them a few minutes later. They haven’t gotten far. Jongin is mumbling incoherent complaints, Yixing alternates between calmly conversing with their disoriented prisoner, and laughing cutely. Baekhyun rushes to help, if he can in any way.
“Hey, Baekhyun. I think we’ve got this,” says Yixing.
“You sure?” he asks.
“No,” Jongin grumbles.
“What did you do to him?” Baekhyun has never seen someone like this in all the days of his life. Luo Zhixiang, formerly known as Goon #3 looks drunk on his feet, but on top of that, his eyes are glassy and his body gives out tiny little quakes. Yixing and Jongin have him balanced between their two weights, but it’s clear their plan of ‘walking’ him away isn’t going very well.
Jongin grunts and Baekhyun rushes to help the two of them lay the man down on the ground.
“It’s a very intense form of hypnosis. Watch out, Baekhyun. Yifan has you dosed up on some good drugs—incidentally, those are formed by a base compound of merman tears—but I’m pretty sure I could still stare at you long enough to… I don’t know, make you see double for a few seconds at a time.” He laughs, and Baekhyun’s head spins a little more. Not because Yixing is working his tricks on him, but because—
“Yeah! Took me and Sehun ages, sitting around making up sad stories to make each other cry.”
“I…” Baekhyun doesn’t know what to say.
“Can we focus, please?” says Jongin. He leans over the ground panting with his hands on his knees. They’re also still clearly out in the open and if anyone came now, they’d look highly suspicious.
“Oh, right.” Yixing stares down at his handiwork, Luo Zhixiang squinting up at him like he’s trying to figure out what’s happening, and failing miserably. “We should drag him to the red building for safe-keeping.”
“And then what?” asks Baekhyun, already bending down with Jongin to lift the man back up from the ground.
“And then? I’m going to seduce him just like I did Jongin—”
“Kidding. But no, seriously. We’re going to have to spin another tale entirely to make him forget what he’s seen. Or, just reinforce the belief that he really shouldn’t be telling anyone all about what’s happened here today. In his condition, it’s doable. Believe me.”
Baekhyun leaves them ten minutes later to the sounds of Yixing cooing over their ‘patient’ softly, Jongin making small noises of disgust. (‘Come on now, you cutie, listen to what Yixing has to say. That’s right… Look into my pretty, pretty eyes and—’)
Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, he doesn’t have time to watch Yixing at work. More essential, they told him, to keep an eye out for the return of the boat and Mr. Moon and get a message to Jongdae, since they more or less have two incapacitated mermen in Yifan’s clinic and a hypnotized prisoner in the red building.
Baekhyun’s first order of attack is to run and tell Amber.
He doesn’t get that far. Around the back side of the building where he can see the dock, the one where Jongdae took off from in order to start his tour… the boat is already back. And there’s nobody on it except for one goon.
Baekhyun takes one fast step to run into the building before something strikes him over the head. Crying out, knees failing, he hits the ground and everything goes black.
Across the atoll, Jongdae grits his teeth and finally works the hand ties loose enough to slip one of his wrists through the knot. His shoulders heave, sore from the exertion behind his back, but the second wrist slips out easier than the first. He pulls the gag from his mouth and turns around. Tao has already done the same in spite of bleeding gash on his forehead. Drying blood sticks to the side of his face with a mixture of sand, dirt and sweat.
“You okay?” Jongdae asks him.
The other man is already crawling across the beach to where Jackson lays breathing, but unconscious.
“Fine, but I think Jackson may have a concussion.” Tao doesn’t move him, but instead checks his vitals as best he can before examining the rest of his body. “Might be a leg fracture too, damnit.”
Jongdae can’t even curse, he’s too mad. And frightened. He knew things were going too well. He knew, and still he let his guard down, disbelieving Eric Moon would be quite this treacherous. Now he and his two best men are stranded on one of the smaller islands while Moon sails away back to Pearl Island, undoubtedly to cause more mischief, and undoubtedly it will be violent.
“He knows,” says Jongdae. “He already knows.”
“We always knew that was a possibility,” says Tao. Jongdae can’t handle this sort of matter-of-factness right now. He’s been entrusted with the greatest operation in the world, an unboundless secret, and he failed. Miserably.
“We have to get back. We have to… how are we going to get back?” His voice warbles, his legs barely support his body weight as he stands and trudges towards the water’s edge. Pearl Island is so close, but across too vast a distance. They couldn’t possibly swim there. The tide is too tricky, there are reefs in the way, ones they wouldn’t be able to see that jut up just beneath the water’s surface. Even in the best of conditions, maybe, maybe there’s a chance Tao could make it. It’s minuscule already, but the two of them, plus an unconscious Jackson—impossible.
“They even found the emergency rowboat,” Tao intones sadly, and Jongdae remembers watching his last fleeting hope dwindle and disappear when one of Moon’s men searched the beach, found it, and hauled it away.
He screams. Agony and despair, frustration beyond everything. The waves lap evenly against his toes. It’s such a beautiful day, amazing weather, the perfect hour to sit and enjoy the breeze. They might be enjoying it for a very, very long time.
He sits, butt dropping gracelessly into the wet sand, uncaring that his clothes are already filthy and likely going to get a lot worse. What if Jackson dies out here? By the time they’re found, if they’re found, is that cause enough to go after Eric Moon for murder? Would he even have that kind of leverage, and would anyone even care, after what’ll likely become the mermen’s greatest exposure?
Five minutes, ten minutes. Jongdae surely isn’t counting. Maybe it’s been even longer. But his eyes strain and his heart starts beating, rapidly.
“Tao? Tao? Is that… what is that?”
The other man, from his perch beside Jackson’s lightly breathing body, shades his eyes and stares out towards the sea.
“It’s a… or, is it?”
“It’s a boat,” says Jongdae. A rowboat, a rower-less rowboat being driven towards their beach.
Jongdae stands. A minute later he wades into the water, feet sinking into the sand, knees fighting the retreating current, but still the boat moves steadily towards them, propelled by—no, carried—by two strong, slender bare arms.
Jongdae can hardly believe his eyes. He wades deeper still until he can barely keep his head out of water, but the boat falls right into his arms. Pale skin and jet black hair, round black eyes peer around from the side, shyly, as if she’s not sure what she’s doing is okay.
“Liyin?” he whispers. And suddenly she smiles. “Liyin, how did you know…?”
Her smile wanes, and she looks back at the beach. Jongdae cranes his head to see Tao standing there in total shock. He won’t have see a mermaid before, not with his bare eyes.
“Heard you,” she says. “Your scream.”
Tears start to fall from Jongdae’s eyes, but he grabs onto the boat and helps haul it to the shore. It becomes more difficult for Liyin the shallower they get. Soon she has to let go and drag herself up the beach. Tao comes to rescue Jongdae and they pull it up just out of the water’s edge.
Tao can’t keep his eyes off her. Her torso is bare, her scales are silver. Every time she goes to speak, Tao winces like she’s about to paralyze him. Only Jongdae knows the extent of her language skills. He would know, after all. He taught her.
“You’ve saved our lives today. Maybe more.”
He kneels in the sand beside where she strains to hold herself up, bending sideways at the waist.
“Danger?” is all she asks. Jongdae nods.
“Then get back there soon.”
He touches her shoulder. “Wait.”
She pauses and looks at him closely, nose to nose.
He means to kiss her before she goes, to thank you. To thank her for everything. Instead, she beats him too it. It’s soft, barely there. Jongdae can taste the salt off her lips, and hear her small breath when she pulls away and exhales. She smiles. Then she turns and slips back into the water with one final parting farewell. “We’re all here, watching, whenever you need us. Goodbye.”
All Baekhyun knows when he finally comes to, is that he hurts. His head hurts, his body aches, he’s about to vomit because his stomach is rolling… Then he smells it, salt water and the ocean breeze, the unmistakable sounds of a boat at sea.
His eyelids feel heavy, and there’s something in his mouth. A rag. He thinks he’s lying on his side, head hitting the side of the boat with every drift of the waves.
“What’s his state?” asks a deep voice from somewhere overhead. It’s cool, chilling. It belongs to Eric Moon.
“Probably still passed out cold. You sure we got the right one, boss?”
That’s all Baekhyun needs to hear to decide it’s possibly in his best interests to remain ‘asleep’.
But then the voice responds. “Did I ask you to just make a guess? Get him up, it’s about time he does his share of the work around here. This boy’s undoubtedly one of them. Kim Jongdae is smart, but not as smart as me. No way he’d personally introduce us to one of the merman double teams. That’s why it was a dead giveaway when he left this one behind. He’s partnered with a merman. I’m sure of it.”
Someone drags Baekhyun up by the scruff of his hair, and Baekhyun can do nothing else but whimper at the pain.
“I’m sure of it,” Moon repeats. “Aren’t you? Aren’t you, boy? Where’s your friend? Is he in the sea? Does he know you’re in pain? That you’ve been kidnapped? Will he come rescue you if you call your name? What’s his name? What’s your merman’s name? ”
The rag is ripped from his mouth, one of the goons harshly untying it from the back of his head. A few hairs get caught in the fray. He hears and feels the pain of them ripping. His eyes flutter open, but no sound comes from his voice. Somewhere in the past minute or so he started crying.
Somehow they know about the mermen, and they’re using Baekhyun as bait to catch one.
Well, they’ll never… Mermen are too cunning for that. Sehun would never willingly put himself in a position like that—
Then he remembers. ‘Our kind, we get kind of desperate when we lose someone .’
“Nooo….” he moans.
His head is ripped back again, exposing his neck. Baekhyun grits his teeth and stares into Moon’s deep, soulless eyes.
“What was that?”
Baekhyun refuses to answer.
“I said,” someone grips his head tighter to make Baekhyun grimace, “what did you say? Were you going to tell me all about your merman? Because if so, that’s kind of what I came all this way to hear.”
Footsteps sound from the wheelhouse, and a different man speaks. “Hey, we’re about where you told me to stop—woah! What, what are you doing?”
Eric Moon stands up. “You don’t need to be worried about anything. Just captain the boat like we agreed and nobody gets hurts.”
He backs off when one of the other goons, the one not holding Baekhyun like he’s a rag doll, steps forward in a threatening manner. The boat captain scurries off. Now it’s all back to Eric Moon and Baekhyun, and the fact Baekhyun is bait for a merman who just might come flying to his rescue.
Sehun, you better not … he whispers to himself.
“Tell us his name.” Moon’s other man backhands Baekhyun with the knobs of his knuckles. Another streak of pain alights through his whole body, and his lip is probably bleeding.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he replies stubbornly.
“Mermaids and mermen. I know you have them.”
What was it Baekhyun once told Jongdae when he was first brought here, dumped in the pool, and made the discovery of a lifetime? ‘You have mermen! ’
‘We don’t have them, Baekhyun. They just live here too. ’
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Baekhyun repeats. “Mermaids? Sound pretty far-fetched to be honest. Sorry if you think you came all this way for—”
Another backhanded slap. Now Baekhyun definitely knows his lower lip is bleeding.
Moon considers him, looking down haughtily with his arms folded across his chest. It’s silent for a few moments. Then, he says in a steely voice laced with danger. “You’re lying. ”
Baekhyun stares at the deck of the boat, too ashamed to come up with another line that won’t completely give himself—and the mermen—away. He thinks about Luo Zhixiang and the man’s face when he saw Minseok transform. He knew there must be mermen here, if that’s the reason they came in the first place. What he didn’t know was that they can also masquerade as humans. It was that particular kind of shock, seeing him change. Maybe some of their secrets have been contained. Eric Moon believes there to be mermen. But maybe he won’t ever see them. And even if he does… he won’t know their other secret. As long as Baekhyun doesn’t talk and keeps Moon occupied on this boat, it may not matter if no one comes to rescue him.
“Sir, there’s something in the water,” says a voice.
Or not. Baekhyun’s heart, along with all his hopes, plummets to the bottom of the ocean.
Moon allows himself one small smile. “As I thought. It’s the merman. Be prepared to contain him. We can’t let this opportunity go to waste.”
Baekhyun cries when they drag him to his feet. His vision swims, his head is pounding. The side of the boat suddenly juts into his stomach from where one of the goons has thrown him against the side. His head hanging over, he’s the perfect bait, tied and constrained, completely at their mercy.
He blinks his eyes, tries to see who’s in the water. He almost prays it’s not Sehun. Why couldn’t it have been one of the other merman clans. Or why couldn’t it have been an entire pack of them. Three humans against a gang of merman, and Baekhyun figures the chances of a battle, even out of water, would be against the humans.
But there’s only one in the water.
It’s also not Sehun.
Joonmyun’s head bobs between the waves, looking murderous, especially when he sees Baekhyun’s face. Why? How…? More tears pour down Baekhyun’s face. He can’t decide if it’s relief at not seeing Sehun, or despair because Joonmyun is here at all. The danger is only too obvious. One of the goons holds a knife to Baekhyun’s throat. Eric Moon moves to stand on the other side, staring down haughtily at the merman.
Joonmyun holds his place in the water, hovering with his tail fin out in front of him reflexively as if preparing for a fight.
“Hello, merman!” Moon laughs. “Do you talk? Is this your human? If so, why don’t you come up here and we can negotiate.”
Baekhyun attempts to shake his head, but the goon grabs his hair again to keep him still. In spite of that, Joonmyun, still looking furious, swims closer to the boat.
Moon continues. “You understand obviously. Look, I promise no more harm comes to Baekhyun. I just want to talk to you, face to face.” He throws a rope ladder off the side of the boat and offers it cordially, even backing away a few paces.
Baekhyun watches helplessly as Joonmyun swims even closer.
“Take the knife away from him, and I will,” says the merman decisively.
Moon grins, terribly excited.
“I knew we could come to some sort of agreement.” He motions with his hand, and suddenly the steel at Baekhyun’s throat is gone. Baekhyun takes that opportunity to gasp and get his vocal chords working again, but the man with his hand in his hair yanks him back, effectively shutting him up. He’s tossed along the side of the boat again. He can’t see Joonmyun, but he hears the merman’s body clambering up the rope ladder. A minute later, Joonmyun appears over the ledge and freezes.
“Come, please. Join us,” says Moon like he’s been planning a tea party.
Joonmyun’s descent inside the boat isn’t glamorous. His tail fin thunks heavily along the deck, water splashing all around him. Baekhyun immediately notes the grayish coloring, once again indicating the merman’s fear. The others wouldn’t guess it by the hate radiating from Joonmyun’s eyes.
“What do you want?” he says. “I’m here now. Let Baekhyun go.”
His eyes dart quickly to and from and Baekhyun’s eyes, a message Baekhyun can’t exactly interpret.
“Let him go? In the middle of the ocean? I would gladly, but… just how well can he swim? For hours? It’s a long way back to the island now.
Joonmyun narrows his eyes, but doesn’t appear fazed. He leans on his side, angled in a way that would make a human sore, but Baekhyun has seen enough of the mermen to know they can twist in all manner of directions. Again, Joonmyun looks at Baekhyun, and then at the boat rail behind his back.
“You wanted to talk. Let’s talk.”
Baekhyun doesn’t look behind him, but he suddenly suspects, if he were to jump in the water now, there’s a likely chance he wouldn’t have to swim all the way back. There’s a reason it’s Joonmyun here. Moon thought he’d bring Baekhyun along as bait, but it’s not Baekhyun he should be concerned for.
Joonmyun, is the bait.
Gently, so as not to bring attention to himself, Baekhyun tests his leg muscles. They ache, but they work. He hopes they’d work long enough to get himself off the boat. Surely though, there will be a signal.
Moon squats down before the merman, a good distance away that if Joonmyun were to suddenly lash out, he would still be out of reach. His eyes are like magnets, wonder and desire and ambition all rolled into one as he looks over Joonmyun’s body.
“I said we should talk, but you must forgive me because right now I’m just amazed.”
Joonmyun holds his gaze and refuses to reply. Only Baekhyun recognizes the tension in his posture. He’s waiting too, Baekhyun realizes. Waiting for what though? That’s the thing. All eyes on are on him. Eric Moon, his two henchmen. Even the boat captain who objected earlier to Baekhyun’s kidnapping. The others haven’t noticed the small man. Instead of being in the wheelhouse, he’s perched behind a ledge looking at Joonmyun in a mixture of horror and shock. Then he realizes Baekhyun is looking at him, and he flushes.
Could he be used? Baekhyun wonders. Enough to help them out of this situation?
Joonmyun makes a sudden jerking motion. Moon tenses, and his goons gather closer to his side. The merman’s tail flickers ominously, as if preparing to strike. Baekhyun, however, has seen how merpeople fight one another, and Joonmyun is nowhere to that level yet. It’s a distraction. Only Baekhyun and the boat captain feel it.
The boat just rocked, hard.
Baekhyun doesn’t even pay attention to Moon’s words after that. He’s watching Joonmyun’s face. He’s watching the captain’s face. Both of them stare wordlessly to a point behind Baekhyun’s head. Then to another place just next to that. Then another. And another.
It’s not until Baekhyun sees in shadow the long trim body and the straight trellises of hair on the deck that he knows, it’s a mermaid.
Moon and his men realize they’ve been surrounded just seconds too late. Joonmyun slides halfway across the boat, flinging his tail fin around. It catches the first goon on the ankles. He trips and screams. At the same time, Taeyeon drops heavily inside the boat with a shrill half-scream that paralyzes almost everybody where they stand. Two other mermaids slip over the same way while Joonmyun flings himself towards the second goon. Only Moon is still on his feet, but he clutches his forehead from the mermaid’s cry and clings desperately to the side of the boat.
Before Baekhyun can stand up, Taeyeon wraps herself around his back and covers his ears tightly with her hands. Only the boat captain sees the action and attempts to do the same himself.
Then all hell breaks loose.
The three mermaids scream at the same time. Moon hits the deck, attempting to block the noise. One of the two goons is already passed out on the floor. The other barely manages to get out his knife and lunge towards one the other mermaids, a blue-haired siren who snarls at him and lashes out with her tail. He topples over as well, but the knife in his hand springs free. It lands just within Eric Moon’s grasp. His fingers twitch. Baekhyun gasps. Taeyeon lets go of his ears and he jumps to his feet.
But there’s another merman stopping Moon for making a single move.
Sehun, the last to drop into the boat, strategically sliding behind Moon when the mermaids screamed, grabs the man tightly behind the waist.
“Don’t. You. Move.”
His scales are erect, razor sharp against the lower half of Moon’s body. Any sudden movement and he’d be ripped to shreds.
Surprisingly, everybody follows his orders. The one man not already passed out, doesn’t move a muscle. He’s lying on the deck with a mermaid on top of him. The boat captain, still with his hands over his ears looks frightened enough he might pass out all on his own. Even Baekhyun, totally free and ready to jump overboard, can’t even move. The scene is too arresting. Sehun is here, in all his frightening glory and now suddenly it’s Baekhyun who refuses to leave until he knows Sehun will be safe.
Moon laughs. His arms are folded across his chest where Sehun wrestled him. Even on his side, he looks menacing.
“So you’re the real merman here,” he intones. “I thought that other one was acting a little too meek. Smart move, bringing along your friends. Thanks for the mermaids, I always wanted a few of those.”
Sehun wrenches his body, and Moon immediately gasps, his breath hitching.
“Talk all you want now, human. You’re outnumbered, and you’re in my sea .”
Baekhyun doesn’t get to see the impending tussle. He sees the conscious goon make a sudden shift, throwing the mermaid off his back. He sees Eric Moon twisting sinisterly, caring not about the danger to his limbs.
“Sehun!” Baekhyun shrieks.
The goon turns towards Baekhyun and leaps. Taeyeon screeches again, and this time Baekhyun’s ears are unprotected. He dodges and the man also misses. Belatedly, Baekhyun realizes it’s because the boat captain also dived forward, thereby saving Baekhyun from taking a fist to his head.
“Sehun!” he cries again. In between his failing vision, all Baekhyun sees is the merman and Moon tossing each other around on the dock. There’s blood spilling across the bottom of the boat, and Baekhyun has no idea whose it belongs to. Somewhere in the fray he hears the merman shouting to get Baekhyun off the boat.
“No!” Baekhyun refuses to leave. Not without Sehun. Not without—
Someone is wrenching him from behind. He only realizes it’s Taeyeon where her pink hair floats in front of his face. Then another mermaid is dragging his other arm. They’re pulling him out of the boat.
“No!” he screams again.
The two mermaids heed him not.
“No! Sehun! Sehun!”
There's another shrill shriek from the mermaids, and for the final time, his vision blots out. The last thing he remembers is a world of blue, water, bubbles, waves, and blackness.
Chapter 5: Epilogue
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.”